“Forgiveness is a scale balanced, nothing more and nothing less.”
– King Edward Fairfax the Fifth, the Hardhand
Aspects were telling, I’d always thought, especially those with harmful intent.
In practice they tended to have similar applications, true, but you could tell a lot about Named from what imperative it was that’d resonated with them. William had found his principle in Swing, which had been a branch sprung from what he saw as the most important part of who he was: the Lone Swordsman, the one who settled wrongs with a swing of his sword. Now take Masego, though, whose Ruin had crystallized facing the very Revenant before me. The first glance at that might lead one to think Hierophant was darkly inclined, and to be honest the thought had crossed my mind at the time. I’d led my friend into quite a few messes, and few of them pretty. The truth if it, though, was that Masego had been raised by the Calamities long before he became part of that other family the Woe had turned into. He’d learned their lessons young, even if they’d taken different shape in him than perhaps expected. To ruin something, for Masego, was to pare it down it until it’d reached the very edge of breaking. Until, in a sense, it was no longer a threat. That he’d draw the line there instead of going further into annihilation I liked to think was as much due to the empathy he’d been encouraged to embrace over the last few years as the cold practicalities taught him from the cradle. The lessons of the villains who’d crafted the Reforms, the Conquest: it is easier to subdue than eradicate. Less costly, and war like all things was a matter of costs and benefits.
Some were not so clear-cut: as in most things, Black was frightfully subtle under the veneer of overt simplicity. His Destroy, seemingly a straightforward cudgel to bludgeon the Tower’s enemies with, was a glimpse at what lay at the heart of the man. Someone who, when moved to act, would not tolerate any result but the annihilation of what had stirred him to violence. There was no nuance to the word, or to its effect, because in the end to him the world was split in half by the line he’d famously drawn for the Legions of Terror: victory and defeat, with nothing of worth in between. And so it was with that knowing in mind that I watched the Tyrant of Helike laugh his will into existence, the word he’d spoke ringing out in a way that had nothing to do with his voice. Rend, Kairos Theodosian had said. The splash of that decree was swift and brutal, the Skein’s skull half caving-in as a tall antler broke and its right arm was so harshly snapped it came to be hanging by half a bone at the shoulder. Bones broke across the Horned Lord’s body, though in a manner that was haphazard. It was tempting to ascribe that the Tyrant’s whimsical nature, but I was not fooled. To rend something was not to destroy it, to break it or anything so… thorough. It was to tear something into more than one piece, to wound it. To hurt it. But never, I grasped might be the essence if it, to kill. Wound and hurt and sow enmity, but never to finish the fight. Because that was the Tyrant’s way, wasn’t it? Always an enemy, a scheme, a betrayal afoot. Like a spinning top, if he slowed might just tip over.
The deeper gold had vanished from the Skein’s eyes before the Tyrant had even finished speaking, the Dead King leaving behind the corpse he’d inhabited without hesitation at the first indication of danger. It was the great rat itself that screamed in rage at returning to great wounds, all the while a swarm of gargoyle gathered in a chittering flock around the villain. I claimed a last inhalation from my pipe, and reluctantly poured over the last of the wakeleaf over the edge and quite likely onto some devil’s head. Wasteful as this was, given how rare and expensive the herbs was out here, I’d need to intervene soon enough. Not quite yet though.
“My I assume, Black Queen, that you have a stratagem?” the Tyrant of Helike idly asked.
Shaking the dragonbone pipe one last time to make sure it was all gone, I put it away in one of the many pockets of my cloak.
“I do,” I said. “The way I see it, my Lord Tyrant, our trouble at the moment is that the opposition’s got an army and we do not.”
Below us, wading through the sea of devils still filling the courtyard, the Saint of Swords reminding why even at height of my brute power over Winter she’d put me to flight on our every encounter. The sight of that old woman wearing no armour save a tunic and pale tabard flickering through the tide of creatures was spellbinding, because Laurence de Montfort had sallied out to fight an army on her own and she was not losing. I watched her cut through the knee of some devil of smoke and stone twice the height of a man and broad as city gate, pass under its toppling form as it fell and take with three quick strokes the head, the arm and the eye of jackal-headed devils leaping out at her. The last, still living though half-blinded, saw its face used as a steppingstone for the perfect somersault she executed to evade the furious swiping of the devil she’d hobbled. It made paste of the jackalhead, the Saint of Swords landed precisely in front of the still-bellowing devil’s overextended shoulder and with a cold sneer she severed its head from its body. She’d never once broken stride in all of that, nor had she overly hurried or strained herself. She was not using any of those wicked cuts I knew she was capable of, pacing herself in a display of utter scorn at the calibre of her opposition. Gods, if it was just her and the devils contained inside a ward she might not even lose.
It wasn’t just that, unfortunately. Which meant that the Skein’s snarled order to kill us all had been followed eagerly by the devils, and while a great many of them were rabidly going after the Saint there were others who’d decided on different prey. Flocks of walin-falme had come for me, at first, but after beating impotently at the ward the Rogue Sorcerer had put up in their way for some time they’d decided to take their displeasure to the source of the inconvenience. Leathery-winged and furious the devils converged on the broken balcony the hero had claimed as his perch, bearing armaments scavenged from the dead of the Legions and Akua’s most loyal. It did them little good, for while he’d wielded wards when it came to ensuring my protection now the dark-haired man was going on the offensive. It was like watching a talented but self-taught musician at work, I thought, for while the sorceries he used were rough and raw the cleverness of the use and the breadth of his range were astounding. A swirling vortex of air that drew in a dozen devils was fed a cloud of bright yellow acid, earning screams as the creatures began to burn and melt. A large globe of translucent sorcery, much like the shields Masego was fond of using, formed around another pack and after opening a single hole through it the Sorcerer repeatedly shot sloppy but powerful fireballs within until all that was left was ash and slag.
Of the hundred or so that’d first gone after him, at first simply walin-falme but soon most everything winged and borne of the Hells, only half reached his balcony. Where they found the Rogue Sorcerer to have nailed small spike of silvery metal in broad circle around his position. Innocuous, at a glance, but their purpose became clear when he began pouring lighting in a stream above him and the spikes each drew a sliver of that flow in a sudden arc. By this sudden caging of himself in lightning, the hero caught the first wave and fried them in a heartbeat. Lesser devils fled in fright, but the walin-falme had been soldiers for the Tower once upon a time: they were made of sterner stuff. They caught and skewered some of their allies, using them as shields to pass under the lightning untouched. There they found only a ball of radiant light that blinded and burned them, scattering them as the Rogue Sorcerer reappeared atop another balcony after dismissing a glamour almost fae-like in nature. The silvery spikes were still there, and in their wounded surprise the devils were in no state to adjust the new angle: then the lightning began pouring again, none were left alive.
“Well,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “one must concede they have slightly less of an army now than they had an hour past.”
We both knew that was a temporary state of affairs, though. Already I could see the Rogue Sorcerer’s face was flushed and dripping with sweat, his breathing hard. Mages like Masego and Akua, who used the exact amount of power needed to make a spell function to the intended purpose, would be able to continue throwing around sorcery for longer even if it was of higher calibre. Roland, clever as he was, was bleeding power well in excess of Keter’s Due and I suspected his natural gifts weren’t particularly impressive besides: if he continued at this pace for much longer, he was going to fall unconscious. If he didn’t continue at his pace, he was going to get eaten alive. Something of an issue, that. Meanwhile, the Saint had been forced to give ground by the sheer mass of bodies being thrown at her – you could not, after all, manoeuvre around tidal wave of flesh and claws. After that her cuts began tearing at the fabric of this realm, leaving those sharp arcs behind and changing retreat into brutal stalemate, but that was effectively flipping the hourglass on how long remained until her aging body caught up to her. Still, it was almost absurd how well they’d done. Oh they had a story at their back, enough to earn a nudge or two – buying time for an ally against hopeless odds – but most of that was still simply that there were very good at killing things. Devils in particular, I suspected. Above did not send its champions out into the world without first doling out a few tricks aimed at Below’s favourite instruments.
“It’s not a battle where there’s only one host,” I chided. “Proper form, Kairos.”
“My apologies, Catherine,” the boy grinned. “Quite right, quite right. And where do you intend to acquire such an army?”
“One was helpfully provided,” I murmured, looking down at below. “Yet I need someone to be nuisance, if you will. Just horribly inconvenient in every way.”
“At last, my day has come,” Kairos Theodosian gravely said.
I could almost feel the eagerness boiling in his veins.
“How long do you think you can grab everyone’s attention?” I asked. “Do you have a monologue in you?”
“Catherine,” the Tyrant said, sounding deeply offended.
“You’re right, I apologize for even asking that,” I replied. “I’ll leave this in your trustworthy hands.”
“You are a dear friend and honoured ally, so I’ll let it pass this once,” Kairos said, waving nonchalantly. “You may proceed, Black Queen.”
I squinted at him for a moment. He was definitely going to be betray me at least once more before this was over, but it shouldn’t be before we’d reached the end of this. And definitely not by selling me out to the Dead King, which should make this possible – I was a lot warier of being disrupted halfway through by the Tyrant than one of Neshamah’s brood of the dead and the damned. Now, to make my way through this mess on foot would take too long, even if I killed the pain in my leg and borrowed some hurt without looking at the interest. I could probably call on the Saint to carve me a quicker path, but that’d make my intentions obvious: which, given that the Dead King could be looking through anyone’s eyes and could intervene through any of them, was the same as dooming my scheme. I had another way, of course, though it wasn’t impossible he’d prepared for that. Couldn’t call on the Sisters for it, though, since the more I asked them to intervene the higher the chances Neshamah would get his hands on slivers of Sve Noc with all the disastrous consequences that entailed. Sloppy and imprecise it was then.
“Kind of you, my Lord Tyrant,” I said, and stepped off the ledge.
The Mantle of Woe and my unbound hair both flapped as I fell, but my attention was on the Night coursing through my veins. Like threading a needle, I thought. The cloth was thinner than I was used to and the window to get it right would be slight, but I still had faint of memories of what it felt like to have that inborn knack Winter had leant me. Darkness spread out like an inky pool beneath me, a handful of the Tyrant’s gargoyles curiously following me with eager cries and also much less endearing knives. I dropped into the dark, and for a moment it felt like plunging into cool, deep water. From the moment I touched the edge of the gate, I had less than a heartbeat to align it properly with the gate out. It was hard to describe, the act if putting it together. Like catching a faint spot of light in a dark cave that told you where the way out was, though that realization had to be paired with the instant act of will to move there lest the way out be botched. Or worst, lost. But I had it, near perfect, and-
“Wind,” the Skein susurrated, great golden eyes like lanterns in the gloom.
I tumbled out cursing in Kharsum, well to the side of where I’d been aiming for. That godsdamned rat, if I didn’t have a stripe of its fur as my cloak’s collar by the end of this I’d eat my boots. It took me a heartbeat to get my bearings, which didn’t improve my mood any: I’d meant to come out near Black and the Good King, but instead I was hip-deep in akalibsa on the east side of courtyard. Devils who had most definitely heard me swearing, form the way their houndlike faces turned to me. Armed and armoured in stone as they were I did not count them as a great threat, but given enough anything they could be trouble. Either I was going to have drawing on Night again, which was playing with fire when I had two large workings ahead of me, or-
“Ladies, gentlemen, other assorted beings,” Kairos Theodosian said. “If I may have your attention?”
I suspect they might have ignored him, if the grounds beneath the Skein had not exploded in the moment that followed. I spared a glance at the mess of broken stone and dust that had appeared without warning, eyes narrowing when I glimpsed dirtied snow in there. Hells, had he just weakened the barrier between this place and Creation to the extent there’d been an impact? Had he done that precisely enough to use it as a weapon? How had he – no, no time for that right now. The akalibsa had turned towards the noise, and when they returned their attention to me they found I’d disappeared. Under glamour covering sight and scent I began limping to the nest where the Skein had laired, and the two men waiting there: one a corpse, one a soul. King Edward had remained unmoving throughout the entire skirmish, eyes calmly gazing at his surroundings as he openly kept watch on both my teacher and the sack filled with crowns. Which had yet to be destroyed, interestingly enough. That implied either that Neshamah wasn’t entirely opposed to my getting my getting my hands on this realm, or that there would be something dangerous in him or one of his agents breaking them. Leaning on my staff I made my way through the rubble, avoiding paths that would have taken me through knots of devils. It made the journey longer, but the Tyrant seemed to have things well in hand.
“- worry not, my blessed brethren,” the Tyrant of Helike thundered, “I will be a merciful king, should any of you survive –”
Another chunk of the courtyard went up in noise and smoke. Though it didn’t seem to be killing many of the devils and had only angered the Skein even further, it certainly seemed to be commanding their attention. Near everything dead or spawned of Hell was now trying to put down a cackling Kairos, who was weaving erratically in the air without having ever left his throne. Slipping across the strewn stones, I snuck up on Black and the Revenant from the side. With the horde going after the Tyrant I’d been able to put some spring to my limp, and climbing over some large block of granite I finally reached the broken stairs where they’d been waiting this whole time. The Good King twitched like he was trying to speak, but words never came out. A heartbeat later seven wooden pillars began forming around me, glamoured or not, and shit that was bad. I’d seen this hold the Princess of High Noon, and these days I was just a mortal with too much mouth and prayer. The moment the runes came up I’d be stuck. I managed to sneak my hand into my cloak just as four eldritch runes began to glow around me, linked by a faint circle of light. Frozen in place, I let out a sigh as my glamour shattered like glass.
“Hierophant’s own magic,” I said. “Ironic, I’ll grant.”
“The Abomination was awaiting one of you making for the crowns,” King Edward Fairfax calmly told me. “And hindered my own attempt to warn you, Queen Catherine. Still, I give you greeting. It has been some time since we last spoke, yet I see you have not been idle.”
My teacher was watching us, missing nothing, and if he was surprised by what had just been said his face showed no sign of it.
“Same to you, Your Majesty,” I said. “Didn’t think he’d let you of Keter, to be honest.”
“It was something of a surprise to me as well,” the Revenant said, “though I do not pretend to grasp the thoughts of that monstrous creature.”
He might not, I thought, but through him I might be able to grasp a thing or two. Through what Neshamah did and did not prevent him from doing, watching as he no doubt was through the dead Fairfax. Best to flush out all I could before striking.
“- kneel in abject submission, and you will be granted the mercy for which I am well-known-”
Another deafening burst, though sooner or later that trick would run out.
“I don’t suppose you know what he actually wants from this place, do you?” I asked. “It can’t be the original notion of crashing it into Iserre, that’d be pitting him against a band of five. He might win that, of course, but there’s no real winning that if you understand what I mean.”
And, more than anyone else on Calernia, the King of Death had to be wary of trading early victories for later disasters. There was no one else with as expansive a meaning for later, after all. And, as the way the knowledge of the Bard had become widespread in our age proved, it’d become a lot harder to bury knowledge after it’d been spread nowadays.
“If I could aid you I would,” the Revenant said, tone regretful.
The gold of his eyes had not deepened, but then I was hardly a novice at the sleight of hand. He was in there, and it might just have been him speaking the right words to suggest I shouldn’t pursue this line of conversation, that there was nothing to gain from it. Too neatly done. Which meant I had my opening, and even digging for more wasn’t worth letting the opportunity slip. My fingers couldn’t move, frozen as they were by the binding, and my power was bound as well. But the small carved wishbone was held in my hands and that was enough. Its power, after all, was not mine. Not bound.
“Abscond,” I said, my voice lacking power.
But the wishbone broke, and it was enough: a trail of stars guiding me, I slid out of the binding and my steps took me right behind the Good King. I laid a hand on him a grinned, all teeth and malice.
“O Sve Noc,” I said. “Judge me worthy on this night, that I may take the dead from death.”
Night poured into the man who had once been King Edward Fairfax, and with wicked laughter Sve Noc began to wrestle away rule over the Revenant.