“Forty-three: if your band is split during a harrowing test set by a villain or ambiguous entity, you may safely assume you will next be reunited in some sort of cell or unfolding sacrificial ritual.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
It was a funny thing, perspective. What Hierophant had stolen from Arcadia was a drop in the ocean, a piece of eternity that became something less by being removed from the whole. Looking at it with my own eyes, though, the scale of what he’d wrought was worthy of awe. A kingdom’s worth of badlands, consumed by howling squalls and the aftermaths of sorcery until the very grounds were made barren. I’d walked only the very edge of this land, but it’d been enough to tell me that it would take weeks if not months to go from one end to another. And it would fall on Creation, a cataclysmic doom on Iserre, if anchor was not fashioned before the tipping point. To accomplish that most important of tasks, an army would have been too much but a single person too little. And so, in a pattern nearly as old as the First Dawn, a band of five had been called. Of those chosen few I would not speak of myself, but the others? It was not small names – or Names – that had been assembled to turn back doom.
The Tyrant of Helike, an odd-eyed madman who’d pulled at the strings of nations and tricked an entity older than the city that’d birthed him. Weak of constitution, sickly and feeble, he did not walk with the others but instead leisurely sat a throne held up by a throng of eerily-intelligent animated stone gargoyles. The ornate scepter in his hand was the least of the artifacts at his disposal, though the only visible, for the villain had inherited a veritable trove of lunacy and wealth from the Theodosians of centuries past. And yet, for all that, I suspected the deadliest things remained his tongue and the mind that but purpose to it. As if making of mockery of this entire war, the Tyrant wore not armour but instead kingly brocaded robes in gold and scarlet, match for the ornate ruby-set crown on his brow and his misformed eye even deeper red.
The Grey Pilgrim needed no introduction, I supposed. The oldest living Calernian hero and favourite agent of the Choir of Mercy. There was a terrifying amount of power in that wizened frame, and the crooked staff of ashwood he bore, but it was the Peregrine himself that was the true terror. He was a weaver of stories in dusty grey robes with second sight and a choir’s worth of angels whispering secrets in his ear. He was incorruptible, implacable and while in body he might just be an exhausted old man his deep knowledge of miracles and deeper well of power allowed him a mystifying breadth of capabilities that only strengthened when exercised to save another. Though near a king in the eyes of his people, his shoes were worn leather and he wore not a single adornment save white locks atop his head.
What more need be said of Saint of Swords, after saying she had once cut the fabric of Winter itself? Oh, like the Pilgrim her years were slowing her down but the vitality of her prime had been replaced by the kind of unbroken certainty that in a Named was a hundredfold more dangerous than muscle. I would never like her, but the Saint was a heroine who has faced sword in hand and slain things whose mere sight would put lesser souls to flight. She was one of the finest blades alive, capable of cutting through sorcery and steel and the fabric of Creation with the plain longsword at her hip, and she had tempered her soul and body into a domain whose existence made her halfway unkillable – and explained why she disdained armour in favour of a plain pale tabard over a darker collared tunic.
The last one, the Rogue Sorcerer, was taciturn mystery who’d faced two of the most infamous villains of our age – in all humility, Akua Sahelian and myself – without taking a wound, revealing an aspect or ever being in danger of death. He’d been able to fend off Diabolist’s ritual attempts to find my father, proved capable of guiding armies through a dying shard of Arcadia and was, to my knowledge, the only person not complicit or in my service to have figured out it was a Keter’s Due that filled the sky. That someone so plainly competent was almost unheard of meant the man was being purposefully discreet, and given my teachers I knew how lethal Named who went out of their way to keep their abilities quiet tended to be. The long coat of leather over practical chain mail and less practical silks of many colours was kept close to his frame, though there were shapes to be discerned beneath. Over his shoulder was hung a heavy bag bearing seven mortal crowns, carried on my behalf.
It should have been a formal affair, this journey, something solemn and dignified.
“So is it true you used to knock boots with the Iron Prince?” Kairos cheerfully asked. “I’m not usually one to bring up salacious rumours, but-“
I ignored the bald lie he’d spoken and instead kept a wary eye one the Saint’s sword hand. Which was, unsurprisingly, on the pommel of said sword. That tended to happen whenever the Tyrant talked, though to be fair we’d only just entered this realm and already I was tempted to let her. I glanced at her face, though, and found it wrinkled as usual but also irritated this time. I bet it’s true, I thought. All those late evenings killing ratlings under moonlight? Hasenbach honestly wasn’t much of a looker – though she wasn’t exactly plain either – but her uncle might wear those broad shoulders a little better.
“Black Queen,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Am I correct in presuming that the broken tower is our destination?”
He was speaking a little too loudly for this to be entirely about him asking me a question. Still, he was pointing in the right direction so I actually followed his finger and nodded after a confirmatory look. The wasteland here was not entirely plains with a few distant mountains, there were other inclines. It was simply hard to see them, sometimes, buried as they were in ash and dust and smoke. Even far out from the great storms as we were, the winds would be slapping great heaps of those at our sides if not for the small glow dangling from the tip of the Pilgrim’s staff like an amulet of solid Light. Unlike the protection Sve Noc had taught me to make, his did not impose a bubble of stillness around us. It… eased the winds into slowing, so that when they reached us they were little more than a warm breeze carrying nothing at all. It was a more elegant solution, though when we’d get to breaching the great storms I suspected my method would be more effective.
“It is,” I said. “I’m impressed you can recognize it as a tower, to be honest.”
If I hadn’t been there earlier with my Hunt in attendance, I would not have. All that was visible of the tower now under a hill’s worth of ash and dust was a square house of stone with a broken tile roof jutting out form the grey. There’d been glass windows on the sides once, but they had not survived the first catastrophe to hit them years ago and even the last sticking bits were like ground-down teeth in an open maw through which the wasteland’s winds poured through.
“The slate tiles and sandstone are not unfamiliar to me,” the hero said. “They were a noticeable feature of Liesse.”
The nicer parts of it, anyway, I mentally corrected.
“You’ve been there before,” I said.
“Once, years ago,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “I had hear that the secret tomes of the Wizard of the West had been found, and were to be auctioned by a Liessen guild.”
Not one of the legal ones, I thought with a snort. Books written on the subject of magic had been heavily restricted under Black and confiscated whenever found, though there’d been monetary compensation so Callowans hadn’t really cared unless they were wizards. In which case they already had greater reasons to be afraid of the Carrion Lord than books, no matter their subject. This, though, a hero’s ancient tomes put up for auction in largest southern Callowan city but also the only one under an Imperial governor? Knowing my teacher like I did, that story could only be headed one way.
“It was a trap,” I said.
“It was a trap,” the Sorcerer sighed. “I nearly died twice fleeing the ‘auction’ and lost a fortune’s worth of…”
“No matter,” he said. “Still, the city was a memorable enough sight.”
I glanced at him.
“Did you get one of the books?” I asked.
“I did,” the hero disgruntledly said. “It was only a transcript of some Praesi trial involving tapirs, and to add insult to injury the Warlock wove a tracking enchantment into it.”
I very carefully hid my smile. I had some suspicions as to who had chosen the contents of the book, at least. Regardless, we had arrived. We’d also pulled slightly ahead of the others as we talked, though they caught up quick enough.
“- in a way wouldn’t that make you Cordelia’s aunt?” Kairos enthusiastically said. “You’re practically royalty yourself, Laurence.”
The Saint’s fingers twitched, but sadly I still needed the Tyrant and he was bound to have some contingencies that’d cripple us if he was actually attacked – I doubted he would have agreed to come otherwise, or kept taunting the old zealot so insistently. Gritting my teeth I prepared to step in, but before I could the Grey Pilgrim quietly laughed. The sound had the Saint’s shoulders loosening, though the Sorcerer’s tightened instead.
“I knew your father, Kairos,” the Peregrine quietly said. “Were you aware?”
“You’ve not exactly been chaste in the array of stories you’ll get involved in, Tariq,” the Tyrant amusedly said, flopping a wrist dismissively. “Though I’ll assume that was before the two of us had our pleasant chat on the matter of succession.”
“You remind me of him,” the Pilgrim said. “He, too, felt the need to fill silences at any cost.”
The Tyrant of Helike went still for less than a heartbeat, and was smiling after as if he’d never ceased, but he’d not been quite quick enough to hide the glint of frozen rage that passed through his eyes at the Pilgrim’s words.
“Already a little less bored,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “Not so kindly after all are we, my kindly stranger?”
“If a child pricks his hand picking a rose, it is not maltreatment,” the Grey Pilgrim mildly said. “It is a lesson.”
Considering that unlike the Tyrant I hadn’t just had an old wound prodded at and the wise old man tone was still tiresome to me, that was a sign I needed to step in. I didn’t have much sympathy for Kairos, but it would be preferable if every member of this band at least made it to the antechamber of the peril ahead. It’d just be poor form otherwise.
“We’ve arrived,” I called out.
The old man and the young king kept their gaze on each other for a long moment even after I spoke, and I cleared my throat progressively more loudly until they both looked because it sort of sounded like I was choking.
“Now that I have your attention,” I rasped out.
I raised a finger, then breathed out a little. Though I was high priestess of Night, unlike the rest of these people I didn’t have the ancillary benefits of Name easing my way through this journey. When ash got into my lungs and mouth, I still choked like a mortal. Still didn’t regret that transition in the slightest, mind you. You just couldn’t put a price on enjoying a good cup of wine, and not occasionally going mad with Winter.
“When the Hierophant brought Liesse into this place, it was roughly done,” I said. “Roughly enough that pieces of the city were sown all over this wasteland.”
The Rogue Sorcerer inhaled sharply as he realized where I was headed before the rest. The benefits of having an education in matters magical, I thought, and made note that while the Tyrant’s eyes had narrowed he didn’t seem have figured it out. I was honestly uncertain whether or not the villain was a mage or not, since I’d never actually seen him use sorcery except through artefacts. At the very least, though he was gifted in his understanding I was now fairly sure even if he was a mage he had not reached High Arcana.
“In Creation that wouldn’t mean much, but this place is adrift,” I said. “I won’t get into too much detail, since it’s all very technical-” and even after speaking with Akua twice I still only barley understood what she’d said, “- but given the fluidity of laws this place, and the strength of the story we’re riding, the law of sympathy can be leaned on pretty heavily to provide a shortcut.”
“That is… inspired,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “We came through Creation, but to emerge elsewhere in this realm we would be walking the boundary between it and Arcadia instead.”
I smiled and kept my fingers from clenching. It was a good thing I was intending on remaining on good terms with the Grand Alliance, because if it came down to a fight this one might be too dangerous to keep alive. It’d taken Akua Sahelian, a sorceress that even a one-in-a-century kind of talent like Masego considered brilliant, a direct look at my Lord of Silent Steps using something similar in nature to figure this method out. Ivah had begun something close, that it called ‘skittering’, back in the Everdark and had refined the trick since into a very dangerous tool. The Rogue Sorcerer had figured out from a bastard description in a matter of moments, and though that didn’t mean he’d be able to reproduce the feat that was still a rather nasty knack for comprehending my side’s bag of tricks. I’d wanted the Tyrant in this band of five because of the Sorcerer, but now I was wondering if that was going to be as affective a scheme as I’d believed it would be. Not that this was ever going go be anything but a risky roll of the dice, considering there was no one among my fellows I could truly rely on if things went south. Still there’d been no way but leaving Adjutant behind: I needed both the Tyrant and the Sorcerer among the five, since it both gave me the shape of the former’s inevitable betrayal and allowed me to get around the diplomatic debacle that would be robbing people I needed to be allies with. No matter how badly they deserved to be robbed.
“Foundling,” the Saint of Swords said. “You admitted earlier that your Praesi warlock is possessed by the Hidden Horror, yes?”
“Influenced,” I corrected.
“Bit of downplay, that,” the Tyrant snorted.
“As far as my people have been able to tell, the Dead King isn’t in control most of the time,” I said. “Though there seem to be small bursts where he is, it’s true, but always for less than a quarter hour. Though for simplicity’s sake, it would be best to consider the Hierophant as bewitched.”
“And how do you intend to break that bewitchment?” the Saint bluntly asked.
“I can’t answer that without crippling the chances it’ll actually work,” I replied. “But rest assured, I do have a method.”
“If he’s half as powerful as all,” the Saint gestured at the wasteland around us, “this seems to imply, he needs to die. If the Dead King has a way in, he’ll remain a risk after even if-“
“Laurence,” I interrupted, tone eerily calm, “allow me to be perfectly frank with you: if you so much as scuff his robes, I’ll put you down without batting an eye. It’s not diplomatic, or all that practical, but I do not tolerate rabid animals snapping their jaws at the people I care about.”
She glared at me, eyes burning. I stared back, unblinking. The Saint was exactly the kind of heroine to nip what she saw as a looming threat in the bud by the edge of her sword. The same traits that made her capable of accomplishing that also made her a lot more likely to try it, in my eyes, which was rather the issue with Saint in essence wasn’t it? The moment there was no longer a hand on her leash, the truce went up in smoke.
“Queen Catherine,” the Pilgrim intervened. “The question was not meant as an attack. It needs to be asked: if there is no other way, if your own method has failed, a decision will have to be made.”
My fingers clenched, but I forced them to loosen.
“In that very narrow situation you’ve mentioned, then I’ll take action,” I said. “But let’s be perfectly clear: if any of you use what I just said as a pretext to kill the Hierophant, I will take it as an act of war.”
Gods, it was a heavy-handed approach and I might as well be painting a weakness in bright red for the wolves among this flock but it needed to be said nonetheless. I wasn’t sure either the Saint or the Tyrant would actually have their hand stayed by the threat I’d just made, but the sword I’d just hung above the head of this truce should be enough to have cooler heads intervene instead of stand back and watch if either acted. The Grey Pilgrim, anyway, I grimly thought. I didn’t have a good grasp of the Rogue Sorcerer yet.
“As I was saying,” I began anew after a few beats of silence. “We will be taking an unusual path, whose nature is kin to a threshold. There are advantages to that. Through Hierophant, the Hidden Horror would attempt to strike at us if we approached the city openly. But in that more fluid place we will travel through, I suspect it will lurk as well. Waiting.”
“The first crucible,” the Pilgrim calmly said. “Not one, I think, of arms.”
“When assault the stronghold of a villain,” I said, “watch out for three things: a monster, a trial and a pivot.”
“And you believe this to be the trial,” the old man said.
“I believe that everyone here has a few bodies buried somewhere in their past,” I said, eyes sweeping across the heroes and villain. “And something they want badly enough to listen to the devil when he’ll come calling. And make no mistake, I have encountered the Dead King before. It isn’t with threats and screams he’ll approach. It will be with a pleasant offer for a most reasonable bargain.”
Gods, much as I hated to admit it the Saint of Swords was the one I had most faith in to blow straight through. Even Neshamah would have a hard time cracking open that protective shell of hatred and arrogance. The Pilgrim shouldn’t be an issue, either, but there were a lot more levers to move him than I was comfortable with, especially considering the Dead King was bound to know a thing or two about angels. The Tyrant was going to sell us out, that was a given, but that was fine. I’d planned with the inevitability in mind. Once more, it was the Rogue Sorcerer that was the unknown. I glanced at Tariq and caught his eye, then subtly dipped my head towards the youngest hero. Just as subtly, the Pilgrim nodded. He was either reliable, then, or good enough to fool whatever means of second sight the Peregrine used. Either way, it was too late in the span to do anything about it.
“It was a beautiful speech, Catherine,” Kairos called out. “It greatly raised my spirits.”
I rolled my eyes and limped up the hill of ash and dust until I stood by the side of one of the broken windows. Running a hand across the warm stone by the windowsill, I breathed out and let the Night flow through my veins. The shivering line between realms was no domain of Sve Noc’s, but the darkness within the broken house was a threshold I could use. Night poured out of me like a flood, until I breathed out and withdrew my palm. I turned to them, straightening my back.
“Into the deeps,” I said. “We will meet again on the other side.”