“Not quite what I imagine my father meant, when he said I should find a talent that would set me apart from my brothers.”– Basileus Ioannes Trakas of Nicae, the Patricide
“Rocks,” Masego said, wrinkling his nose. “Bogs. More rocks.”
He turned to glance at me, a gesture he rarely bothered with these days.
“Why is it that you want to reconquer these lands again?”
At least the Princess of Hainaut wasn’t there, as I suspected she would have been less than enchanted by Zeze’s stark description of her principality. He wasn’t wrong, mind you. I’d visited the great valley – in reality more like a dozen or so smaller valleys whose boundaries melded into each other’s – before but it’d been closer to the capital, through the west and the heartlands. There was a reason the eastern parts of the great valley were more lightly settled than the rest: they were a damned dreary and inhospitable place. No doubt the Dead King had worsened things by killing everything that crawled or grew in the region, but somehow I doubted there’d been all that much to kill in the first place.
“Strategic reasons,” I replied.
It wasn’t like the fields and mines of Hainaut were going to turn the tide of the fight against Keter, even if we got both in a usable state again. Which we wouldn’t, as I didn’t expect there’d be any people moving back into the highlands aside from soldiers and camp followers after we took back the grounds. It was mostly the advantage of holding the shore against the dead instead of our defensive line in the lowlands that was the attraction, one made even more appealing by the Gigantes offer to set down great wards along the shoreline to keep out the undead.
“You’d think forcing people to live here would lower morale, not improve it,” Masego muttered.
“Says the Wastelander,” I snorted back.
The principality of Hainaut might not be a green garden of luxury, but at least it wasn’t filled with murderous monsters and afflicted with weather that changed on a whim. Hierophant turned to look at me in genuine surprise, as if he could not quite believe what he’d just heard.
“The Wasteland has all the best libraries,” he reminded me.
“People don’t usually live in those, Zeze,” I pointed out.
“I know,” Hierophant sadly replied. “I asked.”
It said a lot about him that I had no trouble believing that. I was just lucky Warlock must have talked him out of asking the Sahelians, back in the day. And he must have, for Masego would have asked on his own and I had absolutely no doubt that Tasia Sahelian would have given Zeze access to the infamous Wolof spell repositories for the cheap, cheap price of marrying her only daughter. My blind friend shifted about, his shining glass eyes turning in their sockets and studying something behind him before returning.
“Company?” I asked.
“The Grey Pilgrim has it-“
There was a soft flash of Light, gone in a heartbeat, and the air filled with the scent of incinerated flesh. Ghoul, probably, if it could still smell like that. Skeletons had their own distinctive stink when burnt.
“- handled,” Masego finished. “Interesting. I do believe he changes the properties he assigns Light nearly at will, Catherine. It’s not unheard of, but that sheer verisimilitude certainlyis.”
“Having angels around for a few decades will let you pick up all sorts of tricks, I imagine,” I shrugged.
The Peregrine’s tread was light, but he wasn’t trying to hide as he made his way up the rocky path to join us. That made it easy to pick on, for people with senses like ours.
“Light is the divine facet of faith,” Tariq Fleetfoot mildly said as he came to stand by our sides. “It has few limits save those that mortal hands impose on it.”
Masego look highly interested.
“So if I obtained fae hands in sufficient amounts-“
“You’d still be missing the faith,” I interrupted, hoping to distract him before he gave offence.
Back when we’d been younger, tripping him over small details had usually been enough to distract him.
“It wouldn’t be hard to insert into a captured fae, Catherine,” Masego chided me. “It’s not fundamentally different from any other kind of delusion.”
I might have made a small tactical mistake there, I mentally conceded. Tariq cleared his throat, but though he did not look amused he didn’t look all that angry either. Masego glanced at him through the dark eyecloth, entirely unabashed.
“Mathematically speaking, the chances of your particular interpretation of the Gods Above being correct of all-“
I cleared my throat. I did it twice as loud, when he kept trying to kindly explain to Tariq that basic applications of mathematics indicated that his entire life was probably a lie.
“How are the preparations going, Hierophant?” I asked.
He cocked his head to the side, burning eyes swivelling about to study the distance.
“Indrani is nearly done installing the columns,” he said. “We’ll be ready to proceed with the Respite ritual in about a quarter hour.”
“I’ll leave you to it then,” I said. “I know you like to make sure the alignments are as precise as possible.”
He smiled happily at me, which even now was enough to make me feel a little guilty.
“I appreciate it,” Masego said, then glanced at the Pilgrim.
He nodded at the man.
“Comparative Numerics, by Marcellus the Elder,” Hierophant suggested. “It’s all quite simple, really, when you consider the-“
“I think I see ‘Drani spinning a pillar about,” I lightly interrupted.
Eyebrows widening in dismay, the man who even without magic to call on remained one of the finest mages in Calernia stomped away to prevent his partner from ‘misaligning the constrictive forces’. His grumbling wafted up to us on the breeze even when he disappeared behind the rocks below.
“Quite a bracing young man,” Tariq evenly said.
“He means no harm,” I said.
“If I believed he did, we would be having a very different conversation,” the Peregrine said. “I’ve no qualms entertaining doubts, Catherine. Indeed, in different circumstances I suspect an evening talking with the Hierophant would make for fascinating conversation.”
He’d not said ‘safe’ or ‘religiously acceptable in any way’, so I’d give him that.
“But,” I said.
“But at the moment, perhaps a reminder that a certain moderation of words is in order would not go amiss,” Tariq gently suggested. “Others of faith might have more of a temper, and I do believe he’s been in three screaming matches with the Blessed Artificer since he arrived.”
“I’ll speak with him,” I sighed. “But you know the Blessed Artificer situation isn’t his fault alone, or entirely driven by either’s character.”
Their Names were clearly nudging them forward there, turning every small irritation into a slight and every disagreement into an argument. The fundamental nature of the Roles behind them were too opposed for there to be any hope of cordiality there: the Hierophant was a vivisector of all things divine, while the Blessed Artificer forged in what the Peregrine himself had called ‘the divine facet of faith’.
“I am aware,” Tariq said. “I have known rivals as well, Catherine, and not forgot the taste of it – and never did the enmity between my Bestowal and another’s run as deep as it does between those two.”
I glanced at him with interest.
“Anyone I’d have heard about?” I asked.
“They died,” the Peregrine serenely said, “long before you were born.”
Yeah, I just bet they did. It was good, now and then, to be reminded that the wrinkly old man in the grey robes had a body count in Named probably rivalling that of the Calamities. I’d yet to see a Revenant manage more than to mildly inconvenience the Grey Pilgrim, and it sure as Hells wasn’t for lack of trying. My gaze drifted downwards, following the curve of the rocky slope. We’d left the Twilight Ways in the driest part of this little mess of bogs, as the ritual would need solid grounding, but the marshlands were spread out in every direction with only a few hills rising from them on occasion in mounds of mud and rock. The bog water was foul-smelling and filthy, but the Concocter had already confirmed it’d not been poisoned or cursed so the worse we’d had to deal with was a few bands of undead.
The entire region seemed to be crawling with them, which boded ill for the Prince of Hannoven’s army. A decisive victory at Juvelun wouldn’t have left this many warbands out and about, so it was starting to look like Keter had bled the Iron Prince raw for that little town. Worse, it would have salvaged large enough a force that Prince Klaus would have to handle it before linking up with my incoming reinforcements. And worse than worse was that we still had little idea of where the Iron Prince’s host was, what kind of a force it was facing and exactly where the missing Luciennerie army would be relative to us, Papenheim or whoever the Hells it was he was scrapping with.
Time was of the essence if I wanted to rescue an army instead of broken remnant. Fortunately, Masego was finally back on the front at my side and he’d provided a solution for our current troubles. He called it a ‘respite’ ritual, though the name was catchy enough I figured he probably wasn’t the one to have come up with it. It was that very ritual that we’d crossed back into Creation to enact, with as light a presence as we dared. Only Named had come, all of them save Adjutant and our two youths.
Most our finest killers were out and about, combing through the mire to make sure that nothing snuck up on us and interrupted the ritual, but we’d clearly draw some enemy attention. Undead were starting to converge, which meant we needed to hurry. Thankfully, we were nearly ready. Roland had already sent word that the secondary arrays were ready – and Masego hadn’t even felt the need to check on his work afterwards, which had nearly seen me gape – and now that Indrani had finished setting up the seventh ring of pillars on our little hill there was not much left to do but the sorcery itself.
Hierophant had come loaded with artefacts that were effectively just receptacles filled with magic he could wrest for that purpose, but just in case I’d assigned the Summoner to stay at his side. We were fencing with rituals against Trismegistus himself, no matter how certain Masego was of his formulas I wanted him to have an additional source of magic at hand. I’d not phrased it to the Summoner that way of course. He was witnessing the Hierophant’s work personally so he could give me his opinion on it later, though of course I’d requested that if something went amok he lend his magic to my court mage to solve the trouble.
It was known in the right circles I’d been Queen of Winter once upon a time, he really should have known better than not to look twice at that phrasing.
“Eastern winds, when will you blow
And return my love to me?
His lack falls like winter snow,
Cruel torment made decree.”
The Rapacious Troubadour did have a lovely voice for an unrepentant monster, even when it was put to use singing horrid noble crap from back home. Archer’s inexplicable fondness for the Lay of Lothian’s Passing, a traditional ballad about the rise and fall of the love of Sir Lothian and his ladylove Eveline, remained a genuine puzzle to me even after years of knowing her. Mind you, it was a common enough personality defect back in Callow as well. The only reason I’d ever sat through the renditions of it at summer fairs had been that there were some pretty nifty fight scenes against Praesi – under Black, singers had prudently changed the word to ‘enemy’ instead – and Baroness Fallon, the scheming noblewoman trying to trick Lothian into marriage.
“You ever notice how it’s always barons and dukes that go bad in stories, but almost never counts?” I mused.
That was unfair, as in my experience most nobles were terrible regardless of their relative position of their rung in the social ladder.
“Baronial titles are at the bottom of the Callowan peerage, I believe,” Tariq said, “while ducal ones are beneath only royalty. I expect both of those positions tend to… excite ambition.”
Technically there were knights and lords beneath barons, but I got his point. Neither of those kinds of lesser nobles tended to ever be trouble for anyone aside from the greater nobles they were sworn to.
“I expect the Dukes of Liesse aren’t going to be trouble for my successors at least,” I darkly muttered. “So there’s that.”
Tariq, to my surprise, looked amused for a heartbeat before mastering himself.
“I know you care little for my opinion in this, and rightfully so,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “but your choice of successor is to be commended, Queen Catherine. Vivienne Dartwick will make an exceptional queen.”
I shot him a curious look. Tariq’s reluctance to be in the vicinity of anything even remotely akin to rule meant that he usually kept his piece when it came to this sort of thing – for example, I suspected he would very much prefer Rozala Malanza reign over Procer rather than Cordelia Hasenbach – so I was surprised he’d even admit to having an opinion on the matter of Callowan succession.
“She has the right qualities,” I warily agreed.
“And she will chase your shadow for the rest of her life, scouring her clean of the weaknesses that many crowned heads accrue,” the Pilgrim said. “Unlike many before her, I doubt she will ever cease to strive her utmost to do good: doing so would be a betrayal of not only herself but the trust you extended her.”
My lips thinned and I looked away. It wasn’t that I was unaware that Vivienne and I had a complicated relationship, or that it pulled at us both in ways that were usually to our betterment – if not necessarily through healthy means. To have the darker aspects of that bond dragged out in the light of day by a man who might be an ally but was definitely not a friend was not a pleasant experience. The Grey Pilgrim’s eyes had always seen too much for comfort.
“Lothian strove and mighty slew,
A score wicked enemies
Seven lords he cut in two
And settled great enmities.”
Poor dumb Lothian. When intriguing baronesses trying to get your lands offered to let your repay your family debts by valour on the battlefield, they weren’t actually trying to let you off – they were just baiting you into getting in over your head so they could bail you out and leverage you with a life debt on top of the rest. I’d occasionally wondered over the years if the enduring popularity of the ballad – and play, there were like ten different versions of the story including the one in inexplicable Old Miezan – in Callow was due to the cultural resonance of a martial noble covered in glory out east getting fucked over by a more high-ranking one the moment he returned to the kingdom.
For all that we deservedly complained about the Praesi and the Procerans, my people had always been capable of being terrible to each other without anyone else’s help.
“I fear I have given offence,” the Grey Pilgrim finally spoke into the silence.
“No,” I said. “Only discomfort. And not unearned, in the greater scheme of things.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“I sometimes forget that your Woe love each other,” Tariq admitted. “It is unusual, in a band of villains. Yet these are changing times. I meant my words as a compliment, however short of that they might have fallen. You found a protector for your home, and set her on a path that promises distinction.”
“Then I will endeavour to remember your words as they were meant,” I said.
There, and to think some people said I wasn’t diplomatic. The old man ruefully smiled.
“It is a bad habit,” the Pilgrim admitted.
Thinking the worse of us? It was, and often tiring to deal with, but he was hardly the worst of his kind when it came to that particular sin. That he faced and fought it already made him among the finest of their number when it came to address it, so I would not whine. Besides, I held no illusions about the truth of villainy on Calernia. Though in time it might be sanitized, turned into something worth embracing, at the moment it was the side that counted cannibals and rapists among its ranks. I would not moan about the distrust of villains when I hardly trusted any of them myself. As a woman of refined tastes, I preferred my hypocrisies to be at least somewhat deniable.
“There are worse to have,” I said. “I’ve dabbled in a few myself, Peregrine.”
“The mistaken comparisons to others I have known is certainly one such habit,” the old man said, “but as it happens I meant another. I was leading up to making a request, you see. Yet, as young Indrani once made clear to me, it is not for me to pull and prod at you: straightforward honesty will always fetch better result.”
Huh, I thought, glancing from the corner of my eye. When exactly was it that those two had had that purported conversation? I didn’t mind, but Archer had never mentioned it to me.
“I like to think so,” I finally said, a little taken aback. “I’m listening, Pilgrim, though I make no promises.”
As far as I was concerned, Razin and Aquiline were once more his problem. I’d only agreed to keep an eye on them as a temporary favour, not to forever be their guardian devil. They were way too much of a headache for me to be inclined to renew that promise anyway.
“I would request that you keep your distance from the White Knight, when our armies are joined,” Tariq said.
I frowned. This again? I’d thought that the old snickering rumours about Hanno and I being more than simply friendly were dead and buried. Hells, we weren’t even friendly anymore.
“I’ve told you before that-“
“And I believe you,” the Grey Pilgrim calmly interrupted. “This is unrelated, Catherine. Before I left the army, I glimpsed in the Sword of Judgement the beginnings of a crisis of faith.”
I fixed the old man with a steady look.
“This not the time for the White Knight to stumble,” I bluntly said.
Even when he disagreed with me, even when we did not get along, his participation to the Truce and Terms alone leant it an amount of legitimacy that we badly needed. I wasn’t going to pretend that one of the first things we hammered into heroes hesitating to sign up was’ the Sword of Judgement is part of this’.
“On that we must disagree,” the Pilgrim frankly said. “This is precisely the right time for the White Knight to stumble.”
I blinked. Right, fucking hero logic. It had all the hallmarks of madness, except for the part where it worked.
“You’re going to have to walk me through that one,” I admitted. “In my experience, when one of yours doubts they either die or lose their Name.”
“We are all tested, sooner or later,” Tariq said. “Often this begins with a loss of potency, brought about by doubt or fear, but should we rise to meet that test we do not simply resume what we were: we rise above it.”
My eyes narrowed. That came uncomfortably close to ‘iron sharpens iron’ in some ways, which made it all the more distressing coming from the eldest living hero on Calernia. Mind you the test as he described it wouldn’t necessarily be another person, which in the central philosophy of the Praesi highborn it always was. To the old guard of the Wasteland, even fighting off an invasion was just a setting for another duel against your rivals.
“I’m not too clear on what it is that Hanno has to doubt,” I frankly said. “He’s been mostly getting his way, except when it’d cost too much to others if he did. He’s an intelligent man and reasonable enough for one of your lot, so he shouldn’t be expecting much more of us wicked sinners.”
“His thoughts are his own, and not mine to divulge,” the Pilgrim said, “yet I will speak to my own. Hanno of Arwad is split between the man he wants to be and the man fate demands he should be.”
That did not sound like a particularly pleasant place to be in. I stayed silent, waiting for Tariq to elaborate, and he did not disappoint.
“He is the Sword of Judgement by choice,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “but he is the White Knight through the workings of fate.”
“There’s not supposed to be a difference between the two,” I pointed out.
“Yet there is,” the old man said. “The Sword of Judgement is growing increasingly unable to stomach the deals the White Knight has been forced to make to ensure that we survive this war. And soon that disparity will come to a head.”
I studied him for a bit, parsing his words. By ‘Sword of Judgement’ I figured he was actually referring to Hanno’s comfortable embrace of his role as the designated hatchetman of the Seraphim. It did tend to be what he defaulted to being when in conflict, I’d noticed, even now that Judgement had grown quiet. What was meant by ‘White Knight’, though, was a little more nebulous to my eye.
“Hanno the man who believes in Judgement,” I tried, “and Hanno the man who is an officer of the Grand Alliance.”
The Pilgrim gently smiled at me.
“The latter is a mortal tie, Catherine,” he said. “It would not bind him. It is, rather, Hanno the man who has sworn his faith to the Seraphim and Hanno the man who leads the heroes of our age.”
“I will not mistrust, said she,
And never shall I despair
Tenderness will set me free,
To lovers the world is fair.”
I mulled that over a while. Tariq was, in essence, telling me that the while Hanno might have been a good fit for the Name of White Knight in certain circumstances they were not the current ones. He fits the Name but not the Role, I tried out. At least not the Role the war has forced on him. He commanded obedience, through charisma and respect, but I could see how an argument could be made that Hanno didn’t particularly want to be in charge of heroes, or really of anything at all. He tended to see leadership as a burden, and only took it up when he perceived it at as his duty to do so. Which, given that this war was vaguely crusade-shaped and he was the White Knight, must have been a lot more often than he was comfortable with.
Throw in the Hierarch silencing the entire Choir of Judgement for what was, as far as I knew, the first time in recorded Calernian history? I could see why Hanno was having some troubles coming to terms with who he was turning into. Which tended to be a costly kind of doubt, for Named.
Our time at the Arsenal looks different seen through those eyes, I thought. What I’d seen as inflexibility and even obstructionism on his part took instead the shape of the White Knight considering the troubles in the Highest Assembly as a Cordelia’s sphere of trouble to deal with and not for him to meddle in, much like the Red Axe had been his sphere of responsibility where we should not have trespassed. That seemed overly simplistic to me, but then I was in a pretty unique situation wasn’t I? I’d accumulated influence until I’d come to sit on every council as both Queen of Callow and representative for the villains. I’d not really seen a difference because to me there really wasn’t.
Frankly, I still thought he was wrong. The moment the Red Axe had tried to kill a Proceran prince of the blood it had become problem that involved more than just heroes whether he liked it or not. But seen from that perspective, both Cordelia and I would have overreached and meddled in his sphere when he’d been scrupulously careful about never touching ours. And I just bet if things had gotten bad after we obeyed those invisible lines and Hasenbach had said she needed his help, he would have given it without hesitation, I ruefully thought. Because he would have been invited to step beyond his sphere, while on the other hand the First Prince and I had simply worked around him to get what we needed.
It was that fucking hero mindset, I silently cursed. He didn’t see something like the rebellious whispers in the Assembly as a real problem, because in his experience if he kept doing the right thing and trouble came then continuing to do the right thing would get him through that as well. Why compromise and dirty his principles, when the moment it all went to shit he could instead make an inspiring speech to the rebels and Creation would bend over backwards for it to work? There were godsdamned good reasons I was still trying to keep Named from being able to be rulers, even if my failure there was all but writ in the stars. There’d been blind spots all around, I finally admitted to myself, and they’d neatly fit into our worst expectations of each other.
Merciless Gods but that felt like something the Intercessor would have arranged. Surely even she couldn’t manipulate us this precisely, though. Right? I clenched my fingers and unclenched them. It was always the necessary degree of paranoia that was difficult to gauge with the Wandering Bard, not whether or not it was necessary at all.
“All right,” I said. “Say I buy that. What does it get the Heavens for their favourite knight to doubt his place in Creation?”
“Times are changing,” Tariq softly said. “And while I have grown distressed by the echo of truth there has been to the words of your once-teacher, I will not shy away from the truth: though it can be said that Good triumphed in the Age of Wonders, in this dawning Age of Order is it Evil that has seized the lead.”
“It doesn’t have to be a competition,” I began, then bit my tongue.
“It does,” I admitted. “It does have to be competition, that’s how we were made. But it doesn’t have to be the kind of wars it’s turned into, Tariq. The ones that shatter cities and break nations. It can be made, if not civil, then at least civilized.”
“I do not know if I believe that,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly replied.
I winced at the blunt admission.
“But I recognize that you believe it,” Tariq Fleetfoot continued. “And in that I can put my trust. The truth is, Catherine, that I am an old man. Set in my ways. And I will try to change them to better ones, so long as there is breath yet left in this carcass, but I have fought Evil for many years and it has taken its toll. I am not certain there would be a place for someone like me, in the world you seek to make.”
The Grey Pilgrim mirthlessly smiled.
“That is, in a sense, the highest compliment I can pay your dream,” the Peregrine said. “But I will not be alone in this, Black Queen. I am not alone in this. Consider Hanno of Arwad, the man as you know him, and tell me that if he had been born two centuries past he would have been the kind of hero we would still raise shrines to.”
“He would have made mincemeat of most Old Tyrants,” I agreed. “Your point?”
“That there are no longer Old Tyrants to fight,” the Grey Pilgrim honestly replied. “And so we must change with the times, or become relics. His struggle is not his alone, Catherine. We must, all of us, reconcile the wild heroics of my youth to what would be allowed in the world to come – as young Hanno must now reconcile the unalloyed purpose the Seraphim taught him and the demands made of a White Knight in a greying world.”
“You think he’s going to set the path,” I slowly said. “Carve the groove others will flow into.”
“I do,” Tariq said. “And so I ask you to leave him to his test, that he might find an answer that is his and his alone.”
Which meant, beyond the all the flowery talk, that he didn’t want me getting my hands anywhere near Hanno while he transitioned into… whatever it was that lay ahead. I doubted it’d be a new Name, but perhaps a second flowering of his current one was not out of the question. I forced myself to step out of my own perspective and consider what was being asked of me. Meddling in Hanno’s ‘test’, if he was really undergoing such a thing, could potentially yield advantages for me. It seemed possible to at least nudge him in a direction that wasn’t adversarial to my own. On the other hand, wasn’t that very kind of meddling something providence was bound to punish me over? Villains that thought they were the cleverest thing since Traitorous tended to end up in some pit or another, one that they’d even dug themselves most of the time.
It’d be damned easy to misstep and become the proverbial devil on Hanno’s shoulder, or worse the enemy he defined himself through. It might come to that anyway, I honestly admitted to myself. We were both prominent Named as well as representatives of a larger amount of Named. Yet so long as the enmity was one of means and ideals rather than, you know, demons and calling down Choirs I could deal with it. And I was honestly inclined to believe that the less I was involved the friendlier the end result would be: I doubted the Heavens would take kindly to my meddling with the tempering of their designated champion. If he was truly that, I reminded myself. I would not take the Grey Pilgrim’s opinions as facts, no matter how wizened and wise the old man was.
“Our duties will still see us working together,” I eventually said.
It was tacitly accepting his request, and neither of us pretended otherwise. Aside from all other considerations, antagonizing the Peregrine over something he believed to be this important would have been a blunder.
“Adjacency,” the Grey Pilgrim replied, “is not intrusion.”
Fair enough. So long as I didn’t actively meddle, he wouldn’t consider it meddling. Pretty fair terms, though admittedly these days Tariq wasn’t in a position to ask much of me that I didn’t want to give.
“I’ll look forward to the ending, then,” I said.
“So will I,” the Peregrine smiled. “I expect that light will burn bright, Black Queen, and come just when the night has grown darkest.”
That old trick again, huh? Kairos had liked to always have a fresh enemy to make, but Tariq had a favoured trick of his own: to keep a journey ongoing and undefined, so that providence might lead it to end at precisely the right time. It’d bit him in the ass at the Graveyard, but the old man was pretty much the patron saint of timely arrivals so I could see how leaning into that groove would have paid off for him over the years. That Hanno’s journey here would be a metaphorical one wouldn’t matter, as far as the Pilgrim was concerned.
Fate, to his kind, was a book writ from ending to start.
It was not an answer I shared. Fate is a tug of war, I’d once heard a madman say, and for all that madness he had not been wrong. By our own hands we would make or break this world, and if either gods or Gods disagreed then let them bite their tongue bloody.
“Let me die then, Lothian said
I choose doom, end in honour
Many seasons my heart bled
As my oath kept me from her.”
The song, beautifully played as it had been, ended abruptly after the last note preceding Sir Lothian’s getting himself killed in battle before he was forced to marry Baroness Fallon. The Rapacious Troubadour, like us, had felt the power gathering. Below us sorcery flared as at last began the ritual we’d been awaiting. Our respite. Chords of magic, thick and burning, began to flow along the trajectory the columns had set as the smell of ozone filled the air and a dim pressure began to mount. The dead god on his throne in Keter had blinded us, here in Hainaut, but his hollow miracles were not beyond us.
Hierophant laughed, exulting as the ritual took, and ripped open an eye in the sky.