“It is written that the Hidden Horror sent envoy to the Iron King Tancred, threatening that should he not strike the banners over Hannoven and open the gates the city would be stormed and burned to ash. So did Tancred Papenheim then send back a single torch, with on the side engraved three words: ‘if you can’.”
– Extract from ‘Crowned In Iron’, a compendium of Lycaonese histories assembled by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis
It was like watching two enemy Hells trying to devour each other.
The Revenant – stolen from the Dead King, she’d thought, by the grim patrons of the Black Queen – that had once been a king of Callow spoke in a voice like a clarion call and the dead of this accursed place answered. Laurence watched, jaw clenched, as a coursing tide of wraiths made of silver and shade rose from the scarred ground. Mere dozens, first, but that swelled into hundreds and then thousands before more than a handful of heartbeats had passed. Those were not soldiers, the Saint saw. There were children and elderly among them, men and women whose hazy silhouettes bore no arms save angry hands. And oh, how angry they were. The rage of them was a clamour and a song, the weight of it making the air feel taut. Thousands of voices, of silhouettes, moving like a seething river of souls to tear at devils and dead alike. Laurence splattered the blood of another devil on the ground with a flick of the wrist, catching its clumsy strike and sending its head tumbling down with the riposte, and without hesitation began to move. Not towards the Black Queen, whose lone silhouette was surrounded by an island of stillness, or the other Revenant. No, roughly forcing aside any spirit that in their advance got in her way Laurence de Montfort headed for the imprisoned soul of the Carrion Lord.
She’d seen it when they first broke through the maze of the Skein, still pilloried in that clever silver artefact the Sorcerer had crafted for them, and she could not allow it to be claimed by anyone else’s hands. Allowing the Tyrant to keep it was pointless – even when Theodosian had stolen it earlier he’d not proved to be a least a modicum useful by destroying the soul himself – and it was out of the question for Foundling to be allowed to reclaim the Black Knight. Tariq had allowed himself to savour the taste of hope for the first time in too long, and grow drunk off it, but Laurence would not lower her guard so easily. It was difficult to advance, to the Saint’s displeasure, for though the wraiths were but lesser dead and ignored her even when jostled they streamed forward heedlessly. It was like swimming in death, and more than once Laurence found her sight obscured by the flows. The devils who’d been in the courtyard were ripped apart within moments, she’d seen, harsh hands clawing at them and wailing mouths biting down on flesh. The Skein was not destroyed, but from what she could glimpse it was being drowned in sheer numbers. Foundling, at least, had not moved from her perch.
Stumbling over broken stones and just one more push away from beginning to hack at the bloody wraiths no matter the consequences, Laurence finally broke into what had been the Horned Lord’s nest of ruins and found Amadeus of the Green Stretch still imprisoned. And gagged, thank the Gods for that – if she had to hear a single other sly barb from that viperous tongue she’d cut it out of his mouth. Another company of wraiths flowed before her, cutting her path, and she felt like screaming but she was too close to draw attention to herself now. Only, through two passing spirits she saw a tall shadow standing by the villain. In the flickering lights she could not be sure, but Laurence could have sworn its face had been painted purple. Feeling her stomach drop, the Saint dropped all pretences of subtlety and harshly forced her way through the wraiths. Several swiped at her with angry hands, though when she continued pushing forward they lost interest and returned to their war instead of pursuing. She’d been too later, the Saint saw. The drow that’d been standing by the prisoner snapped closed the silvery artefact that’d been unfolded into a pillory, now no larger than forearm, and with an amused silver glance at her it took a single step forward into nothingness. Bordel, Laurence silently cursed. That was Foundling’s little attendant, wasn’t it? The one she’d called Ivon, or maybe Iva. The Saint, fingers tight around the grip of her sword, turned her gaze to the Black Queen.
She was still standing alone on the rise, that many-coloured cloak flapping around her from the wind of the wraiths flowing around her. Hair long and unbound, her limp grown more pronounced and nowadays leaning on some sort of walking stick, she seemed nothing like the angry mutilated child Laurence had tried to put down at the Battle of the Camps. Catherine Foundling had yet to strike a single blow with a blade since she’d returned to Iserre from her journeys, the rumours went. And she had grown more dangerous for it. All night they’d danced to her tune, the Saint thought, glancing at where the Black Knight had been spirited away before she could take him back, down to this very last note. You don’t know what you’re bargaining with here, Tariq, she appraised. Setting a wolf on a tiger only has two beasts prowling the wilds, wounded and twice as vicious. Yet the time had not come where Laurence would bare her blade to redress yet another mistake made by kinder or weaker souls, so her longsword returned to the sheath. Climbing up the mound of ruins, the Saint came to stand by the side of the rising villain of their age. The woman remained silent, eyes on her dead countrymen now taking the battle to the devils pouring out of the open hellgates. Among the horde, the crowned Revenant led the charge with a shining blade.
“How did you know it would work?” Laurence asked.
The look on Foundling’s face was strange, almost subdued on a face that seemed to have been carved from hard edges with the razor-sharp cheekbones and too-strong nose. Even grief looked harsh on a face like that, much better suited for the sharp grins and cold stares the Black Queen was infamously known for.
“It always does,” Catherine Foundling said, “when you make it hurt a little.”
Laurence’s lips pulled back in disdain.
“Does it sting that much, to have had to borrow another’s hand?” the Saint said. “You’ve not been shy in doing so tonight.”
Though perhaps it struck closer to home, that even being crowned in Laure had not been enough to give the warlord a fraction of the pull the long-dead Fairfaxes had on her people. It was no great endorsement of her reign, that she’d had to use the name and Name of another for that working.
“This city is a mass grave dug by my failures,” the Black Queen replied, tone remote. “And yet here I am, walking its grounds once more. How many more, I wonder, will it take before I have been made to look that failing in the eye enough?”
Laurence hesitated, for though it was a monster she spoke to in that moment she sympathized with the woman more than she’d thought would ever be possible. Because this was not a smirking, victorious puppeteer tugging at all their strings. That distant bleakness she knew well. It came from the same place that had the Saint of Swords wondering what might have changed, if she’d arrived a sennight early instead of late. If she might have slain the beast when it’d taken a handful instead of a village, if she’d found Isodorios when the dragonblood first began to decay instead of after the red had taken him. What if, that old and tireless flagellant’s whip.
“It’ll never leave you,” the Saint said, not unkindly.
It was honest, which was the highest courtesy she had to offer the likes of Catherine Foundling.
“I don’t suppose it will, no,” the Black Queen quietly admitted.
There were a few heartbeats of silence, left unfilled by either of them, before the old woman grew impatient.
“And now what?” Laurence asked.
“We’re a distraction, Saint,” Foundling reminded her. “And I would say that the enemy is suitably distracted, at the moment.”
“The Skein’s not finished,” Laurence replied. “It’ll take more than wraiths to put it down.”
“See to it, if you’d like,” the younger woman shrugged. “Take the Tyrant and the Sorcerer if you please.”
“You’re not going to lend a hand,” the Saint grunted. “What a helpful hand you make.”
Theodosian was probably enough on his own to entirely bury the Horned Lord’s oracular insights instead of simply muddy them the way Laurence’s own domain would, but it’d go quicker with a priestess or ruin keeping the Revenant contained while those of them better-versed in killing the dead put an end to the abomination.
“I’ll be headed inside, should King Edward succeed at breaching the wards on the inner palace,” Foundling casually said.
“Should?” Laurence asked.
“Depends whose wards they are,” the Black Queen grunted. “Let’s hope they’re still using the Diabolist’s work as the base, otherwise it’ll be like trying to topple a rampart by throwing eggs at it.”
Further hellgates opened above them, devils pouring in. The victorious battle for the courtyard finished with the Tyrant of Helike, laughing maniacally as he shot streaks of a fire from a jeweled sceptre at a hissing and fleeing Skein swatting away the dead pursuing it – they had, Laurence saw, ripped away great swaths of fur and eaten the flesh like hungry ghosts – until the Horned Lord leapt over the cliff’s edge of that was the end of the ducal palace. In the distance the dead king of Callow raised his sword at the sky filling with fire and brimstone, and grimly declared war upon it.
The dead obeyed.
Laurence waited. There was ending coming, she could feel it. And when the moment came, she would be ready to meet it as it should be met.
Tariq had faced many a villain in his time, and not always with Light and strife. Often words could bring greater good in the world than a harsher touch, if they were the right ones, and so it might just be the truth that there was no living on Calernia who had spoken with more villains than he. The quiet ones, he’d found, tended to be the most dangerous. Those who did not feel the need to boast or fill a silence oft had greater designs occupying their thoughts, and so proved more perilous adversaries. This was no cast iron rule, however. For example, it would have been a lie to say that Kairos Theodosian was not one of the deadliest Bestowed he’d encountered over the years and the boy simply could not stomach holding his tongue. Still, the tendency was pronounced and though the Woe were as peculiar a band of villains as their infamous predecessors when Tariq had first assessed the Archer her constant chatter had encourage him to dismiss her as an ancillary threat when she was without the guiding hand of the Black Queen at her back. A skilled and seasoned killer, mind you, with a way bow in hand that might as well be sorcery. But not a true danger, like the brilliant mind behind the brutish face of the Adjutant or the eerily innocent atrocities the Hierophant had it in him to commit.
He had been wrong in this.
While it was true that the Archer – Indrani, as she’d casually confirmed she was named – was loquacious, the Pilgrim had beheld what went on behind the smiles and the swagger and it had him unsettled. The Archer’s thoughts and feelings shifted constantly, mercurial as the tides, yet there was a bedrock beneath them that was as subtle as it was watchful. It had had taken him the better part of an hour, for one, to put the finger on what a particular association between a part of that bedrock and amusement directed at him meant. Namely, that the smiling young woman was considering she might have to kill him in the future. Without feeling so much as a speck of guilt over it. It would have been easier to swallow, Tariq would admit to himself, if the Archer were a coldblooded devil like some of the monsters wearing human skin he’d had to face. Incapable of joy or fondness in more than shallow ways, though it had to be said that no all such constrained the Pilgrim had met were monstrous or even particularly nefarious. Yet the young woman was not. Deep affection and something like an intricate manner of loyalty had bloomed in her, when she’d spoken with the Black Queen, as well as something he had uncomfortably placed as lust. Something more romantic in nature emerged when mention was made of the Hierophant, though it was paired with a manner of wonder that implied to him the admission there was still fresh.
Indrani the Archer was, he knew by virtue of his aspect, a pleasant if hedonistic young woman would not even slightly hesitate to slit his throat if she judged him a threat or was asked to by someone she trusted. The knowledge was made even more unsettling by the way that wheedling information out of her was ludicrously easy, though the bedrock beneath that ease missed nothing of the nature of the questions being asked. Perceptive, this one, even though she was already on her second flask of Levante monteron since they’d left the rest of the band. That she remained mostly sober after drinking that much hard liquor was notable even in one Bestowed, though given the appearance he suspected she had murdered outriders from Lord Marave’s army for them. Possibly she had killed them entirely for the flasks, for her fieldcraft was not the kind anyone with mundane eyes would easily see through no matter how skilled those eyes.
“- so we signed it as ‘the King of Winter’, since none of us knew the name, but the real important part here is that she called me a sullen wench,” Archer said. “Sullen, really, can you believe that? The nerve of her sometimes.”
Tariq set aside a concern, namely that he had been repeatedly outmanoeuvered by a young woman whose notion of a ruse fit to enter the seat of the Winter Court was a lie so blatant the fae would hesitate to call her out on it, and addressed a more pressing one. Such as the fact that, while Indrani was gesticulating, she was not keeping both hands on the sheer cliff they were climbing. Something of an issue, as she was the lead climber but if she fell the same rope she used to help him up would help drag him down to his death.
“Should you truly be this cavalier with the handholds?” he asked in a strangled tone.
“Don’t worry about it,” Archer dismissed. “We’re almost there anyway.”
“And that will be solid ground, yes?” the Grey Pilgrim faintly asked.
“Bit of a slope, but pretty much yeah,” the young woman cheerfully said. “Used to be a secret escape tunnel, when this was still Liesse the city instead of Diabolist’s flying magic tantrum. Nobles, right? They’re like moles, always digging tunnels to get out when the going gets rough.”
“And you’re certain it was not found by either the Diabolist or the Hierophant?” Tariq pressed.
“Like, at least half certain,” she badly winked. “Seriously though, it used to lead into Hengest Lake. Had to take a swim in there to flee through, and no villain could possibly take a dip in there. Cat says there was some spare angel corpse lying around inside.”
“The Hashmallim that was tricked into perdition by Dread Emperor Traitorous,” the Pilgrim agreed. “It is well-known, in some circles. He was one of the only two Praesi rulers to successfully harm a Choir.”
“No shit?” Archer said, sending him a serious glance. “Had no idea what kind of an angel bone it was, don’t think the others did either. Anyways, Diabolist slapped a massive cliff in front of this entire part of the city when she landed it to make it easier to defend it so it was buried until Zeze stole it again. We’re the only two people who know about the passage, as far as I know, which is pretty far ‘cause I got good eyes.”
“No shit,” the Grey Pilgrim solemnly confirmed.
Though he was missing much of the context that would be needed to decipher the nuances of the information she had so easily volunteered, he was appreciative of the way she was dragging him up the cliff even as she spoke. Tariq was rather less spry than he used to be, and had never been much of a climber besides. He’d more than once fallen while climbing Sintra’s balcony, though he’d never used the stepladder she’d once ordered set against the wall in what was very much open mockery. The Pilgrim glanced down the sheer cliff, not in the slightest enjoying the fresh reminder that was he was currently dangling down a rope above the height of storm clouds. If he fell down that, it would be more than pride and a planting of bluebells that would sting of it.
“So who was the other?” Archer asked, wedging her boot into a crevice and nimbly hoisting herself up.
“The other?” Tariq asked.
“Praesi ruler,” the young woman clarified.
“Ah, that would be Triumphant if the old histories are to be believed,” he answered.
His tone was a little hurried, as the rope had grown taut with her rising and he’d done his best to follow her path.
“Ah, Triumphant,” Archer hummed. “Now there was a real horror. She’s always fun to read about, isn’t she?”
If one enjoyed pages depicting a procession of brutal massacres and subjugation, culminating in hubris so flagrant it moved not one but two empires on the other side of the Tyrian Sea to wage war on her. Which Tariq did not, for all that the learning of history was important. Praesi histories tended to be sickening, as a rule, a parade of savageries always trying to exceed the last. Dread Empress Triumphant had been the worst of that lot by a fair margin, and one did not need to read of her attempted annihilations in the Chain of Hunger and the Titanomachy to be disgusted. Even the atrocities she’d resorted to in the cowing of the powerful Alamans tribes that’d dwelled on the shores of Lake Artoise were worthy of revulsion, and they’d been but a pale shadow of what she’d inflicted on Callow.
“If you say so,” the Pilgrim replied.
Indrani did not pay his answer any heed, for she was making vaguely pleased noises and wedging herself against outcroppings – only to move swiftly from side to side, rising up as far as the rope allowed and swinging a leg over what appeared to be the ground floor of a tunnel. She rolled back and helped up Tariq, putting those muscled arms to work hoisting up his wizened frame. They unhooked the rope, after that, and the Pilgrim wove the slightest sliver of Light into a globe.
“You don’t know the trick for seeing in the dark?” Archer asked him, looking surprised.
“The Light reveals many enchantments as well,” Tariq told her, “and subtleties that leaning on one’s Bestowal does not. Best we advance cautiously, yes?”
“I suppose,” she said. “Might be the Callowans put up some-“
She paused, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say she was interrupted. Her senses were sharp, but Tariq had more to rely on that what his frail mortal shell could provide: the Ophanim whispered into his ear, urgent but not disapproving. Above them, Liesse shook and a rampant clamour was distantly heard.
“Well,” Indrani said. “It looks like slow and careful just took a leap down that cliff.”
“So it did,” the Grey Pilgrim murmured.
“Look at the bright side, Peregrine,” Archer cheerfully said. “Nobody does distraction like Catherine.”