Arx Gravis, Year of the Reckoning: 907
So much blood.
Canals of it running through the streets of Arx Gravis, dripping from the walkways and bridges like diseased rain, making the waters of Sanguis Terrae, the great lake at the foot of the ravine a perfect match for its name. It even flowed along the corridors of power all the way to the Dodecagon, and though he knew the council chamber like the back of his hand, knew the twelve hermetically sealed stone doors were airtight, Thumil kept expecting the first trickle of red to seep beneath them, pool beneath the debating table and rise till it drowned him and Cordy, that bald bastard Aristodeus and…He looked at the once familiar dwarf twitching with nerves or damped down rage at the head of the table, scarcely dared take in the black axe clutched to his chest in white-knuckled hands. Looked and went blank. He couldn’t say it. Couldn’t say the name. Hardly seemed to fit any more.
All he could focus on was those dead eyes that used to have the hue of walnut, at once sad but twinkling with good cheer. Now they were black as the Void and just as hungry. Hungry for more killing. Hungry for the murder of his own kind. They saw Thumil watching, narrowed when he squeezed Cordy’s hand, wringing out what little strength was left in her. Then they flitted left to right, hunting out betrayal in the shadows beneath the amber glow-stones set into the lintel above each door. Used to be those lights gave the chamber a homey cheer, like the warm embers of the hearth in Kunaga’s where they’d grown drunk together, set the place heaving with bawdy songs and uproarious wit.
Thumil blinked back tears, met that tortured gaze that asked if he were friend or foe; read in that grimacing face the accusation of betrayal, the desire to trust. Those eyes had been ready to kill him, that much he knew. Didn’t matter how close they once were. Hadn’t been for Cordy, he’d have been a head on a spike along with all the others.
She’d always had the persuasion, Cordy. Only woman alive could’ve got him to the altar, but even she’d nearly cropped it. Whatever trust their old friend still had in her was teetering on a knife’s edge. There’d been no mercy in that demonic glare. None whatsoever.
Thumil risked a glance. The eyes were feverish now, fixed right on him, daring him, willing him, begging him. Shog, he looked a mess, beard all matted and streaked with froth, face carved with wrinkles like scars. But that’s all it was now: a face. Thumil couldn’t allow himself to give it a name. The mere thought that this butcher was once a person, once a friend, brought bile to his throat, sent spasms through his innards that made him double up.
Cordy let out a sob, gripped his hand tighter. Her palm was greased with sweat. Could’ve been gore, for all Thumil knew. Shog, she’d seen enough of it. Specks of crimson spattered her dress, seemed to swirl about her in a corona of fine mist. How he loved her at that moment. Needed her. He knew with all his heart it was him and her against the world. He put his cheek to her beard, sought the comfort of its soft bristles, but it was lank, cold with the perspiration of fear, or perhaps the wetness of congealing blood. He couldn’t bare to look, preferring instead the way his mind chose to picture her. How blessed he was to have her as a wife. How cursed in everything else. Maybe together they could keep the darkness at bay, forget what they’d seen, what they’d been forced to do, because it was a betrayal, however you looked at it, but it was the only choice they had. The only one they’d been given.
Aristodeus stepped behind the butcher, holding the scarolite great helm aloft, flecks of green glimmering in the half-light. There was a collective intake of breath and then silence as the philosopher lowered the helm. Thumil’s heart lurched. He wanted so much to say no. What if the killing could be stopped some other way they’d missed? Council wasn’t used to making emergency decisions. Trick him, was all the bald bastard offered. Him and his homunculi friends. Trick him and kill him, or trick him and take his name, shame him like no other dwarf had been shamed then shut him in the dungeons till a cure could be found. Thumil winced. There was no cure for evil like the black axe brought. Maybe killing would’ve have been fairer to everyone.
He stretched out his hand, but Cordy put a restraining arm around his shoulders.
“No,” he gasped, the word not passing his clenched teeth. He forced his lips open, groaned way back in his throat, felt his friend’s name worming its way up from his guts, spilling into his mouth…and then it was gone as the helm covered the head and was sealed in place by a sparking theurgy from Aristodeus’s fingertips. Locked tight, just like the shogger said it would be, never to be removed.
Aristodeus stepped back, rummaging in the pocket of his robe. “Well,” he said, producing a pipe and wagging the stem at Thumil like he was making a clever point to a student, “that’s that taken care of. You dwarves are safe as houses now, touch scarolite.” He rapped his knuckles on the helm.