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Cables of blue-white lightning, tangled with knots of livid green, streaked down the ebon heavens, crashing to earth in a coruscating circle around the stupendous, many-turreted structure. The shortest of those turrets towered hundreds of feet above the endless, smooth pavement stretching away in every direction as far as any mortal eye might have seen, and the glare of lightning danced and glittered from the mirror smooth obsidian of which the enormous palace had been built. Or formed, perhaps. There were no tool marks, no lines between blocks of masonry, on that titanic façade, and the light—such as it was—that glowed from its narrow window slits was a pestilential green, less brilliant than the corruption of that lightning yet more sullen, more...poisonous.

Fresh lightning hammered down, replenishing the glaring circle, feeding it, keeping it alive while thunder echoed and rolled and bellowed. Each braided strand lit the purple-bellied clouds from within, momentarily etching their swirling depths upon the eye, and strange, unclean shapes flew in those briefly illuminated deeps. One of those shapes plummeted from the clouds, sweeping lower, riding through the chinks of darkness between the lightning’s pickets. Larger it grew, and larger, insectlike head armed with brutal pincers, enormous bat wings and mighty talons throwing back the glare of lightning until it seemed gilded in the eye-tearing fury of the seething heavens.

At the very last moment it flared its wings and settled upon the balcony of the very highest turret, a thousand feet and more above the lightning-crowned pavement. The size of that obsidian palace dwarfed even its stature, and a rider stepped from its back to the balcony and disappeared within.

More lightning sizzled and howled out of the darkness, smashing into the earth with redoubled ferocity, bolt following bolt, driving that circle of fury higher and brighter as if that flying shape’s arrival had been a signal, and perhaps it had.

* * *

The throne room was impossibly vast.

It couldn’t possibly have been as large as it seemed, and yet it was. In some way no mortal could have described, it was vaster than whole worlds and yet small enough the purple-cloaked figure which swept into it could cross it in no more than a dozen strides, and a strange perfume—sweet and seductive, yet undergirt by the scent of something long dead—drifted on its air. The newcomer ignored the six others who had been gathered there, awaiting his arrival. He stalked past them, ascending the high throne against the huge chamber’s rear wall and seated himself, and the wan, green radiance which had filled the room flared abruptly higher and brighter as he sat. A nimbus of deadly green fire hissed above his hooded head, and balls of the same lurid radiance crackled into existence high overhead, dancing and swirling beneath the soaring, vaulted ceiling like lost galaxies trapped in the throne room’s miasma of incense.

Like the palace itself, the throne was a single, seamlessly extruded outcropping of obsidian, but this obsidian was veined with gold, and its surface glittered with diamonds, emeralds, and precious gems. The arms ended in carven demon’s faces, each encrusted with more gold, more gems, and each held a mangled, dismembered body in its fangs. Rubies dripped from their jaws in glittering, lovingly detailed streams of blood, and a huge, haughty face looked down from the wall above the throne, etched across the stone in bas-relief and glittering with still more gold. As the figure seated upon the throne threw back the hood of his cloak, the face which was revealed matched that upon the wall.

Phrobus Orfro, once the seventh son of Orr All-Father and Kontifrio, gazed down upon his chosen mate and their children, and his expression was not a happy one.

“I wonder, sometimes, which of you is the least competent,” he said abruptly. “The competition is so fierce I can’t make up my mind between you.”

His voice was deep, beautifully modulated, yet something seemed to scream somewhere inside those resonant, perfectly articulated tones, and only one of the six beings gathered before him returned his glare levelly. Krashnark Phrofro stood with square shoulders, arms crossed, refusing to cringe, and Phrobus’ eyes glittered. Yet he let the defiance—if such it was—pass. Krashnark was the strongest of his children, the only one who might have openly challenged his own position, but there was scant fear of that. Not from Krashnark. There was no lack of ambition or surfeit of mercy in his second son, and he was the most powerful of all of Phrobus children. Yet that strength was hobbled by his perverse, inner code of honor. He neither gave nor asked quarter, but his oath was unbreakable, which was why Phrobus felt no fear of Krashnark’s rebellion, for he had sworn fealty to his father. It was unthinkable that he might raise his hand against Phrobus after swearing that oath...and none of the others, not even—or perhaps especially—Shīgū would ever have dared.

“All of you know the stakes for which we play,” he continued, “yet none of you seems capable of accomplishing even the simplest task.”

“In fairness, Father,” one of his other children said, raising her head and using one hand to draw glorious red hair back from her face to reveal pupil-less eyes as black as his throne’s obsidian, “that isn’t precisely correct. Things have gone...poorly in several universes. That’s unfortunately true, but we’ve succeeded in others.”

Her voice was calm, respectful, yet pointed, and Phrobus gritted his teeth. Carnadosa was his youngest child, and although she’d been careful not to say it, many of those other successes had been her doing—a point she obviously wasn’t above making by not making it. Yet not even a god or a goddess could deal with all the possible alternative realities of every potential universe. There had to be some division of labor, and in all too many of those realities which Carnadosa—and Krashnark—had not overseen, Phrobus’ plans had failed catastrophically. He could feel his other children’s, and his wife’s, hatred seething like the lightning outside his palace as they glared at Carnadosa for underlining their failures, yet they dared not speak.

“Yes,” he said after a moment. “We have succeeded in some, but we’ve failed in far too many others. We can afford no more losses, especially in those where victory had seemed within our grasp. Too much hangs on what happens there, which is the reason your accursed uncle is striving hard to snatch them back from us, yet none of you seem capable of stopping him. I’ve looked into the future, Carnadosa. If we fail to stop this slide of events in the Light’s favor, if Tomanāk’s successes continue, our power—the power of all of us—may suffer catastrophic damage.”

He paused, letting the implications sink into all of his listeners. It wasn’t as if they shouldn’t have been able to figure out for themselves just how dire their situation might become, but sometimes they needed to be shaken by the scruff of their collective necks before they could step back from their plotting and mutual betrayals long enough to really think about the nature of their struggle with the Gods of Light.

He leaned back in his throne, glaring down at them, his own thoughts running back over the ages since his failed rebellion against his own father. It was his brother’s fault, he told himself once more, thunder rolling outside the palace in echo of his inner rage. It had been Tomanāk who’d rallied the others after the devastating surprise of Phrobus’ initial attack. Tomanāk who’d personally struck Phrobus down, taken his original name from him and given him the one he bore now. “Truth Bender,” that was what his name meant, and in the depth of his defeat, he’d been unable to reject it when his brother fastened it upon him forever. Not even he now remembered what his name had once been, and he thought perhaps he hated Tomanāk most of all for that.

Yet much as he hated—and feared—Tomanāk, he hated the myriad worlds of mortals even more.

His attempt to seize Orr’s power as his own had very nearly succeeded, but in the moment in which Tomanāk ripped it back out of his grasp, that power had fractured, broken into more pieces than even a god could count. Worse, each of those pieces had taken on its own life, its own existence, and when that happened, the fates of all the gods had become captive to those insignificant, puny mites crawling about all of the worlds upon worlds which had spilled from the riven, shattered power he’d hungered to make his own. A new concept had come into existence in that moment—the concept of time. The concept of a future...and an end. And not even the gods themselves were immune to it, able to ignore the endless, steady trickle of years sliding one after another into the maw of eternity. Yet worse still, far worse, was the intolerable discovery that those ephemeral mortals held his fate in their hands.

In many ways, only the fragmenting of Orr’s power had preserved Phrobus’ own life, for there was no doubt what Tomanāk would have done with him if only he could. But all of them were entrapped in the uncertain fate Phrobus had unwittingly, unintentionally, created. Orr himself had been diminished, weakened, stripped of his ability to command the tides of fate and left as captive to those capricious mortals as Phrobus himself. The restoration of his power was beyond his own reach, and neither the remaining Gods of Light nor Phrobus could repair it for him. It must heal itself in the fullness of that mortal creation—time.

But how would it heal itself? It had taken Phrobus centuries to realize the question could even be asked, for no one had ever considered the possibility that Orr’s power could be shattered, and so no one had ever considered what might happen if it was. He knew how frustrated Tomanāk was that the cataclysmic collision of so many potential alternate futures had prevented him from slaying him for his treachery, yet Tomanāk had no choice. The death of a god, any god, would have released far too much additional power, poured far too much additional uncertainty into the shattered present and chaotic future of Orr’s realm. And so Tomanāk had been forced to let him live, let him leave the home from which he’d been cast for his crimes, let him carve out his own realm in the broken confusion of too many realities.

And as he’d paced the confines of that lesser realm, contemplating the far vaster one he’d held so tantalizingly within his fingers, it had come to him.

The entire universe—the original, un-shattered universe, his father’s great creation—had broken with Orr’s power. It was as if a glass had been dropped upon a stone floor, and the shattered bits and pieces had flown in every direction. It had been impossible for anyone, even a god, to predict where any of them might land, far less where all of them might end their bouncing journeys across the stone. Now they lay scattered, tumbled into confused windrows without rhyme or reason, separated from one another and yet longing on some deep, fundamental level to become whole once more. To become one once again. And as they lay, they could be gathered back up by the proper set of hands. They could be...reassembled, put back together, and the hands which put them back together would control what they became on the day that they were one once more.

If he could reclaim them, gather enough of them together in the pattern of his choosing, he could remake them not as a reflection and restoration of Orr’s power, but of his own.

Of course, that infernal busybody Semkirk had reasoned it out before him, and his accursed brothers and sisters—even that flighty fool Hirahim and that pathetic simpleton Sorbus—had set themselves to restoring the broken bits and pieces themselves. But there was a catch. Those bits and pieces had minds of their own. They were...malleable. They could be shaped, convinced, seduced, even taken, but only from within. In the end, they would choose their own fates on the basis of their own decisions, and those choices—and only those choices—would decide whose hands they came into in the fullness of time.

It was a race between him and his brothers and sisters, and so he’d taken to himself a wife and begotten children of his own to aid him in the struggle. Even with them, he was badly outnumbered, but not all of the Gods of Light were equally suited to the nature of the struggle between them. And the most ironic thing of all was that individual strength was of secondary importance, at best. They were forced to contend for each reality separately, individually, and the nature of the contest leveled the difference between their abilities. Any god could have destroyed any single fragment of that broken power, yet none of them knew how many fragments could be destroyed before the whole failed, and so none of them dared to destroy any of them. They must confront one another within the limits and constraints each individual mortal reality could endure, until that reality reached its tipping point and fell as the possession of the Light...or of the Dark.

And in the fullness of time, enough of those individual realities would fall to one side to give that side possession of them all. Which meant, that despite his failure all those ages ago, Phrobus might yet win all he’d sought.

But that could happen only if those mortals he loathed with all his being—loathed because they ultimately held his fate in their hands—gave him that victory. Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of them realized the prize for which the gods truly contended, and their puny lifespans made most of them shortsighted and easily duped. Many of them could scarcely wait to give themselves to him and to his children, and his hatred for them only made the taste of their souls still sweeter.

Yet not all of them were blind, not all were easily seduced. Their resistance to the Dark ran through their realities like ribs of steel, and some of them...oh, yes, some of them were far more dangerous than others.

“All of you know how much Tomanāk has poured into Orfressa,” he said now. “All of you know how many possible outcomes run through that single cable of universes.”

His eyes burned even hotter as he glared at them, his anger smoking in the air as he contemplated how close they’d come to victory, to seeing that reality—all the facets of that reality—safely locked into their possession twelve hundred of the mortals’ years ago, only to have it slip through their fingers at the last moment. It lay now like a strand of fire wrapped in shadow, its central core surrounded by the penumbra of all its potentialities, not quite within his grasp, not quite beyond it, and the long wait to determine the side to which it must ultimately fall burned in his bones like slow poison. To be sure, centuries were but the blinks of an eye to one such as himself. Or they should have been, at least...had he been one bit less aware of the galling chains the mortal concept of “time” had set upon him.

“Father, the advantage is still ours,” another voice said. “No one in all of Norfressa—except, perhaps, Wencit—even imagines what’s preparing in Kontovar. Surely—”

“Don’t speak to me of ‘surely,’ Fiendark!” Phrobus snapped, turning the full power of his glare upon his eldest son. “There was a time when Orr’s power was ‘surely’ mine! And I tell you that I’ve looked long and hard into the future of this reality and all those spinning from it, and I see confusion. I see uncertainty. And I see threads of Tomanāk’s weaving that lead to places I cannot see. Places where this reality—all of these realities, and all the myriad others which might spring from them yet—fall from our hands into his unless we cut those threads of his, and do it quickly.”

“But how, Father?” Carnadosa asked. “As Fiendark says, the advantage is still clearly ours, and Tomanāk can no more act openly in Orfressa than we can. So how can those threads of his snatch it away from us now?”

“The answer to that lies in those places beyond my vision.”

Phrobus growled his reply, and Carnadosa frowned as the thunder outside the palace rolled darker and louder. Her father was stronger than any of them, and his ability to see the strands of future and past was greater. Yet there were limits even for him, for no one could predict what future any given reality would experience. There were too many variables, too many uncertainties, and until an event actually occurred, all possible outcomes of that event were equally valid, equally possible. Some were more likely than others, and outcomes became increasingly more likely—or unlikely—as a reality approached that particular event. Yet that uncertainty meant no one could predict precisely what would happen, or exactly how it would come about, and that, too, was the fault of those maddening, unpredictable mortals.


“But it continues to depend upon Bahzell, doesn’t it?” she asked. Her father glared at her, and she bent her head slightly. “I ask because that’s my own reading of this reality, Father. If yours is different...?”

She let her voice trail off on a questioning note, fading into the rolling peals of distant thunder, and her father glared at her. Yet the question lingered, requiring answer.

“Yes,” Phrobus replied after a fulminating moment. “Bahzell is the key, but perhaps not precisely as you think. It revolves about Bahzell; yet there are so many elements in play, and Tomanāk has worked so skillfully to confuse the possibilities, that I truly can’t say it depends upon him. Still, certain aspects are clear enough, aren’t they? The hradani are supposed to be our tools, not Tomanāk’s. They and the Sothōii are supposed to be at one another’s throats, not allies, and these accursed ‘war maids’ are an entirely new ingredient. Whatever else may be happening, Tomanāk and his meddling ‘champions’ are in the process of creating a fundamental realignment which threatens all our future plans for that reality, and Bahzell is the catalyst that brought all of them together.”

“I would never question your analysis, Father,” Fiendark said, his voice an alloy of obsequiousness and arrogance, “yet it seems unlikely to me that anything Tomanāk might accomplish where the hradani and Sothōii are concerned could truly threaten our ultimate plans.”

“You think not?” Phrobus returned his attention to Fiendark.

For better or worse, Fiendark was his senior deputy, yet there were times when his son’s delight in destruction for destruction’s sake got in the way of more...constructive approaches to a problem. He was too likely sometimes to think in terms of simply destroying an opponent to look for more subtle opportunities...or threats.

“I admit what I have seen shows it could be highly inconvenient,” Fiendark replied now. “Their efforts might make our task more difficult, yet what if it does? In the end, the destruction will only grow greater and even more complete as their resistance delays their final defeat, and that can only serve our own ends.”

“That might seem reasonable enough,” Phrobus conceded after a moment. “But Tomanāk’s invested too much in the effort for me to simply assume it to be true, and I don’t like those threads I can’t see. No. We will assume nothing, and we will bring this Bahzell Bahnakson and all those other threads which revolve about him to nothing. Am I understood?”

Heads nodded around the throne as fresh thunder exploded outside the palace to underscore his question.

“Good,” he said with a thin smile. But his smile was only fleeting, and a frown replaced it as he gazed at Carnadosa thoughtfully.

Of all his children, she was the most subtle. Indeed, there were times when even he sometimes wondered exactly what game she might be playing. And, whether he chose to admit it or not, she was the one who most worried him. Not because he thought she was actively plotting to supplant him, but because if she ever did decide to overthrow him as he’d attempted to overthrow his own father, she was the one most likely to succeed. She was unimpressed with the taste for cruelty which infused Sharnā, just as she disdained Krahana’s hunger and Fiendark’s lust for destruction. But neither did she have any use for Krashnark’s perverse sense of honor. Pragmatism was all that mattered to her, and she was a past mistress of the indirect approach. Very few of her victims ever even suspected her presence until she pounced from the shadows.

Yet she was also capable of direct—very direct—action when it seemed called for, and her status as the patron of dark wizardry and knowledge made her followers a force to be reckoned with in any mortal reality. It was possible—indeed, probable, given the outcome—he should have given her primary responsibility for the last attempt to disrupt Tomanāk’s plans for this Bahzell Bahnakson, whatever those plans might be. He’d chosen not to because it had seemed a case in which wizardry couldn’t be openly utilized—not yet, at least. And, he admitted, because Shīgū had been so insistent on doing it her way.

But now his options were limited. Sharnā and Shīgū had both been badly damaged in their recent confrontations with Tomanāk and his accursed champions, and it would be mortal decades yet before even Krahana fully recovered.

There were times Phrobus was forced to admit there were at least some advantages to the fashion in which Tomanāk and the other Gods of Light interacted with mortals. Their insistence that their “champions” had to give their allegiance knowingly, aware of the implications of their choices, made it far more difficult for them to enlist followers, and their refusal to simply enter into those champions and turn them into avatars limited their freedom of action. Seduction and corruption made recruitment far simpler for the Dark Gods, especially for mortals too foolish to suspect what their ultimate fate would be, and far more could be accomplished by turning those strong enough to bear the touch of godhood without being instantly destroyed into mere appendages. Not every mortal was strong enough, by any means, to be turned into an avatar, but those who were became conduits and anchors—doorways (so long as they lasted), through which their masters and mistresses could reach directly into the reality of mortals at will.

But Tomanāk and his fellows’ refusal to suborn the wills of mortals meant they could act in the mortal world only when they were allowed to—when they were invited to—by those who’d chosen to serve them. And their refusal to burn out their servants limited the total amount of their own power and presence with which they could invest them. No mortal could long survive the direct embrace of godhood, even when the god in question sought to protect him, and so the Gods of Light treated their champions with silk gloves. They gave only so much of their power as their servants could channel, and in the process they surrendered control of what their champions did with that power.

No Dark God would give up that control, nor would one of them worry himself unduly over the fate of one of his servants. Avatars existed to be used, after all, even if they tended to be...consumed quickly. Replacing them could be inconvenient, yet that was acceptable, because while they lasted, they gave their masters direct access to their own reality, and there were always others who could be recruited to replace them afterward.

Yet there was a disadvantage to that, as well, as Sharnā and Shīgū had both discovered. It was one thing for a god to decide to withdraw his power from an avatar in an orderly fashion; it was quite another when that avatar was destroyed before he could withdraw. When that happened, the power, the fragment of his own essence, which had been poured into his mortal tool was lost with the avatar. Worse, it left him temporarily maimed, unable to reach back into that particular reality until the strength he’d lost regenerated itself once more, and that was precisely what had happened to Sharnā and Shīgū.

Sharnā had largely recovered from the damage he’d taken when Bahzell slew Harnak Churnazhson, but he’d been foolish enough to invest even more of his essence in the sword with which he’d armed Harnak. He’d seen that as a way to ensure Harnak’s victory and avoid his avatar’s destruction, but it hadn’t worked out that way, and the sword touched by his essence now lay at the bottom of the sea. It would be centuries before he recovered from that, and until he did—or until the sword could be recovered from Korthrala’s keeping and returned to him—he had no personal access to that reality.

Phrobus knew his son well enough to feel confident Sharnā was far from brokenhearted by the knowledge that he couldn’t have faced Bahzell and Tomanāk in personal combat once more even if he’d wanted to...which he most definitely did not.

Shīgū had managed not to leave any of her being lying around in cursed weapons, but she’d never been noted for her rationality, and she’d poured herself wildly and recklessly into her avatar when she confronted Dame Kaeritha Seldansdaughter. Indeed, she would have emptied even more of herself into her tool, even at the risk of completely destroying that reality, had Tomanāk not blocked her. Given the possible consequences of any universe’s destruction, it was as well Tomanāk had, but that same block had prevented her from withdrawing any of the power she’d invested, and her avatar’s destruction had cost her even more dearly than Prince Harnak’s death had cost Sharnā.

Krahana—wiser than her brother and saner than her mother—had committed her most powerful servants to the attack on Bahzell Bahnakson, but she’d declined to face him directly through an avatar of her own. As a result, she continued to have access to Bahzell’s reality, but her resources there had been seriously curtailed. Until she could recruit or breed new servants powerful enough to replace those she’d lost, her capabilities would be only a shadow of what they had been.

And Fiendark had too many other responsibilities elsewhere (and was too fond of sheer destruction to be trusted with this task, anyway), which left only Carnadosa...and perhaps Krashnark.

“I think this has become a task for you, Carnadosa,” he said finally.

Her expression never changed, but her obsidian eyes glittered as she contemplated the possibilities. She’d been involved only peripherally in the last attempt, as the coordinator and link between Shīgū and Krahana, and her mortal servants had been wise enough to remain safely in the shadows rather than confront Tomanāk’s champions directly. More than that, she was unique among the Dark Gods in that she practically never used avatars of her own. Her wizard followers were usually quite powerful enough for her ends, and she had no desire at all to see her power diminished if a confrontation with one of the Light’s champions went poorly. Giving her primary responsibility in this instance would increase the odds that she would be forced to confront Tomanāk or one of the others openly, whether she wished to or not, and it would definitely raise the probability that sorcery would be used openly sooner than Phrobus could have wished. She was too canny and too well informed not to recognize at least some of the potential consequences of reintroducing the arcane into the long, simmering conflict between Norfressa and Kontovar too soon, yet if she succeeded where Sharnā, Shīgū, and Krahana had all failed, that entire reality would become her personal possession, and all the power generated by every mortal living in it would be added to her own.

“Obviously, our original strategy failed miserably,” he continued. “You have a free hand to formulate your own approach to the problem, although I want nothing done without my approval. We’ve failed twice already; I refuse to fail a third time. And because I refuse to fail yet again, Krashnark will assist you.”

A flicker of disappointment showed in her eyes as she contemplated being forced to share the spoils of victory with her brother, but she was too wise to protest. And too wise not to recognize what a powerful ally Krashnark could be, as well.

“I understand, Father,” she said, bending her head.

“I’m sure you do.”

Phrobus sat back in his throne once more, listening to the crash and bellow of the thunder, and his eyes were hard.

“I’m sure you do,” he repeated.

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