“One hundred ninety-nine: this list began with the simplest of axioms, the first. In the years since others like you have added to or taken away from it, a chain that goes back further than any of us know, changing and twisting as it grows. In time no two list will be the same, save always in this one regard: there is no two hundredth axiom. That place remains empty, so that once you learn something worth passing down you may fill it yourself. Look forward, as we once did, and let those who come after you learn from our mistakes. What greater gift can there be?”– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
It would be a balancing act in two parts.
The first was the war without, the battle against the Dead King. The Black Knight had learned from yesterday’s fighting, undone as it had come, but so had the enemy. Still Waters had been revealed, its strength against the Dead King’s armies laid bare, and even as High Marshal Nim had adjusted her tactics so had the ancient lich. Though he could not stop her dead soldiers from rising as wights, the trails of alchemy once dropped over enemy formations to turn them wild had lost effect: the skeletons and ghouls simply dropped once touched by the compound. A Wolofite mage by the name of Kendi Akaze had theorized the effect was automated, added to sorcery that had raised the undead, and Lady Seriff had confirmed it after a few experiments.
It made the weapon more lethal, true, but took away from it the most useful property: being able to turn Keter’s numbers against it. Akaze, who must have impressed the cantankerous old mage, had been drafted as her assistant while she tried to find a way to exploit the Dead King’s most recent spellwork. It had smacked of an apprenticeship in the making to all witnesses. The Black Knight hoped for their success, as she could use the help: Keter had learned how turn the advance up the avenue leading to the inner wall into a murderous slog. Nearly half the undead mages in the city had been concentrated in the path of their offensive, hitting away at the flying fortresses with rituals to keep them away so they couldn’t lend support, and worse still was the engines.
The last third of the avenue was a road no more, a space of collapsed houses three miles wide and two long having been created, and the reason why was clear: batteries of siege engines were bristling on the inner wall, waiting to hammer away at any soldiers that began to walk across the open, broken grounds before the rampart.
The second was the war within, the struggle for the Praes that was to be. There were parts of the land that did not even yet know the Dread Empire was now the Confederation and the Black Knight knew well how fragile the bargains struck in the Tower’s dying light still was. It stood only so long as the Warden loomed tall over all the schemers hungry for more, so long as the Legions of Terror remained the greatest army in the land. Else when they all came home, the High Lords might look at a weakened force under Nim and the chancellor and decide that perhaps they wanted to be Dread Emperor after all. That supreme rule was worth the risks of a war. They had all agreed to disband all armies save the Legions, but how much was their word really worth?
So the Black Knight must make sure none of them thought they’d be able to win that war, when temptation came calling. That meant spending their house troops, their levies, and preserving the strength of her legions. Only it could not be obvious, or wasteful, for otherwise they would be well within their rights to rebel at such treatment – for all that the private armies were now officially auxiliaries under the Legions, the way their noble commanders still led them proved how thin a pretence that truly was. So Nim must balance need and dues, all the while keeping her eye on what must be done to win the battle without lest the battle within ruin it.
It was a difficult exercise, but the Black Knight had found that she was equal to it. Her Name burned at the challenge, alive in a way it had never been when Amadeus still lived and his shadow was still cast over all who would wear his old mantle. It was one decision after another, another puzzle to move around until all the pieces fit the right way.
“The Fourteenth is getting mauled,” her Staff Tribune told her. “Their mages are being tied down by hexenghouls so buzzards can land behind the ranks. They’re too far out on the flank, ma’am, it could turn south on us.”
The flying constructs would open their belly when they laded, spewing out the cargo of undead they’d carried and so effectively cutting off the Fourteen from the rest of Nim’s forces. Or at least potentially so, if they were allowed to build up numbers long enough. Best to take care of that quickly.
“Inform High Lord Dakarai that he is to commit the wavemen,” the Black Knight said. “Free use of enchanted arrows is allowed.”
Nok’s archers, the finest in all of Praes, should be able to clear out the enemy with concentrated volleys if they had permission to dip into fire arrows. Her Staff Tribune nodded, committing the words to memory.
“And send word to the Old Mothers,” she calmly added. “When the dead turn their rituals on the wavemen, I want the fortresses to unleash their full spellfire volume at the enemy cabals while they’re open.”
It happened as she had foreseen, and even as the Black Knight’s Name smiled coldly and smoke rose from the ranks of the wavemen, her vanguard – Aksum’s forces, nearly half of which were wights by now due to attrition – pushed forward three blocks during the lull in enemy spells.
“The grounds were trapped ahead of the vanguard,” her Staff Tribune told her. “Pit traps and caltrops. Beorns are hitting Aksum over them while the ranks are in disarray.”
Pit traps that the wights would fall into blindly, caltrops that would tear through the too-light foot armour of the Aksum levies when they tread on them. Beorns, massive distended bear constructs that they were, would be able to ignore both and spit out the dead they carried straight into the wavering Aksumite ranks.
“Send word to High Lady Abreha to withdraw,” Nim said.
“The beorns will trample all over her retreat,” her Staff Tribune noted. “Casualties will be steep.”
“They’ll rout before long anyway,” the Black Knight said. “But while her levies are being rampaged over, tell General Sacker she is free to fire with her ballistae while the Ninth replaces the vanguard. Unravellers included, after a round of ranging shots.”
The unravellers would quickly end the constructs, and the Ninth was still heavy on sappers compared to most legions: there was no better force at her command to get rid of the traps and unearth further ones. A high number of goblins, though, would mean a degree of fragility.
“Have one of the fortresses pass over the streets in front of the traps,” she added, frowning. “Still Water the area.”
That should allow Sacker long enough to clear the mess before being hammered. It went better than the Black Knight had thought it would: Abreha unleashed beasts she had been keeping in reserve to protect her retreat, slinking panthers made of shadow whose claws rent constricts asunder as they moved across the battlefield like ghosts. The beorns began lashing out blindly, leaving them easy prey for the ballistae, and the Ninth struck fast in the wake of the flying fortress’ path. The army pushed up another four blocks, and now High Marshal was so close to the open grounds she could taste it.
“The Levantines report movement at our back,” her Staff Tribune said. “Lady Osena requests instructions.”
“Tell her to dig in behind us,” Nim grunted. “We’ll need them to handle the rearguard while we storm the inner wall.”
The tall ogre cast a frown at the battlefield, watching as the Ninth clawed its way up another block and General Wheeler’s Eighth gained ground on the left flank. Too much, she thought. Keter was folding too quickly, though on the ground it must have looked only like a successful push. The Eighth’s cognomen was not ‘Trailblazers’ without reason, however, and given ground to take they would take it all too fast. Someone on the other side had read Wheeler just right. The order for the goblin general to pull back was on the tip of her tongue, but then she thought twice.
“Tell Wheeler to push…” she trailed off, gauging the distance with her eye, “half a mile forward, then lean on his sappers to blow through the houses and turn straight south instead.”
That way the Eighth would hit the position the Ninth was about to ruin itself on from the side, enough to relieve the pressure and allow Sacker to break through without ruining herself. More importantly, the half mile forward would make room for another maneuver.
“And inform High Lord Sargon that Wolof is to fill the gap when the Eighth swings south,” the Black Knight smiled. “He is free to use sorcery as he wills so long as he pushes no further.”
And if the High Marshal was reading the timing right Wheeler would get out of the trap just before its jaws closed, just in time for Sargon Sahelian to be left holding the bag instead. Wolof would react to the assault with massed sorcery, as they always did, which in turn would clear masses of skeletons quickly enough that the Eighth would be pivoting into surprised enemies whose reinforcements would be delayed.
“I’ll see it done, Lady Black,” her Staff Tribune swore.
On this last one, Black Knight saw, she had been a little off. The Eighth did get out in time, but it was actually too early: the first moments of the pivot, as sappers blasted through houses so that ranks of regular could advance through the rubble, were severely punished by the enemy. The sappers took a beating. But when Wolof moved into place and the enemy trap was sprung – shallow tunnels were revealed in a loose circle around the Wolofite position, a horde emerging in moments – the ensuring storm of sorcery did as she had foreseen. With the pressure alleviated, Wheeler broke through and struck hard at the enemy flank while Sacker pushed up the avenue.
Five blocks in half an hour, and as the Black Knight watched with a cold smile her vanguard finally reached the open grounds under the siege engines that the dead had prepared to break her army. It was time, then. Nim Mardottir’s fingers closed around the haft of her war hammer and she rose to her feet. She would lead from the front, now, lead the assault on the wall. But before that, she would show Keter why it was that she had kept her flying fortresses back the entire battle.
“Staff Tribune,” the Black Knight said, “pass my order to all fortresses.”
“Sunset,” she said. “Begin immediately.”
And as the order went up, the massive floating castles began to move. Forward, at first, but then downwards. Streaks of magic shot up from the ground, Keter’s rituals pounding away at the stone and protective enchantments. They tore out chunks, blew through walls and burned hundreds alive. Even crashed one of the smaller towers. Yet most of them kept moving, kept coming down, and as the Black Knight rested her hammer against her shoulder she watched the massive piles of stone land with such thundering crashes they would never rise again. The first of the Old Mothers landed in front of the inner wall’s gatehouse, the fortress gate facing the Dead King’s own, and the rest of the castles fell like a curtain behind the enemy wall.
To cut it off from reinforcements just before the Praesi assault began.
The Black Knight of Praes raised her war hammer, and half a hundred thousand voices screamed themselves hoarse. Forward they went, to find one of the two fates the Wasteland taught its children: victory and death.
Hanno could not save everyone.
The world was not so simple that strength alone would be enough to ends all its ills, chase pain and misery out of Creation like spring leaning. He could not even save everyone in front of him, he was forced to admit as he moved from struggle to struggle across this cursed city of the dead and dying. For every man he arrived in time to keep from the enemy’s blades another died, be it to arrow or poison or the fangs of some howling ghoul. It was like trying to put out a forest fire with a cup of water. But still he tried, grasping tight that moment of clarity he had found when he cast aside the coin. Even if it was hard, even if it was thankless, he would act. He would not be able to save everyone, but that was never an excuse not to try.
So Hanno of Arwad picked up his cup and fought the blaze, undaunted, until Creation saw fit to acknowledge his conviction: Save, his soul sang out.
It was as if he’d opened his eyes for the first time. All around him he felt the war between doom and hope, the balance of victory and defeat between them, and for all that all of Keter was balance on the precipice of catastrophe he had never seen anything so beautiful. Hundreds of thousands from all over Calernia had come to this place, this day, and in the face of the darkness they fought tooth and nail to turn back the tide. It was like watching a sea of candles warring on the night.
And when Hanno saw the balance moved towards doom, his body began to move before his mind had even come to the decision. He cut through the streets and across rooftops, snatching life back from death where he could, until he found the battle to be won. Rozala Malanza, hard-eyed and defiant as she faced a Revenant with nothing more than banner and bravery, was to give her life to save Procer. And it might succeed, Hanno knew, for a time. But the world would darken for her passing and he could stop it, so he did. It felt natural to step in, to break the Revenant’s arm and boil its inside in a flash of Light. Never before had the Light come so easy to his call or his body been so light. The aspect, he decided. It was not simple sight.
Within moments of the Revenant ending, Hanno saw the tide begin to turn again to the north. Doom was clawing back the day, so the hero moved again. Save, his soul sang, and he raced against the dark. Hadn’t he all his life?
It was not a straight path. Again and again he went to the side, cradling another flame against his palms so it would not blow out. A handful of conscripts surrounded in a ditch, fighting under a dipping banner. A lone fantassin in a garish striped vest of orange and green, drowning in their own blood as a Revenant speared their limbs – and coming into a Name as Hanno cauterized their wound with Light, gasping out in pain. A company of Nicaeans being trampled by a tusk, a pair of Helikeans desperately fighting to bring back the unconscious body of a woman in general’s armour. Delosi mercenaries grimly protecting a stripe-cheeked corpse from an onslaught of ghouls. Each a candle, an inch of Creation reclaimed from the dark.
Doom was approaching, strengthening, so Hanno lengthened his stride. He did not even break it when he smashed through a pack of hexenghouls, pulling one off a richly armoured Taghreb girl just before it sank its fangs into her throat. Even as she called out in relief and surprise he kept moving, ignoring her shouts and that of be beleaguered retinue to duck under an arch just before it fell and blocked the way across the street. He grabbed a loose stone jutting out from a wall, using it to drag himself up on the roof just in time to see a bearded man and an old woman in robes dissecting a corpse atop rooftiles turned to glass. Their cries of triumph turned into dismay when miasma came pouring out, Hanno loosing a spear of Light into the cloud without batting an eye.
It dispersed and leapt down the roof before they could even see his face, landing on a beorn’s back and carving through the construct’s head. It collapsed forward, sliding down the sloped street and bringing him right before the ragged ranks of a warband of painted Levantines. They parted ranks as he jumped past them and sped up, feeling the call to be so very close now. He turned the corner fast enough his boot slid in the ash, eyes already on the fight ahead of him. The two of them fought back-to-back. Aquiline Osena moving in a sinuous blur of green and bronze, hooked sword blunt from having hewn too many heads open. Razin Tanja in grey and crimson, patient and measured as he killed in sharp strikes. The dead were swarming them, a battered warband collapsing around the lovers as skeletons climbed over the corpses of hundreds of Levantines.
An ambush had been sprung here, the Dead King come to take the lives of the Blood. One of you could live, Hanno thought, if they ran for it. But you never even thought of it, did you?
His aspect pounding inside of him like a marching drum, Hanno charged in. It was a blur as he moved with Light shivering down his legs, darting forward between blows as he smashed his way through the ranks of the dead. They began to throw themselves at him, to slow him down and tangle his legs, but Hanno let out a grunt and flared Light. His veins burned but the undead fled the pain, leaving him just enough room to push through and then… three steps and he swung, arm outstretched as the very tip of his sword brushed the arrow’s side. Enough to foul it, enough that it went wide instead of going through Razin Tanja’s open mouth. Hanno laughed, triumphant, for the tide was turning against doom.
He had saved candles, today, but these two felt like a torch.
“Retreat,” Hanno told them.
“Lord White,” Lady Aquiline said, “I give honour to your deed, but there are too many for-”
“There could be a thousand more,” Hanno of Arwad said, “and today it would not be enough. Retreat, my lady of Tartessos. They will not pass by me.”
He turned towards the tide, smiling, and flicked his sword to batter a javelin aside as the dead surged forward. Hanno returned to the fight, like a sword returning to the anvil, and in the back of his mind the song began again. Save, it prayed.
The day was not over, and neither was the labour of his hands.
When so many Named fought, it was near impossible to keep track of everything.
Akua had only added near because the Carrion Lord had been famous for doing exactly that and Catherine was slowly reaching those heights herself. She herself did not have that capacity, to her displeasure, so instead of frittering away her focus the sorcerers kept to her objective: collapsing the defences around the ward anchor. The house where she believed that the stone would be held had no entrance, large stones having been dragged to cover all of them, and there Akua believed she had found a weakness. Walls and even roof tiles could be enchanted defensively with some degree of strength, but a slab of stone? Not anywhere as well.
Knowing she would not twice get an opening, Akua waited for her moment. The Vagrant Spear was keeping the Twins busy, killing them almost fast as they came back to life as her spear blurred too swiftly for the naked eye to follow, and the Red Knight had barreled into the pack of Revenants that had chased Indrani and Akua for half an hour before this: all of them armed with spears and bedecked in bronze armour, they moved with eerie coordination. The sorcerers suspected only one of them had actually been Named but that an aspect was being used to share their strength, not that it seemed to matter to the Red Knight.
“Devour,” she snarled, ripping out a chunk of the necromancy keep the undead moving.
The strength she’d stolen healed the gut wound she’d taken from a spear and with scornful laughter the villainess began hammering into the Revenants again. Rooftops to Akua’s left kept shattering as the Lord of Silent Steps chased a wary Seelie, keeping her out of the fight as Archer and the Harrowed Witch tried their luck with the war anchor’s guardian: a broad woman in gaudy golden plate wielding an equally golden armour, her open-faced helmet adorned with a red feather. Indrani was being thrown off the roof again, but the Harrowed Witch moved her spectre in the way to catch her and toss her back into the fight. It was, Akua decided, as good an opening as she was likely to get.
Though it felt uninspired and somewhat pedestrian to use an entropy curse when the Dead King had displayed a greater work along the same lines in this very city, it was the best tool Akua had to remove the stone slab before the door. She did not speak the incantation, remaining hidden as she cast. It struck suddenly, withering first the magic the stone had been filled with in order to harden it and only then beginning to hollow out the slab from the inside. This, naturally, drew attention. The golden Revenant, ignoring Indrani’s knife as it scraped harmlessly against her armour, leapt down from the roof and ran towards her.
“A source detection array, I see,” Akua noted. “Unfortunate.”
She raised her wrists, speaking three words of power, and flicked them at the golden nuisance. The Revenant ducked into an empty house, but Akua hardly minded as he true target – the hollowed out stone – exploded in a burst of shard.
“Ivah,” Akua shouted. “The anchor.”
The golden Revenant then burst through the wall to her left, which Akua would admit to surprising her a tad, but Indrani had it in hand. Archer, thrown by the Witch’s spectre, landed on the Revenant’s back. She began stabbing at the golden wretch’s helmet, and for once the Revenant bothered to defend herself. Her hands were covering her head and Akua’s eyes narrowed even as Indrani was tossed through a doorway on the other side of the street, ferociously cursing all the way. The golden-armoured halberdier lowered her weapon at Akua, who had yet to move so much as an inch.
“Proceran, were you?” the golden-eyed sorceress drawled.
The golden Revenant charged, batting aside a spectre and in the same swing an arrow Archer had shot at her. Akua, instead of panicking as the distance closed, raised two hands and began to incant a simple fire cantrip even as her other hand traced a High Arcana rune. She unleashed the strong spell first, a burst of force that the halberdier took head on. It slowed the Revenant just enough for the second spell to land even as the halberd pierced forward towards Akua. A small flame caught the red feather, which turned to ash in a heartbeat. And in the heartbeat after that, the golden halberd and golden plate also turned to ash.
“You must have been,” Akua mused, “for only a Jaquinite wizard would have added such a painfully obvious unravelling clause to an artefact. Gods Below, I’ve seen greater subtlety from Callowan nobles – and their idea of trickery is a massive cavalry charge from the back instead of the front.”
Admittedly it was somewhat embarrassing how often that trick had defeated Praesi armies, but that was neither here nor there. The half-globe of forced revealed by traces of dust suddenly flickered and died as Ivah finished what she had requested of him, the ward collapsing without its anchor, and the Dead King proved to be a sore loser when the Tumult dropped another column of lightning atop that house. Ivah would survive, she had not doubt. Mighty of its strength were exceptionally difficult to kill by conventional means. The once-golden Revenant was still charging at her, but Akua raised her wrists again and she threw herself to the side – never noticing that Akua had never actually called on magic before Archer leapt into the whole to return the beatings she’d had doled out to her earlier in the fight. Throwing out a set of transparent shields around herself out of caution, Akua began to walk down the street.
Helping the Vagrant Spear out should end this faster, she mused, and then they could get out of here before more Scourges showed up. She dismissed half her shield, beginning the incantation for a curse of withering, and then one of the enchanted gems under her armour shattered as a protective spell tool the strike that should have severed her spine. Akua spun wildly, tossing a ball of flame in the Seelie’s face, but all it did was break an illusion. A strike that should have slipped between her ribs killed another gem, her last before she began bleeding, and there she landed a spell that blew a stream of heated ashes in the Scourge’s face. Only the Seelie hadn’t ducked because she doing something else: cutting off one of the straps keeping the box on Akua’s back.
“No,” she hissed, sword clearing the scabbard as she wildly swung the box rattled at her back.
The Crown of Autumn would not break, but if they got to the box… Archer burst out of the house, blades out, and Akua saw it all unfold with clarity. The Seelie ripped the box off her back as Akua slashed across her face, the metal contained landing on the street. There was a whistling sound as the missiles of the javelineer Revenant, which she’d thought destroyed by the Red Knight earlier, began to fall. And even as Akua screamed out an incantation, the Seelie’s knife whipped about and slid past her guard. It would open her throat. Archer stilled for a moment, halfway there, as they both saw the same thing: a javelin would hit the box. The crown. And Indrani could not be at two places at once.
Akua breathed out, closing her eyes.
Only she did not die. Instead as she sucked in a desperate breath the Seelie was tossed aside like a rag doll, Indrani getting in between the two of them, and with utter horror Akua watched as a javelin puncture the metal box. Went straight through, as if it were parchment, and these were not the javelins from earlier. This one was black stone, like the steles the Dead King sometimes used, and as Akua watched with dread as it craved through the crown itself. Cut it cleanly in half, two ornate half-circles of bronze. She went still as a stone even as there were shouts of surprise, Revenants withdrawing from the fight all over. They fled, leaving the two of them looking down at a disaster that might well kill every soul on Calernia.
Archer was the one who broke the silence.
“I don’t regret it,” she said, almost defiant.
“My life was not worth this,” Akua said, throat tight. “Indrani, Gods. It could not have been worth this.”
“I’d do it again,” her friend said.
And for once in her life, Akua Sahelian believed every word of what she had been told.
There were few places on a battlefield more dangerous to be than inside a siege tower.
The finest engineers of the Legions had spent decades trying to make them less of a death trap, experimenting with materials and protections and spell shielding, but in the end the essence of what a siege tower was wouldn’t change: a slow, tight box advancing in the direction of enemies with the means to shoot holes into it. The entire tower rattled as yet another spell hit it in the belly, the Black Knight’s fingers tightening around her hammer as she heard wood crack and screams erupt. The enemy had cracked the shell. Nim kept her dismay off her face so that her retinue would not see it, chewing the inside of her cheek and prayed that the tower had made it close enough to the rampart the enemy would not have enough time to topple it.
Another shudder beneath her feet as hoarse shouts filled the air and magic crackled, the dead and that of the Legion mages. Nim could smell smoke, which had her stomach clenching. The wood of the tower had been made proof to conventional fire, but that was not what Keter was wielding. If the flames caught… She would have trust in her mages and sappers to be able to put it out. As if to reward the thought, a moment later there was a shout from upstairs.
The Black Knight allowed herself a smile, steadying her footing as the ogres around her did the same. A heartbeat later, there were to metallic clangs in quick succession. The first came as the wall before her fell down, turning into a bridge that led straight into a rampart filled with undead. The second came as a pair of hooks slammed down onto the top of the wall, anchoring the siege tower to it. Further down there would be steel spikes jutting out to the same purpose, enchanted so they would be able to sink into even warded stone, but the High Marshal did not wait to hear their song. Instead she strode forward, hammer in hand, and brushed past her soldiers to charge into the midst of the enemy.
To fight the likes of these was as reaping wheat.
Every swing of her hammer shattered a handful, and as her personal guard charged in her wake the enemy ranks vanished like mist. Nim barely even drew on her Name, relying on simple strength and training, but like so many before them the dead crumbled under ogres’ hammers. It could not have taken longer than thirty heartbeats for them to clear out a foothold, and the Black Knight felt oddly cheated: she could not have swung her weapon more than a dozen times. She cast a look further down the rampart, seeing three of the five other siege towers had made it to the wall. The other two were wrecks, one afire and spilling out corpses.
“Secure the wall,” the Black Knight roared. “Hammers, with me! We take the gatehouse.”
The fighting there was fiercer, she could tell already. The stone was shaking from the impact of the enchanted ram hammering at the gate through the crashed fortress’ entrance, but atop the crenelled gatehouse a furious melee had burst out. Even the waves of fire and lighting from atop the crashed fortress were not enough for the Taghreb household troops to gain the advantage, matched as they were by withering curses and a monstrous new kind of ghoul. Even as the Black Knight hurried into the fight, she grimaced at the sight of a flesh-red ghoul devouring a corpse and soon after beginning to vomit out another ghoul.
It wasn’t those the High Marshal sought, though, as her guard smashed into the enemy’s flank and shattered the shield wall hastily raised in their path. Leading the enemy ranks was a tall silhouette, a Revenant in garish blue scale mail wielding a long barbed spear. He was kept snatching the lives of Taghreb officers, spreading panic so their ranks wouldn’t form up, and the Black Knight would have no more of it. A ghoul snapped at her heels but she batted it away with the back of her hand, tramping skeletons beneath her feet as she charged. The Revenant turned even as she raised her war hammer, spear darting out, but Nim kicked a skeleton into the way – and, while the bones blocked the Revenant’s sight, smashed it from the side.
It took the blow in the shoulder, but to her surprise did not crumple. That blue armour must be enchanted, and though the Revenant was tossed a dozen feet back it landed on its feet and was back on the move in a heartbeat.
“Fine,” the Black Knight growled. “The hard way, then.”
It feinted high but Nim had fought spearmen before and saw the thrust coming for her knee. Humans always through ogres were slow with their limbs, because of the weight, but that was only half true. The Black Knight might not move as quick, but she covered a lot more ground: a flick of the wrist had her hammer’s shaft swatting aside the spear. She added a second hand to the length of wood and turned the movement into a twirl that came down right on the Revenant’s head, hammering it onto the floor. Its knees bent, but that helm must have been enchanted too for it did not break. It didn’t matter. That heartbeat where it was as a hammered nail had been all she needed: she dropped her weapon, instead grabbing it by the throat.
The Revenant stabbed away at her but the angle was all wrong, the barbed spear sliding off the side of her plate as the Black Knight grunted with exertion. One hand on the throat and the other on the body she pulled, pulled until there was a wet cracking sound. The Revenant screamed, its spear rending deep scars into her armour, but Nim let out a roar of triumph as finally she ripped the undead apart: the head went off like a rag doll’s, the bones having broken where the armour would not. She held up the body as a banner, her guard roaring back and the fervour spreading into the beleaguered Taghreb ranks. At this rate, she thought, the gatehouse would be theirs in half an hour. After that all that was left was to push into the inner city and…
It was a pull at her hand that save her land, an instinct that had her moving before her body could know it should. She got the blue-armoured corpse in the way, the greatsword shattering the scales and still managing to knock her off her feet through it. She fell, crushing a skeleton and a Taghreb levy under her as she reached for her hammer and swung wildly at the silhouette standing over her. The Prince of Bones contemptuously took the blow on the side of his massive blade and swung back a riposte that ripped Nim’s helm off her head along with a chunk of her brow. A blast of fire rocked the Scourge as she swallowed a hiss of pain and scrabbled back to her feet.
The Prince of Bones. How the Hells had she missed the largest of the Revenants sneaking up on her? Illusion, had to be. Which meant she was fighting two dangerous foes instead of one.
“Rituals on my position,” the Black Knight shouted, trusting in her subordinates to carry the word.
The Scourge swept forward through its own soldiers, heedless of what it broke, and Nim warily stepped back as she wiped away the trails of blood getting into her eye. The Prince of Bones’ sword rose, but behind her magic crackled and the Black Knight grunted in satisfaction: waves of fire slammed down on their position, not doing much to either of them as it incinerated skeletons left and right. But as the smoke and ash billowed outwards, the outline of a cloaked figure behind the Scourge was revealed. The illusionist. Wasting no time, Nim circled around the looming Prince and made straight for the other Revenant.
It was backpedalling in a hurry, throwing at her spells that burned searing lights into her eyes and filled her ears with cacophonous noise, but the Black Knight grit her teeth and barreled through. Batting aside the ghouls in the way with a flick of her hammer, she pivoted into a downwards swing – in time for the instinct to pull at her again. She threw herself back, abandoning the hammer, and through the pack of ghouls already swarming her exposed head saw that large greatsword swinging through where she’d just stood. The ritual exposed nothing, she realized. It was an illusion all along. She’d been played. Tearing off the ghouls nipping at her face, their fangs tearing up her thick skin, she rolled to the side as the Prince of Bones struck powerfully enough to shatter the stone beneath the blow. But how could she trust her eyes? Any moment now there could be a killing stroke, a-
A burst of blinding Light darkened her vision for a moment, but through her squint she saw a man tear into the enemy’s side, ignoring ghouls to strike at a particular skeleton. And as Hanno of Arwad’s blade sent the hidden Revenant’s head tumbling, all illusions shattered and Nim realized she was again about to die. The blow took her in the shoulder, black plate crumbling as the blade’s edge failed to cut but still hit with crushing strength. The Black Knight screamed hoarsely and grabbed the Scourge’s sword hand as it pulled back, knowing another blow would be the end of her. The Prince shifted his footing but Nim often sparred with other ogres. She knew what it meant in an opponent her size.
She half-rolled out of the way of the punch and used the opening to catch the throat rim of the Prince of Bones’ armour – and its head, she thought, somehow seemed made of newer steel than the rest – to drag herself up. Pitting strength against strength she wrestled down its limbs, but it was a losing fight. The Scourge was heavier than her and implacable: her arms burned, her legs trembled, and inch by inch she was being forced back.
“Do it,” the Black Knight screamed. “Do it now.”
The hero’s sword struck the Prince from the back even as she finished the last word, Light roiling and letting out screams as the blade melted its way through layers of steel. Nim’s arms gave, the Scourge’s arms enveloping her almost intimately before the strength turned crushing. She screamed, ribs snapping like twigs, and spat out blood and phlegm as all four of her lungs were pressed on. But she’d live long enough, she thought even as the Prince tried to turn to shake off the hero and failed – the dark-skinned human turned with it. Enough that the Scourge would die, and then she could get herself healed.
If she still wore her helmet, she would not have seen it. She almost didn’t anyway because of the blood blinding on of her eyes, but as she gasped in pain the Black Knight saw the glint of the sun on metal. An arrow. Close, too close for her to avoid and- Commission.
Hanno could not save everyone.
He had known it from the start, thought he had made his peace with the inevitable. And still a shout ripped itself clear of his throat as the Hawk’s arrow took the Black Knight’s life. The shaft sunk halfway into the skull, an instant death. He was forced to cease pouring Light into the Prince of Bones’ armour as he had been doing, melting layer after layer, to rip out his sword and cut through the arrow that would have gone through the back of his neck. The towering Scourge backed away, swinging his blade more to force distance than strike, but Hanno would have none of it. The edge of his sword flaring with Light he carved through the steel, craning his neck to the side to avoid another killing arrow.
A dart forward had him closing the distance, the Prince of Bones tossing the broken sword in his face. He ducked low, dropping into a roll to avoid another arrow – the Hawk must be close – and slashing across the Scourge’s face. The pristine steel mask was scarred, metal melting down from the mark. A leg, Hanno decided. The Prince of Bones was heavy enough that without both legs there would be no escaping. Clouds roiled above his head, magic flaring, but Hanno pressed on. A half-step let the Prince’s fist slide past him and he slid under, hacking at the side of the Revenant’s leg even as lightning began pouring on them both from above. Hanno grit his teeth, throwing up a burst of Light that dispersed the sorcery over his head as he carved deep into the Prince’s leg.
Not deep enough, he thought as he rose behind the Scourge’s back. Another arrow swatted aside, but it had been a distraction: darkness fell over him. Hanno grit his teeth, flaring Light through his heated veins enough that the Mantle’s curse shattered. Just in time to see the Prince’s foot about to hit his stomach. He threw himself below it, a screaming curse shattering the stone he’d been standing on, and as he rose behind the Prince again he listened to the call of instinct and struck out with his hand – catching the Seelie’s knife as it was about to thrust through his throat. Letting out an irritated grunt, he bent the Scourge’s arm and rested the flat of his blade against he neck.
It was not a mercy: using it as lever, he pushed the Seelie’s head into the hole of molten metal he’d left in the Prince of Bones’ back.
An arrow hammered into his shoulder, going straight through the plate, and with a pained grunt Hanno let out a burst of Light through the wound to get it out. He’d still lost his opening for a killing blow on the Seelie, who had turned into a bed of dead flowers. Magic was rising again but Hanno had to step out of the way when the Prince snatched up a skeleton and swung it at him like a club, the arc of it covering the Mantle’s shivering curse until it was right on him – he desperately pivoted to the side, smashing the pommel of his sword into the Seelie’s half-melted face when she reappeared trying to drive her knife into his side. The curse shaved away at his pauldron, rusting the metal to powder, and the Seelie ducked the swing that would have hewn open her skull.
Then the storm hit, and it was all Hanno could do not to be blown right off the wall.
Soldiers behind him were not so lucky, and the dead were scattered by hurricane winds – turned into trebuchet stones as they hammered into Praesi ranks – but Hanno pushed forward, Light burning in his belly. He saw the Prince of Bones retreating, the silhouette fading out of sight, and with a scream of frustration he shaped a spear out of Light and tossed it at the Scourge’s back. It missed the mark by a foot, and even as he grit his teeth the Scourges disappeared into the inner city. A full retreat. The Black Knight was dead and he hadn’t even taken one of them for it. When the storm ended, leaving shocked Praesi as the victors of the battle for the gatehouse, Hanno trudged back to the ogre’s great corpse.
The arrow was still in her skull, the sight of it leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.
“If I had struck from the front, I could have reached it with my arm,” Hanno murmured. “If I’d continued to listen to Save instead of buried myself in the use of the Light…”
Mistakes, though they had not seemed like it at the time. But then they never did, did they? That was why Hanno had one chosen to follow the Seraphim, heeded their answer to the Riddle of Fault. To be mortal was to fail, to make mistakes. The dark-skinned hero knelt by the Black Knight’s corpse, jaw clenched, and wondered how many more mistakes still lay ahead of him. Creation quickened around him, looking for resolve or its end, but Hanno did not embrace the bitterness. He had the strength to take the risk of doing the right thing, but that strength was not an absolute. He was but a mortal man, with all the limits that carried. He would not shy away from the truth of what he had chosen: he would fail. He had today, for all the other victories, and would again.
Hanno did not regret trying.
He ripped out the Hawk’s arrow, but after he did his hand lingered on the Black Knight’s bloodied face. His face fell into a pensive frown. Creation grew heavy. If it wasn’t about victory, if it was about doing all the good that you could, then could he really say he was finished? There was one more thing to attempt. Breathing out, the hero let the Light flow through him and into the villain’s corpse. He had seen Tariq Isbili used Forgive more than once, and there had been great priests could resurrect without the need of a Name or aspect. As his skin grew warm and he began to sweat, Hanno held a tight hand over the Light he was unleashing. It was about will, about intent – and if he slipped, he would burn the corpse instead of bringing it back to life.
Only, in a moment of clarity, Hanno realized that it was not truly resurrection he sought. It was something simpler, almost childish, but in a way perhaps less shallow. He had made a mistake. She had made a mistake. Perhaps all of Creation had made a mistake.
And Hanno of Award would Undo it.
He felt something infinitely larger than him brush against his soul, greater than even the Choir of Judgement, and the aspect lit up inside him. His hand against the Black Knight’s body serving as a conduit, he looked for ties to the soul so it might be called back and found… nothing? Light began guttering out even as Hanno heard footsteps behind him, a shadow being cast over his kneeling form. He turned, looking into an ogre’s rough face, and was about to speak when he suddenly closed his mouth. Through the fast-fading clarity the aspect had leant him, he saw in that body two souls.
“Black Knight,” Hanno evenly said.
“Lord Hanno,” she replied. “There will be no need for what I believe you are attempting. Though I will be weakened as I ride my soldier’s body, it will serve until my corpse can be made usable again.”
It was possession, he thought, but not in the way that he had seen it before. It was not a wraith stealing a body, this had been consented to. Explicitly or implicitly he could not tell, but the mark was there. This is not necromancy, not really. The principle behind it is different. Like a… chain of command, with replaceable faces. He suspected the Black Knight would not be able to ride a body that was not one of her soldiers. Inside Hanno’s belly the heat began to fade, Undo simmering down, and as it did he felt out the edge of the aspect’s limits. Once a day, a death or calamity could be undone. How the time was parsed he did yet know, but the limit of use was certain.
All that, he thought, and it had not been needed at all. Hand resting on his wearied brow, Hanno let out a snicker that turned into a quiet laugh.
“I was not needed, after all,” he mused.
And maybe that was the lesson he should have been learning all along, he thought. All this time, he had been trying to do it all himself. To keep the heroes one the right path, to keep Calernia from falling. Even before that, from the moment in Ashur where he had first become the White Knight. It had been him and the Seraphim who were to be concerned with the doling out of judgement, but no one else. Even with angels at his shoulder, he had walked alone. Only that wasn’t really true, was it? He’d been running around Keter trying to keep doom from claiming the day, trusting in his sword and the aspect he had come into, but that was not the whole of it – just the whole of him. They were all trying to hold up the sky today, and in the end all that Hanno of Arwad could claim to be was a pair of hands. Was it not the worst kind of arrogance, to think that it was on him for everyone to win or lose? Like a child he had decided that he would be strong enough to be able to do the right thing, as if his will was the only one in the world. He was not alone in this. He never had been.
Maybe it was time he acted like it.
“I agonized,” Hanno softly told the Black Knight, “over whether or not it was right for me to become the White Knight again. Whether it was going in circles, or nowhere at all.”
The ogre did not answer, her eyes wary and her silence thick.
“How very pointless that was,” Hanno mused, slowly rising to his feet.
There was no perfect Name that would save everyone, end all the ills of the world. He was just a man and Creation was larger than he would ever know. But he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to do everything. He just needed to return the trust that had been placed in him. And while the Warden fought today to save the world, then Hanno could fight to save the people in it. To do as much good as he could, knowing that Catherine Foundling would be there to hold out a hand when he failed. Hanno looked around at the last of the dead on the rampart and the gatehouse that would let the Praesi into the inner city when it was opened.
The end was nigh.
“Let’s finish this,” the White Knight said. “The Dead King awaits.”
Akua Sahelian had been entrusted with the fate of Calernia and she had failed it.
Beyond all the excuses that were already springing up in the back of her mind, the justifications and the blame-shifting, that was the stark truth of it. She held in her hand the two pieces of the Crown of Autumn, the entrapping gift that had been meant to relieve the Dead King of his mastery over the dead and end the war in a single stroke. It was broken, irremediably cleaved in two. Only Masego’s cleverness in his surgery of the crown had prevented the cleaving from resulting in a wild release of power that would have torn a hole in the city and killed everyone involved in the crown’s failed defence.
But as Akua looked upon Hierophant’s work split asunder, a thought occurred. A mad thought, impossible, but in the face of extinction that was a meaningless word. And deep down, for all that it was laughable and ludicrous of her, she thought it could be done. That she could do it. So instead of falling to her knees, the golden-eyed sorceress turned to her friend. To achieve the impossible would have to be done like eating a whale: one bite at a time, until nothing was left.
“I need you to find me two needles in a haystack, Archer,” Akua said. “One that is currently on fire and full of undead.”
“My favourite kind,” Indrani agreeably replied. “What’s your poison, Saucy Siren?”
Beneath the flippancy she sounded relieved. For all that she had defiantly claimed not to regret the decision to save Akua’s life over going for the crown, the consequences of that choice loomed tall.
“First, find me a forge,” Akua said.
There were hundreds of these across the city, as though Keter’s great foundries were in the depths beneath the capital the equipment of the great army encamped within the walls must be seen to regularly lest it rust and break. Most were little more than glorified smithies, but it would be sufficient for her purposes.
“Gotcha,” Archer said. “And your other needle?”
“I will tell you after,” she replied. “Go.”
Indrani made a point of waddling slowly for the first few steps, but as soon as she turned the corner she disappeared in haste. The urgency was not lost on her. Akua, meanwhile, was left to handle another sort of trouble. The remains of the Vagrant Spear’s band were standing around the heroine, speaking with Ivah of the Losara.
“- been striking at bands, hit and run,” Sidonia told the drow. “Last I heard he got the Astrologer and clipped the Stained Sister.”
“It has not yet taken aim at Mighty,” the Lord of Silent Steps noted.
Only one name came to mind when the death of Named was so casually brought up: the Hawk. Akua stepped into the talks.
“That is because the Dead King believes he can brush aside the Night if he must,” she told them. “He used the Grey Legion to develop protective enchantments against it during the Hainaut offensive.”
“Mighty Sahelian,” Ivah politely greeted her, inkling its head.
No doubt Sargon would be highly insulted at the implication that Akua was considered the sigil-holder for her family should he ever be made aware of it, a twist of amusement that slightly brightened her mood. The reception from the other three was rather less warm. The Vagrant Spear offered a curt nod, the Red Knight a sneer and the Harrowed Witch looked like she was trying to figure out a way to excuse herself as soon as possible.
“Are any of you in need of healing?” she asked.
An empty question, when she saw that Sidonia was heavily wounded on the side for all that Light had half-cauterized the cuts. The Vagrant Spear eyed her consideringly.
“Can you leave the scars?”
Akua smiled and agreed that she would, laying a hand over the ruined flesh after the Vagrant Spear consented and whispering the incantation.
“Relying on another’s skill is weakness,” the Red Knight pointedly said.
“Fascinating,” Akua charmingly replied, all smiles. “You will have to tell me how you forged your sword, then. And whenever did you get the time to farm the wheat that went into every piece of bread you’ve eaten?”
The other woman’s mouth closed. The Vagrant Spear didn’t even bother to hide her grin, which meant it was time to spring her request.
“I will be in need of your help and that of your band, Lady Sidonia,” she said.
The heroine tensed, but she could not move away. Not when Akua had carefully ensured she was not done healing.
“What for?” she asked. “The artefact is broken. You must have heard the horns, too, Sahelian. We must gather for the muster in the inner city so we might join the assault on the Dead King.”
“An artefact is broken,” Akua corrected. “Leaving behind shards and exceptional materials. I have sent Archer to find me a forge so that the defeat we were inflicted might be undone.”
“A worthy cause,” the Vagrant Spear reluctantly conceded. “Do you need Aspasie’s services, then? I could lend her.”
Aspasie looked like she would have whimpered if it did not risk drawing attention to her, but that was besides the point. Akua was passingly familiar with the Harrowed Witch’s skills, and the other mage’s talents were entirely unsuited to what she had in mind. Illusions, blood rituals and necromancy with a spiritual speciality were not what she needed, especially in the hands of a woman whose very Name came with a saboteur attached. Akua would need stability and control most of all. Precision would be everything.
“I need all of you to guard me as I work,” Akua replied, shaking her head. “Even the most minute interruption would ruin everything and the Dead King is sure to come for us the moment he grasps what we are attempting.”
Lady Sidonia was hesitating, both disinclined to do the Doom of Liesse any favours and hungry to be part of the glorious fight against the Dead King yet recognizing that what Akua was suggesting was of great import. So to tip the balance, the sorceress glanced at Ivah of the Losara. Its face betrayed the barest flicker of amusement before it was smoothed away.
“I will lend my spear to this labour,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “And call for other Mighty to stand vigil.”
“We will as well,” the Vagrant Spear immediately replied, face hardening.
Pride was such a useful lever to move people with, Akua considered as she allowed the healing sorcery to ebb away. She smiled at Lady Sidonia.
“All finished,” she said.
Archer was back before long, having found a forge half a dozen blocks to the east. They all set out that way as Indrani paced around restlessly.
“Your second ask?” Archer pressed.
“I need a Named mage,” Akua said.
“You’ve got the Witch,” Indrani pointed out.
“She is unsuited to my needs,” she replied. “You must find me another. I can begin the work without them, but I will need them to finish it.”
“Nahiza Serrif would serve as well, if you can find her,” Akua conceded.
Archer chewed the inside of her cheek thoughtfully.
“I’ll see who I can rustle up,” she promised, and heartbeats later she was gone.
Akua did not allow her thoughts to linger on it. Instead she hurried to the forge, finding the rundown stone house to be dirty and derelict but functional for her purposes. There was still charcoal for the forge in a bag that had been cut, spilling all over the floor, and she used it to light the hearth. A focused wind cantrip blew the dirt and ash off the anvil as she went looking through the tools, thankfully finding them to be steel. Even the hammer’s shaft, which made it a little heavy for her hand, but that could be seen to. She needed to enchant them to withstand greater heat anyway, she’d slip in a mild lightening enchantment for the hammer. It was quick and dirty work, burning the runes into the side, but she did not need the tools to last forever – or even to the day’s end.
By the time the fire was burning and the tools ready, the enemy had begun attacking.
Akua forced herself to ignore the sounds of fighting. It was not out there she would redeem her mistake but in here. Instead she placed the two prices of the Autumn Crown in the fire, using the bellow to stoke the flames even higher as she kept feeding it charcoal. Though she had once spent a month learning the essentials of smithing as part of being taught enchanting – enchanted swords made without understanding how simpler swords were forged had a tendency to shatter – she was not a trained smith, but then she did not need to be. Akua was not trying to make a functional object, not in the physical sense anyway.
She was changing the appearance of the crown to make it easier to affect its metaphysical nature, using the process of ‘being forged anew’ as channel to facilitate the work. Simply cutting away at the crown would do nothing. Not only did Akua understand the purpose of barely half of what Masego had done to the fae crown, even broken the artefact remained one of great power and weight. To try to change it without first unmaking it would be the difference between trying to shape stone and clay.
Thrust into the flames, the crown began to bend. The roots in copper and bronze began to twist, the sculpted leaves wilting as their edges thickened. Nothing was melting, not yet and perhaps ever, but it was softening. Hierophant had hammered dozens of iron nails into the crown, and reaching for the tongs Akua began to remove them. It was difficult work, even with the fire making them easier to rip out, and the heat in her face had her sweating as her muscles burned from the effort. She left only two nails in each half, her magic already feeling out the shards and finding the slumbering power inside was slowly waking up. Soon now.
The noise outside began to reach her ears again as she emerged from her trance, but there was a new note to it. It soon ended, another lull before the storm lapped at their gates again, and the door was thrown open when Archer strolled in. Behind her a young woman followed, dark-haired and tanned in padded battle robes. Of Ashuran make, these, but Akua would have recognized Sapan the Apprentice even without that. Her stomach dropped at the sight of the younger woman. Such a young practitioner with a transitional Name would not have the control she needed in her assistant.
“You getting there?” Archer asked. “It’s getting crazy out here. No Scourges yet, but he’s throwing Revenants at us by the baker’s dozen.”
Akua’s throat clenched as she wondered how she would have to tell Indrani that they had failed again, that the Apprentice would not be enough, when the young woman walked closer to the fire. Her eyes were curious and Akua stilled at the sight of her. There was something different about her. A certainty that had not been in the girl that trailed behind Hierophant in the hopes of peeking at his notes.
“You are no longer the Apprentice,” Akua said.
“I am,” Sapan thinly smiled, “the Mage.”
Only ‘Mage’, without anything preceding it. Oh my, Akua thought. Ashurans traditionally had three Names bound to spellcasting: Red Mage, Blue Mage and Silver Mage. The destroyer, the navigator and the healer. Only young Sapan was eschewing the label and the limits that would come with it. Simple as the Name sounded, it was a bold claim that would echo across all rungs of the Ashuran tier system. A year with Masego, the sorceress ruefully thought, was all it took to turn you into something that will rock the foundations of your home. Hierophant likely hadn’t even meant to do it. And the Mage would be a herald of great changes, Akua had no doubt about, because when the other woman had spoken her Name she’d heard smaller note to it.
It was still a transitional Name, a step on the way to a higher peak.
“Good,” Akua smiled, allowing a touch of savagery to show. “Come, Mage, for now the true work begins.”
Archer returned to the fighting outside, grounds she was more at home on, while the two of them took to the forge. Sapan’s control, Akua thought, was exquisite. The girl had once trained to be healer. The Soninke sorceress took out the first half from the flames with the tongs and laid it on the anvil, reaching for the hammer even as she instructed her helper.
“Keep it at this exact temperature,” Akua ordered. “It must be even throughout all the while.”
“To keep it at the point of transition,” Sapan thoughtfully murmured.
What a genuine terror that girl would become, in a decade or two. Akua was no proper smith, so her strikes were uneven as held down the half of the crown and hammered away at it. The shape would need to change, else the artefact could only ever be a broken shard of what Hierophant had made. Feeling out the enchantments, the lines drawn in the power slumbering within, Akua broke down the beautiful fae crown. Leaves turned into flat lumps, ornate roots into rough and uneven chords, even as she grasped at the edges of the enchantments. Much of what Masego had done, the beauty and elegance of his work, had to be discarded.
Akua went for simplicity instead, breaking down the parts that would have bound the concepts of ‘mastery’ and ‘death’ into mere ‘power’. A broad concept, which meant it would have shallow draw if left this way – the artefact would try to do too much at once when having finite strength, resulting in it doing a lot of very little. Which was why Akua, even as she turned the half-crown into a rough bracelet ring of copper and bronze, turned her attention to the two iron nails she had left. Before she hammered them into the ring, with shaky breath she branded them with the whole of her magic. This was High Arcana, not a simple exercise of power and knowledge. It must come from something deeper, something personal.
So Akua let herself remember the absolute nothingness of the void, the maddening nothing that had surrounded her as she half-slumbered a prisoner of the Mantle of Woe.
She bled it into the iron nails, pouring out all the terror and despair of it, and hammered them into the ring until there was no trace of the iron save for two faint circles on the side. The golden-eyed sorceress shuddered, feeling the concept that she had branded into the nails: chain. Exhaustion set her limbs to tremble, but Akua had no time for it. She quenched the bronze ring in water, letting it simmer there, and took the other half of the crown from the flames. Her magic was growing sluggish, but the Mage had learned from the first effort. She helped keep the enchantments in place as Akua wove them anew, hammering the other half of the crown into a matching ring. And again two nails of iron were hammered into circles, singing of ‘chain’ as the others had.
Into the water the second ring went, and once they were taken out to be laid on the anvil Akua Sahelian beheld her work.
Her metalwork had been without art to it, but even broken the Autumn Crown was one of the great mantles of the fae. Its nature asserted itself anew, what had been plain and bumpy bracelet rings turning into something altogether more beautiful. The roots and leaves she had hammered out had returned, engraving themselves so flawlessly that one might have thought the artefacts made of real ones. The bronze and copper had not melded, the copper instead turning into delicate filigree laying out the veins of leaves or the contour of branches and roots. And on the side of each bracelet ring, each large enough to be slipped around a wrist, two dots of iron remained. Only they had changed, melted by the head into the happenstance of two clasping hands.
A fitting emblem, Akua thought. For she had turned the Hierophant’s beautiful work into fetters, making of a gift that would grant immortality at the price of master over death something brutally simple. The rings bound the ‘power’ of any who bore one, chaining it to the other ring. No power could be used without the consent of whoever held the other end of the chain. It was not a leash, for no ring was master over the other, but instead something altogether uglier.
A prison, large enough for two.
“They are beautiful,” the Mage whispered. “Perhaps the greatest work of our age.”
“They are the ugliest thing I have ever made,” Akua Sahelian quietly replied, “or ever will.”
And still she took them in hand, feeling the lingering warmth of them against her skin. She left the smithy, the oppressing heat of it, and returned to the smoky skies of Keter. There Archer awaited, standing over a carpet of corpses dead twice over as Firstborn and Named held the streets.
“Finished?” Indrani asked.
“I am,” Akua said.
“Good,” Archer sharply nodded. “You’ll have to take it from here. I need to go.”
She was shifting her weight even as she spoke, Akua noticed, so restless she could not stop moving. How odd, the sorceress thought, and then breathed out in wonder. Ah, my heart, she fondly thought. Always a plan within the plan with you. Catherine had gone with the Ranger, the survivors of Refuge and the man Indrani loved. All essential elements for Indrani to transition out of her increasingly ill-fitting Name of Archer. In a single stroke you tell me that you are fighting and ensure reinforcements are on your way. The pull of fate on Indrani at the moment must be like getting dragged by the hair.
“Go,” Akua said.
“You’re sure you’ll be fine on your own?”
“You chose my life over the crown, Indrani,” Akua Sahelian gently said. “I swear to any Gods listening that I will not make you regret that choice, so go.”
The other woman’s hazelnut eyes met her own, and after a moment whatever she was looking for she found. She sharply nodded, coat swirling behind her as she turned to leave without a goodbye. She watched Indrani vanish into the city to seek out her fate, leaving her to find her own.
Akua’s thumb stroke the side of the ring in her hand, wondering if she was holding a noose or a knot.