“Sixty-seven: putting an arrow in a villain during their monologue is a perfectly acceptable method of victory. Heroes believing otherwise do not get to retire.”
– Two Hundred Heroic Axioms, unknown author
Delos was organized in tiers. It reminded Hanno of the city he’d been born in, Arwad. Smaller than Smyrna, the capital of the Thalassocracy, it had been even more strictly regimented than the larger city. There were differences, though, that grew more apparent the longer he spent here. In Arwad people lived and died in the citizenship tier they’d been born to, while in Delos positions in the Secretariat and the attending privileges were… fluid. The city itself was arranged to reflect this: behind the walls, districts were built on clockwise platforms that spiralled higher and thinner until they reached the House of Ink and Parchment. The district where one lived was determined by committees of Secretariat, the arrangements subject to monthly review according to performance and seniority. A botched report could see you lowered by a district, reaching fifty years in the civil service could earn you a manse in the shade of the city’s centre of power.
The way the city had been built had made it easy to defend in the siege. The Tyrant’s forces had broken through the gates once and found the lowest district turned into a killing field, the stairways up to the second district collapsed or barred as the walls of the houses above effectively became a set of inner walls. The Helikean madman had nearly won anyway. It was not his professional army he’d sent as the first wave: only mercenaries and forced conscripts from the people of Atalante. The sheer disregard the Tyrant had spent their lives with had almost managed to buckle the defences, until Hanno had intervened with his associates. Revealing there were heroes in the city had been tipping his hand early, but it was better than allowing Delos to fall. Blooding his team had been necessary, anyway. The sisters had never seen full scale battle before and the Valiant Champion had only ever worked alone. What the Bard did or did not know was buried under a sea of bad liquor, but to his understanding her Role was not meant for fighting.
As for him? To be the White Knight was to be an instrument of war in the hands of the Heavens. His years in the Chamber of Borrowed Lives had shown him the Role behind his Name, even as his skills grew, and made his hazy understanding of this into an irrefutable fact. Hanno was the veteran of a hundred battles, each more desperate than the last, but he’d not spilled blood himself before that day. Or perhaps he had. The sorceries of the Gigantes were beyond the comprehension of men, even those touched by the Gods Above. The Tyrant’s response to the repulsing of his first attack had been… unexpected, though not entirely unforeseen. The walls of Delos were sixty feet high and almost half as deep, the most impressive curtain walls in the Free Cities by a fair margin, which made the city brutally costly to assault. The villain, instead of preparing to starve out the defenders, had instead built a set of large stone towers and filled them with siege engines.
The Secretariat had been sceptical these could be a threat and denied him the permit to launch a sortie to disrupt the construction. The Bard had run around their table and tipped over their inkwells in protest, which had gotten all of them thrown out as well as fined for “disruption of order”, “miscreantism” and “wanton waste of Secretariat resources”. Hedge and Ash had been quite displeased with her afterwards, but the White Knight did not judge. The Tyrant, once the towers were built, had linked them with rope bridges and brought forward the prisoners. Six hundred and sixty-six per tower, men and women and children from Atalante. And just like that, as Hanno watched from the walls, the Tyrant had them butchered like animals. Sacrificed so that the ground around the towers would rise into the air, floating until it was above the height of Delos’ walls. They’d been bombarding the city ever since, night and day. The Hedge Wizard, tanned face paling in horror, had tried to compose herself by noting Praesi mages would have done better. They’d only have needed half as many sacrifices per tower.
They’d lost the first district again a fortnight later after Helikean infantry forced the gate under the cover of siege engines, and if the Champion had not fought her way through the host until she could hold the gates by herself for a bell the city might well have fallen. Hanno had led the counterattack of the beleaguered defenders from the ranks, the Ashen Priestess covering the host with her power so that any wound not mortal would heal within moments. It still might not have been enough, had her sister Hedge not hypnotized the Helikean officers into giving a hundred contradicting orders to their men. The Tyrant’s soldiers had been driven out, then the iron gate melted and fused with the stone so it could no longer open. It would not be enough. Hence why Hanno was here on the walls, waiting for a permit.
“You could at least look like you’re brooding,” the Wandering Bard complained. “At best you’re contemplative.”
Aoede’s feet were dangling off the walls, her ever-present flask in hand. He could smell the hard liquor from where he stood, the breeze carrying it like some toxic fume. The Wandering Bard looked like a hundred other girls from Nicae, full-figured and with dark curls going down to her back, but the stained leathers and the lute slung over her back set her apart. So did the way her liver had yet to kill her. Every Named learned the trick to burn poison out of their bodies early in their career and it could be used to sober yourself up, but as far as he could tell she didn’t use it. Interesting, though not as much as the way she sometimes moved between places faster than should be possible. Aoede often acted the fool, but she knew too much to be harmless. Of all the heroes in his band, she was the one he was wariest of. The others had their motivations worn on their sleeves, but the Bard? Behind the haze of drunkenness there was an intent he had yet to figure out.
“Brooding is pointless,” Hanno said in tradertalk. “If something distresses you, act upon it. Otherwise you surrender all right to complain.”
“So speaks the Choir of Judgement,” she said. “Though you’re fairly moderate for one of theirs. Most would have executed the upper Secretariat and taken command of the siege after out little tower episode.”
He eyed her silently for a moment.
“I do not judge,” he finally said. “That is not my Role.”
“You’re going to be a fun one, I think,” Aoede grinned.
Hanno wasn’t quite sure how to take that, so he let the matter go.
“Do you have a reason for seeking me out?” he asked.
“Secretariat just validated your permit,” the Bard said. “Tonight’s the night.”
The White Knight looked upwards, at the floating towers and the people manning them.
The earth under the towers gave a dim red glow in the dark, though it was not enough that torches and magelights were not used all over the floating platforms. The moon was near-gone tonight and behind clouds to boot, so the dark silhouette of the massive eagle was not greeted with shouts of alarm. Hedge was as graceless in this form as when she was human, but she managed a landing at the feet of the easternmost tower without crashing into the wall. The other three heroes riding her back, tied to it with ropes, slid down quietly. The Bard was gone again, no one knew where. Hanno adjusted the longsword at his belt when the moment he touched solid ground and put on his barbute. The solid steel helmet with the T-shaped opening lacked the protection of a visor, which most warriors preferred when wearing plate as he was, but the White Knight preferred the better visibility. The Champion and the Priestess came to his side a moment later.
Though they were both women, the two were a study in differences. The Ashen Priestess was tall and slender where the Champion was short and bulky, the first aggressively serene where the second always wore a sunny smile. The only commonalities were the tanned skin common to Levant and the Free Cities as well as his own native Ashur and the dark hair – though Priestess wore hers short while Champion kept hers in a thick braid that reached halfway down her back. As befitting of a martial Named the Champion was decked in plate even thicker than his own, her helmet forged to look like a snarling badger. Ash, as her more gregarious sister insisted she should be called, wore a mere coat of silvery mail covering a padded tunic. He could feel the power wafting from it, though it was not sorcery. Names like the Priestess’ relied on the magic of priests instead of mages, that gift of the Heavens that wove miracles beyond understanding.
The shape of the massive eagle shuddered, then collapsed into a kneeling woman. The blood relation between the Hedge Wizard and the Priestess could be seen with even cursory examination, the two sisters sharing much of the cast of their face as well as their build. The eyes were where they differed the most. Ash’s hickory-like eyes were common in the Free Cities but Hedge’s eclectic arcane bag of tricks had come at a cost: one of her eyes was blue, the other a vivid shade of yellow. The mage’s colourful patchwork robes were covered with barely-visible arcane symbols and more pockets than she could possibly be needing. Hedge stayed kneeling for a moment, the coughed out a few feathers.
“Gods,” she gasped. “I’m going to be craving rabbit for weeks.”
Champion helped her up to her feet, then clapped her back. Hanno saw the mage repress a wince.
“Eagle trick, very great,” the Levantine heroine said, her tradertalk heavily accented. “Witch can have many rabbits after victory.”
“Wizard,” Hedge corrected absent-mindedly. “It’s a genderless noun.”
The Champion ignored that as cheerfully as she usually did.
“We shouldn’t linger,” Priestess said. “We’ll be seen.”
Hanno cleared his throat quietly to draw their attention.
“Swiftness will be of the essence,” he said. “If they cut the bridges between the towers, this will get much more difficult.”
“Kill invaders quick,” the Champion agreed. “Then go back for parade.”
“You can fill out the paperwork for that, if you want one,” Hedge muttered under her breath.
The White Knight grimaced at the thought. It would take at least a fortnight to get the form to request the request form.
“You know the plan,” he said. “Let’s end this for good.”
They moved seamlessly, what they lacked in experience made up by the instincts of their Names. The door at the bottom of the tower was barred but the greataxe the Champion used – almost as tall as she was, and used single-handedly with her large shield on the other hand – smashed it down with a single swing. The hall behind it was swarming with Helikean infantry but Hanno did not waste time engaging them. The Priestess and the Champion would take care of it. Calmly unsheathing his longsword, the White Knight headed for the stairs. A cluster of soldiers tried to get into his way, shields raised, but a trickle of power to his legs had him smashing into the mass of them like a trebuchet stone. They scattered under the impact and Hedge hurried behind him, dropping a ball of multi-coloured light in their midst that exploded into bindings. His first kill of the night came when a spearman atop the stairs thrust the tip towards his head. The flat of his blade slapped away the shaft, then a twist of the wrist buried the point into the man’s throat. Without stopping he flicked out the sword, the Wizard pushing the body below when it fell on her.
Hedge’s assessment had been that the ritual room would be close to the middle of the tower and she was proved correct: a heavily barred iron door with glowing runes on it was the only thing on the second level. Letting the Wizard finagle her way through the wards would have taken too long and he could already hear soldiers rushing downstairs, so Hanno drew on his Name. The Light flooded his veins, harsh like a desert wind hollowing out his insides, and it wreathed his hand in a gauntlet. He punched through the iron like it was parchment, ripping out the bar holding the door in place on the other side.
“That’s one way to do it,” Hedge said.
She hurried inside anyway. The room was covered with ritual symbols, painted in what he was fairly sure was blood. In the centre, surrounded by a pentagram whose every corner bore line joining the broader web of runes, was a single perfect disc of obsidian.
“Stoneglass,” the Wizard grimaced. “Of course they’d use the most unstable kind of anchor available.”
“Is this a problem?” Hanno asked.
“There’s a not insignificant chance the ritual will blow up instead of converting,” she said.
The White Knight frowned.
“How not insignificant?”
“Eh,” Hedge said. “It’ll work out. Probably.”
He did not think that had been meant to be reassuring, which was good because he was not reassured in the slightest. Before he could reply, the mage muttered something under her breath and strode into the symbols. Immediately a dozen orbs of red light appeared in the air, but the Wizard snapped her fingers and a bluebird slipped out of her sleeve, wings flapping as it chirped merrily. A dozen rays of fire instantly incinerated it, but by the time its ashes fell to the ground Hedge was barely a foot away from the disk. A spherical barrier of transparent force formed around it but the Wizard whispered an incantation and it started flickering until it disappeared entirely. She deftly placed a polished pebble on the disk and backed away hastily.
“We don’t have long,” she said, absent-mindedly producing a little mirror to catch a ray of fire and turn it back against the orb that had shot it out. “Are the others done?”
Hanno cast an eye down the stairs. There was a plume of ash as Priestess dispersed a man out of existence with a word, and not a single person or object in the vicinity of the Champion remained unbroken. She, at least, seemed to be having a good time.
“More or less,” he replied.
He whistled sharply, drawing their attention. The Champion waved, Priestess sighed and immediately began making her way up. Hanno’s attention turned to the stairs leading above and he frowned. He’d heard soldiers earlier and prepared himself to cover Hedge’s back, but none had arrived. That was not a good sign. The White Knight put a spring to his step and emerged on the third floor, which was abandoned. There was a pair of unmanned ballistae and racks full of projectiles as well as a set of stairs leading to the roof, but no enemies. The threshold to the side led to the rope bridge linking this tower to the next one and he immediately moved towards it. The arrow whistled an inch to the left of his head, the soldiers on the other side of the bridge already in formation. That was no issue, but the way two of them seemed prepared to cut out the bridge was. Instead of pouring more reinforcements into the fight below, the Helikeans had retreated in good order and positioned themselves to cut off their losses if necessary. How unpleasantly competent of them.
Barely a heartbeat had passed since the arrow clattered against stone and Hanno’s mind quickened. He would not make it across the bridge in time, which would endanger the entire operation. He would not make it across the bridge in time on foot. The White Knight was moving forward before he even thought of it, Name pulsing inside of him. The winds howled through his veins, carving their marks.
“Ride,” he whispered.
Light roiled violently by his side, taking shape and flesh until a horse stood – without breaking stride Hanno hoisted himself on it, extending his hand so that the lance of light would form inside it. The horse moved swifter than any mortal mount could have, across the rope bridge within three breaths. The lance pieced through the first soldier’s torso, flesh wafting smoke, and a sword stroke sent the other one’s head tumbling to the ground. He’d moved quickly enough the Helikeans were too surprised to immediately attack. Hanno let go of the lance, allowing it to disperse, and the horse’s hooves caved in the head of the man at the centre of the enemy formation. A heartbeat later the mount was gone and he dropped to his feet, landing gracefully even in plate.
“Fucking Hells,” one of the archers in the back exhaled, knocking an arrow.
The longsword cut through both the bow and his throat in the same swing.
“Retreat,” an officer barked. “Collapse the next-“
He swallowed his tongue before he could finish, clawing at his throat as he choked. Hedge had caught up. There’d been twelve soldiers, before he’d crossed the bridge. Now there eight, seven when he caught a man’s blade and broke it before his hand snaked out to grab him by the neck. His grip strengthened, the cracking sound heralding another death. These were Helikeans, though. The descendants of the same soldiers who had waged war on the mightiest nation as a single city-state and forced the man to surrender or see Salia burn to the ground. They did not flinch or fail. One allowed his blade to run him through to keep it stuck as the two remaining archers took aim again – only for the first to twitch, then disperse into a cloud of ashes that had the other coughing. Priestess had arrived. By the time the Champion had crossed the bridge with her axe raised, there was no one left alive on that side of the tower. The other two heroines made their way more slowly.
“Kill everyone,” the Levantine complained. “Like hog.”
“What do pigs have to do with this?” Hedge blinked.
“She means we hogged the kills,” Ash said.
“Yes,” Champion agreed enthusiastically. “You all big hogs.”
“Would you stop calling me a-“ Hedge began, tone irritated, before Hanno cleared his throat.
“You can take point, Champion,” he told the short woman. “We need to get to the westernmost tower and fast.”
There were seven towers, in all. The Wizard’s overtaking of the ritual on this one would take care of roughly half, but for the destruction to be complete they would need to do the same on the other side. They were on the third story now, where all the rope bridges would lead, so at least there would be no need to move around. That did not simplify matters as much as Hanno would have thought, as he found out. By the time they cleared the third tower, the one they’d landed on had begun to move. There was a deafening sound as it rammed itself into the second tower, half-collapsing but continuing to push it into the third one. At the fourth they found the bridge out already cut when they arrived. Hedge would not be able to turn into the giant eagle again until dawn, and she lacked another form that would carry them all. Priestess managed to craft a thin line of solid light for them to walk across while getting peppered with arrows. The Champion took three in the chest but her Name was remarkably robust: it barely slowed her down. Less than an hour had passed when they arrived to the last tower, but it had still taken much longer than he would have liked.
Behind them three towers had impacted into one large ruin, but the central one was barely touched. Hedge would have to add some momentum to the conversion on this side if they wanted to break the central tower, which she informed him would increase those “not insignificant” chances of blowing up. The seventh tower was already deserted when they arrived, the rope bridge that used to lead to it having been cut from the sixth tower’s side. Magelight could be seen shining through the stairs that led below.
“This is a trap,” Priestess said.
“Not even a subtle one,” the Wizard added.
“We mighty,” Champion argued. “Trap feeble and dim, like Procer soldier.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hanno said. “We need that tower moving.”
And so down they went. There was no iron door here, only a single hall that took up the entire inside of the tower. A banquet hall, as it happened. There was a long table set there, set with a feast that would have fed three dozen people – and it was still warm, by the looks of it. There were five seats set, and one was already filled. The Bard waved.
“You lot really took your time,” Aoede said. “I’ve been here like, forever.”
The only other person in the room laughed. Behind the table the same ritual array that Hanno had seen before was reproduced in painstaking detail, save for one difference: at the centre of symbols, the obsidian disk was set on a ridiculously gaudy throne flanked by leering gargoyles. One where a boy was lounging lazily. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, but he looked frail for that age. His limbs were thin and his skin unhealthily pale, his body topped by wispy brown curls bearing a crown of gold with jewels set in them. The boy had a sceptre of ivory across his lap, with a roaring gold lion’s head. The Tyrant of Helike smiled at them, his ugly red eye twitching.
“So you’d be the White Knight, then,” the boy mused. “And sundry sidekicks. By all means, sit. I’ve had a meal prepared for you.”
“The wine is great,” the Bard said. “Fruity, with a hint of arsenic.”
“You’ve had enough of it to kill several villages,” the Tyrant commented. “I’m actually impressed.”
“Pheasant look good,” Champion said.
“Poisoned,” Hedge hissed at her in a low voice. “The word you’re looking for is poisoned.”
Hanno ignored them, calmly making his way down the stairs. The villain stirred on his throne, looking at him.
“Is this the part where you rail at my Evil ways?” he asked. “I’ve been looking forward to that.”
“I do not judge,” the White Knight said.
The silver coin appeared in his open palm, as it always did. As a child, Hanno had seen the laws of men fail. He’d believed in the citizenship tiers, before he’d seen what they did to his mother. And yet Ashur was on the side of Good, was it not? So many places across Calernia were, and yet injustice was rampant. The thought had tormented him, as a child. How could one tell which laws were just and which were not? Picking and choosing was… imperfect. One’s discernment could never be flawless. It was constrained by the events of one’s life, the limits of one’s intellect. Hanno could have, he supposed, destroyed the laws he’d seen destroy his mother. But what would he have replaced them with? His own beliefs, as fallible as those of the men and women who’d crafted the laws he railed against? That was not rectifying an evil. It was replacing it with a different shade of the same. But he’d found an answer, hadn’t he? He flipped the coin, watched it spin in the air. It landed on his palm. The crossed silver swords, not the laurels. The Seraphim had rendered their judgement.
“Kairos Theodosian, Tyrant of Helike,” the White Knight said, tone eerily calm. “The Choir of Judgement has looked upon the sum of your existence, and found you wanting.”
Heat flooded his veins, lighting up his senses. For once, everything felt right.
“The verdict is removal from Creation.”
The boy cackled madly.
“Now that’s the stuff, hero,” he said.
The Tyrant rose to his feet, twirling his sceptre.
“Bard, play something ominous,” he ordered.
Aoede raised a finger, drained the rest of her cup, then picked up her lute. Every other time she’d played in front of Hanno it had sounded like she was committing musical murder but this once, the song ran true. Deep and urgent and dark, like death circling. He almost shivered.
“Your soldiers are dead,” the Priestess said, standing by his side.
“You are alone,” the Wizard said, hands already tracing runes.
“Your skull make cup,” the Champion enthused. “Get me many lovers.”
The boy grinned, red eye burning.
“I am the Tyrant of Helike,” he said. “Dead or not, they are in my service.”
The villain’s sceptre pulsed gold and made a sound like a gong ringing. Hazy silhouettes formed in ranks in front of him. Soldiers, all of them. Ranks upon ranks filled the room and they unsheathed their swords, strung their bows. Lances were raised and horses whinnied.
“Shit,” Hedge cursed to herself. “We got monologued. Never let them finish the monologue, Hedge, that’s how they get you.”
The soldiers moved and the White Knight charged. There was a sheen of light to his sword, and not even spectres were beyond his ability to cut. He sidestepped a lance, cut through the apparition’s belly and carved through the head of the man-at-arms behind it. The heat built up inside of him, spilling out in motes of power as he killed his way through the host. The Hedge Wizard spat out a stream of smoke that enveloped the spectres in front of her as Priestess wove a circle of sunlight around her that burned the soldiers whenever they neared it. The Champion bashed a spectre’s face with her shield, apparently indifferent to the fact that they were intangible. She was not, as far as he could tell, even using her name. The Tyrant’s crown lit up and shot a beam of red light at him, because naturally the madman would turn his regalia into a magical weapon, and Hanno grit his teeth as his plate began melting. If it was not lethal, then it was just pain and obstruction. Those he could deal with.
Hedge threw a small ball of fur at the Tyrant that turned into an angry ferret, distracting enough by clawing at his face that the beams ceased. Now would be the time to call on another of his aspects, he knew. But even with the villain distracted, spectres kept appearing faster than they could be killed and the Champion was beginning to get buried. The moment she was, the sisters would be under assault and it was all downhill from there. There were on the Tyrant’s chosen ground, and Hanno had seen enough heroes die in the Chamber to know how this would end.
“Hedge,” he called out. “Crash the tower.”
“We’re still in the tower,” she reminded him.
“Yes,” he said patiently. “There’s no way we could survive that. Therefore we will.”
“Do it, Alkmene,” Priestess hissed. “We can’t keep this up.”
The Wizard cursed again and leapt forward, turning into a sparrow before she hit the ground. She began rising in the air but archers took aim and Hanno hurried towards her – too late, he’d be too late. One after another, the arrows clattered uselessly against the Champion’s great shield as she charged through a spectre to get there in time. Casually, she decapitated an apparition and kicked the intangible body into another. The sparrow flew through the melee, weaving around swings and arrows to land in a crash on the obsidian disk. The Tyrant threw a now-dead ferret at her, but taking the stoneglass off the throne had been enough. The tower, after a heartbeat, began to fall. The villain frowned thoughtfully.
“I had something for this,” he said. “This tower will be your grave? No, Anaxares said that was second-rate. This isn’t over yet?”
The gargoyles flanking the throne animated and began flapping their stone wings, grabbing the Tyrant by the shoulders. The dragged him upwards, heading for the stairs. The boy suddenly inhaled.
“Oh! I’ll get you next time, heroes!” he said shaking his fist in their direction.
By the time the villain was out the hall, which was still falling, the spectres had dissipated into a thick mist lingering on the ground. Hanno waited until the Wizard had turned back into her proper form.
“I don’t suppose putting the disk back will end the freefall?” he asked.
“With the momentum we have going?” she grimaced. “It’ll blow up in our faces instantly.”
The White Knight sighed. So much for the easy way.
“Everyone, gather close,” he said, reaching for his Name.
They did. Hanno closed his eyes and gathered his power, waited for the beginning of the impact that would signal they’d touched the ground.
“Wait, how are you not wounded?” Hedge said. “I saw you take hits.”
“Witch not so smart,” Champion said. “Ghosts no real, can’t hurt.”
“Ignorance is not a magical power,” the Wizard yelled.
The White Knight felt the shudder under his feet, and instantly released all he’d gathered. The world went white.