Yelling again. Another guard was dragged up the metal stairs, his fur emerging from the darkened undercroft chilled with black ice and smoking. It was the third one Ayroh had attacked within the past hour.
I never wanted this. I was so wrong, I should have stopped them.
Told them this was stupid.
Told them that feeding the monster that they were would only make it worse. And it turned around, latching with tooth and claw onto them. And now, I was caught up as well.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I hobbled towards the back of the cell, where Javikarth was curled into a ball with his back against the metal wall. His armor was gone, taken by the charr who pulled us out of that disaster in Ascalon City. Somewhere, it was likely being melted down to make rivets or bullets or whatever the charr did with all that metal.
Probably making more cages for Ayroh.
His brown, ragged clothes were stained with blood. I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure the gash on his forearm would ever properly heal. Even if it did, the scar was going to be ugly. The sun was shining through the windows of the prison, trying to find something of life to bask upon. When it passed us, it neither stopped or waited. Apparently, we weren’t alive.
A thousand different emotions washed over me. Regret. Terror. Loss. Pain. Fear. Shame. They twisted together and became something else, something distinct.
I couldn’t touch it. It was ephemeral. It was a ghost in me.
Resigned, I sat down on the metal floor beside Javikarth, and dropped my head into my hands. I felt so helpless. I felt so blind. I felt lost. I should have known better. I should have done something.
I was crying.
I could have done something. I had it in my power, but I didn’t. I could have stopped this, but I wasn’t able to. I wasn’t able to. I could have, but I didn’t.
All of this was my fault. It’s my fault. I caused this. I’m to blame.
A weight on my shoulders.
“This wasn’t your fault.” I hadn’t even realized how hard I was crying. Javikarth’s arm was around me, he pulled me over to his side and placed his other hand on my head.
“I was wrong. I never should have done this.” His voice was low, and cracking slightly. He was fighting some battle within himself.
“I wanted revenge so much, I wanted it so badly, that I was ready to give up everything to have it. I thought to myself that my life for his would be fair. I would’ve taken that deal.”
His arms were heavy, but weak. His long, blonde hair was stained with dried blood.
“And you cared about me too much to stop me. I’m so sorry for dragging you into this, I never should have.”
I fought back a tear.
“Juno, you’re the only family I have left in the world.”
I looked up at him. Through my tears, he was a blur of golden streaks and fleshy pinks. Indistinct. Distant.
“And I will never let my anger get in the way of that again.”
“I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU!”
Another guard. Looked away. Idiot.
Flash, crack. Oh, I’m sorry, did you want that leg? You shouldn’t have come here anyways.
And they take him out. Whimper him out. I’ll kill all of you. Every last one of you.
You did this. You made this. I’ll kill all of you. You deserve it.
“KEEP BRINGING THEM DOWN, I COULD USE THE PRACTICE!”
Dark prison. Fine. You think that will keep me here? You think that will stop me?
The shadow is my ally. I live in it. I thrive in it. I am darkness.
I am the terrors that live in your fragmented, worthless existence.
Exhausted. Stumble. Wheezing. I can’t think. I can’t breathe.
Oh god, they killed her. He killed her.
“I’M GOING TO BURN YOUR CITY TO THE GROUND!”
I don’t have a world. I don’t have anything. Let me out. I’ll kill all of you.
I’m going to bathe in his blood.
I want to hold his heart in my hand.
I want him to bleed to death with a thousand daggers protruding from his eyes.
I’ll kill you all.
All of you.
I’ll kill you.
I’m going to kill you all.
Oh, he turned his back. Snap, crack. Oh, look at that. His arm is sticking out of his chest.
Oh, he’s screaming now. Don’t be so slow.
I’m going to kill all of you.
You took her away from me.
Gave her back, just to take her.
I’m going to kill all of you.
There’s nothing left, that was my world.
Whatever was good in me is dead. I hate it. I hate him. I hate all of you.
I hate you.
I’m going to kill you.
There’s no cost to pay.
There’s nothing to pay with.
I’m going to kill you all.
I’m going to kill all of you.
The bailiff nodded at me from behind his helm. I loved looking at a charr in armor. A charr in armor was perfect, a creature designed for a singular purpose. He had no name, he had no home, he had no dreams. He was a weapon of the legion, a bastion of his warband. A machine against which nothing could triumph and against which all would fall.
I held up my hand for silence in the court. “Bring him in.” My voice reverberated through the iron room.
From the hallway, there was a shuffling of chains before a pair of marksmen entered, each walking backwards in perfect step, weapons trained on some target in the hallway. Another pair of soldiers entered behind them, following the same protocol. And then there he was.
Heavy chains bound his hands and feet, bringing his walk to a slow crawl. A muzzle was fitted over his head, preventing him from opening his mouth to do anything more that speak. With heavy steps, the gladium made his way to the center of the room.
When I was younger, I served a glorious rotation in the scar. I remember the eyes of those creatures the dragon had corrupted. Soulless, empty, horrid, black. His eyes looked exactly the same.
Two more pairs of marksmen followed him in, a single jailer holding his chains taut. As soon as he was positioned before the podium, the 8 riflemen took up positions at the corners of the room, all keeping their weapons perfectly aimed at his exposed chest.
Satisfied that they all were prepared, I began. I don’t want to waste my time on this. Either he’ll be useful to me, or I’ll have him killed. There’s already enough blood on this worthless curr’s hands to let him walk free.
“State your name for the records.”
I will not be intimidated. “Let the record show that this gladium’s name is ‘go die.’ ” The gladium chuckled.
“Fine, if you insist. Ayroh Kaenes. When I tear out your heart, I don’t want there to be a question of who it was.”
His bloodlust is admirable. “Why were you in Ascalon City three days ago?”
“I decided that I wanted to open a flower shop, and I couldn’t find any good real estate here. I figured that it might be cheaper there.”
This is not going to be as easy as I thought. “Be that as it may. I’ll make sure to get your floral advice, before I have you hung, for what we should decorate the grave of your honorless corpse with.”
He growled at me.
“Now, you’re going to start answering my questions, or I’m just going to have you shot. I don’t have time to put up with your idiocy.”
He stood, silent, and stared the best daggers he could muster.
“Now, we know that you know what happened in the city. What ritual were the norn trying to use this rune for?” I held up Blackfur’s sketches.
Ayroh didn’t even look at the sketch. “There are three runes in that, idiot. One specifies the source, one specifies the form, the last specifies the purpose.”
The clarity of his answer almost took me by surprise. Almost.
“And those are?”
“The ritual would have consumed the ghosts of Ascalon City to create a dragon champion, bound to Jormag, which then would have been directed to destroy Hoelbrak.”
Uproar in the court. “BAILIFF, GET THIS COURT UNDER CONTROL.” Moments later, order was restored. This is ridiculous. That’s impossible.
“Gladium, I have no reason to believe the magnitude of your assertion.”
“Then don’t, I’m just answering the question.” And it looked like he was telling the truth.
Legion, have mercy on me.
“How would such a thing even be possible? Why haven’t we heard of magic like this?”
“Because it requires a very specific thing to even be possible. A focus. The human child that they ran off with is host to a spirit that can serve that function.”
This is insane.
“Then, if that was so, why would the Gold Legion interfere?”
Ayroh hesitated a moment, a low growl rumbling in his throat.
“Because they want to utilize the ritual for another purpose.”
“What use would the Gold Legion have for a dragon to destroy Hoelbrak?”
He let out an audible sigh. “Think about it, mouse. Make a few minor adjustments, and the ritual is completely different.”
The courtroom started to rise up, but was silenced by a swift roar from the bailiff.
The gladium continued, “It would be a minor thing to alter the ritual and use it to create a new, immensely powerful being.”
He paused, letting his words sink in.
“The Gold legion could use the ritual to create a new god.”
I trusted these soldiers, but this needed to be shut down. Immediately.
I motioned to the bailiff. Within moments, the marksmen gathered around Ayroh and dragged him behind me into a private room adjacent to the court. After the door was closed behind us, I took a deep breath.
There’s not any good way out of this situation. Opening my eyes, I looked this gladium over once more. Is this what I’ve been reduced to now?
“I don’t know what plans you might have had, but cancel them.”
His brow furrowed as he looked me over.
“Welcome back to the Iron Legion.”
As I approached, the two guards at the door held up their hands to signal me to stop. No matter how many times I did this, they mechanically checked my identification. I’ve even been drinking with the one on the left.
He had a cub with a stranger. He regrets never looking into the child. He’s particularly weak to asuran beer.
I withdrew the tribune’s summon from my bag and handed it to the armored guard on the right. “Srin Blackfur. Ash.” the guard read aloud as he scanned the paper instructing me to appear in the tribune’s office just after dusk.
Unusual. Most of his dealings happen during the day. He’s either scared or hiding something. Likely both.
“You may enter.” In unison, the guards withdrew to the sides of the massive iron gateway. After collecting my papers from my dense companion, I ventured through the entrance and up a long, winding staircase. Everything about the Citadel was designed around concentric circles, everything twisted and turned parallel to everything else. No matter how many times I walked this path, it never felt entirely sturdy.
After a few minutes of navigating the spiraling stairs, my road ended in the Tribune’s office. He sat behind his desk; the window behind him casting a dark outline as the sun set in the distance. The sharply angled light caught all of the scars and gashes in his dark, grey fur. Relics of a lifetime spent fighting ghosts, rebels, and the monsters of the Dragonbrand. His eyes were squinted as he stared at a stack of papers on his desk. Black lined pages. Official.
As I took my first step into the room, I became aware of another presence. Sitting in a chair against the wall, the gladium brooded silently. Am I here for the sentencing?
That’s a waste of time. Just kill him. The tribune looked up at me, his eyes studying me closely. “Blackfur, thank you for coming.”
Salute. “Always sir. With what can I assist?”
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “Knowing what we know now, what would you suggest is the best course of action to counter Emberclaw?” Easy.
“I’d use a small team. Handpicked. If word of what he was planning got out, it could be significantly detrimental to morale. Our best bet would be to target him directly for assassination.”
“How large of a group would you suggest I use for such an endeavor?”
“Between thirteen and eighteen soldiers. Likely mixed legions.”
Tribune Steelblood leaned back forward in his chair, resting his arms on his desk. His eyes never left me. “Your age masks your intelligence. That’s the plan to the letter.” I smiled. “I ended up choosing 15, in fact.”
“Who would you choose to lead such an endeavor?”
“Someone with experience countering Emberclaw’s magic, who was additionally capable of dueling him on even terms. Considering the size of the force he travels with, it is reasonable to assume the rest of the warband would be fighting diversionary feints to draw his forces away from him. It would leave him vulnerable, but would limit the number of combatants that could be deployed against him.”
Steelblood nodded again. “Once again, my thoughts exactly.” Now I needed to know.
“Who’s going to do it?”
Steelblood let out a sigh. He wouldn’t, would he? His hand motioned towards the gladium, who sat quietly in his chair. “He will.”
This is stupid. Less than stupid; this is ignorant. “Sir, I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.” The tribune’s eyes locked in on me. “He has unknown affiliations. He’s spent the past 8 years wandering around Tyria, doing only he knows what. He was exiled for concealing very dangerous magic, while still in his fahrar. Furthermore, he’s never worked with a warband, nor has he ever been a part of a meaningful military operation.” The gladium growled at me. “I would strongly encourage you to reconsider.”
Without hesitating, Steelblood riposted. “All valid criticisms. However, he is the only resource we have that has any experience with Emberclaw. Furthermore, he has demonstrated nothing less than virtuostic talent in his rather distasteful art. Given the proper support, I can’t find anyone that would be superior to him in this specific task.”
“Regardless of his individual aptitude, he has no leadership experience whatsoever. Sending him into a fight as a legionnaire would only get all of his men killed.”
“A valid point.” Steelblood grinned wickedly. “That’s why I’m sending you with him.”
“WHAT?!” the gladium and I exclaimed simultaneously. A storm erupted in the office.
“Why would I ever help this worthless gladium?”
“This is foolish. A strong breeze would snap his back.”
“This is ridiculous, worse, suicidal.”
“That’s right, sending you anywhere outside these walls is akin to murder.”
“Shut your mouth, mouse.”
“Awefully brave talk coming from someone likely to crumble at the first sight of blood.”
“You don’t know the first thing.”
“I don’t need to. I see it already.”
Steelblood’s fists crashed against the desk. “Shut your mouths!” The gladium and I fell silent.
“Blackfur, under what banner do you fight?” I looked down at the floor, avoiding his gaze. “The Legions, sir.” “Precisely. And this is what your legion requires of you.”
“Ayroh, I’m doing you a favor by not having you hung. Which I should, in case you were wondering. Furthermore, how do you expect to find Emberclaw? Blackfur is the best tracker and scout that I’ve ever met, to turn down his skills would be foolish in the highest degree.”
Ayroh and I exchanged a brief glance.
“I don’t care if you like each other. I won’t lose a drop of sleep over your petty emotional issues. Get over them. The only thing I care about is Emberclaw, in a body bag.”
“Have I made myself clear?”