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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Wednesday.

Chapter 47: And Justice For All

“The question of who the most vindictive people of Calernia are has long been debated. Some say it is the Arlesites, who will duel to the death over the use of the wrong adjective in a verse. Others say it is those of the Free Cities, where the moving of a border by half a mile will spawn a war lasting three generations. Others yet say it is the Praesi, who indulge in political assassination the way other nations enjoy a cup of good wine. I would humbly put forward, however, that the answer is the people of Callow. Steal an apple from a farmer of the Kingdom and fifty years later his grandson will find yours on the other side of the continent, sock him in the eye and take three apples back.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran

I landed in sand.

Hastily I got up and brushed away the mess, taking an assessing look around. I was on an island, looked like, a perfect circle with some kind of shoddy chapel built in the middle. The water surrounding it went on for a dozen feet before stopping abruptly into darkness that looked much like the one that had surrounded Masego’s bridge. I eyed the dark, deciding to be very careful about falling in there. I wasn’t sure what the rules were here, but I doubted that anything pleasant would come out of tripping into the endless void. In unsheathed my sword, ears prickling at the sound of struggle inside the structure. I moved quietly towards the open doors, only pausing when I glimpsed runes on the side of the chapel. Heiress’ work, or had they always been there? Without knowing that I couldn’t risk messing them up. For all I knew, scraping a line through one of those would have the Hashmallim knocking at the door in a matter of moments. I’d rather not fight an angel if I could avoid it, really. I’d been in some pretty rough fights over the last year but I doubted I’d walk away from that one. Before I could cross the gate there was a loud bang and someone was thrown out. William landed on his feet, sword raised, and snarled. I pressed against the side of the wall just out of his sight.

“I begin to sympathize with the Miezan extermination of your kind,” the hero said.

That didn’t really narrow down the possibilities as to what he was scrapping with. The Miezans had been pretty liberal with extermination policies. A tall silhouette of smokeless fire strode out into the sands, its face without features.

“There’s no need to be rude about this,” it said in a calm, cultured voice.

It raised a hand towards William, spawning a stream of fire from the palm. The hero blocked it with his sword, light flaring as he forced back the sorcery. Well, I wished them fun with that. The Lone Swordsman was going to get a good stabbing before this was over, but I had nothing against letting whatever Heiress had summoned soften him up first. Might even make him a tad less impossible to kill. I waited for their fight to take them around the island and slipped inside. For an angel’s corpse, this place was pretty dingy. Two rows of stone benches – seven on each side, which didn’t feel like a coincidence – led up to an altar with a sword in it. A sword in a stone. That… had a shape to it. A story. Something I might be able to use, if I played this right. I recognized the sword in the stone, as it happened. It was the same bitch of a blade William had used in most of our fights. An angels’ feather, used to summon another angel. There were candles behind the stone, seven of them. Most of them had melted, with only two remaining.

There was someone by the altar, looking down on it as she tinkered with runes hanging in the air. Heiress, and would you look at that her back was to me. I crept forward silently, hugging the wall. As my practical decision of the day, I’d come to the conclusion that a sword in the back was a victory I could live with. It would be almost poetic, considering how often she’d slid the metaphorical knife into mine. From the corner of my eye I saw something blur in the air on the opposite side of the chapel, near a pillar. Someone dropped quietly to the ground, looking harried, and Masego looked about ready to retch. The blur disappeared and Apprentice took a look around, eyes finding me after a moment. He opened his mouth to talk, then thought better about it. I gestured towards Heiress and he nodded. Taking a long breath, I reached for the depths of my Name and formed a spear of shadows. Flying faster than an arrow, it tore through Masego’s head, dissipating the illusion.

“Well,” Heiress said. “It was worth a try.”

I noticed the silhouette by the altar wasn’t where the sound came from. I couldn’t quite pin down where it did.

“He already told me I was on my own in here,” I said. “For now, anyway. They’ll find another way through eventually.”

The fake Heiress dropped to all fours, a sight that would have amused me if it didn’t imply there was actually something under that particular illusion.

“You know, if I remember correctly you actually have a sword,” I said. “Yet you never seem to use it. Afraid of a little tussle, Akua? I promise I’ll be gentle.”

I closed my eyes and expanded my senses. Whatever the fake-Heiress was, she didn’t seem to breathe. I couldn’t hear the actual Heiress do that either, though, so it was worth taking with a grain of salt. The illusion ran towards me and I immediately got away from the wall to make some space. The creature leapt over a bench but my senses told me otherwise: I swung my sword to the side and hit flesh, a bald creature of rotted flesh and fangs blinking into existence as it screamed and scampered back. The fake-Heiress passed harmlessly through me as the creature disappeared again.

“Is that a ghoul?” I asked. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel there.”

There was an airy chuckle.

“Seen your little redhead mage, lately?”

I took a sharp breath. No, it couldn’t be Kilian. She was safe with the mages of the Fifteenth, surrounded by hundreds of legionaries. Akua has spies in the ranks, my mind provided. She could have abducted her. And then killed her and turned her into a ghoul, just for the sake of messing with me? No. She’d not planned for me to make it this far. Chider had been her trump card to get me out of the game, make me unable to interfere with whatever she was up to. If I hadn’t been dead already, getting my Name ripped out would probably have made me unconscious – if not killed me outright. She was just playing mind games.

“You’d probably be a better liar if you weren’t so smug,” I said.

The patter of feet against stone was heard behind me, but it wasn’t what I was watching for. When Heiress spoke, the words resounded in every part of the chapel – except one. The corner to the left of the door. I allowed the invisible ghoul to come close, then ducked when it leapt for my chest – my sword came up, ripping through the creature’s stomach as it passed over me. The screaming, wriggling shape blocked the sight of my free hand for a moment and I formed a burst of shadows, pivoting to fire it at the too-silent corner. It hit a shield that flared blue, revealing the silhouette of a frowning Akua underneath.

“Found you,” I said.

“Chider failed, I see,” she said.

“Oh, she did exactly what you intended,” I smiled. “You’re just not as smart as you seem to think you are.”

“Coming from you,” she said, “that is truly insulting.”

The ghoul came for the third time and I waited for it to rush – then snatched a limb out of the air. I swung the creature like an improvised flail, smashing her against the bench. Really, a ghoul. And she had the gall to say I was being insulting. Keeping a hand on the struggling creature, I hacked through her head calmly and returned my attention to Heiress. Who was smiling. Oh dear. The undead creature exploded a moment later, and as I was thrown against the wall all I could think was that undead bombs was my godsdamned gambit. Leaving the protection of her shield, Akua slowly unsheathed her sword. It was an ornate piece, gilded and the length of it covered in runes. Why did everyone else get to have a fancy magic sword? I shrugged off the impact and rose to my feet, my own sword still in hand.

“Do you know what irritates me the most about you, Catherine Foundling?” she smiled.

“I have better hair,” I replied and burst forward.

She raised her blade in a classic guard, which almost made me grin. I’d fought plenty of people using that before. They were all dead. I batted her sword away and got in close, swiping for her eyes. She danced away, making distance between us. Her free hand came up, crackling with energy, but I ducked under the bolt of lightning and hit her stomach with the pommel of my sword, bending the lamellar steel with the impact. She let out a grunt of pain that was music to my ears before forcing me back with an attempt to slice through my neck.

“Please, continue to pontificate,” I said. “Where’s my monologue, Akua? You’re turning into a disappointment of a rival.”

“You wretch,” she snarled, and brought up her hand to cast again.

I laughed and smashed her wrist with my blade – steel ground against steel, failing to cut through but forcing it down. The ball of flame that erupted hit the ground at her feet, blowing her away as the heat licked at my face.

“You know,” I said as I walked towards her prone form, “I always assumed that even behind the scheming you’d be able to give me a good fight. But you can’t, can you?”

I smiled coldly.

“I might be a little heavy on the brute force, Akua, but even thugs have their day.”

I raised my sword above her and… froze. The fear on the dark-skinned girl’s face melted away as she rose to her feet calmly. My body began rising in the air, hovering a foot above the floor.

“You are not Evil,” she said. “That it what irritates me most about you, Catherine. You just ape the methods, reassuring yourself your intentions are still Good. You act like your Name is a weapon and ignore that it has a meaning.

She slid her fingers down the length of her blade, the runes shining at the touch.

“Your master is the same. Lord Black, fear of the continent,” she mocked. “He is a rat hiding at the center of maze of traps he spent decades building. Dangerous, perhaps, but behind all the tricks he is weak.”

She chuckled.

“No matter how clever the traps, they will not save him from a boot. You shy away from what you are, Foundling, and Creation abhors such spineless dithering. I know what I am. I embrace it, because that is what a villain is. That is why I have power…”

Her sword rose.

“Monologues,” I said, “Not even once.”

The Lone Swordsman hit her with a burst of light before I even finished talking. I dropped back to the ground with a pleased hum: his little Name trick messed with sorcery as well as my own Name shenanigans, it seemed. William, covered in soot, eyed me with horror.

“All according to plan,” I lied.

“You’re dead,” the Lone Swordsman said. “I cut your head off.”

“Eh,” I shrugged. “I got over it.”

I paused.

“Also, you were supposed to reply –“

I had to backpedal away hurriedly when Heiress threw some sort of orb of shadows where we were standing. Her armour was smoking, and for once she actually looked frazzled. Her hair was messed up, I noted with amusement. First time I’d ever seen her look anything but pristine. Heiress was next to the altar, though she steered clear of the sword. Good, now everyone was here. I could actually begin using my bastard cousin of a plan, though… I frowned, looking at the candles behind the altar. Another one had melted entirely, leaving only the last. I thought they represented seven hours each, I thought.

“William,” I said.

“No,” he said immediately.

I ignored that part for the sake of convenience.

“When you were last here, did time pass normally?”

His eyes flicked to the candles, and his face turned white.

“That’s impossible,” he said.

I knew time passed differently in Arcadia – it was the basis of the trick Black had used to get to Marchford in a fraction of the time it would have taken him on a horse. And Arcadia worked that way because it wasn’t in Creation proper. Which meant…

“You moved the entire island elsewhere,” I said. “That’s what the runes on the chapel are for. “

“You mean to trap the Hashmallim,” the hero said.

Heiress stood tall against the glare directed at her by the Lone Swordsman, almost preening.

“This is my house now,” she said. “And the only rules here are mine.”

Shit. Couldn’t let that go unchallenged, not if I wanted my plan to actually work.

“This is Callowan ground, wherever it may be,” I said. “Back me up on this, William.”

Akua scoffed. “The truth cannot be-“

“Shut the Hells up, Praesi,” the hero barked. “These grounds are of the Kingdom as long as I live.”

Good ol’ Willy. You could always count on him to screw over at least one person in the room at any time.

“You’re right,” I said. “She is an invader here. The enemy.”

“You’re one too,” William said with disgust.

“She’s not one of us, you halfwit,” Akua sneered. “She doesn’t have the will or the blood.”

It was refreshing to be in a situation where my opponents actually hated each other more than they hated me. Heiress was in the full swing of her gloat and the Lone Swordsman has his heroic shackles all raised, especially now that it was out in the open that Akua had screwed with an angel’s corpse. Which he finally seemed to remember then and there. Keeping a wary eye on me, William moved towards Heiress. Who was too busy watching me from the corner of her eye to to really do anything about it. I grinned. The Lone Swordsman raised his sword and Heiress backed away, preparing to cast.

What did you do?” Akua said suddenly, looking at me.

“I have three things,” I said. “A kingdom, an enemy and a claim.”

William snorted.

“A claim?” he said. “You-“

“I am the heiress to the King of Callow,” I interrupted calmly.

“There is no King of Callow,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“Yet a man rules it, and I am his chosen successor,” I said.

Akua flinched, then looked at the sword. Too late now: she’d already given me what I needed. Of her own free will, too. That had to sting. William took the opening to dart for the blade, wrapping his fingers around the hilt and tugging it out. It did not move. His eyes turned to me, scared for the first time since I’d met him.

“It isn’t yours anymore,” I said.

“It was granted to me by the Hashmallim,” he said.

“It’s a sword in a stone. You did that yourself, with no one forcing you,” I smiled. “It’s a symbol, now, in a story about Callow.”

“She’s an orphan,” Heiress said quietly, aghast as the situation sunk in. “She’s the Squire.”

“Would you kindly get your hands off my sword, William?” I said.

They didn’t even need to share a glance before they both turned on me. Wasn’t that going to be a fun ride? The Lone Swordsman was so fast on the move he almost blurred to my Name sight, even damnably faster than when we’d gone for our last round. This time, though, he wasn’t predestined to win. That made a difference. I stepped around his blow but ate Heiress’ spell right in the face: some kind of dark shroud that stuck around my eyes. I flared my Name, clearing it up some, but it was hard to make out William’s sword as he swung again. I took the hit to the shoulder, at this point utterly indifferent to the fact that it bit through steel and into my flesh.

“Still dead,” I reminded him, forming a burst of darkness around my hand and slamming it into his chest.

He went flying and I ran for the sword. The floor under my feet turned liquid but I leapt and landed in a roll just in time to get hit by a bolt of lightning. I was getting really sick of that spell, I thought as my muscles twitched uncontrollably. Was I smoking? I couldn’t really smell anymore, so it was hard to tell. William’s boot hit my back and I was sent sprawling but he’d made a mistake: I fell forward, and Heiress’ next spell hit him instead. He yelled in dismay as a swarm of something sounding like bees gathered around him and I took my fraction of an opening, falling belly first right in front of the altar. Heiress cursed, then actually tried to curse me, but I grinned in triumph and my fingers closed around the hilt of that fucking sword epople kept trying to kill me with. Gods, it burned even through the gauntlets. There was aheartbeat of pure pain and then it felt like I’d just gotten a brightstick to the face. There was warmth, and everything went white.

I was standing alone in a featureless plain. Not, not alone. Something was looking at me. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it – the weight of its stare. I looked down at my hands, noticing I was without armour. My clothes from the orphanage, huh. They looked less rumpled than usual, too. Apparently the Heavens did not approve of my sloppy laundry habits. I put a finger on my bare wrist and frowned when I felt no pulse.

“I beat you fair and square, your presumptuous fucks,” I called out. “Cough up my resurrection.”

The weight turned from noticeable to crushing in a heartbeat, forcing me to the ground. I could feel my bones grind into dust as my back snapped. They were looking at me. There was… where my Name should be, there was only fire. Something scouring me from the inside.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

The images passed through my mind as if I was still standing there. Black, offering me a knife in a dark room. Two men against the wall, bound and with terror on their eyes. Blood on the floor.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

The empty banquet hall in Laure, where Mazus’ death was dispensed with a single sentence. The monster offering me a deal with smiling eyes. Agreement, followed by a sword through my chest.

Repent. Repent. Repent.

So many things. Sparing William, sacrificing thousands for my ambition. The innkeeper’s daughter, swinging on the gallows. Breaking a man for supplies in Ater. Ordering those men dead in the cells at Summerholm, on suspicion alone. Leashing the Gallowborne with the threat of destruction. The dead, oh so many dead. Three Hills. Nilin, the traitor, my friend. All those I’d failed against the devils in the night. Marchford. Hunter, who’d fought and died for strangers. The people of Liesse, at the mercy of devils because I hadn’t seen the betrayal coming. The light going out of Baroness Dormer’s eyes as she surrendered.

Repent. You will not be forgiven. Repent.

I saw things that had not happened, now. Yet. Rising alive from the altar, a crown of light on my brow. Heiress dead at my feet. The Swordsman, kneeling. My red right hand. Liesse rebelling, weapons taken out of hidden cellars, exhumed from hidden stashes. A host sweeping across the south, ranks swelling as cities revolted one after another. Taking back the Blessed Isle, burnt-out towers remade in marble. Breaking the nine gates of Ater and pulling down the Tower on my enemies.

Repent, Queen of Callow. 

I gurgled out a wretched laugh. You can’t ever lose, can you? Even when you’re beaten I have to become one of yours. I forced myself to remember something else. They tried to struggle but it was just as much a part of me as the rest had been. You don’t get to pick and choose what I am. Two silhouettes cloaked in black, standing alone in front of the throne.

We do not kneel.

It wasn’t enough. Those were not my words. I had borrowed them, and in borrowing lessened them. They demanded contrition. They demanded justification, for all my many sins. I had none. I clawed desperately into the depths of myself. Looking for something, anything. What I found… was a starry sky, in ruins that moaned in the wind. A dark-skinned girl, tempting me with a way out. Four dead on the floor as she fled. A lesson learned, a question answered.

Justification only matters to the just.

They flinched.

“I swore it,” I croaked. “Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”

I no longer saw a crown on my brow. They hadn’t liked that at all, had they? So much for being Queen. The fires withdrew, leaving me empty. Still dead. Unlike their trap of a Name, this I took umbrage to.

“You can’t cheat me,” I laughed. “You’re not the Gods. You’re part of the story too. You have to follow the rules.”

I opened my eyes, looking up into the perfect blankness.

“And if you won’t give me my due,” I said. “I’ll Take it.”

They shrieked but the power flowed into me. I felt my body spasm. My heart beat. My blood flow. The plain blurred, collapsed into me as I laughed.

I was standing in the chapel again, the Lone Swordsman’s sword through my belly. William’s green eyes stared into mine, my hand on his shoulder as I used him to stay up. It was a strangely intimate pose.

“What is this, Squire?” he whispered.

I ripped out the thing inside of him, took it for my own. His skin turned paler, his face bloodless.

Rise,” I replied.

Shadow spread across my body in thick chords. Healing me, pushing his blade out of my flesh. I could feel my heart beat and it was glorious. All the little things I hadn’t realized were gone, now returned to me. The sword was still in my hand, the blade that has once been his. I rammed it into his neck, biting deep as he fell twitching to the ground. My boot rose once, twice, thrice. The skull gave the third time, breaking like an overripe fruit. My gaze swept across the room, finally falling on Heiress.

“I believe,” I said, “that we were having a conversation about power. By all means, finish your thought.”

Beast

“I stared into the abyss and found what stared back… wanting.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

The flesh parted under her teeth and she drank deeply of the warm blood before tossing away the little man’s corpse. The cattle were screaming, trying to flee, but tonight the streets belonged to her. The Cursed fell back on four feet, shaking her fur with a howl of glee. Already she was matted with red, the smell of it all over her gloriously intoxicating. One of the things thought itself brave and stood against her, sword raised. It smelled of fear. She pounced, claws ripping through armour like parchment and that little toothpick falling uselessly to the ground with the arm that held it. They were so small, so weak. Her fangs tore off its face, leaving only bone and ripped muscle as she swallowed the flesh greedily. There had been fifty of them when she’d… she couldn’t remember. There had been fifty, and now only thirty were left. The Cursed was still hungry, and so she prowled the cobblestones of Ater.

Bolts thudded into her back, some punching through the armour still hanging off her frame, but they were as the bites of insects. Claws sinking into stone, she leapt onto the wall of the house they were hiding on top of and pulled herself up on the roof. They tried to flee but it was much, much too late. Red in tooth and claw she fed on their fear and flesh, slaughtering the dozen like the panicked animals they were. Too soon she was the only living thing on that rooftop, fur glistening in the moonlight. She sniffed the air, finding the trail of the others. They thought that scattering would save them. As if anything could hide them from her. Leaping back into the street, she went on the hunt again.

Behind walls they huddled, but she burst through the stone to partake of the feast inside. Into the maze of streets they ran, but she could hear their heartbeats like the thunder of drums. She found, and fed. In the dark they hid, thinking themselves beyond her sight, but the darkness was an old friend. Their screams rose up to the sky, and neither desperation nor the courage of men proved shield against her wrath. She grew. Claws sharpened, her bones cracked as her limbs lengthened and the hide under the fur became harder than iron. She was larger than the armour, even with those clever straps, could handle. The plates fell to the ground as the Cursed licked her chops, tearing out the last man’s innards to slurp the noisily. There were no more. Corpses, but no feed. She sniffed the air. This district was empty, but others were not.

She was hungry again.

She ran west like the wind, stone cracking beneath her weight. The Cursed slowed as the she came to the boundary, smelling magic-trap-forbidden. There were two cattle-dangerous standing there. She knew them. Tall, thin, two swords. Ranger. Amused, beard, magic. Apprentice. They were in her way.

“Gods, she ate all of them didn’t she?” Ranger sighed.

“Is that sympathy I hear, my dear?” Apprentice said. “Anyone stupid enough to provoke her enough for… this is clearly too stupid to live in the first place.”

Two-swords looked at her. The Cursed pounced but there was a wall-not-wall. The light hurt. She howled.

“Is the ward going to hold her?” Ranger asked.

Apprentice laughed.

“She’s been a this for almost hour and ate, what – two full patrols? Last time she got in this deep she ripped her way through a full company of devils, courtesy of my old teacher. If the boundary lasts for half an hour I’ll count myself lucky.”

“Never seen a werewolf get this big before,” Ranger said, cocking her head to the side. “I mean, she’s taller than the houses.”

“She’s not a lycanthrope,” Apprentice said. “As far as I can tell, a Warlock put a curse on her bloodline a few centuries back. And this, kids, is why you put an escapement when you cast a blood ritual.”

Praesi,” Ranger said, shaking her head. “How long until Amadeus gets here?”

“Depends on when the messenger finds him,” Apprentice replied. “The Tower is beyond my ability to scry.”

The Cursed pounded at the wall-not-wall, ignoring the pain. The cattle was not fleeing. Insolence.

“Talking to Alaya again, is he?” Ranger said, disgruntled.

“Gods, am I ever not getting involved in that mess,” Apprentice said, smirking at two-swords.

“I’m not jealous,” Ranger denied immediately. “And your ward’s breaking, you smug Wasteland throwback.”

“I’ll add another layer,” Apprentice frowned.

“Don’t bother,” Ranger said. “Make me a gate. I’ll keep her busy until he gets here.”

Two-swords smiled at the Cursed.

“Come on, big girl,” she said. “Let’s go for a round.”

She howled as she broke through the wall, landing on her side. Her back was broken but it reset itself with a snap and she got back on her feet, fangs bared. Ranger followed her inside the house calmly, one sword in hand. Sheathed. The predator-dangerous swung in her direction, too fast, and the wind almost sent her flying. The Cursed sank her claws into the stone and held on.

“So you can still learn even when you’re like this,” Ranger said. “Interesting.”

She stood on two feet and hunched, reaching for the wall behind her. She tore out it out with a grunt and threw it at two-swords, but it was too slow. Boot hit her in the stomach and sent her flying through the house on the street behind. She fell back on all fours, eyed predator-dangerous.

“I’ve broken stone golems hitting half that hard,” Ranger informed her. “You are ridiculously hard to hurt, sweetheart.”

“She ramps up the longer she’s like this,” a new voice said. “Another hour and even you would have trouble with her.”

Another person passed through the broken house. All steel, dark cloak. Sword but no shield. He took off his helmet: white skin, dark hair. Familiar.

“Finally,” Ranger said. “You took your time.”

“I was delayed,” Black replied. “The Chancellor’s work.”

“I can probably knock her out without hurting her too much, if she’s too far gone,” two-swords offered, standing close to the other.

Black’s hand touched Ranger’s shoulder.

“She won’t attack me,” he said.

The Cursed growled. Insolence.  All-steel walked to her slowly. He didn’t smell like fear at all.

“Sabah,” he said. “Look into my eyes.”

She howled.

Look into my eyes,” he Spoke.

The head of the Cursed snapped up, obeying the command.

“What do you see?” he asked gently.

Pale green. Gears slowly turning, a house of steel that would grind Creation to dust. Death was looking at her through chips of jade. The Cursed shivered.

“Wake up,” Black ordered.

The Cursed twitched. Bones snapped and she convulsed on the stone, feeding back into herself. The hunger was ebbing away, the warmth leaving her. Sabah woke up naked and shivering, promptly throwing up on the ground. The taste of blood and bile mixed in her mouth. Someone wrapped a cloak around her, way too small to cover her properly from the cold.

“Gods,” she rasped. “I lost it again.”

Amadeus knelt at her side, putting an arm over her shoulder in comfort.

“You were meant to,” he said.

Sabah folded onto herself, huddling under the cloak. She could smell Wekesa coming closer with linen in his arms. The acute senses wouldn’t leave her for at least another bell.

“You think someone made her change on purpose?” Ranger said, kneeling on her left and gently patting her side.

“She was meant to rampage through an occupied district,” Black said. “Kill someone important, to give the Chancellor leverage over us.”

“I would have, if they hadn’t stopped me,” Sabah said, throat still raw. “Thank you, Hye. Things got…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ranger said.  “I’ve been itching for a good spar anyway.”

Sabah tried to laugh but it came out half a sob.

“It’s getting harder to keep it under control,” she admitted.

“I know,” Black said quietly. “But I may have a solution. Remember Istrid, the chief of the Red Moons?

“The one who wrestled you?” Sabah vaguely recalled.

Amadeua nodded.

“She told me about a place in the Steppes,” he said. “Where those who can’t control the Red Rage go to learn how.”

“The Chancellor told you to go to Stygia,” Sabah said.

“The Chancellor can go fuck himself,” Black replied frankly. “We leave tomorrow.”

It was an old saying among the orcs that hard lands bred a hard people. The Northern Steppes proved the truth of that, particularly in winters. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see, burying the unprepared in vicious and unexpected storms. Wolves the size of a horse stalked the cold, taught over centuries that travellers made for an easier meal than the well-protected orc cattle herds. It had been the better parts of a month since they’d left the territory of the Red Moons behind, following the directions Istrid had given them. Apprentice had gotten progressively more passive-aggressive about their destination as the days stretched, irked by the cold and the lack of decent wine. He’d tried to steal Ranger’s tea this morning and gotten a knife through the hand for his trouble, to everyone else’s amusement.

“It will be where it will be,” Wekesa mocked for the hundredth time. “They should have called it the City of Vagueness.”

“I’m sure the Clans will rename it, after such a heartfelt plea,” Black said.

“Don’t you get snippy at me, farmboy,” the dark-skinned mage said. “I’m not the one who decided to find a place that’s not on any maps and technically doesn’t exist.”

Farmboy?” the Black Knight said amusedly. “I was a soldier, after I left the freehold. You could go with that at least.”

“You were a soldier for less than a year and deserted after the only battle you were involved in,” Apprentice said flatly.

“I still got paid once,” Amadeus mused. “It should count.”

Ranger raised an eyebrow. Sabah hid a smile: the half-elf had been ignoring the banter between those two for most of the trip, but she always paid attention whenever anything about Amadeus’ past was brought up. Usually by Wekesa – Black rarely spoke about himself, even among people he trusted.

“You were in the Legions?” she said.

“I enrolled before the Fields of Streges,” he said. “In my mother’s old company.”

“They misspelled his name on the rolls,” Sabah contributed with a grin.

“No doubt the Legions are on the lookout for the wicked deserter Amadous,” Wekesa said dramatically.

Ranger hummed. “I was in Procer at the time, but I heard the Fields were pretty bad for Praes.”

A shadow passed over Black’s face.

“An understatement if there ever was one,” he said. “If there was a stronger word than rout I would use it.”

Sabah had only ever heard rumours about what had happened there, but they all ran along the same lines. The Wizard of the West had apparently whipped Dread Emperor Nefarious so badly the man had taken flight without even getting on a horse. Hadn’t left the Tower since his return to Ater, either. Still, some good had come of the defeat. If the Black Knight hadn’t died on the field Amadeus’ eventual claiming of the Name would have been a lot more complicated. Murdering Black Knights was a tricky business, as they’d spent the last year teaching to half the Wasteland. Eyeing up ahead, Sabah blinked as she found a hut that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Smoke was rising from it through an opening, which they definitely would have seen from a distance. The tall Taghreb cleared her throat, claiming everyone’s attention. She pointed ahead without saying a word.

“Distinct lack of bones, for a place they call the Land of Bones,” Wekesa said.

“They might have wine in there,” Black mildly replied.

Apprentice cheerfully took the lead without any more need for convincing. Sabah had been worried they wouldn’t all fit inside – she was taller than the hut by a full foot – but that worry proved unfounded. The structure was much larger on the inside than it looked from the outside, which apparently was enough to distract Apprentice from his quest to get sauced for a moment as he prodded at the walls curiously. There was someone inside, behind a fire pit. It was hard to make out too much under the pile of blankets and furs smothering the silhouette, but it looked like an orc. A woman, and an old one. Pulling at a dragonbone pipe, the stranger watched them in silence. A hint of fangs and wrinkled green skin could be made out, under sunken yellow eyes.

“You’re not one of mine,” the orc finally said in Lower Miezan when they were all seated.

Wekesa had been about to reply when Ranger discreetly elbowed him.

“I’ve been told this is where orcs come, when they want to learn how to control the Red Rage,” Sabah said.

The creature’s attention fell entirely on her at that. She had an unsettling gaze, and now Sabah wasn’t sure it was an orc at all seated in front of her.

“I see the curse in you, girl,” the stranger said. “It is not the Blessing.”

“And yet,” Sabah said quietly, “here I am.”

“You are not of the Clans,” the creature said. “How do you know of the Land of Bones?”

Sabah glanced at Black and he nodded.

“Istrid of the Red Moons told us the way,” she said.

The stranger scoffed. “She knows not what she has done. Do you know what this place is, southern devil? It is the graveyard of our greatness. These are the holy grounds of the Broken Antler Horde. Destroyed, by the same people whose language you ape.”

The Miezans. In Praes the histories spoke of the War of Chains, when the Soninke and the Taghreb had been brought to heel, but little of the war that had come after to force the submission of the orcs. They’d been one of the most powerful nations on Calernia at the time, she knew. They’d ransacked the Soninke kingdoms with impunity and returned to the Steppes with gold and human slaves.  Even the elves had tread lightly around them.

“I am not Miezan,” Sabah said. “I come from the same people who rebelled to drive them back into the sea.”

The creature pulled at her pipe, blowing out a stream of red-coloured smoke. The smell of it was heavy, almost like incense.

“There is a truth in that,” she conceded. “Before there was the Tower, Maleficent was Amina – and Amina was a friend to my people. It was not her who broke the promises of the Declaration.”

She cast a look of thinly-veiled hatred at Wekesa, who was the only Soninke in the hut. It was an old story, this one. Maleficent had founded the Empire but ruled it for less than a decade before the High Lord of Wolof had murdered her and stolen the throne. The Soninke nobles would not brook a Taghreb ruler when they were so much more numerous and powerful than the people of the desert.

“For this, you may enter. You and no one else,” the stranger said, then suddenly cackled. “Though you may not find what you think you will.”

“Well, that’s helpful,” Wekesa said. “Clearly coming here was the right notion all along.”

“You can wait in the cold, boy,” the creature said. “As for you, Sabah the Cursed, you must pass behind me.”

There was a flap there in the leather. It hadn’t been there before she’d mentioned it. Why was every otherworldly entity they ran into so bloody dramatic? Sabah looked at the others. Black met her eyes and spoke for the first time since they’d entered the tent.

“Whatever is there,” he said. “Win. Come back to us.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Sabah crawled through the opening. She’d been expecting the cold to hit her in the face but the weather out there was dry. Rising to her feet, the Taghreb took a calm look around. She was in a broad plain of burnt out huts, the ground as far as she could see covered in a layer of ashes. Something crunched under her feet and she glanced down. Bones. Orc, by the thickness of them. They were everywhere, buried in the ashes. In the distance she could see a throne of stone, and something sitting on it. Well. It wouldn’t get any closer if she didn’t start walking. Sabah began the trek across the plain, the remains of dead warriors breaking under her stride. She wasn’t tuned to magic, not the way Black and Apprentice were, but even she could feel something heavy at work here.

She was no longer so sure she was in Creation.

She felt the movement more than heard it, warhammer in hand faster than the blink of an eye. The heavy steel head impacted the skeleton and scattered the bones. The bronze axe it was carrying sunk into the ashes and the Taghreb sighed. It was going to be one of those days, wasn’t it? All around her she heard warriors rise from the ashes, and even more rose in the distance. Hundreds of them. Thousands, even. Gods Below, how many orcs had died here? A swing of the hammer scattered another skeleton when it got close, but this was a losing battle. There would be no fighting her way through this mess with a weapon in hand. Already the Beast was licking its chops inside of her, miffed at the lack of flesh but eager for a fight. Anger brought it out against her wishes, but Sabah had surrendered to the curse of her own will before. Those times were always the worst: when she opened the door herself, it was always harder to close it. There’d be no Amadeus to bring her back here.

“But there’s no one here I care about either,” she told the skeletons. “You’ll regret that, before we’re done.”

Sabah closed her eyes and let out a long breath. The Beast grinned, and the world went red.

The Cursed shook off the spear buried in her back, scattering the dead things with a wild swing. Time had passed. Long. The sun had come and gone several times. Her thoughts were becoming sharp again, now. The dead things still came like a horde without end. Bone-things, and others made of cold flesh and teeth that tore. Nothing she could eat. Someone was ahead of her, on a thing made of stone, but now matter how much she ran she could not get close to it. All there was was the fight. The Cursed roared and tore through the bone-things, breaking them and sinking her claws into warped flesh. Iron was no bane to her and neither was bronze. A sword cleaved the back of her leg and she slumped, slapping away the dead and wildly turning to keep the others away. So many destroyed, and still they came. She was mighty and tall, larger than a tower, but the insects were swarming her. They bit and sliced and held on, trying to bury her with their numbers.

Her leg healed but it was slow. The well was running out. She was getting tired, as she never had before. It was unpleasant, not what the Cursed was meant to be. She growled at the bone-things but they were not afraid, could not be afraid. She stepped on the enemy, breaking them with weight, but another spear was driven into her back. Too many. They were not tired. Letting out a pained noise, the Cursed broke through the mass of dead and again tried to reach the stone-thing and what sat on it. More rose in her path, swifter than she could break them. She stopped even trying, just forcing herself to continue forward as the sharp things tore at her fur and hide. The stone… throne, that was the word. She was getting closer to it now. It was not fleeing her anymore. The Cursed took a spear to the side but leapt forward. More were massing, a flood trying to turn her back.

She howled, but the wall of spears broke her stride. She slowed. Skeletons cut through the back of her legs and they did not heal. She crawled forward, dragging herself through the ash with her front feet. The presence was a greenskin. Larger than any the Cursed had seen before. It was wearing stone and bronze, with eyes like flame and fists like hammers. It looked at her in silence. The dead were hounding her but still she crawled, and reached the steps before the stone. Her claws rose, to tear at the other, but the spears of the dead finally forced her down. She breathed shallowly. There was no more healing. The other looked down on her, face beyond description. The Cursed heaved one last time and folded back into herself, leaving Sabah naked in the ash. Slowly bleeding out from a hundred wounds. Gods, the pain. The pain was blinding. For the first time in her life the curse had failed, leaving only the woman beyond it.

“Do you understand, now?” the other said.

Sabah made a wordless noise.

“There is no winning,” it said. “You cannot beat the Rage. The Beast. You have no control. It was a lie to believe you ever did.”

“I’m still alive,” Sabah managed.

“Yes,” the other said. “You have proved worthy. Rise.”

The pain receded and Sabah managed to push herself up. She rose to her feet unsteadily.

“You are not of the Clans. No matter. We will do great things, you and I.”

Sabah looked into the flames that served as its eyes.

“Great things?” she said.

“You will lead others, assemble the Blessed. And together you will rip out the heart of this wretched Empire,” the other said.

Visions passed through her mind. Herself, bedecked in bronze. Leading a host of humans and orcs, breaking cities and leaving behind only the grass of the steppes. A perfect horizon without end of blue sky without anything to mar it. Glory eternal, a throne of bones raised on the grounds where the Tower once stood.

“Kneel to me, child,” the other said. “I will bestow upon you the control you crave. I will grant you a fate without rival.”

Sabah looked into the flames, and remembered a night years ago. A green-eyed boy in a dark barn, who looked a monster in the eyes and smiled. The dark-skinned boy at his side, more fascinated than afraid. You’re not a monster at all, are you?

“Are you a god?” Sabah asked.

“I am war,” the other said. “I am blood and bronze and glory. I am the horde that was and will be.”

The Taghreb chuckled quietly.

“I already have a fate,” she said. “I know who it’s bound to. I made that choice years ago.”

“You have a greater purpose now,” the other said.

“Greater? They’re going to be legends, you know. My boys,” she smiled. “And I’ll be standing at their side. It’s all right if my Role is a quiet one. I don’t have as much to prove.”

You will kneel,” the god hissed.

“I take orders from only one person, and he ordered me to win,” she said. “I will Obey.”

She felt the Beast inside of her grin, and this time when the red came she embraced it. Sabah’s body distorted and the god would have stepped back if it could.

“You have something I need,” she spoke through her growing fangs. “Give it to me.”

There were screams this time, but they were not hers.

She parted the flap. The thing in the blankets shrieked at her the moment she came in.

“What have you done?”

The Tahghreb dropped the corpse she’d been dragging by the hair onto the floor. Its ribcage had been ripped open, missing the heart that still stained her lips red.

“You’re going to need another god,” she told the creature. “I broke this one.”

Amadeus was looking at her with a searching gaze. Wekesa was eyeing the god’s corpse like he was debating if he could get away with stealing it.

“Sabah?” Amadeus said.

“Captain,” she replied. “Call me Captain.”

Chapter 46: Squire (Redux)

“Note: only offer the hero the chance to replace my right-hand man when my right-hand man is no longer in the room.
Additional note:  find out estimated rebuilding cost for the summer palace.”
-Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

Two things happened in quick succession.

First, I snarled something very unkind about Chider’s mother and a he-goat. Second, I snatched the sharper out of the air and threw it back up. Unlike during my first run-in with the goblin, I was now familiar with goblin munitions. I knew how long they took to blow – the standard issue stuff anyway. The sharper exploded halfway up, giving me a gentle hint the mixture had been tinkered with. What was it with all my enemies getting their hands on goblin munitions? The Legions really needed to keep a closer eye on their stocks: they were supposed to be the only organisation with access to munitions. I’d have a talk with Black about it, I was starting to get pretty irritated with how people kept throwing those at me.

“Yeah, I won’t be calling you that,” I said, dragging myself up to my feet.

I’d expected to feel aftershocks of what I was pretty sure had been my Name getting ripped out of me, but there were none. My limbs moved surely and smoothly. The pain must have been in my soul, horrifying as that thought was. I could still feel an itch in the back of my neck, though, almost like I was missing a limb. Chider replied to my polite announcement by dropping a brightstick, this prepared to blow up directly in my face. One of these days, the Gods were going to have to grant me dumber enemies. There had to be a finite number of clever ones, and I was starting to murder my way through that list. I ignored the falling cylinder and wedged my foot into a crevasse. The flash of light and the deafening noise might have been a problem if I were still alive, but at the moment I was past worrying about burst eardrums. They’d make no real difference.

Jumping while in full plate would have been hard even when I’d still had my Name, but I was just about done playing around. Ripping a few muscles to get the job done wasn’t something I was going to balk at. My first leap got me halfway up and I forced my limbs into making me jump again when I hit the side of the pit, landing in a sprawl back on top. I heard Chider scuttling away from me, hiding in the rocks. The novelty of having an enemy shorter and physically weaker than myself was quite refreshing. Well, weaker for now. She’d be settling into the Name any moment now, and it was all downhill from there.

“I should have seen this coming, really,” I said. “Warlock mentioned the only place in Callow to ‘bind or usurp a Name’ was in Liesse. Figured I was safe with no other claimant around, but that was evidently incorrect. Breaking the laws of nature to screw me over – classic Heiress.”

I heard the snap of a crossbow being shot and turned in time to see the bolt coming for my chest. My hand snapped up, following my will, and snatched the projectile out of the air. One out of two, I mused, breaking the haft and dropping it on the ground. I’d had better success rates, but also much worse.

“The part of this that puzzles me,” I continued, “is you. You’re smarter than this, Chider. I’m on my way to fighting my two rivals and you’re a middling threat standing between us. There’s only one way this can go for you.”

The undead goblin slipped out of the rocks to my side, jamming a knife in my knee joint. Frowning, I slapped her across the face. I hadn’t held back even a little bit and it showed: her neck twisted sharply with an unpleasant sound. She picked herself up from the rock the hit had thrown her against, idly snapping her neck back in place. No full resurrection for her either, then. Weren’t we quite the pair, jolly undead abominations brawling in the middle of place that had been freshly forced into existence? I took the knife out of my knee, gauging the weight of it. Good goblin steel. It would do.

“That would be true,” Chider said as she rose to her feet, “if you were still the Squire. You’re free meat now, Callow-girl.”

I sighed.

“I’m serious,” I said. “What’s the end game for you here? Say you manage to somehow destroy my body. Heiress manages whatever the Hells she’s up to with your help. What do you do after?”

“I change things,” Chider replied, pulling out another knife.

Gods, was that what I sounded like to other people? No wonder I got stabbed so often. Never assume a goblin is out of knives, I thought, watching her twirl the blade between her fingers. Robber carried so many that by all rights he should clink whenever he walked around.

“As the Squire?” I said. “The moment Black meets you, he’ll hack you to pieces to put the Name back in play. If he’s in a bad mood, he’ll give what’s left of you to Warlock. Do you still dream, Chider? Because that’s the stuff of very real nightmares.”

“I have friends of my own,” the goblin said.

“No, what you have is an owner,” I said. “And she’s not gentle with her tools – today should have shown you that clearly enough. Chider, you’re about to get thrown under the carriage. You really think Heiress is going to stick her head out for you? Gods, you think the Truebloods will? They don’t hide what they think about greenskins.”

Snarling, the goblin attacked. Rude. She could have at least informed me we were done talking. What was it with telling people they were wrong about everything that made them so aggressive? Already Chider was faster, quick enough she was hard to follow with the naked eye. I felt the blade scrape my chest plate but it failed to go through and I kicked her before she could stick it into my neck. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she thought that would do at this point. Make me bleed out? My heart wasn’t beating anymore, and the stuff inside my veins was basically red water giving me a little more mass. I caught her wrist when she came for me again, initially forcing it back before something dark flared in her leering eyes. She begun turning the struggle around. Name strength, I decided, was a lot less pleasant from the other side. I spun around her and helpfully handed her back her knife, sticking it into her neck. Didn’t seem to have much effect, but my boot on her back did: she was sent sailing again.

“You think I don’t know all of this?” Chider spat, landing in a crouch, “I’m not drowning in options, Foundling, unlike you. I’ll survive today, then tomorrow and then the day after that. That’s what goblins do. We survive, even when Creation is out for our blood.”

I unsheathed my own knife.

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I think that a year ago I would have tried to help you. To compromise. But I’ve lost too many friends since, Chider. Crossed too many lines to turn back.”

That burned face split into a horrifying grin.

“If you think I’ll lay down and die for your little narcissism trip,” she said, “you’re in for a rude awakening.”

Fair enough. I strolled forward, pace unhurried. She darted in my direction but I feinted for her hand. Unnaturally quick, she brought up her knife to block – and I swiped mine across her face, ripping through her teeth. She backpedalled hurriedly, free hand coming up to touch the ruined fangs.

“I’ve been doing all this talking,” I said. “You probably thought it was a blunder. She’s been Named too long, she got cocky. What I was actually doing, though, was giving them time to settle in.”

She leapt for me with a howl but that was mere savagery. I’d fought more dangerous things than an angry undead goblin in the past, even a Named one. Hells, I’d fought more dangerous things today. I calmly stepped aside, left her to slide on the rock and feinted for her eyes. The knife came up again, faster than a blink, but I’d already redirected the strike and was ripping through the shoulder muscles on the right. She’d likely thought she was being clever when she’d traded chain mail for leather, banking on speed over taking hits. Her limp right arm now taught her differently.

“The reflexes, I mean,” I said as I circled around her. “They take a while to get used to, don’t they? I remember how odd it was when I first came into the Name, getting a set of reactions that weren’t entirely mine.”

I brought up the tip of my knife and this time she reacted properly, not falling for the probe – which didn’t help her when my other hand unsheathed my sword and hacked through her bad arm. The limb fell to the ground. I intended for this to be theme for the evening, as it happened.

“You can ignore them, of course,” I said. “But that costs you a moment, while you push them down. A lot can happen in a moment. Still, I imagine that given a fortnight you’d get used to it.”

My eyes turned cold.

“Unfortunately for you, you don’t have a fortnight.”

Chider spat out teeth, bringing up her knife.

“Fuck you, Callow-girl,” she said. “No matter what you do, I will Surv-

I rammed my sword through her mouth, tip coming out on the other side. There would be no aspect comeback for this one. I jammed my knife into the soft side of her elbow, cleaving the muscle. Her fingers convulsed around her weapon but there’d be no more swinging at me. Holding her upright, I ripped out the clasps holding the upper part of her leather armour together. The flesh under was scarred with burns, barely even flesh at all.

“I warned you,” I said, “Now give me back my Name.”

I struck her as hard as I could, my armoured fingers ripping into her flesh. I dug through the necrotized organs, finding the snake-like length of her spine after jostling around a bit. Hand inside the goblin up to my elbow, I grit my teeth and tore out her spine. It snapped halfway through her abdomen and Chider fell limp. Dropping her to the ground after withdrawing my smeared gauntlet, I wrenched out my sword and beheaded her for good measure. I stood there, eyes closed. I would have let out a breath if there’d been any air in my lungs. I did not have to wait for long before awareness flooded into me for the second time in my life. It felt like coming home.

I was Catherine Foundling, daughter of no one and nothing. I’d broken armies, snatched victory from the jaws of my enemy. I’d spent lives like coin and bought the fate of a kingdom, cheated death and spat in the face of Corruption. On the night I’d first claimed this Name, I’d branded my path on the soul of a hero. And on the night where I claimed it again, that path was coming to an end. I was, once more, the Squire.

My senses sharpened and I waited for the beast that rode my shoulders to make itself known, already smiling. I’d almost grown fond of it. The expression faded when it made no appearance. I frowned and sunk in the depths of my Name. They felt shallower now. Not weaker, but as if the depths had not yet been… earned. My blood ran cold when I realized I had not claimed back my Name – I’d just claimed it, period. I was starting at the beginning again, and I couldn’t feel a single one of my aspects. Just the potential for them, those bundles of shapeless power. My eyes opened in sheer surprise. Those three bundles of shapeless power.

“Oh, Heiress,” I said gleefully. “You fucked up.”

Chider had been her work, of that there was no doubt, but why would Akua have done this at all if she knew it would give me back strength? I might not have my aspects anymore, but my Name was effectively restored to the strength it had possessed before my run-in with the demon. I had the well of power to effectively use the tricks Black had taught me once more. Why would Heiress make me stronger? She’d made a habit out of sabotaging me at every turn. Even if she was planning on using me against William, this made no sense. Unless she didn’t know she was doing that, I thought. Only two people knew there had been more to my crippling than the leg: Masego and Hakram. And Black, though that hardly counted.

I’d not told another living soul, and as far as I knew neither had they. And it wasn’t like Heiress could just take a look at my aspects whenever she pleased: Apprentice had needed to set up an entire room full of hellishly complicated wards to operate on my soul. Akua had never been allowed into the Fifteenth’s camp without heavy guard, and any use of magic on her part would have been met with immediate force. She hadn’t known, I realized. She hadn’t known I’d robbed myself of an aspect. She’d thought that by using Chider as a receptacle for my Name she could weaken me for months, maybe even kill me when she ripped it out – if she was lucky. That was the thing with luck, wasn’t it? It never landed quite where you’d thought it would.

“And instead you put me back on the horse, you scheming bitch you,” I murmured.

Gods Below, it was about time one of her little plots backfired. Now I just needed to cram her next one down her throat and make her choke on it. I knelt by Chider’s twice-dead corpse, wiping my sword on her before sheathing it. I did the same with my knife after wrenching it out. If I’d had anything to set her on fire just to be sure I would have, but for now this would have to be enough. I didn’t have any munitions on me, much less goblinfire – not that using a substance that burned magic in a dimension made by a mage wouldn’t have been a horrible idea anyway. I peered in the distance and saw the gate of light was still there. For how long that would remain the case I wasn’t sure, but I thought it best to hurry.

Feeling the mantle of my Name on my shoulders after that distressing period where I hadn’t made a tedious procession more tolerable. I could no longer remember what I’d felt like before I’d become the Squire. Being entirely human was just a… hazy concept. I was beyond sickness now, beyond the old limitations of my body like heat and cold or not being able to tinker with my own senses. After tasting true power, there was nothing more horrifying than being powerless. The honesty of that thought made me uncomfortable.

It was hard to gauge lengths of time in a place without a real sky, but I felt like I’d kept a good pace. The gate of light I’d glimpsed at a distance was even taller than I’d thought, thrice my height – so more or less twice anyone else’s – and almost as broad. I couldn’t make out anything beyond it. Apprentice had said there would be a way into the ritual site, but I found it odd he hadn’t said anything about a gate. For that matter, if he could make a gate why hadn’t he crafted one for me to enter here in the first place? I frowned, then picked up a stone from the ground and threw it. For a moment it looked like it would pass through, but then there was a flash of light and a loud bang.

“You’re getting predictable, Akua,” I said.

Stepping around the gate, I found the exit Masego had actually made after looking for a few moments. Like the portal that had allowed me through, it was transparent and hard to make out in the lack of proper lighting. Akua’s false gate was just close enough to make it hard through wiggle through, because why make it just a death trap when you could also make it an inconvenience? I took a deep breath I didn’t strictly need, finding the familiarity of it reassuring.

“Final round, winner takes all,” I muttered before passing through.

Chapter 45: Corpses

“It probably doesn’t count as cannibalism if you’re already dead.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet

Nefarious’s corpse hadn’t even cooled before they’d dismembered and burned it, scattering the ashes so broadly not even a wraith could be formed from the remains. A lesson the Court learned centuries ago at the knees of the first Dread Empress Sanguinia, whose reign of terror had not ended with the cup of poison she’d drank. She had, if anything, become even more dangerous after her death. The Chancellor was a thorough man, for all his flaws, and had no intention of giving a sorcerer as accomplished as Nefarious a foot on the land of the living. The hall on the twenty-fourth floor of the Tower had long been used for official court sessions, and that the Chancellor had chosen it as the place for his summons spoke openly to the man’s intentions. He’d been ruling the Empire in all but name for the last decade anyhow, no doubt he saw actually taking the throne as a mere formality. He had the backing of the High Lords, the Legions – this sad, ugly sister of what the Legions of Terror had once been – were in his pocket and he controlled Ater. Ascensions to the throne had been built on a third of that kind of support. And yet…

Amadeus gazed at the sprawling mosaic that made up the entire floor, lost in thought. The centrepiece was arguably the depiction of the First Crusade and Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, but that wasn’t what interested him. Closer to the bronze and gold doors there was a motif about Dread Empress Maleficent I, the founder of the Empire. It showed her driving out the Miezans – a historical inaccuracy, as there had only been one bare skeleton of a legion left, but the lie was central to the creation myth of Praes – and uniting the Soninke and the Taghreb. She’d been Taghreb herself, governor of Kahtan under the foreign occupation. The more numerous and politically powerful Soninke had her assassinated within the decade and one of their own took the throne, but you’d never guess it from the way the High Lords were smiling at her side. Behind the humans knelt greenskins, orcs and goblins mingling in abject adoration of their superior. Another lie. The Clans had only been cajoled into joining the Declaration by bribery and the Tribes had to be forced into the fold by violence.

So many lies, for a single floor. A pack of gilded ornaments hastily slapped over an inglorious beginning, carefully polished over the millennia since until they became accepted as the truth of history. What would they say of today in a thousand years, the Black Knight wondered? Would they speak of it as the beginning of a golden age or the whimper of a stillborn rebellion? The nobles and sycophants milled about the hall, clumping together in whispering circles. None of them approached him. Some had tried to play him the fool when he’d been younger, thinking a Duni would be easy prey, but the trail of corpses he’d left behind since had dissuaded them of the notion. Still, at least some of them should have been trying to forge an alliance with him to better their fortunes under the new regime. Word of his many disagreements with the presumptive Emperor must have spread. Was this the prelude to an attempt to remove him form the game entirely? He found the thought amused him. Chancellor’s intentions upon taking the throne were still a mystery to him, though he could make some educated guesses.

He was shaken out of his thoughts when the man in question strode through the open doors. The whispers stilled and the crowd parted reverently as the Chancellor walked to the throne. Running a hand on the stone and iron the man stood there for a moment, smiling. Finally, he sat and the crowd let out a single breath. Relief, envy, admiration. Already vultures were gathering behind the curtains of professed loyalty, scheming how they would carve out an advantage from the succession. There would be need for a new Chancellor, and that Name was ever brimming with claimants. For now, though, they knelt. Like a wave washing upon the floor, the mighty fell to their knees – until the wave reached him. Amadeus stood, leaning against the wall.

“You take liberties, Black Knight, that I have not allowed,” the Chancellor said.

The rebuke resounded like the crack of a whip in the silence of the hall. Black pushed himself off the wall and strolled to the centre of the crowd.

“I,” he said, “do not kneel.”

The Chancellor chuckled.

“I may yet allow you this privilege, should you prove loyal,” he said.

The fury wafting from the nobility, still kneeling, was delightful. Truly, it was making Amadeus’ day. Coming here had been worth it just for that. The older man continued speaking when it became obvious Black did not intend to reply.

“You will hunt down the wretched concubine Alaya, who murdered my predecessor,” the Chancellor said. “You will drag her in chains to this hall, so I may render judgement.”

Amadeus smiled.

“No.”

“This is an order Black Knight,” the man barked. “As Dread Emperor Baleful the First, I command your obedience.”

“I serve the Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of all She Beholds,” he said. “You have no right to command me, Chancellor. Or to sit on this throne.”

“This is treason,” the man screamed.

“This is inevitability,” Amadeus replied.

Some of the crowd rose. Swords were unsheathed, incantations whispered. It would be for naught.

“Some of you,” the Black Knight said, “will fight this. Will cling to the old order, futile as it may be. For you I come bearing the word of the Empress.”

He grinned, wide and sharp and vicious.

“Tremble, o ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”

I woke up.

I did not gasp for air, or blink in surprise. I was just… awake. The dream I’d just had I remembered with perfect clarity, my teacher’s last words echoing in my head. They felt like a warning. They felt like a promise. I pushed myself up into a sitting position only then noticing that someone’s hand was on my shoulder, helping me up. Dark skin, slender fingers. Apprentice. I did not feel his touch at all. There were bound to be a few downsides to being an undead abomination, I supposed.

“Catherine,” Masego said, studying me carefully through his spectacles. “Do you understand me?”

“In general?” I said. “Like, maybe half the time. The rest I just nod and pretend it’s obvious.”

“You just got sassed by a corpse, warlock’s get,” a voice said. “That’s gotta sting.”

I glanced in that direction and saw Robber crouched on a crate, expression unreadable. We were inside a house, I realized. Where I couldn’t be sure. My throat itched and I ran a finger on it, feeling stitches. So I could feel some things, then. It was just muted, like I interacted with Creation through a veil.

“He cut my head off, didn’t he?” I said.

“And one of your ankles, before we drove him off,” Hakram said.

Him I’d known was in the room without needing to turn. I felt his Name pulse and mine answering to it. There was a connection there, one I did not yet understand. So much about Name lore still remained hidden to me. Was it the same, for Black and Captain? Hakram was, I supposed, my equivalent of the gargantuan Taghreb. With perhaps a little of Scribe thrown in for good measure.

“I guess he learned from the last time,” I said, looking at my similarly stitched-up right leg. Damn, I’d run out of usable limbs at this rate. Of all the habits I could have picked up, why was getting crippled the one to stick? “Doesn’t seem to be hindering me any.”

“You shouldn’t be able to feel pain anymore,” Masego said. “Or pleasure, for that matter. You’re essentially a cadaver with limited sensory abilities.”

“You sweet talker you,” I said, getting up. “How long was I dead?”

Even with the amulet I was wearing under my armour – a receptacle to catch my soul after I died, the way Apprentice had put it – his most conservative estimates had been that it would take him a little over a bell to raise me from the dead. Well, “raise” me was a bit of a misnomer. I was still dead, just walking about. With my soul stuck in a piece of amber hanging off my neck. I’d had better weeks.

“About an hour,” Hakram said.

I blinked in surprise, or would have if my body still worked that way. My eyelids didn’t move until I consciously made them do it. Gods, that was going to be weird.

“Masego?” I prompted.

Robber tossed me by sword belt, which had been taken off me at some point. I buckled deftly, noticing my men had even brought a replacement greave for the one I’d lost to goblinfire. It didn’t match the rest of the gear, but unlike Heiress I didn’t have half a dozen spare suits of armour to draw from.

“A force was helping me along,” the bespectacled mage said. “Your Name, and… something else. It was like Creation did not want you to be dead.”

“Ominous,” I said, tightening the strap on the greave Hakram had handed me.

“Says the undead abomination,” Robber pointed out cheerfully.

“At least I don’t own a jar full of eyeballs,” I said absent-mindedly. “Speaking of dodgy business, Tribune, how’s your progress? Shouldn’t you be out in the field?”

The goblin preened. “No need. We’ve got two out of three already and the third one’s been found. Just a matter of time. Your little trick with the devils made it much easier to get around the city.”

“Don’t posture, it makes you look like the bastard child of an inexplicably green gargoyle and a pigeon,” I said. “Still, good work. I want all three behind our lines the moment you can manage it. No fuckups, there’s a lot riding on this.”

“So I’ve heard,” the goblin said, grinning malevolently. “Up to no good, Boss?”

“Good cut my head off not an hour ago,” I muttered peevishly. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”

I turned towards the more productive members of my posse.

“Where are we, exactly?”

It looked like a house, but too small to be one from the street where I’d gotten stabbed to death. That was still a thing that had happened. I’d call this the worst week of my life, but that would just be taunting fate.

“Past the first barricade,” Adjutant said. “In the forward beachhead of the Fifteenth. When it became clear the devils weren’t going to be a problem Hune marched deeper into the city and smashed through their first line of defence. There’s fighting at the second ring of barricades but we haven’t made another push yet.”

I raised an eyebrow, having to gauge approximately how high it was supposed to go. Gods, this undeath business was a pain. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to stay like this for long.

“Nauk’s kabili has been sent further east to assault through there. Juniper thinks if we hit them on two points they’ll collapse and fall back to the Ducal Palace,” Hakram said.

“If the Swordsman shows up, dividing our forces is gonna be… costly,” I said.

“There’s been no sign of Tall, Dark and Very Stabbable,” Robber said. “Or Queen Smug. I’d put good money on them tangling as we speak.”

“He barely managed to limp away after the beating you gave him,” Adjutant said. “She’ll have the advantage.”

“That’s not good,” I said with a grimace. “She’ll be wanting to meddle with the ritual.”

And I need it, I didn’t say. Only Masego and Hakram were fully in the loop as to the end game of the gambit I’d run by getting myself killed by William. Apprentice had made it clear from the beginning that while he could raise me from the dead, he couldn’t actually resurrect me. True resurrection was the province of Good. That was the underlying pattern: Evil was handed the means to avoid death, Good to reach past it. Staying undead wasn’t an option, as far as I was concerned. Masego could currently puppet me if he so wished, since he held the leash on the spells that had me walking around, but in theory someone could wrest that leash away from him. Warlock definitely could, and given Heiress’ talent with sorcery given enough time I was pretty sure she’d be able to work out something too. There were advantages to my current state but way too many liabilities came with it. Not to mention the whole being a moving corpse aspect. That would put a hamper on quite a few parts of my life, I thought, a certain redhead coming to mind.

I clenched my fingers experimentally. That part seemed to be working fine, and being able to take ridiculous amounts of punishment would come in useful. I reached for my Name and found it weaker than it had been before my death. No, not weaker. Looser. If before it had been a mantle draped comfortably on my shoulders, now it was hanging by a thread. Squires weren’t supposed to die, I supposed. That I was still a Squire at all was something of a disappointment, to be honest.

“You’re frowning,” Adjutant said.

“I was hoping getting myself offed would serve as a shortcut in some ways,” I said. “Maybe lead into another Name.”

Masego chuckled. “You’ve the wrong Role for that,” he said. “You are meant to be the successor to a Knight, whether Black or White. Unless one of them dies you’re quite out of luck.”

“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy,” I said. “Well, aside from a few issues it looks like my little jaunt on the other side filled up the reserves. Next time I scrape with Willy things will go differently.”

“I’m not saying you should mutilate his corpse,” Robber said. “But, you know, if you happen to stumble onto a few eyes I know this guy who has a collection.”

“You don’t even eat them,” Adjutant complained. “It’s a waste, is what that is.”

“I’m going to pretend I never heard that,” I confided in Masego. “When those words I’m definitely not hearing stop, tell Hakram to find his shield. The three of us are going for yet another horrifying magical adventure.”

It was up to debate whether we had good or bad timing, because Hune was about done preparing for her push when we arrived. The ogre was looking at a map held up against a ruined wall by two legionaries, still coming up taller than it even crouched. She saluted crisply when the three of us arrived.

“Lady Squire, Lord Apprentice,” she said, then paused. “Deadhand.”

Deadhand and Dead Girl, I thought, running around foiling Good. There was a song in there.

“What’s the situation, Commander?” I asked.

“Commander Nauk has begun his offensive,” the ogre said. “Already the rebels have started stripping their defences here to reinforce the east. Legate Juniper intends for us to hit them when the troops are beyond the two points, overwhelming them in detail.”

Good ol’ Hellhound, baiting the enemy into a mistake and then slitting their throat over it.

“Any sign of the heroes?” I said.

“None at the moment,” the gargantuan woman said. “Though we have sapper lines ready should they make an appearance. I take it you’re here to join the assault, my lady?”

“We won’t be sticking around,” I said. “We’ll be using it as cover to head for a target deeper into the city.”

The ogre nodded slowly, the clever eyes set in that brutish face studying me patiently.

“The place where the ritual is,” she said. “You believe the Lady Heiress intends further mischief.”

“Something like that,” I said.

The ogre’s buckler-sized hands tightened into fists. There seemed to be genuine anger in him, perhaps the first display of open emotion I’d ever seen from her.

“That woman is in dire need of killing,” Hune rumbled. “Treason against the Tower cannot be tolerated.”

“Preaching to the choir there,” I said. “Who’s at the tip of your offensive?”

“Tribune Ubaid,” Hune said.

Ah, an old friend then. No doubt the former captain would find this scrap a pleasant stroll after our fun little evening with the devils near Marchford. Interesting choice to put regulars in front, but I supposed that with all the fresh recruits in the Fifteenth Hune was looking to blood some of her legionaries.

“I’ll get out of your hair, Hune,” I said.

“Good hunting, Lady Squire. One sin,” the ogre said hammering a hand against her breastplate.

“One grace,” I replied, doing the same.

Finding Ubaid was easy enough. His legionaries were already formed up, the rest of the kabili falling in line behind them. The Soninke was inspecting the gear of his first line, handing out praise and criticism freely. His cohort of two hundred milled with excitement as we approached, smelling the blood to come. The man himself snapped a sharp salute.

“Lady Squire.”

“Ubaid,” I said warmly. “We’ll be joining you for the assault.”

“An argument could be made they’ll be joining us,” Masego said.

“Don’t mind Apprentice,” I said, “he always gets crabby right before the swords come out.”

“I do not-”

“You’re making her point for her, Masego,” Hakram whispered loudly.

The mage closed his mouth with a snap, looking disgruntled. Ubaid looked like he badly wanted to be somewhere else but was too polite to flee. It would be strange going into battle without the Gallowborne at my back, but I’d elected to leave them behind since I wouldn’t be taking them with me to the ritual site anyway. Currently they were with Juniper at the central command node, charged with guarding the trump cards I’d tasked Robber with finding me. I took the lead as we began the march, the other two at my side. Hune had chosen one of the main arteries as her angle of attack, though I could glimpse legionaries spread out over the two adjoining streets as well. Tribune Ubaid’s cohort remained concentrated on the avenue we were using, as per Legion doctrine. It was a short walk to the second ring of barricades, and when we got there I saw there were already sappers in place. A company at most, but they were keeping the rebels busy by taking crossbow shots whenever a Callowan peeked out from behind the barricades.

I was reluctantly impressed by what the defenders had managed to build as their rampart. Unlike the upended carts and sacks of sand and grain of the first barricades, these ones had foundations of stone pulled from Gods knew where. There was narrow path through the rampart leading straight into a smaller barricade, which would force my legionaries to split between two sides when trying to overwhelm it. I couldn’t see what the defenders were standing on from where I was, but some sort of scaffolding must have been built behind the wall: a handful of men were watching us, crouching down behind the walls whenever one of the sappers took aim at them. Taking this promised to be costly, I assessed, and the numbers were on the side of the defenders. As far as I could figure Hune was going to collapse the barricades with munitions and charge through the wreck as soon as the defenders were positioned to stop Ubaid’s cohort, catching them flatfooted. It should work. The prospect of the losses displeased me, though. On both sides.

What point was there in continuing to kill the rebels when the battle was as good as done? Without William around to stiffen their spines, I might actually be able to talk them into a surrender. It was worth a try instead of jumping straight into the slaughter, anyway. I signalled for Ubaid’s cohort to slow and went for the wall, sword still sheathed. From the corner of my eye I saw one of the archers knocking an arrow and waited – the shaft was released and I tapped into my Name, watching it come closer. Snatching the arrowhead out of the air was what I was intending to do, but it ended up being more along the line of catching it with my palm. There was, I reflected, no real way to play that off as if it had been my intention all along. I didn’t feel any pain from the wound, so simply sighed and broke off the shaft before wiggling the rest out. There was a gasp of horror from the barricade and I heard someone say the word Squire. Good, there’d be no need for introductions. Some of the sappers were about to answer the shot in kind so I immediately spoke up.

“Hold,” I said. “You, behind the walls. I’m Catherine Foundling, ranking commander of the Fifteenth. Who’s in charge here?”

There was a round of hushed conversation behind cover until a confident voice quieted it. A few heartbeats later a woman rose to the top of the barricade, dressed in good plate. Even under the helmet I recognized those silvery strands of hair and that pale, strikingly beautiful face: it appeared I was in front of the Baroness Dormer herself. I’d seen her exactly once before, when I’d been a child. She’d visited Laure to settle a trade dispute and I’d managed to be part of the crowd watching her ride into the city. I’d skipped lessons for it, if I remembered well, because I’d wanted to see the noble so many people said was the loveliest woman in Callow with my own eyes. I cleared my throat, absurdly amused to be standing in front of the same woman who’d made me realize I was attracted to both genders in such a different situation.

“That would be me,” the Baroness said. “You’ll forgive for not bowing, Lady Foundling. I no longer recognize the authority of the Tower.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said drily.

“I was also under the impression you were dead,” the woman continued.

“Not nearly as much of a problem as you’d think,” I mused.

“Impressive, but we planned to defend the city against you regardless,” the Baroness said. “I have no intention of surrendering my men so they can be butchered in Malicia’s name.”

“That’s about to happen if you don’t surrender, Baroness,” I said. “I’m willing to give you fairly lenient terms to end this without further bloodshed. Prisoners will be treated fairly.”

The silver-haired woman’s eyes narrowed.

“The Tower has only one way of dealing with rebellion.”

“You’ve been out of the loop for too long,” I said. “Black granted amnesty to the vast majority of the Countess Marchford’s host. Nobody wants to drown the south in blood, least of all me.”

“The vast majority,” she repeated. “And what of the Countess herself?”

“Executed,” I admitted. “That, however, was Black. He’s not here, I am. Liesse is mine to deal with as I see fit, by Imperial mandate. I you surrender I promise amnesty for your men and a fair trial for you.”

She seemed almost amused by that.

“That I committed treason by the Tower’s reckoning isn’t exactly in dispute,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “But all I’ve heard of you leads me to believe you got involved in this because you believed Callow would be better off for the rebellion. That rebellion is over, Baroness Dormer. But you can still spare the people who fought for you.”

She hesitated.

“We could hold you off behind the barricades,” she said.

“Apprentice could level those with three words and a wave of his hand,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Five and really more of a flick,” the overweight mage corrected.

“Not the time, Masego,” I said under my breath, watching the noblewoman on the wall.

“The Lone Swordsman said you were treacherous and silver-tongue,” she admitted ruefully.

“I’m sure he’s said a lot of things. You should be more worried about the things he hasn’t said, though. I’m betting he didn’t inform you that the ritual going on is to bring an angel of Contrition to the city,” I said.

She paled, and just like that I knew I had her. William, you didn’t think this through. They’re not heroes, they’re just people. No one signed up for your personal Crusade. It’s one thing to be ready to die for Callow, it’s another to be conscripted by the Heavens.

“You’re lying,” the Baroness said.

“Noticed how he stopped carrying that sword of his around? That was a Hashmallim’s feather, I’m told. Three guesses what it’s being used for, and the first two are also summoning an angel,” I said.

“How can you be so pithy about this?” she asked, sounding horrified.

“Because I’m going to cut his throat – for the second time today, mind you – and put an end to all of this,” I said. “This is what I do, Baroness. I clean up the messes made by the fools. I did it at Three Hills, I did it at Marchford and I’ll do it again here. Gods as my witness, I’ll keep on going until there’s peace from Daoine to the shores of the Hengest.”

I met her eyes calmly.

“I could threaten you now,” I said. “Point out that I punched a devil the size of a fortress so hard it died or that I basically walked off getting decapitated not an hour ago. But I don’t really need to, do I? You know who I am. What I’m going to tell you instead is that I’ve had a very long day – and that I won’t be making this offer twice.”

I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

Choose.”

She folded. She dithered a while still, but she folded. I wished it actually felt like a victory, and not like I’d just broken my homeland’s spine over my knee. I didn’t stick around to oversee the rest of the surrender. I handed it off to Hune after getting in contact with Nauk’s kabili with a scrying spell. The orc commander had already broken through his section of the barricade but my orders were enough to restrain him even after he’d gotten his blood up. The Baroness managed to get most of the remaining soldiers to surrender, but some refused and tried to retreat. There was only one way that was going to end, but I didn’t have the time to spare pity for the last gasps of this rebellion. We headed north again, towards the lake.

“The site won’t actually be in Creation,” Apprentice said. “Well, technically yes, but depending on whether or not you adhere to orthodox Trismegistan theory it-”

“Masego,” I said sharply.

The dark-skinned man cleared his throat.

“I’m saying getting there won’t be as simple as taking a rowboat and rowing to an island that doesn’t, precisely speaking, exist.”

“If you were trying to make this simpler,” Hakram said gravely, “you have failed.”

Apprentice looked frustrated, passing a hand through his sweaty mess of braids. We’d taken a brisk pace, and military life had yet to get him in better shape.

“Look,” he said. “This place is an angel’s corpse, more or less. Angels are of Creation, but not in Creation.”

I ignored the “depending on what school of thought you believe is correct as to the nature of Spheres and Laws” he added in a mutter afterwards. I didn’t know if it was possible to have a headache while undead and wasn’t particularly eager to find out.

“Practically speaking,” I said, “what does that mean?”

“The site is effectively on Creation without being part of it,” Masego said. “Like a pebble on a larger rock. There are… rules though. There has to be a way in, for something like that to be able to exist. A connecting point, where the pebble touches the rock.”

“So we use that,” Hakram said.

“That would be ideal,” Apprentice said. “If it’s still there.”

I glanced at the bespectacled mage. “You think Heiress blocked the way?”

“Or the Lone Swordsman,” he said. “If he knows how.”

William had never struck as being particularly knowledgeable about stuff like this, but he didn’t have to be. Not with the Wandering Bard on his team. And isn’t your absence starting to make me a little nervous, Almorava? What are you up to? Guided by Apprentice, we eventually happened upon the shore of the Hengest lake. There were actual docks further east but that wasn’t what Masego had been looking for, apparently. I was pretty sure what he had was right in front of us: a small, thin rowboat without oars. It was pale and the prow was swan-shaped. It was also on fire, which was much less promising. Almost nothing but the prow remained, the rest sinking into the water.

“I’m thinking Heiress,” I said.

“It does bear her tender and delicate touch,” Adjutant said. “Apprentice, I hope you have another way to get us in.”

“No,” the Soninke said then remained silent for a moment. “Not us, anyway.”

“You made that unnecessarily tense,” I told him gently.

He blinked in confusion and I decided there were more pressing matters at hand.

“Explain,” I said.

“Pebble, larger rock,” he said.

“Many syllables,” I said, “Catherine confused.”

“And so they all died, because the Squire couldn’t ever miss an opportunity to be sarcastic,” Hakram said gravely.

I cleared my throat, or at least tried. The sound that came out was more like I was choking on my own lungs. Dying was proving increasingly troublesome.

“Look,” Apprentice said. “The rule is, there must be a connection. There’s none available, so Creation will work with me if I try to make one. I’m creating a second, smaller pebble that touches both the larger pebble and the rock.”

“Honestly, you could have just said you’re creating a pocket dimension that touches both the site and Creation,” I said.

“Gods, why am I even on your side?” Masego complained, throwing up his hands in the air.

“You like us, though Hells if I know why,” I said, patting him on the back. “Now about that metaphorical smaller pebble. You went all exacting in a way I’m guessing means not all of us can go.”

“I’ll be casting,” Apprentice said. “And I need an anchor, temporary as it will be.”

“Does it have to be Hakram?” I asked.

“That depends,” he replied. “Do you want the pocket realm to collapse on you while I get non-Named smear on my boots?”

“No,” Adjutant interrupted before I could reply. “No she does not.”

I shot the orc a look. I’d been going to say as much. Eventually.

“So just me, then,” I said. “This doesn’t feel even remotely like a coincidence.”

“Three Named want this city,” Hakram said. “Three Named fight for it. The pattern comes to a head.”

“This is about more than just Liesse,” I said. “This is about all of Callow.”

I started to pass a hand through my hair but remembered halfway through the gesture I was still wearing my helmet. Awkwardly I brought the arm down, hoping neither of them had noticed. I cleared my throat again, this time with a little more success.

“Do your thing, Apprentice.”

Apparently Masego couldn’t just wave his arm and rewrite the fabric of Creation, which was very inconvenient of him. I almost told him as much but Hakram gave me a look of his own. I almost tried to pout at Adjutant, but refrained when I forced myself to visualize how horrifying it would actually look. It took too long for Apprentice to prepare his spell for my tastes, but before an hour had passed he was ready.

“The entrance will only be open for a handful of heartbeats,” he warned me. “Be quick. And remember, you’ll have to find your own way back.”

He put a hand on Hakram’s shoulder and spoke urgently in the mage tongue, palm pointed in front of him. I almost didn’t see the portal when it appeared. It was transparent and oval – and shorter than me. Adjutant likely wouldn’t have been able to fit through even if he hadn’t been needed as an anchor. Gritting my teeth, I took a running start and threw myself into the pocket dimension.

I landed in a roll on the other side, managing to stay on my feet for a moment before the disorientation hit and I fell in a sprawl. I hastily got up, warily casting a look around. I was apparently on a wide strip of rock that stood over an inky black void. Charming. I didn’t get close enough to the edge to have a look down. I did not want to be the first undead to ever throw up. I’d never been great with heights, even if the crippling aspect of that fear was long behind me. The terrain ahead of me was broken, full of spires and pitfalls. I made my face grimace out of sheer distaste for the work ahead of me, then got moving. Climbing higher allowed me to peer in the distance, where I saw a gate of light. At least that part was visible. I got halfway through before I slipped and fell at the bottom of well of spires, cursing loudly on my way down. Plate armour wasn’t exactly climbing gear, even when you no longer felt its weight. I wedged my boot in an opening and clasped my fingers around an outcropping that should allow me to pull myself out when my arm started trashing about.

The spells animating me? No. I felt heat for the first time since I’d woken up, searing and bloody. Worse than even getting hit with William’s light had felt. I fell back down, screaming in pain as my limbs shook uncontrollably. How long that lasted I couldn’t tell, but eventually my limbs stilled. I felt… empty. Like some part of me was missing.

“Funny,” a voice said. “That should have killed you.”

I looked up and saw a face peering down at me over the rocky ridge. Half of one, anyway. Horrific burns and sword wound had taken most of the left half. The rest was of a red nearly orange. I’d only ever met one goblin that colour.

“Chider,” I rasped.

“Please, Catherine,” the dead goblin said, “Call me Squire.”

Smiling pleasantly, she dropped a lit sharper on my head.

Chapter 44: Victory

“Does not show traditional heroic talent for forging strong friendships but considered a leader by her peers. Responds aggressively to threats. Displays continued recklessness and an aptitude for thinking on her feet. This agent recommends disposal before she can turn into a legitimate threat to the peace of the realm.”
– Report ‘for the eyes of Lord Black only’, concerning the Imperial ward Catherine Foundling

“GALLOWBORNE, TIGHTEN RANKS!”

My personal guard dragged the wounded behind their shield wall and began retreating in good order under the bellowed instructions of Captain Farrier. They’d held up surprisingly well against the assault of the devils, I saw. Less than a line of casualties. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that they’d fought defensively and not been the focus of the hellspawn to start with, but there was more to it than that. They’d held the line against devils before, at Marchford. They’d been through the crucible already, and all the soldiers who would have flinched in front of the howling horde were already dead. To borrow one of the more brutal sayings of the Queen of Blades, war had separated the wheat from the chaff. I fell back behind the protection of the shield wall, Adjutant swatting down anything that came even remotely close to us. Masego, I saw, had already done the same. My Callowan soldiers gave him as wide a berth as they could: Apprentice had shown enough of what he could do that my rank and file stepped lightly around him.

Getting back to my personal guard had been a matter of running more than fighting. The Gallowborne were now at the back end of the avenue where most of the fight had taken place, backs against a stone guildhouse to limit how many angles they’d have to defend. I took a look back to where I’d done most of my fighting today and grimaced: it was packed with devils, milling around and beginning to mass for an offensive against my men. No sign of William, though there was no doubt the bastard was still alive. It would take more than devils to do in the Lone Swordsman, even if he didn’t have his creepy sword. I bit my lip and considered my options. Heiress had either run off on a horse northwards or tried to fake me out again by continuing on foot to the east. I was inclined to believe she’d been on the horse: she wouldn’t be as sanguine disposing of her Praesi minions as her hired ones, and Fadila had followed her on the ride. Could be how she’s selling this, though. I resisted the urge to spit and set the matter aside. Wasting time to speculate on her tricks was playing right into her hand.

North or west? North of us there was the ritual site the Lone Swordsman was using to bring the angel into Creation, which my gut told me was her target. Whatever she was intending to do to that ritual, it couldn’t be allowed to come to pass. She was dangerous enough without having stolen an angel’s power or worse, corrupted it. There were precedents for that, though they were legend and not recorded history. Not that the existing Praesi records were all that reliable, considering Tyrants were the ones who decided what got written. Even worse, with Callowan histories largely put to the torch or confiscated after the Conquest there were no other record to cross-examine them with. North, I decided. It would have to be north. Trying to force our way through the devils was a recipe for a rout, even with three Named on our side, so we’d have to swing around. What was it Heiress had said, when she’d fucked us over? Two hundred paces. How much ground would that actually cover? Was it centred around her? It made most sense as a circle, but even if that was the case that didn’t tell me whether those two hundred paces were the radius or the diameter. That’s why we bring specialists, Catherine.

“Masego,” I said, jolting the mage out of his thoughts. “What Heiress did, with the devils. How does it work?”

The dark-skinned mage pushed up his glasses.

“I layman’s terms, she put down a metaphysical banner where she stood that formed a ward. Inside that ward, the eight binding for devils she’s summoned is lifted.”

In the distance a crossbow bolt caught a jackalhead in the chest. The devil yelped and retreated, but they were beginning to test our defences. We couldn’t linger here much longer.

“What’s the shape of the ward?”

“Circle,” he immediately replied. “Cast this hastily, it can only be that.”

“And the two hundred paces…”

“Diameter,” he frowned. “I’m assuming, considering the amount of sorcery she used to create it.”

Good news. Five streets to the right should be enough, maybe seven if they were too narrow. We’d lose time going around but that couldn’t be helped. I closed my eyes, visualizing what Heiress had done. Wait, Masego had said a ward. A fixed point, then, that she wouldn’t be able to control after she’d made it unless she was on hand.

“Apprentice,” I said slowly. “That ward, can you affect it?”

He blinked. “Given enough time I could break it, if that’s what you’re asking. Would there be a point to that? They can’t misbehave outside its boundaries, and what she did to lift the binding seems to be attracting them.”

Yes, I’d noticed that last part. I almost smiled, showing my teeth. Hakram let out a bark of laughter and Masgeo looked confused.

“Apprentice, when she lifted a binding she made a hole right?”

“You want me to lay a binding of my own,” the mage immediately understood.

It was always a pleasure to work with clever people.

“Right now every devil in Liesse is drawn to this ward like it’s a beacon,” I said. “Let them. When they get here, though? Make them fight.”

Modifying the ward was much faster than dismantling it, though not without problems. Heiress had laid traps into its structure, because of course she had. Masego took the precaution of creating a small levitating orb of light that sucked in the torrent of black flames that spewed out the moment he accessed the ward structure. He also had to take apart a set of fake runes he assured me would have rotted my eyes in their sockets if I’d looked at them. Still, before the devils mounted a proper attack he finished the job. What I saw afterwards was a sight I would take to my grave. I’d witnessed great and terrible things, since leaving Laure. Walked the grounds of the Tower and passed through the Hall of Screams. I’d watched a battlefield turn into a hellish wasteland of green flames at Three Hills, fought a fully incarnated demon in the ruins of Marchford. None of those held a candle to seeing a thousand devils rip each other apart gleefully in a massive melee, rending each other’s bodies apart with tooth and claw. I felt a shudder go through the Gallowborne as they watched, awed by the sight of the monsters turning on each other mercilessly. We didn’t stick around to see the fight play out, turning west to swing around the ward.

There was no banter, not after the mess we’d just left behind. My soldiers were in a subdued mood, and as I rode Zombie I kept an eye out on our surroundings. Twice I glimpsed goblins on rooftops, nodding back to their salutes before they scampered into the shadows. Robber’s cohort had been given a very specific task and it was pleasing to see they were on top of things. This particularly plan I’d hatched with Aisha’s help, and though events had conspired to complicate its completion I’d also been handed a golden pretext to use it. By the time we’d begun marching north again we’d gotten deep enough inside the city I was surprised we weren’t running into rebel soldiers. They must have retreated past the second ring of defences, though who had actually given that order was anyone’s guess. William must have been in overall command by sheer virtue of being a hero, but he wasn’t a battlefield commander. My money was on the Baroness Dormer, which wasn’t a bad thing for the Fifteenth. As far as I knew she hadn’t fought in the Conquest and had no real military experience. She was the kind of opponent Juniper would eat for breakfast.

The narrowness of the street we were in had forced the Gallowborne into a column instead of a stronger formation, which made me uncomfortable. These would not be good fighting grounds if we ran into the enemy. I was considering moving us to a broader avenue when I saw a single silhouette ahead of us, walking calmly towards my men. Trouble, I thought, calling a halt.

“There has to be another way,” Adjutant said quietly.

“We’ve discussed this before,” Apprentice replied flatly.

We had, and it was too late to back out now. I’d try talking first, but my history with talking sense into people was a littlecheckered. Still, who knew? There were a lot of ways for the third encounter between a hero and a villain to go. Few of those to my advantage, but sometimes you had to roll the dice even if the game was rigged. William paused four city blocks away from my forces, casually sweeping his sword along the ground. The brute strength and speed of the sweep created swirls of wind in front of him, scattering dust. The message was clear: the Gallowborne were not to advance any further. I dismounted Zombie, idly checking my weapons. My throwing knives were safely secured, and the satchel on the back of my belt held tight. Passing the shield wall, I strode forward to meet the Lone Swordsman on the field. His scrap with the devils had cost him no wounds, I saw. His long coat was torn in several places, but somehow that just made him look rugged. The chain mail under was still pristine and his dark hair stylishly tousled.

I was drenched in sweat under my plate, my bad leg ached and my hair had knotted against the edge of my open-faced helmet in a way that itched. Fucking heroes. He probably smelled liked flowers, I thought bitterly, while I smelled like horse and blood and being in over my head for at least the tenth time this year.

“And so we meet again,” William said, green eyes cold.

“That’s usually what happens when you go looking for people,” I spoke drily.

“As Heiress is no within my reach at the moment, I must call our truce at an end,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“Who would have seen that coming,” I spoke in a monotone. “Alas, you’ve taken me by surprise. Curse your unexpected betrayal.”

Apparently the hero hadn’t foreseen quite this much mockery when he’d prepared for this conversation in his head, because he did a piss poor job of hiding how irritated he was. Honestly, that was on him. I’d never shown him any respect before, why would I start now?

“Die,” he said. “And not nicely.”

“Villains have limited retirement options, William,” I said gently. “This isn’t exactly a revelation to me. What I’m curious about, though, is what happens after. Say you manage to kill me. What then?”

“Then your legion loses its leader,” he said. “I rally the army of Callow and we drive your butchers out of Liesse.”

“I’m not giving out any orders at the moment,” I pointed out. “My legate is. And as for you driving the Fifteenth out of this city…  Well, the last time it fought a battle against a proper army, it spanked a force twice its size of professional soldiers. Half of which was mounted. You think levies and a bit of southern retinue is going to stand up to veterans like them? William, my soldiers brutalized devils when they were just a bare skeleton of a legion. They’re led by a woman so clever she sometimes scares me, and we’re on the same fucking side.”

“Are you quite done boasting?” the Lone Swordsman asked with disdain.

I ground my teeth, pushing down my flaring temper. Gods, it was like talking to a stone wall that was just sentient enough to be an obstinate jackass.

“What I’m telling is that this battle is over,” I said. “We’re in the city. There’s no walls to hide behind and your barricades are just going give my sappers a good laugh. There’s no winning this for you anymore, William. My death makes no real difference. If anything it just makes it easier for Apprentice or Adjutant to kill you afterwards – no more Rule of Three keeping you alive.”

“All those pretty sentences covering for one word: surrender,” he mocked. “That’s always been your answer, hasn’t it Catherine? Licking the Tower’s boot and hoping your foreign paymasters take pity on us.”

“For once in your life,” I growled, “try to think beyond your pride. What are you accomplishing here? The rebellion is over, William.  The Duke of Liesse is dead. Black dispersed the Countess’ army without even giving battle. Procer has its own troubles in the south and it can’t afford to open up another front. There are no reinforcements coming for you. You are alone.

“Yes,” he smiled strangely. “Alone. It was, I think, always supposed to end like this. It is… fitting.”

“This isn’t a story, William,” I said tiredly. “Thousands of people are going to die. It won’t be glorious, it won’t be heroic. It’ll just be piles of corpses littering the streets getting picked at by the crows. All those lives snuffed out for no good reason.”

“You know, I once told Almorava the very same thing,” the hero said. “About it not being a story. I was wrong. This is a story, Catherine. It always was. Even this conversation is part of it: my last temptation before the end. I made a choice, Squire, and I stand by it. Some things are worth dying for.”

“And the people of Liesse, are you choosing for them too? Because when Contrition comes calling, it won’t ask them nicely to enrol. You’re robbing them of free will so you can play the leading role in your little tragedy.”

“You know little of the Hashmallim,” he said. “All they do is show you the truth of what you are. Of what Creation is. They don’t force anyone’s hand, Catherine. They don’t have to, once you understand. There is only one path forward.”

“All you’re doing is letting some creature from another realm into the heads of hundreds of thousands to tinker with their will,” I snarled. “Gods save us all from principled men. You’re really the same as he is, when it comes down to it. You have a point to make and you don’t care what it costs to everyone else. Because you want to be right, even if half the continent burns for it. At least villains own what they are.”

William laughed.

“And what do you stand for, Catherine Foundling?” he challenged. “Over a year we’ve fought, you and I, and I’ve yet to see you take a stance. You claim your way is the one that works, but what have you actually accomplished? You don’t have morals, Squire. You don’t have beliefs. Like a reed, you bend however the wind blows.”

“I want peace,” I said. “I want order. I want good crops and fair taxes. I want Callow to prosper, and I don’t care who rules it as long as it does. If I have to strike deals with monsters to see that done, I will. Kingdoms, empires, they’re just lies we all agree on so our lives have a frame. What matters is the people, not the deceit. The Kingdom of Callow is no longer a lie that serves its people, and so it needs to die.”

“A kingdom is more than the sum of its people,” William said. “It has a higher meaning, a higher purpose. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Callow, and so I am free. And I will fight so that one day all other Callowans can claim the same.”

“I should have killed you, that first night,” I said. “I didn’t understand what I was unleashing. I thought I did, Gods forgive me, but I could not have been more wrong.”

“Too late,” the Lone Swordsman said, sword rising. “Let us end this, Squire. This time, there is no Warlock to save you.”

I unsheathed my sword calmly.

“If I’m going to beat a truth into you today, William, it’s this one: I’m the person people need saving from.”

He moved like lightning. The longsword carved through the space where my head had been a heartbeat earlier, but I’d ducked under the swing and rammed my fist into his stomach. It didn’t do much – I doubted he’d even bruise – but I wove my Name into a trick and a quick burst of shadowy energy pushed him back. I pressed the advantage, feinting for his arm but turning it into a lunge that would take him through the throat. His blade came up to slap mine away as he twirled gracefully and I smiled. With his old sword, he might have managed to cut through my blade with his own. Now, though? Now we both fought with steel. The fight was a little more even. I moved sideways, circling him slowly, and he moved to match me. I’d meant to continue doing that until the afternoon sun was in his eyes – unlike me he had no helmet to shield his sight – but the bastard knew his way around a sword fight. Right before he would have stepped where I wanted him to, he ran a finger along the length of his sword. There was a flash of blinding light but I was prepared for it: he’d pulled a similar trick in our last duel and I’d been thinking of counters even since.

Sharpening my senses with my Name was one of the first tricks I’d learned, but it had taken me a while to realize I could also do the opposite. For less than a heartbeat, I blinded myself. When my sight came back I caught his wrist as he brought his sword down to cave my head in, my own sword swiping at his lower leg. I drew blood through the thick leather boots and spun away from him, hastily giving grounds. Gods Below, pushing back his swing even for a moment had nearly broken my arm. He was stronger than the last time we’d fought, and I didn’t mean that in an abstract sense: he was physically stronger. And faster too, I was pretty sure. How he’d managed that without putting on muscles mass I couldn’t know, but it felt like Name shenanigans at work. I spat to the side in dismay. My own Name had never been gracious enough to give me anything physical but better reflexes, which apparently all Named got anyway. Fucking heroes. I’d deal with it anyway. If I’d learned anything from our last duel it was that I wasn’t going to beat him with a sword. Brute force had never been my thing, when it came down to it: trickery and cheating had been my bread and butter since the first time I’d stepped into the Pit.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Swordsman noted.

“Your Name is bullshit and so are you,” I said.

I probed his defences with the tip of my sword but he was not so easily baited. I feigned a strike to his side but had to hastily retreat when his blade came within an inch of my throat. He turned the strike into a blow at my shoulder, pushing forward, but I spun around him. For a heartbeat we were back to back and I slipped my free hand inside the satchel at my belt, snatching a sharper. As we pivoted again to face each other I pushed a trickle of power into my hand, energy crackling around my fingers. Savouring the look of surprise on his face, I punched him in the stomach with the clay ball. It detonated loudly, tossing him like a rag doll. It also broke three of my fingers, but that was just the price of doing business. Focusing for a heartbeat, I wove threads of necromancy and snapped the bones back in place as I rushed after him. He tried to get up but my armoured boot slammed into his chest, knocking him back down. I had to step back to avoid a strike that would have slipped in the weak point of my greaves but I took out a throwing knife and flicked it at his sword hand, relying on my Name’s reflexes to guide the throw. It nailed him right in the wrist and he hissed in pain.

Apparently I’d hit a nerve – or an artery – because there was a flicker of power before a burst of light emanated from his frame. I deftly stepped out of range, but William took the occasion to get back to his feet. The light had pushed the knife out of his wrist, I saw, and the wound was already closing. Well, that’s new. Taking him apart piece by piece wasn’t an option, then. His wrist was still bloodied, I noticed, so I supposed bleeding him out was still possible. There was a lot of blood in a human being, though. Odds were I’d run out of throwing knives before he ran out of red to bleed. More than that, I couldn’t count on him running out of power anytime soon. He’d flatly outclassed me in that regard even before Masego had carved out a third of my Name. You might say I was out of my depth.  Engaged in an uphill battle. It was, most definitely, a Struggle. Something dark rose in the back of my mind at the thought, howling in rage at the Heavens as my Name finally woke up. My veins warmed with power and I grinned.

“Let’s try that again,” I said.

I dashed forward, the pain in my leg gone as the pavement stone gave under the pressure of my charge. I lowered my head under the Swordsman’s swing and unsheathed my knife, ripping through his sleeve as I passed him. The chain mail under held, but I felt the rings get carved. Goblin steel had few equals on the continent. He pivoted to hack at my shoulder but I parried the blow with my knife, forcing him to step around the arc of a sword strike that would have cleaved through his neck. Clasping my wrist with his free hand he forced it down, the sheer strength of his grip denting plate armour, but I rammed my knee his stomach. He staggered back, releasing my wrist, and I slammed the pommel of my sword on the crown of his head. He let out a curse and backed away, bleeding where I’d struck. I wasn’t about to let him recover: in a matter of moments I was on him again, swinging as my Name laughed in delight. Evidently he didn’t use his head much, because the hit hadn’t slowed him down: with a deft twirl of his sword he ripped my knife out of my hand, allowing the chain mail on his arm to catch my sword at an angle that made the blow impotent. I stepped back, abandoning the knife, and he tried to make distance so he could take back the flow of the engagement from me. Screw that, I thought, and reached for my satchel again. I tossed a brightstick at him and he looked insultingly sceptical until I aimed my hand at it and shot a small burst of shadow and caught the spinning munitions in the air.

The brightstick exploded inches away from his faces with a burst of light and deafening sound. I’d closed my eyes even as I moved forward. It was too much to hope that he’d be permanently blinded and have his eardrums burst the way a normal man would, but a moment was all I needed. Somehow, even blinded, he managed to catch my first strike with his sword. I let him pass, spinning my wrist to turn the attack into an arcing blow that caught his shoulder. I’d reached into my Name as I struck, drawing on its strength, and I felt the mail give. My blade came away red. Once again I felt his power rise but I grit my teeth and reached for my own, striking at his chest with the heaviest spear of shadows I could muster. The rest of his duster was torn blown through, his power scattered and the mail smoked. I was winning. Gods, I was actually winning. He’d fallen to his knees, but his eyes were working now. Snarling, he hacked at my flank. I let the armour take it, half-stepping to blunt the impact. My hand reached for my satchel a third time, taking out a sharper.

His eyes widened and I could see the thought process going through his mind, clear as day. I’d finish moving before he could reposition his sword to stop me. His mouth opened, to say what I did not know. His power flickered a third time but with a snarl of triumph I shoved the sharper into his open mouth. Before the light could fully manifest I’d shot a burst of shadow at the sharper and it blew.

The Lone Swordsman’s body skidded across the stones, his precious light doing nothing to help him. When the momentum stopped carrying him he did not manage get up, limbs twitching weakly. I could already feel the power I’d gotten from my aspect leaving me more with every heartbeat – I’d been liberal with its use, which had made it end even faster than usual. I knew the moment it was gone I’d be exhausted and my leg would be a very real problem, so I had to end this quickly. Trap, I thought as I moved forward. This feels like a godsdamned trap. A downed hero who just got the beating of his life, unable to move? This was the part where I made my monologue and he begun his comeback. I couldn’t just leave him there, though. He’d already shown he could heal himself to an extent and if he came back from this I was in deep, deep trouble. I’d give it better than half odds I’d be flat out of juice the moment my aspect tapped out. And if it comes to a contest of skill between us, I’m going to die a very ugly death. Well, I did have one last surprise in my satchel. Very carefully, I took out my last clay ball. I had to sheathe my sword to strike a pinewood match and light the fuse on the goblinfire. Heart beating fast, I tossed the projectile at the hero.

I knew, before the ball was even halfway there, that I’d made a mistake. The Lone Swordsman’s arm rose weakly, brandishing his sword. He rasped out one word.

Swing.”

His wrist flicked and a gale blew as if he’d cleaved the world in half.  The goblinfire exploded in the air, spreading in droplets that landed everywhere. That was, I decided, bad. A heartbeat later the last of my aspect-granted power winked out. I wasn’t entirely out, but I wouldn’t be able to make a spear even if my life depended on it. Which it very well might. That was, I decided, very bad.

Rise,” the Lone Swordsman rasped.

Light spread around his body in thick cords, healing his wounds and hoisting him up. He looked in bad shape, but he was definitely moving.

“Very, very bad,” I muttered.

Apparently we were past the banter stage because William was on me before the chords of light were even gone. My arm moved sluggishly but I parried the first blow, free hand reaching for another throwing knife. Fingers closed around my wrist.

“No,” the Lone Swordsman growled.

“Yes?” I hazarded, the word drowned out by the plate covering my wrist breaking apart completely under his grip.

I slugged him in the face with the pommel of my sword but he took it unflinchingly, pushing me back.

“I’d settle for a maybe,” I said.

My cutting sarcasm, unfortunately, failed to draw blood. Weeping Heavens, I was pretty sure he’d sprained my wrist under the steel. That limited my options pretty sharply. He advanced on me again, eyes ringed with a sort of luminous clarity that gave me a headache just to look at. I backpedalled blow after blow, giving ground. I was running out of tricks to turn this around. Slapping away my blade, he hammered down on my only good wrist left with his own pommel – the impact forced me to drop my sword. Well, I still had knives. The hero’s blade sliced through the belt keeping those up, though I managed to snatch one before they fell to the ground. I’d had knives, I corrected mentally. The Lone Swordsman had unfortunately brought a longsword to a knife fight, which admittedly gave him a bit of an advantage. I stepped around a hew and got in close but he swept my legs. I hit the stone with a dull thud and he stood above me with his sword raised.

“And now,” he said solemnly, “I Triumph.”

“Do you know what the difference is, between a Squire and a Swordsman?” I croaked out.

He blinked in surprise.

“I have a horse,” I announced.

A moment later Zombie hit his back. I closed my eyes and reached for the heart of the necromantic construct, where Robber had cleverly reproduced the same device he’d made for the brooch in Masego’s hair. The bits of bone scraped together as I used the very last dregs of my power, producing a single spark. The demolition charges stashed inside my mount blew up instantly and the world turned white, heat licking at my face.

A heartbeat later I opened my eyes, though I didn’t remember closing them. I tried to move but my everything was broken and I wasn’t laying down where I’d been. Shit, I blacked out. My right arm looked like I’d tried to make a knot out of it, which wasn’t promising. My leg was also apparently on fire. Goblinfire. Repressing a horrible scream of pain, I managed to sit up and hastily unclasped the greave with green flames on it, feebly tossing it away. My left hand blindly groped around for support, the wrist pulsing in pain, but instead I found something metallic. My knife, I realized. The one Black had given me what seemed like years ago. My thoughts felt slow and disjointed. I found William laying unconscious a few feet away from me and dragged myself along the ground, knife still clasped in my fingers. The moment I got close enough, I wildly stabbed into his exposed neck. Steel sunk into flesh and I let out a hiss of triumph. The hero’s eyes opened and he gurgled out a word.

Rise.”

“Oh, come on,” I croaked.

The already-closing wound was pushing out my knife. The chords of light weren’t as thick as last time, but there were still working. I got my knife out and stabbed him again. Or would have, if he didn’t catch my wrist. His other hand came up and I glimpsed his sword, shining like a lake under moonlight. It passed through my plate like it was parchment, plunging straight into my heart. The hero pushed himself up to a crouch.

“And so it ends,” he said.

I could feel my Name running through my veins, not to save me but for some… deeper purpose. It was true, then. We curse our killer with our last breath, Black had said.

“You will die before the day is done,” I rasped.

“And yet,” the Lone Swordsman smiled, “I win.”

My vision was blackening. I could feel life leaving my body. Serenely, I smiled.

Gotcha, I thought, and died.

Chapter 43: Truce

“The best defence is to have killed all your enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Thorough

Even with Thief guiding the way, we ran into problems.

Apparently her place in the hierarchy of the city wasn’t as well-established as William’s: twice knots of rebel soldiers tried to refuse passage. The first instance of it wouldn’t have been much trouble if it came to blades – we outnumbered them, and the carts they’d upended as a makeshift barrier would fold like parchment in front of any Named – but the second was… tense. Five hundred household troops in Dormer livery, who didn’t even bother to hail us before they started shooting arrows. One of my Gallowborne was wounded and I was that close to forcefully clearing them out, but Thief jumped in between us and screamed sense into them. It took too long for my tastes to get through. The more we waste time here, the more of a head start Heiress gets on her objective. I got glares and muttered accusations of being a traitor as we passed the enemy soldiers, though this time I wasn’t the only one. The Gallowborne got their share of hisses accusing them of being collaborators, being obviously Callowan themselves. My personal guard seemed to take the accusations in stride, for now anyway. I knew from personal experience how much those whispers could sting.

Mostly because they had a morsel of truth to them.

I’d had my doubts William would manage to corner Heiress – she was a slippery one – but they were put to rest before we ever laid eyes on them. In the distance I saw a stream of black flame rise from an avenue, clipping the edge of a rooftop. The fire spread in the blink of an eye until it covered the entire rooftop and then snuffed itself out, leaving nothing behind. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was hoping the Lone Swordsman had been hit by that or not. I believed Heiress would be easier to kill, if it came to a fight, but I doubted anything good would come out of her getting her hands on a hero’s corpse. I frowned as my men picked up the pace. Not that she could actually kill William, anyway. As long as he and I were still bound by our pattern of three, we could only die at each other’s hands. More or less. I’d gotten a reminder in Marchford that demons were not things of Creation and cared little for its rules. Thief left us as we turned a corner, bounding up to the rooftops with catlike grace. So much for her playing the intercessor.

“Shields up,” I called out.

The Gallorborne interlocked into a wall of steel in front of me, allowing me to focus on the scene ahead. None of Heiress’ little friends were with her, it appeared. Her only attendants were two dozen Procerans, currently panicking as they spectacularly failed to keep the Lone Swordsman contained. William was wearing his usual horribly pretentious longcoat over mail, boots skidding across the stone as he danced among the mercenaries and took them apart methodically. No helmet, his dark hair ran free as he smiled thinly. My eyes narrowed as I realized his abomination of a sword was nowhere in sight: he used a Callowan longsword, well-made but not angelic in the slightest. Things were already looking up. Parrying was a valid tactic again, it seemed. Heiress pointed a finger in the hero’s direction and seven dots of green light formed in front of it, each of them turning into an arrow point that immediately shot off towards the hero.

The arrows remained linked to the dot they’d formed from, the spell lights homing on William as he ducked and weaved around them. Heiress barked a word in the arcane tongue and the ligaments of light, scattered all around the hero, tightened in an attempt to bind him. Before they could touch him a flash of light emanated from the Lone Swordsman, dissipating the spell as he reached behind him and effortlessly plucked the javelin one of the Procerans had thrown at his back. Spinning on himself, he sent it back at the mercenary: the point took the man in the throat, killing him instantly. I’d give William this: he was an ornery little shit, but he could fight. Hunter had been a priceless asset the only time we’d been on the same side, and the deceased hero had been nowhere close to the Swordsman’ league.

“Willycakes,” Thief called out from a rooftop to my right. “I brought ‘friends’.”

The hero cast a glance in our direction. I took Zombie around the decapitated corpse of another horse, Akua’s if I was not mistaken. Explains why she’s on foot now.

“Foundling,” he spat. “Never far, when Callow bleeds.”

“Willycakes,” I greeted him drily. “And Akua too! Having a rough day, Heiress?”

“Just taking a walk, Catherine,” Akua said languidly. “Stepping on vermin, now and then. They do seem to be everywhere, in this city.”

The Soninke aristocrat had discreetly slipped one hand behind her back. Casting as we talked, I was sure. And we’ll be having none of that, thank you very much.

“Apprentice,” I said. “Be a dear and shut that down, would you?”

The bespectacled mage chuckled. “Now you talk sweet to me. Typical.”

Pushing up his sleeves, Masego cracked his fingers and grinned maliciously.

“If you would grant me this dance, Lady Akua? Here, I’ll lead.”

The dark-skinned man’s clothes shuddered, as if caressed by a breeze, and he pushed his open palms forward. The Procerans surrounding Heiress were scattered like toys by an invisible force, while the Soninke herself hastily brought her hidden hand forward and traced a single sigil in the air. A bubble of nearly-transparent magic formed around her, turning opaque under the force of Masego’s own spell trying to hammer it down. I left them to it, for the moment, and turned to William.

“I can cripple the devils all over the city,” I told him.

“But,” he sneered.

“You’ll need to reach into the deepest parts of your will and manage… not to contradict me instantly,” I said.

“I make no such promises,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“I’m trying to save your godsdamned hides here, Willy,” I snarled. “For once in your life, do the smart thing instead of polishing your principle codpiece.”

“William,” Thief broke in. “Some of the barricades are already buckling. Whatever she’ll do can’t be worse than children getting killed in their cribs.”

The Lone Swordsman met my eyes, green to brown. If he was expecting me to be intimidated by it, he was barking up the wrong tree. I’d stared down more intimidating things than the likes of William. The sound of fire and screams drifted in from the distance.

“Fine,” he said, looking away.

“Apprentice,” I said.

The overweight mage casually tossed me one of the trinkets from his dreadlocks, eyes never leaving Heiress. Their little scuffled had changed in nature while I negotiated with the idiot: Masego’s force and Heiress’ shield were now a shifting landscape of differing pressures, some parts buckling in and others jutting out. He’d yet to manage to power through. I snatched the silvery pyramid out of the air and brought it close to my mouth. I cleared my throat, and the sound of it resonated broadly: like Apprentice said, once it was activated any sound touching the trinket was massively amplified.

“Under my authority as the Squire, I declare the city of Liesse under martial law,” I announced, my words drowning out everything else for a moment. “As of this moment, every human inside the city walls has been conscripted into the Fifteenth Legion.”

The silver trinket darkened the moment I finished speaking, losing its shine and even cracking in some places. I dropped it into a saddlebag, reluctant to disturb Apprentice from his contest of will by tossing it back.

“As long as the acting commander of the forces inside the city doesn’t do something stupid like, you know, openly contradicting me,” I said, “the devils can’t touch anyone anymore.”

“So now, that we’ve all joined the Legions I have to ask the most important question: how’s the pay?” Thief asked.

Hakram shrugged. “For the enlisted? Not bad. Silver though, not gold.”

“Adjutant,” I sighed. “Stop humouring the heroes.”

William absent-mindedly walked over to one of the Procerans who was trying to get up, opening his throat with a flick of the wrist. The others scrabbled away in panic.

“And this protection holds even if you’re dead, I take it?” the hero asked.

I unsheathed my sword.

“I’m not sure I like the direction this conversation is heading,” I said mildly.

There was a pop ahead as Heiress’ shield finally gave way. She swept her arms gracefully in a circle and with a triumphant smile redirected whatever spell Masego had been using in our direction. Apprentice frowned and tapped the ground with his foot: the invisible force exploded halfway to our group in storm of invisible power, ripping out pavement stones and tossing them around. I ducked under one, pressing against my mount.

Two hundred paces,” Heiress said. “Eight binding, lifted. Attack.”

Three heartbeats later, a jackalhead leapt down from a rooftop and landed in front of the recovering Procerans. It leered hungrily at us.

“William, remember that time we had a truce until everyone else was dead?”

And then you pretty much split my belly in two and left me dying on the ground, I refrained from adding.

“Granted,” the hero said. “And not a moment longer.”

I’d heard that one before, and though he’d observed the truce to the letter the red scar across my chest was a reminder of how short a truce like that could be. I slid down from my horse, sword still in hand.

“Captain Farrier,” I called out. “Hold the back of the street. Don’t interfere otherwise – this one’s above your pay grade.”

“Good hunting, ma’am,” the captain replied, already getting his men in position.

Hakram rested his axe on his shoulder, baring his fangs.

“Priority target?” he asked.

“Heiress,” I said. “Masego-“

“Battlefield control, like we practiced,” he interrupted easily.

I felt my Name pulsing under my skin, eager to sink its teeth into my enemies. Well, it wouldn’t go hungry tonight. Already I could see devils swarming in our direction from the east, jumping over rooftops and gathering in the sky. What Heiress had done must have served as a beacon for them, because every single one I saw was coming for us. Joy. For the first time it occurred to me I wasn’t sure what would happen to the bindings on the hellspawn if Heiress died. Would they just all be unmade? That would be… bad. They’d rampage across the city. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford to spare someone like Akua. She was likely to escape if I took her prisoner, and as long as she held a modicum of control over the devils she had the largest stick to swing out of the three Named currently fighting for control over Liesse. Not an acceptable situation, so I supposed I’d have to burn that bridge when I got to it. I wasted no more time over the thought: the longer I dallied, the more devils would be on us.

With my left hand I unsheathed the knife at my hip and strode forward, Hakram covering that same flank. Unlike Adjutant, I had no shield. Since my leg had been crippled by the demon I’d been forced to admit that this kind of fighting no longer worked for me: I couldn’t afford to take hits from behind a shield anymore. My footing wasn’t as solid as it used to be. Instead I had to focus on footwork and attack, timing my movements precisely and going for killing blows. One of these days I’d seen about getting a bow or a crossbow to use to widen my range of options, but for now I’d make do with belt of throwing knives strapped across my plate chest piece. And also the handful of… other surprises I carried in the satchel attached to the side of my belt. My first real opponent of the day was an ironhook who jumped straight off the roof to sink its claws into my throat: I ducked under it, letting it land behind me and turning to sink the point of my sword into the back of its neck.

I was already moving again before the corpse dropped to the ground. Already there were a dozen devils standing between Heiress and us, but when she’d made her decision she clearly hadn’t factored in heroes. The Lone Swordsman was on the offensive, and I saw that Masego hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said the man could single-handedly hold a street off: the hero moved forward at a walking pace, and everywhere he went devils died. There were no bursts of light, no displays of Heavenly wrath or even Name-enhanced strength as he fought. William simply waited for their attacks, avoided them by a hair’s breadth and sent heads rolling with a single measured swing. I’d studied swordsmanship under one of its greatest living practitioners for a year, sparred with a woman who could tear through steel with her bare hands and fought a demon of the Thirteenth Hell on foot with only five people at my side. And yet, in that moment, the sight of the Lone Swordsman calmly dispatching one opponent after another sent a shiver down my spine. That was what the Mandate of Heaven looked like, I thought. An inexorable march forward against which even the most monstrous of strengths failed.

One of the hairy dwarf gargoyles tried to sweep down on me but its head was instantly pulped without any intervention on my part, the rest of its swarming companions dispersing with cries of fear. Apprentice was keeping the distractions off our back, like he was supposed to. Hakram and I impacted the mass of devils a heartbeat later. My Name flared up and I let myself sink into it, not to shape the power but to use the awareness that came with it. Everything came in flashes: a hand reached for my throat and I spun my wrist, slicing cleanly through it. I glimpsed a scream jackal head before I rammed my knife between its eyes, spinning around the devil as I tore out my blade. An ironhook came for my legs but Adjutant’s axe split its head in two before the orc kicked the corpse into the open maw of a lizardtiger. Another monkeybat landed screaming on my back but it instantly began to turn to dust as Apprentice took care of the problem while I opened the throat of another ironhook. A jackalhead bounced off of Hakram’s shield and tried to tackle me but my knife flicked up and opened it from crotch to throat. I abandoned the knife in the devil’s body and caught a garygoyle by the throat, squeezing until it’s head popped off. I half-stepped away from a lizardtiger’s lunge, crouching to take back my knife as Hakram’s axehead tore through its neck.

Everything was crisp-clear, like the air on a cold morning, and I felt a sort of savage joy welling up in me. From the corner of my eye I saw Thief wading across the devils on the rooftop behind Heiress, weaving around the grasping creatures like she was running an obstacle course. She leapt towards Akua’s back but was intercepted halfway through by a gargoyle. Undeterred, she somehow bunched up together and used the devil as leverage to jump again, landing in a crouch behind Heiress. The aristocrat pointed a palm at her, green runes appearing in a linked circle around her hand: there was a detonation like a sharper exploding and the heroine was blasted through the wall of the house behind her in her shard of wooden splinters. I wasn’t worried. Even heroes with Roles unsuited for fighting were remarkably hard to hurt. Another wave of devils came for us by Hakram’s side but they didn’t manage to get far. Collars of whirling wind formed around their throats, tightening and dragging them back.

I hacked through the shoulder of a jackalhead Adjutant battered down with his shield and allowed the orc to finish it as I pressed ahead. One last ironhook, who managed to weave under a sword stroke only to take a knife in the belly, and finally I was on Heiress. All that stood between the two of us was the last few Procerans – who eyed me with undisguised fear. To my right I saw the Lone Swordsman cleaving through a devil and casually stepping between the halves of the corpse. I ignored him for now, eyes on Heiress. Who smiled.

“Almost,” she said.

There was a flash of blinding light and immediately I back stepped, grabbing a devil by the throat and pulling it between myself and the light as I clenched my eyes shut. I opened them the moment I felt the devil bite into my shoulder, fangs somehow managing to dent the steel plate. Tossing the devil away, I looked in Heiress’ direction and cursed. There were nine of her now, all running north.

Masego,” I screamed. “Get her.”

If she got away now, we were in trouble. Shit, which one was she? William started running, slicing a devil in two without stopping and headed after the closest Akua. I called on my Name, feeling it respond eagerly to my anger. A bolt of lightning threaded through the crowd, hitting one of the Heiresses in the back – the smoking corpse of a Proceran mercenary fell to the ground. The Lone Swordsman lopped an arm off another one, not even bothering to finish him off. Shadows coalesced into a spear as I tried to pick a target. A jackalhead tried to break my neck but Hakram had caught up and his axe sent the lupine head tumbling to the ground. Not the one in the middle, I thought frantically. Too obvious. To the left? It was away from William. I cursed and chose one of the three on the left, the one getting away the fastest. The spear of shadows flew straight, clipping Heiress in the shoulder.

Another mercenary fell to the ground, half his chest missing.

“Fucking Hells,” I cursed again.

The Lone Swordsman relieved another Heiress of her leg, but it was a decoy again. Only five left now. I couldn’t follow, damn me. I couldn’t run, not like I used to, and the devils were continuing to stream in. Without Apprentice to cover the skies, I was having to fend off the godsdamned gargoyles every time I wasn’t putting down some other devil going for my throat. William though, bless his Callowan hide, was hounding the fleeing Heiresses with all the viciousness he could muster. Another decoy died to an explosive ball of red light courtesy of Apprentice, and the last four were clustered together. The Lone Swordsman ran one through, didn’t even stop to look whether it’d been the real Heiress – it hadn’t – and burned another one alive with a blast of almost blinding light. Only two now, and William was closing in.

That was when the fireball caught him in the face.

The hero was thrown back, rolling on the stone. Ahead of him Fadila Mbafeno, on a horse and holding the reins of another, withdrew her hand. A dozen devils surrounded her like a hellish honour guard. One of the Heiresses deftly slid atop the free mount, claiming the reins and wasting no time in making her getaway. More devils poured in, filling the gap between the Lone Swordsman and my other rival, and I had to admit then and there we would be catching her right now. I hissed in anger, taking out my temper on the closest devil – my sword blade hacked through the chest, the jackalhead screaming in pain before I put it of its misery.

“Retreat,” I called out to Hakram.

We needed to regroup, and then get ready to press forward again. I sure as Hells wasn’t done with this fight.

Red Skies

“This eye for an eye business is horridly proportional. I assure you, if I’m losing an eye then so is everyone else.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia II

“So you’re going to be fighting this Warlock, I take it?” Tikoloshe said.

The incubus was lounging in a camp chair, something Wekesa had believed to be physically impossible before being presented with the current evidence. The devil looked like a man in every way, the deception perfect unlike with some of his less cunning kindred: smooth dark skin and closely cropped hair, an intelligently angular face and smiling eyes. When he’d first summoned the devil Apprentice had admittedly been curious about what appearance he would take. Incubi formed their looks around the deepest desires of the individual who’d brought them into Creation, though they could discard that shape at will if they so wished. There’d been no oiled-up muscles or revealed hairless chests: Tikoloshe had come through dressed neatly and almost conservatively, his tastefully embroidered tunic topped by a collar that rose up almost up to his chin. It had surprised Wekesa, but somehow it felt accurate. There was a reason incubi and succubi were often summoned by practitioners seeking to perfect their craft: learning what they truly found attractive allowed them to discover something about themselves in a subject matter where humans were in the habit of lying to themselves. To know yourself was to know your power.

“That is the plan,” Wekesa agreed, pouring himself a drink from the carafe on the table.

His tent in the camp of Malicia’s rebel army – officially the actual rightful Legions of Terror, though that would have to wait on a final triumph to become reality – was a little to the side of the others, warded heavily and under instructions by Amadeus not to be disturbed. Apprentice had managed to accumulate a few creature comforts during the campaign, like a real table and a steady supply of wine, but bare necessities like a bed that wasn’t a glorified block of wood or a real bathtub still escaped him. At least a few stone candles topped by blue mage fire made lanterns and their greasy scent unnecessary. Not that mud and greenery mere a much better scent, admittedly.

Plan is not the word that comes to mind,” Tikoloshe spoke idly. “You are still young, and this Warlock is in the fullness of his power. I detect the hand of your vicious little confederate at work in this.”

Amadeus had made no mystery of his opinion that the incubus should be forced to cough out all his tricks and secrets and then put down like an animal, a position that had not endeared him to Tikoloshe. Wekesa disagreed, as it happened, and his friend trusted his judgement enough to let the matter lie. The devil was too interesting to be wasted in such a manner.

“He actually tried to convince me to delay the fight until we could catch him without support,” Apprentice said. “Something about hounding him until he was too weak to put up a fight, then striking the finishing blow.”

“I suppose even that man can be right, once in a while,” Tikoloshe conceded easily. “Pour me one as well, would you?”

Wekesa raised an eyebrow in surprise but complied, handing the devil the goblet after it was full. Their fingers touched when Tikoloshe took the cup and just that was enough to raise the tension in the tent by a notch. It would have been easier to ignore the attraction, Apprentice knew, if he hadn’t been so certain the bindings on the incubus were perfect. That near-certainty that the sex would be fantastic made it even worse.

“I know for a fact devils do not need sustenance while in Creation,” Wekesa said, watching the other man sip at the wine.

“We don’t,” Tikoloshe acknowledged. “I do, however, quite enjoy the taste of wine. The Praesi stuff is vastly inferior to the vineyards from the west, but it makes for an acceptable table vintage.”

“So you can differentiate between specific kinds of tastes,” Apprentice said, eyes sharpening as he leaned forward.

The eighth of the twenty-three bindings the incubus was under prevented him from ever lying, one of the many reasons the devil was such a fascinating source of information.

I can,” Tikoloshe said, hand rising to indicate an equivocation. “A consequence of both the length of my existence and what you might call my… nature.”

“Lust,” Wekesa said.

“Desire,” the incubus corrected. “Lust is such a limited concept, and I am a most complex creature.”

“You are an entity driven by an absolute,” Apprentice said. “Absolutes are, by their nature, simple. They would not function otherwise.”

Tikoloshe smiled. It was not patronizing or mocking: it was the smile of an educated man enjoying a lively conversation. Wekesa sipped at his wine to distract himself. He’d always had a weakness for clever men.

“Desire is to want,” the incubus said. “I want all things, Apprentice. The pleasures of the flesh issome of the most instinctual desires to your species, so they tend to be the strongest desire in my kind as well. But I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve learned to be… discerning in my own desires.”

“Like wine,” the dark-skinned mage said.

“Fine meals, enjoyable conversation and even such small things as a bath at the perfect temperature,” Tikoloshe said. “I find beautiful calligraphy as stirring as bedsport, in its own way.”

Wekesa eyed him thoughtfully.

“How old are you, Tikoloshe?”

The devil laughed. “I was first called into being when the witch-queen of what you would now call the northern Principate became dissatisfied with her husbands. I was no longer young when the Miezans first came upon the shores of this continent, blown by a storm.”

At least a millennium and a half, the dark-skinned mage thought. Humbling, to think that the incubus would likely exist long after all he knew had crumbled to dust.

“Seen it all before, have you?” he said.

“The Dread Empire always wounds itself, left to its own devices,” Tikoloshe said. “This scrap is but a pittance compared to the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One.”

“We’ll be different,” Wekesa said. “When we win.”

The incubus laughed softly.

“Will you? Why? I’ve seen your leaders, Apprentice. Seen what they desire. You’re lucky the pale boy isn’t the one aiming for the throne – he’d murder every child in this nation with his bare hands, if it got him what he wants. Not that your ‘Malicia’ is much better. The woman craves control the way a starving man craves a meal.”

Apprentice leaned back in his seat. “And me? Have you see what I desire?”

Tikoloshe raised an eyebrow. Such a human gesture on such an inhuman creature. His kind really were the most skillfully deceptive devils could get. The impersonation was flawless.

“You know my bindings prevent me from doing so.”

“I’ll just tell you, then,” Wekesa chuckled. “I want to do magic.”

The devil cocked his head to the side.

“Simple, isn’t it?” the dark-skinned mage said.

“I wouldn’t say that at all,” the incubus replied softly.

“All of this…” Wekesa gestured broadly. “The backstabbing, the politics, the war. It bores me. I want to dissect the world, Tikoloshe. To open up Creation and see where the Gods traced their boundaries in blood and power.”

“How blasphemous,” the devil said delightedly.

“We will be different,” Apprentice said. “For the same reason we keep beating opponents out of our league. They think they’re strong because they’ve accumulated power and we haven’t, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. We’ve never used our own strength: we let Creation win for us.”

“You seem remarkably lucid, for a madman,” Tikoloshe noted.

“I might still die tomorrow,” the mage said. “Which is why I need to ask you two questions. I compel you to answer. Were you trying to seduce me throughout this conversation?”

“No,” the incubus replied.

I compel you to answer,” he spoke again. “Are you attracted to me?”

“I am attracted to everyone,” Tikoloshe said.

The dark-skinned mage drained the rest of his wine, then rose to his feet. Wekesa unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. He raised an eyebrow at the incubus.

“Well?” he said. “What are we waiting for, then?”

When the High Lord Duma had ordered a fresh set of forts built in the northern reaches of his demesne, it had been met with a degree of surprise by most. The High Lordship of Aksum covered a third of the Wasteland but it had not been under threat by anyone in a long time: though Dread Emperor Nefarious had become a reclusive hedonist, the Empire was still largely at peace. Amadeus had recently told Wekesa it hadn’t actually been the High Lord’s notion at all. The refusal of the Clans to pay their owed tributes to the Tower had pushed the Chancellor – who’d effectively ruled Praes, in those days – to consider war with the greenskins. Though Wolof stood between Aksum and the steppes, the latter was still the last line of defence between the orcs and the Green Stretch. The Empire’s bread basket had to be protected at all costs, if it came to war. Widespread food shortages caused by rampaging greenskins would lead to the kind of unrest that had toppled Tyrants so many times before.

Now those same fortifications served to hinder the advance of a rebel army , though admittedly its ranks were filled with greenskins as had been feared. Amadeus had a way with them, especially the orcs, and the Chancellor had forced the entire species to take sides through the famous debacle that was the Night of Red Winds. A costly mistake, thinking that wiping out an entire clan would cow the rest. Now that act of treachery was the battle cry of ten thousands of angry orcs, all of them fighting for the rights of Dread Empress Malicia as the rightful ruler of Praes. Under Amadeus and Grem One-Eye the rebels were flying from victory to victory, and Alaya was using that as leverage to bring the fence-sitters among the High Lords to their side. Already Nok had declared for them, and word was Kahtan might do the same soon. All very promising, if hopelessly uninteresting to Apprentice. He had more practical matters to concern himself with, anyway. Such as the fortifications ahead.

The hillfort in front of him was the northernmost in the defensive lines of Aksum, and every attempt by their little rebellion to even assess what forces were inside had been met with abject failure. Scouts who got within half a mile were made into desiccated husks by spells coming from inside, a ritual Wekesa was rather familiar with. He’d learned the underlying concepts of it, when he’d been one of the many apprentices assigned to the Warlock. Before the man had tried to kill him and then sent monsters to hunt him when Wekesa managed to escape. Before he’d fallen in with a strange Duni boy who wanted to change the Empire one corpse at a time, before he’d met a sly-humoured waitress who would be forced into the seraglio by the whims of a broken madman. He’d occurred a debt, when he’d left the Warlock’s tutelage, one that predated the family he’d found since. This was his account to settle and he’d looked forward to it for a very long time.

Apprentice had garbed himself in a well-fitted set of clothes for the occasion. A traditional Soninke agbada, though cut a little more closely than was currently the fashion. The garb came in three parts: a pair of loose dark grey trousers that narrowed around the ankles, a long-sleeved shirt of the same colour and the garnet, open-stitched sleeveless gown worn over them both. Effectiveness and appearance should be married when feasible, such was the Soninke way. There was a hint of golden embroidery on the gown, the patterns arcane and hard to make out. The patterns strengthened the shield amulet he wore under his clothes, which was quite necessary: he’d sunk a lot of power into the defence, but his opponent was in another league entirely. Wekesa had always known he was strong in sorcery, abnormally so for one not born to a cultivated bloodline, but inborn talent was no match for decades upon decades of accumulated power and infernal pacts.

The fort was basic, he saw, likely because High Lord Duma had skimmed off the top of the funds provided to him by the Tower for their construction. A single ring wall stood close to the summit of the hill, with a squat tower inside. Wekesa was close enough to make out the silhouettes on that wall now, the two dozens of mages flanking the middle-aged Taghreb with a prominent hook nose he’d once looked up to as a teacher. Twice on his way down the dirt path the amulet under his clothes had warmed against his skin, a sign the Warlock had tried and failed to evaporate all the water inside his body. Apprentice strolled up to the fort, only stopping thirty feet or so away from the gates. The Warlock looked like he was about to talk, so he fished out the stone in his pocket and threw it in the man’s direction. It bounced off an invisible wall, getting lost somewhere on the battlements.

“A tracking charm,” the Warlock sneered. “That’s what you’re bringing to the table?”

Wekesa took out his dragonbone pipe, casually stuffing it with bangue. He struck a match and lit it, inhaling the herbs with a small sigh of pleasure.

“I’m out of juice,” Apprentice replied honestly. “Couldn’t even light this pipe with a bit of flame if I wanted to.”

“Disappointing,” Warlock said. “Though you were ever a disappointment.”

“Why?” Wekesa asked. “Because I wouldn’t let you feed me to a devil so you’d get a cut of my magic?”

“A bargain was struck,” the older Named said. “And I will yet get my due. Did you think just a shield would be enough to stop me? It may have been crafted skilfully, boy, but my power has grown since we last met.”

“I can feel your minions probing it,” Apprentice noted. “I imagine as soon as they find the fault lines you’ll start hammering at them.”

“That was always your weakness, Wekesa,” the Warlock said. “You’re too feeble on the offensive. So much raw power at your disposal and you chose to specialize in an inferior branch of sorcery.”

“Wards are the purest form of sorcery there is,” the dark-skinned mage disagreed, inhaling the smoke and blowing it out. “Wards are boundaries, and when you look at it with clear eyes Creation is nothing but a set of interlocked boundaries set by the Gods.”

One of the minions leaned close to the Named, whispering. Warlock pushed the woman away.

“You really are powerless,” his old teacher said. “You come to fight me incapable of casting?”

“Well, I’ve already cast three spells today,” Wekesa mused. “I can only wring out so much power out of this body without getting wrinkles and who wants that?”

“Lord Warlock,” another minion called out. “Look up.”

Apprentice did not have to look to know what they’d noticed. Red skies as far as the eye could see. The third spell he’d cast that morning was beginning to take effect, right on time. Already drops of liquid fire were starting to rain, pattering against his shield. One of the minions was set aflame and began screaming as the hellflame spread all over his body and consumed him in a matter of moments. The others hastily put up shields of their own.

“Is this all you could manage?” Warlock mocked. “A meagre rain of flame? I taught you better than that. Shaping a spell like this will drain your power for an effect any half-baked practitioner can protect themselves from. Only worth using against the giftless.”

“I didn’t,” Wekesa said. “Create a hellstorm, that is.”

The older Named looked taken aback.

“You lie,” he said, beginning to smell the rat.

Apprentice blew out a stream of smoke, smiling serenely.

“You said it yourself, Warlock,” he replied. “I’m just a ward specialist. Fighting you in a casting war was always doomed to failure – you have reserves of nastiness you haven’t even begun to tap into, I’m sure.”

“You broke a boundary,” the Taghreb cursed.

“Weakened,” Apprentice corrected. “Temporarily, and only for entities meeting certain parameters. Still took everything I had left.”

In the distance a chunk of flaming rock the size of a small house hit the ground with a sound like thunder, spreading waves of hellflame on impact.

“And you were wrong, by the way,” Wekesa continued. “Earlier. It wasn’t a tracking charm. It was a homing one.”

The stone that was passing into Creation from one of the lesser Hells was the size of a fortress this time. Apprentice had aligned the boundaries so it would be just above the hillfort, and ensured it would hit with the homing charm. The Warlock crushed the pebble he’d thrown into dust with a single word, but it was too late for that to change anything. Now the laws of Creation were ensuring the trajectory. Maybe if they’d seen the stone coming sooner they might have managed to stop it, but the only mage with the talent to do that was the Warlock – and Wekesa had kept him talking, knowing the older man would not be able to resist gloating.

So now, watching the other Named invoke half a dozen devil pacts to try to break the trajectory and fail against the weight of thousands and thousands of pounds of rock, Apprentice continued smiling and enjoyed his pipe. His own shield, designed over months of careful work until he’d finally granted it power into it that morning, had been crafted to keep him safe specifically through this event. Howling winds and eldritch fire blew around his protective bubble but he was safe underneath, watching his enemies be crushed by what was effectively a small mountain of rock and unholy fire. Eventually he was able to see again, and he felt his Name fill like a glass of wine. As far as he could see, in all directions, this corner of Creation had been turned into a hellish wasteland of stone and flame.

Casually emptying his pipe on the ground, Warlock began the trek back to camp.