“My lord?” The construct’s metallic voice sounded through Kereb’s rooms.
Kereb closed his eyes for a second. “What is it?” he snarled. He couldn’t remember summoning the Reliquary construct, and by Veil’s eyes, he was in no mood to be disturbed. Bailat’s expression, balanced between despair and hate, was still too fresh in his mind. What I have done, I have done for all of us. Kereb snorted at the lie, but it was balm enough.
It had to be.
“I know you asked for privacy, but we have received confirmation that your message has been delivered.”
“I should think so. I especially hope that you didn’t come here to tell me something I expect a rust-damned child to do.”
The construct paused, all three of its eyes blinking in unison. “General Nyst has given her ultimatum. All quads and territories of the Allmarket on the Aytallan continent must be severed from the godway before the end of the day, or the host cities will be declared enemies of the Althan Hold.”
Kereb stood up from his chair, “Someone should tell her that a couple of cities does not an empire make.” The construct’s face remained passive, but all three eyes fixed on him as he walked over to his personal vault. “Did she name specific quads?” he asked, opening the steelweave door, and taking out a metal seal.
“Cennan’s Market’s Edge, Dolman’s Water Quad, and Stone Quad in Melchanus.”
Kereb ran his finger over the intricate carvings on the seal. As with most things touched by the godway, it gave off a faint haze, as if it was just plucked out of the forge. “I’ll wager a full weight of godsteel that she doesn’t know about Dawn’s Guard or Somask.”
“Her ultimatum does state that all quads and territories–”
“That’s because she’s a vicious monster, and like most vicious monsters she knows how to threaten, even if Melchanus is at the other end of the damned continent.” Kereb spat the words out and collapsed into his chair. “So, like all dictators, she creates fictions of unattainable absolutes that only serve to make the weak feel fear.”
He glanced at the construct, as if remembering it was there. “And how did the city leaders respond to her bullying?”
“The Arx of the cities that Nyst named have agreed to the terms, in return for their peaceful joining of the Althan Hold. I have their official requests for their severing from the Reliquary lodestone here.” The construct wove a spindly arm from the mass of wires that held it together and placed a crystal cube on his desk.
Kereb grabbed the message and flung it against the wall. “Cowards.” He shook his head again. “So be it.” Let’s see what the other monsters will do. He placed the seal on the table. With three quick touches, he called on the power buried between the metal’s grooves, and exhaled slowly as the seal began vibrating. Now is not the time to get overly excited.
“General I –”
Kereb ignored the construct, and with a quick flick of his wrist, threw the seal into the steel lines that held it together. When it touched the construct, the metal dissolved instantly, igniting the lines with a fierce orange light. One by one, steel lines sprang from the construct’s still-placid face as if plucked by an invisible finger.
Kereb stared as the now white-hot pile of wires started clumping together, the motion at the same time frenetic and nauseating, building into a pile that resembled a humanoid form. From the mass of wires, two green eyes opened, and then a flood of light and pressure inundated the room.
A sudden tremor flowed through the floor as Gate strode from the manifestation.
“Good to see you again, general.”
Kereb exhaled slowly as the pressure that heralded his guest passed from the room. A few drops of sweat fell on the rough paper lying in front of him. He cursed, sweeping his hair back. “I’m surprised you didn’t send a servant.”
“We don’t do things like the Thuir anymore.” The god said.
Kereb looked up at Gate. He tilted his head when he saw that a single, faint golden line ran down each of her dark green irises. Her verdant glare drew his eyes, making the rest of her features fade from his sight, and the general felt himself drawn into the gold-touched green, as if he was falling towards a golden road pulled tight across an impossible forest. A dry groan escaped his lips.
Gate broke the stare, and smiling pulled out the chair facing him. The sensation of falling disappeared instantly, and Kereb found himself back in his mind.
“Glad you kept your sense of humour.” He said, staring down at his shaking hands.
His guest leaned forward, her fingers steepled resting on her full lips. “I never thought you would actually call in your favour like this, general. Things must be dire on this side of the world.” She said, “With an Allmarket buzzing about an Arcrin’s visit, and the cowardice of three cities’ Arx.” She glanced at the broken cube lying against the wall.
When her eyes settled back on Kereb, he was reminded of emeralds catching sunlight.
In the distance, a high-pitched crack came from the Reliquary’s lodestone. Both of them glanced in its direction, before Kereb spoke. “I hope you know why you are the one I called on, and not your partner.”
Gate shrugged. “You were always good at making sure that you get your way, and Root never was one to hand out favours.”
Kereb smiled. “And you were one of the smartest people that have served under me. I wonder, would you agree with those that say your actions are a result of my training?”
The god didn’t respond at first, but after some time a frown lined her gentle features. “I don’t care what other people say, general.” She waved one hand to the side, as if she was flicking away an insect. “I know you think this course of action is the right one, but our offer still stands, even with you recent indiscretions.”
“So Root has not shared my most recent activities with you. Interesting.” He exhaled slowly, even though his heart was thundering. “Besides, you know what that offer implied the moment you and Root destroyed an entire pantheon, and the flow of power they ensured.” Kereb sat forward again, his body tensed for a fight he couldn’t see or hear. “I…we would not condone your cruelty with our cowardice.”
“What Root does and does not do is not my concern, and I promise you he feels the same way.” Gate frowned as she spoke, and Kereb was suddenly reminded of a girl saluting awkwardly, a dirty hand held against her disheveled black hair as she reported for duty.
“And what we have done would have happened anyway.” Gate’s words interrupted Kereb’s thoughts, and he nearly smiled as she pushed an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “The godway heard the prayers of the Inept even as the Thuir forced it to pour power into our greedy veins. It wanted to change, Kereb. We merely found out that you could listen to its prayers instead of the other way around.”
“How selfless.” Kereb taunted. “And apart from a shattered empire and its countless dead, you and Root feel that you’ve made the right choice?”
The god sighed. “I won’t deny that we used the opportunity to advance ourselves, at the cost of many. But if there were any among us you want to call innocent, please general, point them out to me.” Gate’s words softened as she finished speaking, and Kereb realised that a sheen of sweat had broken out over his body.
He ignored the lines of moisture as they ran down his face, “That it? Everyone was wrong, but your cause less so? I hoped that you would have had a better reason for throwing half the world into chaos.” Kereb showed his teeth, a reaction, he realised that had no place in the current discussion.
“Only half of the known world.” Gate corrected him, turning her head as another crack sounded from the lodestone. “We were sick, Kereb,” Gate said, looking down at the table, one finger running along the grain of the stoneweave table,“poisoned by the lies the priests and Arx told us.” She spread her hands. “Like I said. The godway’s truth was our only salvation as a species. I wonder why it took so long for us to ask what a god prays for.”
Kereb burst out laughing, despite his body’s insistence on clinging to the instinctual fear that bounded across his skin. He placed his hands on the table, and couldn’t help but notice how they were ruined by scars and lined by thick veins. “We lost everything the day you tore the godway from our blood, and those of us who managed to rebuild themselves without pandering to you, have done so.”
“And this rebuilding means throwing the Allmarket into chaos, because you and a dead hedge-priest had dreams of reviving past horrors?” Gate’s voice was calm, but the tremors of her anger danced across room. “Marrin is dead, Kereb, the Thuir are grasping at straws, and you two thought it would be a good idea to put Bailat in their reach?”
As she spoke, Gate raised her hand over the stoneweave table, her fingers darting with quick movements, that to Kereb’s eyes, seemed to drag the light as a spindle wove thread. Gate’s eyes, the lines of gold that ran through them shining brightly, were fixed on the table, and when Kereb followed her gaze, he saw the intricate loops and whorls of the stoneweave design fall away as the stone disintegrated into dust.
“A few moments ago, a Brightsoul that should by all rights be stored securely in this Reliquary’s vault, made contact with the godway.” As she spoke, the stone dust formed up to show a circular room, in which a small figure was standing in front of two larger ones, and at the back of the room another rose out in front of an ornate throne. Kereb frowned as he looked closer, and saw bodies lying around the smallest figure.
Above him, Gate’s hand began shaking. “Bailat was also in that room, joined to the godway through an unsanctioned Brightsoul.”
As Kereb watched, the small figure lifted his hands, and a blast of power jumped from him to envelop the entire room. Gate fell back into her seat, and the dust she had called up settled back into its original design.
“Is this what you told Root? That you gave a godkiller to Ilke, only to have the lunatic activate it?” Gate shook her head. “I thought you were tired of bloodshed.”
Kereb looked up at the newly forged god, and a smile began twitching against the corners of his mouth when he saw that she was also sweating. He nodded. “We were close. Ilke said he could create new Adept, a new font of power for the Allmarket.”
“Let the world beware of old men’s hatreds.” Gate closed her eyes for a moment, exhaling slowly, her breath escaping from the avatar in black puffs of smoke. “So why this little confession, Kereb?”
Now it was Kereb’s turn to shrug. “I asked myself, if I can’t have peace, why should they?”
Gate sighed. “And so you try to ignite a war, and Nyst is only too happy to oblige.”
Kereb ran his hand over the intricate whorls carved into the table. “I hope she succeeds where Ilke and I have failed.” He sat back. “I hope she destroys the entire fucking godway, and you with it.”
“You just want us to be wrong, as if that will make your choices seem like the correct path. The world does not work like that general. I thought you knew that.” Gate’s voice was almost a whisper.
Kereb pulled out a knife from a scabbard at his side. “I notified Nyst’s court that I have been siphoning souls to the clans since I got here, at your request. She will have no choice but to level the Reliquary once the Quads withdraw.” He pushed the knife’s edge against his palm. The poison dragged black marks through his veins as it rushed towards his heart.
Gate groaned and pressed her hands against her eyes. “I never believed them when they said you were a coward. Even when you ordered us to withdraw from the Fallian line, I defended you.” She rose and walked over to Kereb. “Goodbye, general,” she said, her voice hard.
Kereb wanted to say something, but as he opened his mouth, a sudden weight fell from him, and he sagged forward, head bumping against the table. There was a brief moment of pain, and then only darkness.
“Rust take me,” Gate murmured as she pushed Kereb’s head to the side. The body slid from its chair and fell on to the floor in a cacophony of metal scraping on stone.
A tremor ran through her body, and Gate cursed again. She held up her hands, sucking her teeth as she saw faint lines of orange running down her fingertips, like burnt grass curling into embers in the aftermath of a fire.
“Should have listened to Root.” Gate said to no one in particular, her breath accompanied by a constant cloud of black smoke. She was burning through the avatar too quickly. “Pebbles before the fall,” she muttered as she looked around the room, her gaze falling on the ruined construct mask on the floor. Gate tapped her foot against the cold stone floor before approaching the mask. A decision made was better than waiting for one to be made.
She picked up the mask, and returned to Kereb’s body, pushing it onto its back so she could place the Reliquary construct’s mask on his face.
“There’s a joke in all this. Root would probably know what to say.” Gate stood back and held her hand over the body, her mind opening the lodestone to the godway wider than it had been in years. She worked like she always had, quickly and accurately, forcing the mask to wrap itself around Kereb’s face. As she worked, lines of godsteel sprang from her body and latched onto the dead general’s armour, infusing it with the white-hot heat of her will.
When she was done, the armour glowed with new life, the body inside nothing more than metal-touched bones. Gate stumbled to a chair, both her arms and much of her torso ending in a tangled mass of wire.
She drifted in and out of consciousness more than once while the Brightsoul worked to get the armour to move. She was on the verge of screaming when it finally got up from the floor and bowed to her ruined form.
A fitting gesture.
“My lady,” The newly forged construct said. Its three eyes, flame-tinged by her touch, settled on her. “What is to be done?”
“The Reliquary has been feeding souls to the market clans.” Gate swallowed as she spoke. The mind remembers the body, and the body remembers pain, she thought, gritting her teeth. She swore silently as a few teeth cracked. “I want this place in our hands before the hour is out.”
“Of course.” The construct closed its eyes as it spoke, and lifted an armoured hand in the direction of the lodestone “I have already begun. Where shall I send my…errant, brothers and sisters?”
“Give them to Root, a gift from our domain.” Gate looked up. “He has always been best with coming up with punishments.” From somewhere inside the Reliquary, smoke had begun to rise, drifting into the pulsing darkness that bound Allmarket to the godway. “When you’re done, cut off all the Quads.”
“Yes, my lady?”
“Start assembling the Simulacrin, and let them help organise the Reliquary’s defences. Nyst will probably attack from one of the Quads under her control, so don’t let any Aytallan city in.”
Gate coughed up strands of metal as she spoke. “Send the stored Brightsouls that can be of use to our domain, and don’t stop until you fight off Nyst. Destroy this place if she takes it, but make sure you get out first,” Gate said through gasping breaths.
“As you will my lady.” Anaxima droned, but Gate’s body had already fallen to ash.
A groan escaped Nunc’s cracked lips. Coughing, he rolled onto his side, groaning again when his arm scraped against the greasy floor. The metal was still there, still firmly embedded in his skin, but at least the centre was no longer a gaping darkness, Nunc thought as he got to his feet.
“Youngers.” His voice cracked against the ash-filled air. “Where are you?” He forced his body to move, grimacing as pinpricks danced up from his hand and into his chest. He nearly fell down again when he saw the ruined room that was once the centre of the Steeljack clan. The entire room bore signs of the explosion’s touch. The roof trusses that Nunc had stared at so many times whilst The Jack meted out his insane punishments were missing in places, those that remained had been scorched black by Abyssal’s power.
As Nunc followed the path of the destruction back to its origin, his memory flooded back. No…” Nunc gasped as his eyes locked onto the place where he and the other youngers had been standing before the attack. Stumbling closer to the spot, he saw no sign of life. For a moment Nunc stared silently at the blackened streaks that had been burnt into the floor, before he tilted his head back in anguish, pain and loss seared through his body. An animal cry escaped from his lips, reverberating his anguish through the ruined hall.
A warbled voice shattered his pain, and instinctual panic blew his sorrow aside, just like the ash piled against the walls of the room.
“Bailat?” the voice called, drawing his gaze to an open window where a small messenger construct was hovering, its carapace reflecting the flames outside as it rotated erratically on its axis.
Nunc took a step backwards, “What are you doing here? Who sent you?” he asked, glancing towards the only door in the room and the ash drift that lay against it. The construct swivelled in his direction. “I’m Mote, and I’m looking for Bailat, my keeper.”
Nunc forced his breathing to slow down, and walked towards the door. “I don’t remember the name, and if they were Thuir, they’re gone.” The ash lying against the entrance was greasy and thick. He sighed and began digging anyway, glancing back at the construct as he flung a handful of ash to the side.
The construct hovered down into the room, its carapace glinting in the half-light. “She fought the Thuir. I saw them attack you. I…I didn’t think anyone else would survive.” The construct didn’t say anything else, and hovered away from Nunc. The construct’s words tore at his insides, the panic making his fingers scrabble uselessly against the heavy door.
“Neither did I,” he half-whispered, more to himself than for anyone else. From across the room the construct cried out again, but this time it sounded panicked. “She’s still alive,” It zoomed back to him. “Please help her, she helped to save your life.”
Nunc turned to the orb, and ran a hand over his face. “Show me.” He sighed and followed the metal sphere as it guided him towards The Jack’s ruined throne. Nunc saw an armoured foot sticking out from behind the half-melted seat, he closed his eyes for a second and leaned across the throne.
He saw a woman, wrapped in a scaled warplate, half covered with ash, her chest moving incrementally with each shallow breath she took. Red streaks ran across her face and curved around her head, as if she had been clawed by the fire set loose by Abyssal
“She needs quickmend,” the construct’s voice trembled as it hovered closer to the comatose warrior.
“It’s in one of the bandolier pockets.” The construct’s words were terse as it told Nunc where to find the thin grey cylinder from Bailat’s near-ruined bandolier. The tube itself was dented, but when he pressed down on its release, a thin needle sprang from one end.
“Inject it into the large vein in her neck.”
Nunc did as he was told, and the cylinder turned cold as its contents evacuated into the woman’s system.
Nunc got up from the figure and looked over at Mote. “Nothing’s happening.” The construct hovered close to the woman’s face, dipping this way and that, as if it was considering its options.
“You belonged to the clan, so you probably know about the mundane exit behind this building?” Mote asked, and when Nunc nodded, the construct hovered over to its keeper’s torso.
“I know what is seared into your arm.” Mote’s voice was calm, but it drove needles of fear into Nunc’s skin. He glanced at the door at the far end of the room, quietly cursing himself for staying in the flame-cursed room.
“This woman believes that the Brightsoul you harbour can help her enter the godway, and even worse, I’m scared that she’s right.” As Mote spoke, its carapace creaked open to reveal a shining core.
“I know she doesn’t look like much of a threat, but she will find out that you carry the Brightsoul that she seeks, and take it from you. Even if it costs your life. The Arcrin are not accustomed to the concept of failure.” The construct’s words were faint, and Nunc leaned in as it spoke.
“Promise me that you will show her the way out. In turn I will tell her that the soul has been taken by the Thuir.”
“Why don’t I just give her the Brightsoul?” Nunc asked and held up his arm.
“That may kill you, and I know it will kill her,” Mote whispered. “I don’t want her to die, I just need time for her to come to her senses. Promise me that you won’t tell her the truth.” The words sounded as if they were forged from the same fragile steel as Mote’s body. “Please.”
Without even realising that he was speaking, the words fell from Nunc’s lips.
“Thank you. Tell her that the Thuir took Abyssal, and make sure she gets out of Water Quad.”
Before Nunc could answer, a burst of light erupted from the construct and arced into Bailat’s chest, the blast throwing him on his back.
He scrambled back up, and crawled towards the woman. “Root fend.” He inhaled sharply when he saw her face. As he watched, the crimson wounds that had crisscrossed her features began fading, leaving faintly red, but healthy skin.
Nunc was not ready when her eyes flew open, and had only seconds to take in her fury-ridden gaze before he jumped back with a cry.