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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 Tuesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

Chapter 5: Expired

“It which does not take the knife of mistake by the grip is destined to take it by the blade instead.”
– Drow saying

When I’d still been a girl of sixteen, the closest thing I ever got to a father taught me the basics of killing mages. Hit them quick, Black had said, and don’t give them time to dig in. Hinder visibility and close the distance. Always go for killing strokes, a wounded mage is twice as dangerous. They’d been good lessons, time had taught me, though they shone most against Wasteland practitioners. Unfortunately, they’d been lessons meant to be used against mundane mages. Not Named. Not Revenants.

Those I’d learned to fight the hard way.

The Scorched Apostate’s – no, he was just the Revenant now, lest guilt slow my hand – wrist came down jerkily and a strand of brilliant mageflame shot out towards me. It was quick for a spell of that calibre, both in casting and in movement. I breathed out and let the Night flow through my veins, chasing away the cool touch of spring and sharpening my eyesight. The properties of that spell were still unknown to me, so caution was in order. Would that I’d believed that just a bell ago, the thought came, bitter and unbidden. Dark power roiled in a circle, expanding outwards between myself and the flame as the unstable portal into Arcadia came into being with a quiet keening sound. The Revenant’s other hand rose, flames gathering to it, but I wouldn’t fall for this shallow a trick. I was already grasping the Night with my will when the still-moving strand went around the expanding portal, and I saw no need for great subtlety: I broke the strands that made up the edge of the portal-gate, leaving the working to violently collapse.

The detonation of Night did not disperse the flame, to my surprise, but it at least established that the Revenant’s sorcery was not entirely unaffected the power I wielded: it was knocked off its trajectory. My sharpened sight picked out the way the Night seemed to unravel when in direct touch with the brightly shining flame, much as Night did when in direct contact with true Light. A consequence of source purity, Hierophant had once told me: Light was said to be a gift from Above, while Night ran from the fountainhead of Sve Noc. There was an inherent superiority to the fundamental stuff Light was made of. Magic should not have been able to mimic that effect, of course, but people kept telling me usurpation was the essence of sorcery for a reason. It didn’t matter, though. This was a fresh Revenant, not a fully settled one, so when I painted surprise on my face and let the flame continue streaking towards me – swiftly joined by a second strand – it did not look any further. It did not notice the fine line of Night I had slithering along the ground, the way it formed a loose circle around it.

When the first strand of bright flame came within two feet of me, I breathed out and took a step back through a gate into the Twilight Ways before closing it. I did not look at the kinder, softer starry sky above and simply kept my mind turned to the Night strand I’d left behind in Creation. Using it as a compass, I took five brisk steps forward before raising my staff and opening a gate back into Creation. The Revenant had the time to half-turn towards me before I unleashed a torrent of raw Night from the tip of my staff, aimed straight at its head. Decapitation wouldn’t kill one of them, it’d take more damage than that to break the necromancy animating it, but it would blind it. With the sole two spells it ought to be able to control still out there it should have no – ah, clever Revenant. Even as I stepped back out into Creation, in the same heartbeat it dismissed the sorcery it’d been using and began a fresh spell right on its own face. It wasn’t quite quick enough, or powerful enough: half of my torrent remained untouched and so tore right through the left half of its face.

Even the right side was damaged, because it did not quite have the control to detonate one of its spells so close to itself harmlessly, but for a Revenant such surface damage was mere cosmetic. I struck the ground with my staff, seizing the circle of Night I’d left behind and sharpening it to an edge before pulling it tight: like a razor-sharp garotte, it sprung towards the Revenant at ankle-height like I’d pulled on a noose knot. For a heartbeat the undead Named hesitated. I was close, a mere three steps behind it, and it wanted to kill me. But its legs were being threatened. It chose, and chose poorly. Two spells bloomed, one striking toward the Night-wire and the other towards my face. That single heartbeat had allowed me to take a step forward, and so before the spell towards me could shoot out I slapped away the arm with the side of staff. It knocked the Revenant askew, which disrupted its aim with the other spell as well. As it tried and fail to gain its footing back, I struck out with my free hand even as the Night-wire sliced through its too-large boots – the box’s lid trembled – at ankle height.

My fingers sunk into its chest, coated with Night, and I went looking for an aspect should there be any to take. Two-half formed, I found with cool disappointment, but nothing I could make my own. I still ripped out the shapeless bundle that tasted vaguely of sight, dust trickling down my fingers as I drew back and let the Revenant hit the ground. It had, I found, decent combat sense for one so freshly raised: it’d shot out the two spells after all, and instead of trying to form others from scratch it was now guiding both strands of bright flame straight towards my torso. It would have been a proper monster, I thought, if given time to sharpen. Instead I whisked out all the Night still flowing through me, shaped it and tapped the butt of my staff against its chest once before taking a limping step back. The black flames I’d birthed ate through the flesh as if it were dry kindling, though not so fast that I did not have to take another two painful steps back to evade the strands of bright sorcery still chasing me.

The strands of flame gutted out suddenly, after the second step, but this wasn’t my first Revenant fight. I left my own flame to its work until it was undeniable that more than half the body was gone, only then smothering them out with a twist of will. I breathed out, leaning against my staff, and felt my leg throb with violent pain. It was an almost welcome distraction from the way I’d taken a boy of fourteen under my protection and then he’d not even lasted through the fucking night. Though she made no sound at all, I felt Akua’s presence in the Night as she hurried at my side. Too late for the fight, which had felt like it lasted an hour but in practice couldn’t even have lasted a long prayer’s length. The hem of her dress sweeping the wet grass and stoe as she slowed her pace, the shade came to stand at my side. She followed my gaze, which had dipped beyond Tancred’s broken corpse to the mutilated remnants of the ghouls who’d eaten and impersonated my escort.

If she offered me sympathy – pity by another name – Gods forgive me, but I’d find a way to put her back into the godsdamned cloak. I was in no mood for platitudes.

“A new breed of ghouls,” Akua said, tone calm. “Impersonators?”

I breathed in, breathed out. Good. Yes, there were more important matters at hand than the way I felt like screaming.

“Yes. They were slightly off,” I said. “Too small, maybe? It was hard to tell.”

“It might be a matter of mass,” she suggested. “It tends to be one of limitations for shapeshifters.”

“Sisters make it that those are too expensive to make often,” I grunted back. “They weren’t anything to boast of in combat, not like the war-breeds, but that’s clearly what not they’re meant for.”

“The presage boxes the Arsenal makes can be used to weed out such impostors,” Akua noted. “Assuming those ghouls are, in fact, still necromantic constructs.”

“They are, the Dead King was able to speak through one. But the boxes glow when there’s any undead within a hundred feet, Akua,” I skeptically said. “Sure, this far behind our lines that’ll work as a test but out there on campaign? I’ll be damned if they don’t be turn into lanterns you can’t even put out.”

“We might need to rely on priests until more precise instruments can be created, then,” the shade said. “Regardless, as a preliminary to deeper studies you’ve left enough of the corpses that they can be tested for baser weaknesses.”

“Back to camp, then,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “We’ll put the bodies in the Night. Do the same with the villagers, and some of the building materials as well. We’re trying to recover more than the seeds now: we’ll have to see if they can reproduce the Revenant’s sorcery as well.”

“Agreed,” Akua said. “It can be done within half an hour, I’d wager. If you would retrieve your mount?”

I breathed in, breathed out. The horses, the one’s that’d not moved much. They still hadn’t, so they’d probably been killed, but I’d have to make sure.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I can do that.”

The golden-eyed woman stood at my side, still as only a shade could be. Waiting for me to move first. I took a step, fingers taut around the yew, and caught sight of the horse blanket still on the flat stone where the boy had been sleeping.

Fuck,” I hissed out.

Leaving my staff to stand unnaturally upright in my wake, I strode away. Even with only one woman for audience it would have felt childish to throw it down. Yet the urge to just break something was consuming my hand, the desire so strong Night was flickering around my hands without having been called upon.

“I should have caught it, Akua,” I said. “I should have godsdamn caught it. I’m getting slow on the uptake. Worse yet I’m getting sloppy. I should have dragged him back to camp immediately even if he had to ride with the survivors the whole way. Instead I waited here for you and the kid got killed because I figured we could take it slightly easy just once.”

I was starting to make mistakes, and I couldn’t afford mistakes.

“Yes,” Akua Sahelian frankly said. “You should have.”

It should have angered me, the way she confirmed my disgrace without so much as a speck of hesitation, but it didn’t. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to lose my grip around her if I’d not been willing to suffer that sort of appraisal in the first place.

“I wouldn’t fallen for something like this in Iserre,” I said. “Or even in Salia. I’m losing my touch.”

I’d run rings around the Pilgrim and the Tyrant, but now a pack of fresh ghouls was enough to snatch a boy under my protection? I would have called it humiliating, if the greater failure here wasn’t that a kid had been slain and put down again, so instead I just called it shameful.

“The Graveyard was the span of a single night,” Akua said. “Salia of a few evenings – the parts that mattered, at least.”

I turned a hard glare on her, but she did not bat an eye. Why would she? She’d faced me down when I’d come at her with steel and Winter, with Name and host. She had no fear of my temper, this one.

“If you use even the sharpest sword in the world every single day, it is only a matter of time until its edge grows dull,” the shade told me.

“We’ve all been in the same war, Diabolist,” I snarled. “That’s not an excuse.”

Because the heroes weren’t faltering, were they? Or Archer, or Hierophant, or even grizzled old Klaus Papenheim – who’d lost so much it sometimes beggared my comprehension as to how he got up in the morning.

“You have been the preeminent general in Hainaut’s defence for more than year,” Akua evenly replied, “while also acting as captain and peacemaker for Named or Blood of every stripe, serving as one of the chief strategists of the Grand Alliance and, all the while, being the diplomatic broker between it and the Empire Ever Dark.”

“That-”

“I am by no mean excusing you, Catherine,” Akua interrupted, meeting my anger without blinking. “This is a failure, and an even starker one is the way you came to make this one in the first place. You were warned by Adjutant that you could only take so much on your shoulders without running yourself ragged. You did not heed his words.”

“Didn’t I?” I snapped. “I as good as handed over Callow and the negotiations for the Accords to Vivienne. Hakram sifts through every single report and letter before they make it to my desk, culling what doesn’t need me in particular – Hells, I haven’t seen an actual list of our supply stocks in a year, only summaries. Indrani and her band are handling finding the new Named, Masego and Roland are running the Arsenal. I don’t even strike beyond our defensive lines anymore: we send out bands of five!”

I panted quietly, the tirade having set my lungs aflame.

“How much more can I possibly delegate?” I asked. “I’m not whining, Akua, I’m genuinely asking – how much more of this can I possibly delegate?”

“Turn over full command of the Third Army to General Abigail,” the golden-eyed shade answered without missing a beat.

“She’s not there yet,” I said. “Not against-”

“Then demote her, or name someone able in her stead,” Akua said. “You are making, dearest, an old mistake of my people.”

“Haven’t raised any flying fortresses, have I?” I scoffed.

“You have warred with the same enemy for too long, fought him too often,” she said, tone flat. “The Dead King is learning your back of tricks, your art of war. You are teaching your strengths and weaknesses to the Enemy, Catherine, and it is learning. That you tire, that you grow impatient, that sometimes kindness is what moves your hand instead of practicality.”

The thing was, Merciless Gods, that she might just be right. I wanted to dismiss her, to ask who if not me, to tell her that insisting on seeing Creation always through the eyes of the Wasteland would lead her to mistake after mistake. Except she’d not been the one to slip-up, had she? And she might not have been the only one to notice I was getting tired, either. Was that why Razin and Aquiline had started pushing me again, testing boundaries I’d thought settled? The Dominion’s nobles, as a rule, were not the kind of people who’d let a weakening warlord keep the reins. My own people hadn’t said anything, but would they? To Callowans, I was still the Black Queen. If it looked like I was slipping, how many of them would simply assume a fresh game was afoot?

“You need to step back,” Akua said. “Sharpen your edge once more and return to the field only on your own terms. Else you will bury yourself in a grave you insisted on digging every shovelful of yourself.”

I gestured sharply at her, before limping back to my staff, and she did not say more. Adjutant, I thought, would have gently kept prodding until I either agreed or dismissed. Unlike him, Akua Sahelian was well-acquainted with the sin of pride: the shade said nothing that would further bruise mine. She would not bring this up again, I knew, for which I was almost grateful. I’d turn to Hakram for advice over this, trusting in the clarity of his gaze where mine grew muddied, but I would be able to move towards the decision on my own terms. For the grace of Akua’s approach I was almost grateful, yes, but also bitterly angry. Because if I could have had this, the best of her, without the rest?

“Sometimes,” I said, tone low and fierce, “I wish you…”

She’d been a master at keeping her thoughts away form her face even before she’d gained the ability to shape it at will, but the sudden stillness of it gave her away. Surprise.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, shaking my head.

A hundred thousand souls, for which there would be a price long in the taking. That much was an absolute truth, a bedrock. A look passed through the golden eyes, one that straddled the line between loathing and yearning. I had, once more, offered artless cruelty. Akua Sahelian was too good a liar not to have caught it’d been genuine feeling that moved me to speak.

“I’ll find my horse,” I said, cutting through the stillness. “And take care of the corpses here. I’ll leave Marserac to you.”

Golden eyes met mine and only then did she incline her head.

“As you say,” Akua Sahelian murmured.

We took the Twilight Ways back to camp, laden with corpses kept in the Night.

That sort of capacity was one of advantages the bounty of my patronesses boasted compared to the Light, which tended to be its superior in direct applications and confrontations. Dimensional pockets were usually the province of talented mages, who required significant power and resources to establish them, or of Named – Black, for example, had been able to carry quite the arsenal in his shadow when he’d still been the Black Knight. It was a rarer ability in heroes than villains, though not unheard of. The Myrmidon had one, as I recalled. Having a domain could allow Named to cheat, too, if they were clever enough and its nature allowed. It was still a rather rare skill, in the larger scheme of things, and one priests were patently incapable of learning. In contrast, knowledge of how to create such a space in the Night was considered a useful but hardly uncommon Secret among the Mighty. It required a certain amount of power not held beneath the lesser ranks of the Mighty, but aside from that little was needed to have one save knowledge of the trick.

The warm breeze of the realm I’d seen the birth of turned into outright wind, when flying on Zombie’s back, but I hardly minded. The noise of it against my ears was drowning out all thoughts save for the most disjointed, too much of a distraction for a brooding mood to truly seize me. Akua, once more on swan’s wings, was keeping pace with me further down. We’d used the same crack to slip through into Twilight, so like me she’d not need the use of a gate to return to Creation – or, indeed, to be guided towards an exit beyond what the starlit compass provided. It was the subtler means of using this realm, though in some ways also the most difficult of the two; for there were two ways to use the Twilight Ways for travel, at least that we’d grasped so far.

The first was rather similar in nature to using Arcadia, the making of a gate using power. The crux of the difference was in the ease of use: to enter Arcadia there’d been need of either a powerful ritual by mages taught in that branch of sorcery, or that a sufficiently powerful fae intervened. Oh, there were natural places of alignment between Arcadia and Creation where anyone could cross through freely – there was one near Refuge, and allegedly one in the deeps of the Brocelian Forest – but those were rare and the fae often made sport of those who ventured though. In contrast, the Twilight Ways had always been meant to be used for travel: they welcomed such use, encouraged it and enabled it. Mages found it easy to open a temporary small gate without even a ritual if the fabric of Creation was thin enough where they tried, and even elsewhere the amount of power needed to form such a gate was significantly smaller than if one had tried the same with Arcadia. More importantly, it required less skill. It’d been described to me as the Ways reaching out and meeting the spellcaster halfway, helping them… anchor, for lack of a better term.

And it was not only mages who could succeed at this. It was possible with Night as well, though the Mighty had admitted to me that drow seemed to need a certain knack to be able to do so no matter how powerful they were. Said knkack seemed, to my amusement, to run particularly strong among the Losara Sigil as well as another band of familiar souls: the Longstride Cabal in the far north, who’d once tried to hunt me in Great Strycht. Light could open a gate as well, though once more there seemed to be some ineffable requirement we poorly understood: the Lanterns could create such gates almost to a man, while Procerans struggled greatly and my own House Insurgent had proved incapable of consistent results. No matter the provenance or power, though, all had the benefit of what some Arlesite poet had named the ‘starlit compass’. Anyone entering the Twilight Ways with a clear destination in mind would feel the call of that destination ahead of them, and known where to weave a gate out. Not so accurately as I had when I’d been Sovereign of Moonless Night, but usually within a mile of where they intended to arrive.

This was also the method by which permanent gates could be established, though we’d found that to be chancy business. A physical, permanent gate tended to disrupt every other kind of gating in the region around it and they were finicky beasts besides. Hierophant had nearly lost an arm trying to make a second one, afterwards telling me that the Ways had somehow been displeased by him being the architect of more than one. The Witch of the Woods, on the other hand, had forged one on the outskirts of Salia in an afternoon’s work and without any difficulty whatsoever. We still knew so little about the Ways, in the end, and perhaps come better days we’d be able to spend the scholars to plumb the depths of the secrets but as it was the Belfry had too much on its plate to be able to spend many hours on it. Besides, I was disinclined to complain too much of the eccentricities of Twilight when one of them was the realm’s active antipathy for the Dead King and all his works.

The second manner of using the Ways was the one Akua and I had used tonight, which Archer – who’d effectively pioneered it, and still remained a finer practitioner of than anyone save perhaps the Grey Pilgrim himself – had named sidling. Those of us with senses that were not entirely physical could often sense where the fabric of Creation thinned, but with practice it could be learned to feel out where there were… cracks between Creation and the Twilight Ways. Cracks one could slip through when they were found, though they were ephemeral things and particularly capricious where gates of any sort had been recently used. It could take some time to find the cracks, and often required some luck as well as fine senses, which was why near everyone using the method was either Named or nonhuman. Given the difficulties involved one might be tempted to dismiss sidling as an inferior form of travel, save for two facts: sidled paths through the Ways were measurably faster and more precise than those come of gates, and there were also completely traceless.

A Twilight gate, even only a temporary one, could found by scrying, rituals or even just having a sufficiently sensitive entity close when it happened – whenever we used them to deploy troops against the Dead King, the surprise was strategic and almost never tactical. Our presence was known ahead of being seen, always. Archer, on the other hand, had once sidled out of the Ways with her entire band with only a crumbling wall between her and the Prince of Bones and the Revenant hadn’t had a clue before she shot it in the back of the head. Not that it’d killed the thing, but it’d been a gallant effort. Beneath me, the black swan Akua had shapeshifted into began a graceful arc downwards and I led Zombie into the same. The wind’s howl picked up, until my mount landed at a gallop and obeyed the touch of my hand by folding in her wings. I pressed down against her mane even as Akua’s graceful form passed between what seemed to be two raised stones and disappeared.

Zombie navigated the slope leading down to the raised stones and slipped between them: a heartbeat later, after a sensation like a hand passing through my hair, we were on Creation again.

As a testament to the accuracy of sidling, we’d emerged a mere twenty feet away from the camp’s main gate. Akua’s elegant landing had seen her rise into human shape again, and she caught up to me after I reined in my horse’s heady gallop to a halt. By the time the shade was once more at my side, a frown had made its way onto my face: I was looking at the camp, and not liking what I was seeing. The outer defences were untroubled, remaining both well-manned and vigilant. The army camp’s layout was a recent advance, a merging of the Belfry’s advances in temporary warding and the demands of military efficient: four interlocked squares, all sharing the same initial lines of defence. First a ditch dug into the ground, followed by a thing stripe of solid ground leading to a second ditch, itself leading directly into a traditional Legion palisade, bolstered by watchtowers. The stripe of solid ground between ditches had stone markers wedged in at regular intervals, carved with a runic ward that would produce a loud bell-like ringing sound as well a begin glowing should there be movement within the span of the ward.

The teeth of the defence were at the bottom of the second ditch: spikes might not do much against undead, but the gouts of flame from enchanted metal rods and the Light-infused stones could turn the bottom of the palisade into a brutal killing yard.

The warding stones had not been activated, and atop the palisade the watchful gazes of a mixture of Callowan and Proceran soldiers were not something I found any fault in. It was the pulsing lights at the heart of the camp, where the four squares interlocked, that had me frowning. Each of the squares held its own separate set of three large-scale protection wards – against scrying, vermin and illusions – but they were also connected to the central array near my own tent. That array was mostly there to serve as a stabilizer, but it could also be used to forcefully purge power that accumulated in any of the wards because of imprecisions in how they were laid. Essentially it was a pressure valve we could activate before the wards started breaking down from the impurities, though the act of release itself sent out a pulse of power that tended to screw with all the lesser enchantments and wards within the camps so we very much avoided using it if we could. Yet it’d been activated tonight, that much was clear from the way there were still glimmering lights above the centre of the camp.

Likely more than once, too, for the leftover sorcery to be this visible.

“Akua?” I prompted.

“It was activated when there were no accumulated impurities to purge,” the shade said, sounding displeased.

She would be, having personally set down the central array this ought to have turned into a proper mess.

“And what would that actually do?” I asked.

“Still send out a pulse of sorcery,” Akua said. “Yet it would be weaker, and the sorcery would be drawn from wards that are functioning as intended. Likely it would damage them, perhaps even crack the wardstones.”

I vehemently cursed in Kharsum. The materials for those were damned expensive, as you couldn’t just carve runes and lay enchantments on any slab of sandstone grabbed from the side of the road if you wanted to make proper wards: you had to get materials from places where power of one sort or another had flowed for a long time. Even worse, it was the labour of weeks if not months to both anchor the ward in the stone and then align that ward with the rest of the wardstones so they’d bolster each other instead of conflict.

“Unless my general staff and Princess Beatrice suddenly went mad, they’ll have an explanation for it,” I said, in a tone that implied they damn well better have an explanation for it.

Ahead of us the watch had seen us lingering in front of the gate, and by the sounds of it recognized our admittedly distinctive appearances. Hails were sent out and I answered with my raised staff, which was enough to get the gates open. A group of five Lanterns, twice as many Proceran fantassins and what looked like one of the Third Army’s mages bid us to approach, the mage holding a presage box in her hands.

“There is someone else with the authority to order such purging,” Akua pensively said.

She was right, I considered as we entered the camp and the gates thunderously closed behind us. There was one more.

Which meant, like as not, that the White Knight was back early.

Chapter 4: Shadowed

“By my own hand I have made my enemies, and so own them just as a craftsman owns his craft.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner

Dusk was shyly peeking over the horizon when Akua Sahelian arrived.

Tancred’s exhaustion had caught up to him before long, and he now lay curled under a blanket on the closest thing to dry land we’d been able to find: a large flat stone. The boy was resting his head against a rolled-up horse blanket, too-large boots dangling out of the covers, and drooling into the coarse cloth. He was dreaming, though from way he sometimes clenched his teeth it must have been a nightmare. Hardly a surprise, after the storm of fire and death he’d unleashed on Marserac: it would take a colder soul than this one possessed to sleep restfully after that kind of butchery. I tore away my gaze from the boy, knowing that if stared any longer I’d find it more difficult to resist soothing his sleep. I’d always had a hard time picking my attachments, and though that’d saved my life more than once in the past it would not always remain that way. Though I was only a claimant, even after two years in the crucible, it could not be denied I was once more on the path to being Named.

That meant an apprentice – a real apprentice, not an occasional pupil or a child under patronage – might just be the first step on the road to an early grave. There were ways around it, at least. The Lady of the Lake was the example to emulate there, for once. Ranger had been a teacher for decades in Refuge without ever falling to that peril. In my more charitable moments I wondered if the way she’d been so harsh with all she taught was not in that sense a way of preserving her own life, but that charity was ever passing. Regardless, there were parts of her methods worth emulating. Teaching many students, teaching a general method more than passing one’s own signature talents, not allowing yourself to be drawn into the stories of one’s pupils. All were rules to consider when seeing to the youngest villains in my charge, and perhaps even when Cardinal itself would be raised. Much as I intended to be sitting on the council arbitrating the Liesse Accords instead of teaching, I might be moved to dabble on occasion. It might prove necessary, should we be thin on the ground for teachers in the early years.

Regardless, I must step carefully until I grasped the nature of the Name I was moving towards. I had opponents still out there that would slit my throat through even the slightest of missteps. One in particular had been most noticeable by her absence, though I was not so foolish as to believe that just because I’d not heard of the Wandering Bard she’d not been busy weaving her nets. But we were busy too, and though the Dead King was our enemy I’d not forgotten his parting short at the Peace of Salia. There is a place in the heart of Levant, the Hidden Horror had told us, where the first pilgrim of grey slew many men. And there, he’d claimed, there would be a secret buried that would tell us how Kairos Theodosian had saved all our lives. The Dead King had claimed that Tariq would know of the place, and that’d proved true enough: it was valley in the depths of southern Levant known as the Verdant Hollow. Finding the truths buried there had not been anywhere as simple as the King of Death had implied, though.

For one, the White Knight’s aspect could not see into what had taken place within the bounds of the valley during the first Grey Pilgrim’s life. It had not stopped us following the thread, but it’d certainly slowed us down. Soon, though, I thought. Vivienne’s reports was clear about that. With Tariq’s influence backing us we’d been able to bargain with the Holy Seljun for access to the secret records of the Isbili and using those another trail had been found. I’d winced at the number and calibre of Named we’d had to send to follow it, but the band of five under the Painted Knife had found success in the form of a secret they’d refused to entrust to scrying rituals. A knot of hope and fear had laid nest in my stomach ever since I’d read the report. The truth they were bringing north would not be a gentle one. Yet the grim cast of my thoughts was dismissed by the beat of wings on the wind. I turned, having felt her presence nearing in the Night long before either ear or eye afforded the same, and felt the same clench of the heart I always did when I saw the span of those black wings on the wind.

Akua had taken to embracing the changeable nature that her strange half-life lent her – in part because emphasizing her unearthly nature helped my reputation, making her seem more as a bound spirit than the Doom of Liesse now keeping my council – so it’d been expected that she would start shapechanging for reasons both practical and entirely dramatic. I’d even expected that it came to choosing a shape that could fly she would not settle for a paler imitation of Sve Noc. Yet I’d expected some mimicry of a Wasteland legend, like the rain-birds the Taghreb claimed the Miezans had hunted to extinction or the red-feathered ibis whose croaks at dusk were said to be prophetic by Soninke myths. What she had chosen, instead, was a black swan. Swans were not native to the Wasteland: they were Callowan beasts, most known to nest in the south. Liesse had been called the City of Swans, once upon a time. That the woman who’d once been the Doom of Liesse would take the shape of an ebony-black swan was a gesture of many nuances, and one I still had difficulty parsing.

The few knights still with me, no more than a score, turned hard gazes towards the nearing bird almost to the last. The revelation that the Advisor Kivule was in truth the Doom of Liesse bound to my service had been ill-received, though it’d been a strangely fascinating exercise to see why and by who. The House Insurgent had in fact praised my efforts to redeem the former Diabolist in their sermons, nearly sidestepping the issue that we were both villains of disputable retirement, and the eastern parts of my armies had been largely indifferent. The Order of the Broken Bells, and indeed most Callowan highborn among my armies, had not been so blithe in their indifference. I’d had petitions to allow her to stand trial before either a military tribunal or a noble one that’d gotten increasingly pressing as time went on, and even my blunt reply that I still had a use of Akua had not been enough to put the matter to rest. It was a black mark on my record for a lot of my countrymen, and if not for the constant pressure of Keter to the north I suspected the backlash would have been a lot worse.

As it was, there’d still been desertions. Not many, but given how few of those I’d suffered since the first campaign of the Fifteenth it had stung in ways that were hard to explain. That was a candle to the bonfire that’d been the reaction back in Callow, though. Vivienne had appointed Duchess Kegan Iarsmai of Daoine to the office of Governess-General of Callow before leaving the kingdom for the Proceran campaign which had been, and in many ways still was, good sense. The Duchess’ armies were the largest military force left in Callow, she had the clout and pedigree to keep the northern nobles in line and most of all there was absolutely no doubt that Kegan Iarsmai would reply to secret offers from the Tower by steel and public hangings. Duchess Kegan was also the ruler of the Deoraithe, whose ancestral spirits had been stolen and used as a glorified fuel for the doomsday fortress at the heart of Akua’s Folly. The news that I now kept the eponymous Akua in my service, even as a shade, had… not been well received.

What few gains in trust I’d made with Daoine had gone the way of thin air, and there was now little doubt that when the war with Keter was settled Duchess Kegan would exercise the right I’d promised her when I’d first bargained for her aid: namely, that the freshly-elevated Grand Duchy of Daoine would be allowed to secede from the Kingdom of Callow while remaining a military ally and suffering no loss of trading rights or privileges with the kingdom. At least the northern baronies hadn’t agitated over it beyond some expected opportunistic posturing: they’d least felt the taste of both the Praesi occupation and Akua’s span of folly, so truth be told they’d had little to agitate with. And that was only the reaction of nobles, who as the Hierarch had once reminded me were but a few to the many. Though news travelled slow and the shifting nature of rumours gave the hydra a hundred different heads, my reputation had taken a hit back home as well.

A lot of my appeal to the people as a ruler, Hakram had noted in that clear-eyed way of his, had come from how harshly I’d dealt with the Folly and the fae incursions. Akua’s survival was a complication in what had had previously been a straightforward story, and people rarely took well to such added twists and turns. There’d not been riots, at least, but there’d been open unrest in the growing southern towns. Many of the former refugees settled there had lost kin in Liesse, and having had my name associated with years of food and shelter in the wake of the ravaging of the south had only helped quell the tensions so much. The House Constant had stayed aloof, as if usually did when it came to worldly affairs, but the Jacks had made it clear that most of the small factions that’d been leaning the way of the House Insurgent now had second thoughts. No, the revelation had cost me a great deal of trust that I would likely never regain: a decade of good rule might see this turn into nothing but a bump in the road, but I didn’t have a decade of rule ahead of me.

I fully intended to abdicate in the wake of the war against Keter, so at this point it was more important to gild Vivienne’s reputation than glue back a few lost feathers onto mine. As a silver lining that’d proved almost ludicrously easy. Before my thoughts could wander down that rabbit hole, though, elegant talons touched the ground beneath open wings and darkness shifted from swan to woman. Akua had perfected the process: it looked like she was rising from a kneeling position, sweeping up gracefully. Her first attempts, Archer assured me, had looked a lot more like a kid failing at a pirouette. The Doom of Liesse rose to her full height, skirts sweeping around her, and tastefully curtsied.

“My queen,” Akua greeted me.

The hard eyes of my knights remained on her back and, I almost imagined, on mine. It made me feel restless, and as it happened I had decent reason to indulge the urge to move: I’d sent for Akua because I needed answers about what had taken place in Marserac, and the village in question was ahead.

“Walk with me,” I said.

She did, without missing a beat. We’d had these walks often enough, over the last two years, that it felt like a natural thing for her to fall perfectly in step with my limp. There was a lot that felt natural these days about having her at my side, which I needed no warning to know was a dangerous thing.

“You heard about what happened here,” I said, brusquely gesturing towards the burning village.

Unlike me, whose limp was forcing to slog through the wet grounds inelegantly, she was not dipping in so much as a toe. I could probably achieve the same thing by calling on the Night, but she needed not such thing – where once her body had been a soul given flesh by Winter, she now used the power of Sve Noc for the same effect. She didn’t need to draw on Night, per se, as she was made of Night – changing the properties of her physical shell was child’s play to her, like playing with clay.

“I did,” Akua acknowledged. “And from the looks of that sleeping boy under a Callowan blanket, you have gathered another stray to your hearth.”

“The Scorched Apostate,” I said.

She let out a sigh of sympathy.

“An unfortunate Name in many ways,” Akua said. “Those marks will not be easily shed even should he stay at your feet.”

“He won’t, not for long,” I said. “He’s headed for the Belfry.”

“Mage?” she inferred, interest rising. “He does not have the look of one from a wealthy household.”

“Talent is not distributed according to land holdings,” I grunted back.

The shade glanced at me, seemingly amused. Akua Sahelian was a lovely sight in any light I would care to name, even more so now that she had discarded the veils she had worn as ‘Advisor Kivule’, but I’d grown partial to the way she looked under spreading twilight. Shapely as she was – tall and full-breasted yet slender, an almost hourglass shape I’d believed belonged only in stories before first witnessing the unearthly beauty of Wasteland highborn with my own eyes – there was no time of the day that would do her figure disservice, much less in the tight and high-waisted dress of black and scarlet she’d chosen to wear, but twilight always lent her a certain… It was the golden eyes, I thought, and the sharp bones of her face. Under dusk’s cast she looked as gorgeous and terrible as the old tales had promised the fae would be. She felt me stare, no doubt, but said nothing of it. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last.

“Magic is not an inexpensive art to train in, heart of my heart,” she said. “I cast not unkind auspice on the boy’s talent, but merely express surprise that one with such a powerful Gift did not burn themselves out long before they could become Named.”

I wasn’t ignorant of the dangers of having a powerful magical talent without being taught, of course. The War Collage had gone into some detail about it, and Black had made certain I read the highborn screeds about the matter like Sorcerous’ Bequest and The Burden of Privilege. Praesi highborn often used the death rates as a justification for the ways High Seats plucked out young mages from their families for training and servitude. Mind you, Black had wanted to replace that with Legion schooling and at least one mandatory term of service in the ranks – he’d bee much more interested in breaking the grip of the Hight Seats over the loyalty of the finest mages in Praes than in ensuring the freedom of practitioners. Knowing him he’d have no issue with said freedom either should it come as a consequence of his policies, though.

“He’s got only the one trick, as far as I can tell,” I reluctantly conceded. “And it’s some sort of imitation of what Light can do in a fight.”

“A limited repertoire would help,” Akua confirmed. “Quite a few untaught mages end up using similar wild spells – the easiest of conjurations and illusions – regardless of where they are born with no ill effect. It is lack of control married to strong emotion that is the most common killer for hedge practitioners, but an intense obsession on a single crude formula would… restrain this danger.”

She paused, afterwards.

“An imitation of the Light,” she repeated, tone ambiguous. “How very Proceran.”

It did not sound like a compliment, nor was it meant to be one. The distaste was not directed at Tancred, though.

“Not all peoples in the world hold magic as the gift of all gifts,” I reminded her.

My own had a complicated relationship with sorcery, for one. It was a rare city in Callow that was not warded, or where a few practitioners could not be hired with coin through the Hedge Guild. Yet magic would never be held in high esteem the way steel or prayer would be, for sorcery was inherently linked to Praes for most of us. Though Wizards of the West and Wise Enchantresses had been a staple of Callowan Names for centuries, none of them had ever held so much as a regent’s title – mages were advisors and retainers in Callow, never rulers.

“Nor should they,” Akua said. “Though it is a great talent, it is only ever one among the many needed for one to achieve greatness. It is those calling the Gift a curse I hold in contempt.”

I didn’t disagree, as it happened. The reason why the power of mages had first been curbed in Procer was eminently reasonable: some of the largest wizard guilds had taken to playing kingmaker in the First Prince elections, only to get harshly disciplined when a candidate they’d opposed and even tried to depose consolidated power and began dismantling their guilds. First Prince Louis Merovins had not been bloodthirsty man, so he’d ended their power by ruinous taxes and starkly limiting guild sizes instead of brutal purges. Yet his successors had simply kept their boots on the throat of Proceran wizardry without ever reconsidering the matter, often with the House of Light’s enthusiastic endorsement. Proceran mages couldn’t even serve as healers, which I found absurd as magical healing could accomplish things that priestly healing simply could not. Mages were not outright hated, in the Principate, but they did tend to be viewed as keeping to a disreputable trade. I did not think it a coincidence that we’d gotten more villain Named mages out of Procer than we had heroes.

“Things will change,” I said. “Hasenbach founded her Order of the Red Lion and they’re just too useful to be despised. Now we’re gathering and training their mages for war, which ought to gild the record even further. The Principate will have to adjust, after Keter.”

A few thousand mages trained in war whose edge had been honed against the Kingdom of the Dead would not meekly bend their neck so the boot could be placed on it again. And I somehow doubted that someone with Cordelia Hasenbach’s ruthless streak of practicality would simply release a force like that back into the wilds. Given how badly the higher ranks of the House of Light had blundered when backing the attempted coup against her before the Peace of Salia, I believed the First Prince might even have the pull to force through some much-needed reforms.

“It is in the nature of rot that it is not so easily removed,” Akua disagreed.

I simply grunted, unwilling to dispute the point here and now. We had other cats to skin, and we’d wander far off the beaten path. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. In practice we’d reached the outskirts of Marserac and that now familiar half-dug ditch.

“The boy’s also got good eyes, like as not,” I said. “It’s why I sent for you. He claims he found traces of the Dead King’s seeded plague in the villagers.”

Her brow rose, arching with irritating elegance. When I did the same thing, it just made me look kind of angry.

“A much rarer talent, this, if is not an aspect,” Akua told me. “It implies either an exceptional sensitivity to magic or a physical gift.”

I had an inkling it wouldn’t be an aspect. Tancred might have had the power before reaching Marserac, but the Name had gotten its weight through the choices he’d made in the village. An aspect beforehand would be putting the cart before the horse.

“Humans don’t usually have the latter, as I understand it,” I frowned.

One of the pleasures of conversation with Akua, as it happened, was not having to always spell out everything. Sidestepping the notion of it being an aspect was enough for the implied to be understood.

“There are always exceptions,” the golden-eyed shade shrugged. “But you are largely correct. It is a gift most often achieved by twining the line with beings so blessed.”

A delicate way of saying that the Scorched Apostate was either a one in a hundred thousand birth or there was nonhuman blood running through his veins. Either way there was more to his story than I would have guessed at first glance, and he’d not struck me as a simple soul from the start. Something else to dig into, though that was the kind of matter best tossed into Hakram’s lap. Aside from the practical consideration of having left him in charge of serving as my go-between with the Jacks, there was the more esoteric one of avoiding taking too direct an interest in Tancred’s past. Unruly curiosity had a way of carrying costs for Named. I looked down at the first corpse I’d encountered earlier, still slumped and scorched.

“Find the plague seeds if there are any to be found,” I ordered. “If the Dead King really has such a weapon, we might have a situation on our hands.”

It wasn’t that I feared there’d be major spread beyond the initial outbreaks: we’d caught this early enough that we ought to be able to contain if not outright smother the attack. Even if one of the refugee camps was turned we’d be able to strike quick enough to prevent a disaster. The Grand Alliance’s use of the Twilight Ways meant we marched and deployed significantly quicker than the dead, after all. Yet containment would occupy our armies long enough a summer offensive would become more difficult while simultaneous making us vulnerable to an offensive on the northern defence lines.

“If there is something to be found, I will,” Akua replied, calmly certain.

And I believed her, too. Aisha had once warned me about the Sahelians, and this one most of all. They were always trusted, my old friend had told me, by people who ought to know better. Because they are charming, my queen, Aisha Bishara had warned me as only a fellow daughter of the Wasteland could. Because they are beautiful and fascinating and so very useful that certainly it couldn’t hurt to bring them into the fold just the once. And she’d been right, I thought as I watched the woman who’d once been my bitterest enemy kneel by a corpse, weaving strands of Night with her hands. Already I could hardly imagine fighting this war without Akua at my side, and some days it would be untrue to call the amount of trust I put in her measured. If this had been achieved as it’d been in the Everdark, where I had been starved of the company of nearly all I trusted, it would have been one thing. But she had done this while the Woe were at my side, and my armies as well.

Even as a shade whose power I could strip with little more than a prayer, Akua Sahelian remained one of the most dangerous people I had ever met.

I sat on the side of the trench, staff propped up between my shoulder and my neck, and brought down the hood of the Mantle of Woe on my head before closing my eyes. Though night was creeping in, I still felt exhausted. I’d not had an empty day, that much was true, but I fancied it to be a different kind of tired. The kind that saw only days like this one writ in the horizon and could not tell how long the world would remain so. I knew, in principle, that we were reaching a turning point: I’d read the same reports as Hasenbach, had the conversation with the Iron Prince a dozen times. Within months we’d reach the peak of the Grand Alliance’s fighting capacity, with Procer’s industry and manpower fully turned to war and the wealth injected into every nation’s war machine by Mercantis and the dwarves finally being brought to bear. This summer would be the time where we went on the offensive, when we took back every Proceran shore and dug in before the assault on Keter itself.

And still I felt so very tired. Neshamah was fighting against us the kind of war where even victory had a taste of defeat. And sometimes, sometimes we just lost. So I closed my eyes and let my mind drift, as close to sleeping as I could get without drifting into slumber, and let Akua unfold the leather bag holding the set of tool’s she’d use to cut open a corpse and find out of it had been seeded with death or worse yet. I waited perhaps half an hour before I got my answer, eyes fluttering open as I heard the shade rise to her feet. Though her dress had been traded for more practical chirurgeon’s garb – a heavy leather apron over a long-sleeved cloth shirt and fitted trousers – there was no mistaking the blood on her forearms. Or, for that matter, the small stone-like sphere she held in the bloody palm of her hand. Golden eyes met mine, gaze perfectly matched even in the shade of my hood.

“Tell me,” I said.

“It is sorcerous in nature,” Akua confirmed. “More specifically an enchantment, and though I cannot yet tell you the nature of it – I will need the use of my full workshop to ascertain that for sure – I can already tell you two truths. The first should be evident.”

She slightly rotated the sphere, revealing a slightly scorched surface.

“The sorcery that killed this woman damaged the ‘seed’, and rendered it inert,” she said. “Whether it was a delicate enough enchantment structure that damage was enough to disrupt it or that is a property inhering to the sorcery used by the Scorched Apostate, I cannot be sure. If it is the latter, I would urge you to hurry the boy’s journey to the Belfry – the implications of that would be far-reaching indeed.”

I slowly nodded. If there was a particular sort of sorcery that was damaging to the Dead King’s own methods, we needed to get a precise spell formula for it as soon as possible and spread knowledge of it to every single mage in the Grand Alliance to that could learn it.

“The second truth is this ‘seed’ was aptly named,” Akua continued. “It is not meant to permanently remain in this state, but to eventually dissolve and release another enchantment held under the outer shell.”

“A plague?” I pressed.

“I cannot yet tell, Catherine,” Akua said. “Without a full component kit I cannot even properly gauge how long the shell is supposed to last before dissolving, though from the lack of observable reaction to both silver and cold iron it ought to be more than a lunar month from now.”

Cold iron, as I recalled, was a hindrance to weak magics while silver strengthened some and hindered others. The Dead King’s necromancies, unfortunately, were not affected by it. Some of his early works likely had been, but Neshamah had not been resting on his laurels all these centuries: his necromantic magic was unlike any other on Calernia.

“Shit,” I feelingly said. “It would have killed the boy if he’d ever learned, but I was half-hoping he’d gone mad. We’ll need to ring the alarm, Akua. This is the first time he’s managed to slip a meaningful force behind our lines since the Lord of Ghouls got offed.”

“It is quite possible that Light used in the correct manner will be able to disrupt the enchantments,” Akua reassured me. “If nothing else, that should relieve some of the logistical burden in weeding out the seeded.”

I sighed but conceded the point with a half-nod.  Priests were already everywhere in the refugee camps, if we figured out a countermeasure using Light we could further limit the casualties.

“Collect all the seeds you can find,” I told her. “I want to know everything about those things we can, and spares to send the Belfry’s way.”

“I will see to it,” the golden-eyed shade replied. “Shall I keep them until we return to camp?”

“Do,” I said.

There was not much I could do with one, save asking for the opinion of Sve Noc – which I’d rather do when we were safe back in camp anyway, along with my usual nightly communion. Out here in the open, there was no telling what might be lurking. I left Akua to the labour, dragging myself up and limping away. Night had fallen in earnest, and under the starlight sky I headed back towards the boy and my knights. And the priests as well, as I’d forgot. One of them was leaning over Tancred, back hiding what his hands were doing, and I frowned. The Light had already proven unable to help, and though the House Insurgent were loyalists I’d rather not have them putting around a fresh Named with highly destructive inclinations. I hastened my steps, and only when I was within a dozen feet did the priest notice my approach. He withdrew his hand, looking embarrassed. He’d been smoothing away the boy’s last tufts of hair. It was the younger of the two Brothers, I recognized that much though I’d never caught either’s name.

“Don’t,” I said, and gestured, for him to move away.

He did with great swiftness and looked ill at ease under my glare.

“I apologize, Your Majesty,” he murmured. “It’s, only – I have a little brother his age, my queen. He’s just a kid, isn’t he? Even though he burned the village, he’s just a kid.”

My expression softened. I’d not noticed earlier, but the priest couldn’t have been more than twenty himself. His robes were slightly askew, like they’d not been made for someone with his exact frame, and he moved a little jerkily. Embarrassed and a little intimidated, I felt it safe to assume.

“I don’t fault your kindness,” I said. “But after a day like this one, waking with a stranger’s hand on his brow might be… ill-received.”

The priest might have ended up with a black-rimmed hole in his chest, even Tancred had woken up still in the grips of his nightmare. Although, from the looks of it, that had passed. He no longer moved or flinched in his sleep, and his breath was slow. Nearly imperceptible.

“My apologies once more, Your Majesty,” the priest repeated.

I waved it away.

“Hold on to the kindness,” I said. “It’s rarer than rubies, these days. Only add a little caution to it, would you?”

I patted his shoulder as I limped past him, feeling him go still as stone. My score of knights had dismounted, for it’d be absurd for them to remain mounted for hours, and the horses had been tied to a log in the distance. They moved as little as the rest of us, the stillness having caught up to even the animals. Brandon Talbot was long gone, but he’d left one of his officers to lead my escort. Figuring I might as well inform the man we’d be here for some time still, I picked out the man in question – George Redfern, as I recalled. Helm on, the knight was looking up at the moonless sky but even through the steel had little trouble hearing me arrive. My limp was not quiet.

“Your Majesty,” the man bowed.

Starlight caught the edge of his plate armour, revealing a carved passage form the Book of All Things. And, to my mild surprise, what looked like dried blood. Talbot had not mentioned the Order fighting today.

“You’re wounded,” I said.

“The priests have already seen to it, my liege,” he reassured me.

I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

“Your helm, sir,” I mildly said.

He stuttered out a surprised apology and hurried in taking off his helmet, revealing a reddish mustachioed face. His gorget was loose around his neck. The priest earlier had been a little off too.

“Fuck,” I said. “Fuck.”

Night howled through my veins as I drank deep from the well.

“My queen?” the impostor asked.

“New kind of ghoul, Neshamah?” I asked in Ashkaran.

The thing that was not George Redfern grinned.

“What gave it away?” the King of Death replied in the same

The lance of Night burned trough his head in the blink of an eye, but every other knight and priest was moving. Flesh squelched and boiled as the ghouls squirmed out of the shells, turning into unnaturally flowing things with claws and gaping maws. There’d been no bodies, so they must have eaten the dead. Replaced them one by one over the span of the afternoon and evening, while I was distracted. Still, for all their vicious cleverness and sharp caution there were only a score of ghouls and one – and night had fallen. My staff struck the ground as I let loose my anger, lines of Night slithering outwards at breakneck speeds – the first ghoul I caught I speared through the flank, and when it tried to flow around the wound I detonated the strand into black flame. Two, three, four, five. Up the count went as they ran, first towards me and then away from me. I kept only the last alive, wrapping it in solid strands of Night instead of killing it. We’d need a containment box for it, but it would be headed towards the Belfry soon enough. I strode towards it, fingers clenched around my staff.

“You ought to know better than to try me by night, by now,” I hissed.

The ghoul laughed, shaking in an unnatural spasm. It’d not been meant to make such a sound.

“Ought I?” the Dead King replied. “Catherine, Catherine. You never watch your back as carefully as you should.”

I stilled. The priest had been standing over the Scorched Apostate, whose breathing had become so faint it almost couldn’t be heard. The slight pressure I felt from the ghoul vanished, the Dead King’s attention with it, and I turned my eyes to the boy on the stone. Who slowly put aside the blanket he’d been huddling under and rose to his feet in his too-large boots. His skin was pale. He was not breathing. The Scorched Apostate’s hand rose and brightly shining flame gathered to it.

“I’m sorry, Tancred,” I quietly said. “Gods, I’m so sorry.”

I should have watched more closely, I should have moved quicker, I should have… I should have protected him.

“But it’s not that kind of a war, is it?” I murmured, Night flooding my veins. “Sometimes, sometimes I just lose.”

I took the part of me that felt like weeping and put it in the box.

I had a Revenant to kill.

Chapter 3: Standard

“The tragedy of our time, of every time, is that while there is power in knowledge there can be just as much in ignorance.”
– First Princess Eugénie of Lange

I watched the Scorched Apostate sit in silence, face solemn, as the two healers from the House Insurgent finished seeing to the wound on his leg and moved to the larger task of his heavy burns. I’d had him brought away from where the last four survivors of the nameless village were being looked at by another priest. Grandmaster Talbot spoke with the priestess in question – a fair-haired Liessen girl in her late twenties – before trudging his way to me through boggy grounds. With his helmet removed, Brandon Talbot’s neatness was even more apparent than usual, all the more glaring for the contrast with his worn armour. He sketched a bow and I flicked an impatient hand to tell him to cut it out. I’d made my peace with a lot of the formalities having put on a fancy hat meant for me, but they had no place out in the field.

“My queen,” the knight said. “Sister Cecily says the survivors are physically healthy and without disease.”

If the boy was right about the seeded plague and his eyes were sharp as I suspected they were, he might have spared them for that very reason. Or it might be he’d simply missed them before exhaustion caught up with him and he ended up retreating to the temple.

“Send a rider ahead to Lord Adjutant, informing him he is prepare a quarantined tent for them,” I ordered. “Then have them sent back on some of your spare mounts, under escort.”

“By your will, Your Majesty,” he said, then hesitated. “Though it is unlikely they will know how to ride.”

“Tie them on, if need be,” I flatly said. “They’re in no state to walk and I’ll not have them rubbing elbows with this one.”

The last two words were married to a jerky nod of the head towards the young villain I’d found.

“Agreed,” Grandmaster Talbot said, tone heavy with distaste. “I’ll see to it.”

I let him handle the arrangements, gaze lingering on the Named. Two healers from the House Insurgent spent thirty heartbeats trying to heal the burns, but to no avail. There was less bleeding beneath the blackened skin, but no other difference to speak of. The charred ruin that’d been made of the Scorched Apostate’s face was not something Light or sorcery would be able mend, I suspected. I limped up to the three of them, the two priests ending their attempts as I approached and falling into deep bows. The House Insurgent’s priests always seemed to be trying to make up for the my significantly more nuanced relationship with the House Constant by open displays of esteem and allegiance, which I still wasn’t quite sure how to deal with. Over my years of ruling Callow I’d had good working relationships with a few brothers and sisters of the House, but genuine deference from people sworn to Above was still something I struggled with.

“A gallant effort,” I said, “but those are beyond Light’s ability to mend.”

The boy’s eyes betrayed no disappointment at my words, only a sort of cynical satisfaction. He’d not believed for a moment he’d be freed from the burns.

“I can only apologize our failure,” the older of the priests said, and seemed intent to continue along that line until I briskly shook my head.

“There is no need for that. It is a natural thing, and not unknown to me,” I said. “I once had such a scar as well.”

A long red cut that went all the way across my chest, where the Lone Swordsman had gutted me before leaving me to die.

“Once?” the boy spoke up, picking up on the implication. “No longer?”

“It took a death, but I was rid of it,” I agreed. “But you’re rather to young to be thinking of trifling with angels.”

It’d taken snatching a resurrection from Contrition to wipe the scar away, and I was not truly certain it’d been the angelic touch and not the victory before it that’d actually done the trick there. I’d ask Tariq to have a look at the boy regardless, just in case Mercy might feel like living up to the virtue it claimed, but his Name seemed like it might just resist the change tooth and nail: he wasn’t called the Lightly Singed Apostate.

“Thank you,” I told the priests. “I would speak with him alone, if you don’t mind.”

Deeps bows once more, and murmurs of agreement.

“Congratulations,” I told the Scorched Apostate. “You are Named, and the first of this spring to be brought into a treaty backed by almost every crown on Calernia.”

He blinked with his blue eye, uncomprehending.

“There’s a proper formal name for it,” I idly continued, “but most of us call it the Truce and the Terms.”

“A treaty about what?” the boy asked.

“Not hanging boys like you when we find them,” I said.

“I’m not a boy,” the boy insisted. “I’m fourteen.”

I did not betray my surprise. The burns had made it hard to tell his age and he was tall for a boy of fourteen. Especially a peasant one. Fourteen, I thought with muted grief, and already hundreds of corpses to your name. There were some among the Named he’d be rubbing elbows with that would be impressed by this. They wouldn’t even all be villains.

“That’s the part that trips you up?” I still asked, dimly amused. “Not the hanging, being called a boy?”

“You can call me Tancred instead,” the young villain said. “Or Scorched.”

I did not quite have the heart to tell him no one would ever call him the latter save as mockery, though I suspected even Archer would feel a little bad about making sport of someone so painfully earnest.

“Tancred,” I said, a half-hearted concession. “You are Named, and though there will be an investigation about what took place in this nameless village-”

“Marserac,” the boy interrupted, tone heavy. “It is called Marserac.”

I forced myself not to look at the burning wrecks in the distance behind us. Only a handful of far-flung houses would survive of what had been called Marserac.

“Do not interrupt me again,” I said, tone calm but firm.

Tancred bit the sole part of his lip that was not a blackened ruin, looking like I’d slapped him. I made my heart ache, but it needed to be done. I was not his mother or his friend: I was his patroness, and perhaps on occasion I’d be his teacher. Boundaries needed to be set from the very beginning.

“As the Scorched Apostate, you have been approached by one of the Grand Alliance’s high officers and extended the chance to sign and abide by the Truce and Terms,” I said. “Though what took place in Marserac will be investigated by my people, and your claim of a seeded plague looked into, even if you are mistaken in that claim you’ll still fall under the blanket amnesty that comes with agreeing to abide by the treaty.”

Tancred’s sole blue eye burned with indignation and he looked about to boil over, but he kept his tongue. My lips quirked in approval. Good. If he could master himself on this day, of all days, then he had some promise.

“Speak,” I said.

“That’s rotten,” the Scorched Apostate burst out before I’d even finished the word. “That I’d still get away with it if I’d just-”

He shivered, and I could almost see his mind shying away from fully looking at what it was he’d done today. There would be a need to nip that habit in the bud – failing to recognize what you were was a dangerous thing, for a villain – but even now I still had enough mercy in me to leave that for another day.

“- if it’d just been slaughter for slaughter’s sake,” Tancred forced out, “murder for sport. That’s rotten.”

The boy hesitated.

“Sir,” he hesitantly tacked on, half as a question.

“That’ll do,” I said. “And it’s not a pretty thing, you’re not wrong about that. The business of survival never is.”

The indignation had yet to abate, so I flicked out a hand in permission for him to speak once more.

“They say we’re winning the war, though,” the Apostate said. “Last summer the Black Queen and the Iron Prince almost took back the capital in Hainaut, and since then the attack midwinter was beaten back. Why does there need to be an amnesty for villains?”

“For heroes as well,” I plainly said. “We’ve no sole claim on bloody swords.”

It was somewhat refreshing not to have been recognized, I found, but this perception that we’d achieved anything but a bloody stalemate against the Dead King – the ruling champion of wars of attrition – needed to be put to rest. This summer we might just begin turning the tide, Gods willing or out of my damned way, but the sole front that could be said to have truly gained victories until now was the Lycaonese one. Those hard fuckers up in Twilight’s Pass were making all of us proud.

“There is a truce, Tancred, because that first summer offensive in Hainaut nearly lost us the war,” I said, tone serious. “Because the midwinter attacks would have broken through the defensive line if the Fortunate Fool hadn’t sacrificed himself to take out the Lord of Ghouls, or if the Witch of the Woods hadn’t flattened one of our own fortresses with two thousand of our soldiers still in it. Because we need every Named, even the worst of them, and each one that hides from us out fear might end up raised into the Dead King’s ranks instead if he gets his hands on them.”

The young villain looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. My assessment had been stark, true, but I’d wager that was not the reason: I was not speaking as an officer would, but as someone who had a seat at the kind of table where there were precious few warranting one.

“So crimes committed before joining the treaty are granted amnesty, no matter how foul,” I said. “Heroes and villains are to observe the peace of the Truce with each other until Keter falls, no matter past enmities. Should conflicts arise, or accusations need to be made about breaches of the Truce, they are to be brought to their representative under the Terms.”

I nodded at his inquisitive look, granting leave to speak. Indignation had gutted out, looked like, as it tended to when it was cast against the abstract instead of something you could see or hear. Curiosity was more tempting a mistress than arguing with me, at least for now.

“And who are they?” the Scorched Apostate asked.

“The White Knight, for heroes,” I said. “The Black Queen, for villains. Those who claim to be neither can choose who they would appeal to. A band was assembled under the Archer that has a degree of legal authority as well, but they are wanderers.”

Tancred slowly nodded, seemingly not unfamiliar with the Name. Indrani’s reputation had made it this far north, then. She’d be pleased to hear it, vain creature that she was.

“Under the Terms are also set out obligations that must be fulfilled to remain protected by the Truce,” I continued. “I’ll let you paw through the lot of them later – actually, can you read?”

Tancred looked away, then shook his head.

“Something else to see to, then,” I said. “They’ll be read to you in detail by a sworn representative until you can read them yourself. The crux of them is simple: follow the laws of the land and serve in the war against the Dead King. If there are lesser grievances or breaches, punishment will be meted our by your representative under the Terms.”

Quite a few of the heroes had howled at that last detail, a few like the Blade of Mercy and the Blessed Artificer even threatening to walk if it was upheld, but with both the White Knight and the Grey Pilgrim in my corner we’d had the clout to ram it through. Not that Tariq hadn’t had his reservations, but we were all aware that precious few villains would even consider Truce if joining it meant they were under heroic jurisdiction. On my side of the deal the trouble had been making it clear to the Named that I was actually serious about enforcing the Terms. The Pilfering Dicer hadn’t really believed me, and so Hakram had held out his hand on a stump as I hacked a finger off as chastisement. There’d been another sort of challenge too, unsurprisingly: two other villains had lost little time before trying to take my place as representative by force of arms.

The Barrow Sword had been pleasantly straightforward about it, telling me outright he intended to use me as a stepping stone to rise high enough he could bargain with the Dominion to be named as the founder of a line of Blood. He’d just as straightforwardly submitted when I’d struck him hard enough with Night to blast him through two carts and a palisade. We’d had drinks after, and while he was a ruthless bastard he was also halfway decent company if you didn’t get him started on the Silent Slayer’s line. The Red Reaver had not been so respectable in his ambition. He’d tried to slit my throat in my sleep only to be caught by Indrani while trying to slip through my tent’s wards, and after that I’d… made an example. A warning to anyone else who might have similar ambition and lack of sense. There had not been a challenge since, though I’d no doubt that the longer this war lasted the more I’d end up having to face.

“I will fight the Hidden Horror,” the Scorched Apostate solemnly said, “on that you have my oath. I will march north and face the dead.”

“You’ll be headed to the Belfry for a few months, Tancred, unless there’s a pressing need for your talents,” I drily told him.

While the smouldering remnants of Marserac behind us were testament to the power the young villain was capable of wielding, I had no intention of sending a mage so spectacularly untaught straight into the nightmare of the northern defensive line. That was a recipe for either losing a company to an uncontrolled blaze or serving up Keter a fresh Revenant. Named lost a great deal of power after the Dead King got to them, and some aspects Neshamah either could not or would not maintain in death, but a Revenant spellcaster with this much of a bite to him would be a rough ride to deal with even if he ended up having only one trick.

“The Belfry, sir?” the boy hesitantly asked.

“This isn’t the kind of war that can be won with boots on the ground alone, Tancred,” I said. “The Grand Alliance understood that well before it began mobilizing. There would be a need for fresh sorceries, for unprecedented warding schemes and artefacts. A safe haven would have to be built for those scholars who would study the Hidden Horror’s tricks and learn how to unmake them, too, one beyond his reach. And so the Arsenal was ordered raised.”

I let a moment pass, gauging how much I should truly say. There’d been some of us, at the beginning, who’d argued that the Arsenal’s existence should be kept a secret. Princess Rozala had been one of the more ardent partisans of that belief, arguing that against Keter the best defence was secrecy, and the Grey Pilgrim had backed her – which meant the Blood had as well. In private with me, Tariq had argued that by keeping the Arsenal secret now we would later get the benefit of revealing it when tipping a pivot one way or another, but I’d been unconvinced then and I was unconvinced now. As it happened Hasenbach and I had, for once, been in complete and utter agreement. Even if one was willing to write off the effects on morale that knowing such a place existed would have on the rank and file of the Grand Alliance, which neither of us was, the fact remained that practically speaking keeping it secret would be near impossible.

Too many people would be involved in its construction and its upkeep. Whether it be building the towers and laboratories, bringing in food by cart or even something as simple as making the beds in the rooms there would be a need for workers and servants to handle the labour. That we’d gathered some of the finest magical minds in Procer, Callow and Levant before going further by bringing in scholars, priests and artisans meant that numbers alone would make disappearances glaringly obvious anyway. And it wasn’t like the Dead King wasn’t going to expect us to have such a facility. No, better to lay false trails by the dozen and keep the location secret rather than attempt the improbable outcome of utter secrecy.

“There are two societies within it, the Workshop and the Belfry,” I continued. “The Workshop concerns itself with the making of artefacts, armaments and alchemies. The Belfry’s mandate is broader in scope: study of the Dead King’s creatures, war magic and warding, experimental research.”

I let a beat pass so the details could sink in. The part that mattered most I’d consciously split from the rest.

“The Belfry also concerns itself with teaching mages,” I told the boy.

It’d been a struggle to pull away Masego from his attempts to establish his proof of concept for Quartered Seasons and the other half dozen projects he’d picked up, but the results had been well worth the hassle: he’d trained up a few talented Proceran practitioners to what he called ‘acceptable’ scrying ritual standards, which was maybe two decades ahead of what anyone west of the Whitecaps had previously been capable of. That cadre now served as permanent teachers for the hedge talents the First Prince was sifting through Procer for, sent in by bands of twenty for teaching. The scrying network for the Grand Alliance was arguably the largest and widest-reaching on the continent at the moment, if likely still inferior in quality and reliability to Praes’. Communications grew harder the closer we were to active warfare against Keter, too, now that Neshamah had begun using disruptive rituals.

Adjusting our rituals so that the disruptions wouldn’t affect them was exactly the kind of puzzle the Belfry had been assembled to solve, though, so we’d see how long that lasted.

Getting a training camp running for war magic had been a great deal less successful, unfortunately. Even after lowering the bar of used sorcery to the standard of the Legions of Terror we’d proved incapable of reliably training up mages in that manner. We were running thin on instructors, true, but at the end of the day the unpleasant truth was that there was simply a limited amount of people in Procer with a Gift that was strong enough to be useful for war. The total number of mages living in the Principate was likely higher than that in the Empire, by simple dint of population, but the quality of those talents was the trouble. Massed sorcery remained beyond our grasp for now, though at least training up a handful ritual cadres had proved a workable alternative. Standardization remained the largest issue there, since no two cadres were capable of doing the same things and there was only haphazard overlap.

“Are you not going to teach me?” the boy quietly asked.

His face was hard to read, which I supposed was a feeble silver lining to the scorching of his face. His voice, though, his stance? He was fourteen and, Named or not, he’d seen precious little of the world. He might as well be an open book to me.

“There are things you’ll learn from me,” I said. “Magic, however, isn’t one of them. I don’t have the Gift. I do happen to be acquainted with a few of the finest practitioners of it alive, though, so rustling up a good tutor for you shouldn’t be all that difficult.”

Who to send him to would be something to consider. Masego’s interest in teaching could best be described as passing, though he was a rather able tutor when talked into it. Hierophant also had so much on his plate the meal could feed two and he’d lost the ability to practice magic. Roland might be a better fit, anyway, given that his tendency to be a generalist meant he always had common grounds with pupils. The Rogue Sorcerer was a hero, though, and the way he ended up saddled with the work that no one else was particularly good at meant his days were nearly as filled as Masego’s. The Hunted Magician owed Indrani a favour which I might be able to call in for this, but the Proceran villain was an enchanter for the Workshop and just… generally unpleasant. I’d rather the Scorched Apostate be taught by a Named mage instead of a Nameless one, but we’d have to see.

“But I will be sent to this Belfry,” Tancred said, hesitant.

“Not alone,” I replied, taking a measure of pity on him. “I’m to head south myself before long, and I meant to pass through the Arsenal. I’ll be accompanying you there, at least.”

Indrani had been riding me about physically setting foot at the Arsenal for a few months now, though until today I’d been on the fence about taking the detour there after the council. This settled it, though, since I’d want to settle the boy comfortably under someone able to teach him before moving on. Archer wasn’t wrong, either, when she said that it was sloppy of me to have never met so many Named on our side, including villains I represented under the Terms. How many were there nowadays, between the Workshop and the Belfry? Ten, twelve? Less than half of that were of mine, since it was harder to find villains willing to play nice with others than heroes, but even getting a good look at the currents of the place might not be a bad idea. If we lost the Arsenal, the war would begin a death spiral downwards in a matter of months: best to make sure it wouldn’t shatter itself from within.

“Good,” the Scorched Apostate said, perking up. “I have-”

I wasn’t riding Zombie this time so her discomfort could not serve as warning for the closeness of the Beastmaster, but the old trick I’d once taught Vivienne still worked. Someone had been looking at me intently, too intently. It’d been an attempt to sneak up on me, I decided, and there were few who’d attempt that against me in broad daylight.

“Beastmaster,” I interrupted, “have you grown shy? Come out properly, introduce yourself.”

The man bedecked in furs and leather let out a grunt and circled away from my back, only then catching Tancred’s notice. Only one hawk was still on his shoulder.

“Your pet witch sent word,” Beastmaster said. “She makes haste, as you ordered.”

“Have you called her that to her face?” I asked, morbidly curious.

I almost hoped he hadn’t, just so he might try it before me: it’d been too long since I’d seen Akua flay someone alive with her tongue. The Beastmaster spat to the side.

“Better to embrace vipers than speak with witches,” the Named dismissively said.

So, I thought amusedly, you’ve most definitely called her that to her face and the predictable ensued. Slow learner, was he? Not that he’d been the first. It never ceased to amaze me that some people somehow ended up thinking Akua Sahelian would be an easy prey for barbs or bluster just because she did not have a Name while they did. It was like sticking you hand in a wolf’s maw and expecting the teeth not to wound because they weren’t a bear’s.

“That hawk,” Tancred said. “I’ve seen it before.”

“She saw you,” Beastmaster replied.

Since apparently Ranger’s education in Refuge had not extended to basic courtesies – and Gods, I’d meant that as a jab but now that I thought about it – I saw to the introductions myself.

“Tancred, this is the Beastmaster,” I said. “He’s a former pupil of the Lady of the Lake, and now a mercenary in the service of the Grand Alliance.”

Paid not in coin, which I would almost have preferred. The Beastmaster had instead bargained for certain rights and permissions, as well as guides to be provided to show him paths to ancient places in the depths of Brocelian Forest. Coin meant little to the Named of Refuge, used as they were to barter instead, and the relative modesty of the man’s demands meant he’d gotten near everything he’d asked for. He’d simply been too useful an asset to be carelessly tossed aside, and even with Refuge having effectively collapsed it wasn’t like he’d not had other places to go. The fighting in the Free Cities was far from over, despite General Basilia’s streak of victories.

“Greetings,” Tancred said, though he was frowning.

“Beastmaster, this is the Scorched Apostate,” I said. “He has agreed to abide by the Truce and the Terms.”

The older Named looked the younger up and down, seeing no longer the villain who’d caused the blaze in the distance but a boy a fourteen with most his face lost to burns and clothes that were well on their way to being rags. He was visibly unimpressed.

“Another one plucked out of the mud?” Beastmaster said with a hard bark of laughter. “At least this one has fight in him.”

“Not half an hour ago,” I mildly reminded him, “you were wary of him. Did you boldness perhaps travel by foot, to be arriving so late after the rest of you?”

His face darkened. I met his gaze squarely. Like Archer in the early days, he’d take any attempt at diplomacy as weakness and continue to push his luck. But he wasn’t Indrani, and I was not a Squire well out of her depth. I’d killed harder men then him and done it with a great deal less power than I could now call on. Confident in his strength as he might be, he’d be looking at the trail of corpses left in my wake and be forced to admit that were Named among the lot that would have butchered him without batting an eye. And so he backed down, or at least as close to that as his character could afford to let him.

“There is nothing left to hunt,” the Beastmaster said. “I take my leave of you.”

I could sting him further, but there would be no point to it save passing pleasure. Not that I’d let the retreat pass entirely without comment, lest he take that as relief on my part.

“By all means,” I replied. “The conversation was getting stale.”

Beastmaster’s lips thinned, but he strode away without speaking any further. I glanced at Tancred, who’d been following all of it with wide eyes and now was looking at me a little guiltily.

“I’m sorry,” the Scorched Apostate said. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

“Trouble?” I echoed.

“Won’t he complain to the Black Queen?” the boy asked. “You’ve made an enemy of a powerful Named on my behalf.”

He seemed genuinely worried, which was a little touching.

“You seem to have misunderstood the nature of my relationship with him,” I said, smoothing away any trace of my amusement.

Tancred looked appalled, and a little sickened.

“I am sorry, sir,” he said. “I did not mean to insult your lover.”

I choked. Beastmaster, of all men? Gods, I’d rather sleep with the Mirror Knight. The man might be an insufferable prick, but at least he bathed regularly.

“He’s not my lover, he’s my subordinate,” I said.

In the boy’s defence, he seemed pretty mortified by the mistake. His embarrassment passed soon enough, though, and left behind only the latest hint in a series of them that’d been growing the longer we spoke.

“Those priests and horsemen,” the young villain said. “They were Callowan. And yet they bowed to you.”

“So they did,” I agreed.

My hand reached within my cloak to extricate the long dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me so many years ago, then producing a satchel of Orense bitterleaf from another pocket. Sadly the bitterleaf enough had come to replace wakeleaf as my vice of choice as it was much easier to get your hands on this far north. The smoke was heavier than wakeleaf’s, and it was often mixed with sweeter herbs to take the edge of the sourness off, but it scratched the itch well enough when stuffed in a pipe.

“You implied you were a high officer of the Grand Alliance,” the Scorched Apostate continued. “But that’s not all you are, is it?”

I passed my palm over the pipe, flames flickering within through a twist of the Night, and pulled at the mouth a few times before spewing out a steam of smoke.

“Who are you?” Tancred asked.

“The Firstborn named me Losara, the Queen of Lost and Found,” I lazily replied. “To the Wasteland I was the Squire, the Carrion Lord’s sole apprentice. The fae knew me by many names, though the last I ever bore was that of Sovereign of Moonless Nights. On this side of the Whitecaps, though? It’s a simple name I am known by.”

“The Black Queen,” the boy whispered hoarsely. “The leader of the Woe.”

“Aye,” I said, with a crooked smile. “And now let’s find you some boots, because I refuse to keep wincing every time I look at your shoes.”

Chapter 2: Enlistment

“My lords and ladies, have I not always been a firm believer in second chances?”
– Dread Empress Malevolent II, announcing her second (and penultimate) invasion of Callow

This would be the fifth one I brought in, so to speak.

The first time I’d come across a new Named was maybe two weeks after the first proper battle that’d followed Callow entering the war, which one of my own soldiers had jauntily named the ‘Scrap at the Gap’ only to see the quip tumble down into the pages of history. It’d been our first use of a pharos device, and the proliferation of gates out of the Twilight Ways had allowed us to take the dead flatfooted. The soldiers under Volignac and Papenheim had rallied with burning rage in their bellies, and we’d turned the chase around on Keter: we’d forced the dead to retreat and even dented the Grey Legion.

At the time we’d believed we could reclaim all of Hainaut if we struck out  aggressively enough, so we’d concentrated on reclaiming the roads and strongholds of the western region of principality: the aim had been to establish a solid defensive line all the way to the border with Cleves and after solidifying root out the dead as we moved north in a Hainaut-wide curtain. No one had expected there to be anything still living in the region, for Keter had had the run of it for months, which was why when the Tartessos scouts had begun finding the remains of small undead raiding packs we’d expected a monster and not a half-feral woman in her seventies.

The Stained Sister had shattered Hakram’s shoulder and nearly blinded him when we’d gone out to find what might be lurking in the hills. She’d been one of Hanno’s, not mine, for even three days buried up to her neck in the corpses of everyone she’d ever known had not been enough to break her faith in Above. She’d listened anyway, when I laid down the law as it had been agreed on: so long as Named were willing to take up arms against Keter, they would fall under the aegis of the Truce and Terms.

Amnesty was offered to all willing to join the war against extinction, and peace would be kept between villains and heroes until the Dead King was no more. For those who were sworn to Above, the White Knight stood as representative in councils and first among equals. For those that dwelled in Below’s shadow, the same duties fell to me. It was a simple enough arrangement, in principle. In practice it’d been as about as horribly complex and strenuous a state if affairs as I’d expected it to be, and it’d been a very long time since I was last called an optimist.

I’d picked up two more during our offensive to take back the capital late last summer, the two of them pretty middling villains – one lowlife gambler who’d managed to survive by stealing other people’s luck and using it to avoid and escape the dead, the other a hedge mage who’d slit open her own brother’s throat to fuel an enchantment that made her invisible to Dead King’s armies but was now beset by his furious shade. Half-starved and almost pathetically grateful to be given shelter, the two of them had accepted the Truce and Terms without batting an eye. Unsurprisingly, getting them to toe the line afterwards had been more difficult.

The Pilfering Dicer now had nine fingers to illustrate the point that stealing the luck of my soldiers wasn’t something you could talk your way out of, but at least I’d pawned off the mage to Indrani for her roving band and gotten only praise about her since. The Dicer I’d sent instead to the First Prince, as his talents were best suited for the sort of battles she was fighting on our behalf. The fourth had been both the easiest and the worst, in some ways, for though he’d come to me instead of the other way around it would be very much a delusion to claim I had any sort of control over the Beastmaster.

As I could not help but be reminded when the man opened his eyes, breathing out deeply.

“There are still a few,” Beastmaster said. “Three or four. Less than earlier.”

I looked at the great blaze across the half-dug dry moat and grimaced. It was rather surprised anyone but the fresh Named was still living.

“And you didn’t consider helping them flee when you first noticed?” I replied, tone curt.

“And risk the ire of a green Named who could already do this?” Beastmaster snorted, gesturing towards the village.

The falcon that’d flown over the nameless village returned to its master’s shoulder, undisturbed at having leant him its eyes while it was still up there. The Named at my side might not be anywhere as proficient a combatant as someone like Indrani or Hanno, but his talents were surprisingly broad in application and it’d be a rough affair to put him down if it came to that: I’d seen some of the creatures the Beastmaster used as mounts, and none of them were beasts to take lightly even without a rider on their back. More than anything else the man had proved his worth as eyes up in the sky even in regions where scrying might be disrupted, as was becoming increasingly common. His stable of birds of prey currently had a better record at tracking people than our sorcery, since even young Names could sometimes disrupt scrying ritual. There was a reason I kept the man close, and it wasn’t his charm or sunny disposition.

“If he meant to kill them, they’d already be,” I said, tone grown sharp.

Matted hair pressed against the side of his eyebrow, thick with filth, the man shrugged apathetically. I wasn’t sure whether Beastmaster had been born a prick or he’d been taught the ancient ways of prickery by one of the finest practitioners of the art alive – the Ranger herself – but his utter unwillingness to risk so much as the tip of his toe for another’s sake had a way of raising my hackles. Even when Indrani had been fresh out of Refuge and the Lady’s tutelage she’d not been this… savagely unconcerned with everything that went on around her.

“Fine,” I said. “Tell my knights where the survivors are, they’ll help them out. Where’s the boy?”

“The House of Light,” Beastmaster said.

If this was going to be one of the religious ones, I really hoped it’d made it this far north that the Salian Conclave had struck down its decree naming me the Arch-heretic of the East. If I was lucky, they might even have heard that instead the Dead King had been proclaimed Arch-heretic Eternal. Lucky, huh. That’d be the fucking day. I whistled loudly, Grandmaster Talbot riding up without missing a beat or betraying irritation at the somewhat undignified summons.

“Beastmaster had eyes on survivors,” I told the knight. “Have some your people get them out. Our healers are fresh?”

“Good as, my liege,” Brandon Talbot replied. “Though I’ll caution once more they are not the finest of that trade.”

Yeah, the House Insurgent did tend to have that little defect. You couldn’t learn to burn with Light without missing out on the deeper secrets of healing, apparently. The Grey Pilgrim had once told me it was more a consequence of mindset than a hard limit of ability, but then there was no one alive who could use Light the way Tariq Fleetfoot did – not even Hanno, who had the shade of near every dead hero up in the library shelves of his head.

“Have them do what they can,” I grimly said.

Burns were nasty way to go.

“I’ll be seeing to the hero,” I added a moment later. “Hurry with the survivors, Talbot.”

The man nodded, and after a nod to the Beastmaster – who bothered himself to return it, though seemingly with great effort – I rode out. This place must have been a nice little village, once upon a time. How many people had lived here? One hundred, two hundred? Couldn’t be more than that. There was rarely such a thing as a proper street in places like this, even a dirt one, and this village was no exception. There were a tighter cluster of once-thatched houses now blazing up trails of smoke surrounding what might have once been a village market, but aside from that houses and shops had been raised rather haphazardly. They were scarcer on the outskirts, with the house nearest to the unfinished ditch standing entirely alone.

Zombie did not even need to jump over the trench, as a quick walk around the edge of what had been dug accomplished the same result rather less dramatically. It’d been poor sense, trying to dig a dry moat in so wide a circle. The villagers would have done better trying the same further in, or better yet raising a palisade instead. There was no way the work could have been finished in time to repel the dead, not with the numbers they had. What I’d been looking for was a mere three steps away from the edge of the finished ditch, slumped and still. I slowed my mount, frowning as I leant down to turn the corpse with the tip of my staff. At first glance the killing looked like it’d been done with Light, a hole torn right through the chest of the still-living woman, but the edges were too blackened. Charred.

Light was cleaner than this when used on living people, even those corrupted by curses and sorcery. Light and fire threaded together? Unusual. I would have thought someone more prone into coming a Name apt to wielding that if they’d been forged from a great fire, not the source of one. Hooves sounded against the ground behind me, a belated escort of knights. It was still a reflex for me to argue against the necessity of one, but there’d been twenty-three different assassination attempts against me in the last year. Few had even come close, but I’d been taught the virtues of having eyes other than mine and armoured bodies in the way of harm.

“I’ll be entering the House alone,” I spoke without turning. “I’ll not have numbers spooking our friend.”

“If you so order, my queen,” Grandmaster Talbot replied, the genteel disapproval in his tone clear.

I rolled my eyes. If the boy who’d done this still had fighting on his mind it was a lot more likely I’d end up protecting my escort than the other way around. I let the body I’d been examining slump back against the ground and spurred Zombie onwards. We passed through the outskirts briskly, though I slowed once more to verify the sort of injuries on other corpses were the same as the first before heading deeper in. Towards what should have been the market, as well as the small dirt path beyond it and led to the sole building in the village that was tall stone with a tiled slate roof: the House of Light. There the Named would be waiting, I knew, though I would not cross the threshold before figuring out exactly what it was I was dealing with here. Whether the boy was a hero, a villain or of those whose Role tread that narrow path where circumstance could cast you as either did not matter so much as the fact that he’d seemingly butchered an entire village.

If he was a hero, as the use of Light to kill would imply, he was unlikely to be the kind I got along with.

We closed in on the market, where the roar of the flames was almost deafening. Wary of entering the central grounds, where heat had hardened and cracked the muddy grounds, I led Zombie into lingering at the edge of the circle in one of the larger gaps. There’d been an inn among the lot of them, I noted, though it was hard to tell exactly how large it’d once been. It’d been hit hardest of all the village: the walls had been torn through with great blasts of Light, then the ceiling had fallen and caught fire. Even that rubble, though, was not enough to hide the sheer number of corpses there’d been inside. Those the flames had not yet devoured were close to the door, some even just out into the ‘street’. They, I saw, had been hit in the back. The Grandmaster of the Order of the Broken Bells caught up to me as I sat studying the burning inn, face betraying utter disgust what he beheld.

“Gods,” Brandon Talbot rasped out. “Even the children.”

Only one of those was untouched by flame, pale brown hair fanning her face like a veil but doing nothing to hide the black-rimmed hole that’d torn through the middle of her back. There were bones I could see in the embers and flame, though, that even blackened could not me mistaken for those of a grown man. And yet. Gods, and yet.

“Do you still remember that skirmish just a week away from the capital, last summer?” I quietly said. “What happened to that company of Volignac outriders, when they found that little village tucked away in the reeds.”

“The dead wearing the guises of children,” the bearded knight said, tone sickened. “I’d heard. I do not blame them for fleeing, Your Majesty. I am not certain if I could have done it myself, striking down infants with knight’s steel.”

And so Neshamah’s abominations would have torn you down from your horse and clawed out your throat, I thought, the way they did too many of those honourable outriders. Honour has no place on this field. Not against the kind of foe we face. My voice came out cool, a warning under the swirling columns of smoke.

“This is not a war, Brandon Talbot, where hurried judgements thrive. Do not forget that.”

Yet sometimes I wondered if that was not Below’s game, lurking behind everything else. Even if we won against Keter what kind of creatures would we have become when we emerged from the crucible? Already I’d grown wary of castigating the slaughter of children without knowing more of how it’d come to be, and we’d yet to even step into the Dead King’s lands. There was an old saying about the dangers of looking into the abyss that most peoples of Calernia held some form or another of. It’d been taught to me at the orphanage as ‘beware of matching horror’s eyes, lest it gaze back into yours’, one of those Old Miezan sentences turned into proverbs only nobles and priests ever seemed to quote. The thing, though, was that horror wasn’t sickness. It wasn’t something that tainted you from watching it or fighting it, like ink or filth or oil.

Horror, horror was a pit.

It was a deep dark hole the world pushed you into, remorseless. Sometimes the only way through was to wade through the deeps of it, do whatever it took, and there lay the trouble: even if you got to climb out, after, who you’d been in that pit would never leave you. Gods, it’d be reassuring if it was a taint that’d made the decision for you, but it wasn’t. Not really. It was just you, when you were scared and cold and desperate and didn’t want to die. That tended to be an uglier sight than devils, in my experience. Nowadays Calernia was being dragged into the pit, one inch after another, and there were nights where that thought kept me from sleeping. Lessons learned in the deeps of pit were long in being unlearned, if they ever were at all. What kind of a world was it, that Cordelia Hasenbach and I would end up raising out of the ashes of the old?

“I sometimes wonder if even heroes are worth it,” Grandmaster Talbot softly said, “if they must always be born of such grief.”

“Men murder men,” I said. “They rob and cheat and lie. From all I know we’ve done so since the First Dawn and will keep on doing it until the Last Dusk. Don’t blame the blade for the heat of the forge, Talbot.”

I bared my teeth.

“Blame the fucker who lit the furnace.”

Though in this case, I thought, the two might just be the same. My gaze had moved on from the inn, swept across the rest of this would-be marketplace, and a story had unfolded before my eyes. It’d begun with the inn. There had been a gathering there, with perhaps as many as a hundred packed tight inside. The Named had let loose his power, moved to violence by something, and then the nightmare had begun. The villagers had been packed too tightly: panic and stampede began to kill them just as much as the power unleashed. The place had caught fire, smoke and heat further stirring the pot, and even as some tried to escape through the back the Named had left by the front to strike down the few that’d successfully escaped. The relief inside was short-lived, as the roof collapsed not long after.

From there, the tale grew murkier. I’d wager that the noise and escapees had moved those few villagers with a weapon to try to kill the Named, and he’d reacted… harshly. I’d yet to catch sight of him going for anything but a killing blow. From there it looked like the boy had swept through the village, heading to wherever he saw movement and killing until there was no one left save for a handful of hidden survivors. He’d then limped back to the House of Light, either exhausted or wounded or both. I breathed out, almost comforted by what I’d grasped. I was not dealing with coldblooded thrill-killer or a broken bird grown dragon’s claws: wildly wandering around striking down those who moved in a panic was a mark of lapsed control. Lack of premeditation, too.

This was too much fear and too much power, not the first atrocity of a great monster in the making.

“You seem grieved, my queen,” the knight quietly said, voice almost drowned out by the blaze.

“Better it had been a monster, Talbot,” I tiredly said. “One of those I would have been able to use without guilt.”

Zombie pulled ahead, answering my mood before my knee gave the order. The breeze shifted: like raking claws, threads of smoke were blown across our path. We rode through and broke the ghostly shackles, flanked by the unforgiving blaze on both sides as my mount’s hooves broke the hardened mud beneath them. And then, quick as a stolen kiss, the heat and smoke were gone. We tread then the path to the House of Light, where flame had not reached. Yet blood had, for it was smeared over the wooden door left slightly ajar. I dismounted smoothly, though not so smoothly that I did not hiss in pain when my bad leg touched the ground, and lay a light slap against Zombie’s rump. She left to wander, gait unhurried, and a last look over my shoulder quelled any thought my knights might have held of following me inside. The Mantle of Woe trailing behind me, leaning on my staff of yew as I limped forward, I cracked the door open just enough to slip in and entered the temple.

There was a skylight. That was the first thing I noticed. Though a village like this was too poor to afford glass windows and so the walls had been full stone, a clever trick of architecture had allowed for the making of a skylight in what I’d taken to be just a lightly angled roof. And it had been cleverly done, too, as it was carved to allow for the sun’s journey through the day. The stone floor had been painted with scenes from the Book of All Things and different times of the day would see light fall on different parts. It had been most ingeniously built, for a temple in the middle of nowhere. Procerans: so much to hold in contempt, so much to admire. Light fell from above on the painted scene of Gods in black and white standing on both sides of the wan silhouette of a woman, theirs hands held out. A choice offered.

The drying trail of blood that’d trickled down all the wat to the woman was one of those vicious little ironies Creation was so fond of offering.

My staff struck the floor as I limped up, sounding obscenely loud in the silence of this place. At my sides roughly hewn benches, some of which had been toppled by struggle or negligence, only made it more palpable how empty the House was. At the very back, behind the painted scenes and the light, two bodies lay slumped. One was that of a priest, still clad in his pale robes. He was dead, a long cut-like wound opened from one shoulder to the opposite hip – and though it still bled blood, all the way to the painted stone, the outer edges of it were charred. Eyes wide open and unseeing of the sun pouring through the skylight, the back of his head lay against the altar he’d once tended to. Against the other side of the altar, bloodied and burned, lay the young boy who’d butchered more than a hundred souls beyond the gates of this place.

His face was a charred ruin. Stories, when they spoke of burns at all, delighted in telling of villains whose burn scars were disfiguring marks warning of wickedness. In a few there was even shoddy symbolism attempted: a face half-burned, the duality of a man’s soul, Good and Evil at war. The boy’s face just looked like someone had held it down against a fucking fire, and there was nothing elegant or symbolic about that. It was just pain and ugliness and pus, having devoured an uneven two-thirds of the face of a kid who couldn’t be more sixteen. It’d taken an eye with it, or close enough, as it had grown a clouded grey instead of whatever colour it’d once held. On the right side, on the part left untouched by fire, a lone blue eye and closely cut black hair were almost incongruously healthy compared to the rest of the young Named.

The boy wore a leather jerkin and woolen trousers, both so worn as to be near rags, and his shoes were little more than leather strips wrapped around a flat wooden sole. The wound I’d suspected he might have proved to be a knife slash on his leg, though not near anything that’d kill him. It’d still gone untreated and soaked the wool red. Not that infection was likely to kill him, now that he was Named. It was exhaustion, pain and horror keeping him down.

“Are you to be my punishment?” the boy rasped out. “I have sinned and do not deny it.”

Gods, I thought, stricken. He sounded so very resigned.

“Have you?” I said, making myself sound only mildly interested. “Tell me about it.”

“I am-”

“That is yet to be determined,” I mildly said, cutting in. “Tell me about the killings.”

The Alamans boy – and he must be that, for his accent in Chantant had that lakeside twang to it – forced himself to focus. His blue eye fluttered and the cloudy one turned to me as well, some thought returning to the gaze. He watched me and I returned the look, leaning on my dead staff of yew.

“You are not,” the Named said, “an angel.”

My answering smile was thin and sharp.

“Not,” I agreed, “in any sense of the word.”

“Who are you, then?” the boy rasped out.

“The judge, child,” I said. “And if comes to that, the other two as well.”

The Named laughed, though the convulsion twisted him in pain.

“A fitting end,” he said. “I took their lives, stranger. I blinded and burned until nothing was left. How do you judge that?”

“Sloppy,” I said, tone cool. “The inn was the correct place to begin, but to let loose while you were still inside? Sloppy is almost too kind a word. Packed that tight, all it took was a stroke of luck and any one of them might have caved your head in. You should have left, barred the doors and only then started the flames.”

The boy’s face twisted with rage at my indifference.

“I couldn’t know if they were all-”

He stopped, biting his tongue. Ah, I thought. There it is. He’d wanted me to splatter him across the stones, justice swiftly done and harshly meted. But there’d been something more about this, a part still obscured. And where gentleness would unearth nothing this wounded child wanted buried, calculated callousness might just bait it out.

“You’re not from here, are you?” I mused. “You’ve got that lakeside twang, like you’re always chewing. It’s a long way south, for a boy of no great means.”

Lack of boots meant his family had never been even remotely wealthy. Refugee, it had me guessing. From one of the later waves, long after soldiery had ceased escorting civilians south.

“What does it matter?” the boy asked.

“Means either you came with someone,” I said, “or you were capable of making it alone.”

“Did you not see my work outside, stranger?” the Named mocked.

Confirmed, then, that the power wielded there was something he’d had for some time.

“I saw your convulsing terror burned across a few hundred people,” I agreed. “So what is it that had you so scared, boy?”

The Named grit his teeth.

“I am-”

“Meat, until I deem it otherwise,” I interrupted once more, tone gone cold. “So speak, boy.”

I saw anger, in eyes both blue and clouded, and anger was an anchor. I knew that as bone deep as I knew my limp and the sound Liesse had made when it broke. It would keep him grounded in the here and now, at least long enough for our talk.

“It was too late,” he snarled. “The disease was in them, same as it was in Maman. And I told them, told them I could see it and they needed to send for a real priest, but they just wouldn’t listen-”

His mouth closed with a snap.

“I do not beg for my life,” the boy said. “I do not quibble nor defend.”

And it fell into place, just like that. The ditch begun but abandoned, the way so many of them had been gathered in the same place.

“They were going to leave,” I said.

I saw I had the right of it in the boy’s eyes, even if he denied me an answer. A makeshift caravan of some sort, most likely, headed further south for one of the great refugee camps. When I’d last gotten a report on the seeded plague from the Grey Pilgrim, he’d mentioned his worry that there might yet be carriers in who the disease would be sleeping. Lying in wait. He’d caught the infiltrators headed for Brabant himself, but not even heroes could be everywhere. If the boy was right and the villagers had slipped further south without being caught? Thousands dead, should we be lucky. And we’d be putting out that fire for months instead of heading north as we needed to, losing a good chunk of the war season. This might not be the only village where it was attempted, I thought. If it was attempted all, I also considered, and the boy did not simply go mad with enough will it became… more.

I’d need Akua to study the bodies as well few survivors we’d pulled out. More than that, if this was the plan within the Dead King’s plan then I needed to put out a warning there might be other villages like this oute there. Villages that’d not had the mixed of luck of being stumbled upon by a Named.

“I couldn’t let them,” the boy said. “And they weren’t real miracles, I know the priests said so, but they worked.”

My gaze moved to the priest, dead and cold, the wound that was bloody but hardly mortal. If you could heal, anyway, use the Light. The boy was no natural wielder of Light, I realized, smiled upon by the Heavens and bestowed some manner of searing holy flame. But he did have a power he’d been born with. An eye for recognizing a magically seeded disease, the ability to wield highly concentrated light and flame in short bursts while losing control of it upon release? Those were the marks of a wild talent, a born mage. And one of great power, to have torn through a village while so unschooled. How badly you must have wanted to be anything but a mage, I thought, for the only magic you ever used to be such a close mimicry of the Light. It was heartbreaking. That he’d been warped into this, that he’d been broken after even that and then forced to look a truth in the eye: he had the power to fight back against horror, just this once.

So long as he was willing to make a horror of his own.

“It was,” I mused, “an easy mistake to make.”

The blue eye fixed me with burning contempt.

“It was not,” the boy replied. “And so mistake is either too feeble a word, or entirely mistaken.”

“I was speaking,” I replied, “of the mistake I made. I came in here, you see, expecting you to be one of Hanno’s.”

The Saint of Swords come again, my mind whispered. Necessity that bleeds the grip, the hard deed that keeps the night at bay. The bottom of my staff whispered against the stone as I limped forward and the young Named tensed, though truth be told he’d be too exhausted to put up a fight if taking his life was my intent. Instead, leaning against the yew I knelt in front of him – and, miracles of miracles, the pain in my leg was barely a whisper. Meeting the mismatched gaze, the clouded eye and burning blue, I reached out and gently tipped up his chin.

“My mistake,” I quietly repeated. “No, from the beginning you were one of mine.”

The gentleness, I thought, was what unmade him. A shiver went through his frame, turning into a tortured convulsion and only then a ragged sob tore its way out of his throat.

“I’m a monster,” the boy wept. “Gods forgive, oh Gods forgive me.”

My hand went down to his shoulder, comforting.

“Of course you are,” I gently said. “That’s what makes you one of mine. We’re the wicked ones, you see.”

“I don’t want to be wicked,” he rasped. “I just- I just couldn’t…”

“We never can,” I softly told him. “That’s how we end up wicked, I think. Because we can’t stand to be good, if it also means we must let it go.”

“I didn’t want to kill them,” the boy whispered, “but what else could I do? If I’d had the Light, the real one, I could have healed them. Helped them. Instead…”

I drew back my hand and leaned on the yew I’d received in the depths of Liesse, born anew under twilit sky. I rose, the light behind me drawing the eye to the snaking crimson blood of the dead priest on painted stone. You are a child, I thought.

“That is not the gift you were given,” I said.

“My gift is death,” he spat.

“Aye,” I said. “So it is. Either accept that truth or die under the weight of your utter inconsequence.”

The boy-Named flinched. He had, perhaps, expected comfort. Maybe a better woman would have offered it.

“The corpses smouldering outside were good, as much as most people are ever good,” I said. “What do you think sets you apart from them?”

“Death,” he said.

“Will,” I corrected. “The belief, deep down, that you know what is right and you’ll see it done.”

He hesitated.

“It is the mark of Named,” I said. “And why, even now, some part of you wonders – wasn’t I right? Didn’t it need to be done?”

“Did it?” the boy asked, prayed, pleaded.

You are a child, I thought once more, almost ashamed.

“What’s your Name?” I asked.

“I am Tan- no, that is not the sort of name you meant at all, is it?” the boy whispered.

His fingers clenched.

“I am the Scorched Apostate,” the boy said.

I nodded in approval.

“Come along, then,” I said. “You have much to learn, and this war won’t fight itself.”

I did not wait for an answer, simply turning around and limping away without once looking back. One, two, three heartbeats: the Scorched Apostate dragged himself up to his feet and followed behind me, quickening his steps to catch up. You are a child, I thought once more. But we’re in the pit, now, and if Keter is to fall then this is the least of the horrors I’ll need to stomach.

We left the House of Light to its dead priest.

Neither of us looked back.

Chapter 1: Recommence

“In the conduct of war offence is commonly preferable to defence; for in attacking a general acts according to their own designs, while in defence they act according to the designs of the enemy.”
– Extract from the ‘Ars Tactica’, famed military treatise of Dread Emperor Terribilis the First

The afternoon sun stared down blearily at our backs, banners flapping in the wind as we watched the soldiers on the field below. These were good flat grounds; my men had had time to set up and there were fewer than five hundred undead facing them: this was as close to a safe skirmish as we’d ever get in a war like this one.

I had no intention of wasting such a rare opportunity even if it’d been tragedy that dropped it into my lap. Hakram himself had handpicked the lines that made up the formation of three hundred legionaries, with an eye to ensuring they were greenhorns – as much as the Army of Callow still had any of those – instead of veterans. We wouldn’t always have the luxury of well-trained soldiers to draw on, and if the assault companies were to be a success on the northern fields then we’d need to plan for the lowest fare of what we’d be able to field and not the finest. Even after only two months of training, though, my countrymen did me proud. Spears were hammered into the ground at a sharp angle, as if a line of long stakes, and behind them the first rank stepped forward in orderly manner: greatshield-bearing soldiers in heavy plate and short swords, a veritable wall on legs. Behind them the second rank set up, soldiers in mail coats handling halberds and the long hammers known as ‘raven beaks’. The third and fourth ranks wielded the same mixture, though with heavier lean towards halberds, and behind them were kept in reserve our specialists.

We might not have the mage numbers the Legions of Terror could boast of, but we more than made up for that in priests. The House Insurgent had absolutely no qualms about using Light as much to burn undead as their more traditional colleagues used it for healing.

The commanding officer of our trial assault formation was a young man from Ankou by the name of Algernon Beesbury, who’d swiftly climbed up the ranks by virtue of having both a solid tactical acumen and a facility with languages. He’d been fluent in Chantant before even enrolling, as it happened, and served as one of General Hune’s favourite vanguards during the Proceran campaign only to make it to tribune rank shortly after the Princes’ Graveyard. Adjutant spoke well of his wits, too, which was even higher praise than Hune’s several official commendations as far as I was concerned. Tribune Beesbury was not disappointing me so far, as he ordered a spreading of the formation when the undead pack began to splinter. The zombies would keep moving swiftly and purposefully so long as the Binds within their number remained unbroken, though compared to the skeleton waves I found the fleshier undead to have a certain… feral way about them. Their bite tended to be poisonous, too. The process that saw zombies rise anew made their gums bleed as they died and keep suppurating blood and pus for weeks after they were dead.

Though it might take a while to kill, foul blood in a wound was poison all the same.

“How many Binds in the lot, do you think?” I said.

“I’d say no more than five, Your Majesty,” Grandmaster Brandon Talbot replied.

Keen-eyed as he watched the unfolding skirmish through his open visor, the commander of the Order of the Broken Bells was careful not to bring his own mount too close to mine. Zombie liked to snap at other horses and given that she smelled like Winter and death it tended to unnerve even Callowan war mounts. Glancing at the man I marvelled that his beard was still so neatly cut: the aristocrat seemed to make it a point of pride to remain nobly groomed even when out on campaign as we’d been for half a month now.

“They are looking pretty sloppy,” I conceded, the two of us eyeing the dead as they closed the last of the distance.

When there were more Binds the necromancy binding the dead together was… tighter according to Masego, though he’d gotten a little lost in a greater metaphor about how the Dead King used necromancy entirely when explaining it. Regardless, in practice the presence of more Binds allowed those same undead more control over their lesser brethren, and finer control as well. Given that the Binds still had soul bound to their dead frames, hence the name, that tended to mean better tactics for the pack than simply rushing at whatever living were closest. Talbot and I kept our eyes on the zombies as they hit the outer line. To my pleasure, just as they’d been meant to they staked themselves on the spears. Not all of them did, for some avoided the jutting steel or simply tumbled forward with great enough speed they either broke the spear or ripped free of the point, but it broke the dead’s momentum across the line.

“It would not work as well against skeletons,” Captain Karolina Leisberg said, her Chantant accented in that attractively sharp Lycaonese way.

Where Grandmaster Talbot sat mounted at my right, the Iron Prince’s representative sat the same at my left. Prince Klaus Papenheim had proved very much interested in our attempts to adjust war doctrine to the realities of war against Keter, to the extent that he’d sent one of the captains of his personal guard to have a look at this skirmish after I’d given him advance notice it would be taking place. That and I assumed he’d wanted eyes he trusted assessing how much damage the Dead King’s latest nasty surprise had managed to sow behind our main lines. Gods, we were just lucky Tariq had caught the infiltrators before they made it into Brabant. If the fucking things had made it into one of those cramped refugee camps instead of being forced to prey on the isolated towns and villages of southern Hainaut instead, the damage would have been staggering in scope.

“It’ll still slow them by simple virtue of being in the way,” I reminded Captain Leisberg. “The object is to sap their momentum before the lines hit, not score kills.”

We’d learned the hard way that a wave of armoured skeletons could topple even a proper Legion shield wall by simple virtue of being so damned heavy, if it got enough room for a proper charge.

“And it seems to be working as intended,” Brandon Talbot noted.

Eyes returning to the skirmish, I caught sight of exactly what he meant. I’d missed the first exchange, but the results left in its wake spoke for themselves: a long line of zombies, pulped or hacked down by the polearms and long hammers while the line of greatshields anchored against the ground effortlessly bounced off the few dead that made it close to enough to scrabble at the wall of steel. The dead slowly forced their way behind the line of jutting spears but they were repeatedly butchered as they did until the mangled corpses were tall enough a pile that some of the zombies began using it as a way to leap above. There the halberds proved their worth over the raven beaks, a forest of jutting points that speared the few leapers clean through. Tribune Beesbury barked out an order and whistles were sounded by the sergeants. The mages and priests at the rear lashed out with flame and Light, providing cover to the rank of greatshields as it rose and retreated five paces before setting down again. They were adding depth to the killing floor to avoid further leapers, I noted approvingly. Hune’s man was living up to her commendations.

“A pack is splitting off from the rest,” Captain Leisberg pointed out.

Eyes flicking to the side of the skirmish, I saw the Lycaonese was right. Maybe thirty zombies and what must have been a Bind within the lot were peeling off from the slaughter on the plain, heading southwest. There were villages there, as I recalled, though not large ones – likely the reason they’d not been hit in the initial wave of contamination when two neighbouring small towns had. The infiltrators had aimed for numbers above all else, perhaps understanding that weaponless zombies would require as much to make a dent in a line of proper soldiery.

“Shall I send out one of the Order’s wings, my queen?” Grandmaster Talbot offered.

I mulled on that a moment, even as the assault formation on the plains continued its methodical savaging of the remaining undead. This might be the least of the infantry the Dead King could field, but I was still rather encouraged by the day’s results.

“That village we sent Lord Tanja to, what was it called again?” I asked.

“Pierreplate, I believe,” Brandon Talbot replied.

“About half a bell away,” I said. “And the one Lady Osena was meant to get moving was maybe another half bell further west.”

“The Levantines should be returning, then,” Captain Leisberg said, quickly catching on to my meaning.

Lord Razin Tanja, who was now truly the Lord of Malaga instead of merely the heir designate – his kin back in Levant had found a technicality that allowed him to claim the title without physically returning to the Dominion – should already have been back, truth be told. I rather suspected he’d waited for Lady Aquiline to finish covering the grounds I’d assigned her and catch up to him before heading back together. I was not one to grudge a young man his fancy for a lithe-limbed whirlwind of swagger and knives, especially when said whirlwind had legs like Aquiline Osena’s, but if Tanja was under the impression that he could use our hours on the field to flirt with his betrothed he was in dire need of instructional sparring with Adjutant.

“Send a pair of riders to warn them, just in case they got sloppy with their own scouting,” I ordered Talbot, eyes following the fleeing undead.

The Levantines, particularly the Tartessos foot, were actually better hand at this sort of thing than any of mine save for goblins so it was likely an unnecessary warning. Still, why indulge in a gamble when a sure thing was close at hand?

“By your will, Your Majesty,” the grandmaster said, bowing his head.

He guided his horse away, leaving to pass along my command, but I kept my attention on the undead. They were using the shoddy dirt road headed southwest instead of just running across broken terrain, I noted, so there was definitely a Bind doing their thinking for them. Not that it’d help them much, given the region and season. The borderlands between southern Hainaut and northern Brabant were a strange place, to my eyes: flat stony plains were broken up by valley-like dips in the ground where greenery grew almost aggressively, though the part I’d grown to despise was the damned bogs. They were everywhere, though they always spread like the clap in an army camp after winter snows melted. For a few months every year the entire region became the favourite piss bowl of the Gods, which made campaigning around it deeply unpleasant. The only part that was mildly tolerable about the bogs was the way so many birds flocked to them, which made for good hunting and a change of fare when catches were made. The road southwest was half-flooded by such a bog, which had lapped up at a turn already quite cramped up against a rocky hill.

It was half-expectantly that I watched that narrow passage as the dead neared it. If I’d been trying to lay an ambush around here, that was where I would have done it. Painted faces crested the hill and a heartbeat later a volley of javelins scythed through the flank of the zombie pack. Wouldn’t be enough to put any of those down for good, but it’d pin and tumble quite a few as well as disrupt their ‘formation’. I was not the only one looking, though, I noted.

“That’d be the Tartessos foot,” I told Captain Leisberg. “Those call themselves slayers in honour of the Silent Slayer, the heroine that founded the ruling line of the city.”

Lady Aquiline herself claimed direct descent from the woman, and for all I knew it might even be true. I’d never seen any people half so obsessed with Blood as the Levantines, save for actual Praesi blood mages.

“They are wearing almost as much paint as armour, and most of that leather,” Karolina Leisberg skeptically said.

Lycaonese, I had found, held what I could only deem a very reasonable sort of respect for the virtues of putting on good steel armour whenever it was even remotely possible to get away with it. The way some of the Levantines disdained it was utterly baffling to them, and unfortunately that was one of the least contentious ways their cultures seemed to rub each other wrong. The way the Dominion held single combat as a glorious thing, in particular, had a way of earning aggressive contempt from the northerners. It was, I’d come to believe, the difference between a people that held war as an honourable duty and one that held war as honourable, period. There were no frills to Lycaonese ways: if it worked, it did not matter how ugly or unfair or harsh the way of getting it done was. Captain Leisberg hadn’t come across an honour duel, at least. Those always made the Lycaonese fall into black temper. There was a reason I’d ensured they were encamped at opposite ends whenever I could even though it was a headache to organize. These days I sometimes felt more like a juggler than a general or a queen. And the moment I drop a single ball, I thought, people will die.

It was a sobering thought, and the source of much of my patience these days.

“Slayers are monster-killers by training, not line infantry,” I told her. “They’re used to fighting things that consider plate little more than the crunchy part of the meal. I expect that when we finally get the Unravellers they’ll be the ones fielding them for our front.”

The woman’s eyes brightened, for I’d said the magic word: Unravellers. The sheer intensity of the lust the Lycaonese held for those artefacts surprised me almost every time, though perhaps it shouldn’t. We’d been fighting the alchemical monstrosities of the Dead King for not even two years while their kind had been the proverbial rock in Keter’s boot for centuries.

“I’d heard the Workshop deemed them unfeasible,” Captain Leisberg said.

Unfeasible wasn’t exactly the right word. The first few attempts at making artefacts that disrupted necromancy had either been violently explosive failures or run into what Masego deemed a ‘proportioning’ problem, namely that those first attempts simply didn’t have enough sorcery or Light in them to successfully unravel something like a wyrm or a beorn. Our people had eventually succeeded at making an artefact that could hold that much power, but it’d been a material solution. As in, the materials used in the making of that thing were about as expensive as arming two cohorts in full Legion standard. That’d been bad enough, but they’d also been quite rare: in particular, the kind of eldritch lumber they’d used grew only in the southern stretches of the Waning Woods. Which meant importing it in large quantifies was a half-baked daydream. The Belfry had since claimed a breakthrough in figuring out a structural workaround, though, and fresh plans had been passed along to the Workshop a month past. We’d learn if they were truly functional soon enough, at least in principle.

I’d only venture to call it a true success after shoving a spear inside one of those fucking undead dragons collapsed the whole thing, instead of requiring three Named and a full mage contingent to get that job done.

“Might not be, after all,” I said. “Though I’ll not count the chickens before they’re ha- Razin Tanja, you shit.”

It’d been a beautiful little ambush, pretty as a pearl: javelins first, then a dozen Malaga foot had emerged to block the road, raising a shield wall the zombies promptly threw themselves against. The slayers had leapt into the chaotic melee and scythed through the lesser undead with almost laughable ease, Lady Aquiline Osena among them. Quick enough all that was left from the massacre was the Bind that’d led the pack. They should have killed it first, by my reckoning, since the zombies would regress to almost animal thoughtlessness after it was broken, but the reason why they hadn’t had became rather clear when Razin Tanja stepped forward in chainmail and leather, a hooked sword in hand. The Levantines formed a circle around the two, those with shields in front, and took to shoving the undead back into the middle of the makeshift battle circle when it strayed too far from the Lord of Malaga.

“Foolish,” the Lycaonese captain said at the sight, and I grunted in agreement.

Not that Aquiline was any better when it came to this sort of stuff: if anything she was much, much worse. The Grey Pilgrim had made clear that the two lordlings were to listen to my orders, so at least they usually obeyed when I was there to keep an eye on them, but when I wasn’t this sort of inanity still cropped up with depressing regularity. It was like someone had chopped out the part of their brains where common sense was and replaced it with glorious single combat instead. Gods, I supposed I should be glad at least they weren’t stabbing each other. Apparently the sole Dominion aristocrat killed at the Graveyard – Razin’s own father – had not been slain by one of mine or the Tyrant’s but instead by the Lord of Alava. I was rather glad that one had ended up on Malanza’s front, even if he’d been somewhat easy on the eyes. On the plains the assault company under Tribune Beesbury was cleaning up the last of the zombies with admirable thoroughness and without much trouble, so I decided the Levantines were due the first visit. I could personally praise Beesbury and his three hundred for their work later.

“Grandmaster Talbot,” I called out.

Zombie moved under the pressure of my knees almost eagerly, and I could tell she was itching for a flight. I patted her mane fondly.

“Later,” I told her.

The leader of the Broken Bells was not long in attending me after the summons, and as a sign that he was getting used to my ways he’d come riding with twenty knights and my banner instead of a courtier’s manners.

“Good man,” I smiled at him, then turned to my knights. “Lord Tanja seems intent on putting on a spectacle. Wouldn’t it be poor manners to fail to indulge him?”

There were a few smiles, and even a laugh. Though Levant’s soldiery was not hated among my people, neither was it liked. It had not been forgot that a campaign had been fought against them in Iserre, or that they’d been part of the Grand Alliance back when it was still just a pack of hounds baying for fresh meat. Callowan meat, at least in part. I flicked a questioning glance at Captain Leisberg, to see if she wanted to accompany us, but she shook her head. With a courteous dip of mine I took my leave, staff of yew laid across Zombie’s back as we took the lead on our ride down the hill. I kept a brisk pace and made no pretence of hiding my approach, so the Levantines saw us long before we came. Tanja finished his opponent before I got close enough to hail him, a clean blow that carved through the Bind’s spine under the throat. The head, still wrapped in leathery but seemingly living flesh, tumbled to the ground. The Levantines let out a cheer. Hiding my irritation, I spurred Zombie onwards quicker, not slowing as I came upon the ring of soldiers surrounding the victorious young Lord of Malaga.

The warriors had to hastily scatter out of my way and instead of pulling on my reins I let Zombie enter the ring at a trot, circling Tanja. So maybe I wasn’t hiding my irritation that much, all things considered. By the time Zombie had slowed to a halt, there was only silence surrounding me.

“Hail, Black Queen,” Lady Aquiline called out.

“We’ll get to you in a moment, Lady Osena,” I flatly replied.

Lord Razin Tanja looked up at me with defiant eyes, his tanned skin and coal-black hair framed tight by his helm. It wouldn’t do to upbraid him like a child in front of his own men and his betrothed, I reminded myself, even though it was tempting to allow myself to spit out a few scathing lines that’d cut him down to size. On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to simply let this go either. He and Osena had been testing me more often lately, as if pushing to see how much I’d take from them. If I gave them an inch now, they’d be reaching for another before day’s end. I stared down the Lord of Malaga without blinking until, reluctantly, he opened his mouth.

“Hail, Black Queen,” Razin Tanja greeted me.

“And to you, Lord Razin,” I calmly replied. “Now, would you care to explain to me why you were tormenting what is most likely the soul of an ancient crusader bound by dark sorcery into unwilling service to the Hidden Horror?”

Ah, the embarrassed silence of someone who’d not quite considered the implications of what they were doing. How nostalgic. I could see why people had done this to me so often, if it was always this darkly satisfying to be standing on this side of the exercise.

“Well?” I prompted amicably. “Do go on. I’m sure your reasons will be… enlightening.”

That was just twisting the knife but then I wasn’t Razin’s mother. I had absolutely no interest in caring for his bruises, be they on his skin or his pride.

“The Volignac companies are already back at camp, last I heard,” I casually said. “Because they saw no need to play around with corpses, they’re having first crack at the ale rations that just got shipped in from Brabant.”

I’d ordered some set aside for the assault formation too, as either reward or comfort for the way the skirmish went, but I saw no pressing need to mention that. Knowledge they’d be laying claim only to what the Procerans saw fit to leave behind went over with the Levantines about as well as I’d figured it would. There wasn’t an army on the continent that didn’t run on drink and brothels, save perhaps the one we were pitted against.

“It was a good kill,” Lady Aquiline said, rallying to the defence of her betrothed.

Gallantly, some might have argued. Some but not me. My eyes flicked to her painted face, hardening.

“Made by a man half a bell late on his march back to camp,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have anything to say about that, Lady Osena?”

Embarrassment once more, and matching silence. And she should be damn well be embarrassed: they’d been sent out to ensure none of the zombie-makers had gotten or could get at villages, not to mess about. And considering they’d gone out with two hundred warriors each and there couldn’t be more than fifty here with them right now, they couldn’t even pretend with the parchment-thin claim they’d linked up for safety in numbers. For now, I’d generously assume the other warriors were left behind to be thorough in ensuring the safety of the evacuating Proceran civilians, though I’d be sure to ask pointed questions about this later. I was making no friends among the Levantines here by asserting my authority so bluntly, but then I didn’t need to be liked by these people. Only obeyed, and they’d been growing lax about that lately.

“Return to camp,” I said, eyes sweeping across the ranks. “I’ll expect a distinct lack of detours, this time.”

It felt like I was spanking unruly children, which was all the more galling for not being entirely untrue. Neither of them were all that far from me in age, though sometimes I felt more like tired old Klaus Papenheim than the woman of twenty-three I truly was. I could understand why Tariq wanted me to keep an eye on them, too, to both meanings of that. For all their sloppy habits and general recklessness, the two Levantine nobles made for a very charismatic pair when they weren’t straining my patience. Both brave and skilled at arms, and while Aquiline was a finer blade and the most popular of the two it was Razin I’d found had the firmer grasp on politics. If the Grey Pilgrim was in the market for successors to keep the Dominion stable after he died, then these two were by far his best bet from the current crop of the Blood.

Sadly, this did not in any way make them less of a trial to deal with.

I didn’t linger around the Levantines any longer, guiding Zombie out of the battle circle as my knightly escort and Grandmaster Talbot fell in. The man who’d once been the heir to Marchford rode up to my side as we returned to the hill that’d served as our earlier vantage point.

“The Levantine fondness for duels truly is a tawdry habit,” Brandon Talbot said. “It has no place in proper war-making.”

“Duels are useful when they can be used to demoralize the enemy,” I disagreed.

I’d myself duelled in the past, after all, and sent others to do the same on my behalf. Usually I’d done it to kill a Named foe before they could inflict great losses on my soldiers, or eliminate a titled fae before they could unleash a large working, but there was a reason I didn’t use that method unless there was no other choice. Fighting on the front bound your soldiers to you in ways that could be hard to explain – it’d been my willingness to fight on the frontlines that’d first won me loyalty in the Fifteenth – but there was a difference between that and seeking out every duel there was to be had out there. One was sharing risk, the other courting death. Even the Lady of the Lake picked her fights and fled when they turned south on her.

“The dead have no morale,” the Grandmaster said, and I didn’t disagree. “Which makes all this posturing rather puerile.”

“Lord Tanja is young and in need of proving himself to his warriors,” I said. “Lady Osena’s bloodline is famous for such duels, so there is a reputation to uphold.”

“Facts which did not seem to hinder you in the slightest from disciplining them,” the older man said, sounding faintly amused.

“Because if they pull something like that against a Revenant after these little victories let them think they’re champions, they’ll get themselves slaughtered like lambs,” I grimly said. “And while it might be a fool’s errand to expect Levantines to discard centuries of customs, I’ll expect them to at least bend those to accommodate the realities of the war for survival we’re fighting.”

Neshamah could afford toss fifty thousand Binds in a pit and forget about them until Last Dusk, if he felt like it. If half the visions the Sisters shared with me of the drow front in the deep north were accurate, then that was the kind of force he was willing to throw away on a fucking distraction. On the other hand, if either of the Dominion nobles got themselves killed the Grand Alliance had a damned mess on its hands. Whether it was about succession, command of their armies or even the casting of blame that’d no doubt follow there would be no part of it that wouldn’t end up a nasty turn. So when I saw them playing duellist with undead, you might say my temper rose just a tad at the sight. Even in the wildest streaks of my days as Squire I’d never been reckless for recklessness’ sake, much less acted so blithely unaware of the stakes at play.

“Doesn’t matter,” I finally sighed. “They’re only in my charge until we’ve swept the region clean. We’ll be moving on to other things afterwards, and the Pilgrim can shepherd his own cats.”

“Another day’s march south and we’ll have reached into Brabantine lands proper,” the bearded knight said. “We ought to be encountering the first of Prince Étienne’s forward patrols come morning, and soon after our duty will be discharged.”

“Looking forward to a stay in a proper city?” I teased.

“A warm bath,” Brandon Talbot reverently said, “and food not cooked in a cauldron. The Heavens smile upon us indeed.”

I chuckled. It was funny, the way months in the field could turn the simplest of things into luxuries. I was, myself, looking forward to finally getting a decent drink as well as a full night’s sleep: wherever lay diplomacy also lay quality wine and wards good enough I wouldn’t need to sleep with one eye open. Hanno was due back from out west, too, which would be nice. It was always easier when he was there to foist off chores o– share the burdens with, I’d of course meant, in an absolutely equal and unbiased manner.

“Let’s get this business over with, then,” I said. “I’ve had about as much as I can stomach of spring in these parts and the walking dead do nothing to improve the scenery.”

“I’d hardly noticed a difference,” Brandon Talbot drily said.

Let it not be said that one of my people had ever willingly let an occasion to rag on Procer pass them by. We returned to the hilltop only to learn that Captain Leisberg had already taken her leave and headed back to camp, from where she’d be changing mounts and riding straight for Prince Klaus’ forces further north by the main roads. While I was somewhat irked she’d not stayed around long enough to discuss her impressions of the day’s skirmish and the performance of the assault formation, she was not under my command and owed me nothing save perhaps the occasional courtesy. Odds were I’d need to have that talk with the Iron Prince himself, which truth be told I hardly minded. The First Prince’s uncle was an old soldier of a breed that was deeply familiar to me: I’d spent most of my life either serving them drinks, fighting them or leading them in battle. If the man had known a few rebel songs and told a story about some wound he took during the Conquest, it might have been enough to make me homesick.

It was brisk business after my return, organizing the return of our soldiers to camp and sending out riders to check on the forces we’d sent further out. While we’d be keeping a force of knights here in case an undead force had slipped our notice and reinforcements were needed by one of our detachments, there was no real need for me to stay here to supervise in person. Grandmaster Talbot was perfectly capable of handling this without my breathing down his neck. Consequently, I’d been preparing to ride away with an escort when Zombie suddenly shivered in discomfort. She’d only ever done that around a single man, which meant it was no deep mystery as to who had finally emerged from the wilds again. It was hard to tell how old the man was, or where he came from, though Indrani had once told me he was only a few years older than her.

Between the tan and the filth, though he could have been from anywhere from twenty to forty and passed as anything but Soninke. I’d expected a Named of his bent to be athletic, but instead he was built like a bear: tall and broad-framed but undeniably heavyset. His clothes were thick leather, save for the fur boots and the beautiful hood he always kept up: lined in ermine and made of fox, it was beautifully sown and it seemed a waste it would be pressed up against long matted brown hair. A long knife and a hatchet at his side, the man might have passed for a warrior of some sort if not for the most eye-catching thing about him: the two great falcons seated on his shoulders, watching me with unnatural poise.

“Beastmaster,” I greeted him, turning and betraying no hint of surprise at his sudden presence.

“Black Queen,” the man rasped out. “I have found you a quarry.”

My eyes narrowed. I’d not expected there to truly be one born from this crisis, as we’d been swift in crushing it. It was worrying it had anyway, even though I’d known the possibility was there. Events were quickening at brisker a pace than even our worst predictions.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“He,” the Beastmaster said. “East.”

“Where east?” I impatiently said.

“It will be easy to find,” the Beastmaster replied, hacking out a laugh. “It is the only village on fire.”

Shit, I thought. Couldn’t I, just the once, get an easy Named to bring into the fold?

Prologue

“And so Dread Emperor Heinous thus addressed his court: ‘Are we not rulers of devils and dead, princes among usurpers? Why then should we suffer another to call himself king of our demesne?’ All agreed in this, and so war was declared upon Keter.”
– Extract from the Scroll of Vainglory, thirty-ninth of the Secret Histories of Praes (destroyed by order of Dread Empress Maleficent II, only partial texts remain)

They’d had three months of reprieve, to the day.

Prince Otto Reitzenberg, who his people yet called Redcrown, had prepared for the hour the truce would end without pause or rest. He’d slept as little as he could, and when he did he’d found himself plagued by nightmares. Unable to meet the solemn and silent faces of his sisters, of his father, of the all the Reitzenbergs that’d died keeping dawn from failing for one more night as they stared at him unblinking. All the shades he had come so close to failing. The Morgentor, the last fortress still in the hands of the living in Twilight’s Pass, had been mere weeks away from falling when the Black Queen had tricked a truce out of the Enemy. Otto Redcrown, last of his line, had done all he could to keep the Dead penned up in the pass but the doom of his people had been writ in the stars. Yet for this inadequacy he had somehow been rewarded with three more months to prepare, and knowing the end was coming the Prince of Bremen had worked himself raw.

Frederic at his side, they’d squeezed the full worth out of every heartbeat. Soldiers allowed to rest, yes, but some put to work other than war. Supply lines were opened anew and refurbished, wagons filled with the necessities of war. First Prince Cordelia herself secured gold and foodstuffs and steel, striking deals with half the continent to secure supplies and reinforcements. She had not forgot, Otto had been moved to see. Rhenia’s favourite daughter had not come home when Keter marched, but never once had she forgot her kin. She’d stayed south to make sure the south would come to their aid, that famously unbending Hasenbach backbone lent to all Procer. Just as importantly, the young and the old of Lycaonese lands had been sent south to safety under the protection of Frederic’s cousin and heiress in Lyonis when the dead ceased their raiding into the lowlands. The future of his people was now safeguarded under the kin of his friend. Then a hard choice had been posed to Otto, as was so often the way in these times.

Should he send all soldiers save those holding the Morgentor into northern Lyonis, to ready the fight there for when Twilight’s Pass fell and the Lycaonese lowlands followed, or should every sword in the land be brought to Morning’s Gate to spit one last defiance in the Enemy’s eye? It had burned him to even consider it, but he must see to the future of his people beyond the cast of pride. Yet he’d been a fool, Otto realized the first time a warband of haggard souls bearing ill-fitting mail and hard eyes marched into the sprawling camp at the bottom of the Morgentor. They had come. Alone and in pairs, in bands of twenty or a hundred. Through wind and snow and treacherous mountain paths. Farmers and miners and shepherds, innkeepers and drapers, scribes and carpenters and a hundred other things. Yet Lycaonese all, so they came wearing the steel handed down families since the days of the Iron Kings and there would be no talk of retreat.

Twilight’s Pass was the last lock on the door that might keep the Dead King from devouring the world, and so it would hold until there were none left to hold it. Their numbers had swelled with every band of volunteers, to almost one hundred thousand, and though the Enemy’s might was without question, the Morgentor was no less mighty a fortress. It would hold, Otto Redcrown had sworn. It would hold whatever might come. They had prepared, sharpened their steel, and they stood atop perhaps the second finest fortifications in all Calernia – only the cliff-city of Rhenia or Keter itself might claim to surpass Morning’s Gate, now that Hannoven had fallen. Odds were never good, against the Dead King, but this was perhaps the finest they’d been in Otto’s lifetime.

Then of the three tower-fortresses of the Morgentor, the Three Peaks, they lost two on the first day.

If Frederic had not come into his Choosing they might have lost the third tower as well, the central one, and that would have been a disaster there’d be no recovering from. The Kingfisher Prince had held a buckling line by sheer dint of refusing to die and reclaimed the top of the walls from the Enemy long enough to set everything aflame with pitch. It’d cut off the dead within the fallen towers from steady reinforcements long enough to take them back as well, though it’d meant twelve hours of bloody uphill fighting. Otto Redcrown had scraped together an army of one hundred thousand, his people assembled from every corner of Lycaonese lands, and on the first day of the Dead’s resumed offensive he had lost near twenty thousand of them. The Reitzenberg would have wept at that, if there were any tears in him left to shed, but there were none. All there was left was duty, and so he let duty devour him whole.

The Dead came and Otto Redcrown met them with steel and fire unrelenting. When half an army of ghouls crawled up icy walls like they were treading open road, massive iron scythes were freed to swing through the lot of them. When flocks of winged abominations dropped down like a flood of locusts, they were dragged down with nets and kept there for the mages to scour in flame. Plague-seeding rats, clouds of poison, even a rain of fire: every night the Enemy tried a fresh devilry and the last of the Reitzenberg grit his teeth before standing his ground. The days belonged to Frederic but the nights were his, though as the siege continued time became meaningless. There was only the sea of death lapping at the walls, the relentless assaults through every hour of every day. And though the cracks were spreading through the army, the fault lines of terror and sleeplessness and a fight that could not truly be won, still every dusk and dawn soldiers climbed up the stairs to fight for the ramparts of the Morgentor.

It was an honourable way to die, the Prince of Bremen had decided. If the days of the Lycaonese were fated to end, Otto thought, let them end with the last of them standing straight-backed in the Enemy’s way. He’d been sleeping for barely three hours when he was brought out of a forming nightmare, shaken awake in his cot at the bottom of the Herzhaupt, and though bone-tired and bleary-eyed the Prince of Bremen rose without protest. The captain that had come for him, one of Frederic’s men, awaited outside and bowed low when Otto emerged with his armour already being strapped tight.

“Which peak is falling?” Otto Redcrown bluntly asked.

There were not many reasons why he’d be woken now, and so soon after going to rest besides.

“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but it is quite the opposite,” the captain replied, bowing again. “We have reinforcements.”

The dark-haired prince blinked in surprise. It could not have been another warband of his people drifting in: it still happened every few days, though the gap was spreading as time passed, and was not so unusual as to require him being awoken.

“Who?” he asked, then added, “and where’s Prince Frederic?”

“Awaiting you at the Prinztopf so that you might greet them together, Your Grace,” the captain replied. “And the simple answer would be that they are… from the Grand Alliance.”

Clapping the man on the back, Otto wasted no more time on quibbling. He trusted Frederic Goethal not to have ordered him roused without good reason, though it had taken some convincing before the Alamans prince was sold on ‘obtaining a rare bottle of wine and wanting to share it’ not being one of these. An escort of sworn swords followed him without a word as he headed towards the massive camp raised in the shadow of the Three Peaks, as they did everywhere since a Revenant had been sent to claim his head as he slept. Frederic was not difficult to find, as the man surrounded by the usual swarm of courtiers. Otto could not muster even a speck of contempt for these, however, for though their silks and bon mots were trying they belonged to men and women he’d once seen savagely fight their way through two beorns and a crippled Revenant merely to snatch the banner carried by the latter. It’d emerged three days later as a dishwashing rag in the Ostenhaupt kitchens, for the Alamans were making a game of finding the most insulting use possible for the Dead King’s banners.

They were mad one and all, which was undoubtedly why the rest of the host had grown so fond of them.

“Otto, my friend!” Prince Frederic Goethal of Brus greeted them. “It has been too long since we shared daylight.”

The clasped arms, though Frederic’s insistence on cheek-kissing as they did remained just as unsettling as it’d been the first time the Prince of Bremen was subjected to it.

“Your man was vague when I asked who’s come,” Otto said.

“I can understand why,” the Prince of Brus replied, sounding amused. “None of the etiquette we’ve been taught applies here.”

They left the large iron-reinforced tent soldiers called the Prinztopf – the prince pot, it meant, for it was where they held councils in camp and the odd shape of the tent was evocative – behind them and Otto allowed himself to be led, enjoying the warmth of the spring sun on his skin. When they found their guests, the reason why the Alamans were at such loss was made evident. Of the five people in the tent they’d entered, only three where human and only one was Proceran. The gold and white robes of the Holies were not unknown ever this far north.

“His Grace, Prince Otto Reitzenberg of Bremen, styled the Redcrown,” Frederic introduced him in Chantant.

“Prince Frederic of Brus,” Otto said, returning the favour in the same. “Chosen. The Kingfisher Prince. We share command here.”

“I am-” the priest began, but was immediately interrupted.

“One of the idiots who figured overthrowing Hasenbach was a good idea,” the old woman with painted face said. “You’ve been sent here to die by Keter instead of noose, Proceran, no one cares about your name. I am Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei. My Blood is that of the Vengeful Brigand and I bring ten thousand warriors. I am told your people have been struggling with raids on your supply lines, coming down from Hocheben Heights.”

She grinned, and it was not a pleasant sight.

“I have come to lend my expertise in such matters, Procerans,” Lady Itima said.

The stunning redhead in good armour that was standing by the pair of goblins looked faintly amused but passed no comment before introducing herself.

“Special Tribune Kilian of the Green Stretch, Army of Callow,” she said, her Chantant strangely accented. “By the order of my queen I bring twenty mage lines, including some of our foremost warding and scrying specialists. I’ve been tasked with ensuring the Morgentor is both warded up to Callowan standard and brought into the Grand Alliance scrying relay system.”

She was in the Black Queen’s service? He would not have guessed at a look.

“We are most thankful for your assistance,” Prince Frederic said. “Though it appears introductions are not yet complete?”

One of the goblins, Otto saw, was scribbling with a charcoal pen on parchment. The other one spoke for it, voice narrowly revealing it was male even though it was the smaller of the two.

“Special Tribune Robber,” the goblin introduced himself, malevolently grinning. “I’m told you folk could benefit from a little sabotage of the opposition. As it happens, I’m not unfamiliar with-”

“Sapper-General Pickler,” the other goblin interrupted, revealing herself female. “I’m told some cretin talked you lot in using dwarven engines for the defence of your fortresses.”

“We make some defences of our own,” Prince Otto replied, unmoved by the rudeness. “Though few proper engines.”

“Good, that’ll make useful hands to borrow,” Sapper-General Pickler said, sounding approving. “I’ve been tasked with raising your siege capacity to something that wouldn’t make a goblin simpleton weep as well as crafting apparatuses specifically to deal with the creatures you’ve named ‘wyrms’ and ‘beorns’.”

Frederic looked uncomfortable, though he was too polite to grimace. His people, especially the highborn, were taught that even subtly referring to coin in conversation was quite crude.

“Even with our current loans, we don’t have the coin to afford this,” Otto frankly told the goblin general.

“Congratulations,” the goblin replied, “as per arrangements struck with the First Prince of Procer, you’ve been granted conditional loans by the crown of Callow over this matter.”

The Prince of Bremen blinked.

“And what conditions would these be?” he asked.

Is this going to be useful?” Sapper-General Pickler grinned, revealing rows and rows of needle-like teeth.

Otto Redcrown, last of the House of Reitzenberg, grinned back. Oh, this would do. This would do nicely indeed.

Rozala would never grow to like Gaspard Langevin, she mused as she watched the growing shape of the man’s capital in the distance.

The Prince of Cleves was prickly, of resentful temper yet swift to offer insult himself, and seemingly convinced that the ancient beginnings of his line meant that he belonged to a sort of nobility within nobility. The Princess of Aequitan knew well her histories and had even, as a youth, snuck in a reading of Princess Eliza Alaguer’s ever contentious The Labyrinth Empire so she’d been darkly amused to learn of this. After all, most of the ancient Alamans tribes would have been appalled at the very notion of nobility: tribes elected their chieftains, whose authority was even then shared with the tribe’s high priest or priestess of the Hallowed. It was her own Arlesite forbears who’d brought princely rule to the Principate, as before the founding of Procer the greatest of the fortress-holding reales had already come to exact oaths of fealty from their lesser kindred – and so arguably become the first princes and princesses as the word was understood in modern parlance.

Yet these days it was the Alamans that orated of ancient blood, while Arlesites had been taught the virtues of bringing in the fresh sort onto thrones by the constant warfare on the southern and eastern borders. Rozala’s own line, the Malanzas, had not always been royalty. It’d been great victories in Levant and a ruthless streak at home that saw them rise to bear a crown when the previous ruling line of Aequitan grew weak. That ‘lowly’ origin was no secret, and so part of the reason that as far as the Prince of Cleves was concerned Rozala Malanza was still more a general than princess. It was no surprise that during the Great War his principality had supported the bid of Princess Constance of Aisne instead of Rozala’s own mother. Still, for all the disdain they shared for each other – only sharpened by Prince Gaspard’s personal and political antipathy to the faction Prince Amadis had formed in the Highest Assembly, of which Rozala had openly been part before rising to command it – they were well-bred enough to remain cordial.

To his honour, Prince Gaspard had never once been sparing nor stingy in supporting the armies that had come to fight in the defence of Cleves. Though the man rarely took the field himself, he’d charged his eldest son and heir with command of his army as well as bought the service of every fantassin company north of Cantal not already under contract. Between this and the supplies being brought into Cleves the prince had gone deeply into debt, though he was keeping up appearances with admirable Alamans aplomb. He should be able to dig himself out of the pit, after the war. Cordelia Hasenbach had wrought some sort of financial wizardry that’d greatly lessen the debt burdens incurred defending Procer. Something about bundling together the debts of many principalities and slicing that mixed greater debt apart before selling the slices to the Merchant Lords and banks of Mercantis, and promised yet more aid to come. Her mind was drifting once again, the Princess of Aequitan realized.

Perhaps it was only to be expected. The Twilight Ways invited deep reflections, she felt, the eternal starry night sky somehow giving an impression of solitude even when one was surrounded by thousands. Even two days out of those eldritch paths Rozala’s mood and that of the forces under her command remained rather restrained. For some, like the princess herself, the disposition had lingered at the thought that after witnessing fresh horrors south they were now returning to the familiar ones of Cleves. The dark-haired princess had not been able to sleep on a cot since leaving the Ways, unwilling to let herself be unconscious without being certain that digging beneath would wake her. For others, though, it would be the first fresh taste of what war against the Dead King looked like. Rozala was pleased to have gotten Lord Yannu Marave when the Levantines armies were split between fronts, and not only for the heavy infantry the Lord of Alava brought with him: his cool, calculating manner would serve him well when the terror began. The other allies she was bringing to Cleves were harder to read, not that the Princess of Aequitan was all that inclined to try: sometimes she was almost as wary of them as the Dead.

Forcing herself to attend to the present instead of sinking into her thoughts again – anything to avoid remembering the sound of digging, digging beneath her feet, which she sometimes still heard even though she was hearing nothing of the sort – the Princess of Aequitan spurred on her horse forward and her mounted escorts followed. Clevans called the sparsely paved road beneath the hooves of her horse la route aux chandelles, the candle road, because of the stone markers on the side of it: each had been set down at the length it would take for a candle to melt from the last marker, allowing travellers and merchants to gauge how long they had left before reaching the capital. It linked the city to the southern walled town of Jurivan, itself a destination for roads coming out of Brabant and Lyonis, and so was rightfully seen as the trade artery of the principality. It was also the largest road in Cleves, made so that three wagons at once could use it, one of the reasons Rozala had chosen it for the path of her armies.

The last stretch of the candle road was nearly flat ground until the foot of the capital itself was reached, if flanked by a low plateau to the east, and so the Princess of Aequitan was not surprised when ahead she saw tall banners and a company of riders heading towards her. Prince Gaspard had been warned of her coming by scrying ritual, and by the looks of the tallest banner had come out to greet her himself. The pale unicorn on azure, crowned by a six-petalled flower – one petal for every crusade in which a ruling Langevin had personally fought – was the Prince of Cleves’ personal banner, which meant he was of the approaching company. Reining in her horse, the dark-haired Arlesite slowed until she could easily turn back. It would be impolitic of her to meet with the Prince of Cleves without bringing along the other two generals of this grand coalition of theirs. Lord Yannu was not difficult to find, for the Levantine lord was himself riding out to meet her, and so was the natural beginning.

“Princess Rozala,” the Lord of Alava greeted her, reining in his horse.

“Lord Yannu,” the Princess of Aequitan replied with a nod. “Our host rides out to meet us.”

“Armies have a way of commanding courtesy,” the large man bluntly said.

It was true enough, though rather uncouth to voice it.

“My outriders on the left flank have lost sight of our friends,” Rozala admitted. “I don’t suppose yours had sharper eyes?”

“Somewhere in the hills to the west is the most I can give you,” Yannu Marave said. “They’ve proved arduous to follow.”

Then the two of them would proceed without their third peer, the dark-haired woman decided. Lapses in etiquette were unlikely to matter much to that lot regardless. The two aristocrats waited for their honour guards to gather before riding out together, going down the road at a brisk trot. They were met by the sound of drums and flutes playing the stirring tune of the Roving Minstrel’s famous Marching on Keter, the banner of the Langevins of Cleves flying high with those of the lesser highborn beneath. Prince Gaspard himself brought his horse out ahead and took the initiative to greet them.

“Your Grace,” Gaspard Langevin said, meeting Rozala’s eyes and bowing. “It is a pleasure to see you returned to Cleves.”

“Our work here is not yet finished,” Rozala Malanza said. “I look forward to keeping your council once more, Your Grace.”

And even though she held no love for the man that courtesy had not been entirely untrue. For all his pettier traits, Gaspard Langevin was an able man. Rozala would rather take council from a man she disliked but respected than the opposite.

“It has been one hundred and twelve years since one of the Champion’s Blood has last honoured Cleves by being a guest, Lord Marave,” Prince Gaspard continued. “I am pleased to end this unfortunate course today.”

“The Dominion honours its oaths,” Lord Yannu replied in his very good Chantant. “War on Keter, war to the knife.”

The Prince of Cleves inclined his head in further thanks, not having been given much to work with. Rozala was dimly amused, for once she had also found it necessary to adapt to the bluntness of the Levantines in such matters.

“I was given to understand,” the Prince of Cleves delicately continued, “that there would be a third.”

“It is so,” Princess Rozala agreed. “Though General Rumena-”

“Can speak for itself.”

Rumena the Tomb-Maker – and oh, that even the Black Queen named it this has been enough to make Rozala very wary – was the sole visibly old drow the dark-eyed princess had ever seen. Though tall it had grown stooped and its skin deeply creased, disdaining weapons and attired in a long belted tunic of obsidian rings not unlike chain mail. Its long hair was pure white and its eyes a shade of silver that seemed almost blue in some lights. At the Graveyard, that drow had scored a draw against the Regicide without even using a blade. Now none of the startled riders, many of which now reached for their blades, had even noticed it approaching. It was as if it had been spat out by the rocks, without warning.

“You have corpses wandering your lands, Unicorn Prince,” General Rumena continued, its Chantant eerily good.

Given how the drow were rumoured to learn such things, the fact that the old monster had a distinct Bayeux accent was distressing.

“Well met, General Rumena of the Empire Ever Dark,” Prince Gaspard said with what she deemed to be remarkable poise. “You speak truly. Keter has found unseen paths from the coast and warbands now wander the land.”

“Rest easy, Unicorn Prince,” General Rumena grinned. “Now so do we.”

Lord Yannu let out a bark of appreciative laughter. Princess Rozala Malanza met the eyes of the ruler of Cleves when he hesitantly turned to her and inclined her head. Monsters, Gaspard, make no mistake, she tried to silently convey. They are monsters. And Gods forgive us all, but Keter will rue the day they lent their fangs to the cause of our survival.

Prince Klaus Papenheim spat into the melting snow, abandoning the reins of his mount to wipe the wetness from his lips after. Ratbiter was placid horse for a Bremen stampfen, to his old rider at least, and so he’d not taken to misbehaving even after the arm Klaus lost in the fall of Hainaut had made him a clumsier horseman. Leaning against his stirrups to remain straight-backed, the Prince of Hannoven – prince of ruins, ghosts and exiles these days – unclasped his helmet and ripped it off before wedging it into the crook of his arm. Sweats-soaked hair slipped down onto his brow and the old man let out an exhausted breath before mastering himself.

The day was coming to an end, but that would bring no relief: in the darkness his soldiers would slow and stumble, exhausted and blind. The dead would not share those weaknesses, and relentlessly pursue so that dawn would find half his host had been slaughtered whimpering in the dark. It was a favoured tactic of the Enemy, the reason his ancestors had taken to raising walls and fortresses instead of meeting the Dead on the field. Unlike the ratlings, who were best met and broken on prepared killing grounds before the could cross the rivers and slip into the Hannoven lowlands, the Dead King’s legions were always risky to confront in open battle.

All it took was for the living to lose once and the Enemy would turn setback into disaster before hounding even that all the way to annihilation. One of his own guard rode to his side, as exhausted as he but hiding it better for her lesser burden of years.

“My prince,” Captain Karolina Leisberg said, “I would ask for your permission to reinforce the rearguard.”

Dirty blonde hair peeked under the rim of her helm as the other soldier forced her words to come out steady though she’d just volunteered for a duty that was likely to see her and everyone she brought with her dead before night fell. Klaus spat again into the snow, though the taste of blood and grime could not seem to leave the roof of his mouth.

“No,” the Iron Prince replied. “I’m not throwing horse into that hungry maw, captain. It’d be raised and sent back to hound us after dark: I’ll not hand Old Bones riders to bleed us.”

One of the few saving graces of fighting the Dead was the thrift of horsemen, not that Keter had not tried to make up that lack by killing and raising any cavalry it could get its hands on. Klaus Papenheim had no intention of tossing a good company of four hundred Lycaonese horse into the embrace of the Enemy, even to save twice that in foot. Not when the cost in foot ridden down afterwards might easily dwarf what had been saved, for none had known true pursuit until they’d been chased by riders whose horses did not tire. Not that the retreat from the Hainaut lowlands hadn’t been bound to be a messy affair regardless, as abandoning the defences of the southern castles of the principality for the sloping plains leading into Brabant had been as good as a written invitation for Keter to strike at them.

There’d been no choice, though, Klaus and Princess Beatrice had agreed. They were losing too many soldiers trying to keep the lines of defence standing, it was only a matter of time until Keter ground them to dust by attrition. They’d been in talks with Prince Étienne of Brabant for near three months now, arranging the line of hastily-raised defences where they would retreat to, but it looked like the losses in getting there might be more dire than even the Iron Prince’s bleakest predictions. Their plan had been sound, Klaus still believed, and nearly worked: a sudden offensive on the Dead King’s western flank, as if they were trying to break away and join the armies in Cleves, had drawn the Enemy’s strength away from the fortresses for a time.

The wounded had been evacuated from the southern fortresses first, and then the garrisons under the command of Princess Mathilda, and so the better part of the military strength in Hainaut would be preserved and able to stiffen the defence of northern Brabant. But the distraction force that Klaus and Princess Beatrice had led west to sell the lie by their very presence had found stiffer resistance than expected: they’d retaken the fortress at Luciennerie easily enough, for the Enemy had torn down the walls taking it, but heading into the hilly highlands afterwards they’d found a force Klaus had once believed to be an old legend: the Grey Legion, led by the silent and implacable Prince of Bones.

No petty skeletons, these, but undead whose ancient bones had been surrounded by a body of wrought iron and steel. Though slow and lumbering, the seven thousand abominations were near unbreakable by force of arms, a crushing steel fist before which all men crumbled. Their long axes entirely made of steel had reaped near two thousand lives before the Prince of Hannoven understood who it was they were facing, and by then the Prince of Bones had entered the fray. It was said in Lycaonese legends that the Revenant who held sway over the Grey Legion was an ancient Iron King, slain by the Dead King’s own hand and raised anew, but in Hannoven the tale was slightly different – it was, Klaus’s own father had told him as a child, their ancient ancestor Albrecht Papenheim. The Lord of Last Stands, the Lone Sentinel.

The same man who’d stubbornly held Twilight’s Pass with only a bare bones garrison for a year even as an Alamans foray into Bremen was driven out. He’d died, the stories said, standing alone as the last of his army on the same dawn the armies that’d beaten back the southerners began marching north for the Pass. True to his charge ‘til the last breath. Whatever the truth of who the Prince of Bones had once been, he’d since been made into an implacable servant of Keter: the Silent Guardian and the Blade of Mercy had both sallied out to meet him in battle and been swept aside almost contemptuously. The Painted Knife had struck it from the back trying to cut through the neck – a practical girl, that one, Klaus rather liked her – and found that below the armour was only a sea of furious sorcery that’d violently lashed out and blown her away. If the Repentant Magister had not been able to trap him within a circle of flames for an hour, the defeat they were inflicted that day might have been an outright rout. Not that their retreat south towards Brabant had been anything but a succession of losses since that first defeat.

Three days, that was the worst of it. Another three days and their host would have made it to the freshly raised fort at Engrenon and been able to dig in to await reinforcements. The way the day was going, though, it was not to be. Not unless hard decisions were made. A short trumpet call told the Iron Prince that the woman he’d been waiting for had arrived, and Princess Beatrice Volignac rode in with her personal guard at a brisk trot. The latest Princess of Hainaut looked rather ludicrous, at first glance: her considerable girth was coated in mail and heavy furs, and from a distance she looked like a bloated waterskin forcefully strapped atop a horse. Younger sister to Princess Julienne, she had the same green eyes and coal-black hair but unlike her late sister’s they were set on a narrow, pinched face with too-large lips. Klaus had thought little of her at first, he’d admit as much. For anyone to grow fat as Princess Beatrice was would have been considered a shameful thing back home, thoughtless indulgence and selfishness. To eat so much meant that either another went hungry or granaries were taken from.

He’d been wrong though, even in his lazy assumption that her weight meant she’d be a poor rider. She was a better horsewoman than even her sister had been, and a finer lance as well. More importantly, Beatrice Volignac had a searing fire inside her that made her one of the most driven people the Prince of Hannoven had ever met. She hardly slept, and Klaus had found her so proficient a captain of men he’d effectively ceded command of all Alamans forces to her. She had a defter touch with them, and under her command they’d risen to become almost as fierce fighters as his own soldiers.

“Her Grace Beatrice Volignac, Princess of Hainaut,” the herald announced.

The woman in question reined in her horse by his side, gesturing for her escort to withdraw. Klaus glanced at his own riders and nodded. Without a word they did the same.

“Prince Klaus,” the dark-haired woman said.

“Princess Beatrice,” he replied. “I’ll be blunt: the rearguard is failing and if we reinforce it we’ll lose our entire host.”

The Alamans princess grimaced.

“I’d begun to suspect as much,” she admitted. “The lesser dead are slowing them down too much, it’s only a matter of time until the Grey Legion catches up.”

And a pitched battle against that, neither needed to say, was a fool’s errand. They’d tried to send for the Witch of the Woods, whose sorceries might be a match for those relentless steel killers, but there was no telling if the riders had made it to a scrying station – or whether she’d arrive in time, even should she be reached.

“We’ve twenty thousand men to care for,” the Prince of Hannoven said, knowing it was likely closer to seventeen now. “Those soldiers who hold our back have proved brave and true, and this is poor repayment, but we cannot throw away the other sixteen thousand trying to save that four.”

The Princess of Hainaut looked disgusted with herself, but she did not disagree.

“Weeping Heavens,” she murmured, “what ugly creatures this war makes of us all.”

Klaus’s gaze turned to behind them, where the sprawl of their column could be made from atop the hill where they both sat. His own horse had scythed through the packs of ghouls that’d sprung from the snow and earth to ambush the flanks of the column’s centre stretch, freeing it to resume its advance, but Keter had still gotten its due: the temporary slowing had been enough to force the rearguard to fully engage the undead skirmishers that’d been pursuing them all day. Though these were little more than skeletons with javelins and swords, wearing not a single piece of armour, the ‘naked’ skirmishers were damned fast and tireless, and one of the Dead King’s favourite manners of tying down foot so that his heavier forces could catch up to them. It would be so here, the first battalions of sword and board corpses bearing old ringmail already beginning to emerge above nearby hilltops. The rearguard’s shield wall was spreading out, preparing for the brutal melee heading towards it.

“Someone will have to take command there,” Klaus said. “Else they’ll break too soon.”

There was no contempt in his tone as he spoke, for though the soldiers in the rear were mostly Arlesites his own brethren would behave little differently. Men often found great courage when they knew there was no avoiding death, but when there was still hope for life – as there would be, should those in the back of the shield wall break and run before too many of the dead arrived – it was only natural to find one’s feet itching to flee. It was the duty of a good captain to make their soldiers understand why there was a need to stand and fight even when there would be no leaving the field alive.

“Agreed,” Princess Beatrice said.

A heartbeat later they both began to speak-

“I’ll-”

A twin look of surprise was shared, and Klaus Papenheim let out a rueful chuckle.

“I’m at the end of my rope, Volignac,” he bluntly said. “I’m an old cripple a long way from home, fading out no matter how much the priests fight it. You’ve still decades in you, and your sister’s sons to raise.”

“You’re the Iron Prince,” she flatly replied. “Your reputation is the reason this is a retreat and not a rout. So long as you still breathe our host believes it might survive this march. I’ll entrust the safety of my nephews to you and beg you might request of the First Prince that she’ll allow them to attend her in Salia.”

Before he could dismiss that for the foolishness it was – how trite a trade, to keep alive an old sack of bones like him for a few more years when she might serve the cause for decades yet – when they were interrupted by the sound of swords unsheathing as one. Princes Beatrice’s guards and his were all looking at a strange gash in the air. Through the opening Klaus glimpsed a night sky and eerily enough felt warm breeze drift out. What came out with it, though was more familiar a sight.

“Sheathe your swords,” the Iron Prince ordered, then inclined his head in greeting. “White Knight. It’s been some time.”

“Prince Klaus,” the Sword of Judgement replied, inclining his head in return.

“Come to join our little stand, have you?” Princess Beatrice said. “You’re welcome to a few battalions. Plenty to spare.”

“Indeed,” the dark-skinned hero agreed. “Though I come bearing request on behalf of another, in truth.”

“Indeed?” Klaus drily repeated.

“It is requested that your rearguard pull back by a hundred feet and any spears and pikes you have might be brought to its fore,” the White Knight said, impervious to sarcasm.

“And who requests this, pray tell?” Princess Beatrice demanded.

It was a sound like cloth ripping, if it were a cloth so large as to cover half the world. Klaus Papenheim caught sight of the rippling gates and the soldiers that strode out of them. On the left side of the shield wall, painted soldiers bearing hooked swords and shields rushed out. On the other, rows and rows of shining steel marched out in cadence, shields raised and tightly packed. Legionaries. Army of Callow, by the banner: stark cloth, bearing the Miezan numerals for three.

“The Black Queen,” Klaus Papenheim said, and it was not a question.

Gates kept opening, some as small as a single man while others were making room for engines of war being dragged out by wagon, and soldiers kept pouring out.

“Today it is our turn, Iron Prince, to go on the offensive,” the Sword of Judgement smiled.

The Prince of Hannoven’s remaining hand reached for the pommel of the sword at his hip, clutching it tight. Another gate opened atop a hill to the west and, banners streaming behind them, a company of knights rode out to form a wedge aimed at the Enemy’s flank. At their head was a single silhouette in a colourful patchwork cloak, twin great crows perched on her shoulders. A horn sounded: one, twice, thrice. Lances went down and the last knights of Callow began their charge, their warlord queen at the tip of the spear. Klaus Papenheim smiled a wolf’s smile, fierce and toothy and so very eager to finally sink his fangs in the Enemy’s throat.

“Then let’s turn this army around, Princess Beatrice,” the Iron Prince said, meeting his comrade’s eye. “And remind Ol’ Bones this war has yet to find a victor.”

Winter IV

“One must admire the thriftiness of Callowan war-making, given the cost of arming bold orphans with enchanted swords compared to that of crafting undead plagues and flying fortresses. They even get to reuse the sword, most the time, if rarely the orphan.”
– Dread Empress Prudence, the Frequently Vanquished

The silence was how he knew it’d all gone wrong.

Hanno of Arwad was no longer a green boy in the ways of Named, if well short of the priceless experience someone like the Saint or the Pilgrim could rightfully boast of, but he’d been allowed to learn the lessons of others. The softest touch of Recall saw them all drift to the surface, the parade of kindred memories. The Noble Corsair stepping onto a ship still and dead, the Shining Princess finding the great hall of Denier empty as the night sky, the Silent Slayer finding a clearing in the Brocelian without a single sound to mar its almost oppressive hush, a hundred others.  A thousand. The aspect was best used scarcely, when reaching for patterns, for it was so easy to get lost in that endless sea of memories. Easier still to realize the smallness of what Hanno truly was, but a single speck of light within a great and ancient star. Such silences were the herald of dark news, of ambush, of the Enemy having struck. No surprise marred the brow of the White Knight when he reached the narrow stone corridor that led into the Lower Keep and he found splayed before him half a dozen corpses. Cleves soldiers, the prince’s own men, in good ring mail and wielding long halberds. Steady sorts, Hanno knew from having fought at their side on the walls, and skilled at war.

They’d been slaughtered like helpless children.

Some manner of long blade had slashed through the mail and broken both bone and metal with the sheer might it was being swung with. The crudeness of the wound a second glance revealed was undeniable sign this was the work of a Revenant: the blade had not been sharp enough to warrant cutting through good armour, which meant either strength beyond the reach of mortal men or some other manner of power. It was useless to attempt recalling with so little to go on, the White Knight decided, and would lose him time besides. He bowed his head to the dead as he passed, apologetic for not lingering long enough to close the eyes of the dead. Hanno would seek to keep the living alive before giving honour to the dead, though his lengthening stride as he left was poor repayment for the loyal service these men and women had kept to while they still drew breath. The Ashuran set the guilt aside for now, instead considering the wounds as he sped forward. Too lengthy and broad to be a longsword’s work, closer to a broadsword or greatsword. Both were popular weapons with Proceran fantassins from the northern Alamans principalities. Those few soldiers of fortune who could afford one, anyway.

Most likely a Revenant borne of the Principate, then. Or else one so old as to make the current preferences of weaponry among Calernian peoples irrelevant. Even the former was unfortunate, given how few of those lives he’d explored in depth. Proceran heroes – and villains as well, from what he could tell – rarely left the principality they’d been born in. They tended to be called by places as much as stories, in truth. Even Christophe, perhaps the most potentially powerful Mirror Knight in the history of that Name, had been called to his fate by the need of the Elfin Dames for a defender of their sacred waters. Often heroes from the Free Cities and Callow were more useful to learn from by simple virtue of having more often fought and encountered greater breadth of opponents, and when it came to the affairs of wilderness there was simply no matching the Dominion’s many heroes. Hanno had also called on the memories of the legendary founder of the Valiant Champion’s bloodline to learn his delicious garlic lamb roast recipe, which admittedly some might consider an abuse of his powers. Not that any of his companions had ever complained when it was his turn to cook. Theft of recipes aside, Hanno was coming to realize that in the way he’d chosen to look through lives he’d left a gap in his understanding of Proceran ways. It would have to be remedied to, should he survive the day.

The Low Keep he was moving through was little like a castle as they were built these days, instead as much a shelter and a tomb as it was a fortress and a home. Those who had raised it, thought to be either eastern kin to the western tribes that grew to be the Lycaonese or another people entirely that’d been ended by Alamans northern expansion, had preferred digging below to raising great walls. Yet they must have been a people used to being besieged, for the Low Keep’s looping corridors ended in narrow chokepoints and were curved in a way that would allow the defender to strike behind the shield of an attacker. The first of those narrowing points he encountered had seven dead soldiers, the second a full twenty scattered beyond a broken door and barricade. The third had a thick steel grid keeping corpses up against the wall, having been blown off its hinges and straight into the soldiers. A Revenant with great physical might, Hanno thought, as he’d earlier speculated. But not one with an aspect that’d allow it to cut through the likes of steel, as he’d also speculated, else that grid would be cut through instead of repeatedly hammered until it broke out of the hinges.

The White Knight was not overly familiar with the Low Keep, as he’d mostly fought in the city proper and atop the walls, but from memory he should not be far from what the servants called the Old Hall. Once the banquet hall of the rulers of ancient Cleves, nowadays it was more often used as a wine cellar for its natural coolness. The bottles and barrels had been moved early in the siege and the Old Hall instead been made into the bastard child of an armory and a war room, for though the Old Hall was too small for a great council of royalty and Named it was fit for private talks between those who had already been given duties by the greater council. The princes and princesses who’d escaped the scuffle above should have retreated there, given that the Old Hall’s ancient and crumbling wards had been entirely overhauled by Princess Rozala’s mages according to the Rogue Sorcerer’s design. Roland had allegedly been rather embarrassed to put these to ink, calling them a ‘sloppy, faulty mimicry’ of those used by the Army of Callow to protect its war camps, but even Antigone had admitted that the Praesi wards were usually half a century ahead of everyone else’s. At least in lesser patterns, for she maintained that in great workings no one had yet to so much as touch the feet of the Gigantes.

Hanno has walked the airy streets of Orseis as a young man, where stone flowed like water under the guidance of songs, where great columns of moonstone decreed the very lay of winds and clouds, and so he’d not argued this. It was not without reason the Gigantes were also known as wonder-makers, even though they named themselves nothing but a pale shadow of what they had once been.

Regardless of all else, the wards on the Old Hall ought to keep the least of the dead from entering and hinder even the likes of Revenants. Given the number of soldiers that escorted Proceran royals even here in the depths of Cleves and the alleged presence of the Repentant Magister, he might not be too late in arriving. Nephele had left behind the destructive sorceries she’d learned in Stygia along with the other dark teachings of the Magisterium, but that hardly meant she was defenceless. Hanno’s steps slowed as he entered a low, downwards-sloping gallery. It could be no longer than thirty feet, though the span of it had been swallowed by darkness: save for the two torches behind him and the two outside the door on the other side, there was no source of light. A few years ago, the White Knight would have let his Name augment his sight and seen through the dark without missing a beat. He’d been taught better since, by a green-eyed killer who’d delighted in brutally punishing his every bad habit. If darkness had been laid here, it was not because his opponent had expected him to be blinded by it. It was because the moment his sight adjusted a nasty surprise was to be sprung on him. From memory, the gallery was no more than six feet wide and the footing deliberately tricky so that bowmen and spearmen able to strike into the gallery through narrow slits in the side walls might find easier prey.

“Physically strong Named rarely bother with tricks,” Hanno noted out loud, “save for those used to fighting creatures even stronger than them.”

The White Knight timed the sequence of his movements closely, first snatching out one of the torches at his side and tossing it out into the dark before adjusting his footing: one foot horizontal, as if prepare to thrust out with a slender blade, but instead a flicker of Light went down the back of his leg and Hanno propelled himself forward at inhuman speed. The last part of the sequence, strengthening his eyes against light, came the moment he caught a glimpse of a silhouette within the dark. A fraction of a moment later there was a loud bang and a flash of burning light – the kind that would have seared his eyes powerfully, were he adjusting them to see in the dark. Instead it merely stung and stinging he could suffer through without batting an eye. Even as the torch he’d thrown arced up, Hanno caught sight of a tall and broad man in ornate bronze armour plate. Of a helm, too, depicting some snarling creature, but before he could make out which his opponent was moving. A greatsword swung, aimed to carve through the still spinning torch, but as the initial heartbeat of the fight ended Hanno’s movement trick ended with him under the very torch.

He snatched it out again, thrusting it towards the helmeted head of the Revenant, and his opponent aborted his blow before silently withdrawing into the dark. A mere moment later, there was no sign left of the undead Named at all.

“A wolf,” the White Knight pensively said. “Yet in bronze, not iron or finer.”

Not so with the greatsword, which was well-made steel. A more recent weapon, which was interesting. It meant the bronze armour had been kept even with steel plate likely available and that would hardly be without reason. Even more interesting was that he was being met in battle here, in what Hanno could only term an obvious trap, while the undeniably better prize would be the lives of the Proceran royalty within the Old Hall deeper in. The White Knight was being delayed, which implied another entity was already after those lives and the intelligence behind this entire affair believed that other entity capable of breaching the defence of a heroine, wards and soldiers if given long enough. Likely a second Revenant, then, though some manner of specially crafted monster was not impossible. It also meant that Hanno needed to pick up the pace.

“Your hiding trick only works when you have darkness to work with,” the White Knight spoke out loud.

The dark-skinned hero genuinely believed this to be true, though that was not why he’d revealed his conclusion to his foe. It was an unusual scene he’d been presented with. The Revenant’s former Name must have been geared towards physical might, for him to make use of a greatsword and so swiftly, yet he was not behaving as most Named of that bent would. Hanno was not the kind of fool to dismiss those Named inclined to the strength of bodies as duller than others, but it was true that the breed tended to be more inclined towards recklessness and swift advance than other heroes. As they should be, given that their Names usually rewarded such audacity with luck and power. Rafaella was a good example, for though clever and apt in tactics she tended to prefer throwing herself into trouble with only limited planning. It was where and how she thrived, for that was her Role as a Champion. Yet the Revenant he now faced had preferred laying an ambush, using tricks that many heroes would outright consider beneath them and was even now lying in wait instead of seeking battle. Used to fighting stronger creatures, Hanno considered, though it did not feel like a full explanation. Unfortunately, given that the Dead King’s grasp reached across several centuries and lands now considered quite tames had at times been considered more dangerous than the Brocelian, this did little to narrow the scope of possible identities. Torch still in hand, the White Knight began to stride towards the other end of the gallery.

Bronze armour, and a helmet like a snarling wolf. The Lycaonese were the ancient enemies of Keter and they did have a strong cultural association with the beasts, Hanno thought, but they were hardly the only ones. And they’d been one of the first human ethnicities in the west to begin using iron, too, which would make the bronze armour odd. Or would it? Iron hindered many lesser sorceries, he remembered. The darkness trick, and perhaps even the light that had blinded him, might not be faded aspects but instead enchantments woven into an armour. One made in bronze, a metal that the ancient peoples of Calernia had favoured above all others when it came to laying enchantments. Nine steps, before Hanno reached the end of the gallery and the second part of the ambush was sprung on him. It was the light trick that’d given it away, and it was the same reason the White Knight had been unsatisfied with his guess of the Revenant’s former purpose. The trick had been woven to specifically hurt a Named fortifying their eyes, which meant his opponent was used to fighting other Named. And that meant the light at the end of the gallery, the other two torches, was a second part to the trap.

Why even leave them, if the Revenant had advantages from the dark? The coming ambush had been obvious enough even with only part of the gallery shrouded in darkness. The Revenant had left a sanctuary at the end of the obvious danger because it allowed him to dictate where Hanno would be moving without lifting a finger. It was, the White Knight decided, a cunning killer he was facing. One whose life might be worth learning from, should he learn enough to tell it apart from the rest of the sea. Three steps now, and timing would be everything. On the first step, the White Knight breathed in. Light, never far from his grasped, stormed through his veins. On the second step, the White Knight breathed out. He grasped the Light by the reins, shaped it and directed it. On the third step, the White Knight acted. He tossed the torch forward again, even as from a dead angle’s shadow the Revenant emerged and snuffed out the two torches flanking the gallery’s gate simply by clenching his armoured fingers into a fist. The stretch if corridor ahead went dark, for all the other torches were too far to cast light.

All that was left was the flickering flame of the torch he’d thrown, arcing up and forward, and even as the Revenant faded into the darkness the White Knight smiled. And stomped his armoured boot onto the ground, releasing Light in a wave. The Revenant’s looming silhouette reappeared, seemingly startled, and Hanno idly confirmed that his guess had been correct. It was the armour that allowed him to disappear, that same armour touching the stone floor he’d just shot Light across. Modern sorceries might not be so easily disrupted, but this was ancient magic: it shattered at the slightest touch of Light. Without pausing, as the reflected light of the arcing torch flickered across polished bronze, Hanno called on his aspect without so much as a whisper. Ride, he thought, and Creation echoed of it. And now the White Knight used a second refinement on the aspect he’d devised since the Red Flower Vales. Namely, that while the aspect usually helped him form Light to use this was not, strictly speaking, necessary: he could use Light already at hand. Such as the one he’d just released across the floor, snatching it up before it could fade and shaping it for swiftness. His arm extended, he rammed the forming lance of light through the weakness in the Revenant’s armour, the slight space between helmet and cuirass, and felt the Light searing its way through like a hot knife through butter.

Amaranta Viegle, long ago the Sage of the West, had spent a lifetime studying the Light. She’d been a major influence in the shape the Lanterns took in the centuries after and died at the age of ninety-three, fighting a dragon with her bare fists. That last brawl had made it into Levantine legend, but it had been not the many duels of her early and late life that Hanno had found most useful but instead the stretch from her fifties to seventies. During those decades she’d experimented with applications of the Light, and though most of what she’d set down of those studies had been lost to flame during the Scouring of Vaccei the White Knight had sat through the revelations of those years with her over long hours of mediation within his aspect. Like, for example, the evening where she had grasped that with enough concentration the initial movement ascribed to Light could still be changed when it had been set in motion. All it required was the addition of fresh Light, as for some reason beyond the comprehension of mortals even a speck added to the initial Light would be enough to turn even a pre-existing sea of the power into a completely different working by the Light’s own laws.

And so, even as the White Knight’s aspect saw Light emerging from his legs to form into a mount, he added a speck more. In the fraction of a moment that followed he seized all the Light that’d been made, and without missing a beat slammed the lot of it into the lance already in the Revenant. The upper half of the dead Named vaporized, and he formed a bladed edge along the lance’s length so he could slice through the lower half outright. He’d had only a single opening, but these days that tended to be all that Hanno needed. Ahead of him the torch he’d thrown clattered against the stone, and without a word the White Knight resume his advance towards the Old Hall. The Repentant Magister ought to have lasted this long, he thought even as he quickened his steps, and with a turn under flickering torchlight found himself stepping into the narrow hallway where the Old Hall’s gate awaited. Corpses were strewn over the length of it, savaged enough it was hard to tell how many bodies there truly were. The grisly scene reeked of blood and excrement, and the White Knight pushed down a grimace when he saw the heavy oaken doors that should have protected the Old Hall’s entrance had been ripped open.

He could not tell the state of the wards, but that boded ill. As did the silence that was all he could hear coming from what should be a hall crowded with soldiers. Sword in hand, he prepared to – the sound that interrupted him was deafening, like someone had balled up together a hundred screams, distilled them and unleashed them all at once. A thin silhouette was blown out of the Old Hall and smacked against the wall opposite its gate before nimbly rising to its feet. Long claws of steel had been affixed to the Revenant’s hands, and it bore a now half-shattered mask of clay painted in shades of grey and green. Sound resumed from within the hall, most of it cheers. Before the Revenant could even decide whether to flee or attack again a small painted clay tile, no larger than a pair of fingers, was tossed onto the ground in front of it. The Revenant hissed in anger and tried to back away the opposite way from the White Knight – who noted with amusement he had yet to be noticed – but the moment it took a step an intricate rope formed of what appeared to be small interlinked shield panels emerged from the tile and snatched its foot, dragging it back.

Even as it tried to kick away the tile the sound from the hall cut out again, as if swallowed whole, and the Repentant Magister emerged from the Old Hall. Loose robes trailing behind her as she advanced in silken slippers, Nephele was holding up a hand and within it was a golden device spinning so swiftly on itself it seemed almost a sphere. It was sucking up noise and sorcery like a hungry whirlpool.

“I did not need them to learn right from wrong,” the Repentant Magister said, tone hard but somehow awed – as if even in the depths of her wrath she could not quite believe what she was doing. “And I will not return to their old lessons now like some cowering child.”

The Revenant smashed the tile and the rope vanished. Hanno did not move an inch. The Repentant Magister, with a snarl, clenched her hand around the golden device and the deafening blast from before sounded again, smashing the Revenant into the ancient stone and grinding it like some monstrous millstone of noise and sorcery. A ragged remnant of the undead Named fell to the ground, when the working ended. Nephele slowly stepped forward even as her palm opened and the device began spinning again.

“I am not defenceless,” the Repentant Magister said, glaring down at the Revenant. “I am not lessened by looking in the eye the evil I was once part of and choosing to cast it aside. And Gods take my tongue if I lie, but when this war ends I shall not be ashamed of how I fought it.”

Fingers clenched, sound and sorcery roiled, and the last remnants of the Revenant were ground to dust. Hanno thought of how Nephele had looked that night, weeping and afraid, and felt his heart clench with pride. You are your worst day, the White Knight thought, looking at the straight-backed and clear-eyed sorceress standing before him. But you are your finest day as well, and every single other one. Even those yet to come. It had been a dark day, this one, Hanno of Arwad thought. And yet it’d become a little brighter for the light just brought into it. This is how victory comes, the White Knight softly smiled. One candle lit after another, until we have chased away the night. Hanno sheathed his sword and stepped into the light, for the Enemy was still afoot in the city and there was work to be done.

If his steps were just a little lighter, well, who could tell the difference?