“Honour is neither reputation nor law. It cannot be borrowed or bought, bent or bargained with, for it comes from a place that is beyond deception. Fidelity to virtue belongs only to yourself and the Gods, and needs no other witness.”– Extract from the book ‘Reflections’ by Farah Isbili, second Holy Seljun of Levant
The roar shook the sky, trembling through the starlit dark and down the bones of all who heard it. Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood, Lord of Malaga, grit his teeth.
“Binders to the bastion,” he shouted over the noise. “That is where the beorns will strike first.”
He met the gazes of the last of the practitioners that had come north with his father, feeling a pang of pain at the absences he saw in their ranks. Razin had never loved the binders, envious of the talent he had been born without, but he’d grown on the same grounds as them. Most he’d known by name, and a few of the younger he’d gone on skirmishes with. Few were left, and fewer with every battle.
“Do not try to destroy them,” he reminded his mages. “Sweep them off the walls as quickly as possible, that is all.”
Destruction was better left to the Lanterns or warriors trained in the use of pitch and flame, Razin and his captains had learned. The binders were weaker in traditional offensive spellcraft than Callowan and Proceran mages, but their blood-bound spirits were able to physically push back Keter’s monsters in ways that other sorcerers could only dream of.
“We will return victorious, lord, or take the short path home,” Ganiya Hundred-Ghost, eldest of the remaining binders, solemnly promised.
Razin sharply nodded.
“Honour to Levant,” he said.
“Honour to the Blood,” Ganiya fervently replied.
They were gone within moments, fleet-footed on the stone as they sped towards the bastion where the first of the enemy dead would reach the top of the walls. Razin’s sworn sword kept close around him, and the Lantern that had taken oath to protect him for the battle as well, as he went to the edge of the eastern rampart and looked over. The dead were coming in waves, he thought, eyes narrowing as the moonlight revealed the abominations of bone scaling sheer cliffs. The skeletons were many but also slow and they would not reach the wall for a long time. It was the monsters scaling the cliff that would draw first blood, the massive bear-like abomination called beorns that were clawing their way up. Inside their bellies they held companies of lesser dead which they vomited before rampaging, and for that reason it was the great bastion to Razin’s north they would target.
They’d want flat grounds and room to spew out their soldiers, to create a beachhead atop the walls. Keter usually preferred taking ground than lives, early in fight, knowing it could afford the losses to get into a superior position before the fighting became heavy. It also meant that Razin Tanja had been entirely aware, even if many of his captains had not been, that the warriors he had sent to guard the bastion were not being rewarded with hours by fires in a place where the wind did not bite too deep. The warriors in the bastion were going to die. Perhaps not all of them, but most. The Lord of Malaga had made his decision with that knowledge in the back of his head, whispering. And of the three captains regularly commanded warriors in the bastion, he had chosen one who was of his great supporters and two who were not. His loyal captain he had sent to obscure his intention, should men think on this later, and now that decision was like ash in his mouth for it was that man who now held the bastion. This, he suspected, would follow him in his dreams for months to come.
It had been easier, back when Razin still believed war to be a glorious thing.
A game of daring and cleverness that the sharp stakes only further gilded. That was the way it was, in the old stories, with the victors returning home covered in loot and honour and the defeated slunk away to lick their wounds until a chance to even the score came. Warriors died but they died in honour, proving their worth, and the deeds done in war made them immortal – perhaps not worthy of the distinction of being added to the Rolls, but kept alive past the end of flesh through stories and songs. Razin had believed in this, he’d begun to realize, much like a man dying of thirst would believe that beyond the hill lay a river. Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood had not a speck of the sorcery that had made his line famous: war had been the only way he was ever going to be able to distinguish himself, make up for the lack he’d been born with.
And so Razin had embraced the ways of blood and steel, devoted himself wholeheartedly. He’d practiced with the blade until his palms bled and bones ached, he’d learned to move captains with words and sung the praises of the honourable ways of the Dominion of Levant. Of their inherent savage virtue, born of stripping away all the pretty lies and false righteousness the nations around Levant coated their own ways in.
Then he’d watched Careful Yannu kill his father in an honour duel, and it was like scales had been ripped off of his eyes.
“My lord,” one of his men quietly said, shaking him out of his thoughts. “We must move. We have stayed in the same place for too long, Revenants might come for your head.”
Razin gave the horrors below one last look, hand resting against the pommel of his sword. They’d be here before too long.
“We will do our part,” the Lord of Malaga murmured. “On my honour.”
The vulture had broken itself forcing its way through the wards that protected the skies above Hainaut, but it had gone through.
Though it was in freefall, the necromantic abomination no longer animated, it had still served the Dead King’s purpose with success: on the creature’s back, Tariq glimpsed the shape of a Revenant huddling close. It had infiltrated the city, and when it reached the ground would no doubt begin to wreak havoc. The Grey Pilgrim watched the vulture drop like a stone for a heartbeat, then lengthened his stride. The Enemy would not have risked one of the Scourges so carelessly, but there were no Revenants that were not dangerous. Even one whose Bestowal had been weak whilst they lived would still be able to cause a great deal of chaos and death, if left unchecked.
Tariq let the pull of chance guide his path through the city, passing by the orderly ranks of Callowan companies heading for the gates and bands of haphazard fantassins being exhorted to move quicker by their officers. Few saw him, for he did not care to be seen. The old man’s face tightened as the Ophanim whispered in his ear, warning him that he would not arrive in time. He’d been close to where the vulture and Revenant were to fall, but not quite close enough. He was two blocks away when the large shape smashed into a house with a thunderous crash, though not so far that he could not discern that the Revenant had nimbly leapt away before the impact. So where had it gone?
“Rooftops, do you think?” he asked his old friends.
The Ophanim murmured their agreement.
“The furtive sort always take to the rooftops,” Tariq complained. “It is unkind. My knees aren’t what they used to be.”
A passage through the Ways would allow him to close the distance, but also reveal his presence – most Revenants could sense the touch of Twilight on Creation. He would have to move the old-fashioned way. Tariq went through the house that had been smashed, using the ruin as a path to the roof, and before long he was on rough tiles and cocking a white eyebrow at his surroundings. He’d found the cloaked silhouette almost instantly, skittering atop another roof as it was, but not only had it yet to notice him it was also… a streak of fire coming from down in the street interrupted his thoughts, and promptly solved the mystery of why the Revenant had been paying closer attention to the streets below than its immediate surroundings.
The Revenant ducked under the flame, proving it had kept exceptional reflexes even in death.
The mage that’d tossed a spell at the cloaked Revenant cursed loudly in High Tyrian, warning the two warriors by her side that they were going to have a fight. Tariq moved silently across rooftops as the Revenant hesitated for a moment then leapt down, moving in a streak of speed. Not so swift that one of the two warriors – boys, he now discerned – did not move between it and the mage with a raised shield, forcing it back with a measured swing of his sword. The other boy darted forward as the Revenant drew back. A straight-edge sword was swung out, but the dead Bestowed revealed a blade of its own in a glimmer of moonlight on metal and caught it.
“Incise,” the Page disdainfully said, adjusting his blow and shattering the Revenant’s sword.
It had not been simple strength, Tariq caught, but instead precision. With the point of his blade, the Page had struck at the weakest point of the sword wielded by the undead and struck it with all his might. An adjustment done in a fraction of a moment, too. Impressive, for one his age. But he was still green. Having moved behind the Revenant, hidden by the shadow of a tall chimney, the Pilgrim watched as the Revenant abandoned the blade and simply slugged the young Proceran in the face with inhuman strength. The Page rocked back, and when a knife flicked out in the Revenant’s other hand came close to getting his throat cut – the Squire, stepped in once more, taking the blow on his shield and forcing back the Revenant.
The Apprentice, with a triumphant cry, landed a spell on the cloaked figure’s side: a streak of blue flame ate up the entire cloak in second, forcing the Revenant to throw it away even as the Squire closed distance and battered him down with strikes of his shield. Though it was a brutal and inelegant method, Tariq noted that it succeeded at putting the Revenant on the ground and keeping it there.
“Come on, Gaetan,” the Squire hissed. “I don’t have anything that can-”
“Incise,” the Page panted out angrily, severing the Revenant’s head.
Sharpness and precision, Tariq decided. That was the nature of the aspect. The Ophanim murmured what their own sight revealed, which had him cocking an eyebrow. ‘Incise’, it seemed, would be significantly stronger when dealing wounds than killing blows. There was a sense of frivolity to it, of defiance. The Page’s nose was bloody, and he would likely get a black eye out of this if he wasn’t healed. The Pilgrim, after a moment, decided not to reveal himself. A black eye was always a good lesson, for a young Bestowed, and he would not rob them of the pleasure of their victory by revealing he’d watched over them as they won it. He had, after all, been entirely unneeded here.
Providence pulled at Tariq’s feet and he slipped away in the dark, feeling a call towards the east. The old man’s lips tightened. That was the wall, he knew, that was held by his countrymen.
The Grey Pilgrim took back to the streets, fleet of foot and clad in dusk.
He turned aside the skeleton’s sword with his buckler, letting it scrabble against the hide-covered wood, and placed his strike: the blade ripped into the bone of the neck, severing the spine after two wild hacks. The skeleton collapsed, necromancy unmade, and Razin Tanja breathed out. He did not have long to rest, as a flicker of movement to the side had him ducking to avoid a well-thrown javelin that bit into the shield of the sworn sword to his right.
“Forward,” the Lord of Malaga shouted, “forward for Levant!”
A roar answered as the last of the dead the beorns had spat out were driven back from the bastion by a tightening shield wall, those that weren’t smashed instead pushed off the edge so that might be broken by the fall. It was a small, petty victory but the warriors had won it and they shouted themselves hoarse afterwards. Razin raised his blade, claiming his own share of the acclaim, but then praised Captain Alezon – who’d held the bastion until reinforcements could arrive, and died holding to that duty. Razin had liked the man, counted him almost as a friend. And he had sent him here to die. Sometimes he wondered if he was truly better than what he wanted to replace, but when he did the searing clarity of that night after the Graveyard came back to him.
How clear it had been, in that moment, that the Blood were no longer what they had been meant to be. How much difference was there really, between the red-handed sons and daughters of the Blood and the rapacious princes their sacred ancestors had risen in rebellion to drive out? With the Procerans gone the blades had not been sheathed. They’d just turned them on each other instead. Like dogs in a too-small kennel, snapping and snarling. It must end, Razin had realized, or they would ruin their homes and the Dominion with it. Yet for all that he had tried to embrace this truth, the practice of it had been… difficult. Dreams were always prettier before they were dragged to the ground, where all the mud of practicalities sullied them.
Razin Tanja had not become Lord of Malaga – the first ever elected away from ancient Tanja grounds, through a trick of procedure – without incurring debts and troubles, which now both had to be settled. There were captains in his service who would not hear of straying from the old ways, of making pacts of peace and ending raids when they returned home, and he could not yet afford to lose their support. His humiliating defeat had Sarcella, even if dealt by the hand of the Black Queen herself, remained a scar on his reputation. And though some here and at home had well received the announcement of his betrothal to Aquiline Osena, others were openly dubious.
Tartessos and Malaga had long fought over wealthy territories laying between them, he had been reminded, what was now to be of them? What of the deaths come of the last wars, must they go forever unavenged? There was no honour in these surrenders, warriors grumbled.
Aquiline had admitted to him in private that some of her captains had been mutinous over the notion as well, in no small part because as long as she had been unwed her hand in marriage had been considered the greatest prize that a captain in the service of the Osena might hope to win. Worse, the most ardent supporters of their union tended to be captains who backed the marriage because it would secure the southern border of the Osena and allow them to send their full might to war against the Ifriqui of Vaccei, their old enemies of the Brigand’s Blood. Sometimes it felt like every step forward they took was followed by two steps back. Yet Razin knew nothing but rain came from throwing curses at the sky, and so he used what he had at hand: the war. It was ugly work, but Razin and Aquiline traded blood for hope.
The captains that would never bend were granted the honour of leading vanguards, men and women more farsighted raised to replace them. With steel and deeds they bound warriors to them, by oaths and debts and the hard companionship of those sharing battle, and inch by inch they had gained ground. Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei would be an enemy so long as she lived, but she was old and her heir Moro amenable to a peace. Careful Yannu loomed tall over them all, undefeated in honour duels, but for all that the older man was accruing honours like speaking for Levant at the Arsenal, he had no allies beyond his own kin. And though they were all wary of the Holy Seljun, beyond Wazim Isbili lay a greater power still. The Peregrine smiled upon their efforts, his approval as the blessing of the pilgrim’s star.
And still it was damned ugly work, trying to move Levant. It cost too much blood, and Razin almost missed the days when the scales had been over his eyes and he’d still believed there had been glory in sending men to die.
“Prepare yourselves,” Razin said. “It will be a long night, and there are many victories yet to claim.”
Already he could see a beorn attacking positions to the south of the bastion, aiming perhaps not to take the wall but instead to spew out its load of soldiers in the city itself, and he could only hope that Aquiline would send the Lanterns there on time. His binders were resting and the priests from Procer had yet to arrive, save for the healers that were already preparing beds for the wounded in the nearby barracks. As for himself, he would stay here until the next batches of pitch arrived at least. Longer than that would be risking – a man in shoddy hide armour, barefoot and armed with a great sword, landed in a roll among the warriors nearest to the edge.
“Good evening,” the Drake grinned.
The Barrow Sword squinted.
“That’s not the Pale Knight,” he finally said.
“Your wisdom is peerless,” the Vagrant Spear solemnly replied.
Ishaq rolled his eyes. Sidonia was not entirely unpleasant, for one of the Blood, but she seemed to believe it her oathsworn duty to needle him at every opportunity.
“It’s just the Drake,” the Berserker said. “We can take him.”
Of that Ishaq was not so certain, but he would not outright disagree. The three of them were strong in close quarters, and not without talents that would allow them to stem the tide of that Scourge’s healing. More than that, the last two members of his band of five had teeth beyond what mere blades could bring to bear.
“Um,” the Harrowed Witch hesitantly said. “Shouldn’t we… do something? He’s killing soldiers.”
The Drake had wasted no time in beginning to cut up anyone that moved around him, it was true. With that greatsword of his he smashed through shields and blades alike, slaughtering with ease even as warriors kept trying to close around him on all sides so he’d not have room to swing the large blade. Useless, when the Scourge was probably capable of shattering a shield with a kick anyway. It was like ants trying to wrestle a lizard.
“We are meant to handle the Axeman,” the Blessed Artificer regretfully said. “If we spend ourselves against another, there will be a gap in the defences.”
“He’s a Scourge,” Sidonia grunted. “Killing him is still a win. We should strike.”
The Berserker nodded in fervent agreement. Sentiment was in favour, Ishaq decided, but should he give the order? Much as he disliked to admit it, he probably couldn’t afford to let the lordling ruling Malaga get himself killed. It would deal a hard blow to the morale of the Tanja warriors, and the Black Queen would have Ishaq’s hide for it. On the other hand, letting Tanja warriors die would win him favour with the Grave Binder – who the Binder’s Blood despised – and even if he intervened there was no guarantee that the young man would honour him for it. Blood only ever felt the need to owe debts to Blood, like honour was a drink only they could partake of. It’d be bad tactics to do nothing, Ishaq finally decided.
“We strike,” the Barrow Sword said. “As was planned.”
He half-expected the Artificer to argue with him, but though she looked displeased she refrained. Perhaps she was sensing her opinion was not share by most. No challenge was offered, though, so Ishaq rose from his crouch and took the lead. Sidonia was quicker on the run, but also a lot more fragile. The ancient armour of bronze around him moved without a sound, smooth as if oiled from enchantments older than he dared to imagine, and the Barrow Sword unsheathed Pinon. The ancient blade hummed, tasting of the death in the air, and without a word Ishaq leapt from the rooftop to the edge of the rampart. From the corner of his eye he saw a warrior thrown in the air, missing an arm as she screamed in pain. The Drake was merciless.
As he began to push his way through the throng of warriors he heard the Spear and the Berserker land behind him, Zoe snarling at the Malagans to get out of her way. Beyond the ring of shields he glimpsed binder-magic at work, creatures of dirt and ash trying to drive back the Scourge, but it was a bad match. The Drake was both strong and difficult to kill, the spirits did little but rip up flesh that healed within a heartbeat and they were failing at pushing him over the edge. Now, though, he was here. Steps measured as he advanced the Barrow Sword breathed deep of the evening air. Ah, opportunity. Was there ever anything that tasted sweeter? A spirit-wyvern was cut in half, the blade that did it biting shallow of the stone beneath them, and the Drake slunk out. Grinning wildly, his hide armour already tatters, the Revenant glance at Ishaq curiously.
“Villain?” he asked.
It must be the beard, Ishaq decided. Surely he did not look that villainous?
“You wound me, friend,” the Barrow Sword smiled, tapping his ancient blade against his heart.
Pinon hummed at the touch, thirsty beast that she was.
“That’s the plan,” the Drake agreed, darting forward.
Ishaq raised his sword, but the speed had been enough that the Revenant might have startled him into an unwise parry if this hadn’t been what he was after in the first place.
“Honour to the Blood,” the Vagrant Spear gleefully howled, smashing into the Drake’s side.
Light roiled and screamed as she severed an arm, but the Revenant only laughed – abandoning is greatsword, he caught his own limb and threw it at her face as a fresh one grew anew. Ishaq, though was not intending to just stay and watch. Sidonia was forced back by a wild swing of the greatsword, retreating smoothly with both hands on her spear, and before the backswing could return Ishaq closed the distance. The Revenant struck at his armour but the ancient bronze mail took it without flinching, and the mistake allowed him to get a good cut of his own in: across the face, through one eye and the mouth. The Drake was unmoved but Ishaq stayed in close, elbowing the wrist trying to get the greatsword around him and hammering forehead to forehead to drive the Revenant back.
Which he did, eyes wild as he put fingers to his already-healing wound.
“That sword’s not Dominion work,” the Drake coldly said.
Pinon sang, devouring the last bits of soul it’d managed to pull away from the Dead King’s bindings.
“There are all sorts of treasures in barrows, if one has the nerve to take them up,” Ishaq smiled.
Not that he would have been able to put his sword down now, even should he wish to.
“Well,” the Drake said, “it’ll make this a little interesting, at least.”
The Malagan warriors had withdraw, wisely, though more likely it was because to their eyes the affair looked closed enough to an honour duel. Those were not interfered with without incurring great shame, and did Ishaq’s entire homeland not just quake at the very shadow of shame? Like hound on a leash, only so enamoured of the prison they sang its praises in song. He glanced at Sidonia, who nodded back, and as one they struck. The Drake howled in laughter, and the dance began anew. The Scourge was fast and strong, nimbler with that monstrous sword than he had any right to be, but they were neither of them unskilled. The Vagrant Spear feigned a low bit only to snake a hit at the throat, forcing the Drake to bat it away, and without batting an eye Ishaq slashed at the undead’s back.
The flesh grew back. The soul did not, and Pinon sang with glee. It liked taking from souls already claimed best, preferring Binds and Revenants to the living.
Ishaq withdrew, though not quite quickly enough for his face to be spared the edge of the returning greatsword. A thick cut across the cheek, dripping blood against the edge of his mouth. He swallow a lick, smiling, and saw fury bloom in the Scourge’s eyes. It did not like losing parts of itself, no matter how small they might be.
“That’ll be enough, children,” the Drake said. “I’m being told to stop playing.”
And behind him, as if summoned, the hulking shape of a beorn climbed over the ledge and looked down at them through a gaping maw, roaring out.
“You have a bear,” the Barrow Sword, conceded. “But we have her.”
He jutted a thumb behind him, where the Berserker was slowly advancing. Her body was jerking wildly, eyes turned bloodshot and hair looking like it’d been shot through with thorns. Muscles grew, and as her face turned monstrous the Berserker hacked out a breath.
“Rage,” she snarled.
The beorn swatted at her, but she caught the paw with the flat of her blade. Both wavered, for a moment, before she smashed the great limb into the floor with a triumphant howl. The Drake looked a little unnerved, and Ishaq frankly couldn’t blame him. Zoe wasn’t particularly able to tell friends from foe in that state and shaking her out of it tended to be… difficult.
“I always get the worst assignment,” the Drake sighed. “Would it kill that prick in his fancy armour to take the vanguard, one of these days?”
“I sympathize,” Ishaq smiled. “Please, friend, allow me to relieve you of your burdens.”
The Barrow Sword moved, and the Vagrant Spear with him.
The dance resumed.
It was a good fight, Sidonia thought as she pricked the Drake’s neck and send Light howling into his body.
Though bones snapped and flesh burned, the Revenant swatted at her and she was forced to withdraw a few steps until the Barrow Sword commanded their foe’s attention. It was a fight worthy of being added to the Rolls, even though Ishaq was one Below’s and so sundered from honour. The Berserker was ripping into the beorn that’d come up over the ledge, now with her bare hands since she had used her sword to nail shut the beast’s maw, which left the two of them room to handle the Drake properly. The abomination was still far from death, but then they had yet to reveal their own killing strokes. The Scourges always had surprises, and so their opponents must have some as well.
They went another round with death, this time Ishaq taking the lead. The Drake was wary of the Barrow Sword’s blade, which though grave-goods and so proscribed seemed particularly suited to slaying Revenants. Ishaq went forward aggressively as Sidonia circled around the back, baiting the Drake into a warning swing, and immediately the Vagrant Spear struck. Three quick steps and extending her body like the spear she wielded, the tip of her steel finding the back of the Revenant’s head – only he danced to the side, sword flicking back to bat away her spear before he caught Ishaq by the edge of his mail even as the Barrow Sword carved into his flank.
“That’s all we’ll get,” the Drake said. “Get on with it.”
With a heave, he threw the Barrow Sword upwards into the sky and turned to Sidonia with a hard grin. Half a heartbeat later a black-feathered arrow sprouted in Ishaq’s throat as he still rose in the air. And as if a veil had been torn down, an undead drake was revealed. Batting its wings half a hundred feet away from the bastion, above the height of the fight. Atop the creature stood a single archer. The Hawk, Sidonia thought, and felt a glimmer of fear. She had no time for more, as the Drake was on her and he was not an opponent she could afford to be distracted against. Still, Zoe must be warned as much as she could be in the throes of her rage.
“The Hawk is here, Berserker,” Sidonia shouted. “Watch-”
An arrow sprouted in the villainess forehead even as she threw the beorn off the wall, staggering her for a moment. Ashen Gods, the Vagrant Spear thought. Mere moments and already two of her band were dead. Only, instead of collapsing the Berserker screamed in utter fury before ripping off one of the crenels and tossing the large stone at the drake.
“Impressive,” the Drake complimented even as he struck.
Sidonia let the worries sink away into nothing. She would not survive this, if she let the world command her attention. Eyes on the enemy’s blade, she nimbly withdrew two steps and smiled. Yes, this was better. Her and the foe, nothing else. If death came through arrow, let it. She would end her life in honour. Breathing out, she circled again as the Revenant studied her. He feigned with a brusque step forward but she did not bite, choosing her angle. Right behind the shoulder there was a point where the Scourge could not even parry, the arm simply did not bend right. If she could get him to move… She rushed forward, earning a swing, and slid under the horizontal strike.
She rolled around the kick that followed, coming up in a crouch with the point of her spear upwards. At precisely the right angle Sidonia rose, and to the strike she added the secret Creation had bestowed upon her: that so long as you struck with the soul instead of the hand, there was nothing you could not Pierce. The blade of her spear slid through the armpit, shearing through flesh and muscle and bone as blood sprayed and she bisected the Drake. Her spearhead emerged through the other armpit and she ripped it free as she stepped back, blood flecking her face paint. Only, she realized with dim horror, just enough had healed by the time she withdrew the spear that strings of skin had kept the severed parts together.
“Good blow,” the Drake praised. “My turn.”
The angle was wrong. She knew it even as she struck at the swing coming at her, trying to change how it would strike. Instead the spearhead scraped along the side of the greatsword, changing nothing, and with a swallowed scream she felt her enemy’s edge cut halfway through her arm and outright through the shaft of her spear. The Drake snorted, socking her in the stomach and letting her stumble to the ground.
“The Tanja lord, Hawk,” the Scourge called out. “I’m not in the mood for pursuit, get him now.”
And from the corner of her eye, Sidonia saw the arrow fly. Finding a path through the press of bodies and shields with impossible accuracy, as if eager to snatch out the life of the Lord of Malaga. And it made it but an inch away from the Tanja’s throat, before the sour-faced spectre of a young man became visible and unhinged his jaw to swallow it whole. The Harrowed Witch, Sidonia realized with dim relief. She rolled to her feet, bleeding but unbowed, and breathed out. She still had two aspects to use. Only the Drake seemed disinclined to allow her to use them, already on her and swinging. Barren Mercy, Sidonia thought. She would have to cushion the blow and she raised her hand…
The point of the Barrow Sword’s eerie blade punched through the Drake’s belly, Ishaq looking bloodless but very much alive.
“Gods but I hate dying,” the Barrow Sword hissed. “Do you have any idea how many souls that sets me back?”
Well, Sidonia thought, rising to her feet with the two halves of her spear. Perhaps today’s deeds would not have to be added to the Rolls by another’s hand, after all.
Razin had known this fear before.
During the battle he had not yet known would be called the Princes’ Graveyard, witnessing the Firstborn unleashed under cover of the dark. The way death had just… ensued, and they’d all been powerless to stop it for those few Bestowed with the privilege of doing otherwise by the Ashen Gods. It had stuck in his throat then, that fear, and it did now even as his life was saved from some Revenant’s murderous whim by the whim of some clever Bestowed using a ghost. And he knew, he did, that the intelligent decision made was to leave. To stay behind a shield wall and retreat out of sight, where the archer could not easily pursue beyond the city wards. And yet instead, Razin Tanja felt his jaw clench. Is this the sum of us? We die in droves while the demigods settle the score, little more than an afterthought for either side.
No, he thought. Enough.
“Warriors of Malaga,” he shouted, “shield wall.”
They would not be ghosts before death even bothered to find them, spectators to the end of times. If they were to stand here tonight, it would be sword in hand. A shiver of surprise went through the warriors, of hesitation, but in the end he was the Lord of Malaga and this was war. The shields went up, sword rose.
“Binders, on my word,” Razin said. “Knock that drake out of our fucking sky.”
An arrow streaked towards him again, but the apparition swallowed it once more. Who did it belong to, he wondered? He would have to find out. Thanks were in order.
“Forward, sons and daughters of Levant,” Razin Tanja screamed.
“The Blessed Artificer requests that you unleash the binders right before she acts, your lordship.”
Razin almost stabbed the woman who’d just addressed him in surprise, as a heartbeat ago he would have been sure there was absolutely no one standing next to him. Ashen Gods, how long had she been there?
“And when is that?” the Lord of Malaga asked, steading his breath.
“In…” the young woman addressing him trailed off, cocking her head to the side, “seven heartbeats now.”
Cursing, Razin immediately ordered for the binders to strike even as his shield wall advanced. Bound spirits flew out, gathering substance from their surroundings as they did, and struck at the archer and the undead drake in a storm. On the ground the Revenant was carving at the shield wall, slicing through shields like butter, but with the Barrow Sword and the Vagrant Spear striking at him he could not afford more than a few idle blows and he was steadily losing ground. Now there was little but a strip at the edge of the bastion left to fight over, and there the monstrous Bestowed the other had brought was still raging. It snatched the Revenant by the foot and started wildly smashing him around, the other two Bestowed backing away carefully.
“Gods, let this work,” the young witch by his side murmured.
The sky lit up with Light. Streak after streak gathered in a circle, like ceiling made of spears, and every last one was angled down at the storm his binders had made. The spirits, he now grasped, had not been meant by his allies to kill the archer but to blind it.
Light shone until it blinded them all, and like a tide it fell.
The Grey Pilgrim’s steps stuttered.
It was, Tariq thought, almost like getting a glimpse of years to come. The devastation visited unto the bastion seemed like a small thing, compared to the cheers of his countrymen defending it. The sky was filled with smoke and the Drake was still there, pinned to the ground by sorcery and swords and the bruising grip of the Berserker, but it was the living that had caught his eye. Razin Tanja, the young man that was half the hope he saw for his home rising above itself, reluctantly but honestly clasping arms with the Barrow Sword as he just had with the Vagrant Spear. Warriors roaring in approval. It was a different world, he thought. One he had not been born to.
He’d come here to take care of Levant, but Levant had taken care of itself.
It was pride he now felt welling up in his belly, but grief as well. There was still some aid he could lend, at least, and that much he would offer. The Pilgrim made his way through the crowd, warriors respectfully parting for him, and though offering smiles and nods where appropriate his stride led directly to the Drake. The Berserker had just pulped his stomach, but those eyes were wide open and aware. They also filled with fear, when he approached, as they should.
“Drake,” Tariq gently smiled.
“No,” the Revenant hissed. “Not you, I was so close I was-”
Light lashing out, the Grey Pilgrim pulled open a gate into Twilight beneath the Scourge. He struggled, but there was no avoiding this while bound. Screaming, convulsing, the Revenant fell into the gate and turned to ash. And this time, when the tooth flew out towards the edge of the rampart, Tariq was ready. He snatched it out of the air and the Ophanim hissed with anger at the abomination, their will joining his as he wove Light and tightened his grip. Dust flowed out from between his fingers, slipping into the gate before he finally allowed it to close. The Pilgrim opened his mouth to speak into the hushed silence that’d followed, but it was a great roar that broke it instead.
The Berserker spasmed in pain, half a dozen arrows stuck in her body and three through her forehead, but from the monstrous shape she’d turned into she slowly turned back into a woman. The Ophanim whispered and Tariq’s hands tightened.
“Is there anything we can do?”
Silence. There was no. The Berserker’s rage ended, leaving only a mortal behind, and that mortal did not breathe. Only the wrath had kept her alive.
Keter always had the last word.