Even though the sun was down, the night air was hardly less stultifying than it had been during the day, leaving Redra’s pale skin slick with sweat.  She squashed another mosquito, leaving a ruddy mark on her forearm next to the scabs that were just starting to heal, and she shoved the thin blanket off of the bed.  Sleeping uncovered was uncomfortable, but tonight it was less uncomfortable than being covered.  Naked now, she laid on her back and stared up at her hut’s ceiling, wishing for just the slightest of breezes.

               Sleep should have come easily, despite the muggy heat.  Her day had been a long, tiring one, working with the villagers beneath the summer sun all morning, and spending the afternoon healing the sick and injured.  One old man who had been brought to her had been delirious with the heat; he had pushed himself too hard during the morning and broken something inside of him.  Only with magic had Redra been able to save him, magic and a great deal of skill.  Her magic wasn’t strong to begin with, so she used it only when she knew of nothing else that could help.

               Using magic always left her exhausted, and not just from the blood loss, but despite all of that and the long summer day, she couldn’t sleep.  More than just the heat was leaving her uncomfortable and restless.  Her scabs kept tingling unpleasantly, like they were tugging at her skin in the fashion of those that were almost healed instead of those that had just formed, and she kept peering into the hut’s shadows with the sense that someone was watching her, though she knew there was no one there.

               In the far distance, thunder rumbled, whether from the heat or some distant storm Redra could not say.  A storm would have been nice, to alleviate the humidity and make the night feel cozier, but there was no sign of one nearby; she could tell that much just through the hut’s smoke hole.  With a heavy sigh, she flopped wide across the bed, arms and legs spread-eagled, and forced herself to close her eyes and strive to sleep.  Even so, it was a long time of listening to the quiet rustling of sap rising through the trees to their heavy bounty of verdant leaves before she attained an uneasy sleep.

               All night, such small portion of it as she felt she actually slept, she was plagued by nightmares of unfamiliar places and unfamiliar gods.  It was a relief when the sun began to rise and she could stop trying to sleep, but she was nonetheless slow in mimicking its daily action.  She picked over the dreams like picking at a scab or itching a mosquito bite, something that she knew she shouldn’t do but could not quite resist doing for the delicious, painful relief it brought.  Her mother would have told her that dreams were meaningless, and Redra normally agreed, but her mother was a long way away, aiding a village in faraway Welate, and these dreams lingered instead of fading the way normal dreams did.

               No dream or nightmare was an excuse for laziness, though, so eventually she swung her legs out of bed and got to her feet.  The inside of her hut was already becoming stifling with the first rays of sunlight striking its daub slopes, having never properly cooled off during the night; just putting on clothing made her start sweating like she had been weeding the garden.  It was nothing compared to the oven into which she stepped when she pushed aside the door flap.  Squinting and keeping her eyes toward the ground, she stumbled to the basin of water.

               Dunking her head brought some slight relief, however temporary, and she managed to fully open her eyes.  Her breath caught in her throat as she did, for there was something wrong with the sky.  She had to look at it several times to be sure she wasn’t imagining it, but it was definitely there: a sort of slit in the deep summer blue that shimmered wrongly, like a heat mirage, but different, more alien and more substantial.  It terrified her on some instinctual level, but she could not tear her eyes from it.  If the sky were a sheet of glass, this was an almost invisible crack in that façade.

               Only running footsteps brought her thoughts to more mundane matters; she turned from the torn patch of sky to see Nildo, one of the village teenagers, sprinting towards her with an expression of abject panic on his face.  Nildo, for whom just that spring she had tended a broken arm and severe lacerations from when he had faced down a wolf to defend his younger cousin.  He ran into Redra having hardly slowed his pace, almost knocking her to the ground.

               For a long moment, all Redra did was put her arms around him as his shoulders heaved.  He seemed like he would rather have never moved from that position, but Redra pried him a little from her so that she could look into his eyes.  His face was haunted, like he had seen something so horrible that it had been imprinted deeper than any physical scar.  “Nildo, what happened?”

               Nildo’s mouth worked soundlessly several times before he forced words out between hiccoughs.  “They’re dead, they’re all dead, we’re all dead, all dead,” he howled.  Then he was tugging at her hand, trying to tow her away in the same direction he had been running.

               “What do you mean, they’re dead?”  Something was sinking in Redra’s stomach even as she asked the question.  The rift in the sky, her nightmares… “Nildo, tell me.”

               “Too late, it’s too late,” he moaned.  He had stopped trying to run and was now pointing behind her with a trembling finger.

               Turning around and keeping Nildo behind her, Redra faced giants.  There were two of them, stalking down the same path along which Nildo had come running.  Each stood half again as tall as a tall man, and their faces were long and blunt.  They appeared to be clothed in liquid sunlight that draped across their shoulders and flowed down around their ankles, and where their skin was exposed, it shimmered in the same way as the rift in the sky.

               The giant on the right opened her mouth and spoke, and though it was in no language that Redra could understand, the meaning was clear.  “You can’t have him,” she snapped, keeping herself between the giants and Nildo, and fighting the urge to flee before these beings.  There was something overwhelming about their presence that made her want to fall to her knees, but she fought that impulse, too.  The giant spoke again and reached for her; she stumbled back a few paces, still keeping Nildo behind her, and yanked her knife from its sheath at her side, waving it in front of her.  “Keep back, you monsters!”

               Turning to each other, the two giants exchanged words in their alien tongue, and then turned back towards Redra.  A pressure flowed from them, and when Redra met their eyes she found herself transfixed, unable to look away, unable to move.  It felt like a massive stone was pressing down upon her chest, and though she struggled, she could not overcome whatever held her transfixed.  The giants spoke again, but she could not even hear the alien words.  Her heart was pounding in her head, and she couldn’t breathe.  Black spots began swimming before her eyes, her vision was fading, until all she could see were the monsters before her, those beautiful, beautiful monsters.  They looked just like the gods in her nightmares.

               A sensation like a cool breeze washed through her, and whatever had held her bound dissipated faster than a puffy, white dandelion in a summer breeze.  Redra sucked in a sharp, gasping breath and wavered on her feet.  From the way the giants were looking around, she knew that it was nothing they had done that had freed her.  Not sure how long she had, she slashed across her arm, drawing blood and opening again the scabs from yesterday.  She slashed and slashed until the blood was pouring forth, and she felt magic building within her.  Never had she imagined trying to use Blood Magic as a weapon, but against these creatures that threatened her and Nildo…she would do whatever she had to in order to protect him.  That was her role.

               “Run, Nildo,” she ordered.  “Run, and don’t look back.”  She had to repeat her command twice more before Nildo managed to start running.  One of the giants took a step towards her, but the ground rippled up into a tsunami and tossed both giants backwards, although nothing else had been disturbed when the ground returned to its customary stability.

               “Run, Redra.  I will hold these Ipemav here,” a voice boomed in her mind.  A shadow passed over her, eclipsing the sun’s brilliance and plunging the forest into shadow; it made the giants appear even more beautiful, illuminated by their own, internal radiance.  Redra didn’t move.  These creatures had attacked her village, had attacked her and those she lived to protect.  It was her duty as a Healer to die fighting them.

               “I am sorry that I was too late for your village.”  Though urgent, the voice in her head managed to convey a great weight of sympathy.  “But I am not too late for you.  There will be dying enough in the war to come.  For today, live.”

               Another gust of wind, this one physical, almost threw Redra from her feet.  She stared in wonder as the wounds she had inflicted on herself to power her magic began to close on their own accord, and as she stumbled away from her hut after the direction in which Nildo had fled, she saw the shadow that had eclipsed the sun resolve itself into a gleaming, glittering, crimson dragon that landed between her and the giants.  “Go, live!” the voice repeated in her head.  Lightning crackled across the dragon’s garnet-like scales, and the creature roared; the ground seemed to buck in answer, rippling out from where it had landed.  Tearing her eyes away, Redra left the battle behind and ran after Nildo.

               She found him only a little ways from her hut and the battle of which it had become the epicenter; he had run only far enough to get out of sight before collapsing with his hands clasped over his neck, like he was vainly striving to protect himself from a tornado.  Thinking that perhaps that was not far from the truth, Redra urged him to his feet and got them both moving again, while the ground bucked sporadically beneath their feet, and the air hummed with the energies being exchanged in the conflict from which they fled.

               Whatever wild fear had driven Nildo’s initial flight, it was being rapidly placed by a pale, numb exhaustion.  Redra felt just as ready to stop, to lie down and be done, and she kept trying to justify stopping to herself.  Each time, she forced both herself and her lone surviving charge to continue on, though their frantic running slowed to a hasty plodding.  She wondered what was happening between the dragon and the giants – Ipemav, the dragon had called them – if  the battle had been resolved or if it still raged; it had been a long time since she had noticed the ground shaking.

               There was a neighboring village a day’s walk away; they reached it midafternoon, a testament to how fast they had fled.  Redra had every intention of stopping there for refuge until she caught a whiff of the wind coming from the other village.  It was all smoke and burnt flesh, and she gagged even from a distance.  Without a word to Nildo, she turned their steps another direction.  Nowhere else was in walking distance that day, but anywhere was better than confirming what she feared about their neighbors’ fates.

               She found a thick pine tree with low branches that already bowed close to the ground.  A little work with other branches, some rocks, and her dagger gave them a decent shelter.  Nildo helped her, although his motions were mechanical, stilted, as if he were a puppet being stepped through the necessary motions for life without any real vigor.  They built no fire, and Redra was thankful for the heat of the summer night that just a day before she had been bemoaning.

               No matter how she tried, she could not entirely block out the shimmering rift in the sky, which appeared all the more alien and vivid in the darkness.  It seemed not to have moved at all in relation to their day’s travel.  All she could do was hold Nildo close and hide his head against her chest, as if her form could shield him from what came out of that rift.  She felt him crying against her until he finally fell asleep.  Despite her exhaustion, it was still a long time before she joined him.

               Nothing disturbed their sleep that night.  When morning came, Redra found a coppice of wild berry bushes to furnish their breakfast.  She considered it a good sign that Nildo ate with gusto, turning his lips and fingers purple and sticky from the sweet, tart fruit.  Even so, he didn’t speak until they had already spent most of the morning walking.

               “All dead,” he whispered hoarsely.  “They just…killed them all, like killing chickens for the solstice.”  He looked up at Redra.  “How could anyone do that?  They looked so human.”

               There were no answers that Redra could provide; she didn’t understand herself what had transpired.  “They may have looked human, Nildo, but they weren’t.  They were something different, something evil.  But they didn’t get everyone, you hear?  You and I are still alive.  They didn’t get us.”  It was a scant comfort, and she remembered the dragon’s voice in her head.  If that creature had not come, she did not doubt that neither she nor Nildo would have escaped.

               Whether or not Nildo accepted what she said, he nodded, and they walked on in silence.  “Where are we going?” he asked eventually.

               “I – I haven’t decided yet, to be honest,” Redra admitted.  “Away from where we were, for now.  I have no idea how widespread this might be.”

               “What’s even the point?” Nildo asked.  “Nothing can fight against Gods.”

               Remembering her dream, Redra shuddered, but the thought of the dragon descending between her and the giants helped push it aside.  “Not nothing.  The dragons can.”  As she said that, she remembered rumors, and realized where they needed to go.

               Footsteps pounded down the corridor outside of Kiluron’s chambers.  The whole castle was on alert; Kiluron jogged from his room with a cloak half-on over his nightclothes while he was still struggling to belt his sword over his waist.  Horns blared outside, servants ran about lighting braziers, torches, and lanterns, and guards clanked from place to place with far more haste than the middle of the night usually inspired.  Outside, there was a rift in the sky, blocking out the stars and almost as bright as a full moon around its shimmering edges; it looked wrong in ways that defied Kiluron’s vocabulary.  Kiluron was glad that he could not see what it looked like on the inside.

               He ran into Doil on his way to the conference chamber.  His Advisor had managed to fully don a cloak, and he had a stack of papers under one arm; Kiluron supposed that was his equivalent of belting on a sword.  “Any idea what’s going on?  I guess it was Vere who called the meeting.”

               Doil shook his head.  “I’m afraid not.”

               “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough,” Kiluron said.

               Once they reached the conference chamber, they had a moment to catch their breaths.  The other ministers had to come from all over the city; Kiluron and Doil were the first to reach the chamber.  Doubtless Guardcaptain Vere was still mustering the guards.  Part of Kiluron hoped that this would be a case of Vere overreacting, but he doubted it.  The Guardcaptain was too experienced to put the entire city on high alert without a very good reason.

               First to arrive after Kiluron and Doil was the last person Kiluron had expected to be at the meeting.  High Priest Yorin stepped inside, escorted by two guards.  His eyes were deeply shadowed, and the solely artificial illumination turned his red robes a deeper, more ominous shade, like dried blood.  Kiluron wished that Arval had been able to make enough of those glowjars to replace all of the braziers, if just so that there would be a different shade of light on the Blood Priest.

               “High Priest Yorin?  Do you have something to do with all of this hubbub?” Kiluron asked.

               Yorin inclined his head in greeting.  “Not directly, Prime Kiluron.  It would perhaps be easier if I explained it once everyone is gathered?”

               Suppressing his impatience, Kiluron admitted the fact, and they stood in tense silence as the ministers slowly trickled into the chamber.  In various states of dress and discombobulation, they stood around the large table as if worried that sitting down would leave them unprepared for whatever the emergency proved to be.

               “Well, I think everyone is here,” Doil observed.  “With your permission, my lord?”  Kiluron nodded.  “Guardcaptain Vere, you called this emergency session, and you stood the city onto full alert.  If you would care to begin?”

               Vere stepped forward.  Sometime in all of the chaos, he had managed to don full armor.  Perhaps he had always been wearing it.  “I don’t know very much more than you do.  High Priest Yorin came to the docks this evening, and one of my guardlieutenants fetched me to hear him.  What he said was enough to convince me to get all of you out of bed.  All of the guards have been roused, we’ve manned the walls, and barred the gates.”

               “Well, High Priest?” Regicio demanded.  “This had better be a most convincing tale you have for us.  This council is not interested in having its rest disturbed for a mere astronomical phenomenon.”  He gestured out at the strange rift that had appeared in the sky.

               “That is no astronomical phenomenon for scholars to puzzle over and analyze,” Yorin warned.  Kiluron thought that Arval appeared disappointed by the assertion.  “I had a dream last night.  I, and every other Priest on the Isle.  Each of us dreamt, and each of us dreamt the same dream.”

               “Well, congratulations to you all,” Adima snapped.  “I’m so glad that you disturbed all of us from our dreams just so you could share yours.”

               This produced a chorus of agreement, until Kiluron interjected.  “Vere was the one who made this call, not Yorin, and I, for one, trust Vere’s judgement.  So let’s listen to what Yorin has to say.”

               Silence returned as the minsters settled with varying degrees of disgruntlement to listen.  “Thank you,” Yorin acknowledged.  “As I was saying, we all shared the same dream, and it was a dream of terrible, horrible Gods.  It is a true dream, I fear.  That rift in the sky?  It is a portal of some kind, a passage between our world and the realm from which the Guardian came.  What might be coming out of it is a deeper magic than any we on the Isle know or record.”

               “He should have mentioned the Guardian first.  That certainly got everyone’s attention,” Kiluron observed to Doil in a whisper.  Aloud, he replied to Yorin.  “You think that the Guardian is returning?”

               For the first time that night, Yorin hesitated.  “I…I do not know,” he admitted.  “We have been unable to probe the boundary, and this magic…it’s beyond anything we have ever seen.”

               “Then what good is your warning, Yorin?” Regicio interrupted.  “We are to prepare to defend against some unknown enemy with powers we cannot comprehend, with intentions unknown, and of a kin with a being that we could not effectively combat in the first war?  Is this to be another Heart War?  Is this your ploy to regain the status that you lost when our Prime rescued you from your folly during the Pifechan invasion?”

               “What status is there to regain?” Yorin asked.  There was bitterness plain in his voice.  “The Isle of Blood has been reduced to nothing but an isle, and most of my Priests are dead.  I bring you this warning because I am afraid.  And I do not like being afraid.”

               There was a long silence after that admission.  “None of us like being afraid,” Inpernuth remarked softly.  “And we like even less to admit it, lok.  I’m inclined to heed Yorin’s warning, personally.”

               “I’m all for being cautious,” Admiral Ferl agreed, “but without more detail, I don’t know what actions we can take.”

               Everyone turned back to High Priest Yorin.  “Can you give us any more detailed information, or any specific steps we ought to take?” Doil asked.  “This threat that you’re describing is exceedingly nebulous.”

               “I believe that I can help on that count,” an unfamiliar voice interjected.  Kiluron looked around, but could not identify the source; he noted that everyone else, even High Priest Yorin, was looking about in as much puzzlement as he.  He realized what was happening just as the voice continued.  “It is not necessary for you to see me in order for us to converse, but if it would reassure you, then you may come out to the courtyard.

               It was tempting to continue in the conference chamber, since it was clear that whatever dragon had decided to visit could communicate with them just as well as if they were outside, but Kiluron realized that actually seeing the majestic creature would go a long way towards making the ministers more willing to listen.  He was the first, therefore, to traipse out to the courtyard in the middle of the night, and his ministers followed with some reluctance which they kept to themselves.

               As Kiluron had inferred, a dragon – no, a Gruordvwrold, he had to remind himself – had landed in the courtyard.  Although its scaly form, sparkling in ruddy hues to challenge a Blood Priest’s cloak beneath the light of the stars and the unnatural rift in the sky, dominated the courtyard, Kiluron thought it was among the smaller members of the species that he had seen.  Doubtless Doil would have something to say about the significance of size variance in the Gruordvwrold, but Kiluron was more interested in the fact that this one appeared ready to volunteer information.  “Who are you?” he asked.  “We’d certainly appreciate your insight.  Do the Gruordvwrold have something to do with this rift that High Priest Yorin is warning us about?”

               Bowing its head until the human-length snout was almost resting on the paving stones, the Gruordvwrold peered at Kiluron.  “Garnet, may you call me,” it spoke into Kiluron’s mind.  He had to assume that the creature was projecting into everyone else’s minds, too.  “We are not the cause of this rift in the sky, this abomination, this portal between the Planes, as you refer to them.  Yet neither is it unfamiliar to us, for we have seen it once before.  Long we have dreaded the doom which its reappearance would herald.  The Ipemav return.

               “The Ipemav?” Arval asked.  He sounded frightened just to be asking a question, but he pressed on, regardless.  “Who are they?  Or, maybe it would be better to ask, since I find myself now in conversation with a, well, a Gruordvwrold, what are they?”

               Before Garnet could reply, High Priest Yorin stepped forward.  “No!  It cannot be.”  Kiluron couldn’t tell if his disbelief was genuine or fueled by the fear that was obvious on his wizened features.  Then the High Priest quailed before Garnet’s implacable gaze.  There was a weight of age in that gaze, or maybe it was being communicated telepathically, that made Kiluron realize just how inappropriate it was to think of Yorin as old given their present company.  Compared to Garnet, Yorin was barely a babe.

               “Once they left this Realm through such a rift, and now they return to it,” Garnet continued, ignoring Yorin’s outburst.  “The Ipemav were your gods, once, when you named us demons at their behest.  Memory of them has been all but lost to you, but you know them nonetheless.  They are those who built the city you name Heart.  They are those who summoned the Guardian you earlier invoked.  Once, they tamed all your race in this land, and powered their empire on your Blood.  Why they have returned, I do not know, but no good can come of it for you or for the Gruordvwrold.

               “They will not find us so easy to enslave as a bunch of primitives,” Admiral Ferl asserted.  He started to say something else, but quailed when Garnet turned her eye upon him.

               “Have you then the means to do war with a hurricane, to take battle to a tornado, to wrestle a mountain?  Have you prisons to hold lightning or tools to cool the sun?”  Garnet’s tail lashed, barely missing a statue of Prime Revanti.  “Powerful were the Ipemav when they dwelt here, in this Realm.  More powerful still will they have become in their time in the Other.  They will return you to the livestock you were with hardly an exertion of power.

               Kiluron frowned and crossed his arms.  “If we really have no chance, you wouldn’t have bothered coming here.  These Ipemav sound like your enemies, too, which means that you could be out there fighting, instead of spending your time here, talking to us.  So let’s skip to the part where you tell us how we help you fight these monsters.”  Doil would be disappointed that he had interrupted the Gruordvwrold’s history lecture, but that would have to wait for a more appropriate time.

               Garnet turned to face him, but he stood his ground.  “You have an intuitive mind, Prime Kiluron.  The Gruordvwroldwould not have come to you if neither of us could render aid unto the other.  Already, the Gruordvwrold have sought to defend your kind from the Ipemav’s aggressions, including at great cost to ourselves.  It was our hope that we could avert this crisis, using the power of the Heliblode, but we have failed.

               “What’s your proposal?” Kiluron pressed.  He was glad that he had some experience negotiating with the Gruordvwrold, so that he wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the majesty, magnificence, and sheer magnitude of the being before him.

               “Your…Balancers, as you call them, have discovered certain applications of the world’s power that were previously unknown.  By ourselves utilizing these methods, we can imbue some portion of your population with such armaments as will be capable of affecting the Ipemav, even in their present, non-corporeal forms.”  Garnet tossed her head.  “In return for this sacrifice, we desire that you should aid us in our efforts to unlock the powers of the Heliblode, and thereby identify some means of forcing the Ipemav back into the Spiritual Plane.

               Kiluron shared a glance with Doil, who inclined his head.  Keeping their communication secret from a creature that was telepathic was probably futile, but it seemed more diplomatic to maintain the pretense.  “That sounds like a more than fair deal,” he admitted.  “We’ll accept your terms, and provide the services of Advisor Doil and Chief Inventor Arval to study this Heliblode.  I cannot speak for the Isle of Blood, however.”

               All attention in the courtyard turned to High Priest Yorin.  From his previous state of fright at the mention of the Ipemav, he had regained his usually hauteur.  “We can defend ourselves, Gruordvwrold,” he asserted.  “Let these Ipemav come.  They will never take the Isle of Blood.”  Turning his back on Gruordvwrold and human alike, he stalked out of the courtyard.

               “Yorin!” Kiluron called after him.  “Weren’t you just saying how terrified that rift made you?  Why won’t you help?  Just one of your scholars could make all of the difference; you know that we don’t have the expertise in these things that your people have.”

               Framed by the castle gate, High Priest Yorin paused and looked back.  “The Isle must look to its own interests.  I will not preside over its demise.”  That was all the explanation he provided before he left.

               Garnet brought their focus back to the courtyard.  “The Gruordvwrold shall enchant whatever weapons you provide.  Those who will aid us in our study of the Heliblode should journey to Meronua with great alacrity.”  She turned, an impressive feat in the courtyard’s confines, and her haunches bunched as she prepared to leap into the sky.

               Doil hurried forward.  “I have more questions…” he began, but Garnet was already leaping.  Her initial push set her clear of the courtyard, and then her wings snapped out, beating with an immense force to gain altitude.  If she had heard Doil’s words, she ignored them.  Kiluron felt himself stumbling backwards, no matter how he set his stance, before the gale from Garnet’s wings.  Then the Gruordvwrold pivoted in the sky, and winged away, receding rapidly into the distance.

               Disheveled and tired, Kiluron looked at his disheveled and tired ministers.  “Well.  Everyone go try to sleep for what’s left of the night.  At dawn, we have another war to plan.”

               After hesitating for a moment, Doil shoved another book into his bag.  It would make it that much heavier to carry, but he didn’t want to find himself without important reference materials while he was trying to uncover the Heliblode’s secrets.  Besides, he would be riding most of the way to Meronua.  He rummaged around for an extra inkwell and tossed that into the bag as well, trying to ignore the Prime hovering in his doorway.

               “I’m sorry I can’t send more guards with you,” Kiluron said for at least the fifth time.  “Even with the weapons the Gruordvwrold enchanted for us, Vere doesn’t think much of our chances of holding the city, even with all of the guards, and the province militias are all bogged down defending their own cities.”

               Doil folded his waxed rain cloak into a neat package and slipped it into one of the bag’s outer pockets, along with a map tube.  “I know that, my lord.  I haven’t asked you to send more guards with us.”

               Kiluron nodded, though his expression belied that expression of his satisfaction.  “I just don’t like the thought of you trekking overland all alone, especially not under these circumstances.  And we still don’t really understand why the Gruordvwrold would possibly need our help with this Heliblode thing.”

               “I won’t be alone.  Arval will be with me, and a pair of guards.”  Although, Doil was willing to admit to himself, Arval seemed unlikely to be of any more help than Doil himself in a fight, and a pair of guards, enchanted weapons or not, weren’t going to be much of a match for any Ipemav they might encounter.  They’d be hard-pressed even by a band of conventional bandits.

               “I know, I know.  I should stop worrying about this.  There’s enough to worry about with the Ipemav rampaging about.”  Kiluron scuffed his boot against the floor.  His glance lingered on Doil’s sword, which had been enchanted along with every other weapon in the city.  Garnet had returned a day after her first visit to enchant them, and then traveled to every other city in the Union to do the same.  They had seen nothing of her since, but hadn’t specifically expected her to return.

               “Yes, I’ll take the sword,” Doil said, picking the weapon up and belting it awkwardly about his waist.  He had to admit that he did feel a little more confident with it on, despite not having much skill with the weapon.

               Kiluron nodded.  “The guards have a horse saddled for you, and a pack animal ready for your gear.  Arval’s taking that kunga thing of his, but he swears it’ll keep up just fine.  Apparently, Vere had to forbid him from packing two wagonloads of odds and ends.”  He glanced significantly at Doil’s bags.  “Makes you look downright lightweight, by comparison.”

               “Very funny.”  Doil continued packing, but there was little left for him to do.  He took a last look about his rooms, then tied the pack shut and hefted it over his shoulder.  Kiluron hastened to grab the other two.  Doil started to reach for them, but Kiluron held them out of reach.

               “I’ll walk you down to the courtyard,” Kiluron said.

               Deciding that this was not the time to tell Kiluron that he had more important things to be doing than carrying his Advisor’s saddlebags, Doil followed Kiluron down the stairs and out to the courtyard, where Arval was waiting on his kunga, along with Guardswomen Galeen and Pinua on their horses, and two additional animals: one for Doil, and one for their extra gear.  Kiluron fussed over the pack horse, affixing Doil’s extra bags, much to the guardswomen’s discomfort.  Once his own horse was ready, Doil touched the Prime’s arm.

               “We’ll be fine.  Probably safer than you will be, once we get to Meronua,” Doil assured him.  “Besides, this is the best thing that we can be doing right now.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “Yeah, I know.  But I still don’t like it.  You sure you’re not forgetting anything you’ll need?”

               Swinging himself up onto his horse, Doil shrugged.  “I’m sure we’re forgetting something, but we’ll just have to make do.  If we can solve this Heliblode puzzle, then we can come back and send these Ipemav back wherever they came from.”  He paused.  “Although, from what Garnet said, they originally came from here, so perhaps that was not the best choice of words.”

               “I know what you meant,” Kiluron said.  He caught Doil’s eyes.  “Be safe, alright?”

               Doil nodded solemnly, then turned to his travelling companions.  “Arval, Galeen, Pinua: ready?”  They all nodded, so he flicked the reins, and they made their way out of the courtyard and then out of the city.

               Assuming no complications, they expected their journey to Meronua to be about twenty days.  Galeen took point, riding ahead and scanning their surroundings.  Arval and Doil followed, riding abreast behind her, and then Pinua brought up the rear.  On the countryside there was little to indicate that Merolate was once again facing an apocalyptic war, although the rift continued to hover in the sky.  It seemed never to change where it was in the sky, no matter how they moved across the ground.

               When they stopped that evening, Arval pulled Doil aside.  “Advisor Doil, may I have a word?”  When Doil nodded, he rushed into his statement as if he were afraid that he would not be able to finish it if he didn’t hurry.  “I don’t really know that you’ve chosen the right person for this job.  I don’t know anything about magic – I don’t even believe in magic.  There’s not likely to be anything that I can add to discussions about this religious mumbo-jumbo that these Gruordvwrold are peddling.  Whatever it is that looks like magic must have a non-magical explanation grounded in the real world.”

               “It wasn’t that long ago that I would have agreed with you,” Doil admitted.  “And maybe that’s still true, that if we look hard enough we could come up with explanations for what appears to be magic that are grounded in natural philosophy.  The things that I’ve seen in the past few years, however – they are enough to make me question.  Whether or not there is another explanation, I cannot deny that there is something substantial, something real, to Blood Magic, in whatever form it might take.”

               “Maybe so,” Arval admitted, “but I still don’t think that I’ll be very useful to you.”

               Doil shrugged.  “And that might prove true.  But I tend to think that your complete outsider perspective may be more valuable than a dozen Blood Magic experts.  The Gruordvwrold, after all, surely know more about Blood Magic than any of us ever will.”

               “I guess.”  Arval sighed.  “I’ll do what I can.”

               They made a good pace the next day, and the day after that; the ground was dry and the days were long in late summer, so they only had to worry about keeping the horses, and Arval’s kunga, cool against the heat.  Thunderstorms rumbled in the distance overnight, but their little group remained dry.  Evenings by the light of some of Arval’s glowjars, Doil studied the texts he had been able to find that referenced old Blood Magic and Heart City, but despite his confident words to Arval he feared that, without the Blood Priests’ knowledge, there was little that he or Arval could contribute to the Gruordvwrold’s efforts.  His own efforts to understand what he had bargained away when he gave them the Heliblode were some proof of that.

               With the ominous rift in the sky through which the Gruordvwrold claimed were coming god-like, malevolent beings, Doil half expected to encounter unnatural weather patterns, demons running wild through the woods, or at least signs of some destructive force wreaking havoc across the countryside.  There was instead nothing of the sort.  The Guardian’s attacks had been more pervasive and destructive, and it had supposedly been the Ipemav’s servant.

               It gave the journey an eerie feel: on the one hand almost like a holiday, and on the other laced with urgency and fear.  As much as Doil was prepared to accept Garnet’s warnings – more so than High Priest Yorin’s, certainly – it was difficult to fully internalize the kind of existential threat she had described when he had yet to see any evidence of it himself.  He supposed that was a good thing, since it meant that perhaps they could avert the disaster before it happened, if they acted quickly enough.

               “There should be a village near here,” Guardswoman Galeen remarked as they stopped to water the horses in the late afternoon.  “We can plan to rest there tonight, with your permission, Sir.”

               Doil nodded his assent; it would be good to have the horses properly groomed and to sleep in a real bed beneath a roof.  Prime Kiluron could speak of the romanticism of roughing it with the common soldiers on the road all he wanted; he would not convince Doil out of taking advantage of a mattress when the opportunity presented itself.

               The sun was low enough that it would have been time to start looking for a camp, were they not planning to stay in a village that night, when Guardswoman Pinua reined in her horse and motioned for everyone else to do the same.  “Does anyone else smell smoke?” she asked.

               Sniffing the air, Galeen shrugged.  “Yeah, but we’re going to a village.  Makes sense that there’d be some fires there.”

               “Sure, but this smoke smells different,” Pinua argued.  “Thicker, more pungent.  It’s a bad kind of smoke.”

               Galeen was skeptical, as was Doil, but she nodded.  “Alright, we’ll go in cautious, just in case.”  She led them off the road they had been following, and, moving slowly, they approached the village.

               Rather, they approached where the village had been.  What was left of it could hardly be called a village.  Many of the buildings were completely destroyed, with no evidence even of rubble.  The smoke was coming from a building that was still standing but was engulfed in flames, but no one paid any attention to it.  Their eyes were drawn instead to the center of the village, even as they were repelled by what they found there.

               A perfectly cubical block of stone, with no flaw or sign of tool work, had been placed by some unknown force exactly in the village’s center.  Whatever color it had originally been was completely obscured by blood, more blood than Doil could imagine coming from even the whole village’s population.  He heard Arval retching beside him, and it was all he could do to resist joining the inventor.  Even the guardswomen were pale.

               “We need to get out of here,” Guardswoman Galeen asserted.  “Whatever happened here, there’s no way of knowing if whoever did this is going to come back.”

               Frowning, Doil wished that he could agree with her.  “We need to see if we can find any clues as to what happened,” he said instead.  “We’ll be quick, though.  Look for trails leading away; maybe a few witnesses survived.”  He did not add how unlikely that seemed, confronted with such a bloodbath.  There was so much blood that a macabre fountain could have been filled by it.

               Somewhat to Doil’s surprise, Galeen accepted his decision without further argument, and they made a hasty search around the village.  From the stench at a distance, it became clear that the burning building was where all of the bodies had been stored; none of them wanted to get closer to inspect it, even if they could have through the heat.

               “Over here,” Pinua called.  “I think someone might have survived.”

               It was a faint trail, but it was definitely a trail leading away from the village, and it seemed recent to Doil’s untrained eyes; Galeen confirmed his suspicion.  Arval was less enthusiastic.  “What if it’s from…whoever did this?” he asked.

               “I don’t think so,” Galeen replied.  “The signs are too far apart, like someone was running, and not very carefully, either.  Besides, we didn’t find any approaching tracks from whoever did this.  Doesn’t make sense that they’d start leaving tracks now.  But it’s your call, Advisor Doil.”

               Taking a deep breath, Doil nodded at the trail.  “Let’s see where it goes.”

               It was not a hard trail to follow – as Galeen had said, whoever had made it had been moving recklessly, for which Doil could not blame whoever it was, considering what they had seen in the village.  Deeper into the woods they followed it, along slick, muddy paths that even the horses struggled with, until they rounded a hill and came upon a grey-clad corpse.

               The body was half-in, half-out of a stagnant pool of water that was flecked with mosquitoes and water crawlers, sprawled like he had just collapsed, unable to run any further.  Stepping forward, Galeen gingerly prodded at the corpse with her short sword, only to leap back when the grey-clad figure rolled over and almost came away with her blade.  Galeen and Pinua were immediately in front of Doil and Arval, swords bared and ready, but the grey-clad man, not quite dead, seemed to have used whatever brief burst of energy he had summoned, and was now returned to a slumped posture on the muddy ground.

               “Who are you?” Galeen demanded of the man, even as Doil sought urgently for her attention.

               “That’s a Gälmourein,” he hissed.  “We need to go.”

               Eyes going wide, Galeen nodded in agreement and, with a signal to Pinua, all four of them began backing up slowly the way they had come, never taking their eyes from the lethargic Gälmourein.  Though he seemed near the end of his powers, Doil still feared what such a being might be able to accomplish.

               “No, wait.”  The voice was faint and pleading, and it seemed to require an inordinate effort.  “Please…”

               “We saw your work back there, Gälmourein,” Galeen spat back at the man.  “We’ve no desire to join your handiwork.  Be glad we’re not striking you down where you stand.”

               Instead of defiance, the Gälmourein hung his head.  “Not mine, oh terrible, not mine, no, no, mistakes, oh terrible…” his words trailed off into incoherence and a coughing fit.  When he had recovered, he looked up and met Galeen’s eyes.  “Please, strike me down, I beg you; it is a better end than I deserve.”  Then he trailed off into more rambling words about mistakes and terrible things.

               The four companions were still backing up; Doil signaled them to stop.  “Something’s not right,” he muttered, more for his own benefit than that of his companions.  From a safe distance, he addressed the Gälmourein.  “You know what happened in the village?”

               A nod answered him, followed by more babbling that he hastened to interrupt.  “But you didn’t do it?”  A shake this time.  “Do you know who did?”

               The Gälmourein’s lips trembled, visible even beneath his grey wrappings.  “The Gods.  Oh, my terrible Gods, mistakes, mistakes, oh terrible…”

               Wishing that Kiluron were there to make spontaneous, risky decisions instead of him, Doil turned to Galeen and Pinua.  “We’re taking him with us.  Tie him up, search him for weapons, do whatever you need to do, but we’re taking him to camp with us tonight, and we need him alive.”

               “Sir, with all due respect,” Galeen hesitated, “I really don’t think this is a good idea.  He seems weak enough right now, but I read the reports on these things; not to sell ourselves short, but Pinua and me can’t guarantee that we can protect you from something like him.”

               “I understand the risks.”  Doil tried to be firm and gentle at the same time.  “I helped write some of those reports you read, Guardswoman.  At the moment, I think those risks are worth the potential benefit; he could be an enormously valuable source of intelligence on our enemy.”

               His approach must have been acceptable, because Galeen did not offer any further argument besides a wary look exchanged between her and Pinua.  Very cautiously, they advanced towards the Gälmourein, who held up his hands to be tied and allowed himself to be searched for weapons without the slightest resistance, despite how rough Galeen and Pinua were on him.  When they were satisfied, or at least as satisfied as they were going to be so long as Doil insisted on keeping the Gälmourein with them, the now five of them made their way by the light of Arval’s glowjars to a suitable camp.

               Much like the mud puddle in which they had found their GLM prisoner, their camp was situated in a hollow of a hill, protected from intrusion by piles of fallen logs, but it at least had the advantage of being drier.  They made no fire, instead using Arval’s glowjars again – less than a full season since encountering the inventor had passed, and already Doil struggled to imagine what it had been like not to have such a useful tool around – to illuminate the camp.  Their greenish light rendered the Gälmourein’s grey wrappings eerie and spectral.

               With Galeen and Pinua watching, their swords drawn and ready, Doil approached to stand within two paces of their prisoner.  He did not know if the man would have the answers he sought, but he decided to start with a simple question.  “What’s your name?”

               From unintelligible mumbles and moaning, the question somehow snapped the prisoner back into some engagement with reality, for his answer was clear and direct.  “I am Birador, Chosen of Galtra.”  Then, just as fast, he faded again.  “Or, I was.  Oh, mistakes, mistakes, oh terrible…”

               Trying not to allow Birador’s ravings to get on his nerves, Doil pressed on with his interrogation.  “And you claim that you are not responsible for the atrocities in that village?”

               “Oh, the Gods, the Gods, the terrible Gods, mistakes I made, so terrible, I didn’t know, I couldn’t know…”

               “Couldn’t know what?” Doil demanded.  “What mistakes did you make?”  His companions appeared even more uncomfortable than he felt.

               Temporary rationality snapped back like a mask over Birador.  “We brought them back, we wanted them back.  It was our promise.  Then they came, and all is lost, oh, terrible, terrible, all is lost…”

               “Who are ‘we?’” Doil pressed further.

               “Killers, killers, we are killers, never wanted, no, no, terrible, didn’t want this, it wasn’t, wasn’t to be like this, no, no, terrible, oh terrible…”  Birador looked up and caught Doil’s eyes, using them like an anchor; he began to recite something that sounded like a mantra.  “We are the Society of the Broken Promise.  We are those who remember.  We are those who failed.  We are those who will not fail again.  We are those who will return the Gods.”  Then he lapsed back into his inchoate lamentations.

               “The gods…do you mean the Ipemavs?” Doil asked.

               “Speak not that name!”  The change in Birador’s attitude was striking and instantaneous, and despite himself Doil flinched back a half step.  For the first time, the seemingly broken prisoner showed some trace of Gälmourein danger.

               Just as quickly, though, Birador subsided and returned to his private torment.  Doil glanced at Arval, and then at Galeen and Pinua, but none of them seemed to have anything to say.  He wished that he had someone else to support him in the interrogation.  Perhaps he could share his thoughts with the Gruordvwrold when they reached Meronua.  “And you say that these…your gods…were the ones who slaughtered that village?”

               A nod was his only reply, for Birador began wailing and sobbing at his words.  Trying to ignore the man’s distress, Doil continued.  “Why?  Why massacre an isolated village?”  It didn’t make any kind of strategic sense that Doil could see.  Even if these beings simply thrived on violence, there was no reason that they would choose such a small village, instead of a larger target, not if they were as powerful as Garnet had indicated.

               Even through the tight, grey wrappings, Doil saw a snarl twist Birador’s features.  “Power, such power, such terrible, terrible power…”  He sounded hungry, eager, and he strained against the ropes that bound him.

               Power…Doil thought of the amount of blood that had been spilled in that village and realized that he had been thinking about what had transpired there all wrong.  It hadn’t been a simple massacre for some sadistic pleasure, nor had it been any kind of strategic maneuver, not in the military sense.  During the reign of the Blood Empire, Blood Priests had conducted human sacrifice to fuel their magic; the Ipemavs must work the same way, except on a scale to make the Blood Priests of old appear benign.  He forced himself not to shudder in front of Birador and turned away from the prisoner.

               “What shall we do with him, Sir?” Galeen asked when it was clear that Doil had no further questions for the man.

               Squeezing his eyes shut, Doil tried to think of an answer.  He had been dreading the question, and now that it was upon him, he could no longer dodge it.  They could not take Birador with them; their haste would not permit time for a prisoner even if they were not concerned that he might break free and kill them.  Nor could they simply allow him to stay behind, for the same fear.  Whatever his current, unstable state, the man was still a Gälmourein.  There was only one viable choice.  It was the answer that Doil had been trying to dodge, not the question.

               Without turning around, he gestured across his throat.  He heard Galeen and Pinua nod, he heard a rustling of ropes and cloth, a thud, and a cry cut off before it had finished.  Somehow, Doil managed to swallow.

               None of them got much sleep that night, although Pinua and Galeen had disposed of Birador’s corpse some distance away.  As soon as there was enough light that they could navigate with only a little help from the glowjars, they set out again, with even more urgency than before.  When the vision of Birador’s headless body was not tormenting him, Doil kept seeing the bloodbath in the village writ over the scale of a city like Merolate.  It was a subdued, tense group that continued towards Meronua.

               There should have been more refugees.  It was a strange thought to have, with the city already filled to bursting with mouths they would struggle to feed, even with resupply from the sea, but it was true.  Scouts reported villages and towns slaughtered, the ground saturated with blood, so Vere knew that the Ipemav were attacking.  What refugees came, however, had never seen them.  It seemed that where the Ipemav attacked, there were no survivors.

               Garnet’s assurances that their enchanted weapons would be effective against the Ipemavs was a scant comfort in the face of a force that could leave so few to make their way to Merolate’s shelter.  When Vere had suggested that she enchant the city walls and gates, as well, the Gruordvwrold had given him a weary look and winged away without a telepathic word.  None of them had seen Garnet, or any other of the Gruordvwrold, since.

               Unable to sleep, Vere swung his legs from his bed, donned his armor, and strapped on his sword.  As far as he could tell, the enchantments had not altered his gear’s performance, but it still felt like they were vaguely unfamiliar to him.  Determining that he would walk along the wall before trying to sleep again, he stepped out into the night.

               It was a still, dark, silent night, the air thick and muggy in Vere’s lungs as he walked; perhaps that was part of why he was having trouble sleeping.  Despite that, there was a certain charge to the air, like came from an imminent thunderstorm, which had lingered in the background ever since the night the rift first appeared.  Picking his way through the mostly empty streets, Vere glanced over his shoulder at the rift in the sky and shivered despite the night’s heat.  In a way, the Pifechans had been an almost refreshing enemy.  At least they had been a human adversary, one he could combat with tactics and swords.

               Returning the guards’ salutes as he reached the top of the wall, Vere looked down from the battlements at the plains rolling away from the city.  They were empty, just as they had been when he had last looked.  Somehow, he kept expecting to see an army appear outside the walls and begin entrenching itself for a siege.

               “Any idea what these Ipemav look like, Sir?” Guardsman Trelish asked.

               Vere grimaced.  “From what the Gruordvwroldsaid, they could look like just about anything they want to.  But supposedly they used to look human, or at least humanoid.”

               Guardsman Trelish nodded.  “Yes Sir.”

               Leaving Trelish to his watch, Vere continued along the wall, his eyes drifting repeatedly back to the rift.  He kept thinking that if he just looked closely enough, he would be able to see their enemies emerging from it, but he saw nothing.  It hung there like a reminder, but it seemed otherwise inert, like it served no purpose.  With a sigh, he forced himself to look elsewhere.

               He was looking out towards the dark edge of the plain, therefore, when a ball of light appeared on the horizon.  It could have been a new star slipping over the horizon – it was the right size – but it was brighter even than the moon.  Pale, white, radiant…and getting closer.  Soon, Vere could make out shadows on the prairie from its blinding passage.  It was coming straight for the gate – he could tell that even from its great distance – and though it was still a significant distance away, it was moving astonishingly fast.

               “Get away from the gate!” he warned the guards there.  Glancing back towards the approaching ball of light, Vere had to shade his eyes and look away, so intense had its brilliance become as it came closer.  It seemed to be at least as large as the gates themselves.

               Heeding his own advice, Vere ran along the wall.  It was now brighter than day from the radiant sphere’s approach, the shadows cast in strange and alien directions by coming from an angle that the sun would never occupy.  A roaring noise met Vere’s ears, but it seemed to be coming from a point a little behind the sphere.  Reaching an outcropping crenellation, Vere ducked down behind its shelter.  The sphere impacted.  The wall exploded.

               Whatever had powered the sphere’s light, it winked out at the moment of impact, plunging the night back into a darkness that felt even deeper and more impenetrable by contrast.  A moment after that, the whole wall bucked; it threw Vere from his crouch, and he skinned his palms on stone.  An audible roar fit to burst his ears washed over him with a palpable pressure.  Then the wind came, a gale force rushing like the winds of a hurricane, but in a straight line, away from the point of impact.  Shrapnel flew on that wind: dust, large flakes of stone, splinters of wood, thick bolts shivered down to slivers of metal.

               Wiping blood from his cheek where some shrapnel had caught him despite his shelter, Vere squinted, trying to see what had happened, but between the dust and the darkness he could make out nothing.  Tearing off part of his shirt, he tied it over his mouth and nose, gritted his teeth, and looked along the wall, seeing other guardsmen watching the expanding cloud of dust in horror.  “Follow me,” he ordered, his voice muffled by the makeshift mask.  Then he drew his sword and plunged into the destruction.

               Through his tears and the dust, Vere almost fell off of the wall, or rather what remained of it; where he should have been approaching the gate, the stone ended sharply, the blocks sheared off and tossed like pebbles into the plaza below.  Through the maelstrom, he thought that he could see two figures striding into the city, like they had been hatched or delivered by the radiant sphere.  There was only one thing that they could be, and they were moving into the city proper.

               Other guards had caught up to him, also struggling against the slowly settling dust and the general darkness.  They needed to get down into the plaza, but the nearest stairs were destroyed, and Vere did not want to spend the time to run all the way to the next set of stairs, only to run all the way back; the Ipemavs could do all kinds of damage while he was making that trip.  Not that Vere was very certain he would be able to stop them, regardless.  He turned to face his guardsmen.  “Lower me down, then follow as fast as you can,” he instructed, sheathing his sword and holding out his arms.

               The men nodded.  Kneeling down, they grasped Vere’s forearms, and slowly lowered him down the wall.  When they were lying on the wall with their arms fully extended, Vere took a deep breath, nodded at them, and dropped.

               It was still a long fall.  Vere let his knees bend and his body collapse to the side so that he could roll onto his shoulder and distribute the impact as much as possible, a process made much more painful by the gravel and chunks of wood.  Rolling to his feet, he looked up to see a blast of energy come from one of the attacking Ipemavs, and he dove behind a stone block.  The stone block evaporated, but the energy splashed over Vere’s enchanted armor.  He felt an uncomfortable heat, and he was tossed back through the opening where the gate had been, but he was still alive.

               The attack had been incidental, and the two Ipemavs were now ignoring Vere, evidently assuming him vaporized.  Taking advantage of their arrogance, Vere drew his sword and charged them from behind.  He would have gone for their heads, but they were too tall, so he settled for driving the enchanted blade into the back of the one on the right.  The blade hit resistance, skittering against something that felt to Vere like invisible armor despite the enchantment Garnet had placed upon it, so Vere drew back and struck again.

               Again, he hit the invisible armor.  If the Ipemav he was attacking noticed, the giant gave no sign of it, the two creatures advancing into the city as if Vere weren’t hacking at them, as if he were less bothersome than a mosquito.  Vere was almost offended; at least a mosquito was annoying enough to be slapped.  Despite their failure to incinerate him, they clearly did not consider him a threat.  He was determined to prove them wrong.

               He tried attacking where the chinks and weaknesses in physical plate armor would be but achieved no more than he had with his first strikes.  At least, between it being night and the explosion at the gate, the civilians had cleared out from the immediate area.  Vere had time to find a way to kill these things.  His guards were finally arriving, joining his attack, surrounding the Ipemav.  Even if they couldn’t kill them, perhaps they could slow the giants down, or disable them somehow.

               Indeed, the Ipemav stopped advancing into the city.  They stood still, their arms at their sides, their faces too bright to look upon closely.  Though they did not move, they attacked.  At least, it had to be them attacking.  Wind whipped up; Vere saw a guard’s chest blown out by a twist column of air that was only delineated by dust that had been captured in the concentrated tornado.  Another two were lifted off of their feet and flung back against what remained of the city wall with sickening crunches.

               Cursing to himself, Vere charged from behind, coming in low and slashing with all of his strength.  His sword again met resistance, but he kept moving, sliding between one of the giant’s legs.  The resistance gave at the same moment that his sword did, the blade snapping off of the hilt, but the metal was driven into the giant’s calf.  The creature roared and dropped to one knee, its roar like a thunderclap in a confined space; Vere thought that his ears were bleeding.

               Amidst the debris at his feet, Vere spotted a sword one of his slain guards had dropped; he swept it up and whirled around in a single motion.  Ignoring the Ipemav still on its feet, Vere charged towards the giant on its knees, jumped, and drove his blade into the creature’s upturned face at the same moment that he felt a blast of magic wash over him.  He felt his armor begin to fail, felt his sword skittering against resistance, but he pressed harder, and the blade sank home, driving into the Ipemav’s face.

               The blade shattered in Vere’s grip, and he was tossed backwards by an even more powerful blast of sound and force, but the magic that had been about to incinerate him cut off, and the Ipemav he had attacked collapsed to the stones, dead.  Vere took the sight in the moment before he smashed through a wood and plaster wall into the lower level of a shop; his vision dimmed despite his efforts to remain conscious, and he felt pain burning all up and down his side.

               There was still one Ipemav remaining.  All of the guards Vere had gathered from the wall were down; Vere himself had to struggle just to keep himself in a sitting position.  Ignoring the other carnage about itself, the surviving Ipemav bent down to examine its companion, its expression uninterpretable.  Vere could not begin to imagine what a being like that would make of its companion’s death.  He wanted to struggle to his feet, to attacking the surviving Ipemav, but he couldn’t force his legs to move.  There was a pool of blood growing around where he sat.

               Rising from its examination of the dead giant, the surviving Ipemav took two steps deeper into the city, then a net sprang out from the darkness and wrapped around it, tangling it.  When it tried to take another step, the ropes composing the net, each as thick as Vere’s calf, strained, but held, and the giant stumbled.  A crossbow bolt the size of a small tree followed the net and was deflected from the Ipemav’s invisibly armored chest, but the momentum was enough to stagger the creature.

               With a disorienting silence, the Ipemav began to stand again.  This time, ropes that could moor a battleship snapped like dry twigs, and a second trebuchet bolt burst into sawdust in midair.  The Ipemav stared into the darkened city for a long moment, its expression inscrutable, and then it turned and walked away the way it had come.  When it reached where the gate had been, it turned into a giant spark, and vanished into the night.

               Boots and the clatter of armor filled the plaza.  “Is it…is it gone?” someone asked.  Vere couldn’t hear the response; he was focused on gathering his remaining strength.

               “Here,” he called out, though it was a paltry call.  “Over here.”  He saw a guardswoman turn toward him, and then he lost consciousness.

               Fresh pain brought him back to his senses.  He was still sitting in the ruined shop, in a pool of his own blood, but there was a man bending over him, pressing an alcohol-soaked rag to the wounds in his side, and torches and braziers had been set up to illuminate the plaza.  Guards and siege equipment now filled the breach where the gate had been, and a few guards were standing around the Ipemav’s corpse.  Vere waved one of his guardlieutenants over, ignoring the clucking from the man tending him.

               “Report,” he managed through gritted teeth.

               Guardlieutenant Ulurush saluted.  “One Ipemav is dead; the other has fled.  We don’t know where, but there has been no sign so far of a return.  I’ve ordered the breach in the wall secured as best we can, and I’ve roused the whole guard force in case of another assault.  The weighted nets seemed like a good idea, so the launchers are ready to load more of those.  I also ordered the Prime notified of what happened.  We’re treating it like the city is under attack.”

               “Good work.”  Vere coughed.  “Can’t say I like our chances if they come back.”

               “We bested them this time, Sir,” Guardlieutenant Ulurush replied.  “We’ll do it again.”

               Vere was not so certain; it seemed to him that it was more luck and surprise, and whatever alien motivations drove the Ipemavs, that had kept the city from falling this time.  He kept those thoughts to himself, however.  “Casualties?”

               Ulurush’s confidence wavered.  “Doesn’t look good, Sir.  We’re still sifting through the rubble from the gate explosion, but…at least two dozen dead, and another dozen wounded.  Probably more.  I have crews searching for wounded.”

               Closing his eyes, Vere processed this information.  He wished that his thoughts were moving faster, but he could tell that he had lost too much blood; it would take him time to recover, especially if the man tending him continued clucking.  “Tell the guards to make preparations to fight street to street, and to make a plan for keeping the civilians away from the fighting.  And tell the Prime…” he hesitated.  “Tell the Prime that I need to speak to him as soon as he is available about the city’s defense.”

               Nodding sharply, Guardlieutenant Ulurush turned away and resumed shouting orders.  Vere sat back with a sigh and let the man tending him continue with fewer disturbance.  He needed to ascertain how to tell the Prime that they wouldn’t be able to defend the city against the Ipemav.

               Anyone who rode horses any distance could assert that doing so did not necessarily leave them any less tired when they reached their destination than they would have been if they’d walked, but that didn’t stop Doil from thinking that he shouldn’t be so tired after another long day of riding.  He heard Arval complaining to his kunga and smiled slightly; it seemed he was not the only one who had that thought.  Even the two guardswomen, presumably more accustomed to such a lifestyle, were dragging after so many days riding in the hot sun.

               Six days had passed since their encounter with the crazy Gälmourein Birador.  The path they picked through the wilderness was beginning to rise as they approached the low mountains of southwestern Merolate, the air getting drier and the plants getting tougher.  It was a rougher, wilder, less hospitable land than the rest of the Union, hence why it had been deserted enough for Kiluron to grant it to the Gruordvwrold.  Doil was not looking forward to riding through it.

               The first couple of days after encountering Birador and the village massacre had been tense.  Galeen took them along treacherous paths and backways, and they made painfully slow progress as they sought to maintain as much stealth as they could manage.  If the Ipemav that had destroyed the village were still around, or even other Gälmourein, none of them wanted to discover it, or worse, be discovered.  Their small party would be outmatched by even a single, uninjured Gälmourein.

               Entering the sparser landscape of southwestern Merolate left Doil feeling exposed; he could tell from the way Pinua and Galeen cantered ahead and were always surveying the vista that they felt it, too.  They were a long way from anything resembling civilization that they would recognize.

               “We’ll make for that ravine,” Galeen suggested, pointing towards a fissure in the wavy swell across which they were riding.  “Ought to be water down there, and it’ll be defensible.  Plus, nobody’ll be able to see us ‘til they’re right atop us.  No fire tonight, and no glowjars, neither.”

               Acquiescing to the suggestion, Doil indicated that they should ride on.  He wanted to protest that the glowjars were necessary so that he could continue studying the materials he had brought with him, but he knew that none of the work he was doing couldn’t wait for them to reach the protection of the Gruordvwrold.  A night in the dark was better than being set upon by whatever dangers lurked in these hills.  Doil wondered what it would be like in the new Gruordvwrold settlement.

               It grew chilly that night, despite the heat of the day, and Doil wished that they could have had a fire.  No one spoke more than was necessary: they were all weary, dirty, and tense, so that if they had spoken it would only have resulted in arguments.  Better to be content in silence.  When the sun began to rise, they saddled the horses, refilled their water skins from the stream Galeen had accurately predicted, and set out for another day of riding.

               Around noon that day, Pinua spotted a flash in the distance, like sunlight off of polished metal.  The rest of the party sought the scant cover of a stand of scrub oak while she went off on foot to investigate.  She returned some nervous moments later.  “Bandits, looks like.  Maybe half a dozen.  They’re right in the way we were trying to go.”

               “Bleed it,” Galeen cursed.  “I don’t like those odds.”

               She looked towards Doil, and he wished again that he was not expected to make these kinds of decisions.  He was a scholar, an adviser, not a tactical commander.  “We’ll have to find a detour,” he sighed.  “We’re a large, well-supplied group – maybe the bandits would leave us alone, even if they spot us.”  It was not a hope on which any of them wanted to count; it went without saying that anyone trying to scratch a living out here was liable to be both capable and desperate.

               Their detour meant that they made almost no additional forward progress that day, instead focusing on picking a path to the east.  Somewhere further east, Doil knew there lay the western side of Merolate’s bay, but that was a long way off, and they would not be seeing it unless they got very, very lost.  As the terrain grew rougher, their pace slowed further, and they were forced to spend time backtracking and finding alternate routes.  Doil began to think that if he had to crouch with muscle cramps in one more stand of spiny scrub oak, he might never heal from all of the scratches.

               A distant scream pulled Doil from a shallow doze as they rested that night.  It came from back the way they had come, as Doil confirmed when he glanced at Pinua, who had the watch.  She nodded slightly.  “Close,” she whispered.  “Sounds like they’re coming this way.”

               “Do you think they’re following us?” Doil asked.

               “Might’ve picked up our trail.  Hard to hide it completely in the dust like this,” Pinua supposed.  “Then again, maybe they were just tracking whoever they just caught.  Or it could be a different group entirely.  Or someone being set on by wolves.  No way to know from here.”

               Doil nodded, then realized that she wouldn’t be able to see the motion in the midnight darkness.  “Thank you,” he whispered.  “I wish we could go help whoever it was who screamed.”

               Pinua agreed.  “Too far away, though.”

               “I know,” Doil sighed, “and it’d be too dangerous, besides.  We can’t risk our mission.”  Even if he wasn’t certain how much he and Arval would be able to contribute when they reached the Meronua and could consult with the Gruordvwrold.  He still knew next to nothing about the Heliblode.

               They returned to a more southerly course the next morning.  Doil kept thinking about the scream he had heard the night before, and the bandits that might or might not be following them, but there was no sign of pursuit, and no sign of anyone else with whom they might have been sharing the desolate landscape, save for the pronghorns, the jackrabbits, and the birds.  Along the dusty track they plodded, the low, rolling mountains that were their destination growing no closer in appearance in spite of their exertions.

               It hailed that afternoon, accompanied by thunder and lightning of a completely natural sort that seemed to linger directly atop them; even the storm could not obscure the rift in the sky that always haunted them on the periphery of their vision.  Holding his cloak suspended between his arms above his head, Doil winced at the stinging hailstones and worried that they would be struck by lightning on the exposed vista, but there was no shelter to be found.  When they made camp that night, it was a wet, disgruntled, and bruised assembly.  No one even had the energy for supper.

               For the second night in a row, Doil was roused in the middle of the night by a disturbance, this time that of Galeen, who had the watch, shaking his shoulder with quiet urgency.  Putting a finger to her lips, she bent so close to his ear that he could feel her lips tickling the little hairs there.  “We’re being watched,” she whispered, and waited for Doil’s acknowledging nod before moving back a bit.

               Rubbing his eyes to dispel lingering sleepiness, Doil sat up and replied in kind.  “How many?”

               “Just one, I think,” Galeen answered.  “Over in those bushes.  Been just sitting there and watching us for a while now.”

               Doil thought for a moment.  If it was a trap, it was a very strange one.  “Go wake Pinua, and let’s greet out eavesdropper,” he instructed.  Galeen nodded curtly and moved off to do as he’d ordered.

               From his bedroll, Doil watched Galeen and Pinua move into the bushes from either side, swords drawn and ready.  A great deal of rustling ensued, followed by a thump, and then both of them reemerged, hauling a man – no, a boy – between them.  The boy was slumped in their arms and seemed too defeated even to pick himself up when the two guardswomen dumped him into the center of the camp.  Galeen pointed her sword at him.

               “What do you want?” she demanded.  “Why were you spying on us?”

               The boy held up his hands, his lips trembling.  “I…I didn’t mean to spy.  I was just looking for some food.”

               Neither of the guardswomen relaxed, but Galeen glanced at Doil.  He stepped forward.  “We could probably spare a little food, if that’s really all you’re here for,” he mused aloud.  “I don’t think that’s all you’re here for, though.  Who are you travelling with?”

               A look flashed over the boy’s face, and his lips trembled; Doil thought he was about to start crying.  If he was acting, he was very, very good at it.  “They took her,” he whispered.  “All this way, and it wasn’t even Gods that took her…she’s dead now, just like the others, the others, they’re all dead…”

               After a moment’s thought, Doil rummaged in their saddlebags and produced a dried apple, which he handed to the boy.  “What’s your name?” he asked as gently as he could.

               “Nildo,” the boy answered.  He sniffed at the apple and took a hesitant bite.

               “Why don’t you tell us what happened, Nildo?”  Doil tried to mimic the tone he heard some of the servants using around their children.  He made a point of not asking directly what he was doing out in the wilderness, alone.

               Nildo gulped; he was perching on the rock to which Doil had led him as if he expected to have to flee at any moment.  “Bandits.  They took Redra.  So close, she said we would be safe when we got to where the dragons are.”

               “Safe from what?” Doil asked.

               “From the Gods,” Nildo whispered.

               Doil exchanged glances with his companions and made a decision.  “That’s where we’re going, too.  You can travel the rest of the way with us, if you want.”

               He couldn’t tell what Nildo was feeling, but after hesitating the boy nodded sharply.  Doil turned to Galeen.  “I’ll take the next watch and keep an eye on him.  We’ll keep moving first thing in the morning.”

               Nildo gave them no trouble the rest of that night, and he was quiet as they set out in the morning.  After some consideration, Doil swung the boy up to sit in front of him on his horse.  He was the lightest of the group, so it made sense for his horse to bear the extra weight.  Galeen set an aggressive pace as the sun blazed down and the rift in the sky shimmered above them.

               “There’s no shelter from here to Meronua,” Galeen explained, gesturing at the expansive plateau dotted with cacti and yucca to which they had mounted and across which they were now riding.  “If those bandits have our trail, our only hope is to stay ahead of them ‘til we reach the mountains.”  Her expression was grim.

               Arval rode up beside Doil.  “Won’t these Gruordvwrold come down and escort us or something, if they see we’re in trouble?”

               All Doil could provide was a shrug.  “They’re…alien.  I don’t understand them well enough to predict what they’ll do under any circumstances.”

               “That makes me feel so much better about this mission,” Arval muttered.

               As the sun approached noon, Doil allowed himself to hope that they would make Meronua without being molested, but a cloud of dust on the horizon behind him suggested that he was overly optimistic, and the mountain stronghold the Gruordvwrold had made for themselves seemed to be getting no closer.  The dust cloud, on the other hand, was rapidly approaching, and it did not abate as the sun began to set.  “We ride through the night,” Galeen grunted.  This time, she was not asking for Doil’s permission or instructions.

               Between the moonlight and the illumination from the supernatural rift in the sky, the cloud of dust that marked the bandits behind them could be seen billowing towards them, looking like it was speckled with glitter, like tiny stars.  Doil could feel the tension in Nildo’s youthful frame as they pushed their horses on across the plateau.  Still, Meronua appeared just as distant.

               At the rear, Arval’s kunga stumbled.  It managed to recover, but it started to drop further and further behind, so that Doil and the guardswomen were forced to pull rein in order not to be separated from the Chief Inventor.  Doil saw Galeen and Pinua exchange grim glances, and both women drew their swords.  After a moment’s hesitation, Doil did likewise.  He might not be skilled with it, but perhaps seeing four armed and ready opponents would serve as a deterrent.  It wasn’t much of a hope, not after the bandits had decided to pursue them so far across the wilderness.  They were too far out now to be anything but committed to their prey.

               Arval’s kunga stumbled again, and this time it didn’t recover.  Arval managed to avoid being crushed; Doil heard him cursing as he fumbled at the saddlebags and tried to urge the beast back to its feet.  “Come on, Hemi, come on.  After all we’ve been through, you can’t abandon me now.”

               Drawing rein to gallop back around, Doil and the two guardswomen came up alongside Arval.  Galeen looked at Doil.  “We can’t outrun them, Sir, not with another of us carrying two.”

               “Is there anywhere we could reach that would give us a tactical advantage?” Doil asked.  Galeen shook her head, so he nodded.  “Then we make our stand here.”

               “You and the Inventor ought to go.  Pinua and I can delay them.  It might give you a chance to reach safety,” Galeen argued.

               When he looked north, Doil could now make out individual bandits within the dust cloud.  He shook his head.  “We’ll have a better chance if we stand together.”

               Galeen looked about to argue, but bit back her retort.  “Alright.  Pinua and I’ll take the flanks and try to spoil their charge.  You and the inventor will need to hold the center.”

               Doil’s hand was sweaty on his sword hilt, and he did not trust himself to answer verbally, so he settled for an acknowledging nod.  Before he could grow any more nervous, the bandits were upon them.

               There were seven of them, not six as Pinua had scouted.  Everything became a thunder of hooves and a screaming of men and horses in the darkness.  It was all Doil could do to stand with what might pass for firmness while Pinua and Galeen wheeled about to either side, engaging the bandits before their momentum could sweep through the defenders.  One bandit, sawing the reins to bring his horse back under control, spurred the beast towards Doil and Arval, sword held low; Doil threw himself clear.

               The man wheeled in place, causing his horse to rear, and changed direction, charging not for Doil or for Arval, but for Nildo.  From a distance, Doil watched in horror, and did something stupid: he threw his sword.

               It was a terrible throw.  The sword, unbalanced and poorly propelled, tumbled and twisted through the air.  Doil had been aiming, if he could call it that, for the blade to punch through the bandit’s back; instead, the hilt struck the man on the head, and the weapon tumbled away into the darkness.  At least the man turned away from charging Nildo.  Instead, he charged the now weaponless Doil.

               Then Arval leapt in front of Doil, swinging his arms.  In both hands he was holding glow jars, instead of a sword, and the horse reared again, panicking before the flashing lights and throwing its rider.  Breaking free from his stupor, Doil tackled the man’s sword arm, trapping the weapon, and Arval clubbed the man over the head.  Breathing hard, Doil pushed backwards a step and tried to take stock of the rest of the battle.  It wasn’t really a battle, just a small fight, but it felt like a battle to him.  It felt like an entire war.

               Sometime during the fight, Pinua’s horse had been killed; she now had a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, and she was fighting two mounted opponents; a third had already been killed.  Galeen had managed to retain her horse; one bandit was down along her trail, and she was sparring with the other, their swords smashing together hard enough to throw sparks in the darkness.  With the one Arval and Doil had downed, that accounted for six of the bandits, which meant that the seventh one was –

               A thunder of hooves interrupted Doil’s accounting, and he yelped as he threw himself to the side, feeling a blaze of pain in his shoulder as he did.  The seventh bandit continued on towards Arval, who was stumbling away in a panic.  Palming a rock he found near his head, Doil threw it at the seventh bandit as hard as he could, striking the man in the back with a thud.  It drew his attention, which Doil was not entirely certain was a good thing.  A glowjar had rolled free from one of Arval’s saddlebags.  Doil snatched it up, tucking it under his cloak as he shook it as vigorously as he could manage.  When the horseman was nearly atop him, he unveiled the light.

               It was like he had conjured a star; instead of striking, the man shielded his eyes, flailing blindly as he tried to control his panicking horse.  In the confusion, Doil smashed the glowjar into the man’s face, sending him tumbling from his horse with a head that now glowed with the contents of the glowjar.  Grabbing another glowjar and retrieving his fallen sword, Doil turned to assist the others, but he was too late to do more than watch as Pinua and Galeen corner and slew the last remaining bandit.

               Beside him, the man over whose head he had smashed a glowjar began choking; Doil recalled Arval mentioning that the substance inside was poisonous, but he had a hard time feeling any sympathy or even horror at the idea that he had killed a man.  Everything still seemed too chaotic for him to think clearly, even though the battle was over.  He saw Arval standing near Nildo, both of them appearing unharmed.

               “Doil, Sir!”  Galeen’s voice was panicky; he turned and saw her bending over another form in the dusty soil.  “It’s Pinua,” she said as he rushed over.  “Looks like she got hit pretty bad.  Must’ve been going on the momentum of it all.  This – it’s beyond what I know how to treat.”

               Fighting to find some measure of calm, Doil squinted at the wound.  “Arval, get some glowjars over here!” he shouted, surprised at his own assertiveness.  Taking off his cloak, he pressed part of it against the wound in Pinua’s side, and then turned his attention to the wound to her chest.  He gagged as he saw her lung fluttering through the puncture.  “Think, Doil, think!” he commanded himself.

               Arval had arrived with the glowjars, but he kept averting his eyes from looking in Pinua’s direction.  “I need…I need one of the water skins,” Doil instructed, “and some foxfire, if you have some extra.  It’s a coagulant, if I remember right.”

               Galeen thrust an empty water skin at him with unsteady hands; Doil took it and began cutting it up with his belt knife.  When he had a ragged piece about the size of his palm, he pressed it against the chest wound.  Pinua moaned, sweat standing out on her forehead, but her breathing seemed to grow a little steadier.  Then Arval thrust a packet of dried mushrooms at him.  “Galeen, hold this there, keep it sealed against the skin,” he instructed, gesturing at the water skin patch.  He turned his attention to the side wound.

               There didn’t seem to be time for anything fancy, so Doil just wrapped the mushrooms in his cloak, crushed them to a powder against his knees, and jammed the package against the wound.  He couldn’t tell for sure without pulling the package away and precipitating fresh bleeding, but he thought that the bleeding was starting to slow.  He just hoped that was because of what he was doing, and not because Pinua was running out of blood.

               As Doil kept the pressure on Pinua’s wounds, Galeen had Nildo help her drag the bandits’ bodies away.  They kept an extra two horses to replace Pinua’s horse and Arval’s kunga; the rest they set free.  At some point, Doil must have dozed, because when he opened his eyes again the sun was coming up, someone had bound his makeshift bandages onto Pinua, and he was lying with a cloak over him.

               “She’s still alive,” Galeen informed him as soon as she noticed that he was awake.  “I don’t know for how long, though.”

               Unexpectedly, Nildo replied.  “The dragons will fix her.  They’ll fix everything.”

               Arval, Galeen, and Doil exchanged looks.  “I hate to move her so soon, but at the very least we’ll be able to do more for her if we can get to Meronua.  Even if the Gruordvwrold don’t help directly, we’ll have better facilities there,” Doil said.

               They improvised a stretcher out of the bandits’ weapons.  With Nildo riding Pinua’s new horse, they had four riders, so they very carefully suspended the stretcher between all four horses.  It was a slow, solemn procession that made its way towards Meronua, but by the time that evening came, Pinua was still alive, and they stood at the base of the Gruordvwrold mountain stronghold.  As Doil waited for the Gruordvwrold to come greet them, he could only hope that the journey had been worth the effort.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E5: Blood and Dragons, Part One. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode goes live on June 30th, 2022.

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