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


Chapter 32: Kernel

“Match the smile but watch the knife.”
– Soninke saying

The precarious balance the Woe had struck travelling through the echoes together was gone. Within an hour of Masego going into the imprint and harvesting what he could from the Bard and the Dead King that much had been made plain. Thief kept close to Akua’s shade, always in earshot, but had fallen into a sullen silence. Archer stabbed our most recent addition through the throat the very moment she attempted to strike conversation, laughing delightedly when the body reformed like mist after she withdrew the blade. I denied her suggestion that Diabolist be made to run ahead of the rest of us and used as target practice, though I was honestly tempted after what I’d overheard last night. There was no point in coddling a snake, true, but mistreating a dangerous and bound entity led to a particular kind of story and not one that ended well for any of us. Hierophant was still feeling the aftermath of stealing an entire language from Arcadia so he walked on his own regularly drinking from some herbal mixture he’d put together. Archer, thankfully, was leaving him alone. She had a talent for discerning between being a pest and being genuinely unpleasant.

That left only silence or Adjutant and I, for Diabolist to make conversation, and I got the impression that after so long in the box Akua was actually quite eager to talk with people. Which led to my finding out something quite interesting: Hakram made Diabolist uncomfortable. Not so much that it showed on her face, but I’d been looking at her closely and when conversing with my right hand she was just slightly off. There was no trace of the easy grace she’d used to run circles around Thief to be found, and while she didn’t blunder either I suspected it was because she was being exceedingly careful. I was slightly amused by that, but mostly curious. She could have been faking, of course. That was always a possibility with Akua Sahelian, the footnote added to her every single action and behaviour. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t, and that had me thinking about the reasons she’d feel that way. Was she racist? It’d been my impression that by Trueblood standards she was actually pretty tolerant. Which translated to looking down on everyone not a Trueblood more or less equally, with maybe a dash of additional contempt added because greenskins were just so uncivilized.

Assuming it wasn’t simply the spectacle of an orc being articulate and calm that had her on the back foot, there might be an angle there. Vivienne had her number in some ways and Archer was usually too willful to influence meaningfully, but Masego enjoyed talking magic with peers enough it could become an issue if left unchecked. It’d already led him to argue for the sparing of the woman who now ran the Observatory for him, and though I doubted he’d go on a similar limb for Diabolist of all people I couldn’t dismiss the possibility he’d grow somewhat fond of her over time. There were similarities to the way they’d been raised. His only objections about mass murder tended to be either on a professional basis – human sacrifice was an amateur’s crutch, he’d always argued – or because it would displease me. Considerate of him, but not exactly a solid foundation either way. It was a load off my shoulders that Adjutant looked like he’d be able to handle her. I’d long grown to rely on Hakram tidying it all up behind me, a pair of eyes that picked up on all the details I missed. It was fitting that it him who brought up the matter when we paused for a meal around noon.

“We’ll need to change her appearance,” Adjutant said, head inclining towards Diabolist. “A few people will see through it regardless, but it can’t be openly known she is now in our employ.”

“That would not be unwise,” Akua agreed. “Your subjects have reason to be less than fond of me, and my presence would not help your reputation abroad.”

Understatement of the decade, that. It would have been unproductive to maker her choke herself again, I reminded myself.

“I’m not sure how well glamour would work without something physical to be anchored on,” I frowned. “I can weave illusions without one, but I do need to concentrate. It’s not a long-term solution or even a reliable one.”

“I have become part of your mantle, dear heart,” Akua said with a pleasant smile. “Changing my looks through it should not be all that difficult.”

I mulled on that. It was true that she was no longer just bound to the Mantle of Woe. I’d known that the moment I summoned her before beginning our journey. My influence over her shade had grown stronger, broader in scope than simple hold and release. I breathed out and focused, Winter slithering through my veins like whispering smoke. I looked her into the eyes, those brown orbs so dark they were nearly black, and… withdrew what made them. Or at least the thinnest surface of it. Akua blinked, eyes now completely white and without either iris or pupil. I swallowed a flinch. That’d been a little more than I was aiming for. Thief made her way to us, cocking her head to the side.

“Fae,” she said. “Give her the appearance of a fae. You’re known to have dealings with them, it’s the most plausible story we have.”

“And not,” Akua mused, “entirely untrue. As all the finest lies are.”

I was unsettled by the idea of moulding another person – even if their soul was all that was left – like clay, but I pushed that down. Diabolist was already almost inhumanly beautiful, the result of centuries of Wasteland highborn breeding, so twisting her into something fae-like was not as much effort as I’d thought. Larger eyes, the way most fae had, and coloured a vivid scarlet like the dresses she used to wear. Long dark hair, the tresses going down her back, and her already high cheekbones were shaped into a face that was just a little too long and finely boned to be human. I would have made her shorter, if only for the novelty of having someone not towering over me around, but I’d never met a fae that was short. Instead I elongated her, for lack of a better term.

“Fewer curves,” Thief said, fixing me with a steady look.

I sneered back. I didn’t ogle all my enemies. And despicable person or not, it would have been a deplorable waste to make Diabolist stick-thin. I did adjust her to her taller height, but left it at that.

“Pointed ears,” Hakram suggested.

Difficult to mould, but not impossible. It still took longer than the rest of her face put together. I watched Diabolist as I did, for even a hint she was uncomfortable at what was taking place. People with good looks tended to be attached to them, in my experience, and more than that for Named most of all appearances mattered. There was a reason Black still looked in his early twenties and my hair had remained the same length since I became the Squire. Our perceptions of ourselves made us fixed points, to an extent, in one of the subtler rebellions against Above a villain was made of. But she remained indifferent. Like her face was no real importance. It might actually be, I finally decided. Akua was Praesi to the bone, and the highborn of the Wasteland saw everything as a tool – even their own appearances.

“I don’t feel like I’m working with a set amount of clay here,” I admitted uneasily after finishing. “I could make her tall as an ogre without trouble, and she certainly wasn’t that large to begin with. Isn’t there an original law about that? ‘Something cannot be made of nothing’.”

“It would not apply,” Diabolist lightly said. “You draw on Winter as the substance of my being. One does not dry an ocean by removing a droplet from it.”

That was less than reassuring, though her tone had seemingly been aiming for that. Thief assessed her with a frank gaze, the most practiced of us as disguising herself.

“It would pass muster, for most,” she said. “The voice has to go, though. It’s too recognizable.”

“I’m not sure how to do that,” I admitted. “She’s a shade, so is she really speaking with her throat and chords?”

“It is a mere property, now,” Akua said. “No different than colouring or height. Twisting it only requires the appropriate exertion of will.”

Well that was just helpful of her, I thought drily. Unfortunately none of this had come with a manual so I spent almost half an hour struggling in vain before calling for Masego. He was irked at being called away from his almost-nap with a cool cloth on his forehead, but what was being done interested him enough the mood passed quickly. He held my metaphorical hand through the process and we’d made Diabolist’s voice lower and throatier within moments. It would do, for now. I could have tinkered more, but the simple fact that I could tinker with someone’s appearance was raising the hair on the back of my neck. That level of control was… No one should have that. Certainly not me. We got moving again afterwards: the centre of the shattered kingdom was close now, we could all feel it.

I doubted I would enjoy what I’d find there.

Shard by shard, the fall of Sephirah was coming together. We spent most of a day journeying through plague-ridden cities and losing battles, watching desperation grown on the Sephiran side. I could understand why the nobles at the funeral had been dismissive of the chances of the People of the Wolf: though decked out in iron, their warriors were helpless before tall walls as most Sephiran cities boasted. They seemed more like a pack of raiding tribes than a true army, without siege weapons or any notion of supplies. If they could not ransack granaries, they went hungry. There’d been a mention of an organization of mages at the funeral, the Conclave, and Hierophant grew excited when he finally saw them in action. They were certainly a notch above the early practitioners we’d seen: the few Sephiran victories we saw had them playing a central role. Rituals seemed to be their specialty, nothing like the fireballs and lightning bolts that were the bread and butter of the Legions.

The boiled the ground under enemy soldiers, snatched the air out of their lungs and even drew storms towards the invading host. It was not, unfortunately, nearly enough. They were too few, less than two hundred, and not unmatched besides. The People of the Wolf were led by their Named queen, and she broke their rituals whenever she took the field. She had mages of her own, if few and seemingly all from the same tribe, and though they used little offensive sorcery they seemed to have a knack for calming and dispersing rituals. The sacking of a great city – for the times, anyway, it was barely the size of Dormer – was the turning point. There were piles of burning plague victims outside the walls, and when the invaders arrived they scaled the walls in the dark of night and slaughtered the beleaguered defenders. It got vicious after that, on both sides. The People of the Wolf began having a semblance of a baggage train from the sheer amount of plunder they were dragging along, which slowed them down, but their numbers kept swelling.

Repeated and richly rewarded victory had drawn more tribes to the war. That was my guess, anyway, because the warriors no longer all spoke the language that Hakram had told me shared root with Reitz. The dead king’s eldest son wore the crown for some time, with one of his sisters as the lesser queen sharing his reign, but we watched the Witch Queen feed him to wolves after she broke his army beneath city walls and captured him. That was when Neshamah began appearing along with the Conclave. Not often, but whenever he did the Sephiran mages always won the day. And their rituals were always a little more vicious every time. One battle where the defenders were particularly outnumbered led to the first use of necromancy we’d seen, the dead rising to make up the odds. It was far from the last instance we came across.

“Their manner of rule is not without merits,” Akua said as we watched yet another coronation in the royal hall unfold beneath us from a balcony. “Though it would never function as intended in Praes.”

The entire story was unfolding over what had to be at least a decade, I’d come to realize. Possibly more. The royals I’d first seen at the entombment were all growing older my more than a few years.

“It’s not just primogeniture,” I said. “The lesser king beneath the ruling one isn’t always the next oldest in the family.”

“They are the favourite or closest ally of the ruler, I suspect,” Diabolist said. “The purpose behind the practice is quite clear regardless. The successor is allowed to entrench themselves in the court and kingdom so that any war of succession would result in their crushing victory. A cunning enough method to keep such matters stable in an era where they were anything but.”

“We haven’t seen them fighting each other yet,” I agreed. “But they’re going through kings like a basket of pastries. Not much entrenchment going on there.”

“The Dead King is positioning himself,” she smiled. “He is the youngest, yes? And was long gone from the kingdom. He must earn enough acclaim to be seen as the worthiest candidate for the lesser crown even though his ties to the others are weak. Once the succession reaches a sibling without sufficient support, they will inevitably appoint him beneath them to benefit from his repute.”

I didn’t reply immediately, eyeing my companion in silence instead. It was still jarring to hear the different voice and see the difference appearance, but that was a passing thing. No, what had be uncomfortable was how easy talking with Akua was. She was, well, surprisingly pleasant company. I could have done without the occasional endearments, but the more I spoke with her the more it became clear she wasn’t a raving lunatic. I’d known that, of course. That she was just twisted in a way that couldn’t be undone, not actively mad. But living with that truth in front of me was different than knowing it in this abstract. If she were not responsible for the single greatest loss of Callowan life since Dread Empress Triumphant, I might actually have caught myself liking her once in a while. It was made worse by her usefulness. Thief had been tutored as a noble’s child, even if her father had lost his title after the Conquest, but like me she’d always felt more comfortable in the streets than sitting down at a writing desk. Diabolist had been raised as heiress to Wolof, and though she was mother to half a dozen atrocities I could not deny she understood the halls of power in a way none of the Woe did.

Her words to Thief still echoed in my mind, sometimes. That she’d fought the better part of the armies of two nations to a standstill, led by eight Named. Her methods had been disgusting, and I would not forgive or forget them. But she had done it regardless, and cornered as I was by the Empress and the First Prince I could not deny there were things I could learn from the monster on my leash.

“He succeeded,” I finally said. “We know that. But I’m not certain how. He’s forging a reputation as the savior of the kingdom, but at some point he must have gotten the lesser crown or even the one above. If Sephirah kept losing even then, as it must have if they got desperate enough to resort to a Greater Breach, how did he remain king? A reputation like that has to be maintained or they’ll turn on your twice as hard.”

As it happened, I knew a thing or two about that. The Black Queen would only reign so long as she was not seen to bleed.

“You still think like a Callowan, dearest,” Akua said. “Even before the Conquest, the kingdom of your birth had been a single entity with largely static borders for centuries. The loss of even outer provinces would have been felt a slight by all the rest. These Sephirans, however, are less than a century from the days of their unification. The royal army fights for the realm entire, certainly, but we have seen that the armies of their twelve cities are not willing to bleed for their sisters.”

I frowned, following down the path she’d set out for me.

“It’s all expendable,” I finally said. “Except for Keter itself. That one city’s all he really needs. The rest is willingly on the chopping block, because it allows him to accumulate power for his ritual without damaging his powerbase enough it unseats him. Merciless Gods. That’s brutal even by Wasteland standards.”

“Many usurpations of the Tower has been executed through Callowan swords,” Akua said. “It is an old trick. Evidently older than I had believed. I will confess surprise, however, as to the Dead King’s chosen method of ascension.”

I flicked a glance at her.

“He’s building up to a massive ritual by bleeding everyone else,” I said. “That’s the classic Praesi play, Akua. You can’t crack open a history of the Empire without finding an instance.”

She dismissed that with a graceful movement of the wrist.

“It matters, my dear, that his path to that ritual is so indirect,” Diabolist said. “He did not usurp the crown, though opportunities must have abounded. The fullness of his influence seems to be his unspoken prominence among this Conclave and his popularity with the masses. He is not wielding his own might to seize authority, but instead relying on outside pressures to propel him to that desired summit.”

I considered that. On one hand, he was using others as tools to place himself in power. On the other, those people weren’t true accomplices. There was no plotting cabal backing him that we’d seen, and even his influence with the Conclave was odd. He was teaching them sorcery, that much was clear, and leading them to slowly dip their toe in darker waters. But he wasn’t turning them into his own personal circle of sorcerers. Hierophant had been the one to first say the way necromancy was being introduced was odd, but Diabolist had agreed. Neshamah knew a lot more than he was teaching them, and what he did teach them didn’t seem like he was offering a true education. Even within the purview of necromancy there is a great deal of latitude in structure and variance, Masego had said. Some of those rituals are near completely unrelated. I’d had a growing suspicion for a while that winning victories wasn’t the point of the corpse-raising at all. And if the ends were unimportant, it was the means that mattered. And it could not be forgotten that beyond necromancy, there was another set of means at play – the scheme he was using to rise. Most notable in that it put a crown on his brow without conflict. Without breaking the mores of the Sephirans.

“He’s not after the quickest or most effective way to rise,” I said.

Akua’s scarlet eyes turned to me.

“Then what is he after?” she asked.

“The one that leaves no openings,” I grimly replied.

I ended our conversation there, without gracing her with an explanation. Akua Sahelian was not someone I ever intended on telling of what Masego and I had witnessed.

The centre of the maze was the birth of apocalypse. I’d known it was coming, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of Keter’s final hours. It was, I had to admit, a great city. Almost as large as Laure, which was astounding for a people that could not even forge iron. Tall walls of blocks of stone without mortar hid away most of the insides, though Indrani told us they were a pittance compared to the walls now encircling Keter. The capital of the Kingdom of Sephirah stood on a low plateau that formed a dais of sorts over the surrounding plains. There were abandoned mining pits scattered across it, and cobbled stone roads leading to four great gates of bronze facing the four directions. Copper shone in the dying afternoon last, covering the roofs of the great houses surrounding the central great tower looking down on the city, but none of us spared much thought for the beauty of it. The horror of the unfolding battle saw to that.

How many invaders were there? Easily over ten thousand, and not all of them from the People of the Wolf. Banners decorated with animal skulls and skins formed a sea beneath the walls, the host of what must have been half of what would become Procer assembled to take the last of the twelve cities of Sephirah. The invaders were dying in droves, but the city was slowly edging towards a loss. Sorcery crackled, weaving storms and raising the dead, but the tribal mages tore through the spells and bestowed enchantments upon the assaulting warriors that allowed them to climb the walls without thought to their weight. We were witnessing the death of a nation, and in the sky above twilight was growing crimson.

We headed deeper in. That was where the gate out would be, I knew instinctively. Indrani threw a grappling hook over the walls and eagerly began to climb, but I drew on Winter instead and formed a narrow set of stairs that the others took even as she catcalled. Ghostly warriors of both sides dying around us, we ascended into the city. Fear hung in the streets, thick and lingering. Doors were barred, prayers and weeping sounding everywhere we tread.

“The Hall of the Dead,” Archer said, pointing to the tall tower ahead after catching up. “What it’s called now, anyway.”

The city around the tower was deserted. All those beautiful mansions, and not a soul in sight. It was inside we found our ending. The chanting could be heard as we walked through the labyrinthine corridors, only growing louder as we got closer to the royal hall where we’d seen so many get crowned. Files of kneeling mages spread out from that centre like tentacles, each singing the same incantation in unison. There would be consequences to missing a step, we learned. One young girl mispronounced a syllable and let out a blood-curdling scream as her body withered, leaving a husk of a corpse behind.

“Fucking Hells,” Indrani murmured.

“Workings this powerful leave little room for mistakes,” Hierophant noted, eyeing the corpse with interest.

We reached the hall as the ritual neared its end, the chanting growing quicker. We’d seen this place before, many a time. A throne room richly decorated with banners of the twelve cities and statues of copper. There was no throne here today, nothing save for a tall sculpted arc of obsidian and the man standing before it. Neshamah was no longer young. He was closely-shaven and his hair was messy, and even now there was no trace of great Evil in him. No sunken eyes and horrid sneer: only calm, patient expectation. We advanced in silence until we could hear our own footsteps echo. Not a whisper to be heard. Then the Dead King spoke, and the shard ended. In the blank emptiness that enveloped us, we heard a woman’s soft laughter.

My hand rose, the gate opened where the arc of obsidian had once stood and into Keter we went.

Chapter 31: Spectation

“You’re a masterful schemer, it’s true. Let’s see if that helps any in the alligator pit..”
– Dread Empress Malignant I, holding court

They all knew me well enough to leave me alone with my thoughts as I tried to get a handle on what I’d learned. Well, maybe not Diabolist, but she was better at picking up on those things than any of the others. I occupied my hands with mindless work, taking a whetstone to my sword even though it was quite sharp enough already. In the grander scheme of things, Catherine, I’m the petty warlord of a backwater kingdom. Black had told me that once, a long time ago. We’d been speaking about the gnomes, and he’d been putting in perspective the truth that a second-rate power in Calernia would be considered less than dust in the greater world beyond this continent. I was learning now that we were all pieces in a greater game even here. There was no other real way to understand the conversation between the two abominations, one still learning and the other emergent. The Bard had been considered old even in the days of Sephirah’s fall. Gods, how long had she been around?

I did not consider myself all that inclined to fear my enemies, admittedly sometimes even when I should have. But as the whetstone slid against the edge, I admitted to myself that for the first time in ages I was genuinely afraid of an opponent. Heroes, even those who could tread all over me, I could cope with. There were ways around power, around the laws of the Heavens. They could be tricked and twisted. But something like the Wandering Bard? She might have set in motion the sequence of events that would lead to my death decades before I was even born. If Black was to be believed, she could not be killed and even if she somehow was anyway she’d only return with a different face. There was no telling what she knew or how she knew it. There was no telling where she was and what she was up to. How could an entity like that be beaten? The sharp song of stone on steel held no answers, soothing as it was.

I’d believed that I understood the game unfolding across Calernia. That I could guess, if not know, the motives and intents of the other players. The Tenth Crusade, the Empire and the League: the three powers on the board, as far as the nations of mankind went. My attempts at seeing through the Dead King were now revealed to have been little more than presumption, but light had been shed on more than that mistake alone. There was more going on behind the crusade than faith and ambition. Hasenbach might have refused my terms because of political considerations, as I’d previously believed, or she might have been moved by a whisper in her ear years ago that only now clicked into place. I could no longer trust any of the actors to act according to the rules I’d believed they obeyed, because I’d been blind to half the war even as I fought it. Which now took me to the very place I’d been struggling to avoid since I took the crown: I had to take measures to insure the survival of Callow while in the dark about the objectives of all the other forces in play.

Fuck, for all I knew the Bard was interceding in my favour. I’d had strokes of bad luck, sure, but exceedingly good one as well. I wasn’t unaware that Black had been arranging things quietly in the background so that opportunities would land in my lap ever since I became his apprentice, but there were things beyond his ability to arrange. The Bard had been in the thick of it, at Liesse, when I gained back the aspect I lost and snatched a resurrection out of angelic hands. Had she been beaten there, or had that restoration been the purpose all along? Hells, had she pulled strings for me to win just so I’d fuck up with Akua the following year and Second Liesse got the Tenth Crusade going? I could go mad, trying to find the hand of the Wandering Bard behind every turning point of the last few years. But then could I really afford not to look for it? If I kept my eyes closed, I’d lose. Or whatever else she had in mind for me.

She’d admitted to the Dead King that he’d been too clever in his scheme for her to be able to crush him, but that’d been centuries and centuries ago. When she was still learning her Role. I had to face the possibility that even if I made all the right choices I might still end up broken because the Bard had shaped the choices I’d be able to make so she couldn’t possibly lose. I felt shards of stone pass through my fingers, and noticed with a sigh that I’d crushed the whetstone without even meaning to. That was my only one, too, I’d have to borrow Hakram’s from now on. I picked up my scabbard with a sigh and sheathed the longsword. So much for any of this calming me. There were no easy answers to be had. No plan to form out of thin air. Should we even finish the journey to Keter? I had a better notion of what I’d be letting out, now, and it was so much worse than I’d expected.

I would not have flinched at making a deal with a cunning undead Dread Emperor with a little more foresight, but Neshamah was something else. He’d been arranging the death of realms at a time where most the continent could barely use sorcery – and he’d had millennia to plot his next moves. I very much doubted that the man I’d seen would call it quits after breaking the Kingdom of Sephirah and conquering his hell. There would be more. And I had been sent an envoy, I thought, because he had deemed I could be useful for that purpose. My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched. I’d get nowhere, stewing in my own thoughts like this. The pot had been freshly steered, and I was too close to the matter regardless. I’d speak with the others after my head was cleared. Besides, for once under the restlessness I felt the call of exhaustion. Not physical, though. The boon of knowledge from Masego seemed to have tired me out mentally.

I dragged myself back to camp, waved away the concern of the others and crawled under the covers by the fireside. I’d still be just as fucked tomorrow, so forcing myself to go through the song and dance now did not appeal.

Sleep found me swiftly.

I woke to the sound of soft voice, after too short a rest. The orations and murmurs of the shard could not be heard, which meant our ‘night’ was in full swing. My mind still felt sluggish but at least I was no longer wandering from one idle thought to the next, treading the same hopeless circle. I kept my eyes closed and my breathing even, at first out of laziness but the reason was swift to change: the people speaking were Thief and Diabolist. Neither seemed aware I was now awake.

“- no longer need to sleep,” Akua said. “You need not burden yourself, I can keep watch alone.”

Thief chuckled.

“And you believe you’re trusted enough for that, Sahelian?” she said. “I never took you for such a hopeful soul.”

“To keep quiet in the face of danger would be utterly mindless treachery,” Diabolist said. “I am, after all, dependent on Catherine to walk the world.”

“Unless someone else takes the cloak,” Vivienne said.

“I have use to the Woe,” Akua said. “Use enough I was allowed this larger cage. There is no guarantee another bearer would have such purpose for me. A poor gamble to make.”

“You seem to think you can talk your way into a semblance of trust, Wastelander,” Thief snorted. “Best you discard that notion early. It will be less irritating for all involved.”

“Fascinating,” Diabolist murmured. “Your distaste of me has not ebbed in the slightest, and still here I am. Yet you’ve been charged with the duty of being Catherine’s conscience, which means she would not have eased the leash without your permission.”

“Her Majesty, to you,” Thief bit out. “Sweet nothings and Praesi titles won’t get you anywhere with us, Sahelian. We all remember what you are.”

“Liesse,” Akua mused. “The sum of all I am, in your eyes. You might not be wrong to think so. It was the pivot to who I am today.”

“The greatest butcher of our time,” Vivienne said.

“From a highborn, that would have been a compliment,” Akua said, a smile in her voice. “Not so here, of course. I imagine that is how you’ve made peace with the nature of the demand I be brutally snuffed out when my usefulness ends.”

It was an effort not to stiffen. Named senses would have given me away to Vivienne for sure, though I wasn’t sure how Diabolist functioned in that way.

“Not my call to make, that,” Thief shrugged. “I’m the spymistress, not the queen.”

“A poor parry,” Diabolist chided. “You already know I suspect the inner workings of the Woe and your role within them. It would have been more effective to feign conflict between you and Catherine over the matter, allowing her to position herself as my salvation while you bayed for blood.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“You’re so caught up in your Praesi games you don’t even see your blinders,” Vivienne sighed, and she sounded fairly convincing to me. “Must be the old madness. You certainly don’t sound like a woman who thinks she has a sword hanging over her head.”

Akua laughed softly.

“My dear Thief,” she said. “If I cannot carve a path to survival with such early forewarning, I deserve to be destroyed. That is the measure by which I am to be weighed. I’ve always found it amusing to hear your people speak of the Wasteland’s ways as ‘blinders’, truth be told. As if bereft of them we would then see Creation as you do. Do you truly believe Callowans to be the only lucid people in the world?”

“My tutors taught me that’s called a false equivalence,” Vivienne said conversationally. “The pretence that the obvious failings in the customs of a people that slaughter each other and their neighbours for sport every other decade are somehow the same as the flaws in the customs of Callow. We’re not perfect, of course. But I’d rather deal with the fucking elves than you and your fellows, Sahelian. The long-ears might be murderous assholes, but at least they stay in their forest. Your people make your problems everyone one else’s problems too.”

“So they did teach you rhetoric,” Akua said. “Good, this would have been quite boring otherwise. You would have served as poor moral compass, were you unable to argue.”

“There’s that most sacred of villainous traditions at work,” Thief said cuttingly. “Cutting one’s losses and bailing from the fight.”

“You speak as if you were not a villain yourself,” Diabolist said.

“I am what I am,” Vivienne shrugged. “Do you expect anguish and conflict out of me? I believe in the decisions that led me here. I would make them again. If all it takes to be estranged from the Heavens is refusing annihilation and submission, then I have no use for the Gods Above.”

“You would be surprised,” Akua said, “at the number of Empresses that spoke those very same words.”

“You’re trying to draw parallels,” Thief said, growing irritated. “I don’t know why, and frankly I don’t care. Might be some old eastern monster was just like me, though I very much doubt it. So what? There’s no angle there for you to get mercy from me, Sahelian. Your little talk about redemption is absurd: there is nothing redeemable about what you did and what you are. Your execution has been stayed. That is as much of a victory as you will ever win, Diabolist. Look that truth in the eyes. Wallow in it. That fear is the least of what you are owed.”

“The true nature of a woman,” Akua said amusedly, “is only ever revealed after she has been prodded. It is an interesting circle, the Woe. Your role in it has been the hardest to grasp.”

“Has it?” Vivienne said. “And to think they said you were clever. Lost a few feathers up there along with your heart, I see.”

“Oh, you are the spymistress of the Kingdom of Callow,” Diabolist dismissed. “It is no secret. But that is a function, not a role.”

“Am I in for a story about how Praesi understand namelore so well?” Thief drawled. “Clearly, we should all take advice from the people who have been one stabbing away from brutal civil war from the moment their empire was first spawned. Please, magical wise spirit, share the secrets about continent-burning instability with me. I have so much to learn from you.”

“Since you insist,” Diabolist agreed with pleasure so perfect-sounding it just had to be fake. “The Deadhand is the least complicated. His people have been carefully pruned by the Tower into being a soldier caste for the Empire over a hundred reigns, and as the culmination of that edifice he serves as the right hand of a powerful warlord.”

“Hakram is the least complicated of us,” Vivienne said slowly. “Hakram. Your insights are truly far-reaching, Diabolist. Reaching in the wrong direction, sure, but that can’t possibly be a first for you.”

“I cast no aspersions on the man himself,” Akua noted. “I merely state that his Name and Role are no deep secret. Hierophant, however, was an unexpected variable. Apprentices have transitioned into Names other than Warlock before, but usually when both are living simultaneously a succession through murder is the outcome.”

“An awkward but kind and sweet man with no interest in power did not end up murdering his relatively loving father for said power,” Thief said. “However will we solve this confounding mystery, Sahelian? I just don’t know.”

“There is no known precedent to his Name,” Akua continued without missing a beat, and I was reluctantly impressed by her ability to just plow through that level of scathing sarcasm. “Consequently the core tenet of it had to be understood from the man himself. Fascinating as his upbringing was to study, the pivot seems to have occurred after he met Catherine. It was the calibre of the opposition that forged him, you see. Choirs and demigods. There was need for one who could understand and oppose those entities, and so the Hierophant came to be.”

“You’re forgetting demons and a highborn murderous witch with delusions of grandeur,” Thief helpfully provided. “Admittedly the witch only ever seemed good at killing innocents and spending her subordinates like copper at a fair, so she might not qualify as true opposition.”

“The Archer did seem like an odd fit, at first,” Diabolist mused. “No real fetters to Catherine’s ideals or expectation of comradeship as shared inheritors to the legacy of the Calamities. Ranger, infamously, left the Calamities on the eve of the Conquest. And pupils of the Lady of Lake have a reputation for being incapable of playing nice with others, be they heroes or villains. It could not merely be the fighting that drew her – there is no lack of foes near Refuge.”

“It’s almost entertaining how much thought you’re giving to the actions of a woman whose notion of a plan is dumping all her rations in a well and filling her bag with identical cheap booze flasks so she won’t run dry,” Vivienne said. “But by all means, tell me everything about the intricate considerations that are behind Indrani joining a band of people that allow her to drink, fight and sleep around as much as she wants. It ought to be enlightening.”

Wait, was that why Archer never seemed to run out? Fucking Hells, I’d been wondering why she was being such a magpie about taking food from Masego’s plate recently.

“Peers not in direct competition,” Akua said. “That was what the Archer found. A luxury previously beyond her reach. And from her addition the Woe gained both an executioner and a field Named capable of independent action for long stretches, which they sorely needed. Hers is the thinnest bond by far, and I do not expect it to keep her bound past the end of the crusade.”

“And that leaves me,” Vivienne lightly said, though there was an edge beneath. “Don’t disappoint now, sagely collar genie. What has your profound discernment taught you of my hidden nature? I’ll go first: deep down, I always wanted to be a shoemaker. Shoes are the foundation on which rests civilization, Diabolist. We are literally barefoot without them. You ever think about that, in between ruminations about how you tried to conquer the world and got your heart ripped out instead? Food for thought.”

“You were a late addition,” the shade said. “And in some ways the most interesting. You were, after all, previously a heroine. I should have realized which the wind was blowing when she succeeding at turning one of Above’s own, in retrospective. The weight on the scales had grown too uneven, for all my labours. But we were speaking of you, Vivienne Dartwick.”

“Thief,” the Callowan hissed. “There’s only a few people that get to use that name. Don’t ever count on being one of them.”

“Thief indeed,” Akua said. “Not, for all your skills, an assassin. That was what first drew my interest. Archer filled that purpose, to some extent, but you seemed a more apt candidate. Yet your knives did not grow bloody after your turning, nor your Name change to reflect it.”

I heard Vivienne go still as stone. Diabolist had touched something there, though I didn’t know what.

“Looking back, the void you filled seems more obvious,” the shade mused. “You are Callowan. The only one of the Woe who shares Catherine’s ideals to any deep extent, as Adjutant would likely adapt without true challenge to a change in her priorities. After she seized Winter’s mantle in full, you became the measuring stick. It was simplification to call you a moral compass, I will confess. You are not a particularly moral woman, Thief. But you do love your homeland, and have kept some of the qualms you were taught as a child. You are a restraint, and through your function as spymistress a provider of choices. In some ways, one might argue your perspective is the crucible through which Catherine remakes herself every time she is confronted with greater strife.”

“You know,” Vivienne said, “I used to wonder why you were playing the tamed hound nowadays. Oh, you’re bound. That’s part of it. But you have to know that all the playacting and sweet whispers you’ve been up to are not strictly necessary. Being useful and not actively offensive to everything we stand for would have gotten you this far anyway. But that last tirade of yours? It says a lot more about you than me. Because it’s about Catherine more than me or the Woe. And it has to be, doesn’t it Akua? Because you ended up in the box, and there has to be a reason for that. She has to be special in some way to have beaten you, otherwise you just couldn’t stand it.”

“I lost, my dear Thief, because I prepared for a battle against my rival and faced instead her power wielded by the Black Knight,” Akua said softly. “The mistake in this was mine, and I do not deny it. And still, at the height of my wrath, I fought to a standstill a coalition of all Callowan arms of note and every Imperial army west of the Blessed Isle. Led by three Calamities and the full muster of the Woe. My fall was just, for every fall is just. But it would be a mistake to think Liesse is the origin of the laurels on her brow. That victory was hers alone in that she was the last woman standing.”

“So you’re trying to make her the Empress,” Vivienne mused. “Because it’s fine to have lost, if she was fated to climb the Tower all along. You were a necessary part of the story. You mattered. And who knows, maybe you’ll manage to be Chancellor if you play the game well enough.”

“She will climb the Tower, Thief,” Diabolist said with iron certainty. “She cannot stomach any of the remaining claimants and will not suffer to leave Praes to its own devices. You speak of fate as some invisible force, but it is a simpler thing: fate is character. And it is in hers to cut deep into her bones for her ambitions.”

Thief laughed.

“She’s not in charge because she’s been chosen, Sahelian,” Vivienne said. “Gods, certainly not because she’s chosen either. Or even because she has power, for that matter.”

“Is it the power of love, then?” Akua said, a touch drily.

“There’s plenty of people who care about Callow,” Thief said. “And if I learned anything from the Woe, it’s that caring doesn’t fill granaries or run a court. She’s certainly in the right place at the right time with the right amount of power to get things moving, but that’s not really what matters. See, the thing is that she acts. Sometimes those actions are mistake, like going after the fae and leaving you to plot under your rock in Liesse. But, most of the time, she improves things. Just by a little bit. And she draws other people who act with her. You think that’s some unearthly trait, like she’s some force of nature, but that’s Wasteland talk. The Tower’s the centre of the world for you, and the most important person in the world is the one that climbs it.”

The other Callowan paused.

“Except she’s not,” Vivienne said. “The exemplar of whatever fucked up Praesi virtues you want to sing about, that is. She’s kind of petty, her temper’s foul and if Hakram hadn’t stepped in she’d probably be a drunk. She ogles every pretty face that shows up even if they’re our enemies, and she cannot for the life of her shut the Hells up even when she really needs to. She’s not unique or irreplaceable, but even if you think otherwise that doesn’t really matter – because she’s part of something greater than her. She’s just the rock that started the avalanche, Sahelian, and she did that by doing the most Callowan thing there is: after the invasion is done, you get up and get back to work. Others will come to help you, because a kingdom’s people and not banners.”

None of this was exactly singing my praises, but then that wasn’t Vivienne’s wheelhouse. She’d gotten the part that mattered, anyway. That we weren’t supposed to stay in charge forever, that we were just a stopgap until Callow could handle itself on its own. The purpose wasn’t to rule, it was to hammer away at Calernia until it was in a place where there was no need for someone like me.

“You think that’ll make her Empress,” she laughed. “You’re thinking of her like some sort of tormented saint that’ll take up the burden of keeping the lot of you in line for the greater good. You want to know what Praes is, for us? Another mess to clean up. Like the Tenth Crusade and the Dead King and the heroes. You’re not owed anything. You’re not different or unique, just another line on a long list. And that’s your fate, Diabolist. That’s your fucking character.”

Akua stayed silent for a long time.

“It is a pretty world you speak of,” she finally said. “We will see, in time, which one of us is right.”

The silence spread again, and though I could not hear the shade move I suspected she was looking away.

“Good performance,” Thief suddenly said. “But, Diabolist, if this is all of it I’m honestly disappointed. Was that really the whole ploy? I mean, Merciful Gods, you’ve used this one before. If this were a fairgrounds play I’d catcall and ask for my coppers back.”

“Pardon me?” Akua said, voice painted with genuine surprise.

“Trust,” Vivienne mused. “That’s what fucks you every time. Like, for example, believing I’d be so ashamed about ordering you to rip your eye out repeatedly I’d never mention it to anyone. I did, Sahelian. And you know what she told me? That it makes no difference, if the same thing reforms repeatedly. Pain doesn’t increase in the slightest.”

“I don’t follow,” Diabolist said.

“You panted and you screamed,” Thief said. “You pretended it hurt, because it made me feel like I’d accomplished something while you were actually getting your way. You ‘lost’ so I’d lower my guard. Like you did just now. Getting into an argument then throwing it, just so you’d be less of a threat in my eyes. Chastened little Akua, reconsidering her choices. Gods, you really are a snake.”

“If I had done such a thing,” Diabolist said, tone even. “What purpose would telling me you are aware serve?”

“I’m surprised you don’t know,” Vivienne Dartwick lightly said. “I get to see you pretend you’re not furious. Sweet dreams, Sahelian. Our little chat’s over until the next time you need your chain yanked.”

Chapter 30: Witness

“There is only one lesson to be learned from shatranj: no matter who wins the game, the pieces return to the same box.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent the First

I’d never been in crypt before but it smelled about what I’d expected. Cool, wet stone and a little like dust. The scent was heavy and cloying, but it wasn’t the reason I felt rattled. I almost withdrew my wrist from Masego’s grasp before realizing that might get me expelled from… whatever this was and froze instead. Splendidly uncaring of my wariness, Hierophant let my wrist go the moment after. I looked around. Still here. I’d say that was good to know, but I understood next to nothing about what was going on. That was an unpleasantly familiar feeling, truth be told.

“Masego,” I whispered. “Can they see us?”

We were on the outskirts of the crowd but there were a few attendants close by near a sculpted ramp leading upwards. If they could see us, we’d stick out like sore thumbs. Neither of us could pass Keteran by skin tone alone, much less if clothes were brought into it. Hierophant shook his head.

“We can only subtract from this, not add,” he mused.

That loosened some of the tension in my shoulders, so I allowed myself to take a slower look around. We were at the beginning of the shard, by my reckoning. Most of the grievers were still filing in, and it’d be about half an hour before they king’s corpse was brought in. Less than that before the Bard walked in from a place not within the shard and sat down next to Trismegistus, though. Two of the attendants a little higher up, veiled young women, spoke in a low voice. I frowned.

“They’re still speaking Keteran,” I said.

Masego turned to me, lips curving in a sharp smile.

“Subtraction, Catherine,” he said, “does not preclude acquisition.”

My brow rose.

“You can ransack their brains,” I said.

“Don’t be absurd,” he replied. “The actual brain matter is long gone. I can appropriate an echo of their consciousness, including working knowledge of their language.”

I blinked in surprise.

“Wait, that’s something you can do?” I said. “You can dig out an entire dialect from someone’s head and put it in someone else’s?”

That would have been damned useful to know. Wouldn’t have had to spend so many evenings trying to learn Chantant if there was a shortcut like that. Without Learn to help me along, I’d come to the realization that my talent for languages was average at best and that the most widespread language in Procer was a horrid chore to learn. So many fucking exceptions and whoever had decided that plurals for masculine and feminine names – or even that there should be any of those – deserved to be drawn and quartered. If it’d been a possibility to lift that knowledge out of the heads of criminals, with consent and a reduced sentence dangled in exchange, I would have taken it.

“Theoretically speaking,” Masego agreed. “Of course a living mind is much more complex to excise information from than what can be found in this imprint. Likely the extraction would break the source entirely, what would be obtained would be contaminated with connected gibberish and the bestowal itself drive the recipient mad. Human minds were not meant to process that much knowledge instantly.”

I grimaced. Yeah, it figured. Should have known that if this was a feasible shortcut, Warlock would have cut open a few ‘expendables’ and the Calamities would be fluent in every single Calernian language.

“But you can do it here safely,” I pressed.

He eyed me amusedly, which was a pretty ghastly sight considering his glass eyes.

“For myself, I can rely on my aspect to handle the worst of the backlash,” he noted. “I will have severe migraines for weeks or months before it has all been processed, but I have herbs to alleviate this.”

“And me?” I said, already expecting the worst.

Human minds were not meant to process that much knowledge instantly,” he reminded me gently. “You have regularly employed powers beyond human capacity to understand, and indicted by the principle alienation that ensued. It will be no more unpleasant than when we employed absolute alignment together.”

So a bunch of spikes through the forehead. Lovely.

“I’ll cope,” I sighed. “Work your magic, magic man.”

“Must you call me that?” he asked.

“Be grateful Indrani’s not here, or she’d start hinting about magic fingers,” I replied without missing a beat.

She wouldn’t even be wrong, to be honest. My time with Kilian had taught me that the jokes about mages having clever fingers were well founded.

“Silver lining,” he muttered. “The attendants will do for our purposes, I suppose.”

I glanced at the two young women.

“A question,” I said. “Can you extract from the Trismegistus and the Bard?”

He nodded slowly.

“Broader, more complex minds will be more difficult to work with,” he warned. “But in principle, yes. I must caution, however, that was is taken will be removed from the echo permanently. After the extraction, the actors will be… impaired, for lack of a better term.”

“We’d be fucking with the imprint,” I summarized.

“Fucking is not a term that applies to this subject,” he sighed.

“It’s a term with surprisingly broad applications, Zeze,” I said righteously. “You should expand your horizons.”

Huh, so he could glare with glass eyes without resorting to a light show. Nice to know. The work took too long. We were only halfway through the span of the shard, but the Bard was long gone and Trismegistus remained far from the other grievers for the rest of it. We used the time to get more comfortable with our sudden knowledge of Keteran. Or, as it was actually called, Ashkaran. After he broke the first attendant – a chunk of her face was now missing, like it’d been vaporized – and shoved a blue bubble into my forehead, I’d felt a rush. Like my mind was a cup being filled beyond capacity, until the cup shattered and Winter flooded my veins. It’d been… strangely pleasant. Like cracking your neck after a long day’s work. Hierophant’s own acquisition had seen him go still for a solid thirty heartbeats, and his face had been twitching in and out of a wince ever since. He admitted in a low voice that the aspect had not warded off backlash as much as he’d anticipated.

I would have spared him some sympathy but I was still busy wrestling with the fact that I had servant gossip a few millennia out of date rattling around the back of my mind. I was less interested in who had been sleeping with who in the royal kitchens, or the speculation that the… head household servant for halls and commoner rooms – there was no Lower Miezan word that carried the same breadth of implications – had been getting cheaper candles and pocketing the savings.

“You know,” I said out loud, “for all those rumours about chambermaids being saucy this is surprisingly tame stuff. You hear filthier in taverns.”

“Maybe the sort you frequent,” Masego muttered. “There’s a reason I refuse to go drinking with you and Archer. Last time I saw a rat.”

I snorted. Yeah, maybe Dockside had been a bit much for Hierophant. He liked things clean, and that part of Laure was anything but. We split to see if there was anything interesting to dig up, and to my surprise there was. A surprising amount of information could be obtained from overhearing idle conversation, if there was enough of it. For one, I confirmed that the people with the copper circlets were royalty. Sons and daughters of the dead king, whose name had been Iakim. The oldest child was the heir to the kingship of Sephirah, which I assumed to be the name of the ancient Keteran kingdom. The title of that heir, Zekiah, wasn’t prince. Not exactly. The term was more like lesser king, and by the sound of it Zekiah had shared rule of the kingdom with his father for years now. Of Trismegistus, or whatever his true name was, I heard nothing. The nobles, or at least the man and women bearing titles I assumed to be something like nobility, among the crowd did not speak of him. Apart from the entombment, the favourite subject appeared to be the war with the ‘People of the Wolf’.

Aside from the usual accusations of savagery and wickedness that always sprouted on both sides of any war, the rumour of cannibalism was often repeated. That and transforming into giant man-eating wolves, but I had my doubts about that one. I’d seen no hint of a power like it when passing through the battle shards. No one seems particularly worried about the war, though, not even after King Iakim’s death. The People of the Wolf were apparently no match for walls of stone, and the ‘Conclave’ had finally agreed to enter the war. From context, those seemed to be mages. Had the lack of effectiveness of mages we’d seen so far come from the fact they were just amateurs? Could be. It wasn’t what I’d come here to find out, though, so when the shard began again I found Masego and headed towards the upper alcoves where I knew the Dead King and the Bard would come to talk.

“Heard anything interesting?” I asked.

“Some blame the plague for the war,” he told me, though he didn’t sound all that interested. “They say it was the deaths in the outlying villages that attracted the wolfmen.”

I cocked my head to the side. I’d chalk that one up for Hakram’s tale of the fall of Keter.

“Is wolfmen how you’d translate it?” I said. “It struck me more as-”

“Ah, capitalized,” he breathed out. “I see. Formal address, which would be spoken ‘People of the Wolf’. Difficult to know which of us is correct without seeing the term written, of course.”

“I can’t read it,” I told him. “The girl was illiterate.”

“I have some semblance of the knowledge,” Masego frowned, then winced as his headache flared. “I cut too narrowly, it seems. I cannot quite remember it.”

I patted his shoulder.

“Don’t get a migraine,” I ordered. “I need you sharp for the important part.”

We were both standing, when Trismegistus strode up the ramp and came to rest by a pillar. He looked calm, in the magelight, and did not visibly react when the Wandering Bard slipped through the darkness and plopped herself down in the alcove to his side. She put down the lute on her lap and chuckled.

“There’s nothing quite like looking down at one’s work, is there?” she said.

Her Ashkaran was flawless and without accent, as if she was a native speaker. Trismegistus did not look at her.

“Intercessor,” he said. “I wondered if you would come.”

“Intercessor,” the Bard repeated amusedly. “Not the worst thing I’ve been called. Heard a thing or two, have you?”

The young man glanced at her, mildly curious, before returning his gaze to the ceremony unfolding below.

“You were companion to Nasseh the Great, when he fought for the submission of the twelve cities,” Trismegistus idly said. “You were at Queen Sadassa’s side as well, during the worst of the Wars of the Rat. Fortune and misfortune both draw you like carrion.”

“And which do you think you are, I wonder?” the Bard mused. “So few of them even remember you exist, Neshamah. How horrified they would be, to learn what the prodigal son has wrought.”

Neshamah, I thought, fingers clenching. I finally had a name.

“You come in the service of Those Above, then,” the man said, and he sounded almost bored. “Tedious.”

“Below has already blessed you quite enough, my friend,” the Bard shrugged. “You don’t need the nudge. But I’m not here to put sticks in your wheels, if that is your worry. Too late for that. Maybe if I’d had a few years to shape your opposition, but you played it well enough I had no openings. And I already burned my fingers tossing those bones with odds like this with the giants.”

Neshamah finally turned to face her.

“You have my attention,” he said. “If not intervention, what is your purpose here?”

“I suppose you could call it curiosity,” she said. “I’m starting to understand how little I understand, you see. So I seek knowledge. About how they make people like you. I won’t solve the riddle with the tools they gave me, so it seems I must learn craftsmanship of my own. Which takes me to you. You’re not impossible, my friend, but you are unlikely. Your father did not look Below when he earned his Blessing. But you did, at an age where most children worry about the nature of supper. Was it your mother’s death? Ugly affair all around, I’ve been told.”

The man smiled.

“You think it kindness to offer me an excuse,” Neshamah said. “But it is an insult, Intercessor. There is nothing in what I have wrought that deserves excusing.”

“The plague alone killed hundreds,” the Bard said. “That will grow to thousands, when the cities begin to be touched.”

“And?” he patiently asked.

“Your people bleed for power,” the Bard said. “But only ever themselves. You would break cities in the name a plan that will not bloom for years yet.”

“I destroy flesh that will destroy itself in time,” he said. “There is no theft in this, Intercessor. It is mere movement of the soul as was ordained, only now given proper purpose.”

The Bard hummed, then pulled at her flask.

“The drow didn’t teach you this,” she decided. “The Twilight Sages conisder death the only sin, they would be appalled by what you speak of. Most tribes beyond the lakes can barely even use sorcery and their allegiances change with the seasons. Was it the Chitterers? I genuinely believe the Gods made them out of whatever was left after the rest of Creation was done. Shoddy craftsmanship, that lot.”

“And still you believe I must have been taught,” Neshamah said. “As if my actions were not the only lucid answer to the truth of this world. There are none closer in any lands to the Gods, Intercessor, so tell me this – why must we die at all? Why were we shaped with such inherent imperfection?”

“Because the Garden was a failure,” the Bard easily replied. “Immortals always fall into closed circles. There are no answers to be had from them.”

“You grasp too little and too much,” the man said. “The Splendid are bound to repetition because they are feared, Intercessor. Because with the span of eternity before them, they might learn beyond what they were meant to learn were they not so tightly constrained. And so mortality is the answer to the deeper question: how do they loosen the bindings without birthing their own usurpers?”

Neshamah smiled, his golden brown eyes aglow.

“Why, by cursing their work with decay,” he chuckled. “By ensuring the banner can only be carried for so long by any one soul before it is recalled at their feet.”

“Below’s favour comes with the end of aging,” the Bard said.

“Blessing from it also calls the blessed to strife in all things,” the man dismissed. “It is a curse of unmaking as certain as that of age.”

“Yet you took a Blessing as well,” she said. “And you’ve birthed no small amount of strife. The People of the Wolf, the southern cities, even your father – all dancing to your tune, every death another stone for your tower.”

“Is this judgement I discern?” Neshamah drawled. “You must have been human once, Intercessor. Do you not recall the urgings of one’s blood? I forced nothing. They do as they will, by their own choosing. All the forces of this war precede me. My forbear slew that of the Witch Queen, and so enmity was birthed between our peoples. Blessings of opposite bent set her against my father to the death, leading to the night of his passing. And war? Ah, war is but the accumulation of a thousand choices. Beyond the guiding hand of any single man. All I have done, Intercessor, was hitch my chariot to a falling star.”

“Oh, I won’t ever forget my first face,” the Bard murmured. “Or the first few after that, when I evened the scales of the debt. I leave judgement to the Tribunal, my friend. To every force its purpose, and that is not mine.”

“We must seem like golems to you,” the man said wonderingly. “Our incantations written by the hands of Gods instead of men, yet not so different peering down from your perch. Eyeless things toiling for purpose we cannot understand.”

“One day, maybe,” she said. “When I will have grown used to dying. Until then I still weep for what we do to ourselves, without needing a single nudge.”

“I have pondered, since I first learned of you,” Neshamah said. “Whether or not your service is willing.”

“They make us better, when we listen,” the Bard said. “Even yours. It is a terrible thing you will do, but no less great for it.”

“Yet you seek to escape your purpose,” the man said.

“I have,” she said lightly, “always loved a good story.”

“What a clever jest,” Neshamah mused. “That there are none to seek intercession for the Intercessor.”

The Wandering Bard laughed. Like he was her friend, and not a monster who was scheming to destroy a kingdom and a half for his ambition. I shivered at the sight of it, for the second time. For reasons darker and deeper than the first.

“Pity, from you?” she said. “People never do cease to surprise me. I look forward to your ending, King of Death.”

“O ye of little faith,” the man who would be the Dead King smiled.

The Bard pulled at the flask again, saluting him jauntily, and sashayed away without another word. I did not follow her. She’d disappear, stepping into an alcove and vanishing into thin air. I stood there in silence for a very long time, watching the man that would become the Dead King look down at his father’s burial. Masego, for once, sensed there was no place for conversation.

“Take us out,” I said quietly.

“I have not extracted from either of them,” Hierophant said hesitatingly.

“Tomorrow,” I said. “We’re done for the day.”

“Catherine?” he asked, but it was more worry than question.

“Take us out, Masego,” I said. “It looks like I need to prepare to fight an entirely different kind of war.”

Chapter 29: Sixth

“Don’t be absurd, Black Knight. It would have been called treason if I’d lost – this is merely succession.”
– Dread Emperor Vile the First

It was a striking scene.

The crypt itself was the part worthiest of awe, I decided. The arched ceiling was covered in silver set with glittering jewels where stars would have been on the night sky. There was no light within save for their shine and a ring of bound sprites serving as magelights. The fallen king was being set down in a tomb with his likeness sculpted atop the lid, men and women wearing copper circlets on their brows lowering him gently. There were low whispers in a smattering of tongues I did not know, but the funeral was a hushed affair. I did not linger to watch when the orations began after the lid was shut, instead approaching the sight that had set my blood running cold. The Wandering Bard looked prettier than I’d ever seen her. Tanned and full of life, she wore red and silver robes instead of the usual stained leathers. The lute was set across her lap in the shadowed alcove where she sat, and she pulled at her flask between exchanges with the young man standing next to her. Him I took my time studying. How often did one get to have a glimpse of the Dead King before he earned that Name?

I’d expected him to be darkly handsome or strikingly ugly, but he was nothing of the sort. Pale, even compared to the other Keterans, but not near corpse-like the way Black was. More like a scholar who did not see much of the sun. He had bushy eyebrows and full lips set on an unremarkable face, the only striking part of him the light brown eyes that looked almost golden in the magelight glow. He looked like a scholar, I thought. One only an inch taller than me, though few of the Keterans were tall. No real muscle to his frame, though his hands were surprisingly calloused. The copper circle on his brow was even more slender than those I’d seen on the other royals. A mark of status? Perhaps. The others had looked older, they might be higher in the line of succession. Or he might have been from another branch of the royal family. Hard to tell when I knew nothing about how the kingdom was ruled. Even without understanding the words he spoke, I found his voice compelling. Calm and deep, it felt almost soothing. It was hard to tell much about intonation in a foreign language – everything spoken in Kharsum sounded like a threat, for example – but he did not seem worried or surprised by the Bard’s presence.

Had he known her? Had she been involved in the fall of Keter from the beginning?

“You’re sure it’s her?” Hakram quietly asked.

I’d been so lost in contemplation I hadn’t even heard the orc approaching. I nodded without a word.

“The lute and the flask,” I said. “It’s her.”

“They both look different than at Summerholm,” Adjutant said.

I blinked and glanced back at the Bard. He was right, I realized with a start. The flask was still of that same strange curved shape, but instead of old scuffed iron it was freshly-polished copper. The lute was not of the same wood, this one paler, and the strings looked different. Animal tendons of some sort.

“The substance changed,” I murmured. “But the shape hasn’t. There’s something to that.”

“Named tend to have symbols and artefacts associated to them,” Hakram noted. “Save for the Carrion Lord, though the loss seems to have been made up in epithets. The lute and flask could be hers.”

“Malicia warned me they’d moved the Bard to the Empire’s official kill list, after the war in the Free Cities,” I said. “I thought Black was talking her up too much because she pulled one over him but I’m starting to see his point, if she’s had her fingers plucking strings this far back.”

“We don’t know for certain her consciousness has been uninterrupted all this time,” Adjutant cautioned.

“You read the transcripts Black sent us,” I grunted. “Hells, I’ve had you lug around the threat assessment he had delivered to the palace – half a book’s worth of scrolls, in records and theories. She made references to events long before she popped out of the woodworks as Aoede of Nicae. That’s at least two or three incarnations. It’s an assumption to say she’s been at it this whole time, sure, but it’s not a bad one.”

“Yes,” Hakram agreed quietly. “And the voluntary sharing of that secret worries me, Cat. It would have been a sharp blade, if kept hidden. Why did she not keep the knife in the dark?”

Yeah, there was that. If there was a meddling face-changing immortal wandering around the continent, why had no one ever written anything about it? Names tended to grow stronger – if also more restrictive – the more stories were associated with them. She would have had thousands of years to build herself up into something pretty much untouchable. And even if she wanted to keep quiet and stay behind the curtains, it struck me as dubious that every single hero she’d helped had kept quiet about. Over the years, there was bound to have at least one blabbermouth that fucked up. Unless Above ordered them to keep quiet, I frowned. That was… plausible. Didn’t explain why no Dread Emperor had ever tried to get out the word there was an opponent on the field of that calibre, after being beaten or figuring it out. I was smelling a rat her.

“That,” I slowly said, “is a very good question. If she’s been underfoot this whole time and no one was onto her, why did she let that out of the bag now? What changed?”

The tall orc by my side considered the two legends speaking before us and clicked his teeth in discomfort.

“I suspect,” Hakram said, “that knowledge of their words would bring more questions than answers.”

“This is too big to walk past,” I told him. “Masego will have his hours. Tell the others we’re setting camp.”

I stayed there a while longer, watching the Wandering Bard laugh at something Calernia’s incipient greatest monster had said. I shivered at the sight. I felt like they were sharing a joke that no one else could understand.

I was really coming to hate that feeling.

“We cannot linger for too long, Catherine,” Vivienne said. “I understand the draw of learning such a secret, but it will not help Callow withstand invasion.”

I drank from the skin. Tough our supplies were beginning to run thin, at least there was no need to worry about going without water. I could fill the skin with ice with only a thought, then leave it to melt as the hours passed. Indrani had badgered me until I used the eldritch and fearsome powers of Winter to cool her wine, to no one’s surprise. The indignity was somewhat alleviated by the fact that the first thing Juniper had ever told me after I claimed my mantle was that my ability to freeze thing would ease strain on supplies for the Fifteenth. No one but Masego seemed to treat my usurpation of a demigod’s power as anything but a source of free ice and entertainment unless I was actively killing people with it.

“We’re putting all our bets on the Dead King, Vivienne,” I disagreed. “An entity we know next to nothing about. We’re carrying the finest offer our diplomats were able to put together, but we’re still going into this blind.”

“Whatever he might have been while living, millennia have passed,” the dark-haired woman replied. “Any understanding gained would be highly dated.”

“Undead can’t change nearly as much as the living,” I pointed out. “I’m guessing a lot will still apply.”

“We trade guesswork for hours, then,” Thief said flatly. “This is a gamble, let us not pretend otherwise. The decision was made on the assumption we would know little about our interlocutor. We might be able to change that, if Masego pulls through. To an extent. But we all agreed on the initial premise for a reason. Time is our most dangerous enemy, at the moment.”

“I’m not saying we should spend a sennight here,” I said. “But a few days? The payoff is worth the delay.”

“If there is one,” Vivienne sighed.

I looked at her closely. Of all the Woe she was probably the one who’d dealt with the restlessness of our journey the best. Even Hakram, island of calm that he was, happened to have a vague look of chagrin on his face now and then – like he was expecting to have work to do and was kind of irked he didn’t. Thief had been quiet, so far, almost subdued. But she’d refrained from pulling my metaphorical pigtails like Archer did and kept her eye on the horizon unlike Hierophant. The irritation now coming across clear had me wondering if she’d just been hiding it better than the others. She was certainly the hardest to read of the Woe. For others that crown might have belonged to Adjutant, but I knew him like I knew my own limbs.

“You’re worried,” I said.

She sent me a look that implied less than complimentary things about my intellect.

“Not just the usual stuff,” I dismissed. “This is about all of us leaving.”

“The Grey Pilgrim is unsupervised,” she said.

“The Pilgrim is under house arrest, allowed to speak only with goblins and Prince Amadis,” I replied bluntly. “If he can turn Robber to Good, I’d argue he actually deserves to win this war.”

“It feels like negligence not to keep a closer eye on them,” Vivienne sighed.

Most of the time, with Thief, the trick to understand her was not to listen to what she said. It might have been because of her Name, but she tended to go obliquely at matters. The only way to get a good read on what she had cooking behind the forehead, if she wasn’t willing to outright state it, was to figuring out the reasons behind what she said. In this case, she was speaking of Callow but I suspected Callow itself wasn’t the point.

“You’ve been cut off from the Jacks,” I said suddenly.

She looked away. Ah. There it was. Possibly beyond even me, Vivienne Dartwick was the individual in the Kingdom of Callow with the most information at her fingertips. Hakram was the one piecing together the reports from her Jacks, the Dark Guilds under Ratface and Aisha’s web of relatives to send up the most important reports to me, but that was more administrative than a matter of authority. I just didn’t have the time to read it all and see to my other duties as well, not even now that I no longer slept. But Thief had access to all of it as well, and as the head of my net of informants she wielded the power to send agents to unearth any secrets she wanted. It must have been like an itch she couldn’t scratch, being removed from the centre of the web to go traipsing around Arcadia.

“I understand the necessity of committing to this,” Vivienne said. “And the risks that bringing any but Named into Keter would have carried, along the vulnerability of leaving only one of us behind. But we are blind to all the happenings in Creation until the matter is dealt with.”

It’d be exceedingly difficult to scry back home from Keter, admittedly. Unlike Malicia and Black I didn’t have decades’ worth of mages trained in scrying to create relays all over the continent that delivered reports within hours. My limited number had to be placed very strategically, and had largely focused on Praes and Procer. Moving it all around so we could get in touch with the Observatory around the natural barriers surrounding Callow wouldn’t be impossible, but it would screw up our eyes abroad for months. Months where we could hardly afford to be blind to movements within the borders of our most dangerous neighbours. Not something to use except in case of dire emergency.

“It’s not a gamble if we’re in control the whole time,” I told her gently.

“I know,” she said, passing a frustrated hand through her short hair.

I’d thought the cut a little too rough, when we first met, but it had grown on me since. Long hair on Vivienne would have felt odd now.

“We are taking so many risks, Catherine,” she said quietly. “And every one of them seems reasonable when the decision is made, but I look back and wonder if what we have built is a house of cards.”

“It does feel like everyone is out for our blood, doesn’t it?” I chuckled bitterly. “Gods, we know we’re at the end of the rope when the Hidden Horror is the best ally on the table.”

“That is a too great a decision for us to really understand the scope of its consequences quite yet, I think,” Vivienne said. “It is the small things that worry me.”

The glanced she flicked at the collar of my cloak was all she needed to say. I did not immediately reply. The two of us sat on the granite tomb of some dead queen and watched Hierophant weave his runes in the distance. He’d been at it for half a bell, now, and the breakthrough he’d been speculating about was nowhere in sight.

“She could accelerate his work,” I said, keeping my eyes on Hierophant. “Masego tells me that the doomsday fortress had similarities to the Greater Breach at Keter. There’s not a lot of more knowledgeable mages to be found, either.”

I did not need to speak the name of the woman in question. We both knew who I was speaking of.

“She,” Vivienne said with admirable evenness, “has not been punished.”

My brow rose.

“I ripped out her heart and bound her soul to the cloak,” I replied. “I’ll admit it hasn’t exactly turned out to be eternal screaming torment, but at the very least it’s imprisonment with a dab of torture.”

“Yet now she plies her powers in your service,” Thief said. “Safeguarded from all her former enemies. She has made herself useful, and so the leash loosens. How long, Catherine, before practicality pries open the door entirely?”

“I haven’t forgotten Liesse,” I said coldly.

“Peace,” the other woman said, hand rising. “I helped you draft the Accords, Catherine. I’ve seen that look in your eyes when you think yourself alone and you remember the breadth of the massacre. I know the failure shames you still. I’ve seen your fury at the architect of the massacre.”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” I admitted.

Aside from effectively admitting she sometimes spied on me unseen, but I’d honestly considered that to be a given. The notion of privacy was something I’d resigned myself to having lost even before an invisible sneak thief joined the Woe.

“I told you once, that Akua Sahelian treading Creation again was a line,” Vivienne said. “One desperate hour after another, we have walked past it.”

I grimaced. I could have made an argument that back then we’d been speaking about the soul she put in the infant as her resurgence plan, or even that all I’d ever allowed to pull at the leash was a soul, but it would have been dishonest. I had allowed Diabolist a foothold back in Creation, like it or not.

“You want me to destroy the soul,” I guessed.

Vivienne laughed, something vicious glinting in her blue-grey eyes. It was a little fucked up, I admitted to myself, that it made her look more attractive to me. Not that I expected anything to ever come of it. Thief was so painfully straight I could have used her as a ruler.

“I have learned,” she said, “the uses of pragmatism. No, let her continue to exist. Let her out, even. She has uses, and the hour has only grown more desperate. Another face will even make Indrani less of a pest for a while.”

“But,” I said.

“For small slights, long prices,” Vivienne Dartwick said harshly. “Let Akua Sahelian see the light and taste freedom. Let her believe she has slipped the noose, so long as she remains of use.”

Thief’s fingers clenched.

“But there will be a day where the world we made no longer has place for her,” Vivienne said. “When we have faced all the horrors before us. And on that day, when she has glimpsed victory?”

Vivienne met my eyes and there was something in them that gave even Winter pause.

“Snuff her out, Catherine,” she said. “Slowly. Painfully. Excruciatingly aware of what is being taken from her.”

I shivered, both out of respect at the viciousness of what she was proposing and a little bit of arousal. Gods, it was a tragedy she only rode stallion. I pushed that guilty thought aside and gave the moment the seriousness it was due. Should I hesitate at effectively letting our Akua with the intent to murder how down the line? Gods, that I even had to ask. I would have seen no nuance there to be had, when I’d been seventeen. But I hadn’t had a kingdom on my shoulders, back then. And I hadn’t looked Akua Sahelian in the eyes as she told me nonchalantly she was going to slaughter a hundred thousand innocents to use as fodder for her ambition. Putting a knife in her back wasn’t somehow made moral by Diabolist being a mass murderer, but it was the kind of petty evil I had made my tools of trade. Fair dealing and mercy were no longer things that applied to people willing to butcher an entire city for their purposes.

“It could be years,” I warned her. “Before we’re out of opponents. We could die before that, too.”

“I know,” Vivienne said. “Let her follow us in death, if that is our lot. Otherwise my words stand.”

I spat in my palm and offered it up. Thief was not the kind of maidenly flower who balked at spit, aristocrat or not, so she did the same without hesitation.

“Bargain struck,” I said, and we clasped hands.

“Bargain struck,” she echoed.

We rose. I spoke the words, and Akua Sahelian walked the world again.

I had two of the finest mages of our generation working on a solution, and yet half a day later here I was: standing with a scowl on my face, being told nothing I wanted to hear. Hierophant at least had the decency to look as frustrated as I felt. Akua’s lips were just slightly quirked, not enough for it to qualify as a smile but enough to reveal how pleased she was to be out of the box and talking magic with one of the few people in existence she’d consider a peer.

“The issue has been the same since you interrupted me,” Masego said, a touch accusingly. “I have yet to succeed in accounting for the disparity in alignment.”

“We can hear what they say now,” I pointed out. “You managed touch for a little bit yesterday.”

“The formula was a dead end,” Diabolist said. “The runes involved would have disrupted further addition. Consider them an ore that spoiled the alloy.”

It kind of pissed me off that my dead rival was better at explaining sorcery to me without sounding condescending than one of my closest friends.

“But you were aligned,” I pressed.

“Not in the right manner,” Masego irritably said.

“The difference was not unlike reading of a river on parchment while seeking to swim in one,” Akua smiled. “Result was achieved, but along a different path than desired.”

Yeah, still pissing me off. I suspected that was going to happen a lot.

“It might be that this is impossible to achieve within the bounds of Trismegistan sorcery,” Hierophant said. “We’ve been speaking of different perspectives, but most of them are so glaringly fallible or unusable by humans my studies of the subject have been shallow.”

“We only have so much time to spend here,” I reluctantly admitted.

“You demand the miraculous on the schedule of the shoddy,” Masego muttered, then paused.

His saw his glass eyes turn to peer behind him while the rest of his body remained still.

“Could it be that simple?” he said.

“You’ve dealt with miracles before,” I encouraged.

“I’ve vivisected and employed parts of them,” he corrected absent-mindedly. “But the gap is one of understanding, and I have a mechanism at hand to correct that failing.”

I felt him gather power without ever chanting or drawing a rune. Not shaping it for a spell, I thought. Drawing it into himself. I opened my mouth to ask, but Akua discretely shook her head.

“A mystery,” Hierophant muttered to himself. “In the technical sense. Foolish, foolish. I saw, when in transitioned. Quantification is anathema to higher sorceries.”

His hand shot out and he clasped my wrist.

“Yes,” he grinned. “They will not deny me, be they Gods or fathers. I will Witness.”

A ripple passed across the world, and what it left behind was no longer an echo.

Chapter 28: Archaic

“An offer to ‘kneel or die’ would be insincere, Matrons. Deny me and your corpses will be made to kneel anyway, as I have a chorus of your children scream a cheerful tune.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner, negotiating the end of the Fourth Goblin Rebellion

I had a mildly amusing comment about Warlock’s unexpected longevity and lack of tan on the tip of my tongue, but I smothered it without missing a beat. Masego, looking at what most likely his second father – the incubus known to me as Tikoloshe – had cast to his face I’d never seen before. He looked betrayed. I squeezed his shoulder comfortingly, even though I didn’t know the reason for his grief, and did not bother to ask whether or not he was certain of the incubus’ identity. Hierophant was not in the habit of make assertions unless he was certain of them.

“Why?” Masego murmured. “He knows I’ve been trying to piece it all together for years. Gods, what practitioner from the Wasteland hasn’t? He was there. He saw it with his own eyes.”

He hadn’t raised his voice, and in a way that worried me more. Anger I knew well, and how to soothe it. Whatever… this was, I was poorly equipped to handle it.

“He might have been trying to protect you,” I ventured.

His hand whipped out and a streak of flame tore through half a dozen soldiers, burning bright blue.

“I am not a child, Catherine,” he hissed, “I do not need to be coddled. Refusal I could forgive, but to force ignorance upon me? As if I was some meddling hedge mage about to blow his fingers off. As if I was incapable of grasping my own limits.”

I heard Hakram stepping lightly behind us, having finally caught up, but without turning I raised my hand and signalled for him to withdraw. More people would only be adding oil to an already volatile brew.

“We don’t know for sure he saw whatever ritual wrecked Keter,” I said. “He could have been dispersed before that.”

“Don’t try to appease me,” he said, turning to me with a burning glare whose radiance singed the eye cloth over it. “Papa has never been dispersed. His consciousness has been uninterrupted for millennia without a single return to the original shapelessness. His contract ended or he succeeded at slipping the leash.”

“Either of which could have happened before the ritual,” I pointed out.

“He wouldn’t have just left, even then,” Masego yelled, to my honest surprise. “He’s a deterministic being, Catherine. It would have gone against his nature to flee for a position of influence. Devils like being in Creation. It is the only place they can truly learn.”

My knowledge of theology had never been all that deep and what I did remember was a little rusty, but I was fairly sure determinism was more or less another word for predestination. Which wasn’t all that popular a teaching, in Callow, though it had some adherents in the southern parts of it. Mostly priests.

“You mean he wouldn’t have been able to choose otherwise,” I slowly said.

Normally even half an admission of ignorance would have been enough to bait him into a lecture. It was telling that he didn’t even attempt one, only frowning in irritation instead.

“You don’t understand,” he said.

I kept my face and voice calm.

“If he didn’t have a choice then,” I said carefully, “he might not have had a choice in not telling you either.”

“You don’t understand, you fool,” Masego sharply repeated. “I have desired to know the answers here for years. It is in Papa’s nature to satisfy desires, and his binding should allow him to do so for our entire family within limits. That contract is one of the single most complex pieces of sorcery in existence, Catherine, Father spent decades crafting the closest to the ability to make choices a devil can possibly have. Which means either Father forbade him to speak to me, or…”

“He doesn’t see you as family,” I quietly said.

“I’m not sure which would be worse,” the blind man weakly said. “That Father would bend his will against everything he taught me just to keep me in the dark, or that Papa never once though of me as-“

His voice broke. I winced, sliding an arm around his shoulders and tugging him close. It was awkward hugging him, since he was noticeable taller than me and just stood there like a dead fish.

“Come on,” I murmured. “There’s a lot we still don’t know, Masego. Don’t come to conclusions too early.”

Slowly, he came to rest his forehead on my shoulder. Gods, the angle must have been Hells on his neck.

“He might have been faking this entire time,” he muttered into my tunic. “Since the moment I was adopted. My first memories. Just playing the role, for Father’s pleasure.”

I’d always thought that Warlock and Tikoloshe had done a decent job of raising Masego, for Praesi anyway. He’d had a golden childhood that taught him to love learning, no real difficulties to face and if he hadn’t come out of it with the sharpest moral compass in the world, well – there was only so much you could expect from Wastelanders. It was hard for me to understand something like having your entire childhood put to the question. The orphanage had not encouraged sentimentality. But I could understand, just a little bit, having your trust put on the chopping block. He wasn’t the only one with a complicated relationship with a Calamity. Masego withdrew eventually, tiring of my hands rubbing his back soothingly. His face was dry, of course. The day that saw him gain Summer eyes had cauterized his tear ducts as well.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said through gritted teeth, smoothing his robes. “They can hide secrets from me, but they cannot prevent me from learning on my own.”

“You want to continue looking at his,” I guessed, eyes turning to the battle still unfolding around us.

Now that the ruby-crowned king was dead, it had turned into a rout for the obsidian soldiers I assumed were ancient Keterans.

“Yes,” Masego said with forced calm. “Tell Indrani the duel here is between two Named. That should hold her interest enough she does not chomp at the bit.”

I grimaced. Fair enough. I didn’t really want to spend any longer here than we had to, but if it got his head in order I’d compromise. There was a part of me, that whispering voice that never really went away, that noted this was perhaps the best occasion I would ever get to turn Hierophant against Warlock. To get him firmly on my side before the day of reckoning I knew deep in my bones was over the horizon came upon us. All I had to do was ruthlessly exploit the grief of one of my closest friends in the world. It would be for his own good, too. When the dust settled at the end of the Tenth Crusade, there was a real chance that close ties to Praes and the Calamities might get Masego killed. After Akua’s Folly there would be wariness about powerful sorcerer Named, but if he had a war record of fighting against the Empire… I clenched my fingers and snapped that voice’s neck before burying it in a shallow grave. I was not above manipulating Masego. I would own up to that. But if I did, it would only ever be to help him. Not to rip away all his ties but those that kept him at my side.

“I’ll speak to the others,” I said quietly. “Don’t do anything dangerous. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

He did not answer, light already blooming around his fingers as his face hardened and he began tracing runes. I took that for the dismissal it was.

“He’s been at it for at least twelve hours straight,” Hakram said.

The worry in his tone was subtle enough a stranger wouldn’t have caught it. It was plain as day to me. The two of us stood at the edge of our makeshift camp – raised far enough from the main engagement that at the peak of the battle the war cries wouldn’t wake us – and watched Masego’s lone silhouette. He’d not eaten since he began. Indrani had tried to bring him bread and water, but she’d run into a transparent pane of power she’d not been able to break through. Her screaming had gone unnoticed as well. He’d killed the sound from outside the boundary, was my guess.

“He hasn’t even sat down once,” I grimaced. “And he’s been using sorcery the entire time. Named or not, he should be about to collapse.”

“We’ll pick him up when he does,” the orc sighed. “Put him in Zombie and get away from here while he’s unconscious. This is unhealthy.”

“He’s always been prone to obsession,” I admitted. “We all are, but he’s further down that slope than any of us.”

“This is different, Cat,” Hakram said. “If he begins a trance when studying spellcraft, we can ease him out of it after a few hours. Even Thief knows how, and she’s known him the shortest. But putting up wards to keep us out? He’s never gone that deep before.”

“Family fucks you up,” I said. “So I’ve heard, anyway.”

“We’re what he has,” the orc told me. “His fathers let him loose after he joined us, and you’ve heard the same stories I have. They were always highly permissive, even when he was a child. If we don’t keep him at an even keel, there’s no one else.”

I passed a hand through my hair tiredly.

“You know comfort’s not my strong point,” I admitted.

“He doesn’t need a friend,” Hakram replied. “He needs someone to tell him it’s enough. A figure of authority.”

I glanced at the tall orc uncomfortably.

“That’s not really how I’ve run the Woe,” I said.

“And you were right to do so,” Adjutant said. “A heavier hand would have alienated Archer and Thief before they joined us. But Hierophant is Praesi. He was raised by the Calamities, Catherine. He understands, instinctively, that in a band of Named there is someone who gives orders. That is you.”

“It’s one thing to give orders on a battlefield, Hakram,” I said sharply. “It’s another to pull strings off of it, in private matters. I won’t pretend we’re equals in all things, but I try not to tell any of you how to live your lives unless I can’t avoid it.”

The orc’s dark eyes flicked at Masego’s lonely silhouette.

“And does he look to you,” he said calmly, “like he benefits from this restraint?”

I grit my teeth.

“You’re not tools, Hakram,” I said. “I won’t shape all of you into something more useful to me. That’s not a road I’ll wander down, ever.”

“There is a difference between intervening for our sakes and self-serving manipulation,” he gravelled. “You pretend not to know this, because asserting the authority you were given of us makes you uncomfortable. That is one of the most selfish, disparaging things I’ve ever seen you do. Do you think we swore oaths and made pacts because we were swindled? That you tricked us into putting faith in you? Are you the only one of us that can extend trust?”

“That’s not what I said,” I replied.

“Words are nothing,” the orc said. “Actions speak louder, and the decision not to act is an act of itself.”

My fingers clenched and I glared at Adjutant.

“And my judgement’s always worked out so well, has it?” I hissed. “I carry an entire funeral procession of blunders behind me, Hakram. One of the most recent got a hundred thousand people kill, and we’re heading towards a place where I might just top that.”

“We all sat there, in the room,” the orc said. “We heard the same arguments. We know the same truths, and the plan they spawned. Yet here we all are, travelling with you. Did you somehow enslave us without my noticing? All of us chose to be one of the Woe, Catherine, knowing full well what that meant. Our hands have not been forced.”

I always hated arguing with Hakram. He was so infuriatingly calm and reasonable.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll tell him to cut it out.”

Adjutant raised his hand to stop me.

“Do not bury this,” he said. “Pretend it was the argument of a single instance and move forward as before. I care nothing for your crown, Warlord. Or whose apprentice you were. I put my trust in you, as did the others. You do all disservice by acting as if it was a mistake to do so.”

My lips thinned and I met his eyes. He’d only ever called me by the old orc title when it was a matter of utter seriousness we spoke of. Which meant he’d been sitting on this for a while, waiting for the right moment to bring it up. Reluctantly, I nodded. His hand went down, and I strode for Masego’s one-mage lightshow. I felt the wards even though I couldn’t see them. My fingers trailed across their surface, transparent sorcery forming wherever my hand touched. I rapped my knuckles once, but it was like hitting a solid wall. I heard Indrani turn towards me in the distance, but did not look. Breaking the wards might hurt Masego, so I’d have to show a little moderation. I seized Winter, wove its power into a maul of ice tall as I was and grasped the handle. I squared my footing more out of habit than true need: the construct was light as a feather to me. I smashed it into the ward once, twice, thrice before Hierophant finally stopped tracing runes long enough to look at me. Dropping the maul, I gestured for him to end the ward. He shook his head.

“Now,” I said flatly.

He flinched. He tapped a sequence among the runes hovering around him and a door opened before me, made visible by the transparent power that formed the cadre of it. I walked in, dismissing the maul with a flick of the wrist.

“Catherine,” he said. “I’m not hungry. There’s no need to-“

“You’ve been at this for twelve hours, Masego,” I said. “It’s done. You rest, you eat, and then we discuss our next move.”

“Not now,” Hierophant said, “Not when I’m so close.”

“To what?” I replied, eyebrow rising.

“Walking the true span of the echo,” he told me. “Not true interaction, no, but the full witnessing of it. As if I were truly there.”

I glanced sceptically at the ghostly battle.

“And?” I said. “What does this gain you?”

“This isn’t an illusion, Catherine,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the state of Creation at specific points in time. The echo of an individual includes all that individual knew then. If I can carve out that knowledge and translate it into a form I can understand-”

“You’ll learn a lot,” I interrupted. “That’s fine. You want to work on that project? I’ve got no objection. But you do it right. You sleep, you eat, you talk with the people who love you. And you do it at a rate that doesn’t make a wreck out of you. There’ll be more interesting shards deeper in anyway.”

“It would only be a few more hours,” he said.

“Then it won’t matter where those are spent, will it?” I patiently said. “Or is there something specific to this shard that makes it easier to work with?”

He looked away. So there wasn’t. I took him by the arm and dragged him until he began walking on his own.

“Come on,” I said. “And while you’re at it, you’re apologizing to Indrani.”

He frowned at me.

“What for?” he asked.

“That, for one,” I grimly said.

Godsdamnit Hakram. It’d be easier to be angry at him if he wasn’t right so often.

We moved forward, to everyone but Masego’s relief. The five of us had taken to talking as we passed through the landscapes, trying to piece together the story unfolding. It was made more difficult by our inability to tell the sequence the shards took place in, which even Hierophant admitted he was unable to discern. That spawned the game of ‘tell me how Keter fell’, which allowed us to whittle away the hours as we walked. We tried, one at a time, to piece together what we’d seen into a coherent sequence.

“All right, bear with me on this one,” Indrani announced.

I sighed at the sight of the silver flask in her hand. It was barely noon – probably – but I was less appalled by the drinking than by the fact that she seemed to have an endless supply of booze. Where the Hells was she keeping it all? If Thief had been holding the liquor, she wouldn’t offer it up nearly that often.

“Do we have a choice?” Vivienne drily asked.

“Don’t you drag theology into this, Dartwick,” Archer drawled. “Anyway, this is how Keter fell. So there was a witch queen with a nice big mace, but she was a woman with needs. So she hit up the King of Keter and she made the bedroom eyes, but he was weird about it. You know, have her the brush off. So then-“

“No,” I said.

“No,” Hakram agreed.

“Gods no,” Vivienne muttered.

“Seems unlikely,” Masego conceded.

“You’re all joyless,” Indrani complained. “Mine had everything. A lovers’ spat, sex and violence and revenge. It was going to be worthy of song.”

“For mouthing off after your turn was ended, you get skipped next go around,” Vivienne noted.

Archer muttered something sounding pretty insulting under her breath, though I didn’t recognize the language.

“Hakram?” I said.

“This is how Keter fell,” Adjutant gravelled. “There was a plague in the borderlands of the kingdom that took a great toll. The queen of the iron men saw weakness and struck with raids, only to find the soldiers of Keter weak. She assembled more men and invaded the kingdom, forcing battle and slaying the king on the field.”

We’d seen more and more plague shards over the last two days, so he might actually be right. Only towns and villages so far, though, we’d found no city being afflicted. The battles were becoming more frequent as well, though few were as large as the one where Masego had found his father. After a few days passed Hierophant was forced to admit that a mere few hours before his breakthrough had been an optimistic assessment. He still spent most of his downtime working on his ‘witnessing’, but we’d all gotten used to hearing he was going to finish it any moment now. We saw our first Keteran victories, most of them won through sorcery. The sorcerers gathered in small cabals and struck with rituals, the brutality of them increasing the farther we went in. Lightning and fire were traded for spells that boiled blood or broke minds, and once or twice we even saw the Keterans fielding devils of their own.

Small numbers, and not particularly impressive specimens. Closer to imps than the Wasteland’s favoured meat shields the akalibsa and walin-falme. Hierophant dismissed those we saw as being from some of the easiest Hells to reach, and noted that diabolism as a branch of sorcery was one of the magical disciplines that benefitted the most from the passing of years. It had taken centuries for the Praesi to accumulate names to call on and to learn the secrets of the most useful Hells, the line of every High Lord building on the knowledge earned by the previous generation. His assessment was that diabolism had not been a favoured sorcery of the Keterans, but that in their desperation they were turning to cheap solutions to turn the tide – like barely sentient devils that could be bound through simple shedding of blood.

“His successor, Trismegistus, found his kingdom on the verge of breaking as the iron men pushed further in,” Hakram continued. “Rather than face defeat, he unleashed devils and turned the remainder of his people into undead to bring revenge unto the invaders.”

He got a vote of agreement from everyone save a pouting Indrani, which was just enough to bar him from getting a swig of the bottle of aragh Thief had pulled out. Archer was a sore loser. Adjutant’s story was the most believable so far, though the rest of us moved around the mosaic tiles again and again in order to see if something else fit better. We realized the underlying mistake the day after, when we encountered the most striking shard yet. We’d assumed we had all the necessary tiles to tell the story, you see. We were disabused of that notion when we found the first landscape out of Keter itself. It was the funeral of the king we’d watch die, his body tastefully covered by a shroud so the pulped head could not be seen by those attending. Among those present in the great crypt where the entombment took place was the young man I was fairly sure became the Dead King. Not because of anything he did, but because of who was talking to him. The face I didn’t recognize, I’d admit. But the shoddy lute and the flask? Those I’d recognize anywhere.

They belonged to the Wandering Bard.

Chapter 27: Into Dusk

“The existence of death is the first lie we are taught. There is little difference between a corpse and a man, save the journey of the soul. They who learn to slip this noose find the threshold of apotheosis, for in the denial of passing they have taken themselves beyond the yoke of fate.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

I’d almost expected an army to be waiting on the other side when I opened the gate into Arcadia, but it seemed my bag of unwelcome complications was full at the moment. And to think, it’d only taken war with half the continent and every hero the Heavens could put together before we’d reached that point! Sadly, I was not unaware that the moment I started believing we’d reached the bottom of the barrel some Choir would pop in, yell surprise in a monotone and reveal there was a false bottom below leading into another barrel entirely.

“What’s the word they have in the Free Cities, for the snake that eats its own tail?”  I asked Hakram.

“Ouroboros,” he replied, hairless brow cocking.

There it was. In summary, my life was a veritable ouroboros of bad decisions feeding into increasingly horrible messes. I had to own up to at least that much, headed as we were towards what might just be the worst decision yet.

“You’re brooding,” Adjutant said.

“I don’t brood,” I replied without missing a beat.

He rolled his eyes.

“You are looking thoughtfully into the distance, a melancholy air on your face,” he said.

“I’m a complicated woman, Hakram,” I said. “You can’t begin to grasp the depths of my ponderings.”

Archer snorted ahead of us. Unkindly so, I decided.

“Like you can talk, Indrani,” I sneered. “You’re about as complex as a rock.”

“Geology is a broad and complicated field of study, actually,” Masego said.

Archer preened.

“See?” she said. “Even Zeze agrees I’m a woman of many facets. Unlike some others that won’t be mentioned.”

She turned to grin at me.

“Oh, things are going badly,” she mocked in a high-pitched voice.  “Better stab my way out of it. But stabbing is bad, for some inexplicable reason. What a difficult dilemma.”

I flipped her off.

“Don’t expect silver at the end of the trip, wench,” I said. “Mouthy guides don’t get handouts.”

“That’d be very inconsiderate of you, Catherine,” Vivienne mused. “She’s been such a peach so far. I’ll hold onto the coin for her, if you’d like.”

“You’ve already robbed the treasury once, Thief,” I replied flatly. “Try something fresh, for Below’s sake.”

It was pretty inevitable that a journey this, well, boring would see us turn to bickering to pass the time. Hierophant had been rather miffed that we’d kept the supplies to a bare minimum, since it meant he couldn’t spell himself atop a horse and crack open a book while we guided his mount. It’d taken three days before he stopped dropping hints this was all very uncivilized. The Woe’s only tagalong was my trusty Zombie the Third, and she at least wasn’t complaining about carrying most our supplies in her saddle-bags. It was a dark day indeed when the dead flying unicorn was the most trustworthy of my companions. I glanced up and sighed when I saw the sun was only beginning to reach afternoon height. We had hours left before making camp.

“We’ll reach the outskirts of Winter by nightfall,” Indrani suddenly said. “I know this place.”

I followed her gaze and found a mound of earth covered in dead grass, maybe half a mile away. We hadn’t seen any structures in days, not since we’d passed the demesne of the Count of False Blooming. Three weeks since we’d left Callow, and only now was the throb in the back of my mind that indicated the location of our path out beginning to feel measurably closer.

“I don’t think this is really Winter anymore,” I said quietly.

Hierophant, who’d been trailing behind and repeatedly weaving cooling spells around himself so he wouldn’t sweat for the exercise, put a spring to his step so he could catch up.

“You perceive our surroundings as different, even though they do not appear to be,” he said.

I chewed over that for a while before speaking.

“Before I could feel…” I grasped for the word. “Currents, in this place. Skade felt much different from the Summer territories we campaigned on. Archer says we’re supposed to be in Winter, but it doesn’t feel anything like that to me.”

“The wedding of the king and queen of Arcadia might have affected the very nature of this realm, then,” Masego murmured. “Interesting. If the effect is permanent, centuries of research on the fae might become useless.”

“The less anyone has to do with fae, the better,” I said, not unaware of the irony involved.

“Unfortunate that we do not have the time to study the phenomenon in depth,” Hierophant said. “Your word alone is not enough. You are ignorant and possibly under influence.”

Archer smothered a laugh and Hakram went suspiciously still, like he was trying not to smile. I looked at Masego for a long beat. It’d been said so mildly I knew it wasn’t actually an insult, but sometimes I did hope someone would eventually manage to badger some tact into him.

“That was insulting, Masego,” Vivienne called out from Zombie’s other side.

“Was it?” Hierophant said, glass eyes flicking to the side. “But it was all true.”

I patted his shoulder gently.

“We don’t call people ignorant, Masego,” I told him.

“But the overwhelming majority of them are,” he said, aghast.

“And I could spit in your morning tea, but I don’t,” I said. “Because refraining from doing that makes interacting more agreeable.”

He looked less than convinced.

“If they are never informed of their ignorance, how will they be made aware of the need to remedy it?” he pointed out, evidently believing this was reasonable.

“Remember our heroic battle cry, Zeze,” Indrani called out.

His expression cleared.

“Ah,” he mused. “Lies and violence. I understand.”

He turned to me and offered a beaming smile.

“You are well-read and conversant in magical theory, Catherine,” he said. “Well done.”

Hakram let out a sound that aimed to be a giggle but came out like a dozen angry cats being ground between millstones. I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“Thank you, Masego,” I said, reaching for calm.

He nodded, pleased, and trotted ahead to speak with Archer.

“I am well-read,” I complained at Hakram in a low voice.

“Compared to him?” the orc chuckled. “There’s libraries that would feel inadequate.”

Yeah, fair enough. It wasn’t like there weren’t gaps in Masego’s knowledge, but it was hard to beat personal tutoring by an incubus that preceded the Empire and a sorcerer that cut open Creation to find out how it worked.

“I find it interesting, though,” Hakram murmured. “What you said, about it feeling different.”

I glanced at him, silently inviting the orc to elaborate.

“Have you noticed?” Adjutant said. “The further we stray from ‘Winter’ territory, the less… alive the landscape become.”

“Winter’s never exactly been a field of flowers,” I pointed out.

He conceded that with an inclination of the head, but did not further agree.

“The mound Indrani used as a marker,” he said. “There was dead grass upon it.”


“Does it look to you like it was killed by snow?” he said.

Frowning, I took a closer look. When snows in Callow melted, the grass below came out yellow or green. From what little I’d seen anyway, I didn’t usually campaign in winter and I’d been raised in the city until nearly seventeen. The grass above the mound, though was… grey. I did not feel dead of natural causes. My fingers drummed against my side absent-mindedly.

“Warlock once told Malicia that Arcadia has a degree of symmetry with Creation,” I said.

“So you’ve told me,” Adjutant agreed.

“That doesn’t make any sense, Hakram,” I said quietly. “I mean, fitting journeys through Arcadia with a bird’s eye view of Calernia is pretty much impossible but we shouldn’t be anywhere close to the Kingdom of the Dead. Maybe halfway through the Proceran leg of the trip.”

“There is much we do not understand about the Dead King,” the orc said. “It is known he ruled a great kingdom, once but there is hardly any mention of it in the histories.”

“Because it was ancient,” I said sceptically. “And it’s not that unusual. No one knows what Ater’s original name was, or even the name of the kingdom centred around it. That’s what happens when people fuck around with demons.”

I’d been taught at the orphanage the reason for the existence of the ‘Nameless Kingdom’ was likely a demon of Absence, or that the Miezans had used a Censure after facing entrenched resistance. The latter theory wasn’t all that popular, since they were known to have use that only a handful of times across the entire lifespan of their empire.

“There are Callowan and Praesi oral histories contemporary to what would have been the Dead King’s predecessors,” Hakram said. “Yet no mention of a great power in the north.”

Which didn’t mean all that much, since back in those days most current nations didn’t even exist and those that had were pretty much unrecognizable when compared to what they now were. But he did have a point, kind of.

“So you think that he, what?” I said. “Shunted off parts of the kingdom into Arcadia?”

“The elves have done the same with the Golden Bloom twice now,” Adjutant said. “It is not impossible. A sorcerer capable of conquering a hell would certainly be capable of achieving as much.”

“If he was active outside his kingdom and his hell, someone would have heard of it by now,” I said. “I doubt he could gain a foothold in Arcadia without going to war with the courts, anyway. And that would have made waves.”

“It would now, certainly,” Hakram said. “Sorcery has been refined for centuries, states capable of sparing attention outside their borders and immediate threats have emerged. When most the continent wielded stone axes, however? A different story.”

Shit. That might actually be true. If it had all turned into myth millennia ago, whatever stories would have existed about it might have grown so different and twisted they were useless as a cornerstone.

“Lots of ifs,” I finally said.

“We will find out soon enough,” Hakram said. “But there are few entities in existence we should be warier of underestimating than the Hidden Horror.”

And on that cheerful note, we joined the others.

“So,” I said. “Anyone else have a bad feeling about this?”
“Yes,” Hakram bluntly said.

“Haven’t had a good one in years,” Vivienne admitted.

The other two minions ignored me. Indrani’s eyes were bright and excited, her stance coiled like she could barely keep herself from running forward. Masego, on the other hand, had gone eerily still aside from his hands and eyes. Which all moved from rune to rune traced in the air, as he let out little noises of surprise or delight whenever one of the colours or shapes changed.

I decided to leave him at it a little longer, eyes turning back to the eerie sight displayed before me. It was a kingdom. Or, at least, the shattered remnants of one. I had not chosen that word lightly: it was not a whole but a collection broken shards left wherever they fell, dropped by the hand of some unknowable god. Some shards seemed like they fit together – for half a mile a lake’s shoreline could be seen, with fishermen dragging their boats out under the noon sun – but others were almost painfully disparate. I saw a city street lead into a dark forest, a river flow out of a crowded fair and those were the least of it. In the distance I glimpsed warriors fighting in the pitch black darkness of a plain, next to the almost idyllic view of the sun rising over a peaceful farm.

“Indrani?” I said.

“No fucking idea, Catherine,” she said with relish. “I don’t even think the Lady has seen this before. She would have mentioned it for sure.”

Less than reassuring. Either this place was hidden a lot better than it seemed, or even the likes of Ranger preferred to avoid it.

“I’ll get the obvious out first,” I said. “This looks like the Kingdom of the Dead. Before, well, the last part of that.”

“It could be ancient Procer,” Hakram noted. “It too has large lakes. So does Callow, for that matter.”

“No it isn’t,” Vivienne quietly said. “Look as far as out as you can see, slightly to the left of the centre.”

I squinted before seeing what she was speaking of. It was city. Much too small to be Ater, but it begged for the comparison anyway because at the heart of it jutted a tall spire of dark stone. Atop it was a smaller globe, hovering in the air, and I’d seen that illustration before in books.

“Keter,” I said. “Crown of the Dead.”

“Inaccurate,” Hierophant said. “This is, for lack of a better term, an echo.”

His lips were twitching into a delighted smile, as if he couldn’t believe his luck.

“And what does that mean exactly?” I asked.

“Reverberation,” he said, sounding awed. “An event touched Creation that was so great and momentous it forced reflection within Arcadia. This has fascinating implications, Catherine. There have been few rituals so powerful in Calernian history, but the Diabolist’s working at Second Liesse could be considered in the same league. There might very well be an echo of that battle somewhere in this realm.”

My fists clenched. So there was a repeat of one of the darkest failures to my name to be found somewhere around? Charming.

“Can it hurt us?” I asked.

“I cannot speak with certainty,” Hierophant said.

“Guess,” I flatly ordered him.

He looked irritated.

“I can theorize,” he stressed pointedly, “that we are in such misalignment with the echo we cannot physically interact with it. With the proper spells perhaps sound could be obtained, but touch or smell are much more difficult. It would take weeks of rituals.”

“Which we won’t be doing,” I said.

Cat,” Archer complained. “Think about it. There’s bound to be heroes and villains there. We could fight people that had been dead for millennia!”

“Maybe on the way back,” I lied.

She pouted.

“Masego, how is this possible at all?” Hakram asked. “I was under the impression that Arcadia spanned the whole of Creation as a mirror of sorts. Was the Dead King so powerful all the world shook from his transgression?”

Hierophant clicked his tongue.

“That is a misunderstanding,” he said. “Consider Arcadia as a single object being looked upon by an infinity of perspectives. To every one, it is a different realm. Across the Tyrian Sea, it likely has completely different name and seems inhabited by completely different entities. Even the marriage of Winter and Summer is contained within the span of our gaze only, unlikely to have tremors beyond. It is so with this echo as well. Something that was momentous on our understanding of the world is not necessarily so elsewhere.”

“And so Triumphant wept, for she ruled but a fraction of the world and knew it to be vast beyond her reckoning,” Vivienne quoted softly. “We are not so important as we like to believe.”

“We can debate the philosophical implications of this later,” I said. “I’m fairly certain our gate out is in not-Keter. Masego, you’re sure that if we walk through a battlefield we won’t get stabbed?”

“From our perspective, all of this is akin to light painting smoke,” Hierophant said. “We will pass through as if they were ghosts.”

He paused.

“Some ghosts,” he clarified. “There is actually a very board spectrum of-“

“And forward we go,” I interrupted cheerfully. “I’m not sure I trust my ice to get us through the water parts, so we’re talking the long way around through-“

I paused, glancing to the right.

“A town burning plague victims,” I finished with a sigh. “Charming. Let’s get a move on, I’m not spending any more nights in this place than I have to.”

That didn’t turn out to be a problem, as it happened. Arcadia had a night and day, though sometimes they weren’t matches everywhere, but this place obeyed different rules entirely. Every shard seemed to have a lifespan before it returned to the beginning, and most that took place during day or night remained so. There seemed to be no rule or reason to the few shards that lasted longer. We marched through an entirely empty green field for three days and nights as if it were entirely natural, then pushed through a similarly empty mountain pass where the same bird began to swoop down in the same manner every quarter hour. Hierophant found a way to allow us earshot after half a week, though the sounds came muted. Unsurprisingly, Indrani pushed for us to pass through as many battlefields as possible. We took a break to the side of a pitched battle between a few hundred soldiers decked in iron screaming as they charged down a hill and half as many soldiers wearing obsidian and copper breastplates. The howlers were winning even though the opposition had a handful of mages. Those to be seen were a joke compared to even Legion mages: it took clusters of four or five chanting for a while to toss around the kind of lightning bolts my senior mage officers sent down without breaking a sweat. I sat down and watched the killing as the other ate.

“I recognize some of what they’re saying,” Hakram told me, standing by my side with the remains of his jerky in hand.

“The obsidian guys?” I said.

He shook his head.

“The iron men,” he replied. “Some of what they’re screaming has common roots with Reitz.”

The Lycaonese tongue, spoken only in the mountainous northwestern stretch of Procer.

“That’s four times we run into them fighting the others,” I noted. “And they win more often than not.”

“An invasion?” Adjutant said.

“Maybe,” I frowned. “We haven’t seen them hit anything larger than a village yet, so raids are more likely.”

We ran into our first real city shard two days later. Masego had been getting progressively more irritated by his inability to explain why we could pass through buildings and people but not mountains or hills, but we stumbled unto something that perked him up. Inside a towering house of bricks we found a circle of twelve men and women standing by a wide basin of granite and spilling blood inside from their arms. The oldest among them, a withered old crone, chanted incantations in a language none of us knew that were repeated by the rest. I allowed a half hour break, if only to get him in a better mood. Hierophant in a mood was pleasant for no one.

“Early scrying,” he told us, kneeling by the ghostly ritual. “It is Trismegistan in nature, that much can be known by the cadence, but they use no runic stabilizers at all. It is primitive, I’ll grant you, but the sheer skill involved… Even Father could not use so complicated a formula purely by voice.”

We moved on before long. We were all getting restless, the eerie scenes beginning to take a toll, but none more so than Archer. The longer it went on, the more often she started taking walks after we set camp. It was a bad idea, in my eyes. We knew too little about the dangers of this place to wander aimlessly. But more than any of us Indrani had the wanderlust, and I could see how remaining within the dotted lines was getting her temper closer to the surface. I extracted a promise for her not to leave for too long, and left it at that. I’d expected that if any trouble found us it would be through her, but I ended up choking on my words. It was Masego that wandered away without a word, face pale. It surprised me, considering the shard we were travelling through was a battle. One with precious little sorcery involved. The iron men were fighting the soldiers of obsidian again, by far the largest engagement we’d seen. At least two thousand on each side, and the obsidian soldiers were taking a beating. In large part, I saw, because of the empty circle at the heart of the field. Two silhouettes were duelling there. A middle-aged woman with a crown of iron, wielding a heavy mace of stone. Against her fought a man in a tunic of shimmering copper, wearing a circlet of gold-linked rubies. His iron sword was broken in a parry, and then the iron-crowned queen pulped his skull on the grass.

It was there I found Masego. He wasn’t looking at the fighting, at the circle of screaming soldiers from both sides surrounding the duel. No, he stood slightly beyond that. His form dispersing a soldier. He was looking at pale-skinned man in furs, chest mostly bare and his neck covered with necklaces of iron and silver. The stranger Hierophant was staring at was beautiful, I decided. One of the most striking men I’d ever seen. It was like someone had ripped out the fantasy of a warrior consort and given it flesh.

“Masego?” I called out.

He did not answer. I hurried to his side, laying my hand on his shoulder.

“Are you in danger?” I asked.

Mutely Hierophant shook his head. After a long moment he spoke.

“That,” he said, pointing at the man, “is my father.”

Chapter 26: Plunge

“If war is to be understood as the pursuit of statecraft through violence, then the Principate is a failure as a nation: the Highest Assembly has proved chronically incapable of either agreeing on or seeing through a single ambition through the undertaking of warfare.”
– Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, A Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’ by Princess Eliza of Salamans

It would have to be Cordelia Hasenbach first. The odds were not in my favour – but when had they last been, truth be told? – yet if this could be settled without the involvement of the Pilgrim it would be infinitely preferable. Now more than ever, every interaction with the Peregrine would carry dangers beyond the obvious. A single careless conversation could see me stripped of power or afflicted with opinions just slightly to the side of my own. For all that the Gods Below were the ones with the reputation for manipulation, I’d come to suspect the reason Above wasn’t saddled with the same was just that they were better at it. Evil tended to drop the bottom of how far you were willing to compromise and allow you to dig ever deeper on your own when the consequences came calling. Even the most deluded villain, I thought, must have hade one glimmer of cold clarity when they realized they’d brought it all on themselves by crossing that one line they wouldn’t have before. Above, though? It dealt in the guise of conscience. A whisper urging you to be the person you could be, if you were just a little better. It didn’t seem so terrible a thing, until you found that first choice seamlessly leading you into the next and the next and the one after that. Pilgrim had called Evil the edge of the cliff, once, but if that was true then Good was the tired metaphor of the slippery slope. Once you started going down, you had no more control over where you were headed than a cart rolling down a hill.

The revulsion that welled in me at that notion was an old friend, and not one I was willing to part from. Black had gotten to me young enough that the thought of having my choice taken away from me brought only bone-deep disgust, even for the worst of them.

The cool darkness of my domain soothed the sharpness of the emotions as it filled the room. There would be no shade whispering advice in my ear tonight. Akua already knew too much of my plans for comfort, and though Masego assured me it was possible to learn to make her invisible to the sight of others again it would take me days to properly master the trick. Days I could not afford: an entire month would go by before my opportunity to speak with the First Prince came again. Hasenbach came out of the dark glowing with the weight of miracles in the dozens, her dark blue dress touched by long golden curls. The understated circlet of pale gold on her brow found no match on my side: I wore no regalia tonight, nothing but the worn tunic and boots of a soldier on campaign. It was a truer glimpse of who I was than jewels and gold, though it did lack the expected formality. The First Prince took a moment to gather her bearings, though it was noticeably shorter than the last time. She was getting used to it, or at least getting better at faking situational awareness. I didn’t bother with the usual duel of silence that tended to precede our conversations.

“Your Most Serene Highness,” I greeted her.

“Your Grace,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied.

I hesitated, and in that heartbeat she took the lead.

“It has been some time since we last conversed,” the First Prince said.

“I saw no need to waste either our evenings by engaging before there was resolution to the battle,” I replied. “There has been, and now here I am.”

“It would have been courteous to notify me of this intent,” Hasenbach chided me.

“War is the graveyard of courtesies,” I said in Chantant, quoting one of her predecessors.

“Julienne Merovins never truly spoke those words,” she noted in Lower Miezan, sounding somewhat amused. “It was a courtier under the reign of her successor, and the bon mot was only attributed to her fifty years after her death by a family historian.”

“It always feels snappier when it comes from someone who wore a crown,” I shrugged. “Harder to tell with Dread Emperors, though, since so many of them really were that insane.”

“Praes does tend to straddle the line between laughable and appalling,” the First Prince said. “A tragedy for us all, that these last few decades have seen it settle firmly on the latter.”

“Lots of tragedies going around, these days,” I smiled thinly. “One might argue we’re both in the business of making those.”

Cool eyes considered me in silence.

“Shall we empty the proverbial bag before speaking with purpose then, Your Grace?” Hasenbach said. “I suppose you must have recriminations to utter, if only for your personal satisfaction.”

“I left personal at the door,” I replied. “It has no place in this conversation. Looking backwards just means stepping blind. I’m here, First Prince, because I want to cut a deal. The rest is noise.”

“You have shown fondness for that measure, of late,” the blonde said mildly. “Your bargain with my subjects was a particularly vicious breed of mercy.”

I frowned.

“I spared lives,” I said. “Thousands of them. Your own people’s lives, it is worth remembering.”

“You removed from the campaign for several months a force that would have been too costly to destroy by violence,” the First Prince said. “It was cleverly done, and I can respect the achievement, but let us not pretend you meant to save men you attempted to drown mere days earlier.”

“That working would have been limited, and only inflicted enough casualties to force a retreat,” I said.

She did not quirk a brow, though I got the impression she very much wanted to.

“An easy assurance to make, after the attempt was foiled,” she said.

I forced my fingers to unclench and breathed out slowly. Temper, Catherine, temper.

“I have taken great pains, Your Highness, to display moderation in how I’ve waged this war,” I said flatly. “At no small cost of my own. There is a point where doubt becomes denial.”

“It has not gone unnoticed,” Hasenbach conceded, to my surprise. “You must understand, however, that you are a villain. Deception is the trade of your kind. There is a chance, however slight, that you are genuine in your intentions. Yet precedent remains a stone around your neck, as it has been around mine.”

“I’ve wrecked a third of my army to prove goodwill,” I said bluntly. “Against the advice of most my generals, it should be said. I have to ask, in your eyes what would actually prove I mean what I say?”

“Abdication,” the First Prince replied without hesitation.

“That,” I said flatly, “is the kind of demand you get to make if you’re winning. You are not. I’m offering a treaty, not serving you Callow on a silver platter.”

“Your ‘offer’ has made its way to Salia,” Hasenbach said. “Bringing our hosts to Ater through Arcadia, if I am not mistaken. A process that assumes you will not merely strand those armies in a realm of hostile fae.”

“I’m willing to swear oaths I won’t,” I told her.

“Which would yet leave the Tenth Crusade almost completely dependent on you for supplies, while its hosts bleed their strength against Praesi cities,” the First Prince said. “Assuming the occupation of the Empire can be successful under those circumstances, the war still ends with you in a fine position to massacre the weakened armies of Procer and Levant after you spent several years raising armies in peace.”

“A possibility that can be warded off,” I said calmly, “if I am a signatory of the Grand Alliance. You should have received the scroll by now.”

The Warden of the West studied me expressionlessly.

“A well-penned request, observing every requirement as set out by the current treaties,” Hasenbach said. “My compliments to Vivienne Dartwick.”

It’d actually been Black that sent us a horrifyingly thorough transcript, but I saw no need to disabuse her of the assumption.

“In case you were wondering, it’s genuine,” I said.

“I assumed as much,” the First Prince smiled. “It would, after all, involve suspension of all military action between members and subject any matters of conflict to neutral arbitrage.”

“And also involve a declaration of war on the Dread Empire,” I pointed out. “Which means Callow won’t be preparing to backstab you, it’ll be on the front with your own armies. I’m even willing to take the Blessed Isle from Malicia and hold it while your soldiers make their way east as a sign of goodwill.”

“You are being deliberately obtuse,” Hasenbach said. “I have already informed you that a villain ruling Callow is not an acceptable outcome for this crusade.”

“I’ve been told more than once it’s bad form in a negotiation for your starting position to be your only position,” I said. “A bargain does tend to involve actual bargaining, Your Highness.”

The other woman’s eyes went cold.

“You are a warlord, Catherine Foundling,” she said, pronunciation excruciatingly precise. “Your reign was built on catastrophe and butchery, and has been maintained by the same. You are not the Queen of Callow, or even the Queen in Callow. The only claim for rule you have is that of steel, and with every passing month that claim weakens. You believe I am being undiplomatic, evidently.”

She paused and her lips thinned.

“That I must even pretend you have the right to speak for the souls under your yoke is a concession greater than any you have right to ask of me,” the First Prince said. “Even a usurper would be more palatable: you have merely ridden from one field of corpses to another, waiting and swelling in might from the deaths of your own people until none were left to gainsay your crowning. Well, here we are now. Consider yourself gainsaid, Black Queen.”

Calm, I thought, as Winter raged. Calm. Insults don’t matter, if you get what you want.

“And is that the stance of every signatory of the Grand Alliance?” I asked with forced politeness.

“There is not a ruler among us who will tolerate your remaining on the throne,” Hasenbach coldly said.

I breathed out. Calm. Yelling is for children.

“Abdication within ten years of the signature,” I replied instead of screaming. “With the understanding that other nations will have no say in the succession, in exchange for which I will give assurance it won’t be another villain.”

I saw her visibly master her anger and that had me frowning. A diplomat that practiced, having a fit? It irked me I couldn’t read her heartbeat, because I was beginning to realize I might just have been played. The scathing rant had felt genuine, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been used as a way to pressure me. Pressure me into giving something I’d been willing to give, sure, but what I’d intended to use as a bargaining chip for further concessions had just been put on the table just to keep negotiations going. Fuck. Horrid as the thought was, I wished I’d had Akua along for the ride.

“Abdication immediately following the end of the crusade,” Hasenbach said. “And binding oaths on both it and the matter of succession.”

“Five years, regardless of the crusade ending or not,” I countered. “I’ll need time to settle matters so the succession is stable. Agreed on the oaths.”

There was a beat of silence.

“An accommodation might be possible,” the First Prince finally said.

I kept my face blank even as relief welled up. Of thank the fucking Gods. I had not been looking forward to trying my hand with the Dead King. Ignoring an invitation from the Hidden Horror would likely have consequences, but I was an old hand at lesser evils.

“A truce until it’s reached, then,” I said. “Including your uncle ending digging operations in the Vales.”

“A passage there will be necessary to the prosecution of the war,” Hasenbach said.

“In can gate his entire army across the Vales in less than a week, if you don’t trust me to get them all the way to Praes,” I replied flatly. “Keeping him pointed at my belly can’t be considered anything but coercion.”

“You are being coerced,” the First Prince frankly replied. “That is the very reason we are having this conversation.”

I watched her, the strongly-cast face and the patience painted upon it.

“There is a very real chance,” I said slowly so she knew I wasn’t being flippant, “that agreeing to what you just said will lead to civil war in Callow. It will be seen as annexation, or at the very least effective vassalage. You badly underestimate how hated your people are in the kingdom.”

“You have asked me to consider you as the ruler of Callow,” Hasenbach said. “Rule, then. Exert your authority to prevent the unrest.”

Gods, she was serious.

“No,” I said. “I’ve made significant concessions. You want the pass open? Give me more than your word to work with. Withdraw the army, make the truce public. I’ll have Hierophant work on a ritual to clear the wreckage, to be used when the treaties have been signed. Otherwise, this is starting to look a lot like I’m baring my neck for the knife.”

“I am the First Prince of Procer, not a petty tyrant,” Hasenbach replied tightly. “I do not go back on my word once given.”

“And I am Callowan,” I snapped. “We have more than few songs about the worth of Proceran promises. You’re asking me to extend a lot of trust. Do the same damned thing.”

“You are overestimating the strength of your bargaining position,” she warned me.

“So are you,” I barked. “You sent two armies after me, and they both got whipped out of Callow. You have Black in your heartlands with four legions and you’d rather argue with me about not putting a knife at my throat than deal with it?”

“I have near every hero on the continent and thrice his number containing him,” Hasenbach said. “His survival is a matter of months, if not weeks.”

“So this is what it looks like,” I said quietly. “An intelligent woman making a very grave mistake.”

“Oh, spare me the heaps of praise for the murderer,” she said. “He is a skilled general and an effective killer. He is not invincible.”

“You are about to get mauled,” I said, appalled. “I don’t even know what he’s up to, but I know that. Sure as day. Gods Below, what about how this crusade has been unfolding could possibly make you this arrogant?”

“Posturing will yield nothing,” the First Prince said.

“I know what you’re trying to do, Cordelia,” I said. “You think than in a month we’ll be speaking again and I’ll have to bend my neck a little lower. Brinksmanship. I need you to believe me, because I’m begging here, that it’s not what’s going to happen. I cannot gamble this entire kingdom’s fate, start a civil war, on grounds so thin. I’m already cornered. This is as low as I go.”

“Six months ago,” she said softly, “you might have said the same. And yet here we are.”

I closed my eyes. Should I? Give her even that small assurance I was holding out for? It’d be seen as a capitulation because, to be honest, it was. There’d be riots, and at least half the Army of Callow would desert. Thief might actually kill me. She trusted Procer even less than me. Hells, she might be right to if it came to that. There were good reasons I had those contingencies in place. I opened my eyes.

“One last time,” I said. “Don’t do this. We could avoid so much death – beyond the politics and the interests and the schemes, that has to count for something.”

“Appeals to emotion,” she said, not unkindly, “are the last resort of one without argument.”

I stared at her for a long time.

“I think,” I said quietly, “that this conversation is going to haunt the both of us, in years to come.”

She hesitated for a moment.

“I am not without sympathy,” she said. “But there is more at stake than you know.”

It wasn’t an opening. Gods, I wished it was, but there was no invitation to negotiate again in the way she was looking at me.

“Woe to us both, then, Cordelia Hasenbach,” I said.

I ripped away the darkness and rose to my feet. One last try, before I went into the devil’s lair.

There were guards around the Pilgrim’s tent, a full line. I dismissed them as gently as my mood allowed, which by the way the Taghreb lieutenant paled wasn’t very. A few months ago, I thought, I would probably have been frosting everything around me. The old man was awake, even this late at night, and seated at a writing desk with a mage lamp atop it. He was penning something, I saw, on a scroll. That had me curious, however reluctantly. He wasn’t allowed letters even as an observer, so what was he writing?

“Pilgrim,” I said, lingering at the entrance of the tent. “May I?”

“Catherine,” he replied with a kindly smile. “By all means.”

I strode into the tent and moved a folding chair from his bedside to face him across the writing desk. He saw my glance at the scroll and chuckled.

“Your Marshal asked me to provide my recollections of the Battle of the Camps,” he said. “As much as can be revealed in my position. I believe she may be penning a history of the last few years.”

Juniper’s ‘Commentaries’, inspired by the second Terribilis’. I’d known about that, and that Aisha apparently kept memoirs of her own though she was very noncommittal about ever showing them to me. I supposed someone should be keeping records, since I sure as Hells wasn’t.

“I’m surprised you’re willing to contribute,” I admitted.

“I have always thought it a great disservice to all, that histories are so often written by the victors,” the hero said. “Much could be avoided by having a broader perspective. If an old man’s recollections can be of any help I am glad to provide it.”

That was the trouble with the Pilgrim, I thought. He would say those wise, beautiful things and seem to genuinely believe them. But then I’d find him on the battlefield, wielding miracles like a knife for a cause that was as empty as it got. There might be a good man, somewhere in there. I wanted to believe that. But that man answered to the Heavens before anything else. And if I could hold it against Black that he could love me but still set it aside, then I could hold it against this stranger that his pretty ideals only mattered as long as the Heavens agreed they were convenient. They weren’t really principles if they were always discarded at the first frown from Above, were they?

“You seem in a pensive mood, tonight,” the Pilgrim said.

I weighed the risks, for a moment, then took the plunge.

“I’ve just had a very exhausting conversation with the First Prince,” I said. “So I’d like to be blunt, if you don’t mind, because I don’t have a lot of coyness left in me.”

He didn’t seem surprised by the revelation that I had a way to talk directly with Hasenbach, but that meant less than nothing. The Peregrine wasn’t someone I’d want to play cards against.

“You attempted to make peace,” he said.

I smiled thinly.

“I very nearly did,” I said. “But then she pushed just a little further than I can go. And I know, Gods I know, that maybe she wasn’t out to screw me and everyone in this kingdom. That the other choices I can make are so much worse they’re indefensible.”

I met his eyes.

“I’m willing to take leaps of faith with people, Pilgrim,” I said honestly. “I have before, and I will again. But not with the Heavens. Because you don’t negotiate with Above, you obey. And I don’t think Cordelia Hasenbach holds the reins of what she unleashed nearly as tightly as she thought she would.”

“And so now you come to me,” the old man said. “With a request.”

“Do something,” I asked quietly. “Intervene. Offer to arbitrate. Thief tells me you could be king of Levant with a snap of your fingers, if you felt like it. You have influence to wield.”

“Seljun,” he said calmly. “We do not have kings, in Levant. And there is a reason I do not sit the Tattered Throne, Catherine. Your Good Kings have done well by Callow, but the Dominion… It is a different land. It would end the honour duels, the forays into the wilds, but it would be a call. To the kind of war best left in the past.”

“I’m not saying usurp your ruler,” I said. “But Gods, you’re not nobody. If you make a truce with me Levant will fall in line. That’ll force Hasenbach to reconsider.”

“It would break the Tenth Crusade,” he gently said.

“So do it behind closed doors,” I said, frustration mounting. “You’re trying to shove redemption down my throat, and don’t bother denying it. Fine. I’ll fucking lean in, even if it’ll probably get me killed. Just act. I’ll kiss the hem, quote the Book. All you need to speak up and thousands don’t have to die.”

“It would smother in the crib,” the Grey Pilgrim said sadly, “what is perhaps the last chance for peace in our time.”

“I’m offering peace,” I hissed.

“Peace on your terms would unseat the First Prince,” he said. “She has spent years forging an alliance with Levant, fighting her Assembly tooth and nail every step of the way. For that same ally to twist her arm into making a pact with one of the most famous villains alive would see her removed within the month. And everything she seeks to accomplish vanish with her.”

A long moment passed and the only sound in the tent was his steady heartbeat.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “If you’d said the Heavens were using their veto, I would have been furious. I won’t pretend otherwise. But at least I wouldn’t be disappointed.”

He opened his mouth but Winter flared like half a world howling for blood and he closed it.

“No, disappointed is too mild a word,” I said, voice barren of any speck of warmth. “This, Pilgrim, is worthy of contempt.”

“The treaties she has made and would deepen will end wars in the west,” the old man said. “Callow restored and Praes humbled will allow Calernia to finally turn towards the true face of the Enemy. The King of the Dead. The Chain of Hunger.”

“It’s funny,” I said, smiling mirthlessly. “How it’s never the lot of you that have to make the sacrifices. Us, this entire fucking kingdom since the dawn of time? Well, that’s just how things have to be. Someone needs to take care of Praes so the rest of the continent can kill itself in peace. But then someone else has to do the bleeding, for once, and suddenly there’s all these considerations.”

“This is not fair,” the old man said. “Nor it is just. I will not pretend otherwise, child. But I will not offer you succour at the price of Cordelia Hasenbach’s dream. It is too great a good to be slain in this manner.”

“So we burn again, for the greater good of everyone else,” I laughed harshly.

I rose to my feet.

“You know, when I make decisions like that, they call me a monster,” I said, meeting his eyes without smothering a single ember of the fury I felt. “So why do you get a pass?”

“I will suffer the price of this, in time,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Service is no absolution.”

He looked old and tired and sad. But so did a lot of people, and they didn’t sign death warrants for dozens of thousands. I was out of sympathy to offer for the likes of him. I had no pithy comment to offer, no cutting parting remark. I left the tent before I could talk myself into murdering him in cold blood. I needed to talk to Hierophant.

We were, after all, going to Keter.