“They who first look at the sun will never see aught else.”
– Helikean saying
It was just steel. There must have been thousands of longswords just like it in Iserre alone, decently crafted but nothing extraordinary. It was the work of some smith somewhere, not an enchanter or legendary artisan, so there was nothing to that sword that should allow it to cut into the likes of Twilight’s Crown. Except, of course, that it was Saint of Swords of wielded it. Tabard trailing behind her, the old heroine crossed the room in three smooth strides and her sword arced down beautifully: the strike was like flowing water. And hit something that shouldn’t have been there, a subtle glamour broken when Laurence de Montfort’s blow scythed straight through the gargoyle that’d thrown itself in the way. The Tyrant of Helike cackled, high-pitched and delighted, but the Saint’s blow carved through the stone construct and continued through and into the crown. I thought, as I watched the edge of the steel bite through chalcedony and mother-of-pearl, that if not for the for the gargoyle it would have gone straight through. Yet the Tyrant’s stage trick had tainted what would have otherwise been a clear blow, and so instead the Saint’s sword cut halfway through the Twilight Crown before it stopped.
Not even a heartbeat of stillness reigned over the room before a torrent of power tore out.
Everyone here had been in a scrap or two, so the raging tendrils of sorcery that went out did not score a kill the way they might have with less experienced Named. Reflex had me half-stepping to the side, still a swordswoman picking her distance for all my lack of sword, and dusk-like power howled through a bare few feet to my side. More importantly, having been close to the initial burst the Saint had been forced to retreat or see herself run through by a tendril. More than one, even, for a handful of howling streaks chased her even as she retreated, never slowing nor missing a step. Had her attack awoken something in the crown, some shard of sapience? A flicker of a look to the side instead showed me a hard-faced Rogue Sorcerer with his hands outstretched and his long coat fluttering in unnatural breeze, guiding the sorcery with sharp gestures.
“Treachery,” the Tyrant of Helike gleefully hooted. “Treachery most foul!”
With great flourish he presented his left palm, allowing one of the chittering gargoyles in attendance to place down a wand of what looked like pure gold on it.
“Cat?” Indrani calmly asked, eyes on the Saint of Swords.
She was ducking and weaving, for now, driven back by the Sorcerer’s trick. But it’d be temporary. I wouldn’t trust means that feeble to hold back Archer for long, and Laurence de Montfort was her superior in several ways.
“Don’t kill her,” I said. “Unless it puts you at risk not to.”
“Gotcha,” Indrani nonchalantly said.
In a whisper of boots on stone she slipped into the fray, the maelstrom of unleashed energies that had yet to ebb in the slightest. I’d expected the crown to either keep bleeding like a stuck pig or translate the wound into a single punishing torrent of power, but it wasn’t indulging any of my expectations. It seemed almost like the lashing sorcery was the wound itself, thrashing about the room in some kind of eldritch pain. A nudge from Andronike had my gaze lingering on the side of the cut Laurence’s sword had made, a sliver of Night sharpening my sight. Ah. So it was eating into the rest of the crow, shaving through a sliver at a time. It was simply slow and little at a time, though if we didn’t settle this mess for too long we’d still be in trouble. The Tyrant’s wand proved to be an artefact of some power, a heartbeat later, as he aimed it towards the Saint and spoke an idle word: streak of brilliant lightning went out, forking around an approaching Archer and striking at the Saint from both sides. Undaunted, Laurence de Montfort parried one streak and smoothly ducked beneath the other. Just in time for Indrani’s boot to catch her in the chin, sending her sprawling back. Three streaks of twilight-stuff, guided by the Sorcerer, snapped out at the falling heroine. One would have punctured her throat, by my reckoning, but Roland redirected it towards her shoulder instead at the last moment and that was room enough for the Saint to manoeuvre: she twisted on herself, allowing one of the streaks to hit her flank and using the pressure to adjust her fall out of the way of the other two.
She landed in a crouch, slapped aside Indrani’s follow-through strike with the flat of her blade and brutally backhanded Archer. I sucked in a breath, but Indrani had scrapped with Laurence before. She slid back, parried a probing blow by the Saint and adjusted her angle of attack to make the most of the support the Sorcerer was still providing. She’d make it through this, I told myself. I couldn’t even hold it against Roland not to have put an end to this fight right out of the gate, not truly. The Saint had been a respected elder and ally until not so long ago, and even though she’d done so treacherously she was only going through with the fate he’d himself advocated for the Twilight Crown. A glance told me Kairos already had another artefact in hand, some sort of jeweled silver arrow, and was preparing to throw it like he was playing darts in a tavern. Yet it was the last of us whose reaction I was most dreading to look upon, and my eyes finally turned to the Grey Pilgrim. I hid a grimaced. The Peregrine looked as if he’d aged twenty years in the last twenty heartbeats, and given his age that led him at least one foot into the grave. His face had gone ashen, his footing unsure, and if he’d still had his staff I was certain he’d be leaning on it for support. He had, I thought, genuinely not seen this coming. Neither had I, though that’d been more because I’d expected the Pilgrim to seem more worried if it was a possibility and he hadn’t been. I could almost hear my father chiding me for relying on second-hand knowledge without having contingencies in place accounting for it being false.
“Pilgrim,” I said.
He did not reply, eyes clouded as he watched the Saint of Swords cleverly snap out of Indrani’s longknives out of her grasp, catch it with her free hand and smash the pommel into Archer’s cheek. A moment later the Tyrant’s strange arrow struck at her with a keening sound, and though she flicked her blade back in time to cut through it barely helped: at the moment of impact, the arrow broke and a dozen sharp darts of wind exploded out. Maybe half hit the Saint’s flank, scoring blood if no deep wound, though that didn’t hurt her half as much as Indrani’s other blade cutting halfway through her thumb and snatching back the stolen longknife.
“Pilgrim,” I said more loudly. “This is not the time to sink into yourself, Tariq. Whatever grief you might hold, how many lives is it worth?”
That shook him out, enough his blue eyes turned to me.
“The crown is wounded,” he said.
“So I’d gathered,” I flatly said.
“You do not understand,” Tariq said. “The wound is permanent. It is part of the crown, now. And it will kill whoever bears it.”
Shit, I thought.
“This from your Choir?” I pressed.
“Yes,” he tightly said.
Shit, I thought once more, with feeling. I wasn’t going to return for a sermon at the House of Light anytime soon, but in current situation I was willing to take the Ophanim to their word. We’d be killing whoever ended up putting it on, which disqualified Indrani from his discussion of succession as far as I was concerned. I’d already had enough close calls with death that I suspected I’d run out of ways to cheat it, and if I croaked it here too many things fell apart. That left who, the Sorcerer or the Pilgrim? It’d have to be Roland, I grimly thought. Much as he’d been growing on me, if the Grey Pilgrim died here the storm that’d follow would be massive. It was an ugly thought, turning on someone who’d been becoming a true ally, but what other choice was there? Indrani, the thought came. I felt a sharp well of disgust at myself, both for her name having come to me at all and then my refusal to entertain it. Was it not rank hypocrisy, to demand this sacrifice from strangers while denying even thought of it when it came to my own? There’d been more than one reason villainy came easier to me than the other side’s works.
“It will have to be me,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
Night preserve me from godsdamned heroes. It wasn’t a righteous sacrifice it you screwed the people you were allegedly doing it for, it was just vanity.
“No,” I bluntly said. “Don’t be a fucking fool. Now, would you help us contain the Saint before someone gets killed?”
The Tyrant had, while we spoke, thrown a javelin of red coral at Laurence. Poorly, for his arm was trembling and it was dubious he’d ever trained his body, so it flew errantly and skittered against the ground – where it blew up into a storm of fire, a solid ten feet to the side of anyone else in the room. The Saint leapt through the flames, apparently deciding to take advantage the opportunity to shake her pursuit, but Kairos already had tossed out a large opaque orb of glass and it caught her in the belly as she went through. It broke against her and smoke poured out as words boomed out in the tradertongue, the smoke solidifying and trying to bind her limbs.
“Laurence,” the Grey Pilgrim called out, but his call was drowned out by the booming tradertongue harangue.
For a moment I wondered if Kairos had planned it that way, before dismissing the motion. Though it was possible, in truth it hardly mattered if it was. I reached for the Night, wove a globe of it and sent it spinning forward. Though it’d do no harm to anyone, it swallowed the words that’d come from the orb like a pit of darkness swallowing even the sound of falling. Unfortunately it also took the smoke bindings with the rest, which I’d not meant for it to do in the slightest. Kairos protested, though I ignored him.
“Laurence,” the Grey Pilgrim repeated. “Desist now, while you still can.”
“Better dead than kneeling to the dark,” the Saint of Swords snarled. “Do your-“
The cold beam of Light struck her in the chest before she even finished speaking, and I almost let out a whistle. I’d felt that, the rippling of it in the air. The Peregrine was finally done fucking around, it seemed. The side of her chest a ruin of burned flesh, the old heroine swallowed a scream and slid across the stone floor. Already the Grey Pilgrim was crafting fresh strikes of Light, while Archer ran towards our opponent with five streaks of twilight-stuff guided by the Sorcerer following hidden behind her. The Tyrant had a handful of gargoyles before him presenting artefacts for him to wield like a pack of chittering wee sommeliers surrounding an Alamans prince with choice vintages. With the Pilgrim having been moved to act, the balance of this scrap was sharply on our side. But was it, I suddenly wondered, too sharply on our side? The crown was still falling apart, sliver by sliver, so we had to end this. Yet if this began a lone principled heroine standing against a band of five that was mostly villains…
“Give up, Saint,” the Tyrant of Helike drawled. “Our victory is inevitable. You might even say that, in a manner of speaking, we are invin-”
“Kairos,” I screamed. “Don’t you fucking dare-”
“-vincible,” the Tyrant finished in a cackle. “Submit to Below and you may yet be spared, do-gooder.”
It wasn’t anything as obvious as Laurence de Montfort suddenly finding all her wounds had been healed, or a lightshow of power being shoved into her tired frame. Yet, just like that, as she was dragged by Kairos’ latest bout of treachery onto the path of a story the Saint of Swords stood a little straighter. Her eyes sharpened, her footing grew more assured.
“Archer, retreat-” I yelled.
But it was too late. Indrani’s first blade extended as her whole arm outstretched and she place the point of her longknife at the Saint’s back with blinding quickness. Just not quite quick enough. Laurence took a half-step to the side, letting her pass, and cut off her arm the wrist. She would have flicked the blade a second time and taken Archer’s head, if not for the Sorcerer’s quick divesting of twilight-streaks forcing her to withdraw a step back. The Pilgrim’s gleaming Light caught her a moment later, but with hard eyes she carved right through and leapt up. The Tyrant and I struck at the same time, his green jade baton sending out a swarm of green insects at the Saint as I wove Night into dense flecks and sent them out at her. But it was like, I realized, tossing logs into a fire. The insects – each one made of jade, I only then caught – found a cut in the air that warded their approach save for those that impacted it and found themselves cut through. I’d formed four flecks of Night and the Saint almost contemptuously cut through only one, though at exactly the right time for the detonation that ensued to catch the other three. Her right boot landed on the Rogue Sorcerer’s face a moment later and he went down like a sack of beets from the hit. Hells, that’d gone south in a hurry. Unlike the heroes and possibly even myself, Kairos had to know that the Saint would kill him in a heartbeat if she could. So why would he throw the fight this way?
I glanced at the Tyrant of Helike and found his gaze, half of it red as fresh blood, resting on my ebony staff. Kairos grinned when I caught him, utterly unrepentant. I found myself wishing I’d succeeded at cutting his throat instead of blackening his eye. The Pilgrim had chosen to prevent Indrani bleeding out instead of pursuing the offensive, to my relief, and as she held her severe hand to the stump with gritted teeth one of the greatest living healers of Calernia began to put it all back together. Good. Archer might make it back into the fight, I just needed to use Kairos and my own talents to hold until we could turn this around. The Saint should be coming for either of us by now. As it happened, Laurence de Montfort rose from the smooth crouch she’d landed in after tumbling past the unconscious Sorcerer. She glanced at me, calmly, and then her gaze swept the rest of the room. It came to rest on the crown, and without a word she ignored us and went straight for it. Oh Hells. It might be, I knew, that finishing the cut would only break this realm and spare us all either death or bargain.
Or it might mean the death of hundreds of thousands.
“Slow her,” I ordered the Tyrant.
My tone was harsh enough he did not argue. The unpleasant truth was that I did not have the means to contain someone like Laurence de Montfort. Every trick left in my arsenal derived from the patronage of Sve Noc, whose blood-drenched path to apotheosis made the exact kind of power that someone like the Saint of Swords had been meant to put down. Maybe if I’d been quick enough to think of it earlier all of us save Archer could have let ourselves be ‘beaten’ and she could have duelled the Saint with something close to even footing. But at this point trying to use numbers to bring her down was effectively using the same tactics that’d led a horde of devils to swarm this very heroine barely an hour ago. The result back then had been providing the Saint of Swords with a lot of bodies to cut, and I had no reason to believe this would go any differently. I couldn’t contain her or defeat her, and maybe if I had longer I might be able to figure out another way to get this done but I didn’t have the time. So either I bent, and let her toss the dice with the lives of three great armies and most of Iserre besides.
That, or I killed her.
Breathing out, I began to limp forward even as Kairos tossed priceless old artefacts in the Saint’s way like they were apple cores. My staff I raised, and abandoned the delusion that it had ever been one. Night roiled and the ebony fell to ash, leaving behind only a sword in a scabbard. The latter was an ornate thing, unlike most I’d borne in my time. Carved obsidian, depicting the tale of the fool girl who’d made accord with the Night. The blade had not once unsheathed waited within as my fingers tightened around the scabbard. Its long handle was onyx and amethyst, stones chosen for one’s facility in holding power and the other’s aptitude for bridging the mortal and the divine through communion. Kairos had, against all odds, succeeding at expending enough of his inherited trove of treasures to force the Saint to step back. She still stood by the throne’s side, some sort of shining panels of sorcery standing between her and the crown, but my advance drew her eyes went to me. My hobbling had taken me ahead of all the others, and at my approach she smiled a hard smile.
“A duel, is it?” Laurence de Montfort said.
I lowered the scabbard to my side, right hand gripping the grip.
“Stand down,” I said, offering once last chance. “Stand down, and we can still end this with words instead of blood.”
“Some bargains compromise the very heart of what you are,” the Saint replied. “You’ll lose, Foundling. Call your minions back and let me end it the way it should have been done since the start.”
I breathed out, steadied my stance.
“You’re mortal,” Laurence de Montfort sharply said.
“So are you,” I replied, and for the first time since I’d left the Everdark I drew a sword.
I’d gathered Night for months in preparation of this moment, not a single mote of it anybody’s but my own. This was a prayer, after all, not a ritual. I was making an appeal to Sve Noc, and sacrificing power so that a miracle might be granted. And so, when my sword cleared the scabbard, it was revealed to have no blade. Night pulsed all around us, a living and breathing thing.
“What have you done?” the Saint asked.
“Nothing,” I honestly replied.
“Do you think I’ll not strike you for being unarmed?” the Saint snarled.
Four, five, six, I counted as she spoke, and she stiffened with the last. It was close, then. I’d wondered how long she would last. I touched me too, but Gods forgive me the touch was lighter than I’d believed it would be. The Dead King, it seemed, might have been terrifyingly correct. The Saint took a step forward, and I almost spoke but instead I close my mouth. It would not do to monologue, would it? Not when the end was close. I watched her skin tighten, grow sallow, I watched her limbs weaken and finally she fell down. A moment later and she was dead. Struck down without a trace. It had, from the beginning to the end, taken eleven heartbeats.
And so in the heart of the prayer I had made, eleven years had passed.
I’d always known that I couldn’t beat the Saint of Swords in a fight. What kind of a fool would fight a heroine forged of war through that which had forged her? No, I’d heeded the lessons of my years under the Black Knight and slain her through one of the few things the Heavens did not protect their chosen from: the passage of time. I let another heartbeat pass, simply to be sure, and only then did the Night’s touch upon this broken realm withdraw.