It was a lovely day.

The smell and taste of the island air washed away the dullness of his senses, once more reminding Gabriel that he yet lived. Automatically, he flexed his hands, momentarily delighting in the strain and pull of muscles there. Around him, his allies … no, his friends were reacting to their emergence from that Underworld in various, expected ways. Mendel had already knelt in the dirt, his head bowed and his eyes closed as he thanked God for delivering them from such a terrible fate. Magnifico and Gestlin alike gave brief, almost cursory thanks to the Lord as well, but then, neither of them were especially devout. To no one’s surprise, Rainald was laughing, that booming voice of his almost seeming to rattle the ground. Dane and Merasiël were the hardest to read – the archer had removed his face-concealing wrap and was frowning at something no one else could see while the elven woman was breathing deeply, as if she had just finished a long run and was trying to recover. Gabriel watched for a moment, admiring the view, and then turned away. Not for the first time, he did not know what to do or how to honor the lost. His relationship with God had soured to the point that he held nothing but contempt for the Lord so giving thanks to Him despite having lost a good friend felt like hypocrisy at its finest and it had been years since he wept. So he fell back on the one thing that had not yet betrayed him.

Six steps carried him far enough away from the others that they would be in no danger followed by another two to factor in Gestlin’s inexplicable clumsiness, and with a flick of his wrist, he drew Misericordia in that long practiced motion. The blade sparkled in the sun and Gabriel stared at it for a long moment. Radskyrta was dead. Anger simmered within him, warring with the usual relief that it was not he who had paid the butcher’s bill, but Gabriel examined his rage, considered it, and then fed it to the mental flames he erected in his mind’s eye. In the Void, such trivial matters held no sway.

The forms came quickly, smoothly, efficiently and with them, his thoughts came just as easily. Two Hares Leaping. Snow in High Wind. Heron Takes a Silverback. Faster he pushed himself. Faster and with more precision. Kissing the Adder became Cat on Hot Sand, which flowed into River Undercuts the Bank. He was aware of the others speaking, but he did not hear their words. Mongoose Takes a Viper became Low Wind Rising. Arc of the Moon turned into Watered Silk.

Radskyrta was dead.

And yet … and yet … Gabriel found that he could not grieve.

The ground was shaking.

Hades’ roar and Persephone’s answering shriek split the air, shattering stone and striking like a physical blow. Gabriel stumbled slightly – it was still so very hard to think, to make decisions, and his mind was yet reeling from the rebirth of Persephone only moments earlier; it had been an audacious move on Mendel and Merasiël’s part, to put the necklace back on the zombie-like goddess, but Gabriel could not blame them, not with how sinister Hades had sounded when he demanded the ruby taken from his wife’s throat. Neither of the two … gods seemed capable of physically harming one another and were thus venting their rage upon their environment. Marble columns shattered into powder. Stone floors exploded, sending broken fragments spinning into the darkness. Concussive blasts erupted from Hades and Persephone alike, hurling the mindless back into walls with crushing force. Ribbons of light and energy coursed through the air from the twin powers raging in the center of the massive building, and one such brilliantly-colored stream slid across the distance and slammed squarely into Radskyrta’s chest, throwing him back to the ground where he slid a handful of yards. Coherence returned to his eyes abruptly and he blinked rapidly, glancing around as if in surprise.


“Move!” Dane exclaimed. He was already heading toward the exit as another torrent of light tore through the roof, shattering stone and cracking masonry. A rain of debris fell around them, cracking and splitting. Shocked into action, Gabriel sprang toward the confused-looking Radskyrta and pulled him sharply to his feet. Rainald was there a moment later, seizing the still staggered Radskyrta with one meaty hand and half-pushing, half-dragging him toward the exit. The air was thick with dust and debris which made the going difficult, but Gabriel darted toward the exit, hurdling small chunks of rock or unmoving, listless forms that had once been humans.

Beyond the doorway, he was greeted by another veritable horde of flesh statues, all staring at the trembling acropolis with their blank eyes. The island continued to rock, sometimes so intently that the quakes knocked many of the doomed souls to the ground. Still, there were far too many in the way…

“To the boat!” Dane ordered sharply, gesturing with one hand. “Rainald, open up a path!” The burly Northerner bellowed a laugh – it sounded so strange here, echoing strangely, hollowly, and even some of the dead looked in his direction, an expression of almost recognition on their faces – before lowering his shield and charging forward. Those in the way were knocked aside, some staggering away but managing to stay on their feet while many more fell to the ground. Gabriel paused for less than a heartbeat before throwing himself forward once more. He easily caught up with Rainald, then sprinted past him, ducking and evading around the unmoving bodies standing listlessly in clumps.

Down they fled, past the spirits of those adventurers they had slain in the ruins only hours earlier, through what felt like an entire army of the dead, all unmoving and staring at nothing at all, and finally through the hollow, vacant streets that were surrounded by empty buildings in a bizarre facsimile of a town. There were fewer of the dead here, but enough that it still slowed them somewhat as they raced toward the dock.

Behind them, the roof of the acropolis suddenly exploded.

The shockwave shattered the upper level of the small mountain upon which the acropolis rested, tearing apart the buildings on the lower levels and sending great chunks of rock and debris spinning into the darkness. One of the faceless statues that had been adorning the great building tumbled out of the night, smashing into one of the dead men only a handful of steps away from them and Gabriel recoiled away from the rain of colorless blood and bone that resulted from the sudden impact. Had they been anywhere else, he would have been unable to avoid the blood but here, it dissolved almost instantly into a fine mist that vanished entirely before it even reached him. There was absolutely nothing left of the poor, damned fool …

“There!” Dane pointed toward the boat they had arrived upon and the hooded figure standing at its tiller. It – Gabriel had caught a glimpse of the skeletal features under the hood on their first trip so he could not classify the thing as a He – was as much of a statue as the other soulless standing around and was facing in the direction of the great acropolis that even now boiled and trembled. At their approach, the … thing slowly turned its hooded head toward them. How would they get this foul creature to let them pass? He must have vocalized his question because Magnifico muttered something under his breath and Gestlin scowled. Rainald glanced back to the mountain – Gabriel did the same – and watched as torrents of blue, green and red fire consumed the once great building to its very foundations.

“To hell with this,” Radskyrta snarled. It was the first thing he’d said since recovering and, before anyone could react, he stumbled forward. Covering the distance in three long jumping steps, he reached the boatman.

And then, he punched the thing in the face.

The creature must have been as surprised as Gabriel was because it offered no defense and the blow staggered it long enough for Radskyrta to seize the boatman’s pole. He swung hard – the impact of the pole against the hooded creature echoed loudly and could be heard even over the roar of the twin gods dueling for dominion so far away. The boatman folded over the makeshift staff and, with a roar that sounded more like something Rainald might express, Radskyrta hurled the creature into the black river where it vanished with a sound that sounded curiously like a sigh of relief.

“Get in!” Radskyrta snapped.

“Move!” Dane exclaimed at almost the same time. Everyone crowded into the boat, automatically taking the same places they’d had on the first trip, and Gabriel found himself looking back at Hades’ island before he realized it. Great columns of fire and light were consuming the buildings now, though it seemed as though massive trees were sprouting everywhere as well. Was Persephone winning? Was Hades? How could they even tell? Another building fell apart, this time because of an immense tree that tore through the ground and climbed rapidly to full growth. Beside him, Merasiël stiffened and he gave her a quick look. She was staring at Radskyrta and Gabriel followed the line of her eyes. Icy shock washed through him.

Because Radskyrta was suddenly wearing a black cloak.

It had not been there moments earlier, but from the set of his face, Gabriel suspected that Radskyrta had known this was going to happen the instant he attacked the boatman. Was it because he was already dead, because the strand that connected him to the mortal realm had already been cut long before they ventured into the tunnels? Mendel was querying him, an expression of alarm stamped on the priest’s face, but Radskyrta offered no reply. Instead, he continued pushing the boat forward with his seized pole. His face could have been a mask of flesh for all of the emotion it showed but his eyes glittered with intelligence.

The boat slid through the darkness quickly before bumping against the shore. Radskyrta said nothing, even as he was peppered with a dozen questions, and then, with a single motion, he pointed toward the door where the three-headed dog was crouched. It was no longer a statue, but a living thing, and Gabriel sprang out of the boat, drawing Misericordia even before his feet touched the sand. The others followed suit, scrambling out of the awkward barge in the event that they would have to fight yet another beast to win free of this place. In the instant the last of them were off – Gestlin, of course, who also managed to trip and fall facedown into the beach – Radskyrta used his pole to shove the boat free. It drifted away, allowing them one final glance of their friend in the moment before he drew his hood up over his head.

Strangely, he was smirking as he did.

His arm still quivering, Gabriel held the final form – Heron Spreads Its Wings – for a single, extended moment, aware once more that the others had begun to gather their belongings. Rainald was hefting Radskyrta’s body, now wrapped in blankets seized from the other group who had caused so much trouble, and Merasiël was watching a bird dip and weave in the air while the three casters argued over something with Dane looking on. With a subtle twist of his wrist, Gabriel brought Misericordia to a ready position while facing the shrouded corpse, the sort of salute one would render to a blademaster of superior skill or prestige.

Requiescat in Pace, my friend,” he murmured before returning the weapon to its scabbard. “I will ensure the path is cleared,” he announced.

He did not look back.