“Thirty-four: it is not graverobbing if it was your destiny to have that artefact, just proactive inheritance.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
The Spellblade had taken an awful lot of killing, but he was finished. With the Thief of Stars having tried her hand at stealing something a goddess had her hand on and gotten about what one would expect for the trouble, that left the three of us masters of the field.
And so I was worried.
I had a finer nose for trouble than most, given the amount of times I’d come a hair’s breadth away from death, but it wasn’t a physical threat that had me growing unsettled. I knew for a fact that the Dead King had more than few Revenants to throw into the breach, so why was it two I’d encountered before that were guarding Hierophant? And that wasn’t even getting into the way that I’d bet rubies to piglets we were going to run into the damned Skein skulking somewhere around here before this was over. No, setting that aside for now why was the King of Death putting up dead Named I had some knowledge of instead of any other from his millennial treasure trove of undead heroes? The Spellblade hadn’t been an easy mark, by any means, and it’s cost us heavy use of exhausting aspects from two aging heroes to put him down, but I didn’t buy that Neshamah didn’t have some Revenant around that wasn’t about as much as a heavy hitter and completely unknown to me. Are you tying off loose ends, Dead King? Sacrificing servants I was familiar with so that knowledge couldn’t be used against him down the line? It seemed wasteful, given the calibre of Revenants used. The elf could probably have torn through a Lycaonese border fortress by himself, and if the Thief of Stars was even half as handy as Vivienne had been when wielding a cousin Name she could easily have wreaked havoc on supply lines.
It was true that the Dead King’s method was, in essence, never to leave an opening that could be exploited no matter what it cost to play it safe. On the other hand, it didn’t feel like a coincidence that I could feasibly make use of both the Revenants we’d encountered today. The Thief of Stars had, back in Keter, wielded an aspect that lit up a constellation above her head that was known in Callow as the King’s Crown. It’d been suppressed by my domain, as Winter could snuff out anything given long enough, but if I went digging in our little friend’s split halves I might be able to seize whatever that’d been. The Spellblade, if Tariq was right, had once been a prince of the Golden Bloom and presumably heir to its throne. Of seven crowns and one, it was perhaps viable to seize the last from either the broken Revenants at our feet. If the Dead King was in Masego’s head – and he had to be, to an extent, to have been able to pass on so many of my secrets to the Tyrant – then he would know of my recipe to make Larat into something greater. Could I assume that, since he’d since had opportunity to speak with Kairos, he knew of everything I’d revealed so far? Yes, it’ll be safer to, I decided. So he knew I needed one last crown, presumably, and… No, that was the wrong way to think about this. Both the Revenants couldn’t feasibly recent additions to this mess, they must have been here for some time.
So why would the Dead King send a pair of possible crowns into the mess, of all his possible guards to post around Hierophant?
“Black Queen,” the Peregrine interrupted me. “We should not linger.”
“It’s a trap,” I pensively said.
“What is?” the Saint flatly asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I muttered. “But he laid a trap for us.”
The last crown, the ‘one’ of the ‘seven and one’, it was the most important of the eight. As the Rogue Sorcerer had said: seven for weight but the last to shape. Was this the nature of the snare the Dead King had laid? That if we took a shortcut, attempted to bring a crown from outside our little circle rather than surrender one of our own, we’d be giving him a foothold into this place? The Revenants, after all, were of his make now regardless of what they had been while living. It was tenuous thread, to be sure, but given that my opponent was perhaps the finest sorcerer to ever grace Calernia and had more than ten centuries of experience on me in Namelore even that fine thread might be enough. Given the largely unprecedented nature of what I sought to accomplish tonight, there was still much that I did not and perhaps could not know about it. Or is that your trick within the trick, Neshamah? I suddenly thought While I go in circles pondering of stories and deep schemes, you use it as shell to strike a more precise blow. Was he offering me a pair of crowns so I would sour on the use of them out of fear, and so force a loss? The right to rule of one of three would be gone, if so: Tyrant, Pilgrim or Queen. Any of them would result in an opponent of the Dead King losing a measure of earthly influence.
“We cannot withdraw,” the Grey Pilgrim bluntly said. “It would mean the death of three great hosts, and possibly of Iserre itself.”
“Getting afraid, Foundling?” Laurence nastily grinned.
Her, I ignored. We were no longer fighting, which meant she’d gone from massively useful to at least something of a pest and possibly a liability. The Peregrine I needed to keep his eyes on the prize, though, so to him I replied.
“I’m not suggesting withdrawal,” I said. “But the Hidden Horror has a game afoot, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that. There’s too many coincidences beginning to pile up.”
Tariq was no youngblood, but that had advantages as well as the opposite. His eyes sharpened.
“The Revenant you fought before,” he said, and it was not a question.
“Revenants,” I corrected, flicking a glance at the other mangled corpse.
The old man’s face went stiff. Though not, I understood when he began speaking again, for the reasons I’d expected.
“He must hold you in high esteem,” the Grey Pilgrim blandly said, “for having assumed from inception that it would be your arrangements that would win out and lead us here.”
Yeah, now was not even remotely the time for that. The oddly cordial relationship I had with the foremost monster in Calernian history was not a matter I intended on discussing here – with Tariq, ever – so I put down my foot as firmly as I could on this before it could lead anywhere.
“Or, more likely, he planned for every eventuality and we’re simply seeing the contingencies related to my intentions,” I said. “You’ll remember that the Tyrant has been feeding him everyone’s secrets for months now – the Dead King’s not the kind of creature to have only one string to his bow.”
“And how are we to be sure, Damned, that you’re not one of those strings?” the Saint said.
“You sure you didn’t speak with him?” I mused, forcing my lips to stretch into a friendly smile. “Because starting a fight within the band seems like exactly the kind of thing a villain would manipulate someone like you into.”
The old woman’s face blanked, the tightening of her features pressing the creases together in a way that made them look like some surreal mask of flesh for a moment. The loathing she glared at me with was bright and burning. I cared little for it, though, since the reminder that by turning on me she might just be advancing the Dead King’s schemes was enough to have her fingers leaving the pommel of her now-sheathed sword. A little heavy-handed, as far as handlings went, but I suspected anything too subtle would be lost on the likes of Laurence de Montfort.
“What is it that you suggest, then?” the Pilgrim calmly asked.
“I’m going to be taking those,” I said, flicking a hand at the two broke Revenants. “In case they might be of use. But the identity of the third Revenant we encounter will tell us how we need to approach the end of our journey.”
“You have met others, then,” Tariq said.
I had. Two more, to be exact. The nightmare that was a Horned Lord with oracular insights, the creature known as the Skein. And one I had not fought at all, and would rather not: a man who’d once been the Good King of Callow, Edward Fairfax the Seventh. If it was the former that was waiting on our path to the Ducal Palace, then Neshamah’s game remained opaque to me. If it was the latter, though? It’d make three crowns that had been set in my way, increasingly obvious ones. It was an almost insultingly blatant bait, which while shedding no light on what decision should be taken at least would make it clear what the crux of the snare was. Assuming, of course, that this was not all governed by whim and the third Revenant wouldn’t either be one I’d never before encountered. Or that there would be no third at all.
“It should be either a rat or a king,” I said. “The rat means we’re in trouble. The king means dice might need to be rolled.”
“A rat,” the Saint slowly said. “Do you mean…”
“Yes,” I interrupted. “Like that one you fought.”
“You’ve fought one of their kind before?” the old woman said, eyes considering.
“I survived it, with the help of others,” I retorted. “Still on the fence as to if whether where we are right now will make it more or less dangerous.”
There was no Threefold Reflection to spin us around with here, but the Skein wouldn’t be confined to a single room either. It’d had a lot more room to manoeuvre, and freedom in choosing when and where to strike. Given that oracles were agonizingly difficult to deal with even when they weren’t also massive more or less indestructible murder rats, it was not promising grounds either way. I was rather hoping for King Edward even if that path involved the dice having another go. Shit, if it was the Skein then had we been anticipated every step of the way? No, I decided. I knew for a fact that Choirs could affect those sorts of things, and the Pilgrim was sworn to one. Sve Noc would obscure me to most things unless they wished it otherwise, including possibly the Skein’s weakened remnants of a Name, and there was also the very madman that Kairos had been using as a shield this entire campaign: the Hierarch. No, it shouldn’t be possible for the Skein to have followed the entire thread flawlessly given that much interference. It should still have been able to glimpse possibilities, though, which would be dangerous enough on its own.
“The rat has something in common with Cordelia’s cousin,” I delicately said, glancing at Tariq.
The old man’s lips tightened, and he offered me a nod.
“I suspect the both of us will hinder that,” he said. “Though not half as much as Laurence does simply by being who she is.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“What does she do?” I said. “Cut the future?”
Gods, I immediately thought, please don’t let her cut the future. She was already ridiculously difficult to handle.
“Winter was predictable,” the Peregrine said, “but never, I believe, predicted.”
My brow rose further up, and I glanced at the Saint – who seemed displeased we were trading information to her. I couldn’t honestly blame her for that, since a handful of secrets was often the difference between Named beating all odds or being buried. The Peregrine seemed to be implying that since Laurence had made herself into a domain, more or less, then trying to predict her was the equivalent of having tried to predict my own domain back in the day. So, the Saint would muddle predictions simply by being involved in them. Useful, that, and it went some way in explaining why no one had been able to spring an ambush on her over the years. The Heavens really had shaped a fine executioner, hadn’t they? No one would see the Saint of Swords coming until she was there and by then it would be much, much too late.
“Understood,” I said. “If the two of you would keep an eye out, I’ll clean up these loose ends.”
I dipped my head at the Revenant remains. The Pilgrim’s face flickered with hesitation until he spoke up.
“Your Majesty,” he cautiously said, “you do not intend to eat them, do you?”
“Do I –“
“No, I’m not going to eat the fucking corpses,” I hissed. “Why would you even ask that?”
“Drow are known to take from the dead in some manner,” the old man said. “And you are closely allied with orcs and goblins, whose habits are well-documented.”
“Corpse-eating isn’t how the Firstborn do it,” I grunted. “And for the Clans it’s actually a pretty complicated issue that’s been shaped by generations of – you know what, now’s not the time.”
“The goblins?” Laurence de Montfort asked.
She seemed honestly curious, though that didn’t mean she wasn’t also being kind of a prick.
“Goblins will eat anything, Saint,” I tiredly said. “It’s not like corpses are miraculously excluded from that just because it’s distasteful to think about.”
‘Distasteful’ was never a word you wanted to speak when discussing that particular subject, as it happened, if Robber was around. He would be very swift to inform anyone fool enough to do so that human corpses were actually very savory even without being cooked first. And that in Ater you could get that sort of meat rather on the cheap if you knew where to look, from grave-peddlers whose corpses had not been bought by necromancer and were starting to ripen. There was a reason that Black had told me never to buy grilled meat off a stall in the streets of Ater if you hadn’t seen the animal it came from killed and cooked, and it wasn’t just because it was a possible avenue for assassination. Unwilling to participate in that wreck of a conversation any longer, I hobbled my way to the nearest corpse – the Spellblade’s – and knelt. Its flesh felt strange to my touch, not like a human’s at all. Rougher, almost like bark, though I had no notion of whether that was a consequence of elvishness or of being made a Revenant. Regardless, even a glancing touch was enough to tell me there was nothing salvageable in there: none of the three aspects there’d been were in a state to be taken. The one Saint had severed was a ruin, and when I’d used Ban on the undead’s own third it had shattered the former and faded the latter beyond use. Fair enough, I thought. Given that I’d already taken from him once, I wouldn’t have been able to anyway.
The head and leg that’d been cut off I put back in place, though mending those wounds was beyond me save in the most gruesome of ways. I wove Night in a pall over the elf’s still form, and as the veil of darkness thinned and dispersed so the sight of the body disappeared was revealed. I leaned on my staff to rise, feeling the Pilgrim’s patient gaze and the Saint’s belligerent one. The heroine idly strolled up to me as I headed towards the remains of the Thief of Stars.
“Melted it, did you?” she said. “Useful knack.”
It was difficult for her to seem as casual as she clearly thought she was being when she was clearly itching to get at me. I almost looked t Tariq – was this some misguided attempt to insert a little cordiality into this relationship? Go on, Laurence, go up to the Black Queen and say something nice about her wicked and blasphemous powers.
“I’m keeping them in the Night,” I said. “Matters of burial can be addressed when this is all over.”
“So it’s a pocket trick, like a sorcerer,” the Saint unpleasantly smiled. “Like I thought. So why, Foundling, did you make the Rogue Sorcerer carry your crowns?”
Because I needed bait for Kairos, juicy enough to ensure it was the Sorcerer he struck at, I thought. Because the only way I’m getting my father’s soul back from you people without a fight is if I do not, in fact, get it back from you people. So I let out a little noise of surprise, and smiled all regretful and dim at the Saint of Swords. Eyes a little wide, like I was a touch slow but all harmless.
“Oh Hells,” I ruefully said. “It completely slipped my mind.”
“You’re up to something, Foundling,” Laurence de Montfort quietly said. “And I won’t let you get away with it.”
“Right now,” I said, coming by the mangled halves of the second Revenant, “what I’m up to is having my time wasted. Walk it off, Saint.”
I flicked a dismissive hand at her, which from the way she went red in the cheeks was more insult than anyone had tossed her way in a long time. Gods, if they’d had Black around her for weeks or months they must have kept him gagged the whole time: given the ease of her temper and how viciously he could spin a sentence, if they hadn’t the body I’d claimed would have fewer limbs. Another painful crouch and ah, it seemed that the feel of the other one’s skin had been on account of elvishness after all. The Thief of Stars’s flesh was like a fresh corpse’s, which was rather uncomfortable to think about so I did not linger over it. Her I could still take from, I found. One of the aspects tasted like… flight, cold and in the dark. The starlit one? Hard to tell, my senses in this were hardly exact. The second I studied tasted familiar, and I immediately judged it to be what she’d called on in her attempt to use my staff. It felt like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle clicking together, though there was something else. Rarity? Some sort of limit, I thought, though given the way I made of aspects artefacts with a single use that didn’t particularly matter to me. Still, if it was like I suspected and this was a trick that allowed one to use most anything then it didn’t particularly appeal to me. Boots scuffed the ground at my side, but I bit my tongue at the last moment when I caught a glimpse of them and saw it was not the Saint who’d returned but the Pilgrim.
“She wasn’t always like that,” the old man quietly said.
Oh, were we going to have that talk now, under cover my seeing to the body of a fallen foe? I wasn’t interested in being sympathetic to the Saint of Swords, so he was barking up the wrong tree. What Laurence de Montfort might once have been weighed less on the scales than what she now was, and that was trouble. The third aspect, I found, had been ripped out. And the… fabric around it had been almost burned, for lack of better term, perhaps to ensure that not even a speck of what had been there before remained. Interesting, I thought. Neshamah’s work? That implied a much greater degree of control over how Revenants became what they were than I’d assumed he had. And, more intriguingly, that whatever that aspect of the Thief’s had been he’d judged it trouble enough he’d cut it out before making her into one of his undead. That aside, my remaining choice was being the aspect that tasted of running away and the one that felt like well-placed hands. You can never have too many ways to leg it, I decided, and took the first. I leaned forward, allowing my cloak to drape over me and hide the sight of the small carved wishbone the aspect had taken the shape of from the Pilgrim even as I palmed it. My other hand moved to distract him, pulling down a veil of Night over the broken body.
“If you insist on having this conversation,” I said, “let’s have it on the move. I’m done here.”