Cardinal-seeker Godfrey would have preferred the ever-watchful eyes of the towers to this lonely landscape. No one ventured into the Regira desert save to traverse the Border with some degree of anonymity. It was many leagues away from the Cicatrix, where opposing fortresses towered over either side of the ash-black valley, clearly indicating the location of the Border – and the consequences should one attempt to cross. There were no buildings here in the Regira, no river or mountain range to mark the line over which so much blood had been spilt. The only features were dust and cracks and the fast disintegrating remains of a battle that should never have taken place.
Under normal circumstances there would be no reason for the Alteri Inquisition to be here, but then these were far from normal circumstances. Godfrey made a motion to the mounted men behind him, and with practiced precision they dismounted and fanned out. Despite the importance of his task and the thoroughness it demanded, he would not stay a moment longer than was necessary. Godfrey did not scare easily, but he was, at the very least, ill at ease with the situation. This place evoked a sense of sheer nothingness, and yet, against all the odds, two opposing forces had happened upon each other and destroyed themselves in bloody and righteous battle, leaving a stain on the unending bleakness that surrounded Godfrey now.
The Cardinal-seeker watched the backs of his Gatherers, each with a pair of golden eyes emblazoned on their capes. His mind surged with an unbidden memory: a description that he and his childhood friends had once ascribed to the Inquisition – before Godfrey had found himself a member of that very same order. They envisioned it as a many-eyed monster, scrutinising every slab and stone in the Alteri nations and scrubbing each of its inherent impurity. The thought of the impeccably-uniformed Gatherers interrogating the scandalous stones had sent his friends into fits of laughter once, but it was now tempered by the heavy weight of experience. It was not stones that Godfrey found himself examining; it was bodies. Involuntarily, his gaze slipped to the ground where they lay, piled two or three high and caked in dust and blood. All thoughts of his childhood receded into the recesses of his mind.
Hovering above the bodies were several loose pebbles, revolving slowly. Godfrey grimaced at the telltale remnants of localised time distortion. That could only mean that one of the Ipsenar was a Redclad, a member of that despicable sect of witches who abused the power of the Essence like it was a child's plaything... The anger that welled up inside the Cardinal-seeker dissipated quickly as he forcibly regained composure. He privately allowed himself one forbidden thought: with any luck hers would be one of the bodies they uncovered.
One by one they were turned over, their clothes and markings examined to determine their affiliation, rank and role. Most were Alteri foot-soldiers, a few wore the golden robes of the Chaplaincy. The Ipsenar dead were fewer and far between, but many of those corpses belonged to the dreaded Nephilim. That fact alone went some way to explaining the discrepancy between the numbers of the dead. It often took ten or twenty soldiers to subdue – let alone kill – a single Naphil, and judging by the numbers it seemed that the Alteri had happened on a legion of the disgusting half-men. Godfrey surveyed the carnage with mounting dread. Before him lay the corpses of Battle-priests and Magi, of Deacon-Sergeants and summoned satyr and somewhere, Godfrey prayed, somewhere amongst all the filth and decay, there was an Angel.
The cry from one of the Gatherers caused a small stir amongst the others as they looked around to locate the source of the noise. Most returned to the task at hand with no hesitation. Pointedly glaring at those who had not, Godfrey dismounted carefully. As he began his stride towards the Gatherer who had called for him, he attempted to block out the sound of blood squelching and bone snapping. He reminded himself that the bodies underfoot were just husks, devoid of their life-essence, and then tried to focus on something else – like the fact that his boots would take days to clean after this. Godfrey was a great believer in cleanliness being close to divinity.
The Gatherer was crouched over a corpse as Godfrey approached. Its clothes were mostly charred to black, but the Cardinal-Seeker recognised the scarlet hue. Godfrey pursed his lips thoughtfully. So, the witch had died here with the rest of them. Pushing satisfaction to the back of his mind, he joined the Gatherer in the dirt for a closer examination.
"Looks like our beepies rained all blaze down on this one," the Gatherer said, not bothering to hide the relish in his tone.
"There is black in your heart, Gatherer", Godfrey admonished. "Temperance is a virtue, a virtue our enemy does not possess."
The smile on the Gatherer's face slowly dissipated as Godfrey spoke, and the Cardinal-seeker considered that maybe he had been overly harsh with the man. After all, the Gatherer was correct in his assessment. The blackened clothes and burnt flesh could only have been caused by a number of Battle-priests surrounding the witch and torching her to a cinder. That was the standard tactic for disabling the Redclad and their ilk, but it failed to explain how the Essence-wrought flames could have pierced the Redclad's shield, which they were able to maintain at all times in battle.
Godfrey motioned for the Gatherer to spread her limbs out. As soon as the left arm was pulled from under her body, Godfrey deduced what had transpired. A Redclad's ability with Delving was so strong that their shields could withstand all but a massive assault of Essence, yet it was broken by something as simple as a dagger, a spear or, as in this case, a crossbow bolt clean through the hand. The Cardinal-seeker tugged the bolt free and rose, studying it intently.
"Examine the crossbowmen, find one who carries bolts feathered in the same manner as this." He passed the bloodied bolt onto the Gatherer, who took it with only the barest hint of reluctance. "Advise the Legion that I recommend he be awarded the Golden Arrow for his marksmanship, and that they notify his family of his bravery." The Gatherer nodded. "The balance prevails," Godfrey finished, dismissing the Gatherer. This was a small matter, to be sure, but recognising the bravery of the fallen was akin to temperance. It separated them from the Ipsenar. It elevated them.
Whispering a small prayer to Alter, Godfrey turned his mind inward and Delved into the Essence. He slid easily through the first and second planes and rested in the third. Mentally steeling himself for the rush, he carefully carved off a tiny sliver of Essence and projected it towards his larynx. This done, he returned to the material and massaged his broiling throat. "Remember your task, servants of Alter," Godfrey called out, his voice amplified several times over. “The Archangel Michael must be found.” The Gatherers knew this already, of course, but reminding them of what was at stake served to sharpen the senses and instil rigor, necessary tools for the Inquisition. They would not fail today.
Godfrey released the Essence in his throat, and began to muse on the situation. On the burnished side, there was still a slim chance that the Archangel Michael had survived the battle and reached the nearest Alteri settlement, on the edge of the Regira. It was a day’s ride away at the least, but the Archangel's steed was of good stock and enriched with Essence; a day's ride was nothing for the warhorse. On the blood side, however, there was the possibility that the Ipsenar had taken him prisoner.
Neither of the options seemed all that likely. If Michael had escaped the battle, then he would have sent word. If he had been captured, then the Marcuri Cathedral would have heard tell of either a possible prisoner exchange or of the Archangel's public execution - whichever took that old lunatic Lucifer's fancy. It had been eight days since the Archangel's departure from Port Houth, and three since the last carrier had reached Marcuri, bearing only a scant few words. ‘Ipsenar on the horizon. Good practice.’ No, Michael had not escaped this battle. The best Godfrey could hope for was that they found him alive.
Blinking away his reverie, Godfrey examined where his feet had carried him. Nephilim lay strewn about the ground, carved up like chickens for a midsummer feast. Their dark grey faces were contorted into horrible expressions of pain and hatred, with mouths agape displaying yellow needle-like teeth. Footmen from the Holy Legion of Alter swore that a Naphil with all its limbs cut off would continue to roar at you even as it lay dying, and that it could have your ankles off if you stood too close. Fanciful tales, Godfrey told himself, but nevertheless he gave a wide birth to the fallen giants. If Godfrey could have one prayer fulfilled before his passing, it would be to see every last one of the half-men captured, sentenced and beheaded.
Something in the thronging crowd of bodies made the Cardinal-seeker falter in his purposeful stride. A feathered mass of white, stained with red, peeked out from under the green leather of Naphil armour. Godfrey knew what it was, other than a sickening display of Ipsenar barbarity. One of the Archangel's wings hacked off with what looked to be a dull blade. Godfrey turned and waved to the nearest Gatherer, who hurried over. The Gatherer managed to keep a level face as he saw the wing, but Godfrey knew that sickness had welled up in the man's body, just as it had in his moments before. Godfrey motioned to the surrounding area and the Gatherer began tugging the corpses away.
Buried three deep in dismembered Nephilim, they found a man: a man in pure white armour with golden trim, which bore a roaring lion on the broken breastplate. Godfrey's eyes flickered briefly to the gaping wound in his side – likely inflicted by one of the Naphil's spears – before looking to the man's face. It was a face which bore only the very first few signs of age. The face of Stephen Avison, who until his recent and untimely death held the title of Archangel Michael, supreme commander of the Holy Legion of Alter. Now he was just Stephen Avison once more: childless and heirless. Godfrey bent down and brushed dirt away from the man's beard. He held the gaze of those hollow eyes for a scant few seconds, and then straightened. The Gatherer now openly wore a look of horror on his face, which was understandable, given the circumstances. Godfrey gave the man a moment to recover, and issued the command he had been dreading for days.
"Prepare a carrier. Inform the Marcuri Cathedral that Stephen Avison has been slain in battle. We must seek out and raise the new Archangel Michael."