“Oh, on most days we lose. But once in a while, just once, it works. And those moments of perfect clarity where all the world is in the palm of your hand, a hundred thousand middling minds made into flawless assembly by your will? Those are worth all the rest.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
Well, we weren’t all going to die. That was nice. If my mouthing off had been followed by Thief failing to steal the sun, I would have been real embarrassed before I got my fool ass killed. Wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about a heroine with shaky allegiances getting to shove the – possibly, I wasn’t sure exactly how this worked – literal sun in her knapsack, but it did beat dying horribly. So, you know, I was willing to chalk up that one as a win. The skin of Thief’s hand was cracking and black by the time the orb of fire disappeared, even though she’d never touched it at all, but away it went. The moment it was gone, Sulia screamed. I imagined it was a lot like losing an aspect, and when Masego had cut out mine the process had been excruciating. She collapsed to her knees and the lights went out. The not-world we were in began to collapse, wrinkling on itself, but I was having none of that. Now, if I’d pit my power against the Princess of High Noon she would have crushed me effortlessly and then maybe allowed me a moment to contemplate the sheer stupidity of my actions before ripping out my spine. This wasn’t a fight, though. Power was leaving her like a leaking sieve, and even though I suspected that even whatever was left at the end would be enough for her to beat us again I wasn’t going to give her the opportunity to get her shit together.
“Fall,” I said.
It hadn’t been dark on the ashy plain, not exactly. It’d been not so much darkness as the absence of light. My power filled the endless expanse, propping it up and claiming the framework for itself. I saw my companions shiver in the sudden cold, now nothing more than shaded silhouettes in boundless dark. The night sky above us was without stars, but it didn’t feel like anything was missing. A sky from before there were stars, I thought. In here, whatever this place was, my will was the only one that mattered. Masego spoke a word, but there was only silence here. Silence, cold and weight. I turned my eyes to the Princess of High Noon, saw her frame light up with steam as my aspect slowly smothered the power of Summer inside her. She fought it harder than the Count of Olden Oak had, slowing down the process to a crawl. Letting out a long breath, I closed my eyes and sharpened my mind. Black had first taught me the exercise when I’d begun to learn the sword, but I’d only understood its true worth when I came fully into my Name. My mind became as a blade, the way I would when I formed a spear of shadows, but I let myself fall deeper into the process. Distractions and stray fought fell away. Doubts were scoured clean until nothing was left but pure, sharp intent.
With a clear and resounding snap, the Princess of High Noon froze.
I opened my eyes and released the night. After the utter silence that had preceded them, the noises of the battlefield were deafening. A wave of exhaustion nearly toppled me, though it did not scatter my wits enough for it to escape my notice that my blood flow had slowed. A few exertions away from it to start turning into red sludge, if I was lucky. I was out of the game for hours, maybe days. But I’m not done as long as I can speak.
“Masego,” I rasped. “Bind her.”
Sulia wasn’t dead, oh no. When I’d made the decision of fighting here in Arcadia, even with all the odds I’d stacked in my favour, I’d hesitated for one reason. The losses I would incur had to be made worth it by a greater gain. Bleeding Summer alone was not enough to drive me to make a gambit like that, not with what I was putting on the line. There were major liabilities to fighting the fae in Creation, of course, but that in and of itself wasn’t a reason to fight them in Arcadia instead. The risks taken by giving battle in Summer were too high to justify the decision with just that. But then I’d stopped thinking of this battle as a battle alone, and placed it in the context of a campaign. There would be a final clash between my forces and the Summer Court, that much was certain in my eyes. And given that any advantage of mobility I had through my portals the fae had as well but better, when I returned to Creation there was no real way for me to dictate where that last clash happened. Considering the Legions were at their best on prepared grounds and anything but our best might just come short, that was not a recipe for victory. I’d understood that I needed something to force their hand, and that was why my soldiers and my allies were now dying on this unearthly field.
The Princess of High Noon was my leverage, and I’d not understood exactly how strong that leverage would be until only two royal fae had come to stand for Summer. There should have been three, which likely meant the Diabolist had gotten rid of one for me. I’d give this to Akua Sahelian: she was a horrid, cold-blooded and treacherous monster but when she put it all on the line she could slug it with the best of them. I was still going to stab her repeatedly and burn the corpse twice, of course, but I could respect the strength if not how she got it and how she used it. Two royals meant there were two people left to lead the armies of Summer. If the Prince of Nightfall killed his opponent, and I believed he could, that left the Queen of Summer as the only heavy hitter in her court. She wouldn’t be able to let that stand, not with Nightfall and a princess left to back the King of Winter. If the other court turned its eyes on her, and it was in their nature to do so, then she’d lose that fight and badly. With Sulia back at her side, she could maybe scrap out a draw. She needed the Princess of High Noon back, and needed her badly.
So if I dragged Sulia back to Creation, bound and gagged? Then the Queen of Summer could only come to take her back or face destruction. My bet was she’d come with her entire army, where I wanted and when I wanted. I honestly couldn’t think of another way to bring the war to a close in the next three months and some that remained of the time the Winter King had given me, and so here we were.
Hierophant, for though the change was young already I could no longer think of him by his old Name, did not immediately reply. Over his palm hovered the shards that had once been his spectacles, and though the enchantments on them were gone there was something a great deal more dangerous to be glimpsed in them now. The last thing they’d witnessed was the Summer sun in the fullness of its glory, and that light was still alive in the glass. It might never leave. Masego left the shards hovering in the air, weaving arcane patterns, and lightly touched his eyes. He could no longer see through them, I realized. He’d glimpsed a miracle and the miracle had burned away his sight. The dark-skinned mage smiled strangely, and then his fingers dug into his face. With a scream he ripped out his eyes, blood trickling down his face as the glass shards broke again and again until they were nothing but small gains. Forming into two orbs, they set themselves into his eye cavities. There was a shimmer of heat and the blood turned to red vapour as dull glass eyes replaced the ones in his hand.
“The whole Hierophant thing was kind of attractive, until you did that,” Archer said. “Way to ruin it.”
“It was a fair trade,” Masego said, voice pensive.
The bloody eyes disappeared without need for even a gesture, whisked out into the pocket dimension where he kept his tools.
“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he said peacefully.
There was a cadence to it, the hint of an incantation. Seven wooden pillars formed around the fallen Princess Sulia, looking distinctly physical. My knowledge of sorcery was limited, but even I knew the most traditional limits of what a mage could do. It was the kind of thing that was useful to know when killing caster, and since Diabolist was one I’d made sure to learn at least the broad strokes. It was possible to turn power into material substance, but the draw should have been massive. Comparable with teleportation, and the only people who’d ever managed that were the Miezans. Masego had done it casually, and did not look winded in the slightest. Like he’d just ignored a law. Gods, what had he turned into?
“Four cardinals, one meridian,” he said. “The wheel unbroken, spokes that are not. Thou shall not leave the circle.”
Four runes appeared around the fae, linked by a circle of pale light. The ice shattered but Sulia hung in the air, faintly conscious yet unable to move. I helped up Hakram from where he was still kneeling, eyes closed and breathing irregularly. He leaned heavily on me, which almost saw the both of us toppling to the ground until Archer caught his other side and steadied us.
“Careful there, big guy,” she said. “This isn’t the place to take a nap, though I salute your attitude.”
The orc cleared his throat, but did not say anything. He was in even worse state than I was. I looked for Thief, but she was gone again. Not much about the aftermath, that one. The disappearing act wasn’t so much mysterious as it was a constant irritant. I’d been known to be, uh, less than polite on occasion but at least I didn’t leave in the middle of things. I felt the gaze on me before the entity it belonged to deigned to land. The Prince of Nightfall ignored us entirely, touching the ground by the Princess of High Noon and studying her with a harsh smile.
“Oh, Sulia,” he murmured. “The sheer indignity. You’d have been furious it if it was one of us, but mortals? No amount of lives will allow you to wipe that shame away.”
“You killed your prince?” I asked.
He turned to me me, single eye shining with amusement.
“Very much so,” he said. “If the end ever comes, he will still be flinching when we next meet.”
“We need to break the army,” I said. “Quickly. My troops are going to begin evacuation as soon as I send the order.”
“There is nowhere she will not follow you, with Sulia in your hands,” he said. “You lack not for boldness. I wonder if I should be flattered, that your domain resembles mine so closely.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what he was talking about.
“Your third aspect,” Masego said, long accustomed to my wiles. “It is… more.”
The raven-haired man glanced at the braided mage, inclining his head by the barest fraction.
“You have good eyes, for one of your kind,” he said.
The Hierophant inclined his head in return, accepting the compliment wordlessly. The Prince of Nightfall breathed in deeply, as if he was savouring the heat, and looked up at the sky. It was still day, I saw. The light still shone. Yet there was no sun. That might be a problem. What exactly had Thief gotten her sticky fingers on?
“I will lend a vassal to escort you back to your lines, keeping to the spirit of our bargain,” the prince said. “Do not forget your end.”
How the Hells I was going to manage to pay the price he’d demanded for his assistance was a headache for another day, I decided. I looked at the battle lines and saw Summer was wavering. They’d felt the defeats that had happened on a deeper level, and it was costing them something.
“We’ve won,” I said.
“The Duke of Green Orchards will call retreat within the hour,” the fae agreed. “You killed his sister earlier, and they have no champion left to match me.”
I looked west, to the hill, and saw the silhouette had yet to move. The Prince of Nightfall followed my gaze, single eye narrowing.
“If she is not gone by dawn tomorrow, I will have my due,” he said.
I looked at him, then shrugged.
“Good luck. Gods know you’ll need it.”
We pursued the enemy when they retreated, but not far and not for long. I wanted Summer thinned of all the meat I could manage before we fought them again, but I was well aware that the moment Princess Sulia had been defeated an hourglass had been flipped and we wouldn’t survive the last grains running out. Masego said that, in the worst case, she could turn a journey of several days into one that would take her until nightfall. We should be able to manage that. Juniper only sent two thousand regulars across before closing the gate, the flanking force they represented taking its toll before the fae host managed to extricate itself. Mostly green recruits, I noticed. It was so very typical of my general to use a battle in goddamned Arcadia to blood her fresh recruits that I couldn’t help but smile. Juniper was Juniper. I was pretty sure if we ever invaded one of the Hells she’d just treat is as tempering exercise. The knights and the Winter fae did most of the hard work in running down whatever soldiers of Summer were cut off from the retreating host, and though it was only a rough estimate Marshal Ranker sent me an officer with her best read on the casualties. On our side, nearly six thousand. Nauk’s two thousand men at the beginning of the campaign had been whittled down to a bare five hundred. Most of the rest were Deoraithe regulars and fewer legionaries, though the Watch had allegedly lost a tenth of their number.
Summer, by Ranker’s estimates, had lost around twenty thousand of the sixty they’d brought to the plains. Among those, over a third of the ten thousand the golden fae who’d very nearly wiped out Nauk’s jesha had died. They’d suffered more from the two blasts that had been extracted from the Duchess of Restless Zephyr than mortal blades, apparently. I wasn’t looking forward to another scrap with the golden ones, and fully intended on a sit-down with the Hellhound over the subject. This had been a victory, if a bloody one. We’d traded losses at over thrice dead for every one of ours. Winter, though, had not made out so well. Twenty thousand had been led here by the Prince of Nightfall, but only nine thousand would leave the field. Their cavalry was good as done, while the winged knights of Summer still had over half their numbers, and they’d lost one of the three royals directly under the King in the battle. I wasn’t all that broken up about it, to be honest. A Winter that was better off than Summer but still weakened was very much to my advantage.
Our wounded had been sent through first, the slow work accelerated when Masego crossed into Creation with the Princess of High Noon and then used our other aristocratic prisoner to forge a second gate that our men could use to evacuate. I gave Duchess Kegan leave to use that one to get her people out at her own leisure, getting the Legions through the one at behind the palisades. It was quicker this time around, for a variety of reasons. One more gate, lesser numbers and our officers had managed the logistics of this before. It was past noon when the last few hundred began to file through, and sitting on the bloody grass I let out a sigh of relief. Masego was lying down on my left, dull glass eyes thankfully hidden by his closed eyelids. It would be a while before I got used to those. He had to be on this side to close the gate he’d crafted, he’d told, me and I’d decided to remain with him so he wouldn’t get distracted.
“The Queen won’t be able to follow us for some time,” the mage said. “There are difficulties, to something that powerful crossing in Creation. They weren’t meant to.”
“How long is some time?” I said. “A week, a month, a year? I can’t have her stuck here for too long. Not if I’m to win this war decisively.”
“No more than a month,” Hierophant said. “She would not be able to stay for much longer than that, either. She’s too deeply intertwined with Aine.”
“I can work with a month,” I grunted. “I’ll need around that long to have everything in place for our second tilt.”
“It won’t be anything like today,” Masego warned.
“They always get better, the second time around,” I agreed softly.
The others had already gone across. I’d told Archer I didn’t mind if she wanted to go have a chat with her teacher, but the other woman had shuddered and muttered something about hunting eyes. She did enjoy her dramatics. Ranger, if that was really her, still hadn’t moved. Might have been she just came to have a look? Regardless, as long as it wasn’t made my problem I was glad to wash my hands clean of the whole thing. Nothing good came out of meddling in the affairs of Calamities, even former ones. I sighed, then hoisted myself back up onto my feet. Gods, I was going to be more bruise than woman tomorrow. I offered Masego a hand, but saw his fingers were tracing the grass. Casting? No, he was trying to move the green strands. And failing.
“Oh fuck,” I whispered.
I looked ahead, to the gates. Maybe a little more than a hundred people left between the two of them, but none of them were moving. Frozen like statues. I’d seen something likes this before, shortly before getting my heart ripped out.
“She’s here,” the Hierophant said, rising unsteadily.
The difference in light was so subtle I almost missed it: it was the shadows that gave it away. Even with the sun missing, the light had been cast as if coming from the something that no longer existed. Now, though, the angle was different. It all came from above. Hand shaking, I looked up. There was no sky. Only an ocean of golden flames, as far as the eye could see. Masego began murmuring softly and with a sound like a gong transparent wards formed around the soldiers still leaving. They resumed their movement for a heartbeat, until the wards shattered.
“You said we should have had until nightfall,” I said. “Aine is days away, and she wasn’t moving.”
“No, not moving. She was casting,” Masego said, regretful. “Time has been suspended across all of Summer.”
I cast a panicked look at my soldiers. Shit, at the gates. The Queen might be able to cross through those. If she did, we were done. All our armies wiped in moments.
“I have never done this before,” a soft voice said, awed.
In front of us stood a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Her skin was tanned, but not like a Taghreb or the people of the Free Cities. Like a farmer, and her hands held the calluses of one who tilled fields. Her hair was a mass of golden curls, let loose without styling. She wasn’t beautiful, the way some fae were. If would have taken her for some farmer’s daughter, with those broad shoulders and solid muscles. Her eyes were brown, unremarkable, and when she smiled at us her cheeks dimpled.
“Is this what he saw in you?” the Queen of Summer wondered. “You change the patterns.”
My mouth was dry. I had the itch to cough, but my body was still and beyond my control.
“It is not enough,” she said after a moment, and the sorrow on her face was heartbreaking. “The story will correct itself. All you represent is delay. How tired he must be, to embrace this.”
She sighed, then peered at us.
“There are five of you,” she said.
I could not even nod.
“Born under cursed stars,” she told us gently. “You most of all, Catherine Foundling. The five of you would be woe unto all you behold.”
She had no weapon in her hand but I had not felt this terrified in a very, very long time.
“I will spare you this,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s all I can do for you. Summer is not kind.”
Hierophant’s hand moved, but the Queen glanced at him and it stopped.
“If you’d had a few years, Masego,” she said. “You have not seen enough.”
Her hand rose and the sky fell. Now. Come on, now is when you come. She has to be why you’re here. I’d never heard anything more beautiful than the sound of a sword clearing the scabbard. The sky split in half and Ranger stood between us as if she had always been there. My hands were shaking, and though I abhorred the weakness it stood for I was so relieved I could move again I almost didn’t care.
“It was the Chancellor, who named us the Calamities,” the hooded woman said, a single sword in hand. “The man always had a way with words. ‘You are a calamity to friend and foe alike’. Only ever screamed when he died, though. I guess it’s hard to be witty when getting drawn and quartered.”
“The Woe,” Ranger said, mulling over the word. “Too broad a mantle for you five now, but you’ll grow into it.”
“I have no quarrel with you, Lady of the Lake,” the Queen of Summer said, brow creased slightly.
Just the sight of it made me want to comfort her, even remembering she’d just tried to kill us.
“Run along, kids,” Ranger said, face hooded by shadow save for the sharp grin on her face. “Once is all you get from me.”
“We could help you,” I croaked.
The blade did not move, and neither did the hand that held it. And yet for a heartbeat I felt like my throat had been cut, like blood was gushing out. The intent had been so strong it had almost become a fact.
“I dislike ignoring my impulses,” Ranger said casually. “So do not suggest that again. He would be angry, if I killed you, but we’ve been angry before. It passes.”
“My soldiers,” I said, knowing I was testing death but unwilling to leave them behind.
The Calamity shrugged carelessly.
“What are they to me?”
She couldn’t have… no, not even Black would. But I looked behind me, and there was no denying the truth. The Deoraithe, the legionaries. Nothing left but ashes. She had not protected them. Only the two of us.
“You will not leave,” the Queen of Summer said.
She spoke the words easily, and still I felt my bones creak under the weight. Ranger unsheathed her second sword and the pressure vanished.
“I looked for you, in Aine,” the Calamity said.
“It would have been a meaningless fight,” the Queen said.
The Named had already ceased to pay attention to us, I saw. She’d given us our chance, and that was all she felt she owed.
“So you had me running through a maze instead,” Ranger snorted. “Cute. No maze here now, though. Too far from your throne.”
“This strife is unnecessary,” the Queen insisted, as if she couldn’t possibly understand why this matter was still spoken of at all.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced,” the Calamity laughed. “I am the Ranger. I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, for you qualify.”
We fled, through the ashes of men who’d fought for me not hours ago. The gates closed, and the last of Arcadia I saw was a lone silhouette standing in a storm of flame. We’d won today, I told myself. Even with how it had ended.
I should have gotten used to that bitter taste in my mouth by now.