The cave was barely larger than most in this labyrinth, but Herrin wasn’t exactly surprised by that. The Iron Faithful didn’t strike him as a very hierarchal collection of vigilantes.
“Verraten.” Kuren announced their presence in the small chamber, but it was unwarranted; their footsteps rang across the dense stone to the figure who lounged, a cup of something ochre in his palm. A bench had been hewn out of the coarse rock by some monstrous element, and it was this that the two Feuerborn approached.
“Kuren tells me you have some pressing questions for me,” Verraten murmured, his silvered beard shimmering over his cup. He reached forward to pour two more cups of what Herrin suspected were scotch. Verraten passed each of them a portion of the beverage, which Kuren took appreciatively.
Herrin glanced once at the dull amber liquid. He hated scotch. Verraten’s piercing gaze levelled on him, testing. Herrin took a sip.
The tension drained immediately out of the Stahlborn, and he leaned back, gesturing for the Feuerborn to take the wooden stools over the low table. “What concerns do you have?” Verraten asked, drinking deep.
Herrin drank on his question, assessing Verraten’s demeanour. He chose the most light-hearted option. “Why the caves?” he inquired, “Surely this couldn’t have been the only choice the Iron Faithful had?”
Verraten chuckled, deep and cheerful. “The Iron Faithful have been inhabiting the Felsdorn caves since we began to be prosecuted.”
“Prosecuted?” Herrin prompted.
“The Iron Faithful began as an agreement - an understanding - between Krawall Stahldritten and Ahren Eisen,” Verraten explained, adopting the tone of a storyteller, a historian. “The Stahl Army had never been so bountiful; Krawall and his brother Kummer expanded it threefold. But he recognised the danger of a Great Mage Commander, the conflict that amount of power could cause. So he appointed separate commanders to each legion. But he was still plagued by the level of corruption available to him as Great Mage, and his wife, Prallen Klinge, suggested that he appoint mediator - someone who could respond appropriately and without restrictions if the situation called for the eradication of a corrupt Great Mage, for the good of the Realm. Krawall agreed, and founded the Iron Faithful with their trusted friend Ahren as its commander. For generations the Iron Faithful has existed in the shadows, assessing the authority of the leading Stahldritten.
“That was, until Konig Stahldritten began to hunt them into extinction.” Verraten’s tone took on a dark edge. “The murder of his elder brother Klemm - the favourite for the throne - piqued their interest. But it was passed off as an unfortunate hunting accident. The death of his younger brother under similar circumstances? The Iron Faithful couldn’t ignore Konig’s actions, not with his harsh reforms and numerous executions for larceny following the famine. They recognised that he was toeing the line of corruption, so they moved to remove him.
“But they felt that erring on the side of caution would suit best in the circumstance, and they arranged to meet with him to discuss his future motions, his intentions for the Realm. The meeting alerted him to their threat, and he spent the next three years rooting all fifty members out of their hideaways, until these caves were the last place they could retreat. So here we are.”
“And this is where you’ve been hiding all the years? Amassing a force?”
Verraten laughed. “No, I wasn’t a member of the original Iron Faithful. I was a late bloomer of sorts. I didn’t rebuild the organisation until Konig Stahldritten destroyed my family.”
At Herrin’s blank expression, Verraten elaborated.
“He executed my eldest brother, Ahnen - one of his own commanders - for failing to protect his youngest brother Kuhl. The brother that he had killed himself, just as he had Klemm!” Verraten was shaking with anger, and his empty cup jittered in his grip. “He was a bloodthirsty mongrel who had no right to the throne.”
“That’s why you’re going after his offspring?” Herrin inquired dubiously.
“They never should have been,” Verraten spat. “Had he not murdered his way onto the throne, Konig’s children would never have come to be. None of those little monsters.”
Herrin smothered a smile at the thought that Blair and Kolben Eisen, Verraten’s own nephews, were intimately involved with Stahldrittens. He maintained an impassive face. “Pursuing the Stahldrittens I could understand,” Herrin allowed, casting his thoughts to Klauen in his bare little cell. “But what do you plan to do with them?”
“I’m going to eradicate them,” Verraten promised, and Herrin felt a surge of adrenalin spike through his veins at the thought of Klauen’s life - his puppet, his ticket - being compromised. “Beginning with publicly executing that psychopath of a son that Konig has, and whom you so graciously provided.”
Herrin ignored the appreciative tip of Verraten’s head, glancing over at Kuren, who’s own dark gaze was mildly amused. He had to have known what intentions Verraten had for the highlord when he’d approached Herrin in his cell for help, had to have known how valuable Klauen was to Herrin. He cast his mind away, less he grow any more agitated. “Then why go after the High Council?”
“For their role in Heike’s dictatorship,” Verraten explained plainly. “They prevented us from fulfilling our duty and eradicating her before she could take hold. And then they allowed her to murder our own in the name of fighting that Devonian scourge.”
Herrin could sense his temper flaring out of control, and quickly changed subject, taking another sip of scotch. “Why resurrect your nephew?” he inquired. “What end does it serve?”
“Blair?” Verraten confirmed. “Unfortunately, I needed a test subject. I’ve never resurrected anything as large or complex as a person before. I needed to see if it was possible first, before attempting it again. And I needed to see whether his injuries would prevent my magery from taking effect.”
“Attempted it again?” Herrin prompted, raising his brows.
“My elder brother Ahnen will be my next resurrectee,” Verraten replied. “I needed to know whether a slit throat was a healable inflection, in order to approximate whether a decapitation would halt my magery. I estimate it won’t hinder me significantly.”
Not for the first time, Herrin questioned the extent of Verraten’s magery, and made a note to discover exactly how far this man could go. “And that’s why you needed the Flusswelle?”
Verraten seemed pensive as he lounged. He seemed to have a particular understanding with the teenager, one that the boy clearly did not reciprocate. “I need the Flusswelle boy to amplify my magery. Alone, I would die resurrecting one person. But his magery - expounded by Æthera’s Gift - allows me to resurrect four people before succumbing.”
“Æthera’s Gift?” Herrin asked.
“It’s a potion allegedly mixed from the blood of Æthera herself,” Verraten elaborated with a small, disbelieving smile. “More likely it was concocted using her descendants’ diluted blood. It grants the drinker reinforced magery - it can compound their power fourfold. But it comes with cost: for every session of drinking, the Gift gives compounded strength, and claims half the imbiber’s remaining life force in return. It curses the drinker with a half life, in a manner.”
“And how many drinks has your captive amplifier had exactly?” Herrin asked.
“This will be his third session,” Verraten allowed. “We estimate his lifeforce has been narrowed to twenty-four years.”
Herrin wasn’t a particularly moral individual, but he had at least expected Verraten to be, given his incorruptible ethical compass. “And he consented to this?”
“He’s part of a larger purpose,” Verraten supplied, unflinching. “Not just the work of the Iron Faithful. There are greater things in his future. In time, he will come to see his role and how Æthera’s Gift has aided him in the cause.”
“Where did you get hold of such a rare potion?”
“It was provided by our guests, the Bestehend.”
Herrin recalled the sombre figures who wandered the halls in pairs, their white masks impassive and piercing, their long sleeves hiding malice and ill-will. “What are the Bestehend?”
“They’re the protectors of the High Empress, her family, and all of Æthera’s descendants.”
“The High Empress is dead,” Herrin contradicted with a sharp laugh. “Could they not have protected her?”
“It was not their intention at the time,” Verraten relayed, “That is what I have been told. But they have been invaluable in procuring both the Flusswelle and the Totersieg High Councilmember.”
“What do they want in return?” If there was one thing Herrin had learnt as a businessman, it was that no one gained nothing from charity. “Surely there’s a reason for their aid?”
“That’s between me and them,” Verraten retorted abruptly, his tone sharp and conclusive. Herrin quickly changed tacts. “What is Kuren offering you then?”
The Feuerborn chuckled over the rim of his third drink, but it was Verraten who answered again. “Kuren has proven a trusted ally on the High Council.”
“You don’t suspect him of spying on you for the High Council?” Herrin asked plainly, and Kuren’s gaze gleamed with amusement.
“No,” Verraten said firmly. “He has only proven his reliability time and time again to me. He brought us Klauen, and you, and your sister - all of whom have aided in our cause. I trust Kuren with my life.”
Herrin wondered, not for the first time, what exactly Kuren stood to gain from this relationship. If he were discovered to be aiding the leader of the vigilante group that currently held both Klauen Stahldritten and a High Councilmember captive – the latter of which was capable of recognising him on sight – Herrin sincerely doubted that even he could argue his way out of the situation. The precarious relationship didn’t exactly breed benefit, from Herrin’s perspective.
“So when exactly do you plan to execute Klauen Stahldritten?” Herrin murmured into his cup, surreptitiously not meeting either’s gaze.
“After my brother Ahnen’s resurrection,” Verraten proclaimed, quite eagerly. There was a note of triumph to the claim, underscored by deep-set vengeance. “I will grant him to resolution of taking Stahldritten’s life, for the sake of his father’s sins.”
Herrin’s brows rose imperceptibly. “And when do you plan to resurrect him?”
“In two days’ time,” Verraten announced. “Cisza tells me Flusswelle will need time for the Gift to saturate his magery.”
Herrin smiled thinly, and drank deep.