Iron Lords Efrideet, Saladin, and Felwinter sat in a Warlock meditation chamber, around a massive oak table, in a keep on Felwinter Peak. A fire crackled in the corner out of the lips of a stone-lined hearth.
A hand-written letter in messy scrawl rested atop the table.
“Warlord Shaxx accepts my challenge,” Felwinter said, summarizing its contents. “He advises us to enter from the south wall, which has been destroyed. The front door…” He picked up the paper and scrutinized it again. “Is undergoing weatherproof.”
“This is your plan?” Efrideet said, with some skepticism. “How did he get this to you?”
“His Ghost brought it.”
“Your plan is Ill-advised,” Saladin said. “And a waste of time.”
“No one’s beat Shaxx in a fight. Iron Lords or Warlords,” Efrideet continued. “Much less take territory from him.”
“Ikora has. And I believe I can,” Felwinter replied, his eyes burning inside his sleek, Exo skull.
Efrideet tapped the table with her fingers, and Saladin stared into the polished surface.
“Unless either of you has a better idea? We’re running out of time.”
Saladin shook his head. “It’s true. Radegast wants to launch a frontal assault. Entire Lord fireteams.”
Efrideet’s eyes narrowed under her helm. “He wouldn’t. There’s almost a hundred people in that castle.”
“Shaxx is holding those people hostage.”
“They stay with him willingly,” Felwinter replied.
“The Warlords might pull the trigger. But Radegast wouldn’t,” Efrideet repeated.
“Have you seen Radegast lately? He’s tired of the wars. No one’s been at it longer.”
“That’s no excuse. We came under him to end the infighting.”
Felwinter stood. “Then let me do my part for the cause.”
The sky was completely white and there was a stark chill to the air as the trio entered the castle from a gaping fissure in the ruined south wall. As they stepped into the exposed hallway, the Iron Lords passed a few of Shaxx’s people, who hurried away from them. One child cried in her mother’s arms. They looked tired, but they weren’t starving. And they were clothed for the oncoming inclement weather.
The Iron Lords found Shaxx as they turned a corner, and the hallway opened up into the massive entrance of the keep.
He was cautiously applying a fast-drying liquid polymer as a draft stopper underneath a set of ancient plasteel doors.
“Won’t that hold a little too well?” Felwinter asked, as he strode up with the Iron Lords.
Shaxx didn’t stand. Or look at them.
“I’ll dissolve it when the storm is through,” he said, liberally squeezing the paste with both hands from a gel tube.
“A brute force solution. I hear that’s how you fight.”
“I do what works with the tools I have,” Shaxx said, standing to inspect his weatherproofing. “We’ll freeze without this. The Ghostless would suffer.”
“That’s something you care about?” Felwinter took a step forward.
Shaxx turned to address the Exo.
“These people are under my protection. I owe them. Something the Iron Lords should ponder more often about those they protect.”
“The Iron Decree was drafted to protect the Ghostless,” Felwinter replied. “Give up your territory and join us. Let us show you how powerful your Light can become.”
“Strong words. I’ll wager you said the same thing to Citan. Before you killed him and his Ghost.”
Saladin looked to Efrideet in shock. She pretended she didn’t notice, and kept a hand near her cannon.
“Your Decree disallows final-deaths of your opponents,” Shaxx continued. “Yet you’ve killed countless Warlords. And an Iron Lord, if the rumors are true.”
Felwinter’s eyes quietly blazed. He took a step closer. “Were they friends of yours?”
“I don’t have friends. Just people I protect.”
“We could use your help,” Felwinter replied.
“You already have a Saint-14.”
“Saint serves the Speaker, not the Iron Lords. He thinks highly of you.”
“Perhaps I’m not being clear. I’m not going anywhere, and you lot aren’t coming in. As long as I hold this territory, there will be no collateral damage from turf wars inside our borders. Iron Lords and Warlords be damned.”
“Your south wall says otherwise.”
“And you’re starting to piss me off. Are you here to duel or whine?”
Felwinter guessed that Shaxx now stood a little more than three feet from him.
The Iron Lord stepped forward, dragged a Solar sword from the air, and thrust it at Shaxx. The Warlord turned his stance sideways as the burning blade sang past his helm, ducked the horizontal cut that followed, and stepped back as Felwinter drove the blade into the stone floor. The chamber erupted with ethereal fire and Solar Light—
Shaxx’s backfist took Felwinter’s head from his shoulders in a shower of sparks. The Iron Lord’s Light died with his crumpling form.
Efrideet coughed as Saladin blinked inside his helm.
Felwinter’s Ghost unfolded above his prone corpse and the Iron Lord reemerged from a pillar of cascading Light.
“You should have used your Void instead,” Shaxx said. “You could have brought the whole fort down on us. Gained a fighting a chance.”
The Iron Lord shook his head. “Your people wouldn’t have survived that.”
Shaxx’s hands engulfed Felwinter’s shoulders like descending moons. “I would have stopped you. But I like your thinking. Now get out.”
The Warlord left the chamber without looking back, towards the direction of the south wall.
“I need more time,” Felwinter said, before Saladin or Efrideet could utter a word.
Saladin shook his head. “Radegast already assigned us to strikes against the House of Devils. There’s an uprising in the Cosmodrome. This was our shot to deal with Shaxx alone and we failed.”
“One Lord makes no real difference on a strike against the Fallen. Buy me time and I’ll solve this.”
“We don’t have time. You said it yourself. The Warlords will attack this fortress en masse.”
“Not if I challenge again.”
“He literally took your head off,” Saladin replied.
Efrideet had a hand on her helmeted chin. “We can buy time. Warlords in this region respect a prolonged challenge against Shaxx.” Her eyes flickered to Felwinter beneath the helmet. “Shaxx has multiple confirmed kills. Final deaths. It’s no small thing to challenge him. Most of those cowards won’t, and they’ll gladly let you try again, ‘til Shaxx decides to go after your Ghost…”
Felwinter stared at the weatherproofed plasteel doorway of the chamber. “I have a feeling that won’t be a concern,” he replied. “Besides. These people will never repair that south wall alone. The oncoming storm will be their end. I’ll help them.”
“Change of plan, then,” Saladin said. “You’ll buy time for us.”
“What?” said the Exo.
“Keep Shaxx busy until we finish this business with the Fallen. Then we’re coming for this castle. Efrideet, if I could have a word?” Saladin asked, his cloak flowing around him as he departed in the same direction as Shaxx, leaving Felwinter alone in the chamber.
Efrideet snorted. “You didn’t know?” she exclaimed over the wind as she and Saladin descended the mountain on a gravelly, snow-covered road.
“That Felwinter is an oathbreaker?” Saladin shook his head. “No.”
“You’ve never wondered why Radegast hates his guts?” she said. “That takes a lot.”
“Agreed. Why has he abided this?”
“Every one of Felwinter’s confirmed kills broke the Iron Decree. He provided ample evidence. Ghost-killers, murderers, and worse. All of them. But he never asked for permission.”
“Felwinter is no Saint-14. Why does he do it?”
“He calls it operational necessity.”
Saladin scoffed. “I’ve never heard an Exo talk like that.”
“They’re usually more expressive.”
“Does this change the plan?”
Saladin looked up at a trio of circling carrion birds as they walked. “There is no plan. We’ll quell this Devil uprising, then strategize a frontal assault with the full force of the Iron Lords behind it. Hopefully Felwinter keeps Shaxx busy until then.”
Efrideet shook her head. “People will die.”
“If the Warlords attack him first, it’ll be catastrophic. Shaxx forced our hand.”
Shaxx and Felwinter watched Efrideet and Saladin descend the snow-covered mesa from the shattered south wall.
“I thought I told you to get out,” Shaxx broke the silence.
“I mean to challenge again,” Felwinter replied.
“Not today,” Shaxx shook his head. “My Ghost believes it’ll snow before nightfall.”
“Yes,” Felwinter said. “What did this?”
“No amount of Golden Age polymer can repair this wall before that storm rolls in.”
“No,” Shaxx agreed. “My Light will be the wall.”
“A Ward of Dawn? Your people will freeze. A Well of Radiance is what you need. My Light will be the wall.”
“You think my Hammer of Sol wouldn’t burn bright enough to last the storm?”
“Of course it would. And you’d set this castle ablaze. Leave it to me.”
“I leave my people to no one. But if you’re seeking shelter, you’re free to stay.”
“You call them ‘your people.’ You rule them? Like a king?”
“I protect them.”
“Some kings don’t know the difference.”
A light dusting of snow started to fall.
"Does your mountain have a name?” The Iron Lord asked the Warlord.
“I call mine Felwinter Peak.”
“Do I look like I care?”
For days, the storm had kept anyone from traversing the mountain path. Between Felwinter and Shaxx, the people of the castle were safe from the elements.
Saladin and Efrideet had sent word the Fallen campaign would last at least another few weeks.
So Felwinter challenged again. Shaxx accepted. Iron Lord met Warlord at the backfield beyond the shattered south wall.
Felwinter aimed a palmstrike at Shaxx’s center of mass. The Warlord slipped sideways, narrowly avoiding the burst of Void Light that blossomed forth, and cracked a backfist into Felwinter’s skull, sending him sprawling backwards.
Felwinter struggled to a knee, then to his feet, his long coat flowing around him. A fissure of sparks sprayed from his skull. “How many Warlords have challenged you?” he asked.
“I lost count a century ago,” Shaxx replied. He stayed in his sideways stance, waiting for the Exo to make a move.
“I will never stop. Never rest,” Felwinter said. “And the Warlords are just like me. They refuse to end each other, not because of a code, or an Iron Decree. Because they’re afraid to die. And they will plague this world forever.” Felwinter raised his arms in a striking position. “How many of us will you fight?”
“As many as I need to.” Shaxx closed the distance, slipping past the Exo’s guard and snapped the back of his fist into Felwinter’s temple, which promptly shattered.
The skies were clear, so Felwinter challenged again the day after.
They met on the backfield.
“How long will your people last out here?” Felwinter asked.
“Longer than you,” Shaxx replied.
It was true. A flying knee separated the Iron Lord from his head within seconds of a short melee.
When the Exo’s Ghost put him back together, Shaxx was already halfway back to the south wall.
“How long do you expect them to stay here?” Felwinter called after him.
The Warlord turned back. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“How long do you expect your people to stay? They will not survive the winter.”
“I’ll find a way.”
“You have a way. If you won’t join the Iron Lords, let us help you.”
“Your wars have left my people homeless. And worse. They would never trust you.”
“If you asked them to, perhaps they would. You’re the king.”
“I’m no king.”
“I have nothing to prove to you.”
“Prove it to them.”
Weeks later, Efrideet and Saladin brought a silver army with them, gleaming weapons in their hands.
Nine Iron Lords dismounted their machines at the foot of Shaxx’s mountain.
Twelve Warlords armored in eclectic styles from across the region opposed them at the path that led up to the mountain peak. Particle weapons hummed to operational life on both sides. Slug rifles racked and readied.
Felwinter and Shaxx watched them from the ruined south wall.
“Your friends are here to back you up,” the Exo said. “If they need to.”
“I don’t have friends,” Shaxx replied. “And they don’t need to.”
“Tell them. Stop this before the shooting starts,” the Exo said. “Your people will not survive this.”
“Is that a threat?” the Warlord asked.
“No. They’re not like us. Everything they might become dies with them.”
Shaxx stared down at the Iron Lords. “You people involve yourselves in matters that are not your own. Especially Radegast.”
“Radegast is scattered. He thinks he has the weight of all those we protect on his shoulders. No one has that kind of strength. Not even a Lightbearer.”
“Why do you back them?”
“Because the Iron Lords are going to change the world; no one can stop them.”
“I stopped you.”
“Your people will not survive this. Tell the Warlords to stand down. They’ll listen. They fear you. You’re not bound to an Iron Decree.”
Shaxx shook his head. “They fear that everything they might become would die with them.”
The other Warlords had departed.
Shaxx stood with the Iron Lords on the path up the mountain.
He stared down at them.
“Who won?” Efrideet asked.
“Shaxx,” Felwinter said. He patted Shaxx on the shoulder. “Shaxx did.” The Exo pulled Efrideet aside to arrange an evacuation plan for Shaxx’s people to Vostok Observatory in the Cosmodrome.
Saladin and Shaxx stood in silence as the other Lords began their march up the path.
“Hello,” said Saladin.
“Hello,” Shaxx said.
They shook hands.
“Iron Lord Shaxx?”
Felwinter, Saladin, and Efrideet sat at a massive oak table on a keep atop Felwinter’s Peak.
A holographic blueprint of Shaxx’s castle hung in the air.
“It will take some time to breach the security codes,” the Exo said, indicating an underground extension a mile under the fortification. “But this is it. One of several across the Earth. Perhaps across other worlds. Some are tied to more important systems than others. All Golden Age. Some hide weapons. Armor. Nanites.”
“What is it?” Saladin asked.
“A Seraph Bunker. Rasputin tech.”
SOME TIME AFTER—DURING THE LATE DARK AGE.
“You seem far too obsessed with these ‘Warminds,’” Timur said to Felwinter.
They’d been walking for hours, dipping in and out of Fallen territory. Timur made no effort to avoid them, and Felwinter followed his lead. He didn’t know where they were going. Timur had been talking almost nonstop, though. Asking Felwinter what he knew about SIVA. What he thought the Warmind might have to do with it. It was lucky that Felwinter already had a reputation for keeping quiet.
He played dumb when Timur asked about Seraphs. Timur was easy to rile up that way. It was good; it made Felwinter feel like he was still in control.
As they tore through another round of shanks, Felwinter fell back and let Timur do the heavy lifting. When Timur spoke again, his voice was breathless with a passion and enthusiasm that Felwinter couldn’t feel.
“Have you ever wondered what it is that calls to you in that void of memory,” Timur breathed,
“where the edge of the past infects your present?”
Felwinter was tense with expectation. He felt the world contracting around him until nothing existed but the sidearm in his hand. He heard his Ghost in his helmet comms, whispering: “Wait.”
Timur strode recklessly ahead. He expected Felwinter to watch his back, and he did. Watched him walk. Watched his Ghost, too. There were a lot of Fallen out here. Anything could happen to either of them. It would be easy to tell this story back home.
"Don't jump to conclusions,” his Ghost whispered as they fell behind, but Felwinter heard uncertainty in her voice. He adjusted his grip on the sidearm, lifting his hand a little…
… and dropped it again as Timur turned around. “It’s an itch you can’t scratch, isn’t it? Well, maybe you can.”
Felwinter's expression was blank. His finger twitched on the sidearm.
“You think I am one of them?” he asked as Timur turned back around to lead the way. “That all Exo are?”
“Lord Felwinter, I know what you are,” Timur said with a laugh in his voice. Felwinter lifted the sidearm again. An familiar dread coiled in his chest. He saw his future changing. Again. He saw himself running. Again.
He was so tired of running.
The sidearm was level with the back of Timur's head.
Timur had a smile in his voice when he spoke next. “I know what you are," he said. "And you are no Warmind or even one of its puppets.”
Felwinter’s arm dropped and swung at his side, as if all his energy had gone out of him all at once. It was impossible, but he almost felt lightheaded. His Ghost whispered something again, but he didn’t hear it over his own relief.
“Come,” Timur said. He walked with the arrogance of a man who didn’t realize he’d brushed shoulders with Death. “You must see this.”