She watched the Lord Marshal master himself, knowing he was fighting to keep unwise words from his lips. Of all of us, she thought, he stands immune from the lure of vengeance. The realisation stirred a flare of envy, a yearning for a part of her lost somewhere amongst the flames.

“You are a good man, Lord Nortah,” she told him. “The Realm is enriched by your service. And so I give you my word as your queen that this army will do all it can to spare innocent blood. But, be assured that when we reach Volar I will see it destroyed down to the last fragment of stone and the earth salted so that nothing grows amidst the ruins. If you have no stomach for this course, you are free to resign your command and depart without disfavour.”

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Lord Nortah lowered his head, teeth gritted as he hissed a sigh. “No innocent blood,” he said, head still lowered. “You promise me?”

Lord Iltis bridled with a growl, “The Queen’s Word is given, and not for you to question, my lord.”

Nortah’s head came up, his eyes blazing at the Lord Protector for a second before casting his gaze around the other captains. Lyrna wondered if he thought himself the only sane man in an army of maddened souls. As his gaze settled on her, he spoke again, his voice the flat, precise promise of a very dangerous man, “Your word may not be for me to question, Highness, but I will hold you to it nonetheless.”

• • •

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Another week of marching took them from the pleasing hill country and into a broad dusty plain, its only feature of interest a long river stretching away east in a winding course roughly parallel to the road. “At least we won’t be taken unawares,” Count Marven commented, peering at the barren vista. “You couldn’t hide a single horse out here.”

The following day saw a dim, jagged shape appear on the haze-covered horizon, resolving into a strange sprawling building adorned with multiple tall spires. It sat in a wide bend in the river, the size of a small town, but absent any dwellings. Instead it consisted of a series of pyramidal structures arranged in a spiral, all topped with towers of ascending height, the tallest rising to at least two hundred feet.

“A fortress?” Benten wondered as they closed to within a half mile of the building.

“No defensive walls,” Iltis said. “And no one to hold them if there were.”

There was no sign of any response to their approach, the varied structures devoid of light and movement. Lyrna turned at the sound of a galloping horse, finding Wisdom reining in at her side. Lyrna had left Arrow back in the Realm, unwilling to subject her to the possibly deadly discomforts of the ocean crossing, and discovered her new mount wandering near the dunes when they landed. It was a handsome stallion with a coat of pure black, so finely bred Lyrna wondered if it hadn’t carried the Empress to the shore the day she crafted her storm. She named him Jet in honour of his colouring.

“Great Queen,” Wisdom said, a habitual greeting that always left Lyrna wondering if she wasn’t being mocked. “Impressive isn’t it?” the Eorhil elder went on, gesturing at the building.

“Indeed,” Lyrna agreed. “I would be more impressed if I knew what it was.”

“Navarek Av Devos, which means Portal of the Gods in your tongue. The last great temple of the Volarian gods. The only one to survive the Great Cleansing, I suspect because of its size and remoteness.”

Lord Adal’s North Guard rode ahead to inspect the temple, finding it deserted but for a colony of nesting vultures. At Marven’s suggestion Lyrna agreed the army would camp there for the night; the temple lacked fortifications but still had roofs aplenty and she knew many of her soldiers would appreciate a night under cover of stone rather than flimsy canvas. There was room enough for about half the army, Marven posting the remainder in a wide defensive arc anchored on the river. The temple extended up to and beyond the riverbank where a long row of monstrous statues lowered their heads to the waters. They were mostly impossible combinations of various beasts, a tiger with the head of a lizard, a great eagle with a long scaly tail. There were also two human figures amongst them, improbably muscled warriors kneeling to lower a hand to the swift-flowing current.

“Gods of some kind?” Lyrna asked Wisdom as they toured the city. She couldn’t help a certain fascination in the sheer eccentricity of the place; to construct such a vast building with no practical purpose whatsoever was both baffling and delightful, as well as providing an appreciation of the long history of the people she had come to fight. They were not always as they are now.

“The fifty guardians of the gods,” Wisdom replied. “Crafted from all the beasts of the earth to fight an eternal battle against the Dermos, denizens of the great fire pit beneath the earth, the eternal enemies of all humanity.”

Lyrna’s gaze was drawn to the largest of the statues, a broad-backed ape of some kind, with a long serrated tail and arms as thick as tree-trunks. Murel’s mouth twitched in suppressed laughter as she switched her gaze between Iltis and the statue. “How did they manage to capture your image long before you were born, my lord?”

She smiled sweetly at his baleful glower, pressing a fond kiss to his cheek before dancing away.

“That’s Jarvek,” Wisdom said. “Long held to be the greatest of the guardians, until the shadow folk tempted him into all-consuming lust for a human queen. He bore her away to his lair far beneath the earth but, before he could inflict his vile desires upon her, she was rescued by her sister, Livella, the warrior maiden who carried a spear blessed by the gods.” Wisdom pointed to another statue nearby, a tall female figure on a plinth, standing straight and proud with spear in hand. The sight of her provoked a fresh burst of laughter from Murel.

“First his lordship, now you, my lady,” she said, pointing at Davoka. “This place is truly uncanny.”

Davoka merely gave a faint grin, casting a critical eye over the statue’s improbably generous proportions. “A woman made like her would spend her days falling over.”

“Statues of guardians, statues of heroes from myth,” Lyrna said. “Where are the gods?”

“You will not find them here,” Wisdom replied. “The gods were considered so divine that for a human to attempt to capture their image was considered blasphemy. Even their names were known only to a small, select priesthood. Those wishing to seek the aid of the gods would petition the priests who would in turn petition the requisite god. For a price, naturally.”

Iltis and Benten drew their swords at a sudden shout from the centre of the temple, soon transforming into a scream that echoed from the granite walls. Lyrna shrugged off Iltis’s objections and went to investigate, making her way to the circular space in the centre of the temple where she found Aspect Caenis crouched over Brother Lucin. The elderly Gifted lay on his back, face contorted in a grimace of pain and horror, foam frothing on his lips.

“He had a yen to see this place before its abandonment,” the Aspect explained, holding the brother down as he convulsed.

“An unfortunate decision,” Wisdom commented, pointing at a squat stone plinth nearby. “The gods were generous, but also thirsty.”

The plinth was three feet tall, narrow and rectangular with a semicircle carved into its upper edge. Positioned at its base was a bowl-shaped indentation in the stone floor from which numerous channels led off towards the surrounding pyramidal structures.

Brother Lucin’s convulsions subsided, the old man’s eyes fluttering open, wide with shock at whatever they had witnessed.

Blood, Lyrna thought, eyeing the plinth. It had been scrubbed clean by centuries of wind and rain, but she knew it had once been red. Always blood with these people. Once spilled to sate the conjurings of their own imagination. Now drunk to banish the spectre of death. Killing their gods didn’t change them.

• • •

She hadn’t dreamt since the Battle of the Teeth, spending every night in a deep, untroubled slumber. She would have liked to imagine it the sleep of a just and contented soul, but knew it had more to do with simple exhaustion, each day being so full. So it took some time to realise that her bare feet were not really treading on the temple’s stone floor, taking her towards the plinth with a slow but steady stride. It was red now, as it had been when this place commanded the faith of so many deluded souls, slick with blood from top to bottom, the bowl-shaped indentation brimming with it, the channels taking the offering to the silent houses of the gods.

A woman of dreadful appearance stood next to the plinth, knife in hand. She wore a besmirched blue dress, the bodice and skirt stained to blackness, though Lyrna could see it had once been a fine garment, worthy of a princess in fact. But it was the woman’s face that commanded her attention, raw and freshly burnt, faint tendrils of smoke still rising from the charred flesh.

“I have been waiting,” the burnt woman said, fixing Lyrna with a fierce gaze, her tone full of admonishment.

“For what?” Lyrna asked in mystification.

“You of course.” The woman beckoned impatiently at something in the shadows and a young man stepped into the light, short of stature but possessed of delicate good looks. “Your worshippers are keen to make offering.”

Lyrna watched the young man kneel at the plinth, his gaze locked on hers, face expressionless. “I kept my promise,” Lyrna told him, unable to keep the tremble from her voice. “I found your mother. She travels with my army, a sister of the Seventh Order, come to win justice for her son.”

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