“It was then I understood: it is a fundamental flaw in Creation that other people can disagree with me, and I must fix that mistake.”
– Dread Emperor Imperious
The sack over his head was gently removed, which meant the hand was not the Saint’s. Dear old Laurence liked to surprise him with the glare of daylight against his unprepared eyes, when she could, and Amadeus last remembered being spelled into slumber at evening time. As always, the former Black Knight took a languid moment to assess the state of his captivity: feet bound, chest bound but, to his surprise, though his hands were still bound they were no longer behind his back. Interesting. They’d never done this before.
“It is not a kind thing to say, but I’ve always found autumn in these parts to be a foul season,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
Amadeus did not immediately reply. Their surroundings, he thought, were worth a second look. Under a gate of raised stones – three slabs of granite, the capstone supported by the other two almost incongruously large – he’d been propped up against one of the supports and arrayed so that he would be looking at an endless expanse of starry night. They were atop a hill or man-made barrow, he decided, for the sodden plains below were distant. If they were still in Iserre, which Amadeus suspected to be the case, then this should be one of the ‘Mavian prayers’ he’d read of: old Alamans tribal monuments many an Imperial scholar has suspected of being tied to the fae in some manner. Well, this was a pleasant surprise. He’d meant to have a look at one while he passed through the region, but the demands of the campaign had not allowed.
“It was always an interesting time, where I was born,” Amadeus noted.
Autumn had been the last gasps of the war season, in the Green Stretch. Once upon a time that’d meant raiding parties from the Blessed Isle riding east under the banner of the White Hand, or companies of miserable legionaries trudging down the old Miezan roads to their winter quarters facing the Wasaliti. His birthland’s status as the granary of Praes meant its freeholders were under the protection of the Tower, and so spared many of the issues farmers and villagers would usually face when soldiers passed through their lands. That protection was no shield for the consequences of paladins and legionaries skirmishing in the region, though, or of the sharp rise in banditry that would often follow larger clashes between Callow and Praes. Still, for all the roving wolves on two feet Amadeus had much preferred autumn to spring. Soldiers, even deserters, could be bargained with. Not so the floods that followed broken levees, or the thick morasses of cloying mud they left behind. His family’s freehold had not been so close to the river as to risk yearly flooding, but the scuttling and swarming vermin those disasters had brought had been just as dangerous in some ways.
“I’ll confess no surprise to the revelation that Proceran weather suits you ill, however,” he added.
Green eyes flicked down to the bemusing sight of the Grey Pilgrim stoking the flames of small fire but a few feet to the side, trying to prod wet logs into burning like dry ones. Cautiously positioned under the large granite capstone, the two of them along with that campfire would be safe from the rain Amadeus’ damp clothes suggested had burdened their day.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the Pilgrim said, “the night sky around here is a wonder. It’s the miserable, cold wetness of it I can’t stand. Sinks into my bones, these days.”
“I am told it will not snow even at the peak of winter, in most of Levant,” Amadeus said, genuinely curious.
Most of the few books entirely dedicated to the region where the Dominion now stood dated back to the golden age of Praesi scholarship, under Dread Emperor Sorcerous. Which meant that while at least they accounted for the changes that’d followed the creation of the Titan’s Pond by the strife between Triumphant and the Gigantes, they were also on average seven centuries old. More recent works were either pieced together from the accounts of traders or outright borrowed from foreign sources, such as the notoriously unreliable Proceran scholars.
“Not exactly,” the old man laughed. “We’ll get snowfall south of Tartessos, now and then, but it rarely lasts the day. Melts quickly. Once in a blue moon a blizzard will tumble down the slopes of the Titanomachy and the afterbirth will touch a shore of the Pond, but that is a much rarer occurrence.”
“I’d never seen true snowfall before my first winter in Callow,” Amadeus admitted. “It was quite jarring.”
“Mine was in Orense,” the Pilgrim fondly said. “I was pursuing this Arlesite warlock who’d cooked up a scheme to hold towns for ransom with this swarm of insects he’d enchanted to be full of diseases.”
“I take it they were not enchanted to be cold-proof,” the dark-haired man said, openly amused.
“Whole swarm died overnight,” the Peregrine chuckled. “He tried to make the remains into some sort of disease-carrying monster, but I caught him halfway through the ritual.”
“I was never impressed with the fibre of Proceran villainy,” Amadeus noted. “Malicia and I looked into making alliance in the region, when it became clear the crusade was inevitable, but it was bare picking all around.”
“There’s a pirate on the Segovian coast, I believe,” the Pilgrim said.
“The Ghastly Marauder,” he agreed. “Wouldn’t hear of taking either gold or information from the Tower, said it’d bring down either yourself or the Saint on his head. There was a promising sorceress in Tenerife, but the Tyrant had her captured and sealed in a barrel full of leeches.”
The older man winced. For a hero who must have tried some rather nasty lairs over the years, he was still surprisingly tender-hearted. Amadeus himself had been inured to the sight of spiders eating people alive before he’d reached twenty. On the rare occasions when Nefarious remembered he was supposed to rule the Empire, he often had a few members of the Imperial court tossed into the arachnid pits and attendance had been, in a sense, mandatory – the Chancellor would pass along the names of any absent to the point the Emperor at them when he next felt like stabbing at shadows. No, after so many years in Praes the mere mention of a cruel method of execution would buy no reaction from him.
“That boy has a nasty streak even for a Theodosian,” the Pilgrim sighed.
“Ours is an uncivil time,” Amadeus replied, tone droll.
“Aren’t they all?” the hero tiredly said.
Even as they conversed, the Duni continued to consider his situation. He could hear, in the distance, the sound of the rest of the party settling in a camp of their own. Given that he was currently atop a hill surrounded by water-logged plains, escape was unfeasible save if heavy rain started to fall. There was not even a drizzle, at the moment, though by the thick humidity of the air Amadeus suspected it was only a matter of time until the autumn showers began anew.
“It is not my execution you intend,” the green-eyed man calmly said. “If so, there would have been better occasions.”
And it was unlikely the Grey Pilgrim himself would do the deed, Amadeus did not say, for when Catherine returned from her journey that might just lead to the Peregrine’s skull splattered all over Proceran grounds. She was not particularly prone to mercy when cut deep, and while Amadeus was rather amused that he posed more threat to the Peregrine as a dead mentor to be avenged than a living former villain in the man’s custody he doubted the hero was unaware of the fact. He might be, of course, which was why Amadeus had said nothing. If he was to be killed, it might as well be of some use.
“No,” the Grey Pilgrim calmly said. “That is not what I intend.”
Amadeus cocked his head to the side.
“Is this an attempt at redemption, then?” the Duni drawled. “Truly, Tariq, I am flattered by the implicit compliment but-”
“I can see in you, Amadeus of the Green Stretch,” the Peregrine softly interrupted. “Repentance is foreign to your nature, as it often is the worst of your kind. I would not waste either our hours on such a fool’s errand.”
He cocked an eyebrow.
“Then what, exactly, is your purpose?” Amadeus asked, honestly puzzled.
“You are one of the oldest living villains on Calernia,” the Pilgrim said.
Alaya was older than he by a year and eight months, the Duni thought, and Hye by a great deal more than that – though it would be an oversimplification to call Hye Su truly one of Below’s, in his humble opinion. It seemed, Amadeus thought, that the Pilgrim was in fact correct. Every other villain he knew of was younger than him by either years or decades.
“So I am,” Amadeus said. “Though that was an observation and not an answer.”
“Come dawn, Laurence is going to sever your soul from your earthly coil,” the Pilgrim calmly said. “What will follow that, you need not know, but I will say that this may very well be the last time we will ever speak.”
The Duni’s eyebrow arched.
“Alas, and our acquaintance had barely begun,” he replied.
“In a way, this could be called a vigil,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Yet I will confess to more selfish motive – you are, perhaps, the closest equivalent to a peer I have in the service of the Gods Below. It would be a waste, to never speak more than a handful of sentences to you.”
Amadeus cocked his head to the side, thinking of the last conversation he’d ever had with Ranker. A Marshal of the Legions of Terror, true, but that was almost the least of what she had been to him. And the last he’d ever seen of her was as a gasping, bloody ruin on a sickbed through an unsteady scrying mirror. The man who’d birthed the plague that took her, that took the two thousand soldiers Amadeus had led into the trap only he had been deemed fit to survive, was now addressing him like the thin pretence of civility between them was anything but that. A pretence. If you can see in me, Pilgrim, can you glimpse the thoroughness of the extinction I will visit upon you given chance? The man who had been the Black Knight smiled, affably, and the sight of the other man’s eyes tightening was the only answer he needed.
“By all means, Pilgrim. I am your captive audience,” Amadeus said.
“The others will not-”
“How like a hero,” the dark-haired man casually interrupted, “to first name me a peer and then proceed to treat me the simpleton.”
There was no apology in him for the sharpness of his tone. The Peregrine and his delightful right hand the Lady de Montfort had spent this entire journey keeping him away from the younger members of their band, there had never been any question of any of them now being in attendance for this indulgence of the Pilgrim’s. The man in grey robes wryly smiled.
“Not unearned,” he conceded. “I assume that there will be terms, Carrion Lord?”
“I am hardly that anymore,” Amadeus amusedly replied. “I offer you the fairest terms I know, Pilgrim: a question for a question.”
“That is civil of you,” the older man replied without a hint of irony.
Amadeus made himself think of taking in hand a stone and smashing it against the Peregrine’s skull until it burst open like an overripe fruit. He considered the matter vividly, seeing to every detail, and then smiled amicably at the hero.
“That,” Tariq said, “was a great deal less civil.”
“Your turn,” Amadeus replied.
Though these days his body was a simple sack of meat with infuriatingly feeble senses, the Duni had been careful to watch for any use of Light or artefact and caught sight of nothing. Which meant this little trick of the hero’s was either an aspect or a gift from Above. At the very least, it did not seem to be outright mind or memory reading. Perhaps a particularly discerning sort of empathy, Amadeus considered, though given the man’s age, breadth of travel and ties to a Choir it might be something more exotic or outright unheard of.
“I am told,” the Pilgrim said, “that you are an intelligent man, and prize reason.”
Amadeus’ lips quirked in dry amusement.
“Intelligence is simple memory and cleverness, neither of which are half so glorified on their own,” he replied. “It should be no different with the pairing of them.”
“But the prizing of reason you do not deny,” the Peregrine stated.
“Insofar as the application of it is useful,” Amadeus acknowledged.
“Then, to be a villain and so cast your lot with them, you must believe in the teachings of the Gods Below,” the older man replied. “What it is, I ask, that you find of worth in them?”
The dark-haired prisoner laughed.
“Simply by asking that question, you have already failed in what you seek to accomplish,” he said.
The Peregrine’s brow creased, but he did not grow irritated with the answer. He would be, Amadeus suspected, a particularly boring man to needle. The Saint was much more entertaining in that regard.
“I do not understand,” Tariq admitted.
“You consider Below as if it were simply a wicked mirror of Above, and seek to understand it by terms it fundamentally does not recognize,” Amadeus said. “Considering the differences in how Named of our respective… sympathies form, I suppose that is an excusable mistake but it is one that precludes ever gaining perspective on the matter.”
“You are a villain,” the Pilgrim slowly said. “You are, therefore, a champion of Below. What is it that you champion?”
They both knew Amadeus to be Nameless, though the Duni suspected that was considered a minor detail compared to his decades as the Black Knight.
“You have put your finger on the crux of the matter,” he said. “As a mortal you championed the ideals of Above – or at least some middling section of them – and fit a particular grove, which as a consequence saw you bestowed power as a blessing to further that cause.”
“A gross oversimplification,” the Pilgrim soberly replied. “Though technically not incorrect.”
“I was – am, I suppose – a villain,” Amadeus said. “And as a mortal, by acquiring power I became worthy of blessing. That is the fundamental difference between your kind and mine, Pilgrim: your Name was a coronation while mine was a confirmation.”
“You argue, then, that the only teaching of Below is the acquisition of power,” the other man said.
“Teaching,” the prisoner sighed. “You speak the word anew as if repetition will make the saddle fit the beast. There are no teachings, Pilgrim, that is the point exact. The exercise of power, of will, is not given meaning. It must be ascribed. That has led to some rather unusual or horrifying uses, I’ll concede, but in my eyes that is more a reflection of human nature than of Below’s.”
“You would absolve your Gods of guilt?” Tariq said, sounding surprised.
“You would absolve humanity of responsibility?” Amadeus asked, scornful. “The deferral of consequence to higher power is the deepest form of moral cowardice conceivable. Even your precious Book agrees, Pilgrim – we have a choice.”
“And knowing this, you still choose to commit evil,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“And there we reach impasse once more,” he noted. “For you seem to consider some form of goodness our natural state, and so committing an evil a willful deviation from that state. I find such a notion utterly repugnant.”
“Are we born evil, then and only taught to be good?” Tariq pressed.
Amadeus felt a sliver of irritation and willfully curbed his tongue, knowing this lack of sympathy for slow students was one of the reasons he was particularly ill-suited to teaching.
“We are born nothing, and taught a set of… rules for a lack of better term, that allow us to determine what is acceptable behaviour and what is not,” the prisoner said. “What irks me, Pilgrim, is your insistence that these rules are a set of virtues inherent to the fabric Creation instead of covenant between mortals for mortal purposes.”
“Your conception of Creation,” the Pilgrim said, “is utterly barren of morality. It is without principle, without faith, without a single ounce of justice. Is it, in a word, dirt.”
Amadeus had no intention of engaging on the matter of justice – the last time he’d ventured an argument on the subject, the Seraphim had slapped him down through a paved street and left him to bleed to death.
“Indeed,” he casually agreed, unwilling to pursue the debate that if any of the things the Pilgrim had named were inherent instead of ascribed, they became utterly meaningless. “Now, I do believe I am owed quite the question given how your own has considerably strayed.”
“So it has,” the Pilgrim amicably conceded.
“I have made a study of you,” Amadeus said. “And though you’ve left mostly rumour behind I believe you’ve operated in southern Calernia, as well as the upper reaches of the Principate, for more than forty years. You came into your Name before Dread Emperor Nefarious claimed the Tower.”
“More than forty years is accurate,” the Peregrine drily said.
“In that span of time,” the prisoner casually said, “did any villain in those regions achieve particular prominence?”
The Pilgrim cocked his head to the side, considering the matter.
“The Barrow Lord threatened to take the northern half of Levant for the better part of a summer,” he said. “The Princess of Cantal was murdered and then impersonated by the Face-Thief for half a year before they were caught.”
“In summation, the highest peak was a secret victory that did not even last a year?” Amadeus asked.
“Arguably,” Tariq agreed.
“Interesting,” he murmured. “My thanks.”
The Pilgrim frowned.
“Why did you ask?” he said.
“Merely a theory of mine,” Amadeus said.
He knew the hero would glimpse in him the intent to wound, yet also that it was no less true for it. Curiosity, he thought, would do the rest.
“And that theory is?” the Pilgrim patiently asked.
“That you, and to a lesser extent the Saint of Swords, are at least partly responsible the current invasion of the Dead King,” Amadeus said.
The older man stared at him unblinking, for it was not the dark-haired man’s body that would be of interest but whatever sight he used to truthtell. The prisoner smiled, discerning the very moment the Grey Pilgrim realized there was not so much as a hint of a lie. His face went ashen.
“Why?” the Levantine croaked.
“You have been a singularly effective agent for Good in broad and your Choir in particular,” Amadeus said. “To the extent that you’ve just admitted to me that for a span of at least forty years you effectively snuffed out effective villain in over half of Calernia. Did you truly think, Tariq, that this would go without consequence?”
“The Hidden Horror has ignored longer stretches of peace in the past,” the Pilgrim said. “And Praes achieved resurgence.”
“So it did, in a manner of speaking,” Amadeus noted. “It was the only Calernian surface region where you and the Saint weren’t active, after all. Though, of course, as soon as the civil war in Procer ended the Tenth Crusade was declared and the last major active Evil polity on Calernia risked being ended. Perhaps permanently, given the lessons of the last crusader occupation of the Wasteland.”
“Callow could not be allowed to be consumed, Carrion Lord,” the hero harshly said. “All that suffering was brought by the very Conquest you led.”
“It must be infuriating, to realize that sometimes the balance swings the other way,” the villain smiled. “That victory can be perilous for your side as well.”
The Peregrine’s hands tightened.
“I could be wrong, of course,” the prisoner said. “It is only a theory, though one informed by facts and my decades of experience as a villain.”
“You could have kept this up your sleeve,” Tariq said. “Is that not your way? Secrets hoarded until they can be used?”
“Her name,” Amadeus mildly said, “was Ranker of the Hungry Dog tribe. She was a vicious and mistrusting and often unpleasant, but she was also my friend. I loved her, you see, in my own crooked way. And she died choking on her own blood from your plague.”
“She was a soldier,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“She was,” he agreed. “And so I do not cry of unfairness. And yet.”
The prisoner leaned forward, green eyes glimmering with something cold and hateful and utterly patient.
“So sleep well, Tariq Fleet-foot, wondering what utter ruin your good intentions might have wrought,” Amadeus hissed. “For I loved her nonetheless, and she is dead by your hand.”