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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

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

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


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

Updates every Monday and Wednesday.

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Chapter 46: Denouement

“Never wound a man you do not intend to kill.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II

It was a strange thing, to bury a man.  Of the Praesi only the Soninke shared the custom, and even then only the highborn who boasted ancient labyrinth-mausoleums of baked mud to receive their own. Peasants and Taghreb burned their dead instead, save for those who had sold their remains to corpse-raisers while they still lived. There were no ancient mazes in the Green Stretch, and the dues to the dead were different for Duni. It was said that some of Amadeus’ people still kept to the Gods Above in hidden places, conducting rituals even without priests to bless them, but his family had not been so twisted. Mother had proudly served in the Legions, after all, and thought little of the ornate boot-licking westerners called religion. Yet Duni buried their dead like Callowans did, the nature of that half-stolen custom changed by centuries upon centuries of Praesi rule and all that came with it. The Squire’s shovel patted the surface of the freshly turned wet black earth, the last grave he would dig today.

There were four of them. Father, Clarent, Belladona and Valerius. He’d not spoken to any of them since deserting the Legions, and the first time in three years he’d laid eyes on his family had been to see them crucified by the burnt-out husk of the farm. The Heir had not needed to sign his work, for he had already boasted of it. Discipline, he’d called it, for a mudfoot who did not understand his place in the world. The Soninke had not well taken his defeat in Callow, the way Ranger’s knowledge of the lay of the land had allowed Amadeus to lead the paladins to his enemy’s camp instead of his own. Sabah had offered to help him dig, meaning kindness though the offer was ignorant. Wekesa had not, no more learned in Duni customs but instinctively knowing the offer would be crossing a boundary. It was Hye, in her own cold way, who had honoured his family. She’d stood vigil at his side in silence as he dug, a sacrifice of hours freely offered to people she had never met.

Amadeus wedged the shovel into the ground and stood by the unmarked graves he’d dug by the side of Mother’s. Silently, he unsheathed a knife and split open his palm. Passing from grave to grave he trickled droplets of red the way he had been taught even as his companions stood behind him, still and quiet. There would be incomprehension on their faces, he knew. Praesi knew well the power of blood, but were wary of spilling their own. There were many rituals a skilled mage could work, with such a reagent. But there were no consecrated grounds in the Stretch, to prevent corpse-theft, and the Tower did not care to chastise necromancers that kept to the practice if their birth was high enough. The spilling of blood, to Duni, was an oath. ‘They who marked that grave in red will seek redress, should this grave be disturbed.’ He could have spoken the word, but he alone stood pale-skinned on this field. There would have been no meaning in it.

He had wept, taking them down from the crosses, but the tears had dried and left nothing behind. Amadeus did not recognize his own voice when he told the others to leave him to the vigil, to be stood until the moon rose. It was too raw a thing to be his, absent of calm and thought. They deferred, though before long Ranger returned to his side. Hye knew no commands but her own desires.

“We’ll kill him for this,” she whispered, standing at his side.

The green-eyed man smiled.

“The Heir,” he said, “meant to cloud my mind. Fill it with grief and anger. Unusually clever of him, truth be told. I lose much if I lose my distance from it all.”

“It always turns on them, plots like this,” the half-elf said. “They get more than they bargained for.”

Amadeus studied the palm he had cut mere hours ago, finding it perfectly smooth. It would not scar. Wounds on Named rarely did, lest they were dire or meaningful. He wondered what kind of man it made him, that this was not meaningful to him. He wondered if he should grieve that he could not manage to care. Had he been this cold, before he became the Squire? It was hard to remember.

“He made a mistake,” the Duni said. “Not the one you believe this. This is just… insufficient.”

Ranger did not answer. She’d always had a talent for that, knowing when to fill silence and let it stand.

“I believed I loved them,” Amadeus said. “But I killed them, Hye, the moment I claimed my Name. I always knew that. Stories require clean breaks. We cannot have homes to return to, however humble they may be.”

“You absolve him for this act?” the honey-skinned woman asked.

“No, not that,” the man murmured. “Never that. One must stand responsible for one’s actions. But it would be unseemly, to blame solely his hand for this end. If not him, Creation would have seen to the matter otherwise. Paladins venturing deeper into the Stretch, perhaps. Or wisps of a faraway ritual poisoning them in agony. Foe would have been provided, Ranger. Evil ever grows through conflict.”

“You could have fought it,” she said.

“And lost,” he replied. “Creation can be gamed. We have proved this. But it cannot be overturned. There are lessons to be learned from the Tyrants of old. Power is not earned with clean hands. Their mistake was only to think bloodying them anew will always bring gain.”

He saw Ranger’s lips quirk into a rueful smile.

“And now you debate philosophy over fresh graves,” she said. “Your grief lasted as long as the tears.”

“I began grieving them the moment I became the Squire,” Amadeus said. “This will not turn my path, Hye. A loss has been added to the tally, that’s all. There will be many, many more.”

“And love?” she said.

“A sweet thing, to be sure,” the Squire said. “But love is not what I bared my blade for.”

She laughed, quietly.

“You’re not boring at all, are you?” she said. “The blood you spilled, what does it mean?”

“An oath,” Amadeus said. “A warning.”

Ranger’s knife glinted silver in the dark as she cut her palm, joining her blood to his own on the dark earth. He met her eyes and wondered what was watching him back, that hard and blazing thing that had his heart skipping a beat.

“And now what, Squire?” she teased.

“I read a play once,” Amadeus replied. “Forbidden by Imperial decree. There is a part I enjoyed, and it goes like this-”

His voice carried, without ever rising in tone.

“Be fearful now
tremble; for
my reach is long
my wrath is great
patient but
unrivalled
above or below.”

Hye’s answering smile was a thing of death and Amadeus looked away, staring up at the stars and letting his grief ebb to the sound of grinding wheels of steel.

I woke to a riot of light. I was naked, I promptly noticed, and on a bed of stone. I did not feel the cold in the slightest, which I did not take to mean much considering I similarly felt nothing of twin clamps and scalpel someone had shoved into my chest. Masego, unsurprisingly sitting at my bedside with his brow creased, idly dismissed a rune that had formed to the side of his head without looking away.

“Don’t move,” he ordered. “This is precision work.”

“Good morning to you too,” I croaked, forcing myself to remain still.

“It’s past Noon Bell,” he noted.

It said a lot about my life these days that I was largely unmoved by the sight of a man sitting by my naked body elbow-deep in my chest without my say-so. His free hand reached for the scalpel, delicately set aside, and the fingers I couldn’t see pivoted something inside my body. There was a click, felt though not heard, and I felt Winter bloom through my veins. The well, I realized with widened eyes, was not gone. The mantle was still laid upon my shoulders. Taking out something that looked like a torturer’s tool out of me, Hierophant clicked his tongue in satisfaction. He prodded with a long run-covered stick at what should have been my lungs, by the angle, and though my body felt nothing I could feel something pressing against Winter. With a nod, he set aside the stick and removed the clamps.

“It’ll take at least a sennight to settle properly,” he said. “But the working was successful.”

“Now,” I said, “would be a good time to explain what exactly you did.”

I was a little amused that neither of us cared all that much about my nakedness, but set that aside in favour of actually learning what the Hells was going on.

“Neither your soul nor your body could support the title without the metaphysical stabilizer the king replaced your heart by,” the blind man said. “Your power began destroying your body the moment he removed it, and the edges of your soul were fracturing.”

“You predicted as much,” I said. “Didn’t you carve some sort of protection on my ribs when you tinkered with the moon?”

“My calculations were inaccurate,” he said, and he sounded deeply pained. “The runes shattered within the first hour. You are the last titled entity of Winter, Catherine. That had unforeseen consequences.”

I rose to a sitting position, and spied neatly-folded clothes on a chair to my right. Ah, Hakram, you prince among men. I put a shirt on, though I couldn’t be bothered to hop around putting on trousers and underclothes before I got a full explanation out of Masego.

“So things got fucked,” I summarized. “How’d that translate to ‘get elbow-deep inside Catherine without even buying her a bottle first’?”

“I wish you would rephrase that,” he sighed. “I created an artificial framework around your soul to support the power. To anchor it properly into you, there was need for some surgical work.”

“So it’s all good,” I proposed.

“To an extent,” he conceded. “The power is no longer entirely intrinsic.”

“What do entrances have to do with this?” I said, grinning wretchedly and with full awareness if what I was doing.

He visibly twitched, to my delight.

“Intrinsic,” he insisted. “Meaning-“

“We all know what entrances are, Masego,” I interrupted smoothly. “What does that mean, practically speaking?”

“That the framework can be attacked,” he said through gritted teeth. “Through sorcerous means. It can also only withstand the fullness of your power for some time, at least until I’ve put together a stronger array. That may take months, there is no precedent for this I am aware of.”

“So you put scaffolding around my soul,” I mused.

“An uneducated yokel might describe my work in such a manner, yes,” he said.

“And mages can take an axe to the scaffolding if they know what to look for,” I continued. “Which would be bad.”

“Yes, Catherine, someone ripping out a working attached to your very soul would be ‘bad’,” he hissed. “How astutely deduced of you.”

“Are we talking decked in the face by Captain bad, or ‘oh shit I just mouthed off to the Hashmallim’ bad?” I squinted.

“That is not a quantifiable scale,” he began, but rallied valiantly. “Are you familiar with the concept of cascading failures?”

“The Wasaliti doesn’t have falls on it, Masego,” I told him helpfully. “You really should have paid closer attention when you studied geography.”

The dark-skinned man opened his mouth, closed it, then rose to his feet.

“I wash my hands of this,” he announced. “We’ll finish this talk when you’re capable of taking anything seriously.”

“Don’t be like that, Zeze,” I grinned.

I put my hand over my heart in a solemn oath.

“I promise not to yank your chain anymore,” I lied.

He studied me for a long moment.

“You always say that,” he complained. “But you never do.”

He was learning, I would give him that much. He promised to send in Hakram on his way out, after giving me long enough to get dressed so I would not offend Adjutant’s delicate orcish sensibilities. I’d screwed with him mostly because it amused me, but there’d been the shadow of another intent in there. A little time alone to process the Name dream I still remembered with eerie clarity would not go amiss. There was a lot to parse there, aside from a few revelations I could have done without – namely that watching Black turn into the Carrion Lord had got Ranger going and that she probably saw taking out knives as foreplay. I was not overly surprised on either count. My Name had always been heavy-handed with the hints and I knew better than to always follow the vague advice the dreams carried with them, but this one had been particularly direct. My teacher had buried his family, and odds are before the day was done I’d have to light John Farrier’s pyre. A sweet thing, to be sure, but love is not what I bared my blade for. Fresh on the back of my hesitating to ask Nauk’s healing as a boon, that struck particularly close to home.

There were dangers to caring for my men, and considering setting aside a war-winning trump card for a single man to wake again made them stand out starkly. My Name was telling me to grow harsher. That the moment I’d let the Lone Swordsman go I’d begun a path that would be paved with the corpses of foes and friends alike. There was truth in that I could not deny. If what I set out to accomplish was greater than any of the myriad souls that made the whole, I should not flinch in the face of sacrificing any of them. To do otherwise would be crippling myself from the onset. The priests of the House of Light would have called that embarking on the path to damnation, but oh that ship had sailed long ago hadn’t it? I found it hard to reconcile the smiling man I trusted with the man bathed in starlight speaking those quiet words, but they were one and the same. Neither false, perhaps, but if they ever came at odds I knew which would win. I had seen the Black Knight’s face bared of the pretence of civility.

“You’re telling me to let go,” I murmured.

I’d never been particularly good at that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start. You could win wars, I knew, without thinking like him. Without tallying it all in my mind, staring at Creation through the prism of gain and loss. But I remembered the sight of the burnt skull of a man who’d trusted me, believed in me, and I could not help but wonder if I might have avoided that if… Some Empress or other had once said that the worst sin a villain could commit was hesitate. She’d not been wrong. Every moment I spared to gaze at my hands and ask whether there was too much blood on them or not enough, my enemies were moving. Growing in strength as I stood still. There is a point where continuing to ask a question makes it meaningless, because Creation has already passed you by. Diabolist would not care for my qualms. Neither would the Empress, or the First Prince or whatever greater threat lurked behind them because wasn’t there always something larger? I smiled bitterly. I was, in the end, a practical woman. It mattered more to live than to be someone I could live with.

I slipped on the rest of my clothes in silence, and was fitting my boots when Adjutant rapped his knuckles against the door. I called out for him to enter.

“Cat,” he said, studying me closely. “How are you feeling?”

“Like the war’s not over,” I said bluntly. “Report.”

“You were under for a day and a night,” he said. “The Deoraithe are getting restless, you’ll need to settle the Duchess soon. I’ve had Robber watch them, there’s more to this than just wanting to strike at Diabolist. The Watch are acting oddly.”

“Akua’s making her move,” I grunted. “I suppose I should be thankful she didn’t show up in the middle of the battle to fuck everything up.”

“She is no longer in a position where she can move quietly,” Adjutant noted. “She must be very, very careful. If she slips now, even once, it will be the end of her.”

“Fifteenth?” I asked, steeling myself.

“Casualties were significant,” he grimaced, unknowingly baring fangs. “The fight for the upper ring bled us dry.”

“Give me numbers,” I said.

“Aisha’s still tallying them,” he said.

I frowned.

“You don’t have to coddle me,” I said flatly. “It’s been more than a day. The captains will have handed in their reports.”

“We had another situation to deal with that delayed matters,” Hakram replied. “Diabolist sent envoys. They’re currently awaiting audience with you outside the city.”

I heard the leather rip as my fingers tightened around it. Fuck. One of these days I was going to be able to take a nap without waking to a fire urgently in need of putting out, but evidently it wouldn’t be today.

“Get me another pair of boots,” I sighed.

Chapter 45: Falling Action

“And so Maleficent said: ‘Though you be god I am Empress, crowned of dread, and by my hand comes your doom. Rage in vain, for from your bones will rise a great tower whose shadow will be cast upon all the world.’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Chains, first of the Secret Histories of Praes

The fortress that lay at the heart of Dormer jutted out incongruously, great jaws of granite gaping down at a city that had known only peace for centuries. The seat of power of the barony had been built in tiers, an elegant ring of grey stone making the first. The was power here, and not young. Though no moat had been dug into the hill, the empty circle around the castle would been a shooting gallery to bleed an investing host were the walls manned at all. But there was not a soul in sight, the faint night breeze lazily winding through deserted bastions. No contest of our advance had been made as we approached, only flames in the distance betraying the truth that Summer had yet to surrender. The pace had been irritatingly slow due to Thief’s hobbling, but I had mastered my anger before it could lash out. There were more deserving targets for my wrath than those who had fought and burned for me.

The gate was the sole concession the Barons of Dormer had made to concord, sculpted columns of marble and ivory built over the ancient rough gate and portcullis hidden away by the younger arch displaying the words and heraldry of House Kendall: Honour Lies Immortal, written along the curve of the wreath of ivy. I strode past the pale marble steps, the faces of the ancient rulers of the city staring back at me from the shadowed reliefs. Scenes of glory one and all, from the founding of Dormer to the first oaths sworn to House Alban when Callow was made a single kingdom. There were lies unspoken in this, victories made false by denial of failure. Winter pulsed in my veins, itching to take blade to the unsightliness. I breathed out mist and crushed the impulse. You serve me, I whispered at the cold. Never the other way around. The urges were more insidious than those my Name still caused, my own thoughts painted with a Winter brush.

The portcullis was closed, bands of steel tightly wedged into granite, and perhaps before I would have sought one of the servant entrances. But what did mere steel mean to me now? My gauntleted hands clasped around two bars, and the metal screamed as I ripped open a path. No more difficult than snapping a branch, and Winter murmured in delight at the destruction.

“That’s one way to do it, I suppose,” Archer said.

The first words spoken since we’d left the field where so many of my men lay dead. I did not glance back as I stepped into the courtyard. To the side I could see the smouldering ashes of what had once been stables built around the wall, but I had no interest in sightseeing. In the distance, at the heart of the fortress, I could feel a gate in the making. Not at all like mine, where my will was a knife used to cut through the boundary between Creation and Arcadia. Someone had built a canal on the other side, and was now carefully prying open the lock. The river would pour through unimpeded, when the time came, and sweep away everything that stood in its way. A Queen is a god in the flesh, I thought. No creature so powerful can lightly cross boundaries.

“There is a ward ahead,” Hierophant said, studying a handful of shining runes. “Barring the inner reaches of the fortress.”

“It will break,” I said.

The hall we strode through was old as the walls, the raw stone made to look luxurious by tapestries and and hanging drapes in the green of Kendall heraldry. The Proceran carpets under our boots had already been singed by the fae who’d once held the fortress, the edges of blackened and twisted. Stairs rose ahead into a balustrade, sculpted ivy leaves shaping the railing. We had not succeeding in getting our hands on plans of the fortress, before the battle, but I could feel the gate-to-be like the north of a compass. Further in, where the great hall where the Baroness of Dormer had once held justice and audience before the Tower stripped her of right and title both for her rebellion. How long had this castle stood, I wondered? There might be nothing left of it but rubble, when dawn came. I guided us through the corridors, the power wafting from me eagerly scattering the last wisps of Summer’s presence in little tufts of hissing steam. The air grew cool and crisp wherever we passed, and more than once I felt Hierophant shiver.

We found the ward as we emerged from the corridor that would lead us to the great hall, its copper gates laying wide open behind it. A wall, though one of woven sunlight and shivering golden Summer flame. I could feel it spread beyond my sight, a great cage of power crafted to protect the arrival of the Queen of Summer.

“How long will it take you to open a way, Hierophant?” Adjutant asked.

My sword left its sheath with a quiet hiss before the blind man could reply. I struck out, boots leaving trails of ice behind as my blade rammed against the light. The walls shook around us, but the ward stood strong.

“Knocking at the door might take a while,” Archer noted, sounding amused.

“I can walk through,” Thief rasped. “If Hierophant tells me how to unmake it from the inside-“

Break,” I hissed.

I opened the floodgates in full, let Winter pour through my veins and seep into the most destructive of my aspects. My blood was cold, I only now noticed. It had been for some time. Yet I felt no weaker for it, the frost instead lending a sharp clarity that it had once taken effort to reach. Duchess, I thought. My will found easier purchase when bending Creation to its will. Shade and ice flared along the edge of my sword as it struck the ward and for a heartbeat it felt like I was trading blows with the Duke of Green Orchards again. Then the ward broke, as I’d ordered it to. Stone around us shattered as well, the walls anchoring the sorcery torn through as the ward desperately scrabbled to remain coherent. There was a sliver of life in it, a will to guide it. Had they sacrificed a fae to forge this? No matter. Ice smothered that wisp of thought, blanketing the corridor. I resumed marching through the ruins surrounding us, the wide doors of copper held up only by a thin arc of granite as I passed through them. Adjutant caught up to me first, leaning close.

“Catherine,” he murmured, though we both knew the others would be able to hear anyway. “Calm yourself, before you begin making mistakes.”

“I am calm,” I replied, and I was. “What I am is out of patience. If it gets in my way, it dies. We’re past half-measures, Adjutant.”

The orc looked as if he wanted to argue, but I was disinclined to allow it. The great hall lay spread out before us, a shabby thing compared to those I had walked in the Tower. Long tables on both sides flanked a supplicant’s path leading to stone platform set against the back wall and the tall glass windows over it, the dying moon cloaking the simple bench of whitewood on it in a halo of light. There, I thought. The crossing would take place there. Let it not be said the Queen of Summer would ever settle for less than a throne, in any world she strode. Hierophant came to stand by my side as the others milled around the hall.

“Still the better part of an hour before dawn, by my calculations,” the mage said.

“There’s no need to wait that long,” I said. “Implement the contingency.”

Eyes of glass shifted to me under black cloth, a brow rising.

“You know my study of the sun is incomplete,” Hierophant said. “Should I be forced to loose the arrow the Due would be comparable to that of the very event that named the concept. There will be no city left, no armies, and it is unlikely anything will grow of these grounds before Creation is unmade.”

“One does not call a god to heel without risking calamity,” I said.

He paused.

“I want to work a pathing spell on your mind,” he said. “This is reckless even by your standards.”

“Winter has nothing to do with this,” I said. “But if it will make you feel better, by all means.”

His touch against my forehead was surprisingly warm, as was the sorcery that seeped into my mind. I could feel it curling like smoke along my thoughts, until finally he withdrew.

“It is influencing you,” he said.

“But,” I said.

“No more than the mantle of your Name,” he admitted. “Your mind is still your own.”

I heard Archer let out a baited breath, behind me. Hierophant no longer quibbled after that. It was a wonder, watching him work. I’d seen him weave sorcery before, even High Arcana, but this went a step beyond. Eyes closed, heartbeat almost still, the blind man crafted me a miracle. It was not runes that he threaded together but echoes of things he had seen, flickers of great feats he had witnessed. I saw his father’s silhouette standing before a tower that built itself turning into the Princess of High Noon with her hands raised, a pyramid of blood-streaked mud lying at the heart of a maze melding with a glimpse of a city rising into the sky. Pillars of translucent, shimmering power struck the ground in a perfect circle around him and I felt their reach rise through the ceiling into the night sky above. Eventually, he opened his eyes.

“Thief,” he said. “Release the sun.”

The burns on the heroine’s face had peeled off, replaced by red and tender skin through healing magic, and so I read the hesitation on her face plainly.

“There is no need to be afraid,” I said.

No, not us. Not today. She nodded slowly, and fingers found the pouch at her side.

“Here it goes,” she said, and opened it.

The glare was blinding, for a heartbeat. Hierophant’s unearthly ward caught it whole, drawing it to the pillars as even the coldness coming from my frame was swept away by the raging heat. And then it dimmed, as suddenly as it had come. The mage grunted in effort. It hurt my eyes to look at it, but I did not look away: I might never see such a sight again. The ceiling above us was not torn through so much as it evaporated, the fortress around us melting like butter in the heat. The sun of Summer rose into the sky, chasing night away, and with it came dawn. I turned my eyes to the dais as the lock gave and the Queen of Summer came, granted entry by our will. There was no gate. Between two moments, absence was filled a young girl. Golden curls streaming down her white robe, she still looked half a child and every inch a farmer’s daughter. There was nothing unearthly about her tan and her dimples, or those brown eyes that could have belonged to any mortal. The left side of her body was touched with red, bandages peeking through the collar of her robe. Ranger had wounded her, at least.

“Oh, children,” she sadly said. “You know not what you do.”

It would have thought her mortal, if not for the hint of pressure behind her. Like she was the seal on a boundless ocean that could sweep over Creation at any time. Winter coiled inside me, frozen furious hatred that wanted to rip her small frame apart no matter the cost to me or anyone else. I ignored it.

“You have been summoned,” I said, “to discuss terms of surrender.”

“Come to me, my armies,” the Queen said.

I did not need to look to know every fae in Dormer had taken to the sky, the words touching their minds. The city emptied in moments as wings flared and the tide of soldiers flowed towards us. Hierophant staggered as if hit in the guts, blood whetting his lips. The Princess of High Noon, I thought, had just been freed from her prison. Over the molten ruins of the fortress surrounding us ranks upon ranks of soldiers and pennants stood perched in silence, more arriving every heartbeat, and only then did the Queen turn her eyes to me.

“So many dead,” she mourned. “You have earned him victory with your blood, Duchess. Yet Summer does not surrender. You know this. You have seen it with your own eyes.”

“You have three duties,” I said.

“She’s trying for the sun,” Hierophant said, tone alarmed.

“Destroy it, Masego,” I said.

It was with vicious satisfaction that I saw surprise twist the Queen’s face.

“A desperate lie,” she said, but I felt her power still. “You would destroy us all. Break this land beyond mending.”

It wasn’t fear I saw in those eyes, not exactly. I wasn’t sure she really could be afraid. But there was uncertainty. Hesitation. Three words, and I had stayed the hand of a god. My lips twitched, and strange joy bubble up in my chest. I laughed, loudly, and allowed a hard grin to split my face.

“If I can’t win, you misbegotten thing, then we will all lose,” I hissed. “Look into my eyes. Tell me again I’m lying.”

I would have rocked back, had I not gone through the crucible of standing judgement before the Hashmallim. An entity infinitely greater than I enveloped everything that I was, will beyond comprehension taking sight of everything that I was and had been. The Beast coiled at my side and whispered back. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation. The Queen of Summer flinched.

“Madness,” she said, appalled.

“I am a villain,” I laughed. “I stand before you the pupil of a madman, heiress to a thousand years of darkness and terror. Test me again and I will make this a wasteland to have even the Gods shudder.”

“Summer does not retreat,” the Queen said, and it rang like a thunderclap.

“Summer has lost,” I replied unblinkingly. “As we speak the Prince of Nightfall breaches the walls of Aine, the city you are sworn to protect. Around you stands the butchered remnants of your host, awaiting doom at Winter’s hand. And in my palm lies your Sun, three words away from destruction. The Laurel Crown has three duties, and in those three duties you have failed.”

There was a moment of silence, before the Queen sighed.

“And so comes the dying of the light,” she murmured. “The wheel spins, Catherine Foundling. To end is to begin. We will not go with a whimper.”

My heart would have thundered, if I still had one.

“Or,” I said. “I could give you exactly what you want. Aine safeguarded. Winter unmade. The Sun returned to your sky.”

“You promise beyond your ability,” she said.

“All I require from you is a word, and you will get your wish,” I smiled. “And I ask a boon granted, for what I deliver to you.”

She studied me again, tasted the truth of my words.

“This,” she said, “has never happened before.”

“And never will again,” I said.

“I will hear the terms of the bargain offered,” the Queen of Summer said.

It was no coincidence it happened the moment she spoke the words. The grooves carved into Creation would have ensured as much, smoothly turning truth to story. Coincidence that was anything but. At my side power coalesced, stealing the efforts of Summer to allow its ruler to cross as a path of its own. A circle left open closed, as with a sharp smile the King of Winter came into Creation to face his created opposite. Sleek and dark-skinned and crowned in dead wood seeping red, the fae breathed in the air of Creation with relish.

“Oh, what a beautiful morning,” he said.

“Treachery,” the Queen of Summer said, words ringing of steel and the death of men.

“Ever a favoured diversion,” the King agreed. “Though I come for something… stranger.”

He turned his eyes on me, the gaze of a teacher pleasantly surprised by a pupil. I itched to carve them out of his skull, and not using something sharp.

“With your permission, Duchess?” he said.

“According to the terms offered by Her Dread Majesty,” I replied.

“You will have your boon, greedy one,” he said. “Ah, but what a daughter of Winter you make. Is she not delightful, Ista?”

I grit my teeth to get through the pain of hearing the name of the Summer Queen spoken, feeling Masego go rigid as a board as he did the same. Coat of black sweeping behind him, the man walked to his enemy and with a flourish he knelt.

“Ista of the Morning Star,” he said. “Bearer of the Laurel Crown, Queen of Summer Triumphant. I ask your hand in marriage, to rule Arcadia an equal by my side.”

He extended his own smoothly. One word, I’d told the Queen. She could still have it all, if she only said yes. The armies of Winter would end the assault of Aine, I would return the Sun and Winter would be undone. I watched the kneeling fae with cold, cold smile. I’d made an oath, once that I would unmake him. And I just had, with him having to thank me for it. There will be no more Winter, I thought. Only a single court ruling Arcadia, neither and both. The Empress had been right. The pivot was always going to be the Winter King, because he was the only entity that would see my preferred outcome as a victory. It had all hinged on him agreeing, because he was the oddity and he could make decisions that led outside the stories he despised. Summer would have to be forced, I’d known from the start, and I’d done exactly that. The Queen would agree, because she could not do otherwise. She was bound to seek to discharge her duties, and I’d put her in a corner with acceptance as the only way out. To refuse here would mean actively going against what she was, and she could not physically do that. Black had told me once that I’d kill Akua, one of these days, not because of my own power but because her nature would force her to make mistakes I would not. I wondered if he would proud, that I had used his lesson to destroy two gods without lifting a finger against either of them.

“I accept your offer,” the Summer Queen said, taking his hand, and I could see the horror on her face.

She was fighting it, trying to take back the words. But she couldn’t, just like the Rider of the Host I’d once forced to monologue by playing the hero. The change that followed the words was hard to describe. It wasn’t something I saw or felt. Neither of them metamorphosed into something different. But it was no longer two separate entities that were before me. I’d heard a riddle once, in Laure. When is a stone not as stone – when it is a wall. Nothing changed, yet it was not the same. The king rose to his feet, and pressed a tender kiss on the cheek of the livid queen.

“And so the war comes to a close,” the King of Arcadia said. “A realm cannot be at war with itself.”

A shiver went through the host of fae around us, as is something had been torn out of them.

“The matter of boons remains,” the Queen of Arcadia said, and the eyes she turned on me were burning. “Promises must be kept.”

I stood before two gods and did not kneel. I would not, in this moment, pretend this was anything but my win. That I’d bled thousands on the field, caused the death of men dear to me for anything less but utter victory.

“Upon the granting, you will have discharged your duty to me,” the King said. “And so will have earned the return of your heart. What do you request of us, Duchess of Moonless Nights?”

“Of you, I request release from vassalage forevermore,” I told the fae.

“I am most saddened to grant this,” the dark-skinned king said.

He did not seem surprised. I turned my eyes to the queen. I would have to tread carefully, here. If I fumbled the phrasing, she’d do her best to fuck me over. The temptations lay in the back of my mind, beckoning sweetly. To go back on my deal with the Empress and request that the whole of Arcadia come together to kill Diabolist. But she’s not wrong. They’ll wreck the entire central plains to do it, and we’d be risking some fae influence remaining. And there was another, young but no less demanding for it. I could ask them to heal Nauk. It would be a trifle, to them. But there might be other means to save my legate. And I would never get this chance again. A heroine, I thought, would have made the right choice. The only justifiable one. But I was not a heroine, and justifications only mattered to the just.

I spoke, and betrayed a man I called my friend.

“Of you I ask permanent right of passage through Arcadia for me and all I command, uncontested and unhindered,” I said, voice hollow.

“I grant you this,” the Queen replied curtly.

“And so peace is upon us,” the King said. “Steel yourself, Catherine Foundling.”

I felt the hand tear through my chest before I could even open my lips, and the world went dark.

Chapter 44: Drop

“The only thing more dangerous than being hated by a villain is to be loved by them.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II

That made it twice, that the Summer Court manoeuvred me into a situation where there was absolutely nothing I could do. The golden banners flew high, and with every moment they remained there my legionaries would be dying. In tight ranks, with sappers and crossbowmen at their backs, heavies might have a chance against the Immortals. But dispersed across a dozen different mansions, spread out in pursuit? It would be slaughter. And for once, we would be on the wrong side of it. A part of me already grieved the death of those soldiers, though I knew that even greater caution would have made no great difference. If I’d grasped the enemy’s intent here, Juniper likely had an hour ago – and she’d still sent us in, because this battle was against dawn as much as against the fae. Another quieter, calmer part of me was already tallying how many losses the Fifteenth would incur and assessing whether it would cripple us before the fight against Diabolist.

I didn’t always like the woman I’d become. It was a damningly short walk from we need this whatever the cost to one sin, one grace. That my shade of ruthlessness was different from Black’s was cold comfort. It sometimes occurred to me, in the dark of night, that if I got my and settled Callow I’d be the last monster remaining in it. It was an unsettling thought but remembering the girl I’d once been, the one who’d once thought that there was no need for monsters at all, brought as much disgust as it did rue. Keeping my hands clean clean wasn’t going to stop armies marching, or fields unburnt. It wasn’t going to do a single fucking thing except make myself feel more righteous. And still, once in a while, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have felt like to be proud of the tired woman that looked back when I stood before a mirror. I clenched my fingers and let out a long breath. Whining about the price I’d had to pay to get a seat at the table wasn’t going to change anything.

Blood had been spilled, there was a foe ahead of me. They would break or I would, it was as simple as that.

“Combat formations,” Nauk barked. “Time to earn your ghelsin’in pay, children.”

Kharsum, that. Meant fuck, basically, though with the implication of going at it from behind. Wonderful language, Kharsum. Had more variations on ‘fuck’ and ‘eat’ than any other tongue I’d come across, which honestly said quite a bit about them as a people. There were no Immortals in sight yet, but a banner had risen ahead. Only a matter of time.

“Catherine,” Adjutant said, coming to stand at my side. “We knew it’d be bloody. This changes nothing.”

“Think about the tactic, Hakram,” I said. “This isn’t jaws clamping on our fingers, we lose a thumb and it’s over. They’ll drive us back to the walls, then the Immortals will retreat and the regulars fill the gap again. They’re going to harvest us, one push at a time.”

“That sounds bad,” Archer whispered at Masego. “You’ve been in wars before, Zeze. This is bad, right?”

“Don’t call me that, you horrid sweaty goblin. And she’s Callowan,” Hierophant whispered back. “They love farming, do it all over the country. It could be good.”

“It’s bad, Zeze,” I sighed, ignoring Archer’s delighted chortle. “The Duke of Green Orchards, if it’s really him in charge, essentially turned the outskirts of this place into a meat grinder for the Fifteenth.”

“What’s the blades, in this tortured metaphor?” Archer asked.

“The Immortals,” I replied.

“So we kill the Immortals,” Archer mused. “There, problem solved.”

“It does seem a fairly straightforward issue,” Masego agreed.

Though I had some truly cutting sarcasm to grace them with, I held my tongue. Archer was, well, right might be a bit of a stretch and I definitely wasn’t giving her the satisfaction of saying anything like that but there was a nugget of correctness hidden in that boulder of aggressive ignorance. To pull this off, the Duke would have to spread the Immortals in a thin line across the upper city. And if we broke through that, he was in trouble. The castle would be wide open, save possibly for him and a handful of other nobles. That meant either betting this battle on him crushing us, which was risky for him given our highly murderous track record against Summer, or pulling back the Immortals to get in our way. The Woe could, in my opinion, feasibly deal with either the Immortals or the Duke. Both would be beyond us.

“We punch through and he’s on the backfoot,” I said to Hakram.

“Even if all we manage is to keep the centre from collapsing,” the orc replied, “it’s a rallying point for the Fifteenth and a funnel for reinforcements. It would turn into a match of attrition he cannot afford.”

Neither could we, we were both aware, but what other options did we have?

“Nauk,” I called out.

“Warlord,” he grinned. “We got a plan?”

“Smash through everything until we’ve won,” I said honestly.

“Ah, the Foundling gambit,” he gravelled. “It’s never failed us before.”

“Don’t say that where people can hear, and that’s an order,” I hurriedly replied.

That kind of stuff had a way of spreading. Legion humour was, uh, more than a little dark. Four hundred men already standing in tight ranks across the breadth of the avenue began their advance after a few yells. The Woe took the lead and I sharpened my senses to watch for the likely ambush that awaited further down the road. Though darkness was hardly bar to my sight, the smoke that was spreading across the sky was. Balls of magelight hovered above the two cohorts, kept going by our mages, but I barely noticed them: what was most visible in my eyes was the bevy of standards in the sky. Which was why, when one disappeared, I immediately noticed. Far left, I thought. Hadn’t seen much of what was there, though I’d noticed trees from a distance. Had my legionaries managed to turn back the – ah, Thief was still on the prowl. And aiming to complete her collection, by the looks of it.

“Archer,” I said. “How many of the standards did you two manage to take?”

“Half, maybe?” she shrugged. “After the first few they noticed and we had to be more careful, but there couldn’t have been more than twenty in all.”

And I was currently looking at eight still giving off that golden hue. Thief might not have been much of a fighter, but she was far from useless. I abandoned the train of thought without lingering, as moments later we’d finally come across the enemy. Ahead of us was a roundabout, though a fancier one than any I’d ever seen in Laure. It was wide as a plaza, the avenues circling the statue garden in the centre wide enough for two carriages to share it. Among the alabaster statues of what looked like past rulers of Dormer and a noticeably larger depiction of Eleanor Fairfax – though the sculptor had taken liberties there, since I doubted a knight of her calibre would have ever worn armour that left so much of her tits out in the open – the Immortals had formed a textbook perfect square. Even simply standing around, they were wrecking the greenery of the garden: the trees that weren’t already outright on fire were all smouldering, and the grass looked like a mage training yard. The Summer Court’s elite had not changed since I’d last seen them. Gold plate set with rubies glimmered under closed armet helmets of the same, heater shields so well-polished they could serve as mirrors filling one hand and ivory halberds the the other. Facing them, my legionaries spread across the roundabout. The Gallowborne took the centre, Nauk’s cohort split to cover the flanks.

“Summer Triumphant,” an Immortal from the front ranks called out.

Two hundred halberds slammed down in perfect unison, flickers of flame spreading from where they touched the ground. The words had not been spoken in any language I knew, and hardly been words at all. They’d been the crackle of wildfires, the clash of steel and the spilling of blood on hungry earth. Summer’s the season of war, Archer had once told me. Their words rang of that truth, a boast that rattled the night air.

“KILL THEM,” Nauk screamed.

“TAKE THEIR STUFF,” the Fifteenth screamed back.

We charged, wings enveloping their flanks as smoothly as if this was a practice battle. Like sea against rocks, I thought. The halberds rose, the halberds fell, and there went the first rank of my legionaries. As streaks of lightning filled the air and sharpers were thrown in long arcs, Adjutant and I rammed into the enemy. It was not like fighting the regulars. They did not give, when my sword struck their shields. And there was no slapping aside a strike of those halberds. No match for me in strength, perhaps, but not that far either. No wonder they broke the Sword of Waning Day, when they fought. Winter’s sharpest blades were rusty knives compared to these. Hacking my way into their formation was like taking an axe to an oak. My first blow hit a shield without purchase and bounced off, the halberd taller than I was sweeping down to tear through my shoulder in answer. I had to stick close to the Immortal to avoid it, and doing that felt like rolling around in a pile of embers. They heat they gave out wouldn’t melt my plate, maybe, but it would heat it until it scalded to the touch given long enough.

It took Adjutant and I working together to pry the line open. His shield got a halberd stuck and the tip of my sword pierced just over the tip of the enemy’s, sliding into the opening between the helmet and the gorget. The blood that coated my blade when it withdrew was smoking, but the fae was dead. I kicked the enemy down and forced my way into the gap even as the Immortal behind that one advanced, trying to force me back with his shield. From the corner of my eye I saw Adjutant’s knees give as the shaft of a halberd struck his shoulder and that distraction cost me. The side of my shield caught the halberd’s point at the very last moment, hard enough to change the angle from my chest to my forearm. The ivory went through plate and I screamed as fire burned in my veins. I would have had to give ground, if Archer hadn’t come to back me. Slithering around my shield she struck high, plunging a longknife in the Immortal’s throat and spinning to throw herself at the man at his side. I ripped out the halberd the corpse still clutched and let Winter loose, the flame smothered by impossibly deep cold. I let the strength linger, and took full advantage of the room she’d carved me.

The Immortals were meant to fight in ranks, the enemy in front, and from the side they struggled. Not the most flexible of weapons, halberds. I slammed my shield in the flank of the Immortal to my left and when he turned snarling Adjutant’s axe smashed through his helm and splattered blood. Now that my second was at my side, we began to widen the gap. One of us baited, the other struck. I learned at the cost of what was going to be a nasty scar under my eye that anything but a killing blow was useless on them – they did not seem to feel pain, and baldly ignored wounds. Being on the other side of that was a lot more infuriating than I’d thought it would be. With Archer weaving in and out of our side, knives always moving, we forged a wedge of corpses in the centre of the formation that the Gallowborne filled without prompting. The rest of my legionaries were not doing nearly as well, I saw when I got a rare moment of respite. Hierophant had seen the flanks were failing badly in the face of the opposition and lent them a hand, but the two spells he was working simultaneously took up all of his concentration. A hovering ball of shadow had sprouted tendrils that struck like sledgehammers on the left, while to the right a panoply of small silver circles flew around and shot beams of pale sorcery that not even the shields of the Immortals could withstand without twisting.

We’d killed maybe a fourth of them, fighting tooth and nail for every corpse, and already taken over twice that in casualties. I grit my teeth and pressed on. Attrition would grow more to our advantage the fewer of them were left, and though only the wrecks of two cohorts would emerge from this fight we would emerge victorious nonetheless.

“Sons and daughters of Summer, stand deathless under the sun,” a voice thundered.

Oh shit. Did that mean what I think it meant? Behind me, the dead Immortals proved the truth of the name. Great gouts of Summer flame poured out of the wounds, and they rose to their feet – most of them in the middle of the Gallowborne. A dozen of my retinue died in the first heartbeat and I screamed in fury.

“HIEROPHANT,” I yelled. “KILL THAT STANDARD.”

Before I’d even finished speaking a handful of runes formed just before my eyes, shining blue, and transmuted into a word: warded. Fuck. We weren’t the only ones who could use those.

“BATTER IT DOWN,” I screamed.

We were way past conserving power for the Duke of Green Orchards. At this rate we’d never even reach him. The detonation that followed rocked the entire plaza, statues flying in pieces and even Immortals being thrown to the ground. I widened my stance and was only blown back a few feet, though Hakram was thrown straight into two legionaries and had to extirpate himself from the mess of limbs and armour. To my horror, when I looked up, a globe golden light shone around the standard as it remained unharmed. Oh, this was bad. I ripped the halberd out of the grasp of an Immortal swinging at me, dropping my shield, and swung it around so that the edge of the blade tore into his skull. He dropped dead like a stingless puppet, but how long would he remain like that? The fae might not be able to pull that trick as often in Creation as they could in Arcadia, but how many times would that mean? Four, nine? My legionaries couldn’t even afford for it to happen twice. I would have called out to Archer, asked her if she had anything in her quiver that could take care of that, but she was busy trying not to get skewered by a pair of very angry Immortals.

It was a shiver, or at least that was how it felt to see it. It spread from the left flank, slithering through the thick ranks of Immortals and only turning into something real when the silhouette emerged out of thin air. Thief put a foot on a shield meant to smash her down, using it as a foothold to move to the shoulder of another Immortal. The fae tried to shake her off but she was already moving, jumping off the helm of an Immortal and somersaulting in the air. She went through the golden globe like it wasn’t there at all, hand snatching the standard at the apex of her leap and spiriting it away in a heartbeat. I felt the impact before she’d even begun to come down, the way every Immortal on the field flinched. I grinned, right up until the moment she was engulfed in apple-green flames and began screaming. Wings ablaze with eerie light, the Duke of Green Orchards stood atop the battlefield with mild disinterest writ on his face. A single hand held up, her kept Thief aloft and burning seemingly without effort.

I furiously tried to break through the Immortals ahead of me, but their ranks had tightened and the halberds were keeping me back. They weren’t going for a kill, just delaying me. It was Hierophant that managed to step in.

A gust of wind blew out the flames and Thief’s blackened body was dragged back behind the lines through the air. Gods, her entire hair was gone. She was scorched, but breathing and moaning in pain. Masego immediately began healing her, but she was done for the night. For more than that.

“Lady Foundling,” the noble fae greeted me politely. “It appears this affair will come to close momentarily. Perish.”

The nightmare began. Before he’d finished speaking I’d leapt off my first ice platform and was about to land on my second, and Archer had sent her first arrow flying for his eye. The shot went through the silver flames that appeared when it got close, but it slowed enough the duke caught it with his hand, crushing the wooden shaft to powder. The other hand had lashed out with green flame, a small orb of it tumbling towards me. The size of an apple, and the exact colour. Fuck. I’d thought for sure he’d be more like the Count of Green Yew, and hoped the torched trees would mean he was limited in his power, but he obviously had a work around. That first hit on Thief had been nowhere as strong as what I’d seen some dukes and duchesses pull out, but it was still exceedingly dangerous. A twist of will had a platform to my side forming and I took a turn there to avoid the throw, frowning when I saw the apple kept tumbling down. Was he really unable to redirect those? Oh Merciless Gods, I realized. I lashed out with ice, trying to keep the explosion contained when it hit the Gallowborne, but it was too little and too late. Then dark globe of ice was torn through almost instantly, green flame pouring out and consuming a full tenth. It moved from there, devouring men as the Duke calmly moved his hand to guide it.

Hierophant struck directly at him, a dozen spears of what looked like water-like shimmering iron getting stuck in the silver flames as they kept pushing at it. The fae grunted and the green fire gutted out. I should have advanced, but my eyes remained on the half-bare skull of Tribune John Farrier. Most his body was gone, even bones turned to ash. On all front of the melee the Fifteenth was giving ground, step by step as halberds tore through mail and plate. I’d known John for over a year now. Had fought by his side, bled with him and laughed with him. I’d liked him and relied on him. And he’d been swatted down carelessly, like a fucking insect.

Creation grew muted.

I could feel it all deeper now. Feel the night grow thicker, until the sight of the moon in the sky was obscured. Feel the beating from the shard of Winter that was my heart slow, and then cease entirely as I drew deeper from that well than I ever had before. My breath came out steaming and my plate crackled as frost spread over it. I peered at my anger, at my fear and calmly picked them out. I fed them to the cold, let them disappear into the flow until nothing was left at all. I’d always held back, I knew that deep down. I’d ripped the mantle of a god from its corpse and still acted the mortal. Wanted to be just Catherine Foundling. All these worries of humanity and remaining someone I could stand. The whining of a petulant child. I would be whoever I needed to be to keep my people alive, and damn me for flinching in the face of that truth. Beneath me the Immortals stirred and I felt the threads coming from them, those that had once bound them to the banner even in death but now lay inert. I reached out for them, two hundred threads growing into rivers as I forced the power of Winter through them. There were screams, there were curses and shaking and clawing at their armour. It made no difference to me. The Immortals died like flies, falling to the ground under the weight of my mantle.

“Rise,” I ordered, and they did.

Blue eyes burning behind their visors, the pride of Summer gripping its weapons as wings of ice spread from their backs.

“Shit,” Archer muttered, still among them. “That doesn’t look good.”

My gaze met the Duke of Green Orchards’ and the man smiled.

“Ah,” he said. “And now we finally meet, Duchess of Moonless Nights.”

The trees in the garden below burst into green flames, apples forming by the dozens and dropping from the branches without missing a beat. I moved with four hundred wings, my snarl on the lips of every Immortal. A storm of green flame swallowed the world, and the battle began in earnest. For the first heartbeat, it was only the two of us. I could sense his will in the flames, shaping them as men and beasts to fight my Immortals. They rose into the sky, pursued by Summer wrath, and Hierophant struck again. I saw his will slip into the green, follow along that of a lesser god and learn its workings.

“Shape is intent,” the blind man whispered. “Intent fractures.”

Like picks in stone, the Hierophant’s will struck at the sorcery and collapsed it. With a sound like a bell the flames reverted into apples, hanging harmlessly in the air, and my Immortals buried the Duke in a storm of blades. For a heartbeat all that could be seen was a pile of armour and ivory, until branches grew out. A globe of wood was spreading, swallowing the Immortals as it did, and I could feel them struggling against the crushing pressure inside. It would not save him. My will buried like a blade in the minds of the imprisoned corpses, forcing Winter into them until their bodies were overfilled vessels. One after another they burst, ice digging into the wood and tearing it from the inside. It groaned and broke, then the Duke burst out from the top in a shower of shards. Archer’s arrow would have torn through his knee, if he hadn’t caught it. He raised a mocking eyebrow.

Then it blew.

Hissing in pain, his fingers shredded, he seized the floating apples again. I ignored that, plaques of ice forming under my feet as I ran across the sky to him. The flames exploded as I felt Archer tap the back of one of the surviving Immortals. Without even glancing in her direction, I sent the corpse aflight with her hanging on the back. We reached the Duke at the same time. The fae pulled the fire to him, but through ears not my own I heard Hierophant speak.

“Burning is transmutation set by boundary,” he said. “Boundaries are mutable.”

His will rang like a bell and the fire intensified, beginning to burn even itself until all that was left was a single flame that guttered out. Archer and I leapt together as the enemy’s face darkened and he allowed himself to fall, the burnt out husks that were the trees below us collapsing into a hunks of burning wood that gathered to him in a protective shield. I grabbed Archer by the arm and tossed her at it, leaping down from a platform to follow. Her blades dug into the shield to no avail, and so did my sword. Frost spread from where I’d struck, putting out the flames but little else. A hand lightly touched the globe, Thief’s scorched face grim as she leaning against Adjutant.

Steal,” she coldly said, and the shield disappeared.

Beneath it the Duke of Green Orchard’s eyes were wide. Seven wooden pillars formed around the fae, followed by four runes linked by pale light. The same binding Hierophant had used against the Princess of High Noon. The duke’s body grew rigid and Archer’s blades dug through his abdomen on both sides, straight into his lungs. I did not bother to speak. My blade ran straight through his neck, spider webs of ice spreading from the wound as life winked out of him. I panted, slowly, and felt the remaining Immortals collapse one after another. Nothing but corpses, now.

“Hierophant,” I said. “Destroy the corpse.”

He did not quibble. Hazy power devoured the remains, leaving nothing behind, and slowly I returned to myself. I’d taken four hundred men into battle. Sixty still lived, most of them wounded. All that remained of the roundabout was a smoking, broken wreck.

“Nauk,” I croaked. “Where is Nauk?”

I strode through the ash and corpses, shouldering aside a legionary and glaring at the first officer I found. She paled, shivering.

“Where is your legate, lieutenant?” I seethed.

“Ma’am,” she stammered, “he’s…”

I saw the few remaining mages attending to the wounded as best they could, yellow light covering their palms. I could see Nauk among them. He was not moving, his breath faint. The left side of his face had been made a burnt eyeless husk, and the arm on the other side ended at the shoulder. They were not healing him. Fury spiked, the pavestones under me cracking.

You,” I said, hoisting the closest mage by the chest. “Why aren’t you healing him?”

He only babbled uselessly, so I dropped him.

“There’s nothing more they can do, Catherine,” Masego said, passing me by as he knelt by the legate’s side.

“Then craft me a fucking miracle, Hierophant,” I hissed.

He frowned, then drew runes over Nauk. The frown deepened.

“I can keep him alive,” he said. “Anything more is beyond me. Parts of his mind were shredded by the fire.”

“Do it,” I rasped. “Who? Who can heal him?”

Pinpricks of light formed above Nauk, sinking into the body as Masego murmured. The orc’s breath grew steadier, but nothing more.

“Father,” he said. “Possibly Diabolist. Or…”

He hesitated.

“Tell me,” I said through clenched teeth.

“It was fae fire that did this,” he said. “Fae sorcery could likely heal it.”

I clenched my fingers into a fist.

“Catherine,” Adjutant said.

I hadn’t even noticed him approaching. Thief was further away, leaning on Archer. Neither of them met my gaze.

“Dawn is coming,” he said. “We cannot linger.”

I forced myself to grow calm.

“Can you do anything more?” I asked Hierophant.

He shook his head.

“They’d already stopped the bleeding from the stump,” he said. “All I did was restore the organs.”

“Then we go,” I said, turning to the silhouette of the castle ahead. “Let’s end this.”

Chapter 43: Cliff

“Of course not, did you see the height of that drop? That is the last we’ve seen of the Shining Prince, I assure you.”
– Dread Empress Sinistra IV, the Erroneous

Historically speaking, villains leading assaults against a numerically inferior force situated atop a hill did not lead to the kind of outcome I would prefer. That was a problem. On the other hand, if I didn’t lead an assault against those hills Summer would still have a decent chunk of its army left when the Queen arrived. That would be a much bigger problem. On the other hand, if I ended up with most my armies dead by the time we got a royal visit I would be fucked regardless. The Queen wouldn’t negotiate with a host on its last gasps, even if hers was wrecked. It would also give a lot of power to my ‘allies’ in Arcadia I’d rather they didn’t have, given that they were literally incapable of not being treacherous. Kind of like High Lords, really, only they were less smug about it.

“This is a dilemma,” I noted, squinting ahead.

The Immortals had come out to play. Pouring out of the castle on shining wings, they’d propped up the regulars holding the ring of walled properties around it and by the sound of the horns that were now blaring they were about to begin a counterattack. I’d pit the Fifteenth against regulars any day, especially if we had dug in positions, but the golden fae were another story. By my reckoning, they were physically on par with what I’d been able to do when I’d still been fresh to my Name. There were, unfortunately, ten thousand of them. No, I corrected silently. Less than that. Both Masego and I must have taken out a chunk of their numbers in Arcadia and I could hardly believe they’d scythed through both Nauk’s men and fought of the Watch simultaneously without taking some losses of their own. Let’s be generous, I thought, and assume nine thousand are left. That felt a lot like saying it wasn’t as bad to have a sword tearing into your lung rather than entirely through.

“We can’t retreat,” Hakram said.

Brawling with another titled noble fae had not done wonders for Adjutant, it was plain to see. He had a nasty cut across his cheek that was going to scar even after healing magic had been poured into it and he had a black eye already turning dark green. The fact that the pauldron on his armour was loose hadn’t escaped my notice either. That likely meant his opponent had dislocated his shoulder so hard it had ripped out the steel bands. For all that, he was standing and steady. Couldn’t ask more of him. His words only sunk in a moment later. He wasn’t wrong, not exactly. If the Fifteenth gave ground now we were abandoning fortified positions in favour of a street fight with opponents that could fly. They were a lot better at skirmishing than we were, I had to admit. On the other hand, I’d put my hand to fire that after the first wave of regulars softening us up the second would be Immortals. Those would tear through walls like wet parchment.

“Masego,” I said. “Scry me Juniper.”

I’d gathered most of the Woe on a flat rooftop before we went on the offensive, in part to catch our breath and in part to try to find a weak point for us to break through. Masego had also taken the time to dig the arrows out of my back and heal the wounds, prompting the inevitable jokes about having been stuck with fae wood by Archer. It’d taken long to get everyone there, to my dismay. We must be past First Bell by now, and if the presence of so many fae hadn’t warped the passing of time too much that meant we had only about two hours until dawn. At this time of the year, two hours before Morning Bell was when the sun started peeking through. Hierophant no longer needed his trinkets to scry, I saw. He drew a circle in the air that shimmered like water and heartbeats later one of the mages attached to Juniper’s headquarters appeared on the other side. My general shouldered him aside before long, her face looking comically large in the circle.

“Catherine,” she said. “What went wrong?”

If the situation was slightly less dire I would have made something of that, but I didn’t have the time to spare. The fae were mobilizing.

“Immortals reinforced the outer ranks,” I said. “They’re preparing for a push, if I’m not mistaken.”

The request for advice went unsaid, but she heard it anyway. The orc grunted in displeasure at the news.

“Begin Operation Candlelight immediately,” she said. “And hit the walls before they sally. If we don’t keep up the pressure we lose Old Dormer.”

I grimaced. We both knew that would mean brutal casualties for the Fifteenth. I’d known this was not going to be a clean battle or an easy one, but sending so many of my men to die still left a bad taste in the mouth.

“What’s the situation on the other fronts?” I asked.

“Deoraithe are getting fucked to the east,” she bluntly said. “Fae drew them in and set the entire sector on fire. General Afolabi had scattered the host at our back, but they’re still harassing. There’ll be no reinforcements form the Twelfth or the Fourth.”

“Shit,” I said. “Kegan tried to send in the Watch, didn’t she?”

“Had to threaten putting her in chains to shut that down,” Juniper growled. “They’re already headed your way, not that she’s happy about it.”

The Duchess of Daoine had always been the largest liability in this. There’d been a risk she’d scrap the entire operational plan if she thought she was losing too many men. We’d made a deal for her to help me with the fae in exchange for a crossing and backing against Diabolist, but she’d always put the interests of the Deoraithe above everything else. I had a feeling Juniper’s threat had been a lot more colourful than just chains, and I was glad she’d lost her temper. If Kegan started acting out the delicate balancing act that was this battle could very well collapse on our heads.

“See you on the other side, Hellhound,” I said.

“Don’t die an idiot, Foundling,” she dismissed, and the scrying link died.

“She’s growing on me, I’ll admit,” Archer noted.

“You say that about everyone that insults me,” I sighed. “Hakram?”

“I’ll get this started,” the orc replied.

I let him leave without comments. It was Legate Hune that had the scrying connections to Robber and his cohort of miscreants, though the orders about resuming the offensive would have to be carried to Nauk as well.

“So, candlelight. Are we romancing the fae now? Bold move,” Archer mused.

“We’re going to burn them out,” I said. “Assaulting the castle was always going to be bloody as all Hells, so we planned to hem them in with goblinfire.”

“Doesn’t that burn uncontrollably?” Archer said.

“It can be delayed with ditches,” Masego noted.

“Ditches dug through pavestone?” the woman mocked.

“It does,” I broke in before that could degenerate further. “It’ll be a race for us to break through the front before we’re neck-deep in green death as well. To be honest I’d rather burn them out entirely, but Hierophant says we need to hold the beachhead to contain the Queen.”

“Summer has prepared a crossing point,” the mage said. “She’ll still be able to cross without it, if after a delay, but then we would not know where. That complicates warding a great deal.”

Archer cleared her throat.

“So, just to be sure, the plan is to set fire to a castle and then charge into it?” she said.

“That’s oversimplifying a lot,” I protested. “There are nuances.”

“Your general’s going to be pissed you disobeyed,” she grinned.

Yeah, that battle was already lost. Better get out with as much dignity as I could manage. I strode to the edge of the roof and sharpened my vision. Hakram had waste no time, I saw. The Fifteenth was already forming ranks for the assault and moments later green bloomed in the distance. Then again. To the left and the right of the castle. There would be another foyer behind it, I knew, though the ramparts hid it away from me.

“All right, we move,” I said. “We’ve got until dawn to kill us a duke.”

At this point I wasn’t holding a shield so much as an arrowcatch that occasionally got set on fire. I wiggled my fingers around the latest arrowhead, that had come a little too close to comfort to carving straight through my thumb. Goblin steel didn’t do much to block those when there was that much sorcery behind them.

“Hierophant, if I become a godsdamned porcupine because you’re being a perfectionist I will be cross,” I snarled.

Archer, standing behind Hakram and the tower shield he’d claimed for the assault, put an arrow in the eye of the enterprising fae who’d come so close to lowering my amount of fingers. She was a vision, it had to be said. Movements perfectly smooth and fluid, she let loose a shot with every breath and I had yet to glimpse her fail to make a kill. She was clearing out the walls wherever she aimed as swiftly as the fae filled the gaps, quicker on the draw than even Pickler’s repeating scoprions had been. Adjutant wasn’t doing nearly as well, a dozen arrows stuck in his shield and one gone through his boot. Which he’d had to stomp around to put out the flames that had immediately spread, something I would have enjoyed watching if I wasn’t busy standing around like Creation’s angriest practice dummy.

“This is complicated work,” Hierophant said.

“Gods Below, just burn our way through,” I yelled.

The Soninke needed to hurry the Hells up. Around us the Fifteenth was assaulting the walls with ladders, and dying in droves as they did. It wasn’t that the ramparts were difficult. They were garden walls, more or less. But the fae had gathered archers behind them and were shooting massed volleys down on my legionaries. Half the ladders had gone up in flames before touching the walls and the fae on them were fighting furiously to keep us from establishing a beachhead. And these are the fucking regulars, I thought. The Immortals withdrew deeper in. The broad avenue that led straight to the castle passed through a fortified gate that Summer had closed and would laugh in the face of a ram: it had a heavy steel portcullis in front of it, protected by thick arches of stone. We’d need sorcery to punch through that, but Masego was dithering like a bloody milkmaid.

“Ah,” Hierophant sighed. “Disappear.”

I raised my shield to catch another arrow that would have taken him in the throat, glancing over the side. A wave of darkness had engulfed the gate and the rampart bordering it, solidifying for a moment before it disappeared. It left behind absolutely nothing. No stone, no wood, no steel. It was as if nothing had ever existed there at all. Gods. Had he annihilated everything? No, I could feel something at the edge of my senses that was not unlike Arcadia. He’d shunted the entire gate off in another dimension.

“FIFTEENTH,” Nauk’s voice roared from behind me. “TIGHTEN RANKS, YOU UGLY GRASS-LICKERS. FORWARD!”

The answering shout was deafening, thousands yelling and steel brought up. Woven inside, though, I could hear the soft buzz of arrows that still fell like rain.

“Into the breach,” I shouted at the rest of the Woe, barely audible over the pandemonium.

Hakram moved to cover my left and Masego hunkered up behind us, runes of light blooming with but a gesture. Archer put one last arrow through a fae’s open mouth before joining up and together we advanced. Our way through the absent gate was uncontested, but in the walled avenue it led into ranks of fae were awaiting us. Black had once compared leading Named into battle to leading a chorus, and as we struck I finally understood why. We were, as a group, greater than the sum of our individual skills. The grooves were already there for us to settle into, as if they’d been carved before we even begun. Archer opened the song. She did not waste her arrows on the rank and file, instead surgically putting down any fae that looked like an officer. Even as we tread the pavestones, they dropped with every heartbeat. Hierophant added his voice to the melody, whispers in the mage-tongue weaving rings of darkness in the fae ranks that bloomed and tore through mail and flesh. The chaos was our cue. Adjutant and I dug into it with relish, a storm of steel and strength that shattered and broke the straw men standing in our way.

My blood sang with the song, the heat of it something not even Winter could deny me. With every stroke and every stride we painted death across the face of Summer, Archer’s long knives joining us in the steps without missing a beat. I could feel it without ever laying eyes on it, the swing of Adjutant’s axe I could duck under to overextend a screaming soldier and carve through his throat with a flick of the wrist. Hierophant’s sorcery flashed across the melee like coils of ruin, passing so close I could feel the caress of the power unleashed without it ever touching me. I could not tell the passing of time, every sight flowing into the other by what could have been an hour or a heartbeat. I felt myself grinning, teeth bared as Summer gave. Fae let themselves die on my blade merely to slow it, others striking in that instant of killing but what did I care? I was not one blade but many, my body just a vessel for my will. Dust swallowed the dead man whole, the edge of the axe dug into the chest of the thing that would have slain me even as I spun and and slit the throat of the fae to my side with inhuman precision. Not a drop of exertion wasted, as if slaughter could be measured and quantified.

The four of us stood surrounded by a field of corpses when I returned to myself, not a single living fae in sight. I was panting, though instead of exhaustion I felt invigorated. This, I thought, had been deeper a religious experience than anything I’d ever felt in any House of Light. The sensation ebbed and the absence of it was hollow. Sound returned, the fighting of legionaries behind us and the slow breathing of the Woe around me.

“Shit,” Archer croaked softly. “That was… Fuck.”

Hierophants’ eyes were bright, though his mind faraway. Adjutant looked oddly serene, shield resting on his shoulder as he leaned on the haft of his long axe.

“Yeah,” I muttered, and speaking at all felt like I was whistling in a graveyard.

I shook myself out of it before long, and assessed our situation. Making a unified push into the upper city had always been a fantasy, I knew. There were avenues up here, made broad for carriages, but aside from the path that led straight up to the castle the rest was a maze write by the whims of the powerful who’d once lived here. The Fifteenth had taken the outer walls as we’d been killing what I now grasped had been the reinforcements meant to drive my legionaries back. Now the knife fight began, my men having to spread through dozens of gardens and manors as Summer fought them for every inch.

“Castle’s where we need to be,” I said, pointing my sword at the faraway silhouette of the tall towers.

I could glimpse spreading green in the distance, a reminder that the fae were not the only enemy we had to beat. The goblinfire had made certain they would not be able to flank us, that they would be forced to fight us in a narrow corridor, but with every hour that corridor became narrower for us as well. Resistance would become harsher the deeper we went in. Archer wiped her longknives on the cloak of a decapitated soldier before sheathing them, running her tongue against her lips. My eyes could not help but linger on the sight as I wondered what kissing her would feel like, and peeling that leather off her. Shit, fighting didn’t usually get my blood up this way. It had just felt… intimate, more than killing ever should. I looked away before she could notice. Nauk came to the rescue, thank the Gods, leading up a cohort of legionaries with the Gallowborne at their head. The large orc whistled at the sight of the corpses strewn around us, Tribune Farrier coming to stand at his side.

“Not that looks like it was a proper fucking fight,” the legate said. “See that, you wretched layabouts? That’s the kind of work I expect from you.”

There were a few barks of laughter.

“Legate, Tribune,” I greeted, sheathing my sword as I took in the sight the two.

Nauk was grinning and splattered in blood. He’d been leading from the front again. Farrier’s mail was scorched on the side, but aside from that he was in good health.

“We’re making a push to the castle,” I said. “I take it this is our reinforcements?”

“Hune’s bastards are handling the flanks,” Nauk replied. “Scraped up my only intact cohort and brought your reds and gold along to spice the wine.”

“Your Grace,” John Farrier said, offering a nod that bordered on a bow.

“Catherine,” I sighed.

He’d become irritatingly formal since it had been made open knowledge I’d been named Vicequeen of Callow. It had taken me the better part of a year to wean him off that the first time, and I wasn’t looking forward to fighting that war again.

“Keep your eyes open, boys and girls,” I called out. “We’ve got their second line ahead and the Immortals behind that. You’re in for a rough night.”

“Hells, ain’t that every night in this outfit?” someone called out from the ranks.

“Wouldn’t be the Fifteenth if we didn’t get proper fucked before sunup,” someone else laughed.

Well, they weren’t wrong.

“Gallowborne take the lead,” I told Farrier. “If we run into the Duke, you run.”

“Ma’am,” the dark-haired man protested. “We’re-“

“Ants, to a thing that powerful,” I flatly said. “You have your orders.”

He nodded, though he didn’t seem pleased about it. Nauk was eyeing him approvingly. Loyalty didn’t really count for orcs unless you were willing to die for it.

“We done braiding our hair?” Archer drawled. “I’m getting bored.”

“There’s nothing wrong with braids,” Hierophant muttered, putting his own braids in order.

I wisely decided not to touch that and instead gestured for Nauk to call the march. It would have been much harder, I thought, without Archer. We were ambushed from rooftops twice on our way forwards, but between her bow and the line of sappers that was distressingly eager to wreck noble houses given half an excuse we weren’t given a serious challenge. That was when I started to get worried. We should have, by now, run into either a barricade or another heavy knot of fae. I let my stride lapse.

“Something’s wrong,” I said.

Hakram nodded.

“I am no tactician,” Masego said, “but it seems poor planning to allow your enemy to gain foothold on your walls.  We might have simply spent the strength of Summer, Catherine. They might no longer have nobles to field against us.”

I shook my head.

“Remember how many people there were, at the masquerade in Skade?” I said. “Summer should have at least that many.”

“Duke hasn’t come out, either,” Archer frowned. “He didn’t seem this shy when we tangled.”

I closed my eyes and considered the battle as if I were not part of it. The front in the plains was effectively over, by Juniper’s report. The fighting in the east had turned brutal, but given the numbers Duchess Kegan could field it was highly unlikely the fae there had turned the tide. Unless they had flown away, as they’d allegedly done earlier. No, they can’t do that quietly. Either one of us would have seen a few thousand glowing wings in the sky or Juniper would have scried Hune with a warning. The forces left in play, then were the remaining regulars in the upper city and the Immortals. And the Duke, followed by whatever nobles he’s got left. If I was a Duke of Summer, needing to keep a fortress at all costs and three of sides around it already on fire, what would I do? Immortals would be my sharpest knife, so I couldn’t waste them on attrition. So I’d put the regulars on the wall and send the nobles to bolster them.

No, he can’t do that. He already sent out three Counts and a handful of solid barons and we just tore through them in less than an hour. Sending nobles against the Woe would be trying to put out a bonfire with oil. Named couldn’t advance alone, though, or at least not do so and expect to hold any grounds they took. Which he must suspect we needed to, with how hard we’d been going after the castle. So what he’s aiming for is the soldiers. Then why not push harder to hold the walls? Why hadn’t we had a rougher fight going in? I mind mind, I watched the Fifteenth die in droves to enter the upper city and then take the fight to the maze of walled and sprawling domains, harassed by a much more mobile enemy every step of the way. But giving ground. Juniper had said, earlier, that the fae to the east had drawn in the Deoraithe before setting fire to the city. They’re doing the exact same thing here, I realized. Only they won’t burn their own fortifications, they need those to scatter the legionaries. Once they reel us in… In a line across the upper city, golden banners rose high in the sky.

In utter silence, the Immortals advanced.

Chapter 42: Plateau

“Ah, but every palace you destroy has to be rebuilt! You’ve single-handedly pulled the Empire out of a slump, hahaha. Once again sweet victory is mine.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful

The sappers strapped the demolition charges against the guildhall’s wall and scuttled away as fast as their feet could take them. The moment they’d gotten clear, two apple-sized balls of flame bloomed and struck at the munitions. Stone shattered, though few shards went in our direction – the goblins had long mastered the art of shaping the direction of the blasts. Two dozen regulars charged into the rubble before the dust and smoke cloud had settled, running into stiff fae resistance. This far into Old Dormer they’d started to hole up in the larger buildings, turning them into strongholds they used to sally out at the Fifteenth when our lines drove past them. My eyes sharpened and I made out the silhouettes in the smoke. Less than thirty, regulars one and all. The few set up on a balustrade were going to be costly to dislodge, but I couldn’t afford to stick my nose into every fight. I let the crossbowmen have at them as my legionaries rammed their shield wall into the enemy on the ground floor.

I’d left Hakram behind when we’d taken the walls, and hadn’t seen him in the better part of an hour. The fighting there had been brutal, especially with Masego’s ward gone, but Nauk’s vanguard had punched through and carved us a beachhead on top of the ramparts. It had been grim work after that, driving them back inch by inch until the enemy commander sounded a horn and they retreated into the inner city. The battle for Dormer was being fought on three theatres, now. Ranker and Afolabi held our backs, the Deoraithe infantry had resumed assaulting the fae dug in the east as soon as the siege engines had turned their fire there and now the Fifteenth was spilling into Old Dormer like a flood. The flood, unfortunately, had eventually run into dike. It would have been too much to hope for that the last stiff opposition we’d run into was the Immortals, holed up in their castle.

The most ancient part of Dormer was, I’d come to realize, built around a handful of low hills joining into a larger one. The baronial castle was atop that, overlooking the old city and the port, and just like Whitestone Quarter back in Laure the wealthy estates had clustered around the seat of power in the city. Weren’t a lot of high nobles this far south, but there’d been wealthy merchants and those who’d once been landed knights before that status was burned out of the social fabric of Callow. The Fifteenth had overrun most of the lower level of Old Dormer in swift order, save for a few strongholds that were being bloodily taken piecemeal, but it had stopped cold in face of fae lines on two fronts: the port and the lesser hills. The fucking nobles had built walls around their estate, because naturally it wasn’t enough to be rich you had to keep the rabble away from your statues and gardens too. Nauk had lost a full company trying the lowest hill, wiped out in a storm of flame faster than they could scream, before pulling back.

The port was crawling with fae, and I’d bet that was where the ten thousand who’d bailed from the second run at the engines had gone. Regulars alone the Fifteenth might have managed to drive into the river, but as it happened the rivers was swinging back. There was a Count in there who had water sorcery, and the prick had been cautious enough so far we hadn’t been able to reach him. When I’d gone to lead the charge he’d surrounded the entire port in a wall of water twenty feet high, and while I could have probably forced my way through that I was unwilling to exhaust myself on a second stringer. I’d linked back with the meat of the Fifteenth under Legate Hune and scried Masego, diverting him in that direction. It’d take a while for him to get there, though, so I’d gone with Hune’s boys to bring down the last few dug-in fae around the port. I watched in silence as the legionaries finished clearing the guildhall, and nodded in approval at the light casualties. Only five dead, and with the mage line close by the wounded would be back on their feet soon enough. Speaking of the devil, I thought. A thickly-built Soninke with lieutenant stripes on her shoulder and the light armour of our mage contingent was making her way to me. I turned without needing to be hailed, and discomfort flickered across her face.

“Ma’am,” she saluted. “Lord Hierophant had sent word he’s near the port, preparing a ritual to make a path through the water.”

I rolled my shoulder absent-mindedly.

“Then let’s give him a hand,” I mused. “Any word from Adjutant or Archer?”

“Last report has Lord Adjutant in pitched battle with a Summer baroness near the hills, ma’am,” the mage replied. “Neither the Archer nor the Thief have been in touch.”

It’d been over half a day now, I thought. Any longer and I was going to have to get concerned, though worrying for Archer was not unlike worrying for a forest fire at summer peak – it was usually wiser to worry about the fire than for it. As for Thief, well, of all the Named I’d come across she had the most splendid survival instinct. If Diabolist ended up breaking the world, Thief would be the last human alive to share it with rats and cockroaches.

“Tell Hune to back up Adjutant with whatever mages she can spare,” I frowned, and looked around.

Hard to tell my way around an unfamiliar city, though the massive water wall in the distance was a bit of a hint as to where I should be headed.

“Should I send word to Lord Hierophant you will be reinforcing him, ma’am?” the mage called out as I began to walk away.

“Let it be a surprise,” I said. “He loves those.”

“You know I despise surprises,” Masego said, glaring at me.

Impressive, considering he had no eyes. He was getting better at that. I clapped his shoulder, and even being careful nearly sent him tumbling to the ground.

“What happened to your spirit of adventure?” I replied.

“That’s a myth,” he said disdainfully, slapping away my hand. “Father’s dissected several heroes and never found any trace of it.”

Ah, Warlock. If I was the kind of girl to pray, I would that I never had to go digging through that man’s basement. I had a feeling whatever I’d find there would give the Tower a run for its money in the ‘horrors beyond understanding’ department.

“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “I know you don’t know what those are, but-“

I grinned at the deeply offended look on his face and barrelled on before he could interject.

“- I just don’t have the time to educate you tonight. Your ritual is ready?”

“Yes,” he glared.

“Go on, then,” I said, vaguely gesturing. “Do the thing.”

The water rampart loomed ahead of us, showing no sign of collapsing on its own. It bisected houses in some parts, and the legionaries had checked inside only to find out it had gone straight through stone and wood. I didn’t have the heart to ask if any of my men had been in the way when it was made. Runes bloomed around Masego, and it was difficult for me to keep their image in my mind. High Arcana, then. A curtain of transparent power made a tunnel through the water across the length of the street as Hierophant’s face creased in concentration. After a moment, he relaxed. Good enough for me.

“It’s a figure of speech,” he said.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” I airily replied.

A full cohort was already forming ranks in front of the tunnel and without missing a beat I took the lead. The commanding officer was a hawk-faced Taghreb, and like most my staff would have been too young for his rank in most other legions.

“Captain Fazil, Your Grace,” he introduced himself when I glanced at him.

“Keep your ranks tight and your shields up, Captain,” I said. “This is going to be a ride.”

His lips quirked in that subtle Praesi way denoting polite amusement.

“Well,” he said. “Can’t be worse than Marchford.”

“I hear that,” I muttered.

I’d say this for the fae, while they were a pain to deal with at least they weren’t godsdamned demons. I was really hoping Diabolist was out of those to call on, but stood ready for bitter disappointment.

“Shouldn’t we be behind the shields?” Masego said after catching up to me. “That is what they’re meant for.”

“Chin up, Lord Hierophant,” I said. “Make it look like we know what we’re doing.”

“I thought we knew what we were doing,” he said.

He glanced at me worriedly and I whistled loudly.

“Catherine, tell me we know what we’re doing.

“FORWARD!” I screamed, unsheathing my sword.

“I could be in my tower,” he complained. “My nice, comfortable tower. Fadila never takes me to battles, you know. She makes me tea. She keeps very tidy notes and lets me sleep in.”

I didn’t bother to suppressed my snort of laughter at that, letting out ring loud and clear. That must have left an impression on the fae awaiting us on the other side of the tunnel, because their line wavered at the sound. I felt the first volley before they let it loose, the blooming of power just out of sight. With trails of flame the arrows filled the tunnel with burning light that reflected eerily in the waters around us. Slow, compared to how they’d felt when I first encountered them. It was easy enough to pass under the curve when I picked up the pace, though most hadn’t been aimed at me. The sound of sorcerous shields pinging told me Masego had seen to that, at least for now. I ripped into the frontline like storm, silhouettes flickering one after another as I immersed myself into the reflexes of my Name. One, two, three and what was the point in keeping count? They came and died. The flowed around me, after a while. Made room, and that was when I realized they’d known ranks would do nothing to stop me. I could see the long warehouses of the port in the distance, and atop them fae stood in knots. Spears of Summer flame were being formed, like the ones they used to pound at the siege engines.

If I actually got hit by one of those I wouldn’t die, I didn’t think, but I wouldn’t be getting back up on me feet for a while either. They’d meant, evidently, to draw me in and keep me pinned. Arrows from all sides flew, and I had to conceded that if it’d been just me they might well have caught me with this. I wasn’t, though. Alone. Sorcery slithered around me, shining blue, and began to spin blindingly fast. The arrows struck it first, and were drawn into the spin flawlessly. The spears struck one after another and flame filled my field of vision for long moments – but, in the end, was drawn in as well. The spinning ended abruptly, and a forest of arrows clattered against stone as Masego made his way to my side.

“Reckless,” he chided.

“Kept them busy,” I replied.

I’d bought my legionaries their beachhead, and wasn’t going to hold their hand through the rest of this. The Count had been the problem here, and with Masego backing me we should be putting him down in short order.

“By the river,” Hierophant said. “I believe he’ll be releasing the wall soon.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good thing,” I grimaced.

“The sheer weight of water will crush anything near it,” he noted. “A shame we’ll be otherwise occupied; it would have been interesting to witness. It is quite rare for water sorcery of this scale to be used save by the Ashurans, you know.”

That would have been interesting enough a line to warrant encouragement if we were drinking in a tent, but we had other priorities at the moment. I took the lead and we advanced towards the river. It was different fighting with Masego than it was with Hakram. Hierophant had been with me since my first real campaign, true, but we’d only really began fighting together near the end of the Liesse Rebellion. It was in the months after that we’d developed the technique, and it hadn’t been truly tested yet. Tonight would see to that. The theory was simple: Masego was a fortress, and I was the garrison. Panes of solid light forming a rough sphere around us hung in the air as we moved forward, and I darted out of their protection to clear the way whenever we met opposition. Arrow fire petered out after the first two volleys did nothing to dent our defences and the fae came in close quarters instead. That was my part to deal with. My shield caught the edge of a swinging blade and forced it down, my sword point taking the fae in the throat before I lightly stepped back. Another filled the void before the movement was even finished.

“Clear,” I called out.

The panes flickered out of existence and as I stepped aside Masego finished murmuring an incantation, a burst of howling wind tearing into the mass of fae before us. Doubtful it’d killed anyone, but it did buy me room. I sallied out the moment the burst ended, blade high and carving through the fae that tried to plug the gap. Moments later I saw movement in the distance from the corner of my eye and calmly retreated just as Hierophant restored the panes of light, safely behind the walls as the arrows burned harmlessly. It was a slow way forward, but for foes who’d never faced it before it was very, very hard to deal with. The two of us ploughed through fae lines even as my legion fought in the distance, clearing two streets in a row with only minimal exertion. The dark-skinned mage didn’t even look winded. I could feel the bundle of power that was the Summer Count near the water, but frowned when I saw there was a row of back-to-back warehouses in the way. We’d have to go the long way around if we kept to the streets, and that was more time than I cared to give the enemy. Cutting through a fae’s wrist and half-stepping back behind the panes, I spun the blade slowly to limber my wrist. There’d been a lot if killing tonight.

“Warehouse to the left,” I said. “Burn.”

Masego looked at the wooden walls and raised an eyebrow, red runes lighting up around him. The smell of sulphur spread thick in the air and even as the panes broke, a stream of black flame emerging from his hand and turning into a snake with gaping jaws open wide. The construct tore through the warehouse wall, the crates piled behind it, what looked like dried fish hanging form the ceiling and then the second wall before disappearing in a flash. The fae had been ready for us, this time, and arrows flew the moment the shields were gone. I stood vigil, blade scything through the first few in perfect arc and a twist of will flash-freezing the few that hadn’t take care of. The panes were back before a fuller volley could be sent and we resumed our advance, going through the still-smouldering shortcut. The moment we saw the inside was empty of fae our pace went brisk, though Masego stilled before we left the warehouse and finally reached the docks.

“Now,” he said. “Cat, he’s not releasing it. He’s repurposing it. Hid the intent from me by delaying ‘til the last moment.”

“He’s going to smash us with it,” I sighed.

I broke at a run immediately and the overweight mage followed as best he could. The Count stood at the edge of the docks, alone, and I thanked any Gods listening for the fae pathological need for melodramatic scenes. If he’d had an honour guard of Summer soldiers this would have been a lot harder. Turning too-large deep blue eyes on us, the fae smiled gently.

“Welcome, Duchess of Moonless Nights,” he said. “Allow me to-“

By the time he’d gotten to the word ‘Nights’, I had the sharper out of my satchel and lit. The toss was a beautiful arc that would have the explosion happen right in his monologuing face. A tendril of water snaked out of the river and caught it before, though, the munitions never detonating.

“This is-“ the Count began.

“I’ll handle the water,” Hierophant interrupted, tone interested as he looked behind us.

“Would you-“

“I’ve got him,” I replied, and charged with my shield angled up.

The first tendril of water was caught on it and ricocheted upwards. I smoothly spun around the second and leapt over the third, landing in a roll at his feet. His hand whipped forward and there was a gargantuan groan but the distinct lack of downing that followed meant Hierophant was good as his word. My shield caught him on the shoulder and I felt bones break. He didn’t even try to fight the impact, allowing it to throw him into the river. He landed on his feet, never actually going through.

“And now-“

I followed, letting Winter flare under my feet. It froze the water on touch just long enough for me to be able to make it from one stride to the next. I was on his chosen grounds now, though, and it showed. Instead of the handful of tendrils I got a full three dozen, coming in a flawless circle. Couldn’t afford to slow down or I’d sink, so I’d have to time this just right. I picked the highest tendril and froze a smooth shard of it, then leapt atop the attack meant to kill me. Immediately the others adjusted course towards me, but while his sorcery was versatile it was too slow. I wasn’t surprised Princess Sulia hadn’t taken him to the Battle of Four Armies and One, the Winter fae would have eaten this one alive. My sword came down as I fell atop him, cutting straight through his shoulder and the pale blue mail that covered it. The Count screamed and before I could response I was thrown away by a waterspout, the back of my plate dragging along the length of the docks and ripping through the planks. Fuck, that hurt. I’d cut off the arrows the Count of Green Yew had shot in there, but there were still bits inside and they’d wiggled horridly into my back muscles. I got back on my feet slowly, keeping a sliver of attention on the presence in the back of my head. The fae was in the air, now, red and gold wings keeping him aloft.

Finally,” he hissed. “This is absurd. You have no respect for the proper courtesies, child. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“One day,” I replied, “you guys are going to stop falling for this one.”

Zombie the Third ploughed into him from the back, screeching loudly as his wings flapped and the hooves smashed into shoulder blades. My mounts must have weighed twice as much as he did, and fae or not that took a toll. The Count plunged into the docks headfirst with a broken back, and much to my amusement got stuck between the planks I’d already ripped. I didn’t waste time on anything fancy and just punched through the back of his neck with the tip of my sword.

“Godsdamnit, Catherine,” Masego moaned.

Oh right, he still had all that water to deal with. I guided Zombie into landing at my side and dragged the Count’s broken body off of the docks just in case leaving it close to river would heal it somehow. You never knew with fae. Hierophant’s arms were held up and shaking as he dealt with what looked like a small lake of levitating water. That was a lot bigger than I’d thought it would be. I, uh, left him to that. It looked under control. He eventually managed to make an escapement that slowly emptied the water back into the Wasaliti, though he was panting by the end of it. I patted Zombie’s back.

“Who’s a good abomination to the laws of men and decency,” I praised it. “You are.”

It preened, blue eyes glittering.

“Are you indulging yourself?” Hierophant said, sounding like he was rolling his eyes.

No there was an image, but I didn’t linger on it because I stood frozen.

“I, uh, didn’t make him do that,” I admitted quietly.

“Her,” Masego corrected.

“How do you – never mind, I don’t want to know,” I muttered. “They don’t usually do that.”

“Your necromancy has grown different than Uncle Amadeus’,” the blind mage mused. “That has interesting implications.”

“This,” I decided, “feels like an issue for Tomorrow Catherine to deal with. She’ll bitch about it, no doubt, but she hasn’t had to kill her way through a fucking army of murderous fairies so screw her and her whining mouth.”

“Usually when villains started referring to themselves like this, it is before they go deeply and irrevocably mad,” Masego informed me. “It is a well-documented phenomenon.”

I could always count on this one for reassurances, couldn’t I? I was picking my particular shade of scathing sarcasm when movement above stilled my tongue. To call what was happening there flying would have been somewhat generous, I decided. It was, if anything, falling at a slightly forward angle. I imagined the fae’s ability to flap its wings was somewhat affected by the fact that Archer had sunk two knives in its back and was trying to guide it with them. By their angle, they’d come from the castle. That was good. The way the fae died in mid-flight was slightly less so. Archer’s lips moved in what was no doubt a vicious curse and she jumped after retrieving her knives, spreading her arms wide.

“She’s aiming for us, I think,” Masego said, frowning.

“Going to hit that warehouse instead,” I noted. “Her ride died too early.”

We began to stroll towards the likely end of her trajectory when Hierophant suddenly smacked a fist into a palm.

“I could ease her way down, like I did with you,” he offered.

He had, huh. I gauged Archer’s fall. Nowhere as bad as mine would have been, though she’d bruise for sure. And if I remembered correctly, after catching me the wench had dropped me.

“Nah,” I smiled. “I’m sure she has it under control.”

Twenty heartbeats later Archer crashed through a thatched roof in an explosion of straw and wood. Masego and I casually walked into the warehouse and found her lying sprawled on broken crates full of salmon. She moaned.

“You didn’t catch me,” she accused.

“My hands were full,” I said.

“You could have sent your horse,” she bit out.

“It’s a sensitive soul,” I defended. “Didn’t want to risk hurting it.”

“Ugh,” she groaned. “You two are the worst.”

I looked around and found no sight of her expected shadow.

“Where’s Thief?” I asked.

“Last I saw her she was telling me I was a horrid idiot who didn’t understand the meaning of stealth and that I deserved to die,” Archer mused. “She was smiling when she said it, though. I think she’s warming up to me.”

I coughed to hide my laugh.

“I’m sure she is,” I lied. “How much did you get done?”

“Right, report,” Archer breathed, vaguely flapping a wrist at me instead of rising. “So, we stole a bunch of banners and planted the goblinfire but then we ran into these guys. So Thief was all like ‘Archer, you peerless beauty whose approval I secretly crave-“

“Sounds just like her,” I said flatly.

“- we should run’. But then this guy was all like ‘Yeah, you better run’. So, you know, I shot him in the eye. And I’m going to be honest with you here, Catherine, they didn’t take well to that. At all.”

“You don’t say,” I murmured.

So that was why Black never took my reports unless he had a bottle of wine at hand.

“So anyways this other guy comes in and he’s all ‘I am a Duke, the Queen is going to kill you all’, you know the usual stuff. So I tried to stab him but he threw me through a window and then set fire to the stables I landed in. Now,” Archer firmly stated, “I could have taken him.”

“Of course,” I agreed, without the faintest hint of irony.

“But I know how worried you get and I’m a good friend, so I came back instead. Grabbed some fae, stabbed it to get its attention and now here I am.”

She flapped her hand again.

“Report over,” she cheerfully told me.

I ripped a salmon from its hook and threw at her head, ignoring the loud protests about respect due to those wounded in the line of duty.

“Masego,” I said. “Please heal this idiot, then scry Hune’s staff. Adjutant is to drop whatever he’s doing and wait for us at the frontlines. It’s time to end this.”

The fae, I learned when he got in touch with Hune, apparently thought the same: the Immortals had come out.

It went downhill from there.

Chapter 41: Turning Point

“Better behind a Tyrant than before them.”
– Praesi saying

The right to lead the vanguard, as always, belonged to Nauk.

The orc legate was not as clever as Juniper or careful as Hune, but when the time came to hammer in a door there was a reason he was the man we sent for. More than any other orc I knew, Nauk had no give in him. He was stubborn and aggressive and his men loved him – even the humans, which was no given for a greenskin commander. In Arcadia he’d lost three fourths of his jesha to Summer regulars and the Immortals, and his men had stood their ground without flinching. How many hosts in all of Calernia would have done that, in the face of those kind of casualties? The Battle of Four Armies and One had effectively ended his command and we’d had to repurpose another jesha for him to lead, but he’d taken the reins swiftly. It helped that half the two thousand he now led had been under his nominal authority before I’d taken him north to Laure. Still, if it had been another officer I would have been wary of making them the tip of the spear when their forces were still unblooded and fresh to his command. Not with Nauk, though. What Summer did not kill today would become my vanguard in the wars to come.

My sword hissed against the sheath as it was bared, Hakram hefting his axe at my side. It would be the two of us, in the beginning, without the Gallowborne. The kind of fights I’d be seeking were not ones you took mortals into, however well-trained. Behind us the legionaries of he Fifteenth advanced in tight ranks, shields hefted. Heavies in the front with sappers behind them, about to find out if the tactics Juniper had crafted to deal with fae were effective or not. Our engines had demolished us a clear path to the walls and split the Summer regulars in two, but it would have been madness to assault the ramparts without a solid beachhead. That meant getting in the thick of it, for good or ill. The enemy was not slow in giving answer. Darkness had fallen, but for a heartbeat it felt as if day had come again: across the city flames bloomed and arrows rose into the sky. I was familiar with that trick by now, the fire-driven arrows that detonated upon impact. Watching them tear through the Gallowborne had made sure I would never forget.

Masego’s third and last ward activated with a sound like a massive siphon. The arrows flew unabated, but the flames were whisked out of existence. Fire suppression ward. It would cripple our mages as well, prevent them from using fireballs, but Summer lost far more to this than we did. That Hierophant had triggered this one meant the legions at our back had lost their best defence, and all I could do was pray they’d thinned the fae enough they’d be able to hold without it. The dice were thrown, now, and there was no use giving it any further thought. Juniper would handle the rest. Arrows clattered against shields behind us, the testudo formation drilled into the legionaries sparing them from the worst of it. I heard Nauk scream for his men to pick up the pace and left him to it. Hakram and I had other duties before us: we were, it could be said, going hunting.

“Where to?” the orc gravelled.

I’d closed my eyes, letting Winter flow through my veins, and opened them only when I found an answer.

“West,” I said. “Close to the river. Baron or unusually strong lord.”

“It’ll be good to shake the rust off before we take on the real threats,” he drily said.

We left the road and took a corner around what smelled like an abandoned tannery. Wasn’t surprised it was this far out. Most Callowan cities had laws forcing trades that produced fumes that dire to remain on the outskirts, no matter how useful. The streets out here were little more than dirt paths between wooden shacks, most not even broad enough for the two of us to pass through together. Though our entry had not gone opposed, Summer did not disappoint: by the time we reached the first broader street, we ran into our first ambush of the night. The only warning was arrows whistling, betraying the location of silhouettes standing over thatched roofs with bows in hand. I stepped to the side without missing a beat and Hakram had been moving before I’d even noticed. Archers on top, but there would be more. A dozen emerged from abandoned houses at our front and back, swords in hands, as the archers smoothly nocked their second volley.

“See Adjutant, they do love us,” I mused. “There’s a party and everything.”

“Don’t play with your food,” the orc chided.

We split without needing to warn each other. Fighting with Hakram was like having a third arm, had been ever since he came into his Name. The archers were not amateurs: they aimed where we’d be, not where we were, and even adjusted for swiftness above that of mortals. Not well enough, though. I was quicker than I’d been before Masego had tinkered with my heart, and Adjutant had reflexes that were above even my own. He used his Name more efficiently than me, I’d come to suspect. Hakram barrelled into the fae swordsman, axe splitting open a skull before the arrows even struck ground. As for me, I glanced at a sidewall and made the wager it would survive my weight. A leap saw my foot land on the side of it, then another had me landing in the midst of the archers. They reacted smoothly, swords bared in the blink of an eye, but there were only six. My shield swung out to crush the skull of the one closest to me, and it might as well have been an eggshell. I turned a blade aside and carved open the fae’s throat, spinning to turn the swing into another. They barely had time to raise their swords before three were dead.

The ease of it scared me. They had been difficult to deal with, once. Now I broke one’s wrist with my shield, pierce into the second one’s eye with the tip of my blade and the third made to retreat. A flick of the wrist and a blade of ice and shadow took her in the back of the neck, snuffed out instantly. The last fae did not even have time to curse before my shield smacked into his face, breaking the chin and crushing the windpipe. Magic made flesh or not, there was no walking that off. Hakram was a whirlwind spinning amidst struggling fae, taking a life with every stroke, but I glimpsed arrowheads through a window at his back. They had, it seemed, kept back archers. I let out a long breath and pushed a sliver of power into my legs. The leap sent me sailing into the air, tearing through the wall and landing on my knees in a shower of shards. Three inside, I saw. One lost his wrist to the first flick and I spun. Second was thrown out the window with his skull crushed by a shield bash. Didn’t even need to kill the third. I backed out of the house and let it collapse onto him. That’d been a load-bearing wall, apparently.

“Retreat,” a musical voice called out.

I was watching the man it belonged to before he even spoke. The fae around Hakram scattered, though not before his axe harmstrung one’s leg and his boot came down to crush her skull. The fae was the one I’d felt earlier, a tall pale man with grey hair that looked made of granite.

“How many titled nobles do you have in the city?” I asked.

“Enough to break you,” the fae smiled. “Her Majesty will take your head personally.”

Shame I didn’t have the time to hack off that one’s limbs and bring him back to Masego so the mage could dig out the information.

“Well,” I said. “One less after this.”

I didn’t actually see the arrow coming, and that was telling. It was utterly silent, and all I managed was to have it strike my shoulder instead of my back. It punched straight through plate and I grimaced. He hadn’t come alone, and no regular had done this. I broke off the shaft and ice spread over the wound, sealing it shut.

“I think,” Hakram said calmly, “that there will be no need to seek them out.”

On the outskirts of Dormer, five fae stood around us. One was on the rooftops, green-haired and from the looks of the longbow in his hand he was responsible for that friendly tap I’d just received. Two more in the streets, dark-skinned and wafting smoke. They looked liked twins, one a man and the other a woman, each armed with a short spear and a blade. The last one looked like a Yan Tei, honey-skinned and utterly hairless. She had a short sword in one hand, and a thin wheel of pale steel in the other.

“All right, so,” I hummed. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”

I pointed my blade at the twins.

“Baron and baroness,” I said, then moved to the longbow man. “Count.”

I mulled over the rest a heartbeat.

“Smug weaponless man’s a jumped-up lord, and the one who brought a wheel to a swordfight’s a countess, but one ahead of the curve,” I finished.

“I am not jumped-up,” the grey-haired fae hissed.

“That’s exactly what you’d say if you were, though,” I gently told him.

The smoking twins grinned, and Gods was I glad Archer wasn’t there to make something of that. The one who’d looked at what made wagons move and thought ‘I bet you could make a weapon out of that’ offered a half bow.

“I am the Countess of Wrathful Skies,” she said. “Second-in-command to this host. Should you surrender presently, I can guarantee you will not be tortured prior to execution.”

“Ah, the Praesi gambit,” I mused. “Always a crowd-pleaser. I’m going to have to reply with the famous words of the Duke of Violent Squalls.”

Silence reigned for a moment.

“You have not said anything,” the man with the bow said.

You had to love that about the fae, if nothing else: you could always count on them to feed you the line.

“Neither did he,” I said. “Because I killed his smug ass.”

Now that the usual diplomatic niceties were done with, I imagined negotiations were about to break down. Best get ahead of that.

“Think you can handle the twins?” I called out to Hakram.

“Long enough you’ll kill your way through the rest, at least,” the orc agreed.

And then they tried to shoot him, because they were just terrible diplomats. I got a better look at the arrow, this time. Entirely wood, and wreathed in green light. Likely had to do with the Count’s full title, whatever that was. In the heartbeat where Adjutant moved so the shot would skim his pauldron instead of tear through his shoulder, the rest of them moved. Grey hair called on something that had the ground around him denting and every stone in sight turning to dust. The Countess’ wheel began spinning and lightning gathered along the sides of it, growing larger by the instant. The smoke wafting from the twins thickened into a cloud that enveloped them entirely. I cracked my neck. This, I thought, was going to be a memorable ride. Best get it over with quickly, or we’d be too battered to handle whatever Duke actually ran this show.

I went for the archer first. If he was actually a Count it was dubious he’d be a pushover in close quarters, but neither Hakram not I could afford to be watching for arrows at all times while dealing with the rest. Moving faster than anyone should be able to within the bounds of Creation, the green-haired fae had another arrow flying before I’d even made it to another roof. For a moment I thought he’d missed, but he’d never aimed for me at all: the house I was going to use as a stepping stone fell apart in a cloud of dust and I cursed. All right, so they weren’t idiots. Which was a real shame. Idiocy was a trait I prized in people trying to kill me. Wrathful Skies attacked before I could change my course, landing at my side wreathed in lightning. When she struck, it was with two blades. One made of steel, going for my throat. The other, lagging slightly behind, was made of lightning. I made he mistake of parrying the short sword and in that instant the lightning connected with our weapons, coursing down my blade and sending down horrid pain and convulsions across my body.

First time I’d ever got hit by a lightning spell. I would not recommend the experience to anyone. I managed to duck the arrow the other fucker shot at my back, but when it struck ground instead green sorcery glimmered and it grew pins like a porcupine.

“Shit,” I eloquently grunted, and threw myself to the ground.

A storm of arrows burst out and flew in every direction. A least five hit my plate, and if I hadn’t gone down would have gone straight through the aketon into my flesh. I rolled to avoid the lightning wheel coming down on my head but that thing was trickier than it looked: when it touched the street a wave of lightning spread from the point of contact and had me convulsing again. This, I thought, was not going according to plan. Because all of this clearly just wasn’t enough, stone powder coalesced above me and formed a massive obelisk that… dropped. Lightning first, I thought, gritting my teeth. I reached for Winter and frosted shadows formed an envelope around my body. They got burned through as swiftly as I willed them into being, but that bought me just long enough to scrabble out of the way of the obelisk. It turned to powder immediately, but I had other problems on my hands. I dropped my shield, since in the face of lightning it was just a liability, and grabbed the Countess of Wrathful Skies’ wrist when she tried to swing down at me. Steadying my footing, I rotated and threw her right into the trajectory of the arrow that was meant for the back of my neck.

A green shimmer and it was gone, because the bastards weren’t going to make it that easy on me. Stone powder formed around me in the shape of a bubble. Containment, huh. At least they were taking me seriously. I released the shadow envelope and backed away, but the powder followed. Their first mistake of the night. He should have readjusted instead. The Countess had landed on her feet and her wheel rose up, gathering ever more lightning. Another arrow flew silently towards my chest, but I wasn’t falling for that one twice. My wrist flicked with unearthly precision and I slapped it aside. When the smaller arrows burst out, it was too far for any of them to hit me. He did not retire that trick. Might be he can’t when it’s already been loosed. The stone had caught up to me, by now, and Wrathful Skies had a streak of lightning floating above the wheel that looked like it was going to sting. My opening.

Take,” I said.

The Countess’ eyes went wide as I claimed the sorcery above her head, for just one moment wresting it from her control and tossing it straight at the fae lord trying to contain me. Struck him right in the chest with dark satisfaction. I was moving before my most dangerous opponent could react, and the lack of arrow to duck had me surprised until I heard Hakram’s hoarse grunt. Shit. I didn’t have time to spare a look as I avoided stepping stones entirely and leapt straight at the archer. I got a boot in the helmet for it but caught it with my hand even as I began to fall, drawing on Name strength so even from that awkward position I managed to snatch him off his foot and swing him down behind me. Right into the face of the the Countess of Wrathful Skies, as she prepared to run me through. The two of them were smashed to the ground in a pile of sprawling limbs. I thinned my lips, well aware I couldn’t afford to use Fall on these two even if it would be a near-guaranteed kill. I needed it for the Duke. Shot a spear of ice at them out of spite and immediately moved towards the lord.

He was back on his feet, in a narrow alley between two houses. The powder formed a wall in front of me but I sped up and went through before it solidified. Hastily he dragged it back to him and shot spears of stone at me, the first at feet height and then rising. Panting, I threw myself into a slide and narrowly went under the bottom stone. I landed in a crouch in front of him and even as his skin turned to stone my sword came up. Straight though the belly. He gasped and I rose as I withdrew the blade, cutting straight through his neck in the next swing. The head rolled on the floor, and there went the first of my opponents. The walls to my side groaned, and I cursed when I saw the arrows groaning from them. Fuck, could he pull that on all wood? Furious at the waste, I dug into Winter and froze both walls before he could get the arrows flying. Another twist of will had the walls collapsing, and even as the houses followed I turned to face the other two remaining. The Countess kept her lightning wheel close, and not powerful enough to be worth stealing. She’d learned. Not that I’d Take it lightly, anyway.

I could get another two uses out of that aspect tonight at most, and every one I used on these was one less I could pull against the Duke.

“Yew,” the Countess said. “Travel. She’ll target you otherwise.”

“I would never,” I lied.

The possible count hesitated, but then lay hand on a wooden wall and disappeared. Well, fuck. That was going to be a pain to deal with. There was smoke in the distance where Hakram was fighting the others, and I could hear rhythmic singing in a dialect of Kharsum I was unfamiliar with. If he was well enough to sing, I decided, I could afford to be careful dealing with these two.

“You are Duchess of Moonless Nights in truth,” the Countess said. “Reports of your power were greatly understated.”

“I’m just putting my whole heart into it, this time,” I sharply grinned. “So, have you distracted me long enough for him to line up his shot yet?”

“Why,” the fae drily replied. “I would never.”

What I’d meant to do was duck the arrow then kick it into the Countess’ face to make me an opening. It started going wrong on the first part: while I avoided the arrow by a hair’s breadth, it was already growing pins. I had to roll through a window into a house to avoid the storm, and Gods Below was that a mistake. Everything began growing spikes a heartbeat later.

“I have made better tactical decisions in the past,” I conceded out loud.

I managed to tear through the door in time to avoid the worst of it, but worst was a relative term when even the bloody door was shooting arrows at me. About six of them stung their way straight into my back, through plate and aketon both. A lot more worryingly, Wrathful Skies was waiting for me in the street with the wheel raised. There wasn’t so much sorcery there it would be worth stealing, and that moment of reluctance cost me. A dozen tendrils of lightning struck out and the better part of them managed to hit me. The really dangerous part, I managed to realize even as my body screamed, was that the spell was continuous. The other fae slid out of a wall to my side and nocked an arrow but let it gather green light. Ominous.

Take,” I gasped.

The Countess immediately cut the lightning, but it wasn’t her I was going for. For an instant I felt the green light and knew whom it belonged to: the Count of Green Yew. His title spoke to growth and wood, to- pain spiked my thoughts, scattering them. There was no fire in this, but it was still born of Summer. Anathema to what I had become. It had been enough anyway. The power I’d taken disappeared from the bow and I shoved it into the same door that had wounded me. Tendrils of wood rose and caught the lightning, freeing me. A heartbeat later the arrow struck where I would have still been, but I was already moving. The Countess’ sword rose to parry my own, but it was only steel at this very moment and in a contest of strength, I trumped her outright. Her blade driven back she began to step back but I caught her throat with my bare hand. Lightning flickered as she called it back from her wheel into her body but it was much, much too late. My fingers clenched and a sickening crack resounded as I snapped her spine and pulped her throat. Before her body had dropped to the floor I was turning to the Count of Green Yew, but he was already gone.

Retreat? It would be hellish to go through this city with the fae popping out of every house to take a shot at us. No, can’t be. Summer doesn’t retreat, not like that. He could, however, have decided to kill Adjutant so the twins would be freed to act against me. Shit. Aside from the fact that if Hakram died I was going to murder every last one of them, from the first fucking regular to the Queen herself, fighting blind like the smoke-using fae must impose was one of the ways I most hated fighting. I’d grown too use to relying on my Name-sharpened senses. There was no time to dawdle. The smoke cloud was easy enough to find, and I legged it towards there. I kept a eye on my surroundings as I did, wary of an ambush, but I had forgotten one fact about fae: they flew. Three arrows landed in a triangle around me, and the pins grew a heartbeat later. Heart sinking, I froze them. I’d already used more than I’d wanted to, and I still had one other major draw to deal with before I got to the Duke. At this rate I’d be dead on my feet by the time I got there. On the other hand, at this rate by the end of this all that would be left of the Summer Court was going to be three guys and a graveyard.

Small comfort. The Count of Green Yew was flying half a mile above me and already nocking an arrow. Making my way up there was going to be tricky, against an opponent that specialized in range combat. The first house I chose to use as a stepping stone was collapsed before I even touched it and I had to resist the urge to flip him the finger. Discarding the fanciness, I created a circle of shadow in the air and leapt atop it. I was going to stab the bastard even if I had to claw my godsdamned way up. The second circle I made, even as I dismissed the first, was torn through by an arrow. I fell back to street level and took a deep breath. That fucker. I was going to have to make multiple platforms every time, wasn’t I? Drawing the power, I blinked at what I saw above. He has to see that, I thought. But the Count shot another arrow at me instead, and even even as I danced away I was laughing.

The lower edge of the trebuchet stone caught him at rib height.

I got a glimpse of red splatter and white bones before it got out of sight, and faintly made note to find out what goblin had made that shot so I could order them promoted. Hells, if I could accomplish that as vicequeen without burning too many bridges I was going to have them made count. They’d sure as Hells earned it. It was harder to find Hakram than I’d thought, after, because the smoke had dissipated. I found Adjutant panting and bloodied in a marketplace, his armour black as coal and his face bearing nasty wounds that were going to scar. His dead hand gleamed strangely, at least the parts of it I could see. Most of it had been shoved through the baroness’ eye cavity. Gods. My second didn’t fuck around, when he got serious. He ripped it out in a shower of gore and crouched, almost too exhausted for words.

“Had to use Rampage,” he croaked. “Kept Stand. Think they were weak for barons.”

I offered him my arm to grasp and helped him to his feet.

“Dipped a little too deep as well,” I said. “Hopefully the others were more conservative, otherwise even if we take out the Duke we’ll be wiped when the Queen comes through.”

“Plan’s not to fight her,” he said.

“And those always go so well,” I drily replied. “You up for a run? We need to catch up to Nauk.”

“I’ll live,” he said. “No inner bleeding. Is it possible to bruise your kidney?”

“I think mine is permanently blue,” I said amusedly.

We made our way back to the main path, and only had to stop twice for him to retch. There wasn’t a lot of blood in it and Hakram was an orc, so I wasn’t overly worried. His people were built resilient, and Named took that to an extreme. That part of the city had already been secured, though the vanguard was long gone. It was the Deoraithe that held it now and they made way for the both of us. Emptying his stomach had put Hakram back on his feet, more or less, so he was spared the indignity of my holding him up all the way to the front. Nauk found us before we fond him. The fae, I saw, had razed a ring of houses around the city wall. There must have been a moat as well, once, because I saw a pit around even the gates that had been burned clean. It was empty now. The Fifteenth had dug in their positions around the edge of the wall, trading sporadic crossbow fire with the fae above. No sign of the Immortals on the walls, which was relief and worry both.

“Cat,” Nauk grinned. “Good hunting?”

“We cleaned house in the west,” I said. “Can’t answer for the rest.”

“Whatever you did there, it collapsed their flank,” the legate said. “We hold most of that side now. To the east we’ve got ten thousand holding a neighbourhood near the walls. Deoraithe failed to break through, but they’re contained.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“And the rest?”

That left ten thousand missing.

“They tried another run at the trebuchets,” Nauk said. “We lost another two and half our ballistas, but they were beaten back. Saw them fly behind the walls.”

I grimaced. That was a lot more fae in the inner city than I’d wanted to deal with.

“The Immortals?” I prompted.

“We think they hold the castle,” the orc said. “To make sure the Queen has foothold when she crosses.”

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“Doesn’t matter,” I finally said. “We break through now. What time is it?”

“Midnight Bell was an hour ago,” Nauk replied.

Then we needed to hurry. Behind the walls would be an even uglier fight.

“Scry Masego,” I ordered. “He’s to dismiss his last ward and join us for the push.”

The legate bared his fangs.

“Wade in their blood, Catherine Foundling,” he said.

“Gods, I hope not,” I replied. “Hakram spends long enough cleaning my armour as is.”

The grin I got was worth the words, considering the casualties his advance must have caught. When I found Adjutant again the Gallowborne were already with him. Tribune Farrier saluted, and promptly handed me a shield. It had, I noted, my very fresh heraldry painted on it.

“Figured you might break your first one,” the dark-haired man said.

I thanked him decided not to tell him it was actually fine and that it had just entirely slipped my mind to double back to pick it up.  I rolled my shoulder and took a look at the walls. Those might take hours to breach, if we let the trebuchets do the heavy lifting. Even more now that we’d lost over half of them.

“Cluster tight around me,” I ordered Farrier. “Shields up. They’ll be aiming at us all the way.”

“They always do,” the Callowan smiled. “And yet, here we are.”

I smiled back, though the affection was short-lived. There were a lot of new faces among the men, and I knew exactly why. I took the lead, Hakram at my side and the Gallowborne at my back. The fae on the walls only fired a few arrows at us, though that’d change if they saw we didn’t retreat. I closed my eyes and let Winter loose. I took a step, and ice rose. One step after another, a stairway of ice rose in front and then above the gates of Dormer. It was, I knew, wide enough for three hundred men to go up. It was burning through my reserves, cooling my blood. It was also how my armies were going to take the city.

I advanced, and the Fifteenth advanced with me.

Chapter 40: Rising Action

“When approaching a siege, a general must draw distinction between tactical and strategic importance. The costs of a victory on the tactical theatre of a campaign may yield defeat on the strategic one.”
– “Considerations on Warfare”, by Marshal Grem One-Eye

Most towns and cities in the south were lightly fortified, but Dormer was an exception. While it was true that since House Alban had united Callow there’d been relatively little war in the south, the barony had roots than ran much further back than that. In the days when the Kingdom of Liesse had held sway over the south, clashing with a stubbornly independent Marchford and the encroaching Kingdom of Laure, Dormer had been made vassal to the rulers of the south by force of arms. That submission had never sat quite right with the rulers of the city, and they’d rebelled against the kings of Liesse several times. It all went back to the Wasaliti river and the island it flowed down to: Mercantis. The barons of Dormer had old ties to the City of Bought and Sold, and grown wealthy as the middlemen between it and the rest of Callow. Wealthy enough to afford tall walls, and later a fortress to overlook their demesne. There’d been little need to keep improving these after the unification of Callow, though, and revenue had been hurt by the tariffs set from Laure that had the coin going into the pockets of House Alban instead.

The city had grown beyond the ancient walls, with most of it now outside the grey stone and the fortress behind it. It was not a particularly large city, truth be told. At its peak after the Conquest there’d been perhaps fifteen thousand souls living there. Now there were more than twice that number of fae holding it, and no trace of the Callowans that should be there. A disquieting thing, that, but also a relief of sorts. If some of my countrymen had remained inside, I would have hesitated to use some of the more brutal tactics in my arsenal. Considering the opposition, that might have been costly. I’d beaten Summer once before, in Arcadia, but I’d done so relying on tricks and a story. I wouldn’t have the benefit of either here, and that meant having to crush them the old fashioned away. I did, however, have some advantages on my side. The first was that this was a siege.

I’d grown up thinking of the Legions of Terror as a field army, but that was a somewhat false perception. It was true the Legions were most remembered for the Fields of Streges, when they’d near wiped out the armies of the kingdom, but most the battles in the Conquest had been sieges. The Blessed Isle, Summerholm and Laure. The campaign against Daoine in the north had not been so clear-cut, but it had involved taking the Wall. To understand the Legions as an institution, I’d come to realize, I had to keep in mind what Black had crafted them for: conquering Callow. Warfare in the kingdom had been deeply influenced by the nature of constant invasions, most of them Praesi. The cities of the west and the north were hard fortresses meant to resist Praes until House Fairfax could send an army to turn back the Legions, and so Callowans had grown adept at making fortresses. Our mages had learned protective magics and wards, passed down sorceries meant to banish devils and disrupt great rituals. Our armies fielded more heavy cavalry than any other on Calernia and around the professional core that had been the Royal Guard, massed volunteers had formed the bread and butter of Callow’s hosts. All of it evolved to beat the large mage and villain-led hordes that used to be the staple of Praesi armies.

When the Conquest had begun, what House Fairfax faced was an entirely different beast. Orcs no longer used as meatshields for better-trained humans but armed in good steel and taught to stand in ranks. Goblins, once little more than expendables sent to die against walls or let loose on the countryside, instead turned into crossbowmen and sappers. Mages no longer standing at the back to unleash rituals but massed in the ranks to replace a few dangerous tricks by continuous deployable firepower. Summerholm, the famous Gate of the East, had fallen not to devils and flying fortresses but trebuchets and ballistas backed by full encirclement. The Legions of Terror had been built to take some of the most heavily-fortified cities on the face of the continent, and while the tight formations they used on the field were less effective in city streets, those narrow passages where were munitions and mage lines shone.

The second was that I was dealing with an enemy who knew little of this breed of warfare. The winner of the war between Summer and Winter was decided either behind closed doors or on a battlefield, not by borders and walls. The forces of the Count of Olden Oak had taught me a hard lesson when I’d taken the Gallowborne scouting in the grass, but when we’d assaulted his fortress his army had crumpled under the pressure. Summer was not meant to be on the defensive, and what I’d come to consider the greatest weakness of the fae was that they were not adaptable the way a mortal host would be. They would have learned from our clashes in Arcadia, of course. They weren’t that crippled by their nature. But when faced with an unknown, something unprecedented, they tended to revert back to pattern. That made them predictable, to an extent, and the handful of monstrous tacticians I had on my side could make a lot out of the enemy being predictable.

I knew better than to think I knew all the cards the other side had to play. Even putting aside the fact that the Queen of Summer was on her way and she’d be a whole mess of her own, I’d glimpsed powers in the dream that had followed my becoming Duchess of Moonless Nights that I’d yet to see them deploy. They were out of princes and princesses to lead them, but there was at least one Duke left and they were not entities to take lightly. Summer, by now, would be desperate to take back the Princess of High Noon. They wouldn’t be pulling any punches, and even though crossing into Creation would have weakened them this time I didn’t have Winter to use as fodder on my flank. It’d be my armies that took the brunt of the losses, and like the Summer Queen I couldn’t afford to take too many of those. Not when Diabolist was still on the loose, growing more dangerous by the day. On the other hand, I also couldn’t afford to be overly cautious. If the fae in Dormer weren’t in deep trouble by the time their Queen popped out, she wouldn’t even consider treating with me. Which I really, really needed her to do. Actually taking her out was beyond my capacity. The best Hierophant could do was delay, and when that failed it would swiftly begin going downhill for us.

It was Marshal Ranker that opened the dance.

After the first few fae patrols were repulsed by sheer numbers, Summer had retreated to the city. No sign of the Immortals yet, which we’d taken to mean they would be behind the walls. Thief and Archer were already gone to deal with that. Out in the streets and houses we’d could only see Summer regulars, and those were the first obstacle moving forward. Hard to gauge numbers on grounds like those, but there should be at least thirty thousand. Using the buildings as cover, they would turn Dormer into a butcher’s yard if we advanced. So we take away the cover. The trebuchets let loose and the ballistas with them, ripping through the centre of the outskirts. Houses collapsed, a handful of fae crushed, and the sappers began their work. The ballistas were faster by a fair margin, but it was the trebuchets that did the heavy lifting. Stone after stone, they began reducing the outer city to rubble.

“And now we see if they take the bait,” Hakram gravelled.

I hummed but did not reply. The Gallowborne had given the two of us wide berth, save for Tribune Farrier. He carried my banner, though he’d pass it when we entered the fray. Juniper had predicted that after we began smashing the outer city the fae would try to grab back the initiative by breaking our siege engines. For the average Legion of Terror, that would have been a problem. We were lighter on archers than most Calernian armies, since mage lines effectively served the same function. Wouldn’t be the case for us, though. We had something the Empire had never fielded before: the army of Daoine. Flatly inferior to legionaries when it came to heavy infantry, save for the Watch, but when it came to archers? They’d used longbows to defend the Wall for centuries, and fae were nothing new to them. It might be greenskins that had tried their borders most of the time, but Praesi had made attempts too. There wasn’t as much difference between winged devils and fae as the latter would like to think.

“And there they go,” I muttered.

Ten thousand wings lit up and the Fair Folk rose into the sky. The height of the flight would be the most pressing issue, here. It wasn’t like the Deoraithe could shoot halfway to the moon, while fae could just pour arrows downwards while staying out of range. That was our first trap. Hierophant wouldn’t be taking the field for most of this battle because I needed him to control the three wards he’d prepared, and I watched the soldiers of Summer as they flew straight into the first of those. They didn’t have time to ever fire a volley before a buzz so loud it was half a thunderclap filled the air. Their wings winked out for two heartbeats, then the buzz sounded again and they reappeared. Only a handful fell, making it to the ground before being filled with arrows. An oscillation ward, Masego had called it. He’d essentially made a massive rectangle in the sky where ever two heartbeats the flow of sorcery would be disrupted. I’d asked him if he could just shut them down, but apparently that would have been too much of a drain to maintain. Even with the new Name he still had limits.

What it accomplished was make it exceedingly hard for the fae to just hover over the engines and leisurely set them on fire. If they wanted to make a dent, they’d have to descend into arrow range. Our little surprise spread chaos in their ranks. Half kept trying and failed repeatedly while the rest went down out of the ward’s area and began to trade fire with the Deoraithe. They had the better of it, to my distaste. Kegan’s soldiers were spread out, tight ranks would have been a written invitation to be hit with the fire arrows, but a loose formation was far from the equivalent of flying in the godsdamned sky. As soon as the situation steadied below, the fae who’d been struggling with the ward joined the others and I watched as five knots formed led by fae nobles. By the feel of them, nothing higher than a baron.

“That,” I said, “is going to be trouble. Ritual?”

“Close enough,” Hakram grunted. “No more than twenty in each formation. We’ll hold.”

We’d better. The battle was going to get a lot harder if we lost those trebuchets. All five knots formed large spears of flame easily the size of ten men in a line, and after a heartbeat they shot down at our five trebuchets. My fingers clenched as the projectiles fell, crackling loudly until they hit thin air. The shape of blue domes covering our engines shone as the fae sorcery tried to tear through, and though they shivered in the end they held. Close. Much too close for comfort. The entirety of the Fourth’s mage contingent was feeding those shields and the fae had almost broken through anyway.

“If they keep pounding away at us with those I’m not sure we’ll hold,” I murmured.

“Hope Marshal Ranker read them correctly, then,” Hakram replied.

The old goblin, when going over the battle plan, had made one prediction: they will not be willing to get into a slugging match. Whoever led the host of Summer would be trying to minimize casualties at all costs, and that meant backing away from tactics that were effective if they got too expensive. The Deoraithe continued to trade arrows, losing two men for every fae they took, and I grimaced. We couldn’t afford to slug it out for too long either. Another volley of flame spears descended, and finally we have answer. The Fifteenth’s mages had gone through the College same as any other legion’s, with one major difference: Masego. Who was occasionally willing to throw my mage lines a bone in the form of a ritual, if he was in the right mood for it. In Marchford, when it had become clear that our numbers in legionaries had far outgrown the quantity of mages that traditional legion structure dictated we should have to match it, Juniper and I had diverged from standard doctrine. We’d consolidated them under Kilian and drilled them in use of rituals. Now we’d see if that was going to pay off.

Two massive javelins of lightning formed above our shields and struck across the sky. The fae scattered around them even as the Fourth’s mages desperately tried to keep the fae fire from reaching the siege engines. The javelins blew and streaks of lightning spread, killing scores of Summer soldiers but failing to disrupt any of the knots that forged the spears. And so now we begin our staring contest, you Summer fucks. There were only so many times the javelin ritual could be cast before my mages started burning out and dying. They knew that. I knew that. What they couldn’t know was how many times they could. If they were lucky, they might shatter our shields and torch our siege engines before their losses got too high. Or we could trade blows for an hour as they racked up casualties they couldn’t afford. Another wave of fire, lightning gave answer. My mages aimed at a knot this time, and killed a few. Useless, as it turned out. If the way a handful of fae from the ranks went back to fill the numbers was true indication, any of them could participate. It must be the barons that were the key.

Two more exchanges. On the last we lost a trebuchet, damn their stubborn hides. The moment the spear went through and touched wood the entire damn engine turned to ashes faster than I could blink. My mages weren’t fools, though. On the first round they struck the sides with javelins, herding fae towards the centre, and when they struck there with the second they did real damage. After one success, the fae dug in. A mistake. At least a dozen of Ranker’s mages must have died when the shield broke, but the rest went to reinforce the other shields. Another two exchanges where they failed to break through, and I smiled coldly. They’d blinked first. Of the ten thousand who’d come there must have been a little less than eight thousand left, a trade that had cost me at least two lines of mages and over two thousand Deoraithe archers. More of the Summer soldiers had died to the lightning ritual than the bows, by my count. We’d starkly underestimated their agility.

The fae did not retreat. They flew north, and landed on the plains behind us. That, we had seen coming. There were few things more dangerous to a besieging army than being hit in the back as they stormed the walls. I’d wanted to keep at least two out of the three wards Masego had judged he could handle to bolster our offensive, but Juniper had talked me out of it. There was no point in breaking through ahead if our back was collapsing, she’d said. Our second trap was in that very field where they’d landed. The Fourth under Ranker and the Twelfth under General Afolabi stirred and began to march against the fae at our back. They numbers less than eight thousand, considering Ranker had a chunk of her sappers manning our engines and all her mages shielding them. The Fourth would be significantly weakened because if it. But the cognomen of Afolabi’s Twelfth was Holdfast. Defence was their speciality, and that was what the two legions had been charged with. A holding action keeping the fae tied up. Masego abandoned the ward in the sky and activated the second one. Wind howled across the plains, surging forth from a line ahead of the two legions. Though it wouldn’t kill anything, by our reckoning it should make flight all but impossible and for the fae to keep in tight ranks exceedingly difficult.

There was a drawback, of course. It needed Hierophant’s full attention to keep active, and that meant it would cease when the Fifteenth made for the walls. That was the bet we’d made: by the time the engines had finished demolishing us a clear path to the walls, the fae at our back would be in bad enough a position that the two legions holding them would no longer need the help. Risky, Ranker had called it. If we were wrong we’d have to pull back some of the Deoraithe to bolster them, and there was chance if we did that we wouldn’t have the numbers to punch through into the inner part of Dormer. It was coin flip. We could not, in the end, predict everything. For one, none of us had thought they’d sent fae nobles out this early. When we closed on the walls had been my own call, and that mistake had come mighty close to fucking us over. Even now, I winced at the notion that General Afolabi was going to have to deal with five barons. The ward could only help so much. If I hadn’t sent out Archer already I would have told her to back him up, but the chalice had already been filled.

Even under bombardment by Summer, the engines had not paused. How long had passed, since the battle had begun? At least an hour, maybe more. The trebuchets had levelled us an avenue and cleaned fae out of it, but it would take hours longer yet. We should be done before nightfall, unless we were disrupted. Behind us the two Legions of Terror dug sixty feet behind the edge of the wards and let the fae come to them. It was bloody work. The Summer soldiers found that the empty space beyond the ward was a meat grinder of sharpers and crossbow bolts leading straight into tight ranks of heavies, and hundreds died before they stopped rushing into the killzone. After that, though, they wised up. Masego’s ward was a line that couldn’t cover the entire plain. It couldn’t even be a curve, since apparently for arcane reasons that would have been much harder to maintain. The fae began going around and the fight turned truly nasty. General Afolabi pulled back sappers and crossbowmen to back up the regulars he sent to block them, but that weakened his centre. Enough that two of the barons got a foothold.

Those were, to put it bluntly, beyond the ability of munitions to deal with. One of them lit up like a golden bonfire of gold and torched through a solid hundred heavies before being driven back by the Twelfth’s mages. The other one screwed with the ward, bending the wind across a dozen feet of the line until it turned around and blew into the lines of the legion. Fae began pouring through immediately and it all went to the Hells after that. Twice, as the hours passed, I almost went to reinforce them. Both times Hakram held me back. We couldn’t afford for me to start using my aspects yet. I would say this for Afolabi’s legionaries, they stood their fucking ground. When the fae formed a beachhead and it looked like the centre was going to collapse, four lines of heavies went into the thick of it with lightning bolts clearing them a path. There were a few sappers behind their shields, and though half the heavies got wiped in a single stroke of the sword of the baron twisting the wind the goblins threw a dozen demolition charges at him and blew half his head off. Of that near one hundred legionaries that went in, less than twenty made it back to their lines. They’d bought General Afolabi the room he needed, though. The moment the ward returned to full effectiveness, he plugged the gap and forced back the other baron with concentrated spellfire.

An hour before Evening Bell night began to fall, and by then the field was littered with dead. But Ranker had accomplished what she’d set out to do. A straight line to the northern gate of Dormer had been carved out of rubble, the fae still in the outer city split on both sides of it.

“Our turn, now,” I quietly told Hakram.

“Do or die,” he said.

I gestured at the Gallowborne, and the Fifteenth stirred to march. To war, to Dormer, to doom. Whether it’d be theirs or ours, I could not yet tell.