(This is the LAST part of the story, to start from the beginning click here!)
A shrill cry broke through the tranquillity of the orchard. Like a banshee howl, or some dread raptor it shattered the illusion and drew him back to the harshness of reality. Captain Thrace retched, a spew of blood and muddy water cascading from his throat. The pain was unbearable.
He could not speak, nor would he attempt to, such was the agony that even trying to breath normally felt like an unwinnable battle. His eyes were bleary and they stung as he opened them, but as his vision slowly began to return he could not help but stare in awe at the wonderful yet terrifying visage that was kneeling at his side.
Day had broken, and the first hints of sunlight glinted off Nurielle’s armour. Specks of crimson dotted the otherwise pristine aegis battle-plate and the Prefect’s chainmail hood was lowered, revealing a ceramic mask fashioned into the face of a man, so masterfully sculpted that for a moment he thought it was the Prefect’s face. Red eyes regarded him, but there seemed to be a softness in their gaze that had been absent before.
The sight of the Prefect was enough to make Thrace forget his wounds. He glanced down at his chest and saw an armoured palm resting there, it was easily twice the size of his own. Beneath it was a fold of cloth, partially ripped where it looked as though the Prefect had personally wrenched him away from death. After all, that was what happened, wasn’t it?
That orchard, those people… that had been a hallucination, hadn’t it? Something created by his mind to peacefully usher him into oblivion. That had to be it, though it was nothing like he had expected. Where had all his loved ones been? His father, his mother, the comrades he had lost? Where for that matter had been Sergeant Grundig?
He stared up at the Prefect as if for answers, but there was nothing to be found on that cold ceramic face.
‘W-why…?’ he choked.
Nurielle regarded him. The Prefect’s hand pressed softly, as though urging him to save his breath.
‘I was…’ Thrace said, ‘I… am dying.’
Slowly, almost solemnly the Prefect nodded. In that moment Thrace saw the Prefect as if for the first time. Wrathangel, they called it, for most men saw only the fury it could unleash, but he saw something different within that armoured shell. A human heart, perhaps? Capable of affection, tenderness, maybe even loneliness… for the life of the Fist was a solitary one.
‘It was you, wasn’t it?’ said Thrace. ‘In my dream, it was… you.’
‘Yes,’ said Nurielle. ‘It was me.’
‘You… were the Swordsman?’ he asked.
The Prefect nodded. ‘In my lives I have been many things.’
‘I… do not understand,’ said Thrace, though he felt more sorrowful for the Prefect than he did for himself. He could feel himself slipping again, and he knew that there would not be time enough for Nurielle to explain. He knew that he was dying, he had consigned himself to that fact. It was not sorrow for himself that he felt, but for the lonely giant leaning over him.
‘It does not matter,’ said the Prefect. ‘All that matters is this moment, and the moments that will follow.’
‘I doubt I have many of those left,’ said Thrace. He smiled, and wondered if beyond that strange mask, Nurielle was smiling too. ‘Did you kill them?’
The Prefect nodded.
Thrace’s smile hardened, and there was a darkness in his eyes. He had not wanted to see any of them dead, not really, but perhaps he would pass more peacefully knowing that his killer had met with justice.
Then he asked something he knew he shouldn’t. A question that he would not have dared to ask mere moments before. A question he just could not shake. ‘Were they right? About this world, about the Protectorate?’
For a moment Nurielle looked away, and Thrace wondered if perhaps that was the best answer he would get. Then the great being did something unexpected. It placed a hand upon its mask, and gently lifted it off.
Tears formed and trickled down Thrace’s cheeks as he stared up into the Prefect’s face.
‘No,’ said Nurielle, with her true voice. ‘He was not wrong.’
More tears streamed down the captain’s face as the familiar chill gripped his core.
‘Worlds will burn, Captain,’ continued the Prefect. ‘Civilisations will rise and fall, thousands, perhaps even millions will die. My brothers and sisters will decimate the stars, and our children will rule them with fists of iron. We will do all this, and carry the guilt and the shame of it for all eternity, because it is right, because it must be done, to save those that remain from the darkness. I wish you could understand why it has to be this way, but neither of us have enough time for that.’
Nurielle looked down, and somehow Thrace could tell that not a word that she had spoken had been untrue.
‘Will it be worth it?’ asked Thrace, his voice choked with emotion. ‘Will all of this death and suffering serve a purpose?’
‘Yes,’ said Nurielle. ‘It is the only way that humanity can be saved.’
Thrace nodded, and then cried out as he felt the pain flaring once more. He shook uncontrollably, but he felt the Prefect’s hand tethering him to the ground, trying to hold him still. In that moment, he knew that his life was about to end.
‘What are you?’ he asked. ‘Please, tell me. I don’t want to die without knowing.’
Nurielle did not reply. She simply leant forward and gently took his hand in hers, drawing it up to touch her face. Her skin was hard, but smooth, like polished marble, yet warm as well. He could almost feel the Prefect’s power seeping out into his fingers as his eyelids began to close, and the world began to blur once more. As if from an impossible distance he heard the Prefect’s voice whispering something in his ear, and then the world went dark.
A soft breeze blew through the orchard, filled with the sweet scent of blossoms. It was warm and cool at the same time, and it traced its fingers gently across the Swordsman’s face, caressing her like a lover or some long lost friend. She stared at the Hun who was leaning against a tree, smiling with a serenity that seemed almost anathema to her.
He was a proud individual, of that she was sure, but he was not a fool, nor was he even remotely what she had expected. He was nothing like the men he had tutored, all those had cowered before her, begging for forgiveness, pleading for their worthless lives. They had offered riches, titles, armies of slaves to tend to her every whim. They had offered her everything that their petty little minds could conjure, but they had nothing that she wanted. Nothing, besides a purpose.
Killing the Hun would have been easy. He was a brilliant tactician, that much was true, but she had kept her secret and even he had not expected it, though unlike the others his reaction had not been one of outrage, rather it had been fascination. That had troubled her, confused her, and in a way she could not understand, it had excited her as well.
He had been at her mercy, but not afraid. He had, in fact, yielded at her request, seemingly content if not more pleased than she at the outcome. At first this had seemed like another trap, but she could read in his expression that it was not. There had been something else there too, a faint recognition that had flickered briefly in his eyes. She had felt it too, though it was patently impossible. They had not met before this day.
‘You are not like them,’ he said at last. ‘Like the normal people who scurry about their lives, and care about their mundane things.’
‘How do you know?’ she asked, indignation in her voice, but balanced with curiosity.
‘Because you beat me,’ said the Hun. ‘I knew you would. I knew only you could, because we’re the same.’
‘I beat you because I’m better,’ she retorted. ‘Just like I was better than all you threw at me.’
‘I know,’ said the Hun and to her surprise he was grinning. ‘You are an artist with that blade. You knew it deep in your core the second you held a weapon in your hands. It was as though it were etched into your very soul.’
‘How do you know that?’ asked the Swordsman. ‘Nobody knows about that. Tell me how you do!’
‘Because it was the same for me,’ he said. ‘When I first set foot on the field of battle, I knew in that instant that someday I would be its master. I’m told it is a calling for our kind. I do not fully understand it either, but I will do in time, and if you join me then you will too.’
The Swordsman drew closer, her weapon lowered but ever at her side. ‘There are more? Like us?’
The Hun nodded. ‘There are three of us so far. Four if you join us.’
In spite of herself the Swordsman could not help but step forward. Never before had she been a part of anything. She had been alone, travelling the world and enacting her craft of death for so long that it was easy to forget that there had ever been a time before that. Now her task was complete, she had defeated the Hun, what more was there for her? She knew that the only way she would ever find an answer to that question, was if she went with him.
The Hun raised a meaty hand, and opened up his palm. She took one look at the man, and then at his hand, and without another thought she placed her armoured hand upon it, and felt his hand slowly close around hers.
‘Welcome,’ said the Hun. ‘Welcome, to the Council.’
Note: Well, this has certainly been a long journey, and I hope for you guys reading it has been as much fun as I’ve had writing it! This is certainly not the last you’ll hear about the Protectorate, and there will be a few more short stories in the not too distant future.
If you have enjoyed this story why not give me a comment telling me what you liked, what you didn’t like or what you might like to hear about in the future? Your feedback, whatever it may be, is invaluable to me, and can only serve to help me progress as a writer, so don’t hold back!
Thanks again for reading the story!