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There might be others, too, although she was sure some had been caught in the mysterious blast. How could everything have gone so suddenly, horribly, wrong?

"That seems a fair question!" snapped one of the other cloaked figures, a merchant whom she did not know particularly well.

"Is this it? Are we all doomed?" asked a second man, nervously, until Amloth quelled him with a disgusted glance.

"No, of course not," snapped the drow, "somebody has found out about us, tried to stop the ceremony, but there is still time. There's another way," she turned to look at the stranger, "isn't there?"

"There is," said the mystery woman, "the Presence is not so easily defeated."

"And just who the hell are you, anyway?" snapped the remaining conspirator, the woman who had produced the magical light. Eristacia thought she was some sort of petty sorceress. "And what are you?"
"She is another agent of the Presence," said Amloth, "whose inner nature I have awakened. She is the one who acquired the censer for us."

Eristacia noticed that the drow had not really answered the second part of the question. For the mystery woman did not look human, but some kind of mix of mortal and demon. She had sharp horns jutting from her forehead, blood-red eyes, and a skin whose colour... well, she could not quite tell in this light, but it did not look normal. A tiefling, just possibly, but one whose demonic taint was far stronger than in any she had ever heard of. More like a demon herself, perhaps. Not that she was an expert, in such things, of course.

"Zarenis," said the stranger, "my name is Zarenis."

She held, Eristacia noticed, some kind of sceptre, with a lightly glowing crystal at the tip. Even Amloth, she could not help noticing, kept glancing at it, as if not sure what it was.

"Oh, this?" said Zarenis, apparently noticing her gaze, "this is how we do without your original ceremony." She smiled, with no trace of warmth in it, but said nothing further.

The awkward silence dragged on, until Amloth at last decided to break it, looking as uncomfortable as Eristacia had ever seen her. "How?" the drow asked, clearly fuming at having to seek advice.

"Ask the Presence," said Zarenis, "and you will know how. You are, I believe, the only one who can speak to it directly."

"I am," said Amloth, a haughty tone creeping back into her voice now that she evidently realised that she still might have the upper hand. She was silent for a while, as if listening to an inner voice, then she suddenly flicked her head up, expression unreadable. "I see," she said, in a surprisingly dead voice. "So be it."

The drow reached into the black bag that she had been carrying at her side all evening, and drew out an engraved purple rod, something like a wand, raising it into the air with a flourish.

She pointed it at the merchant, and spoke a single word of command. A blast of greenish light spat out from the end, striking him in the chest. The merchant screamed.

He fell to his knees, still screaming, as Eristacia and the other two conspirators looked on in horror. Only Zarenis and Amloth looked calm as tendrils of smoke began to pour from beneath the man's robes and he thrashed on the floor. Then flames began spurting from his mouth, and a few seconds later, he had stopped moving.

Amloth looked at the others in the room. "We still needed a sacrifice. And a betrayal," she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"Of course," sad Zarenis, "without the full ceremony..." she let the words hang in the air.

"Quite," said Amloth. "One is no longer enough." And she shot the second man.

The other conspirator, the sorceress, realised what that meant just a moment before Eristacia did, and ran for the door even as the second man collapsed screaming on the floor.

Zarenis had thrown a bolt across the doorway, and the sorceress, fingers scrambling, did not even have time to finish pulling it back before she too, was letting out a high-pitched yell of un

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