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Book of Elfenehoala

 

Part 1

Part 2

The screams of the dying fae filled the air, causing the Maeve Consciousness to roar in fury and to channel ethereal power towards the latest attack on the Serynwodenhillirim. I could sense the energies of Spirit Moon and the White Hart buttressing the Maeve's protective shield that surrounded the plants and animals of the forest.

"No, Elfie," said my sister Lisaera, holding my arm. I had not even realised I had begun striding towards the ethereal fold of the Serynwodenhillirim. Heated words bubbled up from my bosom but died in my throat as I looked into Lisaera's eyes and saw the pain and fear reflected there. Both of us had been the principals in awakening Spirit Moon, one of the greatest Sixth Circle accomplishments we did together. If anyone knew how I felt, it was Lisaera.

On my other side, Charune laid one of his enormous hands on my shoulder. His eyes too reflected anxiety. White Hart had manifested from the group consciousness of Charune's own Seventh Circle creations, and White Hart, along with Spirit Moon, was also tied as a spiritual protector of the Serynwodenhillirim.

"We need to see if the defences of the Maeve and the Greater Spirits can protect the forest without us," said Charune softly. "We must see how long they can hold."

I nodded numbly, understanding that we needed to test how strong the forests were when anchored to the Maeve Consciousness and buttressed by the Great Spirits. This was the third attack this week. I looked around at those of us gathered here, mostly those of the Sixth and Seventh Circle, along with Aslarn, who was intently monitoring the Maeve Consciousness as her personality solidified into the collective consciousness of the fae.

Viravain suddenly cried out in pain, and I saw her and Nocht clutching each other. The attack must have spread to Glorianalefehlora. Next to them, Tae bellowed in anger and pain, but was held back by a very distraught Bollikin. So another attack on Ackeleheliorna. I realised that the entire Basin of Life was under attack. This was troubling as the Basin, which covered over a third of First World, was not only protected geographically by strong mountain ranges but further defended by the greatest magics woven by all the Circles. Even beyond that, the Basin was in the shadow of Mount Dynara, upon which stood the House of Xyl, and which held the pulse of the First World itself.

As the battle on the prime material plane continued, the experiments of Manteekan of the Sixth was let loose. Manteekan was a member of our own circle who had recently taken to awakening lesser spirits, and then moulding them specifically to battle the Soulless. Many of us were troubled by his awakenings, for they were dark and twisted things. The Maeve Collective resisted assimilating them but they did seem to help repel the Soulless attacks. I felt a wave of these creations, the banshee, grimalkin, redcaps, and bogies swarm throughout the Serynwodenhillirim. The tall thin figure of Manteekan, dressed in flowing white robes that matched his bone white hair, paced around the Maeve, yelling at her to use more of the barghest, hodekin, spriggans, slaugh and squonks. The Maeve shuddered but eventually did as ordered. I couldn't help wondering if after this war - if there was an after - we would need to put Manteekan's dark creations down. Surely they were too unstable to exist outside of war.

The Maeve continued to rage, pulling energies from other forests across Lusternia, sending them to buttress the battling greater and lesser spirits. The attack finally ebbed, and we all breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the Soulless must have finally been repelled. Aslarn released us to aid the forests. He was stoic and strong, though we could not help but wonder how much he hurt within. His favored jungle, Jojobo, was outside the Basin and was subject to countless attacks. I wondered how long Jojobo could last. Spirit Sun, one of the guardian spirits of Jojobo, remained in stasis, and the other guardian spirit, Great Lion, was still in mourning for the recent loss of his creator, Lorella of the Seventh Circle. Aslarn spent much of his time personally overseeing Jojobo.

As I hurried to offer aid to Spirit Moon, I was surprised that Lisaera wasn't at my side. For weeks now, Lisaera had become more and more remote. I knew something was bothering her greatly, but I couldn't understand why she wasn't confiding in me. Perhaps it was the oppressive atmosphere that weighed on all of us. At least, the atmosphere burdened me. Still, she should be there to help me channel domotheon energies through Spirit Moon.

When I returned to the Fields of the Maeve, the others reported that, though the attack was focused on the Basin of Life, the forests held up remarkably well. As we each reported, Aslarn nodded and smiled, though his tired eyes told another story.

"Good. Good," said Aslarn. "Such be what we wanted of the forests. And how be faring the Maeve?"

"The Maeve is forming extremely well," said Bollikin shakily. "We couldn't have asked for a better result. None of us could foresee the consequences of the fae spirits forming a collective, but the conscious is individuating remarkably fast. The more she handles the attacks on the forests, the stronger she gets in uniting the fae and channelling the guardian spirits, though I daresay the personality she's forming tends to be a bit domineering and regal."

"Manteekan," Aslarn turned to the tall thin Sixth, "your new awakenings do be seeming to be able to withstand more of the Soulless attacks than many of the other fae. Do you be pleased?"

"Aye," said Manteekan, rubbing his long, needle-like fingers together. "They resist as well as I expected. They are still young though, these spirits, and I expect them to become stronger and more deadly as they mature."

I shuddered at that. I barely recognised Manteekan these days, he seemed more emaciated than I had remembered. Though he was always pale, it seemed as though he was fading to an almost translucent white. And those awakenings of his! I could not imagine where he even began to find the raw spiritual energies that formed them.

"It's well enough that the forest defences held," I said. "But this was an attack across all the Basin. How bad must it be on the prime?"

Fairly bad, as it turned out. Eventually, wounded began arriving to be treated by the hamadhi at the healing mounds. Igaso of the Second Circle reported to Aslarn that several Seconds had fallen during this last attack.

Before we could finish mourning the latest casualties, Maeve's furious roar began again, and I nearly succumbed to despair. The Soulless never tired, and we became weaker and weaker. But the cycle of attacks continued and went on and on. The hamadhi began to fall in exhaustion as the wounded Seconds kept coming in, with terrible injuries to their bodies and souls. The days began blurring around me, and I kept worrying about Lisaera who continued to disappear for longer and longer periods of time. But I never found the chance to confront her as the daily chaos kept sweeping everything else to the back of my mind. Though the guardian spirits and the Maeve Consciousness greatly protected the forests, we found we had to help them more and more. Those of us in the Fields of the Maeve were so often overwhelmed, that despair hung in the air as a continually palatable presence.

Thus, I was so focused on our own problems in the fields that I wasn't quite aware when the tide of war began to turn in our favour. The attacks must have gradually lessened over time, but I think we were all too isolated to notice. I guess it was when Blooredi created a new species which formed a collective greater spirit that it began to dawn on me that we were suddenly winning battles, or at least not losing so badly.

I was never very close to Blooredi, and I rarely saw him in the Fields of the Maeve. After all, none of his animal creations had ever before formed a great spirit, which is the apex of achievement for those of the Seventh Circle. I had just assumed he was supporting the Second Circle in the main fight, as many of the other circles were. However, one day when there was a lull in the attacks, Blooredi burst into the glade with an almost manic expression of triumph on his face.

"I did it!" he shouted, thumping his chest. "You all thought I couldn't do it! But I did! A great spirit has manifested from my newest creation!"

There was immediate applause from the Seventh Circle members, from Tae slapping Blooredi on the back to Viravain and Nocht oohing and ahhing to Bollikin dancing in a circle and clapping his hands. The rest of us couldn't help but smile. I never realised how ugly Blooredi was. Was his complexion always covered in a mottled piebald pattern? Certainly, he was ganglier and larger than I recalled. But his joy at manifesting a great spirit made his homely countenance suddenly cheerful.

"Well, introduce your spirit to us!" exclaimed Bollikin.

"Where did she go?" Blooredi growled, then spun around and grabbed something that was hiding behind a tree. "Ah, here she is! My greatest creation! Spirit Scorpion!"

Before us stood a hunched figure wrapped in a dark cloak with a hood pulled over her face. Irritated, Blooredi grabbed the back of the hood and pulled it down so we could see the face of Spirit Scorpion. Did I mention that Blooredi was not exactly attractive? Well, compared to this Spirit Scorpion, he was gorgeous. The spirit was painfully thin and her body was tortuously twisted. Her scaly skin was so wrinkled, that it hung in puckered folds like melted wax. Completely bald, she had a misshapen forehead, a lipless mouth and hooded red eyes. There was a stunned silence as we stared at her. She trembled under our gaze.

"Oi! She's an ugly one," blurted Tae undiplomatically.

"What on earth is a scorpion?" asked Bollikin quickly.

"While you have been cozy here in the ethereal," said Blooredi, casting a contemptuous glare at Tae, "some of us have been battling the Soulless. I personally created the scorpions to battle the Soulless themselves."

Blooredi snapped his fingers several times, and a pair of menacing creatures appeared before him. They came up to his waist and had long armoured, multi-legged bodies. Two enormous, razor edged claws jutted out but these were eclipsed by a huge armoured tail, the end of which held a stinger that dripped poison. There was a collective gasp from all of us.

"Beautiful, aren't they," said Blooredi proudly, interpreting our collective repugnance as a compliment. "They produce a variety of poisons, some of which have been useful against the Soulless. They've been sent out already to help buttress the Second Circle. And now, with a Great Spirit, you can guess how much more useful they'll be!"

"Amazing," whispered Bollikin, ignoring the scorpions and approaching their collective consciousness, Spirit Scorpion, who was now trembling terribly. "Are you alright, dear one? Be not afraid. We are all your friends here."

"I do not wish to fight," she rasped, her voice barely audible.

"What's this?" shouted Blooredi. "Of course, you'll fight! I created you to fight!"

"I do not wish to fight," she repeated, drawing her cloak tighter around her.

"You will do as I say," seethed Blooredi, his face purpling in rage. "I created you, and if I say you will fight, you will damn well fight."

Spirit Scorpion backed away from Blooredi, which only infuriated him more. I think we were all shocked when he reached out to grab her, and she ducked out of his grasp and did a backflip away from him. Feeble she may have looked, but she was certainly fast. She drew up her hood and raced away.

"Come back here, damn you!" screamed Blooredi, rage warring with embarrassment.

"Bloo," whispered Bollikin soothingly. "She is newly formed, a child herself. Give her time to get to know you."

"How dare she defy me!" growled Blooredi. "None of your great spirits defy you!"

"We don't force them to do anything they don't want," said Viravain softly.

"But they obey you!" Blooredi said. "I have seen all of you throw it in my face often enough."

"That's not fair, Bloo," said Bollikin. "We are only happy to see you have created a Great Spirit. If our spirits obey us at all, it is only because they love us."

"Bah!" said Blooredi, turning to stare where Spirit Scorpion had disappeared to. "She'll do as I say or she will pay."

With that, Blooredi stomped off to find Spirit Scorpion. We broke apart into smaller groups, discussing these new creatures that Blooredi had created, who were strong enough in spirit to form a collective consciousness. Bollikin kept shaking his head and pacing next to Tae and Charune, and I wandered over to hear what they were saying.

"I just do not understand," Bollikin said. "He's never created anything remotely as powerful as those scorpions. Did you feel their lifeforce?"

"Not as strong as my bears," said Tae defensively.

"Maybe not," said Charune, "but even Viravain who is a master of creating venomous creatures could not create anything that would affect the Soulless, at least not in such a short time."

"And the intelligence in that Great Spirit Scorpion!" said Bollikin. "I don't think I've ever sensed anything quite like it."

"She was smart enough to run away from Bloo anyway," said Tae bluntly.

No one could argue with that, and I drifted away from the conversation. As the days went on, that was when it became clear that we were actually winning the war. Reports of enormous successes by certain Second Circle cadres filtered down to us. The Third Circle were coming up with ingenious new ways to use domotheon energies as weapons. The hamadhi were suddenly making great advances in healing what used to be debilitating afflictions. And, even though Great Spirit Scorpion was a reluctant participant, Blooredi was able to use her to produce deadly toxins that could coat the weapons of the Second Circle. And we couldn't forget the success of the Manteekan's strange awakenings. Such a change in fortune was almost too good to be true.

And, of course, it was too good to be true.

Lisaera finally spoke to me.

"You must come with me," she said to me one day as I was enjoying a small respite from the battles.

Lisaera did not appear well; her eyes were hooded and she looked haggard. I tried to ask her what was wrong, but she shushed me and beckoned me to follow her. Alarmed, I held my tongue and let her take me out of the ethereal plane. We travelled through several elemental planes, and Lisaera would occasionally stop and send her senses out, looking to see if we were being followed, before continuing. I lost track of how many elemental folds we passed in and out of, but then we started rising higher into the cosmic vibrations.

Lisaera had never indicated any interest in the cosmic planes, which left me even more anxious why we were here. Just before our final jump, Lisaera stopped and turned to me, holding onto my hands tightly in hers.

"Elfie," she said, "when was the last time you met with Fain? Has he approached you recently?"

"Your beloved Fain?" I asked, confused. "I have not seen him in some time, Lisaera. Surely you don't suspect he and I..."

"No, no!" Lisaera said, a hint of a smile on her lips. "Not that, no."

Looking deeper into my eyes, Lisaera nodded to herself and drew me forward. Her hands trembled but her eyes glowed with determination. She made a final fold into the cosmic planes, and we arrived at our destination.

I later learned the name of this crèche was called the Continuum. It was one of the dead planes, called so because Dynara's creations there had risen up to become Elders and abandoned their creche. I suppose there was a beauty to the sharp symmetric angles and smooth reflective surfaces, but I found it to be a cold and hard place. Lisaera led me down through the strange spiralling crystalline corridors, to finally exit into a large room with an enormous crystal floating in the centre.

And we were not alone.

Several other Elders were there, looking as though they had been using this as a base of operations for some time. Meridian seemed to be in charge, but others of the First Circle surrounded him, including Zvoltz, Aslarn and Eventru. Roark and Xyl, both of the Fifth Circle, were overseeing the enormous floating crystal. The rest were all of the warrior caste. Three members of the Golden Ones, Krokano, Terentia and Hajamin, were at Meridian's side. Also there was the entire Second Circle cadre known as the Crimson Eyes, which included Kalikai, Igaso, Ologri, Braun and Panamandius. The only one of the Crimson Eyes not there was Oovanti, the brother-mate to Ologri, but then I recalled that he was one of the earliest casualties in the war.

The Crimson Eyes sat around a crystalline table, with expressions ranging from apprehensive to bored. They were notable because of their sheer size and bulk. Kalikai was at the head of the table, and I had forgotten how monstrously large she was, with dark reddish-brown skin and a fiery head of red hair that was chopped haphazardly short and stuck up at all angles. She was fairly sprawled across her chair, with her feet hiked up on the table as she smoked a large black pipe. Amid the pipe's acrid purple fumes was the stink of firemead, which she drank from an enormous tankard. Firemead was brewed by Dracnoris and very few could handle its intoxicating effects. I had to weave a quick protection against those fumes before they made me ill.

"What is going on?" I asked, a terrible premonition making me shudder. Meridian walked over to me and then looked towards Lisaera who nodded at him.

"There is something you must know," said Meridian. "For some time now, Fain has been secretly carrying on with his project to create an elixir from the essence of the Soulless."

"Are you sure?"

"Krokano brought us some compelling proof and we have been watching him and gathering evidence. Of course, we realized he was recruiting other Elders so we needed to find a way to identify who were his followers. We needed someone to enter his service undercover. Someone he could trust completely."

"Lisaera!" I whispered, shocked. My sister looked away from me but nodded.

"I wouldn't believe it was true when Meridian first approached me," said Lisaera. "But then I noticed Fain was acting so secretive. Eventually I pressed him to tell me what he was doing. At first, he told me he was just doing research, simply studying the results of the elixir on Orlachmar. But then he admitted he had been created more of the elixir."

"When was this?" I asked.

"Some time ago," said Lisaera. "But he has only recently trusted me enough to offer for me to become an initiate into his mysteries. At least that's what he calls it. I think initially he didn't want me to be a part of it but, as time has gone on, his heart has grown harder."

"So now you are an initiate?"

"I will be soon. He will take me to a clandestine meeting with his conspirators and it will be the first time I will be introduced to them."

"It is critical we find out who follows Fain," said Meridian. "There could be hundreds for all we know. We are sure that everyone here has not been compromised, but Fain's elaborate precautions prevent us from uncovering the rest."

"We should have stopped him sooner," growled Aslarn.

"We should have," agreed Eventru, who spread his hands and looked away. "But some of us wanted to see if Fain's plan would work, what the results would be."

"There were many sudden successes in the war," said Zvoltz defensively. He was a member of the First Circle, with glittering, cold eyes, who had initially supported Fain. "Surely you noticed! Battles were suddenly being won. Those who showed little aptitude in their work suddenly made great strides."

"Blooredi," I gasped.

"Yes, we suspect Blooredi," said Aslarn.

"It was worse than we feared ultimately," said Meridian. "Several day ago, a war party went out to strike at a lesser Soulless One. When they returned, several members were missing."

"I've been developing a means to track the movements of the Soulless," said Roark. "After this last battle, I went to the location to test my theories to see if I could map the excoroperditio energy trails. But I found nothing. I checked and double checked, and then alerted Meridian and Zvoltz. Investigation revealed no signs of battle. But I did notice some traces of an immanidivinus energy stamp that is unique only to Oralchmar. But Orlachmar wasn't with the war party. Logically, then, there were others who had similar properties, ergo, others who drank the forbidden elixir."

"So what happened to the warriors who went missing?"

"We don't know," said Meridian. "They are gone and cannot be located so we suspect foul play. Perhaps they were offered membership into Fain's group and refused, perhaps they just wanted to...feed. We do know. But the fact that they are now starting to turn on the Elders proves that matters are much, much worse than we thought."

"Why are you telling me all this?" I asked.

"Tomorrow when Fain gathers his followers, I will be there," said Lisaera. "No matter what magic he uses to conceal the location of their meeting, nothing can penetrate our innate bond as siblings. Through our bond, you will be able to report what is happening and they would have no way to track that."

"Are you sure, Lissie?" I asked, pulling her aside. "Is this something you can do?"

"It is something I must do, Elfie."

"Then you are no longer in love with Fain?"

"Oh no," said Lisaera turning away. "I love him as much as I ever did."

We said nothing more.

After that, events moved quickly. Xyl placed a silver circlet upon my head. The circlet was studded with charged gems and attuned to the enormous crystal that rotated in the crystalline chamber. Through our bond link, the crystal reflected everything Lisaera saw and heard.

Later that evening, from the safety of the dead crystal plane known as the Continuum, we observed Lisaera in the ethereal fold helping the Maeve Consciousness pull energy from the forests and direct their healing powers to those fae in need. Lisaera was suddenly startled when a cool hand came to rest on her shoulder. She jumped and turned, to see Fain standing there, holding something shining in his hand.

"Fain, you surprised me!" she said.

"I'm sorry, beloved," he said. "But I brought you a gift."

Fain handed Lisaera a beautifully crafted mask. It as made of pale porcelain inlaid with silver swirls. Rimmed with emeralds, holes were cut out for the mouth and eyes. An enchantment was woven so thickly around it that it was glowing.

"It's beautiful," said Lisaera, running her fingers over its surface and tracing the magical enchantments. "What is it for?"

Fain smiled and fitted the mask over her face. Lisaera felt the enchantment unfold, cloaking her in a field that wrapped around her.

"It is so others will not see who you are at the meeting," said Fain. "And each member will likewise be wearing a mask so you will not see who the others are."

"Don't you trust me?" asked Lisaera.

"Of course, beloved," said Fain. "But you must trust me too. I cannot be seen to give you preferential treatment, especially as you are not initiated yet."

"I understand," she replied.

"And, beloved, I would never ask you to do something that I would not likewise do!"

With that Fain summoned forth a mask which materialised over his own face. It was as red as blood and embellished with gold. The handsome features of the mask were unmistakably exaggerations of Fain's own features. While the other masks may have been able to hide the identity of the others, there was no mistaking that this was Fain. When had he become so vain?

"Alas," said Fain, "there is one more layer of necessity. The mask also functions in reverse, so forgive me will I activate its polarity. You will not be able to see or feel where we go."

"Is all this necessary, Fain?" asked Lisaera.

"Yes, beloved," he whispered, then waved a hand over the silver mask.

Back in the Continuum, the link between Lisarea and I faded so I could only barely feel her emotions. Xyl cursed and the others leaned forward as Xyl frantically made adjustments to the crystal, but the magic of the mask could not be penetrated.

When the link finally reestablished, Lisaera had arrived at the secret meeting place. Fain was lowering his hand, obviously having reversed the mask's enchantment. The bizarre landscape surrounding them seemed to undulate. Wavering tendrils sprouted up from the ground in odd clusters. The air was thick with humidity, and the sky blazed with rainbow colours that chased each other in swirling patterns. I had never seen the like and from the reactions around me, no one else had either. As stark and bare as the Continuum was, this place was riotous.

Lisaera and Fain were not the first to arrive. Three others were there before them, each wearing their own mask. One had a mask of deep midnight blue, the other the mask of a golden tiger, and the third a startlingly grotesque orange mask with large tusks. Soon others began to furtively arrive. After making obeisances to Fain, they formed a circle around him. There were thirteen total, including Lisaera. Back at the Continuum, there was a sigh of relief that there were so few followers. Apparently, Fain's paranoia and caution prevented him from recruiting in greater numbers.

Fain stood up and began to speak, holding his arms out before him as if embracing everyone. I could feel Lisaera trying to figure out who all the masked members were, but she could not break through the magic of the masks, at least not without drawing attention to herself.

"My friends," said Fain. "Our great mission is to win this war against the Soulless Ones! Whatever the cost. Whatever it takes. We must win. Our one path to salvation is the Elixir, forbidden by others in their ignorance, but that is a tragedy that must not be allowed! The Elixir offers strength, and the more we drink, the stronger we become. Their strength shall become our strength."

The others in the circle cheered. Fain held up a hand and they became silent, leaning forward hungrily. Lisaera was frightened but determined, and we both knew that mask was also a blessing insofar that it hid her expressions of alarm.

"Now we must take the communion," said Fain. "We must shoulder the burden that the others have forsaken. Our secret ally, come forward."

As Fain stepped back, the air rippled, and slowly a dark smear solidified and formed into an emaciated shimmering being that shivered uncontrollably. It was one of the Soulless, though only a minor one. There were few of those left since the larger Soulless Ones consumed most of these smaller entities, but apparently Fain had found one and allied with it, keeping it hidden and protected not only from the greater Soulless but also from the other Elder Gods.

Two blue masked members stepped forward and bowed to Fain, then approached the Soulless creature with a heavy golden goblet between them. The creature slowly extended an emaciated limb. Its skin was pale and translucent, underneath which teamed thousands of smaller creatures, like maggots feasting just beneath the flesh.

One of the blue masked members held the creature's arm and drew a black dagger, pricking a vein. The other held the goblet underneath, funneling the essence in its bowl. The Soulless whined but did not back away as the greenish white ichor flowed out of the wound and into the goblet. The blue masked members drew away, huddling over the goblet, adding vials of fluids to mix with the pure essence of the Soulless, all the while murmuring incantations.

"What is given shall be replaced," hissed the Soulless through desiccated lips. "That was the pact!"

"And we honor the pact, Nemach," said Fain, then turned to Lisaera. "Silver Mask, you are our newest member. It falls on you to honor our pact with Nemach and prove your loyalty to our cause. Will you do it?"

"Yes," said Lisaera faintly.

Nemach began to scuttle towards Lisaera, but Fain stepped in front of it, motioning it to hold back. Fain lent forward to Lisarea.

"Beloved, forgive me," he whispered to her. "But we each have done this thing. You must give part of your essence to Nemach."

Oh, Lisaera! She bravely gave a curt nod and let the sleeve of her robe be pulled up. Nemach scrabbled forward, extending an eager tendril to wrap around Lisaera's arm. Out of the tendril grew hollow teeth that punctured her flesh. I began to cry as I felt my sister's pain, sharp and cruel, shuddering through her being. The Soulless greedily drank her essence. I know I screamed for both of us, as the bond sent nothing but dark waves of red and black pain scorching through Xyl's observation crystal.

Finally, Fain pulled away Nemach with a sharp command, "Enough!"

Lisaera was close to fainting, but held herself rigidly up and rolled down her sleeve to conceal the wound I knew she would carry forever.

"Well done, beloved," Fain said to her, then nodded to the rest. "We expand our members from twelve to thirteen. Soon we will grow to even greater numbers. We have infiltrated several warrior cadres, and all of the circles. Victory will be our price for saving the First World. What price is victory? None is too great!"

Fain retrieved the golden goblet which now bubbled and sizzled with a greenish fluid. The forbidden elixir. He raised the goblet up which fitted perfectly into the mouth hole of his red mask. He then tilted his head back and drank deeply from the goblet. As he pulled it away, his lips could be seen through the hole, now blue-black and glistening, slightly swollen. He passed the goblet to Lisaera.

Through the bond with Lisaera, I could smell the forbidden elixir, which had a heady metallic scent. Something about it was intoxicating, and I felt Lisaera's desire to consume it, especially after she had been so weakened.

Don't do it, Lisaera! I wanted to scream and rush to her, but we still had no idea where she was. She lifted the goblet to her lips and tilted it back. Her throat worked as she gulped, and when she tilted the goblet back down, her lips gleamed silvery-blue, pale and wet. She passed the goblet to her left.

No one noticed. I breathed a slight of relief. It was an illusion - she only pretended to drink the elixir and painted her lips with illusion. The others may have detected such an obvious ruse if they were on the look out for it, but they were intent upon the goblet and its contents.

Back at the Continuum, Kalikai of the Second Circle suddenly swung her feet off the table with a loud thud and stumbled to her feet. She had been quaffing tankard after tankard of firemead, and her eyes were bleary. She took another swig of firemead, and then clapped her hands.

"Okay, friends," she said, surprisingly not slurring her words. "I guess this is why you brought me here, eh."

"You are intoxicated!" exclaimed Xyl.

"Oh, don't crack your crystals, Glassy. I'm here because the Goldilock Brigade," she gestured at the Golden Ones, "don't have their strategist handy. Where is old Morgpie, eh?"

Krokano, Terentia and Hajamin looked uneasily at each other. I wasn't that familiar with the workings of the Second Circle cadres but apparently they each had their leaders, or generals. Morgpie was Kalikai's nickname for Morgfyre, and I suddenly recalled why Kalikai was not very popular in certain circles. She had a nickname for everyone.

"We believe he may be compromised," said Terentia finally.

"And if Morgpie is at this masked ball," said Kalikai with a gesture to the viewing crystal, "then chances are that the Fainiac is using him for tactics and strategy, eh? And which cadre, besides the Goldilock Brigade, has won the most strategic campaigns? Hmm, who could that be?"

"That would be your Crimson Eyes," said Meridian. "Enough, Kalikai. You know why we brought you here. You are one of the most brilliant strategists around. And if we are facing Morgfyre, we need someone to figure out where they meet, what this place is."

"Ah, right you are," said Kalikai, pinching her nose, and then casually stuffing her black pipe with more smell fouling herbs. "So I get the honor of second guessing the Morgpie. Hmm! Well, what is that place? Anyone seen its like before? No? Well, he's probably not chancing on meeting in the space between the aethers, that'd be a nice way to run into the Soulless. He wouldn't try the ethereal plane, and the elemental planes are being routinely scoured as power sources thanks to brains like Crystalcakes here, right?"

"Well," she went on, "that leaves us with the cosmic layers, like Crystalcakes found with this lovely little crèche. Let me guess. This was your crèche, right?"

Xyl's eyes blazed with fury, but he nodded.

"So logically Morgfyre would retreat to his own crèche, right? Wrong! That'd be just too easy. No offence, Crystalcakes, but if the Morgpie was hunting you, he'd have found you by now. This would be one of the first places he'd look. Obviously he wouldn't choose any crèche with half formed, we all know how they blab to anyone who listens. So someone else's empty crèche? That's a bit risky too, as many are fond of using them as retreats for meditation. But the cosmic layer is still the most isolated, so where does that leave us?"

Kalikai took a long drag from her pipe and blew out the obnoxious smoke in a long stream. She looked around with bloodshot eyes but we all just stared back at her.

"No one? Alrighty! How about one of the unborn creches? They're never used, are they? No half-formed live there, no one visits them out of nostalgia. They'd be the perfect place to hide a Soulless and to conduct secret meetings, no? How many unborn crèches are there, Crystalcakes?"

"Logical," said Xyl grudgingly. "There are not many known ones, maybe a dozen."

"Right then," Kalkai took drained her tankard of firemead in one gulp, then tossed it over her shoulder. I realised that while her eyes were blurry, and she slightly swayed back and forth, there was a building intensity in her the more she drank, some sort of inner alchemy was taking place, like gears getting greased and turning faster.

"The first step is for scouts. Whatever is left of the Goldilock Brigade can help my Crimson Eyes with that. We need to search every known unborn crèche. Crystalcakes, we need that list! And mind you lot, this is a scouting party! If you find them, make no contact with them! You come report to me first!"

Igaso was right behind Kalikai, handing her yet another tankard of firemead. Kalikai took a long pull on it and wiped the sizzling foam from her lips. The fire within her was roiling now, we could all see that. She grinned from ear to ear, showing teeth that glinted dangerously.

"Now, let's crash Fain's little masked ball!" she bellowed.