Saladin breaks through the tree line on the backslope of a collapsed bluff. Behind him lies the breadth of the old forest, shadow slinking away before the dawn. He and Isirah had trekked two kilometers from Kepre's village to close in on the location of a Golden Age receiver.
Atop the bluff, Saladin turns his attention to a steep sunken basin in front of him, fallen in on itself under the pressure of one of Earth's many invasions. A rusted antenna from a bygone era still penetrates through the rubble in the middle of overgrowth, debris, and ruined transmission dishes. Faded block lettering runs down the length of the antenna which read: POINT PERIHELION. Centered below the antenna, Saladin could make out a tarnished hatch.
"The signal in the longhouse was a recording device," Isirah explains. "Its transmission was received here."
"So, the thief planted a recon device unbeknownst to the villagers," Saladin concludes.
"Clever way to find openings," Isirah says. "I'm also detecting electric current. There must be a power cell underneath all that rubble. Felwinter Peak could make use of it," she notes.
"Raiders seem unlikely. No violence in the village, no territorial claims… and they stole a pig, of all things," Saladin says. "Sounds more like a starving animal."
Isirah hums in consideration. "Wild animals get put down when they start killing livestock."
Saladin chuckles. "And feral wolves become loyal hounds when shown mercy. Isn't that right, Isirah?"
"Sometimes. Eventually." Isirah sighs. "You want to protect the people here? Empower the Lords with whatever tech is running down there. Impose order before a Warlord seizes control. Don't chase strays hoping to tame them."
"As luck would have it, we can do both." Saladin's mouth curls into a rare smirk.
"Luck isn't something we should depend on, Forge."
Once at the antenna base, Saladin notes traces of rubbed away rust on the hatch's hinges. He surveys the many gaps and recesses scattered through the field of debris around him, awaiting an ambush from one of them. When none appear, Saladin scoffs, as if offended, and spins the hatch wheel until it thuds loudly and drops open.
Saladin recoils as putrid odor floods his nose. He takes the axe from his back and sets it aflame. Flickering illumination scatters shadows throughout the dark hatchway. The room is of moderate size, mostly buried beneath encroaching nature. It appears to be the remnants of a control tower erected to bridge a communicational divide. Several preserved slogans in long-dead languages line the interior walls, their meanings lost on him.
"Anyone?" he asks.
"Carbon levels suggest a handful of recent inhabitants, some decomposition, but electrical interference is scrambling my readings."
"Old-fashioned way, then," Saladin says, slipping into the opening. His feet slam to the floor under the weight of his armor, followed by Isirah. Sudden movement catches his eye. He prepares to swing as a silhouette dashes toward him and squeals.
He snatches the pig mid-dash. It thrashes in his grasp. "Elmi," Saladin grumbles. Holding the squirming hog, he sweeps the lit axe over the room, stopping to examine a shadowed corner full of stacked garbage.
Isirah homes in on the same spot and ignites her flashlight to reveal a face—a filthy shoulder—and a gun barrel half-buried and hidden among the refuse.
"Good pig." The young girl has him at gunpoint, flatfooted. Saladin's brow furrows as he eyes his opponent: no older than fourteen, a wilder-child girl wrapped in furs and smears of dirt.
"I will put a hole in you." Her unsteady voice grapples with seldom spoken syllables. "No lie!" The scrawny girl's dim eyes and matted hair are silvered with persistent trauma.
Saladin steps forward, his massive frame overshadowing the wilder-child girl. "You're not going to kill me, girl."
"I'll take your demon when you're dead." The girl hesitates for a moment before yelling, "I know it gives magic. Then Jaxxen will be afraid too!" Experience had clearly deafened her to empathy; morality was a luxury for a civilized age she'd never known.
Isirah bursts out laughing behind Saladin. "Try."
The girl swings the rifle to Isirah and fires. Saladin drops Elmi—to clattering squeals—and stops the bullet in the air with his hand before it contacts his Ghost. He picks the round from the interior backplate of his gauntlet, blood running from the fresh hole in his palm. "Whoever you stole these from is underpacking their grains."
She hisses at him and hastily tries to slip another dirty round into the chamber. Saladin rushes the girl. He slaps the rifle from her hands and lifts her aloft by her scruff. She stares directly into his eyes, accepting the deathblow to come.
"Now that you're listening…" Saladin places her feet to floor. "Sit down, child."
Her expression is a caked mask of survival fugue, a hare's heart from expiration. He had felt that waking confusion before. Risen into nothing, with nothing.
Saladin knows the penalty for theft is death, but that action was final. He also knows the strength of potential, of justice beyond the letter, of mercy. She needs something of sense to hold against the barrage of madness the world had become.
"Just kill me."
"I'm not a Warlord, girl." Saladin, a banneret, plants his molten axe firmly in the ground, blood from his hand sizzling down the haft. "I won't show you death. I'll show you a way to live."
Still, her eyes do not leave the burning axe for some time. She refuses rations as no one had ever given her something without the intent to extract far more in return.
"Last time. Name?"
"If you were hungry, I'm sure that village would have taken you in. Winter's soon, and stealing… What if you'd driven that village to starvation?"
The girl stares through him vacantly. "Jaxxen said bring gifts; promised to give my brother back."
Isirah patches Saladin's hand with Light. "And did he?" she asks.
Fera's vapid expression falters. Saladin eyes the refuse pile behind her under Isirah's light. A wrapped child's body is buried within the mound.
He places a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "Take me to Jaxxen."
The hike to the Warlord's commune is several days north. Over the journey, Saladin teaches the girl to trap rabbits and hunt game. Where she sees a predator inflicting their will, Saladin explains the mercy of delivering a quick death. He tells her the wolf does not hunt for themselves, but for the pack. Alone, they are mongrels, driven by instinct and hunger. That violence spreads. It is the promise of the pack that keeps them true. It is the order that binds us together.
They make camp on the outskirts of Jaxxen's hold. Saladin rolls stringy meat between his glowing palms, and the smell of cooking hare fills his nostrils. It is a catch from Fera's first sturdy trap, a bounty they share in peace.
"You see? Together, we can provide for each other." Saladin hands Fera a cooked leg. "This is how we go from simply surviving, to living. Community, order, laws. That is how we move forward."
"What are laws?" Fera asks, mouth full of rabbit.
"They're rules. Promises of how to treat each other."
"Promises break…" she says, swallowing.
"People like me make sure they're kept. People like you could too." Saladin sees her confusion and continues, "Sometimes when a Lord can't remain to protect an area, we appoint a vassal in our stead."
Fera looks at him quizzically.
"Someone to watch over the woods while I'm gone. Someone like you who understands why promises should be kept." Saladin unclasps a chain from his neck. "This makes you one of our pack, Fera. A wolf. And we protect our own."
"How?" she asks, grasping the talisman tightly as Saladin hangs it around her fragile neck.
"Like you, there will be others who need a place. Find them. Bring them back to the village you stole from. Promise to protect each other. That is how."
In the morning, Fera takes Saladin to the edge of Jaxxen's encampment where the woods give way to craggy rock and dry dirt. The Iron Lord tells her to await his return at their campsite. He strides into Jaxxen's camp as alarm yells raise defenders. Fera steps back into the tree line, but she does not leave.
Fera watches the Iron Lord tear through body after body with brutal efficiency—a savage, blood-drunk beast. The young girl devours every violent image of its axe spilling sizzling crimson. She delights in the beast's hollow reception to their screams for mercy. Her wide eyes fill with lightning, flame, and gore. It is a painting of cathartic balance. Though she does not know the words, it is a vengeful righteousness that takes hold in her. The beast is Jaxxen's punishment for misdeeds: promised order imposed through dominance.
Fera rubs her talisman when the Warlord Jaxxen emerges, amethyst-Light surrounding him. A moment of fear creeps into her heart as Jaxxen bellows laughter and charges. But he too falls under an obliterating column of lightning called down by the beast's thunderous roar. All that remains is the crackle of his cindered bones flaking into ash.
Saladin stands at the edge of Jaxxen's burning encampment. He looks to the lightning-scorched earth where Jaxxen had stood and summons Isirah.
Isirah surveys the aftermath. "Good. But you're going to let the girl go? Stealing food and attacking an Iron Lord are death offenses, and you want to do nothing?" Isirah's doubt is palpable. Saladin knows she's seen how wild things age. "You're procrastinating," she fumes.
"Fera's young enough to find a different future." Saladin meets Isirah's gaze. "Just like I did."
Isirah whirs with exasperation. "The world is full of wayward orphans, Forge. Your job is to enforce Iron laws, not interpret gray areas."
"I am an Iron Lord, and our laws are mine to interpret as I see fit," Saladin snaps. "We'll salvage the battery and bring her back to Kepre with the pig. Then we're leaving." His voice is stern and unyielding. "That's the end of it."