“Fifty-nine: it is always better to interrupt a plan than carry one out. Your finest successes will always be the failures of your enemy.”
-‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown
“You’re in a damned fine mood, for a man who can barely stand,” Ranker muttered.
Most would not have been to pick up on it, Amadeus thought, but the goblin marshal had been his friend for a very long time. Longer than the common understanding of goblin lifespan should allow for, but that was one of the subjects they did not speak of. Ranker had a right to her secrets, as he did his. The Black Knight tightened the woolen blanket draped over his frame, looking up at the night sky with the barest trace of a smile on his face.
“It’s nostalgic, isn’t it?” he said. “The few of us huddling in the dark, surrounded by a realm that would kill us all.”
His detached force numbered two thousand, with Marshal Ranker in overall command as her sappers and scouts would be more valuable to their purposes than regulars or heavies. Cooking fires had been judged too much of a liability to be allowed even after a days of marching under his aspect that should have left any would-be pursuers in the dust: the legionaries had dropped their kits and made their beds on rough ground, not even bothering to raise fortifications beforehand. Ranker’s decision, and one he’d approved of. Their pace was already taking the soldiers dangerously close to their breaking point, aspect or not.
“It hasn’t been like this since the civil war,” Ranker conceded. “The Conquest was orderly campaign, nothing like this one. Feels like we’re making it up as we’re going along.”
“Planning too deep will be seen through by the Augur,” Amadeus reminded her. “We stay a step ahead so long as we make short-term decisions backed by superior pace.”
It was a little more complex than that, in practice. Thrice now the First Prince’s fresh mage order had passed along auguries of where his legions would be headed, though their very interception meant that they were effectively worthless. Prediction and prophecy were different matters, after all. The former was very much avoidable, if known, while the latter tended to be like a sandpit: the harder you struggled, the swifter you drowned. Even those could be broken, of course. Prophecy was only ever the writ of one side of the Great Game, and if outcomes were so absolute there would be no need for Creation at all – according to the Book of All Things, anyway. Still, even the predictions of the Augur were an exceedingly dangerous tool for the opposition. Considering how sparsely it had been used and the recent revelations as to the forces stirring up north, Amadeus suspected that if the Dead King had not been on the move and requiring the soothsayer’s attentions this campaign would have been much more troublesome.
“I’m aware,” she flatly replied. “And I have some fond memories of the old days, do not misunderstand me. But back then we were still young. To our places, to our powers, to our stories. It’s been a long time since we were any of that.”
“Sing we of foe,” he softly hummed. “Of victories won, and that first woe, tyranny of the sun.”
“You know I hate that song, Amadeus,” Ranker grunted. “It’s the anthem of old defeats, a ballad of ruin.”
“It was a cold, clear look at what we were when it was written,” the Black Knight said. “We are no longer that, yet I suspect we never truly outgrew the sentiment.”
Like a poisonous old friend, it had been clutched tight even as the fangs sunk in and venom spread. The Tyranny of the Sun, for the most famous verse of the song was the title as well, had been written near the end of the Sixty Years War. Arguably the most brutal slugging match between two sovereign powers in the history of Calernia, and it had left both Callow and Praes smoking ruins in its aftermath, peace coming largely because neither side was still capable of continuing the war. Dread Emperor Nihilis had retreated to the Blessed Isle with his armies and ended it without ever signing formal treaty, but he’d died failing to rebuild the Empire and a hundred years of murderous mediocrity had followed until Praes recovered enough to embark in its disastrous waging of the Secret Wars. In some ways he suspected the Sixty Years War had been more traumatic an experience to Praesi culture than the collapse of Triumphant’s empire a century and a half earlier. Triumphant had known success before meeting her doom. The parade of Emperors and Empresses who’d waged war on Callow for sixty years had known much of the latter and little of the former.
“We,” the goblin chuckled. “There’s a word growing thinner by the year. We are exiles in more way than one, Amadeus. You saw to that after Akua’s Folly.”
“It is not the first time I’ve been told I should have tried to climb the Tower,” the man shrugged. “It will not be the last, I expect. It would have been a self-defeating enterprise to wage civil war in the Wasteland with Procer assembling its armies just across the border.”
“The Clans would have come out for you,” Ranker said. “Most likely the Tribes as well. The Matrons smell weakness, Black, and there’s only ever one way they react to that.”
“I can think of few things more foolish than to underestimate Alaya,” he quietly said. “Even now. She’s never been one to act without a plan, and that we do not understand her moves should be source of fear and not contempt.”
“Odds are she’s the one who made a pact with the Dead King,” Ranker said.
“It could have been Catherine as well,” Amadeus frankly admitted. “She thrives in chaotic situations. It’s led her to the bad habit of creating them knowing it improves her chances of victory even if it significantly increases collateral damage as well.”
“The Black Queen,” the goblin mused. “There’s another trash fire of a situation. One you’ve stepped lightly around.”
“The Conquest was a way to achieve objectives,” Amadeus said. “The annexation was ultimately a consequence, not the purpose itself. I hardly mind surrendering unnecessary gains if the actual objectives are met through the gesture.”
“The arithmetic holds,” Ranker sighed. “It always does with you. But there’s more to this than the numbers, old friend. We made an order of things, and now it’s crumbling.”
“And now you wonder what will replace it,” Amadeus said. “And if in that new order, we will still have a place.”
“Some might say it’s too early to start thinking about after the war,” she said. “You and I know better. No point in even seeking a victory if when achieved it leads nowhere.”
“A better world,” the Black Knight murmured, looking up a stars that were not those he’d been born under. “Oh, I have wondered. What it might mean, what it would look like.”
“We made one,” Ranker said. “It’s on fire now.”
“And who set the flames?” he smiled. “Cordelia Hasenbach. Catherine Foundling. Kairos Theodosian. Children, in our eyes. Yet is it not the right of the younger generation to look at the work of that which came before it and judge it insufficient?”
“So they’re right, and we’ll be swept away like dust by the new age,” Ranker said, sounding distinctly unimpressed.
“I still do not believe,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch murmured, “that I am wrong. That our methods, our works, are to be so easily discarded. If these younglings want to prove themselves worthy of shaping the world, well…”
He bared his teeth.
“Let them come,” he said. “Let them earn it. If they can surpass us, then the sin is ours.”
“And if they can’t?” Ranker asked.
“Then they fall into line, or face destruction, and we fight one last great war,” he said. “The one that will matter.”
The two of them remained silent for a long time, seated at the edge of the camp. In the distance, the barest glimpse of the town of Saudant could be made out. Just a lakeside township, one of hundreds in the region. Amadeus doubted the name of it would be remembered as more than a footnote in histories, for no battle would take place there even if he’d been wrong. Under the light of the stars, the Black Knight pondered Providence and the coward’s wager that was Fate. He did not sleep, even tired as he had become.
With dawn he would know if he had once more cheated the Heavens at dice.
Gauthier Legrand had served as ranking captain of the guard of Iserre for thirty years now. He’d served Prince Merlaux before Prince Amadis ascended the throne and been appointed to his title by the old prince, but there’d been no talk of having him replaced even when the young prince took over and began inserting his own partisans in posts of influence. This he attributed to the fact that he’d carried out his work steadily and honestly, avoiding court politics and the intrigues intrinsic to any of Procer’s royal seats. He was not unaware that his occasional bluntness and refusal to earn favours by offering plum positions to the kin of the influential had led some to consider him simple, though the more polite phrased it as him having ‘a soldier’s spirit’. Gauthier did not mind. As long as they considered him an idiot they would not attempt to involve him in their little schemes, and he rather preferred it that way. Iserre had only grown larger and wealthier under Prince Amadis, but that rise had come with the troubles inevitably associated with a city expanding. Maintaining order and the rule of law was toil without end, especially in a land where both could change face at the whims of the ruling prince.
Amadis had done well by the city, he’d always thought, and the principality as well. Their prince had kept them out of the worst of the Great War with cunning diplomacy and duly reaped the benefits of Iserre’s rising prominence when the steel returned to the sheath. Old Prince Merlaux had shown a better touch with the commons, that much was true, but his son was a much more able administrator. The guard’s funding had swelled under Amadis, and their equipment was now match for many of the fantassin companies out there making a trade of war. It’d seemed an unquestionable boon at the time, but now Captain Gauthier was forced to question. Not a state of affairs to his liking. The principality was under assault by wicked Easterners from the Wasteland, and to everyone’s dismay the general levies that had preceded Prince Amadis going on campaign had bled the land dry of men in fighting fit. Iserre itself was the capital of the eponymous principality, and so had kept a garrison of two thousand professional soldiers, but the guard’s equipment was only marginally inferior and it numbered five thousand.
In principle the defence of the city was the responsibility of the commander of that garrison, Antonine Milenan. In practice, their leader was middle-aged drunk whose entire experience with martial life was a span of three years with a fantassin company that had never left Iserran borders during the Great War. She had, allegedly, commanded a victorious skirmish against bandits. Rumour had it they’d actually been terrified refugees from Salamans but that in her drunken rage she’d refused to see a difference. There was a reason that Antonine had not been given a command in the crusading host, and Gauthier supposed that a few months ago giving her command of a garrison that would never see combat had seemed a discreet way to set aside a cumbersome relative for his prince. Now that the Wastelanders had come, however, it meant that the woman had been quietly placed under guard in the palace where she could make no trouble. An unfortunate measure prompted by a well-lubricated evening where she’d decided to order the garrison of Iserre to sally out and ‘disperse the foreign rabble on the field’.
And so Captain Gauthier Legrand now led the defence of Iserre.
The responsibility alone would have been difficult to bear, but as the effective commander he’d been the one to receive the secret orders from the First Prince of Procer. Penned by a scribe, most likely, and the content would have been decided by her officers – Hasenbach was a well-known oddity, a Lycaonese with little taste or affinity for war. Gauthier saw the cold sense in the letter he’d been delivered. With only two thousand soldiers, his guardsmen and whatever peasantry he could arm and send to stand on the walls his defence of Iserre was a risky enterprise. The easterners might be impious demon-worshippers, but the Legions of Terror were known to be one of the finest armies on the continent and their generals were of high renown. The captain knew himself to be no great tactician, and hardly a soldier besides. He had dwarven engines on the walls, due to his prince’s foresight, but few and few men trained to use them. The devices were well-known to be finicky and prone to breaking anyway, rarely lasting more than five years under regular use. Rough handling might see a few unmade before they could even be properly put to work.
And yet here he was, reading a report stating the Legions were but a day’s march away and considering treason.
There were no two ways about it, disobeying the First Prince’s orders would be high treason. The Principate had declared a crusade, her authority in military matters was absolute. Gauthier was not a soldier, which in different times might have provided him a way out, but as the commander of the city’s defence he was charged to obey any and all orders bearing the seal of Cordelia Hasenbach. The actual text of those was delicate and regretful, but the heart of it a brutal thing: after short defence on the walls, he was to draw the Praesi inside Iserre and set the city on fire around them. His troops were then to evacuate and join the relief forces sent by the Dominion, to fall upon the easterners while they were freshly bloodied. Iserre, as of Prince Milenan’s last royal census, counted over a hundred thousand souls between its walls. Gauthier knew it was more than that, perhaps as much a ten thousand more who were foreigners and so unrecorded or too estranged from the law to want their presence noted in anything as official as a census.
He would not be allowed to evacuate them. Their panic, the letter noted, would prevent the Praesi from pulling out their forces in time by clogging up the streets.
He wrestled with the decision throughout the night. Handpicked men discretely prepared the blazes, for he did not give the order now it would be too late afterwards, and when dawn came Iserre had been turned into a pyre. It was the arithmetic of it that stayed with him. There were, according to reports, perhaps fifteen thousand easterners and not even half that many bandits with them. A host of twenty thousand at most. And his orders were to burn alive five times that many to wound the Praesi. He would be damned in the eyes of the Gods, if he did this. Yet how many more would die in towns and villages, if he did not? Not merely in Iserre, but all over the realm. Duty and faith tugged him different ways. Midmorning saw a Praesi envoy reached the city. The offer made was as brutal as the orders of the First Prince: should Iserre surrender its granaries and treasury, the city would be spared a sack. If it resisted, all armed inside the walls would be put to the sword. Gauthier rode out himself to speak with the envoy, to the gaze of Evil with his own eyes.
The thing across him was green of skin, one of those creatures they called orc. A barbarous monster that ate human flesh and lived only for blood and rapine. There was nothing in its eyes but hunger, Gauthier saw. A small woman with ink-stained hands and the colouring of the Free Cities stood by its side, though she remained silent. Some kind of servant, he suspected.
“The terms will remain as offered,” the orc said. “Negotiation is not on the table.”
“You’re a long way from home, greenskin,” Gauthier said. “Fighting the wars of humans.”
“We go,” the envoy said, “where the banner goes.”
“Your banner has come to the Principality of Iserre, Gods take you all,” the captain said. “We do not bow to foreigners. We do not bow to servants of the Hellgods. If you want your fucking loot, come and take it.”
“A respectable choice,” the orc said. “But you may come to regret it.”
“Tell your masters this is Procer, not one of their slave cities,” he spat out. “Test our walls at your peril. We were there, when the Tower fell. We will be again.”
The words, though defiant, were as ashes in his mouth as he rode back to Iserre. He’d just ensured the city he’d spent his entire life guarding would either suffer fire or a bloody sack. The Legions of Terror arrived past noon, and he watched them spread out from atop the walls. Dwarven engines stolen from other cities and armories were brought to the fore, their shapes changed by the devious goblins – which rumour said were dwarves corrupted into foul form by the touch of the Gods Below. The easterners and their traitor auxiliaries built their camps and only began bombardment under cover of nightfall. The city’s walls had been rebuilt fully early in the Great War, and so they suffered but did not break. Gauthier feared not the stones, only the assault of the steel-clad soldiers. Two more days passed, with only one breach to show for it – quickly filled by sacks of sand and gravel at his order – but time was running out. The assault would come soon, he knew, and the decision he must make with it. Duty or good? Gods forgive him, but as the fourth night fell Captain Gauthier made his decision. Better he be known a traitor than a butcher. When the assault came, he would empty the city and ride to Salia for his trial.
Then dawn came, and with first light came the realization that the Praesi were gone.
“Steady,” Amadeus ordered. “I want no incidents.”
The town of Saudant’s entire defending force had been a sum of thirty militiamen, who immediately folded when they realized how heavily outnumbered they were. There’d been actual soldiers behind them, though, who had fought: the Levantines had left four hundred soldiers to guard the fleet of barges that had ferried them across the lakes at the heart of Procer. None had surrendered, even when such an outcome was offered on rather lenient terms, and five barges had been lost to fire and fighting before they could be eradicated. A regrettable loss, but Amadeus had burned ships himself not a day later. The barges had carried thirty thousand Dominion infantry, while he would at most move twenty thousand soldiers himself. Having no intention of leaving Procer with any ships after he passed, the surplus had been put to the torch.
The sailors and captains to which they belonged had been furious, but they were not armed and so in no position to contest his orders. The First Prince had assembled this fleet by requisitioning merchant trade, not building warships, and considering piracy was night-inexistent in Proceran waters the merchant sailors had rarely carried anything larger than a knife. They were also less than eager to die for the sake of the Lycaonese ruling Salia who’d pressed them into service, which meant his assurances that the sailors would be released unharmed after ferrying his own troops where he wished had been received with more gratitude than hostility. Amadeus had taken pains to be accommodating with them, as Praesi were poor sailor as a rule and the Legions largely unfit for sailing ships. Some Thalassinans in the ranks had middling experience at sea, but too few and those few had too little practical experience to properly captain barges. It might be possible to proceed without the sailors, but only at a snail’s pace – which would rather defeat the purpose of acquiring the fleet in the first place.
The legionaries he’d called out after nodded at his order, moderating the language they used when speaking at the locals loading the ships. Finding out there were still supplies in the town meant for the already-departed Levantine army had been a pleasant surprise, implying he’d caught the very end of the enemy supply train without meaning to do so. He was not a fool, of course, and so he’d checked the grain and foodstuffs for poison. Hasenbach might have grown desperate enough for such a stratagem, even if the Levantines were not. None had been found, and he’d been pleased enough at the discovery to dole out a portion to the inhabitants of Saudant as incentive to load the rest more quickly. Barely more than a thousand people overall, and so easily appeased by the notion of being assured of plentiful stories throughout winter. Sadly the general levy by the prince of Iserre had meant few capable of hard labour remained, but he’d assigned a few legionary companies to help matters along.
Leaving the docks – and the friendly shore around them, where lack of space had dictated most barges would actually end up – Amadeus found Ranker awaiting him at the nearby tavern he’d appropriated as temporary headquarters.
“They have fishing boats,” the goblin marshal informed him immediately. “At least a dozen.”
“Not enough to ferry a significant amount of men,” the Black Knight noted. “Sinking them brings little profit and antagonizes the locals. Leave them be.”
“At least order them beach for a few weeks,” Ranker said. “Otherwise some enterprising soul might try to find out where we’re headed.”
He nodded after a moment, though in truth he doubted their destination would be much of a mystery. Even if the Augur did not divine it, the strategic situation would make it obvious. By now Grem and Scribe should have lifted their ‘siege’ of Iserre, having remained there long enough to draw in whatever forces had been sent to relieve it. They’d hurry towards the nearest shore, where the fleet Amadeus has just seized would be awaiting them. From there, they could leave their pursuers to stew impotently on the wrong side of the Principate while they struck at easier targets.
“Have you decided where we’ll be headed, after?” Ranker asked.
“Still a matter of debate,” Amadeus admitted. “Segovia would allow us to finalize our savaging of the First Prince’s opposition, properly damaging her position.”
“But you’re thinking of Salia,” the goblin said knowingly.
“We can’t take the capital,” he said, stating the obvious. “Even arming a third of that hive would allow her to drown us in numbers. But if we torch our way through its outlying territories, the sheer loss of prestige might see her unseated.”
“Grem will call it risky,” Ranker predicted. “I don’t disagree.”
“And so it remains a matter of debate,” the Black Knight said. “We will discuss in depth when reunited with him and Eudokia.”
There was a beat, during which the goblin studied him thoughtfully and openly.
“It’s been two days since you last used an aspect,” she said. “I expected you to be in better shape by now.”
“I drew deeper than I have in decades,” he candidly admitted. “And you know my well is shallower than most. I expect within a fortnight I’ll have recuperated.”
She nodded, after a beat.
“Gods, at least it worked,” she sighed. “I half-expected a band of heroes to be awaiting.”
“There are over a hundred thousand souls in Iserre,” Amadeus said, avoiding even the slightest hint of smugness. “Souls at risk of slaughter, if left unprotected. So long as we were willing to carry out that ugly work, it was possible to dictate where the heroic intervention would take place. I expect Grem found the place swarming with their like. It would have been a beacon lit for every sword of the Heavens not gone north to fight the Dead King.”
“There’s no need to get smug,” Ranker told him, eyes squinting.
Alas, sometimes there was no winning a battle. By the fourth day, they’d departed the charming little town of Saudant on surprisingly good terms with the locals. Legionaries were spread too thinly across the fleet for Amadeus’ tastes, but there were enough mages along that any sailors with notions of patriotic resistance would be forced into restraint by their more fearful fellows. The fleet made good pace, for the first three days.
Then the sickness started.
It showed in the sailors first. Fever, sweat, weakness of the limbs and after twelve hours they were dead. Amadeus ordered any with the symptoms thrown overboard as soon as he first saw the disease. It was too clean and too sudden: there had been no sign at all before the fevers, the sailors being in perfect health. It was not a natural disease. Reluctantly, he ordered every Proceran sailor disposed of after the first legionary showed symptoms. It was too late, by then.
On the sixth day, Amadeus of the Green Stretch found he was the only person left alive of the entire fleet.
Tariq let out a panting breath when the last of the victims died.
There were Choirs, he knew, that treated their relationships with heroes as a sort of subjugation. The Hashmallim of Contrition, in particular, were known to be heavy-handed – though to this day he was uncertain whether it was because they bestowed upon only the desperate, or because such was their nature. As a young man, the Pilgrim had found that the Choir of Mercy demanded nothing of him. He’d simply been found to be of a like mind with the Ophanim, and so found them at his side. As if they had been there all along. They were more like old friends than patrons, never far from his thoughts. Always there with a whisper of comfort in hard times, a reassurance when the world seemed dark. They shared, after all, the same mandate.
The alleviation of suffering.
Tariq had no longer been a young man when he’d understood the frightful depths of that simple sentence. He’d thought, as mortals often did, that angels saw through his eyes. Understood his thoughts, his beliefs and his choices. The first, he thought, was perhaps true. The rest was not. The Ophanim were absolute, in nature and mandate. There were no shades to their perspectives, and while they might fondly tolerate them in one sworn to the Choir of Mercy that indulgence should never be confused for approval. The Grey Pilgrim had first understood this when he’d smothered his young nephew in his sleep, knowing the boy was charismatic enough to unite the Dominion and lead to war against Procer. He’d tried, first, to reason with him. To show him the pursuit of old grudges through blood could not redeem a single thing.
The young never listened, he’d learned. And so old fools like him had to smooth out the sharp edges of Creation.
Praesi, he’d been told, believed that Good only came in certain shapes. That it must obey strict boundaries and rules, that it must rely on little tricks like Providence or angelic intervention. An understandable misunderstanding. For all that the raving Tyrants who climbed the Tower liked to style themselves anathema to all children of the Heavens, they’d rarely fought opponents beyond Callow – where heroism was so deeply linked to war that a villain waging one was now seen as good. Praesi had learned to bury and defeat a certain breed of stories, after millennia of butting heads against them. But oh, that was such a shallow understanding. The world was large, and so few ever saw more than a speck of it. There were as many stories as there were peoples, and to build one’s understanding on but a fraction was to raise a tower on quicksand. The Black Knight, Tariq thought, was not a stupid man. But he’d been arrogant enough to think he saw all the rules of his world, and arrogance was ever the death of villains.
Crafting the plague had been easy as snapping his fingers, and mayhaps that was the most distressing part of it. The Enemy delighted in displaying its power, raising massive contraptions or weaving elaborate schemes to praise its own cunning and cleverness. Like it was the only side capable of doing those things, like it wasn’t a choice to turn away from the unsightly means of the Gods Below. The Grey Pilgrim could have birthed diseases and disasters that would raise the hair on the Warlock’s neck, if he so wished. But power had to used responsibly, turned to moral purpose, else it could only ever be a form of tyranny. And so Tariq had wept, and asked for the guidance of the Ophanim to create a disease that would undo the Black Knight and all his murderous designs. It was not so far removed from healing, to make someone’s body turn on itself. To allow it to spread had required learning deeper than his, but as always the Choir had provided.
At a small price, a reminder of what he wrought. He would feel the agony of all taken by the disease.
He’d come to Saudant a stranger on a dark night, and seeded this foul miracle in a single man before taking his leave. Ten days and ten nights it would wait, before beginning to kill. That the Black Knight would come to the sleepy little town had never been in doubt. By the man’s perspective, heroes could only go to Iserre. He was making sport of decency by forcing their hand with a threat before stealing away a fleet to spread even more death. Where was it written, Tariq had thought then, that Evil will have monopoly on ruthlessness? He’d awaited close, with Laurence and four other heroes for company. Far enough such a small party would not be noticed, close enough he could ensure none of the sick would leave Saudant and spread the sickness to the rest of Procer. The Praesi had came, the Praesi had gone, and he’d followed in their wake. Laurence, in her own kind way, had offered to purge the town for him. He’d refused, and offered the Last Mercy himself.
This would be his own sin, from beginning to end.
They followed the villain after, taking fishing boats. No need for anything a gaudy as a barge, when they were only a handful. It was not difficult to find the Black Knight. He was at the centre of a fleet of dead men, a ring of ships adrift in the lake. Tariq was the first to climb aboard, though Laurence was not far behind, and they found him awaiting on the deck. Standing straight-backed, armoured in old plate without having bothered with a helmet. He watched them approach in silence, pale green eyes emotionless.
“We finally meet, Black Knight,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
The man did not reply. He was eyeing the others, gaze lingering on armaments and armour. Guessing at Names, guessing at powers. Already planning the span of his last stand. Yet Tariq felt no power coming from him, no presence. As if his Name had been snuffed out. It might very well have been, the old man thought. The Gods Below reserved only one fate for a lame horse.
“Surrender,” the Pilgrim said. “This will not end well for you.”
“It was never going to end well,” the green-eye man smiled. “That was rather the point.”
His sword cleared the scabbard with a ringing sound.
“Let’s see,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, “if I can at least leave a mark.”