I raised a fist. The tromp of boots and the clatter of weapons fell silent. I dismounted and stepped to the edge of the Willows Bridge. On the other side of the great river Al’veran sat the garden city of Ellodrin. It flickered with a fay light despite the early hour. The city was nestled under the great boughs of the Mother Tree and forever within her shadow. So the goddess had cultivated bio-luminescence into every leaf and flower. A blue-green light followed the citizens as they went about their lives, and from this vantage, the city looked as if one of the transcendent gods had reached into the night sky and stirred the stars. Five hundred thousand souls, and if all went according to plan, every last one of them would be dead by nightfall.
My gaze followed the trunk of the Mother Tree and up to her branches. They extended over the city and vanished over the horizon. Her immensity always made me feel insignificant. I hated it.
The exhilaration of imminent battle coursed through my veins. I couldn’t let anticipation give me away. Decades of planning rested on the next few hours. Pulling in a breath, I took hold of my nerves.
Light blossomed a few hundred yards down the bridge as the Spriggan delegation made their way to greet us.
I turned and paced before my acolytes, examining their ranks. They stood at attention, heads held high, lacquered armor gleaming in the torchlight. These men and women were the best of the best, each of them a weapon, their hearts burning with true zeal.
“I will do everything in my power to prevent the contingency plan,” I lied. “But should I fail, you know your orders. And should Strothheim beckon you to her walls, know I join you before the day is through.” Fist to chest, I saluted.
A single uniform beat of gauntlet on breastplate replied. No rousing cheer, no voices raised in gladness at the glory to come. Just hard faces set to a grim purpose, the Fauldic way.
I made the sign of the sword, a blue tracer following my fingers. It hung in the air, pulsing with Khyber’s radiance. His blessing washed over them, and conviction reflected in their faces. “Though shield shatter and blade lay broken.”
“I will fight on,” they responded with the ritual words.
“Though blade pierce me and I gasp my dying breath.”
“I will fight on.”
“For I am the blade in his hand, the shield that guards his realm.” The emotion of the moment stuck in my throat. “And so long as one of us remains.”
“This blade is not yet broken.”
“Stand sure, my brothers and sisters.”
“Avatar Wrath,” said a snide voice from behind me.
“Chancellor Talmor’ook.” I faced him, sweeping my cape out behind and giving the smallest bow propriety allowed. “Permission to enter the city.”
His amber eyes scanned my acolytes. “The Mother Tree welcomes you to her sacred grove. But tell me, why have you brought so many warriors to a council meeting?”
I thrust a finger at the fool. “You reported arachnids encroaching from the south. They must be driven back before they can establish a colony.”
“We sent an ambassador.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Then they’re already dead.”
“They will be reunited with the Mother Tree.”
“Not if Eericas claims their soul.”
“The arachnids are sentient beings and must be given the chance to break from Eericas’s domination. All life upon Etherious, no matter how wretched”—the corners of his mouth curled into an almost imperceptible sneer as he eyed me—“can find redemption through the grace of the Mother Tree.”
“You have a responsibility to protect your allies.”
“We do. We just don’t reach for steel as a first reaction.”
As I gripped the pommel of my sword, the metal protested. I carefully relaxed before my augmented strength could deform it. Patience. “As you say.” I bowed once more.
“Humility? It seems the years have taught you temperance.”
A soldier shifted behind me. I raised a finger and they went still. “And they’ve made you complacent, but let’s put these old arguments aside for the time. There are matters of state to discuss.”
Chancellor Talmor’ook drew a complex rune in the air. The symbol of the Mother Tree blossomed as vibrant as a bouquet. “Your men may not enter the city so armed.”
“I require but a single squad. The rest have orders to scout the causeways.”
“The Mother Tree won’t allow soldiers to traverse her boughs until diplomacy has failed.”
My stomach clenched. “What about the judges? They carry no weapon but their faith. Allow them to inspect the outposts, maintain the imbued looking glasses.”
Violet light pulsed from the rune. “The Mother agrees. Your judges may traverse her boughs.” Chancellor Talmor’ook spread his arms, the petals of his skin sliding with the motion to reveal others beneath. His attendants bowed deeply, and the air filled with a blend of aromatic scents. Disgusting ritual, like being sprayed by a cat. No matter what their excretions smelled like, cinnamon, rose and half a hundred other things. Bloody vulgar.
“Vanyard,” I said. A grizzled veteran strode from the ranks and took the reins of my charger. “Give the order.”
“Fourth squad. Judges. Extinguish torches,” Vanyard bellowed. “Forward march.”
I fell in beside Chancellor Talmor’ook, and the curtain of vines serving as a gate parted of their own accord. We walked in silence, save for the hollow ring of steel-shod boots on the deck of the bridge. The length of it was a single piece of living hard wood, which glimmered with a luster no human varnish could match.
I’d once nearly lost myself in the alien beauty of this place. Even now, it threatened to cast a spell on my heart. So I soaked it in, felt the anxiety, the guilt and the awe — for nowhere else on Etherious had life such as the Spriggans been created. And owning my actions was the only form of penance I could offer these people.
On one of the many terraces growing from the side of the bridge, a family played on a soft lawn. The eldest turned to watch us. She reminded me of the belladonna flower, her head a dusky violet and a melancholy expression on her face. She returned to peering over the rail, her blue-black eyes tracking the churning water of the Al’veran fathoms below.
“You are awfully quiet. Not going to try to sway my vote?”
“We both know there’s no point.”
Chancellor Talmor’ook chuckled and turned that snide smile to me. “Then why call this meeting at all?”
“Because Oppenfauld has an obligation to warn her allies of the threat the Myi’eshans pose, even if you will turn a blind eye until it’s too late.”
Talmor’ook made a sound like wind rustling dried leaves, and a spicy scent filled the air. The human equivalent of a sigh. “I thought it would be something like that. Why must you always look for trouble? If you’d only give yourself permission, your life could be filled with joy.”
“All of this”—I gestured to Ellodrin.—“the peace, the safety, it’s an illusion. One that the Fauldic have paid for with blood and sorrow.”
Talmor’ook’s calm and measured response was blatantly false. “For millennia our lords have stood united and repelled all that would bring the Ascendancy War to our lands. We all sacrifice to keep our masters from harm’s way, so why can’t you leave well enough alone? Your predecessor was never like this.”
“During his reign we saw three wars, all of which were fought on allied soil. For someone that is so long lived, how can you be so shortsighted?”
Beyond the bridge, the streets were clogged with Spriggans. Music and cheering finally overcame the roar of the great river. A fanfare, gathered to welcome their Mother’s allies. Gods, how I hated this nonsense.
Talmor’ook stopped a few hundred feet away from the end of the bridge. I was forced to halt or look like a child throwing a fit. He smiled at me benevolently, his every line radiating the elder offering wisdom. It was a spectacle for the people and one he’d used to humiliate me before.
His voice was just loud enough to carry. “The Mother Tree’s grace is undaunted by the intent of others. She created us.” Talmor’ook opened his arms as if to embrace me. “To be her hand, extended in peace and love to all those with the bravery to take it.” He held his hand out to me.
The last time he did this, I’d slapped it away, but I couldn’t afford the luxury of honesty. I’d have to be the politician, no matter how much it stung. I released the visor on my helm. It decompressed with a hiss, and the metal lost its transparency.
I slid the faceplate up and raised my voice. “We, the people of the sword and shield, have gladly born the weight of peace.” I threw all the earnestness I could into the speech. “We raise our shields in defense of the Mother’s grace. Our swords are only used to protect the ones we love. Now and always the Fauldic will take your hand. We may have our differences, but we share a common purpose and that unites us as one people.”
A cheer went up from the gathered Spriggans, and the acolytes hammered gauntlets against shields. I screwed on my best smile, took the chancellor’s hand. He hid his surprise well, didn’t want to lose face in front of his congregation. But I could see the resentment behind those inhuman eyes at having his barb turned against him.
He plastered over it with chaste gratitude and drew me into an embrace. It churned my stomach to acid, but I kept up the charade. I raised our joined hands to the sky, and the peasants roared.
As mindless as the common dirt-grubbing filth back home. Least they were human, or as close to it as any farmer got. My face cramped, and thankfully Talmor’ook was as eager as I was to pull away.
The chancellor drew the Mother’s sign, blessing me and my men. I felt the taint of a goddess not my own settle upon my skin. I bowed my head, accepting the insult. He was pushing for a reaction, something to make me lose face. I waved like one of those foolish Mirvish hymnals after a performance and set off down the bridge. The chancellor quickened his pace and caught up.
“The years truly have taught you temperance,” he said under his breath.
“Thank you.” I smiled, and the contempt I felt for this fool must have shown, for the seam down the middle of his body began peeling back. He recovered quickly, hiding his nervous anger by turning to a Spriggan woman standing near the edge of the bridge. She proffered her squalling sapling, and the chancellor performed a benediction.
Damnation, I’d made him suspicious. Acted too out of character. Nothing to be done about it now.
I leaned over to Vanyard. “Have the judges sanctify each other. I want them cleansed before they reach the stair.”
He snapped a salute. “Yes, Avatar, and thank you, sir.”
“For what, Sergeant?”
“For trying, sir. It means a lot to the men.”
I looked him in the eye and nodded solemnly. “Stand sure.”
“Stand sure.” Vanyard muttered my orders to the men, and more tactfully than I would have.
The judges filed off the bridge and past the fanfare, following the southern road that skirted the city. It was obvious to me how they labored under the weight of their pack, the straps pulling at their shoulders more than just replacement lenses and tool kits could account for. I tore my eyes away, certain that someone would notice how hard I was looking at them.
I drew the sign of the sword, and calm focus washed through me, all hint of frayed nerves gone. I smiled and took my place beside the chancellor.