“There is nowhere angels fear to tread.”
– Callowan proverb
William’s mother had been a woman of some education, a knight’s daughter. His father had only barely known how to read and always deeply distrusted any writing but the Book of All Things, which was said to have been spoken to the minds of mortal men by the Gods. It had been his mother who’d taught him his numbers and letters, and she’d been the one to keep his attention on the lessons by weaving stories from ancient Callowan rulers into them. The Queen of Blades had been the kind of vivid story that fascinated, never once defeated in battle though her invasion of Daoine had failed. So had the story of Eleanor Fairfax, the knight turned founder of the Fairfax dynasty who’d risen in rebellion against Triumphant when the Dread Empress had ruled over the entire continent. Now, though, as he walked the streets of Liesse alone and the moon was high in the sky, it was a king’s words he remembered. So had spoken Jehan the Wise: “Evil is cruel, and so men think it follows that Good is kind. This is a mistake, my son. Though fire is warm and in the dark of night we huddle around it, it also burns.”
This had unsettled him, as a child. Jehan had been Named, the Good King. A hero. Why be so wary of the very power he wielded? He understood now. Had ever since he’d gone into the wilderness half-mad and been presented with the face of Contrition. He’d seen the searing fires and felt them scour his soul clear. There were sorceries in the East – and even in some of the Free Cities – that could make a slave of a man. There were some who would compare standing in the presence of a Hashmallim to such a thing, but that was a fundamental misunderstanding of the thing. William had seen his life through their eyes. Every sin, every wrong, every petty unthinking cruelty. All of it without the veil of lies everyone cloaked themselves in without even realizing it. The lies of well-meaning and wilfully chosen ignorance. It had stripped William of his delusions and allowed him to see what he truly was.
Just a man, and not a particularly Good one.
He’d gone through those fires and come out a sword of the Heavens, handed a single feather from the wing of Contrition to see its will done upon Creation. Had they known, even then? Perhaps they had. Angels saw deeper into the nature of the world than mortals could, beyond artificial constructs like time. There was, to them, no difference between the first step of a journey and the last. That was what really changed people, when they met angels. The realization that in the end they were nothing but an assembly of sins. Choirs helped you accept this truth differently. Those touched by Compassion never took another life again, not even those of the worst monsters in Creation. Those touched by Mercy spent their days alleviating suffering wherever they went. Those touched by Judgement… did not survive the experience, should they be found wanting. Contrition was different from the others, in a sense.
The Hashmallim had never once forced anyone to take up the sword to fight Evil, but then they’d never once had to ask. Once you saw the truth of yourself and then then truth of Creation, what was left but to take arms? The only path to contrition was to leave the world a better place than you’d found it – and how could lesser be solutions be tolerated when so large a part of Calernia was still under the yoke of the Gods Below?
Nine crusades had been waged, all in all. Of those, five had been led by heroes aligned to the Choir of Contrition. Sometimes it amused William that the red cross that was the mark of all crusaders had been a symbol provided by the Dread Empire. Triumphant, in all her cruel madness, had been fond of having children crucify their own parents as a sign of obeisance. She’d paid for it eventually, when a Duchess of Daoine who’d consigned her own father to the cross met with an idealistic young knight named Eleanor Fairfax. Eleanor had been touched by Contrition, and when she rose in rebellion all of the continent gathered behind her banner and carried it all the way to the foot of the Tower. In the beginning only the Duchess’ soldiers had worn the cross, but symbols spread – by the time Triumphant’s empire was pulled down on her head every man and woman in that army had a scrap of red cloth sown on their clothes. Or branded into their skin.
And so the First Crusade came to an end. The Second came when the Praesi rose in revolt against the crusader kingdoms their realm had been divided into, and they were crushed into dust. When the Wastelanders rose the second time, though, they were led by the man who would become Dread Emperor Terribilis II. The Third Crusade ended in disaster and the end of the crusader nations – to further compound the disgrace, a weakened Callow was occupied by Procer in its wake. The Fourth Crusade, a last-ditch attempt to reclaim Praes, was drowned in such a sea of blood by Terribilis that never again was a crusade to turn East. After that the four crusades that followed were led by the hand of Contrition. Failures, all of them, for they were fighting the Dead King and his realm of horrors, a monster who called even devils to heel. Of those it was the Seventh Crusade that William found important, for as far as he knew it was the only time in the history of Calernia a Hashmallim had come into Creation.
Contrition had touched Salia, the capital of the Principate of Procer, and every soul inside had taken the cross – including the First Prince of the time. The rest of the continent had gathered behind that holy host, and for a time it seemed the endless hordes of the dead would finally run out. Siege was laid to Keter, the seat of the Dead King and ancient capital of his derelict kingdom. They’d lost, in the end. The Dead King has poisoned the land and called forth infernal hosts until there was nothing left standing in front of him but bones. But they’d come close. Liesse was smaller than Salia, only a hundred thousand people lived within the walls, but it was not the Kingdom of the Dead it would fight. Malicia was no great warlord, not the way Terribilis had been, and her greatest general was getting old. Sooner or later, a hero would finally manage to slay the Black Knight.
The First Prince of Procer was plotting a Tenth Crusade, holed up in her capital, and William would give it to her. But it would not be a Proceran enterprise, and it would not end with Callow as her protectorate. The rest of Calernia would not stand for that sin being committed a second time. The Lone Swordsman came upon the shores of the Hengest lake and looked up at the stars, breathing out slowly. There were small docks with fishing boats further down the waterside but that would not take him where he was headed. Every Callowan child knew there was a holy place somewhere in the waters, an island said to be untouched by war and the depredations of time alike. An island, it was said, but none could be seen from the city. Boots in the sand, William watched the shining waters and waited.
The white ship came, a small thing rowboat without any trace of an oar. It did not float so much as glide, the swan-shaped prow and stern almost lifelike. It beached in front of him and without a word William climbed on board, sitting on the only seat. It had been a clear night out but the ship led them into mist. How long he sat there alone with only the dark waters and the mist for company, he could not say. He’d been into Arcadia Resplendent, where time ran to a different stream than in Creation, but this was different. Whatever lay ahead was not in another realm, just a part of this one mortals were not lightly given access to. The Penitent’s Blade, always at his hip, was warm to the touch. It felt the proximity of its likeness. An angel had died in the waters of the Hengest, the legend went. He would soon find out the truth of that. He didn’t see the island until they were almost upon it, to his surprise. Pale sands formed a perfect circle in the water, entirely bare for a small chapel of roughly hewn stone.
William had been to Laure before and seen its beautiful cathedrals. He’d seen the many basilicas of the south, for that matter, and the outrageous wealth and splendour of Salia – capital of the mightiest nation on Calernia. For all that, the sight of that small chapel brought out… something in him. A sense of wonder. There were no grand materials or sculptures: it was, in truth, little more than a stone house with a pointed ceiling and a tower. The ship beached on the sands in perfect silence and the Lone Swordsman stepped onto the shore. There was, he now saw, no bell in the tower. Yet there was an empty space for one, a bar of ancient wood to hang it from. It was the first imperfection he’d glimpsed here, and he almost frowned at the sight. Dismissing the thought, he strode inside through the open door.
There were seven rows of benches on each side, little more than bare slabs of stone. No murals on the walls of paintings on the ceiling. Even the window in the back was without stained glass, revealing only endless waters blanked by swirling mists. For all that, he felt a little awed. The chapel felt unearthly, more than even Arcadia had. It was too real. The stone was the very essence of stone, the air the very essence of air: the only intruder here was him, a living imperfection in an otherwise flawless scene. Beyond the benches lay a small altar of pale stone, with a single mark on it. A sigil. It was a sinuous, complicated thing but his mind could not help but perceive it as the number three, in Miezan numerals. The Penitent’s Blade was so warm it almost burned his fingers when he touched the handle.
“You know what happens next, don’t you?”
Almorava’s voice was soft, almost kind. He was not surprised she’d turned up, though he glanced in her direction nonetheless. She was seated to his right, for once without a bottle in hand. Even she would not desecrate this place with idle drinking.
“The sword goes into the stone,” he said. “I may not know stories the way you do, but I know that.”
He’d also stay in prayer until dawn. There would be exactly seven hours left before the sun rose, no matter when he started praying. These things saw themselves into being.
“I wonder what the last hero though, when they called on Contrition,” he said quietly. “If they had doubts, too.”
“She didn’t,” Almorava replied. “The White Knight was in Salia, when the Dead King’s offer came. Five hundred children every year for peace on the borders. That the First Prince even considered it had her in such disgust she did it that very same night.”
He didn’t ask how she knew that. He wasn’t sure he’d liked the answer. Heroes were bound to the lifespan of a mortal, unlike villains, but the Wandering Bard had always known too much about things she seemed much too young to ever have witnessed with her own eyes. Perhaps it was part of her Name. Perhaps it is something else entirely.
“A better woman than me, then,” William said. “I know what I will be putting them through. It is not a gentle thing.”
“Good doesn’t have to be nice,” Almorava murmured. “Just righteous.”
The Lone Swordsman remained standing, looking at the pale stone and the sigil on it.
“She could take the Fifteenth out of range,” he finally said. “Forty-nine hours is more than enough time.”
“She won’t, though,” the Bard replied. “That’s not her nature. She’s the very worst kind of villain, you see – the kind who thinks they’re doing the right thing. In that sense, she’s even more dangerous than her teacher. He doesn’t labour under that impression.”
“And us?” he asked. “Are we also just clutching a delusion? I had a talk with Thief, before coming here. She told me she’s staying for the siege, but that she’ll be leaving Callow afterwards.”
Some vestige of amusement quirked his lips.
“She was, I believe, quite disgusted with me.”
“Thief sees Creation through the lens of her Name,” Almorava said. “That allows her more clarity than you’d think, but people with her kind of Role are not meant to look at a broader picture. She fights what she perceives as injustice wherever she sees it, but she’ll never root out the causes.”
The same, he thought, could be said of so many heroes. Theirs was a losing fight, from the onset. You could bring down the mighty who abused their power, turn back the great tides of Evil that would sweep over mankind, but how could a single person change the world? There was a reason for that, he believed. The Heavens had put the Fate of mankind in the hands of mankind, not the Named. Heroes, given extraordinary abilities, were meant to deal with extraordinary threats. Not to take the reins of the world.
“There are no root causes,” he said tiredly. “Or only one, if you prefer. People are people, with all the flaws that come with that. We strive to do Good and fall short, because we’re not meant for perfection. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all just a great jest at our expense, Almorava. If they placed a better world just out of our reach so that they can watch us try and fail to touch it.”
The Bard hummed. “Did you know it’s a matter of some debate among the priests of the House of Light whether or not Evil is inherent to the soul?”
William was Liessen: of course he knew that. Even after the Conquest the brothers and sisters were everywhere in the south of Callow, and their public debates on theological matters were considered a good show in most villages. People actually travelled to witness famous debaters at work. There was a great deal of betting involved, which was a lot less pious, but people tended to remember the arguments made even after money changed hands.
“Are you about to impart some great revelation onto me?” he asked. “That debate has been raging for as long as the House has stood, and some say the priests who built it were arguing as they lay the stones.”
“I think it’s a very interesting question, when you look at the current breed of villains we’re dealing with,” the Bard said. “There’s only three that matter: the Empress, the Knight and the Squire.”
Almorava raised a finger.
“Malicia has made a point of of improving the lot of common Callowans whenever she can. Purely out of self-interest, but she does it nonetheless.”
She raised a second finger.
“The Big Guy is stricter about enforcing those laws of the old kingdom he kept than the Fairfaxes were before him. He’s not gentle about it, but he keeps order and enforces something that looks like justice if you squint a bit.”
A third finger.
“Foundling. Well, you’ve met her yourself. She thinks she’s saving Callow. You could argue her intentions are heroic, even if she’s a little more complicated than that.”
“You despise the Empire even more than I do,” the hero frowned. “Yet this seems like a fairly impassioned defence of it.”
“The thing is, William,” she said, ignoring his interjection. “They’re not the first villains to ever win a few battles. It’s without precedent for the Empire to keep Callow for over twenty years, though. Why are they different?”
“We’ve never dealt with villains quite as skilled who did not compulsively backstab each other,” the Lone Swordsman said. “Or get killed by rivals.”
“That’s another thing, yes,” Almorava said. “There’s loyalty there. Affection, even. Not traits you usually associate with villains. Not that they’re incapable of them, but Names magnify everything you are – and you don’t get to shake hands with the Gods Below by being a choir boy.”
“I don’t follow your point,” William admitted.
“These are some of the most successful villains in the history of the Empire,” she said. “And they became that by going through the motions of being Good.”
The dark-haired man’s brow rose. “They are most definitely not.”
“Oh, I’m not arguing that they are,” the Bard said. “See, I think that we are born Evil. Because Evil is instinct. It’s that animal part of us that wants things for ourselves no matter what it does to others. It’s been dressed up in philosophy since, but that’s the heart of it.”
She smiled mirthlessly.
“But I want to believe that when the Gods made us, they gave us thought as well as instinct. We teach ourselves to be Good, William. Because we want to be better. It’s not as easy but maybe, just maybe, if we do it long enough it will be what comes naturally to us.”
“So you’re saying the Carrion Lord is trying to be Good?” he said sceptically.
“I’m saying these are the first villains in a long time who’re going with thought instead of instinct,” Almorava replied. “It’s why they’re weaker, too. They’re leaning in the wrong direction and it has cost them.”
“I don’t see how that makes anything better,” the Lone Swordsman sighed.
“Earlier, you spoke of a root cause. People being people, was it? Except people are learning, William. Even the other side’s noticed, to the extent that they try to bastardize what we are. They say that the Heavens gave us laws, but that’s not really true is it? What they actually gave us is guidelines, to make a better world. And it’s working.”
The Wandering Bard rose to her feet. Almorava wasn’t pretty, though in some light she could be called striking. The dark skin, curly hair and strong nose made her face interesting to look at but not so attractive to be intimidating. Normally she had her lute, but tonight it was nowhere in sight. She always wore the same clothes of silk and leather, but this time they were freshly cleaned. And for once she doesn’t smell like a brewery, William added a little less kindly.
“Day by day,” she said. “Year by year, century by century – we’re making Creation a better place. Even the bottom of the barrel is pulled up when you hoist the whole thing.”
“It’s a pretty thought,” the hero said. “Doesn’t help all of us who live in Creation now instead of in a hundred years, though.”
“I know,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “But I don’t want you to put that sword into that stone thinking it’s for nothing. We’re part of something larger than us, William of Greenbury. Something that uses us sorely. But…”
“Good doesn’t have to be nice,” he quietly echoed her words from earlier. “Just righteous.”
He’d shivered, when she’d said his full name. He’d never told it to her, and no one had called him by that in years. What felt like a lifetime ago. Almorava stayed close to him and for a moment he thought she was going to kiss him. She’d certainly not been subtle about being attracted to him, or to quite a few other people. If she did, he would turn away. Instead she lay her head on his chest and looped her arms around him, sighing quietly. After a moment he hugged her back.
“Every time,” she whispered. “You poor Contrition fools break my heart every time.”
She drew away, hand lingering on his chest, and left without another word. Silently, William of Greenbury stepped to the altar. He unsheathed the Penitent’s Blade and slid it inside smoothly, the sword entering without resistance or leaving a mark. He knelt before the stone and closed his eyes. Behind all that Almorava had said about thought and instinct, he found a deeper truth. It Evil was truly inherent, as she seemed to believe, then to be Good was to make a choice. The thought moved him more than he thought it would.
“It is, we are told, the only choice that really matters,” he murmured.
The last line of the first page from the Book of All Things. He was making his choice, tonight. For seven hours he would pray, and then return to Liesse.
Forty-nine hours later, a Hashmallim would come into Creation the exact moment he died.