“To concern yourself with wickedness and virtue is to raise partitions within your mind, expecting the world to heed them thereafter. There can be no sin, save for fettering.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
Kairos Theodosian died before the light engulfed him. I couldn’t know that for sure, for the Tyrant of Helike had already been a half-mangled corpse by the time he rose, but some part of me just… knew. Night wrapped around me like a cloak, for without its cold embrace I would have been blinded, I watched as the brightness burned and consumed and finally ended. Of the boy-king who’d played half the crowns of Calernia, not so much as a speck of dust remained. The fury of the Choir of Mercy had swallowed him whole, though too late. Not long, truly, in the greater scheme of things, but in affairs like this a single beat could make all the difference in the world – and he’d clawed to him a great deal more than that. The fading light of his absence left me feeling disordered, for though Kairos Theodosian had been an appalling monster in some ways in others he had been almost admirable. I would not miss him or fall into the snare of remembering him as more than he had been: mad, treacherous and like poison to all he touched. Yet neither would I pretend he had not been brilliant, in his own wicked way.
The world was better for his passing, but in some terrible way perhaps lesser as well.
In the gutted temple that’d been the seat of this lunacy of a trial, the dust settled and the darkness I had called down thinned until nothing of it was left. The Grey Pilgrim laid in a bed of shattered wood and ground, made unconscious by the heavy grip of the Choir that’d reached out through him. The White Knight’s hand still clutched the side of the broken altar where he’d stood as the living channel to Judgement, or perhaps the anchor around its neck. It was hard to tell if the Tyrant would have been able to bait – although could it really be called that, when all he’d needed to do was shine a light and let nature take its course? – the Tribunal into this disaster of a situation without the White Knight at hand to work through. And a disaster it had been, no two ways about that. Mercy would walk away from this with little singed save perhaps its pride, should even have such a thing, but Judgement? I could still feel in the air the weight of the power it’d thrown around, smiting the Hierarch into the ground again and again as he refused to bow to their authority.
I could still feel his power, too, the same heavy lingering furor that’d swallowed Rochelant whole. It had been more sharply wielded here, turned against the Seraphim instead of allowed to run rampant, and perhaps been stronger for it. It’d glimpsed things at the heart of the storm, images I hardly understood – a stele in stone, a woman dying – but one thing was clear: there had been power behind the Hierarch, and it was not simply the power of a Named. The weight had come from elsewhere, and it had been… oppressive. In every sense of the term. And though it had failed to cow Judgement, neither had it been willing to be cowed by it. More worryingly, when that stalemate had grown beyond what either side would tolerate the Hierarch had, for a lack of better term, pursued. I’d not felt a speck of power from either him or the Choir since.
Still, my eyes looked beyond as I waited. To the other thing that yet waited.
“And?” I quietly said.
“He was still alive,” the Hierophant said.
Masego’s feet tread across the scorched earth unerringly, his stride as sure and certain it had been even as Choirs raged and darkness swelled. What would the works of godlings matter, to one like him?
“That last strike by the Seraphim burned him clean through,” I said. “Not even bone left, Hierophant. What business does even the likes of the Hierarch have surviving that?”
“You mistake life for the wearing of flesh,” Masego replied. “I know not if it was willingly or by chance, yet the Hierarch sacrificed his own as skillfully as any Old Tyrant: the loss of flesh was taken as victory by the Choir of Judgement, and so they withdrew.”
Above us the afternoon sky grew darkened, and slowly the sky began to weep ash. It felt, looking up, like the dusk heralding the end of the worlds. Gods forgive us all, it might yet be.
“And he withdrew with them,” I softly said. “Hooked into the hallowed flesh by the ironclad belief he had the right to judge it.”
My old friend’s steps slowed and finally ceased as he came to stand by my side, shoulder-to-shoulder. Masego, wearing cloth over eyes of glass and the ragged dark robes like a doomsday prophet, seemed more the man of the moment than I. The truth, though, was that he had been spectator while I’d had my hands all over this blunder.
“I am uncertain what will come of it,” Hierophant admitted, tone displeased. “It may be that the man becomes an obstruction in all things, as a seal ever judged and judging.”
“Or he could be a poison,” I murmured. “Taint in the blood, changing what stood incapable of such until now.”
The latter, I thought, felt more like the parting arrow of Kairos Theodosian. Something wounded but not slain, a crippling rendered back unto the Creation that had so carelessly wounded him since his first breath.
“Let us hope it is that,” Hierophant said, and my brow rose.
He dipped his head to the side, conceding to the need for elaboration.
“A poison will be purged, whether it takes an hour, a decade or a millennium,” Masego said. “A seal, however, might just last until the convictions of either side falter. And before that moment, would sever Judgement from the rest of Creation.”
That would be… dangerous, I suspected. A Choir was no small thing, to have one removed from the machinery of Creation could not possibly be without consequence. And that was without even considering the matter of Cordelia Hasenbach’s angelic corpse-weapon: Gods only knew what might come of using it, now. Ash fell like rain onto the open-sky temple at the heart of Lyonceau, and I was forced to wonder if in my need to forge a better world I might not have doomed the world as it now stood. The Tyrant had been cryptic, as was his wont, but not beyond interpretation: the Bard had truly had a scheme afoot to slay the Dead King, and I’d taken an axe to it. I was not alone in this, it seemed, for the hidden sting of augury was undoubtedly a reference to the Augur, but it could not be said that a great deal of the blame to be laid did not belong at my feet. If I’d not tried to fix it, to make it better, the Intercessor’s scheme might have gone through and the Dead King would either be dead or marching towards death. He implied using the weapon would have had… costs, I reminded myself. It must have been the sight of those to come that’d led the Augur to turn on the Wandering Bard, however she’d done it.
Gods Everburning, how harsh must that price must have been that a hero would have shied from paying it to slay the Dead King.
“I can’t tell,” I softly admitted, “if I’ve made everything better or worse.”
A chuckle, deeply amused.
“Neither can anyone else, Catherine,” Masego told me. “Why would you be any different?”
I looked up at the sky, at the trails of ash left by the wrath of angels, and did not answer. It was not untrue, what he’d said. Perhaps not the answer I’d wanted, but when had they ever been?
“Too late to turn back now,” I said, letting out a long breath. “We’ll have to see it through to the end.”
A hand came to rest on my shoulder, lightly.
“I would have been disappointed if we did not,” Hierophant said.
The danger had passed, as much as it would ever pass in a place marked by the indignation of two Choirs, and so it was not long before the others began to trickle back in. The Rogue Sorcerer headed first to the Pilgrim – the right choice, I thought, both tactically and politically – and with visible relief pronounced him in fine health, save for deep exhaustion and a few bruises. Lord Yannu and Lady Aquiline lifted him up, with reverent care, and brought him out. The Witch of the Woods saw to her partner hesitantly, and I suspected she knew precious little of healing. She seemed pleased when Roland came to lend a hand, though less so when admitted that Hanno’s slumber was not natural, but otherwise beyond his ability to see to.
“Bring him out,” I said. “And if the Peregrine cannot see to him when he wakes, then the Crows will.”
The heroine rose to her feet, tall and shrouded in a cloak that covered a long tunic. The painted mask of clay on her face hid her expression, but not so much I could not feel the hostility wafting off her like smoke.
“As they did when the Choirs struggled against your kin under Below?” the Witch harshly said.
There was, I thought, something strange about her voice. I heard her speaking in Lower Miezan, but there were almost other meanings woven in – and with the Sisters warding my mind, I could almost discern what language she was actually speaking in. It didn’t sound like any I’d ever heard before, and I was a more than passing polyglot nowadays.
“I warned him,” I said. “Sve Noc would see to containment and nothing else. Be glad they did, or this entire town would be drowning in fire and angelic anger.”
“You brought down darkness after the Tyrant struck,” the Witch accused.
“And saved the lives of everyone on those grounds by doing so,” I flatly said.
“I could have warded us from the anger of the Ophanim,” the Witch said. “Had you not-”
“If you could have handled it better, you should have,” I mildly said. “You didn’t, so I stepped in. Whining afterwards is an exercise in pointlessness.”
“Every hero that speaks well of you ends up crippled, Catherine Foundling,” the Witch of the Woods snarled. “While you grow ever stronger. I wonder why that is?”
“Antigone,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “This serves no purpose.”
“Neither does pretending she is our ally,” the Witch said.
“In the face of some foes, all those that breathe are allies,” the Sorcerer flatly said. “Pretending otherwise is how the day grew so dark in the first place.”
“Hear hear,” Archer drawled.
She’d sauntered in at some point and done so quietly enough I’d barely heard the sound of her boots biting into the ash. Throwing arms around the necks of both Masego and I – that could hardly be comfortable, given the height difference – she leaned forward grinning.
“We get you’re all pissed your boy Hanno got had, but maybe if you whiteclads better kept your eye on the bird you wouldn’t have to keep eating dirt,” Indrani said, tone was deceptively cheerful.
Her arms were tense, and I knew well how quickly she could draw her blades when it was time for killing.
“You offer insolence and nothing more,” the Witch said.
“Really?” Archer drawled, drawing out the word obnoxiously. “’cause look at how we’re standing right now, my sweet. Who are, again, the only ones keeping an eye on the bird?”
And like a cold sheet of rain falling on everyone, we were all reminded of the presence in the back that had yet to move or speak a single word. The Dead King’s vessel watched us all with his eyeless gaze, and it was true that while the Witch of the Woods was facing me, all this time Hierophant and I had been facing him. Indrani had spoken the observation lightly, but it had unpleasant aftertaste for much of the room – enough that the Witch briskly and oddly moved her head in a manner I assumed to mean the conversation was over. The King of Death said nothing, all the while. Now that they’d all been warned of his presence again, the others in the temple felt the same thing I had since the beginning: weight. The old monster was waiting, and as he did his looming presence grew oppressive without need of a single act on his part. If he’d incited quarrels between us, I thought, or even mocked and scorned us, it would have been different. It would have felt like he was part of this, a villain far more dangerous than most of our kind but not other. His silence, though, drew a line between him and us.
The Dead King was not involving himself in this because he was above us. Because he had no need of resorting to petty tactics when we were, to him, little more than children stumbling in the dark.
It flowed, after that, like a river settling into a riverbed. Like Creation wanted the pieces to fall into place. The White Knight was carried out by Roland and the Witch, carefully, and in the place of heroes came in the mortal crowns. Cordelia Hasenbach stood at the centre, the First Prince of Procer of regal bearing even in her riding dress but not quite successfully hiding how unnerved she’d been by the last hour. The Blood come to war north: Lady Aquiline and Razin Tanja, elbow to elbow and fitting there like a shield wall of two. The young ones, those, two, and rising. The old guard stood at their left, grizzled Lady Itima and grim Lord Yannu, both killers as fine as the Dominion had forged in my lifetime. And to the Warden of the West’s right, more than half of the Woe. Hierophant, ragged and of glimmering eye, foe and student both to the Hidden Horror. Archer, smile sharp as the blades at her hip, having walked through death and come out of it without fear. And I, last of all, leaning on the long staff of yew I had chosen over the sword of a Fairfax and all it would mean. All this assembly, and on the other side only the King of Death. Seated, silent, still.
Ash drifted down through the open-sky ceiling, coating us all in grey.
“There is a place,” the last king of Sephirah said, “in the heart of Levant, where the first pilgrim of grey slew many men.”
Red embers lit the hollow sockets, as the Dead King finally spoke.
“In that place lies a secret that Tariq Isbili will know,” Neshamah continued, “and it will tell you, should you be clever enough, of the doom you all so narrowly escaped by the grace of Kairos Theodosian.”
The malevolent redness lingered on Masego’s face, and he met that gaze with glass forged in Summer’s flame.
“Follow the truth, Hierophant,” the Dead King said, sounding almost amused.
Always more secrets, I tiredly thought. Always more schemes. Would there ever be an end, before either he was broken or we were?
“Enough,” the First Prince of Procer said. “You came to these lands, Trismegistus King, to this conference, and yet held your peace. Speak now to your intent, or begone.”
She must be afraid, I thought. Brave as she was, she was without power. Not even a trained warrior, as I understood it, and she was looking at the oldest and most powerful monster ever spawned by Calernia. Yet Cordelia Hasenbach stood tall and proud, eyes hard and bearing icy. I caught her fingers brushing against what looked like a necklace made of little fangs, under the sleeve of her dress.
“I have been considering peace,” the Hidden Horror said, tone nonchalant. “More than truce, peace. One enforced by treaties that you all seem so eager to embrace.”
I would not brook you signing the Accords, I thought. Else how could you be the sacrifice binding them together?
“But you are blind,” the King of Death said. “Even the finest of you, so very blind. And so I wonder now what purpose would there be to such a peace. None. Not when the Intercessor would still use you as tools whenever she so wishes.”
“You speak in riddles, of strangers,” Lord Yannu Marave of the Champion’s Blood said. “Your babble means less than dust.”
“It seems like the path of recklessness, at first glance,” the King of Death pensively said. “Yet it is more calculated a risk than waiting. Some chances never come again, no matter how long the wait.”
“Has age caught up to you, dead thing?” Lady Itimi Ifriqui sneered. “You speak senselessly.”
“No,” I quietly said. “He doesn’t.”
Red embers moved to me, the patient and inhuman mind behind them gracing me with its attention.
“That was a declaration of war,” I announced.
There was a thundering silence in the wake of the words I’d spoken.
“There is still time to the truce,” Cordelia Hasenbach sharply said. “Will you now break your word, Dead King?”
The Hidden Horror considered her in turned, before he let out what I could only call a fond bit of laughter.
“Hasenbach,” the Dead King said. “Yes, that is fitting. One of the old blood should be here, at the beginning of the end. Your line is a respectable one, Cordelia Hasenbach. Never once did the city of Rhenia fall to my armies, when one of your blood held it. None other can make the same boast.”
“Dawn has not yet failed,” the First Prince of Procer said. “Nor will it, so long as I breathe.”
The old monster shook with laughter.
“Let us do this properly, then,” Neshamah said.
The corpse rose, tall and robed and resplendent, and from the heights he had not left since we first came to this temple he looked down on us – with ember-like burning in the hollow sockets of his skull, red glimmering on the jewels set in the bones.
“There is no peace,” the Dead King said. “There is no truce. There is only the shiver before the blade claims your neck. You will fight and you will rage and you will weep, but in the end there can only ever be one end to this.”
The red burned, burned like red star that would swallow the world whole.
“I am the King of Death,” the last king of Sephirah said. “I come.”
Beginning with the crown of the head, the bones cracked and splintered and shattered. From the fractures the pale ivory-like bones turned to dust. The jewels broke and dimmed, the metals rusted and curled, until there was nothing left of the vessel at all.
Ash fell down from the sky, silent and soft.
And so it begins, I thought. Gods save us all, and so it begins.