“One hundred and twenty one: it can be wise to make a truce with a villain to deal with greater threat. Never forget, however, that fear does not make someone trustworthy. Merely afraid.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
Captain Elvera could not have drawn her sword even if there was a need, for oaths still bound her and so uncertainty was staying her hand. It had been a very fine line she’d walked these last few weeks, one finer than she was truly comfortable with. Elvera had sworn not to make war on the Black Queen nor her allies for the span of three months, and that span had not yet ended, though Lady Aquiline had made use of her regardless. The letter of the oath had been observed: the prisoners released under oath had never left the reserve or bared blade. Elvera herself did not formally hold command, for that might be impugning her word, though her ‘advice’ was obeyed so faithfully this was mere pretence. The old woman would not pretend the spirit of the oath had not been broken, regardless, or that service of her lady excused the act. Even if the Black Queen had likely expected no better of them, it did not lessen the shame of being so feckless. Yet when duty and honour pulled different ways, which one was to be heeded? Elvera had no answer, and her lady was understanding, so here she was straddling a charade instead of declaring for either.
“Those are the Spears of Stygia, we have confirmed it,” Captain Onaedo grimaced. “Ashen Gods, just when the night was turning around.”
Onaedo, second only to her in years of service to Tartessos, held command of the host in the absence of Lady Aquiline – who was, at the moment, still having her wounds seen to. Along with Razin Tanja, who she’d insisted would be healed at her side. That’d raised more than a few eyebrows, and likely would again in days to come. If they survived that long, Elvera thought. Which given the way reputable armies had taken to appearing out of thin air at their rear was seeming less certain by the moment.
“And they are facing the Procerans,” Elvera slowly said.
The League of Free Cities had struck… oddly. Perhaps in part to obscure its numbers, which were still very much in doubt, but their array was unusual. The Spears of Stygia, perhaps the finest infantry that region had to offer, had appeared and formed up for advance at the back of Lady Aquiline’s command. Not facing the Alavan heavy infantry of Lord Malave to the north, which might be understandable if a swift rout was what was meant to achieved. Yet it was a hardened army of twenty thousand Procerans, an army who’d already fought that same slave-phalanx in the past, that they’d formed up in front of. There’d been much easier meat to prey on, if the Stygians had wished: the famously lightly-armoured warriors of Vaccei, or perhaps the hodgepodge mixture of fantassins and levies that was the northern Proceran contingent. Elvera had seen to it that even while moving to encircle the Black Queen’s camp her lady’s army had not overextended, so theirs was not a weak position to assault. Why, of all places, had the Spears of Stygia been put in front of the largest knot of veteran Proceran soldiery on the field? A rider approached, breaking up her musings, and conferred quietly with Captain Onaedo. She glanced at him, brow raised.
“The Black Queen’s surrender seems to be holding,” he told her.
The Grand Alliance would have folded like parchment if it hadn’t, Elvera grimly admitted to herself. Even now, in the distance, she could see the buckling lines of her lady’s host when it was fighting on a single front – two would have ended them in an hour. The Stygian phalanx was pushing through the Procerans inch by inch, unflinchingly, and with few losses. On the left flank the Bellerophans were being hacked into by eager Tartessos captains, though the enemy’s formations were so dense it was like wrestling with a boulder. Elvera would have spared a moment to be impressed by the way conscripts with only spears and old armour were holding up so well in front of proper warriors if the Bellerophan stubbornness wasn’t in the course of losing her this battle. Delosi forces held the other flank, facing Malagan warbands, and though the scribes themselves were nothing to worry of the mercenaries they’d hired had stiffer spines and sharper blades. The Malagan captains were only barely holding on, and if they broke it would turn into a massacre. The Procerans at the centre would be encircled and choked by the Stygian phalanx while Elvera’s left flank remained stuck and unable to help. Until the centre collapsed as well, anyway, and it was swept through as well.
“We won’t be winning this battle,” Captain Elvera bluntly said. “All we can do is hold and hope for Lord Marave to beat back the rest of the League.”
“What would you advise, then?” Captain Onaeodo asked.
“I’d throw everything we have in reserve at our right flank,” she said. “And pray it’ll hold long enough.”
It wasn’t an order, oath forbade it, but it was treated like one.
“I expect,” Yannu Marave calmly said, “that you come bearing a threat.”
Had they been dealing with a lesser villain, Tariq thought, then the Lord of Alava would have been correct. If there’d ever been a time for the armies of the East to turn on the Grand Alliance, it was now. Debacle was unfolding down south, while a mere mile outside this tent a hard battle was being fought. Helike’s army had swept out of Arcadia like a tide, hammering at the right flank unexpectedly, and even as Lord Yannu redeployed to meet the threat two more blows had come in quick succession: the soldiers of Penthes smashing into the left flank while those of Nicae poured out in the centre. The first half hour had been one sided butchery, for the Alliance’s army had been taken utterly by surprise, but now that it’d had time to form up a brutal stalemate of shield walls had formed. Yet all it would take was for the Army of Callow to resume firing its siege engines at the army, and the battle would be over. Odds were that Catherin Foundling would never again get advantage so heavy and undeniable over the hosts of the Grand Alliance, and if she were a fool then she would have instructed her followers to take advantage of it. The Grey Pilgrim saw no such thing within Vivienne Dartwick, and that brought forth just as much fear as it did relief.
“Queen Catherine offered the surrender in good faith,” the young woman replied just as calmly. “It stands, regardless of circumstance. I have come to discuss terms of ransoming.”
Tariq almost laughed at the audacity of that. Lady Dartwick had ridden into her enemy’s camp with nothing but a cursory escort, unarmed, and sat herself at the table across one of the most powerful men in the west without batting an eye. Like she did not doubt for a moment that she belonged there, though the Pilgrim’s eye told him she was not without doubts. They were not, however, woven into every part of her as they had been the previous year. Instead now there was a pulsing sentiment that split the difference of ambition and yearning, and it had nestled deep at the heart Vivienne Dartwick. The dark-haired woman, Tariq thought, had quite clearly lost her Bestowal. She was the Thief no longer, both his eyes and the whispers of the Ophanim had so ascertained. And yet, in the bargain of that loss, she had gained something altogether more dangerous: belief.
Am I, the Pilgrim thought, looking at your successor, Catherine Foundling?
“Ransoming,” Lord Marave said, tone flat. “You wish to have some of your forces released?”
“I have come to bargain,” Lady Vivienne pleasantly smiled, “for the ransoming of every force that surrendered to the Peregrine.”
Whispers, sharp and urgent. Not because of the woman’s words, for those were no surprise, but for something unfolding. There was, the Ophanim conveyed, to be another great breach between Creation and Arcadia. Soon, and it would be calamitous in some way. The Peregrine closed his eyes, feeling out the miracle he had woven over the sky. It was on the edge of passing, though it would be a natural death: Creation’s true dawn was about to begin, and it would chase away his own conceited mimicry.
“That is not an offer mine to accept,” Yannu Marave said. “But the terms must be interesting, for what you offer to be worth so many soldiers.”
“The aid of said soldiers,” Vivienne Dartwick replied. “Against the League of Free Cities.”
Left to it, Tariq thought, they would keep fencing for some time. Careful and wary both, even as death bloomed out on the fields. Not without reason, but the situation was on the edge of taking a grim turn. The Tyrant of Helike might have been called here by the Black Queen’s ploy, but he suspected even she did not truly understand what she’d unleashed. She’d let the fox into the henhouse, as reckless as ever.
“Lord Yannu,” the Pilgrim quietly asked. “Can this battle be won without their assistance?”
The other man’s lips thinned.
“If our last hand is played,” he said.
“It is, I think, about to be snapped over the Tyrant’s knee,” Tariq said.
“Then it is not impossible, yet the path is narrow,” the Lord of Alava said.
“Then we have an accord, Vivienne Dartwick,” the Pilgrim said.
There was a flicker of surprise on her face, though she mastered it swiftly.
“There is a mage among my escort,” she said. “If I might be allowed to send a signal?”
“Do so,” Tariq said. “And hurry, for-”
Creation shivered, to a sound like glass breaking had the glass been screamed by a hundred thousand voices. The Grey Pilgrim was on his feet in a heartbeat, leaving his words unfinished even as he raced out of the tent. The Ophanim’s voices rose in a chorus of anger at the thoughtlessness of what had been done, and he could only agree. A breach fractured the plain between the armies fighting, shaped like a thick pane of glass shattered by blow – spinning out in cracks. Through it fell thousands and thousands of horsemen, the very same he had sent into Arcadia. Lady Dartwick came to stand at his side, face gone pale.
“Send your signal,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Before it is too late.”
Cursing his weary bones, the Peregrine straightened his back. First he would need to enlist Laurence, but after that? There was a villain among the rain of soldiers that was being carried down by a swarm of gargoyles. The Rogue Sorcerer should be able to hold him until the two old hands arrived.
Kairos Theodosian had been allowed to run rampant for too long, and an end brought to his scheming was long overdue.
It wasn’t even much of a drop, Hakram thought, but then it hadn’t needed to be.
Ten, twelve feet the orc estimated. He’d seen horses jump half that without hurting themselves, though admittedly not horses in armour and bearing armoured riders. Still, he suspected it’d been the angle of it more than anything else: like the floor dropping off under and entire army. Their return to Creation had been accompanied by a horrifying song. Horses by the thousands screaming for their broken limbs, falling to the side and rolling over soldiers crushed by their weight. Horns and trumpets as the Procerans and Levantines who’d remained unharmed tried and failed to assert order, and all the while Kairos Theodosian laughed convulsively. Rend, the red-eyed boy had ordered Arcadia, and beneath the hooves of the west’s cavalry the earth had been rent asunder. At least the Tyrant seemed half-dead for it, Adjutant thought. The orc had seen higher sorceries of this calibre before, but only once before an aspect destructive on such a scale: the Carrion Lord’s own, when he had wrecked the doomsday fortress made from Liesse. Lord Black had been near killed by the overreach, however, where Kairos Theodosian remained conscious. Feverish, yes, exhausted and drenched in sweat. Yet still very much awake.
“It appears,” Adjutant said, “that you’ve repelled the enemy.”
The Tyrant did not reply, slumped and breathing laboriously. The villain was seated on his throne still, a gaudy thing bejewelled and set on a platform almost as luxurious. The platform itself had been carried down by a swarm of gargoyles, along with the wooden frame holding up Hakram himself. And more, too: Lord Kairos’ personal guard had been held up by pairs of the constructs, slowing their fall by enough the descent did not wound them. It’d allowed Adjutant a read on the amount of gargoyles that existed in whole, which to his eyes was somewhere between three and five thousand – mostly likely on the lower end of that span. It was still a colossal investment of resources to have made so many of the creatures, especially for a city-state, and should they ever be broken Hakram suspected it would be a crippling blow for the villain. Something to pass along, when he returned to Catherine. Lord Kairos did not reply to his comment, instead sending out further swarms of gargoyles with an anemic twitch of the arm. Adjutant’s eyes narrowed. The thousand-strong retinue of Helikean soldiers was making a slaughter of the horsemen in disarray, methodically scything through the wounded and the frightened, but it was not them the constructs had gone after.
“Better than repelled,” Kairos Theodosian rasped out. “Captured.”
Fascinated, Hakram peered at the swarms that were causing such a racket further down the shattered enemy column. There were seven of them, spiriting away seven prisoners. Seven crowned princes and princesses of Procer, he thought, snatched by the gargoyles in the midst of the howling chaos that’d been crashing down onto Creation.
“And now-” Lord Kairos began, but a wet cough tore out of his throat.
The boy’s lips, Hakram saw, were flecked with blood.
“And now,” the Tyrant croaked, “dawn.”
The orc looked up, in time to see the shining star that held back the night wane, and the truth of Creation replace it. The drow were struck down anew, before they could even properly stir.
Akua Sahelian watched dawn rise, a crow on one side and a well on the other.
They had watched it all unfold from the highest point in the camp of the Army of Callow, the graceful dance that’d spanned a night and brought them to this very moment. The shade who’d once been the heiress to Wolof had been taught the arts of treachery since the cradle, and taken to them like few others, so perhaps she was the only person in all of Iserre who could suitably appreciate what Catherine had done. The seamless sequence, born of an understanding of her foes that had been like an astronomer’s prediction of spheres in their orbit. Akua had glimpsed but a fraction of the preparations that arranging the stretch of a single night – no, not even that, barely even a bell in duration – had taken and so what she saw was not the luck of meddler but instead a net whose weaving had begun weeks ago, if not months.
“O Goddess of Night,” the shade said. “You walk along her thoughts, do you not? How much of it did she truly anticipate?”
“Enough,” the Eldest Night said.
Though the urge to press the matter burned on her tongue, she did not purse. Akua was not Catherine, to chastise and wheedle entities far beyond her ken with that fearlessness that was sister to folly. Even without moving a finger the shade could feel the towering weight of the goddess who had been born to the name of Andronike, the millennia of blood and screams she had woven into apotheosis. It felt like even just an irritated glance from the half of Sve Noc would be enough to make dust in the wind of Akua, for one’s presence was mountain and the other feathers.
“And now I am called on to do my part, leal servant that I am,” the shade murmured.
In the sky a streak of coloured light stretched, the signal from Lady Dartwick that surrender had been turned into effective – if still temporary – alliance.
“No servant of mine,” the goddess said. “You wield, but do not make covenant.”
“Alas, O Goddess, my heart has already been taken,” Akua smiled.
“This is humorous, for you imply romantic feeling when in truth referencing grievous bodily harm,” Andronike said, tone smug. “I have mastered your ways, shade.”
“I am helpless before your guile, Sve Noc,” she replied, tone the slightest hint of dry.
The crow cawed in high-handed agreement.
“There will be need of a word, to bring it forth,” the goddess said. “Have you chosen?”
“I have,” Akua said, lips quirking. “I believe she would approve.”
“Then we begin,” Andronike said.
Her work was not as crude and unpolished as to require physical contact to be wielded: proximity and binding were sufficient. She who had once been the Diabolist allowed herself to sink into the sea of Night, the receptacle she had filled with the might of the Mighty night after night. Akua had known men and women, in Praes, who would have sold half the world to have such power at their fingertips. And it’d been entrusted to her almost as an afterthought, like it was a chore instead of the kind of privilege children would murder their progenitors for without hesitation. No oath stayed her hand, now, and no chain held her so closely that with this in her grasp she could not sever it. She could turn on the woman who’d slain and bound her. She could even bring this entire beautiful house of cards tumbling down on her head simply by doing nothing. Instead, Akua Sahelian opened black-rimmed eyes and bared a smile like a blade of ivory.
“Fall,” she said.
A torrent of darkness shot up in the sky, and from dawn wove an eclipse.
Princess Rozala Malanza woke disoriented, her leg throbbing with pain. She groaned and almost panicked when she realized she could not move her arms or legs – she was bound by rope – but mastered herself before she could scream. She would not give the Enemy the pleasure of her fear before it took her life and sent her back to… No, this was not Cleves. It was Iserre, it was dark, and for reasons unknown she was hanging upside down from a rope.
“Ah,” a familiar voice gravelled. “I thought the prince from Cantal would be first to wake, on account of the thicker skull.”
“Deadhand?” Rozala croaked, her mouth cottony and vision swimming. “You’ve captured me?”
She forced herself to concentrate, and after squinting for a moment saw through the gloom.
“Not exactly,” the Adjutant ruefully replied, just as she realized the orc was hanging upside down a mere foot to the left.
Gods, her throat was parched. Wiggling in her bindings, Rozala saw she was in hallowed company indeed: to her right was Prince Arnaud, and from there a procession of royalty continued. Every prince and princess of Procer in her host was strung up there in a neat row from a raised beam, like venison left to dry.
“Who-” she began, turning to the orc, but then she remembered. “Merciful Gods, the Tyrant. We were thousands and…”
“Shhhh,” a young man called out. “The gallery doesn’t get to talk, Rosalie.”
“Rozala,” the Adjutant said.
“Oh, who cares,” the Tyrant of Helike dismissed. “Proceran royals, eh? There’s so many of them, why even bother? She can complain to Cordovan Hallenban if she feels insulted.”
The Damned, she saw, hadn’t even bothered to turn to address them. He was sprawled on a lumpy throne set atop a platform. Likely for some eldritch reason a goat was standing at his side, allowing herself to be petted while he fed her grass from his palm.
“Cordelia Hasenbach,” Princess Rozala coolly corrected. “First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West.”
Hasenbach was not and never would be bosom friend of hers, but she would not let the elected ruler of the Principate be mocked by a twisted little shit like Tyrant of Helike.
“If Rosalie talks again, my lovelies, eat one of her eyes,” Kairos Theodosian absent-mindedly ordered. “You can choose which.”
Rozala’s blood ran cold when she saw a gargoyle’s animalistic visage peer out over the edge of the beam from which she hand, chittering eagerly. There was a bleat from the goat and the Tyrant snorted.
“No, not you,” the boy said. “You’re a terrible horse.”
Rozala eyed the Adjutant, wondering whether a whispered question was worth the risk of losing an eye, but the orc suddenly stiffened. A heartbeat later, there was a burst of light as a cut was made through thin air and in a gust of stormy wind three silhouettes emerged in front of the Tyrant’s throne. Rozala knew them well, had fought at the side of most.
“Tyrant,” the Grey Pilgrim greeted the villain. “This has gone on for long enough.”
The Damned idly flipped the jeweled scepter in his hand, catching it by the handle.
“Give me a moment,” the Tyrant of Helike said, cocking his head to the side. “I’m trying to think of an answer that involves a goat pun. Just kidding? No, that’s sloppy. I hold myself to higher standards than that.”
“It will be a mercy to put an end to you, lunatic,” the Saint of Swords said.
“I bet you didn’t even make that one on purpose,” the Damned laughed.
“There’s sorcery being used,” the Rogue Sorcerer told the other two. “Still distant, but…”
“Cutting the head of the snake will serve, for a start,” the Peregrine said.
The old man raised his staff, and as the air thickened with the weight of Chosen preparing to battle a small sound ripped through the tension. It was, Rozala realized, a match being struck. Off the ornate helmet Prince Arnaud still wore even unconscious. Nonchalantly lighting her pipe, the Black Queen flicked the spent match down and offered up a sharp-toothed smile.
“So,” Catherine Foundling said, “we’ve got about an hour before everybody here ends up enlisting in the Dead King’s army the hard way.”
She shrugged, and leaned against the Adjutant’s tied form.
“But hey, by all means don’t let me interrupt.”