“Giving battle is as being made to wed one of two ugly sisters– even if you get the prettier of the bargains to be had, it is still a dreadful affair all around.”
– Princess Clothilde of Arans, the Cautious
It was a subtle thing, but when you were looking for it the change was noticeable. There was now a certain weight to the place that’d not been there before, a resistance to power that’d earlier waned. My steps stuttered and Masego moved halfway towards glancing at me in question, though in truth his eyes of glass were merely staring at me through his own head.
“I think the wards were just restored,” I said.
“Possible,” Hierophant acknowledged. “May I?”
I nodded, suppressing a grimace, and the air shivered with the power of his aspect. The Hierophant used his will to Wrest the Night away from me, as he had earlier when we’d trapped the Intercessor, and I gave token resistance before letting him win. We’d found out if worked better if he got control by winning a conflict, even the resistance was largely ceremonial. I didn’t much enjoy the sensation of having my power stripped from me, or of losing for that matter – I’d never been one to enjoy defeat even when the real victory was in throwing the fight. Masego shaped the Night into small pinpricks, gathering dewlike drops of it with a finesse I could not replicate despite my best efforts, and detonated them one after another. He varied the size of the pinpricks according to some eldritch artihmetic, observing the detonations with care, and only when the last had vanished did he slowly nod.
“Someone has activated the emergency wards,” Hierophant told me. “Repairing the true arrays will take time and mage cabals, but these will be enough to prevent further incursions by extradimensional entities.”
“Will it keep them in?” I asked.
“So long as they do not force one of the designated gates, yes,” Masego said. “Though I do not speak in absolutes, as sufficiently powerful fae can brute force their way through such things and demons usually require wards tailored to them.”
“We might have eight demons on the loose, Zeze,” I cursed. “They need to be contained, and quick.”
The tall mage offered me a reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry about them escaping into Creation,” he said. “In nearly all observed cases, they will first devour the entire pocket dimension before trying to move beyond it.”
“And,” I slowly said, just to confirm, “by ‘pocket dimension’, in this case you mean the Arsenal?”
“Yes,” he smiled, visibly pleased by my understanding.
“The Arsenal, where we and a lot of people and priceless artefacts are?” I continued.
“Yes,” Masego agreed once more. “So do not worry, since if the demons do get into Creation we will be long dead – or at least no longer truly aware, as living vectors of demonic infection.”
The whole reassuring thing was a bit of a work in progress with him, I mused, but at least his heart was in the right place.
“Well, that’s certainly something,” I muttered. “Would you mind releasing the Night?”
“Of course,” Hierophant agreed.
Much as he immediately complied when I asked him that, I thought it telling that he always kept the Night until that very moment. Indrani had told me he’d taken the loss of his magic well, and from what I’d seen of him I’d tended to agree, but no one took that harsh a loss without it leaving some scars. No one liked losing power, especially if you’d been skilled at using it, and there had been few mages more skilled than Masego.
“Let’s go,” I said. “The sooner we get to the Knot the better.”
“I still do not know why we are headed there,” Masego reminded me.
He got walking, though, and I got limping. It’d do.
“The Sinister Physician is there,” I said.
I’d made sure of that, assigning him healing duties at the crossroads of the Arsenal before disappearing.
“He has already seen to your wound,” Hierophant pointed out.
My hand almost went to the still-blood mark on my neck where the Fallen Monk’s knife had sunk into my flesh. That’d been a nasty surprise. I wasn’t a fool, I’d suspected that a traitor was going to come after me, but the metaphysical Night tripwires I’d put up on the stairs after the Poet and the Monk went up hadn’t warned me of the coming backstab at all. I’d lost all hold on Night, maybe because of some aspect of the Monk’s, and it’d poured out of me as a sea of blackflame. It’d gone around the Fallen Monk, though I’d felt him try and fail to seize control of it, but still singed him some just by the heat and killed every fae at the bottom of the Belfry besides. That’d been enough to spook him into fleeing, thank the Crows, because if he’d actually stuck around…
I’d had little to no control over the Night for an uncomfortable amount of time after the blow, and I’d come closer than I liked to admit to simply bleeding out. Even when I’d achieved mastery once more, the best I’d been able to do was prevent the cut veins from killing me by freezing blood flow and limp my way to the closest healer, the Sinister Physician. Roland might have been able to help, but with fae still up there and other potential traitors it would have been a risk – easier to feign my own death, and slide the Monk’s knife into the corpse most closely resembling me I had at hand. I’d figured it would warn Archer when she came to try to find me, and I’d been right: she’d grasped my intentions without a word ever being spoken between us.
“Catherine?” Masego gently said.
I shook my head. My thoughts were drifting, as much from the blood loss as the exhaustion.
“I sent him there as a beacon of sorts,” I told Zeze. “He is a healer, in a known and easily accessible position. Any Named from my indirect conflicts with the Intercessor-”
“These affrays,” Hierophant carefully said, as if trying out the word.
“I was trying to protect things, or people, and she was trying to break them,” I agreed. “But if anyone got seriously hurt and they aren’t dead, they’ll be headed to the Knot and the Sinister Physician – because he’s there and visible and obviously helpful.”
“A beacon to gather people,” Masego frowned, eyes swivelling as he thought. “So by heading there now, we will learn what has happened in your ‘affrays’.”
“I have some idea,” I said. “If the cards were truthful, anyway. But it should get me the information quickly and in depth, yeah. There’s also another use.”
He half-turned towards me but said nothing, the invitation silent.
“There’ll be mages and soldiers there,” I said, “as well as Named. If we’re going to contain the demons and the fae before this gets any worse, we’re going to need all of those.”
I was not looking forward to tangling with demons again. Hopefully Hakram wouldn’t be too gravely wounded from whatever it was the Bard had arranged to hurt him, I thought, fingers clenching. A leg lost, an arm or perhaps an eye? Gods, why was he always the one who ended paying in flesh for our mistakes? The Mirror Knight would have taken up the sword, so if we were lucky he’d cut down parts of the opposition before we got there. If we were unlucky, well… Best be prepared to put down a corrupted Christophe of Pavanie, wielding a sword that’d been made to kill a lesser god. As much as you could ever prepare for something like that, anyway. The grim thoughts stayed with me as we passed through stone hallways nearly indistinguishable from one another, hurrying as much as we could without running outright.
The Knot was a riot of activity when we stumbled in from one of the upper halls, the Sinister Physician having organized what looked like an impressive field infirmary from Arsenal supplies. Half the cots were filled with soldiers, only the most lightly wounded of them kept awake instead of placed under a sleeping spell. Priests and mages were swarming all around but the Sinister Physician himself was seeing to a pair of cots set apart from the rest and from each other. In more ways than one, I thought, since one of the people on the cots was bound by leather straps and had half a tenth of crossbowmen trained on her at all times. That did not bode well. The healers in spell and Light parted for the two of us, offering words I only paid half attention to as we headed towards the Physician and my fear was confirmed.
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.
One of those two wounded was Frederic Goethal, the Prince of Brus. The Kingfisher Prince as well, but it was the other princely title that’d be trouble in the coming days.
“Your Majesty,” the Sinister Physician greeted me. “I am glad to see you in good health.”
“As I am glad to be,” I replied. “Would I be correct in assuming the woman tied down is the Red Axe?”
“She is,” Masego said, before the other villain could.
The Physician eyed Hierophant with mild irritation but nodded.
“Her peculiarities mean initial treatment had to be done by priests, naturally,” the Physician told me. “But I have been continuing the work with alchemies, which she does not seem to affect.”
“How bad?” I asked.
“Prince Frederic will have scarring on the side of his neck, but no more than that,” he replied. “Part of it was the Magister’s stabilizing intervention, but there appears to have been another manner of interference. He was struck with his own sword, which seems to have sorcery laid into the steel that made it reluctant – if not incapable – to kill its own wielder. The blow was deep but avoided the jugular.”
I glanced at Masego, who nodded.
“The Bitter Blacksmith, by which I mean not Helmgard but her brother, would be capable of this,” Hierophant said. “He has the Gift, and skill with it.”
Thank the Gods for him, then. I rather liked the Prince of Brus, and that aside his death would have been a political mess of legendary proportion.
“And the Red Axe?” I asked.
“Hovering at the edge of life and death,” the sallow-skinned man frankly said. “She was shot by twenty-three crossbow bolts, including one that pierced her liver and two that went in her lungs. If another had been half an inch to the side, it would have taken her through the heart and she would have died before getting here.”
My eyes moved to the woman in question, prone in her cot. She didn’t look like much, not that people ever did when they’d lost that much blood. Brown hair, tanned skin, muscled arms. Not tall, either, even prone I could tell as much. A lot of trouble for such a small package. When I tore away my gaze, I found the Sinister Physician was studying me closely.
“Despite my best efforts and those of the priests,” the Sinister Physician mildly said, “it is, of course, possible she will die. These things do happen, Your Majesty.”
It was an offer, however indirectly made.
If I were a better woman, I would have refused it outright. Without hesitation. Instead I considered the notion. If the heroine died bedridden, shot by soldiers, I would not need to have her executed and deal with the outrage from Above’s crowd over the matter. It would also nip in the bud the mess that would come from a Named having tried to murder a ruling prince of Procer, and how that was simply not something Cordelia Hasenbach would be able to let go. It’d be murder, of course. Sure, the Physician would be the one carrying out the deed for me, but the order would have been mine. The weight of this would be on my shoulders. But what was one more life, these days, one more splash of blood on the stone? How many had I killed by my hand or by my words?
I was a little late for scruples, wasn’t it?
If it were found out, though, it’s be a disaster. I’d be breaking the Truce and Terms and given my position in that arrangement the very foundation of them would be rocked. So long as the Sisters were with me, though, I was beyond truthtelling even if the heroes had suspicions. It’s a secret, and the Arsenal is a gathering place of Named. Yet that was not an absolute rule, a certainty. If dark deeds were done cleverly, and cleverly hidden, they could remain secret. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, looking at the Red Axe once more as the silence grew long. I should have felt pity for her, I thought, or perhaps sympathy – she had been forged in pain, like most Named, and it had led a pitiless ancient to make use of her. Yet I did not. All I could see was the consequences of her actions, all the way down to Keter swallowing this continent whole. There was no place for pity in that vision.
Yet I had made rules, hadn’t I? Rules to govern these conflicts between heroes and villains, between Named and laws. The Truce and Terms had been raised in no small part by my hand, and they had been my design since their inception. They were, in the end, the first step towards the Liesse Accords becoming truth instead of remaining ink. If I broke those rules, if I didn’t have faith in them, then who would? Who should? How could I ask anyone to follow them when I broke them at my own leisure whenever I thought it best? One of the Old Tyrants, Terribilis the Second, had once written that you should never make a law you did not intend to enforce – because allowing it to be broken lessened all other laws.
I would be lessening all I had built if I did this. Even if I got away with it.
“It would be best,” I finally said, “if she made it through.”
“I am sure she will, Your Majesty,” the Sinister Physician said, just as mildly as he had offered her death. “I will return to my duties, if you have no further questions.”
“Please do,” I replied.
I watched him walk away, Hierophant standing at my side.
“Did he just offer to murder the Red Axe?” Zeze leaned in to ask, sounding puzzled.
“Quiet,” I murmured, but nodded.
“He could have made it plainer what it was he was saying,” Masego resentfully muttered.
He wasn’t all that troubled at the notion of the killing, or that I’d seriously considered it, but then for all that his family had made him essentially untouchable Hierophant had spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Praes. People killed themselves over theatre seats, there. Politics saw enough red flow to rival rivers. I realized a moment later that I did still have a question for the Physician, though I supposed asking one of the officers would serve just as well. The villain had mentioned that Nephele’s sorcery had kept the Kingfisher Prince alive long enough for him to be brought to a healer whose metaphorical gourd wasn’t running empty, but I’d never actually learned where she went after that.
A slower, more careful look around told me there was less of a force to muster here than I would have liked. Maybe thirty soldiers, from those a few of mine and more from the Dominion. A dozen priests were seeing to the wounded, with half that in mages – most of them Proceran, by the looks of it, so barely passable as war casters – and it wasn’t like I could strip them from the infirmary without endangering those being seen to. The lightly wounded would survive that, but those who’d lost a limb or worse would be at risk. We’ll all be at risk if demons devour this place, I reminded myself, and none of the soldiers here will do much difference if a Duke of Autumn finds this place.
I’d moved on to considering which officer to approach, as the ranking one here seemed to be a Levantine captain but my natural leaning was to rustle up a few Army sergeants and get my people forming up, when the first question I would have asked answered itself. The Repentant Magister emerged from one of the side halls, escorted by a good forty soldiers – two full lines from the Army of Callow – and the Blade of Mercy. Her eyes found mine and I nodded a greeting, watching as she thanked the ranking lieutenant with courtesy and headed straight towards me. Us, I was reminded when Masego shuffled silently at my side.
“She is on the very edge of burning out,” Hierophant told me. “And nearly out of trinkets.”
I nodded in acknowledgement, then pitch my voice low.
“If you wrested her sorcery form her grasp,” I quietly asked, “would she still be at risk of that when you used it?
“I am uncertain,” he admitted after a moment. “The nature of the Night and your own prodigious affinity for it make you a poor subject to use as the base of a theory.”
“You haven’t experimented with the aspect?” I said, genuinely surprised.
He’d been the one who pushed me hardest to experiment with the limits of my mantle, when I’d been Sovereign of Moonless Nights.
“Not in a manner that would physically cripple or kill anyone should I misstep,” Masego chided me. “There is much that can still be studied before only these mysteries remain.”
Fair enough, I mused. The Repentant Magister was upon us, so the conversation ended, and though in other circumstances I would have been less than pleased to see the Blade of Mercy at her heels today I was even glad to see him.
“Your Majesty,” Nephele greeted me, offering a bow. “Lord Hierophant.”
“Nephele,” Masego replied.
“Lady Eliade,” I replied. “Blade of Mercy.”
The boy hesitated but received an almost admonishing glance from the sorceress.
“Queen Catherine,” the hero said, curtly bowing as well.
He did not greet Masego, not that Zeze cared in the slightest. By the fade of the glare behind his eyecloth, he was actually looking elsewhere while pretending to be paying attention.
“I understand I have you to thank for saving the life of the Kingfisher Prince, Lady Eliade,” I said.
“I cannot claim to have saved him, only delayed until salvation came by other hands,” the Repentant Magister replied. “But I receive your sentiment gratefully regardless.”
“It’s true, then,” the Blade of Mercy said. “It was you who sent Prince Frederic to protect the Red Axe.”
He was speaking somewhat rudely, but I could live with a little rudeness. Now was not the time to have a fit over manners.
“The Red Axe was used to sunder the Truce and Terms by a foe that kills through plots, the ancient creature known as the Wandering Bard,” I replied. “I have been trying to warn people of her for years, but there has been… opposition from your side of the fence to having her declared an enemy. We are all paying the price for that dithering today.”
There was no way the Grey Pilgrim would be able to keep fighting my push to have the Bard declared a foreign and hostile entity, one it would be treason to deal with, after the events of the last night and day. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t have him pay a tithe of blood and pride over this, though, or darken the Intercessor’s name as thoroughly as I could with anyone who’d listen.
“Then your reputation was attainted without reason, and I offer apology for it,” the Blade of Mercy stiffly said. “It was believed that you were attempting to use this affair to make the Chosen into your vassals, using the deeds of the Red Axe as a pretext to extend your influence.”
It wasn’t like he’d suddenly come to believe I was a good woman or ally, I thought as I studied him, but rather that he was perfectly willing to believe that there was another Evil out there who had been using the Red Axe for their own nefarious plot. Rubies to piglets he was already thinking of the Bard as villain in his head.
“It takes character to own to a mistake,” I replied, offering a nod and nothing more. “But if I may dispense with idle talk, there is a peril we need to address. I’ve reason to believe that there are demons loose in the Arsenal.”
“Gods be good,” Nephele hoarsely whispered. “Demons, plural?”
I nodded, appreciating her grasp of the gravity of the situation. Not that I’d expected otherwise of her. Coming from Stygia – and from the Magisterium at that, whose ranks boasted the finest diabolists of the Free Cities – she should have a decent idea of how nasty even a single demon could get.
“Where?” the Blade of Mercy sharply said.
“Near the Severity,” I said. “There might be as many as eight.”
“The wards will not contain them forever, even if they were unleashed inside them, which we do not know for certain,” Hierophant warned, having resumed interest in the conversation. “The anchors are on the inside, as the pattern was primarily designed to resist assault from the outside. Eventually they will corrupt or destroy the anchors, and the wards will collapse.”
“We need to contain them before it gets to that,” I bluntly said. “Blade, are you capable of destroying their kind?”
Not all heroes could, I had learned, but the boy used Light and lots of it. The odds were good he was one of those with the ability.
“Yes,” the Blade of Mercy said. “In principle. I have never encountered one before.”
Gods, but I had the strangest headache. Was I forgetting something? No matter.
“Then we will do what we can to set up those kills,” I said. “My priority is containment, so that we can gather numbers and Named to deal with this more safely, but none can be allowed to run wild.”
“You’ll be needing wards for that,” Nephele seriously said. “And while in other circumstances I might be able to provide-”
“You are close to overdrawing,” Hierophant interrupted. “We are aware. I have trained none of the mage around us here, which means none should be capable of the required work, but Catherine –”
“I’ll conscript half so you can borrow their power,” I agreed.
Or at least however many of the six weren’t close to burning out themselves. The priests would have been able to see to most wounds, so it shouldn’t be the case, but mages in an infirmary did a lot more than healing spells – the way so many of the gravely wounded men were spelled to sleep made that plain enough.
“I will choose them myself,” Hierophant said.
“Use my name if you have to,” I shrugged. “Lady Eliade, if you’d accompany him?”
Couldn’t hurt to have a gentler touch along when gathering a few mandated volunteers.
“It would be my pleasure,” the heroine replied with a smile.
Good, then she got my meaning by sending her along. I cast a look at the Blade of Mercy, noticing his hesitant look. He wanted to stick by the Repentant Magister’s side but couldn’t think of a reason why he should. Gods, how old was he? He couldn’t be older than twenty. It was easy to hate the sneer and the accusations, too easy to forget that I was actually looking at a kid.
“With me,” I said. “We’re going to procure a few soldiers.”
The boy jerkily nodded, falling in at my side.
“How old are you, Antoine of Lange?” I asked.
The boy offered me a mulish look.
“Nineteen,” he still said. “There is no need to use my personal name, Blade will suffice.”
A lie, I decided, or at least an exaggeration. He must be younger; it was a rare thing for that lie to be spoken the other way around.
“I was seventeen, the first time I fought a demon,” I quietly said. “I’d fought devils before, and Named of some power, so I figured I knew what I was in for.”
That, at last, got his undivided attention. His eyes were wide and went still.
“The fight itself was a terror,” I said, “like few things before or since, but it was the aftermath that scraped me raw. The demon laid seeds of corruption within some of my soldiers. Brave men and women, who’d done nothing but their duty.”
“What happened to them?” the Blade of Mercy softly asked.
“We killed all those who’d been corrupted,” I said. “As gently as we could, but they were no less dead for it.”
The boy swallowed.
“Why are you telling me this?” Antoine asked.
“The Mirror Knight is your friend, as I heard it,” I said. “So I’m telling you now when you can still prepare yourself. He might be lost, Blade of Mercy. Corruption spares no one, and all it takes is a drop.”
“He is strong,” the boy insisted.
“Then pray they’ve not made something warped of him,” I said. “Else that strength will be turned against us.”
I left him to think on that, limping my way to the two lines that’d been Nephele’s earlier escort. One of regulars I noted, and one that was a mix: on tenth of crossbows, another of heavies. The senior lieutenant was an orc, who introduced himself proudly as I approached.
“Lieutenant Inger, ma’am, it’s an honour.”
Herself, then. My mistake.
“Lieutenant,” I replied, nodding amiably. “I’ve a task for you and your soldiers.”
“I am at your pleasure,” she replied, fangs bared eagerly.
“Before I forget, though,” I said. “Where were you escorting Lady Eliade?”
“She meant to head towards the Chancel, so that the wards might be fixed,” the lieutenant told me. “Yet she sensed them being established again on the way, so we turned back.”
I hummed in approval. A good call by Nephele on both parts: a good use of her expertise and exhausted state, then a decisive cut of her losses when her effort proved unnecessary. From the corner of my eye I saw the Blade of Mercy coming closer, though the boy remained far enough he wasn’t exactly standing with me so much as in my extended vicinity.
“This will be for volunteers only,” I told Lieutenant Inger. “If you’d allow me to address your men?”
“You’ll find no dragging feet among us, Warlord,” the orc assured me. “But to have you address them would be a privilege.”
Masego and the Magister looked nearly done, two mages already following them, so I didn’t have long if I didn’t want to start wasting time in a situation where it was precious. But I owed my soldiers, given what I was about to ask of them, what honesty I could offer. Lieutenant Inger barked out an order and my legionaries fell into ranks crisply, offering hearty salutes as I limped up in front of them. Rows of expectant, eager faces waiting for some stirring speech I could not offer. I’d not do them the insult of cloaking this with the appearance of glory where there was none to be found.
“I’ll be brief,” I told them, “and blunt. Chaos has the run of this place, and it will get worse from here: demons were loosed and we don’t know how many or how contained they are.”
That sobered them right quick, though not as much as it should have. I have won too many unexpected victories, I thought. It was the foundation of my reign, this ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it had grown into a legend I was not always the equal to. There was no clever plan that would keep demons from melting them like wax, no surprising turnabout to reveal at the last moment. I could see in their eyes that they believed there was one, that the Black Queen would come through once more no matter the enemy, and it tasted like ash in my mouth.
“I’ll be heading out with Lord Masego and the two heroes you’ve been escorting, as well as three mages,” I told them. “We mean to contain this madness until sufficient strength can be assembled to destroy it outright.”
In other circumstances I’d settle for a binding and a very deep hole, but if we had the might to outright annihilate a few demons I’d take the opportunity without complain.
“There will be fae and Named, some of them might be corrupted already,” I said. “Not knowing the face and nature of our enemies, there can be no guarantees that our methods will be able to contain them. And so I ask you all to come with us, into the dark”
There was a roar of approval, and blades were smacked against shields, but I raised a hand to quell it. I would take them with me, because they would be useful – needed – but I would not let them pretend this was some sort of glorious adventure.
“I will take only volunteers,” I said, and my hand rose once more to end the clamour of volunteering about to erupt, “but let me be perfectly clear about what I am asking of you. None of you can kill a demon. Swords and arrows cannot do it. What I am asking you is to stand between the mages and the horrors, to buy them the precious time that will make the difference.”
I’d asked silence of them, and silence they gave me.
“Even those of you who survive,” I said, “will likely be lessened in some way. That is the ugly truth of fighting demons, that there cannot ever be a real victory. There is no cowardice in avoiding this fight: I would, if I could.”
I met their gazes, breathing out.
“But I cannot, and so I ask for volunteers,” I simply said.
I could see the fear in them now and I knew I’d put it there. For a moment I wondered if I had been too candid but regretted the thought almost instantly. I could and had spent the lives of my men, those who had sworn oaths to me, but I’d not do it while lying to their faces. There were some who called me a soldier queen, and deep down I knew there was truth to the sobriquet.
If I was queen of anything at all, it was the likes of these soldiers before me.
“You’ll go, won’t you?” Lieutenant Inger asked, gravelly voice cutting sharp across the silence.
“I will,” I said.
“You always go,” the orc said, eyes hard, hands clenched. “And so we follow. I volunteer.”
And so they went, one after the other, even after my every warning.
Forty soldiers, and I was left to wonder at how sometimes pride could feel like grieving.