“One hundred and eighty-seven: should one of your trusted companions be taken hostage at knife-point, check for the following features – cliff, moat, or any kind of sharp drop. Should one be nearby, you may assume the situation will solve itself momentarily.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
Heavy footsteps and the scent of Hell, yet no ominous breathing. I got to see the reason for the absence the moment our opponent came into sight. The devil, for there was no denying it was that, stood a good twenty feet tall. Broad as cart, if not more, it had a shape almost human if humans could be of that size. It wore no clothes, its sculpted body made of something neither stone nor metal but evoking both, and in its hands it held a long mace that looked like a massive rib. Granite? Hard to tell, in the dark. Still, it was the head that drew attention or more precisely the lack thereof. Atop the devil’s neck was only a polished surface, like someone had ripped off the head of a marble statue, and from the sides sprouted the ram horns I’d glimpsed earlier. Well, there went my usual plan. Decapitation did the trick with most everything, if you were thorough enough. For all that the devil lacked eyes it had no trouble keeping track of us, and for something its size it was damnably nimble. Also strong, I thought with a wince as the rib-mace smashed against the ground with a deafening sound.
Yeah, I wasn’t getting hit by that if I could help it. I no longer had the Lone Swordsman’s hero juice that would allow me to get back up afterwards.
It should have been, I thought, a difficult scrap. But it wasn’t, because the two of us were moving seamlessly. It wasn’t like with Adjutant, who was a limb of my own, or the way it had when the Woe had… come together in Dormer. Black was just always in the right place, like he had a supernatural sense telling him where that was. The devil leaned forward to smash down the mace on me and my teacher was right behind, edge of his sword flashing with shadow as he carved a scar on the thing’s back. It screamed mouthlessly and turned, swinging wildly, but he was exactly half a step out of the arc. Its free hand reach for Black, fingers creaking as they moved, but then I was free to act and my blade went into the back of its knee. Not, sadly, deep enough to push through. But enough it turned screaming again, and when it did Black hacked halfway through its mace-wielding wrist. The devil went wild and the both of us backed away smoothly, one behind it and one before, neither of us out even slightly out of breath.
There was a game of shatranj being played here, with every step and every swing, and the devil was losing it. Much as I would have liked to say I was a player unto myself, I wasn’t. I was just… part of the dance. Another moving part my teacher worked with as he orchestrated the death of a creature that could easily have torn its way through a full company of heavies without taking a wound. Sometimes I forgot that, for all that I’d mostly seen Black scheme and lead men, his Name was that of a killer of heroes. To be the Black Knight was to be the right hand of the Dread Emperor, the slayer of the anointed champions of the Heavens. There was no searing light or shouted righteousness, down here, but there was death. Being painted on a canvas of flesh, one stroke at a time. I enjoyed being part of that as much as I hated it. Following the lead of a professional was… soothing, and the victory being arranged would be sweet. But it’d been some time since I’d had anyone above me in the pecking order on the battlefield. The feel of it was like fly that wouldn’t quit buzzing around me.
When the devil emerged from the wild frenzy that had seize it, we advanced again. It leapt back, over my head, but nimble or not it was heavy. A twist of will had a spear of frost ramming into its side, doing little but breaking skin but slamming it against the side of the corridor. Absence, that was what the boundary looked like, but whatever it was it was not lightly shaken: the devil smashed against it and fell scrabbling to its feet. Neither of us intended to give it the breathing room. The rib-mace skidded against the ground, moving so blindingly fast it was a blur, but I leaned into my instincts – I felt the breath of death under my feet, cloak rustling, but already I was rolling forward and beneath its guard. There was a sound like stone breaking and the devil half-collapsed forward. I stepped to the side of the falling torso and hacked at its sides, for lack of better target, frost touching the wounds I made and never leaving. I smelled a kill.
“Withdraw,” Black said.
I moved without hesitation. The creature did not attack, and I got a look at why: while I’d been distracting it in the front, my teacher had slipped behind and deepened the wound in the back of the knee until the entirely limb was cut off. The devil, struggling to keep us at bay with its mace, roughly tried to force back its severed parts together. To my distaste, I saw the unearthly material began to mend itself. Of course Akua had some kind of self-healing abomination, which also shrugged off my power in anything but strong concentration and who was fucking twenty feet tall as a gatekeeper. Her ego probably didn’t allow her to be any random asshole, she had to be Queen Asshole, reigning queen of all the assholes in the world.
“Now,” Black said, when the stitch job was half-done.
The devil screamed again, and I was close enough to feel the sound coming from its entire body. It was the thing itself screaming, and the act that nothing to do with mouth or throat. I pressed forward without flinching. I realized what my teacher’s intent had been a moment before it bore fruit. The devil attempted to rise to its feet to fight us but the stitching was not yet complete: the moment it put weight on the limb, the healing broke and it fell down again. Typical Black, I thought. I might have been the kill the thing brawling up close, but it in his eyes the uncertainty was not worth the risk. Instead we’d withdrawn to create another occasion, one for a clean kill. It was the fighting style of a man who’d spent his entire like killing heroes. Knowing the dice would always favour the other side, he’d learned to remove chance from the equation entirely. It was an alien way of killing to me, who tended to double down when things got risky instead. But there’s a reason he’s lived this long when heroes keep taking a swing at his neck, and I’m looking at it.
Frost swept up my sword and I drove the blade into the back of the devil fallen at my feet. From the corner I could see Black cutting through the back of its mace-wielding elbow, motions fluid and not a single one wasted. The devil screamed but it was done. With a last attempt at taking me in hand it tried to rally, but from where my blade had sunk into its flesh ice was spreading inside. The hand never reached me, the limb itself frozen ad I kept pouring Winter’s power into its frame. From the beginning to the end, the fight could not have lasted longer than a quarter hour. Neither of us had taken a single hit, or been in any great danger of dying. There’d be a grand total of two words spoken throughout, no quips or taunts – the absence had been heavy it would have felt like whistling during a sermon to start. I spat to the side, out of breath more for use of my mantle than because of physical tiredness.
There’d been a lot of talk since I became the Squire about the similarities between us, but this… execution had just laid the differences bare for all to see. We both used chaos, but the manner was different. The dark-haired man would wait patiently, put himself in the correct position, and then set fire to the field. He’d then ruthless capitalized on those weaknesses, using chaos as just another tool in his arsenal. Me, though? Chaos followed wherever I went, so I’d made it my home grounds. Learned to drink and breathe that kind of mess, so that when it hit the field I was the only one unhindered. It’d gotten me through two messes in Arcadia, Marchford and Summerholm, but never without a price. On the surface his was of doing things was flatly superior and I still intended to learn from it, but I wasn’t Black. I didn’t have that kind of calculation in me. And though Akua had been full of shit when she’d called him a rat in a maze of traps, she’d touched something true: my teacher’s way only worked so long as he was prepared. It was, in a word, fragile.
I could learn from him without turning in a shoddier version of who he was. I had to, or the fights ahead would cost me a lot more than Nauk.
“Mongowa-umun,” Black said in Mtethwa. “It was a greater devil, though not a famous one. Likely an old Sahelian contract kept secret for a rainy day.”
“She only had one of those left, according to my sources,” I replied. “I expected it to be deeper in the city, to be honest.”
“There will be worse,” Black said, shaking his head. “A host, yes, but that will not be the thrust of her defence. The old breed has always preferred sorcery to armies, in the end. Sorcery comes from a single will, armies have to share victory.”
“Wards,” I said. “But we have a layout of those. Thief saw to that.”
“Two things must you face, when breaking a High Lord,” Black murmured, quoting from one of Terribilis II’s treatises. “Tall and ancient walls, manned by wrath. Then the seat of power, where old devils lie.”
“This isn’t a Wasteland city,” I said. “She didn’t have ten centuries to fill her vaults with every different shade of madness she could think of.”
“It is a manner of thinking, Catherine,” he replied. “Her seat of power, the Ducal Palace, will be where she has invested greatest effort.”
“Frontal assault’s not an option, then,” I grimaced. “Not that I’d seriously considered, given the army in the city and whatnot.”
Pale eyes glanced at me and he nodded.
“Your little surprises,” he said. “Do you have way to contact them?”
“There’s a mage along,” I admitted. “But it’s not like either of us can scry. Akua bailing out of Creation wasn’t part of the plan. Instructions were given before the operation began.”
“I am uncertain what that would result in, if currently carried out,” Black said. “There is a need to account for that liability.”
“You want me to find them?” I said. “I never liked the metaphor, but needle and haystack. And in this case the needle is both murderous and actively hiding.”
“Think, Catherine,” he softly said, “about the fight ahead of us. The shape of it. In the process of that confrontation, can we afford to have a sudden tipping point of unknown timing and effect?”
I grimaced. If this were just me, I’d say yes. I was confident that, whatever came of it, I’d be better at dealing with it than Diabolist. I didn’t care about what actually happened as much as I did what I could make from that. But that wasn’t the way Black worked, and considering he was the mentor in this little jaunt of ours maybe sticking to the safe side was the better notion. I was still wary that he’d told me to leave Adjutant and Archer behind. There were a lot of stories that could spring from the two of us hitting Diabolist’s lair alone, and few ended well for him.
“So I look for them,” I said. “In the trapped horror-city swarming with undead and mages. Gods, you always take me to the worst places.”
“No,” he said. “I have… a notion for their use. Make your way to the Ducal Palace and prepare an approach. Quietly.”
My fingers clenched. I studied his face and found it as inscrutable as ever, pale and calm and seemingly in control.
“You know I’m not great at the courtesies, so you’ll have to forgive if I’m being too blunt,” I said. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
He cocked his head to the side but did not reply. He didn’t seem offended, but then he didn’t seem much of anything at all – I was well aware that the only reason I saw mild curiosity on his face was because he was letting me.
“I went along with this because I thought you had a plan,” I said. “Something that doesn’t end up with you taking a spell for me or dying to free me from some trap. But I have to ask, Black, are you actually trying to die? Because us going off on our own before we pick a fight with Diabolist reeks of you being there in chains when I enter her throne room.”
My tone turned harsh.
“I don’t care if you think you’ve reached the end of the rope,” I bit out. “I’m not going to help you go out in a blaze of futility. Gods Below, this is Akua. She has a magic weapon and a fortress of doom, but you’ve taught me since the moment I became a claimant that the story she began only ends one way. This isn’t just foolish, it’s actively detrimental to the Empire. I don’t care if you’re Named, we’re on the eve of war with the Principate – now is not the time to start sacrificing our best generals.”
I was panting by the end of it, fear and anger having bled out into my voice. I hated how vulnerable I’d sounded, even if I’d scrupulously avoided making this personal.
“If you are quite finished?” Black calmly asked, and I grunted in agreement. “Good. You misunderstand me. I’ve no intention of dying today, Catherine, though it is certainly possible regardless. You have not seen my full hand, so to speak.”
“You know better than that,” I said. “Tricks going against the current don’t stick. It makes it seem like you have a chance for the moment, but then Creation fucks you anyway because it’s a very large machine and you’re a very small grain of sand.”
“Of this,” he replied, “I am aware. And yet I would proceed.”
It was tempting to ask him what had him so sure he’d make it out, but even if there’d been a guarantee Akua wasn’t listening in – which there wasn’t – I didn’t believe he would have told me. Black was more pile of secrets than man, sometimes, and he did not share those without good reason. My fear, even for him, did not qualify.
“This is what you’d say,” I murmured, “if you were trying to force a succession on me.”
“Yes,” he acknowledged serenely.
“And you know how to fool the Name tricks for lying,” I said.
He’d been the one to teach them to me, after all.
“I do,” he agreed.
“But you want me to believe you anyway,” I finished.
He inclined his head, conceding the point.
“A leap of faith,” the Black Knight said, and for some reason he sounded amused.
I’d learned to recognize pivots, to feel the weight of their touch on my life. I’d come a long way since first hearing the word, Juniper telling me of it under the stars months after I’d made my first choice that mattered. Not a Choice, no, not the way the Book of All Things spoke of it, but perhaps something touching the facet of that greater concept. In the collection of decisions and acts that made up a Name, the stuff of it, some mattered more than others. This? This was not one. I breathed out and sharpened my mind but there was no fulcrum to be found. No sense that scales could be shifted. Was it because he was being truthful, that my wariness was unfounded? Or is it because he has already made a choice of his own, and it has long been out of my hands? I could not keep a man who sought death from it, I knew. Much less one as able as my teacher.
The part of me that was Catherine Foundling yet not, the girl I was and had been but seen through the darkened ice that was Winter and my Name, crept up my spine inexorably. It told me that if this was unacceptable, I should force my will upon it. Brand his soul with a queen’s decree, that he would struggle for life whatever the costs. But that whispering thing met pale green eyes, so calm and measured, and it faltered. It would be fair, it insisted. Once, in Summerholm, he had robbed me of my own will before swinging nooses. Though that debt had grown muddled by the ways we had intertwined since, it would stand so long as it was not repaid. I was Callowan, after all, even now. We were a people of long grudges. I forced the set of ugly instincts down. Warlock had not been wrong, to call me other. I wondered if all the villains I’d jeered at in the old stories, called fools for not thinking it through, had started out like me. Bargain after bargain, one desperate compromise after another until you hardly recognized the creature looking back at you in the mirror. Damnation never felt like damnation until it was too late, did it? I forced myself to be Catherine Foundling and no one else, the coldness in my veins slowly receding.
“You told me once, that you thought of martyrdom as an act of cowardice,” I said. “Symbolic vanity.”
“And I stand by those words,” Black said.
I closed my eyes and breathed out.
“Don’t you dare make me grieve you,” I whispered.
The sentiment passed, and my eyes opened. I found his matching mine, brown and green and neither giving ground.
“Into the breach we go, Black Knight,” I said.
“Into the breach, Squire,” he softly agreed.