“One hundred and twelve: always be kind to any monster held in a cage by your nemesis. When it inevitably gets loose, it will remember the kindness and attempt to destroy the villain instead.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
A series of explosions rocked the machine and the enormous drill ceased spinning.
Though the Lowest Plaza still had a massive gaping hole in its centre, Helikean soldiers were no longer pouring out of the tunnel: when the Tyrant had fled, swearing ‘eternal and unholy revenge’, they’d begun retreating in good order. Hanno let out a sigh of relief. He’d not needed to tap into any of his aspects to turn back the breach, but after unleashing his Name so many times he was starting to tire. Ash was already making her way through the Delosi soldiers, curing anything short of death with a touch and that semi-permanent frown. The Ashen Priestess was admittedly one of the more combative healing Names: it should perhaps be expected that her bedside manner was rougher than that of the average priest. The White Knight wasn’t exactly displeased. His memories told him that the all-loving types often had difficulty dealing with the realities of war, especially those sworn to Compassion. Their inability to reconcile the way Creation was and the way it should be could lead to some very ugly breakdowns.
The Champion was currently collecting “trophies”, hacking off the tip of swords so she could make rings out of them to add to her necklace. There were already enough of those that the thing could be considered an additional layer of mail around her neck. A somewhat grisly ritual by heroic standards, but that was always the way with Levantines. The heroes that had founded their nation had been rebels fighting the Proceran occupation, after all, and they’d been much more willing to bloody their hands than the average Named on the side of Good. Hanno sheathed his sword and took off his helmet to wipe his brow. Hedge crawled out of the wreckage of the machine moments later, covered in soot from head to toe. She’d gone in there to blow the runic array powering the drill while he held the line, and one again gotten off essentially untouched. Hanno wasn’t surprised: there was a reason he kept sending her on the riskiest ventures.
As long as the Hedge Wizard and the Champion kept bickering ‘amusingly’, they were essentially untouchable. Their heroic band would be much too grim if they died, too dark for the amount of absurdity the Tyrant kept injecting into this siege. The White Knight eyed the giant drilling machine belching smoke and sighed again. Well, the flying towers had been a wash so he supposed it made sense for the Tyrant to try underground afterwards. Usually even villains hesitated before trying that route, since there was always the risk of running into a dwarven tunnel, but this particular monster was a reckless one. Almost too reckless, he’d begun thinking of late. Every assault that had been made on Delos so far did have a decent chance of succeeding, but they were also all half-baked enterprises. It was like victory and defeat didn’t particularly matter to the man planning the operations, which was somewhat worrying. If taking Delos wasn’t the way the Tyrant got what he wanted, what was?
Delosi officers began arranging crews to drag away the broken machine and cordoning off the hole in the ground until it could be properly filled. The Secretariat’s armed forces were not particularly strong, in his opinion, but they were well-organized and had superb morale. Delosi believed that the decrees of their Secretariat were the will of the Heavens, so whenever they were deployed they would not break regardless of casualty rates. It had not been unusual for half a battalion to be wiped out on their first deployment, in the first skirmishes of the war, and yet the same men and women who’d been through that grinder did not hesitate going back to it the following day. He could respect that, the act of putting your faith in something larger than yourself. In this case it was somewhat misplaced, of course. The Secretariat was an institution made my men, and so held the flaws of those men. To find infallible judgement, one had to look higher. Hedge made her way to him, patting away the soot with a lack of method that spread the unsightliness more than got rid of it.
“That should be it for a fortnight, at least,” she said. “Unless he thinks up another machine.”
“He’s tried above and below,” Hanno noted. “We should expect a dimensional shortcut next.”
The Hedge Wizard snorted, her mismatched eyes shining with anticipation.
“If he’s going to meddle in Arcadia that problem might just fix itself,” she said. “The Courts are on war footing; they’ll be shooting everything that moves.”
“The first step always works, Hedge,” he reminded her. “It may backfire later but it’s a virtual certainty he’ll make it into the city.”
The dark-haired woman grimaced.
“That sounds like you’re asking me to do ward work,” she said. “Breaking those I can manage, White, but making them? That stuff is hellishly complicated and it blows up if you get even one number wrong.”
Hanno had been about to suggest a mere alarm measure instead of something more taxing when he saw Delosi troops coming down from the upper levels. The White Knight felt curiosity rise when the officers among them ignored the efforts of the other soldiers and headed straight for him. The highest-ranked among them, a weedy woman with a commander’s insignia branded on her breastplate, came forward and saluted sharply.
“Lord White,” she greeted him. “There’s been an accident.”
“A large one, for a commander to come inform me personally,” he said.
“There was a fire in the House of Ink and Parchment,” the commander said. “An entire wing collapsed. Casualties involve several members of the Secretariat.”
Hanno’s eyes sharpened.
“Which ones?” he asked.
The commander didn’t know since she was not high-ranking enough to be cleared for the information, as it turned out, but she’d been provided with a list. For once Delos’ obsession with records was saving time instead of costing it. The olive-skinned hero scanned the scroll, skipping the names of anyone not ranked Secretary – anyone below that had no real influence in the city. Secretary Colchis, Secretary Mante, Secretary Theolian. Secretary of War Euphemia. Every single high-ranked member of the Secretariat who’d at any point spoken in favour of Delos continuing to intervene in the war past the siege.
“That fire was not an accident,” he said quietly. “It was enemy action.”
Hedge looked at him grimly.
“You think the Tyrant used the assault as a distraction?” she asked.
“Wasn’t our Kairos who did this,” Aoede said.
Hanno released the handle of his sword. The Bard had not been there a moment ago, but in between a single blink of his eyelids she had… filled the space. Arm slung over Hedge’s shoulder, the Wandering Bard for once wasn’t smiling.
“You should have some memories about this,” Aoede told him. “This is-“
She never got to finish. Of the twenty-odd officers that surrounded them, over half had weapons in hand: the Bard vanished before a knife could take her in the belly, wielded by the very commander who’d brought him news.
“Stand down,” Hanno barked, blade in hand.
In the span of a single heartbeat the hero noticed three things. First, all the officers with their weapons out looked horrified. Second, there was the faintest trickle of power inside them. And third, they were now turning their weapons on themselves. The White Knight dropped his sword and wrestled down the commander before she could slit her own throat, but Hedge was not so quick. The others dropped to the ground, dying or dead, before anything else could be done. The commander stopped fighting back after a moment and he only just managed to keep her from biting off her tongue. Name pulsing, Hanno focused on the power he’d glimpsed. He managed to feel five layers of something before it was gone, washed away before he even tried to make it disappear.
“Commander,” he said calmly, releasing her mouth. “Are you with me?”
The woman blinked.
“Lord White?” she croaked. “Why am I on the ground?”
Hanno got back to his feet, helped her up.
“Can you remember anything unusual that happened to you today?” he said.
The officer paled.
“No,” she admitted.
“She wouldn’t,” Hedge said quietly. “Someone Spoke to her.”
The Ashuran glanced at his companion.
“You’ve seen this before?” he asked.
“I know the theory,” the Wizard replied. “Five orders. One to wipe the memory, one trigger, one act and two contingencies.”
This… he’d seen this before. Fought this before. The White Knight closed his eyes, breathed in and out until his heartbeat slowed and then ceased entirely. In that moment, his mind filled. A thousand lifetimes he had lived yet not lived, spread across centuries. Hanno focused, filtered through two points: compromised officers, high-tier leadership crippled. Seventh Crusade, White Knight. No, opponent was the Dead King. First Proceran War, Good King. No, this wasn’t bribery. The Paladin, fall of the Blessed Isle. Conquest. Commander of the vanguard and the western flank assassinated, had to be replaced by officers less seasoned. Every outpost off the Isle gone dark. Sentries made unable to see the placement of goblinfire at the base of the walls. His heartbeat returned.
“Calamities,” Hanno spoke. “We’re fighting the Calamities, and they’re about to attack.”
There was a sensation in the back of his head, like a lever being pulled, and a ward covering the Lower Plaza awoke.
A faint smell hit his nostrils and soldiers began dropping like flies.
Alkmene wasted a good two heartbeats looking at Hanno like he’d just murdered her puppy. The Calamities, as in those scary Praesi fuckers up north with a graveyard full of heroes behind their lair? Shit. Shit. Words stronger than shit, which were not coming at the moment because oh Gods they were all about to die. Productive panic, Hedge, she reminded herself. Productive panic is how we survive. They were now inside a ward, which had been remotely triggered and until now had been hidden behind the much larger magical emanations coming from that godsdamned drill from the Hells. Alkmene tested the strength of said ward with her mind and found she might as well be trying to bring down a wall by pelting it with pastries. Modify it? And now the back of her eye was itching, just from a light probe. Whoever had designed that pattern was a vicious bastard and a half. All that was left was alleviating the effects, then. Her teachers had always taught that that a Gifted faced with a ward could only do three things: break, modify or alleviate. By the looks of it, this one was a straight translocation ward that was bringing in some kind of gas at a fixed rate.
Hedge pulled up a scarf from under her robes and covered her mouth. Most poisons could be outright ignored by Named and the rest could be burned out with a trick, but quantity ingested did influence how well that worked. From the way all the Delosi were stiffening and falling to the ground so quickly, this was not a weak brew. Not magical in nature though. That made things easier. Muttering a word of power, Alkmene created a ball of air in the middle of the plaza. The translucent sphere began spinning, sucking in the gas as fast as it could. She kept murmuring and it kept expanding, devouring more and more. Wouldn’t save many of the soldiers, but it would at least make sure their band didn’t go into the fight with enough paralysis poison in their lungs to kill a dozen oxen. Ash, in the middle of the incapacitated men, slammed her staff against the paving stones. There was a pulse of power and the people on the ground began breathing again, turning this from a massacre to a crippling blow. On the other hand, by doing that she’d… Hanno was running towards her sister faster than anyone in plate should be able to, but he wouldn’t get there in time.
A red wedge immediately opened up in the sky above Irene and a burning rock the size of a house fell through.
Alkmene cursed, flicked her wrist and sent the ball of air straight at the projectile. For a heartbeat it seemed like it would push it back, but then with a pop the spell gave. It was just enough of a delay that her sister was able to prepare herself, thank the Gods. Before the pocket meteorite could smash her into paste Irene was swallowed by a cloud of ash that swirled around her before spearing upwards. The rock itself turned into ash when it made contact, hitting the ground and obscuring the entire plaza in a thick cloud. Alkmene sharpened her eyes just before visibility went and winced at what she saw. Irene’s eyes were already grey, which was a bad sign. She’d already used too much power. The Hedge Wizard set that aside the moment she began to feel another spell being crafted, and looked upwards. There was a ball of opaque blue light hovering in the sky above the city, a stable shielding ward. The Warlock, she realized with a dry swallow. She was going to have to fight that. What had her teachers called getting into a mage’s duel with Praesi again? Death by stupidity, she remembered. But godsdamnit, she’d have to anyway. If the Warlock was busy with her he wasn’t smashing everything down here to bloody chunks. Alkmene cursed again and fished out three tiles from her pockets.
She threw them ahead of her, watched them form three steps hovering in the air.
“You don’t have to win, Hedge,” she encouraged herself. “Just, you know, not get horribly killed. It’s all about the standards.”
Nervously laughing, she began the climb up.
Even as the ash billowed past him, Hanno replayed the sequence of events of the last sixty heartbeats in his mind. Nonlethal but dangerous ward that affected mundane soldiers, triggered as the opening move. Their spellcaster moved to mitigate the damage, taking herself out of the equation. Their healer then attempted to heal the affected, leaving herself wide open for retaliation while the other two fighters in their band were too far away to intervene.
Had the Ashen Priestess been a common healing Named, that projectile would have killed her instantly.
They’d almost lost a fourth of their fighting strength before the first exchange was over, and that realization sent a shiver up his spine. These were not military tactics, they were hero-killing tactics. Targeting people in their charge to make them expend effort, then immediately striking their weak point with overwhelming force. Their opponents were not only used to fighting heroes, they were used to fighting bands of heroes. The White Knight calmed his mind. There would be three of them. The Warlock was in the sky, and Hedge was moving to distract him. Now he needed to find the Captain and the Black Knight before they could take one of his companions out.
“Ash,” he called out. “Champion.”
“We here,” the Champion yelled back.
“One, five,” a man’s voice calmly said. “Brazier.”
Magic flared in the distance and the place where the Champion’s voice had come from burst into flames. The light was enough for Hanno to make out a lone silhouette to his left. A man. Short, in plate with a heater shield and a longsword. The White Knight, without making a sound, headed in that direction. With a burst of speed he emerged behind the man and rammed his blade in this back – only to pierce through shadows that collapsed into a pool before snaking away along the ground. There was a faint whistle and he ducked under a crossbow bolt, almost missing the second one aimed at his knee. He managed to parry that one at the last moment, though it marked his armour. The hero could still feel the presences of Ash and the Champion, dimmed. They were still alive, though the fire had hurt. Gritting his teeth, he made his choice and followed the shadows.
They were swift, but not swift enough to outpace a hero on foot. After a few moments it became glaringly obvious he was being led away from the plaza, towards the second level of the city. The sound of fighting erupted behind him, the Champion hooting in joy, but he’d have to trust they could handle themselves. Leaving the Black Knight unattended with an ash cloud as cover was just asking for one of them to die. Hanno found steps under his feet, a sure sign he was leaving the plaza, and shortly afterwards fell the pressure over his shoulders vanish: he’d left the bounds of the ward. The ash cloud behind him, the hero looked for his opponent and found him almost instantly. In the middle of the avenue stood a man, in a bare suit of plate that had the marks of frequent use. His shield had no heraldry painted on it, his sword went without decoration. The only splash of colour was those unsettlingly pale green eyes that could be seen through the slits of the helm.
“You’re a long way from home, Black Knight,” Hanno said.
The man did not reply. He moved forward, shield raised. The White Knight felt the Light flood his veins, scouring his insides, and with hard eyes met the enemy.
The enemy had made a mistake when they’d chosen poison as their means of attack. The method had been clever enough, Irene would concede, as the sheer quantity of poison had made it hard to counteract. Now that she had this much ash to work with, however, it was child’s play to neutralize the effects. After absorbing the airborne toxin with it she’d directly targeted the enemy ward with her power, since Alkmene was apparently incapable of doing as much. Hammering blindly at sorcery with miracles tended to lead to unpredictable side effects, so instead of destroying the ward she’d erased the part that was bringing in the gas. Or at least she’d begun doing that, before nine feet of plate and muscle with a giant hammer had come for her head. How they’d not seen or heard the behemoth approach, given that the ash cloud had settled on the ground by then, was beyond her. Likely the woman’s Name was involved. Regardless, the Champion had stepped in before her earthly body could be made an earthly corpse.
“You not just big girl,” said heroine enthused, narrowly avoiding a swing. “You biggest girl.”
“I’m flattered,” the Captain replied politely. “But also thrice your age and married.”
The Ashen Priestess had never thought much of fighting banter. If you had breath for it, you weren’t trying to kill your opponent hard enough. The Champion was more or less holding the enemy at bay for now, so she focused on the ward again. She could see why her sister had found the structure troublesome: there were little patterns that would make even looking at it dangerous for a mage. Doing so through the lens of a miracle, however, meant it could not touch her. Irene began sharpening her power into a chisel again, breaking one rune after another. Her soul was only loosely attached to her body by a chord, high in the sky as she continued chipping away at the ward. The Priestess smiled as she wiped another cluster, then felt the chord being tugged. Looking downwards she saw the Champion’s shield getting caved in by a hammer blow, quickly followed by the heroine getting punched in the face. Both hits she had gotten by standing between the villain and Priestess’ immobile body. Irene had seen the Champion laugh off a horse’s kick, but after that punch she spat blood before forcing the Captain back. She then unkindly slapped Irene’s body in the face a second time, the chord forcefully dragging the heroine back inside at the impact.
“Ashy,” Champion grunted as the Priestess blearily opened her eyes. “Get your miera joint. This no stroll in park.”
Irene eyed her companion in confusion before she caught the meaning. Get your shit together, Rafaella had meant.
“The ward’s out of play,” she said. “I’m back.”
“Good,” the Champion said. “Two-time big girl now.”
Said ‘girl’ was not currently attacking them, Priestess could not help but notice. The Captain was not wearing a helmet so the studded earring in her left ear was quite visible. And currently glinting with sorcery.
“Confirmed,” the Captain said. “Going full tilt.”
“I no like sound of this,” the Champion admitted, throwing away her crumpled shield and hoisting her axe.
“It’s nothing personal,” the villain said. “I was given an order, and now I Obey.”
The moment she spoke the word, her presence in Creation became heavier. Aspect. Well, that was going to be troublesome. The Ashen Priestess reached for her miracles as the Captain blurred into motion.
Hanno’s sword slid off the shield and he backpedalled to avoid the blades that would have scythed through his knees. At least now he knew how the villain had shot two crossbows at him earlier: the Black Knight’s shadow extended into two tendrils behind his back, the two of them wielding swords simultaneously to the villain’s own movements. The sheer amount of fine control that had to go in that was staggering, not that the hero had time to stop and stare: even with the Light sharpening his reflexes beyond human capacity he was having trouble coming close without taking a hit. The first time the villain had revealed the tendrils he’d waited until their blades were locked before plunging two blades straight into the White Knight’s neck: they’d gone through the gorget and would have gone on to his spine under it if he hadn’t detonated the Light beneath his skin to blow them back. The burns from that were painful, and unlike other wounds wouldn’t start healing given enough time.
Hanno breathed out, having a little space, and timed his advance. The first shadow-wielded sword skimmed his shoulder as he shot forward, trailing sparks. The second came down in a swing but he rolled forward, landing on his feet just in time to parry a lunge that would have gone straight through his eye. The White Knight slapped away the shield, flicked his wrist, and with wide eyes saw the fuse on a clay ball reaching the bottom. It exploded in his face, throwing him back. Before he even landed on the ground the Black Knight was behind him, shadow tendrils swinging swords at the height of his neck and torso. Gritting his teeth, Hanno detonated the Light on his side to stop his momentum – it blew straight through his plate. He took a shield bash to the face, blinding him, and then felt a blade go straight through the elbow joint of his sword arm. Biting down on a scream, he reached for his Name and let out a pulse of blinding light. By the time he was steady again, the Black Knight was twenty feet away and the shadow limbs were aiming crossbows at him.
The hero moved his blade to the hand with a functioning elbow behind it. He wasn’t as good with his left as his right, but it was a near thing. At the moment he could only see two shadow tendrils, but Hanno wasn’t falling for that again. He’d seen a third one hiding those goblin munitions behind the shield, after knocking it aside. The crossbows drew back, however, when both Named heard the sound of marching troops coming down the avenue leading up to the third level. Reinforcements, the Ashuran thought. Alone against the villain they would be wheat waiting for the sickle, but with him too? No matter how many limbs the Black Knight had, he only had one torso. The Delosians spread across the length of the avenue in a shield wall, bowmen setting up behind them. The villain’s limbs retracted and he patiently waited for the soldiers to approach. What was he… No.
“Retreat,” the White Knight bellowed.
“Two, five through eight,” the green-eyed man spoke calmly. “Half.”
Hanno felt magic flare in the distance and saw the villain flatten himself against the ground. He followed suit, and a heartbeat late felt the warmth of a spell pass above him. He got back on his feet as soon as his senses told him the danger was past, jaw tightening when he saw the aftermath of the sorcery. Every soldier in the avenue had been cut through at the waist as if by a giant blade. Blood and viscera stained the stone even as the men twitched away the last of their lives.
“Warlock, you have bleed,” the Black Knight said. “Walls were damaged. Recalibrate.”
Some of the houses had been sliced through as well, Hanno saw, but he was far past caring. He’d just seen two hundred men butchered like animals quicker than you could fill a glass. The White Knight breathed out, mastering his fury. I do not judge. To take justice in his own hands was surrendering his blade to chaos. Only the judgement of the Heavens was not limited by the shackles of mortal perspective.
“Ride,” Hanno hissed, running.
Light howled into existence, sharping itself into a steed that the White Knight mounted without missing a beat. His sword returned to its sheath as he devoured the distance, a blinding lance of light forming in his extended hand. The Black Knight cocked his head to the side and the shadow tendrils extended from his back. Hanno waited for the swords, but instead they extended even further and pushed the villain off the ground like giant spider legs, tossing him towards a rooftop to the left. By the time the Ashuran got to where the villain had stood there was nothing left to charge. The mount disappeared a heartbeat later and the lance with it, Hanno landing on his feet. His gaze turned to the rooftop, where the Black Knight was studying him.
“Two, six,” the man said. “Pitch.”
Everything went dark just as the tiredness from using the aspect hit him.
“Oh, come on,” Hedge yelled as she started falling.
It had been bad enough when little dots of red light that burned straight through everything began pursuing her, but now this? There was no way using giant snakes made of flames as a mobile semi-sentient defence could be considered reasonable. Mages used those as a fancy knockout-punch, not decoration. She only had two tiles left – that little dot surprise had punched straight through one before she learned what they did – which meant she wasn’t so much ascending as leaping from one stair to another. While at least a league up in the sky, pursued by killer lights and very insistent giant fire snakes. Normally the absolute sheer terror knotting up her guts would have been crippling, but having come within an inch of death seven times within the last few moments she’d punched straight through that ceiling of fear into another realm of fresh and previously unexplored horror. She was never going use a staircase again, and anyone who tried to make her was going to spend the rest of their life as the ugliest frog she could manage.
The Hedge Wizard summoned the two tiles back to her, shoving one under her feet hastily so she’d stop freefalling. The dots were slow enough they’d take a bit to catch up, but she was now officially back in snake trouble territory. The odd-eyed woman winced as she saw the spell construct’s jaw unhinge. Just before it closed on her she muttered a word of power and both she and everything she touched turned into flame, just long enough for the snake to pass through her. She came out of it wearing fuming robes and knowing she was running out of tricks to survive that. Her Name allowed her to use and understand sorceries so wide in scope and different in nature that it was effectively impossible for anyone else to know them all, but it did have one glaring flaw: she could never use the same trick twice the same day. Her bag wasn’t running low, at the moment, but it was certainly running low with things she could use to avoid giant flaming snake death. This was, she reflected, a bit of a problem.
She wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer, while the Warlock did not even seem to be running his actual defences. Could he even, from inside that bubble ward? He’d been casting area-wide magic sporadically, but she wasn’t actually getting any spikes in magic from in there when he did. There was actually a non-negligible chance he was just triggering distant wards while overseeing the battlefield. The most direct action he’d taken so far was the pocket meteor, and that was before she’d found him in the sky. So if I break that bubble, I might be disrupting their entire plan. That was the kind of risk she had to take, horrifying as that notion was. Alkmene did not think they were going to pull through this otherwise, not with how dim she could feel the others getting. Hanno was getting the worst of it, she sensed, but whoever Champion was scrapping with was delivering a hell of a beating. Hedge gingerly rolled her shoulders, watching the swarm of light dots approaching.
The wizard summoned her free tile to her hand and tapped the one she was standing on three times. It broke her heart to destroy an artefact she’d made so recently – because of their equally recent flying tower fiasco, as it happened – but it was marginally better than getting destroyed herself. The tile began lengthening and she ran down the length, feeling it becoming more and more brittle the longer it spread. Halfway to the bubble it shattered under her feet. She managed to get the second on in place before beginning to fall, angling it so it served as a sloped ramp. Immediately she began sliding off but another word of power had her soles sticking to the surface, allowing her to start running upwards. Not, unfortunately, fast enough to lose the dots. Hedge muttered under breath and flicked her wrist: a ghost image of her, reproducing her magical signature, began running away across thin air. The dots weren’t sentient at all, unlike the snakes, so it would be enough to fool them.
One of said snakes managed to loop back to her right before she got to the bubble, though, leaving her only an instant to make her decision. She went with the risk, since her last tile was already beginning to break. She leapt on top of the bubble and pressed herself against the ward, hoping to all the Gods the snakes had been designed not to collide with the bubble. The fire construct veered away at the last moment and she clenched her fist in triumph. Not dying, her favourite kind of victory. Immediately she began tinkering with the ward beneath her. Unlike the first one they’d been hit with, this one had been designed to weather a beating instead of being hard to modify. Small favours. No doubt the Warlock already knew she was there, so her window would be very, very small. Huh, this was actually massively strong. She could have unloaded her entire arsenal at this and barely scratched it. Were the villains under the impression she was a slugger kind of mage?
With a smile of triumph, she switched the last two runes, preparing the fae flame even as a circular hole in the bubble opened.
There was no Warlock inside.
There was, however, an unstable elemental matrix that had only been kept from exploding by the containment ward.
“You utter asshole,” she managed to say before it blew up.
The warhammer came down and shattered Champion’s shoulder, then spun to turn her left kneecap into powder. The Captain did not even attempt to kill the downed heroine this time, going directly for Irene. She’d learned from that initial mistake.
“Heal,” the Ashen Priestess murmured.
The shoulder snapped back into place, the knee yanked itself up and the Levantine woman got back on her feet. Irene had been tapping into her aspect for over half the fight and it was starting to take a toll. The wounds healed themselves more slowly now, and not as fully. Given how absurdly tough the Champion was she was able to walk it off anyway, but it was a game of diminishing returns. In more ways than one: the Captain’s hammer came down on the box of light surrounding the Priestess three times before Rafaella was able to engage her again. After the third blow the box thinned, and Irene was certain if the villain had time for a fourth it would outright break. If it did, she gave it half and half odds she survived the experience. Unfortunately the Champion now got back into the fight a little slower every time while Captain showed no sign of tiring. Whatever aspect she’d used earlier wasn’t empowering her by much, but it wasn’t running out. This had effectively become an endurance match, which villains weren’t supposed to be able to win. They would this time, though, because the Calamities had hit when their band was fresh from turning back an enemy assault.
That did not feel like a coincidence.
“Champion,” Irene called out.
“Small busy right now,” the Levantine replied, ducking under a hammer blow.
The mere force of the swing was enough to kick up a cloud of ash behind them.
“I need you to buy me sixty heartbeats,” she said.
“Also want moon and stars?” Champion complained.
“It’s that or we die,” the Priestess frankly replied.
Rafaella smashed her battle axe into the behemoth’s plate, driving her back a step and cracking the metal.
“Dying not good,” the Levantine conceded.
The Captain leapt back.
“I need Burden in, um,” she said. “Big square in the middle.”
There was a pause.
“I’m not Black, Wekesa,” she retorted irritably. “I don’t keep track of where everyone goes all the time.”
Thirty heartbeats left. She could make it. Her aspect continued ebbing as she pushed another one to the surface. That was the limitation on Heal – she could keep it going, but making it stop took time. There was a flare of magic in the distance and suddenly the box flared into existence above her head. A moment later it broke and massive pressure forced her to her knees. Champion was still on her feet even if she was buckling, she saw, but Captain seemed almost unaffected. The hammer rose and she blurred again.
“Oppose,” the Champion laughed.
There was a sound like a crack made in the weave of Creation and the pressure lifted. Rafaella’s axe smashed into the head of the hammer that would have split open the Priestess’ head, the impacts perfectly matched. Both weapons flew back and Captain warily stepped away.
“Ignite,” Irene croaked out.
All over the field, the ashes began smouldering. She could feel them pulse in harmony with heartbeat, as much a part of her as any limb. The heat rose and the ashes began rising into the air, forming into spears. The Captain took a look around, then cracked her neck.
“Been a while,” she said. “It won’t be gentle.”
The villain’s eyes turned blood red, her body convulsed and she began shifting. They were, it seemed, not yet out of the woods. Worse, the woods were starting to look rather hungry.
This was not working, Hanno thought as the blade sheared through his cheek. The wound began to heal almost immediately, but his Name didn’t replace blood. Of which he had lost too much already. The White Knight’s eyes narrowed when he saw his opponent giving ground. He was hearing something. Was the villain ordering another strike? Hanno sharpened his hearing, catching only the last words.
Then the munitions detonated. The hero hissed, involuntarily clasping his free hand to an ear. The man had used the elongated sticks that made light and noise earlier, but this was different – it made only noise, but was horribly loud. In that moment where pain filled Hanno’s thoughts, the Black Knight made his move. The olive-skinned hero brought up his sword in time to parry the first strike and sidestep the tendril-moved blade that would have sunk straight in his carotid. But he took the shield bash to the face, and then the other shadow-wielded blade went through the slight space between his breastplate and the lower parts of his armour that only mail covered. The sword chipped on the rings, but it tore through his guts anyway. The sword in the villain’s hand drew back, and in that movement Hanno read his death. It would take him in the eye, killing him in a way no Name could prevent. The world slowed. It wasn’t about power, the White Knight knew. He’d gauged how much both their names could throw around, and he trumped his opponent handily. It was the disparity in skill and experience. Hanno did not have any tricks his opponents had never seen before, and he had not seen most of his opponent’s.
That had always been going to be the way, he’d known from the start. He would have to go against villains who’d been around for decades longer than he, who’d been accumulating power and skill long before he’d even been born. It was why he’d left for the Titanomachy instead of going north to die like the others. I am not enough, but I am more than me. The Light flooded his veins again where it had started to ebb and he silently spoke the word he needed to.
They flooded through his mind until he sorted them by height and build. Knight Errant. Hanno’s body moved by itself, the reflexes of his Name replacing his own. He leaned backwards, the tip of the villain’s sword passing just above his nose, and his hand closed around the grip of the sword in his gut. Ignoring the struggling shadow tendril, he hit the Black Knight in the chest with the pommel. The impact bought him a moment he flawlessly used to spin around his opponent. The very instant they were back to back he slapped away the tendril-moved sword that would have taken the back of his knee and with two swords in hand stepped away from his opponent. The villain did not miss a beat, stepping into a lunge that Hanno turned into a parry that knocked the sword out of the man’s hand. It did not stop him: a tendril caught the sword and swung for this throat as the other one slapped another blade into the palm of his armoured hand. No, this wouldn’t work either.
He touched the flood again. Righteous Spear. Tossing away the villain’s weapon, Hanno felt the sword in his hand flare with light and turn into the spear he needed. A parting gift from the Gigantes, a weapon that could be whatever his Name required. The barbed tip of his spear flicked towards the villain’s throat but bounced off the shield. The Black Knight immediately closed the distance and Hanno spun with the man’s swing, shaft of the spear coming to knock down the side of the shield before he spun back to – to have the shaft be caught by a shadow tendril. Weapon forced out of his hand, Hanno touched the flood again. Sage of the West. His armoured gauntlet expertly caught the side of the shield and he leveraged his weight to slam it into the villain’s own helm. The man was caught off guard long enough for Hanno to slide under his guard and flip him over his back. He pivoted smoothly to hammer his heel into the villain’s helmet but the side of his greaves was caught.
“Destroy,” the Black Knight said.
The life he’d been tapping into… disappeared. Like smoke. He was the White Knight again, standing awkwardly with his foot in his opponent’s grasp. The villain grunted and smashed him into the ground like rag doll. Tendrils of shadows with two dozen of the clay balls from earlier wrapped around him, all lit. Hanno touched the flood again. Thief of Stars. He slid out of the bindings, though the edge of the explosions caught him. He was tossed to the ground, landing in an ungainly sprawl. It wasn’t enough. He’d have to… The coin appeared in one hand as his weapon reformed in a burst of light in the other.
“Burn,” an indifferent voice ordered.
The stream of flame caught him in the chest. His plate was of the finest steel that could be found in the Free Cities and still it boiled in the blink of an eye. The force behind the flames was brutal, driving him into the pavement as the stone scorched and cracked around him. Mercifully, it ceased. The time to worry about the state of his body after the fight was past, Hanno acknowledged. He breathed out and let the Light fill him. He’d lost hold of the Thief, now the White Knight once more, and his body hoisted itself back to its feet. Flesh a tapestry of red and black, he stood to face his enemies. There were two, now. The Black Knight and his sorcerous accomplice. A tall black man in burgundy robes, currently eyeing him with distaste.
“Wekesa,” the Black Knight said. “The Wizard?”
“Survived the blast,” the Warlock replied. “Currently chasing my second fake.”
“Then why are you here?” the other villain asked.
“The Tyrant is retreating.”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“You’re certain?” the Black Knight said.
The sorcerer rolled his eyes.
“No, I confused them with the other besieging army that’s leaving,” he deadpanned.
“A backstab I expected, but a retreat?” the Knight murmured, then shook his head. “Are any of them on their third aspect?”
“Sabah’s got her two on their second, the Wizard hasn’t even used one,” the dark-skinned man said.
The Black Knight sighed, then sheathed his sword.
“We can no longer win this,” he said. “Full retreat.”
“They’re on the ropes, Black,” the Warlock said.
“Yes,” the other villain agreed darkly. “We have them cornered, with all their trump cards left. That is not a story that ends well for us.”
“You’re not getting away,” Hanno and the Light said.
The Warlock glanced at him then smiled unpleasantly.
“Well, you say that, but…”
Everything went dark again.
It was night out when Irene finally hit her limit.
Hanno would survive, which was what mattered. The magical burns had been nothing she hadn’t seen before, if never quite so severe, but there’d been some things she could not fix. There were two patches of skin gone almost stone-like on the side of his neck and a few others on his side that seemed able to simply ignore her miracles. It was like the Heavens saw nothing there that needed to be healed. She’d have to ask him about it, when he woke up. Her sister was sprawled across a chair behind her, looking exhausted, and the Champion was snoring away loudly on the only other bed in the room. She didn’t begrudge the Levantine that in the slightest: she’d had most bones in her body broken at least three times, and Irene had not had the power left to both soothe away the lingering pains and deal with the White Knight’s wounds. Washing away the last of the peeled-off skin with the wet cloth, Irene dropped the resulting mess in the water bowl by her side.
“He’s rather plain for a hero, isn’t he?” Alkmene said quietly, studying their leader.
“That speaks well of him,” Irene replied, dragging herself up. “Means he’s not vain.”
She brought a short stool next to her sister’s seat and with a sigh dropped her head on Alkmene’s arm. The odd-eyed woman stroked her hair affectionately.
“You know what I mean,” her sister said. “Look, we didn’t change much when we became Named but there were some changes. I’m a little thinner. You’re taller than me by at least an inch more than before.”
“That’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” the Bard said.
Both sisters flinched at the interruption. Aoede was sitting by Hanno’s bedside, pulling at a bottle of rum.
“Where have you been all day?” Irene asked flatly.
“Nowhere,” the Bard grimaced. “They’ve figured out a few things.”
It would have been impolite for either of them to pursue this any further, unfortunately. One did not simply ask another Named how their Name affected them. The answers tended to be intensely personal, and sometimes forcing an answer could have grave consequences for everyone involved. The olive-skinned woman brushed back her curls, waving her bottle.
“But like I said, it’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” she continued. “The Seraphim don’t have a lot of tolerance for self-delusion. You’re taller ‘cause in your head you were that much taller than your sister. Irene is thinner ‘cause she never thought of herself as going to keep those pounds.”
“That’s fascinating,” her sister said blandly, reaching for a pitcher of wine and pouring herself a cup. “And you didn’t warn us the fucking Calamities were coming to town because?”
“Here’s a warning, since you want one. Don’t drink that,” the Bard replied easily
Irene frowned and her sister pulled away her hand from the cup like she’d been burned.
“Why?” the Priestess asked.
“There’s five Calamities,” Aoede said. “You’ve met three. One’s retired. And the last one is…”
“Assassin,” Irene whispered, eyeing the cup like it was snake. “It’s poisoned?”
“And just when the both of you are flat out of power to burn,” the Bard said admiringly. “None of us ever saw a whisk of him, and he’s still come closest to killing a hero today.”
Priestess found her hands were shaking.
“They’ve learned to work around me some,” Aoede said quietly. “There’s rules. I knew they were coming but not when.”
Irene waved away the unspoken recriminations they’d been offering. The Bard was not the enemy.
“Merciful Gods,” Alkmene muttered. “This has not been our day.”
“We’ve got some time before Hanno is back on his feet,” Priestess said. “We can rest a bit.”
“Seven days and seven nights before he wakes,” the Bard said. “Only one thing to do until then.”
“And what’s that?” Irene asked, raising an eyebrow.
The bottle of rum landed in her lap.
“For once,” the Ashen Priestess said, bringing the bottle to her lips, “I think you might actually be right.”