6. Ignis V
We pushed through the doors of Annette’s pavilion, only for Alten to come to a sudden stop. Dozens of invaders were already inside, waiting for us. My heart dropped. How could they have known? Then my chest went rigid with hate. Sera. Could Sera have predicted this? Told the enemy what I’d do before they killed her? If so she was more monstrous than I’d thought. Annette had never done anything to her. Still, it made no sense. Why wouldn’t they have just killed me in my rooms?
The doors slammed behind, and we both rushed backwards, shoulders ramming against them, only to find them immovable. The feeling of dread and tension rose with the ringing in my ears as I slowly turned back around. The invaders had not moved. They simply watched. The sound of blade striking blade echoed within the pavilion. A lone pixie flew out from the group, her small body glowing a pinkish hue. She unsuccessfully hid a wicked smile behind one hand and pointed in the direction of the main sitting room with the other. As one the enemy parted, revealing a path.
Alten put a hand on my good shoulder and hissed softly. “If you see a chance. Run.”
I wish I could say I had no intention of listening to him. That I’d made up my mind. That I was a hero. But the truth is, as soon as we’d found the doors locked I’d pissed myself. There were just so many of them. My warm shame still dribbled onto the floor. Still, I followed Alten as we walked through the gauntlet of invaders. A legion of faces jeered after us, prodding us forward with swords, spears, and the occasional boot. The ringing in my ears grew into a keening screech so loud it was impossible to hear anything else.
Then, all at once, it stopped.
Across the sitting room, Annette was held by an infernal, a dagger at her throat, tear streaks down her face. The tiger I bought her held tightly in her arms. The sight tore at me. My little sister didn’t cry. Annie never cried. So deep was my distress that it took a moment to register the giant holding a club the size of a dragon’s leg that flanked her. Another man seemingly shrouded in dark mist at her other side. I started towards them blindly, but Alten grabbed my arm a second before two elves held swords to our throats.
At the center of the room, King Gil stood, armor spattered with blood, his claymore held limply in his hands as his massive chest rose and fell with each shuddering breath. In the part of my mind that wasn’t shocked numb, I considered how bizarre it was to see my father so weak. It was such an odd sight. Like watching an animal walk on two legs. Who could have possibly reduced my invincible father to such a state?
That’s when I saw her for the first time.
I’d met my share of evil men, frequenting the bars of the capital. Slavers. Nobles who made their fortune off the backs of orphans put to work in poorly insulated sweatshops. Mercenaries who had spent years keeping the working class in line by brutally crushing uprisings. The impression, the feeling of a person being evil, you never get it directly. Despite what the bards would have us believe, there are very few true mustache twirling villains and black-armored evil overlords. It was something you got from the cracks, the negative spaces. When they pause, their silence means more, no matter how cheery or deceptive their dispositions. They all had the same emptiness in their eyes.
I say all this, so you can understand the magnitude of difference between the evil of those men and the evil of her. It streamed off of her, like spite and rage and twisted pleasure all mingled in a single monstrous aura that felt like the air itself was caving in to crush you.
I risked a glance over to Alten, just to see if it was due to my inexperience, but his face was drawn and pale, his eyes wide, glittering fearfully in the gloom.
If it weren’t for the aura she might have been only intimidating: A woman dressed in banded leathers, tight, illustrating the lanky curve-less nature of her form. Arms that were slightly too long. Her head was half shaved, the left side tied in a long wavy tail of white hair. Her face was badly scarred, burns covering from the bottom left side of her face leading up to a milky, sightless eye. Her untainted eye was slit vertically like a snake’s, a bright yellow sclera framing a long black pupil. All that was disquieting enough on its own… but her smile is what stayed with me. Her teeth were white and pointed, like an elf’s but more vicious. And she smiled like it was the best day of her life.
At first, it looked like an even match. The woman was armed with two nasty looking daggers which gave her a massive disadvantage when it came to reach. My father heaved his heavy sword in massive, ground-shaking blows which she dodged by a hair’s breadth, sometimes falling and scampering back to her feet. None of her minions seemed interested in interfering. I felt my heart rise. It was only a matter of time before one of those massive blows landed and removed the woman from this plane of existence.
Alten, however, did not seem to share my hope. His lips were pressed together and his jaw worked furiously. What did he see that I didn’t? I looked back in time to see the woman dodge again, once more missing the blade by the narrowest of margins, smiling all the while. Then it hit me.
She was doing it on purpose.
Weight of his sword aside, my father was wounded and moving slowly. A moderately talented swordsman would be able to dodge his attacks consistently. But she was playing with him. Letting him think he was about connect, goading him with small blows that did little.
A confluence of emotions rose within me. Yes, my father was a monster. Yes, there were many times that I wished to see him dead. But not like this. Never like this.
Their twisted dance went on for what felt like an eternity. Then my father swung in a half-arc—a feint—the woman ducked as he must have predicted, then suddenly he rotated his blade downward, bringing his forearm down on the ricasso of the blade and leveraging his shoulder to force it down towards the woman with an incredible amount of force.
The woman moved inhumanly, her body seeming to bend, bones and all, out of the way of the blade. Father staggered forward, off balance, and the blade clattered out of his hands. His eyes met mine. To my surprise, there was no hostility. Just sadness. King Gil knew it, I think. He knew what was about to happen.
All at once, all the small nicks and slashes the woman had made to the integrity of his breastplate added up, and the armor fell to pieces, leaving him bare chested and exposed. Father looked down at himself numbly. Slowly, he looked back up at me and began to speak.
But the words never left his lips, because the woman was on him. I struggled against my captors but was held still. The dark steel of her daggers glowed with an otherworldly light. Her hands were a blur of horizontal and diagonal strikes. With the final strike she spun away from him and locked eyes with me, running the sharp side of her bloodied knife across her tongue, shivering in pleasure.
King Gil stood motionless. Then all at once the wounds manifested, veins gushing and ligaments snapping as he crumpled like a puppet with its strings cut, uttering a single cry of pain that flayed me to my core. Fathers should never make those sounds. My sister cried out. A growl wrenched itself from my chest. The host roared, hundreds of voices ringing out in beastly approval.
Alten made his move, disarming the sword held at his neck and rushing forward in a mad dash. The woman dropped a dagger and held her hand out.
“Don’t you dare ruin this moment, scum.” She said. Her voice was low and throaty, sibilants extended in a snake-like hiss.
Ethereal green shackles appeared on his wrists and ankles and Alten was stopped a foot away from her. He strained against the restraints, a vein popping on his forehead. The woman raised her glowing hand and Alten rose in the air, floating upwards, now entirely off the ground. The woman made a complex signal with her hand.
The colossus of a man beside my sister stepped forward. He held his club lightly, as if it was made of paper. He stood beside Alten, pulled the club up to his shoulder and looked at the floating guard dispassionately, measuring the distance. Then swung. The club flew through the air with enough velocity that I could feel the wind from it and cracked into Alten, sending him catapaulting across the room, shattering the glass windows and into the garden.
Rage coursed through me. I pushed the sword at my throat aside, not caring as the edge cut into my flesh, and walked up to the woman.
“Enough,” I said. My whole body shook.
“You have no idea…” She walked around me, looking me over, leering. Her voice modulated up in down in a tone that was almost sing-song. “How long I’ve been waiting for this moment. Oh how I’ve waited.” The last word almost sounded guttural.
“Who are you?” I demanded, somehow sounding much more authoritative than I felt.
“Oh.” The woman held a hand to her mouth and moved closer until she was inches from my face. “How very rude of me. My name is Thoth. And this-“ she indicated the legion around us, “is my merry band of misfits, all come together to pay tribute to the new king.”
“I’m done with this charade. You’ve conquered the city. Killed my people.”
“With a heavy heart.” Thoth’s face formed a mocking frown. My temper flared, but I couldn’t afford to let it get the best of me, not now. I had to try and get in her head.
“I can pave the way for you, with the rest of the humans. Smooth the transition of power.” I clenched my fists tightly, trying desperately to keep my voice neutral.
“You’d do that? For little old me?” Thoth asked. She never stayed still. She was always moving, this way and that.
“Yes. I have no desire to be king.” I raised my voice then, attempting to play the room, as I’d done so recently during my coronation. “I understand that my father was a despot. That the things he did to you, to your people, made your conquest here tonight look kind in comparison. However, I am not my father. Mankind will fall in line beneath you, if I help bridge the divide.”
A low chuckle from the man in the cowl broke the silence. Thoth shot him a look and it immediately stopped. She stared at me then, contemplating.
“If only we had known that sooner.”
My blood freezes in my veins.
Thoth continued. “If only I’d known how cooperative you would be, before I had my troops set every human city and settlement across Siladon on fire.”
I took a step backward. A bluff. It had to be. It couldn’t be true. The man in the cowl laughed again, immediately followed by the rest of the legion, all cackling at a joke I’d been left out of. Thoth howled in laughter and doubled over, slapping her knee like an old woman. Any confidence I’d built in my ability to negotiate evaporated and the cruel reality of it dawned on me. There was nothing I could do.
Still, I had to try.
“I’ll do anything.” I trembled. Slowly, the laughter faded. “Anything you want. I’ll throw myself from the tallest tower if you wish. Please, just let my sister go.”
Thoth looked from me to my sister and back, as if the hostage had slipped her mind. “That’s all you want?” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Honestly, we really only needed her as bait.” For the first time, Thoth’s voice sounded genuine. She snapped her fingers and the infernal holding my sister released her.
Annette shivered and walked towards me, pointedly not looking at the broken body of our father, gurgling on the floor. The terror in her eyes stilled my blood. She knew something I didn’t. Still, she walked forward. She was so close I could almost touch her.
“Stop.” Thoth said.
Annette stopped in her tracks. She mouthed a single word to me.
Thoth approached her, looking her up and down. Annette shivered.
“Maya. The poor thing is freezing.”
The purple infernal with face paint that was holding my sister walked forward, chagrined. “Apologies mistress.”
“Can we… do something about that?” There was something different in Thoth’s voice. Something mirthful.
Panic. “Please. Please. I’ll do anything,” I said again, begging, any dignity forgotten.
Maya held out a hand. Her thumb, index, and third finger glowed violet, forming three points of a triangle.
My sister began to scream. Violet flames licked up her dress, onto her arms, immediately bubbling the skin. The stuffed tiger slipped from her hands.
I grabbed Annette and lifted her off her feet, not caring about the flames, or the way the nerves in my hands and chest screamed, or the pain in my gut. I sprinted towards the window Alten had broken through. A cluster of dwarves dove out of the way, trying to avoid the mass of purple fire suddenly barreling in their direction. Somehow I made it out the window and landed. The frosted grass crunched beneath my feat as I sprinted towards the fountain. Annette’s screams grew more gravelly and less human.
Hold on baby sister. Almost there. Almost there.
The the flames crept up my chest and my ruined hands threatened to drop her.
I shifted her further up, using my biceps and forearm to hold her in a vice like grip instead of my hands. The sound of my footfalls on crunching grass synced with the beating of my heart and the smell of burning hair filled my nose with each sharp intake of breath. I raced pass the cherry trees, refracting light from the fires of the castle reflected in the icicles hanging from their anemic branches and finally, finally, I could see the gray angel atop the fountain, beckoning me onward.
It had been a particularly cold night in the capital city. There were signs I’d ignored, up until the last moment. I’d acted before thinking. I had known this. I’d even packed warm clothes for it. But under pressure, the knowledge and its implications had just flown from my mind.
I poured all remaining strength into my legs and leapt into the fountain, intending to douse us both.
We landed hard, sliding across the frozen surface. And the water in the fountain had frozen solid. Annette tumbled from my arms in a flash of white hot pain as flesh that had fused together was torn apart. She rolled once. Her sightless eyes watched me, judging. How long had she been silent?
“No!” I screamed, ramming my still burning arms against the ice, imploring it to crack, the fingers of my blackened hands breaking as I struck. Once. Twice. Three times.
“Enough.” Thoth’s voice. There was a snapping sound and the flames suddenly died. A hand grabbed my ankle and dragged me from the fountain. I reached for Annette, one last time. Thoth grabbed my chin and wrenched it forwards. Ashes rained from the orange sky, forming a dark halo silhouetting her cruel face.
“Good, still conscious.” She said. None of her minions had followed her into the garden.
“Hm?” She cocked her head to the side.
“I’ll kill you.”
“Sure you will.” Thoth stood, brushing the ice from her knees. She walked along the side of fountain and picked up Annette. One arm dangled lifelessly to the side. I tried to lunge, but only managed to fall over.
“Leave her alone.” I croaked. The woman ignored me. She grabbed my shoulder and lifted me back up to a sitting position then laid Annette across me. The rage died immediately, flooded with sorrow.
“Little helping hint.” Thoth crouched down again, directly in my eye-line. “Demon-fire is unquenchable with water. Learned that one the hard way.” The woman pointed to her scarred face. “Even if the fountain hadn’t been frozen, it wouldn’t have made a difference. You have to smother it.”
“Why didn’t you just kill me?” Why use my family against me. Why orchestrate this entire conquest just so that this monster, specifically, could carry out such cruelty. Bitter tears obscured my vision. “End. This.”
“Earlier, you asked what I wanted.” Her face was completely serious, smile gone. “I suppose I’ll tell you.” She stroked my cheek.
“My master wants you dead. But I wanted you to understand, Cairn. I want you to suffer… as I have suffered. When you finally get the depths of it, the agony of it, only then will it end.” The way she said it almost sounded personal. As if her problem wasn’t with humanity as a whole, but me, specifically.
“Why do you hate me so much?”
“That would be telling.” The grin came back. There was a ruffling of leather and the sound of a dagger being drawn. Unlike her previous combat daggers, this knife looked much more ornate and ceremonial: black and gold trimmings on the handle, and a bright steel blade. Thoth sliced into her own palm and coated the blade in blood. She began to chant. The knife glowed a dull green.
I should have moved. Tried to knock her over and run. Got the knife away from her. But every time my mind went in that direction, I saw Annette beneath me from the corner of my eye, and the fight just dissipated.
Thoth took great care aiming. Then she slid the knife into my chest with the precision of a surgeon. After the all the nerve destroying damage of the demon-fire, it barely hurt. The pain came after, as I felt something inside me start to spasm. I coughed violently, and found immediately afterward it was almost impossible to breathe. Every breath was wet and rasping.
“Your lung is punctured. In that spot, it's fatal. But I’ll leave the knife, so you have time to think.” Thoth patted me on the head with her bloodied hand. “See you next time, Cairn.”
Insane. She was clearly insane. Thoth walked away with a lift to her step, almost a skip. My head tilted downward, blood dripping out of my mouth in strands as I struggled to breathe. It was too much. I reached for the knife and realized I couldn’t feel the handle. All the nerves were gone. Any attempt to squeeze my hand together failed. The muscles and tendons wouldn’t respond.
There was a rustling to my right. I started, looking for the source of the noise. Alten limped towards me. His left eye was completely swollen shut. A piece of wood—a tree branch—jutted from his chest, having punched straight through his dented armor. He really didn't quit.
Alten looked down at Annette in my arms and nearly lost his balance, a look of grief overtaking his stoic expression.
“The second time I failed you tonight.” He slid down, back against the fountain next to me. There was a wet sound. Blood quickly coated the section of stone he leaned against. We were both running out of time.
“You fought harder than any man could be expected to fight.”
“If it weren’t for you, I would have never seen my sister again.” The words maybe that would have been better were left unspoken.
Alten was silent for a long time. “After I was kicked out of the Silver Swords, I was optimistic about being a guard. Thought my natural abilities would shine through. Thought I could just work my way back up.”
He looked at me sadly. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are. Or how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Sometimes it just doesn’t go our way.”
We sat in silence under the weight of it all. My thoughts drifted to Alten, then. How far he went for me when everyone else had left. Some fragment of nobility stirred in my chest.
I wetted my lips and said, “If we don’t make it to the Elysium halls, I’ll find you in the next life”
Alten chuckles. “You won’t remember. Nobody remembers their past lives, not even the damned seers.”
“Hey... that’s heresy. And… I’ll remember.” I insisted, reaching out to grab his shoulder and immediately regretting it when the pain spiked up my arm. Alten seemed to take this seriously, even if he didn't really believe it.
We watched the city burn. Eventually the screams stopped. An eerie silence fell over the castle. It was harder and harder to breathe. Everything was so cold. Once more, I reached for the knife in my lung, unable to cling onto it. The man beside me pushed himself to a knee, grunting, and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Are you ready?” He asked.
I held onto Annette tightly. See you soon, little sister.
It barely hurt when Alten pulled the knife from my chest, and plunged it into my heart.