“When the abyss stares back, wave. Offer refreshments. Being impolite to the abyss is never a good idea.”
-Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed
“Oh, come on,” I complained. “I know I don’t have a lot of room to argue about healing, but that knife was tickling the back of his skull. Even I wouldn’t walk that off so easily, and my body is basically lies and mirrors.”
There was some shuffling from the opposition, either because of the reminder I’d just killed one of their crew or because grievances at how fucking ridiculous their powers were weren’t what they’d been expecting. If they’d been waiting for despair, they were out of luck. Not that I was particularly pleased my work had been literally waved away by the Pilgrim, but that the heroes would be almost absurdly hard to put down wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Heavens had already thrown their second-raters at me and I’d chewed straight through them over winter. They were done fucking around.
“You could still surrender,” the Grey Pilgrim offered.
Instead I sighed and tapped the side of my helmet. The sliver of power was enough to activate the dormant rune.
“Spell formula stable,” Masego said. “No divine interference.”
“Confirmed resurrection,” I said. “Pilgrim’s come out to play.”
Thief had warned me that last-moment rescues were his specialty so it wasn’t coming out of the blue, though after actually landing that blow I’d expected the hero to actually stay down afterwards. At least the first part was going more or less according to plan. Smacking around the greenhorns some had forced one of the real monsters to intervene before I dug a little too deep and Winter took the helm. I almost felt like shivering at the idea of facing the Grey Pilgrim when in a state of mind where monologues felt like a good idea. Akua might have been right that playing it up for Creation added some hurt to the swings, but there was a reason I was wearing her as a cloak accessory instead of the other way around.
“Noted,” Hierophant replied. “First contingency beginning.”
“Skip straight to second,” I grunted. “I think we underestimated how much trouble the old man would be.”
Which was a Hells of a thing to say, considering we’d planned for him being in the same wheelhouse as Warlock. But if I was reading this right, swinging his miracle dick around wasn’t the Pilgrim’s game. He was more a metaphorical full hand on the scales than the kind of Named that tossed around burning mountains. And that’s only eight out of twelve accounted for, I thought. Saint and at least one mage are still waiting in the wings.
“Understood,” Hierophant said. “Sunrise Final is-”
Power flared, and his words cut out. I glanced at the Grey Pilgrim, whose staff was wreathed in light.
“Rude,” I said. “You could have let him finish. Regardless, I’m reconsidering my stance on single combat. Theoretically, if I agree, do I get to pick my opponent?”
I met the stare of the man I’d stabbed and winked on the same side my knife had gone through. He flinched.
“She is temporizing while her ally prepares his strike,” the Grey Pilgrim told the other heroes. “Prepare yourselves, children. After that blow is weathered is the moment to strike.”
Gods, but I hated fighting smart opponents. Banter would have kept William and his crew busy for a few minutes, at least. It didn’t matter, in the end, because I hadn’t spent the last year busying myself sorely with the affairs of rule. While they’d been assembling their armies and heroes, I’d been training the Woe. And the one amongst them I’d spent most time on was Masego, hammering in the basics of battle that he’d once ignored in favour of simply smashing everything in sight with sorcery. The first thing I’d taught him? A well-worn adage from Theodosius the Unconquered himself. Swiftness is the lifeblood of war. Before the heroes could further prepare, Hierophant struck. Dawn rose from a sun unknown to Creation, the terrible heart of Summer shining down on the cluster of heroes. Even from where I stood, the heat was overwhelming. Wind picked up even as the Named before me winked out of sight, swallowed by scorching light. The Princess of High Noon had been one of our most vicious enemies to deal with, but we had gained much from her defeat: even this pale imitation of her power made mockery of the kind of sorcery we usually called on.
Within the blaze, a star was born. Shining atop the Grey Pilgrim’s staff as he stood unruffled, his loose robes untouched by wind or heat.
“As there was first light, there will be last,” the old man said. “Under radiant star was the first of mankind born, and it will shine long after our time is past. Transient we, yet unbowed by the passing. I refuse your verdict, usher of mysteries.”
With a thunderous clap, the blaze was parted. A corridor opened, leading straight to me, and the heroes rushed down. I rolled my shoulder. Half the knockout punch was delivered, I was my responsibility to take care of the second half. The barefoot staff-wielder was first across, blindingly fast. Behind came the usual triumvirate: greatsword, war hammer, sword and board. Not the same as before, for the latter. Apparently coming that close to dying had shaken the man, because it was now another. The sorcery came down around me, too close to a ward for comfort. I grimaced. I’d have to suffer through, at least until the time to withdraw came. Stance wide, I raised my guard and waited for the first of the hunting hounds. She thrust high, towards my throat. Batted aside, but she was better with her weapon than I was with mine – a spin was all it took for her to be smashing down at my pauldron. I took it. The steel shattered like clay, but the impact wasn’t strong enough to screw with my own blow. It carved a wound across her cheek, narrowly missing the nose. I got in close to sucker punch her belly, but she parried the blow and I was forced to step back to avoid having my ribcage caved in. Light bloomed on her cheek, the healer’s work.
It healed nothing.
Masego had fought demons at Second Liesse. One of them had been a demon of Order, what Praesi called a Beast of Hierarchy. Their essence, as I understood it, was a perversion of laws. Hierophant had learned to mimic that, to a a very limited extent. Inside my killing grounds one law had been established: Light had no effect. The barefoot woman withdrew before I could exploit her surprise, damnably well-trained, and then I had to deal with the second wave. Greatsword – what was left of that weapon, anyway – went for the left side. Hammer for the right, the fresh sword and board keeping me boxed in. I almost smiled. They’d had a limited amount of training together and it was showing: that made it the second time they were trying that tactic on me. Last time I’d gone for one of the sides, and they weren’t idiots: they were expecting as much. Instead I barrelled forward. The hero’s shield bashed forward to keep me in place for the others to hit, but they’d learned the wrong lesson from the last time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t break their formation, just that I hadn’t chosen to. My armoured fist hit the shield and it dented, the man wielding it crying in pain as it broke his fingers behind it. It was a good opening to slice his throat, but the other two were at my back so there was no time. I ran into him, the two of us falling to the ground as weapons whistled behind me.
Instinct led me to throw myself to the side instead of wrestling on the ground. It saved my life. Summer’s dawn had not only been broken by the Pilgrim, it had been wielded: he shaped it into a beam and threw it at me. His aim was perfectly angled, enough that it didn’t touch sword and board when he stayed on the ground. Behind me, earth exploded in desiccated chunks. Time was running out: I couldn’t engage four heroes and the old man simultaneously, that’d just get me killed. I’d have to get aggressive then.
“They damaged the Light,” the barefoot woman said in heavily accented Lower Miezan. “Careful.”
It was the right move, telling her comrades healing mistakes was no longer an option. It was also the wrong one, because for a heartbeat they were surprised. I shot back towards the boy with the wrecked greatsword, ducking under a swing and catching the wrist. Hammer-wielder would have smacked me away, aiming for my hips, but a flex of the legs had me putting my feet on the boy’s chest while the hammer passed under me. For a heartbeat I was vulnerable, and that had the staff-wielder on my ass. Not quick enough, for once, I thought. My thighs tightened, and using the boy’s own chest as a counterweight I ripped his arm off. There was a spray of blood and an anguished scream as I fell into a roll, the staff smashing down where I’d been a heartbeat before. Left with a bleeding arm wielding the remains of a greatsword in my free hand, I threw it in the hammer-wielder’s face before he could aim another strike. He was horrified enough to take a hand off the hammer to push it aside, and that was a mistake. I landed the roll on my feet, angled my stance and smoothly rose. My blade thrust in an upwards diagonal into his throat. He opened his mouth, trying to gurgle out a word – aspect, probably – but I smacked the pommel and the sword went straight through his spine. It was an uglier death than a clean decapitation.
“Enough,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
He pointed his staff at me and a star came to life. The beam hit a pane of force three heartbeats before it would have incinerated me, both of them exploding deafeningly. Gods bless Hierophant. Sword and board was getting back on his feet, greatsword boy still screaming about his missing arm – seriously, what a wimp, I lost limbs all the time and you didn’t hear me yelling about it – and staff-wielder was… back on me. Godsdamnit. I threw myself to the side, swiped at her feet and got treated to a kick in the face for it. While I was rocking back she flowed into a thrust at my throat. Ah, experience. She’d gone for that too often, I’d expected it this time. I caught the tip of the staff with my hand, feeling the steel give and the palm bones break, but I kept my grip on it while I slashed at her throat and she tried to withdraw for a parry. Blood spilled on the ground. Two down, though it was anybody’s guess for how long.
Masego’s miracle vanished. So did my sword, my hand up to the wrist and the armour over it. Fuck. I backpedalled hastily as the Saint entered the fray.
“Aspect already?” I said.
My hand formed again, though much slower than it should have. And it remained ice instead of looking like flesh. That was a problem.
“Your little mage’s trick was impressive,” the Saint of Swords said. “But time to wrap this up, if we want it over before sundown.”
The lack of sword was more a problem than the severed limb, ice or not. A flick of the wrist had a knife falling into my palm, but that was rather cold comfort against this particular monster.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ve been thinking on how to beat you anyway, Saint.”
The Grey Pilgrim, apparently uninterested in banter, sent another fucking star at me. Hierophant, bless his soul, split it in four and forced it to shoot in four different directions.
“Have you?” the old woman drawled. “This ought to be interesting.”
I could not help but notice none of the heroes I’d put down were getting the resurrection treatment. Was it just comprehensive healing at the last moment, then? Too little to go on to be sure.
“One swing,” I said. “If you can take that, I’m probably out of luck.”
The heroine laughed.
“Well,” she grinned. “Give it your best shot.”
Ice formed a sword blade out of my knife as I shifted my grip. Steadying my stance, I allowed the power of Winter to gather in me. Motes of blue emanated from my frame. To my surprise, the Saint actually bothered to get into a stance of her own. Huh, she was taking me seriously. That was kind of flattering.
“Welp,” I said, and run away.
I legged it as fast as I could, which was very considering my mantle. They really must have taken me for a complete idiot, if they’d thought I’d stick around to fight a crew of heroes and the two old beasts. I heard the air howl behind me as the heroine cussed me out in Chantant, leaping onto a platform of shade to get out of the way. I tapped the side of my helmet as I leapt back down, running as fast as I could towards the relative safety of the palisade.
“Masego,” I said. “I need you to-“
“Dodge,” he screamed through the spell.
I threw myself to the side, and idly reflected that the smoking wound in the ground to my left could easily have been my corpse. Lovely.
“Mage lines on her,” I continued. “Artillery too. Gods, everything we can throw.”
The sharp tang of lightning filled the air as what must have been no less than thirty feet behind me exploded in a screaming storm. I did not look back.
“She just ran through that,” Hierophant said through the spell, sounding somewhat offended by the notion.
Engaging the heroes far away from the fortifications had seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was perhaps coming to realize it might have been a tactical mistake. The air howled again and I leapt onto an angled platform, immediately leaping onto another to remain above ground. Where there was now a hole. Shit. A handful of Pickler’s engines began firing, but I wasn’t holding my breath for scorpion bolts stopping that one. I heard the screaming wind of another strike coming my way and shaped a platform, but it was immediately hit by a beam of light. Fucking Pilgrim. I had to reach for Winter and slap down half a ton of ice behind me, not that it stopped the Saint for more than a heartbeat. I gave part of my attention to the little bundle in the back of my head that was Zombie, ordering her to take flight and guiding her towards me.
“I’m not hearing her anymore,” I said through the link.
“Put wards around her,” Masego replied stiffly. “Can’t talk, she’s cutting them as fast as-“
The spell cut out again. Fucking Pilgrim. My damnably short legs devoured the remaining yards as quickly as they could. Seriously, you’d think Winter would have the decency to give me another few inches when rebuilding my body from scratch. Fine. I’d cope. I should get there without – don’t you fucking dare blow it now, Foundling. Naturally, the Heavens rewarded my hubris by a neat little box of yellow opaque shields appearing around me. No rescue was incoming from my mage lines: the moment those had appeared, I’d felt sorcery bloom in the distance and shoot towards enemy lines. I was regretting the tactical decision of aiming my casters at the enemy’s, right about now. I opened the floodgates, let Winter course through my veins and smashed through the shield in front of me the exact samemoment the Saint of Swords scythed through the one at my back.
“Seriously, what does it take to put you down?” I called out.
“More than you’ve got,” the old woman hissed.
I was on the move before I even began speaking, but not quite fast enough. I lost my left leg up to my knee before I could dodge, though by the time I came out of a roll it had formed again. Fuck, I was digging into Winter way more than I’d wanted to this early in the fight. We’d have to use our trick as soon as I got back, even if that made it less effective than it could be. I leapt up onto a platform, a beam of light hitting a pane of force that blew them both up again a heartbeat later. I decided then and there Masego was getting a raise. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering I wasn’t paying him. The Saint carved through the platform, and my other leg that still had armour on it, but I was already in motion and I landed on Zombie’s saddle. Awkwardly enough I almost fell, which would have been a very humiliating way to die, but my mount flew up and finally we made it out of the Saint’s range. For now, anyway. Already she was cutting the sky to run up that same cut.
“Masego,” I said, tapping the side of my helmet. “Get all our godsdamned mages to hit the target I’m marking.”
There was no reply, because the spell was cut – fucking Pilgrim – so I’d have to hope he heard me. Weaving glamour into a glaring red arrow pointing at the Saint even as she moved, I guided Zombie into a sharply angled descent towards the palisade. Darkness formed into an orb above the Saint, and a heartbeat later a smaller beam shot out of it to hit the location I was indicating. To my vocal disgust, she somehow parried the fucking darkness. Gods Below, what was it going to take? After scorpions reoriented to fire on her, the Saint finally withdrew. I knew better than to believe that would be for long. She’d be back with the first wave of crusaders, which shouldn’t be long. I’d been a little too busy fighting for my life to notice, but enemy archers had gotten close enough to the palisade to begin firing and the infantry wasn’t far behind them. Zombie landed at Masego’s side and I got off, slapping her rump as thanks for saving my own. She whinnied, which I definitely hadn’t told her to do, and smugly trotted away.
It was telling that, at this point in my life, even my undead horse was sassing me.
“Hey, Zeze,” I panted. “We having fun yet?”
“I’ve contained demons with the Ivory Globe,” he replied, panting as well. “Demons, Catherine. She just cut out a door and kicked it open.”
“Yeah, we’re not going to be fighting her head on any time soon,” I snorted. “Not unless we have a mountain range at hand to collapse, anyway.”
His glass eyes flicked down to my bare feet, the movement visible even through cloth.
“What happened to you boots?”
I gestured vaguely backwards.
“Oh, they’re somewhere back there,” I said. “Along with what used to be my legs.”
“One of those days, is it?” he said.
“Well, at least I don’t have to bluff an angel,” I mused. “So there’s that.”
We shared a smile.
“You ever see what happened to the heroes I killed?” I asked.
“They were not resurrected, last I saw,” Masego said. “I suspect what the Grey Pilgrim uses is merely a much more powerful version of priestly healing, not true resurrection. Which seems logical, as that is usually the province of purely healer Named.”
And the old man definitely wasn’t that. His little light show had carried quite the punch. I adjusted my cloak around my shoulders, which did little to hide the fact that I was barefoot in the middle of an active battlefield. The crusaders were bringing ladders to the fore, I saw. If there was ever a time it was now.
“Our turn,” I told Masego.
The blind mage smiled, and a whispered incantation had a water-filled bowl appearing in the palm of his hand. He’d not made it, of course. Materializing something even this small would likely kill him. It’d been brought out of a personal dimension, if I had to guess. Within the carved wooden bowl was dark water, the same that could be found within the pools of the Observatory.
“Let’s hope this works,” I said, glancing at the enemy army. “We’re in the shit otherwise.”
“The formula is-”he began.
I interrupted him by plunging my hand into the water. I went straight through, but did not reach the bottom of the bowl. My eyes fluttered closed as Masego whispered soothingly in the arcane tongue. Absolute positioning, he’d called this. I could feel my mind… expand. Beyond a perspective a mortal could bear, but I was hardly that anymore was I? One spike of painful clarity after another went through my forehead as I saw them whole. Calernia. Arcadia. The juxtaposition of them.
One end, Masego’s voice whispered into my ear.
I knew it well, that place. I’d fought there twice, once against the Duke of Violent Squalls and the second time against the Diabolist. The Fields of Wend. A depthless lake filled with moving glaciers, sprawling as far as my not-eyes could see.
And another, Masego reminded me.
I could see the battlefield before us, from above. The armoured multitudes advancing towards palisades, like toy soldiers on the ground. Devices of wood and metal firing bolts into men, the shining silhouettes advancing with the host. So many of them.
Align, Masego whispered.
And so I did. Gates, I called them, but that was the barest understanding of what they were. There were no words in any tongue I knew to express it, but instinct bridged the gap. In the sky above the army of crusaders, a circle a mile wide opened.
Through it poured a lake atop their heads.