The Archbishop stared at the piece of paper on her desk for what must have been the tenth time that morning. It had arrived last night, and she’d stared at it until falling asleep. The Metropolitan summoned her back to the Theopolis.
“In light of the chaos currently spreading across what remains of the Imperium, it is clear your mission has failed in every conceivable way. Return home immediately.”
There was more, but that was enough to enrage her, along with the simple fact that the damned letter was from the Metropolitan, who should have been locked away and powerless until the Archbishop and her army marched on the city. Of course, building that army was proving a bit more challenging than originally anticipated, and, yes, she had expected the Imperium to rather easily fall under her rule, so this fragmenting of provinces, desertion of legions and open rebellion by the nobility was something of a shock. Still, to then discover that all her plans at home had also fallen apart, that some outlander woman had the audacity to speak with the voice of the Overgod himself...
Not for the first time, she crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it across the room. This time, however, someone caught it.
“Problems?” Lora Neely stood in the open door, tossing the ball of paper from one hand to another. She was smiling, but it was not a friendly smile.
“Ms. Neely,” the Archbishop said, “what a pleasant surprise. Yes, I’m afraid I have been faced with certain... unfortunate setbacks, but they are nothing to concern yourself with. I hope that your presence here indicates your mission was a success?”
“My mission?” Lora continued to toy with the paper, finally tossing it in the corner. “Oh, right,” she said, “you wanted me to kill someone.” She feigned deep thought a moment, then snapped her fingers. “The Empress! That’s right, you wanted me to kill the Empress!” She shook her head. “No, I didn’t do that.”
This was odd. The Archbishop had been certain Lora Neely was entirely her creature, so certain, she did not even use her Orator’s gift on her. This disobedience was unsettling, especially in light of all the other setbacks. “Ah, Lora,” she said, forcing some steel into her voice, “I’m not sure I care for your tone.”
“Oh, I am sorry, Your Holiness,” Lora bowed low. “Forgive me. It’s just, well, I followed the Empress and her party to a town in the north. They left that town and headed into the wilderness, but I didn’t follow.”
“Why not?” the Archbishop asked, surprised. “I would have thought that would be the perfect opportunity to ambush them.”
“Would you?” Lora sat down and put her feet up on the Archbishop’s desk. “You would wait until they were in the woods to attack a dryad and a legion of trained soldiers. Well, I suppose that’s why I’m the trained assassin and you’re...” she raised an eyebrow. “What are you, exactly?”
“Growing more annoyed by the moment,” the Archbishop growled. “Remove your feet from my desk.”
Lora waited just a beat too long before complying. Then she stood and drew one of the revolvers that hung from her hips. “Do you know who’s guns these are?” she asked, idly, not quite aiming the gun at the Archbishop.
“Umm...” the Archbishop tried to control the fear growing in her. “Now, Lora,” she said, using her Oratory on the girl for the first time, “I think you want to put that gun away and get on with your mission, don’t you?”
Lora looked at her and grinned. Then, placing a finger against her lips, she said, “Shhh.”
“No, Holiness, I’m afraid that’s not going to work. Mistress Bellamy’s School is very expensive, but you do get what you pay for. My curriculum included an entire semester devoted to nothing but resisting mind control.” She tapped the side of her head. “You can’t even get in, let alone leave a piece of yourself there.” She raised the gun, still not aiming it. “So, do you?” she asked. “Do you know who’s gun this is?”
The Archbishop shook her head.
“Jax Edison’s,” Lora said. “These guns belonged to Jax Edison, before she hung them up for good and focused on teaching magic.” She holstered the gun, smirking at the relieved slump of the Archbishop’s shoulders. “I thought she liked me, you know. I was hired to kill her, but I didn’t. Instead, I joined up with her, killed my employer, stole her money and gave it all to Edison’s cause. Did you know,” she asked, “that calling her The Alchemist was my idea?”
“I... I um...”
“My idea! She hated it. Was constantly on me to stop, but now everyone calls her that! And it was my idea!” She shook her head. “The word Ja’naam was my idea too. It’s an old faery word that means ‘renewal’. That hasn’t caught on as well, but I thought at least Jax would like it. I took it from her stupid bitch wife’s culture, but no. She didn’t like that either. She didn’t appreciate anything I did for her.” She laughed. “So I stole her guns and exiled her to the middle of nowhere forever.” She pouted at the Archbishop. “You appreciate me, don’t you?”
“O-of course I do, Lora. I--”
“Oh, shut up!” Lora shouted. “You don’t appreciate me. No one does. That stupid pack of idiot magicians didn’t appreciate me, either, even after I stole Edison’s big magic book for them. Oh yes, I stole that too, I forgot to mention. A great big spellbook, with every spell ever cast by every magician ever.” She laughed. “And that fool just left it lying on a shelf.” She shrugged. “Well, anyway...”
At that moment, a group of robed figures entered the room. The Archbishop’s eyes widened at the sight of them. They were obviously magicians.
“They may not have appreciated me before, but I bet they do now, don’t you?”
Joran nodded to her. “Most certainly, Lora,” he said before joining the others as they circled the panicking Archbishop.
“How dare you enter my office?” She attempted to summon some of her usual imperious demeanor. “Magician filth!” She raised her voice. “Guards!”
Lora laughed. “Oh, Holiness, you overestimate your forces. Your guards are either drunk, whoring, or both. Any who were sober enough to possibly help you are dead.”
“But...” the Archbishop gave in to fear, realizing she was surrounded. “But, why? Why are they...”
“Some magical ceremony or other,” Lora said. “They explained it, but I don’t really care. All I care about is the oath they swore to me in return for giving them you.”
“We must summon creatures most ancient and powerful,” an old woman said, a mad gleam in her eyes. All the magicians had that mad gleam in their eyes. “The ritual demands the sacrifice of a person sanctified in service of a divine being.”
“That’s you, incidentally,” Lora said absently, her feet back up on the desk, barely paying the slightest attention as the Archbishop was bound and dragged from the room by the circle of magicians, all the while screaming for help that would never come. Finally, she swung her feet off the desk, stood up and looked around. “This is a nice office,” she said. “I may make use of it, once I get what I’m promised. But,” she sighed, “those robed idiots are going to be a couple of days with their little magical working, so I think drinking and whoring are just the thing while I wait. Seems like forever since I tied one on and had someone between my legs.”
After looting what money there was from the desk and the safe, she left the room, singing an old drinking song as she went.
Nikki stood over the Empress, whom she had just knocked flat with a punch to the face. “You did this?!” she screamed, indicating the blasted and leveled forest around them.
“It... it was the war!” Regina Maxima cringed before the enraged dryad. “My brother had his best troops hiding in this forest. I thought, if he didn’t have the forest to hide in, it would improve my chances of winning. So, I summoned a hurricane and...”
“You summoned a hurricane, and unleashed it on a forest that had stood here since your miserable species was little more than semi-erect apes,” Nikki was quivering with unchecked rage, “all to win some petty war against your imbecile of a brother?!”
“I... I’m sorry, I...”
One of the legionnaires stepped forward, hand on her gun. “Alright now, dryad, that’s enough. You’ve a right to be mad, but let’s not do something you’ll regret, eh?”
Nikki turned on her. “Something I’ll regret?” She pointed at the fallen Empress. “I already did something I regret, by agreeing to help this washed up old drunkard! I don’t have time for this! I...” she grabbed her very pregnant belly, grunting in pain.
Ralf rushed forward. “Nikki!” He put gentle hands on her. “Is it time?”
Nikki shook her head. “No,” she said. “Not yet. But soon.” She looked around, her anger fading to sadness. “And now I have nowhere to birth my daughter. Nowhere that isn’t crowded with death.”
Ralf looked over at the soldiers, indicating they should take themselves and Regina away for a while. The commander nodded, quietly gathering up the Empress and lining up his troops. Soon, the bard and his friend were alone.
“Come on now, Nikki,” he said, gently stroking the hand he held. “It isn’t all death.”
She sniffled, wiping away tears. “A few trees, scattered here and there among the wreckage...”
“No,” Ralf said. “Well, yes,” he amended, smiling, “those too, but I was referring to these.” He took her by the hand and led her to a group of saplings growing up from the decaying remains of the old forest. He gestured to encompass their whole field of vision. “Look around,” he told her. “Life returns to this forest. New life.” He lay a hand on her belly. “And I’d say that makes this the perfect place to birth your daughter.”
Nikki looked around her, a smile spreading across her face. She smiled and rested her hands over his on her belly. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I can hear them. Newborn trees, barely even aware of who and what they are...” she turned and smiled at him. “Thank you, Ralf.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Aww,” Ralf blushed, grinning. “Like I’d miss the birth of the first child of human and dryad.” He shrugged, raising an eyebrow. “It’ll make a great song.”
Nikki laughed, but her laughter was cut short by the sound of a low growl and a gunshot. They turned, and saw all of the legionnaires, along with the former Empress, dead at the feet of a group of hulking giants. The bodies had been torn to pieces, and everywhere was blood.
“Vothlanders,” Ralf breathed. He moved to put himself between Nikki and the monstrous men, inwardly wondering just what good he thought he’d do.
“Who?” Nikki had never heard of them.
“Barbarians,” Ralf explained, keeping his voice low. The Vothlanders moved slowly to encircle them, but did not attack. “They live far north of here, on the steppes and frozen tundras. They’ve never been conquered by anyone. Even the Imperium, at the height of Indovinare power, gave the Vothlands a wide berth.”
“Then what are they doing here?” Nikki asked. She was reaching out, trying to summon the forest to aid her, but there was very little to work with. “And how did we not hear them murdering everyone?”
“That would be our doing,” Lora Neely said, stepping out from behind the barbarians. “Well,” she said, “their doing.” She indicated the magicians that followed after her. “They wanted to surprise the two of you, and didn’t want you getting caught up in the carnage, so they muted the sound of the attack. They need you alive.” She laughed derisively. “Okay, they need you alive,” she pointed at Nikki. “They don’t give a damn about him.” She aimed a dismissive gesture toward Ralf. “So,” she said, pointing to a large iron cage that was being drawn forward by one of the Vothlanders, “get in the box like a good girl, and the wandering minstrel here doesn’t have to end up in pieces on the ground.”
“Nikki, no.” Ralf grabbed her arm. “That’s iron. The baby...”
“I know,” Nikki said, patting his hand. “It’ll be okay.”
Without another word, Nikki threw herself into his arms. As they hugged, she whispered in his ear. “Find Jax,” she said. “Please.”
“I promise,” he said.
She stepped back from the hug, nodded once, then, without another word, walked over to the cage.
Lora looked her up and down. “You got fat,” she said.
“I’m pregnant,” Nikki said, not bothering to hide the sneer in her voice.
“We know,” one of the magicians said. “It will make the summoning that much more powerful.”
“Summoning?” Nikki’s eyes widened. “Oh no...”
Without warning, Lora shoved her in the cage, slammed the door shut and locked it.
“Please,” Lora begged. “You don’t know what sort of creature they mean to summon.”
“Of course I do,” Lora said. “And they’re just one of the nasty things being called up from the worlds below. See them?” She jerked her thumb toward the Vothlanders. “They aren’t just Vothlanders, they’re possessed Vothlanders. Thanks to the spilled blood of a certain Archbishop, a troop of war demons are wearing these big bastards’ skins.” She turned toward Ralf. “So go ahead. Find Edison. Tell her we have her wife. Let her come. When we march across the world at the head of our otherworldly army, Jax Edison’s corpse will make a perfect standard.” She gestured, and the Vothlander began to pull the cage. “Oh,” she said, as an afterthought, “but since I don’t want to make it too easy for you...” she drew one of her stolen guns and shot Ralf in the stomach.
As he went down, he heard Nikki scream and the others laugh. Eventually, all sound faded and the light dimmed. Soon, he didn’t hear or see anything at all.
When the magicians, the assassin, and their army of possessed barbarians had gone, three birds fluttered down to perch on Ralf’s seemingly lifeless shoulders. Then, chirping to each other, they flew off into the darkening sky.