“Forty-nine: if any wizard over the age of fifty suddenly becomes evasive when asked about your parents, you may safely assume yourself to be either royalty or related to your archenemy in some way.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
The interesting thing about morality, Hanno had found, was that it evolved across the years. Living through shards of a hundred heroes and heroines’ lives had made it impossible to deny as much, though he disliked the thought that concepts like Good and Evil could be mutable. The Book of All Things, after all, did not change – neither should ethics. Yet, a few thousand years ago, most of Calernia had once practiced slavery. The ancestors of nations that now found the very notion repugnant had then been unable to function without it. Procerans, in days before there was a Procer, had raided each other for plunder and workers. The Titanomanchy had built its wonders as much by the legendary craftsmanship of the Gigantes as on the backs of a hundred thousand Arlesite slaves. Even Ashur, his homeland, had once kept a citizenship tier beneath them all where forced labourers and servants were inducted into. But over the years, that ugly reality had been… outgrown. Recognized as unworthy of all those who would call themselves the children of the Heavens.
And so slavery went from commodity to sin, and Creation was made a little brighter. There were, of course, holdouts. The drow of the Everdark still sent raiding parties to the surface to grab the unwary and spirit them below. The Kingdom of the Dead still farmed men like crops, growing them and reaping them in an even darker kind of sin to swell the ranks of its armies. In Mercantis people were sold like cattle to all those who had the coin and the inclination, the City of Bought and Sold concerned solely by the lustre of gold. But the city famous for it, the one that had perfected the art of chaining others centuries before the Miezans first glimpsed the shores of Calernia, had always been Stygia. Its slave phalanxes, the Spears of Stygia, were famous on the continent for unflinching obedience and having had fear scoured out of them by the concoctions and sorceries of the Magisters. The entire city was a den of iniquity every passing day in a way that made the worst excesses of Helike pale.
The White Knight watched the tall banner floating above the camp, gold and grey set with two pure white cranes. Redress and Retribution, they were called, the patron spirits of Stygia. Lesser gods that had settled in the heart of the city when it was first built – he knew this for a fact for he’d watched one of them millennia ago centuries ago. Golden beak dipped in blood, eyes older than her entire bloodline red with hatred that was utterly inhuman. It would not matter. She was the Sword of the Free: she would wrest her people from chains and lead them to found a city in the east. A land where no would ever rule over them again. She rose, wounded but unbowed, and fought again. Hanno blinked, chasing away the memories not his own. Over two months since he’d fought the Black Knight and still sometimes the other lives trickled through into him. He’d come very close to dying, that day. That had consequences.
“Money for thinking,” the Champion said.
“Copper for your thoughts,” Hedge corrected in a low voice.
“Copper is money,” the Levantine replied condescendingly. “Witch wrong again. Do you no get tired of it?”
“Let’s move,” Hanno said, interrupting before the bickering could start in earnest. “Follow the plan.”
He saw the Hedge Wizard open her mouth from the corner of her eye, but her sister thumped her with her staff. Priestess was, he had to admit, the most reliable of his companions in temperament. Though considering her competition was a drunken disappearing Bard, her actively argumentative sister and brawler who kept trophies of her kills, that might not be saying much. Still, he knew from the Chamber of Borrowed Lives that no Named who lived longer than a few years managed to avoid growing some… quirks. The power conferred onto them by the Gods shaped them as much as they shaped it. Regardless he got along with her the best. More than once they’d found themselves sharing a comfortable quiet in the back while the rest of their band bickered aimlessly. The four heroes crept across the grassy field, Hedge’s spell keeping them hidden from the moonlight even as they neared the outskirts of the Stygian camp. A palisade of wooden stakes had been raised and spear-slaves patrolled behind them. He could hear them pass by, when he pressed his ear against the wood.
“Priestess,” he said.
The dark-haired woman nodded. The tip of her staff traced a circle on the surface of the palisade and a heartbeat later the wood crumbled into ash. They passed through, one after another. Hanno glanced at Champion and Hedge through the slit of his barbute.
“Half an hour,” he reminded them. “That’s all we’ll need. Retreat afterwards.”
“Will make river of blood,” Champion said enthusiastically from under her badger-shaped helm. “Eat hearts of enemies.”
“That’s cannibalism,” Hedge said.
“Not so,” the Levantine said. “Says in Book. Allowed if they wicked.”
“The Book of All Things does not excuse eating people,” the Wizard firmly stated.
“Maybe in lame Free Cities version,” Champion replied sceptically.
They both turned to the Ashen Priestess, the only individual among them with an actual religious education. The heroine stared back with hickory-coloured eyes.
“I’m not humouring this with an actual response,” she informed them flatly. “Get moving before I decide to make the two of you incontinent.”
“Mighty Priest-Witch true monster,” the Champion said admiringly before fleeing.
Hedge met her sister’s eyes for a moment longer before making a tactical withdrawal, paling a bit.
“Can you?” Hanno asked, morbidly curious.
He had a trick to discern lies – it was common, for those sworn to the Choir of Judgement – but using it drew on his Name and he still had a fight ahead of him.
“I fed Alkmene an herbal concoction when were we twelve to make her believe I could,” Priestess admitted, the sly shadow of a smile on her lips.
Hanno would have snorted if the situation was any less serious. They fell into step together naturally, his longer stride shortening to accommodate her own. There’d been no need to rely on his few memories of fighting Stygia in the past to deduce where the Magisters would be camped: while the entire rim of he fortified camp was rough burlap tents, the centre was absurdly luxurious and bustling with servants during the day. Without Hedge to guide them around the wards and keep them out of sight, the two of them had to be careful. The White Knight could feel sorcery, if he attuned himself, and Ash could outright see it – but neither of them were trained in picking up on the subtler effects, much less bypass them. They sidestepped an alarm ward early on, but found to their displeasure that deeper in there was another ward that circled entirely around the circumference of the cmap. The Priestess could dismantle it, of course, but that would be giving away their presence. They hid in the shadows for a while instead, waiting for their distraction to arrive, and were eventually rewarded by a spray of fireworks that set fire to a dozen tents in the distance followed by a booming voice challenging the entire camp to single combat. Slaves soldiers immediately began to mobilize, and only then did the two heroes cross the alarm ward. Stealth was no longer the game, now. Swiftness was the line of life and death.
The first Magister they found was obviously drunk, a grey-haired woman leaning against a post and breathing like someone trying not to throw up. Lean face, eyes dulled by liquor and long dark robes whose sleeves tangled with the many rings on her fingers. All Magisters were mages, and only gained the title by showing power and ruthlessness. Neither of those things mattered, when the mage could not see you coming. The White Knight’s sword took her in the throat without warning, hacking straight through. A cry of surprise came from ahead, the corpse dropped and the battle began.
Green sorcery lashed out in a stream at him, but Hanno ducked to the side and broke into a run. A Spear of Stygia burst out of a tent to the side, but in a flash turned into a pile of ashes. The Magisters were aware they were under attack, now. Within moments at least a dozen more mages stormed out of the large silken pavilion in the centre of the camp, the rings on their hands glinting as they immediately began spellcasting. The Wandering Bard had told him there were fifteen in total, sent by Stygia to lead its army against Nicae. Decapitating the head of the snake was why he’d taken come with his companions tonight. A slave army without masters was as good as paralyzed, and might actually retreat back to Stygia. The more casters joined the fray, the closer to him the spells came: they stood in a tight cluster, and for all that they were wretched souls one and all he almost admired the skill being shown. Spells led into each other, herding him into harsher attacks like a horse being led to water. The Light flooded his veins, sharpening his reflexes far beyond limits as he began to weave and duck through the volleys directed at him, not even a full step ahead. Another slave tried to spear him through the side, only to be caught by the edge of a black orb that saw the man;s skin contract and tear under the sudden pressure. The Magisters did not care who else died in their attempt to put him down. He’d expected nothing less from slavers.
“Ride,” the White Knight said.
Light wove itself into a horse in the blink of an eye and even as Hanno deftly leapt onto its back he felt a lance of light form in his hand.
“Aspect,” one of the Magisters noted, tone calm.
“Suppression,” another ordered.
Fourteen jets of black light bloomed, emanating from outstretched hands, and combined their streams at him. Hanno struck at the malevolent power with his lance, but after a few heartbeats his weapon broke into shards and the power of the Magisters tore through his mount as well – the White Knight grit his teeth to ignore the pain of the feedback from having an aspect overpowered. He fell kneeling to the ground, unsheathing his sword again.
“Full attack, before he uses a second,” a woman’s voice stated.
Before the White Knight could react, three stakes of obsidian nailed both his feet to the ground, going through his armour like it was butter. The twelve remaining Magisters finished their incantations a moment later, fire reeking of sulphur blooming in their hands.
“We are Magisters of Stygia, boy,” the woman who’d just spoken, a cold smile on her face. “Even heroes kneel before us.”
The twelve spheres of hellfire hit him in the chest almost simultaneously. Hanno unhesitatingly flared the Light under his skin where the impact was happening – though that was enough to spare his flesh, their spells melted straight through his plate and threw him into a tent like a rag doll. If he’d not used his Name, there would be a smoking hole where his ribcage currently stood. With a grunt, he rose to his feet and tried to get the silk panels off his head before he could get hit again. No doubt the slaver mages were feeling rather smug at the moment, certain of their superiority. They’d been batting him around since the beginning, after all. That was their mistake. They’d used their strength on the one who, of the two present, could take a beating. All the while ignoring the other.
“Though their horses and chariots are like a river unto Creation, though their spears be forest and their sword be mountains, the Gods pass judgement unto them. Do not dread, for I bear the word of the Heavens and that word is begone.”
The Ashen Priestess’ voice rang loud a clear like a trumpet across the chaotic camp. Finally rid of the silk, Hanno was just in time to see the circle of blinding light form around the standing Magisters. Panic flickered across their faces for a single moment, and then the miracle wiped away the world. Even his Name wasn’t enough to keep the ringing out of his ears, or prevent the blindness that burned his retinas. Ten heartbeats later, when the terrible whiteness finally left his eyes, all the White Knight saw where the Magisters had once stood was a faint shimmer of light. Of the men and women, there was not a trace. Ash was panting, leaning on her staff: this was one of the more strenuous miracles she could call on, and one that took long to prepare. Against the likes of the Calamities, attempting to use it would be a death sentence. But these had been a different breed they were facing. Men and women ready to lean into their arrogance. And for all that the miracle took long to bring forth, there was no denying the effectiveness of the harsh judgement of the Heavens meted out. The White Knight limped to his friend and allowed her to lean on his shoulder: they needed to get moving soon, but they had a few moments still. There was a flicker of movement behind them and Hanno’s fingers tightened around the grip of his sword, but it was only a bird. A pigeon, to be exact, and it landed on his shoulder.
“Well, the distraction worked,” Hedge said, her voice unnaturally coming out of the bird’s mouth. “Maybe a little too well.”
A sound like a dozen cauldrons rolling down a street resounded behind them, which from experience he knew meant the Champion was running. The Levantine came into sight not logn afterwards, her breastplate splattered in so much blood she might as well have dipped it in a barrel of the stuff. The White Knight frowned when he saw no one was in pursuit. Even with the Magisters dead the slave soldiers should be continuing the fight. Why was no one following?
“Funny cripple here,” the Champion announced delightedly. “Giving speech. We beat him like renting mule, yes?”
“The Tyrant?” the White Knight said.
Why was he – oh. The hero closed his eyes.
“He’s taking over the Stygian army,” Hanno said.
“Can he even do that?” the pigeon complained, too close to his hear for comfort.
“Masterless slaves and a ruler Name? It’s basically handed to him,” the Wandering Bard announced cheerfully.
All their eyes flicked to their wayward fifth member, who was leaning against a wooden pole with a flask in hand. Said hand, apparently sweaty, slipped and she nearly hit the side of her head against her support before gamely trying to pretend she’d always meant to do that. Hedge snorted, which was impressive considering she was a bird at the moment.
“Where were you, Aoede?” Ash asked.
“Seeing a guy about a thing,” the Bard replied vaguely.
“You are the world’s most terrible riddler,” the pigeon stated. “There’s no mystery, only non-answers and a blatant drinking problem.”
“The point of this was to remove Stygia from the equation,” the White Knight said, ignoring the byplay. “We’ve failed.”
“But you successfully hit another point by accident, so it’s all good really,” the Bard told them with a smile.
“And what would that point be?”
“Taking a tool out of the other monster’s toolbox,” Aoede said, toasting her flask. “That said, my lovelies, now might be a great time to leg it. You’re about to have a very motivated army looking for you.”
The hero glanced at Priestess, who shrugged in resigned agreement.
“Retreat, then,” the White Knight said, feeling somewhat robbed of a victory.
Even as they began their flight, Hanno saw the Bard slipping an arm around Champion’s armoured shoulders and leaning close.
“Do you happen to like monster stories, Rafaella?” she asked.
“Speak me more,” the Levantine grinned.