Thane’s heart screeched in protest as he watched his brother’s fist rise again. The steel knuckles descended, smashing into the nose of their victim, flesh crumpling against the force of the blow. Thane stood behind Dimiter, flinching with every swing his brother took at Bennett Goreus, stomach churning with every new wound that formed.
Dimiter hesitated before his next strike, opting to rise to his feet instead. “Thane, my kerchief,” he muttered with his back to Thane. “Rest of you, tie him back up.”
Several rebels encircled the cowering nobleman, and within moments Bennett was bound to his chair again. Thane scuttled forward, handing his elder brother the folded fabric before hurrying back. Dimiter began to rigorously wipe his steel knuckles, unperturbed by the red stains that marred the white cloth.
The air grew still in the dark warehouse. Every Coalitionist returned to their positions, granting Dimiter his working space, watching their alpha in utter silence. The rebels stood tall and menacing, clad in leather armor and half-helms. Some were djinn, some were human, but the ill feelings harbored against Lord Bennett Goreus remained the same. Each and every one relished for an opportunity to take the nobleman’s life. Slowly, if permitted.
“Now, where were we?” Dimiter asked.
Bennett Goreus watched his captors with wide, inflamed eyes, his chest rising and falling strenuously. The gag pressed against his lips was soaked with blood and spittle, pink froth seeping from within. As presentable as he had been when they took him, a week later the lordling was anything but. His clothes were a ruin of blood and filth. Shreds of his coat and undershirt were on the ground around him, and his body’s stale essence filled the loft with a choking stench.
Dimiter peered down at their victim. “Ah, yes. Afraid we’ve got bad news for you, Lord Bennet.”
Bennett’s eyes narrowed into a piercing stare, in spite of his condition.
“Doesn’t seem like anyone cares to have you back and it looks to me that we’re gonna have to get rid of you. Gods know we didn’t want to dirty our hands, but a promise is a promise.” He shrugged and motioned to Thane with two fingers. “Even got my brother to watch the whole process. Need to toughen him up a bit.”
Thane felt every gaze turn to him. Why did he have to bring me into this?
Dimiter looked over his shoulder, eyes cold and hard, beckoning Thane towards the bound nobleman. “Come here.”
“D—Dimiter,” Thane stammered. “I’d like to stay where I am, please.”
When Thane drew closer, Bennett’s watery eyes settled on him. Long hours of torture had done nothing to break his spirit, he continued to stare, teeth clenching into the gag.
Dimiter circled the chair in which Lord Bennett was bound. “Nothing to say?” he asked, removing the steel knuckles enveloping his right hand and tossing it to the ground. “You seeing this, my brothers? You seeing this blatant parade of disrespect?”
The Coalitionists were as still as death, but their focus was unremitting, every single pair of eyes doggedly fixated on the nobleman.
“Don’t be rude, my lord. No one likes to be ignored.” Dimiter’s arm snapped forward, his bare fist cracking against the lordling’s jaw. A muffled grunt escaped Bennett’s gag, as his chair teetered backwards from the blow, but Dimiter was ready, reaching out with his other hand to deftly grab Bennett’s collar before he crashed to the floor.
“Now then,” Dimiter continued, flicking blood off of his knuckles. “Is there any use left of you, or do we go about our way and take your head right here and now?”
Bennett’s eyes betrayed him. Fear had finally found the lordling, and with great difficulty he managed to nod, head hanging limp against his chest after he finished.
“Much appreciated, my lord.” Dimiter bobbed his head in a mock curtsy. “Gonna take your gag off now, and I’m expecting something useful from you.”
A long groan escaped Bennett’s throat.
Dimiter grabbed the lord’s hair and yanked his head back. “But first, I’m gonna soften you up, so you don’t get any ideas.”
As his brother struck the nobleman again and again, distress returned to Thane, the muscles in his back and stomach flaring up in response to the violence.
“Enough?” Dimiter asked, continuing to taunt Bennett. “You done with this?”
When no response came, he moved into attack again, but pulled his arm back a moment before striking. Bennett flinched, shutting his eyes tightly.
“Ah.” Dimiter jabbed a finger in Bennett’s face. “Still well enough to recoil?” He turned to his fellow rebels, spreading his arms wide. “Highborn shits can sure take a beating.”
The Coalitionists howled with cruel laughter, their voices booming across the warehouse. Thane watched as their shoulders rocked back and forth in twisted glee, faces contorted like dæmons.
Dimiter untied the gag and yanked it from Bennett’s mouth. The nobleman spat a gob of blood and saliva onto the floor beneath him. “Fuck. You,” he rasped hoarsely. “Coalitionist pigs.”
With a snarl, Dimiter kicked Bennett in the chest. The chair went crashing down, but didn’t break underneath his weight. The bindings held tight, straining against Bennett’s flesh as he let out a shriek.
Dimiter strode away. He turned back to look down on the lord, a sneer on his lips. “Thane. Get him back up.”
Thane reflexively took a step towards the center of the loft. All of his fellows’ eyes were on him. He paused, searching for Dimiter to urge him on.
“What are you waiting for?” Dimiter asked after Thane’s hesitance grew prolonged.
“I can’t,” Thane whispered, unable to move a single pace further.
Dimiter held his gaze, knowingly, almost as if he could read his thoughts. “Don’t be afraid, brother,” he assured. “Death isn’t for us.”
Thane continued forward, careful not to touch the nobleman as he lifted the chair back upright before scurrying away.
Bennett clenched his fists, and Thane noticed that thick red welts pressed on the bindings that held him down. “It’s only a matter of…time,” the lordling whispered.
“Before what?” Dimiter asked.
“Before you…die.” Bennett flashed a bloodstained grin. “Your good sister could never predict your deaths.” He grimaced, shifting in his seat, before focusing on Dimiter again. “It’s coming far sooner…than you think.”
Cold needles pricked Thane’s skin, and a sweeping chill reverberated through his body.
Dimiter threw his head back and roared out in laughter. “You think I care about your empty threats?” he asked. “Don’t you understand? You’re as good as dead!”
For a fraction of a moment, the warehouse went black, as if an enormous bird had flown across the window. Thane started at the sight. Swinging his attention from one end of the warehouse to the other, he looked to his brothers and sisters, but no one seemed to notice the fleeting shadow.
“—the Four blessed Isabella’s struggle,” Dimiter’s voice returned to Thane’s ears. “It’s you who has little time left, my lord. I’m tired of your lack of cooperation and so is she.”
Thane knew he wasn’t to disturb Dimiter, or he’d receive a cuff to the head, but he knew he wasn’t hallucinating. There’s something out there.
“Where is she?” Bennett asked, his tone rough and weary. “Shouldn’t your fearless leader be here with you as you end the life of a Goreus? Shouldn’t she be here as you openly declare war on the titled houses?”
“Titled?!” Dimiter spat. “Four gave you nothing! What you have, you thrust on yourselves!”
Bennett snorted. “It doesn’t matter if you’re human, djinn, alchemist or elf. Every wyr gets what’s coming to them.”
Thane shifted his weight to one leg, trying to ignore what was beyond the window and focus on his brother. Dimiter stopped himself from striking again, Thane sucking in a breath at the sight. But instead of doubling his attention on Dimiter and Bennett, he found himself glancing back to the meshed windows and anxiety returned, slowly cooking his innards.
Dimiter smirked, turning to the ifrit on his right. “You hearing this, Grenn? Such wisdom from a young pup?”
A sneer curled the fire djinn’s lip, and he shook his head in disgust.
Dimiter returned his gaze to the lordling. “As the Canon says—So admits the lords, with no difference is there between they and me.” He waved his hand at the rebels around them. “The only difference is our fate. After we play our roles as Isabella’s swords, true slaves of the Four Fathers. We’ll meet our gods with open arms. Isn’t that right, my brothers and sisters?”
The Coalitionists roared in response, war cries reverberating like thunder within the loft.
Despite his brutalized condition, Bennett’s focus was unnerving. Not one belonging to a wyr who had endured the brunt of a violent abduction. He stared hotly at Dimiter, venom spewing from his eyes. “Our king does not sympathize with religious fanatics.”
Thane found his focus moving away from his brother and their captor, and back at the windows. A trickle of sweat snaked down his forehead and along his temple. What is that…thing? he asked himself.
“His Grace, Aaros Ironheart,” Dimiter said mockingly, “is gonna lose grip on what he claims is his. It starts here, in our beloved city. Just like you, he’ll lose his self-endowed titles when the Faith of the Four takes this realm and declares us all as children of the—”
“D—Dimiter,” Thane cut in.
Dimiter didn’t turn to Thane, his focus remaining on the bound lord before him. “What is it?” he asked icily.
Thane swallowed again, dreading his brother’s infamous sneer. “I think I saw something.”
“Think you saw something? What’d you see?”
“It’s…outside,” Thane said, unsure of what else to say. “Ran across the rooftop—just along the loft window.”
Dimiter looked over his shoulder, eyes narrowed. His expression showed he wished to dismiss the notion, but their luck could turn in an instant. For them, vigilance was cheap.
“Bernon.” Dimiter waved to the water djinn closest to him. “Trisha,” he called at the human girl standing at the doors. “Check the gates. Make sure no one’s fucking around.”
With swift nods, they disappeared under the warehouse’s archways and out into the entryway. The sound of the main doors thudding shut was followed by silence.
After several moments of still, and no trace of either Bernon or Trisha, Dimiter’s frown deepened. Thane felt the walls draw closer around him, the atmosphere suddenly feeling too damp for his taste.
A laugh reverberated across the steel belly of the repository, a gurgling cackle originating from Bennett Goreus’ throat. “Not so brave anymore, are we?” he asked. “Why don’t you go check on your sentries?”
Dimiter’s face grew red. He took several wide strides before landing a kick squarely into the lord’s chest. Bennett gasped as the kick forced air from his lungs and the chair staggered over, knocking into the dirt behind him.
“Think you’re smart?” Dimiter jeered, slamming his boot onto Bennett’s belly. “Eh, asshole?”
After he caught his breath, Bennett glared up at Dimiter coolly. “This is out of your control,” he whispered. “Insurgent dog.”
Dimiter raised his foot again, poised to smash into Bennett’s chest. “I’m still—”
The earth quaked beneath Thane’s feet, an intense tremor buckling his legs underneath him. A cry escaped his lips before he struck the ground, and his face crashed into the earth. The taste of dirt met his lips, but rather than remaining floored, he rolled over and clambered back up to his feet. Darkness met him. His helmet askew, and his vision blocked.
They found us, he realized, gut turning to ice. They actually found us.
A confused uproar erupted, voices merging into ringing cries. When he turned his helm back to the front, a thick cloud of dust had risen. The haze filled the insides of the loft, restricting his sight to only a few feet in front of him. At his sides, several of his brethren were already dead, bathing in pools of their own blood. Before he could count the dead around him, another shriek sounded and his limbs turned to stone.
Steel hacked into flesh and Thane’s breaths came short and raspy as he stumbled forward. I need to find Dimiter. Dimiter will protect me.
Intense, bone-deep pain billowed up from what was certainly a broken ankle. Other Coalitionists rushed past him, fleeing from the swirling storm of dust. But still, Thane continued onwards in panic, frantically searching for his brother.
Through the amber glow of the mist, the chair came to view, thrown aside like a toddler’s toy. Wood splintered in the corners, and broken legs were strewn across the dirt. Bennett Goreus stood hunched over the floor, free from the bindings that remained in tatters on the earth around him.
Thane licked his lips and hobbled forward. He found himself reaching for his belt, and the haft of his knife was soon tight in hand as he drew closer to the highborn human.
A sob gurgled in Thane’s throat as he beheld Dimiter’s corpse. It was nailed to a boxed container as if it were the head of a mounted stag; crescent sword plunged deep into an unmoving chest. His head hung crooked, eyes staring out into the distance with a wide, dead gaze. Blood dripped off of the fingers of wilted limbs, pattering onto the sand beneath him.
“Dimiter…” Thane whispered, dropping to his knees.
Thane could feel Bennett’s eyes on him—a piercing stare that chilled him to the bone. Even after a gruesome ambush and torture, his pride remained intact. “You knew,” Thane said without looking at the lordling, his voice hollow. “You let yourself get caught, knowing we’d bring you back here.”
Without responding, Bennett lifted Dimiter’s sword from the ground and eased his way to Thane, looming over him with an upturned nose.
Thane felt the tip of the blade underneath his chin, forcing him to meet the nobleman’s eyes. For a moment, they locked gazes and Bennett withdrew the weapon, allowing Thane’s head to rest against his chest again.
“Daun,” Bennett said, turning to the cloud of dust. “The others escaped.”
Thane struggled to rise. A cloaked silhouette emerged from the haze. The edges of its tattered, shadowy surcoat flittering as the dust settled around them. It came to Dimiter’s body and yanked the crescent blade from bone and flesh with little effort. The corpse sagged into the dirt before resting facedown with one arm and leg tucked underneath the torso. Thane attempted to look away but was unable to tear his eyes from the sight. Just one. One wyr. How could one wyr do all of this?
“Did you hear me, slave?” Bennett hissed at the creature. “The others got away.”
Within the swirling dust it moved to Thane, slithering over the earth like a cocoon of shadows. As it drew closer, waves of discomfort seeped across his chest. The shadow’s rough boot prodded his chest, and he flinched in response, tears welling in his eyes.
“This one’s still alive,” the voice said, guttural and rough, like rumbling thunder.
“Well then, what are you waiting for?” Bennett asked. “Kill the Coalitionist dog.”
The creature swooped down and grabbed hold of Thane’s breastplate, lifting him to place him on his back. Wisps of heat ribboned off the creature’s body and surrounded him like smokeless flame.
Thane caught sight of the shadow’s overlooking eyes—a wild, smoldering yellow like the purest fires of hell. He drew in a sharp breath and sobbed. Four Fathers save me!
The edge of the creature’s icy curved blade was sharp against his neck. His bladder failed him all at once and moisture flowed between his legs, pungent odor drifting upward. When the dust had finally settled, Thane had a clear view of the carnage before him. His body grew numb at the sight of corpses decorating the ground in a pattern of meaty chunks.
Don’t be afraid, brother. Dimiter’s voice was stark in his mind when the flash of steel descended towards his neck. Death isn’t for us.