As the far sky started to grow light, five people stood on a hill and surveyed the battle raging below.
Tepet Ejava, called the Roseblack, stood in the centre, and looked out over the lines of her war. A part of her cried out at the necessity of the battle, given what she was about to do, but she knew that without it, the Mask would never have been so bold as he was know. A mere mile away, the Juggernaut stood, blotting out the sky, and the Maskâ€™s dark necromancy shrouded the landscape â€“ dawn was nothing but a hint on the horizon, and would remain so no matter how far into the day this battle progressed. In the absence of the sunâ€™s gaze, zombies, war ghosts, and the dreaded undead horrors that the Mask wielded fought alongside his Thornguard and mortal conscripts, bolstering their ranks from a few thousand to over twenty thousand monsters.
Ejava had five thousand of the Realmâ€™s finest soldiers, along with a host of artillery, two talons of warstriders, and more artifacts than she would have thought credible. But against the unceasing assault below, her early victories against the Maskâ€™s attacks had transformed into a holding action, a staggered defense based around buying time with as few lives as possible. Now, it was about to pay off.
â€œLooking bad down there.â€ To Ejavaâ€™s right, her uncle surveyed the scene grimly. It had taken all of Nagazzerâ€™s capabilities to convince General Tepet Arada, the Wind-Dancer, to come out of retirement and act as his nieceâ€™s advisor, but she was glad that she had â€“ as, she suspected, was he. â€œGive it another hour, and weâ€™ll have a real problem on our hands.â€
â€œWe only need a few minutes.â€ Only four people in the legion knew the secret that Ejava had worked to conceal. The third, her adjunct, studied the sky with a critical eye. â€œWe could move now, though. Dawn is best, but we have lives to think about.â€ Ejava didnâ€™t know the man well, but he came highly recommended, and she had to admit that he had been extremely useful so far. Cathak Tyr had a grasp of military bureaucracy that left Ejavaâ€™s head spinning, and his logistical capabilities had saved a number of battles and marches. She sighed, and nodded, and turned to the last two. The first, one of her lieutenants, saluted grimly.
â€œI feel like it should be me.â€ Ejavaâ€™s voice was soft. This was the hardest part of command.
â€œWith due respect sir, absolutely the hell not.â€ Cathak Seranos smiled faintly, inclining his head. â€œThe Realm needs you. Iâ€™m more â€“ expendable.â€
â€œNever that.â€ Ejava laid a hand on Seranosâ€™s shoulder; behind her, her companions watched solemnly. â€œThe world will know of you sacrifice, Seranos.â€
â€œYouâ€™ll make me cry, sir.â€ Seranos smiled again, but there was a brittle edge to it. He turned to the last of the five, his voice hardening. â€œIâ€™m ready. Letâ€™s get this done.â€
â€œVery well.â€ Bowing, Kyla set herself into a spellcasting stance, her tricoloured anima sparkling around her as she cast the spell that would be needed for this plan to be a perfect success. A Splinter of Mokrelus, she was acting as a coordinator, and was not officially present in the army at all; she was disguised as one of the drovers who handled the wagons. Now, however, she let her power flow freely, reaching it out to envelop Seranos. Lights swirled around him, dissolving into nothing, and carrying him with them towards his destination. The others watched him go, grim-faced. Arada was the one to break the silence.
â€œHere goes everythingâ€¦â€
A mile away, standing on the top of the highest tower built on the back of his devastating war-beast, the Mask of Winters watched the fight develop, his Tragedy Mask facing forwards. Flanked by two nephwracks â€“ his Abyssal servants who could fight already committed to the war â€“ he was an imposing figure, his shadow casting out over the battlefield below. Soon, he thought, it would be time to deploy another spell â€“ something to break the morale of the Realm, not just their bodies. Raising their fallen comrades, perhaps. He smiled vengefully beneath his mask. Mnemon had delivered him a fine feast of treacherous Dragon-Bloods, and he intended to savor their fall. That it might benefit her as well did not concern him â€“ the Dragon-Blooded had walked into his valley trap as expected, and none would escape. Their jade and corpses would cause his own forces to swell.
Even as he considered his impending victory, the Maskâ€™s attention was suddenly drawn by sorcery forming behind him â€“ powerful sorcery, stronger than any the pitiful Dragonlings possessed. The Mask began to shape a counterspell, but stopped as he realized the spell itself had been cast far away; it was only its effects taking place here, and those did not target the Mask himself. Curious despite himself, he gestured for his servants to wait, and watched the shape taking form behind him.
It was a Dragon-Blooded, young and full of life, wearing only what appeared to be a dinner jacket and a light cloak. His daiklave glittered in his hand, and he regarded the Mask solemnly. â€œMask of Winters. It ends now.â€
â€œExcuse me?â€ The Mask laughed, then shifted posture. His limbs twitched and cracked, inverted, and suddenly he was facing away from his foe instead of towards him. He stepped to the balcony, looking down over the battlefield. â€œYou must be mad. You have a simple weapon â€“ you arenâ€™t even wearing armor. I doubt very much that you could so much as scratch my plate if I stood still and let you try.â€ He glanced over his shoulder, the Comedy Mask that adorned his face now smiling merrily. â€œThe only thing that you could do up here, fool Dragonling, isâ€¦â€ Abruptly, he broke off, and his eyes widened.
â€œDie.â€ Seranos completed the sentence smoothly, taking a breath. Before the Mask could draw himself from his shock, the Dynast swiftly reversed the daiklave and plunged it into his own chest. The two nephwracks watched in confusion, glancing at one another with raised eyebrows.
â€œNo!â€ The Mask started to run forwards, as Seranos collapsed forwards onto the sword. But something remained behind. For a moment, it seemed that Seranos both hung in the air and lay on the ground, and then he spoke.
â€œIâ€™m sorry for you.â€
â€œI donâ€™t needâ€¦ I donâ€™tâ€¦â€ The Mask stepped backwards, his magnificent soulsteel plate pressing against the stone balcony.
Seranos stepped forwards towards him, extending a ghostly hand. â€œI understand the pain. The fear. I forgive you your crimes. Will you seek hope again?â€
â€œNo. There is no hope.â€ But there was no conviction in the Maskâ€™s words. As the nephwracks watched, shocked, he took a shuddering step forwards. â€œAround me there is only the darkness of the Void. I cannot see the wayâ€¦â€
â€œLet me show you.â€ The hand extended again, and like one possessed, the Mask took it. Seranos continued, smiling. â€œNo more suffering for you, Larquen Quen. Rejoin Lethe. Be at peace, now and forever. No torment, no fear. Back on the cycle of life, as it should be.â€
â€œYes.â€ For a moment, there was a shuddering disconnect, as the ghost of Larquen Quen stepped out from the soulsteel that encased him, leaving behind a shuddering, faintly screaming shadow, the darkness of the Malfeans made real by its inclusion in his soul. And then the shadows fell backwards, pulling in on themselves as they drew towards the Void, and the ghosts drew upwards, a column of light surrounding them as they flew towards the sky, where they merged with the stars.
And then the magics that the Mask had worked shattered, and the sun rose over the battlefield. Zombies and hungry ghosts died in an instant â€“ war ghosts fell into the Underworld, suddenly and shockingly freed from their masterâ€™s influence. The mortal conscripts suddenly found their positions overrun, their allies vanished, and fear and panic swept their lines. Revitalized, the soldiers of the Realm let out a roar of triumph and pressed the attack, their defenses cast aside to crush their suddenly-beaten foe.
Standing on the hill, Arada let out a whoop of joy. â€œHe did it! Dragons bless him into his next life, he did it!â€
Ejava smiled, sorrow and joy mixing in her heart. The secret to defeating the Deathlords truly was so simple that any peasant could achieve it, with a strong heart and a pure soul.
All it took was to die on Calibration, as the world reordered itself, and in dying forgive the Deathlord their sins. To welcome them into death and accept that their would be no punishment for their crimes.
Ejava smiled, and whispered softly. â€œYou did it, Seranos. The Mask is gone.â€