Louise awoke, sore and pained. His eyes fluttered open with a weariness one could only describe as the weight after a reinsman’s holiday—better yet, a sailor’s shore leave. But neither sailor nor reinsman had experienced what they had. Few were left who could even claim the position now.

He sat up, anchoring himself against the wet stone wall behind him. His ribs creaked with every motion until a sudden and sharp pain enveloped his body. He winced, immediately clenching his side. Blood covered his hand, threatening to spread further through the ragged material of his top.

“You’ll rip it open again.” said a voice from the shadows. Though he could not see who, he could hear the conviction behind her voice. “You should rest more.”

“A knight fears not death…” he replied proudly, not realizing how weak he had actually become. How long had he been out? Where was he?

“And a mercenary does not look at death, ‘less two gold coins shine from his skull,” the woman replied coldly, tossing a bag between them. “So, which are you?”

The woman stepped out from the shadow, revealing a crown of short red hair and jaded eyes. Her tan skin was only visible thanks to the few streaks of moonlight sneaking in from the barred ceilings above. And it was clear that her fur-lined armor was still soaked with the blood of his comrades.

Louise tried adjusting himself more but to no avail. He was forced to hold how he was.

“I am…” he grunted, “a Knight of Malana, The Divine’s chosen kingdom. Anointed by –”

“A man, no less a heathen than I.” she smiled wickedly.

“You do not know him. You do not know me. You know not my God.” Lousie spat, trying not to let his anger cause him even greater pain. “Spare me your lecture, devil. Your sins outweigh mine.”

The woman knelt to his level, gripping the cell’s iron and moving her face closer to his. Her wicked smile still prominent across her face.

“Oh, but I do know your God, Del Lobo. More than you could possibly imagine. And rest easy, I know of you as well,” she said, entertained. “Your reputation stands on a mountain of gold, which then stands on your clan’s mountain of gold, which has now been bought by your king’s promise of gold to face me. There is no need to act mighty and pious here. Your God care not who sins the most. He’s demanded my death, and here I’ve paid for our time. Your pause, your openness, makes you a better man than any God who has stood before me.”

Louise’s eyes widened, unsure of how to address this heresy. Not that he could do anything about it in his current state, but now he wished he had chosen differently on the battlefield. Perhaps his men would still live. Perhaps it would be him on the other side of the cell, taunting at this woman’s faith.

This woman…

“Who are you?” he finally asked.

 “You may call me Ira,” she said joyfully.

“I expected more from the great Louise Del Lobo, to be honest. We crossed swords, yet I barely noticed it was you out there.” Ira continued. “How a man of your caliber ended up serving the Faith…well, the Faith has made you weak. That much is clear.”

Louise clutched his side as he finally forced himself to sit up, damned the consequences, unwilling to let her continue. At first, he wanted to correct her – honor demanded the Faith be defended from such insults, but it was clear he needed to reserve his strength. This was life and death, and she was only testing him. Instead, he thought it would be better to gather information on his own terms. At least as much as he could before Ira truly tired of him. The last thing he remembered was falling into muck with the sounds of battle around him. Swords clashing, men shouting – but now he was here in this unknown and decrepit place, with barely the sound of dripping water nearby. He needed to be smart.

“You speak well for a wild Balzebian.” he jested, “Is that where you’ve brought me? Your home?”

Ira stood, taking a few steps back from him, satisfied with his willingness to converse. Despite her welcoming taunting and introduction, she still acted true to herself – intimidatingly and beautifully feral. She reminded him of the women back home.

“The Faith has not taught you this? None of us are born Balzebian, we are made Balzebian. Heretics, they brand us. But now look, look at my gloriously inherited kingdom, whipping away all of yours.” she gestured. “How could a heretic gain so much favor?”

“Perhaps you’ve been blessed?”

“A blessing? From your God? The Faith would make you one of us for even making such a suggestion. How daring…” she licked her lips, “Maybe there’s still some mercenary left in you after all.”

“Maybe.” He grunted again, this time standing, making his way to the cell door. He tried his best to seem in control, but the reality was that he was barely holding on. The only thing keeping him up now was his firm grip on the iron bars. As much as he tried hiding it, he knew there wasn’t much of an appearance left to keep. He was a prisoner—beaten and defeated in the eyes of a newly founded warlord—the first of many.

“Am I to be a trophy or convert?” he then asked, “I’d like to know before I make my bed tonight.”

Ira’s smile vanished. Her eyes glimmered in the moonlight as they set upon him like a predator on prey. He could feel the air around him change – a venomous aura made its way into the dungeon, threatening to suffocate him if not careful.

“Once a mercenary, always a mercenary then. Good. Seize him.”

Suddenly, the cell door busted open, launching Lousie across his cell and back onto the ground. Two large men covered in furs and wearing horned helms entered to grab him.

Disoriented, Louise struggled to resist. His pain was unbearable now. He kicked at one of the guards, surprising himself by landing a solid hit to his chest and pushing him back. But as soon as he did, the other guard let loose a barrage of punches, not caring for restraint. Louise blocked some but was soon overwhelmed.

“Enough!” Ira commanded. “I need him alive.”

Both guards obeyed, dragging a bloody and bruised Louise out of his cell by his feet.

“On his knees,” Ira commanded again.

The guards grabbed Louise by the arms and raised him, gently placing him in a kneeling position. The first guard, the one who received Louise’s kick, repaid him by punching him once more, sending Louise back to the ground, spitting out more blood. Then he picked him back up, brushed him off, and left with the other without saying a word. Ira did not object.

Louise looked at her from his one remaining good eye. His other had already swelled shut, and he could feel all manner of liquid running down his face and side. Blood probably. He was also almost certain he had pissed himself at some point, but he would not admit that to anyone who asked and had not yet noticed.

Ira circled him, resting and tracing a sharp dagger on his shoulders. When she was finally in front of him, she knelt to be face-to-face once more, this time with no barrier between them. Louise could not help but wince at the fresh smell of battle from her. He was not easily thrown by blood, but he knew who it belonged to. He knew what it meant.

“Kill me and let me be with my brothers.” he pleaded. “I will not suffer this.”

Ira continued tracing his body with her dagger, gently transitioning from fabric to skin but then nicking his neck before smiling once more.

“That’s the knight again.” she sighed. “You can leave him in that cell there.” she gestured.

Ira then placed the bag of gold she had thrown before into his hands, meeting his dark eyes directly for the first time, sparing no intensity. She leaned in, gracing cheek to cheek until her lips reached his ear.

“Run.” she whispered.

Louise froze. Shivers ran down his spine as she stood back up and pointed towards the exit with her dagger. A cave-like crevice with moonlight pouring in from the other side.

“Go on.” she repeated. “Run. Run to your masters.”

“W-why?” Louise hesitated.

“Because you and I are destined to meet once more…I’ve dreamt it.”

Louise sat and contemplated, glancing at Ira with doubt and confusion from time to time. He had just witnessed her and her ilk slaughter an entire armada of knights and soldiers from different banners. The Balzebians were ruthless, faithless animals, far more so than any other foe he had ever faced before, and here, a bloodied warlord who had torn through the land burning and killing innocents now offered him mercy? Because of a dream? The Faith would welcome the idea of divine intervention, but the newly knighted Louise still had his doubts.

“You claim visions now? Are you a prophetess?” he coughed. “Do the Balzebians admit the Faith is true?”

Ira shook her head, “If you won’t take my answers, claim your own. Step outside and see how the Faith blinds you.”

After a few more minutes, he stood, taking shaky and uneven steps past her and towards the exit. As he left the confines of his cell and the dungeon, he was welcomed by the first scents of fresh air since he had awakened. He took a deep breath and nearly puked.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the change and then laid upon the destruction before him. He was still on the battlefield, bodies of both friend and foe scattered as far as the eyes could see, with the Balzebian troops only beginning to burn the remains. Black smoke filled the night sky, darkening the sights and hiding the only remaining source of natural light, filling his nose with an obscene smell of death and decay. It was hell.

“Satisfied?” asked Ira, sneaking up behind him to witness the fruits of her labor.

“How…how could you have known? How could you have won?”

“I dreamt of our battle.” Ira answered, a twisted smile slowly growing as she spoke. “I dreamt of you and our meeting. Your God has spoken.”


“You ask if we acknowledge the Faith, I ask if the Faith acknowledges its sin. We are one and the same.”

There was silence. Louise could not respond. Ira scoffed.

“You will make your way back to Malana, Del Lobo, and tell them of what’s to come,” she instructed, “My armies will continue west and raze everything the Faith holds dear. I will burn down the churches, slaughter every priest and nun, and make sure that we ‘heretics’ have had our fill. And when all is said and done, I will make sure every King, Queen, and God bows to the one true rule – justice.”

“How can you claim genocide justice?” Louise whispered back, watching as the fires from the bodies continued to spread across the visible horizon.

“The same way you can justify this Santificacion…” she hissed.

Louise immediately caught his hypocrisy. He was in no position to continue arguing, given that he had just tried to wipe them out as well. But such was war. This was the life he had chosen, and this was one of the many risks associated with it. Why was this different? He took another step forward but paused again. Something, somewhere, was telling him to stay, to dig deeper.

“I have your word I won't be harmed? I’m your messenger under your employ for the time being?”

“You have my word I will not harm you.” Ira smiled wickedly. “But I can’t speak for my men.”

“How do you expect me to make it out of here as I am? And with no sword or armor? Do you intend on coming with me?”

“Your God will see you through. I’ve seen it. You and I will dance a final time.”

Ira turned to take her leave. “Make it past our camps and run, I say. Know that I will be right on your heels every step of the way, and there will be no rest. That is my one gift to you.”

“Ira, it's not too late to stop!” Louise pleaded. “Let us stop this! Look at what you're doing! Is this the future you really want?!”

Ira stopped in her tracks, visibly shaken. Her fists tightened; her body shivered. She then turned back and threw her dagger at Louise’s feet, her eyes swelling with vengeful tears.

“Justice demands payment! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, blood for blood! The Faith has stolen my children, and now I will take theirs.”

Louise was at a loss for words, too confused to even process what she had just said. What could she mean by that? That the Faith had stolen her children? – it was just not possible. Too absurd an accusation to be true. Was this truly what this was all about?

“You claim to be chosen by The Divine, the champions and protectors of the weak. But you all lie! ‘Feed the hungry, obey thy rulers, help each other!’ You preach and preach, but when you must do, you take without thinking and act without mercy. Now, the Faith, is unworthy of mine!”

“Leave.” she commanded in a deflated whisper, attempting to keep what remained of her composure, “Before I change my mind. You and all others who side with the Faith are guilty, and you will feel my wrath. In this life and the next.”

Louise picked up her dagger slowly, too hesitant to fight back, too unsure to continue defending what he once held dear in his heart. If Ira spoke truth, how could he ever be justified in what he had done? How could he ever live with himself and fight what was to come?

“I understand…” he finally said, looking at his would-be captor and savior, a scorned and broken woman torn between worlds.

“Ira, I will do as you ask. And may The Divine keep you until we meet again.”

Ira’s eyes met his, once more filled with the same hatred he had seen on the battlefield. He once again face to face with the warlord.

“I’ll be ready for our final dance.”