“Return to your homes!” Avinon exhorted.  “Flee, lock your doors, shut yourselves in your cellars!  The storm cometh!”

               Standing in the field beneath the weak sunlight of early spring, the farm laborers paid him no mind.  Tornadoes did come through these parts on occasion, but not in the laggard days of winter when the ground was still almost too hard to work, and certainly not when it was as bright and sunny a day as they had seen it seemed since the solstice.  An overseer noticed Avinon’s disturbances, and starting to move towards him to interrupt.

               Unphased by the lack of response, Avinon continued his proclamations.  “The storm is nearly upon us!  Flee, and you may yet survive!”

               Still, no one moved, save the overseer coming to ensure that Avinon stopped bothering the workers with his blathering.  Grabbing Avinon roughly by his canvas sack of a tunic, the overseer grunted.  “Come on.  Off you go.”

               For a moment, Avinon allowed the overseer to tow him along the rough trail between the fields.  An irrigation ditch, still full of snow, glistened blindingly.  All of a sudden, he stopped, grabbed the overseer’s arm, and dove for the irrigation ditch.  “Get down!” he yelled.

               Taken by surprise, the overseer stumbled into the ditch with Avinon, just as the sky turned dark purple laced with traces of green, and a funnel cloud detached itself from the sky with a throaty roar, driving along the trail’s straight track for its length, before retracting back into the sky, which rippled like a snake swallowing its still living prey.

               “Blood and balance!” the overseer cursed, scrambling lower into the ditch without any further urging from Avinon.

               Twice more, funnels like maws swooped down from the spontaneous clouds, snapping up trees, workers, and anything else higher than the ground itself, before disappearing as suddenly as they had appeared in the first place, leaving only Avinon, the overseer, and an empty plain of barren soil with a few irrigation ditches going nowhere.

               Trembling, the overseer uncovered his head and neck, and climbed as far as his knees before stopping again.  “How did you know?” he implored of Avinon.

               Standing up again, Avinon surveyed the desolate landscape, clasping his hands behind his back as if he were a lord, and not an emaciated scarecrow of a man wearing nothing but a sack.  “Hear ye now the words of the Prophet.  The End of Days is at hand.  I, Avinon, Prophet of the Black Crow, have seen this.  Hear ye, mortals, and yet may ye live to see the coming of the Great Dark!”

               Still on his knees, the overseer reverently kissed Avinon’s calloused, bare, bleeding feet.  “I hear ye, great Prophet,” he intoned.  “How may I serve?”

               Almost as if surprised, Avinon looked down at the overseer.  He put a hand on his shoulder, and raised him, still trembling, to stand face to face with his prophet.  “As you are the first to embrace the words of the Prophet, so let you be First among us, the last.  First of the Last, go before me, that we may spread of word of the Prophet, the word of the coming of the End of Days, the Great Dark, the words of the Black Crow!”

               “Where shall we go?” the overseer, once called Kund, now known merely as First of Last, or First, asked.  “I am honored to serve you, great Prophet, wherever your words should take us.  Send me not from your side.”

               “Then ye will walk the road with me, the Prophet of the Black Crow,” Avinon proclaimed, “the road to Merolate!”

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               Rubbing his forehead, Prime Wezzix dropped another report onto the growing pile to his right.  “Borivat, what in balance is going on in this realm?  Has the whole world gone absolutely mad?”

               “I am certain that there is a reasonably explanation for all of this.”  Borivat placed a report into the same pile gently, but there was an evident strain in his voice.  “I am forced to admit, at the present time, that I have not the slightest idea what that explanation might be.”

               “It’s almost enough to convince me that you have a point about recordkeeping,” Wezzix grumbled.  “If we had detailed records of such little things as daily weather events stretched decades, then maybe I would be able to convince myself that this just happens sometimes.”

               “I doubt we’d be able to prove that if we had records going back centuries, even to the Warring Tribes period.”  Jabbing his finger at the pages with an uncharacteristic vehemence, Borivat punctuated his next statement.  “Weather like this does. Not. Happen.”  He slumped, and sighed.  “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

               Picking up his long-emptied drink, Wezzix stood and stretched.  “We are not going to solve this problem tonight.  I suggest we get some rest, and return with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

               Continuing to read another report, Borivat shook his head.  “How can I leave it like this?  There must be something more, something we’re missing.  Perhaps there’s something wrong with the reports…” he looked up when Prime Wezzix put a hand on his shoulder.

               “Borivat, you’ll do no good if you work yourself to death.  Rest, come back in the morning.  Then you can write a letter to the realm’s philosophers, and perhaps even to the scholars on the Isle of Blood.”  Wezzix patted his shoulder, and Borivat put the report down, unfinished.  “We can figure this out.  We always do.”

               Walking into the library, Kiluron almost turned around and left immediately at the haphazard stacks of papers and books surrounding Borivat and Doil in a veritable wall, but he took a deep breath, and picked his way through and around the barriers until he found them near the center.  There was no room on their table for him to set down his burden, so he plopped the steaming mugs directly in their laps.  Even that intervention only caused them to look up lethargically.

               “Don’t drink it too fast,” he warned them.  “That’s pure coffee.  We can only get it from certain parts of Nycheril, and it costs a fortune, and there’s not much of it, but apparently it can keep you awake.”  Crossing his arms, Kiluron leaned over Doil’s shoulder to see what he had been working on, and regretted it.  “Looks like you need all the help you can get.”

               Doil just groaned.  “Was there something else you needed?” Borivat asked, suppressing his impatience when Kiluron continued to hover.

               “Ah.  About that.”  Kiluron cleared his throat.  “There was another event.  Firestorm in southwestern Merolate, near the Rovis border.  Same story.”

               There was no vehemence left in Borivat to curse, although Kiluron had heard the man swearing with an astonishing vocabulary in response to several of the previous reports.  He just nodded, made a note on a long roll of parchment, and turned back to his tables.

               Still, Kiluron did not leave.  “Prime Wezzix suggested I remind you that the philosophers in the city will be arriving soon.  And mentioned that we received a reply from the Isle of Blood’s scholars.”  His words were greeted by a continued silence.  “I didn’t understand all the words they used, but I’m pretty sure the gist of it was that they have no more clue what’s happening than we do.  They did say it almost certainly has nothing to do with the Guardian.”

               “Thank you.”  Borivat’s voice did not invite further comment.

               Kiluron commented anyway.  “I mean, it’s just weather, right?  And it’s only been out on the frontiers.  A few people have died, and that’s terrible, but weather happens all the time, right?  Why is this different?”

               When Borivat showed no sign of answer, Doil rubbed at his forehead and sighed, peering up at Kiluron as if he were far away.  “It’s not the destruction itself – that’s pretty minor.  It’s the nature of the destruction.  Perfect squares of fields destroyed by tornadoes that don’t touch anything else.  Rolling meadows rendered absolutely flat by windstorms.  Weather happens, yes, but it’s not so…so organized.  It’s almost like there’s a consciousness controlling the weather.  Using it like a scalpel on the land.”

               Frowning, Kiluron considered this.  “But that has to happen sometimes, right?  Even a chaotic system will display order randomly at times.”  At Borivat and Doil’s surprised looks, Kiluron held up his hands.  “What?  I do listen to what you two say.  Sometimes.”

               “Yes, chaotic systems will inevitably over time exhibit apparently organized behavior,” Doil admitted.  “And if there were one instance, we would dismiss it as nothing more than a weird fluke.  Even two, and we might just call it a coincidence.  But these kinds of weather patterns have been reported from one end of the realm to the other, more than ten instances of…”

               “Sixteen, now,” Borivat interrupted, his voice toneless.

               “…Sixteen instances of these apparently organized weather events.  Yes, it could occur randomly, but the chances of that…it would be a once in ten thousand generations kind of thing, if that.  I don’t think we even have the numbers to describe just how astronomically unlikely it is that these events are simply the result of randomness.”

               “I was just asking,” Kiluron protested.  “I assume there’s nothing that I can do to help?”

               Borivat shook his head, slumped as it was.  “Help us carry these things, if you would?  I guess we need to go see if the city’s philosophers have anything worthwhile to say.”

               Looking as if he were worried that either the papers would burn him, or he would burn the papers, Kiluron gathered up as much as he could carry, waited for Borivat and Doil to do the same, and then led them up to the audience chamber to meet with the city’s philosophers.

               They were, especially to Kiluron’s mind, a decidedly odd bunch, although he supposed they would have preferred he use a term like “eclectic,” or “eccentric.”  Although wasn’t that other one something to do with circles?  Regardless, they were odd.  Two were wizened, old men who looked like they might be older than the ancient tomes they had brought in with them.  Why they had brought the tomes, Kiluron could not imagine, as neither of them seemed likely to be still capable of sight.  One of them had a large, metal cone to enable him to hear, too.  Another quartet of scholars had arrived together, also older, though compared to the first two they might as well have been babes-in-arms, with their mostly dark hair, swollen bellies, and heavy, formal clothes.  They were the picture of wealthy gentlemen who had made scholarship into a hobby.

               Last of the scholars to arrive, having been seated just before Doil and Borivat came in with Kiluron, was a scrawny young man who could have been swept off the streets.  His clothes were threadbare, nearly worn through around the joints, and his face was so thin and hollow that it looked bruised.  He clutched a notebook in his hands as if afraid someone was going to attempt to steal it from him, and he eyed the others at the table with all the suspicion of a corner opossum.  At the slightest noise, he jumped halfway out of the chair as if something had exploded under his feet.

               Settling into the corner of the room, Kiluron watched Doil and Borivat sit down at the table with these scholars.  It bothered him that there was apparently a crisis on that he did not understand, and could not do anything to ameliorate, so it assuaged his conscience slightly to at least be at the center of the action, such as it was.  Even if that action consisted primarily of watching old men sit around a table and yap at each other.

               “Thank you all for coming.”  Borivat had managed remarkably well to hide the exhaustion that had been plainly evident in his face and posture when Kiluron had found him in the library, although his fingers drumming on the table, apparently of their own accord, betrayed the coffee he had drank.  Strange substance, that; Kiluron wasn’t sure what to make of it.  He had tried some once, on a dare, and hadn’t been able to sleep for two days.  “I know you’re already familiar with the situation, so I’ll dispense with further preamble or pleasantries.  Any ideas are welcome; at this point, we are at a loss to explain what is going on, much less to recommend a course of action.”

               One of the wealthy gentlemen-scholars cleared his throat.  “I really don’t see as there is any need for action.  This is weather, and while an explanation would be academically intriguing, it hardly is going to have a significant effect on the Union.  A few peasants out in the countryside will die, as they do from weather incidents every year.”

               Lowering his cone from his ear, the frail, old gentleman glanced at his similarly aged companion, before tapping his spotted fingers on the table in front of him.  “The concern, good fellow,” he wheezed, “is that these weather events could be indicative of a larger, climatological shift, or even evidence of some manner of conscious manipulation.  To dismiss where things stand now as inconsequential would be terribly reckless, terribly reckless.  Yes.”  His companion nodded in agreement, though it seemed doubtful he had heard anything.

               “Prime Wezzix has declared that this is a matter of national importance, and that should be good enough,” Borivat declared.  “We are not here to debate the merits of that decision, we are here to identify a cause or a reason or an explanation, or better yet, something that can be done to prevent further events.”

               The older gentlemen who had yet to speak held up his hand for a brief moment, though he had to quickly lower it.  “Weather events do not happen in isolation.  They are part of an organized and interconnected system.  Weather in one place affects weather in another place, even if very distant.  It stands to reason that an organized weather event in one place could precipitate an organized weather event in another place.  I have spent forty-nine years seeking to prove the underlying mechanism by which weather is communicated from place to place…”

               “And if it were a legitimate theory, it would have been proven by now, and not have taken forty-nine years of no results,” another of the gentlemen-scholars interrupted.  He turned towards Borivat.  “In light of the recent events, I would like to propose that the peasants be allowed to pay me a flat fee each year.  In return, I will recompense them for damages in the event of a natural catastrophe.”

               “None of you all get it, do you.”  The youngest scholar at the table spoke impatiently, cutting off further discussion, although his hands kept fidgeting with his notebook, he kept his head down, and his eyes darted about the room, unable to settle on anything.  “This is exactly what I’ve been predicting.  My theory explains it all perfectly.”

               “Here we go again,” one of the gentlemen-scholars muttered.  “You know, you might get taken more seriously if you didn’t go around claiming that there’s a whole other ­continent on the other side of the world that no one has ever seen, nor heard of.”

               “My calculations speak for themselves,” the young scholar replied.  “My measurements of the planet’s circumference, combined with my theory of planetary attraction, clearly imply that there must be another continent on the other side of the ocean.”

               “And common sense speaks clearly to the fact that your claims are utter balderdash,” the third gentleman-scholar asserted.  “Besides, it has nothing to do with anomalous weather.”

               Borivat held up his hands for silence, and then directed his words at the nervous young man.  “Would you mind explaining how your theory explains all of this?”

               It seemed to take the man a long time to gather his thoughts into a form coherent enough to express in words.  “Weather cannot be taken in isolation.  It is part of a whole-planet system, and only by accounting for the whole-planet system can we approach this problem.  This makes it inevitable that events on one side of the planet will affect events on the other through the medium of the atmosphere – that is, weather.  Thus, the development of large scale technology by a much older civilization on the other side of the planet could, in principle, affect the weather events we experience here.”

               This set the gentlemen-scholars to shaking their heads, although the two old philosophers seemed intrigued.  Kiluron wondered how much of what had been said they had actually heard, as he was pretty certain that it didn’t make any sense to him.  At least most of Doil’s theories made some degree of sense once he had taken the time to explain them properly.

               The bickering and discussion, with probably more of the former, continued, with Borivat doing a reasonable job of reigning in his increasing impatience, which no amount of coffee could ameliorate.  Kiluron slipped away when it began to just become meaningless noise to him; he needed to find something productive to do, even if it wouldn’t help answer the questions Borivat and Doil had about the anomalous weather patterns.  The Prime, of course, was busy, so Kiluron made his way towards the city walls.  Perhaps he could take a watchman’s shift or get some practice in with Vere.

               Recently, he had been feeling restless, mostly because he had the distinct impression that Things were happening, and that they were passing him by as they happened.  It did not require the imagination of someone who could invent an entirely new continent to consider that he was almost superfluous.  Since the disaster of his blizzard experience, Prime Wezzix had mostly kept him from any role or task involving significant decision-making or autonomy.  As much as Kiluron understood that, after a fashion, it was still frustrating.  Sure, he had made a mistake, an error in judgement.  He could admit that, even if he was still convinced that he had been right about it being appropriate for him to go with the caravan initially, despite the risks.

               Then there had been the incident with that crazy fellow who burned to death – what had Doil said his name was, Exafattest? – which Kiluron didn’t understand.  Doil had refused to even offer conjecture, getting nervous whenever Kiluron brought it up, and looking around like he was afraid someone would hear them talking about it.  As much as Kiluron trusted Doil to know the right thing to do – more than he trusted himself half the time these days, not that he would ever admit that – that incident felt suspicious.  It didn’t help that anything to do with the Blood Priests these days seemed like it came back around to the Guardian thing they were always going on and on about.  It was clear that Prime Wezzix wasn’t sure how seriously to take the threat communicated to them repeatedly by the High Priest, and anything that made Prime Wezzix unsure of his decisions was not something to inspire confidence in Kiluron.

               He felt he had been more freaked out than Doil himself by the issue with the voice, mostly because he felt like the whole situation could have been mitigated if he had taken Doil more seriously.  Looking back, it seemed so obvious.  It wasn’t as if Doil was in the habit of making things up or saying things that he didn’t have a good reason, usually several, to believe were true.  Instead, Kiluron hadn’t been there for him, and he had felt like he needed to sneak around in the dark and go to the Blood Priests for help.  Whatever happened with the Guardian, Kiluron was far more concerned about what had happened to his friend.  Ever since, Doil had been jumpy, and it pained Kiluron that he hadn’t been there for Doil when he was supposed to be.  Just one more reason why he was useless.

               There was a letter waiting in his chambers from Lady Fetrina to which he still had not managed to pen a proper reply; he had considered asking Doil for help, but hadn’t found the right words to make such a request.  Sure, he could just order Doil to do it, but he didn’t even know how to broach the subject.  Their walk on the wall had not exactly ended like a fairy tale.  He had been planning to ask her to join him for a picnic or something when the weather warmed up, but now there were these crazy weather events, and even that was uncertain.  Thinking it all through, Kiluron shook his head ruefully.  This was really why he wanted to be busy: so that he wouldn’t have so much time for introspection.  It wasn’t good for him.

               It was a relief to reach the wall; Kiluron climbed to the top of the battlements, taking the stairs two at a time, so that his heart was pounding a little faster by the time he reached the top.  He returned the salutes of the two guards standing there.

               “At least it’s sunny here,” he observed, squinting up at the sky.  “No renegade weather patterns for us today, huh?”

               One of the guards, Frim, chuckled ruefully.  “No Sir.  The whole thing seems overhyped, if you ask me.”

               Kiluron chuckled.  From what he had observed, the city could be invaded by an army of demons and Frim would have been telling people to settle down, because it couldn’t really be that bad.  “Maybe.  I certainly hope so.”

               “Oh, it’s bad,” the other guard, Colent, asserted, looking out at the horizon.  “But all will be well when the Prophet comes.  He will set the world to rights, Sir.”

               Frowning, Kiluron glanced at him.  “Colent?  What are you talking about?  Prophet?”

               Colent made an unfamiliar sign over his own chest.  “The Prophet of the Great Crow.  He comes from the west, saving those who are worthy.  The world is ending, but the Prophet of the Great Crow will lead us into the dark.”

               Grunting, Frim squinted at Colent.  “Cole, you been drinking?  What’s this end of the world talk coming from?”  He glanced at Kiluron.  “You’re talking funny in front of the bloody Sub-Prime!  Begging your pardon, Sir.”

               “Oh, uh, just something I heard some of the other men saying,” Colent hemmed.  “Probably nothing to it.”  He made the sign over his chest again, and turned away, studiously examining the horizon.

               “Don’t know what’s gotten into him, Sir,” Frim remarked.  “This is the first I’ve heard about anything like this, I swear.”

               “It’s alright,” Kiluron said absently.  This was not the respite for which he had been hoping.  “I’ll leave you to your task.  Should keep making my way along the wall, see how the other guards are doing, too.”

               Frim nodded, and both guards saluted.  Kiluron returned their salutes half-heartedly as he made his way along the wall, moving towards the western side of the city.  Normally, he found his time with the guards rewarding: they accepted him, and he found he could contribute to them and their circumstances, at least in some small way.  Yet today, it seemed like his presence among them was just as amiss as anywhere else.  His own words rang hollow, and he felt more like a pretender, desperately searching for somewhere to belong without really fitting in, and the guards probably simply didn’t have the heart, or the authority, to tell him so.  It made him wonder if that was how he always seemed when he was up on the wall.  Was that how Lady Fetrina had seen him?

               More guards saluted him as he passed, and Kiluron returned the gestures, but he did not stop to talk with any of them, instead just glowering and mostly keeping his head down, kicking the toes of his boots into the stones with each step.  Every now and then, he glanced out over the wall, towards the frontiers, but there was nothing to see.  As if he would expect there to be anything to see; he was hardly going to spot an army of approaching tornadoes marching their way towards Merolate.  People seemed freaked out, but the whole problem seemed overblown.  If the weather was more organized than usual, was that really a cause to assume a disaster was at hand?  He resolved to ask Doil to compare the effects of normal weather from the previous year with what was happening now.  Maybe they could resolve this by not needing to resolve this.

               That was just him trying to dodge responsibility, though, or at least that was how he viewed it, after a moment of thinking that perhaps he was smarter than he had been crediting.  He slumped back down, and kept moving along the wall.  At the next tower, he resolved to descend back to the city; he was tired of being under the constant inspection of the guards, whether that was real or perceived.  Besides, he wasn’t accomplishing anything here, either for himself or for the country.  Thus resolved, he almost missed Vere falling into step beside him.

               “How many times have I told you not to let the men see you moping?” Vere reprimanded, with no other preamble.

               Kiluron suppressed a growl of annoyance.  “I’m not moping,” he retorted.  “I’m lost in important thoughts.”

               Vere raised his eyebrows skeptically.  “Oh, I see,” he remarked.  “Important thoughts of self-flagellation that keep you from being an example and an inspiration to our public defenders.  Yes, that is clearly more important.  Carry on, then.  Don’t let me interrupt.”  He continued walking along besides Kiluron.

               “What do you want?” Kiluron sighed.

               “Did I say I wanted something?” Vere protested.  “I don’t think I said I wanted something.  I just happen to be walking along the wall, and lo, I walk at precisely the same pace as you do, just next to you.  That’s allowed, last time I checked.”

               “You basically wrote what’s allowed and what’s not allowed for the city guard,” Kiluron observed.  “As Sub-Prime, can I order you away?”

               Vere frowned.  “Yes, but I don’t intend to go.  Some things take precedence over following orders.”  He leaned in.  “Just don’t let the men hear that I said that, or I’ll never get them to do anything again.”

               “I’d really rather walk alone today, if you don’t mind,” Kiluron insisted.

               “I know,” Vere agreed.  “Which is why you’re still walking alone.  You just happen to be walking alone at the same time and the same place that I happen to also be walking alone, with you.”

               “That makes no sense.”  Kiluron deliberately increased his pace, but of course Vere kept up with him easily.  He slowed down again, and Vere matched him.

               “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading poetry,” Vere considered aloud, “it’s that a thing does not need to make sense that it be true, and even less sense is required for it to have meaning.”

               After mulling on those words for a moment, Kiluron shook his head, and dismissed the matter.  He only wished he could as easily dismiss Vere.  It tempted him to try to run away, but he knew there was no way he would be able to outrun the Guardcaptain, though the man was wearing armor where Kiluron was not.  Add that to his list of inadequacies.  He stood a better chance of walking slowly enough that Vere would become impatient and move on, and Vere had the patience of a – well, of a thing that had a lot more patience than Kiluron had.

               “Well, if you’re not going to talk, then I can do all the talking, while you listen,” Vere interrupted Kiluron’s thoughts.  “As it happens, you’re not the only one with problems.  Have you ever heard of the Black Crow?”  Kiluron deliberately kept himself from replying, even with a shake of the head, but Vere nodded as if he had agreed aloud.  “I certainly hadn’t, until three days ago.  I don’t think anyone had, but suddenly half of the guards are going on about a Prophet, and a Black Crow, and the coming of the end of the world.  Which strikes me as being uniquely uncreative.  A Black Crow?  Of course crows are black – what other color would they be?  A black crow is about as remarkable as a brown ox or a white swan.  As for prophecy…I’ve traced these rumors to travelers coming into the city, but that’s where the trail goes cold.  They say there’s a prophet coming to Merolate, bringing warning of this apocalypse, but that’s as detailed as it gets.”  He narrowed his eyes at Kiluron.  “I know enough to be skeptical.  You know enough to be skeptical.  We’re not going to be taken in by rumors like this, but they’re riling up the men.  Folks are getting restless, worried, and worried people are gullible people.  If this prophet does come to Merolate, we need to be ready.  I have a prophecy for you: that will bring trouble.”

               Kiluron whirled on Vere.  “What do you expect me to do about it?” he demanded.  “I don’t know anything about this prophet, I don’t know anything about the weird weather.  People a lot smarter than I am are working to figure something out, and there’s nothing more that I can do about it right now.”

               Smiling, Vere nodded.  “That’s exactly what I expect you to do about it, although I would recommend a slightly less, ah, confrontational tone,” he remarked.  “You don’t need to be the expert.  That’s what you have people for.  A Prime’s role, and so too a Sub-Prime’s, is to lead.  That means assuring the people that aren’t in a position to know those things that they don’t need to panic, because you’re not panicking.  You may not know a lot more than they do, you may not be able to snap your fingers and fix everything, but you can assure them by the way you act that the world is not, in fact, falling apart while you’re still at the helm.”

               “Maybe that would work coming from someone else,” Kiluron snapped.  “Not from me.  They have no reason to trust me.”

               “You’re the Sub-Prime,” Vere replied.  “And they’ve seen you work hard, put yourself in danger, endure hardship, just like them.  You don’t have Prime Wezzix’s reputation for firm justice and fair decisions-making.  You don’t have Borivat’s reputation for tireless research and compassionate advice.  You’ve made a different reputation for yourself; you’re relatable.  The men know that you’re not so different from them, and so they know that you’ll be honest with them.  And that’s a powerful thing.”

               Kiluron heaved another sigh.  “You make it sound like I did it intentionally.”

               “Of course you didn’t do it intentionally!” Vere exclaimed.  “I’ve never met anyone who was able to artificially create a reputation for themself, not in the long term.  That’s what makes it genuine, and that’s what makes people trust you.”  He pursed his lips.  “Let me use an anecdote, as I see you’re still skeptical.  I once served a lieutenant who had a reputation for being brutally hard on his men.  He would drive them to the edge of endurance, but he would go the whole distance with them, and he’d never let them see him flag.  I was his aide, and every time we were about to go into battle, he would have me bring him his red shirt.  The man spent a significant amount of his pay on having a well-maintained, red shirt.  One time, we were facing three times our number.  They had archers, we didn’t.  This was on the Rovis border, by the way.  They were fresh, we weren’t.  The lieutenant demanded that I bring him his red shirt, though they had just ambushed us and the battle was being joined.  I told him that he shouldn’t wear it, so that the archers would not see him as a target.  His reply: ‘Vere, I wear that shirt so that the men will never know if I’m wounded.  If they think I’m indestructible, they really will be indestructible.’  So I brought him his red shirt.  The battle waged on, and I tried to keep close to my lieutenant, who was on horseback.  At some point, I had to start passing orders without him, because we’d been separated and people were looking for direction.  Yet the men never broke.  More than once, I heard men saying that their lieutenant was still fighting, and so they could shrug off their wounds and keep on, too.”  He paused.

               “What happened?” Kiluron asked, forgetting his avowed, stubborn silence.

               Vere’s eyes twinkled mischievously.  “We managed to hold them off long enough to conduct an orderly retreat.  Lost quite a few men, but it wasn’t until we were making the camp later that night that we realized that the lieutenant was dead.  He’d been stabbed in the side sometime during the fighting, and bled out.  He’d propped himself up in his saddle before he died, so that even in death, no one would see him weaken.”

               Kiluron pondered this.  “Was there a point to this story?”

               “Yes,” Vere replied.  “But that’s for you to figure out.”  He glanced along the wall, and nodded.  “Stand tall, Sir.”  Then he quickened his pace and continued his rounds, leaving Kiluron staring after him.

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               Odors of highly churned mud, sweat, and manure surged through the nostrils of Kund, First of Last, as he prostrated himself before his Prophet in the middle of the main road, with the sun weakly beating down on the gnarled muscles of his bare back.  Behind the approaching Prophet, a bare dozen people walked in his company, while hundreds more followed along, seeming to drift by rather than move with any real intent.

               “Rise, First,” the Prophet of the Black Crow commanded, bending down to raise his First to his feet, “and tell me what you have seen.”

               As commanded, First rose, although he kept his eyes averted from his master’s holy face.  “The walls of Merolate lie just ahead, as you have promised,” he intoned.

               Scratching idly at a sore spot beneath his threadbare, sackcloth garment, the Prophet clasped his hands together.  “Good.  It is as I have foreseen.”  He turned back to his immediate followers.  These were men who had devoted themselves to him, abandoning the lives they had known to follow their Prophet through the end of the world and into the Great Dark.  “The Black Crow circles!” he exclaimed.  “A new storm rises.  To Merolate!”

               As the ragged men cheered and chanted prayers and praises, the Prophet turned back and began to shuffle towards the city on his bare, dirty feet, moving slowly under the power of his scrawny legs.  His First marched beside him, chest thrust proudly forward.  This was as he had foreseen.  Yet though he had seen Merolate in his visions many times, he was still started upon laying eyes upon it.  Its wall loomed in the distance, tall and strong and broad, a massive construct of stone.  It was so much vaster than the Prophet had imagined that he nearly hesitated in his shambling steps, thinking that perhaps, perhaps this fortress could hold back the Great Dark.  Then he shook himself, and continued on.  The visions were clear, and it would be folly to fail now, with the end of his journey so close at hand.

               First of Last watched his Prophet from the corner of his eye as he marched along the road towards the city of Merolate.  He was unsure what was to happen here, but the Prophet had been hinting that there would be some major clash, and climax of sorts, for which it was imperative that they be in Merolate.  That was more than enough for First; all he needed was the word of the Prophet, and he would march through blood and fire and stone, whatever might stand in his way.  The other followers were much the same, with similar stories to his own; they had been saved by the Prophet’s words in the face of certain death when the heavens had split open to sweep them from the world, and in return for their salvation had pledged themselves to the Prophet.

               There were not as many people camped around the walls as First had expected; the Prophet had made it sound like thousands of refugees would be streaming into Merolate to witness the coming of the Great Dark, and the arrival of the Black Crow.  Personally, First had never heard of either of these, but then, he had never been a terribly religious person, and he certainly was not a prophet.  He had seen the Prophet repeatedly call out when the sky would seek the death of men, and seek to avert that death.  It was more than enough convincing that First had chosen wisely in following the Prophet.  If the world were going to end, as the Prophet claimed it would, it seemed a good idea to be on the side of someone who could see the future.

               They had just reached the gates, and First started to walk into the city, when the Prophet help out his hand for him to stop just under the huge arch of the main gates.  First did as he was told, scrunching uncomfortably into himself as wagons, pedestrians, travelers, merchants, and a dozen other characters frowned and muttered imprecations at his obstruction.  A few guards overseeing the crowded square into which the gate disgorged its passers-through eyed him, but made no move to interfere.  Doing his best to ignore them, First watched his Prophet as the scrawny man held up his hands and addressed the scurrying masses of humanity, so much more humanity than First had ever witnessed in his life.  It seemed an entire village was moving through just that square.

               “The end of days is at hand!” the Prophet extolled.  “The Black Crow flies, and the Great Dark cometh!  Flee, all ye people to your homes, that ye may yet be saved!  Heed ye the words of the Prophet of the Black Crow!”

               “Heed his words!” First confirmed, looking around warily.  A few people had stopped and were eyeing them curiously, but most were ignoring them.  One of the guards was whispering something intently to the other, but the other appeared bored.  First frowned, and started to say something else, but the Prophet stopped him.

               “The danger is not yet close,” he murmured.  “There is yet time to bring these people unto us.”

               Subsiding, First nodded, and the Prophet and his followers strode into the city unopposed.  The afternoon sun shone down on their entrance.

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               It was getting towards sunset, which at this time of year almost precisely corresponded with supper, and Kiluron had appropriately just sat himself down to eat a bowl of hearty stew and some day-old bread.  Though he could have had fancier food, and he did when he ate in company with Prime Wezzix or other officials, he preferred the stew when he was eating alone.  Everyone else was busy, so it was just him this evening, alone in his rooms.  Stew just seemed so much simpler than most other foods.  Sure, a steak, with boiled potatoes, and gravy, and maybe even some dried fruit might look nicer on a plate, but it was so much more complicated.  With stew, all he had to do was sit down and slurp it up.

               After his walk along the wall and his conversation with Vere, his day had not particularly improved.  He had gone to the yards to practice his swordsmanship and his archery, but the only bow that had been available was an old, knotted, crooked piece that couldn’t shoot straight enough to hit the hay behind the targets, and when he picked up a practice sword to run the dummy course, the second dummy had jammed, and then proceeded to pummel him when he sought to fix it.  The only upside, if it constituted an upside, was that the resulting bruise was hidden beneath his tunic.  Now, as evening was falling, it was growing cold and damp outside, and Kiluron couldn’t even summon the wherewithal to have a servant start a fire in his rooms.  Better just to wrap another thick robe around himself and guzzle down his hot stew.

               Beside his tray of food, a piece of paper was laid out on his desk, with a pen standing by for him to use.  He had determined to try replying to Fetrina’s letter again, although in his present state of mind he suspected that it would be another futile attempt that would result in nothing but another wasted piece of paper.  Maybe he could avoid crumpling this one so badly that the scribes could not smooth it out and scrape the ink off so that it could be reused.  Chewing on a mouthful of bread he had soaked in the flavorful broth, Kiluron picked up the pen, and held it, hesitating, over the top of the page.

Dear Lady Fetrina, he wrote.  Then he hesitated again.  I hope that my letter finds you well.  I received your own recent letter with pleasure, and will eagerly await your subsequent reply.  It felt to him like the words were being forced out of some part of him that had no business trying to communicate.  There was nothing natural, and he put the pen back into the inkwell and sat back, blowing out a frustrated breath and staring at the page as the ink slowly dried.  It seemed he had ruined yet another piece of paper.

               Part of the problem was that Fetrina was simply too smart for him.  He could try to sound more like those stuffy books she read, or like Doil when he got overly excited about some five hundred year old tome, or even like Wezzix’s old legal decrees, which Borivat had subjected him to for an unfortunate amount of time when he was younger, but none of it sounded genuine, and he feared that she would see right through it to his bumbling ineptitude.  He could swing a sword halfway well, and he’d gotten halfway decent at winning rolls of bread from people other than Vere in gambling games, but those were not exactly the skills with which to impress a lady like Fetrina.  Angrily, Kiluron ripped off another hunk of bread with his teeth, and nearly burned himself when hot soup dribbled down his chin.

               “Blood and – “ Kiluron swore, and then leapt to his feet at the unexpected sound of someone pounding on the door, knocking over the tray of food in the process and spilling hot soup all over his wooden desk.  “Balance!” he finished.  Taking half a moment to calm himself slightly, and making sure he was at least halfway presentable, Kiluron stalked to the door and wrenched it open.  “Yes?”

               Guardsman Frim was standing there, his eyes wide, breathing hard.  He gulped at Kilruon’s expression, but pressed on with his message.  “Sub-Prime, Sir, Guardcaptain Vere told me to come get you.  There’s a crowd in the main square, and it’s, well…” he lowered his voice, “I think it’s getting ugly.”

               This coming from Frim, Kiluron considered, probably meant he thought the whole city might burn down.  “Give me half a moment,” Kiluron ordered, and closed the door in the man’s face without waiting for a reply.  Then he was tearing around his room, making a total mess as he found more appropriate garments, threw on a mail shirt, strapped on his sword, and made sure that he was wearing a cloak with the Sub-Prime sigil on it.  He was out the door before he had even finished securing his cloak, and was still in the process of shoving his feet into his boots as he nearly ran into the waiting Frim.  “Let’s go,” Kiluron muttered around the length of cloak he was holding in his mouth.

               “Yes Sir,” Frim replied hastily, and took off running.  Kiluron limped, hopped, stumbled, hobbled, and finally ran along after him.

               Guardcaptain Vere was waiting for him at the side edge of a large crowd that had gathered in Merolate’s main public square.  At the center, on an improvised, raised platform made from carts, wagons, and crates, a skinny, scarecrow of a man stood with an eclectic group of others, his arms stretched out and clearly admonishing the crowd.  It was nearly fully dark by then, but there were so many torches being passed around that the square looked like it had developed its own, personal source of daylight.  Seeing that Kiluron had arrived, Vere gripped his arm, drawing him aside.

               “I don’t like the look of this,” he remarked, surveying the crowd.  “People were nervous before, but now?  They’re getting mean.  They want an outlet, and this prophet of theirs is giving them an excuse.”

               “You think they’ll riot?” Kiluron asked, pitching his voice so that only Vere could hear.  There were plenty of other guardsmen around them, but it wouldn’t do for the nearby crowd to get too nervous from their presence.  It would only incite things.

               Vere shrugged.  “There’s not the anger of a normal riot, but there’s plenty of fear to go around.  I doubt if they’ll be content just to stand around and chant all night.”

               Pushing forward, Kiluron strained to hear what the purported prophet was proclaiming.

               “…purge us of our sins,” called out the Prophet of the Black Crow.  “The End of Days is at hand, and only those who follow the Black Crow will be led into the Great Dark!  We must come together to make this city a land of the Black Crow, so that all of us may live in the greatness of the time ahead, in the beauty of the Great Dark!”

               Kiluron rubbed his forehead skeptically.  “What a load of nonsense,” he muttered.  It occurred to him that he may have spoken a little too loudly when a couple of the nearer men in the crowd turned towards him, their expressions ugly, but the anger in them faded to confusion when they saw his personal sigil.

               “If not the Black Crow, then what?” one of the men asked.  “I had a brother out there, just got eaten up by a tornado like it was a living beast come down from the sky.  If that don’t spell the end of times, I don’t know what does.”

               His companion nodded eagerly.  “And the Prophet can predict when it will happen.  He can save us!”  He gestured to the other men up on the makeshift stage.  “All of them, the Prophet saved them from certain death.”

               More people were turning towards them, and Kiluron held up his hands placatingly, casting a nervous glance towards Vere, although he was careful to project only confidence.  “Look, I don’t know how he knows when these weird weather events are going to happen, or where,” Kiluron admitted, gesturing towards the prophet on the stage.  “But I highly doubt it’s really prophecy.”  Seeing that the crowd was not appeased, he pressed on.  “This just doesn’t seem like magic to me.  I’m not the smartest person, but I know a lot of smart people, and they’re pretty sure there’s a rational explanation for all of this.”

               To his surprise, the men were nodding, and more and more of the crowd were turning towards him, instead of the Black Crow’s prophet.  Increasingly worried, Kiluron nevertheless stepped forward.  The guardsmen and Vere stayed with him, just slightly behind, and mingling with the crowd.  “Even if what he says is true, what is all of this going to accomplish?” Kiluron demanded.  “What are you going to do – burn our city so that the end of the world won’t?  This isn’t going to help anyone.  Whatever is going on, we’re going to find a way to deal with it.  But fear isn’t the answer.  You all know me!” he exclaimed.  “You know that I’ve faced a lot of pretty crazy events.  I mean, I’ve literally fought demons, albeit not well.  Maybe that’s a bad example.  But the point is, I tried.  Taking these torches and giving into fearmongering is just going to make everything that much worse.”

               “I’m with you!” someone in the crowd nearby shouted, and Kiluron turned.  It was Frim, his uniform hidden beneath a cloak, and Kiluron smiled.  His words might not do much, but he could be a symbol, if that’s what was needed.

               Raising his voice, Kiluron pointed towards the prophet.  “I don’t need his help to see the future.  There are good people working on this problem, and the future I see is one where we’ve gotten through whatever challenges we might have, together.”

               At the front, the prophet looked nervous, and his closest followers were crowding around him, keeping him from the gaze of the crowd.  A few more strategically placed guards in plainclothes shouted in Kiluron’s support, and the tide had turned in his favor.  “Go home,” Kiluron admonished.  “Things will look brighter in the morning.”

               His words were almost unnecessary; the crowd was already breaking up by the time he said them.  Soon, only the prophet and his closest followers were left, and they were fading away, retreating from the square, leaving Kiluron alone, although he could see that Vere had a few of his guardsmen were waiting in the shadows around the square.  With a sigh, Kiluron joined them.  Vere’s eyes were laughing.

               “Well done, my talentless Sub-Prime,” he remarked.

               Before he could say anything else, Kiluron held up his hand.  “Not now, Vere.  I get the point.”

               Subsiding with a nod and a wry smile, Vere left to attend to his other guards, leaving Kiluron to return to the castle with Frim and a handful of others.  Despite the adrenaline of seeing the crowd listen to him, and the excitement of the night’s events, Kiluron was glad to bid the man goodnight when they reached the castle, and secure himself in the comfort and sanctuary of his own rooms.  He still felt dissatisfied, but something seemed to have shifted.  A servant had come by to clean the congealed stew from the desk, and someone had thoughtfully left a warm mug of tea for him.  Once he had changed into his nightclothes and belted a thick robe about himself, Kiluron sat down at his desk with a sigh, and sipped thoughtfully on the tea.  He did not finish the letter that night, nor the following, but four days later it was done.

Dear Lady Fetrina,

                    If I told you just how many times I rewrote this letter before I came up with this version, you would doubtless razz my mercilessly.  Then again, doesn’t your rational philosophy call for repetition to make a thing be right?  Regardless, I really should not have found this to be such a difficult task.  If I’m being honest, it’s been a difficult time for me, and I don’t know that it will be particularly easier going forward.  Is that proper?  Particularly easier?  Doil could probably say, but I decided I didn’t want to bother him with this.  Besides, I can’t always rely on him to translate everything I say into the highfalutin language you like, so I hope that you’ll understand.  Someone rather wiser than I, and significantly better at winning bread, told me that it’s best to be genuine.  Not in so many words, of course – in rather more, because these kinds of things can never just be said clearly.  But that is the gist of what I got.

                    Apparently, I have a reputation for being relatable amongst the guards and the soldiers and the other common folk.  This might be code amongst some people to say that I, too, am common, and they might mean that in an insulting way, but I would not consider it so.  After all, the majority of people are common, and it seems best that we understand them if we are to have authority over them.  In many ways, isn’t that why we have a Primedome, instead of hereditary rule?  According to Borivat, doing away with primogeniture is one of the reasons that the Merolate Union exists.  I still don’t know exactly what that means, but I think it means that it’s a good thing to understand the common folk.  That being said, I’m still not entirely convinced that this is really a good thing.  I wish that I could be more like Prime Wezzix, who seems to have a universal reputation as a leader.  I fear that my reputation may be more of being a good drinking buddy.

                    I don’t know if you were affected by the strange weather events we had recently; they caused quite the stir here, especially between Borivat and Doil.  Apparently, the weather was somehow organized.  Maybe that makes sense to you – it didn’t make any sense to me.  Anyhow, the big news is that there was this prophet who came through claiming to be able to see the future and predict these weather events.  Claimed that there was some Black Crow that was going to bring about the Great Dark – some kind of end of the world sort of scenario.  Turns out that was a lot of nonsense.  He was a semi-sane scarecrow of an old man who could predict the weather the same way so many old men can: “oh dear, my knee is stiff today.  Looks like rain.”  As for the organized nature of the weather, Borivat and Doil are still worrying over that, but the crisis seems to have passed.  At least, we haven’t had any reported instances of strange weather recently.  They insist it’s important to find out why it happened in the first place, but personally I’m content with it being finished and done.  If it’s no longer bothering anyone, why should it bother me?

                    Guardcaptain Vere told me an interesting story the other day about a lieutenant who wore a red shirt into battle so that people wouldn’t see if he was wounded.  I don’t know if it’s true, but I had a funny thought when I was thinking about it.  Maybe someone should wear red pants into battle for the same reason.  But then, if it’s a really bad looking battle, they should wear brown pants.  You know, just in case.  It’s a good thing I didn’t have Doil proofread this letter for me; he would never have let me keep something so cross in a letter to a lady.  I thought it was funny, and not simply because of the crudity, but I hope that you will not take offense.

                    However, all of this is really sort o delaying from the main point of why I spent so long laboring and delaying and debating on the contents of this letter.  All this talk of weather puts me in mind of spring, and the weather is indeed starting to turn warmer around Merolate City.  So, I’ve been wondering, and I don’t really know how to ask this properly, so I’ll just ask it directly, would you like to go for a picnic sort of thing with me?  We could ride out into the woods just beyond the City.  Don’t worry: I would make Doil serve as chaperone – I’m sure he’d be thrilled.  In case you couldn’t tell, I’m really rather nervous about making this request, so I do hope that you’ll reply with rather more haste than I did, so that I am not a nervous wreck waiting on your answer.  Then again, maybe you should delay, so that I am not a nervous wreck trying to figure out what  in the world I will say to you during this picnic.

                    Even without Doil’s advice, I think I know enough to know that I ought to stop before I get myself in any more trouble here.  I sincerely hope that this letter finds you well, and that you will at least consider what I’ve asked.

Your Friend,

~Sub-Prime Kiluron

               Fetrina’s response came less than two days later, on a tiny piece of parchment with barely any writing on it at all.  It said: Yes.  ~Lady Fetrina.

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The end of Blood Magic S1:E9: Unbalanced. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode will go live on October 31st, 2020.

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Copyright 2020, IGC Publishing

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