“I am told awe is made half of reverence and half of fear. Let us find out, knights of the Callow, if terror alone will be enough to teach it to the likes of you.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner
The last of them arrived half an hour before dawn’s start.
Since I’d been granted my first command in the Legions I’d gotten used to the way that large-scale ritual magic tended to require more people than you’d think, at least when it needed to be done quick and dirty – as was usually the way, when on campaign. It was often a question of needing to pool power so no one died or burned out feeding the ritual though I’d lucked out more than I’d realized when Masego, in those days still the Apprentice, had joined the Fifteenth. There was a reason that Black had preferred massed spells to the old standard of ritual cadres when he’d rebuilt the Legions of Terror from the ground up after the Praesi civil war: it standardized the arsenal of a legion’s casters. It’d become increasingly clear over the years that the way it was mostly Wasteland highborn that used cadres of ritual mages along with their personal armies wasn’t a coincidence. The heart of the matter was that for a circle of sorcerers to be able to use a ritual together without significant preparations it required for them to be highly skilled, familiar with each other and learned in that particular ritual. That meant keeping mage cadres together, for the Legions, which Black would very much try to avoid since by simple odds it’d mean a lot of Soninke and Taghreb officers of noble birth forming cliques with disproportionated influence inside a legion.
One set of rules for the aristocrats and another one for the soldiers was something my teacher had spent decades trying to dismantle, he wouldn’t tacitly endorse its resurrection in the very institution he’d spent so many years shaping. The Fifteenth, and later the Army of Callow, had avoided much of these issues by simple virtue of having Masego along. I’d not understood the importance of the role he played in large-scale battlefield sorceries until our last campaigns, where his absence had effectively made disappear half our ritual arsenal into thin air and robbed me of the High Arcana savant I’d turn towards for answers whenever some strange phenomenon appeared. Oh, Zeze had taught my mages some rough and relatively simple rituals to use on battlefields: his Lightning Strikes and the Spears of Fire remained a staple of the Army of Callow, who unlike the Legions simply didn’t have enough mages to be able to afford massed spells as a tactic. But even with those, without his presence there was significant drop in range, power and rate of fire. It wasn’t just that he’d used to have rather impressive reserves, but rather that having Masego standing among a ritual was like having someone to conduct a choir. He made up for the imprecisions of others, guided through the stumbles and kept precise the manipulations in the way that someone who wasn’t him just… couldn’t.
Akua had once compared it to having one of the finest swordsmen on the continent running recruits through formation drills, and she wasn’t entirely wrong. Still, with the Dead King’s cut those days had seemingly come at an end and the crowd that’d gathered was not a throng of half-awed young mages taking Masego’s every word for sorcerous gospel. With the mere arrival of Hierophant and Archer, our company had grown to the sort of dawn tales were made of. Two black-winged goddesses, silently looming atop raised stones in the shape of great and terrible crows. The Doom of Liesse, veiled and silent but not grown much the lesser from her hour of folly. Hierophant, stripped of sorcery but still vivisector of miracles and the kind of man whose insights even gods flinched from. Archer and myself were perhaps lesser figures, for what mattered. All that was required from me in this thinning darkness was a steady hand and the wielding of Night, while she was here as the hand propping up Masego as well as one who had more than once tread the demimonde between Creation and the Twilight Ways without needing any guidance. Should the Pilgrim demur from coming, it would be Archer whose intuitions would be relied on when the burn was made. Yet Tariq did come, in the end, though not alone: bleary-looking and huddling inside a thick cloak of fur, the Rogue Sorcerer was with him. And with those last two there were none left to await, so I drew first blood against the silence.
“Morning,” I said. “Or close enough.”
Only Masego, I noted, was kind-hearted enough to reply with a full return of the courtesy. Roland shivered inside his cloak, and the Peregrine merely nodded. His face bore the manner of calmness that one wore around a foe, I thought, and though I’d known provoking a return to that was necessary to tie the Intercessor’s hands I still regretted it. It would have been pleasant, to be on decent terms with the unspoken doyen of Above’s champions.
“Dawn’s just around the corner and it’ll make everything more difficult when it comes, so I’ll spare us all the small talk,” I said. “Most of my advisors in matters eldritch say this is where making a stable gate into Twilight will be most straightforward.”
“You’ll need an anchor for the other side,” the Sorcerer said.
“If the aspiration was a clean cut followed by material shoring up, perhaps,” Masego dismissed. “Night is not so precise, from what I’ve observed, and none of the appropriate ritual substances have been gathered here.”
I glanced at Roland, who unlike most people subjected to Zeze’s mild puzzlement at their ‘ignorance’ did not seem to have taken offence in the slightest. If anything, he rather looked like he wanted to have ink and parchment on hand. That ought to take care of itself without my intervention, then. Good. The Rogue Sorcerer was by a significant margin the friendliest hero I’d encountered, and I had no intention of letting academic rivalry get in the way of that.
“The Hierophant is right,” I said. “What I’ll need, though, is… a sense of where to aim for. Which I don’t have, unlike some of you. Archer might be able to help, but the person atop this barrow with the deepest tie to Twilight should need no introduction.”
Namely the man who had once borne the Twilight Crown, for however short a span. Bearing a mantle like that left marks, I’d know that better than most. It was no coincidence that I’d been able to feel this very place’s affinity with Arcadia long after having divested myself of the last of Winter within me. The Grey Pilgrim eyed me warily, though he did not outright decline. As expected of the man, he could already tell where this was headed and was less than enthused.
“Oh,” Roland said, shivering from the cold. “Resonance, to shape the depth at which the damage will be inflicted. Yes, that would work. A brute force solution, though.”
Archer could serve that purpose as well, but her ties were nowhere as deep. She’d tread the grounds of Twilight for longer than any of us, journeyed through its nook and crannies and even stood open-eyed while the transition from stolen shard of Arcadia to a realm took place. None of these were small things. But the Grey Pilgrim had given the last crown and borne the burden of giving the Twilight Ways their face and shape. The difference was extensive and would likely make a difference in my being knocked out for a day or a week. Figuratively speaking, one hoped, though my advisory triumvirate had not been willing to commit to it.
“Fine tools come from refinement over years and decades,” Akua said. “This is work without precedent, Sorcerer.”
The last word she spoke with the faintest hint of dubiousness. Had I been worried about the wrong Soninke, then? Shit. She was usually better about this stuff than Zeze, but then this one was a hero as well as a practitioner.
“He is correct,” Masego noted. “This is not unlike making a gate by melting stone and shaping it into a threshold.”
“And we’ve so many people observing to establish if there’s a better way to do it, next time we must,” I said, cutting in before pride could get anything started.
Mages, huh. And I thought it was the brawlers like Indrani and myself that had troubles with surfeit of swaggering.
“And how is this resonance to be acquired, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim asked.
I suppressed a grimace.
“A close look at the traces Twilight left on you,” I said.
“Soul-gazing,” Tariq flatly said.
Little thick, coming from a man I was pretty sure had an aspect essentially dedicated to that and constantly used it on everyone, but I’d cut him so slack considering who’d be doing that gazing. Namely the Sisters, who for all my occasional appreciation for them were not the kindest or best-inclined of entities on Creation.
“An intermediary will be provided, should you so wish,” I said, inclining my head towards Akua.
Wouldn’t be as precise a reading, as for all her talents the shade did not benefit from the indescribable senses and perceptions that sprang from apotheosis, but she was talented. What she did pass along to me would be more than enough, and as she was not sworn to serve the Sisters the scrutiny might be more acceptable. Maybe. I wasn’t sure where Mercy would fall on that, much less Tariq himself.
“And who would you be?” the Pilgrim openly asked, eyeing Akua cautiously. “We have met before, that much is undeniable. And yet I now see you standing as a bound spirit before me.”
They’d met? I frowned, raking my memories and finding no instance. Even during the Princes’ Graveyard there should have been no acquaintance. The Battle of the Camps, I realized. Akua had run around wearing my body while I’d been stranded in an endless Winter nightmare and she’d even fought an assembled band of heroes. The Pilgrim would have had a look at her then, and though she had body of her own now I supposed the substance of what she was had not changed too much.
“I am one in the service of the Black Queen of Callow,” Akua smilingly said. “Naught else is of import here.”
“You chose this appearance,” Tariq frowned. “But are not bound to it. What are you, spirit? I have never seen the likes of you, not even in the olden-most barrows of the Brocelian.”
“Dawn’s coming, Peregrine,” I flatly said. “She’s bound to me and can wield Night without being in the service of Sve Noc. There will be no more offhand a manner to see this done, if you’ll accede to it at all.”
“Presumably the Ophanim would slay all here, if attempt was made to wound your soul,” Roland pointed out in an aside.
“That is a presumption, yes,” Masego calmly agreed.
Archer smothered a smile, and to be honest so did I. It was hardly the time, but the earnestness he’d spoken what would be a boast in another man’s mouth made it amusingly endearing. The Pilgrim’s eyes were closed, no doubt conferring with the Ophanim, and glimmered still with Light when they finally opened anew.
“So be it,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Trespass not, spirit, lest you find more than you bargained for.”
“Worry not, Peregrine,” Akua amicably said. “I’ve always held angels in high esteem.”
It was an effort not to choke. I supposed she technically wasn’t lying, considering she’d wanted to use one of the Hashmallim as fuel for her doomsday fortress. After all the posturing I’d expected some degree of ceremony, but what unfolded instead was the shade striding forward and silently asking for permission before laying her hand on the Pilgrim’s shoulder. He acceded with a nod, and closed his eyes once more as hers remained wide open. After a long moment she let out a long breath and jerkily nodded towards me. I hobbled forward and raised my hand, which she caught by the wrist: the sliver of Night she’d called on seeped into my own. I’d expected this process to be far beyond my ability to fathom, but to my surprise found it rather familiar. It was not unlike the sensation of opening a fairy gate, the sense of the needle going through the fabric and being… fated, for a lack of better term, to leave the cloth again in another place. What Akua had sensed from the Pilgrim and passed to me was not so sharp and narrow, but it was kin to that. A way to put it, I thought, would be that fairy gates under Winter had been the act of needling while what the shade had shared was having touched the cloth. I already knew from experience that trying to grasp the knowledge perfectly would result mostly into a searing headache, so I let it linger half-known and instead breathed out.
“For I have seen crowns broken and forged anew, snatched a star from the starlit sky and traded a season for half the world,” I whispered in Crepuscular. “Now that dawn crawls forward unbid, o Sve Noc, grant me might to wield and the conceit to wield it fearlessly. Where there is rampart let my hand make a road, and Creation deny not my will.”
The crows cawed, a resounding cry like the crack of a whip against the night sky, and Night flooded my veins thick and pure. I almost lost my foot but at my side Akua held me up by my elbow, having left Tariq to stand alone, and I gasped as I forced my staff of yew to rise.
“Deny not my will,” I hissed once more.
Night struck out, like a wave and a strike of thunder, like a flood raging down a riverbed long gone dry. And where it found resistance, I clenched my fingers against the long haft of few and burned Creation. Scarred it, so that the blackened and bleeding scabs would stand at the threshold and mark the path to be taken. It was like riding a tide, every moment a struggle, and I swallowed a scream as I felt my strength ebbing. I would not break, not before the work was done. Not even when the coolness of Night lazed like smoke in my veins, tainting my every sense, and in the far distance I felt the distant glare of light marching like a harsh vanguard.
“Catherine,” Akua whispered against my ear. “Catherine, you have to stop.”
Was she holding me? When had she? Some pried off the hand that’d gone around my waist and it was put around a shoulder at least. Someone taller than I. I grit my teeth, for all the distractions had loosened my grip on the Night – the work had slowed, suffered. Long and delicate fingers joined mine on the staff, and like a miracle the veil on my eyes lifted. Ironclad will became intertwined with my own and I shared a feral, savage grin with Hierophant without either of us ever looking away from the howling darkness before us.
“You can still wield,” I whispered.
Ashkaran, I dimly realized.
“A god rode my mind, Catherine, for many months,” Hierophant whispered back. “I have learned things.”
Power billowed out, and I was no longer a fool of a girl clinging to a tiger: we were Woe, standing side by side, and though we were battered things no creature in this world or any other had ever earned submission of us. We painted in Night with bold strokes, feeling those around us flee backwards for the storm in the making. Komena laughed in the back of my mind, and it was eagerly that she opened the floodgates between us. Andronike hesitated, until a splash of Night boiled stone like water and we shaped it like clay without ever glancing – after that there was a well of hunger, and Gods Below but the power they granted us. Raised stones melted away into liquid strings like festival banners, spinning into roiling winds of Night. With four hands we sculpted the stone prayer to long-dead gods of Arcadia and usurped the old sacraments like thieving masons in the garments of priests. Two tall pillars, covered with words that were a godless prayer in a dead tongue, were molded and carved. And atop them dropped down the closing of the threshold, a stone like door being slammed shut. Woven from the scabs and burns, sealed in rock where the nature of it could be obscured. Power would fade in time, we knew. But the hurt, the scar? Some transgressions had weight by virtue of being what they were. This would hold for a very, very long time.
After an eternity we half-fell to the ground, Masego’s fingers clumsily leaving my staff as I used it to steers us away from tumbling down like drunks. We still crouched, exhausted and exhilarated, as the sense robbed from us by the scale of what we’d wielded and built slowly began to trickle back into our minds. We’d felt something like this once before, in Dormer. There’d been more of us, though, Adjutant and Archer as well. We’d marched forward into the heart of the enemy, bearing the story of the Woe like a banner. This had been a smaller thing, I thought, the Queen of Lost and Found and the Hierophant crafting a miracle out of power and pride. But, Gods… it’d been like a drink of the sweetest of wines, like honey on the soul, and some part of me almost wept that it’d ended.
“Look, Cat,” Masego croaked out. “Look.”
I followed his trembling finger and beheld the gate of stone we had raised. The runes inscribed on the two great pillars that I knew, just knew, were twenty feet tall and twenty apart were no as gibberish to my eye where before I had known them as if they were my native tongue. But the thrum of them, the crawling flow of power going up them through the barrow like they were rooted there, it sang to me. Of the Twilight just beyond, a mere smear of blood on stone away. And all that power was kept bound, kept locked, by the rough and massive stone pressing down – and the scars it held within, like a secret under seal.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
And it was, in its own terrible way. We stayed there in the snow for a long time, at the heart of a circle of raised stones we’d unmade and forged anew, a barren barrow-top caressed by the winds. We stayed there until dawn crested in the distance, the faraway lights that’d be the final touch on our work.
“’lo and behold,” I murmured.
The first rays of the sun struck the stone and, as if reflecting from the spiralling runes and stretches of ancient symbols, spun like a dust whirl between the tall pillars. Just long enough a glimpse could be had of the realm beyond, of the endless starlit sky and the shady hills that could be journeyed to any journey’s end.
“There’s always something more, isn’t there?” Masego whispered. “Another horizon, another wonder. Another threshold to cross into deeper unknowns.”
It was his own truth he spoke, I thought, but in I heard the echo of Indrani’s as well. But what was restlessness in her, wanderlust, in him was instead awe.
“We’re not done yet, Masego,” I said. “We’ve bled to get where we stand, and when we come out on the other side we’ll not be the same people who began the journey. But we are so very far from done.”
He nodded, slowly
“Tomorrow will be ours,” the Hierophant agreed, tone tranquil the way old and dark waters were tranquil. “And if there are any who would deny us that, we will Wrest it from them with bloody hands.”
The word sang, and the world with it, as my old friend found the truth of third aspect and we sat silent in the warm light of dawn.