“Nothing we did helped,” said Alquis. “If anything, our actions here in Ephine have only exacerbated the problem.”

“We couldn’t have known,” said Nicyes. “We did everything we could to help the blighters. They chose to embrace the darkness, to harbor it. Even after we cut out its heart.” He stood quiet for a moment before adding, “It’s time we discussed leaving Chaika to its fate.”

Gloom pervaded the air, and it could be felt everywhere in Ephine. Their efforts to quell the rogue element of the Cult of Heros had backfired spectacularly.

“We could have known,” said Alquis. “We could have made a difference. We could have taken longer to study the problem, before trying to tackle so complex a problem.” He shook his head. “It’s as I said, we tried to help and all we did was make the problem worse.”

Nicyes suddenly clapped him on the shoulder, and the sound startled Alquis more than it stung.

“When all seems lost, we ought to make ourselves scarce,” said Nicyes.

“What about the Order of Orion? They’ll know we failed.”

“We’ll make it work, they’ll still need us. I mean, who else is going to do work like this?” said Nicyes. “More come back dead than alive, if they come back at all. Surrounded by death. Constant, unnecessary risks to life and limb. We might get to live like kings for a while, which is nice, but–”

“We’re just a sacrifice to hold back the darkness.”

The next words they spoke in unison. “For a time.”

Silence followed and noisy, uncomfortable thoughts began to fill the void that their words had left behind. Nicyes squeezed Alquis’s shoulder to remind him when and where they were.

“We can only go up from here, but only if we survive,” said Nicyes.

“Next time,” said Alquis.

“That’s right.”

“Next time,” Alquis began again, “we need to keep Mercer away from the wine.”

“That’s a start.”

“And we don’t let Esther go anywhere alone.”

“You’re getting the idea.” Nicyes laughed.

Alquis shook his head. “And we have to take more time studying the problem before we act. We have to make sure we solve the correct problem, not just the most obvious problem.”

“And even if the Order cuts us loose, we’ll be able to take on anything that comes our way again. It isn’t the end of the world.”

“Just the end of Chaika,” said Alquis. “And Ephine.”