“To sacrifice is to embrace end for the sake of beginning.”– Daphne of the Homilies, best known for ending hereditary rule in Atalante
Special Tribune Robber of the Rock Breaker tribe threw himself to the side, landing in sprawl as the dead scrabbled at him. No point in even stabbing at those, he figured, there were too many for a knife to do any good. Nails ripped at his face before he bit the fingers off and spat out the fouled blood, wriggling through the hands and blades of the writhing mass of undead. A sharper went off close, biting thunder in a ball, and it was an opening. Tripping through shredded flesh and iron, sucking deep of the smoke, the goblin crawled beneath some Bind in bronze armour and tumbled down the stairs. He reached for a sharper of his own but found his bag ripped open – half his munitions were gone, and he’d spent most of the other half.
Cackling out a curse, Robber ducked under some skeleton’s axe swing and pushed the dead down onto the corpse on the stair below it. A blade rang against his back, biting at the mail, but he scuttled down the corpse he’d pushed and leapt off the makeshift ramp. He landed among a pack of ghouls, all of them turning like bloodhounds with bared fangs, but there was a flash of heat as a streak of flame coming from above cut through a few. Claws ripped at his side, but these creatures he could wound. He stabbed the ghoul’s eyes twice, moving so it shielded him from the others as it screamed, and made a run for it down the cobblestone road as a volley of shining spears began to fall from above.
There were still a few skeletons in the way, but Robber slipped by after hamstringing one from behind with a laugh. The barricade was covered in soot and blood, but the legionaries manning it seemed in a decent enough mood as the opened their shields to let him through. Catching a few whispers of his name, Robber took a moment to preen under their gazes before getting to business.
“I’m looking for Poulain street,” the Special Tribune said, dusting off his shoulders. “Happened to get lost on the way. Don’t suppose any of you have directions to offer?”
“We’re two blocs west, sir,” a young lass answered. “It’s the next barricade, can’t miss it. We had to collapse the street in between when the lines buckled.”
When the lines had broken, more like, but that wasn’t the kind of talk the officers would be encouraging. Robber had been extracting himself from enemy lines while that disaster had come home to roost, but he’s still been able to spare a glance or two for the sight of the Second and Fourth legging it. Someone – probably one of the Woe, it was usually a safe bet when it came to shit like this – had since hung a sun in the sky and what was probably Vivienne had led a countercharge that’d ended the rout. How long that would last, though, was a question digging at him. It’d take more than a lightshow and a banner to turn this around.
“Good, I was already getting bored,” Robber grinned. “Do finish that Bone I stabbed earlier, would you? I hate to leave the work half-done.”
A few laughs, some solemn vows, but some of them wanted more. Aside from a few stray attacks at their barricade they must not have seen much action tonight, considering they were too far to the east of the where the Grey Legion had struck.
“Preparing another spot of goblinfire, sir?” a sergeant asked. “Most the city saw your last one, it’ll be hard to beat.”
Not exactly. The barricade on Poulain street was where his cohort was meant to rally after it had scattered during their deep strike on the constructs. It was where the goblin would learn how many of his marauders had made it out – one in five, one in ten? For all he knew, he might be the only survivor. There’d been close calls, making his way back to safe grounds. Borer at least ought to have made it back, he decided. The good captain was already dead inside, Keter’s boys wouldn’t even notice he wasn’t on their side.
“Half the fun’s in the surprise,” Robber chided. “Any of you lot heard where Lady Vivienne would be at?”
“Word is the princess is out west, with the Hierophant,” the same lass from earlier said. “They’re driving back the Grey Legion.”
The princess? He eyed the others, and though some eyes had been rolled at the title no one had apparently cared to contest it. Not even the few orcs in the crowd, the lot that tended to get touchiest where the Boss was involved. Dartwick wouldn’t knife Catherine, mind you. Didn’t have the stones, and she had the crown neatly lined up in a few years anyway. Her little charge tonight had made a splash, though, and that devil wasn’t ever going to get shoved back in the circle. All above his paygrade that, so he didn’t spare more thought for it. He took his leave instead, taking to the rooftops instead of sticking down in the streets where the dead swarmed. It was a good city for that, built mostly in stone instead of wood, and there’d been plenty of slate for the roofs.
It was easy to find where sappers had blocked off the street in the middle, since they’d knocked down houses on both sides until the street reached a temple of the House of Light with a small belfry jutting out. It was through there that Robber passed, lingering beneath the bells so he could have a proper look at the battle below.
Almost immediately, he let out a whistling hiss through his teeth. Looked good, at first glance, but he’d been in a battle or two since the College. The eerie sun up above was keeping the Grey Legion bogged down and the centre of the Army of Callow’s line had steadied, but he wasn’t seeing a lot of holes in the ranks of the steel-clad dead and that was bad news. Meant once Ol’ Bones broke this binding, and he would, it would start smelling like rout again. The flanks, which were all Fourth army, were being pressured as well. The Crab was spitting out dead by the hundreds through ramps docked against the gates and the ramparts, and the only reason the lines hadn’t shattered was that the bastions and ramparts were good bottlenecks.
The trouble with bottlenecks was that Keter tended to throw constructs at them ‘til they popped, and Robber wasn’t seeing much that’d be able to handle them. If a few Named were to pop up, maybe, but with the entire city being squeeze tight at the moment there was no guarantee of guardian devils – or angels. Special Tribune Robber, for the first time in years, allowed himself to curse quietly in the stonetongue. At this rate, the battle was lost. To that he only knew one solution: he’d pick up what was left of his cohort and find the Boss.
The Black Queen was as a needle in a haystack, were the haystack aflame and swarming with soldiers. It should have been impossible to find her, for the shade left to guard over her would be hiding her from the enemies still seeking her death, but in truth it was merely improbable.
To Tariq Fleetfoot, that change of word made all the difference
The Adjutant was not swift on his crutches, but that did not matter when their steps were guided by something greater than they. Listening to his instincts and the whispers that went beyond them, the Grey Pilgrim led them down alleys and through broken shops, weaving trough smoke and screams as the city began to die around them. The western wall was going to fall, the Ophanim whispered. Soon. Time was running out. It was in a pleasure house they found the Queen of Callow, the establishment long empty and closed save through passages that the dead would not find easily. Not so for the Pilgrim, who led the Adjutant down them until they were intercepted by drow in the colours of the Losara Sigil.
From there it was not a long walk to the madam’s room, where Akua Sahelian was zealously keeping watch over the unconscious body of Catherine Foundling. As always the shade’s emotions were difficult to properly Behold, as if muted by night or smoke, but Tariq found both anguish and a shaded sort of pride there. As if she herself had done something worth lauding, though a feeling of… transgression? Yes, transgression was threaded into it. She also held sway over the drow, who cleared the room when she asked them to and left the three of them alone with the slumbering Black Queen. Tariq was somewhat amused to see that even in times of hardship she made a point of greeting the Adjutant formally and first before cursorily acknowledging his presence.
“And what is it that brings you here?” Akua Sahelian asked. “It will be some time before the way to the next safehouse is clear, we can afford to speak some.”
“The Peregrine,” the Adjutant growled, “claims he has a way to wake Catherine. A ruinous one.”
Wariness, in this one, but also expectation. Tariq was perhaps not trusted, but at least trusted to deliver. The insult, though, he would not let pass quietly.
“You mistake me,” the Grey Pilgrim said, tone sharp for all the calmness. “Am I some petty conjurer, to pay my debts in the blood of others? I am a servant of Mercy, now and in all things: I will visit no ruin on others I am not willing to visit on me and mine.”
The orc studied him a moment, then inclined his head.
“You have my apology, then,” Adjutant said.
It was sincerely meant, and so Tariq let it end at that.
“I can wake the Black Queen because the Ophanim will lend me their hand in the work,” Tariq said. “And when she wakes, I am to offer her a bargain.”
The shade studied him.
“Were they not willing to lend their help earlier?” Akua Sahelian asked.
Tariq did not answer, which he supposed was damning enough. The Ophanim would not be moved to lend their help to one of Below’s, even one allied to them, were the consequences of refusing that help not calamitous. It was not simply in their nature to do so, to abet greater suffering to come for the sake of lesser suffering taking place. The greatest concession they could make was absence of action. Tariq had asked back then and they had refused, only for him to find his own skills with Light insufficient for the task. Even now, when they had conceded after he asked a boon of them, it ran against their nature to accept his request.
“Charming,” the shade said, tone dripping with aristocratic disdain. “Still, better late than never I suppose.”
The Adjutant cleared his throat.
“And what was is my presence required for, Peregrine?”
Tariq cocked an eyebrow. He had believed it obvious.
“Because you are the person Catherine Foundling loves most in the world,” he said. “If I were the one to call her out of her slumber, I would be refused. You will not be.”
Something golden bloomed inside the Adjutant, in the wake of his words. Love returned, but there were shades to it. Relief, guilty surprise, shame, vindication? For all that they were often shallow, the orc’s emotions were among the most complex that the Grey Pilgrim had ever seen. The Adjutant nodded, face grown taut.
“What must I do?” he asked, his voice rough.
Before Tariq could answer, he was interrupted.
“She will lose nothing through this ritual you press on her?”
Akua Sahelian did not quite believe him, it seemed. She had not been raised to believe in fair dealings.
“It is not a service I render her to wake,” Tariq plainly said.
“Speak the words, Pilgrim,” the shade said, golden eyes gone hard.
“She will not be harmed by this,” the Pilgrim flatly said.
The dark-skinned woman eyed him for a moment, then sighed and moved away. Frustration bloomed in her, regret and resignation warring. Heeding Tariq’s instruction, the Adjutant took the hand of his mistress with his fingers of bone and held it. Eyes closed the orc began to breathe in and out evenly. The Ophanim murmured uncertainly in the Pilgrim’s ears as he approached, but he reminded them of their promise. He laid hand on the Black Queen’s neck, grimacing at the sight of the fresh scar she’d earned tonight. That eye would not be returned to her, not if it had been taken by an aspect. Enough distraction, he chided himself. Turning his attention inwards, Tariq sunk into the Light.
He did not draw it into him, to be wielded or shaped, but instead immersed his own soul into the light of the Heavens made manifest. Earthly senses began to fade even as the voices of the Ophanim became clearer, louder. They guided his hands, patient teachers that they were, even as he shared a shard of the Light with the Black Queen’s body. She was not entirely human, he saw with startlement. Differences had been made, set into the essence of her body. The work of the goddesses of theft and murder she worshipped, the old priest decided, for this seemed not dissimilar to the boon that kept the Mighty ageless: Catherine Foundling’s lifespan had been stretched out, as if every day she had been born to live was to take a hundred instead to be spent. And there was more, a deeper shaping that he found only as the shard of Light found its way to what he sought.
The very soul of the Black Queen.
It was still the same mangled thing it had been since that first time he glimpsed it by campfire, scarred and cut and hacked away at. The difference was that it had been… facilitated towards Night. It had helped the stretching of the lifespan, the Ophanim spoke in their coldly ringing voices, but it had not been the purpose. Catherine Foundling could hold more Night than a mortal should, absurdly more. More than she would be able to wield, Tariq thought, which meant wielding had not been the purpose. A receptacle, the Ophanim said. A vessel. Not for possession, but for the hiding away of their power and godhead should it be threatened. It no longer seemed words of simple trust, when the Eldest Night had told him that had their chosen been awake the Dead King’s trap would not have been a threat.
Tariq went deeper still, finding the great wisps of the Bestowal shaping itself around the unconscious woman. It tasted of authority, he thought, as if the commanding ring of her words had not told him that already. Of steel. And of something else, something that eluded his understanding. East, the Ophanim said. What would birth her Bestowal lay in the east, not this endless nightmare war. And it was a purpose bound to another, like bound stars, calling and casting away. Is this what is to come? The Ophanim could not tell. The future was clouded, darkened. And the Pilgrim’s flicker of Light went deeper still, until it touched the sleeping mind of the queen. The consciousness swatted away the touch, as hard-bitten in the throes of dreams as it was when awake.
So Tariq left another to the work, simply bringing forth the presence of the Adjutant and the Black Queen he served. What was spoken there between souls he did not watch, for it was not his place, but as the Grey Pilgrim emerged gasping from the Light he heard another gasping breath along with his. Catherine Foundling, helped into a sitting position on the bed by Akua Sahelian, was opening her eyes. Eye, now, he supposed. He watched the realization of that particular change sink in as she groped at her face. Her lips tightened, then she breathed out. Tariq was surprised to realize that he could sometimes glimpse the outermost edges of her soul now, of her emotions. The protection of the Crows had weakened.
“Fuck,” the Queen of Callow cursed. “I got shot by the Hawk, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Hakram Deadhand fondly rasped. “Even after all that talk about keeping an eye out.”
“Hey now,” Queen Catherine blearily muttered, “did I do hand jokes?”
“Yes,” the Adjutant said.
“Constantly,” Akua Sahelian agreed.
“It was one of the first things you said to me after your return from the Everdark,” the Adjutant noted.
Tariq kept silent, letting her draw on the comfort of their company without spoiling it by reminding her of his presence, and she gathered herself with a sigh as the shade pressed a cushion under her back.
“That one’s going to sting, and the Night feels like it’s gone through a wringer,” the Black Queen frowned. “Don’t suppose you could bring me up to speed, Tariq?”
“We have,” the Grey Pilgrim simply said, “lost the battle.”
Disbelief, tempered by what he suspected was a reminder to herself about patience. It had that self-inflicted note to it.
“Breaches?” she asked.
“There have been,” Tariq says. “And there will be more.”
“That can be turned around,” the Black Queen said. “Even if your Choir disagrees.”
“The Crab has made an appearance,” the Adjutant gravelled. “The Grey Legion breached the gates and the Fourth and Second routed until Vivienne rallied them.”
That gave her pause, Tariq saw, though her soul was obscured to his sight.
“Your opinion?” she asked the orc.
“If we do not retreat,” the Adjutant said, “we risk annihilation.”
Tariq watched the shudder of fear and fury and recrimination go through her, taking no pleasure in it. He, too, understood what this night would cost them. What it had already cost them. The queen glanced at the shade, who shook her head. Her opinion was no different.
“I reserve the right to change my mind,” the Black Queen coolly said, “but let’s say I believe you. You didn’t spend time and tricks in the middle of this nightmare to wake me up so we could have a pleasant chat, Pilgrim. What is it you want from me?”
She thought differently than the Black Knight did, Tariq noted. He tended to begin with larger concepts and then narrow in, while she instead went down winding but narrow paths. That way of silencing almost all of their mind in order to focus on the opposition, though, was eerily similar.
“There is something that can be done,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Something that will deny the Enemy its victory. But the price of it will be, as I have told the Adjutant, ruinous.”
“To you,” the Black Queen said, eyes narrowing.
And that is why half the world fears you, child, Tariq thought, not without fondness.
“Yes,” he simply said.
“Blood and smoke.”
She breathed out shallowly.
“A dear price,” the Black Queen murmured. “And so now you would bargain.”
“Your prayer, it will end this?”
“As if it were written in the stars,” Tariq smiled, amused at his own expense.
“What do you want for it?” she asked.
“Three boons,” the Pilgrim said, “Once before, I entrusted you with the two I believe will be the future of my home.”
“Those troublesome lordlings,” she frowned.
Underneath it, though, he glimpsed a flicker of affection threaded with irritation. They had learned more from her than she knew, though she had never claimed them as students.
“See them through this war,” Tariq quietly asked. “And when they take leave of you, see them off ready to face the trials that lay ahead.”
She considered him for a moment, that sole eye cold and measuring. Slowly, she nodded. There was something of a commotion outside the room, but Tariq paid it no mind. Nothing could be more important than this single conversation.
“Make peace with the White Knight,” Tariq asked. “That this civility may one day pass to all in service of Above and Bellow.”
He glimpsed her soul the briefest moments, seeing it weigh… consequences, stories? Dozens of them in a moment, keeping and cutting and settling on an answer. The old priest found it as frightening as he did fascinating. The Queen of Callow nodded once more.
“Two boons,” she said. “Your last?”
“The Ophanim will sing with me,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “I alone do not have the strength. Yet the Dead King has brought with him one of the fortresses that moves, a Crab. These bear wards and enchantments, among them a great working that restricts the touch of angels on Creation.”
“I do not have the strength to bring it down anymore,” the Black Queen admitted. “Perhaps if Sve Noc were with me, but even so I’m not sure my body can take the strain. The poison left marks.”
Tariq shook his head.
“They know where the magic was laid that fights them,” the Pilgrim said. “In the belly of the best. I require of you someone that will journey there and destroy it.”
She went still as stone.
“There will be no coming back from that,” Catherine Foundling said.
“No,” Tariq quietly agreed.
“You want me to send one of the Woe?” she hissed. “Fuck you, Peregrine. I’d rather roll the dice on fighting. If you really-”
Akua Sahelian gently laid a hand on her wrist. The queen paled, teeth clenching.
“No,” she said.
“It would be just,” the shade softly said. “Or close enough.”
The Adjutant, tellingly, spoke not a word. His soul had measured deaths, and found this one the most acceptable.
“I said no, Akua,” the Black Queen harshly repeated. “You don’t get to just jump off a bridge and call it quits, that’s not-”
“Well now,” a voice drawled. “Looks like I came in at just the right time.”
Tariq turned, brow raising when he saw a goblin covered in soot, blood and dust swagger in. A sapper, he recognized, and he’d even seen this one before. Special Tribune Robber, he believed? He was rather famous in the Army of Callow as one of the Black Queen’s finest men.
“Robber, what are you doing here?” the Queen of Callow frowned.
“Volunteering,” the goblin grinned. “Sound like a proper evening, it does. Raiding a Crab, destroying ancient magics, calling down the wrath of angels? Can’t believe I almost missed it.”
Yet he had not. Whose hand had it been, Tariq wondered: Above or Below’s?
“Come off it,” the Black Queen sharply said. “Your cohort-”
“Only thirty-two of us left,” Robber said. “It’s not even a company. But we’ll do, Boss. For this, we’ll do.”
“The war’s not over, Robber,” she tried. “There’s still battles-”
“That’ll be more glorious than this?” the goblin laughed. “Doubt it. Wouldn’t matter even if there were, Cat. This one’s got our name written on it.”
“Why are you all so fucking eager to get yourselves killed?” Catherine Foundling roared out, lights dimming in the room. “Robber, I swear on the Gods Below that-”
“It’s settled, Boss,” the goblin smiled, almost gently. “We’re going. Even if you tie me up, you know I’ll slip the bounds and go. It’s done. The arrow’s been loosed.”
The anger went out of her like a flame guttering out. The glimpse of her soul that Tariq found had him looking away. He’d not seen such violent, exhausted grief in a long time. It was… not pleasant to behold.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” the young woman said, voice raw.
“Only cowards live to fifteen, Cat,” Special Tribune Robber said, smiling. “It’s been coming a long time, tonight.”
Tariq closed his eyes, knowing it had come to a close. The pieces were falling in place. One more, now, and it would begin.
The clouds of acidic smoke that the great undead dragon spewed out were so large they must have been visible from the other side of the city.
The mages would do what they could – the Rogue Sorcerer had gone to lead them – but the damage was already done. The Brabant conscripts, freshly returned back to the rampart, broke and ran again. The officers that would have been their backbone laid dead in a marsh to the east of Hainaut, where Klaus himself had ordered them burned. Panic was a vicious thing, in a battle, worse a killer than any sword, and tonight it bit deep at the men holding the western wall. Once the conscripts fled the fantassin reinforcements they’d been screening were left exposed, and as another wave of beorns came over the walls to protect the ladders being secured the fantassins began to waver as well. They were not cowards, that lot, but they were stuck between two strengthening enemy beachheads with no real way out.
The original order likely had been to clear the bastion the Archmage had hit earlier, as it was the easier flank of the two, but it all went sour when the dead began striking at their back as they fought. The dead in the bastion withdrew just enough that the fantassins would be able to flee down into the city, and flee they did. The last stretch of the western wall, to the north, was still in the hands of the Prince of Bayeux and holding strong. Even if they held, though, it would change nothing. All that Arsene Odon would achieve was preventing the dead from hitting the back of the Army of Callow by the rampart, with the rest of the wall in the hands of Keter they were free to push into the city itself.
Prince Klaus Papenheim knew better than to shy away from uncomfortable truths after swords left the sheath, so he did not flinch away from this one: the battle for Hainaut was lost. It was now his duty to act so that the nature of this defeat did not end up destroying the Principate and the rest of Calernia with it.
He ordered barricades raised to block most streets along the line of the fallen rampart, manned by soldiers of Hannoven that would not hesitate to kill anyone trying to force their way, but left two large avenues free for the conscripts and mercenaries to feel down. He sent for Princess Mathilda, and so received his first blow of the night: the only answer brought back by his captain was a black-feathered arrow, sodden with blood. Pushing down the grief – he still remembered her as a girl, close as sisters with his own – the Iron Prince forced himself to keep his mind on the battle. He sent the Neustrians to secure the gate into Twilight, and his most trusted captain to make sure that the Gigantes were out of the city before they could be killed and raised.
Word was sent out east to the Dominion informing them of the situation and warning that an orderly retreat was the only path left to them if the Grand Alliance did not want to turn Hainaut into the doom of the continent. Klaus sent word to General Bagram so that the Army of Callow might join the effort, learning that while the Second Army still held the Fourth was buckling on the walls. If they broke too early, the Prince of Hannoven knew, then this would turn into a massacre. The surviving parts of the Fourth Army held the bastions on both sides of the gates that were preventing the dead from striking at Prince Arsene and the Dominion form behind. Bayeux would fold in mere moments should that happen, if they hadn’t already, and the Levantines were already seeing redoubled assaults on their positions. They were at risk of breaking too, should they be flanked, and if they did break then the battle would grow beyond salvaging.
“We need to bolster the positions of the Fourth,” the Prince of Hannoven told his captains. “If we do not, this city takes us all.”
“Horse won’t cut it for holding a bastion,” Captain Engels said. “And we can’t move foot quickly enough, my prince, even if we can even move it at all. Callowan lines are bunched up, they can barely even move their own troops.”
“We could cut through the Bayeux positions,” Captain Abend suggested.
“If they rout while we cross, or even after, then we’ll be trapped there,” Captain Tietjen objected.
There was no easy answer, the Iron Prince thought, and the longer they dithered the fewer options they would have left. And yet he found himself at a loss. His army was already stretched too thin, and the Neustrians needed to keep the gate. Could the Firstborn be called on? They seemed to have rallied enough to aim fire at the undead scaling the pit sorcery had made in the heart of the city, but they had lost a step. Worse, General Rumena missing they had no leading officer: only a mass of bickering tribes which it might take to long to gather into cohesive reinforcements even if they were inclined to lend a hand. They would have to risk it, Klaus finally decided. What else was left?
The answer of the Gods came in the face of another weary old man in faded grey robes.
“Prince Klaus,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly smiled.
“Peregrine,” the Prince of Hannoven replied. “You bring word?”
“I bring death,” the Pilgrim said. “Nothing more or less.”
The old general softly laughed.
“Death is our sole birthright, Peregrine,” Klaus Papenheim smiled. “It’s why it matters to spend our lives well. It will be a good one I hope?”
“Among the finest,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly smiled, and told him the plan.
Between his height and the orc’s crutches, they had about the same pace.
“Did you know,” Robber idly said, “that you were the first person I ever spoke to, at the College?”
“Liar,” Hakram snorted. “I heard you picked a fight with Yagin from Tiger Company while you were still waiting in line for dormitory assignments.”
“It’s really quite unpleasant how hard you are to lie to,” Robber complained.
“It’s not easy, you’re just a naturally honest man,” Hakram assured him.
Mortally offended, the goblin gasped and put a hand over his heart.
“Fighting words, greenskin,” Robber said. “The honour of my deep and ancient house-”
“Your tribe is called the Rock Breakers,” Hakram skeptically noted.
“Because even our newborn babes are mighty enough to split a boulder with a single punch,” Robber lied.
Hakram looked him up and down, then cocked an eyebrow. He said nothing, which made it even worse.
“Don’t think I won’t stab a cripple,” Robber warned. “We do it all the time, it’s much easier than stabbing people who aren’t cripples.”
“Have I lately mentioned my deep respect for you culture?” Hakram gravelled.
Magnanimously, Robber only kicked his chin. Godsdamnit, the bloody thing was armoured. That prick.
“You’ll be one of the last to die when the Great Goblin Conspiracy finally takes the world,” Robber conceded.
“Merciful,” Hakram praised. “You are in a fine mood indeed, Lord Robber of the House of Lesser Footrest.”
The goblin preened, glorying in the way that he’d worked himself back up to Lesser Footrest last month. His was an ancient and honourable title. And when Hakram leaned over to slip something into his munitions bag, he was even in a good enough mood to pretend not to notice. They’d reached the end of the path, anyhow. The last of his cohort were gathered, Borer having just come back with a fresh loadout of munitions. Now all that was left was for the Lycaonese to open the dance. The two of them lingered in silence for a long moment.
“Anything you want Pickler told?” Hakram quietly asked.
“There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “I left her a letter, though. Make sure she gets it?”
His friend – his oldest friend, perhaps even his first friend – nodded.
“I won’t say it’s been an honour,” Hakram smiled.
“Gods forbid,” Robber grinned back, then hesitated.
He looked to the side, embarrassed.
“We had… we had times, didn’t we?”
“The best,” Hakram replied, voice hoarse.
They stayed like that for a longer while still, until the sound of horses nearing told them time had run out.
“Make sure Cat doesn’t let it eat at her,” Robber quietly said. “It’s not about her, not really.”
“I know,” Hakram said.
They met eyes, the goblin and the orc, and clasped arms.
“Somewhere, somewhen,” Robber grinned.
“We’ll meet again,” Hakram finished, smiling.
They let go of their arms and not another word was spoken.
“Strike hard and do not slow,” Prince Klaus Papenheim said. “Stay with your captains. If you are split from your company…”
He paused, raising an eyebrow.
“Find a nice place to die,” he suggested.
Laughter shook his riders. The jest was an old one, well-worn gallows humour of the kind his people tended to prefer.
“Our duty is not to be victorious,” the Prince of Hannoven said, “for there is no victory to be had there. We open the way for the handpicked sappers of the Black Queen, that they might destroy the enemy’s sorcery and free the Pilgrim to strike down evil.”
The answering cheers were hoarse, but they were wholeheartedly meant. There were less than a thousand of them left now, even after they’d taken southern horses to fill the ranks. The Prince of Hannoven looked at them with old affection, that old soldierly lot that’d followed him through a hundred battles on a hundred fields. Not so young now, for he was long past his own youth, but though the faces had grown wrinkled and the hair had gone white the eyes remained iron.
“We’ve had battles,” Klaus Papenheim said. “And we have kept the oaths we swore. I’ll not preach to you what is at stake, sons and daughters of Hannoven. Haven’t we all heard that song a hundred times already?”
The world was always ending, one piece at a time. There was always a doom over the horizon, taking its first newborn steps even as you buried the last.
“Behind us is spring,” the Iron Prince said. “Ahead of us is the Enemy. You are Lycaonese, so what more is there to say?”
Klaus Papenheim, Prince of Hannoven, unsheathed his sword. A thousand riders did with him, the steel bright under the stars of the Twilight Ways. Before them the gates yawned open, revealing a city devoured by nightmares. Horns sounded, defiant in the gloom, and backs straightened.
“Forward,” the Iron Prince shouted, and forward they went.
Tariq sat, not in a dignified stance as some straight-backed sage but instead like an old man lowering himself against the broken wall of a temple, his bones aching. He would not be found easily, he had been promised this. He sunk into the Light, as easily as taking breath, and let it fill him. The Ophanim, his old friends, were close. Yet they could not help him through the last step, not yet. All that was left to do was wait.
Wait and trust in the valour of others.
They plowed into the enemy ranks, smashing and hacking as they went. Through the flat grounds of the gatehouse, green flame licking at their sides as they rode through death and broken engines, trough ghouls and skeletons and even a roaring beorn. The old banner of Hannoven held high in the wind, the lone spearman on the wall and the old boast of the House of Papenheim beneath it. War cries resounding through the night as hooves thundered, Klaus Papenheim and his thousand rode up the ramps leading into the Crab. That city-monstrosity, laden with monsters and corpses it was pouring out into Hainaut. Undead and horsemen tumbled down below but they pierced through the dead and took the ramp, clearing it for the sappers to follow them. But a few of them, small creatures that they were, and so quick on their feet.
They would make it to the end, if the Iron Prince and his riders died loud enough.
Curses streaked at them in swarms, arrows and javelins flew, but tonight the Heavens were with the Lycaonese. The wind turned, the Crab shook, and onwards the riders went into the city. A thing of iron and bone, of stone and dead flesh, and the fumes it belched out billowed foul as the horsemen pressed through. Pikes came for them first, gathered hastily in a street, but Klaus Papenheim laughed and began to sing.
“The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly.”
Voices swelled his own as the refrain came and their riders fell into a wedge.
“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”
They punched through, pikes skittering against heavy armour or finding enough purchase that horse and rider tumbled into the mass and broke the formation. The rider went on, down the street and towards the burning forges ahead.
“No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear.”
Too few pikes, the second time, but the Enemy laid the ranks on thick. As if to make a rampart of bone and armour, a barricade of writhing dead. Skeletons raised swords and axes, put up shields and their ranks kept swelling. But it would take greater wheat than this, to dull their scythe.
“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”
Screams as javelins and curses came at them from the sides, biting through even plate, but even as the riders died the ranks of the dead shuddered under the impact of a thousand heavy horse. It was in the hands of the Gods, for a moment, but even through the melee the Lycaonese pressed until there was only room ahead once more.
“Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?”
The forges were deeper, into the belly of the beast, and their fires burned bright as a noonday sun. It was a place precious to the Enemy this, and it mustered a worthy defence for the last hall barring entry to it. Undead by the hundred, and looming above them were monsters. Beorns and great snakes, even flocks of cacophonous buzzards. And above them all, the mightiest wyrm that the Prince of Hannover had ever seen. A hulking beast, large as a fortress and with blood-red eyes.
“Hold the wall,”Prince Klaus shouted, “lest dawn fail.”
It was to be their last, he could feel it in his bones. The wyrm spat out poisonous green flames and fumes, sweeping through the front ranks, but even the panicked and dying horses tumbled forward into the tightly packed ranks of the dead. Buzzards came down in swarms, sorcery lashed out with eerie screams, and the last riders of Hannoven smashed into their enemies. They were too few, too tired, and still they pressed on. A spear killed Klaus’ horse under him and he fell on his stump, screaming hoarsely, but he rose before he could be slain and fought on sword in hand. They sang still, but the voices were fewer. The charge spent.
“Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand.”
One corpse after another, his arm was burning his face bleeding from half a dozen cuts. He’d taken a spear in the side, a wound that would kill him before long, but still Klaus Papenheim pushed through. And again and again and again, until a roar shook his bones and a gaping maw opened to reveal the flames igniting within. The Iron Prince struck with all his might, with all his rage and his sorrow and his pride, and with a great crack a fang broke.
“So we’ll hold the wall,” the Iron Prince murmured, “lest dawn fail.”
The fire swallowed him whole, and the last though Klaus Papenheim ever had was for his niece.
It was an entire city trying to kill them, even the stones and the streets., and Robber could not remember the last time he’d had this much fun.
Tabler croaked it when something that liked looked like a massive bone scorpion speared her through the stomach with a stinger that was screaming, which was a very sporting heads up from Keter that their infiltration had been noticed. The dead were thousands they had nasty little critters, but what was that to a sapper of the Army of Callow? They were quicker, better at scaling walls and objectively prettier in the eyes of the Gods Above and Below.
“Mind you,” Robber told his flock, “Borer does bring down our hallowed company’s average in that regard.”
“I apologize, sir,” Captain Borer dutifully replied. “Shall I write myself up for distractingly ungainly looks again?”
“Eh,” Robber mused, “we’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.”
That had them all cracking up, of course, which got Wiggler a javelin in the throat but that was a cheap price for comedy of such quality. The Pilgrim had burned where they needed to go into their minds, though the old man had refused to entertain the Special Tribune’s inquiry about whether being marked by angels in such a way could be considered theologically inappropriate workplace touching, so there’d be no getting lost. Brasser died blowing himself up so that a flock of buzzards wouldn’t kill them as they crossed a makeshift ladder-bridge, but that was a sign they were making progress!
It was fairly dickish of the Dead King to begin setting fire to buildings so they wouldn’t be able to cross the rooftops, in his professional opinion, but that was nothing that liberal use of sharpers and a healthy disregard for personal safety couldn’t fix. You absolutely could blow up a fire, if you had enough munitions at hand. They lost Racker to the beorn awaiting them on the other side of the explosion, though, which was a genuine loss since with her gone there was no one at hand that everybody else disliked the most among them.
Unfortunately, it seemed like the streets ahead were now swarming with dead and buzzards. Fortunately, there was a solution: they used demolition charges to blow through the layer of stone and bone beneath them, then slunk down a rope onto the lower level. They only had enough charges to do it once more, so naturally they immediately repeated their exploit. Grabber stayed behind just a little too long, though the greater tragedy was that Lilter’s joke about ‘grabbing the opportunity’ was better than the one Robber had been mulling over about grab-bags.
The ran into devils when they got close to the ritual chamber, which was a nice change of pace. Not even the Praesi kind, these ones were like pulsing pustules of flesh whose proximity alone was enough to cause intense pain. Lilter blew herself up to make them a path, which had the secondary benefit of ensuring that Robber was once more without the contest the funniest of their little band. There were only seven of them left, by then, but they were nearly at the chamber. Trouble was that literal hellhounds were on the trails, by the barking and smell of sulphur.
You learned to recognize all sorts of stuff, if you spent enough summers in Ater.
“We’ll hold,” Captain Borer said, sword in one hand and sharper in the other. “Go ahead, Special Tribune.”
Robber met his eyes, surprised even though he shouldn’t have been.
“You were a treat,” Robber finally said.
“Always thought you were a prick,” Borer cheerfully replied. “Go die like a sapper, Rock Breaker.”
He grinned back, scampering away before he could be caught up in the coming mess. He found the chamber below, just the way the Pilgrim had seared it into his mind. No more mages around, just a massive chamber of obsidian with carved runes everywhere. Gingerly he tried a foot first, and when it didn’t burst into flame went further in. His own bag had been filled, from the start of this waltz, purely with goblinfire. And one more thing, he recalled late, that Hakram had slipped in. In the distance he heard the crack of sharpers going off. Little time left.
It was a scroll, Robber found out. A fancy one, there was even a seal at the bottom. He scanned the contents, curious, and froze. By my authority as Queen of Callow, I so raise Robber of the Rock Breaker tribe to the title of noble, under the aforementioned honour: Lord of the House of Lesser Footrest, to be held in perpetuity. It was the royal seal below but there were fresher words, the ink a little smudged. No matter where you end up, Catherine Foundling had written in that ugly scrawl of hers, you will be one of mine. Sooner or later, I will come to collect. Screams, fighting. The devils were close.
Robber’s throat closed as he traced the words with a trembling finger.
“The best,” he whispered.
He struck the match, the parchment taking fire, and with a wide grin he plunged the burning scroll into the bag. He closed his eyes, feeling the burst of fire washed over him, but it didn’t hurt at all. He thought, somehow, that even in this deep place he was hearing something.
Robber died hearing the wind.
The sky cleared, and Tariq looked down from above.
All those who would be able to escape tonight had. There was no more call to delay. The Ophanim, the companions of his life, laid their hands on him. They were sad, grieving, but he smiled.
“It is a beautiful thing,” Tariq Isbili said, “to die smiling.”
Tariq of the Grey Pilgrim’s Blood breathed out, the world breathing out with him, and let his blood sing out into the world. The oldest treasure of his line, the secret of the Shine. The pilgrim’s star, his people called it, and they spoke truer than they knew. Every Isbili that ever lived had it coursing through their blood, the blessing of that star. It was a tie, and though Tariq could no more move the star than an ant could move a tower he was not alone.
The Grey Pilgrim pulled, and the Choir of Mercy pulled with him.
The warmth filled him, pleasant at first but soon burning. Searing. But he was in a place beyond pain, filled only with light, and so Tariq Isbili did not flinch. Not even as he felt the burn spread through the bloodline, through every last one of his kin. Through everyone with so much as drop of Isbili blood. And the Ophanim threaded their fingers through his, heaving even as his insides charred and his kin turned to ash, until at last the sky gave.
In the darkness above, a star went out.
The Grey Pilgrim opened his eyes, looking down at the city below and the hordes of the dead. And though her bore the weight of many griefs, in that moment it was not his many sins he thought of. It was a balcony in Alava that came to him, the pears trees beneath and the woman he had once loved. Perhaps, he thought, he might yet see her again.
Tariq Isbili saw streaks of white pierced through the night sky and died, smiling, as stars began to fall.