Thoughts of Chaos

Part 1 - An Unusual Legacy

Schrau Cadnos sat in front of the cave that had been an arranged meeting point and set to work. He idly hummed folksongs while he began preparing lanyards for weapons, rolling and cutting leather into strips. He checked his weapons, a crossbow, two paired swords and a large kreen blade, Schrau also kept a single-man battering ram in good condition. Be prepared and all that.
Okay, so it was an anonymous call. Who cared? Plenty of prosperous adventuring parties met for the first time after reading a nameless note on a board in a pub somewhere. The note had kindly requested that anyone interested in investigating a long-dead mage's home to wait outside a fairly innocuous cave mouth at midday on Welstar. So Schrau was there, getting ready to aid in any way. He had a week free, and there was very little else to do.
Schrau had no idea what role he would play in the party, so he came prepared. He kept a large stock of herbal remedies, medical equipment, and various other implements that would allow him to at least patch someone up in a pinch. He kept the crossbow and a large stock of bolts, so he could support from midrow.
And he kept his swords sharp and in good condition.
Schrau grinned at a job well done when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He glanced up to see two visions of white.
Corliss Bowne smiled and waved at him, and a slight guilty sensation flooded through Schrau's mind as he tried to remember if he had forgotten anything, maybe an appointment or an apology. Then Schrau realised that the biomancer was here for the same reason as he. Well, at least his own minor healing abilities would not be relied too heavily upon.
The woman accompanying Corliss was clearly an abjurer from the clothes she wore. The human had pale skin and white hair that even outshone Corliss' silver fur. With her milky blue eyes she seemed to be in the possession of both a striking beauty and an immeasurable blandness.
"Herro." Corliss calmly said.
"Hey, fancy meeting you here." Schrau replied, standing up, and glancing at the abjurer.
Corliss saw Schrau's look and introduced her companion. "Seri Tanner, this is Schrau Cadnos."
Schrau nodded in a bow, and Seri returned it. "A pleasure to meet you, officer."
"Rikewise." Schrau replied.
"So, I suppose you have an idea what is going on here?" Seri asked.
The vulpin shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not."
Seri took a deep breath and said, "A pity. I'm... afraid I've never done anything like this before."
Schrau smiled sympathetically. "Oh, werr, hopefurry things should be fine."
The three sat and conversed for a while. Every few minutes, Schrau glanced up towards the sun and muttered to himself.
"It seems that midday is long passing." Seri pointed out.
"Yeah, I'm beginning to think that this entire thing was a joke."
"Maybe not." Corliss said, pointing towards the path.
Two men approached. The tallest being a dark-skinned human, entirely bald and with large staring eyes. He was dressed in white baggy pants, white shirt, and a black sash with a long red leather coat lying open over everything. He appeared to be one step away from manic, and carried no visible weapons.
The second carried no visible weapons either, but from the look of the dhampir that was pretty much confirmation that he was armed to the teeth. He was a Hand, an assassin, a murderer.
Not that any Hand would admit to murder. Assassination was to a Hand what execution would be to a sentinel. The dhampir glared suspiciously at Schrau, and that made the lawman suspicious. Now things were getting interesting, Hands barely liked advertising themselves to the worlds, and on the occasions when they did hook up with an adventuring party they kept things low key and as far away from the law as possible.
"Ah, excellent." The tall human said in a deep voice, the merest hint of a smile on his lips.
The Hand started circling the group. "So then, what do we have here?"
The abjurer smiled easily, the girl appearing to lack any sense of fear whatsoever. Corliss was quietly backing away, Schrau knew why, and he himself was subconsciously reaching for his weapons.
"Greetings. I am Seri Tanner, and these are Schrau Cadnos and Corliss Bowne."
"And abjurer, a biomancer, and a sentinel." The human said. "Well then, I am Vehemoth Noradda, and my companion here is Reyn Costos."
"Pleasure meetin' you." Reyn growled.
"Rikewise." Schrau snarled back.
"I trust there will be no trouble, gentlemen?" Vehemoth asked.
They both glanced at the human, both firing off killing looks.
"Oh, I should hope not." Reyn muttered.
"For the good of the expedition, I suppose."
"Good." Vehemoth sternly said. "Well then, I suppose we should head into the tower."
"Tower?" Seri asked as everyone else cast a brief glance around their surroundings. True, there was no tower in sight, just a cave.
Vehemoth smiled and gestured towards the cave. "I shall explain all on the way."
Schrau adjusted his weapons and grimaced. He didn't like the prospect of being the frontline, much less having Reyn behind him. "So it's just us?" Schrau asked. "Nobody erse?"
"If there were more to come, then they would be here by now." Vehemoth said. "I have every confidence in your ability to lead, deputy."
"Yeah." Reyn leered. "And we've got your back."
Schrau sighed and nodded. "Okay." He then led them into the large, spacious cave. Unusually, the temperature didn't drop the further they travelled, the air still remained fresh. Schrau simply could not shake the feeling he was walking down a gravel path in the open air rather than spelunking.
"We are approaching the tower of the great mage Panorium," Vehemoth explained as they walked. "He was... A somewhat unique mage." Everyone detected the awe with which Vehemoth spoke of Panorium, and Schrau became slightly worried. He finally figured out that Vehemoth was a mage himself, and a mage in deep respect of a mage was always going to be trouble. "Much misunderstood." Vehemoth continued. "His particular practices were shunned and ignored by all the major colleges of magical study."
"Skip the history lesson," Reyn snarled. "What's in this for us?"
"The, as you say, 'history lesson' is extremely important to understanding Panorium's tower, but I'll indulge you. It is said that several artefacts of untold power lie at the top of the tower, as well as substantial wealth. I gather that the wealth was a result of several accidents." Vehemoth smirked.
Schrau shook his head and grumbled. He really didn't like the idea of putting a Hand near 'artefacts of untold power', and the truth was he was liking Vehemoth and his motivations less and less with each step.
Vehemoth continued to ramble on. "Panorium was interested in what many mages consider 'wild magic', and-"
"Wait, you mean like Discordians?" Seri interrupted.
The human snorted. "Please. Those amateurs would be unable to grasp the concept of wild magic if I sat them down and explained it to them in very short words. Discordian magic is the same as 'normal' magic, but with a sizable margin of error and sloppiness. Wild magic is entirely unpredictable, fashioning the powers of more mundane spells into powerful energies and unleashing them. Panorium was the greatest master of wild magic, his powers were unsurpassable, he could shape creation to the whims of the gods." By now, they had reached the end of the cave. "Of course, he had the most magnificent tower of all the worlds, created with but a thought. However, since its power was directly connected to his abilities, when he died his home took on... This form."
At the end of the tunnel was a stone masonry wall, with a simple wooden door. The door was small, only about three feet tall and almost as wide, nondescript except for a golden lever handle.
"Beyond that door is the tower of Panorium." Vehemoth whispered.
Schrau reached over and tried the handle, it budged but the door was locked.
"Stand back, copper." Reyn said. "Let me try and pick it."
"No keyhore." Schrau said, slipping his battering ram from the straps that held it to his pack. "Time for the more direct approach, unress anyone has any objections."
"That would be most unwise." Vehemoth warned.
Corliss looked at the mage. "Then could you open it?"
He shook his head. "Any attempt I would make would likely doom us all."
"Then it's settred." Schrau said, measuring the door with a practiced eye. He gripped the handles of the ram tightly and warned everyone to stand back, since the backswing could potentially hurt someone. He drew the ram back and swung for the door.
Then, almost at the last second, something in his mind warned him about the door. He loosened his grip seconds before the brass head hit the woodwork, which was just as well, because when it did it slipped from his grasp and ricocheted from the door down towards the open cave mouth at a speed great enough to knock everyone off their feet with its passing.
Schrau recovered in time to see the black dot that was his battering ram disappearing across the horizon. He stood up shakily and pointed fearfully at the door. "That... That..." He stammered as everyone crawled to their feet. The sentinel took a deep breath and started again. "I want this door. When we open it, I'm going to take it off its hinges and take it home."
Seri brushed fresh daisies from her hair, nobody wondering where in the cave she had managed to pick them up. "Let me try."
"Oho, this'll be good." Reyn said as the young abjurer approached the door. "How are you supposed to open a magical door?"
Seri pulled on the handle, the door once again refusing to budge. She frowned, brushed her hair from her eyes, the wiggled the handle in frustration. A slight grin crept across her face and she turned the handle the opposite way that it should have done.
"Ah, yes, of course." Vehemoth calmly said as the door creaked open. "I should have assumed that the spatial discord caused by the death of Panorium would affect the door the same it has affected his tower."
"What do you mean?" Corliss asked.
Vehemoth smiled. "Let me just say that the more mundane dimensions of this realm has no hold over Panorium's tower. Now, shall we proceed?"

Part 2 - Corrupted Reality

The door was larger on the inside than it was on the out. Even though he was the second-shortest of the group, Schrau still had to crouch to make it through the door, feeling a little silly when he discovered that the door on the other side was a full forty-feet in height.
In fact, everything looked bigger than it should be. The hallway beyond seemed to be huge. Schrau glanced down to a floor tile the size of a shield, and tried to see the furthest wall. He couldn't. Everything vanished into a point several hundred feet away.
Reyn followed the vulpin into the hallway and stared. "What the hell?"
Everything was warped. The walls looked wrong, the floor seemed strange. Schrau eyed the marble statue of a mage holding a book to his chest that stood directly before the door, and felt as if it was both impossibly huge and at the same time perfectly-sized. Everything felt as if it should not exist, felt that it was wrong somehow, that something was terribly wrong with the universe.
"That feeling you are getting is known as dimensional uncertainty." Vehemoth said, cutting into Schrau's thoughts almost as if he could read them. Unlike the sentinel and the Hand before him, as well as the biomancer and abjurer behind, he had stepped in through the door like he would any other. "The tower exists in this dimension, the magical realm, and everywhere between. Your untrained mortal minds cannot grasp this fact, and seeks a compromise." The mage forced a tight-lipped grin. "All mortals do."
Corliss shook her head and groaned. "I'm getting a headache. This is... This is arr wrong." The biomancer took a few deep and calming breaths and squinted. "Where do we go from here?"
"We must ascend the tower." Vehemoth explained. "Of course, nothing in this tower is what it seems. We must seek the stairs up to the next level, but they may not be stairs that lead 'up'. I'm sure you will understand if we encounter such a dimensional anomaly."
Reyn snorted and pointed a dagger at the statue. "I suppose that's the mage we've all got to thank for our sore heads?"
The statue was of a solemn mage with a long beard and hair flowing down over his shoulders and chest. Pressed to that chest he carried a large tome as if it were a crest, closed with some scrawl on the cover.
"What does that mean?" Seri asked.
Vehemoth didn't even look at the writing. "It's a magical script, bearing Panorium's family motto. It means 'To Imagine Unimaginable Power'."
Schrau sighed and glared at the corrupted reality before him. "Seems fitting. If durr."
"And I bet your family has a better motto than that, copper?" Reyn muttered.
"As a matter of fact, we do." Schrau drew himself up proudly. "One that has served the purposes of the Cadnos famiry for generations, and has in fact served me werr even on this side of the raw."
"And that is?"
"'You Can't Prove I Did It'."
Vehemoth grunted disapprovingly. "One of my ancestors was practically ruined by your ancestor, Cadnos. If Bardur was your ancestor."
"He was." Schrau said unashamedly.
Corliss clutched at her forehead and hissed. "I think we should be moving."
"Agreed." Reyn said, and the group fell into some sort of procession past the statue.
As they walked, Schrau managed to fall back and steer Corliss slightly away from the group. "Are you okay?" He whispered.
Corliss nodded using just the tiniest of motion. "Maybe... Maybe whatever's causing this is messing with my mind. I'm sensitive to magic."
Schrau glanced back at the group. "Nobody else seems to be suffering, and they're all spell casters. So am I."
"Yes, one spell, Schrau." Corliss muttered.
"One is enough. So what is it?"
Corliss took a deep breath, then said; "It feels like the whole tower is in pain."
Schrau looked at her, his eyes narrowing. "I want out of here."
"Schrau, we-"
"Hey, lovebirds!" Reyn snapped in their direction. "Where are ya goin'?"
The two vulpins had wound up a good twenty yards away from the group, which was odd since Schrau had tried to keep them all on a straight line. The sentinel glowered at the dhampir and muttered beneath his breath.
"But... We..." Corliss stammered.
"I know. Let's go." Schrau grunted, and Corliss turned and bumped into his left arm.
Which was strange, since she was standing at his right the whole time.

They found the stairs up to the next level, which led down. However, before proceeding any further, Reyn had some demands to make of the mage. He wanted to know what in the tower would be likely to kill them.
"I owe you as much, Costos." Vehemoth said, sitting down on the floor. The dhampir leaned against a support pillar that Schrau was convinced had been a window three seconds ago. The abjurer sat down next to the mage, wanting to hang on his every word. Schrau backed off and shoved his hands in his pockets, finger automatically finding a collection of spare change, double-tailed coins (Most people pick heads), loaded dice, marked cards and other tools of a con-man's trade, as well as small razor blades, needles, and garrottes that were the hallmark of one with a more direct mind.
Corliss seemed to back off, a tense bundle of nerves. Rather than paying full attention, her paws fumbled for the clasp on the Biomancer's Textbook that hung from her belt.
"You may have noticed the... Odd reality fluctuations that surround us." Vehemoth said as the pillar that Reyn was leaning on turned into a credenza drinks cabinet, causing the dhampir to fall backwards over it.
"Son of a..." The Hand cursed as he hauled himself to his feet.
The sentinel shrugged and grinned. "Anyway, is this rikery to affect us in anyway? I'm not rooking forward to suddenry turning into an end tabre without prior notice."
"Highly unlikely." Vehemoth said. "We are not bound to this tower."
"But?" Seri asked.
Vehemoth took a deep breath, obviously struggling to find a simple explanation. When all else fails, just go for jargon. "Magic has a certain residual effect on its surroundings, thaumatic discharges leave traces, and magical residue tends to converge and mix. Are you paying attention, Costos?"
The Hand was currently crouched before the credenza, fiddling with the lock. "Just tryin' to rustle up some refreshments."
Schrau cleared his throat and cut in before Vehemoth could say anything. "Are you sure you'd want to drink anything from that?"
"Of- Ah, good point." Reyn said, slipping the picks back into the sheath on his forearm and sitting next to the drinks cabinet.
"Thank you." Vehemoth peevishly said. "Anyway, Panorium's approach to magic would almost certainly create a lot of residual magic in this tower-"
"So the result being the highly unstable reality we're experiencing?" Seri hopefully said.
"No." The mage bluntly responded. "The corrupted reality effect is a more direct result of Panorium's meddling, as well as his death. I am almost certain that we will be facing manifestations of magical discharge."
"I can terr that's probabry a bad thing." Schrau said, his eyes narrowing to slits.
"Believe me, Cadnos." The mage stood up and dusted down his jacket. "It is worse than you could possibly imagine. Magical manifestations have an intelligence, especially when the remnants of powerful spells converge. We would do well to be on our guard. So, Cadnos, lead the way."
Schrau eyed the stairs cautiously, he could in fact see the floor of the level beyond the stairs from his vantage point. "You want me to go down there?"
"Technically, it would require you going up." Vehemoth explained. "Just take the stairs, you will wind up on the next level regardless."
Schrau shrugged, the tentatively placed a foot on the first step. He then carried on down. Nothing bad, such as screaming and bloody death or the complete collapse of the universe into a single point, happened so he just carried on and eventually making it to the next level. The sentinel turned around and noticed that the stairs he had just traversed led down into the floor, and everyone was looking down at the floor just in front of the first step.
"Hey smelly," Reyn called, "why're you lookin' down at the floor?"
"Hey, daywalker; it ain't me, it's you."
Vehemoth raised his head and looked directly forward. "So I trust the stairs lead down from your end?"
"You would be correct, mage." Schrau said, turning back around and examining the level. In one look he realised something wasn't right.
"Hey!" He called, drawing his swords which flashed a brighter shade of blue than they normally did, and he noticed that the ambient temperature dropped a lot further than it usually did in such occasions.
"What's the matter?" Corliss called.
"Get up here, it rook's rike something's coming!"

Part 3 - Souls of Magic

"Astounding." Vehemoth whispered as he finally made it to the top stair and saw just what exactly had spooked the sentinel so much.
A pair of blackened daggers seemingly materialised in Reyn's gloved hands as the dhampir cast a suspicious look at the mage. "Yeah, it's just peachy. Now tell us how to kill it."
Schrau crouched low a few feet away, swords out to the side in a gesture that was part-bow, and part coiled to attack. Before him stood a vaguely humanoid maelstrom of violet energy, constantly swirling and shifting and standing about ten feet tall.
"Hey Bowne." Reyn demanded. "Sure your boyfriend can handle it by himself?"
Corliss scowled at him. "He's not my-"
"I'm more worried about his swords." Vehemoth simply said. "They appear magical, and they seem severely charged with energy."
Schrau sprang, his swords snapping up but getting no further than shoulder height. At which point they flashed violently before suddenly dimming as thick ice collected around the blades. Thick ice, but more importantly dense ice, as the vulpin sagged beneath their combined weight.
Both blades hit the ground hard, their thick coatings shattering on contact and spraying everything within range but more importantly the vulpin between them with sharp shards of ice.
"Okay..." Reyn muttered as Schrau shook off the pain, raising his swords again which glowed a less bright shade of blue. "I think it's time we got to it."

As Schrau tore into the manifestation with his blades, he felt only the slightest bit of resistance. The form of the magical convergence wrapped around his swords like mist. The sentinel cursed beneath his breath, how the hell could you kill something that was essentially magical mist?
The manifestation wrapped itself around Schrau, and he felt constricted and asphyxiated but still able to move freely. He turned, raising his blades and the energy coalesced between Schrau and the advancing Hand. The three spell casters were hanging back, quickly preparing chants and somatic gestures.
Schrau could swear that the thing was looking straight at him.
The sentinel scored a double strike while the Hand raked both daggers down the back of the creature.
"Grad you could join me." Schrau snarled.
"At your service." Reyn grinned.
The manifestation swirled around the room, moving behind Schrau who clipped Reyn around the knees with his tail as he spun on heel.
"Voruntas ferrum!"
"Voluntas movimas!"
But Vehemoth's contribution to the magical force of the group was a fizzle of a fumbled spell.
A thick, opaque tendril of energy lashed out towards Schrau. The vulpin tried to dodge, but the surge came at him too fast, smashing him across the face, stunning him. Schrau fell to the ground and rolled sideways, still seeing stars and trying to pull himself upright.
Corliss wasn't usually that slack, unless...
"Hey, how come the Hand get the iron wirr and I get... What was that?"
"Protection from holds!" Seri quickly said, the words emerging practically as a single syllable. "Only I thought-"
Vehemoth finished casting another spell, which fizzled away uselessly as well. Corliss began preparing another spell, while Reyn had similar luck to Schrau as the manifestation smashed heavily into him. The Hand was sent sprawling, and the spirit began charging towards the casters.
"Oh no you don't!" Schrau snapped, charging at the violet ghost, his blades raking across its form.
"Amici minis mede!"
"Dammit, Vehemoth!" Reyn snapped. "Mess up the next spell and I'll kill you myself!"
Schrau hissed angrily through clenched teeth. This wasn't good. He didn't have a clue how to kill this thing, and the lives of the party were in the balance. Not good at all.
Which meant things were going to get worse than better.
Schrau swung again at the spirit, his swords tearing through it, tiny sparks of purple energy collecting in the dwarven runes along the blades. The manifestation twisted towards Schrau, when Reyn stabbed it in the back. The manifestation turned again, so Schrau ripped through it again.
Things got worse.
The manifestation dissolved briefly, then split into five smaller spirits. The five souls of magic darted away from the two fighters and formed a loose semi-circle.
"Nice going, fuzz." Reyn sneered, and Vehemoth screwed up another spell.
Schrau grunted in fury and considered the nearest spirit, which was now only about as tall as he was.
"Like suula..." Reyn grumbled.
"I dunno." Schrau grinned. "These smerr better."
Three of the wisps charged at Schrau and Reyn, the remaining pair began circling around either to attack from behind or to make a move against the spellcasters.
"Cyllyl's will!" Reyn spat. "Learn how to cast magic ya bastard, or you'll be the first corpse in this group!"
Vehemoth, the traces of his last failed spell still hanging in the air, grimaced at the Hand and began the somatic gestures for his next spell. "Aren't they dead yet, Hand?"
Schrau slashed into the nearest spirit, feeling less resistance with his blades than he did when the five were complete. The vulpin grunted, his shoulders were hurting with all these wild swings, but he was positive that slashes would be much more effective than thrusts. "Brast it..."
Reyn circled around, striking the spirit from behind. "Get those two behind you!"
Schrau nodded and spun, whipping one blade at the nearest manifestation. His sword felt as if it struck an icicle, shattering it. The wisp evaporated away.
Suddenly elated, Schrau closed the distance between himself and the spirit heading straight for Corliss. The biomancer began backing off, in turn trying to put distance between herself and the apparition.
Schrau struck, and this time the manifestation didn't fade away. But the sentinel now had its attention.
"Got it!" Reyn crowed as his dagger swished through air that had a few seconds ago occupied one of the souls of magic.
"Grrrreat!" Schrau snapped. "Now how did we do it?" Before receiving an answer, the spirit before him shrank in size, but lost its opacity. The spirit then charged straight at Schrau faster than he could even see, smashing into his chest and sending the sentinel sprawling.
The vulpin slid backwards across the smooth floor on the equipment strapped to his back. He could tell instinctively that several of his ribs and probably the breastbone was broken. Unable to move, he watched with horror as the spirit grew to its usual size and loomed over him.
Then he noticed that deep inside the manifestation was a thin thread of violet energy like a lightning bolt preserved within the cloud. Not quite opaque, but slightly more visible than in which it was surrounded.
Not that Schrau could do a thing about it, especially since the pain in his chest was preventing him from moving.
"Vurna severus sana!"
That'll do it.
The vulpin slashed at the thread, feeling the same impact he felt earlier and gleefully noting that the effect on the spirit was both fatal and instantaneous. As the manifestation disappeared, leaving a faint static cling in the air, Schrau pulled himself quickly to his feet and yelled, "Rook at 'em croser, Reyn. There's a thin spark inside them that's brighter than the rest."
Reyn backed away suddenly from his foe, using the forearm of his right arm to slide the bandana around his head slightly higher on his brow. The dhampir's emotionless eyes narrowed to slits, and a slight grin crept along his unshaven face.
"Got 'em..." He whispered before striking.
Schrau took out the final manifestation, sheathing his dwarven blades and resorting to the longer reach of the kreen sword to kill it before it could react. The first encounter was over.
Reyn's shoulders slumped, and for one brief moment the Hand seemed to relax completely. He then sheathed his daggers, set his shoulders, then crossed the floor past a bewildered pair of vulpins and an abjurer just to lay Vehemoth out on the floor with a single punch.

Part 4 - Tensions

"You miserable, pathetic, worthless, insignificant, brainless, pathetic-"
Schrau sheathed his swords and mumbled, "You've used that one."
Reyn blinked and then glowered at the vulpin. "Well, thank you, fuzz. Now, where was I?"
"Pathetic." Seri offered helpfully.
"But it was brainress before that." Corliss added.
Only now did Vehemoth begin to try and pick his lanky form from the ground. "Excuse me!" He sputtered indignantly. "Are you all just going to stand here while this murderer abuses me?"
"Murderer!?" Reyn sputtered. "I'll show you-"
"Actuarry, I was wondering if he and I were reading from the same thesaurus." Schrau snapped. "Reyn, might I suggest wretched?"
"Ooh, good one fuzz."
Vehemoth pushed himself upright and snarled, "I fail to see what-"
"The point is, Noradda, that even Seri who onry managed one sperr so far wirr undoubtedly prove herserf a much more userfur member of the party once she exprains why she cast that sperr." Schrau crossed his arms. "Werr?"
Seri blushed hotly. "Only, uh, I thought that since the spirit held you and-"
Schrau waved a hand in the young abjurer's direction. "There you have it. A perfectry acceptabre expranation for something that confused me at the time. Thank you, Seri, you were quite usefur."
"I- Uh-" Seri babbled, unsure whether the sentinel was being genuine or sarcastic.
"Whereas you, Vehemoth, are such a brirriant sperrcaster that you sought to defeat our enemies with nothing more that sperr fairures." Schrau then continued, and offering Seri an insight as to what he sounds like when he is being sarcastic. "My word, surery we arr owe our very rives to the... skirr and abirity herd within this mage."
Vehemoth's deep brown skin darkened with rage to the point of blackness, his perfectly white teeth shining against the surroundings like diamond. "Insolent pup! If you had but an inkling of what I was attempting-"
Schrau drew a sword and pressed it against Vehemoth's neck with such speed that the ringing of the blade hurt everyone's ears. Schrau glowered darkly at the mage.
"This ain't a sky ship cruise of Raji, Vehemoth. These are actuar things that want us dead. Kirring spirits of pure magic ain't rike dusting off books, boy; so shape up or ship out."
Vehemoth's nostrils flared. "And might I remind you, vulpin, who is in charge here?"
Reyn gave a curt laugh. "Y'know, as much as the idea of taking orders from a flatfoot depresses me, I'd much rather be behind someone who gives a damn than you, Noradda."
Schrau sheathed the one sword he held and smiled triumphantly at Vehemoth. "Werr then... Corriss, Seri, thoughts?"
The abjurer looked uneasy, the biomancer weary. Seri began to babble her thoughts, but Corliss interrupted her without trying. "The sooner we press on, the sooner we can reave this prace." Her paws were clutching her textbook so tightly the leather cover was beginning to creak.
Schrau nodded. "It's agreed, then. Rorr out, we'rr stop and rest in two hours if nothing erse happens."

The second floor was much more maze-like than the previous. Schrau led and Reyn kept up the rear, both in foul moods matched only by that of Vehemoth who stood in the middle of the procession. Seri and Corliss kept between the men, no doubt acting as buffers, Seri behind Schrau and Corliss ahead of Reyn.
Schrau kept his swords unsheathed, Reyn likewise with his daggers. They walked without incident, in silence and alone in their thoughts.
"Schrau?" Seri whispered.
"What?" The sentinel snapped.
The abjurer was taken aback by Schrau's sharp tone, stopping dead in her tracks and only continuing onward when Vehemoth shoved her from behind.
"I... When Vehemoth said earlier that one of your ancestors almost ruined his, what did he mean?"
Schrau snorted, "I don't want to talk about it right now."
"Case crosed!" Schrau barked as he continued to lead the procession.
Reyn began to grumble from the rear. "Hey, Corliss. What's eating your buddy?"
"Freas!" Schrau snapped in answer.
"Hey, fuzz." Reyn snarled. "I was talkin' to the lady."
"Prease... Don't." Corliss uneasily said. "I'd rather not speak to you right now."
The dhampir leered at the biomancer. "Why, sweetie? Am I making you nervous or somethin'?"
"It's personar." Corliss insisted.
"Naw, naw, naw. I'm not taking that. 's it because I'm a Hand, or is it-"
"Prease." Corliss snapped. "Don't."
"You heard the lady." Vehemoth grunted.
"And who asked you?" Reyn demanded.
"As much as it pains me to agree with the mage, he's right." Schrau added. "Now, can we arr just shut up for five minutes? I'm getting a headache."
"So case closed, then? Say, do you want me to tell Seri why your ancestry has groomed you so perfectly to be an asshole?"
"Reyn. Shut up. I'm sure that Vehemoth enjoys being the most-hated member of the group, don't spoir it for him." Schrau growled.
"So, how about we listen to my explanation?" Vehemoth whined. "After all, we patronised little Seri here with her excuse for wasting valuable magical energies."
"Maybe tonight, eh Veehee?" Reyn replied. "It seems another long-winded explanation that only you could ever understand would be the perfect cure for my insomnia."
"If you do not quit your inane banter," Vehemoth warned the Hand, "I will cure your insomnia in a way that will surely be discomforting to you."
"Rook, could we arr just shut up prease!" Schrau hollered. "One: I'm beginning to wish that portions of this group was dead, and two: I think I see something up ahead."

Part 5 - Bait and Switch

It was a giant purple almond-shaped crystal sitting on a plinth of violet-veined, marble, carefully carved with ornate runes that seemed to exude power. The crystal glowed, pulsing gently and casting a light violet glow over the entire area. The second she saw it, Corliss found herself saying; "I sense a pattern emerging."
"Excuse me?" Seri asked.
"So, two questions:" Reyn said. "What is it? How much can we get for it?"
Vehemoth snorted derisively, but rather than choose this moment to mention that now his companions sought his knowledge, he merely answered. "This is a powerful magical artefact. And, yes, we could sell it for a lot of money."
"Okay, powerful artefact." Reyn considered the gem. "Whazzit do?"
"This particular device acts a sentry for the passage ahead, actively sensing its surroundings, searching for any trespassers and striking them down with a singular discharge of magical or elemental energy." Vehemoth took a deep breath. "It kills things."
"Oh? Thanks." Reyn sarcastically said. "I didn't understand a thing until that."
"So how do we get past it?" Seri asked as Schrau moved in for a closer inspection.
The mage peevishly swatted the vulpin on the tail. "Don't touch it, Cadnos. To answer your question, miss Tanner, I must carefully analyse the flows of magic surrounding the crystal and its stand, then disarm them one by one. Step aside, Cadnos."
The sentinel carefully sniffed the sentry trap, ignoring Vehemoth.
"I said, step aside." Vehemoth growled.
"Nope." Schrau replied, still sniffing the trap.
"What do you hope to achieve?"
"It's a fake."
"Oh, please." Vehemoth snorted. "I can practically taste the power this sentry holds."
"And I can practicarry taste the fact that it's a fake." Schrau straightened, dusted off his coat, and then quickly pushed the sentry over. Vehemoth leapt back so sharply that he tripped over the hem of his floor-length cloak and hit the ground even before the trap had tilted forty-five degrees while yelling, "You'll doom us all!"
The sentry teetered, then dropped; crystal and plinth shattering on the floor. The glow faded, the runes dimmed, the dust rose.
Vehemoth looked on, aghast. "Cadnos..."
"Grass and praster." Schrau explained. "Someone transrate that for me."
"Wait? It was glass and plaster?" Seri asked.
Schrau nodded. "A cheap fake." He said with no small amount of triumph. "Could see it a mire off."
The Hand's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How?"
"Oh, come on. I'm a Cadnos." The vulpin grinned. "Just a fake, charged with power to make it pass inspection to perceptive mages."
"Question:" Corliss added, raising a paw. "Why go through arr that effort to make a fake sentry trap when we know that Panorium was skirred enough to ritter this passage with them?"
"I guess we'rr have to find out." Schrau said. "Get up, Vehemoth. We're moving on."

"So..." Vehemoth smirked almost casually as Schrau straightened up, every single strand of hair on his head standing upright and still crackling with static electricity. "Is it real?"
The sentinel's wandering nose had strayed a millimetre too close to the second sentry trap, and as reward Schrau received a mild electrical jolt right down the muzzle. Schrau growled and slapped Vehemoth on the hand, dealing the mage a powerful zap of static electricity. "Yes."
"I still don't get it..." Seri began.
"Werr, my guess is that we were supposed to walk by the first sentry without incident, and then trip the second." Corliss hazarded.
"Oldest trick in the book." Reyn commented.
"Not in the Cadnos book." Schrau sniffed disdainfully.
"Oh? And what trick is that?"
"Bait and switch."
"Is it possible for us to overcome a situation without pointless banter?" Vehemoth complained. "Step aside Cadnos, you had best leave the task to disarming the trap to me."
"How rong wirr it take?" Corliss asked, looking down the corridor.
"Ten minutes, nothing more."
"Too rong." The biomancer said, dread sinking her voice like lead.
As one, the rest of the party turned to see what Corliss had noticed. A cloud of indistinct magical energy was slowly but surely creeping up the passage, crackling and popping.
"Ah, so that's what the first sentry was." Vehemoth commented.
"It's broken." Seri confirmed. "It's trying to reform. I'm guessing when Schrau shattered the sentry..."
The core thread of the manifestation was long, visible, and jagged. It was clearly trying to pull itself into one coherent form, a nucleus around which the magical manifestation would form around.
"I say we kill it now." Reyn suggested, at which point a translucent purple barrier covering the entire corridor shimmered between the broken spirit and the group.
"Okay, they're smarter than I gave 'em credit for." Schrau commented. "Suggestions?"
"Bowne is correct." Vehemoth said. "At the rate the manifestation is coalescing, it will be on us before I can disarm the sentry."
"How about we destroy it?"
"If you're that bored with life, I wholeheartedly suggest it."
"Got any of that telemancer-fu to play with?" Reyn asked Schrau.
The vulpin nodded. "Yeah, I can get myserf to safety. I'rr send someone to correct your corpses rater."
Reyn took a deep breath, and then said; "Seri? Got Major Electrical Resistance?"
The abjurer never even replied, responding by beginning the somatic gestures for the spell. Seri completed the spell, and Schrau's fur reset itself.
"Okay, who serected me as the test subject?"
"You're the leader," Reyn said, grabbing the sentinel by his shoulders and turning him towards the passage ahead. "Lead!"
He planted a foot on the vulpin's backside and booted him past the sentry. The crystal atop the plinth flashed brightly, and the sentinel was struck by a bright arc of purple lightning.
Still, he rolled to a stop some feet away. Schrau got to his feet and dusted himself off. "Good! It works! Go!"
"Uh, slight problem, Schrau." Seri said. "I haven't the energy to protect us all."
The manifestation looked almost complete.
Schrau nodded. "Okay, that's why we have a biomancer."
Corliss nodded, and Schrau approached the sentry, receiving another bolt for his troubles. He unbuckled his belt, opened his coat, and wrapped it and himself around as much of the crystal as possible.
The moment he winced in pain, Corliss cast a healing spell on him.
"Move!" The sentinel demanded, still soaking up the violent sparks from the trap. The party sprinted by, stopping only when they were all past where Schrau had stopped after being shocked the first time.
The barrier fell, the manifestation advanced.
"D'you think the trap is going to work on that?" Reyn asked.
"Nope." Schrau replied, wrapping his belt around the crystal, lifting it off the plinth. "What I do know is that this is a rot righter than I thought it'd be. Corriss?"
"Sure." The biomancer obliged with another healing spell.
Schrau stepped up, drawing his arm back, and then lobbed the trap crystal. The gem left his belt like a very slow bullet from a sling and arced towards the manifestation, which it struck directly in the life-thread. The crystal shattered, electricity sparked from the remains with it all contained within the spirit, striking the thread time and time again.
Then the manifestation jerked, twitched, and eventually faded from view.
Schrau heaved a sigh of relief, then busied himself with rethreading his belt through the loops of his coat. Suddenly, his head snapped up as if he'd been struck by the trap again.
"Why didn't I do that in the first prace?"

Part 6 - Vulpinology

"Rest up." Reyn said as the found a relatively quiet open area caused by the convergence of several corridors. Then again, they couldn't really be sure that it wasn't a room in its own right. For the briefest of moments, they were on a balcony high above Welstar's soil.
"I hate this prace." Schrau grumbled.
"Is it safe to stop here?" Seri asked, before the several withering looks she got from the rest of her party told her that safe was a relative term. The abjurer caught on quickly, and was reminded of something. "I'm hungry."
"Werr, then I hope you brought some food." Schrau said, trying in vain to smooth down the fur on his tail.
"I- No."
"Has anyone brought any food with them?" Vehemoth asked, sitting down.
"You're in charge." Reyn reminded him. "Didn't you bring any provisions?"
"I assumed-"
"-That someone erse would?" Corliss finished.
"Typical." Reyn grumbled.
"So what food do you have?" Schrau asked the dhampir.
"Me? Some jerky. Have you got any food in that coat of yours?"
"Jerky." Schrau replied. "But it's mostry stare. I tend to find my own food."
"Scavenger." Vehemoth snorted.
"Hunter." Schrau corrected. "Now, can I trust any of you to start a fire?"
"I thought you did." Seri said, pointing to the campfire that sat in the middle of the group.
Schrau stared at the fire, then shook his head and muttered a long string of curses. "Okay, I'rr get some food. Remme just get out of earshot from the biomancer."
"Why?" Seri asked as Schrau meandered away. "Why does he have to do that?"
"It's a pack activity." Corliss explained. "And I don't rike it very much."
A few minutes passed, and then Schrau returned with a dead lamb over his shoulder, its throat torn to shreds. "Dibs on the kidneys."
The two remaining men of the group stared at the sentinel. "Cadnos."
"Yes Veh?"
"Where the hell did you find a lamb in a mage's tower?" Reyn asked before Vehemoth could.
The vulpin dropped the carcass on the floor with a dull wet thump. "You can find 'em anywhere 'round here."
"But that-"
"Rook, it's just one of those things that's better not to think about." Schrau peevishly said. "Anyway, I trust someone here knows how to cook? Vurpins prefer their meat raw."

The campfire started to burn low, the carcass had been hauled away and dumped somewhere only Schrau knew, and the group started to debate whether it would be better to continue onwards or sleep for a few hours.
"I'm tired." Corliss mentioned. "I think it's best if we rest up some more."
Schrau and Seri agreed, and Reyn was not entirely opposed to the idea. Only Vehemoth expressed a desire to forge ahead.
"Too bad, man." The sentinel teased. "Now you rest yer pretty r'ir head and maybe rearn how to cast a sperr for tomorrow."
Corliss and Vehemoth settled down, Schrau informed the party that he'd hold first watch, and would wake Reyn up for the second in an hour.
"Nah, I'm not tired fuzz." Reyn explained. "You got zapped by that sentry, you should be hitting the hay."
Schrau shook his head. "Adrenar overroad. It'rr be a whire before I manage to sreep." He sat back, his feet stretched out before him, and sighed. "So, Seri. Are you rearry interested?"
Seri blinked. "In what?"
"In knowing why my ancestry has groomed me into being such an asshore." The vulpin's teeth glinted in the gloom as he grinned.
"Stop doing that." Reyn shuddered. "It gives me the creeps."
"Sorry." Schrau apologised.
Seri took a deep breath and considered the vulpin, unsure whether to take the plunge or not. "When Vehemoth said..."
Schrau shrugged. "By his accent, he's an Abarackian, a rich Abarackian, which probabry means that he and his entire famiry has been living in the Diamond Circre for generations now. A few generations ago, a rerative of mine, uh, store the Diamond Circre." He grinned.
Seri eyed the vulpin suspiciously. "That's impossible."
"Then you ain't been reading up on your Welstarian history, sister." Reyn told her. "Bardur Cadnos was the biggest crook ever to walk the worlds."
"One of the biggest crooks." Schrau corrected. "The greatest vurpin thief ever, but considered by many to be a crose second to Rath Banner, reader of the Black Sheaf."
"But you can't just steal part of a city just like that!" Seri said incredulously.
"Actuarry, if you know what you're doing and know the right peopre, it's easier to do than you would think." Schrau took a deep breath. "Armost did it myserf the once."
"Really?" Reyn said, grinning. "This I gotta hear."
"Eh... It's not rearry that good a story. It was just an option open to me just to sorve a case."
"You coulda stole the Diamond Circle for a case?"
"Diamond Quarter of Nimbus, actuarry." Schrau corrected the dhampir once again.
The Hand whistled appreciatively. "I'm thinkin' that I'm on the wrong side of the law here."
"Anyway, back on topic." Schrau cleared his throat. "So, basicarry, my father was a thief, his father was a thief, his father... Werr, you get the idea. From a rawman's point of view, I gotta admit I ain't so bad either."
"Vulpins will nick anything that ain't nailed down, on fire, or sinking." Reyn commented.
"Wrong, once-"
"Stop correcting me."
"-Once, a thief named Rwynos Maggara store not just the naired-down dispray stock of a Keystonian furnishers, but she actuarty store the nairs as werr." Schrau laughed. "Sord 'em to a carpenter."
"Don't tell me another vulpin thief stole something that was on fire."
"Once." Schrau shrugged. "As for sinking, that's stirr open to any young pup wirring to give it a shot."
"So, what you're saying is that you can't really trust vulpins?" Seri asked.
"Eh, not rearry."
"What about Corliss?"
Schrau nodded. "You can. She's a midrander."
"A what?"
Schrau then went on to explain that there were generally four distinct breeds of vulpins. The first being southlanders, or 'reds', or what people generally thought about when they considered vulpins. Southlanders, like Schrau, are found all across the south of Welstar. With males ranging in colours from russet to deep orange, and females from red to dark browns, southlanders make good thieves, forgers, lockpicks, pickpockets, and con-artists.
"Basically; vulpins." Reyn commented.
Schrau nodded unashamedly in agreement and continued. Midlanders were found in and around Abarack, as well as westwards from there. The males ranged from red to light orange in fur, with females ranging from light orange to sunshine yellow-
"Wait, she's silver." Reyn noticed of Corliss.
"She's probabry descended from a crossbreed somewhere." Schrau grunted, annoyed at being interrupted. "You'd probabry have to ask her. Anyway-"
He then went on to explain that midlanders were excellent at speaking. Good negotiators, good merchants, vulpins that usually dealt with reputation rather than notoriety. The females were considered by many to be extremely compassionate as well, making good carers and biomancers and abjurers.
"Two down, two to go. Yer gonna yak through your watch, fuzz?"
One disparaging comment later, Schrau continued on with explaining the northlanders. Found in the frozen wastes of the north of Welstar, northlanders came in grey and white varieties.
"They're mainry ferar, for the most part." Schrau sniffed disdainfully. "O' course, there's a few civirised townships and the odd principarity or two, but rearry the onry think northranders can do is tear something apart with their teeth."
"And the fourth type?" Seri asked for her benefit, since Reyn had decided to take a brief nap at that time.
"Raji." Schrau said. "Srave trade in vurpins has been going on for centuries, and quite a few srave vurpins on Raji earned their freedom. A kind of sub-curture arr to themserves. Most Rajian vurpins become bards, though they arso can make good thieves and swordfighters." He shrugged. "Crosest thing you'rr get to a southern vurpin outside of south Werstar."
"Stop it!" Vehemoth moaned, his eyes still closed. "Gods, Cadnos. You. Are. Boring me."
"Hey, Vehemoth. Sperr 'triskaidekaphobia'." Schrau snarled back.
Vehemoth's eyes snapped open. "Huh?"
Schrau waved expansively towards the mage. "See?" He said to Seri. "A mage that can't sperr."
"Then you spell it." Vehemoth snapped.
The mage mumbled something, then returned to sleep.
"How did you do that?" Seri asked.
"I had an arrest of a guy who was afraid of the number thirteen once." Schrau shuddered. "I had to rearn how to sperr it for the report."
"Oh, so that's what it means."

Part 7 - Four Blades

"As much as I hate to say he's good at something..." Reyn sagely announced. "I can't help but feel impressed."
"Indeed." Vehemoth agreed. "And I may add that this is one cunning trap."
"Shaddup!" Schrau snapped, his dwarven blades whirling around him in a furious block. "You ain't the one caught up in it!"
Schrau was currently in battle with himself, or rather a magical manifestation posing as a doppelganger. His exact double in every way.
Well, aside from being uniformly purple, from his fur to his coat to the replica blades the manifestation carried.
"I hate these things." Reyn muttered. "Bloody doppelgangers. Fought one for about seven hours once."
"Herro? Maybe someone could, y'know, herp me in some way?"
There was a reason why it was just Schrau involved in the battle. Soon after setting off, the group came across an arched doorway, a perfect hemisphere. Schrau stepped into the doorway first, and triggered the trap - Encasing himself in a faintly shimmering bubble of magical energy and summoning the manifestation.
So all the rest of the party could do was offer commentary.
"I swear, when I find Panorium's corpse I'm gonna drag it out of here, get a necromancer to reanimate it, and beat the unriving crap out of it."
"Best not, Cadnos." Vehemoth said. "Ever faced down a lich before?"
Schrau whirled, his blades whipping a rhythmic beat in the air. Four strikes, five, six; all parried expertly by the doppelganger. "I terr you what, boy, it can't be harder than breaking a wereworf's mind and then hacking her so badry her bones reaked marrow."
The mirrored vulpins exchanged several blows, neither gaining any dominance over the other. Seri and Corliss began to fidget nervously, both used to support roles in any combat but unable to help. The magical barrier simply reflected any spells cast at either vulpin held within back to the caster.
"Hey, my iron wirr's down." Corliss absently muttered. "Never thought I'd wind up saying that."
Schrau grunted as all four blades locked, hilt to hilt, he tried to force his double back. "Herp... Me..."
"Not much we can do, fuzz." Reyn muttered. "Man, I could do with a smoke." The Hand stood to the side and drew a dog-eared scrap of cigarette paper, filling it with tobacco from a hip pouch and lighting it. "Any objections, ladies?"
"Those things wirr kirr you." Corliss warned.
The dhampir shrugged. "No, being crushed by a thuul will kill me, walking into a dwarf bar and asking for a short drink will kill me, telling a werewolf that he needs a tick bath will kill me, this is just a way to settle my nerves."
"I thought you Hands were into hashish." Vehemoth noted.
Reyn paused long enough for the ringing of Schrau's latest exchange with his clone to die down in everyone's ears before answering. "Most are. I just have a different drug. Hey Cadnos!"
"Yo?" Schrau snapped back.
"Mebbe this is one of those... Y'know, metaphysical things?" Reyn offered. "Like, you can't defeat yourself with strength alone."
"Werr," Schrau grunted as he was forced on the back foot, "my best weapon has to be cunning, but this guy ain't open to negotiations y'know?"
"Sheathe your weapons, fuzz." Reyn suggested. "I, like, heard of this one guy who was fighting his shadow, a Rajian prince I think, and he couldn't kill his own shadow 'cause they were totally equal in power. So he just sheathed his scimitar and walked through the shadow. It worked."
"Oh, totally."
Schrau backed off quickly, almost bumping into the barrier. He looked at his double, shrugged uncertainly, and then sheathed his swords. The doppelganger did the same.
"Holy shit, I never thought it would actually work!" Reyn sputtered, dropping his cigarette.
"So, uh, what now?" Schrau asked, cautiously approaching the purple vulpin.
"You-" Reyn began, a single split-second before the double drew a sword and attempted to hack Schrau's head off.
To his credit, the sentinel reacted suitably. He just managed to draw a sword and lock blades with the double, then smashed his free hand into the doppelganger's muzzle. "Ain't gonna happen, prettyboy." Schrau snarled as the double reeled. The two sentinels drew their remaining single-handed blades with identical flourishes. "Okay, I'm open to suggestions now."
"Stab it." Seri calmly said. "With your swords."
"Best one yet." Schrau replied, thrusting with both blades to force the double to cross-block. He then tried to decapitate the double in the process. "Terr me, how is it that Corriss and Seri come up with arr the good ideas and you two just banter on needressry?"
"And how come it's always you in the traps?" Vehemoth pointed out.
"'cause I'm the onry one pig-headed enough to do anything! Raahr!" In frustration, Schrau lashed out with his blades, one whizzing wide and the other managing to score a deep hit on the double's chest. The magical leather tore, the replica badge loosened and bouncing away, and the double groaned slightly in pain.
The first hint of any emotion it had displayed.
Schrau leered viciously. "Did that hurt, scruff?" Blades clashed as Schrau tried and failed to press the initiative. "C'mon, I've been through worse than that you cheap copy!" Schrau smashed his swords in the double's, then headbutted the doppelganger. "Ain't that right, Cor'?"
"Just shut up and finish it, Cadnos." Vehemoth sighed.
"Nope, this is herping." Schrau disarmed the manifestation by a blade. "Smack-talk herps my row serf-esteem, it's one of those... Y'know, metaphysicar things."
"I see." Vehemoth eyed the bubble uncertainly. "You know, it never actually occurred to me before..."
"What didn't?" Reyn muttered. "In twenty words or less."
"Well my earliest analysis of the trap sphere indicated a link between the sphere itself and the manifestation within." Vehemoth explained, ignoring Reyn audibly counting his words as he spoke them. "But then-"
"-this simple fact occurred to me." Vehemoth ploughed onwards. "I had assumed that if the manifestation was to be defeated, the barrier would dissipate."
"That sentence is just begging for a 'but'." Corliss morosely pointed out.
"However, what good would a trap be if the subject could escape?" Vehemoth finished.
"So..." Seri said with no small amount of mounting dread as Schrau's furious attack managed to lop one of the manifestations arms off. "...How bad is this going to be?"
"Well, I suggest we all take at least one step backwards." Vehemoth explained.
And so they did, and at that exact moment the real sentinel within the barrier decapitated his double with a triumphant scissor-strike.

"Stay still."
Those words pushed into Schrau's consciousness through the fiery clouds of oblivion. Gradually, small details began dawning on him as potently as the pain that wracked his body. The warm surface on his back, the smell of burnt fur and leather, the still-cold hilts of a pair of magical blades in his paws, and the spark of pain that was travelling up his spine from his tailbone all the way up to his...
"Keep still!" Corliss commanded, slamming Schrau's shoulders into the floor as they bucked in reaction to the pain. "You got toasted pretty badly. I'm going to need some time to put you back together."
"That... Sounds ominous." Schrau coughed, finally managing to open his eyes and letting them focus on Corliss' black face. "Hey, wait, I thought you were white."
"We all got a little scorched when the barrier exploded. We should have taken two steps back. Anyway, Vehemoth believes that the trap reacted with the opposite type of damage that was used to defeat the manifestation."
"I wish he'd told me that sooner. I would have used the Niir Tag." He winced. "So how bad is it?"
"Pretty bad," Corliss explained, "but nothing I cannot fix. And healing magic can fix the superficial damage as well. Plus, you're free of fleas now."
"Damn..." Schrau wheezed, "I'd started to give them names too..."

Part 8 - True Nature

Seri stumbled as she trudged along as the last of the group. Her vision swam and her head became dizzy. She could barely stand. A few feet ahead she saw Corliss sway and heard the biomancer groan.
"Ugh..." Seri moaned. "M-my head..."
Schrau, at the front of the group, turned slightly. "Something the matter?" He had one Glammring drawn and, following his most recent explosive encounter, was drawing comfort from the small sphere of cold air that surrounded him.
"I-I feel d-dizzy." Seri managed to say.
"Yeah, me too." Corliss agreed, forcing herself to sit down.
Reyn didn't look too good either, and admitted as much. "Yep, feelin' a little crook meself."
"And you do not feel the pressure at all, Cadnos?" Vehemoth asked, a calm countenance that was betrayed by a slight tremble in his voice.
"Nope. Feerin' fine."
"Bloody typical." Reyn muttered, drawing a greasy scrap of a cigarette and lighting it with a match. "Fuzz gets his tail blasted halfway to the Judgement Fields and comes up better than the rest of us."
"What did you mean by 'pressure?'" Corliss asked Vehemoth.
"And is this one of those types of discussion where we should arr sit down?" Schrau cheerfully asked, a fleck of ash tumbling down his muzzle.
"Yes. Why not?" Vehemoth muttered, "Anyway, as everyone knows from nursery school-"
Schrau raised a hand. "And for those of us who never attended schoor?"
"-Then I suggest a job with the sentinel guild." Reyn quickly shot back.
"Ooh, good one."
Vehemoth hissed, promising venom in his next strike. "As I was saying moments before the expected banality. This is a mage tower. A mage worked here." He expected some variety of retort from either Schrau or Reyn, but for once they both seemed to be somewhat attentive. "Throughout the course-"
"You thought one of us was gonna say something then." Reyn grinned weakly. "Didn't ya?"
Vehemoth glowered darkly at the Hand, but didn't rise to the bait. "Throughout the course of his life, Panorium was responsible for much in his works of magic. In short, he cast a lot of spells.
"And as this cheerful little corruption of the laws of nature, physics, and common sense will testify, magic simply doesn't go away when it's finished with."
"Ah, I get it." Schrau managed to interrupt all the other spellcasters who were more likely to know the solution. "There's a rot of magicar residue reft behind from Panorium's works, and we're walking into it."
"Exactly." Vehemoth affirmed. "And, like any self-respecting mage, most of his work was done on the higher levels of the tower."
"So he could rain death, despair, and wholesale destruction upon the surrounding hamlets?" Reyn asked.
"There's no hamlets around here, Reyn." Seri corrected.
"Werr, not after he rained death, despair, and whoresare destruction down on them, no." Schrau pointed out.
"Ooooooh..." Seri breathed, understanding.
"So, what you're saying is that there's a rot of residuar magic the croser we get to the top of the tower, correct?"
"Correct, Bowne."
"And the more residuar magic there is, the more it affects us?"
"Again, correct. It's much like the pressure of the ocean in that respect." Vehemoth clarified.
And then everyone turned to face Schrau.
"And then we have you." Vehemoth announced.
Schrau blinked in confusion, then got it. "Ooooooh. Gotcha. I'm okay 'cause I'm not as good a sperrcaster as the rest of you."
"Cadnos, why do you claim to be some sort of a spellcaster?" Vehemoth asked.
"I'm a teremancer."
"And how many spells do you know?"
"Of course. Home. The simplest telemantic spell." Vehemoth sighed. "Of course, unlike the rest of the spells, it requires very little from the caster."
"It feers rike a rot from my end." Schrau said, indignantly.
"However, the true nature of Home is that much of its work is done by the vast magical energies of the Mage Tower on Nimbus. The tower itself is not just a collection of magical energies, but also positioned in a focus of energies emanating from the Rift. When you cast Home, Cadnos, you basically throw your corporeal self into a pocket plane, from which the Mage Tower itself snatches you from." Vehemoth took a deep breath, more to suppress the pressure he was feeling than to ready his next words. "Knowing Home, Cadnos, does not necessarily make you a powerful mage, which in this case is somewhat of an advantage."
"Gotcha. One thing though, I thought there were two varieties of magic - Hermetic and spirituar."
Vehemoth smiled a tight-lipped grin. "Then you would be wrong."
"Seems that way to me." Corliss said.
"Yeah." Reyn agreed.
"All magic is essentially the same." Vehemoth said. "Oh, spiritual magic-users believe that their powers are granted by the gods themselves while hermetic casters are convinced that their powers come from within and from nature. All claptrap."
Three sceptics and an amused sentinel stared back at the mage.
"Magic exists as does anything else in this corporeal realm." Vehemoth continued as Reyn decided to make himself useful and start a campfire. "All magic stems from the same source, though I admit that source remains a mystery to me. Sikkar does not grant his followers the ability to use magic, neither does the Nameless One, Cyllyl, Varkyll-an-Bluge... The gods themselves can manipulate magic, can wield magic just as well as any mortal, but they do not have the power to grant it. Otherwise, all races could utilise any magic they saw fit, providing they held the will of their chosen deity."
"But if what you're saying is true, then arr races could use magic equarry anyway." Corliss pointed out.
"No." Vehemoth shook his head. "No, no, no, no. As we discovered from the sentinel's joyous little extrapolation on your humble race, all races have different mentalities." Vehemoth eyed Schrau. "In fact, sub-races of the same race may have different mentalities. How many reds become biomancers, Cadnos?"
"Not that many." Schrau admitted. "We have different desires."
"Exactly. Different mentalities prevent races from grasping certain aspects of magic, there are numerous mental blocks - A vulpin perceives the world in a different way to, for example, a werewolf. Both are lupins, but both have different magical limitations and capabilities."
"I feel we have strayed a little." Seri pointed out.
"Oh, yes, of course. The magical pressure." Vehemoth cleared his throat. "Basically, everyone is affected by this magical pressure. So we have different people of different races with different magical disciplines, and they're all affected equally by it."
Again, everyone turned to stare at Schrau, who was chewing on a chicken leg. He looked apologetic. "Sorry, did you want some?"
"And, as much as I loathe repeating myself, we have you."
The sentinel quickly stripped the leg clean with a carnivore's grace and tossed the bone over his shoulder. "You think this prace is any easier on me?"
"Quite the contrary, Cadnos." Vehemoth schmoozed in a shoddy attempt at placation. "You are a sentinel, you see the world not as magic and existence but in laws and regulations. If anything, this whole place should have driven you quite insane some time ago."
Schrau grinned, a vicious predator's grin. "Then you would be wrong, boyo. I'm a sentiner by trade, but by breeding I'm a Cadnos. I do see the worrd as rures and raws and stuff, but onry because I'm constantry trying to find a way to manipurate them in my favour."
"So you see chaos and disorder and realise that you cannot have any affect on it?"
"No, I'm just waiting for the one moment when chaos eventuarry wraps around itserf and becomes order." Schrau said. "It'rr happen once, and I have to be prepared for it."
"For what purpose?" Seri asked.
"With my ruck? To save arr your asses."

Part 9 - Wild Magic

Her head rang with echoes of every strike, but she was okay. Seri Tanner was an abjurer and knew what to do.
Being a protective spellcaster had its benefits in certain situations; more so than offensive casters, more so than even those doing the actual fighting. You could really behold the elegance of combat, to observe the ebb and flow of battle, to know and understand the styles of her companions.
Seri wasn't as naïve as she made herself out to be. This wasn't her first adventuring party, she knew the score well enough, and she rather enjoyed this zen-like approach to combat. Just... relax. Try not to think too hard about serving the group, just pay attention and you'll do fine.
Besides, it was at times like this that Seri found out exactly who her friends were.
This is Schrau Cadnos: A whirlwind of green leather and blue steel; pure determination. He was well-versed in at least two different swordsmanship styles that Seri could identify, and at least one other style she could not. The vulpin kept his attacks varied, unpredictable, nearly-impossible to foresee; one moment he'd be attacking with the practiced bravado of a true swashbuckler with its wide swings and full-bodied lunges, then he'd switch down into a pure sentinel's fighting style - Using his weapons both offensively and defensively at the same time. But it was when he adopted a more vicious, yet incredibly refined style that seemed out of place on someone so short that he scored the kills. The magical manifestations fell one-by-one against Schrau's almost reckless sweeps and hacks, but more emerged to take their place. Schrau was the epitome of determination, a fighter used to fighting against a more powerful enemy.
This was Reyn Costos: A reserved, yet lethal fighter; unashamedly professional. His style was a typical assassin's art; he made sure that the sentinel held all the attention, attracting as many of the manifestations as possible, and then stabbed as many as possible in the back. The dhampir struck like a viper, his daggers glinting like poison-laden fangs utterly unable to penetrate the manifestations deeply enough to score a hit on their lifestreams, but the whole point of Reyn's assault was to distract the manifestations for as long as was needed for Schrau to kill it. Otherwise, he was a statue's shadow; invisible and unmoving, lapsing almost into a frenzy that rarely notched him a kill but was as important offensively as Schrau's efforts. Reyn was a professional assassin, a fighter used to ensuring that his efforts were both noted and unnoticed.
This was Corliss Bowne: More important to the efforts than anyone would give her credit for; skilfully reserved. Not a fighting machine, but the grease that kept those machines ticking over. The vulpin appeared naturally concerned for her companions, but professional enough to realise her place and fulfil her role. Corliss was a biomancer, pure and simple, behaving as if each spell she cast healed not the hurts of the warriors, but the wounds of the universe itself. And yet there was an odd fear there, a fear that the vulpin felt like some unavoidable disaster was heading towards her and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. Seri noticed this from her stance and actions. Corliss was a healer, pure and simple.
This was Vehemoth Noradda: Absolutely bloody useless.
And if Seri admitted to being more worldly than she appeared to be, she would have chosen a much more apt way of putting it. The supposed mage was repeatedly failing - sometimes even fumbling - the simplest spells any spellcaster could learn. And with each failure, the unspent residue began to gather around him like mist around a block of ice. Seri was worried about this more than anything else, and took Corliss' unspoken warning and took a few steps away from the mage, even if this made her a more vulnerable target to the manifestations.
"Vehemoth." Schrau quietly hissed. "Make with the boom, if you would be so kind?"
Seri glanced sideways at Vehemoth, shuddering and nearly tripping over a somatic command as she did so. If Schrau could detect the amount of magical residue surrounding the mage he would reconsider his request for magical aid. Even if Vehemoth managed to successfully cast a simple Magic Missile, then the reaction would be like lighting a match in a room filled with oil vapours.
"Patience, Cadnos. Art takes time to prepare."
This was art?
Schrau's next cadence of strikes occurred so quickly that for one brief moment it appeared as if he was trapped in a blue bubble. Snowflakes drifted from his blades, and for one brief moment both sentinel and manifestation froze like a snow globe scene that had escaped from the glass bubble.
Then Reyn struck the manifestation, wounding it, and giving Schrau the opportunity he needed to sever its lifestream.
"Oh, don't rush on our account." Reyn grinned.
"We're having a great time." Schrau added.
Seri noticed a slight change in her mage companion. Seri remembered the comment Schrau made earlier that day about chaos eventually forming into order for the briefest of moments and realised exactly what he meant.
The chaotic magic around Vehemoth suddenly solidified into a perfect glyph of magical power. A hideously complex and ominous glyph that made Seri cringe. The abjurer caught the briefest of glances at Corliss' expression of horror; the biomancer knew what was to happen as well, and neither of them could stop it.
Vehemoth drew himself up to his full height and gestured with an outstretched hand.
The remaining manifestations vanished in a blink.
Vehemoth hissed, "Shit!"
And the air itself condensed into the consistency of a almost-liquid crystal as the glyph exploded in a surge of wild magic. The world before Seri's eyes appeared as if she was staring through several cracked amber windows. The abjurer felt the air solidify, but she could still see movement. Time itself slowed, and actions that would have taken less than a second normally drifted on for near a minute.
Schrau's spine twisted, almost painfully. Pain wracked his body and he let go of both of his magical blades which glowed an intense sapphire as they tried to force back the magical front. The drifted slowly down on their lanyards.
Reyn's shoulders heaved, his knees buckled, and somehow throughout it all managed to stab himself with both his daggers, one in the thigh and the other in his flank.
Corliss tried to twist away from it all, tripping over her tail and falling. She drifted to the floor, falling painfully on her left arm and fracturing the wrist.
And to add insult to injury, Vehemoth stood there with his arm outstretched, his teeth clenched and anger on his brow.
Then the world shattered, the air crystallised and collapsed in on itself with such a powerful force that Seri was lifted off her feet and thrown backwards across the room. The abjurer's skull met the wall and her world faded into black.

Part 10 - Eighty-Five

"Blast it all to hell! It didn't work!"
Schrau struggled to his feet, aware that he had been in this same situation time and time again. Vehemoth was ranting about is failed spell, blaming everything but himself. The sentinel felt woozy, but otherwise fine.
At least right until the point where he fully stood up. Schrau could tell that his left knee was sprained rather badly, as was his right hip; the combination of both making walking a painful task. His tail ached, his head ached, and his wrists felt like they had been encased in white-hot shackles.
Funnily enough, the constant pain in his neck was muted by all this.
"They weren't supposed to be the source!"
Schrau glared at Vehemoth, temporarily delaying what he should be doing and checking on the rest of the group. "Werr, at reast you got rid of them." He snarled.
"Ignorant pup!" Vehemoth snapped back. "I did indeed 'get rid' of them, as you put it. However they were sourced in the spell! They will reform, given time! It was my intention to-"
Schrau sighed, drew his crossbow, and aimed at Vehemoth's left boot and fired. In a shot that was more luck than skill, he managed to pin the leather to the floor, narrowly missing the mage's big toe. Vehemoth yelped and fell back, and fussed over trying to free his stuck foot.
"Shut up, and never do that again." Schrau reloaded the crossbow. "Otherwise my next shot wirr take out your two best friends, and I don't mean your ord drinking buddies back in Nimbus. Now ret me do my job."
Reyn was writhing on the floor in agony. Conscious, but wounded. Schrau could tell that his wounds were deep but not fatal. Seri was lying at the far end of the room slumped against the wall. Schrau half expected to see a trail of blood smeared across the wall, but it just appeared as if she was unconscious. Corliss lay unconscious on the floor, her left wrist twisted in a way it shouldn't go. Vehemoth was typically unharmed.
The fact they were old friends was irrelevant; Schrau knew that in any situation, getting the biomancer back on her feet would be beneficial to the entire party.
"I'm hurt, man." Reyn complained as Schrau shuffled slowly towards Corliss. "Help me..."
"You're next priority." Schrau informed him.
"Y'don't understand, scruff. I'm... I'm poisoned." Reyn wheezed. "I'm dyin'.
Schrau sighed. "And you thought poison would work?" He reached into a pocket before removing a slim pouch, which he tossed towards the dhampir. "Theriac. Chew it down and you should be okay."
"Leave her, Cadnos." Vehemoth hissed. "With that wrist, she's useless to us."
Schrau drew three thin slats of wood and some bandage. "No, Vehemoth, you're useress to us! I can't fix Reyn's wounds, if Seri's skurr is fractured I can't do a thing about that. At best I'rr be abre to fix my regs so I can walk out of here. If we reave her, we may as werr be dead. And d'ya know who we have to thank?"
On closer inspection, Corliss was not unconscious but in so much pain that her entire body had seized up.
"Don't feer obriged to answer that." Schrau added, trying to force Corliss' muzzle open. "Come on, gimme that tongue." He ordered.
The biomancer whimpered, but the sentinel eventually managed to force one of the thin slats between her teeth and over her tongue.
"Oh, Cor', you and I both know it's best if you're out for this." Schrau whispered, gently holding her left forearm and hand.
"Do you know what you're doing, Cadnos?" Vehemoth irritably asked.
"Yes, of course I do. You have no idea how many fractures I've set in my time, do you?" Schrau snapped back before pulling firmly.
The sharp crack of Corliss' wrist setting was accompanied with a duller snap of the vulpin biting through the wood splint, breaking it into three unequal parts. As Schrau wrapped her arm up in a splint, Corliss whimpered and spat out the remaining piece.
There was a groan from the direction of the abjurer, and Seri slowly pulled herself upright. "Ugh. Please tell me I imagined Vehemoth trying to kill us all."
"If it herps you recover, there's no raw against rying."
"Perjury." Vehemoth corrected.
"Withholding evidence." Seri added.
"Are you okay?" Corliss whimpered.
Seri smiled groggily and waved dismissively. "Oh, I will be right after I twist Vehemoth's head clean off."
"Cor', can you fix yourserf?" Schrau asked.
The biomancer nodded weakly.
"Oh, I'm sure she appreciates your concern, Cadnos." Vehemoth snorted. "But wouldn't it be prudent if you- Argh!"
Seri blinked. "Oh, so that's the sound a mage makes when a sentinel nails him in the thigh with a crossbow bolt."
Schrau set the crossbow down and snarled, "I missed."
Corliss finished casting a healing spell, tested her fingers, then unbound the splint. "Good as new. How is everyone?"
"Reyn's the worst. Stabbed himserf with both poisoned daggers, but I gave him some theriac for the venom. Seri might have concussion, I've just sprained my hip and reg. Vehemoth wirr rive, pity."
"Hey Schrau, you're bleeding." Seri pointed out.
Schrau glanced around, finding a smear of blood trailing from where he had fallen to his current position. He searched himself for wounds, and found a particularly deep and long one along his tail. "Ouch."
"That's serious, you could breed to death." Corliss pointed out, and Seri sniggered and muttered 'unlikely.'
"Who are you, and what have you done with our abjurer?" Reyn moaned.
"Ret me rook at that." Corliss insisted, ignoring the banter.
"No, Reyn needs your attention more than me." Schrau pointed out.
"Excuse me... shot... in the leg?"
"You'rr rive." Corliss coldly said, standing and turning to Reyn. "Vurna mede sana!"
And so Reyn Costos was brought back to being of sound of mind and whole of body. Unfortunately, that body just happened to be female.
"What the hell have you done to me!" Reyn shrieked, brushing back long silken hair to stare down at a pair of breasts that simply weren't there three seconds ago.
"Oh rord..." Corliss gasped, clutching her hands over her mouth. "What have I done?" She whispered.
Schrau blinked as Seri fell over laughing. "Actuarry, I think I can patch myserf up. Vehemoth, if I promise not to shoot you again, can you offer an expranation in as many words as you want?"
Vehemoth finished working the bolt free from his leg and breathed a sigh of relief as he tried to stem the flow of blood. "It's quite simple. It appears that my unfortunate magical accident has created a level of chaos in the magical realm. Spells may work as intended, or they may fail cataclysmically. In certain cases they work as intended, with added... Bonuses." Vehemoth grinned.
Reyn crossed her arms, but only managed it successfully on the third try. "Some bonuses."
"Of course, they may also be drawbacks, depending on your point of view. Worry not, Bowne, you are not responsible for Costos'... Condition."
"I hate that word." The dhampir whined. "So how long am I stuck like this?"
"It should only be a matter of hours." Vehemoth said with as much placating calmness in his voice as he could manage while threatening to snigger.
"Oh, all right then." Reyn said, not entirely convinced.
"Anyway, I think it's best if Bowne continues her duties."
Schrau was aware of every pair of eyes staring at him with equal amounts of curiousness and anticipation. "What? Oh no. Nononono. I can rearry fix this my-"
"Vurna severus sana!"
"-serf." Schrau finished, and blinked. Everyone was silent.
"Well, how do you feel?" Seri asked.
"Okay, I guess." Schrau rubbed his head and checked himself over for anything that shouldn't be there. "A rittre tired, but with everything that's exproded around me today I'm surprised... I'm... stirr..." He sat down, almost dropping off to sleep there and then.
"I suppose we should rest up for a few hours, eh?" Reyn said. "I think I'll take first watch, I don't trust myself to sleep with these things."
"Oh, poor baby." Seri teased. "You just have to put up with breasts for a few hours."
Schrau slumped backwards, his eyes closing.
"Well, it's not as if you've got that great a pair of..." Reyn defiantly said, despite trailing off at the end.
"Go on. Say it. It's just a word. Breasts." Seri countered
"Oh, great. The abjurer's concussed, the mage's an idiot, the biomancer's panicking, the sentinel's sleeping and I'm..."
Schrau fell asleep before hearing the rest of Reyn's litany. He was somewhat thankful of that.

Part 11 - Shattered Dreams

The mage looked back at the vulpin assassin as he held him aloft with his own dagger against his throat.
"So you thought you could kill me?"
With the hand that held the assassin by the throat, the mage squeezed harder, displaying more strength than his wiry frame implied.
"Here? In my own sanctum?"
The mage's eyes were cruel, ivory-white pools of utter hatred. His skin was dark, his hair and beard both black and short-cropped.
"You are a fool, Nraus."
The mage squeezed even harder, and the vulpin twisted in his grip. Schrau could do nothing but watch.
"Prease..." The assassin gasped. "I... I have a... mate... And a chird to be... Uhn... Born..."
"So you would prefer I kill them instead?"
"No!" The assassin hissed, and Schrau was forced to watch the mage's grin grow even more diabolical.
He was forced to watch because he could only see the dream through the assassin's own eyes.
"Oh, but Nraus, I think I shall spare your child." The mage cocked his head to the side and snorted a laugh. "Still, she shall remember her fool of a father until the day she dies, and so shall all of her children."
The mage raked the dagger across the assassin's throat, and Schrau instantly recognised the pain as his own. The mage threw the assassin to the floor as his vision began to fade.
"Remember that pain, Nraus. It shall plague your descendents for all eternity."
The assassin gurgled something indecipherable while his vision went black.
"A pity you had to die, Nraus. But no one crosses Jheyr Noradda twice."

Schrau went from horizontal to standing and wasn't even aware of passing through any of the stages in between.
"Some bugs fornicate up to forty times a day." Reyn, once again male, said to Seri as they sat cross-legged with a complicated game of cards between them.
"Yes but do they enjoy it?" Seri asked. "Oh, hey Schrau. Feeling better?"
Schrau ignored them, ignored Corliss who slept curled up on the floor and lacking only a roaring fireplace and a soft rug to make an despicably cute scene. Instead, he stormed directly towards the mage who lay stretched out on the floor.
"Ohoh, scruff's back to his usual murderous self, eh? This ought to be good."
"Seri, you're scaring me now."
Schrau drew a sword, and with something akin to a feral growl in his throat he grabbed the sleeping mage and hauled him to a sitting position. He pressed the cold blade to his neck and went muzzle-to-nose with Vehemoth.
"Rift this curse!"
"Hey, ease up." Reyn almost pleaded when it sank in just how serious Schrau was. "Hey, Corliss, help get your boyfriend off of the mage."
In reply, Vehemoth simply grinned.
"Dammit Vehemoth!" Schrau snarled.
"Curse?" Seri asked.
"His neck." Corliss sleepily explained. "Wha's goin' on?"
"Schrau's about to kill Vehemoth." Reyn explained.
Vehemoth laughed mockingly. "Cadnos? The marked vulpin?" His laughing bellowed into a more insane pitch. "Oh, Cadnos, had I realised that damned fool of an assassin's lineage extended to you I would have crushed your spirit when we first met."
"Damn you!" Schrau snarled, letting go of the mage's collar and drawing his sword back for a strike.
"Schrau, no!" Reyn warned, grabbing at the vulpin's sword arm. He was rewarded with a punch to the guts that managed to crease him in half. The Hand collapsed, all the air in his lungs driven from him.
"I'm not the descendant from a common murderer, Cadnos. Nor indeed from the greatest vulpin thief to walk the worlds. In fact, considering all the misery your ancestors piled on mine, you should be begging me for forgiveness."
Schrau once again pressed his blade to Vehemoth's neck. "Jheyr didn't rook that miserabre."
"Oh, so you had a vision." Vehemoth hazarded. "Well, I won't attempt to deceive you by saying that you perceived a warped version of events and will instead assure you that the final moments of Nraus Deyr went exactly as you saw them."
"Vehemoth," Corliss sternly said. "If you know of any way to-"
"-Reverse what Jheyr Noradda did?" The mage finished. "But you already have a theory, that much I can see, Bowne." Vehemoth gave her a tight-lipped grin. "Sometimes, you and your ilk are quite transparent in your motivations."
"Werr?" Schrau hissed, pressing his blade tighter against Vehemoth's throat.
"A unique virus, hardly magical in origin, am I correct Bowne?"
Corliss nodded. "According to an archemist acquaintance of mine."
"Really? Then he or she must be exceptionally talented. Yes, the mark on your neck is sufficient to kill you in a matter of moments, were it not for a field - which is magical - keeping it in place. And you have some hope for a cure already, Cadnos."
Schrau said nothing, but nodded.
"And now I must shatter that hope." The mage tensed against a final drag of the sentinel's blade, but it didn't happen. "A skilled biomancer should, in fact, be able to cure the virus in time, time which you do not have." Vehemoth smiled. "Jheyr was rather unimaginative with regards to his punishments, and several people suffered from similar marks, though to this day you are all that remains. Should the field around your mark detect any direct interference with its contents, then it will dissipate and you will be a blackened corpse before the unfortunate biomancer knew what was happening. You have no hope, Cadnos."
"It's impossibre?" Schrau whispered.
"Nothing is impossible, vulpin." Vehemoth cooed. "I have the means to reverse what was done, but I'm not obliged to- Ah!"
"Vehemoth!" Schrau snarled, drawing frosted blood from the mage's neck.
"Look at yourself!" Vehemoth hissed. "The scion of undoubtedly the two most criminal vulpins ever to walk the worlds and you are as manipulative and as murderous as them both! And you believed that becoming a sentinel would be penance enough? You have learned nothing from their mistakes!"
"Hey, I can arways make one more, Vehemoth." Schrau replied.
"If you kill me then you are cursed. You will be cursed for the remainder of your miserable life, and so will your children, and so on until one generation has at least the decency to end their miserable lives!" Vehemoth exhaled. "But if we survive this, then maybe in a fit of kindness I may help you Cadnos, but I am not one to make promises."
"Werr then, neither am I." Schrau let go of Vehemoth, letting the mage fall back onto the floor. "Just remember that you need us more than we need you, Noradda." The sentinel turned around and started to walk ahead, and Corliss started after him.
"Vehemoth has a cut on his neck, Cor'." Schrau interrupted. "See to it."
Reluctantly, she did so and her place at Schrau's shoulder was taken by Reyn.
"Listen mate, I'm gonna let that gut punch slide." The dhampir whispered. "But I wanna know something - Vehemoth's gonna turn on us at some time; even if he could help you, would you kill him?"
"In a heartbeat." Schrau flatly replied. "And I'rr probabry raugh, too. He means nothing to me."
"Glad to-"
"We've got company!" Seri warned, just as a manifestation wrapped itself around Schrau and tried to squeeze the life out of the sentinel.

Part 12 - Destructive Logic

Vehemoth stood and began preparing his spells. Oh, how he loathed his companions; he would see them all dead at the earliest possibility. No doubt they were planning his own demise, Cadnos and Costos in particular; come the revolution, their heads would be the first on the chopping blocks.
Tanner was clearly not herself; or, Vehemoth finally realised, she finally was herself and her ignorant plebeian act was simply a barrier carefully erected to protect her from her companions, and so crudely destroyed following a bout of concussion. Seri Tanner could still yet be of some use.
Bowne was clearly running from something, and in all likeliness the worlds would not notice nor indeed care if she simply vanished. Still, Vehemoth had heard rumours, rumours that the biomancer was worth a substantial sum of gold if returned to her family. Vehemoth knew his aims lay beyond mere mortal desires, but still kept the reward in mind.
Costos was as clear to read as a fogged mirror, his motivations unclear save for the fact that he followed those he felt were strong. Despite his initial dislike, the Hand had adopted his place as lackey to the vulpin; knowing well enough that if the sentinel fell then he would have to sully his own hands with face-to-face combat. How Vehemoth loathed assassins.
And Cadnos... Cadnos, it was clear, made enemies easier than he made friends. Throughout this entire debacle he had pushed everyone else away at some time, using them like tools to suit his needs. A typical vulpin. A typical thief. A typical sentinel. If presented with a square peg, he would clearly ignore it until he found a similar hole.
They all believed that he needed them more than they he. How ignorant, how typical. Vehemoth would murder each and every single one of them and still succeed. He knew how close he was to his prize, and the only boon he had been blessed with was that this party was much more adept than the last pack of clueless fools. Vehemoth needed no attachments.
Vehemoth continued his practice of wild magic, fully aware of the fact that both his female companions granted him cautious glances.
How had he failed the first time? There was enough latent magical energy in the tower that he should have easily been able to use some of it as the source for the destructive blast that would have been sufficient to utterly annihilate the manifestations. Instead, the manifestations themselves has become the source, and the resulting confusion had released the energy in an uncontrolled state. Fortunate that it didn't, else a controlled blast would have obliterated Cadnos and Costos both.
Vehemoth allowed himself a slight smile at that thought. Silver linings, and all that tosh.
The power in wild magic is that it took organised magic and shattered it, broke it down like glass and then hurled those shards back at the enemy. Wild magic was powerful, destructive, and unstoppable since absolutely nothing in nature - not even the gods themselves - had any form of immunity to wild magic. It was very much like a virus that constantly mutated so that nothing could develop an immunity. A lack of immunity, a lack of resistance, and a lack of vaccine. Panorium realised this and was punished by the High Council of Magic for it. Panorium could have crushed the worlds beneath his heel, had it not been for the frailty of mortality. Had Panorium been ageless instead of merely human, the universe would be a different place altogether.
And now Vehemoth was but a few flights of stairs away from usurping Panorium, from seizing his power.
But how had he failed? Why had the manifestations become the source instead of the targets?
"Vehemoth!" Reyn snapped.
Of course... It was all so simple.
He could not source the magic of the tower itself. The latent magic of it was so engrained within its own being that the tower protected it. If Vehemoth could not draw power from that which he wished, then he would do so from other possible sources.
His concentration had been so transfixed on the souls of magic that he had sourced them instead. Drained them of their power and releasing it back into the surroundings in a wild burst. They had taken this long to reform.
The simplest solution would be to select one manifestation in a group as a source and use that to destroy the others. That would fail. The manifestations were not so much as separate entities as parts of a whole. Attempting to source one would source them all, which would be an exercise in futility.
Of course, he had ready access to other sources of magical energies. All three of the blades that the sentinel carried had enough magical charge to spark a controlled surge. There was even the vast source of energies within the Hand, the biomancer, and the abjurer. Of course, he would destroy any of them if he sourced them, but...
Well, he had no attachments.
Kill them all. They are only obstacles.
Now which of the two ladies to use? He should at least keep one in reserve.
Bowne would be easier to incapacitate and carry.
He focused his mind on the manifestations and the fighters and the abjurer and allowed the energies around him to shift. The shattered magic coalesced, became golden and realised and oh so powerful.
Useless? Vehemoth did not believe so.

Part 13 - No Regrets

'Why is it...' Schrau thought in the blackness of his mind, 'wherever you go, you wind up lying on your back in unimaginable pain?'
"Hold still..."
Bit by bit, piece by piece, Schrau's senses and perceptions and feeling returned. Mainly pain.
"Schrau, hold still!"
Fire lanced down his spine, scorching each and every single vertebrae, and the sentinel's back arched like a bow.
"Hold still, dammit!" Corliss ordered, pushing Schrau's shoulders to the floor as he roared in pain. "You're hurt. Badly. Vehemoth tried to kill you."
Schrau naturally dedicated all his thought processes to the deliberation of this fact. It helped take his mind from the pain.
"He... He killed Seri and Reyn." Corliss said, her words becoming more and more absent.
Fire returned to Schrau's being, but not the roaring heat of pain, but the dull promise of vengeance.
"Seri... just... vanished. She was in so much pain, Schrau. I almost blacked out from it."
Schrau finally forced his eyes open, and the brilliance of light reflecting from Corliss' face made him wish he hadn't made the effort. "Fix me up, there is someone I want to murder."
"Schrau, no!" Corliss pleaded.
"He killed Seri and Reyn." Schrau stated flatly. "Give me a reason why I shouldn't."
Corliss glanced over he shoulder, then turned back to Schrau. "He... The energies around him. The power. It's exactly like it was before he killed them, exactly like it was when he failed the first time. He... He could do it again."
"Leave him, Bowne." Vehemoth ordered. "In his state he will be nothing more than an encumbrance."
"Vehemoth." Corliss practically snarled. "If we reave him, then I'm out of here."
The mage chuckled. "Oh, Bowne. You believe I need you conscious?"
"Noradda." Schrau managed, feeling well enough to sit up. "I think I now know where we stand with you." The sentinel stopped to catch his breath. "Ret her go. I'm more than enough for what you need."
"Ignorant vulpin, you have no idea what I need." Vehemoth was staring out of a sunlit window, not once did he turn to who he was addressing. "Frankly, if I were to leave either of you go, it would be you. Bowne is a greater source of energy, and is frankly that much more helpless than you."
Schrau pulled himself up to his feet, using much more effort than he should have. "Mage-"
Vehemoth raised a hand in their direction. "Or should I just obliterate both of you now? Source the biomancer's energies to destroy the slave. The truth of the matter is that I don't particularly need either of you to accomplish my goals. I am so close to seizing control of the source of Panorium's power that I need naught for a meat shield and a healer."
But if there is one thing Schrau can recognise just as easily as a criminal, then it's a liar. "Go ahead. I think it's pretty obvious that you're going to kirr us both at some point. May as werr be now rather than rater."
"Schrau..." Corliss whined.
"Of course, there may be further obstacles." Vehemoth neatly back-pedalled. "I sense..." He paused. "Oh, yes. That."
Vehemoth snapped his fingers and then turned towards the stairs leading sideways into a wall. "Follow, dogs. We're almost there." He ordered as he neatly navigated the stairs.
Schrau shook his head and said, "Bugger this for a game of soldiers. I say we split now. Come back with enough warrior-magi to level this tower and everything in-"
He turned, and realised that his entire surroundings had changed. He and Corliss now stood on a different level of the tower, with Vehemoth ascending the stairs in their direction.
"Ah, such exuberance. So keen, I see."
Schrau hissed and snarled, "This... Fucking tower!"

The room was spacious, taking up the entire floor of the tower by itself. On the opposite end of the circular room from the stairs back down were the stairs leading further into the tower. And in the middle was a bier, upon which a black metal sarcophagus lay, a somewhat modest representation of the mage Panorium. Lying on top of the sarcophagus, rather than locked for eternity within its hands, was a simple sword and sceptre.
"Panorium's tools." Vehemoth explained with some distaste. "The sceptre being the focus for his magical energies, while the sword was able to absorb and deflect any force directed at Panorium, even if it did not intercept it."
The sword was too clean, too perfect, it was clear that Panorium was not a swordsman. "Great." Schrau muttered. "What now?"
"You shall leave my tower at once."
Somehow, Schrau was not surprised to see a deep midnight purple shade of Panorium himself appear next to his sarcophagus, with his deceased body between himself and the interlopers. Panorium's shade was indistinct, almost featureless.
"Panorium." Vehemoth noted with some respect.
"Vehemoth..." The shade sighed, displaying little respect. "So you've made it this far this time. Much better than your last attempt, I might add."
"Those sentries were quite devious, Panorium."
There was something about the shade that Schrau found familiar. He had seen it in Vehemoth, he had seen it in his vision of Jheyr. "Ret me guess... Panorium Noradda?"
"Ah..." Panorium crowed. "You have only managed to make it so far with the aid of your companions, Vehemoth. This one is quite astute."
"I assure you that he is nothing more than experienced with our glorious family, and somewhat observant."
Schrau shook his head. "Typicar. Stirr, this isn't the most insane famiry I've deart with..."
"I am disappointed, Vehemoth." Panorium commented. "Had you any ability, you would have made it up here by yourself."
"I've come for what belongs to me, Panorium." Vehemoth replied. "A few broken souls simply paved the path here."
"Can we skip the banter and just get straight to the inevitabre demise of someone, prease?" Schrau weakly said. "Y'know, this is not how I imagined I'd be spending my week off."
Simulacrums of the sceptre and sword appeared in Panorium's hands, and he stepped around the bier and made his way towards the group. "Your companions are impatient to die, scion. It is surprising that they made it this far." He waved his arms, and four large manifestations appeared by his side.
Vehemoth grinned. "You may live yet another day, Bowne." The mage pointed at the shade, and the manifestations vanished.

Part 14 - Force Breach

Schrau barely managed to roll away from Vehemoth's destructive beam as it flew past his ear and veered directly towards the spirit. Vehemoth need not have bothered. Panorium raised the spectre of his sword and simply blocked the blast.
The spirit bellowed laughter and glared at the mage as energy crackled around the ethereal blade before dissipating violently in all directions that did not include Panorium. "And what gave you the impression that the form of magic which I mastered could even manage to be a threat to me?"
"I guess this is where I step in." Schrau snapped blades up.
"Insolent fool." Panorium warned.
"I wish everyone would stop saying that." Schrau muttered as he lunged for the spirit.
Vehemoth started casting and breaking spells, and this visibly disturbed Corliss. Schrau doubted that Panorium would be foolish enough to conjure up more manifestations for Vehemoth to source, so Schrau knew he was on the clock in defeating the deceased mage.
Like the manifestations, Panorium was corporeal to a degree. Fully able to fight back with his sword, though he mainly used it to parry Schrau's blade and sting at him with small spells fired from the head of the sceptre. It was a strange experience, crossing swords with a spirit, even more disconcerting than his battle with the doppelganger.
So as Schrau tried to find a way to breach the mage's defences, he began thinking. Gathering the available evidence and linking it together.
Think, Cadnos, think.
'Okay,' Schrau thought. 'What do we have? The spectre of a mage. A mage whose particular style of magic consumes sources of magical power, as well as their vessels. Panorium's sword works like the sword that's lying on his corpse, as does his sceptre.'
Panorium neatly disarmed Schrau by one blade, the vulpin responding by tugging at the blade's lanyard and snatching it back by the hilt.
'Vehemoth is trying something that will fail, even though it will cost Corliss her life, and I'll probably be caught up in the crossfire. He really needs...'
Another source.
Panorium's weapons.
'Wait, scratch that. Even if he still sources the weapons, Panorium's current sword will still do its job. Unless the real things are tied to the ones in his hands in some way. If they're not...' A slow grin crept along Schrau's muzzle. "Why take the chance?" He muttered, and laughed.
"Such humour." Panorium replied. "Tell me, do you always laugh in the face of your utter subjugation?"
"Arways." Schrau replied. "Onry mortar, Panorium." He sheathed his blades and lunged for the weapons on Panorium's sarcophagus.
"They shall do you no good!" Panorium and Vehemoth both said in unison, and damned right they were. The blade itself was quite heavy, but it was still the perfect size for Schrau to wield two-handed.
"Catch!" Schrau snapped, hurling the sceptre at Vehemoth, who neatly caught it. "Can you source it?"
"I'll be destroying a priceless-"
"Yes or no?"
Schrau grinned. "Good, do so when I terr you." The sentinel dropped into a sentinel's stance; block, parry, riposte. The sword is a weapon and a shield, use it as both. Schrau twisted his head, causing his neck to pop satisfyingly. "Terr me again, ord man. Why haven't you conquered the universe despite your obvious immortarity?"
"I'm bound to the tower, fool." Panorium snarled. "Had I been able to walk the worlds, then-"
Schrau took the initiative, quickly driving the heavy blade deep into the spirit's chest while it was ranting. "Wrong. You're onry mortar... Vehemoth! Aim for the sword!"
Schrau had figured it out. Panorium's sword would protect him from any attacks, but there were two swords - One to protect his physical self, and the other spiritual. Had Vehemoth directed a wild surge at Panorium's corpse, Schrau expected it to be intercepted by the real blade.
Vehemoth extend an arm and the sceptre burst quickly into purple fire, dissolving into still-glowing ash that fell to the floor much quicker than it should have done.
Of course, he was not aiming at either Panorium's body or his spirit.
The golden beam of raw, destructive, and ultimately unstoppable force shot unerringly towards the sword.
The blade caught the energy like a lightning rod; energy coursed along its surface, through the intricate runes carved into the faces and intensifying to a brilliant shine along the edges. Visible cracks appeared along the entire length of the blade.
Visible cracks appeared across Panorium's shade as well, and it took Schrau about as long to notice this as to realise that both weapons were missing from his hands.
"Gotta admit, Panorium." Schrau snorted as the spirit tensed and cringed at the energy rushing through itself. "So far, you've tormented me better than anyone erse I've had the good grace to know and hate. Everyone, down!"
And so the shade of Panorium Noradda ceased to haunt Welstar. They probably heard the explosion in Crypt as well.

"Hey, this is an improvement..."
A groan came from the last known location of Vehemoth Noradda. "How, exactly, is this an improvement, Cadnos."
"Usuarry I'm rying on my back." Schrau slowly pushed himself upright. "Oh, hey, rook. My tair is on fire."
"Well, Cadnos... Of all the hare-brained, idiotic schemes I have ever witness that ranks as certainly one of the best, I must admit."
"Gee, thanks." Schrau patted down the various fires that had started on his coat and body before dusting himself off. "I think. Cor', you okay?"
No response, but the biomancer was standing with a vacant look on her face.
"What have you done?" Schrau flatly asked.
Vehemoth smiled back. "Oh, just to ensure your cooperation, vulpin. You see, the end of Panorium will not be the end of this entire escapade. His throne of power remains, and I must seize it."
"And you need us for it?" Schrau suspiciously asked.
"Perhaps. Shall we move onwards?"

Part 15 - Unimaginable Power

"Panorium's Aerie." Vehemoth grandly explained as they reached the wide, circular room at the top of the tower. Glassless windows circled the room, stretching from floor to ceiling, though not a hint of breeze blew through them. The view beyond was of sunlight, but otherwise featureless; Schrau felt he was above the clouds, but didn't really want to take a look over the edge.
"A perfect prace to rain death, despair, and whoresare destruction onto the surrounding hamrets..." Schrau grumbled.
The room was otherwise empty, the only decoration being a massive narrow-pointed hexagram on the floor in tiles that stretched the entire length of the room. Even Schrau's largely-untrained mind could detect the vast magical power that the hexagon in the middle of the star held.
Not that he cared, of course. All he cared about was grabbing Corliss and making tracks down the entire tower. If he could leave Vehemoth with multiple mortal wounds, then all the better. But Corliss trailed the mage like a mindless golem, and Schrau was worried that if he killed Vehemoth that it would snap her mind like a twig.
"Okay. What happens next?" Schrau asked.
"Oh, a simple enough process. This room is a nexus of powerful energies, which your feeble mind may or may not be able to perceive. I must first summon the nexus into the corporeal realm, then carefully align magical forces along the six points of the hexagram. Then, I shall attune the nexus to myself, thus seizing Panorium's latent power for myself. That is where Bowne comes in."
Schrau sighed. "Why?"
"Because the process of attuning the nexus is very much like creating a wild surge." Vehemoth explained. "For that, I need a source."
"Then take me instead." Schrau growled.
"Oh no, Cadnos, I have another use for you."
Schrau drew his blades, unhappy where this was heading. "And that is?"
A sudden burst of magical energy lifted the sentinel from his feet and dropped him painfully into the middle of the hexagram. He scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, but still found himself trapped.
The nexus took the form of a slightly-shimmering violet crystal, much like the bubble trap Schrau found himself in when he tripped the doppelganger trap. His tail brushed along the side behind him, and the crystal felt tactile and warm.
"To die."
"Damn you!" Schrau snarled, lashing out at the crystal with his swords. The left blade flashed brightly in the way that heralded the imminent pelting of whatever target the wielder had, as well as everything around that target, with a chilling blast of freezing rain.
But the blast was uncontrolled. Frozen shards exploded outwards from the blade, ricocheting off the walls and the sentinel. Eventually, the frozen onslaught subsided; the nexus absorbing the energy.
"You cannot escape, Cadnos." Vehemoth mocked, standing at the first point on the hexagram and beginning the process of breaking down spells into wild energies.
"You don't know me very werr." Schrau grunted, leaning against the crystal.
It was cold.
Not cold as Schrau would expect something that had just been in contact with the freezing rain to be, but cold from within, as if its very magical properties was cold. A thin patina of frost had collected across the surface of the violet crystal as well as Schrau's blades.
The vulpin had never seen that happen before.
Schrau noticed something else; while hardly the greatest telemancer ever to walk the worlds, he could still easily detect when an area's unique properties could prevent the successful use of telemantic spells. The crystal itself was something different, something unique.
The seeds of a plan was sown in the soil of Schrau's mind, but before he could even consider it properly he had to make a choice.
If, somehow, Home worked and transported him to the Mage Tower in Nimbus, then there was no way he could return here in time to save her. If the plan failed in the one way that could save him, then Corliss would die.
On the other paw, if it failed in the way that he would be spread sideways across the magical realm in a less than survivable condition, Corliss would die anyway.
But it was still the best course of action he had by a muridan's whisker.
Schrau began the somatic gestures for Home; keeping his blades in hand.
"Abandoning your friend, Cadnos?" Vehemoth cackled as he finished with the first point, leaving visible golden glyphs hanging in the air and started to walk towards the second. "Even if your spell succeeds, you cannot hope to make it back here in time."
"I know." Schrau quietly said. "But Sikkar herp me, if it does succeed, I wirr be back to tear you apart..." He lowered his head. "Forgive me, Corliss..."
The magical energies became manifest before him. "I'm arr broke up, I wanna go home!"
It didn't work, but it hurt like buggery.
Schrau felt the tug of the spell at every single fibre of his being. Then it collapsed, returning Schrau with a crash to the corporeal realm and still inside the trap. Wild telemantic power rolled around inside the crystal, reflecting and collecting both on the purple walls and his blades. Schrau felt the swords rattle in his grip.
"Ow. Shit."
"Well, that certainly was interesting." Vehemoth chuckled. "You could have made a good wild mage yourself, Cadnos."
Schrau shook the fog from his head and noticed that the walls of the nexus were vibrating as well as his blades. That which had trapped him had absorbed the power, tried to take on its properties, but couldn't leave the corporeal realm.
"You know, I didn't for one moment actuarry think it would work." Schrau crowed as he began casting Home again. Even if he failed it this time, his magical energies would be depleted totally, which would probably be a huge advantage.
Vehemoth finished with the second point. "Why don't you accept your demise?"
"Why don't you shut up? I'm arr broke up, I wanna go home!"
This time, it wasn't so bad. The effects, however, were much more apparent.
First, Schrau's blades and the crystal trap began shaking as if any further effort would tear them apart.
Second, the floor beneath Schrau's feet began to crack.
And third, Corliss dropped to her knees and clutched her head. Free of Vehemoth's domination, but moaning, "P...Pain... Everywhere... The p-pain..."
Good. Not in a heartless and uncaring way that Schrau had found a way to cause his friend unbearable pain, but in the way that after spending so long at the mercy of the tower that he had managed to cause it some discomfort.
"Cadnos, no!" Vehemoth warned from his position at the third point, putting Schrau between himself and Corliss. "What are you doing? You could destroy us all!"
"Thanks for that, Vehemoth." Schrau steadied his grip on his blades. "The way I see it, Corriss and I don't have much chance of getting out of here arive." He grinned. "But I think everyone concerned - me, her, Seri, Reyn - would be happy knowing that I took you with me!"
He drove both rattling blades out sideways, driving the points into the crystal. The nexus made contact with the power, tried to absorb it, and failed. The crystal was caught up in harmonic discord with the frequencies of the blades, causing them to stop shaking and the crystal to vibrate even more.
Visible cracks appeared along the nexus; the glyphs at the first, second, and third points vanished. Vehemoth's face was a mask of pure terror.
"This might hurt." Schrau whispered, just as the crystal exploded in a wild surge of energy.

Part 16 - Sorry About That

The magical nexus' destruction hurt much less than Schrau expected it to. For one, he was still standing in the wake of the destructive shockwave.
Vehemoth was flat on his back, Corliss lay face down on the floor, while Schrau just stood in the middle of the cracked floor; a smug and content spider in the middle of the web.
The tiled hexagram was cracked; Schrau could still feel the energies of the nexus, but they were waning, dying, fading away.
"On the whole, that went better than I had expected."
Schrau sheathed his blades and went immediately to check on Corliss despite the urge to make sure that if Vehemoth got up again the mage would have to spend five minutes looking for his head before doing anything.
"Corliss?" Schrau whispered, gently shaking her awake. "C'mon, Corliss, on your feet."
The biomancer groaned, shaking her head.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm... Fine, actually." Corliss said, her reply surprising even herself.
"Can you stand?"
Corliss nodded, and with Schrau's help struggled to her feet. "We have to go."
Schrau shook his head. "No, I have to check on Vehemoth."
"Schrau... This isn't the time for concern..."
Schrau grinned bitterly. "Actually, what I meant is that I was going to check on him, and make sure he won't be up ever again."
"Too late..." Corliss whispered.
Schrau turned, and Vehemoth was standing with a look of incredulous rage on his face. "You..."
"Me?" Schrau asked, purely just to be contrary.
"You have destroyed years of preparation, broke the power that this tower held, denied me of my birthright, and wasted two days of clawing my way up this tower!" Vehemoth bellowed.
"And you've ruined my week off." Schrau snarled, drawing his blades. "You have no idea how seriousry sentiners take their week off..."
"Fool!" Vehemoth spat as he began breaking down magic for a surge.
"Vehemoth, it rearry would be better if you stuck to regurar magic." Schrau warned. "Okay, Corliss; you heal, I hurt."
He charged at the mage, who was much more spry and agile than Schrau gave him credit for. Vehemoth effortlessly dodged Schrau's futile strikes, failing a spell with each step.
"Excellent work, Cadnos!" Vehemoth boomed. "Accelerating your own demise while still clinging to hope!"
Schrau paused and grunted. Vehemoth was really on the ball, he was almost there with the building of a foundation of a wild surge. When that happened, Corliss would be dead, and so would he.
'Get that fuzzy little brain of yours meshing, Cadnos.' Schrau thought to himself. 'What gives the best opportunity for someone to survive a wild surge?'
Oh, that was simple enough.
Be on a different planet.
Schrau grinned to himself, gallows humour, and his Glammrings flashed and managed to pelt Vehemoth with ice, much to his discomfort.
'Try harder, deputy.'
Schrau went over the incidents that were Vehemoth's previous wild surges in his head as he carried on fighting to distract the mage. Okay, the first failed attempt, he had come away less hurt than the rest of the group, though that award might have been granted to Reyn Costos had he not stabbed himself.
He had survived the first successful attempt, even though Vehemoth had directed the surge to include him in its field. Accident? Luck? Divine intervention?
Why did Vehemoth want to source Corliss in their battle against Panorium? Why not him? Why not Panorium's weapons? Why not his weapons?
The nexus' destruction - Schrau felt it, and the massive discharge felt very much like Vehemoth's failed surge, and yet he walked away unscathed.
The doppelganger trap as well; it should have killed him, what good would a trap be if it could not. Schrau had put his survival down to either Corliss' or Seri's quick reactions, but that didn't sit right somehow.
Think, dammit, think.
Memories. The world had become golden for one brief moment during that first failed surge, then blue.
He remembered a chill when Vehemoth first succeeded with a wild surge.
The nexus - He had expected to lose his swords during that little incident, but they had survived.
Schrau backed off, his swords low. "Right then, do your worst."
Vehemoth grinned and retreated, his arms still swirling in complex gestures and golden glyphs orbiting him. "Acceptance." He closed his eyes, began chanting beneath his breath, and rose to a height of about six inches from the floor.
Schrau severed the lanyard to his left blade and then threw the sword at Corliss, making sure it stopped at her feet rather than forcing her to catch it from the air. "Corliss! Pick it up and hold it tight!"
Corliss gingerly picked up the sword and gripped it as hard as she could.
Schrau redoubled his grip on his blade, dropped into a Soselian fighting stance, and waited.
Vehemoth's eyes snapped open and he gave one, final gesture.
Nothing happened.
The mage's face turned into a pathos of terror. And then the air crystallised once again. The world shattered, and Schrau was knocked clean off his feet. He felt his right shoulder blade crack beneath the impact and suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to ask Corliss to check on it for a while.
Oh well, at least it was clear that it hadn't healed properly.
Schrau pushed himself upright, every joint cricking and every bone suffering. Vehemoth stood some distance away, his arm still outstretched, his expression motionless.
"Hey Vehemoth, you okay?"
The mage blinked once, then vanished into purple flame. Flecks of ash tumbled to the ground.
Schrau breathed a sigh of relief, redoubled it when he heard Corliss groan in pain some distance away. He looked at the small pile of ash that had been their tormentor, and remembered something.
He laughed.

There are good ways to wake up, such as being warmed by gentle sunbeams as they stream in through your window, or to the quiet chirping of birds outside.
Instead, Corliss Bowne was woken up by being gently patted on the cheeks to the point of being slapped on the face.
"Uhn..." She grumbled as she slowly became aware of her surroundings, of grass and bugs and a breeze up her skirt. Yes, there were much better ways to wake up.
"Yeah, sorry about that." Schrau said, no doubt grinning. "C'mon, we gotta get out of here."
Corliss slowly opened her eyes, and rather wished she hadn't. Schrau was grinning as a matter of fact, and his normally scruffy-but-clean countenance was filthy with grime and ash.
"You look like hell."
The tower stood above them, a massive monument to magic. To Corliss, it seemed drained and fragile and she didn't exactly like the prospect of being in its shadow.
"You should've seen the other guy." Schrau crowed. "Now come on, the tower's collapsing, and we have to get away from it. I carried you and your fat tail down the entire tower, an' I can't carry it any further."
Corliss sat up. "I do not have a fat-" The biomancer indignantly said just as she was interrupted by a coffin-sized slab of masonry that slammed into the earth some three feet away.
"You know how magi create towers and sealing it with magic? I just wish for once they'd try mortar."
"Agreed." Corliss said, finally standing up. "And I don't have a fat tail."
"Fine, whatever," Schrau muttered, barely managing to hold his broken shoulder. "By Sikkar's Light, I'm gonna need another week off to make up for that debacle."