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Mend the Empty Bones

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-vacant interference-

Draconus became aware of the ghost-like apparition following him two bells into his flight. By then he had calmed down somewhat – not much, not enough by any measure of the word, but to an extent where he was no longer liable to make any overly rash decisions. Primordial darkness still oozed from him like body heat on a particularly cold night, with wisps of it obscuring his vision every now and then as a darker patch billowed about him.

But it was far less than it had been at the Valley of Tarns – deliberate, that. Draconus could have easily reined this physical manifestation of night back in, but as it flowed around him it obscured his surroundings entirely – so even as he fled, he did not have to look into the faces of those he left behind, did not have to see their eyes glaze over in death. Of his enemies, he saw nothing. Of his comrades, nothing. His Houseblades, the Purake brothers – nothing.

The specter, however, was not blotted out by the dark.

Draconus saw it out of the corner of his eyes first – a contour just a hint sharper than the ragged edges of the world around him. He had fashioned a horse of purest night for himself, and it ran faster than light and more nimbly than shadow could ever hope to flit across the world. To keep pace with him regardless would require either a large amount of power or a great deal of determination – Draconus was not certain which applied to the specter, nor could he say which he would prefer.

Either way the shade followed him tirelessly.

Eventually, tired of having to keep watch over his shoulder, he reined in his horse and waited for the specter to approach. It did so with caution, and as it came closer Draconus realized that he recognized it.

“Ivis,” he greeted the apparition once it had drawn within earshot. Then, because he was not currently one for much tact, Draconus added, “You’re dead.”

It was less a question and more a statement, although taking recent developments into account Draconus wouldn’t have been surprised if even the final surety of death had been toppled over and stomped into the ground. As if to underline his words, Ivis’ form flickered for a moment, his skin turning a deathly pale color, his clothes growing torn and ragged and a large, gaping wound splattering across his chest before his shape flickered again and the unharmed form reasserted itself.

Ivis regarded him with a somber look, as he had always done, and responded with grave honesty, “Death is currently occupied, lord."

“In both meanings of the word, I take it.”

“Just so.”

Draconus nodded. Hood had never been one for half-measures, he recalled, and the ripples created by the Jaghut army’s passage into death had been felt by all powerful enough. The borders of the realm would be loose still, allowing easy entry for those wishing to follow Hood – or, as seemed to be the case for Ivis, leaving the properly dead to wander freely as they pleased.

“What are you doing here, then? Surely there must be other people to seek out while death is busy,” Draconus finally asked. A better man than him would have asked Ivis for forgiveness for abandoning him and the rest of his Houseblades, but right then Draconus did not fancy himself to be anything even loosely resembling a good man.

Not seeming to mind the question but with a surprisingly sheepish tint to his tone Ivis replied, “I did try to visit Sandalath Drukorlat, but I could not get through to her.” He shrugged. “Honestly, lord, I’m not entirely sure myself why I’m here.”

It would seem death has done nothing for your ability to lie, Ivis.

Yet Draconus’ expression betrayed nothing of the faint disquiet he felt at the words of his Master at Arms, and he simply said, “Hood won’t wait for stragglers. Best you return quickly.”

With that Draconus grabbed hold of his steed’s reins once more and gave the beast a sharp kick to the flanks. The horse surged forward and past Ivis – Draconus did not glance back and so he rode on, once more leaving Ivis behind, this time confident that he would not be seeing him again.

 

-to all of my children-

The plain he had been travelling on changed from sparse undergrowth and desiccated trees to primal darkness before long. Whether this was an after-effect of his hastened flight or simply some unconscious desire on his part, Draconus could not say for certain. The horse he let go quick enough, watching it fade back into night before moving onward on foot – no sense in expending the energy necessary to keep it alive when he no longer needed it.

In front of him a path began to appear out of the darkness. At first it was just an area of the ground that was just a hint more tangible than everything else, but even as Draconus was contemplating its sudden appearance it split off into two separate paths further ahead. He supposed there was some intricate and deeply philosophically insightful reason for this, but there were was a time for the sort of soul-searching required to figure it out and right then was not it.

Approaching the fork in the road, Draconus saw another figure shift out of the perpetual gloom and into existence.

“Hood took the throne,” Ivis announced without fanfare.

Despite himself Draconus startled at the revelation – already? Whatever army the Jaghut had amassed must be massive, to deal with death that quickly. Schooling his face into practiced impassivity, he said, “I thought he might. Although I’m surprised that he must have encountered so little opposition, given how quickly he claimed it.”

At that Ivis shot him a confused look. “Quick? Lord, it’s been—“ Ivis hesitated. Nodding at the darkness surrounding them, he amended, “Time is strange here.”

An understatement. How much had he missed, Draconus wondered? He hadn’t planned to spend so much time in the Realm of Night, but then, truthfully, he had not expected to end up here at all – much like he had not expected the Liosan to win at Tarns, either. And yet.

Sighing, he asked, “Will you go, then? To this new afterlife of his?”

Ivis regarded him silently. He shook his head. “Don’t you think, lord, that the fact that I’m still here might be answer enough?”

Draconus’ eyes widened at that, yet he said nothing. As if summoned by his hesitation exhaustion crashed down on him, finally taking its toll and reminding him that he had rested only for a handful of hours, if that, since he had lost the battle at Tarns.

A loss. Best to call it what it is, and not skirt around the fact.

“Lord,” Ivis began as Draconus started to shape a simple log for seating out of the dark, “is it true that most Azathanai choose to mold their form after one of the existing races?”

He looked up at that, leaving the half-finished log lying where it was. “Azathanai.”

“The dead, we talk among one another. One of your kind is an acquaintance of Hood, and the Thel Akai tell their own tales.”

Draconus snorted. “Then did you ask because you wanted to know the answer, or because you wanted to berate me? No matter,” he added, waving Ivis’ attempted justification off with a shake of his head, “you’re right. Many among us take an interest in the people inhabiting this world, and so as to be able to mingle more easily we . . . adapt. And though T’riss seems to be taking an interest as well now – I have been with you for decades. I gave Mother Dark the terondai, and it was a gift for her as much as it was to the rest of you.” He looked at Ivis, considering his next words. “The Tiste have always been mine.”

Ivis nodded, and Draconus had the distinct impression that he was not particularly surprised by this revelation. “Then why did you abandon your chosen kin, Draconus?”

Draconus said nothing, meeting Ivis’ eyes for a long moment before being forced to glance away. Despite Ivis’ efforts to mask it, Draconus could see how deep his betrayal had cut – and could anticipate how deep it would cut further still, if he did not stand answer for his actions at Tarns.

But what could he possibly say?

What he had done had all happened in good faith, and for the sake of the woman he loved. Had the Highborn Tiste held, they would have won the battle. Draconus should have known not to rely on them, but he had been desperate – and, perhaps foolishly, he had believed that the Highborn’s dislike of him would not be greater than their desire to see the upstart Liosan bested.

When the tide of battle had turned, when the Highborn Tiste had left him and his Houseblades to their fate together with the Purake soldiers—the honorable thing would have been to stay with his soldiers to the bitter end. Rake had stayed. Draconus should have, but didn’t, too desperate to save his own skin and with the faint promise of opportunities yet to come, so too turned cowardice into full-blown betrayal.

There was nothing he could say in his own defense; he was self-aware enough to know that.

Yet even so . . . Ivis, forgive me, but I would do it all again.

With that thought, Draconus turned on his heel and briskly walked away from the crossing. Ivis, after a moment of watching him silently, followed without saying a word.

Eventually, once he had gotten his emotions back under control, Draconus slowed down enough to let Ivis catch up. The old Master at Arms glanced at him, and for the first time since their sordid journey had started, Draconus thought he saw apprehension in his eyes.

“There is a truth only the dead know,” Ivis spoke up in quiet tones. “It is a very simple one, lord, so there shouldn’t be this dissonance -- but it is nevertheless something you living have difficulty understanding.” He paused, then gave a sad little smile, his lips quirking up for so short a moment that Draconus wasn’t entirely certain he’d seen it at all. “Some of the dead, too.”

Primordial Night had always had the habit of being too in tune with its Suzerain. Draconus, realizing now what he must do, turned on his heel, and there, only a few paces in front of him, was the split in the path. As if he had not walked away from it at all.

He glanced across at Ivis, now standing at the side of the right path, and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

With a gesture at the fork in the road, Ivis continued, “No one, no matter how much power they wield, can find a lost opportunity. All anyone can do is move forward.”

Draconus nodded, and chose the left path. He did not look back to see Ivis standing with slumped shoulders on the other path, and neither did he spend too much time considering where the other path might have led. He had made his decision, and was certain now of what would await him ahead.

A fire. A forge.

 

-the lie in which you linger-

Burn had proven to be surprisingly accommodating, though Draconus knew that wherever she was right now, Olar Ethil would be raging. But either she was too occupied with the Light she had helped foster, or simply too far away – the reason did not matter to Draconus, only that he was unaccosted by her on his path. The wagon to carry the gate of Kurald Galain he would finish some other time, but for now, with Mother Dark not answering him even here, at the heart of her power, there was naught else to do but bring the whole sordid affair to an end.

Ivis joined him as he walked up the path leading to the First Forge.

He coalesced out of the gloom surrounding the path between one blink of the eye and the next, appearing next to Draconus and inclining his head in greeting. Draconus returned the nod, not in the least bit surprised that the specter had decided to appear just now – the decision he was about to make would create ripples the whole world over, and to walk that path without encountering at least some opposition was unlikely.

Yet Ivis said nothing and Draconus chose to keep his silence as well, studiously ignoring the glances Ivis was shooting him as they approached the First Forge.

Finally: “Would Mother Dark approve of your actions, do you think?”

“Are you to be my conscience, then?”

The words had come out more sharply than he had meant, yet Ivis simply nodded. “Aren’t I already, lord?”

In front of them, the trees and foliage gave way to a small clearing. Here stood a hill, the top of it covered in sparse bushels of grass while the sides were naked earth, red and wet. A door was set into the side facing Draconus and Ivis, the white color of the wood standing in stark contrast to the surrounding gloom.

“Why are you here, Ivis? My decision stands. My conscience is hale.”

“Truly?” Ivis asked. But he stepped forward nevertheless, opened the door to the forge, and held it long enough for his lord to step through into the earthen gloom inside.

“Don’t play coy, lord. You would not dare to ask Olar Ethil to assist you in this and Burn will only help you in so far as to admit you entrance to the Forge at all. And so there is no one here to attend the fire for you.” With a nod at the wisps of darkness that had begun to seep off of Draconus the closer he got to Burn’s manifestation of the Forge, he added, “Even with all the power you hold you would not be able to both fan the fire and wield the forge-hammer. You know this just as well as I do, lord.”

“You seek to dissuade me from going through with this?”

“I seek to help you, lord.”

At that Draconus came to a stop, already halfway inside the earthen hovel. Ivis stepped in behind him, closed the door just as quietly and motioned for Draconus to go on ahead. It was perhaps even more disconcerting a response than some kind of angry retort would have been, or even some kind of accusation – any kind of acknowledgement of the fact that Draconus had so carelessly abandoned Ivis and his other Houseblades. Instead there was simply an offer to help, and, after a sidelong glance at the unwavering determined expression on Ivis’ face, Draconus stepped further into the room.

At the far side, pressed against the earthen wall, stood the forgefire – only embers now, yet already Ivis was beginning to throw wood onto the ashes. “The scepter Olar Ethil helped forge she provided with love, and though it was stolen, it was enough. I—“ He paused for a moment, then pointed Draconus toward the far side of the room, where a hammer leaned against the wall. “I don’t know how much I will be able to help, but I’ll do my best, lord.”

What else was there to do? They set to work.

Skillen Droe had always been the most creative of his brothers, with Caladan Brood following closely behind. There was no finesse required in this, however, as Draconus quickly realized – chains, immaterial or otherwise, were not subtle, and the metal itself was not difficult to shape. Darkest Night bled into the metal as Draconus molded it, quenched it, then drew it back out to harden. A tiring process, but an easy one to find a rhythm in.

The fire, meanwhile, was casting a steady glow of heat and light throughout the hovel, and what it gained in heat Ivis seemed to lose in essence. His form, already wavering as the two of them had entered the First Forge, had steadily lost in corporality so that by the time he handed Draconus a set of prongs to draw out his creation from the fire, the Azathanai was able to see straight through his fingers.

He did not flinch at the sight, but it was a very close thing.

“I will set things right,” Draconus told the specter as he carefully took the prongs out of his hands. He then pointed at the long blade now glowing white-hot in the fires of the forge, trusting that his old Master at Arms would get the idea.

Naturally, Ivis understood full well. The specter’s outline had grown bleary and his form had become translucent at the edges, eaten up as fuel for the fire – but his eyes crinkled as he regarded Draconus, not even bothering to look at the blackening metal of the blade. And he simply laughed.

“How has a sword ever been anything but a cause for grief, lord?”

And yet you are still here, offering up what remains of your life for my honor. Again. “Ivis—“

Just then the specter’s form flickered again, and Draconus made his choice. In a corner of his mind he could feel Burn recoil at such a brash display of power, but the First Forge was already so infused with Darkness that Draconus could claim enough sovereignty over the area to rival her. Even if it was just for a moment.

He grabbed at Ivis’ diminishing form with all his considerable power, tore him away from the fire of the forge—and cast him out. Where to Draconus did not know, but that was not the point.

Away. Perhaps toward Death but away from here, from this death, at the very least.

Draconus waited – not with bated breath, but nevertheless attentively – to see whether Ivis would return. But his efforts at banishment must have been effective enough, for Ivis’ spectral shape did not appear inside the forge again, and so after what felt like half an age Draconus grabbed the heavy prongs more tightly and pulled the now pitch-black metal out of the fire.

In between the fall of the hammer and the continuous roar of the forgefire, Draconus thought he could hear the splintering of wood, the faint groan as large wheels turned over and over and over. And underneath it all, even quieter and so almost imperceptible, the heavy rattle of chains wrapping tight.

 

-mend the empty bones-

Dragnipur was being torn apart.

All those trapped in the sword knew it, yet none would voice it. To speak the words out loud was to afford them a deadly finality, and so the sword’s prisoners cast increasingly worried glances back toward the encroaching Chaos.

Draconus made his preparations and ensured that there were enough bodies on top of the wagon for Kadaspala to work with. He was doomed, as were all the other denizens of Dragnipur -- he knew that, but even so he had never been keen on rolling over without putting up a fight. If Chaos was to consume him, he would drag it out as long as possible.

Not for the first time, he reflected on the irony of not only being trapped inside his own creation, but also ultimately meeting his end there.

And so Dragnipur was being torn apart—

And then, just like that, it wasn’t.

As he watched the gate to Kurald Galain disappear together along with the greatest Son of Mother Dark, Draconus remembered K’rul’s words of advice from so many years ago. The High King’s curse had echoed in their ears then, portent of the years to come; and while K’rul and the Sister of Cold Nights would have ample time to figure out just what Kallor’s curse entailed no such uncertainty existed for Draconus.

Standing in the ashes of a broken empire, he had decided to build a way out into the ultimate prison.

And now – would it finally be opened, or would Dragnipur end up shackled to another unfortunate’s back, now that the most honorable man Draconus had known was no longer there to keep watch over the sword? Would someone else take up the burden, and would their knees buckle more quickly under the weight than had Rake’s?

Later, Draconus found out that it had been Caladan Brood of all people who broke the sword. Just as Draconus had learned his lessons inside Dragnipur, so had the High Mason grown while being outside of it – or perhaps he hadn’t changed at all, and Draconus was simply only now capable of properly understanding his brother.

When Dragnipur was finally destroyed, the realm inside the sword went much in the same way the metal of its physical form did: it shattered into uncountable pieces. But where the physical sword broke quickly and decisively, inside the realm of Dragnipur the process was somewhat slower.

The edges of the shattered realm bled out into the world beyond, and the few survivors of the battle against Chaos were quickly being swept up in the destruction. Draconus watched them for a bit, drawing grim pleasure from the dissolution of the sword he had put so much effort into forging. Then he turned back around to face what remained of the realm inside Dragnipur.

It had been uncountable years, but Draconus knew what to look for: not the harsh glare of light, not shadow’s flickering presence, but the primordial darkness that had been his own domain for so long. Most of it had vanished together with the gate, but only a few paces away from him traces of it yet lingered.

“I made a mistake,” he told the patch of darkness.

“Only one, lord?” said Ivis as he appeared inside the patch of darkness as if he had always been there, a smile on his face.

Draconus conceded the point with a shrug and a smirk of his own. Though he was still not looking entirely corporeal, Draconus noted with some relief that Ivis was no longer as faded as he had been in the First Forge. Cocking an eyebrow, he asked, “Where you always here inside Dragnipur, Ivis, or did you arrive together with Hood? Why return now of all times?”

It was Ivis’ turn to shrug, now. “You would know that better than I, lord.” Holding up a hand that was once more beginning to fade out of existence, he went on, “If I may hazard a guess, however: when I aided you in forging the sword, I put just a bit too much of myself into it. Now that it’s been destroyed—I suppose I was dead anyway, though; Hood’s afterlife was never for me. You and I, lord, we simply prolonged the inevitable for a while.”

One final victim of Dragnipur. The thought echoed through Draconus’ head – Ivis had always been too loyal, too honor-bound, and now there was nowhere else for Draconus to run. Had he brought the specter back, all those millennia ago, or had that been Ivis’ own choice? A conscience – Draconus had called him that, yes, only now he was one that was, quite literally, fading before his eyes. There was no time—

Yet just as he was about to say something to that effect, Ivis spoke up again. “Dragnipur won’t hold out much longer – best you go quickly, lord.”

The words were all too familiar, and it was with a bitter laugh that Draconus replied, “I ran once. I will not betray—“

“Lord. You did as your honor commanded, and I did the same,” Ivis gently interrupted him. “The water between us is clear.”

Draconus made to shake his head, but there was a look in Ivis’ eyes that stopped him short. There was hurt there still, coupled together with a grim understanding and a fierce determination Draconus had last seen in him at the Valley of Tarns.

He understood, then.

While Dragnipur disintegrated around him, Draconus stepped forward to clasp Ivis around the shoulders and draw him in for an embrace. They stood like that, Azathanai and Tiste, and after a moment that felt like a final absolution Ivis pushed him away.

Gently. But determined.

Only barely more than a dark smudge against the surrounding destruction, Ivis met his lord’s eyes, swept his arms out as if to embrace the fading landscape, and said, “Now go, Draconus.”

And Draconus went.