Far away from the citadel, away from the daerils that lazed in the burning sun and ran sweaty hands over their weapons, through the perilous pass through the mountains, were several fields: verdurous grass and tawny crops that rippled and shimmered in the cool wind. A river from the mountains sloshed past the fields, descending into the valley and sprinkling the nearby vegetation with white specks. There was a waterfall, and beyond it a secluded cave, of which housed the skeleton of a giant monstrosity.
The sound of the river was accompanied by the chirping of crickets and soft whoosh of the crops being cut and falling into piles. The strands were gathered together and bundled tightly by rope, and then stacked onto a cart. They would be divided back at the citadel; half would go towards the daerils to be ground into flour and made into food, and the other half would be shipped to the east to feed the hungry people of Lantimor. This nifty source of income had no expense on the daerils' behalf, and also proved beneficial for the masses who starved under the God King's rule.
A bead of sweat made its way across the Acolyte's back as he wielded Reaper; the scythe flashed in the sun, its keen edge severing the stalks of the grain that he stepped over and the Cavalier collected. His companion had left his helm on the cart, and was taking every moment to express his boredom with loud groans and exasperated huffs. The Acolyte preferred to do his work alone, but the new council leader, the Headsman, had insisted that the Cavalier accompanied him. It was his punishment for falling asleep and failing to stop the Vault's escapees. It wasn't a particularly cruel punishment, the Acolyte noted, but he supposed that the Headsman still needed him to defend the citadel.
A woman in boiled leather crisscrossed with belts had come to the citadel three months ago - a pleasant change from the Deathless man named Siris. The Acolyte could not forget his immense fear and amazement as his life had been spared. What kind of Deathless was he, he had thought. But then after that, Siris had not reappeared. For all of his efforts in opening the Vault of Tears, he had suddenly given up. Nevertheless, the Acolyte soon realised that Siris had been trapped within the Vault, and the Worker of Secrets had silently escaped into the world. The daerils within the citadel had panicked; they had failed their purpose, and wondered what their failure would transpire. Then, for two years, they decided to stay in Saranthia and continue to guard the Vault of Tears. After all, these daerils did not have a home to return to; they were pariahs to society, rejected by their twisted appearances and absence of morality. A council was set up to keep the daerils in order, after previously being directed by the Archivist. The council leader changed from season to season. It had been the Dark Knight when the woman had appeared.
She had not been like Siris; instead, she had been stealthy, dishonourable, shooting daerils in the chest with crossbow bolts and then beating them with a staff. The irony that a Deathless, of all creatures, had possessed more honour than the woman made the Acolyte laugh. But his mirth had evaporated once he saw her use Deathless technology to open the Vault. With two bound and gagged people by her side, daerils accounts said that she had left them within the Vault and returned moments later with a naked man: heavily bruised, bleeding from horrendous wounds, and half-insane. The Acolyte had expressed his doubt at first, but it had indeed been Siris, mysteriously attacked within the Vault. How could that have happened? Had the Worker of Secrets never escaped, and been inside with him? Had they panicked for nought?
It had been three months since, and neither the woman nor Siris had come back. The Acolyte was inwardly glad, but could not hide a sense of unease. What was the Deathless doing now, instead of killing the citadel's daerils? Whom was he pursuing, if not the Worker? No one knew what had happened to the two people within the Vault, and no one was brave enough to open it. So they listened to the new council leader, and remained at the citadel, diligently guarding the Vault, even though they did not know who was inside.
The Cavalier sighed, running a gauntlet through the dark curls of his hair. "This is tiresome," he complained. "I'm boiling."
"That's not my problem," replied the Acolyte, not deviating from his task.
"When will we be done?"
"We need to cut as many crops as possible before dusk."
"Dusk?" repeated the Cavalier incredulously. "I'd rather be polishing the brass than waiting here for you to pass me the wheat."
The Acolyte rolled his eyes. "We would get through this field a lot faster if you picked up that scythe and helped me."
"My job is to bind the stuff, remember?"
Indeed he did. He wished more than ever that he was alone. "All right, then. If you don't want to help me further, then at least be quiet."
"Argh." His companion spat on the ground, and then began to walk away. The Acolyte paused to watch him go towards the river, and surmised that he probably needed a drink; after all, the heat was stifling, and even in his scarce clothing, sweat drenched his skin and dampened his pits and palms. He did not want to mention the almost impossible feat of breathing through the mask, and tried to avoid thinking about the coolness of water and its soothing effect on his dry throat. Perhaps, after another sheaf or two, he would pause his reaping and join the Cavalier. He deserved his rest.
Five sheaves later, the crops were nearly completely cut, and the Acolyte's hold on his scythe was slipping. How long had it been since the Cavalier had disappeared? The Acolyte tried to swallow, but there was no moisture to relieve his parched throat. That man, abandoning his punishment. As much as the Acolyte had enjoyed his absence, he would certainly inform the Headsman of it. He neatly ordered the sheaves onto the cart, picked up Reaper, and then walked to the river, following his companion's tracks.
To his surprise and confusion, the tracks seemed to go towards the river, yet abruptly turned towards the main path, which was simply an earthy boundary between the fields, and was the same as that which went through the mountains to the citadel. Here, the Acolyte called for the Cavalier, and received no answer. Something wasn't right. He rolled his wrist, seeing his scythe glint as it caught the light. He went down the path, trying to peer over the ears of grain for a man in bronze armour.
As he approached the end of the fields, he heard voices: both male, one speaking with the Cavalier's intonation. The Acolyte hurried towards them, and soon found the Cavalier and an Executioner looming over a bespectacled man, who was trying to reason with them while on his backside. The man jumped in fright when he saw the crow-masked Acolyte, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed.
"Now, look here," he said, in a somewhat nasal voice, "I think we can sort something out. Surely I can work without any aggravation? I mean no harm, honestly..."
The Acolyte levelled Reaper at him, and he heard his teeth champ together. "Who are you?" he said.
"A gem-cutter, sir," he replied nervously. "Please, look through my belongings, take what you want - just don't kill me." The Executioner growled, and he flinched, causing the Cavalier to smirk.
"Don't mind if I do," he said, and proceeded to go through his bags.
"What is going on?" asked the Acolyte.
"This man turned up on the path. He's seeking business at the citadel." The Cavalier pulled out a bag, reached within, and in his palm were a dozen different gems. "Aha! Now aren't these rare jewels..."
The Executioner swung its mace from its shoulder with a grunt, and jabbed a thick finger towards the gem-cutter. The Acolyte shook his head. "No," he said sternly, "you cannot kill him. He can work here if he wants. We need to reap the rest of the crops before the weather gets cold, and I don't see the Cavalier doing it." He turned to the sprawled man. "You wish to work here, correct?"
"Then pick up your belongings, and follow me. Cavalier, you need to retrieve the cart. Executioner, could you escort this gem-cutter with me?" The brute grumbled and began to lumber towards the citadel. The Cavalier tried to protest, but even though the Acolyte's eyes were hidden, he sensed his glare, and reluctantly traipsed back through the fields to find the cart.
The Headsman was not pleased by the Cavalier's reported idleness, and even less so by the appearance of the gem-cutter. He stood over them, contemplating silently while the man fiddled with his tools and shot anxious glances at the daerils that surrounded him. The Cavalier's punishment had been extended to dividing the sheaves, so that half would be stored and the other half sold. The latter would be taken to the port by the Rogue Knight, and the money would be used to buy more food and provisions.
But, as the Headsman had rightly said when he had gazed upon the gem-cutter, now there was one more mouth to feed, and winters in the mountainous Saranthia were hard, even vicious. It was a morbid game of theirs to count how many died of cold compared to those slain by challengers. The gem-cutter waited for the Headsman's decision on whether he could stay in the citadel or not. The Acolyte reminded him that they were in short supply of gems for their weaponry; moreover, they were probably lots of gems down by the ruins outside of the citadel, which could be sold expensively. The thought of more gold made the daerils murmur amongst themselves.
"That is no guarantee, however," said the Headsman.
"It is very likely," pressed the Acolyte. "Besides, I need hands with the wheat and other crops in the fields. When he's not working with gems, he can help me."
The council leader hummed, his deep voice reverberating in the dilapidated hall. Then he nodded. "I will permit your presence, gem-cutter, if you prove profitable to us. Listen to the Acolyte; do as he says, and stay out of our way. Do not abuse my kindness, or you will regret ever setting foot in Saranthia." With that, he dismissed the council of daerils, and the gem-cutter audibly released his breath.
Four weeks later, when summer was at its scorching peak and the lack of action meant that most daerils spent their time near the river and waterfall, the gem-cutter had indeed been rewarding: binding the sheaves, excavating the gems, cleaning the citadel. The Acolyte, under the Headsman's instruction, kept a close eye on the man, making sure that he did not leave the fields without his permission and did not interrupt any council meetings. The next council leader was being decided; the trolls were angry that they had not been considered, but few understood their language, and if a council leader needed to be anything, it was coherent. The Feral Troll had vented its rage on the ruins and disturbed the gem-cutter's workshop, consequently earning a long, irritated rant on how crude and inconsiderate it was - not that the troll cared.
The gem-cutter liked to talk. He was the type who liked the sound of his own voice, and would sometimes mutter to himself when working. The Acolyte would surreptitiously listen to his mumblings, and learnt that he had recently come from a Deathless master named Therin, and had served as the collector of gems paid to enter the Deathless' arena. When his master had been killed, however, he had been forced to look for another occupation. His search had led to Saranthia. This gem-cutter yearned for riches, but the Acolyte knew that he would never find it in the mountains.
He stood back, admiring his work. All of the crops had been painstakingly reaped, and the gem-cutter was heaving for breath as he struggled to pile them onto the cart. This season, the grain had been good, so good that the Rogue Knight had bought a horse with the gold. The Headsman had been dubious of its worth initially, but it was a distraction for the knight, who took meticulous care of it - perhaps excessively, thought the Acolyte. The horse, named Polm, was tied to the cart, flicking its tail to swat the flies. The gem-cutter wrinkled his nose whenever he went near; he didn't like horses.
The Acolyte laid Reaper on the cart, and gestured for the gem-cutter to get on. Then, once the man had made himself comfortable, he approached the horse and rubbed its forehead affectionately. Taking its reins in one hand, he began leading it back to the citadel, humming to himself contentedly as the blistering heat was lessened by the breeze. The gem-cutter tried to sing, but the horrible result made Polm vigorously shake its head, and he took it as a sign to be quiet. The Acolyte's feet hurt, and he was looking forward to resting in the courtyard. Perhaps he would get a sip of the cider brought from the ports. Luxuries such as alcohol and food other than beans and bread were precious; the Horned Witch guarded the cellar diligently, and if she caught anyone trying to sneak a morsel, she would send them to the council leader with a set of broken ribs.
Still Siris had not returned, and the Acolyte wondered whether he would ever speak to him again and find out what he had been doing for the last four months. The council had not received any support from the other Deathless houses on what to do. Thane had disappeared, the Stone Demon was shattered, and the Archivist was dead. The Headsman recognised that some of the daerils were becoming restless, but their otherwise-violent energy was sapped by the sun; nevertheless, matters would become complicated as soon as the heat faded and autumn came. The daerils wanted to leave Saranthia and roam the land in bloodthirsty packs, perhaps even crossing the sea into Lantimor. That would never do, thought the Acolyte. The remaining people of Saranthia were terrified already of having a citadel full of daerils; increasing the threat would not be good for those who preferred to stay behind. The Headsman had to decide something, and do so quickly.
The Acolyte took Polm and the cart through the brazier-lit hallway into the courtyard; he frowned at the uncharacteristic silence of his environment. Usually there were daerils lying around, playing cards or idly honing their swords. The gem-cutter dropped from the back of the cart and stretched. Before he could walk towards the main hall, the Acolyte stopped him.
"What's wrong?" he quizzed, half-weary, half-fearful.
The Acolyte took Reaper from the cart and gripped it tightly. "Stay alert," was all he said.
He went first, eyes flickering left and right as he searched for abnormalities. As he and the gem-cutter came closer to the hall, he heard a man's booming voice. It was not the Headsman's. He reached out with his left hand and pushed open the hall's doors. Walking in, the Acolyte regarded the crowd of daerils warily, readying himself for some sort of event.
"Ah!" came that same voice. "Insolent daerils that have been bathing in the river and neglecting their duty! Come - hear what you have missed and the consequences of your impudence."
It was a Deathless, clad in gold armour and wearing a strange horned mask. The Acolyte's blood ran cold; however, he summoned his courage and strode forwards, hearing the gem-cutter shuffle behind him. Daerils stared at them apprehensively. The Headsman was not to be seen.
Once they were close enough, the Deathless laughed: a cold, mirthless noise. "As I was saying, Saranthia will be visited by a familiar individual soon. His reasons are simple: he wishes to kill you and defile the Great Pact. I will be your new leader; you will help me stop him."
The Acolyte humphed. "The Great Pact has been broken," he said. "The Vault of Tears was opened two years ago, and again four months ago. The Worker has probably escaped. We have no reason to comply with your demands."
"And whose fault was it, creature? You must pay for your deficiency, and I will decide how. Your purpose is to defend this place, and I order you, as Melek, the Warlord of House Ix, to fulfil your purpose."
He was about to retort, when he saw the Cavalier, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. He had to remember that not all Deathless were as merciful as Siris; speaking back to this Melek person would only get him killed. He could not allow that to happen. So he bowed his head in obeisance, and held his tongue. Satisfied by his compliance, Melek chuckled.
"Good. Rogue daerils are scum to be purged from this world. You should count yourself fortunate that you are standing before a great Deathless."
The Acolyte did not see it as fortunate. He did not see it as an honour, as a reason to be humble. But for his fellow daerils' sake, he complied. His new station was in the mountains, away from the fields, as a scout for the visitor. He guessed who it was, but he could not be certain that he would have remained the same. The daerils had said that he had come out of the Vault a madman. Who wouldn't, reasoned the Acolyte. Being trapped in an undeteriorating prison was bound to blur the edges of one's mind and dull their sanity.
Wearing only trousers, a headscarf and a mask, the mountains were cruel to his health. He suffered the obfuscating mists and fogs, trying not to fall from the edges of rock, and huddled inside shallow caves while the winds howled and whittled at his strength. This was a punishment, not reaping crops. Bears and cats came near occasionally, but his scythe always founds its mark in their necks. He used their pelts to keep warm, and thought about how the daerils would be coping back at the citadel, where they were closer to Melek's callous authority. Autumn was drawing near, and the weather prevented him from seeing the imminent danger.
When the skies cleared on one crisp autumn's morning, the Acolyte moved his stiff joints and began his exercises to keep warm and practise with Reaper. He had not heard from the citadel for a week. Down below, the valley was nothing but darkness, and the fields had turned muddy. He was on the other side of the mountains, facing away from the citadel, so that he could spot any travellers. Once or twice, he had seen the Rogue Knight riding Polm down the pass to the ports, but he never stopped. He had been ordered, supposed the Acolyte, to ignore him.
Suddenly, he heard a shout, and the roar of a bear. Peering over the edge, he tried to discern where it had come from. The person seemed to be fighting a bear somewhere below, near the pass. Should he send a warning, or was it just a daeril having trouble? Then again, if it was Siris, then perhaps he could rely on the Deathless to kill Melek; after all, he opposed his own kind, as he had shown before. But the daerils were his family - or thereabouts - and he had become acquaintances with a few. He did not forget the way Siris had ploughed through the daerils in the citadel, slaying a dozen before reaching the top. If Siris would kill Melek, it would not be before his kind.
The Acolyte had been raised in a cult, where Corvus, their dark-winged god, bestowed its power unto them in return for acknowledgement and prayers. It was not a malevolent god; it foresaw all calamities and helped its followers. Although the cult existed in Lantimor, his people had told him to follow in the way of Corvus, to spread its influence, and had given him the tools to do so: his attire, Reaper, and a ring that had been stolen from him in the beginning of his journey.
During his time within the cult, he had learnt to communicate with birds. The Archivist had found it fascinating, while the other daerils had laughed; thus he had refrained from doing so recently. But now he needed the ability in order to correspond with those at the citadel. He inhaled, and then released his breath in a sharp screech, accurately imitating the call of Corvus. He waited, and then heard a bird call back. It swooped from the peaks, settling onto his outstretched arm and almost buffeting him in the face with its golden-brown wings.
"Go to the citadel," he said, using his other hand to point at it. The eagle stared at him fiercely. "Warn the daerils there of a disturbance in the mountains."
The eagle could not speak, but its appearance would serve its purpose. It took off, and he somewhat missed the vice-like grip of its claws. He had not spoken to birds for years. He had not thought about his cult, either. Now he would have to wait for a response; until then, he would simply have to go through his Aegis forms. He took Reaper from the ground and began his kata, clearing his mind of doubts as he practised the elegant turns of his blade as it sliced through the air. The practice became more vigorous, until he was dancing with an imaginary opponent, parrying their thin blade, dodging their stabs, avoiding eye contact with the helm of black that seemed to glare at him-
A deep groan echoed throughout the mountains, and he broke out of his trance, whirling around to hear it fade. Then, without a second thought, he ran down the mountain, leaping over the mushroom stalks he had eaten for the past week, raising Reaper so that it would not catch on the rocks. That had been the dying call of a troll - that he knew. He had heard it when Siris had challenged one in the courtyard two years ago. His leather boots crushed the dewy grass as the rock receded and he sprinted towards the citadel. He saw the corpse of a bear, its innards still steaming, and increased his pace.
There was a limit, of course, to his stamina, but by the time he had reached the bridge to the citadel, it was past dusk, and all of the daeril scouts had been killed on the way. This had to be Siris. It had to be. Only a Deathless could kill so many of them without dying or resting. By the looks of it, the man had done neither; he was determined to reach the citadel. But what for? Melek had said that he 'wished to defile the Great Pact', but what was there left of it? What could he possibly want from Saranthia?
He burst through the doors, ran through the hallway, and found the courtyard bleak and deserted - apart from two cadavers by the steps. One was the Plated Sorok, the other the Fel Siren. The Acolyte gritted his teeth. Then a figure came out from the shadows, pulling the reins of Polm with distaste.
"You," growled the Acolyte. The gem-cutter froze. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Oh, just getting out of his castle, like he said," said the gem-cutter airily. "He's a bit huffy at the moment. Really hasn't changed."
The Acolyte paused. "You know him."
"Unfortunately, yes. One cannot forget that obstinate mood of his. Now excuse me, please. I'm sure my new benefactor is dead by now, so I should be going."
"Not with Polm, you're not!" He reached forward and snatched the horse's reins. The gem-cutter stepped back, holding his hands up in surrender.
"All right, calm down," he said. "I don't like the beast anyway. Excretes too much." He walked towards the hallway.
"Where are you going?" called the Acolyte.
"To find another master who has a lesser chance of dying," was the gem-cutter's reply.
The man became indistinguishable as he travelled down the hallway; the Acolyte gave Polm a soothing pat, wondering where the Rogue Knight was. On either side of the courtyard, the gates were closed, and he thought carefully on where Siris could have gone. In the end, he decided to go through the main hall, where he could access most of the rooms. He tied the horse to the steps' bannister, and suddenly noticed something. In the centre, where the statues of the warrior and serpent were, the egg had broken. It was as though something had cracked it from the inside and crawled out. Had that been Siris' doing?
He walked briskly into the hall, sensing the danger as though it was breathing down his neck. There was the Executioner, dead by the stairs. The Acolyte raised Reaper to defend himself; Siris could be accompanied by that woman, who would not hesitate in shooting him with her crossbow. He stayed vigilant, and was rewarded by the sound of voices coming from the left. That was where the giant slab of inscribed stone was. The Archivist would spend hours upon hours observing it, before he had been killed. The Acolyte saw him with his pointed cowl and ornate robes in his mind as he passed through the hallway and entered the gallery that overlooked the room.
He did not know whether to be relieved or alarmed to see Siris talking to Melek. The former sounded irritated, irate even, and drew his sword just as the Acolyte crept down the gallery to get closer. Then a duel began, and the clashing of metal rang throughout the room. The raw, unrestrained power behind Siris' attacks was terrifying; he seemed to have lost control of his emotions, and was fighting in a maddened frenzy. This was not Siris. His voice was the same, but his demeanour had changed. Perhaps he had become unhinged after all of those years within the Vault, and had never recovered. The Acolyte clenched his jaw, spectating the duel with a frown, absorbing the rhythm of Siris' movements. The likelihood of being attacked if he tried to speak with him was high. But he would try regardless.
The duel ended when Siris' blade plunged through Melek's chest. The Deathless gurgled, dropping to his knees and then falling with a crash, leaving Siris to regain his breath and compose himself. The Acolyte smiled in grim satisfaction; no longer would he have to be a scout, or the other daerils his servants. Then, just as he was about to announce himself, a metal creature with small claws and glowing eyes came forward. Siris asked it a question - first wearily, and then with the tyrannical fury the Acolyte had glimpsed during his duel. The creature cowered and crawled towards the slab. The Acolyte did not understand its intentions until it tapped a Pangean symbol, and a shining pedestal arose from the ground; suspended above it was some sort of dark object. Siris took it and stowed it away. The Acolyte saw his opportunity, and vaulted over the gallery's balustrade, landing just before the victorious Deathless, who instinctively reached for his sword and shield.
"Greetings, Siris of Lantimor," said the Acolyte, inclining his head.
The man relaxed. "I remember you. You're the Acolyte."
"So it would seem that we meet again, under similar circumstances: both with the duty to fight one another, and both ignoring it." He twirled Reaper. "You saved my life two years ago, even though you should have killed me. What changed your mind?"
Siris let out an exasperated sigh, one that betrayed his exhaustion with life. "If I knew, I would tell you."
"Tell me, then: why did you return to Saranthia?"
"To finish what I started," he said simply.
"That is hardly an answer."
"Answers are the very things I seek."
He grinned at the Deathless' elusiveness, despite the anger in his heart at the death of his fellow daerils, and gestured to Melek. "When he told us of a 'familiar individual' coming back to Saranthia, I knew it was you. But I am still intrigued as to why. You were imprisoned here for two years-" Siris turned his head away "-and have been quiet for some time. What unfinished business have you?"
"Contrary to what you say, I haven't been quiet in the slightest. The Worker of Secrets commands the Deathless, and used them to crush our rebellion."
"Rebellion?" said the Acolyte in disbelief.
"Yes. He killed hundreds of honest, innocent men, and the God King avenged them. It's a strange tale, but Raidriar was a true Aegis until the end." He sounded wistful. "I misjudged him. In his final moments, he sent me a piece of equipment to help me against the Worker, and stop his plans before they escalate and consume us."
"The God King, helping you against the Worker? But that was why you came here originally: to release the Worker, and disobey the Great Pact. How can he be your enemy, and the God King your friend?"
"In times of desperation, you see the truth."
"How poetic," remarked the Acolyte dryly. "Nevertheless, I cannot let you leave here unscathed. There was some truth in that Deathless named Melek: I have a purpose, and I must fulfil it."
Siris stepped forwards. "You don't have to fight me. Join Isa and I. Fight against the Deathless and the Worker. You have a higher purpose than this - we all do."
"No. I am merely a feral beast driven by base desires." He said it mockingly, and was pleased to see Siris ball his fists as he remembered. "Face me, Siris, and see how wrong you are when it comes to destiny."