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I. The Prisoner
But here, she has no house. Here, she reigns all on her own.
No matter how many times the Ether-fat guards try to send her to her death in that arena, she triumphs. She kills their champions; watches the Ether hiss from their masks. Watches the gel leak out of their suits. She begins to cherish the smell of a good fight. Blood. Sweat. Ether. Fear.
She imagines that one day, a banner will be emblazoned with a broken spear and an inverted crown.
House of Anarchy. House of Riot. House of Eramis.
House of Nothing.
When there is only one Kell, there is no need for houses.
Today, she fights a Centurion of the broken Red Legion. Money changes hands. His pauldrons are scuffed with the memory of battle, and he's been given a War Hammer. He raises it to cheers and peacocks for the crowd.
Eramis tosses her broken spear between her hands, waiting. Two glowing, pinpoint eyes focus on her as the Centurion turns.
He swings the hammer at her, and she rolls out of the way. He swings it again, but she's behind him now and out of his sight line. Like a creature searching for a fly on its back, he struggles to find her. She jams the sparking head of her Arc spear into a notch in his armor and uses the leverage to vault herself onto his shoulder.
He rages like a niirsai beast, all fury and stupidity, and nearly throws her from his shoulders. She tries to pull her spear free, but his giant hand knocks her senseless for a moment. The spear releases at the last minute; she grabs the top. Arc energy bites her palm as she jams the tip of the blade under the edge of his helmet and into his neck.
Before he falls, she leaps off and lands on her feet. The crowd never cheers for her. Instead, they whisper.
No prison will hold Eramiskel, they say. Eramiskel is a devil greater than the Devils themselves.
Eramiskel does not know how to lose.
II. The Wolf
The neighboring cell holds a Wolf.
She ignores him at first. He's too greedy for her acknowledgement. Sometimes, he reminds her of the needy Dregs that followed her old Kell like carrion birds, squawking for attention and squabbling over his kills.
What the Eliksni have lost, more than anything else, is dignity.
Eventually, the Wolf learns to intrigue her. He calls himself Praksis, and he has ideas. But he's young. He thinks every idea he conceives of is the first and best of its kind. She suspects he's never had to report directly to a Kell.
He likes to talk about machines—building them and bending them to his will. He has a mad idea about recapturing the Great Machine, binding it in Arc wire, and making it give them its power. He's been listening to the stories about Ghaul.
She lets him talk, and she asks him questions. Every question is a whetstone. Every conversation is a test, and it will only take one failure to lose her interest.
"The Great Machine made the Eliksni great," she says. "Until it left us. When it did, we were weaker than when it arrived. Why do you seek its touch again?"
"To return us to that strength," he says. His voice is muffled through the wall between them, but the arrogance comes through clear.
"How can you build strength on a foundation of weakness?" she asks. Each word is a needle. Each word should sting him with revelation.
He remains silent.
"Did the Great Machine make the Eliksni strong, or did it draw out the strength within us?" she asks.
She tilts her head back, looking at the dark ceiling of her cell. "Reliance is the greatest weakness. Remember that. You are playing with a child's stacking spheres."
He's silent so long that she begins to wonder if he was worth her time. Then, he says, "I will create new spheres."
She closes her eyes and smiles.
III. The Traitor
On the day of the prison break, Eramis is nursing a gut wound.
It's not fatal, or at least she doesn't think so. She won the match in the arena, but not before an arrogant Captain drove a Sword into her side. It cut through her Devil robes and left a bloom of blood that reminds her of the water flowers on Riis. Athrys loved water flowers.
She's dozing when Variks arrives at her cell.
She opens her eyes and then narrows them immediately. Despite the wound, she stands—too quick, she gets dizzy—and steps toward the cell door.
"Traitor," she says in greeting.
Variks flinches. He shakes his head, lowers his eyes. Even with the door between them, she can see his fear. It buoys her.
"There is change to come," he says quietly in Eliksni and then looks over his shoulder. His eyes dart back and forth, fearful, suspicious. He switches suddenly to the clumsy common language of the Guardians.
"Change Variks will make, yes? Change Variks will lead. But Variks, too, will need a leader…"
Eramis laughs. "You wish to make me your prisoner-Kell?"
"No," Variks cringes. "Variks wishes—"
"I do not care what you wish, Variks the 'loyal'," she says. There are Eliksni who change in the shadow of prison bars. They fall. They shrink. But Eramis has grown. She must show Variks that even with this steel between them, he is smaller. He is still a Dreg pretending to be a vandal. "If there is justice in this world, one day, I will dock your last two arms and leave you for dead."
Something in Variks's eyes hardens. They share a tense silence. Finally, he says, in a voice as cold as Ether, "Do not say that Variks did not try to help."
He leaves, and Eramis settles herself again on the floor of her cell.
Later that day, an alarm sounds. The warden projects a message in Variks's voice. The doors of her cell open, unprompted, as frenzied Eliksni and Cabal charge through the prison, thirsting for freedom.
IV. The Visionary
In the first several months of her freedom, Eramis curses Misraaks the Forsaken.
He is a wish-to-be Kell, a captured traitor, a four-armed Dreg cringing before a false queen, playing pretend among the enemies of the Eliksni.
And worst of all, the most humiliating: he has beaten Eramis.
Now she sits in the bridge of her stolen Ketch, straight-spined, staring. Staring at some distant point that she has long passed, one she can never return to.
Atraks, youngest of her council, watches her from across the room. She closes the gap between them.
"My Kell," she says. She has a voice like a child.
Eramis is quiet for a beat longer than she needs to be. Finally, she says, "You are too young to remember the old house. What the Devils were before."
Atraks bows her head out of respect.
"This failure has no sting for you," Eramis bites, bitter.
Atraks keeps her head bowed. Then, slowly, she raises it. Her eyes dart over Eramis's face, searching. "I am too young to remember," she agrees. "But my eyes are clear. I can see what the Devils will be."
Eramis opens her mouth to remind Atraks of her place, and then pauses.
Something in her mind has unlocked.
She stands to her full, towering height, stretches her second set of arms.
"No," she says. Clarity has descended on her like a Riis rain shower. "The Devils are nothing."
She begins to walk out of the room, purpose in her step, fire reignited in her belly. "The Devils are dead."
House of Anarchy. House of Ruin.
"We must become something new."
V. The Nightmare
As she dissolves the old bonds of House of Devils, Eramis is haunted by shadowed dreams. In one, she relives Twilight Gap.
She lunges, driving a sword into the belly of a Guardian-soldier, grunting as they yell and crumple forward. Another Guardian rushes at her head-on before she has time to yank the Sword free. But she hears the sound of a Shock Rifle firing behind her… and leans abruptly to the right as the shot flies by and hits the Guardian before her with full force.
She looks back to see Kridis, shimmering with the purple glow of the Void as her Servitor shields her. Kridis tips her head in acknowledgement of Eramis and turns to fire the rifle into another cluster of Guardians.
Eramis rips her Sword free and forges ahead. They are closing in on the city now. Guardians are falling all around her.
They are so close.
Fast, heavy footfalls come up behind her—Phylaks, ferocious and bloodthirsty, shouts to Eramis as she attacks a towering, broad-shouldered Guardian. Eramis ducks and slides out of the way. As Phylaks makes contact with the Guardian's head, Eramis slashes the beast across his side with her Sword. He loses his balance, and she kicks his hip, tipping him toward Phylaks.
In these days, Phylaks almost always fights with her bare hands. She breaks his neck.
Eramis pushes forward.
They are so close…
A ferocious laugh erupts to her right, and then the thundering blast of a Scorch Cannon. Taniks, a blur of whirring machinery, creates explosions of earth and flesh and blood all around them. He keeps laughing.
But then… before her, a blinding flash of gold. She sees Eliksni burst into flame and ash around her as a gun fires one shot after another. Pools of shining light are the only trace of the victims. The Guardian wielding the gun is like a tiny sun.
Another shot. Kridis's Servitor. Another—Kridis herself. Eramis remembers losing, but she does not remember this. Doesn't remember seeing Phylaks evaporate into blowing ash. Doesn't remember the shot that hits her in the chest, or the burning fire that explodes through her limbs, or her own scream…
She wakes with a jolt, breathless.
VI. The Herald
The dreams persist. They are old memories, but twisted: battling a Guardian in the Prison of Elders and falling before their Light; Athrys banging on the walls of her sleeping pod, calling for the Great Machine.
On the Moon, she fights through corpse-stinking Hive like swarms of flies. Their fetid stench is unbearable, worse than the carcass piles at the prison, worse than the battlefield of Twilight Gap. They eat and breathe death, and she resents their breath upon her, so she cuts through them like so much tall grass.
A Knight stalks her deep into the catacombs, staying on the edge of her hearing, matching her footsteps. She lets it make the first strike, and when it does, she cracks its exoskeleton armor with her Sword. The thrill of the fight—hearing the Knight howl as it meets death—is almost comforting. A reprieve from her unsettling dreams.
She's painted with Hive blood as she continues her advance, and when she finally comes upon the ship, a familiar sight causes her to freeze in her tracks.
She remembers this fleet.
She remembers seeing them in the sky like black arrows. She remembers the space where the Great Machine was, and then the blank space where it wasn't.
It was all a lesson in dependence, one that took many years to learn.
This time, the black arrow speaks to her. She knows it's not Eliksni. It's not one of the clumsy tongues of Earth, nor the lilting speech of the Reef. It is something else: a whisper. But one that is so loud and somehow understood so perfectly.
Stop waiting, it says.
No one is coming for you.
You must be your own salvation.
She feels something in all four of her hands, a tingle, a buzz. It reminds her of the broken Arc spear. She clenches and unclenches her fists, staring at the sleek surface of the ship. There's power here. Power that she can grasp.
But not yet.
A waking dream strikes her like lightning. She's transported. The bleak, gray dust of the Moon falls away, and she stands in a white plain of whipping ice and snow. It blinds her, chases her breath away.
Then she is on the Moon again, and the whispers are silent.
She knows where she must go next.
VII. The Scribe
Eramis and Variks stand in the shadow of a half-constructed city. Her people have salvaged bits and pieces from the Eliksni hideouts across the system and lashed them to the ruins of a Golden Age facility, building something new from something old. It's Eliksni flesh on the bones of humanity's failure, nestled in the icy tundra of Europa.
She watches Variks's face as he looks up. There is something familiar there. An awe that she remembers from a long time ago.
"It will be a new Riis," she says, raising her eyes to the scaffolding before them. "A new home for our people. No more running. No more living on the outskirts."
Variks looks away finally to meet Eramis's eyes. "What of the Devils?" He speaks Eliksni. It surprises her.
"Old names," she says, dismissive. "Leave the old names and the old ways in the past."
Just as she remembers, Variks doesn't let his awe stand in the way of practicality. His gaze has turned appraising. "And why choose this place? Why choose this frozen moon?"
"I saw it in a dream."
She can feel his skepticism. She doesn't blame him, actually—since the prison break, he's been hiding somewhere, some forgotten corner of the system, waiting for judgment to come. He gifted his people with freedom, and then built himself a cell of isolation. He can't see beyond what he thinks he knows.
"And why did you call for me?" he asks. There is a hardness in his voice. "After everything. We are not allies, Eramis."
"Old ways," she says again. "If the Eliksni are to survive, we need to abandon all memory of division. Petty squabbles, house politics… I want to wipe it all clean."
She looks up at the scaffolding again. "This will be a new world, Variks. New ideas. New stories. We will be known and remembered as something new."
Variks follows her gaze. Now his voice has softened. "And why me?"
Eramis turns to face him fully now. He fears her still—she sees it in the hunch of his shoulders, the way he turns his face to the side, as if looking at her head-on will hurt his eyes.
"In the new world," she says. "I will need a scribe."
VIII. The Council
There's a bloody grin in Phylaks's voice as she clasps Eramis's hand and pulls her close to her chest. Kridis stands behind Phylaks, tall and ethereal. They're exactly as Eramis remembers them. Phylaks chuckles. "I always said no prison will hold her."
Eramis laughs, easy and familiar. It's as if nothing has changed. She's transported back to her House Devils days. The days of assignments in the darkest, grimmest parts of her old stomping grounds: the Cosmodrome, with no one but these two for company. They laid waste to members of encroaching houses, razed human settlements to the ground, dreamed about the day they could challenge and strike down their own Kell to take up the mantle for themselves.
But Kridis looks behind Eramis, not at her. And soon, Phylaks does the same. Her eyes narrow. She lurches forward, past Eramis, to grab Variks up by his neck.
"Traitor Dreg," Phylaks hisses and spits. "Cringing little—"
Variks scrambles and kicks like a creature in a trap. "Phylaks," he gasps.
Praksis and Atraks stand to the side, waiting to meet the veterans of the old house. They watch without concern, though Praksis looks pleased. They do not intervene.
Phylaks tightens her fist.
"Let him go," Eramis says.
Phylaks looks at Eramis, and then drops Variks. She says nothing, but Eramis can feel her disapproval. Kridis's too. Doubt creeps into their minds…
"His crimes are undeniable," Eramis says, dismissive. She doesn't look at Variks but hears his tortured breathing as he scrambles back, away from Phylaks. "But he's all that remains of House Judgment."
"You've no special love for scribes," Kridis says skeptically.
Eramis inclines her head. "No. But a scribe who can draw the ear of the Reef Eliksni?"
Phylaks grunts in understanding but still looks unimpressed. She returns to Kridis's side. Kridis, on the other hand, looks pleased. "Clever," she says.
Before they can question her further, Eramis changes the subject. "But I didn't call you here for politics." She gestures with one of her secondary arms. "Come. Let me show you what we've built."
IX. The Kell of Darkness
When the obsidian ship descends on Europa, Eramis is prepared. Her council by her side—Variks, Phylaks, Kridis, Praksis, and Atraks—she greets its arrival with bated breath.
The foreign whispers return. This time, they say…
Do not wait to be chosen. Choose for yourself.
Eramis boards the ship and chooses strength.
It is in this moment, as she holds this cold and ancient power in her hands, that House Salvation is born.
X. The Warrior
I am Phylaks, once-warrior of House Devils, once-child of home-Riis. I speak now to Eliksni still-scattered. Listen close. There is no repeating.
Death to House Devils! Ashes to Home-Riis! I cast off these useless things, and I pledge my life here to Riis-reborn, to Eramis and her House Salvation!
I fought many battles and found no warrior above the knife-will of Eramiskel. Together, we sieged the walls of the Earth-city with weapons in every claw! Side by side, we spilled life-force across the system. No Ketch was out of her reach! No death could seize her! Even enchained by the wretched Reef-born, she grew only stronger in mind and body.
And she will grant it to all who unite under her banner! Even now, as lieutenant, I share in that with her. Side by side, our bodies thrum with the same ice-cold energy.
Energy to drag the Great Machine from the sky and fortify our new city with its metal hide! Energy to defeat the wretched of this system and feed our children with the battle-bounty!
Energy to reign beyond a thousand lifetimes.
All you, now hear: I am Phylaks, the Warrior of Darkness! Life to Riis-reborn! Victory to the Kell of Darkness! Glory to the House Salvation!
XI. The Technocrat
This is Praksis, the Technocrat speaking from Riis-reborn. It has become evident that, even as our numbers grow, many Eliksni have yet to accept our Kell's invitation to take part in the long-awaited progress of our people.
Thus, it falls on me to make an argument I did not think I would have to make… No. That is false. I did anticipate some degree of cowardice, obstinacy, stupidity—whatever you might call it—but only in the beginning, when we lacked evidence for our endeavor.
At this late stage, however, when Eramiskel succeeds where all others failed… Alas, I might find it hard to believe if I could not see the empty spaces in our half-filled capitol. Or heard the whispers of doubt sown by the weakling of House Light.
Yes, even from this moon of some distance, I can tap into your transmission, Misraaks. Others may call you Forsaken, but I dub you Foolish, clinging still to that moon-sized obsolescence. Do you forget the lesson we teach our children? A Ketch laden with the unnecessary will never fly.
As for those of you following in his example, placing your faith in peace with our enemies… well, what good are the words of a scientist if you ignore what is before your own eyes? I can only encourage you to truly think. What proofs have your alleged allies offered of their loyalty? Their willingness to share equally with you? How have you benefitted, truly benefitted, from them?
If you answer, "None yet," or "I don't know," I admire your patience. For myself, for my Kell, for all of us of House Salvation, the time has grown too long and the failures too many to invest in such a flimsy experiment.
The Eliksni must update our approach if we are ever to rise. Either join us as we march toward progress…
Or be swept aside with the vestigialities.
XII. The Priestess
Eliksni! Kridis, the Priestess, cries out to you across the abyss! As we speak, the once-Shipstealer brings the promise of our people to pass. Soon we will rise to true prominence, united under one banner and one Kell—with no gods but ourselves.
For who withstood the Whirlwind? Who pieced together Ketches and armories out of ruins and scraps? Who roamed the vast expanses for generations, subsisting on drips of Ether and facing endless battle? Who survived?!
We did! Not the so-called Great Machine nor the idols we crafted in its image. The Eliksni survived!
So why do we pine still for a light that shines not on us? Why do we kneel to the Servitors that we created?
Because we are afraid. Because—for all that we've suffered, for how long we've traveled—we clung tight to the belief that we were meant for a higher existence, meant to evolve beyond our current forms. If only the Whirlwind hadn't cut off our people from godliness too soon.
This, I believed as well. I mourned the death of our collective potential in our rituals and rites. Felt the acid-burn of despair in my body as I received succor from our Prime Servitor. Dreamt of the day I turned my weeping eyes up to the sky and found it empty of salvation.
I was blind.
But Eramis removed the Light from my eyes, and now I see.
So I entreat you, children of Riis. Come receive clarity for yourselves! Witness the greatness of the House Salvation and the Kell who leads it. Rejoice, for she who brought our Servitors low where they belong will do the same to the Great Machine!
The light holds nothing for us now. Long we have traveled in darkness. Now is our time to embrace it!
XIII. The Wildcard
I am Atraks, the Wildcard, and I have been charged by my Kell to speak to the youth of the Eliksni. Those who, like me, have never known a life that wasn't wandering. Who have no memories of Riis, only tales of glorious cities under glowing green skies passed down from our elders. The very same ones who moan that we have never felt true peace, which can only be found under the shade of the Great Machine.
Well, I, for one, am glad for it! I could not be more grateful the Whirlwind came to slice the ties before I was entangled too! They told us it was destruction that visited that day, but what if it was salvation? They called us unlucky to have been born in the dark of deep space, but we were born free! They say we lack the Light to truly see, but when we first opened our eyes, there was nothing to block our view of the vastness of the universe.
So why do we let the nostalgia-blind point the way? Why do we carry their dead dreams? They have turned their backs on the future! I say, let them! All the easier to strike them down and finish the cleansing started long ago.
Then, you can join us on Riis-reborn.
XIV. The Scarred
Ha! So, the Kell of Winter seeks the aid of Taniks, the Scarred. How formal! Wasn't long ago you called me self-serving scum and spat at my banner-less armor. I might've ripped each and every one of your arms from you then. And torn off your legs for good measure.
But I sensed one day, you'd come begging for my services. Lucky I am such a vulgar mercenary after all, eh? It works in your favor now, that I hold payment above pride. Payment not just in Glimmer. In blood and battle too. No one Kell, no one house has been able to slake my thirst. No one job, either.
Though… a break-out of the Prison of Elders might come close.
But for Aksor? You ask me to pass over far-greater warriors for that impotent Archon? You think he will serve you better than Peekis, the Disavowed? Than Pirsis, Pallas-Bane? Than Calzar, than Drekthas?
You'd choose Aksor over the Shipstealer?! Eramis, who led the charge at the Final Attempt? Who hurled herself at the wretched Lightbearers, who moved so quickly I would've sworn she had eight arms? When your pathetic Winter-ones followed in her footsteps, they had to wade through the flood of life-force she left in her wake.
And still you wonder why I refuse my house-pledge. You could conquer the system, but you'd rather adhere to these arbitrary customs. Aksor belongs to Winter, and Eramis does not.
Twice my usual price. The fee is for my restraint. It will take what little I have to free Aksor over the fiercest of Eliksni fighters.