“Fate is not a bridle; it is an arrow in flight. No hand but your own can loose it, yet once loosed there can be no desisting from the path.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent the First
Masego awoke from his dream to a firm hand on his shoulder. The touch was unpleasant, as most touches tended to be, but not so distasteful as to stir him to action when he was so… tired. He’d said something, hadn’t he? Just now. And it’d been important. Yet he could not quite recall, and there were other matters to have his mind aflutter. Masego could feel sights flicker just beyond the reach of his eyes, as if stolen before they ever became his.
“I would have preferred,” a measured voice said, “to use means that preserved your gifts. For that I apologize, Hierophant. You are a rare talent and so this stands a great waste.”
Masego had heard that voice before. Months, years ago. It was not to be trusted. It belonged to an enemy. He tried to extend his will, to claw back the sights that had been taken from him, but it was… difficult. He saw a garden and a pale woman in a dress. He saw a man with a silver coin, spinning and spinning until it dropped. He saw a crowned corpse, a grinning skull – and his will was firmly set aside, like a child whose wrist had been slapped. He struggled against it, but only weakly and ceased when the futility of the act became clear.
“It is necessary, however. If we’d had more time,” the voice said, “it could have been done more cleanly. Yet your mistress forced my hand in this, however kind her intentions. So did that amusing child, though from him I would not presume kindness of any sort.”
Masego had no eyes to blink open blearily, but the glinting lights of Summer’s noon came alight once more. There were arrays around him, in the dozens, that he could not remember making. He wanted to study them more closely but it was difficult to concentrate. He felt exhausted and it was only worsening. Like a barrel draining out. There were other circles of rune he remembered carving himself, the necessities of bringing back his father, but they were skillfully intertwined with the stranger’s work. Someone, he realized, had usurped his work. Wormed runes into his arrays and so repurposed them for a ritual that was almost a manner of scrying, though unlike any he’d ever seen. Still, it was all derivative. There should be something at the heart of it all, empowering and empowered.
Gods, he was so tired.
“Steady now, Hierophant,” the Dead King murmured. “Divination is delicate sorcery at the best of times, and we seek to unmask the greatest liar these lands have ever known. It is too early in our shared journey to falter.”
The hand pulled him up from the slump he’d not known he was falling into, its grip now tight enough it hurt, the sights he was still denied began to flicker even more swiftly.
“We are too late,” the Grey Pilgrim sadly said.
There had been no missing the colossal pulse of power that’d shivered outwards and through them even as they stepped into the sanctum. Tariq had been given pause by what awaited inside, for never before had he seen such works of magic: it was as if every surface of the great pillared hall within had been covered with runes. They had been artfully carved, no mere circles but instead almost a great mural: waves crested and broke, carved into stone, and spun into forests and peaks. The sight of it was oddly beautiful, like a painting made a hundred thousand little brushstrokes, but like rivers returning to the sea all the patterns of runes coursed back to the throne at the centre of the room. On it, a sickly thin man in dark robes was seated, sightlessly looking up at the ceiling through a tattered black eyecloth. The Hierophant, though he looked more than half dead and great strokes of manifest sorcery whirled around him like a storm.
“He’s still breathing,” Archer flatly replied. “Careful what you step on, Pilgrim. Follow my path.”
Tariq felt a swell of grief, for he beheld the young woman’s anticipation of what might yet come and it was like a flinch of the heart. The first time, he well-knew, was always the worst. And no amount of years or seasoning could ever truly prepare you for it.
“He is being used by the Hidden Horror for a ritual, Indrani,” he softly replied. “Even should he survive, there will be little of him left.”
“You don’t know that,” she sharply said.
“I know we cannot let that ritual run its course,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“If we interrupt it could-” she began.
Like quicksilver, without the slightest hint of warning, the Archer had two bared blades against Tariq’s throat. He’d not even had time to blink. The cool touch of steel against skin would have been relief, after the exertions of the day, if not for the slight bite of the very sharp knives.
“You won’t cleaning up any loose ends under cover of good intention, Pilgrim,” the Archer mildly said.
“I did not intend to,” Tariq said.
She looked at him searchingly.
“Might be that’s true,” she murmured. “Might be it’s not, or just that it won’t matter. The Lady said there’s only one way to deal with your breed, so I’ll speak plain now. Just between you and me.”
She leaned forward.
“You kill him, Peregrine, and I’ll make whatever ten corpses I need to make the Grand Alliance eat itself alive,” Archer said. “You might think Cat will keep me in line, or the war on Keter, or half a hundred different other practical little worries for practical little minds. But look into my soul, Tariq. When I tell you not a single fucking thing will stay my hand, am I lying?”
The Pilgrim looked and beheld the truth of it.
“No,” he quietly said. “You are not.”
The blades left his throat, and a few spins later they were sheathed and put away.
“Glad we have an understanding, Peregrine,” the young woman smiled. “Now let’s find a way to wake him without hurting him.”
“There’s something out there,” Laurence said.
The dark of this abominable place had been chased away by the glow of the Tyrant’s own blasphemy, which brought to mind more than a few passages from the Book about Evil clawing at Evil. Not that the Book of All Things was all that reliable a guide, when it came down to it. Whoever had penned the old thing seemed under the impression that Chosen were naturally prone to holding hands and tearfully joining righteous cause, in contrast to the spirited backbiting of the Damned. Presumably they’d never witnessed two Chosen with different intentions existing in each other’s presence, much less two of Above’s servants coming from different parts of Calernia. Without someone like Tariq to keep the peace or someone bearing a clear mandate to unite behind like the White Knight, you might as well be throwing a whole bag’s worth of angry wet cats in a half a bag. Laurence caught the drift of her thoughts and killed it quick as he could. The mind tended to wander when one tired, and she’d not been this exhausted in a very long time.
“The Hierophant, presumably,” Roland delicately said. “Or our more discreet comrades.”
He was looking at her like she was old, which was fair. She was. He was also looking at her like she was doddering, though, a dowager seeing monsters in shadows, and for that almost slapped him across the face. Her fingers itched with the impulse, though she pushed it down.
“There are other things out there,” the Saint sharply replied. “And they are looking at us. Prepare for trouble, Sorcerer.”
The weight of the attention placed on them did not waver even after she revealed her knowledge of it. It might be that the watchers were not hostile, she acknowledged. It might also be that they were either powerful or ignorant enough to be unmoved at the prospect of two heroes’ wroth. Whatever the truth, they would not learn it by hesitation or idleness. Taking the lead, Laurence quickened her steps as they approached the final stretch separating them from the shadowed silhouette of the throne room. The Saint bared her sword, for anything that would be offended by such a gesture already meant to be a foe. Sharp eyes picked out the watchers, and what Laurence found did not please her. There were dozens, though each stood alone as some sort of sinister of honour guard around the the Hierophant’s prison-sanctum. Only one was seated, halfway up the steps leading to the gates. It was in the shape of a man, though its hair was too unnaturally dark and its lips too unsettlingly red to truly be one. It was like looking at a story made flesh, Laurence thought. Raven-haired and red like blood, something pretending it was made of flesh with a mocking smile and one eye covered by pretty dark silk cloth. On its lap there was a sword, and the thing was sharpening it patiently with a whetstone. One languid stroke at a time, the sound of it a rasp in the strange silence of this place.
Laurence knew a thing or two of swords, and that one had no need for sharpening at all.
“I bid you welcome, Chosen,” the thing said. “You are awaited.”
The Saint spat to the side.
“Been skulking about, have you?” she said. “And turned out about as useful as a wings on a trout.”
“Saint,” Roland softly hissed, having caught up to her. “We greet you in peace, Huntsman.”
The old thing glanced at the boy approvingly.
“Your kind were a mannerly people, once upon a time,” it said. “It is pleasing to know some of those ways remain. In the manner you have greeted me you may leave, to seek your fate beyond me.”
“My thanks,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
“What’s inside?” Laurence asked, meeting the faerie’s eye.
She glimpsed something like darkness in there, hungry and old, but she bared her teeth and it found no purchase in her soul. The Saint spat to the side again.
“I asked you a question, scavenger,” she said.
“The king of pins,” the faerie laughed. “I see you, cutter. Wounding and wounded, a rag in pale grasp. How much filth can you swallow before the stains no longer wash?”
“I’ve had more ominous from street soothsayers,” she replied. “If you want to earn a copper at least toss around a few fumes and powders.”
Ignoring the creature’s open displeasure she strode forward, making sure her tabard flapped in its face as she passed it. Roland hurried at her side after making apologies to the thing, but he was only a step behind when Laurence passed through the cracked-open bronze gates.
“It’s killing him, isn’t it?” Indrani quietly said.
The old man sucked in a breath, but after a moment shook his head.
“I expect he’ll remain alive,” the Pilgrim said. “Though there will little left of him save a broken mind in ruin of flesh.”
It was difficult to look at him. Masego had thinned, back when he’d first gotten into the Observatory and entranced himself with his own work, but out on campaign afterwards he’d reclaimed back some of the weight. Enough it didn’t look like he was being starved, anyway, though he’d been nothing like the plump man Indrani had first met years ago. Now that was lost, for he was little more than skin on bones with wildly overgrown dreadlocks. He must have eaten on occasion – mage or not he’d be dead by now otherwise – but not often, and he’d likely cheated hunger with spells. His sickly frame would have been bad enough by itself, but there was a river of sorcery coursing through him that was burning his body from the inside. Whatever it was the Dead King was doing, it was not gentle to her… to Masego.
“You need to get me through,” Indrani said. “If I could reach him-”
“We’ve tried, Archer,” the Pilgrim said, pointedly looking at her arm.
It’s just flesh, Indrani angrily thought. The swirls of pure and lingering magic around Hierophant did not immediately breaking through a coating of Light, but it was a near thing. Indrani had tried to speed through anyway, though she’d had to pull back. If she’d stayed any longer she might have lost the entire arm, but as it was all she’d lost was some flesh. You couldn’t even see bone, it was basically a scratch.
“So we try again,” she replied. “Slap some more Light onto me, and I’ll take a running leap.”
“You’ll lose more than a part of your arm,” the old man calmly said.
“Yeah, so I was thinking,” Indrani mused. “Keeping up the protection won’t work, we saw that, but what if the moment it break you just start healing me instead?”
As long as she didn’t lose anything essential, then it didn’t matter in what state she arrived on the other side. Immediately around Zeze was safe, she’d Seen it and the Pilgrim agreed. It was just the outer shell that she needed to get through.
“You may very well die regardless,” the Pilgrim bluntly said. “Neither of us has the means to breach this… defence without risking the Hierophant’s life. I know it runs contrary to your nature, but it would be best if we waited for-”
“We might not have that long,” Indrani interrupted in frustration. “It could be moments or hours, and there’s no way to know.”
Though the strange whistle of spinning sorcery almost covered it, she still heard the footsteps. She already had a longknife in hand when she came to face the fresh arrivals.
“Moments,” the Saint of Swords grunted, striding in sword bared. “So stop whining. What’s this, then?”
Tariq breathed out a sigh of threaded worry and relief. Young Indrani was very much at the end of her rope – there was no need of an aspect to tell him as much, though the confirmation was not without value – and expecting of Laurence sympathy for any in Below’s service was not unlike expecting that very thing of a bared sword, which would be a delicate dance to lead. Laurence, however, possessed means that he did not. Where even the most delicate applications of Light whispered into his ears by the Ophanim had failed, her sword would not. He suspected the Archer would forgive a great many things if they came accompanied by the safeguarding of the Hierophant.
“Laurence,” he greeted.
It was no happenstance his tone was pitched just high enough to cut through the beginning of young Indrani’s no doubt less than diplomatic reply.
“We are in need of your expertise, and perhaps Roland’s,” Tariq said. “It appears the Dead King is using the Hierophant for sinister purposes, and has made reaching him difficult.”
“You want me to cut something,” Laurence bluntly said.
He’d known her long enough to detect the amusement twined to the bluntness, though he doubted anyone else here had.
“In that art you have few rivals,” he said, and immediately realized he’d made a mistake.
Mentioning the Lady of the Lake would only remind the Saint was lending a hand to the most prized pupil of that hated foe.
“Can you cut through that?” Archer asked.
She gestured towards the whirling sorcery. Though he’d been ready to step in and smooth the rough edges before the situation… deteriorated, flicked glances at both told him there was no need to.
“Could your teacher?” Saint casually asked.
What he beheld told him behind the nonchalance was a burn that’d dwelled in her belly for more than forty years, and having closed the wound over it with his own fingers and Light he could not find it in him to reprimand her for it. There were some things that couldn’t be forgiven without losing part of who you were, and the open belly had been the least of the wounds the Ranger had inflicted on Laurence that day.
“I’m not sure,” young Indrani admitted. “It’s just wild magic, so there’s no… principle to it.”
The older woman’s smiled was darkly pleased.
“It’ll flow back,” Saint said. “But I’ll carve you a way through.”
“Good,” young Indrani nodded decisively. “Let’s finish this, then.”
“And you attempt does not succeed?” Tariq calmly asked.
“It will,” Archer growled.
“Watch your mouth, girl,” Laurence harshly said. “It’s a sensible question. If it doesn’t work, best way might be to kill him.”
The Archer had blades in hand before the sentence was over.
“Peace,” Tariq said. “Saint does not mean for him to remain so.”
The ochre-skinned villain looked at him with narrowed eyed.
“Your resurrection trick, it works with villains too?”
The Grey Pilgrim was slightly pained to hear described the act through which he came closest to feeling the will of the Gods Above as ‘your resurrection trick’, yet he smoothed that away. No one would had not done the same could truly understand the nature of the act.
“It does,” Tariq said. “As Laurence well knows. I am not, however, certain it would succeed with the Hierophant.”
It was not only young Indrani that looked him askance at that. Laurence was not deeply schooled in the ways of his gift of forgiveness, for there had never been a need. Even now he would rather keep silence over it, for it touched upon the sacred, yet silence would now cost more than speech.
“His body might be too thoroughly ruined already,” the Peregrine admitted. “I could breathe back life into him only for Hierophant to die again within moments. If the wound were of a different nature I would not hesitate, but if they were inflicted by his own magic…”
Wound inflicted by a foe would be one matter, easily dealt with. A wound inflicted by oneself, even under duress, was a thornier issue. There could be no guarantees, and he was inclined to believe it would fail. The Gods Above observed the order they had created, as did all the boons they bestowed. He could not Forgive a disease borne of one’s own body, old age or the insidious manners of destruction that years of sickness or poison could inflict. Deaths unnatural, those could be forgiven for they went against the meanings of Above. The Hierophant’s malady was not so clear-cut that Tariq could promise a return if the boy was slain. If he could be freed whilst still living, of course, that would be a different story. It was always much easier to stoke the last flame of life back to a blaze than to light it anew from spent ashes.
“It’s his magic killing him, isn’t it?” Roland hesitantly said.
“More or less,” Archer said, brow furrowing as she studied the hero.
It must not be far from her mind, Tariq thought, that at the Battle of the Camps all three of them had stood on the opposite side of the field from her.
“I could take it,” the Rogue Sorcerer admitted. “His sorcery. That would save his life at least.”
In the breath that followed, both Archer and Saint refused and they each eyed the other with displeasure for it.
“I appreciate it, Rogue,” Indrani said, and it was genuine. “But taking his magic might kill him in a whole other way, if you know what I mean.”
“Are you an idiot, boy?” Laurence harshly said. “You want to take sorcery currently in the hands of the Dead King? Are you really that eager to be hollowed out and made into a Revenant?”
A valid concern, Tariq silently acknowledged.
“Roland,” he said . “What you take, can you return?”
“I’ve never tried,” the young man admitted. “I do not confiscate without reason. I suspect not, to be honest, but it is not impossible.”
“Tariq,” Laurence sharply said.
He met her eyes and inclined his head to the side. They had worked together a great many years, the two of them. She should know by now he would not dismiss the concern she’d expressed. After a moment, her face tightened and she looked at the Rogue Sorcerer with considering eyes.
“It’s a risk,” she spoke without looking at him.
“It is the Hidden Horror,” Tariq said. “Can there be anything else?”
Laurence chewed on her lip. He wouldn’t try go through with this, she knew, unless she assented. Could she do it, if the worse came to pass? Oh, if it worked the victory would be more than merely sweet. But if it didn’t, she could be permanently crippling a promising young Chosen. If she’d been fresh, then… No, that was false thinking. It made no difference, whether she was tired or not. The issue was of capacity. And there was not, in the end, a single thing in Creation that Laurence de Montfort could not cut.
“A measured risk,” she said, and it was concession.
Tariq nodded, lowering his wispy head of hear.
“Archer,” he said. “Given choice between the confiscation of his sorcery and death, would you not agree that confiscation is preferable for Hierophant?”
The vicious girl glared, more at the situation than anyone in particular. Laurence could almost sympathize. It’d been a long night for all of them, wicked and righteous both.
“It’s not impossible for him to get the magic back, right?” the Ranger’s pupil said, looking at Roland.
“I don’t know,” the Rogue Sorcerer admitted. “But I would do my utmost to return it, that much I can swear.”
“Fuck,” the Archer said. “All right, worst case if Cat doesn’t get here we can go down that road. Won’t matter, anyway. Saint, carve me a path would you?”
Laurence looked at the child the Ranger had so fondly raised. She saw there the same indolent pride and skill, only without the weight of centuries behind it.
“Say please,” the Saint of Swords said.
“Please,” the villain replied without missing a beat.
Laurence’s fingers clenched. Oddly enough, she felt more cheated by how easily the girl had said than she would have if the Archer had never said it at all. Sword in hand, the Saint tread across the carved floor and came to stand by the edge of the sorcerous whirls. She adjusted her stance, weighing her sword in her hand.
“Archer?” she said.
“Ready,” the girl replied.
“Now,” she hissed, and struck.
Her will cut where her sword could not, and it was enough to disperse sorcery. Long enough for the Archer to race across the opening. The girl grinned triumphantly as she slid before the Hierophant, laughing, and then-
– the seemingly-entrance boy lazily raised a hand, sorcery flickered and Archer’s brains splattered the floor.
“Now that I have your attention,” the Dead King spoke through the Hierophant’s mouth. “That was your single resurrection, I believe. Do not attempt to meddle again, lest your losses expand beyond the recoverable.”
Masego was half-asleep, for not even the painful squeeze of the hand on his shoulder could keep him entirely awake anymore. Almost dreaming, he drifted in and out of consciousness. The sights still came, but he could feel they were nearing the end. They were slower now, like they had to reach deeper for less.
“How mundane,” a voice spoke close to him. “How petty. I expected better of you, Intercessor. This is… beneath us.”
“Oh, Nessie,” a woman’s voice fondly said. “You should know by now the house always wins.”
It was a jolt to his consciousness. Masego’s not-eyed fluttered open. Though this surroundings were still hazy, what had been lulling him into slumber had drawn back. There were two people here with him. One stood behind the sorcerer, and had a hand on his shoulder. He was the Dead King, an enemy. And in front of him a woman. Slender, dark-haired, much too pale to be Catherine. He could not make out everything about her, but there was a silver flask in her hand and she was drinking from it.
“You believe I cannot see your little scheme?” the Dead King said. “The thief and the cutter, to lessen me for every year to come. I need not witness your plans to see that. It is an acceptable trade, for I now know the lay of you.”
“That’s getting a bit ahead of yourself, innit?” the woman chuckled.
“I know,” the Dead King said. “And now that I do, I need not lift a finger. I’ll tell them, Intercessor, and every last one will turn on you.”
“Yeah, see, that’s the part where you’re getting ahead,” the woman drawled. “You knowing. The little shard of you in poor ol’ Zeze knows, but you-you? That’s a different story.”
“You failed,” the Dead King said. “The Tyrant spread into the souls, yes, but the Black Queen contains him. I will still have room enough to pass what I know.”
“Do you?” the Wandering Bard grinned.
Masego saw her perfectly then. He saw, too, the blood and brains on the floor and the woman they belonged to.
“Dead King,” Hierophant roared. “You did this.”
The Wandering Bard raised her flask in a toast.
“Always,” she smiled, “wins.”