“At which point Lord Bujune and Lady Rania both accused the other of being the Emperor in disguise, and the meeting devolved into protracted argument until the final quarter hour had passed.”
– Extract from the minutes of the fourth meeting of the Red Fox Conspiracy, as taken by the stenographer Shamna Mehere (later revealed to have been Dread Emperor Traitorous all along
“She is not permanently dead.”
Hierophant caught the withdrawing hand by the wrist. This was, he knew, mere symbolic slant: a way for his feeble mortal mind to interpret a complex interplay of forces it could not truly understand even as it used them. The Dead King was not truly standing behind him. The Wandering Bard had not stood in front, either, smiling like a well-fed cat. And so when he squeezed the wrist of Trismegistus until the bones broke, it was not the strength of his grip that mattered. Only that of his mind.
“Listen to me,” the Dead King said. “The Pilgrim can still resurrect her. If I do not intervene. Do not make me intervene.”
“Can you?” Masego asked, cocking his head to the side.
His sorcery, usurpation usurped, rose without his bidding. Like a spear being formed from a dozen threads of magic. It was not, Hierophant noted, the formula that would make a Revenant. But it might be that turning Indrani into such a manner of undead would interfere with Above’s work, so it was not to be tolerated. If you can’t defend, he remembered Catherine once telling him, attack so your enemy has to. And so Masego did not pit his will against the Hidden Horror’s simply weaving spell with his own hands and striking at the Dead King’s presence.
Power met power, a stalemate of an instant, and then the Hierophant truly went on the offensive.
Three heartbeats had passed.
On the first, young Indrani had died. With cold nonchalance the Dead King had raised his hand, spoken a word and sent out a flickering spike of void too swift for even the Pilgrim’s eye to follow. It had ripped through the Archer’s forehead, the flesh not wounded or even vaporized so much as… unmade. Gone. The sorcery around the flesh was so strongly concentrated it obscured even his sight. The warning that began to be spoken after through the mouth of the imprisoned Hierophant, Tariq cared little for. He’d heard many of those before and might yet hear more – threats presented as a warning, fear spoken calmly as if that simple veneer changed the nature of what was being said.
On the second heartbeat Laurence, taken aback yet not beyond action, had darted forward to catch Indrani’s corpse by the back of the cloak. To drag it out of the way of the returning sorcery the Saint had parted with a blow of her sword, lest the Archer’s body be mangled by the wild and whirling magic. Roland finished the last syllable of the incantation he’d begun, protective panes of translucent sorcery forming around Indrani’s body. Too late to be of use even presuming they would have held, which the Pilgrim doubted. Tariq did need to look at the young man’s face to know it had gone ashen, burning guilt flaring at the thought of having been too slow. A loss tied to deeper fears, fears that Tariq could do nothing to soothe away. To meddle too much in the conflict that lay at the heart of Bestowal was a danger to all involved, he’d learned the hard way.
On the third heartbeat, young Indrani’s corpse was unceremoniously tossed out of the way by Laurence, sliding across the rune-covered tiles and leaving behind a trail of wet blood. The shield around it winked out, Roland having dismissed the working with a clenched hand, and the other two heroes turned to the possessed warlock with hard eyes. Saint with the intent to cut, either the boy or the infestation. The Sorcerer with guilt-threaded determination, intent on confiscating the sorcery as he no doubt told himself he should have done from the start. It was these implacable twinges of conscience that always reassured Tariq the young man was in no danger of falling into Below’s embrace. Willingly, anyway.
“- expand beyond the recoverable.”
“Hold,” the Peregrine said.
He had not raised his voice. It resonated anyway, and the other two stilled. The Hierophant’s body half-rose, sorcery flaring, but then it fell back down and his power seething uneasily.
“The boy’s fighting it,” Laurence said, tone holding the barest hint of respect.
It was the closest to praise she’d ever come when mentioning any of the Woe. Tariq gazed down at the corpse of the vivacious young woman he’d spoken with, and for an instant wondered at coincidence. That she would take such a risk unflinching, knowing that the opponent was the Hidden Horror. That it would be young Indrani he was partnered with heading into the deeps, as if to make it certain he’d know what was lost should he stay his hand. How far ahead did you see, Catherine Foundling? How deep did the Black Queen’s cunning truly run? It did not matter, the Pilgrim told himself. Not so long as it was turned against their enemy, against the Enemy.
“There will be an opening,” Tariq said, tone calm and patient and unrelenting. “And when it appears, we will strike at the Dead King with our wroth entire.”
The Hierophant, empowered by his affections and the death of one beloved, would throw off the Abomination’s yoke for a moment. It would be enough for the rest of them to… A shiver went through the room, through this warped place, and as if tugged by strings the fabric of it began to pull inwards. Towards the Hierophant. Like silver mist, the souls of hundreds of thousands slithered through the open bronze gates and burrowed into the blind warlock’s thin frame. Villain, the Pilgrim remembered then. The Woe were, for all the kind intentions of their leader, still villains.
And their kind did not get clean victories, even against each other.
“You are being made use of by the Intercessor,” the Dead King said. “To your own detriment and that of your mistress.”
“I do not have a mistress,” Masego said. “In any sense of the term of which I am aware.”
The bindings he’d wrought while half-mad were, it had to be said, a work of art. The elegance of their structure was matched only by its strength, far beyond any working made by his hand he could recall. He suspected that Trismegistus might have whispered insights, though considering he was going to end the creature it was unlikely he’d ever know for certain. The souls poured into him, power accumulated at a breakneck rate, though never more than he could handle. He’d made certain of that, taking only the slightest portion before releasing the dead to the Underworld awaiting them. It made the rate of accumulation easier to control, and to his understanding remained legal under Callowan law. It might be necessary, Masego mused, to secure some sort of permit for such future ventures. He would consult Adjutant on the subject.
“I know what she plans, Hierophant,” the Dead King said. “And it would destroy all you hold dear.”
Though the warning seemed well-intended, Trismegistus simultaneously attempted to seize enough sorcery to sever himself from Hierophant in what was likely an attempt to flee. Masego, without batting an eye, released all that Trismegistus would wield unshaped. Wild. Dimly, he noted that it appeared his shoulder now had a smoking hole in it. The physical one, anyway.
“You are dying,” the Dead King said.
“That has been true since my birth,” Masego reasonably pointed out.
“Your attempts to hinder my escape are killing you,” Trismegistus said.
“That is true,” Hierophant agreed. “Though I expect they’ll annihilate you first, at which point I will cease and survive while you remain annihilated.”
Ah, Masego thought, slightly worried. Was this a monologue? He’d been warned against those by several people.
“Given such a premise, what reason do I have not to kill us both?” the Dead King said.
“Nothing,” Hierophant acknowledged. “You simply lack the ability-”
He paused, looking for something suitably pithy to add. Insults were pithy, he vaguely remembered quite a few of his friends using them.
“- you Jaquinite,” he scathingly added.
“Tariq,” Laurence hissed. “What the Hells is happening?”
The torrent of souls was streaming around the Grey Pilgrim without ever touching him, as if the dead were shying away from the Choir ever holding vigil over the soul of the Peregrine, but the rest of them didn’t have a pack of winged guardians to rely on. She’d put her sword through the floor and anchored herself to that, but inch by inch she was being dragged towards the Hierophant by the sheer quantity of dead souls pushing against her. Through the mess she could see Roland huddling under roiling tongues of light, pressed against the ground. His protective spell was being battered down, moment by moment.
“The Hierophant is gathering and then releasing the dead,” Tariq said, calm voice carrying perfectly through the whistling sound of flowing souls. “Massing strength for a crippling blow at the Hidden Horror.”
“And what happens if we’re drawn into that?” Laurence yelled.
She did not gesture at the maddened sorcerer, as she might very well fall into the current if she took a hand off her sword. Already her blade was being pushed back through the stone, her boots slowly sliding with it.
“Death, presumably,” the Peregrine said, then paused as if speaking to the unseen. “Definitely death, Laurence, I retract the presumption.”
You’d think the fucking Ophanim would bother to serve as more than some kind of almanac of dire ends, wouldn’t you? But Mercy was all about the soft touch, way she understood it, so unlike one of Judgement’s Chosen her old friend couldn’t simply call down attention and have this entire black mess smote into smoking ruin.
“Do something then,” she screamed.
“That won’t be necessary,” Tariq said. “It’s been long enough. If the souls are in here, Saint, then out there what is left to fight over?”
Now wasn’t the time for bloody riddles, she thought, but then there was thunderous sound above and the room’s ceiling dented. Solid stone. A heartbeat later the dent became an explosion of shards and shape fell through. It was a throne, Saint saw, though acid seemed to have eaten away large chunks of it. The ceiling shook once more, though a stunted silhouette tumbled through the hole. The Tyrant of Helike, Laurence saw, was being carried by gargoyles holding his robe and had a visibly worsening black eye. He looked up, slightly worried, though he rallied quick.
“It’s not what you think, Catherine,” the Tyrant called out. “I swear. I didn’t betray you to the Dead King again. Why, I’d never.”
There was a beat.
“I betrayed you to someone else entirely,” Kairos Theodosian proudly announced.
The gargoyles had to draw him back when a crumpled sword fell through where he’d come, and Laurence half-expected the Black Queen to follow through – only, instead, tendrils of darkness tore through half the ceiling and ripped it out like some gargantuan monster. Above them, the hood of her many-coloured cloak raised and two large crows perched on her shoulders, Catherine Foundling coldly glared downwards from the edge of the roof. Gargoyles began raining down, mangled and seemingly half-devoured.
It’d been a while, Laurence thought, since she’d seen the Black Queen really lose her temper.
“You are not in love with her,” the Dead King said, sounding irritated. “With resurrection assured by the Pilgrim, unrequited affection should not have been sufficient. Not even with her meddling.”
Hierophant spared an irritated thought for Trismegistus as well, irked by the presumption of that. As if a cursory reading of his memories would be enough to understand the sum of him – one did not master a grimoire by skimming it. While Papa had not been able to understand, not truly, for it was against the nature of an incubus to be as he was, his other father had seen in Masego similarities to what he’d once seen in his uncle. Enough to suggest a conversation. Not every kind of love involves bedplay or poetry, Uncle Amadeus had told him. You can crave closeness with someone without craving them in other ways. Sometimes it just… fits. The intensity of it can be misleading, but you will learn. Still, it would not do to monologue again by informing his enemy of such nuances. Where before the Dead King had fought him over the gathering power, now instead his opponent was allowing him to shape it while gathering his own will. They would clash, Masego thought, over control of that last working. Yet for all that the other mage was his superior in learning and skill, he had the advantage. It was to him the bindings had been attached, his hands that had released them and his will that was giving the power shape. It would be a struggle, but his victory was likely.
“It seems I will have to surrender to you,” Trismegistus said.
“I refuse,” Masego said.
“You refuse the millennia of knowledge I could offer, along with secrets that would allow the Black Queen to end the Bard’s schemes?”
“Yes,” he said.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Catherine is already going to be very angry,” Masego pragmatically said. “And it’ll be worse if I dissect your shard after finding a way to torture you, I think. So I’ll wait to take your secrets until we attack Keter and destroy your heart.”
Another heartbeat passed.
“I think I’ll make this painful, though,” Hierophant pensively frowned.
His hand still itched, when he thought of the red splattered on the floor and Indrani’s body falling.
“You overestimate yourself,” the Dead King warned.
“Your secondary runic escapement patterns were subpar,” Masego scathingly said.
He was getting rather good at this pithy banter stuff, Hierophant mused.
“Now,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “there are some among you who might be considering killing me.”
The boy did not lack courage, Tariq mused, though in truth it might be more accurate to call it a disregard for consequences. The Black Queen’s entrance had been appropriately eye-catching, a display of the power of this ‘Night’ she had acquired the right to wield. The two monstrous old things perched on her shoulders had no qualms in lending their power, now that the Hidden Horror was busied wrestling wills with the Hierophant, which meant that Kairos Theodosian had found his every advantage stripped away in a matter of moments. Artefacts shattered, gargoyles torn through, and the souls amongst which he might have sought to hide were either tithed and released by the Hierophant or cowed into retreat by the hungry gaze of these Sve Noc. Now the Tyrant of Helike was stumbling back as the Black Queen limped towards him, her staff hitting the carved floor like punctuation. The Grey Pilgrim felt no inclination to intervene in this, for Kairos Theodosian had been the architect of a great many unnecessary deaths.
“But before we get to that,” the Tyrant chuckled. “I need to expound on why and to who I betrayed you.”
The Black Queen did not bother to reply, simply raising her sinister black wooden staff and aiming it at him.
“It was to the Wandering Bard,” the odd-eyed boy said. “And I did it for a pardon!”
“Should have held out for an escape route,” Catherine Foundling drily replied, and Night gathered at the tip of her staff.
“Tariq,” the Tyrant called out. “You still have the pillow you used that night. That’s what she told me to say as proof.”
The Grey Pilgrim flinched.
“Wait,” he croaked out.
“Oh, Bard,” Theodosian murmured with a vicious smile. “You never disappoint.”
“Pilgrim?” the Black Queen said, turning impatient eye to him.
“I’ve only ever told one person that,” Tariq admitted.
Not even Laurence knew that the pillow that’d been the death of Izil… He’d needed the reminder, he’d decided that night, so that never again would her ignore portents until it was too late.
“And why do I care in the slightest if the Bard has promised him anything?” Catherine Foundling bluntly asked. “To be honest I want to kill him twice as much now.”
“Because she would not make that promise without reason,” the Pilgrim said. “And I trust her discernment in such matters.”
“I don’t,” the Black Queen said. “I’ve seen her get up to some pretty shady shit, Pilgrim. And not all of it serving Above, either.”
“It might have seemed that way,” Tariq delicately said. “But I assure you-”
“When this is over, we’re going to talk about the Wandering Bard,” the Queen of Callow grunted. “But fine, Kairos bargained for the lot of you to spare him. Hold to that. I’ll tie up the loose ends for you – just close your eyes and count to five.”
“We are not fae, to muddle through on exact wording,” Tariq sharply said.
“Tariq, allow me to be perfectly clear,” the Black Queen said. “There is no way in the fucking Hells that I’ll consider the word of the Wandering Bard to be binding to me because you and I are on the same side.”
“She makes a good point, Tariq,” the Tyrant of Helike solemnly said. “I hate to say it, but it seems you might be losing this argument.”
The Peregrine grit his teeth.
“I will count it favour,” he said, “if you withhold your hand now.”
The Queen of Callow eyed him silently, considering.
“Same terms as our last bargain,” she said. “Should the other condition fail to happen.”
The old man breathed out. She was doing him a kindness, here. The Black Queen could have demanded much steeper price, or even kept the favour hanging above his head.
“Then you have my thanks,” Tariq said, dipping his head. “For both this and your restraint.”
“I am deeply pleased to be returning to the fold,” the Tyrant of Helike grinned. “Why, it’s almost like I never-”
The sudden pulse of sorcery caught them all by surprise. The Hierophant rose from his throne, gasping a breath, and the Grey Pilgrim beheld the rotten orb that was the Dead King’s hold being torn out of him. It still held by threads, and was slowly its way back into the villain’s soul, but if they acted now. Laurence was already moving, the Black Queen dismissed the power at the end of her staff and began shaping Night anew. Roland was halfway through a spell, but quickest among them would be Tariq. Until his eye caught a slender, dark-haired woman leaning against the wall. In the blind angle of everyone save him. Though she held her usual silver flask in one hand, she was not drinking. It was the other hand that drew his attention, wagging a finger disapprovingly. One, two, three, she counted out and only then mouthed now. The Pilgrim struck out with Light, just as Saint began to carve away at the Dead King’s rot, but the Hierophant only screamed.
Trismegistus leaned over Masego’s shoulder looking into the distance.
“Did I not tell you?” the Dead King said. “You overestimate yourself. To be rid of me there will be a price.”
And though the Hidden Horror’s hold was ripped out of him, it did not go alone. For the all the power and sorcery the Hierophant had been holding vanished into smoke, and there was not a single piece of it left.
Masego reached for his magic, and found nothing at all.
There were exactly two things within It: instructions, and a secret witnessed through another’s eyes. It waited inside the corpse, and only slithered away under cover of the souls when all Foes were distracted. It crawled and crawled and crawled, as instructed, until it reached the edge of a cliff and fell. Far, far below a large creature opened its mouth. The Skein swallowed whole the animated shard of sorcery, and in the moment that followed fell apart in a shower of dust.
Far away, as the slightest shaving of the shard no doubt destroyed by now returned to him, the King of Death laughed. Seven hundred and thirty-three years, crafting the spell he’d used in his mind without a single word or line of it to be found by the opposition. And the loss of the shard would lessen him forevermore, impossible to recover – though without it, how could his defeat possibly have been believed by the Intercessor? All of it a contingency, for it had been victory he sought, but for centuries he had watched his old friend make a friend of plans he’d thought flawless. Neshamah said nothing at all, for it would be a warning if he did, but alone in the dark he softly laughed.
This once, it seemed the house had lost.