Lore:Acts of Mercy
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I - Violent Tributaries
Saladin awakens. Not from sleep. Nothing so gentle.
From death? No. Not yet. From lost consciousness… for how long?
He moves to stand. His feet drift without friction. No ground below him. Falling—no, floating. Pine needles sway in a sea of surrounding green haze. Sunrays plunge through the canopy above and wash over him. His head is lost in the arbor row's motion.
Intermittent feeling prickles the skin beneath his tarnished armor. Saladin reflexively attempts to raise his off-hand to summon Isirah. Numbness responds. He must be hit. He cycles breath through his lungs and sorts instinct from reason. He twists to see the wound. Nerves blaze corkscrews through his neck. Panic—no. No need. Pain he could abide. Reality clarifies.
The Iron Lord hangs from a branch run through his shoulder back to front, 10 centimeters thick. What good was his damn armor? Saladin traces a thick flow of blood down his arm as it breaks into tributaries before reuniting at his fingertips. Droplets pool some 60 meters below, soon to soak into the soil and fade. Beside the pool lay a splintered rocket launcher he'd forged from a reclaimed mortar, dropped when he lost consciousness. Saladin flexes against the axe strapped to his backplate; wood grinds against his load-bearing collarbone. He grimaces as he lifts his head to gaze at the cliff above.
Smoke rises from a burnt crescent impact, blown clean into the cliff's edge; a recent scar left by an artillery shell meant for Saladin's road-cruiser. Raiders, he thinks. An ambush. He connects incident to meaning: someone looking to make an example of a Lord who dared to venture beyond their territory. Radegast had warned him of Risen thugs fleeing to the far wilds to escape the Iron Lords' reach. He had told Saladin of their hostility. Their lawlessness. Saladin would tame it.
Binocular reflection catches his sight over the smoldering cliff, looking down in his direction. Unfamiliar voices echo across the rocks. A figure calls out, and others join them. Between hacking coughs, Saladin counts half a dozen hostiles. His fingers ache with chill, and his lungs sting as if coated in rime. He exhales unsteadily. For a moment, Saladin imagines Lady Jolder plunging through the clouds, booming with laughter. He imagines her obliterating the cliffside with a colossal javelin of Arc lightning without hesitation. These nameless men die, and she keeps laughing until Saladin joins. His near miss becomes an embarrassing story embellished round a campfire until another takes its place, and it is forgotten. Lucidity falters, and in this moment, he can almost breathe the ash. Smell the stormy night air. Feel the warmth of the fire, of his friends. As real as worn memories, rosed with age.
Light condenses into Saladin's fingers. Arc lines fork across the bark as he grips the branch impaled through his shoulder. It hooks upward from his chest; better to break it, he thinks. Fingers dig and scorch pulp. They bite in and twist. Wood pops and splinters as a bullet snaps through the pine canopy behind him. Then another, closer this time as the sound of rifle fire echoes down the cliff face. Saladin focuses his Light into the edge of his palm and slashes the splintered branch free, leaving him dangling on a stub of wood. He takes a shaky breath and swings a tingling leg back to push off the trunk behind him, bracing his boot to support his weight against the wood and lift his bone clear from the branch. His armor is slick with blood now, and he can feel a fracture in his bone. Pain he can abide. He recites it as mantra. The dive to the ground below would be dangerous. Saladin prepares to push off and jump.
A round strikes his armored torso, knocking the air from his lungs. His foot slips and kicks out violently. His weight shifts on the broken branch, catching hard on his collar and sending fissures through his fractured bone. Saladin roars over the gunfire and grips his shoulder.
"Isirah! Get. Me. Off. This. Branch," he snarls.
His Ghost materializes before him. "I taught you better than to rely on me," Isirah reproves him. She swoops behind Saladin for cover. "You're not dead yet. You're capable of this."
Saladin strains to regain his footing. He lifts his head and wheezes as his lungs expand. Several figures above congregate around a large object, a blur of metal he recognizes as a flak cannon.
"I yield," Saladin laughs weakly.
"What would you do if I weren't here, Forge? If I'd been killed?" His Ghost taps the back of his head with a pellet of Light. "It's just you and your Light. What little you have left."
Him and his Light against a weapon of war. But they were just men, and he: a fiend of fire.
Saladin conjures waning star-fire from his bones: the last vestiges of his will, burnt as offering to the Light. Flame billows and radiates through his flesh, swirling between the gaps in his armor, moving to consume the branch. Sap hemorrhages in hissing bubbles from the wood around him. Flames overtake the branch, joining those building from the Iron Lord's armor. Ash wisps upward on agitated, anabatic wind. With a pop, he descends into freefall.
Branches snap against his legs as he picks up speed. Saladin gropes for the axe on his back with his good hand. As fingers find hilt, and Solar Light engulfs the weapon. He swings the axe from its strap and sinks the flaming blade into the tree, slowing his descent and carving a wake of sparking embers toward the forest floor. The pull threatens to rend him apart. He holds until he can hold no longer and plummets the final 10 meters: wreckage striking bedrock with a wet thud.
Blood-vapor steams from the charred forest floor around him as he comes to. Overhead, the forest canopy explodes with a flak shell detonation. Fragmentation whistles through the air, showering the forest with ragged chunks of metal. Saladin kicks off the trunk at his feet and rolls his ravaged body onto his rocket launcher. Muscle threatens to separate as he hoists the launcher to his shoulder. Saladin howls, a wounded beast's final challenge. He presses the split launcher shut with his forearm and welds the metal with Solar heat before fumbling to find the trigger. Another shell booms; dense pine canopy opens momentarily from the blast wave. Saladin sees a clean line to the ridge, takes aim, and squeezes. He watches the rocket fly as shards of flak-iron carve lines through his face.
II - Wake
Burning grass fills Saladin's nostrils like smelling salts. He stirs from the abyss into a new life, back pressed against a towering pine that smolders with heat. Saladin blinks blurriness from his eyes to see the crater on the cliff where his rocket struck. Good, he thinks, picking fragments of metal from his plate. Isirah sinks through the smoke just overhead and levitates in front of his face, Light still coursing through her frame.
"Welcome back. You lost," Isirah says, her voice smooth as verglas.
"It was a draw." Saladin stands and fumbles with a talisman hanging from his neck. He tucks the stamped iron insignia into the gorget of his armor. "They're dead, aren't they?"
"There are a million raiders and one of you," Isirah snaps. She drifts into his eyeline. "A draw is a loss. We need to do better than that."
"We?" Saladin narrows his eyes and yanks his stuck axe from the scorched trunk and slings it.
"Fix what you break." Isirah had imparted this lesson many times. "You should have opened fire on the road without hesitation. I warned you they were bait."
"How long are you going to rest your laurels on that prediction?" Saladin groans.
Isirah's shell tightens like a coiling viper. "Do you have a plan from here?"
"Continue sweeping east. The broadcast code might have been Golden Age, but the signal was weak when we caught it. Can't be far, and our patrol can wait until we clear this up."
"Fine observation. I agree," the Ghost says curtly, floating off ahead.
Saladin looks to the burning pine and uncuffs his gauntlet. Strands of ruddy leather stick beneath his nails as he removes the glove and presses his hand to bark. This tree had likely stood for centuries, roots deep in the soil, branches carving territory into the greater forest. So it was for many other trees. They all had their space—a crown shyness shared by old things. One born in this forest might assume this tree had always been.
He feels the warmth radiating from the roasting heartwood above; Light still crackles in the ember-split wood. His Light. Left alone, it would destroy this old pine, consume it from the inside out. Saladin anchors the Light to his core and commands it to return, dousing the burn. The tree will heal, and today's wound will fade. This gouge marks a point of struggle surpassed, and given enough time, will fade into familiarity.
"Someone is coming," Isirah reports in a quiet voice.
"Are they armed?" Saladin whispers, hand slowly drifting to the haft of his slung axe.
Before Isirah can answer, a thin man in coarse linen fumbles into view. Terror paints his face as his eyes fall on Saladin.
"I—I have no weapon," the man says with a thick local accent. He eyes Saladin's equipment. "You… are Iron Lord?" Awe washes over the man's face.
Isirah zips between him and Saladin. "Did you not hear the explosions? What do they teach you people out here?"
"Many stray dogs fight here." The man's gaze drops to the ground. "Sometimes scraps are left after. Weapons—"
"Like a buzzard," Saladin accuses.
"No!" The man throws his hands in the air. "Others steal from village. We find weapons to fight back."
"I see." Saladin nods.
"Do you or your people have a radio?" Isirah asks.
The man lets out a curt laugh before realizing the Ghost is serious. "Oh. Uh, no?"
"Then this is a waste of our time," Isirah whispers to Saladin.
The man steps forward. "Please, wait, find mercy in your heart." He braces a hand on his thigh and takes a slow knee. "Iron Lords protect people. You kill monsters." His eyes dart between man and Ghost. "You want payment?"
Saladin sighs. "We're not mercenaries."
"Food, then? Better than what can be foraged here," he says, offering a blackened crust of bread from a twine rucksack. "Cleaned armor and clothes? Blankets, clean water, and… and good company by warm fire." The man nods eagerly.
Saladin turns the meager portion of stale bread in his hand. Between winter and latent radiation, reliable food is scarce here, making thievery into a grave offense. He knows the man is lying about their resources, but only out of desperation. The kind that sends you running toward explosions. "What is your name?"
"Ah! Kepre. I am Kepre."
"You said you were being stolen from, Kepre?"
"More than can be replaced. Last thieves came, the village lost Elmi," Kepre says, holding back tears. "We will starve if thieves are not stopped."
The man leads them down a lightly trafficked footpath marked by hand-driven stakes bearing illegibly worn highway signs. Southeast, until the trees thin and the smell of mudded livestock and wheat overtakes the pine. Isirah and Saladin hang several steps behind Kepre on approach to a small and lightly fenced swine enclosure with a pathway bisecting it. Saladin notes the fence itself serves more to stop the three pigs from wandering off than to keep anything out. He quickly surveys a handful of rusty corrugated metal dwellings that wind out from the swine run and encircle a better maintained storage structure and longhouse. Beside the longhouse lies a humble stable for a goat that chews at Saladin's sleeves when he passes by.
The handful of families living here stand and stare as Saladin sloshes through the muddy entrance, Isirah floating close behind. Kepre heralds the duo as saviors. The words feel coarse in Saladin's ears, but he graciously shakes the people's hands and takes their stories as evidence toward finding their thieves. There's a prideful nature to their expressions, and the meager gifts they offer. The kind that comes from starting with nothing and arriving at something. Saladin couldn't help but smile at their perseverance.
"They took Elmi from pen," Kepre says. "Scared our goat. My son and I chased them, but they made off with her, along with half the dried meat stores." He wrings his hands.
"Elmi is a pig," Saladin says flatly.
Kepre nods, teary-eyed. "Only girl hog. Without her… without her, we starve."
Isirah flitters close to Saladin as she emits a wide sweeping scan from her shell. "Forge, I doubt they're aware, but that Golden Age transmission is receiving a signal from the longhouse."
III - Plea Deal
Saladin breaks through the tree line on the backslope of a collapsed bluff. Behind him lies the breadth of the old forest, shadow slinking away before the dawn. He and Isirah had trekked two kilometers from Kepre's village to close in on the location of a Golden Age receiver.
Atop the bluff, Saladin turns his attention to a steep sunken basin in front of him, fallen in on itself under the pressure of one of Earth's many invasions. A rusted antenna from a bygone era still penetrates through the rubble in the middle of overgrowth, debris, and ruined transmission dishes. Faded block lettering runs down the length of the antenna which read: POINT PERIHELION. Centered below the antenna, Saladin could make out a tarnished hatch.
"The signal in the longhouse was a recording device," Isirah explains. "Its transmission was received here."
"So, the thief planted a recon device unbeknownst to the villagers," Saladin concludes.
"Clever way to find openings," Isirah says. "I'm also detecting electric current. There must be a power cell underneath all that rubble. Felwinter Peak could make use of it," she notes.
"Raiders seem unlikely. No violence in the village, no territorial claims… and they stole a pig, of all things," Saladin says. "Sounds more like a starving animal."
Isirah hums in consideration. "Wild animals get put down when they start killing livestock."
Saladin chuckles. "And feral wolves become loyal hounds when shown mercy. Isn't that right, Isirah?"
"Sometimes. Eventually." Isirah sighs. "You want to protect the people here? Empower the Lords with whatever tech is running down there. Impose order before a Warlord seizes control. Don't chase strays hoping to tame them."
"As luck would have it, we can do both." Saladin's mouth curls into a rare smirk.
"Luck isn't something we should depend on, Forge."
Once at the antenna base, Saladin notes traces of rubbed away rust on the hatch's hinges. He surveys the many gaps and recesses scattered through the field of debris around him, awaiting an ambush from one of them. When none appear, Saladin scoffs, as if offended, and spins the hatch wheel until it thuds loudly and drops open.
Saladin recoils as putrid odor floods his nose. He takes the axe from his back and sets it aflame. Flickering illumination scatters shadows throughout the dark hatchway. The room is of moderate size, mostly buried beneath encroaching nature. It appears to be the remnants of a control tower erected to bridge a communicational divide. Several preserved slogans in long-dead languages line the interior walls, their meanings lost on him.
"Anyone?" he asks.
"Carbon levels suggest a handful of recent inhabitants, some decomposition, but electrical interference is scrambling my readings."
"Old-fashioned way, then," Saladin says, slipping into the opening. His feet slam to the floor under the weight of his armor, followed by Isirah. Sudden movement catches his eye. He prepares to swing as a silhouette dashes toward him and squeals.
He snatches the pig mid-dash. It thrashes in his grasp. "Elmi," Saladin grumbles. Holding the squirming hog, he sweeps the lit axe over the room, stopping to examine a shadowed corner full of stacked garbage.
Isirah homes in on the same spot and ignites her flashlight to reveal a face—a filthy shoulder—and a gun barrel half-buried and hidden among the refuse.
"Good pig." The young girl has him at gunpoint, flatfooted. Saladin's brow furrows as he eyes his opponent: no older than fourteen, a wilder-child girl wrapped in furs and smears of dirt.
"I will put a hole in you." Her unsteady voice grapples with seldom spoken syllables. "No lie!" The scrawny girl's dim eyes and matted hair are silvered with persistent trauma.
Saladin steps forward, his massive frame overshadowing the wilder-child girl. "You're not going to kill me, girl."
"I'll take your demon when you're dead." The girl hesitates for a moment before yelling, "I know it gives magic. Then Jaxxen will be afraid too!" Experience had clearly deafened her to empathy; morality was a luxury for a civilized age she'd never known.
Isirah bursts out laughing behind Saladin. "Try."
The girl swings the rifle to Isirah and fires. Saladin drops Elmi—to clattering squeals—and stops the bullet in the air with his hand before it contacts his Ghost. He picks the round from the interior backplate of his gauntlet, blood running from the fresh hole in his palm. "Whoever you stole these from is underpacking their grains."
She hisses at him and hastily tries to slip another dirty round into the chamber. Saladin rushes the girl. He slaps the rifle from her hands and lifts her aloft by her scruff. She stares directly into his eyes, accepting the deathblow to come.
"Now that you're listening…" Saladin places her feet to floor. "Sit down, child."
Her expression is a caked mask of survival fugue, a hare's heart from expiration. He had felt that waking confusion before. Risen into nothing, with nothing.
Saladin knows the penalty for theft is death, but that action was final. He also knows the strength of potential, of justice beyond the letter, of mercy. She needs something of sense to hold against the barrage of madness the world had become.
"Just kill me."
"I'm not a Warlord, girl." Saladin, a banneret, plants his molten axe firmly in the ground, blood from his hand sizzling down the haft. "I won't show you death. I'll show you a way to live."
Still, her eyes do not leave the burning axe for some time. She refuses rations as no one had ever given her something without the intent to extract far more in return.
"Last time. Name?"
"If you were hungry, I'm sure that village would have taken you in. Winter's soon, and stealing… What if you'd driven that village to starvation?"
The girl stares through him vacantly. "Jaxxen said bring gifts; promised to give my brother back."
Isirah patches Saladin's hand with Light. "And did he?" she asks.
Fera's vapid expression falters. Saladin eyes the refuse pile behind her under Isirah's light. A wrapped child's body is buried within the mound.
He places a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "Take me to Jaxxen."
The hike to the Warlord's commune is several days north. Over the journey, Saladin teaches the girl to trap rabbits and hunt game. Where she sees a predator inflicting their will, Saladin explains the mercy of delivering a quick death. He tells her the wolf does not hunt for themselves, but for the pack. Alone, they are mongrels, driven by instinct and hunger. That violence spreads. It is the promise of the pack that keeps them true. It is the order that binds us together.
They make camp on the outskirts of Jaxxen's hold. Saladin rolls stringy meat between his glowing palms, and the smell of cooking hare fills his nostrils. It is a catch from Fera's first sturdy trap, a bounty they share in peace.
"You see? Together, we can provide for each other." Saladin hands Fera a cooked leg. "This is how we go from simply surviving, to living. Community, order, laws. That is how we move forward."
"What are laws?" Fera asks, mouth full of rabbit.
"They're rules. Promises of how to treat each other."
"Promises break…" she says, swallowing.
"People like me make sure they're kept. People like you could too." Saladin sees her confusion and continues, "Sometimes when a Lord can't remain to protect an area, we appoint a vassal in our stead."
Fera looks at him quizzically.
"Someone to watch over the woods while I'm gone. Someone like you who understands why promises should be kept." Saladin unclasps a chain from his neck. "This makes you one of our pack, Fera. A wolf. And we protect our own."
"How?" she asks, grasping the talisman tightly as Saladin hangs it around her fragile neck.
"Like you, there will be others who need a place. Find them. Bring them back to the village you stole from. Promise to protect each other. That is how."
In the morning, Fera takes Saladin to the edge of Jaxxen's encampment where the woods give way to craggy rock and dry dirt. The Iron Lord tells her to await his return at their campsite. He strides into Jaxxen's camp as alarm yells raise defenders. Fera steps back into the tree line, but she does not leave.
Fera watches the Iron Lord tear through body after body with brutal efficiency—a savage, blood-drunk beast. The young girl devours every violent image of its axe spilling sizzling crimson. She delights in the beast's hollow reception to their screams for mercy. Her wide eyes fill with lightning, flame, and gore. It is a painting of cathartic balance. Though she does not know the words, it is a vengeful righteousness that takes hold in her. The beast is Jaxxen's punishment for misdeeds: promised order imposed through dominance.
Fera rubs her talisman when the Warlord Jaxxen emerges, amethyst-Light surrounding him. A moment of fear creeps into her heart as Jaxxen bellows laughter and charges. But he too falls under an obliterating column of lightning called down by the beast's thunderous roar. All that remains is the crackle of his cindered bones flaking into ash.
Saladin stands at the edge of Jaxxen's burning encampment. He looks to the lightning-scorched earth where Jaxxen had stood and summons Isirah.
Isirah surveys the aftermath. "Good. But you're going to let the girl go? Stealing food and attacking an Iron Lord are death offenses, and you want to do nothing?" Isirah's doubt is palpable. Saladin knows she's seen how wild things age. "You're procrastinating," she fumes.
"Fera's young enough to find a different future." Saladin meets Isirah's gaze. "Just like I did."
Isirah whirs with exasperation. "The world is full of wayward orphans, Forge. Your job is to enforce Iron laws, not interpret gray areas."
"I am an Iron Lord, and our laws are mine to interpret as I see fit," Saladin snaps. "We'll salvage the battery and bring her back to Kepre with the pig. Then we're leaving." His voice is stern and unyielding. "That's the end of it."
IV - Few Words Between Them
Winter wind sweeps over the forest of pine; fresh snowfall smattering tops the canopy. Isirah mentions the pines are much taller than when Saladin had last seen them, but he cannot imagine their aging. He only sees what is there now. If he could have stood beneath their needles and watched their 50 years of growth, would he notice the difference?
The spot where he had burned the Warlord's hold is covered in new growth and snow. He draws a mental line from it to the bluff where he'd met Fera all those years ago, then to Kepre's village. Blurry smoke ascends through woods and snow flurry—a cooking fire, maybe. Bacon, he hoped. Saladin leans over the ridge where he had fallen before and steps over the edge.
Under thin slush, Saladin and Isirah find the once well-trodden path toward Kepre's village. No one meets them on the road—though Isirah catches several signs of sudden movement on her scanners. "Animals," Saladin suggests. Looking through the breaks in the branches, he notices a thickening black smoke against the snowfall.
A ghostly mist winds through the thinning pines as the duo reach Kepre's village. Smells of singed hair and burnt pork invade the winter air. Iron Lord and Ghost exchange looks before she decompiles. Saladin rushes into the clearing, Fool's Remedy in hand and snow crunching under his heavy boots. He follows glistening blood lines soaked into the soot and snow, through empty pens devoid of hay, past hollow wooden skeletons of rotted homes, until they meet at the rusted frame of a desiccated longhouse. Through snowblind and moth-ridden tatters, he sees them.
Graves. Lines of them. Then piles of stone. Bare mounds of shallow churned earth follow. Smoke rises behind them over a dug-out depression. Saladin fixates on the number of them. The groupings. He counts them as he walks, until he reaches the edge of the smoking pit, and the numbers lose all meaning. A huddled, smoking mass of carnage lay tangled in the pit before him. Cauterized panic. Still smoldering in the frigid air.
Saladin stares into the sunken sockets of a charred face. He imagines Kepre's face staring back at him. Was it him? Features all burned away. Years older. Saladin turns to see Isirah studying something in the longhouse. Through flames rising in his eyes he sees a crude reproduction of an Iron sigil nestled in a wolf's blackened skull.
The Golden Age antenna no longer received signals. It was bent, unable to discern anything for itself, but still able to throw noise into the sky. A new settlement had formed around it, fenced with wooden spears, and built along the basin in a spiral shape. Saladin makes his way inside the oddly vacant encampment unharried, and descends. Where once a hatch had led him down into a center of communication, now a hollow building lay carved open. A path of set stones had been pressed into the ground over years of foot traffic; crimson moss takes root in the mud that fill in the gaps. It flows underground to an open hall, like an estuary. He tells Isirah to stay outside, to watch his back.
Silvered eyes pierce through the dim hall fashioned from the surrounding comms station. Saladin watches the moonlight gleaming off them like two dancing spirits. He sees himself in that fearless stare.
"I didn't imagine I'd see you here again, young one."
"It's been a long time since anyone called me young." Fera, Packmaster, sits upon a scrapheap of a throne at the rear of the hall, eight rugged gunners flanking her. She's a woman now, several decades of age and violence etched into her sun-scarred skin and wizened face. Her finger taps a half-missing ear, long healed. "You came from far away. What for?"
"Rumors of rabid wolves prowling the outlands." Saladin looks to the men flanking Fera. "Are these yours?"
Fera leers at the crest on Saladin's armor. "My pack. Most are hunting now."
"I removed the Warlord, and you took his place." Saladin voice is thick with rage.
"Same as it ever was," Fera muses. "Someone had to keep order in your absence."
Saladin scans the room with disgust. "This is not what I taught you."
Fera smiles and looks to her comrades. "Isn't it? They're orphans of the forest, like me."
"You lost yourself!" Saladin barks as he steps forward, his finger slipping inside the trigger guard of his holstered weapon.
Fera cackles breathily. "Because I followed you. I asked forgiveness for stealing, and they took my ear… So next time I met them, I took back. It continued, until they lost everything." She gestures behind her to her grinning disciples and stashes of stolen goods. "The pack decides what is best."
"Iron Lords don't slaughter innocent villages. We don't starve people. I don't murder children," Saladin growls, heat building under his skin.
"What do you do when a Warlord refuses to bow? Order is imposed, old, gray Lord. Or have you forgotten your lessons?" She shifts in her seat. "I learned that when you slapped the rifle out of my hand. When you leveled Jaxxen's camp. I understood."
"I made a mistake thinking what you needed was mercy." Saladin exhales.
The Iron Lord swiftly unholsters Fool's Remedy. A quick burst drops Fera's right-most wolf, leaving the pack stunned. Saladin steps forward and kicks Fera's throne, sending her and the chair skipping across the ground like a pond-stone, until it crashes and pins her to the far wall.
Fera's left-most wolf draws a wicked machete and lunges. Saladin whips the axe from his back with his off-hand and cleaves the bandit clean pelvis to crown. The two halves slump limply to the floor. Horror freezes the pack as blood pools around them. Fera's shrill voice screams, "Put him down!"
Bullets cross in the air as muzzle flashes erupt in every direction. Saladin pivots to face the bulk of the pack, rattling off rounds as freely as his armor and body are receiving them. He kills two. There is no cover. There is no retreat. This is a reckoning.
Wolves whine and die around him. A shotgun blast catches his shoulder, drawing blood and disarming his pistol. He staggers back under the debt of his wounds. Red drips from beneath his epaulet, but pain is the furthest thing from his mind. He ignites the arm in fiery Light and casts a Solar hammer that caves in the shotgunner's skull with a sizzling pop.
The second to last wolf drops an empty weapon and tries to run. Saladin heaves his axe across the hall and catches the coward in the back. They collapse under the heft of the molten blade and combust. He turns to the last wolf frantically trying to reload their weapon. They back into a corner as they rack their rifle and spray rounds. Saladin charges through the gunfire and slams them against the wall. He unleashes a barrage of Arc-wreathed fists that pulverize his foe into convulsing pulp.
Saladin sees Fera, still pinned and struggling beneath the throne. Burning wreckage around her.
He grimaces as he flips the throne off her, wraps hands around her neck, and lifts her aloft. His fingers crush the air from her throat until they feel spine. His body aches. He pauses to catch his breath. To see remorse in her eyes.
Fera places a gentle hand on his fingers. "How long until one comes to repay your violence?" she wheezes.
Their eyes meet. Saladin's grip loosens.
With her other hand, Fera plunges a narrow blade into Saladin's neckline. He winces and turns to see the thin sliver of metal in her hand. Saladin meets her eyes again. There is no fear. His grip tightens until bone shatters. He releases and lets her body crumple where it lands. He watches the life slip from her eyes, replaced by pain, trembling near death.
Saladin picks up his sidearm and delivers her one final mercy.
Isirah floats near the settlement's fence, a small shadow against early morning sun piercing through snow flurries. Saladin climbs the distance to her before she heals his wounds. The journey is a purifying penance, he tells himself.
Pain he can abide.