From the shattered balcony of a broken tower on the Isle of Blood, High Priest Yorin watched a battle between gods and men.  Though the battle was near the center of Merolate City, the ring that was drawing a trickle of blood from the base of his finger allowed him to watch it as clearly as if the balcony he stood upon was on one of the buildings overlooking the fight directly.  A blast of incandescent light obliterated just such a building, and Yorin pressed his lips into a thin smile; his view was even a better one.

               A dozen guardsmen were vaporized by the strike.  That meddling Gruordvwrold, Garnet, might have enchanted the guardsmen’s armor and weapons, but it seemed to be doing them little good as they strove against just two Gods.  Turning his back on the battle, Yorin released his viewing ring and retreated into the tower’s remnants.  These had been his quarters, before they had been pulverized by Pifechan thundercasters.  He lingered there, looking through the gaps in the tortured stone, before he hobbled down from the tower.

               He had no illusions about the Gods’ rule being better for the Balancers than the Union’s.  As soon as the rest of Lufilna was subdued, he assumed that the Gods would turn their attention to the Isle, or rather what was left of it.  For now, he was content to let Merolate weaken itself in a hopeless fight against an enemy they could not hope to match or understand, them and their Gruordvwrold allies.  Whatever the Gruordvwrold wanted, Yorin did not trust them.  There was something strange about their magic, something wrong about it.  It didn’t seem to fit with the Balance.

               Besides, he had his own concerns.  As he stepped into the improvised gathering of buildings created from the Isle’s destruction, he noted how few Balancers remained.  No, this was not the time to involve his Priests in a war against Gods.  They were too few, too weak, to take such a risk.  He hated to admit such a thing, but it was the truth.  Their numbers were barely two dozen after the Pifechan disaster, their home was in ruins, and they were living off the benevolence of a Merolate Prime.  It was an unsustainable position.

               It was beginning to grow dark, so Yorin shuffled his tedious way around to the Isle’s southern shore.  There were days that he feared he would at last become too old to even rise from his bed, much less perform his duties as High Priest, but that had not happened this day, and it would not happen tomorrow; there was far too much for which he was responsible for him to die now, or even to pass on his mantel, tasks that only he could accomplish.  He watched as the canoe struggled through the mild harbor waves towards the shore.

               Merolate’s sea defenses were tightening with the strange formation rising at the harbor’s mouth, and for this mission Yorin had insisted on secrecy.  It seemed some small consolation to them that he should stand on the shore and greet the sodden trio of Balancers who stumbled out of the canoe once they had beached it: two Priests, and one of the faithful.  The young man would never be allowed to return to Merolate, simply because he had stepped foot upon the Isle.  Never mind that he would not have the opportunity because of the service for which he had volunteered; the Blood Decrees were reprehensible.

               “Welcome home,” Yorin greeted the three Balancers.  His priests dipped their heads to him, while the young man they had brought with them fell to his knees and bowed almost to the ground at Yorin’s feet.

               “High Priest, I am greatly honored to serve,” the man said.  “I know the sacrifice that I will give, and I give it willingly.  I am ready.”  Though his hand might have trembled a moment, his conviction held, and he tore his tunic to bare his breast.

               After watching the display for a moment, Yorin leaned down and raised the man to his feet with a hand on his elbow.  “It is we who are honored by your faith and by your willingness to sacrifice,” he replied.  “However, the time for that is not now.  We do not have much, these days, but let us offer you a repast before we speak further of such matters.”

               Dried blummox meat, salted fish, pickled fruits and vegetables, and sourdough fry breads served for a meal, and while the selection was growing tiresome after so long, Yorin could not deny that the Prime saw them well supplied.  That was part of the problem.  It was unbalanced, and Yorin feared when the balance would come due.

               He expressed none of these reservations to Delobin, however.  A sacrifice’s final meal was not something to spoil with worries about the future.  Though it had been many years since there had been a sacrifice at the Isle, the other Priests treated Delobin as the honored guest he was, and if there was an awkwardness from the role that the stranger would serve, it was a subtle thing, and easily ignored.  Yorin contented himself mostly with observing the proceedings, only interjecting now and then when a comment from the High Priest seemed needful.

               When the late supper was finished, and it was nearing midnight, Priests Heldri and Bovurk escorted Delobin away to prepare him for the sacrifice.  Yorin had his own preparations to make.  He changed into his most formal set of crimson robes, and he knapped a few fresh flakes from the obsidian knife he would use.  Though it was long since he had conducted a human sacrifice, the rituals were still familiar to him; he was pleased that his memory, if a bit faded on certain matters, had not yet begun to fail him with his old age.

               Midnight or noon were the times at which a sacrifice such as this was best performed; the natural unbalance of the time of day would enhance the power that could be harvested from the ritual, making the most of what Delobin would give them.  Yorin’s fear was that it would not be enough.  Though the Gods seemed occupied for now with crushing Merolate, and the Gruordvwrold were slowing them down, Yorin feared they would strike the Isle, and he intended to be ready for such an attack.  Keeping ready, though, would require the sacrifices of more than a single member of the faithful.

               When he emerged from his preparations, he found Delobin stripped naked and lying, spread-eagled, upon a bema of black, volcanic stone.  Shaped like a distorted pentagon, the bema’s porous rock would absorb the blood, helping it to last longer in fueling the magic that Yorin required.  Only the stars and the alien rift in the sky provided any illumination; Yorin did not want to risk any moralizing Unioners learning of what would transpire at midnight.

               At hands and ankles, bonds held Delobin to the bema, but they were loose, soft bonds, intended more to stabilize than to restrain.  It had been different during the days of the Blood Empire, but since its fall no Balancer worthy of the name had spilt the blood of an unwilling sacrifice.  One day, perhaps, the rest of Lufilna would be ready to put the transgressions of the Blood Empire behind them, but Yorin no longer believed that he would live to see such a change.

               Yorin approached the bema and stood at Delobin’s feet.  “Are you ready, Delobin?” he asked.

               The man nodded, although a tension had taken his muscles which had not been evident before; the immediacy and reality of what was to transpire could strike trepidation in even the most faithful.  His throat bobbed as he forced a swallow down a dry throat.  “I’m ready, High Priest.  This is the greatest honor of my life.”

               “Your sacrifice will not be in vain,” Yorin promised.  He took the knife he had prepared and slit the soles of Delobin’s feet, eliciting a sharp hiss and a dribble of blood that wet the thirsty stone.  Though a cool breeze was blowing in from the sea, Yorin wiped sweat from his brow.

               Once the first cuts were made, Yorin proceeded to the shoulders, cutting deeply into the flesh there; Delobin arched his back and cried out, though he choked off the cry, panting.  He would have been offered a gag, or a dowel upon which to bite, but he must have declined.  Few sacrifices truly understood just what they gave to the Priests by their deaths.  Trying to ignore the whimpers and other complaints, Yorin continued with the sacrifice, and blood slowly saturated the bema as Delobin grew paler and paler.

               Only when no more blood flowed forth was the sacrifice complete, but the ritual was not finished; the imbalance created by the sacrifice still needed to be employed, or the whole process would have been for naught.  With the other Priests aiding him, Yorin cut his own palmto join his blood to Delobin’s, and began to invoke protective magic.

               It was nearly dawn by the time that he finished, and he sagged with exhaustion both emotional and physical.  Looking at the shell lying on the bema, he bowed his head.  “Thank you, Delobin.  You have done a great service for your faith.”

               The most powerful wards he knew, drawn from teachings that dated from the fall of the Blood Empire, now protected the Isle.  He had no way of knowing if it would be enough to deter or protect them from an attack by the Gods, but it was better than nothing, and, if nothing else, it would protect them from any interference from the Union.  Wrapping a clean bandage around the cut on his palm, Yorin allowed one of his priests to help him to his bed, content that he was doing all he could to protect the faith.

               Even crouched in the courtyard, Kiluron thought that the Gruordvwrold – this one had said to call her Opal – appeared a veritable living mountain, though it was possibly the smallest he had ever seen.  He wondered if that meant she was the youngest, but decided that was more a question for Doil – perhaps he would be in a better mood if Opal had brought some news of his Advisor.

               “We need better enchantments,” Kiluron insisted.  A tiny, visceral part of him warned him that insisting on anything with a dragon was a poor way of preserving his life, but he had become well-accustomed to ignoring those warnings.  “You saw what that attack did last night.  We could have lost the city.  We lost almost fifty guardsmen against just two Ipemavs!”

               Opal cracked her neck, an innocent enough maneuver in a human being that in a Gruordvwrold evoked a wolf shaking a rabbit until its neck broke.  “As I told you, we cannot spare any more of our power to enchant your equipment.  The one called Garnet may already have sacrificed too much.

               Kiluron gritted his teeth.  “What happened to her, anyway?”  She had been much more amenable to helping them than this Opal seemed.

               “She has returned to the bones of the world.”  Opal eyed Kiluron.  If her scales were the color of gemstones, her eyes were like the purest examples, the ideal forms, of those minerals.  “In your terms, Prime Kiluron, she died.  She expended all of her power and thereby ceased to have life, the first of our kind since the Ipemav left this world to do so.  You cannot begin to fathom the enormity of such a loss.

               “I – I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.”  Mentally, Kiluron cursed himself.  He had certainly put his foot in his mouth this time.  He forced himself to recover.  “We want to help you fight this war, but without better tools, I don’t know what we can do.  We want to help Garnet’s sacrifice not be in vain.”  He did not add the sacrifices of all of the guardsmen who had been killed aloud.

               Opal seemed to find a dark amusement in this idea, though Kiluron could not identify what gave him that impression.  “You humans are so like the Ipemav at times that I wonder if our alliance with you is not merely a prelude to another war.

               Kiluron wasn’t certain what to make of that claim, and he wondered why the Gruordvwrold had sent one of their number so opposed to their human alliance.  All he could do was press forward.  “Let us prove to you that we are useful allies.  This is our war, too.”

               “Hm.”  The sound vibrated dust out of chinks between the stones that made up the castle.  “Yes, I suppose that it is your war, perhaps even as much as it is ours, though I do not think that any of you remember why.

               “Then you’ll help us?”  Kiluron allowed himself to sound hopeful.

               “My answer on the matter of providing more enchantments remains unaltered,” Opal replied.  “There might, however, be other ways in which we can support each other.  I shall consider.”  Without waiting for a reply from Kiluron, she turned herself about in the courtyard, which only ever seemed small when a Gruordvwrold was crouching in it, launched into the sky, and winged away, disappearing into the distance.

               Watching her go, Kiluron shook his head.  He wanted to turn to Doil to make some wry comment about negotiating with the Gruordvwrold, but of course his Advisor wasn’t there; instead, he was out in the wilderness of southwestern Merolate somewhere, doubtless in some kind of trouble.  He should have reached Meronua by now, but the Gruordvwrold claimed he had yet to arrive.  Trying to keep those worries from interfering with his official ones, since there were more than enough of those, Kiluron headed back into the castle.

               Vere was waiting for him, although he was still pale and moving slowly.  “Are you sure you’re supposed to be up and about?” Kiluron asked.

               “Last I checked, the Ipemav weren’t waiting for me to get better, so neither can I,” the Guardcaptain replied.  “How were negotiations with the Gruordvwrold?  Will my people be getting better weapons?”

               Kiluron shook his head.  “I’m afraid not.  Apparently, Garnet overtaxed herself with what she already provided us, so Opal says it’s out of the question.  But she did seem to have some idea just before she left, so maybe some kind of help will be coming.”

               “Overtaxed herself?  Sir, we’re all overtaxing ourselves fighting against Gods,” Vere snapped.  Then he took a deep breath.  “I apologize.  Perhaps my injuries are making me prickly.”

               Feeling a faint smile coming on, Kiluron let it.  “Good.  We need you as prickly as a hedgehog if we’re going to stand a chance.”  He grew somber again.  “But Garnet overtaxed herself to death, Vere.  Something about the cost of magic for the Gruordvwrold…Opal said she was the first Gruordvwrold to die since the last time they fought the Ipemav.  Over a thousand years ago.”

               “Oh.  Well, that’s different, then.”  Vere sighed and fiddled with his growing mustache.  Kiluron wondered how long it would be before the man shaved it off.  “Have we heard anything from the other provinces?”

               Kiluron shook his head.  “Nothing good.  I’ll tell you about it after the minister meeting?”

               Vere nodded, and Kiluron left him for the conference chamber in which his ministers were already gathered.  Though he had been the one to call the meeting, he had been dreading it all day, not least because Doil wouldn’t be there to run the agenda and keep everyone more or less on topic.  Striding into the room and letting the doors close resoundingly behind him, he made for his chair, but decided against sitting, instead crossing his arms and surveying the assembled ministers.

               “Doil’s not here, so we don’t have official agendas,” he said, “but I think you all know what this meeting’s about.  Merolate is again at war.  Yes, I’m starting to get a bit of a complex.  No, I’m not going to let that worry me right now.  We need strategies, we need shelters for our people, and we need information.  Admiral Ferl, I want you to start us off with a tactical update, and then we can start addressing problems.”

               Clearing his throat, Admiral Ferl gestured to a map that had been helpfully placed on the table ahead of the meeting.  “A red marker indicates a confirmed Ipemav attack,” he explained, “and the number next to them indicates how many attacks have taken place in a given location, if there’s been more than one.  Since we don’t know where the Ipemav are basing, if they even have such logistical concerns, I can’t tell you where they are, but looking at the map we can take away a few things.  One: no attack on a Union location has occurred involving more than two Ipemav.  Two: they seem to be focusing their attacks on two main types of targets, those being hardened targets of Union leadership, like Merolate and Corbulate City, and extremely soft targets, like undefended villages.”

               He looked around at the other ministers, and then held Kiluron’s gaze.  “What I take away from what we know so far is that either there are resource constraints upon the Ipemav, perhaps relating to their war with the Gruordvwrold, that we don’t know about, or they could smash us any time they wanted and just haven’t chosen to do so yet.  I don’t think that we can afford to believe that they are tactically inept.”

               “Ah, but mayhap they are,” Regicio suggested.  “It is possible that these Ipemav are so powerful that they have become so accustomed to encountering no meaningful resistance that they have no understanding of tactics and strategy such as we have developed from facing equivalent or even superior opponents.”

               “I’m not saying that’s not possible,” Admiral Ferl retorted.  “What I’m saying is that that’s an assumption that we cannot afford to make.  What we really need is more information from the Gruordvwrold.  Anything that they can tell us about the progress of their war, and what they know about these Ipemav, would be vastly helpful.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “I just finished speaking with Opal, our new liaison with the Gruordvwrold – it seems that Garnet became their first modern war casualty.”

               “Are we supposed to feel sympathetic?” Olidryn asked.  “We’ve lost nearly a hundred in this city alone.”

               “Recall, Olidryn, that there are barely three dozen Gruordvwrold in all of Lufilna,” Borivat noted.  “The loss of a single Gruordvwrold would be three percent of their population, which in human terms would be akin to losses of some seven hundred and fifty thousand people.”

               “Well, that certainly puts a damper on the conversation, lok,” Inpernuth remarked.  “Got any more good cheer for us, Borivat?”

               “This hardly seems a time at which good cheer is appropriate, Inpernuth,” Adima grumbled.  “We’re facing imminent disaster, again.”

               “Please, focus,” Kiluron implored, struggling to keep his temper.  How he wished that Doil were there to take care of these things.  “As I was saying, I spoke with Opal, and I have an answer to at least one of our questions.  The Ipemav are attacking random, undefended villages to increase their power.  Like the Blood Priests, their magic is powered by blood sacrifices.”

               “So with every village they strike, they both weaken us, albeit not significantly, and gain immensely in power.”  Admiral Ferl looked at the map and grimaced.  “This map begins to make a grisly kind of sense.”

               Kiluron hastened to continue before the meeting could again be derailed.  “Opal also claimed that there could be hundreds of Ipemav, but that only a few of them are probably able to come through the rift and exist in our world at any given time.  That’s why they’re not massing for an all-out assault, and although Opal wouldn’t admit it plainly, I suspect it’s the only reason both us and the Gruordvwrold are still able to mount a resistance.”  Not wanting to leave that as an ominous note, he added “That might give us an opportunity.”

               “Beyond that, she doesn’t have much to offer.  She claims that the Gruordvwrold cannot both improve our armaments and continue to mount their own defense,” Kiluron continued.  “She also hinted that our kind might have even more cause to fear the Ipemav than the Gruordvwrold do, though she accurately inferred that we don’t remember whatever she’s talking about.  In sum, unless Doil can help them figure out that Heliblode, we’re on our own.”

               No one clamored to say anything following his presentation; the mood seemed too dour for such fervor, even if it was venting over Kiluron’s inability to procure more aid from the Gruordvwrold.  It fell to Kiluron to break the silence that prevailed.  “We need ideas.  Anything is on the table for us to consider.”

               Never one to overthink breaking a silence, Regicio spoke first.  “While I certainly do not intend to endorse those barbaric cultists, should we perhaps solicit assistance from the Isle of Blood?  It seems that magic is an integral aspect of this conflict, and I fear that is one area in which we lack any kind of specialized knowledge.  Furthermore, the cultists do owe us a favor, as I recall.”

               While no one had directly called Kiluron out for his reckless rescue of the Blood Priests during the invasion, there was a definite sense of disapproval.  “I have reached out repeatedly to the Isle of Blood,” he replied.  “Their responses, when they come at all, have been less than illuminating.  Our last messenger reported that she could not approach the Isle of Blood at all, and other vessels have indicated a kind of navigational anomaly diverting them from any course that might take them too close to the Isle.  I have to assume that they’ve put up some kind of magical barrier to block Ipemav attacks.”

               “Well, then they can do that for the whole city!” Olidryn asserted.

               “I do not think that any of us would be pleased by the cost of such an effort, even if the Priests were willing,” Borivat observed.

               “At this point, we have to assume the Blood Priests are out of this conflict, as well,” Kiluron interjected.  “Like I said before, we’re on our own.  Now, let’s hear some options.”

               “I think that we should consider evacuating the cities,” Borivat said.  “Hold as many people as we can in the keeps and castles, and have the rest go to caves or other locations that can serve as natural fortifications.  From what we can tell, the Ipemav cannot just appear in our midst, so fortifications are of some, minimal use, at least in providing choke points or smaller areas to defend.”

               Admiral Ferl nodded.  “I agree.  As Guardcaptain Vere has reported, we cannot continue to defend the whole city, and the same seems to be true of other cities.  Pulling back and concentrating our forces in defense of smaller areas will improve our odds significantly.”

               “Alright, let’s make that happen,” Kiluron agreed.  “Anything else?”

               Though he waited, no one presented any more ideas.  It seemed there was nothing that they could do but defend themselves as best they could, and hope that Doil pulled through with a miracle.  Kiluron trusted Doil with a lot of things, but he wasn’t certain that miracles were one of them.  Mostly, he hoped that his Advisor was alright.

               Kiluron’s Advisor folded his arms and confronted Eldar.  “We’re not going to help you with the Heliblode matter if you’re going to leave the rest of us on your doorstep.”

               It was a bluff, or at least it was probably a bluff.  Doil deliberately refrained from making a decision about whether or not he would follow through on his threat of withholding aide from the Gruordvwrold, even in his mind; he did not want Eldar to pluck the truth telepathically from his brain.  Even if that was not how Gruordvwrold communication functioned, his strategy had been effective in getting attention directly from Eldar.  Apparently, even a few dozen Gruordvwrold had a bureaucracy.

               “Would you really risk the fate of all life on Lufilna, Gruordvwrold and human, over this matter?” Eldar prodded.  “These others will be protected even where they are, without penetrating the most secret places of the Gruordvwrold.

               Doil did his best to focus on not having an answer to Eldar’s rhetorical question and forced himself to maintain his equanimity as he met the Gruordvwrold’s eyes.  He would have sworn that the sun was noticeably higher in the sky when Eldar relented.  “Very well.  Stay very still, and we will bring all of you inside.

               There was just enough time for Doil to wonder why they would need to stay very still before claws seized him.  Raw instinct prompted him to struggle, but his mind quickly regained control and noted that the Gruordvwrold that had snatched him up was more cradling him in its claws than it was attacking him.  After a very brief, very disorienting flight, he was deposited inside a perfect dome of a chamber inside the rock formation.  Arval, Nildo, Galeen, and Pinua were delivered next, the Gruordvwrold bearing her exhibiting a gentleness and dexterity that was surprising when juxtaposed with the creature’s size.

               The chamber was enormous, giving plenty of room for several Gruordvwrold even with their wings spread; even knowing that he was entering the home of the Gruordvwrold, creatures that were physically akin to mythical dragons, Doil found the magnitude of the space intimidating.  It seemed to emphasize for him just how much grander in every way the Gruordvwrold were, and he again wondered how he could possibly have anything useful to contribute in their efforts to activate the Heliblode.

               “A little warning would have been nice,” Arval remarked, dusting himself off and adjusting his cloak.  “Think I need a new pair of pants.”

               Ignoring the Inventor, Doil checked on Pinua.  One of the Gruordvwrold had used Blood Magic to heal the worst of her wounds, but not all of them, and not completely.  It had taken convincing on Doil’s part just to have Pinua consent to having magic used on her, so Doil had not pressed the matter.  Whatever the cost of magic was to the Gruordvwrold, which remained unclear to him, they were very cognizant of it in light of the war with the Ipemav.

               Barely had he assured himself that the guardswoman was none the worse for wear from her transport into Meronua than an earthquake rumbled through the floor and dislodged dust from the distant roof.  The Gruordvwrold who had borne them up raised their wings defensively over the soft, vulnerable humans, and a few moments later the world settled back into stability.

               “What was that?” Galeen asked worriedly.

               “Always the Ipemav seek to penetrate our defenses,” Eldar replied, though he was nowhere in sight.  “Extending our protection to you caused a temporary thinning in those defenses, one which they sought to exploit.  We have stymied them, for now.

               Doil licked his lips.  “I guess we’d better get started, then.  Galeen, stay with Nildo and Pinua.  Arval and I will be alright by ourselves.”  He did not add that there was little that Galeen could do to protect them, either from the Gruordvwrold or the Ipemav.  Some things were better left unsaid.

               “Follow Jade,” Eldar instructed, indicating a Gruordvwrold with semi-translucent, verdant scales that faded to an off-white along the edges.  Jade bowed her head and began padding down a tunnel branching off from the foyer chamber.  Doil followed, and Arval accompanied him with only a little hesitation.

               The tunnel wound around and down, taking them deeper into the complex, and Doil marveled at what the Gruordvwrold had created here.  Some of the caves had surely already been there, but not a network so vast and so able to accommodate creatures of such immense size.  Periodically, columns of fire burned from holes in the floor, like the flame at the center of a gas lamp, but steadier and hotter; parts of the tunnel were so hot that Doil had to wipe sweat from his forehead and shield his face behind his hands.  They were the only source of illumination they came across until they reached a new, circular chamber.

               Five Gruordvwrold already occupied the chamber, and Jade filled an empty space to make six.  They lined the circumference, and at the center, the focus of their attention, was the Heliblode.  It sat upon a raised dais like a sullen defendant in a court of law, its dark surface seeming to absorb the light emanating from the irregular blocks of glowing stone that had been fused to the chamber’s ceiling.  Doil stopped just short of breaching the Gruordvwrold’s perimeter.

               When no one seemed apt to break the silence, Doil took the initiative.  “So, you said you needed our help.  How can we help?”

               “We do not know how you might help.  How do you think that you can help?” Jade asked.

               Rubbing his forehead, Doil pursed his lips.  “Well, if it was a human project with which I was helping, I would ask for any notes you’ve made so far and any theories you’re currently pursuing.”

               Before he had quite finished speaking, all of his senses went totally blank.  He floated in a void, unable even to feel his own body with proprioception.  Then the void opened up around him, and he drowned in a deluge of data that seemed inclined to last forever, until, after only an instant, it was over.  When it was finished, his senses returned to normal, and he found himself sitting on the floor beside Arval, where both of them had apparently fallen.  A part of his mind felt like an open wound, and when he probed gingerly at it with his thoughts, he discovered information in a sort of pulsing ball, or at least that was how it seemed in his imagination.

               “You…shared your actual memories with me,” he said in awe, his voice hoarse.

               Jade inclined her head in a very human expression.  “It seemed the most efficient means of sharing the information you desired.  We have not damaged you?

               Probing at the memories again, Doil winced, but the rawness and the alienness of the intruding information were already fading as the Gruordvwrold thoughts were integrated with his own.  “Nothing that won’t heal, I think, and it was worth it.”  He parsed through the memories as best he could, and then frowned.  “You don’t even know what it does?”

               “No,” Jade replied.  “It is one of the last artifacts the Ipemav created before they abandoned Lufilna in favor of the spiritual existence.  We have long believed it to be a key to the transition between the Physical and the Spiritual Planes, or perhaps an amplifier of the Balance, but that does not seem to be the case.

               “But you don’t know if you haven’t even managed to activate it,” Arval interjected.  “It could be anything.  Maybe it’s just a puzzle the Ipemav left to distract you, and doesn’t do anything at all except absorb your power so that it won’t be directed against them.”

               “That is not the nature of our power,” Jade replied.  She did not elaborate.

               “What?  Your power can’t be wasted?  That’s ridiculous.  Energy can always be wasted, there are always inefficiencies,” Arval asserted.  “It’s why you can’t build a perpetual motion machine.”

               “But you could make a perpetual motion machine, if you could harvest the energy that is not already being redirected into the motion and divert it back into motion.”  Doil grimaced.  “At least, that’s what I’ve read.”

               Arval shook his head.  “You could never get it perfect.  See, you end up using more energy than your recapturing trying to recapture the missing energy, and ultimately you either end up losing energy, and thus not having a perpetual motion machine, or you just end up with the whole universe.”

               “That is not the nature of our power,” Jade repeated.

               “Well, then what is the nature of your power?” Arval demanded.  “You keep claiming that your power is limited, but I’ve yet to see any evidence of it, save for what you refuse to do.  You speak of spiritual and physical mumbo-jumbo, which there is no evidence even is a thing – I still refuse to believe that that rift in the sky is some kind of portal into another type of existence, a different World connected to ours.  You say that your power cannot be wasted, even by you applying it to the wrong things, which makes no semantic sense at all.  So, if you really expect me to be able to help you solve your Heliblode problem, I’m going to need some more information than you’ve given me.”

               Doil was still trying to wrap his mind around everything that Jade had deposited in his brain, and he wondered if Arval had really finished comprehending that dump of information.  Then Jade was answering Arval’s challenge.  “Our power cannot be wasted, for we are the World.  Only a deliberate, effective effort on our part can reduce our substance, which is our power.  When it is depleted, we die, to use a human term.

               Arval, to his credit, hesitated.  “I don’t understand,” he admitted.

               “Perhaps it would be easier if you did not think of our power as being independent from us, for it is not.  Our power is unlike that of the Ipemav or even that of your Balancers, who in truth are utilizing the same power as the Ipemav before them.  Instead, our power is derived from our own existence.  Think of us not as living, sentient creatures, but as embodiments of natural resources.  We are like an oil that you might burn to provide light and heat.”  Jade seemed to frown mentally, although the expression was nonsensical on her reptilian features.  “It is a difficult concept to explain to one who is not one of us.

               “Fine, fine, let’s take that at face value and accept as an assumption that you’re correct in your claim that the Heliblode is important, and that your power cannot be wasted, and so forth.”  Arval had begun pacing back and forth; Doil watched him curiously.  After all of his complaints during the journey to reach Meronua, Doil had not expected the Inventor to be so engaged.  “Magical artifact, whatever you want to call this thing, it’s basically a tool, so what we really need to figure out are the inputs and outputs.”

               Jade accepted the latter part of the claim only.  “We know the inputs.  They are what you would call magic.

               “Superstitious idiots call it magic,” Arval retorted.  “I call it a source of power that has not yet been adequately explained.  Regardless, can it not be applied in different ways and take different forms?”  Jade admitted the fact.  “Then clearly you cannot be so certain of knowing the inputs.  But, let’s look at the outputs.  From what you shoved into my brain, you seem to think that it somehow enabled the Ipemav to transition into the Spiritual Plane.  Why?  Other than the timing piece that you mentioned.”

               It was not Jade who answered the question, but a much smaller Gruordvwrold who gave the impression of having been hiding in the corner, though the chamber was circular.  This one was greyish in coloring, with red flecks, almost like a fungus, marring his scales.  He projected his name as Cinnabar.  “It is similar in form to other artifacts that we have studied from the Ipemav which were utilized by them to summon Spiritual beings into this realm.

               Arval nodded, but he seemed to have stopped listening.  His pacing had taken him to stand directly in front of the Heliblode upon its dais, and he bent towards it, squinting.  “Can we take it apart?”

               An aghast sense came from the assembled Gruordvwrold, and Jade started to protest, but Cinnabar’s presence overrode hers.  “Only if you know that you can put it back together so that it will function exactly as it once did, young one.

               That deflated Arval, but he was soon pursuing another line of questioning.  The Gruordvwrold continued responding gamely, more amicable than Doil would have expected after Eldar’s recalcitrance at the entrance, which worried him in its own way – perhaps it meant that the Gruordvwrold were growing desperate, if they were so ready to pay heed to a man who avowed a total disbelief in something they thought fundamental to the World.  It pleased Doil that he had decided to bring the Chief Inventor along, but he wished that he personally had something more to contribute.  All of his study seemed inadequate.

               Something about the debate nagged at him.  Arval might have been willing to gloss over the inputs for now, and the Gruordvwrold also seemed more interested in the outputs from the Heliblode, but to Doil that seemed like putting the cart before the blummox.  If the Gruordvwrold really had the correct inputs, then it seemed to Doil that they should already have gotten the Heliblode to do something, yet there it sat on its dais, as inert as it had ever been in the depths of the Merolate vault.

               “Wait…”  Doil hadn’t meant to speak aloud, so when the conversation paused and everyone in the chamber turned to look at him, he flushed and had to swallow before he could speak.  “Well, I was just thinking about inputs, like Arval mentioned a brief time ago.  Jade, you claimed that you know the inputs are simple ‘magic,’ but you also asserted before that your magic is fundamentally different from that of the Ipemav.  Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that the Heliblode would require an input in the form of Ipemav magic, not Gruordvwrold magic?”

               It took Cinnabar speaking up again to quiet the hubbub that ensued.  “Though it may be difficult for us to admit, I believe Advisor Doil speaks wisdom in this matter; he has seen what none of us could see in over a thousand years.

               If Jade was bothered by the accusation of pride, she hid it well.  “Be that as it may, even if he is correct, we have no way to test the theory, and even if we could test the theory, it would mean that the Heliblode is useless to us.  Only an Ipemav could use it.

               “Except Ipemav aren’t the only ones who use that kind of magic anymore.”  Somehow, knowing the solution seemed even worse than not knowing it, but Doil spoke it aloud, anyway.  “Human Balancers use the same Blood Magic.”

               “It is unfortunate that you could not persuade any of your Blood Priests to accompany you here, that we might test this hypothesis.”  Eldar’s voice was unexpected; Doil had not realized that the Gruordvwrold’s leader was paying heed to the telepathic conversation about the Heliblode.  He wondered just how aware any given Gruordvwrold was of the others at any given time.  Perhaps they were all in a latent, constant telepathic contact.

               Cinnabar protruded his snout towards Arval and Doil.  “These are human, are they not?  Perhaps they can accomplish that which we seek.

               Arval snorted.  “Don’t look at me.  I still don’t even believe in all of this magic talk.”

               Cinnabar’s attention turned to Doil, who hesitated.  “I…I mean, I’ve studied Blood Magic, in the context of the history of the Blood Empire and Merolate’s relationship with the Blood Priests, but I never, that is, I don’t really know how it works,” he hedged.  “And it would be illegal.”  He felt the need to say that, though he doubted it would much affect the discussion’s course.

               “Then, as your Chief Inventor would doubtless propose, we should begin to experiment.  We haven’t a great deal of time,” Cinnabar said.

               “There must be some other way,” Doil protested.  “What about finding one of the village healers, the ones who use Blood Magic?”

               Jade shook her head.  “No Gruordvwrold can be spared for such a search, and your kind would take too long in the effort.  It is up to us.

               Doil sagged.  He could have protested further, but he had already known how this discussion would go when Cinnabar first mentioned that he or Arval might be able to use Blood Magic to activate the Heliblode; he could only hope that Kiluron would forgive him.  And, for that matter, that he would be able to forgive himself.  “Alright,” he said.  “We’ll give it a try.”

               Sometimes, Arval simply could not understand Advisor Doil.  Most of the time, he acted the part: scholarly, extremely well read, with an intellect and curiosity to match.  Then there were the times when he seemed unable to distance himself from the superstitions and assumptions with which he had been educated.  It was as if, to him, because some long-dead scholar wrote it down meant it must have some significance.

               It seemed that the latter tendencies were on full display as Doil fumbled around trying to use Blood Magic, at least to Arval, who had little to do but observe.  Despite what he had been told, he still did not entirely believe in Blood Magic, much less understand it, so there seemed little for him to contribute, especially since he had been told he couldn’t attempt to disassemble and reverse engineer the Heliblode.  With Doil’s attempts to use Blood Magic, none of the Gruordvwrold seemed interested in discussing further what they would actually do with the Heliblode, once they managed to activate it.  And Crovin had called him impractical.

               “You know, we’d never have gotten into this mess if we hadn’t gone looking for trouble, Hemi,” Arval muttered.  Then he remembered that the kunga had been killed, and that he really was talking to himself without even that excuse.  He kicked idly at the stone floor and felt no better.

               “He is not making much progress,” Cinnabar observed.  Arval started; he was still unaccustomed to the way the Gruordvwrold spoke directly into his mind, and he doubted he would ever find it anything but disconcerting.  His mind was, and always had been, his own, and he preferred to keep it that way.  “How would you go about this?

               “I wouldn’t.  I don’t think Blood Magic is real.”  Arval crossed his arms, though his reply was only telepathic, not audible.  He wondered why Doil insisted on speaking aloud with the Gruordvwrold.

               Rather than arguing, Cinnabar seemed to admit the point.  “Indulge me, then.  You know the artifact can be activated.  You are attempting to see what might activate it, and you have a hypothesis about what might be the necessary input, but you do not know how to form that input.  How would you go about solving such a conundrum?

               Arval scratched his nose, and sighed.  He hadn’t the slightest clue where to start – this wasn’t like identifying different types of mud – then he straightened.  “Alright, fine.  I’ll play.  You said your power is different from what Doil calls Blood Magic, that it’s more like…like a limited natural resource.

               Cinnabar projected a sense of affirmation without any accompany verbiage.

               “What does that make Blood Magic, then, if it’s not a limited natural resource?  It’s just some other form of power, right, so it must come from somewhere.  Maybe something about the way that blood interacts with air causes a chemical reaction that…but no, then everyone would explode every time they skinned their knees.”  Arval grimaced.  “Alright, let’s think about this in an orderly way.  What do we know about blood?

               Cinnabar was silent.  “No, I don’t suppose you’d know much about human blood, would you,” Arval muttered.  “Alright.  What do I know about human blood?  Can’t say it’s been an area of much study for me.  Let’s see…it’s red, yes, and it flows through blueish tubes when it’s in the body.  It can coagulate into a hard shell when exposed to air, which in some way facilitates healing of an injury.  It’s sticky, has a bit of a metallic scent, and, well, that’s about all I know.  There are all kinds of superstitions around it, of course, but nothing that I could count as an actual, factual observation.

               “Yet there must be something about human blood that, when used in a certain way, activates the Heliblode?”  Cinnabar phrased it as a question, but it seemed more of a prompt, like he was leading Arval towards something.

               Under other circumstances, Arval might have found that irritating, but he decided to follow the Gruordvwrold’s thought.  “How the blood is applied shouldn’t make a difference if it’s a physical property of human blood that activates the Heliblode.  Which means that if this nonsense called Blood Magic is really about blood itself, then Doil should already have been able to activate the Heliblode with his efforts thus far.

               Across the chamber, Doil was wrapping another bandage around his lacerated left palm and grimacing, deep in his own hypothetical discussion with Jade.  The blood swiped over the surface of the Heliblode was slowly absorbed as Arval watched, but it produced no other change in the artifact.  Cinnabar drew his attention back to their conversation.  “Perhaps only Ipemav blood can activate it.

               “Well, then I guess we’re out of luck, and we should abandon this whole line of research!”  Arval shook his head.  “Are we supposed to be working on solving this, or not?  Because that sounds like a recipe for giving up on the whole thing.  Besides, you’re the one who told us that the magic the Ipemav use is the same as what these Blood Priests supposedly use.

               Inclining his draconic head, Cinnabar conceded the point.  “Then allow us to continue with the assumption that human Blood Magic, applied correctly, can activate the Heliblode.

               “I still feel like we should be thinking about the outputs before we have this discussion, so that we know if it’s even worth trying all of this,” Arval muttered.  He sighed.  “Alright.  Where were we?

               “You were supposing that it must be something not intrinsic to blood that triggers that which is known as Blood Magic,” Cinnabar supplied.

               Arval nodded.  “Right, right.  Okay…”  He pushed up his hair again, and then he paused in the act.  “Wait.  What if it doesn’t have anything to do with blood at all?  What if it’s not so different from your power as you’ve supposed?  After all, accepting one impossibility is a smaller logical ask than two.

               “I do not follow, but continue,” Cinnabar prompted.

               “Great.  Alright, here’s the thought.  Your magic is somehow intrinsic to you, you say that it is an actual draining of whatever it is that is your life, and thus that your magic is finite, non-replenishing, and when you have used all of your potential magic, you die.”  Arval nodded to himself.  “That all correct so far?

               “More or less,” Cinnabar replied.

               “So, that being the case, what if human (and Ipemav) magic is really the same thing, a conversion of some essence of life into magic?” Arval proposed.  “Whether because it’s the most effective way, or the most efficient, or the easiest, or just because of a weight of tradition and heritage, the catalyst, the physical means by which humans accomplish the loss of life potential that can then be converted into magic, the shedding of blood is used.  So it’s not so different, it’s just that you’re different sorts of creatures who are more directly connected to the magic, or whatever it is.  And I can’t believe that I managed to say any of that like I was taking it seriously.

               “You may not believe in what you say, but I believe there may be wisdom in it, as uncomfortable as its implications are for millennia of Gruordvwrold existence,” Cinnabar observed.  “We should inform the others of this line of reasoning.

               Arval might have protested – they had nothing but words and wild postulations, and they certainly did not have anything in the way of solid evidence, experimental design, or even practical information that would advance Doil’s efforts – but Cinnabar had already called the others over to listen to Arval.  He sighed and switched to speaking aloud for Doil’s benefit.  “Look, Cinnabar thinks this is a big deal, but I’m not so sure.  I – we – think that what humans call Blood Magic and the power the Gruordvwrold wield and say is intrinsic to themselves is not quite so different as it initially appears.  Both of them seem to have to do with the draining of some kind of life potential, rather than any physical substance.”

               Jade frowned.  “If that is true, it has most…uncomfortable implications.  Cinnabar, you agree with this line of reasoning?

               “I agree that it is of potential importance to the matter at hand, and may hold great insight.  As for its ultimate validity in a sense of being a description of reality, it is far too early to make any informed comment, and furthermore this seems not to be the appropriate time for such distractions.

               “Well stated, as always.”  Jade turned to Doil.  “Will this be of insight in your efforts to activate the Heliblode?

               “Maybe.”  Doil looked deeply weary, but Arval could not tell how much that was physical and how much that was mental; the man’s moral objections to Blood Magic were thoroughly ingrained.  “I’m missing something, and I simply don’t know enough to know what that might be.  Whether the shedding of blood is directly or indirectly a part of Blood Magic, what I’ve been doing should have triggered something, but there’s been nothing.  And not just in terms of activating the Heliblode – there should have been some kind of magic available, but I couldn’t discern anything.  Maybe I just don’t know how to notice it.”

               A shout interrupted Arval’s thinking about a response; it was a very human noise, and as isolated as they had been in the Heliblode chamber with the Gruordvwrold, it took both Arval and Doil by surprise.  Barely had the sound registered before Eldar’s voice impinged on their thoughts, summoning them to the foremost chamber in which they had been first deposited upon their arrival.  If Doil was annoyed that Eldar seemed to be giving them orders, he did not allow it to slow him down; Arval had to struggle to keep up with the younger Advisor until they reached the mammoth entryway.

               Nildo was perched at the very lip of the chamber, peering down at something and seeming poised to leap off, though the drop would easily kill him.  Eldar himself crouched behind the boy, and the ancient Gruordvwrold turned to Doil.  “Another of your kind has approached our sanctuary, and the boy, Nildo, appears to know her.  I would know your wishes in this matter.

               Bypassing Eldar, Doil knelt down at Nildo’s side.  “Who’s down there, Nildo?”

               “Healer Redra,” he whispered, not averting his gaze from the distant figure at the base of the cliffs.

               “She was the one you were travelling with when we found you?” Doil asked.  Arval frowned; that presumably meant she was the one whom they had heard scream.  Nildo nodded.  “Wait.  She’s a healer?  What kind of healer?”

               “A Healer,” Nildo repeated.

               “It could be a trick,” Arval mused.  “I don’t see how this woman could’ve gotten away from those bandits by herself.”

               Doil frowned.  “Well, we did kill several of them,” he noted, “and if she’s what I think she might be…”

               Eldar interrupted them.  “If we bring this woman up, it will require us to lower our defenses again, and the Ipemav will strike.  They may inflict significant damage.

               Turning to face Eldar, Doil nodded.  “I realize that.  But if this woman is what I believe her to be, then she might be the key that we need to unlock the power of the Heliblode.”

               “Very well.  Brace yourselves.”  No other signal that Arval could perceive was given, but when Eldar finished speaking the whole world trembled, and a silvery Gruordvwrold shot from the mouth of the entryway like a diving falcon.  Stumbling while the world seemed to twist around him, Arval fumbled for something against which to hold, and saw a giant form appear in the entryway, half again as tall as a man and shimmering like the rift in the sky.  Even as the Ipemav materialized, Eldar bathed it in fire from his maw, and when the torrent subsided the creature had vanished.

               Then the silvery Gruordvwrold was back, claws scrabbling for purchase and skidding to a rough stop against the rear of the first chamber.  For another moment the world continued to twist in unnatural ways that turned Arval’s stomach, and then everything snapped back into its customary order, and the chamber was silent save for Arval disgorging his breakfast on the stone floor.

               Picking herself up at the rear of the chamber was a woman a few years younger than Arval, with blond hair that was tangled and torn.  Her face was scratched, what remained of her dress was in worse shape than her hair, and her arms bore deep, weeping wounds.  Her expression seemed caught halfway between defiance and relief as she surveyed her new surroundings.

               “Welcome to Meronua, Redra,” Eldar intoned.  “You have reached the sanctuary of the Gruordvwrold, as I can see that you have long sought, and at great cost and trial to yourself.  It may not be the protection you believe it to be, however, if you cannot help us in turn.

               Perhaps thinking that speaking with a Gruordvwrold might be overwhelming, Doil hastened forward, beginning his own introduction, but he was forestalled by Nildo darting out from a shadow in which he had concealed himself and flinging his arms around Redra’s waist.  Taking a deep breath, the woman rubbed the boy’s head, and turned to Eldar, managing an awkward curtsy.  “I could use a moment, and some water and food, if you don’t mind, Lord Eldar,” she said.  “But you will have whatever aid I can offer.  You’ve saved my life at least once; I owe you a debt I can never repay.”

               “You shall have sustenance, and rest, and such healing as we can spare.”  As Eldar spoke, the worst of Redra’s wounds knitted themselves together and faded away, not even leaving scars, though there was something about her eyes that spoke of other wounds and scars that would not be so quick to vanish.  “And if you are truly able to solve the puzzle of the Heliblode, as Advisor Doil implies, then you will have repaid such debt as you assert a hundredfold and more, for you will have saved all Lufilna from a fate worse than death.

               Wiping his mouth and recovering his composure, all Arval could do was watch as the woman was led away for the promised provisions.  Not so long ago, he had dreamt of a shop in a city and having his simple gadgets and inventions accepted and sought after by the people around him.  Now, he had input on the fate of the world.  He hoped that this Redra would be able to supply what Doil believed she could offer.

               His horse surged beneath him, worked into a lather, but Kiluron could not allow the beast to rest.  At least the Ipemav did not terrify the horses the way the Gruordvwrold did, although Kiluron would have given a lot for a Gruordvwrold to swoop out of the sky just about then.  He had little hope that one would; he had not seen Opal since she had delivered a terse message that Doil had reached Meronua and was working on the Heliblode problem.

               “Come on, come on!”  Gritting his teeth, Kiluron dug his heels deeper into his horse’s sides, but there was no faster that the animal could run.  He couldn’t tell if he was going to make it in time.  Behind him, a dozen guardsmen were charging.  It seemed quite a force, with dust rising from beneath hooves on the grassy plain outside of Merolate’s walls, until one noted that those walls were shattered in half a dozen places, and saw the three Ipemav they were racing to intercept.

               Three Ipemav, and three Gälmourein, and they were all arrayed to prevent a mere four families, escapees from some village, from reaching the deeply caveated safety of Merolate.  Admiral Ferl had advised that they could not spare the guards to defend the families until they reached the city, but Kiluron had ignored him.  These people had come to him for shelter; he was not going to leave them out on the prairie to die.

               The enemy was almost upon the refugees.  With a yell, Kiluron got behind the column and turned his horse, but the turn was too sharp; the horse pitched over, and Kiluron was tossed from the saddle.  Spitting dust and trying to catch his breath, he barely heaved his shield up with his weakened right arm to stop a Gälmourein’s blow, but his left hand was much faster; the grey-clad warrior dropped, and Kiluron got to his feet with a grunt.

               A few of the refugees had turned to watch.  “Keep running!  Get to the city!” he yelled.  There wasn’t really room for them, but they would not be turned away.  Then he had to turn his attention to defense, because the other two Gälmourein had closed with him.

               Parrying first one blow, then another, Kiluron had to dance several steps back to avoid being slain.  Even so, he would have died in the next exchange if his small force of guardsmen had not reached him, sweeping into the two Gälmourein.  For now, the Ipemav seemed content to watch their servants fight, and not interfere themselves, but Kiluron doubted that would last if the final Gälmourein fell.  Two guards dropped, and then another two, before the remaining Gälmourein was brought down.

               Guardsman Twiol rode up beside Kiluron.  “You can ride with me,” he said.  Kiluron vaulted up into the saddle between Twiol and the horse’s head, and they wheeled about to head back to the city, escorting the column of refugees.  Looking back, Kiluron waited for the Ipemav to attack, but they simply stood watching as their targets receded, escaping their grasp.

               “What mind game is this?” Kiluron muttered.  “They waiting for the last minute, just to make the defeat more poignant?”

               They were almost to the castle gates.  Guardsman Vere was riding at the head of a second column of guardsmen coming to reinforce them.  Still, the three Ipemav did not move, but somehow that seemed all the more threatening than a blatant attack would have been.  It seemed to invalidate the guardsmen who had died trying to save the refugees, and all Kiluron had sought to do with this rescue.  It spoke of just how little he really knew about this war they were supposedly waging.

               All of the refugees were through the gates, and the guardsmen were close behind them; the gates boomed shut with a solid, reassuring noise that belied the massive gaps in other parts of the walls.  Repairing the gate after the first attack had proven a waste of resources, but they hadn’t known that at the time.  There was still so little that they knew.  The Ipemav even now had not attacked.

               “They left!”  It was one of the guardswomen on watch.  “The Bloody Ipemav just vanished!”

               Frowning, Kiluron slid off of Twiol’s horse and jogged alongside as they returned to the castle.  He was relieved that his reckless strike had succeeded in its immediate objective, but the more that happened which he could not understand, the more he worried that everything he tried was somehow playing into whatever grandiose scheme the Ipemav were enacting.

               There was only so much time he could spend worrying about such nebulous concerns, though, and even less that there seemed to be for him to do about it.  He settled for addressing what was in his control: getting the new refugees settled, reviewing the rationing regime, helping Vere and Ferl organize the defenses, and waiting for word from the Gruordvwrold.  At least he knew that Doil had made it to them safely.

               Nine days passed, uneventful days.  The Ipemav did not even launch another skirmish against the castle or the city walls, so that Kiluron began to wonder if they were just waiting for the humans to give up and starve themselves into obedience.  He was starting to think it might prove an effective strategy when Vere found him to inform him that Opal had returned and was waiting in the courtyard.  Glad just for the chance of some news from the Gruordvwrold, and maybe a snippet about Doil, Kiluron hurried out to meet her.

               “Prime Kiluron,” Opal greeted.  Kiluron could discern no emotion in her mental tone.  “With the help of your people, we have solved the problem of the Heliblode.  We now know what it does, and how to activate it.

               “That’s great news!  We can finally start fighting this war in earnest, instead of just hanging on by our fingernails and trying to survive the hurricane,” Kiluron replied.  He could not understand why Opal did not sound more enthusiastic.

               His answer was not long in coming.  “It is not that simple, I fear.  The Heliblode is not a way to close the rift and banish the Ipemav back to the spiritual existence to which they of yore ascended, but rather a way to transport a physical entity into that existence.  It seems to be an early version of whatever means the Ipemav eventually used to leave this realm in favor of the other, and to activate it at all, even to transport a single individual, requires an inordinate expenditure of magic.

               Kiluron crossed his arms.  “So you flew all this way, risking attack by the Ipemav, to tell me that the whole effort was useless, and we’re doomed?  That doesn’t seem like the sort of behavior I’ve come to expect from the Gruordvwrold.”

               He received a mental sense of gritted teeth before Opal replied.  “It is…true that the Heliblode cannot function in the capacity which the Gruordvwrold had envisioned when we first began seeking for it,” she admitted.  “However, your Advisor Doil did make a suggestion for how it might be employed, a suggestion that Eldar and the others of my kind of adopted.

               “You sound skeptical,” Kiluron noted.

               Opal growled, and everyone in the courtyard stumbled back a few steps.  “It is distasteful, and it requires great sacrifice by one of my kind.  A Gruordvwrold can power the Heliblode and use it to transport herself and one human through the rift the Ipemav created, though it will not be easy.  Once there, it is possible that the pair could use the Heliblode’s energies to stop the Ipemav or seal the rift.

               “A long shot, but a whole lot better than anything else I’ve heard,” Kiluron argued.  “It doesn’t seem to me that your people will hold out forever against the Ipemav any more than mine will, so this seems worth a try.  You said your people had already approved of the plan?”

               “Yes.  You have only to choose which human shall be sacrificed in this manner,” Opal declared.  Her voice was flat, but her tail twitched against the stones.  Kiluron noted an odd package that she appeared to have deposited when she arrived.

               Kiluron glanced at Vere, who stepped forward.  “I can’t ask this of you,” Kiluron began, but Vere forestalled him.

               “You don’t have to.  I volunteer.  And we both know I’m the best man for the job,” Vere said.

               “You were just injured…” Kiluron noted.

               Rolling his shoulders and stretching side to side, Vere shrugged.  “I’ve recovered.”

               Kiluron licked his lips.  “It sounds like there’s a good chance this is a one-way trip.  And then we’ll be missing our only guardcaptain and our best fighter.”

               “Guardlieutenant Ulurush will fill in just fine for me; she did while I was injured.”  Vere caught the Prime’s eyes.  “Sir, I should have died facing those Ipemav before.  I might have been physically closer to death before, but that was the closest I’ve ever felt to death.”  His grim expression shifted to a fierce grin.  “I think it’s time I returned the Bloody favor.”

               After holding Vere’s eyes for a moment longer, Kiluron nodded, and turned back to Opal.  “Guardcaptain Vere will go.  What Gruordvwrold was chosen?  When will they get here?  Or does Vere have to travel to Meronua?”

               A dragon’s glare was a terrifying thing, no matter how many times Kiluron reminded himself that they were really Gruordvwrold.  “I volunteered,” Opal growled.  “We leave as soon as Vere and I are ready.

               At dawn, Guardcaptain Vere met Opal in the courtyard, stumbling over the stairs and almost falling on his face in front of the majestic creature.  Shaking his head, he held a glittering, reddish gauntlet in front of his face and took a deep breath.  “This armor is going to take some getting used to,” he muttered.

               “Then become accustomed to it quickly, Guardcaptain,” Opal interjected.  “It is time to go.

               Nodding, Vere rolled his shoulders and steadied himself on his feet.  The armor was simply a marvel.  By itself, the armor should have been too heavy for him to wear, much less fight in, but some latent power in the material not only rendered it seemingly light on his frame, but also sped up and strengthened his motions.  The beautiful sword he bore was made of the same material, and seemed to shimmer and burn the air itself, as if it were imbued still with Gruordvwrold -fire.  “You’re certain this isn’t somehow disrespectful, wearing her body like this?” he asked.  “And please, call me Vere.  If we’re going to die together, we should at least be on familiar terms.”

               Opal inclined her draconic head.  “Very well, Vere.  No, it is no way disrespectful.  Though it has never been done before, I am confident that Garnet would have wanted this.  She was always fond of your kind.

               “A sentiment I do not think that you entirely share,” Vere observed.  “I’m curious why you volunteered for this mission.”

               Instead of answering, Opal crouched down, her expression, for all its alien nature, managing to convey a deep distaste.  “It is time to go.

               Vere reached up and rested his hand on Opal’s foreleg, just above the middle joint; he felt muscles twitch beneath the iridescent scales, and wondered if Opal would shake him off, but she settled herself, so Vere put his other hand up, closed down his grip, and vaulted onto the base of Opal’s neck.  His armor caught him by surprise again, so that he almost overshot, but he compensated and managed to settle himself where Opal had indicated.  Her neck was almost too wide for him to straddle, and was slick, with nowhere obvious to hold.

               “How am I supposed to not fall off?” Vere asked.

               Opal reared up, her muscles bunching as she prepared to launch.  “Trust your armor.  It understands Gruordvwrold.”  Then, without waiting for any further word from Vere, she leapt into the sky.

               What looked graceful from a distance was anything but while clinging to a serpentine neck and trying not to fall to his death.  Vere’s gauntleted fingers skittered across Opal’s scales for purchase before he realized that where his armor was firmly in contact with Opal the two sets of scales had formed a kind of bond, like the burrs of a plant that attached to clothing.  With the wind whipping at him and fresh confidence in his perch, Vere let out a whoop.  He might be going to his death, but first he was getting to fly.  This was something beyond even the most epic of poems.

               “Finish enjoying yourself.”  Opal’s voice intruded on his thoughts.  “We’re approaching the rift.

               Forcing himself to concentrate on the mission, Vere drew his sword, pleased to find that it stuck to his gauntlet much as his armor stuck to Opal’s scales, and squinted ahead against the wind that drew tears from his eyes.  Four Ipemav appeared to be hovering in the air before the rift, and Vere readied for a fight, wondering how fighting from the back of a Gruordvwrold would be, but then Opal slammed into some invisible barrier, and their approach slowed to a crawl.  It was like the air itself had thickened into some kind of crystalline molasses.

               “What’s going on?” Vere asked.

               “Approaching the rift is…is like sprinting up a mountain.”  Even Opal’s mental voice sounded strained.  “Even activating the Heliblode does not change this, and the Heliblode is itself draining my strength…”  She said no more, and Vere did not press her.  There seemed nothing he could do to help her reach the rift, so he would focus on defending them from the Ipemav.  Yet the four Ipemav did not seem to be getting any closer, though the rift was clearly approaching, growing larger and more ominous with each struggling stroke of Opal’s wings.

               “Can’t…keep on…like this…much longer.”  Opal’s wingbeats were grown erratic, and Vere felt like he could sense the strain she was putting on herself through their telepathic link.  It felt like her life was being ripped out of her.  He squinted at the rift and found that they were nearly atop it.  The Ipemav he had seen guarding it were nowhere to be seen.

               “You’re just there.  Just hold on another moment,” he urged.  No coherent response came, but he felt a surge of anger and determination from Opal, and then they passed through the rift…

               …and were falling from a shimmering, yellow sky onto the deck of a ship that was floating in that same sky.  At least, that was the closest description Vere could think of; it had a deck like a ship, and was roughly shaped like a ship, but the closest it had to sails were sort-of wings attached to oars that were being swept on either side, and the prow was drawn up, like some chariots he had seen, to protect against lashing wind.  Then he had no more time for observation because Opal was plummeting out of the sky with him still clinging to her neck.  From a vague sense of telepathic connection, he didn’t think she was dead, but she was definitely unconscious.

               The Gruordvwrold smashed onto the blue-grey wooden deck with white grain lines and skidded as if on ice, smashing against a mast that appeared to serve no purpose.  Vere was thrown free, but he had been ready for it, and managed to land on his shoulder, skidding also; even with armor the impact should have shattered the bone, but somehow the Gruordvwrold armor kept him only rattled.  He also managed to hold onto his sword.  Coming to his feet, Vere found himself face to face with a startled Ipemav; Vere rammed his sword into the giant’s stomach.  To his surprise, the weapon drove home just as it would in a mortal opponent, the Ipemav gave a startled grunt, and slid off of the sword onto the deck, leaking bright green blood.

               He heard shouting and turned to see that the whole ship was crewed by Ipemav, and that they were coming towards him with swords and spears.  He looked down at the Ipemav he had just slain, and at the Gruordvwrold-scale sword glimmering with a surly fire in his fist, and he grinned.  Whatever had happened passing through the rift, it had leveled the playing field.  In a completely alien territory, on an enemy vessel, surrounded, outnumbered, with no allies, Vere nodded.  This might just be a fair fight.  He charged the charging Ipemav.

               Beneath the not-light of a blue sun that looked like a transplanted patch of normal sky, Vere seized a rope that connected to the useless mast.  Finding that it was under tension, he waited for the Ipemav to almost reach him, and then cut the cord.  Tension released, and he was jerked upwards, cresting over the Ipemav’s heads.  Only then did he release the rope, and he landed in the middle of his enemies, lashing out in a circle with his sword to clear a space to fight.  The Ipemav were slow to reorient; it was like they didn’t properly know how to respond to a threat like Vere.

               On the other hand, there were a lot of them, and there was only one of Vere.  Opal was still unconscious, and Vere feared that the Ipemav might decide to attack her if he couldn’t hold their attention.  When his sword clashed with an onyx spear, green and blue sparks scattered, and a horrible screeching sound issued from the junction.  Pressing forward regardless, Vere ran his blade all the way down the spear shaft, lopped off the Ipemav’s hands, and then struck off its head.  He dodged a sword strike, parried a second, and punched a third enemy in the face, which offered a resounding crack and threw the Ipemav he had struck clear through a dozen of its fellows, even though Vere’s angle had been all wrong by being obliged to punch upwards.

               Shaking out his fist appreciatively, Vere waded into the battle in earnest, careful to keep moving, but he knew he had to be quick.  From the corners of his eyes he had spotted other vessels like the one onto which he had Opal had crashed beginning to swing around towards them, which would mean reinforcements or worse.  He needed to take control of the vessel before that happened, though he as yet had no idea how that might be accomplished.  Hopefully Opal would have answers to some of his questions, if she woke up soon.  For now, he focused on fighting.

               Though the Ipemav he faced seemed clumsy and inexperienced in physical combat, they were still half again as tall as Vere was, with strength and reach to match; his armor helped compensate for the differential in strength, but their reach was a serious problem.  Fighting his way through a thinner patch, he reached the airship’s rail and saw a second ship veering in towards the vessel he had boarded.

               “New plan,” he muttered, “Need to find out how to fly this ship.”

               He turned his attention to fighting towards what he assumed would be the command deck, and he reached a stairway when he noticed Opal stirring and some of the Ipemav closing upon her.  Breaking from his objective, Vere seized a nearby, tensioned line, chopped it off below his grip, and swung over the deck, pivoting around on the central mast, to land in front of Opal.  His arrival took the half a dozen Ipemav there by surprise.  Trapping a harried spear strike against the deck, Vere rotating inside the Ipemav’s reach and stabbed his chest, then he dodged a sword blow, kicked out another Ipemav’s knee, and twisted free.

               Once he’d downed those Ipemav, he turned to check on Opal, and found her chained to the deck by white manacles.  Vere blinked; he had not seen any manacles a moment before, and no one was around who could have conceivably put them on.

               “It is not real.”  Opal’s voice in his head was exhausted and strained, but she was at least still alive, and able to communicate.  “Not in a physical sense, as you would understand it.

               Vere smashed his crimson sword against the manacles, throwing up sparks but not otherwise marring the mysterious metal.  “What do you mean?  This is all some kind of hallucination?  The ship, the manacles, the Ipemav I’ve been fighting?”

               Opal shook her head, rattling the potentially not-real chains.  More Ipemav were approaching them now, so Vere tried prying at the manacles.  He needed to get Opal freed, or he would be trapped trying to defend her.  “No, not a hallucination.  Well, not exactly.  It is difficult to explain; I do not think your human brain can handle it.

               Grunting with effort as he strained his own muscles and the strength lent to him by the armor the Gruordvwrold had made for him, Vere still could not break the chains.  “Give me something to go on, at least.  Is what I’m doing here making a difference?”

               “What you perceive is a factor of how your mind is interpreting the incompatible stimuli of its new immersion in spirituality.  It is accustomed to physicality, and so you are interpreting spiritual inputs in a physical way.”  Opal seemed surprised, and perhaps even pleased, that he had not asked her to attempt to explain what she had said he could not understand.  “All of what you perceive has a real component, but how you are perceiving it is what you might refer to as a product of your imagination.

               Vere was forced to turn from his efforts on Opal’s manacles to fend off a trio of Ipemav.  When they fell back before him, he turned back to Opal.  “An example might help.  What are you perceiving here?”

               Opal paused before answering.  “What I see is…painful.  My mind is not accustomed to or compatible with this spiritual existence, either, perhaps even less so than your own, but I have not your defense mechanism of interpretation.  When you repulsed those Ipemav just now, for instance, you perceived it as a physical conflict, but more truthfully your spirit vied with theirs.

               “Can I trust what I’m seeing?”  That, to Vere’s mind, was the important question and what he really needed to know.  He was less interested in the abstractions of which Opal was speaking.

               “I…think so.”  Opal’s response was unusually hesitant.  “It is not perfect, as you may have noticed when these manacles appeared, but I think it will serve you well.

               “Alright.  Speaking of those manacles, I can’t break them,” Vere noted.  “Any ideas?”

               “Your original plan of seizing control of this…ship?…of this ship is a sound one.”  Rising to her feet, Opal rolled her shoulders.  “I will handle the chains.”

               So saying, the Gruordvwrold shook herself like a dog attempting to dry itself, which sent uncountable, inverted rainbows glinting off of her scales in the peculiar not-light of the Spiritual Plane, and the manacles shattered like ice sculptures dropped from a great height.  The fragments disintegrated before even reaching the deck.  Vere nodded to Opal, hefted his sword, and set off again for the command deck.

               This time, with Opal behind him and helping to clear the way, he vaulted up the steps, bowled over an Ipemav who interposed himself, and faced an armored figure stepping away from the airship’s tiller, which looked just like the wheel on the larger naval vessels Vere had encountered.  Unlike the other Ipemav Vere had faced, this one, some kind of captain, moved with skill.  Vere charged him, anyway.

               The captain’s answering parry and riposte were like all of the skill Vere had expected to encounter in the other Ipemav condensed into this single individual.  Vere found himself backpedaling, barely defending himself as green sparks and screeching sounds spat around the grey-blue deck.  Black clouds rolled white shadows in the not-light from the blue sun overhead.  Three, four steps backwards, then two to the side, and Vere found his rhythm; it seemed to match a sort of pulsing he could sense through his sword and his armor.  Step, step again, twist, and he smashed his blade into the captain’s back.

               Armor exploded in molten splinters of green and blue, and the captain grunted, stumbling to one knee, but she rolled away before Vere could follow up on his strike.  Glancing aside, Vere noted that a nearby vessel had almost come alongside, although Opal had succeeded in clearing the decks.  Vere broke from engaging the captain long enough to kick the tiller, sending the airship veering aside; he wondered how its altitude was controlled.  Then he had to turn all of his attention to his duel, because the captain was pressing him with a fresh flurry of strikes.

               Twice more he dodged, but there was no escaping a third blow, which cracked his armor and had enough force to toss him clear over the rail.  Flailing, Vere managed to catch one of the odd sail-wings attached to the oars on the airship’s sides.  Sheathing his sword, he crawled up its length, only to draw his sword again to hack his way into the ship’s hold.  It was bright in there, but not a kind of brightness that let him see, and no one was manning the oars; they moved of their own volition.

               Making his way back onto the deck, Vere found that Opal had pinned the captain to the deck beneath a massive claw and was glaring down at her.  “We cannot kill her,” she explained, ignoring the captain’s struggles to free herself.  “If we do, the whole ship that you perceive will be destroyed with her.

               Vere seized the tiller and swung it around again, aiming the swept prow directly at the side of the ship to portside.  “It won’t make as good of a battering ram that way,” he remarked, “but we’ll keep that option in reserve.”

               Opal’s eyes widened.  “I do not think that this will have the effect you expect.”  She sounded nervous.

               “Do you have a better plan?” Vere asked.  “Unless we can come up with some way to permanently seal the rift from this side, we need to destroy their ability to pass through it and wage war.  Destroying warships that can fly seems like a good way of doing that.”

               “It is not that,” Opal replied.  “These ships are representations in your mind for harnessed powers that you cannot directly perceive.  When one collides with another, it will not mean splintered wood and tangled cords.  It will mean annihilation.

               That explained why the other ship’s crew appeared to be panicking so severely.  Jamming the wheel into position, Vere looked up at Opal.  “I know that you did not like being forced to carry me…” he began.

               Opal huffed and interrupted him.  “It was undignified,” she maintained, but then her mental voice softened.  “However, you did save my life, such of it as I have remaining in this place.  And…perhaps I have been hasty in my judgement of your kind.  If we are to succeed…

               It was enough mental invitation for Vere.  He climbed up her obligingly lowered foreleg, settled himself as best he could, and braced for her launch.  Opal waited for the very moment before impact before flinging herself away from the airship, letting herself twist backwards and upside down through the air before snapping out her wings and beating away from the developing impact.  If Vere’s armor had not possessed its odd adherence, he would have plummeted to whatever ground might lie below; as it was, he was very nearly dislodged.

               When the two ships met, an explosion blossomed, like the report that came from a Pifechan thundercaster, but in shades of green and blue instead of reds and yellows.  Vere whooped.  “I never did like ships,” he noted, and even Opal roared her approval.

               Their celebrations were short-lived, for Opal drew Vere’s attention to the third ship that had been guarding or waiting at the rift.  It was peeling off, abandoning its position.  At first, Vere thought it was fleeing, until he noticed the bright, glowing forms, not unlike Gruordvwrold in appearance, winging towards them.

               “I think you would call them Guardians,” Opal answered Vere’s wordless query.

               “I didn’t realize there was more than one,” Vere murmured.  One Guardian had been bad enough; now, a whole flock of them was approaching.  Like the Gruordvwrold they so resembled, the term ‘flock’ seemed horribly inappropriate.  Vere decided that they would be more suitably called a murder of Guardians, like crows or ravens, except decidedly more deadly than any carrion bird.

               “Why would there be only one?”  Opal shook her head.  “So little you humans understand about the World.

               “True enough,” Vere admitted.  “But do you think we can fight them?  Will they be like the Ipemav were, much weaker here than when I fought them in Merolate?”

               “Doubtful,” Opal replied.  “The Ipemav we fought were weak because their attention and energies were not focused against us.  I suspect that they were actively sustaining the Ipemav on the other side of the rift.  However, it seems that our ordinary powers are also magnified here by virtue of their incompatibility with the ambient environment.

               Vere squinted at the approaching Guardians.  “We didn’t come here to stay safe,” he noted.  “If we can stop the Ipemav, there is no pyrrhic victory.”

               Tossing her head, Opal rumbled an agreement.  “If we fail to seal the rift, all will have been in vain, and our deaths will have accomplished nothing.  I do not think that this is our fight.

               Vere gave his agreement, and the Gruordvwrold winged away from the rift and the approaching Guardians.  “But how do we seal the rift?” he asked.

               “We have bought the Physical Plane a reprieve from the Ipemav attack by driving those…ships, as you perceive them…away from the rift.  Without them, I do not believe the Ipemav can operate in the Physical Plane.”  Opal no longer seemed uncomfortable at carrying Vere on neck, but Vere was wise enough not to point out the change.

               “That’s good, but we can’t hold them away from it forever,” Vere observed.

               Looking down at her claws, Opal regarded the Heliblode, which to Vere seemed even more ominous an artifact in the Spiritual Plane than it had in his own.  “There might be a way to use this to seal the rift – such did Cinnabar and Doil both surmise – but coming here greatly weakened me.  I do not know if I have that much power remaining.

               Closing his eyes, Vere took a deep breath.  “If you think it will work, then I think we need to try.  Together.”

               Opal rumbled beneath him.  Dipping one wing, she pivoted in the air, rolling about and sweeping back towards the rift.  “Let us finish this,” she declared.  Leaning low, Vere could feel Opal vibrating, and twisted his lips in a snarl to match a Gruordvwrold’s.  It was time for an ending.

               It took Kiluron a few moments of dedicated self-control to keep himself from laughing, but he did not think that violent guffaws would be the right response just then.  He did his best to regard Doil seriously.  “Didn’t we just come up with a solution to this problem?  Besides, I still don’t think it would have become a problem in the first place.”  It sounded flat, but it was the best he could do that sounded like he was taking Doil’s concerns seriously.

               However, it seemed to relieve Doil, at least for now.  “Thank you, my lord.  I just didn’t see that there was any other choice.  And in the end, it wasn’t even me who figured it out.  It was Redra.  She’s like Aiga, if you take my meaning.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “I understand, really.  We’ll get it all straightened out in the ceremony today.  I’m just glad that the rift is gone.”  Well, not just glad.  He glanced through the window, though it wasn’t even facing where the rift had been.  Its disappearance had happened all at once, ten days ago.  One moment it was there, and then it was gone.  From the reports he had received, all of the Ipemav in Lufilna had vanished with the rift.

               “It’s been ten days,” Doil noted.  He must have been reading Kiluron’s thoughts, and Kiluron flushed.  “Opal and Guardcaptain Vere both knew for what they were volunteering.”

               “I know,” Kiluron sighed.  “It’s just…I always felt like Vere could survive anything.  I keep expecting him to come soaring out of the sky with some terrible line of poetry to commemorate the occasion.”

               Doil nodded.  “I know what you mean, but I really don’t think he’s coming back this time.  Cinnabar, Jade, and Redra all suspected that the Heliblode would only be able to sustain a one-way trip, even if Opal somehow had enough power to do more.”

               Kiluron waved that away.  “I know all of that.  Well, I don’t know all of that, but it’s not really relevant.”  He smoothed his jacket and straightened his shirt beneath it.  “For now, I suppose we have more pressing matters.  Are we ready to speak with Eldar?”

               When Doil admitted his readiness, the two of them walked out to the courtyard, where Eldar was awaiting them.  Two more Gruordvwrold had accompanied him, but they were waiting outside of the city; all three had traveled roughly with Doil’s returning party, for which Kiluron was grateful.  After hearing about Doil’s misadventures reaching Meronua, he was annoyed that the Gruordvwrold had not provided an escort in the first place.  At least Doil was back, now.

               “Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” Eldar greeted.  It seemed somehow to Kiluron that the Gruordvwrold appeared older, but he dismissed that as ridiculous.  A creature that had lived for thousands of years could not possibly look visibly older after such a relatively short time.  “We have achieved something of immense importance together, in sealing the Ipemav in the Spiritual Plane.  For the first time in a thousand years, I do not fear for what the future may hold.

               “I can’t say that I’ve been dreading this war as long as you have, but I’m glad it’s over,” Kiluron agreed.  “It was not without losses, for both of us.”

               Eldar bowed his head.  “This is true.  The Gruordvwrold have been greatly weakened by this conflict.  But the threat which first drove us to your lands has been eliminated.  We thank you.

               “And we thank you,” Kiluron replied.  He hesitated.  “Will we see you again?”

               “The Gruordvwrold have learned much about your kind through this war,” Eldar remarked.  “You have advanced far from the creatures you were when the Ipemav dominated this land, and though there is still a…danger to you, an aspect that discomforts us, you have proven yourselves both unique and worthy.  While you will see us little, I do not intend that we should vanish from the world as we did after the last war.

               Kiluron nodded.  “That’s good.  It’s really over, then?”

               Eldar cocked his head, and then a sense of gentle amusement washed through the telepathic contact.  “It is truly over.  I believe that Opal discerned a way to use the Heliblode to seal the rift from within the Spiritual Plane, likely giving her life, and Vere’s, in the process.  The Ipemav will not be able to find the strength to break through again.”  He shifted his shoulders, muscles rippling and the skin flaps of his wings rustling.  “I know that you must have a great deal to do.  Though the war had a great toll upon the Gruordvwrold, I know a little of the devastation which was wrought on your lands.  We should leave you to your own affairs.

               Glancing at Doil, Kiluron wanted to ask Eldar for more answers, but he suspected that the Gruordvwrold would not have the answers he sought.  “You’ll always be welcome here,” he said.

               Another nod.  “Thank you, Prime Kiluron.  Until we meet again.”  Then Eldar turned about, crouched low, and launched himself into the sky.  Two more Gruordvwrold rose to meet him, and then they were gone.

               Kiluron blew out a breath.  “I guess…I just wish there was some way to know for sure.  What happened to Vere and Opal, I mean.”

               “I know what you mean,” Doil acknowledged.  “Unfortunately, I do not think anyone has that power, not even the Gruordvwrold.  Perhaps if they did, we would have had more time to prepare for this war.”

               “Probably true,” Kiluron agreed.  “Anyway, Eldar’s right.  We’ve a lot to do.  The scouts are still trying to get a tally for how many villages were attacked and what we might need to do to repair or restore some of those places, and get places for anyone who survived.  Without Vere, everything is a mess.  Admiral Ferl has stepped up to take on some of Vere’s duties with the guards, but…I guess we’re going to need a new Guardcaptain, aren’t we?  And repairs to the walls, and…” he took a deep breath.  “Well, first thing first.  You have the documents?”

               Doil rummaged for a few moments, and produced a sheaf of paper.  He held them out to Kiluron.  “Right here, my lord.  Although I still have some reservations about this.”

               “You helped write the thing,” Kiluron observed.  “And we were just talking about how nervous you are about what this is supposed to fix.

               “Even so…” Doil shrugged.  “But I know that you’re not going to be dissuaded.  Redra and Nildo are already waiting in the square.”

               Kiluron was already heading in that direction.  “Excellent.”  He took the top paper from Doil, glanced over it again, and nodded to himself.  “We need to do this.  And not just because of what you and Redra did to save all of us.”

               Reaching the square, Kiluron mounted to the top of a hasty wooden platform and looked out at the assembled crowd.  Many were curious, a few were skeptical, but most simply looked relieved.  There was something freeing about no longer living with the rift hovering over their heads in the sky.  Kiluron cleared his throat.  “We’ve won a great victory,” he acknowledged, and the crowd nearest him cheered, while his words were passed to those who could not hear him directly.

               “We’ve won a great victory, but it was not without cost,” he admitted.  That quieted the crowd, and it seemed as if every ear in the square was straining to hear him.  He licked his lips.  “Much of our city is ruined.  Entire villages are just…gone.  And the people…we’ve lost people who can never be replaced, no matter how well we rebuild from this.”  From the faces he could see, he suspected everyone was thinking about someone different.  He had to take a steadying breath before he continued.  “A lot of people sacrificed a lot of let us be here today, free of the Ipemav threat.  It is because of them that I’m going to do something that is long overdue.”

               That produced a murmur; Kiluron wondered what the rumors said he was about to unveil, and if any of them had gotten it right.  Holding up the sheet of paper he had taken from Doil’s stack, Kiluron brandished it.  “This is a revised version of the Blood Decrees.  No longer will all Blood Magic be outlawed in Merolate.  Blood Magic, practiced by good people, healers, like Redra here, helped save this Union, and not just against the Ipemav.  Whether we are comfortable with it or not, Blood Magic is a part of our world, and no more evil than…than lightning, or fire, or a strong wind.  People can use it either for good or for evil, which is why the new Decrees still prohibit Balancers from practicing Blood Magic in the Union.”

               He paused, trying to gauge the reaction, but it was too difficult.  He glanced back at Redra and Nildo, instead, and squared his shoulders.  “In many ways, this comes too late.  And I know that some of you won’t be comfortable with it, and you might think that I’m making a mistake.  I’m not.  This is something that needs to happen, and I am…” he was going to say ‘honored,’ but decided to change tacks, “I am humbled to be the Prime to make it so.”

               The crowd’s cheers were tentative, and they were likely cheering more for the victory against the Ipemav than they were for the changes to the Blood Decrees, but Kiluron didn’t care.  He turned to Doil, who nodded approvingly at him, and he met Redra’s eyes.  “I should have done this a long time ago.  I made a promise to someone, another Healer like you.  It’s too late for her, but…I hope that this makes a difference.”

               Redra bowed her head.  “Decrees do not change minds, my lord Prime,” she remarked, but then she softened.  “Still, I thank you for what you are trying to do.  And perhaps this will start things in a new direction, so that Blood Magic does not always need to live under the shadow of the Blood Empire.”

               Nodding, Kiluron glanced at Doil, who caught his implication.  Together, they made their way back to the castle.  It was time to rebuild.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E6: Blood and Dragons, Part Two. 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 July 31st, 2022.

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