“One hundred and two: defeat is inevitable, yet it can be just as useful as a victory. Fate assures you at least one loss, so make sure it’s the right kind.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
We’d won, so naturally in the heartbeat that followed it all went to shit. Masego stumbled down his throne with gasping breaths, fingers blindly clawing at the rune-carve stone. He’d always been tall, but never before had I seen him so thin – it made him look spindly, like some long-legged insect in ragged black robes. The sorcery that’d been hanging heavy in the air was gone now, like some great gust of wind had blown it out, and I suspected that whatever it was that’d achieved that was the same thing that had Masego’s limbs trembling. Heaving, he began to puke and I had to restrain myself from going to him after taking a unthinking step forward. It’d have to wait just a little longer, graceless as that truth was. Before the rest I needed to be sure that I wasn’t going to be asked to make an ugly choice between two people I dearly loved.
“Pilgrim,” I said. “What ails him, does it threaten his life?”
Even if the man did not know, the Ophanim would.
“Only if not attended to,” the Peregrine said after a moment. “The fever will rise and his body will weaken: it will take weeks if not months of recovery.”
“Then raise Archer, if you would,” I said.
I’d phrased it politely but we both knew it for the order it was. Wordlessly, the Sisters left my shoulders
“We don’t raise the dead, Foundling,” the Saint sharply said.
“Resurrect, then,” I replied, rolling my eyes.
I met Tariq’s stare and slowly he inclined his head in agreement. I wondered if I was right in guessing he’d not immediately brought Indrani back because he’d thought Masego might yet die and that, in the war on the Dead King, the Hierophant would be more useful than the Archer. I set aside the thought, for there was nothing to gain from pursuing it. Even if he’d been thinking that way the colder part of me had to acknowledge that it might not be a bad thing at least one of us had been. I was too close to this, to them, to be able to genuinely do the same. Leaving the Grey Pilgrim to the business of overturning death, I hurried to the still-crawling Hierophant. By the looks of it there hadn’t been much in his stomach, which no doubt made the heaves worse as the body stubbornly tried to spew out something that wasn’t there. His glass-crafted eyes moved wildly beneath the eyecloth, but he did not seem completely blind. I knelt in front of him, swallowing a pained wince, and made sure he saw me before further approaching.
“Masego,” I softly said. “It’s me? Do you recognize me?”
“Catherine,” he croaked. “It’s gone.”
“I know,” I softly agreed. “We all saw you push the Dead King out. We struck at it together.”
I caught his shoulder and, shivering at the weight it put on my bad leg, tipped him back so he was leaning against me instead of half-sprawled over the floor.
“Here we go,” I said. “I’m going to get the vomit off you, Masego, is that all right?”
“Not the Dead King,” he rasped. “It’s all gone, Catherine. My magic.”
I stiffened at the announcement. I wished he’d spoken in a softer tone, so that the heroes – and Kairos, who’d remained dangerously silent through all of this – would not have heard him. As they most definitely just had. I immediately rebuked myself for the thought, for he was in no state to consider such matters. Are you sure, that pointed little question, held on the tip of my tongue for a heartbeat before I buried it. It’d only insult him: he wouldn’t be this devastated if he wasn’t sure.
“It’ll be all right,” I whispered. “We’ll fix it. There’s always a way, Masego. Always.”
A lie, I thought, but one I would have wanted to be told in his place. He’d be able to speak to this more clearly when he’d rested and recovered, and when he did he’d have Akua to help and the knowledge of Sve Noc to look through. If there was a path to be had, we would find it.
“I feel warm,” he said. “Fever. My teeth hurt. I can’t fix it.”
Sickly as he was, Masego was larger and heavier than me – I had to draw on Night to subdue him without hurting him, his sudden violent flailing taking me by surprise. Shit. I’d wanted him awake for the last stretch of this but he was going a bad way. Weaving a long thread of Night as gently as I could, I pressed my thumb against his forehead and let the working gently tug him into slumber. His thrashing subsided until it was little more than twitches and I let out a shaky breath of my own. All right. It looked bad, but once we got back to camp it could be fixed. We had mages and priests and I was owed by the foremost hero on Calernia, a man who had an in with a Choir. He’d come out of this all right, and then we could see about clawing back his magic from our enemy. Breathe in, breathe out. There was no place for weakness in me when the Tyrant and the Saint were looking. I unclasped the Mantle of Woe and bunched it together, sliding it under Masego’s head so he wouldn’t scrape it against the runes. I rose back to my feet, leaning against my staff.
“Touching,” the Tyrant of Helike drawled. “I do not jest, Catherine, it was truly-”
“There’s a general that’s been with you from the start,” I said, meeting his gaze. “Basilia, is it?”
“Are you threatening me?” Kairos asked, sounding amused.
“Finish that sentence,” I said, “and you’ll find out.”
Whatever might have followed that was to remain unspoken, for with a gasp Indrani returned to the land of the living. I limped past the Tyrant, making my way to her side. Tariq had put her on her back before digging into his aspect, and now miraculously enough there was no trace of the hole that’d been blow through her head save for dried blood over her face. The Saint was gazing down at her with a sneer when I arrived, while the Pilgrim gently asked her to cease moving so the Light could heal the last of her scrapes. Indrani’s hazelnut eyes swam into focus when I arrived, first staying on me and then moving to the other two heroes by her ‘bedside’. Leaning to the side, Archer spat out a little mucus and wiped her lips.
“Cat’s always been fine and I can be sold on the Saint – gotta love a girl who knows her way around a sword,” she drawled. “But a priest too? Gods, there can’t have been that much liquor in the city.”
In a moment of quicksilver surprise, I saw the Saint of Swords looking like someone had just personally pissed in her morning porridge and the Grey Pilgrim looked utterly, wickedly delighted before I had to cover my mouth with a hand lest I burst out laughing.
“I wasn’t always a priest, I’ll gave you know,” the Peregrine sanguinely replied. “As a young man I once even attempted to become one of the Hidden Poets.”
“They of the seventy-eight methods of carnal love?” Indrani asked, sounding somewhat intrigued.
“Indeed,” he agreed. “Alas, my kamil declamations were judged unworthy and so I took an interest in healing instead.”
“You look rather spry, for a dead woman,” I said.
I looked at her searchingly even as I spoke, looking for a flinch or darkening of mien that would have given away a shadow cast on her soul. Resurrection was too great a boon to come without a cost, in my eyes, though that did not mean that price would be paid immediately. Yet I found nothing and so offered up my hand to cover my surprise. Indrani took it, and with a grunt I dragged her up.
“Well,” Archer said, “I did get to take a nap. I’m all refreshed now.”
I almost winced at that. I’d not seen her die, but the sight of her head missing a chunk was going to haunt my nights for a few months to come. Indrani’s eyes moved to the sleeping form of Masego, lingering on the rise and fall of his chest. The twitched were already rarer, but still I caught his leg in a spasm as he turned and a moan escaped his lips.
“What happened?” she quietly asked. “I know how I…”
She hesitated there, and I found an almost troubled look on her face when I looked. Not entirely without marks, then. I reached for her shoulder, but she shook it away.
“We knew it was a possibility,” she said, tone grown firm. “But it should have shaken him out of the Dead King’s hold. What went wrong?”
“Your little friend pushed out the Hidden Horror,” the Saint of Swords said, approaching. “Long enough for us to help strike him down.”
“When the shard of the Dead King ruling over the Hierophant was destroyed, it took his magic with it,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
Both the Pilgrim and the Saint shot a look at him, and he dipped his head as if to confirm something.
“Roland?” I asked.
“It is part of my Choosing to know when there is sorcery to confiscate,” the hero told me, face grim. “There is none left in the Hierophant.”
“Shit,” Indrani murmured. “That’s going to leave scars even if we fix it.”
“Which we will,” I meaningfully said.
Indrani questioningly glanced at my neck, more specifically the height where my cloak’s collar would usually be.
“If anyone can,” I agreed. “Otherwise, well, praise the Night and we’ll figure something out.”
“Crows might know something, yeah,” Archer said. “They’re basically magpies only with, you know…”
She gestured vaguely, trying to get across the concept of godhood. Something that had eluded the finest mages and theologians of the continent for millennia.
“That’s heresy,” I piously said.
Komena cawed in the distance, unamused by the way I hadn’t entirely disagreed in my own thoughts.
“See, you’ve angered the gods,” I said.
After the hellish, riotous night we’d gone through – and which had yet to end – trading barbs with Indrani like this was like a balm for the soul. The rest of the band had been looking on with various degrees of amusement and impatience, which was fair. Most of us were allies of convenience, if even that. I cleared my throat, Archer falling in at my left like it was the most natural thing in the world. I found strength in that where earlier I’d begun to find mostly exhaustion.
“The five of us have made it to the journey’s end,” I said. “And so now we bring about an ending.”
“This where you reveal the last crown?” Laurence de Montfort bluntly asked. “Overdue.”
“I’ll confess to some curiosity as well,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
There was a moment of silence, a courtesy I was offering to the man in question – the opportunity to speak himself, if he preferred it that way.
“It will be mine,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Though the Dominion of Levant has no kings, I was born to the bloodline that has ruled it since its founding.”
The Saint spat to the side.
“Funny how it’s always us who ends up paying the butcher’s bill tonight,” she said. “Almost like it was planned that way.”
I didn’t answer that. It was true, at least in part, though I regretted nothing. For all that I’d scraped them raw, I’d made them fair offers and would deliver on all I had promised. As we’d begun the year deathly foes, I considered that far more generous treatment than was owed by the ways they’d dealt with me in the past.
“There can be no us and them, Laurence, if we are to survive the decade,” the Pilgrim quietly said. “Not against the kind of foe we face. And it is no great loss, I assure you: I know better than most how ill-suited I would be to rule.”
“Some would say merely knowing that would make you better ruler than most,” the Saint replied.
I bit down on my tongue, because now was not the moment to express my strong opinion on the matter. Humility wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a king, but it was hardly a qualification. Ambition wasn’t a flaw, it was the character trait behind most – no, now was not the time for that. Gods, was this my shatranj speech? Of all the damned habits I could have picked up.
“Oh, please do have him elected Holy Seljun,” the Tyrant grinned. “That would be delightful. We’ll have to have his… great-great-nephew? Close enough, I think. We’ll need to have the current Seljun assassinated first, that is my implication, but worry not. Mercantis offers very fair prices on poison these days.”
“Must you, Tyrant?” the Rogue Sorcerer asked.
“It’s simply getting a little too chummy in here for my tastes, if you’ll forgive my language,” Kairos cheerily replied. “As if most people in this room had not tried to kill each other at some point.”
“Well,” Indrani mused. “He’s not wrong. Why is he alive, anyway?”
“He made a deal with the Wandering Bard,” I said.
“That is the opposite of a reason to keep him alive,” Archer pointed out.
“A courtesy was extended,” I said, tone informing her the line of questioning was at an end.
“Hear that, Saint?” Indrani grinned. “We’re being courteous to you. So maybe you try not being such a-”
“Archer,” I hissed.
“-card,” Indrani adjusted at the last moment, “I was definitely going to say card.”
Kairos gasped, as if deeply shocked by her foul language.
“It will not be long before dawn rises,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “even given the nature of this place. We must attend to the tasks ahead.”
“Namely, to slay a god,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
That bought an aftermath of silence for a few beats. If he’d not been Proceran I would have assumed a pun, but given his origins my assumptions erred on the side of clemency.
“Unless you’re holding out on us, Foundling, the odds are not skewed in our favour,” the Saint of Swords bluntly said. “It would have been one thing with the warlock, but he’s done. The five of us and your cheap Ranger imitation won’t cut it.”
“There were more than simply the Huntsman outside,” Roland said. “The entire Wild Hunt was standing vigil around the room. We will be outnumbered.”
“We won’t be, my dear friend,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “for the same reason that the Hierophant is nowhere to be found.”
Three pairs of eyes sought Masego, and when they found nothing at all turned to me instead. Alas, without my cloak I’d been robbed of my pipe and wakeleaf. Hadn’t thought that through properly, I mused.
“Did you think she wanted this done before dawn for the ambience?” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “Oh no. She wants the war ended before daylight scatters her little army of darkness.”
“I’ve dealt with fae royalty before,” I mildly said. “A story is the one blade they can’t parry and that we earned, as our band of five. But you still need to sink in the knife and that means power. I’ve provided it.”
Of which there would be no lack, before the coming of dawn. The Sisters were circling in the sky above, patient and slow, but the Mighty I’d sent for would have long ago made their way through the broken grounds of Liesse and reached this deeper palace. If the coming Court and my own side came to blow, as I expected they would, I would have warriors awaiting more than the match of a Wild Hunt reforged.
“You think our Larat’s going to be a rougher ride than High Noon?” Indrani asked.
“If we let him get a grip, that seems likely,” I grimly replied.
None of the others here had been part of our fight against Princess Sulia, the general of Summer’s hosts and herald of its sun, so while the idle reference by Archer was not gibberish to them neither was it really understood. The Saint and the Pilgrim had faced villains and monsters I’d never known the likes of, but the fae were… different. Less and more dangerous at the same time. And Larat, once the Prince of Nightfall, had been all sorts of dangerous even before his service under my oaths had taken him across the breadth of Calernia. Fae couldn’t learn, not the way mortals did. Their natures were static in the way our weren’t. Yet I knew from experience that they could learn to… interpret themselves through different eyes, shaping themselves through oaths and stories. The Wild Hunt, while bound to me, had seen more of Creation than the rest of their likely had in centuries. I fully expected any Court they had a hand in making to be dangerous in ways that the ancestral forces of nature that were Summer and Winter could scarcely have imagined. I breathed out, rolled my shoulders to limber them.
“Ready yourselves,” I warned. “We begin.”
I seized my staff and struck down at the ground, a thin wave of Night rippling out, and from that darkness I leaned down to snatch out the bag that held seven crowns. Without even needing to look, I knew that the fae had come. As I strode towards the throne on which Masego had sat, when in the throes of the Dead King’s enchantments, from the corner of my eye I saw silhouettes standing atop the walls. In ripping out the ceiling, I had made of this throne room an arena of sorts – and in a silent circle above the Wild Hunt stood, eyes watchful. I emptied the sack at the bottom of the throne. An old crowb of ivory and gold, set with a great carved topaz. A straight-edged cavalry sword, wrapped in a cloak. An ornate longsword, specked with its dead owner’s blood. A silver tiara, bitter surrender. A bloody knife, regicide absolved. A bare blade within a banner, and last of all two silver wings ripped in spite. A harvest of royalty that cast a shadow over a third of the greatest realm under Calernian sun. No small harvest, this. The Grey Pilgrim padded forward as I threw aside the empty sack, and with measured ceremony came to stand before the pile. The old man brusquely snapped his own staff over his knee, the old thing breaking like it’d been fragile as driftwood, and tossed it onto the pile. He whispered two words under his breath, though I caught only one: izil.
With that last addition the seven crowns and one I’d promised were offered, and so the creature I’d promised them to arrived. Larat drifted in from right, steps silent and smooth, long black hair trailing behind him. He near brushed against me as he passed, though it was not jostling – it was an acknowledgement of his presence. We were, I thought, long past the petty games of posturing other times might have brought.
“I had thought, my queen, that you might destroy me before the debt was paid,” the fae amusedly said. “Or make of me something… tamed and hollowed.”
His sole eye flicked a glance upwards, where two crows still circled.
“I am a woman of my word,” I replied. “However terrible that word might be.”
“So you are,” Larat said, dipping his head. “Let all witness it, and Creation remember it.”
He ran an almost loving finger against the stone of the throne before him, having fluidly stepped around the crowns that were his due. As I watched every last thing tossed onto the pile turned to ash, until naught was left but that, and under Larat’s watchful gaze those ashes rose up. They spun once, twice, thrice, and with every spin they gathered more tightly into something being forged. A crown, I thought. It was made of grey chalcedony and mother-of-pearl, one twisted like threads and the other hanging in star-like spots, but something more eldritch leant both darkness and radiant lights to the shaping artefact. It thickened, until the last touch was added – a distant radiant star, shining on the brow, stolen and set for the pleasure of the newborn Court.
“And so is born the Court of Twilight,” the fae said. “Under the pilgrim’s star, willingly given, and winding through the many realms of mortals wicked and righteous both. We tread the span of dusk and dawn, unhindered and unseen, watchers of boundaries and makers of secret ways. Let none think themselves our masters, for we are the children of the debt repaid and the tricks woven in death.”
Pale fingers caught the crown and Larat softly laughed.
“I thank you, Sovereign Under the Night,” he said. “Not for the bargain fulfilled, for that was as ordained, but for what you gave us all freely.”
He’d not put on the crown, I thought. It had not yet begun.
“And what would that be?” I asked.
“We cannot learn as your kind do, Foundling Queen,” Larat smiled. “But we can… mimic. That is our gift. And you have shown us a great many things. You taught us, my queen, the greatest trick of them all.”
Larat, smiling, put on the crown.
“Hear my first decree, one and all, as Twilight’s King,” he laughed.
Larat, smiling, tossed it back down onto the throne.
“My crown I abdicate, and let the worthiest of you bear it.”