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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 10

The columned and covered pavilion stood empty and silent in the midst of a silvery emptiness that was as deathly quiet as the stone edifice it surrounded. Six thrones, twisted and grim, were evenly spaced around the circular pavilion. Huge gray stones, rough and unfinished, provided the floor, columns, and roof. The only light came from the silvery nothingness that surrounded the strange edifice floating in the middle of nowhere.

A miasma of evil filled the air like an invisible fog that never lifted. The cloak of malice was so thick it could be felt like a cloying, suffocating blanket over everything. The pale shifting light cast corrupted unclean shadows from the thrones and columns. As the sickly radiance pulsed around the pavilion, the shadows slithered, changed, and moved slowly like a nest of writhing vipers.

In the midst of the tortuous shadows and the eerie quiet, a blinding oval of rainbow colored brilliance burst into existence in the blink of an eye. It faded as quickly as it appeared. In it’s place stood Adrammelech, his solid green robes swirling around him. He strode to his throne in the pavilion, seating himself just as another burst of rainbow light filled the air.

Ashima sat down on his throne directly across from Adrammelech.

Adrammelech examined him closely to search for any sign of hidden weapons or invisible allies. Ashima was crafty and without honor. Although they’d both agreed to this meeting, he wouldn’t put it past his one-time brother to use it as a chance for a double-cross. He bent all his power to the task of trying to detect any subterfuge or trickery, well aware that Ashima was doing the same to him in return.

Finally, satisfied neither of them had any deceit planned, they nodded cautiously at each other.

“What chicanery do you have up your sleeve, Adrammelech?” Ashima asked abruptly, his voice as powerful and grating as it had always been since their Fall. “Our plans were foiled, therefore our partnership is over, so why this meeting?”

“As always, you state the obvious as if announcing a great discovery,” Adrammelech snarled in return, ignoring Ashima’s opening barb. Since neither of them had brought any advantage with them of either numbers or weapons, their powers were too evenly matched, especially in this place, to risk open warfare between them. Ignoring the insult was the best he could manage.

“Answer the question!” Ashima roared angrily. “Why this meeting in the Shadow Pavilion?”

Adrammelech bristled at the presumption in his rival’s voice and manner. How dare he be so arrogant as to demand an answer, as if he had any right to it? It never occurred to him to compare it to his own attitude. He drove down his anger, justifiable though it was, in preference to gaining something much more valuable. “Our partnership, as you name it, is indeed over, but there are some loose ends to tie up,” he said, feigning a tone of reasonableness.

Ashima saw the attempt for the sham it was. His enemies’ rage was as plain to him as the light of the sun, but curiosity persuaded him to linger a moment longer to find out what Adrammelech was up to. Any edge, any advantage in their eternal struggle that might be gained from it was too much to dismiss. “Specify,” he said shortly.

Adrammelech suppressed a smile of triumph. He leaned forward with what he hoped was a pleasant expression. “I am prepared to renounce my claim on the bloodstone in exchange for you renouncing your claim on Lorelei.”

Ashima wasn’t terribly surprised by the direction the conversation was taking. He’d suspected from the beginning that their meeting would center around the mortals and the bloodstone, but the unusual nature of the offer piqued his interest. He leaned back in his red and black throne, the rivulets of red streaming down from his presence as if they were actually the lava they so much resembled. He stared thoughtfully at his unwelcome companion.

Adrammelech was proposing that each of them renounce what they couldn’t have anyway. He had some nefarious scheme in mind of course, but what? Renouncing his claim to the bloodstone would give Ashima complete control over the gem and all it’s powers but so what? “We made the bloodstone impervious to detection,” Ashima reminded him darkly, “and the Other protected the mortals’ location when they buried it. You would renounce what neither of us can find.” He shook his head. “And what reason would I have for renouncing a non-existent claim on the mortals? They belong to the Other now.”

“Then there should be no reason for you not to agree,” Adrammelech replied quickly. Too quickly he realized, when he saw Ashima’s eyes narrow with distrust.

He tried to recover but it was too late. Ashima was already shaking his head. “No. You would not offer such a worthless bargain unless it was worth far more than it seems. Speak truthfully now or this meeting is over.”

“Truth?” Adrammelech sneered. “What is truth?”

Ashima’s eyes narrowed until they were mere slits. “You tread on dangerous ground, my former brother. Have a care what words come next from your lips.”

“You threaten me?” Adrammelech was outraged.

“I threaten to leave this meeting to fetch an army to slay you,” Ashima snarled.

Adrammelech clenched his fists, gritting his teeth to hold his volcanic temper in check for a few moments more. This was too important to let mere insults stop him now. “So be it, brother. I will tell you what you seek.” He hated Ashima for putting into words a reminder of the past, of what they’d once shared, and the glory that was now lost forever.

He paused for a moment to gather himself. Satisfied that he was once more in control of himself, he smiled benignly at his menacing associate. “Storm is beyond our reach. We are in agreement on that.” Ashima nodded imperceptibility. “We both need him dead. But the woman was once mine.”

“No longer,” Ashima interrupted, twisting his words like a knife. “He took her from you.” He didn’t bother specifying who He was. They both knew.

Adrammelech bared his teeth but kept a tight rein on himself. “Her allegiance to the Other is as fragile as it is new. I can recapture her worship.”

Ashima considered it. Adrammelech was right. The mortal woman had long been confused as to whom she ought to worship. The Other had won her heart only by surrounding her with a Servant Nimbus, but her dedication, never strong to begin with, was still shaky at best. “To what end?” he asked inquisitively.

Adrammelech hated having to answer but if he was going to get the woman for himself it was imperative that Ashima renounce his claim on her. “Her heart is confused but she still retains the power the Other bequeathed to her. Winning her back will give that power to me.”

Ashima nodded, seeing how it would work. “Yes, I suppose it would.” He cocked his head in begrudging admiration. He could see how much it had cost his foe to divulge this information. “You would gain something,” he admitted, “but what would I gain? The bloodstone is still lost.”

Adrammelech felt a glimmer of hope that his adversary might actually agree to his bargain. He leaned forward eagerly. “Yes, the bloodstone is lost,” he agreed, “but if I renounce my claim to it, you will be able to feel it’s presence should you draw near to it.”

Ashima steepled his fingers and stared over them at his companion, once closer than a brother, now a mortal enemy he was determined to slay. The steam rising up from the red rivers of faux lava on his throne was now so thick it nearly obscured him from sight. The two of them had made the bloodstone gem together, making it the most powerful artifact ever created. Having sole ownership of it would give him access to all it’s power. But would that power be enough to counteract the power Adrammelech thought he would gain from the mortal woman? It was obvious he thought her additional power would give him the strength he needed to kill the rest of them and rule as the sole surviving god on Gaia. Agreeing to this bargain would be a calculated risk. If the power from the bloodstone was enough to match the power from the mortal – or even best it – all well and good, but if not, he’d be signing his own death warrant if he agreed to this deal.

Adrammelech watched him closely, knowing what must be going through his mind. All of them were constantly angling for more power to overcome the stalemate that had held sway since the middle of the Second Age. It was time to put an end to it, and this was the best chance he’d had in all that time.

Ashima watched him watching him. Their dangerous dance hadn’t changed in thousands of years. None of their careful maneuvering had brought them any closer to a resolution of their ancient war. Perhaps it was time take a chance and roll the dice. Otherwise, all they had to look forward to was an eternity of endless jockeying that led nowhere.

If Adrammelech renounced his claim on the bloodstone, he could send out his followers into the mountains surrounding Robling. Storm and his companions had to have buried the bloodstone somewhere close by because they’d turned up that very night in the town of Breckinridge. That meant they couldn’t have gone very far from Robling before burying the artifact. Without Adrammelech’s claim standing in the way, he could sense when any of his loyal followers came near the gem. Finding it would no longer be impossible, merely time consuming.

He could also put out a price on Storm and his companions to take them captive and torture the information out of them. If his followers happened to catch or kill the woman in the process, well, he couldn’t be held responsible for that, now could he?

He smiled inside.

Adrammelech saw the wheels turning inside his antagonist’s mind, and knowing what he must be thinking and planning, immediately began making counter-plans of his own. He could order his own followers to lurk in the mountains outside Robling to kill Ashima’s followers from ambush. He could also offer a huge reward for Lorelei’s capture and the death of her companions. That should put a stop to Ashima’s double-crossing ways. Then, when he had all of the mortal woman’s power, he could take delight in torturing his smug companion to death, enjoying every agonized scream of pain he made before he died.

Ashima smiled the false smile of a shark sympathizing with its prey before devouring it. “I suppose I can agree to your proposal,” he finally answered, knowing his feigned reluctance wasn’t fooling his enemy. Still, the pretense was part of their ancient dance of death and it was hard to let go of the old ways.

Adrammelech returned his false smile with one of his own, equally insincere. “At the same time?” he offered with pretended magnanimity.

“At the same time,” Ashima nodded.

“I renounce my claim on the bloodstone.”

“I renounce my claim on Lorelei.”

Their simultaneous proclamations rang out in the sickly light of the nowhere surrounding the pavilion. A pale blue flash accompanied their words, signaling their authenticity.

Ashima stood quickly now that their deal was done. “All business between us is finished,” he declared flatly, all dissembling gone now each of them had gotten what they hoped was an advantage over the other.

“Finished,” Adrammelech agreed, standing as well in case of any betrayal. His caution was for naught, however. A burst of rainbow light signaled Ashima’s departure from the pavilion.

Alone once again, he sat back down to consider his options. The bloodstone really was powerful. Whether its power was the equal of what he could gain from Lorelei was a question he’d rather not put to the test, which meant he couldn’t afford to let Ashima find the gem, now or ever.

By a happy accident, he had more worshipers in Robling than Ashima. He’d send them out into the mountains west of the capital city to kill anyone who was looking for it. Or, maybe now that Ashima could feel the presence of the bloodstone, perhaps he could order his best trackers to follow them and slay them once they had recovered it.

Now that he had renounced his claim on the bloodstone he couldn’t use it anymore, and it wouldn’t be easy to destroy; he and Ashima had seen to that. It could be done though. Once it was gone, he wouldn’t have to worry about a contest between its strength and what he got from Lorelei. He would win and all of Gaia would finally be his and his alone.

He laughed as he vanished in a spray of rainbow light.

The strange pavilion, floating forever by itself, was once more silent, dark, and still, save for the ever-shifting shadows that seemed to smile as they moved.

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