As Cassandra Chalk stood over the fallen form of her mortal enemy, the Dread Lord Griefstalker, the enchanted medallion crumbled into glittering jade dust and spilled through her fingers. The mighty ethereal entity Uxlar, summoned to her side by the jewel’s explosive discharge, looked down at Griefstalker’s cooling corpse and whistled.
“Wow,” it said. “You just used the medallion, huh? Just like that? Wow, this is awkward.”
“I have defeated my ultimate foe,” declared Chalk proudly. “Using your gift of the Jade Emblem, I have destroyed his blackened soul across every time-line, in every corner of space.”
Uxlar nudged Griefstalker with the toe of his golden slippers. “You sure did. He’s toast, all right. This guy I’ve never heard of, dead as a dodo, right here.”
Cassandra looked around at her steadfast companions, each of them flushed and gasping from the exertions of the decisive final battle against Griefstalker. They shrugged in return.
“Let me get this straight,” said Uxlar, wrinkling his nose as the body began to shrivel and emit a putrid grey vapour. “Did I or did I not send you a series of oblique prophetic warnings to guide your path?”
Cassandra nodded in grim recall. “Though we were tested in faith, strength and sanity, my fellowship did not waver or stray, great Uxlar.”
“If I recall correctly, there was a dream-vision of the cities of man, laid to waste and ruin?”
“Aye, Uxlar.” Shining Neville looked the worse for battle. Its tabard was scorched, its plating pitted and scratched, and a dent the size of a melon had caved in its helm. “We knew this to be a warning about the threat of my people, the Pauldrones, against the fleshly folks.”
“Thanks to you, we had time to broker a peace between the living armour-people and the Duke of Rainbows,” added Cassandra.
“Impressive,” grunted Uxlar. “So, what about when the stars in the night sky rearranged themselves?”
The warrior-poet Lyranis tugged deferentially at his proud mane. “A cunning way to alert us to the sinister ascendance of the Nightmare Moon, great Uxlar. We almost missed it.”
Cassandra clapped her tawny lover on the back. “Lyranis sang the Beseeching Chords to encourage the Beneficent Stars back to their dominance and banish the Nightmare Moon for a thousand years.”
“Huh, how about that? Well done, I guess.” Uxlar held up a third, immaculately tattooed finger. “What did you do about the bone ravens swarming in the Sequestered Vale?”
The dishevelled sorcerer, Carren Tooth, whipped into a low curtsey, like a long twig bending in a fierce wind. “The carrion-eaters’ uncharacteristic boldness became a threat to stock animals and children, o limitless Uxlar. Not sword nor fire would deter them, but only the threat of a hunger greater than their own.”
Cassandra swelled with pride for her clever companions. “Carren persuaded the fading spirit of Shalaya, the demigod of all eagles, to merge with the great mountain Om Lacha. No scavenger will long endure beneath her shadow, and she will watch over the children of the Vale for all time.”
“A clever solution,” murmured Uxlar. “You all should be very proud. And you were never tempted to use the medallion?”
With a modest glance at the floor, Cassandra said, “By instinct or faith, we were confident you would not set us a labour so dire as to leave us no recourse but to invoke the amulet’s power.”
Lyranis lifted his mighty chin. “Aye, and each time we set aside the medallion, the true solution, some novelty hitherto uncontemplated, would occur to us.”
“Every time, eh?”
Togar Tormon’s eyes were wet with gratitude. “Without your enlightenment, Uxlar, I would still be crawling as a cursed beast rather than walking like a man.”
“Really? What’s your story?”
“When Cassandra’s divinatory visions led us to the ruins of the Lost City of Candlefell, you knew we would see the friezes depicting the last great werewolf plague.”
Uxlar inclined its head. “That sounds like something I might know.”
“There was a moment, when Togar was locked in battle with the Werewolf Mandarin, their jaws and talons wet with the other’s blood, when my resolve almost faltered,” Cassandra whispered. “If Neville had not arrived with the lycanthropy cure in that moment, I would have called upon the medallion’s power.”
“And if you had?”
“Then we would have been weaponless, helpless and hopeless before the sinister might of Griefstalker.”
Cassandra pointed at the body. “The tyrant Griefstalker. The monster you warned us about, who sought dominion over all, the subjugation of the free, and the extinction of hope. The great existential threat that dragged me from my world, flung me across the infinite reaches of existence, and set me down with the tools and will to destroy this oppressor. The final, ultimate threat. The one enemy worthy of the Jade Emblem.”
“Good speech,” said Uxnar. “Compelling argument. I can see how we got here. Great effort, all of you. But, just hypothetically speaking here, what would you conclude if you looked at all those hints and prophecies together, rather than one at a time?”
The companions exchanged quizzical looks. “Devastation. Forbidden stars. Ominous birds and hungry beasts.” Carren Tooth frowned at her checklist. “Hmm.”
“What?” said Cassandra, echoed by her companions.
“Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say these portents and signs point towards a single entity.”
“Really?” said Uxlar. “Which one?”
“The Unmatched Appetite. The Chaos-in-One. The black heart of the Dark Crevasse.”
Cassandra’s jaw dropped. “Do you mean Hetchag the Ravener?”
Uxlar whistled again. “Wow. I mean, wow. All roads lead to Hetchag huh? I hear he’s bad news. Bet you wish you hadn’t blown the Jade Emblem already.”
Uxlar, messenger of the gods, peeled off its robes. The leathery skin-plates beneath were dark and weeping blood. Cassandra Chalk and her companions gasped.
“Tell you what,” said Hetchag the Ravener as new teeth sprouted from its face. “You’ve been really great sports about this. I’ll let you make the first move.”
I’m still recovering from three overwhelming days of Conflux, in which I launched books, appeared on panels and read my own work aloud in public. I’m still reeling from that last one. I think my audience probably is too, after I put on a special death-metal-growl voice for several demonic interjections.
If I recover enough energy this weekend I’ll blog about the con and post some photos. In the meantime, here’s a story which I have belatedly come to realise is an expression of one of my greatest fears in life: that you can go to great lengths to conscientiously follow the instructions, take meticulous care at every step of a task, and still get it completely wrong in the end.