“Faith is not an act of surrender but of conquest, for doubt lies within us all.”Daphne of the Homilies, best known for ending hereditary rule in Atalante
Arranging it had been simple, in a sense. Just a matter of timing, of sensing what people would want and how they went about getting it. When you had that, as I’d once been told it was all just… objects in motion. And it’d had to be that, because more direct manipulation would have been sniffed out in a heartbeat by the people involved. That was the trouble with trying to beat people at a game they were better at than you. I wanted answers, though, and I wanted them in a way that wouldn’t scar what I wanted achieved. And so here I was, in the darkened warehouse standing before an open crate and holding an artefact in my hands.
It didn’t look like much, for such a dangerous thing.
A Callowan knight’s lance was usually around nine feet in length but the kataphraktoi used longer ones, closer to twelve. The unraveller I held in my hands was shorter than either, perhaps a little over six feet in height, and lighter as well. It was easy enough to see why, as unlike a lance of hardened wood the unravellers were partly hollow: at the heart of them was a tunnel that went from the top to the bottom, with a thin wire of cold iron hung up. The outside of unraveller was touched with coin-like patches of metal, mostly bronze and brass, which themselves were connected to thin metal wires within the wooden shell.
The most expensive part was the sculpted amethyst ring at the bottom of the lance-like artefact, like a pommel to the wooden handle, which even at rest hummed with magic. The rest was runic carvings in the wood to stabilized the product, and a steel tip at the end of the unraveller that was very carefully linked with the central cold iron wire without compromising the artefact’s ability to, well, be used as a weapon. It needed to bite into bone or flesh before it disrupted the sorcery, which was unfortunate but couldn’t feasibly be fixed.
It wasn’t that we weren’t capable of it, just that the materials required would multiply the cost of production by at least ten. We’d not be able to fill entire crates with unravellers, which would defeat the entire purpose of that artefact’s existence: having an answer to necromantic constructs that we could mass-produce.
In the lamplight of the supply warehouse I studied the artefact closely, testing the weight and the way the grip handled. Archer would need to tinker with hers before she found a way to fire them by her bow, and likely the Silver Huntress as well – whose own silver recurve was shorter than Archer’s absurdly large longbow, but only in the sense that it was the size of an actual longbow. I’d need to have half a crate set aside for them to tinker with, and maybe lend them Roland when they got to it: the Rogue Sorcerer was only a passable enchanter, but even Masego praised his artefact-handling.
“I don’t get the cold iron wire,” I admitted out loud. “I’ve done the readings you suggested, I get why the patches are there and at different metal purities: it pulls at the spell structure in different ways, makes it unsteady. But cold iron isn’t supposed to be conducive to magic so why put it at the centre?”
The stuff hurt fae, because having it worked without the heat of a forge meant it didn’t lose properties through the transmutation affect – which I’d been chuffed to learn even Praesi recognized had been discovered by a Callowan wizardess, Blaine Caen! – so it was still ‘of Creation’ in a way that forged or wrought iron just wouldn’t be. But all I’d read about the stuff said it was kind of standoffish to magic, which was why people used it to make boundaries in rituals so often.
“Because the Hierophant is a singularly brilliant mage,” Akua said, frank with her praise.
She’d chosen to stand at the edge of the lamplight and the shadows, where the play of light and dark on her form was almost like a veil thrown over her clothes. Tonight she’d chosen a simple sleeveless, neckless silver dress in a wavelike pattern interrupted by slightly more ornate stripes – all of it covering a base of dark cloth. A thick silver choker and a hat of silvery tinsel stripes ending in dark gauzy veil completed the ensemble, making for a striking sight. It was one of her finer picks since I’d known her, and by the occasional smirk she’d clearly noticed my appreciation.
“I’m aware Zeze is a genius,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “If I could get an actual explanation, though?”
“Cold iron is resistant to magic, not repellant,” Akua said. “And it is an unnaturally stable material, in the sense that it will take to all forms of power by the exact same proportion – Cosmas’ Constant. In this case the wire serves two purposes. First it stabilizes the magic coming from varying metal purities as it is sucked into the amethyst ring, which is why the unraveller does not simply explode in a shower of shards when it is used. Secondly, it actually enhances the destabilizing effect on a necromantic construct: the iron wire’s resistance to magic means more of the construct’s invested magic is sucked in without it ever reaching the amethysts, and some of the runes carves ensure that ‘wasted’ magic does not turn to heat.”
Akua paused pushing herself off the wall and more fully into the light.
“It is an inspired solution,” the woman who’d once been the Diabolist admiringly said. “And not one I would have considered in his place. I’ve always sought the elimination of waste in artefacts and rituals, it would not have occurred to me to actively pursue it instead.”
“Masego has his moments,” I agreed.
I set down the unraveller atop the open crate, over the eleven remaining ones cradled in cloth and straw. The real breakthrough had been the amethyst ring though, or so Roland had implied, and that’d been a contribution of the Blessed Artificer. It was a relatively cheap precious stone, in Procer, which was why some Ashuran ship mages liked to buy them in bulk in Valencis and enchant them to hold winds. The ring structure was even an invention of her own, though it’d had to be slightly reworked since it was being used to anchor an enchantment instead of Light. While I might not get along particularly well with Adanna of Smyrna, I was not complaining that she’d ended up as one of the heroes assigned to my army.
“The Dead King will know we have these,” I finally said, “or at least suspect. We’ve done enough field tests he can’t have missed it.”
It was hard to notice something the size of a beorn or a tusk get struck with a lance and then… collapse, barely a heartbeat later as the necromancy animating it shattered like glass. We’d been afraid that the Dead King’s necromancers would be able to raise them right back up, but we were pretty sure by now they couldn’t. The Arsenal specialists believed it might take as much as months of rituals to raise those creatures, imbuing the different parts with different spells as they were being assembled. It just wasn’t something that could be done in the field and on the fly, not even with massed mages.
“You were careful to use the prototypes only sparingly,” Akua pointed out. “Hiding we have these was always a fool’s errand, but we can still take him by surprise with the sheer amount that can be fielded. He will be expecting these to be Named-work, not a pattern that trained mages and artisans can make on their own.”
Named were still arguably the source of the labour, since they’d been the one to train these mages and artisans when it came to making these, but her point stood. By now almost a full third of the Arsenal was dedicating its time to producing stockpiles of these to send to the fronts. There’d even been talk of starting workshops in Procer, though I’d balked: the Dead King and Malicia both had spies, and if either got their hands on the plans it’d make it much easier to figure out a countermeasure. I wanted to extend our window of effectiveness with the unravellers as long as possible, especially if it coincided with the offensive for Hainaut.
Ideally, the Gigantes would then raise massive wards on the coasts that’d keep the dead out and we’d have breathing room to make a counter-countermeasure in time for the assault on Keter itself.
“We’ll see,” I finally said.
We’d only caught the Hidden Horror flatfooted a handful of times since we’d unveiled the pharos devices, so while I was hoping to repeat the experience I wasn’t going to be relying on the hope. I cast a last look at the lances, snorting.
“Something amuses, my heart?” Akua asked.
“For all the cleverness that went into these fucking things,” I said, “they still have to be stabbed into the enemy. There’s something almost reassuring about that.”
Even when you put all the brilliance in the world into an artefact, in the end you still had to find some thug to stick it into your foe. At least folk like me would never be entirely out of work. I felt a tug against my little finger, and I knew my patience had finally borne results.I’d traced tripwires of Night around the warehouse entrances – though no more than that, or I’d risk irritating the wards – so I knew it the moment the door opened even without needing to turn. Akua cocked a brow in my direction, her superior senses having caught the sounds without needing any such tricks. It was two people who were joining us by navigating through the darkened maze of crates, it was easy to tell when I pricked my ear.
I hoisted myself up to sit on the edge of the open crate before as they strolled into the lamplight, Akua moving to lean against the side to my left. Covering my bad leg as well as implying she was my left hand all in the same gesture, I noted. Fucking Praesi, I then added, but not without fondness.
“I’ll take it as a courtesy you tripped the wire at all,” I called out.
Especially given who I was addressing.
“You overpraise me,” the Grey Pilgrim drily replied, stepping into the light.
“There is no point in skulking around allies,” the White Knight pointedly told him before following suit.
Tariq had a way of slipping past any and all measures I wove around myself with Night. He couldn’t fool the Crows, at least, but the Peregrine’s habit of turning up unexpected and without warning was not abated by anything else I could call on. He’d not been anywhere this good at it back around the days of the Graveyard, but then if I could learn about heroes they could most certainly learn about me.
“Though I wonder that you saw fit to place such a measure at all, Your Majesty,” Hanno said, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Named are a nosy breed, Lord White,” Akua smiled. “And there are a great many of them in Neustal. As always, it is a pleasure to see you.”
“Lady Sahelian,” the White Knight blandly replied, inclining his head the slightest bit then turning to me. “The Adjutant pointed me here when I sought a conversation with you. Is now an agreeable time?”
Of course it was, I’d picked it.
“If you don’t mind my shadow,” I shrugged.
“Such sweet things you call me,” Akua drolly noted.
“Could you not send her away?”
I turned a steady look on Tariq, who did not look apologetic in the slightest. And though I could have chided him, as it was rude to ask audience and then quibble over the given terms – even more so for two heroes to corner me in the dark and ask me to send away my only nearby ally – I held my tongue. I’d gone to a spot of trouble to arrange a pit fight between two of the finer speakers I knew, so I was in no hurry to spot it. Akua took my half-beat of silence as the open field it was, and took to it without any visible hesitation.
“I assure you, Peregrine, that no disease will come of addressing me directly,” Akua smilingly replied.
I kept my expression blank. The danger with getting answers Akua had always been that she was a better manipulator than me – it meant I couldn’t put my finger on the scale, try to guide an outcome, without her likely noticing it. But Tariq was perfectly capable of matching wits with her, and in his own way Hanno could be said to be even sharper. It’d taken me long to learn the lesson that sometimes doing nothing was the best way to get what you wanted, but I’d gotten there eventually.
“If you’d prefer,” Tariq politely acknowledged, turning to face her. “I distrust you, Akua Sahelian, and do not want you to be part of this conversation. Please leave.”
She hid the surprise skilfully, but I knew her well. A Praesi blind spot, this one: the Pilgrim just wasn’t proud in that way that the Named of the Dread Empire were. On the contrary, in his own way he was humble enough he was perfectly willing to make a request like this without batting an eye. It made a lot of her usual social arsenal effectively useless, since he simply did not care about the hierarchal nuances she was so adept at using. Now came the interesting part, though, how the shade would deal with the challenge. Conflict was always told the tales that smooth faces hid away.
“I recall no reason for there to be distrust between us, Grey Pilgrim,” Akua replied. “And your companion’s silence beg the question of whether your opinion is shared.”
Mhm, I thought. Better than kicking this back to me as the person who could dismissed her – not that I’d expected her to, she’d be well aware that if I’d wanted to intervene I already would have – but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the answer. The first part floated, but the second still smacked too much of trying to turn heroes on each other. But was this old habits dying hard or just social ploy to suss out where the White Knight stood? I couldn’t quite tell yet.
“You are a criminal, Lady Sahelian,” Hanno frankly replied, “but your sins were committed against Callow and you are in the custody of its queen. It is not my place to meddle in this. I would caution you, however, against confusing respect for your warden as tolerance for the most egregious mass-murderer of our age.”
The Sword of Judgement wasn’t one to pull his punches, it had to be said. But there was a reason I’d wanted him as part of this conversation: unlike the Grey Pilgrim, whose own dabbling in horror might have made more wary of bringing up the Doom of Liesse, Hanno absolutely could and would go there. That was a sting I’d wanted Akua to feel so that I might see what it brought out.
“I neither seek nor expect your esteem, Lord White,” Akua said. “But I had hopes for courtesy, at least. Or is it too much to expect of a hero?”
Good, I thought. She’d not countered by going after the bloody records of heroes like the Saint or the Pilgrim, even though it was the easiest and most effective parry. Tariq would answer he’d killed to prevent suffering, the debate would get religious – for lack of a better term – and enter grounds where no one could truly win. It also meant that, deep down, Akua did not think of the Folly as something on equal footing with Tariq seeding innocents with the plague to catch Black. Or, at least, she recognized it was not an argument that could be made and be considered to hold water.
That’d be a lesser prize, but still a prize. A few years back, she wouldn’t have cared that people believed her to be wrong when she was espousing Praesi – more accurately Praesi highborn – philosophies. She would have said the words anyway, and should circumstance prove her right down the line pointed to that as evidence of the Wasteland’s dark but undeniable wisdom. Now she was avoiding that sort of talk even when trying to win the argument by other means. Her definition of winning, of how it could be achieved, had shifted. And not because she was being coerced or fearing punishment.
It’d sunk into her, the act. Maybe no more than the slightest drop, but that was all it took.
“It is unpleasant to talk of butchery,” the White Knight calmly replied, “but it is not impolite. The burden of snuffing out a hundred thousand lives is yours to bear, Lady Sahelian, and your discomfort with the truth of that is of little import to me.”
“You know very little of what you speak of,” Akua quietly replied, “yet display great certainty. There are many sayings on people who behave in such a manner. What do you know of my follies, save what others have told you?”
“I know enough,” Hanno simply said. “And this conversation is waste of time.”
“Is it?” she mused. “The two of you have decided I am to be dismissed, and there is nothing more to be said of the matter?”
She clicked her tongue.
“Though my hands are dripping red, White Knight, and I’ll not deny this or quibble over it, I have dealt fairly and openly with you and yours,” Akua said. “I have no expectation of ever seeing the scales of Liesse settled, but that sin is not yours to ask answer for – so what have I done to you, to deserve this scorning?”
Ah, I thought. And there it was. I’d been right, then, this conversation had been needed. The nudge over the crest of the hill was still required so that she’d finally be able to see the slopes on both sides. Some part of her, perhaps the same that she allowed to enjoy the companions she’d made, still thought that so long as the mountainous horror that’d been the Folly remained far away and she was good and loyal and lovely she could have her warm place in the sun. She spoke the words as I’d said them to her, but it’d not really sunk in that Liesse wasn’t something that could be atoned for.
That even if she saved ten lives for every one she’d taken, she would still be the same woman who’d murdered an entire city.
I couldn’t be the one to lead her there, though. I couldn’t deny it either – it was true, all other considerations aside – but to keep my role I could only agree to this and not be the one that brought it up. Otherwise she’d know there was a deeper game, beyond the one I’d admitted to. The long price that had yet to be paid. I couldn’t be the one to blot out that hazy hope, otherwise she’d ask herself why I would do that. Why, if I was manipulating her, I’d do away with the mirrored oasis that was being genuinely one of us. And I couldn’t have her ask that question, not yet.
I reached within my cloak, the gesture drawing no attention.
“I’ve known a great many monsters,” Tariq pensively said, “but in your own way you are among the most tragic – how you were raised, how you were shaped, it robbed you of the ability to understand what you did even as you did it. But it has begun to dawn, I think. The scale of the evil in something like the Doom, the way it ripples out into the world. How ugly such a thing fundamentally is, so unlike the stories of glory and triumph.”
The thing that made Tariq dangerous, I thought, was that he was being sincere. This wasn’t a veiled insult or a threat or some stratagem: he was genuinely grieved by what he saw in Akua. How accurate what he saw might be remained debatable, but the way the shade’s face went solid for the fraction of a moment – as if she was locking it by will – told me she’d read his sincerity and it’d struck deep. I’d been in her place before, as it happened. There’d been a reason I wanted Tariq here.
“Fair dealings and courtesy change nothing, Akua Sahelian,” the Peregrine said, almost gently. “You killed a city. There is nothing to be done, in the wake of that, that will buy you trust.”
She did not look at me, but I felt her attention shift my way. I forced my face into stolid blankness but just a beat too slowly – not even on purpose, it’d been simple luck.
“I believe you might even care for a few others,” Tariq said. “But there is nothing redeeming in this, my dear. Even the most terrible of us can love.”
“I am not your anything, Peregrine,” Akua replied, tone forcefully cold.
Overcompensation, I decided. She didn’t control her voice anywhere as well now that she was a shade, though she’d gained in other ways.
“Then I withdraw the address,” the old man said. “It is not enough to avoid doing evil, Akua. You have to do good. Even when there is no reward. Especially when there is no reward.”
I almost smiled. There went the last piece I’d been waiting for. Selflessness, the greatest of virtues in someone like the Pilgrim’s eyes – a virtue he clutched most desperately, I expected, considering some of the things he’d done over the year at the behest of the Choir of Mercy. And Tariq had spoken of it just after effectively telling her that the Folly was not something she should ever expect to dig her way out of. And now, I thought as I watched Akua Sahelian, you see the view from atop the hill. One slope goes back down the way you came, into the beliefs of the Truebloods. But the other one feels just as pointless, doesn’t it? Because you know there’ll never be a payoff, a redemption, a settling of accounts.
But she stood atop the hill now and her eyes had been opened to the choice. She knew she’d have to make it, sooner or later.
That’d been what I needed from these two. I’d been… lenient, perhaps. I’d let us get comfortable, too used to tiptoeing around the lines while indulging in the unsaid. It would have been too easy to stay there, if the bleak light of truth hadn’t been shone down on all of this again. But it didn’t feel good. I’d not really grasped, when I first conceived of my revenge, that it would punish me as well. Maybe it was better this way, I decided. A long price should cost you something to, require that you put something of yourself in it. It was too easy to get drunk on the bloodletting otherwise. What I’d wanted from this has been delivered, though, so there was no need to drag this out any longer. I struck a match on the side of the crate, lighting my pipe and pulling at the mouth.
It got their attention, shaking them out of the conversation.
“You wanted to talk,” I told the heroes, blowing out a ring of smoke. “So talk.”
Hanno looked mildly irritated, but spoke up anyway.
“There are two major matters,” the White Knight said. “The first is the missing army of two hundred thousand undead. The Iron Prince mentioned that our oracles were all in agreement that it was not in the capital, but there are ways to fool soothsaying.”
“There are,” I agreed.
I was hardly unaware, given that Black had run a game against the Augur for months by moving his army fast and picking his battles at the last moment. I raised an eyebrow, inviting him to elaborate.
“An army unseen is the blade of fate,” the Pilgrim said. “For those Bestowed by the Heavens most of all, but any Bestowed can try that luck.”
Meaning that force was bound to appear where and when it’d fuck up our plans the most. They’d come to me instead of Prince Klaus with this worry because I’d been Named, and understood the tricks of fate. The Prince of Hannoven would listen to them, he was not fool, but not necessarily believe or understand in the way that I would.
“It was kept in mind when the campaign was planned,” I assured them. “There’s only so many places that army can be, right now, and while I agree it’s probably not guarding the bridge as would be most convenient there are limits to the pull a pattern like this has. I’m not dismissing your concerns, to be clear, but you have to understand him having the wind in his sails won’t work like it would with a living army.”
Confusion on both their faces, which wasn’t unexpected. Both of them were experiences heroes, and familiar with war, but neither had ever commanded troops.
“The d dead will get fewer supply accidents on the move and maybe good weather,” I mused, “but it won’t be a great uplift like it would be with a living army. Undead armies already don’t tire and don’t have to worry about morale, there’s just less for providence to give them. Besides, to be honest the wind’s more in our sails than the Dead King’s.”
I pulled at my pipe, then spat out a mouthful of smoke.
“We might not have a story we can ride,” I elaborated, “but we’ve got a lot of godsdamned heroes to weigh in on our side of the scales. That counts. Believe me when I say that, because unlike everyone else here I’ve fought armies with that many heroes attached before.”
Hanno cleared his throat.
“To be clear,” he said, “you have a contingency?”
“Several,” I replied.
Not the kind of stuff you talked about at a war council, but I did have pieces in place. Hasenbach had been more than willing to indulge my paranoia, considering our common opponent was the Hidden Horror.
“Then I will put my trust in that,” the White Knight said.
Tariq looked less convinced.
“It is a strong story,” he reminded me.
“How’d it work out for you, at the Graveyard?” I pointedly asked him.
Thousands of cavalry from all across Procer, readying for a surprise charge out of Arcadia into my forces, had instead been tossed back into Creation in a murderous tumble of panicked horses and broken bones. It was a good trick, I wasn’t going to argue against that – I’d used it myself against Summer, during Five Armies and One – but it wasn’t as foolproof as he was making it sound. Especially not when the other aside had superior mobility, as we did against the dead.
“It took a third party to make it fail,” the Peregrine said. “There is no third party here, Catherine.”
“I’m not sharing the contingencies,” I bluntly told him. “Lord Yannu was brought in on the relevant ones, as the strategist sent by the Dominion to the Arsenal, but I’m not thinning the secret by further spreading it. If you can’t deal with that, take it up with the appropriate authorities.”
The old hero sighed.
“You are the appropriate authorities,” Tariq reminded me.
“And I’m telling you it’s handled, so don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” I replied with a winning smile.
While no general, the Pilgrim could at least recognize a lost battle when he was fighting one.
“The other matter is the one I would prefer privacy for,” he said.
He didn’t flick a glance at Akua, but I did. She’d been silent, her face like a mask, but those golden eyes missed little and she’d been listening closely.
“That’s nice,” I commented.
A beat passed and I cocked an eyebrow.
“So, what is it?”
Hanno looked mildly amused as he answered in the other hero’s place.
“We followed the First Prince’s suggestion and it bore the results she predicted,” the White Knight said. “With a hero handling the scrying ritual and myself serving as the interlocutor, the elves finally accepted to talk.”
Unlike when it’d been a hero making the ritual but someone else serving as the diplomat, which got us a beat of connection with the sorcery before it was shattered, or when Hanno had first attempted to make contact through the ritual of Arsenal mages and the elves had simply warded against the ritual. Of course the finicky little pricks wouldn’t bother to answer to any less than the appointed leader of Calernia’s heroes, with his busywork done by another fucking chosen of the Heavens. They might be even worse vultures than the Choir of Endurance, who’d at least not been so godsdamned pretentious about it.
“Let me guess, they’re keeping the Spring crown?” I drily said.
“In essence,” Hanno admitted. “They’ve agreed to make sure their ritual does not destroy the surroundings, or damage the fabric of Creation, but my attempt to discuss alliance against the Dead King were brusquely rebuffed.”
Typical. Well, they’d had a border with the fucker for like a millennium so I supposed I shouldn’t be too surprised.
“The return of the Spellblade’s body was remarked upon,” Hanno then told me. “It was implied that to return the courtesy no claim would be made on the crown of Autumn.”
“All heart, those elves,” I grunted.
Well, at least we weren’t dealing with a war on one more front. That was always worth celebrating.
“Ah, and one lasting thing,” the White Knight said. “They asked if the Ranger is part of the Truce and Terms, and when I informed them she is not warned us against allowing her to sign them. They would take this as an act of war.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. Well, it wasn’t like she’d been going to sign those anyways. They involved too much not-killing-strangers-for-fun for the Lady of the Lake, by my reckoning.
“Duly noted,” I said, opening my eyes.
As expected, news about the crowns – which I’d learned there would be from Masego this morning in a private chat, hours before this lot got it going – had prompted the Pilgrim to want to expel Akua. I’d not been sure as to what the news would be, but in the end that’d not really mattered had it?
“We’re done here, I believe,” I said
Neither saw fit to argue the point, though by the look on the Pilgrim’s face this wasn’t the last I’d be hearing about contingencies. Good luck to him, since he was headed out with the eastern army and they’d be leaving in two days – before my own force set out. I suggested to Akua we return to my tent to take another crack at planning our route, which we’d taken a break from to visit this warehouse in the first place, but she begged off.
“The new wardstones for the Third require adjustment, dearest,” Akua told me. “I will see to that first.”
Lie, I thought. You just want to be alone. I didn’t call her out on it. Why would I? My plan was working.
It brought me no joy, but my plan was working.