Author's Note: Still don't own D&D.


"No worries, lad," Reynard told me with a chuckle. "Not like I haven't been dead before; it's actually quite restful after a while. You get to catch up with old friends, find out how people's afterlives are going, maybe play a few games of table tennis and Pop The Bunderbie with the archons, then head home when the call comes. And these fine folk," he nodded to Drifa. "Were kind enough to use a True Resurrection, so I don't even have to worry about lost levels. You have my thanks, madam." He raised his glass in salute to her with a respectful nod.

I eyed the glass regretfully, while making sure to stay out of sniffing range. My lovely Cire Perdue...lost to me forever. I mean, really! An infinite supply of the best Scotch in the world, and I couldn't so much as sniff it, ever again. Of course, if I could manage to get the bottle home with me, the smell would be quite thoroughly masked by the aroma of all the lovely heaping piles of money I'd be rolling around in. 'Half a million dollars a bottle' plus 'an infinite supply' equals 'ludicrous wealth.' And yes, supply and demand blah blah blah monopoly pricing, so hush.

As tolerant as Reynard seemed about the whole matter, Isaac was much less sanguine.

"So, it was just a ruse then?" he demanded. "I suppose it should have been apparent that you wouldn't—I should have deduced it from the first." He sniffed derisively. "Should have been immediately apparent when you didn't explain what it was I was Polymorphing the rock into."

I grimaced. "Really, I can't tell you how sorry I am, Isaac. Please, is there any way I can make this right?"

He glanced at me, snorted slightly, and stared at his hands. The expression on his face was strange: angry but...sad? Was he sad that I'd betrayed him? That his ruler had betrayed him?

No, wait. That verbal stumble a moment ago—"should have been apparent you wouldn't." Wouldn't what? Trust him? Forgive him for messing with me? Something else? I cast my mind back over what I'd said to him before sending him off to be a multi-megaton suicide bomber.

Why would you ask me, My Lord? Wouldn't it be better to have one of these new Archmagi handle whatever is so important? After all, aren't they now the best magi in the nation? he had asked.

It'll change the entire course of the parley, and it could potentially end the entire war, right then and there, I had answered. Hm.

"Isaac, again, I'm very sorry I tricked you," I told him, trying to make my sincerity as obvious as possible. "That said, I hope you can forgive me, because I truly do need your advice. As I understand it, you're Flobovia's primary arcane expert on extraplanar phenomena, and we need that expertise. Everything we're dealing with right now ties somehow into extradimensional issues—how much scrying protection we get from the demiplanes formed by the Portable Holes that we're sitting in, the fact that at least some of the liches have probably hidden their phylacteries on other planes, the question of whether we can try Gating in things that could grant us Wishes without the gods stepping on us—shoot, even the gods! They seem to be getting all up in our grill lately, and I have a feeling that—"

Isaac surged to his feet, stretching his leg vigorously and wincing. "Beg your pardon, M'Lord, but I don't recover from death as quickly as I used to. Could we continue this while we walk, so that I can get rid of these cramps?" He raised his eyebrows inquiringly, already leaning towards the door.

Puzzled, I shrugged and pushed myself up to my feet. It was a weird request, but right now I was willing to grant Isaac much more than a quick perambulation. "Sure, no problem. Come on, everyone." The others all rose as I did; the Landguard formed up around us and we moved out.

I started to pick up where I'd left off in my conversation with Isaac but he waved me to silence. We were a good thirty feet down the corridor before he spoke, scratching his nose at the same time so that his mouth was obscured.

"Speak carefully," he said quietly. Before continuing, he waited until we'd stepped into the next corridor segment, and therefore into a different Portable Hole and a different plane of existence. "If, as you said, Loki"—he paused, again waiting until we'd changed Holes—"warned us that the gods were scrying on us from more than curiosity"—another pause—"then we need to be very careful. Keep your mouth covered and spread your words out over corridor boundaries. Also, speak quietly so the sound doesn't travel."

Immediately, the Landguard all started reciting "Red leather yellow leather watermelon fuzzball watermelon fuzzball, red leather yellow leather watermelon fuzzball watermelon fuzzball" just loud enough to be distracting, but also just loud enough to drown out the sound of hushed voices from those of us who walked between them.

Isaac and I were walking abreast (with some difficulty), Suze was practicaly stepping on my heels with Drifa and Reynard immediately behind her, while Albrecht and Colborn paced in front of us. We all exchanged glances at the Landguard's antics and shrugged; at this point, I wasn't even surprised that the Landguard had a drill for covering a private conversation in a semi-public area. They even spoke slightly out of sync with each other so that each version of the nonsense mantra overlapped with the ones around it to form a nigh-maddening yet nigh-impenetrable sound baffle.

Isaac pulled Suze's transcript of the conversation with Loki and Afi out of his belt pouch, keeping it carefully folded so that it couldn't be seen from any angle other than his own. He skimmed through it once more, then tucked it away again.

"That was well done, young lady," he told her with a complimentary (yet slightly patronizing) tone, carefully splitting his words across corridor segments for safety. "However, it should be noted that if you take notes in the future, it will be essential for you to keep the pages covered so that no one scrying on us can read them. Also, ensure that you don't leave them lying around uncovered. Assume that you are constantly being watched and you need to keep this information secret...because you are and you do. If you don't feel you can do that, don't take notes." He waited until she gave him a wide-eyed nod, then turned back to me.

"Concerning the gods, I assume you noticed Loki's hints?" he asked.

I nodded. "'Most of the other gods have substantially wider powerbases than I do, and are therefore more powerful.' Gods have a powerbase of varying size, and that directly determines their place in the pecking order; he's hinting that it's the number of worshippers."

"That's been a theory for a long time, that the gods are powered by the belief of their followers," Drifa put in, also taking care to spread her words across universes (because having an in-universe conversation was so much less meta). "But it begs the question—if it's true that the gods' power depends on the number of their worshippers and without worshippers they have no power, then how would they have any worshippers in the first place if they didn't have the power to attract them?"

I shrugged. "There's a lot of literary theory back in the real—back in my world, about how people create the gods. It says that someone tells a story, lots of people like the story and start telling it, eventually the story takes on a life of its own—literally. In other words, people create gods, not the other way around."

A thought suddenly struck me. "One of the first things that Loki ever wanted from me was to have a song of his played in all the bars of Capital City," I pointed out. "That would tie in nicely with the 'worship is life' idea—Loki wanted to improve his brand recognition in a market where he was underpresented."

Colborn gave me an exasperated glare.

"Loki wanted to be better known by a group of people who didn't know him," I translated. Colborn gave a 'was that so hard?' snort. I snickered very softly to myself.

"The theory of worship as a divine definer does appear well supported by the evidence," Isaac suggested.

Drifa didn't seem too pleased at the idea that the gods—and, by extension her god—were simply their worshippers' Author Tracts writ large, but she chimed in gamely. "It's also supported by the ritual we're using to resurrect Herrún: a series of sacrifices from people who desperately want her help, who believe that she can help them and that they have nowhere else to turn. Is it possible that we aren't regathering her fragments so much as we are recreating her?"

Reynard hmmed. "The implication then, is that if the number of worshippers determines the god's power, then gaining worshippers makes them stronger, and killing their worshippers makes them weaker...which lines up nicely with Loki's comment about how Lichboy 'got to go put the beatdown stick upside his patron's rival's worshippers' heads'."

I groaned. "That's what Loki meant when he mentioned the 'latest tussle among the gods'. This whole Apocalypse that we're dealing with...this is just the gods embargoing each other's worship to change their place in the pecking order. If they can't recruit more worshippers of their own, they can gain relative power by decreasing everyone else's...either by killing them or getting them to switch who they worship, the way the 'True God' did with the Landguard." I couldn't help doing the verbal air quotes on 'True God', but at least I kept my hands still. "And if they manage to completely shut down worship for a god, the way they seem to have done for Herrún, then that god is gone and her spot in the hierarchy is up for grabs."

Albrecht suddenly wore a weasel's smile. "If we assume that the undead are all, or at least mostly, worshippers of 'Deadboy'"—he smiled at the name—"then by exterminating the small fry, we actually are making progress."

Unn nodded, excited. "And it could be critical too. Loki mentioned that 'Magicman' and 'the ponce'"—Thomas winced at the insulting nickname for his deity—"were trying to keep 'Deadboy' from finding us, but they were losing that battle. If we can decrease Deadboy's power, we can prevent him from finding us." She paused, then smiled. "I quite like these names, actually."

Thomas and Drifa both shot her an irritated glare but it rolled off of Unn's ultimate defense: the Obliviousness Shield.

"Actually, that conversation did us a lot of good," I remarked. "After Icefi fixed my head, I'm thinking clearly again instead of dealing with PTSD and becoming a boozehound. And we have a way that we can actually make an impact on this whole scenario. We don't have to beat Af—Lich-guy. We just have to reduce the power of his patron enough that the other gods can keep him down. If he stops trying to sockpuppet Lichboy,"—it was my turn to smile at the disrespectful nicknames—"then Lichboy will stop trying to conquer everything in sight and everything is hugs and puppies again."

"Also, Loki apprised us of the fact that we can destroy these liches, how many there were, and how many remain," Isaac inserted.

I glanced at him inquisitively.

He harumphed. "It's elementary arithmetic. He said that your water cannon attack destroyed 'ninety three percent' of the liches that were in that creature's force. Fifty three Ice Assassins were captured after the attack. If that represents seven percent of the creature's force, then the force must have originally contained seven hundred and fifty seven members. If at least one of them—the one you spoke to—was not killed or captured, that implies that not all of them were present in the canyon. We can assume that all of the Ice Assassins that were in the canyon were either killed or captured, since any that weren't killed and weren't drained of their magic would have fought.

"Now, it stands to reason that the one you spoke to wasn't the only survivor." He sniffed derisively. "We really need some system of identifying these creatures; it is not appropriate to use their creator's name, yet there don't seem to be any other distinguishing characteristics. In any case, given the evidence available to us and the postulate that this one wasn't the sole survivor, we can deduce that there is a secondary corps nearby. Presumably a small number; I would estimate no more than two or three dozen."

I looked at him with renewed respect. When you listened to Isaac's windbaggery, it was easy to forget just how brilliant the man was. "Why just a couple dozen?" I asked.

"Because more would be counter to their goals," Reynard supplied, nodding as he followed Isaac's thoughts. "Their purpose here was to pump as many secrets into the ritual as possible in order to gain control over Herrún. They would have kept back a few of their members as outriders—sentries, a reserve force, something like that—but the vast majority would have gone after the primary mission and therefore been in the canyon. Put simply: any Ice Assassin that wasn't sacrificing was not contributing to the mission, so they would have held back the smallest number possible."

"That's reassuring," I responded. "But won't they all just regenerate back at their phylacteries?"

Unn shook her head. "No. When he originally described the spell to me, Lord Loki said that an Ice Assassin is a 'soulless being.' A phylactery is a container for a lich's soul; the Ice Assassins can't have one, only the original. The ones we killed truly are dead. They can't even be resurrected, because there's nothing to recall from the afterlife."

I gave a fistpump. "Woot! Go Team Us! Now we just need to do that a few more times and we're good."

Thomas was looking somber. "Loki said that 'Lichboy' is eleven thousand years old. Presumably he's an Archmage and has maximized his intelligence, meaning that he has at least five ninth level spell slots per day, just from his wizard class. In theory, he could have created five Ice Assassins every day for eleven millenia. And the Ice Assassins could have created more of themselves—there's no telling how many we could be facing."

Unn shook her head. "No, it's not that bad. Simulacrum requires the caster to sacrifice experience points; presumably Ice Assassin does as well. The Ice Assassins are not capable of gaining experience points, so they can't create more of themselves. And 'Lichboy' probably wouldn't want to burn up too many of his own experience points. According to what the Ice Assassin told us he had retired and was spending most of his time on research instead of adventuring. At his level, it's very hard to find combats that will grant much experience without attracting the attention of divine or semi-divine beings, so sacrificing too much experience wouldn't be in his interest."

This situation was starting to look hopeful. Also, I could feel a nasty smile spreading across my face as I saw the obvious exploit. It would take a while, though, and there was one that I wanted to get to first.

"Thomas, go send some people out," I told him. "Doesn't have to be Landguard, just needs to be a lot of people. I want as many worms as they can find. I'm talking thousands at least."

Thomas frowned. "We're in rocky terrain, Your Majesty. There aren't likely to be many worms in the area. What do you need them for?"

I snickered. "I'd rather not say—OPSEC, you know. There could be eyes on us right now." I made an exaggerated point of looking around for spies.

He gave me a gimlet stare but harumphed and sent off a Sending.

"M'Lord," Suze put in diffidently. "Worms can survive being cut in two if they're large enough. If you can find a few, you can double the number by splitting them. Then a little bit of healing magic will put each one back to full strength and size, so you can split them again."

We all blinked and stopped walking, turning to stare at her. She blushed at the attention, but kept her spine straight instead of shrinking back like she used to.

"Suze, that's brilliant. How did you think of that?" I asked.

She blushed harder. "Derry—the footman back at the castle?—he grew up in Rockport, M'Lord. He and his father were poor; they got a lot of food by hunting and fishing, but there wasn't much bait to be had. His father had been a novice at a healing temple so he had a few orisons that he could use to heal the worms."

I laughed. "Score one for street smarts over ivory tower booklearning. Yeah, Thomas, do that. The Landguard's Lay On Hands ability is tailor-made for the job." Thomas seemed vaguely offended at the idea of his people using their divinely-provided intended-for-protecting-the-ruler healing powers on squirmy invertebrates but, meh. He sent the Sending, and that's all I cared about.

"Ok, sounds like we've got us a plan," I said, smiling. I started pacing down the corridor again as I laid out the specifics; everyone else swung into motion around me. "Kill off all the minor undead we can find in order to decrease Deadboy's power, make it easier for the Team Life gods to stomp him into the ground. Albrecht, I'll provide tactics, you set strategy and choose targets. Fair enough?" My Strategos gave a sharp nod, pleased at being included.

My smile kept getting nastier. "Ok, you work on that. In the meantime, I've got a trick to show you."

o-o-o-o

The sun was just touching the horizon; the shadows stretched across the rocky, red-brown clay around us like giant fingers. The canyon below us was entirely wreathed in shadows; the only light came from the fires on the altars and a faint haze of multi-colored sparkles that connected the altars together in a miniature Milky Way.

In front of us were a pair of forty foot high Walls of Iron. They stood parallel to one another, about a hundred feet apart, and were firmly rooted in the rock at the lip of the canyon. Immediately beside the eastern one stood a roofed-over scaffold made of ten foot ladders and quarterstaves, all held together with Sovereign Glue. Another platform, much larger, ran between the two Walls, just outside the box they defined. Waiting at the top were fifty magi, my war council, and a half dozen Landguard to keep an eye on everything.

Beside me, a mage named Sigurd had just finished casting a third Wall of Iron, this one freestanding. Alpha Squad immediately put their backs to it and pushed until it toppled over.

It hit the ground with a titanic WHAM! and a blast of dust that left all of us choking and rubbing our eyes. As soon as I could see again, I stepped up to the Wall—now really more of a Floor—and tapped it with the Rule of Size.

"Reducio," I instructed it. "Command words: Shrinken, Embiggen, GoCloth, GoIron." The thing obediently shrank to a tiny swatch of iron foil. Carefully, I poured a single drop of Sovereign Glue on the very edge of it and pressed the end of a ten foot pole into the glue. (Apparently, ten foot poles really were useful for more than breaking the monetary system. Go figure.)

Speaking of useful, Sovereign Glue is amazingly useful stuff: it forms an absolutely, utterly, indisputably unbreakable bond between any two substances. It can only be dissolved using a special general-purpose solvent (named, appropriately enough, Universal Solvent). Both the Glue and the Solvent are hellishly tricky to work with. If you get some Superglue on your fingers and you don't have any acetone handy, you have to pry your fingers apart very carefully in order to avoid losing skin. If you get some Sovereign Glue on your fingers and you don't have any Universal Solvent handy, you have to cut your fingers off to get them apart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grǫfhamr had literally thousands of gallons of the stuff, and of the solvent. Apparently, it was used heavily in construction and industry, and had been recovered when the Deorsi raided the warehouse where they got the Portable Holes.

"Go set that up, would you?" I asked, handing the pole-and-foil combo to Franklin. "Don't forget to scatter a bunch of the worms on it."

He nodded, face carefully and professionally blank insted of giving me the confused scowl he no doubt wanted to. Carefully taking the weird foil-and-pole conglomerate from me, he trotted over to the eastern Wall of Iron and mounted the neighboring scaffold.

I turned to the final member of our little party. "Kaelan, you set?" I asked.

Kaelan couldn't have been more than nineteen—an infant by Deorsi standards—and had just graduated from her apprenticeship, having become a first-level wizard only yesterday. She was clearly very confused about why she was getting such personal attention from such luminaries as Unn (and, presumably "whoever this wacko is that Unn is letting hang around with her" as I'm sure she thought of me). Also, she was clearly about as comfortable as a sheep on roller skates with said attention.

"Yes, Your Majesty?" she said, sounding more like it was a question. "I just have to say the word?"

I nodded and flapped my hands at her in a shooing motion, giving her a big smile at the same time. "Yep. Off you go." She started to trot off and I called after her. "Make sure you've got your spellbook and pens ready! You'll need them!" She glanced back, gave me an uncertain wave, and pulled herself up the scaffold to stand beside Franklin.

"Embiggen," the young Landguard said, holding the pole-and-foil out in front of him. Instantly, the foil turned back into a horizontal mass of iron, spanning across the other two Walls to form something like a metallic Stonehenge. Well, if Stonehenge were only one dolmen, anyway.

He looked ridiculous, standing there holding onto one end of a pole that was suddenly attached to several tens of thousands of pounds of metal. I could tell from his slightly hunched stance that he felt ridiculous, too. Especially when he let go of the pole to pick up one of the buckets of dirt and worms from beside him and toss it across the iron platform. Immediately, he set the bucket down and took up his grip on the pole again.

I smiled wickedly and scampered up the scaffold behind me to join all the magi. Thomas and Alpha Squad climbed up behind me, moving more sedately than my manic-energied self.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" I called, forcing myself not to say "...and children of all ages!" This was, after all, a bit of a circus that I was about to enact. "Welcome to the first test of the Flobovian Level Enhancement Apparatus! FLEA is intended to help every one of you be all that you can be! See those worms? In just a moment, I'm going to ask you lot"—I waved at the more experienced magi, implicitly excluding the group of first-levelers standing to one side—"to Polymorph those worms into fire giants. Everyone ready?" A sussurance of puzzled but willing 'yes'es rolled through the crowd. I called across to Franklin and Kaelan and got another set of 'yes'es.

"Ok, on three. One, two, three!" I called, dropping my hand in a starting signal.

"Polymorph Any Object: Worm to Fire Giant!" they all cried, pointing at the worms. The iron platform across from us was suddenly crowded with thirty-four very confused Fire Giants.

The giants looked around, trying to figure out what was happening. Seeing us, one of them roared and started to shift his weight, only to be interrupted by a trembling teenage voice calling, "Shrinken!"

The tipped-over Wall of Iron that the Fire Giants were standing on was suddenly yanked out from under their feet, becoming a tiny piece of iron foil attached to a pole, well off to the side. The pole held the foil securely so that it didn't fall once it was unsupported. Sadly, the Giants had no such support themselves now that they were hanging in midair, again with great confusion. They didn't have long to be confused; before any of them could react, they plummeted groundwards...

...right onto the Permanencied Wall of Force that had been carefully bent back and forth between the two Walls of Iron, forming a series of infinitely sharp, utterly invisible pleats onto which the Fire Giants fell.

The (pardon me) giant creatures were chopped into sashimi, instantly reverting to normal sized earthworms.

"Ohmygod!" Kaelan gasped. "I...I know ninth level spells!"

"Next!" I yelled, waving the next apprentice mage over to take his place next to Franklin, who was busy embiggening the Wall of Iron to once again span the gap. Kaelan picked up another bucket of dirt and worms and hurled it across the iron, then immediately dropped down cross-legged on the platform and flipped open her spellbook. She seemed a bit lost to the world, and I couldn't blame her. It wasn't every day that you wake up as a first level Graduate mage with three spells and go to bed as a a twenty-seventh level Master High Mage with fifty-five. Wizards got two free spells every time they went up a level; by jacking her straight to level twenty-seven, we could suddenly add over fifty new spells to her repertoire...from which, of course, they could then be distributed into the spell books of every other wizard in the city.

Best of all, we had told her in advance what new spells to choose. We now had a woman who could cast Mage's Magnificent Mansion (to help with the overcrowding and craptastic food), Polymorph Any Object (to help run the FLEA for other people), Wish (for basically everything)...and also Ice Assassin and Mindscrape.

See, that's the most ridiculous part of leveling up when you're a mage: for each level, you can have any two spells you want. Doesn't matter if you know anything about the spells. Doesn't matter if there's no conceivable way on god's green earth that you could possibly know anything about those spells. If you know they exist, you can have them spontaneously appear in your spellbook when you go up a level.

I was feeling pretty smugly pleased with myself. I smiled happily, gripping the lapels of my trenchcoat and rocking on my heels. "That felt really good," I commented to Thomas. I waved towards Kaelan. "Look how happy she is. And being able to do this for her and everyone else is going to make a big difference. As messed up as I was this morning, I don't think I would have thought of this. I hate to say it, but Icefi really did me a favor when he Mindscraped all that crap out of my head."

Reynard had been wearing a fond smile while he watched Kaelan scribbling and the next young Graduate—a young man named Obrecht—plonking down beside her to frantically scribble down his own new spells now that he too had become a Master High Mage. When he heard my idle comment, he stopped and grabbed my arm. I turned to find him staring at me, eyes wide.

"Did you say 'Mindscrape', My Lord?" Reynard asked, the whites showing all the way around his eyes.

I frowned. "Yeees? Why?" I had a very bad feeling that I wasn't going to like the answer.

"My Lord—Your Majesty...I know that spell. It's a vile, dark spell, outlawed in Flobovia for two hundred years. Programmed Amnesia is intended as a medical spell—it gives the caster access to your memories. Mindscrape is a battle spell; the caster of Mindscrape learns everything the target knows. Everything." I could almost see the blood draining out of his face as he said it.

I thought about that for a minute. And then another. The longer I thought about it, the more scared I became.

"Everything I know?" I asked in a small voice. "Physics, chemistry, military history, the rules of the D&D game that this place runs on...?"

He nodded, his face getting paler by the moment. "Everything," he replied.

"Perhaps this isn't the ideal location to discuss this...?" Thomas commented quietly, waving a hand vaguely in a gesture that clearly meant 'because a god could be scrying on us right the frack now you idiot and the whole idea is to keep it quiet that we're working with Icefi.'

Hey, it was a very expressive gesture.

It took me a second, but I shook off the shocked paralysis and started climbing down the scaffolding. "You guys keep going with the boosts," I called to the magi. "When you run out of Polymorph Any Object spells, get some other magi in here who can cast it." They responded in the affirmative, but my thoughts were already elsewhere.

As I paced back towards Grǫfhamr, I kept thinking more and more about the implications. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got.

By the time we got back into the city, I was seething. "Thinks he can steal all my stuff, huh?" I hissed. "Oh, that is so not on."

"What are you thinking, Your Majesty?" Thomas asked carefully.

I snarled. "Lichboy and his Invisible Sky Daddy want to play games? We can do that. Game on, baby. Game on."

o-o-o-o

Several miles in the air, a wizard popped into existence. Supported by her Fly spell, Febe glanced down to verify that she was in the correct place; she was reassured to see the giant seething mass of undead a mile below (which, under normal circumstances, would be a thing to be most unreassured by). Satisfied, she unslung her backpack and turned it upside down. The backpack clearly had no truck with physics, because several tens of thousands of tiny clay blobs poured out and began to plummet towards the earth a mile below.

Febe let herself have a moment to watch the blobs fall. They were simple things—fragments of the 'clusterbomb' ammunition that this strange new lord had introduced, baked into a fresh layer of clay. She had seen the tests; when the things hit hard ground they shattered, releasing the Celestial Brilliance'd rubber balls inside. The results would be devatating to an undead army.

Regretfully, she shook herself out of the woolgathering and teleported back to Grǫfhamr for another load. She and her compatriots had a lot more deliveries to make tonight, both to Afi's Legions and to the forces of the other liches.

Her teeth were bared in a vicious smile as she appeared in the air over Grǫfhamr. ~It's about time they started letting us take the fight back to the enemy,~ she thought.

o-o-o-o

"Tamar, God of Smiths, God of Dwarves, God of Stone and Steel, reveal yourself to us!" the cleric called. She grabbed her beard in one hand and sliced off a few hairs with the razor sharp mithral dagger that was her most prized possession. The hairs went into the brazier, her sacrifice to draw the attention of her god.

It took a few minutes, but eventually a metallic haze floated up from the brazier and gathered, slowly, into the semblance of a face. It was wider and sharper than a human's, with rugged lines that seemed to have been chiseled from mountain granite.

"Why do you call, My Priestess?" The voice sounded like the two sides of a faultline grinding against one another.

Katash—it was only the first two syllables of her proper name, but her proper name went on for a year and a day and was just too impractical for normal use so, 'Katash' it was. Katash struck her chest with one fist in salute to her god. "Steellord, I have an outsider here who beseeches a boon."

One of the craggy eyebrows lifted. "A boon, for an outsider? And a human at that? A bold request. What boon would you ask, little human?"

The tone of that voice was pretty much the same as one might use to say "Oh look, a cockroach. Eww." I found this fact...disconcerting.

"Steellord, I seek knowledge, and I wish to trade starmetal for it. Will you hear my request?" I was on my knees in proper penitent fashion and speaking using the polite forms I'd been drilled in. It grated like a wire brush on the foreskin of my antitheistic soul, but I was doing it.

~Hm. That analogy started off well and then turned rather horrifying,~ I thought, then shook the idea aside. When one's internal narration started critiquing itself, it was definitely time to start looking for a therapist. Besides, it was important to stay focused right now. Eyes on the prize, baby, eyes on the prize.

"Clever, human," the Voice rumbled, somewhere between amused and irked. "You know how much we prize starmetal. Very well, make your request."

"There are several drow cities below the Gray Spine mountains, Steellord. They make weapons and armor which they trade to our enemies, the drauga. For each city whose location you are willing to provide, I will trade you one hundred million tons of starmetal."

The face of the God recoiled in shock. "A hundred million tons?! There isn't such an amount!"

Good; not only were the reverb and boom gone from his voice, he was incredulous instead of angry. I could work with that.

"Steellord, it's true. I realize that the amount of iron that has come to earth from the heavens is far, far less than what I mention, but I happen to know of a source. Now, unfortunately, bringing it down to earth may dig up the ground a bit, so I'd need to know that was okay with you..."

o-o-o-o

Cataclysms came to life and walked down the Gray Spines; wreathed in plasma and striking with the metaphorical power of a god's fist, the artificially created meteors hammered into the ground one after another. Impact after impact dug the craters deeper and deeper, smashing down and down and down until they smashed through the protective armor of the rock like the largest bunker busters ever invented, blasting into the caverns of the drow and erasing them instantly from existence.

"I assume you have fully grasped my master's intent?" the vampire demanded of the Spider Priestess, dismissing his scrying with a casual wave now that what he had wanted to show her was done. "He has grown tired of the way your people gouge prices. There will be no more commerce. From now on, you will offer tribute of armor and weapons for two hundred and fifty thousand undead warriors per month. For every day that you are late, another city will be destroyed."

The drow priestess seethed but kept the rage off her beautiful face. "Of course, High One. Lord Afi shall receive the first tribute within thirty days, you have my word. I thank you for conveying the message." She gave a perfectly respectful bow, deep enough that her face was hidden; she wasn't sure how much longer she could keep smiling at this arrogant thing, but she didn't dare let him see her rage.

At least, not until she'd had time to gather the families for war.

Colborn sniffed derisively and teleported away without another word. He had two more drow cities and a svartalfen mage academy to make stops at. After all, it was important that they be apprised of "Afi's demands" in time to prepare.

o-o-o-o

*Hey Bonebrain!* I sent through the link, directing it to everyone so that we could all follow the conversation.

*What do you want, human?* the dry, slithery voice demanded.

*Got a deal for you,* I told him, my mental voice filled with savage glee. *We left a helmet at the downhill end of the canyon. You put it on and let it do its thing, or we fire off a Sending to Afi telling him about you.*

The response was dry as bone, but I could "hear" hints of anger behind it. *Try it, human, and I'll exterminate your pathetic little colony.* The voice took on a note of mocking humor. *I must say, you 'Flobovians' make up for your stupid name with your sheer ingenuity at destruction. This Bag of Holding I'm looking at is lovely.*

I winced a little at that and flashed Albrecht an apologetic look. He rolled his eyes.

*Sure, you could do that,* I told him. *Of course, it wouldn't help your cause—I've sent dozens of magi out already. Unless they get a recall order, in five minutes they'll start sending messages to Afi, the other Lich Kings, and anyone in general that we think might be in contact with Afi. They won't stop sending them, either; eventually, one of those messages is going to show up when Neklos is paying attention, and then the game's over. Neklos will know that Afi is trying to betray him, will know that you exist...my guess is he'll rip Afi's mind apart then and there and just use his body as a finger puppet from then on. Do you want to find out?*

There was a brief pause; when the voice returned, there was an entire arctic wasteland behind it and it was directed at Thomas, not at me. *God-slave, you will make him send that recall order immediately, or my brothers and I will begin glassing your nation. I have done my research, meatling. I know where your parents live, and your sister. Quite a sweet little thing, and such pretty red hair. It would be a shame if I had to burn it off one strand at a time with Acid Spray.*

Thomas laughed across the link. *You really don't understand the Landguard at all, do you, soulless one? We do whatever is necessary. I sliced your brother into rags even though he was my dearest friend.* Thomas's voice took on a pretended faraway tone, layered over not-so-secret malicious pleasure. *I was surprised to find that liches can still feel pain, you know. It made it so much more fun, knowing that it hurt him when I shattered his legbones and dropped him in a mewling heap at my feet. He tried to curse me about then...wasn't very successful, since I'd already spitted his skull on my blade. Rather interfered with him working his jaw, you know?*

*You will not allow your Land to come to harm,* the Ice Assassin responded, absolute certainty in its mental voice. *I am above your parents' house as we speak. Make your little puppet king send the order, or I will burn it to the ground with your family inside.*

Thomas's face smoothed out, becoming a blank mask. *Go ahead. Unless we can stop your master they would die anyway. You stole knowledge that we need kept secret. Change alignment so we can trust you, or I will see you and your creator destroyed, even if the world burns for it and my family is first in the fire.*

*Just for the record?* I told the Ice Assassin gleefully. *I can't send the recall order. Only Thomas can do that...and I think you now have a sense of how likely you are to persuade him before time runs out.*

The pause was substantial this time, and we all held our breath. This was a very, very high stakes game of chicken, and all we could do was pray the Ice Assassin didn't call our bluff...mostly because it wasn't a bluff. We really had precommitted exactly the way we claimed. Nothing else would have sufficed against an enemy like this. And I really couldn't issue the recall order. I had deliberately left that authority to Thomas and only Thomas.

*Suppose I was willing to do this thing, to yield to your demands,* the dry voice said. "*How do I know I can trust you, meatling? How do I know that you wouldn't begin sending these messages anyway?*

*Allow your alignment to be changed and I will recall the magi. Allow your alignment to be changed and I will prevent these messages from being sent in future, so long as you and all of yours maintain faith with us and do not cast yourselves against us. I swear on the Land, and in the name of the True God of Flobovia, to keep my faith with thee,* Thomas sent soberly. There was a formality to the thoughts, a hint of recitation from long-treasured source. *I bind my honor and my soul in earnest to this vow: my word is good, my intent is without deceit, I shall not waver from its completion.*

Again the pause dragged on, but this time it felt more like shocked surprise.

*I believe you, paladin,* the slithery voice of the Ice Assassin replied in a tone of surprised respect. *But I cannot accept your bargain. Becoming Good might place me in opposition to my master. I cannot allow that. What I can do, however, is to sacrifice the knowledge that I took from your Emperor, and give my oath that no other has it. Will that suffice?*

I nodded in excitement, forgetting that he couldn't see me. *Yes! That will do fine. We'll meet you—*

Thomas's hand on my arm disrupted my thought-sending. *No. That will not suffice. You will wear the helmet and accept the change or the messages will be sent, even if the world burns for it.*

My eyes were wide and I could feel the blood draining right out of my face. "Thomas, what are you doing?!" I hissed. "Take the deal! All we need is to make sure he doesn't have the info, don't go nuclear if you don't have to!"

Thomas shook his head, face set. *You will accept the change or the world burns, monster. Make your choice.*


Author's Commentary: Jake's promise of 'one hundred million tons' of starmetal (a.k.a. iron that fell from the sky) was a gross understatement; he just didn't think that Tamar would believe the truth.

The 'bunker busters' they used were 100-meter diameter solid iron kinetic bolides, created using Polymorph Any Object. (They could have used shaped osmium harpoons, which would have done more damage, but this was just as easy and made Tamar happier.) Each of the bolides massed over four billion tons each, and our Big Damn Heroes weren't interested in bringing ammo home; they dropped a few dozen on each drow city. After all, that's what's necessary to dig through a mile of solid rock.

Hey, go big or go home.


Author's Note, supplemental: I'm selling spinoff stories over on GreenDogPress. The first item is a novelette entitled "One Hot Night"; it's on sale for $1. (It does NOT use any copyrighted material, meaning that it's legal for me to sell.)

I intend to keep 2YE itself free, and I have no intention of stopping until the story is done, regardless of how many sales of spinoff work I do or don't get.

The blurb for "One Hot Night" is:

"In a society without death, Ingfred is 20 years old and has no prospects. All the good jobs are filled by undying masters of their craft, and it's hard to be taken seriously when you are, compared to everyone around you, an infant. Fortunately, he has a solution: undergo an illegal transformation and sell the memory to The Experiental Herald for a ridiculous sum.

There's two problems: how can Ingfred convince a powerful wizard to risk his mage license and his freedom to help with such a crazy plan? And, once that's done...how will Ingfred deal with the law?"

Thanks to tdwhitta for helping me produce this blurb.