“The Lycaonese are a grim people though not without a dark sort of humour, as became evident when I was first told what a ‘northern burial’ is. The inhabitants of these parts do not bury their dead, for fear of the Kingdom of the Dead, instead burning their own and spreading the ashes on consecrated ground. What the locals refer to as one of their burials is, in truth, someone being eaten by ratlings from the Chain of Hunger.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
This would be the second time I assaulted the ducal palace of Liesse, and it would have made three if the Lone Swordsman hadn’t picked a dainty little eldritch church as his last holdout. Gods, now that I thought about it, hadn’t I brawled with Akua every time I’d stepped within city limits in the past? Sometimes it was hard to reconcile the smirking woman I’d hated so bitterly with the Diabolist I know knew and on occasion even liked. Hells, I was pretty sure she’d once implied that some ghoul she was sending after me was Kilian, back when we’d been a couple. An arrow more pointed than plausible but then Akua’s knack had always tended more towards striking deep than striking true. I dismissed the thought as the three of us began our approach down the Caen road, the broad avenue that led directly to the gates of the city’s ancient seat of power. The gates were wide open, having fallen off the hinges, and the stone round them had been eaten into brutally.
“Someone assaulted this before us,” the Saint said.
“My own work,” I said. “From when I last took this city.”
“Akua’s Folly,” the old woman said. “The stories began trickling across the border after the Camps.”
I did not reply, even though it was rare for her to engage save through threat and insults. I did not owe her a discussion of that catastrophe. Not to her, not to anyone. The breadth of the scope I’d failed my people by no longer choked me day and night, not the way it had before heading into the Everdark, but the Doom of Liesse would never be anything but a bitter brew for me. That I seemed fated to walk it again and again was perhaps cruel, but then by my hands I had earned that cruelty. I’d still my tongue to it and take what was nothing less than my due.
“They say you bound the Diabolist to the heart of the ritual,” the Rogue Sorcerer quietly said. “And then broke it on her head, extinguishing every speck of her soul.”
“It was the Black Knight who struck at Akua Sahelian’s work,” I brusquely said. “And it nearly killed him too. It doesn’t matter, save that we should not touch a ward until the hall where the Diabolist once laid her first threshold.”
I was saved further talk by stirring in the sky, though at the sight of them I almost wished we were still rubbing salt into my old wounds. The colossal panes of bronze-like glass I’d seen earlier – how could anyone not, given how starkly they loomed above the city? – had began to shift. Like those beautiful jigsaw puzzles of glass and metal I’d once stared at in the markets of Laure, the pieces began moving like some intricate interlinked mechanism. Given the descending side of the panels they’d brought to mind a longview when I’d first thought of it, and it seemed that Masego was using them for purpose kin to that: rim glowing with massive carved runes I could not seem to understand, the panes began turning on themselves as if being adjusted for some arcane purpose. As it had earlier the first and largest pane of glass showed clear sight of the barren wasteland below as if it were being scried, but the angle of view and the closeness of the sight seemed to change in impossible ways according to the whims of spins.
“Rogue,” I quietly said. “The runes, I can’t keep them in my memory – that means they’re High Arcana. What are they for?”
“I don’t know,” the hero admitted.
I waved a hand irritably.
“I know the upper arcane stuff is personal and unique for everyone, but I know there’s usually some bridge of understanding there,” I said. “I’m not asking for a treatise on what he’s up to, just some broad strokes.”
“Black Queen, I cannot understand High Arcana,” the Rogue Sorcerer bluntly said. “I can hazard some guesses at the purposes of this device – I suspect every glass-like pane is a different scrying ritual and the largest one serves as a sort of receptacle for all that is seen, allowing variety of sight – but I cannot know anything for certain.”
I glanced at the dark-haired man catching that he was faintly embarrassed. His pupils had been ringed in red or green, earlier, but that now seemed gone. A simple unremarkable brown, not so dissimilar to my own, was all that remained. I was a little skeptical of his words considering his record when it came to the fights and that at the Battle of the Camps he’d been directing the enemy wizard against my own mage lines led by Masego, who’d been dabbling in High Arcana long before I met him. Still, what did he have to win by lying to me here? Nothing worth the candle, I thought, and I knew better than most that Names could be tricky things: he might have some help from his in these subjects from his. Or, from that matter, the very opposite. It wasn’t unheard of for transitional Names to serve as a set of shackles to be surpassed down the line and – and this was a rabbit hole I did not have to spare tumbling down. I glanced one more time at the pane, and near flinched when an eardrum-shattering shriek sounded across the ruined realm. I’d heard them before, the interwoven four cacophonies that followed, like old metal being twisted and warped. One after another, the angled Hellgates opened in the sky above and devils began pouring out.
“Lesser Breaches,” the Rogue Sorcerer murmured. “Yet four of them. That is… remarkable. And absurdly dangerous. The Hierophant is taking a knife to the already chewed up fabric of this realm.”
“Look at the larger pane,” I urged, “if it’s like the last time then there’ll-”
And there it was, clear-cut in view on the bronze glass in a way it had not been when I’d attempted to look at it with my own mortal eyes: a glittering array of runes that hurt to look at, forming a circle at twice the height of a man. I glimpsed a ghostly silhouette within the circle, but before a heartbeat had passed there was a flash of blinding light and a gargantuan detonation in the distance. I’d looked away in time, though I noticed that both the Saint and the Sorcerer had looked through the glare uninterrupted. Leant on their Name for it, I guessed, though I’d never found how to work that particular trick myself back in my Squire days.
“I don’t suppose either if you can shed light on that,” I said.
“It is no coincidence the Hellgates opened before the other part of the ritual,” Roland told me, turning to match my gaze.
Well, would you look at that. Around one his left pupil, the slightest tint of azure blue was beginning to form a circle. Name or sorcery, I wondered? The more I learned of magic, the more I understood that there were as many ways to practice it as there were languages under the sun.
“Meaning?” I asked.
“That the stuff of the Hells is being drawn in at first, then given shape by the circle of runes we saw,” the Sorcerer said. “It is an attempt, I believe, at making something – though whatever was made seems to have been deemed unfit and so immediately annihilated. I would say those failed attempts are responsible for the Due that was used to occlude scrying in Iserre.”
My throat caught. Not at the subtleties of the sorcery at use slowly being peeled back, but at what the hero had told me without knowing it. Masego was drawing from the stuff of Hells and trying to give it a shape through High Arcana – a form of sorcery that was, by nature, deeply personal. That shape looked human, or close enough, and he was being obsessively exact even by his standards when it came to the results of his work. The Warlock had been slain at Thalassina, it was said, and having passed to the place beyond there was no sensible way for Hierophant to bring him back. But Masego had once told me that devils did not die, not truly. They merely dispersed, returning to the primal stuff of the Hells where another of their kind would be born when the whims of those unearthly realms demanded it. Masego was brutalizing the world with sorcery until it gave him back the only one of his fathers he could reach. And he was, heartbreakingly, failing.
“Your Majesty?” the Sorcerer quietly said.
“Grief and miscarriage have seeped into the bones of this place,” I said, voice grown rough. “And damn the Dead King, for having given him hope where there can be none.”
After all, if the hero was correct it was the Due from this that occluded scrying then Neshamah was have seen to it that this was an exercise in futility: the Hidden Horror would need this to continue for months, if not years. Perhaps there was the slightest sliver of a chance, I thought, but how many lifetimes would it take for Masego to succeed? An obsession had been slid into the ribs of my friend, and not one he would easily be able to shake. I knew him, the way he thought. This would stay with him like an itch he could not scratch: the whisper that if he was a little more accurate, a little more inspired, if he spent another few years of research, then it could be done. That every moment where he had not yet succeeded was a failure. Merciless Gods, that old thing in Keter had wrought damage it would take years to unmake. And the middle of a war was hardly the time to do it.
“Enough dawdling,” the Saint of Swords said. “The longer we wait the greater the chance the dagger will be caught.”
“Agreed,” I growled.
I had more than a little wroth to purge from my blood, now, and a hard fight seemed just the thing for it.
A hard fight was precisely what I found us denied.
The avenue leading to the palace had been empty, which was not unexpected, but the way that not a soul awaited as we passed the gates was. We’d seen going in that the fresh waves of devils brought through the gates had headed for the deeper palace, so it might be that strife awaited us there, but why allow us any uncontested advance? It wasn’t like they were going to run out of devils anytime soon, if the numbers brought through the Breaches were any indication. Answer to that was only found after we rose by steps and passed through halls where the marks of my anger in the face of the Doom had yet to fade until we reached a plain oaken door that was not unfamiliar to me.
“Ward,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, resting a palm on it. “Beautifully crafted, though it seems to have been aimed sorely at the Fair Folk.”
“How did you get through back then, if it still stands?” the Saint asked, eyeing me.
I pointed a finger upwards, where I’d once shattered the stone of the ceiling to leap into the room and slaughter the mages that’d been hiding in there. Laurence, every spry for her age, glanced at the adjoining wall once before breaking into a smooth run – the first jump had her angling on that wall, after which I felt a small ripple of Name power and she leapt up through the hole. The Sorcerer, meanwhile, was still examining the oaken door with a gaze much too involved for it to be wood he was looking at.
“Can you break it?” I asked.
He’d said he could, after all. The dark-haired man blinked and turn to give me a sheepish look. Gods, what was it with practitioners and getting distracted?
“I can,” he said. “The Saint?”
The answer came a moment later, as the old woman leapt down the hole and landed in a crouch.
“More magic upstairs,” she said. “Peeked through the door and it was positively reeking of it.”
“Ward?” I frowned.
“Labyrinth,” she replied, shaking her head. “I’m no mageling, but I’ve had to go through enough of those to recognize the scent.”
“Labyrinth, huh,” I said, and looked straight ahead at nothing just in case it’d be able to see me through spell or prophecy. “Didn’t work last time, you one-trick rat, and it won’t this time either.”
“Black Queen?” the Sorcerer asked, sounding alarmed.
“I believe we’ve got the Revenant known as the Skein on our hands,” I said. “It’s got a preference for those.”
The Saint of Swords went still.
“The Skein?” she repeated. “Like in the old rhyme?”
“What rhyme?” I frowned.
“Eater endless, Shrouded silent,
Sought and lost sleeping below
Tumult tyrant, Snatcher slyest,
Dreaming still but waking slow
Skein scheming, last of five
Lords of Horn from long ago.”
She was not a particularly talented singer, and I suspected she’d rushed the rhythm, but I understood it without trouble. My brow rose: the rat had a history, it seemed. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, as the Dead King seemed to enjoy raising in his service the rare and the unusual most of all.
“Might be,” I said. “It certainly goes by that Name anyway.”
“I thought you’d tangled with some hasty longtail that got caught and turned, not one of the Old Lords,” the Saint grimly said.
“It’s tricky but hardly unbeatable,” I shrugged.
“You don’t lack stomach, at least,” the old Proceran said, which was not disapproving if not the opposite either. “Well, if it’s the same as the old legends it’ll be waiting for us. Might as well have a look. Sorcerer, get a move on would you?”
“Please,” I added, flicking a glance at the man.
The Rogue Sorcerer nodded, and after muttering something under his breath rapped his knuckle against the door once. The hand stayed there, after, though he opened his palm and the world shivered close to it. Huh. That’d felt like an old friend, and one I knew well: whatever aspect it was he’d just used, it was cousin to my old Take. And even more distant kin to the more abstract ability I still used as First Under the Night, though whatever similarity there’d been at the source had strayed the further I went from my Name. Interesting, though. Instead of breaking these wards, was he stealing them? It was certainly one way to interpret his Name, though given how subtle such matters could be I was reluctant to come to conclusions so swiftly.
“Done,” Roland said.
The Saint of Swords strolled forward, elbowed him to the side and kicked the door down before walking through. I pushed down a snort and limped after them, gesturing for the Sorcerer to catch up to her. I slowed my steps just as I passed the broken door, bending down to pass my fingers lightly over the shattered oak. There was not, to my senses, so much as a speck of sorcery left in there. Akua had laid her ward in there more than year ago, and considering the usual thoroughness of her work it should have been exquisitely done. Yet there was not a damned trace of it left, not even some faint aftertouch. Creation rarely brooked such exactness, I thought. This was the work of his Name, not any sorcery I knew of. I wonder, I thought, if there’s a touch of colour around your pupil right now? I’d master my curiosity for now, but I’d never been able to leave secrets alone for too long.
I hurried to catch up with them before anyone could notice.
I’d give the Skein this much, it put in an effort.
Though I did not know whether it had powers akin to sorcery or it was simply wielding the tripartite works of the old Dukes of Liesse and the two greatest Praesi mages of my generation, it tried to trap and waylay us at every turn. Of course, given that the Rogue Sorcerer seemed to be able to shatter any ward in less than thirty heartbeats and that Laurence de Montfort’s answer to mazes was to cut through any wall in the way of marching in straight line it did not end up amounting to much. While I knew that the Saint would tire in time, she did not seem at the moment more than lightly winded and if anything Roland seemed haler than he’d been since hobbling back to the band. While they brute forced their way through the best-laid schemes of the Skein I kept a wary eye out, for this all seemed to easy to me. We’d yet to encounter any devils, or the Tyrant or any Revenant at all. All three of these would need to be met before we arrived at the conclusion of this journey, and indeed the shape of our story should ne nudging us towards that encounter. If we’d yet to meet them there was a reason for it, and since it was not of our own making it must be of the enemy’s. That usually meant a trap.
“You ever hear of the Two Hundred Axioms, Foundling?” the Saint casually asked.
Boot against the wall, she pushed until the rectangular shape she’d carved into the wall toppled forward. Abandoned servants’ quarters were revealed behind, and if I had to bet I would bet that we were closing on the edge of the western wing of the ducal palace. Soon we’d hit the inner courtyard, that heavily warded killing field that Akua had prepared to fend off any attempting to approach the part of the palace where she’d laid the heart of her ritual and her throne room with it. Hierophant was using the ritual arrays that she’d carved into Liesse, which meant he was likely in there as well. I doubted any of the holes I’d made in the defences on my way in were still there, considering the quantity of devils Masego had been calling forth. They’d turn on him in a heartbeat if they could, Dead King looming or not, so odds were fresh layers of viciousness had been raised instead.
“I have not,” I said. “Some sort of philosophical book?”
“Close enough,” Laurence de Montfort said. “They’re best kept out of hands like yours, anyway.”
“Charming,” I commented, following her through the opening. “Why bring it up?”
“The only sensible solution to a maze is to not enter the maze,” she quoted, tone amused. “This is close enough, I’d wager.”
“And there,” the Rogue Sorcerer hummed.
The open palm he’d laid on the wall in front of us went straight through what I’d believed to be a stone wall, revealing it to be a skillful illusion. The other half of the room, until now veiled, ended in a broken glass window overlooking the inner courtyard of the inner palace. Which was empty, save for the broken and scorched grounds where Akua had once nearly succeeded at killing me with her clever traps. Were we going to be allowed to run of this all the way to the heart of the palace? Archer had been in here before, and she’d told me the place was swarming with devils. What had-
“Wait,” I said, as the Saint neared the window.
“What?” Laurence growled.
“The Skein,” I slowly said, “in your stories, what is it known for?”
“Scheming,” she bluntly said.
I grit my teeth. Now was not the time to get mouthy on me, Saint.
“Look, in your rhyme all five of the ‘Old Lords’ have some epithet that goes with their Name,” I said with forced patience. “The Tumult is a tyrant, which I’m guessing means it’s good at herding other ratlings. The Eater is endless, which I’d wager means even for a Horned Lord means it’s really hard to put down. The Skein is scheming, sure, but the Snatcher is the ‘slyest’. What does the Skein do, Saint? Are there any stories that hint at anything more?”
The heroine matched my gaze, brow creased with thought.
“It led a horde to devour whole what would become Hannoven,” she finally said. “Through some secret way, using wiles. They’re old stories, Foundling. There’s not a lot of them and the Skein is barely in any. Makes sense, if Old Bones got to him.”
Through some secret way, using wiles. It wasn’t a lot to work with, and that it ate a whole ancient city didn’t weigh much on the scales to my eye – it was what ancient hungry beasts did, what mattered was the manner of it. Hannoven was, as I recalled, one of the most fortified cities on Calernia – it was usually put in the same breath as Rhenia, Keter and Summerholm. Could I assume that even in the dawn of days it’d been a fortress? Yes, I decided. The Skein had, after all, used a ‘secret way’. If it’d been a pack of huts, given the size of the damned thing there would have been no need for subtlety. It itched at me that the story spoke of a city, a place that was fixed. Not an army or a band of heroes, it was a city that made the tale and that was detail that resonated. In Keter, the Skein had been given the defence of a palace and it was the same here. It might have a trick that works well with fixed positions, either both the attack and the defence. I had too little to go on, Hells. That was the thing with the Dead King, wasn’t it? Anything secret that might help in defeating him for good was long dead and buried. If not by his hand, then by sheer dint of centuries. Although, when we’d fought the Skein in the Threefold Reflection, it’d been as part of a pattern hadn’t it? One Revenant per palace. King Edward in the Garden of Crowns, the Thief of Stars in the Silent Palace and the Spellblade in that horrid half-realm we’d tread trying to move between Creation and reflections.
The ancient King of Callow had been placed in a place for only the regal, the Thief of Stars assigned to spy on us in a place where every sound was muted and the Spellblade, a dead elf utterly lethal in direct combat, given watch over a place where there could be no place to hide. They’d all been posted, so to speak, in a place that benefited talents or nature they’d had before being sent there. Was is the same with the Skein then? I knew it’d used an artefact to manipulate the three interlocked realms of the Threefold Reflection, and that its oracular abilities had allowed it to do so even more dangerously, but this felt like a departure from the pattern. The Silent Palace had made it easier for the Thief of Stars to sneak around, not possible – amplification of a capacity, not crafting of a new one. It was the same with all the others, too. And if that held, then some pieces were beginning to fall into place. Gods, I almost couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed: I’d already walked the grounds of this very ducal palace once and seen it gone still and bare, when I’d unleashed my domain of Moonless Nights. And then too, I’d still come across wards and traps. There was a reason we hadn’t come across so much as an imp on our heedless advance through these grounds, and that was because we weren’t in the palace at all: we were in the domain of the Skein.
“Saint,” I said, opening eyes I hadn’t realized I’d closed. “When you cut Winter, cut my domain, you were still within it right?”
“I was,” the old woman warily said.
“And you could feel that you were?” I pressed.
Her eyes narrowed.
“Here, now?” she asked.
“Been too easy so far, hasn’t it?” I said.
Her blade returned to the sheath and she took a moment to steady her stance and breathing. Then the world shattered around us like panes of glass, and the only hint that it wasn’t her work was the slight widening of her eyes.
The first thing I noticed was that the roof over our heads and walls shielding us were gone.
The second was that the Skein in all its horned glory was nesting in the courtyard below, surrounded as far as the eye could by hordes of devils. Two silhouettes were at its feet, though in the gloom I could not make out who they were.
The third, and last, was that of us the Tyrant of Helike was being held aloft on his throne by a swarm of gargoyles while grinning like a man having the time of his line.
“My friends,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully announced, “I am grieved to inform you there might have been some slight changes to my allegiances.”