“The classic Callowan blunder. Sending an army into the Wasteland you can’t handle if it comes marching back as undead.”
-Dread Emperor Sorcerous
Magical healing felt slow and inefficient, after having grown to the heroic alternative, but it had to be said that Masego was exceedingly good at it. It was better not to think about how many people he must have needed to cut open to get there. Hopefully at least the majority of them had been dead at the time, though with Warlock you could never be sure. It was all flying pigs until he got in a mood, then it was corpses all around. Apprentice politely clapped my shoulder to signify he was done and I rose from my crouch.
“You’ll need a blacksmith to truly rectify the state of your armour,” he said. “But it is no longer liquid, at least.”
Speaking of liquid, Archer was polishing off the bottom of a copper flask even as we spoke. The two of them seemed in a decent mood, though not eager to join the fray. Given that Summer’s army could be quite literally world-ending if it got into the swing of things, I didn’t blame them. I got the blood and what looked like flakes of skin off the hilt of my sword – Gods, those were probably mine weren’t they? – and took a deep breath.
“All right,” I said. “First we need to pick up Hakram. Before we do, Archer, could you tell me what the Hells your teacher is doing here?”
She ignored me, finished guzzling down whatever liquor she was packing and dropped the flask to the ground. It was a good thing the enemy already knew where we were, otherwise no doubt they could find out just by following the trail of those that no doubt followed in her wake.
“No idea, Foundling,” she replied cheerfully. “She won’t be here for the princes and princesses. She got bored with those a while back. Whatever it is, though? I recommend not being even remotely in the vicinity of her way. That, uh, doesn’t tend to go well for people. And gods. And castle that one time.”
It said a lot about the Lady of the Lake’s reputation that I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if she’d destroyed an entire keep because it had made the poor decision of being built somewhere inconvenient to her. Black had told me there were to people on Calernia against whom it was useless to think in terms of victory, where one could only attempt to limit the damage and lose the least amount of skin possible. One was the Dead King, who he’d charmingly referred to as ‘the original abomination’. The other was the Ranger, whose utter disregard for odds I’d been raised hearing stories about.
“Well, I’m not intending to get in a fistfight for her, that’s for sure,” I grimaced. “I’ve recently run out of borrowed lives.”
“I fear you may run out of ribs as well, if you keep at it,” Masego drily said.
Now that was just unwarranted. I hadn’t broken any of those in, like, at least sixty heartbeats. I was going to ask about having them reinforced with steel, though, because nowadays they were snapping like twigs.
“I can’t commend your judgement but you pain tolerance is impressive,” Archer added, never one to leave someone unkicked while they were down.
I flipped her off.
“Goat-daughter,” she replied in Taghrebi, ridiculously proud of knowing the word.
“Masego have you been teaching her cusses?” I sighed.
“It was either that or arguing about whether Creation is a sphere again,” he admitted.
I raised an eyebrow at Archer.
“I’m just saying, do you know anyone who’s gone the whole way around?” she said. “Have you done it yourself?”
Apprentice twitched and I decided to change the subject before he went on a rant about had proved Creation was round. I knew better than to hope he did not have three philosophers and several volumes to reference.
“We’ll table that for later,” I ordered. “I, uh, left Adjutant back in the middle of the melee. Anyone have any suggestions of how to take him out? Our target is east.”
I ignored Apprentice’s peevish murmur about how Hakram, at least, probably hadn’t broken any ribs. That was a deeply unfair comparison, the orc had a whole aspect about not breaking.
“We could kill our way through,” Archer suggested.
Ah, Archer. Violence wasn’t her only tool, just the only one she ever bothered to use.
“I’m open to other suggestions,” I prompted.
That was when the screaming began. Sword in hand faster than I could blink, I turned to look at the source of it. It was only one voice, though a remarkably loud one. The Duchess of Restless Zephyr was back in the sky, missing an arm and most the half of the body attached to it. One of her wings was pure flame, I saw, which made her flight awkward but admittedly still better than I could manage.
“I’d really hoped she was dead,” I said.
“She seems peeved,” Masego said, master of observation that he was.
“You could say we didn’t part on great terms,” I conceded.
The dark-skinned mage’s eyes glimmered with Name power, peering at the Duchess.
“She’s bleeding out power,” he noted. “Her very frame is unstable. I expect she will detonate, left alone long enough.”
Archer whistled merrily, stringing her bow.
“Never bagged a duchess before,” she said.
“That’d be kill-stealing and you know it,” I said.
I did not, however, tell her not to put arrows in the woman until the issue went away. It was one thing to banter with my companions, another to allow a threat of that magnitude to live even a moment longer than she needed to. It swiftly became clear that screaming at the top of her lungs was more than a coping mechanism for the fae. A pack of a hundred winged knights peeled off from the rest, lances high as they formed up around her. It would have been untrue to say I felt the weight of the Duchess’ gaze, but I was pretty sure if she was capable of glaring someone aflame I’d be a bonfire right now.
“I might run out of arrows,” Archer said. “The fancy ones, at least.”
I eyed her quiver, which looked plain but had as much sorcery wafting off of it as all her enchanted ammunition put together.
“They’re in range, for you?” I asked.
“Sweetcheeks,” she grinned. “There’s not a damn thing in any world that isn’t.”
It was talk like that that had me believing the ochre-skinned woman wasn’t a villain. None of us who’d managed to live this long would so willingly dip down hubris and slip it too much tongue. Archer wasn’t all boasting, at least. She nocked her first arrow smoothly and released almost quicker than I could follow. The arrow flew. A hundred yards from the fae it was buried in a wave of flame and I thought that the end of that, but moments later a single silhouette fell from its horse. I sharpened my eyes and let out a staggered breath. Right between the eyes, from at least a mile.
“See?” Archer preened.
“Archer,” I tried.
“I told you,” she interrupted.
“Archer they are charging,” I barked. “Keep shooting.”
She pouted, but smooth movements followed and arrows took the sky. I looked at Masego, who seemed more bored than worried.
“I don’t suppose you have something to stop a cavalry charge?” I asked.
“It is unlikely any of my wards would do more than slow them down,” he said. “In Arcadia, that is. Layering is pointless if they unmake the layers as fast as I craft them.”
“Keep the Duchess busy, then,” I ordered. “She has this nasty wind trick.”
Speaking of the devil, the screaming had ceased. She was hurtling through the air, keeping up with the knights, and pointing her sword at us. The rider next to her toppled from an arrow through the neck, Archer chuckling at my side.
“Masego,” I said urgently.
The air exploded, but a transparent box formed around it. The winds howled, barely contained.
“Interesting,” Apprentice praised. “Derivative work, of course, but fae do tend to keep close to their title and Court.”
The box contracted until it broke, and the wind dispersed with a hiss. Gods I’d missed having a powerful mage around. It made it so much easier not to die. Archer was ignoring us, taking apart the knights one at a time. How many had she slain, easy as swatting a fly? Twenty, maybe more. When she ceased moving, though, I cleared my throat.
“There’s still some left,” I helpfully pointed out.
“I’m out of mage-killers,” she said.
The air exploded again. This time Masego had evolved his defensive measure: a series of transparent walls redirected the fury of the wind, ultimately heading back towards the charging fae. It dispersed long before reaching any of them, but just what he’d been able to do might be deterrent enough that the Duchess wouldn’t try it again. If she’d pulled that when they were closer, they would have lost a few for sure.
“You don’t have any other enchanted ones?” I asked.
“None that are fireproof,” she said, calmly unstringing her bow.
Given the size of the thing I would have said something about overcompensating, but now that I’d actually seen her use it the words stayed stuck in my mouth. Skill was skill, no matter how ridiculous-looking the tool enabling it. Archer unsheathed her longknives, tapping one against her leg impatiently.
“They could hurry up, at least,” she complained. “Not like we can charge back at them.”
“Oh my,” Masego murmured. “That could… No, first I’d have to overtake the matrix.”
“Apprentice,” I said, a little worried.
“Everything is going to be fine,” he said dreamily, eyes still filled with Name power.
I had never more wished to have a shield. And so the three of us stood valiantly against the coming charge. Apprentice was muttering to himself, lost in his own world, Archer had taken to cleaning her fingernails with one of her blades and I was silently wishing I could just duplicate Hakram a few times and not have to rely on these two anymore. More like valiant-adjacent, maybe. I steadied my breath and adjusted my stance as the knights and Duchess angled their descent, the lot of them moving flawlessly together.
“Whither,” the Duchess of Restless Zephyr screamed.
“Deconstruct,” Apprentice replied, fingers dancing across a stream of shining runes.
The fae aristocrat yelped, losing control of her spell. The bone-dry winds slipped her leash, turning on her. Her wing of flame dispersed as her body turned to a husk, skin turning to leather in the span of a heartbeat. She crashed, but I couldn’t spare a longer look than that: I was too busy trying not to get skewered. Flattening under the lance wouldn’t work. I’d never gotten anywhere by betting against fae reflexes. Instead I sunk into my Name, let the calm wash over me and watched the tip of the weapon. The only dangerous part of a lance is the tip, I told myself, repeating Black’s words. I pivoted around it at the last moment, letting the knight pass me by. Immediately I had to duck under the horse of the man behind him, sword coming up to split its belly open. I emerged drenched in blood and guts to see the third rank was too far ahead to strike me, but the fourth had adjusted its angle. And was converging on me. Apprentice came to the rescue, a sphere-like black rip into the fabric of Arcadia forming amongst the fae. It didn’t seem to do much but draw them closer to it, but it should keep them busy for at least a bit.
That left the first rank, which had deftly landed on the ground and was turning back around. I heard screams and laughter to the side, which probably meant Archer wasn’t in too much trouble. Even as lances turned to me, I felt an itch between my shoulder blades. I knew better than to ignore the hints of my Name, and moved before a thrown javelin could add a steel component to my spine. The thrown weapon sunk into the ground and exploded in flames, the enemy knights riding straight through the screen of fire. This, I decided, was not going to work. Even if the Duchess didn’t come back from her mistake, there was only so long I could keep avoiding being run through. Especially if I had to dodge javelins at the same time. Relief came in the shape of Archer, who barrelled into the flank of the knights charging me. She was riding a horse, because of course she was. Two arrows were stuck in her mount’s neck and she used them to guide it along with no small amount of spurring. That… could work. Maybe. I wasn’t above fleeing a losing fight. Masego’s black sphere must have petered out, because I heard the whistle of javelins let loose followed by neighs.
I was already moving, though, and the thumped into the ground behind me. There were still half a dozen knights after my hide, even though Archer was making a joyous nuisance of herself, and it was those I went for. They were on the ground now, and while the sky belonged to the fae down here they were in my wheelhouse. I ran at them, smoothly cutting the distance. They’d learned from the last time, adjusted to my speed, and when I pivoted around the first lance I found another two aimed at my chest. An exertion of will had a panel of ice forming in the way, breaking instantly but buying me a precious few heartbeats. I pushed a sliver of power down my legs and leapt at the knight I’d just avoided, colliding with him atop the winged horse. I took a hard knock in the nose and he tried to to slide a knife in my ribs, but I caught his wrist and twisted it to throw him off the horse. Which was not best pleased about this turn of events. I tried to slide my feet into the stirrups, but the neighing fucker was bucking me off. And now the other knights were back at me. Great. I had to throw myself off to avoid taking a javelin in the chest.
“Fine,” I growled. “The hard way.”
I rammed my sword through the horse’s eye as my free hand whipped up to blast a knight off his horse with a spear of shadow. I kept the power close, forcefully shoving it into the dying mount through my blade. The beast twitched once, twice, and its dark eyes went pure blue. That was new.
“Up,” I ordered, and it rose back to its feet.
I leapt on, and this time there was no bucking. I looked for the others and found Archer had already retreated, and forced a visibly dismayed Masego to ride with his arms around her belly. Considering Apprentice hated even regular horses, a winged one had to be a nightmare for him. I set my mount to riding with my mind alone, the knights gathering in a wedge behind me. That was going to be a problem.
“Retreat,” I called out.
Archer laughed, but at least she listened. I dug into the muscle memories of the horse I’d raised and put on my finger on the part that concerned flight. The wings extended brusquely and as I screamed it began batting its wings and we rose into the air. So did our pursuers. The feeling of the wind whipping at my face was exhilarating, but death followed close. They were already gaining. I sent the horse downwards to avoid a javelin, but when it exploded into flames the fire formed into a hawk and hurtled back towards me. Within moments a menagerie of birds was forcing me into acrobatics that had my heels digging into the flanks of the dead horse – Zombie the Third, I mentally named him – as I tried my best not to fall off. The other two caught up with me and I gestured towards our forces still fighting on the field, but Apprentice shook his head.
“The Duchess,” he said.
My arm whipped out to cut through the shaft of a javelin. I smothered the fire that came out with ice before it could form. Godsdamnit.
“Fine,” I yelled. “I’ll draw them off.”
I took a sharp right to avoid incineration, flicking my wrist to send a knife into my palm. The knights were on me. This was going to be tricky. They had range, damn them. The knight at the tip of the wedge rammed his lance halfway through into my mount’s body, but it was too dead to care at the moment. I leapt off my horse onto the bastard, desperately trying to convince myself this was a good idea. My armoured boots hit his chest and he fell off, but brilliant wings burst into existence. Right, falling wasn’t a problem for them. I managed to land on the saddle but my boots were slick with blood and it was bucking – even as I began to slide I saw the lance going for my knee. Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die. My foot landed on the tip of the lance and even as it ripped into the saddle I kicked the fae’s chin. Blood sprayed and teeth with it. I began to fall but managed to sink my knife into the horse’s flank, hoisting myself back up. The Name reflexes were barely enough to save my life, sword coming up to slap aside another lance so it just pierced through my only previous pauldron. Heat at my back, it was time to move. The wave of flame hawks was at my heel.
The horse was beginning to go down so I leapt off again, screaming every Mtethwa curse I knew and then some. The knight I impacted didn’t manage to bring up his lance in time, but he did manage to sock me in the mouth with an armoured hand. I tasted blood. My knife found his throat, and I took the trade gladly. Heat again, and so close I left the blade. I bunched up for another jump but it was too late. I was blown off by a storm of flame, what little skin I had exposed taking the brunt of it as even my plate warmed. I grit my teeth and formed a pane of ice to land on, licking my busted lip and pointing my sword at the fae.
“Taking all comers,” I croaked out. “You only outnumber what, fifty to one?”
Half the lances flickered with light and turned into swords as they fluidly formed in a circle around me. Bury me in numbers, would they? And this time with blades to take care of me if the lances failed. I panted quietly, and planned the timing. My control was still rough. As one, without a word, they charged. There would be no dancing around all those blades, Named or not. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to. I watched the enemy close in and, at the last moment, broke the pane. I began falling again as the knights closed in on empty space, though disappointingly enough they were too skilled for collisions to ensue. The smoothly slid around each other even as I landed with a thump atop Zombie the Third, almost slipping again before I shoved my boots into the stirrups. I wasted no time in getting the Hells out of there. That was as long as I could buy the other two. They’d gainfully employed my many near-death experiences, I saw. The Duchess of Restless Zephyr, still unconscious, hung floating in a bubble of blue light Masego was dragging behind them with a chain made of the same. I caught up with them before the knight caught up with me: dragging the fae aristocrat slowed them down.
“I swear on all the bloody Gods, Apprentice, if you had me do that just to get a live duchess I’ll bury you so deep underground you will never see light again,” I yelled.
Brow creased in concentration, he waved dismissively. We fled towards the melee, where things were not unfolding as well as I’d hoped. The attack I’d stolen from the Duchess had slowed the golden fae down, but they’d formed back up and even with the Watch backing it the Fifteenth was taking a beating. At a glance, half of Nauk’s legionaries were already dead. The entire line was buckling, even with the Deoraithe regulars propping them up. We managed to get in bow range before the knights were on us, and it was enough to make them break off at least for now. Close, I thought. I caught sight of Hakram swinging his axe towards the centre of our line, but he was having trouble with the enemy. They were fast as a Named, and though not a strong as the orc there were a lot of them. I guided my horse down, but Masego called out for me to wait. I watched my companions pass over the golden fae, and there Apprentice cut off the chain binding the bubble to him. A moment later the bubble popped out and the Duchess began to fall, dropping in the ranks of the golden fae. Nothing happened.
I glanced at Apprentice, who was fiddling with runes, and only looked away when I heard the world groan. Bone-dry winds formed around the Duchess’ body and blew up violently, turning the fae by it into empty husks that fell apart like sand. It continued to grow, the winds scattering in every direction and tearing a gaping hole in the golden fae formation. Masego, you beautiful sack of pedantry. That might just even the field out. The dead horse smoothly flew down, and I landed in front of a gaping Adjutant as the winds whipped behind me.
“Get on,” I ordered. “We’re hunting royalty.”