“Thus they gave oath;
To war ‘til the ends of the earth
Relenting not to love, dread or hearth
To league of hosts or pious chant
Until dominion returned to Levant.”– Extract from the ‘Anthem of Smoke’, widely considered the founding epic of the Dominion of Levant
It was time.
Yara of Nowhere could still feel that much even after that vicious child had torn away her eyes. The ragged eyeholes of what she had once been – all the stories she had been able to Narrate – still remained, like a drunk groping for a bottle in the dark. So she went to one of those places that were not really places, where no feet could take you, and beheld the lunacy of a single man tying the hands of an entire Choir. A faceless, implacable sea held back by a stubborn dam denying it the right to pass. Forbidding the fish to swim, judgement to judge. Was there anything in the lay of Creation more impossible to break than pure, genuine conviction?
The Tribunal saw her, for she was not hidden. The Hierarch, little more than a burning swath of will and indignation, could see nothing at all. A stroke of luck, for in this state the merest trace of his attention would force her to Wander away – that nasty little authority of his would make her open her own throat otherwise, going through with the sentence the League of Free Cities had passed on her. That she was no longer of Aoede if Nicae didn’t seem to matter in the slightest to the authority’s boundaries, even though the right to pass judgement over her had been bound to the face. The Hierarch had always been a fucking headache of a man.
Yara would have reached for her flask if she could in this empty and too-bright place.
“Thought I’d come help you out of your spot of trouble,” Yara told them.
Agreement. Impatience. Curiosity. Why had she not come sooner? It was her purpose.
“All in due time, my darlings,” she told the Tribunal. “Besides, you can’t kill him.”
Dismay. Anger. The Seraphim felt shallowly but broadly, like an ocean three feet deep. Even after several millennia she was not sure why they had been made to feel at all. There was a time she’d thought they might once have been like her, learning just a little too much about the underpinnings of Creation to be allowed to muck about by the Gods, but she’d since stumbled over proof they had been created. Her best guess was that even limited emotional capacity improved their ability to learn and adapt to the ever-changing mores of mortals. Compassion had once been Reverence, after all. Like Role and Name, the essence could not change but the manifestation must adapt.
Yara wagged a finger at the angels.
“You know the rules,” she said. “You’re no longer being called and he’s not exactly attacking you – keeping you locked up’s not the same thing. I can’t just put my finger on your side of the scale and let you turn him into dust.”
Reluctant agreement. Yara could, but she had been lying to angels since before men knew how to forge iron.
“Of course,” Yara grinned at them fondly, “it doesn’t mean I can’t play favourites. I’ve got a way for you to get rid of our little friend here without stepping over the lines.”
Elbow in the side, a nudge and a wink. Stern disapproval from the Tribunal. They really were such bores, one of the many reasons she’d never gotten along with them. Their heroes tended to be fascinating, but the old birds themselves? Terribly tedious.
“Now now,” she mused. “Don’t give me that guff. I’m here to help, yes? Now, our old buddy-”
She did not speak either name or Name. She knew better.
“- can’t be bumped off, but you can do the opposite,” Yara told them.
“You can resurrect him,” she said.
Immediate anger. A reward, a prize, when the man was undeserving? Not fond of the idea at all, which was no surprise when it ran contrary to their nature. That was fine. She’d talked so many ancient monsters into their deaths she’d forgotten most of them.
“You’re insisting on thinking of it as a reward,” Yara of Nowhere said, clicking her tongue, “but does it have to be? Think of it not as bringing him back but as moving him.”
Caution again, but they were listening.
“Exile,” she smiled. “That’s a punishment, isn’t it?”
Reluctant agreement. And the trick here, was that they were going to have to rely on her. Because the Tribunal only did one sentence – yes or no, the flip of the coin – so for nuance they needed a mortal anchor. And with theirs out of their reach, no longer the White Knight and changing in his convictions, they couldn’t afford to be too picky. And Yara, for all her… imperfections, was here.
“We’ll send him somewhere out of the way,” she told them, smile broadening. “A Hell, yeah? Let him do Above some good dying.”
Caution remaining, the thought more nuanced than most they possessed.
“Sure, it wipes you out for a day,” Yara shrugged. “But you melted his body, it’s on you to make it again. And what’s better for Creation: silence for one day before you return in full, or remaining silent until the Last Dusk?”
It was no choice at all. Choirs could tolerate idleness for long, it ran against the fundamental purpose. Playing them wasn’t like manipulating someone with a soul, it was more like a jigsaw puzzle: move the pieces around the right way and it’d all click into place as inevitably as the rising of the sun.
Agreement, the Tribunal expressed.
Yara of Nowhere grinned, laying hand on the essence of them.
“Let me take care of that for you,” she said.
Guide, her soul sang, the authority seizing the underpinnings of Creation. One nudge to get the angels free past, one nudge to keep his eyes away from her and one last nudge to ensure he’d end up where she needed him to be. That was the most terrible of her powers, in truth.
Knowing the right place and the right time.
He landed in the grass.
It was soft against his bare feet, and though there was no sun in the sky above there was no lack of light. The breeze had him pulling his frayed diplomat’s robes close on his haggard frame, eyes blinking numbly as he realized he was seeing again. With his own eyes. He was breathing with lungs, shivering with skin. There was the scent of dung on the wind, and somewhere ahead a long field of barley. Beyond it, at the edge of the horizon, he glimpsed the sloping silhouettes of a village. People. His mind was open, never to be closed again, and so he could not help but Receive the sight of them.
He had seen this place before. Green land stretching in every direction, an endless expanse of villages and fields and rivers. Men and women and children that never went far from the place of their birth, taught that they were to be content and peaceful with mother’s milk. There were no dangers, no dooms, nothing to fear in the Serenity. Only one beautiful day after another, until one day you breathed your last and the Fair King called your mortal coil to the Lands Beyond. Some would have called it a paradise, a place without sickness or war.
Anaxares the Diplomat called it a lie.
The middle-aged man raised his hand, felt the breeze slip through his fingers and slide through the last of his sparse and greying hair. It was baked into the bones of this place, the insolent will that claimed itself supreme master of all that dwelled under the empty sky. He could feel it pressing down on all that dwelled here like an unseen sun, a tyranny so subtle and ancient it was no longer known as anything of the sort. But Anaxares was a son of Bellerophon, born under the stele, and he knew tyranny. It was not in his nature to suffer it silently.
The fingers closed around the breeze. His Name roused, groggily opening an eye.
“All are free, or none,” the Hierarch told the empty heavens. “I will suffer no compromise in this.”
His aspect lit up, and like ink in water began to spread. Spreading through the grass and the wind, the morning dew and the dim light of nowhere at all. Indict, the Hierarch had ordered, and the command burned away at the will holding this realm in thrall like acid. Breathing out, the old diplomat pulled at his loose robes and took a tentative step forward. The grass was wet against the sole of his feet, but it was no unpleasant. He still remembered walking well, he’d done much of it… before. So Anaxares took a second step, towards the fields and the village beyond them, feeling his aspect seep into the ground beneath his feet.
And where the Hierarch tread, serenity shattered.
Dawn rose over Keter, silent. Like a breath sucked in. Banners rose, armies moved and horrors stirred. Thousands knew, deep in their bones, that this was the last pass.
And so the Warden broke the Sword of the Rest over her knee, freeing Below’s stories at last.
The Firstborn had not begun at the forefront of this siege.
In some ways, General Rumena was thankful for it. The First Under the Night was showing consideration for the losses at Serolen and the great war for its borders, restraining her expectation and preserving their strength. It was a kindness. But part of it had been displeased, even as the Firstborn were relegated to guarding the camps under cover of dark and protecting the wardstones during the day. They had not fought, had not bled as the armies of the humans had. The war of the Firstborn had been waged very far away, far from the eyes of cattle, and their might doubted because of it.
This morn, as the sun rose over the Burning Lands, Rumena the Tomb-maker would put those doubts to rest.
Mighty clustered around it, those with the strength to see and to shield, and as the first rays of light scoured the sky the old general sat surrounded by a ring of obsidian and steel. It sunk deep into itself, into the embrace of Night. Deep enough that darkness swallowed it whole, as if it had stepped into the abyss. It breathed until it no longer felt the need to, the faint and distant sounds of thundering sorcery colliding against Night slowly fading away. Its will sunk into the ground, like the roots of an ancient tree, and as it breathed out it unleashed the Secret of Stone. Not as it had in Hainaut, fighting in the tunnels, or as it had in Serolen when fighting under the sky.
Instead it gripped the tides of the earth and moved with it.
Power flowed through its veins, raw and urgent, but Rumena gave a crooked smile as it opened its eyes. Even as it rose to its feet the ground shifted under them. It did not need to look to feel the movement, the bridges the Hidden Horror had broken sprouting anew. Stone and earth jutted out, charging across the chasm that made Keter an island even as spells fruitlessly tried to stop the assault. A bridge formed, then two. Three, four, five – Rumena stopped only at then, still keeping the Night clutched tight against its breast as it began to march forwards.
The Enemy came for its life with reckless hate. Storms of sorcery, arrows and bolts and every nasty trick the Pale King had learned over its many years of darkness. But what did that matter, when the finest of Mighty stood at the Tomb-maker’s side? Magic died in the dark, like a candle guttering out. Arrows were swallowed like delicacies, stones plucked out of the air like toys. Sigils burned around the general, Mighty laughing at the Enemy’s impotent wrath. And so it came that Rumena stood before the last gate of Keter, a mass of steel and sorcery set in great towers of stone.
It laid a hand against the steel, feeling the enchantments within try to bite at its skin.
“A strong gate,” Rumena praised, looking up. “Crafted cleverly, its magics mighty.”
The old general laughed, revealing crooked teeth.
“But it is set in stone, Dead King,” the Tomb-maker said, “and I hold in my hands the secret to it.”
It struck out, knuckles hitting the steel. The might rippled across steel, the sound of it like a gong struck, and twice more Rumena the Tomb-maker knocked at death’s door.
On the third strike, the gates fell.
The stone it was set it crumbled to pieces, dust in the wind, and the enchanted mass of steel fell on the dead behind it with a loud thump. Dust kicked up and General Rumena met the eyes of the horde waiting behind.
“Before nine years have passed,
Keter’s gates will lie broken
as trembles Death’s holdfast.”
It had taken an oath in the lands of Procer, sworn the sigil of the Rumena upon it. At last it stood fulfilled. It took a step forward, the ground shuddering under its feet, and around it the Mighty leaned forwards like wolves hungry to fall upon the fold.
“Chno Sve Noc,” the last general of the Empire Ever Dark laughed.
“Chno Sve Noc,” the Mighty shouted back, and Night sang with them.
The Firstborn had not begun at the forefront of this siege, but they would end there.
The Mirror Knight moved quickly, for a man his size in heavy plate, but as Named reckoned it he was slow. Hanno had learned to match his pace to the other man’s, as it would not do to leave him behind. He was, after all, serving as Christophe de Pavanie’s bodyguard. The Dead King had to know of the Severance by now, of the blade meant to slay him. And while the Hidden Horror might know better than to try to destroy something fated to slay him with his own hand, there was another way to ensure the blade never reached him.
Killing its wielder.
“It rankles,” Christophe suddenly said.
Hanno slowed in his step, falling by the other man’s side as they halted beneath a half-crumbled wall. A row of houses had been brought down into a makeshift barricade here, eventually collapsing into a ragged hill of rubble. From here, they could see the fierce melee ahead. The Lycaonese vanguard was tangling with skeletons, shouting war cries in Reitz as they tried to swiftly shatter the enemy’s ranks. The Proceran thrust into the city through the same gate as yesterday was to be entirely about speed: like an arrow loosed or a spear thrust, all the way to the inner wall.
“What does?” Hanno asked.
“That we do not fight with them,” the Mirror Knight said. “We could save lines, Hanno.”
The dark-skinned hero grimaced. That was true. But it was not the plan for a reason.
“We won’t win the battle in the city,” Hanno frankly said. “We cannot. Everything we do is to get to the Dead King and end this. That means-”
“That the Severance and its wielder must reach him,” Christophe curtly said. “I know.”
The Mirror Knight sighed, fingers going for the sword at his hip that was a mundane blade – at least compared to the one forged out of the Saint’s aspect in the Arsenal.
“But it rankles,” he repeated. “It feels like we’re abandoning them.”
Christophe was not the only one who felt that way. Named had not been entirely pulled out of the armies, but they had very much been thinned. Most of them had been placed in bands, roving to put down Revenants and find the Scourges, while a few others had undertaken particular tasks. The Warden herself had taken a band for such a purpose without giving an explanation except for a knowing smile. Catherine Foundling, Hanno had thought, was becoming unpleasantly fond of vagueness.
“Once we reach the inner wall we’ll have fights of our own,” Hanno said. “Most of us after the Dead King, but there will be other duties as well.”
“There is no chance of either of us returning to the battle,” Christophe bluntly said. “You must know this.”
Hanno did not disagree. They were both too useful to be spared for any purpose but the destruction of the King of Death.
“I know,” Hanno quietly said.
And it rankled, but what else could he do?
They began moving again, shadowing the Proceran advance, and the man who had once been the White Knight could only pray there would be anyone left alive in Keter by the time the Dead King ended.
Basilia had stormed the walls of Keter once before, but the horror of that day was a candle to the bonfire before her: though they were not even an hour into the battle, there was no longer a Penthesian army.
The Empress of Aenia watched the ragged remains of the soldiers and mercenaries the Exarch had scraped together for the campaign flee down the avenue, the undead leisurely loosing arrows at their back, and felt her heart clench with fear. Her forces had pushed past the Tombmaker’s bridge and the shattered gates in good order, clearing a foothold in the lower city, but that had been as far as the armies of the League got. What should have been a hard push into the enemy’s capital was instead turning into a desperate holding action, the enemy pushing in on all sides with frenetic intensity.
Basilia had claimed a tower as her forward headquarters, deciding the higher vantage point was worth the risks of attack as long as she had mages to protect the place, and looking down at her offensive she could already see the first signs of collapse. On her right flank the Delosi were already buckling under the pressure, the citizen levy and mercenaries losing ground as the flood of undeath came at them relentlessly. There were spurts of flame and poison whenever the krixilia threw themselves, the swollen ghouls full of burning oil and foul alchemies scrabbling as deep into the Delosi ranks as they could before exploding.
On her left flank the Stygians were holding, as much because the Spears of Stygia were as unflinching as any dead as because the Seventeen Schools of Atalante had finally taken the field. The priest-philosophers, a bunch of ragged and quarrelsome fools at the best of times, wielded Light as a painter would a brush: it curled and twisted, forming into arcs and elegant sweeps as it cut a burning swath through the dead. The Atalantians would tire, though. And when they did, the dead would again prove that a phalanx could hold them back but not beat them. That was the source of most her troubles, in truth. She spat through the window, seeing the faces of her generals were as grim as hers.
“If we are kept bottled up any longer,” Empress Basilia bluntly said, “we’ve lost.”
Grunts of agreement.
“Those small streets are murder on the mercenaries,” General Pallas said. “Their equipment’s too irregular to be able to hold proper formations.”
A problem that afflicted some of the cities more than others. Delos and Atalante had always heavily relied on mercenary armies to prop up their own mediocre hosts, and though Penthes usually boasted a decent force under professional generals that army had been melted into scraps during the conflicts that had afflicted the League since the beginning of the Uncivil Wars. Even Nicae, whose armies had checked Helikean and Stygian conquerors for centuries, had been forced to bolster its ranks with sold swords after the… war of succession that had dethroned the Trakas.
“We need to push further up avenue before they rout,” Basilia said. “Once we have, it, we can sweep around and cut off the flow of reinforcements that’s keeping us penned in.”
“The Penthesians just tried that, Your Majesty,” General Alexios flatly said. “It was no great success.”
An understatement. The Dead King’s commanders had barred the way up the avenue only irregularly, leaving room for the League to advance if it could break through the barricades, but that was because they’d turned the ground into a slaughterhouse. Houses had been collapsed along the length to turn the avenue into a funnel, and then further back collapsed again to turn into platforms for archers and catapults. The strategy at work was simple enough, after that. Keter had scraped together thousands of dead in armour wielding spears and arrayed them in heavy blocks.
And when the Penthesians had charged, trying to break through, the undead had begun firing mass volleys. They didn’t care about hitting their own soldiers, just about filling the air with arrows and stones. The Penthesians had bravely fought, breaking through two squares even through heavy fire, but they had dropped like flies. Fed into the meat grinder, they had been spit back out as bloody bones. Ad now, even as the last of them fled to the safety of allied ranks, the two blocks of spearmen they’d chewed through were replaced as armoured undead smoothly advanced.
They stayed there, silent and waiting.
“If we do not break through,” Basilia darkly replied, “the Proceran offensive will be at risk of being enveloped.”
And they could not afford that. Though the Grand Alliance was pushing into Keter from every direction, only two pushes were meant to make it to the inner wall: Rozala Malanza’s and High Marshal Nim’s. The other offensives were meant to cover their flanks and allow them to deliver the assets that would keep the Dead King from killing them all with this nightmare city and the sorcery that moved it. The Titan Kreios was with the Procerans, which meant their push could not be allowed to stall. The ancient Gigantes might be able to go at it alone, she knew, but it would be a risk. If he were to be slain then they would all follow.
There was something different about today, Basilia thought as her generals began to bicker over ploys that might take them up the avenue. The Hidden Horror had always been a fearsome opponent, but the tactics he employed today were… aggressive. He was no longer aiming at victory but instead at extermination. The Empress chewed her lip. He fights like a cornered man. What happened?
“- of course we need someone to march up the avenue, but there’s no army that can,” Alexios harshly said. “That much sustained fire is a guaranteed rout. We need to-”
“- a swift thrust forward is the only way, getting stuck is death. We should-”
It was Basilia’s wandering eye that saw the first sign of it in the troops below. The shift of the Nicaean back ranks, pressing closer to the beleaguered Delosi. A commander was making room for troops to press forward. Who? Though she had noticed from up here, officers closer to the ground must have as well. Basilia turned as a young man in standard scale burst into the room, paling at the sight of his empress and a gaggle of generals. He knelt, his bushy hair flopping around as he did.
“You have a message,” Basilia stated.
It was not a question.
“Captain Calista reports that the Republic is on the move,” the young man replied. “She sent a runner to demand an explanation and was charged with passing an answer the Protector of the League.”
Bellerophon. What were the madmen up to?
“Speak it,” she ordered.
The young man nervously cleared his throat.
“By a majority of seven thousand four hundred and fifty-nine to three thousand one hundred and sixty-four, as well as eight abstentions and three invalid votes, the Republic of Bellerophon has voted to serve as vanguard of the League. The Protector may proceed at her leisure.”
There were some laughs behind her, but Basilia did not share the mirth. She stilled instead, eye turning to the moving soldiers below.
“Ready all our forces,” the Empress of Aenia said. “I want our foot ready to follow behind them.”
“You must be jesting, Your Majesty,” General Myrine frowned. “The rabble will taste a volley and rout. They-”
“They voted on it,” Basilia cut through curtly. “They voted on it, general. It doesn’t matter if a hundred or a thousand of them die on the first salvo. So long as they have legs, they will keep walking forward.”
She barked out her orders. The Nicaeans were to reinforce the Delosi, keep the flank from bending too much, but Helike’s full must was to prepare for the push. And, ignoring the protests of her generals, Basilia Katopodis put on her helmet. She would not leave her men to fight alone. Sweeping down from the tower as her retinue trailed behind, she found her horse and mounted quickly. Already, ahead of her, she saw the Nicaeans moving out of the way for the advancing ranks of the Bellerophans. They were, she thought, so very close to being a mob.
The equipment was old, the manuals obsolete and most the officers drawn by lot. Some spears were tipped in iron or bronze instead of steel, the armour was a simple tunic of mail and their shields were of an oval shape no one had used in a few centuries. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who had been added to the levy. Some of them stooped from old age while others couldn’t be older than thirteen, tall and short, limping and hale. None of them were soldiers, not really. It was a sea of farmers and bakers and masons that’d put on armour, none of them really trained. And as the frontline approached the killing grounds where the Dead King, they halted.
“Shields up,” officers called out. “Spears down.”
The citizens of the Republic of Bellerophon obeyed in disorder, almost laughably so, half of them beginning with the spear instead of the shield. And then, unhesitating, they began to march up the avenue.
Basilia’s knuckles turned white as she clutched her reins tight, seeing the score of deaths the first volley caused. Ballistae and catapults ran red furrows down the lines, arrows fell like rain and even a few streaks of sorcery burned through men like smoke.
The Bellerophans slowed, closed ranks, and resumed their advance.
It was madness, Basilia thought. The Republic’s army smashed into the first block of skeleton spearmen gracelessly, its own soldiers barely more skilled than the dead, and burst through even as catapults crushed entire knots of men with ever stone and smoke was blown into their faces.
After the third block of spearmen was shattered, stones were rolled down into their ranks from the heights on both sides. The wake of the great stones looked like bloody clawmarks from where Basilia stood, as if a monster had slashed through the ranks, but without flinching the Bellerophans did the same as they had from the start: they slowed, closed ranks, and resumed their advance.
Through hail and storm and smoke, through arrows and crossbows and javelins, through screaming ghouls and snakes with the faces of men, the Republic of Bellerophon advanced unflinching. It plodded forward like a donkey pulling a plough, steady and so terribly unhurried. A hush had fallen over the battle at the sight of it, even war cries petering out at the sight of such atrocious bravery.
Close to eleven thousand Bellerophans had begun the march up the avenue. When the army reached the last barricade and clumsy hacked it down, barely two thousand were left. And when they were done, when their walk through ruin ended and they finished what they had set out to do, the citizens of the Republic did not shout in triumph or scream boasts at the sky. Instead they offered the hordes of the Dead King the casual contempt of utter silence as they simply turned around and began their march back.
They’d achieved what they had set out to, after all. What else was there to do?
Empress Basilia watched them, that battered host of indifferent lunatics, and a laugh bubbled out of her throat. In their eyes she saw a light she had seen before, in those of a man she had never liked but had learned to respect.
“They still do you proud, Diplomat,” she murmured. “Wherever you are, know that.”
And now it was time for the Empress of Aenia to do her part. The Bellerophans had cleared the way, and behind Basilia stood Helike’s finest ready to dance with death. Not so much as a single slinking ghoul would reach the Proceran flank, if she had anything to say about.
Unfortunately for the Dead King, she did.
“HELIKE,” the Empress shouted, raising her sword, “WITH ME!”
Akua was becoming used to being handed godheads, a sentence that she would have been skeptical of even at the age of seventeen when she’d genuinely thought the world was hers for the taking. It was sadly typical of Catherine to keep tossing her the keys to divinity like they were loose change from her pocket. Also as usual, the unthinking display of trust had Akua at war between feeling tenderness and fury.
It was quite vexing.
“Hells, Hakram’s in a mood today,” Archer grunted.
The golden-eyed sorcerers cast a look at the fighting in the distance, where a torrent of orcish warriors was tearing through dug-in defences as if they were sandcastles. At their head the unmistakeable silhouette of the Warlord in his scorched plate was leading the charge, crushing everything in his way in a display of pure rage that reminded Akua of the reason her Soninke ancestors had learned to build enchanted city walls.
“His assault with the Levantines failed yesterday,” Akua replied. “He has something to prove now.”
“He’s not the only one who has things to make up for,” she said.
Akua laid a light hand on her companion’s arm, but as she had expected Archer was not hungry for comfort. Though the sorcerers found it absurd that Indrani blamed herself for not being in Keter to check the Hawk yesterday – she’d been with the League armies out in the Ossuary, as the Scourge had fought there until then – the Woe tended to embrace unearned guilt that they simply refused to be talked out of. It was endearing in the way that a three-legged cat might be. Somewhat charming, but likely to get them killed one of these days.
More unfortunate was that Akua had begun to dislike the prospect of them getting killed, which did her no favours.
Archer shook her head, shaking off whatever thoughts she’d been contemplating to cast a wary look around them. Akua had been keeping them under illusion as they moved from rooftop to rooftop as much as they could, only dipping down to the streets when they must, but there was no telling if the spell was enough to trick the Dead King’s many watching eyes. It was why they were staying relatively close to the offensive of the Clans, and near the avenue where the Praesi push under the Black Knight would take place. The chaos should keep attention off them.
The Autumn Crown that Akua carried strapped to her back in an enchanted container was risky to carry with only her and Archer for escort, but it would have been even riskier to keep it with an army. The Dead King was bound to be looking for the weapons forged to destroy him.
“Come on,” Archer said. “We need to keep moving.”
Akua nodded, adjusting the straps going down her back to ensure she wasn’t going to drop a godhead on the ground, and follower her friend.
As a child, Sargon Isaru had seen the face of Greed.
The Isaru had not been land-kings in centuries, their city swallowed by Istar’s ever-expanding borders and turned into a district of the capital, but the family was powerful still. Vast wealth and closeness to the Hall of Hearths had made them more influential than many who could raise armies with a stomp of their feet. There were some who would have been satisfied with this. The Isaru had not been, hungry for wealth and power and praise. For anything that might raise them above their rivals for the King Under the Mountain’s favour.
So they had sought to build a Great Forge, and why not? Their ancestors had been famed smiths once, known for clever devices, it was in their blood. And owning the thirteenth of the Great Forges would bring great prestige to the Isaru, as well as great profit when they began selling arms to the most belligerent of the land-kings. As for royal favour, Sargon’s mother had decided on a bold stroke: to dedicate the Forge to the god that within the king even before he passed and freed that divinity to stand with his divine kin. It was heretical flattery, but the man was not known for his humility.
Greed, Sargon had thought even as a child, it was all Greed. That deep and unrelenting longing that lay coiled in the heart of all dwarves, moving them to take and keep. A disease if left unchecked, but also if too tightly held back: you could go mad by denying your Greed entirely. Turn into a feverish animal that knew no reason, eating flesh and murdering for colourful pebbles. Noble families, good blood, must master their Greed. It was a sign of poor breeding, poor character to do otherwise. But Sargon had thought, hearing the older folk talk, that there was nothing mastered about this Greed. It was quiet and subtle, like a poison, and they had all drunk deep of it.
When the crust of the earth was punctured and the magma poured out, the Soul of Fire that angrily rose up was older than any had suspected. One of the old leviathans come close to the border between stone and fire. Sargon was there with the family when it rampaged, tearing through bindings as if they were clay and slaughtering thousands before it was driven away. A disaster that turned all the greedy hopes of the Isaru to ash in a single stroke as swaths of their district burned and dwarves choked to death in smoke-filled tunnels. Sargon learned a lesson about Greed that day, but not only that of others.
For in the moment where the Soul of Fire emerged, the silhouette of fire and smoke from the burning depths of the Deepest Sea, his mind could think of only one word: beautiful. The spirit was beautiful and he had wanted it, craved it in a way he would never crave anything or anyone save for Balasi. That awakening of his Greed, he often thought, had been the first step on his road to become the Herald of the Deeps.
“Delein,” Balasi whispered. “We are there.”
Sargon’s hand left his beard, which he had been stroking lost in thought. His lover – husband, soon, for who was left to stop them? – had the right of it. They had dug through the night, cracking open one of the old tunnels sealed with molten steel in the earliest efforts to contain the Dead King, and then pushed through tunnels until the reached the edge of the gap. Over the centuries, Keter had dug so deep in search of metals for its armies that what had once been a tunnel at the bottom was now halfway up to the surface. The Herald of the Deeps eyed the smooth stone across the gap, still dimly feeling the pulse of power lying within.
“It is the right place,” Sargon said. “Beyond that stone lies the chamber where the magic comes from.”
“Our bridges are ready,” Balasi told him, “but it would be suicide to begin mining our way through.”
He watched his lover curiously, enjoying the sight of the skulls against the other man’s beards, and followed Balasi when he was led to the edge of the gap. Following the other man’s eyes below, he saw the source of the doubts. An army, Sargon thought. How many thousands of dead were down here, spread out among tunnels and depths? That and dark creatures, great white worms large as towns and flocks of cavern-bats turned into… something else. The Dead King had been waiting for them.
“We can’t hold the bridge,” Balasi quietly said. “Even if we take part of the army down to hit them as a distraction.”
“If we do not snuff out the ritual,” Sargon said, “the battle is lost.”
And perhaps Calernia with it.
“A blind pickaxe is no one’s friend,” Balasi grunted.
The old saying was open castigation, though mitigated by Sargon’s faintly amused knowledge that neither of them had spent so much as an hour of their lives swinging a pickaxe.
“I will act,” Sargon said.
Balasi’s face creased with worry.
“Without your staff-”
“It is my Burden, delein,” Sargon gently said, laying a hand on his arm.
Balasi pulled him close, into a soft kiss, and after they stayed close with the foreheads against each other.
“I know,” the seeker-of-deeds murmured. “I know. But you’re not as strong now and he’ll be coming for you.”
Sargon looked away.
“I am not sure,” he said.
Balasi uncomprehending eyes found his own.
“Was it truly a loss, breaking my staff?” Sargon quietly asked.
His lover seemed about to say as much, but he bit his tongue. Sargon shook his head.
“We strike,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “Tell the men.”
Balasi sought his eyes, then slowly nodded. His fist rang against his armour in salute before he hurried away. Sargon stood at the edge of the tunnel, looking down. So many, he thought. And so deep. There might be opportunity there, the Herald thought, but he was not strong enough to take it. He knew this, objectively, by the ways he had been taught. Without the staff and the bound spirits within, Sargon could not tear open the earth. Only… Are you seeking change, or just to add a rung below you on the ladder? Nothing words from a child reeking of angels, he had been ready to dismiss, but then Sargon had looked in the White Knight’s eyes and seen faith.
It had burned then and it burned now.
“So I wonder,” Sargon murmured, “have I made the mistakes of my mother, of the Isaru?”
Had he thought himself the master of his Greed, only for it to poison him unseen? It had all begun in that moment, he often thought, when the Spirit of Fire burst through the ground. And oh, how Sargon had wanted it.
“How many of you did I take?” he said. “Dozens. I called you and bound you, hung you from my staff like ornaments.”
And now that he no longer had the strength, now that he thought of those clear eyes and burned with shame, Sargon wondered if he’d ever mastered anything at all. He breathed out and his Words unfurled, resonating with Creation, and he felt the call to the Deeps being heard. As a child, Sargon Isaru had seen the face of Greed.
Perhaps he had been a child still all these years, to be facing it only now.
“Please,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “I cannot bind you, cannot master you.”
His fist clenched. And he never would again. He would not keep making rungs below his own.
“I can only ask,” Sargon whispered. “So please – help us.”
His words sunk into the Deepest Sea, below the burning waves, leaving only ripples. Sargon waited, watching and hoping. The depths remained dark.
And then they shook.
Like an anthill kicked, the dead began to swarm. The ground below them cracked, split, the earthquake shattering the stone. And light came, of light came when magma erupted in a fountain. Dead burst into flame, ran, as the Spirit of Fire roared its wrath. A small one, young, and still Sargon felt his throat tighten with shame and joy. It had come. He had not deserved it, but it had come. His Words rang again, and the Spirit of Fire sang back.
“Yes,” Sargon said with a smile. “Together. Let us teach them who the deeps bel-”
The depths shook again. He froze. And again, and again, and again, until the darkness below Keter burned red as the ancient scream of Spirits of Fire shattered stone. Small and large, old and young, they had come. Not one but dozens. And as magma swallowed hundreds of dead, as the air filled with twisting heat, the burning waves shivered. Something was swimming below. An old one, the leviathans of the Deepest Sea. And when it burst free, turning stone into flowing rivers, Sargon stilled. For he had seen it before, this Spirit of Fire. Long ago, when he took the first step down a road.
“Beginning,” the Herald of the Deeps softly said, “to the end. Were you with me all along?”
A song, a harmony more beautiful than anything he had ever heard. And when Sargon Isaru looked at the ancient spirit, he saw beauty again – but nothing more. The Greed was gone, and the Herald wept. The Spirit sang, comforting, and he laughed through his tears.
“No,” Sargon told it. “They are good tears.”
We can learn, he thought. We can do better.
“Then let us,” the Herald of the Deeps smiled, and his Burden unfurled like a flower under the sun.
His hands rose and the Deepest Sea rose with them, devouring armies whole.
It had not been difficult to find people who would help her.
Though the fortified camps surrounding Keter were slowly emptying of soldiers for the last, desperate assault on Keter it was impossible to truly empty a war camp. So Cordelia had discreetly reached out for those soldiers she knew were most likely to stay behind, had convinced them of the necessity of what she was to do, and now the moment had come. The guards around the angel corpse, the ealamal, were already hers. That had been part of the terms of her abdication to Rozala Malanza. Now their ranks were swelled with Lycaonese and Alamans veterans – most Salians and Rhenians – as dug in positions were raised around the weapon.
Other soldiers were cleared out, a clean line of fire for crossbows established by pulling down any tents and shacks that might serve as cover, and Cordelia Hasenbach stood in silence as the few mages she’d secured began putting up the heaviest wards they could. She had not reached out to Named, even knowing some might be sympathetic, because it was sure to get to Catherine. The Warden was as a bloodhound for this sort of thing when it involved her charges, but there were simply too many soldiers for even Catherine Foundling to be able to keep an eye on all of them.
“It will smack of betrayal to some,” Simon de Gorgeault quietly told her.
She did not turn to look at the man who had once been one of her spymasters, then her Lord Inquisitor, and was not the last of her lieutenants. Brother Simon had no intention of leading the Holy Society once more, Cordelia had known that for some time, but he was still burning a bridge by standing with her today. First Princess Rozala would not forget it, or others more distantly worrisome.
“We will not step a foot beyond the ward lines,” Cordelia evenly replied.
“Even so,” Brother Simon told her.
He was right, she knew. But she would not take the risk. The fair-haired princess had the artefact that could command the ealamal, an angel corpse swelled with so much Light it purified the air around it just by existing, but that would not matter if the ealamal itself was seized. So she would ensure it was not, even if it had the look of betrayal to some. In truth, Cordelia would admit to herself, they were not entirely wrong to see it as such. She was taking on an authority today that had not been bestowed to her by anyone, because there simply wasn’t anyone who had that right.
“Then I will answer for this,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “if we all live through the day.”
Her duty had not changed. She would keep her eyes open and her hand at the ready, because for all the valour of the Grand Alliance there was no certainty of victory today. And if the siege of Keter was lost, if the Dead King’s armies triumphed, then she would do what she must before the dead overran the camp and seized the ealamal. Before anyone, living or dead, could stop her.
If she must burn half of Calernia to save the rest, Gods forgive her but she would.