“I never keep grudges. Not for long, anyway.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II
We might still make it in time, if we hurried.
That was the unspoken thought ringing through our minds as we ran through dark streets, the Comital Palace cutting a dark silhouette in the distance. Our gambit was that William wouldn’t want to risk taking on a Calamity without his entire band of heroes being present, which meant that if we caught up with Hunter and Conjurer we’d hit them right before they assaulted Warlock. There were only three of us now, Hakram and I following close behind Apprentice as he guided us through unfamiliar territory. Waiting for all of my legionaries to shimmy down the rope would have taken too long, especially given the equipment some of them carried. Better to have them catch up whenever they could. Commander Hune should have set up road blocks around the palace anyway, I could grab some backup when we ran into one.
While I had no personal affection for Warlock, I could recognize it would be a very bad thing if the heroes managed to kill him – or even seriously wound him. Black hadn’t been kidding when he’d told me that order in Praes rested on the myth of Imperial invincibility. The old defeats had been washed away by the unbroken string of victories that had flowed since the first days of the Conquest, but if the Swordsman managed to kill a Calamity… Word would spread slowly at first, but it would spread. Retired soldiers all over Callow would reach for their swords and wonder if, perhaps, now was not the time to settle the old score. Maybe once that thought would have brought a smile to my face, the prospect of the land of my birth fighting tooth and nail to gain back its independence, but I knew better.
I had seen the Imperial war machine up close, learned its ways and commanded its soldiers. Any war of liberation would turn into a bloodbath and, worst of all, Callow would lose. Half the country would be turned to ashes before the last of the resistance was put down, and when the Tower’s authority finally went unchallenged then the Procerans would strike. Like they were doing now, through their puppet Liesse. The knowledge that the First Prince was funding the rebellion had not come as a surprise to me, but even now it left a foul taste in my mouth. Once again Callow was the battleground where the continent attempted to keep Praes in check, and it would be my compatriots who’d see their lands ravaged for that “holy” purpose. The awareness that I was anything but blameless in this made it even worse.
I’d let the Lone Swordsman go knowing he would set Callow aflame, knowing that thousands would die in a calculated gambit on my part to rise to prominence in the Empire. Once, when I’d had my perspective nudged by my encounter with William, I’d been disgusted at the idea of Black sacrificing my countrymen like cattle to see me healed. Every day since I’d wondered at that particular bit of hypocrisy. Was I not doing the same, by letting a hero go free for my own purposes? That I had benefitted directly from the ritual sacrifice of the death row inmates instead of in an abstract sense had seemed important, back then, but now I wondered. I’d put on a villain’s cloak for the sake of Callow, telling myself it was for a greater good, but at the first given occasion I’d pushed the same country into civil war.
I still believed, deep down, that the ends justified the means. That by bleeding away a few thousand lives now I was securing a better future for Callow, one where the Imperial yoke held the Old Kingdom without strangling it. And yet how could I not be worried, when the monsters I rubbed elbows with lived by the same ideology? Malicia, Black, Captain, even Warlock – they all seemed so reasonable. They were Evil, certainly, but in a world where Evil would always exist having such a rational form of it in charge seemed like the best possible outcome. I had arrived at that conclusion just as rationally, but on an instinctive level I found it deeply repugnant that the best outcome in anything could be the subjugation of my people to foreign nobility that openly considered Callowans little better than cattle. There were no easy solutions for me, no magical fixes that would see everything end happily ever after.
How strange, that I had turned from a girl who didn’t believe in stories into a villain living through one.
It didn’t matter, in the end. I was committed. My choices had been made. I’d sold what little soul I had to barter with for a sword and the right to use it to hack Creation into something that suited me better. The Lone Swordsman thought he was freeing Callow, but all he’d accomplished was the making of a few corpses and the waving of old banners. Change, real change, had to be carved into the very institutions that held nations together. Anything else would just crumble in the span of a lifespan, when the individual who’d managed it by sheer force of personality died. I had studied the defeats and triumphs of the Empire and learned this: to change Creation, it was not enough to simply kill the parts of it that oppose you. You could rage at the tide for your whole life, the way so many Dread Emperors and Empresses had, but no amount of flying fortresses and ancient ascension rituals were going to earn a lasting victory.
For over a millennium Praes had unsuccessfully attempted to invade the Kingdom through mad and vainglorious plans but they had all come to naught, because the reality had been that Callow’s armies were stronger than the Empire’s.
My teacher had won because he’d recognized that fact and then changed the Legions into something reflecting the outcome he’d desired. No armada of gargoyles, no child sacrifice-powered landships, just the patient labour of true reform. If I wanted Callow safe and prosperous, it was that same kind of work I needed to get done. Anything else and I’d just be William’s villainous mirror, raging at a status quo and uselessly attempting to topple it one corpse at a time. Just thinking of it was enough to send a fresh wave of rage through me. What did the Swordsman think he would accomplish by this? Holding an entire city hostage to kill a single man. Over fifty thousand lives risked on a gambit that wouldn’t even win the war, just broaden it. I’d not turned a hero loose so much as a plague.
I continued to stew in my thoughts as we turned a corner, but the sound of fighting up ahead brought me sharply back to the there and now. The street in front of us narrowed near the head and my legionaries had put up a barricade there, sharp wooden sudis and requisitioned chariots blocking it all but for a slim way in. There should have been legionaries with crossbows posted right behind it, but there was no sign of them. It was easy to see why: someone had forced their way through a chariot with brute force, splitting it in half and engaging the soldiers up close. Without a word I unsheathed my sword and brought up my shield, picking up the pace until I overtook Masego.
“Names up ahead,” Apprentice spoke, tone relieved. Understandable: if they were here, killing my men, they weren’t going after his father’s head. “Two of them. Our friends from earlier, if we’re lucky.”
Luck was for people without Roles, I thought. Our lives were signed away to coincidence the moment we claimed our power.
“Focus on the Conjurer,” I ordered. “Hakram, we’re taking out Hunter. Fast, before he can do more damage.”
“Aye,” my adjutant growled. “Let’s even the score a little further.”
We made through the destroyed barricade at a run, passing a handful of legionary corpses as we did – most of them had spear wounds, though at least one had been partly incinerated. Funny how the aftermath of combat magic was horrifying no matter whether it was a hero or a villain who’d used it. There was no good way to die, but I’d always thought that mage fire was a particularly bad way to go. What must have been two full lines had been whittled down to a little above twenty legionaries when we interrupted the melee. Hunter was whirling among them, deftly slapping down shields and puncturing throats, while the four remaining Callowan soldiers had formed a loose wedge around Conjurer to protect him while he casted. The mage hero was the closest to us, and the first to notice we’d arrived.
“Hunter,” he screamed, voice going up several octaves in panic. “The Squire caught up!”
Masego hissed out an incantation and stomped the ground, the street’s pavestones rippling like water until they turned into a wave that toppled the Conjurer and scattered his escort like rag dolls. Someone was done fucking around, apparently. My soldiers yelled triumphantly at the sight of my arrival, a few cries of “Fifteenth, Fifteenth!” ringing as they threw themselves at Hunter with renewed vigour. Hakram and I pushed forward, ignoring the Conjurer – my adjutant slowed to calmly plunge his sword through the eye socket of a fallen enemy soldier before catching up, the two of us impacting the hero at the same time. Taking two shields to the chest wasn’t enough to knock him down: he rolled with the force, flipping and landing on his feet as he slapped down the shaft towards my neck.
My shield forced back the spear but it didn’t slow him down. Hunter took a quick bound to the side, circling around Hakram and ramming his weapon into my adjutant’s foot. Whatever his spear’s head was made of, though, it wasn’t sharp enough to punch through steel plate: all the hero got to show for his strike was the grinding sound of metal on metal. A legionary came from behind and forced him towards us with a strike aimed at his back, failing to draw blood but succeeding in putting him off balance. Just the kind of opening I’d been hoping for. Hunter ducked under my arming sword’s swing but I came back to slam the pommel of my sword on the top of his head. He groaned in pain and for his troubles I landed an armoured kick straight onto his abdomen, feeling a rib give.
On a regular opponent that would have earned me the time to place a killing blow, but heroes were made of sterner stuff – he twirled on himself, the bottom of his spear landing a blow on my leg that knocked me off balance. With a curse I dropped to one knee, but my countless hours of training had not been wasted. When the tip of the spear came for my throat my shield was already up. Hakram growled and pushed him back, following the shield bash with a quick thrust to the exposed stomach. He scored blood but the wound was shallow and the hero’s retaliation brutal: both hands gripping the spear, he rammed the wood into my officer’s nose. Hakram rocked back with a roar and the smooth thrust that came a moment later would have passed through the roof of his mouth if I hadn’t slapped it down with my sword at the last moment. When you back a hero into a corner, Black’s voice reminded me, do not under any circumstances let the fight drag on. The more desperate the situation, the more dangerous they become.
“Steady, adjutant,” I spoke. “Steady and careful.”
“It’s like trying to strange an eel,” the orc cursed, but he backed away and moved to flank our opponent.
“Cohm a’ me, foos,” Hunter laughed, twirling his spear flashily.
There was a joke in there, but this was neither the time nor the place. Before I could get back on the offensive, Masego yelled out a warning from behind us – I ducked just in time to avoid the Conjurer floating through the air and screaming at the top of his lungs, the pale hairy legs revealed by the earlier cut robes twitching like a dying spider’s. Less amusingly, one of his eyes and the same cheek had turned into a black, shrivelled mess. Yeah, Apprentice isn’t pulling his punches anymore. He landed right in the middle of my legionaries and then whatever spell was holding him blew, a blast of transparent sorcery smacking them away with a sound like a thunderclap. Unfortunately for Hunter, the edge of that detonation caught him. He took a half-step forward, somehow managing to stay on his feet, but I was already moving.
My blade flashed as it came for his neck, and though he brought up his hand to shield it I cut straight through the bone. Blood sprayed everywhere as it flopped lifelessly to the ground, splashing my face, but through squinting eyes I adjusted my aim and prepared to finish the job. There were only so many hands he could sacrifice to save his neck, and his stock was fast running out.
The only warning I got was an itch between my shoulder blades.
I hesitated for a heartbeat, almost deciding to finish Hunter anyway, and then began to turn. It saved my life: the arrow punched through the plate less than an inch away from the spine. I bit down on a scream as a cloaked figure on a rooftop across the street calmly notched another arrow.
“APPRENTICE,” I howled. “ARCHER ON THE ROOF.”
A heartbeat later a fireball exploded just short of the newcomer but it wasn’t Masego’s work: my legionaries had finally caught up to us and Kilian’s mages deployed behind the shields of half her line with grim professionalism, the Senior Mage herself flinging a bolt of lightning that knocked the archer off the roof and into an alley. Out of sight for now, but I wouldn’t bet on that being the last I’d see of them. There was, I noted, no sign of Robber and his sappers. Had they taken another route? Weeping Heavens, Robber, now isn’t the time to get fancy on me. I pushed down the surge of relief I felt at the appearance of my reinforcements. The Swordsman wouldn’t have sent only one person to pick up his waylaid lackeys. I was proved unpleasantly right when a short-haired woman in leather armour jumped off another roof onto Hakram’s back. The tall orc managed to catch her hand before she placed a dagger into his neck, but he had to drop his sword for it.
I’d barely taken a step in their direction when two dozen soldiers armed with swords and shields of the same make as those we’d fought inside the palace charged out of cover, taking the barricade legionaries flatfooted. They were facing the other way and some of them had just gotten back on their feet from the Conjurer’s aggressively harmful brand of failure. Shit. I just needed to kill Hunter and – I swung for the hero’s head, but it was already too late. A longsword parried the blow effortlessly and vivid green eyes stared me down.
“Squire,” the Lone Swordsman smiled unpleasantly. “I was hoping I’d run into you.”
I had something properly scathing on the tip of my tongue but before I could spit it out I was interrupted by the sound of a badly-strung lute going dun-dun-DUN. Both the Swordsman and I turned towards the source of it: on the same rooftop the leather girl had jumped from, the Wayward Bard was sitting dangling her feet off the ledge. She shrugged at our incredulous looks.
“I will not apologize for art, you Callowan hicks,” she declared proudly.
“Do you even have a weapon?” I asked in a pained voice.
She fished out a bottle of a bag at her side and popped the cork off without ever taking her other hand off the lute.
“I can dish out some pretty brutal putdowns if I feel like it,” she mused. “Does that count?”
It was a deeply disquieting thing to feel sympathy for the Lone Swordsman and I did not care for it. A triumphant shout behind me shook me out of the daze, an invisible force pulling the short-haired woman off Hakram that was likely Apprentice’s work. A sliver of cold went up my spine. While I’d been bantering my people had been fighting for their lives, dying. How could I have lost sight of that for even a moment? Gods. Just because she doesn’t have a sword doesn’t mean she’s not dangerous. All the heroes were accounted for, a voice in the back of my head noted. The Lone Swordsman, the Hunter, the Conjurer, the Bard and either the woman who’d shot me or the one who’d almost killed Hakram was a Thief of some sort. Well, this whole situation has gone to the deepest Hells in a hurry. Five Names to an optimistic two and a half was going to be butchery, even if my legionaries outnumbered the enemy.
Hunter wasn’t even out of the fight, to my dismay. He’d tied some cloth around his stump and though whatever portion of his body hadn’t been burned earlier was unhealthily pale he still stood, leaning heavily on his spear. He wouldn’t be as much of a threat, crippled as he was, but handling two heroes simultaneously was bound to be a rough business. William alone would be pain, though given the brutal fighting drills Captain had put me through I was confident I could handle him. I took a deep breath, steadied my stance and brought up my shield. The arrowhead wiggled painfully in my back but I forced a straight face through the dagger-like sting. If that bastard thought outmanning me in Names meant I was going to roll over and take it, he was in for an unpleasant surprise. I just needed to keep this party going for long enough for reinforcements to start piling up: Commander Hune was bound to have noticed one of the barricades had been attacked by now, and she should be mobilizing massive amounts of legionaries to come overwhelm the heroes.
“How are we doing, Hakram?” I called out.
“All my organs are still on the inside,” my adjutant replied. “I’ve had worse. I, er, don’t know if you’ve noticed, sir, but you got shot.”
“Happens more often than you’d think,” I replied through gritted teeth. “Try not to get yourself killed, Adjutant, I’m sure as Hells not handling the paperwork for this on my own.”
“Touching,” William sneered. “You have a pet. Thief, take care of that thing.”
“If our walking disaster manages to keep their mage busy, it should be doable,” the short-haired woman replied, tone amused. “You up for another round, big guy? I’ve still got an itch to scratch.”
“I’m not really comfortable with the slant you’re putting on this fight,” Hakram admitted, tone alarmed.
Hunter put an end to the banter by lunging for me. I ducked the spear thrust and spun around him, sweeping his feet with my own in a move Black had taught me. I didn’t even try to finish him off when he was down, the memory of the Swordsman’s unnatural swiftness still fresh in my mind even the better part of a year later. William, it seemed, was not particularly concerned by the Rule of Three: when his abomination of a sword came at me, it was headed for my neck. I cautiously stepped out of the blow’s path instead of blocking with my shield. The last time that thing had kissed goblin steel, the steel had been the thing to give way. It was one of the reasons I’d made such a point out of sparring with Captain, since only an idiot would try to block the gargantuan woman’s hammer. The reach was different and William was quicker with his strikes, but the underlying principles remained the same – I cautiously gave ground when the Swordsman pushed his attack, circling around to get a better angle.
“You’ve gotten better,” the hero noted. “But not quite good enough.”
His blade lit up like a star and he swung at me, the very air shrieking as a wave of blinding power tore in my direction. Too wide to dodge, I knew, so I hunkered behind my shield and took it head on. It was like getting kicked by a horse and swallowing a brightstick at the same time. The impact sent me flying, but that wasn’t the worst of it: it felt like I was… burning alive, like in the moment the power had hit me I’d been dropped in a bonfire that was just sentient enough to despise my very existence. I rasped out a breath from where I lay on the ground and scrabbled back to my feet, still half-blind and unsure how long had passed since I’d been hit.
A flicker at the edge of my vision told me Hunter was back and at it, clipping the edge of my shoulder pad with his spear but skimming off when I adjusted my stance. I tried to bash his face in but I couldn’t aim like this and struck nothing. Another flicker, this time from my left, and my shield was the only thing that prevented me losing an arm: William’s blade cut through the metal and nearly reached my fingers under it before he flicked the blade out with a flourish of the wrist. I could see them now, the both of them, my vision slowly returning. They approached me slowly but surely, taking their time in all their cocksure assurance that this was a done deal. That I was outmatched, hopelessly out of my league. They were right, of course. But we were far, far from done.
I smiled a devil’s smile and my Name howled, raging at the Struggle ahead of me.
“You wanna go, Swordsman?” I laughed, veins flooding with power. “Let’s go, then.”