Aurora Citadel Chapters 19-21

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Chapter 19

Forged for War

Rough bark abraded her welts, splinters jabbed at her back, and though twenty feet above the ground, Kell had slept in worse positions. Sleep was, perhaps, a grand term for the snatches of rest she had managed since aiding these storm warriors, as sleep would mean death for all of them. The citadel masters still searched for them and the nearest group gave her the most concern. Something terrible moved with it, something loud and angry that turned her stomach.

Even the days-long, circuitous route through woodland and swamp, behind Valescroft and back into the trees, the enemy still pursued. She had done her best, but the flying creatures had sharp senses and she couldn’t avoid them all. Never in her memory had so many left the citadel, so many creatures poured from the aurora. Never had she known so many auroras. Orinstar would know. He would have seen this before but she would not take the storm warriors to him.

Kell cracked an eye open and winced at the vulnerability of her charges, strong and armoured though they were. They had used every bolt holes that she dared in this portion of the Shadesmire and none looked well hidden to her eyes. The fallen leaves and branches that covered the one they called Firus looked too disturbed and unnatural, the digout housing a shield bearer was too bloated and the dirt covering it too loose, and the mangrove-like swamp that covered Ancanna kept rippling with his endless fidgeting. They were not meant for hiding and too weak to fight. Yet getting them to admit the latter and allow her to hide them while pursuit passed almost betrayed their position and brought the enemy upon them.

Turncoats, whispered the breeze. Reckless and arrogant and dangerous.

She glanced around but caught no source, no movement. The stray thoughts rang with some truth–she would survive more easily without them but that was not the way of the Third Moon Collective. Blaming the lack of sleep and ignoring another whisper, she focused on the sound of the warband hunting them. The crack of wood and rustle of leaves which now accompanied their chants and snarls alarmed her. Their search had become systematic as it neared. She brought herself to full alertness. Their hunters had breached Gloombound Thicket.

With slow, deliberate motions, ever watching her surroundings, Kell spidered down the helmsgrove tree. She approached Ancanna first as he would make the most disturbance rising from the water. Her series of triple-taps into the water with a twig signalled Ancanna that he should move. Covered in grime and silt, the storm warrior slipped out of the water and up the muddy bank. His bulk caused him to slide on the mud and split half a dozen roots which made Kell grimace but the process was started, and whether their hunters heard them or not, they had to rouse the others.

Argus emerged from his hiding place last. He tore the moss and creeper from his armour, worn dull with dirt. ‘I cannot abide this, Prime.’

‘I’m inclined to agree,’ Ancanna responded. He surveyed the swamp and vegetation around them. ‘It’s time we did some hunting of our own.’

Kell had noticed him watching her during their flight, commenting on how she evaded pursuit, her ever-present guard and alertness as though she could have survived without them. Without constant vigilance she’d have died long ago in this Chaos-dominated place. While she thought that Ancanna had no intention to make a habit of hiding and evading battle, he could at least learn something from her. He, more than the others, seemed at least open to doing so.

‘What do you have in mind?’ Castus asked, eagerly wielding his hammer. While by no means fresh, his gait had improved as his body repaired in those few combat-free days.

He surveyed their hiding places, pacing as he formulated a plan. Amusement or eagerness then touched his voice. ‘Ambush.’

‘Hush!’ Kell hissed.

The Stormcast Eternals made so much noise. Their breathing and scrape of their armour already sufficed to make every animal flee this patch of woodland. The citadel’s inhabitants often followed a strong, disciplined leader and it took only his ears to find them.

Ancanna lowered his voice to a whisper but even that sounded booming through the echo of his helm. ‘What follows us? How many? What composition?’

Kell frowned at him. After their beatings, losing so many of their community, she scarcely believed they intended to fight again so soon. But then, perhaps they could not survive the way she did. Perhaps these silver warriors survived through their warlike nature. She didn’t like it. The thought unsettled her, but they felt better than the citadel’s inhabitants, and perhaps they did intend to help as they claimed. She reserved judgement.

Danger, spoke the wind. They will expose the collective. All will die.

She snapped her attention to the twisting muddle of roots to her right. None of the warriors made any sign of hearing but they were not as in tune with the woods as she. A whisper of movement caught her eye, nothing solid, just a flash in her periphery. She shook the thoughts away. The Shadesmire would do this to you, they often said in the community. It would draw you in, entrance you with wisps and smoke, before killing you.

‘Kell?’ Ancanna moved closer, touching her shoulder and looking toward the roots where she had been staring. ‘Are you well?’

She pulled her arm away and stared into the dark eyeholes in his helm. What are you? she wondered. They smelled of summer storms and were as warlike as any she had seen, even living in the shadow of the Aurora Citadel. A bestial roar followed by tearing and the cracking wail of a large tree falling returned her senses. Her guard was slipping and her community needed her.

‘I am not your scout, warrior of storms.’ She backed further away. ‘I will help you live only. I will not help you die. If we leave now, we can lose them.’

Ancanna shook his head. ‘I told you that was not in our nature.’

She regarded him warily, hesitating at another step back.

‘One day there will be nowhere to run,’ Ancanna started, softening his voice, but Firus interrupted him.

‘Cultists. Eight leading some kind of daemon. It’s large.’ An ear-splitting shriek rose nearby. ‘Very large.’

‘Leader?’ Ancanna asked.

Firus shrugged. ‘I caught a glimpse of some armour. One of the elites we fought at the citadel, perhaps.’ He took up his bow. ‘Are we fighting or moving.’

‘Fighting,’ Ancanna said. He didn’t need to think about it. Hiding did not agree with him and his hammer arm itched. ‘You once asked to fight with us, Kell, and we rejected you. Now we invite you. You are a skilled woodsman; have you a bow or sling?’

Kell shook her head. ‘I am a forager not a hunter.’

‘You’re more of a warrior than you think,’ Ancanna said. But I won’t force you to fight with us. Go to your community with our thanks, Kell of the Third Moon Collective. Sigmar has work for us here. We shall meet again.’

The Stormcast Eternal clashed his fist to his chest in an odd gesture. Kell just nodded in response before ghosting away into the swampy woodland. It felt liberating to move alone, quickly, and without diverting her route for heavy, armoured warriors to deal with.

They had let her go when she requested, she reflected as she sprang over knotted roots and around a pool of black marsh water. Perhaps they did mean better than the citadel’s masters. It was her duty to the Third Moon Collective to find out. She skirted around more water and scurried into a tree with thick foliage, careful to avoid a glassbeak’s empty nest, and watched the silver-armoured warriors set their trap.

Something tugged at her.

She owed them nothing. They had helped her and she had repaid it a dozen times. Still, looking back, these warriors were not made for hiding. She picked every one of them out in little more than a flash of a glance.

Untrustworthy, hushed the wind.

With a grimace, Kell pressed her middle finger to her thumb with her left hand in a nomadic gesture of safety while pressing her right palm against the trunk of her perch and willing the Stormcasts to remain hidden long enough.

Chapter 20

The Shadesmire

Mists coalesced on the water and around its banks.

Adrenaline raced through Ancanna’s limbs as the hunting party neared. A chance to hit back presented itself, and he would punish them. It all rested on timing. Castus worried him the most. He argued against his position lying in the swamp water, using a hollow reed to breathe, but if he could contain his choler long enough, that simmering rage would hit the enemy like a thunderbolt.

His grip tightened when the first came into view, a cultist wrestling with a chain. Blood, both dry and slick, covered his hands and forearms where the rusted chain had torn his flesh though he appeared not to notice. His wild eyes showed no discomfort and his fell chanting in worship to his god only rang louder when he hauled back on the chain.

Then a chill ran through his armour. It started in his sabatons and crept up his legs. Not daring to move, Ancanna peered down at the mist, rising not from a particular source but forming just above the water line and expanding fast. The nature of these mists troubled him. Nothing good had ever come from them, its obfuscation ever robbing the Knights of the Aurora of their tactical strengths since entering the realm. Many of the Strike Chamber believed them a device of the enemy and Ancanna almost let the fear creep inside with the mist. He was too committed to abandon now. To move at this point, with the enemy so close that he felt the crawling sensation of nearby daemons across his flesh, meant death. His mind raced through his options: strike now and meet the enemy head on, or keep to the plan and wait. Nothing else occurred.

The timing was too convenient for it to be a natural phenomenon. The enemy were hunting them. They knew the Stormcasts were here.

Ancanna strengthened his grip around his hammer and tensed to attack. Only a glance across the swamp stayed his hand. Mist had swallowed the other Knights of the Aurora. Indecision gripped him. This was why he avoided leadership. The very souls of his brother warriors relied on him. He never wanted that responsibility.

Blinking away the thoughts and berating himself for letting the dread sneak through his mental defences, Ancanna returned his attention to the situation. He adjusted his grip on his hammer. It gave him strength. His hammer was control, his way to affect the world around him. Their pursuers crashed through more foliage, almost on top of them. Though he did not trust the mists, they lacked the distinctive feel of tainted magic, or any magic for that matter. His warriors remained. He trusted in his plan, into what he saw, not the stray fears of pre-battle anticipation. Wait.

A large warrior in heavy, blue-tinted plate stalked into the clearing first, pausing while he surveyed the creepers. Ancanna’s heart stopped when the leader’s gaze hesitated over him, and again when he edged towards ripples in the stinking, black swamp water. Ancanna needed them in further. The Chaos leader raised a spiked gauntlet and signalled halt but the frenzied cultists were slow to respond. Some hauled at their ropes and chains. The great beast, however, barrelled through the trees like some mighty juggernaut, splintering three at their trunks. Bortemin hid somewhere nearby and Ancanna hoped both that he escaped the falling timber and that he maintained his discipline and waited to strike.

He didn’t get the choice. The Liberator was thrown from his hiding place and into the swamp. As his sigmarite plate sloshed a wave of fetid water, Firus loosed his bow from across the clearing.

Energy crackled around the projectile, reflecting blue over the swamp water before sizzling through the bare abdomen of a cultist. Firus loosed another as the first hit its mark and downed a second. It took all Ancanna’s will to remain hidden and let their strategy play out, moreso when the armour-clad enemy ordered the attack on Firus’ position. Castus would hold, Ancanna knew it, as for all his wrath and pride, the Stormcast had a Retributor’s discipline.

Cultists hauled at chains and ropes to control the roaring creature, a thing terrible and deformed even by the standards of daemons. Further jabs from a spear-wielding cultist kept it moving forwards, and kept it angry.

#

Infugurlge changed himself, stretching his body from the slug-like form he used to reach the higher branches into a snake, his body hues drab to meld into the bark and foliage. The human perched on a thicker branch below him, watching the invaders fight.

‘They know only murder,’ he whispered. ‘The citadel masters, they know where you hide. They have always known, and they let you live. The storm warriors will bring you death.’

He remained still when the woman shot a searching look his way. When her attention wavered back to the fight, he slithered away.

#

As a third arrow yielded a third kill, a shaking, electrified servant of Chaos, the beast tore free from its chains. The first to die was the spear-wielder. A turn of the daemon’s massive bulk sent a tusk-like protrusion through his flesh. The eight-pointed star at the tip of his spear splashed into the swamp and the water fizzed.

‘Control it!’ the Chaos warrior growled, pointing his blade at the few remaining cultists who clung to their chains while the creature flailed them around.

A scream carried through the clearing from a hooded man whose hands were cut bloody when a snap of his chain flung him neck-first into a tree. With a further growl, the Chaos warrior seized a loose chain in his gauntlet and dug his feet into the ground. He managed to pull the beast’s head down.

Until Ancanna’s hammer crushed his cuirass.

The leader had strayed close enough for the Liberator Prime to strike. With the remaining cultists fending off the daemonic spawn’s indiscriminate rampage, the other Knights of the Aurora sprang from their positions and set about the creature with hammer and bow. With disciplined timing, and so many others about the creature, the Stormcasts could weave between its attacks to land blows of their own.

The Chaos warrior staggered, wheezing and clutching at the dented metal.

‘Worm!’ he growled. ‘Arrogant wretch! You fight–’

Ancanna’s uppercut slammed into the warrior’s chin where sigmarite hammerhead warped the metal and turned jaw bone to powder. ‘I didn’t ask your name.’

The fizzing in the swamp water intensified and became a stinking, boiling cauldron that tossed green water, rotten twigs and moss onto the ground and into the fight.

A rapid shield bash to the face and heavy overhand blow from Ancanna’s hammer finished the Chaos warrior. With shield raised and peering over the rim, Ancanna quickly surveyed the clearing. A dozen arrows protruded from the daemonspawn and while its body morphed around some hammer strikes, others had connected with something solid and obliterated it. Yet the beast still thrashed and lashed out. Castus took a barbed tentacle across his chest which glanced off the sigmarite while another cultist fell to a spiked growth on one of the beast’s many limbs.

As the Chaos warrior fell, the swamp erupted. The violent call of a braying stag, amplified many times over, followed the torrent of displaced water. Something grabbed Ancanna and tossed him aside. The Liberator Prime slammed into a helmshade tree and turned the thick, lower branches to splinters as he crashed through them. A great beast to rival the size of the daemonspawn emerged from the swamp in a braying cacophony of wild fury. Its hulking limbs covered in moss and creeper dripped long-stagnant water. Algae slapped across a cultist’s face, blinding the fanatic. The creature, still difficult to identify in its dripping mass of weeds and creepers, seized the blinded human and crushed it between oversized hand and the knee of a much larger version of a stag’s leg.

‘An ally?’ Firus asked, backing away from the creature to Ancanna’s position.

Ancanna winced at the pain in his back. ‘Doesn’t feel very friendly. Focus on the daemon.’ He winced again. ‘And watch for any more surprises.’

The Judicator responded by letting fly a charged arrow that exploded in a crackle of sparks against the daemonspawn. Electricity shot along one of the chains that previously restrained it and caused a jagged burn along the creature’s flank.

A pummelling fist from the swamp creature grabbed the daemonspawn’s attention and earned it a lash from its barbed tentacles. Water splashed far into the air as the two giants fought and their cries of battle hammered at Ancanna’s ears, those feral calls of nature’s wrath and condensed evil. Tossed so far from the cultists, Ancanna’s vantage gave him a view of the fight. The swamp dweller was a behemoth of muscle. It stood on stag’s legs, its flesh the colour of rotting bark. Small creatures leapt from the tangle of creeper that covered it and bored into the hide of the daemonspawn. Its head looked like knotted wood, gnarled and old and angry, shifting its expression through layers upon layers of bark which gave it features that might resemble a face.

With so few cultists remaining, a handful of Liberators took the rest of the spawn’s attention, displacing its wrath over their shields while Firus and the Reitibutors did the real damage.

Amidst the daemonic roars, the fury of the swampland, and the thunder of sigmarite weaponry, Ancanna discerned the sound of armoured boots approaching at haste. He turned to face the new threat.

And lowered his weapon.

Stormcast Eternals, Knights of the Aurora, hurried to the fight. Two Prosecutors with their wings furled headed their charge, hurling magical hammers at the daemonspawn before summoning more from the electrical energy around them. A few peeled off and set to lifting a fallen tree before dragging out Bortemin, dazed but angry.

Under such weight of attack, the Chaos spawn shrank into itself while hammers and arrows pummelled and bled it. Firus changed target to the creature from the swamp until Ancanna pushed his bow aside.

‘Look,’ Ancanna said, gesturing to the giant. It kept to its swamp. Territorial.

Castus had other ideas, however. He surged forwards, too late to hear Ancanna’s warning, and the creature swatted him aside. The Retributor skidded back along the ground, dazed and with a fist-shaped dent that covered most of his breastplate. Upon seeing the Retributor slammed down, the Liberators locked shields and advanced on the beast while Retributors and Prosecutors made for its flanks.

‘Fall back!’ Ancanna yelled, tired of giving the order. But then, he berated himself, it was the only order he was used to giving. Castus was not going to like falling back, not after what that thing did to him. It would bruise the Retributor’s pride. But bruised pride beat the death of more Stormcast Eternals in an already diminished Strike Chamber.

At the slow, tactical retreat of the Stormcasts, the beast in the swamp ceased its attacks but did not drop its guard. For the first time, Ancanna noticed the glow of its eyes, a deep green. He also noticed it from various trees around him. Castus scrabbled to his feet and either failing to hear Ancanna’s order or ignoring it, made another strike for the beast. As quickly as he moved, the boughs of trees rattled to life. Creatures of wood and vines screamed out and fell upon Castus, bludgeoning him with branch-like limbs and making to impale him on other thorn-like ones.

Ancanna leapt from his position. The Liberators of his front line smashed the creatures apart. In showers of splinters, the glow left their eyes. A cry of rage bellowed from the swamp creature while Ancanna dragged his downed Retributor away.

‘I ordered you to fall back,’ he hissed.

Castus had no response beyond a slur of unintelligible syllables. He remained senseless for a few moments until he nodded to Ancanna and took control of his own actions.

When the Knights of the Aurora had retreated far enough, the swamp creature barked a warning at them. Ancanna needed no common language to know its meaning: return here and die. He had no intention of doing so and ordered his warriors deeper into the Shadesmire, away from the battleground.

With the battle won and a safe distance from the denizens of the woodland gained, Ancanna approached one of the newcomers. His shield and hammer marked him as a Liberator but not one under Ancanna’s command. ‘You missed the fight.’

The Liberator shook his head, a snort of mirth escaping his helm. ‘We have seen fights enough these past days.’ He glanced around. ‘We are, what, two dozen? Hardly the force we were.’

Ancanna surveyed his reinforcements and shrugged. With the immediate danger vanquished and the strength of arms he could call upon greatly increased, a little of the pangs of defeat at the citadel abated. ‘Yesterday we were four.’

 

Chapter 21

Catacombs

Dreadguard Ulgoloth stumbled through the gatehouse and courtyard, and into the shifting corridors of the citadel. He crashed against a wall, the scrape of his armour lacerating a mutated eye that was peering from the stone, bursting it in a gooey mess.

‘Geltz!’ he screamed, holding the sides of his head in his hands. Protector! Lambent Protector!

He rebounded off the wall and tripped over his feet.

The rage of the Dreadguard and stoic fortitude of the Lambent Protector waged a battle in his mind, a battle that tore into his psyche as artillery and the stomp of boots tears up a field of battle. It wasn’t the blood that took him, but the cutting of threads, the power of influence, of schemes and dreams interrupted by his hand. It made him the master of fate, not others.

‘No,’ he panted, arresting his fall and pushing up onto his hands and knees. His heart thundered like it would shake his ribcage apart and his vision misted through watering eyes. In his mind’s eye he saw only the adolescent he killed just to spite the daemon spirit of the citadel. ‘Seven houses…of noble birth…’ he forced. ‘Three cities.’

The mantra was so ingrained, it gave him a rock to latch on to. Panic surged through him at the thought of just how far down the mental abyss he had fallen. It scared him. No. It terrified him.

But he was not beyond climbing out. He couldn’t be. His generations-long duty demanded it of him. He drew on the strength of the man he had been. The man he still was, he told himself.

‘Twelve towns,’ he continued, slowing his breathing.

The rage, the foggy mind, and the malice receded and control shifted back to his own mind.

They are both your own mind, a voice whispered in his head, a cruel, barbed voice, dripping with malicious glee. Dreadguard.

He shook it away.

‘…is…a persona. A mask,’ he forced through gritted teeth and a throat that tried to shut the words off. The sheer weight of belief he threw behind them crumbled in the stark admission of the lie it was.

My name is Geltz! Lambent Protector Geltz Valewarden!

And the world snapped into focus.

A means to an end. Any means necessary. That was the truth of the Dreadguard, or, at least, the original intention. But those warriors of silver, Stormcast Eternals, the sorcerer had called them, they were something else. In a life of defending a kingdom, of crushing daemon and blackguard alike, followed by many lifetimes reaping a mortal harvest, none had equalled the prowess of the Stormcast Eternals. Severing their threads flooded him with such a feeling of power that it smashed his resolve and swept him in its torrent. And the halberd-wielder stood out even among those.

As his sensibilities returned, so did a well of shame open inside his gut. The Dreadguard won the combat but the Lambent Protector knew who won the fight. It was not the warrior now standing in the hallway of the Aurora Citadel. And the cost hit him on many levels.

He felt the Boon writhing inside him, a wrongness like acid slowly eating him from the inside out. For now it worked only to heal his wounds and keep him alive. Once that was done, Geltz could only guess what it might do to him.

But perhaps it was worth it. He considered the ritual, the blazing aurora and the Winds of Change. The sorcerer had promised answers. Perhaps, given Geltz’s threat and gaining the upper hand, just perhaps this time Axanthral had provided.

While force of will regained control for Geltz, a reminder of his duty, his lifebound purpose, brought him back to himself. It sharpened his focus and empowered his limbs. Though it felt vile, the Boon ensured his wound did not slow him, and he made to the catacombs, reciting his mantra in his mind again from the start.

Seven houses of noble birth…

He remained one step ahead where the floors moved and flagstones changed to swirling mist in the ever-changing structure, scowling through his helm at the growths in the wall where eyes followed his passage and mouths whispered vile tortures. Where flagstones did not disappear, they bubbled, their colours swirled, or their consistency became sludgy at random. An idle mind might be drawn in to search for patterns in their changing, but the Aurora Citadel would soon devour such a mind.

Fully restored and under his own control once more, the mind of Geltz was far from idle, however, as he recited under his breath. His duty, his reminder, and his folly. Befouled tapestries along the stone walls depicted a great castle standing sentinel over a lush valley. They showed a timeline of prosperity until they changed before his eyes. Clouds became darker. The wheat depicted in the fields was warped and deformed though it grew as high and abundantly as ever. Trudging further down the corridor, the decor depicted battles, dozens of armies thrown back from the castle’s high walls, finished by cavalry charges from armoured knights flying colourful banners from their lances, the same warrior always leading the charge.

The Lambent Protector paused before a portrait, its frame’s gilt chipped and cracked. He stared into the maroon eyes of the knight shown there, and bowed his head upon reading the brass plate beneath the picture. Sword of the Citadel, Lambent Protector, Geltz Valewarden. The eyes stared back, full of sorcery and betrayal. They blinked into crude eight-pointed stars crying tears of blood in thin streaks down the painted face. Another blink and they stared back into him, bereft of tears but full of accusation.

Under that gaze, his finger worked around his wound. It had taken a strange shape, that of the eye at the hilt of the dirk he had plunged into himself. He hadn’t realised he was touching it. The hateful relic goaded him to let go, unleash its power, cherish its rewards. It spoke not in whispers of words, but directly to his feelings and urges.

Sneering at the portrait he slammed the thoughts away and concentrated on the faces depicted on the portraits. One by one, he scratched their eyes out.

‘Closer, sorcerer,’ he said before leaving the tapestries and descending a staircase. ‘But some secrets elude even your many eyes.’

The staircase began as stone but soon changed into a morass of pink and blue living tissue, sticky and pulsating. He scraped his bladed vambraces against the wall, sneering at the flesh as it recoiled. The spiral went on, darker and deeper until the fleshy substance receded and the way plunged into blackness, only cold, dark stone. But he knew the route well. He didn’t need light for these well-trodden steps, and went into a series of sudden direction changes, large strides and small steps. Navigating a series of false walls and finishing with a stamp of his feet, the grate of moving stone sounded in the darkness.

Beyond the eyes of the sorcerer, he steeled his resolve.

He never knew what this room might contain. Some days it resembled a dungeon with walls covered in manacles and aged blood stained on its cold, stoke walls. Others were more dizzying as though he strode underwater, images of giant eels snaking past the edges of his vision while he walked a road of coral. This time, the chamber revealed a haze followed by darkness. He had not seen this one before, yet knew his way regardless. Glowing sigils marked his path though beneath them, and all around him shone the night sky. Constellations beyond counting surrounded him, above and below, and all around. The sigils led him to a crystal in the centre of the chamber and forked around it. Something moved inside it, a body, armoured in silver, before it dissipated in a rainbow flash of refracted light.

Ignoring the tricks of the Aurora Citadel took a presence of will, even down here where the sorcerer’s influence lessened. Geltz held onto the shame that surfaced within him though.

The constellations changed. They swirled into images of armoured warriors with angel wings and grand hammers. Others displayed giant maws poised to devour them. Others still became obscured by expanding nebulae of blues, greens and pinks.

‘Seven houses of noble birth,’ he said, striding across his path of arcane light.

‘Three cities.’ He sidestepped. Invisible from the sides, the thin outline of a door coalesced in front of him, white light against the darkness. Dozens of keys, each one numbered, waited in cylindrical recesses.

‘Twelve towns,’ he said, turning the twelfth key.

The door vanished. Beyond lay cold stone flags. Old magic guarded the catacombs. None of the citadel’s tricks ever affected beyond the previous chamber, thus the ochre tiles remained untouched. Their patterns of inlaid while tiles did not shift and a torch waited in a bracket on the wall where Geltz had left it. He lit it with a tinderbox and descended through the low-ceilinged passage.

‘Two hundred and fourteen miles of wall,’ he continued, tracing his hands over the tiles, counting, focused.

The final tile depressed. Others pushed out in a chain reaction. Soon, the mechanism finished, leaving an altar sticking out from the wall. Made of unadorned granite, the empty alter awaited.

Geltz knelt and placed a carved wooden figurine of a knight atop. ‘One betrayal to bring ruin to all.’

He stared at it and drank from his well of shame once more.

‘One promise never forgotten.’ He stood and crashed his mace through the figure. Before him, the altar parted, scraping aside, to reveal a final stone staircase.

‘By whatever means,’ Geltz said to himself as he descended.

It spiralled down and down. The air became thick and musty at the bottom of the stairs where a small corridor led to a much larger chamber. Something moved within.

He breathed, trying to prepare himself for what he might see, and entered. At the vision before him, he dropped to his knees. ‘By the gods…’

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