It was a bright noontime on which a strange group gathered for lunch at a café where a convivial baker already had a hot, greasy sandwich to hand to Inpernuth.  Borivat waited patiently to place his own order, which was fulfilled with admirable alacrity, but Inpernuth was still halfway through his own sandwich by the time Borivat and the others brought their food to the table for four.  Though it was nearly winter, the city was experiencing an unusual spell of warm weather that was not merely unseasonable; it was almost as hot as a summer’s day.

               They were not a talkative group.  Inpernuth finished his sandwich and was trying to hit seagulls with a handful of pebbles, Arval fiddled with a blacksmith puzzle with one hand even while he managed his sandwich with the other, and Tildain was the guest and new to the language, so he would not be the one to speak first.  Borivat finished chewing and looked around at his dining companions.

               “I appreciate that you all consented to join me for this repast today,” he began.

               “Out with it, lok,” Inpernuth interrupted.  He kicked Arval under the table.  “Tell him to get on with it already.”

               Arval spluttered.  “I, uh, me, what?”  Inpernuth rolled his eyes.

               Borivat sighed at their antics and wondered vaguely how he had missed the Inventor and the Minister of Law and Governmental Policy becoming something close to friends.  It was the sort of thing he would have taken care to note a couple of years ago.  “It is about the matter of my retirement,” he broached.  “I have already spoken with the Prime and Advisor Doil on this matter, and I am confident in how the other Ministers will think on the decision; however, the two of you are…less predictable.”

               “Thank you.”  Inpernuth inclined his head regally, as if Borivat had paid him a royal compliment.  He even made his voice sound richer.

               “I have been considering the possibility of my retirement for some time now, but the Prime and I have been heretofore unable to identify a suitable replacement to serve as Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands,” Borivat explained.  “After careful consideration, I have concluded that…”

               Inpernuth locked eyes with Tildain and interrupted Borivat.  “So, lok, how do you feel about being a minister?”

               There was a visible pause while Tildain translated the words and then his response, but he was smooth and eloquent when he did speak.  “I am flattered that your people and your government would be willing to place such trust in me so soon after coming from a foreign power.”

               “There would be a probationary period,” Borivat hastened to explain, “and his final appointment would be contingent upon a variety of factors not limited to performance during that time.  He would fulfill an apprenticeship of sorts under me, and his assistant would be required to fulfill his duties in matters pertaining directly to Pifecha.  Furthermore, Prime Kiluron has the final say, of course, in his appointment.  There are risks; however, consider the advantages.  Tildain has no preconceived notions of Lufilnan or Merolate politics.  He has training in a school of diplomatic and political thought divergent from our own, and he will therefore approach matters of state here with a unique perspective.  He is also well versed in philosophy, and he has leadership and organizational experience.  After an apprenticeship period wherein I retain my post and transfer duties gradually to him, I believe he would make for an ideal Minister.”

               Arval shifted in his chair.  “I…okay.  I mean, that all sounds fine.  But why are you telling us this?  Isn’t it the Prime’s decision?”

               “It is, but part of being a good minister is working well with the other ministers,” Borivat explained, looking pointedly at Inpernuth.  “Admiral Ferl is skeptical, but willing to consider the idea, and he shares a nautical background with Tildain.  Regicio will certainly vote against, and Olidryn will likely join him; Adima could go either way, but I suspect she will be willing to give Tildain an opportunity to prove himself.  That’s two opposed and three supporting when you include my own vote.  The two of you, therefore, will determine the majority.”

               Inpernuth nailed a seagull on the wing and sent it tumbling to the repaired docked below them.  “Don’t know, lok.  Depends on my mood when I’m there.”

               That was about what Borivat expected from Inpernuth.  He turned to Arval, who scratched at his balding spots.  “Well, er, I probably ought to think about it a bit before I answer, right?  I mean, it seems fair to give a man a chance, but I…”

               “So, you can count on one,” Inpernuth interrupted the Inventor.  “That’s good enough for your majority?”

               “I would have preferred the greater confidence of knowing your vote, as well, Inpernuth.”  Borivat still wondered sometimes why Kiluron tolerated the man, although he admitted that Inpernuth had shown surprising insight on a few occasions.  “However, yes, I will settle for this knowledge.  I appreciate your time.”

               “Always a pleasure,” Inpernuth called after Borivat as he departed the table with Tildain.  He said something else, afterwards, but Borivat didn’t hear him and was confident it was of no importance.

               It was remarkably warm; Merolate should have been deep into winter weather, but Borivat mopped sweat from his brow with his handkerchief as he walked with Tildain back to the man’s apartments.  Once the former Pifechan captain was ensconced there, Borivat turned back towards the castle.  He knew he shouldn’t complain about the heat.  If it were cold, he would be complaining about that, instead.  All weather seemed worse to him since he got old, and he couldn’t even say when that happened.

               At least he finally could point to a promising successor.  Tildain was a controversial choice, but Borivat’s conversations with him revealed an insightful mind, he had no preconceived notions about Lufilna’s politics, and he would provide the kind of unique perspective that Borivat increasingly considered essential to the robustness of the Prime’s council of ministers.  That he came from Pifecha was a complication, but unlike Evry, he had chosen to desert and come to Merolate of his own free will and braved considerable dangers to do it; to Borivat that made him more trustworthy than someone like Evry.

               That was one matter addressed, so Borivat turned his attention to the other significant issue with which he was wrestling: High Priest Yorin.  The man continued to ignore all messages from Merolate, regardless of the Prime’s personal seal, and it made Borivat uncomfortable.  He doubted the Blood Priests were planning something hostile, but to not have even a semblance of diplomatic relations with the Isle was cause for concern, even if the Gruordvwrold were both more helpful and more powerful in arcane matters.

               Their options were limited, though.  In truth, the Isle was a waning power, something Borivat had never thought to say, but that was before Prime Kiluron legalized witchcraft and established relations with the Gruordvwrold.  Where crises drove followers to the Isle since Exerpies’ day, the recent disasters had instead seen the Isle humbled and new authorities arise; the Gruordvwrold and the witches might not claim religious trappings, but they were still an effective counter to Blood Worship.

               Even his major concern, then, was relatively minor, and Borivat reflected that, if it were always like this, he would not have been as stressed about identifying an appropriate successor.  He walked through a city bustling with workers repairing damage or building new structures.  Glowjars were appearing on wooden posts to provide light in the streets at night.  A Nycheril ship, the wood and canvas still fresh, sat at anchor in the harbor.  With the strangely warm weather, the scene acquired an almost idyllic quality.

               Shaking his head and wondering when he grew so sentimental, Borivat made his way back to the castle.  Kiluron was dispensing judgements and settling cases brought to him with almost as much confidence as Prime Wezzix had once possessed, sitting in the same chair.  On days like this, he wished that the old Prime could have seen his successor come into his own, and witness how Merolate was changing.  Crisis brought opportunity, and Prime Kiluron was seizing it with a vigor that Borivat could hardly remember.

               In one of the studies, Borivat settled himself into a leather armchair with a sigh and thought about his forthcoming retirement.  Now that he had more confidence in who might replace him, he found it much easier to contemplate what he might do with his time when he was no longer serving the Prime.  Several scholars to whom he’d reached out were interested in collaborating, and Borivat replied to their letters to arrange a meeting over lunch two days hence.

               The meeting of ministers that morning went long, so Borivat was running late on the way to his noon appointment.  The sun was passing its zenith as he hurried down the street; he glanced up at it to gauge just how late he was going to be and almost tipped headfirst into a pile of wicker baskets outside of a storefront when the ground bucked beneath his feet.  Bracing himself against the store’s façade, he saw other pedestrians reeling and stumbling as the cobblestones leapt like dumplings in a boiling pot and dust shook from the buildings.

               Everything grew still again after just a few moments, and were it not for the new fissures in the walls, the disrupted cobblestones, the shattered glassware and ceramics, and the overturned stacks, the day could have been ordinary and uninterrupted by any untoward event.  Borivat looked up and down the street at the frightened people picking themselves up and asking each other what happened, and then he turned his steps back towards the castle.  It was with a strange admixture of disappointment and relief that he reminded himself he was not yet retired.

               The world was changing.  It was always changing, but it was changing faster now, and Kiluron knew that even Doil struggled to keep abreast of the newest developments.  Pifechan influence through Evry and Tildain, and second-hand through Arval, played its role, but it was more than new technologies.  He was relieved that Adima spoke up before he could express his own ignorance.

               “It’s caused by what now?” Adima asked, blinking at Arval, who was rubbing at his own head with a bemused expression.

               “Wind,” Arval explained.  “Quakes and tremors are caused primarily by the changes in air currents generated underground when caverns collapse.  Evry and Tildain both claim that the Pifechans have technology that allows them to measure the magnitude of tremors and deduce their epicenters, and that they’ve identified the remains of collapsed caverns after excavation near those origin points.”

               Regicio snorted.  “After the appearance of the Gruordvwrold, I was prepared to lend credence to the old theory about subterranean dragons with indigestion.  Now, you want me to believe that quakes are caused by wind?  That’s preposterous.”

               Arval frowned.  “I do not expect you to believe anything, uh, Minister Regicio.  It is a matter of evidence.  If you are willing to provide the funding, Evry and I are confident that we can assemble a monitoring mechanism by which to determine the origin of future tremors, and thereby, with excavation, establish proof of the collapsing cavern explanation.”

               “That would only be pertinent if we expect additional quakes,” Borivat observed.  “Should we anticipate further tremors?”

               “These phenomena are often, ah, linked,” Arval admitted.  “Nothing magical in that; it’s just that when one collapse occurs, the resulting tremors are likely to precipitate additional collapses in the local area.”

               “This is not a localized event,” Admiral Ferl interrupted.  He pointed to a bundle of reports in front of him.  “These came from Guardlieutenant Twiol in Guardcaptain Ulurush’s office.  Reports from other provinces indicate that they experienced a tremor at exactly noon, just as we did.  Our spies in Rovis and Old Sankt report similar experiences, and Sankt has also sent us a missive requesting aid to respond to a tsunami that devastated their northeastern coastline later the same afternoon.”

               Regicio sat back with a satisfied expression.  “Can you explain that, Inventor?”

               Doil interceded.  “Explaining it is not the point right now, Regicio.  This meeting is solely to establish this government’s response to recent events.”

               “Damage was mostly minimal,” Adima admitted after examining her own reports.  “The tremor may have been widespread, but it was mild compared to some records I found in the archives.”

               “Then what’re we all still sitting here for, lok?”  Inpernuth jumped to his feet.  “False alarm, this was only a mild disaster, we can all go home.”

               “Oh, do sit down.”  Regicio puffed himself up, as if that made him more imposing.  Kiluron thought it made him look like he was about to have a heart attack.

               Doil cleared his throat.  “While the damage was mostly minimal, it is nonetheless important that our government be perceived to be responding in a positive and proactive fashion.  Widespread events of this nature historically are associated with rises in anarchic tendencies, general unrest, and Blood Worship.  Whether or not we are facing a pattern of such events, as seen circa 600 PU, the population is understandably on edge after the events of the past few years.”

               In other words, Kiluron mentally translated, the government needed to convey a ‘don’t panic’ message.  He sat back while Doil debated the details with the ministers and argued over minutia.  When his Advisor presented him with a plan to send out widespread guard patrols to deliver discounted supplies and catalogue damages and needs, Kiluron gave it his approval.

               His attention was elsewhere, and not somewhere he was accustomed to it straying.  Kiluron preferred to leave the research to people like Doil, who actually enjoyed locking themselves in dusty dungeons full of moldering tomes of cramped writing that made his eyes ache and his head spin, but not this time.  This time, Kiluron needed to know, and not just have Doil tell him.  It was getting to be too much to just be his imagination.

               First the Guardian, then the contaminant that was probably only accidentally brought from Nycheril, then the Pifechans, and then the Ipemav, all since he became Prime.  Well, the Guardian issue arguably happened while Prime Wezzix was still Prime, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that a lot of disasters occurred since Kiluron became Prime, enough to make him wonder if there was something more going on.  They might not seem related, but maybe there was something to what the Blood Priests claimed about Balance.

               He didn’t think it was somehow personally his fault.  That seemed too ridiculous, though he’d considered it before; he had no power by which to produce such effects intentionally, much less inadvertently.  Someone, though, might have that power.  Someone who had little to lose from chaos, and a great deal to gain.

               If only the book he was reading was more engaging.  ‘To understand the origins of the Blood Empire,’ he read, ‘it is necessary to understand the origins of Blood Worship on Lufilna.  A full explanation of this superstition can be found elsewhere, but its history is the present concern of this text.  Approximately seven hundred years pre-unification, Exerpies, a scholar dwelling in what would become modern Welate, hypothesized that so-called ‘magical powers’ which were purported to be used by certain individuals at that time, might be the result of imbalances in the world, in accordance with the Balanced Worlds theory.  In order to prove his theory, he is said to have visited areas which were struck by unusual natural disasters, and there is purported to have performed extraordinary feats of magic, including resurrection.’

               ‘Such stories are detailed in the historical texts likely archived within the Isle of Blood, but this author considers them apocryphal at best, and outright fictions in many cases.  It is instead more likely that Experies developed about himself a grievance-based cult of personality around his theory of Balanced Worlds.  This cult referred to itself as the Balancers, but were known to everyone else as Blood Worshippers.  They are thought to have remained a small, albeit persistent, number until approximately six hundred years pre-unification, when a series of intense and prolific natural disasters attracted fresh followers to their cause.  The cult developed therefrom into a religion which worshipped Exerpies’ concepts of Balance.’

               This particular text claimed to be a history of the Blood Empire’s rise, but it was written during King Weflering’s reign, a decade before he created the Primedom and chose General Revanti as the first Prime.  Kiluron put it aside and rubbed at his back; it was another text that failed to deliver what he needed.  Considering that all these historians agreed that Blood Worship more or less originated with Exerpies, there were remarkably few attempts to write about the man.

               Kiluron put that project aside and turned to the much larger pile on his desk.  Somewhere in the mountain he was supposed to discover Merolate’s next Prime, someone who would serve as his Sup-Prime until he died or relinquished the position.  It was beside a smaller list that Doil had compiled for him of candidates for the next Advisor.

               “Am I just supposed to pin it to a target and see where the arrow lands?” Kiluron muttered.  Even the abbreviated list of potential Sub-Primes based on the parameters he and Doil had discussed was hundreds long.  At least the Advisor position had some criteria by which to sort.

               Still, it needed to happen soon.  Borivat thought he had an acceptable successor lined up, although Kiluron had a few reservations about elevating a Pifechan deserter to such a lofty posting, and Doil’s successor was down to a choice of just five children.  Only Kiluron was still dragging his feet on the matter of succession, and his was arguably the most important choice.

               A knock on the door preceded Doil’s entrance, and Kiluron looked up as his Advisor approached the desk.  “My lord, I never thought I’d see the day.”

               Kiluron tossed a paper down and raised his eyebrows.  “See what day?”

               “The day that you’re late for a ride because you’re inside reading,” Doil replied, and Kiluron leapt to his feet.

               “I’m late?”  He stared out the window, but he didn’t have a good view of the sun.  “Balance, Doil, I forgot that was even today.”

               Doil laughed as Kiluron rushed for his cloak and sword.  Since there was no Sub-Prime, Kiluron was again joining the local supply runs, although there was little risk of a blizzard this year; it was so unseasonably warm that it felt more like midsummer than the beginning of winter.

               Guardcaptain Ulurush had their horses waiting for them when Kiluron and Doil reached the courtyard.  She offered each of them a taciturn nod while they mounted, and then they were trotting out through the city.  A sizable caravan was prepared of wagons and blummoxes and other mounted guards.  With both the Prime and the new Guardcaptain travelling, the simple supply run became something of an event – not on the scale of a Prime’s Progress, but significant.

               Instead of an enjoyable ride on a toasty, golden afternoon, Kiluron spent most of it looking around, itching at the back of his neck and wondering what was wrong with the world.  He kept looking back over his shoulder to the south, even though there was nothing to see.  As pleasant as the warm spell was, it just felt wrong conjoined with the shorter days and bare-branched trees.

               Crawling into his tent for the night should have been a welcome change from being able to stare at the pile of papers he needed to address from his bed, but the distance did nothing to prevent his mind from worrying itself over the same questions until he drifted into a restless sleep.  He woke up sometime around midnight to a tight bladder and realized he could see his breath on the air.  Shivering, he grabbed an extra cloak, wrapped it around himself, and went back to sleep.

               Someone was shaking him.  Kiluron tried to flail, still half asleep, and blinked.  Rather, he tried to blink; his eyes wouldn’t open, and he realized his limbs were sluggish in responding.  “What’s going on?” he demanded, except that he couldn’t feel his lips and the words came out distorted and barely intelligible.

               “You have to wake up, my lord.  If you sleep now, you might not wake up.”  Kiluron recognized Doil’s worried voice.

               “So tired,” Kiluron groaned through his frozen lips, but his awareness was beginning to fight through the sleep and the chill, at least enough to allow Doil to lead him to sit beside a fire and warm himself.

               As he thawed, Kiluron managed to open his eyes and look around the camp.  Everything was frosted.  Each surface, especially the metal ones, was rimed in frost as thick as Kiluron’s thumb, and a frozen mist blew on a biting breeze to give the entire camp a ghostly quality.  It might have been pretty, but Kiluron was too busy shivering.  Nor was he the only one; he saw other guards hunched around fires, while more stomped their feet and stuck their hands in their armpits in a vain attempt to stay warm.  None of them had brought enough layers for this kind of weather, and they would have been in dire straits were there not extra cloaks and uniforms in the supplies they were escorting.

               When Kiluron reached a temperature at which he could move and think properly again, he sought out Doil, who was working with Ulurush to build better shelters and get more firewood collected.  “Please tell me there’s some perfectly logical explanation for all of this?”  Kiluron was still shivering so badly that he wasn’t sure if Doil would be able to understand him.

               All Doil gave him was a helpless shrug.  “We’re arranging for warming zones that the guards can rotate in and out of once they’re built, but we’ll need to send back to the capital for more supplies before we keep moving.”

               “It’s better than a snow cave,” Kiluron observed.

               Doil gave him a flat look.  “I’m not so certain.  A sudden change in the weather like this is commonly followed by significant precipitation.”

               “So, a blizzard.”  Kiluron shook his head.  “This is crazy, you know.  Completely crazy.  For all we know, it’s going to be midsummer again when we wake up tomorrow.”

               “I will not say it is impossible, my lord.”  Doil sighed.  “For the moment, I suggest that we focus on the immediate problems of keeping all of these guards warm until we can get additional supplies.  We can worry about…larger implications later.”

               Kiluron nodded his agreement and set off with a group of guards to gather firewood.  If nothing else, it would help keep him warm twice.  In his head, though, his unspoken suspicions grew.  Weather like this wasn’t natural.  Or, well, it was natural, but the weather that preceded it, and then the sudden change, that was unnatural.  He knew what he meant, even if he couldn’t articulate it to himself.  It was all so…Unbalanced.

               If Evry had not pulled a chair out for him, Arval would have sat straight down onto the dirty warehouse floor.  He stared at the letter, not even noticing her quick action, and wondered why his mind would stop processing at this, of all the things he’d seen since leaving his little homestead.  It was just a letter.  It was written on thick, crude parchment.  The ink was closer to grey than black, and it was smudged and smeared in places where blotches didn’t threaten to obscure the almost unintelligibly spelled words.  It was the complimentary close, or rather the name below it, that broke Arval’s brain.  The letter was from Crovin.

               ‘You Unbalanced Swindler,’ it read, ‘I hope you’re doing well for yourself, far away in the high fluent flatulent…fancy city.  I’m sure you weren’t expecting no letters from me, and I honestly wasn’t expecting no letters from me, neither.  Kids are fine, by the by, and so is the missus.  Well, mostly fine, anyway.

               ‘Actually, there’s been a spot or two of bother out in these parts.  Weird weather, but that’s not the half of it.  All the animals is acting crazy, and I swear the trees be, too, if they weren’t tied down, as it were.  Ha.  Anyway, Ell thinks she saw a ghost the other night, and I didn’t believe her until I saw something myself that sent me right inside to lock all the doors and close the shutters.  In broad daylight, too!

               ‘Now, I don’t know just what I’m expecting you to do.  I mean, I was the one always coming and saving your Blood when we lived out here together, and really, don’t you have me to thank for getting your big break?  I put you on the map, I did.  We’re happy enough to take care of ourselves, but I don’t know nothing about taking care of ghosts.  But, I guess I thought that maybe you’d know somebody in the city there who would know what’s going on.  I swear the world’s gone and got all Unbalanced on us all of a sudden.’  The letter closed ‘your colleague neighbor friend, Crovin.’

               Evry finished reading it over Arval’s shoulder.  “Cute.  Some peasant’s afraid of the dark and needs help from the big bad city?”

               Arval was already fumbling his cloak on and was halfway to the door.  “You don’t understand.  I was Crovin’s neighbor for over thirty years.  We grew up together.  I have never heard the man ask for help, not once, in that entire time.  If he went through the effort to write that letter…”

               “And what exactly are you going to do, storming off into that blizzard?” Evry retorted.  “You’ll be a frozen snowdrift before you get to the gates.  And supposing you manage to reach wherever this backwater happens to be, without getting eaten, or freezing to death, what do you intend to do?  Do your silly green lights have anti-necromantic powers you haven’t told me about?”

               “I…don’t know.”  Arval stopped at the door and leaned against it, feeling cold seeping into his bones just from that indirect contact with the outside.  The warehouse itself was only warm because he had the furnace burning a prodigious amount of fuel; the cavernous space was nigh impossible to keep heated.

               Evry rolled her eyes.  “Well, why don’t you figure that out before you go rushing off like some harebrained adolescent?  Honestly, you’re supposed to be the smart one amongst the savages?”

               Arval blushed, but he also hung his cloak back up on its hook and returned to the loft, where he plopped down at the desk and pushed a hand through his thinning hair.  He wanted to dismiss the whole letter as some kind of a prank, but he knew Crovin too well to do that; the man wouldn’t dream of asking anyone for help if he had another recourse.  Even so, a ghost was a difficult matter to swallow.

               “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” he muttered to himself without conviction.  He’d said the same thing about dragons, and magic, but here he was sitting in a room lit by glowjars powered by what was, give or take a myth or two, powdered dragon bones, gifted to him by an innately magical entity.

               “Nope.”  Evry plopped down on Arval’s bed, which would have rumpled the sheets had Arval ever bothered to make it.  “Vapors is the usual explanation.  Maybe some kind of rift in the ground releasing some toxic vapors after the quake.”

               Such a tempting explanation, but Arval was unconvinced.  “I think that we need to speak with someone a little more experienced in these matters,” he determined.  Even if it seemed like a long time until morning when Borivat would be awake.

               As soon as Arval thought the sun was up – he couldn’t see it through the frozen mist that clogged Merolate’s streets – he slipped and slid from his warehouse to the castle.  Evry followed after him, having remained at his warehouse overnight instead of making the treacherous journey in the frigid night back to her own quarters.  Once Arval peeled off enough of his layers, he realized it was only slightly warmer inside the castle than outside; even with all the hearths blazing it would take time for the servants to dispel the chill from the stones.

               The study in which he found Borivat was cozy, though, thanks to cloths stuffed against the windows and under the door, and the fire blazing away in the corner.  The former Advisor smiled at Arval and set his book aside as the Inventor entered.  “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?  I did not expect many to be about today, in truth, given the sudden change in the weather.”

               “Do ghosts exist?”  Arval didn’t bother with preamble, and Borivat blinked at him.

               “…Ghosts?  Could you be more specific?” Borivat asked.

               Arval fidgeted.  “Uh, spirits.  Spectral entities.  Phantoms.  Um…haunts.  Specters.  Wraiths.  Apparitions.  Er, phantasms.  Is that the same thing as phantoms?  Anyway.  Are they real?  Do they exist?”

               Borivat hesitated.  “If you are referring specifically to the phenomenon involving the return of a kind of image, impression, or other remnant of a departed individual, my answer is no, not to my knowledge are such things more than hallucinations and figments of imagination.”

               Noting how carefully Borivat chose his words, Arval expressed what the Minister left unspoken.  “But?”

               “However, I would be remiss to deny entirely the possibility that something possessed of comparable properties such that it would be mistaken for a ‘ghost’ under most circumstances could exist.”  Borivat tapped his fingers on his armrest.  “Demons, as I understand them, or, more technically, Spiritual entities, could conceivably manifest in such a way, as could certain other applications of Blood Magic.  Ah…may I know why you ask?”

               “Because some peasant farmer thinks he saw a ghost and wants Arval’s help,” Evry interjected before Arval could answer.

               At Borivat’s raised eyebrows, Arval clarified.  “My old neighbor, Crovin.  He wrote me a letter claiming that both he and his daughter saw what he called a ghost.  I know it seems flimsy evidence, but it would have taken something truly significant to convince Crovin to ask for help from anyone, much less to go through the effort of writing a letter and asking me, of all people.”

               Borivat sat back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach.  “I see.  Were any details provided by which we might deduce the true nature of this purported phantom?”

               “No,” Arval admitted.

               Both he and Evry were quiet while Borivat pondered.  “Well, I can point you to a few reference materials to begin an investigation, but there is little more that can be done, and without more information I do not know how much success you can reasonably anticipate.”

               “Told you,” Evry elbowed Arval.

               Arval ignored her, and he addressed Borivat.  “That would do nicely, thank you.”

               Borivat nodded.  “There is another…no.”  He waved his hand as if to cancel that half-formed thought.  “I hope you find something that will help your friend.”

               “He’s not my friend,” Arval protested, but Evry ushered him out of the study, and they left Borivat to his own investigations.

               Neither Arval, nor Evry, was a self-described library person.  People like Borivat and Doil might thrive between stacks of dusty tomes, but Arval preferred tinkering to learn things for himself.  They both regarded the scope of Merolate’s library with some trepidation, though a librarian showed them to the materials Borivat’s note indicated.

               “Even by Pifechan standards, this is a…large library,” Evry admitted.

               The section to which Arval’s note directed them was secured, and only the note allowed them access into the locked area.  That, together with the frigid outdoor temperatures, made spending the day in a dreary, underground library more palatable to Arval, since no one would lock up boring books.  Looking at the lines of sagging shelves, he realized that this room contained all of the Union’s knowledge of Blood Magic.

               Sliding the most recent text from the shelf nearest him, Arval looked at the carefully lettered cover.  “When did Borivat find time to write a book?” he asked.

               Evry shrugged and held one of his glowjars up to a loose pyramid of scrolls.  Taking the top scroll aroused a cloud of dust that sent her into a sneezing fit.  When she recovered, she glared at Arval as if this was his fault.  “Couldn’t you just ask your friend Cinnabar?”

               “I don’t actually know how to contact him,” Arval admitted.  “Besides, it seems somehow wrong to bother him with this.  It’s not my fault you’re here.  I didn’t ask you to come with me.”

               Evry ignored that as she struggled to keep the tightly furled scroll sufficiently unrolled for her to read.  She examined it for only a moment before she tossed it with disgust back onto its original pile.  “This is in a completely different language!” she complained.

               “It probably dates from the Blood Empire,” Arval mused.  He couldn’t read the language any more than Evry could, so he focused on the more recent texts and records.  “Here’s a report that Doil filed about an Esaphatulenius and a fire demon.  Some kind of renegade Blood Worshipper sect.  Doesn’t sound very ghost-like, though.”  He turned to another report in the same stack.  “Wait, here’s something.”

               Evry came up behind him to read over his shoulder.  “Advisor Doil was possessed by a demon?  This is supposed to be real?”

               “Ah, it says here that he was not possessed, but rather was the ‘anchor for a nascent manifestation of the Guardian demon.’”  Arval grimaced.  “I have no idea what that means.”

               “Sounds like nonsense to me,” Evry asserted.  “Also, demons again, not ghosts.  Not that I’m taking either idea seriously.”

               Arval kept reading.  “It says that both Doil and the Blood Priests initially believed it to be a ghost.  However, Doil heard it; no one ever saw it.”  He sighed.  “I guess we keep looking.”

               Evry snorted.  “Did you think this would be quick?  This is why I hate research.”

               “Then why are you here?” Arval snapped.  “I didn’t ask for your help.”

               Evry turned away from him and snapped up another text.  “Doesn’t mean you don’t need it,” she muttered.

               Studiously ignoring her, Arval dug through more reports.  Based on his stomach’s grumblings it must have been nearly noon by the time he stepped back to rub his head and admit that there were a lot of them.  Sightings, references, indications, anomalous events: all were filed with the other information on Blood Magic that Merolate kept.  Most of them lacked any kind of conclusion, or much detail, but they were preserved nonetheless for unfortunate researchers to parse.  It could take Arval days just to go through that information, never mind the rest of what the secured room contained.

               “What are we even looking for?”  Arval looked despairingly across the shelves.  “Old legends about fighting ghosts?  Superstitious solutions to ward against evil spirits?   We don’t even know what Crovin really saw.”

               Evry regarded him with her hands on her hips.  “Oh, so when I say it, you ignore it, but now that it’s your idea you’re ready to admit that this is ridiculous?”

               “And you have a better idea?” Arval demanded.

               “I might.”  At Arval’s prolonged gaze, she cast up her hands.  “Fine, I don’t.  But there must be something better than what we’re wasting our time on right now.  Walking to Meronua to speak with Cinnabar would be more productive.”

               Arval shuddered.  “I’ll pass, thanks.  Once was enough for me.”

               Evry huffed.  “Fine.”

               Her expression changed, and Arval thought he recognized this one, at least enough to be wary.  “What thought did you just have?”

               “Well, if we can’t speak to the Gruordvwrold, who are the second-best experts on this superstitious nonsense?” Evry asked.

               “The witches?”  Arval frowned.  “I don’t know how to contact them, either.  The only one I know is Redra, anyway, and I have no idea where she and Nildo might be.”

               Evry shook her head as if she was giving Arval one of her lectures on thermodynamics that he could never grasp as quickly as she wanted.  “Not the witches.  The Blood Priests.”

               Looking back at the pile of reports attesting to how often Merolate turned to the Blood Priests when magical matters arose, Arval had a difficult time coming up with a reason to criticize the idea.  He didn’t want to admit it, but he thought Evry might be right.  Again.  “It would be illegal.  Not to mention dangerous,” he hedged weakly.

               “I’ll get a boat ready.”  Evry gave him a withering look from which he shrank, and stalked out of the library, leaving Arval to tidy up their mess before hurrying after her.

               Coincidences occurred, as did flukes, freak events, and unlikely happenstances.  Doil kept reminding himself of that as he tallied the injuries sustained when a patch of now-snow-covered ground collapsed beneath the weight of a supply wagon that went off the indiscernible road.  It was the second sinkhole discovered since the snap freeze on a terrain that, to Doil’s understanding, was not conducive to such geological formations.

               It didn’t help, because patterns also happened, and even Doil was struggling not to see a pattern in the plague of minor setbacks that accompanied the larger problems that were happening with increasing frequency.  He’d received reports of additional tremors, a dozen lightning strikes during the recent blizzard, and even a wildfire burning despite the deep cold and drifts of snow.  The supply train was moving again, having been resupplied after the blizzard, but it was tedious, difficult travel.

               He heard shouting coming from the front of the caravan and reminded himself that the proper response to worried, concerned, and possibly frightened guards was not to ask ‘what now.’  Prime Kiluron was already at the front of the caravan, so Doil did not hurry to find out what had the scouts sounding an alarm this time.

               His vague sense of unease became outright worry, though, when a guard rushed breathless to the wagon wherein Doil was reading reports.  “Sir, the Prime needs you at the front immediately.”

               Doil shoved his notes and reports into his satchel and jumped down from the moving wagon to follow the guard to the front, where he found Kiluron standing with a full score of very nervous guards all standing on tiptoe to see past another circle of guards around the four scouts who had been shouting.  Panting, Doil pushed through the guards to reach the Prime.

               “What’s going on, my lord?” he asked.

               “That’s what I’m hoping you can tell me.”  Kiluron’s expression was grim.  “Or maybe I’m hoping that you can tell me that I’m wrong.”  He pointed through the circle of guards.  “In there.”

               The guards parted for Doil, though he heard several mutters for him to be careful.  When he could see from what they were shielding their Prime, he froze, and not because of the temperature.  The…creature was about chest-height, and it was arranged like a scrawny blummox with no beard.  At least, it had four legs of about equal lengths, a horizontal torso, and an angled neck leading to a head.  That was where the similarities with any bovine ended.

               Instead of hooves, this creature was taloned, and its legs were scrawny and scaled like those of a turkey before giving way around the hips and shoulders to feathers.  The skin along its elongated body was stretched tight over its bones, so that Doil could count vertebrae even through the plumage, and it had leathery wings like a bat’s, save for the leading edge of each wing, which was feathered.  The feathers disappeared again up the neck, like on a vulture, leading to a wrinkled head of four beady eyes over a stub beak.

               As remarkable as was its appearance, that could almost be forgotten, because what was most significant to Doil, and most unnatural about the creature, was that it seemed to not fully exist.  It kept fading in and out of corporeality, the colors of its scales and feathers washing to grey mist before snapping back to polychromatic physicality.  Doil watched it with his breath caught in his throat for a long time before Kiluron’s voice interrupted him.

               “Well?  Is it what I think it is?” Kiluron prompted.

               Doil swallowed.  “I cannot say for certain, but…I do not believe this creature is native to Lufilna.”  He hoped that Kiluron would not press him for more detail while they were surrounded by listening guards.

               The Prime took the hint.  “Keep it under guard,” he ordered, and led Doil away from the crowd.  “I’m right, aren’t I,” he said, pitching his voice low so that only Doil could hear.

               “It’s not like we have a version of Kerb’s Complete and Unabridged Collection of the World’s Beasts for demons,” Doil protested.  “But yes.  I do think it is probably some kind of demon.”

               “Blood and Balance!” Kiluron cursed.  “Doil, what the Blood is going on?  Freak weather, the ground shaking, fires, sinkholes, and now this?”

               Doil shook his head.  “I don’t know, my lord.  We should search the area and attempt to find the summoner.  Remember what Herlglut said about demons and summoners?”

               Kiluron managed to calm himself.  “Agreed.  I’ll set guards to it.  But is it all connected?  Is some rogue summoner causing all of this?”

               “I don’t know,” Doil admitted.  “Something is wrong with that demon.  It doesn’t seem hostile like those demons we encountered before, and it doesn’t seem stable, either.  Like something went wrong during the summoning.”  He sighed.  “I wish I knew more.  We need to speak with someone who knows more about Blood Magic.  A Blood Priest, or one of the Gruordvwrold.  How far are we from Meronua?”

               Kiluron bit his lip.  “Too far.  We’ve been heading in the opposite direction.  And the Blood Priests are ignoring us, remember?  Could a witch help?”

               Doil wished he had answers.  “I don’t know very much about their powers, but I don’t think so.  From what I understand, their magic is focused on healing.”

               “Fine.  Let’s try to find the summoner.  Maybe they’ll have some answers.”  Kiluron punched his fist into his hand.  “Bleed it!  I’m sorry, Doil.  I just want to know what’s going on.”

               “Me too,” Doil replied.  “Me too.”  He hesitated.  “I think that you and I should consider returning to the capital once we’ve found the summoner.  Guardcaptain Ulurush can complete the supply run without us.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “You’re probably right, as usual.  But let’s find that summoner.”  He walked off to give the orders, and Doil turned back to watching the strange demon through its circle of guards.  He could only hope that the explanation for the patterns he saw was as simple as rogue Blood Magic practitioners.

               For ten days they remained encamped while search parties scoured the countryside for any sign of the summoner.  Doil stood with Kiluron to listen to the reports each evening, but even as the search radius widened each day, there was nothing new.  The searchers reported no other demons, no signs of unusual activity, and no one at all in the area except for scattered farmers.  If there was a summoner in the area, he was well-concealed and extremely cautious.

               They had to give up the search after the tenth day.  Guardcaptain Ulurush needed to get the supplies moving towards their destinations, and besides, the search was proving unproductive.  Doil joined Kiluron and six guards to ride back to the capital.  Three of their horses went lame after two days, Doil twisted his ankle while dismounting after the third, and Kiluron almost drowned getting water from a creek when he slipped on the icy bank and broke through the frozen surface.

               Bedraggled, exhausted, chilled, and chafed, the octet took almost twice as long to return to Merolate as it took them to leave it.  Doil indulged himself in a steaming bath for as long as he could justify before the water cooled off and he needed to return to work, but at least he felt a little better when he sought out Borivat.

               “It could be a demon,” Borivat agreed.  “At least, I cannot imagine what else it might be.  But it does not match even the old myths and legends.”

               Under other circumstances, Doil might have been more inclined to discuss the matter with Borivat, but he had a more specific purpose.  “Well, hopefully either the Blood Priests or the Gruordvwrold will have an answer.  You’ll draft the letters?”

               “As best I can.”  Borivat sighed.  “I do not know if they will answer, however.  What did you do with the demon?”

               Doil hesitated.  “We didn’t,” he admitted.  “The guards swear that they didn’t take their eyes off of it, that it just disappeared.  I suspect it escaped, but there were no tracks, and we could find no sign of it.”

               He left Borivat to write the necessary missives and sought out Twiol, whose duties running Guardcaptain Ulurush’s informant network had expanded to include managing information collection for the rest of the Union.  Since the Corbulate rebellion, Doil was working to establish and analyze as much information as possible, and Twiol was enabling that project.  It was only a beginning, though, and Doil was not too hopeful when he found Twiol in his office.

               “I’m looking for any information you can give me on incidents occurring in the past year,” Doil said.

               Twiol frowned at him from behind a stack of paper that reached almost to the ceiling.  “Please tell me you can be a bit more specific, Sir?”

               Doil frowned.  “Any digression from a normal state that we have documented.  I’m trying to establish if the frequency of such events has changed.”

               “It’s going to be difficult.  I was speaking with Evry about something she called ‘statistics analysis,’ and from what she said, the inconsistent rate of our data collection is going to confound any conclusions you might draw.”  Twiol glanced around the office.  “I’ll do what I can, though.”

               Twiol’s ‘best’ was delivered to Doil’s door a little after midnight, which proved both Ulurush’s wisdom in choosing him and the relative success of the new information gathering initiatives.  First light saw Doil with a candle hunched over his desk and the thick packet of information from Twiol, pasting strips of parchment together to create a timeline and making marks for each recorded incident over the past year.

               It took him most of the morning just to copy over each event onto his timeline, by which point it was obvious that there was a sharp uptick in recorded incidents after the Corbulate rebellion…but that was because that marked the start of the information gathering initiative, and more such incidents were being recorded as part of that effort, not necessarily because the actual number of events that happened increased after that point.  Somehow, Doil needed to control for that variable.

               Controlling for it would be easy if he had some way of knowing the ‘truth’ value of incidents, but that was impossible.  After banging his head against the problem for most of the afternoon, the best that Doil could come up with was to define a series of consistent data collection periods, calculate an average rate of data collection in each period, and then divide the number of events recorded in each period by that rate in order to control for the changing rates.  He…thought that was right.

               He had to change the exact arithmetic a few times before he got the formula to do what he wanted it to do, and that took the rest of the day and most of the next one.  When it was finally finished, he put together a new timeline with the modified numbers plotted along it, and he looked at a sharp spike beginning with the recent quake and continuing at a heightened level through the end of the data he possessed.

               Flushed with success, it took Doil a few moments before he stopped to wonder just what he’d accomplished.  He now knew, or was at least fairly confident that he knew, assuming his mathematics were correct and reflective of the way the world really operated, that there were more incidents, from storms to broken bones, occurring since the first quake.  That…did less for him than he had imagined it would.  He still had no idea what it meant, why it was happening, or even if it was more than a coincidence.

               More reports of problems kept filtering in from across the Union, though, so even though he could not prove it definitively, he decided that he couldn’t afford to consider the matter a coincidence.  Unable to identify an immediate or proximal cause for the present circumstances, he turned to the historical record.  What Merolate lacked in detailed data collection over its history it made up for in the extensive histories it kept.

               Even before he began his research, Doil knew the obvious answer to his core query.  It was common knowledge amongst anyone who studied history that the time immediately preceding the rise of the Blood Empire was characterized by a compressed series of disruptive disasters.  Those disasters, it was understood, empowered the Balancer cult founded centuries before by Exerpies, swayed large swaths of the populace to their cause, and catalyzed the rise of the Blood Empire.  What Doil now needed to understand was what precipitated those disasters in the first place.

               Underpinning that question, and lending it an even greater urgency, was Doil’s increasing concern about the answer he would find.  He, along with every other reasonable historian, had always assumed that the disasters of circa 600 PU were a naturally occurring fluke of which the Balancer cult took advantage.  There was another possibility, though, and it was one which Doil would never have even considered were it not for the events of the past few years.  Perhaps, somehow, Exerpies’ followers were the cause of those disasters, as well as their contemporary solution.

               The implications of that hypothesis, just from a historical perspective, were staggering.  It meant that the rise of the Blood Empire, rather than being an example of the Balancers taking advantage of a natural confluence of events, was a staggering conspiracy that deceived the entire continent and led to the conspirator’s domination of Lufilna until 230 PU – for more than two hundred years, dating from Sankt’s deterioration in 450 PU.

               If it were true, which Doil did not know how to ascertain, it would mean that the possible cause of the modern increase in disasters and minor problems could be linked to the Isle of Blood.  Perhaps High Priest Yorin, dismayed by the deterioration in the Isle’s influence, had decided to replicate whatever arcane ritual the ancient Balancers used to create the conditions necessary for the rise of the Blood Empire.

               Whether it was true or not, Yorin would deny it, Doil was certain.  He would need far more evidence than a paranoid hypothetical scenario even to broach the idea with Prime Kiluron; it would be irresponsible to go to the Prime with such a wild and dangerous accusation without something more concrete, no matter how much Doil felt like bursting out with his idea to anyone who would listen.

               Realistically, then, he was little better off than when he began.  The record showed that the period of the Blood Empire’s height was characterized by relatively fewer natural disasters and similar events, but there was no way of knowing if that was really the result of Blood Magic, merely coincidence, or the result of tampering with the records by the Blood Priests in power at the time.  Even being able to answer that question wouldn’t prove one way of the other whether the Blood Priests caused the initial spate of incidents.  Around and around, and Doil got no closer to an answer.  He hoped that the Gruordvwrold would have some helpful insight, because he felt at a loss.

               “We should have gone during the day.”  Arval didn’t mean to speak aloud, but the sound of his own voice was comforting.  Besides, it didn’t seem to carry far in the dense, muffling fog that surrounded the little rowboat.

               Evry smacked the water with the oar, and Arval nigh jumped from the boat into the icy harbor.  “You might survive doing something that illegal, but I wouldn’t.  I’ll keep this a secret, thanks.”

               Arval tried to calm his pounding heart.  “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”

               “I’m the only reason you’re coming at all.  You’d never have the courage without me,” Evry retorted.  “Are you going to row, or not?”

               With a grimace, Arval untucked his wrapped hands from beneath his armpits and took the oars from Evry.  The harbor didn’t look so wide from the docks, but at midnight, in heavy fog, in freezing temperatures, moving illicitly in a tiny rowboat by themselves was a different matter entirely.  The greenish glow from an unmodified glowjar that he mounted on the prow did little to illuminate their path through the water, but Evry kept consulting a device she called a compass and claimed that they were still on the correct heading.

               “A little starboard.  You’re drifting.”  Evry’s voice through the night sent Arval into fresh heart palpitations, but he managed not to drop the oars overboard, and after translating ‘starboard’ in his head, he adjusted his rowing accordingly.  “I swear you’re just as bad as the rest of them.”

               Arval frowned.  “What?”

               “Stupidly superstitious,” Evry replied.  “You’re as jumpy as mouse in the cat pen.  We’re just going to visit a bunch of melodramatic priests.  I thought you didn’t believe in all this Blood Magic nonsense?”

               Remembering the Gruordvwrold and what he saw working with Cinnabar, Arval shook his head.  “I’ve had reason to…reassess that belief.”

               Evry harrumphed.  “Fine then.  I still say it’s just like all the other religions in the world – a placebo at best.  Nothing arcane, or magical, or occult.  The most dangerous thing about this trip is probably falling overboard and turning into a human icicle, because at these temperature’s you’d be hypothermic before I could even fish you out.”

               Already chilled to the bone, Arval shivered even deeper.  “Why do you assume I’d be the one falling in?”

               “Because I’m the sailor, and you’re the clumsy, bumbling tinkerer, idiot.”  Evry squinted down at her compass.  “Five degrees to port.”

               Silence descended, and Arval wished that the conversation would not lapse; though he wouldn’t admit it, having Evry’s voice in the darkness was reassuring, even when she was insulting him.  He tried to concentrate on his rowing.  With the impenetrable fog all around them there was almost no sense of progress, and he wondered if they would row straight past the Isle of Blood and drift off to sea.

               He realized that the fog was thickening, becoming denser and milkier.  It swirled in patterns that had nothing to do with the prevailing breeze, and Arval’s skin tingled where it wasn’t numb with cold.  “I don’t think we’ll need your compass anymore,” he whispered.

               A slight ripple from the boat told him that Evry shivered, too.  “I think you’re probably right.  Now, according to the maps, there ought to be a dock coming up somewhere around here.”

               “I’m looking,” Arval snapped back at her.  He could faintly discern a shadowy lump which he took to be the Isle, and he adjusted his course to parallel the shoreline until he saw a rotted dock flickering through the mist.  “Is this the right one?  It looks pretty run down.”

               Evry frowned.  “There was only one on the maps.”

               Gingerly, Arval brought the rowboat alongside the dock and tied the line around one of the rotting piers.  The slick, dark boards glinted with ice in the glowjar’s light held awkwardly in Arval’s free hand, the one that wasn’t holding a squirming bundle, but they held Arval’s weight as he picked his way across them to the shore, Evry following in his footsteps.  The stones of the shore were no less slick, though they did feel more secure beneath Arval’s feet than did the dock.  He followed the path through the mist, moving slowly out of what he told himself was an abundance of cautious, not fear.

               “It’s certainly dramatic,” Evry said from behind him, making him jump.  “I can see why a primitive people would find it frightening.”  Her voice was entirely too loud in the thick night.

               Arval was looking back towards her, and so he walked right into the closed, wrought iron gates that barred the path, misty tendrils wrapping around the intricate scrollwork and ominous designs.  Peering through the gates, Arval saw no mist within the walls, and no sign of the damage he had expected from reports of the Pifechan attack on the Isle.  It seemed impossible that the Priests could have repaired everything so thoroughly so quickly, but he blinked, and it was all still there.  “Are you seeing this?” he asked.

               Evry joined him at the gates.  “I’m seeing it,” she agreed.  A little of her nonchalance was gone from her voice.  “Do we ring a bell or something?”

               “Begone, heathen wanderer, traitor, destroy from a distant land!”  The voice boomed out of the night, without source, surrounding them.  Arval stumbled back from the gates, and he saw flickering lights surrounding Evry.  “You are not welcome here, Evry of Pifecha!”

               This was, Arval decided, a bad idea.  He was several paces back towards the rowboat when he realized that Evry wasn’t following him.  Grumbling, he gritted his teeth and went back to her.  He tugged on her arm.  “Come on.  We should go.”

               Evry ignored him.  “Somebody holds grudge.  And a voice projection system.  Cute,” she muttered.  She turned her chin up and shouted at the temple.  “Hey, idiots!  Don’t you know timelines?  I was on the other side of the continent when your decrepit little rock was blasted out of existence!  And if you think that a stupid voice trick is going to scare me, well, no.  So how about you cut the super-secret-death-cult act, come out here, and we can all talk like civilized people?”

               Prolonged silence followed this diatribe, and then the scene changed.  The gates fell from their hinges, the towers crumbled, the walls collapsed, and in their place a much smaller collection of improvised buildings made of broken stone and imported boards appeared.  Evry stumbled backwards and forgot how to close her mouth.

               “I…don’t know how to explain that one,” she admitted.  Arval gulped, and together they watched a figure in blood-red robes walking from the camp towards them.

               It took him a long time, because he shuffled his steps beneath hunched shoulders, and the black sword at his hip seemed inclined to unbalance him at any moment.  Other priests followed, but all kept a respectful distance from the ancient figure who led them.  When he reached the remains of the gates, High Priest Yorin stopped, and he locked eyes with Evry.  “There are more things in the two worlds than you can possibly imagine or explain, Pifechan.  You are not welcome here.”

               Evry might have flinched, but even Arval could not be certain.  “Yeah?  Well, here I am.  Deal with it.”  She shrugged and jabbed a finger at Arval.  “Besides, it’s him who wants to talk to you.  I’m just here to keep him company and drag him out of trouble.”

               “And what business brings you to the Isle of Blood, Inventor?”  High Priest Yorin seemed little less hostile towards Arval than he was towards Evry, and Arval wondered if coming here with her was a mistake.

               “Uh, I have a question that I’m hoping you can answer.”  Arval cleared his throat and held out the squirming bag.  “I, um, brought payment?”

               Yorin stared at the bag, jerking in Arval’s grip, for a long moment as Arval shifted nervously under his gaze, and then he snorted.  The snort turned into a chuckle, which turned into a wheezing guffaw, and soon the other Blood Priests standing a few paces back from the gates were laughing, too.  Bemused, Arval flushed.  “What’s so funny?  Isn’t that how this works?  I bring you a, uh, sacrifice, and you answer a question?”

               “I apologize.”  Yorin recovered himself and put an arm across his chest.  “I do not mean to discount your effort.  It is merely that it has been a very long time since anyone has attempted to petition us in such a manner.”  He indicated the bag of squirrel in Arval’s grip.  “Tell me, what is the nature of your question?  I swear that we will not spring a Blood debt upon you.”

               Arval sighed.  “You’re probably going to laugh at me again, but, uh, I have a question about ghosts.”

               To his relief, Yorin did not laugh.  “Go on.”

               “Well, um, a former neighbor of mine reported that multiple members of his family all saw a ghost on their farm, and I was wondering if…if there’s anything in Balancing that could account for something like that?”  Arval cleared his throat.  “I know, it sounds silly, but he’s not exactly the imaginative type…one time he broke my automatic potato planter trying to plant a potato in a rock…”

               “Ghosts do not exist.”  Before Arval could grow disappointed, Yorin held up a hand.  “At least, not in the sense of an…afterimage, a remnant, an impression of a deceased individual.  The closest phenomenon of which I am aware would be what you might call a wraith.”

               “A wraith?”  Evry did not bother to hide her skepticism, and Yorin continued to ignore her.

               “A wraith is a specific term for an instance of a nascent manifestation of a demon from the Spiritual Plane onto the Physical Plane in which the manifestation is incomplete; that is, the demon does not have sufficient strength to fully manifest,” Yorin explained.  “This is likely what your neighbor was seeing.  It is most likely harmless, as demons can interact with the Physical Plane only in very limited ways if they are not manifested or summoned.”

               Evry folded her arms.  “’Most likely harmless?’  That’s not exactly a guarantee.  And how come this thing is wandering around in the first place?”

               Yorin’s face gave nothing away, and he did not even acknowledge that Evry spoke until Arval prompted him to answer her question.  “If it is an especially strong incomplete manifestation, it can conceivably interact in indirect ways with the Physical Plane, but it should not be substantial enough to pose a direct and immediate threat to anyone or anything.  As for why it might be there, I know no more than you do.”

               Arval hesitated.  “Well, could you, uh, look into it?  I’ll, uh, bring more squirrels, if that would help.”

               “It would not.”  Yorin retreated a step.  “We Balancers have our own affairs to conduct.  This audience is at an end.”

               “That’s it?” Evry demanded, but Arval tugged on her arm.

               “Come on,” he said, as Yorin turned his back on them, and the Blood Priests all returned to their makeshift domiciles.  “This’ll just have to be good enough.”

               Evry glowered, but she allowed herself to be led back to the dock.  She fumed the entire way back to Merolate.  “This was a waste of time,” she snapped, once they were safe and warm back inside the warehouse.  Arval was busy breathing several sighs of relief.  “What a bunch of hocus pocus nonsense.”

               “I don’t think he was just making it up,” Arval protested, though he wasn’t certain why he was defending Yorin.  The High Priest really had been exceedingly unhelpful.  “At least, I think I understand enough about the Spiritual Plane from my research into the Heliblode to agree that what he said makes a certain amount of sense.  Whether it actually reflects reality is a different question, but I don’t know how to prove that one way or another.  Guardcaptain Vere disappearing through that rift was pretty convincing, though.”

               “Well, he was at least hiding something,” Evry insisted.  “As soon as you pressed him on the why, he clammed up.”

               “I…yeah.  You’re right.”  Arval sighed as he poured himself a mug of hot water just to warm his poor, frozen hands.  “Maybe he just didn’t want to say more while you were there.”

               Evry glowered.  “While I was there?  Don’t you dare go pinning this on me, idiot.  He knows something that he’s not telling us.  I think whatever it is that your friend saw is somehow his fault.”

               “Then you admit that he saw something?” Arval prompted.  “And he’s not my friend, just to be clear.”

               That drew a snort.  “All I’m saying is that there’s something going on, something more than this little piece that we’re tracking.  Maybe it’s time you brought this matter to Advisor Doil’s attention.”

               “Maybe,” Arval admitted.  “I did hear he’s been looking into strange happenings recently connected to whatever sent him and the Prime back to the capital so soon.”

               “There you go.”  Evry poked him in the sternum.  “Now, I’m going to bed.  What’s that phrase you people use?  It’s an Unbalanced time of night?”

               Arval yawned.  “I mean, it’s not a phrase I would use, personally, but that is a thing that people say.”  He watched until Evry disappeared out the door before bundling himself into his own bed and wishing that he had twice as many blankets.

               By morning, he’d thrown off every one of his blankets, because it felt like the sultriest of summer mornings in his warehouse.  Groaning and shaking his head and the mercurial weather, Arval grabbed his weatherproofed cloak in full anticipation of an afternoon blizzard and headed for the castle.  He would have been more confident with Evry accompanying him, but he could do this alone.

               One of the servants pointed Arval towards a particular study, and Arval found Doil there, pacing a hole into the carpet and tugging at his hair.  He spun at Arva’sl entrance and struggled to compose himself.

               “Ah, Inventor Arval.  I don’t suppose you know very much of the mathematics of information?” he asked.

               Hesitating in the doorway, Arval shook his head.  “Um, no, that’s not something I’ve really seen.”

               Doil sighed.  “I suppose I oughtn’t to be surprised; I always seem to forget that you’re an inventor, and not a student of the broader school of rational philosophy.  Please, come in.”

               Arval closed the door behind him but continued to stand beside it awkwardly.  “Er, was there something with which you wanted my help?”

               The Advisor waved a hand at a very long piece of parchment spread out over most of the floor and extending almost from one wall to the other.  “Just a problem I’m attempting to solve.  I have a…concerning hypothesis, but no way to prove its veracity or lack thereof.  Hopefully an answer will be arriving by letter forthwith, but for now there seems to be little that I can do.  And if I’m right…”  He grimaced.  “Well.  Were you looking for me?”

               “Oh, oh yes.”  Doil’s vague preoccupation had infected Arval as well, and he had to flail for a moment to remember why he was there.  “Well, this is going to sound rather silly but, uh, my former neighbor and his family claim to have seen a…a ghost.  Now, none of them are given to be particularly imaginative types, you’ll understand, and so I undertook to investigate the matter, and that led me…”  He cleared his throat and wondered how to continue.

               “It led you to attempt to find answers at the Isle of Blood,” Doil finished for him.

               Arval blanched.  “I – that is, how?  I wouldn’t…”

               “Relax, Inventor.”  Doil sounded weary.  “You are far from the first of the Prime’s ministers to seek answers to such matters from the Isle, and we do not yet allow Evry to wander about without some observation, no matter what she believes.  Was your visit productive?”

               Arval was still trying to recover – he thought that his heart was pounding almost as badly as it had on his clandestine visit to High Priest Yorin – and his response was slow in forming.  “Sort of, well, not exactly – that is, there was a great deal about something called a wraith, and nascent manifestations – but rather, it was the unproductive part that brought me here.  See, when I pressed High Priest Yorin on the reason why a…a wraith might be, um, wandering around, he pointedly refused to answer, and indeed nigh expelled us from the Isle.”

               “So you think he’s hiding something,” Doil concluded for him.  At Arval’s nod, Doil sighed.  “Well, I believe High Priest Yorin is always hiding something, so that alone would not be cause for concern.  In conjunction with my own worries, I am inclined to lend it a more sinister weight; however, that could well be the result of my own biases and not of an objective analysis of the available information…”

               Arval paused.  “I don’t understand.”

               Doil shook his head.  “Forget it, for now.  If I’m right, then we will all have plenty of time to worry about it, and if I’m wrong, that we’d all be better off if as few people knew of my guesses as possible.”  He forced a smile.  “Was there anything else?”

               Still confused, and not at all reassured, Arval slowly shook his head.  “Uh, no, I don’t think so.”  He took his leave of Doil and spent the rest of the day attempting to puzzle out what it was that had the Prime’s Advisor so worried.  It was a day that was neither productive nor relaxing.

               Two quakes and a tornado born of the wild weather swings later followed by a return to deep freeze more appropriate for the latter part of the winter season, Doil held a letter from Eldar.  He held it in a white-knuckled grip, because otherwise he would already have flung it into the fireplace that was doing little to dispel the chill from the Prime’s rooms.  Kiluron watched him with a look of concern that, Doil had to admit, was probably appropriate.

               “From your expression I infer that it’s not good news or a letter from your secret lover,” Kiluron observed, raising his eyebrows at the crinkling paper in Doil’s fist.  “Or I guess it could be your secret lover telling you she won’t see you again.  Anyway, what do we need to prepare for this time?  The attack of the giant killer sea serpents from north of the Rocklands?  A secret society of super-powerful Blood Priests from south of Nycheril?”

               Against his will, Doil almost smiled.  “Those things might actually be better, because at least then we’d have some idea of what to prepare for.”  He shook the letter, the reluctant smile fading.  “All Eldar has to say is that the Gruordvwrold are detecting vague ‘repeated disturbances to the natural Balance of the Worlds,’ which could ‘conceivably produce some of the effects which [I] describe.’  He goes onto say that the Gruordvwrold cannot investigate further at this time, nor can they provide more information, because they are occupied with ‘internal affairs of particular moment.’”

               “Not very helpful,” Kiluron agreed.  “And no response yet from Yorin?”

               “Nothing,” Doil affirmed.  He put the letter down to avoid the temptation to tear it.  “Something is going on, I’m convinced of it.  I just don’t know what.”

               Busy opening his own letter, Kiluron just nodded absently.  Doil watched as Kiluron scanned the page and then leapt to his feet with a curse.  “Blood and Balance!”  He held the letter out to Doil.  “It’s from Redra.”  Doil felt the color drain from his face as he read the proffered document, and Kiluron nodded.  “I guess we know what Eldar’s ‘internal affairs of particular moment’ means,” he observed.

               Doil groped for a chair and sat in it without taking his eyes from Redra’s letter.  “Sick?  How can the Gruordvwrold be sick?  From what I understood, I thought that they weren’t, well, biologically alive in the same way that we are.  They’re supposed to be creatures of magic…I don’t understand.”

               “Well, apparently one of them went and brought Redra back to attempt to treat them after their own efforts failed.  We should be glad Redra thought to inform us, I guess.”  Kiluron found his own seat and sighed.  “So what do we do now?”

               Doil shook his head.  “I don’t know.  If the Gruordvwrold can’t help us, and presumably Redra would have mentioned in her letter if she knew something more, then our only resource is the Blood Priests.  But if I’m right about their involvement, then they would be less than inclined to help us.  We’ll have to see what they say if they ever reply to our letter.”

               “And in the meantime?” Kiluron prompted.  “We can’t just sit here and let the world fall apart around us.  Even if we don’t have much information, we have to be able to do something.  This is getting a lot more serious than weird weather.”

               “You think I don’t know that?” Doil retorted more hotly than he meant to.  He took a deep breath to calm himself.  “I see the same reports that you do.  A new chasm in the Unclaimed Territories after that last quake?  Over a hundred dead in Tirate’s capital from a tsunami, and as many simply missing?  But I don’t know what we can do to hold the world together.”

               Kiluron shook his head, but he didn’t react as strongly as Doil did.  “Maybe it’s time you told me what your big theory is that you’ve been dancing around for days now.”

               “It’s not a theory.  It’s a hypothesis.  I don’t have enough evidence for it to be a theory,” Doil replied.

               Kiluron smiled.  “See?  I always know the right thing to say.  You’re feeling better already.  So, your hypothesis, then?”

               Doil only hesitated another moment.  “Alright.  Just…please remember that I have no proof?  That this is basically all guesswork?”

               “Sure, I promise,” Kiluron agreed.

               “Alright.”  Doil paused.  “Well, the crux of it is that I think that all of these incidents might be caused by the Blood Priests.”

               Under other circumstances, the progression of Kiluron’s expression through incredulity, shock, skepticism, and fear to dread acceptance in the space of a few moments might have been amusing.  “You’re serious.”

               Doil nodded.  “It would explain a great deal that remains unexplained if the ancient followers of Experpies created the events that led to their rise to power as the Blood Empire.  And, if that is possible, I could see High Priest Yorin attempting to replicate the same ritual in order to regain his perceived loss in status.”

               “I didn’t really have him pegged as the mass-murdering megalomaniac type, but now that you say it like that, I can kind of see it,” Kiluron mused.  “But if that’s true, then that would mean that the answer to our problems…”

               “Might begin with all-out war on the Isle, followed by somehow convincing the witches or the Gruordvwrold to undo whatever the Blood Priests did,” Doil finished.  “I know.  But that’s why I was reluctant to tell you until we learned more.  It’s just a guess, and we can’t go to war with the Isle on a guess.”

               “True.”  Kiluron stood up and paced over to the window, where he could stare out over the harbor.  “But if they don’t reply to our letters soon, perhaps it’s time that we paid them a rather pointed visit.”

               Reluctantly, Doil agreed.  He found that he feared the possibility that he was wrong almost as much as that he might be right.  Either way, with the Gruordvwrold unable to aid them, the answers lay with the Isle of Blood.

               Two days later, a letter was delivered from the Isle bearing High Priest Yorin’s personal seal.  Kiluron opened it while Doil watched, and Doil had to resist the urge to peer over the Prime’s shoulder to see what Yorin wrote.  Kiluron finished reading and handed the letter to Doil without a word.

               It was a short letter, only two, terse sentences.  ‘Come to the Isle of Blood at your earliest convenience,’ Doil read.  ‘It is past time for us to discuss matters of great import to all Lufilna.’  He looked up at Kiluron, who nodded.

               “It could be a trap,” the Prime admitted.  “Lure us to the Isle, take out Merolate’s leadership.”  He didn’t bother sounding like he believed it, and neither did Doil.  They took a ship to the Isle that afternoon.

               Doil didn’t think it was a trap.  If he had, he would have argued for more preparation, a larger escort, and a negotiation for a meeting on neutral ground.  As it was, it seemed inappropriate for the Prime to be journeying to the Isle at Yorin’s behest, and under other circumstances the political posturing involved would have occupied his thoughts.  In this circumstance he had more than enough to worry about already.

               Admiral Ferl personally captained their ship, taking them across the short expanse of harbor to reach the Isle of Blood; he touched his sword and nodded to both of them as they prepared to disembark.  Doil hesitated for a moment on the docks with Kiluron, and then they strode together onto the Isle of Blood.

               No lesser Blood Priest than High Priest Yorin himself stood outside fallen gates to greet the delegation from Merolate.  He inclined his head to Prime Kiluron and dispensed with any pleasantries.  “Please, come this way.  There is something that you must see, and much for us to discuss.”

               Most of the temple complex was still under repair following the Pifechan bombardment, which Doil realized with some surprise was now over a year ago, but Yorin led them down a now-exposed flight of stairs leading down into the Isle’s bedrock.  Through narrow, ominous twists and turns, the resulting corridor led them to a chamber blocked by a thick, broad, iron door lined with silver.  Yorin reopened a scab on his forearm and rubbed it across a silver panel on the door just below eye level, and the door grated open.

               It revealed a room of flawless black marble polished to a mirror-like sheen.  The panels of it, imported from some forgotten quarry, were fitted together so precisely that only the faintest traces of a silver grout could be seen outlining each one.  Aside from a hemispherical depression in the very center of the floor, the room was a perfect cube, and even the curved panels of that depression were perfectly polished and fitted together.  Inside it, a handful of smokeless, cobalt flames hovered unsupported and unfueled.  Their light would have been the only illumination in the chamber if not for the imprisoned vortex above them.

               That was the only way Doil could think to describe it, for it defied description.  It defied comprehension, it even defied observation, for he found he could not long look upon it.  It was…a wrongness, given form and color, and trapped in this chamber of nightmares.  He saw that Kiluron’s pale face was reflected in the polished marble tiles, and wondered at his own expression.

               The Prime looked to Yorin.  “What is this place?”

               “A prison, once,” the High Priest answered.  He hesitated.  “In truth, we discovered it after the temple’s collapse; it had been sealed away long before my time here.  It is fortunate that we discovered it when we did, and I suppose for that we ought to thank the Pifechans.”  His voice was bitter.

               Kiluron asked what Doil did not want to speak into being.  “A prison for what?”

               High Priest Yorin gazed into the sapphire flames.  “Demons,” he answered.

               “And…and is that what you have trapped there now?”  Doil wished his voice was more confident.  “A demon?”

               Yorin shook his head.  “I wish it were something so benign.  That is how you are perceiving the point of the collapse between two Worlds.”  He allowed Doil and Kiluron another moment to look into the chamber, and then slammed the door shut.  “It is contained, for now.  It is best that we keep the chamber sealed, but you needed to see.”

               They returned to the surface, where another priest had some tea heating over a perfectly ordinary fire outside of a temporary structure in which were several comfortable chairs.  Doil waited until they were settled before he asked the question that he felt had to be asked.  “Is this your doing, then?”

               “My doing?”  Yorin eyed Doil over his mug of tea.  “It is my doing that this wrongness is imprisoned.  It is my doing that it has not spread further already.  It is my doing that the whole Worlds have not already collapsed together and annihilated themselves.  It is my doing that we have a chance to salvage something of our existence from this catastrophe!”  He dropped back into his chair with a sudden and profound weariness.  “I apologize.  These are…trying times.”

               Kiluron took a deep breath.  “Perhaps you had better start from the beginning, because I don’t have any idea what I just saw, other than that it was horribly wrong.  You’re saying whatever that was is responsible for all of the disasters and weird events that have been happening?”

               Yorin nodded.  “In a way.  It is difficult to explain, and in truth, I do not fully understand it, even after having it explained to me.  What you saw was somehow what your mind was able to perceive of a phenomenon that is not physical, nor physically localized, in any way.  It is the merging of the Spiritual Plane with the Physical Plane.”

               “Right, which is very bad.”  Kiluron nodded.  “I got that much.”

               A faint, false smile from Yorin.  “Yes.  Very bad.  If the two Planes were to merge entirely, both would be annihilated.”  A strange expression flickered across his face, and he leaned forward.  “Gentlemen, we are literally facing the end of the world.”

               Several moments passed while Kiluron and Doil processed this revelation, because there was a lot to process.  After he thought he had some, vague grasp of what Yorin was saying, Doil frowned.  “If you did not cause all of this, then what did?  And how do you know all of this?”

               High Priest Yorin gestured to one of his Blood Priests, who ran off after a whispered order.  He turned back to Doil.  “The origin of this event stretches back thousands of years; doubtless the Gruordvwrold could tell you more of it than I can.  As for how we know all of this…well.  When we first noticed a repeating Imbalance that we could not correct, we began to investigate.  What we now know is the product of a great deal of research, investigation, and measurement.”

               As usual, Kiluron skipped to the end.  “Alright.  So, we think we know what’s happening – the end of the world – and we think we know what’s causing it.  So, how do we stop it?”

               Even before Yorin could answer, Doil found himself smiling.  There was something reassuring about the fact that Kiluron could look at the end of the world, shrug, and ask how to stop it as if it would be as easy as repairing a wall.

               “That we do not yet know,” Yorin admitted.  His Blood Priest returned and dropped a small, velvet bag into his hand before retreating.  “We have a few ideas; however, before we get to that, I believe there is one other matter to which we should attend.  Which, actually, is why I am even bothering to tell you any of this.  Someone insisted I speak with you.”

               He opened the velvet bag, and Doil saw a familiar stone inside; it was not the same one, but it was in appearance very similar to the stone that Doil had used when Marinae attempted to create a simulacrum, with sharp ridged whorls in a pearlescent surface.  Even though Doil could tell he was playing into Yorin’s sense of the dramatic, he could not help but ask.  “Who?”

               The old High Priest held out the velvet bag, and years seemed to fall away as he waved it in their faces.  “Tell me, young man.  Would you like to speak with the dead?”

The end of Blood Magic S3:E11: Balancing Act, Part One. Thank you for reading. The story will conclude in Part Two, live on December 31st, 2022. 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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