“My dear friends, I have a confession to make. Some creative reframing of the truth may have taken place during the planning of this coup.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous, addressing the Order of the Unholy Obsidian upon successfully usurping the throne from himself
Now, in my experience planning the ending of a lesser god required three necessary steps. The first of them was, naturally, lies. Though this once I had found no make-believe prophecy to ensure this fight did not begin and end with my being incinerated, I had prepared a few nasty surprises. The Summer Court didn’t really bother to talk with mortals except to give them orders, as far as I knew, and that was going to come back to haunt them. The second step was a certain proficiency for violence, which between four battle-hardened Named we should have covered. There would be no talk of my taking on the Princess of High Noon by myself. That would return us to the whole incineration outcome, which I would confess I was less than fond of. Archer would have less of an impact using longknives instead of a bow, true, but with her and Adjutant at my side we might be able to keep the princess distracted long enough Apprentice could hit her with the good stuff. Well, Evil stuff. The labyrinthine mess that was adjusting my terminology now that I was consorting with the damned could wait to be sorted until there was less of a war going on.
With a little luck, at some point in the next decade I’d have a day where no one was actively trying to invade Callow. That was the dream, really.
The third step was having a right to that victory. It was different than the false prophecy I’d used to kill the Duke of Violent Squalls. One was, as I liked to think of it, plausible deniability. It gave me an excuse to win, if I could manage it. After all, I’d still had to stab the bastard to get his stuff. Having a right was more like fixing the scales, the way Fate did for heroes. It was still short of providence, the golden luck that dropped the laurels in the lap of the Heavens’ favourites, but it was close. When I’d fought Heiress and the Lone Swordsman in Liesse, I’d walked over two Named that were each a match for me on their own on my way to take the sword in the stone and my resurrection with it. The weights of the scale had been in my favour, then. It didn’t guarantee victory, but it made it easier for me to win and harder for my opponents. The signet ring had done the same thing for the Duke of Violent Squalls. I’d ‘always had it’, which at least in Arcadia had given me claim to the fae’s power before it was physically on my finger.
Finding an equivalent for the Princess of High Noon had been the hardest part of this. I couldn’t just rely on the fact that she had invaded Callow: I was, however unwillingly, doing the same to Summer. That scratched off the mark on both sides of the slate, I was betting. There were dozens of stories about hard-headed young girls facing down gods for some cause or another, but all of them about heroes. I’d wiggled my way into that sort of role before, but only when standing for a greater cause than myself. I fell short of that here. They keystone would have to be found in the way that even with my Named companions I still stood hilariously outclassed. It was an old shape, that, the underdog triumphing over the unbeatable opponent. I’d chewed on that for days, pruning story after story until I returned to one of the oldest ones I knew. From before the House of Light, when Calernians had prayed to the Gods Above and Below but also made sure to give offerings to the ancient things that strode the world. Dread Emperor Sorcerous had once famously called usurpation the essence of sorcery. There was a deeper grain of truth in that, one broader in meaning. Transgression was the essence of what it meant to be Named. Breaking the rules for your own sake or that of others. And one of the most ancient of those transgressions was the blade meant to break the Princess of High Noon. The theft of fire.
Would it be enough? I could not know. Never did, until the blades were out and chaos reigned. But I’d gotten this far by doubling down whenever the stakes were raised, and I would not flinch today.
The four of us had flown east, to where the fae clashed. Winter was not getting the better of it. The centre, where the Sword of Waning Day fought, had managed to gain ground. But the flanks were collapsing. The Riders of the Host had managed a harsh draw with the winged knights of Summer, but come out more bloodied and forced to retreat. To the sides the Summer regulars were driving back the Winter fae one step at a time, defeat already writ large. It would end with the deadwood soldiers an island in a Summer sea, collapsing when the winged knights returned to shatter their lines. While the lesser fae died in droves, the royalty that led them had fought just the same. There again, Winter was losing. The Prince of Nightfall now stood alone against the Princess of High Noon and the Prince of Deep Drought, the princess who’d been with him nowhere in sight. They were on the ground now, the armies giving all three of them a wide berth. I did not like the one-eyed prince. He’d been party to his king’s playing of me, and been free with threats besides.
Watching him battle two other royals, though, I felt a reluctant sliver of admiration. I’d not been wrong, in thinking him made for strife more than any other fae of Winter. The Princess of High Noon was more powerful., blatantly so. She moved like a storm unrelenting, howling winds stirring in the wake of every strike as she crushed everything in her way. The Prince of Deep Drought had been wounded, one of his arms held to his body only be strings of red, but he wove sorcery like an artist. Flame and light and dust, moving with Princess Sulia as if it knew her movements intimately. And facing that fury was a one-eyed man, clad in a long tunic of shade with a slender blade in hand. Trying to strike him was like trying to grasp a shadow, and though he was outmatched in every way he did not retreat a single step. None of the three paid us any mind when we took the winged horses down, dismounting more swiftly than gracefully. Hakram had been pale as sheet the whole ride, and was now visibly glad of being on solid ground. I glanced at my companions, then cleared my throat. I supposed I would have to say something before leading them into the storm.
“So we’re going to stab a god,” I said. “I mean, we’ve done it before. But this one is a few places higher in the pecking order of things not to trifle with.”
“But we’ll win because we stand for something greater than ourselves?” I gallantly attempted.
“We do?” Apprentice asked, surprise. “What?”
“Violence,” Archer suggested.
“Peace, order and the Imperial way,” Hakram offered, the filthy traitor.
“We lie a lot,” Masego mused. “It could be lies.”
“Lies and violence,” Archer proudly called out, raising a fist.
Apprentice did the same, apparently under the impression this qualified as a battle cry. I refused to grace the mutiny with a response.
“Just don’t get yourselves killed,” I sighed. “I don’t want to have to train up replacements.”
The fae royalty took notice when we joined their little tiff, the Summer fae breaking off and angling so we wouldn’t be able to flank them. The Winter prince offered us a mocking salute with his sword.
“I’m guessing the Princess of Silent Depths is dead,” I said, not bothering with greetings.
“That is mostly accurate,” the Prince of Nightfall replied, because why would fae ever be anything but vague?
“Can you handle the sorcerer?” I asked, eyeing the Prince of Deep Drought.
“He cannot,” the Summer prince sneered.
“Yes,” the one-eyed fae replied with a nasty smile. “You’ll be dancing with Sulia?”
“That’s the idea,” I agreed. “I put together a crew of miscreants and everything.”
The red-haired princess eyed me like I’d tracked mud onto her priceless carpet, or maybe like I was the mud.
“They have made an abomination of you,” she said. “More than mortal, less than fae. Destroying you will be a mercy.”
“I get that a lot,” I replied honestly.
At least in Procer, the House of Light had apparently declared me anathema to the Heavens. I knew because Black had the report framed and sent to Marchford. It hung on the wall of my bedroom across from the bed.
“Shall we begin, Granian?” the Prince of Nightfall taunted his Summer mirror. “I’ve been meaning to see how many limbs you can lose before dying.”
The Winter fae’s translucent wings burst into existence and he shot off into the sky. The Prince of Deep Drought looked at Sulia and she nodded. He followed, leaving the four of us facing the heaviest hitter the Summer Court had to offer short of its queen. Why had this seemed like a good idea again?
“I played your role, for an evening,” I told the princess. “Was a bit of a bore. Had to liven it up myself.”
“I was not made for intrigue,” the Princess of High Noon said. “This, however? I was born for it. From it. This was a blunder, Duchess. You are attempting a story, but that is worthless if you do not have the power to carry it out.”
“You think you’re my opponent,” I smiled coldly. “An interesting thought. Let’s see where it gets you.”
Three things happened in the heartbeat that followed. Princess Sulia’s wings sprang to life. Adjutant and Archer charged forward. And I spoke one word.
“Take,” I said.
Two columns of fire erupted from my back, not concerned by the plate in the slightest. I screamed hoarsely, but this was a necessary sacrifice. If she went up, we were done. She could just stay up there and bombard us until there was nothing left but ashes, and trying to match her up there with the horses was a good way to get ourselves killed. If felt the Winter power in my veins reacting violently, even worse than when I’d stolen sorcery from the Duchess of Restless Zephyr. These were only wings, even if made of sorcery, but the power was so much purer it felt a dozen times worse. I hastily discarded the power, heralding the first bet of this fight. What happened when I took something was still unclear in a lot of ways. Would she get the wings back even if I released them? I was hoping not, that my aspect severed the connection by appropriating what I took. If that wasn’t the case, I was going to have to pull out an upset that I really needed to come later. The flames gutted out and I let out a hiss of triumph when they didn’t reappear on the princess’ back. This might not be a permanent state of affair, but for now it was putting our foot in the door.
Apprentice was incanting, the light of runes glinting off his spectacles. We needed to keep him uninterrupted long enough to make a difference. I’d never fought at Archer’s side before, not with her using blades, but Hakram had felt like an additional limb ever since he became the Adjutant and he was used to her from all their sparring. Four blades struck as one and it felt right. Like coming home. The fae’s sword clattered against mine, beginning to carve through until ice grew to stop it. The princess ducked under the swing of Adjutant’s axe, pushing me back effortlessly and smashing Archer in the belly with her fist. The other Named was thrown off, but she landed on her feet and she was back into the fray within moments. Heat pulsed off the princess and cold came from me too met it. Her power dwarfed mine, but she would not win this uncontested. The three of us pressed the offensive. Without even a word needing to be said, we fell into a rhythm. I forced a parry, setting the fae up for Adjutant’s strike as Archer used the opening it made to attempt to draw blood.
She was beating us anyway. Flame blew Hakram off his feet, charring his face, and without him to distract Archer was caught by the throat. I desperately wove ice and shadow around the princess’ wrist, and the heartbeat it took for her to disperse it earned my companion just long enough to wriggle out of the grasp. Her breath was laboured, but at least her neck hadn’t been snapped.
“Rampage,” Adjutant growled.
The orc charged back into the fight, his charred skin healing. Every strike was stronger and faster than the last, until even the Princess of High Noon had to take care.
“Flow,” Archer managed to croak.
It was almost hypnotic to watch her longknives move. There was no single blow, every attack coming from the last in an uninterrupted stream. She moves as she had when firing arrows, but that was comparing a candle to a bonfire. Between the three of us, we almost stood a chance. I turned a probe into a lunge that would have taken the princess in the neck, but she contemptuously moved an inch to the side and ignored it. I saw her sword rise to carve through Hakram’s wrist and snapped my own, my last knife landing in my palm. I threw it at her head and the blade spun gracefully before being sliced cleanly through. The axe took her in the chest, breaking coloured mail but no skin. A boot to the stomach pushed the orc back, but he was still growing stronger. It did not slow him for long, and in the moment where the princess stood on only one leg Archer’s longkives struck. The two blades came form opposite directions, one for the knee and the other for the neck. Without missing a beat Princess Sulia jumped and lay herself flat, strikes passing above and beneath her. She twisted sharply and a boot to the face shattered Archer’s chin as she was sent sprawling to the floor.
Breath caught in my throat, I adjusted my wrist and pumped the entire arm full of my Name. I hit her at rib-height, the strength of the blow sending mail rings flying, and she smashed into the ground hard enough the earth dented. Her eyes turned gold-red, the heat grew, and Apprentice finally finished casting. Twenty-three sigils of blue light came into being above the princess with a loud hum, though not loud enough to drown out her pained groan. Heat shimmered around her and one of the sigils popped. I glanced at Adjutant, panting. The skin that had healed was beginning to flake off, the burns returning if not as grave as before. Whatever power had possessed him was gone, though. Archer was back on her feet, but her lower face was one large and bloody bruise. Another three sigils popped. We didn’t have much longer left.
“Oh, oh,” Apprentice said, watching the struggling fae with wide eyes. “I was wrong, fundamentally wrong.”
Shit. That did not look good at all. The bespectacled mage laughed, looking utterly crazed.
“It cannot be quantified,” he muttered. “The method was erroneous from the onset. It is all made of the same building blocs, and those blocs are a figment. Mysteries, miracles of smoke and mirrors. The godhead is not behind boundaries, it is a trick of perspective.”
Power rippled across his frame, his eyes glinting with a light that had a shiver going up my spine. One of the sigils formed again, though it popped moments later.
“Apprentice,” I said carefully, and he interrupted.
“No no no,” he laughed. “Not that. Not anymore. Hierophant. Usher of mysteries. Vivisector of miracles.”
Was that what this was? A transition in the making?
“You are a god, yes?” he smiled at the Princess of High Noon, pushing up his glasses. “Show me a miracle, then.”
He waved his arm carelessly and Archer’s jaw set itself back together with a loud crack. Fingers clutching something only he could see, the Hierophant brought his hands down. The sigils glowed so bright I had to shut my eyes in pain. Like a star being born. For all that, the words that drifted to my ears were calm.
“Everything burns,” the Princess of High Noon whispered.
Arcadia broke. The brightness passed, and I opened my eyes to a world of endless ashes. I’d called on something of the same breed, when defeating the Count of Olden Oak, but it had been nothing but a drop to this ocean. Princess Sulia stood with restored wings, hair of flame and eyes that burned with something more. Above her raised hands hovered the sun. I could feel myself buckle from the pressure alone, my hair smouldering against my sweat-soaked scalp. Masego’s spectacles shattered in his eyes and he screamed. Hakram wavered, then fell to his knees. The burns from earlier were spreading across his face. Archer’s hands shook like leaves until she stabbed a longknife into her leg, the pain allowing her to not be swept away by the weight bearing down on all of us.
“You may feel honoured,” Princess Sulia said. “I have ever only called on this to bring an end to Winter. The four of you will be the first ashes on this field formed of Creation.”
“You’re wrong,” I croaked.
“Will you try to take the sun from me, Duchess?” she said, amused. “You will burn, one way or another.”
She was right, of course. If I tried using Take I’d die before I finished speaking the word. I was the Squire, after all. No role stood behind me in this. But I’d meant it, when I’d told her I wasn’t her opponent.
“Not that,” I grinned, all teeth and malice. “There’s not four of us.”
Behind the Princess of High Noon a woman appeared, short-haired with blue-grey eyes. She wore loose leathers and her face was red with sweat.
“Yoink,” the Thief said, and stole the sun.