“The henhouse stands unlatched
All within, by the fox snatched
So here they go, once again
Chasing a red tail into the glen
But we know, oh we know,
That in the woods, the fox is king
Yes we know, oh we know
That in the woods, the fox is king
Run the hounds, rides the hunter
His spear in hand, banner aflutter
Charging that way, this one baying
Trampling the paths, again raging
But we know, oh we know,
That in the woods, the fox is king
Yes we know, oh we know
That in the woods, the fox is king
Over the hills, across the glade
Where the sun rests in the shade
He hides and waits, until the day
When the hunts are chased away
For we know, oh we know
That in the woods, the fox is king
Yes we know, oh we know
That in the woods, the fox is king.”
-“The Fox in the Woods”, a Callowan rebel song from the latter years of the Proceran occupation
The Wandering Bard set down her card with telltale nonchalance, to the side of the three affrays that had already been opened. Though there had once been many appearances for this one for hundreds years now one had come to dominate all the others: a dark and faceless woman, holding a red banner, and at her feet letters were written large – TRIUMPH. The Empress. The Bard withdrew her hand and smiled, gesturing for her opponent to act in turn.
“Silence?” the Black Queen said. “That’s a new one for you.”
“I have not a single new game,” the Intercessor smiled. “Only a legion of old ones, given fresh faces.”
“Stingy,” the orphan queen complained. “You haven’t revealed who it is that’s the little helper you’ve still got running around the place, either.”
The Miscellaneous Stacks had burned, but before that those who dwelled within had been forced to slumber by a gaseous poison. The hand that’d opened those bottles had yet to be revealed.
“You still go about this as if you were a general, Catherine,” the Bard said. “Seeing battles and sending soldiers out to fight them until some nebulous war can be won.”
“Doing it all wrong, am I?” the Black Queen mused. “By all means, Marguerite, educate me.”
“Your teacher, in truth, is a finer hand at this than any might suspect,” the Wandering Bard said. “So I shall borrow his words, spoken once to another: it is all objects in motion, Catherine. If you can see the trajectories of the spheres in the void, all that is required from you is the first nudge.”
“Been talking to him?” the woman who had once been a girl said.
Even as the words left her lips, she grew vexed. The airiness she had affected as she spoke had been too sweet on the tongue for either of them to swallow it.
“He has no use for the likes of me, that enterprising blackguard,” the Intercessor said. “But he seems to be having a great deal of fun out there, having every part the Wasteland hacking at the other as they try to catch his shadow.”
“How pleasant for him,” the tired general replied.
“But look at me, jabbering on about things so very far way,” the Bard said, salting the wound. “It is your turn to lead the dance, Catherine.”
“I’m just biding my time,” the Black Queen shrugged.
“Archer is bleeding,” the Wandering Bard told her. “Adjutant is spent.”
“When you came up,” the woman who had once been a girl said, eyes sharp, “it was alone, wasn’t it? You weren’t part of a band.”
“Stories were not as… forgiving, back then,” the Intercessor said, half a concession. “But I have been part of many bands, Catherine.”
“No,” the Black Queen quietly said, “you haven’t. Not in the way that really matters.”
“Do you think I’ve never loved?” the Intercessor disdainfully said. “That I’ve never craved, never lost? I am more human than anyone ever has been, or ever will be. All that is it to be that, I have been a thousand times over.”
She leaned forward, a flush to her cheek that had nothing to do with drink.
“When I tell you that loves fucks always fucks you over, I no not speak in contempt or in ignorance,” the Intercessor said. “I speak, Catherine Foundling, from pity.”
The Black Queen, her hand certain and her fingers deft, place a single black pawn on the table from the shatranj she had stripped bare.
“One,” the Queen of Lost and Found stated.
Her mind thrummed with an old song, the beat of it eerily resonant.
“You still believe they can’t be touched just because you love them,” the Wandering Bard said, almost disbelieving. “You cannot be that naïve. That is not trust, it is fantasy.”
“It’s fine line, between that and faith,” Catherine Foundling said.
“The game goes on, whether you play it or not,” Marguerite said, eyes moving to the wooden pawn painted black with something like wariness. “Whatever else you might be playing.”
She slid a card above the Chariot, obscuring it. A man holding a broken scepter, at his side a golden cup filled to the brim: the Magician.
“Why now,” the Black Queen murmured, “that’s almost an admission, isn’t it?”
“I will not hold your hand through all of this,” the Bard chided.
“That’s fine,” Catherine said. “I’ve got better uses for mine.”
A card was gently placed atop the last one, elaborate in appearance. A crowned man on a throne, seven nooses and one around his head and a sword in his right hand: Justice.
During his time observing that most of the foreign soldiery seemed to dislike his countrymen, not entirely without reason, Prince Frederic of Brus now realized he might have underestimated the extent to which they also disliked each other.
“I gave you an order, Inger,” the Levantine captain – Hassar – shouted at the orc. “Get back in the damned ranks.”
“You don’t give me fucking orders, Dominion,” Inger the orc snarled. “Don’t you have sheep to go raiding your cousins for? Let the professionals handle this.”
“Slight my honour again and we’ll settle this steel in hand,” Captain Hassar harshly said.
“I’d like to see you try,” the orc said, to the cheers of her fellows. “Clear that scabbard and we’ll give you another Sarcella.”
“You ran from us across half of Procer before the Black Queen stepped in to save your hides,” Captain Hassar mocked, to the cheers of the Levantines. “Try to give us a Sarcella without her, orc, see how that ends for you.”
“I’ll tell you how: with a lot less mercy, feet-dragger,” the orc lieutenant jeered.
The Callowan legionaries banged their shields, the Dominion warriors shouted in anger and Frederic decided now was not the time to remind these fine people that Sarcella had been a Proceran city stuck in the middle of their fighting without much of a choice in the matter. Not unlike him, truth be told.
“If I might claim your attention once more,” Frederic said, tone cheerful. “I would be much obliged if no blood was spilled tonight, my friends. We are, if I might remind you, yet under attack by common foes.”
“Then throw down your sword, prince,” Captain Hassar said. “You were caught red-handed, no talking will get you out of that.”
“I was charged with the protection of the Red Axe from assassination by the current ranking authority in the Arsenal, Queen Catherine of Callow,” the fair-haired prince said. “I understand you may doubt my word, but I do not require great concession – only that you allow me to see to her safety by sharing her confinement.”
It was not ideal, but at least he seemed to have flushed out part of the Bird of Misfortune’s schemes. And should his terms of surrender be accepted, he could use the walk to the holding cells as an opportunity to find out – perhaps from Lieutenant Inger, who seemed friendly enough in that orc way – who it was that’d sent all these soldiers after him. Learning that Name would likely unmask an agent of their great foe within. Yet Frederic’s words were not met with understanding or consideration, but instead a great deal of anger from both the Callowans and the Levantines.
“You’ll be dead before you take the first swing,” Captain Hassar said. “CROSSBOWS, at the ready.”
The lieutenant did not gainsay the Dominion officer, to Frederic’s surprise, and the soldiers called at obeyed without qualms. Something was wrong here. Had his words been misheard? Suspecting the worse, he unsheathed his sword and set it down on the floor. There was no reaction from the soldiers.
“This is your last warning,” the painted captain snarled. “One more step and-”
An illusion, Frederic grasped. Someone had laid an illusion on the soldiers and through the lie was misleading them to attack. The enemy was already here.
“My lady of Red,” the Kingfisher Prince said, “might I trouble you to chase away the enchantment bedevilling these soldiers?”
“I can’t,” the Red Axe said, tone tormented. “It only protects me, not others.”
Reluctantly, Frederic began to consider reaching for the sword he’d placed down. He would try to abstain from killing as much as possible and cease the moment it appeared the illusion might be faltering, but he would not fail in the charge that had been given onto him. The Red Axe would be good as dead if surrounded by soldiers under an enemy’s spells, unarmed and still shackled. If the political consequences of this were focused onto him instead of the Principate, Frederic Goethal thought, and he was ‘made’ to abdicate by the First Prince, the Grand Alliance might yet survive the blow without sundering. Henriette would rule well in his stead, it would do no disservice to the people of Brus to crown her princess in his stead.
Breathing out, the Kingfisher Prince crouched to take back his sword.
“Stop,” a woman screamed. “Stops this right now.”
The soldiers stirred, turning to watch the two unexpected arrivals behind the Dominion swords: a woman of the Free Cities, visibly bloodied from hard fighting, and a young man that Frederic was more familiar with. The Blade of Mercy, Antoine of Lange. One of the two countrymen Cordelia had asked him to take in hand when she suggested she came to the Arsenal. The young man’s greatsword was recognizable enough, and by the reaction of the soldiers the woman Free Cities was even better known.
“Lady Eliade,” Captain Hassar said, “with all due respect-”
“With all due respect, captain, you are currently under an illusion,” the Repentant Magister said. “If you would simply allow me to dispel it, the truth of this will be revealed.”
Frederic Goethal was not above accepting salvation, particularly when it was so gallantly offered. He was not above the occasional theatrics, either, and so he rose to his full height and left his sword on the ground. It would make a more striking image that way. A moment later the painted captain grudgingly gave his assent, and the Repentant Magister raised her had.
Sorcery bloomed, and there was a sound like a mirror shattering.
“Tricky, tricky,” the Wandering Bard said, eyes faraway. “How did you know it would clever little Nephele that stumbled into this mess?”
“Objects in motion, wasn’t it?” the Black Queen replied, lips quirking savagely. “She’s got maybe half the power to throw around that Hierophant had at his speak, and she uses it mostly on tricks and defensive spells – and she’s in a band, which means she’ll be using any spell she puts out six times whenever she uses it. A running battle against fae, of higher mettle than the one I tangled with? It was a given she’d be the first to grow exhausted.”
“That is hardly a guarantee she would end up there,” the Bard leadingly said, glancing at the other affrays.
“Archer’s was always going to be a fight, and she just left the other mess,” the Black Queen said. “Providence good as ensured she was going to end up where she could actually save the day. I can’t ride that horse, most the time, but a heroine like her sure as Hells can.”
“Those do not sound like the words of a villain,” the Intercessor smiled.
“The world’s changing, Bard,” the Black Queen said. “Whether you like it or not.”
“Such a brash one, you are,” the Wandering Bard chuckled.
She shrugged, cards peeking out the edge of her sleeve.
“But not without skill, I suppose,” she continued, then rapped a knuckle atop Justice. “I concede the affray.”
Trickster’s fingers went looking for a card she had set down – the Tower, the other glimpsed before the card was made to disappear with a flourish of the wrist – and she gallantly gestured for the opposition to proceed.
“One point to me,” Catherine said, eyes narrowing as she cleared out the rest of the pile.
Warily, she set her card down as the first of another affray. It depicted wings of bronze holding aloft a faceless entity wielding a pale sword, at its feet kneeling a humbled prince, priest and merchant: Judgement.
“Well now,” the Wandering Bard grinned. “What might that be about?”
“Silence for silence,” the Black Queen retorted. “It will matter when it matters.”
“How exciting,” the Intercessor praised. “But I suppose it is up to me to get this game back on the right path, isn’t it?”
The card she laid down over the Lovers was austere to the eye. A priestess in penitent’s robes, pouring water from one cup into the wine of another: Temperance.
“It’s not that she means to be a traitor, our dear Artificer,” the Bard said. “It’s simply that given what she is and where she is, she might as well be – she who tinkers with Light knows neither doubt nor restraint.”
Indrani swung around, blinding striking at whoever it was that’d knifed her – and had suspicions, foolish as they might be – and the blade slid out as the attempted assassin withdrew before she could hit anything. She clenched her teeth from the pain, but at least she was fairly sure it’d not punctured the lung. That would have been a bloody and embarrassing way to die.
“Archer,” the Blessed Artificer called out in fear and anger, “DUCK.”
With a curse Indrani did, the sound of a twig snapping being followed by a strike of sizzling Light above her. The lack of even a grunt of pain was the only warning she got, and she didn’t act quite quickly enough. Even as she began moving, the bolt of Light curved down and struck her back. Screaming as she coat gave, feeling aftershocks of Light going through her body even as the space between her shoulders was turned into a burned and bloody mess, Archer was smashed into the floor.
“Adanna, don’t-” Indrani croaked out, but Light bloomed again.
A collar of the burning glare formed around the neck of the man looming standing behind her – and by the size of him, Archer’s outlandish thought had come true – but a moment later it the Light was instead nailing Indrani’s arm to the stone floor, having formed into a spike and burned through flesh and muscle just above her elbow. Fuck. She wouldn’t be able to shoot like that or use both of her blades. The Fallen Monk eyed her for a moment, a serenely calm face over a bulging belly, but only bothered to kick her in the face before he flickered out of sight again. How was the man still alive, after getting Catherine to make darkglass out of a stone floor? Indrani had seen him fail to manipulate the works of Below before, she shouldn’t have cut it against Night. Light bloomed again, as the Monk reappeared close to the Artificer and the green heroines panicked.
“Fuck,” Archer cursed again, rolling to the side as the defensive net of Light that’d popped up was turn into a rain of deadly shard headed for her.
A few caught the edge of her wounded arm, but her mail turned what would have been a hard turn into mild burns. She ripped her coat rising to her feet, though, as one of the shards had nailed the edge of it down.
“Stop using Light, you fool,” Archer shouted, unsheathing one of her blades.
Just in time to see the Fallen Monk slug the Artificer in the stomach, her hasty attempt at a guard blown through. Indrani grit her teeth and aimed before she could think, her longknife spinning as it sailed through the air. But the Monk slid behind the heroine, Indrani’s throw missing him by inches, and he nudged up the Blessed Artificer’s chin with his bloody knife. Archer already had her other blade in hand, but no opening to use it: frozen in fear, Adanna of Smyrna had gone still.
“Drop the blade,” the Fallen Monk said. “Or I slit her throat.”
“Shit, you got me,” Archer lied, and without hesitation advanced.
The Monk withdrew his hand from Adanna’s apron, producing a twig and snapping with his free hand. Light erupted and curved out in two staggered arcs towards Archer. She’d seen it coming this time, though, and it was not good enough a trick to take her by surprise. She quickened her step to pass the first arc, darted back to let the second pass before her and in the beat that followed she’d closed the distance entirely. Still reaching for another bauble inside the Artificer’s stash, the Monk was surprised when she got hold of herself and elbowed him in the guts. His fat meant it barely stung, but the surprise bought Archer a moment – she carved at the man’s wrist, and though he darted away with viperous quickness he had to leave Adanna behind.
Indrani had blood on her blade, now, and she fully intended to get more. Did the Monk think he’d been the only one to study the weaknesses of the Named in her band?
“Listen close, Artificer,” Indrani said. “I have a plan to kill the bastard.”
“So how’s that one working out for you?” the leader of the Woe smilingly asked.
The Wandering Bard sighed, which was answer enough.
“All of Ranger’s pupils are absurdly hard to kill,” she complained. “She stayed out of that sort of thing until recently, you know, it’s your bloody teacher who gave her the taste for it. Among other things.”
The leer there was painted on, put there to irritate, but like most barbs of that hand it struck true.
“One can’t account for taste, I suppose,” Catherine said, wrinkling her nose.
“Gotta agree with you there,” Marguerite said. “She’s a looker, mind you, but everything else?”
“Funny,” the Black Queen mused, “since I consider the two of you to have quite a lot in common.”
“Harsh,” the Wandering Bard replied, appreciative.
The other woman offered a shallow smile, amusement so thin a finger run across it would reveal dislike.
“I’ve been wondering,” Catherine Foundling said. “Now that you’re Alamans-”
“This is going to get uncivil, isn’t it?” the Bard sighed.
“- does that fill with wine more often, or does it stay the same swill?” Catherine Foundling finished, gesturing at the silver flask.
The Intercessor considered the other woman, for a moment.
“The limp,” she replied, “does it come and go the way you want it to?”
The other woman did not answer. Instead she reached within her mantle and pulled out a second painted black pawn. She set it down next to the first, the ring it gave as it hit the wood echoed of the word mistake.
“Two,” the Queen of Lost and Found stated.
“Feigning a deeper game will not get you out of this,” the Wandering Bard said.
The Callowan queen hummed under her breath, knowing that now the ugliness was to come, and the Intercessor eyed the pawns with cold eyes.
“We are not yet done,” the Bard said, and set down a card.
It fell over the Severance’s affray, over the Emperor, and obscured the card beneath it. It depicted a tall and well-formed person, with chains around their neck going to the border of the card. Two details gave away the truth: claws at the end of fingers and red eyes. The Devil.
“Violence,” the Wandering Bard said. “Violence bringing about the inexorable.”
Adjutant’s jaw tightened as he grasped that he had been just a little too late.
The soldiers the fae had enchanted had forced open the doors of the room using their blades and that was the beginning of the end. The steel doors had only been pried open a crack, but it would be enough: already his attempts to draw them shut were failing, the implacable strength of a great noble of the fae pulling against him. Now that the enemy had a way to cross the wards it came down to strength, and their strength had waned. The Vagrant Spear had been bloodied and could barely stand, much less fight, while the Mirror Knight had lost his blade saving the heroine and now had a look in his eyes – like a horse that’d smelled blood, fear and fervour all mixed up together. Hakram pulled at the doors again, but against the massive strength on the other side he failed: they pulled further open.
Snatching up the axe and shield he’d thrown to the side to struggle, he retreated just before a cloud of rot and decay hissed through the opening.
The fae began to hammer at the steel, shaking the doors and forcing them open inch by inch. Behind Adjutant, the Mirror Knight had retreated across the holy water through a path that’d risen up and was now carrying Sidonia into the stone cube where the sword was kept. Hakram followed, forcing down the throbbing pain in his leg where a spear had torn flesh, and was nearly across when the doors broke and the tide of fae poured in. A spear flew at him, and the orc’s fangs clicked together in dismay – he would not be fast enough. Yet a hand jutted out from behind the wards of the cube, grabbing him by the arm and forcefully dragging him to safety. The Mirror Knight released him as the spear shattered on the wards, the way they shivered a warning that they would not hold forever.
“Thank you,” Hakram said, and meant it.
The spear would not have killed him, but such a wound might well have been permanent. Some things neither sorcery nor Light could heal.
“Think nothing of it,” the Mirror Knight said, eyes on the roiling fae outside.
The Prince of Falling Leaves was gathering them into an array of war, readying to batter at the wards keeping them from their prize. The Severance, sleeping in the pool of water in the back of the room. The surface of the water ever shivered, as if some wind that did not exist was caressing it. Both of them found their steps drifting closer to it.
“We will have to wait for reinforcements,” Adjutant admitted. “We cannot fight them off alone.”
“If we do,” the Mirror Knight quietly said, “Sidonia will die.”
“I can speak for myself,” the Vagrant Spear wetly coughed, from where she lay propped up against the wall. “It will be an honourable death, Christophe. One worthy of being added to the rolls. Hold until the others come.”
“Will they come?” the Mirror Knight softly asked. “Who is it that would relieve us, Sidonia?”
He shook his head, eyes hardening, and he took the last step up to the edge of the pond.
“No,” the Proceran said. “We stand alone.”
That growing iron in the man’s eyes was a dangerous thing, the orc thought. It must be averted before it grew tempered, for it reeked of desperate decisions. How? His eyes found Sidonia, her breathing broken by a wet cough. A punctured lung, the orc judged. Yet even wounded and prone, she remained the key to salvaging this.
“Archer will be coming,” the Adjutant said. “The other war party was a lesser one, it will have been wiped out by now. She must be headed our way already.”
“See?” Sidonia rasped. “The Lady will see to it. She might even be dragging the Physician along by the ear.”
The second part had been tacked on with more effort than skill, but for all that the Mirror Knight hesitated. Adjutant breathed out. If it came to a fight, the hero would win. That much was set in stone. But it would not come to that, and he could still prevent some foolish decision from –
The Black Queen paled, knuckles turning white from the strength of her grip. She rapped them against the last card placed down, the Devil.
“I concede the affray,” Catherine said.
Without waiting for an answer she leaned forward and her fingers grasped the edge of the Emperor, trying to extract him from the pile.
“That’s not how it goes,” the Intercessor gently said. “You’re playing the game, right now, but you’re not playing the Game.”
The old thing with a young face offered a half-hearted smile.
“He’s not going to leave, Catherine,” she said. “That’s not the kind of man you made him into.”
“Take the card, if you want,” the Intercessor said. “It doesn’t mean anything. But as a last piece of advice-”
Even as the Black Queen, lips thinned, began to remove her card the Wandering Bard set down one of her own. Catherine’s hand ceased, as she tried to look at the fresh card and found she could not.
“It’s a damned scary trick,” the Bard said. “For a damned scary woman. Think back, Catherine – how many cards are there, in the Major Arcana?”
Twenty-one, the Black Queen almost said, but she held her tongue. Now that her eyed had been drawn to the oddness she could feel out the shape of it, if not fill the void. It was as if what had lain there was now absent.
“The Moon,” the Wandering Bard said. “The Maddened Keeper: the seal on darkness, who partakes of its powers. You did not remember her, or her card, because Creation finds her to be absent.”
“Demon,” the Black Queen said. “I remember her being added to the rolls, some months ago, but nothing more recent.”
Her fingers clenched.
“How many does she hold, Bard?” Catherine Foundling asked.
“Seven and one,” the Wandering Bard said.
Fingers clenched even tighter.
“I warned you,” the Intercessor said. “Love always fucks you. You can’t be… this and love them all the while, Catherine. It will hollow you out from the inside.”
Catherine Foundling took the card, her mouth tasting of ashes.
“-might even be dragging the Physician along by the ear,” Sidonia assured him.
Even she did not sound entirely like she believed it, but Christophe could see the sense in what she and the Adjutant had said. He could not find it in himself to wait long, but to not even attempt to put his faith in his comrades would be almost as grievous as sin. The fae hammered at the wards, the cube shaking around them, but these were not the works of middling wizards. They would hold for some time yet.
“We should prepare for the assault of the fae,” the Mirror Knight said. “There is only one entrance, so-”
Before he could finish speaking, as if to mock him, a creature appeared. A strange woman, with long unkempt hair and a sickly mien. She was standing behind the Adjutant, and without a word she reached out towards the orc.
“Adjutant,” Christophe screamed, and he would have done more but he had no sword, “behind-”
The woman’s hands touched the orc’s side and his flesh boiled, from the arm all down to his foot, as the reek of demonic corruption spread through the room. The Mirror Knight’s hand plunged into the waters, seizing the sheathed blade within even as some eldritch force tore at his armour until only the bare skin of his hand was left – itself stronger than steel, from all the dawns it had seen. Sidonia threw her spear, and the enemy moved back even as the Adjutant dropped with a blood-curling scream, but the Vagrant Spear’s aim had suffered from the wounding.
Christophe’s did not.
The Severance came clear of the scabbard with a faint scream, as if it were cutting the very air, and in three steps the Mirror Knight was before the villainess who had struck at his orc companion. She raised her hand to protect herself, unarmed for all her monstrous power, and offered a faint smile even as Christophe swung and cut through both the arm and the head behind it with barely any resistance.
“Disappear,” the Mirror Knight snarled, as she dropped lifeless to the ground.
But there was no time to waste, he knew. Hakram Deadhand lay on the ground, twisted in pain as corruption began to spread through his body. If the Mirror Knight did not act, the orc would be dead – or much, much worse.
“Gods forgive me,” Christophe prayed, and like a butcher he hacked.
The arm, the leg, most of the side – he cut before the demonic taint could spread, and left his ally broken and bleeding. Unconscious. But it was done, he thought. Now there were only the fae left and –
“Christophe,” Sidonia screamed, “the corpse!’”
The stranger’s remains convulsed, once, twice, and a heartbeat later the Hells broke loose.
The first thing to go was the wards, and it was all downhill from there.
Silence reigned for a long moment. The Black Queen, gripping the card close, set down the Emperor above the sole affray she’d opened.
“Ah,” the Wandering Bard murmured, “so that’s where the Concocter went. If you’re lucky, she’ll be able to save your Adjutant, true. Or at least keep him alive.”
“The Mirror Knight is many things, but a poor fighter is not one of them,” the Black Queen said, voice tight. “He’ll slaughter her a way through the thick of it, come what may.”
She cleared away the affray she had already conceded, her every movement speaking to barely controlled rage.
“One to one,” the Wandering Bard said. “Let’s hasten this along, shall we?”
One affray had still lain untouched, the one she had never explained, and with a hum the Intercessor took out the Tower once more and placed it above that very affray, obscuring the Empress. The Black Queen’s eyes narrowed.
“You are trying to drown my first victory,” she said.
“I am succeeding,” the Wandering Bard corrected. “The Empress was from the beginning our old friend Cordelia Hasenbach, who is still headed this way. There are many ways to skin a cat, Catherine, and I know every last one of them.”
The illusion broke and Frederic Goethal smiled at the wave of exclamations from the soldiers, who saw the truth of his offered surrender laid bare by the sword at his feet. He turned to offer the Repentant Magister a bow but found that her eyes were widening.
He turned to find the Red Axe with his sword in hand, just as the blade hacked into the side of his neck.
The Black Queen’s eyes strayed to the last remaining of the initial affrays, where Temperance still led the dance. The Intercessor caught her out and her lips quirked.
“Worried about Archer?” the Wandering Bard said. “Have a little faith.”
“Funny thing about the Magician,” the Black Queen said. “I happen to have one as well.”
She dropped it atop Temperance, cocking an eyebrow.
“Must have been a mistake of some sort,” Catherine Foundling said. “I would never accuse you of cheating.”
“Quite right,” the Wandering Bard grinned, stuffing cards back into her sleeves.
Archer put her useless side in the way, letting the knife blow through so that she might get a good strike in for her trouble. The blade tore through her coat but slid against the mail, the Fallen Monk trying to tackle her down but letting out a grunt when she stabbed him in the shoulder twice. He was strong, though, and heavy. If it kept up he’d be able to force her down, and then she’d be in trouble – save if Adanna… and there she was. The Blessed Artificer threw herself at the Fallen Monk’s legs, trying to snare them with her arms and refusing to give even when the man kicked her and her spectacles gave with a crack. Indrani took the opportunity to push him down, toppling atop of him as he fell and stabbing away still. That cursed fat, it made hard to get at the parts that actually mattered. Half a dozen bleeding wounds, not a single one that would kill a Named.
The three of them were in a messy, writhing pile of violence but another kick finally pushed Adanna away, sending her rolling as she groaned in pain, and though Indrani got in a good knifing through the Monk’s armpit the man still struck her across the face with his full strength. Archer felt her nose break and she rolled away, just in time to see the Fallen Monk crawl to his feet. She dropped her knife, snatching his ankle through the robe, and with her own full strength squeezed. Bone broke and the man screamed, but he tore out of her grasp and winked out of sight. Fuck, Indrani thought. That’d been their shot, and it wouldn’t work twice. The Monk was in a bad place, but so were they and she couldn’t use her bow one-handed.
Indrani, wondering if she was going mad, found that her body was softly glowing. So was Adanna’s, who was moaning as she tried to get up with trembling knees. So was the silhouette of an overweight man, glowing where there would otherwise seemingly be only air.
“Roland, you clever little artefact princess you,” Archer praised, swallowing a scream as she rose to her feet with her knife in hand.
The Rogue Sorcerer, some wooden casting rod in one hand and a handful of shining rings on the other, was standing his ground as the silhouette of the Fallen Monk rushed him. The rod went up, there was a blasting sound and the Monk was forced back a mere foot. It didn’t matter, because Indrani was moving too and she was fucking done with this one. The man reappeared in his entirety for the blink of an eye as he turned towards her just in time for his mouth to open in surprise as her extended arm slid the longknife just under his chin and all the way through this throat. He gurgled wetly, for a moment, and with a pained scream Archer turned her wrist and ripped her way out in a spray of blood.
“There,” Indrani panted. “Try to walk that off, Monk.”
She then slumped to her knees, eyes closing.
“If I might offer healing, Archer?” the Rogue Sorcerer gently asked.
“Why are you here, Roland?” Indrani asked. “You should be headed for the Severance with Cocky.”
“I began to head there at first,” the man agreed, “but halfway there realized that no one had stabilized the wards. It would be a shame to all die in the immediate wake of our victory, yes?”
“Zeze should be fixing them,” Archer said. “It’s probably already done.”
“I checked moments ago,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “No work has been done.”
Indrani went still. Where, then was Masego?
The Wandering Bard’s head wrenched from faraway, returning to the small room she was sharing with her foe. Catherine Foundling offered her a hard smile and slowly, surely placed a third black pawn on the table.
“Three,” the Queen of Lost and Found state. “Now it ends.”
“Some affrays have yet to end,” the Wandering Bard said. “You are-”
“I have no interest in your game,” Catherine said.
Disdainful, she slapped the table’s surface and the piles of cards blended in chaos.
“Your first mistake,” Catherine said, knocking down a pawn with a flicked finger, “was believing you understand what it means to be part of a band of five. You don’t. Like Ranger, you drift in and out of stories and bands without ever really being part of them. It’s temporary to you, not something you give yourself over to. I’ll wager you never had a moment like I did at the Battle of Dormer, when the Woe blended together and became part of a greater whole.”
“If you want the right to lecture me,” the Bard mockingly echoed, “w-”
“Your second mistake,” Catherine said, knocking down a pawn with a flicked finger, “was telling me what you wanted. The song I already knew had stuck too much in my head to be a coincidence, but then you told me the exact nature of you what you were after by drawing the comparison between us. The Doddering Sage warned me: rival, thief, successor. You’ve been trying to make my Name into one shaped by opposition to you.”
“And why would I ever want that?” the Intercessor said, tone calm.
“Because if it’s that, it’s not something else,” Catherine smiled. “Whatever it is growing into, slowly but surely. And that is a balm onto my heart, Intercessor, because for you to intervene means that outside the walls of this place we are winning.”
“You very much want that to be true, don’t you?” the Wandering Bard said. “But-”
“Your third mistake,” Catherine said, knocking down the last pawn with a flicked finger, “was never asking the right question until it was too late. Until I’d earned my way to this, one pawn at a time.”
“And what would that be?” the Intercessor asked.
“Why haven’t you been using the Night since you came in?” Catherine Foundling smiled, all teeth and malice.
The Wandering Bard went still.
“Hierophant,” she said.
The Black Queen threw the card going by the same name on the table, contemptuous.
“There,” she said. “And choke on it. We have what we need, Masego.”
The darkness in the back of the room peeled away, its control long wrested away from the Black Queen, and revealed a tall man with blind and burning eyes.
“Finally,” the Hierophant said. “My preparations are finished.”
“Odds?” the Black Queen asked.
“Half and half, I’d say,” the vivisector of miracles said. “And that is without considering your end of things.”
“Quite the trick,” the Intercessor admitted. “But it means nothing.”
“I thought so too, at first,” the Black Queen said. “But then, you’re not the goddess of stories are you? You don’t have a mantle, just a duty. In the end, you are still Named. The oldest and trickiest of our kind, but that does not change the nature of what you are.”
“This is getting tedious,” the Wandering Bard said, and blinked her eyes.
Silence was broken only by the sound of Catherine Foundling smiling a blackguard’s smile.
“Your tricks can be learned,” the Black Queen said. “They can be blocked. And you’re in our little corner of the Pattern now.”
“You’ve won nothing,” the Wandering Bard said, tone arctic. “The affrays-”
“You were playing a game,” Catherine Foundling chided, “while I was playing the Game. You bled us, but I have three mistakes now. We earned this, through that victory and the weight of what you did to us.”
The Black Queen rose to her feet, leaning forward over the table as the Wandering Bard leaned back.
“Eyes open, Hierophant,” the Carrion Lord’s daughter said. “If she still has a miracle up her sleeve, be ready to kill it next time.”
Her wrist flicked, a knife falling into her palm, and ever as the Intercessor opened her mouth to speak Catherine Foundling slit her throat. Marguerite of Baillons twitched, clutching her wound, and cards went flying from her sleeves as two of the Woe coldly watched. It was only Catherine that thought, for a moment, that there had been a strange glint in the Intercessor’s eyes. Relieved, triumphant, afraid?
Eventually, the body ceased moving.
“So?” the Black Queen asked.
“I could not catch the soul,” the Hierophant said, “but even when in danger she cannot leave my bindings. It is possible she is dead and has gone Beyond.”
Catherine Foundling looked at the corpse for a long time, clenching her fingers and unclenching them.
“No,” she decided, “this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her.”
She dragged herself up, tired but knowing there was still chaos to put to order.
“We’ve got work to do, Masego,” the Black Queen said. “Let’s get to it.”
Neither of them looked back, as they left, and so neither saw that by the sheerest of coincidence the struggle had left untouched one of the affrays – the Empress, the Tower – save for one card that’d fallen from the Bard’s sleeve in her death throes.
Judgement lay with the Tower between it and the Empress, speckled with blood.
She breathed out and opened her eyes, a starry sky sprawled above her.
In and out, slowly. Unmistakably. She was still alive, though no longer Marguerite de Baillons. The Wandering Bard, the Keeper of Stories, closed her eyes and repressed the urge to scream until her voice went hoarse.
“I did it all right,” she said. “And still? Still?”
Her nails dug into her palms until they bled.
“Fine,” she whispered. “Fine. The hard way it is, then, and on your heads be it.”