The Age of Heroes was ending. Metal screamed across a twisted landscape. Spirits fluttered in their lantern cages as Edward sped along the highway. Overgrown fields passed him by. Scorched battlefields, Collapsed buildings and places fouler still were background to his quest. Born of steel, his steed spat fire as its wheels devoured the ancient road. Edward patted the arcane beast’s flank, looking ahead to the past. Skeletal spires split the mauve sky. Englitch had forged their cities from black steel, though never so black as their hearts. The beams of ancient searchlights roved the skyline. They had for a thousand years, as they would for a thousand more. Their infernal contractors bound in perpetuity. This was more than some demon haunted ruin. This was home. No wonder Edward wasn’t happy about it.
The highway rose over the ground as it entered the city. Arrow straight it ran toward the heart. Half-lidded, Edward remembered. He saw himself running along the streets, chased by his sisters. He saw his people, proud and beautiful. His steed screeched and a piece flew off, disappearing over the side. Jerked from reverie he inspected the damage and failed to notice the highway’s abrupt end. Like a bat out of hell he flew over the collapsed section and gravity took her toll. Edward spread his cloak, trying to remain airborne as his faithful machine, the last of her kind, tumbled away. The Englitch did not pray for aid, they demanded it. He called upon old contracts, with the susurrus of Pagasagol, and the sirocco of Kalos. The winds rushed toward him, slowing his descent. He hit the ground just hard enough to hurt like hell. Glorious pain arched across his skin, every cut and bruise joining a choir. Such agony, such ecstacy.
Edward lay a while, revelling in the orchestra. Visions swam before his eyes. Over him stood a young noble with alabaster skin. In his hand was a glass studded whip, so favoured by the youth.
“Ere mister, y’alive?”
The rough tongue of the slaves accosted his ears.
He wiped blood from his eyes. It was a savage’s child with a wooden sword and bare feet.
He hissed at the boy “Leave me!”
The child shrugged and scampered away. Edward remained in repose a little longer, until the sorrow receded.
He staggered upright to the sight of a city, his city, in ruins. The Englitch had built to last but nature was trying. Water pooled in every pothole. Trees sprouted from cracks. Vines snaked their way over the spire shells. Long necked cows wandered through regal archways, stripping the leaves from bushes. Worst of all, Edward could smell them, the savages, the slave races. They infested the grave of their ex-masters. Some of them stared at him even now. Packs of children raced past him, whooping. Warriors shook stone spears. Women beat out leather hides. The sight of them turned his stomach. His city. His people. Traded for this. He scowled his best and limped away.
He wandered the streets in a delirium. The past intermingled with the present. He saw mud huts only to blink and behold slave pens. Coarse tongues bartered geese for pottery as delicate voices ordered tortures to go. Beneath the stench of the unwashed, cloyed the sickly sweet smell of poisoned wine. Edward lurched between the crowds, every figure growing as it left his sight, stretching until it became the shadow of an Englitch. His hands shook as he felt their knives, running across his flesh. His sisters were here. No there. They whispered venom into his mind. Still, some part of him remained lucid. It was that part which counted the banners, which noted the savage hordes. It quietly collected thoughts until the moment came when something shocked him back to reality.
“Where were you twenty years ago! Ten years ago!”
He turned toward an impromptu stage. Before a gaggle of dour faces a troupe of dwarves performed for pennies. One lounged in a wizard’s gown that puddled about him. A second pranced with a paper horn affixed to his head. The short woman in the middle though, she was the one who spoke.
“Where were you when I was new? When I was- ow!”
One of the audience cackled. It was hard to tell if he was eating nuts or rocks. The actress summoned her courage, only to be pelted again. He was a crude looking man with naught but straps of leather to cover his bulging muscles. His compatriot was only a little less well-built and fetched up a stone to hurl at the stage. He drew back his arm only to snag it upon something. Edward’s black mood was palpable.
“You lack appreciation for the arts.”
The play lay abandoned, the audience long fled. In the stand a performance of another sort finished. Edward fastidiously wiped his hands. The director crept out from behind the stage. He felt fortunate to be cataract ridden for he could not see too well the two sodden heaps at Edward’s feet. He knelt as he felt Edward’s attention “Your imperial majesty.”
Edward surveyed the elder dwarf and felt a pang of sympathy. Even in this time the misshapen were entertainment “I command you to stand up.”
The director’s knees thanked him “You honour us with your patronage.”
“A valiant attempt at Beagle’s last play. To live forever with the cruelty of having known love. Perhaps you may finish it next time.”
The director glanced at the stage “Thank you my lady. I shall pass your praise onto the actors. May I offer you hospitality?”
“That is kind of you but I doubt I would fit.”
“Oh not here,” the director gestured hurriedly “We have no beds worthy of your stature. I meant only to offer you food. You will no doubt wish to meditate beneath the Triumph of the Empress Denise.”
Edward eyed the dwarf suspiciously “A curious suggestion.”
“Even with so many flocking to the city for Barrwulf’s ascension, it is the one place no one goes.””
“So the upstart has a name.”
He nudged one of the heaps. To the director’s horror it moved. The man did not so much moan as bubble.
“I give you back your life. Find this Barrwulf, tell him the Englitch Empire has an Empress and she does not share. He may come before the Triumph of Denise tomorrow and do her homage.”
As the man stumbled away Edward permitted himself a smile.
Edward barely remembered his grandmother, Denise. The Triumph celebrated her victory over the Ineffable Beings of the Outer Reaches. A gross monstrosity of stone and steel formed into a whorled arch, atop which stood her likeness. The statue still stood, naked and unashamed. Only the arms had been lost to time, brought down by leaden heads each hand had held. To Edward, the statue was a stranger. He remembered a doughty woman, far more burly and scarred. She certainly hadn’t had demon wings. What would his statues have looked like, standing atop the Triumph over Fiscal Irresponsibility? They’d probably have had much bigger chests.
The nights were long here and though he tried not to, his thoughts turned dark and the shadows returned, stalking the edges of vision. He could hear them too, distinct from the restless city beyond. They whispered thoughts. His thoughts? Or perhaps someone else’s. The wind was a knife along his back. His hands trembled and he clutched at the Demon Stick, the aching throb its touch brought was almost a relief.
One shadow separated from the rest. The way it moved put Edward in mind of a wildcat. The thought of an assassin lifted his malaise. He allowed it to close, pretending study of the runes studded upon the archway.
“Come to steal my empire?”
The woman tensed as if to pounce him “The director said you’d be hungry.”
“Perhaps not with the appetites he had in mind.”
She stepped under the archway. No knife flashed, so Edward’s pretence at relaxation became real. In the faint arcane glow of the ruins he measured her “Scrawny… and not a northerner. Where did he buy you from?”
Her puzzlement turned to a sullen expression. A bag was thrust into his lap. Cheese and blood sausage. Fine cuisine among horse herders. He sampled each, offering her a piece.
Her rejection gave him pause “Are you so hale, child, that you can refuse food?”
“I’ve got a bowl of rice waiting, thanks.”
The tone struck him “You seem… familiar.”
She met his gaze “I guess I have that kind of face.”
As daybreak came the crowds began to trickle in. No matter the people, gossip was universal. Overnight word had spread. The Empress has returned. The young asked the old what it meant. They trembled at first but really, what did it mean? The slave-masters were long dead. So all came to see a living ghost. To the front muscled warriors bearing banners and tokens of their tribes. Each had already sworn fealty to the new king. Now their faith would be rewarded. Edward sat alone beneath the archway, head bowed as if in prayer. He looked like a bad actor in ill-fitting armour. It would be a poor show today.
Horns blasted, the banners dipped. He strode through the packed masses like a shark through herring. He looked upon the crowd as a king upon subjects. He was new named Barrwulf, the young king. Behind him trailed his entourage, bronzed barbarians and struggling porters. They arraigned behind him as he beheld Edward. A great banner unfurled, that of a crimson bull on a green field.
“You? “You are the empress?” he boomed. The plaza shook with his disbelief.
There was no reply.
“I am Barrwulf, Inheritor of the Empire, King of the North, Chieftain of the-”
“You are a slave.”
Howls rose from the crowd. Some drew weapons, others shook their fists. Barrwulf raised his hand and the silence rippled outward. He stepped forward. Edward rose. A single servant accompanied the King, carrying a tray of drinks. When they met in the middle Barrwulf gestured “In the ancient traditions, two warriors drank together of wine before drinking of blood.”
The elderly servant swivelled the tray as Edward reached for a cup. He paused before drinking “Have I seen you somewhere before?”
“Eh, must have that kind of face.”
Barrwulf bore the insult well, but before Edward took a sip whispered urgently.
“Let us not fight, empress. Declare me your warlord. I will gladly lead the horde in your name.”
Edward drained the cup to the last drop. It clattered on the tray and he raised up his Demon Stick. The aftertaste lingered as the servant scurried away. Barrwulf swam before his eyes. An axe swung and Edward caught it, his arm spasming. Pain sang over his nerves. Poison. Edward smiled. The slaves had learned well. His muscles spasmed as he tried to attack. All the barbarian had to do was wait, fending off blows that grew unsteady as the toxin spread. Instead he pressed the attack, driving forward with his gleaming axe. Edward was struck by both the folly of pride and an axe in the side. He stepped inside Barrwulf’s guard, embracing the king like a lover. The stiletto dagger jammed between Barrwulf’s throat muscles and his growl ground against the blade.
The two stepped back from each other, axe wrenching free. Edward drooled something pithy, Barrwulf backhanded him in response. He wrestled with the blade in his neck, trying to pull it free. Edward leapt upon him. Blades slipped from his fingers and he tore the king’s flesh with steel and nail as his muscles rebelled. Barrwulf dropped, head bouncing off stone. Poison raced through Edward’s veins as he offered up a bloody tribute. He bubbled the runes, then collapsed. Stone ground on stone. Denise stepped from her perch and fell upon the shrieking crowd. It began its reaping, tearing apart young and old alike. The spell complete Edward slumped forward and gave up his last.
Voices troubled his deathsleep. Nothing awaited him past life, except perhaps the vengeance of his sisters. These voices were far more annoying. They said things like:
“Bloody hells on a stick you did it.”
“You didn’t make it easy. I told you to use a single dose.”
“I thought the bottle was the dose!”
His hand reached out, grasping the throat of the speaker. He felt a pounding on his chest, the struggle of a slave. Edward opened his eyes. An old man flailed before him. He let go, not out of choice, his muscles ceased to operate. Gundrea staggered back.
“Your imperial majesty,” said the director.
The dwarf was dressed differently, in robes of stained crimson. He stood beside a girl, her hands wrapped in bandages. Beside her sat the head of Denise’s statue. She regarded him sullenly. Edward’s head lolled about. His hand locked into a claw like grip.
“You have spurned fate and saved your Empire. Sleep.”
Edward wanted to say something, perhaps sorry. Yet for once he did what he was told.