The Desolate Throne

XVIII. Shatter



Ardashir felt himself start to run before his mind even realized what was happening when the center of the giant black gates suddenly started to glow a dull, cherry red that was quickly getting brighter and brighter. The hellfire had finally burned its way through. He grabbed Khagra and yanked her to the side behind one of the towers, Seva and Vladan doing the same on the opposite side of the carved, obsidian avenue. The gates exploded in a spray of molten metal across the inside of the entrance to the Black City. Before they could even really think, the four were already moving to the next narrow breach. Their defenders were being destroyed as rapidly as they emerged by the Imperial legions closing in.

The soldiers could only come a few at a time through the gap they’d found. That limited advance would still be sufficient, but it would take time to cut down the four. Seva blocked arrows and javelins as well as the enemy’s advance with a ward as her group retreated, her hands and voice raised as she chanted, holding up a barrier where space was warped and twisted so that no one could pass through it without horrific injury. It was more powerful than the Imperials were prepared for, even if she wasn’t going to be able to maintain it long.

Saraqael was not amused. His massive mace smashed into the ward, channeling sorcery. The two powers collided, the ensuing blast sending the four sprawling backwards. They were almost to the inner wall by the time he hit, however. While they were still picking themselves up off the ground, the towering Prince of Iron strode past them. He was a perfectly serene, flawlessly beautiful demon made to resemble all the best in men, wearing a hooded, dark silk robe. Even to them, his power was tangible in the air as he passed, a crackling aura of energy that was almost physically painful to be close to. Seva could feel the buzz of energy in her bones, a resonance that made her feel like her teeth were going to vibrate loose in her jaw. She forced herself up to her feet, restoring the ward before they could be decimated by javelins and arrows.

“Seva, take Vladan and go! He can’t be allowed to stop Holland!” Ardashir barked as they retreated back to the narrow, hall-like passageway through the first of the inner walls. It was just barely wide enough for three people to walk abreast down its length. Saraqael had turned his body as he passed through it. “We can’t stop him, but your magic can and you’re going to need a source! We’ll slow these ones down!”

What Seva wanted to say was that if she left them, it would be the end of them. There were too many. But he was right: Holland couldn’t contend with a Prince of Iron on her own. Seva cursed audibly. She reached out to bolster her strength, ripping the life out of some of the enemy to fuel the ward. It was a difficult pull with her concentration so divided, but she had to restore her own draining vitality somehow. It was a temporary fix, like a bandage, but it would do. “I am sorry,” she said, feeling wretched.

“Don’t be,” Khagra said calmly, pulling a fistful of arrows from her quiver. They were all she had left after sniping from on wing. Her spear was leaning against the wall beside her for when the enemy closed with them. Zajar crashed to the ground beside her and Ardashir, his tail slashing through the air as he roared at the enemy. “We knew how this would end when we agreed to come. Holland needs you. Go now, while you can.”

Seva nodded and turned, sprinting after Saraqael with Vladan. They both had to run full speed to catch up to the Prince of Iron as he advanced on the citadel at the center of the city, smashing every obstacle to pieces with his mace or raw sorcerous power. Seva’s incantations came breathlessly, barely more than gasps. She wove those familiar patterns with her fingers, ensnaring the Prince of Iron in web of force. He continued to stride forward, if at a reduced pace, dragging the blonde with him. She grabbed onto Vladan with one hand, pulling from him. His lifeforce flooded into her body. It was a mercy that he was such a hearty creature. If she’d drawn from Ardashir or Khagra like this, they wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. But as an anthroparion, he had a different relationship with magic. He, like a Leyan spellguard, could take a lot of punishment—even more so than usual, with his considerable size and mass.

Vladan scooped her up and sprinted after the Divine Prince so she wouldn’t be pulled along the ground, allowing her to cast without expending the strength to walk. She was still mostly using her own inner reserves. It was taking its toll on her. Against his dark fur, she looked white as a sheet.

Behind them, Khagra took a deep breath and glanced over at Ardashir. She felt strangely at peace despite what was about to happen. The Imperials were pounding on their shields, trying to both get their own blood burning and to break the resolve of the two defenders preparing to take on the whole weight of the Imperium. She could see the other Princes of Iron rapidly approaching, but it no longer worried her.  “Would it have been a quiet farm?” she asked her lover.

Ardashir felt his throat tighten slightly as he thought of the future that might have been. “Yes,” he said, lifting his shield for another layer of protection to his body. He could see the Imperials taking their first step forward. “With too many children and dragonlings.” Lightning flashed across the sky, striking within the city now at the bodies of soldiers. They were packed so tightly that it could easily take out a handful.

“And how did it end?”

He looked over at her, dark eyes meeting yellow ones. “Grey and old.”

Khagra smiled. “It sounds perfect.” She drew back her first arrow. The passage was too confined for throwing javelins or launching volleys of arrows from the rear of the formation particularly well, so the enemy pushed forward with their shields and spears, trying to form an armored front. Their advance was slow enough that she had a chance to loose every single arrow. The second she let the string fly on her last of her shots, the bloodrage surged up in her veins. This time, she didn’t stop it. She dropped her bow and grabbed her spear, hurling herself into the enemy beside Ardashir. The shields of the Imperials were insufficient to the task.

They held the line, like cliffs against the fury of ocean waves.

As they did, Seva struggled to slow Saraqael’s advance. They were deep into the city now, past the innermost walls. There was a palace of black halls and vaulted arches, graven in script that was then inlaid with some silver metal. The ceilings and pillars dwarfed even Saraqael. Unlike Holland, the Divine Prince knew exactly where he was going to find the Desolate Throne. Perhaps that was what allowed him to catch her. He smashed the door, which Holland had closed to slow pursuit, open sending chunks of metal and stone flying.

On the other side of the once-sealed portal was a long hall that terminated in a rising, black, heptagonal dais topped by a giant obsidian throne. It was covered in flickering, silvery symbols of power that swirled across its surface like smoke beneath glass. If Seva had thought that Saraqael was powerful, this was…something else. Cold rolled through her body like thunder, dark and twisted whispers starting in even her mind. The words were in a language too old to be understood. Except for one: HollandThe Throne was speaking to the blonde’s lover, welcoming her. Deus’s shard lay helpless on the floor at the center of the room where Holland had dropped it. The penitent was standing before the Throne, her sword in hand. She spun around when she heard the approach, eyes going wide.

Seva could see the stairs before the Throne wavering and twisting like they weren’t even real, morphing into a shape that would allow Holland easy access. The former queen’s spell died as Vladan dropped to his knees with her, both of them drained to exhaustion. She could barely maintain concentration enough to see, let alone cast. The spell slowing Saraqael down evaporated.

You are mine, Saraqael’s ethereal, musical, inhuman voice said as the Divine Prince approached. He triggered her boons without another word, hitting Holland with the full force of his disfavor.

Holland’s vision started to go black as the agony closed in, her whole body trying to die around her. She could feel her fingers starting to loosen on her sword as the chill ate into her muscles and then her bones.

You will command it for me or I will make this last for eternities.

“No,” Holland gasped out, tightening her grip on her sword again. She forced herself to back towards the stairs, towards the Throne, and away from him. She had to grit her teeth as hard as she could, that discomfort drawing her slightly out of the agony that was the cold.

Your armies are broken. Your followers are dead or dying. There is no choice but obedience. There is no other way outSaraqael continued advancing, clearly about to grab her. Give the Throne to me, Ilex. Be my instrument again.

“Never again! You will never have this world!” Holland snarled. She turned and forced her body to comply, taking the steps two at a time.

She didn’t stop as she approached the Throne, driving her sword straight into the black, glossy seat with her whole body’s weight behind it. The sword sank up to its hilt with no more resistance than water, stopping only when the cruciform hilt made contact. Saraqael reflexively channeled his sorcery to try and kill her before she could wake it, but it was too late. Suddenly, day became a black, moonless night as power surged out of the Throne suddenly come to life. There was a flash as sorcery wreathed Holland’s body in crackling, stark white light. Immediately, the Desolate Throne retaliated against Saraqael’s attempt to destroy or damage it: darkness surged around the Divine Prince, ripping the demon apart and devouring him. The world around Holland was cracking like glass, void creeping into reality all around her.

A shockwave rippled out from the Black City that sent the warring armies flying off their feet. Horses screamed and siege engines toppled. Princes turned their power towards those ebony spires only to be enveloped by the same consuming blackness that had destroyed Saraqael. The soldiers near them screamed, caught in the gnawing darkness that tore apart everything it touched. What had been a roaring battlefield suddenly became silence incarnate, all motion and sound suspended as the world teetered between existence and the void.

The Desolate Throne was waiting for its command.

Seva could see her lover amongst the warring shadows and light, her hands still wrapped around the sword. Her face was contorting like she was screaming, but there was no sound. Only blackness. It had claimed those familiar hazel eyes, turning them as ebon as the skies above.

Holland could feel it trying to do to her what it had done to Saraqael. Her body was enveloped in burning, agonizing cold. Her whole left side was being pulled into it, being eaten away. Sorcerous energy was the only thing maintaining her control, crackling under her skin. Her will was crumbling as she tried to concentrate, like her mind itself was beginning to give under the forces of the void that were pulling her every direction at once.

“Holland!” Seva screamed, her voice breaking the silence.

It was enough.

LIVE.

The command given resonated in the minds of every living thing. Across the world, beneath dark skies, there was a sudden pulse.

Holland had ordered the Desolate Throne to do the one thing it could not do.

It shattered.

Black, glass-like stone exploded into pieces, fragments hurled through the air at impossible speeds, darkening and distorting the world around them for a fraction of a second before they disintegrated. If Seva and Vladan hadn’t been lying flat, they would have been torn apart. Chunks of the hall above broke apart and hurled themselves into the air at the speeds of a comet. The whole of the Black City was coming apart. Towers broke from the ground and shattered under the force of the Desolate Throne’s destruction. The Throne itself exploded into dust, the shadows evaporating. The darkness above and all the clouds were fading rapidly as light and life returned to the world.

Holland dropped to her knees as the shadows and light around her both faded, her weight held up only by her right hand’s grip on the twisted wreck of dwarven steel that was her sword, so frozen it would shatter at a touch. Her armor was gone, eaten away, and her body was encrusted in a fine layer of frost, emanating the cold of the emptiness that had tried to consume her. Her left arm and the lower half of her left leg were gone, ripped away by the void. That whole half of her body had been burned so badly by the absolute cold of the void that bone was visible, ashen gray just like the flesh around it. Her eyes were clouded and white, rendered blind.

Seva was the first up, running for her lover despite her exhaustion, but Vladan was quick on her heels. The penitent’s name was stumbling off Seva’s lips in a chant more desperate than any of her spells had been. Seva gently pulled Holland backwards and the penitent offered no resistance, allowing the blonde to lay her back on the black stone beneath them. Her fingers released the sword the moment Seva touched her wrist. Her sightless eyes stared unblinkingly up into the now perfectly clear blue sky. Holland was perfectly motionless and unresponsive even when Seva touched her good cheek, turning her face towards her lover.

“Is she…?” the anthroparion whispered, his dark eyes afraid for the first time in his life.

The blonde shook her head as tears raced down her cheeks, feeling for a pulse. She couldn’t find anything, but her desperate mind told her that was only because her hands were shaking too badly. She was still saying Holland’s name over and over, hoping that would somehow reach her in whatever shadowed hell-scape had taken her mind.

Vladan saw Holland’s lips move. He grabbed Seva’s shoulder in a vice-like grip. “Seva, she’s breathing!”

Seva sobbed with relief, clutching Holland a little tighter. When she put her ear to Holland’s chest, she could hear a familiar, if very weak beat. “Khagra, Ardashir,” the blonde said as Vladan helped her up. He didn’t try to take Holland away from her, but he did take most of the penitent’s weight. It was an easier task without her armor. Slowly, stumbling, they made their way back towards where they had left their friends. Around them, the Black City was nothing more than scarred, frostbitten earth and memory. The scar outside Losena would perhaps always remain, but its towers were gone.

The bodies were not.

Beyond, the Imperial legions that had regained their feet were quitting the bloodstained field, leaving it in the possession of the east—who were too wounded to pursue—to lick their wounds and cope with the fact that their Princes of Iron were…gone. It was not an outcome that they had even imagined as within the realms of the possible.

On the field under the returned sun and the blue sky, Lieren helped Murdak to his feet with Thadash and Daag’s aid. The big bruiser of an orc warleader was hard to get back up and he was swaying, but his wounds weren’t as bad as they looked. “It’ll scar nicely,” Thadash said of the wicked gash across his husband’s face, relief making him feel as light as a feather.

“Did they do it?” Daag asked breathlessly, looking towards where the Black City had once said.

Lieren smiled, her fey eyes alive with light. “They must have.” She saw the two legates who had been commanding their foes getting to their feet. The one still wearing a helm pulled it off, revealing a Western woman with a single scar across her face. Beside her, the male legate with a blocky face that spoke of orcish blood dropped his sword. They were both looking towards the west, where those grim, ebon towers had once stood. The Imperials had felt the sorcery, felt the destructions, felt that voice just as every easterner hadFor a moment, there had been a presence made of shadow and light inside of all of them.

The orcs and the elf didn’t stop the two Westerners from walking away even though they were foes. It was like a spell had been broken.

What had once been the Black City was now littered with carnage. Here and there, Imperial soldiers picked themselves up and looked in the direction of Seva, Holland, and Vladan with wide eyes. Those that surrounded Khagra and Ardashir, however, stayed down. Zajar’s still, lifeless body surrounded them, but as soon as Vladan moved the drake’s wing out of the way, they were revealed to the light.

The pair had crumpled to the ground, bloodied and broken, but they had fought to the bitter last, surrounded by the corpses of their enemies. Both of them were covered in countless wounds, many of them lethal. Khagra had a broken half of a spear one hand and Ardashir still held his shield like he’d been defending her body, but the fingers of his other hand were meshed with hers. Their future had not ended as they’d dreamed, but it had ended as they would have wanted it: together.

Seva and Vladan both fell to the ground beside Khagra and Ardashir with Holland. The blonde started to cry, holding Holland tightly to her body. Vladan hugged them both into his broad, furry chest, his muscular arms keeping them close in a protective embrace.

It was over.


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