“The truth of monsters is that, in the end, they die. If they didn’t we would have to call them gods.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae
The Beast moved, but Sabah was within it. It was not control, for control was an illusion, but it was enough. She could yet think, even with blood and heat pumping in her veins. The Valiant Champion screamed a war cry and swung her axe, but what did the Beast care for this? The enemy steel dug into her flesh, blood and fur spraying, but with a roar she bit down on the hero. The shield gave under her fangs, even with the strength of a Name behind it, and she crunched into the plate before throwing the Champion to the side. The Beast had wanted to swallow the girl whole, but Sabah knew this would have been a mistake. Covered in blood and spit, the heroine rose to her feet. She began to speak but the Beast huffed out a laugh and struck again. The wound the axe had carved was already healed, the intertwined madness and power within her growing with every moment. The heroine raised the broken remnant of her shield but a shoulder bump was enough to send her crashing into the walls of the arena
Stone broke, bone broke and the scream whetted the Beast’s appetite.
The Champion was better at fighting beasts than men, but Sabah was not like anything the girl had ever thought before. Of all the Calamities, only she had embraced the old truth: if you were strong enough, even Fate broke under your teeth. Fountains of sand exploded behind her as she charged and the heroine hastily leapt onto the stands. The cheering sounded, oh, and the clapping as well. The Beast roared and it drowned out all the worlds. Claws scrabbling against the stone rails, Sabah gave when the enemy tried to use to high grounds to strike at her head. Tail twisting behind her, the Beast paced the sands of the arena and waited for the Champion to come down. The girl was catching her breath, though. Wasn’t moving. The Beast crouched, then leapt onto the stands. Benches and flickering silhouettes shattered as she rolled onto the stone, rising back to her feet. The sun came down harshly, blinding her, but Sabah sniffed the air and felt the wounded enemy coming closer. Petty arena tricks.
Clawed paw rising, the Beast struck down into the stands. The arena shook. Again and again she did, until the entire wing collapsed beneath her in a shower of stone and dust and sand. The glare of the sun was gone, now, and she saw the Champion hopping from ruin to ruin. Shaking herself clear of the dust, Sabah forced her will onto the Beast. Claws closed around stones as she rose onto her back legs, tossing chunks of rocks the size of houses at the heroine. She dodged the first, swatted aside the second but was buried under the third. The Beast licked its chops in satisfaction and leapt onto the stone, shattering it and the stands beneath it. There was a tunnel underneath and the Champion flopped down onto the ground.
“Rally,” the heroine gasped.
She shone like the sun and all the flickering silhouettes flocked to her, filling her until her strength swelled. Her armour was smoking, her axe shaking with barely held power. Sabah recognized the aspect from earlier but the Beast cared little for the detail. Her paw whipped out from the outside, tearing through the outer wall of the tunnel and sending the Champion flying again. She landed on her feet at the very top of the stands, where the domain ended, and charged back down. The Beast sniffed the air. Blood, blood and ruin. The heroine’s strength waned and her little world with it. Sabah leapt down onto the sands and let her tail sweep a trail behind her, turning to watch the enemy. The Champion did not flinch, and followed her without hesitation. The Beast wanted to be a thing of teeth and claw, but Sabah thought otherwise. Her long legs swatted at the sands, sending up a cloud, and in that blinding curtain she struck. The heroine stood fast, both hands on the handle of her axe for her shield was long gone. The shining blade cut through the Beast’s leg, but Sabah did not pause. She rolled over the heroine, and the wild joy of hearing bones creak and plate give filled her senses.
It was a wonder, that even after calling on an aspect the Champion was strong enough to throw her off. The Beast hit the wall and howled as her leg grew back, bone and flesh sprouting from the cut. The heroine’s breastplate was dented, and her lips dripping with blood. It was enough to make the Beast hungry. Sabah stalked forward and waited for the heroine to charge. The sweep was not meant to hit her, just force her into the right place. Claws closed around the struggling heroine, and the Beast swung her down at the stands. Again and again and again, until there were a dozen gaping holes in the stone and only then did she toss the girl up in the air. The Champion rose higher and higher in the sky, until she touched a ceiling that wasn’t and crack snaked across the firmament like it was a pane of glass. The arena shattered, and the smells of smoke and death wafted to the Beast’s nose. They were in the city again, where they’d first crossed. The Beast roared, and went for the kill.
It had been a very long time since Wekesa had found an opponent this troublesome. He’d grown arrogant in his old age, it seemed. Come to believe that a mere few layers of deception would be enough to keep a hound of the Heavens off his back. This entire battle was something a tactical mistake, in his eyes. This was far from the first time the Calamities split to deal with a heroic band, but the circumstances were not in their favour. Amadeus was adamant the White Knight had to die, however, and in this Warlock was not inclined to disagree. Not as long as Masego was attached to that Callowan slip of a girl. Promising as the young villains assembled around Catherine Foundling were, they were not ready to deal with this calibre of heroic opposition. Better to crush the Wizard to dust here so she would never be a threat to his son. Crushing a rune-covered stone in his palm, Warlock murmured an incantation and watched a bubble form around the Hedge Wizard. A derivative of the effect demons of Time could have, this, at least in theory. Actual observation of such a specimen would have been too dangerous even for him, as the Fourth Hell was nothing to trifle with.
The heroine was stuck, at least for now. He immediately gave ground while weaving High Arcana, the seven spears of red flame that formed sinking into the bubble. It was a crawl, from his perspective, but it would not be from hers. The Wizard moved, inch by inch, and the bubble popped. She had, it seemed, seized the guiding flows and broken them. Unfortunately for her, that did nothing about the spears. She twisted around most, but one took hit her in the shoulder and and another in the leg. That should have crippled her, but the illusion she’d replaced herself with broke instead. The heroine stood a foot to the side, panting. Wekesa frowned and penned her into what he’d come to call a quicksand ward. It didn’t prevent anything, not exactly. It simply made any exertion of power or movement much harder than it should be. Against a practitioner of limited power like her, forcing a burnout was a perfectly viable strategy.
“You killed my sister, you monstrous old fuck,” the Wizard gasped. “You’re not walking away from this.”
Buying time to cast with distracting words. He’d pulled the same trick many, many times.
“I’m rather surprised it stuck,” Wekesa noted. “I suppose once in a while luck smiles on the opposition.”
Her spell flared into existence. The Liessen Chisel, by the looks of it. One of the better Callowan works, an old favourite of the Wizards of the West. It had been crafted specially to cut apart the stabilizing elements of wards, but to accomplish this it did require a certain of raw arcane power. She’d chosen poorly, given the ward around her. Her spell collapsed the ward and a heartbeat later her wrist bones both snapped. She screamed, but did not stop casting. Heroes had an irritating tolerance for pain. A mundane mage would have lost the thread of whatever they were casting when inflicted with such a distraction. High Arcana runes bloomed in front of the both of them.
“She was better than any of you,” Hedge hissed. “She was good.”
“She was Good,” Wekesa corrected. “And evidently not quite better enough to avoid the Tyrant’s ritual.”
Her eyes went wide. Ah, she hadn’t known that bit had she? There was more than one intent at work in this band of heroes. That light delay in working her will gave him the initiative. The red flares formed around the heroine’s head, the intensity of the glow they produced varying wildly. She finished her spell a moment later and the moment the power took shape all three flares exploded into a cage of red. The green smoke she’d crafted went through the bars, but she was forced to dismiss it and create a cone of force around herself to avoid being incinerated. Wekesa’s spell would have fed on both of her castings, which should earn him just long enough to craft something more powerful while she got rid of it. Duels between Gifted were very much a game of shatranj, in his experience. Reacting to the immediate movements of the pieces without glimpsing the long-term intent was a good way to end up dead.
“You’re not invincible,” the heroine barked. “I just need to find the right trick.”
The red cage transmuted into red smoke a moment later, but he placed the last rune and four bands of transparent force formed around the wrists and ankles. They tightened without any need for prompting, crushing bone. Amusingly enough, what part of her wrists that was not powdered was now almost reset form the initial snapping. Warlock could have gone for a more lethal working, but he was wary of committing to such before she’d used her last aspect. Each of them had called on two, and the odds were that the loser of his duel would be the first to give in and call on the third. His own loss, he knew, was unlikely at this stage but very much a possibility. He’d already begun to prepare an exit strategy in case it came to that. The Hedge Wizard wrapped strings of sorcery around her limbs to keep them working, so naturally Wekesa inserted a little gift into the spell and turned them into angry snakes. He felt sorcery take hold of his own limbs and almost smiled. Ah, a transfer. Classic Stygian work. He did not bother to craft an answer: the third layer of the wards on his person prevented the spell from ever going through.
“Have you ever considered,” Warlock said, “that there is no right trick? That for all the gifts the Heavens have dropped onto your lap you could die here tonight?”
The blue pane of light hit her head-on, sending her stumbling to the ground, but her limbs shapeshifted into some sort of lycanthropic derivative by the looks of the hair. Interesting, considering under most recorded instances lycanthropy was a curse and not a natural state of being.
“They don’t really encourage you to think about consequences, do they?” Wekesa continued blithely. “Your masters, that is. Perhaps you-“
He paused, then chuckled.
“Oh, you crafty child,” he said. “You almost had me there. Almost.”
Hellfire was a drain, usually, but with the Red Skies so close to the boundary it was barely an effort to form them. The smell of brimstone filled the air and the crimson flares devoured the spell she’d formed while he talked. Not one he’d ever seen before, this, though the shape had similarities to Keteran formulas. Cascading of some sort? That would have been very dangerous, if it had it the wards on his body. Instead the hellfire engulfed the girl and she dropped to the ground. Another three heartbeats before she died of it, and he prepared to counter whatever trick she’d use to get away from certain death. That was not, as it turned out, what he should have prepared for. A beam of light hit the downed heroine, and it took Wekesa a heartbeat to parse out the sequence. This particular spell was, in theory, an offensive one. But it had a central sequence in the formula modelled after a miracle, which meant… the hellfire gutted out and the Tyrant grinned, lounging on his floating throne above them.
“I have come to betray you,” the cripple cheerfully said.
“Alas, I am surprised,” Warlock replied sardonically, and snapped his wrist.
The throne exploded and the boy went flying. That, he reflected, had been worth the seven hours of preparation. The Hedge Wizard was back on her feet. If they thought two of them would give them an advantage, they were sorely mistaken. They’d only given him more to work with. There was a soft sound at his back and the villain turned. An empty bottle of wine had been dropped on the ground. The Wandering Bard, if he had to venture a guess. The heroine cursed and shot him a glare.
“I’ll be back,” she said, and wings sprouted from her back.
She shouldn’t have taken the time to talk, he mused. He finished the spell before she’d risen more than a foot into the air, and the sliver of darkness touched her back. Every wound he’d inflicted with his sorcery tonight reopened and she dropped screaming. The Tyrant was back on his feet and trying something. Dangerous for his age, this one. Another runic stone broke under his grip and the bubble formed before both it and the villain disappeared. He should be stuck in Arcadia for at least a few moments. Things had grown out of control, here. If both enemy factions were on the move and even the Bard had played a hand – and wasn’t it fascinating she would have had the chance to do that even with Assassin after her? – then the others were in danger. Time to wrap this up.
“Reiterate,” the Hedge Wizard croaked out.
Ah, there was the third. Light collected around her body, a different take on the spell from earlier that had reformed her missing body parts. Warlock brought down his hand and the hellfire spear drove through her skull.
“Consequences,” he reminded the dead heroine, and made sure there would not be enough left for a resurrection.
Amadeus was faintly amused at the notion of anyone trying to kill him with a bow when he was a known acquaintance of Ranger. The volley of Light arrows trailed behind him as he ran across the rooftops, splitting tiles and thatching both. An archery-based Name, this one. Warlock had been the one to kill the last Archer, but the green-eyed had tactics to deal with the likes of this. The shadow tendril tossed a brightstick in the White Knight’s face, himself avoiding blinding by pushing a sliver of Name power into his eyes to blind them preventively. A heartbeat later he’d gained his sight back and three swords whistled towards the sides of the hero. Change. Still blind, Hanno batted away the blades with his bare hands and tugged at the length of one. Amadeus immediately cut it, forming a branch from another tendril to catch the falling blade before retracting all of them. Hand to hand fighter, if he was not mistaken. The Levantines were known for those. Black attacked again, eyes sharp. The enemy was shifting between skillsets more slowly, now that he’d gone beyond twenty. Thirty in a night might be his limit, though that was not an assumption to be relied on.
The blow dented his shield, and did not even require the Light to do so. Dangerous. Amadeus tossed the now mostly-useless tool in his opponent’s face and placed his blows. Blade to the ankle, avoided. Blade to armpit, parried bare-handed. The crossbow bolt form the last tendril hit the back of the knee but failed the penetrate. The villain clicked his tongue disapprovingly. That had been almost point-blank, meaning Name power had been at work. He ducked under an open palm that would have collapsed his throat, pivoted around the hero and rammed his blade under his arm. The White Knight danced away but his bare hand was cut by one of the blades coming around. The second should have punched through the back of the knee, Name or not, but the hero deftly stepped atop the blade and flipped away before Black could cut the connection and make him fall. Breathing hard, the White Knight raised both hands above his head and a greatsword of Light coalesced. Change. Not a known quantity, this skillset. There were greatsword wielders among the Lycaonese to the north of Procer, but the Principate was ever thin on Named.
A probe, then. It was worth sacrificing his last corpse for what would be learned. The undead charged out of a ruined house from behind the White Knight and was cut down without a second thought. From too far, Amadeus noted. The greatsword had lengthened. Not something he would be unable to deal with. The Black Knight advanced cautiously, shadows stirring behind him, and the greatsword rose again. The Light flared, and for a heartbeat the shadows he manipulated were lit out of existence. Amadeus did not miss a beat, for he’d been waiting on such a trick since the beginning of this duel. The few heroes he fought more than once all tried it, thinking him crippled without his additional limbs. The moment where White was occupied amplifying the Light, he accelerated and closed the distance. The greatsword came down, longer than before, and when he sidestepped the cut it twisted and turned to a lateral blow. He leapt and his armoured boot landed on the White Knight’s faceplate. The roiling Light had the goblin steel smoking, but he used the man’s head as a stepping stone and leapt again.
By then the shadows had returned to him.
The blade drove itself into the White Knight’s back, piercing a lung before the Light burst out and scrapped it. Unfortunate, though inevitable. He only had so many blades hidden in his shadow, and two thirds were already gone. There was limited space inside, unfortunately, so decisions had to be made about what occupied it and there were tools more versatile than swords at his disposal. The White Knight’s stance adjusted as Amadeus landed fluidly on the ground. Change. Seven heartbeats for the full shift, this time. The hero was overusing his aspect. A single longsword of Light, this time, held in one hand. The villain raised an eyebrow, recognizing the stance from the very recent past. The Lone Swordsman had used it, in Wekesa’s illusory reproductions of the tussle in Summerholm. That had interesting implications. The White Knight was using the skills of Named, then, as he had suspected. William of Greenbury had been largely self-taught, meaning there was no teacher, mundane or otherwise, to draw these skills from. It was quite possible Hanno was limited to heroes as well, dead ones in particular. That this could be done at all set an interesting precedent, one he would have to ask Warlock to look into.
Black let out a long breath. He was beginning to tire as well, though he’d conserved his strength as much as was physically possible. He was no stranger to working through tiredness, and how he would not to compensate for it. The White Knight strode forward at a swift pace and swung. Amadeus stepped out of the blow, circling cautiously. The Lone Swordsman had been heavily dependant on his blade, as he recalled, which was a limitation the one made of Light would only work partially around. Was it worth trading a minor wound for a more severe one? No, that was hurried thinking. The moment he began to bleed the tide began to turn. He feinted to the side and was immediately parried, or would have been if he hadn’t dropped the sword. He twisted to catch it with his other hand and reversed the momentum, but he’d made a mistake. He’d taught Catherine too much, there were similarities in their ways of fighting. And the Lone Swordsman had duelled her several times before dying. The boot caught him on the shoulder and he only barely managed to land in a roll, backing away hurriedly as the other man advanced. He had wondered with the White Knight would rely on the skillset of a relatively green hero.
Hanno was not without cleverness, and unlike his first aspect this one he had fully mastered.
Still, this was an avenue to exploit as well as a weakness. Bringing back to mind the few sparring sessions he’d had with his apprentice before she left to quell the Liesse Rebellion, Amadeus adjusted his angle. Feint to the side, but he let the prompt parry pass him by. The second feint where he pretended to attempt a similar manoeuvre to before, the White Knight ignored and instead darted the sword of Light at his neck. Black caught the wrist and there was a heartbeat where the both of them were going through sets of instincts. The hero acted first, giving in to them and using a counter that would have worked perfectly if Amadeus had been inclined to continue fighting with the same fondness for close range as his student. The punch went wide, for he was already backing away and freeing the wrist. Instead he angled his blade to the side and carved into the White Knight’s throat, the full weight of his body pivoting behind him. Blood sprayed out as he gave ground, closed by a burst of Light. That would have been a kill, on a lesser hero.
The White Knight opened his palm, and there was a silver coin in it. Amadeus let all other distractions fall to the wayside. The coin spun in the air, one side with laurels and the other with crossed swords. It fell back on the palm, swords up.
“Amadeus of the Green Stretch, Black Knight of Praes,” the White Knight said.
The point of the sword went through the roof of his mouth. Amadeus withdrew his bloodied blade and put the full strength of his Name behind the swing, but when he touched the neck it bounced off. Something infinitely larger than him swatted him him down and he was thrown down onto the pavestones. They collapsed around him, the ground shaking. Seraphim. His plate was ripped open and he was bleeding from the eyes and mouth. The White Knight was collapsed as well, a mere five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile.
“Formulaic aspect,” the Wandering Bard said. “You’re a little young to know about those, I suppose. Should have let him finish, Big Guy. You don’t interrupt the words of the Choir of Judgement without a price.”
Black closed his eyes and sought out his surroundings for a corpse to raise. It was deserted of anything, dead or alive. He got on his knees, spewing blood and shaking. She could not intervene directly. If he managed to strike the final blow before the hero recovered, this could still be salvaged. Sinking into his Name he called on the shadows, but they did not heed his will. He’d exhausted all he had simply to survive the blow from the Seraphim, damn them and damn him and damn them all. Creation ripped open in the distance and howling winds spilled out. The Tyrant of Helike fell out, without visible wounds. Amadeus closed his eyes. Solutions. Or a way to turn this into a mutual defeat, should this prove impossible.
“Well isn’t this is a mess, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant grinned. “Your ornery friend with the spells cost me a Wish, but it was worth it to see all this with my own eyes.”
He still had an aspect. His other two were done, but Destroy could still affect the situation even if he could not. Affecting a physical structure? There was a half-collapsed house close enough he might be able to make it collapse onto the White Knight. The backlash from using the aspect without a speck of power to his Name would likely kill him. Alternatives were needed. The Tyrant strolled to the unconscious hero and with a groan slung his arm over his shoulder.
“I’ll just be taking this,” the odd-eyed boy said. “Don’t mind me, carry on.”
“Enemy,” Amadeus croaked. “He is your enemy as well.”
The Tyrant shrugged.
“Why do you think I’m doing this?” he said. “Given long enough you might figure out a way to kill him, and it’s not like this one can do anything about it. Can’t have that, can we?”
He pointed his thumb at the Bard, who waved cheerfully.
“Until next time, Black,” the boy smiled, and dragged the hero away.
For a moment Amadeus considered collapsing the house, but this was mere petulance. With another Named shielding him, it was a guarantee the White Knight would survive. There was a loud crack from the rooftop. The Bard, he saw, had a bag on her knees. There were walnuts inside and she was breaking them open before popping them into her mouth.
“That’s going to cost me, you know,” the Named said casually. “It was supposed to be Hedge, but your Warlock is a fucking terror lemme tell you. Makes the old country proud.”
Nothing good could come of listening to bardic Named, but he did not have the power left to shut down his senses.
“Would you like me to tell you how your friend is going to die?” the Bard asked.
“Bluff,” he said. “Champion does not have the skill or story to handle Captain.”
“She’s not fighting Captain,” the Bard said. “She’s fighting a monster. ‘swhy I picked Champion. The domain, big guy. She was bound to let out the Beast in that.”
The White Knight was finally far enough that his amulet ceased taking effect.
“Warlock,” the green-eyed man said. “The Bard is here. I am incapacitated. Sabah under threat.”
“Amadeus,” his oldest friend’s voice replied. “She’s…”
Black closed his eyes, and that was the only moment of weakness he allowed himself. The grief, the fury, it all went into the box and he closed it shut. All that remained was the cold clarity that was his only remaining safeguard. Green eyes opened, turning to the Bard. She broke another walnut, chewing it loudly.
“You still don’t get the story that made it happen,” she said.
“The caravans,” he said, but did not elaborate.
There was something here he was missing. Pieces to the puzzle.
“You don’t speak Levantine,” the Bard said. “Or you’d know their word for maiden doesn’t have a gender. Meaning’s closer to ‘virgin’.”
Lack of sexual congress alone became the qualifier, if that was true. Every caravan had a single individual leading it, he remembered, men and women of different age and origins. Amadeus did not speak any of three major Levantine dialects, or even the Baalite tradertongue they’d been influenced by. There had been no need, and so many other things he had to learn.
“Monster took the maidens, and repeatedly, so that’s one,” the Wandering Bard said. “Now, I needed a monster-killer and she’s the closest thing we have left to one of those. That’s two.”
He might as well have wielded the blade himself, he thought. He’d killed her one order at a time.
“Third, I needed the monster to be the one attacking,” the Bard continued nonchalantly. “That was the easy one. Love, Amadeus. Love always fucks you over. All I had to do was suggest Champion join White after the wall fell, and your dear friend stepped in.”
It wouldn’t be enough, Amadeus thought. They’d only fought once before, and not on that story. There lacked weight. The old thing wearing a girl’s face smiled, nut cracking in her hand.
“You could say it was a team effort, pulling it off,” she said. “Our little secret, right?”
He did not reply. Engaging her any further could only be to his detriment. Warlock would be coming in all haste.
“I’d say sorry, but you brought this down on yourself,” the Bard said. “I could probably destroy you in full, big guy, but that would take time. And effort. So I’m going to give you advice, instead.”
The Wandering Bard leapt down from the rooftop, half-falling. She came close, kneeling at his side.
“Go home,” she said. “Murder your little friend in the Tower and reign until someone puts a knife in your back. You’re not as good at this game as you thought you were.”
Hatred, Amadeus thought, was pointless. A bias that brought no benefit. And yet.
“But you won’t, will you?” the other Named sighed. “You don’t negotiate.”
She rose back to her feet, brushing away walnut shards.
“I doubt we’ll meet again,” she said. “And fucking Kairos slipped one by me, so I’ll have my hands full.”
The Wandering Bard looked down at him, shoving her hands in her pockets.
“This one feels like a sin, doesn’t it?” she mused. “Remember that, when the gears start turning.”