The end of the bridge thickened with noxious green light. The Chain Warden hid his corpse features beneath a rotted hood, but the light of his lantern hinted at the remains of ravaged flesh, gaunt and drained of all emotion, save sadistic relish.
He moved softly, like all his kind, Pained moans sighed from his robes as he moved. Thresh lifted his head a fraction, and Lucian saw the glint of too-sharp teeth widen in a grin of anticipation.
“Mortal,” said Thresh, rolling the word around his mouth like a sweetmeat.
Lucian knelt, reciting the mantra of clarity to steel his soul for the battle to come. He had prepared for this moment a thousand times, and now that it was here, his mouth was dry, his palms slick with sweat.
“You murdered Senna,” he said, standing and lifting his head. “The only person I had left in the world.”
“Senna...?” said Thresh, the sound wet and gurgling, as though squeezed from a throat once crushed by a hangman’s noose.
“My wife,” said Lucian, knowing he should not speak, that every word was a weapon the wraith would turn against him. Tears blurred his vision as grief washed away every preparation and every shred of logic. He lifted the silver locket from around his neck and snapped it open, needing the wraith to understand the depth of all he had lost.
Thresh grinned, his needle teeth glinting as he tapped the glass of the lantern with a yellowed nail.
“I remember her,” he said. “A vital soul. Not yet barren and cold. Ripe for torment. Hope for a new life. It bloomed in her, you know. Fresh, new, like a spring flower. All too easy to pluck and ruin those with dreams.”
Lucian lifted his pistols.
“If you remember her, then you will remember these,” he said.
The toothed grin never faltered beneath the ragged cowl.
“The weapons of light,” he said.
“And light is ever the bane of darkness,” said Lucian, channeling every scrap of hatred into his relic pistols.
“Wait,” said Thresh, but Lucian was done waiting.
He loosed a pair of blinding shots.
A conflagration of purifying fire engulfed the Chain Warden and his howls were music to Lucian’s ears.
Then the howls changed to gurgling laughter.
A nimbus of dark light faded around Thresh, drawn back into his lantern and leaving him utterly untouched by the fire.
Lucian fired again, a storm of radiant bolts, each perfectly aimed, but every one wasted. Each shot dissipated harmlessly against a shimmering haze of dark energy from the lantern.
“Yes, I remember those weapons,” said the wraith. “I tore their secrets from her mind.”
“What did you just say?”
Thresh laughed, a wheezing, consumptive rasp.
“You don’t know? After all the reborn order learned of me, you never once suspected?”
Lucian felt cold dread settle in his belly. A horror he had never acknowledged for fear he would go insane.
“She did not die,” continued Thresh, holding up his lantern.
Lucian saw tortured spirits twisting in its depths.
Thresh grinned. “I ripped her soul out and kept it.”
“No...” said Lucian. “I saw her die.”
“She screams still inside my lantern,” said Thresh, drifting closer with every choked-out word. “Her every moment of existence is sweet agony. Listen...can you hear her?”
“No,” sobbed Lucian, his relic pistols falling to the stones of the bridge.
Thresh circled him, chains snaking from his leather belt and slithering over Lucian’s body. The hooks cut into his storm coat, seeking the soft flesh beneath.
“Hope was her weakness. Love her undoing.”
Lucian looked up into Thresh’s ravaged features.
His eyes were voids, dark holes into emptiness.
Whatever Thresh had been in life, nothing now remained. No compassion, no mercy and no humanity.
“All is death and suffering, mortal,” said the Chain Warden, reaching for Lucian’s neck. “No matter where you run, your only true legacy is death. But before then, there is me.”
The breath hammered in Miss Fortune’s throat as she ran for the temple. Her lungs fought to draw breath, and her veins felt sluggish with ice. Coils of enervating mist reached up to the rock of the temple, drawn by the presence of the two lords of the unliving. Brilliant flashes of light flared behind her, but she didn’t look back. She heard the thunder of hoof beats on rock, seeing sparks above them in the darkness.
She imagined the breath of ghostly steeds on her neck.
The space between her shoulder blades burned hot where she expected the stabbing thrust of a spectral lance.
Wait, how can they make sparks when they’re ghosts?
The absurdity of the thought made her laugh, and she was still laughing as she slammed into the warped timber doors of the temple. Rafen and her ragged band were already there, hammering fists and palms against the door.
“In the name of the Bearded Lady, let us in!” he yelled.
He looked up as Miss Fortune joined him.
“The doors are shut,” he said.
“I noticed,” she gasped, wrenching the pendant Illaoi had given her. She placed her palm flat on door, with the coral pressed hard against the wood.
“Illaoi!” she shouted. “I’m ready to stamp on that damn eel’s neck. Now open the bloody door!”
“Eel?” said Rafen. “What eel? What are you talking about?”
“Never mind,” she snapped, battering her palm bloody against the wood. “I think it was a metaphor.”
The door swung outwards as if it had been unbarred the whole time. Miss Fortune stepped back to allow her fighters inside first, and finally turned around.
Hecarim reared up and swung his fiery glaive for her skull.
A hand grasped her collar and hauled her backward. The tip of the weapon sliced an inch from her throat.
She fell hard on her backside.
Illaoi stood in the doorway, holding her stone idol out before her like a shield. White mist clung to it like corposant.
“The dead are not welcome here,” she said.
Rafen and the others hauled the door shut and dropped a heavy spar of seasoned oak into place on the rusted anchors to either side. A huge impact slammed into the door.
Wood split and splinters flew.
Illaoi turned and walked past Miss Fortune, still sprawled on a mosaic floor of seashells and clay fragments.
“You took your sweet time, girl,” she said as Miss Fortune climbed to her feet. The temple was filled with at least two hundred people, maybe more. She saw a wide cross section of Bilgewater’s denizens: its native population, pirates, traders and assorted sea-scum, together with travellers unlucky or unwise enough to seek a berth so close to the Harrowing.
“Is that door going to hold?” she asked.
“It will or it won’t,” said Illaoi, heading towards a many-tentacled statue at the centre of the temple. Miss Fortune tried to make sense of it, but gave up when her eye kept getting lost in the many spirals and looping curves.
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s the only one I have,” said Illaoi, setting her idol in a concave depression in the statue. She began moving in a circle around the statue, beating a rhythmic pattern on her thighs and chest with her fists. The people in the temple joined her circling, beating palms against bare skin, stamping their feet and speaking in a language she didn’t understand.
“What are they doing?”
“Giving some motion back to the world,” said Illaoi. “But we will need time.”
“You’ll have it,” promised Miss Fortune.
Lucian felt the spectral hooks bite deep into his flesh, colder than northern ice and twice as painful. The Chain Warden’s hand closed on his throat and his skin burned at the wraith’s touch. He felt his strength drawn from him, the beat of his heart slow.
Thresh lifted him from the ground and held his lantern aloft, ready to receive his soul. The moaning lights within swirled in agitation, ghostly faces and hands pressing against the glass from within.
“Long I have sought your soul, shadow hunter,” said Thresh. “But only now is it ripe for the taking.”
Lucian’s vision greyed at the edges, feeling his soul peel away from his bones. He fought to hold on, but the Chain Warden had been harvesting souls for countless lifetimes and knew his craft better than any.
“Struggle harder,” said Thresh with monstrous appetite. “Your soul burns brighter when you fight.”
Lucian tried to speak, but no words came out, just a soft stream of warm breath that carried his soul.
A glittering scythe floated in the air above Lucian, a murder-soaked reaper of souls. Its blade shivered with anticipation.
That voice. Her voice.
The murder-edge of Thresh’s blade turned, angled to better part soul from flesh.
Lucian drew back his breath as he saw a face resolve in the glass of the lantern. One among countless thousands, but one with more reason than any to push herself to the fore.
Full lips, wide, almond shaped eyes, imploring him to live.
“Senna...” gasped Lucian.
Let me be your shield.
He knew what she meant in a heartbeat.
The link between them was as strong as it had been when they hunted the creatures of shadow side by side.
With the last of his strength, Lucian reached up and snapped the locket from around his neck. The chain glittered silver in the moonlight.
The Chain Warden saw something was amiss and hissed in anger.
Lucian was faster.
He spun the chain like a slingshot, but instead of loosing a lead bullet, he lashed it around the arm holding the lantern. Before Thresh could shake it off, Lucian drew the silver awl from its sheath in his long coat and plunged it into the specter’s wrist.
The Chain Warden screeched in pain, a sensation he had likely not felt in millennia. He dropped Lucian and thrashed in agony as the myriad souls trapped in his lantern suddenly found a means to strike back at their tormentor.
Lucian felt his soul snap back into his body and drew in heaving gulps of air, like a drowning man breaking the surface.
Hurry, my love. He is too strong...
His sight returned, clearer than ever before. Lucian snatched his pistols from the ground. He caught the briefest glimpse of Senna’s face in the lantern and etched it on his heart.
Never again would her face grow dim in his memories.
“Thresh,” he said, aiming his twin pistols.
The Chain Warden looked up, the voids of his eyes alight with outrage at the defiance of his captive souls. He held Lucian’s gaze and extended his lantern, but the rebellious souls had dispelled whatever protection it once offered.
Lucian fired a blistering series of perfect shots.
They burned through the Chain Warden’s ghostly robes and ignited his spirit form in a searing inferno of light. Lucian marched towards Thresh, his twin weapons blazing.
Shrieking in agony, the Chain Warden retreated from Lucian’s unending barrage, his wraithform now powerless to resist these weapons of ancient power.
“Death is here for you,” said Lucian. “Embrace it, safe in the knowledge I will ensure it is final.”
Thresh gave one last howl before leaping from the bridge, falling like a burning comet to the city below.
Lucian watched him fall until the Black Mist swallowed him.
He slumped to his knees.
“Thank you, my love,” said Lucian. “My light.”
The temple walls shook with the violence of the assault. Black mist oozed between ill-fitting planks and through cracks in the scavenged glass of the windows. The door shuddered in its frame. Grasping claws of mist tore at the wood. Screams echoed as a howling gale battered the mismatched timbers of the roof.
“Over there!” shouted Miss Fortune as a host of mist-creatures with burning red eyes poured through a broken section of wall that had once been a series of tea-chests from Ionia.
She leapt into the midst of the wraiths. It felt like jumping naked into an ice hole cut in a glacier. Even the lightest touch of the dead leeched warmth and life.
The coral pendant burned hot against her skin.
She slashed her looted sword through the creatures and felt the same bite she’d felt before. Her bullets might be useless against the dead, but this Demacian blade hurt them. They fell back from her, screeching and hissing.
Could the dead know fear?
It seemed they could, for they fled the sword’s glittering edge. She didn’t let them go, stabbing and slashing the mist wherever it poured in.
“That’s it! Run!” she yelled.
A child screamed and Miss Fortune sprinted over as the mist reached to claim him. She dived and snatched the boy in her arms before rolling to safety. Chill claws plunged into her back, and Miss Fortune gasped as numbing cold spread through her limbs.
She stabbed behind her and something dead howled.
A woman sheltering behind an overturned pew reached for the boy and Miss Fortune let him squirm to safety. She pushed herself to her feet, weakness spreading through her body like a raging infection.
Everywhere was gunfire and clashing steel, deathly howls and screams of terror.
“Sarah!” shouted Rafen.
She looked up to see the oaken locking bar securing the door split along its length. Rafen and a dozen men had their backs braced against the bludgeoning assault, but the doors were bulging inwards. Cracks spread and grasping hands of mist reached inside. A man was snatched backwards and his piteous screams were abruptly cut off as he vanished into the mist.
Another had his arm ripped off as he reached to help him.
Rafen spun and rammed his dagger through the gap.
Clawed hands tore the useless weapon from his hand.
A howling body pushed itself in through the disintegrating door and plunged its hands into Rafen’s chest. Her second in command roared in pain, his face draining of color.
She staggered over to him, her strength all but gone. Her blade hacked through spectral arms, and the creature shrieked as it vanished. Rafen fell into her, and they collapsed back into the nave together.
Rafen gasped for breath, his features as slack as hers.
“Don’t you die on me, Rafen!” she wheezed.
“It’ll take more than the dead to kill me,” he grunted. “Bastard thing just winded me.”
Glass broke somewhere up above. Coils of black mist coalesced overhead, a boiling mass of snapping teeth, claws and hungry eyes.
Miss Fortune tried to get to her feet, but her limbs burned with exhaustion. She ground her teeth in frustration. Barely a handful of her company remained, and the people sheltering in here weren’t fighters.
The dead were getting in.
Miss Fortune looked back at Illaoi.
The priestess was surrounded by her people, all of them still circling the statue and performing their fist-thumping, palm-slapping ritual. It didn’t appear to be achieving anything. The strange statue remained unmoving and impotent.
What had she expected, that it would come to life and drive the dead back like some clanking iron golem from Piltover?
“Whatever it is you’re doing, do it faster!” shouted Miss Fortune.
A section of the roof ripped loose and spun off into the tempest surrounding the temple. A swirling column of spirits boiled inside and touched down like a tornado. Wraiths and things that defied understanding spun from the unliving vortex to fall upon the living.
Finally the door gave out and exploded inwards, the timbers dry and rotted by the touch of the dead. The skirling blast of a hunting horn filled the temple, and Miss Fortune’s hands flew to her ears at its deafening echoes.
Hecarim rode into the temple, crushing the men who’d been bracing the door with their bodies. Their souls were drawn up into the Shadow of War’s flaming glaive, and the cold fire of its edge illuminated the temple with loathsome radiance. His death knights rode at his back, and the spirits already within the temple drew back in recognition of Hecarim’s terrible glory.
“I said the dead are not welcome here,” boomed Illaoi.
Miss Fortune looked up to see the priestess towering over her, stout and majestic. Pale light clung to her limbs and sparkled on the stone tablet she held in trembling hands. Veins stood out like hawsers on her neck, and her jawline was taut with effort. Sweat ran in runnels down her face.
Whatever Illaoi was doing was costing her greatly.
“These mortal souls are mine,” said Hecarim, and Miss Fortune felt herself recoil from the iron syllables of his voice.
“They are not,” said Illaoi. “This is the house of Nagakabouros, who stands in opposition to the dead.”
“The dead will have their due,” said Hecarim, lowering his glaive to point at Illaoi’s heart.
The priestess shook her head.
“Not today,” she said. “Not while I still move.”
“You cannot stop me.”
“Deaf as well as dead,” grinned Illaoi as a swelling radiance built behind her. “I didn’t say I was going to stop you.”
Miss Fortune turned and saw the spiraling statue bathed in blinding radiance. White light smoked from its surfaces, and shadows fled from its touch. She shielded her eyes as the light billowed outwards like writhing tentacles and where it met the Black Mist it stripped it bare, exposing the twisted souls within. The sinuous light pulled the dead onwards, purging the baleful magic that cursed them to undeath so very long ago.
She expected screams, but instead the unbound dead wept with joy as their souls were freed to move on. The light spread over the cracked walls of the temple, and as it touched her, Miss Fortune cried out as the deathly numbness in her flesh was banished in a rush of heat and life.
The light of Nagakabouros closed on Hecarim, and Miss Fortune saw his fear at the thought of what transformations it might work upon him.
What could be so awful that it was better to remain cursed?
“You can be free, Hecarim,” said Illaoi, her voice strained to the limits of endurance by what she had unleashed. “You can move on, live in the light as the man you always dreamed of being before his grief and folly remade you.”
Hecarim roared and swept his glaive at Illaoi’s neck.
Miss Fortune’s blade intercepted it in a clashing flare of sparks. She shook her head.
“Get out of my city,” she said.
Hecarim’s blade drew back for another strike, but before the blow could land, the light finally pierced his veil of darkness. He bellowed in pain and fell back from its burning touch. The dark rider’s outline shimmered, like two picture box images wavering in candlelight on the same backcloth.
Miss Fortune caught a fleeting glimpse of a tall rider, armored in silver and gold. A young man, handsome and proud with dark eyes and a future of glory ahead of him.
What happened to him?
Hecarim roared and galloped from the temple.
His death knights and the darkness went with him, a shrieking host of tattered spirits following in their wake.
The light of Nagakabouros spread over Bilgewater like the coming dawn. None who saw it could ever remember so sweet a sight; the first rays of sunlight after a storm, the first hint of warmth after a bitter winter.
The Black Mist withdrew before it, roiling in a churning maelstrom of panicked spirits. The dead turned on one another in a frenzy, some fighting to return from whence they had come as others actively sought out the light’s release.
Silence fell as the Black Mist drew back over the ocean, drawn to the cursed island where it claimed dominion.
True dawn broke over the eastern horizon, and a cleansing wind blew through the city as the people of Bilgewater let out a collective breath.
The Harrowing was over.
Silence filled the temple; the utter lack of sound a stark contrast to the mayhem of moments ago.
“It’s done,” said Miss Fortune.
“Until the next time,” said Illaoi wearily. “The Black Mist’s hunger burns like a sickness.”
“What did you do?”
“What I had to.”
“Whatever it was, I thank you.”
Illaoi shook her head and put a powerful arm around Miss Fortune’s shoulder.
“Thank the goddess,” said Illaoi. “Make an offering. Something big.”
“I will,” said Miss Fortune.
“You better. My god dislikes empty promises.”
The veiled threat rankled, and for a moment she thought of putting a bullet through the priestess’ skull. Before she could do more than inch her hand to her pistols, Illaoi crumpled like a ripped topsail. Miss Fortune grabbed for her, but the priestess was too enormous to hold upright alone.
They went to the seashell floor together.
“Rafen, help me get her up,” she said.
Together they propped Illaoi up against a broken pew, grunting with the effort of shifting her colossal bulk.
“The Bearded Lady rose from the sea...” said Rafen.
“Don’t be stupid all your life,” said Illaoi. “I said Nagakabouros doesn’t live under the sea.”
“So where does she live?” asked Rafen. “In the sky?”
Illaoi shook her head and punched him in the heart. Rafen grunted and winced in pain.
“There is where you find her.”
Illaoi grinned at the obliqueness of her answer and her eyes drifted closed.
“Is she dead?” asked Rafen, rubbing his bruised chest.
Illaoi reached up and slapped him.
Then started snoring like a stevedore with lung-blight.
Lucian sat on the edge of the bridge and watched the city emerge from Black Mist. He’d hated Bilgewater on first sight, but there was a quality of beauty to it as the sunlight bathed its myriad clay-tiled roofs in a warm amber glow.
A city reborn, like it was every time the Harrowing receded.
An apt name for this dread moment, but one that carried only a fraction of the sorrow of its origins. Did anyone here really understand the real tragedy of the Shadow Isles?
And even if they did, would they care?
He turned as he heard footsteps approaching.
“It’s kind of pretty from up here,” said Miss Fortune.
“But only from up here.”
“Yes, it’s a viper’s nest alright,” said Miss Fortune. “There’s good people and bad people, but I’ve been making sure there’s a lot less of the bad.”
“The way I hear it, you started a war,” said Lucian. “Some might say that’s like burning down your house to kill a rat.”
He saw anger touch her, but it passed quickly.
“I thought I was making things better for everyone,” she said, straddling the parapet, “but they’re only getting worse. I need to do something about that, starting now.”
“Is that why you were out in the Black Mist?”
The woman thought for a moment.
“Maybe not at first,” she said. “I let a razor-eel off the hook when I killed Gangplank, and if I don’t take hold of it and get it back on, it’s going to bite a lot of the good people.”
“What I mean to say is that when I brought the Pirate King down, I had no idea what would happen when he was gone. I didn’t much care,” she said. “But I’ve seen what’s happening down there without someone in control. The city’s tearing its own throat out. Bilgewater needs someone strong at the top. No reason that someone can’t be me. The war’s just starting, and the only way it’ll end quickly is if I win it.”
The silence between them stretched.
“My answer is no.”
“I didn’t ask anything.”
“You’re going to,” said Lucian. “You want me to stay and help you win your war, but I can’t. Your fight isn’t my fight.”
“It could be,” said Miss Fortune. “The pay’s good and you’d get to kill a lot of bad people. And save a lot of innocent souls.”
“There is only one soul I need to save,” said Lucian. “And I won’t save it in Bilgewater.”
Miss Fortune nodded and held out her hand.
“Then I’ll say farewell and good hunting,” she said, standing and dusting her britches. “I hope you find what you’re looking for. Just know that you can lose yourself to revenge.”
Lucian watched her limp back to the sagging ruins of the temple as the survivors within emerged, blinking, into the daylight. She thought she understood what drove him, but she hadn’t the first clue.
Vengeance? He was far beyond vengeance.
His beloved was held in torment by an undying wraith, a creature from ancient days that understood suffering like no other.
Miss Fortune did not understand even a fraction of his pain.
He rose and lifted his gaze out to sea.
The ocean was calm now, an emerald green expanse.
People were already moving down on the docks, repairing ships and rebuilding their homes. Bilgewater never stopped, even in the aftermath of the Harrowing. He scanned the forest of swaying masts, looking for a ship that wasn’t too badly damaged. Perhaps one desperate captain could be persuaded to take him where he needed to go.
“I am coming, my light,” he said. “And I will free you.”
The fisherman grunted as he worked the stern-windlass to haul the big man from the water and onto his boat. The rope was frayed and he sweated in the cold air as he worked the crank.
“By the bristles of her bearded chin, you’re a big bastard, right sure ye are,” he said, snagging the big man’s armor with a gaffing hook and pulling him around over the rolling deck. He kept a wary eye out for predators, above and below the surface.
No sooner had the Black Mist withdrawn over the horizon than scores of boats put out to sea. The waters were awash with plunder, and if you weren’t fast, you ended up with nothing.
He’d spotted the floating man first and had already fought off six sewer-jacks trying to reach him. Damned if wharf-scum like them were going to steal this ocean bounty from him.
The big man had been drifting on a bed of what looked like the remains of a giant Krakenwyrm. Its tentacles were pulped and bloated with noxious gasses, which was all that had kept the big man’s armored form afloat.
He dropped his catch to the deck and laid him out along the gunwale before casting an appraising eye over his body.
A heavy iron hauberk of ring and scale, rugged, fur-lined boots and, best of all, a magnificent axe tangled in the straps of his armor.
“Oh, yes, make a few Krakens out of you, me beauty,” he said, dancing a happy jig around his boat. “A few Krakens indeed!”
The big man coughed up brackish seawater.
“Am I still alive?” he asked.
The fisherman stopped his happy jig and slid a hand towards the long knife at his belt. He used it to open fish bellies. No reason he couldn’t use it to open a throat. Wouldn’t be the first time a salvager had helped someone on their way to the Bearded Lady to claim a prize.
The big man opened his eyes.
“Touch that knife again and I’ll cut you into more pieces than that damned Krakenwyrm.”