“Under pale moon,
Across the snow
As the dead croon
And flies the crow
Did we not lose,
A hundred times?
Did we not win,
A hundred times?
Our iron wrought,
Saw use earnest
It rusted not
Did we not lose,
A hundred times?
Did we not win,
A hundred times?
We came and went,
We Tyrant’s get,
The tried and true
Did we not lose,
A hundred times?
Did we not win,
A hundred times?
Weep not for us,
For in the annals
Our stele reads thus:
A hundred battles
For we did lose,
A hundred times
And we will win,
A hundred times
‘till falls the age,
And end the times!”
– “Dead In A Hundred Battles”, Helikean soldier’s song
“I win,” Kairos Theodosian laughed.
“- death,” the Hierarch of the Free Cities said.
The Tyrant wished and the candle was lit.
No heartbeat passed before the wroth of the Choir of Mercy descended upon him: it was immediate and unflinching. Even as his lie echoed across the hall the curse laid upon him by the Grey Pilgrim tightened its grip, seeking to smother him. Ah, it was worth every irksome moment where he’d been denied the pleasure of blatant lies to now have the Peregrine’s little mistake smash the Ophanim in the back of the knee just before they could tidy up all the loose ends. Mercy’s cold purpose forced against him, an immeasurable sea of pressure against his soul, and the Tyrant of Helike was going to lose this. But he knew, even as his last good eye shrivelled in its socket, that he had bought a candlespan of life before that loss occurred. And that made all the difference in the world, didn’t it?
“I have vexed you, I see,” the Tyrant gregariously said, addressing Mercy. “Well, if you would allow me a-”
They did not, in fact, allow him a rebuttal. The full weight of the Choir’s attention descended upon him and he tasted blood in his mouth, as the Ophanim finally grasped that they would not be allowed to murder the Hierarch before they’d dealt with him. Stories were such a funny thing, weren’t they? Like, say, ‘wicked villain is sentenced never to lie again by the champion of a Choir, then in a moment of delightful hubris speaks such a lie’. It was the kind of story that’d need a thundering, righteous Choir to smite that uppity servant of Below. Not the sort of thing you could do while simultaneously serving as the hidden knife of the Heavens in someone else’s tale. It wouldn’t matter that the Choir had the capacity to serve in both roles concurrently. Fate would punish such lackluster commitment with failure on both fronts.
His left knee pulped. The Tyrant was not certain whether that was his own doing or that of the angels, which rather amused him.
Kairos has once been told he would not make it to his thirteen nameday, a prophecy croaked by the dry lips of the ancient thing that laid in the crypt deep beneath Helike. And it’d told it true, it had. A hero might have thought, perhaps, that their kind and benevolent Gods had cured them of their many miseries. Kairos Theodosian knew very well what manner of deity he served, though, and so never once deluded himself into believing this – indeed it was a relief, when he first came into his favourite of his aspects. Wish. What a pretty bauble it had been, seeing the wish of others. Even more so when he learned it could be used to do things, to bridge the gap between the possible and the not. For a price, of course. It was then the he understood the prophecy, forged anew by darker hands.
Twelve times the Tyrant of Helike would be allowed to see come and go the day of the year where he had been Named and die on the dawn of the last. The Gods Below, magnificent monsters that they were, had presented him with a beautiful dilemma: would he spend his thirteen years of reprieve in mediocre obscurity, or would he spend the years to reach for glory? For that was the nature of wishing: all could be had, for a span of the life he might have lived.
“I always was a spendthrift at heart,” Kairos confessed. “It is the nature of princes, my friends, to waste the treasuries of their fathers.”
Alas, the Choir of Mercy was growing no fonder of him. It must have been quite cross, he mused, that its greatest strength was hamstrung by its own champion. For Mercy was not the mightiest of the Choirs, the most farsighted or the most beloved: it was the most flexile, befitting of its purpose as the tier of loose ends for the Heavens. Yet now it must pass its thread through on very particular needle’s head before it could attend to greater purposes, namely the continued existence of Kairos Theodosian. Anaxares, glorious mad son of Bellerophon that he was, was attempting for force his verdict upon the dealers of verdicts, and though he was not succeeding neither was he failing. The Seraphim’s crushing strength slid over the Hierarch like water off a duck’s back, though his own burning indictment found bite but no flesh: even with Bellerophon’s fury at his back, the Choir of Judgement remained the Choir of Judgement.
It was like watching a man attempting to wrestle the sea, and every bit as gloriously absurd as that sounded.
The Ophanim, sadly, did not seem to agree. And in their impatience as finishing to choke out the Hierarch – oh, that one detail must have burned Tariq like acid when he’d emerged at the crucial moment and unleashed his patrons like a dagger in the side – they decided the time for subtlety was past. If a tight grip would not suffice, then a fist would have to serve. The Tyrant, Gods take him if he lied, had no parry against such a stroke. Even simply receiving it would burn through the last of his life in the bat of an eye. Of course he didn’t need to have such a parry, not strictly speaking. The Ophanim smiting this entire temple into barren ash would mean…
Darkness flooded the broken House of Light, the cold night soothing Kairos like a cold press as it cooled the blood seeping out of his pores. His head lolled back, the bone of his neck feeling like they were made of wobbling pastry, and he grinned malevolently as a match was struck a mere foot away from him. It was the sole light to be had, and it cast Catherine Foundling’s face into sharp relief as she lighted her pipe. She puffed, glowing red embers burning as she did, and spat out long stream of wakeleaf.
“You want to burn Kairos, burn Kairos,” his beloved enemy shrugged. “But you don’t get to burn the rulers of half the continent with him. Archer’s escorting them out, under protection of the Hierophant. Until they’re out of the way, hold your hand.”
It was a superb thing, the way the Black Queen could so address a Choir and expect to be obeyed. She’d survived so many close calls with angels she’d somehow come to believe she could match them, and through that utterly crazed belief become something that could genuinely give a Choir pause. And so Mercy found itself peering into the Night, wondering if the battle laid out there to be fought would truly result in its victory – and hesitating, for the consequences if it didn’t would be utterly disastrous. Against any other foe it would have struck regardless, but Sve Noc? The blood-soaked goddess of theft in victory? Losing might just have consequences. And even the villainess was preventing the full exercise of their power, she was letting through the wroth still shattering him bit by bit. Their hand held, and convulsive laughter escaped his throat until he choked on it. How long would it take for them to grasp that every time she got away with that, she came harder into the story of someone who could get away with that?
“You’re about to die,” the Black Queen told him.
“Well spotted,” Kairos cheerfully replied.
He spat out a thick glob of smoking blood afterwards, but it was well worth the trade.
“Now would be a good time to pay up what you yet owe,” the Queen of Callow said.
“Indeed,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “Allow me then to grant you the greatest gift of all.”
The red burn of her pipe was the sole light in the dark, and what allowed him to be certain he was addressing her instead of an endless void. It also revealed her sigh.
“It’s a monologue, isn’t it?” she said, sounding resigned.
His fingers clenched, not out of surprise or dismay but because a swath of flesh and muscle on his arm had gone dead and dried up in the span of a breath, contracting the rest. Yet the rebellions of his own body were nothing new to him and did not truly distract from the great pleasure of having someone who understood. Not someone who agreed or sympathized, for indeed either of those things would have spoiled the broth, but someone who… followed the cast of his dice. It was such a rare, precious thing.
“Gods Below, Catherine,” he grinned, “why would it be anything else?”
His throne was half-sunken into he ground now, his attendant gargoyles made rubble, but still he clasped his scepter and his head loosely kept Theodosius’ crown. All was as it should be.
“It is said among my people that the hour of death is also the hour of revelation,” Kairos said, “for when the distance between life and death grows thin so do the veils that keep our eyes from hidden truths. My own father, for example, called me as grotesque imp as he died. Which was remarkably perceptive for the old drunk, I assure you. Still, I’ll admit stabbing him those seventeen times might have served as something of a hint.”
Talking should have, by all earthly laws, precipitated his death. Taken him tumbling down the cliff of annihilation, an already strained body and soul snapping like a twig under the added strain. Instead, the Tyrant of Helike found the trembling of his hand slowing, the blood in his throat drying. He was, after all, villain speaking his death-words: earthly laws were the lesser set of those now applying to him.
“I stabbed my father too,” the Black Queen mused. “Twice. And it wasn’t even the same person both times.”
Well, now she was just showing off. And by amusing him doing almost as much to kill him as the angels were, which was quite inconvenient.
“Don’t interrupt,” Kairos chided. “This is a monologue, not repartee. As I was saying, in the spirit of my rapidly approaching annihilation, I would therefore offer revelations.”
And did he not have a great trove of these to spill over the ground, painstakingly gathered one betrayal at a time?
“We begin with the corpse of an angel,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “though of course there can be no such thing.”
It was months ago he had first dangled that truth in front of her and knew she had been digging after it ever since. As well she should, for it was the very devil in the details – in a manner of speaking.
“In glorious old days,” Kairos Theodosian wistfully said, “there was once a woman who broke in Evil as one would break in a stallion. From triumph to triumph did she march, west and ever pursuing, until by the shores of a great lake she met in strife a hundred priests-elect of the Hallowed. And these holy souls did scour themselves to bring forth the great spirit they worshipped, one that cast judgement upon all it beheld, and behold her it did.”
Ah, what he would not have done for a glimpse of that grand moment. Truly, there never had been nor ever would be a match to Dread Empress Triumphant.
“For that presumption she slew it,” The Tyrant ferally grinned, sharp teeth bared, “bearing tall banner, and wrote her rage in blood across a hundred trembling tribes. That which was not a corpse sunk into deep waters, turning into bones that dreamt, and there was left to slumber. Some across the years learned of this, and of the great works that might wrought from such a thing, but none were so bold as to attempt to make a sword out hallowing petrified.”
Ah, but heroes lacked for such beautiful ambitions. The living kin of that dreaming thing came too easily to their help, he’d always thought, and so there was no need for ingenuity unleashed.
“That hoped-for boldness still escapes our kind,” he mourned, “but a lesser manner of soul did grow desperate enough.”
How could Cordelia Hasenbach not be, when doom covered her home and kin as the south tore itself apart in a war with no end nor meaning? There had been so little left to lose, and in the end the First Prince answered first to duty.
“This is no coincidence,” Kairos reminded his peer, “for indeed there are no coincidences. This one least of all, however, for it is a harsh sword long in the swinging. There is a thing out there that delights in intercession –”
He paused, allowing for dramatic arrival should it be in the cards. Only silence answered.
“No?” he mused. “No, I suppose not. Not while the Hierarch still breathes.”
Even should she wear a different face when she arrived, Kairos amusedly thought, all that would change would be that the crime of personation with intent to confuse the court would be added to her tally. If it was as he suspected, her very name would prevent her from putting herself in such a situation even should she desire it. Setting aside the thoughts, he returned to the thrust of his speaking, though he did not there was not anger in the Black Queen’s eyes. Ah, noticed his little trick had she? That the wards around Lyonceau made escape more difficult when the fabric of Creation was troubled. Which, given the presence of two Choirs in wroth and the high priestess of Night wielding the very stuff, was very much the case. It ought to keep the hostages close long enough for his purposes.
“And that thing, Catherine,” he drawled, “it has been waiting a very long time to kill another: one who claims rulership over dust and bones. But is a cautious crown that lairs to the north, one that does not often leave its shell. It took cornering and opportunity, to bait it out. Defeat on the horizon and victory at hand, how could even such a leery thing not be tempted? It scuttled out and lost a finger or two but got to witness the truth of its foe in exchange.”
One of his kidneys had just melted, the Tyrant dimly noticed. Oh dear, that was quicker than anticipated. Mercy was refining its technique.
“A fair trade, as these things go,” he rasped out.
He mastered his voice a moment later, with great effort.
“It would not have mattered,” the Tyrant said, “if not for the hidden sting of augury. You see, there was a plan. A warden for the west, besieged. Her ears open to whispers. And as the sky darkened, inch by inch the finger would tighten until the trigger was pulled.”
His only functioning arm snapped up, for the other was a desiccated waste, and he snapped his fingers.
“Death, dead,” Kairos said with relish, for it had been a pretty plan indeed. “That was the trick, you see: letting it eat someone’s whole world before they mattered, and then make them matter. Too late, then, to shake free of that story and the chains it brings. Quite a bit more would die along with it, of course, but then victory is not without costs. The clever crown caught on early, now, and it flees back to its lair. It would shed the chains binding it for a set more pleasing, if you let it.”
He met the Black Queen’s gaze, with his bloody red eye.
“Don’t let it, Catherine,” he said. “It does not deserve this.”
He hacked out a wet laugh, for deserving hardly ever mattered.
“And so here we are now, at the crossroads of it all,” Kairos Theodosian said. “The crossbow has been forged, and aimed, but the hand that wields it is closed to intercession. Its quarry is a lion rampant, and forewarned, but there are a great many hunters gathering to hunt it. It would lair again, let the danger pass, but it cannot simply vanish – lest it be followed, crossbow in hand. To survive now it must either cow the hunters or break the crossbow.”
And even then, the Dead King would not ever truly trust the first of those two. Even cowed, the great Names of Calernia might still be nudged into rolling the dice. It had made striking fresh bargain with it after the Graveyard disappointingly easy. He’d been looking forward to the challenge of convincing Keter to ally again after betraying it so often and cheerfully.
“And so back it went to its old friend Kairos,” the Tyrant drawled, “who happened to have a grain of sand on hand that fit that hallowed mechanism quite nicely. There was a need for some expertise to see it through, which was helpfully provided, and now we arrive at the moment of truth.
He grinned, his teeth gone red for the bleeding of his gums.
“Yes, Catherine, I see the question is on the tip of your tongue. Say it.”
She studied him, unblinking.
“What happens when a Judgement-corpse is wielded, if Judgement is dead?”
The right question, as he had expected. She had yet to disappoint.
“Truth of truths, my friend,” he chortled, “I already gave you the only answer to that question worthy of being spoken.”
A Rochelant, when they had first begun this dance of theirs.
“That’s the entire point,” she softly quoted, “finding out.”
He’d be dead long before that riddle was answered, naturally, but what did that matter?
“Now,” the Tyrant cheerfully said, “you two distressing damsels stuck bargain with me in Salia, and I promised you a good reason to keep warring on Keter. I am a tyrant of my word, and so here it is: Keter will keep warring on you.”
Surprise, for though she was clever and ruthless and dangerous, she did have an inflated sense of the threat she truly represented to an entity like the Dead King.
“Your coalition does not scare the King of Death,” Kairos told her, not unkindly, “your petty assembly of armies and treaties which you so wastefully wring your hands over. He fears only one thing in all the world, and I have torn through the perilous nets she wove against him.”
The darkness thinned, and the Ophanim wasted no breath in stepping harder on his existence. Kairos spat out blood that looked like boiling pitch, burning a streak down his own chin. The hostages must be close to out of danger, then. Yet it was as had been ordained, for now that he had spoken in pride through the lessened gloom he was allowed to see if his pride was to be deemed arrogance after all. Was the net truly broken? Would a thousand years of fury and madness poured into a single man be enough to humble a Choir? For all his scheming and deals, the truth was that the Tyrant had no idea.
No longer was Anaxares the Diplomat flattened into the ground by angelic verdict, he saw, mended only by stubborn will. Yet that did not mean the Hierarch was winning. It was, to his eye, a shattering deadlock. The will of Judgement was hammering down from the Heavens, to no avail, yet Anaxares’ scathing dismissal of that authority was not resulting into his own judgement biting into the Choir’s flesh. It was a tight embrace between entities that could not bend and a man that would not. It would not be enough, Kairos saw. In time the Tyrant would be slain, and when that moment came Mercy would choke the life out of the Hierarch.
Too strong. Even after all the schemes and the lies and the hundred petty victories, the servants of the Heavens were simply too strong. Like a rat biting a lion’s tail, their rage had been a splendid but doomed gesture. Yet there was glory in that too, the Tyrant of Helike thought. In firing an arrow at the moon and coming close before it fell back down and took you in the throat. Even in defeat he would have no regrets, for –
“If you will not come to me,” the Hierarch said, rising to his feet, “then I will come to you.”
Anaxares of Bellerophon rose while under angel’s wroth, and for that insolence the flesh was peeled from his bones by fervent fire.
“Oh,” Kairos breathed out, genuinely moved. “Oh, you splendid madman.”
The Hierarch of the Free Cities was swallowed whole by shimmering heat that for a moment chased out of even the darkness of Night. And when it went out, he was gone. The White Knight dropped to the ground living, but unconscious, and the Tyrant of Helike felt a laugh bubble out of his throat. Not a rat biting a lion’s tail, how wrong he had been. This was a king swallowing poison. He was with them, now. Standing among them, obstructing like only the sons and daughters of Bellerophon could.
“Gods keep you, Hierarch,” Kairos said, and for the first time spoke the title with respect.
Gods Below keep you, Anaxares of Bellerophon, and it is a pride to call you Hierarch of the Free Cities, he thought. Die as you lived, my friend, without peer in your madness.
“And now we have a war, Catherine,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “The war that will bring this age to an end, one way or another.”
The Black Queen looked at him through the dying gloom, her face a cool mask.
“On your feet, Kairos Theodosian,” she said. “That much you are owed, and not a single thing more.”
It would have been a lovely thing, he thought, to dance with that one until one of them died of it. A lovely thing indeed. Matted in sweat and blood, one knee a ruin and both legs half-gone, the Tyrant of Helike pushed himself up. He stumbled forward, legs failing him, and knew he would die before he touched the ground. And it came, it came as he knew it would. Like a whisper across his skin, soothing the pain like a kind hand flicking dust away from his shoulder.
Below was watching.
The attention itself was as a question, for what man or woman alive had paid finer dues than the Tyrant of Helike? And so, at this later hour, he was asked for his wish. So many tantalizing possibilities flickered in the back of his mind. Curses that would rend the continent asunder, the strength to wound even the Choir that was about to take his life or even a loop in the hole – a few years more, if he could talk his way into keeping them. O Wicked Gods of mine, do you not know me better than this? All I have ever wanted of you was the answer to a single question, and only in this moment could it be asked. One staggering step forward, and he wet his lips as he spoke.
“lo,” he croaked out, “and behold…”
Another step, his knee giving out. If he could only prick his hear, he thought he might…
“I have…slain-” he whispered.
Ahead of him the veil lifted, and terrible light was revealed. And in that moment he finally heard it.
“-the Age of Wonders,” the Tyrant finished, smiling with pure childish joy.
And to the sound of applause only he could hear, a moment before light engulfed him, Kairos Theodosian died.