“I wrote this work because it is our habit as a people to ignore the worst of our history and gild its mediocrities, and to speak against this practice will see you castigated as unpatriotic. This is more than wrong, it is dangerous. We must not snuff out the lights of our common soul by placating the darkness, else what manner of a world are we laying the foundation for?”– Extract from the conclusion of ‘The Labyrinth Empire, or, A Short History of Procer’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
Her lips had gone dry, so Beatrice Volignac made herself drink from her cup so it would not show. The wine was watered, she was not foolish enough to partake while a battle was being waged, but the taste of the stout Cantal red was bracing anyway. The Princess of Hainaut, or more truthfully the capital and a thin stretch of the old southern borderlands, set down her golden cup after having wet her lips and leaned down to look over the maps she’d had her footpads being to the war room years ago. This was not a war council, for there was precious little planning left to be made, but given the prominence of the people seated in the salon where Beatrice’s ancestors had once received visiting royalty any decision made here had the potential to make or break the defence of the city.
Everyone had a man or a woman at the table, so to speak. The Army of Callow in the city was led by the seniormost of their generals, an aging orc who went by the name of Bagram, but while the general was here his authority was mitigated by another’s presence: Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the throne of Callow. That the former heroine only rarely used her authority in military matters only reinforced its weight when she did use it, an elegant sort of artifice worthy of a woman with Lady Dartwick’s excellent reputation with the Highest Assembly. There was some rejoicing among Beatrice’s fellow royals at the notion that Lady Dartwick might be sitting the throne in a few years, though no doubt the prospect of no longer having to deal with someone who could drown an army when cross had played a role as well as Dartwick’s personal qualities.
For the Dominion it was Captain Nabila, the stout commander of the Alavan forces within the alliance, who was well-understood to be the least of the three great Levantine commanders. Both Aquiline Osena and Razin Tanja were Blood, it lent a lustre to their authority that the other woman could not hope to match. The Iron Prince himself was here too, having left the command at the southern wall to Princess Mathilda of Neustria, with his empty sleeve folded over the arm he’d lost defending this very city three years back. The sole representative for the Firstborn was a certain Mighty Sagasbord, dark-skinned and quiet with a bent for the sardonic when it did break its silence. Prince Arsene despised it, Beatrice had learned, not that the dark elf particularly seemed to care. Theirs was not a culture that quailed at the thought of making powerful enemies.
It gave her the creeps.
“- eastern wall drove back an assault by Revenants and beorns,” Captain Nadila shared. “Lord Razin led the defence, with assistance from a band of five Bestowed under the Vagrant Spear.”
Beatrice’s eyes sharpened. From what she recalled, that was the band with the Barrow Sword. The same man the Black Queen plainly meant to make her lieutenant. Somehow the princess doubted he’d been put under the command of another. That had the smell of Dominion politics, something she figured she ought to have as little to do with as possible.
“Only assaults on the walls,” General Bagram growled. “Like we called it right. They won’t touch the front gate until they’ve drawn out as many as our soldiers as they can.”
“They’ll keep testing us with Revenants,” the Iron Prince said. “To suss out what Chosen we have at hand. Old Bones like to know the face of the opposition before he puts his back into the swing.”
“The Revenants will be handled by Named,” Lady Dartwick calmly said. “A defence plan was designed by Queen Catherine and the White Knight, before his departure. Our concern is to be the traditional forces.”
Beatrice cleared her throat, claiming attention.
“Have our Firstborn friends confirmed our suspicions?” she asked.
Mighty Sagasbord coolly smiled. Its Chantant when it spoke was eerily perfect, and Beatrice knew enough of drow to know such proficiency could only be gained by wholesale slaughter of her countrymen. As always, that serene mask over the madness made her skin crawl.
“We dig for truth still,” Mighty Sagasbord said. “But the Tomb-Maker itself leads us, Hainaut Princess. There is no need for… uneasiness.”
That it could tell she feared it only made it more unpleasant to deal with.
“There’s not much to do but wait,” Prince Klaus Papenheim gruffly said. “No dishonour in that, it’s the way war is. Some of us should try to get some sleep: the dead will try to run us into the ground, it’s one of Keter’s favourite tricks.”
As all here knew, but when such a renowned veteran spoke the words it gave others the opening to do so without shaming themselves. The Iron Prince was not without his kindnesses, for all that like most Lycaonese he cared little for social graces.
“I may retire for a few hours, then,” Princess Beatrice said. “It would be better to be fully rested when I relieve Captain-General Catalina from her command on the western wall.”
Captain Nadila snorted, eyeing her with open disdain.
“Will you be returning to your palace for it, Princess Beatrice?” the painted Levantine asked.
The orc on the other side of the table chuckled. General Bagram received a cocked eyebrow from Lady Dartwick for it, but she took no further issue and he looked undaunted. It was the Iron Prince’s unsurprised face that stung the most, though. Like he’d expected her to be the first to retire. Beatrice’s fingers closed around her cup. Perhaps he had. It was not disdainful, but even now the Iron Prince thought of Alamans as soft – always it was they who balked, who slowed, who mutinied even as others bled to drive the dead out of their lands. And that belief, Beatrice Volignac found it reflected in the eyes of everyone here. She’d had it directed at her before, the look, when people though that because she was fat it meant she was weak or stupid. But it wasn’t about her this time, was it? Not really.
It was all Alamans that were being looked down on. And she could see the shape of it, almost. What great names had come of her people in this war? Cordelia Hasenbach was Lycaonese, Rozala Malanza was Arlesite and even the Kingfisher Prince, Frederic Goethal, preferred the company of northerners to his own kind while openly disdaining the games of the Highest Assembly. And it was unfair, Beatrice thought, for her people were brave. They were gallant and stubborn and love freedom more fiercely than any other under the sun, but what did it matter to these few before her now? All they saw was an Alamans shackle around the Grand Alliance’s foot. And this was larger than Beatrice, than House Volignac or perhaps even royalty, but here and now it was her that the looks stung.
“I am not yet sure,” Princess Beatrice evenly replied. “Regardless, I will first go to our rampart and assess the situation there.”
It was her home being fought for, she thought. Sleep could wait for a while still.
Catalina Ferreiro had become Captain-General of the Ligera Bandera a mere two years before the war against Keter began, an appointment that had been like a noose around her neck ever since. She had been a compromise candidate, she knew, that her decent battlefield record and noble lineage had seen her elected by the officers because they have her more respectable standing in the eyes of the rank and file. The powerful banner-captains of the Ligera had meant to use her as a figurehead while they privately continued the same infighting that’d paralyzed the greatest fantassin company of the Principate so badly it had been unable to even take a contract for the Tenth Crusade. Catalina had thought herself clever, playing off Vargeras against Capistrant until they’d spent themselves against each other and she had enough support to muzzle Garrido on her own.
The prize she had won, unfortunately, was uncontested command of the largest mercenary company on Calernia just as the first signs of the end times were glimpsed the north. As Old Teresa was fond of saying, the Gods never missed an opportunity to piss in the gruel of fantassins.
“Pitch and torches,” the Captain-General bellowed. “Burn that thing or we’ll lose the bastion.”
Catalina preferred the spear, but it was a useless weapon against the dead so she’d taken to the halberd instead: with a grunt, she smashed the axehead into the flank of the skeleton coming for her and toppled it over the edge of the rampart. Her personal guard swept forward, smashing into the loose formation of undead trying to keep her from reinforcing the bastion where the Folies Rouges were being hacked apart by ghouls and the beorn that’d carried them up the cliff. Captain Reinald had done well against the first wave, but the second had caught him by surprise and now the entire western wall was at risk. If they lost that bastion… already the dead were trying to land ladders to solidify the beachhead. Flicking a glance back through the sweaty locks matting her helmet, she caught sight of the approaching torches. No more time to waste.
“Ligera,” Catalina shouted.
“Faith kept through fire,” her soldiers shouted back,
They charged against into the dead, whose formation the undead officers had not been quick enough to salvage. The Captain-General paced herself, picking her foes carefully – a thrust of her halberd pushed another corpse over the wall, a sweeping descent shattered another’s helmet and broke the foul magics keeping it moving – even as the front ranks of her mercenary company plowed through the enemy line. A clear path to the bastion, she thought.
“Torchmen,” she screamed, “with-”
Her words were drowned out by a thunderous roar as the beorn that’d been tearing at the fantassins in the bastion abandoned its playthings there, instead leaping down onto the rampart and casually sweeping half a dozen men off the wall into the city below. Some might survive, Catalina though, though they might not wish they had.
“Aim for the beorn,” the Captain-General of the Ligera Bandera calmly said. “On my signal.”
Another seven men dead, the great abomination crushing them as easily as a boot would an ant.
“Hold,” Catalina Ferreiro said.
Another handful dead, the beast enjoying its rampage. With only a thin stretch of wall to maneuver with and other soldiers behind them, her men could do little but stand and die.
“Hold,” she repeated through gritted teeth.
And finally, crushing a young woman like a pulped grape, the beorn came close enough.
“Now,” the Captain-General hissed.
Torches were put to the earthen jugs of pitch just before they were thrown, of the ten thrown nine splattering across the monster’s large form. Flames burned clear and bright, spreading as they ate at dry dead flesh and the beorn howled.
“Halberds to the front,” Catalina ordered, breathing a sigh of relief.
The halberdiers hurried forward, hacking at the creature even as it was destroyed by the flames and ensuring it would not smash into their formation. It toppled into the city below and the fantassins hurried to reinforce the bastion even as Catalina stayed behind long enough to arrange for the wounded to be sent back. Her bodyguards closed in around her as she followed into the bastion, finding the situation there had turned around. Captain Reinald had holed up his men in corners while the beorn rampaged but they’d come out swinging as soon as the beast was gone so the ghouls were already on the backfoot when her reinforcements arrived. She left the clearing out of the stragglers to her soldiers and took of her helmet, seeking out Captain Reinald.
She found the fat man conversing with his wizards, an untended wound on his arm that’d been inflicted through now-ripped mail. The captain of the Folies Rouges dismissed his casters when he saw her approach, offering a grateful nod.
“My thanks for drawing it away,” Reinald said. “All our pitch was spent on the first three and we hadn’t gotten fresh jugs yet.”
“I expect you’ll have to return the favour before this is over,” Catalina replied. “Have you heard anything from further north?”
“The Bayeux footmen are holding strong,” the older man replied. “Prince Arsene made it clear he’ll tolerate no retreat.”
Catalina breathed out a snort as Reinald smirked. Prince Arsene Odon did not have a particularly inspiring reputation as a military commander, though he wasn’t as bad as some other royals. Still, he would never have made it above company-captain in the Ligera.
“We’ll need to start bringing in the smaller companies to freshen up bloodied positions,” Catalina said. “I don’t want to dilute our ranks too much, but…”
“No, I quite agree,” Captain Reinald said. “If we bleed our finest soldiers dry too soon there’ll be nothing but the dregs left fighting come sunlight.”
She nodded in agreement. It might seem callous to dismiss some of her fellow fantassin companies with so contemptuous a term, but some of them were honestly no better than levies. Which brought to mind yet more trouble.
“We’ll need to keep a close eye on the Brabant conscripts,” she sighed. “They keep breaking.”
“Prince Etienne croaking it did a number on them,” Reinald sympathetically said. “That man was his principality’s backbone. Didn’t help that the Iron Prince decided to pick them up by the throat afterwards.”
“He did what he needed to,” Catalina replied, but her tone was lukewarm.
That Klaus Papenheim was one of the finest generals alive was not in dispute – though the Arlesite in Catalina had her fancying that Rozala Malanza might give him a closer match than most – but that he’d acted like a… Lycaonese wasn’t either. The northerners liked their tyrants, glorified them, but their southern cousins had never shared the fascination. Tyrants there got knives, not statues. Had this been another war, another man, many a company would have put coin together to hire assassins over a man who’d arrested so many officers on such spurious grounds. These were desperate times, of course, and the officers had been out of line. It was still a bitter pill to swallow for all of them, Catalina thought, that the Iron Prince’s heavy-handed actions had not earned so much as a raised eyebrow from any other great name.
Mind you, whoever it was that’d figured appealing to the Black Queen over an issue of military discipline was a good idea should be sent to Keter for raising in the hopes that the stupid was infectious. Catalina liked the woman more than she figured she would have, being a murderous heretic, and considered her a generally reasonable superior officer. She was also someone who hanged her own soldiers when they got sticky fingers and whose answer to a mutiny was a lot more likely to be crucifixion than sympathy. It had to be the Joyeux Chevaliers that’d pushed for that, having some many noble brats within their ranks had them believing they were clever manipulators instead of expendable Highest Assembly catspaws.
“Sure he did,” Captain Reinald grunted. “Let’s hope he doesn’t find it necessary to do it again.”
“We wouldn’t have so weak a position if we could agree on a representative,” Catalina pressed. “I know the Grizzled Fantassin turned us down-”
She’d named an exorbitant price first, then noted that unless the Grand Alliance itself could be outbid there was no point in trying to buy her services. Old Teresa was said to be out in Mercantis these days, that floating pleasure house of a city. Hard terms to beat, admittedly.
“- it can’t be you,” Captain Reinald frankly said. “The Ligera has too many enemies, you’ll never get the votes.”
“It has to be someone, Reinald,” she exasperatedly said. “If not me then another. And quickly. We are…”
Words failed her, for a moment, as the thought was hard to express. It was not a particular indignation that had been weighing on Catalina Ferreiro’s mind but a hundred little signs, as if had some unknown prophecy on the tip of her tongue but could not bring herself to speak it.
“We’re dying, Reinald,” she quietly said. “Fantassins, our trade. You’ve seen the armies the rest of the world fields, now. Do you think we could handle the Second Army or a few sigils of drow? Gods, even the Levantines are making something of themselves.”
We don’t have mages and priests, Catalina thought. We don’t have sappers or Chosen. War is leaving us behind. And the Principate had been hardened by the war too, she could feel it. See in faces and hear it in words. No one spoke of war as a part of the Ebb and Flow now, as the game of princes where glories and fortune were wagered. Even princes had grown harsher, and the wars they’d wage would grow harsher with them. Would veterans of the war against Keter really hesitate to torch a village? It had been against the unspoken laws of war in Procer, once, but what did those childish things matter to someone who’d spent three years fighting howling corpses as madness twisted the land around them? There would be no return to the old days, after this came to an end.
For better or worse.
“You’re not wrong,” Reinald muttered. “Some of the things I’ve heard… But this is a discussion to finish when the enemy is no longer at our gate, perhaps.”
Catalina nodded, then smiled.
“Tarry not,” she hummed.
The other mercenary snorted, recognizing the words from the old song everyone in their trade, from the greenest of boys to the most grizzled of warwives, had heard at least once.
“Or we’ll be dead,” Captain Reinald finished.
Over the edge of the rampart, a skeleton dragged itself halfway onto solid ground before a soldier smacked it down. The climbers were beginning to reach the top, she realized with dread.
The skirmishing was over at last, and the battle had begun in truth.
Well, Roland thought, this was going to be a problem.
“So that’s why they kept dropping vultures and Revenants through the wards,” the Headhunter said.
He – Roland had asked, as he couldn’t discern the differences in her facepaint that heralded either gender – was looking at the same thing that he was: a gate into Arcadia opening in the middle of a city street. Which shouldn’t be possible, the Rogue Sorcerer thought, considering this city was thick with wards. But the dead had years to meddle with the city after taking it, he reminded himself. The Grand Alliance reclaiming Hainaut and then repairing the old foundations as well as slapping on fresh wards was not a comprehensive fix, despite the frenzied efforts of their mages. At least it did not seem to be without costs for the Dead King: the gate had only opened by subsuming a Revenant and was opening rather slowly. They could not be opened with a snap of one’s finger, which was good news tacked on to the bad.
“We need to close it,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “And find out any other gate that might have been opened out of sight.”
“The city’s bleeding magic everywhere, wizardling,” the Headhunter skeptically replied. “We might as well look for a particular needle in a box full of them.”
“Keter needs Revenants to make these,” Roland replied, shaking his head. “There won’t be many, and we’ll have seen them falling.”
“There could have been more than one Revenant by bird,” the Headhunter shrugged. “And they can run anywhere after the fall. We’ve only caught one so far.”
Fair points, but only so long as providence refused to put a finger on the scales. Roland would have to hope otherwise.
“There’s another band out there roaming,” he reminded the other. “We can only hope they will catch what we don’t.”
He rose from his crouch before the Headhunter could answer, expecting that otherwise he would be served a sermon on the subject of why the three young souls with transitory Named also assigned to keeping the streets clear were weak and so naturally doomed to failure. The other man’s opinions were more strident than thoughtful, in Roland’s opinion, but he saw nothing to be gained by arguing. The Headhunter’s ways had paid off for him, and people with full pockets didn’t usually tend to abandon the ways that’d filled them. A long casting rod of sculpted ivory in hand, the Rogue Sorcerers leapt off the edge of the roof and landed on the cobblestone street. The gate into Arcadia, a broad rectangle at least twelve feet high and twice that in length, was pulsing. Still stabilizing, Roland thought. He brushed a hand close to the surface, mustering his will.
“Confiscate,” he murmured.
It took, he found with some relief, but not as much as he would have wanted it to. He was drawing from the active spell, but not the foundations. The light of the portal began flickering wildly. All he was achieving was further destabilizing the gate, not breaking it. Movement from the corner of his eye had him drawing back, but not quite close enough. A javelin, he saw just a heartbeat before it bit into his first defensive enchantment and shattered it. A shell of light became visible for a moment before shattering. A second flew out, but by then the Headhunter was there and he swatted them down with insolent ease.
“Gate’s not closed, wizardling,” the Headhunter grunted. “Get the Hells on with it.”
I’m not sure I can, Roland thought. If he could not confiscate the sorcery, then he had to either overpower or shatter the gate – which would require strength he did not have or for his knowledge to be superior to that of the Dead King. He was going to have to improvise. If he couldn’t break the gate itself, what were his options? He cast a glance at the Headhunter.
“You have the head of a Damned who could empower magic, correct?”
“Amplify,” the Headhunter corrected. “And the heads only give weaker imitations. What are you scheming?”
“I want,” the Rogue Sorcerer boyishly grinned, “to make this a much larger gate.”
He felt like tapping his foot, like humming an old song. He was only a few mistakes away from dying, but wasn’t that where he did all his best work?
Princess Beatrice Volignac of Hainaut went utterly still, her horse following suit.
Frost spread across the cobblestones like the breath of some wintry beast, steam curling above it like fading stripes of lace as ghostly lights set the shadows to dancing. It was as if a hole had been cut out in the world, revealing some fantastic winter vista hidden behind the curtains of Creation, and yet what had come out of it was not some strange monster or fair lord. It was an intimately familiar sight. The banner was what Beatrice recognize first, stirring as it was in the wind. A golden griffin on blue, crowned by three daffodils, but it was not the heraldry that made it distinct. It was the long haft of forever unrotting whitewood it hung from, ending in a grown of pure gold set with sapphires. Even streaked with ash and dust, Beatrice would have recognized the royal banner of the House of Volignac anywhere.
Riders streamed out of the pale plains of snow on the other side, ranks upon ranks of silent souls in beautiful enameled armour that rode steeds of the finest coats. Their lances were raised tall, a forest of sharp steel held up by unwavering hands, and at their head rode a beautiful woman. Skin pale as milk could be seen through the open visor of her helm, golden hair in a long braid going down her back. The armour she wore was a gift from Beatrice’s father, a family heirloom of blue-painted steel etched with enchantments, and at her side the ornate wooden sheath of the ancient blade of House Volignac, Mordante, rested against her hip. And on her brow, atop her helm, a crown of gold had been inlaid into the steel for her name was Julienne Volignac and she had once rule Hainaut.
There was a gaping, bloody wound where her heart should be.
“Sister,” Beatrice softly breathed out. “Gods, what did they do to you?”
She had taken a mere hundred riders with her as an escort when heading for the western rampart, a pittance compared to the thousands Julienne had taken with her on that last doomed charge to delay the dead long enough for their people to escape. But only a few have crossed, Beatrice thought. We can hold them at the gate. She looked around and found only fear on the faces of her soldiers. As much at the sight of who it was they were fighting as the numbers, the princess thought.
“Bastien,” she said, raising her voice as she addressed the captain of her bodyguard. “Go for reinforcements. Hurry.”
“Your Grace,” the man replied, hesitating, “what is it you intend?”
Beatrice Volignac breathed out, watching her sister’s golden hair across the street.
“I have you an order,” she harshly said. “Go.”
She heard him slink away, chastened. In the distance, Julienne Volignac met her sister’s eyes and smiled sadly. She brought down her visor, lowered her lance.
“Look ahead,” Princess Beatrice said, voice ringing out. “That is what Keter means to make of you.”
The Princess of Hainaut lowered her lance, and after a terrifying heartbeat saw that her retinue followed suit.
“They gave their lives for everyone here,” Beatrice said, throat clogged up. “So we could live, crawling through ash and dust to return home another day.”
She pressed her knees against her mount, the destrier breaking into a trot. Her retinue followed. The enemy, on the other side, lowered their lances and began to advance.
“We’re home now,” Beatrice Volignac shouted. “We’re home, and tonight we lay our ghost to rest.”
Her soldiers roared, the thunder of hooves crashing against cobblestones drowning out battlecries even as the two lines of horsemen rammed into each other.
Catalina was not sure who it was that began to sing.
The world had turned black and white, chopped into moments of violence and moments of relief, but through both songs had begun to wind their way. There was nothing, the Captain-General thought with an exhausted smiled, that Procerans loved more than a song. Even the ever-cold Lycaonese thawed, when the time came to sing. There were more singers than birds in Procer, it had once been said, and for every season and hour there was a song. Or a poem, or a dance or another gesture of beauty returned to the Creation that had given birth to all of them. And wasn’t that, in the end, the most beautiful thing about her home? Even in the dark, they sang.
Perhaps in the dark most of all.
The dead came over the rampart, silent and relentless. Catalina battered them over the edge, hacked and split and felt cold iron sink into her arm when tiredness slowed her, but the tide would not end so neither would she. And all around her, the Captain-General saw only bastards. Mud nobles and cutthroats, peasants and shopkeepers, the leftovers of a great realm with blades in hand. And still they held, her thousands of brothers and sisters who too bore the name of fantassin, her fellow fools who traded life and limb for coin and a few boasts. And so when the song poured out of her throat, she did not fight. What else was there to do, when the world was so ugly, but to bring a sliver of beauty in it?
“My father wept for a prince
And died with a spear in hand.”
The man by her side, covered in sweat and filth, shot her an incredulous look and began laughing before cracking a skeleton’s skull. He joined his voice to hers.
“My mother hasn’t wept since
Or left a god un-damned.”
It spread like a fire, snaking along the rampart and the bastion until a thousand throats sang it, that old bastard song, the Sun In the West.
Beatrice Volignac was in the heart of the whirlwind, dancing with many smiling deaths.
They fought desperately against the honoured dead, trading lances with corpses until all were spent and furious melee with sword and shield swept across the cobblestone. There was something burning in all their bellies tonight that had devoured whole the fear, replaced it with clenched teeth and hard eyes. Before them was the mockery Keter had made of the finest gesture any of them had known, and what could they do but quell it? Nothing less could be tolerated. So Beatrice traded blows with a corpse in armour, ramming her blade into the throat and throwing it down its undead mount before pushing forward. A blow glanced off her shield and she answered with a hard cut, but it found no purchase in the enemy’s armour.
They were losing, the Princess of Hainaut knew. The charge had not been enough. They had slowed the enemy’s outpouring through the gate but not cut it, and now they were being drowned. Yet she found, queerly, that the thought did not mover her to fear. It would be a worthy death, Beatrice decided, and such a thing was not to be feared. She was a princess of the blood, a Volignac: what did she have to fear in this world or any other, save for dishonour? So when the song came on the wind, drifting like curl of smoke, the Princess of Hainaut laughed. She, too, had once dreamed of being the one who would once again bring the sun to west. A good song, she decided, to die singing.
“Maybe I’ll go east, they say
Swords there can win a crown.”
Voices joined hers, as the dead hemmed them in and the last of them gathered around the banner. The enemy were coming for them, for the killing stroke. Through her visor, Beatrice met her sister’s eyes as Julienne approached with the ancient sword of their shared blood.
“Rule king a year and a day
Be buried with great renown.”
Roland hummed under his breath, one hand on a desiccated human head and the other on a portal through which a great many people were trying to kill him.
It was just going to be one of those nights, he figured.
“Is it working?” the Headhunter asked with a grunt.
He carved through another skeleton’s neck, kicking it into another’s path as it tried to cross. The villain had, impressively enough, been holding the gate single-handedly all this time.
“Well,” the Rogue Sorcerer mused, “if it is, then-”
There was a deafening keening noise and the gate double in height before beginning to shake.
“Wonderful,” Roland grinned.
The Headhunter turned around, throwing an axe at him that cut through the javelin someone had very unkindly thrown at Roland’s chest. Keterans, a people truly without manners.
“It’s gotten bigger,” the Headhunter noted, unimpressed. “Is that it? I thought it was-”
What looked like the maw of a beorn began to pass through the gate, roaring angrily and cutting off the conversation. Rudeness upon rudeness, truly. The other Named pulsed with a stolen aspect coming from a head and tried to force the construct back, but Roland kept pushing sorcery into the gate and amplifying the flow with the human head. Soon, soon it would be ready. Mind you, he’d best not tarry long. How did the song go again?
“Long ago, the tale goes,
The sun rose in the west
It might be it will again:
Tarry not, or we’ll be dead.”
The Headhunter was thrown back into the street, hitting the wall of a house and breaking through it, but Roland only smiled even as the beorn turned towards him.
Beatrice’s horse had died on the third pass, but she’d knocked her sister down from hers so it had evened out the affair.
They had sparred on occasion, while they both lived, though in those days Beatrice had not taken the blade all that seriously – it had been the horse and lance she preferred, finding bladework to be an ungainly and sweaty affair. The spars had been measured, almost fond, more shared time than any genuine test of each other. This was nothing like it. Beatrice desperately brought up her shield as the family sword, Mordante, bit at the painted steel and let out a flash of light and frost. She swung at Julienne’s head, but her sister’s shield was already in place and they collided with each other as each tried to make the other trip on the blood-strewn ground
“I will free you,” Beatrice gasped through her helm. “Gods, Julienne, I swear. I will not leave you like this.”
The enchanted sword kissed the top of her helm, freezing the visor shut, but the Princess of Hainaut began hammering at her sister with her shield. Julienne had the strength of undeath to her, the tirelessness, but Beatrice was fat. She was heavy, and muscled, and when she struck her sister shook form the impact. Once, twice, thrice until Julienne slipped on blood and bone and Beatrice followed her down. A lance passed above her head, forced away by one of her last men at the last moment, but the Princess of Hainaut’s eyes were only for her sister. Mordante bit into her side, frostburn creeping through her mail, but Beatrice ripped off her sister’s helm and met those blue eyes with her own as she drew back.
“The fire turns to ember,
I wake from a sorry dream
Morning rides in pale splendour
Chasing down a fading gleam.”
“We will meet again,” Beatrice whispered, “in a better place.”
And down her sword went.
Roland of Beaumarais, nothing but a – borrowed – human head in hand, smiled at the monster forcing its way out of the gate into Arcadia.
“This should do the trick,” he announced, removing his hand from the portal at last.
The magic he’d been drawing on stuttered, the bundle nearly empty, and the Rogue Sorcerer offered the beorn as deep a bow as he could without making the head dangle. The construct swatted at him, but he stepped away even as the Headhunter rose from rubble and the clawed limb came well short. The beorn seemed confused, as well it might be.
“The gate’s frozen,” the Rogue Sorcerer told it. “Brilliant man, Masego. His work his comprehensive.”
Roland hadn’t even noticed when that derivation had been added to the ward schematics, but then that didn’t matter. What did matter was that the Dead King was not the only brilliant Trismegistan sorcerer in these parts, which meant that what had been used here to make the gates was a technicality and not a flaw. The last of the magic he’d fed the portal was absorbed at last, and with a loud keen the portal’s length began to extend. It managed to grown another five feet, before the blind spot in the wards laid down by the Hierophant was entirely outgrown and they triggered with a vengeance.
“To borrow from a friend,” Roland smiled, then raised his hand and snapped his fingers.
The portal exploded in a pillar of power and light, the city wards crushing it into nonexistence without mercy, and Roland de Beaumarais was once more left to wonder at just how much he loved magic. There was always something new, wasn’t there? The Headhunter caught up, looking at him warily.
“Come on,” the Rogue Sorcerer idly said. “There will be other portals.”
And, hands in pockets, he began to make his way down the street as he sang the song that’d been on his mind all evening.
“The road is long and winding,
Though I did it love it once
And tread it still, searching
The bottom of many cups.”
Sometimes, even charlatans got to have a good turn.
Gods, but they were holding.
The Captain-General watched as ladders were brought to the walls and undead scaled the cliffs. Stones and logs were thrown at them, burning oil poured on ladders and Light filled the air as priests began turning the wrath of Above on the dead. It was a narrow, wavering thing but they were holding. And now the reinforcements were pouring in, lesser companies freshening the ranks of the greater and bringing with them well-rested hands. Mages were beginning to rotate in, cadres trained in the Arsenal, and though their magics were simple when turned on a single great monster in concert they were also often successful. Catalina withdrew from the rampart, exhausted enough her vision swam, but after a tonic and rest she would return.
She sat by a fire, her bodyguards close around her, and drank deeply from a waterskin. She smiled as she hear the chorus of the song rise again, perhaps the tenth time it had been sung tonight. The Sun In the West was often sung as wistful or angry – there was a reason it was familiar to taverns but rare in courts – but tonight it was, instead, almost defiant.
“Long ago, the tale goes,
The sun rose in the west
It might be it will again:
Tarry not, or we’ll be dead.”
Our sun has faded, Catalina thought, but it has not yet set. There was still blood in the veins of the lumbering beast known as the Principate, and perhaps after the war… Lightning struck at the bastion and a howling gale swept over it, hundreds dying in the blink of an eye as Catalina was thrown against a wall and bit her lip as she felt her collarbone break. The storm screamed, and two silhouettes landed on the stone.
The Scourges had arrived.