The Incarnations: The Incarnal War (Chapter 4)

For Honor, For Death

The loss of the Duchess of Despair weighs heavily on everyone involved. It is not a secret that a new Duchess will eventually take her place, that she will be Reincarnated, but she will never be the Duchess we all know and care for. She will be a new person who carries her name and power only. She may even be similar, uncannily so, but never the same. The Duchess we miss will rest in Death’s Paradise, never again to live among us.

Now we can only wait until another arrives to try and fill the void in our hearts, and not even I know how long that will take.

Elsewhere, the death of the Duchess is not the only loss Madam Honor now suffers from. 

Never before have I witnessed her in such a state. She walks alone down a lonely road in her kingdom. Her kingdom is the smallest of the Incarnations, but that always suited her just fine. Now it must feel too large, to be in it all alone.

Her land is simple, flush with trees but never full. Littered with critters, but no predators. There aren’t any servants cleaning her castle, maybe because it’s more like a fort. The Madam has always been one for simpler things.

She was always content to just sit around her round table with the same warriors she has now lost. Unlike most Incarnations, she knew each and everyone of her twenty-five servants, her knights, her friends. Each had a name that meant something to her. In a way, that made sure she always had more to lose if one perished more so than if a hundred of another’s servants perished.

Now, as it rains down upon her head, she drags Excalibur, the point drawing a line in the dirt. Her left hand clutched over the wound in her chest where the Lord Dread has permanently scarred her. The bleeding has ceased, but the physical pain hasn’t, which only layers upon her suffering.

As she walks out from under some trees, Madam Honor’s fort finally comes into view in the valley. It stands hollow, and not very tall. Her land has remained untouched by the war, but scarred more so than the others.

The Madam stops from under the trees to stand and stare at the castle still some distance away. Before, I didn’t notice with the rain, but I still wonder if those silver pupils would be wet from tears.

Eventually, she looks away to the ground, then to her sword. She places both hands on her sword’s grip to bring the heavy blade behind her head to her bun, and cleanly cuts her hair. Before her lovely teal would reach past her shoulders when she was alone in private, or with her servant Honneur. Now her hair barely covers her neck. Maybe she thought a weight would be lifted from her shoulders.

Then the Madam continues her trek down the valley road to her fort. She trudges through the mud, still dragging the longsword that deserves to be sheathed. She stumbles several times, her perfect form never seen.

Her mind races as she dreads entering the fort alone. To be alone in its halls, to hear each of her own footsteps as none are drowned out by the clanking of others.

Halfway to the doors of her fort, lays a large stone, a stone she never noticed nor cared for before. She realizes that she must have sat on it at least half a dozen times, but never paid it any notice. Now she notices how much more worthy it is to hold her sword than she is.

Madam Honor brings Excalibur into her hands, the handle in her right, and the blade flat in her left. She moves to hold it with both hands with the blade facing the ground. She walks like this to the stone, then with a hearty cry she raises it high, and plunges Excalibur through it. The long sword stabbing through, lodging itself in. She has no intention of ever pulling it out.

Now she continues walking to her fort where she hopes to die from what is killing Sir Gratitude, Absentness. Excalibur will be taken up by her replacement.

The Madam’s head hangs low as her eyes look up, her face like stone, and rageful. There are steps to mourning, and sometimes the steps come in different orders. The sword being put through the stone signals the end of the stage of misery, and the beginning of anger.

The drawbridge to enter the fort was already down, and she crosses the moat with a limp that shows no signs of fading away. The courtyard she enters feels like a graveyard, yet there are no tombstones.

As she walk past the training posts, the water troughs, and the horse stables, all empty of life, the Madam tries to ignore the painful images of her knights each spending their time here.

Suddenly, she looks up at the sky, and looks to her left at the sparring posts, where she had watched Eer drill Honneur half to death.

The Madam had sat idly by, pleasantly eating grapes as Eer forced Honneur to repeat his downward swing again, and again, and again. There was no end to it, sweat drenched his face as he had to train in full body armor. That painful addition was his own doing, he chose to wear it to force his training along. He had been told that this would do little else but increase his stamina, which wouldn’t matter against vastly more powerful opponents, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He had to be strong enough to stand by the others.

Honneur wasn’t the youngest of the knights by any means, but he was the last to pick up the sword. Most servants of his kind don’t partake in learning how to fight, but he was a servant of Honor, that meant being a knight, so he eventually was allowed to pick up the sword.

Madam Honor thinks on how if all of her servants weren’t knights, she would have at least one face to come home to. That mistake is why her fort now feels like her tomb. She then turns her head back to the dirt to continue her walk towards the fort spire.

The wooden doors creak loudly, as if having aged hundreds of years in the short time since she last departed. When she steps into her gathering hall, where her round table lays, she sees how it’s still intact. Her round table is still complete, and without a speck of dust.

The Madam gains hope again, she walks to the round table and places her hands upon it, her mistake.

Immediately, the table that once sat her and all twenty-five of her knights collapses under the pressure of her mere fingers. Made of stone, portions crack and fall off, the middle caves in, and wholes pieces in their fall create jagged lines, making the round table no longer perfectly round.

The Madam can do nothing but look on as her symbol of power and hope crumbles to pieces. Her arms stand splayed out, her fingers curling, longing for something to wrap around, and she has nothing.

She screams, “Aaaahhh!

She screams to the sky, screams at fate, and screams at herself as she sinks to her knees. She places her head over what is left of her round table, and splays her arms out over its surface, sobbing to herself.

“This is how an Incarnation grovels? I’ve always thought it would seem dignified, but alas, even you can not accomplish that.” A sudden voice rings out a sharp, and painful insult.

Madam Honor’s head ascends from the table, a look of disgust on her face. She replies with congestion in her throat, and spite in her words. “Of the very few individuals I would not want as company, you are one of them, Lord Guilt.”

Lord Guilt, the tongue that makes men’s knees weak and strong, almost always for the wrong reasons.

The Lord steps out from the shadows away from the Madam. His presence has always been hard to notice, his eyes always looking for a weakness to exploit. That tactic is best done when one’s presence isn’t noticed.

The Lord’s skin is a dark crimson, almost maroon, giving him an unappealing complexion. His hair is always slick back, in a way that plagiarizes Sir Happiness, without the lively texture. The white hair should make him seem dignified, but no style will ever be able to do that.

His eyes are completely and utterly black, even his pupils. They do not undo those they look upon as the Lord Dread’s do, but they undress, and do so in a way difficult to keep track of. They are more unbecoming for him and whoever his eyes are looking at.

The Madam has no wish to be in his presence, but this is of little importance to him. He goes on to insult her pain by saying, “You do not grovel like a mother who has lost her children, you have never been one. You do not grovel like a soldier who has lost all of his friends, soldiers do not abandon their comrades. You-”

In a howl, Madam Honor demands to know, “What do you want, Guilt?!” She does not refer to him as Lord. Many of the Incarnations treat him with the same disrespect.

The Lord lets the insult go. “I want to know why you are not dead, yet Death does not hold Lady Love in her care. You swore that you would retrieve her or die, did you not?”

Angrily, the Madam mutters, “I did.”

“Yet, what you swore to do, has not been done. Should that not be rectified?” Lord Guilt reasons.

The Madam grimaces and rolls her eyes. She informs the Lord, “If you would let me, I would grow Absent, and I will die, just as you want.”

The Lord wags his finger,  dissatisfied as he walks around the broken table to see her eyes. “*tsk *tsk *tsk* Silly Madam, while you owe Death your life, she does not want to take it. She cares for you in a way you don’t deserve. She wants to offer you a chance, to reclaim your honor.”

“Impossible,” the Madam mutters, trying to throw away any chance of survival, relieving herself of a sense of self-preservation.

The Lord then kneels to place his elbows on the table to mockingly copy the Madam’s sullen form. “Do you truly know nothing about honor? The special thing about it, is that you can always take it back.”

Now Lord Guilt has overstepped. Madam Honor places her palms on the table and pushes herself to her feet with a simmering fury.

“Do not teach me lessons about honor, Guilt.” Then she slowly starts to walk around the table, as the Lord stands to do the same. They walk until they are face to face, with the Madam looking up at the bearded jaw she wants to break. “You wouldn’t know the first thing about honor.”

“Maybe not,” the Lord admits with a careless shrug of his shoulders, “but Death does. After her millenias of mistreatment by Life, does she really deserve to also be betrayed by you?” Madam Honor’s eyes open wide at the insinuation, only to move her eyes away from the Lord. “Does she not deserve your respect?”

Spiteful in tone, the Madam retorts, “Is my death not enough? Is my suffering not enough? Why must there always be more?”

“That’s simply the world we live in,” the Lord tells her.

Then the Madam turns to begin walking away, “And what if there is no honor left in this world?”

Lord Guilt smiles, and tells her, “If no one else will act with honor, you must bring it down upon them.” Strangely, the Madam stands up straighter when he says that. “You must go back outside and take up that sword, and force honor upon those who lack it. If not for Death, then for the world you owe a duty to. That was the task you were born with, and the task you must carry out.”

“I do not want to,” the Madam states. “I am tired, injured, and while you may not believe I have earned it, I want my chance to rest.” There is a meekness in her tone that clashes with her stature, something that makes the Lord and I believe she does not mean it.

Madam Honor wants to do as he says, to pick up Excalibur again, but she needs a reason. She needs a point. Guilt is a strong motivator. Justice is a strong motivator. Debt is a strong motivator. But none are strong enough. None of them can prompt her to face enemies far her better, not in skill but in power, and thus in battle. To her, why go die by the sword, die by a death she has not earned, when she can die alone like the worthless Incarnation she feels she is.

Lord Guilt believes he has what she needs. Assured victory. Victory is what can earn back her honor.

He offers to her, “What if I told you there was a threat on the horizon that only you can deal with?”

“I’d call you a liar,” she quickly responds, “I’d call you a manipulator, and that I will not be your pawn.”

The Lord shrugs, admitting, “Well, I guess you’d be right about that. There are a handsome few who can defeat the Duke of War, but none of them are available, or need to win as much as you.” Whether or not the insult was intentional or accidental, it was not lost on the Madam.

She turns to face the Lord as he leans against the broken table. She defensively announces, “I do not need a win, what I need is my honor,” then solemnly she mutters, “I need my knights.” Lord Guilt continues to smile, and this greatly annoys the Madam. “I have ignored that asinine grin too long, what drives your happiness?”

“You indirectly just admitted that you don’t need to die. What you need is your honor, and your friends. If you kill the Duke of War, not for me mind you, you can earn both of what you want.” This is the deal with the devil, or the next best thing.

Madam Honor’s heart climbs to her throat. Even the mere mention of having her family again is enough to inspire something in her. Cautiously she only asks, “How?”

The Lord explains, “Killing the Duke of War will do two things. It will earn you back your honor. That part should be obvious. Defeating such a terrible and powerful being in combat shows your skill, but ridding the world of such a cruel concept should also suffice to show your worthiness. But War is an enemy of Death, who might allow your fallen knights to return to you as a reward. At the very least it can put you on the path to earning their lives from her. Is the idea now clear to you?”

Madam Honor takes a deep breath and ponders very carefully about the task set before her. She weighs its difficulty against its reward. The question remains, does she believe that she can defeat War?

Lord Guilt believes she can. “I know that defeating, and then also killing the Duke of War is no easy feat. Which is why now is the time to attack.” The Madam’s eyes narrow suspiciously, gleaming to know what knowledge he knows. He explains that, “Right now he marches to face the Duke of Destruction.”

The Madam swiftly comments with a face of confusion, “Is he mad? War has never before defeated Destruction alone. What has changed?”

“He has been ordered by the Creator himself to do so. How can he say no?” The Lord knows exactly what he is talking about, and that is frightening. He shouldn’t be able to know anything due to Madam Honor’s shield.

The Lord then explains to her, “The Duke of Destruction has been attacking both Life’s and Death’s forces for his wicked amusement, and the Duke of War will attempt to defeat him. While they are locked in combat, both will be left open for you to attack and kill. If you’re lucky, you’ll rid Creation of two of its demons.”

Madam Honor stares upon Lord Guilt with an expression of disappointment and disapproval. “To attack either while in mid-combat is anything but honorable.”

For the first time, the Lord becomes truly annoyed. He moves to bring his face close to the Madam’s to intimidate her, which also surprises her. He reminds her, “Nothing is fair in war. Everything is permitted. The only truly honorable thing is victory and death. Now stop being naive and foolish, and bring Death the head of a Duke.” The Madam is awestruck by his claims, and practically frozen on the spot. The Lord then feels the need to remind her, “Is this truly something you wouldn’t do to revive your knights?”

Resounding, definitively, and disappointingly, Madam Honor answers, “No.”

“Will you do what needs doing?” the Lord asks, as he turns his back to walk away from her.

Madam Honor answers, “Yes.”

Lord Guilt almost inspiringly orders her, “Then go and pick up your sword.”

The Madam looks to the round table one last time, and reaches her hand out to it ever so slightly, and clenches her fist. Then she turns her back to the symbol of her power, the unity she herself signified. She turns to walk out the door to her courtyard and to her sword.

When the Madam leaves, the Lord chuckles to himself, as if trying to contain a laugh most evil. In his dastardly tone, he comments to himself as if he has achieved victory. “Peace, is he ever a diligent tactician. His skill for words has fueled the Madam’s inspiration.” What does Peace have to do with this?

By this time, the Madam is already walking over the drawbridge, not paying her courtyard another look. She will not return to look upon it again until she has knights to fill it with. No, she has only one thing on her mind, the weapon, her tool, Excalibur.

She walks to the stone with her head held high, with conviction fueled by both anger and a dark hope. This is the dangerous aspect of hope, it does not play sides.

Her eyes do not leave the sword as she proceeds ever closer to its place in the stone. Even when she stands before it, she can do nothing but stare. She believes herself unworthy to hold it, but knows she needs it. She does what most would consider dishonorable, and grasps a sword only moments before she had swore to never lift again. She does realize her hypocrisy.

Madam Honor clutches the sword’s grip, and pulls with all of her might. It does not budge, and her rage and annoyance fills her with unholy strength she has not wielded before. Excalibur squeaks, twists back and forth, it does whatever it can stay lodged in the stone, but it does not hold more power than the Madam. The Madam pulls the longsword out of the stone, raising it over her head in the air, where she inspects how it has changed, and reacted to the change in her. The blade has a splatter of black in its base, a look of infected veins. It is poisoned by what fuels its wielder, and the Madam recognizes this, and ignores this. It will not shatter, but this affliction will eat at her mind as it does her sword.

Lord Guilt who stands at the bridge, calls out to the Madam with a hearty smile, and arms open to her. “Behold! The woman who has pulled the sword from stone! Now use it to bring honor, as it has always been meant to!”

To be cheered on by this Lord is a strange feeling. The Madam feels conflicted, but not conflicted enough to second guess the monumental task before her. With her back to her home, she walks her path to War and Destruction, with the intent of coming back with their blood, or not at all.

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