10 – 39

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A storm was brewing over Calderaas, which its residents bore with long-suffering good humor. Weather in all parts of the Great Plains was notoriously unpredictable, as the wind out of the Golden Sea might blow in any direction at all, and bring anything with it. Summer snow rarely survived to reach the ground, but from time to time it happened. Calderaas itself was somewhat sheltered by the slope of the mountain on which it sat, which deflected many of the worst storms, but on the other hand the cold winds which came from the Stalrange and the humidity of the Tira Valley might both drift over it, depending on what came out of the Sea. The Calderaan were accustomed to adapting quickly.

In a loft apartment atop one of the city’s younger housing complexes, faint flashes of lightning and the shifting patterns of rapidly-blowing clouds had little effect against the steady glow of an arcane lamp. It was a sparsely furnished space, ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, containing only a few cots, a few chairs, and a single table. The summoning circle scrawled in the center of its open area was made of cheap chalk that could be quickly erased, and in fact had not been used to summon anything and wouldn’t be. They liked to prepare the spaces they used with red herrings to obscure their true purposes to anyone who might come sniffing about.

Embras Mogul planted his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers, and frowned in thought at the space in front of him, from which a warlock had just shadow-jumped away. Thunder grumbled in the distance; none of the three remaining in the room acknowledged it with so much as a glance at the windows.

“It’s thin,” Bradshaw said finally to break the silence, “but workable. I think the little pranks you’ve set up for Justinian should both keep him occupied and keep his attention from our central objective…”

“He knows the central objective anyway,” Embras said, still gazing into empty space. “And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows, and so on into infinity. This is just…that kind of game. What bothers me is the lack of retaliation.”

“You think something big is coming?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Slowly, Embras shook his head from side to side without changing the focus of his blank stare. “I think he has his sights set on bigger things. We are being…tolerated. That aggravates me more than it ought to. The Lady deserves better than a bunch of distractions.”

“It has to be done, though,” Vanessa said gently. “If you withdrew the pressure on his peripheral activities, he would wonder what was up and devote serious resources to striking at us. For now…this suffices. I really hope your project in Last Rock hits him as hard as you hope.”

“With regard to that,” Kaisa said brightly from behind them.

Vanessa and Bradshaw both leaped from their chairs, she staggering slightly and barely catching her balance on the back of it. Embras rose more smoothly, turning, bowing, and doffing his hat to the kitsune.

“Why, a good evening to you, dear lady,” he said politely. “Forgive the spartan accommodations; I was not expecting such honored company tonight, as you are manifestly aware.”

Kaisa smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded, and demurely folded her hands in front of her, the wide sleeves of her flowered kimono nearly hiding them. “Given the point you made so elaborately with regard to the very broad game playing in the world around us, I assume you are aware of events transpiring in Viridill?”

“I know of them, certainly,” Embras replied in the same carefully light tone. “And I remain insistently uninvolved. We don’t have a dog in that race.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “it shifts things into motion that will have an effect upon matters which are of concern to both you and myself. While that comes to a head, it creates the correct opportunity to finish our own little game. We will move on to the final play tomorrow.”

He coughed discreetly. “With all respect, dear lady, I don’t believe that the wisest course just yet. Your kids are admirably clever, and I’m not blind to the fact that the group has pulled together and are, bluntly speaking, onto us. Now is the time to lay a few more diversionary trails, throw up a couple of entertaining smokescreens, before we build to the final act.”

Her smile broadened infinitesimally. Lightning flashed again beyond the windows, accompanied by a closer rumble of thunder, and the arcane lamp flickered.

“It is a peculiar thing I have noticed in this country,” she said, beginning to pace slowly in a wide arc around them. The three warlocks subtly shifted as she circled, keeping their faces to her. “This…misconception of the value and meaning of simple politeness. Courtesy is the sauce in the stew, the oil in the gears. The softness which enables us all to live together in this world without needlessly grinding against one another. Its importance is more, not less, in the absence of friendliness.” Lightning flashed, closer; the lamp flickered again, and her shadow danced upon the walls, a strangely angular thing of back-slanted ears, as if it were cast by a far more predatory creature than the woman before them. “Here, again, you seemingly assume that because I do not address you with a string of obscenities in an outdoor voice, we must be friends.”

Another rumble and flash from outside, another faltering of the lamp, and in the few split-second flickers of darkness, her eyes were eerie green points in her silhouette. “Well, it seems forthrightness is valued here; let it never be said that I am less than accommodating. You and your circle of hell-dabblers, Mr. Mogul, are a class exercise as far as I am concerned, and I expect you to conduct yourselves as such. If you will not, then you are just a suspicious person who has been hanging around the school, performing infernomancy upon my students. That makes a great difference in how I shall deal with you.”

“It’s apparently a short trip between polite and pushy,” Vanessa said tightly.

“Nessa,” Embras warned.

“That is purely unjust,” Kaisa said, her smile unwavering. “I am pushy without being for a moment less than polite.”

“As I suspect you already know,” Embras said, his tone a few degrees cooler than before, “virtually all my available people are out of hand, on business which has nothing to do with you or your students. What we discussed for our final presentation will require more magical skill than I can bring to bear alone, in a field which you emphatically do not practice.”

“Is there something wrong with these?” she asked mildly, making a languid gesture toward the other two with one hand. Thunder rumbled again, closer still, and the lamp cut out completely for almost a full second, plunging the room into a short blackness from which her luminous green eyes bored into them.

“In a word, yes,” Embras replied. “Both sustained serious injury at the hands of the Archpope’s lackeys. Surely you don’t suggest I should risk very important, partially disabled lieutenants on an affair sure to ruffle Professor Tellwyrn’s easily-ruffled feathers?”

“Hmm,” she mused, blinking slowly and cutting her eyes from Vanessa to Bradshaw and back. “I see…I see. Well. In some cultures which live closer to nature than this one, it is considered advisable to…cull the weak.”

Lightning flashed outside, brighter and closer yet, but there was a heavy silence in its wake. Kaisa suddenly grinned broadly at them.

Thunder slammed down as if the lightning bolt had struck directly overhead, and the lamplight vanished entirely.

In the blackness which followed, the glow of the city outside the windows was interrupted by darting, thrashing shapes, and the room filled with the sounds of scuffling, cursing, and finally a single shout of pain. Two shadowbolts flashed across the darkness, their sickly purple glow doing very little to alleviate it, and for an instant the decoy spell circle flashed alight before being brushed away in a single swish of a furry tail.

The whole thing lasted barely five seconds.

Then the lamp came back on, revealing Kaisa standing exactly where she had been, in exactly the same pose. Bradshaw sagged against the wall, barely holding himself upright; Vanessa stood five feet distant from where she had started, hands upraised and a half-formed shadowbolt flickering between them. Embras was now within two yards of Kaisa, a green glass bottle in his hands, half a second from being uncorked.

“There,” the kitsune said brightly, tail swishing in self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Embras, but it seems your friends have been tortured recently. Quite clumsily, I might add. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is shoddy work; whatever is worth doing is worth doing to perfection. But that aside, I trust there will be no more problems or excuses?”

“Are you all right?” Embras asked, shifting his head slightly toward the others but keeping his gaze firmly on Kaisa.

“Fine,” Bradshaw said, straightening up, then blinked, and held up both hands before himself. Neither trembled in the slightest. “I’m…fine?”

Vanessa also straightened, lowering her own hands and letting the spell dissipate. Her mouth dropped slightly open in wonder, and she shifted, leaning her weight on her bad leg, with no apparent effort.

“As I said,” Kaisa said complacently, “perfection. I shall expect to see you in place tomorrow after classes. Do try not to disappoint me, Embras; I was actually beginning to grow rather fond of you. We don’t have any Wreath in Sifan, and you kids have such a wonderful appreciation of fun. Ta ta!”

With a final, cheerful smile, she whirled around, her tail swishing in a broad circle and appearing to erase her from existence. Two crimson maple leaves drifted slowly to the floor where she had stood.

“Are you…” Embras finally turned fully to the others. “Did she really…?”

“I think… Kelvreth’s lashes, she did,” Vanessa whispered, taking a few steps, then a few more back the other way, and finally trotting at a near run to the windows and back. “It’s fixed.”

“Well, then,” Embras said, tucking the bottle away in a pocket and straightening his coat, “we are going to have to have ourselves a celebration. Later, I’m afraid. Right now, it appears we’d better start making preparations for our…command performance. I gather it would go over poorly if the hour arrived and we were unready.”

“At this moment,” Bradshaw said with the faintest tremor in his voice, “I feel inclined not to disappoint her, even without the implied threat.”

“It’s not that I disagree, at all,” said Vanessa, still pacing back and forth as if not yet convinced that she could. “But if anything, this only underscores the point. Oh, I’m grateful; I don’t think I could tell you how much. I’d be willing to—”

“Stop!” Embras barked, holding up a hand. “That’s a fairy, Nessa, and I wouldn’t lay odds that she’s not still listening. Don’t say anything she could interpret as a promise, or a bargain.”

“Even more proof,” she said grimly, finally stopping and facing him. “Embras, that creature is ancient, wildly unpredictable and far more powerful than anything needs or deserves to be, and I don’t believe for a moment that she just placed us so much in her debt out of the goodness of her vulpine little heart. With everything we see of her, I feel less sanguine about this bargain you’ve struck. What if she immediately turns on you the moment your role in her little drama is done?”

“In that case,” he said lightly, “you’re in charge. It’s not that I lack respect for your skills, Bradshaw old boy, but the business of the next few years will call for herding cats more than casting hexes.”

“Let’s not think about that quite yet,” Bradshaw said tensely.

“Embras, be serious,” Vanessa snapped.

“I am,” he said calmly. “If this pays off, it will be worth it. I see no reason to believe it won’t, and as for the good Professor Ekoi… Well, we struck a bargain. So long as we honor it, so will she. Anyway, this isn’t all bad. We’ve as much stake in this as she has, if not more. And if she says the time is right… Frankly, it’s entirely possible that she’s just correct. I’ve a feeling this isn’t her first rodeo.”

Slipping back out through the rent was as easy as getting in had been, though Aspen balked at the eerily empty space between the wall of her mental prison and the dream world beyond. She kept a grip on Ingvar’s sleeve, huddling behind him, and forcing him to moderate his pace on the way back to the mouth of the cave. Not that he was in a particular rush; even knowing the nearly-invisible path would hold him, he felt no urge to walk hastily upon it.

It held, though, as it had before, and he indeed picked up the pace once he got his feet back on ground that looked like ground. In fact, by that point, Aspen also hastened, until she actually pushed him aside and was the first out into the forest.

Ingvar had to halt and watch, smiling in spite of himself, as the dryad squealed in sheer delight and hurled herself to the ground, rolling exuberantly through the moss. She bounded upright in the next moment, rushing over to wrap her arms around the trunk of a tree and hug it, then darted to one side to investigate a bush.

“Oh my gosh! Things! Plants! It’s not like the real world but oh how I’ve missed other living things. Stuff that isn’t me!”

“Couldn’t you have made—Aspen!” he exclaimed in alarm.

“What?” She looked up at his tone, frowning. “What the mat—augh!”

Mid-sentence, she caught sight of her hands, which had begun to fade from view like the path beyond the dreamscape. The dryad stumbled backward, as if she could outrun the oncoming invisibility, which did not work. It traveled up her arms, progressively erasing first her hands, then her forearms. She stumbled, glanced down, and let out a keening sound of pure panic at the sight of her vanishing feet.

Ingvar rushed forward, horribly unaware that he knew of nothing that could help, but reflexively grabbed her by the arms as if by holding her, he could keep her anchored in existence.

He was actually quite surprised when it worked.

Her limbs immediately faded back into view, and she clutched his waist, her fingers digging in as if to reassure them both that she still had fingers. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, Aspen panting in gradually diminishing panic.

“Okay,” Ingvar said shakily after a moment, “I warned you something like that might happen. I think…you had better keep hold of me while we’re in here.”

“Right,” she said weakly. “Right. Good idea. Um. What…are we doing?”

Moving very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and turning in a slow half-circle to reorient himself. There was the cave… Once he was facing the right direction again, even without taking wolf form, he found he could detect the trail of scent leading off into the distance. Or not exactly scent…now it was a perception to which he couldn’t quite put a name, as if he had senses here to which he was not accustomed. Which, now that he thought of it, made perfect sense.

“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A… Well, I’m not sure what, or who. But it’s someone who knows a lot about traveling through dreams this way.”

“Do you think this…someone…could help me?” she asked tremulously.

“I suppose that if anyone can, he’s a likely candidate. Or she,” he added. “And I was looking for h—them anyway. I guess now we just have another reason to find them.”

“Right,” she said, pressing herself against his side. He almost wished the situation were less worrisome (and she less weirdly childlike) so he could enjoy what would otherwise have been an exceedingly pleasant sensation. “Okay…good, sounds like a plan. Uh, sooner would be better.”

“Right,” he echoed. “It’s going to be a little difficult to walk in this position…”

After shuffling around for a few moments, they settled on holding hands, which seemed to keep her visible and intact. His left hand and her right; useless as it might be here, he felt it important to keep his dominant hand free to reach for a weapon if he needed to. If nothing else, it brought him some comfort.

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing in the direction of the invisible trail.

“How do you know?”

“It’s a long story. I was…”

He trailed off, staring. A few feet directly in front of them, a tree suddenly sprouted from the thick moss underfoot, rising upward in seconds to the height of a man and unfolding branches which dangled like a willow’s. The sapling was a pale green like the earliest leaves of spring, and glowed as brightly as a street lamp.

As they stared at it, another tree sprouted further up, in the direction the trail went, ten yards or so distant. After a few moments, yet another one did beyond, far enough that it would be lost in the shadows if not for its green glow.

“There’s also that,” Ingvar said finally. “And it appears we’re expected, now.”

“Great,” she said. He couldn’t tell from her tone whether that was sarcastic or not. At any rate, she didn’t resist or have to be pulled along when he set off on the now-marked trail. Considering her present condition, it made sense that she would be as eager as he to meet the person Ingvar had come here to find.

Whether that person would be willing, or able, to help her were two separate and currently unanswerable questions.

They proceeded, guided by the glowing trees; it was oddly reminiscent of walking along a street marked by lamps. That thought made Ingvar cringe and decide he had spent far too much time in Tiraas. He did not relax his attention, however, not willing to blindly trust these signals. He could still find the trace, and it did continue to lead in the same direction as the glowing trees.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked his companion, who was silent and apparently nervous. “Anything aside from these? I found it as a scent, first, but now it’s like I can still perceive it, even without smelling…”

“Uh huh,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. “I think…I have an idea what’s up there.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “But I also think he can probably help. Both of us, I mean.”

“Great.” He was, at least, certain of his own sarcasm.

They did not have far to go, it turned out. After only a dozen or so tree-markers, their destination became plain. Up ahead of them rose an entire grove of the glowing trees, these full-sized, towering above even the ordinary pines that made up the forest. They were planted close together, their branches intertwining to form an almost solid wall; at least, he could not see what lay beyond it. Rather than a forest, the tight structure made him think of some kind of temple, or cathedral.

Ingvar and Aspen exchanged a wary glance, but did not slow.

As they neared, the spaces between the trees began to be somewhat more visible. Drawing closer, he found that while the glow of the whole thing made it look homogenous from without, its “walls” were composed only partly of slender tree trunks; most of them were made up of the drooping, willow-like fronds, which formed an almost solid barrier to sight, but clearly not to passage. They shifted slightly in the faint movement of air through the woods. Something was beyond…something he could glimpse only vaguely. It was big.

Ingvar drew in a deep breath to steel himself, but still did not slow. Aspen kept her grip on his fingers as he slipped through the fronds between a pair of trunks; the gap was narrow enough that she had to fall behind, but a moment later she joined him within the grove, stopping to stare at its occupant.

“Welcome,” said the dragon.

He was green, and luminous as the trees making up his encircling grove, which Ingvar was fairly certain was not an ordinary draconic trait. Of course, in this dream-land, it made as much sense as anything else. Aside from that, he was a dragon in all relevant respects: sinuous, armored in jagged scales, winged, clawed, fanged, and over two stories tall.

Ingvar immediately bowed, as deeply as he was able. Aspen did not.

“My name is Khadizroth,” the dragon rumbled, tilting his huge, triangular head inquisitively. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you—and especially your companion, whom I confess I did not expect. Whom might you be?”

“I am Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath,” he replied, bowing again.

“Hi! I’m Aspen!” The dryad contented herself with a languid wave of her free hand.

Khadizroth surged to his feet, shifting his enormous bulk to face them directly, and Ingvar managed only by a sheer exertion of will not to skitter nervously backward. The dragon only used his upright stance to bow, however. Despite his size, it was clear from his orientation that he directed the gesture specifically at Aspen, and the thought of making an issue of it did not for a moment cross Ingvar’s mind. The Huntsmen were what they were, and had their ways, but he didn’t think even Tholi would have been daft enough to challenge a dragon for alpha male status.

“Aspen,” Khadizroth said, his voice a light tenor that made its deep, powerful resonance seem rather peculiar. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And you as well, Ingvar. I’m certain you have some questions for me—and I, now, for you. I am curious what a dryad is doing wandering this realm? Forgive me, but of those of your sisters whom I have met, I never found any to be sufficiently introspective to find entrance here.”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” she huffed. “I was being kept in a…a kind of bubble. Isolated from time and stuck in my own head.”

The dragon narrowed his eyes to blazing emerald slits, their luminosity outshining even the glow of the rest of him, and Ingvar’s wariness increased substantially. “Who would dare do such a thing?”

“Oh, it wasn’t to attack me,” she said grudgingly. “I was…um…kind of transformed? Partially. The Arachne froze me to stop it from happening, and she and Kuriwa and Sheyann were trying to… Well, they were trying to help, but I really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t let me out; Sheyann said I’d just continue the transformation if they did unless we made some kind of progress.”

“Transformation?” Ingvar said, curious in spite of himself.

Aspen turned to him, her face lighting up in a sunny smile. “But then Ingvar here found me and helped me get out! Oh, but… There’s kind of a problem. If I don’t stay touching him, I tend to…um, disappear.”

“I see,” Khadizroth rumbled thoughtfully. “To accomplish such a thing… You are an even more interesting individual than I expected, Brother Ingvar, and that is indeed saying something. I’m afraid, however noble your intentions, you have placed Aspen in considerable danger. She is here with neither body nor mind; both are imprisoned in another location. The soul of her is able to exist only because you have brought it out connected to yourself.”

Aspen let out a soft squeak of dismay.

“Is it possible you can help her?” Ingvar blurted. “I mean… My apologies, Lord Khadizroth, I did not intend to presume…”

“Not at all,” the dragon said, drawing back his lips in what Ingvar only realized after a terrified moment was a smile. That was a lot of teeth, and on average they were longer than his forearm. “Not at all, I would not dream of sending you away unaided. Yes, I believe I can do something. Hm… Forgive me, but this may take some effort, and concentration. My focus is currently divided; I am not physically present in the dream world, and you are, I’m afraid, not the only important matter which demands my attention.”

“I’m sorry if it’s trouble,” Aspen said piteously, and Ingvar gave her a wry look. Even ill-behaved dryads became suddenly more respectful in the presence of a dragon, it seemed.

Khadizroth smiled again, and laughed, a booming chuckle that, if anything, increased Ingvar’s nervousness. “My dear child, it is no imposition. I would be honored to be of aid to a daughter of Naiya under any circumstances, but to do so and spite both Kuriwa and Arachne at the same time? Oh, I assure you, nothing could prevent me. Now, Ingvar. Are you ready to be of assistance to her?”

“What can I do?” Ingvar asked immediately, which would be the only possible answer to that even were he not already interested in aiding Aspen.

“You have bound her to yourself, and you alone of the pair of you have a safe avenue out of the dream. You will have to carry her with you to the material plane. I will perform the working which will make this possible. Hold out your other hand.”

Ingvar did so, opening his palm, then blinked. Sitting upon it was a large nut. It was the size of a walnut, but smooth, and striated with luminous green and gold veins.

“It is done,” the dragon said solemnly.

“Wait…that’s it?” Aspen exclaimed. “I thought you said that would be hard!”

Again, Khadizroth chuckled. “This is a realm of symbol and perception, child. I assure you, what you just observed was the palest shadow of what actually transpired. When you awake, Ingvar, plant the seed. Do so quickly. The magic will do the rest.”

“I thank you for your help, Lord Khadizroth,” he said formally, closing his fingers around the seed and bowing again.

“Uh, me too,” Aspen said belatedly. “Seriously, thanks. That’s a big help.”

“I am honored to be of service,” the dragon said solemnly. “And now, if that addresses your problem, I believe Ingvar here came to me with questions.”

He turned his head expectantly toward Ingvar, sitting back down on his rear legs.

Ingvar experienced a tongue-tied moment, and cleared his throat to cover. “It’s… The truth is, milord, I owe you thanks. I have benefited greatly from the quest on which you set me. I’ve learned a great deal…most of it troubling, but all, I think, vitally important.”

“You are welcome,” the dragon said solemnly, nodding his great head.

“This part, though,” Ingvar continued, steeling himself, “was part of a bargain I struck. In exchange for the Crow’s help, she asked that I journey through the dream to find out who it was who sent me those visions.”

“As expected,” Khadizroth said, nodding again. “Have you any questions of your own for me, before we address that?”

“I…one, in fact,” Ingvar said slowly. “If I may.”

“I assure you, young Huntsman, I did not send you on a journey toward the truth without expecting you to ask for detail at its end. Speak, and I will answer what I can.”

Ingvar hesitated again, then took a deep breath and blurted. “Why me?”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth, blinking slowly. “Sadly, that’s a question I cannot answer, at least probably not to your satisfaction. I sent out to find the right one to undertake this quest. In such matters… It is unknowable, how the One is selected. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that I chose you subconsciously, that the world did, that Shaath or even Naiya did. There are some who would contend that you chose yourself for this duty.”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Aspen said dubiously, “but he pretty much asked you what you think.”

“Aspen!” Ingvar protested.

Khadizorth laughed. “Don’t begrudge her a little brazenness, my friend, you’re only arguing with the wind. To answer, then… I will fall back upon the only consistent wisdom I can claim to possess, and say…” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I am most definitely not disappointed with the result. However you were chosen, and by whom, you are clearly the right one. Not just any fool could have stumbled into this dream and rescued an imprisoned dryad on your way to this meeting. Who can say what threads there are, linking you to what destiny? The wild magic of the fae is not meant to be understood.”

“By which you mean,” Ingvar said quietly, “that particular…transcension field is not designed with mortal consciousness in mind.”

Khadizroth stared down at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Kuriwa sent you down that hole, didn’t she?”

“That was the most educational part of this journey, yes. Though…perhaps by not as great a margin as it deserved. I am still not at all certain what to do with the knowledge I gained.”

“Embrace that, Huntsman, and act only judiciously. The unwise use of knowledge is behind the vast majority of suffering.”

Ingvar nodded. “Well, then… That aside, it sounded as if you were unsurprised to learn that she sent me here to find you.”

“Only to find?” the dragon asked in amusement.

“Yes,” Ingvar said firmly. “That was all; she tasked me only with learning who it was who could send visions through dreams and designate her as a person the recipient should seek out. This is done and my duty to her fulfilled. Before I return, though, I am curious…”

“Yes?” Khadizroth prompted when he trailed off, still smiling.

“I have the sense,” Ingvar said very carefully, “that you planned all this for a reason.”

Again, the dragon chuckled, momentarily filling the air with the scent of smoke. “Indeed. Given your origin, Huntsman, I suspect you understand the purpose and the value of honor. That is why I chose Shaath; any of the gods would have sufficed, but I deemed a Huntsman the best choice for this journey.”

“I certainly do,” Ingvar said, nodding firmly.

“I don’t,” Aspen said somewhat petulantly. “Honor’s just a made-up idea. It’s not natural.”

“Natural, unnatural,” Khadizroth mused. “Where do you draw the line?”

He stared at her expectantly; she only stared mutely back, her mouth hanging open.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said, turning to her with a frown, “you feel bad about killing those people, right?”

Her expression collapsed into a sulky scowl and she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know why you have to bring that up…”

“But you didn’t before,” he persisted.

“I didn’t know better!”

“But you do now. You are more than just an animal; things matter beyond simple survival. Honor is what guides us away from wrong action, prevents us from making the mistakes that make us feel as horrible as you do about that. It is well worth pursuing.”

“Well said,” Khadizroth rumbled approvingly. “But even honor has its pitfalls. I find myself somewhat trapped by my own. I am beholden, thanks to honor and obligation, to a certain individual whose aims I find it inherently dishonorable to serve. It is the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“I…see,” Ingvar said slowly.

“Makes one of us,” Aspen muttered.

“In this much, however,” the dragon continued, “I persist in finding ways around the prohibitions laid upon me. By, for example, drawing Kuriwa’s attention in a most roundabout manner.”

“Oh?” Ingvar said, finding his curiosity rising again. “Toward what?”

“Events are transpiring,” said the dragon, “in Viridill and across the border in the cursed lands to the south. Large events, which have commanded a great deal of attention—which was exactly what they were intended to do. Someone should know that these are a smokescreen for—”

Abruptly the dragon broke off, eyes and mouth going wide, and suddenly the luminosity of his scales faded, leaving him a glittering, metallic green which seemed mundane only by comparison.

“Lord Khadizroth?” Ingvar asked, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

Khadizroth heaved backward, letting out a roar of unmistakable pain and toppling back against the rear edge of his grove, smashing a wide swath of the glowing trees to the ground. Ingvar and Aspen backpedaled in unison, reaching the opposite wall just as the glow of those trees flickered out and they began dissolving into dust.

The dragon thrashed wildly, flailing tail and claws raking up huge rents in the forest floor, and where they gouged the moss, an empty whiteness was revealed beyond. After mere moments of this it began to spread, his continued struggles seeming to tear open the very air.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ingvar asked frantically.

“Just run!” Aspen shouted, following her own advice and dragging him along.

He needed little more encouragement; the world itself seemed to be dissolving around them, jagged rents now spreading outward from the increasingly damaged area around the flailing dragon. They quickly outpaced the fleeing pair, trees, ground and sky alike disappearing in segments. The very earth dissolved beneath them, and suddenly they were plummeting into infinity, their cries of panic underscored by a last, thundering wail of pain from the dragon.

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28 thoughts on “10 – 39

  1. So, new banner, as you noticed. A lot of things are in the works for the site; it’s always been rather bare and in need of improvement.

    I also am working on a map. And also I have an updated cast list Unmaker made weeks ago that I’ve never gotten around to posting, for which I apologize. Life descended upon me and I plain forgot about all my various plans for the serial, but I feel I’m back in creative mode now.

    Onward and upward!


  2. Wow! Another awesome chapter. Do you have any other books written.
    Keen to read more!
    Have a great week


  3. Oh my, Ingvar leaves the vision with that nut, plants it and Aspen grows from it? In her current … circumstances? Although, it might be a clever solution since neither elf knew how to fix Aspen’s partially transformed body and now she’s simply getting a new one, probably based on her self image. Only question is… right now Aspen’s soul is bound to Ingvar, the rest of her is back at the university, in a sealed time bubble. I am pretty sure they will need to see Arachne for final fixes.

    So, this removed Big K from the list of culprits behind the elemental summonings. More interesting though is who or what could hurt a dragon, even a bound one. Khadizroth was attacked immediately after trying to reveal important information, so it seems like a god is behind it. Right now, Justinian moved up to the top of my list of suspects. I think he’s working together with one or several gods.


    1. My argument for it being an Orc God continues to grow stronger. I’m getting progressively more annoyed every time a chapter looks like it’s going to be a big reveal behind who is causing the summonings but then it isn’t. I want to know if I’m wrong or right.


      1. I bet one internet dollar against your theory. I believe it is not the already deceased orc god. 😉


    2. Unrelated to the comment thread, but would you mind giving my contest entry to Alternate History Hub based on TGaB a look over, Daemion? I’m mostly just looking for a second set of eyes to glance over things to make sure there aren’t any huge mistakes. URL to the document is below.


      Here’s the URL to the contest video. It isn’t at all necessary to watch, but I thought I might as well provide it in case anyone was curious.


    1. I guess Kadz and Kuriwa are Frienemies the same way as Arachne and Peacock the Blue ( sorry cant remember the name )

      Theyr magic and Agenda is similiar but not their m.o.


  4. Some more thoughts about the current arc:

    Ascension probably means giving up your mortal body and being absorbed by the transcension field that’s created in that moment, that’s the most likely explanation how the gods became immortal, aware of everything all the time and powerful enough to casually reshape reality. It would also handily explain how the belief of followers would change the gods themselves. Without a body as anchor, they are basically just information floating free within in the field that can be changed easily. A paladin would serve as some sort of checksum or backup then. It seems that part of themselves within the paladins/dryads is passive, otherwise I don’t think the gods would have missed their paladins chatting with Elilial or Embras Mogul. Same for Juniper and Naiya. This also explains why Arachne said blocking Naiya’s awareness of Juniper could lead to another war, because that’s probably how the first one began, too.

    It stands to reason that the Infinite Order had some sort of paladins themselves. Not all of them, but at least some. The Infinite Order created lots of lifeforms, maybe some of them carried a spark, too? Did black/silver dragons carry a divine spark? Maybe no paladins were necessary because they could fine tune their transcension field with their equipment.

    Scyllith vastly overdid it with her demons… unless only a few special ones carry her spark. If all of them are connected to her, then she would be very vulnerable. See Darling’s comment about all bards being Vesk’s paladins.

    How do you use ascension to kill a god? You do it by claiming their transcension field for your own. Each of the Elder Gods had their own transcension field (magic) which was basically them. Arachne said it in class: the current divine magic is powered by the corpses of the elder gods. Only there are no bodies. Although… who knows. Maybe the bodies were put in stasis somewhere? Doesn’t matter.

    We’ve seen how powerful the current gods are… and the elders were a magnitude above them. Or at least they had more abilities and less limitations. The new ones didn’t create new races, for example. So how do you kill such a being? By attacking them from the inside. We know that a few elder gods helped the renegades (Naiya, Tarthriss, Araneid) by giving them access to the equipment. Or maybe some of them had access already because they were the high priests? They are called renegades for a reason. Only… how do you even rebel against a god who can read your thoughts instantly and everywhere? That means someone had to develop a technique to hide their thoughts … just like the Black Wreath is using now.

    Perhaps priests were initially technicians/observers, since the Infinite Order experimented on themselves. They all ascended at the same time, so someone on the outside had to check that everything went as planned.

    The current gods have no access to the equipment, so they are stuck like they are. That also means they can’t turn off Elilial’s magic. Question: If no one has access anymore because Naiya buried everything, then how did Elilial and Arachne manage to attack Scyllith 3000 years ago?

    Arachne told Elilial that she killed a god on her own and that his power had to go somewhere. Elilial took that seriously. Does that mean Arachne has Sorash’s access codes? Because there is no actual pool of power she squirreled away if all the gods get their power from the same transcension field (divine magic). Although now there’s the question how much power each god can throw around? Are they all equal? How does one become more powerful than another if all have the same source? Does it change with the number of believers/followers?
    If Arachne killed Sorash… and she didn’t have access to the Infinite Order’s equipment, how did she do it? Do gods become vulnerable when they assume a discrete form? Avei’s comments in 10-34 suggest that this is true. Are they vulnerable enough to die if their form gets overwhelmed? That would mean there’s nothing left of them in the transcension field when they are corporeal. And that would mean that they can’t hear prayers or thoughts anymore. But they have to be at least some connection…

    How does listening to prayers work? Do they have some sort of subroutine running that sorts through prayers for them? Do transcension fields have a spam filter? Because I’m pretty sure Omnu doesn’t want to hear “Omnu’s balls!” every other second. 😛

    If all the gods are trapped… maybe the Universal Church serves as the prison for the gods.

    The gods are bastards… if they can instantly react to specific thoughts, then they could easily react to “I’m dying” or “I’m starving” or “I’m sick”. Although that goes into the “Should superheroes fight crime?” discussion.

    The Elder Gods definitely were bastards. Think about it. They didn’t arrive alone, they had probably friends, colleagues, family, support personnel and so on. There were only 18 or 19 humans who became Elder Gods, that’s not enough to create a viable population. Although they might have brought additional genetic material with them. They ran their experiments, succeeded with the Ascension Project and became powerful immortals. They might even have stayed benevolent and down to earth for the first few centuries. Maybe turned the world into a paradise for their friends and families. Created new species for them as pets and farm animals. But as time progressed, their friends died. Their families changed. Maybe it took a thousand years but eventually all the humans on the planet were strangers to them. Anyone who has ever worked in tech support knows how quickly you become a cynic… now imagine listening to the requests, demands and prayers of all humans, all the time… for centuries. At some point even the most benevolent god has enough. So yeah, I can see how this might have happened. After a while they lost their empathy, for them humans became a resource, numbers… stupid kids at best.

    Settling a new planet doesn’t require knowledge of quantum mechanics or nuclear fusion. New generations would need to learn how to farm, how to survive etc. The advanced technology would become something no one really understands anymore. Maybe there’s still a data vault or library that explains everything… but the Elder Gods probably controlled access to it. Over time knowledge would be lost or replaced with mysticism. Technicians become priests, who no longer know why they are doing these rituals. Machines break down or are quietly removed by the gods. A few centuries later the population couldn’t even revolt if they wanted to, because they wouldn’t have a place to start. According to Avatar 03 it would take several years to teach the basics just to understand how ascension works. If you have ever seen Trigun, then you know that the highly educated scientists, engineers and settlers became normal people living in some sort of pseudo Wild West after their spaceships crashed and they lost most of their technology a few generations ago.

    Which makes it even more impressive that the current gods managed to kill the previous ones. I don’t think they did it all on their own, they must have had allies. An army. And it was still a suicide mission. I wonder if they knew they’d become gods themselves or if they assumed they’d die in the process.

    I had a bunch of theories about Araneid, Arachne, Scyllith and Elilial… but they all fell apart once I tried to disprove them. I’m still missing the central puzzle piece: What happened 8000 years ago that lead to Elilial’s betrayal, Themynra going solo and Araneid vanishing? How was Scyllith involved in all that?

    Even more questions: Hell is a dimension and Vanessa implied there’s a similiar dimension for the gods, the divine plane. But… if the gods usually don’t even have bodies, if they are just part of the transcension field… would such a divine plane actually exist?

    In the end I don’t even know how far I can trust any information gained from characters in the story because several of them could be lying or simply be mistaken.

    But it is definitely a lot of fun to speculate about it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The two central mysteries we still seem to be missing are “What happened between Elilial and the Pantheon 8,000 years ago?” and “What happened to Araneid/Arachne 3,000 years ago?”

      Answering either one of those questions will reveal a lot.

      I’m also still wondering who’s ultimately going to turn out to be the antagonist of the story. I’m kinda betting on Justinian, but I’m not sure if it’ll be malevolent antagonism or accidental.

      For example… he told Darling and the other Bishops that he wants to raise all of humanity up to the level of the gods. And given what they just found out here, it’s possible he actually knows how it might be accomplished. But the way Avatar 03 described things, it seems like that would require undoing the Pantheon’s changes to ascension — the same changes that killed the Elder Gods.

      What if undoing those changes brings them back, too? We could potentially see a genuinely well-meaning Justinian resurrect them without intending to, or even realizing it was a possibility.


      1. That would be a classic trope. An ancient but powerless evil whispering secrets into Justinian’s ear, manipulating him with false promises and he doesn’t realize what he’s actually doing until it’s too late to stop. His plan succeeds but instead of becoming a god, the ancient evil regains its old powers and threatens the world once more.

        But yeah, I don’t think it’s all Justinian behind everything. This seems too big for just one man to set up and control, plus he had to get the necessary knowledge somewhere, hide it from the gods and then install this interference that keeps them off his back. That probably requires serious power and while Justinian turned out to be more dangerous than I thought I don’t think he’s also an archmage or demigod in disguise.


    2. >Although now there’s the question how much power each god can throw around? Are they all equal? How does one become more powerful than another if all have the same source? Does it change with the number of believers/followers?

      In 5-1, Arachne says the more domains a god had and the broadly those domains are, the more powerful they are

      How that coincides with “transmission fields”, I dunno.


  5. how do dragons relate to this field stuff.
    all the humanoid races were genetic experiments it seems, what exactly is a dragon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another genetic experiment. And based on humans as well since they are born as human and require a humanoid woman to breed.

      My guess is they are either a defense mechanism or some kind of ultimate fighting machine.


  6. “All a smokescreen for…” – just what is Justinian trying to do? Universal divine ascension is his claim, and it seems a little more possible now than it was when first mentioned. If we take the claim at face value what might he need? Avatar 03 seems the first relevant partial answer raised recently. Is this aimed at securing it somehow?


  7. Little over an hour to posting time, and I’m having a really hard time with this one. Fighting exhaustion and depression and the exhausting and depressing knowledge that I have to be up early for work. It should be a fairly smooth chapter, as I know what I want to happen and don’t have to figure stuff out on the fly, but it’s not going well.

    The writing game is just like that sometimes.

    This is very likely to be somewhat late. Sorry.

    EDIT: All right, I have hit a wall. I apparently didn’t have this planned as well as I thought, and in my current mental state I’ve been fighting one sticking point for half an hour and I’ve got nothing that’ll get me to the next passage.

    There will be a one-day delay while I get sleep, get a shift of work in, and finish this tomorrow afternoon. I am very sorry about this.


  8. You know, I would at this point like to point out something that just came to my attention: “bastard” has two meanings. The more modern use means a despicable person. However, in older days it was an insulting epithet applied to a) someone born from unmarried parents, or b) someone of non-noble pedigree.

    Given this, and that the gods’ actions and attitudes are dictated by their followers…I’d wager that the title doesn’t mean what we think it means. 😛

    Liked by 2 people

      1. That was my first thought once they started to.act… More OR less nice. 😉

        Also, lets see who killed poor big K…


    1. It’s a reasonable guess that he was going to, bearing in mind that the gods have a death-for-knowledge offer too. Do we have some more direct evidence for it?


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