Blade met flesh, and the visceral feel of it - the shock of steel shearing skin, transmitted up ranseur’s helve - sent a frisson of pleasure through Sark Ynet.
--Take her leg, o Dragon mine. Cripple her.--
Of course, the husk objected to such treatment, but it was the how of it that was the true surprise. In her hands, the woman’s quarterstaff twisted, its form flowing like water rather than wood. The creeper thrust the reformed weapon back at his face with desperate strength, a crushing blow angled up at his jaw.
The wiry man snarled, reflexively snapping his head to the side and jerking the ranseur up, forgoing his intended follow-up twist of the blade. Instead he retreated several paces, reestablishing his footing for the bout to come. Vain Sark Ynet was not, but that did not mean he had any desire to spend the next six months supping on soup through a broken jaw. In either event, he had no issue with letting the husk bleed a little before the end. Let her think she had a chance in this, that she had driven him back.
--All the sweeter, when she discovers the truth.--
And soon the creeper would see, it was only a matter-
That thought was shattered by the scream of Cellar’s siren. But this cry… this cry was different. The howl grew, and grew, and grew, expanding stridently through the Arena. It was like a living thing, filling the space until the very volume of its unrelenting wail staggered the combatants. The jagged man's grip faltered, weapon clattering to the tile mutely - or apparently so, for no sound could pierce through the unearthly screech that somehow, impossibly, continued to intensify.
Of a certainty, his eardrums must burst soon, for he could feel the noise: pressing upon his skin, humming within his bones, rattling his mismatched eyes in their tearing sockets. Deafness would be a relief, he thought, as the monotone shriek drove him to his knees. He would even welcome it, if only because it would bring about the cessation of this godscursed sound. Surely even the Arena could not withstand such aural fury for long, and the wiry man was convinced he could not bear another moment of the exponentially increasing yowl when a single white-hot thought managed to separate itself from the overwhelming accumulation.
He was kneeling on the dead-line.
And the dead-line bloomed.
Blood, thick and crimson, gushed from the mark upon the Arena’s floor, a quick-spreading flood that soaked into Sark Ynet’s pants in a moment, even as his gaze snapped eastward. The jagged man’s left hand, demon-fingered and rippling, rose in a fitful gesture of denial; his fingers splayed in a warding, defensive gesture - silver of the ring winking upon his middle digit - as though prepared to do the impossible: catch the blade he knew was coming.
It was folly, madness. His shadowed arm had proven resilient to all manner of damage, though it felt pain no differently than his right arm did. Even if he could catch the blade, his left limb might well be insuperable, but the rest of him was not. Perhaps it would pass through his unbreakable arm, striking at the body behind it. Or perhaps he would be driven before the blade like a ship before a storm, holding desperately against the cutting edge until he was dashed against the Cellar’s unyielding wall.
Sark Ynet realized then that he was laughing - for all that the apparent mirth was swallowed by the overbearing siren - and he had no true understanding of why that was. Kneeling in lukewarm blood, assailed by the unrelenting onslaught of the klaxon, and awaiting the Dancing Blade that would be his undoing, the jagged man laughed; he nearly convulsed with it, as the curor saturated his clothing and darkness - not a blade - came forth to claim him.
But it was familiar, that darkness. He had known it for years untold.
This darkness had a name.
There were fingers around his throat. Strangling fingers, a heated grip that commanded attention. And yet, there was nothing to see. No light, no color, no shape. That made sense, because the wiry man knew, somehow, that nothing of Light could survive here. This was the edge of Night itself. But Sark Ynet knew too, without having to be told, that this was not the first time he had been to this place, and the grip of those fingers informed him well that he was not alone.
It was Houkut. As though the suspicion - the realization - had summoned it, the balor’s voice was there; words spoken quietly, tenderly, emerged faint and sibilant from the blackness. “We have had such fun, you and I. But now comes the end. Remember your promise, o Dragon mine, for I remember that which I spoke.”
The words forced themselves from the man’s throat, gasping around the choking digits. “‘Life or death. Victory or defeat, I will hold the debt fulfilled. But if victory it should be, choose aright.’”
There was a pregnant pause, and then a slow, cruel smile Sark Ynet could feel upon his skin, as surely as he had felt the siren’s call. “Aye, so it is. Do you so. But always remember: we are, each of us, the choices we make.”
And then he was flying, falling, hurtling through an abyss that was black, blacker, blackest. A devouring gradient of deeper, hungrier shadows swallowed him, while the ring on his umbral finger seared him with frozen heat.
And in that darkest space, just before merciful oblivion robbed him of all sense… Something stirred.
“We take it the accommodations in Carchar were not to your liking then?” God-Emperor Iawn did not deign to turn away from the window of his solar, looking out over the riot that rocked the imperial seat. Below, remote with distance from the high tower of his personal residence, it was easy to mark the spread of the fires, to see the surging knots of combat where his loyalists fought a valiant, losing battle against the tide of rebellion.
The Grand Library was ablaze.
The Imperial Treasury was being ransacked.
The High Temple was a desecrated battlefield.
The Plaza of Victory Eternal was a graveyard.
“You will release to me the others, the Dragons that you detained for ‘treason’ when you dragged me before your throne for that farce of ‘Justice’.” The jagged man bore a knife in his flesh and bone hand, blood dripping thickly from the blade to stain the priceless carpet beneath his feet.
The ruler of the Rodekian Empire remained unmoved, peering through the glass at the carnage below, not so much as glancing at the man who had carved his way through the palace at the head of a roiling mob. “We can give you only their bodies. They would not renege their professions of loyalty. You are an unwontedly charismatic man, for a butcher.” He paused a moment and then offered an absent shrug, setting aside the majestic plural as he continued tiredly, “I could not countenance their defiance, and I had other Dragons to carry out their duties. I had hoped that six months of your absence might be enough to smother their ardor. It would seem I was mistaken.”
“If I was a butcher it was your making,” the wiry man returned caustically. “But one shall answer for another. Your Dragons are dead as well. Save perhaps Redrigal, scurrying shadow to shadow through the north district on his way to Abaret. You cannot truly think they will answer your plea.”
“The orders were mine. The execution was yours, particularly where it departed from my decrees.” Iawn shook his head slowly. “As to Abaret…” He shrugged once more, abandoning the topic. “My Imperial Hellkite, that was what they called you. And doom beat in the wings of your arrival.” For a long moment the God-Emperor was silent, and when he continued his weary voice was soft. “Perhaps you are not wrong. I saw what you were capable off, in Pretu. It is why I sent you to Brenth, though I did not want you to make of it a charnel house.”
“They called me a devil in Brenth,” the Dragon answered. “And in Tarika, and Pretu. In Rodeken, they called me a savior.” He smiled, the chill, hungry expression unseen by the empire’s ruler. “You asked me for a city, whole and unbroken. Do you deny I gave it to you?”
“No,” the ruler replied, finally looking away from the window, letting his heavy, golden-eyed gaze fall upon the jagged man. “You are the last, you know. The final Dragon. Even should he win free, Redrigal… I have seen his death on the road. My last failed gambit.” He sighed. “And so there is you, the last I raised up. Perhaps it is fitting. I saw the flaw in you. The… rapacity. And when you turned your hand upon Rissa-”
“Do not speak of Rissa to me!” The jagged man lifted the dagger, pointing it at Iawn. “Rissa had no stomach for what must be done, could not bear that she could be wrong, nor that another take her place. I was promised the Fairest Maid in-”
“And thus Letta.” The God-Emperor interrupted the Hellkite, his expression saddened. “If only you could have looked beyond the surface of things. And yet, this tells true enough, for you have asked of your comrades in arms, but not your wife and child.”
“Torthol!” The wiry man stormed forward, closing the distance between himself and Iawn, only to come up short as the ruler raised a peremptory hand. “If you have harmed him I will make your death an agony!”
“They live. My word to you was good. So long as you did bide in Carchar they were to be cared for.” Iawn looked away, gaze turning to the window and the burning city. “My Dragons told me of the crowds. How they gathered in the Plaza of Punishment. How they chanted your name, your titles. I was urged to send your wife and child into exile, or to execute them when word of your liberation came to me. I did neither. As to their safety now…” He waved one hand in a vague gesture towards the vista below. “Many will curse your name in the days to come.”
“Curse my name if you will, but remember the truth.”
The God-Emperor turned slowly, letting his gold eyes return to the jagged man, the faint beginning of a cheerless smile upon his lips. “And what is that?”
“That I did what was necessary to protect the Empire.”
“When the Tarikans came, I stood. I held the line, and it was I who drove them back. When Brenth rose up in rebellion, I showed them what it meant to defy the Imperial Throne. When the Empire stood upon the brink of starvation, I brought Pretu to heel.”
“Shall I, then?” Iawn’s voice was deadly soft on the heels of the Dragon’s ringing words.
Blue eyes narrowed, the dagger weaving slightly before him as the suddenly wary man took a step back. “Speak not your sorceries. I will hear no more orders from you.”
“Then you renounce your service.” The God-Emperor turned, faced the intruder, and his voice gathered strength until it rang with the authority of his blood, howsoever distant and diluted. “Know this, then: We, Iawn Variel, anointed God-Emperor of Rodeken, do abjure thee. Thou wert at our appointment a Dragon, known amongst the people as the Imperial Hellkite. By thine hand thou has fomented rebellion and civil strife, overthrowing that which was instituted before all ages as the Law of Rodeken: that the House of Variel should hold this holy land in perpetuity, and minister it for the good of all who shouldst fall under their hand. In thy hubris, thou dost challenge that we curse thy name. We do. Thou art attainted; thy oaths are forsworn. From thee we strip thy titles and privileges, and, above all else, thy name. Let it be known from this day forth thou hast no name, only the pride of thy last resort. Last of all Dragons were thee raised. Ever after thou shalt be not the Imperial Hellkite, but Sark Ynet, the Broken Dragon.”
The words fell on Sark Ynet like hammer blows, driving him to his knees before the unveiled wrath of the last descendant of the House of Variel. He could feel it - searing thought-knives shaped of will, imbued with the dying echoes of blood divine - excising his memories, cutting away at the fabric of who he was.
No - not was - of who he had been. “You… you cannot! I… I deny… Help…”
“Dost thou refute? Upon thy knees, crass and impenitent?” Iawn’s aureate gaze blazed. “We know thy mind, for thou criest for help from thine Paraclete. In this matter, he hast no power. But we decree thus: Upon thy skin thou shalt wear the marks of thy treachery. For each intercession of thy ‘advisor’ thou shalt bear a stripe. Should he love thee so, let their healing be his province.”
A jagged scream tore itself from the kneeling man, as scourging pain writ its presence in neat cross-hatching lines across his back. And in truth, it was the physical hurt that galvanized him as nothing else could, languishing under the lash of Iawn’s voice. Sark Ynet uncoiled like a spring released, covering the distance between himself and the God-Emperor in a single bound. The dagger flashed in his hand, and he overbore the ruler of Rodeken, a high and horrible laugh ringing through the chamber as he drove the weapon into royal flesh.
That was how they found him, some hours later. Flushed and triumphant with news that the capital was secure, his lieutenants found the Broken Dragon in the God-Emperor’s solar, drawing up short at the sight.
The jagged man was seated in a plain chair, planted - throne-like - amid the ruin of Iawn’s butchered corpse, a smile on his face and a mad giggle cracking his voice. “I looked everywhere for it, but I couldn’t find it.”
“My… my lord?” One of the soldiers enquired, pale at the slaughterhouse stench confined within the small sitting room. “Are you…”
Blue eyes, hectic with manic hilarity, fastened on the man, silencing him. “I,” he declared in dulcet tones, “am Sark Ynet. And we have so much work left to do. So many… choices yet to make.”
He jerked up with a strangled cry, lurching to his feet. The wiry man turned, wildly, warily, searching for a threat, a foe, for anyone.
But he was alone.
Iawn was dead. Rissa, Letta, Torthol, they were all dead.
Rodeken was dead.
Sark Ynet closed his eyes, letting his head fall back as he screamed. It was a ratcheting, ululating noise, a weak echo of the Cellar’s siren that nonetheless redounded upon itself within the strange, featureless half-dome of onyx. Primal, wrenching, the cry carried a pain that went beyond the conveyance of words.
The Empire, his Empire - for which he had paid in sweat, toil, blood, and self - was dead.
The Seven Bridges had fallen.
The Spire of Delights had toppled.
The Bliss of Mortulla had burned.
The Great Seat of Houses had collapsed.
And all that he had given, all that he had wrought… It was no more than the smoke that had risen over dying Brenth as the final madness took hold.
The heart-rent cry stuttered, choked with grief. Grief, and the sickly agonizing hilarity of it all.
All of his choices had been made.
“No, not all,” rasped the jagged man, reaching out and finding the ranseur waiting for his grasp. At his waist was the hacking blade, upon his finger the ring. He had not come to the final choice, not yet.
What had passed was immutable, but the future…
A gate opened in the featureless dome before him, and once more a cold smile found its way across Sark Ynet’s lips as he stepped forward. The aperture yawned before him, disclosing crimson sand and great towering effigies he assumed were Champions past. About him, the air rang with chanted words, paeans to the chosen - the Paragons - and a declaration of the Final Trial to come.
The future was ever malleable.
It required only the courage and conviction to choose.