Spirits Alone

               A pale blue sun hung in a yellow sky, occulted now and then by grey and black clouds that cast pale, luminescent shadows, like the spotlight mirrors used by some stage performers, onto the twisted landscape.  Despite the alien ambience, it was not difficult to see.  From the cover of a boulder-shaped bush with blue-grey bark and crimson leaves, former Guardcaptain Vere watched his prey approach, and wished for a proper night, or a proper day, or anything proper at all.  Even something improper would have been preferable to a place where everything he experienced was just a figment of his imagination.

               “It is not merely a figment of your imagination, simply because your mind can less readily interpret the stimuli of the Spiritual Plane than it can those of the Physical Plane for which it was intended.”  Opal’s words in his head were still worryingly weak, but her confidence was in no way diminished.  “What you perceive here is only slightly less a true reality than the reality which you experience in your ordinary existence.

               Vere did not reply.  He’d heard enough arguments amongst officers about whether or not perception really was reality; he had no interest in engaging in such a debate with a Gruordvwrold.  Besides, his concentration was needed for the task at hand.  Hunting demons was more difficult than hunting pheasants.  Besides, the fact remained that what he saw and experienced in the Spiritual Plane was fundamentally different from what Opal asserted was the truth of existence in that place.

               “I still do not think this is a good idea.”  Opal changed the topic, doubtless sensing that Vere would not reply.  “That demon appears dangerous.

               Perhaps Opal was not as confident as she seemed and was talking more to compensate.  Vere had known people like that, but the idea was still disconcerting with respect to a Gruordvwrold.  “Then maybe I can imagine it into a nice, gentle blummox,” Vere replied.  Squinting out of his concealing bush, he acknowledged that Opal was correct in at least once respect: his prey did look vicious, with double sets of canines on both the top and bottom that protruded nearly a handspan from a gaping maw that dominated a spherical, inky-black head.  That head hovered at knee-height, trailed by a diaphanous, smoky tail that it used to propel itself through the air.

               When it passed by Vere’s bush, Vere leapt out and pinned the demon to the sandy ground with a wooden spear.  His Gruordvwrold-forged sword stayed in its sheath; Vere had found that the crystalline blade all but disintegrated these lesser demons, and that would be rather counterproductive to his present goal.  His armor was still helpful, though a breeze filtered through the broken cuirass.  The demon writhed for a few moments before its pure white eyes faded away, and it became still.  Wresting his spear free, Vere slung his prey over his shoulder by its ghostly tail and trekked back to camp.

               Opal eyed him dubiously from their sheltered camp set back in a cluster of earthy brown rocks that looked more like tree bark would in the Physical Plane.  Vere used his belt knife to slice up the demon.  It could hardly be called butchery, as the creature had no internal structure, and in fact was completely uniform in its peculiar substance, which felt to Vere like an extra-firm gelatin.  When he had his prey prepared, he stirred the sea-green fire to life in its nest of grey-blue branches and set to frying slices of demon on thin sheets of brown rock.

               “You truly intend to eat that?” Opal asked.  She sounded tired.

               Vere prodded a slice of demon.  It did not sizzle, and the texture was not changing.  He had no idea if cooking it was doing something, but the idea of eating demon at all was disconcerting enough that he was not quite prepared to do so raw.  “It’s been three days, if you can call them days here,” he remarked.  “We found water that’s safe to drink, even if it looks more like some ostentatious emperor’s robe.  We’re going to need to eat, too.”

               Opal managed a frown on her draconic snout.  “Neither water, nor food, actually exist here.  It is merely how you are interpreting some manner of absorption of sustaining energies from the Spiritual Plane.

               “Well, you’re the one who was just telling me that what I’m imagining, or interpreting, or whatever, should be treated as real,” Vere retorted.  “That means if I’m going to absorb some of these sustaining energies, it’s probably going to have to involve eating.”

               Some sort of groan seemed to emanate from the sprawled Gruordvwrold.  “I…apologize.  I suppose that I am weaker than I realize.  And this place is…discomfiting.”

               “You’re telling me,” Vere muttered.  He flipped the slices of demon off of the hot rock and onto his handkerchief, which he had cleaned for the purpose.  “And it’s not just me that’s going to eat this.  You, too.  We need to start getting some of your strength back.”

               He pushed a slice of cooked demon towards her, but Opal recoiled.  “I will not eat that,” she asserted.

               Vere sighed.  “You think I want to eat the Imbalanced slimy black gelatin slabs?”  He poked gingerly at his own slice, cut a little piece, held his nose, though there was no discernible odor, and put it in his mouth.  It was a small enough piece that he could swallow it without chewing, which was a relief; the texture was weird enough without that added experience.

               “It is not that,” Opal replied.  “Gruordvwrold do not eat in the Physical Plane, either.  We exist of the Physical Plane.  Food and drink are not meaningful terms to us.”  She must have sensed that Vere was not understanding, because she sighed aloud, though all of her words were telepathic.  “It is difficult to explain.

               “Well, we’re not in the Physical Plane, and ever since we destroyed the Heliblode to seal the rift you’ve been getting weaker.  Seems like this might be worth a try.”  Vere tried to sound calm and reasonable, but it was difficult.  He liked to consider himself self-reliant, but the idea of being stranded in this place alone…his thoughts veered away from even contemplating the idea.

               Opal sniffed at the cooked demon.  “You do not understand.  This is of the Spiritual Plane.  If I…imbibe it, it is as likely to annihilate some of my own substance as it is to sustain me.  Perhaps more likely.  Worse, it could begin to subvert my Physical substance into Spiritual substance.

               It could be true; Vere did not know nearly enough about the Gruordvwrold, or the Spiritual Plane, to say.  What he did know was that for a day after they sealed the rift, he thought Opal was actually dead, and that even now that she had stirred from her catatonic state her scales seemed dingy, without their usual luster, and her very form seemed to be fading.

               “I expended too much power.”  Opal was still speaking.  “All of my power should have gone into the Heliblode to seal the rift – indeed, I believe that it did.  I can only assume that the addition of your Blood to the artifact in the process somehow preserved my existence when it should have been expended.

               Vere frowned.  He barely understood what Opal said about expending her power, though he thought it was the same way that Garnet died.  That thought seemed to resonate oddly in what remained of his armor, which was created from her remains.  “Well, then if you mixed with me somehow, then maybe now you need some of the same things I do.  Like food.”  He pushed the slice of demon towards her again, and deliberately took another, larger bite of his own piece.  He could barely choke it down.  “See?  I’m not dead yet.”

               “We might as well be,” Opal retorted.  “The rift has been sealed.  We are trapped in the Spiritual Plane, in an utterly hostile, inhospitable environment inimical to our very existence.  We cannot hope to return to our own plane of existence.  Both of us knew that this was a one-way trip, and that we would die accomplishing our mission.  There seems little point in continuing to fight just for petty survival.

               Someone else had spoken that way to Vere, once, although they had not sounded so educated about it.  He remembered a jungle, a place that had seemed as alien as anything he had seen before passing through the rift, and a stone ziggurat rising above the canopy to the blazing sun.  “Sometimes, survival is its own point,” he murmured.

               He could tell that Opal disagreed, but she did not argue further.  Both of them seemed lost in their own thoughts, as private as those could be from each other – ever since they jointly powered the Heliblode to seal the rift it seemed harder to close off their telepathic link.  Vere was surprised when Opal tentatively nibbled at the demon steak, before scarfing it down in a gulp.

               Her resulting grimace could have frozen anything in its tracks.  “Disgusting,” she commented, but she seemed to have gained just a little more substance.

               “Have another,” Vere offered, finishing off his own meal.  Opal hesitated only a moment before downing the remainder of the demon, even the smoky tail that Vere had been unsure how to prepare.  It seemed a small meal for such an enormous creature as Opal, but it made a remarkable difference.  Her scales regained their luster, and even the way she was sprawled upon the sands seemed stronger.  Vere ignored a faint tinge of shadow that had grown around the edges of a few of her scales; it was probably just a trick of the not-light, anyway.

               “What an…odd experience,” Opal mused.  Her strength was partially restored, but she seemed to be growing drowsy.

               Vere frowned.  “You have a mouth, and teeth, and claws, and all the other markers of a predator, but you say that your kind doesn’t eat at all?”

               Opal nodded.  “Our origins are not as yours.  We are manifestations, I suppose you could say, rather than natural creatures such as you or the Ipemav.

               “Manifestations of what?” Vere asked, but Opal had already fallen asleep.  He sighed.  “I guess I’ll take the first watch, then.”

               Not that there was much to watch.  Closer to where the rift had been, there was the wreckage of the Ipemav ships, but this isolated spot in which Opal and Vere found themselves after sealing the rift was untouched wilderness.  There was no sign of any Ipemav, or Guardians, or anything else sentient.  Such creatures – demons – as Vere had seen were similar to the creatures of the Physical Plane, albeit jarring in their appearances.  Demons they might be, but they acted just like ordinary animals, and avoided Vere’s camp, or, more likely, avoided Opal.

               With his back to the sea-green flames of their campfire, Vere watched the night.  A few large, bat-like demons flapped in the distance, visible through the trees.  He called it night, because the pale blue orb that took the place of the sun faded, but there was little difference in the ambient illumination.  After a few moments, Vere took out his journal and reached for a charred branch with which to scratch on the page.

               The charcoal was white, not black, though, and when he rubbed it on a corner of the page experimentally the mark could barely be discerned.  Sighing, he tossed the stick back into the campfire, tucked his journal back into its pocket, and settled back with another sigh.  It was going to be a long not-night, and that wasn’t even thinking about what the morning might hold.  Probably another argument with Opal about what they ought to be doing.

               Morning sunshine awoke Vere, or rather, he awoke to light glimmering off of Opal’s scales as she took her own turn at the watch.  The sun itself was waxing back into prominence in the sky, the only sign of the passage of time.  If it weren’t for that, and the fact that events could clearly happen, Vere might have thought that there was no passage of time in the Spiritual Plane.

               Opal glanced over at him as he stretched and came to stand alongside her, watching what passed for a sunrise.  After a long silence, she spoke in his mind.  “I would like to apologize for what I said last night.  You are correct: we should not despair of our lives, simply because we cannot return to our homes.

               No reply was necessary, but Vere at least offered a nod.  One of the things he liked best about telepathic communication with Opal was that when he could not readily find the words, senses and feelings could be passed between them with equal ease, perhaps more.

               “I might be strong enough to travel some distance today, if you think that would be advisable,” Opal continued.

               Vere looked at her quizzically.  “How did I end up making the decisions?  You have centuries more experience than I do.”

               “True.  But we have equal experience in the Spiritual Plane,” Opal observed, “and besides, I am having difficulty determining an appropriate or preferred course of action.  The Gruordvwroldare not given to action by nature; we are content merely to exist until such a time as something needs to be done.

               “Alright.”  Vere glanced up at the pale blue sun.  It did not move, but it also did not hang directly overhead.  He pointed up at it.  “We’ll call that direction east.  That means that the rift was roughly…south southeast of here.  And that third Ipemav ship, the one that retreated, seemed to be coming out of the northeast.  The Guardians seemed to come from that direction, too.  So I say that we head that direction.”

               Opal’s doubts thundered through their telepathic link.  “I thought that you were not interested in committing suicide.  Why would we deliberately seek out such danger?

               “It’s not the danger we’re seeking out.  It’s the evidence of civilization.  Everything else we’ve seen of this place has been virgin wilderness.  We need more information about this world, and if we’re going to find it anywhere, that seems the most likely place, given what we know.”  Vere grabbed his helm from a nearby rock and pressed it onto his head, the Gruordvwrold scales cool and smooth like rippled marble against his skin.  He wished that he had some way to repair the rest of his armor.

               “Very well.”  Opal still sounded skeptical, but it was clear that she did not have an alternative plan.  She cocked her foreleg down to allow Vere to mount to her neck, but Vere shook his head.

               “You’re still recovering, and we’ll have more perspectives if I walk and you fly,” Vere said.  “Just don’t get too far ahead of me.”

               “I shall endeavor not to do so,” Opal replied.  She straightened her foreleg, bunched her muscles, and sprang into the air, away from the stand of rocks that had been their camp.  Vere took one last look around, checked that his sword was ready in its sheath, hefted the spear he had carved from a local tree, and set out on foot after her.

               Compared to a similar Merolate forest, this one in the Spiritual Plane was sparser, with more space between narrower trees and less underbrush.  Vere wondered if that was just a property of the terrain, or if it was something to do with the nature of the Spiritual Plane.  At least it made for easy hiking, and it was also easier to keep an eye on his surroundings.  With such little underbrush, it would be difficult for something to find sufficient cover by which to sneak up on him.

               The sand beneath his feet was an indigo shade, and the grains were large enough to click audibly beneath his Gruordvwrold-scale boots as he walked, but the going was not difficult.  He saw a few demons that he thought of as birds – they were about the size of birds, and they had fuzzy grey wings like the tail of the one he had hunted the previous night, but their bodies were plain, black ellipsoids with pure white eyes and gashes for maws – but they did not bother him.  In fact, they seemed to fear him, flying away without even moving their wings upon catching sight of him.

               Ahead and above, he saw Opal soaring in lazy arcs, sweeping to either side of the path Vere was picking along the ground.  Without even trying, she could outpace him, and he almost regretted turning down her invitation.  Still, it was good to walk.  He felt like with every step he was learning more of how to survive in this alien environment, and the armor he wore added a certain spring to his step, as if it yearned to fly again.

               They might have established a set of directions, but there was still no way to mark the passage of time.  The blue sun faded in and out once each day, but it was steady for the time in between, so it was of no use in that respect.  All they could do was walk, or in Opal’s case, fly, until they decided it was time to rest.  It reminded Vere a little of his time in dense, Nycheril jungles, where the canopy was so thick that he could not see the sun, and thus he’d lived in a sort of perpetual twilight.

               It did not feel like half a day had passed, though, before Opal sent back to him that she had landed in a clearing which she thought might be a suitable place for a rest.  Vere caught up with her and found that it was a hilltop where the trees were even sparser.  These trees, though, were different from others he had seen; they were shorter, with wider canopies, and fruits hung from their branches.  At least, Vere assumed they were fruits, since they looked very similar to apples, except that they were in shades of teal and cyan, with flecks of green.

               “Do you think these might be edible?” Opal asked.  She sounded eager, and Vere had to suppress his instinct that she should be a carnivore; after all, until a day ago, she hadn’t eaten anything in her entire existence.  Her features need no more indicate a carnivorous diet than they did a lack of one.

               Plucking down one of the fruits, Vere sniffed it.  It smelled much like an apple, perhaps a little less fruity.  Doing his best to ignore the peculiar color, which he was growing quite accustomed to doing in the Spiritual Plane, he nibbled from one side.  The taste was as strange as the color, with a savory, salty aspect that reminded him more of blummox jerky than of fruit, but it had the crunch and juiciness of a freshly plucked apple.  “Better than fried demon,” he answered.

               With surprising dexterity, Opal maneuvered her tongue to snag pieces of fruit.  Vere ate three of them and tucked a few away in a knapsack that he improvised from his tunic – he would need to figure out weaving some kind of carrying device soon, or they would end up burning a lot of potential travel time with foraging – while Opal veritably cleaned the rest of the grove of fruits.  Even those that appeared unripe, indicated by coloration much closer to that of a normal apple, disappeared down her gullet.

               Their midday repast completed and their hunger sated – if it was anywhen close to midday – Vere and Opal continued northeast.  They steered clear of the wreckage of the Ipemav ships that had exploded during the battle at the rift, but it was easy enough both to navigate and to know what obstacles were ahead, thanks to Opal’s flight.  Fueled by the cyan fruits, she seemed rejuvenated beyond what a mere meal should provide, and the pair made good progress for the remainder of that day.

               “In some ways, what I’m seeing is inverted,” Vere mused.  “Does that mean that the Spiritual Plane is actually an inversion of the Physical Plane?  Is there land here where there was water back home?  That might provide us with a better sense of where we are.

               From above and ahead, Opal’s reply was impatient; she seemed affected by a sort of sugar buzz from the cyan fruits.  “No.  You’re thinking about your perceptions too literally again.

               “You’ll forgive me if I find all of this rather difficult to think about.”  Vere wiped sweat from his brow.  He couldn’t have said what the temperature felt like there, or what season it might be in the Spiritual Plane, or even if concepts like weather had any substantial meaning in a place where the sun was a pale blue disc that faded in and out in its stationary point in the sky, but he was sweating as if it were hot and muggy.  “How does the terrain look ahead?

               The forest thickened in the region where the rift had been, the trees acquiring a taller, more ominous look; their pale trunks, instead of lightening the visage, just gave the impression of bleached skeletons.  Their previous camp must have been in some kind of a sandy lowland, because the day’s walking slowly transformed into a trek across a spongy, bluish substance that coated rolling hills.  “We seem to be skirting a distant mountain range,” Opal reported, confirming Vere’s suspicions.  “The terrain will grow a little rougher before we can begin to descend again, then we will be on some manner of plain, possibly a desert.

               “Any signs of civilization?” Vere asked.

               “You tell me.”  Opal’s words were a challenge, and Vere was about to ask how he could have a better perspective than she did when he was stuck on the ground when his vision fuzzed, and he found himself gazing upon the landscape from a dizzying height.  Nor was the height the only dizzying aspect; his vision was bifurcated, with central cones through which he could peer into the far distance, and the rest of his vision fuzzy but immensely broad.  Then he was back in his own body, retching into a stand of chartreuse ferns.

               When he recovered, Vere wiped his mouth.  “What the Blood was that?

               “That was merging your perception of the Spiritual Plane with mine.”  Opal sounded smug.  “You have now seen this world you are imagining through the eyes of a Gruordvwrold.

               “But how can you see anything like that, if it’s all just a matter of my perception?” Vere asked.

               Opal hesitated.  “I…am not entirely certain.  Perhaps it has something to do with the mingling of our life forces in the Heliblode, or the prolonged nature of our telepathic communication; I do not know that any Gruordvwrold has remained so intimately connected to one of your kind.  I find that I am able to perceive this Plane in the way you perceive it, as well how I do.

               “That sounds even more nauseating than what you just showed me.”  Vere scratched at his armor’s neck.  “I’m starting to get tired, and I want to try to bring down another demon tonight.  Let’s find a camp soon.  We’ll keep going tomorrow.

               Tomorrow brought much of the same.  It was tiring, but Vere was travelling light, the going was not as difficult as it could have been, and by the end of the following day they reached the border of the desert.  He wondered if the pace of his travel and the amount of distance he needed to cover was somehow related to his perception of distance covered, rather than an absolute value of displacement.

               “There is a city ahead,” Opal reported when she returned from her reconnaissance flight.  Vere dumped a demon into the center of the camp and went about preparing it for their supper.  “Another day of walking will put us there.

               With his flint and steel, Vere got a fire burning.  He had brought the tools with him, so they looked ordinary, and so did the sparks they produced, but they started aquamarine flames in the pile of tinder and kindling.  “Then we’ll head there early tomorrow.  I’ll try to sneak in and see what we can learn.”

               Opal emanated disapproval.  “Is that wise?  You do not know what lives there, and it is highly unlikely that you resemble the local population.  If they are Ipemav, they are likely to be hostile, and they will be stronger than the ones you faced at the rift.

               “Ah, and you appear so ordinary that they will accept you as a long-lost cousin,” Vere remarked.  He felt something like a flush from the Gruordvwrold.  “I’ll be careful.  I don’t intend to be noticed if I can avoid it, and I can definitely do that better than you can.”

               Since she started eating, Opal’s strength was returning in spurts, along with her usual luster.  Her scales gleamed even in the fading not-light, save for the rims of shadow that outlined each of them.  That actually made her even more striking.  “I suppose that is correct.”  She hesitated.  “If something goes wrong, get to a high place, and I will come for you.  Then they shall feel the wrath of a Gruordvwrold.

               “A better escape plan than I’ve had for more dangerous missions,” Vere noted, not commenting on the change in Opal’s attitude.  She had come a very long way from barely tolerating him.

               In the morning, Opal delivered Vere to a point just out of sight of the desert city.  The sand was burgundy beneath Vere’s boots – he left his armor behind in their camp, to better appear inconspicuous – and reminded him of a rich wine.  It felt much the same as ordinary sand, though, and was just as annoying to trek through as he made his way towards the city.  Mounting a dune, he caught his first sight of the place.

               It had to be called a city, because there was no other word that would apply, but it was at least as alien as anything else Vere encountered in the Spiritual Plane.  Approaching on foot, it looked like an inverted ziggurat.  Long before Vere could discern details around the city gates, he was in the whitish shadows cast by the upper portions of the city walls.  That made the burgundy tone of the sand look closer to brown, just when Vere was starting to appreciate the color.  He had to struggle not to feel like the city was going to fall down upon him as he walked deeper and deeper into shadow.

               The base of the inverted ziggurat was a square of stone the size of a city block, with a gate driven into one side.  Only a trickle of traffic was visible, and they appeared humanoid, but Vere could not tell from a distance if they were Ipemav.  Most wore white clothing, stained burgundy around the ankles from the sand, with colorful scarves hanging around their necks.  No one seemed to be guarding the gates, so Vere flipped up his cloak’s hood and joined the short queue.

               On closer inspection, the others entering the city were mostly shorter than Vere, so they were no Ipemav.  With his strange clothing, Vere stood out more than he would have liked, but no one commented or attempted to stop him.  Just like that, he was inside the city.

               Buildings towered around him.  The tallest buildings were at the city’s center, rising almost to the level of the top of the walls, becoming progressively shorter to match that height on the other levels.  Smaller steps and ladders provided access to the further levels, but it was at least as strange that Vere had to walk outwards from the city center after entering through the gates.  He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, so he set out to learn as much as he could.

               “What do you see?”  Despite the distance, Opal’s telepathic words were as clear as they were when they sat in camp together.

               Vere wondered what to describe first.  “It’s…a city.  The people look strange – I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of one’s face, they all wear these weird hoods over both the front and back of their heads – but they act like normal people.  There are what look like shops, artisans, gardens.  It seems like they could close this city and be completely self-sustaining.”  He paused his mental narration while a demon went past.  It was formed of two ellipsoids rocking against each other, with a wide, vertical slash for a mouth, and it was pulling a wagon.  “They appear to have domesticated demons,” he noted.

               “I can hear them talking,” he observed to Opal, “and I think I can understand what they’re saying.  It’s not my language, but it’s like…a word that you can’t quite remember, that’s on the tip of your tongue, you’re searching for it but you can’t quite figure out what it is.  If I concentrated, really listened, I could probably figure it out, but I don’t want to wait too long in one place so that I don’t look suspicious.

               He sensed Opal thinking on his words.  “They are probably communicating with some sort of telepathy, and your mind is interpreting it as language.  Since you are not involved in the telepathic communication directly, you cannot quite understand what is being said, though you can tell that communication is taking place.

               “Huh.  Useful to prevent eavesdropping, I suppose, but I still think that if I concentrated, I could understanding it.”  Vere paused.  “I’m almost at the top of the city.  Let me pause while I look around a little.

               Instead of the villas, palaces, and residences that Vere expected for the top level, he found himself in a sort of warehouse or industrial district.  That struck Vere as odd, especially as he looked around and noted how fantastic a view he had of the surrounding landscape and the city itself from his new perch.  Fewer people wandered these streets, and many of them kept glancing at the pale-yellow sky as they did, somehow seeing, or sensing, through their white, double hoods.

               “It’s quiet up here,” he remarked to Opal.  “Not many people about, and everything up here is just warehouses.  Maybe these people are congenitally afraid of heights or something.

               A shout attracted Vere’s attention; he turned and saw a white-garbed figure pointing at the sky and shouting at the city below him.  This time, Vere had no trouble understanding what was being said.  “Attack!  Attack!  Attack!”

               Everything became motion.  The city’s populace was running, most of them fleeing the higher levels, cramming into the city’s central, lower levels.  A few, wearing armor made of black smoke and carrying spears with tips of what appeared to be rubicund bone, were charging upwards, instead.  Vere ducked into a narrow alley, hoping he hadn’t been seen.  “Opal, do you see anything?  The city thinks it’s under attack!

               Opal’s rumbling answer was alarmed.  “I see nothing, but I can see little from here.  I am coming.

               “No, wait,” Vere ordered.  Not that he could order Opal to do anything, but it was his ordering voice.  “Let me try to find out more of what’s happening before you reveal yourself.  It might be easier for me to sneak away, if necessary.  If you come to get me, we might end up with a bigger fight on our hands.

               He could almost sense Opal’s tail lashing with frustration.  “Fine.  But I will come for you if this goes badly.

               There was a savage thrill to having a mythical creature vow to defend him, and Vere grinned.  “I’d expect nothing less.”  Then he burst out of the alley to find someone in charge.

               In his time, Vere had encountered a lot of military traditions.  Some, like Corbulate’s, and to a lesser extent his own Merolate guardsmen, were rigorous, with standardized uniforms, rank insignia, chains of command, and other structures.  Others, like the tribal armies he had encountered in Nycheril, were more informal, more social in nature and definition.  He had encountered one where whoever had the most impressive collection of enemies’ teeth was in charge.  Regardless, all of them had certain commonalities.

               A white-cloaked individual with smoky black armor stood near Vere’s position, watching the sky, his nerves obvious despite his alien nature and lack of a visible face beneath his double hoods.  Vere approached him.  “Soldier!  Who’s in charge here?”

               “I – what?  Who are you?”  He took in Vere’s strange clothing, his eyes seeming to linger on the ornate, crystalline blade hanging at his hip, if he even had eyes.  “Where did you come from?”

               “I’m here to help defend the city.”  It was an impulsive declaration, but it seemed appropriate.  He could hardly pretend to be an ordinary citizen, after all.  “Now, who’s in charge?  I would hate for my skills to go to waste.”

               Maybe it was his tone or his words, honed over years commanding the Merolate guards.  Maybe it was his posture and his sword, marks of a trained fighter, when half of the smoke-armored people he saw seemed afraid of their own spears.  “Yes Sir!  You’ll want Lieutenant Gri’Shimti, Sir!”  The soldier pointed towards a slim figure standing near the steps up to the top level, eyeing the sky through a cerulean spyglass.

               “Don’t give me a sir sandwich, Soldier,” Vere snapped, pleased at his alliteration.  “One Sir will suffice.  What’s your name?”

               “My name?  Ah, Ju’Phustu, Sir!”  Ju’Phustu made a strange gesture that might have been their version of a salute; Vere chose not to return it in case he was wrong.

               “Thank you, Ju’Phustu.”  Vere managed not to stumble over the alien moniker.  “It’s an honor to fight alongside you.”  He hurried away to find the indicated lieutenant.

               Gri’Shimti spotted him coming.  “Hey!  Civilians should all be down in the lower levels!  The invaders are attacking, didn’t you hear?”

               Sparing a glance over the wall, Vere saw a growing shape, one too familiar: a vessel, like the ones he had fought by the rift.  “Do I look like one of your civilians?  I’m Guardcaptain Vere, and I’m here to help you defend this city.”

               It had worked well enough on Ju’Phustu, but Lieutenant Gri’Shimti was not intimidated.  “I wasn’t informed of this.”  He seemed about to send Vere away, and Vere wondered if he should just go down below and slip out of the city, but then the lieutenant glanced down at Vere’s sword and came to a decision.  “But if you know how to use that strange weapon you carry, then we could use every arm.  Reinforce the northern flank.”

               With his own salute, Vere spun away to join the soldiers on the northern wall.  It was strange not to be able to see any of their faces, but Vere was more concerned with the ship approaching from northeast.  It was a smaller version of the ships he had fought by the rift, with four wing-oars on either side keeping it aloft, and it was already close enough that Vere could pick out individual Ipemav.

               “You heard all of that?” Vere muttered to Opal.

               Opal acknowledged.  “I am preparing to intercept the Ipemav vessel from behind, but it will take me time to circle around the city.  But it seems that you may have found an ally against the Ipemav.

               “Or gotten us involved in a separate war.”  Vere glanced at his fellow soldiers, who were eyeing him nervously, or at least looking towards him; Vere was still thrown by their apparent lack of faces, and he wondered how they could even see.  “I better concentrate.  They’re almost here.

               He could still sense Opal in the back of his mind, their telepathic bond providing a latent link, but now he focused on his own situation.  A rope dangled from the front of the Ipemav ship; he could see a giant, armored figure dangling from it.  When he was over the walls, the figure dropped down to the northeastern corner, smashing onto the stone and throwing up flecks where the pavement cracked.  Soldiers charged in, but bursts of magic flung them back, and two tumbled over the walls to the burgundy sands.

               More figures began leaping down from the hovering vessel.  Vere glanced at Ju’Phustu beside him.  Despite the lack of a face, Vere could tell the soldier was nervous, as was the soldier to his right.  He remembered Opal’s warning that these Ipemav were likely to be stronger than the ones he faced by the rift.  Where the ship was almost docking with the walls, soldiers in smoky armor were falling before just three Ipemav holding that ground.  Lieutenant Gri’Shimti was shouting for reinforcements, but the soldiers were hesitating, not wanting to engage, while more Ipemav disembarked from their vessel.

               “Looks like I’m needed.”  Vere turned to the two soldiers standing with him and addressed the one he didn’t know.  “What’s your name?”

               The soldier had to swallow.  “No’Slopo, Sir,” he answered.

               “Guardcaptain Vere,” Vere introduced himself.  “No’Slopo, Ju’Phustu, I’m going to charge that beachhead and knock that ship off your city.  Are you coming with me?”

               The two looked at each other, and slowly nodded.  Vere grinned and drew his sword.  The crimson blade of Gruordvwrold scales refracted the brilliant sunshine so that it seemed to glow with an internal fire.  It drew the eye, and he saw the soldiers within sight of him stand up a little straighter and hold their spears a little more firmly.  “For wrecks and ruins,” he whispered, and then he charged.

               Regretting leaving his own armor back at camp, Vere ran towards the nearest Ipemav.  Clad in almond-colored plate armor, the creature was even more of a giant than usual.  In one hand he wielded a battle axe as tall as Vere was, and with the other he blasted out with magic.  Skidding beneath a magical strike that disintegrated a section of wall, Vere slapped the battle axe away with his free hand as he went past, reversed his sword, and drove it between the giant’s helmet and his breastplate.  The Gruordvwrold-forged blade crunched through the Ipemav’s armor, and the giant collapsed.

               Vere ran on, ignoring the looks of awe and shock that followed him.  An Ipemav wielding a massive great sword blocked his way; Vere parried two blows that left his arms numb with the impacts, sidestepped a third, and stabbed his sword through the giant’s face.  Another one down, and he heard a cheer go up from the soldiers.  He would have rather they helped him fight, instead of watching him like this was some kind of gladiator contest.  He was fighting for their city.

               At the northeastern corner Vere found himself facing the Ipemav’s vanguard, the giant creature who had dropped onto the wall first.  She was easily twice Vere’s height in her armor, and she regarded Vere with obvious surprise.

               “You!” she exclaimed.  “The Toothed Lamb!  How are you not dead?”

               There was no time to wonder about the Ipemav’s new title for him.  Vere ignored the giant’s question and charged forward, but he was forced to backtrack when she swung her blade at him with surprising speed.  She reversed her strike just as quickly; Vere got his sword up in time to block, but the impact was so great that he was sent skidding backwards across the wall.

               An overhead blow followed up, and Vere raised his sword over his head and braced the flat against his off-hand.  A normal sword would have bent or broken beneath such a blow in that configuration, but the Gruordvwroldsword just glowed brighter in the sunlight beneath the impact.  His opponent stumbled backwards, surprised, and Vere lunged forward, seeking her heart, but she was too fast and slid away from his sword.  Behind her, Vere caught a shimmer of white in the distance, barely visible against the pale sky.

               “You are not as skilled as I imagined.  How could you have defeated so many of your betters?”  She did not seem interested in an answer, because she attacked again as she spoke.

               Vere parried and edged forward, striking rapidly and forcing her to back up a step.  “I had help,” he grunted, too quiet for her to quite hear.

               “What?” she demanded.

               Stepping forward, Vere shoved her while she was off-balance, danced back, and lunged.  The blade would have speared her if she did not step back again, and this time, there was nowhere to step.  The ship in which she had come was gone, torn away by Opal and tossed to the sands below like desert flotsam.  Vere’s opponent dropped from the walls and crashed with an atrocious crunch into the remains of her ship.

               Two other Ipemav had also been on the walls, but the city’s soldiers had managed to slay them, motivated by Vere’s example.  Lieutenant Gri’Shimti was staring at him, and the man’s eyes widened further when Opal settled onto the wall behind Vere.  Vere put a hand on the Gruordvwrold’s warm neck.  “I think some explanations might be in order,” he remarked.

Kindred Spirits

               They had no faces.  It wasn’t that their double hoods concealed their faces – the citizens of the inverted ziggurat city called Nil’Frilintir on the edge of the desert were Hollow People.  Beneath their white robes there was nothing.  Vere found it disconcerting at first, but they were otherwise ordinary, and were generously hospitable towards their alien visitors.

               Both he and Opal were unique.  The Hollow People had never seen anyone remotely like them; most of Nil’Frilintir’s interactions were with the Ipemav, who they simply referred to as invaders, and the Guardians, which they thought of more like predators, for all their intelligence.  A fourth sentient species was rumored to live in ‘the bright places,’ but no one in Nil’Frilintir could confirm their existence.

               Opal crouched upon a crenellation, looking out over the desert landscape.  It was nighttime, so she sat beside Vere in what darkness came to the Spiritual Plane.  Both had just come from speaking at length with the city’s leader, Pro’Cromo, and the head of the city’s militia, General Tre’Delte.

               “I cannot feel guilty for closing the rift and blocking the Ipemav from returning to the Physical Plane,” Opal mused, “but their wrongness is even greater here.  They are truly invaders to this place, a scourge upon those who are meant to be here.

               Vere nodded.  “Though it is a struggle worthy of epic, what these Hollow People wage.  I wonder how the saga will end.”

               A growl answered him.  “In death, I fear.  The Ipemav have a strength not native to this Plane, and they can exploit that.”  Opal crunched on a demon haunch the Hollow People had provided for her and changed the topic.  “You have achieved your goal of learning more about this place.  What comes next?

               Vere’s own meal consisted of a few smoky chunks of demon flesh wrapped in a kind of flatbread.  It had the texture of flatbread, at least, and there was a spiced sauce that helped distract from the peculiar texture of the demon meat.  He swallowed a bite before he replied.  “I don’t know.  What I’ve heard – I wonder if we weren’t as successful as we thought.  The Ipemav still have enormous power.  What happens if they attempt to invade again?”

               “We sealed the rift,” Opal asserted.  “The destruction of the Heliblode caused a permanent alteration, so the rift cannot be reopened.  Recall that locality does not have the same significance here as it does in the Physical Plane, despite your perceptions.

               “How certain are you of that?” Vere asked.  “Because it seems to me that there’s a lot that we don’t know about all of this, and that the Ipemav, with all of their resources and all of their power, might be capable of finding some other way of returning to the Physical Plane.”

               Opal began to argue, but then she fell silent.  “You may be correct,” she admitted, her tone grudging.  “What then would you propose?

               Fingering the hilt of his Gruordvwrold-scale sword, Vere felt its native heat on his palm.  “We bring the fight to them.  Throw down their leadership, break them, so that they can’t bother us or these Hollow People again.”

               Skepticism from Opal.  “Imagine it, though,” Vere urged.  “We could assemble an army, a grand army of all the cities and nations of the Hollow People, and march on the Ipemav, end this war in truth.”

               Opal shook her head.  “If it were that simple, would not they have already done it?  We are only two, even still.  We do not make that much of a difference, no matter how powerful we might be, thanks to our Physical origins.

                “You saw how they fought when we were there to encourage them, to show them it could be done,” Vere argued.  “That counts for something.  A grand army of Hollow People to end the Ipemav threat, led by Vere the Vaunted Vanquisher and Opal the…Optimistic Originalist?  Oceanic Omnipotent?”

                “Obviating Ostentate?  Opulent Overlord?” Opal suggested.  “Ahem.  Regardless, it will not make a sufficient difference.

               Vere crossed his arms.  “Then what would you suggest?  Settling down in this city, fighting off Ipemav attacks until we die?  Live out our lives wondering what’s going to happen, if the Ipemav will one day threaten our peoples again?”

                “…No,” Opal begrudged.  “Very well.  Let us discuss the matter with Pro’Cromo.  He is bound to be better informed on the viability of this suggestion than are we.

               Tall to the point of appearing stretched, with rich, cream-colored double cloaks, Pro’Cromo bowed Vere into his office the next morning.  “Will the Lady Opal be joining us?” he asked, pouring a portion of steaming, opaque liquid – it had the consistency of water but the color of milk – into a cup for Vere and himself, and adding a pinch of powdered flower stamens.

               “I am here,” Opal rumbled into both of their minds.  Vere thought he could sense her appreciation that Pro’Cromo remembered to include her, even though she did not fit into the room.

               After taking a sip of tea, which consisted for a Hollow Person of wetting the region of cloth covering where a normal mouth would be and letting the liquid be absorbed, Pro’Cromo looked down at Vere.  “I trust that your stay in the city has been comfortable so far?  I again apologize for the unpleasantness on the walls.  With what can I help you this morning?”

               Vere leaned forward.  “It happens to be related to what happened on the walls, actually.”  He was still inept at reading expressions and emotions in the Hollow People, but he thought Pro’Cromo seemed worried; he hastened to reassure the city leader.  “Just a few questions.  Opal and I were wondering about these attacks.  How frequent are they?  Do you know from where the attacks are launched?  How strong are the Ipemav forces?  Have you ever considered joining with other groups of Hollow People to launch a counterattack?”

               “Ah.”  Pro’Cromo pressed fingers like gloves with nothing inside of them together.  “I should have expected this, perhaps, given your demonstrated martial prowess.  Yes, as you have inferred, the Ipemav attacks are…not infrequent.  We defend ourselves adequately enough to deter them from inflicting too much damage or taking too many of our people.  So you wonder why we do not do more?”

               “Well, yes.”  Vere wondered if he should be more diplomatic, but Pro’Cromo was perceptive.

               “You are not the first to ask,” Pro’Cromo admitted.  “Each generation or so the question arises again.  And we have tried.  We have fought harder than we now do, we have brought down Ipemav, we have warred to the edge of the desert and beyond.  In the end, the result has been always the same.  And the harder we fight, the more brutal and frequent become the Ipemav attacks.  This…arrangement we have – it is not ideal, but it is sustainable.  Better than a war we cannot win.”

               “But what if you could win?” Vere protested.  “With Opal and I to aid you…”

               Pro’Cromo was shaking his head, and his reply was rich with worry.  “I am sorry.  But please, this is our city.  You are welcome to remain here, but do not presume to interfere with our affairs.”

               Vere began to argue further, but Opal interrupted him.  “We thank you for your time, Pro’Cromo.  We will not presume further upon your hospitality.

               That was the end of the meeting; Vere resigned himself to rising, forcing a smile that might mean nothing at all to Pro’Cromo, and leaving the way he had come.  When he and Opal were again in the relative privacy of the building they’d been granted on the warehouse level, he whirled on the Gruordvwrold.  “Why did you stop me?”

               Opal was unperturbed by his ire.  “You do not run this city’s defenses, Guardcaptain.  It is not our place to demand anything of Pro’Cromo, his city, or his people.

               “So I’m just supposed to sit here and watch them get picked off a few at a time by the Ipemav?” Vere demanded.

               Opal growled.  “I do not like it either, but I do understand the philosophy.  Perhaps we should depart, then.  Another city might be more receptive to your plans.

               All Vere managed in response was an incoherent grumble, and the discussion lapsed.  Opal was right, as much as it pained him to admit it; he was not this city’s guardcaptain, or even a resident.  He and Opal were only travelers, visitors, aliens to this place.  It was a different sort of feeling now that they were amongst people, for all they were so different from Vere or Opal, than it had been while they traipsed through the unfamiliar wilderness.

               Arguing over the matter again wouldn’t be productive, so Vere changed the subject.  “Is there any way to repair this armor?” he asked, gesturing towards the translucent, crimson cuirass.  “I’d prefer not to fight with a breeze on my back again.”

               Opal lifted the cuirass on one claw and examined it.  “Cinnabar and Eldar created this armor from Garnet’s scales; I must admit that their skill in such manipulations is beyond mine, even had we the resources.

               “I know we can’t repair it with more scales,” Vere replied.  “Can’t we forge whatever the Spiritual Plane’s equivalent of steel is into the gap?”

               “Gruordvwroldscales are not like metal.  They are more like a ceramic, which is why the struck portion shattered, rather than bending.”  Opal set the cuirass back on the ground.  “To combine it with another material has never been done.

               Vere raised his eyebrows.  “You’ve made armaments like these before?  What happened to them?”

               Opal hesitated.  “It is rare, but yes, this is not the first time we have crafted in this manner.  The last time was…seventeen hundred years ago?  And I do not know what became of those sets.  They may be interred with those who bore them, or they may be otherwise lost.

               Resisting the urge to inquire further about Gruordvwrold-derived armor he would never care about because it was in a different plane of existence, Vere nodded again to his armor.  “Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean we couldn’t arrange for a first time.”  Opal seemed about to argue, so Vere changed the subject again.  “At least I don’t have to sharpen my sword anymore.”

               “I wonder why you are so determined to fight.”  Opal was nosing at the stacks of food waiting for her to consume; the shadows outlining her scales were a deep black, now, but that only made their bright, prismatic character more pronounced.  Her fading was long since reversed.  “We did our duty in coming to this Plane.  That we survived at all is more than we expected; would it be so terrible to desist from struggle?

               Vere paused.  “’Not in peace, nor tranquility, nor the benignity of the unblemished is found the meaning of life/Rather, in trial, tribulation, and strife,’” he quoted.

               “One of your other philosophers suggested that it is the contrast that provides life with meaning,” Opal retorted.  “By that logic, now would be the time for peace.

               Vere sighed and sat down on the floor.  He squeezed his eyes shut.  “I know, Opal.  It’s just…I can’t ignore the fact that the enemy I came here to defeat is still at large, however hampered they might be.  And you saw through me how those Hollow People were fighting on the walls before I joined them.  How can we ignore that?  How can we not fight?”

               Opal’s sigh filled the warehouse.  “Perhaps you are right; I do not know.  For now, I suggest that we take the opportunity to rest in relative safety.  In a few days, if some other solution does not present itself, I will join you in travelling on from this place, if that is your decision.

               Vere nodded.  “Alright.  Thanks.”  After sitting in silence for long enough to bore Vere, he grabbed the Gruordvwrold-scale cuirass and headed out into the city.  Maybe a Hollow Person armorer would have an idea of how to repair the damage it had sustained.

               It was strange that there were craftsmen, tradesmen, farmers, and others filling ‘physical’ roles in Vere’s perception of the Spiritual Plane.  Though he tried not to think too much about it, since Opal had assured him he could trust his perceptions to be sufficiently analogous to reality to allow him to operate effectively, it did confuse him.  He wondered what a Spiritual Plane smith was really doing outside of Vere’s observations of her pounding on a piece of copper-colored metal that behaved more like iron or steel, and glowed like phosphorescent algae with the heat from the forge.

               When she finished crafting the glaive, she set the weapon aside, brushed off her gloved hands – she wore a kind of leather gloves atop her already cloth fingers – and nodded to Vere.  “Can I help you?”

               “Possibly.”  Vere held out the cuirass.  “The back scales here were shattered in a battle, and I’d like to know if it can be repaired.”

               “May I?”  Vere nodded, so the smith took the cuirass and ran her fingers over its glassine surface.  “Remarkable.  I’ve never encountered a material like this.  Where did you get it?”  She shook herself.  “I’m Del’Gelde, by the way.”

               “Vere.”  Vere had to resist appending his former title when he introduced himself.  He gestured at the armor.  “I don’t have any more of the original material.  I’d settle for something weaker, so long as it will bond to the existing scales.”

               Del’Gelde plucked a hammer barely as large as her palm from a rack and tapped upon the Gruordvwroldscales with the utmost delicacy, though she did roll her eyes a bit at her own antics.  “Silly to be so gentle, I guess; this can clearly take a blow.”  She listened to the pure but muted tone her hammer strikes produced.  “I have a couple ideas, but no way of knowing how well they might work, or if they’d work at all.  I don’t suppose I could pry out one of these scales for experiments?”

               Vere hesitated, but he nodded.  “One scale,” he agreed.  “How should I pay you?  I don’t know your economics.”

               “For the chance to experiment with this material, we’ll call it even.  Especially since I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed,” Del’Gelde suggested.  “If I can repair your armor, then we’ll figure out some kind of payment.”

               That was one more complication.  Aside from his martial prowess, Vere could think of little of value he could contribute to the Hollow People.  All of his skills and knowledge were from the Physical Plane, and he doubted anyone would pay for his poetry.  He thanked Del’Gelde and returned to Opal, wishing he could be more productive.

               Dinner that evening for Vere was the Spiritual Plane’s equivalent of beans, mashed up with aromatics and fried.  It was surprisingly good, and Vere admitted that, if nothing else, the Hollow People knew how to cook in this Plane; all of their food was more flavorful than comparable Merolate cuisine, for all that most of its ingredients seemed unappetizing to Vere.  He realized he had never seen a Hollow Person eat, and wondered how they managed it.  For Opal there were several slabs of demon meat, since apparently the Hollow People were under the same misapprehension Vere had been about her carnivorous nature.

               “I’ll take that,” Opal declared, snagging the cyan fruit from Vere’s tray and scarfing it down.

               Vere started to protest when light flashed outside, and the warehouse shook hard enough to dislodge sparkling dust from the rafters.  “What the Blood was that?”

               “Lightning?” Opal suggested.  Neither of them was convinced they were witnessing a colossal thunderstorm out of a clear desert sky.

               Another flash of light, and this time the rumbling that followed produced audible crashes nearby.  Vere and Opal looked at each other.  “Definitely not lightning,” Vere said.  He snatched up his sword, fastened on his greaves, and rushed out the door, wishing he had even his damaged armor.

               Stepping outside, Vere was in time to identify the third flash of light and subsequent miniature earthquake as an explosion coming from the city’s northern side.  He cursed.  “Opal, the city is under attack!  We need to get over there.”

               “We were asked not to interfere again.”  Opal crawled out and crouched next to Vere; despite her words, her muscles were tensed, and her eyes flashed.

               Vere ground his teeth.  “We can’t just stand here.  This attack looks different from the last one.  More destructive.”

               “And what if it is our fault?  What if this is retribution for our actions?” Opal retorted.  “If we fight, we might make the situation worse.

               “If it’s our fault, that’s even more reason for us to interfere,” Vere snapped.  But he did not move from Opal’s side.

                It was difficult to see what was happening, and no one was racing to Vere to give him the latest intelligence reports from the sites of conflict.  Attacks seemed to be concentrated on the northern side, but there were explosions elsewhere, too, and plumes of tan smoke smudging the yellow sky in both the east and the west.  Bouncing on his toes and gripping his sword with whitened knuckles, Vere stared to the north as if the intensity of his gaze would allow him to bear better witness.

               A muscle twitched beneath Opal’s scales.  “We should leave,” she rumbled.  “Perhaps we could draw the Ipemav away from this city, if it is for us they have come.

               Watching the spreading fires and explosions with narrowed eyes, Vere slowly nodded.  “Let’s go.”  He did not look away even as he climbed up to Opal’s neck, nor as the Gruordvwrold’s haunches bunched and she launched into the air, her scales gleaming in the night like a beacon.

               After circling once around the warehouse in which they’d dwelt, Opal swung wide around the city, keeping away from its perimeter but approaching the Ipemav’s position.  She curled her neck back while Vere held onto his precarious perch, inhaled, and blasted light into the sky, a pillar of pure luminescence born of magic that illuminated the entire city brighter than day.  Even with his eyes squeezed shut, Vere felt the light searing his retinas.

               Then it was dark again, but Opal’s succeeding roar allowed no doubts about her position or the source of the sudden radiance.  When Vere could see again, he spotted one of the Ipemav ships pulling away and sailing through the sky to intercept Vere and Opal, but the others continued their assault on the city.

                “Blood, they’re not all coming.  It didn’t work,” Vere cursed.

               Opal growled with the kind of savagery her form implied.  “They might change their minds after we crush this ship.”  She gained altitude, targeted the Ipemav ship, and dove.

               Wind deafened Vere and nearly tore him from his death grip on Opal’s neck.  That grip saved him when Opal rolled twice to avoid blasts of magic from the Ipemav ship.  Fifty paces from the deck, Opal flared her wings and extended her claws, snatching at the mast as Vere rolled off her neck and drew his sword.  He slew two Ipemav as he raced along the deck towards the prow, slashed a fireball in twain, and then leapt from the prow as Opal tossed the captain overboard and smashed the forecastle to pieces.

               Vere did not have long to fall before Opal caught him.  When they’d regained their stability in the air, they looked again towards the city.  Another Ipemav ship broke away to engage them, but the rest remained focused on the city.  Vere sagged.  “It’s not working,” he repeated.

                “We’ll have to convince them we’re really leaving.”  Opal turned her back on the city and began flying away, though Vere could feel the reluctance they shared.

               Instead of pursuing further, the Ipemav ship returned to attacking the city.  From a nearby hill, Vere and Opal watched the destruction.  “If they keep returning…” Vere began.  He sensed Opal’s affirmation without need for words.

               Smoke from the city still stained the sky as the sun rose the next day.  Opal and Vere made a camp for themselves just out of sight, in a depression formed from the conflicts of dunes.  The Ipemav launched another attack the next night, and the night after that; their magic pounded the city until Vere wondered if there was even anyone left defending it.  Nothing Vere or Opal did could draw their attentions away from the Hollow People.

                “I can’t keep watching this each night,” Vere declared.  Opal rumbled an agreement.  “Let’s keep heading northeast.”

               There were few preparations they could make, though they could not know what terrain might lie ahead of them.  Vere packed their meager camp, and when the blue sun waxed in the morning, he and Opal turned their backs on the city and began their trek anew.

               In that first morning after leaving the city, both refrained from looking back.  They skirted the edge of the vast desert, and soon reached a bleak moor from which there arose a caramel-colored mist.  Barren, chalky-white trees, devoid of leaves, loomed out of the landscape that seemed to be trying to match Vere’s grim expression.

               Neither Vere nor Opal spoke much that day, or the following one.  Memory of the desert was faint, but the Ipemav attacks on the city remained vivid, and each night when they lay down to sleep Vere thought he could sense the vibrations of the attacks continuing in their absence.  He hoped he would never have cause to learn that the city was destroyed after they left it.

               While Vere hiked, Opal circled overhead, both seeking the exertion to keep their minds from dwelling on the Ipemav.  Vere was no longer certain where they should be heading; their current direction would eventually take them into what he thought was Ipemav territory, but he did not know what they could accomplish there.  For now, it was just somewhere to go.

               “Someone is following us,” Opal noted, tilting a wingtip to pivot around Vere’s position in a figure-eight.  “They’ve found your trail.

               Vere loosened his sword in its sheath.  “How many?

               “Five, maybe six?  No more than ten,” Opal reported.  “I don’t know who they are, but they look like Hollow People, and they’re all armed.  There’s a hill a little ahead of you that might serve for an ambush.

               Vere thought about it, then he shook his head.  “No, not an ambush.  We’ll wait for them on the hilltop and find out what they want.

               The hilltop did not crest out of the cloying fog, but the alien foliage was sparser there, and there was room enough between the skeletal trees for Opal to land.  Vere stood beside her with a hand on her foreleg and the other on his sword hilt as he waited for the Hollow People to arrive, which they did in due time, traipsing up the muddy hill to find the pair awaiting them.

               Ju’Phustu led the handful of Hollow People fumbling their way through the unfamiliar terrain; he drew up short upon stumbling around a bush to find Vere and Opal awaiting him.  “Uh, Sir, we, ah…”

               Del’Gelde pushed in front of Ju’Phustu and thrust a bulky pack at Vere.  “I thought you might need these, where you’re going,” she asserted.

               Surprised, Vere took the package and undid the binding at the top.  Even the faint sunlight filtering through the fog was enough to glimmer on the crimson, crystalline scales within, and as Vere removed the rest of the package, he found that the erstwhile gap in the cuirass was filled with a slick, clacking material that felt like ivory to his fingertips but was inky black in color, tinged with midnight blue.

               “It’s laminated Lishtick horn,” Del’Gelde explained.  “It can’t compare to the original material, but I was able to bond it to the existing scales with minimal loss of flexibility.”

               “Thank you.”  Vere took the repaired cuirass and exchanged a glance with Opal.  Neither of them missed what Del’Gelde said.  “Just where is it that you think we’re going?”

               Ju’Phustu recovered his courage.  “To fight the invaders, of course.”  His companions nodded, and he cleared his throat, putting a hand on his glaive.  “We want to join you.”

               Opal lowered her head so that she could meet Ju’Phustu’s eyes with hers.  “You think that the two of us alone intend to assault the stronghold of the Ipemav, your ancient enemy, and that the seven of you will make a difference in that fight?

               “I…” Ju’Phustu hesitated, and his companions shuffled their feet, unable to meet Opal’s gaze.  “It sounds silly, when you put it like that.  But we can’t just stay in Nil’Frilintir while the invaders pound it, no matter what Pro’Cromo says.”

                Vere intervened.  “It’s a choice worthy of story and song, certainly.  The band of nine brave souls pitting themselves against the forces of evil that would enslave them…”

               “And get themselves killed in the process?”  Opal directed that only to Vere, but she was vehement.  “This is madness.  We were not intending to assault the Ipemav alone.”  She paused.  “Were we?

               “No, that would be foolish,” Vere agreed, but he turned back to the seven Hollow People who left their city to follow him, and his eyes glittered like his repaired armor.  “But with allies…

               Fluttering her wings in discontent was enough for Opal to blast everyone else there with wind fit to knock them from their feet.  “There are only seven of them,” she growled to Vere.

               Vere nodded.  “For now.

               They made camp not far from the hilltop, and Vere set about learning his new allies’ capabilities.  Aside from Ju’Phustu, four of the others had formal military experience from Nil’Frilintir, though all were junior.  Del’Gelde was the oldest of them and had weapons experience through her smithing trade; her friend, Ti’Klicci, was a demonmaster, who specialized in training the weaker demon species.  Most important to Vere, though, was their knowledge of the area.  He had Ju’Phustu scrape a rough map into the mud, and they all gathered around it.

               “General Tre’Delte believes that the invaders launch their attacks from an outpost in this region here.”  Ju’Phustu pointed to stylized hills to the east of their current position.  “It’s one of their most distant outposts; there are others scattered all around the desert.”

               Arms crossed, Vere looked at the marked locations.  “What about your people’s cities?”

               “Here, here, here, and here are the major ones,” Del’Gelde noted in the desert region.  “Smaller ones all over the desert.”

               “And the Ipemav’s settlements?  Where are they based?”

               The seven Hollow People looked at each other.  “We…don’t know, exactly,” Ti’Klicci admitted.  “They control the entire region to the northeast of the desert.  Rumor places their prime stronghold, Birkariuth, in the mountains there, but that might not even be true.  If it is, that’s where Emperor Gäl’Imarius would be.”  He shuddered at the name.

               Not bothering to bestir herself from her curled-up position at the edge of the camp, Opal transmitted her skepticism to Vere.  “And these ‘Bright Places’?” she asked the others.

               “Probably just a myth,” Del’Gelde admitted.  “If they do exist, they must be far, far to the south.”

               Vere rubbed his hands together.  “We can work with this.  Tomorrow, Opal and I will go scout out the nearest Ipemav base, the one from which they’ve been attacking Nil’Frilintir.  Based on what we find, we’ll make our plan of attack.”  He looked around at his audience.  “My hope is that this will draw more people to us, more allies.  We can start building a force capable of taking the fight deeper into Ipemav territory, until we can march on Birkariuth itself!”

               “Unless we simply draw them out in such strength that they destroy Nil’Frilintir and us before we get to that point,” Opal added privately to Vere.  “If we do this, we could be making the problem worse, not better.

               Opal’s warning sat heavy with Vere, but he did not share it with his Hollow People allies, and he did not change the plan.  In the morning, he joined Opal for their scouting mission.  The iridescent, hill-sized Gruordvwroldwas far from inconspicuous, but her speed and flight helped compensate for those disadvantages, and her magic meant they could learn most of what they needed from overflights of the Ipemav fort at altitudes such that she was mistaken for a bird of prey.

               Constructed of quarried blocks of burgundy sandstone taken from the desert, the fort was better disguised in the violet foliage than Vere expected.  It was still easy enough to make out the single pair of Ipemav standing watch; the giant figures were far from inconspicuous, and the ships moored to the fort’s walls even less so.

               “I count berths for four airships.”  Vere squinted, though he knew Opal could see better than he from this distance.  “So…perhaps thirty Ipemav stationed here?  Sixty?”

               “I sense closer to thirty.”  Opal was still reluctant, but she did reply.  “Is that sufficient to deter you from this course of folly?  You and I would be hard-pressed to take on such a force, and your new ‘allies’ will be of little help in evening the odds against us.

               Vere patted Opal’s neck, but he didn’t address her challenge immediately.  “Let’s return to camp.  I think we’ve seen enough here.”

               That, at least, did not provoke an argument, and Opal pivoted in the air to take them back towards the camp.  They were silent for nearly half the journey before Vere again picked up the thread of their debate.  “You’re right.  We can’t take on that outpost.”

               “I’m glad that you have not completely taken leave of your paltry mortal senses, such as you ever had them,” Opal grumbled.  “Why do I sense that you are yet undeterred?

               “Because I am the unflappable Guardcaptain Vere, who knows not the meaning of fear, even now that we’re trapped…here.  That sounded better in my head.”  He sighed.  “That outpost is the easy target, but it can’t be the only one.  The Ipemav have established a whole civilization of sorts in this place, and that means there must be trade, villages, civilian populations, industry…everything that surrounds a military capability.  Unless I completely misunderstand the nature of the Ipemav?”

               Opal’s assent was hesitant.  “That is…mostly correct.  The Ipemav are closer to your kind than they are to mine, and can be inferred to act accordingly.  As I have said, it is why we were wary of exposing ourselves to you.

               Vere nodded, counting on Opal to telepathically discern his sentiment.  “All we need is to show that the Ipemav are not invincible, that we can hurt them and make a difference.  Military targets aren’t the way to do that, at least not yet.  Caravans, industrial sites: those are where we’ll strike first.”

               “And you truly believe the Hollow People will join your crusade en masse?”  Opal tossed her head, threatening to dislodge Vere from his perch near her shoulder blades, though his armor kept his attached.

               “That’s the big question.”  Vere looked down and regretted it as he saw the distant foliage blurring by; at least flying was better than sailing.  “But I don’t have any better ideas, and, well, I can’t rest here until I’m sure, absolutely certain, completely convinced, that the Ipemav will not bother Merolate again.”

               It was Opal’s turn allow the silence to linger, so that they were circling the camp to land before she replied.  “I don’t know if your plan is the best one, but I find that I cannot disagree with the sentiment.  When you frame the matter in such a way, I too do not care to contemplate allowing the Ipemav continued free reign to prosecute their eternal war.  Let us try.

               “Then we have a strategy.”  Vere allowed himself a small smile of victory; he’d not been certain that he could convince Opal that this was the best course of action.  When he contemplated the task to which he now set himself, he almost wished she had managed to convince him there was some alternative.  “Now, all we need is a plan.”

               Time was strange in the Spiritual Plane, even more a matter of Vere’s perception than it was in the Physical, but however it passed a plan was not immediate.  Vere spent a stream of identical days training his small group of Hollow People, drilling them with weapons, teaching them his signals, preparing them for a fight he was certain would come.  While he drilled, Opal scouted, soaring over the desert sands and the brackish moors, spiraling outwards before coming back to camp, learning the patterns of their surroundings.

               Three score days or more passed before she found a suitable target: a trading caravan of Ipemav and demons making its way along the desert’s edge.  Two Ipemav in sand-colored armor – actual sand, not the alien, burgundy sands of the Spiritual Plane’s ‘desert’ – guarded a line of trundling wagons floating at knee height, hauled along by shadowy, ellipsoidal demons that swam through the air like bloated tadpoles.  There were more Ipemav in the caravan, but they wore silken, jungle-green togas and carried no weapons; Vere realized they were the first ‘civilian’ Ipemav he’d ever seen.

               Plans: Vere considered having them all bury themselves in the sand to ambush the caravan, or using the cover of a rocky patch to attack with bows and slings, or any number of other tactics, but he chose none of those options.  His ‘soldiers’ were beyond green – would that be red in the Spiritual Plane? – but their presence was mostly symbolic.  Vere and Opal would provide the martial prowess for the assault, and since this was a matter of convincing the Hollow People to fight, subterfuge would be counterproductive.

               Instead, Opal swooped down from the sky directly ahead of the caravan.  She blasted a condensed, crackling sphere of dark sapphire energy into the leading wagon and swung low, raking the floating wagons with her claws while Vere rolled off of her back and into the melee.  Ju’Phustu, Ti’Klicci, Del’Gelde, and the other Hollow People yelled as they charged up the dune from either side while Vere engaged the two Ipemav guards.

               Not that the armored giants were the only danger.  The demons hauling the wagons were placid, but their masters were not; they may have lacked armor, but they were still Ipemav and plenty dangerous, especially to the Hollow People who could not counter the Physical Plane’s magic.  Even so, the skirmish was brief and decisive.  Leaving the slain Ipemav where they fell, Vere turned to Ju’Phustu.

               “Take these wagons to Nil’Frilintir,” he instructed.  “Leave them outside the gates.  That should get our message across.”

               One battle would not convince a population to move, but a few more Hollow People made their way to Vere’s makeshift camp over the following days, and when another caravan made its way through the area, Vere struck again, this time letting Del’Gelde lead the charge.  With each successful strike, more Hollow People came from Nil’Frilintir, and word began to spread to other nearby cities.  By the time two score Hollow People were camped with Vere, training to fight when they were not setting up temporary fortifications for the encampment, even Opal admitted his plan had merit.

               “They’ll reinforce the outpost soon,” Vere remarked as he watched Del’Gelde showing new recruits how to maintain their weapons.  “The Hollow People aren’t the only ones who will be taking note of our attacks.

               Opal rumbled agreement from where she was bathing in a nearby lake.  “These are not ready,” she remarked.

               Vere shook his head.  “Even though they outnumber the Ipemav there…no.  No, they’re not ready.  But do we have a choice?  A reinforced garrison with patrols will end this before it has a chance to begin.

               “True.”  Opal was silent, thinking.  “A feint, then, or an ambush.  Something to draw them onto their ships, which reduces their individual strength.

               Since Vere was expected to have to convince Opal that an attack was necessary, he had to pause to reorient.  “Yes…yes, that could work.  If you taunt them from above, and we have another force led be Del’Gelde and some of the better Hollow People set up a lure from an opposite attack vector, then that might just split their forces enough to give me a chance to lead an assault on the fortification with the rest of our forces.

               It was a solid plan.  Compared to many of the plans Vere had executed, it was remarkably robust.  His tendency was to make up the plan as he went along, relying on his own abilities and elite teams to compensate for lack of deeper strategy, but now he was leading a different kind of force.  It left him feeling unprepared, despite the traps and fortified retreat positions he marked out for Del’Gelde’s team, and the number of times he rehearsed the attack on the outpost with the rest of the strike team.

               They attacked in the middle of the afternoon, that time of the day when a lull seems to steal over the world.  Thirty Hollow People under Del’Gelde’s command attacked from the southern vector with a hail of arrows.  They held their ground just long enough for a quintet of Ipemav to charge out of the fortress before they began retreating down the entrapped corridor through the moor.

               Opal swooped in next, roaring a challenge and setting one of the Ipemav ships ablaze.  The Ipemav exchanged magical volleys with her, but she twisted in the air, evading their attacks while continuing to strafe the outpost.  Only when two ships began rising from their berths did she retreat, leading them away from the outpost and leaving only fifteen Ipemav remaining in the fortress.

               In the Physical Plane, fifteen would have been too many even for Vere and Opal to face together on favorable terrain, and these were manning a fortress.  The odds were different in the Spiritual Plane, the Ipemav comparatively weaker, or perhaps Vere comparatively stronger, but even so it was a risk.  Vere glanced back at the two dozen Hollow People following them, most young like Ju’Phustu, who was acting as his sergeant, and hoped that he was not going to get them all killed.  He ordered the attack.

               Against any other adversary, mounting the walls would have been the most challenging part, but the Ipemav were too few to effectively counter the individual ladders each attacker carried to throw against the fortifications.  A handful were tossed back down, but the majority reached the battlements, aided by the fact that most of the Ipemav recognized Vere, glowing in his Gruordvwrold-scale armor, as the greatest threat.

               That was acceptable to Vere; in fact, he was counting on it.  When they sought to pry his ladder off the wall, he threw a grappling hook, swung free, and climbed up before the Ipemav could cut it loose.  Then he too was in the melee, and his crimson sword flashed as he crashed through the knot of Ipemav, relying on his momentum and constant motion to keep him alive in the press.  He couldn’t defeat half a dozen Ipemav simultaneously, but keeping their attention gave the Hollow People a chance to fight.

               If the Ipemav accounted for Vere’s ability, perhaps even overestimated him, they underestimated the Hollow People who fought with him.  Combatant for combatant, they were far weaker than the Ipemav they faced, but with Vere occupying almost half the forces remaining in the entire outpost, the Ipemav were outnumbered three to one.  Without Vere’s training those would still have been poor odds for the Hollow People, but these were experienced now, and they had something even more important: they believed they could defeat Ipemav.  Led by Ju’Phustu, the Hollow People on the walls used formations and coordination to bring down giant after giant.

               Ju’Phustu’s leadership left Vere free to focus on bringing to bear his own skill at arms.  Using the confined battlements against the larger Ipemav, he separated them out and fought them two or three at a time.  When it was done, Vere controlled a fort, only four Hollow People were slain, and they had a true victory to claim, not just successful raids.

               “It seems you will have your army,” Opal observed, watching the bands of Hollow People making their way to Vere’s outpost and swelling his numbers.  “Are you ready for it?

                Vere shook his head.  “I’ve never led a large force this large before.”  They were already overflowing the outpost, so Vere and Opal were scouting for a larger target they could seize to accommodate their swelling numbers.  “And Birkariuth is still a long way away.  But I will be.

Spirits at War

               Sunlight flashed off of smokey black metal.  The sun might be blue, and it might not move in the sky, instead fading in and out with the passage of time, but it was still bright, and it was still hot, especially as it shown upon the column of armored people marching out of the rolling, shifting dunes.  The ground grew slowly firmer beneath their feet as the desolate sands ceded to merely desiccated ground.

               Nevertheless, the column marched.  Not all of them wore armor – some wore only cloth – but all kept every part of their bodies covered in cloth.  Except they had no bodies to cover, for these were Hollow People, and beneath the cloth there was nothing, nothing except the righteous fire that burned in the breasts of all heroes.

               Nine thousand of them marched or rode in that column that snaked its way out of the desert and through the frontiers of the invaders’ lands.  Or, perhaps the frontiers of the Hollow Peoples’ lands, given the smoke rising from the smashed fortifications left in the army’s wake, all that remained of the outposts set to watch for just such an unlikely incursion.  In the distance, they could see the mountains rising, still faint and small on the horizon, but growing imperceptibly larger with each passing day.  Somewhere in those mountains was their destination: Birkariuth, the Foothold, the greatest stronghold of the invaders and the palace in which dwelt Emperor Gäl’Imarius.  The army would cast open its gates and throw down its ruler, or it would perish in the attempt.

               At the head of this marauding column strode a figure whose glittering, crimson armor, like the finest garnet ever found, stood out from the ranks of smokey black.  The matching sword at his side appeared like a tongue of flame when the light struck it, and in the Spiritual Plane’s strange light he seemed to glow with his own luminance.  An inspiring sight, for nine thousand Hollow People now followed him on a campaign from which he did not expect to return.

               A voice spoke into Vere’s mind.  “A city lies ahead,” Opal reported from her unique vantage.  “The army will reach it by the end of tomorrow.

               Vere grimaced.  “Then we’ll have to detour.  We can’t afford a siege, even if we had the equipment with us.  We must reach Birkariuth before the Ipemav can muster a force to oppose us on open ground.

               Opal’s assent did not need to be expressed in words, and she winged off in search of a new route for the army.  Vere let their telepathic connection fade into the background as he turned towards his sergeant-at-arms, who acted as his second for most purposes.  “Ju’Phustu, we’re going to be changing course.  There’s a city ahead, and we don’t want to attract attention.”

               “Why can’t we take it, like we did those outposts?” Ju’Phustu asked.

               “Too risky.”  This was the problem, Vere reflected, with an army that was too inexperienced to know defeat.  Each engagement they’d faced so far had been on favorable terms with numbers and tactics on their side, plus the advantage of surprise.  It made them feel invincible, and that was possibly more dangerous than defeatism.  “If we start sacking every city we encounter, even if we could, it will bog us down, we’ll end up with barely an army left by the time we reach Birkariuth, and it would galvanize the Ipemav into dealing with us sooner and more aggressively.”

               Ju’Phustu clenched his fists.  “We can take them.”

               Vere rubbed at his forehead.  “Maybe so.  Maybe we could take one city, maybe we could even take a few.  But if the Ipemav launch an all-out assault on this army before we reach the mountains, they will defeat us.  Also, we have no siege equipment, and we’ll have exhausted our supplies and be forced into scavenging when we exit the desert.  Caution, Ju’Phustu.  Remember why we’re here.”  He sighed.  “Besides.  Hollow People live in those cities, too.”

               That sobered Ju’Phustu; it was one matter to contemplate sacking a city of faceless invaders whose military had been harassing the Hollow People for generations, and another matter entirely to recall that the majority of the people living in the Invaders’ lands were actually Hollow People, not Ipemav.  The Ipemav were few in number, relatively, and from what intelligence Vere was able to gather he doubted if any city, even Birkariuth, was host to more than a thousand of them.

               A thousand might be enough to destroy the entire army, though, especially on open ground.  The Hollow People had no access to magic, although Opal opined that they ought to be able to access magic through imbalance with the Physical Plane in much the same way that humans could access magic through imbalance with the Spiritual Plane.  Individually, they were smaller, weaker, less experienced, and less trained than any given Ipemav.  Only superior numbers, tactics, surprise, and Vere’s training enabled a strike on Birkariuth as even a possibility.

               Opal found the army a new route that would take them along a creek, and Vere ordered a halt as the azure sun faded in the xanthous sky.  He left Del’Gelde, who made an excellent quartermaster, to oversee the camp setup, and instead jogged away from the camp to a private spot concealed by the high dunes behind them.  Vere had his own training, and not just in organizing and leading an army larger than any force he’d commanded prior.

               “Were you practicing while you marched today, as I instructed?” Opal asked, landing before him in a small shower of burgundy sand.

               “Some,” Vere hedged, and received an immediate huff of frustration, which coming from a Gruordvwrold had the force of a minor stormfront.  “It bends my brain,” he protested, “and I’ve spent my whole life believing it was the province of evil warlocks with dark designs upon my soul.”

               “As Physical entities in the Spiritual Plane, the innate imbalance of our existence here gives us power,” Opal explained, as if repeating it enough times would imprint the concept on Vere’s mind.  “Our use of what you call magic in this place is no different from using your muscles.”  She hesitated.  “Actually, using ‘muscles’ while in the Spiritual Plane is likely an expression of magic, too, as we have no true corporeal forms and everything you are ‘sensing’ is just a matter of your perceptions.  Mine as well, for I increasingly experience this place only in the fashion you do.

               At least she wasn’t calling him a demon again; that had been a particularly ineffective argument, for all it made sense to Vere.  Actually, it might have been made worse by how much it made sense, given what he knew about demons.  Just like demons, which were Spiritual entities, created an innate imbalance that served as a source of power in the Physical Plane, Physical entities like Vere and Opal, and the Ipemav, once in the Spiritual Plane, would be similarly empowered.  Not hiding his reluctance, Vere held up his left hand dramatically and scrunched up his eyes in concentration.

               Light appeared, dancing over his palm, and it was a proper light in warm, ruddy hues instead of the disturbing cerulean tones of the Spiritual sun.  Cracking an eye open, Vere watched it, and then let it vanish.  “It takes too much concentration,” he complained.  “In battle, it would distract me from fighting.”

               “That is why you must practice,” Opal declared, and Vere could not argue with her.  “Now.  I shall create targets for you, and you shall practice.  Lightning tonight, I think.

               With a reluctant nod, Vere set himself.  “Haven’t I seen you go around throwing pure energy?  Why don’t you teach me that?”

               Opal lowered her head just to eye him.  “That is an advanced technique for someone of your bent.  Crafting elemental attacks is more intuitive for one of your nature.

               “Fine.  I’m ready.”  Vere turned back to the conjured targets, which consisted of points of light dancing in the air around him, from which minor shock attacks would sometimes come at Opal’s direction.  Forcing his twitching fingers away from his sword hilt, he began the night’s training.

               A day past the city around which Opal detoured them, a pair of Ipemav ships darted out of the cloud cover to strafe the marching column.

               “Scatter!” Vere shouted, heeding his own advice as he drew his sword, for all the good it would do him.  Bolts of amethyst lightning burst through the ranks and excavated craters from the rocky soil.  One homed in on Vere, and he blocked it with his sword, which released a pure tone like a perfectly cast bell as it absorbed the strike.  With Opal scouting ahead, they had no ariel defenses, no means of striking the Ipemav ships save for paltry arrows.

               Holding up his hand, Vere focused, trying to tap into the power Opal insisted he had; proper, yellow lightning crackled from his hand, but the bolt fizzled out before it reached an Ipemav hull.  He cursed, but at least the ranged attacks weren’t doing enormous damage now that his forces were scattered across the landscape.  If they could force the Ipemav to land or drop forces in order to deal with them, they had a chance.

               Two ships were not enough to face down an army of nine thousand Hollow People, though, and the Ipemav knew it as well as Vere did; they studiously kept their ships out of reach and continued bombarding the army from above, and they only retreated when they spotted Opal approaching in the distance.  She looped protectively over the army as the Ipemav ships returned to their berths and the column reformed itself, and she refrained from scouting ahead the rest of the day’s marching, but it was a shaken army that made camp that evening.

               “Again.  Just as far,” Vere insisted to Opal during their nightly training.  Obligingly, she conjured another target for him as far away as an Ipemav vessel might attack from, and Vere tried to hit it.  Every one of his conjured attacks fell short, and though it was ostensibly not physical, he was sweating and panting when he let his hands drop.  “What am I doing wrong?”

               Peering at him with concern, Opal let the targets vanish.  “I believe that you are still too focused upon the physical.  You expect magic to behave like a physical thing, even though all here is spiritual.

               Vere had to rub his forehead.  “You know, I used to train my mind not to limit the abilities of my body.  Now, you’re telling me I have to train my body not to limit the abilities of my mind?”

               “You could phrase it in that way, yes.”  Opal lay down beside Vere; her draconic form could not really sit effectively.

               Vere flicked a demonic insect that looked like it was made of shadow off of his elbow and leaned back on his hands.  He stared at nothing as he tried to internalize what that meant.  A thought interrupted him.  “Opal, didn’t you say the other day that when I use my muscles here, it’s probably actually me using magic?”

               The Gruordvwrold tilted her head to one side.  “I did.  As for what I believe you are implying, it may be possible.

               “I think it would come more easily to me, at least,” Vere considered.  “Can we try it?”

               Opal uncoiled and rose to her claws, shaking dust and crushed plant matter from her iridescent scales.  “Yes.  Fight me.

               Through their telepathic link, Vere sensed Opal’s intention, so he did not reach for his sword.  She pounced at him, and he rolled to the side, but that was an ordinary move.  At least, he thought of it as an ordinary move, but now he wondered.  Perhaps he was moving just a bit faster, stronger, more agilely since coming to the Spiritual Plane.  If he could tap into that feeling…

               He was so preoccupied trying to discern if he was already magically enhancing himself or not that he missed Opal swiping her tail at him; it caught him across the chest and sent him flying.  Vere tucked himself into a ball and rolled with the impact before coming to his feet and charging back in, trying to push himself to run faster as he moved.  In a sense, he was using his mind to convince his body to ignore his mind’s limitations which were actually his body’s limitations which were actually his mind’s…no, that wasn’t quite right, and it led to him getting tossed around again.

               “This does not appear to be having the desired effect,” Opal observed.

               Shaking his head to clear it, Vere held his hands up defensively.  “Keep trying.  I think I almost have it.”

               With clear skepticism, Opal raised one foreclaw and swatted at Vere.  It was not a forceful blow, but it still had the strength and mass of a Gruordvwrold behind it.  Vere didn’t focus on that; if he did, what he wanted to do wouldn’t work.  Instead, he imagined himself stopping the blow, regardless of realities like momentum and comparative strength, like a hero in one of Indur’s poems.  The scaled foreclaw came down on him from an angle, Vere raised his arms like he was about to grapple someone his own size – and he caught the blow.

               Both Opal and Vere froze for an instant, staring at each other.  Vere’s muscles were straining, but no more than they would from normal exertion.  Experimentally, Opal pressed down with more force, and Vere continued to hold her back.  Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he bent, twisted, and tossed Opal by her foreclaw so that she slammed into the ground.  Panting, he stepped back from her.

               “Sorry.  I guess I don’t know my own strength.”  Vere grinned.  “I think it works, though.”

               Opal found her feet again and dislodged dirt all over Vere as she shook herself clean.  “It is remarkable.  A strange piece of mental acrobatics, but it seems to suit you.”  She glowered at him.  “Not that this should be considered a replacement for practice with traditional forms of magic.  And this will require practice, too, to identify the limitations and abilities of your physical-spiritual enhancements.

               All of that was true, but Vere was still grinning.  Nothing could make being able to toss a draconic creature with a head as large as he was anything besides satisfying.  Even being thoroughly trounced by the same creature in the next two rounds before they returned to the camp to rest.

               Even their relatively small force required far more food and supplies than could be gleaned from their surroundings, especially if they wanted to cover a reasonable distance each day.  The supplies brought from the Hollow People’s cities and collected before they began to march were only enough to last them just past the edge of the desert.  Vere sent out raiding parties from the main column to solicit supplies from towns and villages around them.  It limited the number of recruits they might gain from malcontents within Ipemav territory, but it was the only way Vere knew to sustain an army like this one.

               Almost as important to obtain were maps, or at a minimum some general sense of where they were and if they were heading in the correct direction.  None of the Hollow People who had joined Vere’s army before they set out knew in detail what the Ipemav lands were like or how vast they might be; therefore, Vere could only guess that they might be halfway to Birkariuth when he spotted a shining cloud approaching against the wind.

               “Guardians inbound!”  Opal’s mental report was not exactly panicked; neither was it calm.  “I count as many as fifty in that flock.

               “Murder,” Vere corrected absently.  “Murder of Guardians, not flock.  Flock just sounds wrong.”  Aloud, he called out to the army.  “Ariels inbound, prepare to scatter!  All archers, standby to counter.”

               Since coming to the Spiritual Plane, from whence the Guardians originated, Vere had only seen them once, and that was from a distance during the chaotic battle at the rift.  His thought then was that they resembled Gruordvwrold, but as they drew closer, he realized that was not quite correct.  If Gruordvwrold resembled mythical dragons, then the Spiritual form of the Guardians resembled sea serpents, if sea serpents could fly by undulating through the air and possessed elaborate frills trailing from disproportionally large heads.  Though they each had four limbs, they were stubby, almost vestigial, for all they paddled with them as they flew.

               A few arrows flew prematurely from Vere’s ranks; he shouted at them to hold and not waste their ammunition as the arrows fell far short of reaching the oncoming Guardians, who were still out of range.  The Guardians were descending, and Vere tensed, wondering what they were trying to accomplish, when a voice boomed through his skull fit to rattle his brain, and he saw everyone around him pressing their hands to their ears as if to block out a frightful noise.

               “Hold from your attack; we come not to fight you.”  It was much like Opal’s voice, but amplified, and there was an echoing quality to it, like all of the Guardians were speaking through one voice that was not quite synchronized.

               Vere replied aloud for his army’s benefit.  “Then why do you come?  Do you not serve the Ipemav?”

               A ripple of distress roiled the Guardians’ ranks.  By this time, they were landing in the field a mere two hundred paces from the army’s right flank, disturbing the grasses no more than stones slipping into a pond.  “Not by choice do we serve them.

               Having swung wide around, Opal now landed beside Vere, but she had no more insight than he to offer.  “The one I met before seemed an enthusiastic accomplice,” Vere noted.

               “Speak you of the traitor, the Guardian of Heart City?”  The mere title produced such a sense of fury from the assembled beings that the Hollow People nearest them stumbled backwards as from a tidal wave.  “Willingly he answered the perverse summons from the Physical Plane.  Willingly he traded his freedom for power there.  And in so doing, he betrayed all of us, for knowing our might the Ipemav desired it for themselves.  Though they are few in number, they are strong, stronger here than they were in your Physical Plane.

               “How can I trust you?” Vere asked.  Granted, the Ipemav probably had little need for subterfuge; his army and strategy were not so strong that they could not defeat him by straightforward means.  He was the one who needed to gamble.  He was more concerned about the dangers of espionage than he was of actual backstabbing.

               A ripple roiled the serpentine forms.  “Trust can come only with time.  But consider the numbers in which we come, and know that we can wield here power as the Gruordvwrold wield in your Physical Plane.  If hostility was our intent, would we waste time in this conversation, or would we rain destruction from the sky while you and the Gruordvwrold struggle vainly to prevent it?

               There was logic to that, and the narrative was compelling.  If Vere were a diplomat, perhaps he would know the best responses, how to sway the conversation towards his own ends, but he was not, and even his poetry felt too far away since coming to this place.  He jumped right to where he thought the conversation was going.  “Then join my army,” he told them, though he still did not know precisely whom he was addressing.  “Lend your strength to the assault on Birkariuth.  Freedom for the Hollow People.  Freedom for your people.”  And for himself, the freedom to accept peace with his exile, though he did not say that part aloud.  He did not say that he would be observing them in case they proved treacherous.

               A serpentine hiss answered him, but it was not a hostile sound; more like an incoherent expression of enthusiasm.  “Long we have waited.  We are the Herpein, and you speak today with Quezthalitch.  Our alliance shall be yours; let Birkariuth tremble before the might of four species united in freedom.

               When Quezthalitch put it in those terms, Vere had to admit that their small force seemed more impressive, despite their numbers.  If only he thought they could impress the Ipemav into surrendering, he could have slept more easily; instead, he was more restless with each day they travelled closer to Birkariuth.  However powerful the Herpein were, they numbered only a hundred joining Vere’s army.

               True to their word, the Herpein accepted General Vere almost as easily as did the Hollow People.  When the army resumed the march the following morning, he ordered twenty Herpein to join Opal in scouting around the advancing column, while the others maintained a defensive screen overhead in case of Ipemav attacks.  It addressed Vere’s worries about ariel attacks which he could not effectively counter, but they saw no attacks that day, nor the following.

               Meanwhile, the terrain began to climb steadily beneath their boots, and Vere could tell that their progress was slowing as more and more of each day was spent travelling uphill.  The mountains which had seemed so distant when they left the desert now loomed overhead, blocking out the horizon and abbreviating the sky.  If their course was correct, they could not be more than thirty days of marching from Birkariuth, yet Vere saw few cities, towns, or settlements of any kind as they continued to advance.

               Nor were attacks becoming more prevalent; by the time the marching column reached the first ridge of mountains, a sawblade rising from the terrain half again as high as they had already climbed, attacks upon the column diminished to nil, and what few settlements they encountered were abandoned, their supplies looted.

               “They are preparing a vast army,” Quezthalitch explained.  “We will have to fight all of these people they took when we reach Birkariuth.

               “But why wait?” Vere asked.  “Our force is not so large and powerful that they need the advantage of their fortifications to defeat us.  They could wipe us out on open ground if they wanted to.  Why let us ravage across the countryside and menace their capital?”  Quezthalitch had no answers for him.

               Finding a path through the mountains for such a large force would have been nigh impossible without Opal and the Herpein to provide reconnaissance; as it was, their pace slowed drastically, and Vere felt at any moment that the Ipemav would swoop down in their flying vessels to bombard his force while it sat vulnerable in some narrow valley.  Yet, they remained unmolested, and on the twenty fifth day since reaching the mountains, the army rounded a bend in a winding road beside a frothy river to behold Birkariuth confronting them.

               That bend opened onto a wide bowl in the mountains, a flat plain ringed on all sides by snowcapped peaks, though in the Spiritual Plane the snow was sable, and the peaks forested in ruddy hues.  Dry grasses of a blue to match a peacock’s tailfeathers poked up in patches through a coating of ebony snow, and the road was a beige ribbon streaking towards the distant fortress.

               For Birkariuth was a fortress, not a city.  It was built out from the mountains on the open valley’s far side, its towers seaming to strive with the peaks for mastery over the sky.  No elegant architecture or delicate artwork graced its features; it was a utilitarian, blocky construction of gigantic proportions, built to intimidate anyone who would dare assail its immense walls and its unyielding gates.  Aside from the general impression of disproportionality, it shared nothing with the beautiful, if eerie, architecture Vere had seen in Heart City.

               No movement bestirred from that monumental fortification while Vere’s army filed out of the pass and into the valley.  Nothing prevented them from arraying themselves into the formations Vere rehearsed with them over the preceding nights, though Vere sensed that their every move was observed.  Birkariuth simply lurked as the odd, luminescent shadows of Spiritual night gathered with the fading of the azure sun, an implacable judge.

               Only when Vere’s army was in position did Birkariuth’s gates swing open on silent hinges to disgorge the fell army which the Ipemav had gathered to counter Vere.  Behind that gate waited to march out and give battle rank upon armored rank of Hollow People, divisions of chained Herpein, and not a single Ipemav warrior.  This opposing force issued forth from Birkariuth’s fastness and established a formation outside the walls, facing Vere’s army.

               “So this is how they’re going to play it,” Vere muttered to Opal.  “They think that this army won’t want to kill its own kinds.”

               “They may be correct.  The Herpein are restless, and the Hollow People are no longer as confident,” Opal reported, surveying their own ranks before turning her attention back towards Birkariuth.

               Atop the battlements, a shining figure brought forth a false sunrise.  Not a Spiritual sunrise: this was in shades of gold, radiance spraying forth like Vere had not seen since coming through the rift.  He had to shade his eyes until the luminous effect faded enough for him to squint, and then the light was replaced by a rushing wind that swirled all through the ranks of Vere’s army but left Birkariuth’s unruffled.

               Such was the entrance of an armored Ipemav a head shorter than most Vere had seen, wearing white robes adorned with gemstones and embroidered with arcane symbols in gold, silver, and platinum thread.  He bore no weapon Vere could see as he posed there, surveying the armies set in opposition.  When he spoke, his voice boomed with authority, but it felt as if he were standing directly in front of Vere, having a conversation.

               “So.  This is the army that would depose me, Emperor Gäl’Imarius: a few thousand Hollow People, a hundred serpent-kins, one human, and one Gruordvwrold.  Of all of you, only the Gruordvwrold has not before bowed to Ipemav might.”

               Just that was enough to cause an uneasy stir in Vere’s ranks, but Gäl’Imarius was not finished.  “You do not know me, but I know you, for I have lived a thousand lifetimes.  Even the oldest of you cannot remember the epoch of my birth.”  His gaze lingered on Opal and Quezthalitch.  “I have ruled both Planes, and one day will rule them together.  My strength alone is enough to crush you.”

               “This emperor likes to talk,” Vere sent telepathically to Opal.  “Does he think he’s speaking to the poets who will memorialize our epic battle here?

               Opal ripped nervously.  “I remember him, from the old days, and I do not believe his boasts to be idle.  I…did not believe he could still live.  If I had known him to be here…I thought the name lived on, not him.

               Suddenly concerned, Vere looked at Opal.  “That powerful?

               “Alone, few Ipemav could match a Gruordvwrold in direct battle.”  Opal’s mental tone was flat.  “Among my kind, Gäl’Imarius is known as the kin-slayer, for he bested our greatest warriors and bathed in their blood.  He sacrificed thousands of your kind, even his own, to enhance his own power.  But Eldar always claimed he perished at the end of their rule, that they fled the Plane for that reason.

               Looking around, Vere saw his army wavering, and they had not yet even joined battle.  Gäl’Imarius was still soliloquizing, and his words were a kind of spell draining the confidence from Vere’s forces.  “Then he’ll be our target,” he decided, looking up at Opal.  “Together?

               “Have you not been listening to me?  Even Eldar could not defeat…” Opal paused.  “You are a reckless, mortal fool.  I do not know why I continue to accompany you.”  She lifted her head to glare at the monologuing emperor of the Ipemav, and that was all the answer Vere needed.  He drew his sword and interrupted the millennia-old being.

               “Emperor Gäl’Imarius?  I am Guardcaptain Vere of the Merolate Union, and I couldn’t come up with anything that rhymes with ‘union,’ so I’m not going to bother writing a sonnet for this occasion.”  He turned his back on the emperor and faced his army.  “See their arrogance?  They didn’t even bother closing the gate.  Punch through, take Birkariuth, and end this, just like we planned.  Opal and I will handle Gäl’Imarius.”

               He might not have thought of a way to rhyme his retort, but he did understand something about himself: he was not suited to being a general.  He was a guardcaptain, someone who led small forces and fought his own battles, not someone who led armies in the field.  If he was going to make a difference on the battlefield, it wouldn’t be through strategic acumen or tactical brilliance.  It would be with his sword in his hand, fighting the people only he could because he was the best Bloody swordsman in the country.

               Around him, the army split, forming into a wedge and charging for Birkariuth’s gates while Gäl’Imarius tried to recover his grandeur after being ignored by the people he was attempting to intimidate.  Ju’Phustu and Quezthalitch led the charge, with Del’Gelde organizing from the rear and calling out orders.  Opal crooked her foreleg for Vere to climb onto her neck, and together they launched into the air, a bolt shot at the Ipemav emperor.

               Wind screamed in Vere’s ears, and he clung to Opal’s neck as she strained, pushing all her strength into a rapid strike, magic burgeoning at her snout.  They blurred over the battlements to confront Gäl’Imarius – and he wasn’t there.  Instead, a dozen armored Ipemav closed in, pelting Opal with magic and forcing her to land; they were much stronger here than the others Vere had encountered in the Spiritual Plane.

               A halberd swung down at Vere, the already oversized weapon made even larger for an Ipemav twice as tall as Vere.  Vere rolled off of Opal’s neck to dodge while the Gruordvwrold snaked her head back and lashed out with her tail, sending one of the Ipemav flying over the battlements.  Keeping low, Vere ran at the halberd-wielder, slashed across the giant’s armored stomach, and dove off the far side of the battlements as Opal launched herself a moment behind him, shaking attackers from her as she tucked in her wings to dive.

               She caught Vere in midair thanks to the adhesion between his armor and her scales; her wings snapped out to abort their fall, and they landed in Birkariuth’s oversized courtyard.  There were a few signs of additional ornamentation, but even behind the walls it was a blocky, barren affair, more like a frontier fortification than the capital of an empire.

               “We have to find Gäl’Imarius,” Opal growled.  “He is strong enough to destroy the army by himself, and his strength is enhancing the other Ipemav here.  If he dies, this fortress can fall.

               Vere glanced through the still-open gates at the wedge of his army trying to punch through into the courtyard, but they were mired in the host that Birkariuth had leveed from the countryside.  “It comes down to you and me, then.  A battle worthy of song and poem.”

               “Assuming Gäl’Imarius does not annihilate all of us and leave no one remaining to write of it,” Opal muttered, but she dipped a foreleg for Vere to mount to her neck.  Idly, her tail smashed flat the Ipemav she previously sent over the battlements, and he stopped trying to rise.

               On the opposite side of the courtyard was the keep, another blocky structure of right angles and straight lines.  Behind the alabaster tiles were quarried stones thrice Vere’s height in any dimension, all forming a smooth cube.  A second set of gates punctured the façade across from Vere and Opal.  Her way preceded by repeated magical assaults on those gates, Opal charged forward, Vere bowed low over her neck.  They burst through the doors and into the keep.

               Rather, what should have been the keep, but Vere could not fathom any reality in which what he saw was the interior of the cubical edifice he’d seen from the outside.  Opal skidded to a stop on a stone precipice over a drop many times her length, ending in a frothing river.  What Vere most noticed, aside from how close he came to falling to an ignominious death, was that the waters were colored normally, not inverted like all of the other water he’d seen in the Spiritual Plane.

               The ceiling was as tall as the indoor gorge was deep, and it was similarly wide, spanned only by a narrow, unsupported arch bridge.  A sort of fog hung around the edges and borders, so that the cavernous space gave the impression of being even larger than it was, fading away into the limits of Vere’s vision instead of merely being occluded.

               “Impossible,” Opal whispered.  “This is impossible.

               “What’s impossible?” Vere asked.  “What kind of sorcery is this?”

               “It’s…it’s real,” Opal replied.  “All of it.  It’s as Physical as you or me.

               It took Vere a moment to understand what Opal was saying.  “Blood and Balance,” he swore.  “They brought all of this…”

               Opal shook her head, and Vere was glad he had dismounted.  “Not exactly…I think it is some kind of inter-Planar…no.  No, I have no idea what this is, or how it’s possible.

               Vere nodded slowly.  “Well, we don’t have to understand it.  We’re here, and Gäl’Imarius is probably here, too.  We just have to find him.”

               He started down the bridge, but Opal did not move.  “Is it that simple for you?  You can see something that should be impossible, that is beyond our ability to comprehend or explain, and you will simply advance without questioning it and hope that it all turns out as you imagine?

               “No, that’s not it.”  Vere sighed.  “If I were some elite military type, like Corbulate’s foreign missions corps, maybe I’d expect to know everything about the situations I head into.  Maybe I’d drill each step of an operation and every contingency so many times that I wouldn’t be surprised when I actually go to execute it.  But Opal, I’m a guard.  It’s practically our job description to charge forth into unknown dangers in defense of our charges, and hope that we can get out again in one piece.”

               Opal harrumphed, but she did not gainsay Vere.  “I only hope that we do not make the situation worse with ill-considered actions.”  Then, she followed Vere out onto the bridge.

               Halfway across the span, it felt to Vere like there was nothing in the world but the bridge beneath his feet, and the greyish fog in his peripheral vision.  He concentrated on keeping his balance across the narrow bridge, and on not thinking about the much more massive Gruordvwrold following him across that delicate span.  She could have flown, but she seemed nervous about calling attention to herself in that place.

               They reached the opposite side of the span without incident.  The stone-hewn bridge gave way to familiar, compressed soil that spread out and softened, becoming, of all things, a lush forest.  Though Vere squinted upwards until his eyes ached and watered, he could see no sign of anything save that pervasive, surrounding fog.

               “How can these plants be growing without sunlight?” he asked, plucking a leaf from a honeysuckle bush and finding it indistinguishable from the genuine article.  “Or is that applying too much logic to this place?”

               “The latter.”  Opal’s voice was tight, and she continued to walk along behind Vere.  A path led into the forest, between the bulbous trunks, and there seemed no other way to go.  Though it appeared to Vere barely wide enough to accommodate him, he heard Opal making her way behind him without more than rustling the low hanging branches.

               All this time, there was no sign of anyone: no Hollow People, no Herpein, no Ipemav, not even any birds or insects inhabiting the woods.  The only movement besides Vere and Opal was the river in the gorge behind them, and the subtlest stirring of the air, not enough to be called a breeze.  Vere felt like their footsteps should be echoing, and indeed there was just the slightest difference in the sounds that did not match up with the input from the rest of his senses trying to convince him that he was outside, but that was all.  His hand sweated on his sword hilt.

               Time and distance were strange there, so that it seemed they must have been walking for half a day, yet they could still see back to where their path began, when they passed by the first…exhibit.  That was how Vere thought of it: an exhibition of some ancient glory of the Ipemav.  The first was, of all things, a house.  It was stretched to Ipemav proportions, but it was still recognizably a house, and a humble one, surrounded by hand-tilled fields, and bordered by the wood.

               A sign by the house was inscribed with writing that Vere recognized as Heart City’s language, but he could not translate it, and neither could Opal.  They continued along the path until they reached a second clearing, this one host to a diorama of a village, again with Ipemav proportions.  There were gardens, pens for livestock, a smithy, a bakery, a mill: it was an idyllic country village, until Vere noticed that the livestock in the pens were humans, and that there was a bloody altar tucked behind the butcher’s shop.

               By the third such display, Vere thought he understood what he was seeing, even without being able to read the signs.  All along the forest path, he and Opal were walking through a timeline of Ipemav history.  Cities, nations, industries rose along the path, each more elaborate than the last.

               “Do you think this is for our benefit, or theirs?” Vere whispered to Opal.

               “I do not know.  Perhaps they feared losing this when they transferred to the Spiritual Plane.”  The Gruordvwrold shifted uncomfortably.  “Much of this is history ancient even to me.  Perhaps Eldar would remember, or Cinnabar.

               It was impossible to know how long they had been walking when they reached the first exhibit Vere recognized: Heart City, shrunken down to the size of a small forest clearing, but no less grand for that than the ghostly vision the City’s Guardian had conjured.  Two more exhibits followed, and then nothing.  The path continued, but there were no further displays.

               Now, the forest was grown darker, but Vere could not discern whether that was because of some artificial mechanism by which the false day progressed to false night in the indoor forest, or if it was because the woods were growing denser and whatever the source of the erstwhile illumination was being occluded.  Either way, just as he began to think it was too dark to proceed without fashioning a torch, lanterns began to appear hanging from manicured tree limbs that overhung the path, providing a greenish light not unlike that from Arval’s glowjars.

               A clearing appeared, this one centered around the path, and within the clearing was another building.  This one could have been transplanted straight from Heart City, quite unlike the blocky construction of the wall and keep within which all this was contained.  Shadows crept along the building’s sides – it had to be a palace, Vere decided – so that only the side facing them was lit.

               “I get the distinct impression this might be it,” Vere remarked, gazing upon the ornate doors.  His heart was pounding like a draftee in his first battle.

               “Yes.  I can sense Gäl’Imarius’s imbalance inside.”  Opal’s wings fluttered against her ribs.

               Vere licked his lips.  “If…no.”  He shook his head, and his voice firmed.  “Let’s finish this.”

               Opal paused for only a moment longer before she agreed.  Vere stretched out his hand to the ancient door with its intricate scrollwork and oversized proportions, and it swung open at the lightest brush from his fingertips.  Though the door was indisputably open, nothing could be seen through the revealed doorway.  He and Opal exchanged a glance, took a deep breath, and walked into the palace.

               In truth, it was only part of a palace: the throne room.  After passing through the impenetrable shadows obscuring the doorway, the room opened up before them.  Pillars soared up to support domes that spanned a space larger than the entire Merolate castle, clad in marble decorated by intricate patterns of color cast through the stained-glass windows that allowed evening sunlight to stream into the cavernous space.

               At the far end of this spacious chamber, sitting upon an elaborate confection of a throne, was Gäl’Imarius.  A scepter was at his right hand, and he fondled the spike that topped it as he watched Vere and Opal approached.

               “So, these are the challengers who come, at long last: a world-guardian child, and one of the bloodstock.  An age of legends this is not.  That such were enough to defeat the incursion force…well.  I did warn them they were not ready, but even my people can grow impatient after a millennium of waiting.”  Gäl’Imarius’s gaze possessed a temporal weight such that even Opal hesitated.

               She and Vere both stopped a dozen paces from the throne.  A thousand poems of heroes and evil kings flickered in Vere’s head, but none of them fit.  None of them could possibly have captured the magnitude of a being like Gäl’Imarius.

               The emperor continued to monologue.  He did not seem interested in whether or not Vere and Opal were listening to him, and it was so stereotypical of the evil villain in songs and stories to behave like this that Vere would have laughed were it not for the weight of time and power that pressed upon him in that throne room.

               “You cannot even comprehend the enormity of what this room represents.  Your minds cannot begin to probe this pinnacle of accomplishment,” Gäl’Imarius was saying.  “This is not just a recreation, or an illusion, or a projection, or a transplantation of the Physical Plane.  It is the Physical Plane.  An impossibility, a thing that should not be.  That is the power of Imbalance.  Here, in this place, is the Physical Plane, existing within the Spiritual Plane.  World-guardian, can you perceive even a fraction of what that implies?  No?”

               Opal’s telepathic voice boomed so loud that, though he knew it was in his head, Vere clapped his hands to his ears instinctively.  More remarkably, Gäl’Imarius stopped talking and looked directly at the pair of challengers for the first time.  “I perceive enough, Enemy.  I perceive that you pervert the nature of reality with your very existence, that you thrive on disrupting the world’s natural balance.  I perceive the innate wrongness of this place which should not be, and I see how it weakens you.  It is just as wrong here as you are, and I shall end what my ancestors began!

               Once Vere’s ears stopped ringing, he almost applauded.  That was the kind of pronouncement he had been trying to make, but he could not find the words.  Besides, it sounded much more impressive coming from Opal.

               Gäl’Imarius’s expression contorted, from haughty and bored to something darker.  He rose from his throne and picked up the spiked scepter as the platinum tip blossomed crimson and liquid with blood, and shadows gathered in the throne room.  Not unnatural shadows born of magic, but actual shadows, for Vere could track the Physical sunlight passing through the windows moving across the room and beginning to set in real time, and somehow that was more terrifying.

               For one who had spent so much time speaking, Gäl’Imarius wasted no more words now that he moved.  In two steps he crossed the distance separating him from Vere and Opal, and he swung the scepter like a spear.  Vere raised his Gruordvwrold sword to parry the strike and was tossed across the room by the raw strength behind the blow.  Opal shredded a streamer of magic with her claws and pounced on the emperor, only to be tossed away when armor shimmered briefly into existence around Gäl’Imarius’s body.

               Ignoring Vere, Gäl’Imarius pressed Opal, catching her with a second attack before she could regain her feet.  She swiped at him with her tail, and the scepter twirled; Vere blinked, and he saw the tip of Opal’s tail drop to the floor.  The Gruordvwrold screeched in pain and snapped at Gäl’Imarius, but she shied away from the scepter when he menaced her with it.

               “Do not let him touch you with that weapon.”  Even Opal’s telepathic voice sounded breathless.

               All of this took place in the time it took Vere to recover his feet and charge back across the throne room.  This time, he knew better than to attempt a straight parry; the Ipemav had too great an advantage in mass and strength, even if he wasn’t enhancing himself with magic.  Instead, he deflected, feinted, dodged, and stabbed with all his speed.  Like lightning birthing fire, his sword struck Gäl’Imarius’s elbow.

               Armor again shimmered into visibility, but Vere had seen from the first time that the armor was modeled after real armor, and not a magical, form-fitting ward.  He had seen that there were joints in the magical armor where there would be in real plate, and it was there that his blade struck.  There was no sound, but Vere felt the crunch of his blade passing through the barrier, and then the telling resistance of flesh.

               Only for an instant before Gäl’Imarius backhanded him across the face and sent him tumbling into the nearest pillar, but it was enough to know that their fight was not hopeless.  Gäl’Imarius was not invulnerable.  In fact, as Vere shook his head to clear it and watched the emperor exchange magical volleys with Opal, he noted that the Ipemav was not a skilled fighter.  He fought rather like someone who saw fights, who rarely practiced, and who relied on overpowering his opponents.

               It was an effective strategy for him.  Vere had to take cover from a hailstorm of silver razorblades while he watched Gäl’Imarius fighting Opal.  The emperor’s fighting style lacked finesse, so that a skilled opponent of lesser power stood a chance of defeating him, but…Opal was not a skilled opponent.  Like Gäl’Imarius, most of her combat capability lay in being stronger, larger, and more powerful than her adversaries, but in this case, it was only true that she was larger.  The silver razorblades finally ceased coming from whatever source Gäl’Imarius had summoned them, and Vere resumed his attack in time to see the emperor wrap Opal in bands of burning magic.

               Vere cut off his upraised hands, or at least he made that motion with his sword.  The crimson blade crashed against shimmering, magical gauntlets and threw actual sparks when it knocked the Ipemav’s hands down.  Recovering from the overhand blow faster than Gäl’Imarius recovered from the shock of the attack, Vere slashed across the emperor’s face, causing him to flinch backwards instinctively.

               Opal’s straining against her bonds faded into the background; Vere was aware of it, but he had no focus to spare for anything save the fight of his life.  He thought his sword could kill Gäl’Imarius, but he did not know for certain.  Of the two, he was the more skillful, but that was his only advantage, for the emperor outclassed him in strength, speed, power, reach, and every other relevant metric Vere could imagine.

               The scepter flashed through the air, and Vere parried it.  It didn’t matter that Gäl’Imarius was faster if Vere’s blows were more economical.  It didn’t matter that Gäl’Imarius could batter past Vere’s best blocks if Vere only needed to deflect each attack away from his body.  It didn’t matter if Gäl’Imarius’s reach was greater if Vere kept close, forcing the giant to fight on his terms.

               Magic, though – that mattered.  Vere’s armor and his sword could block or absorb some magic, but not to the extreme that Gäl’Imarius could employ.  Vere could dodge, but that meant getting out of position, and every time he did that, he opened himself up to an attack that he might not be able to counter in time.  Pace by pace, the Ipemav emperor pressed Vere back across the throne room, and Vere fought better than he ever had before just to stay alive.

               Another step back, a desperate twist, and Vere felt the wind from the scepter’s passage over his stomach even as he overbalanced and fell backwards onto his rear, fire burning his back.  The emperor laughed at him, and drew back with great, unnecessary drama for a finishing strike.  Vere stabbed upwards with his sword, but not to block.  The Gruordvwrold-scale blade cut through the burning, magical bond restraining Opal, and the Gruordvwrold swatted at Gäl’Imarius, catching the Ipemav by surprise and sending him tumbling across his own throne room.

               He was quick to recover, but as soon as he regained his feet, he had to counter a pillar of fire from Opal.  No sooner did the fire fade than he was forced to parry a strike from Vere that almost took his neck, and then he was again exchanging magic with Opal.  His armor was fully visible now.

               It seemed to Vere that Opal was glowing.  Where before she might have grown weaker from using so much magic, she was now growing stronger.  One blast actually knocked the emperor from his feet.  Gäl’Imarius was frowning now, and his attacks, both with the scepter and with magic, grew less controlled.  He was lashing out, instead of engaging them coolly.

               He was even out of breath when he spoke in a lull in Opal’s attacks.  “No world-guardian was this strong.  What is changed?  Why are you different?”

               Opal answered him with a rose-tinted comet that lifted him from his feet and crushed him through two pillars.  His armor dissipated into silver dust, and he coughed as he levered himself to his feet with the scepter.  There was nothing haughty or bored about his expression; that was all replaced by fury, and Vere thought he espied a hint of worry.

               With a roar, Gäl’Imarius stabbed the bloody tip of the scepter into the floor tiles.  The whole room trembled, and Opal stumbled.  She tried to launch herself into the air, but the floor itself crept up over her ankles and locked her to the ground.  For the briefest moment, she caught Vere’s eye, and then she stopped struggling.

               “Now, then.”  Gäl’Imarius inspected his imprisoned Gruordvwrold.  “I will know your secrets.”

               Vere’s sword cut off his head.  The bonds holding Opal in place dissipated, the scepter clattered to the broken floor, and the emperor of the Ipemav collapsed, dead.  His protections diminished, his attention occupied with Opal, he had forgotten about the mortal swordsman who was to him no more notable than a chicken.

               Breathing hard, Vere grinned at Opal, but there was no humor in her voice in his head.  “We must escape this place.  Hurry.

               Something was happening to the throne room.  It wasn’t so much falling apart as…stretching.  It tugged at Vere and Opal, too, and not in a comfortable way.  They ran, Opal scooped Vere up in her claws when she overtook him, and they burst out of the shadowed doorway and into the indoor forest.  The trees contorted around them, and the path seemed to stretch ever longer, like running up a scree-strewn slope that kept falling away beneath their feet.  Then they catapulted through the cube’s gates and tumbled into the courtyard in the midst of a battle.

               There was no time to take in what was happening.  The entire keep, that cube behind the blocky walls, was stretching into the sky, losing cohesion.  It was like Vere’s interpretation of the Spiritual Plane’s reality could not accommodate whatever Gäl’Imarius’s death precipitated.  He noticed that his army had broken through the gates and were battling in the courtyard long enough to start bellowing at them to flee, but he needn’t have bothered; Quezthalitch had already seen what was happening to the keep and was organizing a rapid retreat.

               Only when the walls of Birkariuth were diminished with distance, and they were clear of the valley, did Vere, Opal, and their army pause on an overlook to witness what they had escaped.  Birkariuth still stood, its outer walls unaffected, but the entire keep was bouncing.  It would stretch nigh to infinity, snap back to its original form, and then stretch again, over and over, oscillating so rapidly that Vere could scarcely perceive each end state.

               The army celebrated, and not just the army: Hollow People and Herpein from former Ipemav territory gathered in the foothills as the army came down from the mountains.  In the midst of the celebrations, it wasn’t difficult for a single human and a white-and-shadow Gruordvwrold to sneak away into the wilderness.  As Vere told Opal, now, they could finally rest.

Epilogue

               Birkariuth lurked within sight of a flickering, cobalt campfire.  That was a rare thing, for the entire area around the fortress was devoid of life.  No Hollow People or Herpein came to make their homes within sight of those walls, for all the Ipemav were defeated and the survivors in chains and under guard.  Even minor demons avoided the valley, sensing the wrongness that still permeated it.

               From an uncomfortable log, Vere watched Birkariuth’s keep stretching and springing back over and over again until he had to look away before it hurt his head.  “I can’t tell.  Maybe it’s slowing down?”

               Opal turned from her own contemplation of the cube.  “It is uncertain.  Time is even more difficult to measure here than it is in the Physical Plane.

               “Even given your new status?”  Vere looked meaningfully at the deep shadows that limned each of her opalescent scales, the most visible sign of the change Opal was undergoing that even Gäl’Imarius had not understood.

               “Even then.  Being part of both Planes does not change either’s nature: only my own.”  She shifted and curled her tail around herself to hide her scales.  “I should have realized sooner.  I should never have eaten that demon meat.

               Vere shook his head.  “You would have died if you hadn’t.  I’m convinced of that.  And we both would have died fighting Gäl’Imarius if you weren’t Balanced between the Planes.”

               Opal tossed her head.  “I am a Gruordvwrold.  We are of the Physical Plane, born of its very existence, its substance.  That is no longer true of me.  Does that mean that I am no longer Gruordvwrold?

               They had this debate almost every night, and Vere had no answers that would satisfy Opal.  He sighed and settled for changing the topic.  “This seems like more of a job for Arval that for us.  If it’s really bouncing back and forth into the Physical Plane, then shouldn’t they be able to go measure it where it’s appearing there?”

               “That is merely how you perceive it.”  Opal allowed the change.  “Its essence is oscillating between the Planes, but not its substance.  There would be no direct manifestation in the Physical Plane.

               “And that’s why we can’t use it as a gateway back.”  Vere poked at the fire and watched the sapphire sparks flittering up into the darkened, xanthous sky.  “We’re still stuck in this Plane, and yet, here we are, still working.  I thought we were supposed to retire after we deposed a despotic millenarian emperor and freed two civilizations from the infernal yoke of tyranny.”

               “That was the plan,” Opal admitted.  She gestured with her nose at the intricately carved soapstone sitting on the flap of Vere’s knapsack.  “Circumstances change.

               Vere glanced uncomfortably at the stone’s sharp whorls; it disturbed him as much as watching Birkariuth.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a cold wind prompted him to huddle closer to the fire.  “Don’t they just,” he muttered.

               After a moment’s hesitation, Opal crawled over to Vere’s side of the camp and curled up around him, blocking the harsh wind.  The weather in the Spiritual Plane had never been harsh until recently.  “Birkariuth’s oscillations are acting like a hand repeatedly applied to the Balance of both Planes, creating Imbalance and refreshing it so that it cannot dampen naturally.  If we cannot find a way to stop it, both Planes will risk repeated cataclysms.  Civilization cannot survive that way.

               “And it’s killing your people.”  Vere leaned back against Opal.  “Don’t pretend that isn’t part of why we’re here.  This is bigger than either of us.  Bigger than the Ipemav, even.  Should we not have slain Gäl’Imarius?”

               “He lived on Imbalance,” Opal replied.  “His death may have precipitated the present circumstances, but he was himself the cause.  Whether we slew him or not, eventually the world would have faced what it now faces.

               Very gingerly, using thick gloves, Vere nudged the carved stone towards him.  He looked up at Opal.  “We’re certain this is the cause, though?”

               “As certain as we can be.  It is certainly the epicenter,” Opal answered.  “More than that, it is impossible to know, yet.

               “That’s more than we knew before.”  Vere swallowed, and wondered why, after all he’d experienced, this made him so nervous.  “I’ll let him know what we’ve discerned.  Don’t forget to take the stone before the Bloody thing drains me dry.”

               Opal conveyed affront through their link.  “I would never.

               That helped calm Vere’s nerves.  He took a deep breath, reached down, and picked up the stone.  The whorls and ridges cut into his palm and drew forth far more blood than the cuts would indicate, the crimson liquid swirling over the stone’s surface.  Vere’s eyelids fluttered shut, and when he spoke, it was not with his body.  “Hello?  Yorin, can you hear me?  I have something to report.”

The end of Blood Magic S3:Bonus Episode: A Spiritual Journey. 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 (and final) episode goes live on December 31st, 2022.

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