Dust to Dust

Based on The Gods Are Bastards, by D. D. Webb, and in particular a comment thread on chapter 9-36; thanks to jeray2000, Club and Redmonitor for the idea, and to Prophet for encouragement and beta reading.

The Empress's sexuality was sometimes called the worst-kept secret in Tiraas. In fact, it wasn't a secret at all; neither she nor her husband had ever pretended their relationship was anything other than platonic. Although rising Shaathist sentiment meant that an openly gay person might have to bear a certain amount of hostility even in the capital, even Shaath's most dedicated followers would not talk ill of the Empress on account of her orientation.

Not to her face, anyway. What they did behind closed doors was, of course, no more her business than her relationship with her husband was theirs.

It was therefore ironic that Eleanora was a traditionalist at heart, even regarding her own marriage. Not that she ever felt guilty about her sexuality, exactly, but she did believe that it was a wife's duty to perform certain services for her husband. There were plenty of other women who would gladly have done it for her, but she felt that even an Empress – hell, especially an Empress – had something to gain from swallowing her pride on occasion and tending to her husband's most basic needs.

Which was why the Imperial couple were currently alone in their private apartments – except for the embarrassed-looking Hand of the Emperor trying desperately to avert his eyes – while she cooked Sharidan dinner.

She wasn't actually very good at it. She'd had to master a huge number of very difficult skills in order to become an equal partner in running the largest empire in mortal history, and it hadn't left her a lot of free time. Still, she could follow a recipe as well as anyone.

The Emperor himself was sitting at the kitchen table, feeling faintly uncomfortable, as he always did when Eleanora insisted on doing this sort of thing. A traditionalist upbringing was all very well, but he personally was not a believer in doing things just because people in the past had also done them. And there was always the suspicion – never spoken aloud, because he knew she would deny it fervently whether or not it was true – that his wife did actually feel guilty about her orientation, and was compensating for it.

On the other hand, it was nice to be able to relax. They hadn't had a lot of time alone recently, and as he watched her work around the stove – arcane rather than wood-burning, of course, the latest model – he could feel the tensions of the Empire draining away. They'd come back later, but for now he was feeling... content.

The fairy lamps on the wall flickered, and he glanced at them out of the corner of his eye. They flickered again, longer this time, plunging the room into darkness for a couple of seconds before coming back on.

The Hand standing by the wall opened his mouth to speak, and the lamps turned green. Then red.

'Sire, I don't mean to inconvenience you, but technically arcane equipment malfunctioning for no apparent reason is considered evidence of a security threat and—'

The lamps turned black, an impossible shade of un-light that hurt the eyes and hurt the brain, throwing every detail of the kitchen into bizarre focus and revealing, for a moment, the shape of something impossibly huge and old pressing against the windows of the room, pressing against the walls of the room, pressing against the walls of the world as they bowed inward, reality creaking and groaning as it bent before the THING THAT COMES FROM OUTSIDE—

The light snapped back to normal, and the stove exploded.

Eleanora dropped to the floor as bits of red-hot metal went flying past her face, and the Hand attending them tackled Sharidan and pushed him to the ground even as he desperately threw himself out of his chair to help her up. Another Hand burst through the door a moment later and knelt by the Empress.

'Your Majesty! Are you alright?'

She lifted her head and breathed deeply. Sharidan could see a red line across her brow, another across her cheek, a graze across the side of her neck.

'I'm fine. Minor cuts.'

The lights failed again, although at least this time it was just regular darkness. Absolute regular darkness; the palace complex outside the window, and the city beyond it, seemed totally black. As far as Sharidan knew, that hadn't happened in a hundred years.

'Safe room,' said the second Hand brusquely. 'Now.'

'No,' said Sharidan. 'I know what this is. We need to call in help.'

'So do I, which is why I will gladly go and call whomever you think is advisable while Your Majesties make your way to the magic-free safe room which was specifically prepared for this eventuality.'

'You wouldn't be able to get in the door,' said Eleanora, quick on the uptake as usual. 'One of you go find Quentin Vex and tell him to get his ass down to the Elysium as soon as possible. The other one may escort us there. Go!'

The Hands looked at each other, and then one – the one who'd been waiting outside the door – sprinted away. The other one finally got off Sharidan and offered him a hand up. Now that the Emperor could see his face, he looked mortified.

'My humblest apologies, sire, but—'

'Stop groveling, man, you were doing exactly what you were supposed to,' said Eleanora. 'Honestly, I don't know what he thought he'd do if I had been hurt. Did you get ordained sometime in the past week and forget to tell me, dear?'

'Yes, alright,' said Sharidan testily. 'Forgive me for displaying the common—'

'Studying witchcraft, perhaps? Or maybe just surgery?'

'I do know some first aid, you know!' he protested, but by this point he was just humoring her.

'Yes, dear. More than our dedicated Hands?'

Sharidan glared at her, but couldn't keep it up for long. 'Let's move out.'

They made slow progress through the palace, as their bodyguard insisted on being the first to enter each room. They were joined by another Hand as they left the building and made their way across the grounds.

The air outside the palace was thick with dust, blotting out most of the moon- and starlight. One of their Hands, ever resourceful, had procured an old-fashioned oil lamp from somewhere, and by its light the four of them crossed the palace grounds at a brisk pace and continued into the city.

Tiraas, though dark, was not silent. People were shouting, confused and scared. Without power, the Emperor knew, it was only a matter of time before people started panicking, and riots would soon follow.

On the other hand, if someone set the city on fire, at least they'd be able to see where they were going.

Not that he needed to. He knew his capital like the back of his hand and, more to the point, the Elysium wasn't the sort of place mortals found. It found them.

Sure enough, they rounded a corner and there it was, not quite in the same place it had been the last time he'd seen it. The Emperor wasn't surprised to see Archpope Justinian making his way towards it from the opposite end of the street.

'Your Holiness,' said the Emperor politely.

'Your Majesties,' said the Archpope, equally politely.

'What have you done, you lunatic?' asked the Empress, slightly less so.

Justinian blinked. 'Excuse me, Your Majesty?' he asked. To his credit, he did sound confused, but Justinian sounding confused meant only that he had chosen to sound confused.

'Don't give me that,' said Sharidan. If it had been up to him he'd have waited until later to confront him directly, but he and Eleanora had a mutual follow-my-lead policy that had never let them down before. 'You've had agents out looking for the skull of Belosiphon the Black for months.'

'True enough,' said Justinian blandly. 'In fact, they were meant to secure it a week ago.'

'Meant to?' asked the Empress. 'What happened? Where's the skull?'

'I have no idea,' said Justinian, sounding impossibly calm. 'It and the team I'd sent to collect it disappeared off the map.'

'You lost it?' snarled Eleanora.

'Well, if it's any help, recent evidence suggests it's somewhere in the city.'

'Justinian,' said Sharidan, his voice low and dangerous, 'does anything about this situation strike you as joke-worthy?'

'I'm sorry, Your Majesty, it's just something I do to avoid collapsing into an absolute gibbering panic. What do you say we speak to someone who might be able to actually help, and then you can have me executed for treason and/or civilization-threatening incompetence once this is all over?'

Eleanora and Sharidan exchanged glances.

'Fair enough,' he said. He turned to his bodyguards. 'Wait outside,' he said. 'If any of the people in there wanted me dead, there's really nothing you could do about it.'

The Emperor, Empress and Archpope walked into a bar.

It was empty.

Sharidan was not well-learned in the ways of the gods, but this struck him as rather a bad sign.

'Your Holiness?' he asked. 'Any idea where we might be able to find our patrons?' He was whispering, even though there didn't appear to be anyone to disturb. It seemed like a good time to be respectful of the gods even in their absence.

'I must admit, Sire, that I find this as unnerving as you do,' said Justinian. 'Perhaps if we were to—'

'Good evening, Your Majesties,' said a man standing directly in front of them. 'And my faithful servant Justinian, of course. Have a seat.'

The man was short, elderly, balding and wholly unremarkable. He wore plain black robes and a pair of thick spectacles, and carried – cradled in his arms like a baby – a book.

There was something odd about that book. It fit into the arms of a human – well, a being that was currently human-shaped, at any rate – and therefore couldn't possibly have been more than a few feet to a side or more than a few inches thick. But at the same time it was clearly much bigger than that. Much, much bigger. The book shouldn't have been able to fit in the building. The book shouldn't have been able to fit in the city. That book, Sharidan could tell at a glance, was big enough to contain every other book on the planet, along with every scroll and clay tablet and scrap of papyrus made in the past eight thousand years, and much more besides. Probably even the oral traditions of the elves were in that book, and the songs of the centaurs and the lost histories of the orcs and...

And simultaneously, without flickering or changing in any way, it was just an ordinary book held by a perfectly ordinary elderly gentleman, whose identity it made perfectly obvious.

'Lord Nemitoth,' said Justinian, and the three mortals bowed.

The scholar laid the Book of Books on the table between them.

Wait, what table?

'Sit down, please,' repeated the librarian. 'Our time is short and I have much to explain. The city – nay, the Empire – has come under deliberate attack by the forces of Chaos.'

'We'd gathered that,' said Eleanora, as they sat down on the chairs behind them. 'We came to ask for your help.'

'I know,' said the archivist. 'We're doing what we can.'

The Emperor had never heard a more frightening statement in his entire life.

'What?' he asked. 'They're – you – gods can suppress Chaos effects, can't you?'

The teacher nodded gravely. 'Chaos effects, yes. What's happening now is something else entirely.'

'Lord Nemitoth,' said Justinian with more firmness than Sharidan would have thought wise. 'With all due respect, what is going on?'

The steward of knowledge turned his owlish gaze on him. 'A week ago you tried and failed to secure a powerful Chaos artifact.'

'Yes,' said Justinian. The Emperor hated how composed he sounded, even now, even here.

'Your team did in fact find the skull where they expected to. Under the very eyes of the Trinity, they wrapped it in a protective shroud and attempted to teleport back to Tiraas.'

'Teleport?' asked Eleanora. 'With a Chaos artifact? Justinian, you absolute fool.'

'Hence the protective shroud,' said the professor. 'It was worked with a quite brilliant dimensional weaving that should have kept the energies of the skull contained for more than twenty hours, and the plan was to get it to a more secure resting place long before then. But... is it not said that the gods tread on the plans of mortals?'

'I don't understand,' said Eleanora. 'You did this? Why would—'

'Not Lord Nemitoth,' said the Archpope. 'Calomnar. The Chaos God.'

'I have always felt that term to be most unfair,' said the sage. 'My unfortunate brother does have his own sphere. Regardless, my servant is correct – Calomnar, although I doubt he could have worked any mischief under the gaze of Avei, Omnu and Vidius, had intervened long before then, interfering with the design of the shroud so that—'

He was interrupted as a woman appeared beside him, dressed in the uniform of the Imperial Army. She carried a radiant sword and a shield emblazoned with an eagle sigil. Much more alarmingly, she was breathing heavily and bleeding golden ichor from a dozen wounds.

The warrior looked them over. 'I'm glad to see you safe,' she said, although she didn't sound glad; mostly, she just sounded tired. 'Has my brother brought you up to speed?'

'I was in the process of doing so,' said the researcher. 'The situation was complex and—'

'Calomnar fucked with the protections on the skull. Chaos energies leaked out and rerouted the teleport to Sifan, where a bunch of orcs got their hands on it, ground it into powder, reverse-engineered the design of the dimensional weave to make something that could contain it for long enough to bring it back to this continent, and then dropped it out of a zeppelin into a windstream that would spread it over the entire Empire,' said the soldier. 'It wasn't that complicated and we really don't have much time.'

The bibliophile gave her a look that, had he been a mortal, might have been described as petulant.

The mortals had other things on their mind.

The judge could apparently read their expressions. 'Oh, it gets worse. See, what you call a Chaos effect is the result of Chaos leaking in from outside in a very slow, diffuse way. It's not quite as major a breach as an actual rift, but what with Chaos being corrosive to the very fabric of the universe, it does create a volume of...'

'Somewhat weakened protections,' said the elder. 'And when that volume is large enough for them to fit, things start pushing through. '

Sharidan didn't have to ask what kind of things he meant. 'So you're dealing with a being the size of the continent.'

'Beings in the plural, we think, and we're trying to fight them off,' said the tactician. 'And, frankly, it's not going well.'

'How can we help?' asked the Archpope, and Sharidan knew that if they somehow made it through the day he would ever after regret that it had been Justinian who asked the sensible question.

'If this thing – these things – manifest on the mortal plane we've pretty much already lost,' said the strategist. 'This is god work.'

'Arguably, the purest possible example of god work,' interjected the philosopher. 'You could make the case that this is the only irreplaceable function we fulfill – defending against threats from outside.'

'Mm,' said the defender of women noncommittally. 'In the meantime, what we need from you is the same thing we've always needed. Keep the peace. Reassure people their gods are fighting for them in this hour of need. Try to keep your civilization running while essential services are suspended.'

'Essential services?' asked Sharidan, fully aware that he'd regret it.

'Well, magic, of course,' said the scribe. 'The divine light will be completely unavailable while our power is occupied fending off this threat, and the other schools will be rendered so unstable by the concentration of Chaos that you're better off not trying. And...'

He trailed off and shot a glance at his fellow goddess, who only smiled. Sharidan had the inkling of an impression that the champion of criminal and social justice, the woman of action, might not feel an awful lot of respect for a god whose dogma consisted chiefly of not doing much. He'd have to ask Justinian before they had him executed.

The loremaster cleared his throat and continued. 'The process of death may not run quite as smoothly as you have grown to expect it to.'

Sharidan had read enough classical literature to realize this was probably not as good a thing as it sounded. The lady of war was smiling mirthlessly, which was also a hint.

'Dare I ask what exactly that would entail, my lord?' he hazarded.

'Well,' said the patient one, 'necromantic phenomena are a common side-effect even of low-scale Chaos events, so that's likely to be considerably exacerbated. And with the Reapers being otherwise occupied, the newly dead may well rise again with their souls still intact.'

'Surely that would be a good thing, though?' asked Justinian. He was wearing an odd expression. 'Wouldn't that just mean the undead would retain their free will?'

'Perhaps,' said the keeper of secrets. 'But in general, even self-willed undead are subject to the will of the necromancer who raised them. In a case like this… the role of 'the necromancer' might be undefined, as with the self-sustaining vampire curse. Or the reanimated may find themselves subjugated to the will of Chaos itself. There's really no way to be sure. Salyrene might know, but…'

'Our sibling is otherwise occupied,' said the justiciar firmly. She cocked an ear, as if listening to something in the far distance. 'As should we be.'

'Indeed,' said the expositor, suddenly much more alert. 'If you need more answers, they may well be in there—' he nodded at the book on the table '—but time is of the essence. Good luck.'

And they were gone.

Sharidan glanced sideways at his fellow mortals. Eleanora was wearing a look of shock that no doubt matched his own, but Justinian's face was oddly neutral.

If the Emperor were the kind to be paranoid, he might have thought that since the appropriate emotional response to the situation was abject horror, the fact that even a master actor such as the Archpope could not school his face to present it must mean that he was secretly overjoyed and just barely restraining his excitement. This did not bode well.

If the Emperor were the kind to be even more paranoid, he might have thought that that was exactly what he wanted him to believe.

Sharidan did not feel at all sure of himself, but he wouldn't have been able to keep the Empire running for a single day if he didn't know how to improvise like hell in a pinch.

'Right,' he said, in his official Imperial Taking Charge voice. 'Let's move out.'

Eleanora, gods bless her, was on her feet in an instant. Justinian took a moment to try to pick up the Book from the table in front of them, apparently discovered it was too heavy to lift, and left it there.

The Hands waiting outside the door fell into step with them immediately as they left the Elysium, and Sharidan realized that if he really thought Justinian was up to something, the sensible thing might be to just kill him now. The Hands wouldn't question the order for a moment, and no plan to capitalize off Chaos could possibly be good for anyone.

On the other hand, he wasn't actually certain of anything, and the Archpope would be enormously handy for coordinating the cults and keeping the populace calm. He could always kill him later.

He turned to one of their Hands. 'Get to Army HQ right away, tell them to get people on the street immediately with torches or lanterns. Make it clear that law and order will not break down in my capital just because magic has.'

'Sire,' said the Hand. 'I must point out that your safety cannot be assured on the streets of Tiraas at a time like this even with two of us present. I believe leaving three eminent persons with only one bodyguard on a night when riots are expected to break out is a mistake.'

'Your concerns are noted,' said Sharidan. 'And also disregarded. Go!'

'Sire,' said the Hand again, and sprinted off.

'Right,' said Sharidan. He found he was rubbing his hands together; now that he was actually doing something, he was feeling a little better. The problems that were actually inside his sphere of responsibility were pretty straightforward. 'Your Holiness, I want to start distributing non-magical light sources and cold boxes as soon as possible, but the Throne doesn't really have the manpower available outside of the Army, and they'll be keeping the peace. The cults do, however.'

'I will coordinate with the Bishops immediately,' said Justinian. 'Unless you think I should go straight to the heads of the cults?'

'Given the situation, that seems appropriate,' said Eleanora. Then she frowned. 'Wait— there is one Bishop who I think is worth our time tonight.'

The Archpope smiled, and it appeared genuine – whatever that was worth. 'I do believe you are correct, Your Majesty; no-one in any cult knows the streets of Tiraas better than Antonio Darling. I shall go directly to his residence myself.'

'We shall accompany you,' said Sharidan.

Justinian gave him an unreadable look, but the Emperor chose to take that as a sign he was way off his game – unreadable looks were a beginner's tactic, because they indicated that the looker had something to hide. Unless that was exactly

'After all,' said Eleanora, smoothly cutting off Sharidan's train of thought before it could collapse into madness. 'It is a dangerous night and we no longer have a spare bodyguard to lend you. And besides, I feel a visit from the Imperial couple should instill an appropriate sense of urgency in the man.'

If reality didn't melt around their ears, Sharidan was going to divorce that woman just so he could marry her all over again.

'As you say, Your Majesty,' said Justinian. 'This way, I believe.'

The walk to Bishop Darling's house was short, though surreal. It was darker than it ever was in Tiraas, but people were nevertheless milling around, carrying old-fashioned lanterns, candles, or improvised torches, looking generally bewildered. It would be too much to hope that people would just sleep through everything, Sharidan supposed. At least the undead monstrosities had yet to appear.

The surprised citizens knelt as he went past, and he nodded graciously and calmly, as if to indicate that everything was under control. A good number of people started following them, and by the time they reached the Bishop's residence there was a small crowd trailing after them. The Emperor paused on the porch outside and turned around. The frightened people before him – his frightened people – murmured louder.

He hadn't wanted to do this in the middle of a random street. The lighting and acoustics were totally off, the audience wasn't really big enough, he didn't have enough Imperial personnel with him to make a show of strength, and most importantly he hadn't a clue what he was going to say.

Fuck it. He'd wing it, in the grand custom of Tiraan Emperors for countless generations. In war it was said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, but his loyal subjects could preemptively destroy plans before he'd even begun forming them.

He raised his hands for silence, and waited until it was absolute.

He took the lantern from the hand of the Hand next to them and raised it above his head, so that his face and that of the Empress and Archpope were clearly visible.

And he smiled. The Emperor had a lot of smiles, and he selected one that was sly and defiant, the smile of someone facing down impossible odds and daring them to come get him. Given how few odds these days qualified as "impossible" for the Throne of Tiraas, it wasn't an expression he got to use often.

'This is it!' he yelled into the dark street.

Those faces he could make out looked puzzled, which was good. Puzzled meant interested.

'There are countries where, on a night like this, a ruler might stand before his people and lie to them!' he said, pitching his voice to carry. 'Where he might consider that his best chance of keeping his populace under control would be to tell them that everything was perfectly fine. The sudden failure of fairy lights? An arcane storm, he might say. The deep-seated feeling of dread you all feel? A rogue fey effect. The beings that some of you must have seen pressing in from the space between spaces? Probably just want to be friends.'

They laughed at that, although it had the edge of people who'd laugh at anything just to break the tension.

'But I'm not going to tell you any of that,' said Sharidan. 'Because I am proud to rule an Empire not inhabited by morons!'

They laughed again, a little more naturally this time, which Sharidan took as his cue to segue into sincerity.

First, confirm what was going on. This eliminated any confusion that might exist in the populace – many of whom might not be educated enough to recognize what they were seeing – and gave the impression that the people in charge weren't totally lost. 'Yes, the things you have seen this night are the effects of Chaos.'

Second, explain what that meant. This served to further demonstrate that the Empire knew what they were doing, and also gave the audience some idea of what they had to prepare for. 'This means that magic will be unreliable until further notice. Necromantic or dimensional events may occur seemingly without reason.'

Thirdly, acknowledge the part of the threat that they couldn't do anything about, but don't dwell on it. 'And yes, those beings you saw are real, and they are dangerous.'

Let them know that their leaders were also afraid. This made it clear that they weren't totally delusional, and also comforted the populace by implying that their fear was nothing to be ashamed of. 'If I were to tell you that despite all that I was not in the slightest bit worried, the Empress would be only doing her duty if she were to have me deposed as a madman. So yes, of course I'm worried. I'm terrified. Only a fool would be without fear on a night like this. Wiser men than I have faced such horrors as we face now, and done nothing but go screaming into the night.'

Had he used "night" twice in two sentences there? This was the kind of thing that happened when he tried to speak off the cuff.

Oh well. On to the counterpoint! 'But men wiser than them have discovered what will hold their fear at bay and put steel in their spines! Your Holiness, what is it we call this discovery, this deepest of all magics?'

The Archpope smiled as well, although it was more restrained than the Emperor's own expression. If he was trying to come across as the level-headed one, tonight of all nights, Sharidan was going to have to find some way to execute him extra hard.

He still played to the obvious script. Dumb, the man was not. 'Faith, Your Majesty.'

'Aye, faith!' roared the Emperor. 'And the faith that sustains me now in the face of Chaos itself is twofold. First, faith in our gods. The Empress, the Archpope and I have spoken to Avei herself this night—' gods damn it, not again '—and she has revealed to us that the full might of the Pantheon is even now holding this power at bay. It is thanks to the gods that the visions you have seen of those... beings remain only visions.'

'Second,' said the Emperor, and now his voice was quieter, because the line he had to deliver was stupider and quiet confidence offset that better. 'Faith in Tiraas and in her citizens. I know that when our magic leaves us, when all our arcane devices fail, we will adapt and carry on, lending help to our neighbors when they require it and accepting help without shame when it is offered.

'And I have faith that, even should the unthinkable happen—even should we have to contend ourselves with one of those powers that press in on the world from outside—we will face and overcome it, through our own might and ingenuity.'

He lowered his voice further, so that the people at the back of the crowd would have to strain to hear it, although in the pitch darkness he couldn't tell if they actually did.

'Because we are Tiraas, and we are forever.'

A moment of silence.

'Long live the Emperor!' shouted someone. 'Long live Tiraas!' The cry was taken up by the other people in the street, and even by some people leaning out of their windows to watch and listen.

That'd do. Smiling to himself – a real smile this time – Sharidan spun on his heel and pushed open the door of Antonio Darling's house.

It was only after he'd stepped inside that he realized that there was no reason the door would be unlocked, and even less reason why he would know it was in advance.

He took a step backwards, and found the door closed behind him. It had opened inwards, which meant that should not have been physically possible without it somehow swinging shut through the Emperor's own body, which he was pretty sure hadn't happened.

He breathed deeply to steady his nerves, and immediately wished he hadn't. There was a terribly familiar smell in the entrance hall.

Sharidan raised the lantern above his head once again, and in its light saw a headless corpse standing upright against the far wall.

He wanted to cry out, but for all he knew the people outside could still hear him, and while he might have been prepared for either his subjects or his wife or Justinian to hear him die screaming, all three was just too embarrassing.

The dead body raised one hand and made a gentle beckoning motion, and Sharidan ran. He didn't give the thing the satisfaction of seeing him try to reopen the front door; he darted to the left, going towards a staircase leading upwards.

What were his options? The obvious answer to an undead monster was divine magic, and the gods had made it pretty clear that would be offline for the foreseeable future. Mithril would also work, but he didn't have any. The Empire had a small amount of the stuff and Hands of the Emperor carried mithril daggers when they were on active bodyguard duty, but it was generally considered that if the Emperor was somehow separated from his bodyguards, a weapon he didn't know how to use would be more help to his attacker than him.

Sharidan added Adjust security protocols to account for unholy abominations to his increasingly long list of things to do once the present crisis was over.

He paused at the top of the stairs, moving the lantern this way and that. There – a door. He darted through, as quietly as he could. It was a bedroom, with a large double bed in the center.

What else worked against undead? Regular fire was effective against some of them, he seemed to recall. Hmm... grab the sheet off the bed, net the thing as it came through the door, and smash it with the lantern? He'd lose his light source, but—

The door of the bedroom opened behind him. The Emperor whirled, bringing the lantern up and around, and the headless body jumped backwards frantically and raised its open palms above its shoulders.

Neither of them moved for a few heartbeats. For the first time Sharidan noticed that it was female, and wearing a Butler's uniform.

The undead monstrosity waved at him.

'You're sentient?' he asked cautiously.

The thing's right hand formed into a thumbs-up.

Hold on. Hadn't the knowledgeable one said that this night's dead might retain their souls even into undeath?

'Are you... Bishop Darling's Butler?' Distant memory flickered. 'Price?'

Another thumbs-up.

Huh. 'Trust the Service Society to produce loyalty that survives revivification by eldritch powers,' said Sharidan. He was feeling a little light-headed. 'You know, the Imperial household doesn't use Butlers on principle, but with this—'

Price slipped through the door, closed it silently behind her, and raised one hand above the stump of her neck, with a single finger extended straight upwards. It took a moment for the Emperor to realize she was holding a finger to her absent lips.

'Danger?' he whispered.

The hand came down and signed the affirmative again.

'The same thing that got you?'

Again.

Well, if this thing could take out a Butler then Sharidan himself didn't have much of a chance. His best bet was probably just to hide until he could grab Darling and get out.

Oh, crap. 'Did this Chaos being get the Bishop?' he asked, still whispering.

Two thumbs down. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

'The Bishop is alive and well?'

It appeared that he was. Sharidan scanned through his previous question.

'Was it a Chaos being that killed you?'

One thumb down. As if the Emperor didn't have enough to worry about.

'Undead?'

Another negative, and then Price raised her hand and, with an exaggerated gesture, indicated the area where her head should have been.

Sharidan mentally ran down the list of things that could reasonably kill a Butler in a straight fight, and the penny dropped.

On cue, the door groaned. Sharidan whirled to face it, but it remained firmly shut. He glanced at Price, who of course was not a lot of help.

The door made another sound, lower and more drawn-out, and then the ancient wood twisted and put forth shoots, and finally warped so far that the nails holding the hinges in went flying out all at once.

The door fell inwards, revealing the darkness of the landing outside. Standing opposite them, at the top of the stairs, was a humanoid figure. The light from Sharidan's lantern was only enough to reveal that it was short, slim and wearing a black cloak.

The figure raised both hands unhurriedly and made a strange gesture. A subtly shifting arc of dark energy formed between its fingers, coiling, snakelike.

The shadowbolt detonated in its hands and blew it backwards down the stairs with an undignified thump.

The headless Price grabbed the Emperor's hand and dragged him out the door without hesitating a second. They made it halfway across the landing before their assailant came bounding back up the stairs, somehow still moving completely silently, and bore Sharidan to the ground. The lantern hit the floor next to him, and – small mercies – did not break.

Looking straight up into her hood, Sharidan saw the face of the elven headhunter twisted into a grimace of indescribable hatred. A wicked-looking knife glinted in her raised right hand.

It was appropriate, he thought. Tiraas had killed Khar – had killed Athan'Khar itself – and now the orcs had killed Tiraas, and in a moment, the spirits of Athan'Khar would kill the Emperor.

Price grabbed the elf's right wrist and yanked her off him with the sound of several bones breaking.

It was only then that Sharidan realized that generally the most dangerous thing about elven headhunters was their equal access to all four schools of magic, and that without reliable magic of any kind, a headhunter was basically just a very dangerous psychopath with a knife.

Price swung the headhunter through the air and slammed her against the wall, still holding her wrist. She landed gracefully on the balls of her feet, produced another knife in her left hand, severed the Butler's arm at the elbow, and chopped off both of her legs without any apparent effort.

An extremely dangerous psychopath. With two knives.

The headhunter turned to face him again, ignoring the disembodied hand still gripping her right wrist.

She said something in Orcish. Sharidan had never studied the language, but he could make an educated guess. He was pretty sure the name "Athan'Khar" had been in there somewhere.

The Emperor of Tiraas refused to die begging for his life.

The shadows behind the elf swelled, and she spun to face them, bringing the knife around in a wide arc that the newcomer caught on the edge of their sword as the shadows receded behind them. Sharidan couldn't really make out their features, but managed to catch elven ears, a build almost as burly as a human's, gray skin and black hair.

The events of the past hour might have been making him unduly pessimistic, but he had an immediate suspicion what he was looking at.

The two elves dueled silently for a few seconds, but it was no surprise when his savior managed to nick the headhunter with their sword. Blood-red flames spread from the wound as the fight continued, and within less than a minute she collapsed to the floor, even as the hellfire continued to burn at her body.

Sharidan took a moment to compose himself as the newcomer turned this way and that, apparently checking for any more hostile entities.

The ears meant elf. The gray skin and relatively heavy frame meant drow. But drow, universally, had white hair. Come to that, almost no elves had black hair, except one particular bloodline that, as far as the Emperor knew, had never interbred with drow.

He supposed that, in theory, they might have done at some point. It wasn't like the Tiraan Empire had a complete record of all the Crow's offspring. But the other option was that the man who had just saved his life was not exactly a drow.

He wasn't surprised when the newcomer turned to face him and revealed eyes like openings into the void of space.

'A pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty. I am Yophiel the Black.'