“To keep a friend, avoid sharing these three: coin, cup and crown.”
– Nicaean saying
Three times now I’d come to Liesse bearing a sword.
Once to take it with the Fifteenth at my back, to smother the last embers of rebellion in my time and bury the Lone Swordsman. Again with my father for only company, sneaking in through darkness and death to quell the terrible madness of Akua Sahelian. The city that had once been the thriving heart of southern Callow had been ravaged and ruined years before today, and being ripped from Creation then cast down atop tall peaks had done nothing to mend that state. The sight of the crown jewel of the south reduced to this still had my blood boiling even now. When the Fifteenth had taken Liesse it’d been a sprawl of broad avenues covered in flowers and trees, a beauty in stone pale and tan that seemed at times like it was half churches half mansions. There was nothing of that left now. The third of the city that’d been outside the old walls, mostly tanners and dyers and the poor, had fallen right off when Diabolist raised the city into the sky. The blood and sorcery that’d followed still resonated in this place, the trees were long dead and the slender towers of the basilicas petulantly snapped. Liesse still thrummed with death: it was like a cloying scent in the air, a strange heartbeat coursing through its broken streets. And at the end of the road, in what had once been the Ducal Palace, some fresh madness was blooming. Masego awaited in the ancient hall of the Dukes of Liesse, turned fortress and ritual heart by the Diabolist.
I did not have to look far to see the first touches of his work. In the eldritch sky above us sorcery had been shaped in a great working, like colossal panes of bronze glass. It brought to my mind a telescope, for it was like a collection of increasingly larger glass lenses pointed outwards. Whatever sight they were meant for I was not certain, but on the surface of the panes I saw the barren storm-wracked wasteland of below. Compelling as the sorcery was to watch, I had no time to spare for contemplation of it. I was, it was becoming increasingly clear, far from alone in the streets of Liesse. From the moment I’d stepped out of the dark there’d been the weight of eyes on my back, and the tension had only thickened in the moments that followed. What had once been known as the City of Swans was now the City of Ash and Dust, and it was through the stuff of it that my boots scuffed as I began limping forward. Lingering here would serve no purpose: none of the others would emerge where I had. There would be need to stitch back together our little band before it was wielded against our common foe. Passing through the wreck of what had once been a guild hall, its walls broken so thoroughly that all that remained upright was low ornate pillars of plastered marble, I heard the whispers of an ambush about to be sprung. I caught sight of them, I thought, too easily. A scuttling creature of red-brown fur with long iron claws had been revealed in the shade where it hid, a ray of light playing off a cloud above us laying it bare.
It was devil. I’d even fought this kind before, at the Battle of Marchford and even the ambush that preceded it. At least as clever as a child, and capable of speech in the Dark Tongue as well as some of Creation’s languages. My discussions with the foremost diabolist of our age had since made it plain to me that these were lesser servants, as far as the Praesi saw it, but still commonly used for their wits and ease of binding. And their numbers: the bonsam, as their kind was called, were thrown at enemies not as lone individuals but in packs. My advance slowed by a pillar, and I caught a glint of iron in the carpet of ash that filled this gutted guildhall.
“This doesn’t end well for you,” I called out in Mthethwa. “Flee now and I will not pursue.”
In bursts they came out of the thick layers of ash where they’d lain waiting, and others leapt down from the nearby rooftops where they’d been watching me. In the heartbeat that followed, I counted seven. Four on the ground, dark-eyed and wild and coming at me split evenly from the sides. Three above, two who’d been huddling in mangled bell tower and the one I’d caught first pressing down its body in the hollow of a parapet. It came laughably easy to me. My hand, by happenstance, was already near where I wanted it to be – all I needed to do was let the Night pour through and flick my wrist. By happenstance still, all I would need to elude half my attackers was slip around the pillar I’d reached, and my foot was already halfway there. It was like Creation wanted me to slaughter them, and do so almost effortlessly.
“I gave fair warning,” I said, wrist already moving.
Two of those leaping were, as I pivoted around the pillar, for a moment perfectly lined up. The fine needle of Night I’d sent burst through the flesh and fur of the first like it’d been filled with munitions, and the last of the impact ate halfway through the head of the devil behind it. Two of the bonsam on the ground were now on the wrong side of the pillar to strike at me, and began to turn, while the other pair found I’d smoothly flanked them. They had long enough for their eyes to widen in surprise before with a flick of the wrist in the opposite direction I let loose a second sliver of Night: slight tendrils of smoke that slipped through their nostrils, and they dropped in the instant that followed. It’d turned acid inside their bodies, and melted what there was to melt. The sequence continued, almost dreamlike, with the third leaper landing atop the pillar to my side, two-sided claws scraping at the stone. My hand fell on the side of my staff, as if carried by my last flick, and at the very moment where its weight was drawing back from the landing the tip of my staff struck its chest. It toppled, I knew without even looking, on top of the other two who’d been trying to go around the pillar. With another languid step I finished my way around the pillar, arriving to the sight of two devils snarling at the third as they tried to push it off their side. It was the one who’d fallen that looked at me, letting out a shriek when it saw I’d raised my hand.
I snapped my fingers.
A droplet of Night formed in the middle of the three, and from it a razor-thin pulse emanated. It cut through the heads of the two bonsam on the ground, and through the waist of the one I’d nudged down. They were all three dead before I could bring my staff down to lean on, and I breathed out slowly. The whole scuffle had taken the span of perhaps five breaths, and required me to call on so little Night I’d not even noticed any strain.
“So this is what it’s like,” I murmured. “Having a story like wind in your sail.”
It was even more insultingly leisurely than I’d assumed it would be. How could any hero lose a fight, when Creation conspired a hundred coincidences to give them an edge? I mastered that burgeoning irritation, for it was one of the uglier parts of my inheritance, and set it aside. There was no point in whining about the opposition’s arsenal when instead I could be figuring out ways to use their tools more frequently. There’d be time for that later, though. For now I needed to find the others, which ought not to be too difficult if providence was willing to lend a hand for once. I resumed my advance into the deeper city, treading different shades of ruin as I did. Some the work of devils, some of wights, some of the soldiers who’d once taken Liesse in my name. I did not encounter any more of the bonsam, though once or twice I caught shadows looming on rooftops or watching through the cracks of walls. None approached, though it seemed that courtesy was not being extended to others: I heard a great crack in the distance, and watched with a wince one of the seven basilicas of Liesse toppled inwards. Well, that was as much of a sign I was going to get I supposed. I put some spring to my step and headed towards the collapse. It couldn’t have been more than two alleys of walking until I ran into where my waiting companion had emerged from the aborted crucible: there was a neat line of dead jackal-headed devils, all nine of them cut cleanly through at the waist by the same blow. I glanced at the way the corpses had fallen, and let out a reluctantly impressed whistle when I realized they must have been walking in a file when the Saint of Swords had struck and she’d killed the lot of them before they could even turn. That this was Laurence de Montfort’s work there could be no doubt.
She’d cut off enough my limbs I’d acquired an eye for the look of it.
Though not particularly enthused by who it was that I’d found first, I quickened my limp a little more still. If nothing else, the Saint’s company should make getting around this devil-infested city significantly easier. Not safer, of course, because there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t decide now was the time to clean up a loose end like me, but certainly easier. It wasn’t all difficult to follow the path she’d walked, since she’d sown corpses seemingly ever step of the damned way. It was like there was something about her that attracted the devils like flies, because by the third time I turned a corner only to find a pile of at least twenty dead or dismembered devils – the limbs everywhere made it harder to count – I was forced to conceded this couldn’t possibly just be a string of bad luck. By the fifth mess of corpses I ran into it wasn’t just ironhooks and jackalheads I was looking at, but higher breeds that Wasteland diabolists had used for war in years past. Walin-falme, the leather-winged devils that had been a favourite of binding-inclined Dread Emperors and Akua’s own choice of troops for the Folly, and akalibsa. The latter had been prized by Taghreb tribes, Aisha has once told me, for their raids on their Soninke neighbours to the north. Given that the fanged devils bore rough armour of stone and iron weapons, I could see why. Not that it’d stopped the Saint from slaughtering them.
I would be more or less true to say I saw the fighting before I heard it: further into the city, I saw swarms of walin-falme and smaller gargoyle-like hairy creatures swarming down towards the same plaza. When I got closer the baying of the hound-like akalibsa told me that the Saint was very much under siege, and I grit my teeth as I picked up the pace. Hurrying through a house that looked like some whimsical giant had slapped it down before leaving, I came upon the collapsed basilica and saw that I’d strained my bad leg for no reason at all. There must have been, I thought, easily two hundred devils in the city square I could see past the fallen basilica. The Saint of Swords was alone, and nonchalantly tearing through a the force like it was made of paper.
Pale tabard spinning around her like she was a dancer, the old woman moved among her opponents like the wind. On the ground the scythed through the bondam and the akalibsa like it was sport, smoothly using them as shields against each other as she carved through necks and limbs with unerring precision. The Saint of Swords only put weight behind her blows when the winged devils came for her, the wind left by explosive strength of her strikes sucking them like birds in a storm. I saw her, with my own eyes, cut the air and leap up onto that mark only to kick up and catch a walin-falme in the face, use it as pedestal to twist and carve through the skull of another devil and catch a third one by the throat – she tossed it, casually, against the cut she’d made in the air and it was severed in two halves by the impact. In the heartbeat that followed that insanity she ripped free her longsword and leapt back down into the swarm below, never once having hesitated or broken stride. Merciless Gods, I thought. She might as well be a meat grinder. As I walked through the rubble of the basilica, a shadow was cast ahead of me by the walin-falme who’d thought to take me by surprise and I flicked a wrist backwards without turning. The slithering rope of Night caught it by the neck and tightened before turning to black flame. A charred head and corpse landed behind me a moment later, but I would not be so easily distracted. I suspected that the Saint could keep at this all day without tiring – I’d yet to feel from her more than the occasional flicker of Name power – but devils kept pouring in and there was no end in sight.
We needed to move this along before we got bogged down, and I might as well get two birds with one stone. I supposed I could have reached deep into the Night and unleashed a large working that would have slain many and scattered the rest, but I was disinclined to waste power so early in the fight. Especially when there were more… creative solutions to be had. I left the Saint to her slaughter and crouched against the ground with a pained wince, leg throbbing. Holding onto my staff with tight lips, I ran a hand through the ash and black dust that covered the stone. I closed my eyes, let out a slow breath and let the Night fill my veins. As I’d thought, as I’d felt, there was still power in this place. Deaths by the thousands, as the alchemies of Still Water sunk into innocents and a spark of magic set that corruption ablaze. Other great sorceries as well, Akua’s own works of grand hubris and what Masego had made of this place since snatching it from its Callowan cradle. There were echoes here, and they were not gentle ones. Eyes fluttering open, I swept aside enough of the filth that I could lay my naked palm against what had once been the stone floor of the basilica.
“I saw the birth of you,” I murmured. “Heard the reverb, even then, though I did not yet have ways to heed it. I do now, though.”
I let the Night bridge the gap, felt the wailing held within swell with anger, and gasped as my chest tightened.
“Sing for me,” I whispered.
And though I had failed them I was still their queen, anointed in the halls of the Fairfaxes and the fields of war, so sang for me they did. To my ears it felt like a muted buzzing, at first, something so large and deafening my ears could not truly fathom it. But as the first heartbeat passed, a wave of something eldritch filled me and I tasted of the nature of it. Rage, unbridled and strident and blind: wights killed and killing. But the echo went deeper, to what I had sought. The terror of the inevitable, the helplessness of doom already sown and coming. The shivering moment where the greatest evil of our age had been committed by a woman now in my service. I partook of it, and let the city sing that chorus. It would not last long, I thought as I withdrew my palm and wearily rose to my feet. Maybe thirty heartbeats, and the further away the less keenly it would be felt. But here, now? Even as Laurence de Montfort stood unmoved among a whirlwind of devils, the flock of bound creatures scattered. Fled to the winds, taken by panic and rage that they were not truly able to understand. I’d spared the Saint as much of this as I could, but in truth I’d doubted she would be affected. And, I saw as she calmly turned to watch me, I’d been right. There was no waver in her eyes, no weight on her shoulders. Like water off a duck’s back the tumultuous rage and fear of over a hundred thousand souls rolled over her and found nothing to hold on to.
“Black Queen,” the Saint of Swords greeted me. “Finally. Where are the others?”
“Heading this way, I’d wager,” I said, limping up to her.
I kept some distance. Enough that, if she chose to strike, I’d have long enough to be aware of the blow. That ought to be enough, given my preparations, though in matters like this nothing was ever certain. Much less when it came to a heroine as old and ridiculously lethal as the Saint.
“After that trick you just pulled, there’ll be more than blade fodder headed our way,” the old woman said, then spat to the side. “Might as well have raised a banner for everyone to see.”
“It’ll get the Grey Pilgrim here, as least,” I said. “Perhaps the others as well.”
Laurence’s eyes narrowed.
“Whatever sharpest killer the Enemy’s got as well,” she said. “But you did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
I did not deny it, since it was true.
“I’ve had to assault that palace once before,” I said, gesturing at the looming structure in the distance. “And that was when it was just the Diabolist that put up wards and traps. We don’t want to have to fight whatever monster’s waiting while in there, you can trust me on that.”
“I don’t even trust you to breathe,” the Saint curtly said. “But the decision’s not entirely senseless.”
“You sweet talker, Laurence,” I deadpanned. “Stop, you’ll make me blush.”
She eyed me up and down, though there was nothing suggestive about the assessment taking place. That was the gaze, I thought, of someone deciding how it’d be easiest to kill me when the time came and was rather looking forward to getting around to it.
“What did he offer you, in there?” the old woman brusquely asked.
My jaw clenched. Did I want to have that conversation with Laurence de Montfort, of all people? No, I did not. On the other hand, there were risks to dismissing her question. I studied her carefully. If I refused, would she take that as me confession to collusion with the Dead King and strike? I honestly wasn’t sure. And unless I wanted to risk a fight anyway, I couldn’t hesitate much longer than this.
“A hundred year truce,” I finally said. “For the lands he’s already taken. You?”
If I was going to answer, so was she. The Saint smiled unpleasantly.
“Never even showed up,” she said. “It got dark, I got impatient and cut my way out. So much for your test, Foundling. Didn’t figure it all out, it looks like. I wonder what else you’re wrong about.”
I hummed, cocking my head as I listened to the last echoes of the song I’d asked for. I could follow the… tide of it, with a little effort, and it was telling me interesting things. For one, it parted around the Ducal Palace like a tide around rocks. The end of our journey most definitely awaited there. There was, however, another hole in the city. Much smaller, but unlike the palace instead of being exempt it was violently repelling the song. And that small presence was not far ahead of us, coming in our direction.
“Not about the monster, I’ll tell you that for certain,” I said. “We’re about to have a guest, Saint.”
Her gaze sharpened.
“Then move ahead,” she said. “I will not have you at my back, Black Queen.”
“Why?” I frowned. “I’m not the one who’s a walking domain. I can’t – wait, are you implying I’d stab you in the back?”
She sneered, which was answer enough.
“Seriously?” I said. “Are you incapable of being halfway reasonable without someone holding your hand? I’ve had more cordial conversations with godsdamned angels, Laurence. Angels. Let that sink in.”
I did not see it until it was too late. My mistake, growing irritated enough most my attention had been on the Saint instead of where it should be. My heart quickened and I felt goosebumps crawl along my skin as I saw a single-edge blade of bronze swinging for my eyes. It had been a mistake, I realized, to assume that the song would allow me to accurately keep track of the enemy. Then there was a flash of radiant Light, and the creature that’d been about to take my life was shot out by the impact like a ballista bolt. I blinked out the blindness, absent-mindedly noting that the enemy had been thrown straight through two houses and a sculpture of Jehan the Wise before stopping.
“We appear to have flushed out the enemy,” Tariq said, lowering his crooked staff.
“Thanks for that,” I croaked out.
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. My heart was beating wildly and my fingers felt faint. Gods, but it’d been a while since I’d come that close to dying – without anything like Winter to get me through it. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. I fell in with the Pilgrim, the two of us advancing to join the Saint. Her eyes were on the plume of dust and ash where the enemy had been thrown, and together the three of us looked upon the silhouette that emerged. Utterly pristine even after being thrown, its bare feet padded across the ashen ground. It wore nothing but a loose long-sleeved shirt of white satin, with trousers of the same, and its extended arm held out the bronze blade at a horizontal angle. It was not human, I thought, and I knew that without needing to study it in greater detail because I’d encountered it before.
“Well now, as I live and breathe,” the Saint said. “That looks to me like an elf.”
“Bestowed, too,” the Pilgrim added.
“It’s called the Spellblade,” I calmly said. “And it’s one of the Dead King’s own Revenants.”
I felt the weight of the other two’s attention, though neither looked away from our enemy, and the unspoken question that went with it.
“In Keter I tried to destroy it, with Hierophant and Thief,” I said.
“And?” Tariq calmly asked.
“I landed about one good hit that whole fight, for which it vaporized half my body,” I replied. “We ran as soon as we could. It’s nasty in the elf way, and it can makes blades out spells as well. This is going to be a ride, I can tell you that much..”
“Good,” Laurence de Montfort said, smiling a wolf’s smile as she began advancing. “Then this ought to be decent practice for Dead King.”