A great map commanded the room. A gridded realm of canvass and ink stretched over continental furniture.
Mice in suspenders and shirtsleeves scurried, furry titans, over the landscape, plucking up and setting down pins, miniatures, and labels. They bore inkpots, pens, fine brushes; delicately altered the surface of the painted land. Beady eyes peered through thick spectacles, intent. Ash dribbled from cigarettes lodged in rodent jaws. Ears and whiskers twitched, concentrating. All in quiet, save a few gossipful mutters and the brush of footpads on taut canvass.
Someone spoke up. The mice perked their pink ears.
"Report: Expedition to Caircollin amended. Expunge it," said a woman with an open ledger in hand.
A mouse rushed to comply, snatched a label from the relevant grid-point. "Done, Smithers."
Smithers nodded. She ticked an item off her list. "Prospective numbers in Draum have risen again. Amend, plus three score."
Another mouse rushed to the continent-table's edge, removed a ledger from shelves neath its lip. He rifled through, adjusted a figure, skittered to plant a new pawn on an inked frontier town.
Nearby, in the rose-paneled wall, a door clicked brusquely open. Hard-toe flats passed through.
"Master Smithers. Updates from the cashiers," read a spectacled woman from a clipboard. "The estimate from this morning's return from Leeland Haunt is corrected to five thousand, and they are still degilding* the walls."
"Thank you," said Smithers, pointing to a mouse, who nodded, obliged, corrected yet another record.
"And the casualty rate was seventy percent, not eighty. A cutter presumed missing reported in, said the others tossed him off a bridge on the way back in hopes their shares would increase."
The table of mice chuckled. Smithers shook her head, disapproving. "Animals. Dock their benefits."
"Of course." She departed.
At the table, a brown mouse stood. She buffed ink from her clawed paws with a rag. "Any chance of an update from the Sansevie Raid?"
"Afraid not, Tiff. Communications are still down after the breakout."
"Shame. We were enjoying following that," said Tiff. The others, noses bent to work, nodded.
The door opened again. A bearded man swung through, panting. His tie was askew. He held a scrap of typewritten paper. "A tele from Sommersault Consortium," he heaved. "From the Yawn of Auld expedition." Smithers and the mice looked up with interest.
"Go on. Do breathe, Wilkins," said Smithers.
Wilkins gulped. "The cutters have withdrawn. They encountered an eidolon in the first hall."
The mice began gossiping minutely. Whiskers twitched, excitedly ablur. "Casualties?" squeaked one. Smithers glared at them, resignedly at the bearded man.
The mice cringed. "Damn," mumbled Smithers.
"They request immediate reinforcement," said Wilkins. "The Firm has heavy infantry** on retainer nearby."
Smithers curled her lip, frowned. "No need for that."
Wilkins gaped at her. "It tore them apart, Master."
"If it's an eidolon, Wilkins, it's probably been there two millennia. It's not going to leave, now." She turned to the mice. "Do we have any known errants, nearby?"
The mice scrabbled, opened a half-dozen ledgers. "One put up in Sommersault town. A Sir Courtebank," squeaked one. "And a Sir Hewn, of Tort is in County Persecht, with squires. Very good standing."
Wilkins frowned. "A knight team? Is that an appropriate thing to do?"
Smithers drew a thin squint of a smile. "Wilkins, I realize you are new to the Firm," she said. "But there are traditions to be upheld, for the sake of respect." The mice at the map-table all nodded. "To kill a knight, you must use a knight."
Smithers snapped her ledger shut. "It is the most appropriate thing to do."
A grating of steel shivered through the halls. Rasping, sparking; bounced off moldering grey walls and vaulted ceilings. Around occluded corners sconced with skull-faced statuary. The sole sound in bleak passages, save the crunch of bootnails on ancient tile.
Three pairs of bootnails. Three walkers down the high, dark corridors. Two were attendants; armored, laden with packs. One of them held a lantern. The other: A broad, rectangular shield, thickly pitted. They kept close behind a towering third.
This, their charge, ground cracks into the tile with every steelshod step. A towering man, queerly long of trunk and limb, clad completely in interlocking, scalloped steel. His every move hissed, whirred softly, driven by the cowled mass of hydraulic arms hidden close, connected to his broad back and every armored appendage. In the hinged elbow of one arm, he couched a plain helm of forged plate and steel mesh. Large, metal fingertips ground into the dome, nervous.
"It's close," he said.
"The sound?" said one squire, behind. She peered round the gigantic shield's burden, ear turned to the grating echo.
"The eidolon," nodded the Knight, pointing ahead. Ahead, just visible in the lamplight, showed stained lumps strewn over and against the floor and wall. Some dozen corpses, blotchy with fresh rot.
"Oh," startled the lantern-bearer. He jumped, caused weird shadows to writhe over the walls.
"Plague?" said the other, breathless. The two poised nervously.
"I would wager not," said the knight, keeping on. "These cutters had standing. Could afford their salt." He sneered, grimly. "In too many pieces to live again, anyway."
Only meters farther down showed an archway. Chipped, flanked by carven, cracked statues of death. Past it came the grating. "This'll be it. See that?" said the Knight, pointing above the arch. A stone plate was graven there, written in ancient speak and near-indecipherable. One squire squinted, read the words aloud.
"The litany?" she said, frowning. *** "That's meant to come at the beginning. How can this only now be the mouth of the tomb, after so far?"
The Knight shook his head. "Can say neither why, nor whom built it this way." He extended a free hand to his shieldbearer. "We have but one purpose here."
Wordless, the attendants set to work on their ironclad master. They slid his shield, oiled, into its T-shaped mount upon his forearm plate. It took fast, buttressed by reinforcing spokes up to the shoulder. They set and rotated the helm, locked it into its armored neck ring. Its mesh eyes peered only just above a great, banded alloy gorget. They disengaged and carefully withdrew a mailcoil, whispering with the contained energy of a hundred meters of vibrating alloy hairspring, from the man's steel back, replaced it with a fresh surrogate. Then, they proffered the hammer.
This weapon, a meter and more long and cruelly beaked, the knight took up himself; locked it fast in the chainmaille pad of his paw. Steel scraped 'gainst knurled steel as he gripped it, breathing slow, helmet bowed. Listening.
From beyond the dark arch, the grating still came. Short, close. The Knight looked up.
"Put the flares in quick, after me," said he, hollow within his steel casque. He stretched, rolled his shoulders. The armor complied, pliable, produced a chorus of small clicks and pressurized squeaks as plates and pistons ground over and within each other.
"Wish me well," he said, breathless with sudden energy.
"As ever," said the shieldbearer. Her fellow nodded, smiled grimly. The Knight nodded. With loping strides, impossibly light, he made for the arch and ducked beneath. Darkness surrounded him.
Then, a pair of stars arced in from behind: Flares, bright white and near-smokeless, tossed by the squires. What they revealed gave the Knight pause. An open plain of pillars on grey stone. Bleak, unadorned, shedding shadows like trees into the immense black beyond the flare's light. And midst them, a rough marble throne with three corpses slumped at its side.
Upon it sat the eidolon. A creature of wrought iron, plated all over and studded thickly with decorative rivets. Humanlike, queerly elongated. It hunched where it sat, knees higher than shoulders, long neck bowed to where spider-hands worked an oblong stone over two meters of gleaming steel. With every strop, the stone, whetted with some red oil, ripped a grating note from the cruciform blade.
At this sight, the Knight paused, gripped his hammer. A breath caught in his throat.
The eidolon's flat-topped helmet rose, turned to face the sound. No eyes showed in the long, tall faceplate. Only two conelike divots for ears. A crack and a clatter of stone echoed under the pillars as it released the whetstone. Then, a breath. A long, drawn-out pull through dry tubes of flesh. And as it inhaled, it stood. A hundred layered plates of iron clinked and slid on the willowy limbs of that protracted form. It stood like an iron lamppost, straight, cast a spare silhouettes in the blaring flarelight.
Dwarfed by a meter or more, the Knight swallowed, straightened.
"Eidolus," he pronounced, voice too-quiet within the helm. "Fratrem in ferro," louder. He lifted his hammer, pointed it at the iron guardian's sword. "Perform for me the task for which we were made."
The eidolon nodded. Slow, it approached, blade lax at its side. The Knight raised his shield to match, bent at the knees, on guard. His every move elicited a series of mechanical retorts.
"On your guard," declared the Knight.
The eidolon kept on, head cocked.
"On your–" he yelped. The eidolon swiped at him, fast. A stab, hooked so far round from the right it would have connected, save the shield's right corner. A gouge showed in the steel slab. Heels crunched over the stone, driven by the weight of the blow.
Without pause, the eidolon pulled its huge blade into both hands and struck again, overhead, down at the Knight's back with the point. Pistons spat and groaned, jerked to lift the shield and absorb the blow. Hinged knees buckled, momently.
This proceeded a half score times again. The eidolon, towering erect, whipped its great weight of steel thought the stale air with casual ease. The Knight, hunched under his battered slab, groaned. In the violence, black and silver steel glimmered with countless pinpricks, reflecting the flare's stark starlight.
Another swing. This time, the Knight, already croached, leapt aside. Steel ripped through the space he'd occupied, came back around too late. The eidolon, legs locked, could not dodge the beak of steel which punched greedily through a plate above its hip.
The wrought-iron creature staggered, but only briefly, righted itself. The hammer ground free, pulled with it an arc of dark ichor smelling of putrid almonds. It stood hastily, sword fending, before the panting Knight. Purple-red gore and a wash of some clear oil trickled from neath its plates.
They stood a moment, silent. From the archway, there sounded small cries of encouragement. The Knight heaved, gasped, grinned at the squire's words. With every breath, with every movement, his armor whirred, clicked. He straightened.
The eidolon began to circle fast around him, sword still extended. Dry breath rattled in its long, iron helm, canted to listen.
Abruptly, it feinted. The Knight jerked to parry, groaned at the false move. He leapt back, crashed his heels into the tile, expected a counterattack. He armor screamed with exertion. The eidolon's head swiveled, followed.
It feinted again. Again the Knight leapt, this time forward, retaliating. The eidolon made little attempt to mitigate the plates and hunk of gristly flesh torn off its thigh.
"What are you doing?" gasped the Knight.
It swung again. The Knight countered, but met air. The eidolon had pirouetted. A rush of air and speeding steel rippled behind his back, inches close.
They still circled. The eidolon's head faced sideways, ear to its opponent. It feinted again. The Knight dodged, armor groaning and shrieking with pressure.
The eidolon stopped, lept a step back, sword limp.
It stepped forth again, slow. "Are you listening?" said the knight, as it neared. "Listening to my armor?"
Still it came. The Knight remained in place. He scoffed. "Trying to listen out a weak spot? Though you'd have some better trick than that!"
Before him, the eidolon jerked its sword up. The Knight struck as soon as it did, expecting a faint. It wasn't a feint.
The eidolon struck down, overhead. As the Knight's hammer bit again into his foe, the eidolon's great blade cracked deep into the mechanisms of his back.
There was a shattering of steel, a crack like a whip and a thunderbolt combined. Hundreds of yards of alloy hairspring exploded, shattered and sinuous, from their housing in the Knight's armor, tore chunks of steel plate, flesh, and mechanism with them. The armored man was thrown up and into his foe, who swatted him limp from the air with a counterswing.
From the arch, the squires cried out in dismay, watched the wiry, wrought-iron giant bend over their motionless knight; his chest-plates now caved, his armor ruined. They watched as it seized him one-handed by the helm, and, with shock, dragged him, limp and grinding to the arch. They scampered back, watched the eidolon deposit their charge within reach. At that, it stopped.
Slow, bleeding, the eidolon resumed its throne. Rasping, battered, it bowed its helm, set to waiting.
Waiting, to perform again the task for which it was made.
In all the courts and orders of civilization, there belong knights.
They are human exemplars. Paragon soldiers. Men and women made literally larger than life by traditions honorable, martial, and chemical. Nobles, bound by heritage and respect. Soldiers, unmatched in might and cunning. Inhumans, tempered and crafted by rare armor and obscure, terrible processes of augmentation.
They are a legendary caste. In peace, they sit the courts and parliament-houses of nations, lend to their leaders the level surety and wise ears of heirloom wisdom. In war, they accompany fellow soldiers in battle, make an inspiring and devastating vanguard. In uncertain times, they venture; live as mighty errants seeking use in troubled lands.
In all these actions, knights hold to various forms of chivalric code. Regardless of origin state or brotherhood, these are invariably doctrines of honor and respect for mankind. † They are also condemning codes of justice for inhuman and human alike. Knights view these traditions, these limits and cautions, as necessary strictures; for only they reckon the true, augmented might at their disposal.
From their smallest days, prospective knights, chosen from the most apt of young squires and nobles, are raised for singular purpose. Among their studies in science, tactics, and history, they are taught restraint, honor, and level-handedness. These facets of character and education are deemed necessary accompaniments to the terrible processes of physical manufacture which they simultaneously undergo.
What these processes are, precisely, varies greatly from one state or knightley order's tradition to another. Most include obscure and painful enhancements by way of tincture, surgery, and decoction to height, muscle mass, and durability during key developmental phases. †† A given knight will stand head and shoulders above his fellow man, weigh three or more times their mass. His or her blood will run thick and dark through taught veins, large under strengthened skin.
These enhancements, these augmentations, are not the sole provider of a knight's titanic power. Nor even are they the best known. †††
Clockwork armor, as it is commonly known, is the most chiefly recognizable icon of Coastal knighthood. Suits are custom made and immensely heavy, suited only to a knight's enhanced resources and strength. The combination of hydraulics, whose accumulators are pressurized by a maincoil similar to those used in gunsprings, and mechanical aids which drive a suit's limbs provide the knight within an even greater degree of physical supremacy.
A knight and his suit, both huge, ornate, and expensive, are maintained by a parade of squires. These are not common folk. Rather, they are themselves soldiers and experts in the fields required to maintain their augmented charge. Armorers, ballistics specialists, scouts, and, most notably: Doctors learned in the strange processes which gift a knight their strength. The secrets known by these workers are thought by most to be closely-held marvels of modern science. They are not.
Knighthood's origins are secret, not because they are guarded patents or private procedures, but because they are sorcery. Artifact-methods, relics, reverse engineered from the corpses of all knight's progenitor: The eidolon.
Eidola. Deathless guardians in tombs and ancient places. Twisted knights of old, made strange and single-minded by sorcery and millennia-long posts at past ages' forbidden gates. Creatures, presumably once-human, made horrific and durable for the ages. These knights of old, with their steel skin, corrugated veins, and misshapen, mighty frames, are the basis for all of modern knighthood.
For this hideous truth, the knightly codes of chivalry exist. To separate today's knights in both thought and potential action from the terrible nature of their progenitors. To clad and reassure them so profoundly in their purity and exemplary human status as to enable them to face fellow knights on the battlefield, justified by the coda, and to even face their ancient brothers in single combat, assured of the other's inhumanity. All without doubt.
Yet, with every passing decade, with every knight made stronger and more inadvertently inhuman than before, swollen by the weal of ancient sorcery, some begin to question. They question, for they see reforming the terrors of old. The ways by which the folk of millennia past removed their own humanity, brought themselves up as sorcerer-kings.
For now, the codes of chivalry hold. Inhuman knights still respect their mortal lords. And they will yet, until the day one begins to question.
** Most banks, in addition to their bevy of hired cutters, maintain not-inconsiderable private security forces. They utilize these for purposes outside those typically entrusted to cutters. Usually, defense of bank officials and locations, and, rarely, the clearing of especially stubborn tombs. They are paid a salary, unlike cutters, and are primarily composed of heavy infantry personnel.
† Followers of Aveth claim their humanocentric faith as the basis of such tradition. Northern knight-brotherhoods denounce this, claim instead that their tradition was formed to serve all of civilization, regardless of kind.
†† A knight cannot be manufactured after puberty. The human body is insufficiently pliable to mould, after this stage. Even a successfully generated knight requires frequent and unpleasant medical maintenance of a dire nature to maintain their augmented bodies.
††† Their presence is paid carefully small attention, by many states. Suspicion of unnatural enhancement of such paragons, especially in the South, would be frowned upon if better known.