Saladin awakens. Not from sleep. Nothing so gentle.
From death? No. Not yet. From lost consciousness… for how long?
He moves to stand. His feet drift without friction. No ground below him. Falling—no, floating. Pine needles sway in a sea of surrounding green haze. Sunrays plunge through the canopy above and wash over him. His head is lost in the arbor row's motion.
Intermittent feeling prickles the skin beneath his tarnished armor. Saladin reflexively attempts to raise his off-hand to summon Isirah. Numbness responds. He must be hit. He cycles breath through his lungs and sorts instinct from reason. He twists to see the wound. Nerves blaze corkscrews through his neck. Panic—no. No need. Pain he could abide. Reality clarifies.
The Iron Lord hangs from a branch run through his shoulder back to front, 10 centimeters thick. What good was his damn armor? Saladin traces a thick flow of blood down his arm as it breaks into tributaries before reuniting at his fingertips. Droplets pool some 60 meters below, soon to soak into the soil and fade. Beside the pool lay a splintered rocket launcher he'd forged from a reclaimed mortar, dropped when he lost consciousness. Saladin flexes against the axe strapped to his backplate; wood grinds against his load-bearing collarbone. He grimaces as he lifts his head to gaze at the cliff above.
Smoke rises from a burnt crescent impact, blown clean into the cliff's edge; a recent scar left by an artillery shell meant for Saladin's road-cruiser. Raiders, he thinks. An ambush. He connects incident to meaning: someone looking to make an example of a Lord who dared to venture beyond their territory. Radegast had warned him of Risen thugs fleeing to the far wilds to escape the Iron Lords' reach. He had told Saladin of their hostility. Their lawlessness. Saladin would tame it.
Binocular reflection catches his sight over the smoldering cliff, looking down in his direction. Unfamiliar voices echo across the rocks. A figure calls out, and others join them. Between hacking coughs, Saladin counts half a dozen hostiles. His fingers ache with chill, and his lungs sting as if coated in rime. He exhales unsteadily. For a moment, Saladin imagines Lady Jolder plunging through the clouds, booming with laughter. He imagines her obliterating the cliffside with a colossal javelin of Arc lightning without hesitation. These nameless men die, and she keeps laughing until Saladin joins. His near miss becomes an embarrassing story embellished round a campfire until another takes its place, and it is forgotten. Lucidity falters, and in this moment, he can almost breathe the ash. Smell the stormy night air. Feel the warmth of the fire, of his friends. As real as worn memories, rosed with age.
Light condenses into Saladin's fingers. Arc lines fork across the bark as he grips the branch impaled through his shoulder. It hooks upward from his chest; better to break it, he thinks. Fingers dig and scorch pulp. They bite in and twist. Wood pops and splinters as a bullet snaps through the pine canopy behind him. Then another, closer this time as the sound of rifle fire echoes down the cliff face. Saladin focuses his Light into the edge of his palm and slashes the splintered branch free, leaving him dangling on a stub of wood. He takes a shaky breath and swings a tingling leg back to push off the trunk behind him, bracing his boot to support his weight against the wood and lift his bone clear from the branch. His armor is slick with blood now, and he can feel a fracture in his bone. Pain he can abide. He recites it as mantra. The dive to the ground below would be dangerous. Saladin prepares to push off and jump.
A round strikes his armored torso, knocking the air from his lungs. His foot slips and kicks out violently. His weight shifts on the broken branch, catching hard on his collar and sending fissures through his fractured bone. Saladin roars over the gunfire and grips his shoulder.
"Isirah! Get. Me. Off. This. Branch," he snarls.
His Ghost materializes before him. "I taught you better than to rely on me," Isirah reproves him. She swoops behind Saladin for cover. "You're not dead yet. You're capable of this."
Saladin strains to regain his footing. He lifts his head and wheezes as his lungs expand. Several figures above congregate around a large object, a blur of metal he recognizes as a flak cannon.
"I yield," Saladin laughs weakly.
"What would you do if I weren't here, Forge? If I'd been killed?" His Ghost taps the back of his head with a pellet of Light. "It's just you and your Light. What little you have left."
Him and his Light against a weapon of war. But they were just men, and he: a fiend of fire.
Saladin conjures waning star-fire from his bones: the last vestiges of his will, burnt as offering to the Light. Flame billows and radiates through his flesh, swirling between the gaps in his armor, moving to consume the branch. Sap hemorrhages in hissing bubbles from the wood around him. Flames overtake the branch, joining those building from the Iron Lord's armor. Ash wisps upward on agitated, anabatic wind. With a pop, he descends into freefall.
Branches snap against his legs as he picks up speed. Saladin gropes for the axe on his back with his good hand. As fingers find hilt, and Solar Light engulfs the weapon. He swings the axe from its strap and sinks the flaming blade into the tree, slowing his descent and carving a wake of sparking embers toward the forest floor. The pull threatens to rend him apart. He holds until he can hold no longer and plummets the final 10 meters: wreckage striking bedrock with a wet thud.
Blood-vapor steams from the charred forest floor around him as he comes to. Overhead, the forest canopy explodes with a flak shell detonation. Fragmentation whistles through the air, showering the forest with ragged chunks of metal. Saladin kicks off the trunk at his feet and rolls his ravaged body onto his rocket launcher. Muscle threatens to separate as he hoists the launcher to his shoulder. Saladin howls, a wounded beast's final challenge. He presses the split launcher shut with his forearm and welds the metal with Solar heat before fumbling to find the trigger. Another shell booms; dense pine canopy opens momentarily from the blast wave. Saladin sees a clean line to the ridge, takes aim, and squeezes. He watches the rocket fly as shards of flak-iron carve lines through his face.
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