“Hardship does not create valour any more than rivers create fish. It is simply a circumstance where the valorous reveal themselves, and it would be a mistake to believe that what misery or ruin unveil could not also be brought into the light by love or duty.”– King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded
Guillaume screamed in terror as he scraped desperately at the floor, trying to keep the winds from snatching him up in their like they had Leonie. His fingers were raw and bloody, the cut on his face was aching something fierce, he’d dropped his sword and Heavens it just wasn’t going to be enough. He could feel the wind pulling at his feet, as if trying to drag him into the sky. The gales were thick with ash and dust, hard to peer through, but Guillaume had seen his friends go up into the whirlwind and never seen any of them return. It would be death if he went up. So he kept crawling forward as the cacophony of wind blotted out the rest of the world, like a fish fighting the current, but he was feeling a tug on his legs as the strength of the storm grew and – and, somehow, his hands had reached into a bubble of calm.
He did not waste time questioning the miracle, only dragging himself forward along the floor with the last of his strength as he panted and grunted and half-wept in relief. A hand grabbed him by the collar and he started in surprise, but he did not resist after realizing he was being dragged further into the bubble. There was not a trace of the winds here, he realized, and even the screams of the storm were muted. Guillaume looked up, his face covered in cold sweat and his arms still trembling, following the sight of a bracer-clad arm over a black gambeson up to a steel cuirass and then something that was impossible to mistake: a great black cloak with a patchwork of many colours stitched on, banners and stranger things.
The Mantle of Woe, he’d heard Callowans call it. And so it was the Black Queen’s brown eyes considering him, set in a hard and angular face that seemed like it had been shaped to keep a frown. Guillaume shivered. They said the Queen of Callow was kind to the commons, but she was still one of the Damned and who would tell if she decided to take his soul now?
“Your Majesty,” he stammered, “I-”
Idly she flicked a finger at his forehead, the lights dimming around them, and Guillaume felt something cold slither through his veins and all the way up his face. Like a coiled snake, it waited under his cheek near his wound.
“That’ll stop the bleeding,” the Black Queen said, in slightly accented Chantant. “But you’ll still need to get it healed or it’ll infect.”
Guillaume dragged himself up halfway to sitting, gingerly touching the edges of the deep cut on his cheek and finding that it no longer bled or stung. There was a cool, pleasant numbness instead when he prodded. Thanks stumbled out of his mouth and she offered half a nod before rising from her crouch, leaning heavily on a long staff of dead wood that gave off a sense of… solidity that one did not often find in dead things. The queen suddenly cocked her head to the side, as if she’d heard something he had not. He pricked his ear even as he pushed himself further away from the edge of the bubble, but he heard nothing aside from the distant screaming of the winds.
“Good, the Drake was overdue,” the Black Queen said, speaking to thin air. “And Ishaq said they got the Hawk as well?”
There was a silence, then the queen grimaced.
“I don’t care what the Artificer says, Hakram,” she said. “Even if the Hashamallim themselves came down from the Heavens and personally pissed that Light, unless we see that body burn with our own eyes then the Hawk isn’t dead. Pass the word to keep an eye out for her.”
Merciful Heavens, Guillaume shivered. Were they all doomed, had the Black Queen had gone made and now spoke to the wind? Or had her powers grown so fearful that she could speak to others who were far away? He was not sure which thought scared him more.
“Your Majesty,” he tried. “I do not-”
Dark eyes turned to him.
“Be silent for a bit,” the Black Queen said. “No, not you. There’s this-”
She cocked an eyebrow.
“What’s your name?”
“Guillaume,” he slowly said.
She cast a glance at his equipment, the worried gambeson and dull cuirass that looked so shoddy compared to her own.
“Brabantine?” she guessed.
“I am,” he said.
“A conscript named Guillaume stumbled into my stillness bubble,” she told the air. “But never mind that. Does Archer have eyes on them?”
After a moment, she blinked in surprise.
“The Archmage came up himself?” she said. “Shit. They’re going for a major breach, then, he wouldn’t come personally unless he expected to have room to cast in. Who’s the other one?”
Guillaume had, without even noticing it, lowered his guard. He must have, or else why would he feel his entire body clenching at the sight before him? The easy expression on the Black Queen’s face went up in smoke, revealing a face that was all hard iron. Starlight dimmed around them, as if shying away in fear.
“Meant for Ishaq’s band to get him, but we’ll do,” the Queen of Callow evenly said. “’Drani knows?”
A heartbeat, then she nodded.
“Good,” the Black Queen said. “She can take the vanguard.”
“Sahelian confirmed it,” Hakram’s voice spoke into her ear. “It’s the Pale Knight with the Archmage. Catherine leaves the vanguard to you.”
Indrani hadn’t needed Flighty Fantom’s say-so to be sure of what it was she was looking it at, but Cat letting her start off the waltz was good news. So long as that damned storm was swirling about, she couldn’t do much with her bow anyway. After the first and only time she’d been able to put an arrow in the Archmage by Seeing a weak point in the winds, the Revenant had rebuilt his usual storm defence from the ground up so there would be no repeat. The most irritating part seemed that the Archmage was now seemingly able to bring other Revenants into its storm to protect them, which he hadn’t been able to a few months back. The defences had improved again.
She was going to have to carve an opening with her swordarm.
“Got it,” Indrani quietly replied, letting the paired stone carry her words.
She unstrung her bow, as it’d make for too easy a target otherwise, and slid it against her back in the leather sheath she’d made. Crouched atop the bastion to the north of the one that’d fallen to the assault of the Scourges, Archer studied the grounds she was going to have to assault once last time. The ramparts of Hainaut had fewer bastions than most walls, though she wasn’t Cat or Hakram so she had no real idea why, but the way they were made was pretty straightforward. Two levels: the lower one accessible from the rampart themselves through gates on each side and the upper one accessible through stairs leading up from inside. Easy grounds to defend.
Trouble was that the dead had come from above, directly on the flat grounds of the upper level, so it was them that were defending. Might still be some soldiers huddled up below, since the Revenants seemed more interested in allowing iron ladders to land on the wall than pushing their advantage, but they wouldn’t last long one the dead got to clearing them out. Indrani wasn’t worried about the skeletons coming up the ladders, but she didn’t like the look of that storm: not only was it spreading out from the bastion on which it was centered, the winds seemed to be getting stronger. If she tried to walk her way to the lower bastion, she risked getting caught up in that.
She narrowed her eyes, trying out a Stride along the path. The feeling wasn’t as clear as when she used the aspect when journeying, but it still tended to give a hint – and this time, the sensation was that of a broken path. Yeah, like she’d thought those winds were going to be a headache. Fortunately, just because she had to go on foot didn’t mean she had to take this particular. Between See and Stride, finding the thin places between Creation and the Ways had always been staggeringly easy to her and tonight was no exception: a little below her perch, two feet forward and five feet off the ground, there was a weakness. Someone must have used powerful magic there earlier, it had that kind of a taste.
Would it get her where she needed to go? Indrani listened to the pulse of her aspects carefully, then nodded in satisfaction. Close enough.
“Going,” Archer told Hakram through the stones. “I’m using the Ways, and tell them to be careful with those winds. I think the storm is growing.”
She did not wait for an answer before leaping down, tumbling through the thin veil on the Pattern even as she reached for her longknives. The Pale Knight was at hand, finally.
Time to teach the Scourge that killing Lysander had been a very fatal mistake.
The connection severed itself before he could sever it, which Adjutant took to mean Archer had entered the Twilight Ways.
It wouldn’t be long before she popped out in the middle of the enemy then, as had been her wont since she’d learned she had a knack for ‘sidling’. Unlike using gates it wouldn’t forewarn the Revenants, another reason that Indrani was best suited among them to taking the vanguard. Even if he’d still had both his legs, he wouldn’t have been able to… Hakram forced himself to concentrate on the here and now. Too often these days did his thoughts take him down fruitless paths. Fingers pressing on another stone, the orc linked to Catherine.
“Indrani is moving, using the Ways,” he told her. “You need to prepare.”
“I hear you,” she replied. “Is Masego ready as well?”
That was the essence of their striking plan, after all. Indrani was to interrupt the Archmage’s casting of the storm, freeing Catherine and Masego to hammer both Scourges immediately with strong workings. From there the plan grew… fluid, as things grew harder to anticipate, but there were ideas that’d been discussed.
“All he needs is my signal,” Hakram replied.
“Then let’s get this going,” Catherine replied, severing the link.
From her tone, the orc decided, she’d be smiling. He found he was as well. Grim as the circumstances were, it had been too long since the Woe had fought as one. That Vivienne’s skulking would be replaced by Akua Sahelian’s was not an improvement to his eyes, but these days Vivienne had duties of her own and – and it seemed that Sahelian wanted to speak. He touched the corresponding tone, and immediately her smooth speaking voice resonated in his ear.
“I have eyes on the undead climbing the ladders,” the shade said. “Most are unarmoured, not shock troops, and they appear to be bringing up barrels. Should I risk a closer look?”
In most battles, it was Catherine that would have made such a call. Weighed the risks and benefits, then send out another to see her will through. Tonight, though, the burden fell on him. With the Woe being split among so many places, there could be no easy coordination save through the artefact Hierophant had crafted for that very purpose. That also meant that the one handling the artefact would make decision that would, typically, belong to the leader of their band. Hakram had been unsure of his own feelings, when Catherine had pressed the duty onto him. On one hand, it was a mark of great trust on her part. On the other, it seemed like an assignment perfectly tailored to keep him away from the fighting.
“Do it,” Adjutant gravelled. “Archer’s going in, we need no surprises.”
“As you say,” Sahelian replied.
It had been the delayed realization that someone would have to take up this task even if he refused it that settled the matter for him, in truth. And that anybody but him would either understand the Woe less, be distrusted by Catherine to see this done properly or be Vivienne Dartwick, who was needed to keep an eye on the Army of Callow in their stead. That the work existed beyond him, that it was not simply made to tuck him aside safely, had soothed the ugly assumptions that had been lurking in the back of his mind. He was shaken out of his thoughts by footsteps, one of his goblin attendants scuttling up the ladder leading up to the belfry overlooking the western rampart where he’d set up.
“Word from the streets,” Lieutenant Tweaker called out, popping her head over the edge. “All invading gates are closed but two, and Beatrice Volignac is wounded but alive.”
“Time estimate for the last two?” he asked.
“The Rogue Sorcerer is headed for the first one, so not long,” the goblin replied. “The other is still disgorging soldiers, though, so only when the Levantines get to-”
The head popped away and there was some chatter further down before it popped back up.
“The Peregrine took care of it,” Lieutenant Tweaker corrected. “Only the Sorcerer’s left now, a half hour at most.”
“Keep me informed,” Adjutant simply replied.
“That’s the aim, sir,” the goblin grinned.
He snorted, eyes returning to the rampart where a storm still raged, but the calm was not to last.
“Ah,” Akua Sahelian suddenly breathed into his ear. “There appears to be something of a complication, Adjutant.”
“Define complication,” Hakram warily said.
“I have obtained one of the barrels in question,” the shade said, “and just opened it. While I’ve no alchemical kit at hand, I do believe this is highly concentrated poison gas.”
It fell into place a moment later. The storm growing, how the Scourges had been remarkably defensive in stance after their initial overwhelming strike. The Archmage had not begun to unleash offensive magics because he was about to turn his storm into one, by making the winds poisonous.
“Can you delay this?” Hakram asked.
The fingers of his dead hand, one of two, drummed against the end of the arm of his wheelchair – a small sculpted skull that Masego had been kind enough to add at his request.
“Unlikely,” Akua Sahelian replied. “My acquisition of the barrel did not go unremarked, and I am now pursued by an entire flock of –”
There was a loud screech on the other side, followed by some very unflattering comments about vultures and baldness in Mthethwa that he suspected the shade had not actually meant for him to hear. Either way, it was now clear who the information needed to be passed on to.
Hakram’s fingers found the stone and the dance began anew.
Guillaume would, in the safety of his own mind, admit to being curious as to why the Black Queen was just standing there and waiting. He wasn’t fool enough to ask, though, or to look in the mouth the horse that was her continued presence here warding danger away. Guillaume had been born in a proper town, been taught some letters by the House of Light, so he wasn’t some countryside yokel. Most of the stories about the Black Queen had to be guff. Tales swapped around camp fires, getting bigger with time or just invented wholesale – for some reason, some of the easterners kept insisting the queen had castrated an ogre in single combat. There had to be some truth to them, though, ands Gods knew there weren’t a lot of monsters out there that the Queen of Callow wouldn’t make think twice.
That was reassuring, in a grim sort of way, which had Guillaume wondering if he had not ferreted out the quintessence of what it meant to be Callowan.
“You’ll need to run when we lift the storm.”
Jolted out of his philosophical musings, Guillaume started and turned to look at the Damned that’d addressed him. The queen looked tense, face set in that frown again, but not otherwise particularly concerned. It was kind of soothing, to have someone around looking at the end times like they were some sort of irritating inconvenience instead of the end of the world.
“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Guillaume feelingly said, then bit his lip. “I didn’t ask, Your Majesty, but my company…”
“If they were on the rampart, they’re dead,” the Black Queen replied, not unkindly, suddenly then raised a finger to silence him. “I’m listening.”
There was a long pause.
“And Akua thinks the winds will carry it?” the queen quietly asked.
Guillaume blinked in confusion. He’d never heard of anyone of that name, though he then reminded himself it was exceedingly unwise to eavesdrop too hard here. Boys from proper little towns like him weren’t meant to hear royal conversations.
“We’ll only get one clear short at the two of them,” the Black Queen reluctantly said. “What’s the risk it could spread into the city?”
A grimace ensued.
“Archer should be able to burn out a single breath’s worth,” the queen muttered. “And she’s got the scarf to filter, afterwards. Shit. How many survivors left from that first strike, do you think?”
Even as she leaned against her staff, the Black Queen – Merciful Heavens, Guillaume thought as he realized with a start that he was probably taller than her – worried her lip. One of her hands was twitching, he noticed, fingers curling into claws as they clenched against her palm and then slowly unclenched. Brown eyes swept across the winds, and then moved to him. He looked away hurriedly, and three long breaths passed.
“Fuck it,” the Black Queen sighed. “We’ll improvise. I’m going in, let Hierophant know.”
Somehow dimly relieved, Guillaume risked a glace at the villainess. She offered her him a wild smile, for a heartbeat turning that dour tanned face into one that had him blushing.
“Hang on tight, Guillaume of Brabant,” she said. “This is going to get rough.”
“Why even bother making a plan, if she was going to discard it?” Masego complained.
“We hadn’t accounted for the gas,” Hakram replied. “If it gets into the city, this battle’s over.”
“As our defeat,” Hierophant hazarded.
It seemed a reasonable guess, considering.
“Yes, Masego, as our defeat,” Hakram amiably agreed. “Catherine’s striking, are you-”
The connection between the two paired stones fizzled for a moment, dimming the last of his words as in the distance Hierophant’s glass eyes glimpsed Night rising up in a great tide of darkness. Catherine was putting her back into it, if the reverberations from her working affected even active spellcraft in the area. An interesting phenomenon, and he itched to have a closer look at that in more contained conditions where the extraneous factors could be filtered out, but alas it would have to wait. Glints of a faded summer sun lighting up every dark, Masego studied his friend’s attack curiously. It seemed a brutish thing, at first glance, a mere tide of shadow slammed into the Tumult’s storm.
That the Scourge immediately answered with light magics, cutting beams of glowing power that tore into the darkness, was yet another reason why the Revenant was utterly underserving of being called an archmage. The effrontery was galling, truly. Someone with proper master of the higher mysteries would have noticed that Catherine, ever clever behind her pretence of thuggishness, hadn’t just gathered Night and tossed it at an enemy working. The light cut through so easily not only because of its properties as one of the classical elements but also because that wave of Night was meant to be broken. It shook the storm some, when impacting it, but when the winds unmade it the darkness allowed itself to be carried by the gales like smoke.
Within thirty heartbeats, the entire storm was filled with a thick haze of Night. Masego felt a sliver of pride had how well she’d learned the foundational principles of Trismegistan sorcery: the essence of magic was, after all, usurpation. Akua Sahelian was to be commended.
“-are you ready?”
“I am,” Hierophant replied. “You may tend to the others. My attack is at hand.”
Surrounded by three dozen barrels of bronze rods positively dripping with invested sorcery, Masego had not held back in Wresting what he required for a fitting admonishment. The magic was thick and pure, its tint strangely similar to that of a thin layer of oil atop water, and it was slowly circling around him according to his will. In the distance, his eyes piercing through the veil of Night surrounding Catherine, he found her silhouette raising her staff into the air. Good, she was about done then. The moment it struck down, to Masego’s unspoken glee, the Night spread out within the storm roiled for one moment as the Tumult had his own spell stolen away from his control. Just long enough for Catherine Foundling to disperse it, abruptly breaking the storm into fading wisps of wind.
“And now my turn,” Masego murmured, robes stirring in the evening wind.
Like a streak of lightning the sorcery shot forward through the sky. Hierophant’s concentration stumbled when he saw Indrani walk out of thin air – she must have sidled through the Ways – behind the Tumult, who did not notice. The Pale Knight did, however, and before a heartbeat had passed the Scourge had his great axe in hand and was moving towards her as he shouted a warning.
“Too slow,” Hierophant spoke through clenched teeth.
The filaments of magic snaked forward, sliding between them, and with a curt gesture of the wrist Masego shaped the sorcery into one of the first formulas he’d ever learned: out of the end of the filament a textbook prefect magic missile erupted, splashing harmless against the Revenant’s armoured helm but blinding it for a moment. Archer ducked under the burning flame unleashed by the Tumult before he even turned completely, circling to stay behind his back, even as Hierophant began shaping the sorcery again. That missile had cost him, he estimated, one part out of a thousand.
Time to see what he might achieve with some halfway decent spellwork instead.
Of course Cat had gotten it into her head that was Indrani clearly needed was for her cover to be snuffed out just before she came out of the Twilight Ways. You know, just so she could be extra visible for the fucking Pale Knight and all. Gods, what a wench. Archer caught the axe between the edge of two knives, struggling against the Scourge for a moment before hastily stepping back when it became clear she wasn’t going to win on strength alone. The bastard was even stronger than she’d come to believe from their first tangle at Lauzon’s Hollow.
“This was unwise,” the Pale Knight said.
“So was that second bottle of red last night, but that’s life for you,” Indrani agreeably replied.
He might have continued the conversation, but instead a streak of colourful magic darted in behind his head and seven wisps of hellflame shot out. The Revenant batted at them with the side of his axe, smothering a few, but more snuck around and slithered into the gap of his armour where they burst. With the Pale Knight distracted, Indrani went back on the offensive and moved to put him between her and the Archmage – which wasn’t enough, damn it, the seventeen arrows of silver light that shot out from the top of the Scourge’s staff curved around his ally. Shit, she was going to have to- and a gate into Twilight shivered to life right in their way, swallowing them all up. Archer grinned. Good, Cat was finally back in the fight.
She stepped around the gate, ducking under a swing of the Pale Knight’s axe and darting forward. The undead in his pale plate tried to knee her at the junction of the shoulder and neck but Indrani tumbled forward and under him. Her longknives cut at the back of the knees as she rose, where most armours had a weakness, but she found no purchase as her blades scratched only steel. That they scratched at all was an improvement on her previous record against the armour, so- ah, she’d been right. There had been a weak point in the armour dead, it was just that the Revenant had had melted steel poured into the back of his knee. Still a weakness with the right tool, then.
And one more strike for Cat’s theory that the Pale Knight’s strange immunity was related specifically to his armour.
Archer kept moving forward, letting her enemy’s backswing pass less than an inch behind her quiver, and got to the Archmage’s flank. The Revenant was struggled with Zeze’s latest bout of cleverness, a pool of raw magic he’d Wrested and was using to pump out spells from a distance by giving shape to parts of the pool – at the moment it was shooting out small tendrils of darkness that Indrani’s Name screamed at her to avoid, so probably some kind of nasty Wasteland curse. The Archmage was frontloading a shield to deal with it, a pane of transparent light, and while its attention was there… ah, not so much of a sucker. Her attempt to sneak a blade into its back was met by a rippling circle of space that almost blew the longknife out of her hand.
And now the Pale Knight was on her again, only for a gate to open in front of him. Indrani went around, putting the gate between herself and the Archmage, which allowed her to see Catherine come out with a bare sword and sock the bastard in the side of the head with her pommel.
“Took you long enough,” Archer said.
Cat snorted, the two of them eyeing the Pale Knight as he steadied his footing and the gate closed behind them.
“Took the scenic route,” Catherine Foundling idly said. “It’s such a nice night out.”
And behind them there was a scream as the wind began spinning above the Archmage, who never did like fighting without a storm to cover his –
Hierophant cocked an eyebrow. Did the Tumult take him for an utter fool? Certainly he could not Wrest to separate entities at the same time, but what kind of a second-rate conjurer would he be if he’d not accounted for such a weakness in his chosen strategy? He set the magic he’d gathered to spinning around itself, slowly feeding a spell that made it rotate as a globe to insignificant costs, and dug into his aspect with relish as he reached for the dawning storm and-
A column of condensed lightning struck the Archmage three times, and Indrani’s heart skipped a beat. It simply could not be denied she had good – nay, exquisite – taste in men. The Pale Knight suddenly went stiff, turning towards, Catherine and in a strange voice spoke a single word to her in a language that Archer did not recognize.
Catherine went still.
“I can’t stop them any longer,” Akua Sahelian said. “They have enough casters concentrating on me that should I linger capture is certain.”
Hakram grimaced. The shade had done well at keeping anyone from climbing the ladders and joining the melee atop the bastion, but it’d only been a matter of time until Keter put together a force capable of dealing with her. He’d honestly not expected her to last so long. Much as he disliked the woman, Adjutant would still acknowledge the skillful performance she had offered tonight given her… reduced capabilities.
“Retreat,” Adjutant gravelled. “Are Revenant coming up?”
“At least two, neither Scourges,” Sahelian replied.
“I’ll pass it along,” Hakram said. “You know what to do.”
She did not acknowledge his words, only severing the connection, a sure sign she was being attacked by enemies but trying not to show it too obviously. Hearing someone come up the ladder, Adjutant turned to see Lieutenant Tweaker’s head pop over the edge.
“Movement at the front gate,” she told him. “At least three wyrms seen, and it’s looking like an all-out assault.”
Hakram, idly, touched his prosthetic. A beautiful piece of work by Masego, that. He laid a finger against a groove in the wood, as if to scratch at a phantom itch.
“Sir,” Lieutenant Tweaker began, “should we-”
Skeletal fingers closing against the length of wood, Hakram whipped out the wand and pressed his thumb against the rune sculpted into the side. There was a ripple of kinetic force as the enchantment was unleashed, the lieutenant’s shape fading and turning into a misshapen Revenant halfway into a leap at him. Adjutant dropped the wand, hand finding the skull on the arm of his wheelchair and drawing out the axe it was the pommel of. He rose with the movement, Name pulsing with joy, and the blade split the skull in half as the undead’s iron claws failed to pierce his chain mail. The Revenant dropped to the ground twitching as the necromancy tried to assert control of the limbs again. Half his body felt aflame, but he steeled himself through the pain.
“You got a goblin’s speed right,” Adjutant clinically assessed, “but not the weight. Sloppy.”
The axe went up, the Revenant’s eyes going wide, and Hakram of the Howling Wolves bared his fangs.
“Next time, Dead King? Send a Scourge.”
The axe went down.
It was the aptness of the counters that allowed Hierophant to understand what he had been dealing with all this time. It was obvious, in retrospect.
The Tumult had answered the Liessen Chisel with a perfect shield in the Pelagian school, hellflame with a Stygian dry dousing developed during Maleficent the Second’s wars against the League, used Jaquinite uncertainty principles to disrupt the magic he’d wrested halfway through a spell. The uninitiated among the heroes had insisted on calling the Revenant the ‘Archmage’ because of its broad variety of masteries in magic, but they’d never noticed that the masteries were impossibly broad. The only individual Masego had ever seen use so many different magics was the Rogue Sorcerer, and if he had never met Roland he might have dismissed this interpretation as him misreading the enemy’s spellcraft. His eyes opened at the possibility, though, it was impossible to miss the telltale marks. This should not, however, be possible. Roland used a great variety of principles, but he had the protection of an aspect and though knowledgeable he was not a master.
The Tumult, however distasteful an entity, was.
Which was absurd, because those masteries could not have been acquired after death: the dictate that undead could not learn was not as absolute as some seemed to believe, but understanding the mysteries of an entirely new school of magic definitely qualified. And it was highly unlikely to have been achieved by living, as Hierophant was rather skeptical that someone capable of mastering multiple schools of magic, whether it drove them made or not, would not have made it into the pages of history. Which meant he was missing something. On a hunch, he tried a repeat: sending both a Liessen Chisel and a spurt of hellfame at the enemy from opposite ends of the massed sorcery. And he got his answer, at last.
The Tumult did parry both, but when it did it used Pelagian shields for both instead of the apter answer he had shown himself capable of using. Moreover, the Tumult had already shown he could cast two spells simultaneously so there was no reason for it not too. Unless it could not. He can only use one school of magic at a time, Masego deduced. And there was an obvious explanation as to why. He reached for his paired stone.
“Hakram,” Hierophant said. “I have a theory about the Tumult.”
“I’m listening,” Adjutant replied.
He sounded a little out of breath, strangely enough.
“It is not a single Revenant,” Masego said. “It is a multitude of dead spellcaster souls stitched onto the same corpse, likely with an oversoul – perhaps the body’s original one – handling matters of control.”
There was a moment of silence.
“If we target that oversoul?” Hakram asked.
“The King of Death is a skillful necromancer,” Hierophant reluctantly replied. “It will not destroy the Revenant. It should, however, make it highly erratic as different souls struggle for control.”
The orc chuckled.
“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”
They’d taken too long to put down the Scourges, so now it was all going south. Indrani backpedalled, letting the axe pass half an inch away from her chin as behind her a blue-tinted shield took the impact from the four black streaks of sorcery that’d been aimed at her back. She flicked a feint at the Pale Knight’s face that the Revenant didn’t even bother to parry, ending up touching his helm, but the shaft of his axe was smashed into her elbow and she was forced to abort her actual blow and scuttle away as she swallowed a scream. Fuck, was it broken or just sprained? Either way, it strung like a bitch. She spared a glance for Cat, who’d just set a Revenant aflame and blown a few skeletons off the bastion but had just been forced to coat herself in a bubble of Night as a pack of undead mages tossed fireballs at her.
Indrani’s straying eyes were not, to her surprise, rewarded by the Pale Knight pursuing. Instead the Revenant was going for… shit, barrels? As in those things full of poison Hakram had mentioned? One, two, three, strokes and three were split open as grey fog came billowing out. She hastily pulled up her scarf, trusting the enchanted weave to filer to toxins, which was long enough for the Archmage to attempt birthing another storm and Masego to shut him down. Unfortunately, the figure in grey and purple robes seemed indifferent to the lightning that was cast down on it. It flickered down the robes, grounding itself into the stone floor, and the Archmage began casting again. Keeping Hierophant tied up, Archer decided.
On the bright side, Indrani had just been given a moment to breathe so she reached for the pouch at her side and carefully unfolded the green cloth folded within before sliding it down the length of both her blades and tossing it to the side. It left them coated in a heavy transparent film, as she’d been told it would. Breathing deep, she went for the fog even as Cat wove some kind of bubble of darkness to suck it out and keep it from spreading too far. As she’d expected, the Pale Knight came out of the smoke aiming at Catherine’s flank. Indrani sped forward, leaning into Stride to quicken her steps, and had to leap when just before she got into range the Revenant turned and swung at her. Catherine hammered at the Pale Knight’s knee to hinder him, but a lesser Revenant was going after her again with a spear so…
Flow, Indrani thought, letting the aspect fill her up.
The axeblade went up, but she slapped it aside with a longknife and spun on herself. She landed on the Pale Knight’s shoulder, tempted to attack but knowing that if she ended movement the aspect would end with it. She slid down the Revenant’s back at is tried to catch her foot, landing behind it in a crouch and smoothly stabbing into the back of both knees. She found only a little bite, but it would be enough. The Pale Knight turned and struck at the same time, sweeping along the ground but she rolled between his legs and emerged in front of him. His extended arm was an opening, and she swiped the flat of a blade against the armoured elbow. The kick caught her in the ribs and one broke, but it was with a smile of triumph that she rolled against the ground and drew herself into a crouch.
The Pale Knight froze for a moment, before dropping his axe and pawing at his elbow as her aspect flickered out.
“Bad choice,” Archer said. “The doses on the knees have had longer to spread.”
Idly, she reached in the pouch and picked out a white cloth she used to wipe her blades clean with.
“What did you do?” the Pale Knight asked.
He stumbled, finding his footing hard to maintain.
“Delivered to you with the Concocter’s regards,” Indrani coldly said. “An alchemical acid that devour only bone and steel, repelled by all other substances.”
The Pale Knight collapse to the ground, the only think keeping his upper legs connected to his thighs the stretch of pale plate covering them.
It was, Indrani thought with a hard smile, just the start.
Hierophant Wrested control of the storm again, jaw clenched, and shattered the spell.
How very irritating. Having grasped that he was facing a superior practitioner, the Tumult no longer even tried to do more than toss the occasional spell the way of Catherine and Indrani: instead he now repeatedly spent his power trying to birth another storm, not in hope of success but because doing so would command Masego’s attentions. Hierophant himself rarely had long enough to do more than to form the occasional second-rate spell and send it flying before he must focus his attentions on the spell again, and the repeated struggle of wills against the Revenant was starting to tire him. Unlike the magic taken from inert objects, the Scourge’s own must be forcefully usurped.
Masego felt sweat beading his forehead and going down his back. No, this stalemate was not to his advantage or that of his companions. The Tumult indicated the rhythm of their clashes, which meant he had an easier time sending spells at Catherine and Indrani than Hierophant had of defending them. The last three times it’d begun using increasingly obscure curses, and for the last Masego would admit that he’d been largely guessing when he’d used Sisi’s Sphere as a defence – he’d not been certain it would actually work. He must regain the momentum, and that meant one thing: when the storm next began to form, Hierophant let it.
Instead he gathered all the sorcery he had left in a spinning globe, shaping it in one great working.
“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he began.
The world shuddered, seven wooden pillars forming out of raw magic around the Tumult. The Revenant tried to abandon the spell hastily, but Masego smiled. It is too large, he thought. And it takes you a moment to change between schools. Four runes formed above the Revenant’s head, linked by a circle of pale light.
“Four cardinals, one meridian,” he continued. “The wheel unbroken, spokes that are not. Thou shall not leave the circle.”
And that, Hierophant decided, was a stalemate he could live with.
“Funny thing,” Catherine Foundling said. “It was actually the Mirror Knight that helped me figure out how to kill you.”
The Mantle of Woe fluttering around her Cat – no, in that moment Indrani could only think of her as the Black Queen – parried the last lesser Revenant’s spear blow and severed its head with a brutal riposte, ripping out the blade and kicking the body over the edge of the bastion and onto a skeleton trying to climb up. The Pale Knight tried to push itself up with its axe, but Indrani kicked it away. The Revenant fell to his knees. She stepped away, sheathing her blades and reaching for her quiver.
“It’s the Named you avoided in Cleves,” the Black Queen idly continued. “The Red Knight and the Myrmidon. The Red Knight I understand – Devour is a headache and a half to deal with, but the Myrmidon? I couldn’t figure out why.”
The Pale Knight brought out another axe but Indrani had an Unraveller in hand – a great javelin artefact, one she’d adjusted so it could be fired from her bow but still very much a javelin. A swipe had that axe clattering away again and Archer added a smack against the helm so he would fall down on his back.
“But then I remembered that I never struck at you without adding Night to the blow,” Catherine added, Night gathering to her like rivers to the sea. “And it fell into place. It’s strength you have trouble with. Of that front, aside from the Mirror Knight who’s damned slow those two are the physically strongest Named.”
It was kind of hot, Indrani admitted to herself, when she monologued. She got that gleam in her eye, like she… well, maybe after this if they could spare the time. Probably counted as a form of healing, if you squinted a bit. Night caught her by the shoulders and tendrils began hoist her up into the sky. Higher and higher and higher, until the Pale Knight was barely more than a silhouette trying to get up, and then the darkness seized her tight.
“And down we go,” Archer manically grinned.
She angled the unraveller downwards and the tendrils of Night drew back a bit before throwing her down. Eyes wide open, silent as she went down, she watched as the Pale Knight hacked away at the tendrils of shadow tripping him and slowly began to rise just in time to look up and see her. She met his eyes a heartbeat before the impact, too late for him to swing at her, and she slammed the unraveller through his throat through the gorget of pale steel. The Scourge gasped and she leaned in, ignoring the tremors of pain going down her legs from the landing.
“His name was Lysander,” Indrani whispered. “Where you end up, carry that with you.”
And with a final wrench she severed the head clean. Panting, Archer tried to get up but stumbled only for Cat to reach her side and help her stand. She also, bless her petty soul, kicked the Revenant’s head. Indrani cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Fucker killed my horse,” Catherine said, unrepentant.
Indrani saw that already undead were coming over the wall, the iron ladders steadily disgorging their lot, but it was the Archmage her gaze strayed to. Though bound by Masego’s miracle, the Scourge had barely scuffed his robes throughout the fighting. For a bastard who preferred to fight at range, he’d proved remarkably resilient up close.
“Still need to finish that before we retreat for healing,” Catherine muttered, “though at least he’s still-”
A wooden pillar loudly cracked.
“Fuck,” Cat said, “I really ought to know better by now.”
Three of them blew and the Archmage’s hand swept out, but no magic ensued. Indrani pushed away and reached for her longknives even as Cat struck out with a spear of Night, but a shape moved in the way before it could hit the Revenant. Akua Sahelian, dressed in threads of shadow, moved stiffly so stand between the Archmage and the Night. Cat pulled the blow at the last moment.
“Go through,” Akua said through gritted teeth. “I’ll-”
Her mouth shut. The last pillars shattered one after another and the Archmage shook free. Masego struck from a distance with brilliant blue flames but they splashed harmlessly on a shield, and when Cat threw a few threads of shadow they were carved through with arrows of silver light. Archer cautiously approached, keeping an eye on Akua as she did. They couldn’t let the Revenant flee, as it was obviously ramping up to. The Wastelander must have been sneaking up on the Archmage and gotten caught, she thought, only that didn’t seem like Akua at all. Weapon-wise, if the Archmage put her in the way it shouldn’t be an issue. She had only a silver dagger in hand, enchanted by the looks of it, but wait wasn’t that a –
A flock of yellow bee-like spurts of flame from Masego had the Scourge putting up a swirling ball of power to suck them up, while Catherine’s curving arrows of darkness were met with matches in silver light. And with both hands occupied, the Archmage had nothing left to spare when Akua Sahelian thrust a ritual dagger into his left eye.
“Please,” the shade amicably smiled. “As if I would allow myself to be snatched like some petty errant soul. For that presumption, allow me to take one of yours.”
The Revenant screamed with a dozen different voices as she ripped out the knife, its blade glinting with eerie light, and the Wastelander smiled in triumph. Indrani hurried forward. If they could finish the Archmage here and now… All Indrani saw was a flicker, but she was the Archer and so she knew what she’d glimpsed. An arrow. And, heart clenching, she knew where it’d been aimed. She turned, watching a circle of Night flare around Catherine but failing to stop the black-feathered arrow that punched into the side of her face. Cat fell the floor, spurting blood, and even as Akua let out a scream of dismay the Archmage leapt off the edge of the bastion.
In the distance, two crows screeched in agony.
In the sky above Hainaut there were great rumbling sounds as power gathered, thousands of mages in the plains below unleashing their rituals at least. One after the other, three great gates above the city.
And water began pouring out of them.