Roots in the Community
When Zaros ceased his march across Gielinor's scarred surface and withdrew to obscurity - becoming the Empty Lord - everything changed.
It was the Forinthryan border towns that felt it first - once-rustic hamlets and villages on important routes, long swallowed by the great imperial war machine: their inhabitants mostly scattered; their few pieces of remaining architecture peering out amid ranks of barracks, stables and warehouses; their names long forgotten.
The patrols and supply trains became less frequent; orders to their commanding officers fewer and more nebulous; garrisons were gradually withdrawn and mage-architects brought in to build watchtowers, warded checkpoints and telepathy relays. The war was over, and towns such as these were its final casualties.
In just such a town on a hot summer day, a ramshackle dwelling nestled between a grain silo and the quartermaster's, backing out onto an abandoned allotment of cracked earth, a crudely paved yard filled with stacks of scrap metal, and a small forge.
Within, Ipcress grumbled as he thrust the broom handle at the panel in the ceiling. He'd been at it for half an hour, sweat pouring and arms aching, but he had succeeded only in denting the brass plate and loosening one of the rivets. He'd known it wouldn't be an easy job - he'd secured the plate himself, and the metal had expanded in the hot sun - but knowing made it no less frustrating.
He stopped for a moment, breathing heavily, sweeping lank strands of hair back over his balding head. Coughing from the dust and the dry afternoon heat, Ipcress appraised the panel once more. Perhaps he could strike it from a different angle - or maybe just imagine it to be Mage Commander Sequitus's face. He grinned, and attacked the roof with renewed vigour. The plate finally yielded with a clang, a clatter and a burst of afternoon sunlight. Ipcress let the broom handle fall to the ground and hung his head forward, panting, with his hands on the aching small of his back. After a moment, he looked over at the small ceramic pot by the window, with the mournfully drooping olive plant protruding from the parched earth packed within it, and growled. Remembering the ire that had driven him just a few moments before, he wrenched his old wooden ladder out from underneath a pile of empty paint-mixing tins, thrust it into place, snatched the plant pot up under his left arm and pulled himself up into the light.
Squinting as he adjusted to the glare of the high sun, he surveyed the area for the culprit. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he turned his gaze south, looked up and sneered in derision. They'd started building that great, bloody scrying tower a couple of months back, but of course that hadn't been good enough. They'd kept building and building - minarets, belvederes, fancy magical pylons, all with unnatural speed - and the dark crystals at the towers' peaks twisted light and blocked the sun. The only things left for the plants on his south-facing window ledge were dust and late-summer dry heat. They might just survive the next few months, but with autumn on the way and then winter, those towers and the lifeless soil would be the death of his plants.
The roof wasn't his choice of location, but it got enough sun for most of the day, and the Imperial Army had claimed the land he might otherwise have built on or used as an allotment. Now, though, came the hard part. Ipcress looked down into the yard to the rear of his shack. Yesterday, he'd dragged the first two glass panes and the metal frame across from his forge, strapped them onto a wooden palette, and thrown the weighted end of the long, leather strap attached to it up onto the roof. It was simply a case of affixing that strap to the ratcheted pulley attachment - still here from when he'd built the place - and hauling the parts up, but he was already tired, the afternoon was hot, and his muscles ached grievously. He looked again at his plant pot, gritted his teeth, bent at the knees and gripped the strap in both hands.
'Hallo there, uncle!' came the cry from below. Ipcress barked in alarm, let go of the strap and fell onto his back, his head clanging resoundingly onto the top of the shack. Growling, he pushed himself up slowly with the one hand, rubbing the back of his head with the other, and peered over the edge.
Below was a man whose age Ipcress could not quite discern. His smooth chin and rangy build suggested youth, but his skin was pale and sun-damaged, and his tired, rheumy eyes made him look much older. He smiled up at Ipcress wanly, and gave a limp wave with one of his long arms. Rage rose hotly in Ipcress's stomach.
'You damned fool! I could have dropped those panes. Do that again and I'll skin your pasty carcass and use you to keep the rain out of my forge. And I'm not your bloody uncle!'
'Ah, sorry, sorry! It just looked like you could use a hand.'
'You? Haw! I doubt you'd be much good, lad. Even if you didn't burn up in the heat, those skinny arms wouldn't- hoi now, hold on a moment!'
The man had clambered up the drainpipe with more speed than Ipcress had expected, and was now standing directly in front of him, the same ingratiating smile on his face and a hand extended. He was taller than he had looked from above.
'Harold. You're Ipcress: the ironmonger, correct?' Ipcress hesitated before shaking the proffered hand. Harold's handshake was enthusiastic, but loose, and Ipcress grimaced at the clamminess of his grip.
'Aye, that's me.' Ipcress grumbled, and Harold beamed, broke away and took hold of the leather strap attached to the palette. 'What're you... How did you know that?'
'Oh, I asked the guard at the checkpoint.' chimed Harold. He was hoisting up the heavy palette, apparently with little effort. 'Said you were the man for metallurgy, blacksmithing and the like.'
Ipcress paused. He felt too foolish to say so, but it had always felt more profound than that. He took what was there: broken things - things that were made for something else but long since abandoned - and he made them work, wherever they were needed. It was something he'd always done - something he couldn't not do.
'I'm a passable smith - that's right enough. That lot keep me pretty busy, though.' Ipcress thumbed towards the old town hall to the north-west - now serving as the Mage Commander's administrative centre.
Harold had hefted the iron struts from the palette up onto his left shoulder, and was reaching down to pick up one of the larger glass panes with his right hand. 'The Empty Lord provides for those who serve, eh?' He deposited the panes, and then stamped his boot on the roof of Ipcress's shack, the edge of his mouth hinting at a smirk. 'Well - he provides something, at least. Is - ah - all of this yours?'
Ipcress bristled. 'This is my home, alright? Mine. I've been here longer than this rabble - longer you've drawn breath, most likely. All the others left when the army rolled up and started throwing their weight around - but I wasn't going anywhere. So long as I fulfil their commissions, they leave me well enough alone, and they bring me plenty of scrap to work and trade with.'
Harold grinned. 'Well, now, it sounds like you might be able to help me out. He fumbled in his satchel before producing a small, rusted piece of metal, holding it out for Ipcress to see. Ipcress frowned, peering closer at the object. It was a few inches long, curved and tapered to a point, sharpened along its inside edge; blunt and covered in rust and grime. Most likely an agricultural implement of some kind, and a poorly maintained one at that. Ipcress's nostrils flared with distaste.
'And what am I supposed to do with this?' he grumbled.
'A simple matter, really,' said Harold. 'I'd like it cleaned and whetted, if you'd be so kind.'
'That all? Can't manage that yourself?' Ipcress didn't take his eyes off the shard of the metal, and took a rag from his belt. He spat on it, and rubbed vigorously at the blade's surface. The afternoon sun reflected from the speck of its revealed surface - which was resplendent with smooth, waving lines - and he stopped to stare. Harold grinned again, broadly.
Ipcress growled from the back of his throat, holding it up for closer inspection.
'Noticed the work you'd been doing in your back yard. If I may say, it's a rare day that you find someone able to work that sort of metal.' Harold tilted his head, attempting to catch Ipcress's eye. The older man was hunched over the metal, eyes fixed on it.
He's right, n'all, thought Ipcress. But where'd a milksop farm boy like him get steel like this? Looks like it's from the hand of a Menaphite blade smith. Ipcress was familiar with such techniques - during his mandatory years of imperial service, he'd been on a campaign far to the south, where he'd had a chance to see Menaphite pattern steel first hand. He'd since derived from it a similar technique of his own for the reuse of scrap metal and - yes - it was what he'd been using for the commissions given to him of late by the Imperial Army. The boy must have been nosing around before he made his approach.
This blade was different, though. The wavelike pattern suggested similar, strength-giving impurities in the folded metal, but this was different to either method that Ipcress had seen - cold to the touch, despite the heat of the day, and an odd hue. Then there was the fact that this seemed to be a farming tool of some kind - why would such an exotic metal be used for something so mundane? Something about the whole situation felt off, and Ipcress - fascinated as he was - wasn't sure he was comfortable with it.
'So, uncle. Think you can help me?'
Ipcress started, and his eyes flicked to Harold. 'Sorry lad,' he said. 'This is an interesting piece, for sure, but I don't have the time. As you say, I've commitments to the Mage Commander, and there's this project, too.' He gestured to the panels and framework that Harold had deposited on the roof of his home.
Harold tutted. 'They must be working you ragged if you've no time for such a small task. Come now - no need to be modest - it looks like the Empty Lord's got plenty out of you for the time being, and I know you've the skill to do the task I'm asking for. Tell you what - I'm a fair hand with manual stuff like this, as you've seen. How about I help you out with your glass house here, and you can use the free time to sort out my blade? Perhaps even put your feet up and enjoy the sun, if you're done nice and quick.'
Ipcress stared. He was certain the glass house would work - capturing the heat and the sun's rays and keeping his plants healthy no matter how many of those bloody towers they built - but it was his idea, and he'd never heard of it being done elsewhere. How did this lad know what he was building?
He was sweating from the time in the sun, though, and the ache in his limbs and sharp twinge in his lower back could not be denied. Plus, he wanted to know more about that blade. He pocketed it and began to lower himself down through the opening in the roof.
'Very well, lad. Be back here on the morrow and we'll see how useful those skinny arms are.'
When Harold returned the next morning, Ipcress had already been up for several hours. He had cleaned the dirt and rust from the blade, and was sitting, staring at its surface with a furrowed brow. He acknowledged Harold's breezy greeting with a grunt and a wave, before the younger man made his way up the ladder onto the roof.
Ipcress had cleared a space among the mess of components, half-finished inventions and papers that littered his workspace. He'd spent a good while puzzling over the reasons for making an agricultural tool with such esoteric methods, when even the Imperial Army were equipped with bronze and iron, but now he had more pressing concerns. He'd always had a knack for craftsmanship: wood, stone and particularly metal were old friends to him, and he'd always had a way of coaxing and guiding them to the shapes and purposes he wanted in a way that felt natural - none of the magical nonsense that'd become endemic throughout the empire in recent times. 'Everything you need's right there in the steel,' Ipcress often boasted after a pint or two. His brow furrowed yet further. Where's what I need now?
It was already late morning, and none of Ipcress's attempts had yielded success. He'd cleaned it quickly enough, although he hadn't been able to attain the sheen he usually took such pride in. The blade seemed old - practically an antique - and every time he turned it over after finishing one side, he would swear that it had a fleck of rust or ground-in piece of grit that wasn't there before.
He spent some time at it with an abrasive pad of compacted iron wire, and then a file, but soon found that he was perspiring with the effort and the edge hadn't re-emerged to his satisfaction. He shook his head and cursed, and took out his oil and whetstone, securing the metal in a vice and grinding away from himself along the edge. After a prolonged period of work, Ipcress touched a callused finger to the edge. Nothing. He was becoming irritated. Was the lad playing a prank on him? He spat on the ground, and began to rummage among the detritus of his workroom.
He found it under a collapsed pile of schematic and notes, and pulled a muscle in his back as he dragged it out onto the workshop floor. Cursing, and rubbing his aching back, he surveyed it: the wooden frame was covered with cobwebs, but a rough shake confirmed that it was still solid. An insect of some kind had made a nest for its young within the seat's padding, leaving a hollow filled with shed pupae that Ipcress brushed clean. Crucially, the pedal-driven mechanism at the frame's base still span when worked, and the great round stone remained seated on its axle; the leather strap linking the two still intact. He'd designed it for battle-axe blades and the two-handed iron swords used by the empire's myrmidons, but the Imperial Army's widespread use of weapon enchantments meant that even the lowliest bronze short sword retained its point and its edge nigh indefinitely, and there'd been no call for such a solution.
Ipcress felt faintly ridiculous as sat down and held the small blade against the large honing stone, but he flipped the small lever at the bottom to engage the axle with the pedal mechanism and got to work. The mechanism groaned with the first few turns, but Ipcress soon got it turning with a steady rhythm, and began to work the edge.
The stone on the blade's edge made a high screeching sound, and sparks flew from it as Ipcress increased the speed of the wheel. Sometime later, when his legs ached and the pain in his back became too much to ignore, Ipcress took the blade from the wheel and allowed it to come to a halt. The fingers of his leather gloves were wearing where he'd caught them on the wheel's rough, spinning surface, but he could already tell that his efforts had been in vain. He removed one glove and held the blade - still cool, its waved surface shimmering eerily in the failing light. He sighed, and - through force of habit - ran his finger along the blunt edge.
He was slumped in the worn chair in his living area, a despondent grimace across his face, when he noticed the silence. Since the land on which his home stood had been commandeered by the army, silence had been a rare commodity - there was always something coming or going, drills being conducted, or strange claps, hisses and uncanny whispers in the night from whatever foolish rituals they conducted in the towers. Then he remembered Harold, and realised that he had not heard the sounds of work from above for some time. He stood up and headed towards the ladder. The boy was likely taking the time out to sun his milky hide rather than doing some work, but then Ipcress was becoming aware that it was unlikely he'd be able to fulfil his part of the bargain either.
As Ipcress pulled himself over the edge of the hatch and into the dusk light, his mouth - ready to lambaste Harold for his sloth - fell open and the silence remained unbroken. Amid the shadows cast by the low sun from the great scaffolds and constructions of the military base were rays of golden sunlight, criss-crossing the roof of his small shack and glinting from the panes of the glass dome that stood before him - perfectly built, and just as he had envisioned it.
Stepping closer, he saw that within was his olive plant - freshly bedded in a pot filled with moist soil - as well as a clutch of other plants which had been dug from the drying, cracked earth in his back yard. Ipcress chuckled as he opened the small door just an inch, and was met by warm, humid air from within and the lush scent of greenery and herbs.
Harold had done three days' work in less than one, and now was nowhere to be seen. Looking down at the blade, Ipcress vowed to return it to him, and to repay him in some way. But for that moment, he simply breathed deep of the cool air, and took in a moment of tranquillity in the summer day's waning light.
Ipcress asked around the base for news of Harold over the following week, but when he asked about the tall, pale youth with the farmer's clothes, the uncanny strength and the infuriatingly blithe manner, he was met with shrugs and shaken heads. For a month, Ipcress's existence was uneventful: work in his yard, punctuated by continued attempts to whet the blade and enquiries at the base's trading post and bar, with peaceful tending of his garden in the evenings.
It was a muggy autumn morning when they came. Ipcress was by his small stove - rolling his neck from side to side to work out the cricks from the night in his hammock, and enjoying the kick of fresh chilli and harallander that masked the less-than-fresh odour of the eggs he was scrambling. He heard a rattling sound, and looked up to see the pans and utensils hanging above the hob vibrating. Good timing, he thought. The month's consignment was early by several days, and he was running low on supplies. Even civilians were required to be present for the changing of the guard, so he knew he'd have to hurry. He scarfed his eggs and drank half his too-hot herbal tea, pulled on his jacket and made for the door, a wedge of toasted bread clamped in his mouth.
The central track of the base was lined with people - civilian staff and soldiers alike. Ipcress wondered why they weren't assembling in the mustering yard as they usually did, and noted the hushed whispers and furrowed brows all around. No-one had been expecting an arrival today, it seemed, and certainly not one of this size. Ipcress craned his neck to see between the heads of two of the soldiers, and saw the first of the approaching column. They were light horse - equipped to serve as skirmishers or outriders - each rider clad in a light cuirass, deep-purple tunic and the customary closed-face helm of the Imperial Army's elite. They were each armed with a short spear, a light bow and a curved, bronze dagger. The horses cantered at a steady pace, unperturbed by the surrounding clamour, and the warriors rode with their heads slightly bowed.
Next came foot: first spears, each man's shield and right-arm shoulder guard designed to fit with those of the one next to him as they closed ranks into a phalanx; myrmidons, with their blades of ensorcelled iron; and a contingent of sappers and engineers, each man laden with a heavy pack which Ipcress knew contained tools and magical explosives. Looks like they're preparing for a siege rather than a pitched battle, thought Ipcress, but there's been nothing like this for months. Plus, where's the baggage train? Usually, such a force in friendly territory would send wagons ahead to prepare for the arrival of the troops, but Ipcress had seen no such thing.
Then, archers, great yew bows strapped to their backs. They were the only soldiers with their faces exposed, grim mouths and set jaws jutting from the shadows cast by their wide-brimmed wicker hats. Then, finally, the detachment's few heavy horse - the commanding officer's personal guard. Great, black destriers snorted and champed beneath burnished bronze barding, and blackened iron sabres hung at each rider's side. They wore long coats of dark iron mail, over which were layered violet surcoats bearing the empire's cross-and-circle insignia, and each rider had a mask with a different copper face.
In their midst walked a figure a head taller again than his mounted guard. His long strides easily kept pace with the brisk trot of the horsemen, his black robe rippling in the breeze and his iron-bound boots grinding the earth with each great step. Small, piercing eyes shone from beneath his black cowl, and ridges of grey, hornlike tissue on his face lent him a permanent, imperious sneer. Slung in a scabbard at his back was a heavy greatsword, and he carried a staff of twisted, black wood, topped with a spherical object whose pale green surface skirled and wheeled. Just looking at it made Ipcress's eyes water, scents of sulphur and mustard erupting unbidden in his nostrils. A Mahjarrat - one of the Empty Lord's pet sorcerers. Ipcress had never seen one before, and as he passed, the air grew cold and a shiver ran through Ipcress. Whispers of a name rippled through the crowd.
Ipcress had - of course - heard the rumours: that Zemouregal was a turncoat - one of the surviving 'Stern Judges' of the Menaphites, who had defected to the Imperial Army when the desert god Tumeken had died in a great explosion of fire, laying ruin to invaders and defenders alike, and rendering the Kharidian province an arid wasteland. He was a necromancer, it was said, a ruthless Legatus willing to resort to even the blackest magic to achieve victory. Ipcress scowled.
Nothing in Ipcress's view followed Zemouregal, although the rumbling sound in the distance had yet to subside. He concluded that the supplies and siege engines would follow shortly, and that he should make haste with the rest of the assembled crowd to the mustering yard.
He arrived to see Zemouregal ascending the wooden podium at the front of the yard. Mage Commander Sequitus was standing nearby and shouting something that Ipcress could not hear, his jowls quivering as his face reddened. Zemouregal did not acknowledge the mage and continued his ascent, and Sequitus shot a parting remark with an officious shake of his finger before raising his hands and ascending in the characteristic block-like patterns of a teleportation spell.
The sound of conversation in the assembled throng had grown substantially, but with a raise of his gauntleted hand Zemouregal commanded silence. His voice cut through the morning air.
'It is in the Empty Lord's name that we do take this post, and that I - Zemouregal - do assume command of its assets, personnel and holdings. Know that this was pre-ordained and inevitable.'
Ipcress stared at the Mahjarrat. With his head raised, Zemouregal's features were on full display. The bony ridges extended up the whole of his face, and clustered in a brow that seemed permanently severe.
'This summer, we take Menaphos.' A murmur rippled through the crowd, and Zemouregal raised his voice as he continued, 'It is impregnable, some have said. Those who have tried have languished as they traversed Tumeken's Folly - our finest imperial soldiers dying of thirst and exposure, long before reaching the great desert city's walls.'
It was true - indeed, it was why the empire had withdrawn its forces from the Kharidian province. Ipcress scanned the Mahjarrat's face for traces of doubt or concern, but found none. Either you're stupider than I'd been led to believe, sorcerer, or you've something up your sleeve.
'The Empty Lord sees all,' boomed Zemourgeal, 'As he retreats from our sight, he watches still, and it is our duty to carry on his great work. It falls to us to usher this world to its fate - to bring it under his rule.'
But the surly noises of discontent from the crowd were turning to gasps of horror, the cries growing as more of the assembled civilians turned to see what was coming down the road to the mustering yard. Ipcress had previously tuned out the low rumbling in the distance as the coming baggage train, but now it had grown and sounded like nothing he had heard before. It rumbled up through Ipcress's body as slow, thunderous booms. Zemouregal tapped his staff on the ground once, twice - echoing sonorously - and beckoned with his free hand. Eyes wide, Ipcress followed the gaze of the crowd.
The thing that lumbered along the base's dusty track was 30 feet tall, at least, and roughly humanoid in shape, but that was where all semblance of decency and respect for life ended. Its surface was a pallid mess of flesh, twisted into shape with what Ipcress could only assume was the blackest of sorcery. It was flanked by two hooded figures, swinging copper censers on chains - priests of the Sombre Vigil, a prominent death cult in the capital. Sweet-scented smoke purified the air and protected those nearby from disease, Ipcress speculated, but it could not mask the cloying stench of decay from the abomination that approached.
Zemouregal was explaining the construct's purpose, but Ipcress saw all too clearly. The dead that inevitably accrue over the long journey south were to be melded into flesh giants such as this one, and by the time they arrive - wait for it - free, independently mobile siege engines, needing no food or man-power to maintain and only getting bigger as the light force of reavers ravaged the settlements scattered on the way. Once away from the censers of the death priests, it would spread disease as well. Objectively, ruthlessly efficient - it was this that the empire was built on, and the relative peace and prosperity at home made it all too easy to forget. Ipcress had tried to deny it, but he was as complicit as anyone. As he looked around at the silent crowd, ashen-faced and staring at their feet - he shook with anger and shame.
As the monster approached, he was grimacing with disgust at the twisted surface of the thing - in which he was certain he could still make out fingers, knees and other recognisably human parts - when something glinted. Ipcress squinted and covered his eyes from the sun's glare and - suddenly - exhaled hoarsely. He dropped, quaking, to one knee, clutching his cramping stomach and covering his mouth. Someone was kneeling next to him, a hand on his shoulder, calling his name, but the voice sounded so far away. As the flesh construct passed and made its way to the courtyard where it would rest, Ipcress knew that within it was a strong, steel frame - made from salvaged scrap metal - with a waved, patterned surface. My steel... They used my steel!
The morning light burst into Ipcress's eyes as pushed to the front of the crowd and staggered into the courtyard. Hundreds of eyes bored into him as he advanced, and he could see soldiers mouthing angry words, their hands at their weapons. Ipcress's became aware that - cold, in his outstretched hand - was Harold's blade, and that he too was shouting, brandishing the blade in front: 'I'll kill you for this! I'll kill you!'
Then there was an impact, and Ipcress staggered back a few steps. His mouth opened and closed silently and he looked down to see the shaft of an arrow protruding from his chest, blood on his hands where he grasped at it. The strength left his knees, and as he fell to the ground, overwhelming sound and mad activity returned to his senses.
The world span, and everything seemed very loud. Soon, Ipcress's view of the sky was obscured faces wracked with anger and confusion, and the glint of drawn blades.
'Enough!' Zemouregal's voice echoed across the courtyard, calm but resonant. The soldiers withdrew, falling back into line, their eyes downcast in deference.
The crowd parted as Zemouregal approached. In only a few strides he was there, regarding Ipcress with small, black eyes. Ipcress met his gaze, clutching his chest, panting with gurgling breaths.
'And what have we here?' rumbled Zemouregal. Ipcress did not break his gaze. He opened his mouth, but could only splutter and rasp. A cruel smile flashed onto the Mahjarrat's face. 'A dissenting voice, it seems,' he chuckled.
Zemouregal turned, his booming voice resonating through the silent yard. 'There is a place for everyone in our glorious empire. Everyone - be they loyal civilians, our brave solders...even traitorous swine such as this.'
Ipcress's eyes flicked to the flesh construct, which stirred and mewled from its great slack maw, then back to Zemouregal. His breathing quickened and his vision spun, as Zemouregal tapped his staff on the ground with three slow strikes. No... Oh, gods, no...
A sighing sound filled the air as a sickly green mist began to leak from the top of the staff. Zemouregal passed his fingers through the mist, drawing it out like strands of thread. It played around his fingers, and as he raised his hand it condensed into a skirling orb of baleful green light.
'Behold,' snarled Zemouregal, shadows and harsh light deepening the contours of his face, 'How even in death...duty to the empire is absolute.'
The world seemed to slow. Zemouregal hurled the orb and it flew closer with a terrible wailing sound, filling Ipcress's vision, threatening to engulf him. Then there was a shadow, a roar as of flame, and then silence. Gasps and ripples of noise came from the crowd, and Ipcress strained his neck upward to see a silhouetted form - tall, gaunt, one arm raised in a shielding posture.
'Don't you think you've done enough?' Harold's voice rang out.
Zemouregal stared, then let out a bark of laughter. 'And who are you, mageling? I certainly hope you've reason for disrupting this execution.'
'Oh, I've reason enough.' Harold's high tenor was reedy as ever, but something in its tone made it impossible to ignore. Run, you idiot, Ipcress wanted to scream, but all that came from his mouth was a hoarse croak.
By now, Harold had circled slowly around Zemouregal to where the blade lay. 'And I'm no mage. More like a farmer.' He crouched and picked up the blade. 'This man's dying - won't be long now - and you've no right to harm him further. And this...' Harold rose, gesturing toward the construct standing at the rear of the yard. 'Well, this just won't do at all, will it?'
Zemouregal's demeanour cracked, and with a sweep of an arm he roared 'Wretch! I command here, and by my hand these people live or die. Death is mine to control!'
In a flash, the world was dark and so very cold, and the crowd was no longer to be seen or heard. Zemouregal stood where he had been, frozen to the spot, his form a murky green in the gloom. Behind him, the construct was a roiling mass of white, and Harold...
What in the Abyss...
Where the pale youth had stood was a grim figure, clad in black robes that seemed almost part of the shadow. It was turned away from Ipcress, its head obscured beneath its cowl, but its hand was thin and bone-white - that of a skeleton. In that hand was the blade - the ripples on its surface glowing brilliant blue. Along its edge coursed bright blue streaks - like friction marks on a sharpened blade.
'You...' spoke Zemouregal, eyes wide and face frigid, but the figure stepped forward. A cold voice hissed in Ipcress's mind:
At once the figure was by the construct and the blade flashed. There was a shrieking sound, and its form exploded into streaking white, up and away.
It turned on its heel and stepped again, flashing back past Zemouregal. The staff shattered in his hand and he roared in fury.
Now, the figure stood over Ipcress. He stared into what could only be the face of Death itself - bone-white beneath the cowl's shadow. Ipcress could do nothing but lie there and shiver as Death slowly levelled the glowing blade at him.
'Go on,' Ipcress hissed, 'What're you waiting for?'
But the figure stood still, eyes glinting as it regarded him, and the strike never came. Colour bled back into the world, and Ipcress saw the courtyard in chaos. The flesh giant had collapsed - the trapped souls within released - and a torrent of viscera had spilled from a deep wound in its swollen belly. The crowd was a riot of noise, fear and anger, and the soldiers struggled to contain them with shouts and threats. Zemouregal ground his teeth, then strode away, shouting orders to his troops.
Ipcress found himself staring into the sallow face of Harold, who knelt by his side, grinning broadly. 'Now, uncle, that's no way to talk. You're looking better by the second.'
Incredulous, Ipcress spluttered, and as the edges of his vision faded to black he had time to croak.
As I fall into the dark, I dream.
I dream of silence and the deep, soft earth.
I dream of Death and the dog-headed man.
The dog-headed man nods once, melting away into the black.
I dream of the horned god, who slumbers in the deep.
As he sleeps, his voice echoes in my mind. He calls my name; an old form, long unspoken:
Awakening was like falling and in my mind I screamed.
When I awoke, I found myself changed. Blood is sap. Sinew is vine. Muscle is ceramic.
The old memories yet linger, but they are as windows into another life. I must record them...while I remember.
I know that once I would have felt anger and disgust to see myself like this...but to feel those things one needs blood; flesh; a human heart.
As it is, I feel no rage...no pain. Just that I am home.
There are others like me here, but they do not move or think as I do. The horned god whispers that I am different; that he brought me here for a reason and gave me this body of wood and clay.
In my silent brothers lies potential, as it does in all things. Everything I need is here in the earth.
Three of them now live, in their way, and can follow simple commands. The awakening process is slow, but time is not something I lack.
As I work, I feel warmth, purpose... The horned god tells me that this is Gielinor. I am of the earth, and her spirit suffuses and sustains me. As she nurtures and tends, so do I. As she hurts, so do I. As she loves, so do I.
I must care for my brothers, and for all of Gielinor's creatures. I am their guardian.
The egg was brought to me by Fiara. As I slept, Guthix told me of the serpent child within and the role she must play. My brothers and I will tend and warm her, and I will teach her - help her to grow and serve as a fellow guardian.
Gielinor is in pain.
War rages on her surface, and Juna feels it too. This cannot continue - the world will be broken.
My brothers are now many, and over the years I have grown and nurtured them to be strong. In my dreams, Guthix tells me that we should prepare for war; that - if need be - he will return, and exact reckoning on those who would bend this world to their will.
Should that time come, we guardians stand ready.
Author: William D
Released: May 2015