It all began with a cup of tea… but that was before, and this was after. 
Suk had cut her way across Summerland’s blasted eastern span for five years and never come this close to her target—only a few gatekeepers stood between her and the Lord of Salt, and she held all the keys. She had been right to bring the other Coppice Knights in from the cold. She had been right to share the burden of her mad alliance of passion and purpose with Loire of Nocturne.
Or had she?
Her heart faltered, stained by murder. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t been her will, didn’t matter that the murderer had hijacked her artificial limbs. The blood on her hands might still never wash away.
But Suk had not suffered alone in these past few weeks of adventure and toil. Jemma had lost her magic and found it again, but Charley had not been so lucky: ever since the Water Temple, shapeshifting had slipped from her control. And Glyn, poor Glyn. He had lost something in the Temple, too, and he knew he would never get it back—the axe bolted to his unfeeling arm was testament to that.
Only Loire seemed unchanged by their journey, but what had transpired in the time he had gone alone? He would not share, no matter how Suk pried. Had he suffered wounds that did not show?
Not that it mattered. The five weary would-be killers climbed the steps of the Castle of Glass, shining jewel of the foul Salt Fens. Goldcrooks at the gate were bearing down, assessing their intent. The plan was in motion, and could not be stopped.
“What business have you here?” insisted a Captain, helm of rank glinting in the afternoon sun, her lazily menacing tone backed up by a cadre of cronies in green-and-gold.
Loire drew an overlarge coin from the folds of his cloak and presented it for inspection. Clearly, she had not expected official emissaries of the Tea Kings—perhaps she had not heard that the Tea Kings lay buried in shallow graves, betrayed by their own enforcer. She scrutinized their five Kings’ Coins for considerably longer than was prudent, but (as there was no denying their authenticity) she eventually slumped in resignation and bid them pass through the outer gates.
So it went, Goldcrook authority wilting before their sign of assumed office, and soon they reached the Castle’s innermost sanctum. This was the Seat of Salt, a mighty basilica and high throne room of the Lord of their Dominion. It had been carved entirely from a single gargantuan block of pink-red salt, and its impressively tall gates had an equally-impressive set of sentries. The Lord’s Blackguard wore formidable black-burnished armor over voluminous black robes. Veils of black chain hid their faces, and each one held a black iron spear that reminded the five a little too much of Noble’s Thorn for comfort.
Charley wondered how much Elalla had been inspiration for their fashion.
Spying their coins, one of the Blackguard spoke. “The Lord of Salt stands over Kings and bears them no responsibility. Turn away and do not return.”
But Loire took the reprimand in stride. “We do not come before you as emissaries of the King,” he said, “but as bearers of an ornament of great interest to the Lord.”
Again, the tiger-faced Overman rummaged within his robe, but now he drew out the very thing they had spilled so much blood to retrieve: a little box, ornately inlaid with obsidian and gold. Pretty as it was, the box didn’t much matter, except in that it held one of the most singularly powerful artifacts in all the legends of Summerland.
He cracked the box just open enough to let the Blackguard see inside: there lay an amber-gold pearl, approximately a palm’s width across, subtly etched with tessellating patterns of entwined figures. “Go tell your master what we bring,” he commanded.
One among the Blackguard obeyed, parting the massive pink-red doors and slipping into the chamber beyond. Through the narrow gap, they could see a bit of the throne room, but not the thing that sat on the throne. “Is this really happening?” muttered Charley. “Are we really about to meet the Lord of Salt?”
“Meet. Yes. That’s what we’re going to do,” grumbled Glyn.
“We never really discussed how we were going to, um, meet him, did we,” mused Jemma.
Suk said nothing.
A few tense minutes passed, and the Blackguard returned. “The Lord bids you enter,” she said with a deferential bow. The gates were opened wide enough for the five to pass through unhindered, and shut swiftly in their wake with a peal that echoed through Glass Table.
All carved from marbled pink-red salt, the Seat was somehow even prettier from within than it had been from without. The path to the throne was circumscribed with geometric patterns of inlaid teal stone that softly pulsed with magical light and flanked by two rows of waist-high columns, each roughly two meters across. Judging by the vertical grooves that fell away at the rings where each column met the floor, they were meant to rise independently. But the most eye-catching sight was the throne at the end of the hall: it was more than half the height of the ceiling, which rose some forty meters above them in ribbed arches. Shockingly, it matched its occupant.
The Great Beast Lord of Salt was an unbelievable creature, ten times the height of any of them, with three glistening eyes and a full mouth of sharp, age-yellowed teeth. Plates of armor-like gray-white bone latticed over its coat of bristling gray-black fur. Spikes of bone, each riddled with labyrinthine nooks and hollows, sprouted from its chin, shoulders, elbows, knees, and spine. Its feet and hands had four digits apiece, the second of which was a long hooked claw. What beast it had been, before it was changed by age and power, none of them could say.
“WELCOME TO MY LONELY PALACE,” it said, and its voice was like an earthquake. “WHAT IS IT YOU HAVE TO SHOW ME?”
“Climb up,” Loire instructed them, even though they had only progressed halfway down the path.
As each of them clambered atop, the columns rose, scraping against the floor, elevating two or three meters off the ground. They were inset with large cabochons of the same teal stone, and when Loire spoke, holding aloft the little box, the stone on his column glowed brightly.
“We bring you the Pearl of Reason’s Remedy, Lord,” he said. “We believe that it is known to you, and that its having will bring you joy.”
The monster leaned back, as if considering Loire’s bold words, and they discovered that an intricate window of orange, yellow, and teal salt plates had been constructed to give the Lord of Salt a luminous halo. It did not suit it.
“THE PEARL,” it rumbled. “RECOVERED AFTER AN EON LOST IN THE REALM OF THE DEEP ONES.” It paused and let out a sound like breaking glass that they assumed was mirth. “THEY WILL NOT BE PLEASED. BUT I AM PLEASED. IT IS A REMINDER. SWEET LOVE, LOST.” Another pause. “SHE WAS GOOD TO ME. SO I WILL BE TO YOU. RENDER IT HERE.”
No one saw the slight smile that played across Loire’s lips in that moment, the not-small satisfaction of a long apparatus finally executed. “I think not,” he said, and drew in shadows around his hand, whisking the box and its contents to someplace they would never see or know.
The lodestone concealed in Loire’s other hand shone deep azure, and the light in the Seat of Salt retreated, split by seven clouds of shadow. Seven new figures stood among them, each one masked by darkness, but clad in the same triune-blue robes that defined Loire.
“Allow me to introduce you to Nocturne,” Loire thundered. “We are your doom.”
The Lord strained to rise as the seven sorcerers began to chant, casting a binding spell that planted the giant back in its chair. It screamed, and the heavens themselves shook.
Loire splayed his hand at the high gates and a curtain of crimson light covered them over, rebuffing any effort of the Blackguard to aid their master. He took a swift leap off his column, knelt on the ground, and began to cast a spell of his own, bringing a massive, whirling cone of red light into existence in the air above their heads.
Suk descended, too, and the other three followed not long after. “What is this?” she demanded.
“This is a Lance of Lords. A very old, very powerful spell. Powerful enough to kill the Lord of Salt. So powerful, in fact, that my own might is not enough to see it through.”
“That’s why you called the other members of Nocturne?” she said, trying to connect the dots.
“No,” said Loire, ruefully. “That is why I brought you.”
Had Jemma not opened her inner eye, she might have missed the truth of what happened next, but she saw it all too clearly. Loire took Suk’s face in his hands, kissed her on the forehead, and then, easily as lifting her tunic over her head, stole away the power of her artificial limbs. Left with only one working leg, Suk collapsed, and Loire let her fall. He cradled the mass of magic instead, like it was all that had ever been precious to him, and guided it upward to the Lance of Lords. Now Charley and Glyn could see it, too, as a blue streak of light orbited and joined the red mass.
Glyn moved first and fastest, swinging his makeshift axe with deadly intent, but Loire turned it away like a reed on the wind. In one swift motion, he ripped the axe from the bands that buckled it to Glyn’s arm and placed his boot in the fighter’s gut, dropping him to the ground. Having no hands with which to pick himself up, he stayed there.
Charley roared and charged, and this time her shape was true. The lithe woman swelled and rippled and a grizzly bear, intent to maul and tear, took her place, but Loire looked no more concerned now than he had before. Jemma watched with growing horror as he swung one hand in a simple gesture and stole away the lot of Charley’s power, dumping her to the salt floor in a naked heap. He guided her magic into the Lance of Lords and a green streak joined the blue.
“Why?” said Jemma, as Loire’s gaze fell on her in turn. She had seen his power; there was no sense in hurting herself by resisting the inevitable. But she would like to know.
To her surprise, he replied. “It’s just as I said. This spell is too powerful for any caster, alone. Two Life Mages and two Death Mages, on the other hand…”
The pain of it was excruciating. Jemma felt every daemon ripped out from her—she felt the tattoos that had bound them flayed from her skin. When it stopped, she felt hollow. Her inner eye was closed. She wielded Death Magic no longer, and a yellow streak sprung up between the green and blue.
Loire hefted the blade of Glyn’s axe in his powerful, clawed hands and shattered it like it was made of clay, exposing the Atrous Star, the ancient gem that had been its beating heart. “A little bit of Luminarian Object Magic isn’t strictly in the formula, but it can’t hurt,” he remarked to no one in particular. A streak of purple joined the rest.
Mustering her last strength, Suk clutched his ankle with her one good hand, but when he kicked her away, she could not resist him. Only the hard look in his eyes relented. “I did feel affection for you,” he said. “But this mission is more important than our petty feelings. I thought you would understand that.”
“I thought I would, too,” whispered Suk. “I was wrong. About a lot of things.”
Loire grimaced. He lifted one hand high, as if gripping the Lance of Lords by its spinning haft. “I will complete our mission, and yours, just the same.”
The Lord of Salt struggled against its invisible bonds. Its claws dug furrows in the arms of the throne. Ancient curses flooded from its throat like bile. But then, seeing that its end was near, it stilled. “FOOLS,” it grated, eyes trained on the eight figures in blue. “THERE MUST ALWAYS BE A LORD!”
“There will be,” said Loire, and he threw the Lance.
The explosion of white-hot fire overloaded what meager senses Suk, Jemma, Charley, and Glyn retained. They did not feel a fissure split the Seat of Salt and open a chasm into the bowels of the plateau. They did not hear the jackboots of the Blackguard storm the splintered gates and surround the husk of their fallen Lord. They did not see the shadows gather and take away the eight sorcerers of Nocturne, leaving them broken and alone.The Lord of Salt was dead, and what had it gotten them?