I set the helmet down on the table, taking a breath of unfiltered air. Little musty, like water left to sit on concrete for a little too long. The Chosen here didn’t have that much to work with, most of their put together buildings and foundations were all cut into the rock face, where long range weapons wouldn’t immediately break it down. But Undersiders didn’t have the same green thumb Agrifarmers did, our people lived and breathed making plants grow in two inches of soil and three inches of space.

That didn’t stop them from trying, and the process was going way faster now that Wrath had joined in and started sharing all the small quirks she’d learned from her stay at the surface. I’m not surprised she found some time to sneak down to the source of all food and ask how it’s all run, the little gremlin.

Outside, the town had started to move again without issue now that the new clan knights walking around had been put under the ‘friendly’ category. People here moved with a purpose, trying to get their community up and going, and sharing some of the stuff they had with my own team.

Wrath and I had been idly chatting up till now about smaller topics, like the aforementioned farming and how she’s simultaneously teaching three Chosen right this moment exactly how to set up a vertical crop field. Things like that had been what made Wrath so stupidly good at running a city. Logi would give up an arm and leg to have even one percent of Wrath’s multi-tasking ability.

Then the doorway opened and three people walked in, so the official meeting had begun.

First through the door was Lejis, technically supposed to be second in command to Wrath here as the Chosen priest. But it was a strange gray zone. The people he’d been the leader of had been nomads walking around, barely surviving and under the yoke of probably the worst Feather ever.

When he’d returned to his people, it had been to a reforged society, strong and even proud of themselves, led by a young woman from a family of merchants. She’d been the first to befriend the unknown machine tyrant now in command, the terrifying and ice cold Lady To’Wrathh.


At least terrifying and ice cold when she wasn’t absentmindedly chewing a spoon up while learning how to eat soup.

So the Chosen priest wasn’t sure if he was still a leader or not. But he had brought back a smaller group unharmed and came with a pet Fido who could shoot angry Deathless from a few miles away. That gave him some street cred.

Technically, the office was his, and he had a seat here at the table. And following behind him into the room was the other technical ringleader of the bunch - Tamery.

The third figure walking in was someone I didn’t know at all. A much older woman with a scar on her face, a knife on her boots and a few other hidden straps and pouches that probably carried more than just pens and a notebook. She walked in, didn’t bother to take a seat but instead leaned back against the wall, and got busy taking out a small box filled with white sticks. Those, she then lit up and smoked with a deep sigh of relief.

“Tamery.” Wrath said with a smile.

The girl smiled back, waving. Then she looked at me and her face went from happy to a little annoyed.


“I didn’t do it.” I said instantly.

Her look intensified, and turned into that ‘You and I need to have a talk after all this. Alone.’

“Whatever it was, I’m innocent.” I continued to protest.

The older lady coughed, smoke leaving her lungs in small fistfulls as the hacking continued. Got me worried for a moment until I realized she wasn’t dying, she was laughing. When the woman realized the entire room had turned to her, she shook her head, clearing off the last of the hacking fit. “It’s nothing.” She waved her smokestick at Tamery, “Go on little lordling, you practiced some speeches in the mirror. Get them out of your hair already.”

Tamery took a deep breath, then turned back to me. “Suppose I should first thank you for bringing Lady To’Wrathh back home. Whole and intact. Though I would have wished it was Kidra instead of you.” Tamery said, in a way that told me she was sizing me up. “If only To’Wrathh could actually stay here, that’d be a lot better.”

I’ve got no idea why I’m already on the backfoot here, so I took a gamble. “You know I have nothing to do with her staying here or not, right? I’m following her, not the other way around. She’s on her way to find… well, freedom. Lot more safe for her, given the events that happened. And once she’s free from Relinquished, she can’t come back here without putting a target on everyone.”

The woman in the back scoffed. “We’re up to date already, Winterscar. Lady To’Wrathh told us the full story earlier, all the way up to her plan for slipping by the pale lady’s sight. This is a completely different matter. Our little lordling here is in her older sister mode.”

Tamery shot the woman a horrified look. “I thought you were on my side here!”

The woman shrugged. “We’ve got bigger issues than who the little Feather likes or not and whether her soft mushy little heart’s going to be crushed by the big dense surface beefcake in armor. It’s not important.”

I gave Wrath a look, and she seemed as confused as I was.

On the other side of the table, Tamery shot a death glare at the woman, “But what if he hurts her?”

I’d heard that line before, and I knew enough about it to see where this was going. I raised an armored hand up, “It’s not anywhere remotely going to be like that.” I said.

Wrath must have asked Tamery for advice on the whole smoke and mirror show we had to plan out, and Tamery must have thought it was for real or something. “Look, it’s a far-fetched plan but in the end we’re actors making up a script, and Wrath is a Feather. Nobody’s going to get hurt or any of that, it’s impossible.”

There’s no way romantic love is something machines would feel. Why would they? That’s like expecting Yrob to swoon over Tamery. They could be deep friends but romantic feelings? Seems way out of the airlock in all this.

The scared woman sighed, taking another deep breath of smoke and puffing it out the window. “And there’s the hangup. It’s always the men.”

Lejis stayed seated at the side, a placid smile on his face the whole time as if he was waiting for this part to be over. When I looked at him for some help, he shook his head slightly.

I turned to Wrath next, who was nodding along. She noticed my questioning gaze and settled it for everyone. “My personal safety is not under threat, and neither is Keith’s. If combat is planned out for the deception, I can repair any damage. And if Keith is hurt, I can heal him as well. We’ve done so in the past and it has worked perfectly.”

Not quite the same direction I was going, but makes the point all the same.

The older woman turned her attention to Tamery, “See? Give your little Feather some credit. She’s too dense to get hurt.”

“Could I maybe know who you are before we continue?” I asked, waving down the older woman. “Much as you’ve got the whole mysterious rogue bodyguard vibe down, I’m not sure who you are and what you do in the town here?”

“Bodyguard?” She scoffed. “Me? I’m the one who has bodyguards, not the other way around. Name’s Marsella.” The woman said. “Worked with Tamery and the rest of the Chosen in taking Capra’Nor. That pillar heart going down by the riots? My doing while General Zaang took care of the crusaders guarding the whole thing. Good times. Business was great, the General completely gave up trying to keep his nose anywhere after all that, and everything was at peace in the world.” She tapped the smokestick a few times, took another long drag and continued. “Then the other machine asshole shows up, stabs a few people and ruins it for everyone before you and the little Feather here finished what you started. Up to speed now?”

“Not in the slightest.” I answered with a full smile.

“She’s the one who was in charge of the… seedier business in the city.” Tamery said with a sigh. “She and one of the Imperial priests were the two main pillars that helped Lady To’Wrathh and I get the city under control. Turns out, she’s very good at handling a lot of city related issues I hadn’t thought about. Suppose it comes with the skillset.”

“I know a few people.” Marsella said with a shrug, in between the casual inhales. “And I’ve got a hunch this is the next big city to build a base at, so here I am. Up until our current problems. And you.”

“I didn’t do it.” I automatically said.

She pointed the smokestick at Wrath. “You punk, I meant her. We’ll have to be talking to all the citizens here along with the machines and make sure the records show you never came here. Once you got Capra’Nor, you vanished soon after and none of us knew anything about you or had any relation to you.”

Wrath gave a mild nod, as if it all made sense while Lejis looked actually heartbroken, though he stayed quiet. “I understand.” Wrath said. “False report data can be fed to Mother if she comes searching. And if needed, I can also leave a viral wipe that will temporarily eliminate me from recent memory until the investigations pass.”

“Is there no way to have you stay here indefinitely?” Lejis asked, “The people need a leader, a Feather who can pave the way forward. I’ve seen the recordings and the stories from the people, they need someone like you here.”If you come across this story on Amazon, be aware that it has been stolen from Royal Road. Please report it.

Wrath shook her head. “Either I am discovered early, or Mother discovers it when I sever my ties. We need to prepare for that inevitability.” She took a slight pause. “However… should I discover a method of hiding among the people here, I may possibly return. Only if I am certain I am able to hide from Relinquished.”

Marsella blew out another puff, “Did you get your answer priest? Got it all settled now that you heard it from the girl’s own mouth?”

Lejis nodded, but he didn’t look happy about it for a second.

“Good.” Marsella said. “Glad that part is handled. One fire down, another one to go.”

“Guessing that's the fire that made the holes in your walls?” I asked.

She gave me a droll look. “What gave it away? Lejis told you earlier, but we’ve got a Deathless infestation out there holding us back and being a public menace.”

The priest had a sad nod at that. “Were they as reasonable as Lord Atius, we would not be disparaging them like so. It is unfortunate.”

“I have never appreciated Deathless quite to the same degree you do.” Marsella said. “They tend to look down on my business and the more naive ones would often get caught in the gears and make a mess of things each time they visited the city. I see no reason to not return the favor.”

She took one last inhale of the smokestick, squashed it on the windowsill and flicked the butt out before turning to the group. “There are two targets of note.” She walked over, yanked a chair and sat down in it, joining us all. Her hand raised one finger. “The first, and most obvious is Lirian Drakonis. A minor sergeant in charge of defenses at the Tower. Watched his friends get killed in the battle, and a few other details. He’ll probably tell you the full story at some point or another, he’s quite obsessed with it. And the rest of the Deathless behind him are mostly from other cities that he managed to beat or bribe into following him for revenge.”

“Marsella.” Lejis said, “The man is fueled by trauma, there is no need to trivialize it like so.”

“I wouldn’t if the ratshit little fuck didn’t make it our personal problem to deal with.” Marsella snapped back, then pointed past the window, far out into the distance. “In case you haven’t noticed oh high and mighty priest, there’s a gang of immortal demi-gods who want us all dead. I don’t care what sob story explains all this - he wants me dead. I already go after anyone who even tries to put a hit on me or mine. But at least I’ve got some standards, I wouldn’t be burning down homes and killing entire families outside my business for it. He clearly didn’t pick that option. So that’s the kind of Deathless you’re all up against.” She turned to the rest of us. “Wake up. There’s no negotiating anything with them. Violence or bust, pick right.”

“Violence cannot be the answer to everything.” Lejis argued. “Even more so for this situation. They are immortal. Even if we win, they will return again and again until we lose. And Lady To’Wrathh’s time here is ephemeral.”

Marsella shook her head. “If violence didn’t solve the issue, you’re not using enough of it. Takes more than just a grudge and some occult magic to break an entire town. We kill them, take their loot and gear, and go after whatever is keeping them all fed and armed. Because those bastards won’t be immortal. The Deathless can’t afford to keep buying new armor again and again, and whoever’s supplying them will eventually run out of goodwill or decide they don’t want to get dragged into a protracted war with their heads on the table. So no, violence is a perfectly acceptable plan. You just stopped too early in the equation.” She turned her hand to Wrath and I. “And we just so happen to have the gig lined up and delivered on a silver platter right to our doors. Thank Tsyua’s tits, or rather thank the Pale Lady or whatever god we’re worshiping these days.”

Tamery sighed, rubbing her temples. “You see what I’m dealing with?” She said, eyes looking to Wrath. “I’m good with money and trade, all this warmongering stuff is a step too far for me. Lejis managed to convince a Drake to follow behind him, but I have no idea if he can do the same for a Deathless. And if I leave Marsella in charge, I don’t know if her solution’s permanent or just going to get us stuck in deeper shit. Lady To’Wrathh, please tell me you have a solution for all this?”

Marsella gave a very low chuckle before Wrath could answer. “I think our town’s little lordling is forgetting who she’s talking to. Lady To’Wrathh is a warlord. She’s going to see this the same way I do. You all keep acting like our Feather here is a saint that’ll somehow have a better more innocent plan than what I’m suggesting. But she won’t because that’d be stupid. We always had the numbers. Now we have the sword saint’s own little brother, Lady To’Wrathh herself, and an entire surface clan’s worth of knights who followed the Winterscar down. It would be stupid to give these Deathless any mercy at this point when we outgun them so badly.”

“There is still one more person of interest you’ve been ignoring.” Lejis said. “And one who could potentially be reasoned with.”

Marsella scoffed, “Sure, fine.” She raised her second finger up. “The other Deathless of note is Teneric the Lionheart. An actual Deathless who’s been fighting as deep as the ninth strata. I think he’s around two hundred years or so, and basically everything you’d think when you hear the word ‘Deathless’. Fights for justice, honor, humanity, won’t take bribes, defends the poor and sickly, kisses puppies and flowers grow wherever he walks.”

“He sounds… more reasonable?” I asked.

“I see you’ve got a lot of experience dealing with zealots,” Marsella rolled her eyes. “He sees all the new little Deathless Drakonis brought together as a crew of poor misfits that could be guided to be better. And us? We’re all lucky training for his new rookies.”

“Attacking the town is part of his training regiment?” Wrath asked, head tilted. “Most of the Chosen here are civilians with no combat training. That seems highly impractical and a waste of resources and time.”

“Because it fucking is impractical.” Marsella growled. “He’s here on a deal he struck with Drakonis. He teaches them a few spells and helps them clear off their worldly grudges, and in turn they can follow him down into the trenches with a clear heart. That’s it. He doesn’t see the town as anything other than a machine nest to clear off and the people here as just bog standard insane cultists who happen to sound a little more reasonable on the outside.”

“As poorly as you depict Lionheart, I still believe him to be our best way of getting reason from all this.” Lejis said. “He is their mentor, and his words would weigh on all the others, even if Drakonis himself cannot be convinced.”

She didn’t answer back, instead hid her eye roll by standing up and walking back to the window edge, hand snaking through the inside of her vest looking for another stick to smoke. “We already tried talking before you came.” She lit it up, giving it a few puffs to make sure the fire took. “We’re all insane cultists, and he’s had to deal with them in the past to boot. At the absolute best, maybe misguided pitiful souls who cannot be saved, only killed painlessly. Weeds in a garden basically. You think a weed could ever convince the guardener not to yank it out? Not a chance.”

“Perhaps their stance is due to a power imbalance.” Wrath said. “By knowing they have the ability to destroy the town with some slight difficulty, it remains an option they take for granted. If we prove that any victory will be a prolonged and difficult affair and more likely an unwinnable fight, they may rethink their direction and seek an alternate solution to settle their grudge.”

Marsella reached a hand out and rubbed Tamery’s head like an older sister would. “See? Our warlord agrees with me. Moment we make it an absolute pain in their ass to roll us over, they’re going to have to do some soul searching. Have them start asking themselves the real questions, if all their wallets and favors getting burned up is a price they want to pay.”

“And Lionheart?” Tamery asked. “How do you know he isn’t going to shrug his shoulders and decide he needs to fight a little harder instead? An unarmored Deathless can still kill an armored knight any day of the week, even in just rags and fists.”

This time Marsella didn’t bother trying to blow smoke out the window. “Because he’s trying to go back underground, and all this is a side diversion. Moment it dawns on him it’s not going to be done in months, but it'll take decades at best and eat up all his built up resources too? He’ll tell them to pack up and find a different way to make peace with their past. Every second he spends up here is one second he’s not down there trying to root out the source of all evil and cut it down.”

Lejis raised a hand. “That may not be so.”

The woman answered him with a raised eyebrow, silently asking him to explain what logical leap of magic made him think this.

The priest simply pointed at Wrath. “Once he knows she exists, I do not believe he will see reason anymore.”

The woman frowned, as if unsure what point Lejis was trying to make. Then her eyes widened and she hissed to herself.

I could follow that logic too. Teneric the Lionheart was one of the old Deathless who battled machines underground. And from the sound of it, deep underground. And to Deathless like him, the greatest enemy threat, the nemesis of them all, would be Feathers.

Knowing one was up here so close to other humans, he’d feel compelled to fight until Wrath was chased back down to the depths of hell and as far away from humanity as he could possibly make it happen. Or...

“Could be the other way around.” I said. “Wrath shows her face, he gets his single minded fixation, and she runs off underground as we planned already. Lionheart chases after, just to make sure she never returns to the surface.”

“And then what?” Marsella said. “Once he’s sure she’s not going to show her face again, he’ll come right back here to continue recruiting his little army of pests. And you lot will be gone along with any chance we have of beating them at their own game.”

Nobody said anything for a pause, as Marsella took another long inhale, then the woman sighed. “Fine, I’ll suggest we keep the Lady Feather’s off the roster for now or at least we keep her wrapped up in armor and acting like us.” Her head turned to me. “So that leaves us with the Winterscar. He’s the sword saint’s own little brother, the same woman who fought To’Wrathh again and again even after the city capitulated. Seeing him take to the field on our side would be the best tool we’ve got, and the clan knights he’s got on hand aren’t Chosen - so to that old geezer they couldn’t be the mindless brainwashed cultists he thinks we all are. Our side literally fought and beat his greatest enemies. Perfect wrench in every way.”

Tamery turned to me now, eyes asking a silent question. “Keith, as the leader of the clan knights, what would you weigh in on this?”

I drummed my fingers on the table and considered all the different opinions here on the table.

Wrath wanted to beat them back and then negotiate from a position of power.

Marsella wanted to beat them back too, and then go after everything feeding them, burn their wallets, loot the bodies, and kick their little dog too.

Lejis wanted to speak reason head to head with their mentor, possibly have some deep philosophical debate and discover a new shared path forward.

And Tamery just wanted to make money and build a trade empire like her father before her. She didn’t sign up to deal with a warband sitting outside her house.

So what’s my side look like? If I asked Father, he’d tell me I’m being a fool when the answer is obvious. Crush them until they can’t even think about crushing us back.

Cathida would probably agree with Marsella because she’s a bloodthirsty battle maniac deep down, and old age or being dead wasn’t going to stop her.

The rest of the Winterscar knights are trained to fight raiders and other rival clans, their answer would be exactly the same. If dealing with an enemy clan, mutual respect would be granted. But this wasn’t an enemy that was leaving civilians off the table. So they’d be handled like slavers or raiders would. That’s a lot of people voting on Marsella’s idea of total destruction.

Sagrius might have a slightly different answer given his… current issues. Probably would tell me the safest thing to do for my personal well being is to ignore all this, and just walk away.

As for me?

We had the weapons, skills, spells and training. Maybe half a year ago I’d have tried looking for a more peaceful solution. “I think Wrath’s got the idea of it.” I said after mulling it over. “We find them, give them a chance to back down and leave. And if they don’t, we let them know they picked the wrong option.”Tamery sighed, "I hope you're all right about this."

Marsella smiled brightly, “I like him. Much more pragmatic than the sword saint. I’ll have a battle plan drafted up by tonight. Get some good sleep, because we introduce ourselves first thing tomorrow morning.”