The Best Laid Plans
Crystals mounted on silver sconces glowed dimly with magical light. They cast weak shadows in the the vast chamber, empty save for the god Torodin. He sat alone in a black leather chair. His dark robes were wrinkled, his hair mussed. His chin rested on one hand, and tears streamed down his face, falling into the pool beneath him. A gift from Jvelto, the pool had been meant for warm baths with sultry nymphs. But Torodin had turned the pool into his favorite scrying device, and redesigned a once sumptuous and comfortable chamber into a cold and dark room suited for his more somber moods. As Torodin watched the funeral of his favorite priest, his mood was very dark indeed.
The young god did not turn when he heard the shrill cry of a giant gull outside his shadowy keep. He did not answer when he heard his favorite brother calling his name. Nor did he move when he felt a comforting hand upon his shoulder.
"It seems Athelstan has won again," Jvelto said bitterly.
Without warning, Torodin´s silent tears turned to broken sobs. Jvelto pulled his brother to him and held him close. He well understood the Shadowlord´s grief, for he also bore great love for his disciples. It was hard enough to watch them suffer, or to see them die too soon. The consolation had always been to gather the souls of the faithful -- Torodin´s former priests indulged their curiosity his shadowy abode, just as Jvelto´s lifted their mugs in his undersea realm.
But this time, Torodin was denied that comfort. His most beloved priest had been maneuvered by followers of Athelstan into selling his soul to Othniel. The priest had done it to save his people; his devotion to Torodin had never faltered. And yet the Shadowlord was forced to watch the soul be claimed by his enemy. Torodin would never see his beloved disciple again.
"Come," Jvelto said when Torodin´s tears had finally dried. "Let us ride the ocean waves together, and drink to your priest´s memory. What was his name -- Croney?"
"It was Corlan," Torodin corrected with a growl in his voice.
Jvelto frowned. His little brother´s normal cheerfulness evaporated at times like these. If left alone with his grief, Torodin had an alarming tendency to become bitter and angry. Jvelto was determined to pull him out of it.
"Corlan," Jvelto repeated. "He was a good man, and he deserved a proper send-off. What would your priests think if they could see you like this?"
Realizing that his brother was right, Torodin allowed himself to be carried off to Jvelto´s realm on the back of a giant gull. Estereal had made them promise to stop dive-bombing passing vessels, but Jvelto still managed to make the trip an unforgettable whirlwind of a ride that left the two gods breathless and windblown when they reached the Oceanlord´s palace. Jvelto treated his brother to lively music, plentiful ale, and dancing. Torodin enjoyed himself, and spent the night in the arms of two voluptuous sea nymphs.
Despite these pleasant distractions, Torodin did not forget the loss of his priest. In the wee hours of the morning, after the nymphs had fallen asleep, Torodin rose and began pacing the length of the luxurious chamber Jvelto had given him. As he stared through the glass walls at the brightly colored fish swimming by Jvelto´s palace, Torodin´s thoughts turned to vengeance. He would not suffer a loss like this again. He would be rid of Athelstan, once and for all.
Deep beneath the ocean waves, the light of dawn did not reach Jvelto´s palace. Instead, giant pearls, some hanging from the ceilings, others resting on jade pedestals, began to brighten with a sea-green light. Soon each room was filled with their soft radiance, and the servants and guests of the Oceanlord began to wake.
Pushing aside the attempts of the nymphs to lure him back to bed, Torodin dressed in dark robes and went in search of his brother. The blue-skinned sea elf standing guard outside Jvelto´s chamber stepped forward, trident held at his side like a banner, to block Torodin´s path. From inside the chamber, cries of pleasure rose in counterpoint to the rhythmic squeaking of bed springs.
"I am sorry, my lord Torodin, but the master is occupied."
"I can hear that," Torodin snapped. "I would have thought that one of you could have talked him into replacing that so-called lucky bed by now. How old is that thing?"
Torodin stared in fascination as the warrior blushed purple. "I-I could not say, my lord. I myself have only been here for a few years."
Torodin rolled his eyes. "It was a rhetorical question...Walgian, isn´t it?"
The elven warrior nodded.
"Walgian, good man." Torodin placed a friendly arm around the stiff warrior´s shoulders. "I don´t suppose you´d be willing to go in there and --"
"Oh, no my lord! We never interrupt His Holiness at times like these."
Torodin sighed. "And Estereal wonders why he´s always late for everything. Well, never mind. When he comes up for air, just tell him I´ve gone to see Azkal, and he should join us right away."
The relieved guard promised to do as Torodin asked. The Shadowlord called upon his powers and vanished. Only to appear right behind Azkal as he was polishing his favorite shield. No matter how dark his mood, Torodin could seldom resist teasing Azkal. Grinning, he leaned close to The Great Warrior´s ear.
"Good morning!" he yelled.
Torodin chuckled as Azkal jumped and the shield went clattering across the room. He turned and frowned at Torodin.
"Stop doing that!" he thundered.
Torodin grinned. "Just trying to keep you on your toes."
"A good warrior is always "on his toes," as you say. We need no help from meddlesome pranksters. Go bother Jvelto."
Turning his back on Torodin, Azkal stomped across the room and picked up his shield. He resumed polishing it without looking at Torodin.
"Really, Azkal. You´re unusually surly this morning. Even for, well, even for you." Torodin pushed aside the bear furs and sat down on his brother´s over-sized bed. He looked up at Azkal curiously.
With an angry growl, Azkal suddenly threw his shield across the room. It bounced against the far wall, knocking down two bastard swords. All fell to the ground in a tinny clatter.
"Those demon-spawned servants of Athelstan killed the leader of my church, that´s what´s wrong."
"They got Vladik?"
With a weary sigh, Azkal sat down on the bed beside his brother. "The bastards poisoned him."
"I´m sorry." Torodin shook his head. "They got one of mine, too."
"That is low, even for them," Azkal spat. "Your priests are weak and helpless. Those fiends could at least pick on someone who can fight back."
Torodin stared at his brother. "Gee, thanks for the sympathy."
"Don´t mention it, brother," said Azkal, slapping Torodin on the back so hard he almost fell off the bed. "I may dislike you, but we are allies after all."
"You really know how to make a god feel warm and fuzzy all over."
Azkal frowned at him. "If that was what you were after, you would be off chasing nymphs, and not sitting in my chamber. What brings you here?"
"I don´t believe it. Azkal is joking around AND being perceptive, all in one sentence. Let´s check on Othniel -- I think Hell just froze over."
Torodin stood and backed away at Azkal´s angry glare. "Just kidding. I´m here because we both want the same thing -- revenge against Athelstan."
"You did not need to come here for that. My chariot is ready. My weapons are sharp. I plan to ride down to the Abyss and..."
"Yeah, yeah. You´ll ride down there and challenge Athelstan to a duel. But instead of fighting you himself, he´ll send out a few thousand demons. By the time you finish fighting them off, Estereal will come down and hall your butt off to the Halls of Truth, where you´ll have to sit through a lecture that lasts three days. Honestly, Azkal, don´t you ever get tired of that?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
Torodin rolled his eyes. "Skah could do better than that. Of course I have a better idea. I´ve been thinking about this for days. I´ve done divination after divination, and.."
"Torodin, get to the point."
The Shadowlord frowned at his brother. Nobody had the patience to listen to a good plan. Except for Othniel, and being enemies made that so awkward.
"Right. The point is, we´re going to kill Athelstan, and Estereal´s not going to find out about it."
Torodin held up a hand. "Hold on, Jvelto´s coming."
With a splash, Jvelto abruptly stepped out of Azkal´s bathing pool, trident in hand. He walked over to them, dripping.
"Torodin, that wasn´t like you to run off like that. Lily and Simone were in tears. I had a terrible time consoling them."
"I´ll bet you did."
"Jvelto, quit dripping on my carpets," Azkal complained.
The Oceanlord cast a spell to dry himself off. "Sorry, brother. What´s going on? Torodin, are you plotting something again?"
"He´s always plotting something."
Torodin frowned at them. "I resent that."
"We have a plan to kill Athelstan," Azkal explained.
I have a plan."
"Not again," said Jvelto. "Remember what happened last time?"
"We´re not going to get caught this time," Torodin insisted.
"We´d better not," said Jvelto. "I had to give up drinking for ten months."
"Ten months!?" Torodin shook his head. "I had to give up women for a year. It was awful. Azkal, what did you have to do?"
Azkal squirmed uncomfortably. "I´d rather not say."
Jvelto and Torodin exchanged intrigued glances. They sat down on either side of Azkal.
"Come on," said Torodin, putting a friendly arm on his brother´s shoulder. "You can tell us."
From Azkal´s other side, Jvelto conjured a foaming tankard of ale. "Out with it brother. We told ours."
The Great Warrior gulped his ale. "Well, all right. I had to count all of the rocks in Hurva."
They stared at him. "You had to count the rocks?"
Azkal nodded. "All five-hundred sixty billion, twenty three million, seven hundred, fifty two thousand, six hundred and seventy three of them."
Bursting into laughter, both Jvelto and Torodin collapsed helplessly. Azkal stood, hands fisted.
"This is not amusing!"
His brothers only laughed harder. "You know," Torodin said between breaths, "if you´d only said something, I could have counted them for you with a simple spell."
Azkal kicked Torodin hard.
"Hey, stop that!"
"Quit laughing and tell us your plan."
"All right, all right. We´re going to have to act quickly now. I plan to take advantage of Natanael´s birthday celebration tomorrow."
Jvelto frowned. "Torodin, in case you´ve forgotten, we three are expected to attend that celebration. Besides, I like Natanael."
"I concur," said Azkal. "He is a fine lad. And I hope, little brother, that you have not forgotten what happened the last time you sent a simulacrum in your place to one of Estereal´s ceremonies."
"How could even I predict that Zitkala would zap him with lightning?"
Jvelto sighed. "The mess that made ruined a very nice dinner. Next time, my brother, give your double a little more tact. A man should always wait until after the main course to seduce a woman. Timing is everything."
"My point exactly. And we´re not going to have to worry about simulacrums getting us into trouble, because we will all be attending Natanael´s banquet."
Jvelto slapped a hand across his knee. "Glad to hear it. I´d hate to miss a good party. I was planning to be late and miss Estereal´s speech anyway."
Azkal rolled his eyes. "Torodin, how can we attend the banquet AND kill Athelstan? I will not stoop to sending an assassin."
"Nor would I ask you to. Azkal, you will kill Athelstan with your own blade. And Jvelto and I will be right behind you."
"We can not be in two places at once."
"Ah, but we can. Or rather, Zayit can. He is, after all, the god of time. And if we just happen to be tagging along for the ride..."
"Then we can both attend the banquet and destroy Athelstan." Azkal beamed at the prospect of his hated brother´s violent death. "I like your plan, brother."
Jvelto sighed wearily. "But Zayit is so dull. Can´t you get someone else?"
"Sorry, Jvelto. All the other time gods are busy."
Azkal paced the room, scratching his beard thoughtfully. "Why, if Zayit can do this, then we can get all the good warriors to help us battle Athelstan´s minions. My son Dagon, of course. And Tritherion, Natanael, Ahmik, Mojag..."
"Um, hold on there, general," Torodin said, holding up a hand to forestall Azkal´s pacing. "Remember the second part of the plan -- that Estereal doesn´t find out? That´s a very, very important part. We have to be very careful who we tell."
Azkal frowned. "Torodin, you know how I feel about being deceitful."
"How do you feel about counting rocks?"
"Very well. But I know that I can trust Dagon."
"Agreed. Bring him. We´ll meet at Jvelto´s palace right before the party."
"Why there?" Azkal asked.
"Estereal never goes there. Too much chaos."
"Speaking of my palace," said Jvelto, who was starting to get bored, "I have to go back and check on things. I´ll see you both on the morrow."
Azkal frowned after Jvelto´s departing form. "He never sticks around for the battle planning. What could be so important that the has to check on it now?"
"Simone and Lily, no doubt. Don´t be too hard on Jvelto. He just doesn´t have the patience for our plans."
"They would not require so much patience if you didn´t insist on doing divinations for every little detail."
"Hey, that´s why our plans always work."
Azkal stared at him.
"Well, almost always. Come on, let´s get to it..."
The next day found Azkal and Torodin still working out the details of their plan in Azkal´s war room. Shaking his head, Torodin picked up the tiny demon model closest to him.
"I still can´t believe you made a complete scale model of the Abyss."
Azkal shifted uncomfortably. The model was useful for strategic planning, but that didn´t quite justify all the detail put into painting the figures and the terrain.
"We began it when Dagon was eight. Children enjoy such things."
Torodin grinned. "Children. Right."
"Hello, Uncle Torodin," Dagon said as he marched in. He was dressed in full battle gear and carried Azkal´s armor.
"Father, you wanted this?"
"Yes, my son."
Dagon looked curiously at the Abyss model. "Are we going to attack Uncle Athelstan again?"
"Yes, but don´t call him your uncle. He does not deserve that honor."
"As you wish, father."
Torodin watched the father and son exchange with an amused smile. None of his children were ever this polite.
"Well, we should be going. We´ve got a party to attend, a battle to fight, and a god to murder. And I´ll wager we have to drag Jvelto out of bed. It´s going to be a full day."
Everyone turned as one of Azkal´s warriors stepped in to announce the arrival of Zayit, god of time. He was a plain-looking god, tall and rangy, with a long gray beard, and narrow eyes set in a thin and wrinkled face. He wore simple, sand-colored robes. A tiny silver hourglass dangling from a chain around his neck was his only ornamentation.
Torodin smiled. "Good morning, Zayit. Right on time, as usual."
Zayit, who lacked a sense of humor, stared at the Shadowlord. "Yes, of course I am. But I do not see Lord Jvelto. All must be present before I can split time, and allow you to travel in two different directions at once."
"We have to go to his palace and pick him up. Have you ever been to Jvelto´s palace, Zayit? It´s a fun place."
Zayit stared at him.
"Uh, well, we won´t be there long."
Azkal leaned close to Torodin. "Is he always this dull?" he whispered.
Torodin sighed. "I´m afraid so. Jvelto and I have been working on him, but we´ve had no luck. I guess Time is a serious business."
"Perhaps he will liven up during the excitement of battle."
"Don´t count on it."
When the four gods arrived at Jvelto´s undersea palace, they were ushered to a waiting room by a polite young mermaid. "I shall fetch master Jvelto at once," she promised. "He eagerly awaits your arrival."
"I´ve heard that one before," Torodin muttered. "Tell him to hurry, will you dear?"
"You said we would not be here long," Zayit accused. He frowned at the brightly colored fish swimming around outside the glass walls, and the haphazard array of furniture and decoration within. "I dislike this place. It lacks symmetry."
Azkal scowled. "No one asked you--"
Torodin hastily stepped between them. "Remember, we have a common enemy to fight. Save your energy for that battle."
"I have plenty of energy," Azkal said with a growl as he loomed over Zayit.
"And I do not have to help you."
Much to Torodin´s relief, a loud rumbling noise distracted them. They all turned to see Jvelto stride into the room. Close behind him lumbered Skah.
"HELLO!" the thunder god roared, drowning out Jvelto´s greeting. "I´M GOING TO HELP YOU!"
Both astonished, Azkal and Torodin endured bear hugs from their nephew. Dagon and Zayit stared wide-eyed.
Torodin glared at Jvelto.
"He wanted to help!" Jvelto yelled over the din.
Torodin pulled Jvelto close to him.
Jvelto grinned. "Zitkala promised to be very grateful."
Azkal joined in the huddle. "Jvelto, what are you thinking? If Skah joins our invasion, Athelstan will hear us coming miles away. The coward will run and hide from us."
"Have a heart. I promised the kid he could come."
Azkal rolled his eyes. "Torodin, you´re a consummate liar. Convince Skah to busy himself elsewhere."
"When you ask so nicely, how could I refuse?" Torodin snapped. But he walked over to wear Skah stood with Zayit and Dagon. The god of time was staring in horror as Skah played with his silver hour glass. Somewhere, time was running backwards.
"PRETTY," Skah said as the sand trickled through the glass.
"Skah, I need to talk to you," Torodin shouted.
The god of thunder turned and beamed at him. "You´re my uncle Torodin," he said happily.
"Yes, and I need to ask you a favor. We´re going to eliminate Athelstan once and for all. And there´s a very important task that only someone with your unique abilities can undertake."
Skah´s brow wrinkled, and he looked very sad.
"What´s wrong?" asked Torodin.
"I DON´T UNDERSTAND."
Torodin put his hands on Skah´s shoulders and stared into his vacant blue eyes. "Skah, I haven´t told you what the favor is yet."
"OH GOOD." Skah smiled. "WHAT IS A FAVOR?"
Torodin blinked at him. Then he turned and walked back to where Jvelto and Azkal waited.
"I can not reason with that."
"What? The cleverest of the gods can not outwit simple-minded Skah?"
Torodin glared at Azkal. "Perhaps the Great General can devise a strategy to get rid of him?"
Jvelto stepped between them before the argument could get out of hand. "Brothers, there are far more enjoyable pursuits awaiting us than bickering among ourselves. Why don´t you simply change your plan to make use of Skah?"
Azkal and Torodin stared at him, appalled.
"But we spent hours devising that plan," said Torodin.
"It is a very good plan," Azkal added.
Jvelto sighed. Sometimes he wondered if Azkal and Torodin weren´t more entertained by concocting elaborate plans with their toy soldiers than they were by putting the plans into action. They certainly were defensive of their "brilliant" ideas.
"Think of this as a challenge."
Torodin scowled at his rumbling nephew. "I suppose he would make a good diversion."
Azkal agreed, and the plan was quickly modified. Torodin created an illusionary army, and they placed Skah at its head. This impressive and noisy force charged the front gates of the Abyss and was met by an army of demons.
In the midst of this chaos, Torodin cloaked the rest of their little band in shadows and led them into the nether regions of the evil gods´ realm. Even here, in the bowels of the Abyss, they could hear the echo of Skah´s rumbling.
Between the chaos above and the shadows that concealed them, the five gods were not detected until they reached the corridor just outside Athelstan´s private chamber. As they approached the dimly lit passage, Torodin disabled one magical trap that would have sounded a shrieking alarm, and another that would have blasted the gods with sheets of flame. But there was one trap the Shadowlord failed to detect. When they moved cautiously into the passage, a third trap detected the magical shadows protecting them. Pulsing, squid-like tentacles lashed out to consume the cloaking shadows. The tentacles grew larger and attacked Torodin with the energy of his own spell.
Torodin´s screams alerted Athelstan´s elite guard - a dozen of the most powerful demons and fallen angels that stood watch outside their master´s chamber. While most of the demons rushed to attack the no longer hidden gods, one turned back towards Athelstan´s chamber.
This is where they had always failed before. There was always one demon that managed to warn Athelstan, allowing The Torturer to either flee or summon reinforcements.
This time, Torodin and Azkal´s plan had included a way to keep Athelstan from being warned. Zayit focused his powers, stopping time outside the corridor. While time was frozen elsewhere, demon and god would do battle here -- not one of them could leave until the spell was broken.
This suited Azkal and Dagon just fine. While Jvelto freed Torodin from the magical trap, The Great Warrior and his son yelled a battle cry that shook the very walls and attacked the demons. Blood and flames showered the corridor like sparks from a smith´s forge as the battle raged back and forth. While the gods were gouged with tooth and claw, their blades tasted far more deeply of demon flesh. Jvelto had just finished helping Torodin to his feet when the last of the demons fell dead.
None of them noticed, in all the excitement, that the rumbling echo had stopped.
Jvelto looked at the demon parts littering the corridor. "What a mess." He quickly conjured a wave of purifying water to wash away the bodies.
"No, wait --"
Torodin´s warning came too late. With Zayit´s spell still in effect, nothing could leave the corridor, including water and corpses. The wave smashed the demon bodies against the far wall and rebounded, drenching the gods and knocking them off their feet.
Jvelto dispelled the water, then burst into laughter. He held his shaking gut and pointed at the bits of demon flesh stuck to the clothes and hair of his sodden companions..
"You look ridiculous," he said as they all struggled to their feet, dripping.
Torodin plucked a demon eye from Jvelto´s beard. "Thanks a lot," he snapped. "Care to clean us up?"
Jvelto started to cast the spell, but he was interrupted by an outburst from Zayit. The fastidious time god could not tolerate being covered in demon entrails. With a cry of rage and frustration, Zayit teleported himself back to his clean and orderly palace, leaving the other gods to their own devices.
"That coward!" Azkal bellowed. "I´ll --"
"No time," said Torodin arching his eyebrows at Azkal, realizing that time was no longer frozen. He summoned magical energies and blasted open the door to Athelstan´s chamber.
The god of misfortune had been hunched over his crystal ball when time stopped, watching his priest torture an innocent, young maiden. He was quite surprised when his enemies burst through the door and barely got his blade up in time to parry Azkal´s first savage blow.
"Die, traitor!" The Great Warrior yelled. Dagon joined the battle at his side, and they pressed Athelstan back towards the wall. Sweat poured from The Torturer´s brow - he knew he was overmatched.
Torodin and Jvelto, meanwhile, were moved by the plight of the young maiden Athelstan had been scrying upon. Jvelto diverted a ship manned by honorable men, so that the brave sailors aboard would be forced to land on the island where the girl was being held captive. Seeing the illusions that hid the evil priests from sight, Torodin altered the teleport spell of one of his worshipers; he knew that the good mage would quickly recover from his surprise at finding himself on the strange island and come to the aid of the sailors. Just to be spiteful, he also stole Athelstan´s crystal ball.
Though Athelstan battled savagely, he soon found his back against the wall. All three warriors bled freely from many wounds, but Athelstan´s were by far the worst. A savage cut from Azkal´s blade had nearly severed his sword arm, and a deep wound from Dagon had left his entrails showing. One final cut near his heart caused The Torturer to drop his blade and sink to his knees in defeat.
Still, he glared defiantly as Azkal raised his Flame Blade for the killing blow. But as the blade came down, a rose-colored shield appeared to block it. The scent of flowers filled the air.
Everyone turned as Soltana strode into the room. Ignoring Athelstan´s sneer, she glared at her other brothers.
"How could you do this? You know Estereal´s edict forbids you to take the life of another god."
The others had the good sense to remain silent, and Jvelto even tried to look chagrined. But Torodin just couldn´t understand how his brilliant plan had failed.
"How did you find out?"
"Poor Skah came to me for healing."
"Oh, shit. He charged right into Natanael´s banquet, didn´t he?"
"No, Torodin. The other gods know nothing of this. Is that all you´re worried about? Don´t any of you care that Skah could have been killed?"
"We thought he could handle a few hundred lousy demons," Dagon protested.
"It was a fine opportunity for the boy to prove himself in battle," Azkal concurred. "The sharpest blades are always quenched in blood."
"Nobody ever accused Skah of being sharp," Torodin muttered.
Soltana was furious. "Have you no shame? What if Othniel had joined the battle. Skah is no match for him!"
"I made sure that Wajen was keeping Othniel busy," Torodin said with a wicked grin.
"Don´t try to shock me, brother. I know of my sister´s affair."
"And you approve?" Azkal challenged.
Soltana nodded. "What better way to redeem our fallen brother than with the power of love?"
All four gods rolled their eyes. Athelstan burst into laughter, until Dagon kicked him into silence.
"There is no reasoning with any of you," Soltana complained. "Come, leave with me now, and you have my word that Estereal will not hear of this."
Athelstan leered. "That´s right, boys. Tuck your tails between your legs and follow Estereal´s whore back home."
Azkal growled and lifted his brother to his feet, only to backhand Athelstan so hard that his head cracked the wall. Blood sprayed from the Torturer´s mouth. Still furious, Azkal lifted his hand to strike again.
"Azkal, enough!" Soltana cried, grabbing his arm.
The Great Warrior dropped Athelstan and turned to his sister. "Why should I spare him? Let me kill him now."
"Why not? After all he has done -- after all he did to you -- why would you let him live?"
"Because killing him is forbidden. Because, no matter how evil he may be, while he lives there is still hope for Athelstan´s redemption. He is our brother. I believe that one day he will change, and the goodness buried deep within him will resurface."
"You´ve got to be kidding me," Torodin muttered.
But Soltana was quite serious. As Estereal´s wife, she ordered her brothers to obey her. While Athelstan jeered, they reluctantly left the Abyss.
Although Soltana kept her word and did not tell Estereal of their transgression, The One learned of it from Skah. After a very long lecture, Azkal, Jvelto, Torodin and Dagon were further punished by being forced to clean and polish all the clocks in Zayit´s palace. The god of time was punished by being forbidden to supervise.
One good thing came of the gods´ misadventure. The young maiden, whose name was Dalwa, was rescued by the brave sailors and the good magician. She built a shrine to Jvelto, that still stands today. In time, more people would come to the island, for it was a beautiful place. Eventually, it would become the city that bore her name.