Meanwhile . . .

Ysora did her best to ignore the aches and pains of her various wounds as she again tried to meditate and establish a connection to the Heavens. She had learned a great deal during her imprisonment, and it was frustrating to be unable to share that information with her Lady.

As so many times before, her efforts proved fruitless, her senses unable to extend beyond the confines of her cell. Apparently, the Baron had constructed this vessel out of the same material as Ironheart’s walls. Idly, Ysora wondered if the Baron had discovered a method of producing the material himself, or if one section of Ironheart had simply been stripped. Another mystery among the countless others that her new captor possessed. Still, what little she had been able to infer about the Baron’s resources before being locked away in this cell was chilling. Which made it even more important that her Lady knew as quickly as possible.

Briefly acknowledging her discomfort by shifting as much as her restraints would allow, Ysora then returned to meditation for yet another attempt at contacting the Heavens. It was not as if she had anything better to spend her time on.

This time however, her efforts were interrupted by the loud clanking of the lock bolts to her cell door being slid open. Slowly opening her unswollen eye to regard the door, Ysora was curious who was paying her a visit. The guards did not regularly check-in, for she had no need of sustenance and the guards were confident in the ability of her restraints to hold her. The only one who had shown an interest in her so far was the half-breed son of the Baron, Sir Cheran as he was called.

Although physically interesting for his amalgamation of human and divine life forces, Sir Cheran himself was brutish and arrogant. He had released her for her bonds shortly after departing Ironheart, solely for the intention of fighting her on “even” terms. He had proven his false definition of that phrase after he laughed when she brought up that her narrow escape from death by ritual sacrifice had left her greatly weakened. He ceased laughing when she added that such a fight would be meaningless anyway as it would not win her freedom, and so she would not participate.

Ysora kept to her word in the beating to follow, refusing to defend herself while calmly lecturing to Cheran. As intended, this only served to incite him more, and eventually she was beaten into unconsciousness. A moral victory, but a costly one given the extent of her injuries that she later awoke to. Evidently the unholy nature of her chains suppressed most of her regenerative capability, in addition to her other divine abilities.

It was therefore with a fair bit of trepidation that Ysora watched the door open. To her relief, it was not Sir Cheran back for another round after all, but another of the Baron’s sons. His lanky appearance and unkept black hair gave the appearance of an uncouth youth, but there was also a caution about his movements that suggested a more experienced mind. He was alone, and after pausing to swing the heavy door shut behind him, gave a low bow, flaring his dazzling white wings out behind him. Unsure what his motives for coming here were, Ysora decided to try and immediately bring matters to a head.

“If you are here to beat me, might I suggest you save yourself time by leaving me restrained – I will put up no more fight free than I will now.”

To Ysora’s surprise, the young man grimaced as if he had just swallowed something unpleasant and took a step back towards the door.

“Apologies. The polite man does not enter another’s residence without first speaking his intentions.”

Immediately the man turned and opened the door, stepping back into the hallway while Ysora tried to make sense of his statement. A moment later, the door slammed shut again, and the lock bolts began to slide back into place. Desiring an answer to his strange conduct, Ysora attempted to call him back.

“Wait! What did you mean by that? If I offended you in some way, I apologize!”

Without ceasing all of the lock bolts slid back into place. And then strangely, they began to slide back out again. Within moments the door opened again and the young man tentatively stood at the doorway. Again, he gave a low bow.

“Salutations, Ysora the Teacher. I am Sir Nephilium, and I have no quarrel with you. May I come in and speak with you?”

Only confused further, Ysora simply stared at this strange man for a few moments. Any reply she would have made would have only been cut off, as without missing a beat the man then asks, “How was that? I could try it again if you like.”

Hoping to stop the man before he could step out and repeat this whole process a third time, Ysora shakes her head.

“No, that was fine. Quite good, in point of fact. And you may enter and speak with me.”

At this Nephilium grins widely and steps fully into the room, swinging the door shut behind him.

“Good. First impressions are important. Yet, so . . . difficult.” The man hissed out with a relieved sigh as he moved further into the room, plopping himself down onto the floor in front of Ysora.

“I believe we have already met, beneath Ironheart. You were the one wielding the Herald’s Scythe, were you not?”

At this Nephilium shook his head.

“That was our first meeting yes. But wine sealed in a bottle cannot be tasted, only seen.”

Although she wasn’t certain, Ysora thought she might as well try a stab Nephilium’s motivation for coming.

“So since we weren’t formally introduced, you decided to come down here to do so?”

Nephilium’s flashing grin proved her guess correct as he clapped his hands together.

“Precisely! Not all praise is unwarranted!”

As quickly as it had come, Nephilium’s smile faded, replaced by a look of concern. Awkwardly, he extended a hand out towards Ysora’s face. Reflexively she pulled away, but quickly realized the futility of that act and so consigned herself to Nephilium’s probing of the swollen flesh around her eye. A few moments later Nephilium pulled his hand back.

“Cheran?” He asked, and hissed angrily at her nod. “He should not have done that. Father wished you to be treated well during our return home.”

Ysora looked down at the chains criss-crossing her body and could not suppress a laugh.

“This is being treated well? Does your father realize what he has done?”

“Father always knows what he is doing.”

“He is holding an archangel against her will. If he understands the consequences of that, then he is surely insane and –“

“Sssshhhh!” Nephilium hissed, cutting her off by holding a finger up to her lips while holding a finger from his other hand up to his own lips. “Not all fools are foolish enough to speak their foolery.”

Slowly, Ysora nodded, after which Nephilium stood up and began walking back to the door.

“Excuse me. I shall return shortly.”

Silently, Ysora admonished herself for acting too rashly, introducing the concept that the Baron was wrong too directly. As a result, she may have cost herself a potential ally, or at least someone who seemed displeased at her treatment. Time passed, how long Ysora could not determine. Nonetheless, she had given up on Nephilium’s promised return and returned to her efforts to contact her Lady when the door bolts began to slide open again. A minute later Nephilium was once again in the doorway, this time cradling a large bowl and a white garment.

“A lady should be treated as such.” He growled as he pushed the door shut behind him with a foot. And, as if anticipating the argument that Ysora was not human and thus above such definitions, he added a moment later, “And any flower may be called a rose if the King wills it.”

Approaching Ysora, Nephilium set the bowl down in front of her, allowing her to see that it contained a good amount of perfumed water and a soaked rag. He then held the garment up, allowing her to see that it was a white dress. Before she could point out that wearing any dress fit for a human would be difficult on account of her wings, he flipped the dress around to reveal that the back had been recently cut out. The son of the Baron was quite pleased as he laid the dress down beside the bowl.

“Now you may wash up and change your attire! I took the liberty of mixing a healing potion into the water. Human healing magic is not poisonous to you, is it?”

“No, it is not. In fact, I imagine it would be quite helpful given my regeneration is suppressed by these restraints.”

At the mention of her chains, Ysora had expected Nephilium to take the hint, but instead he only stood there, looking at her expectantly. A few moments later, his face fell and he snatched the dress back up.

“Do these gifts not please you? Certainly, I can remove them if you do not wish to make use of them.”

As politely as she could manage, Ysora quickly said, “Oh no, that’s not it at all. But, I’m afraid I can’t really make use of them while restrained like this.”

Nephilium simply looked at her in confusion, and so she rattled her chains as loudly as she could. “My chains? Do you think you could remove them, at least enough so I can use my hands?”

Ysora was expecting this to be the moment that Nephilium revealed this all to be some sort of cruel trick, but instead he laughed and slapped his forehead. “Even the eagle doesn’t always see the tree when he is focused on the mouse.”

To her surprise, Nephilium then produced a key, unlocking the chain that had held her hands up above her head. Her shoulders voiced their appreciation for the relief while Nephilium set to work on her manacles. To Ysora’s further surprise, he did not stop until she was completely free, even going so far as to undo the leather harness pinioning her wings.

The greatest surprise, however, came after that. Pocketing the key, Nephilium went over to the door and sat down cross-legged in front of it, his back to her.

“Nephilium must watch you carefully to ensure that you do not spend your freedom unwisely. However, you should have some privacy and Nephilium is a gentleman.”

For a moment, Ysora simply stared at Nephilium’s back in shock, and then for another moment with the calculation of attempting to overpower him and from there make her escape. As if sensing her consideration, Nephilium sighed.

“A gentleman does not hit a lady, and a lady respects his decision.”

That comment reluctantly put an end to any escape attempt at this time, even though Ysora wondered if it would be her only chance. Nonetheless, she picked up the soaked rag and cleaned her wounds, wincing as those cuts and scrapes still open stung at the healing water’s touch. Then she remained the bloody torn rags that were all that remained of her burlap prison clothes and slipped into the dress. Despite being made for a human, the dress was almost a perfect fit, and the ripped open back accommodated her wings nicely.

Ysora took a few last minutes to stretch and relax, and then cleared her throat loudly, causing Nephilium to look back over his left shoulder. “Thank you, Nephilium. I feel better now.”

“Good, good!” Nephilium crowed as he scrambled back up onto his feet and approached Ysora, looking the archangel up and down with a critical eye. Apparently he likes what he sees, as he nods enthusiastically a moment later. Still, Ysora notes the sadness in his eyes as he adds, “The dress fits you well. A gift given from the past to the present.”

Like all of his other expressions, the look of longing quickly fades from Nephilium’s face, and he gestures as the chains littering the floor.

“Sadly, Nephilium must go now. And you must be put back the way Nephilium found you.”

“I understand.” Ysora replied, doing her best to hide her disappointment that Nephilium had not forgotten about her chains the way he had a few minutes ago. Bending down, she retrieved the leather harness from the floor, handing it to Nephilium before turning around and folding her wings together. She could have struggled, the same way she could have attempted escape earlier, but since both attempts would be futile what was the point? Better to bide her time and hope for another opportunity when she was stronger and the odds were not so heavily against her.

Although he was methodical in removing her freedom, Nephilium was not excessively violent the way her previous captors had been. Indeed, Ysora thought she detected a slight slackness in her chains that had not been there previously.

Finally, Nephilium locked the last chain into place and stepped back to give another low bow.

“Goodbye, Ysora the Teacher. Soon we will be home and you shall meet Father. Afterwards, Nephilium will visit you again, if he has the time.

“I look forward to it. Goodbye, Nephilium.” Ysora replied quietly, still shocked at this first occasion of kind treatment she had been shown in some time. Her words earned one last smile from Nephilium as he retrieved the bloody bowl and rags, gave one final bow, and then left.

Alone again, Ysora mulled over the events of today repeatedly as she settled in to meditation once more. Nephilium was perhaps the most unusual human she had met, but his conduct suggested that perhaps in time, he could become a friend. A most interesting, and for once hopeful, day indeed.

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Tur Villid watched the young elf known as Telest leave his tent, and only then did he allow himself to relax. But only slightly, for the old warrior knew one could never relax fully, for an enemy could always be waiting, watching for your guard to lower that extra little bit. Villid did not know if Telest was one such enemy, for the elf had an aura of mystery about him.

There was something about the way he carried himself, a grace in his movements that suggested he was familiar with killing. He had also hardly blinked when instructed to kill every human he found, although that may have just been concealed glee at the thought of revenge against his former captors.

It was also possible that Telest was simply a liar and traitor and he would soon be leading the Tur’s men into an ambush. But some of his own scouts had confirmed that the fortress appeared heavily damaged, with only a handful of the guards it usually had on the walls. This bit of good fortune was still hard to swallow, for the Tur had been expecting a viscous siege of the fortress and had prepared accordingly.

With any luck, he could overrun the humans’ defenses in one swift stroke, and then press on into their lands, a feat not accomplished in generations. Then he would show the human filth the full fury of the elven people. Those who proved worthy would be taken as sacrifices, and the rest would be scattered in pieces across their scorched fields. It was a pleasant dream, one that had sustained Villid through decades of watching his people continue their slow withering away into nothing. Now that dream would finally come true, and it would revitalize his people into what they were meant to be - conquerors.

Spreading out the maps of the human lands across his desk once more, Villid studied them carefully for the thousandth time. Sadly, the Tur knew they were inaccurate, the composite creation of hundreds of spy reports from those loyal elves who posed themselves as merchants or mercenaries upon entering the human lands. Still, it was all he had to work with for the moment.

Suddenly, an unnatural chill passed through him, as a cold wind rippled through the tent. Knowing that this was a sign, Villid slid off his chair and knelt, offering homage.

“Titania, your humble servant requests your blessing. Soon the attack upon the human lands will begin.”

The wind whispered back a reply.

Good. You shall have my blessing, but I require something of you.

“All humans taken alive shall be sacrificed only to you, as we agreed.” The Tur replied, and immediately regretted his words as the air turned even colder, freezing in his throat. The wind was angry.

No, that was already promised to me! I require something else! Be silent and listen!

Choking, the Tur could only nod. Thankfully, the air warmed again at his sign of obedience, and he took a deep shuddering breath as the wind continued.

There is a girl, not human or elf, who has escaped the iron halls. FIND HER. Allow no harm to come to her. I will contact you with further instructions once she is in your care. Do NOT fail me!

“Of course. I live to serve you.” The Tur replied, and the wind began to ebb back into nothing.

Good.

Rubbing his sore throat gingerly, the Tur carefully picked himself up off the ground, and directed one of his silent assistants to summon his captains. The search for this girl would need to begin immediately, for his patron was not patient.

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“The Council will see you now.” The acolyte, scarcely more than a child, said with a low bow. Brother Adamus Crane favored the boy with a sneer before composing himself and following the acolyte over to the massive set of bronzed double doors. Carved into the doors in bas-relief was a scene of angels leading a group of humans up a mountainside. It was supposedly a depiction of the founding of the Church of Light’s first chapel. Despite their weight, the doors were perfectly balanced and with only a single sharp tug the acolyte pulled open one of the two doors. Without hesitation Brother Crane stepped into the room beyond.

The Chamber of the Exarches. Situated at the top of the central cathedral, this circular room was where every major action undertaken by the Church was decided. Eventually, after endless hemming and hawing – Crane had no patience for the Council’s hesitation to settle on any course of action. No doubt whatever they had brought him here for would take all night.

A pity he had been summoned here in the dead of night as well. The narrow windows ringing the entire room allowed light to flood the chamber during the day, which was only further reflected and refracted by the polished bronze floor and walls. Now only torches burned in their sockets, managing to only dimly light the room. Crane wondered if the Council had called this meeting at night out of irrational fear that it would be seen by the gods. As if the gods didn’t already know what the Council was doing, sending a divine assassin by the name of Ander Windrivver.

In the middle of the room was an elevated semi-circle table and chairs. Here the Council was seated, all eight of them – Speaker Morganna and the seven Exarches of the Church. Boldly walking into the middle of the table as all supplicants did, Crane gave an exaggerated low bow, the better to cover his smile as Exarch Tyra exploded.

“Adamus Crane!? What is he doing here!?”

“I was summoned by you, naturally. As a loyal servant of the Church, I came as soon as I was asked, despite the late hour.” Crane answered with another smile as he looked up at Exarch Tyra. The female Exarch returned a scowl, and was about to speak again before Exarch Logan cut her off.

“Brother Crane is indeed here because I requested his presence at this emergency meeting of the Council. His firsthand experience of the Ironheart Incident will undoubtedly be useful.”

A moment later, Exarch Gustaf butted into the conversation.

“Yes, I’m sure it will be. Thank you Logan. Now, um . . . what exactly happened there? We have read your report, but it is a little light on details.”

“Hardly surprising, considering you fled Ironheart before the Incident even occurred. Are those details even true or did you just make them up?” Tyra muttered, earning her a black look from the portly man to her right, Exarch Quincy.

“You should stay that sharp tongue. Brother Crane is our guest.”

“I will not allow this coward to flummox the Council with his lies!” Tyra rejoined, matching Quincy’s dark look with one of her own. Given the way Quincy puffed up and the way the other Exarches bristled, Crane was sure a major argument was about to ensue. A major argument started over nothing but an insult. Discordant idiots.

Disappointingly, Speark Morganna suddenly stepped in to bring the conflict to a swift end.

“That will be enough, Exarch Tyra. Given your past history with Brother Crane, perhaps it would be best for you to step out.” She said in her always calm, level voice. Tyra looked properly chastised.

“No, that will not be necessary Speaker. I apologize for my outbursts.”

“If I may, Speaker Morganna, I believe I can clear Exarch Tyra’s contention up quite quickly.” Brother Crane added, despite his desire to revel in Tyra’s expression a few moments more. “It is true that I departed from Ironheart before the Incident. However, I kept in close contact with Brother Corwin via communication crystal, who relayed to me the events that were occurring. Naturally the details were kept brief, but I have added all of them to my report. Unfortunately, Brother Corwin has gone missing so I am afraid my secondhand experience is all that is available.”

“But this report is accurate, then? The Hierarch is dead?” Exarch Greyson asked as he flipped through the report’s handful of pages.

“Yes. So close to his goal, he never would have abandoned it, even to save his own life. And considering that we’re all still here, I think it’s safe to say he was not successful. So, ergo he’s dead.” Brother Crane answered, and noted a collective sigh of relief pass through the room.

“With the Hierarch dead, our hands are free once more. I move to start a discussion on the possibility of reinstituting the Crusade against the Hells.” Exarch Damont stated, earning him a tsk of disapproval from Greyson.

“The Crusade has been a never ending drain on our resources since time immemorial. The Hierarch did us a favor when he forced us to put it on hold.”

“Besides, aren’t we still in danger? A number of powerful convicts escaped from Ironheart, did they not?” Quincy fretted, earning him a derisive pat on the back from Tyra.

“Don’t worry. If any of those prisoners wished to do the Church harm, you would be the least likely target for them.”

“Unless of course they just wished to see the Church burn, and would be perfectly happy with anyone’s blood on their blade.” Exarch Tiberius said, pausing momentarily for effect before adding, “My spies report a growing splinter organization in the outland communities. It would appear that Karth the Purifier has returned, even if he has not yet shown his face.”

“Karth the Purifier!?” Quincy exclaimed, growing pale. Crane thought that this was as good a time as any to twist the knife.

“Ander Windrivver is also likely on the loose by now. Bastard is too stubborn to be dragged down by a few demons.”

“What!? Oh, we’re doomed. Two of the most dangerous heretics this Church has ever faced, and now they’re working together.” Quincy groaned, burying his face in his hands. “How did this happen!?”

“We should have killed them both when we had the chance.” Gustaf growled, earning himself a snort from Damont.

“And make martyrs out of both of them? No, sending them both off to Ironheart was the fair better solution. The world would have time to forget about them, and then ultimately when their memory had faded enough we could have discarded them.”

“We would have missed out on Ander’s blood as well. Wonderful stuff that is, simply fascinating. A pity we were unable to obtain any of Marisiel’s.” Greyson added.

“Hah. The Baron would have had all of our heads if we had tried. He made it explicitly clear that Marisiel was his and his alone.” Logan interjected.

“We should have never given him what aid we did. Now the Hierarch’s dead and we have no one to help us against Ander and Karth!” Quincy wailed.

Smiling, Brother Crane coughed loudly. “If I may interject here, I don’t think we need to worry about Ander *and* Karth. Certainly, they will both come for us, but they will do so separately. Having met both of them personally, trust me when I say that the two of them will never work together. As it is, we may not have to worry about them much longer.”

“What did you do, Crane.” Tyra asked, eyes narrowing. Crane paused a moment, delighting in the expectant stares of the assembled Council, and then said, “I contracted the Assassins to deal with them both.”

Immediately the Council was in an uproar, Exarches shouting at Crane and at each other. A few minutes passed in this way, until finally Morganna’s low voice cut through the din.

“Silence.” Immediately the Exarches fell silent, like the good little lap dogs they were. Once quiet was again dominant in the chamber, Morganna continued. “Explain yourself, Crane.”

Crane had been waiting for this moment.

“Members of the Council, you are all idiots. While you have been prattling on amongst yourselves here, safe and sound, I have been on the frontlines. I have seen firsthand the dangers threatening our Church, and I can tell you that they have only grown, not diminished. Two of those threats are Ander Windrivver and Karth Chemonte, and imprisoning them did nothing but delay the inevitable. We have not beaten them, and they will not stop until we are all dead. Unfortunately, killing them ourselves wouldn’t work either – Ander would simply come back and Karth would become a martyr. So I turned to those who had more experience in dealing with situations such as ours. I was confident the Assassins would find a solution, and I still am. It is unfortunate that the Ironheart Incident occurred when it did, otherwise we likely wouldn’t even be having this conversation as both of our problems would already have been dealt with. Regardless, instead of wringing our hands, we need to roll up our sleeves because if we want to survive we will need to embrace far more “unpleasant” solutions.”

A slow smile spread across Speaker Morganna’s face.

“Well said, Brother Crane. Although a solution to Ander has not yet presented itself, I believe we will soon have the means to deal with Karth. Exarch Greyson, what is the status of Project Angelus?”

Greyson looked up from his stack of reports in surprise, but was quick to respond.

“We are still working on keeping the subjects stable, but their loyalty is now unquestioned. They will perform any task we set them to. Our . . . recruitment . . . teams are operating at 90% capacity currently.”

“And have you implemented the soul crystals that Brother Corwin has developed?”

“We are still working on that aspect. We should have that hurdle dealt with within another week.”

“Good. We must redouble our efforts to complete the project! The Church’s survival depends on it.”

All of the Exarches silently nodded at Speaker Morganna’s words, and then began to pack up as if readying to leave.

“Actually, I have one last item I would like to discuss.” Morganna said, causing all those present in the room to freeze. Even Crane felt his stomach twist as Morganna’s eyes settled on him.

“Brother Crane has worked tirelessly to serve the Council and the Church as the whole. He has proven himself capable of finding . . . unorthodox . . . solutions to problems, a skill which will only become more important in the time ahead. I also believe that he could serve as a breath of fresh air on this Council. Therefore, I move that Brother Adamus Crane be elevated to the position of Exarch.”

“WHAT!?” Tyra exclaimed.

“I second that motion.” Exarch Greyson replied.

“Motion has been seconded. Let us put it to a vote then. Aye.”

Gustaf – “Aye.”

Logan – “Aye.”

Greyson – “Aye.”

Damont –“Aye.”

Tiberius – “Aye.”

Quincy – “Er . . . Nay.”

Tyra – “Nay!”

“The vote is six to two in favor. Welcome to the Council, Exarch Adamus Crane.”

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Deep within the center of his necropolis, Kartul worked alone. Although he was committed to his children, there were still some things only he could do. It was also pleasurable to work with his own hands, as he used to do so long ago in his laboratory.

For the purposes of powering the central levitation device, any souls would do. But Kartul was a fan of the classics, and so lined up around the outskirts of the room were a dozen teenaged girls tied down to sacrificial altars.

The room had been a cacophony of screams a short while ago, especially after Kartul slit the first one’s throat, but now it was mostly tomb-silent. The only sounds were the low hum of Kartul’s cocktail of arcane rituals increasing in strength, and the final girl’s soft sobs.

Coming to stand beside the altar, Kartul looked down at pathetic wench with a mixture of disgust and pity. She couldn’t help being mortal. Weak.

Reaching down with his free hand, Kartul ran his bony fingers through the girl’s hair.

“Sssshhh . . . do not cry little one. Your sacrifice is more important than you could possibly understand. With your help I shall save this broken world. I shall forge it into something new. With your help I SHALL BECOME INVINCIBLE!”

In one smooth motion Kartul then slit the girl’s throat, reveling in the spray of blood that he reluctantly could no longer taste. It was unfortunate that his tongue had withered away like his skin and other organs, but some sacrifices were necessary even from him.

Within a few minutes, the girl was dead, her soul collected up into the rituals powering the necropolis. Turning to the levitation device he had developed himself, Kartul cast the final spell, activating it. A violent shudder passed through the floor, and then a loud rumble came from above as the necropolis pushed up through the earth that had once sheltered it. It was time for Kartul’s tomb to become his fortress.