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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 16: Pirouette

“When the abyss stares back, wave. Offer refreshments. Being impolite to the abyss is never a good idea.”
-Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed

“Oh, come on,” I complained. “I know I don’t have a lot of room to argue about healing, but that knife was tickling the back of his skull. Even I wouldn’t walk that off so easily, and my body is basically lies and mirrors.”

There was some shuffling from the opposition, either because of the reminder I’d just killed one of their crew or because grievances at how fucking ridiculous their powers were weren’t what they’d been expecting. If they’d been waiting for despair, they were out of luck. Not that I was particularly pleased my work had been literally waved away by the Pilgrim, but that the heroes would be almost absurdly hard to put down wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Heavens had already thrown their second-raters at me and I’d chewed straight through them over winter. They were done fucking around.

“You could still surrender,” the Grey Pilgrim offered.

Instead I sighed and tapped the side of my helmet. The sliver of power was enough to activate the dormant rune.

“Spell formula stable,” Masego said. “No divine interference.”

“Confirmed resurrection,” I said. “Pilgrim’s come out to play.”

Thief had warned me that last-moment rescues were his specialty so it wasn’t coming out of the blue, though after actually landing that blow I’d expected the hero to actually stay down afterwards. At least the first part was going more or less according to plan. Smacking around the greenhorns some had forced one of the real monsters to intervene before I dug a little too deep and Winter took the helm. I almost felt like shivering at the idea of facing the Grey Pilgrim when in a state of mind where monologues felt like a good idea. Akua might have been right that playing it up for Creation added some hurt to the swings, but there was a reason I was wearing her as a cloak accessory instead of the other way around.

“Noted,” Hierophant replied. “First contingency beginning.”

“Skip straight to second,” I grunted. “I think we underestimated how much trouble the old man would be.”

Which was a Hells of a thing to say, considering we’d planned for him being in the same wheelhouse as Warlock. But if I was reading this right, swinging his miracle dick around wasn’t the Pilgrim’s game. He was more a metaphorical full hand on the scales than the kind of Named that tossed around burning mountains. And that’s only eight out of twelve accounted for, I thought. Saint and at least one mage are still waiting in the wings.

“Understood,” Hierophant said. “Sunrise Final is-”

Power flared, and his words cut out. I glanced at the Grey Pilgrim, whose staff was wreathed in light.

“Rude,” I said. “You could have let him finish. Regardless, I’m reconsidering my stance on single combat. Theoretically, if I agree, do I get to pick my opponent?”

I met the stare of the man I’d stabbed and winked on the same side my knife had gone through. He flinched.

“She is temporizing while her ally prepares his strike,” the Grey Pilgrim told the other heroes. “Prepare yourselves, children. After that blow is weathered is the moment to strike.”

Gods, but I hated fighting smart opponents. Banter would have kept William and his crew busy for a few minutes, at least. It didn’t matter, in the end, because I hadn’t spent the last year busying myself sorely with the affairs of rule. While they’d been assembling their armies and heroes, I’d been training the Woe. And the one amongst them I’d spent most time on was Masego, hammering in the basics of battle that he’d once ignored in favour of simply smashing everything in sight with sorcery. The first thing I’d taught him? A well-worn adage from Theodosius the Unconquered himself. Swiftness is the lifeblood of war. Before the heroes could further prepare, Hierophant struck. Dawn rose from a sun unknown to Creation, the terrible heart of Summer shining down on the cluster of heroes. Even from where I stood, the heat was overwhelming. Wind picked up even as the Named before me winked out of sight, swallowed by scorching light. The Princess of High Noon had been one of our most vicious enemies to deal with, but we had gained much from her defeat: even this pale imitation of her power made mockery of the kind of sorcery we usually called on.

Within the blaze, a star was born. Shining atop the Grey Pilgrim’s staff as he stood unruffled, his loose robes untouched by wind or heat.

“As there was first light, there will be last,” the old man said. “Under radiant star was the first of mankind born, and it will shine long after our time is past. Transient we, yet unbowed by the passing. I refuse your verdict, usher of mysteries.”

With a thunderous clap, the blaze was parted. A corridor opened, leading straight to me, and the heroes rushed down. I rolled my shoulder. Half the knockout punch was delivered, I was my responsibility to take care of the second half. The barefoot staff-wielder was first across, blindingly fast. Behind came the usual triumvirate: greatsword, war hammer, sword and board. Not the same as before, for the latter. Apparently coming that close to dying had shaken the man, because it was now another. The sorcery came down around me, too close to a ward for comfort. I grimaced. I’d have to suffer through, at least until the time to withdraw came. Stance wide, I raised my guard and waited for the first of the hunting hounds. She thrust high, towards my throat. Batted aside, but she was better with her weapon than I was with mine – a spin was all it took for her to be smashing down at my pauldron. I took it. The steel shattered like clay, but the impact wasn’t strong enough to screw with my own blow. It carved a wound across her cheek, narrowly missing the nose. I got in close to sucker punch her belly, but she parried the blow and I was forced to step back to avoid having my ribcage caved in. Light bloomed on her cheek, the healer’s work.

It healed nothing.

Masego had fought demons at Second Liesse. One of them had been a demon of Order, what Praesi called a Beast of Hierarchy. Their essence, as I understood it, was a perversion of laws. Hierophant had learned to mimic that, to a a very limited extent. Inside my killing grounds one law had been established: Light had no effect. The barefoot woman withdrew before I could exploit her surprise, damnably well-trained, and then I had to deal with the second wave. Greatsword – what was left of that weapon, anyway – went for the left side. Hammer for the right, the fresh sword and board keeping me boxed in. I almost smiled. They’d had a limited amount of training together and it was showing: that made it the second time they were trying that tactic on me. Last time I’d gone for one of the sides, and they weren’t idiots: they were expecting as much. Instead I barrelled forward. The hero’s shield bashed forward to keep me in place for the others to hit, but they’d learned the wrong lesson from the last time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t break their formation, just that I hadn’t chosen to. My armoured fist hit the shield and it dented, the man wielding it crying in pain as it broke his fingers behind it. It was a good opening to slice his throat, but the other two were at my back so there was no time. I ran into him, the two of us falling to the ground as weapons whistled behind me.

Instinct led me to throw myself to the side instead of wrestling on the ground. It saved my life. Summer’s dawn had not only been broken by the Pilgrim, it had been wielded: he shaped it into a beam and threw it at me. His aim was perfectly angled, enough that it didn’t touch sword and board when he stayed on the ground. Behind me, earth exploded in desiccated chunks. Time was running out: I couldn’t engage four heroes and the old man simultaneously, that’d just get me killed. I’d have to get aggressive then.

“They damaged the Light,” the barefoot woman said in heavily accented Lower Miezan. “Careful.”

It was the right move, telling her comrades healing mistakes was no longer an option. It was also the wrong one, because for a heartbeat they were surprised. I shot back towards the boy with the wrecked greatsword, ducking under a swing and catching the wrist. Hammer-wielder would have smacked me away, aiming for my hips, but a flex of the legs had me putting my feet on the boy’s chest while the hammer passed under me. For a heartbeat I was vulnerable, and that had the staff-wielder on my ass. Not quick enough, for once, I thought. My thighs tightened, and using the boy’s own chest as a counterweight I ripped his arm off. There was a spray of blood and an anguished scream as I fell into a roll, the staff smashing down where I’d been a heartbeat before. Left with a bleeding arm wielding the remains of a greatsword in my free hand, I threw it in the hammer-wielder’s face before he could aim another strike. He was horrified enough to take a hand off the hammer to push it aside, and that was a mistake. I landed the roll on my feet, angled my stance and smoothly rose. My blade thrust in an upwards diagonal into his throat. He opened his mouth, trying to gurgle out a word – aspect, probably – but I smacked the pommel and the sword went straight through his spine. It was an uglier death than a clean decapitation.

Enough,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

He pointed his staff at me and a star came to life. The beam hit a pane of force three heartbeats before it would have incinerated me, both of them exploding deafeningly. Gods bless Hierophant. Sword and board was getting back on his feet, greatsword boy still screaming about his missing arm – seriously, what a wimp, I lost limbs all the time and you didn’t hear me yelling about it – and staff-wielder was… back on me. Godsdamnit. I threw myself to the side, swiped at her feet and got treated to a kick in the face for it. While I was rocking back she flowed into a thrust at my throat. Ah, experience. She’d gone for that too often, I’d expected it this time. I caught the tip of the staff with my hand, feeling the steel give and the palm bones break, but I kept my grip on it while I slashed at her throat and she tried to withdraw for a parry. Blood spilled on the ground. Two down, though it was anybody’s guess for how long.

Sever.”

Masego’s miracle vanished. So did my sword, my hand up to the wrist and the armour over it. Fuck. I backpedalled hastily as the Saint entered the fray.

“Aspect already?” I said.

My hand formed again, though much slower than it should have. And it remained ice instead of looking like flesh. That was a problem.

“Your little mage’s trick was impressive,” the Saint of Swords said. “But time to wrap this up, if we want it over before sundown.”

The lack of sword was more a problem than the severed limb, ice or not. A flick of the wrist had a knife falling into my palm, but that was rather cold comfort against this particular monster.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ve been thinking on how to beat you anyway, Saint.”

The Grey Pilgrim, apparently uninterested in banter, sent another fucking star at me. Hierophant, bless his soul, split it in four and forced it to shoot in four different directions.

“Have you?” the old woman drawled. “This ought to be interesting.”

I could not help but notice none of the heroes I’d put down were getting the resurrection treatment. Was it just comprehensive healing at the last moment, then? Too little to go on to be sure.

“One swing,” I said. “If you can take that, I’m probably out of luck.”

The heroine laughed.

“Well,” she grinned. “Give it your best shot.”

Ice formed a sword blade out of my knife as I shifted my grip. Steadying my stance, I allowed the power of Winter to gather in me. Motes of blue emanated from my frame. To my surprise, the Saint actually bothered to get into a stance of her own. Huh, she was taking me seriously. That was kind of flattering.

“Welp,” I said, and run away.

I legged it as fast as I could, which was very considering my mantle. They really must have taken me for a complete idiot, if they’d thought I’d stick around to fight a crew of heroes and the two old beasts. I heard the air howl behind me as the heroine cussed me out in Chantant, leaping onto a platform of shade to get out of the way. I tapped the side of my helmet as I leapt back down, running as fast as I could towards the relative safety of the palisade.

“Masego,” I said. “I need you to-“

Dodge,” he screamed through the spell.

I threw myself to the side, and idly reflected that the smoking wound in the ground to my left could easily have been my corpse. Lovely.

“Mage lines on her,” I continued. “Artillery too. Gods, everything we can throw.”

The sharp tang of lightning filled the air as what must have been no less than thirty feet behind me exploded in a screaming storm. I did not look back.

“She just ran through that,” Hierophant said through the spell, sounding somewhat offended by the notion.

Engaging the heroes far away from the fortifications had seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was perhaps coming to realize it might have been a tactical mistake. The air howled again and I leapt onto an angled platform, immediately leaping onto another to remain above ground. Where there was now a hole. Shit. A handful of Pickler’s engines began firing, but I wasn’t holding my breath for scorpion bolts stopping that one. I heard the screaming wind of another strike coming my way and shaped a platform, but it was immediately hit by a beam of light. Fucking Pilgrim. I had to reach for Winter and slap down half a ton of ice behind me, not that it stopped the Saint for more than a heartbeat. I gave part of my attention to the little bundle in the back of my head that was Zombie, ordering her to take flight and guiding her towards me.

“I’m not hearing her anymore,” I said through the link.

“Put wards around her,” Masego replied stiffly. “Can’t talk, she’s cutting them as fast as-“

The spell cut out again. Fucking Pilgrim. My damnably short legs devoured the remaining yards as quickly as they could. Seriously, you’d think Winter would have the decency to give me another few inches when rebuilding my body from scratch. Fine. I’d cope. I should get there without – don’t you fucking dare blow it now, Foundling. Naturally, the Heavens rewarded my hubris by a neat little box of yellow opaque shields appearing around me. No rescue was incoming from my mage lines: the moment those had appeared, I’d felt sorcery bloom in the distance and shoot towards enemy lines. I was regretting the tactical decision of aiming my casters at the enemy’s, right about now. I opened the floodgates, let Winter course through my veins and smashed through the shield in front of me the exact samemoment the Saint of Swords scythed through the one at my back.

“Seriously, what does it take to put you down?” I called out.

More than you’ve got,” the old woman hissed.

I was on the move before I even began speaking, but not quite fast enough. I lost my left leg up to my knee before I could dodge, though by the time I came out of a roll it had formed again. Fuck, I was digging into Winter way more than I’d wanted to this early in the fight. We’d have to use our trick as soon as I got back, even if that made it less effective than it could be. I leapt up onto a platform, a beam of light hitting a pane of force that blew them both up again a heartbeat later. I decided then and there Masego was getting a raise. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering I wasn’t paying him. The Saint carved through the platform, and my other leg that still had armour on it, but I was already in motion and I landed on Zombie’s saddle. Awkwardly enough I almost fell, which would have been a very humiliating way to die, but my mount flew up and finally we made it out of the Saint’s range. For now, anyway. Already she was cutting the sky to run up that same cut.

“Masego,” I said, tapping the side of my helmet. “Get all our godsdamned mages to hit the target I’m marking.”

There was no reply, because the spell was cut – fucking Pilgrim – so I’d have to hope he heard me. Weaving glamour into a glaring red arrow pointing at the Saint even as she moved, I guided Zombie into a sharply angled descent towards the palisade. Darkness formed into an orb above the Saint, and a heartbeat later a smaller beam shot out of it to hit the location I was indicating. To my vocal disgust, she somehow parried the fucking darkness. Gods Below, what was it going to take? After scorpions reoriented to fire on her, the Saint finally withdrew. I knew better than to believe that would be for long. She’d be back with the first wave of crusaders, which shouldn’t be long. I’d been a little too busy fighting for my life to notice, but enemy archers had gotten close enough to the palisade to begin firing and the infantry wasn’t far behind them. Zombie landed at Masego’s side and I got off, slapping her rump as thanks for saving my own. She whinnied, which I definitely hadn’t told her to do, and smugly trotted away.

It was telling that, at this point in my life, even my undead horse was sassing me.

“Hey, Zeze,” I panted. “We having fun yet?”

“I’ve contained demons with the Ivory Globe,” he replied, panting as well. “Demons, Catherine. She just cut out a door and kicked it open.”

“Yeah, we’re not going to be fighting her head on any time soon,” I snorted. “Not unless we have a mountain range at hand to collapse, anyway.”

His glass eyes flicked down to my bare feet, the movement visible even through cloth.

“What happened to you boots?”

I gestured vaguely backwards.

“Oh, they’re somewhere back there,” I said. “Along with what used to be my legs.”

He snorted.

“One of those days, is it?” he said.

“Well, at least I don’t have to bluff an angel,” I mused. “So there’s that.”

We shared a smile.

“You ever see what happened to the heroes I killed?” I asked.

“They were not resurrected, last I saw,” Masego said. “I suspect what the Grey Pilgrim uses is merely a much more powerful version of priestly healing, not true resurrection. Which seems logical, as that is usually the province of purely healer Named.”

And the old man definitely wasn’t that. His little light show had carried quite the punch. I adjusted my cloak around my shoulders, which did little to hide the fact that I was barefoot in the middle of an active battlefield. The crusaders were bringing ladders to the fore, I saw. If there was ever a time it was now.

“Our turn,” I told Masego.

The blind mage smiled, and a whispered incantation had a water-filled bowl appearing in the palm of his hand. He’d not made it, of course. Materializing something even this small would likely kill him. It’d been brought out of a personal dimension, if I had to guess. Within the carved wooden bowl was dark water, the same that could be found within the pools of the Observatory.

“Let’s hope this works,” I said, glancing at the enemy army. “We’re in the shit otherwise.”

“The formula is-”he began.

I interrupted him by plunging my hand into the water. I went straight through, but did not reach the bottom of the bowl. My eyes fluttered closed as Masego whispered soothingly in the arcane tongue. Absolute positioning, he’d called this. I could feel my mind… expand. Beyond a perspective a mortal could bear, but I was hardly that anymore was I? One spike of painful clarity after another went through my forehead as I saw them whole. Calernia. Arcadia. The juxtaposition of them.

One end, Masego’s voice whispered into my ear.

I knew it well, that place. I’d fought there twice, once against the Duke of Violent Squalls and the second time against the Diabolist. The Fields of Wend. A depthless lake filled with moving glaciers, sprawling as far as my not-eyes could see.

And another, Masego reminded me.

I could see the battlefield before us, from above. The armoured multitudes advancing towards palisades, like toy soldiers on the ground. Devices of wood and metal firing bolts into men, the shining silhouettes advancing with the host. So many of them.

Align, Masego whispered.

And so I did. Gates, I called them, but that was the barest understanding of what they were. There were no words in any tongue I knew to express it, but instinct bridged the gap. In the sky above the army of crusaders, a circle a mile wide opened.

Through it poured a lake atop their heads.

Chapter 15: Bravura

“And so my reign ends as it began, with fewer allies than stab wounds.”
– Alleged last words of Dread Emperor Pernicious, the Imperiled

“Tell me about those fences,” I said.

Hierophant had gained back a few pounds, enough that his thinned frame looked full again. How he’d managed that on army rations I had no idea, but the mystery was not a fresh one: he’d gone through both the Rebellion and the Arcadian Campaign without losing weight. I’d been half-convinced that it was a self-perception anchored deep enough that his Name enforced it, until he’d wasted away in the Observatory. He’d still come a long way from the bespectacled boy I’d once known. These days he looked, well, dangerous. There might have been little muscle to his frame, but he stood tall – taller than me, but then who didn’t? – and the long trinket-woven braids going down his back leant him a certain panache. The black eye cloth covering his glass eyes matched the permanently dishevelled black robes that were the only thing he bothered to wear anymore, not that he’d even been prone to indulging in fashionable clothes. The power he now so casually wielded clung to him even when unused, half-felt wisps of sorcery never quite gone. Masego had been perhaps the most destructive of my companions even back when he’d been the Apprentice, but he’d rarely seemed anything but awkward and a little pedantic when he wasn’t casting. Now, though? He looked like the kind of sorcerer you didn’t walk away from fighting. It suited him.

“A lecture on the nature of priestly power is out of the question, I suppose,” the dark-skinned man sighed.

“Ask me again when an army isn’t marching towards us,” I said.

“That’s almost never,” he muttered under his breath. “Very well. Though weaker – diluted, according to some theories – than the Light we have seen heroes wield, the essential nature of priest miracles is the same. That is the stuff these fences were made of.”

“Can it kill soldiers?” I asked.

“No,” he shook his head. “As a reflection of oaths taken, the miracle should not be able to hurt anything living.”

Well, that was something. From the way the fences had cut straight through hooks and rope, I’d have to assume it could wreck armour and fortifications if they hit at the right angle. That was… problematic. We’d raised the palisades in the first place because we needed them as an equalizer for crusader numbers. If they could just cut them down at will, that measure was gone.

“Next time the priests try the fences, can you just hit them directly to interrupt?” I asked.

Reluctantly, the mage shook his head.

“Mass sorcery at great distance needs a scrying tangent to be aimed properly,” he said. “Unless it is fired blindly. Priests, as you well now, disrupt scrying.”

So, unless Malanza blundered by putting all her priests in our field of vision and clustered together smothering the fences in the crib wasn’t an option. This just kept getting better, didn’t it?

“Then we need to have an immediate answer ready for when they do appear,” I said flatly. “I’ll need you with me for the brawl, so the mage lines will have to handle it.”

I flicked a questioning glance at him at that, inviting him to pass judgement. I heard his left eye twist inside his skull towards me, but he did not reply. Right, subtle cues. Not his strength.

Can they handle it?” I asked.

“They can cast the Ripper without me,” Masego agreed, and elaborated when my eyebrow rose. “The red light constructs we used for the second exchange.”

“That’s…” I sighed. “I need a little more than that, Masego. Would wards work?”

“Against miracles, they are mostly useless,” Hierophant noted. “The spectrums are too different, there is little overlap. We would have a great deal more success targeting their mages.”

“Priests wouldn’t screw with that?” I frowned.

“Unlikely,” he said. “Remember the precision they formed those shields with, and at such distance. That cannot be obtained without scrying or other means of relayed direct sight. Having priests among them would make that impossible, implying the mages stand alone. I’ll add that whoever designed that strategy has a keen understanding of all forces involved, which is quite rare even among Praesi. Rather impressive.”

So either they had a very skilled wizard on the other side, or the Grey Pilgrim had contributed to Malanza’s battle plans. I hoped it was the latter, because the enemy had enough advantages already without having someone even remotely in Masego’s league to field.

“Order them to target the mages first,” I finally said. “The fences will be trouble enough on their own, we can’t afford for wizards to give them additional staying power. Inform Juniper’s staff I gave the order, too, I don’t want them in the dark.”

The blind man nodded, idly tracing a circle of silver light in the air with a fingertip and inserting a scrying spell within. I looked on in interest for a moment, since that was definitely a new trick. I’d been under the impression there needed to be a physical anchor for scrying, but apparently Hierophant had figured out a cheat. I left him to it, leaning my elbows against the top of the palisade. The two of us were on a wooden walkway, between two rising slopes where Pickler’s repeating scorpions would be pushed up when the enemy got close enough. We had thirty of those overall, a massive amount of siege weaponry even by Legion standards. It meant we were light on combat sappers, since those same soldiers had to attend the engines instead, but sharpers and charges weren’t going to win us this battle. Not against fifty thousand hero-led Procerans. And, speaking of the devils. The crusader host had lumbered forward, its three infantry waves advancing slowly as the cavalry wings retreated to cover their flanks. In front of the first wave, though, the same seven silhouettes I’d glimpsed earlier were pulling ahead. Heroes. Three sword and board, I noted. Men and woman. Another I recognized from a previous fight, the same priest who’d engaged me as backup for the Saint. No sign of Two Knives or the red-robed mage, but I knew better than to assume a vicious crippling had been enough to keep the heroine I’d mangled out of the fight.

Hopefully she’d already had all three of her aspects, because if she hadn’t she’d likely popped one out since designed to screw me over. Clearing out the heroes that had come into Callow over the winter had taught me that a hero having an undefined aspect just meant that the Heavens had the means to teach their hatchet men a trick to counter one of my own. They were rarely subtle about it, too, which was kind of insulting. It would have been polite to be less obvious in their attempts to stack the fight for their side. Of the last remaining three heroes, I recognized another. The man with the hammer I’d ignored when riding with the Hunt. The other two were unknowns: one muscly, barefooted woman with a staff that could mean she was either a sort of priest or fighter. And a boy that could not have been older than sixteen, with a greatsword propped over his shoulder that was nearly as tall as he was. And didn’t wear a helmet, because of course he fucking didn’t.

“It is done,” Masego said, coming to stand by my side again.

I nodded slowly.

“You remember our training?” I asked.

“Healers die first,” he recited dutifully. “Then practitioners, then I must constrain the enemy to ease your task or prevent outside intervention.”

“It doesn’t look like they have a mage with them, but that just means they’re holding the man back in reserve,” I said. “Watch for that. And if the Saint of Swords ever tries to close distance with you…”

“Flee,” he completed. “I must never let her be closer than ninety feet.”

“And that’s the conservative estimate,” I grunted. “She didn’t even use an aspect to smack me around, Masego. She starts getting serious, don’t think in victory terms. Escape and containment, while we gather massive enough a response to force her back.”

“You sound sceptical of our ability to kill her,” Hierophant noted, sounding surprise.

My fingers clenched.

“I am,” I admitted. “We’re good, Zeze. Better than good. But her and the Pilgrim? They have decades of experience and accumulated power on us, and their Gods aren’t shy about putting a finger to the scale. Don’t think of it as us tumbling Summer again, because against Summer we had levers and rules. We’re the green heroes taking a swing at your father and Black, in this story. We get cocky for even a moment and…”

I did not elaborate.

“Heads, pikes, the usual,” Masego said. “I shall endeavour prudence.”

We stayed in comfortable silence after that, watching the enemy advance.

“I think that I dislike them,” he finally said, after a long moment. “These crusaders.”

I snorted.

“Well, they are at war with us,” I said.

The mage shrugged.

“So were Summer and Akua Sahelian, yet I never could must much antipathy,” Masego said. “Even towards the Exiled Prince and his mercenaries. They were only creatures acting as their nature demanded, and that is a blameless thing.”

“Is it really?” I murmured. “Just because something comes naturally to you doesn’t make it right.”

“A very Callowan view,” Hierophant said. “Your people seek to overlay Creation with a notion of objective morality, which always struck me as rather absurd. If the teachings of any of the Gods were fully correct, Creation would not exist at all. It is, after all, a debate.”

“The Gods can say whatever they like,” I muttered. “The truest thing Black ever said to me was that, in the end, only we are responsible for our choices. Taking marching orders from Above or Below is just abdicating the rights your own life. The Book of All Things has this lovely little verse about that, you know. Choice. But is it really that if the only two answers are already picked out for you?”

“Free will,” Masego smiled. “You always did obsess over that. I’m not certain such a thing can truly exist, Catherine, not in a world that was created.”

“You’re the one who wants to open up Creation to see how it works,” I pointed out. “When you were in a fugue, after becoming Hierophant, you said something I still remember. The godhead is a trick of perspective.”

“I believe it still,” he admitted. “Now more than ever, as I have seen what became of you. How Winter’s mantle alienated you from mortal existence. To think as a God, I suspect, is to be a God.”

“And you’ll try to get there,” I said. “Seems meaningless, if it’s not your choice.”

“Perhaps I was simply meant to attempt it,” Masego mused. “Because it is my nature to do so.”

“Does it really matter?” I asked. “Whether or not that was writ in you from the start. All we can do is act.”

“Perhaps not,” he murmured. “And so I find myself disliking these crusaders.”

“They killed a lot of my men,” I said quietly, fingers forming a fist. “And we’re only just getting started.”

“Death is death,” Masego dismissed. “But the way you carry yourself now, as if they put stones on your shoulder? This I hold against them.”

I bumped my hip against his side affectionately, then leant against his shoulder. He allowed it without comment, which was as close as he’d ever come to openly returning the affection. I’d never quite get him, would I? How in the same sentence he could display both kindness and utter apathy.

“It’s going to be a long war,” I whispered.

“And we will win it,” Hierophant said with bedrock certainty.

“And what has you so sure of that?”

He laughed quietly.

“Perhaps it is simply my nature,” he said. “Go now, Catherine. Go and follow your own.”

I moved away. Closing my eyes, I breathed in and out. Seven heroes, huh? Time to see if we could thin that herd a bit.

Opening my eyes, I unsheathed my sword and leapt down.

When fighting a group heroic Named, Black had once told me, two manners of adversaries could be found. The first was a proper heroic band. Should that be the case, coordination and weaving of skill should be expected. Against a band, either dispose of the healer first or place an instantly lethal blow against the leader figure. That would allow me to either inflict attrition or break coherence. The second kind of adversary was a mere grouping of heroes. No leader, no teamwork beyond the obvious, limited coordination. Rarer, my teacher had assessed. Mostly seen in large scale continental wars or when an overwhelmingly powerful villain emerges, like Triumphant or the Dead King. I was neither the most dreadful of empresses nor the ancient abomination that lurked within Keter, but here I was anyway. Fighting seven heroes as the host of Procer advanced behind them. They had been ordered to be be prudent, I grasped. Three advanced towards me: one sword and board, the war hammer and the greatsword. Behind them stood the barefoot staff-wielder, and further back the last two with shields were flanking the healer. This isn’t about power, I thought. Power is the crutch of Named. Clarity and skill will win ever time.

“I don’t suppose,” I said, “that we’ll have a round of introductions?”

The hammer-wielder chuckled.

“What worth are those to the dead?” he replied.

“That,” I said, “will make for a very ironic tombstone.”

I let them strike first. The pair with the large weapons went for the flanks as the shield-bearer slowed to box me in. Eyes on him, I let my senses bloom. No Winter, just the inherent abilities that came with my body being a fucking construct. The mantle would remain inert as long as possible, since I was pretty sure the real reason the Saint and the Pilgrim had yet to show was that they were trying to bait out a Winter trance so I wouldn’t think of retreat when they did arrive. The hammer went for my legs, and not even a heartbeat later the greatsword whistled towards my torso. Board arcs both, that they could readjust if I went forward. I did not. The thing with large weapons was that, once you’d committed to a blow, there was a heartbeat where it was very difficult to move. Where the muscles were busy dragging that large chunk of steel around. I moved towards the greatsword, adjusting to the arc and ducking under at the last moment. The boy wielding it grunted, shifted his footing and swung backward at the height of my hips. Without missing a beat I slid under, letting a hammer blow pass through the air where I’d been, and in a crouch passed behind the hero as my blade whipped out. His greaves did not cover the back of his leg. I rose smoothly from the slide as he was forced to kneel down, his tendons cleanly cut. Light bloomed inside the wound.

There was a heartbeat where I could have thrust the tip of my sword through the unprotected back of his neck, but I knew better. The sword and board man was already rushing me, shield angled up as he swung his blade. I did not parry, instead throwing myself on the shield and rolling over it, landing behind him. It threw his footing, and when the hammer-wielder tried to whack me I smoothly kicked the back of the the shield-wielder’s knee and pushed his back.  The hammer struck him in the shoulder, shattering steel like it was chalk. A curse, a scream, but I had more important matters to deal with. The first reserve was about to cut into the dance. The barefoot woman was stalking towards me, centre of mass supernaturally steady as she did. Ugh. Not a caster or a monk, then, a brawler. Wood or not, if that staff hit me I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it. Light bloomed, and the shield-wielder’s broken shoulder snapped back into place. Without looking, I could feel all the moving parts. Hammer man was rushing my back, weapon already hoisted. Greatsword boy was going around to my left, warier now that he’d had a taste. And the one with the staff was smiling serenely as she advanced. I spat to the side.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s have another go.”

I waited until sorcery bloomed in the distance to move. A whirlwind of flame erupted around the healer and his bodyguards, though before my view was blocked I saw light flare on the shield of one of the heroes. No kill there, but it should keep them busy for a bit. Masego was only getting started anyway. Hammer-wielder struck first. I knew the angle of it without looking and half-stepped out of the arc, but the man laughed.

Broaden,” he said.

The war hammer tripled in size, and there was no avoiding all of that. My shoulder was clipped and it fucked with my footing, keeping me in place just long enough for the greatsword boy to strike.

Pierce,” a woman’s voice spoke from behind me.

Power howled. Ah, they were trying to bury me through concentrated might. Shame they’d not trained together sufficiently. It was a tricky thing, to keep myself in the way of both the thrusting staff point and the greatsword until the last moment. A handhold of ice formed just above my free hand I used it to hoist my whole body up, letting the golden-wreathed wooden staff impact the greatsword. It broke like it was made of porcelain, but I didn’t get to enjoy that for long. The hammer-wielder was still on my ass, smashing down with his oversized chunk of metal as if the weight hadn’t changed along with the size. I dropped the handhold, and the fall bought me a heartbeat as the swing followed me down. It was enough. I rolled to the side as the ground shook and chunks of wet soil went up in the air. The staff-wielder’s naked foot caught me in my armoured chin but I felt the godsdamned steel bend under the impact as it sent me rolling. Fuck. That was one was dangerous, not because she was more competent but because she was quicker and quick was what my survival depended on.

The storm of fire winked out as I got back on my feet, all four heroes in the fray rushing me. A glance told me the healer and his protectors were completely untouched, but a moment later spikes of lightning began hammering down on their position one after another and just like that we were back in business. I watched my enemies approach, their angles and their speeds. Greatsword boy, I noted with amusement, was wielding the remaining half of his weapon like some sort of oversized cleaver. He didn’t look all that happy about it. I circled slightly to the right, putting the hammer man between myself and the staff-wielder. And that meant… Ah, there you are. Sword and board feinted high and I took him up on it. Even as he flicked his blade down towards my throat, I turned my parry into a swing towards the side of his neck. His shield went up, and that killed his field of vision. Greatsword hero had to get close, now that he’d lost his reach, and it was not his specialty. I flicked to the side and caught his extended wrist, twisting his sharply so he was forced to stand in the way of sword and board’s attack.

Resist,” the boy hissed out.

Light spread across him in the blink of an eye and I dropped him before it could touch my fingers. The other hero’s blade bounced off unceremoniously. While the younger one tried to pivot so he was facing me again, I followed his movement smoothly and lunged at sword and board’s throat while he withdrew. The shield came to knock away the blade again, but that hadn’t been what he needed to watch out for. My wrist flicked, a knife dropped into my armoured palm and I rammed it through his eye from the open angle. Behind him I heard the hammer-wielder curse, since he didn’t have a clear shot at me. Even as the hero I’d knifed dropped and began twitching death throes, my ears flicked. I hastily backpedalled as the staff-wielder leapt over the fight, landing where my shoulders had been a moment before. The wood whipped out, and my hasty parry was poorly angled. It went straight through my guard, denting my plate and tossing me away for the second time. Well, at least one was down and the healer still busy. Unless he could – no, I wasn’t even going to finish that thought. I dragged myself upright and smiled at the barefoot woman.

“Round three?” I offered.

Her staff rose. I almost missed it, because it wasn’t flashy. It was just a low ripple, a murmur of power. But my senses were no longer a mortal’s, so my eyes flicked to the hero I’d killed. At his side knelt an old man in grey robes, who gently took out the knife. He then passed a hand over the bloodied face, murmuring a prayer. The hero’s eyes opened and he let out a ragged gasp. There was no longer any wound on his face. The Grey Pilgrim rose to his feet gingerly, and offered me a rueful smile.

“Round three,” he agreed.

Chapter 14: Arabesque

“So spoke His Dread Majesty in the wake of battle, even as the High Lords praised him: ‘Speak not flattering untruths. Another such victory and I will rule an empire of ghosts.’”
– Extract from ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second’

It began.

When Juniper had sent our skirmishers out, we’d been able to scrape together four thousand including the Watch. Crossbowmen, human and goblins, with one thousand deadly Deoraithe longbowmen at the back – when the enemy began returning fire, these were the ones I wanted the lightest casualties for. They were too useful and too few to waste on opening exchanges. Malanza sent forward nine fucking thousand men, and we were pretty sure that wasn’t even all she could field. The opposition apparently had much the same thought as we’d had, because the first wave to come in longbow range wasn’t principality troops: it was levies. I sucked in a breath, eyes making them out perfectly regardless of distance. Men too old and too young, with hunting bows instead of the kind of weapons a battlefield required. Some even had slings, which Juniper noted out loud some Arlesite principalities were known for. The Watch nocked, drew and fired without a word. At least a hundred levies died in the first mass volley as the Proceran skirmishers advanced, closing range. Conscripted peasants taking arrows so that the personal forces of princes would not. The sight of it had me gritting my teeth.

“It’s sound tactics, no matter how much you glare,” Juniper said. “Gets the people who can properly return fire in range without losses.”

“I know,” I said, fingers clenching. “I know it is.”

But how many kids and greybeards who’d just died had actually wanted to be on this field? I couldn’t know for sure, but Principate rulers had full right of conscription as their Gods-given birth right. They didn’t even to justify it, not like nobles had in the Old Kingdom – where only foreign invasion had granted that temporary privilege to aristocrats. The sickening thing was that many of them probably did want to be there. Because priests and princes had told them this was a holy war instead of Hasenbach trying to kill two problems with one stone or Amadis and his cronies making a play for the throne. I wasn’t so much a hypocrite as to damn them for it. I was well aware that the main reason my own army fielded only enlisted was that I’d had neither the funds nor equipment to raise and keep the amount of soldiers a general conscription would have brought. My fingers remained clenched anyway. Making decisions where part of my forces were openly deemed more expendable than others hadn’t grown any more pleasant with time, that unspoken admission that some lives were worth more than others.

“More kids than I’d thought,” my Marshal said after a moment, eyeing the enemy through a scrying bowl. “That’s interesting. Either she’s sounding out whether we’ll flinch at killing those, or they came closer than we thought to scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

“Hasenbach’s problem is a surplus of fantassins, not a lack,” I said.

“These aren’t fantassins, Catherine, they’re levies,” the Hellhound said. “Those boys we’re putting holes in look like they should be working fields and trades, not fighting in a war.”

I frowned.

“You think they’re having manpower issues?” I sceptically said. “So far, between the three armies, they’re fielding about one hundred and twenty thousand men. Their population can take that. We know that for a fact, you’ve read the same reports I have.”

“On parchment, maybe,” Juniper grunted. “But looking at them now I have to wonder. The civil war hurt the south pretty bad and they didn’t even have a full decade to recover. The north was spared, but it has to keep soldiers on the walls to deal with the ratlings. We might need to consider the possibility that Hasenbach didn’t forge her Grand Alliance just to keep her borders secure. That she might have needed the troops as well, and that if she loses enough soldiers some parts of Procer will collapse.”

My reflex was to disagree, but I forced myself to stop and think. There was some sense in that. The First Prince’s issue with fantassins was that she had several armies’ worth of them floating around without a war to fight or skills to ply in peace time. I’d taken that as meaning she had manpower to toss into the flames, but that was not necessarily be true. It might not be a surplus of people so much as surplus of the wrong kind of people. If Juniper was right and killing levies meant scything through the same men and women who should be keeping Procer functioning… Well, there was a chance that down the line principalities would have bow out of the crusade because they literally could not afford more losses. Which was a mixed blessing. Parts of the Principate withdrawing would ease off the pressure on Callow, but it might also lead to internal instability in Procer itself. Which, in some ways, would be helpful. Procer, if eating at itself, wasn’t mucking around in my homeland. But it also gave Black and Malicia a much freer hand, which was almost as dangerous. And if the instability takes Hasenbach off the throne… Honestly, I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to that. The chances of the next First Prince or Princess being as dangerous as Cordelia Hasenbach were fairly slim. On the other hand, I knew Hasenbach. I’d made a study of her, we had a personal relationship. Whoever replaced her would be an unknown and that carried risks.

There were already too many of those in this war, and wind picking up a third of the way through the tightrope was bad news all around.

While I’d been wrestling with the thoughts, the skirmish had turned bloody. We had range and rate of fire on the enemy, but they outnumbered my people by more than twice over. The first half hour was a one-sided massacre. Between the Watch and the crank crossbows, we carved a red swath through the levies. But then the professional soldiers of the the enemy got in range to shoot back, and I stirred uneasily atop Zombie when I saw wooden shafts begin raining down. Goblins were a smaller target than humans and my men were spread out loosely according to Legion doctrine, while the enemy remained in tight packs. That helped some, keeping the exchange of lives at about parity even with the lopsided numbers. The hard truth, though, was that Malazanza could afford to trade her entire skirmishing contingent for mine and walk away with a strategic victory.

“Juniper,” I said.

“Another two volleys, Foundling,” the Hellhound said.

“We’re barely denting the principality troops,” I sharply replied.

“Levies we kill now aren’t covering the first wave against our palisades,” the Marshal of Callow replied. “It’s a worthwhile trade.”

Another two volleys, like she had said, and then the horns sounded the retreat. The Watch, I saw, had not lost so much as a single man. When the enemy had advanced, they’d retreated equally and kept killing all the while without missing a beat. If Ratface’s discreet following of Deoraithe spending over the last year had not made it clear how ridiculously expensive training and arming them was, I would have been livid with envy. As it was, I was merely very jealous. The enemy skirmishers had little stomach for pursuit. They’d killed and wounded nearly a thousand of my crossbowmen, but at three times the cost – and most of those dead, not just bleeding. Juniper’s order to withdraw was coming just ahead of the point in the cold lay of arithmetic where the skirmish would become costlier than it was useful.

“Marshal,” one of her aides spoke up. “Enemy cavalry is moving.”

My eyes flicked to the side. Malanza had been traditional in the arraignment of her forces. Three thick waves of infantry in the centre, with four thousand cavalry on each side and another four thousand in reserve at the back with what looked like a few thousand principality troops. A hard-hitting reserve that she could pour into whatever breach her foot managed to make. The cavalry contingents on both sides were on the move, though. Riding ahead of the crusader host, converging on my skirmishers from the flanks. Only at a trot for now, but when they got close enough they’d charge.

“Probe?” I asked the Hellhound.

“If they don’t hurry the fuck up, our soldiers are back well within siege range before the horse gets anywhere close,” Juniper said. “That’d be… costly, for her. They might be trying to bait out the Broken Bells.”

“Talbot could hit one of the flanks hard and withdraw before her foot gets there, or even the other cavalry wing,” I noted. “This seems like…”

Trumpets sounded from the other side, and after a few moments of milling around the enemy skirmishers began to pursue.

“That’s,” I began, but closed my mouth.

What the Hells was Malanza up to? She had to know that if her archers got in killing range of our trebuchets and ballistas it’d be a godsdamned massacre. Even if her cavalry hit at the same time. We’d lose crossbowmen, sure, but a heavy formation of advancing enemies would be a sapper’s wet dream. And she’d lose twice as many  soldiers when her people broke and fled, especially if the Broken Bells sallied to hit them on the way out.

“Juniper?” I tried.

The orc did not respond. She’d gone utterly still, eyes fixed on the approaching enemy. She barely even breathed or blinked.

“Her infantry isn’t moving,” Juniper said.

“I can see that,” I replied flatly.

The meat of Princess Malanza’s infantry had yet to move, still standing in the distance.

“Her infantry isn’t moving,” the Hellhound slowly said, “because it doesn’t need to.”

Which made no sense to me. Not with the forces the enemy had set in motion. Cavalry and skirmishers, this close to our engines?

“Full retreat,” Juniper barked at the closest horn blower. “Break formation.”

The officer blinked, then sounded the calls. I did not know the orc’s reasons yet, but I did know better than to gainsay her instincts when it came to battle. The crossbowmen scattered and legged it as the Watch ceased firing and put their supernatural swiftness to full work. What was the play here? Already the Deoraithe were in siege range, and the goblins among the crossbowmen weren’t that far behind. The greenskins could scuttle quick as spiders no matter the terrain. It’s not about the forces, then, I decided. They still matter, but only as part of a larger tactic. Something was missing, and that thought was a familiar one. Juniper and I both had it before, when wondering why Rozala Malanza would try to take her army through a narrow passage my men could hold the end of. And the conclusion, I remembered as my blood ran cold, was that she’d had something up her sleeve we didn’t know about.

Three heartbeats later we learned.

From the beginning, we’d dismissed the notion that the crusaders would use their priests the same way we did mages, for sorcerous artillery and shock tactics. Brother and sisters of the House of Light were not supposed to take the lives of others. We’d theorized there would be some willing to break those vows, and that they would be a threat to deal with. But aside from this, we’d believed the priests would be a purely defensive and support asset. Our failure, Rozala Malanza taught us, had been one of imagination. Ahead of the retreating Watch, panes of light bloomed. At least forty feet tall, though thin. A fence, I realized. They are fencing them in. Pane after pane formed, boxing in our retreating skirmishers in the span of time it’d take me to light a pipe. An opening was left, at the back. Where the enemy bowmen paused and put their formation in order, as on both sides of them the Proceran cavalry began to charge.

“Tell Pickler to fire at will,” Juniper barked at the closest mage.

The message passed and the twenty heavy ballistas fired their stones. The first volley hit the fence at a high angle, and the stones broke without even visibly affecting it. The trebuchets threw their load in the moment that followed, arcing high over the fence straight at the enemy archers. They never reached the crusaders. More fences formed over their heads. Some rocks shattered, others bounced off. The broken remnants remained on the light, as if it were a physical thing. I gestured for another mage to attend me.

“Get me Hierophant,” I said.

The rectangular silver mirror in the man’s hands shivered after he got out his incantation, revealing Masego’s face. He was currently with the mage lines, and already I regretted not having him at my side.

“Hierophant,” I said. “You see the fences?”

“Miracle work,” he said. “Interesting use of priestly powers.”

“Shut them down,” I said. “Now.”

He nodded, and after a shiver all the mirror showed was my own reflection. My fingers clenched as I watched the first volley from the Proceran bowmen hit my skirmishers, all on the left wing. They’re concentrating their volleys, I thought. Annihilation tactics. They did not intend to leave any survivors. My soldiers returned a ragged volley of their own, save for the Watch. Throwing hooks above the fences, the Deoraithe found physical purchase and began to climb. I had hope, for a moment. Until the fences above the Proceran archers angled to drop the remaining stones harmlessly in front of the crusaders and disappeared. They shortly after reappeared above the fences keeping my skirmishers boxed in, cutting cleanly through ropes and hooks. Fuck. The colder, calm part of me noted that they’d had to dismiss some fences to add them elsewhere. That implied there was a limited amount they could make. Commanded by Masego, my mage lines gave answer. Seven massive spears of lightning began to form above our fortifications, strengthening with every heartbeat.

“Pickler,” Juniper growled behind me, standing in front of a scrying bowl. “I want continuous fire on those archers. Don’t stop even if it doesn’t go through.”

On the other side of the field, sorcery flared up.

Hierophant had torn through their mages for two days before they stopped trying to scry, and it has cost them at least twenty practitioners. They had easily ten times that many left, though, and Archer had confirmed at least one of the heroes looked wizardly. If it came to a sorcerous pissing match, I would still bet on my own men. They’d been taught rituals by Hierophant, and more than a third were both Praesi and Legion-trained. Procer was a magical backwater, if it came to trading blows they should come out on the losing side. Which was, I saw as the enemy sorcery took shape, why Malanza had ordered them to do nothing of the sort. Praesi magical shields tended to be translucent and tinged blue, when not entirely transparent. The Proceran equivalent was opaque and yellow. Four layers came down in front of the fences even as the spears of lightning shot out. My mages were better, as I had thought. All four layers broke under the screaming storm of lightning. But by the time the sorcery reached the fences it had been weakened enough they merely shuddered under the impact. Layered defence, the cold part of me noted. Clever. The rest of me bit my lip until it bled, as I realized the crusaders were just going to slug it out like this again and again until all my skirmishers were dead.

“Juniper,” I called out, the orc turning to meet my gaze. “Broken Bells?”

She cursed virulently in Kharsum but nodded. The horns sent out our five thousand knights into the fray, palisades opening to let them stream out. Would it be enough? No, I already knew. It wouldn’t. But it might lower the damage of this from disaster to wound. Talbot had his knights form into a wedge the moment they had the room, galloping out to the left to hit half the enemy cavalry even as Pickler’s engines hammered the fences above the crusader archers repeatedly. They held anyways. I knew better than to get my hopes up, and my pessimism was rewarded when the forward sides of the fences keeping my skirmishers contained winked out. They reappeared in a long diagonal in front of the advancing Broken Bells and my fingers clenched once more. Not a single of the knights died, but the length of the fence was unbreakable and forced them to take the long way around. Keeping them away long enough that the enemy horse would reach my skirmishers unimpeded. With a mixture of grief and pride, I saw that my crossbowmen were in formation and returning fire. They took the losses from the enemy archers, ignoring them for a hard volley into the tip of both Proceran cavalry contingents. Horses fell and screamed, men went down. The charge continued. The remainder of the Watch split in half, heading for the edges of the fences on both sides.

Masego, I knew, would not take lightly that he had been thwarted even once. The lack of lightning spears forming in the sky to answer the yellow shields that had come down a second time heralded that he would have gotten… creative, and when my old friend unleashed his wrath he did methodically. A jagged shard of red light bloomed and struck the first shield. The yellow sorcery shattered, but the shard remained. Another shard formed, and struck the back of the first shard like a hammer on a chisel. The second shield broke. It was working, but too slow. The Watch was getting away but the Proceran cavalry hit my skirmishers and it was a massacre. They tore through the first three ranks like wet parchment before the momentum was even slightly slowed. Another shard formed and the third shield broke when it hit – and then the fourth shield as well, a heartbeat later. They were accumulating strength, I grasped. The light fence shuddered but held. In the handful of heartbeats before the fourth shard formed and hit, at least a thousand of my men died as I watched in silence. When the light finally broke it was too late for them to even run. The riders were already among them.

“Pickler,” Juniper said quietly. “All ballistas are to fire into the cavalry. Keep the trebuchets on the the archers.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. The orc’s face was grim as she met my gaze. The siege engines, we both knew, would kill our crossbowmen as well as the cavalry. But those men had been dead the moment the Proceran horse reached them, the cold part of me assessed. This way, at least, the ranks furthest back could be salvaged. The salvo pulped soldiers and horses alike when it hit. Theirs and mine both. I felt wintry, vicious rage well up in my veins. For a moment I indulged the wind-like whispers and the poisonous comfort they brought, but then I dragged my mind back to clarity. Pickler managed another handful of hits on the enemy horse, but less than a hundred died from them. They were already retreating and cavalry was hard to hit with mostly static engines. Especially when fences bloomed to cover their retreat, as Malanza smoothly arranged. My surviving men fled back to the palisade. We had sent four thousand onto the field, Juniper and I.

A bare thousand returned, more than half of it Watch.

“We have,” Juniper spoke into the graveyard silence of the general staff, “underestimated Princess Malanza.”

In the distance, trumpets sounded again and the Proceran infantry began to advance as the forces that had engaged pulled back. In front of them, seven lone silhouettes took the lead. Good, I coldly thought.

I was in a killing mood.

Chapter 13: Élevé

“Civilized men disapprove of murder, of course. Unless it involves banners and great numbers: then it becomes one’s patriotic duty.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

We knew Thief had succeeded days before she returned. The crusader host had begun a hard march south, at a harder pace than they’d ever taken before. Malanza was working her soldiers to exhaustion, and we knew exactly why: Vivienne had emptied their stores. Larat had gated General Hune and her army at their back once since then, to break the supply lines again, but they’d not even bothered to send an army to chase the ogre’s soldiers away. The implication was that the foodstuffs coming from Procer were too few and infrequent to feed the number of hungry mouths she now had to deal with, and Thief confirmed as much when she stumbled back into camp.

“Heroes were busy with you or your minions,” Vivienne said. “I had almost a full hour before someone noticed the stores were emptying.”

“They didn’t pursue?” I asked.

“They tried,” she shrugged. “But they had nothing that could see through my aspect, apparently. Or at least no Named that could and came close to me.”

And with that, the preparations for our battle were done. We had Princess Rozala Malanza’s army exactly where we wanted it: tired, undersupplied, and forced to march on Hedges or starve. There was serious debate among the general staff about retreating even further south to stretch those advantages out, but in the end we decided against it. Any further and we were entering the heartlands of the Barony of Hedges. Assuming we won the battle, some defeated soldiers would flee into the countryside and the last thing I wanted was a few thousand deserters ravaging the region out of desperation. The Army of Callow folded back into a single entity, with the addition of a thousand members of the Watch. That brought us to slightly over twenty-two thousand soldiers, in whole. Against over fifty thousand crusaders, twelve – perhaps eleven if I’d mangled Two Knives enough, but I wasn’t relying on that when they had healers – heroes and who the Hells knew how many priests. Enough that scrying the crusader host directly had been a wash for months, anyway, and given the sprawling stretch of their war camps it had to be a least a few hundreds. My side boasted a few sharp knives as well, at least: Hierophant, well-trained mage lines, five thousand of the finest heavy cavalry on Calernia and Pickler’s vicious war engines.

The first enemy banners came in sight midmorning.

Yellow striped across red, with three white lions. That was the Prince of Orne’s own, if memory served, and the lesser banners beneath it kept to those same three colours. In the Principate, the heraldry of lesser nobles beneath a prince had use of only that’s prince’s palette. That led to an orgy of improvisation, most of it patently absurd to look at – like the red lion with a yellow pig in its mouth set on white I first saw not a half-hour later. The vanguard was pure Alamans. First came the horse, with rich armour and richer pennants, then a mass of five thousand fantassins. I’d not forgotten the lecture had given me on Proceran soldiery. Most their armies were levies raised and kept only for the length of the latest war, poorly equipped and barely trained. Vulnerable to shock tactics, why was why Procerans tended to put such an emphasis on light cavalry. Peasants with shitty spears tended run when a wedge of glittering charged at them. The second kind of soldiery was the one before me: fantassins. Former levies who’d lost everything in the wars or gained a taste for the soldier’s life, and now served in companies of their own making – though usually on the take from one prince or another. Leather and mail armour, wooden shields and longswords. Most of them were also carrying javelins, though, and that was more worrying.  A well-thrown javelin would punch through a Legion regular’s mail if it came from close enough.

The last was principality troops, the personal armies of the many royals of Procer. Heavy infantry, mostly sword and board soldiers though their shields were lighter and smaller than Legion standard issue. They also had archer companies, which might get nasty. Legion crossbowmen tended to shoot further and stronger than any archer not using longbows, but I had relatively few of them and the rate of fire for a properly-trained archer was better. Juniper had raised crossbow companies when forging the Army of Callow, but in skirmished like that numbers often carried the day and those wouldn’t be on our side. The last principality soldiers were the cavalry. Light horse, most of them, since only the Lycaonese relied on heavy charges and there were none among the opposition. Our last count had the opposing cavalry at almost eleven thousand, more than double the Order of Broken Bells. Baroness Ainsley’s two hundred knights did little to even the odds, though they were still welcome.

The enemy vanguard stayed a mile away, not even remotely inviting an engagement. I wasn’t surprised. We’d waited for the crusader here for a day, and Juniper had my army at work the entire time. Field fortifications had been raised, trenches dug and siege engines set over low hills of beaten earth. Attacking us in our entrenchments without numerical superiority was suicide. Not that it prevented a few hundred enemy horse from parading out of crossbow range, banners waving in the breeze. Juniper sent out the Watch to clear them out, and they retreated after the first volley – which, sadly, killed no more than a dozen.

“Trying to gauge longbow range, you think?” I mused, eyes flicking to the Hellhound.

I was astride Zombie while the stood by her command table, surrounded by her staff. Easy for her to do, I thought bitterly. If I was on the ground, I wouldn’t even see beyond our reserves. Everyone was so fucking tall, it was really unacceptable.

“They should already have a notion,” the orc growled. “Not like it’s changed much in the last few hundred years. No, they were just arrogant little pups out to posture.”

And they’d lost half a line of their buddies for it. And that’s why you don’t let nobles run an army, I thought. Or at least not Proceran nobles. The Old Kingdom had done fairly well relying on its own.

“I dislike just leaving them out there,” I noted, gesturing at the five thousand infantry in the distance.

“Bait,” Juniper said. “There’ll be heroes, I bet. And if we sent enough soldiers to swat them away, we’ll weaken the fortifications for when the real army arrives. Let them come.”

I sighed. She was probably right. It didn’t make any more pleasant to stew in the sun while the crusaders lumbered towards our battle. By noon, the amount of cavalry in the distance had doubled. The spread of colours among banners had expanded. Blue, black, green. Wyverns and dragons and horses. Our own were less… exotic. The Fifteenth’s banner still flew, with my own personal heraldry besides it: scales, with the sword and the crown. The Order of Broken Bells had its own as well, but aside from that the only departure was the flock of starlings on blue that belonged to House Morley of Harrow. The infantry swelled as the hours passed, and before Noon Bell was at an end the enemy had fully arrived. I puffed at my pipe, watching the mass of shining steel ahead. There weren’t as many on the field today as there’d been at Second Liesse, but there were more soldiers. It was going to be a very different kind of battle.

“You think they’ll open with Named?” Juniper asked.

I shook my head.

“They’ve got veterans on the other side,” I said. “Heroes that have been around for long enough to know you don’t open with Named. The first will come out the moment we start winning on one side of the field.”

It would take careful managing, we both knew. Heroes could not be left alone. Most of them would scythe straight through even hardened infantry and their mere presence could turn a rout into a stubborn line of defence. On the other hand, my side didn’t have the numbers to hammer down every hero that popped up. In a contest of Named, I was short more than a few. And Thief hardly counted, considering she wasn’t a fighter. Hierophant and I could punch pretty hard, but on the other hand if our army started needing us to win then it became essentially guaranteed that some hero would cut us down. Best case, we’d be driven off the field, but best case wasn’t something to count on when there was the Saint and the Pilgrim on the other side.

“Priority’s teasing out whatever they intended to use as the northern passage if we blocked them,” I said. “That’s too dangerous an unknown to allow Malanza to keep sitting on it.”

I’d gotten an oath about the opposition not calling on angels, but the Pilgrim would never have agreed to that if his crew didn’t have other weapons to wield. With Praesi, it was the sorcerers you had to worry about. With the Procerans, though? My money was on the priests. I leaned forward, watching the crusaders in the distance, and frowned. Was that? Yeah, no two ways about it. They were moving carts and pitching tents.

“They’re making camp,” I told Juniper.

The orc snorted.

“How prudent of them,” she said. “Malanza must think there’d a decent chance it’ll take more than a day to exterminate us. I doubt she’ll be going for attrition with her boys’ stomachs going empty, but she’ll be generous in trading soldiers.”

Our camp is the largest concentration of foodstuffs between here and Hedges,” I said. “If she’s desperate…”

“She knows we can gate out if it gets to that,” Juniper replied, shaking her head. “No, this is just her hedging her bets. We’ll see the first skirmishers moving out within the hour, mark my words.”

The Hellhound, for once, was proved wrong. She’d not misread the military, as it happened, but the political. A party of four riders under truce banner rode out, stopping halfway between our camps. I went to meet them. I could have brought Juniper and Hierophant, or even Baroness Ainsley as the ranking noble with the army, but that would just be posturing. On this field, I was the one making decisions for my side. Zombie trotted out cheerfully, the sun pounding down at us until I sat in the saddle across from the crusader delegation. There were some familiar faces there. The Saint and the Pilgrim, though they were at the back. The old woman discreetly sliced her finger across her throat when I glanced at her. Charming. The Grey Pilgrim inclined his head in greeting and I did the same, before taking in the other two. The man was much older than the woman, at least late forties. Prince Amadis Milenan, at a guess. To my surprise, he was good-looking. I’d expected some caricature of a Chancellor, but instead what I got was very well-groomed older man with fair hair and a chiselled jaw. The other – Princess Rozala Manlanza, most likely – was maybe a few years older than me. Dark eyes and darker curls, with the kind of wicked easy smile that belonged more on Laure tavern girl than foreign royalty.

“Afternoon,” I said. “I’d say welcome to Callow, but I see you’ve already made yourself at home.”

I punctuated with a nod at the army behind them.

“Queen Catherine,” the older man said, bowing ever so slightly. “I am Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre.”

“So I’d guessed,” I said. “I already know the two greyhairs in the back. Should I assume the curvy one measuring me up is Princess Malanza?”

“Are you trying to seduce your way out of this, Black Queen?” the woman in question asked, sounding amused.

“Unfortunately I have a strict non-invading Callow clause for people I let into my bed,” I said. “I’ll take that as a yes, by the way. You took your sweet time getting here, Malanza.”

“My supplies inexplicably disappeared into thin air,” the princess drawled. “Slowed us down some. I don’t suppose you’d happen to know where they went?”

“Must have been rats,” I said sympathetically. “Callow’s had a vermin problem, these last few months.”

“What a coincidence,” Malanza said. “We’ve come to remedy that very issue.”

Shit. Now I kind of liked her. I’d probably feel a least a little bad about putting her head on a pike down the line. Prince Amadis cleared his throat.

“I must implore you to excuse the uncouthness of my general,” he said. “The prospect of battle wearies her, as it does all of us.”

“I’m not a stickler on etiquette,” I smiled. “Trying to sell chunks of Callow, though? That does get on my nerves a bit.”

Not a trace of dismay passed on the princes’ face, though I knew he couldn’t be pleased about the Watch turning on him. Duchess Kegan had been less than impressed by the man, as it happened. He’d promised her both Laure and Denier when she’d pushed, which she’d taken as meaning he would have double-crossed her the moment he could.

“Preparing for peace is hardly treachery,” Amadis said. “You are outnumbered in both Named and men, Queen Catherine. Let us not spill blood unreasonably. I have terms of surrender to offer, should you be willing.”

I glanced at the Grey Pilgrim, whose serenity was unruffled by this. Did they seriously expect to fold now?

“You would have to abdicate, naturally,” the Prince of Iserre said. “But I would title you Princess of the Blessed Isle, and grant you the eastern half of the lands currently in the rule of the governorship of Summerholm.”

“Huh,” I said. “And you heroes would respect those terms?”

“We would,” the Grey Pilgrim said, sending the Saint a quelling look when it looked like she’d speak up.

“It this the part,” I mused, “where I’m supposed to be thankful about you trying to make me your marcher lord at the frontier with Praes? Let’s not even touch the part where you’re carving up Callow between your supporters, because then I’ll lose my fucking temper and we’re under a truce banner.”

“You cannot win this war,” Prince Amadis sharply said. “This must be obvious by now.”

“Malanza’s face is blank,” I said, pointing at the princess. “That’s because she’s trying not to smile. That should tell you more or less what I think of your offer. Now, here’s mine.”

I let out a long breath.

“Go home,” I said. “I’ll even provide enough supplies you don’t starve on the way out, though you’ll have to pay for them and there’ll be a ‘I shouldn’t have fucking invaded another country’ markup. You’ll find nothing here but death, so just go home and settle your pissing match with Hasenbach out of my homeland. If you cross the passage, I will not pursue.”

I glanced at the princess of Aequitan.

“That holds for after someone runs him through,” I told her. “Leave, and you will not be harassed on the way out. I don’t particularly want to fight this war, Malanza. It ends the moment you let it.”

“Are you threatening me under peace banner?” Prince Amadis Milenan calmly said.

“I’m telling you I’m about to stop being nice about this,” I told him. “I’ve bent over backwards to limit the damage, but if it comes to a battle a lot of people are going to die for very stupid reasons. And to be blunt, they’ll be yours more than mine. We could avoid that entirely and both be better off.”

“This is a crusade, Catherine Foundling,” the Saint of Swords said. “Not a petty invasion. You do not make truce with holy war.”

“There’s no point in talking to you, Saint,” I sighed. “You’re Ranger with a shiny coat of paint and a socially acceptable pretext for killing.”

The old woman’s face darkened.

“You’re going to lose a hand for that,” she said.

“Amateur,” I dismissed. “I’ve spent years dealing with Wastelanders, you second-rate bully. You think you’ve got a single threat that can shake me? I used to answer to a woman who uses a fucking demon as a gatekeeper has an entire hallway of forever screaming heads.  Your notion is bad is her starting point.”

I barrelled on before she could reply.

“I’ll keep to the terms I agreed on with the Grey Pilgrim,” I said. “Where are we falling on prisoner exchanges?”

“No guarantees,” Malanza said. “Should there be worthwhile trades to make, you will be approached under banner.”

Translation: she was sitting on any men of mine she caught unless I got my hands on someone high up enough the ladder it would be politically inconvenient to leave there.

“There doesn’t have to be a battle,” the Saint said. “You and me, girl. Here and now. We settle it the old way.”

I glanced at her skeptically.

“Last time we scrapped you beat me like a rented mule,” I said. “I’m not getting anywhere near you without a mage company and half a dozen ballistas. Pass.”

“Cowardice is an ugly thing,” the old woman smiled.

“The chorus of the side with the bigger swords,” I shrugged. “If that’s all, I have an army to lead.”

“Such generous terms of surrender will not be offered again,” Prince Amadis warned.

“I’m feeling generous too, Proceran,” I smiled. “So when I sent your head on a pike back to Salia, your soul won’t be bound to it.”

And on this particularly diplomatic note, I spurred Zombie away and returned to my host.

Within the hour, skirmishes on both sides advanced.

Chapter 12: Cambré

“In a finite world, one’s gain (victory, large cave) inevitably means loss (dead female, enemy grows) for another. There can be no peace (looking away, knife already in a corpse) when the very nature of Creation is contest (not enough meat, talking).”
– Extract from a theorized translation of ‘Remnant and Ruin’, one of the few goblin texts ever obtained

“This should not be possible,” Masego said, sounding obscurely pleased.

He was in a good mood, though I did not share it. The frequency at which I ended up lying on table while he fiddled with my guts and soul was quite frankly depressing. At least this time I had pants on, only my upper body bare.

“We keep this up for another year,” I said, “and you’ll have seen me naked more often than Kilian ever did.”

The dark-skinned mage sighed, glass eyes rolling inside the sockets. Ugh. Full turn, that would never be not creepy even glimpsed only through an eye cloth.

“Your insistence I ‘buy you dinner first’ is absurd,” Hierophant said. “The only food available here is Legion rations, which you already own. I think. My attention might have waned when we had that afternoon where you explained to us how kingdoms worked.”

Ah, that’d been a Hells of an affair. The afternoon session of ‘We Are In Charge Now And Why That Matters’ had not been a favourite of the Woe, since the two people who actually needed the explanations had been less than interested in actually hearing them.

“Sometimes, Zeze, I feel like you only want me for my body,” I drawled.

“Ridiculous,” he sniffed. “Your soul is far more interesting. Your physiology is worth two treatises at most, it is unlikely to be a reproducible phenomenon.”

“Get me candles and wine, at least,” I suggested. “It just doesn’t feel special otherwise.”

“I thought you didn’t drink wine any –” Masego frowned. “Wait, is this another sex thing I don’t know about?”

For someone raised by a personification of desire, he could be surprisingly innocent. No, maybe not innocent. That implied he’d been sheltered, which I really doubted was the case. Ignorance born of disinterest. His blind spots were usually willing and damnably stubborn.

“Masego, I’m offended you would even imply that. Get your mind out of the gutter,” I chided him, smothering a grin.

He looked mighty suspicious, but did not argue. He’d learned the hard way not to engage on this particular battlefield. I cleared my throat.

“So what’s the damage?” I asked.

His brow creased.

“You’re changing the subject,” he muttered. “You always do that when you were lying just before.”

“Calling me a liar is technically treason, you know,” I pointed out.

“And that’s bad, in Callow,” he nodded slowly. “Even if you win.”

Yeah, Warlock and the incubus had not done wonders for his moral compass. It was a work in progress.

“So?” I pressed.

“The Saint of Swords appears to have, for lack of a better term, cut Winter itself,” Hierophant said.

“That much I’d guessed,” I said. “I mean, practically speaking, what does that mean? Because I was having a Winter fit before she beat me like a goblin stepchild, but after I was back to normal. More or less.”

“Temporary state of affairs,” Masego said. “If you were hoping to maintain your hold on the mantle without being subject to principle alienation, you were sadly mistaken.”

I coughed. I supposed it was too much to ask for that the Saint fuck up along the same lines as Akua had when she’d returned my full Name to me.

“I bruised, after the fight,” I told Hierophant. “It faded before I got back to camp, but it actually hurt for a while. That hasn’t happened since Liesse.”

“I’ve already told you she cut Winter,” Masego said, sounding befuddled. “The implications should be clear.”

“Oh, absolutely,” I lied. “But I need you to put it in layman’s terms so that I can explain it to other people. Like, say, if I needed to tell Archer about this.”

“She’s actually quite well-versed in arcane dialectics,” Masego noted. “Lady Ranger covered the workings of sorcery very well while teaching her to slay mages.”

I wrinkled my nose.

“Lucky her,” I said. “Black never went in depth.”

“Uncle Amadeus never did have what could be considered a proper method in this,” Hierophant shrugged. “As Father tells it, his approach has always been having a wide array of tools to employ against enemy weaknesses.”

Which only helped me so much, I thought. Unlike my teacher I did not have several decades of scrapping against all sorts of spellcasters under my belt. To avoid running into nasty surprises, I’d largely delegated that kind of fighting to Masego himself.

“Juniper, then,” I said.

The blind man bit his lip.

“I dislike using a metaphor, but so be it,” he said. “Think of your mantle as a cape. Much like your body itself, it is a fixed object in the eyes of Creation.”

“Which is why I can rebuild it from scratch when I lose parts,” I noted. “Which does happen more often than I’d liked.”

The mage’s head bobbed in agreement.

“The main difference being that your body is a shape, while your mantle is a pattern of power,” he said. “That power is, of course, finite. Not in the sense that using it spends it, but along the lines that the cape remains a cape – it does not grow or lessen, as a living thing would.”

“So she cut the cape,” I guessed.

“Essentially,” he admitted. “You might say she cut out a corner of the cape. The pattern itself being fixed, the rest of the power thinned itself as a whole to recreate that corner.”

My fingers clenched.

“Are you saying I have less to call on, now?” I said.

“Well, yes,” Masego frowned. “Which I believed impossible, as power does not simply disappear, but evidently in this case it has. It is not unprecedented for heroes to violate Creational laws that apply to everyone else, but this is rather blatant even by their standards.”

“She was a pretty straightforward old bat,” I grunted. “So why did I bruise?”

“In the absence of Winter’s full influence, Creation assumed you to be human again,” Masego said. “With all the consequences that apply.”

I rubbed my forehead, feeling a headache. That made it sound like my actual body was basically a trick played on Creation, which was exactly the kind of thing I’d been terrified of hearing for the last year. Fuck. I really wanted a stiff drink right now.

“So if she cuts me again in that manner,” I said. “There’ll be a window of opportunity where I’m mortal again?”

“You are still mortal,” Masego said. “In the sense that you can be killed, at least. I give decapitation a better than half chance of working, though for obvious reasons we cannot test this. You would, however, lose the ability to reform for a span of time. An increase in fragility, though passing.”

He didn’t sound too happy about being unable to experiment with the removal of my head from my body, but I’d learned to ignore it when he was being an ass by accident. I rose to a sitting position as Hierophant got up and began methodically putting away the silvery instruments he’d used to have a look inside me. I didn’t feel a great need to reach for my shirt, folded on a lower table to the side. Being half-naked in front of Masego was like baring my ass to a potted plant – there was no real interest on the other side.

“We’re getting close to the pivot for the campaign up here,” I told him, rolling my shoulders to limber them. “That means a pitched battle, and likely revealing our shared trick.”

Hierophant smiled.

“Good,” he said. “I’ve been itching to prove the theory.”

I grimaced. That proof was likely to kill a lot of people, but then there was only so far I was willing to go to preserve the lives of an invading army. Getting my own soldiers killed when I could avoid it wasn’t on the table.

“Before that, I’m going to need you to mess with their scrying,” I said. “We want them cut off from the Principate when they feel the pressure mounting.”

The dark-skinned man shrugged.

“It is possible to accomplish,” he said. “Their formulas are… rough-hewn. Easy enough to muddle. Yet doing so will require most my attention.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “We’ve got a few more days left until it comes to a fight, by Juniper’s reckoning.”

“I could simply use the connection to kill their practitioners,” Masego suggested. “It would require less sustained effort on my part.”

I breathed out slowly.

“Do it,” I said. “But spare at least five of them. I need them able to scry the Principate after the fight.”

“This ought to be amusing,” Hierophant chortled. “They’ve yet to properly master defensive wards against the law of sympathy.”

“Try not to be too brutal,” I sighed.

“An interesting limitation,” he decided. “I will take it into consideration.”

Well, at least he wasn’t going to draw it out for kicks. Wasn’t in his nature. That was really all I could ask for. I slid off the table and picked up my shirt, slipping it on as he finished his clean-up.

“I would wish you a good night,” Masego said. “But you don’t really sleep anymore, do you?”

“Might get some reading done,” I said. “Reitz is a pain to learn.”

“I am pleased you are expanding your horizons,” he said, patting my shoulder awkwardly.

I couldn’t help but smile. He really was trying, wasn’t he? I pushed back one of his tresses fondly and bade him goodnight. My tent felt emptier for his absence, and the books I had piled up in a corner were a less than attractive prospect no matter what I’d told Masego. There were only so many histories you could read until they all kind of blended together. With a battle on the horizon, Juniper would either be sleeping or planning – either way, not to be disturbed. Vivienne was still presumably making her way back from her little jaunt in the crusader camps and Indrani was both away and probably busy bullying Robber. Larat was, well, Larat. I dropped into the seat I’d once ‘liberated’ from a fae stronghold, savouring the decadent cushioning. It was a strange thing, feeling lonely in a war camp still thriving with activity even at this hour. I missed Hakram like one of my own limbs, the ache having only grown over time. It should perhaps worry me, I thought, how much I’d come to rely on him as a touchstone for my sanity. In the corner, draped over another seat, the Mantle of Woe waited silently.

“I grant you leash,” I murmured. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”

Akua Sahelian strode out of her prison with unearthly grace, clad in red and gold. I kind of resented that even with a gaping hole in her chest she remained stunningly beautiful.

“It has been some time,” the Diabolist mused. “Longer than usual.”

“I’m not speaking with Hasenbach before things are settled on the field,” I said.

“Is that my only value to you, dearest?” she teased. “Another pair of eyes on your foe?”

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish with the pet names,” I noted. “It takes a little more than sweet talk and curves to get me going, Akua.”

She laughed, clear as bell. I really had to commend whoever had taught her that, it made her sound almost pleasant.

“You believe I am attempting to use the fact that you are twice bloomed?” she asked, looking genuinely curious.

Genuine meant nothing, with that one. She could make it sound like she actually believed the sky was yellow if she tried.

“Bisexual, Akua,” I said. “The word is bisexual. Seriously, what is it with Soninke and making everything sound like bad poetry?”

“Your own people have the unfortunate tendency of using simple terms for complicated matters,” she chided.

Fluidly, she sat in the seat across from mine. She didn’t actually need to, of course. She was little more than a soul, and the physical seat made no difference to her position. But villainy of the old breed did have a way of prizing style no matter the situation, I’d give them that.

“Darling, to have interest in mere gender is hopelessly rustic,” she sighed. “Power is the only valuable measure. The superior looks of my people are simply a reflection of our ability to have them. The true worth of them is implicit.”

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t take advice in that from the get of High Lords,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “As I understand it, your take on break ups usually involves poison.”

“For lesser lords, perhaps,” Akua spoke with open disdain. “It is gauche to use anything but a dagger if there was real affection. Poison is a political tool, Catherine. When employed within one’s direct circle, it represents a lack of faith in one’s abilities.”

“More ritualized murder from the Soninke crowd,” I drawled. “There’s a shocker.”

“You must learn to discern between enmity and dialogue, if you are ever to rule the Empire,” Akua said. “Your lowborn origins are not so much of a hindrance as you might think, but your Callowan roots mean you must never be anything but exquisite at the Great Game if you are to seen as more than a violent foreign thug.”

“I really don’t,” I snorted. “Want to rule the Empire, for one, but also need to learn what you’re talking about. Any culture that requires regular intervention by mass-murdering demigods to function doesn’t deserve to keep existing.”

“Then you declare war on the High Lords, my heart,” Akua said. “As your teacher once desired. There is nothing but horror awaiting you on that path.”

“There we go again,” I noted. “I’m not your anything, Sahelian. Except killer, I guess, I’ll own to that one. It did make my year.”

“What other heart can I claim, dearest?” the Diabolist smiled, lightly tapping the edge of her wound. “You have bound me and taken me into your service.”

“You’re a tool, Akua,” I bit out. “In all meanings of the word.”

“And you think this is ungainly in my eyes?” the Soninke laughed. “That is only your due as victor.”

It was an accomplishment, I decided, that even as a powerless shade she could still unsettle me. Best not to linger on the subject.

“Talk to me,” I said, “about goblins. You were aiming to be God-Queen Bitch of Calernia, you must have taken them into consideration when planning.”

The dark-skinned beauty studied me with a too-wide smile.

“They have approached you,” she said. “The Council of Matrons.”

“That’s overstating it a bit,” I said. “But inquiries were made, a few months ago.”

She folded her hands in her lap.

“And now you speak to me,” she mused. “Understandable. Among your most trusted, the two goblins are ignorant of the inner workings of the Tribes. Those that would know most are your two Taghreb, the bastard and the Bishara, yet their understanding will be… limited.”

“Yours will be too,” I said. “But you always had a way with digging out secrets, so you’re worth hearing out.”

“If you are to understand goblins, dearest, you must first grasp that their core nature is that of scavengers,” Akua said. “Never have they risen in rebellion when the Empire was strong, and even in weakness they are patient.”

“They don’t fight armies if they avoid it, I already knew that,” I frowned. “Which, considering their size and fragility as a species, is kind of a given.”

“It runs deeper than this,” Diabolist said. “Goblins will eat anything because they can never assume they will be able to forcefully claim what they need. To be one of their lot is to know from birth that most other life on Creation is larger and stronger. That death is always around the corner. Morality is, to a goblin, at best a distant concern. Bare survival always comes first, and in its pursuit they will commit acts that would given even a High Lord pause.”

“Considering the neighbourhood, I can hardly blame them,” I said.

“You do not grasp my point,” Akua said. “The mindset is not a consequence of Praesi aggression. It does not ebb and flow with threats. It is the starting point of every single goblin ever born.”

“Yes,” I said patiently. “And Praesi think demons are a valid solution to, well, anything ever. My point is that they’re not being unreasonable in thinking that way.”

Akua smiled.

“You believe they’ve never dabbled in diabolism?” she said. “My dear, the Sahelians have known for decades that one of the primary ingredients in munitions is powdered devil. Our alchemists never managed to reproduce the process involved, but it is a certainty. Now, consider that goblinfire burns all things born of Creation. What do you think that recipe involves?”

My heart clenched.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “They’re using demons? How would that even work?”

“My people have studied both alchemy and diabolism for over a millennium,” Akua said. “And we have absolutely no idea. Munitions are only created in the deepest tunnels, and those that take part in the process never see the light of day. There is a reason goblin mages are so rarely seen among the Legions: as a rule, they are sent below and never return.”

Well, shit. Had I been throwing around burning demon juice at my enemies this whole time? Fucking Hells, that was going to take a while to process. I leant back into my chair.

“All right,” I said. “So the Matrons are not to be trusted.”

“This does not mean that they cannot be used,” Akua said. “They never plot uprising unless they believe the Empire is on the verge of collapse, and that their own people might be drawn into the matter. This implies Malicia’s hold over the Tower is not so solid as one might believe. The Matrons would not risk fighting an Empire united behind its Tyrant.”

“Ashur sent a war fleet to seize the Tideless Isles,” I told the shade. “What few reports I’ve managed to get on that say they’re hitting anything near the coast that doesn’t have walls.”

“No a threat to be underestimated,” Akua agreed. “Yet as long as the cities hold, the might of the Empire is not overly affected. Mere foreign incursion would not be enough to move them. Has your teacher returned to Praes since our… lively debate?”

“You mean that time where you murdered a hundred thousand of my countrymen,” I said very mildly. “At which point I ripped out your fucking heart and Black wrecked your doomsday weapon.”

“Yes,” Diabolist lightly said. “That. Quite the eventful day. Whatever did happen to the wights, anyhow?”

I did not reply. I simply applied my will, and her hand rose up to plunge into the wound. I had her tear at her own insides, patiently listening to her wretched screaming as she clawed at herself. After a while, I withdrew my will.

“I tend to disapprove of torture,” I said. “But we’re all cutting corners these days, aren’t we?”

She stayed silent, panting.

“Your victims were released and buried,” I said. “Even if I’d somehow been able to stomach keeping them, half of Callow would have risen in rebellion at the news. Now, prove yourself useful. Black has not returned to Praes since I carved out your soul and made it clothing. What do you get from that?”

“There has been break between him and the Empress,” she got out. “She would have him killed if he returned, or at least that he believes this.”

“Unless they’re running a game,” I pointed out. “Getting the opposition out in the open to cut them down in one stroke.”

“If that were so,” Diabolist said, “the Matrons would not have approached you. They must have reason to believe the split is not feigned.”

Mhm. That made sense. And it meant that, down line, I might be able to find an ally of convenience within Praes.

“Back in the box, Akua,” I said. “And if you ever again speak so casually of what you’ve done, I’ll sit down with Masego to figure out if shades can lose limbs.”

I withdrew all I had granted her, and she vanished into thin air. I closed my eyes, tired in a way sleep could not remedy.

This battle wasn’t even done, and already I had to prepare for those that would follow.

Chapter 11: Ballon

“You might say that they’ll never see me coming.”
-Dread Empress Malevolent II, announcing the raising of her invisible army

Your Majesty?” the Deoraithe mage stuttered out.

I leaned down and gently touched his forehead with an armoured finger.

“Don’t resist,” I said. “It’ll be uncomfortable, but not painful.”

Unless he tried to fight me, but in this case the fear that trailed me as much as my cape saw to the matter. The man went rigid as a board. I breathed out mist and Winter crept through my veins. His soul wriggled under the tight grip of my will, as I rifled through vague memories. He had, I thought, a well-organized mind. Shame about the panic tinging it. I found what I needed anyway, the locations of the officer tent’s he’d found as he’d been told.

“You were thorough,” I said, withdrawing my finger. “Well done.”

The fifty riders of the Hunt were too many for so small a tent, and one of the fae casually blew it away with a flick of the wrist before it could tangle the banners. Midnight was no bar to my sight, and what I saw around us was the Watch responding to our sudden arrival with flawless professionalism. Ah, the things I could do with an army’s worth of these. It was almost tempting to hollow out Kegan’s soul, tie puppet strings to the remnants and take them all for my own. I bit my lip until it bled, the flare of pain helping me focus. I reached for my saddlebag, taking out the seal of House Iarsmai I’d asked Kegan to send me months ago. I tossed it into the mage’s hands.

“Validate this,” I ordered.

The man shivered, though I was unsure why. I’d been very polite so far. Murmuring in the mage tongue he traced the tall dead oak on the seal with his fingers, gasping when it glimmered green.

“It’s real,” he said.

Unsheathing my sword, I flicked the blade behind me after gauging the surroundings. Creation folded unto itself, the fairy gate opening thirty feet wide and just as tall. I tied off the threads, giving it a finite lifespan. One of the newer Winter tricks in my arsenal.

“By the authority granted to me by Duchess Kegan Iarsmai, I order the Watch to immediately withdraw,” I called out. “And quick about it, I don’t have the time to hold your hand. You have half an hour before the gate closes.”

Zombie was chomping at the bit, which admittedly was better than chomping at grass I’d probably need to have a goblin dig out of her later. I took a moment to calm myself, then dug into the memories I’d glimpsed. Reorienting myself was the hardest part of figuring it all out, since none of the unconscious markers the mage had used were markers I was familiar with. Masego and I had figured out a way around that through the Observatory with the card I’d been keeping up my – heavily armoured – sleeve, but I was without the benefit of Hierophant tonight. My mind struggled with the discrepancies, until I let through another sliver of Winter and there was a sensation like a spike through my forehead. No pain, though, only terrifyingly clear understanding.

“Riders of the Hunt,” I called out.

All fifty of them turned to me as one with unnatural smoothness.

“Follow,” I laughed. “Tonight we ride.”

Finally,” Larat hissed, blade in hand. “Sound the horns. Let them hear us coming.”

Banners were raised, not of silk or cloth but crow’s feathers and shadow. Shining coldly like a raven’s eye. A fae with hair like spun gold touched the horn to her lips, and doom screamed across the night. I spurred on Zombie, and felt her devour the distance easily as I guided us by memories not my own. The Watch parted for us, already preparing to retreat, and we fell unto the unprepared camp of the crusaders like hungry wolves. Men shouted out in Chantant, known to me regardless of sight. The heat of them could be felt on the tip of my tongue, the fear that set their hearts aflutter thundering in my ears. It pleased me. It was slaughter, wherever we rode. Men half-dressed and half-awake were torn apart by sword and spear and darker things: hounds of air and darkness, called forth by the horns. I wielded the monster like a knife as my thoughts cooled. The Alamans army closest to us had kept the tents of their officers together and I made them pay for that mistake. Before the hounds even reached them the soldiers I raised my hand and choked them with rings of ice and shade, a dozen dead in a heartbeat. Smiling, I leaned forward.

“Up,” I ordered. “Kill.”

Corpses with broken necks and ugly marks around their throats rose up as the Hunt passed through. Screams followed in our wake. We would begin, I decided, with the outer ring. Princess Malanza’s own host was closer to the centre, but I would let her people feel it coming. Know what was prowling the night for them. We carved our way out of the Alamans army camp, scything through the company of fantassins that tried to form up in our way. Men and women were trampled by horses, terror blooming again in the wake of death as the corpses rose and chaos spread.

“You will go no further,” a man’s voice announced calmly.

I cocked my head to the side. No fear in this one. And such power. Young but scarred, his voice had echoed of faraway Levant. A large man with a war hammer hoisted over his shoulder, burdened with heavy plate. I neither slowed nor ceased, Zombie galloping straight at him. The hero hefted his war hammer and struck with impossible swiftness, aiming to shatter the legs of my mount. With a cold laugh I guided my horse and her wings unfolded, leaping tall above the man as the Hunt streamed around him seamlessly. We rode even as the man screamed of our cowardice, ever onwards. I had not come here to be waylaid by petty sidekicks. The camps had come alive and our prey was moving. It became slower work, picking off officers who’d joined their companies. Frustratingly slow. The riders slaked their blood on those that could be found instead. No surrender was offered and no mercy granted.

Then the sky came down on our heads.

Instinct allowed me to guide Zombie away from the worst of it, but wet earth sprayed over us as a massive gouge split the ground open. Even as it began to rain mud, a woman walked out of the mess. Old, I thought. Neither tall nor short, and she wore no armour aside from a cuirass over long cloth robes. In her hand was a simple sword of oiled steel, and she was rolling her wrists to limber them.

“Saint of Swords,” I said, voice echoing with the howl of blizzards.

“Black Queen,” the old woman said, light tapping the flat of the blade against her shoulder. “Nice of you to visit.”

My will spread, weaving glamour across the sky according to borrowed memories.

“Go,” I told the Hunt. “Fulfil my purpose.”

“Stay,” the Saint grinned. “Die screaming.”

She swung again, and this time I grasped what was being wielded. Not an aspect or a spell. Nothing like the Lone Swordsman’s power or the Gallant Brigand’s. No, I’d only seen this once before: when Ranger had considered killing me seriously enough I’d felt myself die. When the Saint of Swords attacked, she did so with the sharpened intent to kill us. She had hardened her willpower so much that Creation counted no difference between her will and truth, the air howling as it cut itself apart. I drew deep and laughed, ice crashing against the blow with a gargantuan cracking sound. Shards sprayed everywhere as the Hunt obeyed, hounds and riders streaming out in every direction but that of the coming fight. I leapt off Zombie and set her aflight. Her wings made her too valuable to risk here.

“Winter, is it?” the Saint of Swords mused, strolling forward. “Never had that before. Try to make it entertaining.”

“You will make,” I said, “very useful artefacts.”

A quiet voice in the back of my mind howled, screaming that revealing any unknown capacity to the enemy was sheer stupidity. I could not seem to care. It had felt… right to chastise her that way. We closed the distance as one, swords bared. I feinted to the side but she slapped it away contemptuously, a half-step bringing her into my guard and without missing a beat she cut my throat. Red gushed out, but it was more Winter than blood – an exertion of will was all it took to heal the wound. I spat out the blood in my mouth, making distance between us.

“Regenerators,” the Saint sighed. “You never bother to learn how to fight properly, with a crutch like that. Sloppy.”

The nonchalance tasted fouler in my mouth than the blood, called for utter destruction in answer, but I breathed out and smoothed the edges growing ragged. I attacked again, low and quick. Parry, but when she closed in again I was ready: a spear of shadow formed out of my free hand and tore towards her. Snorting, the heroine raked her bare fingers down and tore through the darkness like wet parchment. In the heartbeat where I hesitated, she struck quick as a viper – aiming to cut off my head in full, this time. I ducked under by the barest of margins but she kicked me in the face, and as I rocked back she struck again. My parry was effortlessly turned, blade twisting around to carve through my wrist like it was butter. I pivoted, caught the hand still holding the blade with my other pne and forced it back on even as I avoided a thrust that would have gone through my eye if I’d been a moment slower. Winter flared and the pieces reattached, my fingers twitching as the power skittered through them.

“I can see it,” the Saint mused. “Take the crippling to avoid the killing. There’s a hint of Ranger in there, however diluted. A bastard’s bastard.”

I rolled my shoulders as she watched me indifferently.

“Again,” I said.

“Change of plans,” the old woman smiled.

The spell struck me from the side like than fist of an angry god. I felt my flesh melt off, my blood boil – until I opened the floodgates, and shot out of the fire storm as my face peeled off flake by flake. That had stung.

“Reinforcements, my dear lady,” a man’s voice drawled. “Though you seem to need them not.”

My eyes flicked to the side. Three of them. Short man with a leather coat and a casting rod must have been responsible for the flame. An olive-skinned woman with two knives and a red-painted face started walking towards me, while the last was unarmed. Priest, I decided, looking at his ornate robes. Attrition was no longer feasible if they had a healer. On the other hand, now it was four on one. My odds had just gotten a lot better.

“Well,” I grinned, my teeth grown sharp. “Now it’s a party. Have at it, heroes.”

“How uncouth,” the man in leather said, wrinkling his nose.

When the fire came again, erupting in a cone from the rod, I flicked away. Two Knives closed in from the side as the Saint was forced to go around the spell. Eyes following the arms, I let the knife-wielder commit to a cut from the left before half-stepping out of the way, hand snaking up to catch the extended wrist and snapping it. There was a scream, but I slapped her open mouth and filled with ice. She began choking until Light bloomed and melted it. It even streaked down to unsnap the wrist. No matter, I was already past her.

“Damnation,” the spellcaster cursed, seeing me close the distance in the blink of an eye.

A sphere of what looked like liquid flame formed around him, but what was fire to me? I gathered power and struck at it, ripping off a chunk of the protective sphere to get at the terrified man beneath. Instinct warned me and I listened. Leaping above the flames, I narrowly avoided being run through by the Saint – though, twisting halfway up the arcing jump, I shaped a spike of rime and sent it howling after Two Knives. The heroine flickered, as if she’d been an illusion all this time, and what should have torn through her abdomen instead put a hole in the ground twenty feet behind her. Displacement? Useful trick. Too useful to be anything but an aspect. I landed in a crouch.

“Keep away from her, kids,” the Saint ordered. “She’s a few years ahead of what you can handle.”

My eyes flicked to the sky. Of the five glamoured markers I had placed, three were left. I’d have to play with these a little longer, lest they pursue the Hunt. I grimaced. I’d drawn on Winter enough already that anything more was going to starkly affect my judgement instead of just reinforce bad instincts. Until the markers are gone, I told myself. Then retreat. I drew deep, and this time when the Saint struck at me I drowned the world in ice. Massive spinning blades tore through the air and ground, though I felt them shatter within a heartbeat. The hound had teeth. No matter. The creature with Two Knives had retreated to protect the thing that wielded Light, but the spellcaster was vulnerable. I wove around balls of flame effortlessly, parted a burning wall with a flick of my sword and found the human behind it staring back defiantly. It had gathered sorcery before it, a hundred hanging needles that burned the very air around them.

“Dodge that,” the human hissed, and they flew.

Laughing, I formed a gate that swallowed them into Arcadia and closed it just as swiftly. The human was casting again, and I could feel death coming. Light, from the side, and something more dangerous from the hound. I shaped glamour with but a thought, mine own silhouette striving for the spellacasrer as I leapt up shrouded in nothingness. The illusion was broken by a beam of Light, but the hound had caught the scent: even as I landed atop a ring of shade, she cut a wound into the air and ran atop it towards me. I broke the ring and fell as the other humans finally saw through the glamour, slow things that they were. Abandoning the spellcaster, I made for the Light-bearer and its protector. The knife-wielding thing shouted out a word in some foreign tongue that tasted of spice and blood, charging me with blinding speed. Ah, the arrogance of mortals. Gracefully, I stepped around the blow and simply left my sword in her way. It carved through her shoulder, blood spraying as the arm fell to the ground. I took a modified sharper from the satchel and shoved it into the stump, triggering the mechanism inside with a shard of ice. The detonation broke bone and tossed her away even as the Light-wielder shot another brilliant beam at me. My free hand caught it, fingers beginning to melt away, and I forced it to careen aside.

It had slowed me. The gout of flame I avoided with a mere half-step even as my fingers grew back, but the Saint struck harder. Holding the wound she had carved in the sky like a massive blade, she scythed through the side of me. I was quick enough it went through my shoulder instead of my head. In a heartbeat, arm and leg and flank were pulped. Winter hissed in fury, and they began to coalesce anew in ice.

“Not regeneration,” the Saint frowned. “Creationally fixed body. Just pour power until it remakes itself. You’ve turned yourself into proper abomination, girl. If there’s still any of you left in there.”

“Irritating,” I noted, voice echoing with the death of embers.

“Beat it, kids,” the hound ordered. “This one’s going to take a lot of killing before she goes down.”

Already the Light-wielder was fixing the creature I had mangled. The hound was an irritant, she must be dealt with before the rest was tended to. I seized threads of glamour and sent them into her mind, but they… broke. That was no soul. It was a sword, and somehow more.

“You hold dominion,” I said.

“Only over the one thing,” the Saint grinned. “But that’s usually enough.”

My eyes flicked to the sky. Another glamoured marker had vanished. Only one left now. And when it did, I would… I frowned. It was hard to remember. The hound took advantage of my distraction, striking anew. I let instinct guide me and steel rang against steel. She batted aside my guard but the spike of frost I shot at her throat forced her to turn her follow-through blow into a parry as I returned on the offensive. Cut high, swept away, but I turned with it and lunged at her back. She caught the tip between two fingers and twisted, the steel shattering. Frost filled the break as I withdrew, tasting her movements in the air. The footing gave her away. Or so I had thought: what should have been a strike at my arm was a slide forward instead, and when I tried a head-butt she met me with her own. We hit halfway through, neither hurt until she raked her fingers across my chest plate and cut through still boiling-hot steel. I let Winter loose, screaming cold winds blowing the both of us back. Some part of me insisted I look at the sky. The rest wanted to carve open that insolent hound and add her entrails to my cape. One was more pleasing than the other.

“Let us test it, then,” I smiled. “The mettle of our domains.”

Darkness fell, and came cold with it. The world fell away. Yet under an ink-black sky stood the Saint of Swords, radiant and unruffled. Unimpressed. I inhaled the scent of it, puzzled.

“Your dominion,” I said. “It is not projected. Only within.”

“Took me a decade of hard killing to get that down,” the hound replied. “But there’s always a fight to be found in Procer, if you know where to look.”

My frown deepened and the cold focused on her, but all it did was cool the blade. It had been forged of great fires, I thought. What coldness I had to offer was insufficient.

“Gods, I’m going to feel this one in the joints,” the Saint grunted.

She had no sword in hand, when she took her stance. I grit my teeth and poured all of my domain into her, but slowed was not stopped. She swung, and the light was blinding. Something… not broke, but it was wounded. Damaged. As I screamed the night fled, and I found myself kneeling over grounds rent asunder by our fight. Returned to Creation. The heroine was panting. Shit, I thought. What the fuck was that? I was feeling like myself again, but I was also feeling my heart beat. Like it actually mattered, like I was human again. The last marker was gone, I saw. And I sure as Hells wasn’t sticking around to take another of whatever in that’d been. Seizing reins gone frail, I called back the Hunt. Fewer than anticipated answered my call, but I realized with ugly surprise it was not rebellion I was dealing with. The heroes must have killed some of them. At least ten were gone, maybe more.

I legged it. No two ways about it, I made like a proper villain and fled the field. The heroine tried to follow and almost caught me around the corner behind a tent, scything straight through with another of those not-blows, but Zombie answered my call and landed just behind. We took flight even as the old woman cursed and carved another wound into the air, immediately running on it after me. Yeah, fuck that. I wasn’t picking a second fight with a Named who could shrug off my full domain.  I opened the gate in the sky even higher, seeing the Hunt take flight behind me, and went straight through into Arcadia. I didn’t even stop there, flying Zombie far from the entrance. The Saint, thank the Gods, did not follow. I learned why when another four of the Hunt disappeared from the back of my mind.

I could not help but be thankful she’d chosen to whittle away at my trump card instead of trying to go after me. It might have been possible to trap her in here, but that smelled of the Saint cutting her way back out at the worst possible moment down the line. The Hunt gathered to me, having lost a few feathers, but Headsman had been a success. Not without losses, but I wasn’t entirely opposed to the Hunt being thinned out before they inevitably stabbed me in the back. Larat was the first to address me after I landed, drenched in blood from head to toe. Someone was in a good mood.

“A victory, my queen,” he said.

I looked up at the Arcadian sky and smiled. Sure, it’d been that. But more importantly, it had been a very good distraction. After all, the very moment I’d opened the gate for the Watch someone had come through. And while we were busy being loud and visible?

Thief had been on the prowl.

“All right, saddle up,” I called out. “We need to find the Watch contingent before retreating.”

We needed to hurry. The sooner we got back to camp, the sooner I could ask Hierophant why my skin was capable of bruising again.

Chapter 10: Allegro

“There are no reserves, you fool, only second waves!”
– Isabella the Mad, only general to have ever defeated Theodosius the Unconquered on the field

“They’re about to split, Boss,” Robber said.

He was standing too close to the scrying bowl, which made his face look a lot larger than it should be and was just kind of distressing to see in general. Thief cleared her throat.

“We need numbers and direction,” she said.

There was the sound of struggle, a yelp and then Robber was pushed aside. Indrani grinned at us through the bowl and I sighed before she even began speaking.

“This camp is just crawling with heroes, Cat,” Archer said. “Dunno if you were aware, but they’ve got at least one mageling. Zeze’s going to have competition.”

“And how would you know that,” I slowly said. “You were under orders to stay out of sight.”

“I got eagle eyes,” she proudly said.

From behind her I heard Robber snort.

“It’s true, Boss,” he said. “I saw the eagle she took them from. Wasn’t pretty.”

Indrani pouted.

“You ruined it, Blaster,” she complained. “I was going to work up to the reveal after she got snippy.”

I was too wary to be amused by the thought of Archer attacking the local wildlife, sadly.

“Tell me you stayed out of sight,” I said.

The other Named rolled her eyes.

“I was good,” she said. “Used an aspect at a distance, they never saw me.”

“We don’t know if they have anyone able to detect that,” I told her harshly. “Now there’s a chance they know you’re out there.”

“They’re not Praesi,” Vivienne said mildly. “I won’t call this anything but reckless, but unless they were on the lookout for her already the chances she triggered a ward are negligible.”

I ignored her.

“Quiet, Archer,” I said. “Quiet is what I asked you for.”

“It’s what you got,” she dismissed. “That was over a day ago, if they thought someone was out there they would have sent heroes after us by now.”

“Let’s hope for that,” I grunted. “But we’re now assuming you, at least, were made.”

“It’s just twelve heroes,” Archer shrugged. “Nothing to worry about. Worse comes to worse, I shoot a few in the eye and run away.”

Strange, it hadn’t occurred to me before now that the muster of heroes on the other side was essentially a tenth and two officers. I had been tired, and there’d been a few days a while back where I’d had vicious headaches. Must have been the lack of sleep having unforeseen consequences. We were all feeling the pressure: even Vivienne and Masego had been out of sorts.

“Don’t engage, just run,” I told her. “And get Robber back in here, unless you can tell me about their troop movements.”

“She can’t,” the goblin piped up from a distance. “She was roaring drunk at the time.”

“Barely tipsy,” Archer blatantly lied. “But this is beneath me, so Jasper can handle it.”

She moved aside, and an irritated-looking Robber filled the bowl again.

“Best we can tell, Malanza’s splitting her army half and half,” he told us. “Same for the heroes, though that’s harder to be sure. They’ve got their own little camp aside from the army.”

I grimaced. Juniper had told me that if the crusaders separated their army they were unlikely to send a host after each of my own. It’d whittle down their numbers by too much, enough that if we went to reinforce a single army we’d have them outnumbered at that particular battle. Evidently Princess Malanza intended to have numerical superiority wherever she engaged regardless of reinforcements.

“And where are they headed?” Thief asked.

“This is guesswork,” Robber warned. “But by the way they’re shifting their supplies, I’d say centre and west. There’s a few days left before they’ll be ready to move.”

Vivienne let out a breath and my face darkened. So they could tell where our gate-makers were. I’d sent Larat and the Hunt to General Hune in the east, after Nauk had struck the supply lines from the west, in an attempt to keep the shell game going. It was possible the Proceran princess had gotten lucky with a guess – her odds weren’t bad, half and half since it was a given the centre had to stay mobile – but she did not strike me as the type leaving things to luck. Which meant there was a hero who could sniff out our gates, or at least the assets who made them.

“All right, good work,” I said. “Anything else to report?”

“They’re keeping a close eye on the Watch,” the Special Tribune said. “There’s a hero on them at all times, and the two old timers visited a while back. Not sure what happened, but no fighting aftewards. They didn’t relax the surveillance either, though.”

My lips quirked. We’d known going in that the odds of a truth-teller being along with the crusade were high, and we’d planned accordingly. None of the Watch were aware of what side they were actually on, and I’d made sure Kegan planted false rumours in her commanders that the heroes could chew over. The secret order was known only to one of her mages, and even the specifics of it were nothing too suspicious on the surface: all the mage had to do was check for a signal in the sky at a specific hour, and scry after seeing it. That, and note the position of officer tents. It would be quite enough.

“No need to worry about that,” I told Robber. “Keep your people ready, Special Tribune. We’ll have work for you soon enough.”

“Looking forward to it,” the goblin said, baring needle-like teeth.

The spell died, and after a last glimmer of sorcery the scrying bowl was filled with mere water again. Vivienne drummed the table lightly, though given the sensitivity of my hearing she might as well have been pounding away.

“I know,” I said. “We need to make a decision about Headsman.”

Thief smiled mirthlessly.

“I know you worry about the fallout, and not just because enemy officers will be put to the sword,” she noted. “We’d be revealing another trick the crusaders don’t know about.”

“But,” I said.

“The means it would be carried out might be different, but Procer is not unfamiliar with the use of assassination to influence warfare,” Vivienne said. “Catherine, they murder each other over grazing rights disputes – and I’m not exaggerating there, the sister of the Prince of Orne was poisoned over that not even eight years ago. We are fighting off an invasion.”

“You know what we need to achieve,” I reminded her.

“Hasenbach at the table, without blots on our war record that would make her people unseat her if she negotiated with us,” she agreed. “But considering the woman sent all her opposition into the mind grinder that is you, I doubt she’ll balk at treating with us after ‘mere’ peasant officers are killed.”

The last part she spoke with distaste, as much for the phrasing as the people it applied to – not the officers, no, but the handful of nobles who considered them so very expendable. Not that I could talk, I’d admit. Headsman had been designed as an operation that would shake the crusader army without getting half the High Assembly howling for our blood. I was, in my own way, considering them just as expendable. The thought tasted bitter, but I did not deny it. Lying to myself had become a lot more dangerous since I’d let Winter in.

“If we pull the trigger on it, we have to act now,” I admitted.

“There is a chance their host will later reunite,” Thief said.

“If we fuck up,” I bluntly replied. “We want them split, it makes them manageable. The only way we have all their major officers together again is if we blunder. Besides you’ve already told me the longer we wait the higher the chances this fails.”

“It’s a judgement call,” Vivienne said. “I don’t envy you the decision, but it is yours to make.”

I watched her as she brushed back her hair. It’d gotten longer, though still quite a ways were left to go until it reached the length of mine.  Her blue-grey eyes were untroubled, which I envied more than a little. Every day seemed to add another few pounds to what was already balancing on my shoulders. I chewed over what she’d said, but not the decision she’d brought to the fore. More the fact that she’d laid it at my feet, instead. When we’d begun, Vivienne had made it clear she was only sticking around so long as she thought I was the best game in town for Callow. And now here we were, planning how to turn back an invasion together.

“You seem amused,” she said.

“Just thinking about how far we’ve come,” I honestly said. “Can you imagine us having this conversation two years ago?”

She laughed, a little bitterly.

“It was a simpler world I lived in, two years ago,” Vivienne Dartwick admitted. “The lines in the sand were visible.”

“And now?” I asked quietly.

“Now I wonder,” Thief said, and her lips set in a hard line. “In your service, I have been part of ugly things. No two ways about that. But nowadays I look at the rest of Calernia, and all I see is vultures. You are flawed, I know that even if you’ve grown on me. But you’re also the only one who seems to care about any of this. There are twelve heroes on Calernian soil, Catherine, and every single one of them is a pawn to Proceran ambition. It is the reason they came in the first place. I thought… I thought better. Of all of us.”

“They’re not responsible for the Conquest,” I murmured. “For Malicia’s cold-blooded ruthlessness, or what came of Black playing his game with the Heavens. They get no pass from me for their own actions, but I will not blame them for that.”

“I’ve studied them, Catherine,” Thief said. “And the histories as well. When Callow as being invaded, Ashur was fighting for supremacy of the Samite Gulf. The princes of Procer were so far gone they preferred fighting civil war to taking up arms against Praes ascendant. Half the Dominion was fighting border skirmishes over trade rights, without a care of what happened beyond their borders. And the heroes… well, they had their own struggles, the ones that were already born. Yet none so great they should not have been set aside to fight against the fucking theft of an entire kingdom. It is infuriating, that it took them twenty years to suddenly find their principles. Can they really be called that, if they only surface when convenient? It reeks of pretext instead, and my tolerance for those has grown thin.”

Your people grown warped by your presence, the Grey Pilgrim had said. Old traits grown more vicious and acute. I could not tell if Vivienne had come to speak those words because she had seen the face of the enemy and felt only disgust, or because of something more insidious. A spreading influence I was unaware of. I had asked nothing of the Gods Below, since taking my Name, but I would have been a fool to believe they gained nothing from empowering me. Does it not matter in the slightest what I do? I wondered. I’d always dismissed the talk of heroes as mere religious prattle, the kind of empty sermons the House of Light garnished its true power with. But if there was truth to it, if I was a blight on Creation just by standing on the side of Below however loosely… That was the thing, wasn’t it? I was expected to take on faith the words of people trying to kill me. Or to follow the sayings of sacred texts that had been used as tools of ambition as often as not.  There were no easy truths to find. All I had was what I knew, and it was always too little.

“I do not mean this as excuse of the Empire,” Vivienne softly said. “I have learned of the people within it, that they are not as wretched as I once believed. But the High Lords and the Tower, that entire edifice of bloody misery? It must be brought down. There is not other choice, because we cannot tame a dog gone rabid. But I will not mistake the horrors of one side for the virtues of the other.”

“It was easier, wasn’t it?” I said whimsically. “When we thought right and wrong had a colour code?”

Thief put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed, a rare gesture of affection.

“I will not thank you, for opening my eyes to that,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “But I understand now, why you are who you are. Why anyone would look at the sky and curse. There is a point where it is no longer about right and wrong, isn’t there? Where it’s about doing something, anything, to avoid falling in that same old pit.”

Her fingers clenched, her eyes hardened.

“They don’t get to walk over us, to kill us, just because some fucking angel handed down a mandate,” she hissed. “They don’t get to avoid the responsibility of that choice. Or the consequences.”

Villain, I thought. There was only one side that spoke this way, and didn’t pray to Above.

“Black told me, once, that Fate it the coward’s way out,” I murmured. “The abdication of personal responsibility. I hate him a little bit, for still being right after all these years.”

She snorted.

“We might still lose, you know,” Thief said. “That’s the part that gets me. No matter how prepared we are, it might not be enough.”

“Could be,” I agreed. “But then we do the same thing villains have always done, when their plans fall apart.”

“And what’s that?”

“You get up,” I said. “You spit out the blood in your mouth, and you try again.”

We stayed sitting there for a long time, the two of us in front of a bowl gone fallow.

“We proceed with Headsman,” I finally said, breaking the silence. “Tell Masego to prepare. And send word to Kegan. The Deoraithe are to cross the river.”

“I will,” Thief replied. “And me?”

“I’ll open the gate as soon as Hierophant does the numbers,” I said. “This is going to be… delicate.”

“Isn’t it always?” Vivienne smiled.

It’d been some time since I had worn my full regalia – if it could be called that.

Full plate from head to toe, with chain shirt and aketon beneath. I’d considered this heavy, once, enough that it restricted my mobility. Nowadays I barely noticed it. I wore the helmet Hakram had gifted me, the hinged thing of steel with the black iron crown set atop it. My shield lay hanging on Zombie the Third’s flank as it idly picked at grass it could not actually digest, but my longsword was clasped tight to my flank on the sword-belt. The satchel at my side held munitions, though not standard issue. Robber had tinkered away before his departure. The Mantle of Woe streamed down my back, its bright colours muted in the shade of a moonless night. There was a weight to wearing all of this, and not only a physical one. Black Queen, they called me, but it was not a Name. It might have been, before my teacher broke Liesse and himself with it, but the story had died and the path with it. It would have been a lie, though, to still call myself the Squire. No one did anymore. I could still feel the bare bones of that Name, some days, but the flesh and muscle over them was Winter’s. Whatever I’d done in Liesse, when I had broken Masego’s scaffolding, it had ended my tenure. I had no aspects anymore, only the power that my mantle lent me. Even what I’d ripped from Akua, what had once been Call, it was… different now. By taking it I had come to own it, and that opened doors I’d never even dreamed of.

I rolled a dark wooden whistle between my steel-clad fingers, feeling it pulse with had once been the Diabolist’s power. To be fae, and I had touched the face of that, was to cease seeing the difference between principle and object as more than thin boundary. I’d experimented with that power, under Hierophant’s supervision, and the whistle had been one of the greater successes. It was an aspect made matter. Certain limitations had not been escaped, and some had even increased – anyone could use the whistle, yes, but Take had been theft of a finite bundle of power. The whistle could only be used once, since I’d yet to figure out how to partition uses. It would, however, work with the full strength of that aspect.

“A worthy trinket, for the Queen of the Hunt,” Larat said.

I glanced at him. Of all the fae sworn to me, he was the only one willing to bring his mount close to mine. In the early days after receiving their oaths, I’d had to… establish a pecking order. Some of them had been under the impression that entering my service was only a means to enter Creation unrestricted, and that now they’d entered they could play as they wished. My eyes turned to the dark-haired woman at the back of the pack, who shivered when she noticed me watching her. She’d been of Summer, before. It had not stopped her from trying to make sport of a full tavern of people in Laure, weaving glamour into their minds so they could play out a tragedy for her where real blood was spilled. Thief had been tracking all of them, so I’d intervened before any damage was done. I’d taken power to call her to heel, though, and drawing that deep had coloured my reaction. There were only two fingers to her left hand, now. I’d made her eat the rest.

No one had tested me since, at least.

“Won’t see use tonight,” I said, and flicked my wrist.

The whistle disappeared into nothingness, returning to Winter.

“Such leashes you inflict upon your might,” the former Prince of Nightfall sighed. “You could take so much more. And you have yet to bestow.”

I grimaced.

“I’m not going to hand out mantles to anyone, Larat,” I said. “Much less you.”

He laughed, cold and crisp.

“I have no more need of titles, save that which is owed,” he said. “But you are Queen of Winter, Catherine Foundling. No queen can be forever without a court.”

“You must take me for a complete idiot,” I mused. “Bad enough I have it whispering in the back of my mind, I’m not going to spread that influence.”

“Ah, but there are such benefits to bestowal,” Larat smiled. “Freedom from the chains of entropy among them. How many of those you love are you willing to lose to age, before bending your neck?”

My fingers clenched. Was he implying that if I titled Robber or any other of the goblins… No, I could not begin down that road. Bad enough I’d had speculations about what the Council of Matrons might be considering back in the Wasteland, if I ended up granting a sliver of Winter to Robber there would be blood.

“I am no stranger to sacrifice,” I replied shortly.

“So you say,” the Huntsman languidly shrugged. “We have all the time in the world to find out, don’t we?”

I eyed him darkly.

“Even for a treacherous lieutenant, you’re a little much,” I told him.

He scoffed.

“Am I a mortal, to deny my own nature?” he replied. “I am Fae, my queen: be it fair or foul, I will never be less than I am. I will be monster and schemer, hound and prince, but not once untrue through any of it. Deception lies in the eye of the other, not in one’s own blood.”

“That was very inspiring,” I drawled. “Doesn’t make me want to stab you just to be on the safe side any less, but lovely little speech. Really. If I still had functioning tear ducts I might shed a tear.”

“Tears will be shed when you feel them,” Larat told me.  “Your mistake is in trying to quantify, to place rules where there is only will.”

That, more than his tirade, had me shivering. Because it rang true. Place rules where there is only will. I looked away. Masego had continued to study my body, and the more I learned the more unsettled I became. He’d told me since the beginning that my flesh and blood was a construct, now, that there was nothing natural about it. To learn that I no longer sweated had been no horrifying revelation, but that while I might breathe out of habit I no longer needed to? There was a reason my liquor cabinet was well-stocked.

“You’re sure we’re close enough?” I asked.

Larat sighed.

“Your meddling practitioner tries to regulate that which is beyond regulation,” he said. “My queen, there is only the story. All else is beneath your notice.”

Yeah, that was less than reassuring. I felt the power bloom in the distance, and turned Zombie around so I could have a better look. Red lights in the night sky, to tall and bright they must have been visible even down in Laure.

“Ready yourselves,” I called out the Hunt. “You know the rules.”

There was sparse laughter, but many eager grins. I did not have to wait long before it came. I’d expected it to be different, even though I’d not really known what to expect. Like a gate, maybe, or a spell. All I felt was a window, just at the corner of my vision.

“The Wild Hunt rides tonight,” the fae who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall laughed. “Raise your banners, damned souls. Sound the horns and loose the hounds. Let us make sport under moonless night.”

I stepped through, bridging thought and act without embracing either. The water-filled bowl shattered as we crossed through it, a reflection made truth. Wind whipped at the inside of the tent as Zombie neighed, the terrified Deoraithe mage at my feet turning white. Every Callowan knew that scrying near the Waning Woods was like sending an invitation to the Wild Hunt.

We had accepted it.