“Refuge is not a city so much as it is a cluster of vagabonds, held together by awe of the Lady of the Lake. There are no laws here, save for her whims, and those she inflicts only rarely. The Kingdom Under seems to consider Refuge a protectorate, though they have no real presence on the premises, and I should not need to remind you of Lady Ranger’s infamous ties to the Calamities. The Consortium must tread lightly. This is the woman who once hunted the Wild Hunt for sport, and she has not grown meeker with the passing of years.”
– Varrus Ipsimos, agent for the Consortium
She’d had to steal a boat in Cleves, for no one had been willing to sell one to her when they’d guessed her destination.
They were not Lycaonese up there – Alamans, though a far cry from those of the central principalities – but living in the shadow of the Kingdom of the Dead had taught them hard lessons. People who tried to cross the Tomb, that deep dark lake festering with the animated corpses of monsters and men alike, never left its waters. Their hands joined the thousands of others reaching from the waters to drag fishermen under the deep. The crossing had not been uneventful: the Dead King now had eyes watching the path through the rocks she’d used the last time. It had made for an amusing distraction until she reached the shore on the other side of the river that fed into the Tomb. The path after that had been even more treacherous. The air had been poisoned in the Kingdom since the Seventh Crusade, thick lingering green tendrils of something toxic fouling the air, but that part Hye already knew how to deal with. She’d had cloth enchanted that covered the lower part of her face and allowed her to breathe safely, for even if the poison could not kill a Named it could have made her sick.
That would not have been ideal, in a land patrolled night and day by massive shambling armies. And they’d gotten better at finding intruders, too: the Dead King must have implemented her suggestions from the last visit. The bone wyverns had been unexpected enough she’d almost been caught the first time they appeared, and the closer she’d come to Keter the tighter the defences had been. Using the old roads of the kingdom that had existed before this entire land had been turned to undeath wasn’t even worth considering: they were all heavily guarded and in disrepair besides. No, she’d made her way through the broken countryside and kept to the shadows. It had taken her several months to make it to the old capital, the placed they now called the Crown of the Dead. The seat of the Dead King’s power, and where behind tall walls a permanent portal into one of the Hells stood.
Keter had once stood on a plain, but that was no longer true. Centuries on centuries of mining into the deep had made the city an island surrounded by sheer cliffs going so deep only the ever-burning fires at the bottom could be made out in the darkness. How deep that chasm ran, Hye had no idea. She’d heard the dwarves had mined around all of the Kingdom of the Dead, and immediately plugged any tunnel form there into their lands with molten steel. Whether that was true or not, it did not change the fact that there were four roads into Keter: broad ramps of stone stretched over emptiness, tread tirelessly by sentinels long dead. The walls of the city rose so high only one part of Keter could be seen from outside: a great spire of dark stone, jutting out into the sky like an arrow. An orb of hellfire always hovered above its tip, ever-shifting as the demon bound inside cast its searching gaze on the streets inside. This was the fortress that had broken the spine of five crusades. Impossible to breach, they said, by force or by stealth. Not even the most skilled of heroes could do it.
It would be Ranger’s fourth visit.
Now, the Dead King had started nailing undead under the bridges so they could raise alarm after she’d climbed across under it the first time. He’d had dead sorcerers permanently assigned to stirring up sharp winds in the void between Keter and the rest of the plain after she’d rappelled her way across, the second time. He’d hardened the metaphysical borders with Arcadia after she’d slipped through there the third, and she supposed that after this one he would make sure his bone wyverns collapsed when they were captured. The giant bone creature, flapping through the air more by the grace of magic than by its leathery wings, crashed into the walls of Keter with a resounding clap. She leapt off its back and landed on the stone, finding purchase for her hands and immediately beginning to climb. Hye had been noticed, of course, and she still had the better part of a hundred feet before her before reaching the top of the ramparts. The bloody wind sorcerers had crashed her ‘borrowed’ mount before she could get any closer. The gaze of the demon in the orb landed on her and it began screaming, the noise shaking the air.
“Hello, Artie,” she waved.
It kept screaming. The first arrow streaked past her as she was already moving, scuttling up and to the side to present a harder target. There were, in Keter, four kinds of undead. The Bones, as she called them, were the ones currently manning the ramparts as the demon alarm sounded and trying to put arrows in her. They were not particularly clever on their own, no more intelligent than dogs, but the Dead King could seize control of them at any moment. The second kind, the Binds, would actually be dangerous. Those had souls bound in their bodies, and were just as sentient as the living. The third kind, the Revenants, she would not encounter until she was deeper into the city. They were, as a matter of fact, the reason she had come in the first place. As to the fourth, there was no need to name the category. There was only one entity in it, the Dead King himself. Wedging her feet into outcroppings – they really needed to saw those off, it made climbing easier than it had to be – Hye wrenched out her bow and notched an arrow. Knock, draw, release.
The Bind who’d been directing the Bones shooting at her took it right in the skull, the impact of the arrow shattering the bone under the helmet it punched through and releasing the soul inside. That should buy her just long enough to make it to the top, she thought as she slung the longbow over her back.
It did, as it turned out, though by then masses of dead warriors were snaking their way up the stairs leading into the city. Blades in hand, Ranger idly scattered the closest Bone as she considered her options. The Dead King was trying to clog up the way until his heavy hitters could arrive, she decided, or he had this entire part of the walls blasted with sorcery. She’d need to move fast. Sheathing one of her shortswords, Hye caught the wrist of another Bone and wrenched out the arm. This one was wearing old Proceran armour long gone out of style, bust most importantly he’d had a shield as well as the longsword now clattering on the ground. A big tower shield, the same kind the Praesi used in their Legions of Terror. Bronze and iron instead of steel, she noted. That must have been a truly ancient warrior. Idly sheathing her other sword as she danced out of the reach of another Bone, Ranger took the shield and broke into a run. Those stairs had cover on both sides, thick stone borders with a smooth top.
With a shout of glee she leapt down and put the tower shield under her, using it as a slide. The sheer angle of the borders was enough for her to keep gaining momentum, going fast enough that the Bones headed for her were too slow to react to strike at her. There were a few Binds in the line but those she slapped away with her blades, crouched and grinning.
She was about halfway down when she realized that, for once, the Dead King had anticipated her. There were spikes of iron in the stone from halfway up, jutting out at the right angle to catch her. Before the first impact she leapt off the shield and continued into a run, letting her Name strengthen her limbs so she could keep the pace. That round went to the Corpse Lord, then. Having to tap into her Name this early meant she’d have less fuel when things got interesting. She leapt again, ducking under an arrow and landing in a roll.
Hitting the paved streets of Keter, Crown of the Dead, Hye Su eyed the gathering hordes around her. Run? Run.
The problem with undead soldiers, Ranger decided, was that they never got tired. She’d been awake for three days and night herself, and if not for her mother’s blood running through her veins she would likely be dead in an alley. She’d inherited different things from her parents: in body she was her mother’s daughter, but in mind her father’s. Dada had never been one to let common sense get in the way of an adventure, to her mother’s mild despair. Being a half-elf had few drawbacks, save for the Emerald Swords occasionally trying to purge you from existence, but then Mother had taught her a few tricks to deal with their lot. She had, after all, taught most of them. Not that elf-killing tactics would help her much here, Hye thought. Putting down a handful of extremely powerful individuals was a different kind of fighting than scything your way through a horde of weaker ones.
Ducking into the shadows at the patrol of Binds passed her, Ranger waited until she could no longer her their steps before moving again. This deep into the Hall of the Dead there were no Bones. Calling where she was the basement of the keep would have been inaccurate, for beneath her went so deep inside the earth the furthest levels were flooded with molten stone. She was around the middle, really, and almost where she needed to be. Putting a spring to her step, the Ranger ghosted through the corridors until she reached the wide-open gates of the nameless room where the portal to Hell stood. The hall was broad and long, had once been a throne room, but now it was bare save for the sculpted obsidian arch surrounding the wound in Creation.
That, and the two silhouettes standing by it.
One was a man, pale and clad in silver-lined armour. His face could not be seen under the helmet and the long white cloak did not manage to hide the heater shield and longsword he kept. The other was a woman, tall and massively built. She had no weapons but for the stripes of leather around her knuckles. No armour but a threadbare tunic, and she hadn’t even bothered to wear boots. Promising. Both Revenants stirred when she strode into the room, walking forward at a pace.
“So one of you is one of those fancy monk-types from Levant,” she said. “And the other some kind of knight? Help me out here.”
The man unsheathed his sword.
“I was the White Knight, once,” he said gravely.
“Now we’re talking,” Ranger murmured.
“I was,” the woman said, “the Sage of the West.”
Unsheathing a single sword, Hye offered them a swordsman’s salute.
“I am the Ranger,” she said. “I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, you qualify.”
Nothing more needed to be said. The fell on her without hesitation, the Knight’s sword coming for her neck and the Sage sweeping her feet. Hye tested a parry against the sword and found the dead hero’s strength not overwhelming – she would not need to dodge every time. The sweep she avoided deftly by leaping, leg wrenching out to land a kick on the Sage’s chin – or would have, had the hero not caught the blow and casually tossed her away. Ranger landed on her feet a dozen feet away, then slowly unsheathed her second sword. This, she reflected, might actually be challenging. She knew from experience that this far in the Dead King would not longer bother trying to drown her in lesser undead, so she could take the time to enjoy herself with these two.
The Ranger stepped forward and let her blades sing.
The Sage was the first to go. She could even now turn her skin harder than steel, the ghost of an aspect to a Name she no longer held, but steel was something she’d learned to cut long ago. A hand lost, then a leg, and from there on no amount of fancy magic hand-to-hand tricks was going to save her. The Knight, though? The former White Knight was the hardest fight she’d had in a long time. A century, at least.
“You have no aspects to tap in,” the Revenant eventually said, batting away a probing blow and attempting to bash her face in with his shield. “Unusual.”
“You have it the wrong way, Knight,” she said. “I’m always tapping into my aspects.”
She flicked her sword around his and wrenched upwards, forcing the blade out of his gauntleted hand in the exact same way he’d done to her early in the fight.
“Learn,” she said.
The White Knight effortlessly snatched his blade out of the air and struck, but she’d moved ahead of him. The blade passed through the air, and when he brought it back towards his body her own followed. Like flowing water filling a cup. Her own strike bit deep into his armour, shattering the steel and the the skin and bones underneath.
“Perfect,” she said.
The former hero was beyond pain and wounds meant nothing to him, save for the fact that the broken bone of his shoulder made it harder to swing his sword. He retreated cautiously, shield raised, as he sought a better angle of attack. Hye idly sheathed one of her swords and hummed as she came for him. The moment crystallized for her, the Knight carefully placing his sword stroke and the shield rising as he prepared to charge her. It was timed perfectly. She would be caught by one or the other, because she’d come forward too quickly with an improper guard. A swordsman of the dead hero’s calibre would need only one opening like that to kill her. It would not touch her. She spun around the shield, and if the Knight had still been human enough for such a thing his eyes would have widened. It wasn’t that Hye had become faster, because she hadn’t. Tricks like that could be adjusted to, countered. Just sinking the power of your Name into your limbs was a brute force application. What she did was… different. She simply was not where the enemy’s weapon was. Her single short sword swept like quicksilver, taking the Knight’s head. In a blur of movement, she relieved him of one limb after another and then broke the spine itself. Slowly, the necromancy began seeping out of the dead hero onto the floor.
“Transcend,” she finished calmly.
She was out of breath. Ahead of her, the portal flickered. That was as much of an invitation as she was going to get. Sheathing her blade, Ranger idly passed into Hell. The other side led into a banquet room, for the Dead King owned the gate and the places it led to. A long table with stone benches, covered with plates of still-warm food and quite a few carafes of wine, was headed by a wooden throne. On it sat a dark-haired child, too pale to be alive and too gaunt to even try pretend it was.
“Really?” she said, headed for a roasted chicken. “The creepy child route is what we’re doing? You have to know that’s a horrible cliché.”
She was starving, so she broke off a drumstick and bit into it with relish.
“Stop killing my heroes,” the Dead King said. “I only have so many to spare.”
“I’ll think about it,” Ranger lied.
The ancient abomination sighed.
“The wyvern trick won’t work twice,” he said.
“You should also take care of those footholds on the wall,” she spoke through a full mouth, grabbing a plate and stuffing it with couscous. “The spikes were a nice touch, though.”
The monster kept a surprisingly good table, for a creature that no longer needed to eat. Kingly habit, probably.
“Why do you darken my hall, Ranger?” the Dead King asked.
“Darken your…” she snorted. “That’s rich, it really is. Can’t a girl visit an old friend?”
“We are not friends,” the lich denied.
“That’s a carafe of my favourite wine,” Hye said, pointing towards the receptacle in question.
“Coincidence,” the Dead King said.
Ranger sat on the bench, spitting out a chicken bone before she could choke on it.
“Mama went back across the sea,” she said. “Finally talked a Baalite captain into taking her there to lay my father’s bones to rest.”
“You should also go there,” the monster said. “Far away. Give serious thought to never coming back.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” Ranger said. “I need a hobby.”
“You could leap off a cliff,” the Dead King suggested.
Hye poured herself a cup of wine to wash down the couscous.
“It’s just been so boring, lately,” she said. “The most excitement there’s been is Praes trying to invade Callow again and getting hilariously brutalized on the Fields of Streges.”
“The Tower has not been in worthy hands for centuries,” the Dead King said contemptuously.
“We’re not talking about your weird boner for Triumphant again,” Ranger said. “I really don’t want to know the logistics of how that would have worked.”
She paused. Boner. That was was funny because he was undead so- never mind. She had a little wine.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’m thinking about a hunting trip in Arcadia. The Wild Hunt was very uppity when I met them.”
“If I could lock you in there, I would,” the Dead King said wistfully.
“You don’t mean that,” Ranger dismissed. “Wait – are you trying to distract me while massing devils outside this room?”
There was a long pause.
“No,” the Dead King lied.
“Good talk,” Ranger said, rising to her feet hastily. “I’ll see you in a few years.”
“Please don’t,” the lich said.
Hye made for the door, then paused and backtracked. She stole another chicken leg and a carafe of wine before legging it.
The tavern was nearly empty at this time of the night – people in the Green Stretch were farmers, went to bed early and rose with dawn. She would have noticed the three who entered regardless: they had the feel of Names to them, that knotting in the threads of Fate. They headed straight for her table and Hye sipped at her wine thoughtfully. They made for a strange bunch. Two men: one a tall and almost ridiculously handsome Soninke, the other a pale Duni type with vivid green eyes. Amusingly shorter than his companion. The Taghreb woman dwarfed them both, at least eight feet tall and built like a living battering ram. The Duni must have been the leader, because he was the one to talk. He gestured at the empty chairs around the table.
“You are the size of at least two people,” Ranger said, pointing at the Taghreb.
“Is that why I keep eating them?” she deadpanned.
Hye grinned. Well, at least they had a sense of humour. That was surprisingly rare in in villains.
“By all means,” she said, gesturing at the chairs. “What can I do for you?”
“You would be the Ranger, yes?” the Soninke asked in a voice betraying his education.
No weapons on him. Mage, most likely. Praesi did love their sorcery.
“That’s me,” she said.
The Duni sat across from her and smiled. He was handsome, if not as much as his friend. Not really her type, but she could appreciate eye candy when it was offered.
“I hear,” he said, “that you can get people into Callow.”
Ranger hummed. Well, that should kill a few months at least.