“Where have all the good men gone? Graveyards, mostly.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent III, the Pithy
Running struck me as the better part of valour in this one.
The first undead I’d put down had been a bit of a pushover, sure, but there were more coming out of the water every moment and fighting in the muck was going to get exhausting. I wasn’t sure what would actually happen if I died here, but Black’s last words were probably as much a real warning as sarcasm. One of the shamblers got close enough to reach for my arm but it was ridiculously slow – small favours – so I hacked away at the head with a two-handed swing. The flesh and bone split like an overripe fig and the thing went back down to wherever the Hells is had crawled out of, sinking into the water. I flicked a glance at my back, grimacing when I saw that even those few moments had been enough for the rest of the bastards to gain on me. There’s gotta be fifty, at least? And the swamp seemed intent on continuing to hemorrhage undead every time I blinked, so I definitely couldn’t afford to get bogged down. My mouth still tasted like scum water so I spat to the side as I pulled my way up onto the stump, looking for a way out of this mess – somehow I had a feeling that climbing up a tree and closing my eyes wasn’t going to cut it.
The structure in the distance still stood in the same place as earlier. It was shaped like a tower, I thought, though I couldn’t see how high up it went. What I could see was that the hill it stood on was outside the swamp and currently lacking my zombie friends. It was probably a trap, I reflected, but still better than getting pulled apart by a horde of moaning imbeciles. There was a flicker at the edge of my sight and I almost flinched: something was trying to catch my foot. The edge of my sword caught the wrist halfway there, though, and I blinked in surprise at the undead recoiled with a shriek. I… shouldn’t have been able to do that. I was quick, but I knew exactly how quick I was – I’d learned it anew with every fresh set of bruises in the Pit. I was familiar with the hateful little moment when you saw a hit coming but knew you wouldn’t be fast enough to block it, and this was one of those. But instead my body had reacted immediately, with no heartbeat between the realization of the need to move and the movement itself.
“Name,” I whispered, a little awed.
I wasn’t even the Squire yet, wouldn’t be for a while if I’d understood the gist of what Black had said, and already I could do things like this? No wonder heroes were said to take on entire fortresses filled with soldiers without a second thought. No wonder villains take on entire groups of heroes. Silhouettes were already rising up ahead, littering the way to the hill in an attempt to keep me surrounded, so I jumped back down into the swamp and got moving. The zombie who’d almost caught me had been entirely silent: it had emerged from the waters without a sound and given no warning before striking. Adding to that the fact that it had tried to slow me down instead of kill me? It meant that they were getting smarter about this. The longer I stayed here, the harder it would get. It also means my soul is being kind of a bitch about this, I grunted to myself.
I pushed through the muck as fast as I could. Even here was only ankle-deep, so I was a little quicker than my pursuers – though not by wide enough a margin to get comfortable. Another one rose from the mud to my right so I ducked around a tree to make a little space. I would have looked rather ridiculous, I imagined, if anybody had been around to see me. Even pushing myself I was barely as quick as someone taking a walk on solid ground and the slow-witted undead were only a threat because of their number. Not exactly the kind of struggle you wrote epic poems about. I managed for what seemed like an eternity to avoid any of them before realizing that I was playing into their hands: I was going through more effort going around them than I would actually getting into a fight, as the rivulets of sweat running down my neck were already proving. Spitting out one of the grittier curses I’d overheard down at the Docks, I squared my shoulders and rammed myself straight into the knot of shamblers barring the way ahead.
I rammed the tip of the short sword into the throat of the closest one and it came free as I wrenched the blade out, but the other two were already on me. What looked like it might have been a woman at some point sank her teeth into my arm and I hissed in pain – I knocked her loose by hitting her temple with the pommel of the sword, struggling to keep the last one away with my free hand. The zombie gave, though several of her teeth remained stuck into my flesh. Could you get an infection from a Name vision? Gods, I hoped not. Cutting away the reaching arm of the last undead was the work of a pair of measured swings as I ducked around the woman trying to bite me a second time, and then the way was clear enough for me to push through. There was a fallen tree a little up a head that allowed me to put more distance between us when I climbed up on it, though the wood was wet and the footing tricky.
A glance at the hill up ahead told me I was maybe halfway there, so I gritted my teeth and got back to work without taking a moment to catch my breath.
The bite wound on my arm throbbed, and that clinched my decision of not getting into any more fights with knots of them. I wasn’t used to fighting with multiple opponents, and I couldn’t afford to take a wound every time I ran into a pack. I stuck to hacking down lone undead as I ducked and weaved through the trees, always keeping an eye on the hill: the last thing I needed was to get lost in this godsdamned swamp. I took a scrape on the face when one of them jumped out from behind a tree, fingernails clawing as I rammed the sword into its chest. It was light, but I’d been very lucky it hadn’t been higher up: I’d fought with blood in my eyes before, and that was always a messy business. The closer I got to the hill the thinner in the ground the undead became. Less and less knots, and then they stopped rising entirely. By the time the water had turned into mossy wet earth, there were none in sight. Dropping to my knees, I leaned up against a tree and took the chance of closing my eyes for a moment.
Gods, I was exhausted.
The Pits hadn’t been like that at all. I’d only ever done one fight a day, and they’d never gone on this long. The opponents had been more dangerous, but they’d never ground me down by sheer force of numbers. If I’d slipped up even once, down in the waters, it would have been over.
“Fuck me,” I whispered. “Weeping Heavens, I hope the Good twin isn’t going to make this a fight.”
I pushed myself up and waited another few moments to catch my breath. I was close enough to get a good look at the hill now, and the tower on it. White stone, though not a kind I recognized, and it kept going up higher than I could see through the top of the trees. Hopefully my soul wasn’t enough of a jackass to make it so I had to walk up sets of stairs covering that height, though considering the kind of shit it had been putting me through so far I wasn’t exactly counting on it. The way out of the outskirts of the swamp was quicker now that the ground was mostly solid: I took the long way around a handful of ponds just in case there was anything lurking in there, but to be honest I was too happy I wasn’t being dogged by the burning undead horde to really complain about the tediousness of getting out of the bog.
My first surprise came when I finally got out of the trees: the tower kept going up. All the way into the sky, and then it connected to some sort of sprawling city that covered the gloom for miles. The whole thing was upside down, with the tallest stone spires looking to me like they should be falling down any moment now. Just looking at the thing was putting back the itch under my feet that I’d associated with my old fear of heights. Even as I continued closing the distance I could barely see where the stones making the tower started and the next one began: it would have appeared to be made of a single block of rock to anyone not taking too close a look. There was a yawning doorway squat in the middle and a pair of armoured knights stood by it, perfectly still. The suits of armour were empty, I saw as I got closer, made of what looked like silver. I raised a brow at that. Silver? That was the stupidest thing I could think of to forge armour with, except maybe gold – it was soft metal, any halfway decent blade would cut through. The halberds they were holding were steel, though, and that was another story entirely. Warily, sword still in hand, I kept an eye on their weapons and hazarded a step between them. Immediately the halberds came down, barring my way in.
“Well,” I mused, “so much for the easy way. There’d better not be an endless flood of you fellows inside, because I’d like to believe my godsdamned soul is a little more original than that.”
“You don’t need to fight them,” a voice interrupted me. “You just need to leave that… thing outside.”
There was a woman standing just past the doorway, and for the second time I got to have a look at an older version of myself. No scar on her this time, and she wore pristine white robes instead of armour. Her hair was cut short in a way that had never suited me but looked fitting on her: her face was more mature, the cheeks thinner and her nose not as prominent. She was also currently glaring at my sword like it had been used in the murder of her extended family.
“Yeah,” I informed her flatly. “I’m not handing that over. Not when you’ve got your little friends there with the halberds.”
My new doppelganger frowned. “I have no weapons, and they’ll stay outside,” she replied.
“And I’m supposed to take your word on that?”
“If you want to enter the tower,” she told me, and I recognized the tone she was using.
I’d used it quite a few times myself, when I was letting a potential threat know I wasn’t going to budge on something. Was it worth the risk? I didn’t know how hard to put down the knights would be, and I wasn’t exactly at my best right now – the throbbing on my arm where I’d gotten bitten was a constant reminder of that, never mind the weariness in my bones. The bog-bitch had called this one the “Good” twin, though, so maybe taking a chance was the way to go. Still… Moving quicker than I’d ever thought I could, I impaled the closest knight through the breast plate, pinning it to the surprisingly soft stone behind it. I stepped away, hands raised in peace, as the other one raised its halberd.
“Weaponless, see?” I told the other woman with a smile.
The older double frowned but conceded the point with a nod, stepping aside as I entered. The inside of the tower was empty except for a single seat in the middle of the room: old gnarled wood, light brown and well-polished. Not that it felt that way: the walls were covered in colourful mosaics. They depicted daily scenes from what I recognized to be my life – lessons at the orphanage, evenings at the Nest, even fights in the Pit. The tower walls went all the way into the distance, ending in a breath-taking view of the city I’d glimpsed earlier from above. The itch came back, but I pushed it down with the ease of practice: that particular fear was one I’d already mastered, and I had no intention of allowing it to crawl back into my life. Past a certain point the walls were still blank, I assumed to make room for the rest of my life. I squinted as I tried to make up one of the scenes higher up I couldn’t recognize, but the lighting inside wasn’t good enough. I did have a guide, though.
“That one,” I asked pointing at the object of my curiosity. “What does it show?”
The other girl shot me an unimpressed look.
“That time you peeked at Duncan Brech through the cracks while he was changing,” she said.
I chuckled. “And that warrants an entire scene? He’s not that good-looking.”
Good Twin didn’t seem to share in my amusement: she ignored me and headed for the chair, claiming the seat gingerly and leaving me to stand around like a supplicant. I sighed. And here’d I gone, foolishly hoping that she wouldn’t be as much of a pain as the other one.
“So,” I grunted, “out with it. Before I stabbed the other one she took issue with how ‘soft-hearted’ I was. What’s the axe you’ve got to grind?”
“The axe we have to grind,” the double corrected calmly. “All that you see here, all that you’ve been through so far – it comes from you. We’re voicing your doubts, nothing more.”
“That makes me responsible for the bloody zombies, then?” I muttered. “That’s a whole new level of self-loathing.”
The white-robed girl smiled mirthlessly. “You have this belief that nothing worth having can be had easily. Your adventure in the swamp is a reflection of that.”
Interesting, but not what I’d come here for. If I’d wanted to be lectured, I’d have taken a seat in the Matron’s office and told her I’d been fighting in the Pit.
“Fascinating insight,” I told her flatly. “Changes everything. I don’t suppose that’s enough to knock off this part of the dream?”
A flash of anger went through her eyes, and I was almost satisfied I’d gotten anything but condescension out of her.
“One would hope you’d take the fate of your soul a little more seriously, Catherine Foundling,” she thundered, her voice echoing in the empty tower.
“I would take this seriously if I thought what I learned here meant anything,” I replied, taking delight in remaining calm in the face of her anger. “But it doesn’t. It’s just a chore I have to get done before I return to consciousness and move on with my life.”
“Yes,” she spoke, forcing herself back into a semblance of serenity. “Your life. As a villain in service to the Dread Empire of Praes.”
I frowned. “That was always the plan,” I reminded her. “Now I just get to skip a few steps by having a Name instead of slowly climbing the ranks in the Legions.”
“If you don’t understand how taking up a Role changes everything,” she said, “then you are a fool. You are binding yourself to Evil. To uphold its laws, champion its cause.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” I grunted, “but the Empire’s laws are the only laws, at the moment. And let’s not pretend I’m going to champion anything I don’t want to champion, because if you’re really part of my soul you should know better than that.”
The doppelganger leaned forward, a fervent light in her eyes. “There is another law. The one you were taught at the House of Light. Do good. Uphold right. Protect the innocent, fight for a righteous cause.”
“You want me to be a hero,” I realized. “That’s… I don’t think I even have the words to tell you how stupid of an idea that is. Let’s forget for a moment that my body’s in near proximity to at least two of the Calamities, though that should be enough in and of itself. Heroes try to “liberate” Callow all the time, Idiot Twin. It doesn’t work.”
I took a step forward.
“They try, maybe stir up a town in the south, and then they die. Assassin gets them, or the Legions, or Hells I’ve even heard Black put down a few himself. Some don’t even make it into Callow itself before they get caught.”
“You’re already here,” she replied. “You know Laure, know your people. All they need is someone to raise the standard, and they will rally.”
“They’ll riot,” I corrected. “And they’ll be dispersed. Then I imagine my head will look mighty righteous, spiked alongside theirs over the city gates.”
“That’s your answer?” she growled. “It’d be too hard? Too hard, not to become another tool of the Empire instead of doing the right thing?”
“I’m all for doing the right thing,” I replied flatly. “As long as it’s not also the dumb thing. This isn’t a story, you twit. We’re living this. If we fuck up, real people are going to die and we’ll die with them having accomplished nothing.”
“Better to accomplish nothing than to accomplish bad things,” she told me.
And that was where we split apart, I realized. The other one down in the swamp had thought that just killing everyone who deserved killing was going to be enough, but that was a child’s way of thinking. There were always going to be more people like Mazus, more petty tyrants drunk on power and greed. Just removing them wasn’t enough: you had to change the system behind them, the machinery that let them rise so high in the first place. This one, she thought that just being Good was enough. That because you were doing the right thing you’d win, in the end, and the villains would be sent packing and everyone would rejoice. That wasn’t what happened, in real life. Sometimes you couldn’t beat Evil, and the only way to change things was to be patient and clever.
“Doing nothing is worse than being Evil,” I told her, striding forward. “Getting people killed because you won’t compromise is worse than being Evil. I’m going to change things – maybe not all of them, but enough. And if that means getting my hands dirty, I can live with that. I don’t have to be a good person to make a better world.”
She opened her mouth but I was already upon her and my fingers closed around her throat.
“No,” I growled. “You’ve said enough, and we are done here.”
For the second time in two days, I woke up in a room I was unfamiliar with.
Hopefully the passing out wasn’t going to be a staple of my tenure with the Empire, because it was already starting to get old. The bed I was in was more fit for a family of four than my own meagre frame, and by the feel of it I’d been tucked in under actual silk sheets. Well now. Long way from the orphanage aren’t we, Catherine Foundling? I sighed and allowed myself to luxuriate in the feeling of them for a moment, laying back my head on the pillows and refusing to open my eyes. I felt… surprisingly good, actually, except for the dull throbbing where I’d gotten bit during the dream. My senses felt sharper, like I’d just gotten a really good night’s sleep instead of gone through a Name vision of dubious symbolism. After a few breaths the novelty of it faded away and I pushed myself up, startling the servant tidying up by the window where the sun was filtering in. A young man, Callowan if the skin tone was any indication and wearing the palace livery.
“Lady Foundling,” he bowed, looking like he’d gotten caught with his hand in a jar full of honey. “A thousand apologies, I did not mean to wake you.”
“Lady Foundling,” I repeated, somewhat bemused. “Fancy that. If I’d known all I needed to become a noble was stab someone in a dream, I’d have done it a while back.”
The servant looked rather alarmed at that, though he took pains not to let it show too obviously. “Lord Black left orders that he be informed as soon as you woke, my lady,” the man said, keeping his eyes fixed to the floor. “I beg your leave to do so. Clothes have been laid out for you by the bath.”
A bath? Didn’t expect to sink into the lap of luxury this soon after going bad, but I’m not complaining.
“You,” I gestured vaguely, “go and do that, I guess.”
The servant excused himself again and left the room after a bow, closing the door behind him.
“Lady Foundling,” I repeated, chuckling to myself.
The title seemed more like a bad joke than anything else. Foundling wasn’t a real name: it was what they slapped next to an orphan’s name on the ledger when they got dropped off. Like putting a coat on a pig. The siren call that was the mention of a bath got me on my feet, sliding off the bed with another small sigh of pleasure. I really needed to look into getting sheets like those, if I ended up settling down anywhere while I was the Squire. I padded to the window on bare feet, shedding the now sweat-soaked shirt I’d been put to bed wearing and dropping it on the floor. I’d never taken to wearing breast bindings: wasn’t curvy enough to need them, since whichever of my parents had been Deoraithe had cursed me with their typically slender frame. My parents, huh. It’d been a while since I’d thought about them. I had no idea who they’d been – were, for all I knew – since the House for Tragically Orphaned Girls didn’t keep records for me to break into. I’d been dropped off a little after the Conquest, though, so probably not a dead soldier’s child.
The view out of the window was lovely, looking down straight on a well-tended garden of sculpted hedges and exotic flowers. There were a few gardeners already at work, but I didn’t really care if one of them got a look through the window: there’d been little enough privacy in the dormitories that I’d gotten over that sort of shyness long ago. I ran pensive fingers against the window panes, enjoying the way the coloured glass turned my fingers green and red. Imported, has to be. The Glassblower’s Guild didn’t do work like this, so it was likely from the Principate. The servant had mentioned my freshly acquired teacher’s instructions that he be told when I woke, so after a moment I moved towards the doorway facing the bed. I’d never had a chance to use a real bathtub before, so I wanted to make the most of it. The other room was all panelled wood and white marble, with a large pool in the middle that appeared to be a Miezan bath. Huh. Didn’t think those got popular here before the Praesi came. I dipped a toe in the water and found it just short of boiling. I raised an eyebrow: hopefully there was a spell involved in keeping it at that temperature, because otherwise it would have been an outrageous waste of wood.
I slipped out of the trousers and threw them out the doorway. There were marble benches under the water so I slid in on one and rested my back against the edge of the bath – it must have been built for people taller than me, because it came up to my neck. The warm water felt like the best thing in the world, after the last few days, and I dunked myself in just to feel it wrapping up around all of me. I emerged a little ways off and came to face with a handful of small glass vials.
They were clear so I could see they were full of salts and oils: I grabbed the closest one and took of the cap, bringing it up close for a whiff. Something herbal. Lavender, maybe? I’d never really taken an interest in herbalism. I shrugged and poured a little over my back, rubbing it in and spilling some in the water for good measure. A few moments later I was positively reeking of the stuff, so I’d likely been a little heavy-handed. I dunked myself back under the water to rinse it off before deciding that was quite enough indulgence for the day: the promised clothes were on the other side of the bath, neatly folded, so I paddled in that direction. I hoisted myself out and grabbed the cleaning linen laid out next to them, eyeing what I’d been provided curiously. Thick leather breeches, made from the skin of an animal I wasn’t familiar with, and a white woollen shirt. The new addition was the thick padded jacket that looked like it would reach to my knees: I’d seen Sergeant Ebele come in wearing one, a few times. She’d called it an aketon – legionaries wore them under chain mail to prevent chafing. Looks like I’m going to be getting armour soon.
It was surprisingly easy to put on, designed to I could tighten the laces in the front without anyone’s help. I supposed it would have been a little absurd for the Squire to require a squire of her own, I reflected with a snort. When I came back to the bedroom it was to find there was another occupant: Black was lounging on an ornate chair by a Proceran bureau I hadn’t even noticed, idly flipping through a book. He raised an eyebrow when he saw me.
“It suits you,” he commented.
“It’s summer,” I grunted back. “I’m going to cook alive.” A moment later the memory I had of him resurfaced and I pointed an accusatory finger. “You – you jackass. You stabbed me.”
He seemed to ponder that for a moment before shrugging.
“Only a little bit,” he replied.
I’d never wanted to deck someone in the face more than I did that man in that moment. “That’s what you’re going with?” I growled. “Only a little bit?”
“If the fact that you’re not screaming and bleeding out of your eyes is any indication,” he mentioned, “then it was a complete success.”
“That was an option?” I asked faintly. “You could have mentioned that before.”
“Yes,” he admitted frankly. “I could have.”
Fucking villains. Even if I was technically one now, fucking villains.
“Just to make sure – the swamp and horde of undead, that’s normal right?” I asked, seating myself at the edge of the bed.
His eyebrow rose even higher. “Swamp? Unusual. I went through a labyrinth myself, though I’m told the experience tailors itself to the person going through it.”
Gods, it was kind of depressing that the best my soul could come up with was scum water and zombies when it came to Name visions.
“I’d consider it a good thing that your experience was rather martial in nature,” he told me. “Your Name’s abilities are likely to be related.”
“Well, that’s something at least,” I grunted. “I’m not feeling all that different, so I’m guessing that means I’m not the Squire yet?”
“About halfway there, as much as these things can be measured,” the green-eyed man said. “There’s other contenders, but none of them should be quite so far along.”
“Other contenders?” I repeated.
“Close your eyes,” the Knight instructed. “Focus. You should feel something in the back of your mind, like someone watching you.”
I obeyed. For the first few moments there was nothing, but after a while there was… a sensation. It wasn’t like he’d said, more like an itch that wasn’t quite on my skin but still belonged to me. I frowned and tried to push the feeling, and suddenly it unfolded on me.
“Three others,” I said, opening my eyes. “And some fourth thing that’s not quite the same.”
He hummed in agreement. “Try to keep your finger on the pulse of that feeling as much as possible, from now on.”
I frowned. “Why?”
He smiled. “Because as of this moment, they all want to kill you.”