“Fate is a stone made up of your every deed and hung around your neck. If it breaks your back, there is only one soul to blame.”
– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty
Sitting on the edge of a rooftop, looking down at the long stairs of stone, the Wandering Bard began to tune her lute. This, she knew, was to be the place.
Ater was still as a grave.
Vivienne had last seen a city so injured in the wake of First Liesse, as she ghosted through the fallen city avoiding the Fifteenth’s goblin hunters, but the tone of the streets was different here. In Liesse the people had been happy in a bittersweet way, for though the rebellion named after their city had died within its walls the people had been spared a dark fate at the hands of a horde of devils. Here there was no joy, the Princess thought. Ater was huddling in its houses, averting its eyes even as the last ashes of the Battle of the Spiders began to cool. But underneath that fear, Vivienne thought, there was anger. Furious, desperate anger.
The High Seats had massacred thousands to contain the spiders, and while there were many who’d argued much worse would have happened if they hadn’t the opinion was not popular. Not when everyone had a cousin or a daughter or a husband who’d seen the household troops of the great nobles retreat to their barricades in good order and leave the rest of the city to burn. Reports had come overnight from the Princess’ agents that it was Malicia that was being blamed for the spiders themselves, seen as some kind of desperate attempt to destroy the capital’s current favourite: Lady Akua Sahelian.
The Empress in the City, they called her.
There had been no riots since the end of the battle, no mob had taken to the streets as the Legions moved to clear out the last of the giant spiders and seal the openings, but the anger and fear hung in the air like poison. The stalemate in eastern Ater behind the horde of orcs that’d seized the city and the noble armies that’d entered it illegally kept the people behind closed doors, afraid of another battle erupting, but it wouldn’t last. Like all leashed monsters, it would shake its way loose eventually. Someonewas going to pay for the Battle of the Spiders, but the part worrying Vivienne Dartwick was that she wasn’t sure who.
“Gods,” the Squire muttered. “The city looks empty. Not a stray cat out in the streets.”
“Assuming there are any left, after the spiders,” Vivienne drily said.
It was not yet dusk, but on the horizon the sun was dipping low. They would make good time, she thought, as their party had yet to even be hailed as it passed through the ash-strewn streets of the city. Not that many would dare make demands of the force the Princess was leading into Ater: only twenty knights of the Order of the Stolen Crown rode with her, but a cohort of legionaries from the once-Thirteenth marched behind them. Wind picked up suddenly in the distance, making strands of some sort of iridescent cloth spin under the sunlight, and half her men reached for their swords. They had come invited, but most her soldiers were Callowan: no one here put much stock in the Tower’s word.
Arthur Foundling grimaced at her answer, soft-hearted boy that he still was. Catherine had been adamant that he come with her even though Vivienne would have much preferred Indrani as an escort, but the Princess understood why. The pattern of three between him and the Black Knight was a tool that would be very precisely used so the day could be brought to the right ending.
“The Carrion Lord is a monster,” the Squire cursed.
Vivienne cocked an eyebrow.
“Water is wet,” she answered.
The young man had the grace to look somewhat embarrassed. He had an expressive face, young Arthur. That was for the best. Vivienne preferred knowing where she stood with him: the heroes that were most controlled, like the Pilgrim and the White Knight, tended to be dangerous and unpredictable. That expressive face flickered through hesitation, then the steel of determination.
“Did she know, Your Grace?” the Squire asked.
Vivienne kept her eyes from glancing at the broken districts they had left behind her. Ravaged by devils and demons and monsters of all stripes. Did the Black Queen know her teacher was going do to this? Did she allow him to consign thousands of innocents to death for some mad plan? The Princess met his eyes squarely.
The dark-haired squire looked guiltily relieved and Vivienne was again reminded of how young he was. Young enough he’d not thought to ask the right question. Would Catherine have intervened, if she knew? Vivienne was not sure, and the thought worried at her. There had been a time where her friend would have executed someone guilty of something like the Battle of the Spiders without a second thought. Cut their head off where they stood. But that’d been before the Everdark, before the war on Keter and the dark choices it had demanded of them all. Catherine sacrificed people more easily than she once had, and it did not eat away at her so much afterwards.
It was something she’d had to learn to keep them all alive, Vivienne reminded herself.
And yet the Princess could not shake the thought. This entire campaign, beginning with the attack on Wolof and then moving through the bruising battle at Kala and now this bloody wrestling match over Ater, it felt… different. It was not being waged like older campaigns. Lives were being sacrificed for Named victories, for schemes that used the very currents of Creation, and there’d been a time where Catherine had balked at such things. If the way she’d been going about it had reminded Vivienne of the Black Knight or Tariq Fleetfoot she would have set the worry aside, but it wasn’t either of those men that came to mind sometimes.
Vivienne Dartwick was one of the few people alive to have been in a band of five with the Wandering Bard, and dreaded that sometimes she saw glimpses of one woman in the other.
“Thank the Gods,” Arthur Foundling murmured. “That would have been difficult.”
An understatement. The boy cheered up soon enough, fears alleviated for now. Lucky him.
“So how did was our invitation secured, anyhow?” the Squire asked. “I’d heard that Dread Empress Malicia wanted the Grand Alliance nowhere near her court.”
And there was the counterargument to Vivienne’s fears, brought out by the same young man who’d raised them. She slowed the gait of her horse and flicked a glance behind them. Arthur followed her gaze, both of them taking in the massive shape of the great undead spider that loomed over the eastern walls.
“I asked her why she chose to raise Tenebrous,” the Princess said. “It seemed wasteful and slow, if she only intended to fight Ranger. But it was never about that fight – she was forcing Malicia’s hand.”
Arthur looked surprised.
“The Empress is hiding in the Tower,” he said. “I doubt a simple undead monster is enough to topple that abomination.”
“Malicia herself is out of reach,” Vivienne agreed, “but what about everyone else she invited?”
That’d been the unspoken threat. If the Grand Alliance were not invited, it would have to knock. And maybe the empress could ride out that storm, but all the other guests had assets that mattered to them in the city. Would they stay and humour Malicia at court while their armies and kin were being trampled? And so Catherine had raised a city-sized spider so that she could then refrain from using it, still getting exactly what she’d wanted all along. That was the answer to Vivienne’s every fear, every worry about her friend and queen growing harsher and more ruthless by the years. She was all those things, yes.
And it worked.
The Princess breathed out, spurring her mount into a trot. It would have to be enough. After the war there would be time to learn kindness again. For all of them, not only Catherine. Until then, she would silence her doubts. And continue to carry into the heart of Praes the two deaths she had been charged to bring, one hidden and one due.
“Let’s hurry up,” Vivienne Dartwick said, looking up at the looming shape of the Tower to the east. “It begins at dusk, and it would not do to be late.”
Dusk was coming and with it the end of Alaya’s reign.
The Dread Empress of Praes leaned against the balcony, watching night crawl over her capital. There was no wind here, enchantments prevented it, but high above the perennial storm clouds that haunted the Tower’s heights were roiling. Five years ago she’d been the law of this land: her enemies had been broken, her influence spread to every nook and cranny of the empire. How quickly it had all gone wrong. Now she struggled to find the decision that had begun it all. Letting Akua Sahelian loose to build her weapon instead of having her decapitated head tossed into the Hall of Screams, maybe. Yet the thought was cowardice, the avoidance of a less pleasant truth.
There was no ‘one decision’ to point at because she’d been losing her grasp for years.
Alaya was not yet certain it had been a mistake the doomsday weapon. Had it not been broken during the Folly, had she had more time to lay the foundations abroad… Well, the world would never know. But looking back, it had been foolish of her to go about it the way she had. She should have sat with Wekesa and explained her reasons, asked for his help. She should not have gone behind Amadeus’ back to get it built either, for though it was her right as his empress it had also been a betrayal of their partnership. Too many things between them had been left unsaid over the years, the weight of too many private disappointments coming to crush their backs.
“I became comfortable,” Dread Empress Malicia quietly told the horizon.
And though the Tower could forgive a hundred thousand sins, never once that. No, she had made mistakes. Others had as well, but those were not hers to answer for so what point was there in listing them for the Gods to hear? Ater would need to be rebuilt, and this time Alaya would see it done right. As a capital of a great empire should be, not the horror it had been. Those who had supported her she would reward, those who had betrayed her she would bury, and beyond that there were… affairs to settle. Mistakes had been made on both sides but from them she would salvage what she could.
Though Amadeus’ stroke of madness with the spiders had become a stone around her neck, the city being convinced it was her doing, Alaya held no grudge. Even in the years of their parting, they had never struck direct blows at one another. That hope she cradled still, for all the cold of the night, and though it was not an answer for their years of bitterness it was not nothing either. A foundation, perhaps, for something new. A different understanding of who they were to each other. It would have to be revisited when she reclaimed her throne. If she reclaimed her throne.
This game was now long past certainties.
Ime’s soft footsteps shook her out of her reverie, though she did not turn to look at her spymistress. The other woman came to stand at her side instead, sharing in companiable silence for a moment before the demands of the evening forced an end.
“It is all in place,” Ime said. “They are beginning to arrive.”
Far below, Malicia could make out the distant banners of Takisha Muraqib and her many vassals. Like a river of colourful silk they streamed down the avenue, preparing to enter one of the formal gatehouses that would allow entry into the Tower.
“I might well lose, tonight,” the empress admitted. “It’s been a long time since I was so close to complete defeat, Ime. I cannot help but think it might be one many years in the making.”
A moment of silence.
“It has,” Ime finally said. “You have been making mistakes, Alaya. Embracing schemes more convoluted than they need to be, using the same tactics that put you in a corner to try to get out of it. It got worse after Amadeus left, but the tendency was there even before.”
The spymistress grimaced.
“But you kept winning anyway, so who were we to argue?” she said. “Only the victories became narrower, costlier. And now here we are, at a crossroads where there is so little difference between victory and defeat they might as well be the same thing.”
The words stung, but Alaya did not flinch away from them. She was not in a position to close her eyes.
“There will need to be changes,” Malicia quietly admitted.
“It will not be the same, after tonight,” she said. “But I would not have you forget, Alaya of Satus, that you ruled ably for forty years. Longer than any tyrant before you, perhaps longer than any tyrant ever will. Your reign waned, as all crowns do, but that does not lessen the achievement.”
“I’d thought to have eternity, once,” Malicia smiled. “Forty years seems all too few.”
“It has been a worthy reign,” Ime softly replied. “And I am proud of the part I have played in it.”
Alaya’s eyes moved to woman at her side. It had been many years since the two of them had shared a bed, and even when they had there’d been nothing more than attraction behind it. That weighed as much as dust in the wind. But the years themselves, Ime standing at her side, those mattered. More than she had ever spoken out loud, and perhaps that should end. When would she speak the words, if not now?
“You are the one who stayed,” Alaya said. “I will not forget that, Ime. It…”
She hesitated, tongue stumbling over the words.
“I am grateful,” Alaya said. “That you are with me. That you have been for all these years.”
Ime smiled, her face worn with age but her eyes still s bright as they had been in their youth.
“I don’t regret it,” she said. “Even should we lose, I will not regret it.”
Connect bloomed to life as the Dread Empress smiled back at her spymistress, a reassuring pressure against her soul. It was not a lie. Ime would not turn on her, not even now – the loyalty she felt had not lessened. Both of them looked down below, beholding the City of Gates.
“I must go,” Ime finally said. “I’ll see you on the other side, Your Dread Majesty.”
“Gods willing,” Malicia smiled.
And if not? Hang them all. Ime disappeared into the Tower, the sound of her footsteps fading away, and Dread Empress Malicia was left to her thoughts.
Somewhere below her the girl come to take her throne was taking her first steps up the Tower.
Akua Sahelian looked up at the dark clouds above, breathing in the evening air.
The stairs beneath her feet were smooth stone, carved into the likeness of twisted and weeping souls. Every step she took was on their backs. The Sentinels stood on the sides in eerily still rows, garbed in wrought steel as their eyes followed her from beneath the black iron masks covering their faces. Akua had been in the Tower before many a time, but this was the first time she had ever been invited to take the Tyrant’s Gate. The dark-skinned sorcerers breathed out and resumed her climb, Kendi trailing behind her like a shadow. He would not be allowed in at her side, but he would accompany her every step of the way until then. It was reassuring weight to have at her back, his hatred. Like a knife at her throat. There was not a sound to be heard save for their boots against the stone, and under unblinking stares they reached the summit.
Before them stood before an intricate puzzle of obsidian, shifting pieces of it inscribed with runes. The gate was tall as three men and half as wide, thrumming with ancient power. The brother of a woman she’d led to her death at the Folly stood by her, eyes hooded.
“It means nothing,” Kendi quietly said. “That is the secret of this place. It is an altar to Below, and you may think yourself the mistress but all you can ever be is the sacrifice.”
He leaned closer.
“Climb and bleed, Akua Sahelian,” he whispered into her ear.
She did not turn to watch him leave, disappear into the deepening shadows. She would meet him again tonight, but the crossing would be hers alone.
“I come summoned by the Tyrant,” Akua Sahelian called out, voice calm. “Gatekeeper, grant me entrance.”
The obsidian pieces shivered, twisting and turning as if it were living flesh. A terrible face emerged, its great and burning eyes the ancient runes for order, and the ancient demon that Dread Emperor Sinister himself had bound to the gate began to laugh. The sound was like rust swallowing a precious thing, the death rattle of a hundred babes.
“You,” the demon said, “are of the master’s blood.”
“True to it, my mother liked to say,” Akua replied.
The old abomination laughed again. Every instance was a fresh horror.
“I grant you entrance, Akua Sahelian,” the demon said.
She shivered. The face shattered, breaking apart in tiles of obsidian, and locks unseen began to open one after another. The gate slowly opened, revealing a floor of dark marble leading into an antechamber. Akua stepped through the threshold, eyes growing accustomed to the gloom, and as the gate closed behind her she found a lone Sentinel waiting for her. They stood at the edge of the high-ceilinged room beyond the antechamber, not far from mosaics enchanted with curses so hateful that she could almost taste the emotion in the air. Akua approached, cocking an eyebrow at the soldier.
“A lone soul to guide me up the Tower,” she said. “My own personal psychopomp, is it?”
She offered the Sentinel a smile.
“Elegant to the end, Malicia,” she said. “Shall we?”
The Sentinel nodded. Oh? Unusually expressive of it. They led the way thought the large room and up the spiralling stairs, not that Akua found it hard to keep up. She ran her finger against the scaled railings, the sculpted serpents shivering at her touch. The sorcery in the stone was older than Procer, but it purred maliciously at her touch.
“So how did you end up chosen for this, anyway?” Akua idly asked. “Picked the short straw?”
An amusing thought, a pack of eerily Silent sentinels staring at each other through the iron masks while drawing from another’s hands.
The golden-eyed sorcerers almost missed a step. A man’s voice, that. She could make out as much even though the mask. And a very unusual Sentinel indeed.
“Alas, if you intended to seduce me then I must warn you that my heart has already been taken,” she easily said. “It should be somewhere north of Vale, assuming a wight didn’t eat it.”
The Sentinel did not betray amusement, thought it was hard to tell through that armour.
“I will have to live with the disappointment,” the Sentinel replied.
Akua’s fingers clenched. No, that wasn’t a Sentinel at all. The same sorceries that made them so unflinchingly loyal to whoever held the Tower did not allow for anything as delicate as a sense of humour to remain. Her steps stuttered, stopped. She laid a hand on the railing.
“Who are you?” she coldly asked.
His hand went up, reaching for the top of the helmet. There was a little click, then another, and with the deft fingers the man took off the iron mask. Below were pale green eyes she had seen before, though the face around them had aged since she last saw them.
“Akua Sahelian,” the Carrion Lord said. “We are overdue a conversation.”
A flash of rage seized her by the throat, clenched her muscles.
“We have more than that overdue,” she snarled.
Sorcery came to her harsh and eager. The fireball she tossed at his face was cut through – a single smooth movement from draw to strike – but she’d known it would be. It had bought her the moment she needed to sink her hooks into the railing through her hand, part of the stone smoothly coiling around arm as a fanged head emerged behind the Carrion Lord and struck. He parried it somehow, reflexes inhuman even without a Name, but it was a sword against stone. The steel broke, and when he avoided the snakes’ second attack the Duni found that the wall behind him had turned into a nest of snakes. The Tower sought her commands hungrily, like a hound starved of affection.
The snakes in the wall caught the Carrion Lord’s limbs, and as he struggled to rip himself free Akua coldly smiled.
“Rip,” she ordered in Mthethwa.
The snake come from the railing hit the side of the armoured man like a scorpion bolt, fangs sinking in and wrenching out an entire armour plate as well as chunk of the aketon beneath. The Carrion Lord’s jaw clenched in pain but that was only a start. Releasing the railing, Akua strode half a step and sunk her knife deep under his ribs. In the stomach. The man gasped and she felt a spurt of satisfaction.
“I could have aimed for the heart or the lungs,” Akua told him, tone even, “but you don’t get to die that quickly.”
She twisted the knife cruelly before ripping it out, enjoying the way his face drew tight.
“Did you think I’d forgotten my father’s death?” she harshly said. “The goblins might have pulled the triggers, but the kill was yours from beginning to end.”
Feeling like she wanted to rip out his throat with her own teeth, she stabbed him in the stomach again and ripped it free in a spray of blood.
“You are no longer under Catherine’s protection, you old fool,” she hissed. “And I am no longer at her side. Did you really think that without her in the way there was anything stopping me from killing you?”
To her utter fury, the man hacked out a wet laugh.
“No,” the Carrion Lord said, lips flecked with red. “But I knew you’d go for the slow death.”
“And what does that give you?” she mocked.
“Until I bleed out,” the green-eyed man replied, “to convince you to heal me.”
Akua blinked at him, silenced by surprise and utter disbelief.
“Mother always said,” she finally replied, “that you were just as mad as your predecessors. Just better at hiding it.”
The Carrion Lord slumped down against the wall, armoured boot slipping against the stone with an ungainly sound. He was, she noted, positioning himself so he would bleed out more slowly. A methodical lunatic to the end.
“This is the Tower,” the Carrion Lord said. “Where are the mad to go, if not here?”
He looked amused. Akua sliced him across the face for it, deep through the nose and both cheekbones.
“I’ve always used torturers instead of my own hands,” the golden-eyed mage said. “But for you, Amadeus of the Green Stretch, I will make an exception.”
And maybe his screams would drown out the sound the bolts had made when the volley had pierced through Papa’s flesh. A thump, she thought. Almost like biting into an apple. She cut him again, stabbing deep into his cheek until she felt bone.
“I imagine you’ll get practice enough,” the Carrion Lord rasped, “as Dread Empress.”
She laughed in his face.
“Is that what this is all for?” Akua said. “You cower at the prospect of my taking the Tower?”
What a stupid way to die, she thought. He chuckled wetly, tongue flicking across his lips but only spreading the red.
“So which was it the Bard pushed you towards?” he asked.
Her eyes narrowed.
“She wants me to take the throne,” Akua said after hesitating a moment. “I think. But as a Dread Empress Benevolent the Second.”
Dread Emperor Benevolent, the first and only hero to have ever reigned over Praes. At war with over half the realm from the moment of his coronation to the last gasp of his very grim end. There were few tyrants who could boast of having beaten Dread Empress Massacre at her namesake, and Benevolent was hallowed even among those. He’d come terrifyingly close enough to winning that he had been purged from every known record, demons of Absence being put to work to tie up loose ends. Only private libraries like those of the Vault still had mentions of him.
“Always a game behind the game with her,” the Carrion Lord said. “We haven’t seen the end of it.”
“You have,” Akua smiled.
His face had grown even paler. The internal bleeding must have been excruciatingly painful, she thought with satisfaction. May at least one of the screams he was swallowing make it to the feet of the Gods Below, so that they might pass it on to Dumisai of Aksum as his daughter’s funerary gift.
“Maybe,” he shrugged, hacking a cough after. “But that matters little. I am an instrument. If purpose is served, the outcome is acceptable. It’s you that concerns me now.”
“Oh?” Akua smiled. “How novel. Won’t you Speak to me, Carrion Lord? Ask me to knife my hand again. See what happens.”
She stuck him in the stomach again, just because she could. He gasped in pain.
“Have you decided I am not fit for the Tower?” she mocked.
“Worse,” the man said. “I put the nobles of the Wasteland to the test, Sahelian. Only one passed.”
Even though the implication was obvious, the sheer absurdity of what he’d said meant it took her a beat to realize. It was unthinkable. His hatred of the nobility was a keystone of his reputation, his legend. It would have been like Catherine staying sober for a month, or Vivienne Dartwick not being a disappointment in every single way she could be. Still, the sentence had her lips quirking into an unpleasant smile.
“My, but that must sting,” Akua purred. “Though if this was meant to silence me, I must say-”
“Do you want to rule Praes?” the Carrion Lord bluntly cut in.
She blinked. Hesitated.
“What is your game, Duni?” Akua finally asked.
“You could,” he said. “Maybe even well. I don’t like it, wouldn’t like what you would do with it. But you could.”
“Are you offering me your support?” she asked, voice thick with disbelief.
At least the blood loss was making him entertaining. Akua did hate a humorless bleeder.
“You remind me of Alaya,” the Carrion Lord noted. “When we were young. The best of her, and some of the worst. And there are rules. So you could claim it.”
“And what would that have to do with you?” Akua scorned.
“Is it worth keeping?”
She paused, studied him through narrowed eyes.
“You are trying to talk me out of taking the throne,” Akua said.
It was the best reason she’d heard to climb the Tower so far.
“Heh,” the man said. “No. I want more than that. But this first. You’ve been out of the cage, now. Seen the world. The Dread Empire of Praes, the way it is, is it worth keeping?”
Akua’s lips tightened. If it were, would she be so horrified at the thought of being forced to rule it?
“What do you want from me, Carrion Lord?”
“Nothing,” the man laughed, his green eyes bloodshot. “I already know your answer. Wouldn’t have passed otherwise. You see it now, don’t you? The sickness.”
“And you think yourself the man to excise it?” she laughed. “Oh, the cold man with the hard hand here to teach us his better ways. Praes is not a young widow looking for excitement, Carrion Lord. There is no appetite for Dread Emperor Amadeus.”
“It’s not about me,” the dying man said. “Or you. Look around, Sahelian. Why is this still standing?”
“There is nothing else,” Akua said.
“Maledicta the Second,” he said. “After her assassination-”
“Haider’s Reign,” she frowned.
“The Throneless Years,” he retorted.
Both referred to the same two decades after Maledicta II’s death, though his term was the one used by the Tower’s formal chroniclers.
“You want to change Callow for Keter,” she realized.
She was reluctantly impressed by the boldness.
“No,” he coughed. “Not just that. It ended with Vindictive the First. It shouldn’t have.”
Akua breathed in sharply.
“That would not be an empire,” she said.
The man offered a sharp, bloody smile that split his face in two.
“No,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t be.”
“You talk in circles,” Akua said. “What is it you want, Carrion Lord?”
He moved and she almost slashed him against, but he didn’t even have his sword in hand. It was further down the steps. Instead he was pawing at his belt with armoured fingers, and what he presented her he was holding between his thumb and his forefinger. Akua stilled.
“Take it,” he said.
“This is a trap,” she replied.
“The trap is in not giving it to you,” he rasped. “I see that now.”
He coughed out a laugh, red trailing his face, but his eyes were clear.
“I always thought it’d be me,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch confessed. “That it was what I was for. But that was arrogance, Alaya was right. I never loved this place enough to have the right. It has to be you.”
“You despise me,” Akua said.
“Yes,” he smiled. “But it has to be you. Because you passed. Because it’s in your blood. The original murder, Sahelian, isn’t that your family’s favourite boast? You began it all.”
She snatched it out of his fingers, as if expecting to be bit, but there was nothing. No trap, no trick.
“And that’s all it takes?” Akua asked.
“A choice,” the Carrion Lord rasped. “What more could you need? It’s the only true gift the Gods gave us.”
“You don’t know which one I’ll make,” she said.
He grinned, blood-streaked and nasty to the bone.
“Mile thaman Sahelian,” the Carrion Lord mocked.
Her fingers clenched.
“Were you not going to convince me to heal you?” she sweetly asked.
“Win some,” he began, “lose-”
She stuck the knife back in his belly.
“There,” Akua hissed. “You’ll bleed out slower, and that’s the only mercy you’ll ever have of me.”
Let him die here at the bottom of the Tower, forever reaching beyond his grasp. She kicked him away and he fell down a few stairs. She breathed out, looked down at the small thing still in the palm of her hand. She closed the fingers, breathed out and settled herself. She rose, to the distant sound of a dying man whistling the tune to an old song.
It was, Akua realized as her blood ran cold, The Tyranny of the Sun.
Breaking into the Tower had been shockingly easy.
Archer had felt a little cheated, even though it stood that things should be pretty much stacked in their favour. The three of them had Scribe guiding them for one – well, arguably this was about them escorting Scribe but eh – and the great difficulty in accessing the Tower from underground was gone. The giant spiders lurking in the tunnels were, you know, already topside in dead. Which meant the tunnels were moist and stinky but not actually all that dangerous and they’d made it to what Scribe claimed to be the lowest levels of the Tower, the ‘underpinnings’, without much trouble.
“The haven’t been many guards,” Cocky said.
Which was all well and good to say, when she hadn’t been doing any of the killing. That’d been Indrani and Alexis, yeah, as usual doing the grunt work.
“The Tower is as a city within the city,” Scribe replied. “Most parts of it are like small villages that rule themselves with only occasional intervention from the tyrant. I’ve had us skimming the edge of where the latrine men live. They post few guards, and the Sentinels are spread too thin to plug the gaps as they usually would.”
“I’m not complaining,” Alexis grunted. “Hopefully it’ll be just as easy getting to this Ime.”
“We’ve been lucky,” Scribe said. “She’d be much harder to get at if she hadn’t gone to the underpinnings.”
It was nice of the Huntress not to be the kind of heroine who asked too many questions when Catherine sent you to capture, interrogate an execute the leader of the Eyes of the Empire but unfortunate since Indrani did actually have questions about that. Now she was going to have to ask them herself, like an asshole.
“Do we know why she’s down here?” Archer asked.
The corridor ahead of them was empty, as the last two had been. They were large, windy and winding things that snaked towards a distant centre. The grounds above which there was an actual giant tower, presumably. The Tower was kind of like a tree, the ‘roots’ that were the underpinnings actually spreading out much further than the structure stood.
“There has been activity from the Eyes down here over the last two days,” Scribe said. “Presumably Malicia is preparing something for her guests upstairs.”
Which was presumably one of the reasons their buddy Ime was going to be interrogated before the execution. Might be useful to know what Malicia was up to except for going crazy and pissing everyone off. They switched corridors twice before finally running into people, which happened to be a pair unarmed messengers. Alexis was a softie so she knocked hers out, but Indrani wasn’t in the business of letting liabilities get up. Hers wouldn’t. They were close to the centre, Scribe told them, and it checked out: moments later they ran into the first checkpoint manned by Sentinels. Only ten of the, though, so before long the four of them were wiping their blades. and moving on.
Another two checkpoints with Sentinels, but after that it was only Eyes manning the gates and they honestly weren’t much to write home about. Like, even Cocky could handle them up close and in Indrani’s humble opinions there were some trouts in the Hwaerte that would give the Concocter trouble in hand-to-hand.
“It’s unusual,” Scribe noted. “It should be Sentinels handling this, not Eyes. Ime is trying to keep something quiet.”
“Quiet from who?” Indrani frowned. “The Sentinels answer only to the Empress, right? They’re supposed to be all brainwashed to be loyal.”
“Exactly,” Scribe replied, sounding fascinated. “So what is it that she’s trying to hide from Malicia? And more importantly for who?”
There wasn’t time to stop and interrogate a prisoner even if they took one, since if they stopped pushing in there was a decent chance someone would find one of the older corpses and send a warning ahead, so they pressed on urgently. It went pretty smoothly until they hit a real blockade with crossbowmen and a few legionaries – unmarked, so they were likely Eyes too – that made it a proper fight. Alexis took a cut on her face and Indrani had to ask for a healing salve for her hand after she made a mage eat his own fireball. Hilarious, but she wasn’t made of fingers. Unlike that fucking toucan yesterday, there was an image that’d stay with her for a while.
Behind the blockade Scribe had told them there was one of the main water tunnels for the Tower, but the large room the entered past the corpses had a lot more than water in it. It also had what was at least a thousand magically sealed barrels, not a single of which was stacked over an other. There were even little palisades between sections: whoever had put these there had been real careful about it. That smelled of danger to Indrani, but she didn’t get to spend much time thinking on it because there was also an old woman inside the room and Scribe was looking all pleased.
“Just a guess,” Indrani called out, “but would you happen to be Ime?”
The old lady was Soninke and pretty clearly getting long in the tooth, but she was keeping it tight. Probably highborn, they tended to age better than most out in the Wasteland. The older woman glanced at her and then sighed.
“And I take it you three are the Ranger’s pupils,” she said before her eyes moved to the fourth among them. “Scribe, I see you’ve stopped clutching the Black Queen’s skirts long enough to make act of presence. We’re all very grateful, I’m sure.”
“I might clutch them,” Scribe mildly replied, “but at least, unlike some, I can claim never to have been under my patroness’ skirts.”
“Savage,” Indrani appreciatively said.
On the other hand, while Malicia was terrible and kind of evil but she was also ridiculously good looking so, you know, respect.
“I suppose it is harder to get into pants,” Ime smiled pleasantly. “Though certainly not for lack of trying.”
Indrani shared a look with Cocky, who was also smothering a grin. It wasn’t often they got to hear the old guard air their dirty laundry, this was to be savoured. Only, Gods forgive her, Archer was actually kind of in charge here and they had a mission to get done. Once they nabbed Ime and got her singing, they’d finally have an idea of what the Hells was going on here on top of neatly ensuring Malicia wasn’t going to see Vivienne coming. There was a reason they’d brought Scribe here: once the current mistress of the Eyes in Praes had gone to join her agents Below, the old one could step back into the role.
And it some of the officers hesitated, well, that was why they’d brought knives.
“It genuinely breaks my heart to stop this,” Indrani told them, “but we’re going to have to wrap this up. Ime, congratulations, you have been taken prisoner. Please don’t resist, we’re trying to wean Alexis off kicking people and it only encourages her.”
“She’s lying,” Alexis flatly said. “They’re not actually trying.”
“Charming,” Ime drily replied.
Scribe suddenly hummed, stepping back from a barrel.
“These are goblin-made,” she said. “Straight from the Eyries. What is it you’re doing down here, Ime?”
“You don’t know,” the old woman mused. “Interesting. So why are you here, if not to interrupt me?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Scribe said. “It’s finished.”
There was a long moment of silence as the two women stared each other down. Indrani awkwardly cleared her throat to get their attention and was entirely ignored.
“You’re here for me,” Ime quietly said, “because you’re trying to blind us. You smuggled something into the Tower you’re afraid I’ll catch.”
“You’re losing your touch,” Scribe smiled.
“That’s enough of that,” Archer sharply said, baring her blades. “We’re done here. Scribe, shut your mouth and Ime-”
“Assassin,” Ime hissed out. “You brought Assassin in here. You’re trying to kill Malicia.”
Fuck, that wasn’t great. She put a spring to her step even as Ime began to move away, past rows of barrel and close to the large water-filled tunnel flowing behind them.
“I’m sorry about this,” Indrani said, halfway meaning it.
“I’m not,” Ime said, then glanced at Scribe. “Do you think you’re the only one who can bargain with devils?”
Oh boy, that did not sound – Archer ducked, the arrow brushing through her air. On a balcony above, the Ranger nocked a second arrow before leaping down. She landed at Ime’s side, looking amused.
“Devils, are we?” the Lady asked. “Ime, you’re getting rude in your old age.”
“Well, we can’t all be born ageless bitches,” the spymistress flatly replied.
Cocky swallowed a laugh behind her.
“I’m calling in my marker from helping Grem get his letters out,” Ime continued. “I need to get out of here.”
“I needed to be here for the barrels anyway,” Ranger shrugged. “Go ahead.”
“That’s not happening,” Indrani flatly said.
Behind her, Alexis nocked an arrow. Tension rose.
“Hey Scribe,” Ime called out.
The villainess in question stared at the other spymistress.
“Yes?” she reluctantly.
Ime glanced at Ranger, then at the three of them.
“Mine’s bigger,” she said, and broke into a run.
It went downhill from there.
The twenty-fourth level of the Tower was large enough a scream would echo, the Warlord thought.
It was a striking place, as befitting of the hall that hosted the imperial court. Black marble walls rose tall, touched by plume of colours: makeshift pillars of cloth hanging from the ceiling in red, green and gold. The floor beneath their feet was a great mosaic depicting the history of Praes. It went as far back as Subira Sahelian murdering the founder Dread Empress Maleficent in order to become Dread Emperor Sinister and stretched out to events as recent as Wekesa the Warlock immolating Thalassina – the only event of Malicia’s reign depicted at all. Everywhere jewels were set in walls and furniture while gold veins dripped down stone as gilded ornaments.
The two orcs at his side, Oghuz the Lame and Hegvor Allspeak, looked intimated by the luxury. There were benches here set with enough rubies to feed either of their clans for a year. And some of the nobles wore on them more wealth than any of them would spend in a lifetime: enchanted cloths that looked like shadows, rings made entirely of rubies and even a woman in full dragonscale armour.
“There is nothing to be impressed of,” Hakram spoke in Kharsum. “What is there here that was not built on our backs?”
“Ha,” Chief Hegvor snorted. “Well said.”
“Should have taken the court instead of the camps, Deadhand,” Oghuz grinned, baring fangs at noble who’d come a little too close. “More loot here and fewer swords to defend it.”
Few of the nobles had dared approach to talk since they had come, and none since a young lady vassal to Okoro had tried to needle Oghuz and gotten an eye ripped out for it. High Lady Abreha had visited before, courteous for all that she might well be their foe now, but High Lady Wither was keeping to another part of the hall. They’d traded nods but nothing else. Nothing more was needed, in Hakram’s opinion. They were allies, not comrades.
“When is Malicia meant to come out, anyway?” Hegvor asked.
“When everyone’s here,” the Warlord grunted. “She’s taking her time, reminding everyone she’s important.”
“Can’t be many people left,” Oghuz opined. “The Callowan princess was invited into the back just now, and she was one of the last to arrive.”
Vivienne had not stopped to talk, but Hakram hadn’t expected her to. She… would not take the choice he had made up north well, he knew. Perhaps worse than Catherine would, though that might be wishful thinking on his part. Either way he’d known that she’d avoid him beyond the necessary until there was opportunity for them to speak in private. She preferred to vent her anger away from prying eyes.
“Company,” Hegvor said.
The Warlord followed her gaze, finding an old companion at the end of it. Akua Sahelian was dressed simply, for a noble, but that was a statement of power too: she needed nothing more than dress in white and gold to draw the eye. It was easy to forget how powerful a mage she’d been, but now it was impossible to ignore: even from across the room, her power filled the air. Behind her trailed a dark-skinned man with a short beard and golden earrings. Mage too, by the robes. Mfuasa? Might be someone High Lord Sargon had sent to spy on her. The hall did not quiet when Akua came to stand before him, but eyes followed. They were of interest. They were watched.
Hakram considered her. The face was a mask, as it always ways, but below that he smelled… unease. Something was unsettling her, and for once it was not him. What kind of trouble had she found, that she might then find him preferable to it?
“And what am I to call you, Akua Sahelian?” he asked.
The mfuasa at her side smiled.
“The name is enough,” the golden-eyed noble said. “It has been some time, Deadhand. We stand on grounds much changed.”
“The trick is to change with them,” he gravelled.
He stepped forward, she to the side. It was almost as if they were to begin a walk together, an illusion of companionship.
“Have you?” she asked.
Hakram studied her a moment. She seemed sincere. Not it was his turn to be unsettled.
“More than I thought I would,” he admitted.
“I,” Akua Sahelian, “am trying to decide.”
“That was always your trouble, Sahelian,” Hakram gravelled. “Too much red where the thinking should be. Too much thinking where the red should be.”
“I’ve suffered many a skewering this week,” she said, “but not one of you has had the decency to at least stab me as well to distract from the ignominy.”
His gaze sharpened.
“An old friend,” Akua easily said. “The one who talks too much. And another since, whom I left bleeding to death in the stairs.”
Hakram clicked his tongue.
“You know better,” he said. “Unless you take the head…”
“Then I will get to kill him twice,” the sorceress said. “Hardly an imposition.”
The Warlord was more impressed that the Carrion Lord has survived a run-in with that one after killing her father than worried about his accomplice’s survival. Like as not, he’d planned for it. The man was the kind of clever that thought receiving stab wounds was an acceptable step in a plan, which was by far the stupidest kind of clever.
“And what did our old friend want?” he asked.
A long silence.
“I am less sure,” Akua admitted, “the more I think of it.”
That was the curse of facing the Intercessor, wasn’t it? Your reaction to her prodding might well be part of her plan in the first place. It was like facing an oracle out to get you.
“That tends to be the way with her,” the Warlord conceded.
She glanced at him, seemingly amused.
“And if I ventured to ask you for advice, Hakram Deadhand?” Akua said.
He considered that a moment and chose honesty.
“I don’t like you,” the Warlord said.
“It’s actually rather refreshing,” she admitted, “for someone to say to my face.”
“I don’t like you,” Hakram repeated, “but I did respect you, once.”
“No longer?” she asked, sounding more curious than offended.
“When you were the Diabolist, you were terrible,” he said. “But you were truer to yourself than most people ever are. That, if not the deeds of your hands, was worthy of respect.”
“You’ve always had a knack for surprising me,” Akua said.
He snorted, dismissive. She’d just never learned what to expect from him.
“She only has the power we give her,” the Warlord said. “That’s her trick. Be who you are, Sahelian. Right or wrong, at least it will be true.”
Her face closed, eyes looking away. The silence stretched out.
“I never liked you either,” Akua confessed. “It was the loyalty as much as the lack of ambition. There was never a lever to pull with you, so I could never be comfortable.”
“And yet here were are,” the Warlord said.
“Here we are,” Akua Sahelian softly agreed.
She breathed out shallowly.
“Do you know what the difference is,” she asked, “between a knot and a noose?”
He laughed, to her visible surprise – which in turn surprised him. He’d thought she was making a reference.
“It’s the setup of an old joke in Kharsum,” Hakram told her. “Because the words are the same, only with a suffix added.”
She cocked an eyebrow.
“So what is the difference?” she asked.
“They’re the same thing,” the Warlord told her, “until there’s a corpse.”
Her face was a blank mask, for a moment, until to his utter surprise and that of most the hall she burst out laughing. Long, throaty and loud. She laughed and laughed, until she trailed of into giggled as she held her ribs loosely.
“Until there’s a corpse,” she repeated, grinning and shaking her head.
Unsure what had set her off, he settled for eyeing her warily instead.
“I thank you for the advice, Hakram Deadhand,” Akua said.
“Found what you were looking for?”
She flexed her palm, smiling.
“Close enough. Fare well, Hakram.”
Het met her eyes. Moments passed.
“And you, Akua,” he replied.
She left, still shaking her head and smiling. Her attendant, who she’d never introduced, waved a cheeky goodbye. The Warlord flexed his dead hand, wondering if he’d just made a mistake. Whatever the truth of it, though, it was now too late. Events were in motion, even those that had nothing to do with the sorceress. From the corner of his eye he saw that a warrior with a painted shield had come from below to speak to the chief of the Split Tree Clan in a low tone before being dismissed. The Warlord glanced at his adviser, who came closer. Hegvor leaned his way so she could whisper into his ear with her lips hidden from sight.
“We have word,” she said. “We’ve taken everything we need out.”
Hakram nodded, satisfied. On schedule.
“And our way out?”
“Waiting for the signal,” she said.
Good. Everything was in place, then.
There was nothing left but seeing how the dice fell.
Arthur wasn’t sure what in the Heavens he was doing here. A trophy hero, maybe? No, that thought was unkind to the Princess and she’d done nothing to deserve that. The Woe had their reputation, but he’d never seen Princess Vivienne be anything but roughly decent. Even Grandmaster Talbot spoke well of her, and when wariness was in order it was not tinted with the kind of fear that the Black Queen commanded. No, the Princess earned rue instead. Arthur would not be surprised if the barracks tale of the Thief having stolen every pair of shoe Brandon Talbot owned after he misspoke in court were actually true.
“I’d expected Queen Catherine to attend personally,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “One must wonder what preceding claim there might be on her time.”
The Squire had heard the empress was the most beautiful woman in the world and he supposed she was graceful enough, but it was a kind of put-together that put him ill at ease. Like a man too handsome and well-groomed, it hinted at artifice or vanity. Princess Vivienne had taken it in stride, though, and looked calm as a pond on a windless day.
“She likes to delegate minor affairs to me,” the Princess mildly said. “I’m sure you won’t take offence.”
It wasn’t a question. While those two continued to spar, Arthur let his eyes and attention wander. There were few people in the antechamber where they had been invited by the servants and fewer still who talked. The Princess had been allowed two guard compared to the twenty Sentinels in here, and to match Arthur himself an old foe had been summoned. The Black Knight loomed so tall he had to wonder how she’d even been able to enter the room, her heavy plate dark as pitch and polished like a mirror. The warhammer whose head rested on the ground was almost as tall as a man, and Arthur knew from experience that to take a blow from it without Name strength was to lose whatever limb was struck. She’d plowed through a line of legionaries like they were kindling back in Wolof, never even noticing that they fought back.
While their rulers talked, the two of them stood to the side like ornaments. He’d felt the Black Knight’s gaze on him several times and returned the favour when it moved away. He could not help it. Why is it that Nim Mardottir is your enemy, Squire? The Carrion Lord’s words were like a fly nipping at his neck. The man had been playing a game, pretending they were not at war and the Black Knight not Malicia’s greatest servant, and yet the hesitation remained. Because Arthur had never really questioned that he was going to kill the Black Knight before this all ended, and that admission shook him. It’d just been a given. He was the Squire and she the Black Knight.
What other way could it end?
Only now, without violence between them, he was standing next to her and noticing things. That she seemed as bored with the talk as he, that she liked to drum her fingers against the grip of her warhammer. Small, meaningless things. But it made her less a force of nature, of Evil, and more a woman in black armour. Maybe she was both, Arthur thought. Maybe that made it even worse, that she’d had a choice and still made this one, but the words felt weak. The resolve behind them was fragile and Arthur Foundling had not become a squire so that he would grown into the kind of knight that swung a sword weighed down with doubt.
So he asked.
“Were you in the streets, when the spiders came?”
His voice was quiet, so that the two rulers by them would not be drawn into it, but the Black Knight heard him. her armoured head moved to study him in silence. After a moment, she nodded.
“I looked for you,” the Squire admitted.
“I know,” the Black Knight replied. “Our pattern is not yet finished.”
So she knew, he thought with surprise. He wondered what it must be like, knowing that the very currents of fate had worn into Creation the promise of your death. Looking to the horizon and seeing only darkness ahead. It must feel, Arthur Foundling thought, a little like being alone on a shore and knowing nothing you could do would change anything. That the man you loved would still be dead even if you swung your sword until the Last Dusk. It must have had the bitter taste of futility to it.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” the Squire said and found he meant it. “That it could be… fair.”
“Fair is not what we bargained for, Squire,” the Black Knight said. “We took on the mantle knowing there would be days when we taste blood, when ashes sift through our fingers. My people say that on the day we are born, out death is born as well. We run towards it, it runs towards us, and the most we can take from life is to steal a march on it before we meet.”
She sounded calm. Serene, almost, and Arthur felt a surge of disgust clog his throat. Not for her but for him. Nim Mardottir was the one with the sword hanging above her head, and yet he was the one babbling like a sentimental child. It was shameful.
“I’d thought you would hate me,” Arthur quietly said. “I almost wish you would.”
The Black Knight chuckled.
“Black and white,” she said. “That’s always been the game. Hate it or laud it, nothing changes. So why burden yourself with the hate?”
He swallowed drily. There was an answer in him, but he did not know how to voice it. Could not, and suddenly he realized there was a silence in the hall. For a moment he feared that their talk her interrupted that of their rulers, but when he looked it was not there that their attention laid. Someone had come up stairs in the back of the antechamber and was forcing their way through the Sentinels. It was an old woman, dark-skinned. Princess Vivienne went still.
“Assassin,” the old woman called out. “Assassin is here, Malicia. He’s coming for-”
One of the Sentinels behind the empress moved jerkily, blade coming out as the Callowan guards shouted in alarm and reached for their swords. Only the killer was too fast, too smooth, and even as Malicia’s eyes widened and she began to turn the point of the steel touched her back – only for a great hammer to smash through it, shattering the blade.
“Behind me, Your Dread Majesty,” the Black Knight said, moving the shaken empress.
The Assassin, still faceless and garbed as a Sentinel, immediately began attacking again.
“Treachery,” the Princess called out as she drew her own sword. “They’re attacking us. Squire, face the Black Knight.”
Heart in his throat, Arthur drew his sword. Was this it, then? Their ending. The orphan was not a fucking fool. He’d been sent here so that he could kill the Black Knight and clear the way for the assassin his own queen must have sent.
“Why?” he heard the empress ask her champion. “You-”
“I cannot tolerate the way of the world,” the Black Knight answered, sounding as if she was smiling. “So I must change it. I will not compromise who I am.”
It was like a punch in the gut. Why is it that Nim Mardottir is your enemy, Squire? Gods, was that who he was? The kind of knight he was going to be?
“No,” Arthur Foundling answered, biting down on his indignation. “No.”
He moved, Name pulsing, and struck. The blade ripped through the Assassin’s hand as he jerked in surprise. The killer drew back to flee, Sentinels converging on them all as the Princess watched them all with cold eyes. But it was the Black Knight’s gaze he met, finding the silent question it held.
“Not black and white,” the Squire answered. “Right and wrong.”
It was just words, but they burned in him. Scoured his veins clean, cleared his gaze. It felt like he could breathe again, stand straight. It would stay with him, the answer. He would carry it with him wherever he went, sword in hand if he must. Because it wasn’t a game, never had been, and if for just a moment people could believe that the graveyard might stop devouring the world.
“Right and wrong,” the Black Knight quietly repeated.
And as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the assassin, the Knight Errant finally found he could smile.
The Lady had healed up but so had they.
Scribe disappeared early, which was for the best because she’d only get in the way. Yesterday it’d been half a game, at least until the end, but today there was nothing playful about it. There was no tide of devils to put in between, no spare breath to be squeezed out as the world whirled around them. Down here there was only the stone and the water and barrels around them.
That and the years of poison they’d brought in with them.
“He was still wearing those fucking bells when he died,” the Silver Huntress snarled. “Did you know that? Did you even care enough to ask?”
Her spear skidded along the Lady’s blade, the tip exploding with Light, but she’d already shown that trick before. Creation narrowed to an edge as Ranger cut through the burst of Light with her other sword, flipping her grip to ram the pommel into Alexis’ mouth. Teeth broke and the redhead rocked back, might have gotten her throat cut if Indrani didn’t leap over a barrel to stab at the Lady’s back. Her wrist was caught and Ranger was angling to spin and tossed her into the water when Indrani leaned forward to ram their foreheads together, buying just enough room not to get eviscerated when the Lady’s blade came up towards her belly.
She was still thrown, rolling on the stone until she got to her feet. Alexis has spat out blood and teeth, her spear alight in silver as she circled around a pack of barrels to bring the fight to larger grounds. Good call. Space was better for them than Ranger, especially when Cocky was cooking up surprises behind them. A glance told Indrani she’d opened a barrel with a knife and was studying the contents with wide eyes. Archer cleared her throat, trying to draw her attention so she’d actually toss the concoctions she’d prepared for this fight, but she was ignored.
“John had promise,” the Lady calmly said. “He was sharpening. If he’d stayed a few more years instead of run off to play the hero against my instructions, he would still be alive.”
“Of course he ran off,” Alexis snarled. “You fucking hammered into his head that he wasn’t as good as the rest of us, that he needed to prove himself. If it hadn’t been the Liesse Rebellion, it would have been any other of a dozen wars. And he would have died in all of them.”
Ranger seemed amused.
“If you were so concerned, why did you not accompany Indrani when she went to fetch him?” she asked.
The Huntress’ answer was inarticulate rage, leaping forward over a barrel instead of completing a circle. Indrani cursed under her breath, hurrying up. Alexis had gotten baited and paid for it, Ranger on her before she landed on the stone and catching her by the throat. The Huntress was slammed on the floor, hard enough that her bones cracked, and would have gotten a blade through the eye if Indrani hadn’t thrown one of her longknives at the Lady’s back. Hye Su snatched it out of the air and threw it back without batting an eye, but the heartbeat was long enough for Alexis to wriggle out of the grasp and kick the Lady away. Archer caught her own blade before it could carve through her throat and breathed out in relief, hurrying to the Huntress’ side so she would be able to get up without getting killed.
“You need to stay in control, Alexis,” Indrani harshly said. “If you get angry, get stupid, you’ll die.”
“This is sickening,” she said. “You need to make a decision, Indrani. Are you trying to win, or are you trying to be liked? Because now you’re trying to do both, and you are failing.”
“Yeah, she’s trying,” Alexis growled, spitting blood to the side. “It’s why she’s already better than you. Did you ever find out how Lysander died, Ranger?”
“Disappointingly,” the Lady said.
“Alone,” Alexis said. “He died alone, not even forty feet away from someone who would have fought at his side. That’s what you taught us. That’s your fucking legacy, Ranger. Dying alone, just like you will.”
“The difference between us, child,” the Lady of the Lake replied, “is that I do not fear it. And that’s why you’ll lose.”
And the thing was, Indrani still admired that answer. It made her blood sing, it was everything she’d decided she wanted of the world as a child. But that couldn’t be her, not anymore. Because it’d mean leaving behind Masego, never again curling up by his side to read. Never again talking late into the night. It would mean leaving Cat for good, the laughter and the warmth and the home she’d made herself into. It would mean no more rooftop skulking with Vivienne, no more dicing with Hakram. Hells, she’d even miss Akua and the way they talked trash about everybody else.
Indrani didn’t want to stand alone anymore. And maybe she’d die that way anyway, but she wouldn’t make herself pretend it’d be a good thing.
“You didn’t need to be,” Archer said. “Alone. That was a choice.”
She’d made it. But had any of them had, or had she made it for them too?
“You’ll learn otherwise,” Ranger gently said, then her eyes hardened. “Or you’ll die. One last lesson for the three of you.”
“Here’s one for you too,” Cocky said.
The thrown vial broke against the floor, small puffs of grey smoke taking to the air and then wildly swelling. The grey began to billow in every direction but neither Indrani nor Alexis hesitated to charge in. They knew exactly what this was, and they were in no danger from it. Ranger was better than either of them at fighting sightless, but there was something to even the odds: the moment she took a swing and Archer parried it, the Lady let out a soft noise of surprise and backed away. Yeah, the smoke was eating away at her gear. Figured she’d notice when blades clashed. The Huntress pushed but had to draw back when she almost lost an eye.
Indrani tried to flank, blades high, but Ranger backed away entirely out of the smoke and it dispersed after a few more moments.
“That explains the smell,” the Lady frowned, eyeing her dulled blades and eaten at cape. “You coated all your equipment in a solution to prevent it.”
“I still remember when we first met,” the Concocter said. “Do you recall the first question I ever asked you?”
“Could you have stopped it,” Ranger quoted.
“You didn’t,” Cocky said. “You let them die, because you didn’t care. And that’s all you are, isn’t it? The absence of caring. That’s the sum of you.”
“How far you’ve travelled, Concocter,” Ranger said, “to still be standing by that campfire, looking for someone to save you. Is that all you learned of your years as my pupil?”
A glanced was flicked at Indrani and Alexis.
“Different saviours to beg salvation from,” the Lady of the Lake scorned.
“No,” Cocky snarled. “I learned too much from you, Hye Su. Let it sink into my bone like a fucking disease. But I’ve given you that for too long.”
The Concocter smiled, hard and proud, and looked away from the Lady. At the two of them.
“Constanza,” she said. “My name is Constanza.”
Indrani went still. The Concocter breathed out.
“Let’s finish this,” she said. “All three of us.”
Alexis breathed out, hands shaking.
“Yeah,” the Silver Huntress got out through her broken teeth. “Time to end it. Indrani?”
Archer met the Lady of the Lake’s eyes.
“One last lesson,” Indrani agreed. “For us, and for those we left behind.”
Violence ensued. Steel sang and Cocky – Constanza, she thought with wonder – unleashed all she had prepared. The poison cloud that hurt only elves, the sentient drops of hate that hunted the sole person who’d not drunk an obscuring potion, the fumes that turned to glue and the glue that turned into acid. Ranger came for her, seeing her as the weak link, but none of them minded. It told them where the fight would be. Indrani took the first wound, a slice across the face. Cocky the second, an arrow that went through her shoulder. The Lady went third, losing her cloak and the edge of her eyebrow when Archer setup Alexis to detonate her spear next to Ranger’s head.
There was no elegance to it. It was simple, brutal attempts to kill. And Gods forgive them, but they were losing. Even with all the tricks and the rage, she was just too fucking good. No pass worked on her twice, and every time a sequence did well against her the Ranger learned in the moment that followed and turned it back against them. It was like fighting a mirror, only the reflection was better than them. Archer fell first, to a kick in the stomach as she parried her death away, but Alexis had overextended. She took a slice across her face, across her right eye, and as she drew back in pain the opening was made. Indrani felt a shout rising up her throat as the Lady darted forward past the two of them.
To Constanza, whose fingers were fumbling over a vial. The sword was swung, the arc smooth and perfect about to take the head of a girl Indrani had known since they were both children. Only it was the Lady that fell instead, taking a hit in the side as a cloaked figured stepped out of nowhere to her left. The Emerald Swords, Indrani thought as she rose to her feet. They must have used the same tunnels. Ranger swatted one away but three more materialized in the heartbeat that followed and there was no room to manoeuvre down here. Another appeared by Alexis’s side, striking her knee behind so she’d fall, and Indrani rolled to the side just in time to avoid being skewered by a sixth.
Evidently, the Emerald Swords were done fucking around.
“Cocky,” Archer shouted across the din. “This is done. We need to leave.”
She backed away from the elf pursuing her, the slender sword seemingly made of wood biting into her longknive like it was made of cheap tin. Fuck. Alexis had gotten away from hers and they came back to back, safe enough that Indrani could spare a look away. Cocky hadn’t been targeted, they weren’t seeing her as a threat, which meant there were eight of the fucking Emerald Swords fighting the same woman. And, terrifyingly enough, though Ranger was losing it wasn’t by a large margin. She was being pressed back, not overwhelmed.
“We grab Constanza and go,” Indrani said. “Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Alexis grunted.
They moved in unison, ducking beneath a blow as Alexis lit up her spear and used the flare to blind their opponents for half a heartbeat. Indrani used the delay to leap over a row of barrels, landing in a roll on the other side as a sword cut through where her belly would have been if she’d been standing. Fuck, she hadn’t even heard the elf move. Cocky was, inexplicably, dipping what looked like a long thin stick into the barrel she’d opened earlier instead of fucking running away. Another flare of silver Light, then Alexis was with them. Half her face was covered in blood from the cut Ranger had left her with, and that eye might well be a permanent loss.
“What are you doing?” the Huntress snarled, “we need to-”
Constanza reached into the pouch at her side and took out a red gem, idly throwing it at a barrel to their right. The stone hit and got stuck on the wood, then began to shine.
“Fuck,” Indrani swore, throwing herself down.
The world exploded in green. Goblinfire. Merciless Gods, the place had been loaded with the largest amount of goblinfire Indrani had ever seen. And there were explosion in the distance, like there’d been other stacks out there. She got back to her feet as Cocky smiled smugly. The roar of the flames had surprised everyone, but it looked like the Lady had been the one to pay for it. She’d gotten run through from the back, Indrani said, and another Emerald Sword had just broken her jaw. A third was about to put his blade through her heart when he suddenly backed away, a chandelier writhing with green flames falling where he’d just been.
The goblinfire was spreading everywhere but nowhere more than near where Ranger still was. Lying on the ground and bleeding out, the elves struggling to get close enough to finish her off.
“All three doors are on fire, you fucking idiot,” Alexis said. “How are we supposed to get out of here, Cocky?”
Even the water wasn’t an option. It was on fire too, because goblinfire was a goddamned horror.
“By following me,” Constanza smugly replied.
She still had that slender stick in hand, and when she pulled away she kept it high. What had to be the goblinfire from the barrel followed it, like a strand of glue, which was weird. Goblinfire wasn’t supposed to do that when inert, Indrani was sure of it. She must have done something to the substance while everybody else was looking. They followed her, and as if that stick was a magic wand the Concocter used it to part the flames in front of them. Every time she touched the green fire with the coated end of the stick, it was sucked in up the strand and towards the barrel. Which was not, as far as Indrani could see, burning yet.
“Straight path,” Cocky said. “I can only divert so much before the threshold is passed and my barrel blows too. That… won’t be pretty. Dragon blood is something of an amplifier.”
Oh, that did not sound good at all. Still better than dying in a fire, though, so on Indrani went. And the straight path they were taking through a cage of flames was, inevitably, one that led them straight to the Lady. Still lying down there, bleeding out. There was movement, the Emerald Swords coming, but Cocky was quicker: she flicked her stick, snapping the strand, and a curtain of goblinfire closed behind them. There was a thundering sound inside a heartbeat later, the barrel finally exploding. But that felt another world away, when they were here looking down at Ranger. The three of them shared a long look.
An understanding came, eventually.
“We could leave you to them,” Alexis said, crouching by the Lady’s side. “Toss you back in there to die.”
“It’d be deserved,” Constanza said, crouching on the other. “A long time coming.”
“It’s one way to end this,” Indrani said, meeting her teacher’s eyes. “To make sure you don’t come for us to even the scales for today. That you don’t decide it makes us worth hunting.”
“But I still remember when they sent me into the woods to die,” Alexis said. “The look on the elderman’s face. He thought he was doing right by the village. One girl for all of them. And I never got angry enough to forget that look, Ranger. To remember I swore I’d never be like him.”
“I could let them kill you,” Constanza said. “Like you let those bandits kill my family. But that’s just you winning, isn’t it? Me still living by your rules. And I won’t have that, not anymore. I’m going to be better.”
“There’s dues, though,” Indrani said, knife in hand. “And I have learned a thing or two about long prices. So here’s your ending, Lady of the Lake.”
The hand came down, the knife slicing deep across the nose. She passed it to Alexis, who cut deep down the left cheek. And she passed it to Constanza, who cut the last down the right cheek.
“They’ll scar,” Indrani said, knowing it to be true.
“Every time you look at them, remember that you once had pupils,” Constanza said.
“And that you might have left marks on us,” Alexis grinned through broken teeth, “but we left those on you.”
A strange expression passed in the Lady’s eyes as they rose, one after the other. Indrani did not dare put a word to it. They left her there, lying on the stone as the goblinfire burned behind her. Maybe she’d get up, maybe she wouldn’t. Either way, it was on her alone. The three of them left the same way they’d come.
The Dread Empress looked troubled.
Akua was not the only one to have noticed, and all who did were troubled in turn. All of the city knew that Malicia had gathered the court here tonight so that her reign could end in dignity, so that she might try to become Chancellor under the new rising power or otherwise seek mercy. Most would be disinclined to grant it, but Akua Sahelian was said rising power and it would be her decision to make. If she sought to become Dread Empress. If she cared to sit the throne that Malicia was going to empty.
Yet here the empress was, looking troubled. Something must have happened in the receiving room out back. Vivienne had left it in a hurry, and looking harried, while the young man who was the Squire these days had looked oddly serene. Power now wafted from him stronger than Akua had ever felt it, which smacked of a transition – as did the even look of respect he had traded with the Black Knight before they parted ways. A Squire no longer, perhaps. For the best. Akua had struggled to pair the Name with anyone who but the last woman who’d worn it.
What had happened in there? Akua considered her curiosity, then set it aside. It was of no great import. Events were precipitating, and after the empress glanced away her face returned as a lovely mask of control. The doubts gone, and the tension went out of the nobles. All was as it should be. The Dread Empress of Praes would present one last play, and the fate of Praes would be decided by the worthies of this great hall as it had been for centuries.
“She schemes your death,” Kendi whispered into her ear. “They all do, or will. One day they will see the truth of you, and all of Praes will recoil.”
She considered that.
“Do you like singing, Kendi?” Akua asked.
“My sister did,” he smiled, without a single speck of warmth.
“Have you ever heard The Tyranny of the Sun?”
He cocked his head to the side, nodded.
“What would you say it’s about?” Akua murmured.
The dark-haired man held his tongue, chose his words.
“This very hall,” Kendi Akaze finally said, “seen from below.”
The Carrion Lord, she thought, really was such a terrible prick. She’d liked that song once, for all that it was maudlin and banned by decree. It had such a pleasant melody. Only now all that she could think of was that it dated back to the Sixty Years war, nearly five hundred years ago, and already the singers sounded… tired. Of all this around her, of the empire writ in dread. Of the dooms sought to the west, a hundred apiece for every ashen victory. A servant came to her, offering a golden goblet, and she almost smiled. Ah, there it was. She took it in hand but did not drink, dismissing the man. Akua waited in silence, even her supporters standing far from her now that Malicia was seated on her throne.
Out of fear, yes, but not of the empress. None wanted to steal from her moment and earn her ire for it.
“Akua Sahelian,” Dread Empress Malicia said.
Silence fell like a blanket over the court. Not a soul dared to move.
“Malicia,” she replied.
The older woman smiled.
“Am I not your empress, Lady Akua?”
Akua gently smiled back.
“Are you the empress of anyone at all, Alaya of Satus?”
A shiver in the air. Sharks smelling blood in the water.
“A bold claim,” the empress said. “Empty, if no one speaks for you.”
And that was the part where her backers were to step forward, speak on her behalf. Make boasts and promises, praise her deeds. It was rare for the throne to be abdicated with a semblance of peace, but hardly unheard of. Some tyrants could grasp that it was over before they found themselves bleeding out on the floor with a knife in the stomach. Some had even spared their predecessor instead of ordering their death as their first decree. All very civilized, an old play put on with fresh colours. And no doubt Malicia had a scheme at work. Malicia always had a scheme, it was her blessing and her curse.
But Akua had not climbed the Tower and walked through the Hall of Screams so that she could dance to the empress’ tune.
“No,” Akua said.
Surprised silence. She swept the hall with her gaze, saw wariness and greed and hate in the eyes of those around her.
“I am tired,” Akua said, and then forced herself to say more, “of this, Malicia. This… play we are to put on. The pretence that you leave this throne willing, that I take it up instead of seize it.”
“All of the empire is a stage, Akua Sahelian,” the Empress replied. “We play our roles.”
“And where did that get you?” Akua asked. “Playing along.”
Malicia’s face, so lovely and so cold, hardened.
“Those graceless in victory,” she said, “are uglier still in defeat. Take care to remember that.”
Only, Akua realized, the empress’ attention was only half on her. How delightfully insulting. Malicia was looking around, scanning the room under the pretence of matching eyes with highborn. She was looking for someone and Akua happened to know exactly who.
“She’s not going to come,” the golden-eyed sorcerers said.
Malicia turned to her. Now she had the full attention.
“All that cleverness,” Akua mused, “turned to waste by a single mistake.”
Gods, but she was tired. As if the Tower had eaten the marrow of her bones, left her to walk rattling. Tired and irritated, because what was even the point of this?
“Step down,” Akua cut in, “or be made to.”
The empress looked as if she had been slapped. Akua took a step forward, then two. Malicia looked so utterly at a loss that she almost laughed. The dark amusement running thick through her veins, she raised the golden goblet she’d been handed and tossed it at the Dread Empress of Praes. Who looked like she’d just swallowed a surprised yelp as she ducked out of the way. The goblet clattered against the throne of the Dread Empire, that ancient ghastly thing. The dark liquid dripped down the welded stone and iron, the ancient seat little more than a squat, ugly pile of stones.
Akua advanced, passing by the aghast Malicia without a word. She came to stand by the old thing, trailing a finger down the arm. She turned to offer a smile at the nobles below the dais.
“My ancestor,” she told them, “murdered a woman here. Before this very seat.”
Her hand left the stone.
“She trusted him,” Akua said. “And he plunged a knife in her belly. Left her to bleed out on the floor. And when the life left her eyes, he sat down on the throne and named himself Sinister.”
She had them, she could see it in their eyes. The hunger, the want. To be her, to serve her, to fuck her – to eat her whole, swallow up everything that had made her rise and make it their own. What was this empire, if not a covenant of the hungry?
“My mother used to say that Maleficent made an empire, but that it was Subira Sahelian that made it the Dread Empire,” Akua said. “She was not without wisdom. And that legacy, that blood, it carries with it a duty.”
You have the master’s blood, the demon bound to the Tyrant’s Gate had said. Her line had been there since the first stone was set over another. Masters of dread, makers of horror.
“And so here I stand, where Subira once stood, beholding his work,” Akua idly said. “And I wonder – would he still have plunged the knife, knowing what we’d become?”
The crowd shuffled, uneasy. These were not the words they had come here to hear. That was not her role in the play. They should have listened to her more closely.
“There comes a time where one must look back and ask: what purpose does this serve?” Akua said. “One thousand and three hundred years the Dread Empire has stood. Through triumph and disaster, through the darkest pits and the tyranny of the sun. And now, looking back, I ask you: what purpose do we serve?”
Unease thickened. She was mad, they thought. They had chosen a madwoman to lead them. The dark-skinned beauty laughed.
“I struggled with the question,” she admitted. “But we do find answers in the strangest places.”
What was the difference, between a knot and a noose? Nothing, Hakram Deadhand had told her, until there is a corpse. And that was the balance of it. The Dread Empire of Praes, was it a knot that could be undone or a noose strangling its people?
One need only look out the window to know the answer.
And so Akua Sahelian touched her sleeve, taking out the terrible gift her enemy had given her. Such a small thing, for the power it held. She touched it to the arm of the throne, the rough stone.
“Nothing,” the blood of the original murder told them. “We are not the masters of this place, we are the sacrifice. And so I tell you now: this Dread Empire is at an end.”
Smiling, Akua Sahelian struck the match against the throne. It burned bright and, feeling as if finally she could breathe, she dropped it on the throne. Where the goblet had spilled.
There was a heartbeat of utter stillness, as if the world itself had ceased spinning.
Then the throne burned green.
The world had been shattered under their feet.
Alaya was a fool. The Intercessor had never even been an ally of convenience, the old monster had known from the start that her scheme was fatally flawed and not said a word. All because she had thought she understood Akua Sahelian, that the girl was her mirror in the generation that followed. That she would want the throne, if only to mend it all. How terribly, utterly wrong she had been. Praes was a game that could be won, but Alaya had not won it. She had lost it, along with her throne, and now she was fleeing with the rest of the crowd like a rat leaving a sinking ship.
The orcs had known, she thought. They had been part of it. How else would they have a gate to Arcadia ready, would they know to herd the panicking nobles through it. They left Creation with a shiver, treading the realm of the fae to breathtaking sight. Higher than a mountain, a great tower of stone and bone rose through clouds and sky until it disappeared into the dark. The Tower’s mirror here, seeping malice and madness out of every pore. They all fled from the sight of it, hurrying along a winding path of stone, and at the end awaited a way out.
They returned to Creation as a pack of huddling refugees, eyes drawn high to a sight none of them would forget as long as they lived. The Tower was burning. Like an emerald candle in the night, green flames rose from the bottom to swallow it whole. There was not a soul in the city who would not see it. As far as the Blessed Isle, Alaya thought, they might see the green light searing the sky. Her eyes lowered, finding a silhouette awaiting, and suddenly it fell into place. They were not just below the Tower, they were at the very bottom. At the foot of the sculpted stairs that led to the Tyrant’s Gate, and atop those a man was waiting.
The tunic was a simple grey, its belly covered with bandages stained red. But there was no mistaking the man himself, for all that his hair had greyed and he had grown a salt and pepper beard. He watched them, they’d who’d been brought down below the first step one might take to climb the Tower, and smiled. His eyes were green as the flames behind him, the emerald blaze wreathing his silhouette and casting his shadow down over them all.
It slowly sunk in for everyone, as it had for Alaya, that he’d played them all for fools.
“Praes,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch calmly said, “is a mould that must be broken.”
And now everyone was there, the Wandering Bard smiled as she tested the string one last time. Perfectly tuned. She’d had the place from the start, but now she had the time and the officiant. All she needed was – ah, and there came the last missing guest. Catherine Foundling walked out of the dark, power still clinging to her cloak, and looked up through the gloom. Their eyes met, a moment, and she offered Yara a wink. She winked back, making herself comfortable on the stone, and strummed her lute with a practiced hand.
It was time to kill her and doom the world.
“There was once a girl,” the Wandering Bard sang, “without a name.”