And now a look at the OTHER side, since any epic needs some bad guys....
The room was large and open, of polished marble and obsidian worked with patterns of gold and sapphire and silver, but few decorations outside of these. A bed was set back against one wall, with a locked chest at its foot, a small dresser nearby, all looking rather small against the expanse of the room with its twenty-foot ceiling. A short distance away sat a table, draped in cloth so black that it seemed to drink in the light, leave the area nearby in inexplicable shadow; a single chair was placed at the table. Two spheres of blue light glowed, suspended in nothing, above the farther corners of the table.
In the center of the table was a scroll, partially unrolled and locked in a mounting that held it still, a scroll two feet high and opened four feet wide that seemed made of purest gold, a scroll that shone like a golden mirror – or, to be more accurate, like three mirrors, for the unrolled piece of enchanted metal was engraved such that it was divided into three equal portions; the engraving scrollwork, on close inspection, consisted of powerful symbols, runes, and mystical metals inlaid into the golden surface, which within those three portions was inlaid with platinum or silver, shining white against the gold.
The man seated at the table glanced back at the bed and dresser and smiled faintly. Well, one appreciates austerity on occasion, and a passage at austerity makes one appreciate luxury the more, as well.
The door was closed, but not locked. The others knew well not to disturb him there. Though they were, perhaps, his equals in many things, they knew that he directed their actions, that he was able to direct the favor of their patron as well. If any of them dared disturb him while that door was closed… well, it had best be deadly important. Or else it will become deadly important, indeed.
He looked at the gemclock; its shimmering symbols showed that it was just time.
And now the polished auric and argent metal did not reflect his face, did not show the mostly-empty room. Instead, three other beings looked out from the reflection of other rooms than this.
The central of these – a thing of pure blackness, a humanoid shape in a chamber so dark that the figure should have been invisible, save that the thing also had eyes of a terrible blue flame and its darkness made that which surrounded it appear merely the gloom of dusk – slowly surveyed the others. The man knew that while he only saw three other participants, each of those three had others – their second in commands, their assistants, advisors, or strategists – watching, perhaps even waiting to speak. It is a most deadly fence to walk, he thought. To say nothing risks little; to speak could gain you favor… or cost you your life.
The same was true of the other two visible in the meeting-mirror, of course, but they had power of their own, and long history in speaking to that which commanded the central mirror.
"Some of you," the thing said, and its voice was the deep rumble of a vortex descending to unnameable depths, overlaid with the scream of tortured air. "Some of you have already heard the rumors. We have commanded this meeting to examine the situation, and determine… a course of action."
The blacker-than-black figure glanced to the left, at a creature that combined the worst features of lizard and mantis, or perhaps warrior ants. "Voorith has reported considerable losses of his forces, at a moment when we had been preparing other forces to move." The burning blue-white gaze was unblinking, frightening even to the man seated at the desk, and he wasn't the focus of that deadly regard. "We are most disappointed, Voorith."
The mazolishta bowed, chattering in its own tongue. The apology was long and detailed, and there was no mistaking the fear in the insectoid demon's voice.
"Enough of the apologies. They do not matter to us. How much has been lost?"
The King of All Hells is no more fooled than I; all that apology was an attempt to evade giving these details. It must be worse than we had heard – and I had heard things were very bad. The being in the third mirror – humanoid in seeming – met the watcher's gaze knowingly; he returned the gaze with a nod, for this was his patron. It smiled as Voorith replied "… there have been… significant losses, O Consuming Star."
The black thing's eyes flared slightly. "Evasions gain you nothing either. How much?"
"I…" Voorith shuddered, recognizing it had no recourse but the truth. "All was lost, Majesty."
"All?" the human-seeming figure in the third panel repeated, its voice startled and amused. The man at the table kept himself under control, but it was a shocking revelation. I'd realized Voorith must have suffered quite a humiliation, the summoning falling through and all, but to have lost all of the gathered resources and thus not even being prepared…
"Yes, all." Voorith gave vent to a curse. "It was intervention, I feel sure."
As the patron of the mazakh recounted how everything had fallen apart, the being in the third mirror did not bother to restrain a laugh. The one in the room did not quite dare join in, but inwardly he was laughing indeed. Oh, my, yes, this is most amusing.
The black-on-black thing with the blazing eyes did not apparently see the humor. "Restrain your amusement or leave this council. I concur with Voorith's assessment. The Golden-Eyed God arranged this."
Stifling another chuckle, his patron nodded. "It would seem likely. Though it could simply be poor luck. Still, if the old Toad-god wasn't involved before, we can rest assured he's noticed this undersized menace by now, and he'll be in the game." It looked narrowly at the black face, with an expression just short of reproach. "And if I understand correctly, he is not subject to the little arrangement you managed to convince most of the other Powers to agree to on pain of cataclysm."
The black thing seemed to tower up in fury; the figure raised a single finger in admonishment. "This plan is of my devising, O Kerlamion. It is of course in service to you, as are all things here. But I will not be treated as though I were no more than one of your millions of guards. I shall speak when I wish, and how I wish. And we would be wise to keep to the subject. Better these scrying scrolls are than meeting in person, yet still those with enough power, perception, or fortune might recognize that a hidden council is being held."
And the fact that he can speak thus to Kerlamion, King of All Hells, is what convinces me I have chosen my patron very wisely.The seated man decided now was an opportune time to join in. "Then by all means, let us speak of the subject. How long of a delay does this… incident mean?"
Kerlamion's blazing-fire eyes had not yielded to the calm azure gaze of the third mirror-figure, but he spoke. "Voorith? You have knowledge of what was arranged, what will be needed, and so on. Your honest estimate of time?" Kerlamion's glare finally shifted, and the seated man once more had to restrain a smile. The emphasis of the word "honest" meant that Voorith would be held responsible for keeping the timeline offered. Of course, if he offered too long a timeline, there was always the possibility that the King of all Demons might simply choose another to do his job… and Voorith would have other more immediate concerns of survival.
After a hesitation, Voorith sank to the floor of its own chamber in a submissive bow. "It… will take at least four years, O Consuming Star of the Uttermost Destruction."
"Four years…" To their surprise, Kerlamion gave vent to a laugh of his own, an eerie and frightening sound indeed, as of the air itself being rent and destroyed. "Satisfactory, yes. Four years it shall be. Voorith, if you succeed in this, by four years from this day, then shall I reward rather than punish you."
Voorith's voice was shaken and puzzled, but there was relieved gratitude in every tone. "Of course, Lord."
Kerlamion leaned back, its throne barely visible. "The lands have their unwitting reprieve. All other plans shall be adjusted. You will attend to that personally." He glanced at the figure in the third mirror.
"Indeed I shall, o great King."
"Do any others have anything to add? For know that now is the time to speak, if any of you believe anything threatens the plan, especially with this change in timing." Kerlamion's tone was moderated from its initial leashed anger, and he was clearly demanding honest responses now.
The man in the chair considered briefly. Well… a few things to discuss with my patron, but nothing to bring up with… Him.
A few others did speak, asking questions, clarifying requirements. Even though he understood the overall goals, the man watching still felt a chill of… awe? fear? simple excitement? … as he heard the mention of carefully devised strategies against every possible stronghold of the enemy, and realized that all of these plans were to culminate on the same day, four years from that moment.
Shortly the discussions were finished, and the black-glowing figure surveyed them all one last time, and nodded.
"Then this council is at an end." Kerlamion vanished, as did Voorith. As he had expected, the third figure remained, and smiled.
"What fortuitous timing," it said. The very human-seeming fingers brushed back light-colored hair which, the seated man knew, was no more real than the reflection itself.
He had to admit that this last remark escaped him, however. "I confess that I don't quite understand."
It smiled, a glitter of teeth perfect, white… and not quite human. "Let us say that while Voorith does not know why four years is a fortunate period of delay, I do. A most fortunate coincidence, especially for Voorith himself. The Lord of All Hells is far less tolerant and forgiving than I am."
Controlled as he was, the man in the chair could not – quite – prevent himself from glancing down at what was both evidence of that tolerance, and reminder of just how terrible it could be, if that tolerance were worn thin.
It didn't miss that glance, either, and the smile widened momentarily. "Far less tolerant. You very nearly caused me, and my plans, inconvenience some time ago… but you have learned well. Kerlamion tends to deal with failure… poorly." Its gaze became intense. "You do also understand our position?"
He nodded tensely. "I… believe so." It was astonishingly hard to say the next words, though he had realized the truth some years before. "You… have a deeper plan than that of the Lord of All Hells. That is, your plan given to him has some other levels of its own. One that has something to do with –"
It cut him off with a sharp glare. "Do not say names. Any names. I believe this mirror is proof against spying… but not, perhaps, completely so." It looked at him steadily. "Are you willing to continue, knowing that you risk playing so deep and very dangerous a game?"
He nodded, managing a smile of his own. "I am. I believe you know precisely what you are doing… even in this case."
Its tone became cordial. "Excellent. Then I trust you are… enjoying your first rewards?"
He smiled more naturally. The being he spoke to might not share all the same… interests that he did, but it certainly did not mind supporting them as long as he never forgot who he served, and did not fail it. And one day I may be like it. "I am tremendously appreciative, my most generous and supremely devious patron," he said, "and I hope – as time goes on – that I will continue to show you that I am worthy of the full reward you have offered."
"If all goes well…" it chuckled, and the lights at the edge of the table flickered as though in fear, "if all goes well… it is quite possible. Sooner than you might think, in fact.
"Now, it will be a challenge to delay things, my friend, especially where you are. Remembering that except when I personally present myself to you, you cannot – none of you can – approach or speak to me in any way that indicates a special familiarity, I will thus be relying on you to keep everything… going smoothly for the next four years."
He grimaced. "Speaking honestly – as you have always demanded – that will be a difficult challenge. There is an immediately complicating factor that you know –"
"—and one I wish treated with extreme caution for now. There must not be the faintest breath of suspicion of your actions." It held up a placating hand. "I understand your concerns, my friend. I will make it easier; I do not expect to need you and your… allies' services for most of that time, and so I promise not to call upon you for at least three years, possibly the entire four, so long as you tend to any… pernicious growths, shall we say?"
That will make it much easier. Still, there were a huge number of unknowns… and the game they were playing here might attract the wrong sort of attention at any moment, no matter how careful he might be.
At the same time, there was no point in playing games of reluctance. His course had long since been decided. Take what you must. "I will do so." While normally he would finish such a declaration with a name, a title, or at least "Sir", the other's instructions had been made very clear; no reference to it directly, not even a title of respect other than words like "patron" – nothing that gave any clue as to the nature, rank, or even sex of the being.
The being smiled at his simple agreement. "I am pleased with your acceptance – and I know the challenges that four such years, without my assistance, may bring. Know them better than you, in fact, for there are things I have had to address which you have not even been aware of." It nodded in decision. "I shall be, in essence, giving you full authority here – to direct our operations, to control those under our command, and to make the decisions I shall not be present to make. For that, of course you must have the power to enforce those decisions, take those actions. So let us advance your fortunes."
He felt a surge of disbelieving joy. "You… you mean it?" A natural caution took over. "And… there will be no… untoward prices?"
His patron laughed. "Wisely cautious, my friend – but no, not in this case. I find it most useful to keep my word to those who are, themselves, useful to me, and betraying you with the poison-pill of legendary wishes is hardly in my interests.
"There is of course a price, but you have already begun paying it, and you seem not displeased with the results."
"My soul is being… transformed, yes?"
"Slowly, carefully, and in no way that will affect who you are, only what you are, yes. If you wish to become one of my people, to gain our powers and strengths… you will of necessity be giving up your essence as a human."
He almost laughed aloud. "You have said I will retain my true self, my interests, my knowledge, my skills – and from what I have seen, from what you have hinted, I will but become all the greater."
"There are those who would see the change… in not so positive a light. But speaking with entire honesty, I do see it as you say, and I believe you shall, as well." It straightened. "In that case, I have no more time to waste. Unlock the scroll and place it on the wall, hanging sideways."
It took only moments to do as he was instructed.
"Stand back," his patron said; as soon as he had done so, his patron spoke a single word in an unknown language, and the scroll blazed with golden light, expanding to the size of a doorway –
– and through that doorway stepped his patron. "Remove your armor, my friend."
He was already doing so; he remembered the last time, and this part he was not, entirely, looking forward to. "Now," his patron said with that disquieting smile, "brace yourself. I strongly suggest you look away from yourself, to the wall, to the scroll or anywhere but down." The smile widened. "This… will hurt."
For a moment it felt as though five lances of fire-essence had impaled him through the guts. He tried to scream, but the pain was so great he could not even manage that. He could feel something dark-ice cold dwelling in the heart of that fire, an ice that spread through his body and soul, the agony of freezing fire saturating every nerve, and he wondered for a moment if he had trusted this monster in vain.
But then the ice warmed, and the fire cooled, and something else began to flow. A trickle, then a flow, then a flood of strength beyond anything he had ever felt, even when using the powers he and his brethren were granted by right of their brotherhood. The dimly-lit room brightened, his vision sharpened. He could see the smallest detail on the walls, the ripples where a chisel had shaped the stone. More, he felt he could see more – there were colors for which he had, as yet, no names, and a sense of other powers nearby – the souls of the other Justiciars currently at the retreat.
And he could sense that there was something wonderful he could do with such souls.
His patron stepped back, studying him narrowly for a moment. Then he gave a quick smile and nod. "You have survived. Most gratifying. Many would not have lived through that infusion… but with the changes we had already begun, you were just able to do so."
He tested his balance, leapt half across the room with a single motion. "By the… Will this stay with me?"
"It should, for the most part. Oh, there is a certain… flush of the initial change which will wear off soon enough. But there are ways to regain that strength, ones you already suspect. I do not begrudge you such advancement, when you are in truth dealing with problems which would otherwise be mine, and which I now leave to you." It turned, striding back towards the scroll. "Be cautious. Do not betray your nature – even if you are in combat, you must not reveal the fullness of what you have become. Now," it continued, "I must prepare my own works in service of our King… and," that deadly smile flashed again, "in our own, of course. Do not attempt contact with me again. I will contact you when I am ready."
The light flared and dissipated, and the scroll was blank.
He picked up the scroll and carefully returned it to its normal place. He put his armor back on, slowly, carefully, as though it were a ritual. All those moments, he savored the changes – the exquisite sensitivity of all senses, the ability to detect traces of power in the very air, the physical and mystical strength that filled him nearly to bursting, and finally laughed aloud.
Then he thought more carefully on his situation. The smile did not disappear, but became less manic, more calm and focused. I must not allow these senses to be active most of the time. It would be far too easy to betray myself through knowing, sensing something I shouldn't. In battle or on a hunt, yes, that's one thing, but I must remain mostly the "self" that others know.
His patron's warning to not betray his nature was a warning he had no intention of testing. A being which could grant him such power – and who could supply the power that gave their entire group their unique abilities – such a being was one to heed well and completely when they gave such quiet and definite warnings.
Still… with my patron gone, and his resources no longer available… I may have to expand my own resources. For a moment he backed away from that thought, for he knew it could be his doom if his patron thought he was plotting against it.
But, he reminded himself, my patron is quite different from the others. The King of Hell undoubtedly would be suspicious of an underling amassing a power base. Voorith, likewise. Most of the beings of this dangerously unstable alliance would feel similarly. But his patron… no. As he thought on it, he realized that his patron would expect him to build his own power base, the better to be effective – and to be able to act outside of the brotherhood he still belonged to.
Then it is time to gather my own forces, my own allies, he thought. Getting them here… concealing them… these will be challenging, as will this most difficult masquerade I must play. He sat down and leaned back in the seat, his smile broadening. But ahh, the rewards when the last curtain comes down!