Dues

“Even the kindest hero stands over a spreading graveyard.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

Vivienne Dartwick had wondered, about what made her different from all the other pickpockets and thieves that haunted the nights of Southpool. As far as she could tell it was that she didn’t need to steal. Her father had been a baron under the Count of Southpool, but never a martial man and so though he had sent troops to join the armies failing to turn back the Conquest he’d never fought in a battle himself. He was a baron no longer, since all noble titles in the county had been abolished after the first Imperial Governor was appointed, but even after the Praesi took their cut Vivienne’s family remained wealthier than a talented merchant could hope to become with a lifetime of work. Her mother had passed in a hunting accident when she’d been young, and the strangeness of that had been what set her on her path. Mother had been a devil with a bow and a better rider, so her mount getting scared by a wolf and and breaking her ribs in panic stretched credulity, somewhat. She’d only been seven, back then, and Father had made sure to keep her in the dark. It had worked for a few years, but not forever.

He’d gotten forgetful in his old age, and the bar on his study’s door could be forced up if the lock wasn’t properly turned. Vivienne had only gone in to smoke his pipe since he never let her try it, but when rustling through the drawers to find it she’d seen her mother’s name on parchment. Her father had petitioned Governess Ife, successor to the original governor, to investigate the circumstances of her mother’s death. He’d called them highly suspicious. The letter the Governess sent back was dripping with implied threats and made a point of mentioning rebel elements. Treason didn’t fetch the same punishment everywhere, in Callow, since the governors were given free rein to run their territory as they wished. She’d heard that in the south if someone got caught the entire family was executed. In Southpool, though, it was only the directly implicated that got the noose. The families got away with a harsh fine. She’d remembered, then, that around the time of her mother’s death Father had become very frugal for a few months.

That painted a picture she did not like.

It wasn’t that her family was in trouble, not anymore. Her father had sold a smithy they’d once owned, which he said wasn’t turning up much a profit under the Tower’s weapons prohibitions anyway. But when she next had her lessons with her tutor, Vivienne made sure to ask the man about laws. About how much the fine for being associated with treasonous elements was. It… wasn’t a small sum. She could understand why Father had cut corners until he could find a buyer for the smith. But it was a very cheap price, for her mother’s life. There was something wrong about the Praesi killing her mother and making her family pay for it. It was like an itch in the back of her mind she couldn’t scratch. It should have been them it cost, not her father. And that was when it began, when she decided to make right. Gold couldn’t ever make up for her mother, but she could make them feel it. The number she came up with was a whim. Ten times what they’d fined, and once more to make up for the fine itself. It was enough to build three manors in the country, she knew, but anything less would have an insult.

Vivienne knew she wasn’t as pretty as some of the other noble girls, not matter how nice her dresses and how many ribbons the maids put in her hair, but she wasn’t ugly and boys got dumb when you smiled at them and pretended they were interesting. It wasn’t hard to find one of the Imperial orphanage boys near Kingspot Alley that ditched their lessons to mess around in the streets and knew how to pick a pocket. Talking the boy into teaching her was a lot harder, and she had to go through the kitchen for honeybread when the cooks were asleep before he agreed. Vivienne found she had a knack for it. She’d always been good with her hands, even if her handwriting was wobbly, and if she apologized when running into people all they saw was a little girl who felt real sorry, yessir. Getting her tutor to pretend she was still at her lessons was harder, but he’d been sleeping with one of the maids and Father would have thrown him out if he knew. As long as she kept pace with her learning, the man would keep his mouth shut. He’d have a hard time being hired by other nobles if he had a bad reputation.

Within two months she was better than the orphan who’d taught her, and after stealing a sharp little kitchen knife she began trying her hand at cutting purses. She’d need help, though, if she was to steal bigger things than a drunk trader’s ale money. People to find targets for her. The eldermen were useless. People said they’d had a hand in the old riots that made the Governess back down, but ever since they’d been terrified of her. The Guilds were weak and poor and they answered to people in Laure, and everyone knew those were Praesi lapdogs. The guilds that were out in the open, anyway. The Guild of Assassins had people in Southpool, and they took contracts if you put the word in the right place, but Vivienne wasn’t out to kill anyone. What would be the point? Governess Ife would just be replaced by some other Wastelander, and they might be worse. Coin, though, coin would hurt her. So Vivienne hung out in one of those seedy taverns where there were rumours the people of the Guild of Thieves came to drink. No one said anything to her, even when she cut purses, and she was about to go spare when a grinning old man from the north told her to sit down at his table.

“Ain’t no one that’s going to apprentice you, girl,” he said. “No matter how much stolen copper you flash.”

“I’m good,” Vivienne complained.

“Passable,” he said, the Harrow accent thick. “But you look like a little noble, and no one wants that kind of attention.”

That night, sneaking back in her room, Vivienne stood in front of her mirror with the kitchen knife and hacked through her hair. It stung and tore, but she went through with it to the end. She went back to the Kingspot orphans and found the idiot boy flirting with some tanner’s daughter. He looked nervous when she walked up to them, but she ignored him. She traded one of her cheaper dresses for the girl’s spare clothes, and returned to the tavern.

“Took a knife to it, did you?” the grinning old man asked.

“I’ll take a knife to you too, if you don’t help me,” she threatened.

That was how she apprenticed to Sidehands, which he insisted he was his name. He was an old crook and he’d claim nine tenths of whatever she stole as long as he taught her, but he let her buy tools and taught her how to use them. More importantly, he introduced her to the wrong sort of people. Fences, handlers who had servants from important places on the take and a few roughs who’d make a ruckus if you needed someone distracted.

“Ain’t a lot of rules in the Guild,” Sidehands said. “We’re not a rule-abiding kind, and even the King’s only the King as long as he keeps his crown out of other people’s hands.”

“But there are,” Vivienne said. “Rules.”

“We don’t kill,” the old man said. “That’s the one that matters. And we steal from the right people.”

“’cause we’re thieves, not murderers,” she said, duly impressed.

“’cause if we start putting knives in people the Guild of Assassins is going to start floating us by the docks one by one,” Sidehands replied, amused. “We take from merchants, we take from traders, we can take from ye old nobles. But we don’t fuck with the Praesi. Otherwise they send for the mages, and there ain’t no cover of night that’ll get rid of a scrying spell.”

“The Hedge Guild has mages that could do that,” Vivienne said.

“Now there’s a bunch of real thieves,” Sidehands chuckled. “You should see their rates. Don’t think about it, girl. All the mages with real talent were pressed into the Legions and what’s left is crawling with Eyes of the Empire. You ask them to block a scrying spell and the city guard will knock at your door before the hour’s done.”

He grimaced, then patted her shoulder.

“Besides, there’s worse out there,” he said. “The Guild took a deal, when the Carrion Lord came riding in. He ain’t the kind of man you want to cross.”

Vivienne smiled and agreed and because everyone trusted a smiling little girl Sidehands thought she’d stick to the rules. As if. Two years she was apprenticed, and her nights were spent picking locks and working windows. She enjoyed it, the double life. When Jenny Gartrand was a real bitch about her hair – it looked fine, the maids cut it so it was evened out – the night after she stole her pony and her collection of hunting bows and pawned them for a neat profit even after her teacher took his part. Father eventually noticed how much time she spent in the city, but bless his soul he assumed she had a boy there. He awkwardly tried to tell her this wasn’t the old Callow anymore and it was fine if she wanted to marry a tradesman for love but she had to be careful about pregnancies and it was both mortifying and the most loving thing she’d ever heard. She did find a few corners with boys she liked, but they sure as Hells weren’t tradesmen and there were no wedding bells around the corner. She was fifteen when Sidehands told her she was as good as he could make her, and offered her a seat on the Guild.

“You’ll be the only highborn on there, but they’ll come around,” the old man said. “Hard for any of us to get a legitimate foot in the door to those parties and that’ll whet their appetite. Don’t let them rob you on their cut, Vivs, they’ll need you more than the other way around.”

She twitched when he called her that, as she always did. The only part about this she’d regret was that she’d never get a Guild name. She declined, politely, and talked about how her father was getting old and he’d need help running the family properties soon. She made vague assurances she’d be up for jobs now and then, and never followed through on it. The Guild of Thieves had rules, and she’d already gotten what she needed from them. Vivienne spent what she’d earned with thrifty hands on getting a few servant tongues to loosen, and she began to get her dues. There was no Legion garrison in Southpool, it wasn’t large or important enough a city for that, but the roads west went through it and there were a bunch of Legions holed up at the Red Flower Vales. Her first time out on her own, she waited until the wagons with the pay stayed for the night and broke into the Governess’ palace. She’d have to be careful, she knew. Sidehands’ warnings about mages still rang in her ears. But she needed to know if she could do it.

And Gods, could she.

It was easier than it should have been. Her steps more silent, her hands quicker and her ears sharper. She got into the sealed courtyard where the wagons had been left and slid down a pillar from above while the guards talked, hiding under the wagon until they moved on. There were a few left even after the patrol had gone away, but she timed it well and stayed in the shadows. She left with a single silver ingot that night, shoved under her leathers. It was only when word spread that the wagons had been broken in that she realized that she’d done something she shouldn’t have been able to. The city was gossiping about the dozen legionaries who’d gotten hanged for putting their hands to the silver. They were the only ones who’d been allowed behind the wards that protected the courtyard, so it must have been one of them who’d stolen an ingot when they wagons were checked later that night. Vivienne’s blood went cold, when she realized how close she’d been to being caught. She hadn’t thought that the Praesi would be that cautious inside the palace. More importantly, she hadn’t triggered the wards.

Vivienne Dartwick knew she was good, but she wasn’t literally magic.

Except that she was, now. She could hide in broad daylight where there wasn’t a single shadow, and when she did there was a word almost on the tip of her tongue. When she cut a purse she could feel the urge to put it away somewhere that didn’t quite exist, even if she didn’t know how. Yet. She was Named, she came to understand, and when she did she knew exactly who she was. She was the Thief. The Gods Above had looked upon her work and found it worthy of blessing. That knowledge burned within her, the sheer certainty of it. She went back to the palace, and this time it was not a single ingot she took. Governess Ife’s entire jewellery box disappeared, and though she had it appraised through a series of intermediaries she never pawned it. Too obvious, it would get back to her. It was when she debated on where to stash it that she grasped her first aspect. Hold. The box went into a place that wasn’t, and she returned to work. The Governess had one of the few eldermen who still tried to oppose her disappeared by the Assassins, and since he had no heir his wealth was now Imperial property. She stole the entire thing, including the cart, just to make a point.

One of the Praesi lickspittles that made up Ife’s inner circle had delicacies imported from the Wasteland through the Silver Lake at great expense, and Thief popped caramelized dates into her mouth when strolling rooftops for a month. The Praesi made a ruckus about it, tried to have the captain’s ship confiscated, so she went back and stole every single thing in his rooms. The Governess put two thousand aurelii out on contract to Guild of Assassins for the head of the person who’d robbed her, so Vivienne stole the prize money and out of professional courtesy dropped half at a contact point for the same Guild. A very polite note of thanks was nailed to one of the rooftops she liked to pass through, though it did mention if a greater bounty was put out they would still take the contract. Over four months Thief made away with thrice the fine for her mothers’ murder, and planned on making it to four when she got her hands on the payment the Governess intended to float the Guild of Smugglers for some illegally-forged swords of dwarven make. Shame it wasn’t goblin steel, the sum would have been at least double, but she supposed even Praesi didn’t want to come to the attention of the Tower. She’d heard about the Carrion Lord hanging half the staff of an Imperial Governor down south for selling weapon-making licenses without permission.

Sidehands had been right about that, at least.

The warehouse by the docks was without guards, which was the first sign something had gone wrong. Ife wouldn’t use city guard for this, but she’d imported some killers that didn’t ask questions from the ol’ desert back home. Vivienne found the first corpse shoved behind a pile of crates, and frowned at the sight. Messy work, the Soninke must have been stabbed at least a dozen times even if that first throat wound should have killed him outright. That was the sign of a nervous hand, so that meant not the Assassins and not one of the other Praesi making a play. They tended to have a better quality of murderers on the payroll. Three quit leaps had her using the alley walls to get on the roof, which sadly did not have a trapdoor leading down. The Governess wasn’t an idiot, just a morally bankrupt murderer sanctioned by an entire nation of morally bankrupt murderers. She shimmied down the side and pried open the planks she’d broken when she’d learned this would be the warehouse, landing on a high beam. Ah, and there was the company. There were fourteen of them, Callowans. Not from Southpool, by the accents. Somewhere down south.

They’d dragged the rest of the guard corpses inside, five piled on near the oil lamp because evidently she was dealing with raging imbeciles. They were also arguing by the three thick trunks where the gold of the Governess was awaiting her tender touch.

“I’m not dragging these fucking things unless we’re sure the gold is actually inside, Philip,” one of the men said.

“What else would be?” that very Philip replied. “Bloody tulips?”

“We could sell those,” another one contributed. “I hear them Praesi nobles go crazy over the fancy flowers.”

“I wish I could sell you, Jake,” the first man complained. “But Hells, how much could a dumb fucker like you even be worth?”

Well, that would have been entertaining if the idiots weren’t fucking up a perfectly good theft. If she got close enough she could just Hold the coffers, but she’d have to break out of her stealth aspect to do that and the prize was in the lamplight. At least one of these men was going to keep his eye on the gold. A distraction, then. Vivienne stalked across the angled beam and leapt to a flat one crossing the length of the warehouse, quiet as a cat. Now, how to go about this? Dropping something heavy in the front wouldn’t do it, they might panic and try to run with the coffers. Although, it might just be enough to have them bolt. If the corpse outside was any indication, they were fairly nervous about the affair. The lamp light flickered, and Vivienne looked down. The men had gone quiet.

She went very, very still.

Thief was looking down on fourteen corpses. She could see, from how the corpses were positioned, exactly how it had happened. Someone had come close to the first, the slit his throat. Then they’d grabbed the hand of the dying man and put it in the hand of the second, moving from man to man and making a daisy chain of the falling corpses. Fourteen pairs of dead eyes looked down on cut throats, each hand pointing at next man. The beam behind her creaked and she turned in her crouch, dagger in hand. There was a silhouette in the dark she could almost make out the features of. It was a man. She blinked. It was a woman. It was neither and she couldn’t remember a single thing about either of the people she’d glimpsed. Not their hair, not the shape of their face not even the colour of their skin.

“Vivienne Dartwick,” a voice that was a dozen whispering voices said. “Thief.”

Hide, Thief thought. She could still feel the thing’s eyes on her. She leapt down and she should have been invisible, but when she headed for the window she was preparing to jump through there was a silhouette leaning against the wall to the side.

“You will survive the night,” the monster said.

The shock was enough for her aspect to ebb out.

“You’re,” she said and bit her tongue.

It waited for her in silence. It felt amused.

“Assassin,” she got out.

“You have not followed the rules, Vivienne Dartwick,” it said. “An agreement was made.”

“I’m not a member of the Guild of Thieves,” she said.

“You are a citizen of the Empire,” it said. “You are Named.”

“And we all know what you do to heroes,” she bit out, because she was going to die anyway wasn’t she? “Is that why you’re here? To nip me in the bud?”

“Are you?” the thing asked.

She shivered.

“A heroine?” it finished.

It had not come to kill her, she realized. This was an offer. Become a lapdog for the Empress, or else.

“I will not lick the boot on my throat,” she hissed.

“Then you will live under it,” the monster said. “There are rules. There are consequences. And only one warning.”

She blinked and it was gone. She didn’t come back home, that night, or the three nights that followed. When she did she saw her father had a healing gash on his throat. His manservant’s hand had shaken while shaving him, he said after he finished fussing over her. Vivienne knew better than that.  Thief fled the city and did not steal from Praesi again, not even after her father was buried. Are you? That was the thing had asked. The words were echoing in her ears, when she heard of the Lone Swordsman and his call for other heroes to join rebellion. She went, against her better judgement. They echoed again in Laure, that night the devil came calling under moonlight.

She was not so certain of the answer as she’d once been.

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Villainous Interlude: Calamity I

“That’s the thing with invincibility. You have it until you don’t.”
– Dread Empress Prudence the First, the ‘Frequently Vanquished’

Nicae had been built thrice, with three different intents. The original settlement had spawned from the federation of a handful of fishing villages banding together to facilitate trade with the Baalite colonists settling the shores of Ashur after having absorbed or exterminated the tribes that lived there. The shape of them could still be seen, the three largest of those villages having over the centuries grown into the three ports of the city. The second time had come after Stygia took half the infant Free Cities by military force, back in the ancient days where they were the only Calernians to have a standing army. Nicae was occupied for decades, until the Stygian army attempted to force their general onto the throne of Stygia and the chain of events that would lead to all freeborn Stygians being forbidden to take arms began and heralded the collapse of the fledgling Stygian empire. The office of Basileus was proclaimed as absolute ruler, tall walls built to shield the people from marauders and a war fleet built. What was left of that intent was now known as the Old City, the beating heart of power in the maritime city, raised in old stone and winding streets.

The third and last time Nicea was built anew was after the Second Samite War, when repeated defeats at the hands of the Ashuran fleets proved the ruling Basilea’s incompetence in matters of war beyond question. So the office of Exarch was born, the admiral who’d managed to bring them back from the brink give control over all military affairs and promptly overstepping his given powers by raising a second set of walls to circle the slums that had grown past the old ones and ordering the construction of the Greenstone Rampart. A set of greenstone towers jutting out from the sea and protecting the three ports, warded intensively and bristling with dwarven engines. There had been foresight in this, in Black’s opinion. Though Nicae had never won their wars over rule of the Samite Gulf in the centuries that followed, the Greenstone Rampart ensured the city itself never fell from the sea. Ashur had to settle for terms instead of subjugation, and Nicean sails continued to be seen in every ports – if never quite as free to trade as they would have liked.

The city had been built to resist armies not led by villains, unlike the hardened castles of Callow, and it showed. If Summerholm had been assaulted by a handful of floating towers as Nicae was, the Royal Guards would have been focusing trebuchet fire from the positions behind the walls to bring them down before the outer rampart could be overrun. All that the Niceans managed was sporadic ballista fire that did little more than chip at the foundations. The massive ramps being tugged forward by enslaved citizens of Atalante and Delos lumbered forward, archers killing the slaves by the score by barely slowing the advance. A mistake, this. They would run out of arrows long before the Tyrant ran out of expendables. How it would unfold from there was as good as writ, if the heroes did not get involved. The Stygian phalanxes would climb the ramps and scatter the mercenaries and militia that held the rampart, forcing the Niceans back behind the taller walls of the Old City as the Helikean army passed through the gates untouched. From there, it would be butchery. The armies of Helike were better fit for field battles than siege, but their infantry was hardened and well-armed.

The famous Helikean horse would not be able to bring their full strength to bear inside cramped streets, would not be able to used their devastating combination of horse archery and spears, but they would run down scattered mercenaries like animals. This was the writ of the battle, as it stood. The only question was of where the heroes would intervene to attempt to turn the tides. The outer walls seemed the most likely stage, for whether it held or broke would decide the battle. Yet the towers were hero-bait in its finest incarnation. Amadeus was not unaware of the tactical advantages that having a force in the sky gave, against a mundane army, but there was a reason he’d stamped down on any notion of the Legions of Terror fielding them. There were practical concerns, like the logistics of feeding a host that was leagues above the ground and the requirements to raising such a fortress in the first place, but most of all it was that flying fortresses tended to crash. It was like hanging a sword with rope above the heads of the men in that fortress and sending a formal invitation to any present hero to cut it. Whatever fleeting advantage was gained by the fielding of the fortress was inevitably overshadowed by the massive costs incurred when it was brought down.

“Slid past their wards,” Wekesa whispered in his ear over the enchanted piece of silver he’d inserted under the skin. “Someone tried to improve them recently, but their caster has more breadth than depths. Scrying patterns in place.”

“Locations,” Black said.

“Hedge Wizard is headed for the towers,” Warlock replied after a moment. “Valiant Champion with the Proceran fantassins on the wall. Can’t find the White Knight or the Bard, though the scrying grows unstable over on three, twelve to fifteen diameter. I’d say our boy Hanno got his hands on an amulet to scramble us.”

Tricks rarely worked twice on heroes. It would have been overly optimistic to believe that the enemy would not seek to neuter the tactics they’d displayed last time, even if this was only a mildly effective parry. As the communication spell that connected Wekesa to Amadeus and Sabah was derivative of scrying, it was likely it would be made ineffective when the Duni engaged the White Knight. Only inexact sorcery prior to the distance being closed could feasibly be deployed.

“No sign of the Ashen Priestess?” Amadeus asked.

“Not a one,” Wekesa confirmed. “She might actually be dead, Amadeus.”

“I imagine she will be,” the Black Knight replied. “Until it is decisive for the heroes that she is not. Too many third aspects remain unknowns for us to assume we’ve seen the last of her.”

“Once in a while,” Warlock said amusedly, “we do take Creation by surprise. We might have gotten lucky, for all you know, hit some weakness we were unaware of.”

“We do not belong to the side that gets lucky, my friend,” Amadeus murmured.

The villain closed his eyes, weighing his options.

“Sabah, keep an eye on the walls,” he said. “Do not back the Tyrant against the Champion unless it is a certainty the city will hold.”

“And if he’s about to die?” the Taghreb replied through the spell.

“Let him,” Black said. “Our only concerns are that Nicae falls and the White Knight dies. He is essential to neither.”

“I hear you,” she said.

The instructions were enough that she would be able to tap into Obey, if it proved necessary.

“Wekesa,” he said.

“The Hedge Wizard again, I’m guessing,” he mused.

“Yes,” Amadeus confirmed. “And more. Red Skies protocol.”

There was a lengthy moment of silence.

“We haven’t gone that far since the Conquest,” Wekesa said, and his voice was pleased. “You’re certain? No collateral damage concerns?”

“Reputational damage is irrelevant if the Tyrant becomes the Hierarch of the Free Cities,” the green-eyed man murmured. “All targets of opportunity are fair game. Use what you will, save for what falls under the Dark Day protocol.”

“Ah, you sweet thing,” Warlock drawled. “I have been meaning to try out a few spells.”

Power bloomed in the distance. The stars above them began to grow crimson, staining the night, and the Black Knight moved. He had a hero to kill.

He’d crafted another decoy, for he had no reason not to. As expected, the Hedge Wizard ignored it. She flew directly for the towers, her great wings flapping on one of the three dozen open scrying links he’d crafted. It had taken decades to refine this particular method of farsight, creating runic arrays that would grant him eyes wherever he needed them without actively needing his attention and steering. It was also one of the reasons Wekesa rarely took the field in person: the arrays were exceedingly easy to disrupt, if found. Using distractions to keep the enemy guessing at his true locations while he worked his Gift from behind wards was the most effective use of his abilities. Warlock did occasionally miss the vindictive pleasure of incinerating the opposition in person, but he was no longer a young man. Incautious villains did not get to live as long as he had.

“It will be good night,” he smiled, watching the battle unfold.

How long had it been, since Amadeus had granted him this much leeway on the field? Too long. Oh, his old friend still forbade the use of any sorcery that would grow unchecked if not stopped and any permanent rifts in Creation, but Wekesa was not eager to use the spells that would fall under the Dark Day protocol. Magical plagues had a nasty habit of growing beyond anyone’s control, and only a fool would expect to keep a leash on a permanent portal linking to another dimension. The Dead King had managed it, some Soninke argued, but even millennia past that man’s apotheosis mages still sifted through the remains of his reign to advance their craft. Warlock was disinclined to renounce his humanity for another form of immortality when villainy alone could yield the same results, properly used. It was a poor man’s escape of the Final Shackles, anyway. For all his power, the Dead King remained undead. His nature had grown eminently less changeable, his ability to learn crippled, while humanity… Humanity was such a miraculous fluctuating thing. Tikoloshe would not have remained so eternally fascinated by it otherwise.

Behind his wards, watching it all, Wekesa stroked his beard and found three opportunities. The first was the outer walls. Sabah had yet to get involved there, and so he need not be worried about her being caught in the crossfire. Dead under the walls, killed in hatred. And now the the Stygian phalanx was marching up the ramps, more blood would flow. Power was largely irrelevant to what he was setting out to accomplish, for the kind of force that could be gathered by mass sacrifices and theft of godhead was a blunt instrument. It would be used then spent, leaving the practitioner that called on it spent as well. No, what he sought was affinity. Finding similarities on both sides of the boundary before thinning it enough the realities grew muddled and overlapping. It was not a flawless method, of course. There were an infinity of Hells and more adjacent dimensions than even he could discover, but he could only use those he knew of. Knowledge, as in all things, was the great limitation.

Wekesa knew many things, though, secrets old and new ripped from ancient tomes and the minds of lesser gods alike.

Imbricate,” he murmured.

Two-hundredth and seventy-third Hell. The realm of slaughter unending and meaningless. On the weaker side of the scale, weak in devils and imprisoned souls both, but it was so very close. The Tyrant was responsible for it, stripping this battle of much meaning save his own whims. The blood across the field and walls shivered, then boiled. Guiding the alignment took all his concentration, balancing the power he was willing to invest through the runic arrays to the depth of imbrication that was useful. Creation and Hell snapped into place, and his lips quirked. Men rose around the ramps and on the wall, missing limbs and bleeding and every one of them dead. The corpses took up their weapons, broken or whole, and those that could not struck with bare hands instead. Driven by endless hatred the dead turned on everything in sight, including each other. Screams and chaos spread across the battlefield, but Wekesa paid no attention. The imbrication would fade away within the hour, and needed no more supervision from his will. Now, where was the little Wizard?

Inside one of the towers, if the trail of her Name could be trusted. Which it could not, given there were tricks to fake this and given the nature of her Role she was all but mandated to have them. An interesting thing, this Name. The Hedge Wizard relied on providence more than the average hero, in his eyes. By Heavenly mandate she would always have the exact trick needed to escape the trouble she was in, more irritatingly hard to kill a pest than any save a bardic Named. Abandoning subtlety was occasionally needed to deal with the likes of her. The Tyrant had lost his finest mages, and so his floating towers were even more unstable than ones the heroes had wrecked at Delos. No doubt the boy expected to detonate them at some point in the battle, and Wekesa would grant him his wish this once. Delving past the outer wards was a thing of ease, given that there were Helikean standard and so a century of learning behind anything come of the Wasteland, or even Callow for that matter. Callowan Gifted were largely amateurs borne of a particularly shoddy apprenticeship system, but centuries of being assaulted by Praesi mages had forced them to develop very effective, if simplistic, warding schemes.

Actually attacking the core was unnecessary. The conversion array that kept the tower afloat was so flimsy any proper disruption would lead to cascading failures. Wekesa’s own offensive, meant to manifest limited kinetic force within the range of a mile at a regrettably high conversion rate, shone and one single rune in the tower’s array was damaged. Thirty heartbeats later the tower exploded, heated rocks carving a swath of destruction in the outer city. Civilian casualties, he noted, would not be light. Ah, well. It wasn’t like Amadeus was trying to annex this one. The scrying spell he had pointed at the location blanked until he adjusted the parameters, reforming to deal with the arcane energies still filling the air. The Hedge Wizard had been inside, he saw. Yet remained largely unharmed by the explosion. Half-phasing into Arcadia, by the likes of it. Clever, but given the unstable nature of the tower’s array the energy would have scattered across the spectrum. She would have been affected. The Hedge Wizard, running across floating tiles, began to head for his decoy. Warlock smiled fondly. Trying to trace his location through it, was she?

“Ah, youth,” he said.

He’d cleaned off the rust. It was time, he supposed, to get serious.

The young woman was bleeding, bent in a corner and moaning in pain. The White Knight slowed as he came by her and came close. Amadeus raised an eyebrow, but Hanno was not so foolish as that. The sword cleared the scabbard in an instant, cutting through the animated corpse’s neck. A twist of will had the other three corpses he’d scattered across the rooftops pull the triggers of the crossbows just as the hero’s sword began to touch flesh. It was not enough. The sword flashed out and parried the two bolts that would have taken him in the back, letting the third pass him by for it would not have touched him. Mistake. The third bolt hit the goblinfire ball he’d put inside the woman and green flames erupted instantly. The Light formed a blinding halo around the White Knight before the fire could touch him, the Heavenly power soon devoured but allowing him to retreat without it touching his flesh. There was only so much of the Light the man could call on without hollowing himself out, but Black knew better than to turn a death match with a hero into a matter of endurance. That way lay the wiping of a bloody lip, a trite quote from the Book of All Things and an improbably second wind when he himself was at the end of his rope.

The three corpses leapt down the rooftops and ran towards the White Knight, open and clearly visible wounds across their bellies. The kind a villain might put a ball of goblinfire in, if he so wished. Amadeus had not, of course. It would have been a waste of substance he had a limited stock of as well as the introduction of an uncontrollable factor to a battlefield where precision would be key. But Hanno could not afford the chance, and so he backed away to give himself room. Mistake. Amadeus’ shadow snaked across the gloom behind him, puncturing the loose pavestones and detonating the demolition charge under his feet. The explosion would have earned broken bones from less powerful a Named, but for a White Knight the only advantage won was toppling him. Another twist of will and three crossbow bolts whistled at his prone form. He rolled over at the last moment, evading all but one, yet that last bolt struck his arm. Not his sword-arm, unfortunately, but he would have to deal with the wound regardless. The three corpses retreated out of sight. Hanno ripped the bolt out of his arms and cauterized the wound with Light, predictably.

“Is this all you amount to, Black Knight?” he called out. “Smoke and mirrors, ambushes and a handful of tricks.”

As if engaging a hero on their own terms was anything but sheer stupidity. The provocation was not a very skilful one, a betrayal of the man’s youth for all the danger he represented. Amadeus gave him what he wanted. From the ruins of a home across the street, a corpse in armour identical to his plate strode out. Unsheathing a plain steel sword, the undead offered Hanno a mocking blade salute. The hero charged, but he had learned. He flared the Light before coming close to the puppet, shrugging off the crossbow fire from the other dead. Mistake. There was no need for him to arrange detonation when the hero’s blade was wreathed in Light. The sword went clean through the plate and the goblinfire blew, spreading across the edge. The White Knight hastily dropped it, and there went the shapeshifting weapon that was of clear Gigantes make. The hero’s lips turned to a snarl and he made a blade of Light. A liability to exploited. Killing heroes, in Amadeus’ eyes, was much like peeling an onion.

Layer by layer it went, until all that remained was the weeping.

Gods, she’d forgotten how nightmarish it got when Warlock went off the deep end. The sky had gone red and the dead were rising. Typical. That strange Levantine girl was having the time of her life with it, though, and so was the Tyrant. He’d begun screeching about treachery from his hovering throne, pleased as a cat that got the cream. The boys were underestimating this one, she thought. Amadeus thought he was straight out of the old Imperial mould and so doomed to shoot himself in the foot at his moment of triumph, but he did not smell of that kind of crazy to her. Whatever schemes he had going, and Sabah did not care to parse out the insane maze that would be, she doubted they would involve rising too high. He was the kind of irritating prick that made a virtue of defeat and pissing everybody off, just like the Heir had been. And Wekesa, well, he did tend to think that everybody that wasn’t a mage was a little slow. Considering he’d been set to starve or freeze to death in the Wasteland while on the run as Apprentice, back when he’d met Amadeus, she was a little amused at how he kept turning up his nose at practical skills. Like starting a fire without getting a devil involved.

The Champion kept the wall afloat when the mercenaries began to run by using an aspect, though Sabah was too far to hear what it was. Whatever it’d been, though, it had turned Proceran rabbits to lions. They were carving their way straight into the Stygian phalanx, not that the Tyrant seemed to care. When it came to the two of them, the Taghreb judged it an even match. The heroine never managed to land a proper hit, but the beams of light the villain used hardly scuffed her plate. Sabah sympathized, having taken a swing at the muscled girl herself in the past. Anything but the war hammer the Levantine with the badger helm walked off: it was like hitting a wall. A different story when the Beast came out, but there weren’t a lot of things in Creation that could ignore Sabah when she let that loose. Captain sniffed the air, and grimaced at what she got from it. Brimstone, and the red in the sky was getting deeper. Sooner or later something nasty was going to start raining down. Better if she could finish off her heroine before it got to that.

She seemed like a good kid, the Champion. Heart in the right place, spoiling for a fight the way the young ones often were. Heroes still cutting their teeth tended to think they were invincible, before running into their first proper villain. Those that survived that emerged stronger form the experience, and there lay the problem. Sabah didn’t particularly care if someone worshipped the Heavens instead of the Gods Below. Her people’s deities were most loved when they were looking somewhere else. Imagine the kind of pricks they’d be if we weren’t on their side, Sabah, her mother had been fond of saying. The issue was that when heroes got a little killing under their belt they tended to go looking for a bigger fight, and right now Praes was the biggest fight to be had on the continent. Except for the Kingdom of the Dead, but who’d be dumb enough to try that? Hye didn’t count, she had an odd knack for killing things she shouldn’t in the place where she should have godsdamned common sense. Still, it was a shame. The Champion truly did seem like a good kid.

Sabah had killed a lot of good kids, over the years.

Didn’t particularly enjoy it, but if the choice was between the people she loved and some young fools who thought they could fix the world with a spell or a sword, well, that wasn’t a choice at all. World didn’t really want to be fixed. Wasn’t supposed to be. But the broken chariot kept on rolling down the road, so why fuck with what worked? Amadeus had tried it for forty years and he’d had good days for a toil, but a lot more bad ones. Wekesa had understood quicker, washed his hands of the whole thing and instead taken care of his son and his experiments. But Sabah wasn’t willing to let Amadeus into the deep end with only Eudokia to prop him up, so Captain she had been. Was and would be. Sometimes that meant doing things she didn’t like, but she doubted anyone in the world enjoyed their work everyday. She got her hands bloody, but it could have been worse. The truly dark things Amadeus always did himself. He’d never been one to let others do his dirty work for him, if he could avoid it. Sabah watched the fight on the ramparts turn, biding her time, and she was not made to linger.

The Tyrant summoned a stream of what looked like spectres – he’d regret letting something like those loose with Wekesa on the battlefield, she mused – and while the Champion held the mercenaries around her died until she was forced to retreat. Best keep an eye on that, Captain mused. Wouldn’t do to let the girl meddle in Amadeus’ fight with her leader.

Sabah followed the heroine into the streets, eerily quiet for a woman her size.

Villainous Interlude: Thunder

“We have grown to mock Tyrants for they are mad but that is a very dangerous thing. A madman thinks the world other than what it is, and in a mortal that is a harmless thing. Not so in one who moulds Creation to their will, as all Named do.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

Anaxares had been named a general, at the Tyrant’s orders. Sixty-seven, the diplomat mused. He was now technically committing treason under sixty-seven different articles of Bellerophan law, and starting to wonder if he would reach a hundred before he died. His remains would be on trial for at least a decade, and he did not envy the Defender Against The People who drew the wrong lot and was made to defend his rotting corpse. It seemed to few, to have grown from middling fifty counts of treason to over sixty when made to serve in a foreign army. The law codes were in need of revising. It should have landed him roughly in the eighties. The mere fact that no difference was made between officer grades was a glaring oversight, and if allowed a few moments to make a statement before the kanenas summarily executed him he would jot down a few notes on the matter.

“Pay attention, Bellerophan,” General Basilia barked. “This is important.”

Kairos’ foremost commander was currently attempting to teach him the basics of war, as he would apparently be given command of five thousand men during the assault on the walls of Nicae. When Anaxares had asked the boy why, morbidly curious, he’d been answered only by off-putting giggles. Troubling.

“I will not. I am a diplomat in the service of the Republic,” he said. “Anyone but the officers drawn by lot learning military tactics is illegal.”

The woman glared at him, sceptical.

“Are you telling me your shithole of a city doesn’t have career officers?” she asked.

War Is Of The People, Served By The People And Ordered Only By The People.

“That would be setting apart individuals from the rest,” he said, somewhat offended on behalf of Bellerophon. “This learning can and should only be temporary, removed after it had seen lawful use.”

“Gods, no wonder you fucks have never won a war,” the general said, aghast.

Anaxares narrowed his eyes at the wicked foreign oligarch. It had been determined by the Will Of The People that enough draws counted as a victory, and therefore proof of the superiority of the Republic in all things. That this was factually incorrect by the standards of wider Calernia was irrelevant to the purposes of this conversation.

“Who do you even learn from?” Basilia asked.

“Bellerophon has secured the finest military manual in existence to train its officers,” he replied.

Manners of War by Tyrant Theodosius?” the general asked. “I suppose the Ars Tactica by the first Terribilis would be close enough.”

A Hundred Victorious Strategies,” Anaxares said.

Ah, that made sixty-eight. Leaking of military information to The Deceived Servant Of A Grasping Despot. General Basilia’s lips twitched as if she was trying very hard not to weep or laugh.

“Isabella the Mad’s book?” she asked, voice rough.

“She was the only one to ever defeat Theodosius on the field,” the diplomat said.

“That’s, uh, a very generous assessment of the Maddened Fields,” General Basilia said, and tried to pass her convulsive laughter for a cough.

He sighed. Mockery, he thought, was the last refuge of those afraid of the First And Mightiest Of The Free Cities, May She Reign Forever.

“Well, at least you haven’t learned any bad habits,” she said. “You won’t be on the first wave over the walls, anyway, if you listen to your commanders you should be fine.”

“I will not,” Anaxares said.

The woman frowned.

“I will actively attempt to hinder your victory, should I remain in a position of authority,” he informed her serenely.

“I’ll remove you from command,” she threatened.

“Do so,” he said. “Please.”

Was there a lawful difference between having temporarily served in a foreign army and remaining in service? Ah, yes, the third amendment. Unfortunately it only applied after death, with the assumption being that any Bellerophan committing such treason would immediately be killed before trial could take place. Another area in need of clarification to be pointed out to the Republic.

“The Tyrant has his reasons,” Basilia finally said. “He sees further than anyone else.”

“He is drunk with power,” Anaxares told her gently. “And quite possibly mad.”

“They’re all mad, diplomat,” the woman said, smiling. “That’s why they win. Theodosius took on the entire Principate at its peak and walked away the winner. That takes something stranger than courage. Oh, we have the finest army on Calernia don’t get me wrong. We can handle thrice our number in what everyone else has to field. But it’s with a Tyrant on the throne that we shine, and it was the fortune of my life to be born under one.”

Anaxares was not unaware of the blinders the Republic had set around his eyes, though he’d never seen the need to attempt to take them off. It was his first time, however, seeing the same thing on the face of someone not from Bellerophon. How strange, that they too could have faith in something greater. It took the diplomat tipping over a carafe of wine over three maps and wilfully misremembering the names of his commanders before the Helikean gave up in schooling him. Kairos sent for him, but when he entered the tent there was no sign of the Tyrant. Seven people stood stiffly under the silk panes, eyeing the embroidery with cold mistrust. And good reason. It was gold thread, a blatant misuse of wealth that should be in the hands of the people.

“Diplomat Anaxares,” a woman said, tonelessly.

Kanenas. She was not even trying to hide it. The others all had that muted look on their faces that would have betrayed their function as well, had the Bellerophan been traitorous enough to attempt to find such a thing out. Anaxares did not bow, for that was a foreign flourish judiciously disposed of by the Republic. All men were equal, even with those who could kill him with a thought.

“I have committed treason on sixty-eight counts,” he said, and calmly listed them.

The longer he spoke, the more the tension left his shoulders. It was not that Anaxares had ever expected to live through any of this, or even dedicated a great deal of thought to the matter. It was, after all, out of his hands. But it was a relief, that this strange affair finally be closed. That his fate had been left dangling had been a burr in his boots, an irritant. His existence and the contradiction it represented to the truth of Bellerophon should not have been left so long unanswered.

“If the Republic is willing to provide ink and parchment, I have comments to submit to the eyes of the people for after my execution,” he said.

He’d never considered using Helikean tools. No proper Bellerophan would have read anything written with them. The seven kanenas studied him.

“Your pending execution has been suspended by vote,” a man said. “Your services to the people have made you a Person of Value.”

The diplomat watched the seven other people in the tent. They stared back, unblinking. Something rose inside of him as the silence continued, something he had not felt in a very long time. He’d thought the years had scoured it out of him, but perhaps that had been vanity. It was not hope, of course. He had no use for that. It was anger. Harsh, unforgiving fury. How dare they? How dare they turn on what they should be, on everything they should stand for?

“No,” he hissed. “This is unacceptable.”

“This committee has been empowered to record and respond to your words,” the woman who’d spoken earlier replied flatly.

“There is no such thing as Person of Value,” Anaxares snarled. “If the people have decreed this, the people are wrong and in need of purging. We are a Republic of laws. I have broken these laws. I must be executed according to them.”

“To go against the Will of the People is treason,” another woman said.

“Then execute me, by all the Gods,” he shouted. “The people have committed treason against the Republic through this vote. This is how he wins, you fools. By bending what we are. It only needs to happen once and everything we’ve built is stained.”

Eyes hard, he stared them down.

“We are the Republic of Bellerophon,” he said through gritted teeth. “We do not compromise. We do not make exceptions. I will slit my own throat before allowing this.”

“Correct,” the man said.

“Correct,” another man said, and a woman with him.

“Treason,” the woman from earlier replied.

The air in the tent grew thick with sorcery as all seven kanenas went still. Something broke with a sickening crunch behind the face of the three who’d agreed with him. Anaxares did not look as the bodies droppedd. Citizens did not get involved in the debates of the kanenas, or the grisly ends they inevitably came to.

“You are forbidden to commit suicide by law,” the woman said. “And to wilfully take actions that will result in your death as well.”

“You can’t do this,” Anaxares said.

He was genuinely afraid for the first time since boyhood. This… Gods, what was this? It was wrong, all wrong, something had broken and he needed to Mend it.

“We do nothing, diplomat,” a man said. “The People Have Spoken.”

They left him there, shivering in his own sweat. His hands shook and he had to sit for his legs would not longer bear the weight of him. Nightfall was coming, and with it the assault on Nicaw. The armies were gathered, but he cared nothing for it. Yet he would have to lead the soldiers, for if he did not the Tyrant might decide to kill him and he was forbidden by law to chance this. The boy. The boy was behind this, one way or another. Kairos was waiting for him on a throne that overlooked the walls, all grey stone with a dozen gargoyles fanning him and feeding him grapes. He had a cup in hand, though not of wine. Juice of some sort.

“What did you do,” Anaxares demanded. “What did you do?

The Tyrant of Helike laughed, laughed with his red eye shining and his weak arm clutching at his robes like claws.

“Oh yes,” Kairos Theodosian murmured. “You’ll do nicely.”

“You’ve tainted us,” the diplomat said.

“I gave them what they wanted most, deep down,” the Tyrant said. “Under all the laws and the lies.”

A gargoyle waddled up to him, stone wings folded over its back, and offered a wineskin. The Bellerophan saw it too well. His eyesight should not be this good, all these minute fractures in the bespelled rock should never have been noticeable. That realization brought exhaustion with it that had him half-toppling on the platform the throne was set on. He took the skin and drank deep, drowning and drowned.

“Would you like to hear a story, Anaxares?” the Tyrant asked. “It’s a thing of beauty, this one.”

“This must be unmade,” the diplomat begged.

“Oh, it’s too late for that,” Kairos smiled. “Much, much too late. This story, my dearest friend, is about three people.”

Anaxares’ hands were no longer shaking, his body numb at the horror of what was hapening.

“The first is a monster,” Kairos said. “She’s not like the others monsters, though. She has no face and as many lives as there are stars, and behind those veils only one single burning desire. It’s a thing I can see, you know. What people Wish. And when I look at her, what I see is glorious.”

“The Wandering Bard,” Anaxares croaked.

“Now, this monster she has plans and plans and plans,” the Tyrant sighed admiringly. “So many irons and so many fires. She doesn’t care about any of us, when it comes down to it. All she looks at is the line in the sand that’s just a bit above the reach of high tide, and we can’t have that now can we? She’s not real picky about what she’ll use to wipe it away, practical creature that she is.”

Kairos leaned closer, grinning widely.

“Let me tell you a secret, my friend,” he whispered. “She’s already won. The opposition was watching the wrong fire the whole time, and the intricacy of the trap is exquisite. She made the kill without them ever seeing her.”

“She’s losing,” Anaxares said. “The Calamities killed one of her heroes with your own sorcery.”

“No no no,” the Tyrant said. “You’re looking at it all wrong. Even if my pretty little mages had been untroubled, the Beast would have survived. The Healer should have too, life split in half with her sister. A touching story of sisterly love, if you care for that sort of thing. She didn’t because she was a sacrifice. Her weight was stolen, because there was another use for it. With nothing you can only trade for nothing.”

“Then you are a pawn as well,” the diplomat said. “In the Bard’s game.”

“Funny thing, control,” the boy mused. “Everybody thinks they have it. Because they follow Fate or fight it, because they see the lines or make them. No one is in control, Anaxares. Not even the Gods, otherwise what would be the point of Creation? We’re not the answer, we’re the question. The book even says so.”

The cripple hacked out a laugh, patting himself.

“She thinks I made you to kill me,” Kairos said. “She’s wrong, my dearest bosom companion. I’m not some Praesi of the old breed, oh no. I have more unusual ambitions. But here I am, getting ahead of myself. We have a story, yes? The second person is not a person at all. He is a thing.”

The hate and contempt in the boy’s voice had an almost physical weight to it.

“He thinks he’s a person and that’s the most disgusting part,” the Tyrant smiled. “Cogs and wheels and he started out thinking it was about being right, about being fair, but it hasn’t been like that in a long time. He just wants to win, but it’s a kind of victory that means nothing at all. That poor, blind pile of cogs.”

Kairos tittered.

“He thinks what runs him is reason but that is a conceit,” the Tyrant said gleefully. “That will sting, when the lie is stripped away. He thinks he’s above pride, you see, but that’s about all that’s left of him because he thinks everyone lives by his rules, Anaxares. Even if the ends aren’t the same, he thinks the means are.”

The boy’s good hand rose, fingers walking the arm of the throne like some small nimble creature. The odd-eyed villain snapped his fist shut instead of walking it off.

“Just like that,” he said. “Plot and plan and seize a crown at the end, even if this one isn’t really a crown. More like an agreement, and you know I have a weakness for those. The old Emperors, they got it. That the Empire was the tool, not the aim. But in his little head Praes is the centre of the world, and as long as he thinks like that Aoede is going to whip him again and again, if you’ll forgive my language.”

“She’s going to kill him,” the diplomat said.

“Of course not, my beauteous blooming flower,” the Tyrant tutted. “Nothing so crass. She’s going to hurt him. And when the cold thing turns into a wounded animal, well, that’s when he starts making mistakes.”

“And the third person is you,” Anaxares said. “Pulling all the strings.”

Kairos turned to him then, and the smile on his face was one of pure and childlike joy. The Bellerophan had never seen anything half so terrifying.

“Gotcha,” he said, like a child pulling a prank.

The cripple shivered under the setting sun, his face almost feverish.

“I heard a story about one of the first kings of Helike, once,” he said. “His father had gathered a great menagerie of animals, it goes. Peacocks and great lizards, gazelles and aurochs from all over Calernia and beyond. And one lion as well, brought in as a cub. It lived in a cage all its life, fed choice cuts of meat meant behind bars. So the first thing that king did, when he took the throne, was open all the doors.”

The Tyrant hummed.

“I heard a lot of reasons why he might have done that,” the odd-eyed boy said. “Revenge on a father who cared more for animals than him, getting rid of expensive frivolity and even because he believed caging animals was wrong. I think, though, that I understand him. Just a little.”

Kairos leaned forward.

“I think what he wanted was to see if a lion was still a lion, having lived in a cage all its life,” he confided. “I think he just… wanted to see what would happen.”

“What did?” Anaxares asked, tone rough.

“The lion slaughtered them all,” the Tyrant of Helike grinned, and the red in his eye was an endless sea of blood. “Nature tells, my friend. Nature always tells.

The boy’s grinned widened, long and sharp and pearly white.

“I wonder what your nature is, Hierarch.”

It was a title and a curse, the ruling seat of the League that had only once been filled since the founding.

It was all these things, but most of all it was a Name.

Villainous Interlude: Cadenza

“Taxes. Taxes and triplicate forms.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, upon being asked what powerful sorceries he would use to humble the High Lords

Warlock had eyes on it from the beginning.

Not scrying, for that could be traced, but delayed relays that caught images at regular intervals. Wekesa had formed enough alternating way stations that while it was possible to follow the trail back to the beginning, it would take months at a flat minimum. What Amadeus saw was puzzling, at the start. Procer sent decoys caravans, armed to the teeth, but those were seen through easily. He sent Sabah to hit the lone carts using lesser known paths, and these carried the ingots of silver and gold that were being fed to Nicae. The two first true caravans were ambushed and seized at the same location, which led him to a possible answer: consecrated grounds. By having blood spilled at the same hands at the same place, ritual weight could be crafted. That might signify his initial notion that this was a trap put in place by the Tyrant was correct, because the heroes under the White Knight would not lower themselves to use blood magic in this manner. Not with a man sworn to the Choir of Judgement at their head. Then the third caravan used a different path, and blood was spilled in a different location. He had, evidently, been incorrect. Reassessment was needed. Scribe had begun placing agents in the ranks of the Helikean army long before the war between League members began, and he turned to her for clarification.

“He caught my agents,” Eudokia said.

“All of them?” Black frowned.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “They still serve as soldiers, but any information they try to pass gets replaced by the words to a Helikean drinking song about a shepherdess and her three husbands.”

The Tyrant’s doing, then. The boy did like to pretend he has a sense of humour.

“Extraction?” he said.

“Even removing the soul from the bodies doesn’t sidestep the issue,” she said.

Name application, then, possibly an aspect. There were few sorceries in existence that could truly affect a soul in a manner more complex than cutting out parts and outside the Empire that branch of magic was not often studied. Infiltration of Helike was a resource sink, then, though one he might revisit should he need to busy the villain for a span of time. Scribe turned her focus to Nicae, at his instruction, and continued the other task he had assigned her. The fourth caravan took a different route again, and this contradicted his read of the matter. If the intent is opaque, change the perspective. Amadeus marked the locations on the map, and had Wekesa study them.

“If the next one dies here, there’s an arcane pattern being formed,” Warlock said, tapping a cattle path that would begin to sketch out a circle from a bird’s eye view.

It was not the location where the fifth caravan was destroyed. Repetition in the face of failure, Amadeus believed, indicated either incompetence or that what was perceived as ‘success’ by the beholder was not the objective. The sixth caravan passed through the initial route, and he ordered Captain to let it pass. It was possible that the later caravans had been a smokescreen to draw him away from his first thought, that of consecrated grounds.

“If that’s what they’re doing his mages are botching it,” Wekesa said. “He can still consecrate the grounds to Below like that, but if he doesn’t maintain a regular pattern then it’ll be so weak it’ll be useless. There’s a reason the old crowd uses prisoner sacrifices for the effect, it allows you to control the alignments.”

“The drivers have been women more than men,” Amadeus said.

“There’s rituals that take gender into consideration, but not this kind,” Warlock said. “And they’re exceedingly imprecise, so there’s no way they could take out Sabah. It’s too fluid a concept to be used as a solid anchor.”

That was usually the way, with cultural mores. If the intent is opaque, change the perspective. Neither consecration nor geographic location. Temporal placement? The hours where the caravans had been taken formed no useful arcane pattern, according to Warlock. Using the date by the Imperial calendar led to a dead end, but then outside Praes it was rarely used. The Free Cities counted the years from the founding of the League, but that was another dead end. The ancestral calendar of Helike was similarly useless.

“Keteran Calendar,” Warlock finally murmured, peering at a table full of opened books with a cup of wine in hand.

Amadeus adjusted his thinking, bringing the corresponding numbers to mind. Nothing that seemed relevant to him.

“Take out the second killing,” Wekesa said. “Then instead of using only the date as is, subtract using the year Sabah was born.”

The Black Knight closed his eyes, assembled the answers.

“Spell formula,” he said. “But this is ridiculously indirect.”

Warlock ignored him, scribbling ink on parchment and translating numbers to runes then speculated requirements from there.

“It’s not just that,” the Soninke grimaced.

“It would take thousands to create even a minor effect with so weak a sympathetic link,” Amadeus pointed out.

“The effect itself is how I know we’re on the wrong track,” Wekesa sighed. “Look, this is a projection of the illusion that would be formed if this formula was empowered.”

Warlock tapped the table once, and spell light glowed softly. In front of them, a hand was rotating in the air. Only the middle finger was raised.

“This is the Tyrant’s play, then,” the green-eyed man murmured. “That as good as confirms it.”

The combination of childish insult and advanced understanding of spellcrafting mechanics was telling. That a secondary pattern inserted into the primary one purely for the sake of the taunt was there at all was somewhat worrying. Amadeus had not been under the impression the Tyrant had mages this talented as his disposal, or such understanding himself. Another change of perspective was needed, but before that more information must be obtained. In a calculated risk, he sent Sabah to sack the seventh caravan. A different route, once more. Amadeus drank, watched the flames and thought. Eudokia came with her reports when the moon was high.

“The magisters were open to negotiations to have their army returned to them,” Scribe said.

“But?” the Duni prompted.

“Distraction,” she said. “They’ve already secured other means to accomplish this.”

The Tyrant. That he’d bothered to involve Stygia at all spoke volumes: they had a role to play in his ultimate intent.

“He rules Helike,” the Black Knight said. “Occupies Atalante. Has a representative from Bellerophon, struck a pact with Stygia and prepares to siege Nicae.”

Eudokia nodded without a word. She’d understood the order perfectly.

“The Bard?” he said.

“Still gathering,” she replied, and disappeared into the night.

Amadeus closed his eyes and thought. Eliminating theories one after another would take too long, and the caravans could not simply be allowed to pass. The longer Nicae could afford to import supplies from Ashur, the longer the siege stretched out and the longer he would have to remain. He could not afford to stay away from the Empire for that long, not with the… colourful rumours about what was currently unfolding there. To find the pattern, then, he would need to begin with the individual or individuals thathad crafted it. Necessary common factor? Understanding of High Arcana. Nothing less could be used for a ritual of this class. Still and silent, Amadeus counted. He had known seventeen individuals capable of using High Arcana, in his life. He brought up every single conversation he’d had with one of them, and sought commonalities in perspective. In the back of his mind, the gears ground. Too shallow a pool of information. He repeated the exercise, adding everything he’d ever read from an individual who cleared the condition to the process. Two days he stayed there, his companions knowing better than to disturb him. It was night again when he opened his eyes.

“Planar perception,” he told no one at all.

The understanding of sorcery of that level led to a different understanding of Creation as well, one divorced from the material concerns that shaped his views. To Wekesa, for example, the lay of the land they both looked at was fundamentally different. Looking at the situation through the version of this filter he could construct, he found his answer. Height. No topographical map of the region accurate enough for his purposes could be obtained, which meant direct observation. Warlock handled it, putting together the images obtained through relays.

“You’re right,” Wekesa admitted. “If you look at the pattern using the height they were killed at instead of the location, I can recognize the shape.”

“How many do they need?” he asked.

“Assuming I’m correct and the first killing was a decoy, four more,” his old friend said.

“Nine in total,” Amadeus said. “Thrice three. A killing stroke?”

“Offensive in nature, at the very least,” Warlock said. “We stop shy of what they need?”

The Black Knight smiled, very mildly.

“No,” he said. “I think not. They will get exactly what they need.”

Eudokia found him as he ate for the first time in days, methodically replenishing his strength.

“An offer was made to the Secretariat,” she said. “Penthes as well.”

The pale-skinned man chewed thoughtfully.

“He aims to be Hierarch, then,” he said.

How the Tyrant had managed to exert pressure on Bellerophon enough they would agree to this would have to be found investigated. Such a lever was too useful to be left solely in the boy’s hands.

“Assuming he secures all the votes,” Amadeus said. “Intent?”

“Broader games,” Scribe suggested. “His methodology requires constant opposition.”

That was a possibility, the green-eyed man thought. A straightforward one, however. That did not immediately disqualify it as a possible objective, but it was not a mark in its favour.

“Worst case scenario,” Eudokia asked, changing the approach.

“Tenth crusade, involving the entirety of Hasenbach’s coalition,” Amadeus replied without missing a beat. “Dead King uninvolved. Chain of Hunger unable to exert strength. Drow situation unchanged.”

“Kingdom Under?” Scribe said.

“In another expansion phase,” the Black Knight reminded her. “They will profiteer through weapon trade, at most.”

They’d left behind the question of what the Tyrant was after, and were instead studying what effect he could have on the Empire under the worst circumstances possible should he ascend to the position.

“He would be a destabilizing factor,” Scribe said, and there was no greater insult in her eyes than what she had just uttered.

“One without the ability to grab land or hamper commerce outside affordable losses,” Amadeus said. “By nature, even should he manage to align with Procer he will be damaging to them.”

Not worth directly opposing in this, the verdict was. Not unless other information surfaced that changed the forces in play.

“I’ve assembled an initial dossier,” Eudokia said.

Amadeus raised an eyebrow.

“Different face, but she has been active in Procer,” Scribe said.

“She’s behind Hasenbach?” he asked.

If the Wandering Bard had enabled the First Prince to rise, the failure in intelligence that had resulted in him being unware of this was… massive. It put everything he knew of the Proceran situation in question.

“No recorded contact,” Eudokia said. “But she was in Rhenia.”

The Black Knight was too old and far too removed from the boy he’d once been to let the dismay touch his face.

“The Augur,” he said. “There could be indirect influence. Anything further back?”

“No link to the Troubadour or the Magnificent Minstrel,” Scribe said. “But getting anything prior to the Conquest has been… difficult.”

The records had been tinkered with, she meant.

“There’s no precedent for an uninterrupted stream of consciousness,” Amadeus said.

“Heavier inheritance,” Scribe suggested.

Name dreams writ large. It was possible. Few things were not, when it came to Named.

“A line of Wandering Bards going back for centuries, advancing some collective purpose,” he said. “That is… an issue. There must be limits.”

“She has never intervened directly,” Eudokia said, and he waved his hand in irritation.

They’d both known what. It was a staple of bardic Names, being able to influence the story but rarely change it with their own hands. Power only through fronts, never wielded personally.

“Has she ever been linked to anyone not Named?” Amadeus said.

Reluctantly, Scribe shook her head. Given the incomplete records at their disposal, she was unwilling to commit fully to that theory.

“When attached to the Lone Swordsman, she operated within his moral boundaries,” Eudokia said.

Limits to her actions dictated to the story she was bound to and the nature of its heroes. Another theory to test.

“It’s her blind spots we need to to find,” he said. “The majority of the threat she represents comes from her awareness of our movements.”

Eudokia nodded. Amadeus frowned.

“Pick a target,” he said. “Assassin is at your disposal. I cannot know.”

“Risk margin?” she asked.

“I trust your judgement,” he replied.

No more need be said. Sabah killed, four more times. But as skilled as the mages of the Tyrant were, they were not Warlock. A single strand of hair was placed in the centre of the runic circle, and the curse meant to kill Captain found another target. Usurpation was, after all, the essence of sorcery. After it was done, Wekesa complimented the ritual. It was, apparently, not derivative of Praesi work in the slightest though it had been designed under the shared Trismegistan theory of magic. Behind the tall walls of Nicae, the Ashen Priestess died screaming. There was no warning, and no saving her. The ritual had been performed to kill a Named much more physically able. Amadeus approved, when he learned of it. Always kill the healer first. Targeting the White Knight might not have succeeded, and of the others the Priestess was the most apt to tip the balance in a clash. Before dawn, every practitioner involved on the attempt on Sabah’s life was dead. They left behind a note indicating they had taken their own lives out of guilt. Assassin’s sense of humour had grown whimsical of late.

“Your reasoning?” Scribe asked, after.

“No hero was involved in the story until the very end,” he said. “It was a struggle purely between villains.”

“Ah,” Eudokia said. “She can only see us when we stand opposed to her narrative?”

“Possibly,” Amadeus frowned. “Otherwise she sacrificed a heroine for no visible gain.”

“If she is bound by the White Knight’s morality, she could not do so,” Scribe said.

“Possibly,” the green-eyed man repeated. “I am… unsettled, Eudokia.”

Her eyes were still as ponds.

“The word for ‘bard’ we use comes from Old Miezan,” he said. “Language has evolved, even in our lifetime.”

“If the line were that ancient, there would be records,” Scribe said. “Unless.”

“Unless,” Amadeus agreed softly.

Unless something was cleaning up behind them, be it their Role or the Gods Above. Such a direct intervention would allow similar direct meddling from the Gods Below, of course. Balance in spirit, if not in practice. Yet he could think of only one event in Calernian history that would qualify. The creation of the Kingdom of the Dead. Which preceded written history in Praes by centuries, by conservative estimate. If the line of ‘Bards’ was that old, the Heavens had been playing a longer game than any of them. The ramifications of that were beyond the scope of his understanding, a feeling he was unused to and did not particularly care for.

“It could be Triumphant,” Eudokia said.

Triumphant cost us so much more than we gained. If she’d been the intervention of the Gods Below, they had let themselves be robbed by the opposition. Black closed his eyes.

“If she cannot be killed, she must be trapped,” he said.

He felt Scribe nod. She sat at his side, close enough to touch but never quite getting there.

“You are tired,” Eudokia said.

Innocuous words, but the deeper meaning was there.

“I am dying, I think,” he murmured.

There was a long silence.

“If Catherine wields the knife, I will destroy her,” she said, as if she was speaking of the weather. “And if I fail Hye will not.”

Amadeus did not reply. If he’d been the kind of man to pray, he would have prayed then. But he was not, so instead the gears began to turn and he wondered how many of the people he loved he would have to kill, before it was all over.

Chapter 32: Close

“Oh, on most days we lose. But once in a while, just once, it works. And those moments of perfect clarity where all the world is in the palm of your hand, a hundred thousand middling minds made into flawless assembly by your will? Those are worth all the rest.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II

Well, we weren’t all going to die. That was nice. If my mouthing off had been followed by Thief failing to steal the sun, I would have been real embarrassed before I got my fool ass killed. Wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about a heroine with shaky allegiances getting to shove the – possibly, I wasn’t sure exactly how this worked – literal sun in her knapsack, but it did beat dying horribly. So, you know, I was willing to chalk up that one as a win. The skin of Thief’s hand was cracking and black by the time the orb of fire disappeared, even though she’d never touched it at all, but away it went. The moment it was gone, Sulia screamed. I imagined it was a lot like losing an aspect, and when Masego had cut out mine the process had been excruciating. She collapsed to her knees and the lights went out. The not-world we were in began to collapse, wrinkling on itself, but I was having none of that. Now, if I’d pit my power against the Princess of High Noon she would have crushed me effortlessly and then maybe allowed me a moment to contemplate the sheer stupidity of my actions before ripping out my spine. This wasn’t a fight, though. Power was leaving her like a leaking sieve, and even though I suspected that even whatever was left at the end would be enough for her to beat us again I wasn’t going to give her the opportunity to get her shit together.

Fall,” I said.

It hadn’t been dark on the ashy plain, not exactly. It’d been not so much darkness as the absence of light. My power filled the endless expanse, propping it up and claiming the framework for itself. I saw my companions shiver in the sudden cold, now nothing more than shaded silhouettes in boundless dark. The night sky above us was without stars, but it didn’t feel like anything was missing. A sky from before there were stars, I thought. In here, whatever this place was, my will was the only one that mattered. Masego spoke a word, but there was only silence here. Silence, cold and weight. I turned my eyes to the Princess of High Noon, saw her frame light up with steam as my aspect slowly smothered the power of Summer inside her. She fought it harder than the Count of Olden Oak had, slowing down the process to a crawl. Letting out a long breath, I closed my eyes and sharpened my mind. Black had first taught me the exercise when I’d begun to learn the sword, but I’d only understood its true worth when I came fully into my Name. My mind became as a blade, the way I would when I formed a spear of shadows, but I let myself fall deeper into the process. Distractions and stray fought fell away. Doubts were scoured clean until nothing was left but pure, sharp intent.

With a clear and resounding snap, the Princess of High Noon froze.

I opened my eyes and released the night. After the utter silence that had preceded them, the noises of the battlefield were deafening. A wave of exhaustion nearly toppled me, though it did not scatter my wits enough for it to escape my notice that my blood flow had slowed. A few exertions away from it to start turning into red sludge, if I was lucky. I was out of the game for hours, maybe days. But I’m not done as long as I can speak.

“Masego,” I rasped. “Bind her.”

Sulia wasn’t dead, oh no. When I’d made the decision of fighting here in Arcadia, even with all the odds I’d stacked in my favour, I’d hesitated for one reason. The losses I would incur had to be made worth it by a greater gain. Bleeding Summer alone was not enough to drive me to make a gambit like that, not with what I was putting on the line. There were major liabilities to fighting the fae in Creation, of course, but that in and of itself wasn’t a reason to fight them in Arcadia instead. The risks taken by giving battle in Summer were too high to justify the decision with just that. But then I’d stopped thinking of this battle as a battle alone, and placed it in the context of a campaign. There would be a final clash between my forces and the Summer Court, that much was certain in my eyes. And given that any advantage of mobility I had through my portals the fae had as well but better, when I returned to Creation there was no real way for me to dictate where that last clash happened. Considering the Legions were at their best on prepared grounds and anything but our best might just come short, that was not a recipe for victory. I’d understood that I needed something to force their hand, and that was why my soldiers and my allies were now dying on this unearthly field.

The Princess of High Noon was my leverage, and I’d not understood exactly how strong that leverage would be until only two royal fae had come to stand for Summer. There should have been three, which likely meant the Diabolist had gotten rid of one for me. I’d give this to Akua Sahelian: she was a horrid, cold-blooded and treacherous monster but when she put it all on the line she could slug it with the best of them. I was still going to stab her repeatedly and burn the corpse twice, of course, but I could respect the strength if not how she got it and how she used it. Two royals meant there were two people left to lead the armies of Summer. If the Prince of Nightfall killed his opponent, and I believed he could, that left the Queen of Summer as the only heavy hitter in her court. She wouldn’t be able to let that stand, not with Nightfall and a princess left to back the King of Winter. If the other court turned its eyes on her, and it was in their nature to do so, then she’d lose that fight and badly. With Sulia back at her side, she could maybe scrap out a draw. She needed the Princess of High Noon back, and needed her badly.

So if I dragged Sulia back to Creation, bound and gagged? Then the Queen of Summer could only come to take her back or face destruction. My bet was she’d come with her entire army, where I wanted and when I wanted. I honestly couldn’t think of another way to bring the war to a close in the next three months and some that remained of the time the Winter King had given me, and so here we were.

Hierophant, for though the change was young already I could no longer think of him by his old Name, did not immediately reply. Over his palm hovered the shards that had once been his spectacles, and though the enchantments on them were gone there was something a great deal more dangerous to be glimpsed in them now. The last thing they’d witnessed was the Summer sun in the fullness of its glory, and that light was still alive in the glass. It might never leave. Masego left the shards hovering in the air, weaving arcane patterns, and lightly touched his eyes. He could no longer see through them, I realized. He’d glimpsed a miracle and the miracle had burned away his sight. The dark-skinned mage smiled strangely, and then his fingers dug into his face. With a scream he ripped out his eyes, blood trickling down his face as the glass shards broke again and again until they were nothing but small gains. Forming into two orbs, they set themselves into his eye cavities. There was a shimmer of heat and the blood turned to red vapour as dull glass eyes replaced the ones in his hand.

“The whole Hierophant thing was kind of attractive, until you did that,” Archer said. “Way to ruin it.”

“It was a fair trade,” Masego said, voice pensive.

The bloody eyes disappeared without need for even a gesture, whisked out into the pocket dimension where he kept his tools.

“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he said peacefully.

There was a cadence to it, the hint of an incantation. Seven wooden pillars formed around the fallen Princess Sulia, looking distinctly physical. My knowledge of sorcery was limited, but even I knew the most traditional limits of what a mage could do. It was the kind of thing that was useful to know when killing caster, and since Diabolist was one I’d made sure to learn at least the broad strokes. It was possible to turn power into material substance, but the draw should have been massive. Comparable with teleportation, and the only people who’d ever managed that were the Miezans. Masego had done it casually, and did not look winded in the slightest. Like he’d just ignored a law. Gods, what had he turned into?

“Four cardinals, one meridian,” he said. “The wheel unbroken, spokes that are not. Thou shall not leave the circle.”

Four runes appeared around the fae, linked by a circle of pale light. The ice shattered but Sulia hung in the air, faintly conscious yet unable to move. I helped up Hakram from where he was still kneeling, eyes closed and breathing irregularly. He leaned heavily on me, which almost saw the both of us toppling to the ground until Archer caught his other side and steadied us.

“Careful there, big guy,” she said. “This isn’t the place to take a nap, though I salute your attitude.”

The orc cleared his throat, but did not say anything. He was in even worse state than I was. I looked for Thief, but she was gone again. Not much about the aftermath, that one. The disappearing act wasn’t so much mysterious as it was a constant irritant. I’d been known to be, uh, less than polite on occasion but at least I didn’t leave in the middle of things. I felt the gaze on me before the entity it belonged to deigned to land. The Prince of Nightfall ignored us entirely, touching the ground by the Princess of High Noon and studying her with a harsh smile.

“Oh, Sulia,” he murmured. “The sheer indignity. You’d have been furious it if it was one of us, but mortals? No amount of lives will allow you to wipe that shame away.”

“You killed your prince?” I asked.

He turned to me me, single eye shining with amusement.

“Very much so,” he said. “If the end ever comes, he will still be flinching when we next meet.”

“We need to break the army,” I said. “Quickly. My troops are going to begin evacuation as soon as I send the order.”

“There is nowhere she will not follow you, with Sulia in your hands,” he said. “You lack not for boldness. I wonder if I should be flattered, that your domain resembles mine so closely.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what he was talking about.

“Your third aspect,” Masego said, long accustomed to my wiles. “It is… more.”

The raven-haired man glanced at the braided mage, inclining his head by the barest fraction.

“You have good eyes, for one of your kind,” he said.

The Hierophant inclined his head in return, accepting the compliment wordlessly. The Prince of Nightfall breathed in deeply, as if he was savouring the heat, and looked up at the sky. It was still day, I saw. The light still shone. Yet there was no sun. That might be a problem. What exactly had Thief gotten her sticky fingers on?

“I will lend a vassal to escort you back to your lines, keeping to the spirit of our bargain,” the prince said. “Do not forget your end.”

How the Hells I was going to manage to pay the price he’d demanded for his assistance was a headache for another day, I decided. I looked at the battle lines and saw Summer was wavering. They’d felt the defeats that had happened on a deeper level, and it was costing them something.

“We’ve won,” I said.

“The Duke of Green Orchards will call retreat within the hour,” the fae agreed. “You killed his sister earlier, and they have no champion left to match me.”

I looked west, to the hill, and saw the silhouette had yet to move. The Prince of Nightfall followed my gaze, single eye narrowing.

“If she is not gone by dawn tomorrow, I will have my due,” he said.

I looked at him, then shrugged.

“Good luck. Gods know you’ll need it.”

We pursued the enemy when they retreated, but not far and not for long. I wanted Summer thinned of all the meat I could manage before we fought them again, but I was well aware that the moment Princess Sulia had been defeated an hourglass had been flipped and we wouldn’t survive the last grains running out. Masego said that, in the worst case, she could turn a journey of several days into one that would take her until nightfall. We should be able to manage that. Juniper only sent two thousand regulars across before closing the gate, the flanking force they represented taking its toll before the fae host managed to extricate itself. Mostly green recruits, I noticed. It was so very typical of my general to use a battle in goddamned Arcadia to blood her fresh recruits that I couldn’t help but smile. Juniper was Juniper. I was pretty sure if we ever invaded one of the Hells she’d just treat is as tempering exercise. The knights and the Winter fae did most of the hard work in running down whatever soldiers of Summer were cut off from the retreating host, and though it was only a rough estimate Marshal Ranker sent me an officer with her best read on the casualties. On our side, nearly six thousand. Nauk’s two thousand men at the beginning of the campaign had been whittled down to a bare five hundred. Most of the rest were Deoraithe regulars and fewer legionaries, though the Watch had allegedly lost a tenth of their number.

Summer, by Ranker’s estimates, had lost around twenty thousand of the sixty they’d brought to the plains. Among those, over a third of the ten thousand the golden fae who’d very nearly wiped out Nauk’s jesha had died. They’d suffered more from the two blasts that had been extracted from the Duchess of Restless Zephyr than mortal blades, apparently. I wasn’t looking forward to another scrap with the golden ones, and fully intended on a sit-down with the Hellhound over the subject. This had been a victory, if a bloody one. We’d traded losses at over thrice dead for every one of ours. Winter, though, had not made out so well. Twenty thousand had been led here by the Prince of Nightfall, but only nine thousand would leave the field. Their cavalry was good as done, while the winged knights of Summer still had over half their numbers, and they’d lost one of the three royals directly under the King in the battle. I wasn’t all that broken up about it, to be honest. A Winter that was better off than Summer but still weakened was very much to my advantage.

Our wounded had been sent through first, the slow work accelerated when Masego crossed into Creation with the Princess of High Noon and then used our other aristocratic prisoner to forge a second gate that our men could use to evacuate. I gave Duchess Kegan leave to use that one to get her people out at her own leisure, getting the Legions through the one at behind the palisades. It was quicker this time around, for a variety of reasons. One more gate, lesser numbers and our officers had managed the logistics of this before. It was past noon when the last few hundred began to file through, and sitting on the bloody grass I let out a sigh of relief. Masego was lying down on my left, dull glass eyes thankfully hidden by his closed eyelids. It would be a while before I got used to those. He had to be on this side to close the gate he’d crafted, he’d told, me and I’d decided to remain with him so he wouldn’t get distracted.

“The Queen won’t be able to follow us for some time,” the mage said. “There are difficulties, to something that powerful crossing in Creation. They weren’t meant to.”

“How long is some time?” I said. “A week, a month, a year? I can’t have her stuck here for too long. Not if I’m to win this war decisively.”

“No more than a month,” Hierophant said. “She would not be able to stay for much longer than that, either. She’s too deeply intertwined with Aine.”

“I can work with a month,” I grunted. “I’ll need around that long to have everything in place for our second tilt.”

“It won’t be anything like today,” Masego warned.

“They always get better, the second time around,” I agreed softly.

The others had already gone across. I’d told Archer I didn’t mind if she wanted to go have a chat with her teacher, but the other woman had shuddered and muttered something about hunting eyes. She did enjoy her dramatics. Ranger, if that was really her, still hadn’t moved. Might have been she just came to have a look? Regardless, as long as it wasn’t made my problem I was glad to wash my hands clean of the whole thing. Nothing good came out of meddling in the affairs of Calamities, even former ones. I sighed, then hoisted myself back up onto my feet. Gods, I was going to be more bruise than woman tomorrow. I offered Masego a hand, but saw his fingers were tracing the grass. Casting? No, he was trying to move the green strands. And failing.

“Oh fuck,” I whispered.

I looked ahead, to the gates. Maybe a little more than a hundred people left between the two of them, but none of them were moving. Frozen like statues. I’d seen something likes this before, shortly before getting my heart ripped out.

“She’s here,” the Hierophant said, rising unsteadily.

The difference in light was so subtle I almost missed it: it was the shadows that gave it away. Even with the sun missing, the light had been cast as if coming from the something that no longer existed. Now, though, the angle was different. It all came from above. Hand shaking, I looked up. There was no sky. Only an ocean of golden flames, as far as the eye could see. Masego began murmuring softly and with a sound like a gong transparent wards formed around the soldiers still leaving. They resumed their movement for a heartbeat, until the wards shattered.

“You said we should have had until nightfall,” I said. “Aine is days away, and she wasn’t moving.”

“No, not moving. She was casting,” Masego said, regretful. “Time has been suspended across all of Summer.”

I cast a panicked look at my soldiers. Shit, at the gates. The Queen might be able to cross through those. If she did, we were done. All our armies wiped in moments.

“I have never done this before,” a soft voice said, awed.

In front of us stood a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Her skin was tanned, but not like a Taghreb or the people of the Free Cities. Like a farmer, and her hands held the calluses of one who tilled fields. Her hair was a mass of golden curls, let loose without styling. She wasn’t beautiful, the way some fae were. If would have taken her for some farmer’s daughter, with those broad shoulders and solid muscles. Her eyes were brown, unremarkable, and when she smiled at us her cheeks dimpled.

“Is this what he saw in you?” the Queen of Summer wondered. “You change the patterns.”

My mouth was dry. I had the itch to cough, but my body was still and beyond my control.

“It is not enough,” she said after a moment, and the sorrow on her face was heartbreaking. “The story will correct itself. All you represent is delay. How tired he must be, to embrace this.”

She sighed, then peered at us.

“There are five of you,” she said.

I could not even nod.

“Born under cursed stars,” she told us gently. “You most of all, Catherine Foundling. The five of you would be woe unto all you behold.”

She had no weapon in her hand but I had not felt this terrified in a very, very long time.

“I will spare you this,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s all I can do for you. Summer is not kind.”

Hierophant’s hand moved, but the Queen glanced at him and it stopped.

“If you’d had a few years, Masego,” she said. “You have not seen enough.”

Her hand rose and the sky fell. Now. Come on, now is when you come. She has to be why you’re here. I’d never heard anything more beautiful than the sound of a sword clearing the scabbard. The sky split in half and Ranger stood between us as if she had always been there. My hands were shaking, and though I abhorred the weakness it stood for I was so relieved I could move again I almost didn’t care.

“It was the Chancellor, who named us the Calamities,” the hooded woman said, a single sword in hand. “The man always had a way with words. ‘You are a calamity to friend and foe alike’. Only ever screamed when he died, though. I guess it’s hard to be witty when getting drawn and quartered.”

She hummed.

“The Woe,” Ranger said, mulling over the word. “Too broad a mantle for you five now, but you’ll grow into it.”

“I have no quarrel with you, Lady of the Lake,” the Queen of Summer said, brow creased slightly.

Just the sight of it made me want to comfort her, even remembering she’d just tried to kill us.

“Run along, kids,” Ranger said, face hooded by shadow save for the sharp grin on her face. “Once is all you get from me.”

“We could help you,” I croaked.

The blade did not move, and neither did the hand that held it. And yet for a heartbeat I felt like my throat had been cut, like blood was gushing out. The intent had been so strong it had almost become a fact.

“I dislike ignoring my impulses,” Ranger said casually. “So do not suggest that again. He would be angry, if I killed you, but we’ve been angry before. It passes.”

“My soldiers,” I said, knowing I was testing death but unwilling to leave them behind.

The Calamity shrugged carelessly.

“What are they to me?”

She couldn’t have… no, not even Black would. But I looked behind me, and there was no denying the truth. The Deoraithe, the legionaries. Nothing left but ashes. She had not protected them. Only the two of us.

“You will not leave,” the Queen of Summer said.

She spoke the words easily, and still I felt my bones creak under the weight. Ranger unsheathed her second sword and the pressure vanished.

“I looked for you, in Aine,” the Calamity said.

“It would have been a meaningless fight,” the Queen said.

The Named had already ceased to pay attention to us, I saw. She’d given us our chance, and that was all she felt she owed.

“So you had me running through a maze instead,” Ranger snorted. “Cute. No maze here now, though. Too far from your throne.”

“This strife is unnecessary,” the Queen insisted, as if she couldn’t possibly understand why this matter was still spoken of at all.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced,” the Calamity laughed. “I am the Ranger. I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, for you qualify.”

We fled, through the ashes of men who’d fought for me not hours ago. The gates closed, and the last of Arcadia I saw was a lone silhouette standing in a storm of flame. We’d won today, I told myself. Even with how it had ended.

I should have gotten used to that bitter taste in my mouth by now.

Chapter 31: High Noon

“My dear friends, I have a confession to make. Some creative reframing of the truth may have taken place during the planning of this coup.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous, addressing the Order of the Unholy Obsidian upon successfully usurping the throne from himself

Now, in my experience planning the ending of a lesser god required three necessary steps. The first of them was, naturally, lies. Though this once I had found no make-believe prophecy to ensure this fight did not begin and end with my being incinerated, I had prepared a few nasty surprises. The Summer Court didn’t really bother to talk with mortals except to give them orders, as far as I knew, and that was going to come back to haunt them. The second step was a certain proficiency for violence, which between four battle-hardened Named we should have covered. There would be no talk of my taking on the Princess of High Noon by myself. That would return us to the whole incineration outcome, which I would confess I was less than fond of. Archer would have less of an impact using longknives instead of a bow, true, but with her and Adjutant at my side we might be able to keep the princess distracted long enough Apprentice could hit her with the good stuff. Well, Evil stuff. The labyrinthine mess that was adjusting my terminology now that I was consorting with the damned could wait to be sorted until there was less of a war going on.

With a little luck, at some point in the next decade I’d have a day where no one was actively trying to invade Callow. That was the dream, really.

The third step was having a right to that victory. It was different than the false prophecy I’d used to kill the Duke of Violent Squalls. One was, as I liked to think of it, plausible deniability. It gave me an excuse to win, if I could manage it. After all, I’d still had to stab the bastard to get his stuff. Having a right was more like fixing the scales, the way Fate did for heroes. It was still short of providence, the golden luck that dropped the laurels in the lap of the Heavens’ favourites, but it was close. When I’d fought Heiress and the Lone Swordsman in Liesse, I’d walked over two Named that were each a match for me on their own on my way to take the sword in the stone and my resurrection with it. The weights of the scale had been in my favour, then. It didn’t guarantee victory, but it made it easier for me to win and harder for my opponents. The signet ring had done the same thing for the Duke of Violent Squalls. I’d ‘always had it’, which at least in Arcadia had given me claim to the fae’s power before it was physically on my finger.

Finding an equivalent for the Princess of High Noon had been the hardest part of this. I couldn’t just rely on the fact that she had invaded Callow: I was, however unwillingly, doing the same to Summer. That scratched off the mark on both sides of the slate, I was betting. There were dozens of stories about hard-headed young girls facing down gods for some cause or another, but all of them about heroes. I’d wiggled my way into that sort of role before, but only when standing for a greater cause than myself. I fell short of that here. They keystone would have to be found in the way that even with my Named companions I still stood hilariously outclassed. It was an old shape, that, the underdog triumphing over the unbeatable opponent. I’d chewed on that for days, pruning story after story until I returned to one of the oldest ones I knew. From before the House of Light, when Calernians had prayed to the Gods Above and Below but also made sure to give offerings to the ancient things that strode the world. Dread Emperor Sorcerous had once famously called usurpation the essence of sorcery. There was a deeper grain of truth in that, one broader in meaning. Transgression was the essence of what it meant to be Named. Breaking the rules for your own sake or that of others. And one of the most ancient of those transgressions was the blade meant to break the Princess of High Noon. The theft of fire.

Would it be enough? I could not know. Never did, until the blades were out and chaos reigned. But I’d gotten this far by doubling down whenever the stakes were raised, and I would not flinch today.

The four of us had flown east, to where the fae clashed. Winter was not getting the better of it. The centre, where the Sword of Waning Day fought, had managed to gain ground. But the flanks were collapsing. The Riders of the Host had managed a harsh draw with the winged knights of Summer, but come out more bloodied and forced to retreat. To the sides the Summer regulars were driving back the Winter fae one step at a time, defeat already writ large. It would end with the deadwood soldiers an island in a Summer sea, collapsing when the winged knights returned to shatter their lines. While the lesser fae died in droves, the royalty that led them had fought just the same. There again, Winter was losing.  The Prince of Nightfall now stood alone against the Princess of High Noon and the Prince of Deep Drought, the princess who’d been with him nowhere in sight. They were on the ground now, the armies giving all three of them a wide berth. I did not like the one-eyed prince. He’d been party to his king’s playing of me, and been free with threats besides.

Watching him battle two other royals, though, I felt a reluctant sliver of admiration. I’d not been wrong, in thinking him made for strife more than any other fae of Winter. The Princess of High Noon was more powerful., blatantly so. She moved like a storm unrelenting, howling winds stirring in the wake of every strike as she crushed everything in her way. The Prince of Deep Drought had been wounded, one of his arms held to his body only be strings of red, but he wove sorcery like an artist. Flame and light and dust, moving with Princess Sulia as if it knew her movements intimately. And facing that fury was a one-eyed man, clad in a long tunic of shade with a slender blade in hand. Trying to strike him was like trying to grasp a shadow, and though he was outmatched in every way he did not retreat a single step. None of the three paid us any mind when we took the winged horses down, dismounting more swiftly than gracefully. Hakram had been pale as sheet the whole ride, and was now visibly glad of being on solid ground. I glanced at my companions, then cleared my throat. I supposed I would have to say something before leading them into the storm.

“So we’re going to stab a god,” I said. “I mean, we’ve done it before. But this one is a few places higher in the pecking order of things not to trifle with.”

Archer snorted.

“But we’ll win because we stand for something greater than ourselves?” I gallantly attempted.

“We do?” Apprentice asked, surprise. “What?”

“Violence,” Archer suggested.

“Peace, order and the Imperial way,” Hakram offered, the filthy traitor.

“We lie a lot,” Masego mused. “It could be lies.”

“Lies and violence,” Archer proudly called out, raising a fist.

Apprentice did the same, apparently under the impression this qualified as a battle cry. I refused to grace the mutiny with a response.

“Just don’t get yourselves killed,” I sighed. “I don’t want to have to train up replacements.”

The fae royalty took notice when we joined their little tiff, the Summer fae breaking off and angling so we wouldn’t be able to flank them. The Winter prince offered us a mocking salute with his sword.

“I’m guessing the Princess of Silent Depths is dead,” I said, not bothering with greetings.

“That is mostly accurate,” the Prince of Nightfall replied, because why would fae ever be anything but vague?

“Can you handle the sorcerer?” I asked, eyeing the Prince of Deep Drought.

“He cannot,” the Summer prince sneered.

“Yes,” the one-eyed fae replied with a nasty smile. “You’ll be dancing with Sulia?”

“That’s the idea,” I agreed. “I put together a crew of miscreants and everything.”

The red-haired princess eyed me like I’d tracked mud onto her priceless carpet, or maybe like I was the mud.

“They have made an abomination of you,” she said. “More than mortal, less than fae. Destroying you will be a mercy.”

“I get that a lot,” I replied honestly.

At least in Procer, the House of Light had apparently declared me anathema to the Heavens. I knew because Black had the report framed and sent to Marchford. It hung on the wall of my bedroom across from the bed.

“Shall we begin, Granian?” the Prince of Nightfall taunted his Summer mirror. “I’ve been meaning to see how many limbs you can lose before dying.”

The Winter fae’s translucent wings burst into existence and he shot off into the sky. The Prince of Deep Drought looked at Sulia and she nodded. He followed, leaving the four of us facing the heaviest hitter the Summer Court had to offer short of its queen. Why had this seemed like a good idea again?

“I played your role, for an evening,” I told the princess. “Was a bit of a bore. Had to liven it up myself.”

“I was not made for intrigue,” the Princess of High Noon said. “This, however? I was born for it. From it. This was a blunder, Duchess. You are attempting a story, but that is worthless if you do not have the power to carry it out.”

“You think you’re my opponent,” I smiled coldly. “An interesting thought. Let’s see where it gets you.”

Three things happened in the heartbeat that followed. Princess Sulia’s wings sprang to life. Adjutant and Archer charged forward. And I spoke one word.

Take,” I said.

Two columns of fire erupted from my back, not concerned by the plate in the slightest. I screamed hoarsely, but this was a necessary sacrifice. If she went up, we were done. She could just stay up there and bombard us until there was nothing left but ashes, and trying to match her up there with the horses was a good way to get ourselves killed. If felt the Winter power in my veins reacting violently, even worse than when I’d stolen sorcery from the Duchess of Restless Zephyr. These were only wings, even if made of sorcery, but the power was so much purer it felt a dozen times worse. I hastily discarded the power, heralding the first bet of this fight. What happened when I took something was still unclear in a lot of ways. Would she get the wings back even if I released them? I was hoping not, that my aspect severed the connection by appropriating what I took. If that wasn’t the case, I was going to have to pull out an upset that I really needed to come later. The flames gutted out and I let out a hiss of triumph when they didn’t reappear on the princess’ back. This might not be a permanent state of affair, but for now it was putting our foot in the door.

Apprentice was incanting, the light of runes glinting off his spectacles. We needed to keep him uninterrupted long enough to make a difference. I’d never fought at Archer’s side before, not with her using blades, but Hakram had felt like an additional limb ever since he became the Adjutant and he was used to her from all their sparring. Four blades struck as one and it felt right. Like coming home. The fae’s sword clattered against mine, beginning to carve through until ice grew to stop it. The princess ducked under the swing of Adjutant’s axe, pushing me back effortlessly and smashing Archer in the belly with her fist. The other Named was thrown off, but she landed on her feet and she was back into the fray within moments. Heat pulsed off the princess and cold came from me too met it. Her power dwarfed mine, but she would not win this uncontested. The three of us pressed the offensive. Without even a word needing to be said, we fell into a rhythm. I forced a parry, setting the fae up for Adjutant’s strike as Archer used the opening it made to attempt to draw blood.

She was beating us anyway. Flame blew Hakram off his feet, charring his face, and without him to distract Archer was caught by the throat. I desperately wove ice and shadow around the princess’ wrist, and the heartbeat it took for her to disperse it earned my companion just long enough to wriggle out of the grasp. Her breath was laboured, but at least her neck hadn’t been snapped.

Rampage,” Adjutant growled.

The orc charged back into the fight, his charred skin healing. Every strike was stronger and faster than the last, until even the Princess of High Noon had to take care.

Flow,” Archer managed to croak.

It was almost hypnotic to watch her longknives move. There was no single blow, every attack coming from the last in an uninterrupted stream. She moves as she had when firing arrows, but that was comparing a candle to a bonfire. Between the three of us, we almost stood a chance. I turned a probe into a lunge that would have taken the princess in the neck, but she contemptuously moved an inch to the side and ignored it. I saw her sword rise to carve through Hakram’s wrist and snapped my own, my last knife landing in my palm. I threw it at her head and the blade spun gracefully before being sliced cleanly through. The axe took her in the chest, breaking coloured mail but no skin. A boot to the stomach pushed the orc back, but he was still growing stronger. It did not slow him for long, and in the moment where the princess stood on only one leg Archer’s longkives struck. The two blades came form opposite directions, one for the knee and the other for the neck. Without missing a beat Princess Sulia jumped and lay herself flat, strikes passing above and beneath her. She twisted sharply and a boot to the face shattered Archer’s chin as she was sent sprawling to the floor.

Breath caught in my throat, I adjusted my wrist and pumped the entire arm full of my Name. I hit her at rib-height, the strength of the blow sending mail rings flying, and she smashed into the ground hard enough the earth dented. Her eyes turned gold-red, the heat grew, and Apprentice finally finished casting. Twenty-three sigils of blue light came into being above the princess with a loud hum, though not loud enough to drown out her pained groan. Heat shimmered around her and one of the sigils popped. I glanced at Adjutant, panting. The skin that had healed was beginning to flake off, the burns returning if not as grave as before. Whatever power had possessed him was gone, though. Archer was back on her feet, but her lower face was one large and bloody bruise. Another three sigils popped. We didn’t have much longer left.

“Oh, oh,” Apprentice said, watching the struggling fae with wide eyes. “I was wrong, fundamentally wrong.”

Shit. That did not look good at all. The bespectacled mage laughed, looking utterly crazed.

“It cannot be quantified,” he muttered. “The method was erroneous from the onset. It is all made of the same building blocs, and those blocs are a figment. Mysteries, miracles of smoke and mirrors. The godhead is not behind boundaries, it is a trick of perspective.”

Power rippled across his frame, his eyes glinting with a light that had a shiver going up my spine. One of the sigils formed again, though it popped moments later.

“Apprentice,” I said carefully, and he interrupted.

“No no no,” he laughed. “Not that. Not anymore. Hierophant. Usher of mysteries. Vivisector of miracles.”

Was that what this was? A transition in the making?

“You are a god, yes?” he smiled at the Princess of High Noon, pushing up his glasses. “Show me a miracle, then.”

He waved his arm carelessly and Archer’s jaw set itself back together with a loud crack. Fingers clutching something only he could see, the Hierophant brought his hands down. The sigils glowed so bright I had to shut my eyes in pain. Like a star being born. For all that, the words that drifted to my ears were calm.

“Everything burns,” the Princess of High Noon whispered.

Arcadia broke. The brightness passed, and I opened my eyes to a world of endless ashes. I’d called on something of the same breed, when defeating the Count of Olden Oak, but it had been nothing but a drop to this ocean. Princess Sulia stood with restored wings, hair of flame and eyes that burned with something more. Above her raised hands hovered the sun. I could feel myself buckle from the pressure alone, my hair smouldering against my sweat-soaked scalp. Masego’s spectacles shattered in his eyes and he screamed. Hakram wavered, then fell to his knees. The burns from earlier were spreading across his face. Archer’s hands shook like leaves until she stabbed a longknife into her leg, the pain allowing her to not be swept away by the weight bearing down on all of us.

“You may feel honoured,” Princess Sulia said. “I have ever only called on this to bring an end to Winter. The four of you will be the first ashes on this field formed of Creation.”

“You’re wrong,” I croaked.

“Will you try to take the sun from me, Duchess?” she said, amused. “You will burn, one way or another.”

She was right, of course. If I tried using Take I’d die before I finished speaking the word. I was the Squire, after all. No role stood behind me in this. But I’d meant it, when I’d told her I wasn’t her opponent.

“Not that,” I grinned, all teeth and malice. “There’s not four of us.”

Behind the Princess of High Noon a woman appeared, short-haired with blue-grey eyes. She wore loose leathers and her face was red with sweat.

“Yoink,” the Thief said, and stole the sun.

Chapter 30: Riot

“The classic Callowan blunder. Sending an army into the Wasteland you can’t handle if it comes marching back as undead.”
-Dread Emperor Sorcerous

Magical healing felt slow and inefficient, after having grown to the heroic alternative, but it had to be said that Masego was exceedingly good at it. It was better not to think about how many people he must have needed to cut open to get there. Hopefully at least the majority of them had been dead at the time, though with Warlock you could never be sure. It was all flying pigs until he got in a mood, then it was corpses all around. Apprentice politely clapped my shoulder to signify he was done and I rose from my crouch.

“You’ll need a blacksmith to truly rectify the state of your armour,” he said. “But it is no longer liquid, at least.”

Speaking of liquid, Archer was polishing off the bottom of a copper flask even as we spoke. The two of them seemed in a decent mood, though not eager to join the fray. Given that Summer’s army could be quite literally world-ending if it got into the swing of things, I didn’t blame them. I got the blood and what looked like flakes of skin off the hilt of my sword – Gods, those were probably mine weren’t they? – and took a deep breath.

“All right,” I said. “First we need to pick up Hakram. Before we do, Archer, could you tell me what the Hells your teacher is doing here?”

She ignored me, finished guzzling down whatever liquor she was packing and dropped the flask to the ground. It was a good thing the enemy already knew where we were, otherwise no doubt they could find out just by following the trail of those that no doubt followed in her wake.

“No idea, Foundling,” she replied cheerfully. “She won’t be here for the princes and princesses. She got bored with those a while back. Whatever it is, though? I recommend not being even remotely in the vicinity of her way. That, uh, doesn’t tend to go well for people. And gods. And castle that one time.”

It said a lot about the Lady of the Lake’s reputation that I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if she’d destroyed an entire keep because it had made the poor decision of being built somewhere inconvenient to her. Black had told me there were to people on Calernia against whom it was useless to think in terms of victory, where one could only attempt to limit the damage and lose the least amount of skin possible. One was the Dead King, who he’d charmingly referred to as ‘the original abomination’. The other was the Ranger, whose utter disregard for odds I’d been raised hearing stories about.

“Well, I’m not intending to get in a fistfight for her, that’s for sure,” I grimaced. “I’ve recently run out of borrowed lives.”

“I fear you may run out of ribs as well, if you keep at it,” Masego drily said.

Now that was just unwarranted. I hadn’t broken any of those in, like, at least sixty heartbeats. I was going to ask about having them reinforced with steel, though, because nowadays they were snapping like twigs.

“I can’t commend your judgement but you pain tolerance is impressive,” Archer added, never one to leave someone unkicked while they were down.

I flipped her off.

“Goat-daughter,” she replied in Taghrebi, ridiculously proud of knowing the word.

“Masego have you been teaching her cusses?” I sighed.

“It was either that or arguing about whether Creation is a sphere again,” he admitted.

I raised an eyebrow at Archer.

“I’m just saying, do you know anyone who’s gone the whole way around?” she said. “Have you done it yourself?”

Apprentice twitched and I decided to change the subject before he went on a rant about had proved Creation was round. I knew better than to hope he did not have three philosophers and several volumes to reference.

“We’ll table that for later,” I ordered. “I, uh, left Adjutant back in the middle of the melee. Anyone have any suggestions of how to take him out? Our target is east.”

I ignored Apprentice’s peevish murmur about how Hakram, at least, probably hadn’t broken any ribs. That was a deeply unfair comparison, the orc had a whole aspect about not breaking.

“We could kill our way through,” Archer suggested.

Ah, Archer. Violence wasn’t her only tool, just the only one she ever bothered to use.

“I’m open to other suggestions,” I prompted.

That was when the screaming began. Sword in hand faster than I could blink, I turned to look at the source of it. It was only one voice, though a remarkably loud one. The Duchess of Restless Zephyr was back in the sky, missing an arm and most the half of the body attached to it. One of her wings was pure flame, I saw, which made her flight awkward but admittedly still better than I could manage.

“I’d really hoped she was dead,” I said.

“She seems peeved,” Masego said, master of observation that he was.

“You could say we didn’t part on great terms,” I conceded.

The dark-skinned mage’s eyes glimmered with Name power, peering at the Duchess.

“She’s bleeding out power,” he noted. “Her very frame is unstable. I expect she will detonate, left alone long enough.”

Archer whistled merrily, stringing her bow.

“Never bagged a duchess before,” she said.

“That’d be kill-stealing and you know it,” I said.

I did not, however, tell her not to put arrows in the woman until the issue went away. It was one thing to banter with my companions, another to allow a threat of that magnitude to live even a moment longer than she needed to. It swiftly became clear that screaming at the top of her lungs was more than a coping mechanism for the fae. A pack of a hundred winged knights peeled off from the rest, lances high as they formed up around her. It would have been untrue to say I felt the weight of the Duchess’ gaze, but I was pretty sure if she was capable of glaring someone aflame I’d be a bonfire right now.

“I might run out of arrows,” Archer said. “The fancy ones, at least.”

I eyed her quiver, which looked plain but had as much sorcery wafting off of it as all her enchanted ammunition put together.

“They’re in range, for you?” I asked.

“Sweetcheeks,” she grinned. “There’s not a damn thing in any world that isn’t.”

It was talk like that that had me believing the ochre-skinned woman wasn’t a villain. None of us who’d managed to live this long would so willingly dip down hubris and slip it too much tongue. Archer wasn’t all boasting, at least. She nocked her first arrow smoothly and released almost quicker than I could follow. The arrow flew. A hundred yards from the fae it was buried in a wave of flame and I thought that the end of that, but moments later a single silhouette fell from its horse. I sharpened my eyes and let out a staggered breath. Right between the eyes, from at least a mile.

“See?” Archer preened.

“Archer,” I tried.

“I told you,” she interrupted.

“Archer they are charging,” I barked. “Keep shooting.”

She pouted, but smooth movements followed and arrows took the sky. I looked at Masego, who seemed more bored than worried.

“I don’t suppose you have something to stop a cavalry charge?” I asked.

“It is unlikely any of my wards would do more than slow them down,” he said. “In Arcadia, that is. Layering is pointless if they unmake the layers as fast as I craft them.”

“Keep the Duchess busy, then,” I ordered. “She has this nasty wind trick.”

Speaking of the devil, the screaming had ceased. She was hurtling through the air, keeping up with the knights, and pointing her sword at us. The rider next to her toppled from an arrow through the neck, Archer chuckling at my side.

“Masego,” I said urgently.

The air exploded, but a transparent box formed around it. The winds howled, barely contained.

“Interesting,” Apprentice praised. “Derivative work, of course, but fae do tend to keep close to their title and Court.”

The box contracted until it broke, and the wind dispersed with a hiss. Gods I’d missed having a powerful mage around. It made it so much easier not to die. Archer was ignoring us, taking apart the knights one at a time. How many had she slain, easy as swatting a fly? Twenty, maybe more. When she ceased moving, though, I cleared my throat.

“There’s still some left,” I helpfully pointed out.

“I’m out of mage-killers,” she said.

The air exploded again. This time Masego had evolved his defensive measure: a series of transparent walls redirected the fury of the wind, ultimately heading back towards the charging fae. It dispersed long before reaching any of them, but just what he’d been able to do might be deterrent enough that the Duchess wouldn’t try it again. If she’d pulled that when they were closer, they would have lost a few for sure.

“You don’t have any other enchanted ones?” I asked.

“None that are fireproof,” she said, calmly unstringing her bow.

Given the size of the thing I would have said something about overcompensating, but now that I’d actually seen her use it the words stayed stuck in my mouth. Skill was skill, no matter how ridiculous-looking the tool enabling it. Archer unsheathed her longknives, tapping one against her leg impatiently.

“They could hurry up, at least,” she complained. “Not like we can charge back at them.”

“Oh my,” Masego murmured. “That could… No, first I’d have to overtake the matrix.”

“Apprentice,” I said, a little worried.

“Everything is going to be fine,” he said dreamily, eyes still filled with Name power.

I had never more wished to have a shield. And so the three of us stood valiantly against the coming charge. Apprentice was muttering to himself, lost in his own world, Archer had taken to cleaning her fingernails with one of her blades and I was silently wishing I could just duplicate Hakram a few times and not have to rely on these two anymore. More like valiant-adjacent, maybe. I steadied my breath and adjusted my stance as the knights and Duchess angled their descent, the lot of them moving flawlessly together.

“Whither,” the Duchess of Restless Zephyr screamed.

Deconstruct,” Apprentice replied, fingers dancing across a stream of shining runes.

The fae aristocrat yelped, losing control of her spell.  The bone-dry winds slipped her leash, turning on her. Her wing of flame dispersed as her body turned to a husk, skin turning to leather in the span of a heartbeat. She crashed, but I couldn’t spare a longer look than that: I was too busy trying not to get skewered. Flattening under the lance wouldn’t work. I’d never gotten anywhere by betting against fae reflexes. Instead I sunk into my Name, let the calm wash over me and watched the tip of the weapon. The only dangerous part of a lance is the tip, I told myself, repeating Black’s words. I pivoted around it at the last moment, letting the knight pass me by. Immediately I had to duck under the horse of the man behind him, sword coming up to split its belly open. I emerged drenched in blood and guts to see the third rank was too far ahead to strike me, but the fourth had adjusted its angle. And was converging on me. Apprentice came to the rescue, a sphere-like black rip into the fabric of Arcadia forming amongst the fae. It didn’t seem to do much but draw them closer to it, but it should keep them busy for at least a bit.

That left the first rank, which had deftly landed on the ground and was turning back around. I heard screams and laughter to the side, which probably meant Archer wasn’t in too much trouble. Even as lances turned to me, I felt an itch between my shoulder blades. I knew better than to ignore the hints of my Name, and moved before a thrown javelin could add a steel component to my spine. The thrown weapon sunk into the ground and exploded in flames, the enemy knights riding straight through the screen of fire. This, I decided, was not going to work. Even if the Duchess didn’t come back from her mistake, there was only so long I could keep avoiding being run through. Especially if I had to dodge javelins at the same time. Relief came in the shape of Archer, who barrelled into the flank of the knights charging me. She was riding a horse, because of course she was. Two arrows were stuck in her mount’s neck and she used them to guide it along with no small amount of spurring. That… could work. Maybe. I wasn’t above fleeing a losing fight. Masego’s black sphere must have petered out, because I heard the whistle of javelins let loose followed by neighs.

I was already moving, though, and the thumped into the ground behind me. There were still half a dozen knights after my hide, even though Archer was making a joyous nuisance of herself, and it was those I went for. They were on the ground now, and while the sky belonged to the fae down here they were in my wheelhouse. I ran at them, smoothly cutting the distance. They’d learned from the last time, adjusted to my speed, and when I pivoted around the first lance I found another two aimed at my chest. An exertion of will had a panel of ice forming in the way, breaking instantly but buying me a precious few heartbeats. I pushed a sliver of power down my legs and leapt at the knight I’d just avoided, colliding with him atop the winged horse. I took a hard knock in the nose and he tried to to slide a knife in my ribs, but I caught his wrist and twisted it to throw him off the horse. Which was not best pleased about this turn of events. I tried to slide my feet into the stirrups, but the neighing fucker was bucking me off. And now the other knights were back at me. Great. I had to throw myself off to avoid taking a javelin in the chest.

“Fine,” I growled. “The hard way.”

I rammed my sword through the horse’s eye as my free hand whipped up to blast a knight off his horse with a spear of shadow. I kept the power close, forcefully shoving it into the dying mount through my blade. The beast twitched once, twice, and its dark eyes went pure blue. That was new.

“Up,” I ordered, and it rose back to its feet.

I leapt on, and this time there was no bucking. I looked for the others and found Archer had already retreated, and forced a visibly dismayed Masego to ride with his arms around her belly. Considering Apprentice hated even regular horses, a winged one had to be a nightmare for him. I set my mount to riding with my mind alone, the knights gathering in a wedge behind me. That was going to be a problem.

“Retreat,” I called out.

Archer laughed, but at least she listened. I dug into the muscle memories of the horse I’d raised and put on my finger on the part that concerned flight. The wings extended brusquely and as I screamed it began batting its wings and we rose into the air. So did our pursuers. The feeling of the wind whipping at my face was exhilarating, but death followed close. They were already gaining. I sent the horse downwards to avoid a javelin, but when it exploded into flames the fire formed into a hawk and hurtled back towards me. Within moments a menagerie of birds was forcing me into acrobatics that had my heels digging into the flanks of the dead horse – Zombie the Third, I mentally named him – as I tried my best not to fall off. The other two caught up with me and I gestured towards our forces still fighting on the field, but Apprentice shook his head.

“The Duchess,” he said.

My arm whipped out to cut through the shaft of a javelin. I smothered the fire that came out with ice before it could form. Godsdamnit.

“Fine,” I yelled. “I’ll draw them off.”

I took a sharp right to avoid incineration, flicking my wrist to send a knife into my palm. The knights were on me. This was going to be tricky. They had range, damn them. The knight at the tip of the wedge rammed his lance halfway through into my mount’s body, but it was too dead to care at the moment. I leapt off my horse onto the bastard, desperately trying to convince myself this was a good idea. My armoured boots hit his chest and he fell off, but brilliant wings burst into existence. Right, falling wasn’t a problem for them. I managed to land on the saddle but my boots were slick with blood and it was bucking – even as I began to slide I saw the lance going for my knee. Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die. My foot landed on the tip of the lance and even as it ripped into the saddle I kicked the fae’s chin. Blood sprayed and teeth with it. I began to fall but managed to sink my knife into the horse’s flank, hoisting myself back up. The Name reflexes were barely enough to save my life, sword coming up to slap aside another lance so it just pierced through my only previous pauldron. Heat at my back, it was time to move. The wave of flame hawks was at my heel.

The horse was beginning to go down so I leapt off again, screaming every Mtethwa curse I knew and then some. The knight I impacted didn’t manage to bring up his lance in time, but he did manage to sock me in the mouth with an armoured hand. I tasted blood. My knife found his throat, and I took the trade gladly. Heat again, and so close I left the blade.  I bunched up for another jump but it was too late. I was blown off by a storm of flame, what little skin I had exposed taking the brunt of it as even my plate warmed. I grit my teeth and formed a pane of ice to land on, licking my busted lip and pointing my sword at the fae.

“Taking all comers,” I croaked out. “You only outnumber what, fifty to one?”

Half the lances flickered with light and turned into swords as they fluidly formed in a circle around me. Bury me in numbers, would they? And this time with blades to take care of me if the lances failed. I panted quietly, and planned the timing. My control was still rough. As one, without a word, they charged. There would be no dancing around all those blades, Named or not. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to. I watched the enemy close in and, at the last moment, broke the pane. I began falling again as the knights closed in on empty space, though disappointingly enough they were too skilled for collisions to ensue. The smoothly slid around each other even as I landed with a thump atop Zombie the Third, almost slipping again before I shoved my boots into the stirrups. I wasted no time in getting the Hells out of there. That was as long as I could buy the other two. They’d gainfully employed my many near-death experiences, I saw. The Duchess of Restless Zephyr, still unconscious, hung floating in a bubble of blue light Masego was dragging behind them with a chain made of the same. I caught up with them before the knight caught up with me: dragging the fae aristocrat slowed them down.

“I swear on all the bloody Gods, Apprentice, if you had me do that just to get a live duchess I’ll bury you so deep underground you will never see light again,” I yelled.

Brow creased in concentration, he waved dismissively. We fled towards the melee, where things were not unfolding as well as I’d hoped. The attack I’d stolen from the Duchess had slowed the golden fae down, but they’d formed back up and even with the Watch backing it the Fifteenth was taking a beating. At a glance, half of Nauk’s legionaries were already dead. The entire line was buckling, even with the Deoraithe regulars propping them up. We managed to get in bow range before the knights were on us, and it was enough to make them break off at least for now. Close, I thought. I caught sight of Hakram swinging his axe towards the centre of our line, but he was having trouble with the enemy. They were fast as a Named, and though not a strong as the orc there were a lot of them. I guided my horse down, but Masego called out for me to wait. I watched my companions pass over the golden fae, and there Apprentice cut off the chain binding the bubble to him. A moment later the bubble popped out and the Duchess began to fall, dropping in the ranks of the golden fae. Nothing happened.

I glanced at Apprentice, who was fiddling with runes, and only looked away when I heard the world groan. Bone-dry winds formed around the Duchess’ body and blew up violently, turning the fae by it into empty husks that fell apart like sand. It continued to grow, the winds scattering in every direction and tearing a gaping hole in the golden fae formation. Masego, you beautiful sack of pedantry. That might just even the field out. The dead horse smoothly flew down, and I landed in front of a gaping Adjutant as the winds whipped behind me.

“Get on,” I ordered. “We’re hunting royalty.”