Cael’s head was spinning. His side stung like hell.
The soulstone rolled to him, bumped against his sole and stopped there.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. Then reason forced him to act, and with a grunt of agony, he reached and caught the fallen sphere. It was warm to his touch.
He didn’t know whether to let the tears come or laugh at the madness of it all.
Doing neither, he closed his fist tight around the stone and brought it close to his chest.
Drawing air through his nostrils, despite its tang of iron and blood and fear, for a moment, he felt true peace.
Only two people stood in the war room, both in the livery of the Molthuni.
“So”, said the General Lord they called Davonnii and cleared his throat. He looked lost, and not so little, clutching his curved sword, maybe wondering where his allies and protectors had gone.
“Surrender or die, General”, the Castellan demanded. Neither had participated in the fierce if brief fight.
Cael knew Hemdor trusted in their help, but Cael had absolutely no intention to fight anymore.
He held the soulstone close to him, felt its warmth seeping through his gloved hand into him, through his breastplate into his being.
He jammed his eyes shut.
“It is over, General Davonnii. Your allies have left you. Your chosen men are dead or dying.” To make a point, she kicked one quietly moaning knight to his chest, drawing a more vocal signal of his defeat.
Panting, Nyra forced herself up, scrambled to Jocelyn and emptied a healing potion to the unconscious woman’s mouth. The angry bitch’s eyes flashed open, and Nyra laughed, broke to a sob, then laughed again, teary-eyed.
Cael heard soldiers approaching. His peace was short-lived.
“We have to run, Belon”, he said, then groaned again as he got to one knee, looking around for his bow.
“We can’t escape”, his brother said absentmindedly, now standing, a healing potion of his own in his gauntlet.
“I won’t let them take me alive.”
“I know.” He downed the potion and flexed the fingers of his broken arm. “Is she alright”, he asked Nyra, who nodded a reply.
First of the Molthuni soldiers poured into the war room, weapons drawn. Some circled Hemdor, some Davonnii, but most went to the brothers and the Iomedaen knights.
“Sirs”, one of them asked, suitably befuddled of the dead littering the floors, and the headless devil.
“Men, apprehend General Lord Davonnii and take him to the dungeons. He is behind the attack to the Imperial Castle.” Hemdor’s deep voice was iron.
“Lies! The Castellan is lying! Capture her and these outsiders!”
The soldiers hesitated.
With three spears pointing at him, Cael really did not want to fight a anymore that night.
Hemdor didn’t deign to reiterate or challenge the General’s accusation.
Finally, the leader nodded to the Castellan and the soldiers surrounded the General and demanded him to lower his sword.
They were her men, not his.
Davonnii’s magical blade clattered to the marble.
The Castellan proved her worth. Nyra watched in silent admiration as Hemdor took over the situation, and led Nyra and the others to safety. A handful of summary backdoor executions followed, and the Castellan instated herself as the sole authority in the Imperial Castle. Rumours told the same convoy of Chelaxian mercenaries that had escorted the devil into the Castle had made a peaceful if hasty exit around the time Nyra and the brothers had driven Aeshmakar off. It was perhaps better that way – a battle at the center of the yard would have cost the already wounded Molthuni dearly. Most Molthuni, still recovering from the attacks, would never know what had transpired at the top of the chain of command.
Hemdor let Jocelyn leave, to fetch the Iomedan High Cleric, the halfling Bor Oldcreek. It took the combined magical powers of Tresh Stormborn, Oldcreek and two Molthuni wizards to counter the effects of the magic that had poisoned Markwin Teldas. But unlike hundreds of his soldiers and indentured servants the army employed, he survived, and a new day dawned in Canorate.
The moment Teldas regained some of his wits and strength, heads began to roll in earnest. There was still the Imperial division of Lord General Davonnii, on-route towards Canorate, and his territorial governorship of Backar to handle, Orders were sent to other General Lords to arrive to Canorate immediately. There was no telling who others among the Council had been allied with Davonnii, but Teldas wanted them all present, so he could root out the treachery himself. Nyra expected there would be turmoil in Molthune in the days to come.
She gave Teldas and Hemdor a full debriefing, and they had Leanna of Druma brought to tell her side of the story.
They kept them for a few hours, but before midday, Nyra was out of the Imperial Castle with the Greymarsh brothers. Their names had been cleared. For their role in defeating both Horryn and Davonnii, the Greymarsh brothers would go free, but they would never return to Canorate. The crusading company was allowed to leave the city. Urged, even, Nyra felt.
“I will hunt down Aeshmakar”, she told the brothers as they marched across the sturdy bridge towards the outer gates. At a distance, she could see Sergeant Orellon standing at guard with his detail, smiling at her. Words of her deeds had found every corner and ear in the fortress. The official story didn’t mention two half-elf slaves.
“It is my sworn duty now.”
“We’ll do it together”, Cael of all people said. Nyra turned to see if the man was being serious. Without his skull mask, she could see his face. Nothing soft, nothing jovial there. His face, if anything, was a mask of determination.
“Even after I tried to kill you? Despite”, she thought of Shevar, “everything?”
“More as long as I remember I’ve mostly done bad decisions. I think it’s time to do a few good ones. And after all”, he sniffed, “you saved Aurora and Gabriella. I owe you at least my trust.” Something told her Cael’s trust was a hard thing to come by.
“I’ve made questionable decisions too. Lied to myself I was following my heart. Done what I’ve thought the Inheritor wanted me to.”
Cael nodded at her and sighed. “Someone once told me to have more trust in people.” He lifted the orb of two lights, hanging by his neck in a chain of unbreakable adamantine, and examined it carefully. “And she told me I’d never win alone.”
“I am sorry about your friend”, Cael added after a silence.
To that Nyra could only nod. What had happened to Shevar had been a tragedy. So many bad decisions.
“What about Aurora and Gabriella?” Belon asked. “You made a promise to the Dolivars.”
“If I bring them back to flesh, what stops Galicus.. Aeshmakar from assassinating them when I’m out hunting the devil, just to spite me? No, it is safer for them to stay in the soulstone. To stay with me.”
Cael drew a long breath. “No, I must destroy the devil for them to be safe. For us to be free.”
The irony had to be driving the man mad, Nyra thought. To have them in his hand, but being unable to free them.
“I will hunt him to the lowest depths of Hell if I have to”, Cael words were a growl.
“And I will be there for you”, Belon said and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“As will I”, Nyra promised.
At the gates awaited her First Lance-Commander.
“Are you coming back?” She asked Nyra, without emotion.
“I meant what I said”, she replied, unwilling to meet her old friend’s – her second-in-command’s – gaze. “It is your company now.”
Jocelyn frowned at her first. Then came the shock of realization.
“The light is gone from me.”
“..Has forsaken me. I feel Her warmth still, but it is only a last ray of dusk compared to the heat it once was.”
Jocelyn’s jaw slackened.
“So, my friend, I must make amends. I’ve vowed to defeat the devil. I need to reconnect with the Inheritor. And I cannot do it from the head of the 126th. None would follow me if they knew what had happened.”
“What does Shevar think of this?”
Nyra sighed, watched the horizon.
“She is gone.”
“I knew it”, Jocelyn whispered, the muscles in her neck taut cords. “Her loyalty to your madness got her killed.”
“She died fighting our enemy. She died stopping the darkness that was about to engulf this city. This nation. She’s the reason I’m going after the devil.”
“She followed you in your drug-fuelled insanity. We could have done this all differently.”
Nyra let Jocelyn’s hatred and sorrow wash over herself. She had hurled the same accusations at herself, but hearing them from Jocelyn still hurt.
“Maybe we could. It will be a question I’ll keep asking myself until I die.”
“Nyra saved this city”, Belon offered the clumsy support. Jocelyn only glared at him, then spared a scornful look for Cael as well.
“And those two criminals are alive and free. Such is the justice of the world.”
“We saved your life-”, Cael growled.
“Jocelyn”, Nyra raised her voice. “You are a holy knight of Iomedae, a company commander now – act like one.”
“Like you’re one to tell me”, Jocelyn spat, turned and left.
Nyra didn’t call after her. It was of no use. She had left her once already.
Instead, she pulled a small bag from a pouch in her belt, felt its weight, felt the crystals inside for the last time, and flung it to the moat.
It was a goodbye that caught her breath but one she did not regret.
Belon lowered the chest of iron and wood gently to the floor at Sefina’s inn.
“Where are you boys going? Wait, I don’t want to know”, muttered the old grumpy woman and leaned on her trusty broom.
“Thank you for your help”, Cael said and dropped a handful of platinum coins onto the nearest table. “Again.” He turned to lift a chest of his own.
The woman harrumphed. “A ruined bedsheet isn’t that expensive.”
Belon saw Cael flash a rare smile. “Consider it a payment for my first stay then, with interest.”
The brothers packed their belongings to a cart outside the Angry Bull. The chests were full of valuables, like they had been when they had arrived.
“Thankfully we never got to pay Galicus”, Belon said.
Cael stopped, his mood darkening. “That would’ve added to the insult.”
He started to tie the chests together with a rope.
“You haven’t said your goddess’s name in a while, brother”, Cael said off-hand.
Belon hadn’t uttered a prayer for something that felt like ages.
“I… you’re right.”
Cael said nothing, but like often, his silence was worth more than a fistful of words.
“I guess I have been doing some soul-searching.”
“Have you found anything?”
Belon remembered his brother, condemning his faith days earlier. Pavo Utti, also challenging his faith, if with warmer words.
He thought of the events in Canorate, the madness of it all.
How he had found himself doubting his fate, and his brother’s fate.
They way of his goddess was a way of neutrality, of inaction. Of quiet observation. Of set fates.
But he cared too much. That much he knew now. There was a fire inside him too, if very different to that within his brother. He spared a thought to Nyra, found it a warm one.
“Not yet”, Belon admitted.
“Did I do the right thing? Am I doing the right thing?” Nyra asked the old halfling cleric. The golden statue of Iomedae, standing guard at the center of the cathedral, loomed over them.
“The history’s most difficult questions”, the cleric replied. “The ones who others cannot really give an answer for, for one will find the answer on their own, when the time is right.”
Nyra brushed the onyx-black, round slab of rock that was the massive statue’s pedestal.
Fifty-four crusaders had died or injured during the previous night. Fifty-four and Shevar. They were to be buried in the Cathedral grounds. Then, the 126th Augustana would continue its journey north to Worldwound. Edvor, her scribe and ward had survived unscathed. She had heard all this from the halfling cleric – she didn’t want to approach anyone in the company. Maybe it was guilt, maybe fear, maybe selfishness, or the combination of all three. She admitted her shortcomings, and it was enough.
But not being there when Shevar was sent to Iomedae was the worst. It felt like a betrayal, but Shevar had belonged to the company, and the company would bury her, without Nyra.
So Nyra had prayed in solitude by the grand statue. Sent her last regards to her oldest friend.
“Sometimes one already knows the answer when one voices the question”, Bor Oldcreek said.
“Well, this time I do not”, Nyra sighed. She had often prayed for Iomedae’s guidance. She had never replied. Now, she didn’t even consider asking. She had to trust her own judgment.
Leadership, for now, was not for her. She didn’t doubt her loyalty to Iomedae, and her faith, and that gave her strength. Strength she knew she needed in the coming days and months when she made her way back to Her light. To slay the devil Aeshmakar in Her name.
Maybe she knew the answer to her questions.
She just had to banish the doubts herself, using her own will.
She just had to have faith in herself. To stop lying to herself.
Nyra’s eyes fell to her bare left arm.
The name Shevar was freshly tattooed there, black letters on angered reddish skin.
It would be the last name she’d have immortalized, if not for anyone but her own sake.
The manor of Magister Galicus was empty. Or rather, it was vacated. Furniture, clothing, foodstuffs, pipes, all were still there, waiting for people who used to live there but would never return.
The devil-hunters had not even found any useful clues.
“We should burn the place down”, Cael said.
“No”, said both Nyra and Belon at the same time, the former surprised at the suggestion, the latter only annoyed.
“I’m joking, godsdamnit”, Cael rolled his eyes and kicked over a vase of silver with inlaid pearls. “I’m taking all that’s valuable and easy to carry, however.”
It was Belon’s turn to roll his eyes. “Like you and your friends used to do in Varisia?”
Cael shrugged. “That habit paid for your adamantine greatsword, brother.” Then to Nyra: “One of us was a cleric of Iomedae, so it was fine.”
Nyra was crouching and examining one of the smoking bowls, not really listening to the brotherly banter, even though in a weird way she had already started to enjoy it.
“Don’t mind me, I used to steal things when I was younger.”
“You did?” Both brothers asked, one with a grin, the other mildly shocked.
Nyra allowed a smile to herself, then turned serious.
“I’m not surprised the devil is gone.”
“I had hoped there would be the butler”, Belon said, frowning and looking around the terrace that went around and under the strange manor standing on eight pillars.
“I don’t think the devil’s in Canorate anymore”, Cael said.
“I have to agree.” Nyra rose to her feet. “There’s nothing here for us.”
Cael lifted the silver vase. “Except things that will pay for greater devil slaying arrows.”
They stood at the gates leading into Canorate, the same ones through which the Utti caravan had brought them.
In one hand, Cael held the Orb of Sending, and in another, the stone that carried the souls of Aurora and Gabriella.
He shut his eyes, so he could better see what he remembered. The vivid image of the young lady that had loved him, though he had been undeserving of such emotion. The lady who had held him softly when he had been between rock and a hard place. Their passion that had been a gentle fire, always warming, never scorching. Cael knew, given time, she would have hurt him, as he would have her, but so it was with love.
I found you.
The Orb of Sending pulsed with blue.
He heard the unsaid words in his ears and forced back tears.
Cael? Am I awake? Am I sleeping?
You’re safe now. It’s a long way but I’ll take you home soon.
Then we’ll be finally free.
The orb pulsed anew.
Her response was wordless, but behind his closed eyes, Cael was at his frozen winter lake. The sun was rising in the cloudless sky, the air clear and crisp, each lungful refreshing.
At the shore of the lake, near the treeline of snow-covered evergreen, stood a small figure covered in furs with red cheeks and a lovely smile and a bundle in her lap. She was waiting for him.
And behind her, hidden in the forest, lurked something sinister.
“So, where do we go from here?” Nyra asked, pulling the half-elf from his thoughts.
“We find the Nirmathi rebels who attacked Canorate, before the Molthuni catch them”, Cael replied. “Who knows, they might surprise us with answers.”
EPILOGUE – AT THE CROSSROADS
They met in the treeline, in the shadows of the far reaches of the Backar forest. In the horizon, Canorate was a mountain of stone, iron and glass basking in the dusk.
The elf, weathered and armed, came down from his horse, and signalled his companions, twenty or so of both humans and his race, some in Imperial uniforms, some in Iomedan livery, the rest looking like inconspicuous woodsmen and hunters, all carrying weapons of different sorts, to stay mounted. His fingers went to his neck, like every time he grew agitated, finding a scar of a wound a peasant girl had long ago tended and sewn shut. She had saved his life and his fingers hadn’t forgotten. He hadn’t forgotten.
The old man, smoking a pipe, waited with only one bodyguard, a knight of the worst nightmares. The man seemed out of place, like a city-dwelling nobleman lost in the woods, but his composure was nothing but confident. His expression was playful whereas the elf’s was grave.
“You didn’t come through”, the elf said to the old man after he had rubbed his weary eyes.
“A series of minor setbacks”, the old man smirked to the elf and puffed out smoke.
“Markwin Teldas still rules in Canorate. Molthune continues the war, perhaps with even more eagerness.”
The old man sighed melodramatically. “I know, old friend.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You’re not delivering on your promises”, the elf clenched his jaw.
“Don’t worry, Karandil of Kyonin, Nirmathas will have lasting peace sooner than later”, the old man of many names and faces smiled, “And I will get what I want.”