Merolate’s guardcaptain glared at the disheveled figure darkening her doorstep.  With pronounced slowness, so that her visitor would have no doubt that this was no idle gesture, she cleaned her ear with her pinkie finger.  “I’m certain I misheard,” she said, “and that you did not just ask me to give you an enchanted sword.”

               Chief Inventor Arval pushed a hand through his hair, which emphasized how little of it he had, and sighed.  “Er, I mean, not permanently.  I’d return it, of course.  I’d just like to, uh, study it.”

               “Study it,” Ulurush repeated.

               The Inventor nodded, not noticing the expression on Ulurush’s face.  “Perhaps I can, you know, identify the mechanism by which they function and enable us to make more without leaning upon the Gruordvwrold.”

               “Then this request has nothing to do with ghosts?”  How Ulurush could know about that, Arval could not imagine, but he flinched.

               Arval didn’t have to answer her; his supremely guilty expression was all the answer Ulurush required.  “Permission denied,” she told him.

               “But I promise I’ll return it,” Arval protested.

               “Permission denied,” Ulurush repeated.  Arval opened his mouth again, and she preempted him.  “Permission denied.”  She pointed at the door.  “I have real work to do.”  She did not move until Arval sheepishly departed and shut the door behind him, and then she dropped backwards into her chair.

               On the other side of the door, Arval’s shoulders slumped, and he grumbled to himself as he left the guardcaptain’s office behind and returned to his own warehouse.  He didn’t think it such a significant request when an entire armory was full of the weapons the Gruordvwrold enchanted for use against the Ipemav, but he also couldn’t be surprised at Ulurush’s response.  Even if he obtained such a weapon, what would he have done with it?  He was the last person who should be wielding a sword.

               Not just Evry was waiting for him when he returned; two guardsmen were standing near the door, looking apprehensively at the various, half-finished projects scattered across the space.  Evry jerked her thumb at them as Arval walked inside.  “I told them they could just give it to me, but they said they had to deliver directly to you,” she said.

               Arval frowned, scrubbed a hand across his face, and turned to the guardsmen.  “Hm?  What’s this about?”

               “Letter for you, Sir.”  One of them held out a sealed envelope with an unfamiliar crest, and Arval took it from him.  “It’s from Meronua.”

               “Meronua,” Arval frowned.  He started to unseal the letter, realized the guards were still standing there, and flushed.  “Uh, carry on.  Thanks.”

               The guards departed, and Evry edged around to peer over Arval’s shoulder while he opened the letter.  “Who’s it from?” she pressed.

               Arval was still scanning the letter.  “Cinnabar,” he mumbled.  “How did he even manage to write this?”  His fingers felt at the paper, and he wondered if the Gruordvwrold had somehow conjured the letter into existence.

               “What’s it say?” Evry pressed, breathing down Arval’s neck.  Arval flinched and stepped away from her.

               “You want me to just read it to you?” he demanded.  Not at all embarrassed, Evry nodded, and Arval sighed.  “Fine.”  He cleared his throat.  “’Arval, I dictate this letter to you through Redra, though it draws not insignificantly upon my remaining strength, and goes against my pride, because to travel to you, or to project my thoughts so far, has become beyond me.  A sickness hitherto unknown to us strikes the Gruordvwrold, and our efforts thus far to ascertain a cause are unsuccessful.  I write to you, therefore, in the hopes that your unique insight may offer some value in restoring us to health before we vanish forever from this world.’”

               “The Gruordvwrold are dying?” Evry interrupted.

               Arval glared at her.  “So it would seem.  If you would please allow me to finish reading…”

               Evry ignored him.  “Why bother?  I can guess the rest.  The Gruordvwrold are dying, some sickness they don’t know about, and they need you to go and help them figure out how to cure them.  When did you become so in demand?”

               Although Arval tried to protest, upon reading the rest of the letter to himself he found that it was much as Evry summarized.  “Do you think it’s related?” he asked.

               “Why should it be?”  There was no doubt to what Arval was referring.  “There’s no reason to think it’s anything other than coincidence.  Cinnabar doesn’t say anything about ghosts.”  Evry snorted.  “Then again, in this backwards land, why wouldn’t it be connected?  It’s probably the same thing.  Maybe the Gruordvwrold are infected by ghosts.”

               Arval climbed up to the loft and tossed the letter down on his desk.  “How am I supposed to help with this?  With either of these problems?  I’ve been working on the ghost thing for ages now, and I’m no closer to a solution.  And I don’t know a thing about Gruordvwrold illnesses.  I barely know things about human illnesses.”

               “Didn’t I suggest going to Meronua before?  Seems like that’s the place to be to solve both of these problems,” Evry observed.

               “I guess.”  Arval sighed.  “I really don’t want to do that trek again.”

               Evry glanced down at the half-covered hulk of the aeolipile-driven wagon.  “What if you didn’t have to?” she suggested.

               Arval followed her gaze.  “It’s not ready yet.  Besides, there’s not even a road.  It would never be able to get there.  And the amount of fuel we’d have to carry…”  He perked up, though, because now he was thinking about a problem that he might actually be able to solve.  Without making a conscious decision, he was down the ladder and tinkering.

               The contraption that departed the warehouse several days later, inhabited, or, more generously, driven by a disheveled Arval and a grease-stained Evry, bore little resemblance to the aeolipile-rigged wagon from which it was derived; it barely even bore resemblance to a wagon.  Instead of an ordinary four spoked wheels, the vehicle bore a dozen solid discs for wheels on either side, supporting and driving a continuous track made of planks held together by wire.  These supported an engorged cargo area stuffed with coal, wood, and anything else flammable that Arval could fit inside the compartment.

               Atop this precarious contraption, on a level with a two-story building, was perched a secondary compartment in which two cramped people were stored, along with such supplies as they thought they needed for the journey to Meronua.  People leapt out of the way as the vehicle clanked, hissed, and roared its way out of the warehouse district, down the city streets, and through the gates to Merolate’s countryside.  The driving might have been better if Evry didn’t spend most of the trip attempting to wrest the steering from Arval, and if Arval was able to keep his eyes open the whole time.

               They spoke little, except when they stopped for repairs, for the travelling machine they made together was too noisome to allow conversation within the steering compartment.  It burned through fuel at a prodigious rate, it stank, it vibrated most disturbingly, it seemed at any moment upon the verge of breaking down, and its top speed was barely as fast as a lightly loaded wagon’s.  Were it not able to continue without rest, driving all day and all night, be easily repaired, and provide a kind of moving fortification to protect them from the journey’s dangers, it might have been better to take a wagon.

               It might still have been better to take a wagon, with the number of times they had to stop to forage for more fuel, or to affect repairs after some piece or another broke off or jostled itself loose.  Still, there was no telling how many bandits or dangerous animals might have been scared off attacking them by the strange machine in which they travelled.  The continuous tracks handled any terrain they came across, from deep snow to sand to mud, although the boards had a tendency to break and need to be replaced whenever they encountered rocks.  Somehow, they reached Meronua jostled, bruised, numb, motion-sick, and irritated, but alive, and faster than any but the best horsemen could manage.

               Evry undid the cast iron latch on the steering compartment, teetered upright, retched, tumbled over the side, and, when she recovered, wiped mud from her face and shouted up at Arval.  “This was a horrible idea!  Why did I let you talk me into this?”

               Feeling even less steady than Evry, Arval waited until he stopped feeling like he was still vibrating before he made his way one, slow rung at a time down the ladder to the ground.  “Um, I thought you were the one who talked me into this.”

               “Semantics.”  Evry groaned and looked up at the cave entrance.  “This is where the Gruordvwrold live?”

               Arval nodded.  “Cinnabar?” he called up, then repeated himself mentally, in case that would made a difference.

               “Inventor.  You came.”  Cinnabar’s voice sounded somehow faded in Arval’s mind; he glanced at Evry, but she did not seem to have heard.  “A moment, please.  I will have someone bring you up.

               A Gruordvwrold emerged moments later from the cave entrance in the cliffside.  Its glittering form labored through the air, circled, and came to a heavy, gliding stop before Arval and Evry.  Arval noted a certain dullness where the scales would normally be lustrous, but this Gruordvwrold’s voice was stronger in his mind when she instructed Evry and Arval to hold still while she brought them into Meronua.  That strength was belied by how clearly difficult it was for her to bear her burden back into the Gruordvwrold enclave.

               The white-and-crimson Gruordvwrold was waiting for them in the cave’s foyer, but the vivid, colorful striations were faded – not in the sense that the crystalline white was taking over the ruddy shades, but as if a film was occulting the gem-like scales.  Cinnabar’s serpentine neck seemed to struggle to lift his massive head as he dipped it in greeting to Arval.

               “If only these physical alterations were the extent of our diminishment.”  Cinnabar must have heard the thoughts in Arval’s mind.  “Alas, they are but manifestations of something affecting our very essences.

               “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help,” Arval admitted.  “I’m not exactly an expert on…well, on you, or medicine, or anything related.  I’m a tinkerer.  And…well, um, I was kind of hoping you could help me, too.

               Cinnabar rumbled reassurance.  “We do not expect miracles.  In the failure of more conventional approached, I hope that an outside perspective may be of benefit.  As for aiding you…our powers are much diminished, but I will do what I can, in return for your aid.

               “Alright,” Arval agreed.

               Redra bustled into the room, spared half a glance for Arval and Evry, and scolded Cinnabar as if he were a misbehaving child.  “Back!  I told you not to go exerting yourself.  Don’t give me that about you not being lifeforms in the same way as me – you brought me here to help you, and I say you need to rest!”

               Under other circumstances, it would have been amusing to watch Cinnabar mumble a meek defense and retreat down a corridor before the healing wrath of a witch at least two millennia his junior.  When she was satisfied that Cinnabar was returning to rest, she turned to Arval and Evry with a grunt.  “So, you got the letter.”

               Arval nodded.  Evry, standing a little behind him, was looking around with a bemused expression, and Arval realized that she had not been including in most of the telepathic dialogue.

               Redra sighed.  “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to be able to do to help that I’m not already doing, but you’re welcome to try.  The fact is that there’s something wrong with magic, and they’re dying with it.”

               Exchanging a glance with Evry, who closed her mouth on whatever she was about to say, Arval took a deep breath and followed Redra deeper into Meronua.

               Years ago, Doil remembered reading a treatise by some philosopher who claimed that the majority of human interaction was nothing more than a series of pre-scripted sequences linked together to give the impression of originality, when in truth each was set in everyone’s minds from their formative childhood observations.  Even when something new occurred, the closest appropriate sequence was triggered in the minds of those involved, and no original thought needed to occur.  If something radically unknown and unprecedented were encountered, the brain would, according to this philosopher, simply shut down because it could not handle the situation.

               That was how Doil’s brain felt now, as he and Kiluron stood next to each other on the ship back to Merolate from the Isle of Blood.  From the expression on Kiluron’s face, Doil suspected the Prime felt the same way.  What they saw there, and heard…Doil’s brain shied away from thinking about it, but he forced the issue.

               The end of the world.  A phrase whose meaning was lost in its routine application as hyperbole and sarcasm or buried in a revolving set of fringe beliefs and conspiracies.  Doil found it necessary to keep reminding himself that in this case there was no exaggeration involved.  It would have been one thing if it was High Priest Yorin asserting it, but the voice on the other end of that stone…he didn’t think that was a mere trick.  Somehow, two Planes were on a kind of collision course, and it was a dead man’s fault.

               “I knew he wasn’t dead,” Kiluron muttered.  “None of you believed me, but I said it.”  From his pallor, Doil guessed he was trying to reassure himself.

               “You did, my lord.”  Although, to Doil, it seemed a matter of semantics, since Guardcaptain Vere was still irrevocably trapped in the Spiritual Plane and could not influence events in the Physical Plane.  “Though I don’t think that even you guessed what would happen next.”

               Kiluron snorted.  “I couldn’t even imagine getting into that kind of trouble.”  They were both quieter than usual, like this was a second wake for the former guardcaptain, or maybe they were just in a state of shock.  “Did you understand what High Priest Yorin was saying?”

               Doil rubbed at his forehead and glanced around to make sure they were relatively alone.  “Not completely, my lord,” he admitted.  “I don’t think High Priest Yorin understands it completely, either.  If this is something that’s happened before, it was before our time.”  Before humanity’s time, he meant, a time when humans were ruled like livestock by the Ipemav.

               “Then I guess what I’m trying to ask is if you think his plan will work,” Kiluron clarified.

               They both knew there was no easy answer to that question.  “If there were any alternative, any other plan I thought we could try, even if I had any other idea, I would say we should try that first.  But I don’t see any.”

               The Prime nodded.  “That’s what I thought, too.”  He turned back to looking into the icy harbor, though the ice was fast melting under the influence of yet another wild swing in temperature.

               Their ship reached Merolate without incident, but they were both silent as they made their way back to the castle.  Doil was certain their guards could tell that something was amiss, but they also seemed to know that neither of their charges was interested in conversation and remained a solemn procession.

               When they were alone in Kiluron’s chambers, the Prime leaned against the window’s edge.  “How can we ask anyone to do this, though?  It would be one thing if we could volunteer, but I know that we can’t, not without our successors in place.”

               “I don’t know.”  Doil sighed.  “Perhaps we should reach out to the Gruordvwrold.  I have to think that whatever their sickness is might be related to this ‘oscillation in the Balance between the Planes’ that High Priest Yorin described; if we tell them what we’ve learned, they might have another idea.”

               “It’s worth asking,” Kiluron agreed.  “I can’t believe we’re even considering Yorin’s idea.”

               Doil nodded.  “If there was any other option, it wouldn’t even be something for discussion.  But without any other ideas, I think that we need to bring the matter to the ministers.  I’ll call a meeting for tomorrow morning – that way, I’ll have some time to do some research and see if I can come up with anything else.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “Thanks, Doil.”  He blew out a breath.  “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this one.”

               “I understand.”  Doil tried to think of something reassuring to say, but he could think of nothing.  Bringing Yorin’s idea to the ministers, considering it at all, was proof of how desperate the situation was.

               They stood together in silence for a little longer, and then Kiluron dismissed Doil to go do his research.  Doil spent all night pouring over every text on Blood Magic the Union possessed, and he came up bleary-eyed and exhausted in the morning after a futile search that brought him no closer to an alternative.  He had to drag himself to the minister meeting and eat three pastries just to stay awake.

               The Prime greeted him with a pastry salute.  “How bad can it really be?  It can’t really be the end of the world if we’re still sitting here eating breakfast pastries.”

               There was something incongruous there, but Doil was too tired to appreciate it.  The ministers came in and settled themselves, but Doil had no agenda for them.  He glanced at Kiluron for permission before launching right into the meeting.

               “The Prime and I spoke with High Priest Yorin on the Isle of Blood yesterday,” he began, knowing it was mostly a delaying tactic.  He doubted that any of the ministers failed to notice their visit.  “He confirmed that the series of incidents we are experiencing is not natural, or, rather, that it is occurring as the result of specific action: the defeat of the Ipemav in the Spiritual Plane.”

               If there were more time, Doil would have spent it trying to come up with a way to phrase that more diplomatically.  He wasn’t prepared to call it the end of the world to the ministers, but even saying it was the result of something relating to the Spiritual Plane would be controversial.  Minister Regicio objected immediately.  “I refuse to believe that we are seriously discussing these natural disasters as the result of religious nonsense,” he huffed.

               “Not religious nonsense.  I would be skeptical, as well, were this only coming from High Priest Yorin.”  Doil took a deep breath.  “Whatever each of us believes, we know that we sent Guardcaptain Vere and Opal somewhere.  Wherever we want to call that place, after the rift closed, it seems they did not perish.  In fact, they are still alive.  It is they who incited the present crisis, and they who convinced High Priest Yorin even to involve us.”

               Admiral Ferl shook his head ruefully.  “I should have known he’d manage to cause trouble from beyond the grave.”

               “Did your conversation with High Priest Yorin offer any proof?” Minister Olidryn asked.  “Or, maybe more importantly, solutions?”

               Kiluron interrupted.  “If you saw what those priests were trying to contain beneath the Isle, you wouldn’t doubt.  Plus, we were able to speak with Vere.”  He glanced at Doil.  “The question here isn’t whether something is happening, or what is happening.  It’s what are we going to do about it.”

               “I thought you said that the Blood Priests were containing it,” Minister Adima noted.

               “For now.”  Doil took a deep breath.  “It won’t last forever.  To continue containing it would require a great deal more…sacrifice.”

               Inpernuth, for once, was taking the proceedings seriously.  “You mean people.”

               Doil cleared his throat.  “Well, yes.  High Priest Yorin said it would likely take hundreds of human sacrifices to avert the collision of the Planes and the annihilation of the World for a single generation.”

               “We can’t seriously be considering this.”  Regicio looked around at the other ministers.  “This is preposterous, superstitious barbarity!”

               “And the alternative?” Doil retorted.  “I’m as uncomfortable with this discussion as you are, but we are facing the literal end of the world.  How can we not consider any possibility to avert that?  Is not the survival of the entire Union, the entire world, worth what would otherwise be an intolerable sacrifice?”

               “Very utilitarian, lok,” Inpernuth muttered.

               Olidryn looked vaguely nauseous.  “How would we even…select these sacrifices?  Ask for volunteers?  This government wouldn’t survive; the people would revolt.”

               Admiral Ferl nodded.  “I’m inclined to agree.  We would lose all legitimacy.  It would be chaos.  Maybe this would save the world, but it would probably end the Union.”

               “The find an alternative!” Doil shouted, banging the table and startling everyone there, including the Prime.  “You’re not saying anything I haven’t already thought of, but unless we can determine another course of action, I don’t see that we have a choice.”  He swallowed and glanced at Kiluron.  “I…if arrangements can be made to ensure the training of the next Advisor, I will volunteer to be amongst the sacrifices.”

               That quieted the ministers.  They eyed Doil, seeming to realize for the first time that he was serious.  “What?!” Kiluron protested into the sudden silence.  “But we talked about it…”

               Borivat was looking down at the table, seeming older than Doil had ever seen him.  “I think,” he said, “that it would behoove all of us to retire for a day and ponder what we’ve heard.  If there are alternatives, let us seek them.  If not…well, we can discuss further with cooler heads tomorrow.”

               As the ministers filed out, muttering amongst themselves or quietly attempting to process what they’d heard, Doil stood at the table and could not meet Kiluron’s eyes.  “I had to do it,” he whispered.  “Don’t you see, my lord?  They wouldn’t take it seriously if one of us didn’t volunteer, and, well, I’m easier to replace than you.  I had to do it.”

               Kiluron just shook his head.  “Maybe the Gruordvwrold will have a better answer.”  He looked up at Doil.  “And you are not easier to replace than I am, Doil.  Not nearly.”  He stalked out of the room before Doil could say anything further.

               Sitting in the shallow depression atop a carven pedestal, the glittering scale could have been some precious artifact, a relic of an earlier age, save for the blight which marred its crystalline surface.  Arval watched while Redra scraped the pasty concoction of pungent herbs, crushed beetle carapaces, and charcoaled hair from her mortar into the same depression.  She decanted a pitcher of clear water drawn from a spring deep within Meronua, and then she used her knife to cut open her right thumb and squeeze forth the brilliant crimson drops concealed just beneath the skin.

               The drops whorled out across the surface, forming abstract shapes, before the entire mixture flashed like sunlight off of a mirror for the briefest of moments.  Arval shielded his eyes, and when he finished blinking away the glowing afterimages, he bent forward and found the scale, unchanged, submerged at the bottom of a murky puddle that looked little different from how it began.

               “I don’t think it worked,” Arval observed.

               Redra glared at him.  “No, it didn’t.  Something’s wrong with the magic, like I’ve been telling you.”

               “Something’s wrong…”

               “Wrong in what way?” Arval asked.

               The witch huffed again, but then she relented.  “It’s…it’s like at first, I can’t find the magic at all.  Then, when I find it, it’s strong, way stronger than it should be, and it doesn’t come out how I want it.  A little like I’m trying to direct a current, but the current is stronger than I am.”

               Arval frowned.  “Then where is the power going, if not into what you’re attempting?”

               “Where is the power going…”

               “The flash of light.”  Both of them looked over, surprised to see Evry still sitting in the corner, and more surprised that she contributed.  “What?” she asked.  “Allowing, for the moment, that this is anything more than a shared hallucination, wouldn’t all of this just be some form of energy?  So, if it’s not going into what you want it to, it must be dissipating as light and heat.”

               Redra seemed skeptical, but it actually made some sense to Arval.  Perhaps his attempts to learn thermodynamics from Evry weren’t entirely futile.  “If that’s true, then we just need a better way of channeling it, right?  So that it doesn’t just become waste energy?”

               Evry shrugged.  “Why do you keep looking at me?  I still think this whole thing is ridiculous.”

               “Ridiculous…”

               After giving Evry a dirty look, Redra turned back to the pedestal and began sponging out the failed concoction.  The donated scale at the bottom was no different from when they began.  Turning it over in her fingers, Redra sat down on a rock and shook her head.  “I think we’re going about this all wrong.  Cinnabar said that the Gruordvwrold aren’t alive in the same way that we are, which means that all of my usual medicines will mean nothing.  I think what’s making them sick is probably the same thing that’s wrong with my magic.”

               “But you said the magic itself wasn’t wrong so much as just…too powerful,” Arval remarked.

               “Too powerful…”

               “Exactly,” Redra agreed.  “What if we’re looking at something more like overeating?”

               Arval cocked his head.  “I…hm.  Um, you mean like someone who eats too much and then gets lots of diseases as a result?”

               Redra shook her head.  “No, more like…well, there was one time that some villagers found a boy who’d been lost in the woods for days.  Hadn’t eaten anything that entire time, so they threw a big feast for him.  He gorged himself and ended up almost dying.  His body had gotten unused to food, and I guess it didn’t quite know what to do with so much of it all at once.”

               A mental voice intruded upon their conversation.  “An intriguing analogy, Redra,” Cinnabar said.  “Then the Gruordvwrold are like the boy, long accustomed to a certain amount of ‘nutrition’ – the Balance energy of the Physical Plane – who are now being constantly feasted.

               “Intriguing…”

               “Does that make any kind of sense in your actual terms, Cinnabar?” Arval asked.  He spoke aloud for Evry’s and Redra’s benefit, since he did not yet know how to project his mental voice to non- Gruordvwrold.  “You told me your kind doesn’t even eat.  And your magic works differently from Redra’s.”

               “True,” Cinnabar granted, “but I still believe the analogy is sound.  Alas, it is not so simple a matter as to desist ‘eating.’”  He tried to laugh, but even mentally it sounded more like a pained, wheezy chuckle.

               “Then we’re back where we started,” Redra declared.  “Somehow, we need to figure out what changed magic, why, and how to undo it.”  She waited until they sensed that Cinnabar had retreated to rest again before addressing Arval and Evry.  “I’m running out of ideas,” she admitted.

               Scrubbing at his eyes, Arval nodded in agreement.  “I wish I had some kind of quantification of magic before the change that I could compare to measurements we take now.”

               “Measurements we take now…”

               Arval paused.  “Are you hearing that, or am I really overtired?”

               “Really overtired…”

               Redra frowned.  “You know, I thought it was a sort of mental echo because of the Gruordvwrolds’ telepathic communication, but now that you mention it, yes.”

               “Now that you mention it, yes…”

               Evry rolled her eyes.  “Great.  Now the ghosts are here.”

               “Now the ghosts are here…”  The voice laughed.  “She’s right, you know.  We are sort of like ghosts.”  A pause.  “I know, I know.  But it wouldn’t have worked for you.”

               “Cinnabar?” Arval called mentally, “there’s something strange happening up here.

               “Something strange…more than you know.”  Arval rubbed at his eyes again and looked towards Redra and Evry to see if they, too, were seeing the strange shimmering at the center of the chamber, adjacent to the pedestal.  “This is taking too long.  I’ll barely have blood left by the time I’m sufficiently manifested.”  Another pause.  “Alright, I’ll try.  Hello?  Can you hear me?  Say something if you can hear me.”

               Redra and Arval exchanged another glance, but Evry was the first to react.  “Something.”

               “Well, I think they can hear me.”  The voice was distorted, but Arval thought it sounded vaguely familiar.  “Listen, all of you.  I don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t know when I’ll be strong enough to do this again without Yorin boosting the manifestation from the Physical end.  Opal and I accidentally maybe possibly incited the end of the world when we slew a several thousand-year-old Ipemav emperor.  That story would make a truly epic poem, but what you need to know now is that the Planes have become fundamentally Unbalanced.  Opal and Yorin say that it’s like, if the Planes are two sides of a set of scales, a hand is repeatedly forcing one side down, and then the other, keeping them from equilibrating.  That’s what’s killing the Gruordvwrold, and it’s what’s causing havoc in both Planes.  You have to find a way to Balance…”

               The voice faded away just as Cinnabar reached the chamber.  He found three humans staring at an empty patch of air just to the left of the pedestal, where they just saw a ghost.

               Convincing Cinnabar of what they’d witnessed was easier than Arval expected – it helped that subterfuge was almost impossible when communicating telepathically – but understanding Vere’s cryptic message was another matter.  It had to have been Vere: Arval’s familiarity with the voice, combined with the reference to Opal, made Cinnabar very confident in the identity, and the ancient Gruordvwrold seemed only slightly surprised to learn that the duo sent to close the rift continued to survive within the Spiritual Plane.  Arval thought at first that the message would lead to a breakthrough, but instead it further confounded their efforts.

               “We have to find a way to Balance the Planes.  That’s what Vere said.  But what does that mean?  How would we do that?” Arval asked.

               Redra tucked a strand of hair escaped from her braid back behind her ear and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  I always thought that whole Balance concept was just religious trappings the Blood Priests talked about.  It’s not something I use in my magic.”

               “You use it, whether you are aware of it or not,” Cinnabar interjected.  He was sitting with them again, despite Redra’s remonstrances that he should be resting.  “My understand of your form of magic is incomplete, but I believe that the deliberate shedding of your blood creates an imbalance that is corrected through the use of magic.

               That kind of description lost Arval, but he was having another thought.  “But Cinnabar, you said your magic is different.  Is it not linked to Balance in the same way?”

               “No.  We are magic, in a sense.  We are not discrete entities, but rather manifestations of the Physical Plane.”  He hesitated.  “Our oldest lore, predating even Eldar, speaks of a time when the Planes became so Unbalanced that we manifested as nature’s way of correcting the Balance.

               Evry scoffed.  “An entire sentient species spontaneously forming as a result of some weird balance thing?  As far as creation myths go, it’s certainly unique.”  Redra did not share her skepticism; she instead looked awed at Cinnabar’s implication.

               “Alright.”  Arval tried to keep all of the pieces straight.  “So, we have a current enormous Imbalance.  And the Gruordvwrold may have once been products of a similar Imbalance?”  He cleared his throat.  “Er, Cinnabar, um, how do the Gruordvwrold reproduce?”

               Cinnabar’s booming laughter shook the cavern before it faded into a fit of hacking that could have sent every apex predator within the sound’s reach fleeing in abject terror.  “There have been no new Gruordvwrold since before the Ipemav left this Plane.

               “Yes, but…why?  Er, how were they created before?  What happened that there stopped being new Gruordvwrold?”  Arval fidgeted, wishing that anyone else would pick up on his thought so that he could stop participating in this awkward conversation.

               “We do not know.”  At Arval’s opening mouth, Cinnabar clarified.  “We do not know the answer to either of your questions.  Existing Gruordvwrold, to our knowledge, had no role in the creation of new Gruordvwrold – they seemed to arise naturally.  Then, they stopped doing so, and not long after that the Ipemav vanished to the Spiritual Plane.

               Evry snorted.  “So, Arval, despite your best efforts, the answer to this crisis is not for the Gruordvwrold to have more babies.”

               Arval flushed, but Redra picked up his idea.  “What if it’s connected?  The Ipemav vanishing and your species’ terminated procreation.  That ghost or whatever it was said something about defeating an Ipemav ruler causing this crisis.”

               “Coincidence.  Correlation is not causation,” Evry declared, but Cinnabar considered the idea.

               “It is…conceivable that the Ipemav were responsible for the cessation of new Gruordvwrold creation,” Cinnabar mused.  “Under other circumstances, I would consider this a possibility worthy of great effort to investigate fully.  Alas, I do not think that new Gruordvwrold would solve the crisis we today face.  The Imbalance which exists today is not like that which may have spawned the first Gruordvwrold.

               “How so?” Arval asked.

               Cinnabar rumbled.  “It is difficult to explain.  Consider this scale analogy which Guardcaptain Vere presented in his earlier missive.  It is an imperfect description of reality, but it will suffice.  Now, the Imbalance which gave rise to the Gruordvwrold would be akin to one side of the scales being loaded with a greater mass, and the Gruordvwrold manifesting in order to return the balance to equal.  In other words, an equilibrium was still achieved, but the World sought a mechanism by which to achieve Balance.  The Imbalance we face today is different.  It is like someone drew one side of the scale down so far that the oscillations induced will take centuries to return to a stable equilibrium.

               Arval scratched his head.  “But what does that mean, in actual terms?  How would we stop it?”

               Evry gave an exasperated groan.  “You people are so backwards!  Alright, look.  Arval, pay attention.  To dampen oscillations, the dampening force must be proportional to the velocity of oscillation and act against the direction of motion.”

               “So…” Redra prompted.

               “So, it’s basic physics!  Lose the magical-religious mumbo jumbo, and you need a companion force to dampen the oscillation induced by whatever happened.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a spring, a scale, or the entire frishing universe.”

               “That would mean we’d need an expenditure of magic on an unfathomable scale!” Redra protested.

               “Well, um, there could be some alternative we could think of,” Arval suggested, though he had little confidence that was true.

               Somehow, Cinnabar appeared even more weary and ancient.  “I believe Evry and Redra are correct.  I must discuss this matter with Eldar immediately.”  He turned and left, his thoughts closed to Arval and the others.  It should have felt like a breakthrough, but the weight in Cinnabar’s voice left Arval worried about what their realization actually meant.

               Everything was getting worse.  Doubtless Doil would have told him that was an exaggeration, and that he was catastrophizing, and that he should look at the situation rationally, but Kiluron wasn’t speaking to Doil since the minister meeting when Doil volunteered to sacrifice himself in Yorin’s obscene ritual.  Perpetual storm clouds seemed to brew around the Prime and match those that brought fresh ruin outside as he stalked Merolate’s castle halls, a perpetual glare daring anyone to contradict him.

               Instead of attending the fifth day of minister meetings convened to discuss High Priest Yorin’s proposal, which was likely to produce as much lack of progress as the previous four, Kiluron accosted Inpernuth on his way into the conference chamber.  “By your understanding of the Charter, what am I not empowered to do as Prime under disastrous circumstances?” he demanded.

               Inpernuth’s usual attitude melted under Kiluron’s interrogatory gaze.  “Er, other than revising the Charter?  Very little, truthfully, based on the ‘not specifically enumerated’ clause.  Although it would be difficult to justify the creation of a Union armed force without an obvious target of external conflict.  Lok.”

               “Good.”  Kiluron released Inpernuth to the meeting, snagged Ulurush before she could enter the conference chamber, and led her out into the castle courtyard.

               “Sir?” Ulurush asked.

               Kiluron shook himself.  “You’re from Nycheril, aren’t you?  Do the people there know anything about this Balance stuff that we don’t?”

               “We know to avoid it,” Ulurush answered.

               “Hm.  Well, it was just a thought.  Not what I really wanted to ask you about.”  Kiluron hesitated.  “I need you to institute city-wide conscription into the guard force and prepare to lock down the city.”

               Ulurush nodded.  “Expecting trouble, Sir?”

               “You could say that.  Just – keep rumors down and keep everyone ready.  Alright?”  He waited for Ulurush’s salute, and then dismissed her to join the meeting, too.

               Most of the time, Kiluron considered himself a practical person.  He wasn’t like the scholars Doil was always referencing, with their bizarre theories that made no sense when they were actually applied.  His days might consist more of reading reports and writing letters these days, but being active was a mentality.  Most of his problems could no longer be solved by swinging a sword, but that didn’t mean that sitting in meetings was his only option.

               Sneaking around was always difficult for him, and only became more so when he was elevated from Sub-Prime to Prime.  His own changes after the Gälmourein attacks made his task even more challenging, so Kiluron made sure he seemed to be going about his routine within the castle.  When he was confident no one was looking, he uncoiled the rope from beneath his tunic, secured it to a crenellation, and let himself down over the outer wall.

               Once outside the castle, he moved with a purpose – hurrying would be suspicious – to Guardlieutenant Twiol’s office, where he surprised the man busy with ever-growing piles of paperwork.  With all of the new information coming in and being tracked, Twiol would probably need a formal position of his own, and a new organization to support him, but Kiluron filed that thought away for later.

               “Did you find it?” he asked.

               “Ah, yes Sir, I think I did.”  Twiol shuffled papers around, found one, long slip at which he squinted, and then pushed a stack towards the Prime.  “From the topics you mentioned, I was able to ascertain that Esaphatulenius could not have come across such references in official Merolate libraries, even the secured sections.  That led me to trace his knowledge back to a renegade Blood Worshipper cult based half a day’s ride northeast of Heart City.”  He tapped a location on a map which he conjured from yet another pile.  “I couldn’t find any evidence of current habitation, though I admit that the brief time for which we have been gathering relevant information makes such inferences difficult.”

               Kiluron memorized the location.  “Thank you, Twiol.  See if you can find anything more either on Esaphatulenius or that false prophet fellow, Avinon.  Though that last is probably a dead end.”  He left, hopefully giving no indication to Twiol that this was anything other than research to inform the ongoing discussions.

               Since taking a horse from his own stables would arouse attention, Kiluron instead borrowed a horse from a private stable near the city gates.  The proprietor offered the horse for free for the day, but Kiluron left the woman with a gold coin despite her protests before he rode out of the city.  With a plain, brown cloak concealing his armor and sword, and an ordinary horse, the guards at the gate didn’t recognize him, and he rode away from the city alone.

               Such a fierce gale was blowing that it seemed fit to tug him from his saddle by his cloak, and his horse kept drifting sideways before its force, so that Kiluron was constantly readjusting to keep them heading for the location Twiol had identified.  He didn’t know exactly what he hoped to find there, but it seemed to him that someone who talked a lot about the end of the world might know something about averting it.  If nothing else, perhaps Esaphatulenius’ cult could have insights into Blood Magic that Yorin lacked.

               Even riding fast, he knew he would not reach Heart City, or the enclave Twiol found for him, and then return to Merolate all in one day.  When he was nowhere to be found at nightfall, if not sooner, the search would be on, and he felt guilty for the manpower that would be wasted on that effort that was sorely needed elsewhere.  If he thought that he could convince Doil this was important, he wouldn’t have been clandestine about it, but he saw little choice.  Doil was too stubborn, and too convinced that there was no alternative to Yorin’s human sacrifice scheme.  They wouldn’t find Kiluron until after he did what he set out to do.

               Assuming he could find the place.  Heart City was as deserted as ever, although as Kiluron approached the ruin he thought he could sense a kind of buzzing to the atmosphere, like a prolonged version of the sense right before a lightning strike.  His horse shied away from it, becoming restless and unruly when they were still barely in sight of the remains.  Trusting its instincts, Kiluron backtracked until the sense faded, and made camp for the night.  The next morning, he made a wide circumnavigation of Heart City to reach the northeastern side.

               To Twiol’s credit, Kiluron found the site just after noon.  If it weren’t for its proximity to Heart City and the obelisk in the center, it could have been the remains of any abandoned village in the Union.  Kiluron paused at the obelisk, but couldn’t read any of the inscriptions, so he moved on.  He would copy them down as best he could for someone to translate before he returned to Merolate.  It was strange not to immediately hand that task off to Doil.

               Overgrown gardens contained a mixture of weeds, dried crops, and struggling saplings.  A few huts were mostly collapsed, but two larger buildings were intact.  One of them was empty inside, save for a grisly, blood-stained altar that showed no signs of recent use, and the other contained a confusing array of instruments, mostly made of brass and glass, of which Kiluron could not make sense.  They seemed like the sort of tools Arval would make.

               “Creepy place, huh.”  But Doil wasn’t there to answer, and Kiluron’s voice alone in the deserted village did not alleviate the creepiness, nor did his horse’s impatient whinny.

               He was almost ready to give up the visit as a futile exercise when he noticed a trap door in the room with the intricate equipment.  The door groaned when he opened it but offered no other resistance, and he found a ladder leading down into a stone-lined basement.  After he fashioned a torch – he found a lantern, but it had no fuel – Kiluron drew his sword and carefully descended the ladder.  He doubted there would be need for the sword, but he felt better entering a mysterious underground room with its weight in his hand.

               At the center of the room was a sinister contraption of brass and cast iron.  It formed a frame in the rough shape of a man with large, sharpened spikes at the head, hands, and feet that all connected to a central nob.  From the look of it, Kiluron suspected that tightening the nob would slowly drive those spikes into a person secured within the frame, but he did not care to approach close enough to verify his guess.  Besides, he was more interested in the wooden cubbies lining the basement’s entire rear wall, which were full of scrolls.

               Armful by armful, skirting the torture device in the basement’s center, Kiluron carried the scrolls up into the better light outside.  When everything was removed from the basement cubbies, he closed the trapdoor and made a camp for himself before settling down to try to read what he found.  Half of the scrolls contained diagrams that would probably only make sense if he could read the other half.  At the bottom of several was a signature that read ‘The Society of the Broken Promise.’

               He read until he had to hold the scrolls so close to his fire in order to see them that he was worried he would burn the entire collection, and he started again as soon as it was morning, munching on his travel rations for breakfast while he tried to make sense of the confusing material.  Though it wasn’t in a different language, it might as well have been to Kiluron, for all the sense it seemed to make.  Many of the scrolls were connected, and he finally realized that the connected ones made up a comprehensive description of Balance as a theory to explain the World.  Someone else would probably find that fascinating, but it wasn’t much help to Kiluron.  He put those aside and turned to the remainder of the scrolls.

               Here, he finally found something useful.  The scrolls contained detailed instructions for summoning demons, which was somehow what the apparatus in the basement was intended to facilitate.  He remembered that Herlglut said summoning demons did something to create an Imbalance, and he wondered if this might be a way around the human sacrifices Yorin was demanding.

               It wasn’t a good option.  In fact, it was a horrible option, and Kiluron knew that even as he read the scrolls and thought through what would be required to make it happen.  If the Gruordvwrold could not provide a better solution, he would be willing to try demons before he started asking Merolate’s citizens to give themselves to Yorin for blood sacrifice.  Especially if Doil continued to insist on volunteering.

               Packaging the scrolls as best he could in an extra waxed cloak he brought for the purpose, Kiluron made his way back to Merolate.  He encountered patrols just south of Heart City who were very relieved upon finding him, and he endured their hovering all the way back to the castle, where he carried his bundle of scrolls up to his rooms and hoped that no one thought too much of it in the general hubbub around his disappearance and return.

               After he washed and changed his clothes, Kiluron stepped out of his chambers to find Doil waiting at his door.  “Can we talk, my lord?” his Advisor asked, eyes downcast, before Kiluron could quite retreat back into his room and slam the door closed.

               “What’s there to talk about?” Kiluron challenged.  “You’re doing what you think you have to do for Merolate, and so am I.  That’s all there is to it.”

               “We both know it’s not that simple,” Doil replied.  “Please?”

               Kiluron hesitated, but it seemed too late to slam the door.  “Fine.  Let’s talk.”  He closed the door once Doil was inside, and then he flopped down into a chair.

               There was an awkward silence, which Doil was the first to break.  “I had to volunteer, my lord, in order for the ministers, or anyone else, to take the idea seriously.  I know that’s not what we talked about, but I was wrong in that discussion, and there wasn’t time to talk to you about it during the meeting.  I’m sorry that I caught you by surprise like that.”

               “I get it,” Kiluron mumbled.  He didn’t want to, but now that they were talking, he found it difficult to remain angry.  “But Doil, how am I supposed to run the Union without you?  And besides, a sacrifice of hundreds of people once a generation just to maintain the status quo?  Putting us constantly at the Isle’s mercy?  We both know that this is a stopgap, last resort, no other option kind of option at best.”

               “I know,” Doil agreed, “but we also have to discuss it and plan for it, because we still haven’t come up with anything better.”

               Kiluron hesitated.  “I…might have an idea about that.  That’s kind of what I snuck off about.”

               Doil raised his eyebrows.  “Are you about to tell me how you snuck off, panicked the entire government, and caused Ulurush to punch a stone wall because you needed to go personally search out secret Blood Magic rites and techniques that maybe Yorin doesn’t know about and hasn’t considered that we could use to correct what’s happened and prevent the end of the world?”

               The dramatic revelations Kiluron prepared died on his tongue, and he drooped in his chair.  “How did you figure it out?”

               Doil laughed.  A small laugh, but it was something.  “It wasn’t that difficult, my lord.  I asked Twiol if you’d had him look anything up recently, and from there it was an easy matter to determine what you were trying to do.  You’re not that unpredictable, my lord, at least given how well I know you.”

               Kiluron tried to sigh, but it came out as a snort that became a laugh, and then they were both laughing.  “Well, there go my attempts at subterfuge,” he rued.

               “Did you end up finding anything?” Doil asked.

               “I don’t know.  I found a lot of stuff about demon summoning, and it seemed like maybe that would be a good idea when I was alone there, reading it, but now that we’re here and discussing it the whole thing seems rather silly.  Priest Herlglut certainly knew about demons, so we should probably assume that Yorin does, too, and would already have mentioned it if he thought it would work.”

               “I agree, although we do not know for certain what High Priest Yorin may be hoping to gain from this circumstance,” Doil mused.  “We would do well to bear in mind the Balancer obsession with transaction.”

               Kiluron glanced at the bundle of scrolls he brought back from the abandoned enclave.  “Well, maybe we pitch the idea and see how he reacts.”  He looked towards the window.  “I still hope that we’ll get a response from the Gruordvwrold soon with an alternative plan that won’t require such sacrifice.”

               Doil hesitated.  “Actually, my lord, we received a letter from Eldar this morning.  It was one of the matters about which I wanted to speak with you.”

               “Really?”  Kiluron perked up at this news.  “Why didn’t you say so before?  That’s great…”  He took in Doil’s expression, and his hopes faded.  “Not good?”

               His Advisor shook his head.  “Their solution might be worse than Yorin’s.”  He held out the letter to Kiluron, and the Prime took it.  When he was finished reading, he looked up at Doil, and neither of them had words.

               Arval chased after Cinnabar.  “You can’t do this.  You can’t seriously even make it an offer.  It’s preposterous!

               “We can and we must,” Cinnabar rumbled.  “Eldar already sent a letter to your Prime.  It is within our capacity to correct this wrong and therefore it would be irresponsible of us not to do so; the only reason we are not already doing this is the remote possibility that your Prime may already be coordinating an alternative solution.

               “But it’s mass suicide!” Arval protested.  “Your entire species would die!

               Cinnabar continued down the corridor, which barely accommodated a Gruordvwrold’s bulk, though it felt cavernous to Arval.  “And if we do not act, the Planes will collide and annihilate each other, and all species will perish.  Perhaps, if you had several millennia of perspective, you would be better able to approach this matter rationally, instead of passionately.  Your concern is touching, but it is misplaced.

               Arval pushed a hand through what remained of his hair.  “Misplaced?  Cinnabar, you and your people are unique!  No other species is like yours, none of us can ever have your perspective, your wisdom, your age, your power.

               “And were we to behave differently, according to your desires, we would no longer be worthy of these lauds which you thrust upon us,” Cinnabar retorted.  He then shut Arval out of his mind and disappeared deeper into Meronua.

               Unable to even make the Gruordvwrold hear his arguments, Arval retreated back to the chamber in which Redra and Evry were waiting.  His slumped shoulders conveyed his lack of success.  “Blood and Balance!” Redra swore.

               “Could’ve told you it was no use,” Evry declared, but her expression was softer than her words as Arval dropped onto the floor beside them.

               Arval shook his head.  “How did it come to this?  We were supposed to be helping them, not convincing them they need to kill themselves.”

               “That’s why I don’t bother to help people,” Evry observed.  Arval glared at her, and she had the decency to appear embarrassed.  “Fine.  So, what do you do next?”

               Wearily, Redra pushed herself to her feet.  “I guess we’re back where we began.  We need to find a solution to what ails the Gruordvwrold, and what’s wrong with the entire world, which does not involve the Gruordvwrold expending their entire power, their entire life forces.”

               With no more an idea of where to begin than he had before, Arval joined her.  Evry followed a few moments later, grumbling but present.  They were quiet as Redra cleaned out her mortar and Arval washed off the scale Cinnabar donated to their experiments, and Arval kept thinking that he was ill-equipped for this kind of work.  If any of the three of them were to figure out an answer, it would be Redra.

               For the rest of the day, and long into the night, Arval worked with Redra to try different remedies.  Now that they knew to focus on the Balance problems, the witch emphasized her magic more and her herblore less, to the point that Arval and even Evry volunteered their own blood to supplement Redra’s in the experiments.  A few produced the slightest alleviation to the rot infecting Cinnabar’s scale, but it always returned as soon as the remedy was removed.

               “We have to rest,” Redra declared finally, as Arval swayed on his feet and Evry started awake from a doze in the corner.  “We’ll not be effective if we’re so tired we can barely see.  We can keep working in the morning.”

               They never had that opportunity.  Barely was Arval awake and beginning to gather a fresh set of ingredients than Eldar’s voice was booming in his mind.  “Come, it is time to leave,” the Gruordvwrold’s leader announced.

               “Leave?” Arval asked.  “Where are we going?  We’re trying to help you, find some other way…

               “I am going to Merolate, and you will all accompany me.  Redra, I will see that you are returned wherever you wish, if Merolate is not your choice.  The rest of the Gruordvwrold will return north into the mountains.

               “To die, you mean.”  Arval tried to project a glare.  “There must be another way.  Let us keep working.

               Eldar cut off his arguments.  “Time is up, Inventor.  I apologize, but the world itself trembles.  We cannot afford to wait, or the damage may become irreversible.

               “And what about the damage to yourselves?” Arval retorted.  “Sounds like that’s about to become irreversible, too.

               No response from Eldar.  The ancient being simply ignored Arval, and he was no more responsive to Redra’s entreaties.  “Prepare yourselves for transport,” he ordered.

               Evry elbowed forward.  “Hold on, transport?  I thought you were just going to fly us down and then we were going to caravan to Merolate.”

               “I thought we might get to fly,” Arval mused, and noted Evry’s pallor.  “You?  You’re, um, afraid of flying?”

               Evry crossed her arms.  “I’m afraid of falling, not flying.  I’m a sailor, not one of those addle-brained imbeciles who insist on strapping wings to themselves and trying to jump off of towers.”

               Eldar’s neck rippled, and a hint of amusement came from him.  “We are neither flying, nor caravanning,” he explained.  “There being no reason to conserve our essences, as all must be expended, anyway, we shall simply…transport.

               “You mean teleport?” Evry asked, incredulous.  “I didn’t know you could do that.  I…I have a lot of questions, now.”

               Ignoring Evry, Eldar fixed his gaze upon each of them, somehow keeping each of them in focus simultaneously, and he began to glow.  Arval looked down at himself, and he realized that he was glowing, too.  The cavern in which they stood faded to black, but hardly had it faded than a new scene began to fade into view from black, and then they were standing outside Merolate’s gates in the middle of a blizzard.

               “Hey, Eldar!” Evry shouted, “if you’re not concerned about wasting your power, why don’t you get rid of this blizzard?”

                Either Eldar did not hear her, or he chose not to deign that with a response.  To Arval, even through the swirling snow, he thought that Eldar looked visibly older, more worn and faded, and he wondered just how much of the Gruordvwrold’s essence was used in accomplishing that transport.  Yet, it seemed the blight on his scales receded, too.

               “Go, alert the Prime to my coming,” Eldar directed.  “I shall meet you in the courtyard.”  He seemed unphased by the blizzard raging around him.

               As much as Arval wanted to protest, and he could tell that Redra felt the same, he could think of nothing to say.  With Evry and Redra, he dashed into the slight shelter of the city walls and stumbled his way through the snowdrift-choked streets to the castle.  Though every hearth and brazier within was blazing, the castle was barely warmer than outside, but at least the wind was blocked.

               A servant pointed them to one of the studies, where they found Kiluron and Doil both surrounded by piles of books and scrolls, a less accustomed sight for the Prime than for his Advisor.  The Prime glanced up from his reading upon the door opening with an expression of relief, though he blinked at the snow-crusted trio.

               “Arval?” he asked.  The Inventor nodded, causing snow to break off from where it had formed a second skin over his clothes and skin, and he futilely tried to brush more off onto the floor, before thinking better of it and contenting himself to standing awkwardly.  “I thought you were on your way to Meronua.”

               “We just came from there.”  Redra pushed forwards before Arval could find words to say.  “Eldar brought us back.  He intends to meet you in the courtyard.  My lord Prime, you must convince him to forgo his plan!”

               Given that neither Prime nor Advisor asked, ‘what plan,’ Arval surmised they already knew of Eldar’s intent.  They glanced at each other.  “We have been searching for alternatives since before we received Eldar’s missive,” Doil explained.  “Unfortunately, the only other solution we retain may be even worse than the Gruordvwrold’s.”

               “Worse?” Redra demanded.  “How can there be a plan worse than the death of an entire species?!”

               Doil remained calm.  “The only alternative we have at the moment, Witch Redra, is to offer hundreds of people every generation for Blood Sacrifice on the Isle until the end of history.  And that is after applying ourselves to little else since we learned of High Priest Yorin’s proposed ‘solution.’”

               “…Oh.”  Redra sank into a nearby chair and drooped, all of the fight having left her.  Arval couldn’t blame her.  “This…really is the end of the world, then.  I guess I still didn’t quite believe it.”

               “It’s hard to swallow,” Evry agreed.  “I still haven’t swallowed it.”

               “I don’t suppose you have a gadget for preventing the end of the world?” the Prime asked Arval.

               “Er, um, no, not as…as such,” Arval fumbled.  “Ah, I’m afraid that my tinkering does not really include magic and mystical powers…”

               Evry glanced at him.  “You’re having a thought.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Alright, Arval, out with it.”

               Arval hesitated.  “It’s just that, well, I was saying how I don’t really use magical powers and ingredients, when I realized that there was one time that I did.”  He realized that he meant to keep that particular ingredient secret and clamped his mouth shut, but it was too late.

               “The modified glowjars!” Evry exclaimed.  “Your stupid, wasteful, ludicrous, preposterous waste of the most powerful energy source your primitive civilization is likely to discover within the next five centuries!”

               “Er, um, well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that…and it’s probably a silly idea, anyway, I mean, surely the Gruordvwrold would already have thought of it.”

               “Just tell us what it is, Arval,” Kiluron encouraged.

               Doil had an odd expression on his face, and Arval wondered if somehow the Advisor already knew.  “I, um, kind of, possibly, might have convinced Cinnabar to allow me to retain a very, very small sample of the Gruordvwrold remains discovered during the mining expedition,” Arval admitted.  “I didn’t want to do much with it!” he hastened to add.  “I just thought that, the way they were glowing in the dark down there, that maybe I could, um, modify my glowjars so they weren’t so green.”

               Redra stared at him.  “You used a source of power so dangerous that the Gruordvwrold would not even allow me to see it, nor answer any of my questions about it, to change the color of your silly lights?”

               “I love it!” Kiluron interjected before Arval could respond.  He realized everyone was looking at him and cleared his throat.  “That is, Inventor, how do you think this might be relevant to the current crisis?”

               Arval hesitated.  “Erm, well, I don’t know exactly if it would work – that’s probably a question for the Gruordvwrold – but I was thinking that, um, if the Gruordvwrold think that expending all of their own power will correct the issues with the Balance, then wouldn’t expending the power from the Gruordvwrold remains have a similar effect?  Except that those Gruordvwrold are already, you know, dead, so it won’t have to involve so many people dying…”

               “I…don’t actually know if that would work,” Doil admitted, “but it does sound convincing.”

               Kiluron leapt to his feet.  “Well, we’re supposed to be meeting with Eldar now, anyway, not sitting around here and chatting about nothing of consequence.  Let’s go ask him.”  With that, he led the way out to the courtyard.  Arval, Evry, and Redra all hesitated in the study while the Prime and the Advisor filed out, unsure if it was appropriate for them to attend, but Evry rolled her eyes and fell in behind them, which was enough convincing for Arval and Redra.

               Eldar was awaiting them in the courtyard in a bubble of calm.  Snow and wind continued lashing about outside, but in a dome around Eldar encompassing almost the entire courtyard the air was still and warm.  Sitting back upon his hind legs with his tail curled tightly around him and his neck arcing towards the sky, he looked a picture of majesty and myth.  Arval had to swallow hard as he recognized that Eldar, though proud, was not as sanguine as he presented about consigning his people to death.

               “Prime Kiluron, Advisor Doil.  I am pleased that you are willing to receive me.  I trust that you received my missive?” Eldar intoned.

               “We did,” Prime Kiluron acknowledged.  “And I can’t allow it.”

               Eldar paused.  “Cannot allow it?  I was not requesting permission, Prime Kiluron, from any mortal authority to do my duty to ensure that this world does not end.  I inform you as a courtesy towards one who has been generous towards the Gruordvwrold, and as one who would pass the mantle of responsibility for the welfare of the world unto he who must bear it next.

               A heavy silence descended on the courtyard as everyone processed what Eldar was saying.  Prime Kiluron choked.  “Eldar, are you saying, that is, I mean, I’m honored, but I hardly think…” he snapped his mouth shut and took a deep breath before trying again.  “I am honored by your faith in me, Eldar, but I don’t think you should just go gallivanting off to kill yourself.”  Doil winced behind him but did not interrupt.  “You said, when we first met, that you intended that the Gruordvwrold would act as citizens of Merolate.  Seems to me that means that I have a responsibility to your welfare as much as I do to the humans in the Union.”

               “My responsibility to ensure the preservation of the World outweighs any mortal authority,” Eldar declared.

               “Well, that’s a shame,” Kiluron asserted, “because it seems to me that you’re awfully eager to see your entire species end.  If you’d pause for a moment, one of my ministers thinks he might have a solution that would mean nobody has to sacrifice themselves.”  The Prime glanced at Doil when he said this last.

               Eldar shook his draconic head.  “I assure you that we have already considered every possibility.  There is scant chance that your mortal scholars could identify an option that we neglected.  Do not think that we make this decision lightly or in haste, Prime of Merolate.

               “The bones!” Arval interrupted.  He flushed as soon as he did and glanced nervously towards the Prime as both his gaze and Eldar’s focused on the Inventor, but at a slight nod from Kiluron he stood his ground.  “Eldar, the stones infused by the Gruordvwrold remains.  The ones that Cinnabar explained to me.  Couldn’t we use the power contained in them to accomplish the same thing that you’re trying to do by dying?  It’s the same power, isn’t it?”

               The Gruordvwrold’s leader lowered his head to be on a level with Arval, or as close as could be achieved when Eldar’s skull was taller than Arval’s entire body.  His massive eye regarded the Inventor with obvious sadness.  “Ah, to be so young.  Cinnabar and I already discussed the possibility of using the stones, but it would not have the same effect.  The stones do not exert an active influence upon the Balance, unlike the living Gruordvwrold.  No, there is no other choice.  My people must pass on from this World.  It is time for this age of magic to end.

               There seemed nothing for Arval to do but stumble back, where Evry patted him on the shoulder.  He couldn’t tell if she was trying to comfort him or get him to pull himself together.  The Prime was still speaking, though.  “Eldar, the Blood Priests do have an alternative.  If I’m to consider you citizens of the Union, then we must at least consider it.”

               “No,” Eldar declared.  “I will not be so selfish as to enable brutal sacrifice of that kind for a solution that is no solution at all, but merely delays the inevitable.  The day of reckoning would one day come, regardless.  High Priest Yorin does not fully understand the nature of the crisis.  He sees only a narrow view of the Balance.  This is, truly, the only way.

               Such an air of finality permeated his words that none of the mortals gathered there could think of any further argument that could perhaps persuade the Gruordvwrold to reconsider.  Eldar seemed to sense this, for after a long, reflective moment, he nodded.  “The onus passes now to you and your people, Prime Kiluron.  Steward this World well.”  He turned within the courtyard, careful to keep his tail from striking the fragile humans, and then launched himself into the air.  When he penetrated the edge of his own bubble of calm, there was a subtle pop, and the blizzard rushed back into the courtyard, immediately obscuring the Gruordvwrold’s form from view.

               No explicit method existed by which Kiluron could know when it was over.  The Blood Priests knew at once, and the witches soon afterwards, but the ordinary people of Lufilna, in theory, had no means of knowing precisely when the last Gruordvwrold expended his power and thus faded from existence.  Life went on, unperturbed, save perhaps for a gradual righting of the wrongs that cascaded from the impending collision of the Planes.  Even so, Kiluron thought he knew.

               The remainder of the winter was spent in cleaning up from the chaos of the most recent crisis, and in preparation for the event which Kiluron intended to hold in the spring.  He would have preferred to hold it sooner, but the nations of Lufilna were occupied with their own affairs, recovering from the Balance Crisis, as it was being called, and travel was too difficult in the winter for most, anyway.  Besides, as Doil pointed out, it would take that long just to have Merolate ready to host the event.

               Kiluron therefore did his best to be patient and use the time to prepare what he wanted to say.  Nor was there a shortage of governance work to which to apply his energies.  Twiol’s intelligence network was spun off into a separate arm of the Merolate Guard, Ulurush led an expedition to Meronua to recover anything left behind by the Gruordvwrold, and the province governors all wanted his personal attention for their disparate affairs.  The first days after the end of the end of the world passed slowly, but then time began to rush by, and soon enough Kiluron was wondering how they would ever be ready in time.

               Fortunately, Doil had lists.  Many lists, full of everything from timelines to what the servants needed to purchase in order for all of the food to be suitable for the different guests.  When Kiluron sent out the invitations, he wasn’t certain who would agree to attend, or if anyone outside of the Union would, but almost everyone was sending at least one representative.  Ebereen’s delegation would arrive tomorrow, Rovis’ would arrive the day after that, Nycheril’s was already docked in a brand-new ship, all of the governors converged on the city several days before, and Old Sankt’s delegation was projected to be a day late and had requested they hold the entire proceedings until they arrived, and even the tribes of the Unclaimed Territories had sent a representative.

               Only High Priest Yorin and the Isle of Blood did not send a response.  They did not say they were not coming, but neither did they confirm their attendance.  Doil claimed they were likely preoccupied with ascertaining what their new position in the world would be, but Kiluron thought that was just a fancy way of trying to explain the fact that the Blood Priests were sulking.  Since their Isle was nearly in view of the castle in which the event was being hosted, he supposed they could afford to keep everyone in suspense.

               Maybe there should have been more ceremony, more pomposity, but Kiluron thought that would just appear pretentious.  Instead, everyone he invited gathered on the first day around the circular table his craftsmen created for the purpose.  Each place had a copy of Doil’s agenda, and each person had a symbol to indicate what people they represented.  The usual conversation that preceded a meeting of the ministers was absent, for this was not a convivial gathering.  Kiluron didn’t know how much to reasonably hope that would change in the coming days.

               Once everyone was assembled and took their seats, Kiluron stood up to speak.  “Thank you all for coming to this, what I hope is the first of many Councils of the World.”  He had almost sent an invitation to the Pifechans, as well, but beside not knowing how to do that in a reasonable period of time, he couldn’t quite bring himself to invite them.  “Hopefully, you’ve all read the brief my Advisor assembled for you on recent events.  Our world is changed drastically, in ways that we are only beginning to understand.  I hope that we can take that as an opportunity to make a fresh start.”

               While there were a few murmurs, everyone was mostly respectful.  Hoping the heat under his collar wasn’t noticeable, Kiluron took a deep breath as he prepared for his next statement; he hadn’t been confident that he would even be allowed to get through that opening without being interrupted.  Before he could speak again, the doors to the great hall boomed open to reveal an ancient figure dressed in bloodred robes.

               “Announcing High Priest Yorin of the Isle of Blood,” the guard at the door called belatedly.  Kiluron shot her a sympathetic glance as the High Priest made his shuffling way towards the table, flanked by two Blood Priests.  Now, the fragile peace broke.

               Rovis’s representative, Grisslo, leapt to his feet.  “I’ll not sit at a table with those abominations!” he declared.

               “They are less my enemy that you,” Ebereen’s representative, Eleshtika, retorted, “yet here I am, sitting at the same table as you are.”

               “Well, you shan’t for much longer, if the boy Prime intends to allow those Bloody priests a seat here!” retorted Grisslo.

               Here, Kiluron had just been thinking how well things were proceeding.  He spared a glare for Yorin, who could have averted some of the drama by arriving on time, and then he turned back to the other delegations.  “Please, allow them their seat.  Whether we agree or not, the Isle of Blood remains an important figure in our world, and they perhaps more than any of us must directly confront the changes the winter wrought.”

               That did little to calm Grisslo, but at least the man stopped threatening to leave.  Characteristically, High Priest Yorin made a show of ignoring the hullaballoo around his entrance, though Kiluron thought he savored causing such a stir.  Perhaps it was the only power left to the old man.

               “Are we supposed to believe this?”  Grisslo held up the information packet about the Gruordvwrolds’ sacrifice and the Unbalancing of the World.  “This…pseudo-religious nonsense?  If I’d known that the Merolate Union was sliding backwards into superstitious ways, I would not tolerate your armed presence along our border.”

               Fighting the urge to rub his forehead, Kiluron shook his head.  “It does seem incredible, doesn’t it?  But if you’d met the Gruordvwrold, I think you’d be more willing to believe.  Besides, since he’s now here, I’m sure that High Priest Yorin can attest to what happened.”

               “And we should take the word of a filthy Blood Worshipper?” Grisslo demanded.

               “He does seem an unreliable source,” Old Sankt’s representative, Alidi, agreed after a conference with her fellows.

               “And yet, I am here, and I can assure you that the packet is…close to the truth, at least in the important details.  I disagree with certain interpretations.”  High Priest Yorin grimaced.  “What is beyond doubt is that magic is gone from this world.  Whatever transpired, the Planes are no longer in communication, and the Balance therefore is rather irrelevant.”

               “Then you’ll be disbanding your little cult?” Grisslo sneered.

               Yorin gave him a withering gaze, and even the bellicose representative diminished a bit before it.  Magicless he might be, but Yorin was still the oldest and most experienced politician in the room.  “Hardly.  The maintenance of the Balance has always been about more than mere magic.  Blood Magic was a feature of our faith, not the center of it.”

               Alidi leaned forward.  “While all of this discussion of magic and Balance and faith is fascinating to someone, I’m sure, I, for one, am curious what the purpose of this gathering is.  Why has the Prime of Merolate gathered all of us here, as adversarial as certain relationships must be?  I would dislike thinking that the time of the representatives of the venerable nation of Old Sankt is being wasted.”

               “Yes, why did you bring us all here?” Eleshtika asked.

               Kiluron glanced around the room.  “Isn’t it obvious?” he asked.  “Blood Magic, in any form, is gone.  We’ve all lived out entire lives, for generations upon generations, with magic in the background.  Whether we liked it or not, acknowledged it or not, used it or not, for whatever ends, it affected us, shaped out context, and now it’s gone.  That will change everything.  It is already changing everything.  A nation on the other side of the world that knows nothing of magic attacked us once already with technology far in advance of our understanding.  Without magic, we would have lost to a tiny expeditionary fleet.  Our world must change, is changing.”

               He had everyone’s attention again.  “We stand here on the threshold of a new age.  I asked you all to join me here because we have an opportunity to make a fresh start, to do things differently, to do things better.  Maybe it’s an arbitrary point in time and our ancestors will never remember what made this moment in history unique from any other, but I say it is our chance.  I want to make this a forum.  A forum where we can all meet in peace, regardless of what else is happening between our peoples or in the world.  We have faced crisis after crisis that affected all of us these past few years.  Imagine if we could have coordinated responses.  What if, the next time the world tries to end, none of us had to face it alone?  That’s why I asked you all to come.”

               Brief silence greeted his speech, and Kiluron hoped he had managed to communicate why this mattered, but he feared that the other leaders didn’t understand how close they came to catastrophe.  Only Yorin understood the full scope of what transpired, and he was not the ally Kiluron needed.  If he spoke up in support, it might just drive the rest of the representatives away for good.

               “Pretty words,” Grisslo remarked.  “Noble sentiments.  But you know what I hear?  I hear a tyrant.  I think this is the first step towards expanding the Merolate Union into our territories.  You see, I know history.  This is how the Union started – with a collective council of interested states agreeing to help each other.  Next thing you know, there’s a Prime controlling half the continent.  Well, Rovis will not be part of it.”

               Despite his declaration, Grisslo did not leave right then, but his arguments did set the tone for the remainder of the day’s discussions.  Instead of the optimistic summit Kiluron envisioned beforehand, he was confronted with a headache-inducing collection of squabbles and arguments that half the time seemed about to turn into blows or the failure of the entire effort.  By the time the first day was finished, Kiluron could only slump up to his chambers and close the door against tomorrow.

               Doil found him there, flopped back in a chair and staring at the wall.  “My lord?” he asked.

               Kiluron waved him inside.  “You were right,” he sighed, looking over at his Advisor and then down at his feet.  “This council was a bad idea.  Nobody’s going to listen, nobody wants to be here.  The whole thing is just a waste of time.”

               “That’s not what I said, my lord,” Doil protested.  “I believe I merely observed that you might be wise to temper your expectations for the event.”

               “I’m about ready to lose my temper,” Kiluron muttered.  “None of these people even know what happened.  They never met Eldar, they don’t really understand the sacrifice.  It was Merolate, always Merolate.  Why were we the center of everything that happened?”

               Doil frowned.  “Well, we are the largest nation in Lufilna, so it would stand to reason that we would be disproportionately affected.  Perhaps more importantly, Heart City is within our territory, and the Isle of Blood, both of which have proven to be…oh, you weren’t really looking for an answer.”

               Kiluron shook his head, a slight smile fighting its way onto his face.  “Thanks, though.”  His face fell again.  “Tell me honestly, though.  Am I just wasting my breath?  It’s not like I can go out there and say, ‘the leader of the Gruordvwrold told me that I should try to be the steward of the world.’  We’d probably have a declaration of war from Grisslo before I finished saying it.”

               “My lord, I think it might be a matter of expectations,” Doil said.

               “How so?” Kiluron asked.

               Doil hesitated.  “Well, think of it this way.  You went into this summit with a vision in your head from what Eldar said to you of uniting the hemisphere around shared interests and ideals.  That was probably a little unrealistic, or perhaps I should say idealistic.”

               “Thanks,” Kiluron snapped.

               Doil sighed.  “That was not intended as a critique, my lord.  Considering the ambitiousness of the ideas around which you built this council, the fact that it is occurring at all can be considered a success.  You brought these people here, and no matter how much they’re arguing, they’re still talking.  Whatever else comes of this event, you’ve set a precedent, and that matters, especially when it comes to international politics.  That might be the most important thing that comes out of the council, and that alone is an enormous step in the direction you’re trying to go.”

               It didn’t make Kiluron feel much better, but he sat up a little straighter in his chair.  “You really think so?”

               “Yes.”  Doil smiled.  “It’s your way, my lord.  You’ll go out there tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, right to the end of the council, and by the time it’s done, everyone will know that you’re going to do the right thing.  That’s what really matters, because it means that the next time one of these councils happens, they’ll come ready to trust you a little bit more.”

               Kiluron found himself nodding.  “You’re probably right, as usual.  Alright.  So, how do you think I did today?”

               “I think it went rather well, my lord,” Doil admitted.  “All things considered.”

               “You don’t sound surprised anymore,” Kiluron observed.  “You really think I can handle it?”

               Doil nodded, beginning to smile.  “I do, my lord.”

               Kiluron laughed.  “I don’t.  I think we can do it.”

               “As you say, my lord.”  They grinned at each other.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

               Kiluron watched his Advisor, and his friend, leave the room, and sat back in the chair.  He didn’t feel a lot better, but enough.  Enough that he thought that he might make a good Prime, after all.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E12: Balancing Act, Part Two. And the end of Blood Magic! Thank you for reading, and for following the story all the way to its conclusion. I do hope it was satisfying. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated.

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