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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 Monday and Wednesday.

Chapter 24: Vanguard

“My dear Chancellor, I didn’t murder my entire family and use their blood to turn myself into an undead abomination to be told I couldn’t do things.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant

We’d wasted another sennight at Denier, to my displeasure. In part haggling terms with Duchess Kegan, who must clearly have been a fishwife in a past life, and in part because we were waiting on the Twelfth Legion to finish its march towards us. Those four thousand men were still led by General Afolabi, who I’d met once before when the Lone Swordsman was making trouble in the city the Twelfth garrisoned. I’d been unimpressed by his inability to handle the mounting tensions in Summerholm, he’d been unimpressed by the fact I’d launched an ambush on a hero in his own backyard without warning him. Neither of us were particularly pleased to see the other, but if I had to traipse through Arcadia I’d rather do it with thirty thousand men than twenty-six thousand. Besides, I rarely had to deal with him directly: he was under Marshal Ranker’s command and his legionaries stuck to their own camp. It took us another three days to ferry the Deoraithe army across the river with fishing boats and barges, the mounting delays driving me up the wall.

The longer we tarried here the longer Diabolist had to set up her end game. I was anybody’s guess how long we’d be in Arcadia, and more importantly where the gate out would be. After all, I didn’t control that part. Masego had given me a very complicated explanation on the subject involving alignments, symmetry and what had struck me as a bit of religion no matter how much mathematics he brought into the mix. My own understanding was a bit simpler: my will was a needle. By opening a gate I was punching through the fabric that was between worlds into Arcadia, but where the needle had to punch through to get me out of Arcadia was determined by where I’d come from and where I wanted to go. No doubt there were sundry metaphysical implications to all of this, but if I wanted to be babbled incomprehensively at I could just buy people drinks. Hells, considering I’d basically taken control of the treasury for Callow I could actually afford that these days. Progress.

Our supply situation had been another headache, and I’d never missed Ratface more than when Ranker sent a copy of our stores for the campaign to my desk. The Marshal and General Afolabi had essentially emptied Denier and Summerholm’s granaries to ensure they could operate alone for a few months, but there was a major difference between driving those supply carts down Callowan roads and through the wilderness of Arcadia. Getting the matter sorted took another two days, then another two when Duchess Kegan insisted on bringing he own carts across the river instead of relying on Legion ones. My officers learned to enjoy their wine cold, because the temperature in the room when I heard about that descended sharply. There’d been talk from the Deoraithe of keeping a different supply train instead of keeping all the rations together, but after I glared the meeting table frozen they’d ‘magnanimously’ declined to further pursue the matter.

And now here we were, over a fortnight after when I’d wanted us to leave, assembling the allied armies in the darkness before dawn. The largest gate I could open was an equilateral triangle seventy feet at the base, so there was no possibility of going through in ranks. It would have to be a marching column, which had prompted another round of what I refused to even call bickering. I knew bickering, it was the true tongue of all my closest friends. There was fondness in bickering, a give and take. This was just an ugly brew of distrust and spite spilling over what should have been an exceedingly straightforward manner. Marshal Ranker had wanted her two legions to go through first, and General Afolabi had backed the notion. Duchess Kegan had suggested her own infantry be the first to cross, heavily implying the goblin couldn’t be trusted not to set up an ambush for her army on the other side. Ranker had then wondered out loud if there’d been enough left of the body of Kegan’s younger brother to identify him after Grem One-Eye killed him at the Wall, during the Conquest. Before that could get any uglier, I’d slammed my fist on the table.

It had promptly broken, because these days I was pretty sure I could punch through iron if I put my mind to it. That wasn’t worrying in the slightest.

Anyhow, that had gotten their attention. I’d told them that it was my fucking gate so my people were going through first, led by myself, after which Ranker’s Fourth would follow. The Deoraithe would go through next, and General Afolabi’s legion would be in charge of the rearguard and covering our supply train. Tactically speaking this entire disposition was shit and nobody liked the compromise, but apparently breaking furniture made people less prone to arguing with you on minor details. Robber had since informed me that rumours went around the camps about my temper, nowadays, but I doubted even Black would have been able to handle this level of futile squabbling with a smile. As for Juniper, well, she’d have sent them to cool their heels by digging holes and filling them at least twice by now. Gods, I missed the Fifteenth. The wretches gave me lip, sure, but at least they did whatever I asked them to without arguing for a quarter bell first. Still, here we finally were. The blood in my veins cooled and power wafted off my armour like smoke even as the gate shuddered open before me. I found myself panting when my mind finally returned to itself, leaning against the neck of my horse. I waited ten breaths for the tiredness to leave me before looking at the Gallowborne around me.

“Forward,” I ordered.

We went through. Moving into Arcadia was a hard feeling to describe. It wasn’t a pressure, not exactly. It was like being stripped away of a second skin you didn’t know you had, leaving you feeling oddly naked even when wearing full plate like I was. I’d ridden ahead of my retinue so I had a moment to get my bearings before they caught up to me, breathing in the scene. It was night here too, but nothing alike. The fields south of Denier were cabbage and radish, mostly, while here it was long grass as far as the eye could see. A lazy breeze had the fields shivering while in the sky above us a full moon hung. I would have known we were in Summer even if I were blind, just from the irrational hatred I could feel welling up inside of me. The power I’d gained in Skade did not like being here at all, and the hatred sharpened when I glanced up at the moon. Really? I thought. The moon? My title was Duchess of Moonless Nights, so I saw the logic in it, but come on. I’ve fought some pretty absurd things since I became a villain, but I draw the line at the godsdamned moon.

I spurred Zombie the Second ahead as the Gallowborne came through behind me, immediately spreading out in formation and following behind me. In the distance, a few miles ahead, I could see tall and pale towers reaching for the sky. I frowned as I looked: the power I felt from that place was a mere shard of what Skade had felt like, so this was unlikely to be the seat of the Summer Court. But it was likely there’d be fae there, and the faint presence of the exit gate I could feel in the distance was beyond it. Far behind it. Shit. I’d had strong suspicions I’d have to fight my way through the third Arcadia voyage, but an expedition into the heart of Summer was beyond my worst expectations. Fighting the Summer Court in their own territory was not a recipe for success. But what choice do I have? We’d have to move quickly, before Summer could muster its entire army and strike at us. Force march directly to our way out, ignoring the fae as much as possible – getting drawn into a campaign out here would be consigning the thirty thousand soldiers I’d managed to assemble to the grave. It wasn’t long before the entirety of the Gallowborne were behind me, and the moment the first of Nauk’s legionaries set foot into Arcadia I began moving forward.

I wished Hakram was at my side, but I’d had to leave him back in Creation to make sure no idiocy would unfold between the ‘allies’ while my back was turned. The great tragedy of Adjutant was that I could only have one of him.

“Ma’am, are you certain we shouldn’t wait for reinforcements?” Tribune Farrier asked quietly from my side.

“I need to be sure there’s no army waiting to ambush us,” I replied. “If we have to give battle when most our forces are stuck on the other side of that portal, I have no words for how fucked we are.”

The dark-haired man nodded obediently, though he did not seem convinced. Since I was astride a horse I was the only one whose head was above the grass, and I allowed myself to luxuriate in the feeling of being the tallest person around for once as we moved towards the towers. My retinue moved warily in a square formation I was near the middle of, the greenery making the lines wobbly: this was not land made for marching. I could see no trace of any roads, and to my mixed relief and dismay no road conveniently appeared after I had that thought. When nearing a mile away from the gate, I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. No sign of anyone, but the grasslands made it hard to gauge that accurately. There could be ten thousand fae crouched down somewhere and none of us would notice until we stumbled over them. My instincts screamed trap, though in all fairness they almost always did. That healthy level of paranoia had kept me alive through a few years of being mortal enemies with Akua Sahelian, though, so I wasn’t inclined to dismiss it out of hand.

“It’s quiet,” one of the soldiers behind me said.

“If any of you finishes that thought, I’m feeding them to Nauk,” I said sharply.

I reined in Zombie and the entire formation slowed as I leant down to hide my profile, waiting for the hammer to fall. Nothing, huh? Nice try, but I wasn’t falling for that again. I waited for another thirty heartbeats and sweet, sweet vindication came in the form of a volley of arrows taking flight from our left. A trickle of power touched my eyes and my sight sharpened, gauging the number of shafts. A hundred, maybe? Not many more than that. The Gallowborne reacted professionally, falling in the testudo formation mere moments before the projectiles finished their arc. If they’d been mere arrows, that would have mostly nixed any notion of inflicted casualties. Unfortunately, on the way down trails of fire bloomed behind the arrows and they hit the shields with streams of flame. I had no room to manoeuver, stuck inside the formation as I was, and I wasn’t going to risk an arrow-catch while fighting bloody fae. I threw myself off Zombie the Second moments before a pair of arrows hit his neck and flank, detonating with burst of red and yellow flame. My mount died instantly, and I swore filthily in Taghreb. Those utter bastards.

Did these pricks even understand how much a good warhorse cost? Some of us actually had to pay for things, not just play pretend with a fucking illusory economy. They’d damaged him enough I probably wouldn’t even be able to raise him from the dead: I still needed mostly intact muscled to make a corpse move, necromancy or not. Only a handful of my retinue died to the first volley, though I saw that the arrows punched through steel shields and detonated afterwards to burn even when they couldn’t kill. Rising to my feet, I unsheathed my sword and ripped my heater shield from Zombie’s falling corpse. A second volley was in the sky before we’d recovered from the surprise of the first and I winced in anticipation – I could see what they’d meant to do. First wave damaged the shields, second hit the unprotected soldiers. This was going to hurt. I hid my surprise when I saw the arrows fall in a half circle around us instead, though I grasped what they were actually doing the moment I saw the tall grass going up in flames. Sorcery drove the flames to complete the encirclement rather than burn aimlessly faster than I could say I really hate fighting mages. So they wanted us to stay penned up and die.

“GALLOWBORNE,” I called out. “SHIELD WALL AND FOLLOW ME.”

I strode to the wall of flames ahead, shield up, and let the frozen river of power that was my third aspect come to the fore. I wasn’t using it – I’d not ye grasped it well enough for that – but just using the power was enough for my purposes. The fire stood three feet taller than me, but that hardly mattered: with a hiss I unleashed ice onto the flames, smothering them and carving a path ten men deep.

“Lion Devours Gazelle,” a man’s voice calmly stated ahead.

I charged through, the shield wall behind me, and saw silhouettes emerge from the grass even as a third volley flew at us. This one did not arc in the sky: it was shot straight forward, and though the impact was not as strong the bursting flames shot holes straight through my ranks. Pale blades like ivory were unsheathed in perfect silence as four dozen fae formed into two lines in front of me. The fae were tall and lovely, dark-haired and wearing a tabard marked with an oak over their silvery chain mail.

“Charge,” I barked.

The longer before we closed in melee, the more they’d thin us out with arrows. The Gallowborne were but a step behind me as I ran, the sensation of over a hundred steel boots thumping the ground in unison sending a shiver down my spine. I felt hot breath against my neck, the Beast licking its chops hungrily. It was eager for blood, after the frustrations of the last month. Truth be told, so was I. The man ahead of me struck lightning-quick, fearless, but he was no Duke of Violent Squalls. Not even a deadwood soldier. I stepped around the blow and flicked my wrist, tearing through his neck between the helm and the mail. The face of the woman behind him was splashed with crimson but she did not flinch: she went for my neck without missing a beat. The flat of my blade touched hers, redirecting the blow, and my shield hit her in the stomach. She coughed blood and before she could react the pommel of my sword hit her in the eye – I felt the skull cave under it, but my boot stomped down on her throat and crushed it to be sure. In front of me, I saw nothing but grass. I turned and saw the same all along the line: my retinue’s charge had been met for a moment, then the fae had disengaged without even attempting a proper melee, melting into the greenery.

“Oh shit,” I realized.

The fourth volley killed at least twenty of the Gallowborne. They’d fallen out of formation when trying to force the fae into close range fighting. Ahead of us four dozen fae formed into two ranks, pale swords in hand. We’d been at this for perhaps a quarter hour and already almost a third of my retinue was dead or wounded.

“Shield wall,” I ordered.

Lion Devours Gazelle, the unseen commander had called it. Piece by piece they eat us. The fae had perfectly grasped the weakness of my force, compared to his. We had few crossbows – a mere three lines – and no good line of sight to use it. Range was theirs, and the moment my crossbowmen revealed themselves they’d be eating a volley. Trying to get up close would just result in the same thing every time: a quick and fruitless melee followed by the Summer fae disengaging just before the archers fired. Bleeding us one skirmish at a time, taking us on a merry chase until all that’s left is a trail of corpses. By the size of the last volley and the number of swordsmen who’d faced us, I’d guess they weren’t more than a hundred. We’d had double their numbers in hardened veterans when the steel came out, led by a Named. Another quarter hour of this and our numbers would be even. Another quarter hour after that and they’d outnumber us. There was nothing I could do about it save attempting to charge them by myself, and they’d just spread out to shoot at me from every direction while a handful of swordsmen kept me pinned.

“They beat us,” I said, the words leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

Farrier was to my side, cheek burned red and an arrow wound on his shoulder, and I saw surprise flicker on his face.

“Countess,” he said, “we can still-“

“The longer we’re at this, the more soldiers we lose,” I cut through. “Call the retreat.”

I hadn’t noticed in the heat of the fight, but they’d been drawing us further out. Towards the towers in the distance. A hundred is about the size for a heavy patrol. I’m not liking the odds there isn’t an army waiting for us there, even if it’s not a large one. If we went any further and they had reinforcements coming, we were as good as dead. They’d fire at us while we retreated and we’d take losses from that, but if I got stubborn here I was risking a wipe-out. I’d lost fights before. Been outmanoeuvred by Juniper, been beaten by Black’s superior skills or crushed by Captain’s overwhelming might. But never before had I been so harshly outclassed when it came to tactics, and I did not like the feeling one bit. So this was Summer. The season of war, I’d heard it called. I’d seen nothing like the people I was facing now in Winter, and the thought had me uneasy. These weren’t warriors they were soldiers and soldiers fine enough to be the match of the Legions. We can’t linger in Summer, I thought. We’ll lose the entire army if we misstep even once. Farrier had barked hard enough that my men were already retreating in a semblance of good order, and I saw some of them were picking up the corpses of their comrades.

“Leave the bodies behind,” I ordered, tone bitter.

“Countess, you can’t possibly mean that,” a lieutenant said, tone aghast.

“We can’t afford to be slowed down,” I said.

I watched the silhouetted of the fae in the distance, their swordsmen already dispersing into the tall grass. Getting ready for another volley already.

“We’ll be back for them,” I said, clenching my fist.

There wasn’t much I could do right now, but there was one thing left. I reached for the power of Winter inside me, grasped as much as I could and poured it into my sword until the metal frosted. I kept taking more and more, until I felt my blood go from cold to freezing. Any further than that and it would turn to thick red slurry inside my veins. Gritting my teeth, I swung the blade ahead of me. Ice sprouted into wall ten feet high along the arc of the swing, even as exhaustion flooded me. I’d used too much tonight already and now my armour felt like an anvil on my back.

“Hurry,” I said, raising my voice. “It won’t slow them down for long.”

By the time the fae ceased pursuit, there were barely a hundred members of the Galloworne left.

There would be a reckoning for this.

Heroic Interlude: Injunction

“Forty-nine: if any wizard over the age of fifty suddenly becomes evasive when asked about your parents, you may safely assume yourself to be either royalty or related to your archenemy in some way.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

The interesting thing about morality, Hanno had found, was that it evolved across the years. Living through shards of a hundred heroes and heroines’ lives had made it impossible to deny as much, though he disliked the thought that concepts like Good and Evil could be mutable. The Book of All Things, after all, did not change – neither should ethics. Yet, a few thousand years ago, most of Calernia had once practiced slavery. The ancestors of nations that now found the very notion repugnant had then been unable to function without it. Procerans, in days before there was a Procer, had raided each other for plunder and workers. The Titanomanchy had built its wonders as much by the legendary craftsmanship of the Gigantes as on the backs of a hundred thousand Arlesite slaves. Even Ashur, his homeland, had once kept a citizenship tier beneath them all where forced labourers and servants were inducted into. But over the years, that ugly reality had been… outgrown. Recognized as unworthy of all those who would call themselves the children of the Heavens.

And so slavery went from commodity to sin, and Creation was made a little brighter. There were, of course, holdouts. The drow of the Everdark still sent raiding parties to the surface to grab the unwary and spirit them below. The Kingdom of the Dead still farmed men like crops, growing them and reaping them in an even darker kind of sin to swell the ranks of its armies. In Mercantis people were sold like cattle to all those who had the coin and the inclination, the City of Bought and Sold concerned solely by the lustre of gold. But the city famous for it, the one that had perfected the art of chaining others centuries before the Miezans first glimpsed the shores of Calernia, had always been Stygia. Its slave phalanxes, the Spears of Stygia, were famous on the continent for unflinching obedience and having had fear scoured out of them by the concoctions and sorceries of the Magisters. The entire city was a den of iniquity every passing day in a way that made the worst excesses of Helike pale.

The White Knight watched the tall banner floating above the camp, gold and grey set with two pure white cranes. Redress and Retribution, they were called, the patron spirits of Stygia. Lesser gods that had settled in the heart of the city when it was first built – he knew this for a fact for he’d watched one of them millennia ago centuries ago. Golden beak dipped in blood, eyes older than her entire bloodline red with hatred that was utterly inhuman. It would not matter. She was the Sword of the Free: she would wrest her people from chains and lead them to found a city in the east. A land where no would ever rule over them again. She rose, wounded but unbowed, and fought again. Hanno blinked, chasing away the memories not his own. Over two months since he’d fought the Black Knight and still sometimes the other lives trickled through into him. He’d come very close to dying, that day. That had consequences.

“Money for thinking,” the Champion said.

“Copper for your thoughts,” Hedge corrected in a low voice.

“Copper is money,” the Levantine replied condescendingly. “Witch wrong again. Do you no get tired of it?”

“Let’s move,” Hanno said, interrupting before the bickering could start in earnest. “Follow the plan.”

He saw the Hedge Wizard open her mouth from the corner of her eye, but her sister thumped her with her staff. Priestess was, he had to admit, the most reliable of his companions in temperament. Though considering her competition was a drunken disappearing Bard, her actively argumentative sister and brawler who kept trophies of her kills, that might not be saying much. Still, he knew from the Chamber of Borrowed Lives that no Named who lived longer than a few years managed to avoid growing some… quirks. The power conferred onto them by the Gods shaped them as much as they shaped it. Regardless he got along with her the best. More than once they’d found themselves sharing a comfortable quiet in the back while the rest of their band bickered aimlessly. The four heroes crept across the grassy field, Hedge’s spell keeping them hidden from the moonlight even as they neared the outskirts of the Stygian camp. A palisade of wooden stakes had been raised and spear-slaves patrolled behind them. He could hear them pass by, when he pressed his ear against the wood.

“Priestess,” he said.

The dark-haired woman nodded. The tip of her staff traced a circle on the surface of the palisade and a heartbeat later the wood crumbled into ash. They passed through, one after another. Hanno glanced at Champion and Hedge through the slit of his barbute.

“Half an hour,” he reminded them. “That’s all we’ll need. Retreat afterwards.”

“Will make river of blood,” Champion said enthusiastically from under her badger-shaped helm. “Eat hearts of enemies.”

“That’s cannibalism,” Hedge said.

“Not so,” the Levantine said. “Says in Book. Allowed if they wicked.”

“The Book of All Things does not excuse eating people,” the Wizard firmly stated.

“Maybe in lame Free Cities version,” Champion replied sceptically.

They both turned to the Ashen Priestess, the only individual among them with an actual religious education. The heroine stared back with hickory-coloured eyes.

“I’m not humouring this with an actual response,” she informed them flatly. “Get moving before I decide to make the two of you incontinent.”

“Mighty Priest-Witch true monster,” the Champion said admiringly before fleeing.

Hedge met her sister’s eyes for a moment longer before making a tactical withdrawal, paling a bit.

“Can you?” Hanno asked, morbidly curious.

He had a trick to discern lies – it was common, for those sworn to the Choir of Judgement – but using it drew on his Name and he still had a fight ahead of him.

“I fed Alkmene an herbal concoction when were we twelve to make her believe I could,” Priestess admitted, the sly shadow of a smile on her lips.

Hanno would have snorted if the situation was any less serious. They fell into step together naturally, his longer stride shortening to accommodate her own. There’d been no need to rely on his few memories of fighting Stygia in the past to deduce where the Magisters would be camped: while the entire rim of he fortified camp was rough burlap tents, the centre was absurdly luxurious and bustling with servants during the day. Without Hedge to guide them around the wards and keep them out of sight, the two of them had to be careful. The White Knight could feel sorcery, if he attuned himself, and Ash could outright see it – but neither of them were trained in picking up on the subtler effects, much less bypass them. They sidestepped an alarm ward early on, but found to their displeasure that deeper in there was another ward that circled entirely around the circumference of the cmap. The Priestess could dismantle it, of course, but that would be giving away their presence. They hid in the shadows for a while instead, waiting for their distraction to arrive, and were eventually rewarded by a spray of fireworks that set fire to a dozen tents in the distance followed by a booming voice challenging the entire camp to single combat. Slaves soldiers immediately began to mobilize, and only then did the two heroes cross the alarm ward. Stealth was no longer the game, now. Swiftness was the line of life and death.

The first Magister they found was obviously drunk, a grey-haired woman leaning against a post and breathing like someone trying not to throw up. Lean face, eyes dulled by liquor and long dark robes whose sleeves tangled with the many rings on her fingers. All Magisters were mages, and only gained the title by showing power and ruthlessness. Neither of those things mattered, when the mage could not see you coming.  The White Knight’s sword took her in the throat without warning, hacking straight through. A cry of surprise came from ahead, the corpse dropped and the battle began.

Green sorcery lashed out in a stream at him, but Hanno ducked to the side and broke into a run. A Spear of Stygia burst out of a tent to the side, but in a flash turned into a pile of ashes. The Magisters were aware they were under attack, now. Within moments at least a dozen more mages stormed out of the large silken pavilion in the centre of the camp, the rings on their hands glinting as they immediately began spellcasting. The Wandering Bard had told him there were fifteen in total, sent by Stygia to lead its army against Nicae. Decapitating the head of the snake was why he’d taken come with his companions tonight. A slave army without masters was as good as paralyzed, and might actually retreat back to Stygia. The more casters joined the fray, the closer to him the spells came: they stood in a tight cluster, and for all that they were wretched souls one and all he almost admired the skill being shown. Spells led into each other, herding him into harsher attacks like a horse being led to water. The Light flooded his veins, sharpening his reflexes far beyond limits as he began to weave and duck through the volleys directed at him, not even a full step ahead. Another slave tried to spear him through the side, only to be caught by the edge of a black orb that saw the man;s skin contract and tear under the sudden pressure. The Magisters did not care who else died in their attempt to put him down. He’d expected nothing less from slavers.

Ride,” the White Knight said.

Light wove itself into a horse in the blink of an eye and even as Hanno deftly leapt onto its back he felt a lance of light form in his hand.

“Aspect,” one of the Magisters noted, tone calm.

“Suppression,” another ordered.

Fourteen jets of black light bloomed, emanating from outstretched hands, and combined their streams at him. Hanno struck at the malevolent power with his lance, but after a few heartbeats his weapon broke into shards and the power of the Magisters tore through his mount as well – the White Knight grit his teeth to ignore the pain of the feedback from having an aspect overpowered. He fell kneeling to the ground, unsheathing his sword again.

“Full attack, before he uses a second,” a woman’s voice stated.

Before the White Knight could react, three stakes of obsidian nailed both his feet to the ground, going through his armour like it was butter. The twelve remaining Magisters finished their incantations a moment later, fire reeking of sulphur blooming in their hands.

“We are Magisters of Stygia, boy,” the woman who’d just spoken, a cold smile on her face. “Even heroes kneel before us.”

The twelve spheres of hellfire hit him in the chest almost simultaneously. Hanno unhesitatingly flared the Light under his skin where the impact was happening – though that was enough to spare his flesh, their spells melted straight through his plate and threw him into a tent like a rag doll. If he’d not used his Name, there would be a smoking hole where his ribcage currently stood. With a grunt, he rose to his feet and tried to get the silk panels off his head before he could get hit again. No doubt the slaver mages were feeling rather smug at the moment, certain of their superiority. They’d been batting him around since the beginning, after all. That was their mistake. They’d used their strength on the one who, of the two present, could take a beating. All the while ignoring the other.

“Though their horses and chariots are like a river unto Creation, though their spears be forest and their sword be mountains, the Gods pass judgement unto them. Do not dread, for I bear the word of the Heavens and that word is begone.”

The Ashen Priestess’ voice rang loud a clear like a trumpet across the chaotic camp. Finally rid of the silk, Hanno was just in time to see the circle of blinding light form around the standing Magisters. Panic flickered across their faces for a single moment, and then the miracle wiped away the world. Even his Name wasn’t enough to keep the ringing out of his ears, or prevent the blindness that burned his retinas. Ten heartbeats later, when the terrible whiteness finally left his eyes, all the White Knight saw where the Magisters had once stood was a faint shimmer of light. Of the men and women, there was not a trace. Ash was panting, leaning on her staff: this was one of the more strenuous miracles she could call on, and one that took long to prepare. Against the likes of the Calamities, attempting to use it would be a death sentence. But these had been a different breed they were facing. Men and women ready to lean into their arrogance. And for all that the miracle took long to bring forth, there was no denying the effectiveness of the harsh judgement of the Heavens meted out. The White Knight limped to his friend and allowed her to lean on his shoulder: they needed to get moving soon, but they had a few moments still. There was a flicker of movement behind them and Hanno’s fingers tightened around the grip of his sword, but it was only a bird. A pigeon, to be exact, and it landed on his shoulder.

“Well, the distraction worked,” Hedge said, her voice unnaturally coming out of the bird’s mouth. “Maybe a little too well.”

A sound like a dozen cauldrons rolling down a street resounded behind them, which from experience he knew meant the Champion was running. The Levantine came into sight not logn afterwards, her breastplate splattered in so much blood she might as well have dipped it in a barrel of the stuff. The White Knight frowned when he saw no one was in pursuit. Even with the Magisters dead the slave soldiers should be continuing the fight. Why was no one following?

“Funny cripple here,” the Champion announced delightedly. “Giving speech. We beat him like renting mule, yes?”

“The Tyrant?” the White Knight said.

Why was he – oh. The hero closed his eyes.

“He’s taking over the Stygian army,” Hanno said.

“Can he even do that?” the pigeon complained, too close to his hear for comfort.

“Masterless slaves and a ruler Name? It’s basically handed to him,” the Wandering Bard announced cheerfully.

All their eyes flicked to their wayward fifth member, who was leaning against a wooden pole with a flask in hand. Said hand, apparently sweaty, slipped and she nearly hit the side of her head against her support before gamely trying to pretend she’d always meant to do that. Hedge snorted, which was impressive considering she was a bird at the moment.

“Where were you, Aoede?” Ash asked.

“Seeing a guy about a thing,” the Bard replied vaguely.

“You are the world’s most terrible riddler,” the pigeon stated. “There’s no mystery, only non-answers and a blatant drinking problem.”

“The point of this was to remove Stygia from the equation,” the White Knight said, ignoring the byplay. “We’ve failed.”

“But you successfully hit another point by accident, so it’s all good really,” the Bard told them with a smile.

Hanno frowned.

“And what would that point be?”

“Taking a tool out of the other monster’s toolbox,” Aoede said, toasting her flask. “That said, my lovelies, now might be a great time to leg it. You’re about to have a very motivated army looking for you.”

The hero glanced at Priestess, who shrugged in resigned agreement.

“Retreat, then,” the White Knight said, feeling somewhat robbed of a victory.

Even as they began their flight, Hanno saw the Bard slipping an arm around Champion’s armoured shoulders and leaning close.

“Do you happen to like monster stories, Rafaella?” she asked.

“Speak me more,” the Levantine grinned.

Villainous Interlude: Decorum

“Morality is a force, not a law. Deviating from it has costs and benefits both – a ruler should weigh those when making a decision, and ignore the delusion of any position being inherently superior.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent

Two years at most: that was how long Amadeus had to live.

Maybe only a year, if he blundered badly enough. He’d walked away from his meeting with the Tyrant of Helike knowing this, and was still exploring the implications. When no pattern of three had formed with the White Knight after their confrontation in Delos, Black had found several implications. The first was that the scope of that hero’s story was narrower than he’d thought: it extended only to the civil war in the Free Cities, and as an outsider to that narrative Amadeus did not have the weight required to qualify as a rival. That possibility had been a factor in why he’d cautiously called a retreat even though the Calamities had, arguably, been winning. If they were mere side-characters in that conflict, the most likely pattern for them was to be victorious early then brutally crushed after the heroes improved their power. A whetting stone for the blades of the Gods Above, essentially. By removing himself early he would not have allowed the pattern to truly form. And yet, the premise was flawed.

The White Knight, Scribe had informed him, was not of the Free Cities. He was Ashuran, somewhat surprising given his dark skin. A little digging had allowed his spymistress to find out the man’s mother had been a Soninke exile, eventually executed because of one of the labyrinthine laws that governed the citizenship tiers of the Thalassocracy. The White Knight’s reason to be involved, then was not ‘right of birth’. The two sisters that were part of his heroic band were themselves from the Free Cities, but neither the House of Light the Ashen Priestess had served in nor the hidden covenant of wizards her sister had studied under had been harmed by either Praesi forces or those of the Tyrant. ‘Personal connection’ wasn’t the reason either, then. Amadeus had made sure that both those places of origin would remain untouched for the duration of the war: heroes with butchered families, adopted or otherwise, became infinitely more dangerous.

The only motive that fit was ‘ethical opposition’, but if that was the case Amadeus should have ended up the rival to the other Knight. He represented a larger and more active power than the Tyrant of Helike, arguably with a deeper historical connection with Evil. Unless, of course, some deeper unknown connection existed between the White Knight and the Tyrant. That theory had been buried during his conference with the vicious child from Helike: the other villain was not bound by a pattern of any sort.

Amadeus did not consider his own intellect to be superior, in the larger scheme of things. He’d been at the side of Wekesa for decades and early understood that Warlock was perhaps the most brilliant mind to grace Praes in ten generations, however narrow his interests. Only Alaya stood in the same league, a mastermind who’d been able to fill the function of two Named for over forty years with sheer cunning and ruthlessness while facing men and women who were bloody ambitions made flesh. He was not the strongest, either. In matters of brute force, Sabah could snap him in half in the span of a single breath when it came to martial might Hye stood unequalled under the sky. Black wasn’t even the best at killing: Assassin’s body count dwarfed his, for both Named and mortals, and had been collected without ever taking a single wound. As for Scribe, the way she’d effectively become the bureaucracy and spy network of an entire kingdom without ever having a permanent office was far beyond his capacity. Amadeus’ only noteworthy talent, in his opinion, was clarity of sight. The ability to look at a situation if not without biases then with fewer of them than anyone else doing the same.

That same clarity was how he’d understood why he was not currently in a pattern of three. The White Knight was, in fact, supposed to face a Black Knight as a rival. That individual was simply not him.

Midnight bell was nearing, the villain thought as he glanced up as the starry sky. Wekesa was already asleep inside the gaudy tent he’d taken out of his pocket dimension along with most of their supplies. There would be no waking him until dawn. Sabah was napping at his side, buried in blankets up to her neck like some sort of gargantuan cocoon. Sitting on a log, Amadeus stirred the fire ahead of him with the long stick he’d carved out earlier and shaped a plan. Planning with two years in mind, he now had to destroy or neuter every major threat to the Empire before Catherine became the Black Knight. He would make a second series of schemes in the days to come with the notion of him surviving only a year in mind, but first he needed to establish what the optimal results could be. He’d once thought he had a decade left in him still and planned to have his apprentice ready to replace him in half that but the timetable would have to be adjusted. There were four fronts he would have to settle: Callow, Praes, the Free Cities and Procer. In the back of his mind gears of iron turned as his eyes remained on the dancing flames.

Callow and Praes, as it currently stood, were intertwined issues. The former kingdom was, last he’d heard, under attack by several forces. The Courts of Arcadia, the rebel forces of the Diabolist and a potential Deoraithe uprising. Alaya already had plans in the works for the Diabolist, but that was no longer enough. She had to be dead within the next six months, with minimal casualties. This much he could rely on Catherine to accomplish, and solidify her grip on Callow in the process. The Courts had been an unexpected set of pieces in this game. Amadeus had three standing operational plans for the Legions to turn back a fae incursion depending on where they crossed, but none were designed to handle a full-fledged invasion. Winter had been temporarily handled by his apprentice, but that was mitigating the symptoms instead of the root cause. It was necessary to find out what had driven both Courts to leave Arcadia and permanently destroy that incitement. For now, Amadeus lacked the information needed to make a decision. Scribe would need a few months still to find out what he wanted, so he’d have to trust Catherine to hold them at bay until then.

She should be able to, and that calibre of opponent would quicken her growth. Dealing with creatures whose power was massively larger than her own would prepare her for the fights with heroes she would be facing as the Black Knight. The nature of fae being so closely associated with patterns would also sharpen her eye in this regard, enough she would not be caught on the wrong side of a narrative easily. The dark-haired man had originally meant to train that aspect of her against the High Lords through the controlled battleground of rule over Callow, but in this case the substitute was superior to the original. The Deoraithe were a thornier issue, especially since he still did not know what had driven them to act. Alaya and he had originally allowed the Duchy of Daoine to remain untouched after the Conquest because it served as an ideal border state against the Golden Bloom, both because of the Deoraithe’s rabid hatred for the elves and their limited avenues for growth. While powerful, by themselves they would never be powerful enough to be a true threat to the Empire – and their culture essentially ensured they would never seek foreign allies.

Now, though, it had been proved they could be made to move. Unless the motive for their deployment was unique and incapable of being reproduced, the odds of which were low, then it was possible for Daoine to be leveraged into action again. That made them a liability, the kind that could not be allowed to exist with a crusade on the horizon. By the end of the current unrest, Daoine would have to be either bound to Catherine definitively in her capacity as ruler of Callow or broken beyond capacity to act. If it was the second case, the best time to act would be after they’d fought battles in the south: wiping out the Watch in their own territory would be extremely costly. Destroying the army and culling the population of breeding age by four tenths should be enough. Amadeus disliked leaving a wounded enemy still breathing, but logistics dictated exterminating the entire Duchy would require too many resources and take too long. He’d send word to Grem and Ranker to assess the situation and act accordingly, if he was unable to return in time to pass judgement.

That left the more complicated issue of the relationship between Callow and Praes, or more accurately the Dread Empress and the Squire. Catherine was about to seize direct power over her homeland, which was one of the outcomes he’d considered most probable. The moment the Ruling Council had been formed, there were only two ways it could go forward: either Squire would terrify the Praesi establishment into submission or she would wipe it out entirely and become de facto queen. Neither result displeased him, as the Ruling Council had always been meant to be a crutch that would allow his apprentice to learn to rule. Given how long Amadeus had left to live, such a slow-paced process was no longer feasible: Catherine discarding the crutch by herself accelerated the process by a few months. Alaya would be furious at the loss of control, he knew, but she would be aware that Catherine ruling Callow with the backing of the population was an unmitigated victory for the Empire. Squire breaking away entirely from Praes was, after all, impossible.

That was the truth under the surface current, and why he’d never once felt threatened by his apprentice gathering an independent power base. Catherine was, after all, a villain. The Principate would not consider Callow ruled by villainous queen any more acceptable than it being an imperial possession. Strife between Praes and her kingdom reborn would only weaken her in the face of Proceran advances: as long as Catherine Foundling held power in Callow, she needed the Empire to survive. Amadeus had taken more stringent measures as well, of course. Though Callowan soldiers had been part of the Fifteenth since its foundation, he’d made sure to give her mostly criminals in the initial batch. That meant that all her closest collaborators were Praesi: her general and all the senior staff were from the Wasteland. Though being in close proximity to a charismatic Named for several years ensured their strongest loyalty would be to her, their ties to the Empire made them into counter-weights against thoughts of breaking away entirely.

Much like him, personal loyalty mattered a great deal to his apprentice. As long as declaring independence antagonized all the people closest to her, Catherine would seek a middle ground instead. Since a boundary had been set in that direction, the other boundary had to be established on the Praesi side. Alaya should already be working on a way to bind Squire to her, and would be well aware that coercion would result in permanent enmity. He did not have to bother himself with this part of the equation. Instead, what he would have to turn his eyes to was the stability of the Wasteland. Alaya’s magnificent decades-long plan had finally come to fruition and destroyed the Truebloods in full. Three legions would scour Wolof clean as soon as a winner emerged from the succession struggle there, removing a nest of unrest in Praes for at least twenty years. It would not be enough. Every former Trueblood not currently aligned with these so-called ‘Moderates’ would have to be killed and their entire family line ripped out root and stem. Amadeus was not above borrowing the strength of Callow to accomplish this, if other legions balked at the slaughter. The Clans were loyal, and need not be touched, but he would need to have a frank conversation with the foremost Matrons and explain to them that if they made a single questionable move Wekesa would bring down the Grey Eyries on their heads. Ranker would back him in this, he knew. She’d long run out of patience with the more isolationist of the Matrons.

All of this would secure their back within a year, if handled properly, which left exterior threats. The Principate was the foremost among those. Cordelia Hasenbach had roped in both Levant and Ashur, which have her utmost naval supremacy and a quiet southern border. When Procer came knocking, it would be with everything but the northern garrisons. At least a fifty thousand professional soldiers, easily twice than in levies, and that was without counting any armies sent to reinforce by the Dominion. If most of the Legions were at the Red Flower Vales, it was possible to resist that strength as long as there was no unrest inside Imperial territories. That was not enough, he decided. If Procer retreated with enough of its force intact, the problem was only delayed by half a decade at most. The Principate had to be decisively beaten, its alliances sundered and the First Prince killed. She was, frankly speaking, too dangerous to leave alive. That meant campaigning inside Proceran borders in an offensive war, which would most likely lead to defeat given the current balance of forces.

It was time to start using harsh measures, then. Using the Calamities to destroy the capital of the Principate, for a start, should incapacitate its ruling infrastructure. Using a surprise strike to torch and poison the central principalities, the main farmlands of Procer, would lead to widespread starvation come winter. As for the Thalassocracy, if they could not be reasoned with Assassin would need to eliminate their entire two highest citizenship tiers. That would create chaos that could buy the Empire two years at least, and if Procer could be dealt with during that time the chances of Ashur resuming the war alone were low. The Dominion of Levant was too far and too decentralized to cripple in one stroke, but their ties to the alliance were also the weakest. They would not remain committed if victory did not look feasible. There were even harsher moves that could be made, of course – the Tower was still in contact with the ancient abomination that ruled the Kingdom of the Dead. But putting that devil back in that bottle after it was uncorked would be impossible, and in the long term more dangerous to imperial interests than the current Procer.

Amadeus had spent over fifty years carefully making sure not to burn too many bridges, to avoid the very kind of crusade the First Prince was assembling, but the hour of reckoning had come. The Principate needed to be so badly damaged it would not recover for a generation, if possible while leaving most of Levant’s strength intact – the Dominion would not be able to resist the bait of a weakened south if its armies were still strong. Most importantly, Cordelia Hasenbach had to die. Even if another war of succession did not erupt, whoever replaced her would be part of one of the regional power blocs Alaya had made emerge. They would have powerful internal enemies to deal with, and given the nature of the Highest Assembly that meant a Principate divided in fact if not in name. All of this, though, would come next year. There was a more immediate problem at hand, the Free Cities.

The balance of power could not be allowed to swing in the favour of Good down here. At the very least, neutrality had to be forced with the Tyrant remaining in a strong position. The threat of Helike armed to the teeth at her back would force Hasenbach to keep troops in the south to dissuade an attack. Neutrality would be better than an outright victory for the Tyrant, Amadeus thought. If the Tyrant won, Procer had an excuse to wage war in the region and secure it before turning to Praes. If the balance was restored, they had a knife at their back and no diplomatically acceptable excuse to remove it. If Procer started intervening in the affairs of foreign nations, its allies would protest. Hasenbach could not afford to lose them if she wanted a crusade in more than name. And the moment the Tyrant is no longer a threat, the entire Free Cities will start viewing the troops she sent as an invasion force. The desired outcome, then, was a truce in the Free Cities with a guarantee they would not participate in the larger conflict. How could Amadeus accomplish this?

Currently, Atalante was under occupation and Delos out of the war – the removal of the more combative elements of the Secretariat by Assassin had seen to that. The strife he’d begun in Penthes was keeping them busy, though they’d still managed to repulse an attack from the ramshackle army of Bellerophon. The slave armies of Stygia, headed by their Magisters, had joined Helike on the march to the last remaining active opposition in the war: Nicae. Which was filled with mercenaries, Proceran fantassins and its own decently skilled forces. Taking Named out of the story, after marked but not severe casualties Nicae should fall to enemy forces. With a band of heroes backing the city, though, the situation was different. It became ‘the last stronghold, besieged by the hordes of Evil’. Defeat was virtually assured as long as this remained the narrative, and Amadeus did not currently have enough authority with Stygia and Helike to properly influence their decision-making. They would have to be bypassed entirely, then.

The lynchpin of this entire situation, as far as he could tell, was the White Knight. He was the Named keeping the band together. Without him they would either disperse or lose the coherency needed to be a true threat. If the White Knight was dead, Amadeus believed he could turn the victory of the Evil-aligned cities into a bloody draw that would weaken both sides enough they could be forced to negotiate a truce. The Tyrant would be trouble – he’d already begun disrupting Warlock’s scrying, which had cut off the dark-haired man’s conversation with his apprentice – but he was also fickle. As long as he was presented with a more enticing game than his current one, he could be brought to the table. All Amadeus had to worry about was surviving the boy’s inevitable attempts to kill him during the battle for Nicae. Contingencies were already being put in place. The key to this entire situation, then, was eliminating the White Knight. The villain poked at the flames again.

It could be done, with the right preparations. The lack of pattern would not hinder this.

“You look like you’re up to no good,” Sabah said sleepily.

Amadeus smiled. It was an old joke, now more comfortable than funny.

“Did I wake you?” he asked. “I apologize.”

“I sleep lighter than when we were started out,” she said. “We’re getting old, Amadeus.”

The Black Knight chuckled, sliding down the log to sit next to her.

“You’ve still got a few decades in you,” he said. “Enough you’ll see your both your children get grey hair.”

“Amna’s raised them well,” she said wistfully. “I think of them more often than I used to, out on adventures like this.”

Both time she’d given birth she’d left his side for a year afterwards to mother the children, but inevitably Sabah had left Ater to join him – he’d spent most of his time in Callow, the last twenty years. Her husband had done most of the rearing, repeatedly refusing promotions in the Imperial bureaucracy to have enough time for it. Black rather liked the man, though how his old friend had come to fall in love with that diminutive, mild-mannered specimen had long been a subject of wonder.

“I think,” he said, “that our time is drawing to an end.”

The large Taghreb turned amused eyes to him.

“You’re not usually this maudlin,” she said. “We’ve handled worse than the Tyrant. He’s like a crippled take on Heir, only with a sense of humour.”

“He really was a pompous ass, wasn’t he?” Black smiled.

“Catherine’s rival is worse,” Sabah grunted. “I’m looking forward to the kid hacking her in a few pieces.”

“It will be a learning experience for her,” Amadeus murmured. “Killing the Heir was a turning point for me.”

“You were softer before,” Sabah agreed softly. “We all were. I still remember what it felt like back then, looking at his corpse. Like there was a storm ahead.”

She frowned.

“Feels the same now,” she admitted. “Like we’re reaching a pivot.”

I’m going to die soon, he almost told her. But he couldn’t, because if he did she would fight it. Even harder than Warlock would, because Warlock understood that some things were worth dying for. Captain didn’t. She had no great cause, no febrile drive to understand the nature of Creation. Sabah only wanted them to live as long and happily as they could, and if she had to cave in other people’s heads for that so be it. He’d always loved that about her, the purity of the sentiment. He’d never met another Named like her, so unconcerned with their own power. In that sense she was the strangest among them.

“Do you ever regret it?” he asked suddenly. “Coming with Wekesa and I, the morning after we first met you.”

She looked at him, bemused.

“We’ve been at this over forty years, Sabah,” he said. “We’ve killed so many people I can’t remember all the faces. We won, when it mattered, but there were dark days too. Those just don’t make it into the legends.”

The massive Taghreb patted his shoulder gently.

“You’re an idiot,” she told him, not unkindly. “You two are family. You might as well ask me if I regret breathing. Besides, f I hadn’t come along you twerps would have mouthed yourself off into an early grave.”

She paused.

“And you and Hye would still be pretending you still didn’t desperately want to bone,” she added.

Sabah,” he protested.

“Oh, she’s just teaching me swordsmanship,” she mocked in a high-pitched voice. “Like that didn’t turn into an excuse for you two to get sweaty and handsy before the first lesson was over.”

“I learned a lot from her,” Black said.

“I know,” she said. “Tents don’t block out noise very well.”

As one of the foremost tacticians of the age, Amadeus recognized that this was not a battle he could win. Retreat was required. Besides, at least he’d never used an entire roasted pig as a courting gift, unlike some other people that would go nameless.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said.

She raised a thick eyebrow.

“Eudokia tells me Procer is still sending grain and silver to Nicae by land convoys,” he said.

The Tyrant, for reasons only known to him, was allowing them to pass untouched.

“We need to turn the screws on the city before it turns into a battle,” he said. “The emptier their coffers and granaries, the better.”

It would be easier to force them to negotiate if they were all but destitute.

“Been a while since I hunted on my own,” Captain said, staring into the flame. “Might do me some good. The Beast gets wilful when I keep it on the leash for too long.”

He nodded silently and left it at that. Eventually she drifted back into sleep, the two of them nestled close to the fire.

“Two years,” he murmured. “It will be enough. I’ll make it enough.”

The Gods could help anyone who got in his way, if they so wished. It would make no difference.

Villainous Interlude: Exeunt

“If Creation is not mine, what need is there to be a Creation at all?”
– Dread Empress Triumphant, First and Only of Her Name

“They think they have us cornered,” Fasili said.

There was laughter in that tone, the intonation he used in Mtethwa implying mocking irony – he’d inflected the word for ‘think’ with the same sound as the one for ‘fool’. Winds were whipping at the city wildly as it rose into the sky, the power Akua had called ripping Liesse from solid ground and casting it up. The aftermath of the ritual she’d called on still burned in her bones, pulsing in time with her heartbeat. It was the largest working she’d ever undertaken, dwarfing even the two Lesser Breaches she’d made in her lifetime, and it had been exhilarating. The traces of that monstrous sorcery would permeate the region for decades to come, long after every trace of the fae currently trampling it were gone. Standing atop the highest bastion of the city gates, the Diabolist and her mortal second-in-command were watching the army of Summer splayed below. A host of legend, she conceded as she studied the glittering ranks. But she had one as well and it would not come out the lesser of this strife.

There were two princes and a princess among the ranks of the enemy, the strongest hand the Summer Court could play without sending its own Queen into battle. One of those stood head and shoulders above the others: the same princess who’d forced Diabolist to trigger her ritual early when she’d begun melting the ramparts with brute force. Given the cascading nature of the wards woven into the walls, if she’d been left at it much longer the entire outer rampart would have crumbled along with most of the dark-skinned aristocrat’s army. No matter. Akua had planned to use the ritual as soon as the enemy made their move anyway, though she’d expected an assault of thousands and not a single fae. The highest caste of the Fair Folk was nothing to sneer at, she acknowledged. Among all the entities she could call on nothing but a handful of obscenely ancient devils could match their power. She had three of these summoned, as it happened, a perfectly symmetrical match. The Gods Below sometimes saw fit to hand gifts to their most faithful, and who else but she could still claim that title?

“The harvest has been plentiful,” Diabolist said. “Let us reap the benefits in full.”

The ritual array for turning Liesse into a flying fortress-city was not the one she’d been building for all these months, of course. A ritual so straightforward would not have required Akua to sink all the resources at her disposal into the city. No, all she’d done was activate a secondary array, one she’d originally designed as a security measure in case the Legions of Terror came calling too early. It was the reason she’d allowed all those refugees from the south behind her walls, even if like rodents they ate up her granaries: hey could serve as acceptable fuel in a pinch. Ultimately, that had proved unnecessary. She’d managed to acquire a Duchess of Summer with her traps before needing to retreat and the fae noble had been more than enough for the purpose. Diabolist preferred this outcome, as it happened. Keeping the city full of refugees should stay Foundling’s hand when the hour of reckoning came. And if didn’t? Well, there were always uses for such large quantities of lifeblood.

The High Lords of Praes knew how to turn massacre into power better than anyone else, living or dead.

What had finally driven the fae to attack, she wondered? Was it taking a Duchess? The reaction seemed too delayed for that, weeks passing before the attack came. Until recently they’d been content to fight her in the plains of the south, rightfully wary of the wards protecting her stronghold. Akua’s instincts were that Foundling had a hand in this, but the latest news had her in Laure crucifying fools. The Diabolist had had to resist the urge to roll her eyes, when she’d heard resistance had been attempted after Squire had entered the city. As if the likes of Satang Motherless and Murad Kalbid had it in them to thwart the likes of Catherine Foundling. Akua’s enemy had flaws, but she was a power worthy of the Name she had claimed and growing more Praesi by the year. A pair of castoffs from the Wasteland were nothing more than dust in the face of that. More interesting was the way Squire had been able to travel so quickly. Given Foundling’s recent journey in the realm of the fae, Akua was inclined to believe she was carving paths through Arcadia to move faster than Creation permitted.

A fascinating notion that, one that while not unknown – the Calamities had done the same on occasion and there were records of heroes doing so as well – had never been used on this scale before. It was one thing for a handful of Named to hurry through the outskirts of Arcadia, quite another for an army to march through the territory of the Courts. Whatever had happened in Winter after Squire wandered inside its boundaries, she’d gained great power there. Measures would have to be taken so she couldn’t pull the same trick on the Diabolist, but that was a notion for later. Today, after all, Akua Sahelian was going to war. The phrase, even as an idle thought, set her blood aflame. It felt right. It felt like she was finally touching upon what she had always been meant to be, unsheathing a blade for the first time after years of forging it. Liesse reached the height it was meant to and then ceased ascending, stabilizing in its flight. Beneath her the wings of the fae coming for her head lit up the field and the winged cavalry began its charge upwards. Clarions sounded, piercing the afternoon afternoon air like blades. The call of Summer. From the walls of Liesse, a hundred hide drums began to beat. Doom, doom, doom they announced. Praes is at war. Tremble, any who stand in its way.

“Lord Fasili,” she said. “Take command of the army. I will be joining the fray.”

“May you blot out their horizon forever, my lady,” the Soninke replied, bowing.

There was fervour in his eyes. He too understood what this battle stood for: in this twilight of the Age of Wonders, the last true sons and daughters of Praes had taken up arms. Oh, you poor fools of Summer. Twilight is the coming of night, and night has ever been our time. We will own the dark and shape the day that comes after it. Adjusting her long crimson, Akua breathed in the wind and reached for her Name. It was pulsing inside her still, like the blood in her veins, as much a birth right as the rest. Call, she whispered inside her mind, and as her aspect rose to the surface her mind unfolded across miles. A small sliver of it inside every devil she had brought into Creation, an iron shard inside their very being that shackled them to her will. This was more than the mere bindings her ancestors had managed. It was ownership in truth, the kind of tyranny that had once been the sole province of those who climbed the Tower.

“Fly,” she ordered, and every one of them heard the words. “Scatter all that opposes me.”

A full thousand walin-falme spread their leather wings instantly. Her harvest had been bountiful indeed: once she’d thought she would have only four hundred to call on, but the revolving wards designed by her father had allowed her to capture so many fae she’d managed over twice that. The devils took flight eagerly, screaming promises of death in the Dark Tongue. Diabolist could have called on a flying chariot to carry her to war, but it would have only slowed her down: rising smoothly over the edge of the rampart, she strode onto the afternoon sky. Beneath her feet glass-like panels of force appeared and she strolled towards the wave of enemies filling the air. Only one other person did the same: the man who’d taught her this spell, her father. The first wave of fae rising through the air reached him before they did her, but she was not worried and for good reason. Without Papa so much as raising a hand, all the enemies that came close to him started… bubbling up under their skin, before simply exploding in bursts of flame. Smiling at the sight, Diabolist glanced at the insolent things headed for her. A swarm of ivory and steel, flying pennants of red and gold. Doom, doom, doom the drums sounded. A promise, an oath.

“Justice,” the fae clamoured.

“Death,” Diabolist replied, and granted it to them.

High Arcana runes light up around her, coming easier than they ever have before, and the air in front of the enemy formed into a ball that condensed for three heartbeats before detonating with a sound like thunder. A hundred fae were swatted down like flies, their bright wings winking out, and twice as many were tossed aside by the impact. Raw power pumped through her veins, her very Name feeding on the sight of her supremacy. The tide of fae swallowed her up as the enemy host headed for the walls, while in the distance the winged cavalry charged straight into her swarm of devils. The melee that ensued was brutal, cast iron in furious eldritch hands smashing into the silvery arms of the Summer Court’s peerless knights. Diabolist paid it no further mind, as waves of fae were falling upon her.

“Seven lanterns, lit and smothered,” she incanted. “I have spilled blood and broken bone, known the desert sun and offered pure incense.”

High Arcana wove itself into her words, every syllable shaping the runes according to her will as if she were painting with sorcery.

“Howl, hunger, hollow. Threefold is my will: obey, winds.”

When it came to wind sorcery, not even the finest of the Soninke could match the Taghreb. A current of bone-dry wind formed at her back, sweeping around her and gathering all the fae that had been approaching her with it. Laughing, she quickened the sweep and broadened it until the dozen soldiers she’d first caught became hundreds. The current of air, full of flesh and steel, formed into a ball above her head when her hands rose. Her fingers formed a fist and with a sick crunch metal and bodies alike shattered. Her veins burning at the power she still held onto, Diabolist flicked down her hand and flung the ball into the enemy ranks – it carved a line through them, though killed precious few.

“It seems mere soldiers are no match for the likes of you,” a voice spoke from ahead.

A pale woman with golden hair, her scale armour a different shade of green in every scale, stared at her calmly. Sword in hand, she saluted gallantly.

“I am the Countess of First Bloom,” she introduced herself.

Diabolist closed her eyes. She could feel the fae landing on the walls, fighting her soldiers and drying in droves as wards and goblin steel carved through them. Her mages snuffed out fae lives with streaks of lightning and darkness, sending rituals old as Wolof into the throngs of assailants. Streams of lesser devils poured out of summoning circles, a storm of shrieks and claws that died as quick as they came into existence but left behind bleeding limbs and tired hands. Deaths, so many deaths, of both mortals and fae. Every one of them permeating Creation with strands of power.

“In the name of my Queen, I consign you to death by the flames of Summer,” the Countess announced, irritated by the lack of response.

Diabolist smiled.

“I will teach you,” she said. “What fire truly is.”

Claim, she spoke silently. Her third aspect, and the one worthiest of a ruler. In a heartbeat, all those strands of power shivered and fell under her authority. The aristocrat gathered them to her, siphoning them into the spell she’d begun crafting even as she spoke.

“Burn, misbegotten creature,” the Countess of First Bloom cried out.

Heat turned to fire, a torrent of bright golden flames pouring out towards the Diabolist. She was a mighty thing, this Countess. But not mightier than a thousand deaths made sorcery. Akua’s silhouette was wreathed in power, for a heartbeat, and then for a hundred feet in every direction the sky turned into a nightmare of dark flame. Not quite hellfire, but centuries of mages in Wolof had managed to craft the closest thing to it a mortal could manage. A hundred grasping hands and hungry maws of flame devoured the noble fae and any foolish soldier who’d come too close to the struggle. The golden flames that had arrogantly attempted to take her life were buried and smothered, the hellish scene lasting for thirty heartbeats before disappearing in a curtain of wisps. There was nothing left of the Countess, not even blackened bones. The Diabolist stood alone in the sky, the fae soldiers parting around her like a receding tide. She had not taken a second step since first casting. Doom, doom, doom the drums sounded.

The walls were holding, by a thread. Her soldiers died like dogs under fae spears and swords, but wherever Summer gained a foothold sorcery scoured the walls clean. The casualties were brutal, but what did she care when her dead men rose within moments to hold their blades again? Her thousand devils had lost the clash against the winged knights, but taken a toll: half her walin-falme were gone, but so was a third of Summer’s most dangerous soldiers. Papa, bored with simply allowing fae to die on his defences, had gone to toy with them. Now they were fighting an enormous snake of green lightning, dispersing it with their lances only to find it forming again behind them and having left a few smoking corpses in its wake. It was only when a Duke went to duel him that her father retreated to the walls, activating a set of wards to force him back before joining the defence. The three greatest of her devils were there as well, Diabolist saw. They towered above the rest, but there was a reason they were not with the lesser devils she had meant them to command: the same princess who’d almost collapsed her walls had landed atop the rampart, and after burning clean any Praesi who came close to her had begun to fight all three at the same time.

She was, the Diabolist realized with dismay, winning. Of her three great devils the one she could see most clearly was a massive creature of rippling ebony muscle, two large sets of horns growing atop his hairless head. Jenge Kubawa, he was called. The Lord of Despair, a devil from the Twenty-Seventh Hell said to have once held back the invading army of Aksum for a day on his own, in the days before the Miezan. Akua watched the fae princess rip out one of his horns, shove it into his throat and follow through with a burst of flame that burst straight through his chest and out his back. She would have to go and handle that situation. Still, that left the two princes unaccounted for, which was even more worrying. Where were they – ah.

“A praiseworthy resistance, for mortals,” a man said contemptuously, tone belying his words.

Two fae stood in the sky across her, neither of them using their wings. Without even needing to exert their power the air around them warped form the heat, idle mirages flickering at the corner of her vision. The one who’d spoken was dark-skinned like a Soninke, though his pure white hair lent him an unsightly appearance. He was, otherwise, beautiful – and his armour of burnt stone was touched with red veins that made it look like burning coal. Against his shoulder a spear of pure crystal rested. The other one was pale and dark-haired, his perfectly-cropped beard looking sharp enough to cut flesh. He wore no armour, only long robes of woven sunlight and flame. His fingers delicately clasped around a sword of pure gold, runes inscribed on the flat of the blade ever-moving. She knew better than to look in any of their eyes. Doom, doom, doom the drums went.

“I am the Prince of Deep Drought,” the pale one said with a beautiful smile. “Would you be the Lady Diabolist?”

“A presumptuous question to ask, when half your party has not introduced themselves,” Akua replied.

The dark-skinned one sneered.

“I am the Prince of Burning Embers, mortal,” he said. “Kneel.”

The weight of the order struck her like a blow, but Diabolist was indifferent. The soul he was trying to command was far, far away. She would not need it for some time yet.

“I am Akua Sahelian,” she replied. “You may yet survive, if you swear yourself to me.”

The Prince of Deep Drought looked sympathetic.

“My lady, though my brother spoke uncouthly the sentiment was correct,” he said. “This battle is lost. Sulia will destroy your devils, your army will fail and you cannot hope to triumph against two princes of Summer. Surrender to us, and make obeisance to our Queen. You can find fulfilment in her service.”

“I cannot win, can I?” the Diabolist asked.

“That is the truth,” the Prince of Deep Drought agreed.

Akua smiled.

“I have two truths for you in return,” she said. “I am a villain, and this is the first part of my plan.”

Out of instinct, the two of them began moving. Too late.

Bind,” Akua said, calling on her final aspect.

It was meant to force devils to her will, this power of hers, but fae were not of Creation either. This and the sheer power of the entities before her limited what she could accomplish, but in the end this lay at the heart of her Name: to be the Diabolist was to hold power over creatures foreign to the world. The Prince of Burning Embers jerked, then the spear he held spun smoothly and went for his brother’s throat. The other prince’s eyes widened and he called on fire, his assailant evaded the flames without missing a beat as Akua willed him to do. The fight that followed was swift and merciless. She’d picked the least powerful of the two to bind, but he was clearly more used to combat: the other was a superb swordsman, but relied more on sorcery and Diabolist’s puppet simply did not allow him to use it. Twice she let the Prince of Burning Embers take hits on purpose, in places that would endanger his life but not his ability to continue using his spear. It would make him easier to finish off afterwards. In the end, she did not manage to kill the Prince of Deep Drought – though the spear tore through his stomach. Feeling her control slip, Diabolist raised an eyebrow.

“Kill yourself,” she ordered.

Eyes raging, the Prince of Burning Embers ran his own spear through his heart even as his brother tried to stop him. Runes lit up around Akua as she began using the massive power coming from the death of a Prince of Summer to empower another spell, casually eyeing her remaining opponent.

“Shall we revisit the issue of victory, prince?” she asked.

Let’s,” a woman’s voice said, and the panels of force that served as Diabolist’s shield shattered like glass.

Pain tore through Akua’s side as fire claimed her flank, hastily put out by a barked incantation that froze the entire section solid. Gods, how could she not have felt the princess coming towards her? The woman’s hair was fire-red, her skin pale and her eyes a terrible thing to behold. Like the heat of the sun made flesh, just being looked upon by them was exhausting.

“I told you two not to get arrogant,” Princess Sulia of High Noon said. “Mortals are trickier than Winter, this campaign has proved as much.”

Diabolist steadied her breathing and healed the burned flesh on her side. The flames had gone straight through the armour she wore beneath her cloak, ignoring seven layers of enchantments – five of which were meant specifically to ward off fae.

“She seized him, Sulia, how could even a Named -” the other fae began, but the princess cut him off.

“We have no stories here,” she said. “Except the ones they make. It is madness, rampant madness. Order must be restored. To ashes, if needs must.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” Diabolist said. “You have no place here. And you’ve delayed my plans long enough.”

The Princess of High Noon eyed her, perfect face disdainful.

“I’ve no time to waste bantering with cattle, you’ll simply have to-“

The fae royalty went still. Akua glanced at the other one – the prince was akin to a statue as well.

“Retreat,” Sulia called suddenly, and the word echoed across the entire battlefield. “To Arcadia.”

The dark-skinned aristocrat raised an eyebrow.

“But we were only beginning to get acquainted,” she said.

The Princess of High Noon bared her teeth.

“We will return, Diabolist,” she said. “We will finish this fight, once Summer is no longer being invaded. You and your compatriot laid a cunning trap, I will grant you this much.”

Not even a flicker of surprise touched Akua’s face. A portal opened and the two fae vanished in the blink of an eye, taking the corpse of the prince before she could do anything. All across the battle gates into Arcadia opened, the host of Summer disappearing through them without warning or explanation. Within twenty heartbeats, there was no one left in sight but her own army. There was a long moment of silence, then a cheer that shook the heavens. The Diabolist remained where she stood, before finally surrendering to a discreet bit of genuine laughter.

“Oh, Squire,” she said almost fondly. “You truly are the gift that keeps on giving.”

Doom, doom, doom went the drums.

Deadhand

“I do not fear wicked men, who know only cruelty and pain. The fear they inflict leashes them as well. But a decent man? Oh, there is no limit to the devilry a decent man will fall to, if he believes it necessary.”
– King Edward III of Callow

Catherine, after some gentle prodding, had finally gone to bed. She still had quarters that were nominally hers in the royal palace, and not even the rebels had been arrogant enough to lay a hand on those. The dark-haired woman he called both friend and leader was too tired to even notice the Gallowborne discreetly following her at a distance, three of them ordered to guard her door through the rest of the night. Hakram did not believe that there were many entities within the bounds of Callow that could kill Squire in combat, but daggers in the nights were a different matter. They still got the occasional assassin paid for by Wasteland gold, though considering the amount they’d killed over the last year Praes had to be running out – there were only so many times Adjutant could have the heads of those enterprising fellows put on pikes before the pool of volunteers got truly shallow. Tribune Farrier lingered close, wiping blood off his sword hand with a cloth as Catherine’s retinue herded the prisoners away none too gently. The Praesi household troops were still too shocked to protest the treatment.

“Lord Adjutant,” the pale-skinned man finally saluted, thumping his fist against his breastplate.

The tall orc replied with the same gesture. He rather liked John Farrier, and believed the feeling was nearly mutual. The man was less than fond of greenskins in general – his grandfather had gotten his head caved in by an orc during the Conquest, and Callowans kept grudges – but their shared loyalties had done much to bring them closer. Another few months to work on him, Hakram thought, and they might even get to a place where they shared drinks. Adjutant would keep at it. The two of them were arguably the members of the Fifteenth who saw the most of Catherine, it was worth putting in an effort for them to get along. Hakram’s purpose had been to keep everything running smoothly long before it became his Role.

“You look like you want to say something, Tribune,” Hakram gravelled.

That or he was in pain. Humans had such delicate faces, it made their expressions harder to read: neither orcs nor goblins were so… complicated. That the wheat-eaters rarely meant to use their teeth to convey what they were actually conveying only made it more confusing.

“She pulled ahead of the cohort twice, tonight,” the dark-haired human said, “And refused to take an escort when she went deeper into the palace.”

Worry. This he could deal with.

“That was no slight to your abilities, Tribune,” he said. “She’s… impatient with this entire situation. And when she was headed for her meeting, guards would have been of no help. If anything she might have needed to protect them.”

The pale man’s eyes narrowed.

“The Thief,” he guessed.

“You haven’t had to clean up a corpse,” Hakram said, “which means she will be cooperating with us.”

“She ain’t the nice heroine type,” Farrier said. “She won’t be above sliding a knife in the Countess’ back down the line.”

The orc rumbled his approval. Awareness of threats was a good trait for the head of a personal guard to have. Catherine has chosen well in catapulting Farrier up the ranks instead of drawing someone from the officer pool. But then she’d always had a way for gathering talent to her banner, hadn’t she?

“It will be seen to,” Adjutant said.

The Callowan nodded sharply.

“The Countess didn’t give me any orders for the prisoners,” he added after a moment.

A concession, this. Tribune Farrier only answered to the Squire, theoretically speaking. That he was requesting instructions, even in such a sideways manner, was an offered hand. Though not an unexpected one: as far as the Empire was concerned, whenever Adjutant spoke it was Catherine Foundling’s voice articulating the words. Even nobles courted his attention, nowadays, and wasn’t that just the most hilarious thing he’d heard all year? Some brute like him from the Northern Steppes, wielding enough influence to give pause to highborn. Most days Hakram would have preferred to wash his hands of that entirely, but having that kind of clout made it easier to fulfil his duties.

“Staff Tribune Bishara lent us one of her men,” he said. “He’ll be going through the prisoners to see which can be ransomed back to the Wasteland. The rest we’ll be handing to the Governess-General for judgement.”

The Tribune’s eyes widened.

“It’s true, then?” he said. “Baroness Kendall is still alive?”

“We’ve had word of it,” Adjutant grunted. “We still need to confirm, but it seems likely.”

“Thank the Gods,” Farrier said. “If anyone can put some order in Laure, it’s her.”

He bit his lip the moment the words left his mouth.

“Not that I mean to impugn the Countess’ abilities,” he hurriedly added.

“She doesn’t enjoy being behind a desk,” Hakram said. “It’s not a crime to notice it.”

It would have been hard for the both of them not to, given how often she used personally drilling the Gallowborne as an excuse to foist off paperwork on him. It wasn’t that she was incapable of ruling, Adjutant knew. She had, after all, managed to set Callow on the path to recovery after less than a year in charge even with the Ruling Council slowing the process. In large part that had been through allowing her newly-appointed Callowan governors the leeway to do as the saw fit, but knowing when to give over power was also part of ruling. But she hadn’t taken to it the way she had to battlefield command, that much was glaringly obvious. The Squire shone brightest with a sword in hand, like the Warlords of old. There was a reason orcs called her that, and it wasn’t just respect. A damned shame it was not possible for her to transition into that Name: it would suit her better than that of Black Knight in many ways. But even after centuries to be the Warlord was, deep down, to be an orc. The orc. There was no changing that bedrock foundation.

“We’ll keep them in the city gaols, then,” Farrier said. “It would save the Baroness some trouble to execute them now, but I suppose a public trial will help strengthen her grip on the city.”

Hakram nodded and allowed the man to leave, trading salutes. He waited until the Tribune had left before clearing his throat.

“Tordis,” he said.

The orc lieutenant emerged from the shadows where’d she been leaning against the wall, hand resting idly on the pommel of her sword.

“Deadhand,” she replied, inclining her head.

Catherine had granted him a tenth under Tordis as his personal command during the Liesse campaign, and he’d later expanded their numbers to a full line after having Tordis promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. He’d needed the manpower, even if his original task of finding the leaks in the Fifteenth had largely been handed off to Ratface and Aisha since. The lieutenant was an old friend from Rat Company, and one he’d shared a bedroll with in the past. There’d been nothing more to that than flesh and comradeship, and neither of them had been interested in anything more serious – her being under his command had effectively closed off that avenue for good since. Squire had already amusedly called him a harlot for a month last time she’d seen a woman come out of his tent, and if she ever did that around Robber odds were he’d have to deal with a song about it. The goblin had proved he could compose truly filthy rhymes when’d he’d penned that tune about Nauk and the Fifteenth’s oxen, so Hakram was eager to avoid the pitfall if he could. He’d made a point of being even more discreet since becoming the Adjutant.

“Take word to Nauk,” he said. “I’ll need legionaries tomorrow to serve as public criers. Callowans, if possible. No more than a company.”

She nodded.

“And send someone to speak to Farrier,” he added after a moment. “We’ve got two high-profile prisoners, and I want them held separately from both each other and the rest of the soldiers.”

There might be mages among them, and there were discreet ways to scry. Better to keep the High Lords in the dark about what was happening in Laure as long as possible, or they’d start to wonder how the Fifteenth had made it so quickly to the old capital. It was only a short set of conclusions from there to figuring out they’d used Arcadia, and that trump card was best kept under wraps while they still could. The moment they realized that the Fifteenth could march straight into the Wasteland without ever needing to cross at the Blessed Isles, they’d start taking desperate measures. Too many of them had openly aligned with the Diabolist for them not to fear brutal retribution now. Catherine had something of a reputation in that regard.

“Should I have a study prepared for you?” Tordis asked.

Hakram shook his head. His bare bone fingers tightened.

“I still need to have one last conversation tonight,” he said.

Hakram had visited Laure more than he’d ever thought he would, since the Liesse Rebellion, but the former capital of Callow was still foreign city to him. Unlike Robber, who would start feeling at home the moment he’d stabbed someone in an alley anywhere in Calernia, he’d never become comfortable here. Marchford was starting to feel like home, though not as much as the Fifteenth, but the history here would never allow the orc to feel as anything but a stranger. How many hundreds of thousands of his kind had died, trying to take these streets for the Tower? Laure had been the beating heart of the Praesi occupation since the Conquest, but for all that it still felt Callowan to the core in a way few other cities he’d visited did. It was unlike Summerholm, where Callowans strode through the streets eating Soninke grilled meats and Praesi bartered in the markets with pale-skinned merchants, or even Marchford where young widows now traded heated glances with good-looking legionaries while goblins cheated at dice games with old men in older taverns.

Even Liesse, in the depths of the south, had felt… different. There was a difference there the way there was a difference between Taghreb and Soninke: cousins, but not ones who always got along well. Hakram had come to learn that Callow was no more a monolith than Callowans often assumed Praes was. The northern baronies to the east of Daoine were little involved with the rest of the realm, busy with their cattle-herding and weaving, and the wide central plains surrounding Vale saw themselves as a breed apart from both the Liessen to the south and the larger cities bordering the Silver Lake. There were divisions, but shallower ones than in the Wasteland. They were more like the Clans, only willing to squabble amongst themselves so long as there was no other enemy to fight. The Legions of Terror had forged unity between these old tribes one failed invasion at a time, he thought. Breathing the foul city air, Hakram dismissed the thoughts and slowed his steps until he stood in the centre of an intersection.

He reached for his Name, the feeling like putting on his armour and letting the weight of it settle on his shoulders. Find, he whispered inside his mind, and the wheel spun.

He picked the avenue his Name nudged him towards and trod down until the next intersection, where he invoked his aspect again. It was slow going, and twice he had to readjust the course. His target was moving, and had noticed it was being pursued: his ears caught the sound of footsteps on rooftops, too large to be those of goblins. It took half a bell for him to end up in the part of the city Catherine called “Dockside”, though no sign marked it as such. The orc was panting lightly when he found the alehouse he suspected was the hiding hole, cold sweat going down his back. The more he called on the aspect the more tiring using it became. But he was well-rested, and barely needed to sleep these days. He could take it. The establishment was shuttered, but there were lights peeking through. The footsteps quickened behind him, and Adjutant turned to meet his greeters.

Two men, Callowans. The older one took out a knife, a slender little thing that almost made him want to laugh.

“Alehouse’s closed,” the younger one said.

“Not to me,” Hakram gravelled.

“Shouldn’t have come alone,” the older one said, “if you were going to mouth off.”

He moved. Adjutant did not bother to take his axe in hand. He waited, then caught the wrist holding the knife and bent his legs: his muscles shifted as he swung the man around, using him to clobber the other Callowan. The two of them landed in a pile of limbs and curses.

“I’d be within my rights to kill them,” Hakram called out to the night.

“Squire agreed to a truce,” Thief replied, strolling out of the alley.

“Then discipline your people,” Adjutant grunted. “If they’d killed a legionary, a great deal of blood would have followed.”

“I refrained from drowning your goblins in the Lake when they poked around,” the short-haired heroine said. “That’s already showing a great deal of restraint.”

The orc glanced contemptuously at the two thieves, who were hastily rising to their feet.

“Don’t try to rob Legion personel again,” he told them. “You’ll live longer.”

The Thief glanced at her men.

“Scuttle off, boys,” she ordered. “And remember not all orcs are this calm after steel comes out.”

Hakram did not bother to watch them flee into the night, his attention all on the Thief.

“Let’s talk,” he said, and it wasn’t a suggestion.

“For a bunch of villains, the lot of you sure do chatter a lot,” the woman sighed.

She signalled from him to follow her anyway, her knuckles against the door resounding in a pattern so swift he almost missed it. The door opened and they were ushered in. The place was a pisshole, as the exterior had indicated. After his years at the War College Hakram was no stranger to those, though, and at least out here his nose didn’t have to deal with clouds of poppy smoke hanging in the air. The dozen men and women inside, scattered throughout the tables, watched him in silence as he followed Thief to to a dimly lit alcove in the corner. She already had a pitcher of ale on the table, and she stole a tankard from another table on the way to the table to fill it. The tall orc sat, the wooden chair creaking under the weight of him, and after taking a sip made an effort not to grimace. The ale might as well have a rat still floating in it. She couldn’t possibly be drinking the same stuff, could she?

“Deadhand,” Thief enunciated. “Now there’s a fancy title. Catchy, too. Praesi do have a way with that.”

“You were there when I earned it,” Hakram said.

The heroine laughed, pushing back her bangs.

“Is that what this is about?” she asked. “Are you holding a grudge, Adjutant?”

Her grin was almost mocking.

“Can’t have that,” she said. “We’re on the same side now. Gotta get along.”

Hakram set aside the tankard patiently.

“Catherine likes to think of the best of people,” he said. “That they see reason. That they will hold to their promises.”

“Naïve, for a villain,” Thief said.

“It has paid off more often than not,” Adjutant said. “Put trust in people and they feel the need to live up to it.”

“I’m deeply honoured Her Gracious Majesty Foundling has seen fit to make me a minion, of course,” Thief smiled. “All hail the queen.”

“Of course,” Hakram continued calmly, “sometimes people think to take advantage of that. To use their second chance against her.”

“It’s almost like the fish she’s selling smells slightly off,” the Thief mocked.

Adjutant’s dead hand snaked across the table, lightning-quick, and seized the woman by the throat. He knocked the table away rising, slamming her against the wall hard enough the wood shattered like clay. He heard a chorus of knives being taken out in the room to their side, and slightly raised his voice as he continued choking the heroine.

“A single one of you moves and I’ll snap her neck,” he mildly informed them.

None of them did.

“When people make that mistake, Thief, and aim a knife at her back – they find me waiting,” he continued, still in that mild tone. “Now, what I’m doing tonight will make you hate me. That’s fine. As long as you also remember the fear in your guts right now. Listen to that fear, when you start thinking about turning on her. Because I’ll be watching, and unlike Catherine I don’t believe in second chances. Much less third ones.”

He released Thief, letting her drop to the floor and gasp for breath.

“Enjoy your evening,” he said politely. “I look forward to working with you.”

He walked away, and not a soul dared stop him.

Interlude – Apprentice

“The source of wonder and horror is the same, and the boundary between them thinner than you would think.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I

“That is a Count, I believe,” Masego announced.

Father’s spectacles were of no use at this range, so he’d had to use his Name. An aspect, more specifically – Glimpse. Apprentice disliked relying on the power conferred onto him by the Gods Below, as he’d always considered it something of a crutch that would cripple his ability to improve his casting without such means, but he could not deny the abilities it lent him had their uses. Even from a mile away, behind a set of obscuring wards, he’d been able to gauge the forces animating the Summer fae. The intensity and breadth of those forces were inferior to those of the Dukes and Duchesses he’d observed in Skade but superior to those of a Baron. There were outliers, of course. The Lady of Cracking Ice had been by an order of magnitude stronger than the other nobles accompanying her in the initial meeting even though her title was the lowest. He suspected the rough equivalent of Roles that was carved into the consciousness of fae was the true factor behind the power those entities could muster, but without proper investigation it was impossible to turn this into a credible thesis.

Regardless, this particular fae seemed to have the power common for one titled Count. The power of his Name keeping his eyes from blinking, Masego studied the fluctuations in the forces. A shame the Count was not in range of his spectacles. One of the enchantments on them helped him quantify the energies at play in a way his aspect simply could not. Still, the actual forces did not seem greater by a significant margin than those of the same-titled Winter fae he had studied. The qualitative difference that allegedly allowed Summer to win every time open war was waged between those Courts must have come from a different source. Nature of the energy, perhaps? The symbolic properties of fire and ice as per the table of classic elements were cleansing and preservation – typically, aggressive properties won over defensive ones when diametrically opposed. Could it be that simple? The dark-skinned mage itched for ink and parchment, but it would have to wait.

“I told you,” Archer crowed. “We just need to keep shooting stronger ones in the head and eventually a big one will show up.”

“That is a vast oversimplification of still poorly understood social dynamics,” Masego replied peevishly.

“You know, really smart people don’t actually need to use long words,” the ochre-skinned woman grinned.

That was such a brutal insult that Apprentice remained too appalled to reply for a solid thirty heartbeats. By that time, Archer had strung that ridiculously large longbow of hers. Even with the power of his aspect having faded away, Masego could see the sorcery worked into it. The wood, already magical in nature and likely from the Waning Woods, had been further strengthened and so had the string. It was, in his estimation, physically impossible for anyone but a Named to successfully draw that bow. Even then, what the woman was preparing to do seemed rather dubious.

“He’s a mile away,” Apprentice said. “There is a breeze. Longbow range is, at best, four hundred yards. Useless against armoured targets past two hundred. The distance you are aiming at is over four times that.”

“That’s very impressive,” Archer grinned. “Learned all those pretty numbers from a book, did you?”

Masego had, in fact, learned those numbers from a book on military tactics he’d borrowed from Hakram. He coughed to hide the blush that touched his cheeks at being caught out.

“For a mortal, those numbers matter a lot,” the woman said, eyes hooded with pleasure. “For a Named, they matter a little. For me, though?”

Her grin turned sharp.

“If I can See it, I can kill it.”

Vision-driven aspect? Given her Name, it was only logical. Masego’s train of thought was interrupted by the sight of Archer on the move, and for an instant that was all the filled his mind. He’d fought at this woman’s side before, but he had never witnessed her in action with a bow – only seen the arrows she shot. Archer moved so swiftly he saw only a blur, string taut and then loose as the first arrow flew. Another two followed before a heartbeat had passed. Merciless Gods. His eyes followed the last arrow, studying the properties as it flew. They were silent, and so clearly enchanted. No, he realized, not enchanted. Made of material with natural sorcery. Inherent properties, he understood with a sharp intake of breath. Silence, and some kind of amplification. Sharpness or penetration, he could not tell. It did not matter. Most defensive wards relied on the assumption that any projectiles targeting them would be either entirely mundane or have an active sorcerous component to them, more commonly called an enchantment. The arrows Archer had used would sail right through those, qualifying as neither by the strictures of sorcery. Mage-killers. That was what those projectiles were.

As a child he’d often lingered around Father and Uncle Amadeus whenever they used Imperial business as an excuse to have drinks and bicker, and one of his favourite games had been ‘could you beat’. He’d demanded a plan for the two of them to vanquish everyone from the Dead King to a company of legendary heroes, and always been given an answer. Until he’d asked them for the plan to fight Ranger. The two of them had traded looks, and then his uncle had smiled over his cup. Don’t, he’d replied. Watching that woman’s foremost apprentice at work, he was beginning to grasp why. The Count didn’t realize he was being targeted until the first arrow took him in the chest. Fire flared as he fell, but the second arrow nailed his shoulder to the ground anyway.  The third went through his left knee, immobilizing him for good.

“Do your stuff,” Archer said, waving her hand like she’d not shot a godling thrice in broad daylight.

Masego gathered enough concentration to activate the dispersed components he’d left around the area where’d they killed the last two patrols. The Count rose into the air, shackles of chirping light forming around his limbs. That should keep him prisoner for the duration they needed, and so the first step of their plan was complete. Apprentice dispersed the obscuration ward around them, since neither of them were using their Names anymore, and began the walk to their prisoner. It’d been over a month since Catherine had sent them south to ‘bait the Summer Court into attacking the Diabolist’. Masego had been assured that the notion made strategic sense, not that he particularly cared. Only now did he realized that Catherine had used his eagerness to secure some high-quality fae specimens to rope him into doing actual work. Truly, she was becoming more ruthless every month. That was how he’d been talked into going south, anyhow, but he’d wondered why Archer had acquiesced and asked her as much. She’d been sent as a fae expert on loan from Refuge, not a soldier to be used in the Squire’s wars.

“Eh, just staying with the army would have been boring,” she’d replied. “Hakram’s not even around to spar with anymore.”

Adjutant had informed him over one of their nightly games of shatranj that those ‘spars’ mostly consisted of Archer beating him black and blue until she felt like having a drink, which thankfully was frequent. He believed the orc. The foreign-looking woman had brought more drink than rations in her haversack on their trek south, and insisted they stop at villages to replenish her stock.

“That seems like a thin motivation,” he’d said.

“The idea of screwing over Sahelian does give me the good kind of shivers,” the woman had admitted. “And, well…”

Ah, he’d thought. He could understand the unspoken reason as well. As a boy he’d sometimes wondered why his father did not lead the Calamities. He was the most powerful among them, after all, capable of wiping a city off the face of Creation in a single night. He’d always liked Uncle Amadeus, but like did not usually enter the equation when it came to villains. The strongest held command, that was the natural order. Now, though? He’d learned better. Masego could probably kill Catherine, if he truly put his mind to it. Two days of preparation required at least, but it was doable even with the power she’d gained in Arcadia. He didn’t want to, though, and not just because taking up her burdens would be atrociously inconvenient to his research.

She had a way about her, that… It was hard to explain. Sometimes he thought of it as akin to the way smaller celestial orbs circled around larger ones, but that ignored some fundamental aspects of it. It was warm and nice and almost addictive, being part of the family around Catherine Foundling. That heady sense of belonging, the way that when she talked you believed there was nothing you couldn’t do. Apprentice did not enjoy ‘adventures’, as a rule, but he believed his life would be lesser if he’d not followed Squire on them. And so he did not ask any further questions of Archer, because neither of them would be comfortable with where that conversation would take them. Some things were best left unsaid, and in the end he was not inclined to bare much of himself to this stranger. For all that it was nigh impossible to get the woman to shut up, Masego still knew next to nothing about her or what she was capable of. This was not, he thought, a coincidence.

They hurried on the way to the Count. His scrying ritual, adapted to notice the outskirts of the presence of fae instead of looking at them directly and facing the full backlash, had told him there were no patrols closer than half a day’s march. Still, their actions today were as good as lighting a beacon for anyone looking for them. They needed to be gone before anyone came looking, if this was to work. Which he wasn’t sure it would. Neither of them, as it turned out, were particularly good at planning. Apprentice usually let Catherine and Hakram handle this sort of menial work, and Archer had admitted that her plans usually didn’t go much further than ‘fight the enemy until it died’. He’d agreed to sharing a drink with the woman only once on their way south, when they’d come up with their plan to push Summer to attack the Diabolist. They’d tried to guess why Liesse had not been attacked yet, when the two cities to its flanks had already been taken by Summer. Masego had eventually mentioned the ancient but powerful wards protecting the city, and the other Named had agreed that those would give fae pause. They were, after all, exceptionally sensitive to boundaries.

They needed, therefore, to make it easier for Summer to attack the city. Sadly, neither of them knew anything about military tactics. Apprentice had, however, made a comprehensive map of the wards in the walls of Liesse before the battle of the same name. Leaking that information should help, they’d agreed. So he’d written it down on a parchment, they’d located a small fae patrol and handed it to them. Or tried to, at least. The fae captain had ordered them to immediately kneel and swear allegiance to the Queen of Summer or be destroyed, Archer had offered them a drink instead and they’d rather taken offence to that. A quarter hour later, they had five fae corpses she’d had to kill with a broken bottle and they weren’t anywhere closer to their objective. They’d tried again, attracting another small patrol and just leaving the scroll with the information on the ground while hiding. The fae had torched it and ordered a search of the region. Five other corpses later, they’d agreed that diplomacy did not seem to be working. Alternatives were needed.

Wondering what Father and Papa would do in a similar situation Masego had arrived to the conclusion that capturing a fae and rewriting their mind so the information was inside it before releasing them to the Court was the most expedient solution. Archer’s suggestion that they just carve all the details on the corpses of the fae was clearly flawed, since there was no guaranteed they wouldn’t just torch the corpses on sight like that had the scroll. They’d ambushed a third patrol, keeping the captain alive and Apprentice had taken out his tools to tinker with the forces that passed for the creature’s soul. Frustratingly, there hadn’t been enough room. As entities who did not learn, per se, there was no space inside the mind of the fae for much aside what was already there. Carving out some unnecessary things like the ability to see or the knowledge of how to use sorcery had resulted in unmoving bodies with blank eyes. Worse, apparently removing the ability to move stopped them breathing as well – that was just poor design, he’d complained. Archer had suggested they abduct several captains and spread the information across them, but that would both take long and risk more inaccuracies the more operations he had to do.

“We need a bigger fish, then,” Archer had suggested.

“We’re in a landlocked region of Callow,” Apprentice had reasonably pointed out.

She’d called him a condescending pedant, he’d called her rampantly ignorant and they’d eventually agreed that a more powerful fae was needed. Simply flaring their Names wouldn’t work, since for all they knew it might draw an entire army. Archer had then introduced the notion of ambushing a patrol and then remaining close by, then killing the fae who came to investigate until one holding a sufficient high title showed up. He hadn’t liked the plan, but been unable to come up with a better one. A sennight later, here they were looming over an imprisoned Count. The fae glared at them, only barely conscious.

“How dare you-“ he started, but then his mouth closed.

Masego tied off the spell structure and left it active to keep the creature silent. He was in no mood for a rant, not when he had to do such a delicate operation. Reaching into the pocket dimension he’d created after the rebellion, Apprentice took out the leather pack holding his tools in place and casually created a pane of force to hold it. Humming lightly, he took out what looked like a knife so thin it could not possibly cut anything. He looked at the fae and patted the man’s shoulder reassuringly.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll cut out the part that dictates pain very early. It shouldn’t hurt at all after that.”

“It’s much less creepy when they don’t scream,” Archer noted approvingly.

Masego got work.

Well, it had worked. More or less. The two of them were hiding in a bush under an obscuration ward, watching the host of Summer spread to surround Liesse. The Diabolist had seen them coming, which had interesting implications. Either Sahelian was using the same indirect scrying he was but more accurately, or she’d found another way entirely. Most likely the second. Wolof had many secrets in its vaults. Regardless, they knew the Diabolist had been aware of the fae headed her way because the army she’d had on the field had retreated behind the walls and was now manning them. As well as a truly impressive amount of devils, Apprentice noted. She must have used a Lesser Breach to gather so much on a short notice. Her skill with sorcery continued to impressed. The two Named watched the host of Summer spread across the plain, for it was a sight to see.

Ten thousand fae, he’d estimated. Entire regiments of ivory-armoured fairies stood ramrod straight, spears held high and a river of banners and pennons fluttering in the wind amongst them. Archers armed with longbows of pure white wood stood behind them, feathers not of any creature known to Creation fletching their arrows. Not a single one of them could be called anything but young and beautiful, the ardour of war wafting off them like a fume. Fae bearing trumpets of gold and rubies stood in every regiment, ready to let out the clarion call of conquest that lay in the heart of every Summer fae. A thousand knights in silvery plate sat astride winged horses, long lances and shields of exquisite make in their hands. They were forming in a loose triangle behind the infantry, their mounts stirring eagerly. The nobles stood out starkly from the rest, colourful figures made of fire, steel and silk that warped the air with heat wherever they stood. No two sets of plate they wore were the same, every one a masterpiece that would have made a mortal craftsman weep to look at.

The defenders were no less dreamlike to witness. Praesi soldiers wearing the distinctive colours of the family they were sworn to on their tabards manned the few bastions on the wall, their chainmail blackened dark as a crow’s feathers as was the custom in the Wasteland. Their armaments were sharp goblin steel, the finest blades of Calernia put in the hands of men and woman trained from birth to use them in the service of their lord. Between them stood rows upon rows of walin-falme devils. Tall and with the dark leathery skin of bats, they wore plate marked with the brand of Wolof: red and black, a curving golden lion inside the splash of colour. These bore spears and axes of cast iron, the metal known to be the ugly death of fae. Spread amongst all of these were small clusters of Taghreb and Soninke in tailored robes, panes of lights inscribed with runes flickering around them. War-mages, the finest the Wasteland had to offer. This was not an army that would go gently, not even against the strength of Summer.

It was a host ripped straight from the old days of blood and darkness, when all of Calernia had feared the sound of Praes at war. It was an ancient dream, this one, but Masego’s fathers had taught him better than to love it.

“I forgot to ask before we left, but do we actually want Summer to win?” Archer asked, chewing on dried meat.

Masego blinked, shaken out of his thoughts. While he’d been spellbound, his companion seemed less than impressed.

“You weren’t paying attention during the briefing?” he said.

“Nah,” she admitted easily. “I figured you would.”

Apprentice cursed.

“I thought you would,” he admitted.

“It’s their fault for making it boring, really,” Archer said.

“They kept talking about logistics and supply trains,” Masego agreed bitterly. “I don’t want to know anything about those, Hakram.”

“I mean, just guessing here,” the dark-eyed woman said. “Foundling wouldn’t want all the people inside butchered right?”

“I think not,” Apprentice said. “She gets irritated about people killing Callowans unless it’s her doing it.”

“So we don’t want Summer to win,” Archer pointed out triumphantly. “They do tend to burn stuff a lot. And people. I don’t think they understand the difference very well.”

“Everybody burns people, it’s a common execution method across Calernia,” Masego replied absent-mindedly, trying to remember anything about the briefing aside from Adjutant’s voice droning and Catherine drinking too much. “I think we may want them both to lose.”

“Is that something that happens?” she asked, sounding puzzled.

He glanced at her.

“Have you won every fight you were in?” he asked sceptically.

“Well, no,” Archer said. “I spar against the Lady Ranger. Never landed a blow on her unless she allowed me.”

Apprentice drew on his extensive military experience, which consisted of three battles where he’d largely spent his time setting people on fire or exploding them when Catherine asked.

“I think it’s like shatranj,” he mused. “You know, towards the end of the game when most pieces have been taken. We want them both to lose pieces.”

Archer glanced at the city and grimaced.

“I think we may have given Summer a bit too much of an advantage,” she said.

Masego followed her eyes and paled. One of the fae, on a winged horse, had ridden up to the city walls. The volley of arrows shot at her burst into flame and scattered into ashes long before they got close, and it only got worse from there: a torrent of heat formed in front of her and impacted the walls, beginning to melt the stone. Well, that was one way to beat the wards. They could not be held back by the boundary if there was no boundary.

“This is bad,” Archer decided.

The Diabolist, though, did not flinch. A heartbeat later Apprentice’s ward shivered as a large-scale ritual triggered. The waves of sorcery coming from Liesse were almost enough to scatter it, though when he had a Glimpse at the city he saw this was but a sliver of what had been at play. Slowly, Liesse and the ground under it began to rip their ways out of the soil. And only this much wasted power? he thought. At least a mile around the city should have been turned into a wasteland, for something this large. The Diabolist seemed to have managed to keep it all within a hair’s breadth of Keter’s Due, which meant this workingl might have had the single most efficient ritual array in Praesi history. He was itching to have a look at it even as Liesse rose into the air and kept rising, tons of soil falling out from under it. He could almost see the array itself, what had gone into activating it. This was no mere blood sacrifice, she’d used fae to fuel it and, just for a moment, the Apprentice touched something greater than himself.  A larger truth still beyond his understanding, a mystery in the almost religious sense of the term, and though he could not grasp it just witnessing part was almost enough to… And then the moment was gone. He was shivering and more excited than he had been in years. He’d nearly transitioned into another Name, just by looking at this. He was close. In the distance, the host of Summer lit up a thousand bright colours as their wings formed. The soldiers and devils on the walls prepared to meet the assault.

“We have, technically, accomplished the task we were sent south for,” Masego said.

Archer looked at the army of Summer taking flight.

“Retreat?” she finally asked.

Streaks of sorcery filled the sky with sounds like thunder. As devils spread their wings and the battle began in earnest.

“For now,” Apprentice said. “We’ll be back.”

Chapter 23: Reassessment

“From small slights, long prices.”
– Deoraithe proverb

For all that the marshal’s envoy had impressed upon me the urgency of the situation, I found myself waiting. The balustrade overlooked an inside courtyard, and from my perch I watched the soldiers milling below. I’d left a line of the Gallowborne down there along with Robber and a line from his cohort. My personal retinue wouldn’t be mingling with the goblins, but the Special Tribune and his men were not so distant. They were, perhaps, a little too friendly. I winced when Robber rolled all over the paving stones, clawing at another goblin’s eyes and cackling loudly. Their sharp nails drew blood on each other, but aside from my own visibly horrified Callowans none of the legionaries seemed anything but amused. The other greenskin was larger – likely from a Matron lineage, then, since those were supposed to be bigger and smarter than other goblins – but my own bastard was younger and more vicious. It ended with him sitting atop his opponent, licking the blood off his fingers to the cheers of all the goblins in the courtyard.

The door my back was turned to opened silently, but my senses had gotten even sharper since Arcadia. I could feel the air moving, almost, and the soft creep of leather boots headed for me. The only other person in the room came to stand by my side at the balustrade, deftly climbing atop a stone seat so they’d be able to lean their elbows against the edge like I did. I didn’t show surprise, or even bother to turn around. I already knew who it was, and years of dealing with Robber had taught me the dangers of allowing a goblin to set the beat of a conversation.

“Tribe?” a soft voice asked.

“Rock Breaker,” I replied.

Marshal Ranker chuckled, the sound a dry rasp.

“I can see why a barren old bitch like Weaver would get rid of him,” she said.

Only then did I glance at the small, wrinkled old woman that was one of the three most important commanders in the Legions of Terror. Marshal Ranker’s skin looked like leather left out too long in the sun, all cracked and dry and a brown-green that was unpleasant to look at. Her face was a curtain of heavy wrinkles leading to thin brown lips and a pointed chin. Her eyes, though, had me wary. Deep set and dark, with small threads of red in the sclera. This one was ancient, by the standards of her people, and old goblins were either dead or exceedingly dangerous. The infamous blackened hand her legion was named for was curled and unmoving, looking crippled for good, but I knew better than to take anything shown by this woman as face value.

“Her loss,” I said. “His record speaks for itself.”

The goblin clicked her tongue.

“That boy learned his lessons too well,” she said. “We tell them they’re supposed to be fearless, but that’s a lie. They’re still supposed to be afraid of us.”

Of the Matrons. I didn’t know much about the Tribes, not that anybody did, but what little I’d learned from Robber and Pickler had not endeared their ruling class to me. It had always been absurd to me to wrest authority out of the hands of the capable because of some arbitrary objection to those capable individuals having bollocks. If there was one aspect of Black’s philosophy I had wholeheartedly embraces, it was that power belonged in the hands of the competent – wasting talent out of petty bias was to lessen all those involved.

“Fear’s never enough,” I said. “Not on its own.”

“Empires have been built on less,” the Marshal snorted.

“Not this one,” I said.

There was a pause.

“And yet you crucified them,” Ranker said.

“They crossed me,” I replied. “Some fear was required.”

I got a bark of harsh laughter for that.

“Marshal Ranker, of the Hungry Dog tribe,” she finally introduced herself.

“Catherine Foundling,” I said. “Duchess of Moonless Nights.”

“I’m aware,” the goblin lightly replied. “As I’m sure you are that you’ve had crossbows pointed at you since you first stepped into Denier.”

I smiled wryly.

“You’re not going to mention the fact that this entire room is rigged with demolition charges?” I asked.

Smell was a sense as well, and I’d learned to recognize the sharp tang of goblin munitions.

“Much like you weren’t going to mention you sent your Adjutant to poke around the city,” she replied.

“He’s not a spymaster,” I shrugged. “Just a friendly orc who likes to share a drink.”

“The dangerous ones always smile,” the Marshal said.

I snorted.

“I’ve been advised you’re not someone to trifle with,” I told her.

“I considered trapping your little crew in an avenue and setting the whole thing aflame with green,” Ranker casually said. “Your tiff with the Empress has poor timing. But that would trigger another uprising, and that’d be even more trouble than you.”

The sheer nonchalance she’d just admitted that with was chilling, but I was no stranger to cold these days.

“All I’m doing is hacking off the dead wood,” I said. “And there’s a great deal of that. You’ve been around long enough for-“

“Save me the speech, Duchess,” the goblin interrupted cuttingly. “I’m not one of your lapdogs, and whatever hopes you’re peddling I don’t care for. I’m a fucking Marshal of the Dread Empire, kid. I know where my loyalties lie. If it comes to it, I’ll kill you if only to spare Amadeus the pain of doing the deed himself.”

“The way things used to be done in Callow won’t work anymore,” I said. “You have to be aware of that.”

The Marshal hacked out a laugh.

“And whose fault is that? I read Sacker’s report on Summerholm. The Liesse Rebellion is as good as your doing. You set up that highborn chit in the south who’s giving us trouble now, too, and to add insult to fucking injury you’re taking advantage of an invasion to make a power grab,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned the only difference between you and those poor bastards you nailed to crosses is that you have a bigger stick and catchier battle cry.”

“I actually have a purpose, unlike those ‘poor bastards’,” I replied coldly. “And I’ll see it through no matter how much wailing comes from the gallery.”

“I’ve been threatened by scarier Named than you, Duchess,” Ranker said. “And I’ll say this for the Chancellor – he wasn’t dumb enough to do it in my own territory. You’ve risen quickly, and we all know how that story goes. The fall comes as quickly, and twice as hard. Take care not to drop your carcass on anything I care about.”

I sighed.

“Are we just going to stand around trading veiled threats all day?” I said. “I was under the impression Duchess Kegan was headed our way.”

“There is no us,” the Marshal said. “You’re one conversation gone south away from rebellion. And you have some sort of plan for the Deoraithe. Out with it. If it has to come to steel, let’s get it out of the way.”

“You wouldn’t leave this room alive if it did,” I said flatly.

Ranker eyed me with those dark, deep-set eyes.

“No,” she agreed. “But neither would you.”

I’d seen that look in the faces of people before. William’s, when he’d decided to call Contrition onto Liesse. Akua’s, when she’d told me she would collapse the dimension were were in if I refused to negotiate. Ranker wasn’t Named – she lacked the feelings of power and weight both – but she did have that kind of resolution to her. She would, if she found my intentions unacceptable, rather bring down this entire place on our heads than allow me to go through with them. I’d never had that goblin razor-sharp fearlessness turned on me before, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Could I kill her before she even spoke an order? I had no doubt. I shouldn’t, though. There was nothing to gain from it, and it worried me the urge was there. Kilian’s soft accusation that I hated to compromise came back to my ears, along with the bundle of things I still felt about that conversation I’d set aside rather than deal with. Had I become too used to getting my way? Or maybe it was subtler than that. I’d won often enough that the idea of losing even in a small way had me reaching for violence. Because Ranker would be beating me, by coercing me into revealing my hand like this. That was a fact.

The surrender of control rankled. I’d stayed in this room even after smelling the munitions because I’d believed that whatever measures she had taken they wouldn’t be able to kill me. I’d done that even after being told by the person I trusted most in the world that I was dealing with a real threat. Stupid. More than that, I’d been arrogant. Ranker had survived the death of more powerful villains than me. This isn’t a mistake I would have made a year ago. I would have liked to blame this on my Name, on whatever the Winter King had done to me, but that felt like a cheap excuse. I’d gotten so used to reaping the lives of non-Named like wheat I’d stopped seeing them as truly dangerous, and that was the kind of conceit that got people killed. I wasn’t in a small pond anymore. I’d reached the sea, and the things that lurked in it would gobble me up if I didn’t start stepping more carefully. I breathed out. Decide on your objective, I told myself, returning to Black’s old mantra. Decide what lines you’re willing to cross to get to it. If I retreated here, all I lost was pride.

Perhaps I could use a little less of that.

“I want take Kegan’s army through Arcadia,” I said. “And use it on my enemies. The fae first, then Diabolist.”

“And why would she agree to that?” the Marshal asked.

“Because I know what she wants,” I said. “And I can help her get it before it’s too late.”

The wrinkled goblin looked down at the legionaries in the courtyard.

“We can deal,” she finally said.

We met the Deoraithe at nightfall.

Only ten of them came across the fishing boat, but they did not need to be any more: nine of those wore the brown-grey cloaks of the Watch, longbows strapped on their backs and longswords at their hips. I’d never fought a full-fledged member of the order once charged with manning the Wall protecting Daoine from orc incursions, but I knew better than to underestimate them. Even the half-baked observer they’d sent to the Lone Swordsman’s side had managed to put an arrow in my back barely an inch away from my spine. I still had the scar, a pink puckered star on the tan skin of my back. The tenth, then, must have been Duchess Kegan Iarsmai. The woman was short – though still taller than me – and learn, with always-moving brown eyes and the stride of someone used to others following behind. She wore no highborn clothes, only hardened leather armour with the crest of her house on the chest. The Duchess had forgone a helmet, allowing her long dark curls to stream down her back. She was not ugly, but neither was she pretty: her features were hawkish and her middle-aged bearing carved of sternness.

Our side of the negotiations was less uniform in nature. Marshal Ranker had taken a tenth of hardened Soninke and Taghreb regulars with her, while I’d picked a tenth from the Gallowborne. Callowans, mostly, but also two orcs. They were ten steps behind myself and the sole goblin on the scene, and the looming silhouettes of the Watch stayed at the same distance when the Duchess advanced. She glanced at Ranker with open dislike, then frowned at the sight of me.

“’Evening,” I said. “I’m-“

“Lady Catherine Foundling,” Kegan cut through. “We have paintings of you. Marshal, I was not made aware there would be a Named tonight.”

“A last moment adjustment,” Ranker replied. “But not unfitting. She does have to authority to treat with you.”

The Duchess turned her eyes to me.

“Daoine is not subject to the Ruling Council,” she said bluntly. “Nor will it ever be. Our tributary arrangements with the Tower need no broker.”

“Not what I’m here for,” I said. “I hear you have an army assembled on the other side of the river.”

“That is none of your concern, Squire,” she said.

She glared, at both me and Creation in general.

“Ancestors save us from meddlesome children,” she muttered in the Old Tongue.

“I also speak that,” I replied in the same.

She offered me a sneer.

“Poorly,” she replied.

Ouch. That actually kind of stung. Wasn’t my fault it was a hellishly complicated language. Even Alamani wasn’t as bad, and people from other parts of the Principate preferred speaking Lower Miezan than learning the language.

“You’re not crossing, Kegan,” Ranker informed her.

“You think a second legion and whatever the Carrion’s Lord apprentice brought will be enough to stop me?” the duchess coldly replied. “No amount of traps will be enough to turn me back. I am due, Marshal.”

“It would be,” I shrugged. “I’ve beat worse odds, Watch or no. But I’d rather avoid a fight.”

“Then get out of our way,” the Deoraithe hissed. “My debt lies not with the Tower.”

“I know,” I said.

“So how many did the chit take?” Ranker asked. “Twelve? Fifteen? Surely not twenty. You can’t have gotten that soft since the Conquest.”

“The man who beat us at the Wall is a long way from Denier, goblin,” Kegan said. “Do not make me teach the two of you what we have learned since those defeats.”

“You won’t get there in time,” I said, and her eyes went back to me.

“You know not what you speak of,” the duchess said.

“I know Akua Sahelian a lot better than you do,” I smiled thinly. “You’d have to march through the entire span of Callow, and if you force the crossing you’ll be doing it with the Empire harassing you the whole time. She knows that. She planned that. By the time you get to Liesse, she’ll have finished whatever ritual she’s cooking up.”

“I wanted answers from you, but I already obtained them,” the Marshal said. “What we have now is terms.”

“For what?” Duchess Kegan asked.

I rolled my shoulder, delighting in the crack.

“Allowing you to use my shortcut,” I said.