Blade of Innocence

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Blade of Innocence

The Blade of Innocence

The suspected dark lord Creus was once, like all the dark lords, a resident of a different plane. Creus was a warrior-mage of considerable repute, seen as the protector of his country Avaldia. Born in a time of war, war was all Creus knew. Selected as a child for training, Creus's life was circumscribed by two types of persons--those who were enemies and those who were expendable to ensure the defeat of enemies.

Men respected him, though none could be considered his friends. After all, who knew when they would be sent to die in one of his brillant feints? Or sacrificed to hold a pass or ford? His only family valued him as important in raising the standing of their house, but they did their best to keep him at a distance lest he bring his need for battle home to those who sent him away in his youth.

In the year 755 of the Nezarian Calendar, Creus's orders were to attack the kingdom of Rosada. Rosada was a bordering nation of elves, whose interruptions of Avaldia's lumber economy at their shared border had grown tiresome. Thus Creus marched into ancient forests of redwoods, staining the ground with a different red. His 'fever' was upon him, though at the homefront growing dissidence mounted as news of his horrors were brought home.

Yet onward he pressed, respectful of the elves' prowess in battle but determined to sack their capital. Though many even in his conclave of generals counciled against this genocide, Creus bore no hatred for the elves. He was killer, this was his purpose. And so the slaughter continued, a line of corpses tracing his path to Quasani, the City of Gentle Ice.

Exactly what happened when he entered the city is unclear. Those who witnessed him entering the castling and butchering the inhabitants claim that his sword arm halted when he looked upon the face of the child Vasa, who apparently resembled the twin sister he had played with, who had wept when he had been taken away. As she stood in terrified defiance over her own sister, he paused. Yet then his sword cleaved them both in two, and he vanished in a cry of surprise and outrage, engulfed by a swirl of black mists.

What happened to Creus? It is believed that the child before him gave life back to his soul, but the mysterious evils that rule over the fabled Land of Dread had waited too long in hunger to take him at the apex of his crimes. When the moment of redemption was at hand, the demiplane's dark powers forced their hand lest they be deprived of their prize.

And they left a sword that cannot be cleansed of the blood upon it. The blade now sits in the study of the ursinal Gorsan, who believes the dark powers may, for the first time in millennia, be thwarted for their injustice. For all his crimes, the crime that took Creus from the 'fields we know' was one he did not willingly commit.

The Blade of Innocence can only be used against those of evil alignment, and any cut by the blade are haunted by the last heart breaking moment of Creus on this side of existence. In addition, with the proper magical incantation, it is possible to peer into the realm of Creus. A forest kingdom of twisted black trees, a city of shattered black ice and a pair of thrones. In one, Creus sits. In the other, a girl who is wife or perhaps child, an elf corpse whose halved body has been sticthed together with threads of black iron.

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The door opened, and a

The door opened, and a beautiful creature came through it. Moving like a ghost in flesh, the figure moved toward the end of the room. The tulani's hair had flattened slightly from the swampy mists. It gave his youthful face an aura of reckless sensuality, despite a weight behind his pupils' dark. He shed his black cloak with a quick motion, and swiftly took a seat, grimacing even before he sat down.

"Disgusting, how can you stand the smell?", the gorgeous pale skinned humanoid looked as though he would gag onto his court finery made of indigo and silver. A hand was held before his mouth, a ring of yellowish jade on his finger wavering curiously. He sat before a creature that appeared to be a bear of sienna brown that had grown diposable thumbs and a torch of intellect.

"Honestly, I masked it at first but then I decided that the scent would galvanize me. I did retch several times admittedly. I manage it better now." The ursinal on the other side of the desk looked down shamefacedly.

"The blood of elf-children! I'm sorry Gorsan, I'm going to negate it.," the beautiful man said as he waved a hand. His movement suggested grace. His pale grey eyes glimmered as the spell took effect. Both celestials relaxed visibly, though Gorsan blinked at the sudden change in his environs. The muscles beneath his simple black robe eased, and he breathe deep.

"My head does feel clearer. Perhaps it was a foolish little martyrdom after all. Thank you Esaal." The tulani nodded and smiled for a moment, then his expression became wary as the guardinal took the sword down from the greystone wall and placed it on the pearwood desk between them. Now that the blood-scent was suppressed, the pleasant aroma of the furniture filled the air. Esaal's senses noted this even as he looked at the blood, disturbed by the crusted burgundy staining the metal. After all this time, the blood remained on the blade but the blade remained ever sharp and shining.

That was the least of it however. The blade seemed to vibrate with a supernatural tension, a wrongness radiating through the space around it. Injustice, even a chaotic eladrin would easily acknowledge it as such. Yet it was not the murder of the elves that produced the flaw. It was the judgement against the wielder. The proto-fey looked up, into his racial cousin's eyes.

"I can feel it," blinking hard to deal with the sting, "it burns the air. You've spent months here? I'd have gone mad."

"Its promise is too great to relax for an instant. I acquired it from Estavan, though he did not part with it lightly. But I gave him a relic from his people that I kept in my collection, and some gold besides. He seemed unsure which of us got the bargain." The ursinal spoke a word and two fluted goblets appeared before them, made of brass and filled with white wine.

"You must believe we can succeed, if you'd part with something so valuable. The chances of finding such things has passed from this multiverse." The tulani sipped the wine, measuring his friend's obsession. But was it any less than his own? Perhaps not, but the ursinal still had faith whereas he had merely continued out of duty.

"The blade changes everything my friend. I have calculated and reviewed my philosophy. The Raven's Loft has always been the key, even when we first became aware of its presence. The refined essence of damnation. And now we can use it to fulfill our dreams. I know you have doubts, let me explain...."

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A single fly screeching

A single fly screeching cannot be heard. But billions of billions of them, each a traitor born of the same betrayal, is a cacophony. Memories are harmless so long as the feeling of the past is barred.

-=-

The ecstacy nearly throws him off his mount. A beautifully scented twist in the spacial folds, a declious contradiction within the orders of infinity. Why had he not felt this before? He is always smiling, but this time there is truth to it. He turned his bronze mount with a tap of his scythe. He must, after so long, speak with his sister.

-=-

ERROR. EXCEPTION ERROR. INITIATE HANDLING. The same message resounded across a thousand factories nestled within the Perfection, and each one despaired that there was no design yet made suited to the coming task. A conference of networks, a response must be made even as a new model is researched.

-=-

Within the black mists, a dead man blinks. The guilt that cloaked him is so heavy that the moment in which it vanishes feels brief but sharp. He looks over at the throne beside him, and wants to say something but the words won't come out. His thoughts are of a live man who had a twin sister.

-=-

From his highpoint, he sees a story unfolding but even from the Apex he cannot see the end. Can Law fail to accomplish the greatest Good? Must Law stand guard against its brethren? He thinks on this, unsure how much hinges on his answers. He stares through his palms, a mortal and immortal in one shell debating.

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"I know you harbor doubts,

"I know you harbor doubts, let me explain..." The artificer droned on, but Michel didn't hear him. He was listening to something just past.

You are unworthy of it.

The man before him babbled on about the power of souls, the assurances that the fleet would not become a collection of drifwood in wildspace. Michel had faith in the man, a veteran of some distant skirmish known as the Unhuman Wars. Yes, all that was required was to land on the world before him, go through the portal and retrieve the final piece. He should be stretching his sword arm and checking over his gear, but the voice persisted to push away all other thoughts.

My love was a beautiful thing.

What were the exact words? His mind even now was trying to bury the memory, it blurred in his mind.

You are... You were. She meant you were. He was a different man now, he was actually a man rather than a boy pretending to be one. All this time, her face, the trace of her hand...half a decade in the Blood War. And he had returned, because that is what they were. Resurrectionists. For her, his foci had been memories of her. She was an admiral. They had exchanged pleasantries, examined the strategy for flaws, then she had dismissed him. All pleasant enough, but then he paused and turned and opened his mouth. And no words came out, it was up to her to fill the silence. Which she did.

My love was beautiful, I see that now. But I made a mistake in giving it to you. You are not worthy of it.

He had come back to apologize, come back for forgiveness. For her love. But now...

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Crime is an intimacy of sorts

Crime is an intimacy of sorts, we learn this early on. After all, the first crimes are always by those nearest to us. A white lie, a deception, a disappointment. Slowly we see the strands slithering with the ease of smoke, binding us to our victims and our predators. Whether we want this or not, we must face the faces of those tied to us.

So what happens when the crimes are faceless? How does the child left on razed ground find the faces of the particians who ordered the march? How does the family driven from their homelands find the ones who began centuries of bigotry? Such crimes have the faintest and most ironclad of bindings, for the facelessness is a crime itself. And from the gossamer thread of the first faceless crime, to the one a moment's past, there have been those stitched into Form, into our multiverse. They are called the ultroloths.

And so one of these faceless lords appears in a dead volcano, two red eyes where ears might have been placed as impersonal and passionately angry as a horsefly's. Her fortress is a frozen cascade of magma, snowflakes of acid falling upon him completely ignored. Its robe is of gold, her black flesh akin to a mollusk's with a sheen of smoothness. She has come home to plan, to use the latest catastrophe to emerge. If a thousand secrets, then a million dangers. How she loved the Great Wheel.

Floating through the acrid cold of its tunnels, its servants appear from their quarters, yugoloths of lesser rank removing larvae from stasis and readying the proper wards. Their master will speak with her brethren of purpose, and perhaps even brethren by blood. Two marks on the multiverse, each an aberration that will beget aberrations.

The ultroloth glances over the exquisite multilayered chess board a servant has set up, white and black marble with night-silver flickering with anti-light. A momentary urge to blink as it must look at the carving of a mortal long vanished. That one, he was one of the few old enough to recall the face of that one. Her servant had not attempted to speculate, and so the piece (one king among much royalty) remained as faceless as itself. A moment, a dead servant, and the abstraction of Evil continued to the prepared pool. Something inside it quivered at the murder.

Even now its insides copulated with itself, quickening its own womb. Even now it was stitching its progeny. In the pool, glowing ghostly blue, she would birth a face for itself.

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"see a strange little girl,

"see a strange little girl, she's feeling blue...she survived but she's feeling old, 'cause she found all things killed. Strange little girl where are you going?"
--Tori Amos, 'Strange Little Girl' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghGgycFEg64

"Balance. Find the center in yourself. Hear the Cadence. The meter, it is your thread."

The students, dressed in loose fitting black cloths shirts and shorts, stretched their oiled bodies on the mats. Bits of herb clung to their bodies, the hint of myrrh could be smelled. The woman instructing them wore a hemb robe dyed purple with a swirling pattern of black bordering the sleeves, cut, and bottom. Her close cropped hair was so black, with a strange blue tint in the harsh white light of the floating orbs. Her eyes were topaz, like honey if it were frozen cold. In addition to the manner in which she carried herself, the golden band around her neck identified her as an admiral and a senior initiate.

"The meter is more familiar than the voice of your mother singing lullabies. It is the song of finding. You have heard it sung to you before, for that is how your soul found your mother's womb."

She walked between the students, touching them lightly to correct their postures, whispering words of encouragement. They treated her as befitting her position. Not as admiral. But as someone who had journeyed deep and returned.

"Listen to the song, cling to the thread. For when you die, you must follow it back."

The acolytes each concentrated, blotting out the vibrations in the air caused by the others. Only the sound within could aid them when they moved on. A spell could bring you back, perhaps, but such things were left to the vagaries of the death gods. And you couldn't bring back the power, the essence of souls. You had to walk back to yourself if you wanted to truly know both Life and Death. That was the gnosis of the resurrectionists.

The admiral glanced around, watching with approval as the students faded away from the void they sailed through into the hollows within. Hopefully some of them would at least catch a glimmer of the Cadence, which was an elusive white hart to initiates. As they relaxed, she glanced outside through the porthole at the black. She felt her heart quickening with that central memory, that of her own maiden voyage into death.

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But I made it back. She

But I made it back. She reassured herself as she stared at the curve of spectral lanterns which formed the stars in this crystal sphere, each held up by an arm of bone as though an infinitude of skeletons were seeking their way through night. Perhaps they were failed resurrectionists, or ones who found something else on their way back to Life.

Despite the macabre truth to its stars, the crystal sphere had been pleasant enough. One tropical paradise filled with magically energized magma, one arctic mining world with a vortex to the Plane of Mineral, and a largely temperate central world where artificing had developed to take advantage of the other two's resources. And when refugees from the distant "Unhuman" war had arrived (as in crash landed), the artificing of the abeil nation had developed along very specific lines to produce expert shipwrights.

That was long ago, but the world's artificers continued in their pursuit of wildspace technology, perhaps to maintain the three additional moons that were mechanical orbs. Built eons before by departed spellweavers, the faux-moons required upkeep to continue their proper revolutions. The natural moon was an orb of cold light that provided illumination, while the three artificed moons had ensured not even the Empire had dared to conquer them. Not with might anyway, currency had made them a willing enough partner. Enough to produce this specialized fleet of ships, a lucrative purchase that now floated toward the phlogiston and yet another black shell.

A rendezvous with his ship, she thought as she extinguished any latent emotions her mind clung to. Cobwebs, lichen from before. She had died, and been reborn as someone else. Someone wiser, someone who had seen the vastness that lay between the planes and understood the pettiness of girlish infatuation.

Her subsequent successes in the Imperial Armada had renewed her confidence, they truly saw her as her father's daughter. An honorary admiral now, she had an entire fleet under her. She could have said more to Michel, but she had simply been honest. In any case, the last thing that should happen is he bring his maverick attitude against her precision. He had been dead all this time, adrift so long they had buried him. And now victory--such a victory!--was at hand.

Soon. It would all happen soon. Years of journeying into Death had finally yielded a means to tap into Life itself. A secret her death had given them. A method of drawing upon the esoteric, soon their one sphere would lead to many. A point of departure from all that had come before, a level of science and magic we would not understand until it revealed itself. Back home, the scholarly demogogues called it the Singularity. She could feel her heart beat faster with hope, and some of her students matched its rhythm as they discovered the Cadence.

Right outside the porthole now, a massive skeletal arm shone its lantern defiantly against the darkness of wildspace.

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Cloaked in Void, he walked.

Cloaked in Void, he walked. Though it was impossible to mask presence, path and location could be dispersed across alternate time streams. It required careful planning, and his own blade would not manifest in the presence of the one he carried. Without it his power was a paltry thing based on secret touchstones and planar paths.

He could feel the supposedly dried blood. Right now it was soaking through the cloths he had tied around it when he placed the blade inside a green scale bag. He had slung the thing over his shoulder, so he could feel the wetness on his back. He shuddered in revulsion, and continued his journey backstage.

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Gorsan had to admit he felt

Gorsan had to admit he felt better now that the blade was gone. Its smell, the sight of it, had made him queasy on good days. Though he felt nervous, knowing that should anyone catch their agent things would go awry very quickly. He had had contigencies readied, but it worried him that innocents stumbling through their plans might be harmed. Yet the life of the celestials had been a game of risk and calculation, ever since they had discovered their reflections, the fiends.

The lower planes had forced the celestials into continual compromises, attempts to do the "greater good" when instead they might have ushered in a paradise. And a loose contingent of celestials still believed it might be possible, if not for certain factors. The flow of souls toward the Pit. The continual replacement in the ranks of fiends. And the ability of these fiends to travel relatively unhindered through the multiverse. A system of damnation that stagnated, if not negated, the evolution toward the fabled Samayím. The ideal of the celestials, when all the planes and worlds of the Great Wheel were unsullied by the proactive forces of malice.

But now plans laid dormant for billennia began to turn, and it all hinged on secrecy and the sword. That sword, that was where all the questions laid. Did the powers of the Raven's Loft understand what they had done? Were they truly intelligent, or merely animals who feasted on the evil of mortal souls? Were they capable of making a mistake that would lead to their own destruction? Or did they play their own game, seeking to pull the strings of the outside multiverse?

But the promise of Samayím was so strong. He looked up. A young cub, one of his apprentices stood at the doorway waiting to be acknowledged. If not covered in fur, the ursinal might have been pale.

"Master, you should come downstairs. We have a guest. A tome archon is here to see you."

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Swordsmanship's first

Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained, even a blade of grass can be a weapon.
--Ying xiong

Just yesterday she had been playing at princess. Today she was a queen, and she wished she was a maid or cook. Here a minstrel approached the throne, she hoped he would quell the queasiness in her stomach.

Odd that he wore a sword though...

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Edgard Mininsky stood before

Edgard Mininsky stood before the twin brass thrones, one inlaid with the masculine ruby and the other with the feminine emerald. How you can tell the gender of gems had been explained to him, but the customs of this backward nation were not worth remembering. Bad enough he had had to sing in their whiny, nasal language for the last three days. The prenupitals, the wedding itself, and now the reception. The babbling of nobility, the droning of the clergy, and the lecherous ox of a king. The price being given this moment. Flames of various fluorescent colors granted him numerous shadows as witnesses.

His golden curls fell around his face, and there was laughter in his amber eyes. He laid his lute down before the royal couple, and reached into the pocket of his dark red vest. The king and queen captured in red and green jade, a frozen moment of dance atop a winding music box. Save the king looked noble and was unshaved, and the queen was a serene woman instead of a shaking, sheltered child married off for royal favor. The king looked at it with interest, for even he could see the exquisiteness of the carvings as well as the beauty of the golden box. Various scenes of him slaughtering his enemies had been etched on the lower five faces.

The queen smiled wanly, but seemed comforted by the device as she carefully wound it. It began to play a tune famous in her home state, in which the tyrant king is murdered by his own sons for his evil. She looked up in alarm, not wishing the minstrel to be killed before her. But Edgard's sword had already left its scarbbard.

The court mage, who had been quite bored during the precedings as he sat next to queen, also looked up. Not because of the song, but because he felt his wards vanish. But Edgard's sword had already slashed the king's throat, and now it left his hand at the end of his arc. The blade found the magus's heart hiding under his blue robes. His light green eyes widened, and a bit of blood dripped from his mouth onto the short white goatee on his chin.

Initially, the music box had been powered by the king's desire for his wife and the queen's complementary terror at the wedding night, but now its field pulsed with the terror of the king and the magus at dying. Even the queen's secret relief, something she'd reflect upon later, boosted the psionic nullifier. And now everyone was getting emotional.

Edgard had taken up his lute once more, and had crashed it on the head of the first guard to realize that the king had been murdered. He began dancing even though all the music had stopped, spinning away from halberds and swords. A man knocked the music box out of the queen's hand as he made for Edgard, and then the explosions began.

The powders that produced the colored flames had been brought by Edgard, who claimed they were magic. In truth, the magic was what kept the volatile chemicals burning slowly and safely. In the field of the nullifier the natural state of the salts resumed, and the nullifier was thrown from the vicinity of one scone to the next. The queen sat stunned in her throne even as Edgard approached. He deflected a blade with a fork, turning it at just the right moment. The utensil flew from his hand, but he had kicked the swordsman into another guard. He smiled at the queen and retrieved his sword. He parried once, twice, and another explosion shook the throne room. Then he was kissing her, and then he was making his way to the exit.

The widowed queen watched him, dazzled as he threw a plate or kicked a chair to distract a guard, his thin rapier stabbing through the uniforms of the Red Musketeers and the visors of the armored guard. Despite the explosions, he remained on his feet, dashing over the long center table as crossbow bolts whizzed around him. She didn't realize that not every guard who tripped or collided with his fellows was an innocent in this. The man who had sent the music box flying had been one of those turncoats. Edgard had paid them handsomely. But he had wasted his gold on the two manning the doors, who figured they take the bribes but become heroes in the aftermath. Table knives meant to cut meat flew into their visors. Egdard's magical rapier sliced through the beam barring the heaven wooden doors, and the foolish charge of a tripped guard's weight made them ajar. Edgard slipped through.

Bells were ringing now, alarms had been sounded. Egard ran toward ramparts, and a few musketeers gave pursuit. He laughed as he thought how it had all worked out. The beloved king of Trishant dead, his queen from the state of Deshae once famous for its witches. As these clueless were unfamiliar with psionics, an ensuing civil war would assuredly follow. How else could the protective magics of the court have failed? And the Desh that had migrated would face sudden pogroms. The surviving crones, now grandmothers reduced to nagging inlaws, would take up the old ways again. And the Lord of the Flies would forgive their neglect, and answer. All planned, all executed perfectly. Save the kiss, that had been his improvised masterstroke and his pleasure.

He raced up the stairs and burst outside, taking a young guard in the heart and an older one in the eye. They had laughed at this rapier, and at what the thin little blade had suggested. If a sword was to kill a king, it would not be that womanish blade. Only he was laughing now, killing a frightened teenager in red livery who had followed him up and out. He moved to jump, readying to use the ring that would simultaneously teleport him even as an illusion escaped into the water. Then he heard the voice of god, his god, the devil Triel.

It was really Edgard that broke the surface of the moat. A bolt of lightning even flashed through him as he fell.

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Time slowed once he was

Time slowed once he was submerged. He noticed with a lazy half-interest that a crossbow bolt streaked toward his chest, leaving a furrow of air bubbles as it cleaved through the water. The world around him meant little, his existence centered around a voice he had felt but never truly heard. Always it had been baatezu of one kind or another, relaying messages and meeting places. Never direct contact. The shells of broken cities had been stuffed into his skull, their jagged edges cutting his thoughts.

My servant, you have been chosen. Hear and obey.

Something flashed in his mind, and Edgar found himself thinking about a time before the lies, when he had thought he would be wise a noble loved by his people. Four? Five years old? The naive boy angered the wise man. But the boy in the garden remained in his mind's eye, and he couldn't dispell the memory.

This displeases me, but I believe I might make use of the phenomenon. Determine its source, and bring that which is responsible to me.

He felt something on his cheek, in the present. It was like an insect crawling on his face. But wasn't he underwater?

Go from this world, return to the City of Doors. My servant shall meet you there. A gelugon. A pity. Edgard had hoped an enriynes might have been sent to serve as a reward as much as an accomplice.

The source seeks in its own way. Two flaws gravitate to each other. Find one and it will lead you to the other. When the...dream of heaven no longer saturates my thoughts, I will know you have succeeded.

Something enveloped him, he felt a sense of terror, but he found he could speak. The crossbow bolt continued through the space he once occupied, and above the surface a phantom Edgard jumped from the wall too late to fool anyone.

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The mercane were lawful for

The mercane were lawful for the most part, though many might better claim them to be orderly. They were meticulous with reports, orders, shipments, but they had no qualms about breaking agreements or acting underhandedly in the name of profit. And so they watched from afar, as their partners in the venture of a certain planar metropolis readied to recieve a visitor. In the interest of trade relations, it would have to appear that they had acted in an approriate manner to the thief's raid. As long as the plan was followed to the letter, the associates on the other side of the portal would have no reason to think they had been doublecrossed. Everything had been explained to the Union Sentinels.

When the thief appeared, they were to take his head off.

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Zaphan, previously of the

Zaphan, previously of the Dark Eight specifically in the arena of Immortal Relations, looked out into the green fires that marked the chasm of his home. Even now, he reflected, there was another Zaphan playing games of intrigue with gods and planar lords. All for the Blood War. And under him, a potential Zaphan stood waiting for her lord to slip, to make the mistake that would lead to one of those cosmic entities oblierating him so that she could fill the void on the council. Zaphan couldn't decide if he missed the intrigue. Did the underling even know she did not wait upon the original? Did she know that she served a copy of a copy of a....

It mattered not. Though Zaphan enjoyed these ruminations and speculations, he had more pressing business at hand. He would enter into battle once more, and this excited his youthful body. His rough black scales retained their lustre after all the eons. His claws were as sharp as when he had emerged from the Pit of Flame. His eyes glowed as brightly red as they had when he had first realized the stakes and walked away from the Council, "dying" with the assistance of his lord and master. And Furcas and Baalzephon thought they were the only two originals left! Sometimes he wished he could speak to them, to see why they still played the game. Had he not told them of the greater danger?

No matter, he served Hell's best interests though many would call him traitor. Soon, perhaps, he would be able to show them how he had been right all along. The Black Triumverate would at long last show its hand. Distilled damnation, the ultroloth had called it. The chance of a lifetime, and given all the years he had lived such a statement was not made lightly.

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Michel blinked as the

Michel blinked as the phlogiston's multicolored radiance gave way to the star dotted blackness of wildspace. The stars here were balls of lightning that occaisonally delivered massive arcs of electricity into the void around them. Thankfully sound did not travel in the vacuum lest they all be deafened by the thunder. The engineer, quite the learned elf, had made sure not to risk entering near any of these electric orbs as well.

They passed a lemon yellow gas giant, its currents marked with white. A storm capable of engulfing smaller worlds raged on within its atmosphere. The world had not been visited, as far as anyone knew, since the days when the gods had frolicked in this sphere. It was said that strange abominations, forsaken children of these divinities, were imprisoned there. Michel had looked long and hard at the world, extending his sense, but felt nothing.

The next world was an aquatic one where the wise and powerful kuo-toa dwelled. The elven veteran had seemed surprised at this, apparently he had thought the race to have descended into barbarism far before his Unhuman Wars. Michel had asked the man if he would like to visit Ankolodopookool, but the elf had declined. A pity, the kuo-toa were favored citizens of the Empire and their goddess was the official sea-deity of the state sponsored Pantheon.

They then cross through an asteroid belt, where arachnoids wove mile long webs hoping to ensare the spelljammers and varied wildlife that migrated through the pholgiston. Michel thought he glimsped one, but it must have sense the wards and stayed far away. The rest of the crew grew quiet and anxious after he had mentioned it, though it did not phase him. Having sailed on the fabled Ships of Chaos in the Abyss, few things in wildspace gave him pause.

Three days later, the golden sky of the lizard planet Azzacri was sighted, and the asteroids left behind. The crew visibly relaxed, as fighting off lizardmen would hardly be a problem for them. Michel withdrew a pocket watch and checked the hour, the device's timekeeping based on that of the mercane. Though on the Prime they--if they were the same beings--referred to themselves as the arcane. They seemed similar enough, conniving and untrustworthy. They had been paid well to betray the reptiles to his covert operation, so long as he showed up on time for the appointed time of transaction.

He wondered if the mercane would consider doublecrossing him, but then he saw no point in considering such a possibility. There was nothing for them to gain by it. It had been made clear the power, though not the identity, they would be pitting themselves against if they did so. And Azzacri would remain in trade with their precious gamble of a city, so long as the Sentinels made their attempts to stop him realistic enough.

He reviewed the plan in his head, glancing over his crew of mercenaries. Truly they resembled the space pirates they were pretending to be. Their ship was a standard hammership, rather than the imperial peregines. The plan was perfect, and he itched to get this small but vital piece of the puzzle over with. He would review the procedure with the crew for the fifth time, if only to get those words out of his head.

You are not worthy of it.

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The construct gazed out with

The construct gazed out with crystal eyes at the desert ruins that had become a staging ground. It had answered the summons, though the assignment's distance from its own programming created a sense of paradox that unsettled it. The kolyarut watched those of congruent models display similar doubts, as they were not able to rationalize their purpose. This was about injustice, one could see that from the eagerness of the centaur constructs meant to punish such transgressions. Death had been cheated, in some sense, and so it was logical that the maruts had come. And the guards of Time-Space and Divinity had such elusive goals this almost assuredly connected to their missions in some way.

But no one had broken an oath. Not that it could see. Even as it had journeyed through the planes to arrive here, it had felt the sick stench of a mercane plot. It had almost moved to intercept, but the summoning would not be denied.

ERROR. INITIATE HANDLING.

What was the error? Why had it been called when there were no oaths that had been broken? The hourglass headed quarut directed it toward one of the flanks. There it would stand until further notice. The golden quaruts who guarded time in turn deferred to the varakhuts. These beings resembled humoids only vaguely, they balanced upon a single pyramid's point, their arms were pyramids attached to a blocky metal chest, and their head appeared to be a single rotating disk. These beings were reactivating the gates in this once great planar metropolis. On when they might march though, no indication had been given.

The kolyarut despaired, feeling unpunished oathbreakers like nettles on skin made of flesh instead of metal.

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The eastern sphere grouping

The eastern sphere grouping in the Higher Kingdom had often proven itself to be quite arrogant. This had required the Empire to provide discipline in the past, but the usefulness of these desmodu and dwarves had allowed them to sue for peace and regain their citizenship. Centuries had past since the last half-hearted independence attempt, but high trading profits and alliances with the elven cluster Shindaiee had reignited their silly dreams of secession.

Normally the Empire would consider sending lucrative contracts to the grouping, along with a reduction in taxes for the promise of good behavior. But their hold on an Imperial Monument was an insult that had to be addressed immediately, for pratical purposes. They needed the Null Shell to achieve the Singularity, so the greedy High Easterners had thought to buy their independence with it. It was the Shindaiee and their miserable trade organizations, but they would be cowed in turn.

The batlike ships of the desmodu circled around the miniature mountains that were the dwarven citadels. Spelljammers that bore the gigantic faces of dwarves carved of stone, dwarven ships were traveling fortresses that traded manuverability for firepower and defensive integrity. The desmodu made perfect partners in combat, capable of quickly engaging the rear of the imperial peregines. Even as the imperial armada approached, the dark ships began moving outward like a flock of the nocturnal mammals they resembled. In wildspace they might have been camflouged by darkness. Here in the phlogiston, she could see every single black point.

"Rhian, we're ready." It was strange to hear her name spoken, instead of the words Admiral Kaierre. But her mentor had died trice before she had been born, and looked upon her as a child despite her own pair of dyings. She turned to look at the man, his curly grey beard contrasting with the white stubble on head. A style he had acquired years ago on a traveling, apparently in some distant part of Ysgard. His breathing already matched hers, just as hers already matched the Cadence. All the school members were in tune. What they had instinctively begun they would now complete.

They sang their song, which could be heard by the opposing fleet, even though miles still separated them. The crew exchanged nervous whispers as the singers continued. Elven ships were approaching to lend strength to the High Easterners, uninvited guests in Imperial territory. The resurrectionists extended their own invitation.

Having created a perimeter at their border, the Eastern rebels were waiting to see how the Empire would move. That would determine how the desmodu would respond, along with the elven contingent. The dwarven citadels were expected to hold the line. The goal was to prevent passage of Imperial ships until a suitable severance deal could be made thanking the High Easterners for their countless contributions.

Except the Empire was singing songs the rebels shouldn't have been able to hear. For the first time in two-thousand years, resurrectionists had assembled en masse for war. But instead of cold fire and arrows of heavenlight as in the legends, there was only music. Desmodu ships now flittered between elven and dwarven spelljammers. It seemed the rebels were unsure how to respond.

For their part, the ressurectionists had extended an offer they knew could not be refused. The rebels would be welcomed back as always, but the Shindaiee fleet would be destroyed as an example. They sent their orders with their invitation, knowing the surrender was merely questions of when and how many deaths.

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As intended, drifting in the

As intended, drifting in the sixth through ninth dimensions the song carried an additional vibration allowing for a clearer explanation of the message. The orders were received, and there was some surprise at the hubris until the echoes through metaspace allowed her to fully understand the offer. It required little consideration.

She accepted and dispassionately began falling into the lower parts of reality to attack. She supposed a clear demonstration of power would end the conflict quickly. Which would be good, as she was quite impatient to receive her payment.

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A few rebel commanders

A few rebel commanders managed to fire ballistae or magically propelled cannon balls when the shadow appeared in the flow behind their perimeter. A few more turned and realized their enemy was on fire an instant before the explosion created a massive tremor in the flow. Even the Imperial ships shuddered. Many on the peregine spelljammers squinted from the bright flames. The butterfly spelljammers of the elves had been moving to support the rebel fleet and were now caught in the fireball. The desmodu ships spun through the flow, and the Imperial ships quickly maneuvered to avoid them. The citadels of the dwarves were drifting away from the damage, several of them displaying cracks in their stone hulls.

The moon-sized fireball began imploding, and the flowed surged back. The desmodu ships slowed their outward spin, allowing whoever was at their helms to bring them back into control. The dwarven citadels and paltry remains of the elven contingent moved toward the source which became clear as it sucked in the burning phlogiston. Millions of feet of purple scales mirroring the flow. The creature's great coils wound through the remains of the rebel fleet, fins running down their lengths moving like slow graceful oars. Four gossamer wings, deceptively strong, beat slowly as the great saurian treaded the Rainbow Ocean. Each fin and wing was patterned with swirling shades of purple. Pearls and gems encrusted its entire length, and a single horn of indigo crystal emerged from its forehead.

The Mikado, Dragon Mother, tribal leader of the great stellar dragons, themselves entitled the knowledge eaters, wisdom keepers, scaled philsopher-kings. She was ringed in azure fairy fire, the implied threat more than obvious. The last of the true flames disappeared into the dark void kept behind her fangs. All present knew that each stellar dragon could project cones of gravity, dragging victims to disintegration from the sphere of annihilation within their maws.

The rebels had hoped the creeping of the elven ships would intimidate the Empire. But as more stellar dragons faded into existence around them, they could not have been more terrified unless the Spelljammer itself had appeared in the flow around their ships. But fear mixed with pride, for were they not part of an Empire so great as this? So when the Imperial peregines and dragons moved past them without fear of retribution, the citadels and bats moved to form an honor guard around them. They bowed to the power they had been foolish to doubt, ready to accept judgement. The elven traders watched in dismay, then when convinced the dragons would not attack again began making their way to their home system. Word naturally would be spread--that was why they had been spared. The arcane on board one of the surviving ships likely was already in communication with its own kind. Perhaps he had come simply to watch the event unfold.

The crew of the golden peregines did not cheer, merely offered respectful bows to the incredible power of those they had been tasked to deliver to the Null Shell. They too would spread the word. The Imperial School of Resurrection had demonstrated its power, and obtained a group of allies that would make their enemies within and without the Empire tremble. And though the crew did not know it, all they had had to offer the dragons was the chance to watch.

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The ultroloth lay submerged

The ultroloth lay submerged in the pool. Outside the pool, its servants sacrificed larvae that allowed it to maintain its secretive communications with the other two lords of the Black Triumverate. Within the pool, two slits had opened at about where the nose would have been. She breathed the soulstuff into herself, strengthening her progeny. The celestials had set the first aberration loose, and even now the combined forces of the three archfiends struggled to determine its location.

The second aberration, that one was unclear. It might simply be a powerful echo, but more likely its source was some other disturbance in the metaphyiscal. And for some as yet inexplicable reason, they seemed to be calling to each other. Why?

A risky venture, to act directly after staying in the shadows. Yet the gain, it might actually make the Blood War meaningful. She pet her womb, binding the fiend within to herself, filling its head with a place where angels drowned in blood and everyone was guilty. The faith of the yugoloths, revealed to them by their Father-Mothers, the mysterious Baernoloths. The child must understand.

"See this." The shock when they look at their hands, and see the blood on them. The realization on their stupid mortal faces. The souls floating toward the violent eruptions, the emtpy grey, the pearls of betrayal. A city crawling on legs, ever marching toward the future. A god's spine thrust into the plague lands like a sword in the stone.

"Hear this." The cry of pointless anger once they understand they've been cheated. The hatred of themselves that it brings. The screams of tortured larvae, the cackling of night hags. The voices of the Baern, offering the mysteries of all creation to their children, if they would only find the secret of Evil.

"Speak this." The words, the manipulations, the lies that were their holy scripture. How to pretend to offer love. How to make brothers into enemies. How to make the mother seek to poison the daughter, the son cut the throat of the father. How to make them forget themselves, killing the children and emptying the wombs to protect them from the next generation. That was Evil raised to Art, when they would cut down babes and toddlers all in the name of future paradises or sense of duty. Her child must learn how to change them, make them forget themselves. How to show it? There.

"See this, hear this, speak this." A boy named Creus crying and holding onto his twin sister who lets out a screech of pure love as his uncle drags him away...

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Ygorl always bears his death

Ygorl always bears his death head's grin, his body nothing more than a black slaad skeleton. Holding his scythe, he is the self appointed reaper of Time, of Energy, of Thought. Lord of Entropy, seeking to make all things descend into chaos. Space bent around him, and he could be there before he left...

Ygorl, Lord of Entropy, approached his sister Ssendam, Lady of Madness, astride his shining bronze wyrm. Her amoeba-like countenance glowed, flashing excitedly with bright pulses of energy. He could almost see the froglike face he remembered from long ago. Sometimes, since even Time could fall to Xaos here, they shared the same mother.

^%$* :) %3d (*_*) fd512497y346o :P k43~~534 )O_O( 346?

"Yes my sister, I feel it too. Is it not wonderful?"

$#&(*^*(&^ :P &5845779% :(^_^): &(&VGFJGJ?

"Yes, we must respond lest the others take it away. They are trying to do so even now. One side wants all Evil, the other wants all Good. They do not understand the need for Variance."

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^!

"Fear not. I have a plan, one that you will find does you homage. But we must find the proper agent."

@@@:.ʕʘ‿ʘʔ.:b@@@

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Rhian's heart was still

Rhian's heart was still fluttering, off kilter from the Cadence. First, the Rainbow Ocean had exploded. Seeing fire in the phlogiston, let alone that much of it, was nervewracking enough. Instinctual terror had filled her, though her face had remained a frozen mask. She was her father's daughter. Not again! Not again! Not again! She dismissed the shameful thoughts, staring off at the black speck in the flow's depths. Azzacri.

But the dragon had drawn back the flames, leaving the elven traders in disarray. The Mikado had displayed her majesty, blazing with heatless fairy flames. Her tribe had come as well, guaranteeing that the battle had been won without a single Imperial death. She had watched it all from the deck of her ship, and the great Mikado's eyes had looked at the flagship. Rhian could feel the Dragon Mother's gaze. The horned stellar was looking directly at her. The great wyrm nodded slightly, expectantly. She was waiting to be rewarded with seeing.

Rhian had ordered the fleet to continue through the now broken rebel perimeter. The Empire had to establish its confidence to the rebels, who might whisper that the true rulers were the great eel-like dragons. When the citadels had begun turning, she had feared they might attack but it quickly became clear the rebels were forming an honor guard. They now awaited her judgement, but she chose to keep them chasing forgiveness. After all, the gods only knew what troubles Michel might have caused upon the world of the lizardmen. The pompous traders might earn their pardons with their blood.

Michel. She sighed within herself. He was different, but there was a part of him that was the same. It was so long ago, perhaps he had changed for the better. She cut the thought before it could flower or take root. More shameful thoughts, she shook her head to clear it. Her amber eyes blinked rapidly, attempting distraction.

She turned from the bow, meaning to descend to her quarters. She should prepare for the Singularity, especially now that she had gained an audience of dragons. She looked to her left, where the Mikado swam beside her flagship. She would be representing the Empire before these witnesses, and she did not plan to disappoint.

Indeed child. Such would not be wise. The great voice spoke in her thoughts, scattering all thoughts. She looked up and over the peregine's side. The eye on the right hemisphere of the Mikado's head was focused on her. Her heart lost the Cadence again, but recovered it quickly enough. Strong blood ran through her veins after all. She returned the stellar's gaze as an equal.

The great night blue orb reflected her ship, she could even see herself as a tiny dot in that organ which had seen the birth and deaths of many, many worlds. She must seem so insignificant. Impertinent even. Still, she sent thoughts back in reply, trying to cast them in what she hoped was an Imperial tone. She elaborated on how things would unfold, casting images into the dragon's mind.

Everything is on schedule and on the plan's path. We will begin the first steps toward Singularity when we reach the Null Shell. In fact, by now the man I sent to Union should already be dead.

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A man walks into the City of

A man walks into the City of Doors, soaked in tattered finery. A large burn is splayed across the center of his back, black and charred with white flesh in the center. A similar, smaller burn is on his chest. His blond hair is plastered onto his head, limp and dirty. His eyes are sunken in, there are zombies with more grace than he displays.

He grits his teeth and pulls himself toward the Clerk's Ward, to an abandoned house no one ever seems to enter, and even fewer seem to leave. He's trying not to think about what happened in the water of a far off world, when everything went black.

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"Watch yourself berk!",

"Watch yourself berk!", Sademak snapped as a vagrant nearly fell on him. The pale yellow hair was dressed in ruined finery, wet and stinking of sewage. Flies were beginning to notice the wretch as well it seemed. Sademak pushed the man away with his staff, and continued down the street. It would have been a shame to get his clothing dirty.

Beside him was the client he was tasked to guard, at least until they finished the alchemist's experiments on various planes. He regretted that his name had been drawn for the role of minder, as he had wanted to enjoy the Sigilian nightlife after spending three weeks navigating the cubes of Acheron. Instead he had to watch over this old man, who once more was glaring at a passing black abishai who luckily didn't notice or had more pressing business.

Devils likely cursed the old grey hair to gobble down meat constantly. Sademak hypothesized as a few drops of blood spattered onto his leather armor with a crunch of bone. It was the first time he had seen someone so eager to enter Parts & Pieces. Even the dust mephit who ran the place was surprised anyone would be so happy to be there. The man had just grabbed three skinned and feathered sympathetics, paid, and was munching before they had left the blood covered place.

Then they had had to go to a tavern in the Lower Ward that seemed to stand in defiance of architecture where a slaad bartender sold only "surprises". The man had insisted they toss back a few, since he knew the owner and all. If the dark skinned fighter had ever been there, he might have determined if they were in fact getting a discount. Didn't seem like it, the green frog had charged a gold piece for each mug of swill! The whole establishment was largely supported by their famous patron Wooly Cupgrass, the centaur who is supposedly immune to all potables.

Finally, the old man was moving back through the streets toward the Clerk's Ward though this took them through the slums of Hive. The wards of Sigil sometimes seemed to exist as different cities. The Lady's Ward is for the money keepers and power hunters, and the wealthiest residents dwelled here among wide open streets. The Clerk's Ward is clean streets and obsessive-compulsive hunger for pattern. The Market and Guild Wards are bustling with all manner of beings, a feeling of freedom and opportunity. The Lower Ward was smog and ash, but also industry and craft. The Hive, which they walked through now, was despair and frustration, and hunger. Hunger, perhaps, most of all. Even the streets themselves, with their portals to the Ooze, attempted to devour you.

Sademak looked around, gaging any possible threats. He found two boys, both dirty young half-orcs, standing in the remains of a house made from faded brown bricks. They appeared to be talking to each other, but it was telling that no one else was around. The surrounding buildings were in somewhat better condition, their heights casting the area in shadows. All the alleyways were dark and could contain anyone or anything.

As they made their way through the thin dirt streets, the half-orcs seemed to lazily take note of them. Both had on frayed pants of brown cloth. The taller one, with a shaved head bearing two healing cuts, wore a stained vest of golden fur that was rather small. His chest was exposed but he had a great bardiche with half a handle. The black hair had on a homespun shirt put together unevenly from red and purple cloth, and he was less muscular but had a chain he twirled aimlessly. The no hair's black eyes looked past them, but the suprisingly bright green eyes of his friend was staring at the coin pouch on Sademak's belt and the black silk pyjamas under his red leather. He even had golden rings for his shoulder length braids. The old man had told him last night they would have business in the Lady's Ward. And now he was going to have to fight these two idiots.

Four idiots. Two more emerged from an alley, one a middle aged dwarf with rotting teeth and dirty brown bread with blood shot shot blues. The other was a tall reed of a tiefling, jaundiced skin and silver hair. The dwarf had on a breast plate over his brown linens, the fiend-blooded youth wore red rags to match his glowing eyes. Both carried shortswords. Five idiots. A young blond elf girl stepped out of shadows now behind them, tossing back the hood of her black robe with flourish. She wore a charm made from a sliver of pink crystal, but was otherwise unarmed. The old man chewed happily away at another dead bird, crunching the delicate bones. He looked up at Sademak with expectation.

"These look and smell like rabble. Surely you will take care of these pitiful weaklings?"

Sademak watched as all but the girl approached with eager caution. The fighter held out his dark oaken staff and spoke a word. Blades sprouted from its length, the metal growing into curved claws and thin spines. He began twirling the staff in both hands, the blades instantly retreating from where he ended up gripping it. He grinned as he saw the doubt on the thugs' faces, his perfect white teeth contrasting with his skin.

"Just try to not get in the way grey hair. This shouldn't take long at all, actually." He spun his staff faster and faster, betting with himself on who he would kill first.

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Crouched on a rooftop, the

Crouched on a rooftop, the neraphim Zvinh watched as Sademak twirled around his elder charge, timing his movements so his staff never got caught in the flesh of his enemies. He had disarmed the half-orc with the chain, who had run after the thing as though it covered his privates. The other half orc was stumbling, attempting to fight on with a sliced open cheek and several deep facial cuts besides. The tiefling and dwarf were better, working as a team to keep Sademak blocking high and low. Below her, the elf girl watched, doing nothing.

The dwarf retreated a second too late, and Sademak crouched to dodge the tiefling's blade even as the blades sprouting from the end of his staff slipped under the dwarf's chin. This left him open to the mangled half-orc's punch, which took him on the side. Sademak moved with the force, twisting to smack the giant youth in the shoulder. The blades cut deep, slicing through muscle and scraping against bone. The boy screamed, tripping backward and landing with a noticeable thud. His bardiche fell to the ground beside him. His friend with the chain had retrieved his weapon and was charging into the fray, metal links cutting the air above his head. The clumsy attack caused both Sademak and the tiefling to jump back. Sademak sidestepped another swing which barely missed his face but never would have connected. The fighter had closed simply to grab the chain and yank down.

The dark human had his staff positioned so he could slide it up against the boy's stomach even as he rushed past him to attack the tiefling. The green eyes were wide with horror as the half-orc fell onto the warm innards spilling out of him. Zvinh looked down to see the girl seemingly quite engaged by the battle. She crawled down several feet, then jumped to land without a sound a few feet behind the stripling. She closed the remaining distance, then felt a booming screech in her mind. Her eyes grew blurry with a flood of tears, and the bile in her stomach churned violently. The elf had turned, and was watching her with a crazed stare. A wilder, flooding Zvinh with the raw emotions built up in the Hive. Anger. Fear. Hunger. The neraphim wanted to scream but instead choked on her own vomit. Unwanted relief came as she felt herself going under, fighting to stay up until Sademak struck the mindbender down.

The elf was knocked out, but not by her fellow. The old man, their charge stood over the girl who was breathing shallowly, a bad cut on her forehead. He held up his short stout body with a polished wooden cane that twisted from the bottom point up into the head of a smiling chasme. His mouse grey robes were covered with bits of bone and meat. The claw of some dead bird was sticking out of his mouth like a pipe. Looking down at her, his black eyes were filled with affection and disdain all at once.

"I was saving this bird for later, but fighting is hungry work. But I also saved you. This gives me some discount yes?"

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Edgard had collapsed the

Edgard had collapsed the moment he had entered the house, figuring that if Triel would demand he come without any rest or healing then his lord could save him from death. His dreams were sound without sight, angels singing so beautifully it made him weep with longing. Then a low humming sound even as he drifted awake.

He lay naked upon silken sheets, covered by the pelt of a giant animal. A fox it seemed from the red, but then the vulpine creature would have been as large as a hill giant. From the wall before him, greyish light filtered through the massive stained glass which was so faded it barely passed on a colored tint to the incoming illumination. The image was of a beautiful golden angel in deep blue armor barring the path of an emaciated man attempting to ascend a mountain with unfinished steps and buildings. It appeared to be a quarantine of some sort, the man seemed to have bloody sores on his palms and leered in an unseemly manner at the sight of Paradise. The angel had a sword of red flame clasped in his hands, determined to protect his home.

The bed had a canopy over it, on which a mural of a shining white city had been painted, though it had apparently been inside another city, which lay ruined like a cracked egg shell around its outer walls. The broken city was the slightest shade off from the other's pure white. Edgar looked around, and saw the room was filled with neatly stacked dark wooden chairs and even a table laid against the wall. There were no windows, only a door on the left wall. He pulled off the fur blanket and saw his body was healed of its wounds. He felt stronger, and apparently he had been cleaned as well. Being clean improved his attitude tremendously, though he wished he could get the mage who had burned his insides with electricity. Surely it could be arranged by the cultists there.

He climbed out of bed, stretched his body, and looked around for some clothes. No seeing any, he shrugged and made his way to the door. Sigil would get the chance to enjoy his natural form. He only hoped they were ready, he thought with a grin as he moved the chairs out of his way to present his glory to the cityfolk.

He was greeted with darkness, but not with the torchlight and lantern boys of Sigil's antipeak. The sky was the dark of vein's blood, and instead of a torus curving upward there was an infinity of broken earth. Smoke bellowed from distant forges, and the ever present sound of building could be heard amidst the cries of the dead-condemned. Edgar Mininsky was in Hell.

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The sky was deep grey, and

The sky was deep grey, and the air smelled of ichor. Below, upon the fields of Oinos the armies of baatezu, yugoloth, and tanar'ri crashed against each other. The Styx cut through the violence, entering the wall and watering the rice paddies they protected, then continued its journey across the varied landscapes of Evil through the other hemisphere of the circular edifice. Two small circles lay within it, cities within cities. The second circle contained the houses of the nobility, with their graceful pagodas and manors. Within the innermost circle lay the palace painted with night, a moat of blue-black flames surrounding it. Those flames were a stark contrast to the rest of the muted wastelands for a thousand miles.

They battled around this city that lay in their midst. From above, one could see them attempting to storm the four gates. The realm of the god Kud, of the Choson pantheon, was preserved by the vigilance of its gatekeepers. Greying corpses piled around each of them save one.

Chongryong the Blue Dragon guarded the eastern gate, her breath of lightning crackling through the soldiers, even those who should have been immune. The smoke of the charred bodies reached into the sky, the scent drawing scavenging wastrels who hovered over the battle. Her tail swept away whole phalanxes of approaching fiends, tossing them into the air and into each other.

Paekho the White Tiger held the western gate, his iron claws cracking the shells of fiends as though they were crabs. He jumped to and fro, pounching upon a gorristo or scattering a baatezu legion. His beautiful fur bore burn marks and bloodstains, but the feline continually regenerated. A ballistae bolt in the right eye was slowly sliding out as this process took place. His mouth dripped with a brownish ooze as the various ichors mixed toghter.

Hyonmu the Tortoise barred entry from the north gate, his massive dark green body bearing only slight scratches and old thin scars. Spells ricocheted off his shell back, back to their casters. His speed was almost paradoxical, his maw reaching up to break a Ship of Chaos in twain, tanar'ri sailors falling to the color-leeched ground.

Chujak the Red Sparrow sits at the top of the southern gate. She is not gigantic, nor does she possess any death-granting breaths. Chujak simply sings, her song telling of some mysterious heartbreak of ancient times. While mortals might have been disturbed, the fiends were terrified of the memories she offered. Things best left forgotten, so much so that all of them--yugoloth, tanar'ri, baatezu--refused to approach the gate. Even now, tanar'ri made a last stand hundreds of feet from it, refusing to retreat toward the sparrow's voice.

Zaphan watched this all with trepidation, as even he would not approach from Chujak's quarter. He began his descent, seeking to fly in from the dragon gate. That would be far, far safer.

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The man was now leaving a

The man was now leaving a trail of blood in the Void. Each drop drifted off, becoming a perfect sphere. He had stopped, but after a moment's consideration he continued walking, chasing the path of the irrational trickster, Lord of Circles, Pi. What else was there to do? Perhaps this was supposed to happen. And so he went on with the circumscription.

As time passed in the timeless place, he eventually looked back and saw the droplets floating behind him. The little orbs almost seemed to be on a string, a necklage of red pearls drifting off into infinity. He noted this curiousity then kept walking in the direction of Heavens' hopes and dreams.

If he had looked closer he would have seen they were more akin to eggs than pearls.

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Michel closed his eyes, arms

Michel closed his eyes, arms stretched out as though he were offering a benediction. His mind was focused on the beginnings of the manifestation of Life that had been named Michel, who was a resurrectionist. He recalled memories lost to most mortals, but when dead he had read his own memory core in Astral silver.

When he was a babe, chubby pink flesh in cloth diapers cooing happily his mother is doting on him and she puts a hand over his eyes and EVERYTHING disappears. Then her hand raises up, and EVERYTHING comes into being again! The delight of ex nihilo creation, again and again. A babe is tied so intrinsically to Life that it delights him, he looks at the world cycling into being and the joy of seeing Life makes him laugh. He will never know such simple pleasures again.

So young he did not realize the world waited behind his mother's hand. It was as though someone had made all things not Michel invisible, save for the soft heat he felt from his mother's palm.

The hammership passed through the few wildspace patrols Azzacri had, entered the atmosphere and made its way to the capital of the poison dusk lizardfolk. It was though the world's eyes had been blocked, the suspicions of those seeking it mollified by feelings of security and innocent happiness.

If any others noticed, they raised no alarm and did not attack. There was a power on that ship that it seemed prudent to avoid. And so Michel continued swimming in memory, himself the only distraction.

You are not worthy of it.

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Gorsan came down the stairs,

Gorsan came down the stairs, following his apprentice. Kesan, that was the cub's name. The younger lead the way, but he kept looking back for assurance. Kesan's beady bear eyes seemed quite large behind his spectacles, allowing the elder ursinal to realize just how nervous the young one was. How does one receive one of the seven greatest archons? Gorsan himself felt unease, but for him this was not entirely unexpected.

The tome archon bore a hawk's head with golden feathers and silver eyes, but instead of fierce her countenance was somehow compassionate. The rest of her body was feathered as well though her breasts were covered by a breastplate of enchanted dark blue ice. It's lower body was covered by a matching kamish blue robe with golden zardozi, describing the great triumphs and failures of its race. Naturally, to become one of the Seven an archon had to have fully memorized the history of her people.

She looked at Gorsan as one might look at an errant younger sibling, her hand moving to touch fuzzy cheek, scratching it with avian claws. The ursinal felt the thrumming of energies within those fingers, the oceans of power that were the Hebdomad. But Gorsan was a power unto himself as well, older than several of the Companions in fact. In fact, the relationship between himself and her was older than the span of many divine existences. Thus more important than power, he felt her love.

"I missed you, little bear."
"It has been too long Cadriele."

The stood like that for awhile, staring at each other. Kesan hovered around unsure what to do, not daring to speak. Had not the prime sage Aristotle, who now dwelt on Aborea, said that friendship is the taste of pure Happiness? He had also said such moments could not last. In a moment everything would change, questions of right and wrong and risk and gain. In this moment, though, it was two friends--who might have been any two friends--looking upon each other and smiling. Then the moment passed, and the world caught up with them.

"Come with me to the study. There is much we must speak of, I presume that is why you came." Gorsan's voice wasn't cold, or at least he was trying to avoid that. He just had to keep his purpose clear, no matter what condemnations or judgements she might heap upon him. She followed behind him only slightly piqued, the play of light making her shadow fall on his person for a moment. It was like a child on a cool autumn night staring at the sky's constellations. Everything about her was sacrosanct. But of course it was, she was a queen of heaven was she not?

Not when we first met long ago. At least, as far as I knew it was not so. But Kesan recognized her as such, fawning over her with praise, asking if she wanted anything. If a hawk can grin, she did so now as she politely thanked him and refused his offer of food and drink. With his spectacles on, Kesan's eyes appeared to go wide with embarassed realization.

"Pardons, my lady, pardons! You sup upon ambrosia, you have no need for our meager fair. Not that I wish to give offense to Gorsan, I am his guest after all but in relation to the majesty of one the Mountain's keepers...not Goran compared to you, my lady, merely the food, that is of what I speak..."

"Kesan, get me some wine. I do not sup on ambrosia after all." Gorsan growled, and if a bear can scurry, Kesan did so now. Together the remaining two entered his study. They went to where Esaal and he had sat, not long before, setting everything into motion.

"A loyal apprentice. Even in the distant reaches of the Mount, we respect those who have endured the tutelage of the wise Gorsan." she said teasingly. How did her hawk face display so much expression?

"He's a distant grand-something or other. He is studying the relationships between the physical and the emotional. His metaphysical calculations are promising. He had asked to examine my old notes, in return for serving in the capacity of apprentice. I only wish I could recall how we are related. Vaceyll was more for family." Gorsan grew quiet, not wishing to dwell on the past. Cadriele spoke after a respectful pause.

"I know you miss your brother. I know that's when we decided to...undertake certain plans." Gorsan looked at her. Was she here because of their ancient pact, or had her loyalty to the Hebdomad trumped childish dreams? Powers and proxies, she might have always been one of them!

"And did you come to stop me?"

Whoever she was, when she looked at him then her raptor's countenance did a remarkably good version of fearful uncertainty warring with hope.

"I don't know. That's why I came."

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Sailing through memory in his

Sailing through memory in his mind and mountain ranges in flesh, Michel could feel his magic faltering. He tried to focus on the past, playing peek-a-boo with his mother, hiding so carefully in the house none of his siblings could find him, when his father took him to a cave so dark he couldn't see...but it all broke against the rock in his heart.

My love was a beautiful thing.

They hovered over the capital of the poison dusk, the planar metropolis Qrauhe-pectak made of ash and clay puebelos with sweeping veves cut into their walls. The mottled black and grey dwellings followed the slope of the mountain. At the top of their city, where the paved roads led, was a massive arch made of rough hewn marble. The dusky white gatewa from this city of shamans to far corners of the multiverse. One such corner was the great experiment of the mercanes, Union. Beyond the plane of purplish light that filled the space enclosed by the portal came the soldiers of Union, little ants marching outward to form two formal lines. The deal was being done. They were still too far, almost close enough, if only he could hold the obfuscation.

...beautiful thing. I see that now.

A resurrectionist traverses life and death, and as such their lives, their memories, vibrate with the tension between the two ideal forms of existence. But they must be focused within, flowing with the beat of the Cadence, or they cannot tap into their own well of power. But Michel couldn't balance the innocent past and heartbreak of present. But the boy who sailed with the tanar'ri had come back a man more adaptable and with much darker memories. He would need them now.

Michel is running even as the ship appears over the city, almost over the portal. But they are not quite close enough for them to descend upon it. Michel's heart is drumming with the Cadence, and he moves with preternatural speed toward one of the Greek fire projectors. His mind summons new memories to use--he's fighting in the Blood War, surrounded by tanar'ri, and the horror of the Abyss and the loneliness of confronting it alone and there is that succubus who tells hims i can look like anything, like anyone---He plunged his hand into the tarry mixture, setting it on fire with his shame. He cries out the order.

"FIRE!", and with that same speed snatches his hand back as the projectile sails farther than normally possible, the ball of burning ooze crashing behind the city walls. A cloud of insects explodes outward, sweeping from the point of impact toward the portal. Even from here, they look like angry sparks given life. Michel knows the abyssal wasps will live for hours even as they burn.

Again, Michel sets alight more Greek fire at the other projector, even as the veterans he brought back with him from the Blood War are readying the catapults with their shirts, with pieces of wood broken off from the ship, with anything around them. Michel sets them on fire and more balls of fire fly toward the city. By the time the hammership is in range a cloud of vermin has infested the area around the portal, and only a few lizardfolk cloaked with wards are near the gateway. They struggled to complete the transaction, attempting to drag an exquisite black stone box toward the portal. The Union guard are trying to aid them but there are too few of them.

It seems that the original plan might be salvaged. And so the spelljammer descends, faster and faster, toward the arch. A moment later and only momentum pulls them down. The crash is resounding on both sides of the planar doorway. Everyone has run, and the stone container is undefended, likely a slight bit softer than the spell Michel had on contingency for himself and his crew. Dazed but quick to recover, they get to their feet to push back the token resistance the poison dusk have left to give. Their green scales and yellow under bellies make the pygmy reptiles resemble small dragons. The sage grass Michel had carried in the cargo areas is burning, splattered with Greek fire. It weakens the spirits that the shamans call to aid them, great alligators and lizards each made of its own colored light. The Imperial troops are trained to deal with such things, and his veterans have faced far worse.

Michel walks toward the box, placing a hand upon it. He traced a finger on the carving of a great sinuous dragon upon it. He checks its contents with his ESP even as he looks back and watches the Sentinels arrive through the portal. He turns to face them, drawing his sword. Recruited from across the worlds with promises of secret power and great wealth, the Union Sentinels traversed the multiverse as partners with the mercane. What they sought was unclear, though it often had to do with certain spices the mercane valued highly. Dressed in browns and blacks, each bore an aura of faint blue. Michel cast a spell and a pillar of lightning struck the space they occupied. Still they came on. Again. Again. Again.

The ground was blasted around them, but the Sentinels were unharmed. Some of his crew were circling them, but the Sentinels blocked their strikes almost casually. Each chosen warrior wore a helm resembling some creature--wolves, hawks, bears; demons and devils even. He flung his sword toward them, which spun in the air and flew to block a blow that would have clove his elf artificer it two. The elf shoved a device into a groove of Sentinel armor, then jumped back as it exploded. The lizard folk were coming back up towards the portal. In Union, he could see mercane watching intently, taking note of every action.

He needed to use the portal. He removed two black pearls from a pouch on his belt and pressed them into the packed dirt. With a word, the earth rose up to form the vague semblance of a man. Michel made guttural sounds with his throat, and the the creature flattened itself under the stone box. Stepping past the skirmishes playing out around him, occasionally pushing combatants aside, he walks calmly to the portal, staring straight ahead. His eyes are blazing with light, his mind far away. He touches the arch, and the portal's color fades to star dotted black. The elemental moves through, and the lizardfolk scream in frustration. His crew are breaking away from the battle, leaving his dancing sword to its own fate. The Sentinels move toward him. With his free hand, he shoots out rays of frost. Of fire. A ray of green, this one boring a hole into one of the Sentinel's knees. Then one of legendary warriors is closer, closer. Michel is firing spell after spell, blasting off armor, burning flesh and then freezing it, petrifying swatches of skin. The man is still coming, he will avenge the lizardfolk. Michel can count the grey hairs in the grizzled warrior's sandy brown beard, see the flecks of grey in the blue eyes. Michel calls for his sword which flies back to its master, but its too late. He knows it when he buckles. The man has kicked him in the groin. It seems almost comical.

He expected a stab in the stomach, or even the heart. Something poetic, an epic slaying of the desecrator. The Union Sentinel does one better. He grabs Michel's hair, pulling his head back. The first strike from the sword only goes through halfway. The series of spells have twisted the blade, Michel thinks as blood pours down from the grinning wound. The next swing takes off his head, and his body falls back into the cold darkness of the portal.

"Rhian" he mouths, but he has no breath, no voice. His lips are frozen in the shape of her name.

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"Beautiful, is it not?"

"Beautiful, is it not?"

Edgard turned to face a man more beautiful than himself. Short black hair spiked with red dyed tips above healthy tanned skin brushed with hints of red. His eyes were gold orbs in white, his body lean and muscled. He wore black leggings just visible under an almost iridescent red surcoat and a black longsleave underneath. Two black horns, tiny enough to be fashionable, jutted from his forhead with a slight upward curve. Truly, the famous Tempter of legend.

"Baaz...Triel?" Edgard felt both terror and ecstacy, though perhaps they were simply the same thing. The devil laughed like a youthful hero.

"No, no. Our lord has more important things on his mind." Dreams of Heaven? Edgard wondered. What were these dreams he was having? Should he ask this one before him, or would he merely give offense? His very afterlife hung in the balance.

"Surely you must be famished after your long journey. Come, let us sup together." The devil approached, and Edgard realized they would need to teleport out of the room. But the prospect of fiends staring at his naked body was not a promising one.

"My lord, might I ask for some covering and a blade? I seemed to have lost my rapier in a castle moat."

The devil smiled graciously, showing enough to teeth for the rogue to see that the fiend's polished whites were fangs. The devil noble waved his hand, and Edgard was covered by his own set of finery. The clothing melted onto his person from the air: A shining green surcoat with a gold embroidered collar suggesting leaves, white leggings and sleaves, and a slender rapier that apparently was his former blade. He pulled it out, checking the engraved patterns in the hilt and handle, the black opal in the pommel, the way it sang the air. After a few satisfied maneuvers, he looked at the devil curiously.

"Waste not, want not." The fiend answered, then grasped his hand. Edgard thought about the blasted landscape outside, a thousand thousand abandoned cities.

Waste not indeed.

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Quote:In Ersilia, to

Quote:
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city's life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationdhip of blood, of trade, authority, agency.

They appeared in the next instant in a closed cuppola made of transparent crystal and beams of black iron. Edgard blinked, his flesh tingling as his body reentered a state of physical reality. Two spinagons flew around the room, observing the workers outside tearing down old ruins and jotting notes. A pitfiend with dark red skin watched the deconstruction intently, lost in its own thoughts. At a circular table of polished ironmaw, seven iron chairs were arrayed, a fly with mother of pearl eyes was embossed into the back of one. Apparently they were early, as no one else was there.

"My lord, now that we've shared a trip in-and-out of space-time together, I thought I might inquire as to your name." The noble of Hell nodded in courtly acquiesence.

"I am Iago, Disciple Edgard, and I will play host on behalf of the Lord of the Seventh. Please, sit down and eat." He gestured toward a chair, the soft skin of his palm facing up. As he did so, food seemed to emerge from the table's surface like flotsam floating to the top of a pond. The fruits and meats, and even roast fowl of some sort, settled as their plates "rose" to the table's top.

Quote:
When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

Edgard wondered if the pitfiend would join them, but the creature seemed quite intent on the scene outside. As hungry as he was, habit demanded someone try at least some the fare before him. To give offense to Triel's offering however would be certain damnation, and after all the Lord of Maladomini had given him a quest to be fulfilled. It was unlikely they sought to harm him, and even has he reached this conclusion he realized his hands had grabbed a pomegranate and begun tearing it open.

"I assume my gelugon contact brought me to this place--I should thank the fiend if it remains here." The fruit was surprisingly sweet, and the red pulp around the pips bigger than usual. Even those pips had a rich butter flavor somehow.

"Xaxzarnth is assigned to Sigil, and returned there after she delivered you through one of our private portals in the City of Doors. We were most distressed by your injuries, and heartened by your loyalty in making the journey while so heavily wounded. And it did allow us to examine you and make the appropriate adjustments." Edgard balked at the last word, looking up and spitting bits of spiced raw fish from his mouth.

"Adjustments? What do you mean?"

Iago looked at him now testily. The pit fiend turned to watch them, and even the spinagons stopped their fluttering.

Quote:
From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia's refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

"Edgard, I do not think you have realized the importance of the mission we have given you. Look outside and tell me what you see." Edgard did as Iago asked, though it was something he had been trying unsuccessfully to avoid. The sky continued to express itself in deeply shadowed red touched by shades of purple. Rents of former mines and ruins dotted the landscape, and petitioners worked to strip the land and build new cities over and over again. Now they even tore at the shells of forgotten cities, likely to build yet another place Triel would abandon.

This is what galled him. The sheer futility of the souls' work. To be slave was to suffer, but to be a slave whose labors were meaningless was to know that one's suffering was the only purpose. Such things happened on the Prime, Edgar knew of a mad king who assigned such pointlessly grueling tasks to the slaves of his capital, as well as a merchant who had his slaves run miles across the desert for sport. But to know that across the infinite land an infinite number of souls toiled away ceaslessly in such manner, bereft of all meaning, that disturbed his soul. To think he might one day join them...

Quote:
They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

"Not all souls are so worthless as those that toil. There are great rewards for those who please our lord.", Iago answered his thoughts, which bothered and surprised the mortal greatly. Oblivous or uncaring, the infernal aristocrat continued.

"Why perhaps I myself served in a capacity similar to yours, sowing discord in distant lands. Regardless of your fears, you are wrong. Forget what your mortal diablolist diatribes say, there is purpose to the work of these damned that you see." The fiend pointed to a city currently being dissected by a crew of souls overseen by a cornugon. It consisted of spiraling towers now shattered, and walkways broken and rotting.

"Each city is an experiment, a variation on that which makes up the identities of these fascinating places. Laws, citizenship, culture; with each metropolis we enable ourselves to understand true evil, ordered evil, a little better. For the idea is not to create an ideal city but to capture the idea of a city. Any city. Anywhere. The goal that we originally sought is obvious, but now we believe we might discern the answer to a different question. Tearing down and building up is the augury, but regardless of form the Truth doesn't change. Do you understand? As you search, we will construct the path to your goal. Unpredictable Pattern. You'll be taking the cities with you when you leave."

Edgard, uncertain as to Iago's meaning, nervously placed juicy pomegranate sacs into his mouth. Perhaps he should have looked closer at the seeds within the sweet pulp, as they might have been more akin to eggs.

Quote:
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.
--Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
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In a place where the trees

In a place where the trees bore the heads of vipers, the last third of the Dark Triumverate rapped his fingers against the left arm of his throne. Six beats--five for the finger tips, followed by the heavier sound of the thumb. In his right hand, he held a sword that he laid across his knees. A greenish sheen of acid covered the blade, and a drop of it would occaisonally land on the floor below him. The puddle of acid had developed a tributary that ran down the white-silver steps of his palace.

The man's beautiful face bore the look of concentration in repose, his thoughts far away. His heavy lids covered his eyes, his pouting mouth pursed as if beginning a kiss. One of the two smalls fangs resting on his bottom lip had drawn a small prick of blood, his guards noted with strangely maternal concern. Six-armed black haired women with emerald serpent tails stood guard on either side of him, with another pair behind and to their sides, and two more of these bejeweled beauties stood as a pair directly in front of him. One final guardian, the largests of these demons, took point. With the wall behind the throne, they formed a triangle of protection. The acid river moved between their coils, though they did not look down but glared with glowing pupiless red irises at the courtiers in the room. Armed with blades, tridents, maces, and a variety of wands, the guards were in turned armored with onyx breastplates. Their possessions radiated powerful magic and some items even bore auras of Law. Gifts from their lord, for they stood between him and the loyal traitors he had assembled for his court. Even now, many of the twisted demons thought to murder him and ascend to the Argent Throne themselves.

Nalfeshnee spoke with babaus, akiliths flowed across the floors, chasme hovered over the crowd as their insectile wings droned with a gentle buzzing. A motley of other demons filled the vast room as they too wallowed in intrigue. All of them made at the pretense of courtly life, all sneaking glances at their lord as they attempted to gauge his strength. He had been sitting there, eyes closed, for several weeks. To many tanar'ri, that was a lifetime.

Every so often he would whisper, and at first his court would shamefacedly hide their ambition. Now, after so long, they merely listened to see if any advantage could be gained.

"...distilled damnation..."

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He has come to the appointed

He has come to the appointed meeting place in the noble district, atop the rooftop of a great mansion. They look at him, unsure what to think of the one who stands before them. A pitfiend scaled in black, resembling the Minister of Immortal Relations. A few bare the pang of needless fear, unsure if Kud has traded them to their people, leaving them to the devils' tender mercies. As if Zaphan could trouble himself to bother with those betrayed by their own ambition. He supposed Kud has sent them out to serve as ambassadors, believing it might do him honor to be received by fellow baatezu. Or perhaps it was intended as insult, though if so it bothered him not at all. After all his time dealing with gods Zaphan had grown used to displays of pettiness.

The small cadre before him now were of mostly various ranks of greater status--amnizus, cornugons, even gelugons. Additionally, several enriynes lurked behind the others. All of them looked upon him with bitterness. Each of these had come here hoping to advance outside of the baatezu's guarded hierarchy and gain power all their own, some after being exiled or demoted and some who sought power beyond Hell. They came to Kud, and they descended into the moat that bore such a strange resemblence to the Pit of Flame. This was where the Choson god of guilt transformed his own petitioners into the monstrous black gremlins known as the Tobekki. But it worked for the devils as well, no matter their rank, if only once.

But Hell does not treat exiles well, nor does it look favorably on those who seek to cheat it of its due. Zaphan knew both truths from his own experiences. Thus many of these returned to Kud, whose presence had a gravity all its own. And here they served, left to contemplate their stunted ambition for eternity. Zaphan wondered how they could stand the sparrow's song, and if so did they remember why all fiends feared it so? He might of asked, but among the first lessons of Hell is to not reliquinsh the status of one's authority. He had come for a reason, and it was not to plead ignorance to rabble such as these.

One of the cornugons, his green body marked by swatches of black and blue patterns, approached. In his hand he held a polished bowl of night-silver, a dark pall surrounding it though here that was not easily seen. Everything was cloaked in shadows in this realm. The bowl was engraved with a single continuous image that when rotated showed the birth of a wolf, or perhaps a jackal.

The horned devil said nothing, clearly cowed. Among mortals it might have power, and it may lord over the souls gathered here, but against Zaphan it was a flower before winter. Zaphan looked over the fiend's body, wondering when the almost bruise-like discolorations had appeared on its scales. It was like a mosaic of the moat's flames. Glancing around, he saw they all bore such marks. He addressed them, thinking he may have need of them later.

"What you have given me may change everything. All Evil may rise to answer our call against the Light." The fiends glanced at each other. If this was Zaphan--as they had no way to tell the original from the current copy--had he gone insane? Was his word to be trusted? But the implication settled in eventually. If all Evil becomes One, is not the exile called to battle as well? And if so, does not the exile become exile no longer? Long submerged, embers of ambition sparked once more. Zaphan stepped forward, clasping the shoulder of the horned devil. The creature froze in a moment of terror, but Zaphan merely gave him a comraderly squeeze.

"My brother, think of it. The palaces of the angels broken, their charges scattered across the planes, the Mount itself toppled before the might of three rivers eroding its base. For this, the one who will be given this bowl must be successful. Do you not wish it to be so?" Zaphan's eyes flickered with invitation. A pitfiend had addressed a lesser as an equal! The cornugon looked back at him, reading promises where perhaps there were none, and smiled.

"Yes." A whisper. That was all it said, but it was all Zaphan required. The subtlest of magics sometimes work where the more baroque might falter. With a final pat on the wretch's shoulder, Zaphan turns away and stretches his wings. Before he takes to flight, he looks back.

"Tell your current master that the baatezu will move their forces, so as to ensure that this conflict continues far from this realm. He may continue his work in peace, whatever he may think to achieve. Our deal is done."

Concealing himself in the cloak of his own vast power, Zaphan takes to the air and flies away.

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Kesan was the grandson of the

Kesan was the grandson of the 500th descendant of Gorsan's mother's counsin's brother. For the most part, this was a largely unimportant fact save that Kesan had been inspired by his living ursinal ancestor since he was a cub. Gorsan's brillance was legendary among the ursinals, his treatises on subjects ranging from politics to mathematics were read across the Upper Planes, the Outlands, and many suspected even the fiends respected these works.

And so Kesan had sought to shine in the worlds of planar academia, journeying across the planes. While working on his opus, "The nature of Eryximachian Love", he had at his mother's behest written to the fabled if reclusive relative for assistance. Suprisingly enough, Gorsan had accepted on the grounds that Kesan serve as an apprentice. It was as though Kesan was being paid for getting what he desired! He reflected on his good fortune as he attempted to select a wine.

Surely, he wanted me to fetch the stitchless wine, as the other vintages he could have magicked to himself. As he took a moment to polish the lenses of his spectacles, he pondered on the makers of this special beverage. Made by the great lords of Netheril of the Prime Material nexus Toril, the wine could not be moved by magic though that property dissolved upon ingestion. The name "stitchless" was due to its specific negation of Toril's source of magic, an energy matrix known as the Weave.

He hoped Gorsan would be pleased with the choice. The prospect of serving as the guardinal's apprentice was so great an honor it terrified him, and even now he feared giving offense to his esteemed ancestor. The distant rolemodel of childhood dreams had become real. He had never believed he would be serving as Gorsan's apprentice, learning from the sage himself, allowed to peruse through collections of notes. His elder-uncle had even given him some access to unpublished and experimental works in the metaphyiscal disciplines.

Kesan was finding new possibilities in the groundwork laid out by Eryximachus and the metaphysicists that had followed him. He ran through his own conjectures as he asceneded the stairs to Gorsan's study. To follow the path of the trickster Pi and know the impact of higher-order emotion on Time-Space--to at long last square the circle --would be a glory beyond the spoils of war, beyond great castings of the magi.

And now, of all fortunes, a tome archon herself had come. A being who was granted oversight over an entire layer of Celestia, a plane where mercy and justice sprung from Love! The insights she could provide! But she had not come to see him, Kesan reminded himself. It would be presumptively rude to attempt an interview here and now, though as he entered the room where the two great celestials sat he was sorely tempted to do so. He noted that while before the conversation had been somewhat heated, both archon and guardinal went quiet as he entered.

He managed to hold his tongue and pour his elder-uncle's drink into the golden wineglass on his desk. The air smelled of pearwood, but with the archon there also of myrrh and soma. The pleasant scents did not make up for the palpable tension however. It was clear both of them were waiting for him to leave.

Kesan walked toward the exit, a sigh of regret almost escaping from his lips. Perhpas when she made to leave he might approach---

"Kesan, wait." At Gorsan's words he stopped and looked back.

"Yes?" He cringed, the golden frames sliding slightly down his wet bear nose.

"Stay. I believe you might provide insight where our old eyes have failed." His elder-uncle smiled warmly but wryly.

"Especially with the advantage of your spectacles."

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I remember the womb. This is

I remember the womb. This is like that, but colder.

He's falling into this death, deeper and deeper into darkness, when suddenly his body catches for some reason. He looks in a direction best described as up, in which a thin thread of silver light stretches from his navel back into Life. Now as the cord oscillates between being taut and lax, the recent past comes back to him. He sighs.

Dead again.

With a thought, he rights himself so that he is standing upon an invisible plane in the expanse of dark emptiness. He rubs his throat for a moment,memories making their way back. He can hear the sound of water pouring from far away.

Sod it all, they have my head.

His silver cord twisting off into the sky, he looks at his surroundings, or lack thereof. He notices a tiny blue star in the distance. It, in turn, seems to have noticed him as well. The prick of light becomes a point, then the flicker of a shape. Michel begins to move in the other direction, a pace that quickly sets itself from run to sprint. He throws out his sense, attempting to orient himself. Is he going toward his Life? Or away from it? He should be following the cord, but first he has to deal with whatever was coming for him.

The shape is coming closer. With a thought he reorients the setting to himself. He readies his legs as he runs then leaps off his imaginary surface and flies into the encompassing night.

His movements are somewhat clumsy, and a feeling of disorientation which is itself odd. Then realizes he's not flying through "air" as he intended, he's swimming through nonexistent water. For a moment it steals his breath, his voice. And the blue shape takes him unawares.

The jaws aren't painful, when they break the supposed skin of his spirit it feels more like a lasso around his will. The creature's body is sideways, and so Michel finds himself looking into the dumb orb of a bone plated fish made entirely of magical glow. A sending, meant to bring him back for interrogation, turning the dreamy dark to its advantage. Its stupid but powerfully blunt insistence of ocean dominates the environment with the strength of a veteran anarch. The poison dusk were to be respected. Though not resurrectionists, they were displaying an ample knowledge of Life and Death. Michel calmly praises his temporary captors as he places a hand gently on the whitecold eye and speaks a gurgling word. The darkness is filled with the sound of of thunder, and a sheet of golden lightning.

It accomplishes nothing. Michel is still in the creature's jaws, still moving toward the ashen city of the lizardfolk with its calligraphy of veves. This time he places one hand onto the creature's underbelly and pushes down the dorsal fin with other. The resurrectionist attempts to spray through it's ghost flesh with a bolt of acidic fire. The jet of misty flames of green splash off, dissipating into the black non-water.

He attempts to drain its lifeforce with a vampiric touch, but its life is
tied too tightly together to fray it so easily. The jaws only clamp slightly tighter in discomfort. He can faintly hear the chanting, the rhythm of music and clawed feet striking the ground in dance.

Forcing back his version of atmosphere for a moment, he takes a breath then holds it. Running through the spell in his mind, he imagines himself casting it and the darkness makes it so. Then he screams, the vibrations resounding through the imaginary water. The banshee's wail does not truly harm the creature, and it swims onward toward the Prime Material. Yet exposed to such a powerful example of Death a ripple passes through it, and Michel begins fraying the knot of its life force with a single string. It slows slightly, but tries to grip harder as its dull mind recognizes the danger but cannot escape its geas. Micel ties what small threads he can peel off its core Self to a point on his own silver cord, which is extending out from his navel. Metaphors become weapons.

Michel continues working at unraveling the creature's being, blasting it with negative energy to aid him. The fish begins swimming somewhat erratically. Gossamer webs of its essence, strands like silver hair, are lost to the distance where Michel first tied their lives together. Michel extends himself, finding the point where his cord meets his life, where the Union Sentinel took it from him. The crime of his death is the thread binding the two of them, it illuminates the journey back. Gripping for it, he anchors himself. The silver spooling out of him goes taut once more, and the eel fish (http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/mmiii_gallery/82963.jpg) is unprepared. Michel twists out from its jaws.

Examining his wounds, he finds ectoplasm leaking out of him from deep gashes in his waist. And like a shark, the ghost of prehistory is drawn to it. Suffusing himself with positive energy, Michel somewhat heals but cannot seal his wounds. As the creature turns, its light distorts so naturally that it seems its jaws could have always engulfed him when it turns.

This takes the animal by surprise, for in truth it is Michel who has become smaller while using chained cantrips to perform this trompe l'oeil. The untangling threads of its life, tied to the man's silver cord, are overloading its brain with nonsentient panic. It does not consider the danger of its own jaws, a bounded space as well as a cavern leading to the tunnel of its throat.

So when Michel jumps into its mouth with white glowing eyes, touching the serrated jaw to make a portal in the dark pseudoreality between Life and Afterlife, it cannot understand what is happening. Still tied to a cord now vanishing through it, there is nothing for the helpless aquatic to do but implode.

A sliver of a second later, and everything returns to darkness.

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"I know that freedom can only

"I know that freedom can only be given,
and is the gift to the giver
from the one who receives.

I am owned by the blood of all of them
who ever were owned by my blood.
We cannot be free of each other."
--Wendell Berry, 'My Great-Grand Father's Slaves'

The orphans gathered around, rescued from dark powers who had sought to use their innocent souls, or simpy saved from the cruelty of their fellow mortals. The lost boys and lost girls, they watched with delight and clapped their hands to the rhythms with varying degrees of accuracy. Yet still they were part of the Harmony, their seeming mistakes incorporated into the music in the next moment. A few even held hands shyly with each other or celestial children. As they sat or stood by each other in pleasant discomfort, the parents of the latter group glanced out of their eyes' corners and smiled. Many of these older eladrin looked at each other, recalling their own first loves--seeds from which the strawberry runners had spread and continued to grow.

The trees were alight as glowing coure gathering upon their branches, a full moon bathing Aborea's children with its cool yet comforting beams. One of the plane's exemplars strode into the forest, his shadow teasingly shaking the butterfly-winged adolescents from their resting places. Laughing, they followed him into the clearing. He moved between columns of fire and iridescent orbs, whirls of snow and water, and mischevious marbles of light brushed his body and tugged gently at his flowing black locks. Dressed in a purple velvet cloak over the shoulders of his otherwise black silver-lined outfit, Esaal strode into the movements of his fellow eladrin with a graceful two-step, careful not to break the flow. The Dance of Players received him with gladness.

The coure fly from him when he leaps into the air and spins, each ball of light caught in the hands of other eladrin. The coure transform into their demihuman shapes, receive quick kisses from their bearers, and are passed to others who toss them in the air. There they spin in fluttering circles, faster and faster until they transform again so they seem like whirling comets drawn by joy and music.

To fiends, power is a selfish pursuit that allows them to fulfill their own cruel desires. Yet with each level of power attained, their hungers only grow, until their existences become nothing more than unfulfilled voids that yawn with emptiness. For the celestials, each level of power was not an expression of selfishness, though one may strive for personal achievement. Each level of power was a means of giving to others, it offered the opportunity to express love in a new way. Even within this central truth, the celestials saw the role of power in their own races differently.

Their seagreen hair flying, the blue skinned angels of Aborea gather together into an inner circle, from where the tulani lift them and toss them toward the stars. The guardians of the waters become transparent dolphins that burst into rain, each drop becoming a snow flake in a whirlwind, and those thrown up as novierre have come back down as bralani.

For the archons, power was carefully measured out by a level of understanding. Each time an archon ascended to a higher station, it was because it had come to understand more about the balance of Justice and Mercy. Thus power was proportional to one's alignment with the Mount's sacrosanct mission. For the guardinals, power was a means of both communal and individual acts of good. What mattered was not how much power one had, but the goodness performed within the boundaries of that power. Thus the tiniest of mice might outshine the greatest of lions.

Pillars of fire blazed around the inhabitants, the heat bringing drops of sweat on many brows. Each eladrin grinned at the joyful perspiration, kissing the salt off each other as they switched partners over and over again. Two eldarin kissed deeply at the center, a ghaele and a shiere. When their lips parted, each had taken on the aspect of the other as they moved back into the current of shifting forms.

And for the eladrin, who loved freedom so much they would die for it whether it was their own or another's, power was both a means to joy and grave burden. Each eladrin knew this truth, for to have power was to be bound by the heart to do good. Yet power itself could limit one's capability as the mind grew used to that state of being. Knowing relative weakness was the key to using strength, and knowing strength was the key to countering it with seeming weakness. For their goal was not to hoard power, but to empower others. They were the eternal students of their charges. Only by constantly changing, constantly varying the degrees of power and responsibility, could they keep each other continually rekindled in the battle against the uncountable dominations and infinite tyrannies.

A tornado rose to touch the sky, swallowing many of the dancers who seemed to continue dancing as they disappeared into the roaring funnel of clouds. When an orphan blinked she missed the moment it began dissipating as it scattered pure white snow over the forest. Where each flake landed, a coure rose up and either rested or flew back into the dynamic interpretation of the eldarin heart and spirit.

This, then, was the purpose behind the Dance of Players. The eladrin would exchange parts in their collective story through the whirling bodies and intricate rhythms. Seen from above, this ritual might resemble a kaliedoscope. The random movements resolved themselves into beautiful geometries, each arrangement sustaining the shifting harmony through celestial intuition. One could not be sure afterward whether one would be novierre, coure, ghaele or another form with another purpose. Even tulani participated, though some did not do so for millennia depending on their individual contributions to multiversal liberation. Only Morwel, the Nailed Queen, served her fellow eladrin by bearing the burden of eternal responsiblity for the race and the cause. Locked into her position, it was deemed that she was needed to guide them through the eons. Their lady had martyred herself to serve as mother for all those in shackles of mind, body, and spirit across the spinning universes.

Esaal began to measure his steps, carefully continuing the semblance of harmonic randomness. He had a purpose here, and though part of him felt it was sacrielege to make the ritual part of his plans he did so for the greater good. Besides, he thought as he moved through a pillar of roaring fire, they of all people should not be limited by tradition. Not when so much was at stake.

Though it had been many millennia, Esaal had left his court to attend the Dance. He needed to be free of the duties to his people and land if he was to complete the quest he, Gorsan, and Cadriele had begun so long ago. And he could not afford to be seen wearing the form he had used to throw back the fiendish hordes from the Outlands. Too much depended on remaining an unknown in all this. Perhaps he and the archon had seen it as a never ending battle, but the ursinal had seen the end and planned for it. ŠSamayím...

A ghaele flew into his arms, they moved in intricate circles into and out of whirlwinds of snow and pillars of fire, and as she slipped from their tango she turned into a ball of eldritch light that a dolphin of glowing water refracted as it passed through before it became a blue skinned novierre once again.

He pushed away all distractions of past and future, focusing on the moment at hand. He needed to appear to be part of the random fluctuations of the Dance, though what he truly needed was a sense of the artistic in place of his raw power. Whether consciously or not, a work of art was being made from the threads of many lives. Regardless of the quality, he needed to understand the shape of it with sharper instincts than which he currently possessed.

Then he turned as the music slowed suddenly, and the circle of fierres turned with a pool of flames carefully cupped in each of their extending left hands. Esaal's own steps have brought him near a pale beauty and he looks briefly into her red eyes. Then before the moment passes he drinks the flame as she bends her wrist and straightens her fingers to pour it into his mouth.

He feels the flame changing him, burning away his power even as he senses a hundred nearby minds beyond the forest seeking to capture Beauty in their own way. Through melancholy, through joy, through roses and bones. In marriage or commemoration, he senses the union of Art and Love on his homeplane. This brings some ease to his troubled heart.

Esaal balances himself on his toes as he moves with the sticatto and claps his hands together over a tiny ball of light. The coure cupped in his hands, he moves in a circle as though he were a swan bending its neck to taste of the river. He is on bended knee as he pours the light from his hands. It's forming even as it falls, becoming a tall elf-like lord with an aura rivaling the moon above. A fierre bowing to a tulani noble.

Esaal feels a twinge of guilt as he realizes he has successfully deceived those who love him. But now he must arise again, and carefully escape the Dance before the grief soaks out onto his face.

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Samayím. Kesan had of course

Samayím. Kesan had of course heard the term, it was part of the shared culture of the celestials. When all Evil was gone, and Good would be free to flower. It was as beautiful as it was unlikely. Kesan had always thought that just as each being must struggle all its life to walk the path of Light, so to would the multiverse always struggle against the forces of Darkness.

Still, to hear his elder-uncle now, Kesan found that himself wondering it it were in fact possible to terraform the spiritual landscape, making Heavens where Hells once were. If so, would not Eryximachus's theories be proven for the multiverse--pure love cleansing the system of impurities, destroying the infection that tainted all things? And yet many of his doubts remained.

"Kesan, stop making those expressions. If you have something to say, just say it!" Gorsan growled. Kesan stammered an apology, swallowed, then began to disect his hero's schemes.

"Gorsan, esteemed uncle, I believe I have grasped the basics of your brillaint undertaking--"

"Get on with it Kesan." The apprentice stared down at his hands, wringing them as he spoke.

"Ah yes...I agree that you can trust the wayfarer with the sword, as those who walk the three White Roads would betray themselves if they betrayed us. Even with the sword negating much of his power, he should be able to trace the edges of Desolation. But if the sword should fall into the wrong hands, then your purpose could easily be inverted." Kesan looked up nervously, waiting for his elder-uncle to respond. Gorsan sighed, repeating the defence he had given to Cadriele earlier.

"I have contigencies in place to guard the blade. If I had let Estavan keep it, it would have undoubtedly fallen into worse hands than mine. And if I had turned it over to the Concordance, it would have been wasted. Assuming we could keep it safe and that its presence in the Upper Planes couldn't be exploited, it would mean squandering the chance fortune has given us."

"Is it mere fortune? We have never ascertained what forces rule the Raven's Loft. Perhaps it is they who set these events in motion, and now celebrate as we swallow their hook." Cadriele in turn reexpressed her fears for Kesan's benefit. Even here, in the plane of Peace, the thought of those dark powers cast a shadow on the three children of Heaven.

The younger ursinal concentrated, his magnified eyes behind his spectacles squinting as his mind ran through various calculations. If he understood its history correctly, and those who wrote that history were in turn correct, then the blade might allow them to measure the dimensions of Evil. If a thing could be measured, could it not be controlled, changed, even destroyed? The risks were many, but the reward was one all would share in.

Including the fiends, though they might not realize it until millennia after their defeat had passed. They would have more than ample time for reflection though.

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As the ultroloth drew upon

As the ultroloth drew upon the spiritual essence of its pool, waiting to hear from its co-conspirators, she thought of those who had first taught it the art of designing new life. How amusing the baernoloths had found this, their artwork itself learning how to create art. Recursive simularicum.

Yet they had offered it knowledge, proud it had survived to reach the appointed pinnacle of its race. They had explained how the multiverse was a collection of souls moving through firmament, about the energy released by death and birth. They had shown it how to shape flesh with the mind, the hand, even revealed how the body could build itself anew. This last they had used to make themselves better instruments to approximate the Nadir, where they might see the expanse of their Mother at last. This self-experimentation had left them the rotting philosopher-kings the ultroloth had come to know. Through their tutelage it had also become aware of a before unknown starvation, realizing that it had been merely led to the shore of an ocean its creators had sailed on if not across.

"How can I move sideways across Time? Do all souls share a common origin? Where are the strings that move my siblings to be found? Can Love be broken, or must it always threaten we who would bind it?"

We made well with this one!, they chuckled but they did not relieve it of its maddening ignorance, gaps where buzzing insects seemed to nest. They had instead reminded it of a time when it was an insectile imbecile armored in the chitin of the mezzoloths, when they had explained their intentions to the ones who first crawled from grey plague ridden soil. And though it had been long years before it had shed enough stupidity to understand, the words had been carved by the Father-Mothers into its mind, intricate etchings on shifting brain matter. Inescapable thoughts.

We made you to be our mirrors, to be our sacraments, to be our instruments. Perhaps we made you to be our inheritors, but that remains to be seen. Know then your purpose:

We see this beautiful, perfect thing, but as we approach understanding it changes, permutates into new forms. It consumes our thoughts, this black gem in the foundation stone, this blood red lotus in the waters. Find all its facets, all its petals, and we shall give you the Multiverse.

These words, their first and last sermon from the heights of the Wasting Tower. The message had withstood erasure through its long punctuated evolution from the lowly mezzoloth that had once stood in dimly-aware awe of what could only be the spine of someone primordial.

Within its womb, the thinnest scaples shaped from minutae of bone scraped these words onto the mind of its own child, an heirloom made of racial memories and as yet unfulfilled promises.

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"The current stalemate, what

"The current stalemate, what do the archons say when they speak of it? Yourselves and the devilkind are like two patterns struggling for dominance, fractals of merciful justice and tyrannical cruelty. Surely both sides have performed their calculations."

Kesan stopped, waiting for Cadriele to think on her own reservations, how much was she allowed to say. As his mind ran through possibilities and probabilities, exercising itself, his confidence came to the fore. The shy, stammering cub made way for the intellect that impressed Gorsan enough to invite the distant relative to his home.

"We...we don't have complete agreement on the matter. We are not Mechanus, not everything fits into classifications and calculus. Many still believe in the promise of šamayím," she began, the fervor in her eyes suggesting she was among the latter," but even those who do cannot see victory being achieved for billennia. Even then, so much depends on transformations in the Material Plane and to press the issue directly is to invite the interference of the Rilmani. It...it does not seem promising."

Gorsan nodded his head, taking no pleasure in her admittance. Instead he replied with his own assessments on their ancient, seemingly eternal battle.

"It has been this way since my--since we first discovered the evil of the fiends." Kesan noted the backtracking, but said nothing. Now was not the time to salt old wounds. His curiousity did store the question away for a later time however, scholar that he was.

"We guardinals have fulfilled our namesake, we guard what we can. Upon this layer, we have imprisoned many of the greatest threats to the multiverse. Yet on so many worlds across the Prime, we can feel the tide turning against us. Evil masked as Good, Evil hidden cloaked by presumption and arrogance." Cadriele gave him a look, and he accepted the accusation with grace.

"I realize one could deem my actions as such, but I do not seek to sacrifice innocents but save them. I have prepared a place for my enemies as well. This is not genocide, this is transubstantiation."

"And Esaal? What of the third...partner in this...endeavor? Why did he agree to aid you?" Kesan struggled to find the most politic words. Part of him felt his elder-uncle, brilliant as he was, had made a terrible mistake. The other part of him felt a zealous pride that victory might be in their grasp. He sought to temper one with the other, and examine the situation with detached logic.

"Esaal has always been a rogue, even among the eldarin." Cadriele looked at Gorsan, and both smiled for a moment as they recalled a more Edenic past.

"Morwel and her court concern themselves with the Prime, and with the cause of Freedom more so than direct confrontation with the fiends. Esaal is among the few tulani lords who fought in the Blood War, driving both sides back when the battles spilled over the edges of the Pit. He continued to aid me, as did our lady archon before us, every so often. We are a powerful minority within the Concordance, after all. When I explained my plan to him, he was more than eager to aid me. Even now his eladrin move across the planes, preparing for the tribulations."

Cadriele stared through the window, saying nothing. Her own desires and her duties to the Mount's hierarchy warred within her. She envied Esaal his liberty to act, even as she eschewed such disorganized response. She could appreciate the culture of the chaotic celestials, as Love reveals the beauty of diversity, but she could never be a part of it. Then how have I found myself here, a player in a timeless conspiracy?

"For myself, my research suggests to me that Love binds all things, moves all things, shapes all things. It is incredibly powerful, yet it may be beyond Good and Evil. To use its gravity to create the singularity that you desire, elder-uncle, is not without risk. At the same time, if Love belongs to the fiends as much as it does to us, then their own loves--of slaughter, of malice, of degradation--suggest that even the Blood War benefits them, or at least the essence of Evil.

We already see it serves as an engine for their adaptation, making them stronger. They have come to know far more of war and perhaps even of suffering than we could hope to. The more they understand, the more control they have over others, the more they assert themselves.

In the end, I suspect, it all hinges upon your contingencies, and the preparations you have made for failure." Kesan blinked, realzing the bluntless of his words. He opened his mouth to stutter yet another apology, but his elder-uncle raised his hand.

"The blade is not easily retrieved from where I have sent it. If it is taken, it will attempt to return to me. If it is taken to the Lower Planes, it should be able to take care of itself for a time, long enough for Esaal's agents to attempt retrieval. I poured much of my power into these safeguards. Not enough to stay the hand of Demogorgon or Asmodeus, but it should not come to that." He stopped, considering the dangers if one of those might gain hold of the blade. But it was worth the risk! For his brother's sake....He looked hard at Cadriele.

"When Vaceyll left we made promises to each other, not sworn on the Styx but I considered them no less binding. While you and Esaal have granted hosts to battle the fiends and agents to spread our creed, I have searched through the librams of angels and gods. I have even entered the library of the Arcanaloth's Tower." Kesan started at that. Cadriele merely nodded.

"Never again. Never again we promise, and yet those words have become hollow, our efforts are stunted crops in ashen soil. When I learned of the blade, two thousand years ago, I searched for it across the worlds, even through the Demiplane of Time. When I found it, I gave Estavan something that can never be reproduced, something I almost lost my soul to attain."

The ursinal struggled to get the words out of past his throat.

"When I brought the blade here, I let the scent of those two murdered elven cubs remind me of the stakes. To wait, to watch, while innocents suffer. How long? How long?! What good is all my learning if I couldn't save them?"

Tears of Love should never be shameful among the children of Heaven, and so Gorsan's fell freely. Kesan, who had grown up in the shelter of Elysium all his life, found his logic dissolving in those waters. Cadriele continued to stare out the window, saying nothing, only shedding a single tear, falling to accompany the ursinal's to the floor.

Finally, she turned and gave her answer.

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"I will be acquiring rations

"I will be acquiring rations at Parts and Pieces. What do you crew want? Haunch? Eyes? You want hearts, little faux-slaad?"

"We'll pay for our own rations. Think of it as a discount from our usual price. For saving Zvinh." The old man looked up at the elf, examining him with unabashed curiousity. This was not uncommon for the elf, whose black hair and dark eyes were common enough. His skin, however, was a light brown with the barest suggestions of thistle's violet.

"Makes sense to I. Expect me back late, I think I will spend my extra money at Parts and Pieces. You want hearts faux-slaad?" The old man looked over at the neraphim, whose head still throbbed from the psionic attack two days before. Zvinh shook her head as though it were a bowl of fine china ready to tip, and the old man grinned and shuffled off in his overly long robes to breakfast, lunch, and possibly dinner.

"The neraphim are an established race in Limbo. We are cousins to the slaad, but we are quite different. We have established Houses, we are forbidden from the Spawning Stone. By the Guardian of Change, I would think a sage would know our esteemed histories!" Zvinh raised her voice, but lowered it quickly as it clearly hurt the still-tender contents of her skull to yell.

Kaern arched an eyebrow at that. The Guardian of Change was portrayed as a young, handsome neraphim of black skin valiantly defending the multiverse from statis with his trusty scythe. Perhaps the neraphim had more in common with their 'cousins' than they thought, though they maintained that the slaad lords had many aspects as befitting the greater divinities of the cosmos.

"Perhaps he was combat training. Good thing too, seeing as you needed his help to fight that child." Sademak teased. Struck by a rare moment of kindness, the warrior had carried the girl to the Gate House, after helping Zvinh retreat to their rented lodging. The corpses of her companions were being loaded onto carts by Dustmen before they had departed the crime scene. The old man had insisted they leave quickly, though as it was the Hive the chances of a patrol coming to investigate seemed unlikely.

"I was waiting for a great hero to rescue me. Pity he was shown up by a geriatric." Zvinh retorted, though she barely raised her voice above a whisper. Ayita moistened a wet cloth and placed it on Zvinh's amphibian foreheard. The tan slender girl could have been Kaern's relative, as both of them were of the same build and she was only a little shorter. But she had strawberry blond hair and orange eyes that flickered occaisonally. As a fifth generation descendant from an efreet, her blood only had traces of the flame. It was her temper that truly proved her ancestry, though she was all sympathetic smiles at the moment. The holy symbol of Joramy swung from the long arch of her neck as she tended to the neraphim.

Their room was lit only by the soft light of candles and the spinning shapes of their mage, a Bleaker geometer named Oxlu dressed in drab browns. But in a near-contradictory fashion the gnoll hummed cheerfully while various numbers and symbols of turquoise light encircled him. He wore a dirty white marble ring with his faction's symbol as its signet. Their pet and mascot sparkled beneath him, watching the play of light above it with curious feline eyes. A vivacious tiger, Shakti seemed unwilling to live up to her kind's name as she lay curled at the gnoll's feet.

The Band of the Starry-Tiger, the mercenaries were quite experienced planar travelers who made a living off their reputation as reliable and capable body guards and retrievers. Having a cleric who could retrieve the dead ensured that even if they failed in the former role they would still be paid. Though they did give considerable discounts if their charge died in their care, barring extraordinary circumstances as defined in their contracts.

(They had once accompanied a Mercykiller who had neglected to tell them that his quarry was a Balor general camped upon the Field of Nettles. They were almost brought to trial for breaching their agreement by his fellows back in Sigil who had naturally survived him. They had pleaded sanity, and the Guvner judge had seen fit to release them.)

They were ready to depart for their next assignment, to brave what dangers awaited them, eager to win gold and glory as were all in their profession. But it could not be said that they were really prepared. Though their client planned to leave Sigil tomorrow, they still had no idea where they were going.

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"This...is...ridiculous."

"This...is...ridiculous." Ayita spoke as she ran, her legs burning.

"It does seem a bit comical, given what we've faced in the past." The gnoll talked with greater ease, seeing as how his flight spell had not been negated. He was casting the appropriate spells for their hopefully upcoming destination. Beside him, Shakti kept pace despite the old man on her back, bounding with a feline grace.

"We're fleeing from a horde of stomachs." Sademak grunted this observation, his muscled body not breaking a sweat. They were reaching the end of the frozen sludge. Beyond that was an expanse of air, cold enough to dull the stench of the place. A vortex surrounding itself with whirling shards of frozen muck led to the Plane of Ice. Kaern was flying above them, shooting arrows that lit themselves as they flew. They would look over their shoulders, only to note that his efforts were having little effect. The digesters came on, though Zvinh was having some luck with her bag of tricks, running a few feet behind to lay her traps. A few were stuck in puddles of honey-like adhesive, some were crashing into their fellows as they milled about in drunken confusion, and others had simply exploded creating quite a distraction of body parts and sound.

The party neared the tear in the fabric of spacetime. The stomachs sheathed in scales followed closely behind, spraying gouts of acid that did them no harm but caused the ground to sizzle and melt as noxious fumes rose through the crisscross of the massive horizontal icicles. It would be a close jump for those on foot, but it seemed the Band of the Starry-Tiger would live to fight, or perhaps run, another day.

"We're going the wrong way." The old man remarked, gripping the tiger's fur to keep from falling off even has he struggled to not drop his chasme headed cane. No one paid him any mind.

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Only one casualty, if it

Only one casualty, if it could be called that. A perfect plan, its steps carefully delineated, one capable of defusing suspicion while obtaining the materials necessary for the Singularity. Surely a veteran of the Blood War could pull off such a stunt, and get himself killed in the proper manner. Or so they had said of their hero, who was now in a position to compromise all their hard earned secrets.

"You're telling me that the mercane took off his head." The (Honorary) Admiral had convened a council of her advisors, which was expected whenever a commanding officer died. In the case of a resurrectionist, this was usually forgone but expect Michel to break protocol even in absentia. Rhian's own head was throbbing with pain. She pushed at her temples in a circular motion. She sought the Cadence, but its rhythm was too far away for her to hear. There was nothing harmonic about this disaster, and it drove off all thoughts of calm.

"In truth it was one of those barbarous Sentinels that butchered him. They--meaning the mercane--they felt that given the lack of casualties, they needed some sort of display to belay the suspicisions of the poison dusk." The Imperial soldier looked down, his elven features paler than usual. Though in truth, it was Michel who should be here justifying himself. But as planned he had been killed, though he had not returned as scheduled. The artificer was dressed in purple and blue robes trimmed with sharp pink twined with soft orange. The twilight clothes of transient mourning, when those the ressurectionist loves are left awaiting the dawn of his return.

All his crew are garbed in such manner. I can't imagine him at command. She didn't care to think of the time when she believed he was capable of anything and everything.

"So General Michel felt the need to extemporaneously get himself decapitated. I suppose the lizardfolk would be angry to have such heavy losses--"

"Admiral", the man interrupted nervously,"there were no casualties at all. On either side. Well, save for the General of course." The elf stared at the ground but Rhian did not answer, waiting for him to finally respond to the silence and raise his head. She locked gazes with him.

"Everan Sunshadow, we are going to review these events and you will assist us by clarifying as needed. First, on your departure Michel had been given a plan approved by myself and these commanders before you. That plan did not include crashing a ship paid for by the Imperial Treasury into a populated city of Imperial citizens. I also understood that Mich--General Michel was supposed to approach from Union, disguised as a Sentinel.

In fact, I was led to believe that that was the central point of this convoluted plot. A traitor Sentinel steals the item slated for delivery, betraying the mercane and fleeing with the surviving attackers by gate-crashing the portal. So why don't we begin again, this time by helping me understand how the execution differed so greatly from my expectations."

The elf glanced around the room at her subordinates. A half-elf, a gnome, a dwarf, and one human beside Rhian. Their eyes betrayed no sympathy. All dressed in the council's white, amethyst buttons gilttering as they reflected the orb of golden light floating overheard. The orb was above the elf, and quite warm. Beads of sweat had spattered onto the floor.

"Admiral, upon our departure to Azzacri General Michel told us he had discussed the plan with you, and that you both had deemed it to be unacceptable. And so he made several alterations..."

"Such as?" This from the human, Rhian's whitebeared mentor. He sounded far too reasonable. Having been Michel's guru as well as hers, he took a certain pride that Michel had come back after so long. And from the Blood War no less. At his tone the elf visibly relaxed. The look in his hazel eyes retreated from their panic, though nervous sweat still trickled through the sylvan chestnut hair to run down his cheeks.

"He, and presumably yourselves, had felt that the plan called for too many potential casualties. The general decided that he would remain on board with us instead of entering into Union and taking on his disguise. His plan was to shield us within a shell of non-attention until the last possible second. He also placed various spells on the crew, ensuring they'd survive the crash--"

"The mercane were told to expect him in Union when his ship passed through Azzacri's crystal. They do not like last minute alterations to such delicate plans. They are similar to us in that regard." The gnome's utterly black orbs narrowed, as the scaly creature was already upset at being out of water. An aquatic variety of the bipedal race, she was against Michel the instant this council had taken her from her salt-water tank. The elf, obviously unused to Lady Qrrl'i's flaring gills and dismayed by her irriation, took a step back when he spoke next.

"The general, he possessed a mirror that he used to contact the mercane. He told them that he had been ordered to make a full attempt to reduce the casualties to one. In order to respect the Azzacri's citizenship in the Empire."

At those words, the dwarf slammed his hairy fist onto the table. The heat did not seem to bother him, though his head and face were covered in brown curls. The flushness on his face was solely the elf's work.

"Even if you came to us from the Inhuman Wars (the elf did not dare correct him), you should have realized how ridiculous that sounds! The lizards are isolationists. They refuse to desist in their barbaric sacrifices, and beyond that demand we let them continue their apparently holy slaughter of each other. Their recent contribution to actual civilization may be their only worthwhile achievement, and it had to be stolen! Only these rebels floating around us are less worthy of being considered citizens. I--"

"The Empire notes and appreciates your patriotism Yngvar. Sunshadow, the mercane had been given my orders, had they not?" If Rhian had not stopped him, the dwarf's personal hatred for the poison dusk could take hours to exhaust its self-expression. His diatribe was not without merit, as the other lizardfolk upon Azzacri were far more tractable.

"Yes Admiral, they had. The mercane, however, were more than eager to accept the general's plan. I suspect it was due to the fact that this way they could avoid taking responsibility for a wayward Sentinel." The elf's reasoning was sound, and no one on the council disputed this point.

"They naturally warmed to a plan where they could be deemed faultless, as all the attacks came from the poison dusk's side of the portal. I suppose that logic might have swayed the crew as well." The voice was that of Hakarn, her mentor. His defense of Michel irritated her, though his words carried a certain sense to them as well. A true leader must put aside her past. No matter how deep the wounds once ran.

"And yet the plan never called for an attack of Abyssal insects, itself a potential stain on the Empire's reputation." Lady Qrrl'i was exaggerating here, as it was well known that the Imperial School of Binders trafficked with unsavory powers, though the extent of these practices was unknown. During her years fighting various dissidents and terrorist rebels, she herself had likely sought divinations from the lower planars in times past.

"No...We ourselves are not sure why the general chose to abandon our relative state of invisibility." For all his fear at being called before the council, Sunshadow answered her with the professionalism of the engineer and artificer that he was. He seemed genuinely confused as to Michel's actions at that point.

It's possible Michel was confused as well. Or perhaps he thought to make things more interesting for himself. Rhian glanced down at her notes before continuing.

"And so these insects drove most of the guards away, or incapicitated them. Then your forces provided some kind of pantomime of a battle, after somehow being ensorcelled into believing that I would order a ship to be crashed into a city to avoid casualties." There were disdainful smirks around the room, and Yngvar snorted. The elf looked down again, perhaps realizing how stupid it sounded when put in those terms. But Michel had been so convincing, so willing to protect combatants on both sides. He was the only one here who could uphold his general's honor in the face of these ingrates' attacks.

"The general's magic...it made it seem--it made it possible. His intellect and adaptability are what make him one of your best. And he succeeded did he not?" Defending his lord, the artificer's spine straightened. He seemed to recall his years battling the goblinoids in his Unhuman War, and Rhian could see the shift in his aura. Sulfur to Blue. It almost seemed that they were seated before him.

"Do you understand that with your precious general's head, the poison dusk can draw back his spirit? That the interrogation of spirits is part of their lives' work?" The half-elf, Shiada, had finally spoken, a harsh whisper that restored a sense of authority to the council. Old and wizened, the high-priestess of the openly secret Weretiger Cult was perhaps the most unnerving. Though her irises were an unremarkable dark brown, when she blinked one saw--if only for a moment--the green feline eyes that had been painted onto her eyelids. The symbol of Ferrix. At times, one could almost swear they were lambent. Her grey hair was cropped short and gelled into into lazy spikes, the blush on her cheeks gathering in her wrinkles. She was as silly and as frigthening as the paeliryon devils of folklore.

"None of us knew the mercane would..." The elf had started a rebuttal but Yngvar interrupted yet again.

"They are the bloody mercane! They have one consideration, and it is not, I repeat *not*, the Empire! To be seen as attacking our own citizens, even those wretched poison dusk, the scandal would destabilize the current political climate. Especially after this ridiculous rebellion by the High Easterners. Surely you might have given a thought to the safety of the Empire you swore to give your life for. " This time, the elf would not be so easily browbeaten. He looked the dwarven commander in the eyes, and it was his calm anger that made his accuser back down. Rather than address the dwarf, he turned his eyes to meet with Rhian's, as though the rest of them were beneath him.

"Admiral, I put my faith in General Michel. Because of him, we have the coffin. Because of him, we approach the Singularity. I have trusted him and I still trust in him. I believe he will return to us."

"Then your faith has been poorly placed sirrah." Rhian noted. I know this Truth better than anyone.