“The worst sin a villain can commit is to hesitate.”
-Dread Empress Maleficent II
“She’s awake,” an orc’s voice said.
I recognized it. Male. Adjutant. Trustworthy.
“Take another step and I’ll activate the wards on you,” someone barked.
Spoken Mtethwa. Soninke, the son of Warlock. Apprentice.
“That may not be Catherine looking through those eyes,” the second voice hissed.
Light flared and I screamed again. Bindings on my legs and wrists, but not made of rope. Roiling blue sorcery, burning into my skin.
“You’re hurting her,” Adjutant growled.
Angry. He sounded tall and angry, ready for violence.
“Shut up,” Apprentice snarled. “Diagnostic spells are complicated enough without – fale’ibashe.”
I laughed, or sobbed. I’d never heard this man swear in Mthetwa before.
“She’s still her. But it got to her third aspect,” the Soninke whispered hoarsely. “We have to…”
“What?” Adjutant pressed. “Do what?”
“I don’t know,” Apprentice bit out. “The corruption is spreading.”
“So stop it,” the orc barked. “Now.”
“It’s not that simple, it’s rooted in the aspect,” the mage replied.
“So rip out the godsdamned aspect,” Adjutant ordered, thundering.
I could hear something beyond them, faintly. Like a song. I’d heard it before, I knew that. Where was it from?
“I’d be mutilating her soul,” the Soninke spoke, sounding sick. “She could die.”
Oh, Apprentice. So delicate. Why was he with us? I still wasn’t sure. The song was getting easier to make out. There were words, and if I just listened right I could –
“Gods Below, Apprentice, if you don’t get started right now I will not answer for my actions,” the orc said.
Troubled, he was troubled. But a word was spoken that was like an order unto Creation and I slept.
There was something missing.
Before I ever opened my eyes, I knew this as well as I knew my own breath. I was no longer tied to the bed, or even in the same room. This was not the manor, everything was too small and the wooden walls were shoddy. There was a window, its painted shutters left open. Night had yet to fall but the sky was full of clouds, as they had been in my dream. This did not feel like a coincidence and I shivered, feeling nauseous. The door to my left swung wide a moment later, Apprentice absently waving a hand and snuffing out a rune I hadn’t noticed lighting up on the bedside table.
“Catherine,” he said, tone hesitant.
“Masego,” I frowned.
Relief took over his face and he hurried to my bedside. His hair was a mess, without most of the trinkets usually in it, and his eyes were red like he hadn’t gotten to sleep in too long.
“Lay back,” he ordered, and I deigned to obey.
I’d dealt with healers before, and their presumptuousness was usually there for the patient’s sake. At least this one didn’t drink, unlike the man I’d had to rely on at the Pit. His hands were soft but sure as he inspected my wrists, grimacing at the sight of the healing burns on them. They throbbed dimly, though not as much as William’s gift of a scar did on bad days.
“It’s not as bad as I thought,” Apprentice said, keeping one of my pupils open with one hand and passing a finger wreathed in flame in front of the eye with the other. “Your eyesight is unaffected and the discoloration I’ll be able to fix, with the proper ritual.”
“Discoloration?” I repeated weakly.
There was a strange taste in my mouth, and not the kind you got after a long sleep. Someone had fed me a potion. Everything still felt hazy. Masego paused, smothering the flame and taking his hand out of my sight.
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” he said. “Burning out the contamination was harder than I thought. Some of the… effects may be permanent.”
“I feel fine,” I protested.
“I know,” he acknowledged. “And I’ve been pushing a needle into your cheek for the last twenty heartbeats.”
I jerked away my head, watching a small sliver of metal fly away and land on the floor.
“I- I didn’t,” I began, not sure what to say.
“It only affects the left side of your face,” he explained, and I could feel him make an effort to be dispassionate.
I appreciated that more than I could put into words. I felt like I was walking on the edge of a precipice, and even the slightest show of emotion might tip me over.
“Your right leg,” he said, walking around the bed and gently pulling away the covers after I nodded my permission. Someone had put me into soft cotton trousers at some point. “Try to kick with it.”
I broke into a hiss of pain hallway through. A shadow passed through Masego’s eyes, gone as quickly as it had come.
“The limb remains mostly functional, and I’ll brew you something for the pain,” he said. “But you’ll have a limp for the rest of your life.”
“The necrotized flesh,” I guessed.
The dark-skinned mage looked away.
“If I’d begun to work on containment quicker, you’d still have full functionality,” he admitted, ashamed.
I closed my eyes. Every inch of me wanted to lash out at him right now. Slowly I took in a breath, then let it out.
“You saved my life,” I said.
He looked pained.
“Masego,” I interrupted. “You’ve known Black much longer than I have. If he knew I’d been corrupted by a demon, what would he do?”
The bespectacled man let his fingers ball into a fist.
“He’d kill you,” he said softly. “Immediately, without warning, and destroy the corpse. He would then quarantine everyone you’d come in contact with and do the same to anyone affected, however slightly.”
“And he’d be right to do so,” I whispered.
I let a long moment pass, which he seemed unable or unwilling to break. Several times he opened his mouth, then closed it. I scrambled for whatever little strength I had left in me and steeled myself.
“Tell me,” I ordered. “Tell me why I feel like I’m missing a limb I’ve never had.”
The dark-skinned man bit his lip.
“I operated on your soul,” he said. “The aspect that got corrupted needed to be cut out, or it would continue to spread.”
I forced my hands to stop shaking.
“It’s gone, the entire thing?”
“And some other parts of your soul,” he admitted. “I did not have the right tools to be entirely precise.”
I smiled bitterly. My body was already a mangled mess, even if mage healing had seen to it precious few scars showed. Now it seemed my very soul was following suit. I wondered what would happen if they buried me in consecrated grounds after my death. The thought sent a fresh shiver of fear down my spine: tinkering with a soul in any way was blasphemy of the highest order.
“No replacement will grow, will it?” I asked softly.
“The Name of Squire is permanently crippled,” he replied just as quietly.
I looked away, through the window. The clouds were roiling, just like the magic that had bound my wrists when I’d been screaming. I forced a smile on my face.
“I suppose I’ll have to do with two aspects, then,” I told him.
Masego’s face was unreadable, and for a long moment he remained silent.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” he finally said. “I was raised by a villain. I know we’re not untouchable. We bleed. We cry.”
“I can’t afford either of those,” I replied, keeping my tone calm. “I don’t have the time for it.”
“I don’t think you can afford not to. Not anymore,” Apprentice said.
“Black-“ I started.
“Wept, when he buried his parents,” Masego interrupted me gently. “Father was there, so I know.”
“I am not weak,” I snarled, the words escaping me against my will, and my fist broke the bedside table into kindling.
He did not flinch.
“It’s not a weakness, to acknowledge when you’ve been hurt,” the bespectacled man replied. “We all have to stop sometimes. Roles don’t make us more than human, Catherine. They just give us powers and responsibilities.”
He was speaking from the heart, and maybe that was why I didn’t ram my fist into his face. He was too genuine to be trying to hurt me, at least wilfully. The anger drained out of me, and the strength it had brought followed.
“I can’t stop,” I replied tiredly. “I owe people better than that. Gods, Masego, not even two years out of Laure and I have enough dead on my conscience to fill a dozen graveyards. I can’t let it be meaningless. I can’t lose.”
To my shame and fury, tears were welling up in my eyes. Like I was a bloody child with a scraped knee. My own body was betraying me, with trembling hands and a throat that wouldn’t stop choking up. And now there was fear in me, because of that stark reminder that there were things that cared nothing for how beyond reach a Name was supposed to make me.
“When you came back from trying to rescue the wounded,” Apprentice said. “I expected you to be in shock. Devils are some of the most horrifying creatures to ever be born of Creation and you’d just seen them slaughter hundreds of your men.”
“I pulled through then,” I muttered angrily, “and I’ll pull through now.”
“I was honestly more worried about you when you started bantering with Hakram than when you came in barely able to walk,” he admitted. “People don’t just walk off that kind of experience, Catherine, not even those with Names.”
“I do,” I spoke through gritted teeth.
The mage slowly rose to his feet, then looked at me sadly.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you how dangerous it is, for a villain to lie to themselves,” he replied, and left me to my thoughts.
The words lingered in the room long after he’d left.
I wasn’t supposed to leave the room, I learned.
Whatever it was Masego had done to my soul, it had left it vulnerable. The wards on the bedroom where I was kept it safe from outside influences, but until dawn tomorrow I could not wander. Visitors were allowed, but only one at a time. Hakram came first, with reports and some of my personal effects.
“Apprentice’s ritual worked,” the orc told me. “The boundaries were set and we’re preparing defences for when the enemy comes. Juniper went over the reports from your encounter with the devils, and she’s cooked up some countermeasures with Pickler’s help.”
“And the city?” I asked.
“It’s been quiet,” he grunted. “The sky has people afraid to come out, and we’ve found few volunteers to join the defences. Ratface managed to dig up a few mages, but there’s less than twenty in total and most wouldn’t qualify for legion service.”
“They have to be watched over,” I said. “The firefly devils make them a liability. Has there been any sign of them or the Silver Spears?”
“Our scouts have seen a few devils, but they’re staying away for now. There’s a watch set up to keep an eye on the hills, so the moment the Spears come out we’ll know.”
“It’ll be soon,” I murmured.
“The Hellhound agrees,” Adjutant gravelled. “Two days at most.”
“I’ll be back in fighting shape by then,” I said.
Hakram paused, then licked his lips.
“Will you?” he asked. “There’d be no shame in sitting this one out, Cat. You’re still recovering.”
“I will not sit pretty in this fucking room while the city is under attack,” I growled.
Adjutant raised a hand in appeasement.
“If you say you’ll be in fighting shape, you’ll be in fighting shape,” he replied.
We talked for a little while longer, then he rose.
“I’d stay, but I have duties,” he gravelled. “I’ll leave the reports with you. Send a runner if you need anything.”
I waved him away pleasantly, keeping my dismay off my face. I knew everything was in good hands – if anyone could prepare Marchford for what was coming, it was Juniper – but I could not quell the feeling that this entire situation was slipping out of my grasp. The bundle of parchments was full of logistics and schedules, and though I knew it was important stuff my mind refused to focus on it. I eventually set them aside and lay back on the bed, looking at the ceiling. I was still staring at the wooden panels, thinking of nothing, when Kilian came in.
“Cat,” she breathed, and before I could blink I had a lapful of redhead in my arms.
I let my face rest against the crook of her neck and basked in the warmth.
“Kilian,” I replied belatedly.
For the first time today I felt the ever-present tremor in my arms cease.
“I was worried,” the mage said. “I mean, obviously I was worried but…”
“Yeah,” I spoke quietly. “I get it.”
There’d always been a chance that a sliver of what made me Catherine Foundling would be gone, by the time Masego was done. I still wasn’t sure there wasn’t, and the notion definitely wasn’t going to help me sleep at night. If there was something missing, would I notice? Could I notice? The feeling that something was missing had yet to abate. Maybe it never would. Kilian wiggled a little out of my grasp, and to my surprise I found I’d been clutching at her like she was a lifeline. She kissed my forehead gently, and then her lips were on mine. My blood heated up in the best way and I found my hands reaching for the small of her back under her tunic, stroking the soft skin and then greedily going for lower. She let out a small sound of pleasure, then lightly bit the side of my neck with an impish smile.
“Are you sure your body can handle that?” she asked, with more than a little lust in her eyes.
“Only one way to find out,” I replied, and tipped her under me in the bed.
There was precious little talking after that.
We lay together afterwards, more intertwined than not.
It’d been a while since we’d had the time to just bask in the afterglow, without any pressing need to get anything done afterwards. She wasn’t due for a meeting for another bell, she’d told me. My body felt sore but for once it was a pleasant sort of soreness: I lazily reached for my shirt, which had at some point ended up in the kindling I’d made of the former bedside table.
“You don’t need to hide it, you know,” Kilian murmured, tracing the red scar across my chest with a finger.
That got a pleasurable shiver out of me, but I put on the shirt nonetheless.
“I don’t like to leave it out in the open,” I admitted.
“Orcs have it right about scars, I think,” the redheaded mage said. “They’re a reminder that you were strong enough to survive, not a mark of shame.”
“Doesn’t make it any prettier to look at,” I replied.
“Makes you different,” Kilian told me. “That’s not a bad thing.”
I ran a hand up her ribs, then allowed a finger to trace where the same scar would be on her. My lover shuddered, eyes fluttering but never quite closing. Now if she bit her lip after that, it meant we were about to go for a second round. I’d learned to recognize that sign very quickly, given the benefits picking up on it gave. Instead she moved a little closer to me, and I was only half-disappointed: strenuous exercise was still difficult, and strenuous was the least of adjectives I’d grant to spending time in bed with Kilian.
“You’re trembling again,” she noted quietly.
I moved away, but she grasped my shoulder and held me back.
“It’s all right,” she whispered.
She smiled gently.
“I’m afraid,” she admitted.
That was the way it always went with her. She never shied away from speaking her own weaknesses, just to make me comfortable with acknowledging mine. I loved that about her, even if I didn’t quite love her.
“We’re in a bad situation,” she continued. “And you’ve seen it up close, unlike me.”
I let myself come close to her again, putting an arm over her stomach and slipping another under her.
“It’s bad,” I agreed softly. “And I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it.”
Her hand came up to stroke the side of my cheek, and though I saw it there was no feeling from the side of my face. I felt my throat choke up.
“It’s that side, then,” she murmured with a frown.
She didn’t stop, though she moved her fingers further down to my neck.
“You’re soothing me like I would a horse,” I muttered with a snort.
“You don’t have to save us every time, Cat,” she told me, ignoring my attempt to change the subject. “We can help too. Isn’t that the point of having a legion?”
“If I need you to do my dirty work for me,” I replied, “then why do I deserve to be in charge?”
Kilian sighed, then drew away her hand to clasp one of mine.
“Juniper rants about you now and then,” she informed me. “About your recklessness, about how you tend to think with your fists. But for all that, never once have I heard her question your ability to lead the Fifteenth. Do you really think that will change because you won’t have a third aspect?”
I clutched her hand tighter, and I couldn’t really express how much it meant to me that even when it almost became painful she didn’t try to unlace our fingers.
“I fucked up,” I whispered. “I thought maybe if I had the power I could get us out of this mess, but all I did was make it worse. It’s coming, Kilian. For us. We’re preparing for the devils and the Spears, but it’s not them we should be afraid of. I made the wrong decision, and it might not have been the only one.”
I hesitated, then spoke the fear I’d been carrying in me since the night we’d decided to defend Marchford.
“What if I condemned all of us to worse than death, just because I wanted to be principled for once? Because I wanted to do the right thing.”
The words came out bitterer than I’d thought they would.
“There’s been Squires before you,” Kilian whispered back. “There will be Squires after you. But we’re not following a Name, you see, we’re following Catherine Foundling. And I don’t think she’s out of the game yet.”
I didn’t fight the tears that time, and the last thing I remembered was Kilian smoothing away my hair as she settled the covers around me.
For all that, I did not sleep well.