“Mastery is meekness, for it is the observation of what we are intended to hold. It is the art of the supplicant. Only through usurpation can understanding be reached, for anything less is servitude.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
Firyal had died screaming, boiling heat washing over her. This she still remembered, sometimes, and in those rare moments of lucidity she knew terror. For while she had once been a mage some skill, the shackles around her soul were like nothing she had ever seen. A trained mind had allowed her to drift out of the dreams, once every few days, long enough to dread the return to that strange slumber where she only saw the life she had lived. Again, and again and again, for some obscure purpose. Perhaps, she had thought, this was one of the Hells. Perhaps she had not looked closely enough at all the bargains she had made, and some devil had gotten the best of her. So Firyal wondered, until she was startled awake by her shackles being ripped away. Freedom tasted sweet, for a moment, before she saw them. Eyes above her, burning and unblinking. As if the sun had been imprisoned in orbs of glass. Unkindly, the eyes peered through the span of her life like a bored scribe skimming a scroll.
“Useless,” a calm voice noted. “Pass in peace.”
The sun in the eyes died and then there was only oblivion.
“This is an abomination,” Laurence said. “You know it, Foundling, and would still offer salvation to its architect?”
They’d torn through the last defences surrounding the sanctum like they were parchment, between the Black Queen’s knowledge of their lay and Roland’s knack for taking down wards, but what had awaited them beyond the luxurious quarters and feast halls was an Evil manifest. At Laurence’s feet, like lake water softly lapping at a shore, the translucent and almost shimmering broth of hundreds of thousands of souls was spread out. Above them there was only darkness for a ceiling, whatever foul sorcery was at work here having warped the nature of within into this… sickness. It was silent in here, almost peaceful, and that made the sight of it twice as ghoulish.
“Yes,” the Black Queen said.
She had hesitated, the Saint thought, for barely the fraction of a moment. The loyalty of that was laudable but made a sin against Creation by who it’d been offered to. To safeguard a poisoner against consequence was to share in the guilt of the poisonings that would follow.
“Ah, well they were just Praesi,” the Tyrant of Helike drawled. “It’s not like the Grand Alliance hasn’t been having rousing discussions of their wholesale slaughter anyway.”
The Saint hadn’t known that, not for sure, but then she was not particularly surprised. Tariq’s chomping at the bit for them to head to Salia as soon as this was settled now made a great deal more sense. The boy-villain could be lying, of course, but that didn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not Foundling would believe him. Laurence’s hand casually went down to her sword. There was a pause.
“You’re not even lying, are you?” the Black Queen mused, her tone wry.
She often used amusement to cloak her true thoughts, the Saint had noticed.
“An issue to settle when this is done with,” Foundling sighed. “Pity for Cordelia Hasenbach is not something I particularly enjoy feeling, Kairos.”
Did anyone? Klaus’ niece or not, no one claimed the highest office of the Principate without climbing a mound of corpses. Some justly made, but others? Procer had grown into the kind of beast that would devour the best of intentions and taint them simply by being what it was.
“I cannot assure our safety if we wade into that,” Roland piped up.
His eyes had never left the lake of souls, fascination and revulsion warring within them. Wizards, Laurence unkindly thought. Even the finest of them were only ever one swell of curiosity away from tumbling down a foul slope.
“I’ll be handling that,” Foundling said. “Where there is darkness there is night, and so it stands within my dominion.”
No, not night, Laurence thought. It was ‘Night’ she had said, with a subtle ring of power to the word. Some blasphemous dark mirror to the Light? The Saint had believed the Black Queen’s strange powers to come from a bargain made with lesser gods in the service of Below, but the sacrilege might run deeper than that.
“And where will we be headed?” Saint flatly asked.
“Why, dearest Laurence, that ought to be obvious,” the Tyrant of Helike laughed. “To the throne room, of course.”
No one humoured the madman with further reply. The Black Queen’s staff struck the ground and before it the souls parted. And so, Laurence thought, it begins.
Tariq carried light into the dark, as he had sought to do for most his life.
The sliver of it was enough to push back the silvery sea of souls around the two of them, that tragedy happened and happening. The right to Behold the truth of things, that was the gift that had been bestowed upon him many years ago when he found his own base discernment too feeble a thing to rely on, but there were occasions where it was curse as much as boon. This was one, he thought, for not until the Heavens called him to his rest would the Grey Pilgrim forget this sight: an expanse of shivering souls, wounded and crying out from the sudden brutality of their demise. Shackled to Creation and kept in that torment of a half-existence, sorcerous bindings keeping imprisoned in restless slumber. And where someone else might see only the waters, Tariq… Oh, he could see them all. Every weeping child, every terrified innocent lost to a death they had not even been able to understand. For all that, the Grey Pilgrim did not look away. Someone had to see them, to refuse to avert their eyes. And to free them, when the time came, for this would not be tolerated.
“Huh,” Archer said. “So that’s what it looks like when your blood is up.”
“This place is a blight onto Creation, child,” Tariq quietly said. “You are no priestess, but your senses are keen. You must know it as well.”
“He wouldn’t have let it come to this, if he were in his right mind,” she replied. “But that’s what you get, when you push monstrously talented practitioner over the edge. They fall, and either they die or they make wings of whatever’s at hand at the time.”
“The attack on Thalassina is no excuse for this,” the Pilgrim sharply said. “It does not exempt the Hierophant from responsibility for this abomination.”
“You don’t get to make that call,” Archer calmly said. “He’s not for you to judge, crusader. You take a swing at a nest of vicious diabolists, well, you get shit like this. If he crossed a line in defending his home and family then it’s not the enemy that’ll discipline him – it’s Catherine.”
“And if she simply pardons him?” the Peregrine asked.
Hazelnut eyes met his own.
“If you believe that, then your eyesight’s worse than I’d thought.”
The heartbeat of tension that followed was broken by the flapping of great wings. It startled Tariq into looking up, though he could barely glimpse the shape of the large crow in the gloom until it landed on Archer’s extended arm. The pulsing thoughts and feelings of the young woman that’d he’d been able to behold until that moment were suddenly obscured, as if a shadow was being cast over them. The loss was discomforting, he’d admit, though that was a paltry thing compared to the black-winged horror perched on young Indrani’s arm. Even a casual glance into those night-woven feathers was enough for him to hear distant screams. To smell fresh blood being spilled, as if he was standing by an altar where a throat was being opened. The Ophanim breathed into him and the haunting faded, though like a prowling beast it was not gone – merely held at bay.
“You sure?” Archer said, cocking her head to the side.
She winced before she was even finished speaking, and Tariq noted she never looked directly at the crow.
“I always get stuck with the snippy one,” the young woman angrily growled. “Fine, we’ll do it. Away with you, bird.”
The murder made flesh flew above, and Tariq breathed in sharply when he saw its talons had left bloody marks on Archer’s arm. He raised his hand, silently offering healing, but his companion shook her head.
“The Sisters don’t really do nice, but they don’t bleed people without a reason,” she said. “The blood was taken for a reason. Also because I piss them off but Hells at this point it’d a shame to stop.”
She did not lack courage, though the Peregrine found it regrettable she chose not to exercise it on worthier pursuits than recklessly provoking lesser deities born of ritual slaughter.
“And what did the Sisters request?” Tariq asked.
“Masego’s nearing the end of whatever the Dead King using him for,” Archer said. “We can’t afford this slow a pace anymore.”
“We will hurry, then,” Tariq agreed.
Tired as he was, better exhaustion than inaction.
“Ah, you’re not getting my drift,” the young woman said. “Walking the road won’t cut it.”
“Your meaning?” the Grey Pilgrim asked.
“Snuff the light,” the Archer said, “and stay close to me. We follow the crow.”
Iblin had been so proud to be called to stand among the ritual even though he was young and not entirely schooled in the proper ways. Yet he had power to spare, and that had been needed most of all, and so among the circles that supported the Lord Warlock he had stood. But then it had… where was he? There’d been a light, a terrible Light, and a voice had Spoken. This was not Thalassina, Iblin realized, this was not Thalassina and – blinding eyes were staring down, releasing a pressure that had been keeping him constrained, and the relief lived only until his soul began suffering examination. Like an insect pinned and open so that the entrails could be looked upon, the last moments of Iblin’s life were studied by that burning glare. He screamed, for it was an intrusion unlike any he had felt before. The presence had been calm, at the start, patient. But twice it looked upon the same moment, when the voice had uttered a word and the circle had lost control of the gathered power, and tried to look at the Warlock from where Iblin had stood but found the angle too stilted. The examination grew rougher, forceful, until the grip suddenly loosed.
“Useless,” a voice impatiently said. “Leave.”
Oblivion fell over Iblin like a blanket.
Like children wandering into the woods at night they moved in a line, everyone close enough to the one in front of them to see their back even in the gloom – save for the Black Queen herself, who gazed into the darkness with seeing eyes even where there should be nothing to see. Under their boots the translucent liquid souls turned into solid ground, though only as long as they touched and not an instant more. The Saint had claimed the rearguard, for she would not trust the Tyrant to stand at her back – even if he were truly standing instead of letting himself be carried by his ugly creations. She’d kept an eye on him in case he warmed to the notion of striking at the Rogue Sorcerer’s back, whose earlier spoken sympathies had apparently convinced the Black Queen to place behind her. If this was a ploy, Laurence thought, it appeared to be working.
“Catherine,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “I’ve a query, if you would.”
“Do you?” the Black Queen replied. “Imagine that.”
Laurence noted that their pace quickened at that, limp or not.
“We are being guided by one of your crows, are we not?” Kairos Theodosian mused. “I can almost hear the beat of the wings.”
The Saint could not, though she’d felt there was an air of carrion to this abominable place from the start. She’d presumed it to be either the souls of the dead or Foundling’s own powers, though, not the presence of some old monster.
“I don’t have crows,” the Black Queen mildly replied.
She’d not outright denied having a guide, and the Tyrant hacked out a wet laugh.
“And are you not worried, my dear friend, that so wantonly parading pieces of a godhead around the Hidden Horror will have… intriguing outcome?”
“If he wants to catch Sve Noc in the dark,” Foundling said, “I can only wish him good luck.”
“I thought you might say that,” Kairos Theodosian said. “Which is why-”
In a single continuous movement, gathering the power of her Choosing to refine her strength and swiftness, the Saint of Swords unsheathed her blade and thrust it through the back of the Tyrant’s throne at the height where his heart would be. Always tempting to go for the neck, with villains, but while clever Damned often had artefacts meant to protect such a weakness they rarely bothered with more than a single layer of enchanted armour over their chest. The blow went straight through the stone and metal, but it was no flesh that was torn through afterwards. Lips thinning with displeasure, Laurence withdrew her blade and let whatever illusion had been laid over the gargoyle shatter.
“Betrayal,” the Tyrant called out through the mouth of another gargoyle. “Betrayal most foul!”
The Black Queen turned to gaze upon the mess and Saint took a careful step back. If the confrontation began here, then-
“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” Catherine Foundling said.
“He was about to turn on us,” Laurence flatly replied.
“Yes,” she agreed without missing a beat. “But now we turned on him first, and that means-”
Light bloomed in the sky above them, chasing the shadows, and wreathed in a halo the Tyrant appeared – carried by a swarm of chittering gargoyles, seated on what appeared to a measurably gaudier specimen of the throne he’d previously sat on.
“- so viciously scorned, I am left no repose but to meet you all in open and honourable battle,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully announced.
“Komena,” the Black Queen murmured in that foreign tongue of hers, “sate.”
This time Laurence did feel the devil, or rather her absence – a weight there had been in the air vanished, even as light spread further around the Tyrant of Helike and he revealed what appeared to be a… sword? Saint opened her mouth, but Foundling suddenly extended her staff out in front of her with a glare.
“Do not,” she hissed, “accept that beginning.”
“What say you, blackguards – if you’ll forgive my language – and reprobates?” the Tyrant shouted, openly gleeful. “Will you meet my challenge?”
The Black Queen rolled her shoulder, as if to limber it, and glanced at the rest of them.
“Head for the throne room,” Catherine Foundling said. “I’m the only one who can handle what he’s about to use, which I suppose is rather the point.”
“How will we know the way?” Roland asked.
Foundling pointed at the Tyrant, or rather the light wreathing him.
“You’ll be able to see it soon enough,” she said. “Get moving. You don’t want to be caught in the middle of that.”
Laurence’s lips thinned.
“The sword,” she said. “What is it?”
“In a word?” Catherine Foundling grimaced. “Hierarchy.”
“Well,” Archer said, “that’s not good.”
Tariq gaze upon the light rising in the distance, chasing away the shadows, and knew that once upon a time the stuff of it had been Light. It had been… twisted, after, but the nature of it was not hidden form his eye. The Ophanim murmured in his ear, angry at the perversion but also worried. This was a weapon, and a dire one.
“The Tyrant of Helike has betrayed them,” Tariq grimly said.
“Cat said he’d planned to steal this entire place,” the young woman said. “I guess he’s settled for making a grab at the souls instead.”
“And this does not worry you?” the Pilgrim asked.
“We’re nearly there,” the Archer shrugged. “Although we’re going to lose our guide soon, I suppose. Out in the open in Hierophant’s seat of power she’d be meat on the plate.”
“That Kairos Theodosian could claim such a great bounty of souls,” Tariq clarified.
“Cat’s there,” his companion replied, eyebrow rising.
As if that settled the matter, as if the Black Queen was a talisman of victory. If it had been blind loyalty or even love, the Grey Pilgrim would not have found it half as unsettling. But it was trust, simple and deep. The kind he had never once seen one of Below’s champions so easily extend to another. The Woe defied easy description, in both what had brought them together and what had since bound them.
“Then let us proceed,” the Pilgrim said, tucking away his thoughts.
They moved swiftly, pace racing against the distant blooming of the Tyrant’s light. And the found their mark, moments before the first rays chased away the lesser god that had been their guide and helper both. The Pilgrim and the Archer stood before a flight of tall stairs, roughly hewn and leading to gates of bronze slightly cracked open. Sorcery pulsed like a living thing, hear, a great heartbeat, and the wisps of it were visible in the air. Upwards they hurried and slipped through the opening and into the Hierophant’s last sanctum.
It had always been about precision, Hierophant dimly remembered, even before this had begun. It was the fundamental failure of humankind, the inexactitude of what it could perceive in a world that was the most finely tuned construct in existence. And so they all puttered about, sometimes blindly feeling out a segment of the greater whole and daring to call it a theory of magic. And Hierophant had been blind as well, was blind still, but in his restlessness he had found what he craved the most: sometimes, just sometimes, he could see it all. Witness it in full. And so the impossible simply became improbable, and now he must fit all the pieces together. Perfectly, or it would be worse than doing nothing at all. There had been a need for tools, and so tools he had gathered.
The souls of Thalassina, the fuel of his work.
Broken Liesse, the foundry from which he would cast salvation.
The Observatory, eyes for where his eyes could not reach.
The secrets of Trismegistus had been of great use in leashing the souls and keeping them at hand, in shattering what he needed of Arcadia and making of it what was required. Souls alone were not enough, no, they were not. And so he had ruined the realm, and from ruin gained mastery – aspect pulsing, breathing, pulsing. It was… unpleasant. His body ached, and so he had withdrawn from it. There were simply too many distractions and the work could not brook those. It needed to be perfect. But it was not, even through the Observatory. He filled the sky to see, to find the shards and reflections of deepest Arcadia, but it was not enough. Muddled, the shards were, inexact. Papa could not be made anew from that. And then it came to him, the understanding. He had the souls, those who had been there in the last moments of it all. He could see through their eyes, and where their own were imprecise bits of flesh his eyes would not fail. Only there were so many, many souls. And who else could he trust with this? No one.
His mind drifted sometimes, moments were lost, but that was as close as Hierophant would suffer to sleep.
The souls did not get him what he needed. Glimpses, yes, but incomplete. Not even his aspect could bridge so broad a gap. But ah, he was not done. Like jigsaw puzzles, those toys someone he could not recall had loved, he took the glimpses and put them together. Fit them until it could all be seen, and then again. All eyes that could be found, for anything less would mean imperfection. Yet distractions came knocking at his door. Vermin wandering through the ruin, armies and travellers. Named, even, that resisted the storms he redirected towards them. Entities, sometimes, and those he spared thought to catching – there was always a need for fuel, for the foundry was ever hungry – but they were slippery things and skilled at hiding in the shadows. Distractions, distractions he could not afford. The essence he extracted from the Hells had bleed and using old arrays he bound devils with it to put in the way of the vermin. No further thought was given than that, for Liesse was high up and defended. But now, now, there was assault. Things crawling in the dark, Named everywhere and even contamination.
Someone was trying to take souls, to rule them through law and faith, and when Hierophant had tried to swat them out of existence he had found the laws resisted him. They disallowed his interference and sunk further into the sea of souls, poison in the well. One of the entities was trying to contain this – and was this not a familiar presence?
No. We cannot afford distractions.
Hierophant had to hurry, yes. Containment would fail, contamination would spread, and it would all be made inexact. The pieces were together, though there would be more. If he kept looking, it would be perfect. As he needed it to be.
It is already perfect. We must hurry, they are trying to break it.
Vermin, vermin everywhere. Yes, it needed to be now. Before it was soiled. It all fell together, dozens and dozens of glimpses he had painstakingly gathered, and when they were all fitted Hierophant breathed out.
“Witness,” he whispered.
It rang out, went out, and then it was caught.
“Yes,” the Dead King whispered fondly into his ear, “now show me what it is that she’s planning. Show me what the Intercessor seeks, Hierophant.”