“Ah, the classic imperial dilemma: which caused the other, the rebellion or the tiger pit?”
– Dread Emperor Callous
There were two kinds of horror to be found in war, Razin Tanja had learned.
The first he had met and fought in the streets of shadowed Sarcella, the dark dismay of loss being dealt by the hand of a surpassing foe. Even outnumbered and ambushed, thrust into the backfoot, the Army of Callow had snapped out with jaws of steel and turned what should have been a dazzling victory into a brutal and exhausting slog of death. The heir to Malaga had seen that same skill put to work tonight, when the foot of the Grand Alliance had tried the enemy’s fortifications. Volleys from myriad engines of war scything through warriors of Levant and Procer alike, long darts skewering even the most heavily armoured of soldiers. Worse than those had been the stones of the trebuchets, whose frightful nature lied not in the first impact but in the skill of the engineers using it: most the time, the angle let the massive stones bounce and keep rolling, crushing ten times the warriors even the best-aimed of collisions would have reached. No, this Razin had all watched from atop his horse with clenched fingers and clenched jaw but he would not dishonour the bravery of the dead by mourning the necessity of their deaths. They had known, these warriors, what it meant to charge a position held by the armies of the Black Queen. That no one of the first wave would ever make it to the palisade, and likely none of the second either.
They’d come forward anyway, though. Captains of Tartessos and Malaga first, and the pride of that last one had choked him for those armsmen had fought the Black Queen’s own favoured army before, they understood exactly what awaited yet they’d come forward without flinching, without hesitation. Both Lady Aquiline and he had swallowed unkind words on the subject of Proceran courage when they’d found the commanders of their Proceran allies gambling over which of theirs would take the lead, taking it as attempt to pass off the duty. It was good that he had kept his tongue from wagging, though, for he learned moments later he’d had the wrong of it. They had all volunteered, every last one. The officers, men and women from half a dozen principalities, had turned to the dice to settle the matter for none was willing to concede the honour of the vanguard to another. Arlesites, Lady Aquiline had murmured in an aside to him, praise and condemnation both. These were of the same breed of soldiery that’d once invaded Levant in a relentless tide of butchery. But the two of them, one of the Slayer’s Blood and the other of Binder’s Blood, could understand looking at these people why Levant had been taken at all. Why their forbears had been needed, to humble an empire that could boast soldiers like those. Razin was certain he’d caught one of them – a tanned woman of southern stock, not even thirty but already high officer with a face that was a ruin of scars – cheating at the dice game used to determine who would lead.
It was such a small detail, he thought, and yet as he watched the horror ahead he could not help but fixate on it. That woman had gone as far as using loaded dice to claim the honour, and now she might very well be dead. To the second kind of horror, the hateful one. The dreadful, animal fright that came from witnessing something so far beyond you it could not be fought. Couldn’t be bargained with, or even fled. All that was left was to kneel and pray, to hope for its own reasons it would deign to spare your life. Razin had known that terror once before, truth be told. It had watched him from a river’s bank, wreathed in shade and might, and judged him with cold eyes. There had been no doubt, in that gaze, that his life could be snuffed out with a thought. No fear that the hatred burning in his blood could ever be a peril worth regard. No, in that moment that was the wake of death, the air still filled with the screams of the drowning, the Black Queen had for her own unfathomable reasons decided to spare Razin Tanja’s life. The heir to Malaga had clung to that, while his father took the Blood’s Scourge to his back, for what earthly torment could be half as shameful as the knowledge the greatest villain of their age had not found him worth killing?
Yet it was of that woman whose name he’d never learned cheating at dice Razin thought of, when the drow unleashed their malevolent works, and not of the frightful Queen of Callow. For a heartbeat it had seemed like the assault on the palisade would be a siege as that kind of battle was known to them: harsh and costly, but not beyond victory. Then the devils of the Everdark had struck, and not from the palisade. The drow did not sally out like warbands or armies. Instead they rose from the shadows among the ranks of the Grand Alliance’s warriors, and without warning or mercy they began to slaughter. There could be no other word for it than that, Razin thought. There were not so many of the enemy, perhaps a mere hundred, but they were tearing through warriors like an axe through kindling. Darkness rose in shapes and armaments, rained from above and swept from below, a hundred different sorceries for a hundred different drow, but whatever the singular craft each was an exquisite art of war. Polished and without flaw, for even when dozens and even hundreds charged at the enemy all that changed was the number of corpses made. Within the first quarter of an hour, Razin Tanja thought, almost two thousand warriors must have died. Not, not died.
Been swatted out of existence, like bothersome insects.
That quarter of an hour was what it took for the Grand Alliance’s answer to be brought to the fore, and all Razin could think was that it was a quarter hour too late. The sight should have moved him, and he could feel the sharp breaths and fervent prayers of those awed by the sight, but even as a scattered line of priests opened shuttered lanterns the sight of that casual slaughter stayed with him. And with the worry of how easily they could return to such horror, should their answer fail. It didn’t, Razin saw with relief. No, instead across the entire strip of night where the golden Light kept within the lanterns was revealed the drow flinched. Their strange sorceries weakened, lessened in scope if far from broken, and the Dominion of Levant began its counterattack. Slayers, the tempestuous retinue of the Lady of Tartessos, strode forward. Fewer than five hundred, all in light leathers and bearing the sharp tools of their trade and their ghastly face-tattoos of green and bronze. The Silent Slayer’s own colours, and those of her Blood after her. Above perhaps all others, the slayers of Tartessos espoused the most ancient and honoured tradition of Levant: the killing of monsters.
Even as the deathly gifts of the Praesi engines kept raining down on the advancing warriors, the beast-killers spread out in bands and began plying their trade on the darkness-wielding drow. Razin’s fingers had begun to loosen, though they tightened again when one of the enemy’s trebuchet stones landed far beyond what should be possible. Then out of the spray of earth and snow came blood-chilling laughter, and massive figure wearing a carapace of darkness strode out. It batted the head off a soldier almost casually, and without missing a beat began tearing through the centre of the army’s lines. This would break them, Razin realized, mind racing as he saw what would follow. Lantern-bearing priests retreating to weaken the monstrous drow, only to leave a hole in the line at the front that the lesser monsters would take advantage of. After that the slaughter would resume, and…
“Captain Elvera,” Lady Aquiline calmly said, turning to her second. “You have command.”
“My lady,” the old woman said, “you cannot mean-”
Aquiline Osena removed a lantern from the saddlebag at her side, and hooked it on her belt without opening it. There would be Light within, Razin decided.
“I am of the Silent Slayer’s Blood,” Lady Aquiline replied. “I cannot mean otherwise, Elvera.”
Foolish, Razin thought, for she was not just a fleet-footed slayer but the commander of this entire host. Still, Aquiline’s line was not one known for wits. All the founders had granted different gifts to their Blood, Akil Tanja had once told his son. Valour for the Champion, cunning for the Brigand, skill for the Slayer, wisdom for the Pilgrim – and that grandest of bestowals for the Binder’s own, that privilege known as knowledge. Or so the heir to Malaga thought, until he caught the high esteem all of Aquiline Osena’s captains were not watching her with. They not only approved, Razin realized, but they had expected it. Let neither queen nor prince rule over our dominion, Farah Isbili had once said. The second of the Holy Seljun, and first true ruler of Levant, for her father had not lived to reign for long. For while crown devour honour, one’s blood is not so easily gainsaid. Razin had been raised to understand this as the truth of blood being the true nobility of Creation, what set apart the wheat from the chaff. In having a past to measure up to, a litany of deeds, the great families of Levant were made worthy to rule. They must prove this worth anew with every generation, true, but they always did for blood was not so easily gainsaid. Yet now Razin thought of a woman who’d cheated at dice to earn the privilege of being among the first to die and wondered.
Would you be proud of us, Honoured Ancestor? the heir to Malaga silently asked the night sky. Of the works of my father, of his father before him and his mother before that. Will you be proud of mine, you who stared down an empire with nothing but death and indignation tattooed on your back? He thought of the legends he’d been raised to, of the five heroes who’d snapped the arrogance of Procer over their knee. He thought of that day’s own council, of Yannu Marave’s blade opening Father’s throat and the vicious barbs traded by the others. Would any of them truly be proud, Razin wondered, of what the Dominion had become?
“Captain Fustan,” he said. “I give you command in my stead.”
The bearded man, most respected of his father’s captains, looked at him in surprise. So did Lady Aquiline.
“Your intent, Tanja?” she asked.
Razin inclined his head towards the dark-clad creature in the distance, scything through men like a sickle through wheat.
“It took five to topple an empire, Osena,” he simply replied. “Two ought to be enough for a single drow, no?”
No, he echoed in his own mind. They would not be proud, not a single one of them.
That creature, Laurence de Montfort mused, was going to take a lot of killing.
“Bring out your weapon,” the Saint of Swords said. “I’ll even let you, to even things out.”
A lie, that. She fully intended on sending the drow’s head rolling on the ground if it got even slightly distracted. She spoke the untruth without hesitation, for she’d never been encumbered with the delusions of fair play that plagued some of her peers. The moment you bared a blade on someone with the intent to kill, there was nothing else left to consider. Honour was just a way to pat yourself on the back, a pretty face put on the ugliest of all weaknesses: uncertainty. Her opponent face creased with amusement when it bared its teeth, putting in relief the painted stripes of ochre and gold radiating from its lips.
“Why would I need one?” it spoke in guttural Chantant. “Children are disciplined by hand.”
The Saint looked into the thing’s silver-blue eyes and recognized the glint within. It had fury waking up her blood. She’d last seen it on that woman’s face, when she’d glanced at Laurence’s spilling entrails and sighed without even bothering to say a word. Is that all, the glint whispered. Is this the sum of you? It was the gaze of something ancient and fearsome taking it the brief glow of a firefly before it died, only to dismiss it as of only passing interest. She was going to enjoy cutting this one very much, Laurence admitted to herself. Without another word, the Saint of Swords struck. Two steps forward, half-step to the side, her entire withered frame coiling to put full weight behind the blow at the end. But the drow, this Rumena, it moved just as swiftly as her.
Its hand slapped the side of her blade, and it spun low – Laurence, without missing a beat, leapt up. The open palm that would have slapped her knee passed through only void, and she twisted so she could angle her body in midair and strike once more. Instead of having its skull split in two, the creature dropped even lower and waited a beat for the tip of the sword to pass it. None of that, the Saint thought, and this was not the first time she was tasked with killing something with better reflexes than her. The slightest piece of her Name’s power had her kicking at air with enough strength for her swing to swing back just as Rumena began to rise, the drow immediately sinking into a puddle of shadow and vanishing from under her. It rose again half a dozen feet from Laurence, just as she landed lightly in her feet.
In the distance, its fellow abominations were singing its name. Behind her, the Saint’s crusaders were opening lanterns filled with golden Light. Neither of them paid any heed to the audience, for they mattered less than dust.
“Have your godlings taught you anything but how to flee?” Laurence mildly asked.
“Your pale idols are worse than wrong,” Rumena replied just as mildly. “They are prey.”
They’d gotten the measure of their opponent with the first pass, so there was no caution in how they began the second. The drow foot tapped the ground, once, and beneath the Saint the ground blew up. She was already in the air when it did, leaping forward, and over what felt like hours but took less than a heartbeat she sunk into her aspect. Listen, she thought, and the word reverberated through her. And she did, the same way she had when straddling the line between life and death all those years ago. Hearing the Ranger’s footsteps as she walked away, and only then understanding how deaf she had been all her life. Moving against the rhythm of Creation, when she should have been moving with it. The Saint of Swords pricked her ear, and heard the dissonant cacophony of the drow striking at her.
She moved with purpose. A flick of the wrist created a wound for her to push off of, angling her descent so Rumena’s extended hand would pass her flank, then another to take the arm off before the shoulder and even as it drew back – quick, strident tempo – she leaned forward so the next stroke would slice neatly through the neck. The head tumbled on the ground half a heartbeat before she landed, but she did not sheathe her sword. There had been no silence, no precipitous fall. The drow was not dead. A wild, discordant slide, like a fiddle being struck, and the Saint was almost too slow. A prick against her shoulder, like the touch of a needle, and through that fine vessel she felt a sea of death and decay. Millennia of red slaughter and careless rot made into a gnawing bite. Laurence’s blade cut through just enough skin for blood to gush out, and just in time. Even half an instant later and her entire body would have become a pile of blight and bile.
She took the drow’s eye on the backswing, for its impertinence in trying an ambush on her. Carved through the insolent blue stare with relish, and smiled as the roiling darkness in Rumena’s socket failed to heal her cut.
“Careless,” the drow smiled.
The song hacked out a tempo like crows cawing, and before Laurence could move the air in her lungs turned to acid.
Ten of them, armed and readied and bearing a golden lantern, struck at the beast.
Seven slayers, a binder and two of the Blood. Not even drakes and manticores could have lightly ignored such a war party, but the darkness-clad drow tall as an ogre moved like lightning and struck like thunder. Razin’s sword was in his hand, his breath steady, and as his binder baited their foe he waited for his moment. A screaming salamander made of starlight and snow screamed at the enemy, and within a heartbeat its large head had been dispersed by a massive fist. The darkness-clad arm went straight through and hit the ground, which was the signal. Lady Aquiline opened the shutter and the golden Light touched the enemy. It screamed in pain, and its carapace visibly thinned. The slayers moved, then, feet whispering against the snow. One, two, three – the harpoons tore through the weakened darkness, giving solid purchase to the long ropes tied to them. In woodlands like the Brocelian, Razin knew, these would be fastened to trees to trap the hunted beast and restrict its movements. Open grounds like these, though, required different tactics. All three slayers pulled at the arm, to trip the creature forward, while the remaining four smoothly split into pairs and moved to flank it.
“Attack,” Razin ordered his binder, gauging the time to be right.
The woman gave no sign she’d heard him, but her horse whinnied in fright and cold and the bound soul of the salamander dispersed, slithering back to the tattoo it was bound to. The sorcery was replaced by an arrow-like burst of translucent magic that flew for the drow’s head, leaving the darkness shuddering on impact. Even where he was seated, the heir to Malaga felt a ripple go over his skin. He wondered how many thundering roars had been stitched together, to make that curse. Whatever the number, the spell distracted the drow even as it was beginning to recover from its surprise. The rope-holding slayers dragged it down and forward, and then the others struck on the exposed flanks. Long barbed spears were thrust into the sides and cracked through the carapace. The drow screamed again and without needing to be ordered the binder tossed at it a blinding orb – sunlight caught and woven. Sniffing a kill, the slayers on the sides unsheathed their straight long sword and prepared for killing blows.
With a deafening wail the drow’s carapace of darkness detonated outwards.
Razin paled as he saw what the wave of sorcery had wrought: the four slayers who’d been closest were half-gone. Their leathers and armaments untouched, but flesh and bone outright evaporated where the drow’s darkness had touched them. A grey-skinned silhouetted landed in the snow, harpoons still in its arm, and fresh darkness bubble out of its skin as it laughed. Blood cooling, Razin Tanja sheathed his blade and dismounted. From his horses’ side he claimed three long knives, which he hooked to his belt, and a small orb of ivory. The binder glanced at him, face tainted with worry at the way their hunt had turned debacle in the span of a single breath.
“Distract it when you can,” Razin simply said.
He rolled his shoulder – still tender from goblin steel – and approached at a measured pace. The remaining three slayers were struggling to bring down the creature before its armour-like darkness could be formed anew, two abandoning their rope for barbed javelins to be thrown. The drow snapped out to catch one with its teeth, breaking the steel tip with a loud crunch before spitting out the remains, and the other javelin went straight through. Or so it seemed, for it never emerged on the other side. A heartbeat later it was spat back out the drow’s chest headfirst and took the slayer who’d thrown it right in the eye. Razin winced at the sight.
“Ready, Tanja?” a voice spoke at his side.
The heir to Malaga glanced there and his brow rose. Aquiline Osena wore no mail not plate, only a tanned vest of leather going up to her throat. Trousers of thick dark linen with small plates of steel sown on went down into good leather boots, though it was not the clothes or even the slayer armaments on her back that were the most striking part of the ensemble. Beautiful patterns of green and bronze war paint covered not only her face but every inch of her skin. Lady Aquiline looked half a fae, though one born for the hunt. Razin calmly unsheathed his sword.
“Shall we, Osena?” he shrugged.
The barest trace of a smile touched her lips.
“Let’s,” she agreed.
The drow roared, and under the golden Light of the lantern they advanced.
Laurence de Montfort stumbled.
She fell to her knees, hands trembling, as she began choking on the acid filling her lung while it burned her form the inside. Her sword slipped her fingers, and Rumena smoothly closed the distance. Its sound in the song was too light, the Saint thought. It was another fake, like the one she’d killed earlier. What a cautious bastard. Mind sharpening through the atrocious pain she was in, the Saint of Swords joined her will to the current of Creation. Decree, act and outcome in the same word. Tariq had told her this was a domain, once, but he did not understand it like she did. It was simply her own faith, a tenet made absolute and so perfectly harmonized with Creation. She had decreed that ‘Laurence de Montfort is a sword’, and so she was. It’d taken her decades, to make this as true a part of her as flesh and breath, but in the far north fighting the ratlings she had shaped that decree so that it covered every part of what she was. She could have decreed more, she knew, other rules and laws, but the purity of a single truth would have been lost.
A sword did not need to breathe, neither did Laurence de Montfort.
A sword did not burn or dissolve, neither did Laurence de Montfort.
But a sword cut, and so did Laurence de Montfort.
The shadow-thing that the drow had sent to approach her was split in two by a finger and she rose with her fingers steady and holding her sword. What had once been within her was gone, for it no longer aligned with the decreed truth of Creation, and as it had never been there no wounds were taken. Standing in front of her, hands folded within sleeves, the painted drow waited patiently. The eye she’d cut out was growing back – it’d ripped out the wounded flesh so it would, the song told her.
“Come, drow,” the Saint of Swords said. “Let’s see if your faith is strong enough even I cannot cut it.”
“Come,” Rumena replied, “before one of us dies of old age.”
Razin’s knife slid uselessly against the dark obsidian-like carapace, failing to find purchase even after the third time he stabbed at it. The drow beneath shook him off effortlessly, not even paying attention, and the dark-haired warrior only half-succeeded at landing on his feet: he fell backwards after touching the ground, cursing, and the only thing that saved his life was that without a pause he rolled to the side. A bladelike appendage punctured where he’d been a moment earlier, leaving a smoking hole in the ground.
“The eyes,” Aquiline yelled. “Aim for the eyes.”
She was not speaking to him but to their binder, who tossed a bolt of hazy heat close enough to the drow’s eyes that it drew back. Razin rose to his feet, rolling his still-tended shoulder to limber it. What had once been a humanoid carapace silhouette in a carapace, if a large one, had since grown into something rather more monstrous. Two crablike legs made of a strange hardened darkness not unlike obsidian now held up an armoured torso of the same, while what had once been arms had turned to something reminiscent of an insect. Like a mantis, Razing thought, and damnably quick. Of the three harpoons that had first stuck the drow, only two now remained though with the way it has shifted they now protruded from its shoulder instead of arm.
Aquiline Osena ran across the snow, a flicker of fluid movement and even as the drow struck out she caught the end of a rope in hand. Slayer, silent-sworn, he thought. Moonlight and miracle’s cast caught on her clenching arm, painted bronze and green, as she tugged at the monster and threw a barbed javelin at its eye. Grace and terror, peerless in hunt, Razin remembered from the Anthem of Smoke, and the sight was as burned into his eye. It had not occurred to him, until then to find beauty in either the act or the woman. Now he could not unsee it, and something in him trembled at the knowledge. The javelin caught the corner of the drow’s eye, and it screamed in pain, but there was a cry – the last of the remaining slayers was torn through, and thrown at Aquiline. The rope slipped her grip, and Razin began moving without thought. The lantern had fallen off her belt so he tossed his knife aside and snatched it up even as she rose to her feet behind him.
“Take the kill,” he called out as he passed her.
The drow’s obsidian eyes turned to him and it struck without hesitation, bladed limb tearing at the ground as Razin laughed and danced to the side. No binder he, even if the Binder’s Blood, but he had spent hours in the training yards to make up for that shame. Now those hours were sparing his life. It leaned forward to strike again, and this time they were so close there could be no true avoidance – the drow ripped through bone and shoulder flesh, but the heir to Malaga had avoided just enough to…
“Honour to the Blood,” Razin Tanja hissed, and smashed the Light-bearing lantern in its face.
A heartbeat later, Lady Aquiline’s sword went straight through the heart of the flare of light as she screamed a war cry, and wet black blood sprayed on Razin’s face. The creature fell back, its darkness collapsing on the snow to reveal a slumping corpse with a sword through the forehead, and the lord and lady fell exhausted on their knees to each other’s side.
“Lady Aquiline,” he greeted her. “You made a good kill.”
“We, Lord Razin,” she replied, eyes hooded. “We made a good kill.”
The look shared overshadowed even the bleeding pain of his shoulder, for a moment, but it turned to horror when with a wet squelch the drow’s body began to heal and spat out the sword. It began to rise, as did they, but it paused as if struck
Far above them all, light had begun to bloom.
It was time.
The Grey Pilgrim could feel it: if he acted now it would be an intervention safeguarding those in his charge. Sitting with his eyes closed, he could still feel the growing weight on his shoulders. The vigor – always sweet, always passing – of a younger man filling his body. The writ of this had not been offered to him by the Choir, it was no tragedy unfolding caught by Mercy’s myriad eyes and made known to his own. This tale had been of his own making from beginning and it would still be that when the end came, Gods forgive him for it. With every death the burden on his Role, the stakes of his existence in this story, had increased. Now, though his spirit felt like a spine on the eve of cracking, he had the necessary reach. It was a bitter irony that the deaths of soldiers had been the balance’s harsh swing in his favour yet the true burden he must bear had been of no consequence at all. Catherine Foundling had given the slip to every story that could bind her to an ending, and so left herself only one path: reign eternal, consumed and consuming, a herald of long prices and hard measures having made mantle of the woes of Creation.
The Black Queen had wriggled out of every binding and shackles, broken the sole irons he’d once set around her wrists. No redemption could be demanded by one who had forsaken her, not even for a greater good, and the broken oaths between them were yet another finger on the scales. Not so heavy, he knew, that it would doom him. But she’d be always a little luckier, a little harder to reach so long as that imbalance stood. In a less dangerous villain that would be merely inconvenient, but this one? She’d always had an astonishing intuition in those matters, and whatever else the Everdark had made of her it had also made her cautious. Patient enough to take a step back and let others take the lead if it meant offering fewer openings to foes like the Pilgrim.
“I wish that you had answers for me,” he said. “That you knew whether in my efforts to prevent our doom I am forging the very instrument of it.”
The Ophanim murmured in his ear, mournfully contrite. Before, in Callow, the Choir of Mercy had been able to see through the skein of her. Where threads may lead, choices that may or may not be. And with his own eyes, his sight of what moved the Queen of Callow, together they had considered what she might yet become. Now, though? There were entities at her shoulders that did not brook such perusals. And what entities they were, colossal towers of misery and murder stitched together with prayers to Below. Goddesses of wails and horror, swimming in a shadowy sea of their own kind’s blood. The Black Queen had clasped hands with these abominations, and from what he could tell done so willingly. Knowing what he knew, not knowing what he did not, what choice was there but the ugly business of this night? If there was even a single chance that Catherine Foundling would be the keystone to the death of Calernia, Tariq must ensure it would not come to be. And so now Tariq was forced to countenance this hour of barren deaths, lest a thousandfold worse might be allowed to pass.
The Grey Pilgrim opened his eyes, looking up at the darkness before the dawn.
“We have sung together before, old friends,” he softly said. “Will you sing with me, once more?”
“I will not die,” he reminded them. “It will hurt me, this is true.”
His gaze moved ahead at the battle where so much blood was being spilled.
“Yet so does that,” he said. “And this will end it.”
Comforting hands on his shoulder, and with that assent he let out a weary breath.
“Pilgrim of grey,” Tariq sang.
The Ophanim hummed along, a choir distant and melancholy. A chorus of ever-weeping eyes who were charged with ever seeing the worst of Creation, yet still ground their fingers to the bone saving what they could. The hummed along to the Anthem of Smoke, that song that was the flesh and blood of Levant.
“Fleet-foot, dusk-clad, the wanderer,
His stride rebellion and stirring ember.”
It did not feel like peace, when they hummed with him. They were no servants of that, neither Choir nor man. Theirs was the duty of steering the world away from the brink, and none could be spared in the observance of that work. It was an endless procession of bitter choices, of lesser evils in the service of greater goods they might never witness. It felt like a lullaby, gentle and wistful but never without disquiet.
“In his grasp the light of a morning star,
Tattered his throne, tattered his war,” they sang together.
They called it the dawn star, in the Free Cities. In Procer it was morning’s herald, in Ashur the sun’s prow. In Levant, though, in the land of Tariq’s birth, though it had once been known as the morning star it was no longer called that. It was said that the Proceran prince who’d ruled the southern reaches of the Dominion had laughingly told the people that naught by the sky falling would ever make the Principate surrender its conquered prize. It was said, too, that the first of the Grey Pilgrims had been among those listening. A mere boy, when he heard, but he never forgot. And after Above clad him in grey, the boy become a man returned to that laughing prince and, plucking a star from the night sky, lit the first bonfire of rebellion from the tyrant’s palace. In Levant for many years now it had been known as the pilgrim’s star: the peregrine. Tariq was not the first Grey Pilgrim to wield it, and he would not be the last. From the first of his Bestowal, there had been one inheritance and in the wake of the song the old man softly offered it up to the sky.
“Shine,” the Peregrine said, and the peregrine did.
Blood burning from the Light coursing through like a river, Tariq gasped out in pain and only the merciful hand on his shoulder kept him from collapsing. Miracle and aspect wove themselves together, the single greatest working of his life, and his vision dimmed with exhaustion. Above him the morning star hung in the sky, and with it dawn had come. The drow broke, creatures of the night that they were, and the battlefield held its breath.
“Now,” Tariq croaked. “Now you have no choice, child, lest they sweep through your servants.”
She would bring nightfall where he had brought dawn, and their powers would find each other matched. It would be neither day nor night but an eclipse in passing, and the Black Queen would be as shattered by the scale of it as he was. It would be a stalemate, a draw, and Gods willing the pattern of three would be set in stone – as would be the victory promised to him, so grimly earned.
Instead the air tore open in front of Tariq and a man rode through.
No, not a man. One of the fair folk, astride a steed that seemed half marble and ice, and that fae’s eyes were cold where his smile was warm and friendly. His red hair was like a streak of flame as he inclined his head in greeting, hand never nearing the sword at his belt.
“Pilgrim of grey, I bring to you greeting and missive from my most tenebrous of lieges,” the fae said.
The Pilgrim rose to his feet, slowly, and took the scroll being offered to him. It carried the royal seal of Callow, he saw. He broke it, took the parchment from the leather and after reading the single paragraph rocked back like he’d been hit. Surrender. Catherine Foundling was offering unconditional surrender. It would be a great victory, if he accepted. Victory.
Gods damn that vicious child.