“Who should really be afraid, between the dragon and the peasant with a sword?”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First
The Hedge Wizard was attempting an offensive. Wekesa was more irritated than worried, but these things had a way of growing out of control if allowed to go unchecked. The girl had used an aspect relating to conversion to survive the trap laying behind his decoy, an expected outcome though the specifics of her counter had come as something of a surprise. It had been a mistake on his part to strengthen the detonation in hopes of an early crippling: she’d made the power her own and promptly shoved it through an exotic spell formula. Proceran-derived, by the looks of it. Interesting, that. Practitioners of the Principate had been heavily influenced by the Gigantes traditions that still lived strong in the Titanomachy, though they still subscribed to the much-maligned Pelagian theory of magic. When it came to broader sorcery they were far behind Praes, but there were few their match when it came to enchantments. The sleeping spell Wekesa had used to keep the Hunter under control last year, for example, had been a modified take on an old Proceran enchantment. Removing the requirement of true love’s kiss had been a stark improvement, even if it weakened the overall strength.
That the roots of the Wizard’s formula were in enchanting had been obvious. The only way she could have successfully used an amount of power that large and unstable was by forcing a strict condition on it. Two thirds of it had gone to waste regardless, but the remainder had covered seven miles in search of the assigned criterion. She’d found five instances, because Wekesa wasn’t a fool and he’d laid false trails. Running after the relays of false positives would keep her occupied for the moment, until a proper response could be mustered. This was, in the end, the limitation of the branch of sorcery the Soninke had chosen to master. It lacked the immediacy of more direct magic. Wards and boundaries required outside factors to be accelerated in forming or a great deal of preparation. The raging dead on the walls had returned to the grave, by now, and it would be a quarter bell yet before the Red Skies were ready for actual use. Watching the scrying screens in front of him, Warlock tracked the silhouette galloping across the plains towards his second relay.
She’d chose the shape of a horse, this time. Shapeshifting had always an interesting branch of magic, in his eyes, but ultimately a dead end. It was fixed to the limits allowed by creational laws and even High Arcana could at most allow slight deviation from this. No shapeshifter could take the shape of a dragon, for one, or even most creatures with sorcerous nature. The physical and metaphysical composition was too different, and something could not be made of nothing – particularly if that something had markers fundamentally different from anything else in Creation. Warlock put the thought aside. He would return to those experiments soon enough, after this little dust-off was settled. His son had sent him promising results before Wekesa had to leave for the Free Cities showing that tapirs, unlike pigs, would gain wings but not the ability to breathe fire if infused with enough sorcery. That meant there was a qualitative difference between what lay at the heart of a dragon and – ah, yes, distraction. Warlock tapped into one of his inert arrays with a thought, arranging the runes through the medium of High Arcana.
He’d have to use his own will for this, which was unfortunate. Wekesa was aware that few aside from the oldest Soninke bloodlines and the purest of the Taghreb had as much power to call on, but it was still a limiting factor. No mage had endless power, and burning out when calling on the kind of sorcery he did would have… dire consequences. A circle of runes formed in the air above the shapeshifted wizard and locked with a hum. A hundred times the gravity should be enough to turn her to a smears, he estimated. The array triggered without missing a beat, but the Hedge Wizard’s form shimmered. Instead of being plastered all over the grass she reappeared three feet to the left of his spell, human again. Warlock raised an eyebrow. That had looked like teleportation, but it was mathematically impossible. Adjusting the nature of the scrying array, he dismissed the gravity circle and studied the sorcerous trail. Ah, displacement. She’d let the power push her through the half-existing space between dimensions. There must have bleed, or she would have reappeared directly outside his spell instead of drifting to the side.
Drumming his fingers thoughtfully, Wekesa tapped into another inert array. A different approach, then. Direct applications had proved ineffective but perhaps indirect would see better results. A bag of tricks as eclectic as hers would not come without drawbacks, which made it an obvious avenue of approach. Forging four runes of containment on cardinal points, Warlock crafted an inwards zone of disruption: within the boundaries, all power would be randomly amplified and diminished. His lips half-quirked when he saw the tiles she used to walk across the sky rip straight through her sleeves in their uncontrolled expansion, exploding in a shower of shards when they forcefully surpassed their capacity. The Hedge Wizard used the blood from the cuts in her hands to trace a line across her face, and to his displeasure this sealed all power on her. She ran out of the boundaries dictated by the zone, unharmed save for a few cuts. Warlock dismissed the spells, glancing at the seven inert arrays that remained around him. He could, of his own capacity, use perhaps another four workings of this calibre without being at risk of burning out.
The girl was proving to be troublesome. The Wizard of the West had wielded ten times her raw power, but he’d been… brittle. Breakable, when outplayed. This one was weaker but fluid, and Wekesa wondered if that was what she’d always been meant to be. The White Knight had been gifted an aspect that made him extremely versatile, a way to compensate for Amadeus’ massive advantage in experience in skill. The Champion was apt to weather great violence and had previously been paired with a powerful healer that dabbled in offensive miracles. The fighting elements of this heroic band, by the look of it, had ben crafted specifically to kill the remaining Calamities. It wouldn’t be the first time the Heavens attempted such a trick, but it was the first instance in decades where the band managed to come together before core members were eliminated. A greater degree of caution on his part was advisable.
Warlock began to insert his will into an array, but ceased when he felt his relays being tapped into. The girl had found one of them, and instead of following to the next in the line was… mapping out the inner workings? He saw her lips move on his scrying screen, reading the word. Learn. Wekesa’s face creased in wariness. It was one thing for a transitional Name like Squire or Apprentice to have that aspect, quite another to see it in a full-fledged Name. Ranger was living proof of how dangerous it could be, given enough time to accumulate weight. The Hedge Wizard smiled in triumph, then created another relay to add to his own system. Using that, she immediately followed the current down to his current location. Her face appeared on the scrying screen ahead of him, looking back.
“Found you,” the heroine said, eyes hard.
She’d used her second aspect, Warlock mused. He could return the courtesy.
“Link,” he replied.
Laws were nothing more than boundaries, and it had been his life’s work to learn the manipulation of those – even the law of sympathy. This was his most abstract aspect, but perhaps the most dangerous. It allowed him to create sympathetic links between entities that, by right, should have none. In this case, one of the remaining floating towers and the relays the Hedge Wizard had just taken over. Idly tapping a rune, Warlock used his access to trigger the collapse of the tower and the power raged through the connection. The impact was brutal. Her right shoulder, the entire arm and part of her rib cage simply… evaporated. The heroine threw up blood and Warlock began crafting an array to finish her off, but she managed to whisper one word.
“Repurpose,” she said.
The same conversion aspect as before, he deduced. The leftover wisps of the the tower’s power – and ah, it had collapse on the city as well, though not exploded – came together like blue smoke and reformed the mass she had just lost. The result was more magic than flesh, he noted, but it would allow her operate well enough. Not a single-use aspect, then. Neither was Imbricate, which made them an even match in this regard. Wekesa leaned forward, breaking the scrying connection and ignoring the battle. She had earned his full attention.
Ride would have been a lethally dangerous aspect, in the hands of another hero. It leant a sharp increase in speed, armament that ignored enemy armour and and protection that nothing short of concentrated spellfire would be able to dent. It was wasted on the White Knight. The man had spent too long learning the skills of others and neglected his own abilities, turning an aspect that should have been a near-unavoidable killing stroke into a weak gambit unlikely to ever draw blood on another Named. Shadows hooked through the window and dug into the walls, dragging him through the space and tossing him straight through the door in the back of the house. Brushing off wooden shards, he landed one street across and through the opening watched the White Knight pulverize the entire wall in a blinding flash of light, the aspect dimming after it had struck a target. Hanno landed in a crouch as Black sent out his shadow tendrils, green eyes seeking structural weak points. Two sharpers detonated a heartbeat later and the roof collapsed on the hero’s head as the villain made for the rooftops. Better to change his angle of attack before reengaging.
He’d already baited out one aspect without using any of his own, though admittedly two of his three were less… direct than those of his predecessors. Lead strengthened whoever he led on the field, but had no real use in a duel such as this, and while Conquer was currently sharpening his physical strength and reflexes it would do little else in this kind of situation. The aspect was better fit for war than skirmished between Named, a reflection of his departure from the traditional role of the Black Knights of old. As for Destroy, it was best employed as a tool for denial of enemy abilities. Anything it could accomplish on a purely physical level could be accomplished by more mundane means he had available, and should he ever attempt to use it in direct opposition to a hero’s aspect the difference in power would see him promptly crushed. Or worse, corner his opponent badly enough they would have to learn new abilities on the spot that he had no solid measure against. It was a balancing act, this, where he must carefully lead the enemy in a position where they could be killed without ever overpowering them by too much.
The most effective moment for the kill was usually when the hero had pulled out their trump card, or just after they had, and even then there were risks. Should he ever fail to manage a killing stroke then, the situation could be reversed in a heartbeat.
Now, with Ride taken out of the equation the second stage of this fight should be approaching. The moment the White Knight was put in a dire situation he would tap into the aspect that leant him the different skillsets he’d used to recover from his incoming defeat in their last duel, but this was not a state of affairs that should be approached lightly. For one, Hanno would become exceedingly difficult to contain the moment he began using these other skills. The loss of his enchanted weapon should hinder him, the very reason Amadeus had arranged its destruction, but it would have been foolish to assume the man could not produce similar results using the Light. It was, after all, the very stuff of the Heavens shaped by will. Maintaining it had to be tiring, however, and this had been a side-benefit to be achieved by getting rid of the artefact. Amadeus knew better than to attempt to win through heroic exhaustion, but slowing down the enemy was very much possible. And if the White Knight attempted to compensate for that by using his Name, well, he would be effectively hollowing out his own power and heading directly for a collapse down the line. That would be another opportunity for a kill, in Black’s experience, if he was quick enough.
The dark-skinned hero emerged from the rubble without wounds, dark eyes searching for the opposition. Amadeus exerted his will and one of his two remaining corpses moved behind the shutters of an empty house, drawing enemy attention. He struck in just that moment, staggering four blades at calculated intervals. The first held by a tendril was parried when the White Knight immediately turned to face him, the second would have struck at the weak point of the greaves but was avoided by a shift of footing and the sword he swung himself was caught in hand. Mistake. His shield struck the hero in the chest, taking advantage of the weakened stance to throw him off his feet, and the fourth blade plunged down from above and went straight through the plate. Goblin steel scraped against the collarbone instead of carving it. He’d been imprecise, and so lost an opportunity for a deeper wound. Unfortunate. Amadeus gave ground immediately and the shadow-held blades retreated with him, just in time to avoid the burst of Light the hero detonated in his wound to seal it.
A costly way of healing, this. The touch of the Heavens on mortal flesh was never light, or without consequence. Amadeus could see the function it was meant for, though. If the White Knight was truly meant to face Catherine after she’d succeeded him, then he gave the man six in ten odds of winning a duel against her. His apprentice still had the nasty habit of overcommitting at close range once she’d drawn blood, and a semi-offensive form of healing like this would be damaging to her. Combined with her lack of experience with different kinds of Named, the White Knight’s aspects would gain him a decisive advantage in a clash. As usual, the Heavens stacked the fight before the fight ever happened. Best he never let it come to that, for everyone’s sake. Catherine was too important to die at the hands of some hunting dog of the Seraphim.
“Thousands will die tonight, because you keep me from checking the Tyrant,” the White Knight said, circling around him.
Heroes did have a fascination with talking, didn’t they? Black reached for the bundle of power he’d left in the second corpse that remained, watching through its eyes. Sixty to eight heartbeats before it arrived, depending on the struggling. Running out the hourglass by talking was acceptable.
“I have no personal enmity with anyone here,” Amadeus said calmly. “And this war is not of my making.”
“Yet you participate in it,” the White Knight pressed. “You have responsibility for this. Guilt.”
“I’ve been afflicted by many things, in my old age,” Black said. “Guilt is not one of them.”
“And you believe this makes you better?” Hanno said.
“Oh, I am very much a monster,” Amadeus conceded, reluctantly amused. “But then so are the things you serve and yourself as well. A mere different shade of barbarity hardly puts you in a position to lecture, White.”
The hero would have replied, but Black’s undead cleared the corner and the man went still. The corpse held a struggling woman in its arms, knife at her throat.
“Surrender or she dies,” Amadeus said.
The man went directly for him, without hesitation. The Choir of Judgement did not suffer lack of decisiveness in its servants. A twist of will saw the woman released and she fled straight to hero and now that had him hesitate. A different matter, a hostage and an innocent in need of protection. The White Knight was not the first hero sworn to Judgement he had fought. Their kind was taught to think of people in particular categories, and during that heartbeat the hero had to readjust his assessment of her. In that very moment Black struck, blades in motion. One tendril was sent directly towards the woman’s back, slowly enough Hanno could parry it if he moved there.
“Recall,” the hero said.
He blurred in motion, shaft of light lashing straight through the shadow holding the sword as he protected the civilian. Spear-wielding skillset, possibly a lancer. High mobility, expect piercing strikes. No wound, but Amadeus’ base objective had been achieved regardless. Now the more difficult work could begin. In silence, the green-eye man advanced.
It was getting warm out, and not just because Sabah was swinging half a hundred pounds of solid steel at the kid. Warlock’s ritual with the sky was getting stronger, getting closer to what he’d pulled at the Fields of Streges. It was only a matter of time until the rain of fire began, and anybody’s guess if he would limit it to just that. Captain wasn’t eager to start dancing around tower-sized burning rocks falling from above, but she was no stranger to it either. The Valiant Champion was way ahead the curve even for a hero her age and she’d learned from their fight at Delos, but she wasn’t used to fighting an opponent like Sabah and it was costing her. That shift in her footing, right there? It was meant to deal with something Captain’s size, yes, but something on four legs. A monster, not a person. The hammer ploughed into her shield and tossed her into the wall, though the thing didn’t break. She’d learned the trick for putting Name power into weapons since they’d last fought, though she used it to strengthen the steel instead of add sharpness to a blade the way most Named did.
Given another few years, this one would have been a right terror. She hit like godsdamned trebuchet and her defence got stronger with every scrap. Sabah had fought quite a few heroes meant to stand and deliver, over the years, but this one was head and shoulder above the rest of the crowd. She could take punishment like a Holy Shield and still swing like a Blood Sword. At least she didn’t go berserk like the latter. Even with the Beast out Sabah had found him hard to put down when he started spasming and his body unhinged. Those people from around Hedges were weird fucks, even for Callowans. Still, tonight was tonight and not in a few years. The kid was still out of her league for now, and down an aspect as well. Sabah hadn’t had to use one of hers yet, though since this was their second scrap she’d probably have to at some point. The more you fought heroes the more of a pain they became, as a rule. Putting some length to her stride, Captain moved to strike while the iron was hot.
The first hit the Champion ducked under and it put a hole in the wall, but the second nailed her to the floor through the shoulder. Didn’t break bone, though. Fucking Name strengthening. Sabah kicked her in the stomach but she brought up her shield in time and it just blew her back a few feet.
“Good fight,” the Champion praised, grinning through her badger helm. “Getting blood flow.”
“You’ve got the most potential to grow out of your band,” Captain replied honestly. “I’m glad we’re fighting now and not after you went adventuring a few years.”
“Life is adventure,” the girl philosophized in broken tradertalk. “Kill many things back home. Much slaughter of other claimants.”
Well, they did say the Named of the Dominion were closest to the old breed of heroes. The ones who’d gone traipsing like well-armed vagrants around Calernia, killing dragons and looting every tomb in sight. Before the House of Light had gone and civilized them, like that entire religion wasn’t about licking the feet of the angels telling you what to do. Sabah had never understood why anyone would pay a tithe to be given sermons, but people out of the Wasteland did tend to get strange ideas in their heads. Captain usually left the statecraft to Malicia and Amadeus, but she did know that when it came to commerce middlemen always screwed the buyers. Why most of Calernia wouldn’t think to apply something that simple to the Gods they kept to, she had no notion.
“I don’t suppose you could just go back to Levant?” Sabah asked. “Leave the Empire alone. I’m fairly sure Black would not pursue if you just stuck to your borders.”
“Eh,” the Champion refused. “Much boring. No good fight there. Procer all peace-talking, now. You legend, Biggest Girl! Many songs for slaying of you, and drinks without pay.”
Not talk about the power of friendship or justice to be served, which she had to admit was rather refreshing. There were only so many times you could get those speeches before they kind of… melded together. About half of them quoted the Book of All Things, too, and Sabah hadn’t read that so she never got the references. She sighed.
“I apologize, then,” she said. “Because I don’t think this ends well for you.”
“You much kicking of my arse,” the heroine ruefully admitted. “But I Valiant Champion, not no-balls Arlesite. I stand, and Exalt.”
Second aspect of the night. They were doing brisk business. Sabah watched the ripple go through Creation and frowned. Domain, huh. Champion types did tend to have those. Amadeus had been caught in the Unconquered Champion’s pocket dimension a few years back and Sabah had… not taken it well. Wekesa hadn’t been able to locate him at first, so they’d had to face the possibility he was dead. She’d lost control of the Beast when she’d been told the news, and woken up to a butcher’s yard of half-eaten corpses. She still had dreams about that, sometimes. She’d not been that out of control since she’d been a young girl. If Warlock hadn’t started carving into the soul of the hero’s childhood friend to find a hint about what the nature of the dimension was, the others might have thought him dead too and that would have gotten… bad. If Ranger had come down from Refuge to avenge him, she didn’t think Vale would have survived it – or anyone trying to get her to stop, for that matter.
The girl’s domain was just an arena, Sabah saw. Old sunny stone with empty stands stretched in a long oval, but maybe not so empty as they seemed at first. If she sharpened her ears she could almost hear cheering and applause. The two of them were standing in sand, and the Valiant Champion raised her axe. Her movements were more fluid than before. She was probably stronger inside here, a sharp increase of everything as long as the domain held. Fit with the word, anyway. That poor kid. She’d picked her grounds, yes, but she’d also taken Captain somewhere she didn’t have to worry about the consequences of going all out. It was one thing to lean into the Beast when there was a risk she’d end up eating a portion of Nicae. Another when it was just the two of them. Sabah rolled her shoulder, and dropped the hammer.
“Unleash,” she said, and the world went red.