“And so the First Under the Night came across a portal where great danger might lurk, and upon witnessing it halted and sought the council of Sve Noc. ‘O Night,’ said the First, ‘what wisdom do you offer?’ And so the Young Night answered thus: ‘Try a foot first.'”
– Extract from the ‘Parables of the Lost and Found’, disputed Firstborn religious text
Shit, I thought to myself, this is going too well.
“- the Alliance army has effectively withdrawn, and is making camp for the night,” the officer continued. “They have recalled everything but scouts, as far as our own can see.”
I’d told Vivienne what I wanted out of the manoeuvres, namely forcing the western coalition to give me just enough room that I could gate my armies away from this mess. It was starting to look like I’d be getting exactly that, which was highly suspicious. Reports had begun to come into the pavilion over the afternoon, everything going according to plan. First the opposition drew back, then General Bagram threatened their supply lines further north and they outright retreated. Had any of the crusader commander taken the Fourth Army’s distant presence as an immediate threat and charged? No. Had the drow been ambushed by some unforeseen sun-based sorcery kept in store just for this day? No. Had some hero assassinated half the general staff of one of my divisions? No. This was going off without a hitch, which meant it wasn’t and the Gods were about to dump a sackful of angry badgers on my plans.
“It’s always badgers, you know,” I complained. “It never goes a little badly, its’s always ‘oh no, there’s goblinfire burning the city’ or ‘oh no, the Praesi summoned a bunch of devils again’ or even ‘oh no, half the continent thinks a crusade would be just the thing’. Would it really be too much to ask for a mishap instead of a catastrophe once in a while? Like, ‘oh no, we’re out of the good wine, but that’s fine we’ve got this pretty decent bottle instead we’ll just drink that’.”
There was a long moment of silence in the pavilion.
“So, double watch and not single,” Marshal Juniper said, sounding vaguely embarrassed of me.
“Don’t you give me that, Hellhound,” I grunted. “You know I’m right. Matter of fact-”
I went looking through my cloak before realizing I was not, in fact, carrying anything that could remotely be used as coin. Arguably the main drow currency was murder – although, given how much obsidian they always seemed to carry around maybe in practice it was that – and it wasn’t like anyone had handed me a purse full of golden aurelii since I’d come back to the surface.
“Hakram,” I said, extending arm with my palm up.
I didn’t even bother to look, nor him to argue. Two heartbeats later I was slapping coins against the table, more specifically –
“- silver?” I said, turning to glare at Adjutant. “You cheapskate. That’s old Marchford coinage, too, it’s basically worth nothing nowadays.”
“Thought we’d get rid of it while in Procer,” the orc shamelessly admitted.
“Ugh,” I said. “Fine then. Juniper, I’m betting these eight silvers that when you send a rider out on the field they’ll run into a scout on the way back with urgent news.”
“To clarify, they’re silvers only in the nominal sense,” Adjutant helpfully added. “Their actual worth is closer to-”
“You believe we’re about to be ambushed,” Marshal Grem interrupted in a rasp.
The old orc was an interesting sight, I’d admit. The cloth covering the missing eye his epithet promised was nothing out of the ordinary, simple black linen with the First Legion’s symbol embroidered in gold. It was the Marshal himself I found interesting: neither as tall as Hakram nor as broad as Nauk had been, the sight of his frame in Legion armour brought to mind an old tree – all dry and corded, but likely to be nasty if pushed. He was, it would not do to forget, more than just one of the finest military officers in the Empire: he was also an old man who’d been born before the Clans were bound so tightly to the reformed Legions of Terror. Back in the days where the orc clans had preferred raiding each other and on occasion the Praesi to taking the Tower’s gold and serving in the ranks. For his clan to have been as prominent as it’d reputedly been, he must have seen some brutal fighting. And that was before he joined up with Black, through a civil war and the Conquest, I thought. There was a dangerous man, behind that red-brown eye. Simply because my teacher’s latest scheme had backfired on the Legions did not mean the orc was helpless.
“I believe this has proceeded perfectly when we know for a fact there’s heroes nearby,” I replied. “One way or another, this is about to get ugly.”
“Battle?” he asked, tone calm.
There was no doubt in his eyes, like what I had said was a statement of fact. I almost shivered at the sight of it, the old general waiting to dissect my instincts like an augur would a bird. How many times had Black stood in my place, lending his paranoia’s edge to a finer commander’s plans?
“Not tonight,” I said. “We’re too close to sundown. But they’ll spring a surprise on us, you can count on that.”
“Then it might be best to issue the recall for the Fourth Army early,” Marshal Grem said. “And allow the ‘Firstborn’ to handle the defences as our divisions withdraw through Arcadia.”
I flicked a glance at Juniper, who after a beat nodded.
“Do it,” I said. “Adjutant-”
“I sent one of mine to have a look,” Hakram gravelled. “We’ll know soon.”
I didn’t quite manage to set aside the nagging feeling that we were about to get screwed, but we still managed to get some business done in the stretch that followed. We needed to hash out supply arrangements for Marshal Grem’s legions beyond this particular Iserran mess, and I had no intention of forever feeding the legionaries unless they proved of some use to me – either garrisoning the Blessed Isle or participating in the war against the Dead King. If they wanted to wait out the war until Black died or returned, it would not be through the grace of Callowan granaries. One-Eye hinted pretty bluntly – still, it was something of a novelty to see an orc hint at all – that private talks between he and I should be held on the subject, and I was wondering whether to push for either Hakram or Vivienne or both to be in the room instead when a legionary stumbled back into the pavilion. He saluted at me first, so he was one of mine and not the Legions, but his eyes flicked at Adjutant after. One of Hakram’s helping hand, then.
“Report,” I ordered.
“Your Majesty,” the legionary replied, saluting once more. “While the enemy’s forces have not redeployed, they have sent a party out in the plains towards us.”
My fingers clenched.
“How many?” Juniper asked. “Horse or foot?”
“Two or four,” I said, tone calm.
The legionary’s eyes widened.
“Two, Your Majesty,” he agreed.
“And they’ll be raising a tent, the smug pricks,” I said.
Something like fear passed in the soldier’s eyes.
“It is so, Your Majesty,” he said.
“Black Queen?” Marshal Grem rasped, tone inquisitive.
“One is the Grey Pilgrim,” I said. “I’m guessing the other’s the Saint of Swords, though he might have traded in for younger muscle. Well, fuck.”
The last word I said feelingly, as it looked like all my preparations had gone up in smoke.
“They raised a tent, soldier?” Adjutant said. “You are certain?”
“Yes sir,” the legionary nodded. “One of those Proceran pavilions, the ones they use to receive people.”
“We’re not gating anywhere, looks like,” I cursed. “Let’s find out why at least. Adjutant, have a space cleared for an attempt. With contingencies.”
My second nodded, and after a few nods of respect spread around left to see my will done.
“An explanation would be appreciated,” Juniper growled. “For those of us who aren’t Named.”
“The Pilgrim is under the impression we’ll be talking soon,” I said. “Considering I’m very much planning on getting the Hells out of here by Arcadia if it’s possible, that means he knows something we don’t about why that’s not possible. It’s his whole thing, Juniper, being wise and and all-knowing. In practice I’d guess he’s got some ties to a Choir, maybe some limited foresight. Not that he’d be a fool without, mind you, but he’s certainly got an edge. Either way, by putting up that tent he’s making a point.”
“Posturing,” Vivienne said. “That is to say, preparing for negotiations.”
“How kind of our friend Tariq to be willing to talk,” I said, tone gone sardonic. “Why, he might even be willing to consider peace as a personal favour to us. Entirely unrelated to the fact that he’s currently losing, no doubt. It will be our privilege, nay, our blessing to be allowed to make a truce with the side of the Heavens.”
“Manifold thanks to the Gods Above,” Vivienne agreed without missing a beat. “Who have ever protected and preserved us, praise be. We may have to raise a new cathedral in Laure as an expression of our gratitude.”
“I take it,” Marshal Grem said, “that you are less than fond of this hero.”
“Well, he’s only tried to kill me twice so far,” I mused. “So I guess that still puts him somewhere between Saint and Malicia, relationship-wise.”
“Wait, what’s the left extremity of that line?” Vivienne frowned. “It can’t be the Saint, we’ve barely fought her.”
“I think it’s still William,” I mused. “He tried to kill me every single time we met, I’m pretty sure. I mean, so did a few others but mostly ’cause they didn’t get to meet me twice.”
“That feels underwhelming,” she said. “He couldn’t even ruin a city without Contrition holding his hand, second rate at best. Really, they shouldn’t even make the list if they haven’t tried to murder you through use of an astral sphere.”
“Eh, I think Pilgrim’s star-thing is more like a metaphor,” I said. “That’d only leave High Noon Delight and Queen The-Sky-Is-A-Reasonable-Weapon from Summer. Two’s not a list. Besides, if we’re opening the floor to metaphors then Willy’s murder-sword thing kind of looked like moonlight.”
“Didn’t the Page have a similar trick?” Vivienne asked. “You mentioned it a while back.”
“Oh man, I’d almost forgotten about her,” I admitted with a hum. “When I think about Three Hills it’s always Nauk popping the Exiled Prince in the throat that comes to mind.”
Bambambam. Marshal Juniper smashed her sheathed sword against the table one last time, for emphasis, and then cleared her throat with a growl.
“Orders, Your Majesty,” she said.
“At the moment?” I said. “Everyone is to remain in a defensive posture, as they’ve already been ordered to. We won’t know more until I’ve tried a gate, which Hakram is securing grounds for me to do as we speak.”
I drummed my fingers against the table.
“I’d recommend for the two of you to prepare a plan of action for the eventuality of being forced to march out of Iserre,” I said. “Or being forced to give battle here, either against the current army or the entire Grand Alliance field force.”
“You don’t intend to participate?” Marshal Grem asked.
“The skeleton I’ll leave to the two of you,” I shrugged. “I need to see some birds about something, and if that doesn’t work I’ll have to beat Larat until answers come out. Might take a while, it’s mostly lies and arrogance in there.”
“Understood,” One-Eye said, apparently unruffled.
Merciless Gods, what kind of insanity had my father put this one through that he wouldn’t even blink at that? I shot him an assessing look, but let it go for now.
“You coming?” I asked Vivienne.
“The birds,” she said. “From underground?”
“Those are the ones,” I agreed. “They’re perfectly safe.”
Vivienne’s brow rose.
“Probably safe,” I corrected.
The brow stayed up.
“To me,” I specified.
“I shall stay and provide a political perspective to these unfolding campaign plans,” Vivienne Dartwick serenely said.
“You do that,” I snorted, then glanced at the Marshals. “Until later, then.”
A dip of the head for me, salutes for them, and on my way I went.
It was still the better part of an hour before dusk when the Sisters came to me.
I could have tried the gate before then, of course, and very nearly did – though it would tire me to make the attempt, it was nothing that second wind coming with nightfall wouldn’t carry me through. Still, I was… wary. I’d not forgotten what Robber had told me, the tale of gates into Arcadia opening into the Hells instead or simply wildly out of course. Adjutant had done well in arranging for me a wide courtyard now surrounded by basic wards, but if devils started pouring out those wouldn’t be enough. I might be, even on my own, but best to exercise a little patience if it lowered the risks. The crow-shaped slivers of godhood sliced into the glare of the sun like knives, their unnaturally graceful flight taking them in twin spirals until they claimed my shoulders in unison. Perfect unison, I’d realized. Not even the fraction of a moment in delay. That kind of precision was unsettling, as no doubt they’d meant it to be.
“I have a problem,” I said, leaning on my staff.
“A servant of the Pale Gods,” crow-Komena said with relish. “Finally.”
“See, I don’t believe it’s actually him that’s the trouble here,” I said. “Well, not this particular trouble anyway. He’s definitely some other sorts.”
“You believe the ways into Arcadia to have been wounded,” crow-Andronike said. “Amusing, that you’d believe what frustrated some errant Splendid would be a threat to us.”
“Now that,” I said, “is the kind of talk that ends up with gods in boxes. Or cut up for parts. Or, you know, made to scamper away in disgrace by a hero. You’ve been down there for a long time, O Goddesses of Night. Here be monsters, and some of them were born to make sport of those like you.”
I could feel their roiling anger, not that it cowed me in the slightest. My very purpose in their service was to pull them back when they were about to make a mistake like this. Twirling the ebony staff lightly, I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
“So, let’s try this again,” I said. “I have a problem. Some hero with friends upstairs believes I won’t be able to gate out of here. In your opinion, how dangerous would it be to try opening one right now?”
“The taste of the boundary has not changed,” Komena said. “You worry for nothing.”
“It would not, if the change were coming from without,” Andronike noted.
My brow rose.
“So, if there’s a mess it’s more likely to be coming from Arcadia?” I asked.
“A more precise explanation would be well beyond your understanding,” Komena said.
It was surprising, I mused, how quickly one got used to being condescended to by a bird. I lowered my staff, tip touching nothing at all.
“So, a quick look is in order,” I said.
Night flooded my veins, abrupt and eager to answer my call. The gate ripped through Creation easily, to my surprise – and that of the Sisters, I felt. I’d felt this before, in Marchford. When Akua’s demon had weakened the fabric of Creation enough that it was made easier for the Winter Court to raid through. It’d not been like that when I gated earlier, I thought.
“This is unusual,” Andronike said.
I felt it too, even as the ink-black gate opened before me. Eyes, unfathomably large, gazing at me. The surface of the gate was like liquid obsidian, though without a single ripple, and I hesitated. I held back, leaning on my staff.
“Thoughts?” I said.
“Try a foot first,” Komena drolly suggested.
“Oh, we think we’re funny now do we?” I muttered. “Mark my words, that one’s going into the holy book.”
Godly advice, my ass, I thought. Still, wasn’t like there was another choice was it? I breathed out and stepped through. The rippling sensation was replaced by howling winds as my feet stumbled over Arcadia’s grounds. Blinded and deafened by what must have been half a hurricane, I called on the Night and let Andronike’s steady hand guide my will: a bubble of stillness bloomed around us, sudden and absolute. Breathing out, I put my cloak in order and finally took a good look around me. This was Arcadia, I was certain of it. The… sensation was the same. Which made what I was looking at all the more worrisome.
“That is not the work of fae,” Komena croaked.
“No,” I murmured, “I don’t think so either.”
Before us spread out a wasteland to make the heart of Praes flinch. Choking black dust billowing in a great storms as streaks of lightning erupted wherever they wished, striking at the ground with thundering claps. The noise of it all was deafening, even inside the bubble of stillness. I could see fractures of glowing red snaking across the ground, and liquid fire bubbling out when currents unseen made the heat rise in great geysers. The sky above us was an endless shifting tapestry of darkened clouds, with malevolent pale lights lurking behind them. This had been Arcadia, I thought, before someone broke it beyond repair.
“No,” Andronike said, disagreeing with my thought. “To the very point it can tolerate breaking, and not a step more.”
In the distance I could see the great storms strengthening, until what looked like the eye of the madness: a great hidden shape, the dark winds whirling around it masking the true appearance of what lay there.
“This was done on purpose,” I murmured. “And you felt it too, didn’t you? How easy it was to open the gate here.”
The Sisters did not speak the approval, though a hint of pressure against my thoughts served as acknowledgement. It was almost secondary, now, that I wouldn’t be able to evacuate my armies through Arcadia – as if I’d not lose every damned soldier, trying to march them through here. I suspected now that if I tried to open a gate leading to anywhere I’d still end up here, as if all the paths now led to this place. In a sense, I thought, they probably were. Something, or someone, had damaged this chunk of Arcadia to pry it loose from the rest. And now, if I was not mistaken, this wretched placed was slowly dropping down into Creation.
“We are seen,” Komena suddenly hissed.
Behind me, the still-open gate shuddered. Well, shit. I wouldn’t be using that one to leave anyway, but it looked like we’d drawn the attention of something I’d rather not be in the eyes of.
“What is it that’s here,” I urgently pressed. “Before going back we have-”
The gate broke. The inky power it was made of shattered, and the shards started slinking through the dusty ground – towards that hidden shape in the distance, I judged.
“Tell me,” I hissed at Sve Noc. “Is it the Dead King, or-”
An eardrum-breaking shriek tore through this nightmare of a realm, then four grinding cacophonies in interweaving succession. Almost like rusty metal being pulled apart, but the truth of it was much worse: in that storm-cloud covered sky, burning red circles formed. Out of them winged creatures poured, swarms and swarms of them, weaving in and out of the horrid winds. Hellgates. Temporary and unstable, but hellgates nonetheless.
“- or Hierophant,” I finished, shivering. “Fuck.”
“We need to leave,” Andronike said. “The gate, First Under the Night.”
“There’s something happening,” I said. “Look, under the hellgates.”
Some glittering array of runes formed in a circle, at twice the height of a man, though looking upon them cut at my eyes in an almost physical way. I thought I glimpsed something ghostly at the centre of the runes, but it was there for only a moment – and then the massive detonation that followed blew me off my feet, ripping right through the miracle. I landed in a sprawl of dust, cawing crows stumbling with me, and didn’t ignore the Sisters twice. The gate ripped open in front of me, though to my horror something fought me for control of it. A will pitched against my own, though that was no person’s. It felt more like one of the fae, though one of royal title at least. The goddesses slid their will along mine, and that bought us just long enough to drop through the bloody fairy gate. I dropped on the ground maybe three feet to the left of where I’d entered the other gate, covered in dust and lightly smoking.
“Well,” I murmured, looking up at the setting sun. “That’s going to be a problem.”