Six – Revelations
I had first met Talonlord Calil two weeks before I found Roach. He was leading his own Wyld Hunt not far from Chiarascuro, working with the Immaculate Order to put down a dangerous cult of sun-worshippers living in a ruined temple. Mnemon Rai had offered his assistance to Calil, expecting that an Anathema worthy of slaying might make an appearance. No demons showed themselves. Still, the fighting was hard, the weather was miserable and for days I wanted nothing more than to quit the army and go home. Fortunately, after tracking down most of the cult’s leaders and capturing their stronghold, we began marching back towards civilization.
On the way we found a young boy half-dead in the desert. Though Talonlord Calil was immediately suspicious, he couldn’t find it in his heart to kill an innocent child whose only real fault was having the misfortune to have been born into a family of heretics. Because I was the only one out of my Talon who could decipher the unusual language of the cultists - the boy became “my problem”. I shared my rations with him for two weeks and by the time we reached the city, he was determined to stay in my service. Since I had taken an arrow for him in our first engagement, Talonlord Calil grudgingly agreed to my simple request. And since no one could pronounce the filthy child’s proper name, everyone began calling him “The Little Cockroach” – which was later shorted to “Little Roach” and then simply “Roach”.
“You’re not bad for a Dragonblood.” Roach confessed to me as we shared a rabbit I’d shot while out on patrol.
I had to laugh when he said that. “I’m not a Dragonblood. Well, my father is, and my brother is. I grew up as part of House Cathak… but I never Exalted.” I replied.
Roach seemed confused. “Why not?”
“I don’t know.” I told him. He must have realized that he’d touched on a sore issue, because after that night he never mentioned it again.
More than fifteen years had passed between the day that I had taken Roach under my wing and the day that we returned to the Scavenger Lands to hunt the Fae that had killed my brother. Roach was twenty-six years old, a veteran of four Wyld Hunts and no longer technically my student… although he still compulsively called me “Boss” whenever a situation was particularly tense.
I was over forty myself - with equal parts field experience and an unparalleled formal education. Over the years I had become one of the highest-ranking mortals in the Imperial Army, an acknowledged master of several martial arts styles and a much-feared Gateway player… not to mention a military paper-pusher extrordinare.
And of course… I had my secret.
As we had been warned, the forest near Haven was swarming with fae. Roach and I ran into a pack of goblins several miles from our assigned meeting point and lost our horses. Roach dislocated his shoulder in the fight and wound up with a few nasty bruises. I took a blow from a fae warhammer that shattered my armor and broke yet another sword. It was the second that I had shattered in less than a week.
It was further to return to our camp than to continue, so we pressed onwards towards to the place where we expected to meet Sesus Calil.
“Wait up, Boss!” Roach shouted. I stopped so that he could catch his breath. “Gods, how do you still march like you’re twenty when you’re twenty years older than me?” He demanded.
“I drink less than you do.” I reminded him.
Roach laughed. “So, if I was to become a monk like you, I’d be immortal and immune to everything? For that, I may just repent my sins!”
“I’m not immune to everything!” I protested. The fact that he’d called me immortal made me twitch. I was well aware of the suspicious glances that were often cast in my direction. Claiming to live a healthy lifestyle had worked when I was barely thirty, but it had been a long time since Jaret’s death and all of the men I’d served with were beginning to show their age.
Though my memories were fuzzy when it came to such things, I’d heard plenty of stories about Anathema who had lived thousands of years, far longer than even the best-bred Dynasts of the Realm. What would I do when I could no longer play the role of Cathak Loren? I didn’t know, but I felt certain that I would have to decide soon.
“Heh. Right. I’ll believe that when I witness something you’re not immune to.” He teased. “How’s your back?”
“Fine.” I replied. “It was just a glancing blow.”
“I’ve no idea how a glancing blow shattered your armor like that.” He remarked.
“Fae sorcery.” I replied, as if that explained everything… which it usually did.
Roach sighed. “Well, should we stop for the night, then?”
“We can continue on for another hour or so.” I decided. “We must be very nearly there.”
“Um… Boss?” Roach whispered uneasily. “I think we found them.”
That was when we saw Talonlord Calil. Or… what was left of him anyway. His head was lying in the middle of the road, only one of his arms was still attached to his torso and his eyes were notably missing from his skull.
It was quiet… too quiet. I knew we were being watched before the Fae showed themselves.
“Come out!” I ordered. “I know you’re watching us! Come out, cowards!”
At first there was no response, and then out of the trees on the sides of the road a huge goblin emerged, invisible until it wished to be seen. The monster was over twelve feet tall and gray-skinned with enormous tusks jutting out from its lower jaw. I stared up at it and slowly began to step back, preparing for a fight.
That was when I heard a muffled shout from behind me. In my moment of distraction, I saw that another fae had slipped out of the forest behind me. It looked like a white spider with eight arms and dozens of eyes of different colors and it moved without making a sound. Though the Fae change their shapes arbitrarily and it is generally impossible to be certain of such things, I knew that I had seen that particular beast before. The spider had seized Roach and quickly wrapped him in layer of thick silk, pinning his arms to his sides and covering his mouth.
“Stop! Release that man at once!” I ordered.
The enormous goblin grabbed my shoulder. “No.” It said, in a voice that sounded like cart wheels rolling over gravel.
“I’m not offering you a choice.” I gritted my teeth a little, brushing his claws off of me and focusing on the spider who’d begun reeling Roach in closer to her, as if he were a fly she intended to eat. There are few things I hate more than negotiating with Fae, and seeing my friends in danger is one of them.
“You’ve no business giving us orders, mortal.” The goblin replied arrogantly.
“And you’ve no business being in Creation!” I snapped.
The spider seemed concerned. “Have we met before?” She asked me in a soft, seductive voice, sounding like a highly-trained courtesan.
“How should I know?” I replied. “You Fae changed your faces so often it’s impossible to tell.”
“Ah, but these eyes of mine have seen you!” She hissed, fixing two of her eyes on me. They were a familiar golden-brown color and seemed to have been stitched into place. The connection I drew at that moment made me feel sick and I immediately reached for the hilt of my sword.
“My eyes never forget the things that they saw.” The Fae paused. “But their memories do become dull with time. Perhaps you will give me your name.”
“You never asked for it when we first met.” I replied. “But I believe you called me… Tiger.”
The spider jumped suddenly and wrapped four of her eight limbs around the huge goblin, abandoning Roach and using her dimwitted companion as a shield. Roach began to struggle in his silken bonds, looking up towards me fearfully, as if he hoped that I would find some way to save us.
The goblin grunted and attempted to brush the spider off of his back, watching me with a toothy grin.
“Little soldier, I will grind your bones.” He sneered.
“No, Tusk!” The spider seized the goblin by the neck. “This one is more than a match for you!” She leaned in to whisper something in his pointed ear. I knew what it was at once and felt all of the strength drain out of me.
“Hohohoho!” The goblin laughed. “Surely you are mistaken, Duchess! This one is no Sword of Heaven! A paper tiger at best, not one forged of bronze! The Children of the Dawn are big like Yurgen the Bull or that Demetheus fellow. I could crush both of these men with one fist.”
Roach stared at me dumbly, still gagged with spider’s silk. He knew what those sobriquets meant… how could he not?
I made no attempt to deny what the fae had said, though I did not wish to hear such words repeated. Sword of Heaven. Bronze Tiger. Child of the Dawn. It was what the Forsaken called themselves when they did not wish to be known as what they were.
But I was a soldier – a good soldier! I had always followed my orders! I’d protected people who could not protect themselves! I’d done everything asked of me and always tried to be honorable and fair. The powers-that-be had damned me anyway!
Being changed in such a way was nothing I had asked for, nothing that I even understood! All I knew for certain was that evil existed in the world and that it was my sacred duty to root it out however I could. The fae obviously intended to kill us both, and if I hesitated to defend Roach, they would start with him. After our earlier skirmish, I was all too aware that anything I did would be obvious and unmistakable.
And yet, how could I choose between my own safety and the life of my dearest, oldest friend?
There was no choice! I drew my shattered blade.
“It’s been so long!” The spider fae whispered, a tremble in her voice. I saw the same expression on her flat white face that I had seen when she had quoted her strange poetry at me so many years ago. She had little interest in me until I began to act like a foe to be reckoned with, and then her desire was insatiable. It was an old, old hate that drove us. We were as fire and water to one another.
“My mistress – the Red Queen, she thought that we had seen the last of your kind!” The spider murmured.
“Ah, but it pleases me that you have returned! I have grown tired of petty Dragonbloods… there are ever more of them to kill! But eyes such as yours, and dreams so fine and rare?” She inhaled deeply, as if savoring the bouquet of a fine wine. “It has been a very long time since I have eaten the heart of a Solar.”
The fae spoke that word as a Dragonblooded might say “Anathema”, with a combination of loathing and reverence, as if she could think of no greater enemy to face. And if something so indisputably evil hated what I was so much, I had no choice but to believe in my own righteousness. I stepped forward decisively, finding all the strength I needed in that word.
“You will release my friend. And you will go far, far away from this place, back to wherever it is that you came from.” I replied coldly. “Or I swear I’ll cleave off every last one of your arms and claim your head for a trophy.”
“What makes you think you can kill us?” The goblin sneered.
Snorting like a wild boar, he lowered his head and charged at me. I braced myself and held my broken sword before me. Though the Fae must have expected to plow right over me, considering that he stood almost twice as tall as I did with shoulders three times as broad, I effortlessly swept underneath him and ran my blade through his gut.
“I can kill you.” I replied, lifting his weight over my head and throwing him ten feet down the road. My iron sword would have been enough to wound the Fae, but laced with Essence as white-hot as the heart of the sun… it did far worse. His body caught fire like a torch dipped in pitch.
The spider hissed at me and skittered off into the trees. As brave-sounding as she had been only moments before, I was somewhat surprised to see her flee after I had slain her goblin.
Still, I didn’t pursue her. I noted that she had said something about a mistress… a “Red Queen” that I had never heard of before. As much as I wanted to hack that monster to pieces, I didn’t dare abandon Roach until I was certain that no more fae were coming, and that the one which remained close to him was actually dead. I kicked the beast I had killed onto its back. The corpse coughed up black smoke and little sparks, like a hot coal rolled out of a fire. Without a moment’s hesitation, I drew what little was left of my weapon out of it, wiped the blade clean on my cloak and sheathed it, turning to my friend.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Shit.” Roach cursed in disbelief. Both of his eyes were still in his skull and he wasn’t bleeding more than he already had been… but the way that he stared at me left me feeling chilled to the bone. I didn’t say another word, all too aware of the mark burning on my forehead.
“Don’t stare at me, fool! Get out of here! Save your own skin!” I ordered him. “Go! Now!”
Certain that my friend would recover and try to kill me just as my own brother had, I waited until he started to run and then bolted off in the opposite direction myself. I don’t know how many hours I ran, but it must have been all night because it was nearly dawn when exhaustion finally overtook me. I stopped to rest for a moment at the foot of an old willow tree and tried to focus on my breathing.
The view from where I stood was awe-inspiring. From the top of the ridge where I stood I could see the river snaking through the valley below. A hawk danced on the wind just above my head and the air was thick with the scent of pines and melting snow. And then the sun began to rise, painting everything in gold.
I was no longer burning brightly. The bonfire surrounding me had dwindled down to little more than a flicker, a faint haze of light that blended into the rays of the dawning sun perfectly, form and shadow momentarily reunited. For a moment I felt as if I were standing on the top of the world.
When I was seven years old my father had taken me to meet his friend Tepet Manu at his monastery north of the Imperial City. I had been full of questions at that age and after listening attentively to the old Immaculate, I had asked him as only a child could… how did he know that the Dragons were watching over him?
Abbot Manu laughed. “How do you know that your father is watching you, Loren?” He asked.
“I see him.” I replied, for I knew that he was standing right over my shoulder.
“And I see the Dragons.” Abbot Manu replied.
“Where?” I demanded. I saw nothing, of course.
“In everything.” Abbot Manu smiled. And that was all he would say.
I collapsed to my knees. It was all I could do.
Everything I’d ever believed told me that I was Anathema, an enemy of all Creation. And yet I’d seen the work of real demons firsthand - Sondok’s cult of assassins in the South, the Fae ripping men limb from limb, stealing their eyes and their souls.
If I placed myself between those monsters and the innocents they sought to destroy, then what did that make me? A hero, or a different kind of villain? Could I convince anyone that I was not a creature of darkness when they saw that golden brand between my eyes?
How did I know that the things that I dreamt of were real, true memories and not sorcerous deceptions? Was I only deluding myself? I still did not know… but I felt that I had come a very long way. After so many years and so many unanswered questions, I had taken the most difficult step.
I was beginning to believe.
Suddenly I heard a creaking sound behind me and turned to see what it was. It was a wizened little old man with skin like willow bark… some kind of elemental perhaps, or one of the local Gods.
“What are you running from, Dawnchild?” The little God whispered. He seemed very concerned.
“Everything.” I replied stiffly. “Leave me alone.”
“As you wish.” The little God nodded. “But you look most distressed. Are you certain that there is nothing coming to harm this forest? Nothing coming to harm my tree?”
“Nothing I know of. May I rest here for a little while?” I asked, well aware of my own condition. “I’ll make sure no one bothers your tree.”
“A very gracious offer. Who would have thought that one such as yourself would deign to protect my humble abode? You may stay as long as you like.” The little God smiled. “Would you like some tea? Yes? Well now, you might as well come inside!”
I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get into the little God’s home. The ceiling was only a few inches above my head and the porcelain cup he gave me was so small I held it between two fingers for fear of breaking it.
The little God rambled on at some length about the recent depredations of the Fae and the tribe of Wyld barbarians who were stealing winter supplies from his villagers. He spoke of two very old Anathema who’d begun assembling an army in the area. I remembered listening in on a briefing about the movements of their forces before I’d left Haven. Still, hearing the little God speak of the barbaric Frenzied Silvermane and the terrible Trickster Heartsblood as if they were great heroes left me feeling even more uneasy. I sat in silence, nodding every so often. My thoughts were elsewhere. Was it a moment of clarity that I’d experienced earlier?
I drank a dozen cups of tea, thanked the little God and then excused myself as I noticed that the sun was high in the sky. I walked all day and for a few hours after the sun went down until I couldn’t tolerate the chafing of my shattered armor any longer.
I stopped in a little grove of trees, undressed myself and examined the damaged lamellar plates. It was a small wonder that Roach had been suspicious… the Fae warhammer I’d been struck with should have broken every bone in my body. It would have, if I’d been mortal. But what was I, truly? With my sword broken, my armor irreparable and the one person I trusted in the world miles away… I was as lost as I had ever been in my life. I sighed heavily and buried my head in my hands.
“Oh what a sigh!” A familiar voice snickered. “You haven’t changed at all. Still blaming yourself for not being able to save all of Creation, eh?”
I was not entirely surprised to see Amira standing over me. She leaned on something almost as tall as she was wrapped in a thick layer of coarse linen cloth.
“Heh. So the Wyld Hunt hasn’t gotten you yet?” I was feeling more than a little cynical and could think of nothing else to say.
“They never will. You can’t hunt a hunter.” She smirked. “So, did you miss me?”
“I barely know you.” I protested, though I was secretly very glad to see her. “And it’s been ages since I saw you last.”
“It’s been no more than ten years, which may seem like an age to you… but that’s no time at all from my perspective. Loren, don’t make me get my stupid stick!” She warned.
“You called me Loren.” I observed, surprised by her sudden change of tone.
“It’s your name, isn’t it?” She demanded. “Would you prefer “Little Monk”? She teased, using my Aunt Garel’s nickname for me. The surprise I felt must have registered on my face. “Or… what does that Roach of yours call you? Boss?”
“You’ve been stalking me.” I observed.
“Guilty as charged!” Amira replied, completely unapologetic. “Luna’s blood, you look like hell! I see you broke another sword.” She rolled her eyes. “I saw that one coming.”
“They don’t make these things like they used to.” I shrugged, examining the broken blade.
“They don’t make anything like they used to.” Amira sighed heavily. “And oh boy, is that ever an understatement!”
She paused for a moment and then gestured to the thing that she carried. “I brought a present for you… looks like just in time too. It took me forever to find it. I knew it was somewhere in my Elsewhere Den, but you know I’m a terrible packrat.” She unraveled the cloth.
“Ta-da!” Amira bowed dramatically.
I stared. It was an orichalcum daiklave set with a single blood-red hearthstone.
I recognized the sword immediately. You see, after ten years time I knew more than I cared to admit about my previous life. The part of myself that was Alexander had wielded that blade in more battles than I could count. And when I had trained alone at the lake, perfecting my skills… there were times when I could have sworn that I felt that weapon in my hands.
I knew that the daiklave had been a gift to me from a very dear friend and seeing it so close reminded me of him. Without thinking, I found myself reaching for it and then recoiled as if I’d been struck by a snake.
“What’s the matter with you?” Amira demanded. “Go on, pick it up! We’ve got a lot of walking to do. That sword of yours is damned heavy and I’m not carrying it anymore.”
I couldn’t find words to speak.
“Listen to me!” Amira sighed. “I’m only going to say this once more and then I’m getting out my stick. You can’t keep denying the truth, Loren. You are Chosen… Exalted by the Unconquered Sun himself. That’s a rare thing. You’re not mortal, not a Dragonblood, you’re nobody’s second in command – not anymore! You’re destined to be greater than you can imagine, bloody goddamned glorious! And you’d better get used to that idea because if you spend the next thousand years like you’ve spent the last ten I swear I will kill you myself!”
“Are you insane? I don’t have any supplies… my armor is destroyed and this forest is still swarming with fae! I doubt I’ll last another two days at this rate and I’m sure I’ll never make it back to Nexus. Even if I did take that blade from you… what would I do with it? Walk up to Mnemon Rai and ask him to ignore the giant demon sword strapped to my back?” I protested.
“Old Thunderstormer may be a wily one, but he’s still a Dragonblood. They were bred to take orders!” Amira argued. “If you don’t want to cut him down, then command him to get out of your way! I’m not letting you run away this time, Loren. No more lying to yourself!” Amira ordered. “Silvermane and I are moving against the Fae tomorrow morning and we need your help.”
“Silvermane? Then you’re…”
“Heartsblood. Yes. I thought you knew.” She replied.
“Are you really a thousand years old?” I paused. It seemed like an idiotic question to pose to one of the most infamous Anathema in all of Creation, but it was all I could think of.
“Oh, I’m a bit older than that!” She laughed.
“You don’t look it.” I observed.
“You didn’t either, when I first came back to you.” She laughed slightly. “I was little more than a child then and you were positively terrifying! The oldest surviving veteran of the Primordial War, the commander of the greatest army in all of Creation, the unstoppable Sword of the Deliberative! Everyone was certain you’d manipulate me if you even bothered to notice me at all. They all thought it would be centuries before we could even speak to each other, let alone see eye to eye.” Amira sighed heavily. “But two weeks after we met in Meru, you kissed me when you thought I was sleeping and I knew that I’d never want to be with anyone else. Not if I lived ten-thousand years!”
I stared still at the daiklave, slowly absorbing everything that Amira had said.
“What is this, some kind of knightly vigil?” She demanded. “Are you coming with me or not?”
“No.” I mumbled. “I can’t.”
“Oooh, I hate it when you say that! Fine! You’re on your own then!” She snorted, turning to walk away, leaving the sword lying in front of me where I could not ignore its presence.
“You forgot something!” I shouted after her.
“It’s not mine – it’s yours!” Amira snapped, whirling around to face me. “You said it yourself… these woods are swarming with fae, Loren! And if you refuse to come with me, I can’t protect you. So it looks like you’ll have to protect yourself.” She paused momentarily and eyed me with a little grin. “Besides, you want it. You really want it, don’t you?”
I grimaced. She was right. The longer I stared at that sword, the more I desired it.
“It was a gift. An… important gift.” I paused for a moment. “Who gave it to me?”
“Who do you think?” Amira smiled slightly. “Loren, you once took this sword and drew a line across the edges of all Creation. You said to the Wyld – this is the line you shall not pass! And when those bastards attempted to cross it, you sent them crawling back into the formless void that spawned them as many times as you had to. Can’t you think of anyone who would appreciate something like that?” She paused for a moment and then grinned wickedly. “Aw, c’mon… it missed you!” She nudged me with her elbow. “It wants you to pick it up.”
I still said nothing. I had the sneaking suspicion that if I refused again, Amira might hit me with her stupid stick.
“Fine, I’ll give you a choice!” Either you take that sword or you…” She leaned in close to me and whispered something in my ear that no gentleman would dare repeat. I was certain that my face had turned the same color as the hearthstone I was still staring at.
“That’s… not very ladylike.”
“Who says I’m a lady?” Amira retorted in a very deep, masculine voice.
I stared in shock and she collapsed against my shoulder in a fit of uncontrollable giggling. “Oh, you should’ve seen yourself! You jumped out of your skin!”
“Why do you insist on tormenting me?” I demanded.
“Complain, complain! You should be grateful – I’m very busy and there are lots of people who’d love to have as much of my time as you’ve been getting.” She sighed heavily.
“But why me? Why don’t you find yourself another…” The word I’d been about to speak stuck suddenly in my throat. From the grin on Amira’s face, I gathered that she could guess what it had been.
“Find myself another whaaat?” She taunted.
I sighed “Some other…”
“Yeeessss?” She pressed. “C’mon, say it!”
“If I say it, will you go away?” I asked.
“I’ll do anything you want.” She vowed in a tone that sent my mind reeling. “But start at the beginning. I want to hear the whole thing! I’m so excited! This is a big step for you!”
It was useless to argue with her. “Why don’t you find yourself another Solar to bother?” I muttered, burying my head in my hands.
Amira gasped theatrically. She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me until I was forced to look up at her.
“Oh, Loren! Speak to me, you great useless git! Are you implying that you are a Solar? A Bronze Tiger, Sword of Heaven, Lawgiver? Chosen of the Unconquered Sun and Lord of all Creation?”
The sobriquet “Lawgiver” stuck in my head. It was one I had not heard in a very long time. In a world nearly consumed by chaos, I could think of nothing more necessary. I remembered what Amira had said about drawing a line on the edge of Creation and forbidding the Fae to cross it. Even if I was a hundred lifetimes away from that kind of power, the thought of such a feat sent a chill racing down my spine. It was possible… no, it was more than possible, it was my very purpose! But if I was going to bring order back to our world… then the first thing I had to do was make peace with myself.
“Yes.” I nodded, swallowing the lump that rose in my throat.
It was a tremendous thing to acknowledge, even if I didn’t dare speak louder than a whisper. Amira was hardly satisfied.
“I didn’t hear that!” She cupped a hand to her ear.
“I said yes, you lunatic! I am a Solar!” I shouted so loud that most of the forest must have heard me. And I felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders, one I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying. I could not stop the tears that were flowing from my eyes.
That was when Amira kissed me. I’d been kissed before, of course… but I’d never had a kiss that encompassed so much. You see, soldiers don’t have much time for relationships, and affection of any kind is most often feigned in a Dynast’s household. I had sensed the undeniable connection between Amira and myself on first night that we’d met. I’d told myself that she was a monster because the truth was even more terrifying. As she herself had said, we were part of the same whole, made together in the very beginning of time.
Over the centuries we’d been comrades-in-arms, confidants, lovers… but it was more than any of those things that drew us together. It was obsession. Destiny. Terrible, insatiable need. All of my life I had only ever been half of myself.
When we both at last surrendered to sleep, still holding one another… I felt truly healed. For certain, I was now charging headlong down a path that I’d never even imagined walking, but if Amira was by my side, I believed that everything was going to be all right.
But when I woke in the morning, Amira was gone. There was no sign of the orichalcum daiklave she’d brought with her. At first I suspected that I’d dreamt up our entire meeting… but then I saw that my shattered armor and my broken sword had been repaired by someone of unparalleled skill. And over a thousand years of practice, no doubt.
I dressed myself as quickly as I could and was about to continue heading east when I heard the sound of men on horseback approaching.
“Loren?” It was Mnemon Rai’s voice that I heard, and I knew it was useless to hide from him. “Old Thunderstormer” was a very strong Wind-Aspect and could track a man for miles merely by listening for the sound of his breath disturbing the natural currents of the air. Riding beside him was Roach.
I clenched my fists and vowed that I would not draw my blade. It had taken me ten years to forgive myself for causing the death of my brother. I was not about to harm my loyal student or the honorable Winglord I’d served under for most of my career.
“You’re alive?” Mnemon Rai blinked in surprise. “Your Roach told me he last saw you chasing some Fae into the forest. Damn fool thing to do on your own. I should punish you, but right now I need every good soldier I’ve got.”
I stared in disbelief at Roach, who avoided my gaze. He’d lied for me? Why?
“Someone get Cathak Loren a horse!” Mnemon Rai ordered.
Four hours later we reached the sight of the latest fae attack. Roach and I rode ahead of the rest of our forces. When we reached the edge of the forest, the first thing we saw was a huge gathering of Fae camped at the break in the road. They were far too near to Nexus, and that worried me. The Fae were bad enough when they attacked outlying farms and mining camps. What could their plans be for a major city?
“That’s a lot of Fae.” Roach observed, giving a low whistle. “Too many for us to fight. I don’t suppose you could chase off a few hundred of em’ right now, Boss? You seem to be pretty good at that sort of thing.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Roach. Why didn’t you…” For the life of me, I couldn’t form the question that I wanted to ask.
“Why didn’t I betray you?” He laughed slightly. “Did you honestly think I could? You’re my friend, Loren.” Roach sighed. “And besides, I know you really buy into that Immaculate bullshit… but don’t you remember where you found me?”
“You were part of that… sun cult.” I paused, still uncomfortable with the memory of how we’d met. I’d never liked hunting down peasants, regardless of whether they were refusing to pay taxes, worshipping demons or harboring fugitives.
“Born and raised a heretic.” Roach nodded. “And while I’ve learned how to keep my nose clean around The Winds, you ought to know that I’ve never been a true believer! Old Thunderstormer thinks the Dragons are watching over us… well, I’m all right with that. I really hope they are. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. But to tell the truth, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable knowing we’ve got the Unconquered Sun on our side.”
I avoided his gaze and he laughed out loud.
“The hell am I going to do with you, Boss? You can’t keep staring down at your boots like you’re ashamed to be Exalted! I always thought you deserved more recognition than you got. Jaret did too. Your brother told me once that he thought that Hesiesh had made a mistake, choosing him over you. And as for me personally, I always thought you were cut out for… bigger things.” He looked up in the direction of the sun with a smile on his face.
“I wanted to tell you. It’s been so hard keeping this a secret.” I admitted. “But Roach, when Jaret saw me, he…”
“Jaret?” Roach blinked in surprise. “Wait, how long has it been?”
“More than ten years.” I admitted. “I still don’t understand what happened. It’s all fuzzy in my memory. Jaret was already wounded – he was half-dead when I caught up to him. I cleaved the head off of that monster, the big one that I gave him credit for slaying... and I changed, somehow. Jaret attacked me. He called me a demon, blamed me for killing myself. I tried to reason with him, but it didn’t do any good. When Jaret almost fell into the sinkhole, I caught his hand. I tried to save him. But then he stabbed me. He almost killed me, and… I lost my grip. I decided to tell everyone that he’d been a hero. I thought maybe that would help him rest in peace.”
“So that’s what really happened?” Roach shook his head heavily. “No wonder you’ve been beating yourself up.”
“You’re not angry?”
“That you thought I would try to kill you?” Roach shrugged. “Yeah, it bothers me. A lot, actually. But I can also understand why you didn’t say anything. Everyone close to you would have been suspect, even Mnemon Rai. Most of us would probably be executed for protecting you. I’ve been part of this filthy business long enough to know how it goes. And seeing as you just saved my life again yesterday… I can forgive you.” He paused. “But I think I should tell you. Since you’ve been back in the field… Boss, you stand out. I mean, you really stand out! You turned enough heads back in the Imperial City when you were kicking Kes Lidaal’s ass at Gateway and wiping the floor with those boys at Paisap’s Stair. But out here, when we were fighting the fae…” He gave a low whistle. “Let’s just say that after this battle is over, you’d better leave the army. Permanently.” Roach advised.
“Leave the army? I can’t!” I protested, a little uncomfortable with what he’d pointed out but nevertheless unable to deny the truth of it.
“Sure you can! And you’d better if you don’t want to get killed. Sooner or later, everybody is going to know what you are. And besides, don’t you have some great big plans to change all of Creation or something like that?” He pressed.
“Well…” I began awkwardly. Roach watched me as if he knew he’d guessed right.
He smirked. “Do you know why my people worshipped the sun, Loren? It’s the source of everything. Makes plants grow so we’ve got food, keeps us warm… Without that light, there’d be no life left in this world at all and we might as well let the fae have it. Now I won’t lie, I’m sure that bein’ Chosen is a huge burden and I’m definitely a little more afraid of you now than I used to be. But I will never believe you’re evil. Hell, you’re one of the only truly good men I know.”
“How do you do it? In one breath you’re praising the Dragons and in the next you’re spouting… all kinds of heresy! Roach, which side are you on?” I demanded.
“I’m on the same side we’re all on.” Roach replied. “The side of Creation.”
“The side of Creation.” I echoed. I’d never thought of it that way before. Roach laughed.
“Hunh? Hold on.” He paused suddenly. “What’s that?”
“Roach?” My gaze drifted in the direction that he was pointing. Sure enough, another army had emerged on the horizon. Roach fumbled for his spyglass.
“Shit.” He cursed and then passed it to me. The army that was approaching seemed to be comprised mostly of woodland barbarians, but at the lead were a few dozen beastmen and two figures covered in moonsilver tattoos. The first was a lion-man, fully as tall as the fae I had killed – scarred and carrying an enormous battleaxe. The second was Amira. Her wolfish traits were somewhat more obvious than usual, and her stupid stick had stretched to the length of a pike and had a piece of white cloth attached to it.
That was when Mnemon Rai finally caught up with us. “Anathema?” He observed as I passed him Roach’s spyglass.
“Looks like they’re coming towards us, Winglord.” Roach added.
Rai Jin cursed. “As if we didn’t have enough trouble on our hands!”
“That’s a flag of truce, isn’t it?” I pointed.
“We can’t negotiate with Anathema!” Rai Jin scoffed. “I’d rather deal with the Fae! At least they have to keep their promises!”
“Then let’s meet with the Fae.” I replied coldly. I didn’t want anything to do with the Fae… and while my feelings on “Anathema” were still somewhat mixed, I knew that I could trust Amira if no one else. “We can’t fight off two armies at once with half of our Wing dead or injured.”
“With all due respect, Winglord… Loren’s got a point.” Roach interrupted. “Looks like the demons want to talk. Maybe we ought to hear them out.”
“Very well. But tell my archers to start firing the minute anyone comes into their range… is that clear?” He ordered Roach. “Loren, you’re with me.”
It took every ounce of willpower I possessed for me not to stare at Amira as we rode towards her army. If she’d seemed beautiful to me the first time I’d ever seen her, she was much more so then, dressed in a suit of exceptionally fine silver armor… or at least I suspected it was some kind of armor, even though it didn’t cover enough of her body to be considered such.
“I am Winglord Mnemon Rai Jin, commander of The Ravenous Winds.” Mnemon Rai announced in a loud voice.
“Your name and reputation is known to us, Thunderstormer” The old Lunar nodded. “I am Kahn Silvermane and this is my associate, Amira Heartsblood. We represent the Sun-King Seneschals.”
“Hm. I have heard of you as well… not much good, I’m afraid. I must confess that have my doubts as to your sincerity of purpose, Anathema. Now why did you signal?” Mnemon Rai demanded.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as it is said.” Silvermane replied. “We have an offer for you. You already know that your reinforcements were wiped out by the Fae. Furthermore, my spies tell me that you cannot run with how many wounded you have already. We have decided that we will help you fight the fae in exchange for one of your men. That one, who rides beside you. When the battle is ended, he will come with us.” He pointed directly at me.
“You want Cathak Loren?” Rai Jin stared. “Why?”
“We have our reasons.” Amira replied.
“I’d rather fight and die with honor than sacrifice one of my best to you barbarians.” Rai Jin replied.
“He will not be harmed.” Amira interrupted. “We’ll swear to it.”
I could tell that the Winglord was hesitating.
“It’s all right.” I told him. “If I’m the price, then so be it.”
“Very well. You have yourself a deal.” Rai Jin replied. “But mark my words… if you kill him, I will hunt you down to the ends of Creation!”
Very hesitantly the Winglord reached out for Silvermane’s enormous paw. They shook, and then Rai Jin turned to Amira, who bowed slightly in his direction. It was clearly meant to be patronizing. She did not take her eyes off of him as she should have if she intended to be polite. Then again, with what I remembered of the First Age, I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that the two old Lunars did not believe than any Dragonblood could possibly be worthy of their respect.
Even knowing the true history of The Realm, I still believed that there were good Dragonbloods. Neither my father nor Rai Jin had been alive in that ancient time, and if they had been – I believed that they would not have acted so dishonorably.
Silvermane cupped both of his paws around my hand, bowing his head. It was very clear from the way that he stood that he would have preferred to be on one knee.
“It is an honor to fight by your side once again.” He whispered.
Then Amira approached me. I took her hand, feigning formality.
“Morning, lover.” She winked. I tried not to react to her teasing and glanced over my shoulder to see if the Winglord was watching me. He seemed to be more preoccupied with Silvermane’s swishing tail and I sighed slightly in relief.
“I thought you’d left me.” I whispered.
“Only for a moment.” Amira replied. “Afraid you were dreaming?” She teased.
“It all happened so fast I… well, I wasn’t sure.” I trailed off into silence as she put one finger to my lips.
“We have lots of catching up to do.” Amira whispered.
“Loren?” Rai Jin interrupted. “Come with me.”
I immediately composed myself.
“Oh, and one more thing, “Thunderstormer”!” Silvermane warned. “Don’t think for a moment that you’re giving the orders here! My warriors won’t obey a murderer!”
Rai Jin twitched at that accusation and seemed ready to defend himself, probably by calling Silvermane a demon or something equally offensive. Before I considered what I was doing, I positioned myself between the two of them.
“No! Stop it, both of you!” I ordered. “Even together, we’re still outnumbered! If we want to be rid of those Fae, we must not fight amongst ourselves! And someone must be in command!”
“Loren’s right.” Amira chimed in. She seemed very pleased that I was taking charge. And as I watched Silvermane and the Winglord both glaring at each other… I began to suspect that I was in the middle of a very elaborate set-up.
The Winglord paused for a moment. He was a smart man, and while his pride would not allow him to bow his head before a known Anathema, he knew he would have to make some sort of a concession. He turned to me.
“Loren, I will confess, I would like to know what business you have with these two beasts. But this isn’t the time or the place for dredging up past indiscretions. I agree with what Heartsblood has already said. You are right. We need to act decisively and as one force… or that fae army will continue marching towards Nexus and very many innocent people will die.”
“Then we are all in agreement.” Silvermane nodded. “The children of my children live in the forests nearby, and in the city of Nexus. I will not see them harmed.”
“And while it’s clear why I don’t trust the two of you, and the two of you don’t trust me… we do seem to have one thing in common.” Mnemon Rai continued, his eyes drifting towards me again. “Would you follow Loren?” He asked Silvermane. “Would you give him command of your army?”
“Yes.” The Lunar replied without hesitation. “He is a very great warrior, one of the greatest that I have ever known. I would trust him with my life, and with the lives of all my sons and daughters.”
“So would I.” The Winglord smiled slightly. “Cathak… take good care of my men, will you? They’re all yours.”
I stared at him in disbelief. An army of my own to command? And such a force, composed of not only of mortals and Dragonbloods, but also of beastmen and Lunars? Such an army had not been seen in over a thousand years! Even for just one battle, it was a thing I hadn’t dared dream of! I still wanted to lead more than anything, but I was also afraid.
I knew that I was about to leave my entire life behind me, beginning on a new path that was as foreign as it was familiar. As soon as the battle began, my secret would be out and Old Thunderstormer would not have to guess what sort of relationship I had with our new allies. I smiled slightly at the thought. Maybe I had cracked the legendary demon hunter’s armor. I did not expect that we would remain friends, but it seemed possible that I had planted a seed of doubt somewhere in his heart… and that over time, perhaps he would begin to see all of Creation as Roach did, as a place not meant to be so harshly divided. Mnemon Rai already believed that some mortals could be as good or better than the Dragonblooded. Would it be such a stretch for him to admit that perhaps not all Anathema were evil?
“You seem confident.” Mnemon Rai observed. “You don’t have a problem fighting alongside demons?”
“I’ll fight with anyone who wants to kill fair folk. Those beasts are worse than any Anathema I have ever seen. I believe you said that yourself, Winglord.” I replied. “Silvermane and Heartsblood have as much invested in this as we do. We’re all on the side of Creation.”
“Heh.” Rai Jin observed with a wry smile. “You’ve changed quite a bit these past ten years, haven’t you, Loren?”
“I suppose I have gotten soft.” I replied, trying to underplay everything as much as I could. “But that’s because I’ve been stuck in your office, remember?”
“No, no!” Mnemon Rai shook his head. “I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that I can barely believe you’ve been away from the front lines for more than a season, let alone a decade! You have a gift for leading men… and I’m not even going to ask why those demons seem ready to follow you into hell and back.” He paused. “Generally speaking, I don’t believe that The Dragons make mistakes. But you remind me so much of your father.”
“I think that’s the very best complement anyone has ever given me.” I smiled slightly. “Whatever may happen out there… it’s been a privilege to serve with you, sir.”
It occurred to me that I had said “with you” as opposed to “under your command” as I ought have. If Mnemon Rai did not approve, he gave no sign of his distaste.
“Well.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a plan?”
The strategy I proposed was simple and elegant. I positioned Mnemon Rai, a handful of his surviving Dragonblooded officers… Roach, Amira, Silvermane, a few beastmen and myself in the center and divided the rest of our forces in two parts. They would drive up the flanks as the Fae would be compelled to direct the bulk of their strength against the portion of our line which appeared most difficult to break. And once they came down the center, we would let them pass through us… just as our men would crush them from behind.
“Like a crab’s claw.” I explained. “A pincher.”
“But how can you be certain they’ll target the center?” Rai Jin asked.
“Oh, they’ll come for me.” I pointed to a single white spider Fae that seemed to be inspecting a large number of goblin footsoldiers. “That one is called “The Duchess”. Ten years ago, I killed her pet monster. Two days ago… I’m fairly sure I killed her second-in-command.”
“I see. You’re turning into quite the Faeslayer, aren’t you?” Mnemon Rai smiled slightly.
Amira and Silvermane glanced at one another and both grinned very broadly.
I realized belatedly that everyone’s amusement was to some degree at my expense. At very least the nickname “Faeslayer” was distinctly familiar to me – it was what I had often been called in the First Age.
“Well then, this should prove most interesting.”
“Ready, everyone?” I asked.
“Let’s finish this.” Silvermane nodded.
“For the Realm! Tear those goblins down, Winds!” Rai Jin shouted, drawing his sword.
“Attack! Show no mercy!” Silvermane turned to his warriors, held his axe high and gave a ferocious, indistinguishable roar.
“Should we do it the way we used to?” Amira smirked, nudging me.
“Why not?” I agreed, knowing precisely what she intended.
A burst of fire shot over our heads… the Fae had reached the road and were in range of Rai Jin’s artillery. The battle had begun. Amira shifted into the form of a wolf, as tall at the shoulder as my horse. Our eyes met and in a language which hadn’t been spoken in over a thousand years, we shouted out…
“Kill the faeries!”
As I’d anticipated, the Duchess brought the bulk of her forces charging after me. The fighting was especially fierce, but Amira kept the Fae off of my back as the two of us tore through the heart of their army. I held nothing back. I struck with every technique that I had mastered in ten years of incessant training.
When I lost my horse, I leapt into the air. I felt as if I were flying and saw more than a few familiar faces staring up at me in absolute awe. The faint flicker of light that had been growing around me burst into a roaring golden bonfire. I flew as if I had phoenix wings and landed with a force that shook the earth directly in front of the Duchess.
I was revealed. There was no more going back, no more pretending. And the more I considered that, the more I realized that I had no desire to undo what I had just done. It was time for me to leave my old life behind.
As Roach had guessed… I had plans.
Disorder overcame the fae. The center of our forces collapsed perfectly as the flanking legions routed them from behind. The Fae would come to learn that there was a price to be paid for despoiling Creation. She heard me approaching and whirled around, snaring the blade of my sword with a whip of her silk and snapping it cleanly in half.
“Loren!” Amira shouted.
Something whizzed through the air, very near to my head. I reached up and effortlessly caught the orichalcum daiklave she had hurled at me. And the instant I touched upon that weapon, I remembered. I knew who had given it to me… and why.
It was more than an age ago, long before recorded history. The war against the Primordials had finally ended and the Incarnae were firmly established as the rulers of Heaven. There were not many of us Solar Exalted still remaining after the last battle, only seven out of the three-hundred that had been forged in the beginning of time. And as the greatest of the Gods prepared to depart the world and begin his new work… he gave each of us a gift.
“Creation is yours now.” The Unconquered Sun said as he placed the daiklave in my hands. “Take good care of it.”
The light that had been flaring around me before exploded outwards in all directions. Not since I was first Exalted had I pushed myself to my utmost limit! It was a profoundly liberating moment.
I brought my daiklave down with all the strength I possessed, a sea of white-gold phantasmal soldiers formed of Essence charging all around me, burning through the fae as if they were nothing more than feeble scraps of paper blown on the wind. The Duchess collapsed with a sickening crunch, all of her spidery limbs rolling around her seared corpse until there was nothing left of her but a dark smear on the ground and the stench of decay.
That was when the fae began to flee. “It’s the Faeslayer! The Faeslayer has returned!” They cried out. Whatever sense of solidarity had united the fair folk against us… it was gone at that instant. Shrieking in terror, the lesser fae scattered, clawing and scrambling over one another in an attempt to reach the trees.
A single figure dressed in scarlet armor caught my eye, and as she vanished into nothingness, leaving the rest to be cut down… I knew that I had seen the Duchess’s mistress – The Red Queen. The fae would be gone for a time, but eventually they would push their way back into Creation. And when they did… I would force them out again.
Still surrounded by a pillar of light that reached to the very heavens, I followed Amira to where Silvermane and Mnemon Rai were waiting on a bluff overlooking the valley. I already knew that there were many dead and wounded, but this time I could not blame myself for not trying to save them all. I was only too glad to see that Roach had made it through the fight as well, even if he would have a new scar on his face to add to his collection. Silvermane nodded politely in my direction, the gesture of one old soldier to another. Lunars have a great appreciation for courage in battle and it was clear that my performance had lived up to his expectations.
Mnemon Rai could not look at me. He shielded his eyes but did not move a step in any direction and he said nothing at all. It was just as well. I’d served with the man long enough that I could tell what he was thinking.
All of his many years of Immaculate training told him that he should hate me for what I’d become, but in light of our victory he could not find the strength to do so. And since he was an honorable man… he would give me all the time I needed to run before mobilizing his remaining men to hunt me down.
I said nothing, effortlessly slung my daiklave over my shoulder and began to walk away. After a few moments, Amira bounded after me.
“Where are you going?” She demanded, resuming her usual form. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“No. I’m going to try following the sun for awhile. You could come with me.” I suggested.
“Oh, I’d follow you even if you told me that I couldn’t. But maybe we ought to head east from here. We’d be better off if we steered clear of civilization. Word of this is bound to spread. Pretty soon you’ll be dodging every two-bit Immaculate who wants to bag himself Cathak Loren “The Great Faeslayer”.”
“I probably should stop using my name or we’ll have House Cathak after us too.” I winced. “Besides, Loren “The Great” doesn’t really have much of a ring to it.”
The sound of a horse galloping up behind me caused me to turn. It was Roach… pursued by no less than half of the Winglord’s remaining men.
“Boss, wait!” He shouted. “Wait for me!”
“Roach? What did he do?” Amira stared in disbelief.
“Well, if I know Roach, he probably just told Mnemon Rai that he knew what was going on all along!” I laughed slightly. “Looks like we’d better start running now. We’re going to be doing a lot of that sort of thing, aren’t we?”
“Honestly, Alexander… would you have it any other way?”
“You just called me Alexander again.” I informed her.
“You said you needed a new name.” She reminded me.
“Alexander The Great.” She clarified. “Now that has ring to it, don’t you think?”