“Only heroes get to have the torch handed to them. Villains must take it from their predecessor’s corpse.”
-Dread Empress Malicia, First of her Name
Morning Bell wouldn’t be sounding for another hour but I was already up and about. I’d long gotten used to seven hour nights and the occasional shorter rest when the Legion’s pace demanded it, but not even my Name was enough to tamp down the horrible weariness in my bones. It’d been a while since I’d taken a beating this bad: the only one I could recall that topped it was my first run-in with William. I was in no danger of ever forgetting that fight, or its aftermath. Pulled levers, and twenty-five Callowans died. I still felt a flash of anger at the memory, though the executions themselves did not trigger the worst of it. That role was shared between the Lone Swordsman for having meddled with my mind and Black for having Spoken at me. I’d grown to like my teacher more than I’d ever thought possible, but the denial of my free will was not something I would ever just get over.
The previous night I’d put off Archer’s initial request for the transfer of her colleague to be done immediately, not that she’d fought me very hard on the subject. After having made her initial impression she’d seemed pretty nonchalant about the task she’d been entrusted with. That was rather telling, though I lacked information to draw conclusions from it. The internal politics of Refuge were opaque to me, and everyone else for that matter. The one undeniable fact was that Ranger, formerly of the Calamities, ruled the city. And yet the polity was not aligned in any way with the Empire. It was considered a dwarven protectorate, if anything, though the Kingdom Under disliked making definitive commitments to anyone on the surface. I would have thought a independent city ruled by one of elven blood would have drawn the Golden Bloom’s attention, but that did not seem to be the case. Ranger herself might be a half-elf, but she’d not been spared by the elven lack of interest in anything going on outside their borders.
When I found the Lady of the Lake’s envoy, she was seated in a small anteroom close to where we were keeping Hunter, legs crossed as she sat in an armchair and chatted with an interested-looking Apprentice. The bow from last night was nowhere in sight and neither was the coat, leaving her in that pale mail. The dark linen that had covered her lower face had been turned into a makeshift scarf.
“- some of the Unseelie, though they’re careful about where they emerge. There are things in the woods not even the Fae would cross lightly,” Archer said, sipping at a cup.
I glanced at the contents, noting she was already on hard liquor. Gods, not even the Praesi like their drink this much. I’d myself broken my fast with a pot of tea and sweetened porridge I’d found already waiting when I’d emerged from my bed because Hakram was a living treasure.
“There must be several gates, then, spread across the Waning Woods,” Masego replied, tone enthusiastic. “Few of them have the ability to actually cross from Arcadia into Creation.”
“Squire,” the stranger of the two greeted me when I came in.
“Archer,” I replied. “Is that aragh in your cup?”
“It’s noon in Ashur,” she explained easily.
“No it isn’t.”
The ochre-skinned girl sighed.
“It’s an expression, love,” she told him.
“An inaccurate one,” the mage muttered under his breath, much to my amusement.
I cleared my throat.
“He has this thing about being exact,” I informed her.
Archer cast a sceptical eye on the mage, then shrugged.
“Us poor bastards raised by Calamities tend to pick up quirks, I’ve noticed,” she commented, then drained her glass. “That aside, I suppose I should get around to checking on Tinkles. Shall we proceed?”
I was about to agree when I processed what she’d just said.
“… Tinkles?” I prompted, smothering a grin.
Archer gestured towards her hair.
“It’s all those bells he wears for some reason,” she said. “Worse fashion choice than the tattoos, and that’s saying something.”
“There’s nothing wrong with ornamenting your hair,” Apprentice intervened defensively, fingering one of trinkets adorning his own dreadlocks.
“There is if you’re supposed to go around quiet-like,” Archer retorted, rolling her eyes. “Some Hunter he is.”
“He’s a regular devil with the spear, I’ll say that for the man,” I conceded.
“No one who studied under the Lady of the Lake would be allowed to leave Refuge if they couldn’t take care of themselves,” the envoy dismissed. “He’s still the weakest of her pupils by far.”
After last night’s lovely interlude, I had no problem buying that. Even if I’d been a functional cripple for the duration of the scuffle, she’d still handled Hakram and Masego like they were bumbling children.
“Let’s get to it, Apprentice,” I finally said. “Raising the spell shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
“No. It was designed with that in mind. Probably best we get to that sooner than later, anyhow,” the mage noted. “I’m not comfortable leaving any magical effects lying around when there’s a demon of corruption on the loose. Should they come in contact the effects could be… unpredictable.”
Archer’s eyes sharpened at the mention of the demon, though she passed no comment. Behind the drinking and the easy grins she didn’t miss much, this one. How much of the cheerful façade had been carefully crafted to make us underestimate her, I wondered? We stepped into the room where Hunter was being kept and I dismissed the tenth of guards that kept a weapon on the hero at all times. Normally it would have been a full line, but twenty legionaries just wouldn’t fit in the available space. The one-handed hero had been put on a bed, though that was as far as his comfort had been attended to. There were sets of bindings keeping his arms and legs tied together, not that they would have done much good if he were awake and trying to escape. I hadn’t needed Black’s tutelage to know that keeping heroes imprisoned rarely ended well for a villain.
“He doesn’t look in pain,” Archer noted.
“No reason he should be,” Masego replied.
The dark-skinned mage walked up to the sleeping hero and shoved a hand under the pillow his head was resting on, blindly groping for something. After a moment he took out a small sculpted rock covered in runes, crushing it effortlessly in his hand. I raised an eyebrow. That wasn’t strength, he hasn’t the brawn for that. He blew the dust on Hunter’s face and carefully lay a finger between the man’s eyes.
“Wake,” he ordered.
My brow raised higher. That hadn’t been Speaking, not exactly, but there had been power layered behind the word. Nothing happened. Archer cleared her throat.
“Is this going to take a while?” she asked. “Because there’s a bottle with my name on it in the other room.”
“Should be any moment now,” Masego replied.
It took maybe another thirty heartbeats before Hunter began to stir. He yawned, and I saw his muscles tense as he went to cover his mouth but found his arms had been bound. A moment later his entire body moved as if to reach for a weapon that wasn’t there, to the amusingly feeble result of him wiggling like a tied hog.
“Tinkles,” Archer barked. “Stop making a fool of yourself.”
Hunter’s eyes swept the room, immediately finding his colleague then moving on to glare at Masego and I.
“Archer,” he finally said. “What are you doing here?”
“Taking custody of you,” she grunted, unsheathing her longknife and and reaching for his binds.
I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, then spent a heartbeat surprised at the typically Praesi gesture coming from me. When had I picked that up?
“He’s not getting out of those before I have an oath he’s not gonna fight me and mine,” I stated flatly.
“He’s my responsibility now. If he does, I’ll put him down myself.”
“Archer,” the hero burst out. “She’s a villain.”
“She’s a villain who spared your sorry arse,” she spoke sharply. “So watch your bloody mouth. Your entire little stunt abroad has been an embarrassment to the Lady, John. Refuge is going to have to pay reparations to the Tower.”
“Lady Ranger is blinded by sentimentality in this,” Hunter bit back. “Callow deserves to be free, even if it’s run by her old friends.”
“Funny how William’s crew always talks about freedom,” I spoke softly. “Like it’s going to feed the country when Praes burns the whole place to the ground on the way out. Like those pretty words assure you a victory instead of a field of corpses from Dormer to Vale.”
“You are a traitor to your blood, Squire,” the Hunter sneered. “All you deserve is-“
Archer slapped him.
“I don’t give one damn what flag flies over Callow, John,” the Named said calmly. “And neither should you. You know what I do care about? Following Refuge’s only law. Remind me what that law is, Hunter?”
The hero looked mulish.
“I asked you a question. What is that law, Hunter?” Archer repeated harshly.
“Whatever the Lady says goes,” he muttered.
“And what did Lady Ranger say about the Empire?” she prompted.
“Here there be monsters,” Hunter quoted. “Leave it alone.”
“But you didn’t leave it alone, did you? So you lost a hand and embarrassed us publicly. A shame you can’t tattoo yourself better life choices,” she continued cuttingly.
“They’re tribal,” Hunter defended himself.
“Lots of tribes in Vale’s merchant quarter, are there?” Archer said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve had tea with your parents, John. They’re drapiers, lovely old couple. The only thing they did wrong was switch you too infrequently.”
I was not above admitting to myself that I was finding this entire conversation delightful. A mocking grin tugged at my mouth, though I stayed out of it. For all that Archer was falling on him like a rockslide, he was still one of hers. Adding a few swings of my own might prompt retaliation.
“I officially surrender custody of him to you,” I contributed. “I suppose you’ll be taking him back to Refuge?”
“Eventually,” Archer agreed. “He’s to stand judgement before the Lady.”
“I did nothing wrong,” Hunter growled.
“I’d plan my defence better if I were you,” the woman snorted. “She’s already pissed she actually has to rule the city instead of leaving it to function on its own, so your case isn’t looking good.”
I hummed noncommittally.
“You’ll be staying in Marchford, then?”
Archer sighed. “Anybody ever tell you you’re not great at subtlety, love?”
“Arguably that’s her trademark,” Masego grinned. “That and setting things on fire.”
I shrugged. I’d never intended to dance around the subject: with what was coming, uncertainty about my guest was not something I could afford.
“We’ll be under attack in a matter of days,” I said. “I doubt devils or what’s left of the Silver Spears after the demon’s through with them will care about your diplomatic credentials.”
“A demon?” Hunter spoke, tone aghast. “Gods, Squire, what did you summon?”
“This wasn’t my doing,” I retorted sharply. “I’m just cleaning up the mess, and I’d rather not lose ten thousand innocents in the process. Apprentice and Adjutant can only do so much, and I’m still wounded. An additional Named might make the difference.”
“I’m not sure I could kill a demon,” Archer admitted.
I frowned. “You’re a villain? I’d assumed otherwise.”
“Not all Roles are so clear cut,” the stranger replied.
“Well, that explains everything,” I commented drily.
“If we’re still in the city when the assault comes, we’ll help,” Archer finally said.
“We?” Hunter spat.
“We,” the woman replied softly. “You need to consider very carefully whether you want to fight me on this, John. My patience is running thin.”
That muzzled him effectively enough.
“I’d appreciate it if you informed me if you intend to leave,” I told her. “If not, we’ll brief you before the fighting begins.”
“A briefing. How very formal,” Archer drawled. “Tell you what, love. Find us an empty room with a sturdy bed and you can debrief me all you want.”
I looked her up and down, a little surprised. She was pretty, that much was obvious now that her face was visible. Delicate features and beautiful eyes, not to mention she seemed to be hiding away very healthy curves under that mail. Maybe a year ago I would have taken her up on it, but things had changed since then.
“Flattered, but taken,” I said.
The ochre-skinned woman grinned the single naughtiest grin I’d ever seen, eyeing me up and down in turn.
“That doesn’t have to be a hindrance. The more the merrier,” she winked.
Well, she certainly didn’t lack for confidence.
“I’ll leave you to your heartfelt reunion,” I replied instead of humouring her. “Apprentice, we’re about due our meeting with Hakram.”
He nodded. “I’d like to pick your brains on a few things later, Archer,” he said.
“Sounds fun,” she dismissed.
He turned to follow me out of the room but paused and squeaked as he passed her by.
“She pinched my ass,” he told me in a bewildered tone.
Archer’s laughter followed us all the way out.
“It took most of the night, but we have the census you asked for,” Hakram announced, unrolling a thick leather parchment that presented a map of Marchford.
It was covered in red ink dots, which had the orphan in me twitching. Maps like this cost a fortune, and while this one had likely been looted from the Countess’ manor it was still ruining an outrageously expensive item.
“Hard numbers?” Masego asked.
“Under two thousand hearths,” the orc replied. “For further details I’ll wait on Kilian, since she supervised the effort.”
The redheaded Senior Mage entered the inn common room we’d commandeered a moment later, gracing me with a smile as she did. After the last few days I could honestly say I didn’t give a single fuck about decorum, so I crossed the distance between us in two strides and dipped her for a kiss. She was just a little taller than me, so this tended to work best when we weren’t… occupied on a bed. Or a table. Or once on the desk in Juniper’s office, when my legate had been late for a meeting. Her eyes flew open in surprise, but they closed with mine and within moments I had an armful of warm Kilian nestled against me.
“I’m glad to see you too, Cat,” she spoke breathlessly when we broke apart.
“Mhm,” I replied, eloquent as always.
Masego cleared his throat. “Yes, we’re all aware that’s going on. If we could attend the matter at hand?”
“Give them a moment, warlock’s get,” Hakram rumbled.
He was smiling softly at us, the sight made slightly horrifying by the sharp fangs displayed. Considering the trove of romance novels under his bunk I wasn’t supposed to know about, I wasn’t surprised. I shook myself out of my pleasant daze.
“Right. So hearths. We have a bunch of them lying around the city. Why is that important?” I asked.
“A hearth is the magical symbol of a home,” Kilian explained. “That has weight, in matters of sorcery.”
“The Senior Mage is correct,” Apprentice said. “Though it goes deeper than that. A home is a boundary – tales about vampires in the Wasteland being unable to pass a threshold are largely false, but they have a source of truth to them. Hearths are metaphysical anchors.”
“An anchor is meant to weigh something down,” Hakram grunted. “I was under the impression our problem was that we lacked the kind of power that would need one of those.”
“You’re thinking in terms of creating something,” Masego replied, sounding excited. “Which we will, to an extent, but that’s not the core of what we’re setting out to accomplish. What you have to keep in mind is that neither devils nor demons are born of Creation. They do not, on a basic level, belong here. That’s why they have to be summoned in the first place.”
“You’re implying that what keeps them out of Creation is essentially a threshold,” I guessed.
“Exactly,” Apprentice smiled.
“There are extensive records showing that devils are more sensitive to thresholds than any creature borne of Creation, and even the Fae,” Kilian said. “Demons are another matter, but theoretically the same reasoning applies.”
“The central tenet of diabolism as a magical discipline is that sufficiently strong bindings can force anything to obey your will,” Masego informed us. “Even demons, though that’s justly been compared to riding a tiger with a bridle made of straw.”
“So we can turn individual houses into strongholds that’ll keep devils out,” Hakram frowned. “That’s not enough for a coherent defence, Apprentice.”
“You’re thinking small, my friend,” the dark-skinned man replied cheerfully, pushing up his glasses. “I did say we were going to create something, did I not?”
I took in a sudden breath.
“You want to set up a threshold covering all of Marchford,” I grasped.
“A surprisingly accurate guess, for someone with no schooling in sorcery,” he approved.
“Just don’t talk magical theory at her, she’ll fall asleep faster than if she’d drunk a potion,” Kilian murmured.
“That was once,” I protested. “I’d had a long day.”
“Catherine’s stubborn ignorance aside,” Masego continued, ignoring my objections, “linking a sufficient amount of hearths through ritual would allow me to set up a threshold covering up to the city boundaries.”
“How many is sufficient?” Adjutant asked. “We’ll need local cooperation for that, and that’s a mixed bag at best.”
“Twenty-four,” Apprentice assessed. “We could link more, but we’d be trading power for precision.”
I did not think it a coincidence that the Twenty-Fourth Hell marked the transition from demons to devils.
“That’s a pattern,” I said. “What do you need to power it?”
“For the initial phase I’ll need half a dozen mages per hearth, and myself at the centre to guide the working,” Masego replied. “After that, we’ll need to keep a fire running in every hearth.”
“That sounds easy enough,” I frowned.
“This is not something we can afford to mishandle, Catherine,” the bespectacled mage replied. “A ritual is not a permanent ward, and the fires will be the component that allows it to keep functioning. If a single hearth stops burning for even a heartbeat, the entire ritual will collapse.”
“If it does,” Hakram asked quietly. “What happens to the magic that was in the ritual?”
“Every other hearth will blow up and devour everything within thirty yards, at least,” Masego admitted. “I could have made this more stable given time, but slapping together a ritual at the last moment always carries certain issues.”
I remained silent, clenching my fingers and unclenching them.
“And this threshold will keep the devils out?” I asked.
“Yes,” he agreed, meeting my eyes squarely.
“Then do it,” I ordered. “But I want you to leave one part of the city uncovered.”
I traced a rectangle with my finger on the city map, facing the hills where the demon dwelled.
“I’ll need more mages to set up artificial boundaries, but it can be done,” Masego frowned. “May I ask why?”
I half-smiled. “You ever read the “Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second”?”
Hakram let out a chuckle.
“Armies are like water,” the tall orc quoted. “They take the path of least resistance.”
“That’s our killing alley,” I grunted. “It’s where they’ll attack, and it’s where we’ll bleed them.”
Apprentice’s eyes glittered with something like savage joy. “I think I can do a little better than that, actually. I’ll need to run the numbers first, so we can discuss it later.”
“There’s one last matter,” I said.
There was no sign of surprise from anyone at the table, which got a raised eyebrow from me.
“You’ve been looking like you’re sitting on something,” Hakram said.
Huh. I’d need to work on that, it was something of a liability.
“When you first met Hakram, you could tell he was about to come into a Name,” I told Masego.
“My glasses have several enchantments on them,” he explained. “Father’s work.”
“And what do those enchantments tell you when you look at me?”
“That you’re on the edge of your third aspect,” Apprentice replied.
“I thought as much,” I grunted. “But I can’t afford to wait around for it. Black did this thing, in Laure, that had me go into a lucid dream.”
“Ah, that,” Masego grimaced. “Yes, I could trigger the epiphany early. I would not recommend that, however. It’s one thing to give a Name an early start, another to force an aspect. It will be weaker than if you’d waited for it to coalesce in due time.”
“Last time I fought the devils, I broke an arm and leg,” I said. “The demon will be in a whole other class. I doesn’t matter if I’m weaker in the long term if I don’t get to the long term.”
“There are risks, Catherine,” the mage cautioned me. “If we’re already being affected by the corruption, a failure in your dream could be nothing short of disastrous.”
“I beat odds, Masego,” I replied honestly. “It’s what I do. It’s the talent that got me this Name in the first place.”
The bespectacled mage stirred.
“That kind of talk,” he spoke softly,” has me worried.”
“Our life isn’t for the faint-hearted,” I reminded him.
“Risk doesn’t worry me unduly,” he replied patiently. “But this isn’t a villain’s risk. Charging in without a plan and trusting your power to see you through is how heroes operate. Villains wait, accumulate power and engage when it is most advantageous to them. Otherwise we lose.”
“If we tread carefully now, if we turn timid, we’ve lost,” I said. “Make no mistake, Masego: as things are now, we are fucked. We still have the numbers on our side, but not by much – and we’re facing a creature that makes a mockery of the kind of warfare we’re trained in. If we don’t grasp for every advantage in reach, we’ll die. And not the pretty, noble kind of death. Our corpses will be puppet for an abomination that’ll try to spread across the surface of Creation before enough people step in to kill it.”
“Disperse it,” he replied automatically. “I’m not saying I won’t do it, Catherine. But this is reckless.”
I passed a hand through my hair. “I know. Believe me, I know. But we’re running out of cards, and the enemy hasn’t even shown half their hand.”
He sighed. “Fine.”
“I know you don’t have a sword,” I said. “So you can use mine.”
He blinked. “A sword? Why would I need that?”
“To… stab me?” I spoke hesitantly.
“Uncle Amadeus just ran you through with his,” Masego guessed, morbidly fascinated.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “He didn’t need to do that, did he?”
“Just physical touch from another Named is enough,” he snorted. “Gods, he’s always so melodramatic.”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered.
I glanced at Kilian, whose face was lined with worry. There was something heart-warmingly straightforward about that. There was no complication there, no myriad of different interests and loyalties at play. The longer we stayed together, the more I found that attractive about her. I still wasn’t in love with her, and to be honest I didn’t know if I’d ever be. But she was a… companion. Someone I was comfortable spending time with, trusting my secrets to.
“I suppose it’d be too much to ask you to be careful,” the redhead said.
“Wrong girl for that, I’m afraid,” I smiled.
She let out a long breath and rested her chin on my shoulder. Lightly she kissed the side of my neck and stepped away.
“Try not to get yourself killed, at least,” she commanded.
“Centrepiece of my plan,” I informed her, then stole a quick kiss.
I turned to Apprentice.
“All right, Masego,” I spoke. “Let’s get-“
The last thing I saw was an index finger headed for my forehead before darkness took me.