“And so my reign ends as it began, with fewer allies than stab wounds.”
– Alleged last words of Dread Emperor Pernicious, the Imperiled
“Tell me about those fences,” I said.
Hierophant had gained back a few pounds, enough that his thinned frame looked full again. How he’d managed that on army rations I had no idea, but the mystery was not a fresh one: he’d gone through both the Rebellion and the Arcadian Campaign without losing weight. I’d been half-convinced that it was a self-perception anchored deep enough that his Name enforced it, until he’d wasted away in the Observatory. He’d still come a long way from the bespectacled boy I’d once known. These days he looked, well, dangerous. There might have been little muscle to his frame, but he stood tall – taller than me, but then who didn’t? – and the long trinket-woven braids going down his back leant him a certain panache. The black eye cloth covering his glass eyes matched the permanently dishevelled black robes that were the only thing he bothered to wear anymore, not that he’d even been prone to indulging in fashionable clothes. The power he now so casually wielded clung to him even when unused, half-felt wisps of sorcery never quite gone. Masego had been perhaps the most destructive of my companions even back when he’d been the Apprentice, but he’d rarely seemed anything but awkward and a little pedantic when he wasn’t casting. Now, though? He looked like the kind of sorcerer you didn’t walk away from fighting. It suited him.
“A lecture on the nature of priestly power is out of the question, I suppose,” the dark-skinned man sighed.
“Ask me again when an army isn’t marching towards us,” I said.
“That’s almost never,” he muttered under his breath. “Very well. Though weaker – diluted, according to some theories – than the Light we have seen heroes wield, the essential nature of priest miracles is the same. That is the stuff these fences were made of.”
“Can it kill soldiers?” I asked.
“No,” he shook his head. “As a reflection of oaths taken, the miracle should not be able to hurt anything living.”
Well, that was something. From the way the fences had cut straight through hooks and rope, I’d have to assume it could wreck armour and fortifications if they hit at the right angle. That was… problematic. We’d raised the palisades in the first place because we needed them as an equalizer for crusader numbers. If they could just cut them down at will, that measure was gone.
“Next time the priests try the fences, can you just hit them directly to interrupt?” I asked.
Reluctantly, the mage shook his head.
“Mass sorcery at great distance needs a scrying tangent to be aimed properly,” he said. “Unless it is fired blindly. Priests, as you well now, disrupt scrying.”
So, unless Malanza blundered by putting all her priests in our field of vision and clustered together smothering the fences in the crib wasn’t an option. This just kept getting better, didn’t it?
“Then we need to have an immediate answer ready for when they do appear,” I said flatly. “I’ll need you with me for the brawl, so the mage lines will have to handle it.”
I flicked a questioning glance at him at that, inviting him to pass judgement. I heard his left eye twist inside his skull towards me, but he did not reply. Right, subtle cues. Not his strength.
“Can they handle it?” I asked.
“They can cast the Ripper without me,” Masego agreed, and elaborated when my eyebrow rose. “The red light constructs we used for the second exchange.”
“That’s…” I sighed. “I need a little more than that, Masego. Would wards work?”
“Against miracles, they are mostly useless,” Hierophant noted. “The spectrums are too different, there is little overlap. We would have a great deal more success targeting their mages.”
“Priests wouldn’t screw with that?” I frowned.
“Unlikely,” he said. “Remember the precision they formed those shields with, and at such distance. That cannot be obtained without scrying or other means of relayed direct sight. Having priests among them would make that impossible, implying the mages stand alone. I’ll add that whoever designed that strategy has a keen understanding of all forces involved, which is quite rare even among Praesi. Rather impressive.”
So either they had a very skilled wizard on the other side, or the Grey Pilgrim had contributed to Malanza’s battle plans. I hoped it was the latter, because the enemy had enough advantages already without having someone even remotely in Masego’s league to field.
“Order them to target the mages first,” I finally said. “The fences will be trouble enough on their own, we can’t afford for wizards to give them additional staying power. Inform Juniper’s staff I gave the order, too, I don’t want them in the dark.”
The blind man nodded, idly tracing a circle of silver light in the air with a fingertip and inserting a scrying spell within. I looked on in interest for a moment, since that was definitely a new trick. I’d been under the impression there needed to be a physical anchor for scrying, but apparently Hierophant had figured out a cheat. I left him to it, leaning my elbows against the top of the palisade. The two of us were on a wooden walkway, between two rising slopes where Pickler’s repeating scorpions would be pushed up when the enemy got close enough. We had thirty of those overall, a massive amount of siege weaponry even by Legion standards. It meant we were light on combat sappers, since those same soldiers had to attend the engines instead, but sharpers and charges weren’t going to win us this battle. Not against fifty thousand hero-led Procerans. And, speaking of the devils. The crusader host had lumbered forward, its three infantry waves advancing slowly as the cavalry wings retreated to cover their flanks. In front of the first wave, though, the same seven silhouettes I’d glimpsed earlier were pulling ahead. Heroes. Three sword and board, I noted. Men and woman. Another I recognized from a previous fight, the same priest who’d engaged me as backup for the Saint. No sign of Two Knives or the red-robed mage, but I knew better than to assume a vicious crippling had been enough to keep the heroine I’d mangled out of the fight.
Hopefully she’d already had all three of her aspects, because if she hadn’t she’d likely popped one out since designed to screw me over. Clearing out the heroes that had come into Callow over the winter had taught me that a hero having an undefined aspect just meant that the Heavens had the means to teach their hatchet men a trick to counter one of my own. They were rarely subtle about it, too, which was kind of insulting. It would have been polite to be less obvious in their attempts to stack the fight for their side. Of the last remaining three heroes, I recognized another. The man with the hammer I’d ignored when riding with the Hunt. The other two were unknowns: one muscly, barefooted woman with a staff that could mean she was either a sort of priest or fighter. And a boy that could not have been older than sixteen, with a greatsword propped over his shoulder that was nearly as tall as he was. And didn’t wear a helmet, because of course he fucking didn’t.
“It is done,” Masego said, coming to stand by my side again.
I nodded slowly.
“You remember our training?” I asked.
“Healers die first,” he recited dutifully. “Then practitioners, then I must constrain the enemy to ease your task or prevent outside intervention.”
“It doesn’t look like they have a mage with them, but that just means they’re holding the man back in reserve,” I said. “Watch for that. And if the Saint of Swords ever tries to close distance with you…”
“Flee,” he completed. “I must never let her be closer than ninety feet.”
“And that’s the conservative estimate,” I grunted. “She didn’t even use an aspect to smack me around, Masego. She starts getting serious, don’t think in victory terms. Escape and containment, while we gather massive enough a response to force her back.”
“You sound sceptical of our ability to kill her,” Hierophant noted, sounding surprise.
My fingers clenched.
“I am,” I admitted. “We’re good, Zeze. Better than good. But her and the Pilgrim? They have decades of experience and accumulated power on us, and their Gods aren’t shy about putting a finger to the scale. Don’t think of it as us tumbling Summer again, because against Summer we had levers and rules. We’re the green heroes taking a swing at your father and Black, in this story. We get cocky for even a moment and…”
I did not elaborate.
“Heads, pikes, the usual,” Masego said. “I shall endeavour prudence.”
We stayed in comfortable silence after that, watching the enemy advance.
“I think that I dislike them,” he finally said, after a long moment. “These crusaders.”
“Well, they are at war with us,” I said.
The mage shrugged.
“So were Summer and Akua Sahelian, yet I never could must much antipathy,” Masego said. “Even towards the Exiled Prince and his mercenaries. They were only creatures acting as their nature demanded, and that is a blameless thing.”
“Is it really?” I murmured. “Just because something comes naturally to you doesn’t make it right.”
“A very Callowan view,” Hierophant said. “Your people seek to overlay Creation with a notion of objective morality, which always struck me as rather absurd. If the teachings of any of the Gods were fully correct, Creation would not exist at all. It is, after all, a debate.”
“The Gods can say whatever they like,” I muttered. “The truest thing Black ever said to me was that, in the end, only we are responsible for our choices. Taking marching orders from Above or Below is just abdicating the rights your own life. The Book of All Things has this lovely little verse about that, you know. Choice. But is it really that if the only two answers are already picked out for you?”
“Free will,” Masego smiled. “You always did obsess over that. I’m not certain such a thing can truly exist, Catherine, not in a world that was created.”
“You’re the one who wants to open up Creation to see how it works,” I pointed out. “When you were in a fugue, after becoming Hierophant, you said something I still remember. The godhead is a trick of perspective.”
“I believe it still,” he admitted. “Now more than ever, as I have seen what became of you. How Winter’s mantle alienated you from mortal existence. To think as a God, I suspect, is to be a God.”
“And you’ll try to get there,” I said. “Seems meaningless, if it’s not your choice.”
“Perhaps I was simply meant to attempt it,” Masego mused. “Because it is my nature to do so.”
“Does it really matter?” I asked. “Whether or not that was writ in you from the start. All we can do is act.”
“Perhaps not,” he murmured. “And so I find myself disliking these crusaders.”
“They killed a lot of my men,” I said quietly, fingers forming a fist. “And we’re only just getting started.”
“Death is death,” Masego dismissed. “But the way you carry yourself now, as if they put stones on your shoulder? This I hold against them.”
I bumped my hip against his side affectionately, then leant against his shoulder. He allowed it without comment, which was as close as he’d ever come to openly returning the affection. I’d never quite get him, would I? How in the same sentence he could display both kindness and utter apathy.
“It’s going to be a long war,” I whispered.
“And we will win it,” Hierophant said with bedrock certainty.
“And what has you so sure of that?”
He laughed quietly.
“Perhaps it is simply my nature,” he said. “Go now, Catherine. Go and follow your own.”
I moved away. Closing my eyes, I breathed in and out. Seven heroes, huh? Time to see if we could thin that herd a bit.
Opening my eyes, I unsheathed my sword and leapt down.
When fighting a group heroic Named, Black had once told me, two manners of adversaries could be found. The first was a proper heroic band. Should that be the case, coordination and weaving of skill should be expected. Against a band, either dispose of the healer first or place an instantly lethal blow against the leader figure. That would allow me to either inflict attrition or break coherence. The second kind of adversary was a mere grouping of heroes. No leader, no teamwork beyond the obvious, limited coordination. Rarer, my teacher had assessed. Mostly seen in large scale continental wars or when an overwhelmingly powerful villain emerges, like Triumphant or the Dead King. I was neither the most dreadful of empresses nor the ancient abomination that lurked within Keter, but here I was anyway. Fighting seven heroes as the host of Procer advanced behind them. They had been ordered to be be prudent, I grasped. Three advanced towards me: one sword and board, the war hammer and the greatsword. Behind them stood the barefoot staff-wielder, and further back the last two with shields were flanking the healer. This isn’t about power, I thought. Power is the crutch of Named. Clarity and skill will win ever time.
“I don’t suppose,” I said, “that we’ll have a round of introductions?”
The hammer-wielder chuckled.
“What worth are those to the dead?” he replied.
“That,” I said, “will make for a very ironic tombstone.”
I let them strike first. The pair with the large weapons went for the flanks as the shield-bearer slowed to box me in. Eyes on him, I let my senses bloom. No Winter, just the inherent abilities that came with my body being a fucking construct. The mantle would remain inert as long as possible, since I was pretty sure the real reason the Saint and the Pilgrim had yet to show was that they were trying to bait out a Winter trance so I wouldn’t think of retreat when they did arrive. The hammer went for my legs, and not even a heartbeat later the greatsword whistled towards my torso. Board arcs both, that they could readjust if I went forward. I did not. The thing with large weapons was that, once you’d committed to a blow, there was a heartbeat where it was very difficult to move. Where the muscles were busy dragging that large chunk of steel around. I moved towards the greatsword, adjusting to the arc and ducking under at the last moment. The boy wielding it grunted, shifted his footing and swung backward at the height of my hips. Without missing a beat I slid under, letting a hammer blow pass through the air where I’d been, and in a crouch passed behind the hero as my blade whipped out. His greaves did not cover the back of his leg. I rose smoothly from the slide as he was forced to kneel down, his tendons cleanly cut. Light bloomed inside the wound.
There was a heartbeat where I could have thrust the tip of my sword through the unprotected back of his neck, but I knew better. The sword and board man was already rushing me, shield angled up as he swung his blade. I did not parry, instead throwing myself on the shield and rolling over it, landing behind him. It threw his footing, and when the hammer-wielder tried to whack me I smoothly kicked the back of the the shield-wielder’s knee and pushed his back. The hammer struck him in the shoulder, shattering steel like it was chalk. A curse, a scream, but I had more important matters to deal with. The first reserve was about to cut into the dance. The barefoot woman was stalking towards me, centre of mass supernaturally steady as she did. Ugh. Not a caster or a monk, then, a brawler. Wood or not, if that staff hit me I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it. Light bloomed, and the shield-wielder’s broken shoulder snapped back into place. Without looking, I could feel all the moving parts. Hammer man was rushing my back, weapon already hoisted. Greatsword boy was going around to my left, warier now that he’d had a taste. And the one with the staff was smiling serenely as she advanced. I spat to the side.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s have another go.”
I waited until sorcery bloomed in the distance to move. A whirlwind of flame erupted around the healer and his bodyguards, though before my view was blocked I saw light flare on the shield of one of the heroes. No kill there, but it should keep them busy for a bit. Masego was only getting started anyway. Hammer-wielder struck first. I knew the angle of it without looking and half-stepped out of the arc, but the man laughed.
“Broaden,” he said.
The war hammer tripled in size, and there was no avoiding all of that. My shoulder was clipped and it fucked with my footing, keeping me in place just long enough for the greatsword boy to strike.
“Pierce,” a woman’s voice spoke from behind me.
Power howled. Ah, they were trying to bury me through concentrated might. Shame they’d not trained together sufficiently. It was a tricky thing, to keep myself in the way of both the thrusting staff point and the greatsword until the last moment. A handhold of ice formed just above my free hand I used it to hoist my whole body up, letting the golden-wreathed wooden staff impact the greatsword. It broke like it was made of porcelain, but I didn’t get to enjoy that for long. The hammer-wielder was still on my ass, smashing down with his oversized chunk of metal as if the weight hadn’t changed along with the size. I dropped the handhold, and the fall bought me a heartbeat as the swing followed me down. It was enough. I rolled to the side as the ground shook and chunks of wet soil went up in the air. The staff-wielder’s naked foot caught me in my armoured chin but I felt the godsdamned steel bend under the impact as it sent me rolling. Fuck. That was one was dangerous, not because she was more competent but because she was quicker and quick was what my survival depended on.
The storm of fire winked out as I got back on my feet, all four heroes in the fray rushing me. A glance told me the healer and his protectors were completely untouched, but a moment later spikes of lightning began hammering down on their position one after another and just like that we were back in business. I watched my enemies approach, their angles and their speeds. Greatsword boy, I noted with amusement, was wielding the remaining half of his weapon like some sort of oversized cleaver. He didn’t look all that happy about it. I circled slightly to the right, putting the hammer man between myself and the staff-wielder. And that meant… Ah, there you are. Sword and board feinted high and I took him up on it. Even as he flicked his blade down towards my throat, I turned my parry into a swing towards the side of his neck. His shield went up, and that killed his field of vision. Greatsword hero had to get close, now that he’d lost his reach, and it was not his specialty. I flicked to the side and caught his extended wrist, twisting his sharply so he was forced to stand in the way of sword and board’s attack.
“Resist,” the boy hissed out.
Light spread across him in the blink of an eye and I dropped him before it could touch my fingers. The other hero’s blade bounced off unceremoniously. While the younger one tried to pivot so he was facing me again, I followed his movement smoothly and lunged at sword and board’s throat while he withdrew. The shield came to knock away the blade again, but that hadn’t been what he needed to watch out for. My wrist flicked, a knife dropped into my armoured palm and I rammed it through his eye from the open angle. Behind him I heard the hammer-wielder curse, since he didn’t have a clear shot at me. Even as the hero I’d knifed dropped and began twitching death throes, my ears flicked. I hastily backpedalled as the staff-wielder leapt over the fight, landing where my shoulders had been a moment before. The wood whipped out, and my hasty parry was poorly angled. It went straight through my guard, denting my plate and tossing me away for the second time. Well, at least one was down and the healer still busy. Unless he could – no, I wasn’t even going to finish that thought. I dragged myself upright and smiled at the barefoot woman.
“Round three?” I offered.
Her staff rose. I almost missed it, because it wasn’t flashy. It was just a low ripple, a murmur of power. But my senses were no longer a mortal’s, so my eyes flicked to the hero I’d killed. At his side knelt an old man in grey robes, who gently took out the knife. He then passed a hand over the bloodied face, murmuring a prayer. The hero’s eyes opened and he let out a ragged gasp. There was no longer any wound on his face. The Grey Pilgrim rose to his feet gingerly, and offered me a rueful smile.
“Round three,” he agreed.