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The Demon King

Chapter Text

Balthazar
A powerful demon who just wants to be left alone. Enjoys romance novels and dick jokes. Overwaters his plants but doesn’t wash his hair. Makes awful decisions and looks terrible doing it. Claims he wants to destroy the world but has a good heart… probably.

Ceres
A magical elven princess. In her thirties but takes great pains to look younger. A wine mom without the children (please don’t let her near children). Will romance anything that moves and many things that don’t. Makes excellent decisions for all the wrong reasons.

Gasper
A big buff axe-wielding orc. The aunt friend who wants you to be happy and causes trouble in the name of having a good time. A veteran warrior who appreciates crude humor and wants you to eat your vegetables.

Melchior
An elven wizard who intended to challenge Balthazar but ended up sticking around to observe his dysfunctional lifestyle. Adventure is definitely not his middle name. A flashy dresser who enjoys the finer things in life. Gives good advice but can’t take a hint.

Weive
A close confidant of Ceres. Murders people for hire but manages to have a good sense of humor about it. Nonbinary cold-blooded fashion icon. Insists that they abide by a stern code of ethics, but by “ethics” they probably mean “knives.”

Sade
An orcish farmer blessed with a green thumb and a slight talent for magic. Has a pragmatic and no-nonsense approach to the challenges life throws her way. An excellent pastry chef who somehow manages to keep her girlish figure (hint: it’s the magic).

Tharsirion Daewyenes
An elvish noble who holds the title of viscount granted by his stewardship of the five lakes of the Mwyngil Basin. Loves parties and is laughably bad with money. Probably too handsome for his own good.

Ava Daewyenes
Tharsirion’s daughter. Would very much like to inherit the family estate. Enjoys drinking and hatching schemes to force her father into an early retirement. Changes her appearance at will.  

Urhaugh iffan Matuk
A former student at the Lyceum who was exiled from Whitespire after having been (rightfully) accused of anti-monarchist sedition. Studies the origin and practice of ancient magic. Has an enormous ego and a pretentious way of speaking.

Professor Abbas
A researcher of magical science at the Lyceum. Appears to be friendly with Ceres. Melchior says he's an asshole.

Grighorm
A gargoyle hailing from the large community that lives under the mountains to the west of the desert. Has learned to speak the common tongue after more than a century of practice and serves as a guide through the tunnels. Generally good-natured and has a special fondness for dogs.

Uniagoliantia
A bear-sized spider who serves as a tree shepherd in the Forest of Silent Decay. Means well but sometimes can’t stop herself from speaking in riddles. Generous to a fault. Very proud of her fine fur and enjoys being complimented.

Chapter Text

In a vast wasteland crouching at the western border of a prosperous kingdom, an obsidian tower rises from the barren earth like a hideously broken bone. It does not stand straight but pitches and leans, with turrets and follies mushrooming from the black stone of its spire. The twilight shadow it casts over the sands is long and twisted, staining the golden dunes for miles on end as the sun sets beyond the jagged teeth of the mountains.

It is whispered that this blight upon the land was built by the Demon King who lurks in its highest reaches, and that the structure was fashioned by the sheer force of his dark will. The Demon King is awful to behold, it is said; he is a heartless villain who will kill any trespasser who dares to set foot within his domain.

Surrounding the tower is a waste of fetid swamps and blasted scrubland. The wind that carries dust across the cracked soil is foul with the breath of the deepest recesses of the earth, where unspeakable ruins molder and rot. In the shadow of the tower, misshapen hovels lean together like crooked tombstones. The houses, if the appellation can be applied to such mean dwellings, are haunted by the monsters that have been driven from the light of civilization.

Those who have the misfortune to wander into this settlement speak of how these pathetic beings cling to the bloodstained hem of the Demon King’s robes, drawing a wicked form of courage from his malevolence and slavering to strike the hands that once cast them out.

The Demon King’s eyes are turned ever eastward, waiting for a chance to claim the green and fertile kingdom that rises from the shimmering sea. The dreaded attack has yet not come, but it has long been feared by those who have witnessed the effects of the Demon King’s magic. Few are the heroes with the strength of spirit to challenge him, and fewer still are those who have survived to speak of his fell deeds. To this day he watches, alone at the top of his tower, keeping his terrible secrets.

Chapter Text

The dry desert wind whipped the hero’s cloak around the taut muscle of his body as he approached the steps of the tower that rose from the cracked earth like a scream.

The Demon King waited in the shadows at the top of the grand staircase. His horns cast a dull gleam in the light of the setting sun, and his golden eyes flashed as the hero drew his sword. An orc wielding a large ax and an elven wizard in flowing robes fell in at his side as he strode forward to meet his opponent.

“My name is Kervor of Sunwood,” the hero announced. “I have been sent by the Princess of Whitespire to slay you.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Balthazar muttered. “Not again.”

He cleared his throat and raised his voice so that it rang down the stone steps.

“Well met, brave hero. You have done well to make it this far, but your journey ends here. Surrender now, and I will spare you. Many are the roads that will lead you away from my tower. Sheath your sword, and you may leave this place to go where you will.”

He made a sweeping gesture, indicating the barren dunes at his back and the mountains that lay beyond.

“Challenge me,” he continued, “and perish. Make your choice.”

“I will never surrender to one such as you,” the hero proclaimed. “I will not rest until you and all your kind have been utterly banished from these lands!”

Balthazar clicked his tongue in disappointment. This person had obviously spent days traveling here, and that was the most dramatic line he could come up with?

The hero raised his sword. “I demand that you face me so that I may take my holy vengeance upon you!”

Balthazar snapped his fingers, and the hero was instantly consumed by a blazing inferno. The magic acted so swiftly that the man barely had time to drop his weapon before he was reduced to a smoldering pile of bones and ash.

“Get someone to clean that up,” Balthazar ordered as he massaged his temple. He was developing a headache, and none of this was helping.

“I’ll take care of it,” the orc at his side volunteered. “I just wish these assholes didn’t have to leave such a mess. It’s inconsiderate,” she added before holstering her ax and jogging down the steps.

“This would be a fine opportunity to address your followers,” said the wizard who lingered beside him. “Invite them to drink to the magnitude of your power and the glory of your reign, that sort of thing.”

Balthazar grimaced. A drink was the last thing he needed. “I can’t deal with this right now,” he replied. The tea he’d set out to brew had more than likely turned to mud and gone cold in the process. Still, what choice did he have? If this hero was anything like the others, he’d almost certainly caused his fair share of mayhem on his way here. Someone would have to assess the damage and organize repairs, and that ‘someone’ was probably going to have to be him.

Balthazar once again found himself inevitably drawn to the same conclusion he’d arrived at months ago – being a ‘demon king’ was far more trouble than it was worth. And what was he thinking, putting all these steps in front of the tower? Climbing them always made his knees ache. He let out a deep sigh as he prepared himself to descend.

Chapter Text

“So?” A sweet and gentle voice trilled in his ear. “How did you enjoy the latest hero I sent you?”

Balthazar shut the cover of the book he’d been reading and looked up to meet the gaze of the princess who hovered in the air in front of him. Her eyes sparkled like stars, and her face was a lovely as the dawn, but her form was merely a projection. Whitespire Castle was almost a hundred leagues to the east, which wasn’t nearly as far away as Balthazar would have preferred.

“Ceres, this has got to stop.”

“What, you didn’t like him?” she replied with a grin. “I thought he was fun. Charming, even. Did he make a speech for you? Stage a heroic monologue? I thought you would appreciate that sort of thing.”

That wasn’t what he meant, and she knew it. Ceres had sent the first ‘hero’ she ordered to defeat him along with a mirror that allowed her to contact him any time she wished. As she become more proficient with the mirror’s magic, she’d learned to send a part of her spirit through the mercury of its surface so that she could invade his space as well as his privacy.

“You can’t just show up unannounced like this,” he told her.

“What, were you reading porn again?”

“Yes. Actually.”

“Wow, okay. I didn’t expect you to be honest.” She paused. “Is it good?”

“Not particularly.”

He put the book aside. “Speaking of which, this hero business is getting ridiculous. Where do you find these people?”

“Here and there. You don’t even want to know what this one did before I offered him the opportunity to redeem himself. Listen, can I tell you something? Genuinely, as a compliment?”

“I prefer that you didn’t.”

“I have never, not once in my reign, met someone who values life as little as you do. Most people find murder upsetting. And I know ‘most people’ would call you a sociopath, but I think what you do is valuable and unique. Your ability to take care of these little problems for me is a talent, really it is.”

“I’m not here to clean up your trash, Ceres.”

“Oh? Then why are you out there? Maybe I should send my army to ask in person.”

Balthazar closed his eyes. His headache was threatening to come back, and the mere thought of having to slaughter an entire battalion was exhausting.

“With respect,” he said, “I have never, not once in my reign, met someone who values life as little as you do, Ceres.”

“Why, thank you! I’m happy you noticed.” She beamed, and even through the haze of the projection he could see the gleaming whiteness of her teeth. “That’s a compliment I so rarely receive.”

“It’s not – ” Balthazar began, and cut himself off. He took a deep breath. “This one killed two people and seriously injured a third before I could get to him. I know it won’t do any good to tell you to stop sending criminals here to be disposed of, but do me a favor and try to give advance notice next time.”

“But that takes all the fun out of it,” Ceres said as she leaned back into the air and crossed her legs. “Who knows, one of these psychos might actually get lucky and kill you.”

“All right, let’s say he does. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that one of your ‘heroes’ slays the terrible demon king,” Balthazar replied. “And let’s say he returns to that miserable kingdom of yours, flushed with victory and completely full of himself. What will you do then?”

“Fuck him, probably.” Ceres tapped her chin with her fingers and smiled. “Or her. Or them. I wouldn’t want to discriminate. Are you disappointed that I’ve only sent you men? Do you have a preference?”

“Can we change the subject.”

“Sure. But let’s keep talking about you. I know that’s your favorite thing to talk about, after all. Why don’t you reveal your latest diabolical plan to destroy my kingdom?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Come on, you know you want to.”

Balthazar leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, unconsciously mirroring Ceres. He watched as she withdrew a ghostly bottle of wine from wherever she was sitting in her wretched castle and poured the ghostly liquid into a transparent glass. Go on, I’m listening, she seemed to be suggesting.

“Fine. If you must know.”

“I would love to know.”

“Across the desert and to the north, in the forest on the other side of the mountains, there’s a sacred site that the orcs call the ‘Temple of Everlasting Autumn.’ I’m assuming you haven’t heard of it.”

“What a strange thing to assume.” Ceres took a long sip of wine. “But you happen to be correct, I’ve never heard of it. How intriguing. Do continue.”

“Deep within the temple is an ancient artifact said to enhance the regenerative capacities of organic matter. If I can find this place, and if I can find this power, I may be able to figure out a way to become effectively immortal.”

“Immortality sounds like an awful lot of trouble, but okay. I get it – you want to look pretty forever. Do you take constructive criticism?”

“No. As I was saying – ”

Ceres held up a finger to cut him off as she took another sip of wine. “Now, the problem is,” she continued, “that you don’t have much to work with. Do you really want to look like that forever? I think that, before anything, you might want to find a temple with an ancient artifact that will help you figure out how to fix your face.”

“That’s the heart of the matter, actually. Based on what I’ve read,” Balthazar said as he rapped the cover of the book on the table beside him with his knuckles, “whatever this power is, it only works on plants. I’m not sure what would happen if it were to be used on a person.”

Ceres frowned. “Wait. So you were reading plant porn?”

“Yes, Ceres. I was reading plant porn. And I’d like to get back to it now, if you don’t mind.”

“I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing. I’ve been growing a carnivorous vine for a few years now, and it’s gotten quite large. And flexible! I bet it would be fun to play around with.”

“Good night, Ceres.”

“All right, I’ll go. But the offer is on the table, if you ever want a sex bud-dy. Get it?” she winked and vanished just as suddenly as she’d appeared.

Balthazar sighed as he picked up the book and flipped to the page he’d been studying. He would have gone with ‘if you ever want a field to plow’ himself, but Ceres always had to have the last word. It was one of her least endearing qualities, but at least it meant she’d leave him alone for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

“He smashed. My pumpkins.” The orc, clearly distressed, gestured to a field whose loamy soil seemed entirely out of place in the desert. “He smashed all of them.”

The moonlight threw the orange shards into sharp relief. Piles of pulp were strewn across the ground in seedy lumps. The carnage was total, as if a storm had descended onto the furrowed plot of land.

“And you’re sure it was the hero who did this?” Gasper asked.

“Who else would it be? Did you see any other ridiculous little elf walking around with a sword?” The farmer shot a guilty glance in Melchior’s direction. “No offense.”

He shrugged. “None taken.”

“With respect,” she continued, “why are you even asking?”

“That’s a reasonable question, Miss…?”

“You can call me Sade. And drop the ‘miss.’”

Gasper nodded in acknowledgment. “Fair enough.”

“We want to know whether this man arrived here on his own,” Melchior said. “If he had a merry band of adventurers trailing along behind him, we’d prefer to smoke them out sooner rather than later.”

“Why don’t you tell us about the person you saw?” Gasper asked.

“He was short and pale, and he had pointy ears,” Sade began. “Wait, I know that’s not useful. He had longish hair, kind of rat-colored, and a smooth face. He was wearing a travel cloak that seemed new – I could see the creases at the hem – but he’d still managed to get it absolutely filthy.”

“That sounds like our man,” Melchior confirmed. “What did he say his name was again?”

“I forget,” Gasper replied. “Besides, I couldn’t hear him over the wind.”

“Sorry about that,” Melchior apologized as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Sorry about what?”

“The wind. That was my doing. I summoned it. I thought it would make the confrontation more dramatic. I’ve been working on that spell for days. It turns out that all I needed to get it right was a bit of inspiration.”

“Good for you, kid.” Gasper slapped Melchior on the back, causing him to stumble forward a step.

“So anyway,” Sade cut in, “has the hero been, you know. Dealt with?”

Melchior and Gasper nodded in unison. “Oh, quite,” Melchior answered. “Balthazar took care of him. That particular gentleman won’t be interrupting any more agricultural endeavors, at least not in this lifetime. Consider your pumpkins thoroughly avenged.”

Gasper crossed her arms over her chest. “Your pumpkins, and those two teenage boys who took it on themselves to challenge him. The girl who stepped in to pull the pair of them back was injured, but she’ll make it through. She’ll have a handsome scar to show for it if she’s lucky.”

“It’s bad business all around.” Sade shook her head. “Do you think our mighty Demon King has the magic to regrow my pumpkins?”

Melchior laughed. “Can you imagine?”

“Well, if he can’t help, maybe you can send some nice strapping lasses my way. But in the morning, if you don’t mind. I’ve had enough heroes to last for one day.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” Gasper gave the farmer a warm smile. “I’ll check back with you tomorrow.”

Sade’s eyes softened. “I would appreciate that.”

Melchior glanced between them. “You know, Gasper, I don’t need you to return to the tower with me. I’m a big boy, I can walk home on my own.”

“No, come on. Let’s get on with you.” Gasper waved to the farmer as they left together. “I’m amused by the idea of Balthazar growing pumpkins. We’d hear about it for days if that man so much as got dirt under his nails.”

“He asked me about that, actually,” Melchior said. “He says he wants to experiment with terraforming. He seems to be in the process of concocting some grand plan that he didn’t see fit to explain properly, at least not to me, but he managed to tell me that he intends to make use of some manner of relic. From the Temple of Eternal Summer, I believe it was.”

Gasper stopped in her tracks. “The Temple of Eternal Autumn,” she said.

“So you know of it.”

“Only by reputation.”

“You should talk to him about it, then. You know how he gets when he’s fixated on something.”

Gasper let out a breath. “I may just need to have that little chat with him.”

“Good, that’s settled.”

“No, not good. Nothing about this is good.”

“Come now, Gasper. Don’t be cryptic. What’s this all about?”

“It’s not good news for anyone if Balthazar has his heart set on looking for that evil place. If he finds it, we could all be in grave danger.”

“Do you think that will stop him?”

“Of course it won’t.”

Melchior pulled the lapels of his coat tighter around him in an attempt to ward off the chill of the frigid night air. “I figured as much,” he replied. “Some people simply can’t be reasoned with. Speaking of which, I think we’ve done our due diligence. If there are any more heroes out there, they’re just going to have to wait until morning. I’ve seen enough murder for today, and I quite think I fancy a drink. Care to join me?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Whitespire Castle is named for the pale stone of the mountain from which it was carved. When the sun rises in the east, the stone glows radiantly white, and its pale walls reflect the colors of the sunset in the twilight before the descent of full dark. The castle has countless tiers and towers divided by the waterfalls that spill from the peaks, and a city spreads from its walls along with the lakes that pool in the valley below.

Tall bridges with high arches leap over the river gorges, and lush gardens bloom on the slopes and terraces. Boats crowd the waterways, and people travel vast distances to join the markets that line the broad avenues and delicately curving lanes. A secluded forest hollow shelters the city’s lyceum, which preserves the texts and lore of hundreds of years of history. Whitespire is a haven for knowledge and culture, a bastion of civilization that stands against the encroaching wilderness beyond its borders.

The city and its surrounding lands are ruled by a princess who is as beautiful and prosperous as her kingdom. Though young, Ceres is celebrated by her people for her wisdom and grace. She has become known as the Radiant Princess of Dawn, and Whitespire has prospered under her guidance. Ceres is benevolent and just, and the civil disruptions that marked her ascension to the throne have faded from memory like an unsightly wound during the placid calm of her reign.

The princess is rumored to have inherited the marvelous powers of her ancestors, whose cunning magic raised the castle from the ruins left behind by the receding waves of a poison sea. Whitespire is a repository for generations of secrets, and it is said that, deep in the caves twisting into the rock of the mountains, a relic bestowed on the royal family by the very Weaver herself lies sleeping, blessing the kingdom as it silently dreams its ancient dreams.

Chapter Text

Ceres sat comfortably on her throne, bathing in the light raining down on her from an ornately framed window above her head. At her feet flowed two streams running along hollows carved into the stately marble floor. The soft susurrous of the water was as gentle and soothing as the sparkle of the sun on its surface.

A herald cracked open the doors to her audience chamber to announce a supplicant, the second to last of the day. Ceres had been dreading this meeting, which was certain to prove tedious.

A noble with a strong chin and voluminous curls of chestnut hair shoved his way past the herald and walked toward her, a crimson cape billowing behind him.

I hope you trip, Ceres thought, and smiled.

“Your Highness,” he began in a booming voice, “I appear before you today with a petition to amend a tax code pertinent to my estate.”

“I would hear your petition, sir.” Ceres turned her head so that the horns of her crown caught the sun, causing her gray eyes to shine silver.

“As stated in the code signed and sealed by our hallowed ancestors,” he went on, “those of my lineage are bound to relinquish a certain portion of our annual revenue to the crown for the upkeep and maintenance of all ways of ingress and egress on and surrounding our lands. Well-intentioned though this code may have once been, the times have changed as surely as the seasons, and the burdens we once shouldered to our mutual benefit have become frivolous and unnecessary. I therefore appeal to your intelligence and rationality when I ask that you reconsider the code, which has become outdated in its unreasonable demands on our resources and – ”

Ceres listened to the viscount drone on for a few more minutes. Was he a viscount, or merely a baron? She couldn’t remember, but he lived far enough away from the city that it didn’t matter. She was already familiar with the gist of his petition. She’d read the brief he submitted, poorly written and thoroughly unsubstantiated though it was, and it was nothing she hadn’t read a hundred times before. Annuity this, usufructuary rights that. All it came down to in the end was pure selfishness.

Ceres raised her hand to cut him off. “You have argued your case, and I have considered the matter,” she proclaimed. “The tax code will remain as it currently stands. We have no record of you maintaining the roads and bridges on your lands. None exist, since the responsibility lies with us. We are able to operate on a much larger scale than you, providing both tradespeople and the materials they work with, all of which must be paid for.”

“With respect, Highness,” he objected, “I can pay for my own family.”

“I’m sure you can, without doubt. Nevertheless, someone must be responsible for those in your employ, as well as the safety and security of the surrounding land. This is why, as I have said, the tax code will remain as it is.”

“I respectfully dissent,” he replied, a deep crease appearing between his eyebrows. “I hereby announce my intention to appeal your decision in a court of my peers, as is my privilege.”

Ceres’s smile didn’t falter. “Very well, sir. I await your suit.” She leaned back and crossed her legs as the viscount stalked off, his ridiculous cape flapping behind him like the tail of a peacock.

A shadow appeared at her side from behind the throne, slowly taking on the form of a thin figure shrouded in the deep olive and rich brown of a forest at midnight.

“You summoned me, Highness?” they prompted in a voice as cold as a winter morning.

“How lovely of you to join me, Weive,” Ceres said over her shoulder. “I did, and I was hoping to apologize for interrupting you and send you on your way.”

“I assume that’s not the case.”

“You assume correctly.”

“What’s going on in that man’s head for him to challenge you so openly?”

“I don’t imagine there’s much in his head at all.”

“Still, it would be a shame for him to lose it.”

“You’re right. Perhaps he should lose something else instead.”

“Did you have anything in mind?”

“I do, in fact,” Ceres said with a smirk, recalling the stuffed front of the man’s trousers, “but perhaps a terrible accident would suffice. Let’s hit him where it hurts.”

“His fingers, perhaps?”

Ceres laughed in appreciation. “Not this time. His property will suffice.”

“I seem to recall that there’s only one bridge leading to his estate.”

“One bridge is a bridge too many, if you ask me.”

“Understood, Your Highness.” Weive offered a slight bow and faded back into the shadow cast by the throne.

Ceres allowed herself to slouch in her seat for a moment, relieved that she was almost finished with her private audiences. She could put on a good show, but her patience was wearing dangerously thin. Do these people really not understand why they pay taxes, she thought. Where do they think the money to maintain the value of their estates comes from? Spoiled brats, all of them.

Nevertheless, Ceres straightened her back and raised her chin as the herald announced the final supplicant for the day.

Her eyes widened at the sight of the young woman who approached. She had the same strong chin and pale hazel eyes as the man who had so recently left the room in anger, but on her face these features were striking and handsome. Even better, she had the good sense to come bearing gifts – an uncorked bottle of fragrant plum wine and two delicate crystal glasses.

“Your Highness, most beautiful and wise,” the woman said while peering up through long eyelashes, “I have humbly come to seek your consideration regarding a matter of personal interest to myself and my family.”

“I believe I already gave your father an answer.”

“Indeed you did,” the woman replied with a mischievous smile, “but I am not my father.”

Finally, someone with some sense, Ceres thought as she stood and strode forward to meet her guest, whose hand was already outstretched to offer her a glass.

Chapter Text

“And he smashed all of her pumpkins,” Balthazar ranted. “He smashed them. All of them. Just for the fun of it.”

“Yes, that’s terribly fascinating, but you’ll have to tell me the story later. I’m in the middle of something important right now.”

“Might I remind you that you contacted me. If you have something to say, do it and leave me alone.”

Ceres noted with amusement that Balthazar was well past due for a shave. Sometimes she wondered what he did with all of his time in that tower. Surely plotting the total destruction of the world didn’t consume so much of his attention that he was forced to neglect basic hygiene. She considered bringing the matter to his attention but held herself back. She was, as she said, in the middle of something important.

“I’ve been trying to contact you all day,” she replied calmly.

“Excuse me for not being at your beck and call.”

“I’ll forgive you, but listen. I’ve sent you a gift. I wanted to make sure it got to you before you set off on your little adventure, so I’m having it delivered via airmail. Do me a favor and try not to kill the messenger.”

“I can’t make any promises. Does the messenger have a sword?”

“I certainly hope he does, but that’s beside the point. I’ve requested that he not attack you or anyone under your protection. I hope it won’t prove necessary.”

“It depends on what you sent with him.”

“Oh, nothing much. A token of my affection, let’s say.”

Balthazar scowled. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Of course I shouldn’t have, but I’m a kind and magnanimous person. No need to thank me.”

Without giving him an opportunity to answer, Ceres twisted the projection spell back onto itself. There was a rush of air on her face, and when she opened her eyes she was back in her dress chamber. Unlike Balthazar’s study, which was crowded with books and plants and bits and pieces of handsome antique furniture he’d purloined from the gods only knew where, her own rooms were stark and unadorned. Luxury and ornamentation were for the public eye, and her private interests lay elsewhere.

Ceres returned to her bedroom, where the viscount’s daughter lay tied to the posts of her bed, her slender wrists bound with shimmering lengths of silk.

“So you’ve returned. But know I have not changed my mind,” the woman said, her lips shining as brightly as her eyes. “May the Maiden help me, I will never reveal my family’s secrets.”

“We have ways of making you talk,” Ceres replied, drawing a tall and slender roc’s pinion from the air. She ran her fingers along its soft and delicate vanes as she took a step forward, but then it struck her – the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee

Ceres spun on her heel as the feather transformed into a blade. She raised the rapier just in time to intercept the dagger thrust upward toward her neck.

“Weive, you could just send a courier,” she said, not allowing her voice to betray how startled she had been. If the attack had been serious, she may well have had to wash her own blood from her bedroom floor. It wouldn’t have been the first time, but it never got any easier.

“This is not an appropriate moment to lower your guard,” Weive admonished. They shot a sharp glance at the woman tied to the bed. “Or your pants, for that matter.”

“You’re being rude to my guest,” Ceres replied as she allowed her sword to vanish from her hand.

“Your guest’s father is currently dealing with a crisis that she might find sobering, were she to learn of it. Perhaps this may not be the most appropriate time to inform her.”

“I believe she already knows.” Ceres turned to face the viscount’s daughter. “Lady Ava, this is Weive. They’re my… advisor, I suppose. They have my full trust, and I hope they may receive the honor of yours as well.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure.” The woman on the bed twisted her hands free from their bindings and drew herself up to lean back against the pillows. “Do I smell coffee? We’ll need it if we’re to discuss my father. I hear there’s been an incident concerning the primary bridge to the estate.”

Ceres nodded. “I’ve also heard that the bridge connecting the viscount’s island to the shore has been the target of a most malicious attack. Would you happen to be able to confirm this rumor, Weive?”

“The rumor is correct, Highness. Shall her ladyship change into something more appropriate so that I can have the coffee service brought in, or would she prefer to step away for a moment?”

“I’ll change, thank you,” Ava said. “I’ve brought a few documents you may find interesting. I hope you won’t be insulted if I share them with you without further resistance. Please feel free to peruse them while I’m otherwise occupied.”

“Not at all,” Ceres said. Although the evening had taken a slight turn away from her expectations, she did so love it when everything went according to plan.

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Chapter Text

Sand is a curious substance. It is neither solid nor liquid, neither soil nor rock. It is never still but moves constantly, leaving its mark on everything it touches. It absorbs its environment, carrying traces of the earth’s memory as its grains shift and flow with the wind.

As they rush westward, the sparkling waters of Whitespire’s rivers shy away from the desert that spills down from the distant mountains. The smaller streams that attempt to continue on their way are stymied by the lowland bogs, where they halt and become stagnant and foul. Life thrives in the shadows of the thick canopy of trees that rise above the still water, but it is sharp of tooth and quick of claw.

The swamps drain into grass marshes that are soon swallowed by the choking sand. With no rain and no shade, and no gentle loam to store the warmth of the sun, the land is scorching during the day and freezing at night, the seasons unremarked and unchanging. Wise travelers extend their journeys by weeks to avoid the desert, so its mysteries have long lain undiscovered. Few know of the great labyrinth that twists and coils just below the sand, and none would venture there willingly. The tunnels contain no treasures, no fabulous riches or fantastic knowledge, only dry stone that echoes with the voices of the lost and forlorn.

It is said that there is water below the dunes, or that there was once, in an age long past. Whitespire has asserted its claim on the rivers that reflect the sky, but there are rivers too that flow through darkness.

Chapter Text

Sade dropped the basket in her arms. It fell to the ground with a dull thud.

“Oh,” she said, lowering her eyes. She seemed to shrink into herself. “I didn’t realize…”

Balthazar stood and watched her in confusion. Did she have a problem with the shovels he’d brought? Surely they couldn’t be that poorly made.

“Come on, girl, don’t be like that,” Gasper said, stepping forward to put a hand on her shoulder. “He doesn’t bite.”

Balthazar cleared his throat. “Gasper tells me that the man who ruined your field took it on himself to break your shovels, so I made new ones. I want to exchange them for anything you can tell me about the magic you’re using to grow things out here.”

“It would be my honor to serve my lord however he deems fit,” Sade replied, still not meeting his eyes. “If he would only be so kind as to allow me the kindness of remaining on his land.”

“Look. Whatever you think I’m going to do to you, it’s not going to happen. I’m probably not even capable of whatever it is you’re imagining. This isn’t ‘my’ land, and you don’t owe me anything. I’m just asking as, uh…”

Balthazar shot a glance at Gasper, who was clearly amused by his awkwardness.

“I think he means to say that he’s asking as a friend,” she cut in. “I bet you didn’t think ‘the demon king’ was a literal demon, did you? I was surprised too, but don’t worry. He’s harmless.”

“I’ll have you know I’m very powerful.”

“But you don’t know anything about growing pumpkins, do you?” Gasper prompted.

“No, I don’t know anything about growing pumpkins. I’d like to learn, if you’ll teach me.”

Sade looked at the shovels he extended to her.

“How do I tell him that they’re not suitable?” she asked Gasper in a whisper.

“What do you mean, they’re not suitable? Do you even know how many diagrams I consulted to make these? They should be perfect.”

“What Sade is too polite to tell you is that they’re too perfect. They won’t bear the force of impact, and whatever enchanted stone you used to make the blade would shatter the first time it hit a rock. Not to mention that you made them in elvish dimensions. A bit small, eh?”

Balthazar looked down at the shovels in his hands. “Fuck me, you’re right.”

“And who dresses like that to go out on a farm? How do you think you’re going to get the dirt out of all that gold thread, or did you not think that far ahead?”

“The shovels are quite beautiful,” Sade interrupted. “I’ll accept them as, ah, art.”

“That’s the first time anyone has ever called anything I’ve done art. I’m flattered,” Balthazar said as he handed her the two shovels. She was careful not to touch him, but he supposed he couldn’t hold it against her.

“Did you actually build that tower?” Sade asked as she studied the delicate patina on the black blades.

“I did. It was a mistake.”

“How does one go about making a mistake like that?”

“Long story. So about those pumpkins?”

“Well,” Sade began, “the first thing you need to do is get rid of the sand. It kills just about everything it touches, to begin with, and there’s something strange about the mineral composition. It absorbs far more heat than it should, and stepping on it is like touching burning metal during high afternoon. Not sure if you’ve noticed,” she added with a laugh.

“Trust me, I’ve noticed,” Balthazar replied. He hated the desert, and the sand was a constant source of grief. “So what do you do about it, exactly?”

“There’s not much to be done, to tell you the truth. Begging your pardon, brooms are more useful than shovels.”

“You want me to sweep the sand?”

“We don’t want you to do anything, Chief,” Gasper said. “Leave the sweeping to the professionals.”

“A fine lot of sweeping you do with that ax of yours.”

I was sensible. I brought her a broom.”

“Excuse me for not spending every waking hour of the day thinking about sand.”

“We’re agreed on that point, at least,” Sade said. “It’s awful stuff. The good news is that it’s thin on the ground around this area. You must have used sand to make that tower.”

“I… I did, in fact,” Balthazar answered, impressed that she’d noticed.

“It’s good for more than afternoon shade, then, because the soil isn’t too shabby underneath the sand. This is where we come to the second problem, which is erosion. Without roots to keep it in place, the topsoil blows away like so much dust, even without the tower acting as a shield against the windstorms.”

“But you can’t grow roots without water,” Gasper objected. “That’s the part I can’t understand.”

Sade nodded. “You’re absolutely right. Now here’s the funny thing, if you ask me – there’s water here. There’s quite a lot of it, actually, and it’s not even that deep underground. It’s almost as if the rivers running down the mountains of Whitespire just sort of, I’m not sure how to describe it. Dip right below the surface of the earth on their way to the mountains.”

“Imagine that,” Balthazar said in a dry voice.

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t mind him, he does that,” Gasper said. “All high and mighty, acting like he knows things he’s too important to share with us.

“Is it really all right for you to talk to him like that,” Sade whispered to Gasper with a worried look.

“It really isn’t, but there’s no cure for rudeness,” Balthazar said. “Let me ask you a question. If there were more roots in the ground, do you think it would be possible to raise the water table?”

“It’s not impossible, but your main problem is still going to be water retention.”

“But roots would be good.”

“Roots would be a good start,” Sade confirmed. “I’d prefer whole pumpkins, but I was able to till the waste back into the soil. The roots are still there, so it should hold. I shared the seeds with the kids who helped clean up the field. We’ll see how they take.”

“This all seems extremely basic,” Balthazar said. “What do you use magic for?”

“Cooking.” Sade smiled. “But don’t ask a lady for her secrets.”

Balthazar’s eyes grew wide. “Let’s get you some roots, then. The sooner the better.”

Chapter Text

“So they tell me you’ve been indulging yourself in an agricultural study tour,” Melchior said. He generally avoided daylight, claiming that it was bad for his skin, but the eastern sky had already grown gentle as the sun set on the other side of the tower.

“I’m amazed they’re able to grow anything out here,” Balthazar replied as he poured a cup of tea for Melchior.

“You are aware that people need to eat to live, of course.”

“I assumed they hunted.”

“Hunted what, exactly? Do tell me. I’m curious.”

Balthazar made an impatient gesture. “Sandworms, something like that.”

“Sandworms? I can’t tell if you’re joking. Surely you don’t believe…”

“Don’t believe what?”

“Don’t make me say it.”

“Then don’t say it.”

“Surely you don’t believe sandworms exist?” Melchior asked anyway.

Balthazar turned to face him. “They exist. Would you like to see one?”

Melchior considered his question. “I think I would, actually.”

“Fine. That can be arranged.”

“I say, can you summon a sandworm? How does that work?”

“No, I can’t summon a sandworm, for the love of… Look, what do you want? I thought you only came out at night.”

“I simply thought you might like to know that another hero is on his way. He’s probably going to arrive soon, in fact,” Melchior said, gazing up into the sky through the open wall. “Look, I believe that’s him now.”

Balthazar followed his eyes and saw a dark shadow against the eastern sky that grew steadily larger as he watched. He assumed it was the messenger sent by Ceres. How had she convinced a starag to fly out here? Whatever she’d sent with him, Balthazar wanted nothing to do with it. He was even less inclined to deal with any trouble the starag might get into on the ground, however, so he sent out a flare to signal his location. He kept it simple, just a bright white explosion in the air. He was wary of using magic around Melchior, who was peevishly judgmental and not shy about expressing his opinions.

Before long the starag alighted on the balcony. Balthazar admired the magnificent stretch of his glossy black wings, which gleamed with hints of deep violet and indigo in the slanting light of the setting sun. A sword was strapped to his waist, just as Ceres had promised, but there was no aggression in his eyes.

“Hail and well met,” Balthazar said as he stood. “It must have been a long journey from Whitespire. Come inside and rest your wings.”

The starag’s face went pale as his eyes adjusted to the interior shade. Balthazar watched as his gaze traveled from his horns to his eyes to his teeth to his hands, and he grimaced in displeasure. There wasn’t much he could do about the rest, but he at least had the decency to keep his nails short. He’d already had his fill of people giving him uneasy looks for one day, and he had half a mind to tell the idiot bird to shove his beak up his ass and fly back to whatever shit-splattered cliff he came from.

“Have some tea, friend,” Melchior said, suddenly standing at his side and extending a cup of tea to the starag. “You must be parched. Not that I don’t blame you for flying through the daylight. I wouldn’t want to stay here after dark either. It’s abominably cold and dreadfully uncomfortable, but they have excellent beer to make up for it. I’ll escort you myself as soon as your business here is done. Don’t worry, this grouch won’t be joining us. Just between you and me, I think he hates fun.”

The starag seemed to be comforted by Melchior’s accent. He tucked his wings behind his back and accepted the tea.

“It’s cold,” he said in surprise.

“It’s magic,” Melchior said, sounding as proud as if he had made the ice himself.

The starag drained the cup and handed it back to Melchior before wiping his beak and removing a blue gemstone from his satchel. Melchior’s eyes widened, but the object meant nothing to Balthazar. The stone was roughly the size of grape and ensconced within a web of fine silver filaments, and it looked like nothing so much as a piece of cheap costume jewelry.

“Her Highness has asked me to deliver an echo stone, with regards from Professor Abbas,” the starag explained.

“Professor Abbas can go fuck himself,” Melchior replied with a smile. “What does the princess intend to be done with a precious artifact like this?”

“She wishes for the, ah, king to take it with him on his journey to the Temple of Everlasting Autumn. She has also asked me to advise him that he may chip away a small piece of the stone if he desires for his wizard to study its magic, which can be duplicated in any common crystal.”

“My wizard?” Balthazar asked.

Melchior grinned. “I believe she means me.”

“Her Highness has also asked me to tell you that she will offer such wisdom as she can provide during the journey to the temple, with hope for safe passage and such good fortune that the stone may never fall silent.”

“So she wants him to report to her, and if he dies, she wants to be the first one to know about it,” Melchior confirmed.

“She also sends a map.” The starag passed a slender roll of parchment to Balthazar. He sliced the seal and opened it to find a crude drawing rendered in colored wax pencil. The map, such as it was, was composed of the sort of irregular green triangles and blue squiggles that a child would draw to represent mountains and rivers. In the upper-left corner was a brown rectangle with a red arrow pointing to it, and above the arrow was a line of flowing cursive script, saying, “It’s here, dumbass.”

“Charming,” Balthazar said. He gave the map to Melchior, who snorted laughter.

“With respect, Majesty.”

“Don’t call me that,” Balthazar snapped.

The starag looked confused.

“There’s no need to address me with that sort of language. Ceres made up this whole ‘demon king’ thing for no other purpose than to annoy me.”

“With respect, Sir Balthazar,” the starag began again, “the Temple of Everlasting Autumn is a cursed place. We starag are taught, as fledglings, never to alight in that forest. Even the orcs steer clear of it.”

“And?”

“There is a great evil sealed there,” the starag pressed on. “If it were to be unsealed, the temple’s curse would spread far beyond the boundaries of its valley.”

“Right. That’s the idea; that’s precisely why I’m going there.”

The starag made a quick gesture to ward off ill omen.

“Look,” Balthazar said, “you’re telling me that this place is ‘cursed,’ but I don’t think you know what’s actually in there. Curses aren’t real, and superstition isn’t good enough for me. If you want to warn me away, you’re going to have to be more specific. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for whatever’s in that temple, and at the very least I’d like to see it for myself.”

“And if he dies, so much the better,” Melchior added.

“Exactly, Balthazar agreed. “Try to look on the bright side – I could very well die. I’m interested in hearing more about this ‘curse.’ Would you like another cup of tea?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

The Great Hall of Whitespire Castle is a grand gallery of marble and stone. It can accommodate a thousand people on the polished expanse of its floor and many more on its upper balconies. Columns stretch skyward between splendid arches ornamented with delicate carvings inlaid with gold. Silver chandeliers hang from an impossibly high ceiling, each supporting a myriad of glittering lights and flowering plants. Stately pillars rise from the floor below each chandelier, each topped with a bed of rich and fragrant greenery that is luxurious in its profusion.

At the head of the room is a magnificent stage raised above the ground by two dozen steps leading to a throne so marvelous that all but the most stalwart of heart feel compelled to lower their eyes in its presence. The seat is carved from a single block of the same pale stone as the castle walls, and its edges are lined with iridescent mother of pearl and gilded with polished silver. The throne is ornamented with dewdrop-shaped jade plates that unfold like petals, and it is crowned with a halo of twisting thorns.

Framing the throne is a portal into a shallow cavern carved into the wall of the mountain that holds the castle aloft over the kingdom. Within its hollow is a single tree, its trunk bold and powerful, its branches stretching ever upward in a riotous explosion of leaves. The tree bears no flowers save for the throne itself and the princess who graces it with her beauty and benevolence.

There is no glass above the ancient tree’s canopy, yet no rain or snow ever never falls on the throne. Nor, through the inexplicable workings of the hereditary magic of the kingdom’s sovereigns, does darkness. Just as the reign of the queens and kings of Whitespire shall remain forever glorious, it is said, so too will the shining stone petals of the throne always be bathed in radiant light.

Chapter Text

“I will never bow to your tyranny,” the orc snarled as he struggled against the grip of the soldiers attempting to force him to his knees on the rich violet carpet before the throne.

“As you wish. It would be easier for us to talk if you knelt, but stand if you like.” Ceres raised her hand as a signal for the soldiers to step away. “Urhaugh iffan Matuk, you have been accused of high treason against the throne. We have seized more than a dozen manuscripts of seditious writings from your quarters at the Lyceum. These documents have been presented to me as evidence of your crime. More than half of these papers appear to have been written by your own hand. Your guilt is undeniable, but its severity is mitigated by your youth. You may yet have an illustrious future ahead of you. I am inclined to be merciful if you will consent to swear fealty to me as your rightful sovereign, and to the noble line of Whitespire that I represent. How do you plead?”

“Your line is a blight on this land,” Urhaugh replied in an accent nearly as patrician as Ceres’s own. “Nothing in this nation belongs to you, rightfully or otherwise, nor has it ever. If you have read my writing but refuse to see reason, do not dishonor yourself by indulging in a farce of justice for the mere sake of humiliating me.”

Ceres nodded. “I have heard and understood your statement, and thus your fate is sealed. I would speak to you before I pass your sentence in the presence of these witnesses.” She made another gesture, and the soldiers fell back several more paces as she descended the steps leading from the dais.

She stood close to the orc and whispered a few words under her breath. The air shimmered around them in the briefest of moments before growing clear.

“I’ve cast a spell of silence,” she explained in a low voice. “It will cloak our conversation, but people will still hear you if you raise your voice. Take care not to do so.”

“What could you possibly desire to say to me?” Urhaugh replied. “The time for words is finished. It would take but a second for me to snap these ropes and crush your neck. My life would be well-lived if I could use it in the service of terminating your reign.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Ceres said. “I can kill you in less time that it takes to blink. You’re a smart lad. It would be a shame to have to end your life, so be quiet and listen. Your advocate wouldn’t release the documents pertaining to your case until this morning. I didn’t have much time to read through them, and your handwriting is atrocious. Your ideas are quite sophisticated, however. It’s clear to me that you’ve done your reading and know your history. I must admit that I’m impressed. I should also inform you that Professor Abbas contacted me directly to ask that I grant your case special attention, and I conceded.”

“Do not presume that I will be grateful for your compassion.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m going to say something you may not be expecting, and I’m going to follow it with something you may not like. To summarize, you will neither be killed nor imprisoned, but it is in neither of our interests that this fact becomes public. I need you to keep that unpleasant look on your face if you value your life and respect the kindness and support of your mentor. Don’t say anything if you understand.”

Urhaugh didn’t respond, and the corner of Ceres’s mouth turned up in a smile before she arranged her expression into a stern and solemn mask of disappointment.

“As it happens, I happen to agree with your, what shall we call them, anti-monarchist leanings. Many people in the Lyceum do. I’m sure you know this. What you may not know is that these political leanings have exacerbated the divide between existing factions. I couldn’t care less about the petty squabbling of academics, but some of these professors have patrons in high places. You’ve been singled out to become a scapegoat, and there’s not much I can do about that. Since you’ve already done me the favor of setting yourself up as a target, I’m going to make you a scapegoat for a completely unrelated crime as well. In return, I’m going to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity.”

Ceres paused, but the young scholar’s face remained angry and bitter. She doubted he was disguising his feelings for her benefit. So much the better. This would be much easier for both of them if he appeared to be suffering.

“Fortunately for me,” she continued, “you’re not in a position to decline. Or even to argue, as I’m sure you’ll want to when I say that I’m going to send you to the court of the Demon King.”

“No.” The color drained from Urhaugh’s face.

“Come now, there’s no need for dramatics. It’s not as bad as all that. He seems to be attempting to do something quite interesting, actually. It’s my job to ensure that he doesn’t succeed. I am very good at my job, regardless of what you may believe, and I doubt that man will make it very far to begin with. Still, his methods and guiding principles are… original, let’s say. Abbas tells me you’re studying ancient magic, and there’s no better place in this kingdom or any other to study it. You’ll understand what I mean when you get there.”

Ceres paused again, and smiled. “I’ll even grant you a protective escort if you’ll promise to deliver a manuscript for me, which you can take along with whatever volumes from your own meager library you wish to accompany you on your journey. It’s not as though you have a choice, of course, but I want to impress on you how important it is to me that this manuscript finds its way into the Demon King’s claws.”

“What vile manner of tome do you wish to be delivered to his seat of evil?”

Ceres noted with amusement that Urhaugh’s frown had softened slightly. Perhaps he fancied that he was being sent on a grand heroic mission, or perhaps he simply wanted to read the manuscript himself. Ceres kept her face dour and grave as she replied. “It’s the latest installment of Dancing with the Duke. I managed to get my hands on an advance copy, and I’d like to know what he thinks of it. Thilvahine ends up pregnant with the stable boy’s baby, but I need you to promise not to spoil it for anyone.”

“What…?”

Ceres replied with a quick wink before stepping back and clapping her hands. “Take this man away! He has confessed that he is responsible for the attack on Viscount Daewyenes’s estate, and he shall be exiled for his crimes. I hereby cast him from the light of Whitespire and into the shadow of the Demon King!”

Chapter Text

“Let me get this straight,” Balthazar said. “You sent a child here to be re-educated.”

“You have a distressingly low opinion of me,” Ceres replied, lazily floating behind him as he paced. “And ‘re-education’ is a strong word.”

“What am I supposed to do with this person? Teach him to dig turnips?”

“Is that what the orcs grow out there? Turnips? I thought you said it was pumpkins.”

“Has this boy ever spent a day outside the city?”

“He’s in his twenties, and I don’t know his life story. You can ask him yourself when you meet him.”

“I don’t care how fast he travels, it’s going to take him at least a week to get here. I have no intention of waiting. Can you not afford to keep him in jail?”

Ceres shrugged. “Why wait? I don’t know how long you’ll be gone. And you could always do everyone a favor and die on the way.”

“I don’t recall owing you any favors.”

“Speaking of which, I had him take a manuscript along with him, and I asked him to pass it along to you. He seems to think I’m sending him on a covert mission to deliver some sort of ancient cursed tome.”

“Is it porn?”

“It’s erotica, Balthazar.”

“Who wrote it?”

“I believe they prefer their identity to be kept secret.”

“It’s the newest volume of Dancing with the Duke, isn’t it.”

“Yes.” Ceres beamed down at him with sparkling eyes.

“You know I hate those books.”

“I hate them too! Let’s hate them together.”

“Ceres, what if this child dies on the road? It’s not an easy journey.”

“That’s why I sent him with an escort. Don’t worry, they’ll dump him on the edge of the desert. You can pick him up at your leisure.”

“You’re aggressively ignoring the fact that I won’t be here.”

“And you’re ignoring that fact that that’s the point. I’d like this man to understand that the demon king doesn’t need to be there at all for the community that lives in the shadow of your awful tower to govern itself. He needs to see for himself that a monarch is just a figurehead.”

“I’m not a monarch, Ceres. I live here because I can’t stand the smell of the sewer water pouring out of that castle of yours.”

“Fair enough. Anyway, circumstances required that the bridge of a minor noble be destroyed, and I had to pin the crime on someone. I’m a bit short on targets at the moment, so this man is your problem now. Can you get your wizard to mentor him?”

“Melchior isn’t ‘my wizard.’ And I’m a wizard, in case you forgot.”

“Then why do you need to go to a cursed temple on the other side of the mountains?”

“For fuck’s sake.” Balthazar made a frustrated gesture. “How many times am I going to need to explain it this today? Curses aren’t real.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Magic doesn’t work like that.” Balthazar, having walked off his agitation, collapsed into an armchair. He glanced at Ceres, who continued to hover above him. “Unless you think you know something about magic that I don’t.”

“Would you like to know what I think?”

“No.”

“That’s too bad, because I have a theory.”

“Is it as fatuous as your theory that a monarch is just a symbol?”

“You really don’t know anything about governance, do you? It’s a good thing I’ve sent someone from the Lyceum to educate you.”

“As you were saying.”

“As I was saying, I have a theory about the site you’re so keen on uncovering. The ‘Temple of Everlasting Autumn,’ they call it. Give me a second, talking to you is exhausting.”

“The feeling is mutual.” Balthazar leaned back and watched as Ceres poured a glass for wine for herself and drank.

“Much better,” she said, patting her lips with a gauzy square of cloth. “As I was saying, I have a theory. I assume you think curses don’t exist because most magic fades when the caster dies. Resurrection is possible, but not in a way that preserves the mind of the deceased, and resurrected constructs can’t generate their own magic. But magic can be stored in an object, yes? Theoretically speaking, if the spell feeds itself, it could loop indefinitely. It’s not possible to create a perfect loop, which is why the enchantments on objects eventually tend to fade if they’re not actively maintained. Stop me if I’m getting too technical for you.”

“As difficult as it may be for you to respect the expertise of anyone other than yourself, you should know I have a passing acquaintance with that sort of magic.”

“Interesting. I didn’t know that. I’ll keep it in mind. Anyway,” Ceres continued, “if you had a large enough store of magical energy – an entire temple’s worth, let’s say – it would be possible to create loops within loops within loops. A construct created to maintain the spell on an enchanted object, and a construct created to maintain the spell on the first construct, and so on and so on until you get to the architecture of the building itself, which could potentially serve as a structural framework to keep the spells active.”

“Even if that were possible, it would be ill-advised,” Balthazar replied. “A glitch in one loop would spread to the others. It would be impossible to work your way back to the source of the problem, and there would be no way to fix the system without destroying it.”

“Exactly, now you’re getting it.” Ceres toasted him with her empty wineglass. “That repeating glitch in the loop that throws off the other loops, making everything progressively more unbalanced in a system that grows ever more random as it perpetuates itself – that’s your ‘curse.’”

“Interesting.”

“Interesting? That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say? It’s an interesting theory.”

“Do you think you know something I don’t?”

“Probably not,” Balthazar admitted. “I just don’t think what you’re describing is plausible. A system like that could be maintained for a long time, perhaps a hundred years, perhaps more. But that temple is more than a thousand years old, give or take. Not even architectural spellwork would survive a thousand years of environmental stress and erosion. If there’s a magical system there, someone or some… thing is maintaining it.”

“And that doesn’t bother you.”

“It scares the shit out of me.”

Ceres studied Balthazar’s face and came to the conclusion that he wasn’t being facetious. “But you’re still going.”

“Tomorrow morning, if you’ll leave me alone and let me sleep.”

“Do you mind if I ask a serious question?”

“Not if it will end this conversation.”

“How do you know how old the temple is?”

“I read actual books, unlike some people.”

“Don’t pretend like you’re not going to enjoy the manuscript I sent you. Do you know what the new book is called? Swords at Dawn. There’s a duel, and it’s extremely spicy.”

Balthazar looked away. He seemed to be putting on a show of not caring, but Ceres could see his lips twitch. “Do Deimos and Serenity finally get together?” he asked.

“You’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?” she replied with a smirk. “But do use the echo stone I sent you. I don’t mind spoiling the plot if you’re on the verge of death out in the wilderness. It’s the least I can do.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Far to the west of Whitespire, on the other side of the desert, a wall of mountains rises to the sky, their peaks lost to the clouds. The starags who make their homes on the cliffs say it is possible to scale the summits, but only by those with blessed with wings.

For those whose feet much touch the ground, there are old roads winding through the valleys between the slopes. The route is long and treacherous, and none still live who might serve as guides. It is far easier to bypass the mountains by following the rivers that twine around the edges of the desert as they roll and pitch toward the sea.

There is another way through the mountains, but only the most desperate and foolhardy would attempt it. It is said that, long ago, in an age now lost to memory, there were tunnels blasted through the mountain, the work of an ancient race whose names are as lost to us as the labors of their terrible hands.

Those who have ventured into the shadowed bowels of the mountain tunnels hesitate to speak of what they have seen. If their tongues are loosened by drink, they may be persuaded to whisper of size, and scale, and vastness; of oceans of darkness, of gale winds that howl across immeasurable distances, of caverns as large as the dome of stars stretching across the night sky.

And then, in voices that tremble with the horrible weight of memory, they may speak of cyclopean columns and pillars, of silent tombs and the fearsome statues guarding them, of endless steps blasted into the unyielding rock and uncannily straight passages with deep grooves in their cradles. If such erstwhile adventurers have nothing left and nothing to lose, they will speak of the bridges. All they can say – all anyone can say – is that they go down and down and down; they go down forever, deep into the darkness where the earth falls away and even echoes cannot escape.

Still there remains something of which no one would dare speak – as terrible as the stygian bridges may be, they are not without light, but what casts the light is even more dangerous than the darkness.

Chapter Text

Balthazar found no trace of previous explorers at the mouth of the mountain tunnel. There were no remains of fires or cast-off detritus, no holes left behind by stakes hammered into the cracks of the dry earth, no messages scratched on the limestone lining the cliffs. The scattered ruins of the ancient road leading into the foothills were clear enough, but there was no grand approach to the tunnel entrance, nor was there any gate barring the passage; there was only bare stone and the ever-present sand.

A wind blew from inside the mountain, cooling the sweat on Balthazar’s sunburned face as he stepped into the shadows. He’d read that there were once mines here, and it was clear that this end of the tunnel had been built for utility. The passage was wide, and the ceiling was high. The ground and walls were too regular for the tunnel to be a natural cavern, but there were no architectural flourishes to be seen, not even when the tunnel widened into a large plaza.

It didn’t take Balthazar long to discover the terminus of a set of rails. A few wooden support structures had ossified in place, but most of the planks had long since crumbled to dust. The dry air preserved the metal of the rails, which still seemed functional.

Balthazar used the metal from the end of the tracks to kludge together a platform and lifted it onto the rails. He used his magic to propel it forward, shielding the flame of his lantern against the breeze and hoping that he would see any obstruction in time to stop.

The rails were clean, almost as if they had been maintained. The ride was a bit rough in places, but there were no signs of geological disturbances or organic life in the tunnel, no boulders or landslides or rats or bats or whatever else might make its home in the darkness. The air remained fresh, and for a time the tracks ran parallel to a river. Balthazar couldn’t see it, but he could hear its burble and flow as it rushed to join the reservoir of water under the desert. The orcs who settled at the base of the tower had managed to dig a number of wells, and he’d struck water himself while extending the base of the tower downward. The sand was highly alkaline and bore lingering traces of toxicity, but the water was not only potable but quite pleasant. It made excellent tea.

As he rode, Balthazar fantasized about food. There were no seasons in the desert, and the days tended to blend together. He couldn’t pin down the last time he’d eaten with any sort of precision. He missed fruit more than anything. Sometimes he dreamed of cutting an apple and eating its slices just as they began to turn brown and sweet, or peeling an orange and feeling its juice squirt into his mouth as he bit into one of its segments. There should be a forest on the other side of the mountains, but who could say if it would be safe to eat anything he found there, especially if the magic polluting the land was as dangerous as everyone claimed.

Balthazar tried to keep his mind focused on the tracks by counting the clicks in the rails. He didn’t have any other means of keeping time, so he couldn’t say how long he rode. The tracks eventually deteriorated before twisting into warped knots in front of a cave-in that blocked most of the tunnel. Balthazar had no choice but to continue on foot. He felt the progression of time more keenly as he walked. His feet and legs grew sore, but the totality of the darkness put him on edge, so he kept going.

The tunnel branched several times. Balthazar kept to the largest bore, even as it turned away from the river. He began to notice columns and arches that were large and unornamented but stalwartly constructed. The paving stones underneath his feet were smooth and regular. Perhaps there was more to be seen beyond the light of his lantern, but he had no desire to explore. He’d never had a good sense of direction, and he didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary underground. He hated the glare of the desert sun and the shine of the starlight that was as bright as day, but he didn’t find the darkness under the mountain as comforting as he’d assumed. The silence was oppressive, and the sharp tapping of his bootheels against the rock was beginning to annoy him.

Balthazar had read reports of hostile creatures in the tunnels. The books containing this information were so old that their bindings were coming apart in threads and spirals of old glue, and the creatures were said to attack travelers on the green side of the mountains, but Balthazar didn’t want to take any chances. He hoped that, if there were anything here, it lived deeper inside the mountain and would allow him to pass without confrontation.

His hopes were dashed when he arrived at a massive gate. The twin slabs of its doors were formed of two blocks of solid stone. Despite its size, it was roughly hewn, and the crudeness of its design set it apart from the other architectural remains he’d encountered. Even more disturbing, its frame and hinges seemed to be made of wood, so it must have been constructed relatively recently. Balthazar couldn’t see any footprints or other traces of activity in the dust that had settled on the rocky ground, but that didn’t mean much, not with the wind leaking through the cracks on the edges of the gate.

It would be easy enough to blast the doors open, but that seemed rude. Balthazar estimated that he might be able to squeeze himself above the gap at the top of the gate where the rectangular doors didn’t meet the curved arch of the frame, but that would be equally undignified. He therefore decided to do what any sensible person would do. He tapped his fist against the stone doors, knocking at the gate as he called out into the darkness. There was no answer.

He had no power over stone or wood, and the doors could only be swung open from the other side. With no other choice, Balthazar resigned himself to pulling one of the stone slabs open by force. The wooden hinges resisted his attempts, but he was able to shift the stone just enough to slip through.

Balthazar knew he wasn’t alone as soon as the door scraped shut behind him. He couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but he could still smell the odor of dozens of bodies. He had no doubt that he was surrounded.

“Hail to the lords under the mountain!” he called out again. “I am a traveler from the desert seeking safe passage. I mean no harm. Allow me to pass and I will be on my way without lingering.”

There was no response. Balthazar took a step forward, and his movement was met by a low growling that rumbled across the stone. Whatever was producing it was directly in front of him, as well as much larger than him. Balthazar’s eyes widened. Could it possibly be…?

The light cast by his lantern was reflected in the pearly shine of dozens of pairs of milky white eyes. The growling became louder, and the animal smell became more intense.

“Leave now,” a voice like shifting gravel emerged from the darkness. “You will remain unharmed if you return the way you came.”

“I can’t do that,” Balthazar replied. “My apologies.”

“Then you will perish.”

“I can’t do that either, sorry.”

“Then you must meet your fate.”

Balthazar raised his lantern, and then he could see it – an enormous beast with three heads, covered in fur and scales and snarling through sharp teeth as long as his forearms.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. He could feel his heart racing with delight as he extended his arm.

“Who’s a good girl?” he cooed. “Who’s a good girl? Who wants some scratches? Does a good girl get some scratches?”

The creature’s middle head dipped slightly to sniff at his hand before giving it a tentative lick.

Balthazar glanced in the direction of the voice that had spoken to him, unable to stop the smile that spread across his face.

“Can I pet your dog?”

Chapter Text

“No one can remember when we started living in the mountains,” the gargoyle said in the common tongue. He’d asked Balthazar to call him Grighorm, which was as close to his actual name as Balthazar could pronounce. “We have stories, of course – rains of fire falling from the sky, the light of a poison sun burning our skin and raising scars like stone. That sort of thing.”

“But you don’t literally turn to stone during the day,” Balthazar confirmed.

“Of course not. Not that our eyes are suited to strong light. We would be just as blind in the desert as you are in darkness.”

Balthazar walked between Grighorm and his dog, who was apparently named Mint. A small party followed along behind them. They spoke in a language of chirps and clicks, laughing and jostling each other as they crossed a bridge over a deep ravine whose bottom was buried under a thick layer of shadow. The bridge was wider than the tunnels themselves and seemed to be in excellent condition. Although there were no barriers at its edges, it would be difficult to imagine someone falling. The pale stone of the bridge emitted a soft light, as did many of the walls on this side of the stone gate.

“Where does the light come from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Not at all. It’s a wild strain of bioluminescent lichen that grows naturally in this region of the caves. We’ve cultivated other strains that emit different shades of light, but they require care and attention. We don’t bother maintaining them in the surface tunnels.”

“The surface tunnels?”

“The large access tunnels that lead to the surface. We don’t venture outside all that often. It’s too hot on one side, and too cold on the other. We have everything we need right where we are.”

“Why do you go to the surface at all, then?”

“You know how young people are. Some will never be content unless they go out and see the world, and most just need the exercise. We have a few settlements in the caves higher up the mountain, but the starag don’t get along with us too well. They seem to think we eat their eggs.”

Balthazar grimaced. “That’s disgusting.”

“My thoughts exactly, but who can say what surface-dwellers are thinking. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“We also trade with the spiders who tend to the trees at the edge of the Forest of Decay. No one wants to go inside the forest, you understand, but we have to maintain the diversity of our fungal stock.”

Balthazar didn’t know anything about ‘spiders’ or ‘fungal stock.’ He hadn’t read about any of this, and the gargoyles themselves had only been mentioned in passing as ‘dangerous mutants.’ Leave it to the elves to write only about what interested them.

“Why don’t you want to go inside the forest?” he asked. “Would the spiders not welcome you?”

“I don’t think they go that deep into it either, not if they can help it. It’s an eerie place. Beautiful, but eerie. People who go in don’t come out, at least not as themselves. I think the spiders might go there when they’re ready to die, but I’m not too familiar with their customs. You’d have to ask them. Not that you’ll get a straight answer. You know how spiders are.”

“I don’t, to be honest,” Balthazar admitted. “I’ve never spoken with a spider before.”

“Then you’re in for a treat,” Grighorm replied. “I won’t spoil it for you. If you meet Uniagoliantia, give her my regards. She’s a charmer.”

The gargoyle’s face was singularly inexpressive, and Balthazar couldn’t tell if he was joking. He absentmindedly stroked the fur of the dog walking beside him, who responded by nuzzling his shoulder with the nose of her left head.

The dog’s muscles suddenly became tense, and Balthazar halted beside her as she sank into a crouch. A second later he could smell something burning. It was horrible – the stench of singed hair and old ash. Grighorm froze, and the party following him went deathly silent. A violent and terrible screech rose from under their feet and echoed across the stone, spreading like a virus.

“Quietly,” Grighorm hissed. He pitched forward with quick steps, and the other gargoyles moved at a brisk pace behind him. Their previous good humor had evaporated. Another shriek emerged from the abyss. It sounded like screaming. It almost sounded like words.

“What was that?” Balthazar asked once they had crossed to the safety of the tunnel at the other end of the bridge.

“A fire demon,” Grighorm replied, his voice still quiet. “There’s still one down in the pit of the old mine shaft. It almost never comes up to this level.”

“What do you do if it approaches you?”

“We do the only thing we can when faced with something like that – we run and hope it doesn’t catch us.”

“When you say that this creature is a demon, is that a figure of speech, or…?”

Grighorm blinked, his face impassive. “It’s a demon. Like yourself, yes?”

Balthazar’s mouth went dry. He knew the gargoyles were watching him, but he couldn’t stop himself from walking back to the edge of the bridge and looking down over the side of the cliff. There was another cry, farther away this time, but he could see the bright speck of something like fire against the inky black of the darkness under the bridge. Worse, he could smell it. The acrid smell of burning made him physically ill, and he forced himself to swallow the bile that rose in his throat. Even from this far away, the magic coming off the demon was so strong that he could practically reach out and touch it.

He took a few breaths to calm himself before turning back to the gargoyles, who regarded his approach with their expressionless white eyes. Balthazar realized that, underneath the surface of their easy camaraderie, it was likely that they were terrified of him. They were probably accompanying him to the surface for the sole purpose of being rid of him as quickly as possible.

“It looks like it’s going back where it came from,” Balthazar said with more confidence than he felt. That seemed to satisfy the gargoyles. They began to walk deeper into the tunnel, the wind of the abyss at their backs.

No one spoke, and the silence was awkward. Balthazar understood that he was responsible for the tension, and he was filled with a fierce longing to talk with Ceres. She would know exactly what to say to smooth things over, a talent he had never managed to acquire.

“So, uh. Why do you call your dog Mint,” he asked, desperate to lighten the atmosphere.

“Because of her fresh breath,” Grighorm answered in a dry voice. Balthazar was so surprised by his reply that he snorted laughter.

“Son, let me ask you something. Why do you smell like sandworm?”

“I rode a sandworm across the desert.”

“Are surface dwellers keeping pet sandworms now,” Grighorm muttered. Balthazar still couldn’t tell if he was joking.

“Not to my knowledge. But I go out and feed them sometimes, mostly to keep them away from where I live. There’s one that’s grown fond of me. I call her Tulip.”

“Tulip like the flower?”

“Tulip like the flower.”

“That’s a funny name for a sandworm.”

“When she opens her mouth,” Balthazar explained as he cupped his palms in front of his face and spread his fingers to demonstrate, “it’s like a tulip.”

This time it was the gargoyle who snorted laughter. “I was worried about how you’d fare in that forest, but you’ll get along with Uniagoliantia. I have a feeling you’ll get along with her just fine.”

Chapter Text

“Tell me what you know about spiders.”

“Spiders? You mean the little bugs with eight legs? They spin webs and eat other bugs. Some species are poisonous, but they can’t be trained. Unfortunately.”

Balthazar stretched back, allowing the echo stone hanging from his neck to float on the surface of the pond. He watched its blue glow shimmer on the ripples of the water as he spoke with Ceres.

“But do they, you know. Talk?”

“Not to my knowledge. Some people can speak to cats and birds, so I suppose it’s not impossible. Why do you ask?”

“One of the gargoyles who walked with me through the tunnels told me that a spider named Uniagoliantia might be able to guide me to the temple. I didn’t know what to make of that, and I didn’t want to ask.”

“Why? Are you afraid of spiders?”

“I guess I’ll see how I feel after I meet this one, but I don’t think so. The only thing that really creeps me out is horses.”

“I think everyone is creeped out by horses. Listen, can I ask you a question? There’s a lot of noise coming through the connection. Are you close to a stream?”

“I found a hot spring.” It wasn’t precisely true that he’d found a hot spring so much as he’s used magic to create one, but he wasn’t about to set foot in a freezing mountain pond in the frigid night air.

“Wait, so you’re in…?”

“I’m in the water, yes.”

“Is there any reason you chose now of all times to talk to me?”

Balthazar closed his eyes and willed himself not to get a headache. He was tired, and it probably hadn’t been the best idea to contact Ceres, of all people. “Is this not a reasonable time to talk to you?” he asked, knowing perfectly well what her answer would be.

“Is it common for you to want to talk to me when you’re naked?”

“Of course. All the time. I clearly have nothing better to think about than you.”

“I’m flattered. And there I was, assuming that you didn’t know how to bathe.”

“I live in a desert, Ceres.”

“Yet you seem to be drinking tea every time we talk, and sometimes you even shave. How curious. One might think that you’d secured a reliable source of water.”

“Why would you assume I don’t bathe?”

“Why would you assume I don’t notice that you’ve never washed your hair?”

“It gets big after it gets wet.”

“It gets big after it gets wet. You don’t say. Are we still talking about your hair?”

“Try to put yourself in my position, Ceres. I’ve been walking underground for days, and I was so happy to finally be outside again that I forgot that everything has to be about dicks with you.”

“What’s the problem with your hair being fluffy?”

“I have an image to maintain.”

“Why don’t you let one of the orcs braid it for you? Remind me of the name of that general of yours. Have him do your hair. It’s the duty of an officer to ensure that his commander is presentable in public.”

Her name is Gasper, and she’s not ‘my general.’”

“Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought ‘Gasper’ would be female.”

“That’s not her real name. Obviously.”

“There’s nothing obvious about it. It might surprise you to learn that there are in fact many things I don’t know. I didn’t know that there were gargoyles still under the mountains, for instance, but here you are, telling me that you actually had a conversation with one.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t know there were ‘still’ gargoyles? I read vague reports of dangerous creatures in the tunnels, but no one wrote anything about there being people living there.”

The echo stone was silent. Balthazar resisted the urge to tap it.

“Ceres?” he asked after a few moments had passed. She had a frustrating habit of ending conversations without warning if he said something she didn’t feel like responding to. He didn’t think he’d brought up anything offensive, but it was impossible to tell with her.

“There’s an old story,” she finally said. “I’m not sure you’d be interested.”

“Give me a second,” Balthazar replied. He ducked his head under the water and rinsed the sweat from his face. “Go ahead,” he prompted as he settled against one of the large stones at the edge of the pond.

“This is from an old romance, one of the epic poems celebrating the heroes of Whitespire. It’s considered to be a lesser work, I think, but I was forced to memorize bits of it when I was younger.”

Balthazar could hear a curious note of bitterness in Ceres’s voice. It sounded like there was a story there, but he didn’t pursue it. “I’m listening,” he said instead.

“Several hundred years in the past,” she began, “when the gargoyles still operated the mines and people used the rails through the tunnels to travel to the northern kingdoms, there was a horrible accident under the mountains, and a terrible demon was awakened. If it managed to escape the tunnels, it would scorch the land in the inferno of its rage, so the gargoyles and the elves combined their forces to push it to the edge of a deep abyss. They were successful, but their losses had been great. A brave wizard, so powerful he could gaze at the demon’s face with flinching, gave his life to plunge the pathetic creature into the pit, but a demon is a pitiful thing that cannot be so easily killed. Thus the tunnels were forever sealed to trap the demon under the mountain and thereby honor the sacrifices of both our peoples. That’s how the story goes, at least.”

The phantom smell of burning filled Balthazar’s nose, but he wouldn’t think about it. He refused to think about it.

“I’m sorry,” Ceres said in a voice so quiet that he almost couldn’t hear her.

“I think the heat is getting to my head,” Balthazar said. “I should get out of the water.”

“Suit yourself,” Ceres said, her reply coming a beat too quickly. “I hope the spiders you meet in the forest appreciate your hair in all its bigness. Take care they don’t decide to move in.”

“I’ll do that, thanks,” Balthazar answered through grit teeth. When the glow of the echo stone faded, he removed its cord from his neck and threw it onto the rocky shore.

Balthazar resented the relief in Ceres’s voice. It was just like her to avoid talking with him about anything that actually mattered. Every so often he forgot that they weren’t actually friends. They weren’t anything resembling friends, and they both knew it. Everything he did was in the service of one goal – uncovering the magical artifact hidden within the mountains separating Whitespire from the poisonous sea at its back. The princess of the kingdom would protect this artifact with her life, and she would make a formidable opponent. If he did not emerge from the battle victorious, she would kill him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Whitespire is great and prosperous, so the land that supports it must be great and prosperous as well. The castle and its city are surrounded by farms and orchards banded by rivers with wild and roiling water that can at any moment leap from its bounds. The sky over the kingdom is gentle and troubled by none of the squalls or gales that beset the sea beyond the eastern mountains, but not even the most skilled and learned wizards of the Lyceum can predict or control the weather.

Whitespire’s waters are governed by an interlocking system of lakes and canals cleverly constructed to control the ebb and flow of the kingdom’s lifeblood, and the ranks of the nobility earn and retain their titles through the management of these bodies of water. Some positions are endowed with more land and greater usufructuary privileges, but all are vital to the continued wealth and glory of Whitespire.

One of the most notable and celebrated of the kingdom’s water systems is the Mwyngil Basin, which contains a series of five interlocking lakes, each separated from the others by a delicate web of dams and causeways. An island rises from the middle of the ring of lakes, and it is crowned by a small but stately castle whose gilded terraces float on the water like the petals of a lily.

The clouds are reflected with crystal clearly on the surface of the lakes, earning the region the sobriquet of “the fivefold water mirror.” The rocky shores are lined with flowers, and people come from far and wide to attend the celebrated soirées of the viscounts and countesses who maintain their small paradise at the edge of the kingdom. The heirs of the family that controls the lakes are known for their beauty in face and form, as well as the gaiety of their songs and laughter, which is as quick and flowing as the water that surrounds them is quiet and still. In their lovely palace on the lakes, the Daewyenes revel in their fortune from the golden hour of sunset until the beautiful breaking of dawn, when every color of the sky dyes the water’s pellucid and shimmering surface with a rainbow of hues.

Chapter Text

Ceres sat with her legs crossed, leaning forward as she divided Ava’s chestnut hair into sections.

“You must come to Mwyngil with me when I return,” Ava told her. “It’s lovely in late spring. All of the trees bloom at once.”

“I’d like nothing more,” Ceres replied, “but you must know that I can’t.”

“You’re the queen. Surely you possess the resources to manufacture a reasonable excuse to visit.”

“Alas, but I’m only a princess.”

“Then marry.”

“Shall I marry you?”

“And have me remain here with you? I’m already homesick.”

“It does seem a shame, doesn’t it, to keep you away from Mwyngil. There would be no more parties on the water, no more dancing or romance, only the endless demands on your attention.”

“So find someone who wants that sort of attention,” Ava suggested.

“I want the attention.”

“And we’ll give you attention on the lakes. We’ll give you all the attention you could ever desire, if only you can find it in yourself to spare a few days away from your castle.”

“Maybe one day. If only it weren’t for the viscount…”

“Perhaps you could do me a favor and marry him. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being king.”

“Oh, but I’m far too young to be a widow,” Ceres replied lightly.

Ava laughed in appreciation. “Tell me,” she said after a moment, “did you truly need to implicate that orc in the incident with the bridge? Remind me, what was his name?”

“His name isn’t important,” Ceres said. The sooner he was forgotten, the better. “He would almost certainly have been killed if I hadn’t found an excuse to send him away,” she added.

“Are scholars truly so petty?”

“That’s their privilege, to be petty. Very little they say is noted by anyone outside the Lyceum, so they find excuses to create conflict amongst themselves. They’re harmless. It’s their patrons I’m concerned about.”

“My father among them, I’m sure.”

“But of course,” Ceres confirmed. In truth, the matter was much more complicated. Viscount Daewyenes had his own set of patrons, as Ava surely knew.

“Can’t you exile him as well?”

“And allow him to set up a remote base of power? Certainly not.”

“Couldn’t this Demon King of yours take care of him?”

“I wouldn’t count on the Demon King doing anything of the sort.”

Ava turned to face her. “Tell me, Ceres. Is he real?”

“The Demon King? Yes, he’s quite real.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“What has he done to be called a demon?”

“He is a demon. Nothing more and nothing less.”

“A demon? To whom is it gaeshed?”

“Not to anyone, not to my knowledge.”

Ava face shifted into a frown. “That’s impossible.”

“I assure you that it’s not.”

“Then it must be killed.”

“What do you think I send these ‘heroes’ to do?”

“But… then you must have sent that young orc to his death.”

“The Demon King will not harm him,” Ceres assured her, “any more than he would harm your father, unless I am very much mistaken about his motives. This is why I can’t allow the viscount, or anyone like him, to set their sights outside the kingdom. As long as the Demon King makes no move to attack Whitespire, no one can be allowed to provoke him.”

“I don’t understand,” Ava objected. “If there’s a ungaeshed demon on the loose so close to Whitespire, whatever petty threat that someone like my father might present are meaningless.”

Ceres nodded. That was exactly the point. The ‘demon king’ was her trump card, but she would need to play her hand carefully. She had no reason to lay this card on the table yet, but it stood to reason that her position would be strengthened if certain rumors were to circulate among the upper echelons of the nobility. She considered her next words carefully.

“The presence of the Demon King at our borders is not an existential threat,” she said. “Not yet.”

“Will there be war in the future?”

“No, not if I can help it. There will be no war with the Demon King, and there will be no war within the kingdom. That is my duty, and that is why I can’t spend the remainder of the spring with you at Mwyngil, as much as I might wish to.”

“Could it be, Ceres, that you’re actually a good person?”

Ceres laughed. “By the Weaver, no. Certainly not.”

Ava gently pushed Ceres back onto the chaise and began to tease out the knot at the end of her braid. Her slender fingers were calloused by musical training, and she worked quickly. “Tell me about this demon,” she asked. “How is it not bound to a mage?”

“I don’t know, in truth. There are many things about him I don’t know.”

“You keep saying ‘him.’”

“He calls himself ‘Balthazar.’”

“Balthazar? Really. How tasteless.”

“I quite agree, but he seems to have chosen the name deliberately. I haven’t yet ascertained why, but he insists on seeing himself as an enemy of this kingdom.”

“Is he not indeed an enemy?”

“In every way that matters, yes. Yet he hesitates to move against me.”

“He fears you.”

“As well he should. But let’s not talk of him now.”

“Demons are fascinating, aren’t they,” Ava remarked, pressing her palms to the top of her forehead. As she raised her hands, two thick ivory spikes emerged from her hairline, jutting forward before she pushed them back and to either side like the horns of a bull. The effect was completely fantastic, like something out of an illustrated romance.

Ceres smiled as she imagined telling Balthazar about this. Not that she ever would. He was preoccupied with his wild goose chase, to begin with, and he wouldn’t be half as amused as she was. It was somewhat pathetic, Ceres thought, that someone like him was the closest thing she had to a friend, but there was nothing to be done about it. In the meantime, the woman in front of her was warm and affectionate and beautiful. Ceres wasn’t under any illusion that this dalliance wasn’t deliberate and calculated, but she may as well enjoy it, at least for one more night. Even if the horns were a bit much.

“Oh, look at you,” Ceres murmured as she ran her hand along the curve of one of Ava’s ersatz horns. “What was that you said earlier about being tasteless?”

“An artist is not bound by the dictates of taste, my queen.”

“Princess,” Ceres corrected her.

“So much the better. What a horrifying situation for a princess to find herself in, to be ravaged by a demon in her own bedroom.”

“Let’s hope no hero comes to rescue me,” Ceres replied with an inviting grin, and then they spoke no more.

Chapter Text

“You must be Urhaugh, I presume.” Melchior raised his hand to the orc. His greeting was met with stony silence. “Are you alone? Forgive me for asking, but – ”

“I am quite alone. The guards Ceres ordered to bring me to this place fled at the first hint of sand.”

How odd that someone so young would refer to the princess without her title. At first glance, Urhaugh didn’t seem the type for trysts with royalty, but he wasn’t entirely unattractive.

“Ceres?” Melchior asked. The social distinctions of polite society didn’t mean much in the desert, but he may as well clarify. “I don’t know many people who call her by her given name. Are you on intimate terms with the princess?”

“That woman has no more right to be called ‘princess’ than I do.”

“You have every right to be called a princess, if you like,” Melchior replied. “I’d like to believe that anyone with a pure heart and an open mind can be a princess.”

“What are you talking about, sir?” The corner of Urhaugh’s mouth twitched in a barely suppressed scowl. “And where did you come by that accent? You’re from the north, aren’t you? Were you sent here as an exile?”

“On the contrary. I was sent here to hunt orcs.”

Urhaugh’s face froze. “Then you should know that I will not allow myself to be hunted. I may not be as large as my brethren, but my magic is far more powerful.”

“There will be time enough for you to prove that claim later, but I’m not interested in testing it at the moment. I walked a long way to meet you here, and I’m dreadfully tired. Besides, I gave up orc hunting before I even began. To this day I have yet to hunt even a single orc.”

“Yet you admit that you set out with every intent to become a murderer.”

“Not at all. I never intended to so much as chip an eye tusk. But one does have to get imperial funding somehow. It’s not exactly easy to make one’s way to the demon king’s tower, as I’m sure you noticed. Do you need help carrying your luggage, by the way?”

“With respect, sir, you don’t seem to have the build for lifting.”

Melchior met the insult with a smile. The young man happened to be correct in this regard; he did in fact hate manual labor.

“Come now, what need do I have to lift anything? This is why the Weaver invented magic,” Melchior said as he removed a wooden wand from the sleeve of his overcoat. With a half-voiced spell and a precisely executed wave of his hand, the bulging pack slouched on the sandy hardtack rose into the air. Its bottom sagged with the weight of its contents. Melchior wondered what the orc could possibly have brought with him that would be so heavy. Books, with any luck.

Urhaugh’s demeanor changed abruptly as he watched Melchior. “I say, sir, are you using a wand? I’ve seen demonstrations, but I’ve never had the opportunity to observe natural use. Would you allow me to look at the instrument more closely?”

Melchior was amused by the stiffness of his words. Did Urhaugh talk like that on purpose, or could he simply not help it? Melchior made a mental note to take him drinking at the earliest possible opportunity. “Do you often ask to get a closer look at other men’s wands?” he asked.

Urhaugh’s face went purple. “I apologize,” he stammered. “I did not realize – “

“I’m joking,” Melchior assured him. “Everyone uses a wand up north. They’re a farthing a dozen. You can have this one if you like.” He offered the wand to Urhaugh, who accepted it with a slight bow.

“I brought a scarf for you too. You’re going to want to use it to cover your forehead and mouth before you wrap it around your neck,” Melchior demonstrated with his own headscarf and nodded in approval as Urhaugh mimicked his motions. He seemed to be a quick study, which was promising.

“Even orcs get sunburned out here,” he continued as they began walking. “We usually don’t venture into the open desert during this time of day. But it’s not too long before the sun sets, and then we’ll be walking in the shadow of the tower. It’s terribly ugly, but it has its uses. It would have been best to travel during the morning, but the princess made it clear that she didn’t want you wandering around unsupervised after dark. She seems to think highly of you, but not highly enough to trust you not to die of exposure, apparently. Bit of a busybody, isn’t she?”

“Who are you, to speak of her such?”

“Ah, I didn’t introduce myself, did I? You can call me Melchior.”

“The Demon King’s wizard?”

“One and the same. You’ll meet Gasper before too long, I’m sure.” Melchior was looking forward to that meeting. If Urhaugh couldn’t handle a basic joke about wands, he might well faint dead away at the filth that came out of Gasper’s mouth.

“You cannot be Melchior.”

“Did you think I would be older? Less handsome, perhaps? Not so dashing and stylish? Let’s hope I continue to dazzle you. I’m fascinated by the magic they use in Whitespire, and you’re the first wizard we’ve had from the kingdom.” He paused, and added, “Balthazar doesn’t count, of course.”

“Who is this ‘Balthazar’? Are you suggesting he’s from Whitespire as well?”

Who was he, indeed. Melchior was still trying to piece that out himself. “I don’t believe he’s from Whitespire proper. That would be highly unlikely, given that he’s a demon.”

“He can’t be an actual demon.”

“He very much is, but I won’t argue with you. Once you see the tower he created, you’ll understand that he couldn’t possibly be anything else.”

Urhaugh walked in silence, an intense frown on his face. “Is he your demon?” he asked.

Melchior snorted laughter at the absurdity of the suggestion. “No. Not even remotely,” he answered. “I’m not a mage, and I wouldn’t take him as ‘my’ demon even if he offered.”

“To whom is he gaeshed?”

“To no one at all.”

“Is he dangerous? Is he…” Urhaugh struggled for words. “Is he sane?”

“You can judge for yourself whether he’s sane, but I’ve never met a less dangerous person. Still, I’ve never seen anyone use magic in quite the way he does. I can’t pretend to understand how the princess makes the decisions she does, but if I had to guess, I’d say that’s why she sent you – to try to figure him out. I’ve been trying for months now, and I can’t make heads or tails of him or his magic.”

“What do you mean?”

“The way he uses magic, you would almost think that it’s, well, magic. There don’t seem to be any limits to his power or what he chooses to do with it. Oddly enough, he doesn’t know any magical history or theory, and he has the Wanderer’s own luck. If he’s ever experienced any numinous backlash or magic sickness, I haven’t seen it.”

“Is this not because he’s a demon?”

It took Melchior a moment to understand what Urhaugh was asking before he remembered that, as a student at the Lyceum, he more than likely would have never had any personal experience with demons. If he’d never seen someone use a wand, then it was entirely possible that he had yet to encounter a mage.

“You’ve never met a demon, have you?” Melchior replied. “I suppose they don’t keep demons in Whitespire, not after the last Demon King. But you’ll understand everything you need to know about Balthazar once he gets back. As frustratingly enigmatic as his magic is, I daresay he’s not that complicated.”

“Where has he gone?”

“He’s gotten himself off to some supposedly cursed temple or another. I don’t know what he thinks he’ll find there. The idea that there would be an ancient power hidden in the ruins of some isolated settlement is pure fantasy, of course, but I couldn’t convince him otherwise.”

“What use does the Demon King have for more power?”

“If I remember correctly, I believe he said he intends to become immortal.”

“Are you quite sure he’s sane?”

“Are any of us sane, sir scholar? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I left my comfortable house in the city to come to this horrible desert. But let me ask you a more relevant question instead – aren’t you the slightest bit curious about what this so-called Demon King up to?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

It is said that mushrooms cannot be killed, not in any way that matters. What can be seen rising from the ground are only the sprouts of an infinitely larger growth that stretches its myriad pale fingers through the soil. If one mushroom is plucked, others will just as quickly spring forth from the vast mycelial web lurking just underground.

Many types of fungus are not content to remain in the soil and seek richer nourishment from the remains of fallen trees. If some intrepid species have made an additional leap from rotting logs to living plants, it is not illogical to think that others would seek even more fertile grounds.

Deep in the foothills on the starward side of the western mountains lies a forest that none dare to enter. At the height of summer and in the depths of winter the leaves of its trees are golden and crimson with the lingering touch of autumn. It is an enchanted place, but it sits in eerie silence. If there are birds that alight on the boughs of the trees or deer that enter in search of shelter and forage, they do not call to one another, and their voices are never heard again.

The only growth that thrives in these woods are mushrooms, which bloom with earthy hues from the scattered piles of fallen leaves, yet the forest remains as pleasant and inviting as a painting of a perfect fall day. Those who dwell in the surrounding woods whisper that the trees are cared for by the silent shepherds who have made their home in the forest frozen in time. Whatever curses lies on the land does not affect them, for they are creatures who can spin webs to rival even a mushroom.

Chapter Text

Balthazar had no idea where he was going, but he followed the written descriptions he’d read as best he could. As much as he hated to admit it, the crude map Ceres had drawn for him was as useful as anything else. Based on the weathered chunks of broken asphalt emerging from the soil in uneven stretches, he assumed he was following an old road.

As the sun set, the slant of a fading sunbeam illuminated a wooden house through the trees. It was so dilapidated that it was little more than a shack, but it must have once been grand. Balthazar scanned the perimeter. He could make out the gaps in the wood where the windows had been. They had once been huge, and probably solid glass. The roof was still intact over the front atrium, which was open to the trees but free of underbrush. Balthazar decided it was as good a place as any to stop for the day. The night would come quickly, and he didn’t want to lose the path.

He gathered kindling and sat beside the fire he made. The forest was fragrant with young pines and scrub cypress, and he could hear the cries of owls and the chirping of crickets just outside of the ring of light cast by the flames. Spring came late to this altitude, but it was on its way. Balthazar hoped the fire wouldn’t attract any foraging boars or bears emerging from hibernation. Compared to the silent and absolute darkness under the mountains, the chittering shadows of the forest were unnerving. He wished he’d had the foresight to bring something to read. All he had on his person were the notes he’d copied from various histories and travel accounts, and he’d already memorized every word.

Balthazar toyed with the echo stone hanging from his neck, but even the thought of talking with Ceres irritated him. He knew it was peevish, but he wanted her to contact him just so he could accuse her of bothering him. He was bored, and he hated having to camp outdoors. It had probably been a mistake to set out alone, but even Gasper would need to sleep and eat occasionally, and he just wanted to get this miserable business over with. Why was he even stopping here? He wasn’t tired, and if he got well and truly lost in the dark he could simply burn the entire forest down.

He let the campfire die down. Just as it was nearing the point for him to get up and stomp it out, he heard a noise from the interior of the house. Balthazar assumed he must be imagining things, but then he heard it again.

“…traveler,” it said. “It’s a lovely night for a bonfire, isn’t it?”

Balthazar cursed himself. Of course he had to stop at the creepy house in the woods, and of course it had to be haunted.

“Is anyone there?” he asked, raising his voice to make his annoyance clear. He supposed he was trespassing, but it was still rude for whatever was in the house to wait until after dark to start making conversation.

“I’m here,” the voice gurgled in response. “You’re welcome to come inside and join me, if you like.”

“No thanks,” Balthazar replied. He was fairly certain that going inside the house was a good way to get murdered. “You can come out here if you need something. Otherwise I’ll be on my way.”

A laugh emerged from the shadows of the interior. It sounded like gargling, or perhaps drowning, and it was followed by a soft rustling like the crepitation of fallen leaves.

The person who emerged from the house could have been an orc or an elf. It was impossible to tell. Their hair and clothing were covered in thin white webbing that hung from their hunched form like a veil. Their skin was gray and pockmarked, and they emitted no odor, human or animal or otherwise.

“Good evening, traveler,” they said as they sat down near, but not too near, to the fire. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen anyone in these parts.”

Balthazar had no desire to make conversation but figured that he might as well ask for directions. “I’m looking for something called the Temple of Eternal Autumn,” he said, not bothering to introduce himself. “I was told that I’d have to pass through a place called ‘the Silent Forest.’ Do these names mean anything to you?”

“But of course.”

“Am I close?”

“Close enough, I’d wager. What are you doing in the forest? Are you interested in mushrooms?”

The person put a strange emphasis on ‘mushrooms.’ Balthazar glanced at their face and immediately wished he hadn’t. What filled the hollow sockets of their skull were not eyes. “You appear to have some mushrooms attached to your, ah, clothing,” was all he could think to say. “Is that the style these days?”

“They’re attached to my body, son. They keep me healthy.”

A chill ran over Balthazar’s skin. “You don’t look very healthy to me, if you don’t mind me saying. Is there anything I can do for you?”

The creature laughed again. At a closer range, it was almost musical. The sound set Balthazar even more on edge.

“No, not at all,” they answered. “I’m happy here. I was interested in the Silent Forest too when I first settled in the area. I wouldn’t want to live inside it, oh goodness no, but it’s very beautiful.”

“Is there anything you can tell me about the forest? Or the temple?”

“What would you like to know?”

“Does the temple exist, to begin with?”

“It exists, very much so, but not even the spiders will get close to it.”

“Could you tell me why not? I’ve heard about a curse, but nothing specific.”

“Nothing in the forest is cursed. Quite the opposite. The trees live in perfect harmony with the children of the earth. All of their roots are intertwined with the roots of the old temple. They protect each other, and they don’t like to be disturbed. I’m sure you understand.”

“I’m not sure I do. Is the temple… a tree? Of some sort?”

“The temple is a temple. The trees are a part of the temple, and you’ll be a part of the temple too. Soon enough, I reckon.”

Balthazar shifted uncomfortably. “All right, great. Good to know. It was nice talking to you, but I should be on my way.”

“Don’t be in such a rush. You should stay. It will be nicer if it happens to you here.”

“If what happens to me here?”

“You’re already inhaling the spores, son. Why don’t you take a look inside?”

The creature sitting beside him smiled, and Balthazar could hear the movements of its face as the muscles creaked and groaned. He considered what he might find inside the decaying house and decided that there was no way it wouldn’t be a horror show. The first thing he’d see would probably be a pile of half-decomposed carcasses covered in fungal webbing.

“I’d rather not.”

“Have it your way,” the creature replied, “but it’s impossible to resist the change. It’s quite pleasant, you know.”

“I’ll have to pass. Growing mushrooms might be more commitment than I’m ready for at the moment.”

“You don’t grow them. You are them.”

“Right. As tempting as that sounds, it’s not going to happen. Sorry to disappoint you. Thanks for letting me rest here, but I need to get going.”

The creature turned and sniffed in his direction. “Ah, I see. No, it won’t happen to you, not as you are. But do consider it. It’s lovely, to be connected with the earth. You will be at peace with the trees and every other living thing in the forest. You will feel the seasons turn in their tedious cycle in the outside world, all the while knowing that you will be safe, forever warm and well-fed, immune to the animal pain of those that walk on their own.”

“That definitely sounds like something a mushroom would say. Are you still a person?”

“What an odd question. What is ‘a person,’ I wonder.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but is the person part of you okay with this, what did you call it, harmony? It doesn’t sound like they had much of a choice in the matter.”

“There is no choice, no. There is only the will of the forest.”

Balthazar looked at the creature’s blind eye sockets and porous skin and the scraps of clothing tangled in the patchy white webbing covering its body. If he wasn’t mistaken, the clothing was at least a century old, perhaps older. Who could say how many people this creature had lured into what was almost certainly a mushroom murder house over the years?

“There is always a choice,” Balthazar said. He decided to waste no more words on the creature. He snapped his fingers, and the bonfire flared in a pillar of flame before jumping onto the remains of the porch overhang. If he were going to have to burn things to find his way to the temple, he may as well get started.

One of the nice things about traveling light was the ability to stand up and walk away whenever he wished, and he did so. Balthazar didn’t need to look back to smell the fire spreading. It was fragrant with the not unpleasant aroma of grilled mushrooms. Despite his lingering disgust, Balthazar’s mouth watered.

What is a person, the thing had asked. “For fuck’s sake,” Balthazar muttered as he continued westward along the old road. If he were going to have a pointless conversation with a monster, he may as well have talked with Ceres.

Chapter Text

Balthazar had no doubt where he was when he entered the Silent Forest. Unlike the rest of the scraggly pines covering the lower reaches mountain’s downward slope, the trees of the Silent Forest were old and stately and adorned with bright green patches of moss. Their branches blazed with a glorious riot of red and gold against the clear blue sky. The air was rich with the rich mulchy odor of fallen leaves.

Balthazar had expected there to be more mushrooms in the forest. He’d imagined multilayered towers of fungus shedding their spores from gills as long as his arm, but all he could see were regular mushrooms, red and brown and white toadstools peeking through the carpet of leaves. A scattering of orange bracket fungi was interspersed throughout the moss growing on the tree trunks, and the occasional fallen log sprouted mushrooms with exotic pinks and purples, but they all seemed normal and healthy too, or as normal and healthy as anything in a cursed forest could be.

The road leading down the mountain hadn’t petered off but instead grew wider and easier to follow as the underbrush became sparser. There were even stretches of asphalt that were relatively intact.

The Silent Forest seemed too good to be true. Balthazar wondered when he’d start seeing spiders. Or would he not see them? Was he walking into some sort of trap where he’d only see them once it was too late? Was he already surrounded? Were they already talking to him in voices pitched at a frequency that only a gargoyle could hear? Were the spiders as tiny as mushroom spores? Were they already crawling around in his hair? Or was the ground one giant mushroom-infested spider that he’d only see once it moved?

None of this turned out to be the case, much to Balthazar’s relief. He met Uniagoliantia before he was even an hour into the forest. It was easy enough to see her as she approached. She made no attempt to hide, and she was easily as large as a bear. And just as furry, Balthazar noted as she drew closer. Her eight lidless eyes caught the sunlight and gleamed like dark pearls.

Balthazar raised his hand in greeting, and the spider lowered her head so that her two central eyes could meet his. “Did you come to be eaten?” she asked. Her mandibles clicked as she talked, but her speech was perfectly intelligible, if a bit breathy.

Balthazar wasn’t entirely comfortable with any conversation that began with the possibility of him being eaten, but the spider didn’t seem hostile. He wondered if ‘did you come to be eaten’ was some sort of spider greeting. For all he knew, maybe male spiders considered it an honor to be eaten by females. Unsure of how to respond, he said simply, “I came to search for the Temple of Eternal Autumn.”

“So you have come to be eaten,” the spider replied.

“Not… quite. And not by you, I hope,” he added.

“The spider’s mandibles twitched, and the fur on her thorax trembled. “The temple eats all who draw near. The little ones tell me you have come from inside the mountains to offer yourself as a sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice to the temple?”

“So that you may join it.”

“Sure, close enough. Do you know the way?”

“The forest guides us away from the center. We come here only to tend to its children. You mean no harm to the children, do you?”

The spider raised her front legs. Balthazar didn’t know much about spiders, but even he was familiar with that particular gesture. “I don’t mean harm to anyone,” he said quickly, raising his own hands in alarm.

The spider extended her head toward him. “You smell of the smoke that circles and cleans.”

“Thanks?”

Her mandibles twitched again, almost as if she were laughing. “I will walk with you,” she told him, “but I cannot go into the center, for then I should become a part of the temple as well. It is not yet my time.”

“I’d welcome the company,” Balthazar said. The truth was that he didn’t trust himself to leave the road, even though Ceres’s map indicated that he would have to at some point. He had no experience with navigating a forest, and walking in a straight line through the trees wasn’t easy even when he was following the path. He’d wondered if he should be carving notches into tree trunks but decided against it. That might offend a mushroom… or something.

The spider’s fur rustled as she turned. Balthazar was struck with a powerful urge to stroke the mane at the crest of her thorax, which looked impossibly soft and fluffy. He withdrew his hands into his robe and trotted along after her. After a minute or two of jogging, she slowed her pace so that he could walk beside her.

“Are you Uniagoliantia?” he asked. “The gargoyles I met in the mountain told me that you farm mushrooms in the Silent Forest.”

“That is the name they call me,” she answered. “I tend to the forest children along with my sisters. We do not grow their fruit but brush them away when they become overripe, just as those who walk under the unshaded sun brush the dust from their threaded coatings.”

Balthazar nodded, pretending to understand what she’d said.

“Are the mushrooms from the Silent Forest safe to eat?” he asked.

“Taking decay into one’s body promotes and spreads decay, but such is the cycle of life. The children of the forest bless the children of the woven stars, even as they become our bodies.”

“I see,” Balthazar replied, once again pretending to understand. He realized that he did understand what she was saying, after a fashion, provided that he didn’t think about it too hard.

“I would circle a question with a question,” Uniagoliantia remarked.

“Ask whatever you like.”

“You have come so far, yet your body has not joined the forest. How is it that you can still speak and walk above the ground?”

That was complicated, but the spider probably wasn’t asking for a lengthy explanation. “I’m using magic to raise the temperature of my body,” Balthazar said, which was true enough. “The heat kills the spores before they can infect me.”

“How curious. Do you not worry about overheating your egg-threaders?”

Balthazar was about to ask what she meant but then winced as he understood. “I’m not interested in having children at the moment.”

“Yet you are young, and not ill-formed. What lure does the temple hang before you? Would you not be better pleased by mating? There are so few of you left in this world. I have touched the webs, and they tell me that once you were many.”

“I appreciate the compliment, but one of the many who came before me left behind this temple. I intend to brush away its magic as you brush away the forest fruit. Does that make sense?”

“Such a pity. You will not survive, not as yourself. The temple will eat you.”

“With respect, have you not considered that I will eat it?”

“Do you intend to purify the center of the web with the smoke that clings?”

“Not if I can help it,” Balthazar answered. “This forest is beautiful. I’d prefer not to have to burn anything.”

“All things change. Some slowly like the stars, and some with a measured pace like the closing of the sun. Some in a flash and dance, as the clouds before the rain.”

“You won’t try to stop me, then.”

“I am a being of the earth and not wise to the workings of the sky.”

Balthazar didn’t have the slightest clue what that might mean, but he was starting to feel guilty. “Will you be okay, if the Silent Forest disappears?”

“I am my children, and my children will remember the forest even if every tree should fall. Before there were trees, there were great globes on this land covered with stones as clear as the sky. I remember them just as my mothers remembered them before me.”

Uniagoliantia walked beside him in companiable silence as Balthazar mulled her words over in his mind. “I wish I could have seen what you remember with my own eyes,” he finally said. “It sounds like it was an interesting time, before the forest took root.”

“All times are ‘interesting,’” Uniagoliantia replied. “You have brought ‘interesting’ here to the forest with you. Perhaps the time that follows along the thread you leave behind will be ‘interesting’ as well.”

As they walked deeper into the forest, it had started to look decidedly less like a painting, or at least not the sort of painting a respectable person would hang where anyone could see it. The mushrooms sprouting from the ground were bigger, with floridly bright colors, and Balthazar had started to notice mossy lumps on the ground surrounded by concentric rings of toadstools. The trees no longer grew straight but twisted in odd distortions. Their furrowed trunks were an ashy shade of black.

Balthazar suspected the outer perimeter of trees was nothing more than camouflage, because the interior looked nothing like a forest. Based on his estimation of the time, the sun should have been directly overhead, but the shadows draped across the forest floor were long and deep. The trees grew so close together that their desiccated branches tangled into an overhead canopy, and the path ahead was shrouded in twilight.

Balthazar hoped against hope that nothing about the temple would be interesting. If he had his way, it would be tediously boring. It would be nice if he could walk inside, find the artifact waiting for him, and take a nice nap before heading home. There would be no angry trees or bloodthirsty plants or brain-altering mushrooms, and he could simply go about his business without having to set anything on fire.

“I’ll do my best,” he told Uniagoliantia.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

It is written that once, in an age now long past, the world was filled with powerful but terrible energies that twisted and swirled within an inchoate void. The darkness of the void gave rise to a host of demons, hideous of form and savage of temperament. These demons proliferated in the world they created to amuse themselves, delighting in destroying what they built. By their works and hands the earth and the seas were blighted, and the sun blinded and blistered those who walked under the sky unguarded.

One demon among the thronging masses, as unlike her horrific brethren as day is to night, was blessed with an unusual share of wisdom and courage. Desiring to create order from chaos, she gathered the spiraling strands of her world’s magic into gossamer threads that could be touched by mortal hands. Having already come so far, she did not rest but marshaled her strength and wove these threads into all the peoples of the world, each gifted with unique talents and occupying their proper place. The Weaver then shed her demonic horns and, thus cleansed and unburdened, came into her full radiance. Holding aloft a shining sword, she led her children in a great battle against the monstrous demons that had survived the world-shattering transformation.

Once this final task had been completed and peace finally settled onto the shoulders of the freshly formed lands, the Weaver established kingdoms, Whitespire the first and most glorious among them. The Weaver’s descendants took their places as the queens and kings of the new world, and she tasked them with purifying the pollution that lingered in the earth and protecting their peoples from the seas that burned and the fire that rained from the heavens. The noble line of these monarchs still reigns to this day in Whitespire, the most enlightened and beautiful of cities, where the Weaver is honored and celebrated by all who receive her munificent blessings.

Chapter Text

Ceres walked at a measured pace along the shaded path of an ivy-canopied walkway connecting the central halls of the castle to one of its outlying gardens. The slope of the mountain was dotted with cherry trees in their first bloom. Their petals would soon fall and scatter like snowflakes, but the pale pink flowers were still secure on their boughs. The afternoon was pleasantly sunny, and rainbows played in the mist rising from the waterfalls cascading down the moss-covered cliffs.

“You must admit that the incident was curious,” Tharsirion prompted.

The viscount had used his daughter’s friendship to wedge himself into the circles of nobles surrounding Ceres, and she was only too happy to oblige. It saved her a great deal of trouble, truth be told.

“You must be referring to the attack on the bridge.”

“Indeed I am. Please consider, why would an orc attack my estate?”

“I believe this orc was a known distributor of antimonarchist tracts at the Lyceum.”

“He may well have been, but could not have carried out the attack himself, not even with considerable magic at his command. The sheer distance would have rendered the act impossible, given the promptness of his arrest and banishment.”

Tharsirion leaned against one of the walkway’s ornamental pillars, positioning himself so that the sun caught his hair. If nothing else, this man was aware of his most flattering angles. He was trim and fit, and his tailored clothing flattered him. He wore his age well. Ceres had not failed to notice that she had never seen him alone, no matter the time of day. He must have planned their ostensibly casual encounter far in advance – or someone had taken the trouble of planning it for him.

“No, Urhaugh would not have been working alone,” Ceres replied. If he were wise, Tharsirion would take a hint from her familiar use of the convicted man’s name and allow the matter to drop.

He did no such thing. “Could you not, with your considerable resources, investigate further?” he pressed.

“He confessed to the crime and accepted his sentence. There is nothing more I can do, legally speaking.” Ceres approached the edge of the walkway and stood beside Tharsirion. “But perhaps it might be possible for something to be arranged. Extralegally speaking,” she added, lowering her voice. “It depends on what you think might be uncovered were we to pursue an investigation.”

Tharsirion hesitated to respond, which may have been the first intelligent thing he’d done since he came to Whitespire.

“The waterfalls are lovely, aren’t they,” Ceres remarked. “The sound of water is soothing to the ears.” It wasn’t accurate to say that no one could hear their conversation over the rush of the falls, but they were in as private a space as they could be in the castle. Tharsirion was doubtlessly aware of this.

“Do you think one of your own supporters might have staged the attack, using my arrival to court as an opportunity, of sorts? A catalyst?”

Ceres smiled. She’d thought this was going to be difficult, but Tharsirion had just baited his own trap.

“One of my supporters? I am the sole monarch of this kingdom. Are you suggesting that I am merely the figurehead of a political faction?”

“If there is a faction that opposes you, it logically follows that you must have a faction of supporters. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is a faction that opposes your opposition.”

“And tell me, how are you so important to either of these supposed factions that your estate has become a target of contention?”

“Is it not your duty to use the resources granted to you to protect your kingdom? Is that not what you told me when I first presented my suit to you, Your Highness?”

“Then, by your reasoning, an attack on you would be an indication that I am not using my resources properly.” That was not what Tharsirion had suggested, not at all, but she may as well cast the baited hook he had so graciously offered.

“If you were willing to allow me free rein of my own resources, there would be no need for you to take responsibility either way. No one could blame the throne for what might befall a territory responsible for its own upkeep and defense.”

Ceres pretended to consider his suggestion. She needed to time her response correctly. They were approaching the garden pavilion, where two soldiers stood at the ready. Most of the palace guards were purely ornamental, but they were nonetheless expertly trained and highly competent.

“Perhaps we should initiate a deeper investigation into the attack,” she offered. “I wonder what our young scholar might have been offered that would have enticed him to choose your estate as his target. It is indeed a curious state of affairs. One might almost think you planned the attack on the bridge yourself,” she added with a wry grin.

“Come now, surely there’s no need for conspiracies,” Tharsirion replied, returning her grin. “I’m simply suggesting that the burden of the cost of territorial defense could be transferred from the crown to my estate. Imagine how much more effective I could be with regional forces under my own command.”

Ceres arranged her face into a mask of shock. “Is that a threat, Viscount?”

The guards standing at the entrance of the pavilion responded immediately to the tone of her words, rushing forward to remove Tharsirion from her side. He protested, but Ceres merely bowed her head and focused her attention on her performance of dismay as she clutched her hands to her chest, every bit the besieged princess.

She continued on her way to the garden as the guards led Tharsirion away. She would have him released after an hour or two, of course. She might even make the trip to do it herself. She wouldn’t apologize – she made a habit of never apologizing for anything – but perhaps she would deign to admit that she had not intended for such an ignoble inconvenience to befall to someone in his position. She might even offer to consider his proposal.

Despite the disruption to her schedule, it was necessary that Tharsirion be observed being escorted by guards. Urhaugh didn’t have the backing of anyone at court, but the viscount most certainly did. His temporary disgrace might provoke them into revealing themselves. Or perhaps they would abandon him, and he would come to her for aid, trading information for political protection.

The viscount should have stayed on his estate. He had a strong will and a keen mind, but he clearly didn’t have the temperament for court politics. Whatever power and authority he possessed in his own domain would not serve him here. It was beneath him to allow himself to become a pawn, especially at his age. Ceres thought of Ava’s fingers, which were graced by the calluses of a practiced musician. She had said that life was softer and more gentle on the Mwyngil lakes, and Ceres took her at her word.

Ceres lifted her skirts and brushed them to the side as she alighted on a bench overlooking a shallow pond that pooled its crystalline water in a hollow of the cliffside. “I would request refreshment,” she said to the attendant hovering at her back. As he left the garden grove, she allowed her shoulders to drop. She stretched her ankles, which were beginning to ache. If anyone in this castle deserved an afternoon drink, it was her. She’d been working since before the sun rose, and she would need to have several more uncomfortable conversations before it set. She might as well start drinking early.

Chapter Text

It had grown late. Ceres hadn’t been keeping track of time, but it must have been well after midnight. The sun wouldn’t rise for another few hours, but sleep was out of the question.

Ceres was restless. Her mind insisted on returning to Ava and her father. They both carried themselves with ease and spoke with the unhurried confidence that had taken her years to cultivate. She thought of their elegance and poise, and the famed parties they threw on their waterside estate.

Ceres’s reign was not marked by celebration. Evening courts would not have been appropriate after her mother died. After what the former queen put the kingdom through, she herself had every reason to be cautious. She refused a formal coronation ceremony, thereby establishing an austere atmosphere that she had done little to dissipate. She had ruled the kingdom for thirteen years, yet she was still a princess. In time she would become a queen in name as well as in deed, but the right opportunity had not yet presented itself.

Ceres had granted Ava authority over her father’s release from the custody of the castle guards and sent them both home to Mwyngil, just as Ava had requested. The kiss she shared with Ava during their farewell had been chaste. It was nothing more than the blessing of a sovereign to a vassal, their former intimacy betrayed only by a slight smile. They both understood that Ava would not be a suitable queen, nor had she any wish to be. There was no need for Ceres to marry a man, yet she could not ignore the need for royal heirs, especially in the absence of living relatives. After the unspeakable violence her mother had visited upon her father and his extended family, no man of a suitable station would wish to marry her.

This was not to say that she hadn’t enjoyed her share of dalliances. Ceres recalled the faces of her past intimates as she wandered through the halls of Whitespire Castle, remembering when and where she walked with each of them. She had lived in the castle for her entire life, yet she never failed to appreciate its beauty. The mountain streams flowed unimpeded through the edifice, winding their way under its columns and through its arches and across the tiles decorating its marble floors. Scalloped balconies hung under the vaulted ceilings like a forest canopy, and the banisters of their curving stairways had been carved to resemble the curving trunks of trees. No matter the season, the castle was redolent with fresh greenery and flowers, but its halls would be even more beautiful in the spring.

It was a shame not to host grand soirees here as they did on the lakes, but such events were never without danger. For Ceres, as an unmarried princess, an evening court was a constant balance. A single misstep would inspire a flurry of saviors rushing forward to catch her. Allowing herself to stumble into the wrong pair of arms would be an even more dire fate than falling.

Courting favor was a game for which Ceres had little patience. She saw herself as an administrator, but even she could not accomplish everything herself. The delegation of power was an impossible undertaking, yet it was her duty. From the height of her vantage point, she could see from a wider angle and at a longer distance, but not everyone was so gifted with perspective. Those who surrounded her represented their interests, as was their own duty, but the sharpness of their focus did not allow them to see beyond the borders of the kingdom.

They could not see the creeping desert that swallowed more of the swamps with each passing year, nor could they see the ocean of poison on the other side of the mountains. They could appreciate the water at their feet, but they did not think to question where it came from, nor where it went. Should the delicate balance of the land and sea falter, their noble titles would mean nothing. Factions in support of the throne and factions in opposition to her tenure were meaningless. Such things would make no difference to the dead and dying.

Urbaugh and his cohort were correct to claim that such an enormous responsibility should not be borne on the shoulders of one person alone. The actions of a single selfish or incompetent ruler could destroy the kingdom, yet shifting power away from the monarchy would be the work of a lifetime. Ceres could not afford to be hasty.

If nothing else, she could be confident in her magical ability, the one true birthright of her bloodline. It was simple enough for her to drift through the castle unseen and unremarked, casting no shadow in the lamplight. She needed to sleep, but her mind refused to lay still. With Balthazar off on his ridiculous quest, she had no one to talk to. As meaningless as his journey may be, it was not without danger. He might very well die, and she would never learn when or where. A “demon king” only mattered as a symbol of existential threat, however. Balthazar need not be alive to be useful to her. It would be a shame if he were to disappear, but she could not afford to allow his welfare to become her concern.

As Ceres walked, Weive appeared at her side, a ghost beside a phantom. “The viscount and his daughter have departed,” Weive reported.

“They could have waited until morning,” Ceres replied with a slight frown, “but this is just as well. I will miss them, father and daughter both.”

“There will be others, may you live so long.”

“Ever the optimist, aren’t you? I pray that you will feel more regret if should I ever find myself in a position to feel compelled to flee in the night.”

Weive offered no comfort but remained at Ceres’s side as they walked through the moonlit halls of the castle, each following the thread of their thoughts in companionable silence.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Long ago, when the sky was red and the water was white, people huddled within the walls they built to protect themselves from the last remaining demons. To keep their children safe, they told tales of a creature they called the Wanderer.

“No one knows where the Wanderer came from,” they would say, “but he cannot be killed. He walks the land with no destination and no end, and he brings death wherever he goes. If you go outside the wall, the Wanderer may find you. If you are unlucky, he will follow you home.”

One day, a child did not heed the warnings of his parents. He climbed over the village wall and ventured out into the world to see what there was to be seen.

He did not return when night fell, nor when dawn broke the next day. The villagers debated whether to send a party after him. He may already be lost, and others might perish during the search. As the sun set, the watcher at the village gates cried that a figure was approaching from the west, a black shadow shrouded in a cloak billowing in the fierce winds that swept the wasteland outside the wall.

The villagers were afraid. They set their best archers to strike down the stranger, but every arrow fell short. Those with magic were called to cast it, but none of their spells found its mark. With no other recourse, the village elders dragged out their ancient war machines, but the devices had been claimed by rust and would not ignite. The stranger’s steady progress could not be halted.

The man stopped outside the wall. He was tall and lean. His face was hooded and his eyes shadowed. He drew back his torn and threadbare cloak and laid the missing child in front of the gate. The boy was injured, but his wounds had been dressed and bound. The stranger raised his hands to demonstrate that he was unarmed. He stepped back as the child sat up and waved his uninjured arm to the crowd standing along the wall.

The villagers were ashamed of their fear and distrust. They opened the gate for the stranger and gave him a glass jar of clear water, the most valuable reward they had to offer. After the traveler drank his fill, they invited him to stay. He refused. “I’m searching for something,” he told them. “I cannot rest until I find it.”

“Are you close to what you seek?” the boy’s mother asked. She wished to aid him if she could.

“I grow closer with each step,” he replied. “The path may be long, but one step will be the last.”

“But you will die in the wasteland,” proclaimed the boy’s father, who felt less charitably toward the stranger. “No one can survive beyond the walls for long.”

“I will not die. Survival is nothing more than a matter of practice.”

The villagers allowed the stranger to depart as he wished. Most were happy to see him disappear beyond the horizon, relived to have survived an encounter with a man who must surely be the cursed Wanderer of legend.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother took the traveler’s words to heart. Any journey, even the most perilous, is little more than taking one step after another. She was emboldened to venture beyond the walls herself, taking her son with her as she struck out for the neighboring settlement across the burning plains.

As she traveled, she learned that the stranger hadn’t told the whole truth. Survival may be a matter of practice, but luck is equally important. Each step can only be taken if arrows fall short and storms blow wide. When the boy and his mother spoke of their travels, they gave honest accounts of the dangers they avoided, helping those who would set out after them plot their course. They spread stories of the Wanderer everywhere they went, telling those who would listen of the good fortune he took for granted, to have a destination worth walking toward.

No one knows if the Wanderer found what he was looking for. He may indeed still be searching, but the blessing “May you have the Wanderer’s luck” is still used to bless travelers to this day.

Chapter Text

It was a relief to be out of the forest.

The mushrooms were creepy to begin with, and it didn’t help that they looked like penises.

Once Balthazar saw it, he couldn’t unsee it. There were mushroom dicks growing out of the ground and mushroom dicks sprouting from the trees. Mushroom dicks poked their way out of piles of leaves that smelled like rotting carcasses. Some of the mushroom dicks were glowing. The air was undoubtedly filled with microscopic spores, and he was walking through a slurry of mushroom dick soup.

To make matters worse, Uniagoliantia was eager to talk about what she called “the forest children.” Balthazar asked her about the bioluminescent strains of fungus cultivated by the gargoyles, and she was only too happy to expound on fertilization and pollination and cloning and breeding, all the while using a set of idioms Balthazar found nigh incomprehensible. She told him that she was almost four decades old, an ideal time to have children of her own. Had circumstances been different, Balthazar would have been fascinated by the topic of spider romance, but there were too many dicks in his immediate vicinity for him to be able to follow the conversation.

Balthazar’s first thought when he saw the Temple of Everlasting Autumn was that it was clearly yonic. He decided this was a sign that it was time for him to take a break.

To be fair, the temple entrance was a dark portal set into the round hill of a barrow. Balthazar had to crouch and pull aside a curtain of plant growth to make his way inside. The interior was cavernous, and it seemed unlikely that the temple had always been underground. Judging from the remains of the architecture, the structure once had large windows. The gaps in the walls had since been filled with packed dirt thickly veined with tree roots. Leafy green weeds grew in the puddles of sunlight gathered below holes in the ceiling that were too irregular to be intentional. The floor was covered in dirt and mud and littered with chunks of the fallen ceiling. The remains of the original walls and support columns were severely weathered. Everything stank like rotting concrete.

At least there were no mushrooms. Balthazar sat on the ground and leaned against a toppled column as he drank cold tea from a ceramic jug. More than a full day had passed since he brewed it, and it was cloudy and bitter.

If what he’d read could be trusted, the temple should host a magical artifact, which would be hidden within its innermost sanctum and protected by a maze of corridors. There were no signs of animal activity at the entrance of the temple, and he was probably the first person to come here in centuries. It seemed unlikely, given the general state of decay, but there might still be active traps.

The temple was meant to serve as a proving ground for initiates of the type of magic venerated here, with rings of access that would be navigated in stages as an acolyte progressed through their training. The order of sages that had maintained the temple was long gone, and any scriptures they had left to posterity had been lost. With precious little information to guide him, Balthazar had no choice but to map the temple by making his way from room to room on foot.

He was tired of walking, and he was tired of sleeping on the ground. He was tired of maintaining the magic necessary to protect himself from fungal infection and tired of manually regulating his body’s metabolism so he wouldn’t have to eat. He was tired of wearing dirty clothes and the same pair of underwear. Adventure was a story you made up after the fact to impress your friends. Balthazar didn’t have any friends to impress, and he didn’t particularly enjoy this type of story.

If this were his type of story, he would have encountered a beautiful water nymph in the mountain spring where he’d bathed after emerging from the tunnels, and she would have been willing to tell him the secrets of the temple only if he could resist seduction. He would have passed her trial only to then be confronted by a concupiscent spider queen at the edge of the forest, an alluring woman with gossamer hair and six arms to hold him.

If he absolutely had to venture into an enchanted forest, it should have at least had a proper haunted mansion. Balthazar imagined a noble estate preserved in its shabby glory by a mystical curse. He would brave the horrors of the woods to find sleeping princess enshrined on a bed strewn with crimson leaves, her serene face haloed by her equally crimson hair.

Instead he had to sit on the hard floor of a derelict set of ruins that hadn’t been cleaned in who even knew how many hundreds of years. The place smelled like a compost heap, and he didn’t smell that great himself. His face was greasy, his hair was oily, and he would have gladly risked his life to wash his hands. Soon enough he’d have to piss, and all he could do was hope that he didn’t accidentally trigger some esoteric magical alarm system by desecrating ground that had once been sacred.

As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Balthazar noticed that the plants surrounding one of the passages leading deeper into the temple were larger and more lustrous than the rest of the weeds sprouting from the rubble. Perhaps their relative health was a result of the artifact’s magic leaking through barriers that had corroded with age. He may as well go that way first. Who knows, there might be a dryad guarding the path to the sanctum, stalwart in her duty but curious about the outside world and willing to guide him in exchange for a night of companionship.

As if that would ever happen. With his luck he’d probably get himself tangled up in a nest of carnivorous vines that wanted to eat him, and not in a fun and romantic way.

Balthazar stood and brushed the dirt from the hem of his cloak. If he encountered any murder plants, he thought, he’d have to remember to bring back a cutting for Ceres.

Chapter Text

The forest above the Temple of Autumn was strange and beautiful, but the temple itself was a garbage heap. There may once have been greenhouse domes aboveground, but now only the basement remained. The ruins were in an extreme state of disrepair, and the structure was held together by little more than the tangled web of the roots in its walls. There was nothing attractive about the place, no frescoes or murals or carvings, no monuments or statues or golden religious implements inlaid with gemstones.

What the temple did have in profusion were plants, but they were the opposite of beautiful. They grew and decayed and devoured each other in the absence of sunlight, spilling their misshapen stems and leaves and vines into a dense jungle of humid darkness. It was difficult for Balthazar to tell in the dim light of his lantern, but none of the plants seemed to be green. Most were a dull brown or an unhealthy shade of purple, and some were almost pure white.

Even worse were the flowers, which resembled flayed clumps of meat. Some sprouted hair. Balthazar thought he could spot a few teeth as well, but he had no desire to study the plants. He didn’t want to look at them, and he most certainly didn’t want to touch them, not even by accident. Their odor was sour and cloying, like a bouquet left to rot in a vase, continuing to bloom without knowing it was already dead.

The temple’s corridors branched and reconnected in a chaotic network of chambers. The concentration of rooms was denser in some areas, which led Balthazar to the conclusion that he was walking through access tunnels that had once connected the greenhouses above. As he made his way through root-choked concrete caverns filled with moldering piles of debris, he imagined that these chambers were once storerooms for seeds and equipment. He could only speculate, as nothing was recognizable in the midst of the underground jungle.

Despite the confusion of the temple architecture, the path forward was unmistakable. Balthazar’s intuition to follow the plants had been correct, and he could sense the artifact’s magic pulling him forward, tentatively at first and with a greater sense of urgency as he progressed. The plants sprouting from the walls and ceilings grew restless. The first time he saw leaves tremble at his approach, he assumed it was nothing more than his imagination, but their twitching and tittering soon became impossible to ignore. Just as he’d feared, the hairy stalks and thorned vines were reaching for him. He could smell their hunger and malice.

When a tendril snaked from the shadows at his feet and twined around his ankle, Balthazar panicked. He reacted without thinking and inundated the plant with a jet of flame, setting the surrounding mass of vegetation ablaze. The fire spread quickly. The organic matter lining the corridor served as ready kindling, and there was little Balthazar could do it extinguish the flames before they petered out on the damp earth floor of an adjoining chamber.

The temple’s hostility flared. Vines and roots groaned like wounded animals, slithering across the slimy mulch like eyeless worms. Balthazar’s self-control began to slip. An acolyte would have trained for years in order to accumulate the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the temple, but he couldn’t stand to be here another minute. The humid darkness pressed down on him with a palpable weight, and the reek of decaying plants was unbearable. He was so filled with foreboding that he screamed out loud when a tendril lashed his hand, knocking his lamp out of his grip. Its glass panels shattered on the ground.

Balthazar came to an abrupt decision when the hairy tip of a vine grazed the back of his neck. The temple was filled with ancient magic, but so was he.

It only took an instant to turn the underground corridors into rivers of flame. Balthazar couldn’t maintain the inferno he had summoned indefinitely, but he was close to the sanctum. There was nothing here worth preserving, and nothing that could stand in his way. If the entire forest above the temple burned along with its roots, so be it.

The heat of the fire filled Balthazar with energy. He broke into a sprint, dashing forward through the smoke and leaping over fallen debris. His throat and lungs burned, but he drew closer with every step.

He finally came to a halt in an impossibly large chamber. At its center was an enormous tree shrouded in the soft veil of a bioluminescent glow. It was beautiful, but Balthazar no longer cared. It didn’t matter if the tree was ancient, or even if it was sentient. The temple’s relic was enshrined within this tree, and he would have it. Balthazar pinpointed the source of the tree’s magic and severed its trunk with a sweeping scythe of flame. Its branches burst into a shower of cinders as they fell.

A pale seed the size and shape of an almond hovered above the tree’s blackened stump. Here at last was the temple’s relic.

The seed was surrounded by a halo of light that was neither blue nor yellow yet not quite green. It was beyond green, the purest essence of green, the green of the first sprout to push its way into the light of the sun at the beginning of time. The raw magic emanating from the seed was so strong that walking within it was like swimming through a cloud. It hummed with a gorgeous chorus that made Balthazar’s teeth ache.

The relic’s power had sustained the temple and its forest for centuries. As Balthazar stared at the seed, transfixed by its pulsing glow, he realized that its magic wasn’t generated by a single system of spells. It was created from layer upon layer upon layer of spellwork, collected from millions of sages and acolytes from a line stretching back into an unimaginable past.

It would be disastrous for one person to claim this power, but Balthazar was beyond the point of reflection or regret. A mass of vegetation twisted and squirmed as it advanced along the ground behind him, and there was no time to hesitate. He had made his decision long ago.

Balthazar enclosed the seed in his hand, and the world exploded. Each moment shattered into an infinite multitude of sensations. His sense of self split and then divided, and divided again, spiraling exponentially outward. He was no longer Balthazar but the very earth itself. A thousand billion roots twined through his body and mind. His spirit was possessed by an awareness of every living thing inside him, from the lowliest fungal spore to the mightiest and most majestic tree.

The knowledge was inexorable. The accumulated will of the relic’s magic demanded that he sacrifice his self and become a part of the forest, just as the sages who had once protected the temple had done before him. He would not die but merely fade quietly as the magic ever so slowly spun itself into the weave and warp of time. He would be eternally at peace, submerged in complete tranquility.

Or he could resist the downward pull of the magic and take it entirely into himself. He could swallow the seed and allow its magic to transform his body into a new vessel. He would become nothing less than a god in the process. He would have complete dominion over the soil of the earth and the life it supported, every seed and root and stem and leaf. The natural world would become his to shape according to his will. There would be no swamps, and no deserts, and no wastelands – not unless he wished it to be so.

Light spilled from Balthazar’s fingers as he raised the seed to his mouth. He could feel the fibers of reality bend and readjust to his every movement, and it was glorious. The temple’s relic sang to him of desire, the pure desire of the earth to quicken and throb and bear fruit without end. When he consumed the seed, he would become life itself, and the world would be whole once again.

And then a whisper: But what of Whitespire?

If he allowed the magic to take its course and consume him, there would be no turning back. Balthazar resisted, knowing that this was not his purpose, yet every particle of his being thirsted for the relic’s power. Struggle though he might, his will was no match for his desire. He could not relinquish the seed from his grasp, so he summoned his flame and destroyed it.

Magic crashed over him like a tidal wave, rushing and roaring and dragging him along in a relentless undertow as it returned to the world, finally free of its physical form.

Balthazar was free as well, his trance broken. He had succeeded in absorbing the magic without being absorbed by it in turn, but he was not strong enough to contain its magnitude. If he didn’t release the excess energy, he might still lose himself, cursed to wander the depths of the earth as something neither human nor divine.

As he gasped for air, struggling to retain his mind within the onslaught of magic, Balthazar reached into the fabric of space and ripped open a jagged hole. He took one final breath before using the last remaining residue of his free will to cast himself into the lightless void beyond time.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

At the edge of a wasteland on the western border of a prosperous kingdom, an obsidian tower rises from a fragrant orchard. It does not stand straight but bends against the light, shading the leaves from the worst heat of the day as the sun sets beyond the distant mountains slashed like a line of violet across the pale orange sky.

It is whispered that the trees were called into existence by the Demon King who dwells in the highest reaches of the tower, and that the orchard sprang up overnight, coerced into existence by the power of an arcane and inhuman magic. The Demon King traveled deep into the heart of a cursed forest to find the source of this magic, it is said; he is the usurper to the unhallowed secrets lost with a temple that long ago fell to ruin.

Olive and lemon trees bloom and bear fruit at the base of the tower, and the wind that carries their pollen across the sandy soil is sweet with the scent of their growth. Forged by the unyielding light of the sun, the tree leaves are a deep and stalwart green during the day, but under the moon they shine as soft and silver as the surface of the sea.

At night the people who make their homes in the shadow of the tower hang lights from the boughs of the orchard, and the work of their hard and calloused hands glitters like a shower of stars, a haven of civilization in the unforgiving sands. And still the Demon King’s eyes are turned to the east, for even the beauty of this oasis is not enough. The rumors carried across the desert say that he yearns for the sacred power of Whitespire, a relic of a more enlightened age, and that he will not rest until it is in his grasp.

Chapter Text

“These desert sunsets are something else,” Melchior said, taking a sip of his drink. He stretched his legs as he leaned into the plush seat of an antique chair. He’d taken it upon himself to float an arrangement of furniture out onto the eastern terrace at the top of the steps leading into the tower. Surely Balthazar wouldn’t mind.

“Begging your pardon, but is this the right location to watch the sunset?” Urhaugh was still ill at ease with the tower. He perched uncomfortably on the edge of the chair Melchior had bullied him into using.

“The western sun would blind you,” Gasper explained. “It’s best to stay in the shadow of the tower. It’s an ugly old thing, but it has its uses.” She and Sade sat cross-legged on the warm tiles of the terrace floor, a pile of tools between them. Gasper used a whetstone to hone the triangular points of a collinear hoe while Sade sanded the splinters from the wooden grip of small scythe.

“It could be that I’m imagining things, but is the shape of the tower supposed to change?” Urhaugh asked. “I haven’t studied it closely, but I could swear that it shifts from day to day.”

“No, you’re right,” Sade spoke up. “It does that.”

“But how?”

Melchior smiled. “Magic.”

Urhaugh cleared his throat. “With respect, that’s not how magic works.”

“I don’t know the first thing about how magic is ‘supposed’ to work,” Sade cut in, “but I thought I had a decent grasp on the basic principles when I came here. I was surprised at first, but by this point I’ve stopped asking questions.” She paused as she made a minute adjustment to the cord binding the grip of her scythe. “And it’s funny,” she continued, “but I started to feel a lot more comfortable with my own magic once I stopped worrying about what was possible. It’s easier when you think about what you want to do instead of what you should or shouldn’t be able to do.”

Melchior raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

“Magic is not wish fulfillment,” Urhaugh insisted. “It’s a complicated system of balanced energies that – ”

Gasper raised her hand to cut him off. “No lectures, please. You could just make things up and I wouldn’t know the difference.” She shot a sharp glance at Melchior, who took another sip of his drink.

“Shouldn’t you have a better understanding of metaphysics?” Urhaugh objected. “Aren’t you the Demon King’s general?”

“I’m not the general of anything. To be a general you need to have an army, and there’s no army here.”

“But how can this ‘Balthazar’ of yours be a Demon King if he doesn’t have an army? How does he presume to conquer Whitespire otherwise?”

Gasper shrugged. “He doesn’t need an army.”

“But – ”

“Hold up.” Gasper raised her head. “Does anyone else smell that?”

Sade nodded. “I think the air pressure just dropped.”

Urhaugh sensed it too. “Is there going to be a sandstorm?”

“Oh goodness, no,” Melchior replied. A smile spread across his face. “This is fireworks. Just sit back and enjoy the show.”

He pointed to the base of the stairs, where a swirling vortex of pitch-black darkness had appeared a dozen feet above the ground. It spiraled around itself, growing larger with each turn. With no warning, Balthazar leapt from the void and landed gracefully on his feet in a catlike crouch. He cast an eerie glow into the twilight as his hair and robes billowed around him in the winds of an unseen gale.

He stood and stepped forward with a movement that flowed like mercury. Green shoots unfurled from the sand at his feet and grew with an alarming rapidity. He broke into a sprint as he ran onto the cracked earth of the wasteland.

The shoots that trailed behind him stretched into seedlings, and still they kept growing, their branches striving upwards in all directions. Balthazar summoned the growth from the sandy soil, his feet and hands weaving a complex pattern as the tips of his fingers traced bright contrails.

People emerged from their houses to watch his progress. There were scattered bursts of cheering as the sharpness of the ozone in the air faded and was transformed into the fresh scent of green and growing things. Above their heads the sun finally set, and the sky became soft and gentle.

“That’s magic! That’s fucking magic!” Melchior jumped up and twirled in a circle while clapping his hands. Sade got to her feet and began to dance beside him. Their laughter echoed through the bays of the obsidian columns and down the sharp lines of the marble steps as they spun each other around in wide and delirious gyres.

“What excellent timing,” Gasper said. She grinned at Urhaugh. “I think you can see for yourself why the demon king doesn’t need an army.”

“I think I do, yes,” Urhaugh replied, stunned by the scene unfolding in front of him. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sea of green that spread across the desert beyond the edge of the settlement.

“If he wants to conquer Whitespire, then he’ll conquer Whitespire. I doubt he’ll need our help to do it.”

“I don’t suppose he will.” Urhaugh clenched his fists over his knees as he considered the implications. “Is there nothing that can stop him?”

“I don’t know about stopping him, but the only person he seems concerned about is that princess of yours. You might not like her, but you don’t hate her even half as much as he does. Let’s hope she knows what she’s doing.” Gasper climbed to her feet and brushed the sand from the creases of her trousers. “Melchior, stop carrying on and see if you can fix me a drink. I’m curious what that boy’s been up to.”

Chapter Text

Ceres stepped through the mirror into the dim lamplight of the room at the top of the tower.

Balthazar lay on the ground with his bare feet propped on the faded velvet seat of a chaise far too fine to be subjected to such rude treatment. He used his balled-up robe as an ersatz pillow as he made his way through the manuscript she’d sent him. The pages he’d finished reading were scattered on the floor beside his head. He held the rest of the sheaf in one hand and a bright yellow lemon in the other. Ceres winced as he brought it to his mouth and took a bite. There was a small pile of discarded peels under the chaise.

“When did you get back?” she asked.

Balthazar frowned but didn’t look up from the manuscript. “Can’t I have one night in peace?”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Go see for yourself.”

He gestured in the direction of the balcony windows. On this particular evening, they had taken the form of semicircular holes carved into the raw material of whatever dark stone the walls were made of. The architecture of the tower shifted almost every time she visited. Ceres wondered if the changes reflected Balthazar’s mood, and what sort of magic he used to pull it off. She’d like to try it herself.

Thinking that she’d have to get him to tell her how he made the tower one of these days, Ceres looked out over the desert. Nothing seemed to be different until she hovered over the railing and glanced down. A small forest of fully grown trees had materialized at the base of the tower. They didn’t seem too terribly impressive from so high up, but the silver leaves of what Ceres assumed to be olive trees glimmered in the moonlight like ripples in a pond as they rustled in the night wind.

Ceres shook her head. “That’s incredible.”

She turned back inside. A cacophonous riot of plants crowded the interior of the study. The plants had been hastily potted in all manner of strange containers by someone who had no knowledge of gardening or botany. Ceres glanced at Balthazar, who hadn’t moved. He allowed a page of the manuscript to drift to the floor beside him as he took another bite of lemon. He’d let his nails grow, and he used the hooked claw of his index finger to peel the fruit as he read. Ceres realized that, as much tea as Balthazar drank, she’d never seen him eat. She settled onto the chaise, putting as much distance between herself and Balthazar’s hairy shins as possible, and watched him.

“So are you immortal now?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“But you can plant trees.”

“They’re damn fine trees, if I say so myself.”

“Are these trees going to destroy the world?”

“No. Obviously not. But they’ll make things around here more comfortable.” Balthazar took another bite of lemon. “A man has to have priorities.”

“You’re not going to attack Whitespire just yet, I take it.”

“Not until I finish this story. I forgot that Marmadoc was one of the duke’s stableboys. Helmina just told her husband that she’s pregnant with Marmadoc’s baby, and now he’s demanding a duel with the duke.”

“It gets better. Helmina still loves her husband, can you imagine? So she arranges for Serenity to duel in his place. She has to cross swords with the duke at sundown.”

“That’s some good shit. Do they kiss?”

“You’ll just have to keep reading to find out.”

“Don’t be cruel, Ceres.”

“It would be cruel to spoil what happens.”

Balthazar finished the lemon and tossed the rind under the chaise. “I hate having to read page by page like this. Couldn’t you have this thing bound before you sent it to me?”

“Not if that’s what it takes to spare my kingdom from your terrible wrath for another few days. Say, can you grow flowers too?”

“Probably. But it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s still the desert. Everything will wither if it doesn’t rain.”

“You’ll just have to figure out how to control the weather, then.”

Balthazar smiled as he continued reading. “That’s the plan.”

“You’re joking.” Ceres had a strong suspicion that he wasn’t joking in the slightest.

“Nope.” Balthazar pointed to a table at the edge of the study. Ceres drifted toward it to find a book whose pages were held open by the weight of another book. Both books appeared to be written in the language of the starag. Ceres was familiar with the language but far from fluent, and she didn’t know what she was looking at until she caught sight of Balthazar’s notes in the margins. His handwriting was so neat and even that it was almost as clean as the print itself. The writing was obscured by the overgrown tendrils of a potted plant, but Ceres could make out a phrase that Balthazar had underlined: The Temple of Storms.

Ceres laughed to herself. This asshole really did intend to control the weather. Of course he did.

She scanned his notes, but there was nothing else of interest. Balthazar seemed to be trying to translate certain passages of the text, but he read the starag language with even less fluency than she did. His notes continued onto the next page, but it wasn’t as if she could turn it.

Ceres floated to the bookshelves lining the interior of the room. Balthazar had never given her a chance to look over his library, but he was occupied with the manuscript at the moment. Now was as good a time as any. She took her time studying the shelves. There was no rhyme or reason to the order of the books, and some of the spines had lettering in scripts she didn’t recognize. Where could all of these books have possibly come from?

“Balthazar…” Ceres began to ask, but when she turned she saw that Balthazar’s eyes were closed. The sheaf of manuscript paper rested on his chest, which rose and fell in even breaths. His face was unshaven and streaked with ash, but a decade of age had melted from his features as he slept.

Ceres was struck by the urge to brush his hair from his forehead, but it was as impossible to touch him as it was to turn the pages of the book on the table. She was no more than a phantom on this side of the mirror, a mere projection of herself. She tried to touch him anyway, but her fingers passed through his skin with no hint of warmth.

It was difficult to believe, seeing Balthazar sprawled on the floor surrounded by lemon peels and scattered leaves of paper, that he intended to destroy her kingdom. As incapable as he was of potting plants and tidying the dirty teacups occupying every flat surface of his study, he was set on the path he had chosen. Ceres hoped he could be dissuaded, but one day he would attack Whitespire. When he did, she would face him. She would fight him, and she would win. She would put it off for as long as she could, but she would be lying to herself if she tried to pretend that she wasn’t looking forward to it.

“I’m happy you came back.” Ceres smiled as she sat beside Balthazar and looked out at the sea of stars stretching into the darkness beyond the tower.

Chapter Text

It is a beautiful day, and you are a horrible demon king. What would you like to do?

- Make a pot of tea.
- Water your plants.
- Read a trashy romance novel.
- Have a nice chat with your nemesis.
- Take a long nap.