Lord Hount stood at the top of Pentalus' southern garrison, a spyglass to his eye as he surveyed as much of the city as he could from this vantage point. He considered flying up with one of the eagles to get a better look at the battlefield ahead, but the eagles were all needed for the assault on the Everbright City. He would have to make do with his observations from here and whatever General Jurin's scouts brought back to him.
He'd received serval reports from the armies to the north and east, and the battle seemed to be going well. Pentalus was the last city loyal to King Neredos in more than word alone, though it had lost much of its fervor for the so-called 'Eternal King' in recent years. It was a pity that the citizens would have to suffer for the actions of their ruler.
But the world had suffered. Lord Hount had witnessed it for all four decades of his life. Neredos resisted change, and had used his Knights to hunt down developing technology and knowledge hundreds of times over the centuries he'd been in power. He doubted that Neredos even realized that the world no longer served him, as those crusades against free thought had finally died down in the last twenty years.
Yet the repercussions of those crusades remained. Ancient histories spoke of wonders of agriculture and transportation, of keeping food as cold as ice, of messages being transmitted across thousands of miles without magic. But in recent times people struggled to feed themselves. It had taken centuries to relearn how to survive without that technology, and some areas still couldn't make it without assistance.
Assistance that Lord Hount had offered time and time again. Ever since inheriting his lands to the south, he had used the military personnel assigned to his command to instill proper order. It had taken some brow-beating at first, but now the people were fed and happy, and that was what mattered.
Eventually he had relaxed his authoritarian rule and his soldiers had responded well to this change. They'd pledged loyalty to him instead of the Kingdom. He'd asked them to continue living as normal, except to spread the world to other soldiers who might want to join their cause.
Several of the other local lords followed suit, and together they plotted for rebellion, if another opportunity presented itself. They'd found unexpected allies in the Everbright City, most notably High Inquisitor Isean, and had kept a watch on everything happening, both inside and out. As soon as Neredos started acting even more strangely than usual, the armies knew their chance had come.
Lord Hount had marched first for Pentalus. Over the last twenty years, Isean and others had supplied them with breeding eagles. Hount had kept them secret on his lands until his foot and horse had come within a few miles of Pentalus, but now the eagles flew overhead, assaulting the Everbright City.
He'd planned for unexpected situations, but nothing had prepared him for the Everbright City's sudden westward shift. He didn't even know the city could move, but now that he did, the idea distressed him. What other technological or magical secrets had Neredos kept from his people? What other surprises lay in wait for them?
A man in light chainmail climbed to the top of the garrison walls. General Jurin, a grey-haired wiry man Lord Hount had pulled out of a tavern eight years earlier, saluted as he reached the wall. Lord Hount barely gave him more than a glance. Undeterred by the lack of recognition, General Jurin said, "We've seized all the outer garrisons. The city watch never knew what hit them, and we've occupied the Knights in the Everbright City. Pentalus is ours."
"For now," Lord Hount replied. "The Knights could win their portion of the conflict, and we haven't eliminated the city watch yet."
"Lord Hount, we have them. They're completely surrounded and we have all their fortifications," Jurin protested. "The day is all but won."
Lord Hount sighed and finally turned toward his general. "General Jurin, normally I have complete faith in your ability to command, but how long has it been since there has been conflict on this scale? Are you not a student of history? How many great commanders have lost when underestimating a supposedly weaker foe who was cornered? When one is cornered and faced with the threat of destruction, one fights harder than ever to stay alive."
General Jurin saluted again and replied, "As you say, Lord Hount. My apologies."
Lord Hount suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and stepped past General Jurin, pausing briefly to say, "Let's advance into the city. There appears to be a gathering in the Plaza of Ibrix. We must corral them and break their moral. If we destroy them there, the rest will surrender."
"As you command, Lord Hount."
Veil considered Grim for several minutes, as her brother dressed in the clothes the Knights had secured for him. They would be a little tight on his lean-muscular form, but in a way, the clothes accented his features well. It would draw attention to his figure, which was something Grim would've loved when they were children.
"You're looking well. I can't say I've seen that much of you in centuries, however," Veil said as Grim tightened his belt. It didn't need tightening, but he cinched it as far as he could. He didn't acknowledge her with even a look, so she added with a smile, "You've maintained quite a figure."
Grim snorted, then reached for the cup of wine sitting on the table next to him. The Knights had commandeered a tavern connected to Ibrix Plaza, to serve as their command center, and Grim and Veil had taken over the private dining room for their conversation.
After downing the wine in one gulp, Grim faced his sister at last, his eyes filled with disgust. "As have you," he said after a moment. "It's almost as if vanity was more important to you than virtue ever could be."
"Could we not fight? Just this once?" Veil said tiredly. "We'll be needed in a moment. The demons will be free."
Grim's eyes narrowed as he growled. "What do you know?"
Veil met his gaze. She had kept so many things from Grim over the centuries. How long had it been since they trusted one another? How long since she'd been able to look him in the eye without fear of his judgment?
It was the day he first killed a man, she realized. She watched from the rooftop as he melted a man's skull, and she'd never been more disgusted with another person in her life. After the things she'd done since, she knew it was hypocritical to continue to hold that moment against him.
But her old perceptions had died hard. Grim had once been her foundation, in the middle of whatever storms came her way. After their mother and older brother had died, they had clung to each other through everything. When he first deviated from her, she had seen it as the greatest betrayal.
Their paths had brought them back together many times, but she had never fully forgiven him for that first step away from her. Looking into his eyes now, she decided it was time to admit her hypocrisy. "I sent someone to kill Neredos, now that Ibrix is dead," she confessed. "Sometimes one man has to die to save the rest of us."
"You are ever a fool," Grim snarled. "You would unleash the demons on the world once more?"
"Neredos' madness has progressed. It was time to end it," Veil countered icily.
"He's killing them right now!" Grim said, thundering his fist into the table beside him. He reached for the wine again and downed another cup. Veil stared at him open-mouthed, almost seeing their father's image super-imposed over Grim's. As Grim continued, his voice routed her back in the moment. "The pillars are disappearing and the demons along with them. What happens if he dies before he kills them all? Once again your actions lead to death."
"You have no right to question me on this," Veil spat, bile rising in her throat. "Where have you been for eight hundred years, hm?" She grunted in annoyance and began to pace, pausing after several switchbacks, to glare at him. "Hunting the Vhor? Fulfilling your vendetta? Where have you been while I've been here, making sure Neredos' didn't destroy the world in his mad immortality. Making sure the people were protected. You . . . you talk about responsibility, but all you care about is revenge."
"How many plots have I stopped?" Grim said, setting the wine cup down and advancing on her. He put his finger in her face as he went on. "The Vhor have tried and tried to free the demons, to kill Neredos, to restart the war. I have done my duty to this world, Veil. And now . . . now your actions may doom us all."
For the first time in centuries, Veil could feel her brother's soul through his gaze. She wanted to respond to that, wanted to cling to it. But it warred with her convictions. Even if Grim's words were true, she had acted the way she thought best. Still, she could not deny the possibility that she had made the wrong choice. "Only if Styx is successful," she said quietly. "He may fail."
"Styx?" Grim scoffed. "You sent . . ." he shook his head, mouth twitching wordlessly for a moment before he downed another cup of wine and set it down forcefully. "You sent a boy to do your dirty work?"
"A boy who knows Neredos, and whom Neredos knows as a friend of Prism's. Styx could get close, and that was the important thing," Veil replied.
"I can't believe he agreed to it," Grim said. He looked away, paused, then snapped his attention back to her. "You coerced him. You . . . you changed him."
Veil's eyes widened at the accusation. "What are you talking ab—"
"I know, Veil," Grim spat. He leaned into her, his eyes growing fiercer with every word. "I know what you do. I know how you survive. Does it sicken you every time you steal their youth? Does it make you want to destroy your own soul, but you realize even that will never be good enough to erase the stain you've left on the world? Or are you too far gone to feel remorse for the lives you ruin? You, who once exiled me for defending the man I love . . ." he waved dismissively and looked away, his anger spent. "You have become the greatest monster this world has ever seen."
"I know," Veil whispered. "But I did it for the world."
Grim laughed bitterly and met her eyes again. "Then how can you judge Neredos for doing the same. Or me? Or any of us? I don't despise you, sister, and neither do I judge you. We are all evil. We have all sinned. But you cannot deny it, or you will lose what little perspective you have left."
Grim's words settled with all the lightness of a funerary speech. As Veil adjusted to this new emotional burden, the door opened and Maxthane poked his head through the crack. "Excuse me, but I thought you'd like to know that we've made a decision on how to proceed."
"Maxthane," Grim said, waving him into the room, then embracing him. "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to greet you properly. I hope you are well, despite the state of things. I'm sorry to hear about your father. Bradeth told me on our way over here."
"I'm fine, all things considered," Maxthane said, grinning at Grim, before turning a neutral expression on Veil. "So . . . this is your sister?"
Grim's features tightened, but he held Maxthane's gaze as he replied, "Yes. She's also your mother."
"My what?" Maxthane said, pulling away from Grim to stare at Veil.
All the heaviness of Grim's accusations dissipated as Veil rounded on him, her eyes flashing with fury. "You had no right, Grimfaeth!"
"I had every right," Grim said flatly. "The truth may be hard to travel with, but she's the only companion I can keep. Don't deny your role in this mess, Veil. I haven't given up on your perspective yet." He glanced at Maxthane and added, "I'll leave you two alone."
Veil crossed the distance between them without care for grace, clutching Grim's bare forearm in her anger. She seized control of his cells, intending to cause him intense pain. As she commanded them to burst, her eyes widened in horror. Grim's cells refused to listen to her, and the cells in her hand were beginning to tingle as he exerted influence over them.
"Are you really going to try to kill me?" Grim asked tiredly. "You may be the better healer, but I promise you I'm faster. Which one of us can stop a heart quicker while healing our own? Is it even possible, or will we just end up switching hearts? Let go, Veil. Speak to your son. Gain insight into how the rest of the world has lived."
Without another word, Grim ripped his arm away and left the room. Veil let him leave without protest, too stunned to say anything to try and stop him. She had underestimated her brother, once again. If only he wasn't right.
"I'm sorry you had to hear all that," she said once the door had closed, turning her gaze to Maxthane.
"You're my mother?" Maxthane asked, expression still showing only disbelief.
"I gave birth to you, but I'm no one's mother," Veil said, glaring at Maxthane. The heat in her voice was for Grim, and for herself, but she couldn't contain it, as she went on, "And certainly not your father's former lover, either. We never made love, regardless of whatever tales he may have told you about your mother. He impregnated me through less mundane means."
"Why are you hostile towards me?" Maxthane asked, taking a step back from her. His eyes searched hers, moist and glistening in the low light. "What have I done?"
"Don't look at me like that, Maxthane," Veil said, turning away. "You want answers as to who you are, and I can only give you more questions."
Maxthane gasped in realization. "You were Fasha's contact in the Everbright City. You're working with the demons."
Veil's attention snapped back to Maxthane. "Don't speak of what you know nothing about."
"You think I know nothing about this?" Maxthane scoffed. "My father died during that siege. My people are dying from a demonic disease because of that plot. At least some of the blame must be laid at your feet. What was your plan, anyway? Why would you turn against Neredos?"
Veil ignored the accusation in Maxthane's last two questions and asked, "Your people are dying?"
"Are you not going to answer my questions, mother?" Maxthane said.
"Quay poison . . . the same demon that Styx faced, perchance?" Veil asked.
"Yes . . ." Maxthane said with surprise. "How did you know?"
"I saw Styx earlier today and healed him from a demonic disease," Veil replied. "A very familiar disease."
"Where is he now?" Maxthane asked.
"Still in the Everbright City, I imagine. He's with Neredos."
"Hold on . . ." Veil said, putting a steady hand in the air to stall him. "You said people are dying of this disease?"
"Yes, in The Shade," Maxthane replied. "There's something in the water."
"I'm not surprised people are dying if any got into the water supply. It's extremely potent and virulent. Even a small amount could do devastating damage. Let's go find Grim. He can help us, and I think I know where I can help you," Veil said, and moved toward the door.
Maxthane stepped in front of her. "We're not done with this conversation."
Veil smiled politely at him and said, "We'll have plenty of time to hash out our disagreements after I've stopped a plague."
Maxthane nodded, and the pair stepped out into the common room of the tavern. Maxthane suppressed his questions, and Veil suppressed her tears. Her world was ending, his was just beginning, but for the moment they had a siege to worry about.
The common room was as crowded as it could be on a festival night, though not a one of the people assembled had a strong drink in hand. Officers of the two Knight companies and the Pentalus City Watch waited for orders, seated around most of the tables. Three Elroks—Bradeth, Gobrak, and Kobblith—Alsha, Belthin, Kirra, Madame Godani, and one other stood around a table, studying a hastily drawn map of the surrounding area brought in by one of Belthin's soldiers.
The newcomer to the group was Lieutenant Norith of the Pentalus City Watch, the highest-ranking officer of the group assigned to deal with Bradeth and her Elroks. He'd finally approached Belthin to inquire after her safety once it appeared the chaos had settled down between the different factions. Fresh to the command of his unit, he'd quickly bowed to Alsha and Belthin's experience and agreed to lend his forces.
"Where is Grim?" Maxthane asked as he rejoined the group. With Veil's words still lingering in his thoughts, he wanted to speak to Grim about the potential plague in The Shade, as soon as possible.
Bradeth answered, rising from her leaning position to stare down into Maxthane's eyes. "He asked to see that grimoire of yours and then left for privacy to study it."
A man in dark leather armor and a Shadesight tattoo over his left eye darted into the tavern and rushed to Madame Godani's side, temporarily drawing Maxthane's attention. They spoke in hushed whispers while the rest of the room kept their attention on Bradeth and Maxthane.
"Someone needs to find him," Veil said. "We need his help."
"Does it matter?" Madame Godani said with a glare at Veil. Something deeper than simple hatred resonated within her eyes. It was a loathing as profound as anything Maxthane had ever seen, and he nearly took a step back from the intensity of it, even though he wasn't the target.
Taking in the rest of the room with a glance, Madame Godani went on, "We're out of time. The army has arrived on the other side of the plaza. We should all move outside to see for ourselves."
Without waiting for agreement, she led the way to the door. The rest of the room followed in silence. As they entered the Plaza, their eyes were immediately drawn to the Southern entrance to the grand square. Lines of horseman filled the wide Boulevard leading into the Plaza as far back as they could see.
"Do you know why they're attacking us, Commander?" One of the nearby Knights asked Alsha.
"No, but I suspect this has been coming for a long time. Perhaps they'll give us a chance to speak before they attack, but it doesn't look that way," Alsha replied.
"What makes you say that?" Belthin asked. "We should at least try, shouldn't we?"
Alsha pointed to a bannerman ten rows back from the front, two officers in silver chainmail with black cloaks rode next to the bannerman. One had silver embroidery on his cloak, the other did not. The banner itself was a field of blue with a black hawk in the center. "The commander is riding behind his troops. If he wanted to meet with us, he'd be riding in front. If I had to guess, I would say that's Lord Hount's crest on that flag, though I am not as up to date on country lords as I should be."
"Horses against eagles," Belthin observed. "We have the advantage, at least."
"There are hundreds of them. They outnumber us at least four to one. But . . ." Alsha paused as she glanced at the Shades beside her. "Madame Godani, King Maxthane."
The two stepped forward together, but it was Maxthane who asked, "Yes, Lady Alsha?"
"I'm changing the plan we just established. You know your people better than I do. We need to lead them into an ambush if we expect to win," Alsha explained.
"I have an idea," Maxthane said.
Alsha smiled politely. "I'd love to hear it."
"What if we send the golem out. They will probably make the same mistake the Knights did and try to kill it with their swords. It could do a lot of damage in that time," Maxthane replied. "Also, I imagine simply looking at it will give them pause. It could give us the time we need to get everyone else into position."
"Does it really listen to you?" Alsha asked skeptically.
"It does," Maxthane said with a nod. "And I think I know how to make it do more. I've been deciphering the symbols on the cuff and—"
"They're advancing!" Kirra shouted, pointing across the Plaza. The riders had spurred their horses forward, spilling into the plaza as they widened their lines in apparent preparation for a charge.
"Do it, Maxthane! For the good of all of us!" Madame Godani shouted, turning to Alsha. "Lady Alsha, take your troops down the street. We'll take up positions in the buildings to harass them with our crossbows once they make it past the golem."
"Gobrak and I will cover the golem from that rooftop," Bradeth offered, pointing to a nearby building. "The rest of my troops will form the front line, and they'll back up while your Knights skirmish from above."
"The City Watch will bolster the Elroks," Alsha said, taking in Lieutenant Norith and Belthin with a nod. "Let's do this. The move is yours, King Maxthane."
Maxthane nodded and stepped forward to get a better view, then willed the golem toward the center of the Plaza. As it advanced forward with thunderous footsteps, Maxthane rested his finger beside one of the symbols on his bracer. A symbol of light and fire. "Let's see what it can do," he said quietly, then pressed the symbol.
"Lord Hount, the enemy appears to be pulling back, all except for that . . . thing," General Jurin observed, his eyes on the golem. With the army moving forward, they now waited in the fourth row from the front beside Lord Hount's bannerman.
"What do you think that thing is, General? A demon? Like the one we saw in Port Salmus yesterday?" Lord Hount asked. "It doesn't appear natural. The demon at least had scales, but this . . ."
"I wouldn't know. But it is coming our way," Jurin replied with a grim frown.
"Then we kill it. Send out the cavalry first, to harass it and test its limits," Lord Hount replied.
Jurin was appalled. "But, Lord Hount, the infantry is more expendable . . ." he shook his head, his focus remaining on the strange being in front of them. "We should wait for the infantry and send them in first."
"The rules have changed now that we're inside Pentalus, General," Lord Hount said firmly. "Have you never fought inside a city? I suppressed the Tilman Rebellion four years ago, and if we'd gone in there with horses we would've been slaughtered." He nodded forward, as if agreeing with his own observation. "No, in the plaza the horses will serve us to some degree, but they're pulling us back to the streets, so they can kill us from the houses while we fight to get inside. Light infantry that can move quickly into the buildings after them will be our best asset, unless we decide to burn the whole place to the ground."
"As you say, Lord Hount," Jurin said, saluting before riding turning his horse to the front. "Cavalry! Continue the advance! Test the giant, kill it if you can!"
Cheers rose from the riders as they edged their mounts into a charge. Only a few of the riders would be able to attack the golem directly in their current formation, but at least it would give Hount a chance to see what the being could do.
As the riders surged forward, Hount leaned toward Jurin and shouted over the thundering of hooves. "We should contact the other generals as soon as possible and warn them of this. Dispatch a rider to the northern and western camps."
"As you say," Jurin replied with a bow and turned on his horse to relay the command to the scouts waiting near the rear of the group.
Hount watched him go and was surprised to see two men approaching from the opposite direction. One was an infantry runner, Silus, if Hount remembered the name correctly. The other wore simple brown and black leather and cloth armor with a bit of dirt and grime on the fringes. A cloth mask obscured the bottom half of his face, and his medium-length hair was held back by a dark leather headband. A Shadesight tattoo sat above his right eye.
"A message for you, Lord Hount," Silus said as he saluted.
"Give it to me," Hount demanded.
"It came with a messenger attached," the other man said with a short bow. "Forgive me, I was sent by Captain Krythe, in service to the Shadowking, Salidar thulu'Khant. My name is Flax."
"I have no business with Salidar," Hount replied with a snarl.
Flax raised a questioning eyebrow and glanced out into the plaza. The horsemen were about to engage the golem. "It seems you're battling Knights of the Firmament, who are in league with Shades in rebellion against their true king. Are you certain you don't want to form an alliance? However temporary it might be?"
Hount frowned at the man and was about to respond that he would never work with The Shades when a deafening chorus of screams split the air. He barely had time to turn his head as the central light in the center of the golem's face glowed as bright as the sun. A beam of energy shot forward, meeting the advancing riders head on. The golem lifted its head, angling the beam toward the southern boulevard.
It flashed directly in front of Hount, colliding with Silus and passing through him as if he wasn't there. Only, Hount saw with horror, it hadn't passed through at all. The instant after the beam vanished, what remained of the two halves of Silus' body fell to either side of his position, a charred line marking where his stomach, chest, and head once were.
Hount's horse bolted and bucked as the surviving horses around it screamed. Too stunned to hold his saddle, Hount hit the cobblestones hard. He retained enough presence of mind to roll to the side and climb to his feet, finding shelter in a doorway as his surviving soldiers struggled to regain control over their mounts.
Still in shock, Hount surveyed the plaza. Nearly thirty soldiers had felt the heat of that impossible weapon and lay broken and dead across the cobblestones. Just as many horses lay just as dead. Few riders had reached the golem, but their attacks seemed meaningless against its metal frame.
"By my father's ghost! What was that?" Hount said, finding words at last.
"The enemy, Lord Hount," Flax said as he joined Hount in the doorway. "And our common one."
"What do you propose?" Hount asked.
"I have four others I can contact easily. We're all skilled at taking out people of prominence," Flax replied.
Hount's expression soured. "You're assassins," he said flatly.
Hount glanced back into the plaza just in time to see the golem smash a horse and its rider into the cobblestones. He couldn't be sure if the cracking sound he heard was breaking bones or the stones beneath them. "Can you kill that thing?" he asked after a moment.
"I don't know, but I think we'll do a better job than your horsemen," Flax replied with a smirk.
"You have your alliance, Flax," Hount growled. "Kill that thing. We'll work out your payment later."
"I'm delighted to hear you say that," Flax replied with a flourish of a bow. "Try to stay out of harm's way, would you? And you might want to call back your troops. What's left of them, anyway."
With that the assassin took off at a run, straight into the plaza. Or so Hount thought. After a moment, the man simply disappeared, though where to, Hount couldn't imagine.
But it didn't matter. He needed to protect his troops before they all lost to this monstrosity. "Jurin! Jurin!" he called.
"The general is dead, Lord Hount," one of the soldiers shouted. Hount's bannerman. "His horse threw him, broke his neck."
"Raise the banner, sound the retreat!" Hount called back.
"As you command," the bannerman replied. He placed his horn to his lips and blew as loud as he could. The remaining riders broke away from the golem and ran. Hount did not judge them for their haste.
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