“A villain should make plans with the understanding that everything you can conceive of going wrong will, and then a few others things too.”
– Dread Empress Regalia
I hit the ground with a thump and half a dozen yelled curses. My fall threw up a cloud of what looked like dark dust, thick and cloying. I groaned and rolled over, wincing since apparently going into a Name dream wasn’t enough to make my leg not feel like it had gone a few rounds with an angry ogre. Rubbing the dust out my eyes, I took a look above: cloudy skies as far as I could see, dark and roiling things. The way clouds got just before a storm. I managed to push myself back on my feet with only minimum urge to scream, getting my bearings as I caught my breath. I was surrounded, it seemed, by an endless wasteland of ash and dust.
“I’m honestly not sure whether or not that’s an improvement over the swamp,” I grimaced.
Last time there’d been landmarks of a sort, a sort of reverse tower where Good Twin had been keeping her smug ass on a chair. Now, though? No sign of a structure in sight. A breeze like a warm breath blew across the plain, shifting dunes of ash and dust in ever-changing patterns. Save for that eerie murmur, there was not a sound to be heard. I checked my belt and saw that my sword was still at my side, already an improvement over last time.
My armour, on the other hand, was noticeably less well-maintained. Black had mentioned to me once that Roles reacted to the way you thought of your Name rather than what you truly were. Heroes were strikingly handsome and heroines wholesomely beautiful because that was how they expected to look. On the other side, good-looking villains could turn ugly in a matter of months if they thought of their Name as a brute’s. On others, the effect was subtler. Warlock was said to have stopped aging in the prime of his life, Malicia at the peak of her beauty and my teacher hadn’t changed one speck since the day he’d become the Black Knight.
What I thought of myself through the lens of my Name did not seem much different from the way I’d always been. It did, however, seem to include slightly unkempt armour – maybe that’d change if I stopped allowing Hakram to arrange have it polished for me. I would have checked under my aketon to see if the long scar William had gifted me on our first meeting still snaked across my chest, but that would have required unfastening my armour. Not worth the trouble, I decided. I’d expected for something to have happened by now, anything really, but this vision was determined to be a boring one. I sighed and headed north through the wasteland, picking the direction at random.
My pace was slow but steady, the throbbing in my leg never quite going away. How long I walked I couldn’t say: it could have been hours or days. Nothing changed here, not in any meaningful way, and the longer I headed north the more I became uneasy. I’d been out of it for days, last time, and though I did not think forcing an aspect this close to manifestation would take as long I couldn’t afford to be out of commission for that long. Masego had mentioned the demon might be able to interfere and though I was confident I could take it on inside my own soul, it occurred to me there might be no fight at all coming.
Maybe it would just keep me asleep while Marchford burned, until one of its devils ripped my throat open.
I shivered even though my forehead was matted with sweat. Demons were not supposed to be thinking creatures, not the way mortals and older devils were. They could mimic speech, the way the… thing that served as the Tower’s gatekeeper had, but it was only ever mimicry. They were not born of Creation, and so all that sprang from it was beyond them – or so said the House of Light. Theirs was an intelligence we had no understanding of, as they lacked understanding of us. That was always what unmasked them, in the stories: a missed detail, a small error springing from their inability to truly grasp what it was to be alive. The thoughts kept me company on my lonely trek, and though I knew it was paranoia to believe that growing fear had been planted in me I had to wonder… was that what it wanted me to think?
The first break in the sinister monotony came not as an interruption, per se. Scaling a dune of ash, I noticed there was something buried near the tip of it. A scrap of leather, looked like, warped as if by great heat. Keeping a prudent hand on my sword, I scattered the dust around it. Not a scrap, a boot. With a leg still attached to it. I started digging in earnest, unearthing what appeared to be a man’s corpse. The flesh and armour were melted badly, but I would recognize the silver scale anywhere: this had been a man-at-arms, one of the Silver Spears. I looked up to the sky with a frown.
“Giant graveyard, is it?” I sighed. “There better not be bloody zombies again.”
I moved on after hacking the limbs away just in case. That first finding seemed to have been the droplet to tip over the vase, because I now found a dead body every few moments. Silver Spears at first, men-at-arms and cataphracts forever riding their butchered mounts under the ash, but eventually I started coming across legionaries. Men and women of the Twelfth, who’d died when I’d thwarted the Lone Swordsman in Summerholm. By the time I stumbled on the first of mine, I’d steeled myself for it. A Soninke girl, her corpse not quite desiccated enough to hide the sword wound that had split her head in half. My fingers formed a fist and I ground my teeth.
“I walked the battlefield when the blood was still fresh,” I told the sky. “I did not flinch then. Do you really think I’ll flinch now?”
There was no answer, not that I’d expected one. I pressed on. It shouldn’t have surprised me but it did, when I found Nilin’s corpse. No flesh remained and the bones had been blackened as on his pyre, but the senior tribune’s markings on his armour betrayed his identity. The Exiled Prince and Page lay in front of him, the bones of their hands threaded together in a morbid embrace.
“I know it was my fault,” I admitted. “I take responsibility for it, even if no one is casting the blame in my direction. And yet…”
“Oh, we’ll even that score soon enough,” someone replied.
The ash under my feet erupted and the thin point of sword nearly ran through my throat – I stumbled away, already on the back foot, and my sword came out with a metallic ring. My doppelganger sat with a smug grin in the dust where she’d apparently half-buried herself waiting for me. This one was a familiar sight. An older version of me, with a pink scar running across the nose and a face hardened by years of war. She wore a regular’s chain mail instead of my own plate, her standard-issue sword glinting in the gloom even when covered in ash.
“I had a feeling I’d run into you at some point,” I grunted. “I have a feeling stabbing you again will be the most pleasant part of this little jaunt.”
Her grin widened and she shook off the dust as she rose to her feet.
“No need for any of that, Cat,” she denied. “We’re buddies now. I kinda like what you’ve done with the place.”
“You would,” I muttered. “You also said we wouldn’t fight last time and look how that ended.”
Not to mention you just tried to stab me in the throat, I thought but didn’t bother saying. Rubies to piglets she’d have a ready-made excuse.
“Things have changed, Cat my girl,” she told me. “Thought you lacked the stomach, but you’ve been nailing it. We got a legion, a nice bunch of competent minions and we’re building up a body count. Should have found a pretext to run Heiress through by now, but nobody’s perfect.”
“Except me,” she conceded. “I am perfect.”
I wished I’d looted a boot off a corpse, if only so I could throw it at her head.
“They’re not my minions,” I replied through gritted teeth. “They’re my friends.”
“The Calamities are living proof you can be both,” the doppelganger dismissed, then leaned forward. “But before you go all righteous on me, sweetcheeks, answer me this: if you asked Nauk to rip out some noble’s throat, would he even stop to think before obeying?”
He wouldn’t. I knew that. She knew I knew that. Hakram might ask me why afterwards, given the same order, but Nauk? He’d laugh and forget it had ever happened before the month was done.
“I wouldn’t ask,” I replied instead.
“You will,” the spirit smiled, the certainty in her troubling. “That’s the beauty of this greater good business you’ve been peddling. You can justify anything, if the final outcome’s nice enough.”
She waved around her sword, warming up to the subject.
“Heroes might spawn from this orphanage and make a big mess, so we burn it. Those nobles might be trouble down the line, so we poison the wine. That officer will be a liability when I commit treason, so in the worst of the fight she goes.”
“I haven’t done any of those things,” I retorted. “You’re just pushing my position to extremes and pretending that’s the rules I obey.”
“I can’t help unless I’m higher up in the ranks, so I engineer a war,” my twin said softly. “Extremes? I’m just getting us to the logical conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, Cat, I’m on board with this greater good wagon you’re driving. I just want us to stop pussyfooting around and get some real changes going.”
“It won’t get to that,” I snarled. “I won’t let it get to that.”
The doppelganger lightly rested the flat of her sword against her shoulder.
“See, this is the kind of thinking that’s holding us back,” she complained. “We’re not the good guys here, Cat. Let’s just… stop pretending, why don’t we? We’re the girl that sees something that needs to be done, so we do it the best we can. If that means a few thousand people die?”
“Well, people die all the time,” she said. “Can’t make an omelette without burning a few armies, sacking the villages they came from and salting the land that spawned them.”
“The entire point of this,” I replied coldly, “is to avoid putting Callow to the torch. If I didn’t care about the state of the country in twenty years, I’d be with the Swordsman waving a rebel flag.”
“Callow burns, sweetheart,” she laughed. “That’s what it does. It burned whenever the Empire came knocking at Summerholm, it burned whenever the First Prince decided it was time to expand the borders. We’re the battlefield of this continent. Hells, the only time the Kingdom wasn’t putting out fires was when we were starting some of our own on the other side of the border.”
“That’s why we pay taxes to the Tower now,” I said. “The war doesn’t end until someone won and there’s no real way to beat Praes for good. They tried it, after the Second Crusade, and gave birth to Dread Emperor Terribilis instead. So they win and they rule Callow. Now I just make that rule work and we finally break the godsdamned cycle. No more invasions. No more villages put to the sword so that a different flag waves over Laure.”
“And you think the rest of Calernia is just going to take that?” the twin laughed. “No, we don’t get off that easy. Nobody wants Praes with a granary, Cat. Hiding behind the mountains and fortifying the Vales just buys everyone a few years until the armies are mustered and the dance begins again.”
“And what’s your solution?” I mocked. “Let’s kill everything that looks like it could be a liability and hope it turns out for the best?”
“I already told you how we stop the fires in our backyard,” the spirit smiled. “We cross the Vales, with a torch in hand. If everyone else is running from the blaze they’re not making trouble for us.”
This is why Evil loses, I realized. By overreaching, by thinking you could put all of Calernia on the the defensive and not be buried by the backlash. There had to be a middle way, one between fighting the Praesi and allowing them to plunder Callow. Black understood this, I knew. He’d marginalized the nobles of the former Kingdom and gone to work on the people themselves, tried to remove any reason for rebellion rather than crush those that formed. I couldn’t change Callow, I knew that deep down. I wasn’t sure I should. But I could change the system that ruled over it, one victory at a time.
“Where’s the other one?” I asked.
“Good Twin died in a tragic accident,” the doppelganger informed me. “Her tombstone’s over there.”
I warily cast an eye where she was pointing, noting there was an actual tombstone. Of sorts. Someone had taken a legionary’s breastplate and sunk it into the ground as a marker. My Name vision worked just fine, so I could make out the inscription on the metal.
“I mouthed off,” I read, then sighed. “Did you murder her?”
“Calumny,” the doppelganger protested, deeply offended. “She died of natural causes.”
I frowned. “Is that the name of your sword?”
The doppelganger gave me a shit-eating grin. “Allegedly.”
“Can anything die a permanent death here?” I asked.
“Eh, who even knows,” the twin shrugged. “If you listen closely, though, you can still hear her spirit whining in the wind.”
I tried to listen if only out of morbid curiosity. There was, to my surprise, a noise coming from the tombstone. The breastplate shuddered, then tipped over. A figure emerged, to the dramatic gasping of my current company. Once more an older version of me came into sight, her short hair and once-pristine white robes now marred by ash and dust.
“A zombie,” the evil doppelganger announced. “Quick, kill it before it devours us!”
“You bitch,” the newcomer gasped, glaring at the wretched spirit. “You buried me alive.”
“Are any of us here really alive, though?” the other deflected, affecting a thinking pose.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. No wonder I ended up in over my head all the time, if this was what the inside of my soul was like.
“Your squabbles are of no interest to me,” I informed them. “I’m here for my third aspect. I don’t suppose either of you can point me in the right direction?”
“Ah,” the evil twin grimaced. “Bit of a problem there.”
The good doppelganger rose from her grave, dusting herself off angrily.
“You are reaping what you have sown, Catherine Foundling,” she barked. “Selling your soul to Hellgods attracts their like.”
“We have a squatter is what she means,” the other contributed.
“Fucking Hells,” I cursed.
“Exactly,” the white-robed twin agreed tartly.
My fingers tightened against the grip of my sword.
“You’re saying it’s inside my soul?” I asked.
“We were real close to that third aspect,” the scarred doppelganger noted. “Now it’s sitting between us and it.”
Asking how that was possible seemed more trouble than it was worth, so I held my tongue. I was not in the mood for a lecture or another flippant answer.
I cocked my head to the side. “So you know what it is?”
“Lame is what it is,” the evil twin muttered.
“A sign you may not yet be beyond hope,” the other one countered. “It is –“
What I heard did not come out of the white-robed girl’s mouth. The word coiled through my veins and I fell to my knees, retching drily into the ash. Something was smiling at me, just beyond the edge of my vision. Both of the spirits had gone pale and shivering.
“What was that?” I whispered hoarsely.
“You know what it was,” the white-robed doppelganger murmured back, helping me up to my feet.
For the life of me, I could not manage a reply. I felt… soiled, like I’d been dipped in filth until it had seeped into my skin and permeated even my bones.
“And you just let that thing be?” I croaked.
“Not a fight we can win,” the other one admitted. “It’s been giving it a shot, though. Your Name.”
My head swivelled in her direction.
“You’re fond of that little metaphor comparing it to a beast, aren’t you?” the evil twin smiled grimly.
“Roles are bound by perception,” the white-robed one said. “Though the shape you have given your power is deplorable, I will not deny it has a certain martial might.”
The scarred doppelganger walked up to me, colour slowly returning to her cheeks. She patted some dust off my shoulders then clapped me on the back.
“Show that bastard the door, Cat,” she ordered. “Then wake up and give that hot redhead a good seeing to, would you? Of all the things we’ve been nailing lately, she’s definitely top of the list.”
I slapped away her hand.
“The day I need a pep talk from you is the day I retire,” I grunted.
Shit, how bad was this demon for even that backstabbing pain in my ass to be trying to be encouraging?
“Oh?” she mocked, “are we-“
The breastplate impacted the back of her head brutally, knocking her to the ground.
“That,” the good twin snarled, “was for burying me alive.”
The other doppelganger did not even stir. I raised an eyebrow at her, reluctantly impressed.
“Go,” she said tiredly. “That creature plaguing us is worse than what even Evil can muster. You do the work of the Heavens in ridding us of it, however unwillingly.”
I rolled my eyes but the memory of the way it had spoken to me was too fresh for me to make an issue of this. I had more pressing business, regardless. By the time I’d made it to top of the nearest ash dune there was no trace of either of them: my surroundings had shifted, wiping it all way. And yet I was not alone. Something was following me, large footsteps creaking against the ash as the beast stalked me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This is my Name. I own it, it does not own me.
“Come out,” I Spoke.
There was a mocking huff of laughter but the beast strode out of its hiding place. I’d wondered what my Role would look like, given flesh, and now I had my answer. No fur and bones for my monster, only the shifting shadows I’d learned to craft spears out of. It must have been the size of a barn but it moved with deceptive swiftness, coiling around me in an instant. It opened jaw larger than my head, ivory fangs clicking just in front of my nose to see if I’d flinch. Its breath was cold, like the bite of the wind in winter. I stilled the fear that set my heart beating and forced myself to meet its eyes. Darker shadows, the difference between shade and the deepest of night.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I lied.
The jaws opened again and in a flash the teeth were closing around my neck. My fingers turned white against the grip of my sword, but I did not flinch. Satisfied, the beast drew back. It stalked away from and shook itself, heading north without another look. Silently, I followed after wiping the beads of blood where the teeth had pierced my skin. It was not long until we found it. It sat alone on a dune, looking at the sky. It looked, I thought, like a child’s drawing of a person. Pink naked hairless flesh from its toeless feet to the crown of its head, where I shuddered at what I saw. If it had been tentacles or horns I might have simply thought it a monster and dealt with the fear, but it was neither. Just darkly coloured flesh, cut into smaller threads as a sordid parody of hair and perfectly combed. It did not turn when we approached. It did not breathe. The beast howled and I drew my sword, and only then did it deign to glance in our direction.
I wished it hadn’t.
Its lips were sealed, made of the same fleshy growth, and its nose did not have nostrils. Its eyebrows were nothing more than dark ridges but the eyes were the worst. Holes in tightened flesh, empty. I took a step forward, the beast following. The moment I set foot on the ash dune something clicked.
“Seek,” I spoke, before it could.
My mind unspooled as I snatched away my aspect, filling with information I should not have known. I knew the exact height of the dune. I knew how many steps would take me to the demon, how I needed to balance my weight to avoid worsening my leg. The flow of knowledge was too great, like I’d opened a floodgate, so I forced it to narrow. This was the aspect I’d been looking for, something beyond the brute equalizer I’d been relying on. A pathfinder to craft solutions, and I knew my first use for it.
How do I get the demon out of my soul?
The thread narrowed, then exploded into paths. My mind followed them down eagerly. And one by one, they stopped. Hit a wall. The creature’s lips twitched up and down, its attempt at a smile. It reached for me. My beast sprung forward with a snarl but it was late, too late.
I woke up screaming, strapped to a bed.