“One hundred and twenty-five: under no circumstances should you trust anyone who has the title of chancellor, vizier or duke. While they will always be powerful and competent, keep in mind they will also inevitably turn out to be in some way treacherous.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
One was limping, two were nursing an arms and Adjutant had only withstood that blow from the Duke of Unrelenting Landslide’s morningstar at the price of his plate being dented and the flesh beneath it torn right through.
The Repentant Magister had done what she could, and she was a skilled healer, but magical healing was less immediately potent than the priestly kind when it came to deeper wounds. All of them were Named, and so the pain and increased fragility was only a minor matter, but Hakram had considered it an interesting piece of irony that he usually received a better quality of healing with the Woe, a band of villains, than he had from a pack of Above’s designated footsoldiers. The air was rife with tension as the band of five he accompanied let the Vagrant Spear guide them through the bare stone corridors, though conversation had not died down even the wake of the defeat inflicted unto them by what could only be remnants of the Court of Autumn. The calm voice in the back of Hakram’s mind noted that where the Woe would digging into their second plan of attack by now, everyone pitching even if it was Catherine who’d put it all together, these five were instead wasting their breath on largely inconsequential matters.
Adjutant decided to take his own evaluation with a grain of salt, acknowledging he would always favour his own companions whether or not he was aware of it.
They’d all been headed towards somewhere called the Spins for some time now, ominously enough without any fae harassment as they moved. Aside from Hakram’s professional vexation at the way half of the Arsenal seemed to have some sort of nickname known only to the locals, on top of the already labyrinthine amount of sections within the facility, there should have been no reason for displeasure on anyone’s part. Unfortunately, the lack of immediate peril meant the Mirror Knight’s band of five had promptly lapsed back into open malfunction. It felt like dealing with children, Hakram thought. While that was not entirely a rare thing with heroes, who were often more preoccupied with pretty ideals than practicalities, this band of five was… remarkably unstable. It would not be impossible to make them functional, in his opinion, but it would take sustained effort to keep them that way and some truly miraculous labour to mend the root causes.
“Would you hurry, Magister?” the Blade of Mercy complained. “We’ll lose them if you keep slowing us down.”
As displayed, though in his opinion the younger of the Proceran heroes was, for all that he was vastly irritating, more a symptom of the troubles than a cause. The Repentant Magister, whose true name was Nephele Eliade, visibly bit down on the sharp retort she equally visibly wanted to let out at the boy who’d been needling her for hours now. The Stygian was slow because she’d taken bad fall in the last scrap with the Prince of Fallen Leaves and magical healing could only help so much with bones, not because she was somehow lazy as was being implied. Now, that should have been the moment when the band’s unspoken leader stepped in before tempers further rose. The Mirror Knight had brought these people together after all, and that implied a level of deference to his leadership. Instead, Christophe of Pavanie leaned closer to the Vagrant Spear and addressed her in a low voice. The look the Magister shot at his back was distinctly less than adoring. It must have been rather irritating, Hakram mused, deferring to something that essentially did not exist.
“How is your arm, Blade of Mercy?” Adjutant gravelled.
The redheaded boy started, constant in his surprise that Hakram could do anything but stand behind a human villain threateningly or eat village babies. Adjutant had known men and women who truly, genuinely hated his kind and so he’d not been all that ruffled by the Blade’s casual bigotry. It was the way of thinking of a boy who’d been told orcs were not people and had never had occasion to question that before, not something running deeper. Hakram thought less of men who chided the likes of the Blade for speaking their opinion of his kind but privately shared in the belief, for at least the boy could be taught.
“It stings,” the blue-eyed boy admitted. “But it is only pain.”
“I am sure Lady Eliade could heal it further, if the sting is a distraction,” Adjutant suggested.
The Blade of Mercy cast a look at the Stygian sorceress and bit his tongue, looking somewhat abashed at the implicit reminder that the only reason his arm wasn’t bleeding meat was the Magister’s healing touch.
“I would not ask her to waste her valuable magic on my discomfort,” the Blade of Mercy stiffly said, inclining his head at the sorceress.
It was exactly the kind of answer someone with a disdain of magic trying to politely excuse themselves from healing would have used, but Adjutant suspected that when it came to the redheaded boy the words were genuine. Or close enough. Hakram had met two very different Blades of Mercy, after all. The first was a boy with Light gleaming in his eyes, spouting lines sounding suspiciously similar to those of the heroes of Proceran bodice-ripper novels and very much trying to act like one of those heroes. The other was an awkward redheaded boy, out of his depth and painfully aware of it. He found it easier to pity the latter than the former, for all that they were one and the same.
The Maddened Keeper, further behind, let out a harsh bark of laughter at the about-face but did not speak. That she did not contribute much of anything was, to Hakram’s eyes, a contributing part of this mess: there was an element missing to their band, the Callowan Named’s aloofness withholding an influence that would have stabilized matters even if it was negative – a designated enemy, after all, would have given the Blade someone to focus his grandstanding against. The Magister offered Adjutant a discreet incline of the head in thanks when no one else was looking, which the orc did not hesitate in returning. It was a rare thing for him to have high opinion of a heroine before meeting her, but the Repentant Magister had been an exception. How could he not hold a woman who’d spurned the slavery she was raised to in high esteem? If Catherine intended to take this one as a consort he could only approve.
“Adjutant,” the Mirror Knight called out from the front, “if we might have a word?”
Hakram put some spring to his step, catching up to the two in front as the Vagrant Spear moved to the side so he might stand between them. Those two were significantly easier to read than the rest, but in a way twice as hard to understand. Adjutant, in theory, knew much of the Vagrant Spear from Indrani’s reports – which, while usually written in sloppy drunk handwriting with some of the filthiest limericks he’d ever seen slipped in here and there, always seemed to cover enough the important parts thoroughly enough he couldn’t actually complain about it to Catherine – and her equally informative tendency to shamelessly gossip after she had a few drinks in her.
He knew that Sidonia was from the city of Alava, from one of the lesser lines of the Blood related to spears and considered as related to the Champion’s Blood even though in practice their skills had much more in common with the Slayer’s Blood. A political issue, he’d been made to understand. Hakram knew that Sidonia was strictly interested in men, could kill skillfully with both hands and seemed to have some Name-driven taboo against wearing shoes of any sort. None of this, though, helped him understand the mercurial brew of affection and dislike she related to the Mirror Knight with, or why it seemed to spin the man’s head around so much. Half the time the man seemed to crave her good opinion, the other half he seemed to court actively spiting it. It was probably about sex, which humans keeping to the House of Light tended to make a lot more complicated than it needed to be.
“I have heard that the Woe fought mighty battles against the Seasons of the Splendid,” the Vagrant Spear said. “Do you have insights to share about the nature of our foe?”
Adjutant considered that, for a moment.
“The Prince of Fallen Leaves is weak, for one of his title,” Hakram replied. “And the court he belongs to should be Autumn.”
The orc cast a curious look at the Mirror Knight, who he’d expected would have known much of this. The ‘Elfin Dames’ living in a lake the man was supposedly sworn to defend sounded very much like fae, or something close enough it hardly mattered.
“The Fair Folk are a weakness of mine,” Christophe of Pavanie boldly volunteered. “My shield will not reflect their works, and their illusory wiles are effective against even my protections.”
“Your oath protects your mind from glamours and manipulations,” the Vagrant Spear dismissed.
“It does not,” the Mirror Knight curtly said.
Sidonia of Alava looked surprised, by Adjutant’s reckoning, but not by the curtness.
“You once told me-”
“I know what I said,” the Mirror Knight grunted, looking away, “yet I repeat: my oath will not protect me.”
The Levantine looked confused, for a moment, then a wicked grin split her lips.
“Are you telling me you finally lost your-”
“I would recommend that the Repentant Magister provide protective enchantments against glamour, if she can,” Hakram interrupted. “The stronger fae do not usually bother with deception, but once cornered they’ll break habit if they lack the strength to win otherwise.”
Something like gratitude gleamed in the Mirror Knight’s eyes at the distraction that’d been provided.
“Have you fought Autumn before then, Adjutant?” he asked.
“No,” the orc gravelled. “But it is the spawn of Summer broken, and I have fought Summer enough.”
The dream that the King of Winter had seeded in Catherine after titling her in his court had been a difficult thing to sparse even though her recollection of it was vivid, because it was not truly a single dream: it was the recollection of a cycle’s shape, one so old and primordial that mortals mind found it difficulty to truly grasp. There had been lessons to learn from it, though, and Hakram Deadhand had committed them to memory.
“The Lady tells marvelous tales of the battles against Summer,” the Vagrant Spear agreed.
It took Hakram a moment to grasp that she was talking about Indrani, simply using the same term Indrani herself slipped into whenever talking about the Ranger. Interesting, he mused. Archer might not be interested in making a legacy for herself, but that did not mean she wouldn’t end up making one regardless.
“I’ll ask Nephele if she can weave such enchantments,” the Mirror Knight said. “Thank you for your advice, Adjutant.”
“It was my pleasure,” the orc replied.
The Mirror Knight retreated further back with eagerness, leaving Adjutant alone with a still-grinning Vagrant Spear. That grin was directed at him, now, like she expected him to pat her on the back for having put the Proceran hero to flight.
“Now is not the time to make sport of him,” Adjutant bluntly said. “We’re headed into a hard fight.”
“You said the prince was weak,” Sidonia replied. “Have you not defeated stronger royalty of the Splendid?”
“As part of a band containing the Black Queen and the Hierophant,” Hakram flatly replied. “And even then, it was a close thing.”
And that was the thing that had his hand itching, wasn’t it? Metaphorically speaking. After so many years among the Woe, where Catherine steered and inspired and mediated, having his Name attached to this walking mess was making him restless. His very nature was urging him to fix this band so that at least they’d cease bleeding each other with their sharp edges. It wouldn’t even be difficult, he knew, to untie the most pressing of the knots. If the Mirror Knight ceased focusing on the Vagrant Spear he’d start taking the Blade of Mercy closer in hand, which would free the Repentant Magister to be a moderating influence on the band. All it would take was establish some sort of accord between Christophe and Sidonia, terms of interaction they could keep to instead of constantly pushing each other.
“You underestimate us,” the Vagrant Spear said.
“You overestimate yourself,” Adjutant frankly replied. “The only reason there hasn’t been a casualty on our side so far is that the fae aren’t here to fight us.”
That struck her in the pride, as it’d been meant to. Indrani had coddled her four too much, they’d started to get ahead of themselves. The Vagrant Spear, the blooming pattern of blue on grey on her face tightening as she scowled, turned to him with a straightened back and tight grip on her spear. Trying to make it so he was not looming so tall above her.
“The Lady bats you around when you spar, I hear,” she challenged, baring pale teeth.
Hakram Deadhand did not bare his own teeth, posture or swagger. He simply looked at Sidonia of Alava, calmly, and considered how long it’d take him to kill her if he was serious about it.
“You are the not the Archer, child,” the Adjutant simply said. “And if you challenge me again, I will rip your fucking throat out.”
The younger woman stared at him for a long moment, then shivered.
“Apologies, Lord,” the Vagrant Spear said, briskly dipping down her head. “I should not swat at him while we head into battle, it does us all disservice.”
“I don’t know what stands between you two,” Hakram said, and raised a hand to stop her when it looked like she might tell him, “and I do not particularly want to. There will be time to pursue it after the fae are scattered, Sidonia. Until then, the Mirror Knight holds command.”
The Vagrant Spear threw him a sardonic look.
“As you say, Lord Adjutant,” Sidonia said, tone a tad dry.
The orc decided not to address that. There was only so much blood you could squeeze from a stone.
“Are we close?” he asked instead.
“Soon,” the Vagrant Spear said. “We should get there ahead of the Splendid, if they took the main halls.”
“Good,” Adjutant said, baring his fangs in approval.
He slowed his stride, leaving Sidonia alone in the front and sliding into the conversation that had been forming behind him. As expected, with the Mirror Knight there to impress the Blade of Mercy was significantly more personable. Without the needling to interrupt, Lady Eliade skillfully steered the conversation away from what she’d been asked, an enchantment that would perfectly resist glamour, to make it seem like the Mirror Knight had instead requested something she could achieve, an enchantment that would allow someone to tell if they were under the throes of glamour. When properly angled, the four Named could associate without wounding each other. But there were still only four, Hakram noted, as the last member of the band of five had stayed aloof and behind all this time.
The Maddened Keeper’s long and unkempt hair did much to hide her face, but Adjutant would have been able to peg her stare as cool and distant even if he’d not spent the last few years learning the nuances of human expressions. That one watched and missed nothing, but she kept her peace. She was Callowan, but from the times before the Empire had ruled it and so little like the Callowans that Hakram knew. There was a sense of… threat to her, one that had the orc’s instincts apprehensive. To his senses, to his Name, she felt like a predator waiting to strike. She was no fighter, the earlier scraps with the fae had proved that, but the Maddened Keeper had also swallowed whole a cloud of decay that’d powdered rock and would likely have killed the Blade of Mercy if it’d been allowed to spread. In a senses she reminded him of Vivienne, in the sense that she was clearly familiar with violence but just as clearly not trained in it – but there ended the similarities, as no prince of the fae had ever very carefully avoided being touched by Thief even at the height of her Name.
Adjutant slowed his steps even further, slipping at the back of band and matching his stride to the Maddened Keeper. She peered at him through oily bangs, unsmiling.
“We were never properly introduced,” Hakram gravelled.
“So that’s what you’re used for,” the Maddened Keeper said, voice apathetic. “The plate and the axe, the height – it all paints the wrong picture. They don’t see it coming, that your brain’s the most dangerous part of you.”
She was not such a tall woman, the Keeper. Skinny thing, no real muscle to her, and though she had vigor it was the feverish kind: burning but not healthy. Whether it was with his hand of bone or the spectral one, it would have been child’s play to snap that sparrow-like neck. So why was Adjutant’s Name screaming at him that if he laid a finger on the Keeper he’d be snuffed out in the blink of an eye?
“If we are to be at odds, so be it,” Adjutant said. “There are old wounds, between your people and mine. But there are more pressing needs, Maddened Keeper.”
“Necessity’s son,” the woman said, tone gone velvet soft. “Whispering her sweet nothings. Stack, stack, stack – move around the stones and maybe one day the game will make sense. But the tower always crumbles, doesn’t it? You’ll not find me so easy to steal or pile, death’s hand.”
She cast him an unfriendly look through the ratty curtain of hair.
“Walk away, orc,” the Maddened Keeper told him. “Lest I develop an interest in pulling at your seams.”
Adjutant was not above recognizing that creeping sensation going up his spine as fear or heeding its warning. There were some that were beyond his ability to corral, and so to continue an attempt was to invite sanction. Villains that did not know their limits died young, and Hakram had too many labours unfinished to be able to afford delusions about his own ability. He walked away, not with undue haste but without lingering either, moving towards the centre of the band again. Hakram caught only snippets of what was being discussed, which turned out to be heroic gossip about the lingering rumours of the White Knight and the Witch of the Woods being romantically involved. He filed it away regardless, but before the subject could change the Vagrant Spear called them to a halt with a peremptory gesture. They had reached the end of a long hallway, which Adjutant found was leading down to a broad downwards slope, spiralling inwards oddly.
“We are here,” the Vagrant Spear said. “The top of the Spins.”
Quietly walking to the edge of the hallway, Hakram leaned down and studied the battlefield the band had picked with a frown. The Repository was largely used as a great warehouse for all the incoming supplies for the Arsenal and outgoing artefacts feeding the war machine of the Grand Alliance, which in most situations would mean a large room spreading outwards. The Arsenal, however, had been carved form the inside of a mountain: there was no difficulty in layering several of these warehouses atop each other, so long as they could all be accessed by wagon. The Spins were likely the part meant for that very purpose, a soft-sloped spiral leading into eight different broad hallways of different heights. Most of those would lead to warehouses, though the ‘central’ hall was likely to be the one heading deeper into the Repository. Towards the restricted sections, where war assets were being kept and the Maddened Keeper informed them all the fae were headed – though she couldn’t tell them exactly what the fae were after. Speaking of the devil, she’d come to the fore at long last.
“The fae haven’t come through here,” the Maddened Keeper said. “But we don’t have long.”
“I’ll take the front,” the Mirror Knight immediately said. “Lady Eliade, your sorcery will serve well from the heights and Antoine can serve as your escort. Sidonia-”
He was making mistakes, Hakram thought, planning like his magical back-up was the Witch of the Woods instead of the Repentant Magister – whose sorceries lacked bite, and the artefacts she used to make up for it tended to require shorter distance.
“I can go on the frontline with you,” the Blade of Mercy interrupted, “the Vagrant Spear can see to the Magister’s protection.”
“I strike, I do not defend,” Sidonia of Alava flatly said. “That is the nature of my Bestowal. This plan is foolish.”
“Perhaps the Adjutant could see to my defence as I weave sorceries from closer,” the Repentant Magister suggested. “You are well-versed in such duties, Lord Hakram, if I recall correctly?”
Catherine had begun needing a flanker once more since her return from the Everdark, so Nephele Eliade was not wrong. That said, Hakram was by far the most durable of the Named here after the Mirror Knight so frankly speaking he should be at the man’s side when the fae began taking the gloves off instead of out back with the Repentant Magister.
“I am,” Adjutant said. “But we have the advantage of surprise. It would be wasteful not to at least attempt an ambush.”
The Mirror Knight blinked in surprise, while the Blade of Mercy stared at him in undisguised distaste.
“That would be dishonourable,” the redheaded boy told him, as if addressing one slow of wit.
“The Adjutant has it right,” the Vagrant Spear grunted. “You don’t meet a raiding party on open ground, you turn the raid on them.”
“They have the advantage in numbers,” Lady Eliade noted. “It would be wise to try to remedy that as quickly as possible.
“The Levantine and the mage, arguing in favour of ambush,” the Blade of Mercy sneered. “How surprising.”
Christophe of Pavanie straightened.
“No chivalry was offered in the attack, none be offered in the defence,” the Mirror Knight said. “It would be best of the prince could be slain swiftly, the rest might buckle.”
“Christophe,” the Blade of Mercy protested.
“Honour offered to the dishonourable is gold tossed into the river,” the Mirror Knight replied. “Both the Adjutant and I can afford a long drop without any trouble, we might as well leap. Sidonia and Antoine flanking the hall, Lady Eliade on the slope overlooking?”
“Agreed,” the Vagrant Spear nodded.
Hakram rumbled in approval himself. Keeping himself and the other heavy back might seem counterintuitive, but that way they’d be able to more easily pick out a fae high noble to tie up. There were mutters of approval from the rest.
“I will go with the Repentant Magister,” the Maddened Keeper said, and none gainsaid her.
With the bare bones of the plan agreed on, all that was left was preparations.
“Gather close,” Nephele Eliade ordered. “And don’t move, it will make laying the enchantments much harder.”
Adjutant had heard much of providence, the golden luck of heroes, but rarely had he wished for its arrival. He did today, though, because if they were to make through this without corpses on the ground a dollop of providence would very much be required.
The first fae to arrive reminded Hakram of a dragonfly.
All shiny carapace in shades of blue and long wings, with a long halberd in her hands, she cast a look around but after a long moment it appeared she could not see through the illusions that the Repentant Magister had woven around the flankers. The Lady of Cooling Nights, Adjutant recognized. Coming after the outrider, the vanguard should be next. The first fae whistled softly, the melody of it haunting, and two more fae slunk in. Though the orc was familiar with the sight of them, their titles remained unknown. Their unnaturally tall bodies and long limbs, though, could not be mistaken – neither could their skin, pale as bone, or the sharp spears of ivory they held. Pale wings bloomed and they scattered upwards, Hakram’s fists tightening against the handle of his axe as he hoped none of the heroes would be spooked into striking too soon. A beat passed and none of them moved, to his relief.
The Prince of Fallen Leaves’ court strolled in afterwards, riding at a leisurely on great white horses. Three lancers of what Adjutant suspected was Autumn’s equivalent to the Immortals of Summer and the Sword of Waning Day for Winter, their scale armour fashioned to look like a thousand fallen leaves but their lances wickedly sharp and their horsemanship unnaturally skillful. Then the Countess of Still Amber, half a statue and dressed in her namesake from head to toe, and the Duchess of Red Sunset – blinding to look at, which had made the Mirror Knight the only one who could withstand her up closer. The company slowed, only to be joined a few moments later by two more fae. The Duke of Unrelenting Landslide, looking like his armour had been carved out of granite by an artist and his massive morningstar hefted over his shoulder, was simply too heavy for a horse to be able to bear him. He towered tall enough he could keep up with the last fae’s mount, however.
The Prince of Fallen Leaves himself was of a dark grey-brown tone, wearing loose court clothes in tones of burnt orange that subtly evoked the membrane of a leaf by the cut and cloth, and on his brow rested a heavy crown of burnished copper. Bearing a slender longsword of what looked like rotting wood, he offered a permanent faint smile under pale orange eyes. Yet for all that the fae looked more like a dandy out on ride than a prince of the fae, Adjutant knew him to be wickedly fast on his feet and seemingly impossible to wound: any cut made on him would begin spilling fallen leaves, as if he were a sack filled with them, until it closed and left no scar behind. The Lady of Cooling Nights landed at the prince’s feet, kneeling.
“My prince, all the halls seem to lead here,” she reported. “Shall we assemble the court and sally forth?”
They’d split their forces, the orc realized. Given the sometimes maze-like lay of the Arsenal, it made sense that pathfinders would have been needed. Especially if they were after more than the sword made out of the Saint’s corpse, as Hakram suspected they were. The Bard would have needed something to put them in her debt before they came here, or more likely someone. Now was the time to strike, Adjutant thought. Before some fae happened to see through their illusions, and before more of them gathered here. The Mirror Knight might cotton on to that, he considered, but there was one of their company a great deal more used to raids and that was…
The Vagrant Spear blinked into existence, grinning with all her teeth and spear screaming with the Light as it tore right through the Lady of Cooling Nights’ throat.
“Honour to the Blood,” Sidonia of Alava gleefully shouted.
Chaos broke out in the moment that followed, the fae all aflutter at the sudden attack. Adjutant kept a calm eye on the situation, looking for his opening. The Blade of Mercy revealed himself with a hoarse shout, greatsword glinting with Light as it carved through both a lancer and its mount in a single stroke, and a heartbeat later the Repentant Magister fired her sorcery into the mess. The power gathered to strike at their ambushers by the fae, a panoply of titles and abilities, was sucked into a small spinning orb of gold that then blew up in a pulse of pure sorcery at the height of the chest of all those mounted. Only one of the lancers was caught and blown of its mount, the others all dismounting in time, but with that trick Lady Eliade had bought the rest of the band another heartbeat of advantage.
“I will engage the prince,” the Mirror Knight’s voice murmured, though coming from empty air.
Adjutant simply grunted in reply, wary of being overheard himself, but picked his own target before leaping. The whistle of the wind against his face was pleasant, as to his side a thrown spear of ivory struck at what should have been emptiness – but bounced a mirror shield, revealing a steady-eyed Mirror Knight falling with his silver sword already in hand. Below them the tall, pale fae who’d not thrown its spear instead leap up on pale wings and flew towards the Magister. The two remaining lancers were stuck against the side of the hall, moved there impatiently by the greater fae around them as they made room to fight, but already the Duchess of Red Sunset was beginning to emit searing light. Adjutant looked away, guiding his fall with his shield and landing a heartbeat later on the head of the Countess of Still Amber, knocking off her horse in surprise and rolling away before her petrifying curse could begin eating at his boots.
Shield rising as he rose, Adjutant brought up his axe just in time to strike the side of a massive morningstar as it was swung down at him, pushing the blow to the side enough that it shattered the ground instead of his skull and shoulder.
“You again,” the Duke of Unrelenting Landslide said, voice sounding like a thousand stones grinding against each other. “It seems you did learn to fear your betters last time, orc.”
Hakram Deadhand rolled his shoulder, limbering the muscle he’d almost just pulled, and bared his fangs at his foe.
“Yes,” the Adjutant growled, “let us talk, fae, of betters.”