Chapter 4

Winter wind sweeps over the forest of pine; fresh snowfall smattering tops the canopy. Isirah mentions the pines are much taller than when Saladin had last seen them, but he cannot imagine their aging. He only sees what is there now. If he could have stood beneath their needles and watched their 50 years of growth, would he notice the difference?

The spot where he had burned the Warlord's hold is covered in new growth and snow. He draws a mental line from it to the bluff where he'd met Fera all those years ago, then to Kepre's village. Blurry smoke ascends through woods and snow flurry—a cooking fire, maybe. Bacon, he hoped. Saladin leans over the ridge where he had fallen before and steps over the edge.

Under thin slush, Saladin and Isirah find the once well-trodden path toward Kepre's village. No one meets them on the road—though Isirah catches several signs of sudden movement on her scanners. "Animals," Saladin suggests. Looking through the breaks in the branches, he notices a thickening black smoke against the snowfall.

A ghostly mist winds through the thinning pines as the duo reach Kepre's village. Smells of singed hair and burnt pork invade the winter air. Iron Lord and Ghost exchange looks before she decompiles. Saladin rushes into the clearing, Fool's Remedy in hand and snow crunching under his heavy boots. He follows glistening blood lines soaked into the soot and snow, through empty pens devoid of hay, past hollow wooden skeletons of rotted homes, until they meet at the rusted frame of a desiccated longhouse. Through snowblind and moth-ridden tatters, he sees them.

Graves. Lines of them. Then piles of stone. Bare mounds of shallow churned earth follow. Smoke rises behind them over a dug-out depression. Saladin fixates on the number of them. The groupings. He counts them as he walks, until he reaches the edge of the smoking pit, and the numbers lose all meaning. A huddled, smoking mass of carnage lay tangled in the pit before him. Cauterized panic. Still smoldering in the frigid air.

Saladin stares into the sunken sockets of a charred face. He imagines Kepre's face staring back at him. Was it him? Features all burned away. Years older. Saladin turns to see Isirah studying something in the longhouse. Through flames rising in his eyes he sees a crude reproduction of an Iron sigil nestled in a wolf's blackened skull.

**

The Golden Age antenna no longer received signals. It was bent, unable to discern anything for itself, but still able to throw noise into the sky. A new settlement had formed around it, fenced with wooden spears, and built along the basin in a spiral shape. Saladin makes his way inside the oddly vacant encampment unharried, and descends. Where once a hatch had led him down into a center of communication, now a hollow building lay carved open. A path of set stones had been pressed into the ground over years of foot traffic; crimson moss takes root in the mud that fill in the gaps. It flows underground to an open hall, like an estuary. He tells Isirah to stay outside, to watch his back.

Silvered eyes pierce through the dim hall fashioned from the surrounding comms station. Saladin watches the moonlight gleaming off them like two dancing spirits. He sees himself in that fearless stare.

"I didn't imagine I'd see you here again, young one."

"It's been a long time since anyone called me young." Fera, Packmaster, sits upon a scrapheap of a throne at the rear of the hall, eight rugged gunners flanking her. She's a woman now, several decades of age and violence etched into her sun-scarred skin and wizened face. Her finger taps a half-missing ear, long healed. "You came from far away. What for?"

"Rumors of rabid wolves prowling the outlands." Saladin looks to the men flanking Fera. "Are these yours?"

Fera leers at the crest on Saladin's armor. "My pack. Most are hunting now."

"I removed the Warlord, and you took his place." Saladin voice is thick with rage.

"Same as it ever was," Fera muses. "Someone had to keep order in your absence."

Saladin scans the room with disgust. "This is not what I taught you."

Fera smiles and looks to her comrades. "Isn't it? They're orphans of the forest, like me."

"You lost yourself!" Saladin barks as he steps forward, his finger slipping inside the trigger guard of his holstered weapon.

Fera cackles breathily. "Because I followed you. I asked forgiveness for stealing, and they took my ear… So next time I met them, I took back. It continued, until they lost everything." She gestures behind her to her grinning disciples and stashes of stolen goods. "The pack decides what is best."

"Iron Lords don't slaughter innocent villages. We don't starve people. I don't murder children," Saladin growls, heat building under his skin.

"What do you do when a Warlord refuses to bow? Order is imposed, old, gray Lord. Or have you forgotten your lessons?" She shifts in her seat. "I learned that when you slapped the rifle out of my hand. When you leveled Jaxxen's camp. I understood."

"I made a mistake thinking what you needed was mercy." Saladin exhales.

The Iron Lord swiftly unholsters Fool's Remedy. A quick burst drops Fera's right-most wolf, leaving the pack stunned. Saladin steps forward and kicks Fera's throne, sending her and the chair skipping across the ground like a pond-stone, until it crashes and pins her to the far wall.

Fera's left-most wolf draws a wicked machete and lunges. Saladin whips the axe from his back with his off-hand and cleaves the bandit clean pelvis to crown. The two halves slump limply to the floor. Horror freezes the pack as blood pools around them. Fera's shrill voice screams, "Put him down!"

Bullets cross in the air as muzzle flashes erupt in every direction. Saladin pivots to face the bulk of the pack, rattling off rounds as freely as his armor and body are receiving them. He kills two. There is no cover. There is no retreat. This is a reckoning.

Wolves whine and die around him. A shotgun blast catches his shoulder, drawing blood and disarming his pistol. He staggers back under the debt of his wounds. Red drips from beneath his epaulet, but pain is the furthest thing from his mind. He ignites the arm in fiery Light and casts a Solar hammer that caves in the shotgunner's skull with a sizzling pop.

The second to last wolf drops an empty weapon and tries to run. Saladin heaves his axe across the hall and catches the coward in the back. They collapse under the heft of the molten blade and combust. He turns to the last wolf frantically trying to reload their weapon. They back into a corner as they rack their rifle and spray rounds. Saladin charges through the gunfire and slams them against the wall. He unleashes a barrage of Arc-wreathed fists that pulverize his foe into convulsing pulp.

Saladin sees Fera, still pinned and struggling beneath the throne. Burning wreckage around her.

He grimaces as he flips the throne off her, wraps hands around her neck, and lifts her aloft. His fingers crush the air from her throat until they feel spine. His body aches. He pauses to catch his breath. To see remorse in her eyes.

Fera places a gentle hand on his fingers. "How long until one comes to repay your violence?" she wheezes.

Their eyes meet. Saladin's grip loosens.

With her other hand, Fera plunges a narrow blade into Saladin's neckline. He winces and turns to see the thin sliver of metal in her hand. Saladin meets her eyes again. There is no fear. His grip tightens until bone shatters. He releases and lets her body crumple where it lands. He watches the life slip from her eyes, replaced by pain, trembling near death.

Saladin picks up his sidearm and delivers her one final mercy.

Isirah floats near the settlement's fence, a small shadow against early morning sun piercing through snow flurries. Saladin climbs the distance to her before she heals his wounds. The journey is a purifying penance, he tells himself.

Pain he can abide.