Paralyzing terror rippled through Miss Fortune’s company at the mention of this eternal nightmare of killing rage and endless fury.
The Shadow of War.
His name was once Hecarim, but no one knew if that were true or some ancient taleteller’s invention. Only fools dared recite his dark legend around the hearthfire, and even then only after enough rum to sink a Noxian war-barque.
As the Shadow of War emerged further from the mist, Miss Fortune saw he was no mere horseman. Cold dread settled upon her like a shroud at the sight of the monstrous creature.
Perhaps Hecarim had once been a knight, man and horse separate entities. But rider and mount were now one, a single, towering behemoth whose only purpose was destruction.
“They’re all around us,” said a voice.
Miss Fortune risked looking away from the armored centaur to see a whole host of ghostly knights, their outlines lambent with pellucid green radiance. They leveled lances or drew swords of dark radiance. Hecarim swept out a hooked and terrible glaive, its killing edge erupting with green fire.
“You know any secret ways out of here?” asked Rafen.
“No,” said Miss Fortune. “I want to fight that bastard.”
“You want to fight the Shadow of War?”
Before Miss Fortune could answer, a hooded figure leapt from the rooftop of a grain store and dropped into the square. He landed gracefully, a storm coat of worn leather splayed behind him. He carried two pistols, but they were like no weapons Miss Fortune had ever seen on her mother’s gun-table; bronzed metalwork braced around hunks of what looked like carved stone.
Light filled the square as he loosed searing bolts from each pistol in a fusillade that put the destruction of the Dead Pool to shame. The man turned in a tight spiral, marking targets and picking them off with whip-fast motion. The mist burned where his bolts struck, and the ghostly wraiths screeched as they were consumed.
The mist withdrew from Cutpurse Square, taking Hecarim and the death knights with it. Something told Miss Fortune this was but a temporary respite.
The man holstered his pistols and turned to look at Miss Fortune, throwing back his hood to reveal darkly handsome features with haunted eyes.
“The thing about shadows,” he said. “Bring enough light and they disappear.”
Olaf was not happy with this doom.
He hoped men would speak of his epic battle with the Krakenwyrm, not this ignoble fall to his death.
He hoped someone might have seen him charge the sea beast.
He prayed at least one observer had seen him lifted high into the air by its ghostly tentacle, then fled before seeing him hurled away like an unworthy morsel.
Olaf crashed down through the roof of a building bolted to the side of the cliff. Maybe it was a ship’s hull? He fell too fast to make it out. Crashing timbers and earthenware tumbled with him in his headlong plunge through the building. He glimpsed astonished, shouting faces flash past him.
Olaf smashed through a floor. A support beam drove the wind from him as he tumbled down Bilgewater’s cliffs. He bounced from an outcrop of rock and went headfirst through an open window, crashing out again through yet another floor.
Angry curses followed him down.
He spun out into a trailing forest of ropes and pulleys, flags and pennants. He thrashed as he fell, tangling his limbs and weapon. Fate was mocking him, wrapping him in a folded shroud of canvas sailcloth.
“Not like this, damn it!” he roared. “Not like this!”
“Who are you and where can I get a pair of guns like those?” said Miss Fortune, offering her hand to the new arrival.
“My name is Lucian,” he said, warily taking her hand.
“Damn glad to know you, friend,” said Rafen, clapping him on the back as if they were old shipmates. Miss Fortune saw Rafen’s familiarity made Lucian acutely uncomfortable, like he’d forgotten how to be around others.
His eyes scanned the edges of the square, his fingers dancing on the grips of his pistols.
“You’re a welcome sight, Lucian,” said Miss Fortune.
“We should move.” he said. “The Shadow of War will return.”
“He’s right,” said Rafen, giving her an imploring look. “It’s time to get inside, batten down the hatches.”
“No. We came out to fight.”
“Look, I get it, Sarah. We won Bilgewater and you need to fight to hold onto it, to show everyone you’re better than Gangplank. Well, you’ve done that. We went out into the Black Mist and we fought the dead. That’s more than he ever did. Anyone who risks lookin’ out a window is gonna know that. Hell, even the ones who ain’t looking will hear about it. What more do you want?”
“To fight for Bilgewater.”
“There’s fighting for Bilgewater and then there’s dying for Bilgewater,” said Rafen. “I’m all up for the first, not so much the second. These men and women followed you down into hell, but now it’s time to climb back out.”
Miss Fortune faced her company of fighters, every ragged, cutthroat one of them. None of them could be trusted not to sell their own mothers for a shiny trinket, but they’d done everything and more she’d asked of them. Venturing out into the Black Mist was just about the bravest thing any of them had ever done and she couldn’t repay that by leading them to their deaths for the sake of her vengeance.
“You’re right,” she said, taking a breath. “We’re done here.”
“Then may fortune follow you,” said Lucian, turning away and drawing his strange pistols once again.
“Wait,” said Miss Fortune. “Come with us.”
Lucian shook his head. “No, there is a mist wraith I need to destroy. The one they call Thresh, the Chain Warden. I owe him a death.”
Miss Fortune saw the lines around Lucian’s eyes deepen and recognized the expression she’d worn ever since her mother’s murder.
“He took someone from you, didn’t he?” she said.
Lucian nodded slowly, and said no more, but his very silence spoke volumes.
“This clearly isn’t your first tussle with the dead,” she said, “but you won’t survive the night if you stay out here alone. I’m guessing that might not mean much to you, but whoever this Thresh took from you, they wouldn’t want you to die here.”
Lucian’s eyes flicked downwards, and Miss Fortune saw a silver locket just visible round his neck. Was it her imagination or a trick of the mist that made it shimmer in the moonlight?
“Come with us,” said Miss Fortune. “Find somewhere safe till morning and you’ll live to do it again.”
“Safe? Where is safe in this city?” said Lucian.
“I think I might know a place,” said Miss Fortune.
They left Cutpurse Square and were traveling west up towards the Serpent Bridge when they found the Freljordian. He hung from a crooked spar like a shrouded corpse on a gibbet. Unlike most corpses, however, this one was thrashing like a landed fish.
A splintered pile of debris lay scattered all around him, and Miss Fortune looked up to see how far he’d fallen through the cliffside dwellings.
A long way was the answer, and that he was still alive was nothing short of a miracle.
Lucian leveled his pistols, but she shook her head.
“No, this one’s actually on the right side of the grave.”
Muffled cries came from within the shroud, curses that would get a man beaten to death in a host of different lands, shouted in a thick, Freljordian accent.
She placed the tip of her sword against the canvas and sliced downwards. Like a newborn sea-calf pulled from a ruptured birth-sac, a hugely bearded man spilled onto the cobbles. The reek of fish guts and offal clung to him.
He climbed unsteadily to his feet, brandishing an axe with a blade like a shard of diamond ice.
“Which way to the Slaughter Docks?” he said, weaving like a drunk. He looked around, confused, his head a mass of lumps and bruises.
“Ordinarily I’d tell you to follow your nose,” said Miss Fortune, “but I’d be amazed if you’ve any sense of smell left.”
“I’ll kill that Krakenwyrm ten times over if I have to,” said the man. “I owe it a death.”
“Lot of that going around tonight,” said Miss Fortune.
The Freljordian named himself Olaf, a warrior of the rightful mistress of the ice, and, after shaking off his concussion, declared his intention to join them until he could fight the most dangerous spirit within the Black Mist.
“Do you want to die?” Lucian asked him.
“Of course,” said Olaf, as though the very question was the height of foolishness. “I seek an ending worthy of legend.”
Miss Fortune left the madman to his dreams of death. So long as he swung that axe in the right direction, he was welcome to join them as they pushed onwards.
Three times the mist closed in on them, and each time it took an unlucky soul from their company. Spiteful laughter echoed from the sides of buildings, the sound of a whetstone over rusted steel. Ranks of carrion birds cawed from rooftops in anticipation of a flesh banquet by the light of the moon. Welcoming lights danced in the darkness of the mist, like beguiling corpse-candles over sucking marshland.
“Don’t look at them,” warned Lucian.
His warning came too late for one man and his wife. Miss Fortune didn’t know their names, but knew they had lost a son to ocean-ague less than a year ago. They walked from the cliffs following a vision in the lights only they could see.
Another man took his hooked hand to his throat before his friends could stop him. Another simply vanished into the mist without anyone seeing him go.
By the time they reached Serpent Bridge, their company numbered less than a dozen. Miss Fortune couldn’t feel sorry for them, she’d told them not to come with her. If they’d wanted to live forever, they should be shuttered behind closed doors and protective carvings, clutching spiral talismans of the Bearded Lady and praying to whatever gave them solace.
But against the Harrowing, even that was no guarantee of safety.
They’d passed countless homes smashed open with splintered shutters and doors hanging limply from leather hinges. Miss Fortune kept her eyes fixed forward, but it was impossible not to feel the accusing gazes from the frozen faces within or sense the terror of their last moments.
“The Black Mist will have its due,” said Rafen as they passed yet another charnel house, the families within cold and dead.
She wanted to be angry at such acceptance of horror, but what good would that do? After all, he was right.
Instead, she focused on the hazed outline of the structure across the bridge. It sat in the center of a gouged crater in the cliff, as if some mighty sea creature had taken a vast bite from the rock. Like most places in Bilgewater it was constructed from the ocean’s leavings. Its walls were driftwood and branches from faraway lands, its windows the scavenged remains of ships swept up from the seabed. It had a peculiar quality of possessing not a single straight line anywhere in its construction. The curious angles gave it a sense of being somehow in motion, as if it might one day choose another place to set down temporary roots.
Its spire was likewise crooked, fluted like the horn of a narwhal and topped with the same spiral symbol Miss Fortune wore around her neck. A shimmering light wreathed the icon, and where it shone the darkness was held in abeyance.
“What is that place?” asked Lucian.
“The Temple of the Bearded Lady,” she said. “The House of Nagakabouros.”
“Is it safe?”
“It’s better than staying out here.”
Lucian nodded and they set off across the winding length of the bridge. Like the temple it approached, the bridge was an uneven thing, its cobbles undulant like something alive.
Rafen paused at the crumbling parapet and looked down.
“Getting higher every year,” he said.
Reluctantly, Miss Fortune joined him and looked over the edge.
The docks and Rat Town were smothered beneath the Black Mist, and even the web of gun’dolas was barely visible. Bilgewater was choking in the grip of the mist, its tendrils seeping ever deeper into the city. Screams of terror drifted upwards, each one a life ended and a fresh soul for the legion of the dead.
Rafen shrugged. “A few years from now there won’t be anywhere in Bilgewater beyond its reach.”
“A lot can happen in a few years,” said Miss Fortune.
“This happens every year?” asked Olaf, one foot perched on the parapet with a reckless disregard for the dizzying drop.
Miss Fortune nodded.
“Excellent,” said the Freljordian. “If I am fated not to die this night, I will return here when the Black Mist rises again.”
“It’s your funeral,” replied Rafen.
“Thank you,” said Olaf, slapping an enormous palm on Rafen’s back, almost knocking him from the bridge. The Freljordian’s eyes widened as a host of ghostly tentacles rose from the mist, uncoiling to smash down on the dwellings of Rat Town.
“The beast!” he cried.
And before anyone could stop him, he vaulted onto the parapet and hurled himself from the edge.
“Mad bastard,” said Rafen as Olaf’s dwindling form vanished into the mist below.
“All the ice-dwellers are mad,” said Miss Fortune. “But he was madder than most I’ve met.”
“Get everyone inside,” said Lucian.
She heard the urgency in his voice and turned to see him facing a towering figure in stitched black robes hung with hooked chains. Sickly green light wreathed the specter as it lifted a swaying lantern in one pallid hand. Fear touched Miss Fortune, fear like nothing she’d known since she’d watched her mother die and stared down the barrel of the killer’s gun.
Lucian drew his pistols. “Thresh is mine.”
“He’s all yours,” she said, and turned away.
Her gaze was drawn upwards as shadows closed around the temple. The breath caught in her throat as she saw Hecarim and his death knights at the crater’s ridge.
The Shadow of War raised his fiery glaive and the ghostly horsemen urged their hell-steeds downward. No mortal rider could make that descent, but these were riders of death.
“Run!” shouted Miss Fortune.