Chapter 35: Breaking
Daken had never been inside of any dungeon anywhere inside of Anaria. He had also never been inside of a prison; not even the prisons in Airachni. He had known that they existed, but he had never gone down to inspect them for himself. He made a silent note to himself that if he ever got the chance to see them from the outside again, he would refuse it. He also made a mental note to never be inside of one ever again. If he managed to succeed with both of those goals, and also survive his current predicament, he might even take pity on Meclarya’s criminal population and have the prisons cleaned at least once a year.
Daken was in prison because his plan had failed. He was not a General. He had attempted to divide Meclarya, cutting the country’s Deshik forces in two. He had tried to retake the Emin-Tal plateau. And that strategy had failed him. He had failed. Now, he was waiting for his death. His captors had brought him back to Airachni to present to Vorteez, but with the Devil gone, they had changed their minds. Very soon, he would be led through his own palace and out into his own city, where he would be executed. There was no changing what was to come. All he could do was wait.
Finally, the horns blared, echoing through the city, even into his dungeon, calling all living Morschen in the city to the courtyard. His guards came, Deshik, not Meclaryan. The trip through the palace was interminable. Though he was being dragged by giants almost twice his height, he continued to look around at his home. He knew every hall, every stone of its floor. Each step disturbed the ghost of another painful memory. They passed through the great kitchens, which still fed hundreds and thousands every day. He saw the hall that lead to his own chambers, where he had been held as Taren’s prisoner. They dragged him past the doors to his throne room. They set him on his own feet in the main hall, where memories of memories fought for his attention. And the great doors of the main entrance brought to mind the desperate final stand of his army, only seven years before. Through the doors, the last remnants of his people stood, waiting in the harsh sunlight, watching as the doors opened wide, and their last lord was lead to his death. Some were crying, but none dared to help him.
His Deshik guards forced his head onto the block, and an Armandan stood ready with an axe. He did not look at the woman more than to notice her hair. It was curled, blood red at the bottom, and fading to a deep orange and then a bright yellow. ‘Like flames,’ he thought, as he attempted to empty his mind before death. He heard a War Chief reading out the charges against him, not that it mattered what they were. He was a Morschcoda. That was enough.
The reading stopped, and the drums pounded out a solemn beat. When they stopped, the Armandan executioner swung her axe.
Daken heard the impact of the axe. That, he knew, should not have happened. He should have felt a sharp pain in his neck, and then nothing at all. Or maybe, if he was lucky, he should have had his full body back, including all of the fingers that he had already lost in the war. He would have been in Arbendia, the home of the gods, but he was not. The axe struck metal. He noticed a large tear in a Deshik guard’s breastplate as the dead giant fell in front of him. Then the other guard fell dead. The executioner took out a knife and cut the bonds on his hands, letting him up.
“It is not your time yet, Daken.” Xari pulled out Daken’s horn and blew a piercing note which echoed through the city. The Deshika still could not respond, they did not know what was happening, but a dull roar could be heard now, in answer to the horn. Morieden warriors that had followed Daken into Meclarya had followed Xari to Airachni. And now, they were fighting for the city, even as the Drogs had during that first battle. Xari handed him a sword, and the two Morschcoda joined their army in battle.
While Daken waded ever further into the bloodbath that had erupted, Xari and a handful of the Morieden warriors held the gates of the palace, keeping Deshika from retreating into it and keeping Deshik reinforcements inside.
An arrow bit into Xari’s shoulder as it flew past and claimed on of the Morieden. A rock dropped from high above and crushed a Deshik soldier that was about to jump at her from behind. A wave of arrows flew from Deshik archers, still holding some rooftops from the Morschcoda’s army.
Privately, Xari began to fear that liberating Airachni was impossible, even as she cut the knees out from a War Chief trying to run past her into the palace. Another rock crashed down, closer to her this time, and as she flinched, she saw a tall man in full plate-armour. The black-on-gold were the colours of no House she knew, and the crossed swords decapitating a swan was not a symbol she recognized. Despite that, she did not doubt a Morschenic traitor stood before her, and the only thing she hated more than the Deshika or the Seven Devils was a traitor.
Leaving the palace gates undefended, Xari charged at the mysterious knight. Summoning her strength and releasing her rage, she threw herself into one attack after another, driving him towards the short staircase.
He laughed the whole way. He enjoyed the ferocity of her attack, waving away any Deshika that tried to intervene or take advantage of Xari’s focus. Despite that, she let a trail of a dozen Deshik bodies behind her.
Xari faked a high slash, and when he brought up his shield to block, she slammed into it with her shoulder, throwing him off balance. She tried to press her advantage, but even off-balance, he threw up a guard to every slice.
Annoyed, she let flames run down the length of her sword, and her hair ignited. While this had terrified other traitors, it only amused the strange knight more. He began to attack in turn.
A Deshik arrow aimed at Xari caught fire and crumbled to ash as it got close, but the iron tip still buried itself in her leg.
She yelled in frustration and punched at her opponent, her fist wreathed in white-and-blue flames. He caught her by the wrist and squeezed, crushing it. She screamed in pain and kicked his knee. She swung at his hand when he stumbled, and cut through his armour and the bone underneath.
He didn’t even flinch. He looked at the bloodless stump of his wrist, then at his hand, writhing on the ground. Then he looked back at the new hand that was already growing on the end of his arm.
“Few have ever managed to mark me, Xari Gundara, and were my hand not too useful to do without, I would keep this scar as a precious memory of our dance here.” The hand stopped growing. “Die well now, knowing you have the respect of Mredic, the Sword of Alega.” Xari roared, letting her magic rage, spitting fire like a Dragon. Mredic feinted left, and she blocked. He cut down from her right and she ducked the blow. He stabbed at her, and she pushed his sword away, but he pulled out another blade and drove it through her gut.
He leaned in close, supporting her weight. “You are a dangerous woman, and an exciting one. Part of me hopes you will survive this, somehow.” He pulled out the knife and let her drop. A War Chief stomped on her leg, crushing it. Mredic, offended, killed the War Chief and let his body fall beside her. “Fight well, Xari Gundara. May we dance again.” …
Daken wandered through his city, dead Deshika crowding the streets as they had seven years before. Only this time, the victory meant more. Retaking Airachni meant breaking Vorteez’s hold on the coast. It meant that Morschen ships could sail again, merchants could trade with distant ports. Help could come, if any help existed. And the Dragons could fly free and proud once again. There was again a place in Anaria where they could not be hunted. Vorteez would rue the day that he had started that, and he would suffer as Daken’s people had. Before, Daken might have seen the victory as his, or at least, as his people’s, but he knew it was not. Though he had started the long march alone, many had followed him, and most had not been Meclaryan. The Morieden Tribes had owed him nothing. They had had no cause to march against the Deshika, who came so conveniently to the villages and camps throughout the plains of Moredo. And Xari had not needed to follow him. Daken, for the most part, had always been able to take care of himself. He was not a great leader, or even a great man. She was worth more to Daliana than he was. But she had followed him. And she had saved his life, leading his ragged army into Airachni after him, and freeing Meclarya at the same time. That was why he looked for Xari. He needed to thank her before she went back to Dothoro.
“Ah, Captain. Where is Morschcoda Gundara?” The short woman stopped mid-stride. Her face fell. Daken knew what was wrong. “Where is she?”
She swallowed once. “This way, Morschcoda.”
Xari was stretched out on the ground, near where Daken should have lost his head. Meclaryan healers were doing all that they could, but Daken took one look at her and knew that there was no saving her. Xari was lying in a pool of her own blood that stretched over one foot in every direction. She had been stabbed through the chest, twice, and another sword had gone through her stomach. One of the healers held a Deshik arrow and was chanting a counter-spell to negate the poison that glowed on its barbed head. It had ripped a chunk of flesh out of Xari’s right thigh. Xari’s right leg below the knee was lying a few feet away. It had been crushed, and the healers had wasted no time in realizing nothing that they could do could save it. But, they still had not given up on Xari. She opened her eyes as the sound of Daken’s footsteps drew closer.
“You survived. Good. I didn’t waste the trip then.” Daken could not force himself to smile. “Don’t look at me like that Daken. It’s my time.”
He fell to his knees and took her hand. He couldn’t hold back his tears or keep his voice from cracking. “No. You have centuries still to live.”
“No Daken. This is the price I pay for doing nothing the last time. Dalasin shouldn’t have died that day. I should have stopped it.”
“Gelida is a strong as Dalasin ever could have been.”
“Some people are born to change a life. Some people are born to change the world. Dalasin could have changed the world. It’s long past time you started trying to do the same. You could have been someone like Taren. But you were too good of a person.” Xari smiled through her pain. “Maybe it’s better that you didn’t end up like him. The Morschen had enough tyrants. Good rulers were rare.” “What about you?”
“I was neither. I was nothing, which is the worst thing to be as one of us. But now, I have struck a blow on behalf of Armanda. My people’s debt is repaid.” Xari closed her eyes. Then she laughed. “Did you know Taren killed my husband? Allihn was leading the Flame Weavers against my brother’s rebellion. Taren himself was at the battle, and Allihn tried to fight him. He was a swordmaster, but it wasn’t enough. That’s why I trained so hard. That’s why I wanted so desperately to kill Taren myself.” She coughed for almost a full minute. “Galdren was actually Allihn’s sword. Taren returned it to An-Aniath himself, with Allihn’s body. I wish he’d killed my then too.” “No. Taren and Erygan chose well when they let you keep your throne.” Xari did not respond. “Xari. Xari, stay awake! You can’t do this!”
“Be at peace, Daken. I finally am.”
Daken gripped Xari’s hand tighter and picked up her body, cradling her in his arms, but could not find any other words to say. The healers poured more and more of their energy directly into Xari’s wounds, trying in vain to close them, but she had lost too much blood already. Slowly, her life slipped away. Daken could feel it leaving her body. With her last strength, Xari took her hand back from Daken and brushed away a tear that rolled freely down his cheeks. “Good bye, Daken.”