Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Walk a Road of Ruin - Chapter XVII




CHAPTER XVII
“I find Déjà-vu to be the most natural of feelings.
It lets me know I’m finishing where I started”
-Indra the Wanderer
 


I was back in the tomb, cold air and rock dust choking my senses. The sickening rasp and shuffle of malaghasts echoed around the air, their dead, violet eyes burning from the darkness, only to be extinguished by the brief flares of white somewhere beyond the darkness
Heart thundering in my ears I forced myself to swallow, choking down the tide of horror and sick despair, clawing my way back to reality. The darkness was not the dusty gloom of a barrow mound, nor the warm shadow of a rented room, but an empty black void of unconsciousness. The rasp was not the hungry noise of the living dead, but my own ragged attempts to breathe.
Is this what it is to die, I wondered, waiting in the dark for Death’s cold jaws?
The eyes in the darkness blinked, drawing my own back to them. Those were different too, only a single pair now, larger and closer than the malaghasts’ had been. Their shade was wrong as well, lighter than the purple of the malaghasts but darker than the blue in my own. It was the color that straddled the line between them, the iridescent afterimage of a lighting stroke.
Somehow, I found myself standing, though on what in this empty place I could not say. I felt drawn to those indigo lamps, cautiously stepping through the emptiness. They narrowed as I neared, scorn evident as they glared down at me, pupils merely drops of ink despite the darkness. Slowly, the shape behind the eyes resolved, bulk fading from the shadow to show me the true nature of this looming presence.
For a moment, I could not recognize it, its sheer size a hurdle to identification. Its fur was thick and shaggy, a glossy coat of blue-black as dark as an ingot of adamant. It had a head as broad as my shoulders, the mouth beneath that hypnotic glare a forest of steely teeth, glistening with the damp residue left by its black tongue. High as a Morgenite warhorse at the shoulder, it was easily the largest wolf I had ever seen, if such a monster could truly even be called such.
It was also, I knew, the beast I had battled in my nightmares.
Why have you awakened me, whelp?” The wolf’s mouth did not move with those words, his voice not one but many. It was a battle cry, a cold challenge, a predatory growl and a thousand other things, all at once. The thing Richter named Kali, deep in the Golga Woods had called to me the same way, though hers were the voices of fear. I stood, then, before another Daeva.
You are quiet for one who supplicated so loudly.” The beast lowered its muzzle to stare me eye to eye. “I have slept for centuries without the taste of willing blood to rouse me. Dreaming forever was a torment like no other, but no longer. Who would have thought a wretch like you would have the fortitude to rouse a god?”
It blinked, and I realized it now waited for my response. “What…who are you?” Where had this creature come from? What did it want of me?
“Cur,” somehow, I got the impression the monster was laughing. “You called me from slumber, carried me… but know not even my name? Have I truly been gone so long to be forgotten by the creatures who once quaked at my call?” His hackles rose, fur standing on end, growl like a roll of thunder coming from his throat. “I am fury made flesh. the Jawed-god. He who tore the hand from Tyr when the Archangels chained my kind. I am Fenris!”
The name might have meant something to Richter, but not to me. The title ‘Jawed-god’ did, however. I had thought Kali had simply been mad with agony when she begged me to kill her, raving after an eternity of torture. It seemed she had seen what Richter and I could not.
I finally lifted my jaw from my feet and spoke up. “You were the one who carried me through the Golga, weren’t you? Your anger swallowed up my fear then and all the times since. Why, in the name of Heaven and Hell and the lands of life between, would you help me?”
More impressions of laughter, though the angry nature of its voices did not subside. “I slumbered and I dreamt, and in my dreaming saw the pathetic get of the one called man. He was torn between staying a coward or becoming a king; and, foolish and weak as all his kind, would have died before deciding.”  Those gleaming metal teeth lifted into a parody of a smile. “A coward like you were then would have never had a chance to set me free, so I did my best to nudge you the other way.”
The wolf-god sniffed at me, lupine face crinkling in revulsion. “You reek of blood and…one of the Fallen Ones. Small wonder you lay dying.”
Remembrance washed over me, cold as an ice-choked river. Kage and the terrible blow he had dealt me. Fear returned then, not only for my own fading life but for Richter and for Grail as well. Everyone I have ever known will be in peril if Kage wins the day, returning the blood and horror of the Resurrection to the earth. And if it starts here… Ialae will be on the front lines.
Fenris had noticed the sudden fall of my expression. “The king fights the coward once more. Would you truly try to strive against the Demon, a killer that rebelled against the Light, Word and Sword itself? You can barely stand here, let alone rise up and face your death a second time.”
My anger sparked at the great wolf’s dismissal, though it was barely a flicker compared to the inferno of rage present in the being before me. “I’m not the man I used to be. I will not, cannot go gently into that good night. This has to stop here, and I…I will pay whatever price is asked to make it so.” My hands balled into fists. “Some things may be worth dying for…but the greatest are worth living for. At least long enough to make sure the job gets done.”
The Daeva threw back his head with a triumphant howl, furious joy rattling me down to my bones. The motion came with the clank of chains, my eye falling for the first time on the steel collar about Fenris’s neck. The wolf was bound to something, farther back into the darkness.
Boldly spoken boy…had you the strength to backup your brave words, at least. Ask it of me, and I shall give it unto you. I can grant you the weapon you seek, lend you the might of my fury, both within and without. Simply say the words.”
And for this boon? What sacrifice do you demand?” There was a great echo as I finished my question, as if something heavy had fallen near my head. I looked about in surprise but saw nothing in the darkness.
You are hardly in a position to barter with me. you shall surely die, spent and alone here in the dark without my sustaining blessing.” Fenris gave another disturbing smile. “I want my freedom, and you shall provide it to me. Find a way to loose these chains that so firmly hold me, to give me flesh and bone once more, and I shall call us even.”
Making deals with divinities was Richter’s specialty, not mine. A wiser man, a less desperate man, would have turned away, not understanding the cost on the table. I had never claimed to be wise, however, and was a man with nothing to lose. I did not hesitate in my reply.
“Bargain struck.”
Somehow, Fenris smiled wider, toothy grin nearly splitting its head. “Very well, Saga. Let us test our mettle against this Demon.”  The wolf-god padded to one side, revealing the taut links of black iron stretching back into the void behind.  Fenris gave a nod of its shaggy head, indicating that I should follow the fetters. I stepped past the hulking beast, placing one hand on the chain as I moved into the darkness.
A hundred steps from Fenris’s side, the links came to an end, a pool of light flaring to life around me. The final iron ring was nailed to the featureless ground, looped about a handle that was far more familiar to me than anything else in this place had been so far. Embedded point first in the circle of light, the lynchpin of Fenris’s bonds, was the humble and battered saber I had bought in Illuma.
The Daeva growled behind me, perhaps thinking that I balked out of fear, not surprise. “Time is short, mortal, and I am not known for patience. Either take up my prison and fight, or die here.”
I grasped the hilt, drawing my blade free of the illuminated surface. I felt the chains slacken behind me, though the bond still hung from the pommel, Fenris moving closer as I hosted the weapon. The light flared again, so bright I had to screw my eyes shut against the sudden radiance…
                                  

My eyes snapped open, riveted to a dull blue patch of granite on the ceiling of the vault. The shadows had returned, the lantern light now gone, held back only by the pale blue glow of cryshala at my side. I turned my head to find Richter clutching that glimmering shard, eyes wet with tears and face spattered with fresh blood, staring at something I could not see.
After all, we have an eternity.” It was a pair of voices, speaking in near perfect unison, one of them Kage’s and the other an oily whisper.
With one arm dead below the elbow and my other hand gripping my saber with a white-knuckled clench, I made an awkward push to my knees. The crawling rot still savaged my arm, but the rising heat of the Daeva’s anger pushed thoughts of pain to a far-off place. I crouched, following Richter’s stare, the dim green sparkles of light from the pendant providing me just enough light to see Kage. His back was to us, his focus only on the box and the heart within.
My rising fury burst into full flare, raw animal rage igniting every fiber of my being like a lucifer cast in a dry haystack. The cryshala’s radiance faded away behind me as another, harsher light grew to replace it, washing the room with the same glow as Fenris’s eyes. Raising my weapon as I stood, I saw the source of that indigo gleam, my blood across the blade transformed into heatless flames. Spilling from the hand guard, the blaze spread, setting my once-invisible halo alight.
Richter’s aura had always been a symmetrical, crystalline thing, like sunlight through a yantra cut from sapphire. It was a touchstone of his cold logic and methodical thinking, a tribute to his reason. The essence Fenris mingled with my own unhardened spirit could not have been more different. It twisted and flared, an unchecked wildfire, untamable wrath ready to rend any threat asunder. For that moment, I was the slayer primeval, pretenses of civilization stripped away like sand in the wind.
“Kage!” My challenge tore from my throat in a bestial howl, forcing Baphomet’s vessel to spin around with surprise. Shock twisted back to spite and contempt in a split second, sneering at my upraised steel.
“You should have stayed down, Saga. No paltry shaman’s trick can stand before my wrath.” That strange, hateful fire sprang to life around the claw once more.
I had no use for further words, instead charging, blade high and to the side as instinct began the Falling Hawk. A torrent of corrosive power sprayed out from Kage’s palm, a rippling sheet of death sent to scythe me in two. I fell beneath it as it scorched the air before my face, rolling my weight onto my blackened hand as I tried to scramble on all fours.
I nearly collapsed doing so, the pressure on my crippled limb like trying to hold a bar of red-hot iron. For an instant, I fancied that I could feel the bones of my arm crack and crumble, rotted through by Baphomet’s kiss. Then the protective cocoon of wrath sealed about me again, violently suppressing my misery and forcing me on.
The fire streaming just above me head ceased as Kage withdrew his will, either sure I was now ash or trying to track where I had gone. His burned visage melted from a grin of manic glee to a grimace of surprise, seeing how close I had come under the cover of his own blaze. Before he could muster another fiery plume, I had pushed myself from the cracked floor tiles, coins and tarnished slag scattering from my heels in a shining curtain behind me.
For a beat of my heart, the world seemed very still, my sudden burst of speed frozen in grim anticipation of my blow. I was inside of Kage’s reach now, so close I would have thought it impossible for him to bring fire or claw to bear fast enough to stop me. My rage and speed were an equal match for the warped Demonic power he had been imbued with. Time seemed to be trapped in amber as I twisted my grip, fang of steel arcing upward in the Circle of the Moon.
The clatter of falling silver on granite made my world snap back, the coins’ fall jarring my odd sense of stillness. My blade drove up, unerring towards the Demon-man’s arm, edge now entirely consumed by the indigo light. Kage’s burning eyes widened at the looming presence of mortality, catching my reflection. Again, I saw in my mirrored image Death’s pitiless shadow, but did not hesitate, could not hesitate, as I had in Illuma.
And with a twitch of Kage’s wrist, I was driven to the side, black plates of Demonhide stronger than adamant deflecting my perfect blow. I rolled across the floor, coins cascading about me as I slid. On instinct alone, I brought my sword up, putting the light of Fenris between me and the next bolt of bubbling fire, unable in my frenzy to stop and marvel as pure hate was annihilated by the edge of solid rage.
I rolled to my feet, dancing back as barb after barb of Hellfire was flung at me, that blighted rain trying to stymie my advance. Growling like a rabid beast, I hurled myself at Kage again, muscle-memory forming the Eye of the Maelstrom when my rage-seared mind could not. Inch by inch, I advanced, flinging away gobbets of corrosion as they came too close to touch.
“You really think you can win, Saga?” Kage was screaming now, hate and…frustration crackling palpably through both voices. “No matter your fortitude, no matter your might, you cannot harm me. I shall have life eternal, shall swallow the world in my shadow. Look upon me and see the end of all that is!”
“Mayhap you should look upon this first.”
The harsh clamor of the scattergun filled the vault, a deafening roar in these tight quarters. Richter had not been idle as I had dueled the Demon’s puppet, freeing his own weapon from the satchel at his side and priming it, not with scattershot, but a heavy slug like the one I had used in Brunt.
Lead hammered into Kage’s shoulder, spinning him like a child’s top. Black, writhing shapes sprang to life in the air about him, his halo obliterating the round before it could pierce his corrupted flesh. Still, the force of the blow was enough to stun and distract, making him raise the gauntlet to the near-wound out of surprise alone. That was all the opening I needed, moving to the black figure’s side in a blur of indigo and steel.
There was a dry snicker-snack, like the hungry hiss of vorpal, as my shining saber tore through the ruined man’s upraised limb, severing his arm at the elbow. The gauntlet did not spin away with the blow, instead dropping to the earth as if forged from lead. Kage did not have a chance to so much as scream before my teeth found his throat. Jaws tensing, I crushed his windpipe and then pulled back, opening his jugular with a wet tear.
Hot blood sprayed out, coating my face like grim war paint as Kage fell. Before he could hit the earth, I brought the saber in again, hammering down across his shoulder. Again I drew back and again I struck, rending flesh and bone. Rage fueling me, I kept driving blows into that dying form, ensuring his exit from the lands of life would be a permanent one.
When the torn and mangled form beneath me had stopped twitching, I finally withdrew, glowing blade unstained by the blood that coated my leathers. It was difficult to stop, rage boiling in my veins and Fenris roaring in my head for more. Hands shaking with the strain, I slid the saber home, sealing the wolf-god inside my scabbard. As guard clicked against the steel throat, the iridescent flames winked out, leaving me blinking against the dark, my breath an exhausted pant.
“Excellent sport, whelp.” If it was possible, Fenris sounded happy, growling in my ear. “I shall enjoy your service and sport, I think.
I ignored implications of that final comment, instead sinking to my knees again, empty stomach heaving dry. With the fury gone, I felt small and weak, icy sweat gluing leather to flesh. My blighted arm still only moved with great effort, though the blinding pain it had once sent through me was now merely a stomach-turning throb. Richter would have his work cut out for him trying to patch me up, it seemed.
I looked over to my friend, now kneeling on the floor in the blue-green cryshala glow. His expression was a mix of unblinking shock and a victorious smirk. Noticing my attention, the invoker looked up at me, one eye red, blood staining the white circling the grey.
“Saga.” My colleague’s voice was surprisingly strong and clear, but edged with exhaustion. “The next time you ask that we leave the path of least resistance, please make sure we are not doing so to walk a road of ruin. Honestly, I wonder if you are trying to get us killed sometimes.”
I could only shake my head. I should have known better than to expect gratitude from Richter.


            For a long time after that, Richter and I simply sat in the dark, barely able to see one another in the weak gleam of the cryshala pendant. We were both bruised, bloodied and exhausted, and in no state for conversation or deep thought. I could hear my friend’s pain in each breath, the gasping wince as his cracked ribs ground together. I was in no better state, wanting to empty my stomach with every beat of my heart, my hand sending pain like razor-edged fire through me.
            Still, we could not stay in this place, not in the presence of these horrible tokens of the Damned. “How do we get out of here?” I broke the silence, wincing at the sound of my own gravelly voice. “I don’t think either one of us is capable of lifting the other to the ledge, I mean.”
            Richter coughed, a wet, painful sound. “Excellent point, good Saga. Mayhap we can stack these coffers into some kind of crude stairway and ascend in that fashion?”
            I could have laughed, were I not so weary. “As good an idea as any. What about the gauntlet? How do we get it out of here? I’ve already had the glass-cut thing touch me once and frankly, I’d rather not repeat the experience.”
            In the gloom, I could barely see my colleague shake his head. “I am not sure…the strongboxes are solid black iron, though, enough to ground any wytchcraft. Emptying one and using it to carry those mordant talons might work well enough.”
            I smiled in spite of myself. “Seems like those chests are your solution for everything today.”
            Richter gave me a less than arcane gesture. “Come off it, Saga. I was nearly beaten to death and am working with few resources. We take what we are given.”
            I nodded at that, finding my feet. One-handed, I seized a strongbox and dragged it along the floor to my companion. After emptying its gleaming contents into his satchel, I doubled back, gingerly using the lip of the chest to scoop up Baphomet’s claw, Kage’s hand and all. Richter and I both heaved sighs of relief when I finally hooked the latch closed. Though the siren songs from either artifact had ceased with our nemesis’s demise, the feeling of foreboding had not lessened one whit.
            Finally rising, Richter limped to my side, producing another paper seal from his cassock. With one shaky hand, my colleague affixed the charm to the coffer’s bolt. “Better safe than sorry, after all,” he tried to say with a grin, ruined by the blood staining his teeth.
            I shrugged and continued to work, stacking iron boxes in some nightmare vision of a staircase while Richter performed the same sealing procedure with the heart’s enclosure. While time held no meaning in the near-lightless vault, it felt as though hours had passed before I was satisfied enough with my progress to try and climb out.
            Before I attempted my ascent, I shot one final look back at the Myrmidon’s treasury, noting with sadness the blackened remains of Grail, heaped against one wall. Richter’s thoughts cut mine off at the pass, however.
            “I do not think we can bear him out of this place, Saga, not in the state we are in.” He gave a sad smirk. “Besides…can you think of a better tomb for him, surrounded by the riches of the ages, in the finest monument of his people?”
            I nodded, turning back to scrabble my way up the precarious pile of containers. It was shaky, iron rattling and grinding under my heels, but I made the climb in short order, though I came close to tumbling as I had to slide through the upraised gap. Placing the heart in a pouch at his belt, Richter passed me the claw’s box and then followed suit, albeit with a bit more difficulty.
Pausing to rest again in the corridor above the vault, we took stock of our situation. “Returning to the pit itself is no option,” my friend began. “Neither of us is in any condition to make that climb, let alone face the wandering dead a second time.”
            “What does that leave us, Richter? Amn-Feng is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live…glass, scratch that. This is a pox-blasted place to visit…is there any other way out?”
            The invoker produced the blueprints from Hadrian from his bag and began to thumb through the pages. “It seems we are reduced to trying our luck at finding an intact path to the surface through one of the former outbuildings, old friend.”
            I groaned at the thought, but, with no other ideas or options, was forced to agree. What followed were hours of tedium and bone-weariness. We were reduced to wandering the halls again, halting to collapse at intersections and consulting the blueprints. It was miserable, with aches and pains plenty enough to drive us mad down there in the dark.
A stairway to one the upper levels of the underways proved simple enough to find, once we had oriented ourselves with the maps. The higher floors, though, were in far worse condition. Collapsed passages and rubble choked shafts greeted us at every turn, forcing us to double back a dozen times or more. Twice, we had to descend back to the lower floor in search of another stairwell, the section of the ruins we had found being entirely cut off from the world above.
Almost incapacitated with exhaustion, we finally reached the foundations of one of the outbuildings. “Free at last,” I managed to whisper to Richter, unable to muster the energy to raise my voice.
Using what little strength remaining to me, I scrabbled atop a pile of shattered stone that had once been cellar stairs and, good arm straining, pushed aside the stone slab sealing us from the surface world. The weak rays of dawn’s first light were so bright to my dark-strained eyes I had to blink away the tears. Despite the burn, I could not look away, the feeling of light on my face worth the price.
I turned, motioning Richter to move ahead, unable to suppress a smile of relief. He limped past, sharing the silly grin of victory, tossing me the pendant I had taken from Ialae, which I slipped back in my pouch. Kneeling, I offered my back as a stepping stone, knowing my friend would find it impossible to draw up his own weight with his ribs cracked.
After a few false starts, Richter ceased grinding his boots into my spine and rolled over the edge above. I pulled myself up after him, again hampered by my dead arm, but still able to pull myself out without the aid I knew my companion could not offer. Taking another moment to catch my breath, I drew myself up from my hands and knees and took stock of our surroundings, delaying only to scoop up the claw’s coffer.
We were well outside what I had marked as the boundaries of Amn-Feng, the purpose of whatever this building had been long since lost in the fall. I could even see the coast from our position, the sea still grey and angry from last night’s storm. Here, the grass had even begun to return, greenish-brown shoots marking the outside edge of the Well of Souls’ blight, swaying in the salt-laden breeze. Except for one detail, it could have been one of the most comforting places I had ever stood.
It was swarming with Inquisitors.
Not all of the soldiers milling about the hill were crimson cloaked, but there were enough to tell me these were the genuine article and not some pack of colorblind bandits. Most of the others wore the same brown mantles as the ronin we had seen in Hadrian, marking them as swords for hire, though there was a knot of blue-grey that could only be Templarae. Even now, the sight of those pale mantles brought a curious twinge to my stomach, another echo of guilt for what had been done to Ialae.
We had no time to conceal ourselves or return to the tunnels before one of the ronin noticed us and shout warning to his fellows, each drawing steel as they rushed forward. In moments, we were surrounded, too weak and wounded to even consider making a break for our mounts somewhere up the hill. For a score of dull, throbbing heartbeats, no one said a word, the ronin simply holding us at swordpoint while the Inquisitors moved to confront us.
A crimson-mantled figure shouldered through the ring of brown about us, his face a study in barely restrained hostility. “The Samarkandian heretics, Richter and Saga…so good to see you. I am Agito Chalke, captain of the Third Fist of the most Holy Inquisition.” His bloodless lips quirked in the shadow of a smile and his brown eyes glittered with venom. “The just and honorable Enforcer of the Faith, Lord High Inquisitor Ayden Mercer bade me bring you this.”
There was no chance to avoid the mailed fist that slammed against my jaw, backhanded blow sending me stumbling back, sliding to one knee, coffer in my arms falling to the earth. Richter moved to turn aside another blow, getting a jab to his favored ribs for his trouble, sending him sprawling in the dirt beside me. I spat out a mouthful of blood, shaking my head to clear the stars, hand already on the grip of my saber. I heard the ronin about us tense, bringing their swords up, preparing to act as soon as I did.
“Loose me, cur,” Fenris rasped in my thoughts, panting with eager desire. “Brave blades and blind faith shall be naught but bloody chaff before my fangs.”
I nearly freed the wolf-god once more, his rage burning in my breast. Somehow I knew it would have been a whirlwind of carnage, a slaughter so quick and so thorough that, even were someone to escape and tell Mercer what had happened, any who followed would have to take pause. But the next words I heard turned that fury to ashes.
“Just hand over the artifact and you’ll be left unharmed, Saga.”
The voice came from behind me, forcing me to twist my head about to look at the speaker. A Templarae had pushed past the men warding Richter and I and now looked down at us. Her expression, one of worry and shame and, worst of all, anger, was far more painful to me than I had ever dreamed it would be.
Ialae repeated her demand. “This thing belongs in the hands of the Church. Give it to us and you’ll be allowed to walk away.”
Inquisitor Chalke sputtered with indignation. “Let them walk away? These glass-eating, Demon-rutting twists are to be taken to Lord Mercer himself in chains, not checked for contraband and then sent skipping on their way. The orders come from the Lord High Inquisitor himself.”
It took Ialae a moment to look up at the red-cloaked man, seeming preoccupied with letting her eyes bore through my head. “Lord Mercer, Light keep and judge him, is not here, nor is his command paramount.” She waved one hand at eye level in a short circle. “These soldiers serve at the pleasure of Bishop MacLeod of the Temple Petra and, in his absence, the Templarae. His orders were only to retrieve the tool of the Damned and return it for safekeeping. He said nothing of these two.”
Chalke began to snarl a response but then thought better of it, instead smoothing down the creases on the upper fringe of his mantle as he looked back down at me. “So be it. Relinquish the black relic and you shall be set loose.” He let those last words dribble from his mouth as if they were unpleasant to the taste. “Of course, you’re free to resist.”
I took my hand from the saber, ignoring Fenris’s protests. I doubted the wolf-god would spare Ialae in his rage. For that matter, I doubted if I would, given the chance. Who had betrayed whom first, I wondered, or was this, as Richter has always maintained, a setup from the very beginning?
I wanted to scream, to curse, to rant and rage. I wanted to hang my head and weep, to ask her why, to tell her why. Instead, I simply acquiesced, putting my feet beneath me again, bending to Richter and taking the lead encasement from his belt. Shrugging, I tossed Agito the heart, then bent to my friend a second time. Gingerly helping Richter to his feet, I snatched up the coffer beside him with as much economy of motion as I could manage with only one hand.
“This belongs to lady Ialae,” I started, proffering the box to one of the ronin, who readily snatched it. “A gift from Kage.” Ialae’s eyebrows rose at that, but Chalke did not show an ounce of recognition. Good, I insisted to myself, better that both parts not be in the same hands for too long a time. Perhaps if the Church cannot find a way to destroy them, they will at least be kept separate.
Unaware he had both pieces of the Demon under indirect control; the Inquisitor gave me a mocking nod and turned away. With a whistle from the captain and a confirming nod from Ialae, the ronin broke ranks, following the crimson-cloaked figure back towards the other Inquisitors. In moments, Richter and I stood, relatively alone, before the Templarae we had found so long ago in Illuma.
“Ialae, I…” I did not have the words to explain why I did what I did. I could not form the questions I wanted to speak, knowing the answers would cut me to the bone. Instead, I fumbled at my belt, removing the pendant I had taken as keepsake. Seeing Ialae like this, at the side of those who had hunted us, those she had claimed had hurt her so…I no longer wanted to remember her. Without a word of explanation or apology, I pressed the shard of cryshala to her gloved hand.
The Templarae stared at it, face going blank for a breath, and then looked back at me, locking her blue eyes with my own. It was only pain I saw, no guilt at her treason now, only misery over mine. She reached up, with both arms, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other at the back of my head, drawing my face to hers.
The kiss was soft and warm, full of promise and invitation. I felt her lean in, pressing harder against me, and the tang of salt crossed my tongue, one or both of us now crying. The pain in my arm faded as I melted into the curve of her body, and I reached to pull the knight close with the other, wanting to crush her to me.
Her knee jarred me from my bliss, rising with stunning force between my legs, sending lines of fire straight into my skull. Whichever of us had been weeping before, it was I who was sobbing now, rolling on my back in voiceless misery, my stomach ready to twist itself inside out. I heard Ialae’s boots crunch through the rubble as she strode away, not pausing to look back as I writhed on the ground.
When I caught my breath, I found Richter staring down at me, face a perfect mask of innocence. “Why Saga, that was rather unexpected. Despite her loyalties, I had rather thought the lady fancied you.”
I again climbed to my feet, wondering if this all had been just a sign that God wanted me to stay on the ground for some divine reason. As we limped towards our mounts, I explained to Richter what had transpired back in Artemis, while he and Grail had sat oblivious in the tavern below. To his credit, my friend managed to bite back his usual commentary until the very end.
"You sucker-punched her?” His voice was strained, as if the invoker were biting back a wellspring of laughter. “You certainly have a strange way of demonstrating your noble and undying affection, kind Saga.” The look I gave him could have turned sand to glass. I got the impression that my colleague’s restraint was due more to his fractured bones than for any concern for my ego.
However, as I saddled our horses and told him of Fenris, a different breed of silence reigned. I dreaded every word I spoke, waiting for the rebuke or scornful corrections to begin at any moment. Again, though, the scholar allowed me to finish before airing his own thoughts.
“This certainly answers some of my questions about what has been afflicting you old friend, though it poses several more.” Richter frowned, rubbing his temples, leaning against his horse. “The name of the Daeva beside you is not among those known to me… probably one in the rolls of the lost or the tainted. Fulfilling your end of the bargain is going to take quite a bit of research on my part.” I flashed a tired smile. “Still, I suppose it is my place to get you out of this kind of trouble, Saga. You would do no less for me, after all.”
I rolled my eyes as I helped my friend mount up, turning to my own mare as Richter riffled through his bag. There was the distinctive clink of silver crowns as he fished out a particular bauble, examining it with one squinted eye. The invoker smiled wider this time, tossing it in the air and catching it with the open mouth of the satchel.
“We should take heart, old friend. This entire misadventure was not a total loss. We managed to avert the end of days and make an obscene profit in the process… not bad, considering we made it out whole. A few weeks of convalescence and we should be ready to go wherever the wind may blow us once again.”
I gave him a narrow glare. “Tell that to Grail.” I reached up to massage my shoulder, the ache spreading from my hand once again in glass-edged waves. A few weeks rest might not be enough. “Besides, Richter, I told you before. I’m done with all the aimless wandering. Living from day to day is a thing of the past, remember?”
Richter placed one hand upon his chest, a portrait of wounded dignity. “Saga, your words wound deeply. Do not think for even a moment that I have forgotten the fallen. But the best way to honor Grail’s memory is not by sitting in sackcloth and ashes, shedding crocodile tears in the dark. He would want us to live, and do so without regret.” The would-be Librarian let his head droop, raven locks sagging over his eyes. “As for your persistent desire for purpose, whatever would you have us do now?”
I turned away from my only friend, basking for a moment in the warmth of the newly risen sun, watching the golden rays dance across the churning waters of the Glass Sea. For a as long as I could, I ignored the question, simply turning the past weeks over in my mind. Then the clouds passed over my autumnal sun, the cold south wind howling out between the rolling hills of the Artemisian coast, calling me back.
“I still stand by what I said back on the boat, Richter.” I raised a hand to wave away whatever protests might be slung my way. “The past casts the longest shadow, stretching enough to darken the present. The only way to get out from under it is to turn and face what follows, head on.” I kicked my horse’s flanks, trotting towards the road, Richter trailing behind, shouting protests and counter-arguments, all rolling off my back like rain on my mantle. I knew he’d come around.
We were going home.