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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 as of the latest Patreon goal. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

The author can be contacted at erraticerrata@gmail.com

Under no circumstances will Epub, PDF files, audiobooks or translation of the Guide be allowed.

Epilogue

“And so Maleficent the Second said: ‘If I must burn half the realm to save the rest, then kneel before the empress of ashes.’”

– Extract from the Scroll of Restoration, fortieth of the Secret Histories of Praes

The Vogue Archive did not sleep and tonight neither could Cordelia Hasenbach.

Numbly, she walked down the mostly empty hall past the great tables bearing maps of the realm she ruled and the smaller bureaus – where, at hours other than the middle of the night, some of the finest minds in Procer tended to its regions. There were a few mages of the Order of the Red Lion tucked away in corners, having retreated after greeting her and now again simply waiting to be of use, but aside from them the oft-crowded hall was quiet. Fewer than a dozen men and women were within it, sometimes reading through the odd reports that had come in the night but more often tidying up the numerous scrolls and reports that’d poured in during the day.

Cordelia made for the back of the hall, the raised dais where her handpicked analysts were charged with sifting through a sea of ink and parchment so that they might find the catastrophes on the Principate’s horizon in time for them to be averted. The First Prince had chosen five such individuals, but at this hour there was only one awake and present: a woman of an age difficult to parse, rather dowdy in appearance and of generally unremarkable looks. The sole eye-catching part of the Forgetful Librarian’s appearance was her oddly beautiful eyelashes, as if they had been borrowed from a more striking woman and set on this one’s face.

She looked, Cordelia had come to realize, rather like the manifest ideal of someone’s reclusive, scholarly aunt. It was an appearance that would invite dismissal from many, hiding the sharp mind and utter lack of morals of the Damned. The Librarian was an exceptionally talented woman as both a scholar and an advisor, the First Prince had learned, but she was best used as part of a larger council that would temper the ruthless pragmatism of the solutions she tended to propose. The other woman did not rise as Cordelia approached, remaining engrossed in a book as she cradled a steaming cup of chamomile.

It was a small slight the Damned liked to give, one of the little games she seemed unable to stop herself from playing even when there was no conceivable benefit for her to gain, but it had remained an irritant. Usually the First Prince took the time to consider whether a threshold had been reached where the other Proceran needed to be reminded of the hierarchy between them, but not tonight. The disrespect slid off her like water off a duck’s back. It seemed such a small, petty thing to eve spare thought for after the news she had received.

The First Prince of Procer instead slid into one of the seats she’d had brought here, exemplars of comfort given the long hours they would be used for, and leaned back. She closed her eyes, wondering if the Heavens would take pity on her and let her fall asleep instead of remaining like… this. Numb and exhausted, feeling as if she was somehow too tired to sleep. There was a muted clap as the Forgetful Librarian closed her book – though not before placing a bookmark, the parts of Cordelia that never rested noted, which was interesting given that most Chosen and Damned seemed to have enhanced memory – and set it down, sipping with uncouth loudness at her chamomile.

The Librarian was Alamans and of good birth, meaning she was being unpleasant very much on purpose.

“Long night?” the Damned idly asked.

Cordelia did not answer for a very long time, yet she did not hear the book creak open.

“I have been told,” the First Prince finally said, “that no less than three Hellgates were opened across the breadth of Procer.”

And that was not why she grieved, for sorrow was a nation’s due but grief could only ever be personal, but it was an answer of enough gravity that it would obscure what was truly moving her. The Forgetful Librarian breathed in sharply but did not answer. Cordelia opened her eyes, finding herself being closely studied.

“All three were temporarily sealed,” she continued, “though at the cost of the lives of every Gigantes that came to our aid.”

The villainess hesitated, for though she was not a moral woman neither was she the manner of monster that bargained with devils for the lives of thousands.

“And Keter’s Due?” the Librarian asked.

In proper Proceran scholarship the phenomenon was known instead as ‘the desolation’, but since the Arsenal had begun to train wizards the Praesi terminology had seeped through. It could not be denied that Proceran sorcery had a rather religious turn to it, and as Cordelia understood it the ‘desolation’ was considered to be as much theological in nature as it was magical – a punishment by Above for the ruinous overreach of mortals. What disgusting idea, the Lycaonese thought. To punish thousands for the crimes of one, who would not even be moved by the sight of such cruelty regardless. The very definition of pointless suffering. No, Cordelia would take no issue with the use of ‘Keter’s Due’ at all.

“There are reports from both the Hierophant and the Grave Binder that suggest the effects of the Due were purposefully worsened,” the First Prince evenly said. “In each case, most of the surrounding region was blighted.”

The curse had flooded outwards. To the north the losses were acceptable, for Twilight’s Pass had already been bare rock while the swaths of western Hannoven and southern Rhenia that had been lost had been poor farmlands. In the case of Hainaut, where the blight was said to have spread down to a natural fortress named Lauzon’s Hollow, the loss was one still to be felt: those lands had been in the hands of Keter for most of the war. In Cleves, however? The Hellgate had been opened at the fortress of Trifelin, where Rozala Malanza had won a great battle mere weeks before, and the Due slain a few thousand soldiers out in the open where there had been too few wards. That had been the least of the losses there in truth.

The blight had also swallowed most of the fine lands along the length candle road, snuffing out the principality’s breadbasket.

That meant that Cleves would have to be fed by southern principalities, which where already buckling under the strain and rebellious besides. It meant dozens of thousand of refugees forced to flee south into lands grown increasingly hostile to them. It means that Procer would have to either beg for parts of the harvest of the Kingdom of Callow which it could not afford to buy – not with Merchant Prince Mauricius having clearly laid out there would be no more loans until some unacceptable conditions were met – or there would be starvation in the heartlands of the Principate. Hannoven was ash and ruin, ruled by the dead. Of her own Rhenia no lands save the city-fortress itself remained, her own people huddling in the dark beyond those impassable defences while death roamed the countryside. Now Cleves and Hainaut as well were a ruin.

The armies that had been supposed to turn the war around, to push the dead back into the lakes, had delivered instead one of the bloodiest stalemates in the history of Calernia. And Cordelia’s own uncle had died in some ill-fated last charge without the break between them ever having been mended, nothing but harsh words left to part on. She forced herself to breathe slowly and steadily, else she knew she would tear up. There were too many people looking. There were always too many people looking, and she could not afford to show weakness after having forced the hands of the Highest Assembly the way she had.

“Was Hainaut a defeat, then?” the Librarian quietly asked.

Cordelia Hasenbach allowed herself a bitter smile.

“The Black Queen won the field, though the field was but a smoking ruin and many died,” the First Prince replied. “Among them the Grey Pilgrim. The White Knight broke the Dead King’s great bridge in the north, so the campaign can still be settled in our favour.”

She knew better than to name such an outcome a victory, however. Nearly half the Army of Callow was gone, the Lycaonese forces on the front mauled and leaderless and general casualties had been atrocious for everyone save the Levantines. Who had not been spared, either, though in a different way. The Dominion was in uproar, as at least a few hundred of its Blood had died turning to ash without warning on the evening of the Battle of Hainaut. Cordelia’s spies believed that everyone who could have a feasible claim to being an Isbili had died, around the time the Peregrine himself had died and brought down the pilgrim’s star on Hainaut.

With the Holy Seljun dead, no legitimate successor in sight and all remaining major nobles up north fighting Keter the resulting chaos already promised to be crippling. Another nail in the Principate’s overly burdened coffin, she thought, for the Dominion had been one of the last few nations with which Procer could trade to keep afloat: the coming tide of squabbles and ‘honour wars’ would strangle those routes soon enough.

“Trouble in Levant,” the Forgetful Librarian frowned, tracing the rim of her cup with a finger. “I’m not so sure we can afford that – economically speaking, anyway. We will have to lean on Helike and her dependents to compensate.”

“It will not be enough,” Cordelia tiredly replied.

General Basilia, who was now quite openly mulling claiming the title of empress after having so long deferred taking up the queenship of Helike, had made great strides forward with precious little outside help. Cordelia herself had served mostly as a diplomatic broker in the matter of settling hostilities with Stygia, and now that Basilia had most of the western Free Cities under her and a sworn peace with Atalante her rise seemed difficult to stop. Luck was even on her size, as word was that Bellerophon had once more declared war on Penthes, belatedly seizing an opportunity to attack their old rival that the People had failed to recognize. It further tipped the balance in General Basilia’s favour, though given the fluidity of wars in the League there was no certain outcome. Not that Cordelia expected the war to continue much longer.

Delos was too great a fortress to easily fall, but it would not stand alone against three cities and the priests of Atalante had no yearning to break a holy oath freshly sworn. It might not be that Basilia would hold all of the Free Cities, as the Republic of Bellerophon at least would fight to the death over submission, but it seemed likely that a tributary empire centred on Helike would be emerging from the aftermath of that war. Given that Basilia was friendly to the Grand Alliance and hostile to the Tower as well as eager for trade to resume, this seemed like a saving grace for Procer’s ailing coffers. Except, of course, that General Basilia had spent two years ravaging the Free Cities with her wars.

Trading with a broken land not yet recovered from the last civil war that’d ravaged it was not going to be sufficiently profitable in the immediate future, not when the only Free City whose coffers had swelled was Mercantis and it was hoarding the wealth. In a year, perhaps two, this could be the miracle that Cordelia needed should the nascent empire of Basilia not collapse.

The Principate of Procer did not have a year to spare, much less two.

“Shall I send for the others, then?” the Forgetful Librarian asked. “If there was ever a reason to wake them in the night, this would be it. I have refined my proposal for the invasion of Mercantis as a stopgap solution, besides, so it might be the time for Your Highness to genuinely consider it.”

She still believed, it seemed, that there was room to maneuver. That there was still a game afoot.

“One year and twenty-eight days,” Cordelia Hasenbach softly said. “That is how long we have before the seals on the Hellgates break.”

And what could be done in so little time? Queen Catherine had left one of her foremost generals, Abigail the Fox, to handle matters in Hainaut with the returning White Knight and bluntly informed Cordelia that she saw only one solution: she was headed for east, for Praes. She would be taking the Marshal of Callow and the remains of the Second Army with her, as well as the reassembled First. A few Chosen and Damned as well, as she intended on settling the war for the Tower and returning west with mages in large enough numbers the Hellgates could be handled by Praesi magics. The Black Queen had not pretended that anything Cordelia could say might sway her form that decision, but the part that had truly cut had been the seemingly heartfelt condolences about Uncle Klaus.

It had seemed obscene to Cordelia that the Queen of Callow had spoken more to him than she had, this last year. That she… The First Prince mastered herself, evenly breathing. The east was beyond Cordelia’s grasp, it was no longer her trouble. She would see to the west as much as she still could, to her last breath, even though she knew in the deepest of her heart that the outcome was already decided. Procer would fall because it was simply no longer capable of standing. If the war was not won soon it was going to break, and the war would not be won soon. In truth it might be that victory was no longer possible, Cordelia admitted to herself. Or that if it were achieved, the Principate Procer would not live to see that achievement.

And facing that brutal truth was part of her duty, to plan for it. So Cordelia Hasenbach’s mind slowly stirred awake from the numbness, considering how any part of Procer might still be saved from the coming onslaught – how its people might be saved. And there was a darker duty still, one that she despised but must consider anyway. Should the Enemy triumph, should it all come to the worst of all ends…

“Send for the others,” the First Prince of Procer finally said, tone steady. “And for mage of the Red Lions as well, if you please.”

The Forgetful Librarian slowly nodded, then rose to her feet to see it done. Cordelia would need to speak with a man she had hoped she would not see again before the war was at an end. Not out of distaste for him, but because of what she had sent him to guard: the ancient corpse that had once lain in the depths of Lake Artoise, and the weapon that had been made of it. For Cordelia was a Hasenbach, in the end.

If it came to it, she would do what she must: better that some of Calernia survive than none at all.

It was a delicate balance to maintain, to keep a civil war going without ever being at genuine risk of losing it.

Malicia liked to think of it as painting with her own blood, drawing on the famous turn of phrase by Maleficent the Second. Every success in guiding the war according to her design came at the expense of carving away a sliver from the pedestal of her perceived superior position, and should the game be kept going for too long – or defeats not of her own making be inflicted upon her – then she ran the risk of that pedestal truly being toppled. It had not come to pass, of course. The Dread Empress of Praes had begun to prepare for this conflict several months before the first sword was drawn, and she’d had contingencies in place regarding civil war for decades prior.

Agents seeded and left to grow, traitors and assassins and impostors. Bribes and blackmail, debts to call on and more highborn in the palm of her hand than anyone alive might suspect. High Lady Tasia Sahelian had seen through parts of the preparations, in olden days, but now Tasia was dead and Wolof ruled by a young man she had personally seen soulboxed. High Lord Sargon Sahelian was, amusingly enough, one of her most ardent partisans well beyond the influence she could truly exert on him. He had bloodied Wolof taking it from his aunt, so he now craved years under the protection of a greater power to rebuild his domain in peace.

And, for all that Abreha of Aksum – Sepulchral, as she now styled herself – remained breathing, east of the Wasaliti there was no greater power than Dread Empress Malicia. So long as I do not slip, Alaya reminded herself, studying the board before her. She’d always enjoyed shatranj, even when she had still been her father’s daughter and not a prisoner in a golden gaol. It was a game of logic and sequence, of anticipating the movements of your opponent, which had always appealed to her. Wekesa had enjoyed the occasional game with her when he’d visited Ater, the two of them spending more time playing and gossiping over their common companions over wine than attending to the matters of state Alaya had claimed the time for.

These days, though, Malicia played mostly against herself. The Dread Empress of Praes considered the lay of the pieces, the disarray of black and white that signaled the tail end of a match closely fought, and slid her last black mage down a diagonal. Soft footsteps told her that Ime had joined her without the need for the empress to look away from the board. This was not her bedchambers, simply a study, but her spymistress was one of the very few people who had access to the enchanted secret passage whose door opened behind her.

“Speak,” Malicia said.

“Our people in Procer confirmed that Queen Catherine is headed for Praes,” Ime said. “Already orders have been sent to Laure by the Black Queen to prepare the supplies for a campaign in the Wasteland.”

Malicia cocked an eyebrow.

“They cannot afford one,” the empress said.

The intricacies of the internal politics of the Grand Alliance aside, Alaya was speaking to the plain realities of hard coin. Callow was not flush with gold, having already spent most of the coin it had received for brokering a peace between the dwarves and the drow, and Procer was so beggared these days that it was often resorting to paying in goods rather than gold for the Callowan grain and cattle it so desperately needed. In practice, the Kingdom of Callow was simply not wealthy of enough to afford a war on a second front. It did not have the steel, the gold or the manpower to attempt such an enterprise. That had been part and parcel of Malicia’s strategy to contain the Black Queen from the very start: make dealing with the Tower a choice between diplomacy and bankruptcy.

“They’re pulling out the First and Second Army from Procer,” Ime replied. “As for coin, Duchess Kegan was instructed to borrow from the northern barons if need be.”

They’d have wealth tucked aside, Malicia reluctantly admitted in a mental calculation. The lands under the baronies of Harrow and Hedges had been only lightly touched by the Tenth Crusade and their rulers had made a tidy profit selling their goods to a beleaguered south during the reconstruction of Callow after Second Liesse. More than that, they would be willing to lend. The barons were not unaware that their adversarial relationship with Catherine Foundling had barred them from the Callowan halls of power, so they would be eager to get a foot in – particularly if the debt was to be ultimately shouldered by the much more friendly Vivienne Dartwick.

No doubt a few handsome spare sons would be sent along with the coin, bearing hints that a newborn Callowan dynasty could do with an infusion of fresh noble blood. Malicia was not unfamiliar with the tactic, her hand having been sought with varying degrees of aggressiveness over decades. Organising particularly painful deaths for those who dared to insist too much had been one of the few instances in which Malicia had worked closely with the Scribe. Eudokia was no friend of hers, but the other woman had inherited that very Delosi penchant for meticulous punishment of the contemptible.

“Who will hold command?” Malicia asked, eyes still on the board.

She moved a pale knight, venturing deep behind an arrant line of pawns.

“Abigail the Fox has been left in command of the Third Army in Hainaut, so she’d dredging up Marshal Juniper herself,” Ime said, tone wary.

The empress was not so affected.

“She is a skilled tactician,” Malicia calmly said, “and a general to take seriously, but her reputation is exaggerated. Rozala Malanza would have beaten her decisively in Iserre if the Black Queen had not intervened at the last moment. Marshal Nim should be her match, if it comes to that.”

Given a decade perhaps the ‘Hellhound’ would fully grow into her talents, having been seasoned by the Uncivil Wars, but for now the experience of the commanders that had served since the Conquest was difficult to match for such a young woman. It would tell, particularly in treacherous grounds like those of the Wasteland. Still, Malicia did mourn that such a talent had been stolen away from the Empire. It had been a stroke of terrible luck, that General Istrid would die during Second Liesse and so leave her daughter adrift and her old legion easily led astray. Not the greatest misfortune to come out of that battle by any measure, but a misfortune nonetheless.

“She will be coming personally, Your Majesty,” Ime quietly said. “The Black Queen. And she pulled away two of her armies from the war on the dead, against our expectations. She is taking a much harder line than we believed she would.”

Her spymistress was not incorrect, Malicia thought as she moved a black tower near the centre of the board. The Dread Empress did not find it entirely surprising that after what the Callowans had quaintly named the ‘Night of Knives’ their queen would balk at a diplomatic resolution of their disagreements, but she had expected that Cordelia Hasenbach would push for such an initiative. The burdens of the war should have rent Procer asunder by now and forced the First Prince to seek terms, even if behind the Black Queen’s back, but out of Salia there was only silence. Scribe had seized the reins of the remaining eyes in Procer, which meant information trickled east only at a glacial pace. Alaya slid a white mage, taking a pawn.

“She cannot afford a battle with either the Tower or Abreha,” Malicia said. “The ensuing casualties would make impossible an assault on Keter. It is posturing, Ime.”

“She thinks us weak,” Ime said.

“Which will make all the stronger an impression on her when it is revealed otherwise,” Malicia said. “I have no intention of offering onerous terms to turn on the Dead King, the shock and an amenable bargain will see us through.”

The priority would be dismantling the Grand Alliance as continental power. So long as Callow was leveraged to leave it after the war Alaya expected that old rivalries between it and Procer would resume, most likely through competing commercial interests, and it would be child’s play to cause incidents at the border between Procer and the Dominion. Her plans had not all gone perfectly, of course. The matters down south had turned against her and she would admit that the Stygian coup had been a complete surprise, but General Basilia’s victories brought opportunity with them. Sponsoring an eastern alliance within the Free Cities to rival the western Helikean bloc would check Grand Alliance influence in the region.

 Already the Secretariat was willing to privately entertain her envoys, worried that Delos would be gobbled up by the victorious marauding general.

“Or she could try to enthrone another in your place,” Ime murmured.

Alaya’s fingers tightened around a black knight. Malicia cocked an amused eyebrow.

“He has no armies, little practical support and fewer allies than I have fingers,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “Amadeus has not returned to my side, but he has not raised a rebel flag beyond that unfortunate lapse at the Peace of Salia.”

Reconciliation might still be possible, she left implied. And Amadeus was in Praes, that much had been confirmed, but her once Black Knight had not made many visible waves. He had not sought allies within the highborn, reached out to the self-proclaimed Dread Empress Sepulchral or even come out of the woodworks to lead the deserter legions in the Green Stretch. The last in particular was a shame. It would have simplified things a great deal in some ways. Malicia was inclined to believe that Ranger had been an anchor around his neck, this time: for all that she was a fearsome force of violence, at the moment the half-elf was also being hunted by the Emerald Swords.

So long as she remained his companion, Amadeus could not come into the light without having those ten monsters coming for wherever he dwelled. Alaya released the knight, turning to meet her spymistress’ eyes. Ime looked troubled, as she often was these days. She was growing old, for all that rituals still kept the worst ravages of time away, frailer in both body and mind than the bold woman she had been in their youth.

“You have concerns,” Malicia said.

“In understand why we cultivated the perception of our weakness,” Ime said. “So long as we were a genuine military concern for the Grand Alliance, I agree that we ran certain… risks.”

Like Catherine Foundling gating in through the Twilight Ways and beginning to drown cities, driven to hard measures by the fear of the Grand Alliance buckling under a war being fought on two fronts. Much easier for Praes to be beset by civil strife, a threat still but only a distant one. Not urgent, an enemy that outright threatened the survival of Calernia. Not that Malicia herself did not genuinely believe that the Dead King had any real chance of winning, for Evil did not win wars, but then it was not her soldiers dying in droves. She had ensured that the Praesi civil war under her watch was to be largely bloodless, mostly fought through raids and maneuvering. 

“Yet that perception may yet come back to haunt us,” Ime continued. “She despises us, Malicia. She might refuse to deal with the Tower even if it’s the safer path, so long as there is another path at all. Another credible candidate.”

Malicia studied her spymistress. It was not assassination being alluded to here, of course. Ime had argued for it in the past but Alaya was still unwilling. Such an attempt would be laughably unlikely to succeed, besides, so long as he had Ranger by his side. Why even consider the option, with that in mind? No, it was a different sort of measure that Ime was arguing for. Alaya looked down at the board and rested a finger atop the black knight she had left behind, thinking for a moment. Sometimes childish dreams had to be let go of, she thought. Even when it was painful. There would be no returning to the way things used to be, and pretending otherwise was embracing the noose.

She tipped over the knight with a flick of her finger, the ebony piece clattering against the board.

“Your advice has merit,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “Send for Marshal Nim.”

Her spymistress watched her carefully.

“You’ll do it, then?”

“Yes,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “I will recognize her as my Black Knight.”

It was a pleasant night out, especially with a bottle of wine and stolen roasted chicken to gnaw on.

The hinterlands of Aksum seemed perpetually doomed to being set aflame, Amadeus of the Green Stretch mused, since a mere few decades after he’d torched them on his way to besieging the city the High Lord of Wolof was now doing the same. Young Sargon was also abducting people to fill up the city that his aunt had mutilated on her way out, however, which Amadeus found an interesting variation on the usual Praesi civil war. It was important to keep those things fresh, he felt, and Gods knew that the Dread Empire had a great deal of practice bleeding itself. The dark-haired man chewed on his second chicken leg thoughtfully, watching the smoke rising in the distance. Another village burned. They ought to get moving soon, he figured, else they would risk running into raiders.

Amadeus wasn’t exactly afraid of the outcome that would ensue, but it wouldn’t be subtle and that lack was a lot more dangerous than those raiders could ever hope to be.

He wasn’t even halfway through the leg when he first glimpsed Hye coming up the path, noticing the splash of red blood on her sleeves when she got closer. Ah, fruitful talks then. She’d always been such a skilled diplomat, if one with a particularly narrow repertoire. He let himself drink in the sight of her for a moment, the long locks framing the high cheekbones and those clever dark brown eyes. Amadeus had seen her in everything but bare skin and moonlight to mail and cloak caked in filth, and even after all these years the faint note of wonder had yet to fade. The love of his life approached, taking a long look at him and narrowing her eyes.

“You ate both legs, you jackass,” Hye Su, who some knew as the Ranger, noted.

“So I did,” Amadeus, cheerfully replied. “You should have stolen your own chicken, if you wanted the choice cut.”

Though he had once been known as some manner of knight, he’d never bothered with chivilary: to add insult to injury, he also tossed the bones of the first leg he’d eaten at her and watched as she easily dodged. Her lips twitched, though.

“I should leave you hanging for this,” Hye complained.

“You won’t,” Amadeus smiled. “You got to kill something, it always puts you in a chatty mood.”

“I don’t get chatty,” Hye denied, deeply offended.

“Of course you don’t,” Amadeus pleasantly smiled.

He had to duck a chicken bone, but it was a victory in every way that mattered. Though huffing while she did, she dropped at his side and the both of them sat back against the tall milestone that some ancient High Lord of Aksum had raised on the hill near the road. Hye naturally helped herself to the rest of the chicken, producing a knife so she could pop the juicy but cooling pieces into her mouth, and the two of them sat closely together under the night sky.

“So I was talking with this fae,” Hye said.

“As one does,” Amadeus amiably agreed.

“He had this friend that knew a friend,” Ranger mused. “And they’d heard that the Black Queen, out west, she’s headed our way.”

“To clarify,” he said, “was this helpful rumour shared before or after you started stabbing him?”

“Eh,” Hye said. “You know how it is with fairies. There’s stabbing and then there’s stabbing.”

Sadly, Amadeus of the Green Stretch did know how it was with fairies. It was only marginally better than dealing with Wasteland highborn, something that had driven him to some fairly infamous bouts of stabbing over the years.

“Shouldn’t be a long journey through the Ways,” he said. “Two, three months at most.”

“Sooner, if Indrani’s guiding her,” Hye said. “She’s always been a natural at pathfinding.”

Amadeus hummed, amused at the understated pride in her voice. Though Hye did not visibly play favorites among her pupils, she’d always favoured those who used bows slightly over the rest.

“It is time for us to surface, then,” he said. “We need to get the last pieces in place before my own former pupil arrives.”

Hye grinned, all teeth and malice, and he felt his heart skip a beat. Even now, after all these years… well, he was not as young as he’d once been, but she did not seem to mind so what did he care? If anything she seemed to like the grey in his hair, which he had not known he was worried about until he felt relieved she did. It had been some years since Amadeus had last felt insecure, even unknowingly, and he had found it almost refreshing.

“Finally,” Ranger said. “I’ve been enjoying laying low, Amadeus, but sometimes you just need to bite down on something you know?”

“I do,” he replied in a murmur. “And this is long overdue.”

He looked east, where in the distance waited the gargantuan shape of the Tower jutting out from Ater, and he raised his half-empty bottle of wine in a toast. When was he to settle his accounts, if not the end times?

If the song refused to leave him, then he would silence it.

Interlude: Flow

“If you are to win the most then you must win always, else you will find a hundred more knives pointed at your back for every victory. This is both the promise of imperial greatness and the fate of imperial death.”

– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian

The fighting had broken out at midday and lasted until half a bell before nightfall.

Neither the Magisterium nor General Basilia had wanted to roll the dice by continuing the battle in the dark. Helikeans kataphraktoi harassed the retreating Spears of Stygia as they retreated, loosing arrows in the back of the phalanx, but after the day’s losses those were but a drop in the bucket. It wasn’t like the phalanx could break, either: the leather collar around the neck of every single slave soldier served as a reminder that the displeasure of their masters would be both swift and final. Magister Andras sent out crossbowmen to chase them away, but like mayflies the famous cataphracts of Helike simply danced away and found somewhere else to sting.

Magister Zoe Ixioni set down her glass of wine, having drunk as deep as she dared given the night still ahead of her. The viewing pavilion that had been raised for the members of the Magisterium that accompanied the Stygian army but would not be involved in the day’s fighting – the majority of them – was rather luxurious and privately paid fund, a gesture of thanks from Magister Andras and Magister Kyra after they were appointed to command of the Stygian army. The twins had sent most of their time in the Magisterium as part one of its the lesser parties, the Herons, but they were not fools or unskilled at games of power. They were making the most of the opportunity they’d been given.

“We hold the field,” Magister Gorgion murmured, drawing her attention. “Is that not… worrying?”

The young man was prodigiously fat, which Zoe had once noted to run in his family, and though he was now the head of what remained of the Laskaris she had several times regretted bringing him into the fold. Though a steady ally – he was terrified of being assassinated should she withdraw her protection – he was also nervous and hesitant, requiring constant reassurance. Would that it had been his older brother that their mother had left in Stygia, when she went out on campaign. The older Laskaris would have been a more fitting partner than the dregs the White Knight’s wrath had left Zoe to work with.

“It does not matter,” Magister Zoe quietly said. “This, too, serves our purposes.”

The ranks of the Magisterium, by tradition, could never number higher than ninety-nine. In practice actual membership usually fluctuated between seventy and ninety, only every rarely approaching that limit, but these days their ranks were rather more thinned. The White Knight and the Ashen Priestess had slain over a third of the Magisterium in a single day during Kairos’ War, and though replacements had come forward further losses had since been suffered to war and intrigues. Considering those slain by heroes had been the finest war mages of Stygia, and a great majority of the Black Vines party that had effectively ruled since the Carrion Lord’s intervention decades ago, the ensuing politics had been… fluid.

As a member in good standing of the Black Vines, Zoe had certainly felt the ground grow unsteady under her feet.

The coalition that’d succeeded at taking the reins and stacking the Courts and appointments had then promptly collapsed in the wake of the disastrous campaign into Procer, leaving as successor an even shakier alliance. The Ivory Tile party had widely been seen as the only rival to the Black Vines, before the last few years of war, but they’d lost too many of their prominent members to either heroes or defections. They’d survived long enough to be the tallest dwarf, however, and to burnish their reputation in this time of danger to Stygia they had allied with the only real military party left in the city: the Herons. Though the lesser of the two partners, the Herons had only been brought into the fold at the price of their leaders, the twins of the Sideris, being named commanders of all Stygian armies in the coming campaign.

Already there was talk of formalizing the alliance, of merging into a single greater party, and in Zoe’s opinion there was sense in it. The Herons typically advocated that Magisters should train as generals instead of simply leaving such duties to slaves, while the Ivory Tile was the champion of the politics of Haides the Elder – that balance in the League must be maintained, at the price of war if necessary. There was compatibility in ideals, even in the long view, which made such a merging possible. And after the leaders of the Herons had today scored a draw against General Basilia, perhaps the finest commander to come out of the Free Cities this generation, they would now have the prestige to take such a step without simply being gobbled up by the Ivory Tiles.

It was near enough to decided who the rulers of Stygia would be in the coming decade, bar disaster. Magister Zoe Ixioni watched the corners of the pavilion, where other magisters were speaking to each other in low murmurs, and smiled at nervous young Gorgion.

“Aretha the Raven, who twice defeated a Helikean field army using mostly sailors and whores, once said that in the Free Cities a general has more to fear from victory than defeat,” Zoe softly said. “Commit the words to memory, Magister Gorgion.”

She rose to her feet gracefully and took her leave from the young man, refusing the serving slave that came to offer her a full glass of wine and instead leaving the pavilion entirely. There was another tent, close by, where one could relieve themselves in privacy and relative comfort. Zoe began to head there but slowed her steps as soon as she was out of sight and then stopped. Before long, the woman she’d been waiting for arrived. Magister Phryne’s gaunt face was said to have been made this way by the strange magics she delighted in using, for she had once been a great beauty. Whatever the truth of that, Zoe had always found her appearance unsettling. Her politics, though, were almost painfully straightforward.

“The Pale Chariot will lend its support,” Magister Phryne said, with remarkable bluntness.

Zoe nodded. She’d expected as much the moment it became clear that the Herons were headed for positions of influence. The Pale Chariot as a party boasted only a half dozen reclusive mages whose personal cause was the safeguarding and improvement of magical knowledge in Stygia, so they tended to be left outside of political calculations. Which meant relatively few people bothered to notice that the only appointments they every sought outside the Court of Arcane was a single seat in the Court of Trades, which they always fought hard for. It was meant, Zoe Ixioni had bothered to notice, to safeguard their common interests in the steelworking industries whose profits happened to pay for all these costly experiments they liked to indulge in.

A detail of little import, unless you also knew that the leading Herons had strong investments in the very same trade and would not hesitate a moment to use their newfound prominence to stack the Court of Trades and award themselves all those lucrative contracts currently funding the Pale Chariot coffers.

“For which you have our gratitude,” Magister Zoe said. “The Keepers?”

“You have ours,” Magister Phryne said. “Amyntor Eliade is not affiliated with us.”

No, Zoe thought, but he does happen to be my cousin. The magister offered a demure smile and nothing else, for over a decade of diplomacy had schooled her well in keeping her thoughts hidden.

All that was left, now, was to take the plunge.

Merchant Prince Mauricius did not have an office, not in the sense his predecessor did.

Though the Princely Palace was his since he had been elected to the ancient and respectable office he now held, the old merchant had bought enough servants on those grounds to know it was as a leaking sieve. Perhaps he would see to mending that, should the mood ever take him, but until then he saw absolutely no need to keep any private papers and affairs out of his manse. Instead, when he was not attending sessions of the Forty-Stole Court or giving audience in the palace he preferred to retreat to his favorite establishment – Sub Rosa, tucked away near the Irenian Plaza at the heart of power in the City of Bought and Sold. There the merchant prince sipped at his Yan Tei rice wine, imported from across the sea and served warm.

A fine delicacy, he decided, and an interesting experience. The latter was perhaps more important, to a man of his advanced age. Novelty often interested him more than simple luxuries. What point was there in being one of the wealthiest men alive, if he did not use that wealth to experience everything under the sun? This particular evening, however it was not simply for the service he had come to Sub Rosa. The obsessive secrecy of the establishment was what he had sought it out for, not the foreign drink, for the diplomats he was to meet were not of the sort that it was diplomatic to entertain these days. The Tower had few allies left, and if Mauricius was reading the currents to the south correctly it was soon to have even fewer.

When the servants finally ushered in two unremarkable young men, of dark hair and simple clothing, the merchant prince cocked an eyebrow.

“That is an impressive glamour,” Mauricius greeted them.

He could almost see something around the edges giving it away, though, and held back a frown. He had begun to see much too well for a man his age, even one who had access to some of the finest enhancing rituals on Calernia. He was not certain whether or not to be pleased by the implication of that.

“Your compliment does us honour, Your Grace,” a pleasant speaking voice replied. “This one humbly accepts the praise on behalf of his mistress.”

The glamour fell, revealing a young man – though in a Praesi with golden eyes, as this one was, that semblance meant little – in fine red silks, dark of skin and finely formed. A Wasteland aristocrat, unlike the formal ambassador of the Tower in the city, and Dread Empress Malicia’s personal envoy. The other figure remained cloaked and hooded, standing still as the envoy slid into the seat on the other side of the table. The young man had not waited for permission, Mauricius noted, for all that he was using that obsequious Praesi formal diplomatic language.

“You forget your courtesies,” the Merchant Prince mildly said.

“This one was wary of waiting, Your Grace,” the envoy pleasantly smiled. “For this one’s mistress has grown uneasy of… long waits, in beautiful Mercantis.”

It was said that the Dread Empress of Praes knew black arts that let her make a puppet of a body far away, Mauricius knew. There were a hundred rumours of the like about every one of the madmen who claimed the Tower, of course, but this one had been repeated across enough years that it had the ring of truth. Was one such body, then, under the cloak?

“Pull down your hood,” Mauricius bluntly ordered.

The stranger obeyed, but it was not some dark-skinned homunculus that the Merchant Prince was gazing upon. It was, he found with a shiver, his own face. Immediately he reached for the rune carved onto the side of the table, which would-

“Freeze.”

Mauricius froze. The face of the insolent youth with golden eyes was as a blank mask.

“I dislike handling such matters personally,” Dread Empress Malicia calmly said. “But the free rein you have given the band of Named in the city forces my hand. I congratulate you for that much, Mauricius.”

The Merchant Prince fought, strained to break the spell.

“A Name?” the Dread Empress said, sounding surprised. “Or a claim, at least. Either way, it means that Ruling you is unfeasible in the long term. Which leaves me with only the less civilized path to take.”

Mauricius tried to scream as the thing wearing his face eagerly came forward, and even let out a small hiss when it lunged forward with a lamprey-like mouth and tore out a chunk of his throat.

“I do apologize,” Dread Empress Malicia conversationally said, “but my diabolists assure me that you must be devoured whilst living for the surface memories to be absorbed and the shape to become permanents. I would have had you poisoned beforehand otherwise, Mauricius.”

Pain, Gods the pain.

“Farewell, Merchant Prince,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “May you choose your enemies more wisely in your next life.”

When the Magisterium appointed generals, by ancient custom these hallowed individuals were bestowed with a whip.

The reason why was simple: by law, no freeborn Stygian could serve as a soldier. To hold a military command was to rule over slaves, for which the proper tool was not sword or spear but the simple whip. Magister Zoe Ixioni has served as a diplomatic envoy for the Magisterium for over a decade and served on the Court of Manners for two consecutive terms as the formal representative to League councils – which while without practical power, was a very prestigious position – so she was quite aware of how the rest of the Free Cities thought of Stygian armies. The finest soldiers that were ever badly led, Theodosius the Unconquered had famously called them.

It was true that the Magisterium tended to choose its appointed generals for their skill in magic or intrigue rather than more straightforward military skills, which the oldest of the slave-officers of the phalanx were expected to be able to discharge on behalf of their masters. By association, interest in military matters was seen as either eccentric or outright distasteful. It was slave-work not fit for freeborn Stygians, much less members of the Magisterium. It was one of the reasons why the Herons had been a minor party, never swelling beyond nine sitters in Zoe’s lifetime. Now Andras and Kyra Sideris, the same twins leading the party that had lingered in irrelevance for decades, were being welcome into the camp to raucous cheers.

Giving away all their weapons save the whips to serving slaves with great ceremony the twins took off their helmets and let the glorious black locks whip free. They were a handsome pair, nearing middle-age but still in the prime of their life and wearing their armour with an ease that hinted at the truth of the old stories saying they’d spent a few years in Proceran fantassin companies during the Great War. The Spears of Stygia that had fought and bled during the day were not granted the same welcome, simply allowed to file in through side gates so the wounded might be tended to and the irreparably crippled discreetly poisoned.

Zoe left the Sideris twins basking in their glory, instead considering the nature of what some Atalantian philosopher-priest had named the ‘dilemma of the sword’. If authority came from the sword, then who could rule save soldiers? Like most claims out of Atalante, it was empty air when the priests claimed to have thought up the question: it had been at the heart of Stygia for centuries, a millennium almost. In the days after the fall of the great empire of Aenos Basileon, it was the eldest daughter of Aenia that had first risen to prominence. Ancient Stygia, under the patronage of the great cranes Retribution and Redress. The ruling polemarchs raised a great standing army and crushed the haphazard militias of their neighbours, forcing them to pay tribute, and for a time the Free Cities had been in Stygia’s palm.

Until the army deposed a ruling polemarch and installed in her place a popular officer instead.

The aftermaths of the coup, which ultimately failed, broke the back of the Stygian Empire. Delos and Atalante regained their independence, the tribute system collapsed and it was made law that never again would a freeborn Stygian serve as a soldier. Slaves, owned by the council of leading sorcerer-nobles that had succeeded the polemarchs, would be the city’s only warriors. Much time and thought was spent on how these Spears of Stygia would be kept under control, the methods crafted being wide and varied, but the most important of them was the collars. Enchanted leather bands that every slave-soldier would wear around their neck, which were linked to two greater artefacts: the Leashes. Through the Leashes, sorcerers could choke or kill a single soldier or a thousand with but a word.

This had solved the dilemma of the sword, some argued, but in truth it had simply moved around the pieces. It was barely a century before the first general tried to use the Leashes and command of the Spears of Stygia to take over the city by force, only stopped when the Magisterium instead choked every single soldiers in their own army to death by spell. Chastened and wary, the Magisterium ruled that no appointed general would ever be allowed to hold the greater artifacts and created the position of Keepers of the Leashes. Two Magisters, never of the same party or kin by three degrees of the appointed general, would be charged by the Court of Honours to serve as guardians and wielders of the single most important artefacts in Stygia.

Over the years additional precautions and checks had been added to the nature of the position of Keepers, but the institution had largely functioned as intended.

“It is madness, you know.”

Zoe glanced at the man at her side, eyes lingering on the noble lines of his face. Amyntor Eliade was a well-formed man, for all that his family had been disgraced when his eldest sister, a recently seated magister, had attempted to abolish slavery and destroy the Leashes. Nephele Eliade had so despised chains, it was said, that the Gods Above had granted her a Name for it. Zoe, who had ounce counted her as a friend as well as a cousin, knew better than to believe it simple hearsay. That bout of futility had destroyed Amyntor’s chances at amounting to anything in this lifetime, but Zoe’s cousin had decided to redeem the family name for future generations by seeking an appointment as one of the Keepers. He would, he had told the Magisterium in a passionate speech, dedicate his life to preserving what his sister had sought to destroy.

“The world has gone mad,” Zoe replied. “We do what we must to weather the storm.”

“It will threaten the very foundations of Stygia,” Amyntor warned. “What is it that has so moved you to act, Zoe? You have always been cautions. It cannot be the would-be Tyrant, we have known hundreds, or even the alliance with the Tower – your own Black Vines were ardent partisans of it for decades.”

Magister Zoe Ixioni thought of that stately hall where the First Prince of Procer had entertained the greats from all over Calernia, where powers had sparred and found victory or loss. She thought of what had followed in the wake of those days, the Peace of Salia with its Truce and Terms. The world is changing, she thought. There would be no returning to the old ways after this, no matter what some of her colleagues might delude themselves into believing.

“The tide rises, cousin,” Zoe murmured. “We may either rise with it or drown.”

And Zoe Ixioni had not spent decades climbing her way to power so that she could see it all collapse over her head. Amyntor sighed.

“So be it,” he said. “I expect Nephele would have smiled of it, if nothing else.”

Zoe was less certain, as Nephele Eliade had been surprisingly farsighted for all her moral naivete, but she knew better than to voice the thought. She parted from her cousin, meeting Magister Phryne’s eyes as she passed the other woman and receiving a nod. It was done, then. Magister Zoe passed through the crowd of servants and magisters, both parting for her, and was received with wary eyes by the Sideris twins. They had come down from their great war chariot, but both lingered near it. The prestige of the gilded thing was impressive to those easily impressed, which these days was too many of the Magisterium.

“Magister Ixioni,” Kyra Sideris greeted her, tone friendly in a way her eyes were not. “Do you come to offer congratulations?”

“I do,” Zoe said. “Your conduct of the battle was exemplary. All of Stygia is in your debt.”

Surprise from both twins, and the wariness thickened.

“You overpraise us,” Andras Sideris carefully said.

“If so, that is fortunate,” Magister Zoe replied, “for you are now both relieved from command.”

There was a heartbeat of surprise, then Kyra began to laugh. Her brother did not, eyes darkening.

“Such a dismissal would require a vote of the Magisterium,” Andras began, then froze.

All around them the Spears of Stygia began to stream in. Armed and ready, pushing the surprised magisters that had not been part of the conspiracy away from the edges of the forming circle.

“This is treason,” Kyra hissed, and she raised her whip.

The enchantments laid on it found no purchase on the collars binding the slave-soldiers, for the sorcery of both Leashes had already been used to sever the control of all lesser artefacts in the camp on the slaves.

“Surrender,” Zoe gently said. “While you still can.”

“We are winning, Ixioni,” Magister Andras urgently pressed. “Even now the Helikeans will be considering terms-”

“Terms have already been reached with General Basilia,” the diplomat said. “We will, tomorrow, offer our formal surrender and submission in exchange for which we will allowed to rule Stygia largely as we wish.”

Some small cities taken by Nicae would be returned as well, which would serve as a useful sweetener for the people when they returned home.

“That treaty will be worth nothing, when Basilia next grows hungry,” Andras scorned.

“It will be guaranteed by Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer,” Zoe Ixioni smiled.

The utter startlement on their faces was a pleasure to behold. The Spears began to arrest members of the Ivory Tile and the Herons, the few magisters who’d sat the fence of the coup – for this was very much a coup – looking on nervously.

“You lie,” Kyra Sideris accused. “She refused the Magisterium when we reached out, what could you possibly offer that would be worth her while?”

“The Magisterium,” Zoe said, “will formally abolish slavery.”

In name, at least. There would be no more slaves, but there would be a great many indentured servants – it would be easy enough to simply pay slaves less than their upkeep required and let that debt trickle down to their children as it did in the laws of Mercantis. It would maintain the old practices with a deniable veneer, not unlike the practices of Ashur. If there were some troubles, well, it would not be difficult to pass laws through the Court of Order that stripped debtors the rights reserved for free citizens of Stygia and further tilt the advantage away from the freed slaves.

“You’ll die for this, Ixioni,” Kyra Sideris raged, fingers tight around the whip. “I’ll have my revenge, I swear it.”

Magister Zoe considered that for a moment, then nodded and walked away.

“Kill them both,” Zoe ordered a slave-officer as she passed him.

She did not stay to see it unfold, for she had a formal letter of surrender to draft.

It was as the White Knight had suspected: the Merry Balladeer’s song did not simply reach ears, it reached souls directly.

In other circumstances that would have been a mere interesting fact, but Antigone had been taught the ‘ways-of-seeing-the-world’ – there was no word in any language knew that accurately translated the word in the tongue of the Gigantes – and that meant she could follow the resonance. The Balladeer’s song, a cheerful ditty from Salamans about a priest and the three goats outsmarting him, marked out every ensouled undead in hearing range for the Witch of the Woods to smash without needing line of sight. Two Revenants died before they even realized what was happening and with every Bind in a range of a mile crushed to dust the lesser dead were nothing more than a witless horde.

They had struck hard and struck fast, but there came a time where the dice had to be rolled anyhow. Only Antigone had the strength to destroy the bridge the dead were raising, but it would take her time to perform such a great working. That meant it was time for blades to talk. They found a hill with a singe narrow path up and Hanno, tired of the elaborate schemes that seemed to plague the world, instead made it all simple: he and Rafaella held the path, the Stalwart Apostle saw to healing and the Balladeer sang. The White Knight raised his sword and shield, his missing fingers itching at the stumps, and let death come knocking as Antigone’s spell swelled behind him.

It was the simplest kind of fight there could be: the dead came and they were funnelled up the path. And they kept coming, corpse after corpse. Revenants, eventually, but paltry things compared to the Scourges, and Hanno’s sword bit deep. The Valiant Champion tossed away the born that tried them, crawling up the slope, and even as a great wyrm followed by flock of buzzards came down screaming on them the sorcery of the Witch of the Woods was unleashed. Hanno felt the Light coming, swift and clean in a way it had not been in too long, and even as in the distance a pulsing black sphere spun and began to swallow up the half-finished bridge he climbed the wyrm.

It ended with his sword going through the skull as Rafaella dragged an entire flock of buzzards into her domain, emerging bloodied and wounded but victorious even as Hanno crawled up the broken remains of the wyrm and came to stand atop the skull where his sword was still stuck up to the hilt. The Valiant Champion climbed up to his side, still bleeding even after the finest healing of the Stalwart Apostle. Some of the wounds would scar, not that Rafaella was likely to mind. The two of them stood together and watched hundreds of pounds of stones being sucked in by Antigone’s great spell, ripping to pieces a great bridge of stone that must have been the better part of a mile long.

“We will have to sweep the other bank,” the White Knight said. “Else they will be able to simply resume the work.”

“Tomorrow,” Rafaella grunted. “We fought good, but tired now. No wine here, very dread.”

“Dreadful,” Hanno absent-mindedly corrected.

“Not full,” Rafaella reproached. “This the problem, Hanno.”

He chuckled, the smile staying with him. It was an old game they were playing, but one he regarded fondly. The Valiant Champion was the sole survivor of the band he had led to defeat in the Free Cities, perhaps his oldest friend in the world after Antigone herself.

“Let’s see to the others,” he finally said. “We can retreat into Twilight afterwards, when-”

He froze, something flickering at the edge of his vision, and turned.

In the distance, far to the south where Hainaut lay, the night sky lit up with falling stars.

Grand

“The reed survives the storm, but only in the shadow of the oak.”

– Proceran saying

Princess Adeline’s hospitality had been flawless, but it was still with some irritation that Cordelia left the grounds of her Salian estate. Neither the wine nor an exquisite rack of lamb had loosened the Princess of Orne’s tongue enough for her to reveal where she stood on the matter of the provisional superintendence. The other woman had greatly risen in influence in the east since the disgrace of House Odon of Bayeux during the coup had ended the family’s former prominence. Her position was further strengthened by the unspoken truth that Princess Adeline was Rozala Malanza’s voice in Salia, which have her some draw over the other members of Princess Rozala’s bloc in the Highest Assembly. That she’d been noncommittal at dinner was not promising.

Riding briskly through the darkened streets of the capital, the First Prince of Procer mulled over the issue as her escort swept ahead to clear the way. She had spent a great deal of goodwill forcing through the measures that had bought the help of the Titanomachy, but not so much that she should be seeing opposition for opposition’s sake at the moment. Considering that Rozala and her followers were usually broadly in support of motions that would secure further funding for the war effort – as granting the office of First Prince the right to appointed superintendents to temporarily supervise the princely collection of taxes doubtlessly would – the hesitation must be coming from the perspective that having such a right would grant Cordelia herself too much power.

Perhaps a compromise could be arranged, the fair-haired prince mused. One of Malanza’s supporters appointed to the head of that newly founded office, and a motion in the Highest Assembly legally binding the measure to the end of the war against Keter? There was some shouting ahead and Cordelia spurred on her mare, only good manners keeping a frown away from her face. Four of her personal guards were arguing with what looked like an officer of the Salian city guard, tones rising. The First Prince approached, dismissing the young guard who tried to argue that it was all being handled, and reined in her mount just in time to hear the source of the argument.

“- coming back from a ceremony under House auspices, I can’t let you disperse them,” the Salian officer was heatedly saying. “You’ll have to go around.”

“Do you quite understand exactly who it is you’re speaking to?” Captain Anton flatly replied.

It would be good for her reputation to give way to the commons if nothing else, Cordelia thought, and painted a soft smile on her face as – the only warning was the glint of torchlight on steel, behind the shutters. Without a single word of warning the three shutters on the house to her left were torn down, clearing the way for crossbows that promptly fired. She threw herself back, so that her horse might take the bolts instead, but her reaction had been too slow and… A pale red blade carved through the air with a whistle, the Swaggering Duellist cutting down the projectiles with impossible swiftness. Landing poorly on her elbow, Cordelia still had enough of her wits about her to keep her voice calm as she gave her orders.

“Catch them,” the First Prince of Procer said. “Alive.”

 Agnes had been right, Cordelia Hasenbach grimly thought. They had finally learned to get around her foresight.

“Two of them swallowed poison,” Louis de Sartrons, head of the Circle of Thorns, calmly said. “The third man knew little, even when put to sharp question, but we confirmed his identity. His husband was arrested, we will see if there is more to be learned.”

Cordelia slowly nodded, sipping at her lemon water. Uncle Klaus would have teased her for not even reaching for a proper bottle after a brush with death, if he still spoke to her at all.

“Praes?” she simply asked.

“It was a sloppy operation, by the standards of the Eyes, but I will not dismiss the notion,” the skeletal old man said. “We gutted their ability to operate in the Principate after the coup, it could be a reflection of that diminished ability.”

The Prince of Rhenia prided herself in her ability to read others, and though Louis de Sartrons had always been a difficult one – as was only befitting of one of three great spymasters of Procer – in this particular instance his thoughts were not deeply hidden.

“You do not believe that,” Cordelia said.

“It might have been Praesi crossbows used, but the Silver Letters got their hands on some stock after the Black Knight was captured,” the older man said. “Some leftover rebellious elements seem a more likely culprit to me, though they will have a backer.”

A Proceran backer, he left unsaid, and that meant a crown. The finest of her spymasters believed that someone in the Highest Assembly was trying to kill her. The blonde Lycaonese hid her dismay by sipping at her lemon water once more. Even now? Gods, even now? She snuffed out the anger that rose before it could turn into something uglier, something dangerous. Cordelia set down the cup, mistress of her own mood once more.

“Keep me informed,” the First Prince said. “That aside, the original reason for this meeting still applies. You have word from the League?”

Louis de Sartrons, thin as a stick and balding, spent a moment watching her before finally his lips quirked.

“Indeed,” he said. “The Magisterium of Stygia is reaching out to us through informal means. They are interested in the Grand Alliance, and Procer in particular, brokering peace in the region.”

Of course there are, Cordelia thought. Were she a less courteous woman, she would allowed herself a nasty little smile. General Basilia, fresh off her success in installing Princess Zenobia as ruler of Nicae, had negotiated a truce with the rulers of Atalante and with her northern flank clear had begun to march into Stygian territory. She’d not even waited for the Magisterium to declare war on her, catching them by surprise, and several of the small cities that Stygia and Nicae regularly fought to rule over had immediately rebelled at the news. The chaos had the magisters unnerved, and rumor had it that Delos was not only disinclined to help but looking at snatching a few border territories for itself.

The Secretariat, for all its scholarly reputation, was just as opportunistically cutthroat as the other rulers of the Free Cities.

“Allow me to guess,” Cordelia airily said. “We must help them, lest wicked Basilia take all of the Free Cities, and they will offer a few concessions to sweeten the bargain.”

“They offer to break ties with Dread Empress Malicia,” Louis de Sartrons replied, sounding faintly amused. “And not to make offensive war for twenty-five years following the peace, save for the four thousand soldiers they would lend to the Grand Alliance for war against Keter. The usual bribes and gifts were added, of course, as it their way.”

In other words, the Magisterium wanted to hide behind a treaty for a quarter century as its rivals returned to warring against each other and wanted to buy this at the cheap price of abandoning an ailing ally and sending the oldest of their slave phalanx to die up north instead of disposing of the aging soldiers themselves.

“Put them off,” Cordelia ordered.

It was tempting to try to make a bargain while the alliance they backed – Basilia and Zenobia – was on the rise and before it dissolved into backstabbing as most Free Cities alliances did, but it would be a mistake. If Stygia lost a battle or two on the field as well as a deeper cut of territory, it would offer much better terms. Besides, the First Prince would not intervene too deeply in the region without first holding council with the Queen of Callow. General Basilia was under Catherine Foundling’s patronage, containing her without the Black Queen’s assent would be… indelicate.

“I will see to it, Your Most Serene Highness,” the spymaster replied. “As for Mercantis, we have confirmed that Merchant Prince Mauricius is taking bribes from the Tower.”

Cordelia’s teeth clenched, though she hid it. Bribes, so that he might help along the end of the world? The utter selfish madness of that was infuriating. What good would gold do when the Dead King was at the gates of Mercantis? Did Mauritius believe he’d be able to buy a peace with death?

“He is not their man, however,” Louis de Sartrons noted. “We intercepted some communications of the Eyes, and it seems that Malicia is rather displeased that he is taking the coin without delivering on what is asked. Though the man remains untrustworthy, Your Highness, I believe that his intent is to play us against Praes and enrich himself as much as possible in the process.”

Which, while morally repellent in every war, was something that the First Prince could work with. Procer was already deeply in debt, but Cordelia had been gathering resources for this very eventuality. Artworks, artefacts, ancient treasures that her predecessors had filled palaces with. There would be talk in the Highest Assembly at a Lycaonese like her ‘pawning off’ the wonders of her southern precursors, but let them talk. If it kept the Principate afloat, she was not above allowing the edges of her reputation to be tarred.

“Find out the price,” the First Prince of Procer evenly said. “But pass word along to the Painted Knife: she now has free rein to hunt Praesi agents in Mercantis as she wishes.”

The City of Bought and Sold could do with a reminder that the Grand Alliance had teeth of its own. Cordelia drank the last of her lemon water, slowly so that the angle of her arm would never be boorish, and allowed herself a long breath as she set the cup down. Tired as she was, there was more yet to do.

There was always more to do.

It was embarrassing for Cordelia to be forced to mediate in the matter, not because her authority had been called on but rather because the dispute involved one of her closest allies.

Prince Renato Braganzo of Salamans, who had followed his brother into being one of her partisans and bared sword in her defence during the botched coup. The mustachioed Prince of Salamans had been painstakingly polite since he had been invited to sit but could not quite his anger for the man across the table. Prince Salazar Arazola of Valencis, eldest child of Princess Leonor and her successor since her abdication at the Princes’ Graveyard. The young man was more aggressive than his mother had been – Leonor had been careful never too lean too closely the way of the First Prince or her opposition – but he’d also signaled an open mind to aligning himself more closely to Cordelia’s politics than she’d been willing to entertain.

Which made it all the more unfortunate that the two princes were one the edge of open war.

“There isn’t a noble south of Cantal that doesn’t know the Bonito Finales are in the service of the Arazola,” Prince Renato bit out.

“The crown of Valencis holds no such contract, as I have told you more than once,” Prince Salazar evenly replied. “Further accusations, Prince Renato, would be a matter of honour.”

Renato was a seven-sun duellist, from what Cordelia recalled, but while Salazar might still be on his fourth sun he was a reputation as a sharp sword and his lesser rank was rumoured to come largely from his lack of formal matches. The First Prince had been following the dispute long before it reached her seat of power, the Silver Letters – temporarily under the authority of Louis de Sartrons, making him the most powerful spymaster in the history of the Principate – having tried to ferret out the truth of the claims made on each side. Prince Renato was understandably furious because a dozen towns in western Salamans had been extorted by a fantassin company, the Bonito Finales, who had even dared to sack a town when it refused to ‘pay extraordinary taxes’.

Said company had been in the pay of the House of Arazola for decades but never formally, as it was used largely for strikes at its Valencis’ neighbours that the princes of Valencis did not want publicly tied to them. It was an open secret in Arlesite lands who the Bonito Finales answered to, however, which meant that though difficult to prove by legal means Prince Renato’s anger was well-founded.

The trouble was that, according to the Silver Letters, Prince Salazar had not ordered the mercenaries to attack Salamans. The fantassins had not been paid in six months, which Cordelia’s agents believed to be the reason they’d taken to extorting towns. Prince Salazar, however, could not admit as much without also admitting to House Arazola having attacked its neighbours for decades with the Bonito Finales. With the younger man’s hold on his throne still shaky and his treasury near empty, admitting to that was the kind of mistake that would see him overthrown by an ambitious cadet branch of the Arazola. Worse, Prince Renato had sent some of his horse too unseasoned to campaigned against the dead at the border of the principalities and done some provocative forays into northeastern Valencis as a sharp warning. No skirmished had ensued for now, but Cordelia knew it was only a matter of time if this kept up.

“I am sure His Grace only meant to express frustration at the raiding on his lands, Prince Salazar, not to impugn your honour,” the First Prince warmly smiled. “No doubt you would be just as incensed had a Valencian town been sacked, as any worthy prince would.”

The young man eyed her warily but slowly nodded. Good, Cordelia thought. So long as Salazar recognized that extorted tribute could be repaid but a sacked town was a much starker offence, this could be salvaged. People had died, but the First Prince must ensure than this conversation would not end in a way that made the number swell.

“These… animals came from the south,” Prince Renato said. “From Valencis. Do you deny that too, Your Grace?”

“These are troubled times,” the Prince of Valencis replied. “Neither roads nor countryside are settled. If bandits passed through my lands I offer my apologies, but who is to say if this is true? They could have come through Aequitan instead. Princess Rozala took much of her soldiery north, her holdings have grown turbulent.”

So had everyone else’s, Cordelia knew. With so few armed men remaining in the southern principalities and such heavy burdens being forced onto the people, an increasing amount of commoners preferred to riot or turn bandit rather than let themselves be squeezed any further. And though Salazar might think himself clever, trying to push the blame onto Princess Rozala – a common adversary to Cordelia and Prince Renato – he had blundered. The Prince of Salamans reddened at the sight of what would seem to him the younger royal trying to slither out of paying for his crimes, and the First Prince simply could not allow one of her finest generals to be troubled over a matter to which she had no real relation.

Besides, the backdraft in the people’s opinion should Rozala be recalled or condemned over something like this would be… severe.  Her popularity had only risen since her stunning victory at Trifelin.

“One cannot bring such an issue to trial before the Assembly without evidence,” Cordelia said, her tone a warning to the furious Renato. “Though I expect, Prince Salazar, that you understand hosting such reprobates would be worthy of censure.”

It would not be treason, not even under the terms of Cordelia’s yet-to-be-repealed crusade authorities, but it would represent a failure of a prince’s sworn duty to ensure the safety of the lands he ruled over. To depose a prince over something of this sort was not a precedent anyone would want to set, given that every principality deal with banditry to some extent, but censure would pass without trouble given that it was a largely symbolic measure. Or would be, the First Prince knew, were Prince Salazar’s hold on his throne secure. A censure would do just as well as a confession of misdeeds, for the ambitious cousins of the Prince of Valencis seeking a pretext for overthrow.

“Of course,” the young man replied, bowing his head. “I would not tolerate the presence of murderers in Valencis.”

Cordelia smiled pleasantly, knowing she’d led him to stand where she needed him to. Should the Silver Letters come through, as Louis de Sartons believed they soon would, then this could be settled neatly. Presently, however, Prince Renato looked on the verge of speaking in ager. Best to end this before he could. The First Prince elegantly wielded her precedence over the two in etiquette to prevent them from directly addressing each other until she called the conversation to an end, hinting at Salazar that he should depart first. Perhaps sensing he had made a misstep, the young prince followed the unspoken suggestion and left her to speak with Prince Renato a little longer. The older man calmed, after being offered a second cup of tea, but the anger was still in him.

“I will not let almost a hundred deaths go unanswered, Your Most Serene Highness,” the Prince of Salamans told her. “Justice must be had.”

“And it will be, rest assured of that,” Cordelia calmly replied. “War, however, would be disastrous.”

“I dare not recall my riders until those mercenaries are hanging from gallows,” Prince Renato replied, a tad coldly.

“I would ask no such thing,” Cordelia smiled. “It seems unwise, however, for them to continue their forays into Valencis. They only serve to warn the bandits of their arrival, making the coming hunt more difficult.”

The mustachioed prince, for all that in some ways he was more openly emotional than most Arlesite royalty, was no fool. He grasped the message she had sent: that there would, in fact, be a hunt.

“Perhaps there is truth to what you say,” the Prince of Salamans reluctantly said, then sighed. “You have been a true friend to the House of Bragzanzo, Your Highness, and so I will take you to your word. The order will be sent.”

“You have my thanks,” the First Prince said, inclining her head. “I understand the trust that has been extended.”

The older man looked faintly rueful.

“Then allow me to offer words on wisdom as well, Your Highness,” Prince Renato said. “The opposition to the matter of provisional superintendence you mean to bring to a vote in the Assembly runs perhaps deeper than you know.”

Cordelia maintained her calm with great effort, face betraying nothing. Her silence invited elaboration.

“I have been approached,” the Prince of Salamans said, “by other sitters of the Highest Assembly. Concerns were expressed as to the power such a measure, even if temporary, would concentrate in the office of First Prince.”

The fair-haired prince did not bother to note that the measure could be enshrined by law as limited in length, knowing the objection went deeper: it was the precedent that her fellow princes were uncomfortable with. They saw it, she suspected, as the first step towards making her office as a queenship over Procer. Power granted in a crisis could be granted anew, with lesser pretexts, or simply never set down at all. The worst of them would be the most scared, she thought. Those who had been underreporting the taxes due to high throne for years, if not decades, and were now afraid that their crimes would come back to haunt them.

As if Cordelia wanted to start a civil war in the middle of a struggle for the Principate’s very existence, as if she did not simply want the princes and princess of Procer to simply obey the laws they had agreed to. The surge of fury kept her from speaking for a few long moments, revealing more than she would have wished. The other prince looked, she thought, almost sympathetic.

“No doubt there is truth to what you say,” Cordelia Hasenbach echoed, her smile a careful artifice.

Once she knew the right questions to ask, answers came in battalions.

It was a conspiracy, but not the kind that Cordelia was used to breaking. It was not the old politics of the Highest Assembly, the tiresome but predictable factionalism that came of jostling for prominence in that hall, but an altogether older game. It was fear not of the implacable for in the distant north but of the very high throne she sat, of what it meant. Her reforms, though passed into law by vote after vote, had stoked that fear to new heights and it had spread like a sickness to even people she had considered close allies. Princess Isabelle of Tenerife, a steady supporter since her ascension, had turned on her. So had Sophie’s younger brother in Lyonis, even as he swore by letters to follow his abdicated sister’s old friendships.

Orense, Arans, Bayeux – so much for Arsene Odon returning the mercy she’d shown him in the wake of the coup – Segovia, Cleves and finally Orne, the very same Princess Adeline who’d hosted her on the night where assassins had struck. Adeline was, her spymaster believed, if not the leader of the conspiracy then at the very least its most influential member.

“It is a large bloc,” Louis de Sartrons said, “but not large enough to defeat a motion in the Assembly you might put forward.”

“It is,” Cordelia replied, shaking her head. “While I have patronized most of the fresh sitters in the Assembly, they will not remain under my guidance forever. When an opposition bloc this large is unveiled, it is certain to draw in some of them.”

If nothing else, some of the crowns in her debt would seek to free themselves of her influence by aligning with her opponents. Worse, the moment she no longer had a clear majority in votes several of her looser allies would reconsider lending their own. The Lycaonese vote was solid, as were Brus and Salamans, but aside from that perhaps the only one she could rely on if hard-pressed was the Princess of Creusens.

“You are certain that Rozala Malanza has no role in this?” Cordelia asked, indulging in a rare instance of repeating a question already asked.

“We have personal letters of Princess Adeline specifying that she was not to be informed,” the spymaster said. “It appears to be the Princess of Orne’s own initiative, and she believes that Malanza would not react amenably.”

Cordelia dismissed the older man, needing to be alone with her thoughts. The nights of Salia had warmed, allowing her to have her windows opened for the breeze to whisper through, and the First Prince of Procer leaned against the windowsill as she looked out at the city below. When had Princess Isabella turned, she wondered? Had it been forcing Gaspard Langevin to abdicate for scheming to betray their allies in the middle of a war that had done it? Or perhaps evern earlier, the decree that’d obligated every prince to make the sum of their debts and the identity of their debtors known – a necessity, if Cordelia was to bargain with Mercantis for the realm. It could have been the Principate-wide restrictions on exported metals, the ordained sale of all grain reserves beyond a certain amount to the high throne, the tax of on the sale of any warhorses sold outside the war effort or even the repeal of the ancient ban on silver from the Dominion being allowed into legal Proceran coinage.

Necessary measures, Cordelia had argued before the Assembly, and always they had agreed.

And now nearly a third of that same Assembly was scheming to defeat her proposal for superintendence, even now reaching out for support among her own allies. It was not a negotiation that Princess Adeline was attempting, that much was clear: the numbers she’d already gathered would have been enough for Cordelia to take her seriously, for a genuine attempt at a compromise over terms to be made. The Princess of Orne wanted her to lose a formal vote on the floor of the Highest Assembly for the first time since the failed coup, a stinging and public rebuke.

“Was I truly so much of a tyrant, Adeline Sauveterre, that you could not even attempt words?” Cordelia murmured.

And she had been careful, so very careful, not to step on toes beyond what survival demanded. For every decree passed Cordelia Hasenbach had set three aside, never brought them to light out of a desire to avoid being seen as taking advantage of the crisis to push through her reforms. Many would have helped, cut away some of the many tumorous growths the Principate had accrued over centuries of venality and corruption, but the First Prince had chosen to use her influence only sparingly. Gods Above, she had fought the White Knight and bargained with the Black Queen to preserve the rights of the same royals now sharpening knives for her back. Had she truly been so domineering that this should be seen as earned, as courted?

Cordelia placed a hand over her heart, where the last words her cousin would every write her stayed with her. How many of her kin, of her people, had she sacrificed for the preservation of the Principate of Procer?

Enough, Cordelia Hasenbach thought.

The First Prince sent for the same spymaster she had dismissed, as she had orders to give.

Prince Salazar was smiling, expectant. He had reached out through intermediaries to inform the Silver Letters of the same conspiracy that Prince Renato had told her of days ago, adding that it had approached him. No doubt he expected his support was about to be bought with a resolution of the dispute in his favour. Cordelia instead had her attendant – Léonie, today – present him with three parchment sheaths.

“A gift, Your Highness?” the Prince of Valencis gamely asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Cordelia replied. “Two of these are transcriptions of letters your mother exchanged with Captain Raoul of the Bonito Finales, regarding raids into Aequitan and Salamans that were undertaken at her explicit order.”

The young prince went very, very still.

“Fakes,” Prince Salazar hotly said.

“The signature is an assumed name, but the handwriting is hers,” Cordelia said. “Your cousin, Lady Francisca, has attested to this by oath sworn under the auspices of the House of Light.”

“A transparent plot to ruin my good name, surely Your Highness can see this,” the Prince of Valencis tensely replied.

“The third,” Cordelia said, “is a letter you will receive by noon from a captain in your service, reporting that he has found the same company holed up in the town of Salanera. Near the border with Aequitan, I believe. They appear to be in collusion the ruling lord, having bought his friendship with a cut of the loot from Salamans.”

The young prince paled. This was, they now both understood, not a negotiation. It never had been.

“Your principality troops will join those of Prince Renato in capturing these bandits,” Cordelia said. “The crown of Valencis will offer appropriate reparations to the crown of Salamans for the extortion and the sacked town, which took place due to its negligence. It will also send the ruling lord of Salanera to Prince Renato so that he might be tried in the royal court as accomplice to all these deeds.”

Prince Salazar’s brow creased ever so slightly as the younger ruler grasped that he was not going to be personally being attainted for any of this. That no mention of his mother’s letters had been made. Cordelia pleasantly smiled.

“I understand you were approached for an alliance by interested parties,” the First Prince said.

“I have, it seems, already chosen my side,” Prince Salazar said, a tad drily.

“So you have,” Cordelia evenly replied. “Accept it regardless.”

The Prince of Salamans was no Arnaud Brogloise, monstrously ruthless in the service of the greater good of the Principate, but he would serve her purposes regardless.

“What a lark that will be,” the prince sighed, accepting the brisk turn of the Ebb with some grace. “And what I am to uncover your behalf, Your Highness?”

“Do you know, Your Grace, what the legal definition of warfare is according to our laws?” Cordelia asked.

Prince Salazar cocked an eyebrow. It was elementary knowledge, to a prince.

“Action undertaken on behalf of a crown that meets the requirements of violence, trespass and righteousness,” he said.

“Indeed,” the First Prince said. “That is, at least, one of them.”

“I do not follow your meaning,” Prince Salazar admitted.

“This definition came after the reforms that followed the teachings of Sister Salienta,” Cordelia said. “The powers granted to the office of First Prince in time of crusade were determined much earlier in the history of the Principate, and so function under an earlier legal definition of warfare.”

Proving this beyond dispute had been difficult, but then the First Prince did have a particularly skilled Librarian at hand. The fair-haired princess amiably smiled.

“You are to find me treason, Prince Salazar,” she said, “that does not know what it is.”

“Prince Florimont Langevin,” Louis de Sartons said.

The name echoed in the silence of the parlour. The Prince of Cleves, it seemed, had not forgiven the forced abdication of his father. That it had been made necessary by a nearly disastrous bout of stupidity that had not only embarrassed the Principate and burned goodwill with some of its most important allies but also nearly drawn in Chosen into Proceran territorial disputes was evidently of little importance. It must be, else why else would the son of Gaspard Langevin not only join Princess Adeline’s alliance but go even a step further and even attempt Cordelia’s assassination?

“He was approached by the last vestiges of the rebellious Silver Letters, not the other way around, but he appears to have embraced the opportunity eagerly,” the spymaster continued.

Prince Florimont had been busier than Cordelia ever knew, it seemed. She had wondered at his lingering in the capital even after the Highest Assembly confirmed him as Prince of Cleves, but believed it to be mere courting of a place as one of Rozala Malanza’s followers through Princess Adeline. What an ambitious young man he had turned out to be.

“Do we have proof?” Cordelia asked.

“Enough to stain his reputation, should we release it,” the skeletal old man said. “Nothing that would sway the Highest Assembly, however. It is all circumstantial, or lesser proof.”

Nothing material and evident, the last meant, or testimony only by individuals who could not take an oath under House auspices – because of past criminal offences, contradicting oaths or possession of magic. It was a dark irony, Cordelia considered, that the last of these three was an injustice she had several times restrained herself from undoing because she’d believed it would have caused too strong a resentment in the Highest Assembly. Neither just nor unjust, she had instead straddled the line and reaped only the worst of what she had sown. A lesson, the First Prince of Procer thought, that was worth learning.

“Reputation is not enough,” Cordelia said.

“I assure you, what we have is suggestive enough the House of Langevin would be made into pariahs,” Louis de Sartons said. “They would be stripped of all allies.”

“Arsene Odon was without allies, after the coup,” Cordelia said. “And now here he is again, dogging my footsteps as part of the conspiracy of Princess Adeline.”

“You spared Clotilde of Aisne as well, and she has held true,” the spymaster noted.

Ah, Cordelia thought, but for how long will she hold?

“Florimont Langevin is not cut of the same cloth as she,” Cordelia said. “You know this to be true. To corner him and let him stew in his resentment would be recklessly neglectful.”

Louis de Sartrons studied her for a long moment, eyes shadowed.

“A decision of sone weight,” the spymaster said.

“It can be done?” Cordelia asked.

“It can,” the old man said. “Should it?”

She met his gaze, unblinking.

“If you remain of the same mind on the morrow,” he finally said, “then I will obey. Yet I request, humbly, that you reflect on this. It is not an order that should lightly be given.”

He took his leave soon after, leaving her to her thoughts. Cordelia had duties she ought to see to, her hours never empty, but instead she had her maids fetch her a shawl and headed for the garden. It was a pleasant enough night out, though not so warm that the First Prince would have gone without the shawl, but that mattered little to Agnes Hasenbach. She wore a long pale dress, already stained from grass and dirt, and the sensible shoes that Cordelia had gotten her last winter solstice. She was also seemingly lost in thought, seated on her favourite bench and looking up at the stars. Cordelia sat by her cousin’s side, letting the silence stretch out.

It was almost restful, to be with someone who required nothing of her.

The Augur emerged from her thoughts after a long while, that short bob of blond hair turning in startlement when she realized she had company. Agnes’ eyes – Hasenbach blue, cold and clear – were confused for a few heartbeats, until her mind returned to the here and the now.

“It is taking longer than it once did,” Cordelia quietly said.

Her cousin sighed.

“Snow falls, rivers flow,” Agnes Hasenbach simply said.

An old saying of their people, warning that rage against the inevitable was wasted breath.

“I have favours that could be called on,” Cordelia murmured, “among Chosen and Damned alike.”

And those that she had not traded with, she could be introduced to. Neither the White Knight nor the Black Queen would be the kind to refuse her this sort of boon.

“It avails us nothing,” Agnes said, sounding surprised they’d not already had that conversation. “It only… ah, it is not winter yet?”

“No,” Cordelia gently said. “It is not.”

“I was following far threads,” Agnes said. “In the south. They grow clearer now, fates are precipitating.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Did you come to ask about Hainaut?” her cousin asked. “It is only light, Cordelia. Blinding. It does not change.”

The First Prince of Procer smiled, the first time today the gesture felt genuine.

“I had though to ask you for advice, in truth,” Cordelia admitted.

“Owls are gossips,” Agnes helpfully replied, “but you can trust a pigeon, so long as it is well-fed. Those of Salia are very nosy, but they do not spread the secrets.”

It was unfortunate that only Agnes seemed able to speak with birds in such a manner, as the blonde princess suspected that pigeons would be staggeringly successful spies should they be put to work. Some of Cordelia’s peers seemed to favour friendships with martial Chosen and Damned, but to her this was frank stupidity: the most useful of such souls in her service was the Forgetful Librarian, who while barely able to use cutlery instead brought to the table the ability to see through ever single correspondence cipher under the sun. Her own spymaster had broached the subject of permanent employment there, and she was inclined to agree.

“There is a choice that must be made,” Cordelia told her cousin. “And I do not know the face of the right answer, should there even be one.”

Agnes studied her a moment.

“This is not a question for the Augur,” she finally said.

“No,” Cordelia quietly agreed.

It was a question for one of the last people in this world she could trust with her thoughts.

“I do not know of Ebb and Flow,” Agnes hesitantly said. “We never learned, any of us. There was always you for it. It was a relief, that it could all be entrusted to you.”

“I sometimes wonder how much I truly learned, Agnes,” Cordelia said. “Every mercy I give is repaid with treachery, every striving for reform met with sullen resentment. It is not that I am unskilled at this game, I know better than that. I simply seems…”

She bit her lip.

“As if, sometimes, I am the only one in that hall that sees Procer as in need of mending,” Cordelia said.

“The Assembly changes too quickly,” Agnes muttered. “Gives me headaches.”

Even odds, the Prince of Rhenia mused, whether she meant their futures or simply their names.

“But when I make choices,” Agnes quietly continued, “I have a rite.”

Cordelia’s smiled eased, and she met her cousin’s eyes seriously.  Agnes nodded, satisfied.

“I make myself remember who I am,” the Augur said. “Where I am, when. And then I ask myself what it is I want.”

And Cordelia’s heart broke a little bit for the cousin she’d known since they were both but girls, for the way her expression wavered when she admitted she so often forgot all these things. But she would take it seriously, the First Prince told herself. She closed her eyes, breathing out. She knew who she was, for it might as well have been branded into her soul Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Princess of Salia and Prince of Rhenia, Warden of the West and Protector of the Realms of Man. She sat here in Salia, the heart of the Principate, as the realm faced the coming of the end times. Knowing all this, embracing it, what did she want? Survival, for Procer and for herself, but that was not a want so much as a need. She dug deeper.

“I want to make Procer what it should be,” Cordelia Hasenbach quietly said. “What we promise the world it is, only to so utterly fail.”

Agnes nodded, eyes already half-gone.

“Then you know,” the Augur said, “the choice you must make.”

She turned to look at the sky again, going silent, and Cordelia breathed out shallowly.

So she did.

The timing had to be particular so that the proper effect would be achieved. The session for the vote on the provisory superintendence was called at the end of the month, as had been announced, but in the few hours that preceded the royals or the representatives setting foot in the Chamber of Assembly a few events took place in quick succession.

First, as she participated in the charitable distribution of bread to the impoverished people of the Silenin neighbourhood the First Prince of Procer was shot by a crossbow in broad daylight.

Second, Prince Florimont Langevin of Cleves took a crossbow bolt through the back of the head as returned from a visit to an upscale brothel.

Before the hour had passed Salia was a city-wide riot. The Dread Empire was blamed, but there was talk of there being traitors in the Highest Assembly that had helped the easterners. “Too Many Cooks” was heard sung in the streets shortly before cobblestones and rotten fruit were thrown at the mansion belonging to the Prince of Bayeux, though Arsene Odon was far from the capital.

Third, formal messengers were sent to every royal and assermenté in the city to confirm that the First Prince lived and the session of the Assembly would still be held.

Fourth, a mere hour before the session was to be held every member of Princess Adeline’s conspiracy save the princess herself received two scrolls. One held evidence for the dealings of Florimont Langevin relating to an assassination attempt. The other laid out the legal case for treason committed by Adeline Sauveterre.

Fifth, the Pilfering Dicer was tasked with stealing the luck of one woman in particular until misfortune plagued her like fleas might a dog.

And so when the First Prince of Procer entered the Chamber of Assembly, her torso bandaged more for effect than out of need, it was to silence. Every whisper had died the moment she came into the hall. There was still one of them missing, for Princess Adeline of Orne had been unfortunately delayed after she was thrown by her horse, but the session began without her.

“As First Prince of Procer,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “I declare that every vote held this evening will be entered into the formal public record.”

It was the Alamans here who first understood the threat, not her own countrymen or the Arlesites. It had always been the people of the lakes, of the heartlands of Procer, who best understood the weight the opinions of the people carried. It fell into place, after that, one stroke at a time. Prince Salazar of Valencis brought forth the accusation of treason against Princess Adeline, making the faces of more than a few conspirators pale in dread. Evidence was brought out, mere technicalities – movement of troops through the territory of another prince without explicit permission, an act of war under ancient laws, and the hiring away of fantassins already in the service of another without reparations being offered – but enough that the legal requirements were met.

These were, every soul in this room understood, almost laughable charges. Only a First Prince with unshakable support in the Highest Assembly, with power and influence at their zenith, might feasibly attempt such a transparent ploy without being run out of the Chamber. And still, after the evidence was laid out, only silence followed. And in that silence the howls of the people echoed loudly, the riots that had yet to end. Cordelia Hasenbach watched the Highest Assembly with cold eyes. Which of you, she asked them silently, wants to be known to the mob as the traitor that helped shelter treason? Which of you wants to be known on every whisper as the Praesi hireling, as the turncoat that bickered with the First Prince of Procer while her breast was still bloodied?

Princess Adeline of Orne stormed into the Chamber but moments later, unannounced by heralds, but before she could so much as speak a word Cordelia Hasenbach addressed the Highest Assembly.

“I now call for the vote on the charges of treason laid against Adeline Sauveterre, Princess of Orne,” the First Prince calmly said, voice echoing across the hall.

One after another the votes came, and Adeline went from mocking to defiant to deflated and finally to shaking. Falling on her knees. She was condemned unanimously.

“See her out,” Cordelia ordered the guards.

She called the vote on the provisional superintendence, then, and after not a word of debate it passed unanimously. She saw then in their eyes the belief that it was done, that they were free of this drumming. Cordelia Hasenbach did not free them. Instead she called for a vote on the repeal of the law preventing magicians from taking oaths under the auspices of the House of Light.

By midnight, she had passed every single reform she had ever wanted to pass.

They would unseat her for this, in time, but what of it?

Cordelia Hasenbach knew exactly who she was, and what it was she wanted.

Chapter 78: Keter’s Due

“The parity of light and darkness is a false perception. Light is transgressive, an imposition on the natural order, and so will always spend itself into nothingness. Be as the dark and you will be beyond struggle, ever returning when the flames die out.”

– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

The turn of the year had begun with a boy I’d thought I might save, and then a hard lesson remembered to me by the Dead King. That this was not a war as I had known wars before, that there would be no miracles or saving graces to this ugly, brutal, exhausting struggle to the death we were having. I thought of that night again, as I watched stars fall on the city of Hainaut, and the lesson echoed once more: sometimes we just lost.

Masego’s spell was little more than a window between Twilight and Creation, but what it showed was… I knew the forces at work, but still the sight caused me in me a sort of primal awe. The meteors, shards of a broken star, were massive. The first that struck toppled half the city in a streak of dust and white flame, scouring it clean of life, but the rain did not end there. Again and again the capital and the valley around it were struck until there was nothing there but barren glass, and still in the distance stars fell. How much of Hainaut had been scoured in the span of a few moments, I wondered?

It’d not been undead alone that’d still been in the city when the star fell. The Fourth Army was gone, as were most of the Hannoven men and the Prince of Bayeux’s army. Almost all of the Alavan troops had been lost as well, since they’d served as the Dominion rearguard, and at least half the Firstborn with them. It had been a cruel defeat before the Pilgrim began his last hurrah, but after the star had struck the results could only be called disastrous. Not a single army in fighting shape had made it out of Hainaut except maybe the Neustrians, and they’d just lost their princess.

I couldn’t even blame the Pilgrim for when he had begun to call down the wrath of the Heavens, he’d not had any choice. There would be no repeat of the sacrifices – my heart clenched, my nails dug into my palms – that had bought him that opening, and risking a longer wait might have made it all worthless. He’d done what he could and turned this into a disaster for both sides at least. The Dead King, for all that he was the victor of the field, did not have an army left in all of Hainaut. The meteors had seen to that. Much as I itched to blame Tariq for what I’d lost tonight, it would have rung hollow to try it when he’d died trying to save all of Calernia.

And he had, Gods forgive me. If we’d simply evacuated, fled back to our defensive lines, then the simple amount of corpses swelling Neshamah’s ranks would have been enough to overwhelm us to the south after we retreated there to lick our wounds. And once the Dead King pierced into Procer, got his hands on cities and teeming masses of refugees, then it was all over. The Peregrine had averted that doom for us all, and I held that truth close as I watched the pieces of a dead star rain own on Creation.

“Some of the Scourges will have made it out,” Indrani quietly said. “The Hawk for sure, maybe the Prince of Bones as well.”

“The Grey Legion’s good as gone,” I replied, forcefully calm. “That, at least, is a gain.”

There had been few enough of those tonight that I would the find silver linings where I could.

“The Crab is destroyed as well,” Masego noted. “Though it likely was in a practical sense even before the meteor struck it, given the amount of goblinfire burning within.”

My fingers clenched. Blood dripped down from my palm onto the soft grass.

“It was a good way to go,” Archer murmured. “They will sing songs of him, Catherine.”

I would rather they didn’t, I thought, so that I might hear him sing again instead. But I’d known deep down that Robber would find his worthy death on some battlefield or another. He’d been looking for years, trying ever starker odds against ever sharper foes. You would have hated peace, I thought. Despised it to the bone. A long silence trundled along, the only sound that of our steady breaths. My cheek clenched in frustration as I tried and failed to blink an eye I no longer had.

“It will end soon,” Hierophant said. “The power is spent.”

I nodded. The pale streaks were waning, growing rarer. Even the might of the Choir of Mercy anchored on the death of a great man was not a force without limit.

“Your officers want to speak with you,” Indrani reminded me.

“They can wait,” I said.

General Bagram was dead. Vivienne has saved his life from the Varlet only him to die trying to rally the Fourth mere hours later. General Zola was now in overall command of my remaining soldiers, something eased by the hard truth that aside from the remains of the Second I had few of those left. Later I would speak to her, but for now I saw no point. Indrani brushed a hand against my arm, startling me as I’d not seen her coming. I had blind spots now, I reminded myself. I’d need to learn to compensate for them. I shook away the touch, even if it was meant in comfort. Archer knew me well enough not to take it badly. She left me to the way I had always preferred to handle my grief: alone. Her footsteps were soft against the grass as she left.

Masego stayed, but his eyes were on the vista revealed by his spell. He’d always been the most accommodating of my friends when it came to sharing solitude. It made him the easiest to be around when grief was still raw.

The last streaks of light softly died, leaving behind only a darkened sky and one fewer star than there had been at the beginning of the night. Hainaut was a ruin. The city itself was shattered, blackened stone smooth as glass rising in jagged pillars that looked eerily like teeth. Smoke and ash were on the wind, swirling thick. The land around the capital was no less a ruin, the plains scoured down to burnt bedrock as far as the eye could see. Nothing would live here for decades, centuries even. Of the armies the dead there was not a trace left, not even of that behemoth Crab that had tipped the scales in the Dead King’s favour at the end. It was all dust on the wind, hundreds of thousands of souls released back to whatever Gods they had kept to.

There was a terrible peace to it all, I thought. Masego turned towards me, raising an eyebrow in silent question. I nodded and he let the spell die. It ended in time for me to hear footsteps approaching, the cadence of them telling me who they were before I turned. That hobbling walk was Hakram on his crutches, while the still unnaturally smooth stride was Vivienne’s – she had once walked rooftops as other women did streets, and the touch had never quite left her. Leaning against my staff, I watched them approach with apathy. Vivienne looked away when I met her gaze. Trying to avoid looking at my eye, I realized, and suddenly felt self-conscious. I would have brought down my hood, were it not too obvious a reaction.

“Catherine,” Adjutant greeted me. “The starfall has ended?

I cocked an eyebrow at the empty talk, gaze moving to Vivienne.

“What is it that you two need of me?” I plainly asked.

She grimaced, and this time did not flinch away from the sight of the gruesome scar I had instead of my left eye.

“You need to hold a war council,” Vivienne said. “At least for Callow. General Zola’s keeping it together, but she doesn’t know where to go from here.”

“It’s obvious,” I tiredly said. “We lost the battle but the Pilgrim salvaged us an opportunity with his death. If the White Knight succeeds to the north then we will escort the Gigantes to the shore and ward Hainaut from the dead. If he has lost, then we retreat for the Cigelin Sisters and fortify what we can against the coming onslaught.”

I did not doubt that even as we spoke the Dead King was marching troops through the bottom of the lakes to our north, trying to turn the setback into an opportunity. We’d destroyed the Twilight Gate here along with the rest of the city, but we still had pharos devices for mass-deployment of our remaining forces. Returning to Creation at the moment would be pointless, especially since the ruins were still hazardous and there was no water left to drink, so we would be staying in the Ways until the sun came up if not even longer. There’d be no point in leaving the Ways just to enter them anew when we marched either north or south.

“It might be obvious to you, Catherine, but not others,” Hakram calmly said. “More than that, you must be seen. The Lycaonese lost both their rulers in the span of a single night. The Alamans are shamed and desperate, with only a destitute Princess Beatrice to calm them.  The Dominion mourns the Grey Pilgrim without even a body to burn. The Firstborn huddle among themselves and speak to no one. And the Army of Callow broke tonight, for the first time since it was founded.”

“You’re needed, Catherine,” Vivienne said. “The Black Queen is needed.”

When fucking wasn’t she? My fingers balled into a fist, blood sliding down the skin from where my nails had bit through skin. Hakram’s eyes flicked there, though with his nose he would have smelled the red long before that.

“Enough,” Masego said, voice grown hard. “If you have the voice to ask, use it settle the troubles you bring her instead.”

I started in surprise, half-turning.

“Masego-” Vivienne began.

“She should be asleep, Vivienne,” Hierophant said, eyes burning. “She insists on remaining awake, so she will, but do not mistake this for her being in a fit state. You ask too much.”

I found myself both warmed and irritated.

“I can speak for myself, Zeze,” I said.

“Then do so,” Masego bluntly replied. “But I will not let this war drag you into the grave, Catherine. I have not forgotten what Aunt Sabah’s death did to my family, and I will not allow Robber’s death to bloom that sickly flower twice.”

I might have taken issue with the tone if he’d not spoken the words that followed. I remembered it too, the brittle look in Black’s eyes after Captain was killed. I had not loved Wekesa the Warlock while he lived, but I would not do the man’s shade disservice be denying he had cared for Sabah just as deeply. That evening in the Free Cities had left scars on all the Calamities, even if some had been subtler than others. I would not blame Masego for dreading the only family he had left might come to the same end. I sighed, drawing their attention.

“There’s nowhere for them to go,” I said, gesturing at the Ways around us. “And it will take more than my carcass being paraded through a camp to fix this. I’ll see to the Army of Callow later, but the rest can wait.”

Masego beamed at me, which was comforting even tough I knew this was probably the wrong decision. I was tired enough that I found it hard to care: there was only so much beating that this thrice-dead horse could take. I met Hakram’s eyes and found surprise there, but he nodded. Vivienne was harder to read. Was she disappointed? If she was, I’d cope. The legend I’d set was not one I could live up to. l If this campaign should have made anything painfully clear for all the world to see, it was that I didn’t always have the answers. I’d pushed for this offensive from the start and even if I’d not been the only one to do so my influence had objectively been key. This catastrophe was on me, if it was on anyone at all.

Most the people I could have shared the blame with were dead.

“Leave me,” I said. “I-”

My sentence went stillborn when I felt a shudder of indignation through my tenuous bond with the Night. Sve Noc were enraged, and though I found the shades of emotion difficult to parse I did pick up that this wasn’t about the Firstborn. In the distance, two great crows took flight. Masego was not far behind them, wrested sorcery already opening anew the same window into Hainaut he had allowed to lapse. The spell was not as stable as the last time, the edges buzzing and the spell itself letting out trails of smoke here in Twilight, but what we saw could not be missed. Among the great fangs of black glass which were all that remained of the city of Hainaut, a great spell was stirring up a storm of ash.

It was not one of ours.

“Hierophant, what am I looking at?” I calmly asked.

Masego remained silent for a time, golden glass eyes darting back and forth as they parsed the glimmers of the spell that could be seen through the ash. Thick, curving cords of runes spinning in cycles without making a sound, a dull but growing pale sphere at the heart of them.

“I am… unsure,” Hierophant admitted.

The Crows plunged through the night sky in a precipitous glide, Andronike and Komena claiming my shoulders and sinking their sharp talons into the steel of my pauldrons. They hissed urgency at me and I raised my bloodied hand to clutch my staff.

“Whatever it is, we can’t let it finish,” I said. “I’ll open us a gate, and-”

I glanced at Hakram and Vivienne, lips thinning. No more risks tonight.

“- you and I will go,” I told Masego. “Archer too, if we can-”

This time it was someone else who cut in, and before either Adjutant or Vivienne could object too. I was pleased to see Archer striding towards us on the grass, but surprised to see her scarf was already pulled up and her bow strung. She’d been expecting trouble already.

“Cat,” she said, “we have a problem.”

“I’m aware,” I replied, jutting a thumb towards the spell-window.

She took a glance, then grimaced.

“Cat,” she said, “we have two problems.”

Fuck me, I thought. Hadn’t this night been enough of a malediction already?

“I’m listening,” I said.

“The Gigantes are gone,” Archer said. “All of them. I think they went back into Creation.”

I felt a moment of blind panic at the notion of Keter getting its hands on Gigantes spellsingers, Gods would even the Ways be safe anymore now that Tariq was dead – but the talons of the crows pricking at my skin drew me out of it. I breathed out.

“Hierophant, is this their work?” I asked.

“No,” Masego immediately replied. “This is Trismegistan, Catherine. And I understand why it unsettled me. The elements I found familiar were of my work and Akua Sahelian’s.”

I blinked.

“The Dead King cribbed from your spellcraft?”

“I suspect,” Hierophant softly replied, “that it was the other way around, Catherine. However unknowingly. It is not without reason that the very magic we practice bears the name of Trismegistus.”

“Shit,” Archer said. “This is his spellwork, isn’t it? His actual hand weaving the spell, not some intermediary’s.”

Well, would you look at that. It had somehow gotten worse. There really wasn’t any time to waste if Neshamah himself was making a play, so I stiffly swept my staff across the air and ripped open a gate down into Hainaut. A howling gale swept ash and smoke towards us and I glanced at Archer and Hierophant.

“You two, with me,” I ordered, and went into the storm.

The winds slashed at us angrily, bludgeoning us with ash and sharp pieces of gravel.

With the Sisters themselves on my shoulders I could almost call on Night the way I’d been able to before it was ruined, but my body was weak. Aching and too close to collapse. Even with Komena banishing the sensation of exhaustion, I could feel a tingle at the edge of my senses warning me how close to unconsciousness I still teetered. The bubble of stillness I wove around us flicked in and out, becoming harder to maintain the higher up the slopes we went. It was Archer that guided us, pathfinding through the jutting blades of glassy stone with their sharp edges that dug into our boots. She took us through detours that saw the stone protect us from the wind, but even with all our haste it was frustratingly slow going.

I clutched the rope when it came down after Masego had finished climbing, passing mastery of the bubble to Andronike as I concentrated on hoisting myself up. My muscles burned even when Indrani came to stand at the ledge and began to pull me up, grunting with effort, but after an eternity of labour I was over that too-sharp edge and falling on my knees atop the stone. My bad leg was pulsing with agony, but it was dull and distant. The Sisters did not want me distracted. I had left my staff down there, beyond the bubble, but it still stood perfectly still as if untouched by the storm. I extended my hand and moments later it was slapping against my palm, the dried traces of my blood rubbing against my palm as I pulled myself up.

The crows returned to my shoulders, never having strayed far. They seemed wary of leaving us behind, my patronesses burned by what it had cost them to face the Dead King while I slept. Hierophant was standing at the edge of the stillness, black robes in disarray and those long tresses woven with silver trinkets swept to the side. He was looking out into the distance, standing beneath two great fangs of stone crisscrossing as in the distance the Dead King’s magic slowly revolved. Archer had found us the right place, I thought, sending her a thankful look. Decent shelter and a good vantage point, it was exactly what we needed.

I limped to Masego’s side, not that he gave a visible sign he’d hear me coming.

“So?” I asked.

There was a tense silence.

“I believe,” Hierophant murmured, “that he is opening a Greater Breach.”

I screamed out the vilest curses I knew at the sky until my voice went hoarse. Archer came to stand by our side, silent as she warily eyes our surroundings.

“Can you Wrest it?” I asked.

“I have been trying,” Hierophant conversationally said, “for fifty heartbeats now,”

His shoulders were trembling, I noticed only then. It was hard to see under the ash-dusted robes. And though he was not grimacing, there was a line to his mouth. Tension. I dared not speak another word, even if he’d not said the distraction would be harmful, instead listening as Komena whispered into my ear. I heard not a word but something greater, and my vision swam until I glimpsed a part of what the goddesses were seeing. Wills at war over the sorcery raging ahead of us, those slowly spinning circles of runes and the sphere within them. Like ink in water, Masego was trying to spread his will through the gargantuan amount of power but it was not enough.

There was too much water.

“His perspective is still too narrow,” Andronike whispered into my ear, regretful. “He has not witnessed enough.”

It was hard to deny the truth of that when it was before my eyes. Hierophant was failing and would fail. Did we have anything else that might destroy this? Night would not be enough, not when I was falling apart and the enemy’s raw strength was so great. Did Archer have an arrow that would – no, that was thinking about this the wrong way. The Intercessor had mocked me, in the Arsenal, asked me where Neshamah’s devils and ancient sorceries were. Well, they were here now. Why? More importantly, why now? But I’d already been given the answer to that, I belatedly realized, by an old man that was now a dead one. He cannot use either, Tariq Isbili had told me, speaking of devils and demons. It would represent too steep an increase in strength on his side of the scales.

The Pilgrim had meant in the sense that if the Dead King used devils, then the heroes of the Grand Alliance would in turn get to call in angels as a superior counterstroke. Except we’d struck first, hadn’t we? The Grey Pilgrim had died intertwined with the Choir of Mercy calling down his dead star, it was our side that’d broken the seal. The story’s not on our side, I realized with dread. Even if Masego had proved to have the capacity to Wrest the spell, he still would have failed – the scales were tipped in Neshamah’s favour for this to work, he had earned it. Fuck. And I couldn’t believe it would be only the one gate either, it wasn’t the Dead King’s way.

“Can you see afar?” I asked Sve Noc. “Look for other gates like this, still forming.”

“It will be difficult,” Andronike cawed.

“But not impossible,” Komena noted.

It would require enough of their attention that I’d be on my own, though, their minds brushing against mine made clear. Wouldn’t matter, I decided, power wouldn’t get us through this. They seemed inclined to agree, and on my shoulders the weight of them waned. As if much of them had gone elsewhere. The glimpses they had granted me ended too, but Masego had been about to be evicted – diluted into effective nothingness, more accurately, but the practical result was the same – from the spell, his aspect stuttering to a stop. He breathed out raggedly moments afterwards, body shivering. Indrani moved to help him up.

“You’ll be fine?” I asked.

“I withdrew before it could be turned against me,” Hierophant hoarsely replied, nodding. “But though defeated, I have learned some of his secrets. It was impossible not to, when my will was coursing through his work.”

He coughed, as much out of exhaustion as the heavy and ash-laden air.

“It is imperfect,” Hierophant croaked out. “Unlike the closed circle that Akua made of Liesse. Not only will Keter’s Due spread, it was made worse. On purpose, I think.”

My stomach dropped.

“How much worse, Masego?” I quietly asked.

The last time the Dead King had opened a Greater Breach, he’d blighted most of the Kingdom of the Dead doing it. It was the reason the phenomenon was known as Keter’s Due in the first place.

“I can’t be sure,” Masego admitted. “Perhaps as far as the defence line to the south?”

That was, I thought, perhaps nine tenths of Hainaut that he had described. Made into a howling wasteland by the spell ahead of us, those spinning circles whose rotations were beginning to quicken. My bloody hand left the staff and I looked down at it, feeling numb. This was… Tariq had died for this, and a blighted Hainaut with a permanent hellgate in the middle was what would be achieved? I grasped for a story that could turn this around, but what was there left? We had spent all our miracles, our strength, our last chances. We had bargained ourselves away until only a remnant’s remnant remained, and still it had not been enough. The two of them looked at me, somehow expecting I would turn it around, but to my horror there was nothing.

My bag of tricks was empty.

“I-”

I swallowed. The words tasted like ash in my mouth but I forced them out anyway.

“I can’t stop this,” I quietly admitted. “I have nothing.”

I looked away, afraid of what I might see on their faces at that admission. What I found, instead, was a tall shape standing alone in the winds. Down there, away from our shelter. Troublingly close to the spell. Indrani began to say something but I raised a hand to interrupt her. Was this the Dead King, inhabiting a favoured corpse and giving silent invitation by his presence? Talon sunk into my flesh once more, the Sisters returning from their spirit-journey at last.

“There are two more,” Komena said.

“One close, to the west, and one far in the northwest,” Andronike said.

The other two southern fronts. Cleves and Twilight’s Pass. Neshamah did not just intend to win here: he was going to win everywhere and all at once. Not, not everywhere, I almost immediately corrected.  That would have been a mistake, overreaching. Enough of an opening for the Heavens to put their fingers to the scale. He’d not touched the front against the Firstborn, trusting in his crippling of the Night and his ability to triumph in a battle of Evil against Evil.

“Catherine,” Indrani said. “It’s all right. Your armies are still in the Ways, all we lose is-”

“That’s not a corpse,” I softly said, sole eye still on the silhouette among the storm.

I glanced at my companions.

“Hierophant, can you shield the both of you?”

“I can,” Masego slowly replied.

“Then do it now,” I said, and walked over the ledge of our perch.

Magic bloomed behind me even as I fell, Hierophant weaving transparent shields as the ground hurried towards me. I barely drew on Night, instead letting the Crows slow my descent. They were uneasy, but I slipped through the storm and limped my way to the lone figure. It was even taller than I had thought. Almost thirty feet tall, his deep brown skin just as indifferent to the elements as the still-pristine white tunic the Gigantes wore. The giant cared not for my approach, and I saw no other of his kind around us.

“Can you end it?” I asked.

The screams of the storm drowned out my voice, but I trusted I would be heard regardless. The Gigante glanced down at me, his short neck bending unnaturally.

“We cannot,” the giant said, voice even.

Hope I’d not quite allowed myself to feel died out.

“So what are you doing here?” I asked.

“I wait,” the giant said. “I witness.”

“Witness what?” I pressed.

“The end,” the Gigante said, “and what will come after. Send away your followers, Queen of Callow. Soon the Young King’s circle will close and they cannot withstand what will follow.”

The spell was ending soon, then. He was warning me that Keter’s Due would kill Archer and Hierophant if they stayed. Masego would know as much, and I suspected he would lead Indrani out whatever I said, but I wove a snake out of Night and sent it towards them bearing an order to retreat just in case. I could have gone and done it myself, but it felt like a mistake. My instincts were screaming at me that if I left, I would miss something important.

“There are other gates,” I said.

“We know,” the giant replied. “There, too, others will witness.”

There was a pause.

“Prepare yourself,” the giant said.

The world went still, for a terrible moment, and then the storm exploded outwards. Even with all the Night I could spare holding me down and the guidance of Sve Noc, I still fell down on one knee. The power was blinding, staggering, and I could feel it sink into the earth as well as the air. Whether it lasted for moments or hours I could not tell, my body and mind bitterly arguing what was true and false, but eventually the storm passed. It left behind only a perfect circle of runes hanging in the air, a perfect gate into some distant Hell.

A heartbeat passed, and nothing came out.

“What did you do?” I rasped out.

“It is called,” the giant said, “the Riddle of the Lock.”

My heartbeat quickened.

“It’s a gate,” I said. “Are you telling me your mages locked it?”

“Our singers are dead,” the Gigante said. “I witness only the work they gave their lives for.”

My fingers clenched as I remembered that while the Gigantes had sent people into Cleves there had been no bargain for the Pass, that – I stopped. But there had been, I realized. Clever Cordelia had spent the goodwill she had won executing the Red Axe a second time to move the Highest Assembly to apologize to the Titanomachy for the Seven Slayings. They’d sent people into the Pass to fortify the Morgentor. If the Gigantes had locked all three gates, perhaps the war was not yet lost.

“We are in their debt,” I carefully said.

“Aid was promised,” the giant said. “Aid was given.”

I nodded.

“And how long will their gift last?” I asked.

“A year, a month and a day,” the Gigante said.

In the distance, dawn began to break. The giant glanced at me again.

“I will return home the corpses of my companions,” he said. “We will not meet again, Queen of Callow.”

“Then take you leave with my thanks,” I said, meaning every word. “Your people have given Calernia a chance.”

Even if both Cleves and the Pass were blighted by the rituals too, we had been pulled back from the fall to the brink.

“We have given them time,” the giant said. “What might yet fill it is in your hands.”

And without another word he strode down into the restless ash, leaving me behind as he moved into the shrinking darkness. I stayed standing there for a long time, until even the Sisters left me. Dawn rose, slowly, and with it came shadows. My own found me before too long, her steps soft on the ashen ground. Her gaze followed my own, coming to rest on the Hellgate.

“It is oddly beautiful,” Akua Sahelian said, “for such a terrible thing.”

I didn’t answer. The Severance, I thought, might destroy such a gate. If we were lucky, it might even be able to do it through the locking spell the Gigantes had laid so that we would not have to wait until it ended. If we used it, though, the sword would be spent. Perhaps not materially, but as a story: it would be diluted, no longer the blade fated to kill the King of Death. I went through every Named I knew, every trick and spell and use of Light, and found nothing that could be relied on. There were only two Greater Breaches on Calernia, one in the heart of Keter and the other bloomed in the shadow of the Doom of Liesse – but there was no Warlock to divert it, this time, and even that trick had not been a true solution. The gate itself still existed in the heartlands of my kingdom, even if did not lead into them. It had no remained there for lack of trying otherwise on our part. One after another, the solutions fell away until one remained.

“We need diabolists,” I said. “Hundreds of them, thousands.”

Enough that every devil that came howling through those gates could be bound and dismissed, that a more permanent solution could be devised.

“There is only one realm in Calernia, Catherine, that is the home to so many of them,” Akua said.

There was an expectant shiver in her voice, halfway between fear and desire. Praes. The Dread Empire. The first crucible of my life, the fires where I had been forged. I closed my eyes, letting the rising sun wash over me, and let the decision settle.

I was headed east.

Interlude: Lost & Found

“To sacrifice is to embrace end for the sake of beginning.”

– Daphne of the Homilies, best known for ending hereditary rule in Atalante

Special Tribune Robber of the Rock Breaker tribe threw himself to the side, landing in sprawl as the dead scrabbled at him. No point in even stabbing at those, he figured, there were too many for a knife to do any good. Nails ripped at his face before he bit the fingers off and spat out the fouled blood, wriggling through the hands and blades of the writhing mass of undead. A sharper went off close, biting thunder in a ball, and it was an opening. Tripping through shredded flesh and iron, sucking deep of the smoke, the goblin crawled beneath some Bind in bronze armour and tumbled down the stairs.  He reached for a sharper of his own but found his bag ripped open – half his munitions were gone, and he’d spent most of the other half.

Cackling out a curse, Robber ducked under some skeleton’s axe swing and pushed the dead down onto the corpse on the stair below it. A blade rang against his back, biting at the mail, but he scuttled down the corpse he’d pushed and leapt off the makeshift ramp. He landed among a pack of ghouls, all of them turning like bloodhounds with bared fangs, but there was a flash of heat as a streak of flame coming from above cut through a few. Claws ripped at his side, but these creatures he could wound. He stabbed the ghoul’s eyes twice, moving so it shielded him from the others as it screamed, and made a run for it down the cobblestone road as a volley of shining spears began to fall from above.

There were still a few skeletons in the way, but Robber slipped by after hamstringing one from behind with a laugh. The barricade was covered in soot and blood, but the legionaries manning it seemed in a decent enough mood as the opened their shields to let him through. Catching a few whispers of his name, Robber took a moment to preen under their gazes before getting to business.

“I’m looking for Poulain street,” the Special Tribune said, dusting off his shoulders. “Happened to get lost on the way. Don’t suppose any of you have directions to offer?”

“We’re two blocs west, sir,” a young lass answered. “It’s the next barricade, can’t miss it. We had to collapse the street in between when the lines buckled.”

When the lines had broken, more like, but that wasn’t the kind of talk the officers would be encouraging. Robber had been extracting himself from enemy lines while that disaster had come home to roost, but he’s still been able to spare a glance or two for the sight of the Second and Fourth legging it. Someone – probably one of the Woe, it was usually a safe bet when it came to shit like this – had since hung a sun in the sky and what was probably Vivienne had led a countercharge that’d ended the rout. How long that would last, though, was a question digging at him. It’d take more than a lightshow and a banner to turn this around.

“Good, I was already getting bored,” Robber grinned. “Do finish that Bone I stabbed earlier, would you? I hate to leave the work half-done.”

A few laughs, some solemn vows, but some of them wanted more. Aside from a few stray attacks at their barricade they must not have seen much action tonight, considering they were too far to the east of the where the Grey Legion had struck.

“Preparing another spot of goblinfire, sir?” a sergeant asked. “Most the city saw your last one, it’ll be hard to beat.”

Not exactly. The barricade on Poulain street was where his cohort was meant to rally after it had scattered during their deep strike on the constructs. It was where the goblin would learn how many of his marauders had made it out – one in five, one in ten? For all he knew, he might be the only survivor. There’d been close calls, making his way back to safe grounds. Borer at least ought to have made it back, he decided. The good captain was already dead inside, Keter’s boys wouldn’t even notice he wasn’t on their side.

“Half the fun’s in the surprise,” Robber chided. “Any of you lot heard where Lady Vivienne would be at?”

“Word is the princess is out west, with the Hierophant,” the same lass from earlier said. “They’re driving back the Grey Legion.”

The princess? He eyed the others, and though some eyes had been rolled at the title no one had apparently cared to contest it. Not even the few orcs in the crowd, the lot that tended to get touchiest where the Boss was involved. Dartwick wouldn’t knife Catherine, mind you. Didn’t have the stones, and she had the crown neatly lined up in a few years anyway. Her little charge tonight had made a splash, though, and that devil wasn’t ever going to get shoved back in the circle. All above his paygrade that, so he didn’t spare more thought for it. He took his leave instead, taking to the rooftops instead of sticking down in the streets where the dead swarmed. It was a good city for that, built mostly in stone instead of wood, and there’d been plenty of slate for the roofs.

It was easy to find where sappers had blocked off the street in the middle, since they’d knocked down houses on both sides until the street reached a temple of the House of Light with a small belfry jutting out. It was through there that Robber passed, lingering beneath the bells so he could have a proper look at the battle below.

Almost immediately, he let out a whistling hiss through his teeth. Looked good, at first glance, but he’d been in a battle or two since the College. The eerie sun up above was keeping the Grey Legion bogged down and the centre of the Army of Callow’s line had steadied, but he wasn’t seeing a lot of holes in the ranks of the steel-clad dead and that was bad news. Meant once Ol’ Bones broke this binding, and he would, it would start smelling like rout again. The flanks, which were all Fourth army, were being pressured as well. The Crab was spitting out dead by the hundreds through ramps docked against the gates and the ramparts, and the only reason the lines hadn’t shattered was that the bastions and ramparts were good bottlenecks.

The trouble with bottlenecks was that Keter tended to throw constructs at them ‘til they popped, and Robber wasn’t seeing much that’d be able to handle them. If a few Named were to pop up, maybe, but with the entire city being squeeze tight at the moment there was no guarantee of guardian devils – or angels. Special Tribune Robber, for the first time in years, allowed himself to curse quietly in the stonetongue. At this rate, the battle was lost. To that he only knew one solution: he’d pick up what was left of his cohort and find the Boss.

The Black Queen was as a needle in a haystack, were the haystack aflame and swarming with soldiers. It should have been impossible to find her, for the shade left to guard over her would be hiding her from the enemies still seeking her death, but in truth it was merely improbable.

To Tariq Fleetfoot, that change of word made all the difference

The Adjutant was not swift on his crutches, but that did not matter when their steps were guided by something greater than they. Listening to his instincts and the whispers that went beyond them, the Grey Pilgrim led them down alleys and through broken shops, weaving trough smoke and screams as the city began to die around them. The western wall was going to fall, the Ophanim whispered. Soon. Time was running out. It was in a pleasure house they found the Queen of Callow, the establishment long empty and closed save through passages that the dead would not find easily. Not so for the Pilgrim, who led the Adjutant down them until they were intercepted by drow in the colours of the Losara Sigil.

From there it was not a long walk to the madam’s room, where Akua Sahelian was zealously keeping watch over the unconscious body of Catherine Foundling. As always the shade’s emotions were difficult to properly Behold, as if muted by night or smoke, but Tariq found both anguish and a shaded sort of pride there. As if she herself had done something worth lauding, though a feeling of… transgression? Yes, transgression was threaded into it. She also held sway over the drow, who cleared the room when she asked them to and left the three of them alone with the slumbering Black Queen. Tariq was somewhat amused to see that even in times of hardship she made a point of greeting the Adjutant formally and first before cursorily acknowledging his presence.

“And what is it that brings you here?” Akua Sahelian asked. “It will be some time before the way to the next safehouse is clear, we can afford to speak some.”

“The Peregrine,” the Adjutant growled, “claims he has a way to wake Catherine. A ruinous one.”

Wariness, in this one, but also expectation. Tariq was perhaps not trusted, but at least trusted to deliver. The insult, though, he would not let pass quietly.

“You mistake me,” the Grey Pilgrim said, tone sharp for all the calmness. “Am I some petty conjurer, to pay my debts in the blood of others? I am a servant of Mercy, now and in all things: I will visit no ruin on others I am not willing to visit on me and mine.”

The orc studied him a moment, then inclined his head.

“You have my apology, then,” Adjutant said.

It was sincerely meant, and so Tariq let it end at that.

“I can wake the Black Queen because the Ophanim will lend me their hand in the work,” Tariq said. “And when she wakes, I am to offer her a bargain.”

The shade studied him.

“Were they not willing to lend their help earlier?” Akua Sahelian asked.

Tariq did not answer, which he supposed was damning enough. The Ophanim would not be moved to lend their help to one of Below’s, even one allied to them, were the consequences of refusing that help not calamitous. It was not simply in their nature to do so, to abet greater suffering to come for the sake of lesser suffering taking place. The greatest concession they could make was absence of action. Tariq had asked back then and they had refused, only for him to find his own skills with Light insufficient for the task. Even now, when they had conceded after he asked a boon of them, it ran against their nature to accept his request.

“Charming,” the shade said, tone dripping with aristocratic disdain. “Still, better late than never I suppose.”

The Adjutant cleared his throat.

“And what was is my presence required for, Peregrine?”

Tariq cocked an eyebrow. He had believed it obvious.

“Because you are the person Catherine Foundling loves most in the world,” he said. “If I were the one to call her out of her slumber, I would be refused. You will not be.”

Something golden bloomed inside the Adjutant, in the wake of his words. Love returned, but there were shades to it. Relief, guilty surprise, shame, vindication? For all that they were often shallow, the orc’s emotions were among the most complex that the Grey Pilgrim had ever seen. The Adjutant nodded, face grown taut.

“What must I do?” he asked, his voice rough.

Before Tariq could answer, he was interrupted.

“She will lose nothing through this ritual you press on her?”

Akua Sahelian did not quite believe him, it seemed. She had not been raised to believe in fair dealings.

“It is not a service I render her to wake,” Tariq plainly said.

“Speak the words, Pilgrim,” the shade said, golden eyes gone hard.

“She will not be harmed by this,” the Pilgrim flatly said.

The dark-skinned woman eyed him for a moment, then sighed and moved away. Frustration bloomed in her, regret and resignation warring. Heeding Tariq’s instruction, the Adjutant took the hand of his mistress with his fingers of bone and held it. Eyes closed the orc began to breathe in and out evenly. The Ophanim murmured uncertainly in the Pilgrim’s ears as he approached, but he reminded them of their promise. He laid hand on the Black Queen’s neck, grimacing at the sight of the fresh scar she’d earned tonight. That eye would not be returned to her, not if it had been taken by an aspect. Enough distraction, he chided himself. Turning his attention inwards, Tariq sunk into the Light.

He did not draw it into him, to be wielded or shaped, but instead immersed his own soul into the light of the Heavens made manifest. Earthly senses began to fade even as the voices of the Ophanim became clearer, louder. They guided his hands, patient teachers that they were, even as he shared a shard of the Light with the Black Queen’s body. She was not entirely human, he saw with startlement. Differences had been made, set into the essence of her body. The work of the goddesses of theft and murder she worshipped, the old priest decided, for this seemed not dissimilar to the boon that kept the Mighty ageless: Catherine Foundling’s lifespan had been stretched out, as if every day she had been born to live was to take a hundred instead to be spent. And there was more, a deeper shaping that he found only as the shard of Light found its way to what he sought.

The very soul of the Black Queen.

It was still the same mangled thing it had been since that first time he glimpsed it by campfire, scarred and cut and hacked away at. The difference was that it had been… facilitated towards Night. It had helped the stretching of the lifespan, the Ophanim spoke in their coldly ringing voices, but it had not been the purpose. Catherine Foundling could hold more Night than a mortal should, absurdly more. More than she would be able to wield, Tariq thought, which meant wielding had not been the purpose. A receptacle, the Ophanim said. A vessel. Not for possession, but for the hiding away of their power and godhead should it be threatened. It no longer seemed words of simple trust, when the Eldest Night had told him that had their chosen been awake the Dead King’s trap would not have been a threat.

Tariq went deeper still, finding the great wisps of the Bestowal shaping itself around the unconscious woman. It tasted of authority, he thought, as if the commanding ring of her words had not told him that already. Of steel. And of something else, something that eluded his understanding. East, the Ophanim said. What would birth her Bestowal lay in the east, not this endless nightmare war. And it was a purpose bound to another, like bound stars, calling and casting away. Is this what is to come? The Ophanim could not tell. The future was clouded, darkened. And the Pilgrim’s flicker of Light went deeper still, until it touched the sleeping mind of the queen. The consciousness swatted away the touch, as hard-bitten in the throes of dreams as it was when awake.

So Tariq left another to the work, simply bringing forth the presence of the Adjutant and the Black Queen he served. What was spoken there between souls he did not watch, for it was not his place, but as the Grey Pilgrim emerged gasping from the Light he heard another gasping breath along with his. Catherine Foundling, helped into a sitting position on the bed by Akua Sahelian, was opening her eyes. Eye, now, he supposed. He watched the realization of that particular change sink in as she groped at her face. Her lips tightened, then she breathed out. Tariq was surprised to realize that he could sometimes glimpse the outermost edges of her soul now, of her emotions. The protection of the Crows had weakened.

“Fuck,” the Queen of Callow cursed. “I got shot by the Hawk, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Hakram Deadhand fondly rasped. “Even after all that talk about keeping an eye out.”

“Hey now,” Queen Catherine blearily muttered, “did I do hand jokes?”

“Yes,” the Adjutant said.

“Constantly,” Akua Sahelian agreed.

“It was one of the first things you said to me after your return from the Everdark,” the Adjutant noted.

Tariq kept silent, letting her draw on the comfort of their company without spoiling it by reminding her of his presence, and she gathered herself with a sigh as the shade pressed a cushion under her back.

“That one’s going to sting, and the Night feels like it’s gone through a wringer,” the Black Queen frowned. “Don’t suppose you could bring me up to speed, Tariq?”

“We have,” the Grey Pilgrim simply said, “lost the battle.”

Disbelief, tempered by what he suspected was a reminder to herself about patience. It had that self-inflicted note to it.

“Breaches?” she asked.

“There have been,” Tariq says. “And there will be more.”

“That can be turned around,” the Black Queen said. “Even if your Choir disagrees.”

“The Crab has made an appearance,” the Adjutant gravelled. “The Grey Legion breached the gates and the Fourth and Second routed until Vivienne rallied them.”

That gave her pause, Tariq saw, though her soul was obscured to his sight.

“Your opinion?” she asked the orc.

“If we do not retreat,” the Adjutant said, “we risk annihilation.”

Tariq watched the shudder of fear and fury and recrimination go through her, taking no pleasure in it. He, too, understood what this night would cost them. What it had already cost them. The queen glanced at the shade, who shook her head. Her opinion was no different.

“I reserve the right to change my mind,” the Black Queen coolly said, “but let’s say I believe you. You didn’t spend time and tricks in the middle of this nightmare to wake me up so we could have a pleasant chat, Pilgrim. What is it you want from me?”

She thought differently than the Black Knight did, Tariq noted. He tended to begin with larger concepts and then narrow in, while she instead went down winding but narrow paths. That way of silencing almost all of their mind in order to focus on the opposition, though, was eerily similar.

“There is something that can be done,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Something that will deny the Enemy its victory. But the price of it will be, as I have told the Adjutant, ruinous.”

“To you,” the Black Queen said, eyes narrowing.

And that is why half the world fears you, child, Tariq thought, not without fondness.

“Yes,” he simply said.

“The price?”

“Blood and smoke.”

She breathed out shallowly.

“A dear price,” the Black Queen murmured. “And so now you would bargain.”

She paused.

“Your prayer, it will end this?”

“As if it were written in the stars,” Tariq smiled, amused at his own expense.

“What do you want for it?” she asked.

“Three boons,” the Pilgrim said, “Once before, I entrusted you with the two I believe will be the future of my home.”

“Those troublesome lordlings,” she frowned.

Underneath it, though, he glimpsed a flicker of affection threaded with irritation. They had learned more from her than she knew, though she had never claimed them as students.

“See them through this war,” Tariq quietly asked. “And when they take leave of you, see them off ready to face the trials that lay ahead.”

She considered him for a moment, that sole eye cold and measuring. Slowly, she nodded. There was something of a commotion outside the room, but Tariq paid it no mind. Nothing could be more important than this single conversation.

“Make peace with the White Knight,” Tariq asked. “That this civility may one day pass to all in service of Above and Bellow.”

He glimpsed her soul the briefest moments, seeing it weigh… consequences, stories? Dozens of them in a moment, keeping and cutting and settling on an answer. The old priest found it as frightening as he did fascinating. The Queen of Callow nodded once more.

“Two boons,” she said. “Your last?”

“The Ophanim will sing with me,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “I alone do not have the strength. Yet the Dead King has brought with him one of the fortresses that moves, a Crab. These bear wards and enchantments, among them a great working that restricts the touch of angels on Creation.”

“I do not have the strength to bring it down anymore,” the Black Queen admitted. “Perhaps if Sve Noc were with me, but even so I’m not sure my body can take the strain. The poison left marks.”

Tariq shook his head.

“They know where the magic was laid that fights them,” the Pilgrim said. “In the belly of the best. I require of you someone that will journey there and destroy it.”

She went still as stone.

“There will be no coming back from that,” Catherine Foundling said.

“No,” Tariq quietly agreed.

“You want me to send one of the Woe?” she hissed. “Fuck you, Peregrine. I’d rather roll the dice on fighting. If you really-”

Akua Sahelian gently laid a hand on her wrist. The queen paled, teeth clenching.

“No,” she said.

“It would be just,” the shade softly said. “Or close enough.”

The Adjutant, tellingly, spoke not a word. His soul had measured deaths, and found this one the most acceptable.

“I said no, Akua,” the Black Queen harshly repeated. “You don’t get to just jump off a bridge and call it quits, that’s not-”

“Well now,” a voice drawled. “Looks like I came in at just the right time.”

Tariq turned, brow raising when he saw a goblin covered in soot, blood and dust swagger in. A sapper, he recognized, and he’d even seen this one before. Special Tribune Robber, he believed? He was rather famous in the Army of Callow as one of the Black Queen’s finest men.

“Robber, what are you doing here?” the Queen of Callow frowned.

“Volunteering,” the goblin grinned. “Sound like a proper evening, it does. Raiding a Crab, destroying ancient magics, calling down the wrath of angels? Can’t believe I almost missed it.”

Yet he had not. Whose hand had it been, Tariq wondered: Above or Below’s?

“Come off it,” the Black Queen sharply said. “Your cohort-”

“Only thirty-two of us left,” Robber said. “It’s not even a company. But we’ll do, Boss. For this, we’ll do.”

“The war’s not over, Robber,” she tried. “There’s still battles-”

“That’ll be more glorious than this?” the goblin laughed. “Doubt it. Wouldn’t matter even if there were, Cat. This one’s got our name written on it.”

“Why are you all so fucking eager to get yourselves killed?” Catherine Foundling roared out, lights dimming in the room. “Robber, I swear on the Gods Below that-”

“It’s settled, Boss,” the goblin smiled, almost gently. “We’re going. Even if you tie me up, you know I’ll slip the bounds and go. It’s done. The arrow’s been loosed.”

The anger went out of her like a flame guttering out. The glimpse of her soul that Tariq found had him looking away. He’d not seen such violent, exhausted grief in a long time. It was… not pleasant to behold.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” the young woman said, voice raw.

“Only cowards live to fifteen, Cat,” Special Tribune Robber said, smiling. “It’s been coming a long time, tonight.”

Tariq closed his eyes, knowing it had come to a close. The pieces were falling in place. One more, now, and it would begin.

The clouds of acidic smoke that the great undead dragon spewed out were so large they must have been visible from the other side of the city.

The mages would do what they could – the Rogue Sorcerer had gone to lead them – but the damage was already done. The Brabant conscripts, freshly returned back to the rampart, broke and ran again. The officers that would have been their backbone laid dead in a marsh to the east of Hainaut, where Klaus himself had ordered them burned. Panic was a vicious thing, in a battle, worse a killer than any sword, and tonight it bit deep at the men holding the western wall. Once the conscripts fled the fantassin reinforcements they’d been screening were left exposed, and as another wave of beorns came over the walls to protect the ladders being secured the fantassins began to waver as well. They were not cowards, that lot, but they were stuck between two strengthening enemy beachheads with no real way out.

The original order likely had been to clear the bastion the Archmage had hit earlier, as it was the easier flank of the two, but it all went sour when the dead began striking at their back as they fought. The dead in the bastion withdrew just enough that the fantassins would be able to flee down into the city, and flee they did. The last stretch of the western wall, to the north, was still in the hands of the Prince of Bayeux and holding strong. Even if they held, though, it would change nothing. All that Arsene Odon would achieve was preventing the dead from hitting the back of the Army of Callow by the rampart, with the rest of the wall in the hands of Keter they were free to push into the city itself.

Prince Klaus Papenheim knew better than to shy away from uncomfortable truths after swords left the sheath, so he did not flinch away from this one: the battle for Hainaut was lost. It was now his duty to act so that the nature of this defeat did not end up destroying the Principate and the rest of Calernia with it.

He ordered barricades raised to block most streets along the line of the fallen rampart, manned by soldiers of Hannoven that would not hesitate to kill anyone trying to force their way, but left two large avenues free for the conscripts and mercenaries to feel down. He sent for Princess Mathilda, and so received his first blow of the night: the only answer brought back by his captain was a black-feathered arrow, sodden with blood. Pushing down the grief – he still remembered her as a girl, close as sisters with his own – the Iron Prince forced himself to keep his mind on the battle. He sent the Neustrians to secure the gate into Twilight, and his most trusted captain to make sure that the Gigantes were out of the city before they could be killed and raised.

Word was sent out east to the Dominion informing them of the situation and warning that an orderly retreat was the only path left to them if the Grand Alliance did not want to turn Hainaut into the doom of the continent. Klaus sent word to General Bagram so that the Army of Callow might join the effort, learning that while the Second Army still held the Fourth was buckling on the walls. If they broke too early, the Prince of Hannoven knew, then this would turn into a massacre. The surviving parts of the Fourth Army held the bastions on both sides of the gates that were preventing the dead from striking at Prince Arsene and the Dominion form behind. Bayeux would fold in mere moments should that happen, if they hadn’t already, and the Levantines were already seeing redoubled assaults on their positions. They were at risk of breaking too, should they be flanked, and if they did break then the battle would grow beyond salvaging.

“We need to bolster the positions of the Fourth,” the Prince of Hannoven told his captains. “If we do not, this city takes us all.”

“Horse won’t cut it for holding a bastion,” Captain Engels said. “And we can’t move foot quickly enough, my prince, even if we can even move it at all. Callowan lines are bunched up, they can barely even move their own troops.”

“We could cut through the Bayeux positions,” Captain Abend suggested.

“If they rout while we cross, or even after, then we’ll be trapped there,” Captain Tietjen objected.

There was no easy answer, the Iron Prince thought, and the longer they dithered the fewer options they would have left. And yet he found himself at a loss. His army was already stretched too thin, and the Neustrians needed to keep the gate. Could the Firstborn be called on? They seemed to have rallied enough to aim fire at the undead scaling the pit sorcery had made in the heart of the city, but they had lost a step. Worse, General Rumena missing they had no leading officer: only a mass of bickering tribes which it might take to long to gather into cohesive reinforcements even if they were inclined to lend a hand. They would have to risk it, Klaus finally decided. What else was left?

The answer of the Gods came in the face of another weary old man in faded grey robes.

“Prince Klaus,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly smiled.

“Peregrine,” the Prince of Hannoven replied. “You bring word?”

“I bring death,” the Pilgrim said. “Nothing more or less.”

The old general softly laughed.

“Death is our sole birthright, Peregrine,” Klaus Papenheim smiled. “It’s why it matters to spend our lives well. It will be a good one I hope?”

“Among the finest,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly smiled, and told him the plan.

Between his height and the orc’s crutches, they had about the same pace.

“Did you know,” Robber idly said, “that you were the first person I ever spoke to, at the College?”

“Liar,” Hakram snorted. “I heard you picked a fight with Yagin from Tiger Company while you were still waiting in line for dormitory assignments.”

“It’s really quite unpleasant how hard you are to lie to,” Robber complained.

“It’s not easy, you’re just a naturally honest man,” Hakram assured him.

Mortally offended, the goblin gasped and put a hand over his heart.

“Fighting words, greenskin,” Robber said. “The honour of my deep and ancient house-”

“Your tribe is called the Rock Breakers,” Hakram skeptically noted.

“Because even our newborn babes are mighty enough to split a boulder with a single punch,” Robber lied.

Hakram looked him up and down, then cocked an eyebrow. He said nothing, which made it even worse.

“Don’t think I won’t stab a cripple,” Robber warned. “We do it all the time, it’s much easier than stabbing people who aren’t cripples.”

“Have I lately mentioned my deep respect for you culture?” Hakram gravelled.

Magnanimously, Robber only kicked his chin. Godsdamnit, the bloody thing was armoured. That prick.

“You’ll be one of the last to die when the Great Goblin Conspiracy finally takes the world,” Robber conceded.

“Merciful,” Hakram praised. “You are in a fine mood indeed, Lord Robber of the House of Lesser Footrest.”

The goblin preened, glorying in the way that he’d worked himself back up to Lesser Footrest last month. His was an ancient and honourable title. And when Hakram leaned over to slip something into his munitions bag, he was even in a good enough mood to pretend not to notice. They’d reached the end of the path, anyhow. The last of his cohort were gathered, Borer having just come back with a fresh loadout of munitions. Now all that was left was for the Lycaonese to open the dance. The two of them lingered in silence for a long moment.

“Anything you want Pickler told?” Hakram quietly asked.

“There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “I left her a letter, though. Make sure she gets it?”

His friend – his oldest friend, perhaps even his first friend – nodded.

“I won’t say it’s been an honour,” Hakram smiled.

“Gods forbid,” Robber grinned back, then hesitated.

He looked to the side, embarrassed.

“We had… we had times, didn’t we?”

“The best,” Hakram replied, voice hoarse.

They stayed like that for a longer while still, until the sound of horses nearing told them time had run out.

“Make sure Cat doesn’t let it eat at her,” Robber quietly said. “It’s not about her, not really.”

“I know,” Hakram said.

They met eyes, the goblin and the orc, and clasped arms.

“Somewhere, somewhen,” Robber grinned.

“We’ll meet again,” Hakram finished, smiling.

They let go of their arms and not another word was spoken.

“Strike hard and do not slow,” Prince Klaus Papenheim said. “Stay with your captains. If you are split from your company…”

He paused, raising an eyebrow.

“Find a nice place to die,” he suggested.

Laughter shook his riders. The jest was an old one, well-worn gallows humour of the kind his people tended to prefer.

“Our duty is not to be victorious,” the Prince of Hannoven said, “for there is no victory to be had there. We open the way for the handpicked sappers of the Black Queen, that they might destroy the enemy’s sorcery and free the Pilgrim to strike down evil.”

The answering cheers were hoarse, but they were wholeheartedly meant. There were less than a thousand of them left now, even after they’d taken southern horses to fill the ranks. The Prince of Hannoven looked at them with old affection, that old soldierly lot that’d followed him through a hundred battles on a hundred fields. Not so young now, for he was long past his own youth, but though the faces had grown wrinkled and the hair had gone white the eyes remained iron.

“We’ve had battles,” Klaus Papenheim said. “And we have kept the oaths we swore. I’ll not preach to you what is at stake, sons and daughters of Hannoven. Haven’t we all heard that song a hundred times already?”

The world was always ending, one piece at a time. There was always a doom over the horizon, taking its first newborn steps even as you buried the last.

“Behind us is spring,” the Iron Prince said. “Ahead of us is the Enemy. You are Lycaonese, so what more is there to say?”

Klaus Papenheim, Prince of Hannoven, unsheathed his sword. A thousand riders did with him, the steel bright under the stars of the Twilight Ways. Before them the gates yawned open, revealing a city devoured by nightmares. Horns sounded, defiant in the gloom, and backs straightened.

“Forward,” the Iron Prince shouted, and forward they went.

Tariq sat, not in a dignified stance as some straight-backed sage but instead like an old man lowering himself against the broken wall of a temple, his bones aching. He would not be found easily, he had been promised this. He sunk into the Light, as easily as taking breath, and let it fill him. The Ophanim, his old friends, were close. Yet they could not help him through the last step, not yet. All that was left to do was wait.

Wait and trust in the valour of others.

They plowed into the enemy ranks, smashing and hacking as they went. Through the flat grounds of the gatehouse, green flame licking at their sides as they rode through death and broken engines, trough ghouls and skeletons and even a roaring beorn. The old banner of Hannoven held high in the wind, the lone spearman on the wall and the old boast of the House of Papenheim beneath it. War cries resounding through the night as hooves thundered, Klaus Papenheim and his thousand rode up the ramps leading into the Crab. That city-monstrosity, laden with monsters and corpses it was pouring out into Hainaut. Undead and horsemen tumbled down below but they pierced through the dead and took the ramp, clearing it for the sappers to follow them. But a few of them, small creatures that they were, and so quick on their feet.

They would make it to the end, if the Iron Prince and his riders died loud enough.

Curses streaked at them in swarms, arrows and javelins flew, but tonight the Heavens were with the Lycaonese. The wind turned, the Crab shook, and onwards the riders went into the city. A thing of iron and bone, of stone and dead flesh, and the fumes it belched out billowed foul as the horsemen pressed through. Pikes came for them first, gathered hastily in a street, but Klaus Papenheim laughed and began to sing.

The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly.”

Voices swelled his own as the refrain came and their riders fell into a wedge.

Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”

They punched through, pikes skittering against heavy armour or finding enough purchase that horse and rider tumbled into the mass and broke the formation. The rider went on, down the street and towards the burning forges ahead.

“No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear.”

Too few pikes, the second time, but the Enemy laid the ranks on thick. As if to make a rampart of bone and armour, a barricade of writhing dead. Skeletons raised swords and axes, put up shields and their ranks kept swelling. But it would take greater wheat than this, to dull their scythe.

“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”

Screams as javelins and curses came at them from the sides, biting through even plate, but even as the riders died the ranks of the dead shuddered under the impact of a thousand heavy horse. It was in the hands of the Gods, for a moment, but even through the melee the Lycaonese pressed until there was only room ahead once more.

Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?”

The forges were deeper, into the belly of the beast, and their fires burned bright as a noonday sun. It was a place precious to the Enemy this, and it mustered a worthy defence for the last hall barring entry to it. Undead by the hundred, and looming above them were monsters. Beorns and great snakes, even flocks of cacophonous buzzards. And above them all, the mightiest wyrm that the Prince of Hannover had ever seen. A hulking beast, large as a fortress and with blood-red eyes.

“Hold the wall,”Prince Klaus shouted, “lest dawn fail.”

It was to be their last, he could feel it in his bones. The wyrm spat out poisonous green flames and fumes, sweeping through the front ranks, but even the panicked and dying horses tumbled forward into the tightly packed ranks of the dead. Buzzards came down in swarms, sorcery lashed out with eerie screams, and the last riders of Hannoven smashed into their enemies. They were too few, too tired, and still they pressed on. A spear killed Klaus’ horse under him and he fell on his stump, screaming hoarsely, but he rose before he could be slain and fought on sword in hand. They sang still, but the voices were fewer. The charge spent.

“Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand.”

One corpse after another, his arm was burning his face bleeding from half a dozen cuts. He’d taken a spear in the side, a wound that would kill him before long, but still Klaus Papenheim pushed through. And again and again and again, until a roar shook his bones and a gaping maw opened to reveal the flames igniting within. The Iron Prince struck with all his might, with all his rage and his sorrow and his pride, and with a great crack a fang broke.

“So we’ll hold the wall,” the Iron Prince murmured, “lest dawn fail.”

The fire swallowed him whole, and the last though Klaus Papenheim ever had was for his niece.

It was an entire city trying to kill them, even the stones and the streets., and Robber could not remember the last time he’d had this much fun.

Tabler croaked it when something that liked looked like a massive bone scorpion speared her through the stomach with a stinger that was screaming, which was a very sporting heads up from Keter that their infiltration had been noticed. The dead were thousands they had nasty little critters, but what was that to a sapper of the Army of Callow? They were quicker, better at scaling walls and objectively prettier in the eyes of the Gods Above and Below.

“Mind you,” Robber told his flock, “Borer does bring down our hallowed company’s average in that regard.”

“I apologize, sir,” Captain Borer dutifully replied. “Shall I write myself up for distractingly ungainly looks again?”

“Eh,” Robber mused, “we’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.”

That had them all cracking up, of course, which got Wiggler a javelin in the throat but that was a cheap price for comedy of such quality. The Pilgrim had burned where they needed to go into their minds, though the old man had refused to entertain the Special Tribune’s inquiry about whether being marked by angels in such a way could be considered theologically inappropriate workplace touching, so there’d be no getting lost. Brasser died blowing himself up so that a flock of buzzards wouldn’t kill them as they crossed a makeshift ladder-bridge, but that was a sign they were making progress!

It was fairly dickish of the Dead King to begin setting fire to buildings so they wouldn’t be able to cross the rooftops, in his professional opinion, but that was nothing that liberal use of sharpers and a healthy disregard for personal safety couldn’t fix. You absolutely could blow up a fire, if you had enough munitions at hand. They lost Racker to the beorn awaiting them on the other side of the explosion, though, which was a genuine loss since with her gone there was no one at hand that everybody else disliked the most among them.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the streets ahead were now swarming with dead and buzzards. Fortunately, there was a solution: they used demolition charges to blow through the layer of stone and bone beneath them, then slunk down a rope onto the lower level. They only had enough charges to do it once more, so naturally they immediately repeated their exploit. Grabber stayed behind just a little too long, though the greater tragedy was that Lilter’s joke about ‘grabbing the opportunity’ was better than the one Robber had been mulling over about grab-bags.

The ran into devils when they got close to the ritual chamber, which was a nice change of pace. Not even the Praesi kind, these ones were like pulsing pustules of flesh whose proximity alone was enough to cause intense pain. Lilter blew herself up to make them a path, which had the secondary benefit of ensuring that Robber was once more without the contest the funniest of their little band. There were only seven of them left, by then, but they were nearly at the chamber. Trouble was that literal hellhounds were on the trails, by the barking and smell of sulphur.

You learned to recognize all sorts of stuff, if you spent enough summers in Ater.

“We’ll hold,” Captain Borer said, sword in one hand and sharper in the other. “Go ahead, Special Tribune.”

Robber met his eyes, surprised even though he shouldn’t have been.

“You were a treat,” Robber finally said.

“Always thought you were a prick,” Borer cheerfully replied. “Go die like a sapper, Rock Breaker.”

He grinned back, scampering away before he could be caught up in the coming mess. He found the chamber below, just the way the Pilgrim had seared it into his mind. No more mages around, just a massive chamber of obsidian with carved runes everywhere. Gingerly he tried a foot first, and when it didn’t burst into flame went further in. His own bag had been filled, from the start of this waltz, purely with goblinfire. And one more thing, he recalled late, that Hakram had slipped in. In the distance he heard the crack of sharpers going off. Little time left.

It was a scroll, Robber found out. A fancy one, there was even a seal at the bottom. He scanned the contents, curious, and froze. By my authority as Queen of Callow, I so raise Robber of the Rock Breaker tribe to the title of noble, under the aforementioned honour: Lord of the House of Lesser Footrest, to be held in perpetuity. It was the royal seal below but there were fresher words, the ink a little smudged. No matter where you end up, Catherine Foundling had written in that ugly scrawl of hers, you will be one of mine. Sooner or later, I will come to collect. Screams, fighting. The devils were close.

Robber’s throat closed as he traced the words with a trembling finger.

“The best,” he whispered.

He struck the match, the parchment taking fire, and with a wide grin he plunged the burning scroll into the bag. He closed his eyes, feeling the burst of fire washed over him, but it didn’t hurt at all. He thought, somehow, that even in this deep place he was hearing something.

Robber died hearing the wind.

The sky cleared, and Tariq looked down from above.

All those who would be able to escape tonight had. There was no more call to delay. The Ophanim, the companions of his life, laid their hands on him. They were sad, grieving, but he smiled.

“It is a beautiful thing,” Tariq Isbili said, “to die smiling.”

Tariq of the Grey Pilgrim’s Blood breathed out, the world breathing out with him, and let his blood sing out into the world. The oldest treasure of his line, the secret of the Shine. The pilgrim’s star, his people called it, and they spoke truer than they knew. Every Isbili that ever lived had it coursing through their blood, the blessing of that star. It was a tie, and though Tariq could no more move the star than an ant could move a tower he was not alone.

The Grey Pilgrim pulled, and the Choir of Mercy pulled with him.

The warmth filled him, pleasant at first but soon burning. Searing. But he was in a place beyond pain, filled only with light, and so Tariq Isbili did not flinch. Not even as he felt the burn spread through the bloodline, through every last one of his kin. Through everyone with so much as drop of Isbili blood. And the Ophanim threaded their fingers through his, heaving even as his insides charred and his kin turned to ash, until at last the sky gave.

In the darkness above, a star went out.

The Grey Pilgrim opened his eyes, looking down at the city below and the hordes of the dead. And though her bore the weight of many griefs, in that moment it was not his many sins he thought of.  It was a balcony in Alava that came to him, the pears trees beneath and the woman he had once loved. Perhaps, he thought, he might yet see her again.

Tariq Isbili saw streaks of white pierced through the night sky and died, smiling, as stars began to fall.

Interlude: Kingdom

“Fifty-seven: the greatest of powers is not an enchanted sword or cataclysmic spell, it is simply to be in the right place at precisely the right time.”

– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

The Black Queen’s own favourite trick had been turned against the Fourth Army, and the results were a bloody ruin.

At least two thousand dead in less time than it took to boil a cup of water, that much again in wounded and even worse: siege engines, as well as the sappers who manned and built them, had been pulped by the great sheets of waters that had fell like a wave of stone from the Heavens. The Dead King’s sorceries had been aimed foremost at the positions above the rebuilt gates of Hainaut, the siege platforms Sapper-General Pickler had ordered built before the enemy came, and there was not a soul left alive there. The results of that were immediately disastrous, for though the Fourth Army was hastening to reinforce the lost grounds the enemy had not missed the opening: beorns were already there and emptying their bellyfuls of soldiers, as great snakes of dead flesh bit into the wet stone and opened their maws to make themselves into siege ladders.

Worse, a pair of wyrms had landed atop the siege platforms and was terrorizing the attempted reinforcements. They monstrous dragons of flesh and bones, magnificent examples of what the greatest necromancer to ever live could achieve at the peak of his skill, were shrugging off Light and sorcery alike. It would take concentrated volleys of either to drive them back, and the Fourth was still on the backfoot: with so many officers dead, it was struggling to move priests and mages where they needed to be. It was a miracle, General Zola Osei thought, that the Fourth Army hadn’t outright routed. Nearly every other army on Calernia would have, after seeing nearly half its number killed or wounded in so short a span. But the soldiers, first hardened on the grounds of Arcadia and then against the horrors of the Folly, held.

For now, at least. How long would that last? General Zola Osei of the Second Army of Callow let the urge to wince pass through her, refusing to indulge, for it would not do to show weakness to her staff when disaster loomed so tall. She set down the Baalite eye, choosing her words carefully as her staff tribune and senior mage awaited her opinion.

“If we do not immediately reinforce, the gate is lost,” General Zola said.

“If fully commit, we risk losing the gate anyway and being swept away entirely in its wake,” Staff Tribune Adnan frankly said. “I would argue in favour of ordering the Fourth to retreat while we fortify the entrance to the city and prepare for battle there.”

“Should the Dead King hold the gate, the city’s wards are at risk of collapsing entirely,” Senior Mage Jendayi replied, shaking her head. “I won’t pretend that it will not be bloody to take back the gate, but even on purely tactical grounds it is the superior decision.”

They were disagreeing, Zola considered, because they were starting from entirely different premises even if neither had stated as much: Adnan considered this battle lost, and was now looking to mitigate, while Jendayi still believed victory achievable and so was willing to spend lives to reach that end. General Zola herself was not yet certain which way she leaned, though she was aware a decision needed to be made urgently. Already she had sent her two senior legates to prepare the grounds behind the city gates in case of a breach but now she either needed to send companies into the stairs leading up to the siege platforms, which the dead were certain to turn into a meat grinder of brutal proportions, or send messengers to the Fourth before it overcommitted. And the truth was that, even beyond tactical considerations, Zola was not certain if the Second had the stomach for the kind of fight taking the gates back would mean. Not since Maillac’s Boot.

The general had always admired the Black Queen’s almost alchemical knack for transmuting battles into loyalty, but the Boot had left scars in the Second. Losing General Hune had been a blow, even for Zola herself, but the casualties taken that day… Many still had nightmares of the hordes that never ceased coming, of the things crawling out of the much and in those dreams the gates into Twilight always closed too early. If Her Majesty had been there with them, perhaps, but now? The rumours had spread. The Black Queen was wounded, unconscious, and now her armies were wavering. Catherine Foundling had never been defeated on the field, but that legend did not apply to the Army of Callow when it stood without her. If I don’t give the order to take back the gate, General Zola thought with cold clarity, then I have declared this battle a defeat. It will not be possible to win, afterwards.

Before she could speak, however, she caught sight of strange movement atop the gates. An eddy in the flow of the dead. Zola’s grandmother had been a Mosa, and though the blood had since thinned she could still perceive motion uncannily well even in the dark. She pressed the Baalite eye against her face again, the enchantment lending her better sight through the dark, and started in surprise.

“General?” her staff tribune worriedly asked.

“Mad,” Zola Osei softly said. “Utterly mad.”

Goblins, it was goblins. At least a cohort’s worth of them, maybe more, but it was not a battle they had come from. Zola saw as they climbed atop the great necromantic constructs – the beorns and the snakes and even one of the wyrms – as lesser dead clumsily tried to pursue. Nimble and utterly fearless the sappers, for those bags they bore could not be mistaken, spread out and every heartbeat a few more of them died from being shaken off monsters or caught by undead. And still they went, until a horn was sounded and like candles in the darks the monsters lit up. One after the other, matches struck and devices triggered as jets of green flames burst and Keter’s great beasts screamed.

Robber’s Marauders were not a legend without reason.

“We go forward,” General Zola Osei said, throat tightening. “The Second will take back the gate.”

The Army of Callow had not yet bent the knee to even odds overwhelming. It would not break that custom on her watch.

Like most great catastrophes, Adjutant thought, it had not been neatly done. The Grey Basin – le Bassin Gris, to the locals – had occupied maybe a fourth of surface of the plateau on which the city of Hainaut had been built, an uneven oval that began south where it ended on a waterfall over the edge and went up the middle of the capital until it ended at the beginning of the great district facing the city gates. The basin had been a major boon to the city, for both sanitation and drinking water purposes, and it’d been kept full by both underground aquifers in the rock below and regular rainfall. It was also, as of a half hour ago, entirely gone.

It had been expected that the undead would dig under the city, for it was one of Keter’s favourite tactics and one of the few weaknesses of the city-fortress, and the Firstborn had been the natural answer to such an assault. They too were familiar with fighting underground, Night was well suited to such skirmishes and unlike humans they could see perfectly in the dark. And as far as Hakram could tell, when the dead had finally dug their way up into the city the fight had gone overwhelmingly in the favour of the drow. On all fronts they’d either held or outright beaten back the dead, in some cases even counterattacking deep below where the dead were massing for their offensive. And then it had all gone horribly wrong, somehow.

Sve Noc had been caught in a trap, of which the nature and purpose was still unclear, and it seemed that to free themselves from it the Crows had made sacrifices. Swaths of dzulu had suddenly fallen unconscious, and even Mighty had seen their powers suddenly falter. Worse, the angry throes of the goddesses had shattered the bottom of the Grey Basin and the water had poured into the tunnels dug by Keter. They too had broken, in some places too fragile, and it had begun a disastrous chain of collapses that’d essentially hollowed out the heart of the city. Now where the Grey Basin had once stood there was a sheer drop of a at least a hundred feet instead, with massive rubble and the corpses of both drow and broken undead strewn everywhere.

“Hard to tell how many died,” Secretary Amelia said. “The Firstborn are shit at coordinating with other forces, they never told us how many they sent down into the tunnels.”

“Concentrate on finding the Losara,” Hakram said, leaning on his crutches. “They are most likely to have numbers for us.”

“The curves of the cliff seems to curve inwards,” Secretary Prattler noted, crouching at the edge with an interested look. “Dangerous. The plateau’s structure became unstable.”

“And the tunnels?” Hakram asked.

“They didn’t go anywhere,” Prattler, once a lieutenant in the sappers, replied. “If the dead climb the side of the drop, they’ll be able to access them and enter the city by other paths than the edge. We need to close them as soon as possible.”

“Send word to the sappers,” Adjutant ordered. “Save for the situation at the gates, this is the highest priority.”

“Won’t be many left of us, but I’ll see what I can do,” Secretary Prattler saluted.

The reports from his phalanges were increasingly staggered, but the flow had not yet been impeded. The difficulty at the moment was keeping the Alliance high command informed, and Vivienne in particular. Irritatingly, the situation with the Firstborn remained unclear. The nature of the consequences of what had happened save for a fourth of the plateau shattering were still to be determined. Night had weakened, observably, but was that it? Answers came when his picket informed him that Masego and the Pilgrim had strolled out of the dark, that overly ambitious creature Ivah with them. Hierophant looked invigorated, the Pilgrim wearied, and neither wasted time on niceties as the ‘Lord of Silent Steps’ stood in the distance and seemingly entranced.

“The Dead King laid a trap for Sve Noc in a cavern below the city,” Hierophant said. “And through the sister he captured, he attempted to siphon the Night.”

Hakram’s jaw tightened. That would have been too disastrous for words.

“Did he succeed?”

Hierophant shook his head.

“I was invited to use one of my aspects onto the Night through one of the sisters,” Masego said. “What Trimegistus seized, I ruined.”

“Along with most of the Night itself,” the Peregrine quietly added. “The Crows hid away a portion of their power in a mortal receptable beforehand, but most of the Night itself was unmade.”

“It was a measured action,” Hierophant calmly said. “It will have hit dzulu the worst, as they had reserves of Night but none of the protections of the Mighty. Nisi will have gone entirely unharmed.”

“And Mighty?” Hakram asked, licking his chops.

“Weakened,” the Pilgrim said. “Significantly so.”

Then the Gloom that defended Serolen was likely gone as well, Adjutant thought. Dark news.

“When will the Sisters return to the field?” he asked.

“That is why we are here,” the Pilgrim admitted. “You are, as always, the man who can find the needle in the haystack. The Sisters cannot reclaim their power, Hierophant tells me, until their imprisoned half is freed. Else we risk simply resuming the disaster on a smaller scale.”

Hakram blinked.

“One of them’s still trapped?” he flatly said.

“Yes,” Masego said. “The ritual was quite comprehensive, though I expect it was primarily meant for a godhead shard and not the possession the net caught. It allowed the halves of Sve Noc to keep communicating.”

“It is,” the Grey Pilgrim said with grim face, “still down there.”

He pointed down below, into the field of soaked rubble, and for a moment Adjutant’s mind went blank. Saving someone down there? Impossible. Not, he adjusted, merely impractical. Which meant… mhm, perhaps he would be able to Find a solution after all.

“The Second Army has engaged at the gates,” General Bagram grimly announced. “It is gaining steadily, but there is no telling the outcome of the engagement.”

“And your Fourth?” Prince Klaus Papenheim asked.

“We’ve stabilized the flanks and are focusing on evacuating the wounded,” the orc replied. “The situation is stable.”

Vivienne let out a long breath and spoke the truth no one else seemed to want to.

“It has been confirmed that the Grey Legion is approaching the gates, the defences of which are still in enemy hands,” she flatly said. “I am the least seasoned military leader at this table, but it seems to me that those gates are about to be smashed open.”

Just a few soldiers of the Grey Legion, hulking masses of moving steel that they were, were enough to serve as a battering ram. The entire frontline of that silent army hitting the seven gates as once would be worse by an order of magnitude.

“We can still hold,” General Bagram insisted. “So long as the walls do not fall, the enemy can be bottlenecked in that district.”

“The east holds,” Captain Nabila said. “No beachheads remain and we have mastery of both rampart and bastions.”

Proud as Vivienne was of the Army of Callow, she had to admit that in the battle for Hainaut the Dominion that had distinguished itself. Almost half the western rampart, held by Alamans troops, had collapsed after being struck by Scourges until Catherine had led the Woe – and Akua Sahelian – to slay one and drive away the other. Unfortunately, the reinforcements led by Princess Beatrice had never materialized as instead they’d run into enemies in the streets of the city. They’d won that clash decisively, at the price of the Princess of Hainaut being wounded, and at the moment it was Prince Arsene of Bayeux that was theoretically the commander of that flank.

The man was not here, however, having instead sent his niece Lady Marceline to speak for him.

“The Brabant levies broke and ran,” Lady Marcelline frankly said, “but we’ve contained the breach to a single bastion. Captain-General Catalina survived the attentions of the Archmage and she’s leading the local effort while my uncle oversees the norther stretch of the rampart.”

“Anyone would have buckled, hit by that kind of magic,” General Bagram said with rough sympathy. “But can the mercenaries clear the enemy’s foothold? If they’d don’t, this all falls apart.”

“Perhaps if Chosen were to lend their strength the matter could be settled more easily,” Lady Marceline leadingly said, turning her eyes towards Vivienne.

It rather amused the heiress that even though she had not held a Name in years, by simple virtue of having once been the Thief people believed she still had influence over Named. As if even Catherine – Vivienne’s heart clenched, but Indrani had promised she would survive – Catherine, with all her strength, did not struggle to keep their kind in even a semblance of order. The privileged information that Vivienne Dartwick did hold in regard to their kind was not a consequence of her thieving past at all, but of Hakram Deadhand being fiercely meticulous even when calamity was at the gate.

It was not sorcery but regular messengers, which admittedly some might argue were harder to arrange in a city besieged.

“They’ve had heavy casualties,” Vivienne said. “On the Silver Huntress survived out of her band after they were caught in that ambush, and only barely. It might be possible to request the Headhunter and the Rogue Sorcerer lend a hand, but they have been highly mobile so mustering them may take time.”

It’d been a slaughter, according to the report she’d gotten. A well-crafted ambush by what had appeared to be a half a dozen Revenants in a narrow street had taken a lethal turn when the Prince of Bones had torn through a wall and pulped the Young Slayer’s head with a single blow. A black-feathered arrow had taken the Summoner in the throat almost simultaneously, and the rest had been overwhelmed. The Grey Pilgrim and Masego had arrived in time to save the Silver Huntress’ life, but both the Silent Guardian and the Rapacious Troubadour had been lost.

All that with nothing to show for it, aside from a few destroyed lesser Revenants. The Prince of Bones had managed to retreat into Arcadia under fire by both the Peregrine and the Hierophant, indifferent to even their harshest attacks, while the Hawk had been long gone by the time those two arrived. The gate the Prince of Bones had used had been found and closed by the pair, but it was expected by everyone in this room that the Scourge would be back to lead his Grey Legion when it breached the city. Lady Marceline made a moue at Vivienne’s answer, displeased.

“Perhaps the band of the Barrow Sword instead?” she asked. “The Blessed Artificer alone-”

“The survivors of that band are already tasked, by order of the Adjutant himself,” Vivienne mildly said.

The mildness was not one that invited further argument, and with ill-grace Lady Marceline accepted the help on offer instead of the one she’d wished for. Vivienne sent out the messenger promptly, even as argument resumed as to whether or not the battle for Hainaut could still be salvaged. There was some optimism that it still could, so long as the drow managed to rally and help the Lycaonese keep walls of the pit created by the collapse of the Bassin Gris from being climbed by the dead. For now the sheer quantity of rubble and water was making it effectively impassable, but it would not last forever.

“The Neustrians could reinforce,” Lady Marceline said, “at the moment they are not-”

It was like an itch, Vivienne thought. Or perhaps simply the slightest of pressures, tickling like a feather. Not the first trick of the sort she had learned, back when she was the Thief, but the first she had been taught. That was almost nostalgic, in a terribly dangerous kind of way. Vivienne Dartwick kept her breathing steady, concentrating as the talk of the commanders washed over her, and listened to nothing save the sound of her own breath. In, out. In, out. There, the itch again. The… weight. She had not been wrong. Idly, the heiress-designate to Callow pushed back her chair seemingly to make room for her legs as she reached for a carafe of water. Leaning covered one of her arms from sight, gave her free hand, and a heartbeat later she was moving.

The knife flew, perfectly thrown, and would have caught the hooded figure in the throat if it’d not been parried by a serrated dagger.

Prince Klaus, who’d been about to get his throat slit, was the first to draw his sword. General Bagram was but a heartbeat behind, and even as Lady Marceline backed away so she’d have room to draw her rapier Captain Nabila palmed a throwing axe. Vivienne, though, had already leapt atop the table with a fresh knife in hand. The Revenant flickered, as if made of heat mirage, and for a moment her eyes stung but she focused through the pain and flicked a second knife. It was parried, but the flickering ceased.

“Varlet,” the Iron Prince hissed, striking hard.

The Revenant turned the blow aside, punching the old man in the stomach hard enough it emptied his lungs, but Bagram hacked at its shoulder and it was forced to step back. The orc’s blade bit into the Prince of Hannoven’s shoulder but only shallowly, and Vivienne reached for the back of her belt where she kept a pouch even as she finished crossing the table. Captain Nabila’s throwing axe was swatted aside and General Bagram’s charge ended badly, the Varlet sweeping his legs and tossing him at the table. Vivienne’s fingers closed around a handful even as she leapt, the table flipping below her as Bagram stumbled into it, and she watched as the Iron Prince’s swing was not only parried but riposted with a vicious cut that ripped across his face.

And the Varlet turned to her, even as she flew through the air, but Vivienne Dartwick smiled unpleasantly and threw a handful of golden dust into her face.

The Scourge hastily retreated but it caught her anyway, the Revenant screaming as the Concocter-made compound burned at the dead flesh and glowed brightly. Let her try to disappear with that. Vivienne tumbled into the animated corpse, the two of them landing in a sprawl, and as she slid out a third knife the other tried to slice open her throat. She caught the wrist in time with her free hand, struggling to keep the blade from going into flesh, but she was losing in strength and she had to abandon her knife to help with her second hand. She was losing anyway. Fortunately, the Iron Prince then kicked the Varlet in the head.

She fell to the side and Vivienne snatched up her knife, stabbing into her foe’s wrist even as the Revenant tried to punch through the back of Klaus Papenheim’s knee. She nailed the dead flesh, preventing the blow, and by then Captain Nabila had joined the fray with a war axe. Vivienne backed way so they’d have freer hand, getting back to her feet as General Bagram brushed past her to lend his sword to the cause of keeping the Revenant from rising. Lady Marceline, though armed, was staying far away from the foe. Vivienne threw her a scornful glance, passing the fallen table to snatch first a magelight globe from the wall and then a candle from a candlestick. She deftly turned back just in time to see Bagram rip through a wrist and then hold down the limb.

“Keep her from moving,” Vivienne ordered.

“She-” Captain Nadila began.

“Do it,” the Iron Prince grunted, hacking at the hood.

They managed, barely, and even then Vivienne had to dodge a kick as she approached.

“You will-” the Varlet began, but the words were interrupted by someone shoving magelight in her mouth.

“I could sneak better than that at eighteen,” Vivienne Dartwick scathingly said, pressing the candle’s open flame against the magelight globe. “You ought to be embarrassed.”

And after five heartbeats exposed to fire, exactly as Masego had shown her it would, the Jaquinite magelight exploded with a loud pop. The tongues of flame exploded outwards, incinerating the Revenant from the inside as a jet shot out from her mouth and Vivienne avoided it by reclining her head to the right. The heat licked at her face, but she did not close her eyes. The Revenant, head mostly consumed save for charred bones, stopped moving.

“Decapitate it to be sure,” Vivienne said, drawing back.

Captain Nabila did, rather eagerly, and the corpse fell listlessly. Feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on her, Vivienne cocked an eyebrow. Had they believed her harmless because these days she wore dresses instead of leather? She was able to fit more knives in a gown than she’d even been able to in trousers. I spent my fighting years as one of the Woe, Vivienne thought, matching their gazes. Does even a single one of you grasp what that actually means? She picked up one of the knives she’d thrown, carefully placing it back against the hidden strap.

“General Bagram, I leave this in your hands,” she said. “I’ll be heading out.”

The orc slowly nodded.

“Where to, my lady?” Bagram asked.

“Where the hammer will fall,” Vivienne replied. “The gates.”

Amusingly enough, the Barrow Sword was the only member of his band who turned out to be useless to the purposes for which it had been sent for.

Ishaq took it in good humour, proving to be in a rather amenable mood overall. His successes before members of the Blood, his usual foes, had put him in a fine mood. Hakram spent little time speaking with the man, instead guiding the efforts of the rest of the band. No one was inclined to climb down, especially now that dead from the plains below had begin to crawl all over the rubble, but the Harrowed Witch was the solution to that: the bound soul of her brother, which she could sometimes force to obey her commands, had been sent instead. With the help of Hakram’s own aspect the place where General Rumena was buried had been found, which had been when the Vagrant Spear moved out.

Passing through Twilight, as she was a fair hand at sidling, she emerged even as the Blessed Artificer began raining down Light on the dead in a hail of javelins. Striking with Light and the power of her Name she’d quickly pierced through the mass of stone, allowing a haggard Mighty Rumena to stumble out. The first stumble was an appearance by the Hawk, who from her high perch atop a vulture let loose an arrow. Aimed at Mighty Rumena, Hakram discerned, but it was not to be. Another arrow hit it mid-trajectory, Archer having finally found trace of her prey, and before a second could be loosed both the drow and the Vagrant Spear disappeared into Twilight.

The Firstborn could see to themselves, then. He had done what he could. An opinion seemingly shared by Masego and the Grey Pilgrim, who had lingered talking to each other quietly but were not clearly intent on leaving. Hierophant absent-mindedly bade his goodbyes, mentioning he was headed towards the gates, but the Peregrine stayed for a longer conversation.

“The Firstborn situation seems as settled as it can be,” Adjutant said.

“We but tied a bandage over a gaping wound, but it is better than nothing,” the Peregrine quietly replied. “I am simply glad that we were able to free Sve Noc.”

The tired-look old man, Hakram considered, had been fully prepared to kill the two goddesses rather than let them fall in the hands of the Dead King. Soberingly, he seemed to believe he would have been capable of the act.

“Losing the Firstborn entirely might have lost us the battle,” Hakram warily agreed.

There was a long pause as the old man studied him, those rheumy blue eyes piercing in ways that were beyond simple sight.

“The Ophanim believe the battle is lost regardless,” the Grey Pilgrim murmured.

The orc’s pulsed quickened.

“And do they care to share their reasons why?” Adjutant calmly asked.

The situation was not favourable, to his knowledge, but it was not yet disastrous. The walls largely held, and though the gates were threatened they were yet to fall. In the longer view the great pit that had replaced the Grey Basin was a liability, but salvaged sigils and the still-fresh Lycaonese should be able to hold them. The battle had certainly grown more arduous, but it seemed to early to write if off.

“There is a Crab,” Tariq Fleetfoot said. “It nears. They can feel it approaching.”

Hakram froze. The massive necromantic creatures were as moving small cities that the Dead King used to keep the armaments of his armies in fighting fit. They were a massive resource investment, and so jealously guarded that few had even been seen, but one had been seen earlier in this campaign. The Rogue Sorcerer, when scouting Lauzon’s Hollow, had believed he’d glimpsed the spells keeping one invisible to the naked eye. And though it was not the purpose of that construct, given its sheer size it would represent not so much a siege tower as a siege fortress.

“Masego and yourself are both capable of destroying constructs of that scale,” Hakram finally said.

And perhaps the Blessed Artificer as well, or Catherine were she awake, but there were not certainties with either.

“A monster, yes,” the Pilgrim sadly smiled, “but a city, with wards and protections as this Crab will have? No. Already the Ophanim tell me their influence is being restricted by some working of the Enemy’s. The battle is lost, Adjutant.”

His bone hand clenched.

“You want us to begin a retreat,” he said.

“That I leave to military minds,” the Peregrine said. “But I say this: we cannot leave a twilight gate in the hands of the Dead King.”

“We can’t afford to lose this battle either,” Adjutant growled. “If we do, Hainaut collapses. Perhaps all of Procer with it.”

And if Procer fell, the rest of Calernia would not be far behind.

“There is a way,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It would be ruinous, but there is a way.”

Adjutant’s brows knotted.

“What is it you want of me, Peregrine?”

“We need to wake up Catherine Foundling,” the Pilgrim said. “And for that I require your help.”

They had taken the gates, inch by inch.

General Zola had watched as the army already bloodied at Maillac’s Boot bloodied itself anew taking the same wide stairs that Callowan sappers had built but days earlier, tight ranks of legionaries heaving and screaming and they drove back the howling dead. Nothing was held back. Sharpers were thrown freely, shredding the enemy’s tightly packed hordes, and fireballs struck in volleys as spears of Light tore into the side of massive monsters. And the Second Army, living up to the excellence for which the Black Queen had honoured it, bled and won. The bodies fell, until all that was left was green flames and corpses no longer moving. Zola gave her orders, connecting her lines with the Fourth Army’s and evacuating the wounded through the twilight gate. There were no longer mages to spare to send them back into the fight, as too few healers.

Then the gates broke.

The Grey Legion strode through the wreckage, ranks and ranks of silent steel bearing thick shields and great weapons. Light barely bit into them, sorcery was useless, but munitions made a dent. Goblinfire most of all, though the dead simply made some of the legionaries lie over the flames so they would not spread and walked on. Through traps and pits, through caltrops and spikes, lumbering but indifferent. And when the Grey Legion reached the barricades, the lines wavered. Thousands of pounds of stone and wood were shattered in moments, and then great swords and hammers scythed through the frontline of the Second, but still the Second Army held. Zola Osei rode up and down the line, sending heavies into the gaps and ordering concentrated fire from the priests. Ineffective as they were, they still fared better than swords.

It tightened her stomach, watching orcs and humans and goblins pile themselves on the steel-clad dead to topple them and die and drove to destroy even a single one. Spells and Light came down in volleys from the ramparts and even the burning gatehouse, lines from the Fourth having dared to venture there, but it was not enough. The Grey Legion was pushing them back, slowly but surely. Blood and guts flowed down the street until the pavestones were so slick her men tripped on the entrails of their comrades, until smoke and ash stung their eyes to weeping and munitions slowly began to run out. A barricade collapsed entirely, a street routed, the shield wall collapse and then as if by a spell the breach was closed.

The Mirror Knight had come.

General Zola had heard the man called a fool by people high and low, but in that moment she felt only awe. That sole silhouette, marred by smoke and dust, smashed into the Grey Legion as if a cliff had decided to turn back the tide. He shone brightly, glimmer of Light, and as he advanced the enemy bent around him. Steel shells cracked, armoured dead went flying and an army of one sent the darkness howling back. Zola shouted herself hoarse organizing volleys to support him, sending in heavies to hold the ground taken back. Gods, they could still win this. They could still turn this around. Slowly, one at a time, the numbers of the Grey Legion were dwindling. The Second Army would not bend before they did. And forward the soldiers went, screaming their songs in defiance.

Then the Crab came, and the hope went out of them like a candle snuffed out.

Every gain made over hours of fighting gone, just like that. The monster-fortress stood above the ramparts, ramps coming down with iron hooks to disgorge undead atop the gate wherever the goblinfire had not spread. The shape blotted out even the sky, a tall shadow belching out acrid smoke the mage lines of the Fourth fled but not always quickly enough. The spell volleys sputtered out, and below the Grey Legion smashed into the ranks with fresh ferocity. The Mirror Knight was, before too long, a sole island of resistance in a sea of steel. And he fought on, but he could not win the war alone. Perhaps before Maillac’s Boot they would have been braver, Zola thought. Perhaps if the Black Queen had stood with them, as she had through the last nightmare.

But Maillac had happened, and the Black Queen was not there. The Second Army broke.

It was a retreat, at first. Almost controlled, soldiers edging away from the enemy. But the panic spread like a stain on lace, and steps turned into a run. And once a few had begun to run, thousands did. The Grey Legion were terrifying even as part of a shield wall, who wanted to fight them without it? The streets and barricades clogged with soldiers trying to flee, and in the wake of the Second breaking the remains of the Fourth Army broke as well. The only saving grace was that the Grey Legion were too slow to capitalize and that the streets were too narrow for the rout to make it far. The same barricades meant to be held against the dead instead bottlenecked fleeing soldiers, the blind panicked stampede killing hundreds.

General Zola had ordered spells fired into the broken ranks to turn them around, at first, but it changed nothing and she would not be party to butchering her own soldiers like animals. She tried to organize two fresh lines of defence but both buckled under the sheer mass of the routing soldiers who were in no mood to listen to shouting officers. There was, she bitterly realized, little she could actually do. She’d lost control over her army. They might as well be utter strangers now, for all the sway she had over them. Should she arrange for a more orderly retreat? The battle was good as lost now, but perhaps she could still salvage an army out of this. The sun shook out her out of her thoughts, absurdly enough. The sun, in the middle of the night.

And still there it was, hanging in the sky above them, red and burning and casting golden light. A miracle, Zola thought, and remembered the strange lights that burned under the eyecloth of the Hierophant. They were, she thought, eerily similar to what now shone above her army. Which slowed in its flight, confused and worried. And slowly, as General Zola watched, something changed. One of the barricades being toppled calmed, and when she sought the sight with a Baalite eye she found that a banner had been raised. The Crown and Sword, the Black Queens own, but it was not the Black Queen flying it. Lady Vivienne Dartwick, armed and armoured and mounted as the Order of Broken Bells rode around her, headed into the fray.

And wherever she went, under that burning sun that somehow had the Grey Legion buckling, the terror turned to shame. And shame turned into determination, soldiers streaming behind her.

 The tide slowed.

The tide halted.

At last the tide turned around, and as the broken armies headed back into the fight General Zola Osei thought that while Callow might only have one queen this night it had gained a princess.

Interlude: Sigil

“Peace is death, stagnation of the soul. Peace is a child closing their eyes to the truth of the world: the great will partake of the small, until they falter and they too are partaken of. Strife is life and death, and there can be no more evil in embracing it than in the act of breathing.”

– Extract from the ‘Tenets of Night’, ancient Firstborn religious text

Rumena waited, patient.

Many of the Mighty were growing restless, eager to seek excellence through strife as the… cattle around them did, but the once-and-again general knew better. The Enemy had sent hordes to batter the walls and the gates, but the Pale Crown was not one to seek triumph through brute strength. The killing knives had yet to be bared. The Mighty studied another of its kind, Mighty Borislava, as it sat on the bares stone of the street with its eyes closed. Night pulsed from it in weak waves, a feat of control considering the strength of the Secret being used. Borislava suddenly breathed out, its silver-pierced face twisting into a smile.

“They are found,” Mighty Borislava rasped out. “The tunnels expand too quickly to be dug by hand or pick. The Enemy has brought acid-worms.”

Rumena nodded, expressing no displeasure. That worms were not unexpected, though this marked the first instance they were used on any front but Serolen or the Pass. This cattle-city of Hainaut was as jaws of steel, the general had come to suspect, a trap laid for any unwary foot willing to step into it. Soon enough they would begin to feel the bite of those teeth,

“How many breaches?” Rumena asked.

“I have found seven, General,” Borislava said. “Five of these along the western shore of the basin.”

Reluctantly, it added that it might have missed a few tunnels whilst looking. Good, Rumena would not need to discipline it again. Borislava usually required such a firm hand only every half century or so, and had earned that raspy voice the first time it had allowed its pride to delude it into thinking it might replace Rumena as sigil-holder, but its usefulness in the southern expedition was feeding the pride again. Perhaps the old Firstborn would not need to end it before they reached their fourth century together.

“Zarkan,” the general called out, without turning

The rylleh had been still and silent, knowing that even though bearing the title it was the weakest of its rank among the Rumena and should be wary of giving offence. Wise, though lacking in audacity. The mark of one who was to be slain and harvested before it could reach any significant measure of power. Night rewarded the knife that struck, not the knife that waited for the opening.

“Whisper into the Night,” Rumena ordered its messenger. “Tell Mighty Jindrich that it is to begin attac-”

The wave rage that roared through the Night staggered them all for a heartbeat. Sve Noc were furious, their earthly forms in the sky above cawing in pain and anger. The general knelt, mastering the feelings not its own, and sent its humble regards above. Its goddesses deigned to answer, sending a flicker of thought: the First Under the Night. face ripped apart by an unnatural arrow. Near dead, though not quite. Already Sve Noc had sent had servant to see to the matter, moving with swift and silent steps, and the Eldest went with it. It was the Youngest, who had ever favoured Rumena and commanded its own affections in return, that bade the old drow to turns its eyes to the sky. Where sorcery made the firmament creak and groan, opening three great gates above the city.

Strike, Komena ordered.

The old drow breathed out, and Night flooded its veins. It filled it to the brim, seeping into the flesh and the organs as Rumena drew on a power it had not deemed worth using in seven hundred years. The Secret of Tolling Wrath was but a mimicry of something the Firstborn had been able to craft at will, ancient engines of destruction that the general had once turned on the unbreakable ranks of the nerezim as their relentless advance broke one city after another, but in the old nights it had taken a company of sorcerers and a Sage to guide them for the ritual-engine to be used. The Tomb-Maker could now do the same with but an exertion of will and power, as if a company of one. The Night vanished from it without warning, as the Secret took its final shape, and Rumena shivered.

It would not be able to call on the Secret twice tonight, it decided. Once had already set its bones to aching.

In the sky above, water had begun to pour from the gates. The Youngest cared not to suffer this affront, so see the wiles of her First Under the Night turned against a city under its protection, and so it had struck as well. The great crow had was growing, turning from a small blot of darkness in the sky to a great nightmare blotting out the stars themselves. It was, Rumena thought, beautiful to behold. And at last the Secret of Tolling Wrath finished shuddering its way through the air, striking the side of one of the gates with a sound like a bell. Power tore at power, tearing at the edge of the sorcerous gate, and it was with amusement that Rumena saw a long beam of Hateful Light spear upwards from somewhere in the city, cutting at the edge of another gate. The Peregrine was a reliable foe even as an ally.

It was after the Light faded that the Youngest Night struck, the great crow’s wrath covering the sky as its wingspan streamed with the sea of water she had flown in the way of. Bending under the weight of the water’s strength, the great crow raked her talons against the third gate and there was an immediate eruption of power. Rumena’s crooked fingers tightened as it saw the Youngest Night tumbled downwards, her shape diminishing until she was simply a crow once more and she began circling above the city once more. There had been something in the gate that had hurt its goddess, the general thought. At least all of the gates were now – another one blinked into existence, Rumena’s sharp eyes catching the side where the Peregrine’s Light had cut it.

The same gate, not completely destroyed?

Whatever the truth of it, it began pouring water again and the old drow watched as the torrent fell like sea of stones on the Fourth Army of Callow. The shields made by sorcery were not enough, breaking instantly under the impact. Soldiers died, engines were shattered and the repaired gate shuddered. Before the annihilation could be complete, however, the side cut by Light snapped and the gate exploded in burst of sorcery that lit up the sky.

“Mighty One,” Zarkan quietly said. “Mighty Jindrich has claimed the right of vanguard and begun assault the tunnels. I have word from other sigils of dead erupting from other places within the city.”

“Then whisper this order to all sigils, Mighty Zarkan,” Rumena said. “Strike now at the dead, and hold nothing back.”

“Chno Sve Noc,” Zarkan fervently replied, and others with it.

Rumena the Tomb-Maker did not say more. Instead it walked to a stretch of starlight on stone and softly spoke a word of power, its will reaching for the deepest depths of its shadow where it kept only things it had not meant to see Creation while it still drew breath. Yet it would make an exception, tonight. It would have been arrogance to refrain when its goddesses took the field.

It would put on, one last time, the armaments it had once worn as a general of the Empire Ever Dark.

Ivah of the Losara Sigil, Lord of Silent Steps, moved with purpose.

The Eldest Night had sent it to seek its mistress’ side with all haste, and so it skimmed along the edges of the Pattern to quicken its pace. It was not a fortress or a fight Ivah found when its steps slowed but instead a house. Masses of water falling from the firmament had devastated swaths of the city, including most of this street, but though Ivah saw fighting on the ramparts to the west there seemed to be no immediate threat here. Instead a fire had been lit inside the house, and Night whispered to the Lord of Silent steps that Losara Queen was within. It rapped knuckles against the door, as was the human way, and only then opened it.

This was no great palace or library, simply a hovel of humans, and so within there was only one room. The lit hearth did not catch its attention, not when instead it saw Losara Queen wan and bloodied on a mattress of straw. By her side sat the shade it knew as the Mighty Akua, though no longer did she have the scent of one who could draw on Night. Curious. The shade did not turn and so Ivah took a step forward, closing the door only to then turn to the sensation of a blade resting against its neck.

“Don’t move,” the Mighty Archer said, eyes hard. “There’ll be no vulture’s meal tonight, Ivah.”

The Mighty would strike him down without batting an eye, for though human she was admirably ruthless even with long acquaintances, but Ivah shook his head. The edge bit into the throat of its skin, but only shallowly.

“This is not my purpose,” Ivah said. “I have been sent by Sve Noc.”

The Mighty Akua finally turned towards it, her eyes like golden flames. Its face was not composed as the Lord of Silent Steps had always seen it before. It was… drawn.

“This one’s not looking to wet its beak red, Archer,” the shade said. “It enjoys its place too much.”

The blade moved away slightly and Ivah nodded, pleased to have been properly understood by such a dangerous creature.

“Service to Losara Queen is pleasant and I could not sit her throne,” Ivah told the Mighty Archer, slightly embarrassed as it was rather forward of it to speak so plainly. “I seek not Night in this house.”

“I would hope not,” Mighty Archer smiled. “You wouldn’t live through an attempt at harvesting it.”

It was always rewarding for Ivah to see others proclaim such loyalty for Losara Queen. To serve an accomplished sigil-holder was rewarding, for who should the Firstborn learn from save the great?

“Can you help?” the Mighty Akua asked. “Hierophant did what he could and I have further slowed the spread, but we’ve not turned the tide.”

“We sent for healers,” Mighty Archer quietly said, “but she’s in no state to be moved. We can’t do shit but wait, at the moment.”

“I have no such talent,” Ivah of the Losara Sigil said. “This matters not, for I am the tool in the hand of a greater power.”

The blade was sheathed, a tacit permission, and Ivah approached the bedside. It unwove the bandages delicately, revealing the deep wound below, and unexpectedly found its heart clenching. Losara had… done much, for Ivah. Opened its eyes to paths that could be tread, raised it to a position of trust and power. It did not please the Lord of Silent Steps to see the sovereign it had once sworn oaths too so harshly hurt. The left side of Losara Queen’s face had been torn through by an arrow, ripping through her eye and cheek as well as shattering the chin bone. Not a mortal wound, perhaps, save if the arrow were invested with power. It must have been, for someone had clearly tried to heal the wound with sorcery and it had opened anew since.   

“Poison,” Mighty Akua said. “It got into the blood. And something more, too. An aspect.”

It nodded, closing its eyes and breathing deep.

“I know nothing,” Ivah murmured in Crepuscular. “I am nothing. I am a vessel, filled with Night.”

Power surged, power beyond Ivah’s understanding. The Lord of Silent Steps felt the house around it shudder as the Sve Noc herself came upon it, flowing through the cracks and forming anew on the drow’s back as a great crow. Her talons dug into its skin, drawing black blood, and it breathed out raggedly.

“Fuck,” Mighty Archer muttered, voice shaken.

The golden-eyed shade stared at the goddess, unmoved.

“Your intentions, godling?” Mighty Akua asked.

“I will see to my chosen,” Sve Noc said, voice like the cawing of crows. “Do not think to interfere in this, shade.”

“We will trust in your intentions,” Mighty Akua smiled, a cold thing. “Trust in ours, Sve Noc, should you overstep.”

Ivah swallowed a gasp as talons sunk deeper into its skin, tearing at flesh as a mind infinitely greater than its own moved its hand to rest against Losara Queen’s forehead. Night flared, moving into the First Under the Night’s body, and knowledge came to the rylleh.

“It is a poison that resist sorcery,” Ivah spoke for its goddess. “And it was empowered, as was the arrow, by an aspect.”

Night slithered down the veins of the unconscious queen, feeling out the transcendent nature of the wound, and Ivah cocked its head to the side.

“Murder,” the Lord of Silent Steps conveyed. “That is the essence of the trouble, the concept that seeks to kill her even now. This ‘Hawk’ was no servant of the Pale Gods when she still drew breath.”

“But you can fix it?” Mighty Archer pressed.

“It can be done,” Ivah agreed, bowing to the pressure in its mind. “But it will not be a panacea. The eye is gone for good, and a scar will remain.”

“Fuck,” Mighty Archer cursed. “Would the Pilgrim do better? He said he couldn’t, when he came to pick up Masego, but if we lean on the Ophanim through him…”

“It will make no difference,” Ivah regretfully said. “An aspect is an aspect. Sve Noc must see to it now, before the wound worsens, and you are given warning that it will be hours before Losara Queen wakes.”

The two humans traded glances, Mighty Archer hesitating.

“Go,” Mighty Akua said. “I will stay.’

“You sure?” Mighty Archer asked.

“Trust me,” the shade replied, wryly smiling.

There was a heartbeat of silence between them, until Mighty Archer nodded.

“I do,” she said, sounding almost surprised. “Take care of her, Akua.”

The shade went still, and somehow looked pained. Mighty Archer offered them all a hard smile.

“Meanwhile, I’m going to go express my displeasure to the Hawk.”

Mighty Jindrich picked up the corpse by the throat, idly tossing it down the tunnel.

Its armour clattered as it toppled another few skeletons, the lot of them ending up in a writhing pile. Jindrich advanced on two legs, head slightly bent for the height of the tunnel, and fell upon the pack. One strike was enough to plaster a skeleton into the stone of the wall, another was stomped to dust and out of bored disgust the sigil-holder smashed the last two’s heads into each other until both broke.

“Disappointing,” Mighty Jindrich said. “There has not been worthy strife since we slew the worms.”

“We could head back,” Mighty Lasmir said. “Head down another breach, see if there is stiffer resistance there.”

Lasmir was sill growing back the arm it had lost to the acid spit, having not found enough dead flesh to devour for the Secret of Consumption to truly show its worth. There was a reason Jindrich had never bothered to kill Lasmir for it even before the First Under the Night had decreed that Firstborn of the southern expedition could not slay each other.

“No,” the sigil-holder decided. “The Tomb-Maker implied there would be worthy strife, should we push far enough. We will quicken the pace instead.”

The rylleh bowed, passing the order down to the rest of the sigil as it had been meant to. The breach they’d forced had been a pleasant fight, but below the cattle-city the dead had seemingly dug a maze of tunnels. Jindrich found the feeling of treading underground stone once more sweet, yet it had found little opposition aside from a continuous flow of skeletons. Even splitting the sigil down several tunnels had not yielded greater prey, but the sigil-holder was wise to the Enemy’s ways. Once, a very long time ago, Jindrich of Great Strycht had wielded a pick and dug tunnels for souls it had believed to be wise. Sve Noc had shown it a better path, the true path, but it had not forgot. These tunnels were for moving around, but there would be somewhere further below where the broken stone would be dragged so it could be thrown away instead of clog up tunnels.

There, Mighty Jindrich decided, there would be enemies worth destroying.

Its sigil moved swiftly after the order was given. They ran into undead, a larger battalion standing together – forty dead, armoured and armed – which was a good sign and decent entertainment. Mighty Draha was allowed to use the Secret of Impalement to stick them all in a line before they were smashed into the walls until destroyed. Always good for a laugh. Until then the tunnels had been a slope, but after this they were a sheer drop with an iron ladder going down. Promising, Mighty Jindrich decided, and leapt. It landed atop the helm of a skeleton, crushing it with its weight, and let out an approving noise at what it beheld: a great cavern that was a hive of tunnels, swarming with corpses and dead stitched-up monsters. Even a few of the Greater Dead, these who had been Named in life, if its eyes were not being fooled.

The sigil-holder smiled, power thrumming in its flesh as it began to let it loose.

“You will be Night,” Mighty Jindrich promised.

“You trespass on the realm of the dead,” a voice replied. “And so will join them.”

A tall silhouette, in heavy armour and bearing a large morningstar, strode forward.

“You are the one they call Mantle, yes?” Jindrich grinned.

The Greater Dead spoke not a word, but the sudden darkness not even Mighty could see through was answer enough. Mighty Jindrich laughed, letting Night rip through it and rent its body asunder before reforming it with a shell of Night.

Finally, strife worth having.

The lamellar of steel and obsidian still fit as it had when Rumema had been young, tightened at the hip with a belt, and the red-plumed helmet was still comfortable around its long pale hair. The marks of the ancient honours bestowed on it under the Empire Ever Dark, that of Great General Who Shook The World and Victorious Commander of the South, each claimed a shoulder with twisted braids of gold and iron. And at General Rumena’s hip, the long single-edged sword of steel it had once borne into battle rested comfortably. Waiting, eager to be used at last after all this time. Sighing, the old drow straightened its back and heard it crack as if someone were treading on twigs. It popped its shoulders, loosening them, and only then did it lay a hand on the pommel of its sword.

“Mighty Borislava,” the general said.

“I listen, Mighty One,” Borislava cautiously said.

None of Rumena’s sigil had ever seen it wear the armour. It had even the strongest of its rylleh feeling… cautious. A refreshing feeling, it would admit.

“You are to command the sigil in my absence,” Rumena said. “Look for breaches and settle them, ensure the cattle are not overwhelmed.”

“It will be done, Mighty One,” the other drow replied. “If this one may enquire, what is it the Mighty One intends?”

Rumena’s fingers tightened around its sword, and slowly it unsheathed the blade.

“Do you know why they call me the Tomb-Maker, child?” the general said.

“The tale is well-known, Mighty One,” the Mighty said. “You slew many a sigil, in your pursuit of Mighty Kurosiv’s end.”

“The truth is older than that,” Rumena chuckled. “Ysengral, I am told, meant it as a compliment.”

And it flicked the blade downward, not to cut but as the focus of its will as it called on the Secret of Stone. The stone below its feet parted like a receding tide, and General Rumena walked into the earth. It closed behind its footsteps, a sealed tomb, and with a hunter’s smile the Tomb-Maker burrowed deep into the earth. It felt the first tunnel within moments, moving to emerge into it and stumbling into a heated strife between dzulu and corpses. Rumena wasted no time, heading to the fore and closing the tunnel behind it with a glance. Slapping the head off the nearest skeleton, it walked back into the earth after closing the rest of the visible tunnel on the dead with a flick of its sword. The dead had dug beneath the city like ants, and now were crawling like them.

Rumena was not above stepping on the likes of them.

It wove between tunnels, closing them and burying the dead wherever it passed, until it reached a tunnel where some enchanted spikes digging into the earth resisted its will and kept it from moving the nearby stone. Unimpressed, Rumena seized the stone at the edge of the sorcery’s range and moved the spikes close to the surface by indirect pressure before collapsing the tunnel. It took the time to clear the western side of the shore before moving further down, finding sheer drops leading into a large cavern where a sigil had already arrived. The fighting was heavy and the general recognized the enraged roars, having shared a city with Mighty Jindrich for some years once upon a time. It was far gone, to be this loud.

Rumena landed softly on the floor, knees creaking, and eyes the deep darkness around it with irritation. Some Greater Dead was playing a trick. The Mantle, yes? Losara had spoken of her. This war would be well rid of her continued presence. The general sped forward, knowing the darkness would be fixed in range, yet it died before the old drow even reached the edge. Unimpressed, it leapt over Jindrich – now the size of a house, half an insect and killing even its own sigil when it strayed too close – and swept a wave of blackflame through the throng of corpses on the upper floors where javelineers were massing. They went up like dried leaves, though the use of Night caught Jindrich’s attention. It struck out with a long, articulated leg but Rumena only sighed and caught the end of it. It shifted its footing, tossing the other Mighty deeper into the enemy ranks.

That ought to keep it busy for a while.

Streaks of black smoke snaked along the ground towards the general, leading back to an armoured silhouette it decided must be the Mantle. Some middling thing with a helmet looking like a hound charged at it as well, a sword and shield in hand. Disinclined to play, Rumena sunk into the stone instead of moving out of the way. Cursed spike went into the floor not long after, but it was already moving and too deep below besides. The cavern seemed to a major outpost for the dead, the source feeding all the breaches to the west of the city’s great basin. Clearing it out in a single stroke ought to end the better part of that offensive in its tracks. Slowing its heartbeat the old general sunk deep into the Night and let the Secret of Stone settle at the heart of its soul.

Slowly, carefully, it began to sink Night into the bedrock beneath this city of Hainaut. As it did, extending fingers outwards, a greater force reached out and clasped its hand. The Youngest Night, talons puncturing skin even when the touch was meant to be tender, touched the general’s soul. She was wroth, and her anger was cold ruin inflicted unto the world: her hands guided its own, her eyes seeing beyond the reach of what any mortal might, and together they made for the Enemy an answer. Tunnels moved, closing and then weaving themselves anew as an intricate web leading to the five great caverns dug far beneath the city. And then, one by one, the two of them bound the ends of the web to the bottom of le Bassin Gris, the great water basin at the heart of Hainaut.

Water began to pour, and with panting breath Rumena leaned against stone as it felt Komena begin to withdraw from it. Begin and then stop. No, the Tomb-Maker realized with dread, not stop.

Fail.

Ivah of the Losara Sigil went still, as two goddesses screamed and the city shook.

It had found the waterside, returning to its sigil after the Eldest Night had ended her use of its body for the mending of Losara Queen, but the once-still waters were now as a sea taken by a violent storm. And the ground shaking had not ceased, as if some titan was hammering at the city from below with desperate strength. It turned to the terrified drow looking at it for answers, knowing it had none save for the furious howling of the goddesses in its mind.

“Disperse,” Ivah ordered the sigil. “Survive.”

They scattered to the winds. The Lord of Silent Steps could afford to spare them no more thought, for now the attention of its goddess was once more hammering at its mind. The rylleh stumbled forward, ending up on its knees by the shore of the basin. The waters were not only roiling, it realized with distant horror, but lowering. As if emptying. Before the revelation could sink in, talons punctured Ivah’s shoulders once more and the Eldest Night screeched in its ears. The wrath that bled into its mind made the world go white and brought it to the brink of unconsciousness, until those sharp talons brought it back with sharp pain. Service is required of you, Ivah of the Losara, a voice whispered into its soul. And though the talons were sharp, the voice was… cool. Soothing. A companion that Ivah had kept all its life without ever knowing it.

“We are born under Night,” Ivah murmured. “We die under the Night. All that I am belongs to it.”

The answer pleased the goddess. The pain of talons was fading, replaced with a pleasant coolness instead. Power intertwined with Ivah’s own, like a sea pouring into a lake. And the binding was deep, so deep that the Lord of Silent Steps… glimpsed. There was another crow, trapped deep below in a cage of curses and spells. Bound to the Tomb-Maker, the Youngest Night was striking at her surroundings with impotent fury. And though the plateau shook, it did not shatter. And looking closer, Ivah saw… hooks. Someone was binding the crow, containing it. Its mind was wrenched away from the sight forcefully, made to look upon the power being poured into its frame. Veiled Gods, so much Night. More than a hundred lifetimes would have let it win.

“Why?” Ivah croaked out. “It is… it is too much.”

Footsteps sounded behind it, but it was too exhausted to move. It felt as if eve twitching a finger would be enough to kill it, and still the Night would not cease pouring into it. A shape formed before it, a drow with silver eyes and ornate robes. It – no, she – bore a silver mask at her hip.

“You come at an inauspicious time,” Andronike said. “Return when we are less occupied.”

“One of you was caught.”

The voice of an old man. The Peregrine.

“It will be dealt with,” the Eldest Night said.

“Then why are you cramming your godhead into this one?”

A younger voice, calm but curious. The Hierophant. The Eldest Night did not answer.

“The Dead King is usurping the Night,” the Peregrine said. “Of that, the Ophanim are certain. You are losing.”

“If our First Under the Night was awake, it would not be so,” the Eldest Night furiously replied.

“Your weakness exists regardless of Catherine,” the Hierophant evenly said. “Do not blame others for your shortcomings.”

Ivah felt a sudden surge of mind-shattering pain, the Night’s flow into its body flowing, and it let out a hoarse scream. It was… Night was being pulled at from another side, through the other crow.

“He has his hooks in you,” the Peregrine harshly said. “This can no longer be allowed. If he devours your power whole, it means our annihilation.”

“We are,” the Eldest Night said, sounding pained, “still fighting. The strife has not yet come to an end.”

“We cannot allow him to devour you,” the Peregrine said, voice gone eerily calm. “You know this. Better to end Night than that.”

“You would kill them all,” Andronike hissed.

“No,” the Hierophant said. “There is another way. One that leaves enough they will live, if only as mortals. And with what you have put aside in this one, you will still be goddesses as well.”

“Paltry things,” the Eldest Night said. “Remnants.”

“Time,” the Peregrine softly said, “is running out.”

There was a long silence, and in its soul Ivah of the Losara felt goddesses speak words only they could understand. Eyes closed, it saw the truth of things: a crown of obsidian, skeletal fingers wrapping around it.

“Do it,” Sve Noc spoke as one, and offered up a hand.

A dark-skinned finger was laid against it.

Ruin,” the Hierophant said, and Creation obeyed.

Night broke, and the city broke with it.

Interlude: Woeful

“Hardship does not create valour any more than rivers create fish. It is simply a circumstance where the valorous reveal themselves, and it would be a mistake to believe that what misery or ruin unveil could not also be brought into the light by love or duty.”

–  King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded

Guillaume screamed in terror as he scraped desperately at the floor, trying to keep the winds from snatching him up in their like they had Leonie. His fingers were raw and bloody, the cut on his face was aching something fierce, he’d dropped his sword and Heavens it just wasn’t going to be enough.  He could feel the wind pulling at his feet, as if trying to drag him into the sky. The gales were thick with ash and dust, hard to peer through, but Guillaume had seen his friends go up into the whirlwind and never seen any of them return. It would be death if he went up. So he kept crawling forward as the cacophony of wind blotted out the rest of the world, like a fish fighting the current, but he was feeling a tug on his legs as the strength of the storm grew and – and, somehow, his hands had reached into a bubble of calm.

He did not waste time questioning the miracle, only dragging himself forward along the floor with the last of his strength as he panted and grunted and half-wept in relief. A hand grabbed him by the collar and he started in surprise, but he did not resist after realizing he was being dragged further into the bubble. There was not a trace of the winds here, he realized, and even the screams of the storm were muted. Guillaume looked up, his face covered in cold sweat and his arms still trembling, following the sight of a bracer-clad arm over a black gambeson up to a steel cuirass and then something that was impossible to mistake: a great black cloak with a patchwork of many colours stitched on, banners and stranger things.

The Mantle of Woe, he’d heard Callowans call it. And so it was the Black Queen’s brown eyes considering him, set in a hard and angular face that seemed like it had been shaped to keep a frown. Guillaume shivered. They said the Queen of Callow was kind to the commons, but she was still one of the Damned and who would tell if she decided to take his soul now?

“Your Majesty,” he stammered, “I-”

Idly she flicked a finger at his forehead, the lights dimming around them, and Guillaume felt something cold slither through his veins and all the way up his face. Like a coiled snake, it waited under his cheek near his wound.

“That’ll stop the bleeding,” the Black Queen said, in slightly accented Chantant. “But you’ll still need to get it healed or it’ll infect.”

Guillaume dragged himself up halfway to sitting, gingerly touching the edges of the deep cut on his cheek and finding that it no longer bled or stung. There was a cool, pleasant numbness instead when he prodded. Thanks stumbled out of his mouth and she offered half a nod before rising from her crouch, leaning heavily on a long staff of dead wood that gave off a sense of… solidity that one did not often find in dead things. The queen suddenly cocked her head to the side, as if she’d heard something he had not. He pricked his ear even as he pushed himself further away from the edge of the bubble, but he heard nothing aside from the distant screaming of the winds.

“Good, the Drake was overdue,” the Black Queen said, speaking to thin air. “And Ishaq said they got the Hawk as well?”

There was a silence, then the queen grimaced.

“I don’t care what the Artificer says, Hakram,” she said.  “Even if the Hashamallim themselves came down from the Heavens and personally pissed that Light, unless we see that body burn with our own eyes then the Hawk isn’t dead. Pass the word to keep an eye out for her.”

Merciful Heavens, Guillaume shivered. Were they all doomed, had the Black Queen had gone made and now spoke to the wind? Or had her powers grown so fearful that she could speak to others who were far away? He was not sure which thought scared him more.

“Your Majesty,” he tried. “I do not-”

Dark eyes turned to him.

“Be silent for a bit,” the Black Queen said. “No, not you. There’s this-”

She cocked an eyebrow.

“What’s your name?”

“Guillaume,” he slowly said.

She cast a glance at his equipment, the worried gambeson and dull cuirass that looked so shoddy compared to her own.

“Brabantine?” she guessed.

“I am,” he said.

“A conscript named Guillaume stumbled into my stillness bubble,” she told the air. “But never mind that. Does Archer have eyes on them?”

After a moment, she blinked in surprise.

“The Archmage came up himself?” she said. “Shit. They’re going for a major breach, then, he wouldn’t come personally unless he expected to have room to cast in. Who’s the other one?”

Guillaume had, without even noticing it, lowered his guard. He must have, or else why would he feel his entire body clenching at the sight before him? The easy expression on the Black Queen’s face went up in smoke, revealing a face that was all hard iron. Starlight dimmed around them, as if shying away in fear.

“Meant for Ishaq’s band to get him, but we’ll do,” the Queen of Callow evenly said. “’Drani knows?”

A heartbeat, then she nodded.

“Good,” the Black Queen said. “She can take the vanguard.”

Sahelian confirmed it,” Hakram’s voice spoke into her ear. “It’s the Pale Knight with the Archmage. Catherine leaves the vanguard to you.”

Indrani hadn’t needed Flighty Fantom’s say-so to be sure of what it was she was looking it at, but Cat letting her start off the waltz was good news. So long as that damned storm was swirling about, she couldn’t do much with her bow anyway. After the first and only time she’d been able to put an arrow in the Archmage by Seeing a weak point in the winds, the Revenant had rebuilt his usual storm defence from the ground up so there would be no repeat. The most irritating part seemed that the Archmage was now seemingly able to bring other Revenants into its storm to protect them, which he hadn’t been able to a few months back. The defences had improved again.

She was going to have to carve an opening with her swordarm.

“Got it,” Indrani quietly replied, letting the paired stone carry her words.

She unstrung her bow, as it’d make for too easy a target otherwise, and slid it against her back in the leather sheath she’d made. Crouched atop the bastion to the north of the one that’d fallen to the assault of the Scourges, Archer studied the grounds she was going to have to assault once last time. The ramparts of Hainaut had fewer bastions than most walls, though she wasn’t Cat or Hakram so she had no real idea why, but the way they were made was pretty straightforward. Two levels: the lower one accessible from the rampart themselves through gates on each side and the upper one accessible through stairs leading up from inside. Easy grounds to defend.

Trouble was that the dead had come from above, directly on the flat grounds of the upper level, so it was them that were defending. Might still be some soldiers huddled up below, since the Revenants seemed more interested in allowing iron ladders to land on the wall than pushing their advantage, but they wouldn’t last long one the dead got to clearing them out. Indrani wasn’t worried about the skeletons coming up the ladders, but she didn’t like the look of that storm: not only was it spreading out from the bastion on which it was centered, the winds seemed to be getting stronger. If she tried to walk her way to the lower bastion, she risked getting caught up in that.

She narrowed her eyes, trying out a Stride along the path. The feeling wasn’t as clear as when she used the aspect when journeying, but it still tended to give a hint – and this time, the sensation was that of a broken path. Yeah, like she’d thought those winds were going to be a headache. Fortunately, just because she had to go on foot didn’t mean she had to take this particular. Between See and Stride, finding the thin places between Creation and the Ways had always been staggeringly easy to her and tonight was no exception: a little below her perch, two feet forward and five feet off the ground, there was a weakness. Someone must have used powerful magic there earlier, it had that kind of a taste.

Would it get her where she needed to go? Indrani listened to the pulse of her aspects carefully, then nodded in satisfaction. Close enough.

“Going,” Archer told Hakram through the stones. “I’m using the Ways, and tell them to be careful with those winds. I think the storm is growing.”

She did not wait for an answer before leaping down, tumbling through the thin veil on the Pattern even as she reached for her longknives. The Pale Knight was at hand, finally.

Time to teach the Scourge that killing Lysander had been a very fatal mistake.

The connection severed itself before he could sever it, which Adjutant took to mean Archer had entered the Twilight Ways.

It wouldn’t be long before she popped out in the middle of the enemy then, as had been her wont since she’d learned she had a knack for ‘sidling’. Unlike using gates it wouldn’t forewarn the Revenants, another reason that Indrani was best suited among them to taking the vanguard. Even if he’d still had both his legs, he wouldn’t have been able to… Hakram forced himself to concentrate on the here and now. Too often these days did his thoughts take him down fruitless paths. Fingers pressing on another stone, the orc linked to Catherine.

“Indrani is moving, using the Ways,” he told her. “You need to prepare.”

I hear you,” she replied. “Is Masego ready as well?”

That was the essence of their striking plan, after all. Indrani was to interrupt the Archmage’s casting of the storm, freeing Catherine and Masego to hammer both Scourges immediately with strong workings. From there the plan grew… fluid, as things grew harder to anticipate, but there were ideas that’d been discussed.

“All he needs is my signal,” Hakram replied.

Then let’s get this going,” Catherine replied, severing the link.

From her tone, the orc decided, she’d be smiling. He found he was as well. Grim as the circumstances were, it had been too long since the Woe had fought as one. That Vivienne’s skulking would be replaced by Akua Sahelian’s was not an improvement to his eyes, but these days Vivienne had duties of her own and – and it seemed that Sahelian wanted to speak. He touched the corresponding tone, and immediately her smooth speaking voice resonated in his ear.

I have eyes on the undead climbing the ladders,” the shade said. “Most are unarmoured, not shock troops, and they appear to be bringing up barrels. Should I risk a closer look?”

In most battles, it was Catherine that would have made such a call. Weighed the risks and benefits, then send out another to see her will through. Tonight, though, the burden fell on him. With the Woe being split among so many places, there could be no easy coordination save through the artefact Hierophant had crafted for that very purpose. That also meant that the one handling the artefact would make decision that would, typically, belong to the leader of their band. Hakram had been unsure of his own feelings, when Catherine had pressed the duty onto him. On one hand, it was a mark of great trust on her part. On the other, it seemed like an assignment perfectly tailored to keep him away from the fighting.

“Do it,” Adjutant gravelled. “Archer’s going in, we need no surprises.”

As you say,” Sahelian replied.

It had been the delayed realization that someone would have to take up this task even if he refused it that settled the matter for him, in truth. And that anybody but him would either understand the Woe less, be distrusted by Catherine to see this done properly or be Vivienne Dartwick, who was needed to keep an eye on the Army of Callow in their stead. That the work existed beyond him, that it was not simply made to tuck him aside safely, had soothed the ugly assumptions that had been lurking in the back of his mind. He was shaken out of his thoughts by footsteps, one of his goblin attendants scuttling up the ladder leading up to the belfry overlooking the western rampart where he’d set up.

“Word from the streets,” Lieutenant Tweaker called out, popping her head over the edge. “All invading gates are closed but two, and Beatrice Volignac is wounded but alive.”

Hakram nodded.

“Time estimate for the last two?” he asked.

“The Rogue Sorcerer is headed for the first one, so not long,” the goblin replied. “The other is still disgorging soldiers, though, so only when the Levantines get to-”

The head popped away and there was some chatter further down before it popped back up.

“The Peregrine took care of it,” Lieutenant Tweaker corrected. “Only the Sorcerer’s left now, a half hour at most.”

“Keep me informed,” Adjutant simply replied.

“That’s the aim, sir,” the goblin grinned.

He snorted, eyes returning to the rampart where a storm still raged, but the calm was not to last.

Ah,” Akua Sahelian suddenly breathed into his ear. “There appears to be something of a complication, Adjutant.”

“Define complication,” Hakram warily said.

I have obtained one of the barrels in question,” the shade said, “and just opened it. While I’ve no alchemical kit at hand, I do believe this is highly concentrated poison gas.”

It fell into place a moment later. The storm growing, how the Scourges had been remarkably defensive in stance after their initial overwhelming strike. The Archmage had not begun to unleash offensive magics because he was about to turn his storm into one, by making the winds poisonous.

“Can you delay this?” Hakram asked.

The fingers of his dead hand, one of two, drummed against the end of the arm of his wheelchair – a small sculpted skull that Masego had been kind enough to add at his request.

“Unlikely,” Akua Sahelian replied. “My acquisition of the barrel did not go unremarked, and I am now pursued by an entire flock of –”

There was a loud screech on the other side, followed by some very unflattering comments about vultures and baldness in Mthethwa that he suspected the shade had not actually meant for him to hear. Either way, it was now clear who the information needed to be passed on to.

Hakram’s fingers found the stone and the dance began anew.

Guillaume would, in the safety of his own mind, admit to being curious as to why the Black Queen was just standing there and waiting. He wasn’t fool enough to ask, though, or to look in the mouth the horse that was her continued presence here warding danger away.  Guillaume had been born in a proper town, been taught some letters by the House of Light, so he wasn’t some countryside yokel. Most of the stories about the Black Queen had to be guff. Tales swapped around camp fires, getting bigger with time or just invented wholesale – for some reason, some of the easterners kept insisting the queen had castrated an ogre in single combat. There had to be some truth to them, though, ands Gods knew there weren’t a lot of monsters out there that the Queen of Callow wouldn’t make think twice.

That was reassuring, in a grim sort of way, which had Guillaume wondering if he had not ferreted out the quintessence of what it meant to be Callowan.

“You’ll need to run when we lift the storm.”

Jolted out of his philosophical musings, Guillaume started and turned to look at the Damned that’d addressed him. The queen looked tense, face set in that frown again, but not otherwise particularly concerned. It was kind of soothing, to have someone around looking at the end times like they were some sort of irritating inconvenience instead of the end of the world.

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Guillaume feelingly said, then bit his lip. “I didn’t ask, Your Majesty, but my company…”

“If they were on the rampart, they’re dead,” the Black Queen replied, not unkindly, suddenly then raised a finger to silence him. “I’m listening.”

There was a long pause.

“And Akua thinks the winds will carry it?” the queen quietly asked.

Guillaume blinked in confusion. He’d never heard of anyone of that name, though he then reminded himself it was exceedingly unwise to eavesdrop too hard here. Boys from proper little towns like him weren’t meant to hear royal conversations.

“We’ll only get one clear short at the two of them,” the Black Queen reluctantly said. “What’s the risk it could spread into the city?”

A grimace ensued.

“Archer should be able to burn out a single breath’s worth,” the queen muttered. “And she’s got the scarf to filter, afterwards. Shit. How many survivors left from that first strike, do you think?”

Even as she leaned against her staff, the Black Queen – Merciful Heavens, Guillaume thought as he realized with a start that he was probably taller than her – worried her lip. One of her hands was twitching, he noticed, fingers curling into claws as they clenched against her palm and then slowly unclenched. Brown eyes swept across the winds, and then moved to him. He looked away hurriedly, and three long breaths passed.

“Fuck it,” the Black Queen sighed. “We’ll improvise. I’m going in, let Hierophant know.”

Somehow dimly relieved, Guillaume risked a glace at the villainess. She offered her him a wild smile, for a heartbeat turning that dour tanned face into one that had him blushing.

“Hang on tight, Guillaume of Brabant,” she said. “This is going to get rough.”

“Why even bother making a plan, if she was going to discard it?” Masego complained.

“We hadn’t accounted for the gas,” Hakram replied. “If it gets into the city, this battle’s over.”

“As our defeat,” Hierophant hazarded.

It seemed a reasonable guess, considering.

“Yes, Masego, as our defeat,” Hakram amiably agreed. “Catherine’s striking, are you-”

The connection between the two paired stones fizzled for a moment, dimming the last of his words as in the distance Hierophant’s glass eyes glimpsed Night rising up in a great tide of darkness. Catherine was putting her back into it, if the reverberations from her working affected even active spellcraft in the area. An interesting phenomenon, and he itched to have a closer look at that in more contained conditions where the extraneous factors could be filtered out, but alas it would have to wait. Glints of a faded summer sun lighting up every dark, Masego studied his friend’s attack curiously. It seemed a brutish thing, at first glance, a mere tide of shadow slammed into the Tumult’s storm.

That the Scourge immediately answered with light magics, cutting beams of glowing power that tore into the darkness, was yet another reason why the Revenant was utterly underserving of being called an archmage. The effrontery was galling, truly. Someone with proper master of the higher mysteries would have noticed that Catherine, ever clever behind her pretence of thuggishness, hadn’t just gathered Night and tossed it at an enemy working. The light cut through so easily not only because of its properties as one of the classical elements but also because that wave of Night was meant to be broken. It shook the storm some, when impacting it, but when the winds unmade it the darkness allowed itself to be carried by the gales like smoke.

Within thirty heartbeats, the entire storm was filled with a thick haze of Night. Masego felt a sliver of pride had how well she’d learned the foundational principles of Trismegistan sorcery: the essence of magic was, after all, usurpation. Akua Sahelian was to be commended.

“-are you ready?”

“I am,” Hierophant replied. “You may tend to the others. My attack is at hand.”

Surrounded by three dozen barrels of bronze rods positively dripping with invested sorcery, Masego had not held back in Wresting what he required for a fitting admonishment. The magic was thick and pure, its tint strangely similar to that of a thin layer of oil atop water, and it was slowly circling around him according to his will. In the distance, his eyes piercing through the veil of Night surrounding Catherine, he found her silhouette raising her staff into the air. Good, she was about done then. The moment it struck down, to Masego’s unspoken glee, the Night spread out within the storm roiled for one moment as the Tumult had his own spell stolen away from his control. Just long enough for Catherine Foundling to disperse it, abruptly breaking the storm into fading wisps of wind.

“And now my turn,” Masego murmured, robes stirring in the evening wind.

Like a streak of lightning the sorcery shot forward through the sky. Hierophant’s concentration stumbled when he saw Indrani walk out of thin air – she must have sidled through the Ways – behind the Tumult, who did not notice. The Pale Knight did, however, and before a heartbeat had passed the Scourge had his great axe in hand and was moving towards her as he shouted a warning.

“Too slow,” Hierophant spoke through clenched teeth.

The filaments of magic snaked forward, sliding between them, and with a curt gesture of the wrist Masego shaped the sorcery into one of the first formulas he’d ever learned: out of the end of the filament a textbook prefect magic missile erupted, splashing harmless against the Revenant’s armoured helm but blinding it for a moment. Archer ducked under the burning flame unleashed by the Tumult before he even turned completely, circling to stay behind his back, even as Hierophant began shaping the sorcery again. That missile had cost him, he estimated, one part out of a thousand.

Time to see what he might achieve with some halfway decent spellwork instead.

Of course Cat had gotten it into her head that was Indrani clearly needed was for her cover to be snuffed out just before she came out of the Twilight Ways. You know, just so she could be extra visible for the fucking Pale Knight and all. Gods, what a wench. Archer caught the axe between the edge of two knives, struggling against the Scourge for a moment before hastily stepping back when it became clear she wasn’t going to win on strength alone. The bastard was even stronger than she’d come to believe from their first tangle at Lauzon’s Hollow.

“This was unwise,” the Pale Knight said.

“So was that second bottle of red last night, but that’s life for you,” Indrani agreeably replied.

He might have continued the conversation, but instead a streak of colourful magic darted in behind his head and seven wisps of hellflame shot out. The Revenant batted at them with the side of his axe, smothering a few, but more snuck around and slithered into the gap of his armour where they burst. With the Pale Knight distracted, Indrani went back on the offensive and moved to put him between her and the Archmage – which wasn’t enough, damn it, the seventeen arrows of silver light that shot out from the top of the Scourge’s staff curved around his ally. Shit, she was going to have to- and a gate into Twilight shivered to life right in their way, swallowing them all up. Archer grinned. Good, Cat was finally back in the fight.

She stepped around the gate, ducking under a swing of the Pale Knight’s axe and darting forward. The undead in his pale plate tried to knee her at the junction of the shoulder and neck but Indrani tumbled forward and under him. Her longknives cut at the back of the knees as she rose, where most armours had a weakness, but she found no purchase as her blades scratched only steel. That they scratched at all was an improvement on her previous record against the armour, so- ah, she’d been right. There had been a weak point in the armour dead, it was just that the Revenant had had melted steel poured into the back of his knee. Still a weakness with the right tool, then.

And one more strike for Cat’s theory that the Pale Knight’s strange immunity was related specifically to his armour.

Archer kept moving forward, letting her enemy’s backswing pass less than an inch behind her quiver, and got to the Archmage’s flank. The Revenant was struggled with Zeze’s latest bout of cleverness, a pool of raw magic he’d Wrested and was using to pump out spells from a distance by giving shape to parts of the pool – at the moment it was shooting out small tendrils of darkness that Indrani’s Name screamed at her to avoid, so probably some kind of nasty Wasteland curse. The Archmage was frontloading a shield to deal with it, a pane of transparent light, and while its attention was there… ah, not so much of a sucker. Her attempt to sneak a blade into its back was met by a rippling circle of space that almost blew the longknife out of her hand.

And now the Pale Knight was on her again, only for a gate to open in front of him. Indrani went around, putting the gate between herself and the Archmage, which allowed her to see Catherine come out with a bare sword and sock the bastard in the side of the head with her pommel.

“Took you long enough,” Archer said.

Cat snorted, the two of them eyeing the Pale Knight as he steadied his footing and the gate closed behind them.

“Took the scenic route,” Catherine Foundling idly said. “It’s such a nice night out.”

And behind them there was a scream as the wind began spinning above the Archmage, who never did like fighting without a storm to cover his –

Hierophant cocked an eyebrow. Did the Tumult take him for an utter fool? Certainly he could not Wrest to separate entities at the same time, but what kind of a second-rate conjurer would he be if he’d not accounted for such a weakness in his chosen strategy? He set the magic he’d gathered to spinning around itself, slowly feeding a spell that made it rotate as a globe to insignificant costs, and dug into his aspect with relish as he reached for the dawning storm and-

A column of condensed lightning struck the Archmage three times, and Indrani’s heart skipped a beat. It simply could not be denied she had good – nay, exquisite – taste in men. The Pale Knight suddenly went stiff, turning towards, Catherine and in a strange voice spoke a single word to her in a language that Archer did not recognize.

Catherine went still.

I can’t stop them any longer,” Akua Sahelian said. “They have enough casters concentrating on me that should I linger capture is certain.”

Hakram grimaced. The shade had done well at keeping anyone from climbing the ladders and joining the melee atop the bastion, but it’d only been a matter of time until Keter put together a force capable of dealing with her. He’d honestly not expected her to last so long. Much as he disliked the woman, Adjutant would still acknowledge the skillful performance she had offered tonight given her… reduced capabilities.

“Retreat,” Adjutant gravelled. “Are Revenant coming up?”

“At least two, neither Scourges,” Sahelian replied.

“I’ll pass it along,” Hakram said. “You know what to do.”

She did not acknowledge his words, only severing the connection, a sure sign she was being attacked by enemies but trying not to show it too obviously. Hearing someone come up the ladder, Adjutant turned to see Lieutenant Tweaker’s head pop over the edge.

“Movement at the front gate,” she told him. “At least three wyrms seen, and it’s looking like an all-out assault.”

Hakram, idly, touched his prosthetic. A beautiful piece of work by Masego, that. He laid a finger against a groove in the wood, as if to scratch at a phantom itch.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Tweaker began, “should we-”

Skeletal fingers closing against the length of wood, Hakram whipped out the wand and pressed his thumb against the rune sculpted into the side. There was a ripple of kinetic force as the enchantment was unleashed, the lieutenant’s shape fading and turning into a misshapen Revenant halfway into a leap at him. Adjutant dropped the wand, hand finding the skull on the arm of his wheelchair and drawing out the axe it was the pommel of. He rose with the movement, Name pulsing with joy, and the blade split the skull in half as the undead’s iron claws failed to pierce his chain mail. The Revenant dropped to the ground twitching as the necromancy tried to assert control of the limbs again. Half his body felt aflame, but he steeled himself through the pain.

“You got a goblin’s speed right,” Adjutant clinically assessed, “but not the weight. Sloppy.”

The axe went up, the Revenant’s eyes going wide, and Hakram of the Howling Wolves bared his fangs.

“Next time, Dead King? Send a Scourge.”

The axe went down.

It was the aptness of the counters that allowed Hierophant to understand what he had been dealing with all this time. It was obvious, in retrospect.

The Tumult had answered the Liessen Chisel with a perfect shield in the Pelagian school, hellflame with a Stygian dry dousing developed during Maleficent the Second’s wars against the League, used Jaquinite uncertainty principles to disrupt the magic he’d wrested halfway through a spell. The uninitiated among the heroes had insisted on calling the Revenant the ‘Archmage’ because of its broad variety of masteries in magic, but they’d never noticed that the masteries were impossibly broad. The only individual Masego had ever seen use so many different magics was the Rogue Sorcerer, and if he had never met Roland he might have dismissed this interpretation as him misreading the enemy’s spellcraft. His eyes opened at the possibility, though, it was impossible to miss the telltale marks. This should not, however, be possible. Roland used a great variety of principles, but he had the protection of an aspect and though knowledgeable he was not a master.

The Tumult, however distasteful an entity, was.

Which was absurd, because those masteries could not have been acquired after death: the dictate that undead could not learn was not as absolute as some seemed to believe, but understanding the mysteries of an entirely new school of magic definitely qualified. And it was highly unlikely to have been achieved by living, as Hierophant was rather skeptical that someone capable of mastering multiple schools of magic, whether it drove them made or not, would not have made it into the pages of history. Which meant he was missing something. On a hunch, he tried a repeat: sending both a Liessen Chisel and a spurt of hellfame at the enemy from opposite ends of the massed sorcery. And he got his answer, at last.

The Tumult did parry both, but when it did it used Pelagian shields for both instead of the apter answer he had shown himself capable of using. Moreover, the Tumult had already shown he could cast two spells simultaneously so there was no reason for it not too. Unless it could not. He can only use one school of magic at a time, Masego deduced. And there was an obvious explanation as to why. He reached for his paired stone.

“Hakram,” Hierophant said. “I have a theory about the Tumult.”

“I’m listening,” Adjutant replied.

He sounded a little out of breath, strangely enough.

“It is not a single Revenant,” Masego said. “It is a multitude of dead spellcaster souls stitched onto the same corpse, likely with an oversoul – perhaps the body’s original one – handling matters of control.”

There was a moment of silence.

“If we target that oversoul?” Hakram asked.

“The King of Death is a skillful necromancer,” Hierophant reluctantly replied. “It will not destroy the Revenant. It should, however, make it highly erratic as different souls struggle for control.”

The orc chuckled.

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

They’d taken too long to put down the Scourges, so now it was all going south. Indrani backpedalled, letting the axe pass half an inch away from her chin as behind her a blue-tinted shield took the impact from the four black streaks of sorcery that’d been aimed at her back. She flicked a feint at the Pale Knight’s face that the Revenant didn’t even bother to parry, ending up touching his helm, but the shaft of his axe was smashed into her elbow and she was forced to abort her actual blow and scuttle away as she swallowed a scream. Fuck, was it broken or just sprained? Either way, it strung like a bitch. She spared a glance for Cat, who’d just set a Revenant aflame and blown a few skeletons off the bastion but had just been forced to coat herself in a bubble of Night as a pack of undead mages tossed fireballs at her.

Indrani’s straying eyes were not, to her surprise, rewarded by the Pale Knight pursuing. Instead the Revenant was going for… shit, barrels? As in those things full of poison Hakram had mentioned? One, two, three, strokes and three were split open as grey fog came billowing out. She hastily pulled up her scarf, trusting the enchanted weave to filer to toxins, which was long enough for the Archmage to attempt birthing another storm and Masego to shut him down. Unfortunately, the figure in grey and purple robes seemed indifferent to the lightning that was cast down on it. It flickered down the robes, grounding itself into the stone floor, and the Archmage began casting again. Keeping Hierophant tied up, Archer decided.

On the bright side, Indrani had just been given a moment to breathe so she reached for the pouch at her side and carefully unfolded the green cloth folded within before sliding it down the length of both her blades and tossing it to the side. It left them coated in a heavy transparent film, as she’d been told it would. Breathing deep, she went for the fog even as Cat wove some kind of bubble of darkness to suck it out and keep it from spreading too far. As she’d expected, the Pale Knight came out of the smoke aiming at Catherine’s flank. Indrani sped forward, leaning into Stride to quicken her steps, and had to leap when just before she got into range the Revenant turned and swung at her. Catherine hammered at the Pale Knight’s knee to hinder him, but a lesser Revenant was going after her again with a spear so…

Flow, Indrani thought, letting the aspect fill her up.

The axeblade went up, but she slapped it aside with a longknife and spun on herself. She landed on the Pale Knight’s shoulder, tempted to attack but knowing that if she ended movement the aspect would end with it. She slid down the Revenant’s back at is tried to catch her foot, landing behind it in a crouch and smoothly stabbing into the back of both knees. She found only a little bite, but it would be enough. The Pale Knight turned and struck at the same time, sweeping along the ground but she rolled between his legs and emerged in front of him. His extended arm was an opening, and she swiped the flat of a blade against the armoured elbow. The kick caught her in the ribs and one broke, but it was with a smile of triumph that she rolled against the ground and drew herself into a crouch.

The Pale Knight froze for a moment, before dropping his axe and pawing at his elbow as her aspect flickered out.

“Bad choice,” Archer said. “The doses on the knees have had longer to spread.”

Idly, she reached in the pouch and picked out a white cloth she used to wipe her blades clean with.

“What did you do?” the Pale Knight asked.

He stumbled, finding his footing hard to maintain.

“Delivered to you with the Concocter’s regards,” Indrani coldly said. “An alchemical acid that devour only bone and steel, repelled by all other substances.”

The Pale Knight collapse to the ground, the only think keeping his upper legs connected to his thighs the stretch of pale plate covering them.

It was, Indrani thought with a hard smile, just the start.

Hierophant Wrested control of the storm again, jaw clenched, and shattered the spell.

How very irritating. Having grasped that he was facing a superior practitioner, the Tumult no longer even tried to do more than toss the occasional spell the way of Catherine and Indrani: instead he now repeatedly spent his power trying to birth another storm, not in hope of success but because doing so would command Masego’s attentions. Hierophant himself rarely had long enough to do more than to form the occasional second-rate spell and send it flying before he must focus his attentions on the spell again, and the repeated struggle of wills against the Revenant was starting to tire him. Unlike the magic taken from inert objects, the Scourge’s own must be forcefully usurped.

Masego felt sweat beading his forehead and going down his back. No, this stalemate was not to his advantage or that of his companions. The Tumult indicated the rhythm of their clashes, which meant he had an easier time sending spells at Catherine and Indrani than Hierophant had of defending them. The last three times it’d begun using increasingly obscure curses, and for the last Masego would admit that he’d been largely guessing when he’d used Sisi’s Sphere as a defence – he’d not been certain it would actually work. He must regain the momentum, and that meant one thing: when the storm next began to form, Hierophant let it.

Instead he gathered all the sorcery he had left in a spinning globe, shaping it in one great working.

“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he began.

The world shuddered, seven wooden pillars forming out of raw magic around the Tumult. The Revenant tried to abandon the spell hastily, but Masego smiled. It is too large, he thought. And it takes you a moment to change between schools. Four runes formed above the Revenant’s head, linked by a circle of pale light.

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

And that, Hierophant decided, was a stalemate he could live with.

“Funny thing,” Catherine Foundling said. “It was actually the Mirror Knight that helped me figure out how to kill you.”

The Mantle of Woe fluttering around her Cat – no, in that moment Indrani could only think of her as the Black Queen – parried the last lesser Revenant’s spear blow and severed its head with a brutal riposte, ripping out the blade and kicking the body over the edge of the bastion and onto a skeleton trying to climb up. The Pale Knight tried to push itself up with its axe, but Indrani kicked it away. The Revenant fell to his knees. She stepped away, sheathing her blades and reaching for her quiver.

“It’s the Named you avoided in Cleves,” the Black Queen idly continued. “The Red Knight and the Myrmidon. The Red Knight I understand – Devour is a headache and a half to deal with, but the Myrmidon? I couldn’t figure out why.”

The Pale Knight brought out another axe but Indrani had an Unraveller in hand – a great javelin artefact, one she’d adjusted so it could be fired from her bow but still very much a javelin. A swipe had that axe clattering away again and Archer added a smack against the helm so he would fall down on his back.

“But then I remembered that I never struck at you without adding Night to the blow,” Catherine added, Night gathering to her like rivers to the sea. “And it fell into place. It’s strength you have trouble with. Of that front, aside from the Mirror Knight who’s damned slow those two are the physically strongest Named.”

It was kind of hot, Indrani admitted to herself, when she monologued. She got that gleam in her eye, like she… well, maybe after this if they could spare the time. Probably counted as a form of healing, if you squinted a bit. Night caught her by the shoulders and tendrils began hoist her up into the sky. Higher and higher and higher, until the Pale Knight was barely more than a silhouette trying to get up, and then the darkness seized her tight.

“And down we go,” Archer manically grinned.

She angled the unraveller downwards and the tendrils of Night drew back a bit before throwing her down. Eyes wide open, silent as she went down, she watched as the Pale Knight hacked away at the tendrils of shadow tripping him and slowly began to rise just in time to look up and see her. She met his eyes a heartbeat before the impact, too late for him to swing at her, and she slammed the unraveller through his throat through the gorget of pale steel. The Scourge gasped and she leaned in, ignoring the tremors of pain going down her legs from the landing.

“His name was Lysander,” Indrani whispered. “Where you end up, carry that with you.”

And with a final wrench she severed the head clean. Panting, Archer tried to get up but stumbled only for Cat to reach her side and help her stand. She also, bless her petty soul, kicked the Revenant’s head. Indrani cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Fucker killed my horse,” Catherine said, unrepentant.

Indrani saw that already undead were coming over the wall, the iron ladders steadily disgorging their lot, but it was the Archmage her gaze strayed to. Though bound by Masego’s miracle, the Scourge had barely scuffed his robes throughout the fighting. For a bastard who preferred to fight at range, he’d proved remarkably resilient up close.

“Still need to finish that before we retreat for healing,” Catherine muttered, “though at least he’s still-”

A wooden pillar loudly cracked.

“Fuck,” Cat said, “I really ought to know better by now.”

Three of them blew and the Archmage’s hand swept out, but no magic ensued. Indrani pushed away and reached for her longknives even as Cat struck out with a spear of Night, but a shape moved in the way before it could hit the Revenant. Akua Sahelian, dressed in threads of shadow, moved stiffly so stand between the Archmage and the Night. Cat pulled the blow at the last moment.

“Go through,” Akua said through gritted teeth. “I’ll-”

Her mouth shut. The last pillars shattered one after another and the Archmage shook free. Masego struck from a distance with brilliant blue flames but they splashed harmlessly on a shield, and when Cat threw a few threads of shadow they were carved through with arrows of silver light. Archer cautiously approached, keeping an eye on Akua as she did. They couldn’t let the Revenant flee, as it was obviously ramping up to. The Wastelander must have been sneaking up on the Archmage and gotten caught, she thought, only that didn’t seem like Akua at all. Weapon-wise, if the Archmage put her in the way it shouldn’t be an issue. She had only a silver dagger in hand, enchanted by the looks of it, but wait wasn’t that a –

 A flock of yellow bee-like spurts of flame from Masego had the Scourge putting up a swirling ball of power to suck them up, while Catherine’s curving arrows of darkness were met with matches in silver light. And with both hands occupied, the Archmage had nothing left to spare when Akua Sahelian thrust a ritual dagger into his left eye.

“Please,” the shade amicably smiled. “As if I would allow myself to be snatched like some petty errant soul. For that presumption, allow me to take one of yours.”

The Revenant screamed with a dozen different voices as she ripped out the knife, its blade glinting with eerie light, and the Wastelander smiled in triumph. Indrani hurried forward. If they could finish the Archmage here and now… All Indrani saw was a flicker, but she was the Archer and so she knew what she’d glimpsed. An arrow. And, heart clenching, she knew where it’d been aimed. She turned, watching a circle of Night flare around Catherine but failing to stop the black-feathered arrow that punched into the side of her face. Cat fell the floor, spurting blood, and even as Akua let out a scream of dismay the Archmage leapt off the edge of the bastion.

In the distance, two crows screeched in agony.

In the sky above Hainaut there were great rumbling sounds as power gathered, thousands of mages in the plains below unleashing their rituals at least. One after the other, three great gates above the city.

And water began pouring out of them.

Interlude: Song

“I wrote this work because it is our habit as a people to ignore the worst of our history and gild its mediocrities, and to speak against this practice will see you castigated as unpatriotic. This is more than wrong, it is dangerous. We must not snuff out the lights of our common soul by placating the darkness, else what manner of a world are we laying the foundation for?”

– Extract from the conclusion of ‘The Labyrinth Empire, or, A Short History of Procer’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans

Her lips had gone dry, so Beatrice Volignac made herself drink from her cup so it would not show. The wine was watered, she was not foolish enough to partake while a battle was being waged, but the taste of the stout Cantal red was bracing anyway. The Princess of Hainaut, or more truthfully the capital and a thin stretch of the old southern borderlands, set down her golden cup after having wet her lips and leaned down to look over the maps she’d had her footpads being to the war room years ago. This was not a war council, for there was precious little planning left to be made, but given the prominence of the people seated in the salon where Beatrice’s ancestors had once received visiting royalty any decision made here had the potential to make or break the defence of the city.

Everyone had a man or a woman at the table, so to speak. The Army of Callow in the city was led by the seniormost of their generals, an aging orc who went by the name of Bagram, but while the general was here his authority was mitigated by another’s presence: Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the throne of Callow. That the former heroine only rarely used her authority in military matters only reinforced its weight when she did use it, an elegant sort of artifice worthy of a woman with Lady Dartwick’s excellent reputation with the Highest Assembly. There was some rejoicing among Beatrice’s fellow royals at the notion that Lady Dartwick might be sitting the throne in a few years, though no doubt the prospect of no longer having to deal with someone who could drown an army when cross had played a role as well as Dartwick’s personal qualities.

For the Dominion it was Captain Nabila, the stout commander of the Alavan forces within the alliance, who was well-understood to be the least of the three great Levantine commanders. Both Aquiline Osena and Razin Tanja were Blood, it lent a lustre to their authority that the other woman could not hope to match. The Iron Prince himself was here too, having left the command at the southern wall to Princess Mathilda of Neustria, with his empty sleeve folded over the arm he’d lost defending this very city three years back. The sole representative for the Firstborn was a certain Mighty Sagasbord, dark-skinned and quiet with a bent for the sardonic when it did break its silence. Prince Arsene despised it, Beatrice had learned, not that the dark elf particularly seemed to care. Theirs was not a culture that quailed at the thought of making powerful enemies.

It gave her the creeps.

“- eastern wall drove back an assault by Revenants and beorns,” Captain Nadila shared. “Lord Razin led the defence, with assistance from a band of five Bestowed under the Vagrant Spear.”

Beatrice’s eyes sharpened. From what she recalled, that was the band with the Barrow Sword. The same man the Black Queen plainly meant to make her lieutenant. Somehow the princess doubted he’d been put under the command of another. That had the smell of Dominion politics, something she figured she ought to have as little to do with as possible.

“Only assaults on the walls,” General Bagram growled. “Like we called it right. They won’t touch the front gate until they’ve drawn out as many as our soldiers as they can.”

“They’ll keep testing us with Revenants,” the Iron Prince said. “To suss out what Chosen we have at hand. Old Bones like to know the face of the opposition before he puts his back into the swing.”

“The Revenants will be handled by Named,” Lady Dartwick calmly said. “A defence plan was designed by Queen Catherine and the White Knight, before his departure. Our concern is to be the traditional forces.”

Beatrice cleared her throat, claiming attention.

“Have our Firstborn friends confirmed our suspicions?” she asked.

Mighty Sagasbord coolly smiled. Its Chantant when it spoke was eerily perfect, and Beatrice knew enough of drow to know such proficiency could only be gained by wholesale slaughter of her countrymen. As always, that serene mask over the madness made her skin crawl.

“We dig for truth still,” Mighty Sagasbord said. “But the Tomb-Maker itself leads us, Hainaut Princess. There is no need for… uneasiness.”

That it could tell she feared it only made it more unpleasant to deal with.

“There’s not much to do but wait,” Prince Klaus Papenheim gruffly said. “No dishonour in that, it’s the way war is. Some of us should try to get some sleep: the dead will try to run us into the ground, it’s one of Keter’s favourite tricks.”

As all here knew, but when such a renowned veteran spoke the words it gave others the opening to do so without shaming themselves. The Iron Prince was not without his kindnesses, for all that like most Lycaonese he cared little for social graces.

“I may retire for a few hours, then,” Princess Beatrice said. “It would be better to be fully rested when I relieve Captain-General Catalina from her command on the western wall.”

Captain Nadila snorted, eyeing her with open disdain.

“Will you be returning to your palace for it, Princess Beatrice?” the painted Levantine asked.

The orc on the other side of the table chuckled. General Bagram received a cocked eyebrow from Lady Dartwick for it, but she took no further issue and he looked undaunted. It was the Iron Prince’s unsurprised face that stung the most, though. Like he’d expected her to be the first to retire. Beatrice’s fingers closed around her cup. Perhaps he had. It was not disdainful, but even now the Iron Prince thought of Alamans as soft – always it was they who balked, who slowed, who mutinied even as others bled to drive the dead out of their lands. And that belief, Beatrice Volignac found it reflected in the eyes of everyone here. She’d had it directed at her before, the look, when people though that because she was fat it meant she was weak or stupid. But it wasn’t about her this time, was it? Not really.

It was all Alamans that were being looked down on. And she could see the shape of it, almost. What great names had come of her people in this war? Cordelia Hasenbach was Lycaonese, Rozala Malanza was Arlesite and even the Kingfisher Prince, Frederic Goethal, preferred the company of northerners to his own kind while openly disdaining the games of the Highest Assembly. And it was unfair, Beatrice thought, for her people were brave. They were gallant and stubborn and love freedom more fiercely than any other under the sun, but what did it matter to these few before her now? All they saw was an Alamans shackle around the Grand Alliance’s foot. And this was larger than Beatrice, than House Volignac or perhaps even royalty, but here and now it was her that the looks stung.

“I am not yet sure,” Princess Beatrice evenly replied. “Regardless, I will first go to our rampart and assess the situation there.”

It was her home being fought for, she thought. Sleep could wait for a while still.

Catalina Ferreiro had become Captain-General of the Ligera Bandera a mere two years before the war against Keter began, an appointment that had been like a noose around her neck ever since. She had been a compromise candidate, she knew, that her decent battlefield record and noble lineage had seen her elected by the officers because they have her more respectable standing in the eyes of the rank and file. The powerful banner-captains of the Ligera had meant to use her as a figurehead while they privately continued the same infighting that’d paralyzed the greatest fantassin company of the Principate so badly it had been unable to even take a contract for the Tenth Crusade. Catalina had thought herself clever, playing off Vargeras against Capistrant until they’d spent themselves against each other and she had enough support to muzzle Garrido on her own.

The prize she had won, unfortunately, was uncontested command of the largest mercenary company on Calernia just as the first signs of the end times were glimpsed the north. As Old Teresa was fond of saying, the Gods never missed an opportunity to piss in the gruel of fantassins.

“Pitch and torches,” the Captain-General bellowed. “Burn that thing or we’ll lose the bastion.”

Catalina preferred the spear, but it was a useless weapon against the dead so she’d taken to the halberd instead: with a grunt, she smashed the axehead into the flank of the skeleton coming for her and toppled it over the edge of the rampart. Her personal guard swept forward, smashing into the loose formation of undead trying to keep her from reinforcing the bastion where the Folies Rouges were being hacked apart by ghouls and the beorn that’d carried them up the cliff. Captain Reinald had done well against the first wave, but the second had caught him by surprise and now the entire western wall was at risk. If they lost that bastion… already the dead were trying to land ladders to solidify the beachhead. Flicking a glance back through the sweaty locks matting her helmet, she caught sight of the approaching torches. No more time to waste.

Ligera,” Catalina shouted.

Faith kept through fire,” her soldiers shouted back,

They charged against into the dead, whose formation the undead officers had not been quick enough to salvage. The Captain-General paced herself, picking her foes carefully – a thrust of her halberd pushed another corpse over the wall, a sweeping descent shattered another’s helmet and broke the foul magics keeping it moving – even as the front ranks of her mercenary company plowed through the enemy line. A clear path to the bastion, she thought.

“Torchmen,” she screamed, “with-”

Her words were drowned out by a thunderous roar as the beorn that’d been tearing at the fantassins in the bastion abandoned its playthings there, instead leaping down onto the rampart and casually sweeping half a dozen men off the wall into the city below. Some might survive, Catalina though, though they might not wish they had.

“Aim for the beorn,” the Captain-General of the Ligera Bandera calmly said. “On my signal.”

Another seven men dead, the great abomination crushing them as easily as a boot would an ant.

“Hold,” Catalina Ferreiro said.

Another handful dead, the beast enjoying its rampage. With only a thin stretch of wall to maneuver with and other soldiers behind them, her men could do little but stand and die.

“Hold,” she repeated through gritted teeth.

And finally, crushing a young woman like a pulped grape, the beorn came close enough.

Now,” the Captain-General hissed.

Torches were put to the earthen jugs of pitch just before they were thrown, of the ten thrown nine splattering across the monster’s large form. Flames burned clear and bright, spreading as they ate at dry dead flesh and the beorn howled.

“Halberds to the front,” Catalina ordered, breathing a sigh of relief.

The halberdiers hurried forward, hacking at the creature even as it was destroyed by the flames and ensuring it would not smash into their formation. It toppled into the city below and the fantassins hurried to reinforce the bastion even as Catalina stayed behind long enough to arrange for the wounded to be sent back. Her bodyguards closed in around her as she followed into the bastion, finding the situation there had turned around. Captain Reinald had holed up his men in corners while the beorn rampaged but they’d come out swinging as soon as the beast was gone so the ghouls were already on the backfoot when her reinforcements arrived. She left the clearing out of the stragglers to her soldiers and took of her helmet, seeking out Captain Reinald.

She found the fat man conversing with his wizards, an untended wound on his arm that’d been inflicted through now-ripped mail. The captain of the Folies Rouges dismissed his casters when he saw her approach, offering a grateful nod.

“My thanks for drawing it away,” Reinald said. “All our pitch was spent on the first three and we hadn’t gotten fresh jugs yet.”

“I expect you’ll have to return the favour before this is over,” Catalina replied. “Have you heard anything from further north?”

“The Bayeux footmen are holding strong,” the older man replied. “Prince Arsene made it clear he’ll tolerate no retreat.”

Catalina breathed out a snort as Reinald smirked. Prince Arsene Odon did not have a particularly inspiring reputation as a military commander, though he wasn’t as bad as some other royals. Still, he would never have made it above company-captain in the Ligera.

“We’ll need to start bringing in the smaller companies to freshen up bloodied positions,” Catalina said. “I don’t want to dilute our ranks too much, but…”

“No, I quite agree,” Captain Reinald said. “If we bleed our finest soldiers dry too soon there’ll be nothing but the dregs left fighting come sunlight.”

She nodded in agreement. It might seem callous to dismiss some of her fellow fantassin companies with so contemptuous a term, but some of them were honestly no better than levies. Which brought to mind yet more trouble.

“We’ll need to keep a close eye on the Brabant conscripts,” she sighed. “They keep breaking.”

“Prince Etienne croaking it did a number on them,” Reinald sympathetically said. “That man was his principality’s backbone. Didn’t help that the Iron Prince decided to pick them up by the throat afterwards.”

“He did what he needed to,” Catalina replied, but her tone was lukewarm.

That Klaus Papenheim was one of the finest generals alive was not in dispute – though the Arlesite in Catalina had her fancying that Rozala Malanza might give him a closer match than most – but that he’d acted like a… Lycaonese wasn’t either. The northerners liked their tyrants, glorified them, but their southern cousins had never shared the fascination. Tyrants there got knives, not statues. Had this been another war, another man, many a company would have put coin together to hire assassins over a man who’d arrested so many officers on such spurious grounds. These were desperate times, of course, and the officers had been out of line. It was still a bitter pill to swallow for all of them, Catalina thought, that the Iron Prince’s heavy-handed actions had not earned so much as a raised eyebrow from any other great name.

Mind you, whoever it was that’d figured appealing to the Black Queen over an issue of military discipline was a good idea should be sent to Keter for raising in the hopes that the stupid was infectious. Catalina liked the woman more than she figured she would have, being a murderous heretic, and considered her a generally reasonable superior officer. She was also someone who hanged her own soldiers when they got sticky fingers and whose answer to a mutiny was a lot more likely to be crucifixion than sympathy. It had to be the Joyeux Chevaliers that’d pushed for that, having some many noble brats within their ranks had them believing they were clever manipulators instead of expendable Highest Assembly catspaws.

“Sure he did,” Captain Reinald grunted. “Let’s hope he doesn’t find it necessary to do it again.”

“We wouldn’t have so weak a position if we could agree on a representative,” Catalina pressed. “I know the Grizzled Fantassin turned us down-”

She’d named an exorbitant price first, then noted that unless the Grand Alliance itself could be outbid there was no point in trying to buy her services. Old Teresa was said to be out in Mercantis these days, that floating pleasure house of a city. Hard terms to beat, admittedly.

“- it can’t be you,” Captain Reinald frankly said. “The Ligera has too many enemies, you’ll never get the votes.”

“It has to be someone, Reinald,” she exasperatedly said. “If not me then another. And quickly. We are…”

Words failed her, for a moment, as the thought was hard to express. It was not a particular indignation that had been weighing on Catalina Ferreiro’s mind but a hundred little signs, as if had some unknown prophecy on the tip of her tongue but could not bring herself to speak it.

“We’re dying, Reinald,” she quietly said. “Fantassins, our trade. You’ve seen the armies the rest of the world fields, now. Do you think we could handle the Second Army or a few sigils of drow? Gods, even the Levantines are making something of themselves.”

We don’t have mages and priests, Catalina thought. We don’t have sappers or Chosen. War is leaving us behind. And the Principate had been hardened by the war too, she could feel it. See in faces and hear it in words. No one spoke of war as a part of the Ebb and Flow now, as the game of princes where glories and fortune were wagered. Even princes had grown harsher, and the wars they’d wage would grow harsher with them. Would veterans of the war against Keter really hesitate to torch a village? It had been against the unspoken laws of war in Procer, once, but what did those childish things matter to someone who’d spent three years fighting howling corpses as madness twisted the land around them? There would be no return to the old days, after this came to an end.

For better or worse.

“You’re not wrong,” Reinald muttered. “Some of the things I’ve heard…  But this is a discussion to finish when the enemy is no longer at our gate, perhaps.”

Catalina nodded, then smiled.

“Tarry not,” she hummed.

The other mercenary snorted, recognizing the words from the old song everyone in their trade, from the greenest of boys to the most grizzled of warwives, had heard at least once.

“Or we’ll be dead,” Captain Reinald finished.

Over the edge of the rampart, a skeleton dragged itself halfway onto solid ground before a soldier smacked it down. The climbers were beginning to reach the top, she realized with dread.

The skirmishing was over at last, and the battle had begun in truth.

Well, Roland thought, this was going to be a problem.

“So that’s why they kept dropping vultures and Revenants through the wards,” the Headhunter said.

He – Roland had asked, as he couldn’t discern the differences in her facepaint that heralded either gender – was looking at the same thing that he was: a gate into Arcadia opening in the middle of a city street. Which shouldn’t be possible, the Rogue Sorcerer thought, considering this city was thick with wards. But the dead had years to meddle with the city after taking it, he reminded himself. The Grand Alliance reclaiming Hainaut and then repairing the old foundations as well as slapping on fresh wards was not a comprehensive fix, despite the frenzied efforts of their mages. At least it did not seem to be without costs for the Dead King: the gate had only opened by subsuming a Revenant and was opening rather slowly. They could not be opened with a snap of one’s finger, which was good news tacked on to the bad.

“We need to close it,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “And find out any other gate that might have been opened out of sight.”

“The city’s bleeding magic everywhere, wizardling,” the Headhunter skeptically replied. “We might as well look for a particular needle in a box full of them.”

“Keter needs Revenants to make these,” Roland replied, shaking his head. “There won’t be many, and we’ll have seen them falling.”

“There could have been more than one Revenant by bird,” the Headhunter shrugged. “And they can run anywhere after the fall. We’ve only caught one so far.”

Fair points, but only so long as providence refused to put a finger on the scales. Roland would have to hope otherwise.

“There’s another band out there roaming,” he reminded the other. “We can only hope they will catch what we don’t.”

He rose from his crouch before the Headhunter could answer, expecting that otherwise he would be served a sermon on the subject of why the three young souls with transitory Named also assigned to keeping the streets clear were weak and so naturally doomed to failure. The other man’s opinions were more strident than thoughtful, in Roland’s opinion, but he saw nothing to be gained by arguing. The Headhunter’s ways had paid off for him, and people with full pockets didn’t usually tend to abandon the ways that’d filled them. A long casting rod of sculpted ivory in hand, the Rogue Sorcerers leapt off the edge of the roof and landed on the cobblestone street. The gate into Arcadia, a broad rectangle at least twelve feet high and twice that in length, was pulsing. Still stabilizing, Roland thought. He brushed a hand close to the surface, mustering his will.

Confiscate,” he murmured.

It took, he found with some relief, but not as much as he would have wanted it to. He was drawing from the active spell, but not the foundations. The light of the portal began flickering wildly. All he was achieving was further destabilizing the gate, not breaking it. Movement from the corner of his eye had him drawing back, but not quite close enough. A javelin, he saw just a heartbeat before it bit into his first defensive enchantment and shattered it. A shell of light became visible for a moment before shattering. A second flew out, but by then the Headhunter was there and he swatted them down with insolent ease.

“Gate’s not closed, wizardling,” the Headhunter grunted. “Get the Hells on with it.”

I’m not sure I can, Roland thought. If he could not confiscate the sorcery, then he had to either overpower or shatter the gate – which would require strength he did not have or for his knowledge to be superior to that of the Dead King. He was going to have to improvise. If he couldn’t break the gate itself, what were his options? He cast a glance at the Headhunter.

“You have the head of a Damned who could empower magic, correct?”

“Amplify,” the Headhunter corrected. “And the heads only give weaker imitations. What are you scheming?”

“I want,” the Rogue Sorcerer boyishly grinned, “to make this a much larger gate.”

He felt like tapping his foot, like humming an old song. He was only a few mistakes away from dying, but wasn’t that where he did all his best work?

Princess Beatrice Volignac of Hainaut went utterly still, her horse following suit.

Frost spread across the cobblestones like the breath of some wintry beast, steam curling above it like fading stripes of lace as ghostly lights set the shadows to dancing. It was as if a hole had been cut out in the world, revealing some fantastic winter vista hidden behind the curtains of Creation, and yet what had come out of it was not some strange monster or fair lord. It was an intimately familiar sight. The banner was what Beatrice recognize first, stirring as it was in the wind. A golden griffin on blue, crowned by three daffodils, but it was not the heraldry that made it distinct. It was the long haft of forever unrotting whitewood it hung from, ending in a grown of pure gold set with sapphires. Even streaked with ash and dust, Beatrice would have recognized the royal banner of the House of Volignac anywhere.

Riders streamed out of the pale plains of snow on the other side, ranks upon ranks of silent souls in beautiful enameled armour that rode steeds of the finest coats. Their lances were raised tall, a forest of sharp steel held up by unwavering hands, and at their head rode a beautiful woman. Skin pale as milk could be seen through the open visor of her helm, golden hair in a long braid going down her back. The armour she wore was a gift from Beatrice’s father, a family heirloom of blue-painted steel etched with enchantments, and at her side the ornate wooden sheath of the ancient blade of House Volignac, Mordante, rested against her hip. And on her brow, atop her helm, a crown of gold had been inlaid into the steel for her name was Julienne Volignac and she had once rule Hainaut.

There was a gaping, bloody wound where her heart should be.

“Sister,” Beatrice softly breathed out. “Gods, what did they do to you?”

She had taken a mere hundred riders with her as an escort when heading for the western rampart, a pittance compared to the thousands Julienne had taken with her on that last doomed charge to delay the dead long enough for their people to escape. But only a few have crossed, Beatrice thought. We can hold them at the gate. She looked around and found only fear on the faces of her soldiers. As much at the sight of who it was they were fighting as the numbers, the princess thought.

“Bastien,” she said, raising her voice as she addressed the captain of her bodyguard. “Go for reinforcements. Hurry.”

“Your Grace,” the man replied, hesitating, “what is it you intend?”

Beatrice Volignac breathed out, watching her sister’s golden hair across the street.

“I have you an order,” she harshly said. “Go.”

She heard him slink away, chastened. In the distance, Julienne Volignac met her sister’s eyes and smiled sadly. She brought down her visor, lowered her lance.

“Look ahead,” Princess Beatrice said, voice ringing out. “That is what Keter means to make of you.”

The Princess of Hainaut lowered her lance, and after a terrifying heartbeat saw that her retinue followed suit.

“They gave their lives for everyone here,” Beatrice said, throat clogged up. “So we could live, crawling through ash and dust to return home another day.”

She pressed her knees against her mount, the destrier breaking into a trot. Her retinue followed. The enemy, on the other side, lowered their lances and began to advance.

“We’re home now,” Beatrice Volignac shouted. “We’re home, and tonight we lay our ghost to rest.”

Her soldiers roared, the thunder of hooves crashing against cobblestones drowning out battlecries even as the two lines of horsemen rammed into each other.

Catalina was not sure who it was that began to sing.

The world had turned black and white, chopped into moments of violence and moments of relief, but through both songs had begun to wind their way. There was nothing, the Captain-General thought with an exhausted smiled, that Procerans loved more than a song. Even the ever-cold Lycaonese thawed, when the time came to sing. There were more singers than birds in Procer, it had once been said, and for every season and hour there was a song. Or a poem, or a dance or another gesture of beauty returned to the Creation that had given birth to all of them. And wasn’t that, in the end, the most beautiful thing about her home? Even in the dark, they sang.

Perhaps in the dark most of all.

The dead came over the rampart, silent and relentless. Catalina battered them over the edge, hacked and split and felt cold iron sink into her arm when tiredness slowed her, but the tide would not end so neither would she. And all around her, the Captain-General saw only bastards. Mud nobles and cutthroats, peasants and shopkeepers, the leftovers of a great realm with blades in hand. And still they held, her thousands of brothers and sisters who too bore the name of fantassin, her fellow fools who traded life and limb for coin and a few boasts. And so when the song poured out of her throat, she did not fight. What else was there to do, when the world was so ugly, but to bring a sliver of beauty in it?

“My father wept for a prince

And died with a spear in hand.”

The man by her side, covered in sweat and filth, shot her an incredulous look and began laughing before cracking a skeleton’s skull. He joined his voice to hers.

“My mother hasn’t wept since

Or left a god un-damned.”

It spread like a fire, snaking along the rampart and the bastion until a thousand throats sang it, that old bastard song, the Sun In the West.

Beatrice Volignac was in the heart of the whirlwind, dancing with many smiling deaths.

They fought desperately against the honoured dead, trading lances with corpses until all were spent and furious melee with sword and shield swept across the cobblestone. There was something burning in all their bellies tonight that had devoured whole the fear, replaced it with clenched teeth and hard eyes. Before them was the mockery Keter had made of the finest gesture any of them had known, and what could they do but quell it? Nothing less could be tolerated. So Beatrice traded blows with a corpse in armour, ramming her blade into the throat and throwing it down its undead mount before pushing forward. A blow glanced off her shield and she answered with a hard cut, but it found no purchase in the enemy’s armour.

They were losing, the Princess of Hainaut knew. The charge had not been enough. They had slowed the enemy’s outpouring through the gate but not cut it, and now they were being drowned. Yet she found, queerly, that the thought did not mover her to fear. It would be a worthy death, Beatrice decided, and such a thing was not to be feared. She was a princess of the blood, a Volignac: what did she have to fear in this world or any other, save for dishonour? So when the song came on the wind, drifting like curl of smoke, the Princess of Hainaut laughed. She, too, had once dreamed of being the one who would once again bring the sun to west. A good song, she decided, to die singing.

“Maybe I’ll go east, they say

Swords there can win a crown.”

Voices joined hers, as the dead hemmed them in and the last of them gathered around the banner. The enemy were coming for them, for the killing stroke. Through her visor, Beatrice met her sister’s eyes as Julienne approached with the ancient sword of their shared blood.

“Rule king a year and a day

Be buried with great renown.”

Roland hummed under his breath, one hand on a desiccated human head and the other on a portal through which a great many people were trying to kill him.

It was just going to be one of those nights, he figured.

“Is it working?” the Headhunter asked with a grunt.

He carved through another skeleton’s neck, kicking it into another’s path as it tried to cross. The villain had, impressively enough, been holding the gate single-handedly all this time.

“Well,” the Rogue Sorcerer mused, “if it is, then-”

There was a deafening keening noise and the gate double in height before beginning to shake.

“Wonderful,” Roland grinned.

The Headhunter turned around, throwing an axe at him that cut through the javelin someone had very unkindly thrown at Roland’s chest. Keterans, a people truly without manners.

“It’s gotten bigger,” the Headhunter noted, unimpressed. “Is that it? I thought it was-”

What looked like the maw of a beorn began to pass through the gate, roaring angrily and cutting off the conversation. Rudeness upon rudeness, truly. The other Named pulsed with a stolen aspect coming from a head and tried to force the construct back, but Roland kept pushing sorcery into the gate and amplifying the flow with the human head. Soon, soon it would be ready. Mind you, he’d best not tarry long. How did the song go again?

“Long ago, the tale goes,

The sun rose in the west

It might be it will again:

Tarry not, or we’ll be dead.”

The Headhunter was thrown back into the street, hitting the wall of a house and breaking through it, but Roland only smiled even as the beorn turned towards him.

Beatrice’s horse had died on the third pass, but she’d knocked her sister down from hers so it had evened out the affair.

They had sparred on occasion, while they both lived, though in those days Beatrice had not taken the blade all that seriously – it had been the horse and lance she preferred, finding bladework to be an ungainly and sweaty affair. The spars had been measured, almost fond, more shared time than any genuine test of each other. This was nothing like it. Beatrice desperately brought up her shield as the family sword, Mordante, bit at the painted steel and let out a flash of light and frost. She swung at Julienne’s head, but her sister’s shield was already in place and they collided with each other as each tried to make the other trip on the blood-strewn ground

“I will free you,” Beatrice gasped through her helm. “Gods, Julienne, I swear. I will not leave you like this.

The enchanted sword kissed the top of her helm, freezing the visor shut, but the Princess of Hainaut began hammering at her sister with her shield. Julienne had the strength of undeath to her, the tirelessness, but Beatrice was fat. She was heavy, and muscled, and when she struck her sister shook form the impact. Once, twice, thrice until Julienne slipped on blood and bone and Beatrice followed her down. A lance passed above her head, forced away by one of her last men at the last moment, but the Princess of Hainaut’s eyes were only for her sister. Mordante bit into her side, frostburn creeping through her mail, but Beatrice ripped off her sister’s helm and met those blue eyes with her own as she drew back.

“The fire turns to ember,

I wake from a sorry dream

Morning rides in pale splendour

Chasing down a fading gleam.”

“We will meet again,” Beatrice whispered, “in a better place.”

And down her sword went.

Roland of Beaumarais, nothing but a – borrowed – human head in hand, smiled at the monster forcing its way out of the gate into Arcadia.

“This should do the trick,” he announced, removing his hand from the portal at last.

The magic he’d been drawing on stuttered, the bundle nearly empty, and the Rogue Sorcerer offered the beorn as deep a bow as he could without making the head dangle. The construct swatted at him, but he stepped away even as the Headhunter rose from rubble and the clawed limb came well short. The beorn seemed confused, as well it might be.

“The gate’s frozen,” the Rogue Sorcerer told it. “Brilliant man, Masego. His work his comprehensive.”

Roland hadn’t even noticed when that derivation had been added to the ward schematics, but then that didn’t matter. What did matter was that the Dead King was not the only brilliant Trismegistan sorcerer in these parts, which meant that what had been used here to make the gates was a technicality and not a flaw. The last of the magic he’d fed the portal was absorbed at last, and with a loud keen the portal’s length began to extend. It managed to grown another five feet, before the blind spot in the wards laid down by the Hierophant was entirely outgrown and they triggered with a vengeance.

“To borrow from a friend,” Roland smiled, then raised his hand and snapped his fingers.

The portal exploded in a pillar of power and light, the city wards crushing it into nonexistence without mercy, and Roland de Beaumarais was once more left to wonder at just how much he loved magic. There was always something new, wasn’t there? The Headhunter caught up, looking at him warily.

“Come on,” the Rogue Sorcerer idly said. “There will be other portals.”

And, hands in pockets, he began to make his way down the street as he sang the song that’d been on his mind all evening.

“The road is long and winding,

Though I did it love it once

And tread it still, searching

The bottom of many cups.”

Sometimes, even charlatans got to have a good turn.

Gods, but they were holding.

The Captain-General watched as ladders were brought to the walls and undead scaled the cliffs. Stones and logs were thrown at them, burning oil poured on ladders and Light filled the air as priests began turning the wrath of Above on the dead. It was a narrow, wavering thing but they were holding. And now the reinforcements were pouring in, lesser companies freshening the ranks of the greater and bringing with them well-rested hands. Mages were beginning to rotate in, cadres trained in the Arsenal, and though their magics were simple when turned on a single great monster in concert they were also often successful. Catalina withdrew from the rampart, exhausted enough her vision swam, but after a tonic and rest she would return.

She sat by a fire, her bodyguards close around her, and drank deeply from a waterskin. She smiled as she hear the chorus of the song rise again, perhaps the tenth time it had been sung tonight. The Sun In the West was often sung as wistful or angry – there was a reason it was familiar to taverns but rare in courts – but tonight it was, instead, almost defiant.

“Long ago, the tale goes,

The sun rose in the west

It might be it will again:

Tarry not, or we’ll be dead.”

Our sun has faded, Catalina thought, but it has not yet set. There was still blood in the veins of the lumbering beast known as the Principate, and perhaps after the war… Lightning struck at the bastion and a howling gale swept over it, hundreds dying in the blink of an eye as Catalina was thrown against a wall and bit her lip as she felt her collarbone break. The storm screamed, and two silhouettes landed on the stone.

The Scourges had arrived.

Interlude: Blood

“Honour is neither reputation nor law. It cannot be borrowed or bought, bent or bargained with, for it comes from a place that is beyond deception. Fidelity to virtue belongs only to yourself and the Gods, and needs no other witness.”

– Extract from the book ‘Reflections’ by Farah Isbili, second Holy Seljun of Levant

The roar shook the sky, trembling through the starlit dark and down the bones of all who heard it. Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood, Lord of Malaga, grit his teeth.

“Binders to the bastion,” he shouted over the noise. “That is where the beorns will strike first.”

He met the gazes of the last of the practitioners that had come north with his father, feeling a pang of pain at the absences he saw in their ranks. Razin had never loved the binders, envious of the talent he had been born without, but he’d grown on the same grounds as them. Most he’d known by name, and a few of the younger he’d gone on skirmishes with. Few were left, and fewer with every battle.

“Do not try to destroy them,” he reminded his mages. “Sweep them off the walls as quickly as possible, that is all.”

Destruction was better left to the Lanterns or warriors trained in the use of pitch and flame, Razin and his captains had learned. The binders were weaker in traditional offensive spellcraft than Callowan and Proceran mages, but their blood-bound spirits were able to physically push back Keter’s monsters in ways that other sorcerers could only dream of.

“We will return victorious, lord, or take the short path home,” Ganiya Hundred-Ghost, eldest of the remaining binders, solemnly promised.

Razin sharply nodded.

“Honour to Levant,” he said.

“Honour to the Blood,” Ganiya fervently replied.

They were gone within moments, fleet-footed on the stone as they sped towards the bastion where the first of the enemy dead would reach the top of the walls. Razin’s sworn sword kept close around him, and the Lantern that had taken oath to protect him for the battle as well, as he went to the edge of the eastern rampart and looked over. The dead were coming in waves, he thought, eyes narrowing as the moonlight revealed the abominations of bone scaling sheer cliffs. The skeletons were many but also slow and they would not reach the wall for a long time. It was the monsters scaling the cliff that would draw first blood, the massive bear-like abomination called beorns that were clawing their way up. Inside their bellies they held companies of lesser dead which they vomited before rampaging, and for that reason it was the great bastion to Razin’s north they would target.

They’d want flat grounds and room to spew out their soldiers, to create a beachhead atop the walls. Keter usually preferred taking ground than lives, early in fight, knowing it could afford the losses to get into a superior position before the fighting became heavy. It also meant that Razin Tanja had been entirely aware, even if many of his captains had not been, that the warriors he had sent to guard the bastion were not being rewarded with hours by fires in a place where the wind did not bite too deep. The warriors in the bastion were going to die. Perhaps not all of them, but most. The Lord of Malaga had made his decision with that knowledge in the back of his head, whispering. And of the three captains regularly commanded warriors in the bastion, he had chosen one who was of his great supporters and two who were not. His loyal captain he had sent to obscure his intention, should men think on this later, and now that decision was like ash in his mouth for it was that man who now held the bastion. This, he suspected, would follow him in his dreams for months to come.

It had been easier, back when Razin still believed war to be a glorious thing.

A game of daring and cleverness that the sharp stakes only further gilded. That was the way it was, in the old stories, with the victors returning home covered in loot and honour and the defeated slunk away to lick their wounds until a chance to even the score came. Warriors died but they died in honour, proving their worth, and the deeds done in war made them immortal – perhaps not worthy of the distinction of being added to the Rolls, but kept alive past the end of flesh through stories and songs. Razin had believed in this, he’d begun to realize, much like a man dying of thirst would believe that beyond the hill lay a river. Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s Blood had not a speck of the sorcery that had made his line famous: war had been the only way he was ever going to be able to distinguish himself, make up for the lack he’d been born with.

And so Razin had embraced the ways of blood and steel, devoted himself wholeheartedly. He’d practiced with the blade until his palms bled and bones ached, he’d learned to move captains with words and sung the praises of the honourable ways of the Dominion of Levant. Of their inherent savage virtue, born of stripping away all the pretty lies and false righteousness the nations around Levant coated their own ways in.

Then he’d watched Careful Yannu kill his father in an honour duel, and it was like scales had been ripped off of his eyes.

“My lord,” one of his men quietly said, shaking him out of his thoughts. “We must move. We have stayed in the same place for too long, Revenants might come for your head.”

Razin gave the horrors below one last look, hand resting against the pommel of his sword. They’d be here before too long.

“We will do our part,” the Lord of Malaga murmured. “On my honour.”

The vulture had broken itself forcing its way through the wards that protected the skies above Hainaut, but it had gone through.

Though it was in freefall, the necromantic abomination no longer animated, it had still served the Dead King’s purpose with success: on the creature’s back, Tariq glimpsed the shape of a Revenant huddling close. It had infiltrated the city, and when it reached the ground would no doubt begin to wreak havoc. The Grey Pilgrim watched the vulture drop like a stone for a heartbeat, then lengthened his stride. The Enemy would not have risked one of the Scourges so carelessly, but there were no Revenants that were not dangerous. Even one whose Bestowal had been weak whilst they lived would still be able to cause a great deal of chaos and death, if left unchecked.

Tariq let the pull of chance guide his path through the city, passing by the orderly ranks of Callowan companies heading for the gates and bands of haphazard fantassins being exhorted to move quicker by their officers. Few saw him, for he did not care to be seen. The old man’s face tightened as the Ophanim whispered in his ear, warning him that he would not arrive in time. He’d been close to where the vulture and Revenant were to fall, but not quite close enough. He was two blocks away when the large shape smashed into a house with a thunderous crash, though not so far that he could not discern that the Revenant had nimbly leapt away before the impact. So where had it gone?

“Rooftops, do you think?” he asked his old friends.

The Ophanim murmured their agreement.

“The furtive sort always take to the rooftops,” Tariq complained. “It is unkind. My knees aren’t what they used to be.”

A passage through the Ways would allow him to close the distance, but also reveal his presence – most Revenants could sense the touch of Twilight on Creation. He would have to move the old-fashioned way. Tariq went through the house that had been smashed, using the ruin as a path to the roof, and before long he was on rough tiles and cocking a white eyebrow at his surroundings. He’d found the cloaked silhouette almost instantly, skittering atop another roof as it was, but not only had it yet to notice him it was also… a streak of fire coming from down in the street interrupted his thoughts, and promptly solved the mystery of why the Revenant had been paying closer attention to the streets below than its immediate surroundings.

The Revenant ducked under the flame, proving it had kept exceptional reflexes even in death.

The mage that’d tossed a spell at the cloaked Revenant cursed loudly in High Tyrian, warning the two warriors by her side that they were going to have a fight. Tariq moved silently across rooftops as the Revenant hesitated for a moment then leapt down, moving in a streak of speed. Not so swift that one of the two warriors – boys, he now discerned – did not move between it and the mage with a raised shield, forcing it back with a measured swing of his sword. The other boy darted forward as the Revenant drew back. A straight-edge sword was swung out, but the dead Bestowed revealed a blade of its own in a glimmer of moonlight on metal and caught it.

Incise,” the Page disdainfully said, adjusting his blow and shattering the Revenant’s sword.

It had not been simple strength, Tariq caught, but instead precision. With the point of his blade, the Page had struck at the weakest point of the sword wielded by the undead and struck it with all his might. An adjustment done in a fraction of a moment, too. Impressive, for one his age. But he was still green. Having moved behind the Revenant, hidden by the shadow of a tall chimney, the Pilgrim watched as the Revenant abandoned the blade and simply slugged the young Proceran in the face with inhuman strength. The Page rocked back, and when a knife flicked out in the Revenant’s other hand came close to getting his throat cut – the Squire, stepped in once more, taking the blow on his shield and forcing back the Revenant.

The Apprentice, with a triumphant cry, landed a spell on the cloaked figure’s side: a streak of blue flame ate up the entire cloak in second, forcing the Revenant to throw it away even as the Squire closed distance and battered him down with strikes of his shield. Though it was a brutal and inelegant method, Tariq noted that it succeeded at putting the Revenant on the ground and keeping it there.

“Come on, Gaetan,” the Squire hissed. “I don’t have anything that can-”

Incise,” the Page panted out angrily, severing the Revenant’s head.

Sharpness and precision, Tariq decided. That was the nature of the aspect. The Ophanim murmured what their own sight revealed, which had him cocking an eyebrow. ‘Incise’, it seemed, would be significantly stronger when dealing wounds than killing blows. There was a sense of frivolity to it, of defiance. The Page’s nose was bloody, and he would likely get a black eye out of this if he wasn’t healed. The Pilgrim, after a moment, decided not to reveal himself. A black eye was always a good lesson, for a young Bestowed, and he would not rob them of the pleasure of their victory by revealing he’d watched over them as they won it. He had, after all, been entirely unneeded here.

Providence pulled at Tariq’s feet and he slipped away in the dark, feeling a call towards the east. The old man’s lips tightened. That was the wall, he knew, that was held by his countrymen.

The Grey Pilgrim took back to the streets, fleet of foot and clad in dusk.

He turned aside the skeleton’s sword with his buckler, letting it scrabble against the hide-covered wood, and placed his strike: the blade ripped into the bone of the neck, severing the spine after two wild hacks. The skeleton collapsed, necromancy unmade, and Razin Tanja breathed out. He did not have long to rest, as a flicker of movement to the side had him ducking to avoid a well-thrown javelin that bit into the shield of the sworn sword to his right.

“Forward,” the Lord of Malaga shouted, “forward for Levant!”

A roar answered as the last of the dead the beorns had spat out were driven back from the bastion by a tightening shield wall, those that weren’t smashed instead pushed off the edge so that might be broken by the fall. It was a small, petty victory but the warriors had won it and they shouted themselves hoarse afterwards. Razin raised his blade, claiming his own share of the acclaim, but then praised Captain Alezon – who’d held the bastion until reinforcements could arrive, and died holding to that duty. Razin had liked the man, counted him almost as a friend. And he had sent him here to die. Sometimes he wondered if he was truly better than what he wanted to replace, but when he did the searing clarity of that night after the Graveyard came back to him.

How clear it had been, in that moment, that the Blood were no longer what they had been meant to be. How much difference was there really, between the red-handed sons and daughters of the Blood and the rapacious princes their sacred ancestors had risen in rebellion to drive out? With the Procerans gone the blades had not been sheathed. They’d just turned them on each other instead. Like dogs in a too-small kennel, snapping and snarling. It must end, Razin had realized, or they would ruin their homes and the Dominion with it. Yet for all that he had tried to embrace this truth, the practice of it had been… difficult. Dreams were always prettier before they were dragged to the ground, where all the mud of practicalities sullied them.

Razin Tanja had not become Lord of Malaga – the first ever elected away from ancient Tanja grounds, through a trick of procedure – without incurring debts and troubles, which now both had to be settled. There were captains in his service who would not hear of straying from the old ways, of making pacts of peace and ending raids when they returned home, and he could not yet afford to lose their support. His humiliating defeat had Sarcella, even if dealt by the hand of the Black Queen herself, remained a scar on his reputation. And though some here and at home had well received the announcement of his betrothal to Aquiline Osena, others were openly dubious.

Tartessos and Malaga had long fought over wealthy territories laying between them, he had been reminded, what was now to be of them? What of the deaths come of the last wars, must they go forever unavenged? There was no honour in these surrenders, warriors grumbled.

Aquiline had admitted to him in private that some of her captains had been mutinous over the notion as well, in no small part because as long as she had been unwed her hand in marriage had been considered the greatest prize that a captain in the service of the Osena might hope to win. Worse, the most ardent supporters of their union tended to be captains who backed the marriage because it would secure the southern border of the Osena and allow them to send their full might to war against the Ifriqui of Vaccei, their old enemies of the Brigand’s Blood. Sometimes it felt like every step forward they took was followed by two steps back. Yet Razin knew nothing but rain came from throwing curses at the sky, and so he used what he had at hand: the war. It was ugly work, but Razin and Aquiline traded blood for hope.

The captains that would never bend were granted the honour of leading vanguards, men and women more farsighted raised to replace them. With steel and deeds they bound warriors to them, by oaths and debts and the hard companionship of those sharing battle, and inch by inch they had gained ground. Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei would be an enemy so long as she lived, but she was old and her heir Moro amenable to a peace. Careful Yannu loomed tall over them all, undefeated in honour duels, but for all that the older man was accruing honours like speaking for Levant at the Arsenal, he had no allies beyond his own kin. And though they were all wary of the Holy Seljun, beyond Wazim Isbili lay a greater power still. The Peregrine smiled upon their efforts, his approval as the blessing of the pilgrim’s star.

And still it was damned ugly work, trying to move Levant. It cost too much blood, and Razin almost missed the days when the scales had been over his eyes and he’d still believed there had been glory in sending men to die.

“Prepare yourselves,” Razin said. “It will be a long night, and there are many victories yet to claim.”

Already he could see a beorn attacking positions to the south of the bastion, aiming perhaps not to take the wall but instead to spew out its load of soldiers in the city itself, and he could only hope that Aquiline would send the Lanterns there on time. His binders were resting and the priests from Procer had yet to arrive, save for the healers that were already preparing beds for the wounded in the nearby barracks. As for himself, he would stay here until the next batches of pitch arrived at least. Longer than that would be risking – a man in shoddy hide armour, barefoot and armed with a great sword, landed in a roll among the warriors nearest to the edge.

“Good evening,” the Drake grinned.

The Barrow Sword squinted.

“That’s not the Pale Knight,” he finally said.

“Your wisdom is peerless,” the Vagrant Spear solemnly replied.

Ishaq rolled his eyes. Sidonia was not entirely unpleasant, for one of the Blood, but she seemed to believe it her oathsworn duty to needle him at every opportunity.

“It’s just the Drake,” the Berserker said. “We can take him.”

Of that Ishaq was not so certain, but he would not outright disagree. The three of them were strong in close quarters, and not without talents that would allow them to stem the tide of that Scourge’s healing. More than that, the last two members of his band of five had teeth beyond what mere blades could bring to bear.

“Um,” the Harrowed Witch hesitantly said. “Shouldn’t we… do something? He’s killing soldiers.”

The Drake had wasted no time in beginning to cut up anyone that moved around him, it was true. With that greatsword of his he smashed through shields and blades alike, slaughtering with ease even as warriors kept trying to close around him on all sides so he’d not have room to swing the large blade. Useless, when the Scourge was probably capable of shattering a shield with a kick anyway. It was like ants trying to wrestle a lizard.

“We are meant to handle the Axeman,” the Blessed Artificer regretfully said. “If we spend ourselves against another, there will be a gap in the defences.”

“He’s a Scourge,” Sidonia grunted. “Killing him is still a win. We should strike.”

The Berserker nodded in fervent agreement. Sentiment was in favour, Ishaq decided, but should he give the order? Much as he disliked to admit it, he probably couldn’t afford to let the lordling ruling Malaga get himself killed. It would deal a hard blow to the morale of the Tanja warriors, and the Black Queen would have Ishaq’s hide for it. On the other hand, letting Tanja warriors die would win him favour with the Grave Binder – who the Binder’s Blood despised – and even if he intervened there was no guarantee that the young man would honour him for it. Blood only ever felt the need to owe debts to Blood, like honour was a drink only they could partake of. It’d be bad tactics to do nothing, Ishaq finally decided.

“We strike,” the Barrow Sword said. “As was planned.”

He half-expected the Artificer to argue with him, but though she looked displeased she refrained. Perhaps she was sensing her opinion was not share by most. No challenge was offered, though, so Ishaq rose from his crouch and took the lead. Sidonia was quicker on the run, but also a lot more fragile. The ancient armour of bronze around him moved without a sound, smooth as if oiled from enchantments older than he dared to imagine, and the Barrow Sword unsheathed Pinon. The ancient blade hummed, tasting of the death in the air, and without a word Ishaq leapt from the rooftop to the edge of the rampart. From the corner of his eye he saw a warrior thrown in the air, missing an arm as she screamed in pain. The Drake was merciless.

As he began to push his way through the throng of warriors he heard the Spear and the Berserker land behind him, Zoe snarling at the Malagans to get out of her way. Beyond the ring of shields he glimpsed binder-magic at work, creatures of dirt and ash trying to drive back the Scourge, but it was a bad match. The Drake was both strong and difficult to kill, the spirits did little but rip up flesh that healed within a heartbeat and they were failing at pushing him over the edge. Now, though, he was here. Steps measured as he advanced the Barrow Sword breathed deep of the evening air. Ah, opportunity. Was there ever anything that tasted sweeter? A spirit-wyvern was cut in half, the blade that did it biting shallow of the stone beneath them, and the Drake slunk out. Grinning wildly, his hide armour already tatters, the Revenant glance at Ishaq curiously.

“Villain?” he asked.

It must be the beard, Ishaq decided. Surely he did not look that villainous?

“You wound me, friend,” the Barrow Sword smiled, tapping his ancient blade against his heart.

Pinon hummed at the touch, thirsty beast that she was.

“That’s the plan,” the Drake agreed, darting forward.

Ishaq raised his sword, but the speed had been enough that the Revenant might have startled him into an unwise parry if this hadn’t been what he was after in the first place.

Honour to the Blood,” the Vagrant Spear gleefully howled, smashing into the Drake’s side.

Light roiled and screamed as she severed an arm, but the Revenant only laughed – abandoning is greatsword, he caught his own limb and threw it at her face as a fresh one grew anew. Ishaq, though was not intending to just stay and watch. Sidonia was forced back by a wild swing of the greatsword, retreating smoothly with both hands on her spear, and before the backswing could return Ishaq closed the distance. The Revenant struck at his armour but the ancient bronze mail took it without flinching, and the mistake allowed him to get a good cut of his own in: across the face, through one eye and the mouth. The Drake was unmoved but Ishaq stayed in close, elbowing the wrist trying to get the greatsword around him and hammering forehead to forehead to drive the Revenant back.

Which he did, eyes wild as he put fingers to his already-healing wound.

“That sword’s not Dominion work,” the Drake coldly said.

Pinon sang, devouring the last bits of soul it’d managed to pull away from the Dead King’s bindings.

“There are all sorts of treasures in barrows, if one has the nerve to take them up,” Ishaq smiled.

Not that he would have been able to put his sword down now, even should he wish to.

“Well,” the Drake said, “it’ll make this a little interesting, at least.”

The Malagan warriors had withdraw, wisely, though more likely it was because to their eyes the affair looked closed enough to an honour duel. Those were not interfered with without incurring great shame, and did Ishaq’s entire homeland not just quake at the very shadow of shame? Like hound on a leash, only so enamoured of the prison they sang its praises in song. He glanced at Sidonia, who nodded back, and as one they struck. The Drake howled in laughter, and the dance began anew. The Scourge was fast and strong, nimbler with that monstrous sword than he had any right to be, but they were neither of them unskilled. The Vagrant Spear feigned a low bit only to snake a hit at the throat, forcing the Drake to bat it away, and without batting an eye Ishaq slashed at the undead’s back.

The flesh grew back. The soul did not, and Pinon sang with glee. It liked taking from souls already claimed best, preferring Binds and Revenants to the living.

Ishaq withdrew, though not quite quickly enough for his face to be spared the edge of the returning greatsword. A thick cut across the cheek, dripping blood against the edge of his mouth.  He swallow a lick, smiling, and saw fury bloom in the Scourge’s eyes. It did not like losing parts of itself, no matter how small they might be.

“That’ll be enough, children,” the Drake said. “I’m being told to stop playing.”

And behind him, as if summoned, the hulking shape of a beorn climbed over the ledge and looked down at them through a gaping maw, roaring out.

“You have a bear,” the Barrow Sword, conceded. “But we have her.”

He jutted a thumb behind him, where the Berserker was slowly advancing. Her body was jerking wildly, eyes turned bloodshot and hair looking like it’d been shot through with thorns. Muscles grew, and as her face turned monstrous the Berserker hacked out a breath.

Rage,” she snarled.

The beorn swatted at her, but she caught the paw with the flat of her blade. Both wavered, for a moment, before she smashed the great limb into the floor with a triumphant howl. The Drake looked a little unnerved, and Ishaq frankly couldn’t blame him. Zoe wasn’t particularly able to tell friends from foe in that state and shaking her out of it tended to be… difficult.

“I always get the worst assignment,” the Drake sighed. “Would it kill that prick in his fancy armour to take the vanguard, one of these days?”

“I sympathize,” Ishaq smiled. “Please, friend, allow me to relieve you of your burdens.”

The Barrow Sword moved, and the Vagrant Spear with him.

The dance resumed.

It was a good fight, Sidonia thought as she pricked the Drake’s neck and send Light howling into his body.

Though bones snapped and flesh burned, the Revenant swatted at her and she was forced to withdraw a few steps until the Barrow Sword commanded their foe’s attention. It was a fight worthy of being added to the Rolls, even though Ishaq was one Below’s and so sundered from honour. The Berserker was ripping into the beorn that’d come up over the ledge, now with her bare hands since she had used her sword to nail shut the beast’s maw, which left the two of them room to handle the Drake properly. The abomination was still far from death, but then they had yet to reveal their own killing strokes. The Scourges always had surprises, and so their opponents must have some as well.

They went another round with death, this time Ishaq taking the lead. The Drake was wary of the Barrow Sword’s blade, which though grave-goods and so proscribed seemed particularly suited to slaying Revenants. Ishaq went forward aggressively as Sidonia circled around the back, baiting the Drake into a warning swing, and immediately the Vagrant Spear struck. Three quick steps and extending her body like the spear she wielded, the tip of her steel finding the back of the Revenant’s head – only he danced to the side, sword flicking back to bat away her spear before he caught Ishaq by the edge of his mail even as the Barrow Sword carved into his flank.

“That’s all we’ll get,” the Drake said. “Get on with it.”

With a heave, he threw the Barrow Sword upwards into the sky and turned to Sidonia with a hard grin. Half a heartbeat later a black-feathered arrow sprouted in Ishaq’s throat as he still rose in the air. And as if a veil had been torn down, an undead drake was revealed. Batting its wings half a hundred feet away from the bastion, above the height of the fight. Atop the creature stood a single archer. The Hawk, Sidonia thought, and felt a glimmer of fear. She had no time for more, as the Drake was on her and he was not an opponent she could afford to be distracted against. Still, Zoe must be warned as much as she could be in the throes of her rage.

“The Hawk is here, Berserker,” Sidonia shouted. “Watch-”

An arrow sprouted in the villainess forehead even as she threw the beorn off the wall, staggering her for a moment. Ashen Gods, the Vagrant Spear thought. Mere moments and already two of her band were dead. Only, instead of collapsing the Berserker screamed in utter fury before ripping off one of the crenels and tossing the large stone at the drake.

“Impressive,” the Drake complimented even as he struck.

Sidonia let the worries sink away into nothing. She would not survive this, if she let the world command her attention. Eyes on the enemy’s blade, she nimbly withdrew two steps and smiled. Yes, this was better. Her and the foe, nothing else. If death came through arrow, let it. She would end her life in honour. Breathing out, she circled again as the Revenant studied her. He feigned with a brusque step forward but she did not bite, choosing her angle. Right behind the shoulder there was a point where the Scourge could not even parry, the arm simply did not bend right. If she could get him to move… She rushed forward, earning a swing, and slid under the horizontal strike.

She rolled around the kick that followed, coming up in a crouch with the point of her spear upwards. At precisely the right angle Sidonia rose, and to the strike she added the secret Creation had bestowed upon her: that so long as you struck with the soul instead of the hand, there was nothing you could not Pierce. The blade of her spear slid through the armpit, shearing through flesh and muscle and bone as blood sprayed and she bisected the Drake. Her spearhead emerged through the other armpit and she ripped it free as she stepped back, blood flecking her face paint. Only, she realized with dim horror, just enough had healed by the time she withdrew the spear that strings of skin had kept the severed parts together.

“Good blow,” the Drake praised. “My turn.”

The angle was wrong. She knew it even as she struck at the swing coming at her, trying to change how it would strike. Instead the spearhead scraped along the side of the greatsword, changing nothing, and with a swallowed scream she felt her enemy’s edge cut halfway through her arm and outright through the shaft of her spear. The Drake snorted, socking her in the stomach and letting her stumble to the ground.

“The Tanja lord, Hawk,” the Scourge called out. “I’m not in the mood for pursuit, get him now.”

And from the corner of her eye, Sidonia saw the arrow fly. Finding a path through the press of bodies and shields with impossible accuracy, as if eager to snatch out the life of the Lord of Malaga. And it made it but an inch away from the Tanja’s throat, before the sour-faced spectre of a young man became visible and unhinged his jaw to swallow it whole. The Harrowed Witch, Sidonia realized with dim relief. She rolled to her feet, bleeding but unbowed, and breathed out. She still had two aspects to use. Only the Drake seemed disinclined to allow her to use them, already on her and swinging. Barren Mercy, Sidonia thought. She would have to cushion the blow and she raised her hand…

The point of the Barrow Sword’s eerie blade punched through the Drake’s belly, Ishaq looking bloodless but very much alive.

“Gods but I hate dying,” the Barrow Sword hissed. “Do you have any idea how many souls that sets me back?”

Well, Sidonia thought, rising to her feet with the two halves of her spear. Perhaps today’s deeds would not have to be added to the Rolls by another’s hand, after all.

Razin had known this fear before.

During the battle he had not yet known would be called the Princes’ Graveyard, witnessing the Firstborn unleashed under cover of the dark. The way death had just… ensued, and they’d all been powerless to stop it for those few Bestowed with the privilege of doing otherwise by the Ashen Gods. It had stuck in his throat then, that fear, and it did now even as his life was saved from some Revenant’s murderous whim by the whim of some clever Bestowed using a ghost. And he knew, he did, that the intelligent decision made was to leave. To stay behind a shield wall and retreat out of sight, where the archer could not easily pursue beyond the city wards. And yet instead, Razin Tanja felt his jaw clench. Is this the sum of us? We die in droves while the demigods settle the score, little more than an afterthought for either side.

No, he thought. Enough.

“Warriors of Malaga,” he shouted, “shield wall.”

They would not be ghosts before death even bothered to find them, spectators to the end of times. If they were to stand here tonight, it would be sword in hand. A shiver of surprise went through the warriors, of hesitation, but in the end he was the Lord of Malaga and this was war. The shields went up, sword rose.

“Binders, on my word,” Razin said. “Knock that drake out of our fucking sky.”

An arrow streaked towards him again, but the apparition swallowed it once more. Who did it belong to, he wondered? He would have to find out. Thanks were in order.

“Forward, sons and daughters of Levant,” Razin Tanja screamed.

“The Blessed Artificer requests that you unleash the binders right before she acts, your lordship.”

Razin almost stabbed the woman who’d just addressed him in surprise, as a heartbeat ago he would have been sure there was absolutely no one standing next to him. Ashen Gods, how long had she been there?

“And when is that?” the Lord of Malaga asked, steading his breath.

“In…” the young woman addressing him trailed off, cocking her head to the side, “seven heartbeats now.”

Cursing, Razin immediately ordered for the binders to strike even as his shield wall advanced. Bound spirits flew out, gathering substance from their surroundings as they did, and struck at the archer and the undead drake in a storm. On the ground the Revenant was carving at the shield wall, slicing through shields like butter, but with the Barrow Sword and the Vagrant Spear striking at him he could not afford more than a few idle blows and he was steadily losing ground. Now there was little but a strip at the edge of the bastion left to fight over, and there the monstrous Bestowed the other had brought was still raging. It snatched the Revenant by the foot and started wildly smashing him around, the other two Bestowed backing away carefully.

“Gods, let this work,” the young witch by his side murmured.

The sky lit up with Light. Streak after streak gathered in a circle, like ceiling made of spears, and every last one was angled down at the storm his binders had made. The spirits, he now grasped, had not been meant by his allies to kill the archer but to blind it.

Light shone until it blinded them all, and like a tide it fell.

The Grey Pilgrim’s steps stuttered.

It was, Tariq thought, almost like getting a glimpse of years to come. The devastation visited unto the bastion seemed like a small thing, compared to the cheers of his countrymen defending it. The sky was filled with smoke and the Drake was still there, pinned to the ground by sorcery and swords and the bruising grip of the Berserker, but it was the living that had caught his eye. Razin Tanja, the young man that was half the hope he saw for his home rising above itself, reluctantly but honestly clasping arms with the Barrow Sword as he just had with the Vagrant Spear. Warriors roaring in approval. It was a different world, he thought. One he had not been born to.

He’d come here to take care of Levant, but Levant had taken care of itself.

It was pride he now felt welling up in his belly, but grief as well. There was still some aid he could lend, at least, and that much he would offer. The Pilgrim made his way through the crowd, warriors respectfully parting for him, and though offering smiles and nods where appropriate his stride led directly to the Drake. The Berserker had just pulped his stomach, but those eyes were wide open and aware. They also filled with fear, when he approached, as they should.

“Drake,” Tariq gently smiled.

“No,” the Revenant hissed. “Not you, I was so close I was-”

Light lashing out, the Grey Pilgrim pulled open a gate into Twilight beneath the Scourge. He struggled, but there was no avoiding this while bound. Screaming, convulsing, the Revenant fell into the gate and turned to ash. And this time, when the tooth flew out towards the edge of the rampart, Tariq was ready. He snatched it out of the air and the Ophanim hissed with anger at the abomination, their will joining his as he wove Light and tightened his grip. Dust flowed out from between his fingers, slipping into the gate before he finally allowed it to close. The Pilgrim opened his mouth to speak into the hushed silence that’d followed, but it was a great roar that broke it instead.

The Berserker spasmed in pain, half a dozen arrows stuck in her body and three through her forehead, but from the monstrous shape she’d turned into she slowly turned back into a woman. The Ophanim whispered and Tariq’s hands tightened.

“Is there anything we can do?”

Silence. There was no. The Berserker’s rage ended, leaving only a mortal behind, and that mortal did not breathe. Only the wrath had kept her alive.

Keter always had the last word.