“You can have the throne when I’m done with it, which will be never.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant, initiating the First War of the Dead
Rozala had only felt it once before, throughout the whole of her life. That limpid clarity that was perfect understanding, the crystallization of thought and moment into a single flawless shard. She’d been a child, last time, and her mother had kissed her brow before sending her out of the hall. She’d remained alone on the ancient throne of Aequitain, a cup of poison in hand. In that moment, as the oak doors closed behind her, Rozala Malanza had known that she would take Cordelia Hasenbach’s head or die trying. Known it in a way deeper than she knew her breath or the flow of her blood, felt that certainty become part of her soul. Now, standing at the centre of a storm of shouting men and bared steel, she learned something else.
She had overestimated her own cleverness.
It was a bitter lesson. She’d learned the ways of war since she’d been a young girl, been taught them so deeply her grasp on the Ebb and the Flow had paid for it. There were perhaps a handful of generals in all of Procer that were finer commanders than her, and all had decades of experience that in time she would come to match. The Iron Prince, she’d fancied, had been the only one who could match her own discernment in matters of battle. And Klaus Papenheim was old, stepping closing to death’s threshold every year. As the blue-eyed dead advanced in utter silence, Rozala Malanza realized that the waters of the world were deep and her understanding of them shallow. What had seemed like cleverness days ago might very well cost her this day, this battle, this campaign and perhaps even this crusade.
That the dead would rise was no great surprise. There were reports of the Black Queen having raised them for purpose of war in the past, and though the Army of Callow lacked Wasteland mages it would have been naïve of her to expect complete ignorance of necromancy. And so, even after the Queen of Callow was laid low, Princess Rozala had laid a trap. She’d crafted it carefully, drawing on the knowledge of the Rogue Sorcerer and the Grey Pilgrim. Even if the Black Queen woke, as the Pilgrim had hinted she might should defeat loom tall over the Callowans, Catherine Foundling had limits to the power she could draw. Great workings such as raising a mile of marshlands’ worth of dead would exhaust and weaken her. And so, patiently, she had ordered preparations. Rozala had no lack of priests and Chosen, and if there was one truth to be had about water it was that it could be blessed.
It would have been a beautiful counterstroke. The moment the Black Queen invested her power into the dead, heroes and priests would have gathered together to bless it and the touch of holy would have broken both the host of undead and the villain raising them. Two birds taken with the same stone, turning the Enemy’s arrogance into just demise. And so when the alarms had rung and the call to battle trumpeted, when she first received report that blue-eyed undead were rising from the marsh to attack the camp she had smiled. She might, after all, have just won the battle. Then the priests and the Chosen sallied out, carving an island of Light by the shore until they could finish their holy blessing, and when the ripple of pale shivered across the surface of the water triumph coursed through her veins.
Until the moment she saw the dead were still advancing, and Rozala Malanza was struck by terrible clarity.
The dead were coming. Thousands of them, leashed to the Black Queen’s will. It was possible for her host to successfully defend, even if caught by surprise and still half-asleep. With the Chosen holding the shore until enough soldiers could be assembled, it was possible to weather the storm. Unless the crusaders were forced to defend on two fronts. The Princess of Aequitan swallowed her fear and despair, soothing her mind. It was not yet done. If the Chosen managed to slay the Black Queen, the tide could be turned.
“Gather the men from Orne and Cantal,” Princess Rozala barked, her raised voice stilling the chaos. “We are, I believe, about to be attacked by the Army of Callow.”
She did not look to the shores, where the Named were gathering. The Pilgrim and the Saint would understand the situation without need for her to send a messenger.
It was as all on their shoulders now.
Christophe raised his shield and the undead’s blow glanced off the polished silver. The creatures were slow, for all that the Rogue Sorcerer had been astonished by them. The man’s insistence that they’d been raised through the pure power of Winter instead of a Damned’s fell abilities or even necromancy seemed to make little difference when it came to meeting them on the field. Flicking his wrist, he separated the abomination’s head from its body and the corpse dropped to the ground. The blue eyes winked out a moment later and he settled his stance. The wave was at an end, though already more were rising from the tepid waters. The Mirror Knight feared no Evil, yet he misliked the lay of this battle. His fellow Chosen were too few to hold the whole shore, and there were dangers in standing alone against the horde. Kallia had lost an arm to a dead crusader but a half-hour past, the thing clutching at her body until the munitions within detonated. Goblin devilry, the mark of a degenerate breed. The scuttling greenskins were without honour. The Forsworn Healer had reattached the arm and healed the wound, but the Painted Knife had been shaken. He could not blame her. Unlike him, she’d fought the monster up close. Christophe would never forget the sight of the Black Queen laughingly tearing apart an entire band of heroes almost by herself. She’d ripped out their lives like errant weeds, making a game of their struggle. Antoine, his young Alamans brother-in-arms, was still plagued by nightmares from having his arm torn out and tossed in Mansurin’s face as a distraction.
Yesterday had been almost worse. Christophe had come within a hair’s breadth of death leading the fantassins in their advance, saved only by the intervention of the Regicide. A second time he had felt the Cold Lady’s breath on his neck, when the Callowans had plied wicked sorcery and made river where there was once solid ground. He’d been on the wrong side of it, surrounded by the enemy, and prepared for his last stand when death suddenly bloomed in green flames. The impotence of it had been what stung the worst. Men and monsters he could meet sword in hand, but how did one fight fire? Soldiers he’d spilled blood with, comrades under the Heavens, had died screaming while the power he’d been bestowed by Above proved useless to save anyone. He was the Mirror Knight, granted his armaments by the spirits of the Old Lake after he passed their harsh trials. His power was the reflection of Evil against Evil, the conception of the snake biting its own tail. Yet he’d crawled away shamefully from the blazing green, fished out of the waters by a soldier after almost drowning in his flight. The Enemy had failed to scar his body, but the remembrance of that shame would leave mark on his soul until he drew his last breath.
Not all had been so lucky that dishonour was the price exacted. Mansurin’s second death had taken him beyond even the Grey Pilgrim’s reach.
Christophe chased away the thought and let the light of day wash over him. He drew strength from it, from the Dawn that was one of his aspects. He rose with the morning sun, tiredness and uncertainty leaking out of his body. The Elfin Dames had shaped him in this, granted him the boon that with every dawn his soul would rise – and never retreat. The Mirror Knight had once been a thin and sickly child, but the passing of the years had made him a warrior beyond mortal capacity. It was a slight thing, but every morning saw him a little stronger. A little faster. A little more enduring. Another decade of this, the Regicide had told him, and he would be beyond even her ability to match. Perfect within and without, as the Heavens meant him to be. His strength reaching its peak and a sliver beyond, he waded into the shallow waters and scattered the marching dead. He scythed limbs and shattered skulls, his silver blade breaking steel and the dead flesh beneath. He retreated only when none were left to stand against him, soiled water dripping from his greaves. The whistle caught him by surprise, and he turned so his helm would allow him sight.
“Mirror,” the Vagrant Spear said in broken Tolesian. “We gather. Take head of queen.”
The Arlesite tongue was not his most fluent, but he had made some study of it during his years defending the convent. Sidonia, as the other Chosen insisted they all call her in private, seemed unruffled by the darkness besieging them. Christophe admired this greatly, as she had been returned from the side of the Gods Above for nary an hour. The Pilgrim’s power had breathed life back into her still body so recently, yet she returned to their holy struggle without hesitation. The strength of her resolve was worthy of praise. No all the Grey Pilgrim had returned had been so unflinching in their devotion. There was no trace of daze and confusion in her eyes, only certainty, and the Mirror Knight wrestled with the strange thing that was attraction towards a Levantine. Had his vows not forbidden it… He cleared his throat, cheeks flashing with embarassment.
“Are we to leave our fellow crusaders to stem the tide alone?” he asked.
“Great Elder say, battle won only when queen dead,” she replied. “Strike strong. Avenge dead.”
Reluctantly, the Chosen withdrew. Already crusaders were forming in proper ranks behind him, priests mingling amongst them. Holy flames would not burn as bright as they should against these queer undead, but burn they would regardless. It would have to be enough, until the Black Queen was slain. Christophe saluted the brave soldiers with deep respect, and there was a flicker of guilt within when they responded in kind. He knew this was retreat with purpose, but it still felt wrong to leave them to stand alone. He followed Sidonia, who led him surefooted to the gathering of Chosen further down the shore. The Knight was the last summoned, he saw. The others greeted him, grim but resolute. The Saint of Blades stood apart from the rest, lazily carving through undead without even relying on her Name, while the rest of the Chosen clustered around the Grey Pilgrim.
Some he knew by name, others only by Name. Kallia, face painted in a fresh coat of red as she held her twin knives, stood besides young Antoine. The Blade of Mercy had his greatsword propped up on his shoulder, eyes gleaming white as he drew on the Light to slay his fears. The Forsworn Healer had his eyes closed as he mastered the pain of feeling so many deaths bloom around him. The Silent Guardian, tongue forever stilled by her oaths, kept her shield close even with her sword sheathed. Christophe had shared a shameful escape with her, yesterday, and their eyes met with unspoken understanding. Never again. The Myrmidon, garbed in bronze and faith, was sharing quiet words with the Rogue Sorcerer. Often these two kept to themselves, as the Sorcerer was one of the few Chosen that could speak her obscure Free Cities dialect. This was the sum whole of the Chosen of the Heavens in this blighted place. Mansurin and François had been taken by the green fire, never to grace Creation again. Christophe sheathed his blade and formed the wings against his breastplate, commending the souls of the lost to the Gods. They had served unflinchingly to the end, and deserved endless felicity for it on the Other Side.
“Hear me,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and a ripple went through all of them.
None dared disobey, when the Peregrine spoke. The Mirror Knight felt a thrum of excitement. When had such a gathering of the Good last taken place? Blessed souls were a rarity in the lands of his birth, and like him often served their purpose in isolation. The Tenth Crusade had gathered them all for greater design, and they would see it through. The Heavens will it.
“We go now to make war on the Black Queen,” the old man said. “We were twelve, once, but no longer. Do not forget this. As the Heavens protect us, the Gods Below look well upon her – for she serves their purpose, however unwilling. Victory is not assured, for we now venture in her realm of death and ice.”
The elder Levantine smiled sadly at them.
“There is no glory in this,” he warned them. “Bards may write songs, one day, and chronicles sing your praises, but this is earthly luster. We march in the spirit of sacrifice, to bring light into the dark. Do not look ahead or behind, only to each other. There is no salvation to be found save at the hands your comrades.”
Christophe kept himself from frowning. This was far from the exaltation that he had expected, and suspected they all needed.
“Stand with pride, nonetheless,” the Pilgrim softly said. “You came here of your own will, proving yourself worthy of all that was bestowed upon you. Much has been demanded, yet nothing is promised but duty fulfilled. Stand proud, children. We are the torch taken into the night, and though our flame is passing today we burn bright.”
The Mirror Knight shivered. He felt it, just like the others. The eyes of the Heavens on them. That sacred thing that made them who they were. The trance was broken by a cleared throat, to his vexation.
“All right, kids,” the Saint of Swords said, idly decapitating another undead. “We’re going after the tiger in her own lair, so expect this fight to be a notch above anything you’ve been in before. This is the third dawn, and she’s fresh returned: she will be at her peak and out for blood. Guardian, you’re to cover Forsworn against anything she tosses out.”
The silent woman nodded, edging closer to the healer.
“Myrmidon, you’re sticking by Rogue,” the Saint added. “If she hits you, buy him time to retreat and hold her in place until we can flank.”
The old woman looked upon the rest of them with a hard smile.
“Knife, Vagrant and Blade,” she said. “You’re our knife. Stay out of it until Tariq gives the signal. As for you, Mirror…”
The old woman’s grin had Christophe uneasy, though the light of dawn pushed the failing away soon enough.
“You’re with me,” she said. “We’re claiming the first dance.”
The Chosen nodded gravely. If he could save the lives of others by enduring pain, there was no real choice to be made. His power had granted him the ability to withstand much.
“Steel yourselves,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It begins.”
The old man struck the ground with his staff, and the marsh parted.
Standing tall, the Chosen advanced.
Kallia’s heart grew steadier the longer they walked. The Painted Knife adjusted her stride so would not leave the shorter Vagrant Spear behind, silently hinting the Blade of Mercy should follow suit. The boy was taller than either of them, regardless of his youth. He’d have to be, to lug around that chunk of steel he called a weapon.
“There will be honour to be found today, strife-sister,” Sidonia murmured in Lunara when she caught up. “Worthy strife to offer the Blood.”
Kallia almost rolled her eyes. Alavans. The hill people were a ferocious lot, but they did clutch the old traditions a little too tightly for her tastes. She was from Levante, herself, which was a true great city instead of a remote valley of orchards and cattle fences. No one could deny the people of Alava were great warriors – their city was the home of the Champion’s Blood, after all – but Sidonia wasn’t someone she’d ever be able to discuss the latest songs from faraway Smyrna with, or even the latest couplets from the Hidden Poets of the old city. Still, she found her mood lifted by her fellow Levantine’s eagerness. In times of strife, it was heartening to remember the old ways.
“I’m not of any of the lines, Sidonia,” she reminded her comrade. “Either greater or lesser.”
The records of the Holy Seljun had shown that there had once been a Knife of Night a century past, who shared purpose with her, yet the man had never had children and so had spawned no lesser line to be added to the families of the Blood. Should Kallia ever have children of her own her line would be added to the rolls, but she had never been hungry for that honour. Only the greater lines won more than empty titles and emptier privileges from being recognized, as was only fitting for the descendants – in Blood or Bestowal – of the five heroes that had founded the Dominion.
“We Spears have timid boasts,” the other woman shrugged. “It will be good, to add this strife to our histories. We stand too deep in the shadow of the Champion lines.”
Not so deep, Kallia thought, now that Mansurin had been felled. He’d been born to the thinnest of the lesser Champion lines, but he had been descendent in Blood. His death was worthy of grief, but not unexpected. The descendants of the most fruitful of the founders of Levant were many and often Bestowed, but were known to die as often as they were empowered. None of those lines had ever learned fear, or the virtues of retreat in the face of the Enemy. The Painted Knife still felt awe at the remembrance of her meeting with the Valiant Champion, months ago. The woman was no descendant in Blood, but she had inherited the full Bestowal of her line’s founder. This was a rare thing, considered omen of great strife. Not, Kallia thought, that there was not even greater rarity ahead. Her eyes lingered on the crooked shoulders of the Grey Pilgrim as her hand unconsciously reached for the pouch of red paint at her side. She’d almost drawn the Mark of Mercy out of habit. And, she would admit to herself, wonder. The Great Elder was full inheritor in Blood and Bestowal of the ancient Grey Pilgrim that had been the first Seljun of Levant. Royalty beyond royalty, no matter what lesser kin now held the earthly title in Levante. More than that, he’d saved her life. Years ago, when that Spirit if Vengeance –
“Eyes ahead,” the Blade of Mercy spoke in Chantant. “We are nearing.”
Kallia’s mastery of the Proceran tongue was better than Sidonia’s, but both understood him perfectly. Her instinct was to move closer to the boy, stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the threat, but she could not – he needed room, to swing around that greatsword of his. The Painted Knife flicked a careful glance at the walls of water flanking them on both sides. After the Saint of Swords dispatched the first few undead to wander out effortlessly, the probing assaults had ceased. Their march had been unhindered; the path of mud they strode across leading to a tall glacier ahead. The Levantine stared at the mass of ice, still unused to the sight. These lands were strange ones. She had never seen snow nor ice before crossing the Stairway and glimpsing the tall peaks of the Parish, but now she had seen too much of it for her tastes. All the Bestowed grew tense when the enemy came within sight, save for the Great Elder and the Saint. It settled Kallia’s nerves some to see them so calm. They were a mighty pair, no lesser than the foe ahead. The Black Queen, she saw, was patiently awaiting them.
The Painted Knife’s fingers clenched around the hilt of her blades when she took in the full sight. The glacier had been turned into a blasphemous challenge to the Heavens, sculpted by eldritch power to nestle a great throne upon which the Enemy was seated. No, not seated. She was lounging, almost mockingly, with a long dragonbone pipe in hand. The Black Queen blew out a stream of smoke, eyeing them nonchalantly. The Bestowed slowed, spreading out as the Saint had ordered. Kallia felt Sidonia let out a delighted breath.
“Now that,” the Vagrant Spear murmured, making the Mark of Valor with shaking fingers, “is a worthy foe. Honoured Gods, a thousand singing praises for offering a great struggle to this humble one. Blood spilled on these holy grounds I dedicate to your name, my unworthy life placed on the scales of your judgement.”
Naturally, the Alavans was excited by the sight of this. She should have known better than to expect wariness from a Heavens-maddened lover of war. The Blade of Mercy glanced at them.
“Prayer,” Kallia explained in Chantant.
The boy looked approving. It was probably for the best he did not know about Levantine battle prayers. Whatever chatter had bloomed was whisked out then the Great Elder strode to the forefront, passing even the Saint of the Blades and the Mirror Knight.
“Child,” he said, tone appalled. “What have you done to yourself?”
Sidonia shuffled impatiently. She did not know Lower Miezan, and so had no understanding of the conversation taking place.
“What needed to be done,” the Black Queen calmly replied. “My side doesn’t get to walk away clean, Pilgrim. I see you’ve been tossing around resurrections like they’re godsdamned solstice treats, too. Charming. Not going to have any long-term ramifications at all.”
The monster paused, then leaned forward.
“Did that register as a lie?” she grinned. “It didn’t, did it? Have a good think about that one next time you try to sleep, Pilgrim.”
“Surrender,” the Great Elder said. “Abdicate. It is not too late.”
“You missing the part where I’m currently winning the battle?” the Black Queen drawled. “Hells, it’s not too late for you either. Terms were offered and they hold. Take your army and go home. This doesn’t need to turn into a Named pissing contest.”
“You would argue this, after slaying thousands?” the Pilgrim asked.
“I feel like we might need to revisit the concept of foreign invasion,” the villain noted. “Specifically the part where it has fucking consequences. Like, you know, people dying. You’d think that one would be a given, but apparently you’re slow learners. Wahwah, my attempt to conquer a – sort of – sovereign nation wasn’t met with flowers and a godsdamned parade. It’s almost like we’re not happy about the whole thing. Go figure.”
“And you think your reign a better alternative?” the Grey Pilgrim asked calmly.
“Hells, Pilgrim, I was born to rule,” the Black Queen replied with a toothy grin. “But I’ll settle for getting you fucks out of my backyard, this once. Any takers?”
The monster’s gaze swept across the crowd of Bestowed as she idly emptied her pipe and put it away within her cloak. The only answer was Light blooming and weapons raised.
“Ah, well,” the Black Queen mused. “Pissing contest it is, then.”
If Akua had always known heroism was this entertaining, she would have begun dabbling years ago. A hook of Light lashed out at her as the healer Named shaped the heavenly power and tore through her throne, but she’d already been moving when the working had just begun. Landing in a crouch atop her glacier, she unsheathed her sword and tapped it pensively against her armoured leg. It was unfortunate that the deception required her to remain in dearest Catherine’s garments, as they were admittedly horrid, but needs must. The body was wonderfully responsive, and though without the Gift the mantle allowed her powers not fundamentally different. Tainted with Winter, perhaps, but that was no great trouble for her. Her angry little overlord had, as usual, allowed herself to fear her own power to such extent it crippled her when instead she should have been learning to master the influence. One never quite escaped one’s origins, it seemed. A shame Catherine was disinclined to take lessons from her in such matters.
Akua Sahelian was no stranger to otherworldly influences, and so she embraced Winter eagerly.
The mantle howled through her veins, and eyeing the healer and his grim little sentinel she flicked her wrist. Her glacial throne, a useful mass of ice she had chosen as her seat for purposes both practical and theatrical, twisted sharply and speared forward. The Saint of Swords shattered it within a heartbeat, sword clearing the scabbard, but Akua was unmoved. Ice remained ice, even when broken to pieces. An exertion of will transmuted the shards into cold mist and it fell over the pair of heroes like a blanket. Beneath her a man with a mirror-like shield was climbing the glacier with unseemly haste. And was that sorcery she felt? What familiar taste. A pilum of concentrated yellow flame tore towards her, and she raised a contemptuous eyebrow. The Half-Hornet, truly? How provincial. No one she knew would be caught dead using that in a serious battle.
She leapt down, feet landing on the climbing hero’s head, and measured the angle so the only corrective action the spell formula allowed for would fall well short of her. The sorcery hit the glacier with a thunderous crash, splitting it in two. Ugh, he’d even overcharged it. It was like watching a grown woman improperly dose last season’s poison. Movement flicked at the edge of her vision and Akua’s boot came down to smash the helmet beneath her, forcing the hero down and allowing her to avoid the Saint’s blow by less than an inch. The tips of Catherine’s pathetically unadorned crown were shaved cleanly off. The sorceress threw herself to the side, sliding down the falling glacier as streaks of light further shattered what had been a very tasteful throne, in her opinion. A piece of the crown fell at her side, and once more Akua mourned Catherine had not even been willing to add some sapphires to it. They were only moderately costly to import through Mercantis, and they would have fit a Queen of Winter perfectly. A triad of heroes, two of them Levantines by the skin tone, charged towards her as she caught her footing at the edge of the slope. The pair still shrouded in mist, she noted, were beginning to disperse it.
That just wouldn’t do.
Akua flicked her wrist and turned the mist they’d inhaled to ice again, clogging up their throats and lungs. Transmutation, she noted approvingly, came particularly easy to the mantle. Likely a consequence of the ever-fluid nature of the fae, or that these waters had come from Arcadia in the first place. The triad closed in, an inexplicably barefoot woman serving as the tip of the wedge.
“Glory in strife,” the beggar screamed out in Lunara.
Did Catherine know any Levantine tongues? Most likely not. Still, a responding battle cry was in order. It was the heroic thing to do. Something about Callow? Akua pondered her understanding of Catherine’s temper. I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.
“Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.
There. Crass more than witty, but Catherine did tend to walk that line. Entirely disinclined to engage three Heavens-empowered hardened killers with only a sword and dubious moral grounds in hand, she retreated into the waters and let them envelop her fully. Breathing was not necessary to this body, after all, and she could feel her foes where eyesight failed. She took a moment to touch the marching dead with her mind, noting with approval that though after the heroes claimed her attention she’d only succeeded in making them mindlessly advance and attack, they were bleeding the crusaders. Slowly but surely. She’d been rather displeased at the haste the enemy approached her with, as she’d been amusing herself by redeploying Catherine’s old goblin tricks against fresh opposition. A heartbeat later, the water surrounding her blew away as the Saint’s blow forced the marsh to recede.
“There you are,” the unseemly old woman grinned.
“Dodge,” Akua replied with a friendly smile, greatly enjoying herself.
Two massive blocks of ice formed into the waters on each side, their mass smashing forward and sending the tide hurtling back towards both of them. The wicked enemy of all things Callowan blinked in surprise, but alas it was not to be. Starlight stolen and made a streak cut towards the sorceress, evaporating the water and prompting a frown. This was not mere heavenly lightshow: it was the principle of untainted radiance directly from firmament, made into a weapon. Such a thing could be interrupted by workings, but it would take nothing less than a miracle to usurp or reshape it. Fortunately, she was not without answer. The gate opened before her, a perfect circle pressing back the fabric of Creation, and Akua carefully threaded the needle. Difficult, on such short notice, yet not impossible to a practitioner of her skill. Orienting the gate properly, she wove will into forming the corresponding exit behind the trifling Proceran who’d tried to hit her with childish sorcery. The radiance hit him in the back before he could react, though to Akua’s displeasure it did no harm. The Pilgrim could control his working to a truly despicable extent. Tying off the two gates so she could not be made to suffer the backlash of their breaking, the sorceress condensed a platform of ice to leap off of before the Saint could bisect her.
She landed smoothly atop the water on a foothold of ice, moving towards the flank of the assembled heroes before the old cutter could catch up with her. The enemy seemed puzzled, she saw, by her refusal to engage them on their own terms. Had Catherine truly traded blows with them up close? The sorcerers almost wrinkled her nose. Waving about swords was the business of people who failed to murder demigods for power. Perhaps it was time to make that exceedingly clear to the opposition. Winter burning gloriously through her frame, Akua Sahelian shaped the full power of the mantle. Half a mile of marshlands turned to ice as she remained standing on an elegant pillar, the surrounding waters disappearing as they froze and gathered into a monumental ball of frost hovering over the heroes. The Saint was running on now solid ground, sword flashing to carve a groove through both Creation and the pillar, but the sorceress merely cocked an eyebrow. Even severed, the upper part of the pillar remained unmoving in the air. Fire and starlight shattered the mass of ice, but the heroes were gravely mistaken if they thought this was a mere foot to stomp on them with. A flick of the wrist had the ice transmuting back into water and falling into a shower over the Named.
Another flick had it freezing again, and they were buried in falling ice.
“Come now,” Akua said. “This is as obvious an opening as you’ll get.”
The Saint of Swords was a wizened old killer, with an impressive reputation. She was not, however, invincible. Even as she turned around in an instinctive parry, the old woman took the arrow in the shoulder as the Archer finally made her presence known. The sorceress felt the trembling heat of the wounded heroine, and Winter demanded her screaming death. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mind, will lashing out to take the mantle by the throat and choke it. The urges receded ever so slightly. More dangerous than she’d believed, this influence. The principle alienation was similar in nature to the bleed from binding an ancient devil, but unlike the latter it did not recede after the moment of binding. Akua leapt down from the pillar, power lashing out to smash both broken halves on the Saint. The heroine flickered with Light and it pulsed in a perfect ring around her. Aspect, the sorceress decided. Weak enough it could likely be used more than once, which would be difficult to deal with. No matter, there were more tempting prey. Akua felt mild revulsion at the term her thought had ended by, to her surprise.
She did not have the time to linger on the matter, as the heroes had escaped her little greeting gift. Light broke through the ice, once, twice, and then in an eruption of steam the entire structure vanished. The second-rate wizard’s doing, she suspected. For a heartbeat she mused leaving the battle entirely, going to lead the dead personally, but found she could not. It would mean leaving Archer on her own, something she could not accept. The notion displeased her, even. The sorceress’ brow creased. This was not coincidence. She could feel her mind even struggling to consider the subject, which was telling. Feeling the Saint pivot to cut through a second arrow, Akua moved towards the other heroes as she fought the influence.
“Oh,” she murmured to herself after a moment. “My dear, that is exquisitely done.”
The sorceress had slipped her bindings by snatching an errant piece of Winter and making it her own. Through it she’d opened a path to the greater mantle that she’d eventually managed to crawl through, entirely so when she found no opposition awaiting. In her current state, it would be impossible for her to claim this body if Catherine disallowed it. The discrepancy in will and power was overwhelming. Yet using the sliver of Winter, Akua had succeeded in stabilizing the construct she now inhabited and claiming use of the full mantle – which she’d drawn on, this entire fight. The path going both ways, the mantle itself was now influencing her. Which had seemed a minor concern, until she realized that Catherine Foundling had bound her very soul into its fabric. The more Akua drew on the mantle, the more she called back the body’s true owner. I had wondered, as to why you never had Hierophant lay deeper bindings on me, the sorceress thought. It never truly mattered, did it? You left yourself a backdoor. She could not help but approve. Perhaps some mundane sorts would have been horrified, but Akua had first ripped out her own soul to use as a tool as the tender age of thirteen. Ruthlessness turned against yourself could be a very useful tool, if properly employed. In matters of self-mutilation for the sake of advancement, she must admit Catherine Foundling had few rivals. Eyeing the spreading steam, Akua made a decision. Struggling against this was pointless, and might be taken as treachery she did not intend.
“Let it not be said, my Empress, that I did not offer service leal and true,” Akua Sahelian mused.
She called on Winter again, the fullness of the mantle, and kept digging deeper until her vision blurred. Her reward did not take long to be delivered.
Back into the box, Diabolist.
Darkness came, yet Akua smiled.
A useful tool, after all, was never allowed to rest for long.