Category Archives: Ghost Ascension

the order of DEMONSOULED, THE GHOSTS, THE THIRD SOUL, and THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS

Shay asks:

I’m trying to organise my books right now and wondered if you could update us with a list of the books and short stories/novellas in chronological order again?

Sure. Here are all the series in order, with the various short stories inserted where they would be chronologically:

THE GHOSTS:

#1 Child of the Ghosts

Ghost Aria (Short story)

#2 Ghost in the Flames

Ghost Dagger (novella)

#3 Ghost in the Blood

#4 Ghost in the Storm

#5 Ghost in the Stone

#6 Ghost in the Forge

Ghost Claws (short story)

Ghost Omens (short story)

#7 Ghost in the Ashes

#8 Ghost in the Mask

DEMONSOULED:

The Wandering Knight (short story)

The Tournament Knight (short story)

The Dragon’s Shadow (novella)

#1 Demonsouled

#2 Soul of Tyrants

#3 Soul of Serpents

#4 Soul of Dragons

#5 Soul of Sorcery

#6 Soul of Skulls

#7 Soul of Swords

THE THIRD sOUL

#1 The Testing

#2 The Assassins

#3 The Blood Shaman

#4 The High Demon

#5 The Burning Child

#6 The Outlaw Adept

#7 The Black Paladin

#8 The Tomb of Baligant

(Omnibus One has 1-5, and Omnibus Two has 6-8.)

THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS

#1 The Tower of Endless Worlds

#2 A Knight of the Sacred Blade

#3 A Wizard of the White Council

#4 The Destroyer of Worlds

-JM

Ghost Ascension, end notes

“Ghost Ascension” actually had four possible endings. Choices made during the storyline would affect what final choices Caina had available when she touched the Bloodcrystal.

The possible endings:

1. Caina refuses to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, and is able to destroy it with Lucan’s ghostsilver sword.

2. Caina refuses to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, but drove Lucan away. She manages to destroy it with her ghostsilver dagger.

3. Caina refuses to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, but drove Lucan away, and lost the ghostsilver dagger in the fight with Sophia. Unable to stop herself from using the Bloodcrystal, she kills herself to save Malarae.

4. Caina uses the Ascendant Bloodcrystal.

#

Someone pointed out that “Ghost Ascension” had a much stronger romantic element than usual for my stuff.

This is true. I don’t like romance, and when I was younger I hated, hated, hated romantic stories and subplots with a holy passion. I preferred the stories where the hero didn’t get the girl, where the girl or the hero died at the end, or where either the hero or the girl (or the heroine and the guy, if you prefer) turned out be faithless scoundrels, dooming the relationship, or, best of all, stories with no romantic element at all.

Eventually, in 2004, I stopped writing anything with any romantic content or subplots at all.

And the last time I sold a book? 2004.

About six years later, it finally occurred to me that there just might possibly be a connection here.

I am like an atheist who has come to realize that even though he is certain God does not exist, he must nonetheless include religious characters in his fiction to achieve psychological verisimilitude. Just because he doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean anyone else shares his viewpoint, and no one wants to read books populated by little atheist clones of the author.

Apparently, a lot of people are romantics, or secretly romantic. Way more than I thought, certainly.

So I started easing romantic subplots back into things.

And I have to say, it actually makes parts of writing fiction easier – at least certain aspects of it. It’s an excellent engine for driving the plot forward. And creating believable character motivation can be tricky, but apparently everyone can relate to the motivation of “I am in love” or, more basely, “I want to get laid.”

#

Of all our “choose your own adventures” so far, “Ghost Ascension” is my favorite, and I think it’s the only one that could be expanded into a full-length book. Or combined with “Ghost Rage” to make a more episodic novel.

#

Finally, and most importantly, thank you all for voting!

-JM

Ghost Ascension, alternate ending

We already had the official ending for “Ghost Ascension”, but a few people have asked what would have happened had Caina decided to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal. Enjoy!

#

With a cry of ecstasy and despair, you stop fighting, and let the Ascendant Bloodcrystal’s power surge through you.

A pillar of emerald flame erupts from the Bloodcrystal, stabbing into the sky, and the heartbeats thundering in your ears grow louder, and louder, and louder.

The last thing you see, before the world dissolves in green flames, is Lucan collapsing.

Then the heartbeats go silent.

#

LUCAN MARAEUS died when the Bloodcrystal activated.

ARK died when the Bloodcrystal activated, along with his wife and children.

THE EMPEROR died when the Bloodcrystal activated, along with the greater part of the Imperial nobility.

A million men, women, and children lived in MALARAE when Caina activated the Bloodcrystal, and another hundred thousand within twenty miles of the city.

Every last one of them died.

ANACEPHEON screamed in despair as he felt the Bloodcrystal activate. He had failed. His darkest creation had been loosed. And he would sit upon his stone throne in the darkness, alone with his guilt, until the end of days.

Preoccupied with the Bloodcrystal, neither Caina nor Lucan noticed the dark form, like a hooded shadow, rise from SOPHIA’S corpse and flee to the south.

A few years later, rumors said that Nikaedes had returned to Istarinmul once more, slaying with his blade of hellish bronze. But few men paid any attention to those rumors.

The dark power rising in the north held their attention.

Yet some of the rumors claimed that Nikaedes, in the moments before he slew his victims, liked to wax eloquent about the dark terror ravaging the ruins of the Empire of Nighmar.

It was, he claimed, his “finest work.”

With the destruction of its capital and the loss of the Emperor, the EMPIRE OF NIGHMAR collapsed into brutal civil war as the magi and the surviving nobles scrambled to claim the Imperial throne. Thousands died in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands more in the famines and plagues that followed. The borders collapsed, and slave traders moved freely through the southern Empire, while barbarian tribes carved out kingdoms of blood and steel from the northern provinces. But soon the factions had to put aside their differences and unite or face destruction.

Something worse threatened them.

#

A light rain falls, cold water trickling down your face and neck.

A storm rages inside you, filling you with strength and power. You feel better than you have in years. You feel better than you have…ever. No more doubt, no more pain, no more fear, all gone, forever.

You open your eyes.

You’ve grown used to the noise from Malarae. Even at night, the city murmurs with the noise of a million people. But now it is silent.

Utterly silent.

The silence is beautiful.

You gaze upon Lucan’s corpse for a moment and start to laugh. The poor, pitiful fool loved you, and it brought him to his death. Well, you warned him, didn’t you? And he did get what he wanted in the end. His life force is now part of you, now and forever. The lives of Malarae are part of you, now and forever.

For a moment you feel something…grief, perhaps? Or is it guilt? But the raging storm within you scours away the emotions, leaving you cold and hard.

And strong.

You draw upon the dark storm within you, letting it fill you with power. With an act of will, you step through the netherworld, and reappear in the Grand Market below. Thousands of corpses surround you, cut down in the act of buying and selling. Men, women, children. Even the horses and the oxen lie dead. Even the trees and bushes stand black and withered.

You laugh, and more of the power fills you, green flame crackling in your fists.

And around you, the dead begin to rise, animated by your will. Pale green fires dance in their eyes, and Malarae is no longer quiet as the dead rise and stand at your command. Soon an army of corpses fills the Grand Market, motionless as statues, bound to your will and power.

You climb onto the back of a dead horse.

“Come,” you say, “let us make the world anew.”

The dead follow as you ride out of the city.

Mortal men are wicked, and cruel, and deserve to suffer…and you shall make them suffer from their crimes as they have never suffered before.

Ghost Ascension, Episode 26a

You try to fling the Bloodcrystal away

And you can’t.

You can’t make yourself let go of it.

The roar of a million heartbeats fills your ears. The green flame erupting from the Bloodcrystal grows brighter, the imprecations of the voices in your head more strident, more pleading. You can’t stop yourself, in the way that a man dying of thirst cannot stop himself from drinking seawater. The Bloodcrystal will kill everyone in Malarae, and you cannot stop it. And would that be so bad? The voices whisper how you can use the power to burn the old world to ashes and rebuild it anew…

Your resistance starts give way.

You stagger, collapsing against the broken railing. Strange. It’s only been a few heartbeats since Sophia threw the Bloodcrystal at you, yet it feels like a thousand years. You see her corpse at your feet, see Lucan stepping towards you, face grim with alarm and fear…

Lucan.

He’s real. What you have with him is real. The Bloodcrystal’s promises are only fantasies built upon the deaths of countless innocents.

You can’t make yourself let go of the Bloodcrystal. But you can still move your free hand. You reach out, seize the wrist of Lucan’s sword hand, and yank him towards you.

Smashing the ghostsilver sword against the Bloodcrystal in your other hand.

The voices howl in rage.

The Ascendant Bloodcrystal shivers in your hand, and then shatters. An explosion of green flame fills the world, and everything goes black.

Some time later you wake up.

Your head aches terribly, and your stomach writhes and clenches. Just as well you haven’t had time to eat anything today.

But the inside of your head is mercifully silent. The voices are gone.

Your look down at your left hand. All that remains of the Ascendant Bloodcrystal is a handful of gritty black ash, and even as you look, the wind scatters it across the marble flooring.

Lucan helps you sit up.

“You’re alive,” he says.

“I…think so,” you say. “The voices are gone.”

“They are?”

You nod. “They had nothing to do with Korthion. It was the Bloodcrystal. It…wanted me to use it. And I don’t think…I don’t think I could have stopped myself.” You let out a long breath. “I’m very glad you stayed.”

Lucan’s fingers close about yours as he helps you to stand. “So am I.”

#

ARK returned to work at the foundry, and to his secret work with the Ghosts. Caina dreaded calling upon him – someday she would get him killed, leave his wife a widow and his children orphans.

But when she needed him, she would call upon him anyway.

KORTHION’S (second) death embarrassed the Magisterium greatly. It was bad enough that one magus had practiced the forbidden arcane science of necromancy (or at least had gotten caught) but that he had returned and threatened to run amok? Unacceptable.

Finally, the Magisterium issued a proclamation praising SCARPIAN’S valor, describing how he had laid down his life to defend the innocent people of the Empire from Korthion’s threat. This was proof, the high magi argued, that perhaps the Magisterium should take a greater role in the governance of the Empire.

ANACEPHEON felt the destruction of the Ascendant Bloodcrystal. His life force, so long linked to his greatest creation and greatest mistake, started to drain away at once.

He sobbed in relief.  At last, at long last, his endless torment was over.

Preoccupied with the Bloodcrystal, neither Caina nor Lucan noticed the dark form, like a hooded shadow, rise from SOPHIA’S corpse and flee to the south.

A few years later, rumors filled the city of Istarinmul. Nikaedes had returned from the north, they said, bearing his blade of hellish bronze, and slaying neither for pride nor for money but the love of some demented art.

But so long as Caina Amalas lived, Nikaedes never dared return to Malarae or the Empire of Nighmar.

#

Four days later, you open the door to Lucan Maraeus’s rooms at the Black Cuirass Inn.

“Caina,” he says, looking up from the book in his hand. “I’ve been looking for you.”

You nod. “I was busy. There were things that needed handling, after the mess that Scarpian made.”

“I know,” says Lucan, getting to his feet. “But…I thought you might not want to be found.”

You say nothing.

“The last time you were here,” says Lucan, “you didn’t remember anything that happened. And after…I thought, well, we were both about to die, and perhaps you’ve changed your mind.”

You stare at him. There are so many things you could tell him. How sooner or later one of your many enemies will catch up to you. How associating with the Ghosts, with you, puts him in danger. How his father Lord Corbould will never, ever approve of you. How you are unable to bear children. Any number of excellent reasons why you should leave without another word, and he should go home to Marsis and let his father find him another wife.

But, then…he knows all that already, doesn’t he? And yet he’s still here.

“Lucan,” you say at last, “I love you, and I…want to remember it, this time.”

And this time, you do.

THE END

(But bonus material to follow!)

Ghost Ascension, Episode 25a

You snatch a throwing knife and fling it at Sophia with all your strength.

Sophia sees it coming, of course, and her sword meets the spinning blade in mid air. Your knife falls to the ground in two pieces, the cut edges glowing red-hot. Yet Lucan lunges at her, and Sophia only just manages to dodge around the blow in time.

For the first time, you see her stumble.

Giving you the opportunity to throw another knife.

This time the blade sinks into her hip, and Sophia stumbles again, her blade faltering. The ghostsilver sword slips past her guard to draw a line of blood on her cheek, and for just a moment you think that Lucan has her finished.

Then Sophia explodes into motion.

She lunges at Lucan, the crosspieces of their swords locking together, and a roll of her wrist slams her pommel into his chin. Lucan stumbles back, sword raised in guard, and Sophia spins and leaps at you, sword angled to take off your head.

You duck, the glowing sword whipping over your head, and Sophia’s boot slams into your stomach.

Getting kicked in the gut by a boot with a spiked heel hurts. A lot. Fortunately, the leather armor you’re wearing keeps the spike from stabbing you. You fall to one knee, the breath exploding out of you, and Sophia whirls to face Lucan’s attack. She drives him back, her sword flickering and stabbing faster than a striking serpent, her bladework more skilled than anything you’ve ever seen, and Lucan falls back on his heels again and again. Soon his back slams into the elaborate marble railing at the edge of Emperors’ Reach, a thousand-foot drop to Malarae behind him.

The bronze sword draws back for a killing swing.

You fling a throwing knife, the blade sinking into Sophia’s back.

And her killing stroke goes wide, shearing through the marble rail besides Lucan. He twists, sidestepping, and brings his sword down with all his strength behind. His blade takes Sophia’s sword hand at the wrist. The bronze longsword strikes the marble flagstones, bounces once, and vanishes into black smoke. Sophia stumbles in shock, eyes wide, and Lucan’s sword plunges into her chest, just below the breastbone. She rips herself free with a convulsive jerk and collapses against the shattered railing, a crimson stain spreading across her white shirt.

The Ascendant Bloodcrystal’s glow begins to fade in her left hand.

You stagger to your feet and join Lucan.

“Good timing,” he says, panting, “with that knife.”

“You barely needed the help,” you say, gazing at the Bloodcrystal.

“No,” he says. “She had me there, at the end.” He nods at the Bloodcrystal. “What should we do with…that?”

“Stab it with your sword,” you say. “Ghostsilver is proof against sorcery. That should damage or destroy the Bloodcrystal. I…don’t want touch it.”

Sophia’s eyes meet yours, fever-bright as the life drains from her wounds.

“Not a very artistic way to die,” you say, “is it?”

Sophia laughs.

“No,” she says. “But this is.”

And even as the mad glitter fades from her eyes, her arm jerks, flinging something at your face. On reflex your arm snaps up to catch it, and even as your fingers close, you realize your mistake.

The Ascendant Bloodcrystal blazes with emerald fire in your grasp.

Thunder. You hear thunder. Or drumbeats?

No. Heartbeats. Hundreds of thousands, a million. The heartbeats of everyone in Malarae, the strength of a million hearts beating.

Strength that is yours to take, to use.

Your mother’s voice fills your head.

“Use me!” she says. “You will no longer be weak, you will no longer be afraid, no one will ever hurt you again! All this will be yours, if you use me!”

The voices in your head. They aren’t hallucinations. Or a result of the damage Korthion did to your memory.

They’re real. They were always real. The Bloodcrystal wanted you all along. Is has yearned for you to use it, to fulfill its purpose, the way you once yearned for Lucan to kiss you, even if you didn’t realize it. The Bloodcrystal did not want Korthion or Sophia.

It wanted you.

The emerald flames blaze brighter, seeming to fill the world.

“Use me!” says your father’s voice. “No one you love will ever die again. Nor will you ever have to watch anyone you love ever die again! Take the power I offer, I beg you. Become strong, as you were born to be!”

A pillar of emerald flame stabs skyward, and you sway on your feet, hands trembling.

“Use me!” says Halfdan’s voice. “You can make the world clean, Caina. I can give you that power. You can kill every last one of the magi, every sorcerer in the world, put an end to their bloodlust and brutality. You can throw down the tyrants from their thrones, make them suffer as their victims have suffered. You can strike off the chains from the slaves. No one ever need suffer again, no one need ever weep. All this I can give you. Use me!”

You see the vision before you, a world scoured of evil, of tyranny, for all time. You can make it so. You need only use the Bloodcrystal, take the power that it offers you, the strength.

But that strength…that strength has to come from somewhere.

The heartbeats thunder louder in your ears.

Or someone.

You hesitate, swaying on your feet, a storm of ghostly green flame blazing around you.

[poll id=”78″]

Ghost Ascension, Episode 24a

You pull up the cowl of your shadow-cloak.

Your father’s library vanishes around you, replaced by a bleak plain mantled in swirling gray mist, and you remember who you are and how you got here. Your father vanishes as well. And his place stands a thing of horror. You would say it had dozens of eyes, if eyes had yawning, needle-filled mouths instead of pupils. Or that it had tentacles, if tentacles had dozens of grasping, slime-coated hands.

The doorway remains, and you sprint towards it.

“No!” shrieks the thing, and you see it running – or perhaps flowing – after you. “Come to me, my sweet child, my succulent child, come to me, come to me…”

You leap through the doorway.

Then you are stumbling across a floor of polished marble. A broad balcony, jutting from the side of the mountain near the entrance to the Valley of the Emperors. Below you see the great city of Malarae spread around the Bay of Empire, the eastern sky just starting to brighten with the dawn.

Emperors’ Reach. Anacepheon’s spell, it seems, has worked.

You spin, see the column of gray mist swirling behind you, and for a awful moment you think Lucan is still in that terrible place. Your cowl falls back, and you hear your father’s voice, blaming Lucan’s death upon you.

Then Lucan stumbles out, eyes wild, ghostsilver sword in hand.

“Caina!” he says. “You…you’re not…”

The pillar of mist vanishes.

“Gods and devils,” mutters Lucan, raking a hand through his hair. “Did you have a vision…no. Whatever you saw, I don’t want to know, and I doubt you want to know what I saw.”

“Anacepheon wasn’t joking when he said the netherworld was dangerous,” you say.

“He didn’t seem the sort to make jokes,” says Lucan.

A half-hysterical laugh escapes your lips. “No. No, he really didn’t.”

You look around. There’s no trace of Sophia. You wonder if you were wrong, if you didn’t understand her as well as you thought. Then you here the click of heeled boots upon the stone stairs leading to the Valley road.

Sophia comes into sight, bronze longsword in her right hand, the Ascendant Bloodcrystal in her left, the tails of her crimson coat fluttering in the breeze.

Even knowing what it is, you still feel the overwhelming urge to take the Bloodcrystal, to use it.

The voices in your head all start up at once. “Kill her, kill her, kill her kill her KILL HER…”

Sophia stops, stares at you and Lucan. Astonishment flashes over her face, followed quickly by puzzlement and then rage and then by delight.

She almost looks pleased to see you.

“Countess!” she says. “However did you get here? You two are truly worthy foes.” She sighs, as if in satisfaction. “A challenge.” The bronze longsword comes up, the hieroglyphs smoldering, and she walks towards you. “I will remember you fondly, in the years to come. The great work, the mighty art I am about to make in Malarae. I couldn’t have done it without you. You were,” her smile widens, “you were my inspiration, Countess! My muse! You inspired me to greatness.”

“One chance,” you say. “Throw down the Bloodcrystal and go.”

Sophia’s laughter rings over the balcony, wild and delighted. “Do you think so? Do you know who I am, Countess? Who I am truly? How I have moved from body to body for centuries, how I have slain every foe to ever stand before me? For I am Sophia Nikaedes, death victorious…and you cannot possibly stop me!”

She leaps forward in a blur, the bronze longsword swinging for Lucan’s head.

Lucan moves, ghostsilver sword coming up.

Sophia’s longsword, the blade that cut through marble and steel alike, clangs to a stop against the ghostsilver sword.

And for the second time, utter astonishment crosses Sophia’s face.

Lucan counterattacks at once, hilt in both hands as he brings the sword around in a vicious sideways cut. But Sophia sidesteps, her sword spinning in a blinding arc as she drives at Lucan.

And in a heartbeat, two masters of the blade are locked in combat. Sophia is fast, deadly faster, faster than Lucan, and her sword spins and bobs and weaves like an enraged bee. But Lucan is stronger, and he has an advantage – he can keep his hilt in both hands, putting all his power behind his blows. Sophia’s using one hand to hold the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, and must dodge or deflect – she cannot block Lucan’s strikes one-handed.

They are almost perfectly matched. The first one to make a mistake will die.

Unless you can help Sophia to make a mistake first…

[poll id=”77″]

Ghost Ascension, Episode 23a

“Do it,” you tell Anacepheon.

Anacepheon trembles, then rears up upon his throne, his skeletal hand outthrust. For a moment, just a moment, you see how he must have looked in his prime; the Magus-Emperor of Nighmar, filled with dread and terrible power. A column of gray mist appears before the throne, swirling and flickering, lit from within by a pale light.

Then Anacepheon slumps back on his throne, shaking with exhaustion.

“The way is open,” whispers Anacepheon. “The path will take you through the netherworld to Emperors’ Reach in a heartbeat. Yet be wary – the netherworld is filled with illusion, and lying spirits. To enter there physically is to put yourself in their power, if you are weak of will.

“Knowing you,” says Lucan, “that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Considering that you’re hearing voices, you’re not so sure.

“Take my sword and dagger,” says Ancepheon, gesturing at the blades lying upon his lap. “Take them! They may be of use against the hellblade your enemy wields.”

You frown, cross to the throne, and pick up the sword and dagger. Both are ornate, and both look as if they were crafted from gleaming silver. Yet as you pick up the weapons, you feel a peculiar…vibration, for lack of a better word, in the handles. The weapons remain motionless, but you could swear that they are vibrating.

“Lucan,” you say, “these are ghostsilver.”

His eyes get wide.

Ghostsilver is incredibly rare. To your knowledge, there are only nineteen ghostsilver weapons in the Empire. You could sell this sword for enough gold to buy your own province, maybe two. It is lighter and harder than normal steel, and can holder a sharper edge.

And it’s absolutely immune to sorcery, capable of piercing any protective spell. Sophia’s bronze longsword can cut through solid stone and steel with ease…but it won’t be able to cut through ghostsilver.

“Take this,” you say, handing the sword to Lucan, and keeping the dagger for yourself.

“Go!” says Anacepheon. “Go, quickly, before it is too late!”

You take a deep breath, and step into the mists, Lucan at your side.

And then…and then…

And then you are eleven years old again, standing before high windows with a view of a brilliant blue sky and a rippling green sea. You turn, and see tall shelves laden with heavy books, and your heart catches in your throat.

Your father’s library.

No. Impossible. Your father has been dead for seventeen years, his library burned when your mother and the magi murdered him.

“Caina?”

You turn, and joy and astonishment pierce you to the heart.

Your father sits at his desk below the high windows, smiling at you. He looks just as you remember him – balding and bluff-faced, his shoulders stooped from hours spent over his books. Impossible. You saw him die.

Didn’t you?

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” says your father, rising to his face.

Maybe it was all a dreadful dream of blood and death and pain.

“We’re leaving for Malarae,” he says. “You wanted to see the Imperial Library, and I promised that I would show it to you. The servants have packed your things. We can leave whenever you’re ready.”

Perhaps you had a nightmare of your father’s death, a nightmare that you grew into a woman cold and hard and surrounded by enemies on all sides.

Only a bad dream.

You want to run to him, more than you’ve ever wanted anything. But something is wrong…

Shaking your head, you look at the library’s door.

A swirling gray mist fills the doorway.

Suddenly a strange ripple goes through the room, and you are wearing an odd black cloak, weightless and darker than any shadow, and a peculiar silver dagger hanging at your belt.

[poll id=”76″]

Ghost Ascension, Episode 22a

You leap towards Korthion, knife in hand, but it’s too late. Your cowl is down, your cloak billowing in the currents of arcane force rising from the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, and he can see you.

He gestures, and you freeze in midair, caught in the grip of his sorcery. The air feels as if it has turned to stone around you, and you cannot move, cannot even speak. From the corner of your eye you see Lucan immobilized in the same way, his sword drawn back to strike.

Anacepheon moans and tries to stand. Korthion makes a slashing motion, and the ancient Emperor is hurled back upon his throne.

“Do not,” moans Anacepheon, “oh, fool, fool, do not, do not…”

“Silence,” says Korthion. For a moment you think he is going to kill you, but he ignores you and crosses to the table of black marble.

A rictus grin comes over his dead face as he gazes upon the Ascendant Bloodcrystal.

Then he seizes it and lifts it with both hands.

“Mine,” he hisses. “Mine.”

The glow in the Bloodcrystal’s depths brightens. Your shadow-cloak begins to snap and billow from your shoulders. You struggle against the invisible force holding you with all your strength, but Korthion’s power does not wave.

A shaft of green light erupts from the Bloodcrystal, stabbing into the cavern’s ceiling.

“Yes,” he whispers, his yellow eyes reflecting the storm of emerald flame raging in the Bloodcrystal’s heart. “They’re mine.” He looks at you and laughs. “Your life is mine. All their lives are mine, mine to do with as I wish. I will be God! The world is mine, and I…”

“Failed!” Your mother’s voice thunders in your skull. “Useless weakling! You failed, failed, failed…”

Korthion keeps ranting, and your mother’s voice keeps shrieking, but suddenly you notice your shadow. It’s moving, rotating. So is Lucan’s, and Korthion’s, rotating to point at something behind Korthion…

Korthion staggers, and a foot of bronze blade, etched with smoldering hieroglyphs, erupts from his chest.

His mouth falls open, but no sound comes out.

Sophia leans up behind Korthion, smiling, resting her chin on his shoulder.

“You know, darling,” she murmurs, “when you placed that binding spell upon me, you really should have made certain that it worked.”

Korthion shrieks, his eyes wide with horror, and Sophia steps back, ripping her sword up. The bronze blade tears through Korthion’s chest and exits through the top of his head. His torso and skull fall to the floor, neatly bisected, the black blood of his veins turning to smoldering ash.

Sophia leaps forward, snatches the Ascendant Bloodcrystal from midair, and darts for the narrow stone bridge.

An instant later the spell holding you collapses, and you race after Sophia.

But it’s too late.

Sophia whirls as she runs along the bridge, spinning her bronze sword in great arcs. The blade cuts through the stone like silk, and enormous chunks of the bridge fall to splash in the lake far below. You just barely catch yourself before going over the edge, and soon Sophia stands perched upon a narrow tongue of stone seventy feet away, all that remains of the bridge.

Leaving you and Lucan stranded upon the platform.

“No!” wails Anacepheon, trying to rise from the throne and failing. “Stop! The power…the power is not worth the price!”

Sophia laughs, long and wild. “Do you think I care about power? No.” She lifts the Bloodcrystal. “This is…art.”

“Art?” you say.

“True art speaks to the condition of mortal men,” says Sophia. “And you know what the condition of mortal man is, do you not? Pain. Suffering. Torment. Death and blood and misery and suffering without end.” Her eyes widen, almost as with desire, and she lifts the Bloodcrystal. “And with this…oh, the suffering I shall wreak with this. All of Malarae will be my canvas. The world shall be my canvas!” She laughs again. “Becoming a goddess in the bargain is merely a bonus. Farewell, Countess! You were a worthy foe. Perhaps after I use the Bloodcrystal, I shall return here to see if you and Lucan died in each other’s arms. The two lovers, together forever in death.”

“How very artistic,” you say, wishing she were close enough to hit her with a throwing knife. Or two, or three.

Sophia turns and vanished up the stairs on the far side of the cavern.

“She will use the Bloodcrystal at any moment!” wails Anacepheon. “Failed, I have failed!”

“We failed, didn’t we?” says Lucan, face grim.

You say nothing and stared at the charred remnants of Korthion, thinking hard. Korthion tried to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal immediately, to escape his pact with the dark spirit. But Sophia doesn’t care about power. She only cares about her twisted “art”, about the death and destruction…

About seeing the death and destruction…

“Yes,” murmurs your mother’s voice. “You do understand her, don’t you?”

“Caina,” says Lucan. “We’re going to die here. I love you, and…”

“Shut up, both of you,” you say. “This isn’t over yet.”

Both Anacepheon and Lucan look at you in surprise.

“Don’t you understand?” you say. “Sophia doesn’t care about the power, or becoming God, or immortality, or anything else. She cares about her ‘art’. She wants to see Malarae die. She’s not going to use the Bloodcrystal right away. She can’t see the city die from down here, can she? No. She’s going to go someplace where she can see the entire city, and then she’ll use it.”

“Emperors’ Reach,” says Lucan. You know the place. It’s a parapet built onto the side of the mountain, near the entrance to the Valley of the Emperors. From there you can see the entire Imperial Citadel and all of Malarae.

And it’s only an hour or so away from Anacepheon’s tomb on foot.

“We’ve got to find a way out of here,” you say, looking at the ruined bridge. You might –might- be able to catch a grapnel on the stub of the bridge and go hand-over-hand on the rope. Or you could try climbing down the pillar, swimming the lake, and climbing up the far side.

That assumes there’s nothing living in the lake, of course. And it will take time that you do not have.

“Wait,” says Anacepheon. “I can aid you. Some of my powers yet remain. I knew the Emperors’ Reach well, before my pride destroyed me, and I can send you there in a moment.”

“How?” you say.

“A path through the netherworld, the spirit realm,” he says. “There is risk involved…but it can take you there in but a moment.”

[poll id=”75″]

Ghost Ascension, Episode 21a

“Do not!” repeats the thing on the throne.

Lucan starts towards the throne, sword raised, but you catch his arm.

“Do not?” you call the corpse on the throne. “Do not what?”

The desiccated face turns towards you, thin shoulders twitching, and you realize something.

It’s not a corpse at all.

The man on the throne is still alive. Somehow. You see the veins throbbing in his temples and wrists, hear the wheezing breath rattling through his yellowed teeth and withered throat. He looks a thousand years old, but somehow he is still alive.

Blood leaks from his eyes, and you realize the man upon the throne is sobbing.

“Do not take the Bloodcrystal!” he moans. “I beg you, do not touch it. Do not bring it into the light of day once more. Grievously I have paid. Let not others suffer as I have suffered!”

“Who are you?” you say.

“I was…I was…” For a moment the man seems confused. “My name was Anacepheon, Emperor of Nighmar, high magus of the Magisterium. And I was a fool. Fool!”

“Why?” you say.

Anacepheon’s skeletal fingers tremble, the skin crackling. “We sought to make ourselves gods. So we made the Ascendant Bloodcrystal.”

“A weapon of sorcery,” you say, “to dispel other spells?”

Anacepheon lets out a groaning laugh. “A weapon? It is more than a weapon. It is a gateway. A door. A pathway to ascension. A transformation, latent. Waiting.”

“A transformation?” you say. “A transformation to what?”

“We knew the secret,” says Anacepheon, his trembling growing worse. “Fire produces smoke and heat. And death and blood produce arcane power, fell and mighty. The more death, the greater the power. We had a dream. The commoners of the Empire were useless, worthless mouths. Why not put them to use? Why not…harvest them?”

“Harvest them?” you say. “What do you mean?”

“We devised the Ascendant Bloodcrystal,” whispers Anacepheon, continuing as if he had not heard you. “A thing of dreadful sorcery, unlike any seen since the ancient world. And when used…its power will kill every living thing for twenty miles in every direction. Every man. Every woman and child. Every animal, every fish that swims, every bird that flies. Even the very grass of the field.”

You stare at him, stunned. Twenty miles in every direction from this tomb would cover the entire city of Malarae.

A million men, women, and children live in Malarae.

You have seen a lot of horrible things, but even you cannot envision death upon that scale.

“The deaths will create power,” says Anacepheon, “power beyond imagining, and that power will drain into he who wields the Bloodcrystal. And he shall become mightier than any mortal sorcerer, perhaps even mightier than the gods themselves.”

You stare at the Ascendant Bloodcrystal upon its table of black marble. Even knowing what it is, you still feel the horrible attraction, that compulsion to take it up, to use it…

“I have heard, and seen,” says Lucan, “many black crimes from the magi, but this is by far the worst.”

“Yes!” wails Anacepheon. “I realized what I had done. I repented. I tried to stop it. Too late. Caer Magia died for my pride, my lust for power. And in the backlash, my life was bound to the Bloodcrystal. I cannot die while it yet exists. So I was buried with my grievous sin, to keep watch over it until the end of days, and I am at last judged for my crimes.”

You wrench your gaze from the green glow in the Bloodcrystal’s depths. “Sophia lied to us. We can’t let her or Korthion anywhere near this thing.”

“Go!” shrieks Anacepheon, “please, please, before it is too late!”

“Too late?” you say.

“I raised a ward against necromancy,” Anacepheon says, “to keep fools like me from taking the Bloodcrystal. But the presence of souls untainted by sorcery disrupts the ward. You must go before it collapses, you must, you must…”

And you realize what Korthion and Sophia intended all along.

You were played.

And even as the thought come to you, a cloud of darkness swirls behind Anacepheon’s throne, and Korthion steps out of it, yellow eyes narrowed, hands raised in the beginnings of a spell.
[poll id=”74″]

Ghost Ascension, Episode 20a

“To hell with this,” you mutter, uncoiling the rope and grapnel from your belt.

“What are you doing?” says Lucan.

“The only time I’ve ever beaten the magi,” you say, “is when I refused to play by their rules.”

You throw the grapnel, and after a few tries it catches on the lintel of the far archway. You secure it to the doorway on your side, as taut as you can make it. Then you take a deep breath, wrap your arms and legs around the rope, and start climbing.

Your mind might be damaged, but your arms and legs are in good condition. You crawl along the rope, and reach the other side of the chamber without incident. You drop down to the floor, and Lucan crawls along the rope and joins you after a few moments.

“You’re going to get him killed,” murmurs your father’s voice, “you’ll get to watch him die, you’ll…”

“Shut up,” you say.

Lucan frowns. “I’m sorry?”

“Not you,” you say. “Voices in my head.”

“You should kill him when you’re finished,” says the voice of Halfdan, your old mentor. “He is useful, yes. But a liability. You must be hard and cold. Kill him once you have slain Sophia and destroyed Korthion.”

“They go away,” says Lucan, “when you put up your shadow-cloak’s cowl?”

You nod.

“Maybe you aren’t going insane,” says Lucan. “Maybe Korthion put another spell on you, one that Sophia didn’t mention. Or Sophia herself did it, and forget to mention it to Korthion or to you.”

That…is an extremely disturbing thought. Though you’re not sure what either Korthion or Sophia could hope to gain by putting half-crazed voices inside your head.

“Then let’s keep going,” you say. “If this Ascendant Bloodcrystal can really break any spell, then it should break whatever spell’s on my mind. Assuming there is one.”

Lucan nods, and he follows you deeper into the darkness below the mountain. You pass a half-dozen more mechanical traps, and one more sorcerous ward. The sorcery-induced tingling against your skin gets worse. The air is motionless, but as you walk, your shadow-cloak starts to stir and ripple, as if caught in an ghostly wind.

It only does that in the presence of transcendentally powerful sorcery. The sort of sorcery that can destroy cities.

Finally the passage ends in a vast chamber of natural rock. The walls plummet in a sheer drop to a cold, motionless lake a hundred feet below. A narrow bridge, a slender beam of stone, extends high over the lake, to a broad pillar of worked stone that rises from the waters.

The pale green glow comes from something atop the pillar.

You make your away along the narrow bridge, careful to keep your footing on the wet stone.

The top of the pillar forms a platform about thirty feet across. On the center of the platform stands a stone throne, and upon that throne sits a withered corpse, clad in purple-and-black Imperial robes, a silver dagger and sword resting upon his lap.

The Emperor Anacepheon, or what’s left of him.

Before the throne stands a table of black marble, and upon the table rests a fist-sized chunk of crystal the color of dried blood, a green glow flickering in its depths.

The Ascendant Bloodcrystal.

It is…

beautiful.

Your cloak billows out behind you, as if you stood in a gale, but the air remains still.

You’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so radiant. It fills your vision, and every fiber of your body yearns with anticipation. You want to take it up, to use it, to fulfill its purpose, and you want that more than anything you’ve ever wanted…

After a moment you realize that Lucan is holding your wrists, talking to you.

“Caina,” he says. “Caina!”

You blink. “What?”

“I…don’t think you should touch that thing,” he says.

Your mind starts to work again. “You…don’t feel that?”

“No,” says Lucan. “My head hurts when I look at it, but you had this expression on your face…I really don’t think we should touch it.”

For a moment, just a moment, you consider twisting out his grip and claiming the Ascendant Bloodcrystal before he can stop you.

That alone makes up your mind.

“You’re right,” you say, voice ragged. “Maybe…if we wrap it in my cloak, or your coat…”

“Maybe we should leave the damned thing down here,” says Lucan. “Maybe Sophia was telling the truth, it can break Korthion’s spell over her. But I’ll wager it can do quite a few other things as well. None of them good.”

A stray thought clicks in your mind. The magi sent Scarpian and the Kindred assassins to kill Sophia and Korthion, once they learned that Korthion sought the Ascendant Bloodcrystal. And the magi love power, more than they love anything else.

Yet for all that…they were willing to leave the Ascendant Bloodcrystal buried in Anacepheon’s tomb.

They were afraid of it.

You start to speak, and then a noise captures your attention.

The corpse on the throne just took a long, ragged breath. Its eyelids open with a sound like crackling parchment, and a pair of blue eyes stare at you, moist and bloodshot in that desiccated face.

“No!” rasps the corpse, lifting its hands. “No! Do not!”
[poll id=”73″]