“The 126th is starting to ask questions, my lady. Our men and women want to know what we are going to do and why we are still under lock and key like a band of criminals.”
As First Lance-Commander, it was Jocelyn’s task to keep Nyra apprised of the overall mood of the company. But now, the questions seemed to originate much closer than from the deepest ranks of her Lances.
“A plan is set in motion”, Nyra replied. “We will move out today evening and strike at the heart of the evil we came here to thwart. And we will save Eldric.”
Her revelation made the occupants of her small chamber in the Imperial barracks nod and murmur. In addition to Jocelyn, there were seven of her honor guard, the best fighters in the company, cleric Tresh Stormborn, Edvor of Kataresh and of course, Shevar.
“Where do we attack, milady?” Asked Tresh with his deep bass, made for booming sermons and blessings.
“The estates of House Horryn in the city”, and with the admission some of her nervousness she had carried for days evaporated.
“Despite our incarceration?” Tresh gave a voice to the worries Nyra assumed her subordinates shared.
“I know by attacking we are going against the orders of the Imperial Governor himself. Yet we are treated unjustly, and what we will accomplish will abolish any misgivings and false accusations.”
Nyra took heed of Edvor’s warning the General Council wouldn’t approve of her actions, but she had faith they’d see reason when she marched out with Eldric and the other captives, carrying the heads of the cornugons.
Tresh nodded, as did the others – except Jocelyn, who the paladin felt was absent. Nyra went through the plan in detail, making sure everyone understood the risks and stakes. Eldric had to be retrieved. The devils had to be defeated and Horryn taken alive. No-one outside the room could know a thing, not even their brothers and sisters in arms.
None put forth any objections. They were risking the integrity and honor of the company, but from the faces of her men, Nyra could read unflinching loyalty. They’d all follow her and the feeling was better, much more genuine, than what the crystals gave her.
After she dismissed everyone to prepare, Jocelyn lingered. As she closed the door after Shevar, she turned to her commander.
“We are truly going through this, are we, my lady?”
Nyra sighed. All but one would follow, it seemed. “We have no choice, Jocelyn.”
“There’s always a choice.”
“There is always inaction and failure. This is my decision to make.”
Jocelyn closed her eyes, like in prayer. Maybe she was praying. Nyra couldn’t tell.
“What if you’ve been led astray. I can’t believe you’re trusting those assassins.”
“They’re not some wretched assassins for hire, they’re two warriors on a just mission. And I don’t trust them, I trust the Inheritor.”
The hawkish knight fixed the paladin with a stare but said nothing at first.
Why, Jocelyn, can’t you understand? Nyra was completely at a loss how to turn her friend’s mind and it pained her.
When the question finally came, it was like a small pebble falling down a well.
“And what if something has compromised your decision-making?”
Nyra snorted in amusement. “If you think someone’s put a spell on me-”
“I know about the crystals, Nyra”, Jocelyn’s face hardened. “You’ve been taking them since Nerosyan, for gods know what reason. You might think the effect to be discreet but for someone close to you, you seem like a different person when you take them.”
When the rock reached the water’s surface, its splash was faint, yet its echo considerable. The stone had fallen deep into Nyra’s soul.
Nyra’s voice withered. “It’s only something to help me be more resolute.”
Jocelyn shook her head.
“Resolute? You’re a paladin of Iomedae, for heaven’s sake. You didn’t need them before, you don’t need them now. It is an affront to our goddess you are using them!”
They are nothing, Nyra denied to herself. Yet without them, I am alone with my uncertainties and the names on my arm.
She went back to the battlefields of her past, seeing how her brothers and sisters died, and she wondered how many died because of her. How each death was a new stone on her back.
“Nyra, your strength of will is why I joined you in the first place!”
That was so long ago. When everything was different. When only Jak was on my shoulder. When I didn’t need the crystals to maintain my faith.
The realization made her dizzy. Was it truly so?
Impatient, Jocelyn crossed her arms.
“Tell me, is this decision truly yours or is it the crystal’s?”
“I’ve been myself all this time”, Nyra said, then quieted. Rising doubt was a shadow in the back of her head, a faceless specter questioning her choices and words. The crystals were her sword that had banished it, and she found herself craving for one.
“The crystals are my choice and they are only helpful to me”, Nyra began, her voice unwavering and more certain with each word. I am in command. I am loyal.
“We depart at the sixth bell after midday. That’s an order. Dismissed.”
Nyra expected a fiery retort or at least a disappointed harrumph. But there was only sorrow in the older knight’s face as she spun and marched out.
She wondered if there was something she could’ve done differently or something she still could change. But the war-horn had blown and the charge had begun. All she could do next was lead from the front by her example. She knew no other way.
She had faith, she told herself.
In an inconsequential, yet thoroughly locked and faintly illuminated storehouse deep in West Village, close to the riverdocks, the Greymarsh brothers prepared for war.
Belon was already in his heavy plate of black and gold. On his shoulders was the purple cloak of displacement and around his armored waist his belt and a row of belt pouches. Each had a potion of different color, as they contained different magics. He held his two-handed greatsword before him and examined the broad blade like an artist would his brushes before going to work.
After Belon’s mind had been freed from the evil rune-wizard’s magic, Cael had had the sword of adamantine forged for him. The wizards of Magnimar had enchanted it four times, each time costlier, each time making it deadlier. Its surface was rippling mercury and it would never require sharpening. It had served Belon well, slaying devils and monstrous beasts alike.
Though young, it was a beautiful weapon and Belon was honored to wield it.
At the edge of his vision, he could see his brother making his own preparations. Though not a religious man, Cael went through the motions reverently.
With care, he tightly wound the spectral shroud, the color of old maps, around his scarred torso. He donned his mithral breastplate of swirling purple and black and fastened his thick belt and bandoliers around it.
Next to him on an unmarked wooden box awaited his gladii, and he took them both, felt their weight, rolled them around his grip and sheathed them.
Then came the green-and-black cloak and hood over the shoulders, affixed to his plate and the necklace with the tiny cyan shard.
On the same box were his arrows lined like a platoon of soldiers on their sides. Two dozen humanbane arrows, marked with red fletching. Two dozen devilbane, black. A dozen normal, unenchanted arrows, white. It was many but Cael carried a magical quiver that could hold such a number. And the archer never went to war with too few arrows.
Cael checked each and every one of them before sliding them into the quiver, and then shouldered and fastened it.
Last, he took his recurve bow of blazing runes and veins and donned his leering skull mask.
The death’s head turned to regard Belon.
Belon saw years’ past. A torrential stream, slick stones by the riverbank. The foamy surface of the water broken by his face and hands, the hands reaching down into the dark, his eyes looking for a black-haired boy. Seeing the boy scared, unable to breathe, his foot caught between thick branches. His fingers reaching to Belon’s.
You told me to look after him, Mum.
“Nothing”, he replied.
“Where is the First Lance-Commander?” The barrel-chested cleric asked Nyra as if she knew the answer. Nyra had no idea. The bells around the city had tolled six times and the sun was on its way down, but there was no sign of Jocelyn.
The others waited at the mouth of one of the barrack house doors, hidden from the patrols and guard towers by the sheer number of neatly organized, boxy and utterly bland buildings, of which the closest belonged for the moment to the 126th. Under cloaks and tabards of white, red and gold, each wore their battle-armor of blessed mail and plate, and carried their weapons – longswords, axes, mauls and steel shields. After days of inaction and uncertainty, the best of the 126th Augustana were eager to fight their enemies. It was after all why they had joined Nyra’s famous unit.
She wondered if it would become notorious instead.
“Is everyone ready”, Nyra asked, mostly from Tresh and his two junior clerics, who had come to help in their discreet departure.
“Say the word, my lady, and we’ll bring Iomedae’s powers to bear”, Tresh answered.
The holy magic of paladins and clerics differed from the arcane magic of wizards and sorceresses. Whereas the latter trained to draw their power from their blood or from some other dimension of energy, the former tapped straight into the divine powers of their chosen deities. The stronger the bond between the mortal and their deity, the more powerful acts of magic they could perform. Nyra’s connection to Iomedae was of a rare kind – while she couldn’t cast spells like most of Iomedae’s paladins could, it didn’t mean she couldn’t use and project the Inheritor’s holy light. She carried the divine power like a lantern, and released it at her will to heal and nurture her allies and strike at her enemies.
As she couldn’t cast spells that could get her little force out unseen, she needed help from her subordinates.
<Do you know where she is?> Nyra signed to Shevar. She shrugged a very human response.
Had Jocelyn left the mission? The paladin felt a lump growing in her belly. First the incident at the Angry Bull, then her confrontation earlier, and now this..
No, she had to have a good reason to run late. And as for their conflicting views, Nyra decided she’d have a long talk with Jocelyn after their mission in Canorate was over.
It was quiet in their corner of the barracks grounds, eerily so. No-one had denied them the right to congregate in numbers within the barrack grounds, but waiting there still tightened Nyra’s nerves. She wanted to go, get it all done and dealt with.
Where was she?
Suddenly, Shevar growled and bared her fangs. Her fist shot up, and she twisted it back and forth – the battle-sign for approaching enemies. Then Nyra too picked up the jogging boots on the gravel, somewhere beyond the nearby barracks. There were many of them.
To their left and right, behind corners, scrambled dozens of Imperial guardsmen, swords, and spears at the ready. If that wasn’t enough, who Nyra saw leading the troop chilled her to the core. Castellan Hemdor stood chin up, a curving Aldori sword in her grip, and beside her was Nyra’s First Lance-Commander.
“Order your men to stand down and put down their weapons, or die”, the Castellan hissed in her dark voice that Nyra envied. As by reflex, loyalty and their training, the men and women around Nyra closed a circle of steel.
There was no escape, at least not without being seen. Uncovered, Nyra’s plan lay in ruins.
“This is a mistake”, Nyra said very quietly.
“It isn’t, not yet”, Jocelyn replied and started toward the crusaders. She held up a hand, and Hemdor let her go.
Watching her friend break ranks from those who’d stop her from doing her duty broke Nyra’s heart.
“My lady”, Jocelyn began as she approached, “this is not the end.”
Nyra said nothing. She couldn’t say anything.
First Lance-Commander, what are you doing, someone hissed among the crusaders. Jocelyn dismissed the question, focusing on her superior officer instead. Like she was an animal trainer approaching a scared lioness with calm and deliberation.
When she was close enough that only her brethren-in-arms could hear, she took off her helm. She addressed Nyra, and Nyra only. Her plea was desperate. “My lady, Hemdor has promised us safe passage out of the city if we tell them everything we know of the brothers and Lord Horryn.”
Nyra looked past her friend to the glowering Castellan. Seeing her boiling contempt made some of her confidence return. Or it was the crystal kicking her into action, goading her to stand her ground.
Ultimately the Castellan was of no consequence.
What mattered was what Jocelyn had done and what Nyra would do next.
“You went to the Gorum’s bitch?” Nyra asked using Jocelyn’s own words. There was no accusation, no anger or bitterness in her tone, only sadness.
Jocelyn’s gaze escaped to the gravel. “I had to.”
A wave of muffled murmurs rolled across the tightly closed ranks of the crusaders.
“Those are good terms”, Nyra said after a moment. “No surrender. We can continue on our way to the holy war. You should be proud, First Lance-Commander.”
Jocelyn raised her eyes and met Nyra’s. Nyra saw a light of small hope glittering there – that the paladin would see her reason.
“But I can’t accept them.” Her voice picked up and it trembled as she made her will known. She didn’t care. “I have a mission here.”
“A mission that will doom the company-”
“Not anymore, actually”, Nyra silenced her with a weary smile. “Thank you for showing me how, my friend.” Under her helmet of bright steel and brighter gold, a single tear rolled down her cheek.
“Jocelyn, I’m giving you the command of the 126th.”
Jocelyn’s mouth fell open.
“What, my lady, I can’t-”
“It should’ve been yours all the time, Jocelyn. You have the right heart to command it.”
She never told me to bring them with me.
“Lead the men to Worldwound and bring honor to the company.”
Words escaped the holy knight.
“Iomedae gave me a mission, and I will honor it with my life. But I beg you, don’t tell them where I’m going, not yet”, she urged the shocked knight. She placed her palm on the cleric’s wide shoulder before her.
With the decision made, Nyra was surprised how calm she felt. Heartbroken, but calm.
“Tresh, say the word of recall, if you may.”
He didn’t hesitate. “Of course, milady. Hold tight.” He produced a scroll of divine magic, tiny in his thick-fingered hands, and began to intone the prayer written on its surface with shining letters.
“No!” Jocelyn screamed in desperation and bolted to a run towards Nyra and her guard. But she’d never reach her in time.
“Goodbye, friend. Take care of Thaddeus”, Nyra said, tears making it hard to see. She would’ve wanted to say more, but there was no time, no turning back. With the last words of the short prayer uttered, the scroll burst into shreds. White and blue energy crackled around her and the cleric. The mass of Molthuni soldiers shifted nervously.
Then Nyra’s world dropped from beneath her, and her vision blurred to black and into something new.
But just before she had translocated across Canorate, she had felt another hand, clawed, appear next to her’s on the cleric’s shoulder.
Belon peeked out through a gap between wooden window shutters and watched as faceless Molthuni traveled past Galicus’s storehouse, unaware, minding their own businesses, hurrying so they wouldn’t be caught outside during the curfew. “What are we going to do after?”
“We go back to Dunbreck”, his brother replied, as if there was any uncertainty.
“And the Iomedans?”
“You mean Nyra Sunn? I’ve seen how you look at her.”
Belon didn’t deny anything. Nyra fascinated him.
“Good luck with the paladin”, Cael snorted. “She’s married to her faith.”
“It’s not like that with her-”
“So you always say. That there’s always someone who’s special. Yet you love women too much. All the pretty ones with a head on their shoulders at least.”
Belon was quiet, unwilling to take the bait. In the past weeks Cael had dissected him, cut open his core beliefs and his vices. And he had done the same to him.
The years spent apart had given them perspective, and courage and maturity to give voice to what they saw in one another. It remained to be seen if all the dissection removed their ill tumors or simply bled them dry.
There were five knocks on the backdoor and Belon hurried to open its lock.
Only three people entered and the sight made him frown.
Nyra had her chin down, shoulders sagged like they carried the weight of the world.
Across the storehouse, Cael was leaning on a trio of crates piled upon each other, seemingly bored, but Belon knew he was beyond anxious. “Where’s the rest of your people”, he was quick to growl.
“They’re not coming”, replied the paladin. She gestured to a man, bushy-bearded and big as a bear, beside her and Shevar. “This is Tresh Stormborn, our company cleric. Tresh, meet Belon and Cael Greymarsh.”
The cleric gave a nod at the half-elves and Belon returned it.
Cael’s eyes narrowed.
Nyra wasn’t going to explain herself, and Cael didn’t care enough to interrogate her.
“Fine. The mission will go on regardless.”
The paladin took off her helm, one gauntlet and rubbed her red-rimmed eyes. “So it will.”
Something was wrong with Nyra, and unlike Cael, Belon wanted to know what. He cared. “What happened?”
Nyra glanced at Belon.
“We were intercepted by the Molthuni before we could get out.”
Cael let out a curse. “Do they know where we are, where we’re going?”
“I hope not.”
“I have to trust that Jocelyn will not share the details of our plans with them.”
“And why isn’t she here?”
“Jocelyn..” Nyra started, not finding the words, or finding the words too heavy, Belon couldn’t tell. “Her sense of justice and duty didn’t allow her to come.”
“Don’t tell me her sense of justice and duty was also the reason why you were intercepted?”
Nyra didn’t answer but the truth was apparent.
Letting a grunting sigh, the scarred half-elf massaged his broken nose, eyes shut tight.
“I’m so sorry”, Belon uttered to the paladin. He almost reached out to touch her shoulder but stopped himself.
She must be devastated.
He remembered how joyless she had been in the cathedral. It was nothing in comparison to how she looked now. Her hands hanging by her sides, her gaze at her feet or nowhere in particular.
“Don’t be”, she told him. “We all do what we have to.”
“But your secret is out, what happens to your company?”
Nyra was silent for a while.
“The 126th is mine no more. I relinquished its command to Jocelyn before we escaped.”
She gave up her own company?
“I.. That must’ve been hard.”
Gods, Belon, understatement of the century.
Shevar let out a growl for attention and signed.
“I don’t think I can return as commander”, Nyra told her sister-in-arms. “I should alone bear the responsibility, and face any repercussions. It’s already too much that you two are here with me.”
“It is an honor to serve the Blight of the Abyss”, Tresh boomed.
“Do you know how many brothers and sisters paid with their lives for me to gain that nickname, one I never wanted?”
To that, the cleric had nothing to say.
But Belon had.
“Still, you wanted the company? It was formed around you, wasn’t it?”
“I did. I.. thought it was my duty to command and serve others.”
“Isn’t it still?”
Nyra turned away and from a small window up near the ceiling the last light of the day fell upon her.
“Not if it contradicts with my duty to the Inheritor.”
Belon watched how the setting sun colored the paladin’s long hair, bringing out the different hues of red and brown.
“You’re doing the right thing”, he said, more enthralled than he cared to admit, not knowing what else to say. He had a hard time saying anything to Nyra that didn’t sound flat and obvious.
“I know.” Of course she knows that.
In her half-hidden smile was a hint of warmth and iron confidence and Belon was happy for it.
It became silent in the storehouse. The silence was of the awkward kind when two groups of people who didn’t really know each other waited expectantly.
Shevar left the paladin’s side and started to circle the line of crates standing in the middle of the storehouse. She signed as she went.
“Shevar’s asking how we’ll get out of the crates”, Nyra translated off-hand and brushed her eye.
“The men transporting us will close them with only a few short nails”, Cael replied.
“Where are they”, Nyra asked.
“They’ll be here shortly.”
The three men working for Galicus arrived with horse-driven, open-topped carts only minutes after the crusaders had shown up. A part of Cael was itching to go, but another was more cool-headed. Maybe the thought of being stuffed into a small box helped curb some of the eagerness.
The cart drivers, dull and few with words, pried open a number of crates that looked like cheap coffins. One of the men then asked the crusaders and the Greymarshes to lay down in them.
“See you on the other side”, Belon told everyone as the drivers brought the lid over him and hammered it to the rest of the crate with only four nails. His was the first one.
Cael’s was the last. His was the one next to a box that the drivers had indicated hid the “delivery”. The half-elf wasn’t worried about traveling next to building-shattering explosives. Galicus had promised they were safe, and their operation was simple enough for uncultured, inexperienced men like Cael. Galicus’s directions had been straightforward: pull open the roll of a fuse, light it up and get out of the vicinity in three minutes.
If blowing things up became a habit of him, Cael decided he’d purchase a chronometer.
I’m coming, he promised to Aurora and Gabriella as his lid was brought over him and darkness enveloped everything. This time he’d maintain control and be patient.
Nyra hadn’t delivered on her promise. So what if the Iomedae’s soldiers weren’t there in numbers. Five was more than two.
If nothing else, they’d be a good distraction. Cael knew he could kill one or both of the cornugon devils if he could keep his distance. Even a few strides would be enough.
Then there would only be the sorceress and Horryn himself.
Cael didn’t spare a second thought for any of Horryn’s other guards. He’d plow through them like the reaper.
This time, I will leave nothing alive.
I’ll burn his House and blow the ashes of his legacy to the winds of history.
A moment later, the cart and Cael’s crate jolted as the horses pulled the carts forward. The journey back had started.
Eyes closed, he walked on the winter lake of his mindscape towards a horizon where something red and angry, like a diseased sun, blazed. The powder snow beneath his boots melted instantly, each step revealing the ice beneath.
Under the ice in the freezing waters were untold hands, madly clawing at him.