“That’s the thing with invincibility. You have it until you don’t.”
– Dread Empress Prudence the First, the ‘Frequently Vanquished’
Nicae had been built thrice, with three different intents. The original settlement had spawned from the federation of a handful of fishing villages banding together to facilitate trade with the Baalite colonists settling the shores of Ashur after having absorbed or exterminated the tribes that lived there. The shape of them could still be seen, the three largest of those villages having over the centuries grown into the three ports of the city. The second time had come after Stygia took half the infant Free Cities by military force, back in the ancient days where they were the only Calernians to have a standing army. Nicae was occupied for decades, until the Stygian army attempted to force their general onto the throne of Stygia and the chain of events that would lead to all freeborn Stygians being forbidden to take arms began and heralded the collapse of the fledgling Stygian empire. The office of Basileus was proclaimed as absolute ruler, tall walls built to shield the people from marauders and a war fleet built. What was left of that intent was now known as the Old City, the beating heart of power in the maritime city, raised in old stone and winding streets.
The third and last time Nicea was built anew was after the Second Samite War, when repeated defeats at the hands of the Ashuran fleets proved the ruling Basilea’s incompetence in matters of war beyond question. So the office of Exarch was born, the admiral who’d managed to bring them back from the brink give control over all military affairs and promptly overstepping his given powers by raising a second set of walls to circle the slums that had grown past the old ones and ordering the construction of the Greenstone Rampart. A set of greenstone towers jutting out from the sea and protecting the three ports, warded intensively and bristling with dwarven engines. There had been foresight in this, in Black’s opinion. Though Nicae had never won their wars over rule of the Samite Gulf in the centuries that followed, the Greenstone Rampart ensured the city itself never fell from the sea. Ashur had to settle for terms instead of subjugation, and Nicean sails continued to be seen in every ports – if never quite as free to trade as they would have liked.
The city had been built to resist armies not led by villains, unlike the hardened castles of Callow, and it showed. If Summerholm had been assaulted by a handful of floating towers as Nicae was, the Royal Guards would have been focusing trebuchet fire from the positions behind the walls to bring them down before the outer rampart could be overrun. All that the Niceans managed was sporadic ballista fire that did little more than chip at the foundations. The massive ramps being tugged forward by enslaved citizens of Atalante and Delos lumbered forward, archers killing the slaves by the score by barely slowing the advance. A mistake, this. They would run out of arrows long before the Tyrant ran out of expendables. How it would unfold from there was as good as writ, if the heroes did not get involved. The Stygian phalanxes would climb the ramps and scatter the mercenaries and militia that held the rampart, forcing the Niceans back behind the taller walls of the Old City as the Helikean army passed through the gates untouched. From there, it would be butchery. The armies of Helike were better fit for field battles than siege, but their infantry was hardened and well-armed.
The famous Helikean horse would not be able to bring their full strength to bear inside cramped streets, would not be able to used their devastating combination of horse archery and spears, but they would run down scattered mercenaries like animals. This was the writ of the battle, as it stood. The only question was of where the heroes would intervene to attempt to turn the tides. The outer walls seemed the most likely stage, for whether it held or broke would decide the battle. Yet the towers were hero-bait in its finest incarnation. Amadeus was not unaware of the tactical advantages that having a force in the sky gave, against a mundane army, but there was a reason he’d stamped down on any notion of the Legions of Terror fielding them. There were practical concerns, like the logistics of feeding a host that was leagues above the ground and the requirements to raising such a fortress in the first place, but most of all it was that flying fortresses tended to crash. It was like hanging a sword with rope above the heads of the men in that fortress and sending a formal invitation to any present hero to cut it. Whatever fleeting advantage was gained by the fielding of the fortress was inevitably overshadowed by the massive costs incurred when it was brought down.
“Slid past their wards,” Wekesa whispered in his ear over the enchanted piece of silver he’d inserted under the skin. “Someone tried to improve them recently, but their caster has more breadth than depths. Scrying patterns in place.”
“Locations,” Black said.
“Hedge Wizard is headed for the towers,” Warlock replied after a moment. “Valiant Champion with the Proceran fantassins on the wall. Can’t find the White Knight or the Bard, though the scrying grows unstable over on three, twelve to fifteen diameter. I’d say our boy Hanno got his hands on an amulet to scramble us.”
Tricks rarely worked twice on heroes. It would have been overly optimistic to believe that the enemy would not seek to neuter the tactics they’d displayed last time, even if this was only a mildly effective parry. As the communication spell that connected Wekesa to Amadeus and Sabah was derivative of scrying, it was likely it would be made ineffective when the Duni engaged the White Knight. Only inexact sorcery prior to the distance being closed could feasibly be deployed.
“No sign of the Ashen Priestess?” Amadeus asked.
“Not a one,” Wekesa confirmed. “She might actually be dead, Amadeus.”
“I imagine she will be,” the Black Knight replied. “Until it is decisive for the heroes that she is not. Too many third aspects remain unknowns for us to assume we’ve seen the last of her.”
“Once in a while,” Warlock said amusedly, “we do take Creation by surprise. We might have gotten lucky, for all you know, hit some weakness we were unaware of.”
“We do not belong to the side that gets lucky, my friend,” Amadeus murmured.
The villain closed his eyes, weighing his options.
“Sabah, keep an eye on the walls,” he said. “Do not back the Tyrant against the Champion unless it is a certainty the city will hold.”
“And if he’s about to die?” the Taghreb replied through the spell.
“Let him,” Black said. “Our only concerns are that Nicae falls and the White Knight dies. He is essential to neither.”
“I hear you,” she said.
The instructions were enough that she would be able to tap into Obey, if it proved necessary.
“Wekesa,” he said.
“The Hedge Wizard again, I’m guessing,” he mused.
“Yes,” Amadeus confirmed. “And more. Red Skies protocol.”
There was a lengthy moment of silence.
“We haven’t gone that far since the Conquest,” Wekesa said, and his voice was pleased. “You’re certain? No collateral damage concerns?”
“Reputational damage is irrelevant if the Tyrant becomes the Hierarch of the Free Cities,” the green-eyed man murmured. “All targets of opportunity are fair game. Use what you will, save for what falls under the Dark Day protocol.”
“Ah, you sweet thing,” Warlock drawled. “I have been meaning to try out a few spells.”
Power bloomed in the distance. The stars above them began to grow crimson, staining the night, and the Black Knight moved. He had a hero to kill.
He’d crafted another decoy, for he had no reason not to. As expected, the Hedge Wizard ignored it. She flew directly for the towers, her great wings flapping on one of the three dozen open scrying links he’d crafted. It had taken decades to refine this particular method of farsight, creating runic arrays that would grant him eyes wherever he needed them without actively needing his attention and steering. It was also one of the reasons Wekesa rarely took the field in person: the arrays were exceedingly easy to disrupt, if found. Using distractions to keep the enemy guessing at his true locations while he worked his Gift from behind wards was the most effective use of his abilities. Warlock did occasionally miss the vindictive pleasure of incinerating the opposition in person, but he was no longer a young man. Incautious villains did not get to live as long as he had.
“It will be good night,” he smiled, watching the battle unfold.
How long had it been, since Amadeus had granted him this much leeway on the field? Too long. Oh, his old friend still forbade the use of any sorcery that would grow unchecked if not stopped and any permanent rifts in Creation, but Wekesa was not eager to use the spells that would fall under the Dark Day protocol. Magical plagues had a nasty habit of growing beyond anyone’s control, and only a fool would expect to keep a leash on a permanent portal linking to another dimension. The Dead King had managed it, some Soninke argued, but even millennia past that man’s apotheosis mages still sifted through the remains of his reign to advance their craft. Warlock was disinclined to renounce his humanity for another form of immortality when villainy alone could yield the same results, properly used. It was a poor man’s escape of the Final Shackles, anyway. For all his power, the Dead King remained undead. His nature had grown eminently less changeable, his ability to learn crippled, while humanity… Humanity was such a miraculous fluctuating thing. Tikoloshe would not have remained so eternally fascinated by it otherwise.
Behind his wards, watching it all, Wekesa stroked his beard and found three opportunities. The first was the outer walls. Sabah had yet to get involved there, and so he need not be worried about her being caught in the crossfire. Dead under the walls, killed in hatred. And now the the Stygian phalanx was marching up the ramps, more blood would flow. Power was largely irrelevant to what he was setting out to accomplish, for the kind of force that could be gathered by mass sacrifices and theft of godhead was a blunt instrument. It would be used then spent, leaving the practitioner that called on it spent as well. No, what he sought was affinity. Finding similarities on both sides of the boundary before thinning it enough the realities grew muddled and overlapping. It was not a flawless method, of course. There were an infinity of Hells and more adjacent dimensions than even he could discover, but he could only use those he knew of. Knowledge, as in all things, was the great limitation.
Wekesa knew many things, though, secrets old and new ripped from ancient tomes and the minds of lesser gods alike.
“Imbricate,” he murmured.
Two-hundredth and seventy-third Hell. The realm of slaughter unending and meaningless. On the weaker side of the scale, weak in devils and imprisoned souls both, but it was so very close. The Tyrant was responsible for it, stripping this battle of much meaning save his own whims. The blood across the field and walls shivered, then boiled. Guiding the alignment took all his concentration, balancing the power he was willing to invest through the runic arrays to the depth of imbrication that was useful. Creation and Hell snapped into place, and his lips quirked. Men rose around the ramps and on the wall, missing limbs and bleeding and every one of them dead. The corpses took up their weapons, broken or whole, and those that could not struck with bare hands instead. Driven by endless hatred the dead turned on everything in sight, including each other. Screams and chaos spread across the battlefield, but Wekesa paid no attention. The imbrication would fade away within the hour, and needed no more supervision from his will. Now, where was the little Wizard?
Inside one of the towers, if the trail of her Name could be trusted. Which it could not, given there were tricks to fake this and given the nature of her Role she was all but mandated to have them. An interesting thing, this Name. The Hedge Wizard relied on providence more than the average hero, in his eyes. By Heavenly mandate she would always have the exact trick needed to escape the trouble she was in, more irritatingly hard to kill a pest than any save a bardic Named. Abandoning subtlety was occasionally needed to deal with the likes of her. The Tyrant had lost his finest mages, and so his floating towers were even more unstable than ones the heroes had wrecked at Delos. No doubt the boy expected to detonate them at some point in the battle, and Wekesa would grant him his wish this once. Delving past the outer wards was a thing of ease, given that there were Helikean standard and so a century of learning behind anything come of the Wasteland, or even Callow for that matter. Callowan Gifted were largely amateurs borne of a particularly shoddy apprenticeship system, but centuries of being assaulted by Praesi mages had forced them to develop very effective, if simplistic, warding schemes.
Actually attacking the core was unnecessary. The conversion array that kept the tower afloat was so flimsy any proper disruption would lead to cascading failures. Wekesa’s own offensive, meant to manifest limited kinetic force within the range of a mile at a regrettably high conversion rate, shone and one single rune in the tower’s array was damaged. Thirty heartbeats later the tower exploded, heated rocks carving a swath of destruction in the outer city. Civilian casualties, he noted, would not be light. Ah, well. It wasn’t like Amadeus was trying to annex this one. The scrying spell he had pointed at the location blanked until he adjusted the parameters, reforming to deal with the arcane energies still filling the air. The Hedge Wizard had been inside, he saw. Yet remained largely unharmed by the explosion. Half-phasing into Arcadia, by the likes of it. Clever, but given the unstable nature of the tower’s array the energy would have scattered across the spectrum. She would have been affected. The Hedge Wizard, running across floating tiles, began to head for his decoy. Warlock smiled fondly. Trying to trace his location through it, was she?
“Ah, youth,” he said.
He’d cleaned off the rust. It was time, he supposed, to get serious.
The young woman was bleeding, bent in a corner and moaning in pain. The White Knight slowed as he came by her and came close. Amadeus raised an eyebrow, but Hanno was not so foolish as that. The sword cleared the scabbard in an instant, cutting through the animated corpse’s neck. A twist of will had the other three corpses he’d scattered across the rooftops pull the triggers of the crossbows just as the hero’s sword began to touch flesh. It was not enough. The sword flashed out and parried the two bolts that would have taken him in the back, letting the third pass him by for it would not have touched him. Mistake. The third bolt hit the goblinfire ball he’d put inside the woman and green flames erupted instantly. The Light formed a blinding halo around the White Knight before the fire could touch him, the Heavenly power soon devoured but allowing him to retreat without it touching his flesh. There was only so much of the Light the man could call on without hollowing himself out, but Black knew better than to turn a death match with a hero into a matter of endurance. That way lay the wiping of a bloody lip, a trite quote from the Book of All Things and an improbably second wind when he himself was at the end of his rope.
The three corpses leapt down the rooftops and ran towards the White Knight, open and clearly visible wounds across their bellies. The kind a villain might put a ball of goblinfire in, if he so wished. Amadeus had not, of course. It would have been a waste of substance he had a limited stock of as well as the introduction of an uncontrollable factor to a battlefield where precision would be key. But Hanno could not afford the chance, and so he backed away to give himself room. Mistake. Amadeus’ shadow snaked across the gloom behind him, puncturing the loose pavestones and detonating the demolition charge under his feet. The explosion would have earned broken bones from less powerful a Named, but for a White Knight the only advantage won was toppling him. Another twist of will and three crossbow bolts whistled at his prone form. He rolled over at the last moment, evading all but one, yet that last bolt struck his arm. Not his sword-arm, unfortunately, but he would have to deal with the wound regardless. The three corpses retreated out of sight. Hanno ripped the bolt out of his arms and cauterized the wound with Light, predictably.
“Is this all you amount to, Black Knight?” he called out. “Smoke and mirrors, ambushes and a handful of tricks.”
As if engaging a hero on their own terms was anything but sheer stupidity. The provocation was not a very skilful one, a betrayal of the man’s youth for all the danger he represented. Amadeus gave him what he wanted. From the ruins of a home across the street, a corpse in armour identical to his plate strode out. Unsheathing a plain steel sword, the undead offered Hanno a mocking blade salute. The hero charged, but he had learned. He flared the Light before coming close to the puppet, shrugging off the crossbow fire from the other dead. Mistake. There was no need for him to arrange detonation when the hero’s blade was wreathed in Light. The sword went clean through the plate and the goblinfire blew, spreading across the edge. The White Knight hastily dropped it, and there went the shapeshifting weapon that was of clear Gigantes make. The hero’s lips turned to a snarl and he made a blade of Light. A liability to exploited. Killing heroes, in Amadeus’ eyes, was much like peeling an onion.
Layer by layer it went, until all that remained was the weeping.
Gods, she’d forgotten how nightmarish it got when Warlock went off the deep end. The sky had gone red and the dead were rising. Typical. That strange Levantine girl was having the time of her life with it, though, and so was the Tyrant. He’d begun screeching about treachery from his hovering throne, pleased as a cat that got the cream. The boys were underestimating this one, she thought. Amadeus thought he was straight out of the old Imperial mould and so doomed to shoot himself in the foot at his moment of triumph, but he did not smell of that kind of crazy to her. Whatever schemes he had going, and Sabah did not care to parse out the insane maze that would be, she doubted they would involve rising too high. He was the kind of irritating prick that made a virtue of defeat and pissing everybody off, just like the Heir had been. And Wekesa, well, he did tend to think that everybody that wasn’t a mage was a little slow. Considering he’d been set to starve or freeze to death in the Wasteland while on the run as Apprentice, back when he’d met Amadeus, she was a little amused at how he kept turning up his nose at practical skills. Like starting a fire without getting a devil involved.
The Champion kept the wall afloat when the mercenaries began to run by using an aspect, though Sabah was too far to hear what it was. Whatever it’d been, though, it had turned Proceran rabbits to lions. They were carving their way straight into the Stygian phalanx, not that the Tyrant seemed to care. When it came to the two of them, the Taghreb judged it an even match. The heroine never managed to land a proper hit, but the beams of light the villain used hardly scuffed her plate. Sabah sympathized, having taken a swing at the muscled girl herself in the past. Anything but the war hammer the Levantine with the badger helm walked off: it was like hitting a wall. A different story when the Beast came out, but there weren’t a lot of things in Creation that could ignore Sabah when she let that loose. Captain sniffed the air, and grimaced at what she got from it. Brimstone, and the red in the sky was getting deeper. Sooner or later something nasty was going to start raining down. Better if she could finish off her heroine before it got to that.
She seemed like a good kid, the Champion. Heart in the right place, spoiling for a fight the way the young ones often were. Heroes still cutting their teeth tended to think they were invincible, before running into their first proper villain. Those that survived that emerged stronger form the experience, and there lay the problem. Sabah didn’t particularly care if someone worshipped the Heavens instead of the Gods Below. Her people’s deities were most loved when they were looking somewhere else. Imagine the kind of pricks they’d be if we weren’t on their side, Sabah, her mother had been fond of saying. The issue was that when heroes got a little killing under their belt they tended to go looking for a bigger fight, and right now Praes was the biggest fight to be had on the continent. Except for the Kingdom of the Dead, but who’d be dumb enough to try that? Hye didn’t count, she had an odd knack for killing things she shouldn’t in the place where she should have godsdamned common sense. Still, it was a shame. The Champion truly did seem like a good kid.
Sabah had killed a lot of good kids, over the years.
Didn’t particularly enjoy it, but if the choice was between the people she loved and some young fools who thought they could fix the world with a spell or a sword, well, that wasn’t a choice at all. World didn’t really want to be fixed. Wasn’t supposed to be. But the broken chariot kept on rolling down the road, so why fuck with what worked? Amadeus had tried it for forty years and he’d had good days for a toil, but a lot more bad ones. Wekesa had understood quicker, washed his hands of the whole thing and instead taken care of his son and his experiments. But Sabah wasn’t willing to let Amadeus into the deep end with only Eudokia to prop him up, so Captain she had been. Was and would be. Sometimes that meant doing things she didn’t like, but she doubted anyone in the world enjoyed their work everyday. She got her hands bloody, but it could have been worse. The truly dark things Amadeus always did himself. He’d never been one to let others do his dirty work for him, if he could avoid it. Sabah watched the fight on the ramparts turn, biding her time, and she was not made to linger.
The Tyrant summoned a stream of what looked like spectres – he’d regret letting something like those loose with Wekesa on the battlefield, she mused – and while the Champion held the mercenaries around her died until she was forced to retreat. Best keep an eye on that, Captain mused. Wouldn’t do to let the girl meddle in Amadeus’ fight with her leader.
Sabah followed the heroine into the streets, eerily quiet for a woman her size.