Monthly Archives: March 2017

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 02

The civilians were a problem. Always. Being a cop in Gamma City meant that in one sense or another, the civilians were either causing the problem, aiding the problem, or exacerbating it by being in the problem’s line of fire. From what Ai could see it was possible that the batch of noncombatants behind the rampaging NME filled all three categories.

“Dispatch, we have two hostile NMEs in our current zone, one within personal weapon fire range,” Ai said, following the procedure that had been drilled into her at the academy.

The GCPD was not, technically, a military force, despite fielding more armed members that all but twelve of the world’s largest political entities. The prime differentiator between a GCPD cop and a soldier for the Northern Free Cities was that the cops were not expected to engage enhanced individuals as they lacked both the firepower and training to survive such encounters.

Ai wasn’t concerned about the lack of training. She’d spent a long time studying a variety of things the average cop had no reason to look into. The issue of firepower however was a problematic one.

Ramming the NME with an exploding patrol cruiser hadn’t ended the threat the bio-enhanced beast presented, but she hadn’t expected it to either. Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the result of so-called “hard bio-tech”, specifically technology that went beyond squishy organic solutions to problems and started incorporating transhuman, weaponized elements into the user’s physiology. In the case of berserk NMEs that went beyond converting parts of the user’s body to hardware. The out of control bio-tech constructed almost completely mechanical bodies around the original human host. Whoever the human was at the heart of the NME didn’t seem to matter. Their personalities were gone, and their minds were a substrate for the programmed directive of the bio-tech that had become an ever transforming beast of rage and violence.

With armor woven together from any metal it could scrounge from the environment, NMEs grew harder to destroy the longer they persisted. The exploding cruiser had blown away close to a foot of metallic hide off the NME in front of Ai but the beast was recovering quickly, incorporating the wreckage of the cruiser into its lumbering exobody.

“We’re dead,” Curtweather said.

“Not yet,” Ai said. “Dispatch knows what’s happening. They’ll get Highfall in here won’t they?”

They wouldn’t. Ai knew that. Highfall was the military task force charged with answering the sort of tactical threats that NMEs posed. Threats that were beyond the GCPD’s capability to put down or contain. The Highfall troopers had the armor and weapons to survive an engagement with an NME. Or at least that was the theory.

In practice the capabilities of the NMEs were difficult to predict and that had resulted in Highfall fatalities in every engagement in the previous six months.

Highfall would be scrambled therefor, but only if the NME’s moved towards one of the more prosperous neighborhoods. Within a Rusty slum, there was neither the property value nor anyone of sufficient credit-worth to risk endangering the expensive Highfall materiel for. Even two GCPD cops could be replaced more cheaply than a Highfall combat unit.

“NME unit is sixty two seconds away from from full combat functionality.”

Only Ai heard the voice which informed of her that. All cops had Cognitive Partner systems. For most people, Partner systems were no more than automated search engines and advertising dispensers. They offered publicly accessible information about whatever the user’s vision rested on for more than a few seconds, and tried to upsell them at every opportunity.  For police officers the Partners also acted as documentation systems and order handlers. They also handled warrants and remote judgements in situations where exceptional authority was requested or required.

Ai had one of those, like every other officer, and then there was Zai.

“Understood,” Ai said, forming the words silently in her mind. “Initiate infiltration protocol and inform me when you have substrate level access.”

Ai wasn’t going to fight the NME from the outside. Not when she could remotely override its systems at a core hardware level.

“Link established. Barrier strippers deployed,” Zai said.

Ai kept her expression grim and worried while her heart floated light and unconcerned.

Zai wasn’t a Cognitive Partner. Not anymore. The simple bio-mechanical expert system Ai had been given as a child to monitor her health and help with her education was long gone. Zai had technically evolved from that simplistic tool, but like a human replacing worn out blood cells, Ai had pushed her Cognitive Partner so far beyond its original specs that none of the original pieces, either hardware or software, were left.

Modifying your own bio-tech was against the law, a crime punishable by fines large enough to crush medium sized corporations much less private individuals, as well as forfeiture of all licensed bio-tech. Ai had known that when she started tinkering with the micro-machines inside herself when she 8 years old, but she’d also known she wouldn’t get caught. No one suspected a child of having the insight or patience to modify sophisticated and proprietary machinery, especially not machinery which regulated their health.

To Ai though, the basic bio-tech she was fitted with wasn’t hers. It was alien matter someone had put into her body. She understood the need and value for it but the fundamental wrongness of existing with devices that were outside her control forced her to do the one thing that made sense – make the tech her own.

“Substrate level access achieved,” Zai said, silently in Ai’s mind. “How would you like to ruin the NME’s day?”

Ai checked the time. Thirty seven seconds left before the NME regained full functionality. The civilians were still within its killzone and the fragment of collapsed highway she and Curtweather were hiding behind would stand up to no more than a few seconds worth of barrage fire.

All in all it was a better encounter with an NME than most of the one’s Ai had planned for.

“Wait three milliseconds after it triggers its primary fire mechanism, then remove its pain inhibitors. Make it look like a cascade failure,” Ai said.

“Shut down the primary fire too?” Zai asked.

“No, let that go,” Ai said. “We want it to look like its repairs were glitched and it blew itself up. It’d be too convenient if its guns shut down just as it became dangerous again.”

“Surviving this at all is going to look pretty convenient,” Zai said.

“I’m aware,” Ai said. “What’s the spec on its primary gun?”

“It’s assembled three primary system,” Zai said. “Two chemical cannons and an anti-air plasma beam thrower.”

“Cycle it’s attack priority to the beam thrower for ground targets,” Ai said.

“No need, that already what it’s locked on,” Zai said.


“Which body part do you want it to target?” Zai asked.

“Log it as targeting center mass, but scramble the input signal to show that it’s tracking as being off by one to one and a half meters.”

“Leg shot it is.”

There were all sorts of safety systems built into standard Cognitive Partners to prevent the expert systems from harming their user, or allowing them to knowingly harm themselves. That Zai was capable of understanding the necessity of shooting her human companion spoke volumes about the sort of creature she had become.

“Even if they scramble Highfall now, we’ll be dead when they get here,” Curtweather said, still discussing the conversation that was moving at meat-space speeds.

“Then we have to draw it away from those civilians,” Ai said as she heard the NME’s systems whir fully to life.

“Civilian Address System, Visual Targets,” Ai said aloud, glancing out from cover to identify the small group of people beyond the NMEs. “Police order: Hold your position until the hostile moves away, then seek safety to the north along this route.”

The Cognitive Partner she’d installed to camouflage Zai’s presence interfaced with the police communications grid, identified most (but not all) of the civilians who were present and transmitted to Ai’s message to them as a Priority Communique. No matter what sort of filtering software they had or what deficiencies their bio-tech suffered, the Priority channel would (most likely) reach them.

“They’re not worth it!” Curtweather said.

“It’s our job!” Ai said.

It wasn’t, but it sounded in character for her, and Ai had a lot of experience playing the character people expected her to be.

“Listen we don’t have to beat it,” she said. “We just need to get away. I’ll distract it, you target its visual systems. If it can’t track us, we and the civilians can get farther away without being blasted to pieces.”

Curtweather’s gun was already in his hand so Ai didn’t waste time waiting for his reply, just nodded as though he’d agreed with her and turned to dash out from behind their cover. She made it almost two feet past the pile of fallen asphalt before pain exploded her world to pieces.

The primitive areas of her brain informed Ai that someone had smashed her left leg off with a pointed sledgehammer. And that she was on fire.

Neither impression was wholly accurate but the force of the plasma bolt did sent her spinning in mid-air. Zai took over for the Cognitive Partner and shut down the pain receptors from Ai’s leg. That gave Ai the clarity to return fire at the NME. With Zai’s help targeting the sensor array was trivial but damaging it was another matter.

It was a rookie mistake to underestimate how armored the NME’s sensors would be. Humans had vulnerable optic systems, but battle forged combat beasts were another matter. Under pressure that was exactly the sort of fact people were likely to forget though and expert systems weren’t a help either. At least not the ones issued to the GCPD. Cops weren’t supposed to fight NMEs, so the systems didn’t include tactical analysis packages for them. The routines were too costly to install.

Ai crashed to the ground and skidded to a halt on the open road. A foolish young cop who drew the worst possible luck on one of her early patrols. With no cover, no backup, and no defenses only a miracle could save her.

Another plasma bolt blasted the ground in front of her and Ai struggled to pull herself farther away. She was leaving a leg behind but she still had to suppress a smile. Her miracle was already in progress. If it wasn’t the second bolt would have put a hole through her torso the size of a basketball.

The next shot was wildly off target, streaking meaninglessly into the sky.

The rattle of heavy cannon fire drilling into the group sounded like a scream of anguish to Ai’s ears because that’s exactly what it was.

Without its pain suppressors, the human body at the center of the NME was in agony beyond mortal tolerance. The bio-tech in the beast fought to bring its host under control but its repair routines weren’t crippled and failing, one after the other.

Bit by bit the mechanic monster tore itself apart, system after system crashing and taking a dozen others with it.

“You need to rest,” Zai said. “Your regen systems are supposed to be taxed to their limits here.”

“Knock me out then,” Ai said. “If I look like a beautiful corpse I might get some sympathy points from the captain.”

“To look like a beautiful corpse, you’d have to look beautiful first,” Zai said.

“Ouch, you wound me,” Ai said.

“I’m not the one who decided to let her leg get blown off,” Zai said. “So pleasant dreams about that.”

Pain-free darkness washed over Ai, but sluiced away almost as quickly as it arrived.

“That was quick,” Ai said in her head.

“Yeah, one of the civilians picked you up and I figured you didn’t want her looting your body before the medi-van showed up.”

Ai flickered her eyes open and found a tattooed woman holding her. A Rusty from the low grade bits of tech that pierced her skin in various places, and from her rail thin figure. The woman’s expression wasn’t frightened or concerned. She looked mildly angry instead. The expression suited her. Or it was honest, and that was refreshing.

Ai knew that the chemical bath Zai had dumped into her brain meats was scrambling her thoughts – some things couldn’t be flushed instantly – but despite that it was nice to have someone holding her when she was traumatically injured.

“Is everyone ok?” Ai asked aloud, meaning the civilians. Curtweather could turn corpse and it might be a net gain for the world. The civilians on the other hand might be aggravating, and financially worthless, but that made saving them even more of a pleasant bonus.

“No, you’re injured,” the woman said. She cast a glance over towards the NME and her scowl deepened.

“Oh, well that’s good,” Ai said, and let Zai pull her back down into unconsciousness.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 01

No matter how hard the rain fell, it couldn’t wash the past away. As the blood and oil and rare volatiles sluiced down into the storm drains, they took with them the evidence of what had occurred but left behind the unalterable truth.

“He didn’t have a chance, did he?” Ai said, tying her end of the mylar tent to an ornate spike that rose from top of an old brick wall the barely identifiable body was crumpled beside.

“First time seeing a dead body Greensmith?” her partner, Curtweather asked. There was no tenderness or caring in the question. It was a blunt blade looking for an opening to needle her through. It was how the GCPD treated new recruits.

“Seeing a dead body? No. Seeing one that’s this mangled? Yes. The one’s they brought into the forensics courses were more…intact.”

“Pretty gross isn’t it?” Curtweather asked, the smile on his face suggesting that he was waiting for Ai to show the traditional sign of weakness.

She could have faked vomiting, but that would escalate the taunting, which she had neither the time nor the appetite for.

“It’s strange,” she said. “According to his bio-telematics, his readings flatlined ten hours ago but the cause of death was instantaneous. A single cranial blow that destroyed all function.”

“Yeah, someone blew his brains out,” Curtweatherr said, forcing his corner of the mylar sheet to stay in place by wrapping it a light post and tying it into a crude knot.

“Why do all the other damage then?” Ai asked.

“Oh, you do not want an answer to that question,” Curtweather said. “They should have taught you that at the academy. The kind of sick things we deal with? You don’t want to go crawling around in their heads trying to understand them. They’re just not human anymore and if you think too much like them, you won’t be either.”

“Didn’t need the academy to teach me that,” Ai said. “My dad made it clear how messed up people were from the day I could walk.”

“Yeah, he knew the score, and even with that look where it got him?” Curtweather said.

Ai suppressed the rage that boiled in her. She’d done it so often that it was reflexive. Some emotions could be shared. Others were part of her private reserve of psychic fuel.

“Units Curtweather and Greensmith, report status.”

The words echoed in both their audio feeds and scrolled in the general priority alert line that was superimposed over their vision.

“Site secured at present coordinates,” Curtweather said. “Casualty confirmed and identified as Kevin Blasmidtz. Awaiting forensics units for full site eval.”

“Forensics unit dispatched. Prepare to receive new order.”

“Oh this is going to be great,” Curtweather grumbled.

“They can’t pull us off this scene yet,” Ai said, knowing that Dispatch was quite capable of doing whatever Dispatch wanted. “We need to maintain the chain of custody for the evidence until we can turn it over to the Fors team.”

“You newbies are so adorable,” Curtweather said as their new orders began scrolling across their vision.

“Patrol allocation limit reached for Block WC-24-60. Further police presence suspended awaiting Block Council credit extension. Unit Ai Greensmith will proceed to City Center for investigation into automated complaint at Tython Data Center CC-05-01.”

“Seriously?” Ai said aloud. “We’re leaving this with a tarp to cover the scene and a bill to get the forensics team in here?”

“Yeah, and the tarp will be on the bill too,” Curtweather said. “Get in the cruiser, every minute we’re still here is volunteer work.”

They were on Inter-City 5 traveling east into the heart of the Gamma City mega-metro area before Ai judged it was safe to speak again.

“I thought murder and other capital crimes were supposed to have automatic enforcement extensions,” she said. She knew what Curtweather’s answer would be but as the daughter of “Joseph Greensmith, Martyr Cop” she had an image of stubborn righteousness that people expected her to live up to.

“Wasn’t a murder,” Curtweather said without taking his eyes off the road.

Traffic was its typical snarled mess, but the complaint they were responding to originated in one of the city’s “gold zones” so they were able to use the priority lanes without accruing enough “special usage fees” to bankrupt each of them through their next seven lifetimes.

“I’ve seen some extreme Yoga before, but even someone with a spine made out of silly string couldn’t have pretzeled themselves like that,” Ai said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Curtweather said. “Without a bondable eye witness, only the lead forensic tech can make a cause of death ruling. It’s beyond scrubs like us.”

“Forensics isn’t going in there until Block W24 pays for it though,” Ai said.

“Yeah, and without a murder to prosecute there’s not much call for the Block Council to pay for the Forensic boys. It’s a nice system. Keeps us from getting too busy with the Bronzers and missing out on serving the people who really matter,” Curtweather said.

“The City Center crowd?”

“The very same.”

“They don’t pay for us though,” Ai said. “We’re supported two hundred and three to one by the other Block Councils.”

“Sure we are,” Curtweather said. “Salary, pension, and health-tech, all provided for by the good people of Gamma City. You tell me how that works out for you over the next few months.”

Ai swallowed another gout of rage. As if she didn’t know what life was like on a cop’s salary. As if she hadn’t seen her father struggling to get them by through the endless rounds of budget cuts and salary rollbacks. She’d been lucky, growing up a solid Silver citizen. It wasn’t an easy life but compared to the Bronzers, or even worse the Rusties, she knew she should be grateful.

Instead she was silent. Curtweather would fill in the explanations of her behavior that she needed him to believe and she didn’t have to say a word to make it happen.

She was Joseph Greensmith’s daughter, so of course she’d be idealistic and a knee-jerk reactionary against corruption. She would believe all kinds of fairy tales about honor and justice and being sworn the path of the righteous. People wanted to see her as “a chip off the old block”, just like her brother had been, and that’s what they would see.

“So who is our travel time being billed to?” she asked.

The GC Police Academy relied on “accelerated programs”, in part due to the high turnover in the police force ranks. The instructors focused almost entirely on the practical aspects of the job, with a few classes covering the fundamentals of law and advanced disciplines related to police work like forensics, investigation, and special response squads. Back office information like how billing was handled was omitted as irrelevant to a cop’s day to day work. An officer was supposed to obey the Dispatching directives routed to them without question. They didn’t need to know how billing was handled or what each minute of their time was billed out at.

“Probably the block we were in,” Curtweather said. “At least until we cross into the City Center. Depends on the client we’re responding to though. If it’s a serious one then they’ll pick up the whole bill just to make sure we’re not delayed.”

“Is the Tython Group a serious client?” Ai asked. On her display more data about the Tython group appeared than Curtweather could have accessed with a year’s salary. Ai didn’t need it. She’d already memorized everything there was to know about Tython, but her mind worked best when she could free link data bits together and, for that, having it all on tap was a convenient thing.

“They’re not one of mine, but they could be huge,” Curtweather said. “You never know who owns who, or which of these ‘Divisions’ or ‘Groups’ or ‘Subsidiaries’ are part of some world spanning super corporation.”

“All that power and not one of them can stop the NME attacks though,” Ai said.

Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the topic of the day across the board on the major news feeds. Curtweather just grunted.

“That’s been blown so out of proportion,” he said. “The Highfall Recon guys are being sold short on what they can do.”

“The NME rampage last week put a half dozen of them in the morgue until the Black Valkyries showed up. And that was just one NME right?” Ai asked.

“That was a raw deal,” Curtweather said. “The Highfall guys were called in late, the critter had dug in, and it was on a electric substation. I mean that was the perfect storm of bad karma for them to walk into.”

“Still though it was just one,” Ai said. “How bad could one enhancile be?”

It was a rookie question, the kind that baited stories out of more experienced officers. Ai knew that and she knew the stories Curtweather was going to tell, but she needed him to tell them.

“You ever meet one, you don’t ask that question, you just get the hell out of there,” Curtweather said.

“Sounds like you’ve seen an NME?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, there’s ones that don’t show up on the news feeds,” Curtweather said. “Ones that are smart enough to start off in the Rusties slums. Nobody transmits about those, but they still send in the Highfall guys after us suckers provide target confirmation and sit reps.”

“I thought our ordinance was supposed to be rated for anything up to a Bio-Berserker,” Ai asked.

“Sure, and if you see any fifty year old tech monsters lumbering around you can take all the pot shots at them that you like,” Curtweather said. “These NME’s are a new breed, new military tech if you ask me, and what we got ain’t enough to tickle them.”

Ai was only half listening to his words. Her attention was captured by a stream of light that cut through one of the building on her side of the car.

“How fast of a response time does Highfall have?” Ai asked, letting real concern show in her voice.

“They’re pretty quick, ten minutes or so, why’s that?” Curtweather asked.

“Something’s throwing out canon fire with enough tracers to make it look like a laser beam,” Ai said. “We’ve got to stop and check it out.”

Curtweather floored the gas pedal.

“We’ll need to take the next exit,” Ai said.

“No we won’t. If that’s an NME then we want nothing to do with it.”

“If it’s an NME then a lot of people are going to die unless we call in Highfall,” Ai said.

“Over there? In a Rusty slum? Don’t worry about it, it’s not like they’re real people in there,” Curtweather said just in time for the road to split open in front of them.

Ai felt herself lurched as the collision prevention systems grabbed control from Curtweather and fought to bring the vehicle to as safe a stop as was mechanically possible.

As it turned out ‘safe’ was a highly relative term. The automatic system did manage to stop the car well before it plunged over the collapsed section of the InterCity highway. Through the smoke and dust though a far worse danger emerged.

Ai knew the thing before her had once been human. In broad terms it still held a reflection of that, with a head, torso and limbs that were cast in a gross parody of what they had once been. In place of flesh and blood though there was nothing except writhing metal, flailing cables and a programmed weapon arsenal that was molecularly engineered from the debris the creature’s rampage had created.

Ten thousand details leapt into Ai’s mind all at once. The positions of the NME, the contents of their environment, the geometry of nearby cover and damaged areas.

The police cruiser wasn’t an oasis of safety, but it could be a distraction. She loaded a program on a delay into its automatic controls.

Her weapon was useless. That stayed in its holster. Safer to discard it entirely but the replacement cost would be difficult to justify.

Her optical feed was her best weapon. That got synced live back to Dispatch on a priority channel with the billing option set as a pass through charge to Highfall HQ.

“Get out of the car on three,” she said.

“Are you crazy? That thing will kill us,” Curtweather said.

“I’ve set the cruiser to ram it and engage pursuit mode. The battery was cracked in the crash just now, pursuit mode will blow it wide open.”

Curtweather’s dissatisfaction with her plan found expression is a stream of profanity but he bailed out of the cruiser on her count of three.

The NME belched fire at the car as it roared toward it and then opened up with a pair of arm cannons that stripped the “bullet resistant” hull off like it was made of tinfoil. Despite the abuse though, the cruiser engaged pursuit mode fifty milliseconds before making contact with the NME and, as Ai calculated, then exploded thirty milliseconds later.

Ai dove flat behind a chunk of rubble roughly twice the size of the car. Thanks to the cruiser’s acceleration profile, she and Curtweather were able to scramble behind it in time to be shielded from the blast.

That was the good news.

The bad news came when Ai peeked around the corner of the rubble and saw the NME getting back on it’s feet. It had lost a large chunk of its outer shell but the human inside, or what was left of them, was still functional.

The worse news could have been that, following the blast, the NME was oriented on Ai, having identified her as the primary threat facing it.

That would have been the worst news of the day, except Ai saw a group of children huddled on the far side of the NME and she knew the moment she shook it’s attention from herself, they would be next in it’s line of fire.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 32 – Family

Iana positioned the last of the the overstuffed chairs, looked at her handiwork and scowled.

“Wrong arrangement, wrong type of chair, or something else?” Dae asked.

The First Sorceress was garbed in her usual traveling leathers, leaning against the doorframe to the conference room and watching her adopted daughter prepare for the first meeting of the Princess’ Council.

“This is supposed to simple,” Iana said. “Why is it not simple.”

“Because you care about it,” Alari said, “and caring about things is never simple.”

The Queen of Gallagrin was dressed in an uncharacteristically common style, matching the traveling leathers Dae wore.

“Well, almost never,” Dae said. “Somethings don’t have to be complicated at all.”

She smiled and nodded to Alari, sharing some private bit of happiness that Iana felt no need to intrude on.

“So that’s why you’re leaving me alone to handle this?” Iana asked. “So that it won’t get too complicated?”

“Not at all,” Alari said. “The Princess’ Council is a brilliant idea.”

“We’re taking a vacation so that it’ll be yours without us overshadowing it,” Dae said.

“And if something goes wrong?” Iana asked.

“Not if,” Alari said. “When something goes wrong, you’re going to handle it, just like you handled the Shadowfolk.”

“So this is punishment for going off without telling you?” Iana asked.

“Off with your attempted assassin,” Dae said.

“You had your reasons for that, and they were good ones,” Alari said. “So no, this is not a punishment. You have my full and complete faith, you know that. And we’re not going so far that we can’t get back here if something truly dire comes up.”

“Jyl and Pelay and Undine and Eorn will be here too, and your Warbringer pack,” Dae said. “If you need backup against your allies, trust me, there’ll be plenty of people willing to step up beside you.”

“I don’t need backup against them,” Iana said. “I’m just not sure if I can make them comfortable.”

“This is something new,” Alari said. “No one’s ever tried anything like it in Gallagrin. So no one’s going to be comfortable, but that’s ok.”

“But I need them to work together,” Iana said.

“How did you get your Warbringers to work together?” Dae asked.

“Joint combat exercises,” Iana said.

“Ok, those could present some problems with this group,” Dae said.

Iana started rearranging the chairs, trying to find a grouping that would provide enough distance between her guests. As it was they were going to be worrying about surprise attacks, Iana wanted to make sure that if anyone tried for one, she or one of the Guardians would have time to react before it was successful.

“I am impressed that you managed to convince representatives from both the Faeneril and the Shadowfolk to be part of this,” Alari said.

“I’m impressed you survived meeting them in the first place,” Dae said. “There’s a reason we’ve never asked for help from either group before.”

“Wasn’t that your doing though?” Iana asked.

“My doing? Whatever do you mean?” Dae asked.

“There were some very interesting coincidences,” Iana said. “Interesting enough that I have to wonder if someone wasn’t magicking things up and influencing events from afar.”

“Dae? Is that true?” Alari asked.

“Guilty as charged, but far far less than you seem to think,” Dae said. “It’s true that I had an inkling of what was going on, and I did try to nudge a few things to work out ok. The thing is though that I don’t know if that made a difference or not.”

“You’re trying to say you’re not sure if you were powerful enough to influence events at a distance?” Iana said.

“The more I explore what magic can do, the more I’m learning that it’s less about outright power and more about vision,” Dae said. “Dropping a mountain on someone will solve whatever problem they’re causing, but it’s certain to create more problems in the process.”

“So you have to be careful with what you do then? Even now?” Iana asked.

“Especially now,” Dae said. “It’s something a wise queen has tried to tell me ever since she was a wise princess. Power can’t be exercised without restraint. There are always consequences, and none of us can foresee all of the outcomes of what we do.”

“So what do we do then?” Iana asked.

“Our best, and trust in those who’ve shown themselves to be trustworthy,” Dae said.

“Is that why you didn’t come after me personally?” Iana asked.

“That and I asked her not to,” Alari said.

“It was the right call too,” Dae said. “Neither of us could have made the connections you did. And Neither of us could have ended things as well as you were able to.”

“It was a close thing,” Iana said. “If it wasn’t for the enchantments you put on my clothes I would have drifted away into the Abyss.”

“Uh, what enchantments?” Dae asked.

“The special protections you put on my clothes.” Iana said. “I know I wasn’t supposed to notice the little glyphs in the hem but you picked my favorite type of flower so…”

Iana put down the chair she was moving and looked up to see Dae staring at her in disbelief.

“You didn’t put that enchantment there,” Iana said the pieces falling into place.

“I enchanted your knife,” Dae said. “I’m used to working with armor and steel. Metal holds the magic so well. It’s why I told you to hang onto it.”

“My clothes were definitely enchanted,” Iana said. “I’d given the knife away by then, so they had to be.”

“I believe you that they were enchanted, but not by me,” Dae said, squinting at Iana.

“If it wasn’t you then who?” Iana asked, looking over to Alari who shook her head.

“No one mortal,” Dae said. “The realm’s magic exists inside of creation. The Abyss is beyond that.”

“But who else could have…”

Iana stopped.

She’d stood before a god. One of her gods. She’d expected to face fury and condemnation but she’d found only love and kindness.

Iana had left the Green Council but that didn’t mean her god had left her.

She clutched her chest as a wave of raw emotion rolled over her.

Telliakai hadn’t tried to hold her back. The goddess of the Green Council had set her free, not because she didn’t care where Iana went, but because she knew that wherever Iana traveled she would there too.

“Are you going to be ok?” Alari asked, moving to help Iana settle into a chair.

“Yeah, it’s just…I didn’t realize…I thought I left everything behind me.”

“You left behind the parts of your old life that you don’t need anymore,” Dae said.

“And from here on out you get to pick the pieces that you make your new life from,” Alari said.

There was a knock on the door to the conference room, followed by a page entering.

“The Council members have begun to arrive, shall I show them in?” the page asked.

Alari looked to Iana.

“Yes, please do,” Iana said and straightened up.

“In a moment,” Alari said and turned to Iana. “You do not need our shadow hanging over you, but you can always have our arms to shield you and our shoulders to lean on.”

“Thank you,” Iana said. “I think I’ve got this.”

“We know you do,” Dae said, and threaded her fingers together with Alari’s a moment before the two of them simply vanished.


Yuehne the would-be-assassin was the first to enter, followed by Venita the dwarven sky carriage driver, with Wynni the Shadowfolk assassin and Che-chara the Faeneril warrior in their wake.

“As execution chambers go, there’s a remarkable lack of edged weapons around,” Wynni said.

“Execution chamber?” Che-chara asked.

“It’s one of the running bets as to the real reason the Princess invited me here,” Wynni said.

“How much do you stand to win when you return?” Venita asked.

“Enough to make me a moderately wealthy woman,” Wynni said.

“I have to confess, I don’t understand why we’re here,” Yuehne said. “Bets on execution aside that is.”

“It’s not complicated,” Iana said. “I’m not from Gallagrin. You all are. I need your counsel if I’m going to learn about this realm and be able to make the right decisions for it.”

“I get that part,” Yuehne said. “I mean why are we here. Us specifically. Or, well, me.”

“Why wouldn’t I want you here?” Iana asked.

“I tried to kill you,” Yuehne said. “Most people have a problem with that.”

“To be fair, I was going to kill her too,” Wynni said.

“And if she’d played her cards poorly when we first met, I might have had to kill her as well,” Che-chara said.

“I guess that makes me the odd one out,” Venita said.

“You tried to throw me off a sky carriage in flight,” Iana said.

“Oh yeah, almost forget that,” Venita said. “Kind of hoped you had too.”

“So you’re surrounding yourself with people who want to kill you?” Yuehne asked. “Is the idea that we’d be too busy trying to outdo the others that we’d never get around to attacking you?”

“While that would play well on the stage, no, I’m not insulting your intelligence like that,” Iana said. “You’re here, all of you, because you’ve given me good counsel and are willing to speak the truth to me despite any fancy title I get to wear.”

“I don’t recall ever advising you on anything,” Yuehne said. “I’ve just told you how wrong you are.”

“Yes, frequently,” Iana said. “The day I stop listening to that, is the day I become like my old superior, and I never want to become like him. If I can’t bear to listen to people telling me that I’m wrong, if I can’t modify my thinking when they’re right, or explain why I believe what I do, then I have no business leading anyone.”

“Elder Tonel used to say that a leader’s job was to make the decisions that the lesser people couldn’t,” Wynni said.

“He was a failure as a leader,” Iana said. “No one is ‘lesser’. Anyone can make decisions, especially if they’re stamped as correct just because of who made them.”

“So you think having us around will fix that?” Yuehne asked.

“Not just having you around,” Iana said. “I going to need more from you than  occasional meetings to discuss strategy and tactics. I’m going to need you, all of you, to be out there in the realm, engaging with our people. I going to need you to bring their voice, to even bring them, to me.”

“That doesn’t sound like how Gallagrin governs its people,” Yuehne said.

“It’s not,” Iana said. “Gallagrin is my home now. My family is here. But I am not a part of it. Not yet. I can’t offer it the leadership it is used to, but I can try to bring in what I know and maybe those tools can solve some of the problems that have faced this realm for decades now.”

“That’s a tall order,” Venita said. “What makes you think we’re up to doing all that for you?”

“You were willing to try,” Iana said.

“If we try and fail, won’t a whole realm be turned against us though?” Che-chara asked.

“Possibly,” Iana said. “That’s why we’re going to start small.”

“How do you start small with ruling a realm?” Yuehne asked.

“Most of the land in Gallagrin is held by the various noble families,” Iana said. “But there are a few estates outside of Highcrest which are held directly by the Royal Family. We’re going to take one of those over.”

“Militarily?” Wynni asked.

“In a sense,” Iana said. “My sisters and I were part of an elite combat unit in the Green Council. We’re going to take command of the militia forces which guard one of the estates and with your help, we’re going to turn it into a center of trade to rival Highcrest. Before I take the crown, I want to make a jewel out of the Keep at Empty Rock.”

“What sort of support will the crown give us?” Venita asked.

“None,” Iana said. “They said I couldn’t run you through combat exercises, but they never said I couldn’t put a challenge before you. The question is, will you join me in this?”

“A month ago I couldn’t have conceived of hearing those words, a week ago I would have laughed at the pretender who uttered them, but today? I don’t know how you did it, but today I hear my Princess asking me to join her and I can only say yes,” Yuehne said. “Yes, I will.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 31- To a New Day

Undine always liked the idea of arriving in the nick of time to make the perfect save. He’d grown up devouring stories like that, and while he knew reality rarely matched the telling of the great deeds of yore, there was a part of him which hungered for nothing more than to be the unexpected hero who swooped in and saved the day when all seemed lost.

Seeing Princess Iana being thrown off into abyss a moment before he and Eorn arrived was therefore just a trifle disappointing. Undine wasn’t a viscous or vengeful man, but as he watched Iana flailing to gain a handhold that she would never reach, a hard cast settled over his features and his teeth locked together.

“Throw me after her!” Eorn said.

It was a commendable idea. Sail off into the depths of the Abyss to rescue the one they’d been charged to protect. Another of their company, their commander Jyl, had a similar idea, and it failed for her just as it would have for Eorn.

In full Pact Regalia, Jyl leaped into the Abyss to follow Iana and bring her back, but at the edge of the Abyss she hit an invisible wall.

“Our magic is tied to Gallagrin,” Undine said. “Lady Dae warned us of this. We’ve failed.”

The Pact Spirits Undine, Eorn, and the other knights of Gallagrin were bound to were intrinsically a part of Sleeping God’s creation. Neither they, nor those they were bonded to could leave it.

“We have to try something!” Eorn was looking around as though there was some particularly long piece of magical rope they might through to the princess who had been swallowed by the darkness.

Before Undine could refocus her on the other problems that remained before them, two screaming balls of light shot across the quarry. Only the fact that Undine was drawing on his pact’s magics to perceive time passing at a slower rate allowed him to notice the new arrivals as they flew helplessly across the battlefield the quarry had become and out into the darkness beyond.

Without the time to mourn his lost princess, Undine wasn’t about to mourn the passing of two strangers, but their arrival was so outside of his expectations that he watched the Abyss for a fraction of a moment longer after they too vanished into the endless dark.

And that’s when the star appeared.

It was a tiny thing. Nothing more than a spark of light. Against the overwhelming, endless depth of the Abyss it was less than a candle flame, but even all of the weight of the void wasn’t enough to keep it from shining. Undine’s breath caught in anticipation. Nothing could exist in the Abyss, but out there, even beyond the reach of the spirits, a miracle had been born.

The star drew closer and Undine saw that it was a person. As most miracles are.

It was Iana. In her arms were the two Shadowfolk who’d shot off past the end of creation, and garbing her were the enchanted clothes which Dae had gifted her.

“That’s not possible,” Tonel, the Shadowfolk Elder, and also the one who’d thrown Iana into the void, said.

Behind him, his troops, waited, unsteady and fully revealed in the glaring light from Iana’s robes.

“For you, it’s not. For the Blessed Realms’ first Sorceress though? Well let’s just say this isn’t all she’s capable of,” Iana said as she settled down onto the edge of the quarry, the light around her fading away as she return to a space that was at least notionally connected to the Blessed Realms.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tonel said. “She’s not here, and you are still outnumbered. If the Abyss won’t kill you for us, then I will take care of it myself.”

The two Shadowfolk Iana had rescued regained their feet and moved to stand before her.

“Elder Tonel,” Bellightra said. “We bring a message from Elders Banra, Jofolo, and Peregin.”

“The Revolution Stratagem has been formally abandoned,” Lelandra said.

“They also instructed us to inform you that an official pact has been formed between the Shadowfolk Elder Circle and the Princess Prime of Gallagrin,” Bellightra said.

“From this moment forward, you are to drop all efforts at enacting any part of the Revolution Stratagem, in specific any that would impinge on Princess Iana’s health or well-being,” Lelandra said.

“Wait, what is this now?” Jyl asked, sounding as befuddled by the development as Tonel appeared to be.

“I’ve been speaking with the Shadowfolk Elders,” Iana said. “Present company excluded. We’ve come to an arrangement that will benefit both parties.”

“That’s preposterous,” Tonel said. “You’ve been my prisoner since you returned from the trip the World Eaters took you on!”

“I’m not saying I didn’t have help,” Iana said.

“Does this mean you can tell us what Silian was saying while you were mumbling to yourself?” Yuehne asked.

“Silian?” The balls of light in Tonel’s eye sockets burned a brilliant scarlet of rage. “That is not a name your lips may pronounce.”

“Silian, Silian, Silian,” Iana said. “Pretty sure you’re wrong there.”

Tonel tried to take a step forward but Jyl and Pelay were at Bellightra and Lelandra’s side and without fanfare Undine and Eorn joined them.  The battlelines were irregular and sloppily drawn but Tonel halted himself, perhaps seeing that what should have been a certain victory was rapidly becoming a likely loss.

“Blasphemer!” Tonel wasn’t moving forward, but he didn’t lower his weapon either.

He’s waiting for reinforcements, Undine thought. It wasn’t a terrifying prospect. They were already outnumbered. Being more outnumbered just meant more glory to be won. Not that the numeric imbalance would last long.

If Tonel wanted to commit the full measure of the Shadowfolk forces to this battle, then he would be handing Lady Dae the opportunity to end their threat once and for all.

Undine delighted at the idea of a glorious battle, but he knew if it came to a full on struggle, there would be little glory to be found.

Ideally in Undine’s mind, a fight was contested by both sides based on the demands placed on their honor. Both parties were as invested in the struggle as the situation demanded, which meant fights to the death only occurred when both parties had something worth laying down their lives for.

In a battle against the Shadowfolk main forces, there would be soldiers fighting because they’d been ordered to die, and there would be Pact Knight’s who were fighting because the Shadowfolk gave them no other choice. It wouldn’t be a combat of equals, it would be warriors fighting like rabid animals against a force with no option but to act as exterminators.

“I would be careful with the use of that word Tonel,” Iana said. “Of the two of us, one is listening to your progenitor informing her of your indiscretions with the attaches you’ve kept over the years and the other is the ‘Elder’ who is so removed from what his people need that he can’t hear the one voice that unites them all.”

“You’re lying, I’m the first among the Elders, I am the best for my people!” Tonel’s voice rose in ire and volume.

“Are you?” Iana asked, stepping past the protective barrier of the Shadowfolk and Pact Knight’s who stood before her. “Who profits from the Revolution Stratagem?”

“All of my people!” he said.


“We will have the vengeance long denied us!”

“No. You won’t,” Iana said. “You’re like a child lashing out at nothing and all you would have gotten from your vendetta is nothing. I am not your enemy, and neither if Queen Alari. She was the one who enacted your vengeance for you. It was by her hands that the Butcher King died. You owe her your thanks and gratitude.”

“You don’t understand our vengeance at all.”

“I’ve burned cities in the name of vengeance. I’ve shattered the boundaries of the realms in the name of revenge. I’ve stood before the wrath of a god with justice on my lips and righteous fury in my soul. You’ve lived longer than me but you will never know as much about vengeance as I do.”

Iana stood nose to nose with Tonel, the fire around her in no sense physical and in no way deniable.

“At least not until you experience the mercy that I’ve seen,” she said, the fierce anger that stormed around her washing away like the tide.

“Vengeance is foolish,” she finished. “Especially misguided vengeance.”

“Vengeance is what we are!” Tonel said.


It wasn’t Iana’s voice that spoke, despite the fact that it was her mouth which moved.

“We have always been more than any one thing,” the speaker said. “We are not vengeance, we are who we chose to be. Always and forever. That is the legacy I left for you.”

“Who are you?” Tonel asked, stepping back as terror rippled down his body.

“You know who I am,” Silian said. “You’ve always known but you’ve never wanted to hear me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Tonel took another step backwards, and his troops shifted uneasily, their weapons lowering as their leader became visibly unglued.

“It’s time Tonel, there’s still one piece of honor left for you, one act of dignity as yet unruined.”

“What are you talking about?” Tonel brought his weapon up to ward off Iana’s advance.

“He’s speaking of you stepping down,” Iana said as she took a step forward. “You’ve led your people to this precipice. Others are waiting to lead them back, release those who serve you, don’t carry this madness any further. We don’t have any room left to work with.”

“No.” Tonel threw down his weapon. “I will never give up what it mine. It’s mine! Do you hear me!  These people are mine! Their greatness is my greatness. It’s greatness that I gave to them and that they will spend for me!”

He turned to his troops, body livid with pulsing rage.

“Do it!” he screamed. “Kill them! Kill her! Do it!”

Silence echoed over the quarry.

It was no longer a battlefield.

No one was willing to fight.

Not for a madman. Not for a tyrant. Not when there was a better way.

Tonel’s scream when he realized this tore through Undine. He’d never heard a sound of such primal fury and loss before. Even as fast as Undine was, Tonel’s movement was hard to follow.

In a blink the Shadowfolk Elder exploded with magical fire. Before another passed, he’d regained his weapon and was rushing at Iana.

The Pact Knights moved as one but in between blinks, Iana simply wasn’t there and Tonel streaked through the space she’d appeared to be in.


In the end, Undine wasn’t sure if Tonel meant to dash off into the Abyss or whether he had simply blundered in his final attack. Blundering seemed more likely and was the story that seemed to spread the easiest among the Shadowfolk.

Iana, standing just a few feet away had perhaps the best view but she spoke of it only as a ‘tragic accident’ and seemed content to allow the memory of the late and unlamented Tonel to pass away without further comment.

“So what is this pact thing she’s put together with the Shadowfolk?” Eorn asked after they were safely back in Castle Highcrest.

“From what I understand, Iana’s instituted a ‘Princess’ Council’,” Undine said.

“And that would be what exactly?” Eorn asked.

“A group of advisors who will help her understand Gallagrin and it’s people better.”

“That doesn’t sound like a big deal,” Eorn said. “Why is everyone up in arms about it?”

“Apparently she’s planning to give each of them her Voice when she takes the throne,” Undine said.

“Wait, like Lady Dae has Queen Alari’s Voice?” Eorn asked.

“Exactly. They’ll all be able to speak as the monarch.”

“Won’t that get….?”

“Confusing? Messy? Why yes.”

“You’re looking forward to this aren’t you?”

“They’ll be be trying times once our foreign princess comes to power but yes, I think they’ll be worth hanging around for too,” Undine said. “Provided you’re here with me?”

“Heh, like you could lose me if you tried,” Eorn said and punched Undine affectionately in the shoulder.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 30 – Bringing the Word

Bellightra passed through the shadows between the worlds faster than she’d ever moved before. It was easier when you imagined you were falling. The void beyond creation exerted a pull on all things and if you didn’t mind the chance of falling into an endless abyss, you could use that to move into the deeper realms faster than any mortal could travel on their own.

“Are we going to make it on time?” Lelandra asked.

They were falling so fast that Bel could see her wife’s face clearly. Neither of them could keep a cloak of invisibility held to themselves with the buffeting of a thousand world veils shredding before them.

“I have no idea!” Silian said, his voice a shared presence in their ears. “Isn’t it exciting?”

“Exciting. Yes. I hate excitement,” Lelandra said.

Below them pale stars, visible to their eyes alone, faded out as the Shadowfolk trio plunged in freefall through the skies, each cloud the last barrier of another world they were leaving behind.

“That’s a good thing,” Silian said. “I was afraid all of my children would turn out like me.”

“We thought you were basically a god,” Bellightra said.

“Nope. Not a god. Not a saint. Not even a  hero really,” Silian said. “All I was, all I am I guess, is someone who was lucky enough to be caught exactly where he didn’t want to be, and faced with a choice he couldn’t accept.”

“That sounds like the opposite of lucky,” Lelandra said, bracing for their next cloud passage.

“At the time I agreed with you. Did you know I invented a thousand and one new blasphemous curses thanks to the spot the gods put me in? A thousand and one! I mean after the first few hundred it was basically a matter of pride to see how many I could come up with, but still you don’t spend that kind of time on something unless you’re really motivated.”

“Well, they were going to kill us all, weren’t they?” Bellightra asked. “Extinction seems like a great motivator.”

“Hence this suicidal idea,” Lelandra said. “Even like this I don’t know that we’re going to make it in time.”

“We’re traveling as fast as I’ve ever managed, and that’s saying something,” Silian said. “You messengers were well chosen.”

“We can go faster,” Bellightra said.

“What? How?” Silian asked.

It was odd to hear a mystically omnipresent voice sound confused, but then it had been an odd day for Bellightra and Lelandra.

Everyone had heard of the incursion into one of their home realms. It didn’t take messengers to spread that news – gossip was always traveled faster than the official news carriers could compete with.

Bellightra and Lelandra were supposed to be enjoying a day off, one of the too-infrequent ones where their schedules aligned and allowed them a full day together. They were just laying out the ingredients for a day’s cooking when the news of the incursion reached them. Lelandra wanted to investigate but Bellightra had talked her out of it. They didn’t have that many occassions when they could prepare and enjoy home cooked food by themselves and they each loved to surprise the other with the new dishes they’d discovered in their travels.

So they stayed inside. When the official notice arrived that the colony was being put on alert for more trespassers, Bellightra had shut down the notion of returning to the duty station on the grounds that they hadn’t been specifically called for, and that there’d be no offer of compensation time for the extra hours worked if they volunteered their day off away.

“We’d know about what was going on if we were at work though,” Lelandra had said, chewing on the end piece of a root vegetable to ascertain its bitterness.

“We don’t need to care about what’s going on,” Bellightra said. “Not until it finds us.”

Trouble has a talent for finding people no matter how much they choose not to search for it though, and in this case the Trouble that found them came in the form of Bellightra’s Uncle Jafferal.

Jafferal was an unpartnered man who’d survived enough decades of active recon unit service to retire to a calm and peaceful life. In the decades since then he’d become an extra caregiver for all of his siblings and neighbors, providing an extra hand in raising their children largely because after years in the field he was as incapable of resting as the children he wrangled were.

Jafferal’s position was a happy one for him and a blessing for those who relied on him. It also made him the center of a web of information thicker than any of the Elder’s intelligence officers. Or in other words he was a typical part of the community gossip network.

“Ladies, would you like to speak to our progenitor, Silian? If so just say ‘yes’ and he’ll explain the rest of what’s going on, but be warned, once he’s a part of your life you can’t get rid of him. He’ll always be there,” Jafferal said without preamble or warning when they opened the door to greet him.

“Are you serious?” Lelandra asked.

“Completely,” Jafferal said.

“Definitely then!” Bellightra said.

From there their day went decidedly off schedule. Dishes were left unfinished. Cooking fires were extinguished. Inventive explicatives were deployed.

And a plan was formed.

Or to be accurate, it was less formed than pitched hastily at a wall and the parts that stuck were cobbled together into something that had the possibility of not killing every living soul involved in it.

Under the constraints they’d been given, Bellightra considered that a towering achievement. True, they’d had the aid and counsel of a person who’d outsmarted literal gods, but the details of the plan, such as they were, emerged largely from the collective (and hurried) discussion of those who were won over to the new cause of “not allowing the Shadowfolk to perish en masse because an Elder did something stupid”.

Bellightra and Lelandra had a simple portion of the plan to execute.

Deliver a message. It was what they did, almost to the point of being who they were. There were many days that Bellightra felt more like a courier than she did a wife, a chef, or any other part of herself. Those days never felt like they had a point. Not until she found herself trying to outrace fate and gambling with the lives of her entire species.

“Answer me this,” Bellightra said. “Is there still a chance to save the Gallagrin princess?”

“Yes,” Silian said. “I’m speaking with her now. She’s playing for time, but Tonel’s not stupid, he’s going to give her more than another minute or so.”

“This would be so much simpler if you could just speak to him,” Lelandra said, addressing their invisible progenitor.

“Tried that,” Silian said. “Been trying that for years in fact. Some people are surprisingly resistant to hearing things they don’t want to hear.”

“What could you have had to say that Tonel was that opposed to?” Bellightra asked, angling them onto a new course.

“That he needs to give up his position gracefully,” Silian said. “That he was the wrong person for the job, and that it’s beyond him. That there are others who could lead with clearer vision and less need for personal aggrandizement. Basically everything he’s spent his whole life trying to deny while at the same time working to make the unassailable truth.”

“That’s what I figured,” Bellightra said. “And maybe that makes this worth it.”

“What, exactly, are you doing?” Silian asked.

“Gambling,” Bellightra said.

“And the stakes would be?” Silian asked.

“Our minds, our bodies, our fundamental existence,” Bellightra said. “Your kind of stuff right?”

“Yes,” Silian said and then added with a small sigh, “of all my legacies, this had to be the one to endure didn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so,” Lelandra said.

“Watch for pockets of shadow worlds at the outer fringe,” Bellightra said and offered her hand to Lelandra.

“Watch for open skies,” Lelandra said and took her wife’s hand in her own.

There was a wrenching shake as Bellightra jumped them in between the Shadow Worlds.

No longer falling through the skies of the partial planes, but rather the paper thin emptiness that separated them, the two encountered no resistance to the abyss’s pull and their already tremendous speed increased so much that the pale stars flared around them, passing upwards and out of sight in the space of a single heartbeat.

Bellightra maneuvered them along a twisting, spiraling path that was somehow steeper and shorter than any straight line could have been. With each moment the gaps they fell through grew larger but so too did the micro-fragments that collected within the spaces between the worlds.

“Mountain!” Silian warned, and Bellightra spun them in a mad arc away from the unlit and nearly invisible mass of rock they’d been headed towards.

“We’re coming up on First Prototypes,” Lelandra warned.

“The First…oh thousand hells no!” Silian said.

Ahead of them, more dots were rapidly growing to reveal their true scale. They weren’t mountains. They were continents, discarded and shattered continents, some of the earliest works of the gods. They held little definition since they were only basic concept sketches of the worlds to be but even as basic sketches they had mass and structure.

“Can you make it through there?” Silian asked, referring to the pitch black spider web of cracks that hinted at the Abyss that lay on the far side of the First Prototypes.

“Could you?” Bellightra asked.

“Sure,” Silian said. “On a really good day.”

“Then so can we,” Bellightra said.

“Let’s just hope that today’s a really good day,” Lelandra said.

Bellightra drew Lelandra in close.

“Wish we could have used a portal for this,” she said.

“We can do this,” Lelandra said.

“Yeah, with you I can do anything.”

The cracks in the shattered lands of the void swallowed ‘First Prototypes’ ranged from fissures that were wider than cities to slits less than a finger’s width across.

Bellightra had only the absence of reflected light to measure them by.

And she was moving faster than she’d ever traveled before.

She and Lelandra entered a cleft in the proto-continent that was as wide as they were tall stacked on top of one another. In less than an instant they were passing through a section that was only a few inches wider than the breadth of their bodies as they clung together.

Rocks blurred past them like a river of teeth that would slice them to ribbons with the barest touch.

The walls pulsed inwards and Bellightra crushed Lelandra so close that neither woman could breath. The rocks whispered across the back of Bellightra’s hand and blood fountained from the perfect cut that appeared.

And then they were sailing beyond the great primordial landmass.

“There!” Lelandra cried, adjusting their course to intersect with one of the last Shadow Worlds that drifted on the edge of the Abyss.

Bellightra had been too busy watching the walls and navigating through them to see beyond, but she didn’t have to. Lelandra found the final tether of sanctuary they could cling to.

As they punched through the veil of the last realm between them and the void, Bellightra and Lelandra jumped to reorient to the world’s axis, spin and velocity.

They were among the best of the Shadowfolks messengers. They had the experience to pull the jump off, and they did.

But it wasn’t enough.

Together they landed in the bottom of a quarry where a fierce battle was exploding out of control. They’d arrive at their destination at the last possible second. But they were traveling too fast.

Helplessly they sailed across the quarry like two fiery comets, blazing out into the existence devouring emptiness of the void.

Bellightra held tight to Lelandra desperate not to lose the woman who fulfilled so much of her life.

And then an angel wreathed in all the lights of creation caught them.


The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 29 – The Call

Chanolsa was over at Nelosa’s house because everyone was over at Nelosa’s house. Even for a society as hierarchical and mission focused as the Shadowfolk’s was, it was still a rare occurrence to see troops deployed to someone’s dwelling and even rarer still to see one of the Elder’s leading them.

“So the humans just popped right up in your kitchen?” Chanolsa asked. “That can’t be real can it?”

“Real as my twinkly left butt cheek,” Nelosa said. “One minute I’m making dinner and the next I got an infestation of all kinds of people popping through a big hole in space right where I was standing a minute before.”

“All kinds of people?” Chanolsa asked, catching what she thought was the critical detail.

Belief in Nelosa’s story was mixed among the crowd of her neighbors, at least as far as Chanolsa could gauged it. Some didn’t want to believe their homes could be compromised like that. Others were all too eager to believe, and all to eager to take drastic, unreasonable action as a result.

Chanolsa didn’t place herself in either of those groups. She worked for the Water Corp, which was responsible for both finding sources of water for the Shadowfolk communities and outposts in the disparate  worlds they were spread to as well as investigating any large sources of water they came across.

There was no such thing as free water. Not in the Shadow Worlds. Water was an inherently magical substance, and wherever it appeared in a liquid form, it would draw in creatures to fight for it.

Chanolsa looked at the Shadowfolk dwellings in much the same manner. People drew in trouble. The more people, the harder they were to sustain, the more trouble. That in turn suggested that Nelosa’s story could be true. There was a wide gap though between “could be” and “was definitely” true.

“Yes, it wasn’t just humans. There was a dwarf or two, I think, and some kind of scale covered woman.”

Nelosa seemed to know that her neighbors were weighing the possibility that she was in league with the intruders. That would be a capital offense if it could be proven, and the burden of proof was not particularly high in Shadowfolk courts.

The only things that kept people more or less on Nelosa’s side was that Elder Tonel had been part of the raid and had not denounced her and, more importantly in some people’s eyes, Nelosa was making no attempt to calm the calls for action.

Chanolsa noticed that Nelosa wasn’t encouraging any actions either though. She made no offers to join in the proposed hunts, and offered no details beyond those she was asked for.

That delicate balance between holding back and holding out suggested that Nelosa, like Chanolsa, wanted nothing more than for the whole crisis to simple pass her by. They were not active duty fighters or support, they were not part of the Elder’s staff, the affairs outside their day to day lives didn’t concern them.

Chanolsa wished she could believe that. It would make life so much simpler if the only problems you had to deal with were the ones relevant to the work you did.

Another portal opened in Nelosa’s kitchen, confirming that life was never played fair. It never limited the trouble you could be forced to face.

No one in the room was better than a third class fighter, so it was fortunate that the portal disgorged another Shadowfolk, an assassin from the looks of her duty markings, and a high ranking one at that.

The assassin’s appearance didn’t launch the room into a flurry of combat, instead the chaos that erupted was filled with questions and demands.

“Who are you?”

“How did you get in here!”

“Are you with the humans?”

“Explain what’s going on here!”

It was impossible for anyone to answer the crowd back, so the assassin didn’t try. Instead she turned her head to the side as though she was listening to someone and then simply said, “Be Quiet.”

Chanolsa hadn’t been talking so the command rolled over her with little-to-no effect. In the silence that descended though, she saw neighbors who had been cut off mid-word and were struggling to get the last syllables out.

Chanolsa wanted to ask “who are you to tell us what to do”, but she found her voice as absent as the ones of those around her.

“We’re faced with a crisis, and I am faced with a burden,” Wynni said. In her hand a knife gleamed with reflected moonlight. Except no moonlight was shining into Nelosa’s house.

“The crisis is simple enough,” Wynni continued. The injunction to be quiet had not trapped anyone in Nelosa’s house, but Chanolsa found that sheer curiosity prevented her from leaving.

“Our Elders have set us on a path to extinction. I know some of you won’t believe that but it is true independent of your beliefs or feelings about it.”

“What proof do you have of that?” Chanolsa asked, the prescription to remain quiet fading as Wynni spoke.

“I was on the observation team covering the Gallagrin princess,” Wynni said. “I got to watch Elder Tonel’s plans fall apart from the frontlines.”

“So because you failed, we’re all going to die?” another one of Nelosa’s guests asked.

“No, with one exception, the forward forces made no tactical errors, the problems we face were endemic to Tonel’s plan from its conception,” Wynni said.

“Who are you to  judge an Elder’s plans?” a neighbor asked.

“No one,” Wynni said. “I could see the small scale pieces falling apart, I could see how doomed we were from how every engagement was turning against us. Stupid mistakes being followed by ineffective responses which were being driven by what had to be extreme greed and delusions. But I’m not an Elder. I can’t ask you to listen to me. That’s not what we do. That’s not who we are.”

“Then why are you here?” Chanolsa asked. The assassin’s approach to public speaking was certainly a different one, but since Wynni had clearly been corrupted by the humans she associated with Chanolsa could guess what would come next.

Among those who fell from the strictures of Shadowfolk society, there was a recurring vision that the Shadowfolks methods were cruel and self defeating. People who were dragged before a tribunal often tried to argue that what their betrayal had been in the best interest of the Shadowfolk and that they’re weakness in refusing to execute a mission objective was some odd form of strength. If Chanolsa was right, then she would hear yet another appeal to a sense of morality that relied on mythical qualities which no sapient beings they interacted with had ever shown they possessed.

“That’s where my burden comes in,” Wynni said. “I’ve apparently become a Speaker for Silian.”

The room erupted in a chorus of questions and jeers.

“Yeah, I know,” Wynni shouted over them. “Believe me, I am not thrilled by that notion either.”

“If you’re a Speaker then what’s Silian want you to say to us? This should be amazing right?” one of Nelosa’s neighbor’s asked.

“Nothing,” Wynni said. “I’m not going to waste my breath trying to talk through your individual concerns. We’d be here for hours and to be quite honest, we don’t have that long. Elder Tonel is on the verge of pushing us over the brink – literally – right now.”

“If you’ve got nothing to say, then get out of here,” Nelosa’s neighbor said.

“You remember that I’m allowed to stab people who interfere with my mission aren’t you?” Wynni asked. “And see that right there is why I’m not going to talk to you. Silian is.”

Chanolsa blinked. The assassin was not following anything close to the speech that most betrayers gave. To suggest that Silian, long dead Silian, would talk with them directly? That had to involve a trick of the highest order.

“Really?” Chanolsa said, unable to contain  her disbelief. “And what do we have to do to hear from our esteemed and revered progenitor? How are you going to make the impossible happen here?”

“I’m not,” Wynni said. “You are. Any of you who don’t believe me, or anyone who does and wants to talk with Silian anyways, all you have to do is invite him in. Before you do that though, I have to warn you, getting him to shut up is nigh impossible. If you give him leave to come into your life, he’s going to be there forever. You can ignore him – which I highly recommend most of the time – but there’ll always be someone with you, a snarky, judgmental – oh yes you are judgmental, easily offended person, who will give you another perspective on things whether you like it or not.”

It was the most ridiculous offer Chanolsa had ever heard. Just say ‘yes’ and you could talk to the closest thing the Shadowfolk had to a god? With no need to swear eternal allegiance or pay a blood price to join the secret cult? That was not how contact with a supreme being was made. There needed to be pomp and circumstance and gold drenched ceremonies in the most spectacular of settings. Gods didn’t form personal relationships with their followers. That’s what the priests were for.

Even in more recent times, when the gods slept and hated the Chanolsa’s race, there was still a small but active clergy among the Shadowfolk, people whose role it was to advise the Elders on the best path for the community based on the gods’ original design for them before the humans and the other races had tainted the love the gods held for their darkest creation.

It was absurd to think that could be replaced with anything, or that the Shadowfolk’s savior would answer their call personally.

“I’m in,” Chanolsa said, anger waiting for the moment when the assassin’s words would be revealed as the lie they were. Then the guards would come, and then the trial would happen, and then Chanolsa could laugh at the idiocy that drove fools to their own destruction.

“Well, the first thing you’re going to want to consider is who, exactly, the fool is here?” Silian said.

Chanolsa spun to her side, but all she saw was the faintest ripples of an extremely well cast invisibility spell. It wasn’t the sort of tell that gave away a flaw in the spell’s design, it was the kind of imperfection you interjected into a veil when you were teaching a child.

“Who are you?” Chanolsa asked, and heard a half people around her ask the same question.

“Let’s be brief here, I’m Silian, you know I’m Silian, I can prove it to you a dozen times over, but it’s all going to boil down to you deciding to accept who I am or crawling inside a series of increasingly convoluted delusion. Save yourself the headache, and save all of us the time ok?”

This was not at all how a god was supposed to talk.

But it was absolutely how Silian had been described in the most ribald tales about him.

“But, I don’t understand, why come back now?” Chanolsa asked.

“I didn’t come back,” Silian said. “I never left you. You are all my children. My ornery, misguided, ignorant children, but if you were perfect, well, you wouldn’t be mine then I guess.”

“What do you want of us though Lord?” Chanolsa asked, her mind turning upside down from the awe of speaking to the one who she owed her people’s entire existence to.

“Nope, no Lord, we’re not going there,” Silian said. “Listen, I am not apart from you. I am one of you. If my words have any extra weight to them, it’s because I can see a bit farther than you and across a little more time. All I have to offer you is words though. I can’t live your life. I can’t even tell you what you have to do. All I can do is tell you what I see, and ask you why you think what you do. All the choices that are before you? Those are all yours to make. That’s what I fought for centuries ago. It was never just about living. It was about being able to choose for yourself how and why you would live.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 28 – What Gazes Back

The Abyss loomed beyond the cliffside, not merely an emptiness by a hungry yawning void. The gods who slept had pulled forth light, and form, and being from the void in which their creation hung. From nothing, they had created all of the existence of the Blessed Realms and its Shadow World predecessors.

The Abyss possessed no awareness then. It held no form or substance of its own, and while the gods had not intended to give it any, crumbs of the reality they created leaked away and fed the emptiness with the whisper of being. In the nothingness, the suggestion of a heart began to beat and from that beat came a single cry that hungered for more.

“So you’re saying that the Abyss out there wants to devour us?” Iana asked.

“If it can be said to have any being at all, or any desires, then they begin and end with hunger,” Wynni said.

They were tied up but still conscious, as were the rest of the party they’d accumulated. Tonel’s forces had been sufficient for the Gallagrin princess not to press for combat in the confines of the small home they’d unwittingly ventured into.

Instead they’d been shackled and bound and forced to walk through a standing portal, one of the few stable gateways between the Shadow Worlds. The transit had been swift but unpleasant, as was common to all journeys into the deepest, and most far flung of the lost places.

“Why is it hungry for us? It’s not a thing, it’s just darkness, it doesn’t need to eat,” Yuehne asked.

“I can’t say. It’s not like it speaks to us,” Wynni said.

“What existence it has come from the remnants of the god’s creations,” Lagressa said. “I’ve always thought that means the incompleteness of the void hungers for more, hungers to find the fullness and reality it lacks. It looks to consume us because we are the best source substance and intent.”

“That’s a plausible sounding theory but a more important question is why Tonel brought us here?” Iana kept her voice low as they were marched along the rough terrain towards what looked like a vast crater that ended was filled with strangely glowing rocks. On the far edge of the crater the land dropped away into the undulating darkness that surrounded them.

“The touch of the Abyss is corrosive,” Lagressa said. “To the body it is like a weak acid, slowing dissolving a person on all levels.”

“So we’re not just going to die, we’re going to magically melt?” Yuenhe asked.

“If so you won’t be aware of it,” Lagress said. “The body is resilient. It knows itself and its heavy with substance and definition. The mind however is another matter.”

“What happens to our mind if we’re thrown off into the Abyss?” Iana asked.

“Memories are less solid than vapor,” Lagressa said. “They dissolve away almost the instant you touch the Abyss.”

“Ok. That sets a limit for us then,” Iana said.

“What do you mean a limit?” Yuehne asked.

“We have until they try to throw the first of us in to work out how to unseat Tonel from power,” Iana said.

“Killing him would work, wouldn’t it?” Yuehne asked.

“No,” Wynni said. “If Tonel dies here, especially at the princess’s order, then the Shadowfolk will have an actual blood grudge to hold against her.”

“Could we challenge him to single combat?” Yuehne asked.

“We don’t believe in trial by combat,” Wynni said. “If it comes to violence to solve an issue then the proper application is via an assassination which leaves no clue as to the assailant or their patron.”

“We can’t assassinate him either,” Iana said.

“I believe you mean to phrase that as we should not assassinate him,” Lagressa said. “Our capability to do so is not in doubt I believe.”

“We’re chained up and surrounded by guards,” Yuehne said.

“Lagressa’s right,” Iana said. “There’s very little stopping us, definitely not the chains, and not the guards either.”

“Do they know that?” Yuehne asked.

“No,” Wynni said. “Most are alert to our surroundings. It is profoundly unsafe here. The ones that can hear snippets of what we’re saying think we’re bluffing, and are conveniently far enough away that they wouldn’t have to intervene if the fight looked unpromising for their side.”

“What about this Elder Tonel guy? How did he know where we would be?” Yuehne asked.

“We opened a rift into Nelosa’s kitchen. Those aren’t quiet or subtle,” Wynni said.

“A necessary aspect of using the Silence Breaker,” Lagressa said. “They can take you almost anywhere but they are a disruptive mode of travel. For those who know how to listen, the damage they cause is easily perceptible. It was poor luck on our part to land so close to a Shadowfolk stronghold though. Chance should have placed us far distant so that we could have fled the scene before anyone arrived to discover our presence.”

“Tonel probably had listeners our everywhere he could,” Wynni said. “We’re lucky we had time to get everyone through before he found us.”

“They don’t look so happy about that,” Yuehne said, stealing a glance behind them.

Iana’s group of prisoners, which included Yuehne, Lagressa, Wynni and Venita was being marched ahead of the rest of the party they’d assembled. In between the groups, heavily armed Shadowfolk warriors marched, keeping them separated so that they couldn’t try to fight back as an organized group.

“Tonel’s forces seem to be focused on me,” Iana said. “That should keep the rest of them safe until we’re ready to act.”

“What action can we take?” Yuehne said. “You want to topple Tonel’s leadership but he has us as his prisoners.”

“I’ll admit it’s not the best position to be working from,” Iana said. “I was hoping we could build support from within the Shadowfolk community, but that plan didn’t work out.”

“And do you have another plan?” Yuehne asked.

“Several,” Iana said. “It’s what they taught us when I was young. Never approach a battlefield with only one path to victory. We’re supposed to make sure every path leads to victory, but I was never that good.”

“And we’re supposed to trust you to save us then?” Yuehne asked.

“Of course not,” Iana said. “You’ll see things I’m missing. You need to help save us as much as anyone else here.”

“I’m thinking run away,” Yuehne said. “Only there’s nowhere to run to.”

“That might be a plan we could work with,” Lagressa said.

“How?” Yuehne asked.

“The last place this Tonel’s forces will chase us is into the Abyss,” Lagressa said. “If we ran into the ‘nowhere’ out there, we might be able to escape them.”

“But we’d lose our memories, wouldn’t we?” Iana asked.

“Yes, but not all of them,” Lagressa said. “The memories you can call to mind could be offered up first.”

“That’s good to know,” Iana said. “But let’s save that as a backup plan. What we need is some method for exposing Tonel’s lies, of waking people up to how he’s gathering power only for himself and in the process putting them on the path to war and extinction.”

“His followers won’t believe that,” Wynni said. “They’re too invested in what they’ve been told. They want to hate the sunlit people so much that any lie he tells them that supports that they take as the gods’ own truth.”

“Why isn’t that true for you?” Iana asked.

“I was never one of Tonel’s blind devotes,” Wynni said.

“But from what you’ve said, the Elder’s are still obeyed unquestioningly aren’t they?” Iana asked.

“That’s the official story they tell, but reality is more complicated.”

“I’ll make it simple then,” Iana said. “How many of Tonel’s troops will follow him into death and how many will rout and flee if the battle looks like it’s turning against him?”

“I don’t know,” Wynni said. “A safe bet would be at least half though I think.”

“We need to do better than that. We need at least three to one,” Iana said. “His support won’t crumble until it’s obvious that his side is overwhelmed.”

“We can’t get that many,” Wynni said.

“Not working alone,” Iana agreed.

“Who can we get to work with us?” Yuehne asked.

“No one,” Wynni said. “The people here are all Tonel’s elite guard. They’ll be loyal to him and only him. It what he picked them for.”

“Not fighting prowess?” Iana asked.

“They’re not poor fighters either,” Wynni said. “And they’ll fight like demons if they think their Elder is in danger.”

“Are there others you could convert to the cause of peace between us?” Iana asked.

“Yes, definitely,” Wynni said. “But they don’t matter because they’re not here.”

“If you could get back to them, could you convince them to get back here in time to help us?”

“I don’t think so,” Wynni said. “I can only talk to them one at a time. That’s going to be too slow to convince enough of them to turn to the tide.”

“This ancestor of yours,” Iana asked, “can he speak with more than one of you at a time?”

There was a pause while Wynni listened for an ancestor.

“He says he was wondering if you were going to ask for that,” she said. “He says that he can, but that there’s a price attached to it.”

“Tell him he’ll need to try harder than that if he’s trying to surprise me,” Iana said. “What is it that he wants?”

Wynni waited again, listening.

“What? Are you serious?” she asked.

Another moment passed and she turned to face Iana.

“He wants to be able to talk to you he says.”

“And what’s the hidden catch there?”

“Oh, I can answer that,” Wynni said. “There’s no special catch, the drawback to allowing him to speak to you is that he’ll be speaking to you. All. The. Time.”

She paused for a moment.

“Yes, you do,” she said, addressing  a comment that was unheard by everyone else. “No. No. Listen. You have literally not stopped talking for the last five minutes trying to explain how you don’t talk all the time. You are making my case for me!”

“I accept,” Iana said. “We, the Princess Prime of Gallagrin, willling consent to a verbal delegation with the Shadowfolk ancestor known as Silian.”

“What if he possesses your mind now?” Yuehne asked.

“My mind is not a nice place,” Iana said. “Shadowfolk hero or no, I doubt he’d like it in there.”

“That still doesn’t help us though,” Wynni said.

There was another pause while Wynni and Iana both waited and listened.

“Yes, I understand,” Iana said after a moment.

“What did he tell you?” Yuehne asked.

“He can’t mind control anyone,” Iana said. “All he can do is show people, Shadowfolk specifically, the truths about themselves that they’re trying to hide from.”

“That sounds very limited,” Yuehne said.

“It’ll be enough,” Iana said.

“How?” Wynni asked. “Even showing the guards the truth of what they’re doing won’t stop them. There’s too many other forces; loyalty, duty, power, prestige, and so on, holding them where they are.”

“You’re not going to have to try to convert these people,” Iana said. “You’re going to find the others, the ones whose minds aren’t shut yet. The ones you can still reach.”

“I’m still chained up,” Wynni said.

“Not with this you aren’t,” Iana said, and produced the enchanted knife that Dae gave her as though drawing it from thin air. Without a moment’s hesitation, she handed it over to  Wynni.

“What is this?” Wynni asked.

“A gift from a sorcerer to me, and now a gift from me to you,” Iana said. “The blade is yours. Among its other properties, it can work as the Silence Breaker did. Slice your shackles off and use it to bring back help.”

“And if I just run now, and betray you all?” Wynni asked.

“There is no curse on the blade to stop you from doing so,” Iana said. “You are free to do as you wish, with no debt owed between us.”

Wynni stared at the girl before her and saw not a scruffed up young human she’d traveled with, but, for the first time, the Princess of Gallagrin that everyone had spoken of Iana being.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 27 – The Overlooked

Dorokath was amazed he was alive. The decision to summon the World Eater had been a desperation play. He knew that because Tonel hadn’t warned them about it beyond a simple statement of “we have contingencies in place in case you are unable to capture our enemies.”

The World Eaters were not “contingencies”. Elder Tonel might think of them as such but all that proved is that Elder Tonel hadn’t spent enough time in the field in the last few years. Or the last decade. Or ever in his life.

Despite the mission-bearers, the Assassins and the Warriors and the Scouts and the Field Researchers, being hailed as the best and most important within the hierarchy of the Shadowfolk society, it was surprisingly rare how often the most experienced and decorated mission-bearers were named as Elders.

Dorokath had no illusions that he was worthy of being considered a senior mission bearer, much less aspiring to the role of Elder. He’d achieved no great glory, and had been issued no challenging orders until the mission that landed him in the belly of a World Eater. He judged himself to be an ordinary warrior, destined for a life of service while he was young and hail enough to serve, followed by life of child rearing and work as a training instructor once he was too old to trust with dangerous assignments.

He didn’t object to that destiny. It was the life his parents had led, the life his squadmates were destined for and it didn’t require the agony that seemed to come with greatness.

Elder Tonel took that quiet acceptance as approval, and Dorokath’s willingness to undertake whatever menial tasks came his direction as proof that Dorokath was a true believer in Tonel’s cause.

Dorokath, for his part, was willing to mouth the words of support that Tonel needed to hear in exchange for the Tonel not asking for anything extraordinary of him. No perilous ventures into the deep shadow worlds for Tonel’s elite – at least not while he was building up their numbers. No lengthy scouting excursions either because Tonel wanted his troops always close at hand.

Dorokath suspected that Tonel was blissfully unaware of the mocking names ‘his troops’ gave him. They were careful to only speak them in private – no one wanted to court the Elder’s wrath without need – but there was a fundamental need in them all to find some expression for the lack of respect they had for ‘their liege’.

Despite possessing the “wisdom of an Elder”, Tonel wished to believe he had mindlessly loyal followers and so that’s what he saw. What he never looked for though were the expressions of support or adoration those followers would have been making if they did love him as he imagined.

In some senses though, Tonel had the last laugh, at least on Dorokath.

Dorokath had believed he was just following along, getting better than he gave. When the time came though, when Tonel had finally given a desperate order that sent Dorokath into extreme peril, Dorokath had gone to do Tonel’s bidding.

The assault on the seers wasn’t supposed to have been quite as perilous as it was of course. Initial reports suggested that no Pact Knights had arrived with them, and seers were not typically adept at personal combat.

In theory the mission should have concluded less than a second after it began. A quick bit of stealthing into the tent, a well timed opening strike that rendered their opponents unconscious and then a rapid trip to the edge of the abyss that would be handled by troops more familiar with long distance shadow walking.

Tonel’s description of the mission included no mention of the Titan-class resistance they encountered from the two Pact Knights who were mysteriously present, nor had the Elder informed them that he had forces luring a World Eater to the sunlit world.

That in and of itself told Dorokath how desperate Tonel saw the situation to be. World Eaters did not venture anywhere near the sunlight world. The substance of the gods’ true and final creation was anathema to them. Luring one up to the surface like that had required sacrifices. Many sacrifices. Dorokath hoped they weren’t people he knew, but didn’t believe that Tonel’s forces were large enough for that to be true.

The genius of using the World Eater was that its destruction of the seer’s camp was complete enough that even the best trackers wouldn’t find any traces of the Shadowfolk there. It would call into question the whole idea of their being present too as it was the first time in history, as far as Dorokath knew, that the strategy had been attempted. The Shadowfolk moved along small subtle pathways, striking with as little disturbance to the world around them as possible. The sheer scale of destruction the World Eater had caused would be the most compelling proof possible that the Shadowfolk had nothing to do with the attack on the seers, and by extension with anything else that was going on.

Instead of suspect the Shadowfolk, blame would turn on the other creatures that possessed the power to motivate the World Eaters. There were a variety of the, and even ones with malice towards the sunlit realms. In truth none made plausible villains for the events that had occurred though. They were sealed behind various barriers, and none were likely to waste a World Eater on such a pointless endeavor, but the sunlight folk wouldn’t be able to know that for sure.

The idiocy of Tonel’s plan was that they would probably try to find out.

In Dorokath’s view, the sunlight people avoided the Shadow Worlds for the very good reason that there was nothing in the Shadow Worlds for them. Travel was difficult there, the resources were sparse and more easily obtained in their own lands and unfamiliar dangers lurked in nearly every corner. A few brave souls would still trespass outside the light but there was little reward to encourage them to make a habit of it.

Just about the worst thing Tonel could do, in Dorokath’s mind, was to present the sunlit dwellers with a threat from the Shadow Worlds. That changed the equation immensely. The sunlit dwellers had almost wiped out his people and Dorokath firmly believed it was because of nothing more than a perceived danger. Once the sunlit dwellers saw not only what the Shadowfolk could do but also would do, war between the two became an inevitability.

Tonel had seemed terribly desperate when he ordered Dorokath’s troops into battle, his eyes ablaze with fear and unwon victory. He needed to fix what had gone wrong and any sense of restraint in accomplishing that had been well and truly abandoned.

Dorokath was frightened by that notion, but it was a distant fear, outweighed by the more immediate concern regarding how badly his mission had gone off track.

There were punishments for failure. Demotions being the least severe. Tonel’s work was easy but it also came with few advancements since Tonel valued his troops just slightly less than a case of toe fungus. Dorokath hadn’t cared about gaining rank quickly, but the prospect of losing what little headway he made was daunting.

What he needed, he knew, was to conclude the mission successfully. Bobbling the execution of a mission didn’t win you any favors, but as long as the mission givers got what they wanted punishments were few and far between.

On that front, Dorokath blessed all the shadows that sheltered him.

Waking up had come as a wonderful surprise. Death had seemed certain and in his rapidly fading memory he could feel the pain of being routinely battered into unconsciousness for what seemed like an exceptionally long time.

Even better than waking up had been discovering that the people they sought were already captured.

Dorokath knew that Semsblaine had to have been one of the other survivors. The knots on the captives should the sort of thoroughness that only Semsblaine brought to that job.

When the human woman woke up and started talking, Dorokath found himself breaking more rules.

Assassin’s and warriors were not supposed to speak with their targets. Ever. After as bad and stressful day as he’d had though, Dorokath felt a little need to gloat.

He was careful not to reveal anything to important to the captives, even though ultimately nothing he said would matter because none of his enemies would he even existed.

“Why doing this at all though?” Glyra asked. “You don’t have anything to gain from it!”

It was a question Dorokath had asked himself since he first heard of the plan to kill the Gallagrin Princess and frame a noble family for it. There had to be easier methods of accomplishing any goal Tonel had in mind.

“We must have our revenge,” Dorokath said, spouting the official explanation Tonel provided them with.

“On who?” Glyra asked. “The last person why warred against you is dead. He was killed by the queen who’s peace you’re trying to threaten.”

“She carries his blood in her veins. She is his heir. His debts fall to her.”

Dorokath didn’t like following that line of thought to far. He always came to the question of whether that meant he was responsible for the sins of the people who came before him. He couldn’t be of course, it was ridiculous to even think that he should pay for the wrongdoing committed by people who lived before he was even born. Making the queen pay for her family’s sins though was somehow different.

“If that’s true then why did you target Princess Iana? No blood from the Butcher King flows in her veins.”

“She is part of the queen’s family, Whatever her blood was, it’s Gallagrin blood now.”

That was a simple part of Shadowfolk philosophy. Family was created through acceptance. Dorokath couldn’t imagine getting in trouble for speaking of that. It was just so obvious a thing.

“So are you just going to leave us out here?” Glyra asked.

“Not those of you who survive,” Dorokath said.

“How are you going to get us back home?: Glyra asked.

“We live here, this is our home,” Dorokath said. “We know the paths that lead between the worlds.”

He was going to explain more, going to say how once they were erased, leading them would be trivial since they would walk wherever they were instructed rather than fighting back subconsciously. Walking through Shadows was as much a matter of intent as anything else and marching a prisoner who’d first desire was to escape up through the world was a receipe for disaster. Or more disaster under the present circumstances.

Dorokath was going to explain that, but his explanation was cut off by the several figures decloaking from the shadows followed a loud whump which signalled the distance they’d traveled to arrive at the edge of the Abyss.

Seeing Princess Iana being led forward by a pair of guards didn’t surprise Dorokath. It should have, but his day had been so unbelievable that one more element that was out of place almost felt reassuring.

What was less reassuring was the figure who brought up the rear of the assembly.

Elder Tonel was with the captives. The man who had never served on a dangerous field mission in his life had come to one of the most perilous places in all of the Shadow Worlds to personally overseer the events that were unfolding.

“What is this?” Tonel asked. “I thought the mission against the seers was a total failure?”

“No my lord,” Dorokath said, “We succeeded in capturing our targets. I was waiting for the others to return before we sent a runner to inform you of our victory.”

“You and what others are responsible for this feat?” Tonel asked.

“Semsblaine and at least one other sir,” Dorokath said. “I’m not certain who else survived the belly of the World Eater. I was unconscious when we landed.”

“I wasn’t a part of this. I jumped away early as instructed,” Semsblaine said, stepping out from the crowd of guard who surrounded Tonel.

Dorokath felt a chill run down him. If Semsblaine hadn’t tied up the captives that well, then who had?

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 26 – In the Dark

Adorel’s first thought on falling into the belly of the worm wasn’t of self preservation or fear. The sensation of falling was a viscerally terrifying one, but his mind locked onto something even more bizarre and clung to it, refusing to even acknowledge the rest of the horrible situation he found himself in.

“How can teeth that big be inside something that burst up inside our tent?”

He didn’t mean to scream the question at the top of his lungs. Not once, not twice and certainly not over and over, but it was, he felt, a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder about.

Everyone inside the tent, sunlight dwellers and Shadowfolk, were tumbling into the ever widening shaft of the worm’s gullet. As they fell they passed rows of the pointed, stalactite-like teeth. Each tooth was three times as long as Adorel was tall and there were more of them than he could even begin to estimate much less count.

Below them, the teeth were slamming together in an undulating wave that raced up from the fiery depths they were plummeting towards. The bits of rock they’d been standing on met the compressing fangs and were shattered into dust.

Adorel considered his robes and their toughness vis-a-vis solid rocks.

They were enchanted with protective magics. The magics however did not make them as hard as stone however. Far from it.  In practice they could turn aside a knife blow and blunt a limited number of arrow strikes. The twenty foot tall, rocking crushing, teeth however were neither knives nor arrows and even if his robes could withstand the destructive force at the tip of the fangs, Adorel was entirely certain that he could not.

As he lacked the ability to fly, Adorel was also certain that he was going to need a miracle to survive longer than the next second.

Less than half a second later his miracle arrived.

Massive translucent wings of rainbow light flared and enfolded everyone Adorel could see.

The worm seemed to choke as they fell through the spiky tunnel of its throat. Adorel almost felt sorry for the best. Its teeth struggled to grind up the solid ball that was dropping farther into the worm than than physics should have allowed.

The other thing physics should have had problems with was the Queen’s Guard and the Shadowfolk continuing their battle while the plummeted. Each side had access to enough magic to tell physics to sit down and shut up though and so they’re clash continued unabated as the inside of the worm’s gullet began to show rivers of fire where its veins should have been..

One of the Shadowfolk appeared in puff of purple smoke – decloaking from invisibility, not teleporting, Adorel observed – and tried to throw Adorel out of the protective radius of the wings that Guardian Pelay had summoned.

As deaths went, it was certainly one Adorel could fight against. As fights went though it was one he knew he was doomed to lose.

One of the curses of limited precognition was perceiving the most likely course of events and yet being aware of them too late to have any impact on their outcome.

By the time Adorel foresaw himself tumbling out of the glowing shelter of Pelay’s wing shield, the Shadowfolk warrior already had a grip on his arm and was spinning him towards the teeth.

Adorel swung a fist at the blazing light in the warrior’s eye socket but he was too weak and too slow.

Jyl’s sword blades were neither weak nor slow though.

The arm that had hold of Adorel ceased accelerating him the moment it ceased to be connected to the Shadowfolk warrior.

Using her own wings for leverage Jyl hurled Adorel up to Pelay who already had a constellation of people floating around her.

“Why are we still falling?” Adorel asked as his fellow seer Glyra caught him.

“We’re not,” Pelay said. “This isn’t falling.”

“It feels like falling,” Adorel said.

“Listen for the shadows,” Glyra said, closing her eyes as an instruction for Adorel to do the same.

There were still Shadowfolk around, though far fewer than before, but a scrying trance still struck Adorel as a terrible idea under the circumstances. Terrible circumstances however sometimes call for terrible ideas, so he followed Glyra’s lead.

They weren’t falling.

From what Adorel could perceive, they were traveling between the layers of reality, or at least that was the best guess Adorel could make of the shredding magics that fluttered around them.

He had read of the places they were passing through. The Shadow Worlds. Remnants of the Sleeping Gods failed designs. The places no one came back from.

“How wonderful,” he said, addressing no one in particular but proud of himself that he’d gotten the whole ‘screaming about teeth’ issue under control.

“What is this place?” Lipa asked.

She and the other Faen kit looked angry. Adorel was concerned that they were looking angry in his direction, despite being reasonably certain that they had no particular reason to be angry him specifically.

“It’s not a place. It’s a thing,” Adorel said.

“We’ve been swallowed by a World Eater,” Glyra said.

“A what?” Kai demanded.

“They nibble on the lost worlds,” Glyra said.

“Supposedly,” Adorel said. “They’re mythical, so we can’t say for sure that such things even exist. No one’s ever captured one after all.”

“We’re literally seeing one with our own eyes! How can you possibly think they’re mythic?”

To be fair to Glyra, their day had not been an easy one but Adorel knew they had to be accurate.

“We’re seeing the inside of something,” he said. “We don’t know what this is. We can’t say it’s a World Eater until we examine it. Do try to maintain proper research standards.”

It wasn’t at all professional that she tried to strangle him. Understandable, or so everyone he ever told the story to would inform him, but hardly the mark of a professional to try to do in one’s own colleagues.

The good news was that when he regained consciousness, they’d stopped falling!

“What happened?” he asked, gazing around the quarry they had landed in.

Rocks of every shape and size were scattered around them. Many glowed with their own light, pushing back the starless night with illumination that flickered through dozens of different pastel shades.

“We hit bottom,” Jyl said.

Adorel noticed that the rest of his team and the Faen kits had setup a small camp and were working to get a fire going in a pile of branches taken, no doubt, from the short, scrubby trees that were entwined around the various clumps of rock that surrounded them.

“What happened to the Shadowfolk?” he asked.

“They left,” Pelay said. She and Jyl weren’t wearing their Pact armor, which signalled that either the party was safe or that they were in so prolonged a state of peril that the Pact Knight’s weren’t able to maintain their transformations for the duration. Adorel didn’t want to know which scenario was true. The first was so much more comforting than the second and in neither case was there much he could do about it.

“Most of them,” Jyl said, nodding towards a captive Shadowfolk on the far side of the firepit.

“Is it dead?” Adorel asked.

“No, but it probably wishes it was,” Jyl said. “Or it would if we let it wake up.”

“It’s been the topic of conversation while you got your naptime in,” Glyra said.

“I don’t recall napping?” Adorel said.

“That’s because we hit the bottom too soon,” Glyra said.

“But we weren’t falling. How did we ‘hit the bottom’ if we weren’t in fact moving?” Adorel asked.

“The World Eater puked us out,” Jyl said.

“After it lost enough of its inner teeth, it sent a wave of…what would you call it? Magma bile?” Pelay said.

“I would call it that if I had any desire to ever experience something like that again,” Jyl said. “I do not, so I’m just going to call it gross.”

“Ok, that’s an accurate description too,” Pelay said. “Whatever it was, the goop lifted us up and when we fell out of the worm’s mouth we were here.”

“And where is here?” Adorel asked.

“That’s what we intend to ask our friend over there once we figure out how to wake him up,” Jyl said.

“Why is he asleep?” Adorel asked.

“Because we keep knocking him out,” Jyl said.

“That would suggest an obvious answer as to how to wake him up wouldn’t it?”

“If we allow him to wake up, he will leave,” Glyra said. “Which in turn would present problems with getting our questions answered.”

“He’s not going to talk anyways is he?” Lipa asked. “I thought they were all mindlessly loyal and unthinking servants to their cause?”

“Also a concern,” Jyl said.

“Do we know of any limitations on their ability to teleport away?” Adorel asked.

“It seems to be an instantaneous talent,” Jyl said.

“We saw two of the vanish faster than a Faen could move, and she started with her hand on their throat,” Pelay said.

“Maybe we’re looking at this from the wrong perspective,” Glyra said.

“I would be delighted to find another one,” Jyl said. “The view here is otherworldly, but I suspect whatever’s on the bottom of that cliff would not be to our liking.”

Adorel looked down the rolling hill of the quarry floor to where the land dropped away again into, as far as he could see, a starless void of space.

“We’re thinking of him as being our prisoner. What if the reverse was true?” Glyra asked

“Then we’d all be dead and he’d be back home,” Adorel said.

“No, they weren’t fighting to kill,” Jyl said. “I think I see what you’re saying.”

“It was very chaotic towards the end of the battle,” Glyra said. “If we make it appear that we’ve been captured by another of the Shadowfolk, he may be willing to stay behind until he can find them.”

“And in the meanwhile we might be able to get him to gloat a little,” Jyl said.


“Do the knots need to be so tight?” Adorel asked.

“If it looks comfortable or staged, he won’t believe it,” Pelay said, tightening the rope that lashed his feet to his hands.


“Finally something went right!” Dorokath said as he rose from his restorative trance and discovered the mostly unconscious humans and Faen lashed individually to the trees that dotted the Abyssal Quarry.

“What do you want with us?” Glyra said, struggling weakly against her bonds.

“They haven’t given you the treatment yet?” Dorokath asked.

“Your friends? No they went looking for someone else. They said something about doing something to us when they got back,” Glyra said.

“Where are they?” Dorokath asked.

“I don’t know!” Glyra’s anger bubbled up through her words. “We were all scattered when we landed. I think that’s why they left. What are you going to do to us? Where are we?”

“This is the end of your world,” Dorokath said. “The end of all the worlds. Beyond this is the Great Abyss.”

“Why are we here?” Glyra asked.

“We need to erase you,” Dorokath said. “We’ll float you out into the Abyss. Those who survive will be blank slates that we can fill with whatever story we want.”

“Why?” Glyra sounded as genuinely horrified at the idea as Adorel felt about it.

“You’ll make much better witnesses once we’ve whipped your minds clear.”

“But then we won’t be able to bear witness to anything,” Adorel said, unable to restrain himself.

“Starting to wake up already?” Dorokath said. “You must be a hardier group than we thought they’d send. Doesn’t matter though, once you’re erased you’ll tell them everything we want them to know.”

“What if we don’t survive being erased?” Glyra asked.

“Won’t be my problem because I don’t care, and won’t be your problem because you won’t be around to care any longer either.”