Death and Demise

Screaming, the Holy Oracle of Prin clawed at her flesh, her ivory scales stained crimson as she drew blood from her arms and throat. Light blazed as a golden archway appeared, and the Guardian rushed through, a look of panic plain upon her face.

Taking the shaking xoran in her arms, Urandesea whispered soothing words and wrapped soft cloths about her body, crooning until the sobs began to cease. The oracle's eyes stared wide into the near-blinding light that surrounded them, and a hand clutched at Urandesea's wrist.

"Hark, egress in flux, the bescaled kin suffer," she uttered with passionless clarity. "Cradled in the cold arm of the offspring, the brood suffers in barren waste." Anger flared briefly in the girl's eyes, followed by despondence as she murmured, "Death, death, and demise."

Before Urandesea could speak, the oracle's head dropped to the side, her body limp, and she fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.

~ ~ ~

Several long days later, Urandesea stepped off a gangplank and into the harbour along Sapience's eastern shore. Accompanied by guardians, hunters, and one particularly mad but necessary priestess, she observed her surroundings with grim resolve. Somewhere in this unknown land they must find answers, she told herself. Someone would have to help.

~ ~ ~

The nearest settlement, Shastaan, was useless: its residents seemed preoccupied with the business of making and raising children, petty matters in the grander scheme of things. The xoran party moved on to the major highway and headed northward, finding themselves in Delos. Urandesea's sharp senses picked up the sound of voices, and with a commanding lead she headed toward them.

In the lavish reception chamber of the tailor's union they encountered siblings Sheetaa and Solfege Ashaela, jesters with the local Carnivalis Institute. The Ashaelas readily admitted their own limitations in the scholastic arena, but instead invited the xoran to their home city of Cyrene, where scholars and learned sages were certain to be found.

There, at last, in the Heart of the Vashnars, Urandesea began to feel a measure of hope take hold. After listening to the oracle's puzzling words, Sir Verrucht Dawyn, Cyrene's imperiate, suggested that they referred to the Vents of Hthrak, a barren wasteland surrounded by cold mountains in the far north. Without hesitation an expedition began to form.

~ ~ ~

Kayeil Inamora-Vorondil paused at the entrance to the scathing wasteland, adjusting to the heat and allowing the rest of the group to catch up. They numbered thirteen in total: herself, the six xoran, the Ashaela siblings, as well as Artanis and Cyrenians Fendo, Prydywn, and Zinka. She had guided them here as they requested, but would they find only disappointment? Nobody had ever heard of a xoran settlement in the area, of that she was sure.

Soon the Imperiate and Agrias de Feura arrived, having scouted ahead, and delivered the news: just ahead lay the corpses of several xoran. Urandesea marched onward to face the scene from the oracle's vision with stoic fortitude. None recognised the dead, a scattered assortment of male and female, elderly and youthful. Some of the bodies had been ravaged by the local wildlife; some bore wounds of unclear origin. Were they harmed before death, or after? And how did one exhibit signs of frostbite in the oppressive heat of the surrounding wasteland?

Encircling the neck of each body, the explorers noticed, was a collar of unknown material. Purplish in hue, it exhibited qualities not unlike iron, but was no metal any of them had ever seen. Reverently releasing the xoran from their cruel demise through fire, the bodies were burned to ash and three of the mysterious collars retrieved.

Leaving with more unanswered questions than they began with, the travelers returned south. Urandesea remains a guest of the Imperiate while investigation into the composition of these collars continues, the only clue to the origins of the mysterious xoran found in the north.

A Spreading Illness

As rumour began to spread of the strange discoveries in the north, the citizens of Cyrene were hard at work investigating the origin of the metal collars found around the necks of the deceased xoran. But even the devoted smiths of Phaestus could not determine what kind of metal comprised the collars. One was melted into an ingot and sent to the Cauda Pavonis for further scrutiny, but seldom have those enigmatic alchemists been forthcoming with answers.

Little did the adventurers know, a mysterious illness had taken hold of those who had come in contact with the corpses in Hthrak. While visiting Cyrene, Dannyl contracted the disease, unknowingly carrying it with him to Shallam; from there, raiding Ashtani spread it to their own city.

Onward the infection silently travelled, to Hashan and Mhaldor courtesy of unknowing hosts Twil and Katia. Many harbour the illness, experiencing no symptoms, but several xoran have already reported deadened senses and itching upon their skin.

Meanwhile, the last of the three collars retrieved from the north arrived via ship upon the isle of Prin, born by a priestess and two hunters... along with the spreading disease.

Broodfellows

Chieftain Krui,

Illness seems to be spreading on the continent, and I fear we may have contracted a disease from the bodies I reported in my last letter. I urge you to take necessary steps to identify and isolate any of our people who appear to be infected on the island.

More importantly, I have enclosed a copy of the writings recovered in the possession of a pair of young xoran, found dead earlier this day, also in the vicinity of the Vents of the Hthrak. Though the writer's language skills are stunted at best, you will note the terms broodparent, broodfellow, and so on. These terms have not been in common usage since our elders' elders were young, but I suspect it indicates some common history between us and these strangers. Still nothing concrete on the origin of these xoran, though you will see a few hints in the enclosed writings.

For the present, we are staying in a jungle city called Istarion.

Urandesea, Guardian of the Oracle, 608 AF.

~ ~ ~

[A thick roll of parchments is tied with a strip of leather.]

 

(Page 1)

Broodself scared. Broodself not can see the broodhome above us anymore! Everybody sick, and dead the Broodfellows are in a pile. Broodfather won't talk and her the Broodmother is so sick. Many Broodfellows are sick too.

Pa'lasi just reads the Book for ever and talks at herself.

A xoran infernal knight

A xoran infernal knight

(Page 2)

It is not fair. Ril says the Broodparents fitted. They were in the plan. They fitted. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Priest said and our Broodparents did! Broodself hates them. All the Ormir. I hope some big Dalamirs eat them or that we can put THEIR Broodparents here, and THEY see what it like is to be sick.

Proud Broodfellows fought with Ormir because of no choice! And Broodparents still knew their place, even when Broodfellows said they must join! And this is what they do to all Broodfellows, all in every place. They do this. They make us sick. They want the dying to happen in all the Brood.

Why. It is not fair.

(Page 3)

Pa'lasi did it! She the Broodparentsister maybe saved us! All her chanting and reading the Book, and she did it! The door that not is door is there. We are scared all of us to go but we dying our Broodfellows are. Some Broodfellows went through to find what on other the side of.

 

(Page 4)

Broodparentbrother Ar'thil made us come with him tonight, me and Ril. Broodself wanted to stay, but Broodmother told us to go. Our Broodfather wasn't even moving when we left, and our Broodmother was could even not stand. Where are we? It is cold freezing and we need food.

 

(Page 5)

Ril's nose stopped working. Broodself's is still good. Ril says that we can fix it here. In this new world. Broodself is very scared.

 

(Page 6)

Broodparentbrother Ar'thil went hunting for food and did come not back. Now there are just Broodself, Broodsister Ril, Broodparentsister Pa'lasi, Broodfellow Uth'bora.

 

(Page 7)

It is just us, and Broodsister Ril is getting sicker! Broodparentsister Pa'lasi and Broodfellow Uth'bora were fighting with horned and scary monsters and told to us to run so we did. Broodself saw Pa'lasi die but Broodfellow Uth'bora fighted still.

 

(Page 8)

Broodsister Ril! She is so sick, but at least the cold freezing is less here.

 

(Page 9)

They are chasing us but Broodself is not strong enough to carry Broodsister Ril. Broodself is so scared. Broodsister Ril's eyes are closed and Broodself is alone. Broodself is not without Brood.

Elara save the Brood. If Broodself spirit fights after death, Broodself find Balmet and Broodself will KILL and then Broodself will kill Ormir and maybe even Dalamirs. Then Broodself rest.

Broodself so cold and the darkness comes. Broodself misses the two eyesuns at Home. Broodself misses resting in safe caves with Broodparents and Broodmates.

Noises. Broodsister Ril does not breathe. They find Broodself. Goodbye.

Origin of the Xoran

Chieftain Krui,

I write to you filled both with horror and with awe. A magical portal has been discovered in the far north, only a short distance west of this place called Hthrak. It leads to some world that is somehow apart from ours, and it is from there that these distant xoran kin must have emerged. But it is a gruesome place of death: a burial chamber filled with thousands of the dead. Even now the bodies are being dragged away from the most massive pile, in hopes of unblocking what appears to be a tunnel, so that we may exit the underground.

Enclosed you will find a copy of the writings discovered among the dead. It appears to be sacred to the xoran here... and all signs indicate that the words, if they hold truth, document the origins of our race.

Urandesea, Guardian of the Oracle, year 608 A.F.

~~~

A few thousand years ago, Elara - one of the Offspring - was experimenting with reaching across space. As she opened one of the portals, a giant scaled hand reached through, grabbed her, and she disappeared from all Achaean knowledge until the pages from her journal, below, were found.

From Elara's journal:

 

14th of Scarlatan, year 314 of the Calliston calendar

Things are going to get rocky I think. Sahart and Glanos seem to have both fallen for Enalia and despite the best advice from Carme and myself, they seem bound and determined to both dock at her port. It can't end well.

 

17th of Scarlatan, year 314 of the Calliston calendar

By the rape of Maya this is almost too much! The last six new places I've found to open portals to have been either dead worlds as far as I could tell, or were completely uninhabitable. Last night I found somewhere that burned my hand, as if with acid or noxious venom, as soon as I stuck my hand through the edges. It's still raw, offensive to look at, and aches.

I will find Lysithea, but I quail to think of how many years or decades of searching it may take me.

 

24th of Scarlatan, year 314 of the Calliston calendar

I think I've found a promising new world. I opened a portal through briefly today and after a stick survived being thrust through and brought back without damage, I risked my right hand. With direst caution, I then put my head through to see what I could see. What I saw could have been part of our world. The air looked clear and felt cool. I took a small experimental breath and quickly withdrew in case the atmosphere was unbreathable and caused me to lose consciousness. Nothing! If breathing the air there is dangerous, I've not felt the effects of it yet. I pray that nothing pernicious has lodged itself in my lungs.

Seeing as the portal appeared to be over solid ground, I put my head through again, looked around, and stepped out. Life everywhere! Plants, things that are perhaps the equivalent of our trees, small creatures like insects, creatures soaring in the sky.

But the differences! I approached what appeared to be a sturdy oak, only to find its branches swaying independently of any wind, as if they were supple and alive. The birds in the skies appeared to lack feathers, and looked more like bats than birds, though without hair.

I saw something like a bee, which, upon flying up to me, showed me that it was nothing like a bee. Instead of insectoid, it looked like a tiny, hairy vole with heavily-bristled wings. Something large moved under the surface of the lake, but I saw only a blast of air and triple fins pierce the surface.

And what I can only call snakes and lizards were everywhere! Tiny snakes darted into holes in the ground in advance of my approach everywhere. Lizards climbed trees and camouflaged themselves on the trunks and in the highest reaches of the branches, but they often had more legs than the reptiles we're accustomed to seeing. I swear I saw one "lizard" that must have had dozens of legs, like a centipede.

As I wandered around the immediate area, careful to always keep my exit home in sight, I found a trail developed enough and wide enough that, in our world at least, would only be made by intelligent beings.

Seeing this, I became very nervous If there were intelligent species here, they were potentially close-by. If I encountered any, it's impossible to know what their reaction or disposition towards me might be. It was time to leave, so exited through the portal.

But I'll be back.

 

2nd of Eron, year 314 of the Calliston calendar

I'm exhausted. I opened four portals today to the world I found three days ago. Nothing. Every one opened either in solid rock and soil, or underwater. Tomorrow, I'm going to rest and have a talk with Enalia about the boys.

 

2nd day of Captivity

They were waiting for me. I don't know how.

 

5th day of Captivity

It was on the 4th of Eron that I opened a door to this accursed world again. This time, Himalia and Ledo were with me, for I feared to encounter the natives of this new world alone. I opened the portal using the piece of the sceptre as they watched, and a heartbeat later I was violently yanked through it. My concentration was disrupted and the portal closed before Himalia or Ledo could do anything.

Oh no no, not again. The scaly bastards are coming for me again. Gods help me.

 

8th day of Captivity

They took everything from me but my journal, which is bound to me and spelled to hide itself from prying eyes. That spell was meant to allow me to keep my private thoughts private from even Carme, and it is all I have left. I must write with my own fingernails, wetted with my own blood.

 

13th day of Captivity

They keep me locked in here, in the dark. They've tortured me, but I can't understand what they're saying. I don't know why they're doing this, but I'm not sure if I can stand much more of this. I live naked, in my own shit and urine, chained to the floor. Infected sores from lying in filth cover my legs and backside. When I breathe, it feels like someone's jabbing a dagger in my insides, so I think I have a broken rib, and I hurt all over. Last night I was startled awake by one of the vermin I occasionally spy. It was gnawing on my calf.

I'm starving. I've had nothing but water since I was captured.

I miss Carme so much. Why was finding Lysithea so important to me?

 

16th day of Captivity

One of the bigger scaly bastards came to me today. He had a light of some kind with him, and he just stood in my cell looking down at me. He was huge - at least seven feet tall, and strong-looking. I screamed and cried, I spit and hurled threats. I begged.

It made no difference. He turned, put out the light, and walked out.

 

18th day of Captivity

The hunger broke me today. When one of the vermin came to feed on me, I crushed it with my chain and ate it. It was like a lizard with bristly hair. I could swallow only two bites before I began to retch.

 

22nd day of Captivity

If I could will myself to die, I would, without a second thought. I believed I knew what it was to be filthy, but now I know what it is to be wholly unclean. They were inside of me, and others stood around me, watching me until they finished. I could feel their dry scaly skin rubbing on mine as their disgusting tongues flicked in and out in rhythm to their movements.

Please, by all the Gods, someone help me.

 

24th day of Captivity

Yesterday I was moved. They came to my cell and I'm not proud to say that my bowels voided themselves when I saw them in the doorway. I've never known terror like this in my life.

But they weren't here to do that again, thank Maya. They just watched me while one of them appeared to cast a spell - at the least, his reptilian eyes shut and he looked to be chanting something.

 

Date Unknown - Estimated 2 months since capture

I don't know how long it's been since I wrote. The only contact I have is at feeding time. At least they feed me now, though it's always raw meat. I can hold it down now, but at first the pain from the stomach cramps was worse than anything I've ever endured.

 

Date Unknown - Maybe five months since capture

By the mother. Something is alive inside me. I can feel it moving. I think I'm pregnant.

 

Date Unknown - 8 months since capture

They come to me every day and examine me like a piece of meat. This thing inside of me must mean something to them. I want it to die. I want anything that will deny my captors something they want. I would slay
them and everything they love, everything they've ever cared about, everything their eyes have ever touched if I could.

 

Date Unknown - 9 months since capture

I gave birth yesterday. Six of them. Small, scaly, and blind. I don't know what to feel. I'm not sure if I'm glad I survived it. With the amount of blood on the floor, I'm surprised I did.

I had planned to kill them if I lived through the birth... but I can't. I can't kill them anymore than I could have left Glanos to die of exposure when he was born a sickly child.

They're mine.

 

Date Unknown - 2 months after giving birth

It's incredible how quickly they grow. Their eyes opened today. It's even more incredible that I can produce any milk for them. I haven't seen a mirror since I was kidnapped to this place, wherever it is, but I'm so emaciated it's a wonder that they get anything when they suckle.

The scaly bastards visit me less often now, but they pay me almost no attention. They're intent on examining my children though. Every time they touch one I want to rip out the bastard's throat. Get your hands off my children, you damned dirty lizards.

 

Date Unknown - 6 months after giving birth

I can't believe it. The one I call Sinlana spoke today. She called me mommy. I cried and cried when she did that. It was one of the only moments of pure joy I've experienced since being taken here.

 

Date Unknown - 10 months after giving birth

Their development is much faster than a human's. Only maybe 10 months old and they're putting together complete sentences and asking questions. Today, little Ashti asked me what's on the other side of the door. I wept when I told him I didn't know.

My world has become so small.

 

Date Unknown - 12 months after giving birth

They came to me today. Five of them. Two of the really big ones and three of the others. They took my babies. All of them. Sinlana, Ashti, Ledon, Crensa, Onolor, and Gema. I hurled my own excrement at the bastards and one of them hit me so hard I blacked out. They must have beat me while I was unconscious, because I hurt all over.

 

Date Unknown - 12 months after giving birth

I've been coughing up blood today. I think something's broken inside me.

 

Date Unknown - 12 months after giving birth

They've brought me no food and no water for three days. Whether my internal injuries kill me before dehydration does is an ongoing debate between the voices I hear while I lie, alone, in the dark.

One more day, maybe two. It's not how I thought to end my life. Is my love looking for me? Will he ever know what happened to me?

What are the bastards doing with my children?

 

Date Unknown - 12 months after giving birth

My children, I know you'll never read this, but as I die quietly, surrounded by nothing but inky blackness, I hope to talk to you anyway.

My mother and my father were like you - born of violence. A new race, never seen before. Brave and intrepid, they were able to forge a life for themselves despite having no forebears that faced an existence like theirs. Their names were Callisto and Sinope, and they were the bravest people I've ever known barring possibly my grandmother, Maya.

I can't even begin to predict what your lives will be like. I don't know why the bastards bred me or why they took you, but I know that you're free as long as you don't let your mind be chained.

Be strong. Be free.

And by the power of Ayar, avenge me. Avenge me!

 

Date Unknown - 12 months after birth

What do the triggerfish sing of when the suns dance?

Blackened soul brings thoughts of a distant trance,

founded by my love in life's lovely plan.

Loss is rendered joy and recedes in the memories of Man.

My children, my children, the future is cold, so do not fail.

Grant yourselves the freedom to savour

the wonders that lie beyond the Veil.

~~~

Other letters found with Elara's journal:

 

Letters from Broodfellow C'nop, 304 years AD

Broodfellows,

We must us all remember the speaks of Elara and keep them from the Ormyrr. By the luck only we found the Book. Learn it but keep it secret.

The Bastards must never find it.

 

Letters from Broodfellow C'nop, 309 AD

Broodfellows,

Found and put to the pain was Broodfellow As'ti. We do not believe think she the gave the location where meet happens.

 

Letters from Broodfellow C'nop, 313 AD

Broodfellows,

The speak of Elara reminds us to ever seek freedom. Our minds are free.

 

Reflections on Elara IV, by Broodprophet Pha'las, 1472 AD

Her Glory not does free us from the dark chains of the Ormyrr. The will of the Brood will free us. But it is Her courage that grants us strength.

Elara bless us all.

 

Reflections on Elara XII, by Broodprophet Pha'las, 1486 AD

Tails and eyesuns, both in a row, bringing solace and grey powers

to Krenindala and its Dala'myrr-wrought pale tower.

 

Elara's Transcendence, Book 1, Verse 4, by Broodprophet E'lana, 3702 AD

Great is the test faith of our Mother. The alien God reeks of betrayal. Half of the Brood takes he, promising false power, his eyes of dusk lying with glances all.

 

Elara's Transcendence, Book 3, Verse 6, by Broodprophet E'lana, 3703 AD

The dusk God has stolen our Broodfellows. The Ormyrr show contempt they have for the Brood. Half our people. Gone dead. Murdered.

But Ormyrr are deceived by the dusk.

 

Legacy of the Mother, part 2 - Broodwarrior An'irith, 3704 AD

We met Ormyrr the on the plains near the Falls of Thim. In the centre the Brood held and off the field driven were the Bastards.

 

Legacy of the Mother, part 5 - Broodwarrior An'irith, 3704 AD

No appetite do I have. Ash is my food and my battlesmell is broken.

 

Legacy of the Mother, part 7 - Broodwarior An'irith, 3704 AD

I am sick. Scales of mine fall off and I am tired so much. Many others died have.

Elara save this Broodself and Broodfellows.

The Portal to Krenindala

Far to the north, in the mountains west of the Vents of Hthrak, a portal stands open, connecting our world to another. Beyond lies Krenindala, a place inhabited by draconic Dala'myrr and the violent ormyrr race: progenitors, slavemasters, and would-be exterminators of the xoran.

From the first moment Achaeans stepped foot upon the dusty surface of Krenindala, they were met with open hostility. Many fell to brutal attacks by the ormyrr and Dala'myrr before retreating to the safety of the underground. But even that is no longer safe, as the past months have seen a host of ormyrr steadily encroaching upon the portal's subterranean location, carefully positioned in unassailable numbers.

In our own world, disease continues to spread among the xoran, carried to Achaea by the few refugees who escaped Krenindala before their tragic end. Thus far symptoms have been minor, but rumours of advanced illness are beginning to emerge... a growing concern for Achaeans, if the fate of Krenindala's xoran is any indication.

The Death of Ashaxei

On the distant world of Krenindala, the voices of ormyrr clamoured as one, incited to a riotous frenzy as the Dala'myrr moved beneath their feet. The ground shuddered as the great wyrms drew closer to their destination...

Moments later, amidst the frozen tundra, a portal, solitary and unguarded, swelled as a trio of gargantuan, armoured creatures burst forth into our world. Moving in unison, the three behemoths took to the skies, swimming southward through the air with sinuous grace. As they neared the Granite Hills, the monstrous trio dove into the earth, vanishing beneath the rock, leaving not a trace of their passage.

~ ~ ~

Meanwhile, in the mountain village of Caer Witrin, a humble atavian stood ready to accept an extraordinary gift from the white dragon, Ashaxei. At her side stood Han-Tolneth, the Dragonmaster, who shifted uncomfortably at the unfamiliar sight upon the northern horizon. Still, he remained respectfully silent as Ashaxei continued, imparting wise words to Vincenzio Vallah Le'Murzen.

A coruscating nimbus of power surrounded Ashaxei, at first brilliant white, then shifting to inky black as it began to wash over Vincenzio, pouring into his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears with a deafening roar as he was imbued with the powers of a greater dragon.

Ashaxei unfurled her wings, rising up to her full height and towering over the surroundings as she spoke: "It is done. I welcome you to my brood, Vincenzio."

No sooner had the words left the mouth of the dragon when, without preamble, a massive, multi-segmented creature erupted from beneath Ashaxei, tossing her into the heavens like a rag doll. Shrieking in triumph, the Dala'myrr launched itself skyward in pursuit, followed by two more of its kin.

In horror did those upon the ground watch as the distance closed between the Dala'myrr and the disoriented dragon. The first caught up to Ashaxei and ripped into her hindquarters, severing her right limb and sending a sheet of crimson blood raining down from the sky.

Roaring in pain, Ashaxei redoubled her efforts, gaining distance and altitude against her foes. A wave of concussive power tore through the firmament as she reared back and unleashed her ferocious breath, but the wyrms swerved clear of the blast and countered with their own.

Clouds of acidic gas tore toward Ashaxei, boiling away the delicate membranes of her wings as she struggled to remain aloft. Tearing open the Veil Extant, she made a final, desperate attempt to flee, but before the white dragon could pass between the worlds she was overcome by a Dala'myrr, who impaled her upon a razor sharp mandible. Roaring in triumph, the wyrms circled in the skies, tossing Ashaxei's broken body away and disappearing in the firmament.

Stunned, the world continued to watch as the lifeless white dragon fell toward the earth like a meteor, trailing scales that burned red-hot as she plummeted toward the Mhojave Desert and the unsuspecting settlement of El'Jazira. In a moment of terrible finality, the dragon landed in the desert's heart, sending forth a powerful explosion that drove a plume of sand and glowing embers high into the air, raining down like hot tears for the tragic passing of one of history's greatest legends.

A mighty Dala'myrr

A mighty Dala'myrr

The Loss of El'Jazira

Ahmed could hear the screams of his people. Rushing outside of his father's tent, he saw that El'Jazira was in chaos. Jazirans ran helter-skelter throughout the town, dodging out of the way of panicked horses and stampeding camels, and while the ganissary guards were making attempts to keep order, he could see that their eyes were just as terrified as those around them.

A small whimper caught his attention, and Ahmed turned to see a small child, frozen with fear, staring up at the sky. Shading his eyes, he glanced upward and beheld not the sun, but a flaming mass barrelling down toward the earth. Without thinking, he snatched the child into his arms and ran as fast as he could, away from the centre of the shadow that was quickly enveloping the village.

A split second later, a deafening crash sounded through the village, and Ahmed felt the eerie sensation of being lifted off the ground. "So this is how atavians fly..." were his last thoughts before all was blotted out.

~ ~ ~

He awoke some time later amid a tangle of tent canvases. The whimpering child still lay in his arms, scraped and bruised, but otherwise unharmed. Pressing his hand to his forehead to ease a pounding ache, Ahmed stood and, with a chill, took in a scene of utter devastation. Hundreds of tents and buildings, once the prosperous village of El'Jazira, were now gone, replaced by a smoking pit in the desert.

Ahmed could feel the eyes of the few survivors upon him as he stepped carefully through the remnants of the town, nearing the edge of the crater. Drawing shaky breaths he peered over into the abyss, mesmerized by the sight of twisting, crystalline formations that spiraled up from the ground where the force of Ashaxei's landing had turned sand to glass.

"How could such beauty come from such tragedy?" he thought to himself as he turned back to his people, tallying in his head the toll that had been taken. Dozens were lost, from his father, the esteemed Sheik Abd el'Salam, to the humble workers of the village's once-thriving tanning industry. But the people of the desert are hardy, and they will carry on.

Ashaxei's Story

With the death of his oldest friend, Ashaxei, Han-Tolneth sobbed and wept like a broken man. Inconsolable, he urged the Achaeans around him to search for the site where the Dragon fell, hoping beyond reason that she might yet live. But when he laid eyes upon the giant crater where much of El'Jazira had been, he knew she was gone.

Han-Tolneth raged and shouted to all who would listen that the scales had been tipped this day, and that only blood would balance them again. Finally his grief overcame his anger. Calm but disheartened, he began to speak of secrets that he and Ashaxei had long kept from the world. Over one hundred adventurers stood, silent, hearing for the first time the story of how Dragons came to be.

~ ~ ~

"She was my friend, my closest companion," Han-Tolneth started, speaking of the white Dragon with reverence. "The very soul of Dragonhood. And now she's parted the Veil for the last time, hunted for the last time, bestowed Dragonhood on her last mortal. The world is poorer for it."

"But Ashaxei also had her secrets," continued the Dragonmaster, taking a deep breath. "When Ayar created the universe, He built its most fundamental foundations around what we call the Fire Behind the Flame. Few mortals have heard even rumour of its existence, and the Gods themselves only learned of it when Agatheis summoned forth the Flame of Yggdrasil. I and the other Aldar only learned of it when I encountered the great Dragons before the battle at Nishnatoba. It was that day I met Ashaxei."

Han-Tolneth's voice broke as he spoke the name of his companion, but bravely he continued, explaining the nature of the Fire behind the Flame, which underpins the spark of life itself. Without it, he emphasised, the universe would be nought but Ayar and unliving minerals and gases. Even the Gods depend upon it for their very existence. The Aldar learned of all this and more when they encountered Dragons for the first time, for tied to the Flame's creation was an extraordinary side effect, though whether it was intended or not remains unknown. As the Fire Behind the Flame was brought into being, so were two races of creatures, one familiar to mortalkind as Dragons, and another, not encountered until recently: the Dala'myrr.

"On the world of Starhome, or 'Krenindala' in the language of Dragons, they were born," spoke Han-Tolneth, his voice filled with awe. "Opposite poles of the power of the Fire. Or, perhaps, two sides of the key to the logical order of the power of the Fire. Somehow, the Dragons and Dala'myrr, perhaps both or perhaps just one of them, seem to be tied into maintaining the delicate web of perfect push and pull, ebb and flow of the basest of powers.

"Now, as you know, there are many colours of Dragon. But in the beginning there was only one white Dragon: Sycaerunax, Ashaxei's father. I never had the honour of meeting him, but Ashaxei told me much of him. It was within Sycaerunax that the very essence... the soul of Dragonhood resided.

"As for the Dala'myrr, it is more complicated. There was, as far as Ashaxei knew, no equivalent to her or her father amongst them.

"What the Dala'myrr believed, and of this the knowledge of Dragons is very limited, was that the soul of their race awaited them in some distant future. Ashaxei spoke of this future soul as having a name: Bal'met. They think, Ashaxei believed, of Bal'met as the one true God, and that He is willing them, from the future, to summon Him into existence, so that He might will them to summon Him, so that they may summon Him, and so on."

As bystanders looked at each other with puzzled expressions, Han-Tolneth gave a rueful smile. "I don't pretend to understand the apparent paradox," he cautioned, "but the Dala'myrr are singularly devoted to this goal. They believe, in fact, that Bal'met is literally the future incarnation of the Fire Behind The Flame, and that they are the perfect expression of it and Him."

"As for the ormyrr that you've encountered, they appear to be to Dala'myrr as a caterpillar is to a butterfly." At these words, a few snorts of bemusement could be heard from the crowd.

"That comparison has limited utility," he added. "Few ormyrr survive long enough to become Dala'myrr, and as far as Ashaxei was aware, only the eldest of the ormyrr priesthood undergo the ritual of transformation."

From the start, Han-Tolneth related, Dragons and Dala'myrr were bitter enemies. Dragons, with their power of flight, ruled the skies of Starhome. Confined to the planet's surface and interior were the ormyrr and Dala'myrr: giant wyrms who could burrow with ease through solid rock. For ages, all was kept in balance.

"And then," sighed Han-Tolneth, "Elara began using her piece of the sceptre of divinity, searching for Lysithea. She probed numerous worlds before disappearing, but none of us knew where she went. Everybody assumed she had perished. On encountering Ashaxei and the Dragons, she told us their story, and the pieces fit.

"When Elara was taken by the ormyrr, they stripped her of her piece of the sceptre. They appear to have given it to the Dala'myrr, who used it to grant themselves the power to burrow through the air... or, effectively, to fly. With this ability, the Dala'myrr were able to quickly begin the process of overwhelming the Dragons."

Soberly Han-Tolneth continued. "It was clear that Krenindala was lost to Sycaerunax, his now-daughter Ashaxei, and the rest of their kin. Their numbers had been decimated and they had no refuge from the constant Dala'myrr assaults. Sycaerunax, seeing that all was lost, prepared to do something he had never attempted.

"In his desperation, he summoned all his inner reserves and the essence of Dragonhood itself. Focusing his battle-forged iron will, he began to feel -behind- the air, seeking to grasp the very fabric of reality. For tense minutes, Ashaxei and the others waited and watched.

"Finally, success! A thunderous roar accompanied by the alien sound of existence being split asunder, and a rift appeared, ragged with cascading energy. Sycaerunax had done it, and his people were filled with sudden, unexpected hope.

"And at just that moment, the Dala'myrr launched what would be their final assault on the Dragons of Starhome. The Dragonfather ordered Ashaxei and the other Dragons to flee, now!

"Sycaerunax and his chief lieutenants were able to hold off the Dala'myrr, but suffered terribly for it and began to fall as the Dragons poured one by one through the small rift.

"Ashaxei often used to relate the last memory she had of her father," Han-Tolneth said, brushing a tear from his eye. "Of seeing him swarmed by Dala'myrr, their mandibles clacking in hellish triumph. Both of his wings were torn, he bled from wounds all about his body, and one eye had been taken by a Dala'myrr claw.

"His eyes met hers for one last moment before he closed the portal, saving the last of the Dragons with his life. With his death, the soul of Dragonhood passed to Ashaxei, but neither she nor any of her fellow Dragons knew where they were, for there had been no time. She was never even sure if her father had known where the rift would lead to, but anywhere was better than in the eye of the Dala'myrr storm.

"Ashaxei and her kin were devastated. Lost... ashamed... they had left behind the soul of their race to die, and fled their rightful homeworld." Wistfully, Han-Tolneth turned his eyes to the skies, telling of his first encounter with the Dragons during the War of Humanity, and his initial fear that they were an attack by the Triumvirate.

"It was quickly clear that wasn't the case, however," he explained. "They were tattered and beaten down. Their wings were shredded and many had missing scales. And yet the power in them was immense and immediately obvious."

Han-Tolneth was filled with awe as he exclaimed, "They were so vital! So primal! Even in the depths of her anguish, Ashaxei shone like the brightest star in the firmament.

"They told us their story. They told us of their creation, of their enemies, and of their world. Ashaxei wept. They all did. The only patriarch they'd ever known was dead, and Krenindala, their birthplace and homeworld since nearly the beginning of time, was lost to them. And we told them our story. We told them of the Gods, and of the Triumvirate.

"We resolved to help each other. We would convince the Gods to grant them a new home, while they would lend their strength to the war against the Triumvirate after a short period to recover their strength and heal their wounds. And we would hide their shame."

As he concluded his words, Han-Tolneth's steady voice became stronger, angrier. "Ashaxei's soul cries out for vengeance!" he lamented. "Her thirst must be sated! The scales must be balanced!"

~ ~ ~

The story told by the Dragonmaster had stunned all witnesses into silence, but Han-Tolneth was not finished. "Four hundred years ago, when the xoran appeared on Sapience after the Death's Heart incident, I took note, but thought it simply another mystery in a universe of them," he said. "But it's clear now that they are related. How they got here four hundred years ago, I do not understand, but I wager their story is not finished."

As the shock of Han-Tolneth's words began to wear off, onlookers began to pledge their assistance, swearing vengeance against the Dala'myrr assassins. Eagerly, multiple bands of travellers began to journey north, to the tundra where the portal to Krenindala still stood open.

There they faced more than a hundred ormyrr who had been brought into position outside the portal. Assault after assault was launched against the intruders, but the results were devastating for the Achaeans. Though they took many ormyrr with them, they perished in great numbers.

Seeing that a quick assault on Krenindala was impractical or impossible for the time being, Han-Tolneth's thoughts turned again to his despair. Amami Al'Jafri kindly led the grieving Celani back to El'Jazira, where they found Dortheron Covraci awaiting among survivors from the desert village. Drawing comfort from both Amami and Dortheron, Han-Tolneth made his way into the crater.

Wandering among the crystalline formations jutting from the earth in the crater, feeling the lingering spirit of his fallen companion, Han-Tolneth put forth his will and raised a flowing glass construction from the sand: Ashaxei's Mirror, a monument to the beloved Dragon's memory.

~~~

Note on Death's Heart

The Death's Heart Saga refers to a series of events surrounding a scheme by Twilight, the God of Darkness, in the early 240s to slay Thoth and steal the Death God's essence. One of the major events of the Modern Age (OOC: the time since Achaea opened to players), Death's Heart laid the foundation for a great deal of conflict in years to come.

During this series of events, Twilight secretly went to Krenindala and bargained with the ormyrr and Dala'myrr: He would give them another piece of the Sceptre of Divinity in return for half the Xoran race.

They agreed, Twilight took possession of half of the Xoran, and simply cheated the ormyrr and Dala'myrr, laughing and refusing to honor His side of the bargain.

On bringing the xoran to Achaea, Twilight sacrificed virtually all of the xoran in order to increase the power of Death's Heart. The only survivors were very young children whose parents had managed to hide them upon first being brought through to Sapience.

With no understanding of where they came from or what their parents went through, these orphaned xoran became the first on Sapience.

Homeward Bound

Chieftain Krui,

These past days have been strenuous for our party, as we have watched and waited within the far north. The Tsol'dasi of this jungle city have been accommodating to us, despite their wariness toward strangers, and though they have strong knowledge of magic, they have been unable to assist with our disease. Consequently, my guardians and I have resolved to return to Prin, since our original business of seeking out the Oracle's vision has concluded. We set out early this morning and were able to post this letter from Delos, the bustling city where we were able to replenish our supplies. No doubt the letter will arrive in Prin before our ship, but we should be only a few days behind it.

There are a few other things I should mention. Small embers are being found in the aftermath of the white dragon's death, highly coveted by the people of the mainland. They are not merely smouldering coals, of course... I am told they burn with heatless primal fire, something deep and mystical, and they grant unusual powers to those who bear them. Take heed, however. The dreaded ormyrr I mentioned in my previous letters are in search of these embers as well. We have not encountered any ourselves, but we have heard tales of their ruthless greed for these embers; they have no qualms about murder to achieve this end. Squads of these ormyrr have been sighted all over the mainland, and I can only hope they do not journey to Prin.

My contacts have also reported that, from time to time, the Flame of Yggdrasil has been sputtering and waning. It still burns within the World Tree, but some are having trouble successfully immolating bodies for resurrection. More troubling, it seems that some of the brave adventurers who periodically undergo the Trial of Rebirth... are not reborn in the Flame as expected, but perish as charred corpses! Please do what you can to prevent the youth of Prin from setting out on this dangerous path.

Urandesea, Guardian of the Oracle, year 609 AF

The Waning Flame of Yggdrasil

Far to the south, a pristine lake now lies cradled amidst the sands of the Mhojave desert. Beneath the sparkling waters, within the glass formation known as Ashaxei's Mirror, the final memories of the great white dragon are reflected in an endless tableau, reminding all who enter of her tragic end.

The aftermath of Ashaxei's death continues to resonate throughout the world. Deep within the heart of Yggdrasil, the eternal flame upon which all life depends sputters and wavers. Frost has formed upon the branches of the World Tree, and Achaeans across all continents felt a sudden chill when, suddenly, a deep, intense thrum filled the air, and a powerful shockwave radiated outward from Yggdrasil.

Fearing the flame had been completely extinguished, adventurers cautiously approached Yggdrasil. With relief they discovered that the flame still burns, though weakly, but its power to resurrect the fallen by immolation lies inert.

Shrines of the Dala'myrr

Under cover of night, a party of Mhaldorians moved with swift determination through the Siroccian Mountains. Following orders directly from the mouths of the Twin Lords of Evil, the group visited shrine after shrine within the area, spreading a foul corruption at each sacred location. Finally, only one shrine remained, one which stood atop the highest peak in the range: the Shrine of Ascension.

Without hesitation, the group approached the shrine of Maya, laying their malevolent hands upon its surface. Almost instantly the shrine began to mutate, shuddering as a foul blight rolled over its surface, moulding it into the form of a sinuous Dala'myrr.

As the shrine to the Great Mother was befouled, a hush fell over the mountains. From the far north of Sapience, the terrible form of a Dala'myrr appeared in the night sky, parting the clouds as it swam southward through the firmament. Pausing to circle above the Siroccians, the creature gave a sibilant hiss of pleasure before turning and vanishing into the gathering clouds.

The Rise of Bal'met

Deep within the heart of Sapience, a chorus of ormyrr voices rose up in a cacophonous cry. The ground rumbled beneath their feet, the tremors felt across the vast continents of the world.

As onlookers turned their eyes to the heavens, a dozen Dala'myrr swam languidly through the firmament, converging above the Siroccian Mountains and circling the Shrine of Ascension.

Those who dared ascend the mountain peak, which for days had been crawling with patrols of the fearsome ormyrr and their Mhaldorian accomplices, stood back and watched as an untouchable group of ormyrr priests chanted unintelligibly.

Suddenly, the spectators were thrown from their feet. The mountains shuddered and groaned, and five colossal Dala'myrr burst forth from the ground, climbing upward into the sky, where they remained suspended like five living towers above the Shrine of Ascension, their bodies undulating in time with the rhythm of the ormyrr priests' chanting.

One rasping voice rose above the rest, shouting, "Hear our pleas, Bal'met! We make these offerings to You! Ashaxei fell to your servants, as did Sycaerunax before her. These embers, their essence, we offer to You!"

A raging column of white flame surged upward from the Shrine of Ascension, illuminating the night with a ghostly brilliance, and the circling Dala'myrr cast long shadows that spread across the land.

"Hear our pleas, Bal'met!" shouted the priest. "We make these offerings to You! Ashaxei fell to your servants, as did Sycaerunax before her. These remnants of the dragon spirit, we offer to You!"

Churning and twisting, the column of flames became a slowly spinning vortex. Amidst the primal fire, a multitude of dragon spirits circled with grace and utter despondence, confined by the looming Dala'myrr.

Then, with a cacophony of clacking mandibles and a thready, high-pitched keening, one of the great wyrms reared and dove into the flaming vortex, grasping a dragon spirit firmly in its mandibles and consuming the apparition. One by one the others followed, and with each apparition consumed, the inferno darkened, until it was stained a bloody red.

"Across time we call You, Lord of Krenindala! We unite the sacred and the profane, Dala'myrr and dragon! By our lives and our offerings may Your fathomless will be manifest!"

As the priest fervently continued his cries, the pillar of fire rising from the Shrine of Ascension wavered, and a dark, shadowy figure became visible at its heart. Dwarfing the colossal Dala'myrr that swam around it, the entity's presence moved the wyrms to writhe through the skies with religious ecstasy.

Spreading two arms outward, the spectre began to draw the conflagration inward, and the raging inferno was devoured by the dark shadows. As the fire was consumed, the baleful presence grew steadily, towering above the Dala'myrr, becoming a recognisable deity that threw wide His arms, unleashing a terrifying cry.

Screeching voices twined together into a discordant cacophony as Bal'met roared, "I...AM!"

Shrieking in delight, the Dala'myrr turned within the skies and dove into the earth, wholly devouring the ormyrr priests as they burrowed into the bedrock, leaving the mountain plateau scarred and mutilated in their wake.

The world was shaken, and the Garden of the Gods showed its distress. "What bargain have you struck, Shaitan and Apollyon?" questioned Agatheis. "This is foul, even for you."

The crushing voice of Shaitan, God of Evil rumbled across the lands in response, "You pathetic wretches, you will know suffering and oppression at the hands of Bal'met, Our perfect weapon."

"You have tipped Your hand too far!" came the bold cry of Ourania, Goddess of the Moon. Moments later the sentiment was echoed by Mithraea, Goddess of the Sun as she proclaimed, "For once, Moon and Sun speak as one. This will not stand."

"There you are right," came the sinister voice of Apollyon. "I suggest that You kneel. We have only just begun."

Coldly, the Lord of Oblivion voiced a warning. "Perhaps you mistake yourselves, Lords of the West," Babel asserted. "Or do you seek to take up a jade throne long vacant?"

The gods continued to trade words above the calamitous carnage that now ensued within the Siroccian Mountains, as fighting erupted between the Mhaldorians, the ormyrr, and all who oppose them.

Cower in fear, Achaea, for the god Bal'met has risen!

Hermes' Gamble

Barely a month had passed since the summoning of Bal'met when the heraldic voice of Hermes, the Messenger, boomed across the heavens.

"Ah, Bal'met," he greeted the newly formed god. "You've forced Your way into the most exclusive of clubs, the Garden of the Gods! Your gamble with the Twin Lords makes Me proud! Quite a risky game You play with those two... care to double down?"

Silence weighed heavily upon the heavens, and no response was heard.

Faint was the sinister chuckle of Apollyon as the Suffering God made his presence known a moment later. "Speak your proposal, Messenger," he spoke. "Bal'met is listening."

"You have a fine piece of property there, this world of Krenindala," Hermes replied. "It would make a fine site for a casino, and I'm sure I can find some purpose for its many inhabitants. How about a wager?"

"What could You possibly offer?" came the crushing voice of Shaitan. "Bal'met needs no Luck, with Us on His side."

Hermes' tone was confident. "I offer something that is best when freely given: essence and shrines. And I'm all in! After all, if the bet is to be worthwhile, the stakes must be high. How does this interest Your new friend? My power for His planet? The outcome to rest on the luck of a coin toss?"

The terrible visage of Bal'met flickered upon the firmament, and a thunderous roar accompanied his assent.

Thus was the gamble made, and a shining gold sovereign gleamed in the heavens. Surging upward to impossible heights, the coin spun with dizzying speed as it gained altitude.

Expecting the words "heads" or "tails" to ring out, Hermes was stunned as, instead, a spectral ebon blade appeared and sliced cleanly through the gold coin, cleaving it in twain. Like a desert mirage, the two halves of the sovereign evaporated into the air.

"Heads We win, and tails You lose!" proclaimed Apollyon triumphantly. Hermes remained silent, still shocked at this inconceivable turn ofLuck.

"Did You think a loaded coin would escape Our notice?" queried the God of Oppression.

"A deal is a deal," continued Apollyon. "We shall have both ends: Your essence is claimed for Bal'met, and You shall have Krenindala, though bereft of your powers. Enjoy Your prize, Hermes, for it is the last place You shall ever see."

Malevolent laughter rumbled from the west, followed by a furious cry as a golden figure soared across the firmament, flung by the forceful hand of Bal'met.

Streaking through the heavens, the once-illustrious form of Hermes became smaller and smaller as He became more distant, finally vanishing, lost to Krenindala.

Treachery on Krenindala

Grim were the hearts of Achaeans as they pondered the gamble lost by Hermes, speculating about the ramifications of the rising conflict within the divine pantheon. The gods, too, were troubled, each struggling to come to terms with the presence of the newcomer, Bal'met. One young goddess, however, was quickly losing patience.

"The Garden may dither, Hermes, but I have not forgotten," came the voice of Kastalia, Goddess of the River. "Our ancient bond lingers." In a vortex of swirling mist the daughter of Moon and Sea appeared above the lands, her expression that of unflinching determination.

"Come, Wild God," she cried out to Lupus, casting her gaze toward his infamous hunting grounds. "Let us rid the world of these vermin and restore Hermes to his rightful place!"

The roar of the untamed wilds rumbled across the land as the God of the Hunt materialised in the heavens, the faint outline of a monstrous pack of werewolves lingering at his side.

"With pleasure," was his reply, and with a reverberating snarl he savagely tore open the fabric of reality, creating a passage to Krenindala. Leaving behind all sense of restraint, the pack leapt through, their howls fading as they entered the distant world.

"Wait!" came the warning voice of Scarlatti. "You chart a reckless course into the unknown!"

The Goddess of the River was undaunted. "No," she replied. "They have gone too far in daring to take him." Casting a final, resolved glance upon the land, Kastalia and Lupus turned and swiftly departed into the ether.

Werewolves faced off against ormyrr and Dala'myrr alike as the gods relentlessly pursued them across the distant world. Savagely did Lupus rip a colossal Dala'myrr limb from limb, while a second drowned in a pool of its own blood at the hands of the Fluvial Queen. As the hunt continued, back on Achaea, two figures appeared momentarily within the crimson fog of the west: the cruel visages of Apollyon and Shaitan.

"Fools, running around like the mortal worms you coddle!" thundered the God of Oppression. "Let us show you how real gods hunt."

The Twin Lords shared a malevolent grin as the terrible form of Bal'met joined them upon the firmament. Without another word, the trio turned and vanished, reappearing moments later upon the dusty surface of Krenindala. Blood flowed thickly as the gods waded into the fray, and Shaitan's swords whistled as they swept through the air, cleaving werewolves apart with ease.

Suddenly an agonised scream tore across the world as the barbed lash wielded by Apollyon, the Suffering, struck out at the Goddess of the River, catching her by surprise and flaying her immortal flesh. Howling with rage, a dozen werewolves placed themselves between Kastalia and her attackers, meeting a gruesome end at the deadly blades of Shaitan.

All around, the shrieking Dala'myrr roared in frenzied ecstasy, and Bal'met began to loom larger and larger, surging with preternatural power. The next moment was eerily still, and a palpable sense of trepidation hissed across the planes as Bal'met prepared to make His next move. Advancing upon Kastalia, Bal'met reached for the struggling goddess, tearing away the very divinity that comprised her immortal being, roaring with a triumphant surge of power as he claimed it for his own.

Enraged at the audacity of the new god, Lupus lunged for Bal'met with a snarl. A howl of rage and surprised anguish escaped his lips as the mighty Bal'met, bolstered by his added power, cast him to the ground, knocking him senseless.

At once the distant howls of savage werewolves began to ring out, pained and confused at this turn of events, but the battle continued to rage. Standing protectively over the fallen body of his master, Grimaldrin, captain of the werewolves, gnashed his teeth, tearing a dozen charging ormyrr to pieces.

Shaitan gave a mocking laugh. "What is this? You have run out of wolves and now must be championed by a pup?"

At these words, Grimaldrin launched himself straight at Shaitan's throat, intent on tearing it out. The sickening sound of crunching bone could be heard as the ribs of the werewolf were shattered, followed by a victorious shout as Shaitan wrenched the still-beating heart from his chest.

With Grimaldrin out of the way, Bal'met gave a gruesome grin, preparing to consume the divinity of yet another member of the pantheon. At the last second, in a desperate attempt to save her beloved, the Goddess Selene made a daring charge from across the worlds, taking Lupus up in her arms before racing wildly away from Krenindala.

As all of Achaea reeled in shock, a scream shattered the silence, and the echo of sorrowful weeping spilled across the land as Ourania, Goddess of the Moon, realised the unthinkable fate of her daughter. And as dawn broke into the morning skies, the waning moon turned red as blood.

Council of the Gods

Alone within the Vasnari Mountains of Meropis, Ourania gazed wordlessly into the swirling waters of a mountain stream as it tumbled over the side of a cliff. Her sorrow was felt deeply by Valnurana, the Goddess of Sleep and Dreams, who appeared by her side with a whisper of wings. Together they waited in silence as, one by one, the Fluvadha'thi, devoted followers of Kastalia, joined them.

With heavy hearts and few words they stood beside the river, and a gentle rain descended from the heavens above Meropis, falling like tears upon the Temple of Kastalia as they watched. Even the river mourned its lost mistress, the waters swelling and rising, flooding the temple below with swirling currents.

"In days long past, this river was named Urs by mortal tongues," spoke the quiet voice of Valnurana. "Let it now be known as the Fluvadha, in memory of the child of the Moon and the Sea."

Echoing Ourania's grief, the blood-red moon reluctantly rose into the heavens, and darkness blanketed the lands. The goddesses frowned, knowing the Pantheon awaited them in the Garden of the Gods, and spoke words of comfort to the mortals they left behind. As they departed, the Lady of Dreams swept a hand across the heavens, instilling the memory of the Goddess of the River into the Dreamrealm for eternity.

But Ourania was not yet finished grieving. Her face clouded with anger as her silvery countenance was cast upon the night sky, her divine gaze leveled at the western isle where Mhaldor stood. Streaking across the darkness, a brutally thrown meteor sped toward the city, narrowly missing as it splashed into the nearby sea, a clear and unequivocal warning to those fortified within.

~ ~ ~

Moments later, divine illumination set the Garden of the Gods aglow as the Pantheon began to gather atop the Pillars of Heaven. Not all were present: some attended matters in realms far away, others gave a wide berth to what would surely erupt in disaster were they to attend. But their numbers were great enough that their combined voices could be heard far below upon Sapience.

What at first seemed, to mortals, to be the rumbling of thunder, soon resolved into the voices of the gods as fragments of their increasingly rancorous arguments resounded from on high.

"Your thirst for vengeance may prove your undoing," rose the calm, calculating voice of Agatheis, the Elemental Lord. "There is still much we do not know."

The God of War could barely hide his contempt as he responded. "A cowardly approach," he challenged. "The traitors did not 'wait and see' before sinking their daggers into the backs of our fellows, and the longer we wait, the more power they gather to themselves."

"In this, I side with Aegis," spoke Pentharian. "We cannot stand about and allow them this time to further their cause. It is justice we seek, not vengeance."

Scarlatti was unmoved by such passion. "Your anguish stains the heavens," he warned, "and sorrow clouds your thoughts. We must consider this further, and use the lessons of history to our advantage."

Cascades of quicksilver light drenched the heavens as Ourania prevailed upon the gods for retribution. "She was my daughter!"

Lending support to the Goddess of the Moon, Aegis thundered fiercely, "Give the bereaved the blood she so deserves!"

Urgently did Valnurana, Goddess of Sleep and Dreams, whisper her own words of caution, though they were loud enough to reach the ears of mortalkind. "Aegis, you have ever been prone to hasty assaults. Strategy must be the strength of the gods."

"A plan must be made," cried Daedalus, "but time is not on our side. The balance tips!"

"I say to battle!" shouted Matsuhama. "To arms! Let us remind this infant god what it means to be divine.""

"The song shall falter with this folly," Scarlatti declared in frustration, "and my lyre shall rest this day."

Above the cacophony, the steely, calm voice of Miramar, the Even-handed, brought order to the fractious divinities' debate, and the voices of the gods began to subside to a low rumble.

Silence reigned over the lands for what seemed like hours, until it was finally broken by the voice of Agatheis. "If you are resolved, then go," he said with weary resignation. "We will keep vigil here, so that Shaitan and Apollyon do not move on the Garden in your absence."

The skies above Achaea rippled and rolled with ominous thunder. The will of the gods was united in purpose.

Retaliation

"Time now to move with bladed steel," announced Matsuhama, God of Combat, to the gathering of gods amid the Pillars of Heaven.

Ourania nodded and rose to her feet, her countenance stiffened with anger and grief. Drawing back her bow, the Goddess of the Moon nocked a silvery arrow into place and let it fly, and all watched as the arrow's trail left a path of quicksilver across the sky, leading directly to Krenindala.

Upon the glittering backdrop, six daunting figures joined Ourania in the firmament above Achaea. Forming the vanguard were Matsuhama and Aegis, their expressions resolute and weapons drawn. Flanking them on one side were Pentharian and Miramar, grim-faced and determined; opposite stood Daedalus and Pandora, an unlikely pairing that nevertheless instilled a rush of raw anticipation in the mortals below.

Sharing a mutual glance and a solemn nod, Matsuhama and Aegis turned away, leading the deities toward the hostile landscape of Krenindala, bolstered by the confident encouragements of those who stayed behind.

Mere minutes passed before ormyrr warriors began to fall by the dozens to the indiscriminate assault of Matsuhama's deadly mace, and a hundred agonised roars resounded as the Lord of Valour laid waste to a contingent of the reptilian elite. Yet another legion of ormyrr fell, judged for their crimes by the Even-handed and undeserving of her mercy.

"As you took my daughter from me, so shall I inflict pain upon you, Bal'met," threatened the Goddess of the Moon, loosing arrow after arrow upon the Dala'myrr that swam through the skies. "Watch your children bleed."

"Heeeeere little flying worms... come heeeeeere..." taunted Pandora, nimbly dancing between two enraged Dala'myrr. In a cloud of confusion and gore, the monstrosities collided into one another as the young goddess slipped away, filling the air with peals of laughter.

As the gods struck onward in their quest, the God of War kept a keen eye on their progress. "They falter! Pentharian, Matsuhama, harry their flank," shouted Aegis, slashing with one blade, then another, cutting down swathes of charging ormyrr. "Daedalus, Miramar, press the main line. Drive them back!"

Silvery arrows rained all around, felling a score of Dala'myrr as Ourania vented her rage and sorrow upon her foes. Between the hail of deadly darts, Miramar spied covert movement. "Watch your back, Daedalus!" she thundered, directing the attention of the God of Balance. "A nest of vermin lurks in that tower."

As the words of the Even-handed rang out, Pandora appeared behind the massive stone edifice and, with tremendous force, collapsed the tower, crushing the ormyrr who rallied within. Peals of laughter drifted over the firmament as she delighted in her handiwork, but her glee was short-lived as her father's words roared caution.

"Remain focused, daughter," urged Aegis as the merciless Blade of Tuv'rei, hungry for the blood of the Dala'myrr, brought down one after another at his feet.

The gods continued their assault, but a glimpse of pristine white upon the ground caused Ourania to stop short. "What is this?" she cried incredulously, recognising the white walking staff once wielded by Kastalia. "My daughter..."

Renewed grief washed over the Goddess of the Moon in tumultuous waves as she knelt where her daughter had been so cruelly killed, struggled to steady herself. Daedalus, rushing to her side, placed a reassuring hand upon her shoulder.

"Go, Ourania," he spoke calmly, taking the staff and placing it in the grieving mother's hands. "Return to her bereft children what should be theirs." Reluctantly did Ourania rise, her form gracing the firmament as she returned from Krenindala, clutching the staff close to her bosom.

Moments later, Pandora's bright voice rang out triumphantly. "Aha! I've found Hermes!"

Deep within the core of Krenindala, the Messenger lay chained and unmoving, his eyes vacant and desolate, staring bleakly at nothing. Pandora dropped to a knee and reached out with her silver hand to test the fetters, and in an instant was thrown by an excruciating bolt of lightning.

As Pandora screamed in pain, Daedalus rushed to her side, giving the goddess a brief glance before charging ruthlessly toward the Dala'myrr who now stood between him and Hermes. With tremendous force he sent the wyrms spinning into the cold emptiness between the worlds, but when he reached Hermes, his concern grew exponentially, and with great care he examined the Messenger's bonds.

Slithering like a snake through the worlds, an eerie chuckle began to emanate from the darkest reaches of Krenindala, and Bal'met made his terrible presence known.

With righteous fury Pentharian roared a challenge to Bal'met and his allies. "You hide like a coward behind your filthy worms," he shouted. "Come face us, dog! You and your fog-addled masters."

As if in response, the skies flashed with blinding aureate brilliance. With a cry Daedalus backed suddenly away from Hermes' prone form, horrified as the Messenger was illuminated from within by the blazing light.

Across the worlds came the piercing screeches of the Dala'myrr, and a terrible, driving rhythm pounded upon the heavens, growing steadily louder.

"It's Hermes!" shouted the God of Balance as he realised the trap Bal'met had set for the gods. "He's... no, he cannot..."

Recognising the panic in Daedalus' voice, Aegis thundered a call to retreat. "Fall back to Sapience! Now! GO!"

As the gods turned to flee, the reflection of Hermes flickered briefly across the skies, his face a mask of contorted pain as the agonising  his very being. Time seemed to slow, moving at a sluggish pace as though willed by Aeon himself.

And then, Bal'met released utter mayhem.

With a deafening roar, a titanic wave of power ripped through Hermes from within, a shattering torrent that swept over Krenindala, snuffing the dwindling god like a flame, along with all other life upon the forlorn planet. It carved away the interior of the world, leaving nothing but a shell behind, and though the gods leapt desperately toward Achaea, the blast was strong and fast, fuelled by the amplified might of Bal'met.

Caught in the explosive force, Daedalus, Miramar, and Matsuhama all perished instantly, victim to the overwhelming haze of annihilation wrought by Bal'met's sinister workings.

"What?" cried Mithraea, stricken with disbelief. "No! NO!"

Gods and mortals alike stopped in their tracks, stunned at the sudden disaster, watching with mouths agape as a massive shockwave shook the heavens, radiating outward from the husk of Krenindala. Three meteors screamed through the sky above Sapience, leaving a trail of fire in their wake, resolving into the battered forms of Pentharian, Pandora, and Aegis as they grew closer.

With concussive force the three gods crashed to the ground, sending debris flying high into the air and raining down across the continents.

"Hold your grief," Agatheis uttered before more words could be spoken. "To the survivors. Quickly!"

A shining dome of protective magic formed above the Pillars of Heaven, accompanied by the reassuring lilt of a steady continuo as Scarlatti, the Great Bard filled the Garden of the Gods with a healing harmonic. But as the gods gathered the wounded survivors to safety, the insidious rumble of dark laughter rolled across the firmament, and the visage of Bal'met rose with baleful intent above Achaea, more powerful than ever.

Then, like a shadow melding with the cover of night, Bal'met vanished.

Restoration of the Shrines

As dawn broke in the early days of Sarapin, the voice of Han-Tolneth, long absent to grieve the loss of the white dragon Ashaxei, thundered across the lands with incomprehensible rage. The tumult drew both the compassionate and the curious to the lake within the Mhojave Desert, where the grieving Dragonmaster stood gazing into the waters above Ashaxei's Mirror.

"Over and over it plays. In my head, and in the chamber below," he lamented, speaking of the tragic death of the white dragon. "Tell me there has been retribution," he pleaded with the gathering crowd. "Tell me someone has paid!"

Dortheron Covraci lowered his eyes. Months earlier he had made attempts to console Han-Tolneth in his grief, but there was little news to gladden him today. "I'm sorry..." he started, and trailed off as others shook their heads.

"I cannot sit and grieve any more," Han-Tolneth said angrily. "What has been happening? Tell me."

"Five divine have been slain," began Mosr Gothfraidh-Sar'vet.

"And even more injured," added Kayeil Inamora-Vorondil.

Han-Tolneth glared about himself. "Divine slain?" he asked. "I thought I dreamt that. It is true instead?"

"It is."

"Bah!" Han-Tolneth retorted disgustedly. "At whose hand has this been done?"

"Those disgusting worms and their despicable God have done away with more than we thought possible," spat Penwize Baker.

Han-Tolneth raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"Bal'met," added Traelor Shu'in-Crescent in a tired, wheezing voice.

"You mean they succeeded in raising that abomination?" cried Han-Tolneth incredulously. Traelor frowned and nodded.

"With Mhaldor's assistance," added Dortheron. As his companions began to speak of the holy shrines across the land that were slowly being corrupted by the workings of Mhaldor, the Dragonmaster's face grew dark.

"The shrines of Bal'met cannot be destroyed, yet his minions have been able to corrupt those of the other gods?" he repeated, the question more a statement of fact. Heads nodded around him.

"We don't know how they are corrupting the shrines," spoke Enyd, an Archon of Ashtan. "Do you think that when they hold embers they access some new ability of corruption?"

Han-Tolneth considered the possibility, for it was true that many had reported powerful new abilities when they came into possession of the primal embers.

"I cannot believe that the embers would cause the corruption of any shrine," he said finally. "They are, in a way, a very piece of the Fire Behind the Flame. A part of the dragon soul. A power of creation, and of healing."

"I tried to use an ember to sanctify the shrines," asserted Enyd helpfully, then sighed. "To no avail."

Han-Tolneth creased his brow in a frown, intrigued by Enyd's suggestion, his mind working furiously for some solution.

"Do any of these shrines stand nearby? The corrupted ones?" he asked. A murmur of assent rumbled through the group. "I would like to see them for myself."

"There are many affected in the Siroccians," said Kayeil.

"Go to the Shrine of Ascension," spoke the Lupine Elianon in a quiet but clear voice.

Han-Tolneth blinked. "The shrine of... No!"

Penwize nodded grimly. "That is where it took place," he spoke. "The birthplace of Bal'met."

Rage threatened to boil over within Han-Tolneth, and he struggled to form words. "Let us go."

~ ~ ~

Han-Tolneth glowered at the blasted remains of the Shrine of Ascension, looking with pure disgust on the metallic formation that now stood atop the mountain within the Siroccian range.

"This was one of the first they corrupted," said Elianon.

Dortheron nodded. "This is where Bal'met rose."

Han-Tolneth reached out a hand, stopping inches from the shrine as he pulled away with a muttered curse.

"This is the most foul of corruption," he scowled. "Worse than any I have encountered in... centuries."

"Who holds these embers?" he demanded. Many spoke up, first among them young Ysebelle Bravedale from Shallam. Han-Tolneth nodded, and motioned for her to stand beside him.

"Hold out the fire, like so," he instructed, reaching out toward the shrine with one hand. "You must be careful."

Obediently holding forth the ember, Ysebelle took the glowing ember and pressed it against the surface of the befouled shrine.

"Pray to the gods that this succeeds..." murmured Han-Tolneth.

As Ysebelle held still, the ember began to glow brightly, suffusing the mountaintop with a flash of light as it cleansed every spot of dark blight from the holy altar. Stepping back, she gasped in wonder. Before them now stood a humble shrine to Maya, the Great Mother, formed from smooth, dove-grey marble.

A palpable sense of relief washed over the group as hope was quickly rekindled. Han-Tolneth's mighty shoulders sagged, and he stepped back to allow Ysebelle to demonstrate to others how to draw upon the embers' cleansing power. Excitedly the group began to disperse, seeking the shrines of their patrons, but not before one determined individual overheard their conversation.

From a safe distance at the base of the mountain, Ruth Yuridja-Keyte, Daemonic Hand of the Ebon Fist and Viceroy of Mhaldor, boldly yelled, "Thank you for the information, Sapients!" Most dismissed the mocking gratitude as little more than a show of bravado, but days later, none could ignore the battle that raged on between those who would corrupt and those who would restore the shrines of the Pantheon.

Suffering's Demise

Dawn broke upon the world, and a shower of brilliant light cascaded across the skies, rippling through the clouds and banishing shadow from the heavens. As it bathed the world in holy light, the spectacle began to converge high above Sapience into a radiant sphere, and the magnificent form of Pentharian became manifest.

"Foul betrayers! Cowards and murderers! Show yourselves," shouted the God of Righteousness. "Your contempt for the Garden and cheap treachery has gone unanswered long enough!"

Billowing up from the west of Sapience, a blood-red fog revealed the Twin Lords, Shaitan and Apollyon, standing together above the continent.

"Finally figured out what was going on, you pitiful whelp?" answered the crushing voice of Shaitan.

Lightning and thunder flashed across the sky as Pentharian formed dual longswords of pure Light, grasping them in his mighty hands and roaring a challenge to the gods that faced him.

"Eternal torment seems to be this upstart's destiny," came the voice of Apollyon. "Brother, allow me to see that it is served."

Smirking, Shaitan inclined his massive head in assent, his curved horns dipping slightly as he turned and stalked away. Malice spread over the face of the Suffering God as a wicked lash formed in his hand, crackling with cobalt sparks.

"You know the fate of the last deity to feel these barbs," he called out tauntingly. "You've one chance to run before meeting the same end."

Righteous fury enveloped the Lord of Valour, who, not deigning to answer, began a bold charge across the sky toward Apollyon. His opponent released a baleful laugh and readied himself, one dark eye glittering with anticipation, while the gem in his empty eye socket gleamed sanguine in the light of the approaching god.

With a clap of thunder that shook the entire plane to its core, the two gods collided within the heavens.

Charging forward with shining blade outstretched, Pentharian made a direct attempt to impale the Suffering God. Apollyon struck out with his lash, grappling the sword and wrenching Pentharian's hand to the side, slyly drawing a curved kris from his robe. Nimbly jabbing upward, Apollyon met Pentharian's second thrust with his dagger, the blades sparking and screaming as they slid together. A deafening clash resounded across the firmament as the crossguards met.

Locked together upon the firmament, the two gods stared each other down, their wills in deadly opposition, sending wave after wave of tension to draw the world into its conflict.

"Do you really think you can stop us, you hen-pecked fool?" growled Apollyon. "Your city mourns Justice, and now your precious Miramar's essence strengthens us as we destroy you. If only she were here to tell you what to do."

For an instant, Apollyon's form shifted and revealed the shadow of Miramar, her face contorted in pain as she suffered her final moments. A moment later the vision vanished, replaced by Apollyon's slow, mocking smile.

"You are drunk on the power you think you control," Pentharian returned, undaunted by the shocking image.

Apollyon snarled. "Useless gods, with power going to waste. Now it will fuel our victory and greatness!"

"The Garden sits in a careful balance," warned the Lord of Valour. "You have betrayed the whole of Creation with your misdeeds. This can only be righted when Evil is forced from this world! You must pay!"

Tearing his weapons away from Apollyon's hold, Pentharian brought forth a flurry of powerful strikes, each turned aside by the effortless motions of the Suffering God, whose dark chuckle began to resonate louder and louder. Calling forth a billowing tempest of crimson fog, Apollyon hurled the storm toward Pentharian, blasting him backward in a haze of pure Evil.

Grinning wickedly, Apollyon took the offensive, pressing toward the Champion of Good and Light. A clashing, clanging din deafened the world as he rained blow after blow upon Pentharian with his barbed lash, striking only the god's shining armour.

Recovering from the vile red fog, Pentharian began to block the blows with his sword, dodging the rest, refusing the Suffering God further opportunity to land a successful strike. The crimson gem in Apollyon's eye gleamed with outrage as his onslaught was foiled, and he summoned an oily cloud of smoke to surround him in a foul shield.

Ducking and whirling about in place, Pentharian struck out with both swords, slicing through the insidious barrier. As his own swords struck each other, blistering rays of pristine Light flared outward, streaking toward Apollyon, who shrieked in euphoric agony as burning purity seared his immortal being.

"Yes! Yes! Again!" Apollyon crowed. "These wounds shall be proud trophies as we bask in your blood upon the throne of the heavens!

Back and forth, the two gods traded blows upon the firmament. The howls of daemons and the jubilant cries of angels echoed from distant planes, clamouring to be heard by the duelling deities. Recklessly letting his guard down, the Suffering God allowed Pentharian to land a few glancing blows, hissing with rapturous torment.

"There is no use, Pentharian," jeered Apollyon, embracing the pain. "You are nothing more than a mortal to whom the Logos tossed a scrap of immortality! You cannot hope to defeat a real god!"

Pentharian pressed onward, glowing in a blinding white nimbus of Light. "You are a twister and corrupter of Creation, Apollyon. But I am its guardian, and I will not see it perverted!"

The God of Valour struck again and again at Apollyon, his blows powerful and precise, his martial prowess unquestionable as he bore down upon his foe. In response, Apollyon began to summon wave after wave of crimson fog, surrounding himself in a perpetually regenerating shield, his wild, booming laughter echoing across land and sea.

The celestial duel seemed a stalemate, with Pentharian dauntlessly felling Apollyon's defences as quickly as they could be conjured. The world tensed in anticipation, awaiting with bated breath the next move of the gods.

From the confines of the Citadel of Light, the Te'serran sage Earda appealed to the city of Shallam. "Champions of the Light! The Lord of Valour needs our strength!" she cried out, urging all to bolster their patron's might. Within moments the murmur of whispering voices could be heard as the followers of Light, united in fervent purpose, began to pray.

One by one, sinuous threads of light begin to drift upward from Shallam toward the heavens. As the luminous crescendo of voices reached the Lord of Valour, he surged with the devotion of the Good and Righteous mortals below.

Suddenly Pentharian roared out, the sound tearing across the planes, and delivered a mighty blow, striking down the defences of the Suffering God and shattering the kris in his hand. With a second shout of triumph, Pentharian drove his longsword up through Apollyon's gut. The blazing blade crackled and sizzled as it emerged from Apollyon's back.

"Too long have you delighted in suffering, Apollyon!" he thundered. "It ends now!"

The bewilderment upon Apollyon's face turned to abject horror, shadowed by the menacing rise of Pentharian's hand. Gritting his teeth, Pentharian placed his thumb upon the glowing red gem in Apollyon's eye socket and slowly began to push. Apollyon's limbs writhed and flailed in pain as Pentharian drove the glittering jewel further and further into his skull, but the shining Te'Serran kept a firm grip upon his longsword, holding it fast within the belly of the Suffering God.

Ruthlessly did Pentharian shove the gem wholly beyond the eye of Apollyon, and a bloodcurdling scream shattered the skies. With a look of disgust, the Lord of Valour wrenched his blade upward, gruesomely splitting the god from navel to skull. Blinding rays of light flared about the victor, and the limp form of Apollyon evaporated into an oily black cloud that hung heavily in the clouds.

Chilling silence fell upon the world as, in that instant, the Suffering God fell, cut down at the last by Valour.

The lull did not last long. Moments later, an enraged bellow erupted from Mhaldor, shaking land and sea with the fury of the Horned God at the death of his brother.

Wordlessly Pentharian pointed one gleaming sword in the direction of Mhaldor, then sheathed his weapons, turned his back on the lingering haze, and strode away from the battlefield.

Looming upon the western horizon, crimson clouds rose again with the likeness of Shaitan, glaring with a livid expression at the fading image of Pentharian. But as the dark cloud began to fall like rain upon the fog-laden isle west of the Vashnar Mountains, the God of Oppression's scowl became a cruel smirk, unnerving and ominous, before He, too, disappeared.

Sartan, the Malevolent

Booming thunder echoed from the western isle where Mhaldor reigns, and the blood-red fog surrounding the city of Evil rose in clouds that ascended higher and higher into the heavens. Upon the sanguine tableau stood Shaitan, God of Oppression, reflected in unadulterated clarity, every muscle in his hulking form tensed, his fists clenching and unclenching as he suffered some bitter torment.

Sinuous coils of foul black vapour twisted and whipped through the fog, fermenting into a wild storm and scourging the God of Oppression, flaying the crimson of his skin like flesh from bone. Howled echoed from the depths of the Inferno as Shaitan gave a terrible bellow, and for a fleeting instant he was overcome by the chilling guise of the fallen god Apollyon.

Relentlessly the fog itself tore at Shaitan, who roared across the skies with unhindered fury. The preternatural storm above the western isle reached a frenzied climax, and tortuous thunder shook the firmament. With an earth-shattering cry, Shaitan clasped his hands to his horns, wrenching downward and doubling over, all colour draining from his form.

Trembling, the clouds fled the sky, and all held their breath as the figure above the western horizon crouched, unmoving. Slowly the ashen figure rose, raising his baleful head to gaze upon the world with a cruel scowl.

Rumbling through the firmament, a voice uttered deep and low, "So have we endured. And so have we been made stronger."

Achaeans gasped as one, their minds a mingled collection of disbelief, terror, and awe. Thousands of daemons howled and shrieked as Sartan, the Malevolent roared above the cacophony, "Hide while you can, Pentharian, for you and the cowards you indulge will be crushed under my heel like the worms you are!"

The Death of Selene

Deep within the Northreach, the god Lupus lay upon a stone bier, his wounds deep and long-lasting. Long were the hours that Selene, Goddess of Love and Beauty stood beside the Wild God of the Beasts as he rested within the healing embrace of Sleep. Teardrops dripped from her eyes without ceasing, her heartbreak evident to any who glimpsed her vigil within her lover's temple.

On one such occasion she was joined by Greys Vorondil, a loyal and devoted atavian who had long been dedicated to her Order. Searching for a way to ease Selene's sorrow, he began to hum a tune. Low and soft, the wordless melody became a song that echoed, familiar and haunting, amidst the silent chamber.

If the goddess was comforted in even some small part by his music, Greys would never know. A frigid breeze stirred the air, briefly igniting an unnatural feeling of bitter hatred within him, a disturbing sensation that ruffled his wingfeathers. Selene glanced suspiciously around at the herself, moving closer to the slumbering form of Lupus with a troubled frown.

At that moment entered a golden gryphon, the Lupine devotee Elianon astride its regal back. Immediately Elianon dismounted as he glimpsed Selene's perplexed expression, and all experienced an eerily quiet roll of thunder that rumbled through the chamber, turning to acrid laughter before fading away.

A long silence passed, and soon the menacing chuckle returned, heralding the terrible figure of Bal'met slowly fading into view. The god's eyes fixed upon Lupus as he slumbered, and Bal'met moved closer, intent on finishing what had begun months earlier upon Krenindala.

Fury surged within the goddess as she leapt to her feet, placing herself between Bal'met and the slumbering god. Still Bal'met advanced, looming within the sanctum like a horrific shadow as Selene stared defiantly up at him.

"No!" cried out Selene, "You cannot have him!"

As Bal'met moved to brush her aside, Selene lunged out, shoving him away with all her might. As she made contact with the poisonous haze that surrounded him, however, she recoiled with a gasp, looking down at her hands in horror as they turned black as charred wood.

A seething hiss issued from Bal'met as he lashed out at Selene, flinging her effortlessly across the chamber where she hit the wall and crumpled to the floor. Turning slowly, Bal'met again laid his eyes upon Lupus as he slept. Unhurriedly gliding across the space between, he peered at the still face of the Wild God through the thick lattice of vines that shrouded him.

In this time, the devoted followers of both Selene and Lupus continued to gather at the temple. Powerless to attack the mighty god, they could only watch with mingled terror and rage as Bal'met gave a hateful chuckle and spreads his arms wide. Flames formed at his command, whirling and spinning about beneath his will like two great orbs.

Bal'met hurled the orbs toward Lupus with a bold smirk, snarling with chagrin as, forceful and swift, a blinding white light suffused the chamber, turning Bal'met's own power back upon him. The skies above Northreach burned with a lurid yellow hue as the blast radiated outward from the bier, followed by a deafening boom.

The backlash of primordial power propelled Bal'met violently backwards, and he threw back his head to release an ear-splitting bellow that shook land, sea, and sky. As he howled, a movement on the opposite side of the chamber drew attention to Selene, who had recovered her composure and now stood, levelling the Crossbow of Heartbreak directly at Bal'met.

"Lupus is protected by My Love," she said, her voice unnaturally calm. "That is far stronger than anything in Your miserable little arsenal."

Selene loosed an arrow with deadly precision, sending it to streak through the air with a sharp whistle. The arrow struck true, piercing Bal'met through and through, and he let out a snarl of pain before rounding on the goddess.

Almost instantly Bal'met was at the side of the Goddess of Love and Beauty, clasping her around the neck in his inescapable grasp. Desperately Selene tried to break free, but the grip of Bal'met was far too powerful. Slowly the layers of silk that shrouded her countenance begin to blacken at his touch, turning to ash and crumbling away.

Layer by layer the silk fell away, a macabre unveiling as Selene struggled in vain. Finally the last piece of silk crumbled, and her achingly beautiful face was revealed. The lovely eyes of the goddess turned to Lupus, shining with tears, her gaze lingering upon him even as her immortal life was slowly claimed by Bal'met. Finally, with a soft sigh, Selene closed her eyes and succumbed to her fate.

As the weight of what had happened sunk into the hearts of the mortals standing near, Lupus shifted and growled in his sleep, but moments later he was once again still, slumbering deeply upon the mossy bier. Leering at his victory, the terrible, indistinct figure of Bal'met slowly faded away, leaving behind only a dark, menacing chuckle.

A Storm Gathers

Clouds parted within the sky, and an immense arm of Yggdrasil can be seen stretching to the horizon, illusory yet very real. Upon that massive branch manifested the ancient figure of Agatheis, his robes billowing in the primordial winds that churn around the World Tree.

"Come, Bal'met," cried out the Elemental Lord. "Make yourself known. I grow tired of this charade. If you are so intent on ending Us, I will be claimed in the time and manner of my choosing."

The air around the World Tree grew noxious and foul as Bal'met appeared in a haze of poisonous fumes. A palpable, seething wrongness crept through the ether, and Agatheis inclined his head at the looming god. Greedily Bal'met stretched out an arm, rippling and shifting with boundless power, directing tendrils of black vapour to coalesce around Agatheis, and the Elemental Lord's form blurred and distorted.

Suddenly, the earth trembled and heaved, and a primal gale whipped across the planes with wild abandon. Rich, red-orange fire erupted with a radiance that briefly dispelled all shadows, and the thundering crash of the surf broke loud as Agatheis summons the raw elements to his command.

Driving his staff firmly into the World Tree beneath his feet, Agatheis stood tall, his eyes cold with power and fury. Awash in power, the Elemental Lord extended his arm to ward off the squalid miasma that encroached upon him.

"As I said, I will be claimed in a time and manner of My choosing, Bal'met," Agatheis rumbled. "But that moment is not now."

Deafening roars rumbled across the firmament as Agatheis raised his staff, commanding the elements with supreme authority, and quickly vanished from sight.

"How powerful are You, Bal'met," came his distant voice, "if You so easily allow Your prey to escape?

~ ~ ~

Primal and terrible, a bellow of rage shook the world. The skies above the Pillars of Heaven grew dark, and an unnatural wind began to howl with unrestrained potency. Spears of black lightning formed at the behest of Bal'met, slicing through the clouds that obscured the mountain peaks to reveal the Garden of the Gods.

Tendrils of oily fire swirled toward the Garden, veins of pulsing power that twisted and whirled about the seat of divine power. Relentlessly the monstrous storm battered the lofty peak, but the Garden remained untouched, shrouded by an aura of divine protection that resisted even the devastating power of Bal'met.

"Is that the best You can do?" called out Vastar, the Skylord. "I've seen worse storms weathered by pigeons!"

High upon the firmament, the tranquil Garden became filled with prismatic light, and six figures appeared: Artemis, Goddess of the Cataclysm; Melantha, Goddess of the Seasons; Phaestus, the Smith; Pentharian, God of Valour; Ourania, Goddess of the Moon; and Vastar, the Skylord. Shoulder to shoulder, the gods faced Bal'met in full battle regalia, their weapons ready and features set in grim resolve.

Pentharian raised a sword of pure Light in challenge as Bal'met scowled across the heavens. "Picking on a wounded God and His heartbroken lover is one thing, but can You stand alone against Us, Bal'met?"

"No, this upstart lacks the courage to face the Wrath of Nature," came Artemis' furious shout. "He'll run and hide behind his masters in that abominable red fog."

The aberrant storm abated as Bal'met began to gather his power close, and the ephemeral ward that surrounded the Garden of the Gods faded away. A deafening crack of thunder resounded as Artemis hurled a blinding bolt of lightning, tearing through the heavens to strike Bal'met.

"The Cataclysm does not forget your transgressions upon Nature and its Protectors, vile creature," she cried. "Relinquish the power that is not yours to control!"

Bal'met swelled with scorn and rapacious hunger, becoming a great spear of destructive energy streaking through the sky toward the unprotected Garden, resolving as a billowing cloud before the six gods. At the same moment Phaestus hefted his hammer high, slamming it upon the ground and striking a massive blow that shook the very earth.

The Garden of the Gods shuddered and quaked, and a complex pattern of runes flared to life beneath the fluctuating form of Bal'met. Four spikes erupted from the ground, their polished surfaces etched with gleaming ancient runes, towering above Bal'met and turning with slow, immutable purpose.

With a cacophonous groan the four pillars ground to a halt, their rune-etched faces turned inward toward Bal'met, whose vague outline sharpened in their midst. Carefully and deliberately the gods surrounded the divine trap, and Ourania trained her bow upon Bal'met as he whirled about, apparently caught within.

"You took my child and slew my siblings," spoke the Goddess of the Moon with measured fury. "Now you come to our home.... it is only right that you should enjoy our kind of hospitality."

~ ~ ~

"It seems Your lackey is out of the fight, Sartan," jeered Pentharian. "You'll have to fight Your own battles now!"

Mocking laughter scorched the heavens as the flames of Vengeance radiated outward from Mhaldor, along with the voice of Keresis, Goddess of Vengeance. "That so-called lackey was able to best six gods so far, Pentharian."

Sanguine clouds billowed and rose above Baelgrim Fortress, uplifting three figures surrounded by a corona of necromantic power: Sartan, the Malevolent; Keresis, Goddess of Vengeance; and Indrani, Goddess of Sin.

"First you show wrath with your callous slaying of Apollyon," came Indrani's powerful voice. "Now you succumb to pride? Such delightful potential for sin, Pentharian."

"Indrani and Keresis, you err in standing with Sartan," warned Vastar. "Wisely have you remained apart from the fray, and you still have the chance to step back."

"I for one shall not forget my ancient pact with you, Sartan," Keresis returned with scorn. "Our bonds are stronger than paltry words."

"Reconsider your choice," Melantha entreated. "You are still our sisters, but we will not let you stand in our way. Bal'met must be put down like the dog he is!"

"You are wrong," hurled Indrani with bitter disdain. "We stand together. Such a glorious world We will rule once We have achieved Dominion over all."

As the words of the Demon Queen fade away, two more figures appear in the Garden of the Gods: Mithraea, luminous Goddess of the Sun; and Tarah, Goddess of Harmony.

"The path You have chosen leads not where You think, Gods of the West," cried Lady Sol. "You charge foolishly toward Your own undoing."

Tarah's words echoed that of her sister, but continued to fall upon ears loathe to listen. "You hunger for reckless carnage and the slaughter of innocents, siding with an abomination of warped divinity. We shall not endure it."

"Endure it you shall," Keresis snarled. "My lash will render no quick mercies, soft-hearted goddess.

A new challenge roared across the planes as Aegis, God of War, appeared among the rest of the figures in the garden. Beside him stood Pandemonium, God of Strife, ready to fight at his father's side. Eldritch fire bloomed overhead, and Babel, God of Oblivion, stepped through a rift in space to join the assembled immortals with an imperious frown.

"You meddle with what fate has woven, Bal'met," uttered the Mad God of Oblivion, turning his attention to Sartan's baneful ally. "I will not allow you to disrupt what must be. Oblivion will come, and it will come on my terms, not yours."

~ ~ ~

Snarling in rage, Sartan drew his swords, his dark eyes burning with bloodlust. To each side, Keresis and Indrani readied themselves for battle, and the three vanished in a gust of crimson fog, reappearing a moment later within the Garden of the Gods.

Warcries shook heaven and earth as the immortals rushed together, meeting in a clash of supernatural might... and the battle began.

Battle in the Garden

Battle raged within the Garden of the Gods, and the skies flashed as Artemis and Vastar released a volley of lightning bolts toward their enemies. Stepping before her allies, Indrani skilfully turned each bolt away with swift strokes of her eight Qithain scimitars.

A cacophony of howls and shrieks rent the air, and what few clouds remained above the Pillars of Heaven dispersed as a swarm of daemons answered the call of Sartan, the Malevolent. Descending upon the battle, the daemons surged forward, and six fearsome dreadlords alit from their backs. Following closely behind, a dozen Dala'myrr slithered sinuously through the firmament to circle above Bal'met.

Pressing forward with the Sabre of Dawn held aloft, Mithraea cut down a swathe of daemons, leaving a carpet of crimson flesh in her wake. Melantha whirled her sickle about, searing the carapace of a Dala'myrr with a blast of verdant energy, sending it crashing to the ground.

Striking out with the Lash of Discipline, Keresis landed a well-timed blow upon Lady Sol, who roared in outrage but continued onward. Arcs of healing light streamed from Tarah's fingertips as she bolstered Mithraea's strength. Without missing a beat, the Lady of Vundamere raises a radiant shield around Aegis and Pandemonium, who move together through the horde.

Giving a nod to the God of Strife, Vastar hurled a lightning bolt into a thick pack of daemons that swarmed near the Goddess of Sin. The ground exploded beneath them, sending them flailing through the air, landing upon Sapience with savage screeches of ire. Caught off guard, Indrani quickly recovered her footing, whirling about to face Pandemonium, who had swiftly snuck up behind her.

~ ~ ~

"At last, the reckoning I have waited for since My birth," thundered Pandemonium. "Many a time did I dream of this moment. For too long have I been biding My time, watching You go unpunished for Your theft."

Malice gleamed in the eyes of the God of Strife as He drew the links of a great chain through His hands, casually swinging the end, where a massive, spiked ball exudes a fiery glow.

Narrowing her eyes in contempt, the many-armed Goddess of Sin answered the God of Strife by brandishing her eight flashing scimitars, and the two began to circle one other with deadly intent.

The God of Strife lets the head of His massive chain flail fall from its chain to His feet, then begins to swing it in a slow circle above His head.

"I will destroy you..." he growled.

Indrani cackled with confidence as she sliced away with her scimitars in a dizzying display of scintillating blades. Bearing quickly down upon Pandemonium, she lands the first strikes of Their deadly match, and the God of Strife howled in pain.

Undaunted, Pandemonium danced out of the cloud of blades and struck out with the heavy, spiked head of his flail, catching Indrani's blades in the chain and abruptly halting her attack. With a massive heave, Pandemonium wrenched the flail away, disarming the goddess completely as her swords fell from the heavens.

"As Father taught, and as Mother would have wished..." he roared, unleashing a mighty battle cry and whipping the flail in a swift upward arc. Casting out with the spiked ball, he drove it into Indrani's stomach and tore it away with a vicious snarl. A blaze of flames erupted in its wake, searing Indrani from the inside out.

Staggering backward, Indrani clutched at her side with three hands and raised a single arm to point toward Pandemonium.

"Look at how heavily the envy of my power sits upon your shoulders, foolish child," she hissed. "Feel the weight of your avarice. Even now you surrender to the wrath you have embraced in the name of strife, and I grow more powerful yet.

Pandemonium slows, His eyes growing unfocused as the handle of the flail fell from His grasp. As he swiped weakly at the empty sky, the Goddess of Sin stalked her prey like a stealthy panther.

"See yourself for the sinner that you are. Tremble in terror of the truth, godling!" Indrani quietly closed in, smirking at the confusion that overwhelmed the God of Strife, and drew close behind him for the killing blow. Unsheathing a uniquely curved blade, she tenderly traced the tip of a serpentine kris along Pandemonium's jawline.

"You were but a babe when first You tasted this blade," she whispered in his ear. "And now..."

Suddenly Pandemonium grabbed the wrist holding the kris, snapping it with a powerful twist and causing Indrani to drop the dagger with a shriek of rage. Snatching up the falling dagger from Indrani's broken hand, Pandemonium swiftly turned and sliced through the Demon Queen's neck with a single, smooth stroke, lopping off her head.

"I am Chaos and War!" roared Pandemonium in triumph. "I am Strife!"

Pandemonium looked on with a slowly growing smile as the lifeless remains of the goddess fell to Sapience, erupting into scarlet flames. Lifting her dead-eyed to his own, Pandemonium whispered a quiet word that no mortal can hear before it, too, was overcome by fire.

Crimson light suffuses the skies as Keresis surges with strength, the act of divine Vengeance bolstering Her power. Scowling, Pandemonium takes up His mighty flail, swinging it above His head once more as He turns back to the battle.

~ ~ ~

Havoc tore throughout the Garden, and the Goddesses of the Sun and Moon battled beside one another, felling Dala'myrr and dreadlord alike. Ourania's silvery arrows sailed through the air, matched by flashes of gold as Mithraea's bright sabre sundered the attackers with searing flame. For a brief, desperate moment, the moon eclipsed the sun, cloaking the land in darkness. A second later the sun's shining corona surged with fierce brilliance, rekindling the light of day, and the two celestial bodies moved apart.

Ascending upon grey wings, the Skylord rose into the sky and outstretched his hands to gather stormclouds from the far reaches of the world. Below, the Goddess of the Cataclysm drew down the clouds, stirring them about herself into a violent and lethal cyclone. As she stood firm at the eye of the twisting gale, daemons around her were lifted into the air and flung from the bounds of the Garden.

An ominous chuckle rumbled across the world, striking terror into even the bravest of souls as, hurled from beyond the garden by an unknown assailant, an ephemeral lance of pure flame flew unerringly at Vastar, trailing sparks behind like a comet.

The projectile struck the God of the Sky in the shoulder, whistling out his back and singeing his wings. Shocked, Vastar began to plummet like a stone to the garden far below. The clouds thickened and frothed with the Skylord's fall, and the battle faded from mortal view with the coming storm.

Clashes of metal and screams of pain and triumph reverberated through the heavens as the immortal battle raged back and forth, and a shout of anger pierced the clouds, suddenly cut short. Lightning relentlessly struck down upon the high places of the world, and the wind began to whip through the whispering trees of the forests.

The storm began to lose strength for a moment, and again the forms of the struggling deities became visible within the cloud-streaked firmament. Thunder boomed mercilessly throughout the world, and lightning scorched the heavens where the gods warred. Grim but resolved, the gods closed in on Sartan and his allies, victory in sight against the invaders who had violated the sanctity of their home.

The Tide of War Turns

Tensions were high as the war between the gods wrecked havoc atop the Pillars of Heaven. Phaestus swung his mighty hammer against daemon after daemon, keeping a close eye on the trap he had wrought for Bal'met. Meanwhile, Tarah divided her efforts between bolstering the gods' strength and shielding the wounded Skylord from further harm. But none were prepared for what would come next.

"SYCAERUNAX!" thundered Bal'met from his prison, calling out the name of the ancient white dragon, father of Ashaxei, who all thought dead centuries ago.

As the name echoed upon the firmament, a massive, skeletal claw pierced the boundary between the planes, and a lurid portal opened in the heavens. Yellowed bones and decaying sinew formed the gargantuan shape of a long-dead dragon. Fixing his empty gaze upon the Pillars of Heaven, Sycaerunax dove into the fray, tearing apart the prison that held Bal'met at bay. Then, with a forbidding cry of triumph, Bal'met vanished from sight, but his foul presence remained palpable among the warring gods.

As clouds roiled and churned about the Garden of the Gods, glimpses of the frenzied battle were illuminated with scintillating flashes of lightning. Pitch-black and fearsome, the silhouette of Sycaerunax flashed upon the clouds, tearing savagely through the Garden with power equal to the gods themselves.

Pandemonium, locked in combat with Keresis, ducked to avoid a savage swipe of Sycaerunax's deadly claws. Seizing the opportunity, Keresis made her move, driving the Blade of the Dreadlord upward into his gut and ruthlessly disemboweling him.

"No!" cried Aegis as the God of Strife perished. "My Son!" Loosing arrow after arrow, the Goddess of the Moon felled droves of daemons, and Artemis compelled the very ground to tremble and shake, causing Sartan to lose His footing. Warm sunlight blazed in the heavens and Mithraea charged toward Sycaerunax with her blade afire. Melantha followed at her side, radiant with vitality as she readied her sickle.

Attacking together, Lady Sol and the Goddess of the Seasons struck with ruthless force at Sycaerunax. A terrible bellow shook the world as the Father of Dragons snarled at the wounds, and he lashed out with untempered rage.

Melantha screamed in agony as the claws of Sycaerunax pierced her immortal form, and a gasp passed through the forests as mortals watched her being tossed from the Garden like a rag doll. Moments later, Lady Sol too was caught by the dragon's mighty wrath, her immortal fire forever extinguished.

As the Goddess of the Sun fell, Pentharian cried out in anguish. His blades, summoned of pure Light, dimmed and falter in his grasp. Across the garden, Babel paused to observe the Lord of Valour, a look of deep contemplation mingled with disgust upon His features.

"Throw Him the damned sword, You fool!" Phaestus roared at him. "Can't You see We're losing?"

With a curt shout of warning, Babel hurled the Sword of Dunamis to Pentharian, whose surprise was matched only by his relief. The instant his hand closed around the sword's hilt, an aurulent fire courses down its haft, and Pentharian swung it with ease, splitting a dreadlord cleanly in twain.

A malevolent laugh echoed across the Garden as Sartan turned his attention to the God of Righteousness. "For each dreadlord You cut down, two more stand ready to fight," he gloated. "Face Me at last, Pentharian!

~ ~ ~

Raising the Sword of Dunamis like a shining beacon, Pentharian charges at Sartan, answering the challenge. Their swords met with a crack of thunder, and the heroic battle between Good and Evil was magnified upon the firmament for all to see.

Driving forward, Sartan advanced upon the Lord of Valour with swift and deadly slashes. Pentharian parries the attacks, returning powerful strikes of his own as the Malevolent God ducked and turned. Over and over the Gods traded blows, each gaining upon the other, only to be forced back, their resolve never failing.

Meanwhile the rest of the gods were being pushed back by the surmounting strength of Sycaerunax and Bal'met's forces. "We have to fall back!" cried Artemis.

Side by side, Phaestus and Artemis cleared a path through the throng of daemons, soaking the soil of the Garden with poisonous blood. Conjuring images of beasts more fearsome than any of the daemons they face, Babel obscured the escape route, slipping away. Following suit, Ourania ducked behind the illusory cover, raining a steady shower of silver arrows upon the enemy as the Gods slowly retreat, but Pentharian remained engaged in close combat with Sartan.

Fighting ferociously to the site where Vastar lay wounded, Aegis heroically dragged the Skylord back toward the others, deflecting attacks with his sword. His keen eyes surveyed the battlefield, where a dark shadow was approaching the Lord of Valour from behind.

"Pentharian!" he shouted as Bal'met suddenly appeared. "Behind You!"

In a blur of motion, Bal'met drove his arm through the Lord of Valour's armour, as easily as cutting through soft wax. Pentharian howled in pain, releasing his grip upon the Sword of Dunamis, but Bal'met quickly grasps the hilt, withdrawing it through Pentharian's back in a savage motion that shattered the god's breastplate.

As the blade passed through the Lord of Valour, it burned with holy flame, setting the skies afire with blinding light. Outraged, Bal'met hurled the sword away, and Pentharian fell to the ground. "The sword!" he cried out in agony. "Tarah... you must..."

Streaking across the firmament as Pentharian perished was a trail of cerulean light, and the tear-streaked face of Tarah could be seen racing eastward, away from the Garden of the Gods, cradling the blazing Sword of Dunamis in her arms. Unleashing a terrifying roar, the Sycaerunax took off after the fleeing goddess, his monstrous form quickly closing in on her lead.

An immense shadow darkened the Shamtota Hills as Sycaerunax at last caught up with Tarah. Opening wide his fetid maw, the dragon stretched forward and snapped his jaws around her, and a mask of pain crossed her features. With her final strength Tarah hurled the Sword of Dunamis toward Shallam, where it disappeared into the gleaming city, before she was devoured by the Father of Dragons.

~ ~ ~

Turmoil reigned within the Pillars of Heaven. But as the retreating gods cleared the battlefield, the clouds above the Garden parted to reveal a solitary figure, cloaked in billowing white robes. In his hands lay a shining hourglass.

Slowly the hourglass tilted, and as the grains of sand within slowed their pace, so did the forces of Sartan and Bal'met. Granted precious moments, the gods reflected upon the firmament melted away as they escaped the wreckage of their failed trap.

As the gods vanished, the mysterious figure departed and the spilling sands resumed their steady flow, allowing the normal stream of time to return.

Reveling in triumph, Sartan and Keresis proudly led their minions from the Garden of the Gods, returning to the sanguine fog surrounding Mhaldor. But this seemed no victory to Bal'met, who glowered, vanishing in a flurry of noxious fumes.

The Jade Empress

For many months, Shallam mourned its lost Gods, clinging to a sadly diminished Te'serra. Only Lorielan, the Enlightened, remained to them, but She had left many years ago for the Crystal Realm and none had heard from Her since. While Her Order in Shallam raised new shrines and sought desperately to wield what shreds of power She had left them, they knew they badly needed the presence of the departed Elder Goddess.

Hope at last arrived in the form of a pale woman in traveller's garb, whom the Samadhi remembered as a messenger and servant of Lorielan. They quickly beseeched her to aid them in contacting the Enlightened One, though Caliph Halos stood back, suspicious. "The Crystal Realm is a veritable fortress," the woman reminded them, "and so it will not be easy." Nonetheless, they were determined.

Together with the pale woman, whose name the Caliph still struggled to recall, Greys, Halos, Zenui, Yen, Silas, and Lys journeyed to the Siorraidh, where they gathered beneath the great dome. Sir Zenui produced from the depths of the temple the Jade Sceptre, a gift to the Goddess from the Kx'khrah and a powerful link to the Crystal Realm itself.

Naming Caliph Halos as the speaker with a small smile upon her face, the pale woman instructed the group to make an offering of truth to Lady Lorielan. Each of them in turn whispered one true thing into the air, followed by calling Her name. The woman's offering bothered the Caliph yet further: why use the phrase "until I am permitted to die?" But there was no time to raise the objection, as each member of the company completed the invocation.

At last, Halos made his offering and called Her name three times. The Sceptre in his hands reveberated strongly in the air, and the name echoed in the silence. Soon, the echo was joined by more, until the Lady's many names clamored in a great cacophony, and the Sceptre shattered.

A pillar of jade flame soared into the sky, setting the clouds ablaze, and a portal opened to the glittering Crystal Realm beyond. The Samadhi gathered close, great smiles on their face, while around them the names died away, the last to fade into silence a whispered "Jade Empress."

Then, Her voice cold and infinitely austere, Lorielan said, "No."

She turned and vanished, the portal sealing behind Her, and Her followers stared in mute shock as Her Order dissolved, its purpose served.

The pale woman cackled, casting off her disguise to reveal her true form: a coldly beautiful woman in black robes. Zenui was the first to recognise her for who she was: "Lysithea," he growled, eyes narrow.

The eldest of Lorielan's human servants laughed, taunting the Samadhi for believing the Jade Empress's great ruse and trusting that She would save them when all of the efforts of the Gods had come to naught, and then she departed for parts unknown.

Behind her, a chill wind blew from the Vashnars, and the Citadel grew dark and lifeless, abandoned by the last of its Gods. Shallam stood alone.

The Fall of Shallam

For days the ormyrr massed their forces under stormy skies, building a thickening perimeter around Shallam. Citizens of the Jewel watched with growing concern as the legions of Krenindala camped in the Pash Valley and invaded the village of Jaru. Day by day the ranks of the ormyrr swelled and skirmishes between the reptilian invaders and the soldiers of Shallam grew more frequent and bloody. The build-up seemed a prelude to an all but certain invasion.

The tension broke at last on the 6th of Phaestian, as blood-red fog twisted and roiled in the skies above Mhaldor, shaping into the cruel visage of Sartan, the Malevolent. Fixing his gaze upon the East, Lord Sartan addressed the besieged Jewel, roaring, "Your Gods are dead and gone, Shallam. The Jade Empress has shown Her true colour. Whose creed will you blindly recite now?"

In response, the clear, strong voices of Shallam's citizens rang out, defying Sartan and affirming their oaths to Good and Light. "Predictable as always, you spout hollow drivel, even with no patron to protect you," Sartan snarled. "Now begins your instruction in the Seven Truths."

Echoing the bold declaration, the baleful chuckle of the god Bal'met rumbled from someplace unseen, but it was soon cut off by the ferocious roar of the undead dragon Sycaerunax, who descended from the stormy skies to sweep over the continent of Sapience. Long shadows darkened the central continent as the Father of Dragons glided upon his enormous wings, trailed by a trio of colossal Dala'myrr. The ancient wyrms moved with haste across the skies, the bright domes of Shallam gleaming in their eyes.

The waiting ranks of the ormyrr began to move with silent footfalls down the Raphaelan Highway, following the shadows of Sycaerunax and the Dala'myrr as they glided over the Jewel. Simultaneously, the ground trembled, and more of the enormous Dala'myrr broke through the earth's crust at the foothills of the Siroccian Mountains, unleashing a keening cry before diving back into the ground. As the cacophonic wails faded away, a cold pall fell across the city of Shallam, and the Father of Dragons circled silently overhead. The siege of Shallam had begun.

~ ~ ~

The Dala'myrr burrowed beneath Shallam, undermining its foundations, while the Father of Dragons rained fiery death from the skies. With a brassy roar, Sycaerunax unleashed a massive blast of flame into the heart of the city. The raging inferno struck the Shallamese University, and the massive domed amphitheatre exploded, sending a shockwave of power rippling outward from the blast. Taking the brunt of the explosion, the gilded alchemy tower quickly succumbed. As the gold and silver orrery within was crushed, a wave of etheric energy joined the dust and debris choking the air, momentarily drowning out all sound and causing the city to waver like a distant mirage.

Reveling in the carnage, the Dala'myrr and Sycaerunax pressed their assault, destroying one by one the Jewel's centres of culture and learning. The museum collapsed in a shower of precious metals and stained glass, burying the priceless artefacts within. The Father of Dragons dismantled the Silverdrop Inn, peeling back stone and wood like foil to dine upon the terrified citizens who had taken shelter within its walls. Not to be outdone, shrieking Dala'myrr careened into Sahart's, sending a plume of debris skyward.

The great Houses, too, fell prey to the depravations of the city's attackers. The lakeside of the Crystalline Circle collapsed, the protective enchantments laid upon its walls withering like parchment held to a flame. Neither sword nor shield in Templars' hands could prevent the Dala'myrr from ripping apart their hallowed hall. The Citadel of Light itself, resplendent even after the loss of the Te'Serra, cracked and fell as Sycaerunax squeezed the magnificent edifice into rubble.

Terrified screams rent the air as citizens fled for their lives amid the burning debris. The clamour sent a flock of paradise birds to the skies, their wings carrying them swiftly away from the devastation. Ships moored in the harbour quickly became laden with fleeing refugees. Those who were able to keep calm fanned out across the streets, patrolling for panicked citizens and providing them escorts to the docks. Their calm under fire saved countless lives that might have otherwise been lost. As the destruction continued, it became clear that the city would fall. The question was, could the defenders hold long enough for the refugees to escape?

~ ~ ~

Fatigue began to set in as the siege began to take its toll. The streets of Jaru and the fertile Pash soil were soaked with blood where ormyrr barred the exits from the city, slaughtering all citizens who tried to escape on foot. With each act of devastation Sycaerunax and the Dala'myrr pushed forward with dauntless savagery, and the spirits of the Royal Guard and their allies faltered. Boulders soared through the air from catapults on the ramparts, but the projectiles were launched with desperation rather than precision, and flew wildly, only adding to the chaos on the battlefield. Corpses piled high as the combat raged on, each minute to evacuate paid for in blood.

The earth itself would announce the end of the battle. The continent groaned and shuddered, the earth protesting down to its very bedrock as the enormous strain building underneath the Jewel of the East reached a tipping point. Chewed away by the burrowing Dala'myrr, the foundations of the city collapsed, and with an enormous crash, the few shining domes that remained above Shallam disappeared from the horizon as the city abruptly dropped ten feet or more.

The sound of stone grating against stone cried out, loud and hideous, and the last of Shallam's war-torn buildings began to crumble. As the structures fell, the panicked cries of citizens trapped within the growing rubble mixed in with the geological cacophony. The sea joined in the clamour of destruction, its rushing tides sweeping over the sinking city. The salty waters of the ocean rushed over the Peshwar Delta, reaching the walls of the Jewel of the East with startling speed.

Ravaged by wyrms of sky and stone, the once-radiant domes of the Jewel sank into the watery embrace of the sea, and the City of Shallam passed into history.

The Righteous Fire

"I'm scared Father," a small child whimpered. One hand clutched a stuffed animal, while the other held tightly to Father Garron's own. Each time the doors of the Sleeping with the Fishes Inn rattled, her grip tightened with a fresh bout of fear. The stout oak planks the villagers had used to barricade the entrance held against the ormyrr's attempts, and the efforts had grown less frequent and more lacklustre. Garron suspected that the ormyrr had abandoned the idea of storming the inn and were shaking the doors merely to keep fresh the terror of those who had taken shelter inside.

"Do not fear, child. You are safe." Garron spoke the words, and while he felt they were true, he could not help but feel hollow as they left his lips. Earlier in the day he had choked down a dose of skullcap, and now his mind was full of images of death and devastation. While Jaru survived to see another sunrise, the Jewel had not. Garron was certain the gruesome images that filled his deathsight would haunt him for the rest of his life.

A sharp rap on the door roused Garron from his thoughts, and the priest turned to glance at Mayor Cotridge. "Knocking?" Cotridge asked, raising his eyebrow. "That's a new tactic."

Again the clear knocks rang out. Then could be heard a muffled voice speaking in the Achaean tongue. "Ho Jaru. Have you survived? We are from the Shallamese Royal Guard, or what's left of it. We're clearing the ormyrr from the streets. If you can hear us, let us know you're all right."

A palpable wave of relief broke through the common room. "Praise the Gods," Father Garron whispered out of habit, before remembering his Gods were gone. "With your leave, Mayor?"

Cotridge nodded his acquiescence. Smiling down at the child holding his hand, Garron squeezed her grip with reassurance before passing her to one of the other townsfolk and heading to the door. Gunder stepped forward to help the priest clear away the tables and chairs pressed against the door, and then to remove the stout planks pressed into service to barricade against the ormyrr. Fitting a rusted key into the iron lock, Garron breathed a deep breath and whispered a prayer as he unlocked the door and went to greet what remained of Shallam's defenses.

~ ~ ~

Hours later Garron looked out over the weary refugees who had escaped the destruction of Shallam. The crowd huddled close together in front of the pyre Gunder had helped him build before the invasion. Their eyes were glassy, their expressions full of grief. A few eyes blazed with anger, rage even. Sir Gladius stood at the front of the host, jaw clenched and fists balled with fury. They pressed in close, waiting to hear why he had called them here. Nodding to their former Caliph, Father Garron stepped forward to speak.

"Citizens of Shallam, there are no words to convey the grief and loss you must feel in this dark hour. My heart and my prayers go out to you. I grieve with you for what has been lost. Valour, Compassion, Justice, and the radiant Lady Sol have laid down Their lives to fight the tyranny of Bal'met. Enslaved in the bondage of undeath, the Father of Dragons, once a noble creature by Han-Tolneth's telling, has led the Dala'myrr to destroy the Jewel of the East. There is terrible darkness all around us. The skies seethe with anger and the seas froth and foam. We are caught in a battle between titanic forces, and we feel small indeed."

"But do not lose hope. The Te'Serra have fallen, yes. But They fell fighting for the ideals They charged us with defending. They fell in service to Good, wielding the power of Light to protect Creation from the grave threat we now face. Great as the Gods are, Lord Lucretius foresaw that one day we would rise up to outstrip the Gods. Another terrible war was fought as a result of that premonition. When all hope seemed lost then, victory arrived, borne on the wings of the noble dragons. Victory came because Han-Tolneth refused to give up. Even in his terrible grief after Han-Silnar's betrayal, he refused to succumb to defeat. Now, just as then, we are surrounded by a terrible darkness, and our continued existence is threatened. What will we do? Will we give in to despair and doubt? Will we surrender our will and yield?"

"No," murmured the inchoate crowd. The word began as a whisper, barely heard. As it rolled across the gathered refugees it grew in strength and sharpness, bringing a measure of light back to their dull, flat gazes. "No!" they repeated, and the priest nodded.

"No," he answered back to them. "We will stand strong. We will be faithful to our oaths. We are champions, not cowards. We who have raised cities and empires will not crumble. We who broke the Black Wave will not succumb to this dark tide. Stone may crack, glass may shatter, and steel may rust, but Good and Light are eternal. We are their sworn sword and shield. Let us show the truth in Lord Lucretius' foretelling, and be a mighty bulwark against this darkness."

Looking out at the frothing sea beyond the refugees, his back pressed up against the unlit pyre, Father Garron realised the tide had come in and he was struck with a sudden clarity of thought.

"Let us also take a moment to remember those who lost their lives, those who the Great Mother has commended to Thoth's embrace. The sea returns their bodies to us. Let us in turn commend them to fire. Bring their corpses here and place them in the pyre before us, so they can rest in peace." Garron turned to Father Halos, who nodded and stepped forward, igniting the pyre with a spark from his tinderbox.

Garron watched as the crowd dispersed to fulfil the grisly task he had set them to. After just a few moments the first of them returned: Salik Rian. With careful deliberation, Salik laid the first waterlogged corpse on the pyre, and the flames seemed to rise up to embrace the departed with reverence. Tongues of fire leapt and danced, hungry to welcome the dead, and their growing heat kindled something familiar in Father Garron's heart... something he had not felt in centuries. As he tried to place the sensation, Garron felt a faint awareness brush against his mind.

"Father," whispered the soul of Silas, his plea filled with an urgent fear. Silas, who had borne the sword and ensured its safety for months, had perished against the ormyrr. "Father, the sword is gone. The ormyrr may have just taken it. Do you sense its presence?" Father Garron looked up, eyes filled with wonder as the Sword of Dunamis appeared in Father Halos' hand with a burst of fire, burning as a mirror image of the raging pyre.

Garron stood slack-jaw and mute, unable to understand, but desperate to hope. He watched as heat and light began to radiate from the sword, and the blade rose of its own accord in Halos' grip, its length pointing to the pyre. Understanding rushed into Halos' eyes, and he tossed the sword into the flames. In the instant blade met fire the world turned white, and everything changed.

~ ~ ~

As his vision returned, Father Garron watched a beacon of brilliant, white hot flames shine forth from the pyre, rising up into the sky. Unbound from the burning wood, the scorching blaze expanded far beyond the confines of the pyre, enveloping the crowd. As the fire reached him, Garron felt its hungry tendrils lick at his skin. He flinched, waiting for a pain that never came. The heat of the fierce flames was undeniable, but somehow his body suffered no ill effect. As he watched, the blinding conflagration coalesced into a titanic humanoid outline that towered overhead. The radiant light dispelled all shadow, and the figure reached down with a massive hand, fingers grasping at something minuscule by comparison.

Whether seconds or centuries passed, Garron could not tell; he was spellbound by the sight unfolding before him. Eventually, time asserted itself again. As the light dwindled the pyre dimmed to its original size. From the blazing inferno emerged a man, a coruscating nimbus outlining the statuesque form. Grasped in his right hand was the Sword of Dunamis, white-hot fire coursing down its blade. The crowd dropped to one knee instantly, and Father Garron felt himself kneeling without conscious awareness of the decision to move. The silence that blanketed the refugees settled thick, until the man spoke.

"Tassad Baraslan called Me here, and I answered His call. He sacrificed himself to bring Me forth. That sacrifice was honoured by the Logos."

"In time I made My own sacrifice, giving up My power and form to save Achaea from the destruction of Death's Heart. Since then, I have existed as less than a spark while others carried the torch I left behind. I remember Maran's call to Me. The gulf was too wide for a mortal to breach, but it was not too wide for an immortal."

"Pentharian, Heir to My power and My responsibility, called to Me. I heard in His cry His need. Your need."

"Much is unknown to Me, but this is clear: A foulness has corrupted these lands. It has brought low men and Gods. It has brought you low, making you refugees. I feel the pestilence, digging its tendrils into the bones of the world. I taste the oily wrongness that hangs on the air."

His eyes reflecting the raging fire of the pyre, the man thundered, "I return to you now, remade! Fire scours away all that is impure. I am that fire. You shall be that fire. We shall scour away the impurity that poisons the land and see it made pure again. We shall purge Creation of this filth, root and branch!"

Throwing back his head, the figure's voice boomed from Shastaan to Baelgrim Fortress as he thundered, "Servants sworn in fealty to Good, bound to Light as I am. I see the hunger for justice that burns in your souls, the valour that shines against the dark. Follow Me, and we will turn the tide against our foe!"

Father Garron felt tears of joy wetting his cheek as the words seemed to sear into his flesh and ignite his very bones. "The Righteous Fire," he whispered, "Lord Deucalion."

Sycaerunax Restored

As the tide inexorably washed Shallam's dead to shore, as smoke and ash settled and the battered refugees made their meagre camp in the monastery of New Hope, and as the ormyrr forces that laid Sahart's ancient city low were abandoned by their fell masters to die to the armies of Sapience, stories began to slowly filter in. Tales of harrowing survival, of staggering loss, and of miraculous heroism were whispered in the stunned, funeral silence that blanketed the land, but one particular rumour reached the ears of Han-Tolneth and shook him from a place of unrelenting despair to one of hope.

Amid the chaos and destruction of the Jewel, several rescuers had noticed something peculiar happening when the great dragon banked and turned above. For the briefest of instances, the undead Sycaerunax had focused his hollow gaze upon them alone and the large embers clasped in their hands, and a faint flicker had illuminated his eyes for a mere moment. What was it? Regret? Recognition? It couldn't be. And if it was, what could be done? They were so insignificant, and he a creature of such overwhelming power: one who had torn gods and cities asunder.

Fire blazed within the Dragonmaster and the newly reborn god, however, and hopelessness could not take hold. Together, Han-Tolneth and Deucalion asked first the refugees, and then the world, to collect the largest embers they could while a plan was formulated. The response was overwhelming and Han-Tolneth watched, grim-faced and praying that the efforts would be enough by the next time Sycaerunax's incredible might was brought to bear, as five, ten, even thirty-pound embers were rushed to his side and then dropped into the lake where Ashaxei's Mirror now stood.

~ ~ ~

It wasn't long before the next attack did come. Shortly after the fall of Shallam, Ashtan declared war on the city-state of Mhaldor, and a war was truly begun. With a grating snarl, the God of Evil made his ire known, and raised His black hand to point at the northern state. A trio of Dala'myrr streamed toward the Bastion, sinuous and menacing, and dived into the Sangre plains, sending a plume of dirt surging skywards. The ground heaved with violent protest, and legions of ormyrr moved upon the city gates in staggering numbers. A cold silence fell for a moment as a divine mantle settled upon the Bastion of the North, the favour of Babel empowering its guardsmen against their foe.

The silence was swiftly broken when the earth shuddered and a colossal Dala'myrr erupted up through the cobblestones of the Parade of Zarathustra, fixing its attention on the city's post office. Cawing in outrage, a murder of crows took wing, darkening the air. Ashtan trembled and the ground lurched, its ancient foundations disrupted by the Dala'myrr, and smoke filled the skies as several buildings fell into ruin. The guards, strengthened and well-braced for battle, successfully fought off many of the advancing ormyrr, but the death toll rose and shouts rang out. As in Shallam only two months before, many citizens headed for the harbour and escape by sea.

A pair of Dala'myrr bore down upon the palace upon its hilltop at the heart of Ashtan, soaring languidly through the air towards their goal. Moments from the destruction of the palace, a tall, robed figure stepped from the air behind them. His voice cold and commanding, Babel shouted simply, "Take them." A great, sucking void, like the Pit of Golgotha but much, much larger, opened in the air, and the Dala'myrr were dragged helplessly within. Babel nodded and turned, vanishing, while the creatures suffered a slow, agonising death deep within the Pit.

Above the shouts and thunder of battle, Sartan's voice roared, "Come, Dragon Father. Show these fools the true meaning of Suffering." The gargantuan, jagged shadow of Sycaerunax, the Dragon Father, erupted from beyond the horizon in response, rising high into the firmament. The wailing screech of grinding bone echoed in the distance as the colossal wyrm neared, and with it came the overwhelming presence of death. With an almighty roar, the skeletal wings of the dragon shifted, and it swiftly banked toward Ashtan. Alighting at the northern end of the city he spat green flames at lavish estates, showing nothing but contempt for the attacks leveled at him.

Catching the fleeing Ashtani in his sights, Sycaerunax once again took wing and silence accented only by faint screams descended as he soareduntil he hovered over the laden evacuation ships. Chlorochrous embers danced in the air before the dragon's maw, catching the air aflame as Sycaerunax gathered his power. With a brassy roar that shook the land, he unleashed a raging column of sickly green flame downward, and booming explosions mixed with an angry hiss as the waters vaporised into scalding steam. The harbour instantly devolved into a holocaust of burning ships and charred citizens, the air redolent with the scent of burning flesh.

~ ~ ~

It was then that Han-Tolneth's voice cried out, calling a challenge to the dread Father of Dragons. "No!" he shouted. "Your anger lies not with them, Dragon Father. Have mercy upon their souls, for it is I who did you harm. Come, face the man who allowed the death of your daughter."

The glimmering eyes of Sycaerunax faltered, and with a snarl he emitted a final stream of vile green flame above the city of Ashtan before banking and surging towards the Mhojave with a thunderous, agonising scream. Scorching the firmament with acidic flame, the great wyrm passed over the sandy dunes of the desert, soaring toward Han-Tolneth and the water-filled crater. The great dragon dipped into a gradual dive, casting a menacing glance across the gleaming surface. The translucent visage of Ashaxei shimmered, reflected high into the sky by the primal force of the monument that rests in the depths of the spring. Emitting a screeching roar, the dragon halted, his crimson eyes aglow with fury as he gazed upon his kin. All at once the image faded into mere specks, filtered back into the waters, and all feared the dragon's next move.

Han-Tolneth spoke again, urging him onward. "She waits, Sycaerunax." Mercifully, miraculously, the Father of Dragons responded, twisting into a steep dive and plunging into the cool depths. A soft, argentine glow flickered within the water of the Mhojave crater, casting a dim light across the firmament. As the world stilled, the deadly silence was broken only by the chaotic shouts and crashes that reverberated from the Bastion of the North. From the very depths of the crater, great arches of light arose, leaping into the sky like silken ribbons caught upon the wind. As the beams of light multiplied, so too did they brighten, glittering with pure, effulgent brilliance until, with a clap of deafening thunder, they converged within the crater's depths and a growling voice thundered "I... am renewed!"

~ ~ ~

Bursting from the water, a magnificent alabaster dragon took to the skies, hovering upon perpetually beating wings. Pristine, silver fire erupted from the restored wyrm's mighty maw as he emitted a tremendous roar of grief and outrage, the argentine flames streaming through the firmament. A jagged fork of lightning crackled from the darkened clouds that rolled across the boundless sky, leaping toward the western isle where Mhaldor stood. As the flash of light quickly faded, the grotesque visage of Bal'met appeared in the heavens, his lips twitching into a menacing sneer.

The sneer twisted further into a snarling grin, the vision instantly splintered by the dark, sinuous forms of three Dala'myrr, their sights fixed upon the reborn dragon. Sycaerunax loosed a hideous screech and, with a mighty flap of his opalescent wings, hurled himself toward the impending trio. Rich fire erupted from his gaping maw, slamming into the Dala'myrr with such raw potency that their forms simply disintegrated, the ashen remnants dissipating into the atmosphere. Triumphantly banking toward the west, Sycaerunax affixed the city of Mhaldor with a defiant stare.

Ignoring pleas for caution, the mighty dragon surged toward the city of Mhaldor, searing the earth below with brilliant silver flame. For a brief, heart-stopping moment the dragon vanished amid a miasma of red fog, his progress only traceable by the eddies he left in his passing. Swooping low and releasing a roar that caused the mountain to tremble, Sycaerunax's massive bulk circled behind the northern peak with slow, immutable purpose. His motions marked by a keen, measured intelligence and grace he lacked while under Bal'met's control, he selected his target with precision. Green fire silhouetted the mountain upon the western horizon, and the towering council building of Mhaldor plummeted away from the slopes, its ornate stonework reduced to charred rubble and smouldering ash. Fury blazing in his eyes, the dragon rose and banked again, focusing his gaze upon the spires of Baelgrim Fortress.

From the depths of the western island, crimson daemons joined the flight, taking to the skies upon leathery wings. The horde of beasts surrounded the alabaster wyrm, shrieking in unrestrained glee. The monstrous God of Evil lunged towards Sycaerunax, His focus fixed upon the narrow head of the great wyrm. His clawed hand connected with a howl of triumph, scraping scale and flesh from ancient bone. The dragon fell across the obsidian stone of the mountainside, tearing a rickety building from its foundations and sending it tumbling into the abyss below. High above, the horrific form of Bal'met materialised, nestled within the dark depths of the thunderous clouds. With a sneer of disdain, he slowly moved across the heavens towards the dragon with malicious intent.

The voice of Han-Tolneth rang out once more, breaking through the dragon's fury. "Sycaerunax! Fall back! You cannot do this alone." Sycaerunax reluctantly acquiesced, but not before turning his noble head and gazing into Bal'met's eyes with utter loathing and deadly promise. Scraping a grand old mansion from the mountainside, the dragon swiftly took wing, leaving a trail of fire and blood to mark his passing.

Betrayal and Banishment

Glowering beneath his cassock, Archdeacon Maljer strode through the halls of Mhaldor's quiet cathedral, his solitude rudely interrupted by the vociferous cries of heathens. As neared the gates of Mhaldor, the guttural voices of ormyrr could be heard chanting from a close distance, and his ire grew.

"These creatures grow too bold," the archdeacon angrily addressed the city. "They pray to their own god upon our doorstep and do not show proper reverence!"

Finally he stood at the city gates, glaring outward at the priests who had assembled nearby.

"Cease your heathen supplications, you overgrown lizards" Maljer yelled in their direction. "Lord Sartan is master here, not Bal'met!"

In response, a heavy boulder came soaring in, landing on the foot of Archdeacon Maljer, who howled in rage as a guttural chuckle resounded in its wake.

"This foolishness will not be tolerated," Maljer muttered, summoning two Naga assassins from their nearby post. "Teach them a lesson!"

Each pulling an arrow from his quiver and nocking it to his bow in one fluid motion, the assassins took aim and fired, hissing in pleasure as they found their mark upon an ormyrr priest.

A group of ormyrr thundered in, eyes narrowed suspiciously as they flexed their hulking muscles and belched small plumes of noxious green flame in an attempt to intimidate.

"Leave our gates," Maljer said dismissively. "Our Master may trust you enough to serve as our attack dogs, but you are not worthy of walking the streets beside us."

Slowly stepping forward, an ormyrr guard came face-to-face with Maljer, exhaling a slow cloud of smoke before giving a fearsome roar that blows the daemon archdeacon's white hair back with the force.

"You will regret this, you pathetic beast!" Maljer shrieked in rage, and the growing tension finally broke as a full brawl erupted between the ormyrr and Mhaldor's guards.

Snarling viciously, a muscular ormyrr struck the first blow, raking a Naga assassin across the face with his razor-sharp claws. At his side, a Tanjinn monk shifted expertly into a scorpion stance and launched into a flurry of kicks and punches, breaking the limbs of a muscular ormyrr's limbs. Seconds later an ormyrr priest flung a handful of metallic dust at a knight of the Maldaathi. Soon all were enmeshed in a chaotic tangle of limbs and weaponry.

Dust rose from the streets as more ormyrr rushed through the gates, entangling with the guards in a furious fracas. From all over the city guards were drawn to the sounds of fighting, and the brawl escalated. In the uproar of the fray, few noticed three priests quietly gathering together in a ring, grasping each other's forearms tightly.

Rasping out a guttural string of syllables, the priests chanted louder and louder, but the only recognisable word was "Bal'met." With increasing fervour the priests flailed their arms, eyes rolling wildly as they were surrounded by a growing aura of light.

Suddenly, a blast of raw power radiated outward from the trio of priests, consuming the entire crowd of brawlers, both ormyrr and Mhaldorian, in deadly flames.

All was silent at the gates of Mhaldor as the dust settled. But the repose was brief, and soon the sanguine fog that surrounded the City of Evil began to billow and rise. Above the city's spires appeared the furious visage of Sartan, the Malevolent.

"Bal'met!" shouted Sartan. "Your lackeys encroach upon My domain. Call off your minions before I crush them!"

Then, deep within the roiling stormclouds that raged above Sapience, Bal'met appeared, his narrowed gaze fixed upon the crimson fog of the west. Sinister and dark, his gruesome laugh fills the skies, and he turned away from Sartan with a mocking smirk.

As quickly as the vision appeared, the clouds quickly shifted, and once more the sky was simply a churning blanket of thunderous brume. Dark, sinuous shadows wove across the firmament: a pair of Dala'myrr moving toward the west, their forms twisting in unison as they neared the craggy isle and dove toward the earth, hissing with unrestrained pleasure.

Mounds of earth flew into the sky as the Dala'myrr slammed into the ground and burrowed far below. Rumbling and groaning, the earth shook as the great wyrms moved below the surface, and the spires of Mhaldor's tall buildings shuddered upon the western horizon. Under the ground, bloodworms and Blackrock dwarves were crushed by falling rocks. Even a priestess of the Goddess of Vengeance, whose temple lies hidden away beneath the island, fell victim to the great quakes brought on by the burrowing Dala'myrr.

Furious at the wanton disaster brought to her devotee, Keresis addressed the God of Evil.

"This is a warning," she insisted. "Bal'met sees us as his pets, not the other way around. He must be taught a lesson and brought to heel!"

"Scour the island for ormyrr and slay each one you find," Sartan instructed the city. "Should you encounter a Dala'myrr, destroy it as well.

"No," the Goddess of Vengeance interrupted with a hiss. "Leave the worms to Me."

~ ~ ~

Loud cracks resounded through the bowels of Mhaldor, shaking the ground and causing the buildings to tremble as its citizenry prepared to hunt down the ormyrr. Loose stones and pebbles danced and jostled upon the ground, disturbed by the movement below, but Mhaldor was undeterred.

Onlookers from across the lands who paid close heed to the realm of Death saw gruesome visions of dying ormyrr, gutted and cut down by Sir Tirac Vastel and the party of Mhaldorians who followed him across the desolate island. Ruthless in their slaughter, the party marched from shore to shore, trampling all who stood in their path. As they passed, even a lycopod landed a killing blow upon one unlucky victim, to the bewilderment of Achaeans everywhere.

Blood began to soak the soil of the western island, and a murder of crows blackened the firmament above the Northern Vashnars, streaming from their underground home and taking to the skies. As the dark silhouettes wheeled through the air, the Goddess Keresis appeared in their midst, furious and terrifying to behold as She raised the Blade of the Dreadlord in one hand.

Narrowing her eyes at the island beneath her, the Goddess of Vengeance appeared to be searching closely for something. Then, with a resounding battlecry, the Goddess of Vengeance hurled her sword toward the blighted earth, where it struck like an arrow piercing flesh. Tremors shook the world as two Dala'myrr shuddered and shook beneath the island, fatally pierced by the point of the Goddess' blade.

Under the watchful eyes of Sartan and Keresis, the numbers of ormyrr upon the island soon dwindled, and Mhaldorians returned to their city, satisfied with their completed task. Frenetic chanting issued forth from Baelgrim Fortress, and the dwarven initiates of Blackrock raised their voices to join the chorus, wailing invocations to the Malevolent One.

"Your treachery is no surprise, Bal'met," thundered Sartan. "We have been anxious, waiting for you to make a move. Did you think us blind to your scheming?"

Weaving his clawed hands, Sartan snarled in concentration, and an aura of sinister power began to gather about him. Sanguine tendrils of noxious fog rose up at his command, snaking through the firmament and twining with roiling stormclouds, churning in a circular motion high above Achaea. Gravely he uttered a string of harsh, formidable words in the language of the gods, his voice carrying over the thundering howl of the strengthening whirlwind.

Terrifying to behold, Bal'met remained silent upon the firmament, his expression faintly amused as he watched Sartan's orchestrations in the sky.

Lightning flashed amidst the turbulent storm, and a gaping void began to grow at its centre. As the eye of the storm opened wide, beyond could be seen an endless plain of shattered ruins surrounded by blackened, wiry grasses: the legendary battleground of Nishnatoba. Upon the blood-stained lands stood the Goddess of Vengeance, defiant and powerful, the Bow of Malice pointed outward as She aimed it directly at Bal'met.

"Leash this animal," Sartan called out to Keresis, "and let us show the dog its new home."

Without a word, Keresis loosed an arrow from the Bow of Malice. Like fire it blazed through the sky, and gleaming links of crimson chain began to uncoil at the goddess' feet, following in the arrow's wake.

A roar of pain soared through the firmament as the arrow struck Bal'met. Sparking with flashes of blinding light, the chain that spanned the sky grew taut, its links penetrating through and coiling around his immortal form. The god writhed in outrage, eliciting a savage cry of triumph from the Goddess of Vengeance.

Continuing his ominous intonations in the ancient tongue of the gods, Sartan reached out toward the vortex, which began spinning even more wildly than before at his command. Caught by surprise, Bal'met flailed as the overwhelming force of the whirling winds began to drag him closer and closer to the centre of the maelstrom.

A crack of thunder rang out as Keresis gave a mighty heave upon the chain, pulling Bal'met through the turbulent storm to the plane of Nishnatoba.

"Now, at last, it is my turn to serve vengeance to you," she proclaimed.

Clouds and lightning whipped dangerously around the open portal to Nishnatoba, through which Keresis could be seen circling Bal'met with a cruel smile.

"Keresis!" shouted Sartan across the planes. "Time is running out, the gate must be sealed NOW."

The glittering eyes of Keresis narrowed as she glared outward at the storm-wreathed opening, watching as it wavered and began to diminish in size. With a frustrated snarl she abandoned her prey, heading toward the opening and away from Nishnatoba.

Suddenly the deafening shrieks of Dala'myrr were everywhere, and dozens of the ferocious creatures descended from the clouds above Sapience, rushing across the sky toward the tempestuous vortex. Sartan gritted his teeth, bending his full will toward the storm, his veins glowing with fire against his ashen skin as he strained to keep the portal open.

One by one the Dala'myrr streamed through the air and into the portal, blindly seeking their trapped master and pummelling Keresis back as she tried in vain to escape Nishnatoba. But Sartan could no longer hold open the path between the planes. With a mighty bellow he released his power, causing the great vortex to shudder and close with a violent crash.

A wave of raucous energy rolled over the firmament, battering the heavens in a relentless onslaught as the glimpse of Nishnatoba vanished from sight, along with Bal'met and Keresis. Moments later, screams echoed from distant Nishnatoba as Keresis, Goddess of Vengeance, was consumed by the raw power of Bal'met.

How Bal'met escaped his chains and why he still remains bound to Nishnatoba remain a mystery; all we can be certain of is the dire circumstance that now brews upon that plane. For only moments later, the resounding voice of Aeon, Lord of Time came ringing: "Sartan... you fool. That was the worst place you could have chosen to banish Bal'met. Nishnatoba is more closely tied to the Fire behind the Flame than even the Prime Material... pray you have not doomed us all."

The Lightbringer

Aeon stood at the fulcrum. There, all moments converged, allowing the God of Time to perceive all that was and could be. Countless multitudes of lives were born and snuffed out. Empires rose and fell. Beneath his idle gaze the tableau shifted, and dynasties waxed and waned. As he watched, a single crown simultaneously rested on the brow of a hundred kings and queens as they reigned throughout the ages. With every passing scene, the sands within Aeon's great hourglass fell at a steady pace, chronicling each moment from the act of creation to the myriad futures.

But then, a sudden shift interrupted the even passage of time... a stutter of moments. Aeon's eyebrow raised with an unfamiliar sense of utter finality. Fixing on the disruption, the Lord of Time searched for the source of the burr in the otherwise smooth, endless fabric of the ages. His confusion deepened, turning to anger as the dissonance grew more profound the harder he reached for it. Gripping his hourglass and wielding the power the Creator imbued in him alone, Aeon moved himself outside of the currents of time. He slid beyond cause and effect, and the falling sands in the hourglass ground to a halt.

"No. This cannot be," he said. It had been a millennium since he last spoke, and Aeon's voice was a rough, rasping whisper that echoed back in his ears, unable to propagate across the stillness that existed outside of time. As the statement of disbelief repeated again and again, Aeon watched with horror as the fulcrum collapsed, and the orderly march of moments ground to a halt. Rising from the wreckage, he perceived the source of the destruction: a strange wyrm, its hungry mandibles clacking as it devoured all possible futures, leaving only a single, horrifying outcome. Grim-faced, Aeon turned and willed himself back within the flow of time, upending the hourglass, and the sands returned to their chamber of origin. The world moved in reverse, and Aeon watched history undo itself as he moved toward the past, determined to preserve the future.

~ ~ ~

Aeon watched destruction undo itself as the Father of Dragons struck at Mhaldor, then flew in reverse into Ashaxei's Mirror, only to emerge an undead remnant of his later splendour. He watched Shallam rise from the sea, its gleaming domes re-assembling and countless emerald shards careening together to form the Citadel of Light. He beheld his brethren leaping off the swords that impaled them as they were surrounded in the Garden of the Gods, their trap for Bal'met turned against them. Frowning, Aeon touched his hourglass and the sand began to fall again, allowing the Lord of Time to influence the moment. He had done this same thing over generations: lengthen a key moment here, shorten another there. All done to ensure the continuity of time, the procession of the river. Never before this moment had his touch been so brazenly visible.

Shimmering into view high above the bloody fray in the Garden, Aeon tilted his hourglass. Responding to their Master's will, the grains of sand within the timepiece slowed in their fall, and the passage of time around Sartan, Bal'met, and their forces similarly slowed. Granted precious moments, the gods melted away, escaping the wreckage of their failed trap. When the last of the survivors had gone, Aeon vanished with them, allowing the normal stream of time to return. "There will be a price to be paid," he whispered. Shaking his head, he turned the hourglass again, and sailed backward once more towards the wellspring of time at the moment of creation.

~ ~ ~

For centuries Aeon repeated his movements, his subtle influences. Jumping through history, he redirected petty feuds, fanned plagues, and birthed new nations. Master of cause and effect, Aeon employed his skill in hopes of preventing the collapse of the fulcrum. Alas, the Time Lord's efforts all met with failure. Not a single change could avert the disastrous outcome wrought by the summoning of Bal'met.

Growling with frustration, Aeon hurled his hourglass through the frozen tableau of the planets. He had come to watch the comet Ethian collide with Abbadon, a voracious black pit in space, a moment of particular significance that had resulted in the birth of two new deities. The hourglass slammed into the comet as it raced through the multiverse, but the timepiece merely glanced away, unharmed. As an artefact of time itself, only an act of Aeon could damage the glass. However, Aeon noticed a curious effect as the timepiece struck Ethian's surface. A ripple of power spread outward from the point of contact. A ripple not in space, but in time. His eyes widening, Aeon gestured, and the hourglass returned to his waiting hand. Tilting it, he moved back to Ethian's genesis with a renewed sense of purpose.

~ ~ ~

Utterly drained, Aeon stood outside the currents of time, gathering his thoughts. All of his efforts had shown him this was the only way forward: a single chance to ensure the fulcrum and its endless possibilities would endure. For once, he realised, he could not see the future beyond this choice, since events wrought by his own action were opaque to him. Thus it must be the correct way.

"So this is what it feels like to not know," Aeon mused. Shaking his head, the god gripped his hourglass and willed himself into the flow of time, entering it at the moment of his choice.

Aeon slid easily into the present, manifesting high above Sapience. He felt the rain against his ageless skin, and the wind as it snapped at his robes. Sensations of the moment he rarely experienced, Aeon allowed himself time to savour the feelings before steeling himself to his task.

"The river of time is my domain. I tend its flow as it moves from the moment of Creation onward to ends unseen. Its tributaries are limitless," he cried out. "Since the beginning I have stood aloof to the choices of gods and men alike, but now I must intervene. This Bal'met is a dam in the river of time. The endless offshoots and rich possibilities dwindle to a trickle, to a singular future. I will not permit this. It is an intolerable thought." Inhaling deeply, Aeon felt a profound sense of relief as he committed himself. "All through history I have chronicled the decisions that have shaped fate. Now I make my own. I forsake my prescience and my stewardship of the river. I choose to act," he proclaimed.

Aeon turned as Deucalion manifested beside him. With great deference, the younger god inclined his head before the Lord of Time and offered up His blade. Releasing his hold on the hourglass, Aeon took up the Sword of Dunamis and, with measured precision, brought the weapon in alignment with the timepiece. Drawing the sword back, Aeon did what he alone was capable of. Shattering the glass, He freed the sands of time locked within.

The world held its breath as the blade connected. A peal of crystalline purity rang out, and the shattered glass rained down from the heavens and poured into the Flame of Yggdrasil at Aeon's command. As each grain of sand entered the Flame, Aeon felt his coherence diminish. Barely able to control the forces over which he had long been the undisputed master, Aeon called out, "the restoration of the future is found far upstream, in the past. This is my choice: to restore her. She who is Light will illuminate the dark future. Lightbringer! Come forth! I consign myself to the past so that you may return to shape the future! Be again! Make real what I have seen: by your hand will he be undone."

As his final words lingered, Aeon could only hope his choice was the right one. His last thought before his awareness faded was one of wonder, as the certainty of prescience was replaced with the hope that is the gift of ignorance.

Bloodsworn

Aurora, the Lightbringer, now stood at the head of the forces of Good, and the realm warmed to her lucent gaze as it had in centuries past. Beside her stood Deucalion, the Righteous Fire, hand outstretched in a gesture of welcome.

"Hear us, servants of Good," called out Aurora. "Oathsworn to Righteousness, to Valour, to Justice, to Light! All whose hands grip blessed steel, hark to our call! You whose souls drink from the wellspring of Devotion, we call you to rally under the Light's banner. Come now to the gates of the Garden of the Gods."

Hastening first to the Pillars of the Heavens was a former Elysian Silas Maynard and Father Garron of Jaru. Soon a huge crowd amassed about the two deities and a keen sense of energy and expectation rippled through the throng.

"We called you here because the time to decide this conflict speeds towards us," spoke the Lightbringer, her eyes afire with determination.

"This war between the gods threatens the fabric of Creation itself. The destroyer unravels the skein of the weave. You can see the strain manifesting across the world as Bal'met gorges on the power of the Fire Behind the Flame," Deucalion continued, his intense gaze sweeping across the mixed crowd.

"Aeon called me, and I came. He made a great sacrifice to bring me through the currents of time. That sacrifice will be honoured. Deucalion and I have spoken, and we will go from you to meet with the other gods. Our voices speak as one. We will advocate there be no more giving of ground. No more retreats. We will make our stand, and we see our choice through to its conclusion," Aurora stated bluntly.

Deucalion, the Righteous Fire spoke again. "You have lost friends and family. Your home. Your patrons. You are weary and concerned. We are not bringers of succour, but take what balm there is in our presence and our purpose."

As the voices of Good swelled in approval, Deucalion raised his voice again. "We are the immortal champions of Good. We are purifying fire and sacred light. We rise now to defend Creation, as we ever have and ever will!"

Their visages determined, the two gods turned to face each other. With a solemn nod to Father Garron, Deucalion extended his left hand to Aurora. Unsheathing a razor-sharp knife, she ran the tip of the blade along the length of Deucalion's forearm, drawing forth a slender line of bright, immortal blood, then extended her own right arm and similarly wounded herself.

At a signal from the Righteous One, Father Garron approached the deities, his eyes downcast in their presence. Unfurling a silk ribbon of pure white, he wrapped each god's wounded arm, binding them with the same cloth as it quickly became stained with rich droplets of crimson.

Amidst the charged atmosphere, the lucent voice of the Lightbringer intoned, "I grant you my strength, Righteous Fire. I grant you a measure of my power. I take in return the blows of your enemies. I bind myself to you and name you Bloodsworn." In return, Deucalion vowed, "I grant you my strength, Lightbringer. I grant you a measure of my power. I take in return the blows of your enemies. I bind myself to you and name you Bloodsworn."

The silk ribbon stirred briefly and then fell, cloven in twain by the power in the spoken oaths. Two lengths of silk were now wrapped around the arms of Aurora and Deucalion, shining with wet, fresh blood.

"My sword is yours to wield in this battle," promised Deucalion. "Be the weapon that shatters our foe."

"My shield is Yours," pledge Aurora. "Be the aegis that preserves Good."

As the two gazed at each other, never letting their eyes falling from the other's, Aurora accepted the Sword of Dunamis and, in return, presented Deucalion with the Shield of the Lightbringer.

Their commitment to one another witnessed by all, the two gods turned once more to their rapt audience. Aurora made Her final proclamation to the forces of Good: "All the oaths you swore in times of comfort and plenty to serve Good, the promises you uttered to be a light of hope for your flocks, to wage war against Creation's foes: we hold you to those promises now. Strope your swords. Summon your angels. Pray and draw deep on the wellspring of Devotion. The call will come, and you must be ready."

Striding forth, united under the banner of Good, the Bloodsworn of Light and Righteousness rallied their forces into perhaps the fiercest battle of their lives.

Fate of the Elemental Lord

Long did the gods ponder the troubles of the world. How many months had passed since the Flame of Yggdrasil had all but extinguished, leaving mortals without the ability to immolate their fallen peers in the sacred fire? That was only one of many growing concerns, as the immortals in the Garden of the Gods found themselves growing weak and more susceptible to mortal ends.

Time quakes plagued the world, so small as to be nearly unnoticeable by more than one individual at a time, while larger earthquakes rocked the realms from source beyond the gods' power. Mortals walking familiar roads found themselves falling through the ether, recovering on the opposite side of the continent. It was agreed that this must be a result of the Fire Behind the Flame faltering.

The return of Aurora, the Lightbringer, brought hope that a solution could be found. The simple plan Agatheis proposed seemed too easy, but how could they not attempt it?

And so the world watched as, radiant as the sun, golden beams streaked across the heavens. At their heart, Aurora, the Lightbringer appeared on the firmament above the Pillars of Heaven. The space beside the Goddess wavered and flickered as Agatheis, the Elemental Lord appeared.

Sweeping the Staff of the Elements through the space before them, Agatheis whispered words in the ancient language of the divine. With a sharp cry, he pierced the seal placed by Sartan over Nishnatoba.

Shuddering and cracking, reality tore apart at Agatheis' command, and an opening spread wide before the two gods. Beyond stood the terrible figure of Bal'met, furious and sinister, trapped upon the plane of Nishnatoba, struggling in vain to cross through the portal.

"Aeon, in His boundless vision, has prepared this path for you, Lightbringer," cried Agatheis. "There lies Your foe. Strike Him down!" Holding aloft the Sword of Dunamis, Aurora steadied her feet, her flawless form poised for a deadly strike. Swift and sure, the Lightbringer thrust the legendary blade through the portal, impaling Bal'met through the centre of his being.

Baleful and caustic, lightning slashed through the skies and savage black clouds rolled with thunder as Bal'met howled in pain and rage. Deafening shrieks of Dala'myrr pounded through the minds of mortals as dozens of the great wyrms cried out from distant Nishnatoba.

Aurora's face glowed with the certainty of victory as she pushed the Sword of Dunamis deeper into Bal'met, and the Devourer of Gods writhed in torment upon the blade, his strength dwindling as the screams of Dala'myrr rang out in a cacophonous riot.

Suddenly a swell of energy coursed through the dying god, and the inimitable blaze of the Fire Behind the Flame surged within him. With a shout of despair, Aurora was thrust backward from the portal, the Blade of Dunamis still gripped in her hands. As she fell she became consumed by a searing flame of pure ivory, disappearing from sight.

"This cannot be!" Agatheis shouted. "His ties to the Fire Behind the Flame are too strong!"

After a moment's hesitation, the ancient blue eyes of the Master of Elements turned hard with resolve. There was a way to sever Bal'met's power over the Fire Behind the Flame, but it would be costly. Agatheis readied his staff and advanced upon the portal, hurling himself through to Nishnatoba and closing the way behind him with a deafening crack of thunder.

A moment later, all the world experienced a brief distortion of the surroundings. The realm bent and shuddered, warping the senses while all felt an abrupt change in the fabric of reality, as though some grip upon the world had been released. Instantly the gods recognised that Agatheis had succeeded... but there was no room for joy in this victory. Though he had achieved what he set out to do, the Elemental Lord stood little chance against the powerful Bal'met. Nevertheless, the god faced his fate bravely; mere moments passed, and Agatheis was slain, overcome by the terrible fury of Bal'met.

The Great Mother's Plan

After the death of Agatheis, the Garden of the Gods was again filled with uncertainty. Atop the Pillars of Heaven the deities gathered, heatedly discussing what they were now to do. Much of the sound manifested as rumbling thunder, with only parts of the conversation reaching mortal ears in comprehensible form.

"Aeon restored Aurora to us. He was confident she would turn the tide," cried out Deucalion. "She wields my sword, and all those faithful to Good stand ready to march at our call. This is the hour of Bal'met's defeat!"

"Caution is called for, Deucalion," thundered the God of Peace. "History is replete with examples of prophecy misinterpreted. Fate is cruel to those who manipulate her. No one knew this better than Aeon."

"Even you cannot believe there is a peaceful solution, Oneiros," asserted Aegis, God of War. "We cannot leave Bal'met caged on Nishnatoba! We must strike!"

"The only way to face Bal'met now is directly upon Nishnatoba," rumbled the troubled voice of Vastar, the Skylord. "Do you not realise the risk? We lose all advantage the moment we step foot upon that battlefield."

"We would be little more than mortals facing certain death," agreed Scarlatti, his voice ringing upon a resonant harmonic.

"It's now or never," Phaestus boomed out amidst the sweltering heat of the forge. "Agatheis broke Bal'met's hold over the Fire, but he'll wrestle it back sooner or later. We have to move."

The silken voice of Lord Twilight drifted from the shadows, his position firm. "You can try your hand. I'll not take part."

"I am sure none of us are surprised at your apathy in this," was the dismissive reply of Thoth, the Endbringer. "We need you not."

"No. This cannot be done by a selection of Gods," came the ethereal whisper of Valnurana. "That plan has failed over and over. This requires the force of the full Pantheon together."

"We must all commit, and we must commit fully," agreed Aurora. "Nothing can be held back. There can be no more contingencies, no more fall backs."

"You suggest a gamble based on Aeon's foresight, which even he lacked at the end! Remember, the last of us who gambled everything saw his luck run out," warned Prospero, recalling the fate of Hermes, the fallen God of Luck.

Artemis, Goddess of the Cataclysm, shook her head at the Merchant Lord. "I agree with Aurora. If this is our end then let us face it. I will not hide, cowering in the shadows, waiting for Bal'met to claim me."

On and on the gods debated which course of action to pursue, and their words reverted once more into the incomprehensible tongue of the Divine. Listening closely to every word was Maya, the Great Mother, whose thoughts turned fondly to her long-deceased mortal children, Sinope and Callisto, as she formulated a plan of her own. It was true, the gods' only chance of defeating Bal'met lay upon Nishnatoba. Slowly they were coming to agreement... even Twilight and Sartan were seeing the need for this unprecedented unity amongst the gods. But they would need assistance.

Calling the Great Grey Owl over to her, Maya stroked the soft plumage upon her back. "Lend me your eyes, dear friend," she murmured and, as she had done many times before, the bird acquiesced.

Taking to wing, the owl soared across the heavens upon silent wings, graceful and majestic, keenly observing all of Creation and taking in the full extent of the ongoing turmoil wrought upon the world. Then she banked and turned, rising on an upward draft to disappear among the storm clouds.

What Maya saw there, through the owl's eyes, lies shrouded in mystery. Presently the great bird descended from the cloudbank, circling above the Siroccian Mountains before wheeling and landing upon its highest peak, where she was joined by the warm presence of the Great Mother.

"Now is the time for all, mortal and divine, to put aside their grievances," Maya intoned, her voice crossing the barriers of the Veil of Creation. Come, gather at the Shrine of Ascension, for the fate of the world lies in your power."

Heeding the Great Mother's call, mortals from all walks of life began to journey to the Siroccian Mountains, climbing its highest peak to join Maya upon the high plateau. So, too, did the gods gather at her side, and the Great Mother began her address.

"For two centuries and more have I borne the torch passed unto me, raised by the Logos to uphold the balance betwixt Creation and Destruction," began the Great Mother. "But even these forces do not rule absolutely. Transcending and underlying all is the Fire behind the Flame, the foundation of every aspect of our existence.

"The Fire has been touched by the hand of Bal'met, who has drawn its power away from the world and unto himself. And so Yggdrasil ails. The immortal Gods suffer mortal fates. The very planes come untethered. And Bal'met grows stronger. Not since the dawn of humanity have we faced a fate so grim; nay, not since the beginning of time.

"The Fire behind the Flame must be renewed and purged of its corruption. It can no longer burn untended, and requires a guardian of singular purpose: a creator to unmake the wrongness that has taken hold of it. Great is my power, but this is a thing I cannot do."

Maya paused, and a murmur of confusion passed through the crowd. "The mantle of Supreme Creator must pass from my shoulders, to be taken up once more by the Logos. Only he possesses that immeasurable knowledge with which the Fire behind the Flame can be restored and preserved for eternity."

The Great Mother looked to the Logos, who remained still, clouded in thought as long moments passed. At last, Sarapis nodded.

Clasping her hands together, Maya's eyes closed, and she became wreathed in radiant light. The resplendent corona flickered about her regal form, intensifying to a nearly blinding brilliance, until only a faint, shadowy contour could be seen of the Great Mother.

Maya outstretched her arms toward the Logos and took his hands in hers. Slowly the blazing light passed from the Great Mother to Sarapis, encompassing them both as a sudden gust of wind stirred the Shrine of Ascension. Gradually the light began to fade around Maya, but even as it vanished from the goddess it more brilliantly illuminated the Logos.

The Great Mother's words were strong and final. "So it was, so shall it be."

"So it was, so shall it be," echoed Sarapis. As his voice echoed upon the mountaintop, the Logos was consumed in the corona of light and disappeared.

The Immortal Army

Awash in stillness, the mountains seemed lonely with the absence of the Logos, and Maya looked off toward the twin peaks of Mount Sinope and Mount Callisto, Her eyes sombre but filled with wisdom and clarity.

"Truly, the Logos has an arduous task set before him. But he is not alone, and the gods labour to defeat the threat to our world." Maya turned to face the assembled mortals. "So, too, must you. You must travel to Nishnatoba, where you will stand with the gods against Bal'met."

More than a few were prepared to rapidly descend the mountain and race toward the great icons which stood as gateways to the legendary battleground. But before any could depart, Maya held up one finger in caution. Forcefully gesturing with both hands to the ground at her feet, Maya spread wide her arms and a pool of swirling water bubbled up in the centre of the plateau. Tongues of primal fire licked over its surface, burning improbably above the churning basin.

"Many are the ways to reach the distant battle," she said, "but heed me now. Enter this pool, hold fast to the strength found within yourself, and emerge upon Nishnatoba not as a mortal... but as a mighty demigod."

None could believe the words uttered by the Great Mother. Ascension of this kind was unthinkable. Impossible!

Trusting in the Great Mother, the warrior Rangor Corten bravely stepped forward, steeled his nerves, and stepped into the pool. Slowly he sank beneath the surface and was enveloped by an invigorating sense of strength and vitality.

Always moving forward, Rangor was spun and woven through the fabric of reality, a tempestuous journey that seemed to last for eons before all was suddenly calm. The sentinel found himself standing in a small cavern; at its centre stood the grey-cloaked figure of Sarapis. Solemn and consumed in thought, he faced a column of primal fire, pondering its innate existence as it burned endlessly across time and space. Opposite the Creator stood Aeyr, God of Magic, his gentle, grey eyes locked in concentration upon the enigmatic flames.

With slow, deliberate movements the Logos moved his hands, drawing filaments of the Weave from the ether and shaping them carefully, adding them to the Fire Behind the Flame and releasing them to burn in glorious union with reality.

Suddenly, without warning, a spark leapt out from the Fire Behind the Flame, making contact with Rangor's chest and throwing him backward with a forceful discharge of energy. Rather than landing on the ground, however, he found himself once again tumbling through the ether within the maelstrom of Creation.

For another eternity, Rangor was tossed about, but slowly the spinning subsided, leaving him standing alone within a quiet grotto.

Softly the voice of the Great Mother whispered to him, "Since your first cries I have watched over you, my child, as I have done for all mortalkind across the planes. You have grown much, and achieved even more. And yet... your time is only just beginning."

Rangor's heart raced as he swelled with tremendous power, and his mind expanded, a burgeoning source of willpower and endurance welling up deep inside him.

Again came the whisper of the Great Mother: "Long have I enjoyed immortality, but the time draws near for me to seek a mortal end. With my final blessings I grant unto you a portion of my own godhood."

Divine fire flared about Rangor, and he was overcome with wonder as he felt the capacity to tap into the Weave itself, bringing forth a torrent of power so vast it could instantly vaporise any mortal being.

Maya's whisper continued: "Take this gift and fulfil your destiny. The streams of time must once again flow freely. But be warned that this newfound immortality will not last forever." An enormous fount of power surged within Rangor, and he felt as if all possibilities had opened to him. The whole of time and space and the planes spread out before his eyes, and he know that with only a thought he could be anywhere he wished.

The final words of the Great Mother echoed to him once more. "Your transformation is complete. Go, Rangor, and do what must be done."

Drifting among the eddies and whirls of spectral clouds, Rangor's eyes closed. Seeking out the plane of Nishnatoba in his mind's eye, he willed himself to be there, and as reality conformed to his purpose, he found himself standing upon the barren soil of that forsaken plane.

Rangor was not alone for long. His courageous first step had inspired others to follow closely behind. One after another the newborn demigods began to appear, their eyes shining brightly with the spark of divinity: an army of immortals raised to defend the existence of all.

The Ruin of Bal'met

Stormclouds rumbled and lightning struck across the wasted plain of Nishnatoba. Far below, hundreds of demigods forged by the blessings of the Great Mother flexed their newfound powers. Winds whipped across the plain, and the massive, seething cloud of hatred comprising the loathsome Bal'met flowed among the black hills. Writhing hordes of Dala'myrr swarmed over the wastelands, seeking hungrily for anything to sate their monstrous appetites.

Flashing with amaranthine lightning, black smoke rolled over Nishnatoba, rising to form the recognisable images of gods lost to the raw power of Bal'met. One by one they appeared, loathsome and corrupted beyond measure: the many-armed shade of Indrani, the darkly beautiful form of Selene, and the enraged, armoured shadow of Matsuhama, and more... twelve dreadful figures, all risen at the horrifying command of Bal'met.

Swiftly the demigods spread across the plain, seeking Dala'myrr and divine shades alike. Some were caught unaware by Bal'met's minions and, despite their divinity, found they were not truly immortal, perishing to the might of the enemy. But this err was seldom repeated: able to revive themselves from near death, the demigods learned to instantly zap their foes and purge them from Nishnatoba for good.

Soon the population of Dala'myrr began to wane and the shadowy spectres of the fallen gods were laid to rest by the stalwart demigods. As they roamed Nishnatoba to destroy the stragglers, some lamented that they had yet encountered the foul god Bal'met. Even as they spoke, streaks of etheric lightning punctuated the firmament, scorching the heavens and illuminating, at the heart of Nishnatoba, a towering plateau girded by seething clouds of oily black mist.

Cruel and imperious, the terrifying god Bal'met loomed upon the elevated stage, the would-be Worldreaver bent on utter domination. For only a moment he stood alone, but soon the gods of the Pantheon began to make their presence known. The din of clashing blades and dying screams echoed across the planes as the armoured figure of Aegis appeared, his eyes focused upon Bal'met. Humming softly in the air, a tranquil note heralded the stoic form of Oneiros, and War and Peace took their places upon the battlefield.

Stormclouds gathered and swelled, rumbling with thunder as Vastar, the Skylord, reclaimed their command and appeared with the other gods. Lightning flashed and struck at his side, igniting a spark that erupted into a fiery cyclone, revealing Artemis, Goddess of the Cataclysm. Neraeos, God of the Sea, coalesced from a fine mist, stern of face and resolved in purpose. With equal aplomb the luminous Goddess of the Moon, Ourania, appeared in a swirl of celestial light.

A plume of thick black smoke billowed upon ruined Nishnatoba, churning with eldritch fire as it parted to reveal Babel, God of Oblivion, moving into place. Even as the smoke dispersed, cold white flame rose up, burning brightly and leaving in their wake the pale form of Valnurana.

Golden light streamed over the ancient battlefield as the bloodsworn gods Aurora and Deucalion manifested in measured unison, their gaze directed singly upon the Worldreaver. In contrast to their severity, a thrill of wicked anticipation struck deep as Pandora, Goddess of Mischief appeared, her spirited laughter followed by the rumbling chuckle of Prospero, God of Wealth as he stepped upon Nishnatoba.

Poignant notes of an ancient harmonic then reverberated gently, augmented by the bold ring of a forging hammer as Scarlatti, the Great Bard, and Phaestus, the Smith, appeared among the gathering gods. As the sound faded, sudden chills washed over the planes and two shadowy forms appeared upon the field of battle: Twilight, God of Darkness, and Thoth, Lord of the Dead. Nodding solemnly to each other, they moved apart and took up their own positions.

Last, a chorus of daemonic howls rose from the Inferno as Sartan, the Malevolent took his place among the gods. His appearance drew wary glances from his brethren, but all remained in place, allowing him to join the unified force. The Pantheon was assembled.

Caustic laughter uttered from Bal'met as the gods surrounded him, and he threw up his arms. The oily smoke billowing beneath his terrible form churned and rose, twisting into horrifying reflections of himself, identical in every way. With baleful intent the reflections spread out, and Bal'met moved among them, milling about and roaring with laughter until none could determine which was real.

Undaunted, Aegis swung his axe forward in command, and his voice resounded like thunder. "To battle!"

The skies flashed and rumbled as the gods unleashed powerful attacks of might and magic, striking out at the shadowy visions of Bal'met. As soon as they vanished, more appeared, but the gods were relentless in their onslaught.

Flickering across the firmament, the vision of a dark cave appeared between the gaps in the fabric of reality, revealing Sarapis as he laboured over the Fire Behind the Flame. Aeyr, God of Magic, guarded him closely, looking into the distance with growing horror.

Giving a shout of surprise, Aeyr was suddenly overcome by a throng of shadows, bestial minions sent by Bal'met. Holding them back as long as he could, Aeyr swung at the distractions, sending some flying into the outer reaches of the realms. But the god could not hold out forever. With an enormous outpouring of energy, Aeyr released his full essence across the multiverse, destroying himself forever, but slaying the shadows in the blast.

Back upon Nishnatoba, the shadow-forms of Bal'met redoubled their attacks. Six gathered closely around Oneiros, God of Peace, who had raised a powerful barrier about himself. At last one dark shadow of Bal'met succeeded in penetrating the shield, and as it collapsed, the shadows of Bal'met tore the god apart, and Oneiros was consumed by the fearsome god.

The fall of Oneiros spurred the other gods on. Valiantly they slashed and struck at the shadows, working together to destroy the images of Bal'met. As the gruesome likenesses fell to the gods, they drew nearer and nearer to the true form of Bal'met. After long hours of battle, only one image of the god was now encircled by the ring of encroaching deities.

"You have managed the one thing that has never happened before, Bal'met," shouted Aegis. "You have at last united all of the gods in a single purpose: your defeat. Sartan cast you into Nishnatoba, intending it to be a prison. Now it will be your grave!"

Furiously the gods began to hurl fire, lightning, and myriad magics unknown to mortal apprehension. Igniting the skies and shaking the planes, they acted with one accord to divert Bal'met from his terrible purpose.

Beautiful and awesome in her growing power, Aurora stood alone, unmoving and focused. The Sword of Dunamis blazed in her hand, hungry fire coursing down the blade's length. With murmured words Deucalion began to direct the prayers of the faithful into a shining shield, standing beside Aurora and protecting her with his arm extended. Nodding to Deucalion, Aurora advanced.

Booming with laughter, Bal'met lashed out at the Lightbringer, cracking whips of force that tore at her like seething whips of pure pain. Aurora continued her assault, augmented by the unwavering attacks of the gods that surrounded Bal'met, and Deucalion cried out in pain as he took his bloodsworn's wounds upon himself.

"Aeon has foreseen your fall," thundered Aurora as she pressed onward. "By our hands you will be unmade, and his vision will come to pass."

Drawing back the blazing Sword of Dunamis, Aurora lunged forward and buried it into Bal'met, and a ghastly chorus of a thousand wailing voices tore across the planes. Unforming and writhing upon the blade, Bal'met clawed out at Aurora with devastating brutality, but she stood fast, holding the hilt steady as her brethren strained, overcoming the diminishing god with the strength of their combined powers.

Finally, with an ear-splitting cry that shook the foundations of every plane, causing the seas to swell and the skies to weep tears, Bal'met was finally forced to relinquish His grasp on reality. Held hostage by the Sword of Dunamis, Bal'met perished in agony, utterly destroyed by the magnified power of the Pantheon.

The Departure of the Logos

Time slowed and stopped as Sarapis, the Logos, summoned to his presence the souls of the brave Achaeans who had survived the battle upon Nishnatoba that felled the terrible Bal'met.

"Achaeans. My children. This is the last time I will speak to you. The bright sun will dim to cool embers and the stars that wheel in the night sky will disappear before my task will be done.

"When there was no time, no spacial dimensions, nothing but myself as Ayar, there was the Fire. Created as the first and greatest of my works, it was through the Fire that all else was made manifest, from time and matter to gods and dragons.

"But by doing so, by giving form to my power such that it be something other than unfocused, raw capability, there was a cost that I paid willingly. No longer was I all that was, and thus no longer did I have knowledge of all that was and would be. I know what it is to experience the limitations of lesser forms. I experienced all that Proteus did, and in the end I absorbed his experiences into myself.

"Since that time, I have greatly relished watching Creation and all its myriad parts, for a bit of me has been able to appreciate the incredible struggles, the glorious victories, the ignominious defeats, the treacherous betrayals, the great love affairs, the eternal rivalries, and the rest of the ebb and flow of your daily lives.

"And then came this Bal'met, whose existence I did not foresee, and whose threat I did not appreciate until it was nearly too late. It is not that I wished harm on the many that perished, divine and mortal both, in this devastating war to end all wars. But ever have I been content to let my creations play out as they will. If a god dies, it is part of the turbulence of existence. All returns to the Fire from which it was ultimately conceived.

"Destroying Ashaxei set the Fire into a state of less than perfect resonance, but even then, I was content to watch, for this did not yet threaten the foundations of existence. By the time Maya and I realised what Bal'met truly planned, and what his aims had been all along, we were nearly too late. Through Aeon's sacrifice and the courage of the many mortals and gods who fought to defeat Bal'met, we have saved all that has been, is, and will ever be.

"But Maya, whose sacrifice you must never forget, for she gave up the divine to save all, was correct. Only I can repair the immense damage that has been done to the Fire.

"All my will must be bent to this task, for already it is only through my exertion of power beyond your ken that the Fire still burns. It shall take me nigh unto a very lonely eternity. I must go beyond Creation to where the Fire itself resides in all of its immense grandeur, and there are none who can join me.

"It has been an honour surpassing any that I conceived of to have been witness to your stories and to, occasionally, even take a small part in them. I shall miss you all more than you know.

"Goodbye."

Then came a sense of overwhelming loss as mortals returned to their lives, and Sarapis, the Logos, departed Creation.

Maya's Mortality

Within a candlelit corridor walked Maya, the Great Mother, and Thoth, the Endbringer. Side by side they passed between two murals of breathtaking beauty and detail, depicting in parallel the lives of two mortals as they grew and advanced in life.

With concern and curiosity the God of Death regarded his companion, whose immortality waned before his very eyes. As time seemed to reverse upon her countenance, she had begun to resemble the Aldar of her youth, long before the Logos raised her to godhood, centuries before she merged with Makali, Goddess of Destruction to become the Supreme Creatrix.

"Countless souls have wandered these halls, praying for salvation from their fate," mused Maya as they strolled along the passage. "Again and again have I granted their prayers, rescuing them from the brink of death and returning them to the material world, healed and whole.

"Many are they who boldly take risks that distinguish them from other mortals. Their spirits are strong and enduring, but their bodies will falter."

Maya paused, turning to Thoth as she spoke with finality. "To you I entrust their guardianship."

The Endbringer frowned. Long had he ushered into the Soulrealms those whose lives were complete, but never had he needed to turn a soul back.

"They will stand before your door," Maya continued. "Your task is to recognise those souls whose allotted time has not yet run its course, and turn them away, resisting selfish temptation to strengthen your own realm."

With a silent nod, the God of Death gave his consent, and Maya returned a bittersweet smile. "The joys of a mortal life have long been beyond my reach," she said, "but no more. One day I, too, will stand before you." With these last words did Maya, Mother of Humanity, draw the Veil of Creation about herself one final time and vanish, truly mortal for the first time since her own genesis.

Note from Sarapis [OOC]

I felt compelled to include a note here, because the Worldreaver Saga is the biggest event we've ever undertaken in Achaea. It was an incredible amount of work, under deadlines, but I think it was worth it. We delivered experiences like you've never had in Achaea before, and the event resulted in pretty major changes to Achaea, from the deaths of many gods, to the destruction of Shallam, to the departures of Sarapis and Maya.

It was also very emotional for those of us in the Garden, as I'm sure it was for many players. People who had poured a lot of creative energy and time into their God characters lost them to permanent death, and of course we lost an entire city as well.

Speaking for myself, I had tears running down my cheeks when I delivered Sarapis' goodbye forever speech. He didn't die, but it marked the end of Sarapis as a meaningful character. I'd been playing Sarapis since before Achaea opened in 1997 (the Worldreaver event took place in 2012) and it's fair to say I'm pretty attached to him.

Many thanks to Tecton and Valnurana, in particular, for the late nights they put in to make this event happen!

So what does the future hold for Achaea's history? You'll have to stick around to find out!

Best,

Matt Mihály
CEO, Iron Realms Entertainment

 

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