Chapter 38: Pinnacle

“For the left hand is strife and the right hand is ruin, and only one may be clasped. The worthy take, the worthy rise; all else is dust.”
– Extract from the Tenets of Night

The Saint of Swords wasted no time and no words: forward she went, an arrow shot. There was not a motion wasted to the way she moved, a sort of flowing gait that was neither run nor walk. The Spellblade simply walked barefoot through the ruins to meet her, utterly indifferent to the sight of one of the most dangerous heroes alive with her blood up.

“A known weakness?” the Grey Pilgrim conversationally asked.

His eyes had never left the Revenant, and neither had mine.

“Not ice, I’ll tell you that much,” I muttered. “Or stabbing. To this day I’m not even sure if I baited an aspect out of it or if it’s just that ridiculously powerful.”

“He, I suspect, not it,” the Peregrine noted.

There’d been nothing particularly male about the dead elf to my eyes, either now or then, so he probably knew something I didn’t.

“Suspect?” I repeated.

“There is an old story,” the hero said, “about Death taking the Forever King’s only son.”

I’d never heard anything like that, and unlike Tariq I’d been born in a kingdom that bordered the Golden Bloom. On the other hand, he had decades of going around Calernia nudging villains to their deaths and unearthing secrets as well as the Choir of Mercy whispering in his ear. So, the Spellblade had been a prince once. Assuming elves saw kingship as we did, which was anybody’s guess: what went on in the depths of that forest was a mystery to anyone but the elves.

“Doubt the dangling parts are going to affect this any,” I shrugged. “But good to know.”

“Knowledge is always of use,” the Peregrine agreed. “No particular weakness, then. Unfortunate. That will prolong the matter some.”

I almost told him he had a gift for understatement before I caught sight of the look on his face and realized he was deadly serious. That, to him, a millennia-old elven Revenant was simply a vexing delay on our way to the end of this journey. The serenity on his tanned, creased face was not forced or posturing or an attempt to reassure. It was simple certainty that he would be the victor, regardless of the odds. I was surprised, still, by how utterly infuriating I found the sight. Because if a hero that old, that seasoned, could feel that way? Then there was some truth to the attitude. And though that strength on my side tonight, there was still something at the heart of me revolted by the nature of it. No wonder it’s impossible to bargain with you, when you have a mandated from Above to always get your away. I was, I supposed, my father’s daughter in the regrettable ways as well as the rest. I took my hand off my staff and it stayed still and standing as I rolled my shoulders to limber them.

“Let’s get this going, then,” I said.

A moment later, two of Calernia’s finest swordsmen had their first clash. If I’d not woven a sliver of Night into my eyes, I would have missed half of it. It was not that they moved that quickly, I thought, though while the Saint was drawing on her Name and the Spellblade made a mockery of mortal means simply by being who he was. I’d faced fae quicker than them, and likely some with more strength behind their swings as well. It was, for lack of a better term, the timing of their movements that was at their craft’s pinnacle. The Saint feinted high and right, the Revenant stepped to the side and somehow that led him to be behind her and swinging at her neck: then, even as the Saint pivoted on herself and aimed a cutting blow at the side of his own neck, the both withdrew a step. I took me a heartbeat longer than them to understand why. It would have been a double kill, I realized, if they’d both finished the arc of their swing. So instead they’d withdrawn, and gone for a second pass. I almost let out a whistle. I doubted I’d ever like Laurence de Montfort even if I didn’t end up killing her but I could certainly admire her skill.

Black was the one of the few people I’d ever seen move like that – it was how he’d beat Captain when they sparred, even though she’d been massively stronger and quicker on the swing – though on occasion Archer got close to it as well. She still relied on an aspect to get there, though, her Flow. Ranger would be more than match for either of these, I thought, but though rather skilled with a blade I’d never been even remotely in their league. Impressive as the spectacle of the two of them trading not-blows like dancers was, I’d not come here to be a spectator. The tricky part would be, I knew, intervening without getting in the Saint’s way.

“All is Night,” I murmured in Crepuscular, wrist flicking outwards. “The left hand is strife and the right hand is ruin, only one can be clasped: I call on you, Komena, war-bringer and red of deed, breaker of spears and devourer of hope. In your name I curse my foe.”

A brush like feathers of my cheek, the flap of wings, and distant cawing laughter. She approved, it seemed, as she was want to do when I spoke words from her Tenets. Night flowed through my veins, like a cool shadow cast on a spring morning, and I released the working on the two fighting in the distance. Tariq stiffened, for the barest moment, though the tension ebbed when he saw that the Saint had not been hurt by what I’d done. It was a subtle touch, at first. The shadows of the ruins where they were duelling lengthened a little, and the air began to swell unspeakably in that way it did before a storm. Neither of the combatants took notice, for after four bouts they’d now taken each other’s measure and were now going for blood. I waited patiently, and only struck when I found my opportunity: the Revenant’s bronze blade had been cut through by the Saint’s longsword, and when it burst in a flash of flame that blinded Laurence she drew back. The elf’s hand extended and the air began shuddering as rust-like flecks were attracted to its open palm and began to form a fresh blade.

“No,” I replied.

And the flecks went grey, the shivering air went still and the Revenant’s eyes snapped straight to me from across the field. That’s right, I thought. Look at me. I just swung decay and entropy at you look a bludgeon, look at how irritating I am. The burst of flame hadn’t even finished dying when tip of the Saint’s blade went straight through, going half an inch into the Spellblade’s throat before he could react. Laurence’s footing shifted, she began to pivot on herself, and even as the elf took a fluid step back she finished tearing her sword out through the right side of his throat. Too shallow to have caught the spine, I saw with disappointment. Eyes flashing with fury, the Revenant’s left hand shot out and with an open palm he struck at the Saint’s arm – there was a thundering sound of iron being bent and she flew back a dozen feet from the strength of it, the angle of her upper arm making it clear the bones must have been broken badly enough it tore up through skin and muscle. The Revenant’s other arm rose horizontally and moonlight clustered around his fist.

“Still no,” I replied.

The Night clustered around his fist smothered the gathering glow before it grow strong enough to contest that ending. Visibly irritated, the Revenant shook its fingers free of the power and took a step forward that brought it in front of the Saint – just as her arm snapped back in place, wisps of Light swirling around it as the Pilgrim’s work bore fruit. The heroine was ready when the blow came, nudging aside the elf’s forearm with the pommel of her sword and then angling her wrist. Her foot circled back, her body twisted, and the Saint of Swords swung her blade halfway through the neck she’d already cut before a familiar shiver of power began. I knew that feeling. Last time I’d felt it my entire face and the forward half of my body had ended up vaporized because I’d been too close, and whatever this was the Revenant had been able to use it again on the massive pile of blocks Hierophant had tried to bury it under. Come on, I thought, and gathered the Night to pit it against the shiver. There was maybe a tenth of a heartbeat where the forces were even, and then to my horror the Revenant’s working plowed right through. All the Night I’d sunk into the area went into smoke, fully and instantly and harshly enough it felt like someone had ripped off a chunk of my skin.

Shine,” the Grey Pilgrim hoarsely said.

I forced Night into my eyes even though the sensation was unpleasant and it felt like they were boiling, as I was wary of being blinded even for a moment and the radiant shine of the star the Peregrine had just unleashed would have robbed me of sight without it. It almost did anyway, for even though Tariq had unleashed only the palest shadow of the morning star he’d hung in the sky in Creation even that shred was terrible to behold. A ghostlike shimmering globe had appeared between the Saint and the Spellblade, for an instant, and some sort of massive pressure had swatted the Revenant trough the paved ground. I still caught a glimpse of the heroine’s face and saw that all the way to the bridge of her nose the flesh of her face looked like a blanket of acid had been laid over it. It was the same with the entire flank of her body that’d been facing the Revenant most fully, though strangely her clothes were untouched. In the moment where the Night had fought the shiver I’d learned one thing for certain, that it was in fact an aspect, and taste of the nature of that power. Looking at the Saint’s tabard and tunic I frowned: they were, I thought, looking too pristine.  And with the harsh taste of the power I’d fought still resounding, I suspected I’d put my finger on the face of that aspect: it related, one way or another, to ‘purification’.

Gods, elves were such assholes. It looked like Ranger had come by it honestly.

Body unmarred by any of the wounds that’d been inflicted on it, the Spellblade leapt out of the wreckage it’d been smacked into, a half-formed blade of light green scales in hand. My working had been scattered, so there’d be no shutting that shutting the door on that quick enough. Time to go on the offensive, then, I grimly thought. A panting Tariq strung healing Light around the Saint once more, and as he did I snatched up my staff. Or would have, were it still there. For a surreal moment I looked to see if I’d simply missed it while reaching but no, the alarm welling up in my stomach was quite warranted and it was nowhere to be seen. Shit. With the amount of power I’d sunk into that, over the months, this was not the kind of artefact I would want in anybody else’s hands even if it wasn’t also my contingency for the Saint. I tapped a foot on the ground, sending out a pulse of Night. If it was close I should get something out of that.

“Pilgrim, there’s another-”

I had gotten something out of the Night pulse, though by the time I did it was pointless because my eyes had done the work already. I’d glanced at Tariq, when beginning to speak, and so caught sight of the Revenant standing behind him. It was hard to even tell she was dead, truth be told, for her tanned leathery skin and the single blond tress going down her back were strikingly lifelike. This one too was an old friend: the Thief of Stars looked no worse for the few hours she’d spent as one of my own Thief’s possessions. Though, if the harsh look she flicked at me was any indication, she hadn’t forgotten that bad turn either. More interesting was the way she was holding my staff, pointing it directly at the Grey Pilgrim’s back. Strange, since in her hands it might as well be a walking stick: she wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. Well, unless she had – and there it was, the shiver of an aspect being used. Something to facilitate using what she’d stolen maybe? It didn’t matter. I raised my hand as the Thief of Star roused the Night in my staff-that-was-not-a-staff, baring my teeth savagely.

“Mistake,” I said in Crepuscular, and snapped my fingers.

Night lashed out viciously and the sound of talons rending flesh rang across the plaza. The Thief of Stars’ upper half splattered the ground, entrails trailing like grim garlands, but there was no hiding that a gaping chest wound had split her in two. As if some great bird’s talons had snapped out of the sea of Night awaiting within the staff, where they had been waiting. They must have thought I was a fucking idiot, making something that dangerous without putting in contingencies – like the attention of the angrier half of the goddesses that artefact was linked to. She might have managed to flee with it, though certainly not remain hidden. Using it, though? That was opening a door for Komena to express her displeasure. It’d had absolutely nothing to do with my fingers being snapped, but given such a beautiful opportunity to pretend otherwise why would I not? Posturing aside, I sent out a simmering coil of Night to catch the staff before it fell and dragged it back to me. I’d just slapped into my palm when I slammed onto the ground, biting down on a scream as my bad leg gave and rolling fruitlessly to the side. A vivid green sword seemingly made of scales was swung down at my head, though with a grunt the Saint carved through the damned thing. Foul-smelling droplets flew everywhere and I wove a spinning top of Night above me that proved to be the right reflex: wherever the liquid fell, it smoked and ate at whatever it’d touched.

Move, Foundling,” the Saint of Swords snarled, slapping aside a blow with the side of her sword.

I almost did, but then I paused. This slugging match with an effectively indestructible and inexhaustible demigod wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a losing fight for us. Sure we were pulling slightly ahead right now but both the heroes would tire eventually and the Peregrine had already dropped an aspect once. Engaging the Revenant like we were storming a bloody wall was just going to get us killed. What did I know about my allies? Tariq I had a read on, could play off of, but the Saint… Sever, I realized. She had that brutal little aspect still. If she was given an opening, she could use I to remove the source of our troubles. I just needed to… Halfway into rising to my feet, I theatrically groaned and flopped back to the ground. The Spellblade saw that as the opening it was and struck again, so it’d just made a tactical mistake. I was prone and crippled, the Saint was having an increasingly harder time fending off its blows and I pointedly did not get up. I stayed there on the ground, hilariously unarmored and basically just asking to get killed. The Saint, though it must be said she did so with considerable ill-grace, heroically defended her fallen ally in a doomed venture. I suspected she was going to cut her losses soon, but that was fine. I’d gotten what we needed.

“What are you-” Laurence started, but she was interrupted by the Grey Pilgrim nailing our opponent.

It was easy to forget that, for all his power, Tariq was not meant to be the tip of the spear in a band or even the healer. He was, by Role, a helping hand. He was at his strongest and ablest when serving as that hand, as demonstrated by the fact he’d been able to once more use an aspect that he should have thoroughly exhausted earlier to save the Saint’s life earlier. Now, the radiant beams of Light bit into the side of the Revenant harshly and as the better part of his left shoulder and kneecap were incinerated, it called on its favourite trick. The air shivered as it drew on its aspect, and the Saint of Swords’ own blade fell on the floor with a clang. Breathing out sharply, the old woman swung nothing at all and the Spellblade screamed. That aspect had cut Winter, elf or not he wasn’t getting through that with a shrug. And, while we were at it, I killed the pain in my bad leg with a sliver of Night and pushed myself up with my staff. The Revenant was staggering back in apparent pain – and disbelief at the fact that it could feel pain, I suspected – while the Saint looked like she was about to keel over. She’d be out of it for at least a bit, so best to tip the scales a little further. The Spellblade’s eyes fell on me just as I leaned forward and rammed my hand through his chest.

“What,” he croaked. “What are you-”

Restocking,” I replied with a feral grin.

I’d had a knack for taking from my foes even before I’d become the herald of goddesses who’d made theft of might the central tenet of their culture. Now? I’d had tutors in the art, patrons who’d touched the godhead and a Wastelander of the old blood. My fingers, coated in Night, dug through its soul and skimmed over the raw ruin the Saint had made of the first bundle. Another two were there for the taking, one still faintly vital and the other necrotized for centuries if not millennia. I could only get a vague idea of what it was I was taking until I’d taken it, but there was no room for hesitation. The aspect still in use felt like some sort of wheel, or maybe a kaleidoscope. The dead one felt like… nothing. Absence, maybe. Denial or gamble? Double down, I decided. A little too late to start playing it safe. Letting out a hissing breath, I withdrew my fingers from the Spellblade’s chest and found they were holding a slim branding iron. Ban, I knew sure as my own breath, and cackled. I called on the Night, and began pushing it into the iron.

“Hold him,” I yelled.

The Pilgrim wove shackles of Light around the Revenant’s limbs but we were the winning side, now – it tore through them effortlessly. But where Role and story failed, Laurence de Montfort instead scathingly said something in Tolesian and carved straight through the elf’s right knee with the longsword he’d already picked up. But already it’d formed a blade out of some eerie pulsing red haze, and instead of attacking one of us he stabbed himself – only the blade broke, and fresh flesh began to sprout where the Saint had cut him before the severed limb even began to fall. But I’d been sinking Night into the brand this whole time, and though the symbol it depicted hurt my eyes to try to discern I could still see smoke was wafting from it. It should suffice. Even as the Revenant dipped forward from the sudden loss of limb, I shoved the branding iron against its chest. The moment it touched the satin shirt it went straight through, and though I saw the Revenant’s skin blacken around where the brand touched the flesh it did not react. It would not feel pain from this, I thought. Or, indeed, anything else. The red pulse shattered, the flesh ceased growing and the elf flinched back once more. I supposed it was rather in shock at the way I’d used his dead aspect to kill the other one. I stepped back and smiled.

“All yours,” I told the Saint.

She was a fearsome one, but he was still an elf and an old one.

It took her seven blows, before his head rolled on the ground and the Dead King lost his second Revenant of the night.