“If my allies were half as reliable as my enemies, I would have a different moniker.”
– King Henry Fairfax, the Landless, upon being told of the Praesi invasion of Principate-occupied Callow
It went against Iason’s instincts, but Amelia had been right. She had a knack for these things, it came with her Name. They must keep a low profile, at least for now. The sooner they moved out of Dormer and into the countryside – rumour at the market was that large swaths of the south were still patrolled only irregularly by the Legions – the better, but as long as they stayed in the city they had to be quiet. It’d been most a day now since the three of them had left the river barge they’d stowed away on, and they’d split for the afternoon. Lergo had gone to have a look at what the locals called Summer Hill, the mound of melted stone where they said the Black Queen had tricked the Queen of Summer into returning to Arcadia. The Ashuran had whined like a child about having to abandon his flamboyant crimson clothes for something less attention-grabbing, but he’d given in anyways. And made eyes at Amelia all the while, the pretentious twit. The Red Mage had proved he was a force to reckon with in a fight, but Iason had not grown to like him in the months since their band first assembled. The Gallant Bandit herself had gone to find them accommodations for the night, so he’d been charged with obtaining foodstuffs for the journey ahead.
The marketplace in Dormer was thriving, for a city that’d been emptied and set aflame not even a year ago. It was Callowans running the shops and stalls, but there was a gaggle of foreign merchants as well. Iason found it difficult to tell apart the Taghreb and the men of the Free Cities, for they looked much alike in skin and faces, but the black-skinned Soninke stood out starkly. The hero bargained half-heartedly with a peddler for lentils and dried meat, rather certain he got robbed on the exchange. He was paying with silver fidi from Mercantis, one of the few coins no merchant in Calernia refused, and he was not certain how it compared to Imperial coinage. The merchant’s smiling admission he had no scale to compare the weights did little to inspire trust, though the man was unmoved when Iason threatened to seek another peddler. Odd behaviour, from a merchant who could not even afford a stall.
“There,” the peddler said, taking pity on him and giving back a few coppers.
Not a mintage he recognized, Iason noted. It could be worthless for all he knew.
“Don’t look at me like that, son,” the merchant snorted. “That’s from the Royal Mint in Marchford, not Harrow trash like everyone else is trying to offload. Call it my kindness of the day.”
“Callow has a mint?” Iason said in Lower Miezan, surprised. “I thought it used the Tower’s coin.”
“The Bastard Lord had one built,” the peddler told him approvingly. “That’s Taghreb for you. Vicious fuckers one and all, but they’ve a nose for business. Mind you, everyone still takes Praesi mintage. Have to, with all the gold coming south these days.”
“There are a lot of foreigners,” the hero agreed, casting a wary look at a nearby Soninke.
The peddler looked amused.
“You don’t sound like no Callowan, boy,” he said. “Delos?”
“Atalante,” he replied. “My father was, anyway. I was raised west.”
He’d grown to manhood in the principality of Creusens, but admitting as much in this city would have been the act of a fool.
“We got a lot of Wastelanders around nowadays,” the peddler agreed. “Trying to get their hands on grain, you know. Mercantis caught on so the Consortium is gouging them on prices and buying up the reserves in the other cities to drive up the prices. They’re used to this country being the greener pasture.”
“Few of them are smiling,” Iason said, only now noticing.
“That’s ‘cause the Bastard Lord restricted commerce in foodstuffs,” the merchant grinned nastily. “They want more than scraps, they have to get a permit in Laure. The really desperate ones are ruining themselves emptying tavern larders one at a time, but already the court is clamping down on that.”
“That seems like a loss of profit for you all,” Iason said.
“Worth it, to have the crown’s men around when some Wastelanders try to get nasty,” the peddler said, spitting to the side. “Not that there’s been a lot of those. I’ll say this for the Black Queen – since she crucified all those pricks after Second Liesse, Praesi have been stepping real light around here.”
The hero was almost nauseated. They said the villain ruling Callow had nailed hundreds to crosses after slaying her rival, made them grisly ornaments along the road. The merchant should have been appalled, but if anything he sounded grudgingly approving. Iason had never been skilled at hiding his thoughts – it went against his Name to be less than Stalwart in anything he did – and the peddler picked up on it. The man spat to the side again, looking warier now.
“You with the House of Light, son?” he probed.
“A lay brother,” Iason said. “Never took the full vows. I don’t have the disposition for it.”
Full-fledged brothers had to vow pacifism, and it was in his nature to meet injustice sword in hand.
“Didn’t know that was a thing,” the peddler said, but he was mollified.
It wasn’t, not in Callow anyway. The House of Light in Procer tended to consider its equivalent in Callow to be a very… provincial cousin. Prone to eccentricities. That the Order of the White Hand, true anointed paladins, had been allowed to hold lands of its own in the old days was spoken of as impious back home. It was just history, now that the Order had been exterminated, but Iason had a personal interest in the matter. His Name had but few previous incarnations, and most of them had come to be in Callow. The hero did not linger after that, already uncomfortable with how much attention he’d drawn. He hoisted the sack over his shoulder and made his way to the quarter by the docks, where Amelia had said she’d find them an inn. He was wondering how to find her, when she found him instead. The Gallant Brigand was almost as tall as he was, lithe and graceful in a way he could not help but stare at. Dark hair kept in a ponytail was usually covered by a highwayman’s hat, though she’d stashed it away for the sake of discretion, and the notched scar on her cheek somehow only added to her beauty.
“There you are,” Amelia smiled. “Fruitful foray?”
Iason cleared his throat uncomfortably. The cloistered life in Aviliers had not taught him how to deal with beautiful women, and he was always on the backfoot around her. At least Lergo wasn’t there. The Red Mage always seemed to make it worse with his glib and cutting japes. As if the sorcerer himself didn’t hang on her every word.
“I have supplies,” Iason stiffly replied. “Have you secured accommodations?”
Amelia snorted and clapped his shoulder.
“Secured accommodations,” she repeated teasingly. “You need to loosen up, Iason. Though I suppose that would be against type.”
I can be fun, the Stalwart Paladin silently insisted. Just because I can’t set things on fire with a word doesn’t mean I’m a bore. Instead of saying that he ended up chewing on his tongue like a fool, to the woman’s visible amusement.
“Come on,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I found us a place. Be warned, though. It was cheap for a reason.”
Iason frowned when he first saw the inn, as the warning seemed inaccurate. It was not luxurious palace, but it was spacious and swift perusal of the common room revealed it to be scrupulously clean. Perhaps she’d meant the food would be horrid? It hardly be worse than the cooking they’d inflicted on themselves journeying from the countryside to Atalante after forming their band in Nicae. The Gallant – Iason did not like to think of the other part of her Name, no matter how much he liked her – shot him a toothy grin after he set down the sack, and a moment later a loud screaming match began in the kitchen adjoining the common room. The hero grimaced. Lergo strolled in an hour later, still looking put-out at wearing wool instead of blindingly red silk, and claimed at seat at the table where Iason had been sharing a drink with Amelia and failing miserably at small talk. The Red Mage stole his tankard and drank from it, wrinkling his nose at the taste. The sorcerer had been born to one of the high tiers of citizenship in Ashur, he was likely used to much better fare. Everything about him smacked of arrogant privilege, which had not become any less grating with time.
“Had a look at that hill,” Lergo casually said in tradertalk. “That was a serious scrap. If our cousin up north can tangle that hard, we’re in for quite a vigorous dance.”
The cousin up north, they’d taken to calling her to be discreet. Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow. The Squire, some said, though others implied she had another Name yet to be revealed. The breadth of the swirl of rumours around the villain that ruled Callow was staggering, for one so young. Undefeated in battle. She murdered a god to steal his mantle and tricked two others into doom without ever unsheathing her blade. She has more lives than a cat, holds sway over dead and fae alike. Her cohorts, the Woe, had been revealed to the wider world through the infamous massacre they called the Doom of Liesse back home. The Hierophant, a cold madman whose strange sorceries tamed demons and stilled miracles. The Thief, a fallen heroine said to have once stolen an entire fleet and even snatched the sun out of the sky. The Archer, the greatest pupil of the Lady of the Lake who had never lost in single combat. And the last, Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. They said he was unkillable, that he was large as an ogre and his hand of bones could wrest out your soul. The heirs to the Calamities had made a bloody debut, last year. Iason had paid close attention to the rumours, knowing even the slightest hint could make the difference between life and death.
The three of them had come, after all, to kill the Black Queen.
“That might have been the fae, not her,” Amelia whispered in the same language, one of the few they all shared. “Her talent is supposed to be ice, not fire.”
“And what a talent fire can be,” Lergo said, grinning suggestively at the Gallant. “The element of passion, you know.”
Iason’s teeth clenched.
“We’re still on the outskirts,” Amelia said. “We’ll hear more when we go deeper into the country. The south looks like very promising grounds to begin our work.”
They would, to her. The Gallant Brigand had been vague about her activities before joining their band, but Iason had pieced together that she’d made her mark in the wake of the Tyrant of Helike’s armies as they sowed chaos across the Free Cities. The southern parts of Callow were still feeling the aftermath of the last three wars, and so she would be moving on somewhat familiar territory. Robbing the powerful to help the powerless was a worthy cause, even if he disapproved of her methods. Banditry was a sin in the eyes of the Heavens, else why would so many bandit Names be sworn to the Hellgods? They had to delay the conversation after that, for the innkeepers came to offer their service. Callowans both, an old married couple. They offered stew on the house, though the ale was not, and to Iason’s mild irritation lingered afterwards to chat with what seemed to be their only current patrons. Some matters were their own explanation.
“Dormer born and raised, the both of us,” the old man – Albert, as he insisted on being called – told them proudly. “City’s had a rough few years but we’ll get back on our feet, you’ll see.”
“I heard Dormer was part of the Liesse Rebellion,” Amelia said smilingly, “but the damage was all from the fae, I am told?”
“Good Anne dragged us into the mess, it’s true,” the old woman grudgingly admitted. “She cut a deal with the Black Queen after, though, spared us the worse. And she’s moved up in the world since, eh? Governess-General. A balm on everyone’s soul that.”
“Her whelp of a nephew’s governor now,” Albert said. “He did fine getting people out before Summer came, but too many still died. His aunt he is not.”
“That’s not on the boy,” the old woman sharply said. “That’s because a villain is queen. Ma always said that makes you cursed. Just look at the Wasteland.”
“Your mother also said a bowl of cream and bread crumbs would keep the fairies happy, Mary,” the old man mocked. “How’d that go again?”
The three of them sat awkwardly as the old couple argued loudly, Iason deriving some satisfaction form the fact that Lergo looked as uncomfortable as he felt himself.
“I couldn’t help but notice the portraits by the kitchen door,” Amelia intervened. “You have children?”
Gods they had they been lucky to run into her, Iason thought. And not only because looking at her when they trekked through the countryside made the journey a great deal more pleasant. Neither he nor the Red Mage had a way with people.
“Only the one now,” Mary soberly said. “Our youngest died at First Liesse. Them devils summoned by the Diabolist did it.”
“Aye, and the Black Queen killed her dead,” Albert grunted. “She’s a hard one, make no mistake, but these are bad times. Hard is what we need. Even Jehan the Wise hung himself some princes. Seven and one, like in the song.”
“It’s ungodly is what it is,” the old woman barked. “A villain queen? No good will come of it.”
“She was crowned by a Sister all proper, Mary,” the old man insisted. “What more can you ask?”
“Everyone knows the House up north went tame,” she sniffed.
“We’ve heard a lot about the queen, down south,” Iason said. “Some of it was less than pleasant.”
“Never said she was a choir girl,” Albert defended. “But Hells, it’s still better than Procer ain’t it? Kingdom’s back and Praes is playing nice. If the rest of the world would just leave us alone we’d muddle on just fine.”
“He has to say that,” Mary told them. “Lily went and joined the army, the fool girl. Taking orders from an orc calling herself marshal of all things.”
“If the orc pays her taxes and fights at the border, I say she’s welcome here,” the old man said stubbornly. “A whole goblin tribe settled at Marchford and that turned out all right. You have to forgive Mary, she’s a country girl. I’m a learned man, me. Went to Laure once when I was a boy.”
“Not the Laure story again,” the old woman sighed.
Lergo spoke up, sparing them the Laure story, and Iason had never before been so close to feeling fondness for the man.
“We intend on travelling north,” the Red Mage said. “Are the roads safe?”
“Sure, if-” Albert began, but he paused.
In the distance, bells were ringing. Four times, Iason counted.
“Again?” the old man said.
“Last one went straight to the Blessed Isle, made it far inland after,” Mary said. “Guess that was the last of the clever bunch.”
“That’s thrice now,” Albert complained. “Last time it took all day to clean up the docks after. No wonder we never get clients, with all them foreigners mucking up the city.”
He paused, the glanced at the three heroes.
“No offence,” he assured them.
“None taken,” the Gallant Brigand lied. “We’re new to town, so I’m at a bit of a loss. What did the bells mean?”
“Oh, you dears don’t need to worry,” the old woman said. “Just stay indoors, it was the curfew bells. It’ll be foggy out soon anyway.”
“Curfew?” Iason said. “What for?”
“Heroes,” Albert said. “Some must have come. Streets have to be cleared until that’s done with.”
The Stalwart Paladin’s blood ran cold. Already? How could the Empire possibly have known? It hadn’t even been a whole day. The three heroes shared a look and excused themselves to their rooms, telling their hosts of travel weariness, and made council in Iason’s own.
“We can’t stay here,” Amelia began. “We can’t risk putting those two in the middle of a fight between Named.”
“They must have scried us, it’s the only explanation,” the Red Mage whispered. “That shouldn’t be possible, not with the Paladin bearing Heaven’s touch. Unless you screwed up, Iason.”
“I don’t use the touch, mage,” the Paladin coldly replied. “It is there. Always. There is no intent needed.”
“I used to hunt for Helike supply caches, back in the day,” the Gallant Brigand said quietly. “Easy work, good loot. The way I’d find them was by watching the roads the Tyrant’s men used most, then doubling back.”
“I don’t follow,” Iason admitted.
“That is because you’re a sword-waving simpleton,” the Red Mage drawled, and the Paladin resisted the urge to punch that twinkle out of his eye. “The touch, it blocks actual scrying but the spell would still register failure. They moment it did they must have known we were coming, and they tracked us with the same. That’s impressively clever, I’ll admit.”
“Then they might be able to track us to here,” Amelia urgently said. “We need to move now.”
Neither of them argued. Iason left silver by his bed to pay for both the night and the trouble, as his companions grabbed their personal affairs. The Mage took longer, and returned decked in red silks.
“We are trying to be discreet,” the Paladin hissed, his accent thickening.
“Discreet is over,” the man shrugged. “Now is the time for panache.”
“Well, I hope you can run in those,” the Gallant amusedly said, adjusting her hat. “Out the window, boys.”
Heroic work, Iason thought, involved a lot more jumping down windowsills than he’d anticipated. He’d not needed to change, as he’d never taken off the chain mail under his coat and rarely wore a helmet. The Heavens provided armour when he required it. He landed as silently as a man wearing over twenty pounds of steel could, which was not very. The Gallant landed smoothly as a cat, and the Red Mage nearly broke his ankle landing. The Paladin smothered a smile, as it was unkind to take enjoyment from the misfortune of others. However richly deserved.
“Well,” Amelia said, lowering the brim of her hat. “There’s that fog Mary was talking about.”
It’d been late afternoon and the winters in southern Callow were mild this late in the year – spring would not come for months yet but there was no snow in sight – which made the sudden appearance of thick fog rather jarring. There was nothing natural about this.
“Might I suggest we leave the city before a full legion comes after us?” Lergo suggested drily. “Blood doesn’t show on these robes but it does smell.”
“Keep an eye out,” Iason said, for the first since he’d come ashore back in his element. “As an opening move, this only makes sense if only our vision is restricted.”
Otherwise the enemy was simply helping them escape. As the moved quietly through the streets, the Paladin wondered how many of the Woe would have come. The full five? That might be more than they could handle. Two or three, he was confident they could deal with. Four they could flee. Five with a sorcerer as reportedly powerful as the Hierophant among them would be too many. Best that they never encounter the enemy at all, and disappear into the countryside where they would be harder to track. Amelia suddenly stopped.
“We’re being watched,” the Gallant Brigand said.
He did not question her: she has an aspect relating to this, though he knew not the word. Iason could see no one so he sharpened his hearing. Scuttling above, on the rooftops.
“Goblin,” he said, and unsheathed his longsword. “Roof to the left.”
The Gallant followed suit with her sabre and the Red Mage fell behind them. Eyes watching above, Iason saw a leering green face pop out from thatching. Yellow eyes shone bright in the fog, above a grin of needle-like fangs.
“Don’t you think it was a little racist to assume I was a goblin?” the creature mused. “Plenty of people use rooftops, you know. They’re like streets that make it easier to murder.”
The Stalwart Paladin blinked, then opened his mouth. Had he – but the goblin had just said… He closed his mouth.
“You’re quite brave, to seek out three heroes on your own,” the Red Mage said.
“Well, we don’t live old as a rule,” the greenskin said. “But hey, that’s why there’s a lot of us.”
Iason’s hearing was still sharpened and that was why he heard them move. Not one but dozens, and they’d all struck at once. He’d expected crossbows but instead what came tumbling down was balls of clay with lit fuses, and without missing a beat he called on the protection of the Heavens. A halo of light wreathed him and his allies as well, but he’d miscalculated. The munitions exploded into blinding brightness with a deafening clap – he had to blink it away and force the Light into his eyes. The Red Mage cursed, and when Iason’s vision returned there was no sign of any goblins. All they had left behind was a red trail of burning powder in the sky. They marked our position, he thought. He glanced at the others. Amelia had covered her eyes with the brim of her hat, but by the looks of it the noise had still affected her.
“Run,” he said, not sure how loud he was being.
The roar of the munitions was still sounding in his ears. The others understood him well enough to obey, and they headed for the closets gate without even the pretence of discretion. Dormer had turned into a ghost town, every door and window closed. In the fog, he could barely make out the shape of the houses unless he empowered his eyes with his Name. It began clearing out close to the gate. Whoever had done this, he thought, must have relied on the river to provide the water. Lucky them, they’d chosen the gate opposite. Providence. The gate was unguarded, and that was when he began doubting his last thought. No, he mused. Not unguarded. There were two people by the guardhouse. One seated on a bench, the other standing by it. Iason squinted. It was a woman, seated. Tan skin and high cheekbones, long hair in a practical leather binding behind her. Her legs were crossed and she was pulling at a pipe. The man at her side was almost inhumanly slender, a whip of a body in a long black tunic. At his hip was a sheathless sword, and one of his eyes was covered by a dark silken blindfold with silvery lettering. It was the hair that attracted his attention, though. It must have been a trick of the light, but for an instant it had seemed made of crow’s feathers.
“Iason,” the Gallant Brigand urgently said. “The woman’s cloak.”
He looked. It must have once been entirely black, he thought, but it was no longer. A patchwork of colourful strips had been woven over it, and even some matter he did not recognized. It looked like rippling wind. The collar, though, what laid woven into it felt like a sin. That made this the Mantle of Woe, and the woman wearing it…
“Catherine Foundling,” he said. “The Black Queen.”
The woman spewed out a stream of smoke, still sitting. Iason met her eyes. For one of her reputation, he was distinctly unimpressed. There was no pressure there, only a young woman looking vaguely exhausted.
“Afternoon,” the Black Queen said. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Callow, folks. Evidently you know who I am, so that saves us some tediousness.”
“Your trap will avail you nothing,” Iason said harshly.
“This isn’t a trap,” the villain mused. “Not unless you make it one. If I wanted you dead, Robber wouldn’t have tumbled you a warning shot. It would have been goblinfire instead of brightsticks, and already it’d all be over but the screaming.”
“How civilized of you,” the Gallant Brigand said, her tone slightly mocking. “Since we’re all being so friendly, might I venture as to ask what you want from us?”
The Black Queen spewed out a stream of smoke, studying them calmly.
“That’s my line,” she said. “Setting aside that you passed the border illegally, having three heavily-armed Named wandering the countryside without so much as a by-your-leave just isn’t in the cards. What are you here for?”
“Introductions first,” the Gallant demurred. “I am-“
“Amelia of Helike, daughter of Lasarn,” the one-eyed man at her side smiled, teeth like ivory. “You are known to us.”
Amelia blanched. The way he’d spokeen that last sentence… Iason was not one to frighten easily, yet it had sent a shiver down his spine.
“That’s Larat,” the Black Queen cheerfully said. “Or at least that’s what I call him. It pisses him off a lot, but why even have a treacherous lieutenant if you’re not going to taunt them at every opportunity?”
“We have come to study the aftermath of the fae incursion, Your Majesty,” Lergo said. “Purely academic curiosity in my part, I assure you.”
The lie sat ill with Iason, but he kept his mouth shut. Informing the woman that they had come to slay her and release Callow from her grasp would lead to a struggle he was not certain they could win. Not yet. The Black Queen pulled at her pipe, then sighed.
“Red Mage, was it?” she said. “A warning for you. Of all the shit decisions you’ve made today, trying to lie to me is close to the top of the list. Don’t do it again. I take it you’re here to kill me, then.”
It was a little insulting, Iason thought, that she sounded more irritated than threatened by that deduction. Arrogance was ever the downfall of Evil, he reminded himself. She spewed out another mouthful of smoke.
“Then what?” she asked.
“Pardon,” Lergo replied, sounding baffled.
“You kill me, glory to the Heavens and all that good stuff,” she waved. “Then what?”
“The people of Callow are freed,” Iason said. “They rise against the wicked Praesi and-“
“This,” the Black Queen sighed as she interrupted, “is why I have to keep killing you people. Look, I understand better than anyone how easy it is to start thinking you can just stab your way out of a mess, but you haven’t thought this through. Putting my head on a pike just makes a different sort of mess.”
“That’s what tyrants always say,” the Gallant quietly said. “That they may be a plague, but the world would be worse without them. You have to lance a wound for it to be able heal.”
“You’re not lancing anything, kid,” the villain said. “You’re just bleeding the body. And it’s been a long time since anyone thought that helped. Look, I’m not barring Callow to heroes. You want to wander the south healing and rebuilding? Fine by me. You get a Legion escort, but they’ll stay out of your way. You want to have a swing at Black? Not my problem, but you’ll have to get to the Vales through Procer. You want to actually have a look at the fae marks, or even Liesse? I’ll need oaths as assurance, but we can deal. This doesn’t have to be a fight.”
“But,” she murmured. “Since I know what you’re thinking. Larat.”
The one-eyed man’s grin broadened, and power rippled across the street. The air cooled, and Iason almost summoned his Heavenly Armaments in answer. There was might in that creature’s frame, and nothing human about it.
“We’ve been tracking you since Mercantis,” the Queen said. “We’ve had long enough we could have hit you still in the river. Do you know why you were allowed to make shore?”
“I assume some form of sadism is involved,” the Red Made drawled.
“In a manner of speaking,” the villain smiled. “See, I learned from a man that would have had you corpses at the bottom of the Hwaerte before you even noticed. But I’m trying, I guess, not to be him. Or worse.”
Slowly she rose to her feet, and emptied the pipe before stewing it away in her cloak. The smile and the easy manners went away. Idly she rested her hand on the pommel of her sword, and Iason felt fear. There was iron in that woman’s gaze that had not been there before.
“You’ve seen I’m prepared,” Catherine Foundling said. “You’ve seen I have the muscle to put you down. But I didn’t put on the fancy hat to kill kids. So please, I beg you – don’t make me.”
It sounded genuine enough that the Paladin hesitated. The sentiment that they were kids to her was insulting, but what lay behind it… The wiles of devils are many and varied. Trust not the words of those sworn to Below, for deception is their truest tongue. He would not balk at his duty.
“Go home,” the Black Queen said tiredly. “Or Hells, join up if you want to. I’ll find something for you to do, this country’s still half a wreck and it’s not like I don’t take in heroes. But if you force this, it only ends one way. And once we start, I might not be able to stop.”
“You are a blight upon Creation,” the Stalwart Paladin said, almost regretfully. “An instrument of the Hellgods, carrying within the seed of damnation. May the Heavens grant you mercy in the afterlife, but for the sake of Creation you must be removed from this earthly shell.”
“What he said,” the Gallant Brigand agreed. “Only, you know, less priestly. Fuck you and your offer and your entire evil legions.”
“Yes yes, praise the Heavens and much defiance. That aside, out of curiosity,” the Red Mage smirked, “has that speech ever actually worked?”
The Black Queen breathed out, and in a moment she went from tired girl only a few years older than them to razor-sharp killer. It was in the eyes, in the way she held herself. She had the poise of someone used to taking lives.
“No,” she said. “But I’ll try with the next batch anyway. Sixth time’s the charm, right?”
The one-eyed creature laughed.
“They never listen,” he said, sounding pleased. “I do believe offering mercy might actually make it worse. Fascinating.”
Six. Iason felt a trickle of fear go down his spine. How many heroes had she killed? No, it didn’t matter. She only needed to fail once. The hero folded into himself, and let his aspect reverberate within his soul. Arm. Plate of pure Light formed around him, a full suit topped by a winged helmet. His sword shone radiantly and as Lergo began to incant he advanced. The villain did not move, eyes still on him, but the Paladin felt the shifting currents of power. To their side a gate opened out of thin air, and as he glanced there Iason saw two things. The first was two score goblins, bright-eyed and eager in their furs as they occupied a frozen wasteland. The second was six scorpion-like contraptions of wood and metal, and as that sunk in they began to fire. The bolt hit him in the chest, then two others, yet it might as well have been children throwing mud at a stone wall. The steel bent, the wood shattered and he barely even felt the impact. He had no moment to spare enjoying the small victory, however. The Red Mage was most endangered by this sort of assault. Though gifted with a particularly strong talent for destruction, Lergo had confessed he was incapable of even the most basic of shieldings. The sorcerer managed to save his own hide by turning to ash the handful of projectiles aimed at him, but he would not be able to keep this up forever.
The Stalwart Paladin moved between his companion and the volleys of steel-tipped bolts, letting them strike impotently at the armaments bestowed upon him by the Heavens. The Gallant had been the most unruffled among them, dancing out of the way and somehow even parrying a projectile with a casual flick of the wrist.
“I’ll break the machines,” Iason said, and his voice thundered. “Keep the villains busy.”
Though the Black Queen had caught them by surprise, she’d been arrogant. With only one creature and mundane soldiers at her disposal, it might be feasible to slay her here and now. To free Callow of tyranny within a day of coming to its shore would be a grand deed, worthy of hymns and remembrance. Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before the fled. It would be the beginning of a Pattern of Three, he suspected, and that would greatly enhance the swiftness of their growth. Indeed, the might even encounter another hero after they fled. Providence had a way of rewarding the righteous. To Iason’s mild irritation, the goblins manning the siege engines proved passingly clever. Seeing that their bolts had no effect on his armour as he advanced, they turned their fire to his companions. Some sorcery must be behind the machines, he thought, for there could be no other explanation for how swiftly they kept firing. No matter. He was quick enough on his feet that only the odd bolt made it through. Clever as the goblins were, they’d not been quite clever enough to flee his approach.
Iason crossed the gate into the frozen landscape and raised his sword the moment he felt the bite of urgency near his shoulder. It was not quite enough, the angle too awkward. A blade shattered his pauldron of Light and ripped into the chain mail below, though not deep enough to wound, and the Paladin breathed in sharply. A tall orc decked in burnt plate discarded a broken axe and spun out another, face grim. The hand of bare bones gave away the name of the greenskin that had struck him. The orc spat to the side.
“Masego will be pissed,” he said. “Half a day’s work and it kept for a single blow. At least you’re not reforming.”
Iason grit his teeth. The Heavenly Armaments did have that weakness – they could only be used once day, and could not be forged anew while in use.
“You will not land another,” the Paladin promised.
The orc’s eyes were on his mail, not his blade, and they narrowed. The heraldry, Iason realized. It’d been made visible by the rip.
“Half-House, le Miroir Verdant,” the greenskin said in lightly accented Chantant. “Proceran, then. Good, I’ve been meaning to try one of you out before the big Names come.”
“I am the Stalwart Paladin,” Iason thundered. “And you will lose more than a hand today, orc.”
“I’m the Adjutant,” Hakram Deadhand replied, baring his teeth. “I had a light meal this morning.”
They both moved with the swiftness of Named, tangling halfway there. Iason managed to hammer down on the orc’s wrist, loosening the greenskin’s grip on the axe, but the dead hand closed around his throat. The bones blackened as the Light furiously bit into them, but they did not give and Iason struggled in vain before the Adjutant tossed him back out the portal. He landed in a crouch, shifting his weight as his fighting-master had taught him. The orc rolled his shoulders and strolled out of the gate unhurriedly.
“Iason,” the Gallant screamed.
It felt like being kicked by a horse. The entire left side of his armaments shattered under the blow and as he flew he felt the Black Queen following with impossible swiftness. She arrived at the end of the arc before he did, snatching his foot and smashing him into the pavement. He saw her change her grip as she stood above him, ready to plunge down the point into his throat even as he tried to rise, but salvation came in time: a streak of red lightning had the villain ducking away in a hurry. The sorcerer had come through, thank the Gods. The Paladin got to his feet and took a swift look around as the Black Queen circled him slowly. Deadhand was now tangling with Amelia, and though he’d yet to land one of his brutal blows she was on the backfoot. Looking for an opening, he decided. It was not a bad match. The other conflict was. Lergo was weaving spells into one another admirably, flame and lightning and hexes flowing into the next seamlessly, but the one-eyed fae was toying with him. There were three cuts on the Red Mage’s cheek, perfectly parallel and scabbed black. Iason suspected they might have been killing blows, if the fae wished it so. He needed to lose Foundling soon and come to the sorcerer’s aid, or he was going to get run through when the creature bored of the game. This was no time to hold back.
“Smite,” the Stalwart Paladin said.
The Black Queen attempted to avoid the aspect, but she was too slow. Light came down from above a perfect a perfect heptagon of seven feet on every stroke. For a moment the shape seemed almost solid, the wrath of the Heavens shattering the paving stones and even the ground beneath. A heartbeat later it was gone, leaving the half-kneeling form of a smoking villain. Her face was a tapestry of burned flesh, her hair gone up in smoke and her bare hands crushed. Her eyes were unseeing, struck blind by righteous retribution. The villain spat out a gob of black blood that steamed and ate away at the earth.
“You have William beat when it comes to impact,” the woman noted, her voice a croak yet somehow cold.
She rose, and as she did the air cooled and her flesh knitted back. She shed the burnt skin like a snake, and her pupils broke as fresh ones forced themselves forward.
“As a general rule, striking aspects tend to go one of two ways,” the Black Queen said, voice empty of emotion. “Broad but shallow, small but deep. I would not have walked off Swing so easily. A nice trick, but ultimately-“
“Smite,” he interrupted.
She was standing again, which meant resuming the fight was not longer unchivalrous. There was a heartbeat between the Light striking and the word being spoken, and it was enough for her to evade.
“Ultimately still a trick,” she finished, as the smiting struck the empty pavement.
Only once more could he call on the aspect. He would have to get in close, prevent her form evading and… No, he thought. He was being baited. She was keeping him busy while her minions killed the others. Though it grated, Iason turned and without a word ran for the Red Mage.
“Hakram,” the Black Queen said, voice echoing strangely. “Switch.”
The orc moved away from Amelia without missing a beat, barrelling towards the Paladin immediately. Form the corner of his eye he saw the human villain pass them both in a streak, blade sounding against the Gallant Brigand’s own. Lergo cried out in pain, his incantation interrupted, and Iason’s fingers clenched around his sword. It was not all lost, he thought. The Adjutant was much slower than his mistress. The axehead came whistling down but Iason’s blade shifted angle, the combination of years of training and what he’d learned since coming into his Name. The Heavens-touched steel cut straight through the haft of wood and into the steel pauldron behind it. The orc began to retreat, and then the Paladin spoke.
Light filled his vision, but it was no harm to him. He felt the orc’s body flinch but somehow it remained standing. Though the greenskin’s footing was shot, so was his, and aside from smoking skin and amour the orc seemed unharmed when the aspect ebbed. And aspect of his own had been used, the Paladin suspected. There was the taste of power in the air. It was not enough. Iason ripped his blade free and smashed the guard in the orc’s face, knocking him clear of his feet. His Light-girded boot came down and broke the villain’s knee. That should cripple him for the rest of the fight. The greenskin struck out with a knife but Iason fluidly stepped back. Leaf Stirred By Hand, his master had called it, and when the knife withdrew he stepped forward following it. The blade whistled down, the orc bared his fangs and another blade knocked the killing blow away.
“You will not have him,” the Black Queen said, something sharp and heavy in her tone.
She frowned, and shook her head. Something in her eyes thawed measurably as she grimaced.
“Ever grasping is the tyrant’s lot,” Iason replied in Chantant.
“What’s he saying?” the woman asked. “My Chantant’s shit, and his accent is horrible.”
“He called you a tyrant,” the orc said.
“Wouldn’t be the first,” the Black Queen grimly said, parrying his blow and landing a riposte that failed to break through the Armaments.
He was pushed back, to his fury. Years he had trained for this, gruelling hours spent in the cloister’s courtyard being worked to exhaustion by his fighting-master. He’d learned the Five Ways and the Verdant Stances, been taught how to dismantle the foremost styles of every nation under the Calernian sun. But the Queen wasn’t fighting like a swordswoman. Whatever she had learned, it was no proper swordsmanship. She ignored his feint and pivoted around his back, her elbow hitting his flank and breaking his footing. He pivoted to face her but she’d moved with him and he had to give ground to avoid an oblique blow that would have carved through his throat. Iason gave further ground. Staying close, he would only get caught in her pace. It was then he realized that he could no longer hear the Red Mage fighting. He looked back and saw no sign of Lergo, or of his opponent. The air where they’d been fighting reeked of power and darkness. Gods, this was turning out too much for them. They had not been heroes long enough, none of them even had their full aspects.
“Cut,” the Gallant Brigand coldly announced.
She emerged out of thin air behind the Black Queen, aspect howling as her blade carved clean through the villain’s abdomen. She’d… done it? Then the woman’s silhouette dispersed, and Iason realized they’d been had. Glamour, he realized with a shiver of fear. That was glamour. He rushed forward but it was too late. Amelia almost managed to avoid the blow out of sheer instinct, but goblin steel ripped through her coat and muscles. Her left arm fell down limply, and even as she caught her sabre with the other one the Black Queen caught her by the back of the neck and squeezed. There was a sickening crack, and just like that Amelia was dead. There was not so much as a flicker of emotion on the villain’s face, he saw. Not a speck of humanity to be found. Just ice and hatred wearing a body. Her silhouette blurred for what must not even have been a heartbeat, and Iason pushed through the grief. Glamour again, and he could not see through it. He stepped back warily, and the impotence of it burned. Sharpening his ears found nothing, she was stepping lightly and her illusion advancing towards him. He needed to see, he needed to find her, he needed to…
Power rippled through the Paladin’s frame washing him clear of tiredness and pain and the weakness of the flesh. This was more than mere sight, he knew instinctively. It would tell truth from lies, read the movements of the flesh before they came to fruition. He could see her now, wreathed in mirror-like mist. She was stalking his side, eyes patient.
“Enough,” he snarled. “You will not get away with this, butcher.”
He caught her by surprise, striking without warning. He glimpsed the parry before it ever rose, flicked his blade to the side and cut into her shoulder. She wove back, her footing swift, but his Light-gauntleted hand struck her across the mouth. He headbutted his winged helmet but came off the loser for it, forehead bleeding as he returned in kind and she rocked back in pain. His fist caught her in the stomach and she gasped. His blade shone radiantly as it scored a deep cut across her upper leg, but somehow the cutting of her muscles was not enough to make her fall. Fingers coated in frost and shadow slugged into his cheek, shattering the Light, and the two of them fell to the ground struggling. Using his weight to come atop her, he caught her wrist and dug his finger into her eye. She bit him, down to the bloody bone, and he snatched his hand back before he could lose the finger. She struggled under him but he was much heavier, and his fist broke her chin before she could wrestle away his arm. He’d felt teeth loosen. Forcing her arm aside his fingers closed around her throat, and suddenly she smiled.
The knife went ripped through the mail as Adjutant struck into his flank. Iason was thrown off the Black Queen by hundreds of pounds of angry orc, as as he hit the ground the world slowed. Light wreathed him, but still soft fingers touched his forehead. The Stalwart Paladin closed his eyes, an opened them in an endless spread of pale blankness.
You will bleed, a chorus of voices whispered into his ear. You will suffer. You will weep, yet find no relief. Though your soul is young and your weight feeble, you will take on the burden of many. Iason, son of Idrim, We offer you the misery of Endurance. We would embrace you one of our own, to blood and tears and bitter end. Iason Brightsword, Son of Tears, will you withstand horror so that others do not?
“Yes,” Iason whispered into the void.
The blankness rippled, and he was no longer alone. Two silhouettes with burning eyes and unspeakable shapes stood before him. And another, between him and them.
“There will be none of that,” Catherine Foundling sharply said.
You do not belong here.
The weight of their wrath was crushing, almost enough that Iason fell to his knees and it was not him they gaze upon in anger. Yet the Black Queen stood undaunted, cloaked in ice and shadows. And more. There was a silhouette riding her back, arms laced around her shoulders. A beautiful and dark-skinned woman.
“I already told the Hashmallim to walk it off,” she said. “Am I really going to have to revisit this with every fucking Choir?”
Arrogance. Your doom comes.
“Might be,” she said. “But not today, and not through this weak an instrument. Fuck off, you bottom feeders. This one’s been claimed fair and square.”
“You can’t fight angels,” Iason hissed.
“Who said anything about fighting them?” Catherine Foundling said, and then she rammed a knife in his belly.
The blankness fled, Iason’s eyes opened and the last thing he ever felt was a spike of frost going through his forehead.