The Transiosphere released a brief storm of crackling energy—and then Vaxal found himself in the middle of a conference room full of very confused diplomats, all staring up at him in disgraceful assortments of surprise and alarm. He was in Thannica now, the capital of Beleria, a thousand miles away from Stormwatcher’s Peak. He had appeared right in the middle of a session of the Court of King Valion—and he was standing on top of their table.

“I NEED TO SPEAK TO THE KING, NOW,” Vaxal roared at the bewildered assembly. He didn’t care to figure out which of the cretins he ought to have addressed—someone in the room would be high-ranking enough to take him where he needed to go. And if not, it was their fault for filling a meeting room with such worthless imps while it still had Transiospheres attuned to it.

At the head of the table, only a single diplomat had managed to keep a calm demeanor. Ghemis stared back at Vaxal with dispassionate regard, resting his chin against fingers folded sinuously together. “Everybody get out,” he said, not breaking eye contact with Vaxal. “I’ll take care of our guest.”

For the span of a single heartbeat, everyone in the room stood still. Then the collected ambassadors rose and packed their belongings and silently filed out of the room until only the two of them were left.

As soon as the door closed, Ghemis let out a long sigh. “Mister Brigyndir, I hope you have a very good reason for using one of the few remaining Thannica-bound Transiospheres.”

“You know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t urgent,” Vaxal said. “Where is Valion?”

Ghemis leaned back in his chair, studying Vaxal with cold blue eyes. There was another period of lingering silence, before a look of revulsion came across Ghemis’s face. “Oh, get down from there—it’s hard to take you seriously while you’re scuffing up the table.”

Without a word, Vaxal complied. Ghemis Sen Shay was one of the few people he respected in the Court—one of the few with a Rank worthy of the Court. Vaxal might not like the man an ounce more than his lungs could hold, but credit where credit was due—without Ghemis, Beleria would probably still be a festering pool of endless civil war.

But then, it might soon become that anyway.

“King Valion is in his personal quarters, of course,” Ghemis said while casually gathering up the papers in front of him. He cached the organized stack into his inventory. “You know he doesn’t like attending these Court sessions.”

“What I know is a matter of great importance for the King, and for the King alone,” Vaxal growled. “Take me to him.”

Ghemis stood up, arms raised in mock submission. “Relax, we’re going.” He wiped a speck of invisible dust off his uniform, checked the room once more to make sure nothing had been left behind, and then—finally—he gestured for Vaxal to follow him out the door.

Multicolored sunlight gleamed through the crystal walls of the citadel, casting kaleidoscopic shadows behind the hundreds of guests and envoys that flittered through its halls. People from all corners of the kingdom, all seven provinces and beyond, scurried about their business like Irons taking their first real steps along The Path.

It had been far too long since Vaxal had last been in Thannica. Viskavia was a backwater, an afterthought—a wretched excuse for a Belerian territory, only given as much attention as it was because the Skavian Mountains were so easily passable. A disjointed collection of farming villages full of has-beens and never-would-bes. Not a day went by in which he didn’t think of his assignment to Viskavia as a punishment.

Vaxal seethed internally. He would make the Gosling suffer for what he did to Virulesse. The Exarch would be avenged, Viskavia would be reduced to ash, and Vaxal would never have to grace it with his presence again. And that would be one more Personal Quest completed before his 43rd birthday.

As they walked, Ghemis attempted to start a conversation. “So how did things go with that little farmers’ rebellion? I trust that my mercenaries were sufficient enough to take care of it?”

Vaxal merely grunted in response.

“Or perhaps not? Perhaps you’re here to request more assistance from the capital? You better not be here to tell us that you got my man Grennick killed.”

Vaxal glowered. “Grennick and his men are on their way back to Thannica after a job well done, as far as I’ve cared to hear.”

Ghemis half-raised a single eyebrow. “Then what? Maybe I should just scan you and get the details for mysel—”

NO!” Vaxal cut Ghemis off and pushed him against the wall, earning a crowd of speechless onlookers and a rare moment of quiet in the citadel. Vaxal regained himself and unhanded the esteemed councilman. “Forgive me, Sen Shay Ghemis.” He bowed. “My mind was recently… compromised… by what I can only think to describe as dark, forbidden knowledge. I fear that if someone scans me in my current state, the infection will spread to them like a plague.”

Ghemis reflected on Vaxal’s words. “Dark, forbidden knowledge?” Ghemis repeated.

Vaxal nodded gravely. “If I don’t find a way to stop it… I fear it will drive me insane.”

Even now, he could feel the squirming echoes of the contemptuous one in the darkest depths of his mind, like a living image scarred directly onto his memory. It writhed its immaterial self along the delicate flesh of his perception, taunting him, injecting foreign thoughts into his mindscape—like that of thinking of his brain as “delicate flesh.”

Vaxal had to find a way to get rid of it, before it did more than merely color his thoughts.

The Sleeping Gate… The Unmade… Virulesse was right about everything. There were worlds outside Era. They were but fish in a tide pool, at the edge of an incomprehensibly vast ocean. An ocean full of tentacled horrors and waters so cold that no amount of starlight could ever soothe their chill.

Civil war on Era? They were but crabs playing at being emperor of a pile of dirt.

Ghemis pondered for a long moment before addressing Vaxal again. “You were already insane,” he sighed. “But whatever—perhaps this will make you a potent weapon to throw at our more inquisitive enemies…”

Already considering ways to weaponize the mindvirus, with not the slightest hint of compassion for Vaxal’s condition—Ghemis truly was a master statesman.

It didn’t take much longer for them to reach the King’s private chambers. As Valion’s Master, Ghemis could go wherever in the citadel he pleased, waving away guards and wardens with authority second only to the King himself. Vaxal was honored to have an escort as eminent as Ghemis—and he hated every second of it.

They found the King lounging in his personal library, sipping a glass of wine while reading from what looked like a volume of The History of the Warlords of Ancient Beleria. An excellent choice.

Not that Vaxal was much of one for reading, of course.

From a dark corner of the room, the King’s Attendant—a white-backed vulture—glared at the intruders while it feasted on a meal of captured rodents. The creature hissed at them—until it saw that they were not here to intrude upon its meal, and it promptly went back to ignoring them.

“Is that you, Ghemis?” Valion asked. He had a voice as smooth as spring, but with all the weight of winter.

King Valion was a man who practically emanated casual authority. Even before he had been crowned, Valion’s charisma was palpable. He was taller than average—though not as tall as Vaxal—and he carried his athletic frame with absolute control. His dark brown hair waved back to either side of his head, adding an undeniable handsomeness to his natural grandeur. It didn’t matter that he was only around thirty years old, or even that he was the same Rank as Vaxal—if anyone was ever worthy of being called a king, it was Valion.

Ghemis bowed, despite the fact that Valion had yet to even look up from his book. “Pardon, my lord—Vaxal Brigyndir is here from Viskavia with urgent news.”

Valion marked his place in his book and cached it away for later. He stood up, smiling. “Vaxal, my friend. It’s been too long. How are you? What’s the news from Viskavia?”

That was Vaxal’s cue. He dropped to one knee, lowering his head in deference. “Your majesty—the Exarch Virulesse is dead. Killed by someone barely more than a child.”

Beside Vaxal, Ghemis choked back what might have been a surprised gasp.

Valion’s gentle smile faded. “I see… Who else knows about this?”

“No one outside this room, and the killer himself,” Vaxal said. “I came here right away.”

“The killer wasn’t one of our people, was it?” Valion asked gravely. “Gray Guard? Sisters of Austerity?”

“No—it was one of the rebellious citizens of Viskavia, in a foolish quest to rescue a prisoner.”

“Good.” Valion sighed. “Oh well—I never liked the Syndane girl anyway.” He walked over to the room’s tallest window, one hand behind his back, the other absentmindedly holding his wine glass. The blue sun was passing overhead, casting his grim expression in a somber hue. “I’ll take responsibility for telling her parents.”

“Thank you, my king,” Vaxal said, deepening his bow.

“Of course,” Valion replied. “I wouldn’t want to spoil all that you’ve done to redeem the Brigyndir name.” He stared out the window for a moment at subjects that neither Vaxal nor Ghemis could see. “Anyway, it isn’t unheard of for an Iron-rank to defeat a Bronze in battle. Honestly, even with you as her top bodyguard, I’m surprised she lasted this long.”

Vaxal growled bitterly. “He was a Stone…”

Valion turned his head back around, a gleam of intrigue sparkling in his eye. “Oh?

Characters: Vaxal, Ghemis, Valion