“Does not show traditional heroic talent for forging strong friendships but considered a leader by her peers. Responds aggressively to threats. Displays continued recklessness and an aptitude for thinking on her feet. This agent recommends disposal before she can turn into a legitimate threat to the peace of the realm.”
– Report ‘for the eyes of Lord Black only’, concerning the Imperial ward Catherine Foundling
“GALLOWBORNE, TIGHTEN RANKS!”
My personal guard dragged the wounded behind their shield wall and began retreating in good order under the bellowed instructions of Captain Farrier. They’d held up surprisingly well against the assault of the devils, I saw. Less than a line of casualties. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that they’d fought defensively and not been the focus of the hellspawn to start with, but there was more to it than that. They’d held the line against devils before, at Marchford. They’d been through the crucible already, and all the soldiers who would have flinched in front of the howling horde were already dead. To borrow one of the more brutal sayings of the Queen of Blades, war had separated the wheat from the chaff. I fell back behind the protection of the shield wall, Adjutant swatting down anything that came even remotely close to us. Masego, I saw, had already done the same. My Callowan soldiers gave him as wide a berth as they could: Apprentice had shown enough of what he could do that my rank and file stepped lightly around him.
Getting back to my personal guard had been a matter of running more than fighting. The Gallowborne were now at the back end of the avenue where most of the fight had taken place, backs against a stone guildhouse to limit how many angles they’d have to defend. I took a look back to where I’d done most of my fighting today and grimaced: it was packed with devils, milling around and beginning to mass for an offensive against my men. No sign of William, though there was no doubt the bastard was still alive. It would take more than devils to do in the Lone Swordsman, even if he didn’t have his creepy sword. I bit my lip and considered my options. Heiress had either run off on a horse northwards or tried to fake me out again by continuing on foot to the east. I was inclined to believe she’d been on the horse: she wouldn’t be as sanguine disposing of her Praesi minions as her hired ones, and Fadila had followed her on the ride. Could be how she’s selling this, though. I resisted the urge to spit and set the matter aside. Wasting time to speculate on her tricks was playing right into her hand.
North or west? North of us there was the ritual site the Lone Swordsman was using to bring the angel into Creation, which my gut told me was her target. Whatever she was intending to do to that ritual, it couldn’t be allowed to come to pass. She was dangerous enough without having stolen an angel’s power or worse, corrupted it. There were precedents for that, though they were legend and not recorded history. Not that the existing Praesi records were all that reliable, considering Tyrants were the ones who decided what got written. Even worse, with Callowan histories largely put to the torch or confiscated after the Conquest there were no other record to cross-examine them with. North, I decided. It would have to be north. Trying to force our way through the devils was a recipe for a rout, even with three Named on our side, so we’d have to swing around. What was it Heiress had said, when she’d fucked us over? Two hundred paces. How much ground would that actually cover? Was it centred around her? It made most sense as a circle, but even if that was the case that didn’t tell me whether those two hundred paces were the radius or the diameter. That’s why we bring specialists, Catherine.
“Masego,” I said, jolting the mage out of his thoughts. “What Heiress did, with the devils. How does it work?”
The dark-skinned mage pushed up his glasses.
“I layman’s terms, she put down a metaphysical banner where she stood that formed a ward. Inside that ward, the eight binding for devils she’s summoned is lifted.”
In the distance a crossbow bolt caught a jackalhead in the chest. The devil yelped and retreated, but they were beginning to test our defences. We couldn’t linger here much longer.
“What’s the shape of the ward?”
“Circle,” he immediately replied. “Cast this hastily, it can only be that.”
“And the two hundred paces…”
“Diameter,” he frowned. “I’m assuming, considering the amount of sorcery she used to create it.”
Good news. Five streets to the right should be enough, maybe seven if they were too narrow. We’d lose time going around but that couldn’t be helped. I closed my eyes, visualizing what Heiress had done. Wait, Masego had said a ward. A fixed point, then, that she wouldn’t be able to control after she’d made it unless she was on hand.
“Apprentice,” I said slowly. “That ward, can you affect it?”
He blinked. “Given enough time I could break it, if that’s what you’re asking. Would there be a point to that? They can’t misbehave outside its boundaries, and what she did to lift the binding seems to be attracting them.”
Yes, I’d noticed that last part. I almost smiled, showing my teeth. Hakram let out a bark of laughter and Masgeo looked confused.
“Apprentice, when she lifted a binding she made a hole right?”
“You want me to lay a binding of my own,” the mage immediately understood.
It was always a pleasure to work with clever people.
“Right now every devil in Liesse is drawn to this ward like it’s a beacon,” I said. “Let them. When they get here, though? Make them fight.”
Modifying the ward was much faster than dismantling it, though not without problems. Heiress had laid traps into its structure, because of course she had. Masego took the precaution of creating a small levitating orb of light that sucked in the torrent of black flames that spewed out the moment he accessed the ward structure. He also had to take apart a set of fake runes he assured me would have rotted my eyes in their sockets if I’d looked at them. Still, before the devils mounted a proper attack he finished the job. What I saw afterwards was a sight I would take to my grave. I’d witnessed great and terrible things, since leaving Laure. Walked the grounds of the Tower and passed through the Hall of Screams. I’d watched a battlefield turn into a hellish wasteland of green flames at Three Hills, fought a fully incarnated demon in the ruins of Marchford. None of those held a candle to seeing a thousand devils rip each other apart gleefully in a massive melee, rending each other’s bodies apart with tooth and claw. I felt a shudder go through the Gallowborne as they watched, awed by the sight of the monsters turning on each other mercilessly. We didn’t stick around to see the fight play out, turning west to swing around the ward.
There was no banter, not after the mess we’d just left behind. My soldiers were in a subdued mood, and as I rode Zombie I kept an eye out on our surroundings. Twice I glimpsed goblins on rooftops, nodding back to their salutes before they scampered into the shadows. Robber’s cohort had been given a very specific task and it was pleasing to see they were on top of things. This particularly plan I’d hatched with Aisha’s help, and though events had conspired to complicate its completion I’d also been handed a golden pretext to use it. By the time we’d begun marching north again we’d gotten deep enough inside the city I was surprised we weren’t running into rebel soldiers. They must have retreated past the second ring of defences, though who had actually given that order was anyone’s guess. William must have been in overall command by sheer virtue of being a hero, but he wasn’t a battlefield commander. My money was on the Baroness Dormer, which wasn’t a bad thing for the Fifteenth. As far as I knew she hadn’t fought in the Conquest and had no real military experience. She was the kind of opponent Juniper would eat for breakfast.
The narrowness of the street we were in had forced the Gallowborne into a column instead of a stronger formation, which made me uncomfortable. These would not be good fighting grounds if we ran into the enemy. I was considering moving us to a broader avenue when I saw a single silhouette ahead of us, walking calmly towards my men. Trouble, I thought, calling a halt.
“There has to be another way,” Adjutant said quietly.
“We’ve discussed this before,” Apprentice replied flatly.
We had, and it was too late to back out now. I’d try talking first, but my history with talking sense into people was a littlecheckered. Still, who knew? There were a lot of ways for the third encounter between a hero and a villain to go. Few of those to my advantage, but sometimes you had to roll the dice even if the game was rigged. William paused four city blocks away from my forces, casually sweeping his sword along the ground. The brute strength and speed of the sweep created swirls of wind in front of him, scattering dust. The message was clear: the Gallowborne were not to advance any further. I dismounted Zombie, idly checking my weapons. My throwing knives were safely secured, and the satchel on the back of my belt held tight. Passing the shield wall, I strode forward to meet the Lone Swordsman on the field. His scrap with the devils had cost him no wounds, I saw. His long coat was torn in several places, but somehow that just made him look rugged. The chain mail under was still pristine and his dark hair stylishly tousled.
I was drenched in sweat under my plate, my bad leg ached and my hair had knotted against the edge of my open-faced helmet in a way that itched. Fucking heroes. He probably smelled liked flowers, I thought bitterly, while I smelled like horse and blood and being in over my head for at least the tenth time this year.
“And so we meet again,” William said, green eyes cold.
“That’s usually what happens when you go looking for people,” I spoke drily.
“As Heiress is no within my reach at the moment, I must call our truce at an end,” the Lone Swordsman said.
“Who would have seen that coming,” I spoke in a monotone. “Alas, you’ve taken me by surprise. Curse your unexpected betrayal.”
Apparently the hero hadn’t foreseen quite this much mockery when he’d prepared for this conversation in his head, because he did a piss poor job of hiding how irritated he was. Honestly, that was on him. I’d never shown him any respect before, why would I start now?
“Die,” he said. “And not nicely.”
“Villains have limited retirement options, William,” I said gently. “This isn’t exactly a revelation to me. What I’m curious about, though, is what happens after. Say you manage to kill me. What then?”
“Then your legion loses its leader,” he said. “I rally the army of Callow and we drive your butchers out of Liesse.”
“I’m not giving out any orders at the moment,” I pointed out. “My legate is. And as for you driving the Fifteenth out of this city… Well, the last time it fought a battle against a proper army, it spanked a force twice its size of professional soldiers. Half of which was mounted. You think levies and a bit of southern retinue is going to stand up to veterans like them? William, my soldiers brutalized devils when they were just a bare skeleton of a legion. They’re led by a woman so clever she sometimes scares me, and we’re on the same fucking side.”
“Are you quite done boasting?” the Lone Swordsman asked with disdain.
I ground my teeth, pushing down my flaring temper. Gods, it was like talking to a stone wall that was just sentient enough to be an obstinate jackass.
“What I’m telling is that this battle is over,” I said. “We’re in the city. There’s no walls to hide behind and your barricades are just going give my sappers a good laugh. There’s no winning this for you anymore, William. My death makes no real difference. If anything it just makes it easier for Apprentice or Adjutant to kill you afterwards – no more Rule of Three keeping you alive.”
“All those pretty sentences covering for one word: surrender,” he mocked. “That’s always been your answer, hasn’t it Catherine? Licking the Tower’s boot and hoping your foreign paymasters take pity on us.”
“For once in your life,” I growled, “try to think beyond your pride. What are you accomplishing here? The rebellion is over, William. The Duke of Liesse is dead. Black dispersed the Countess’ army without even giving battle. Procer has its own troubles in the south and it can’t afford to open up another front. There are no reinforcements coming for you. You are alone.”
“Yes,” he smiled strangely. “Alone. It was, I think, always supposed to end like this. It is… fitting.”
“This isn’t a story, William,” I said tiredly. “Thousands of people are going to die. It won’t be glorious, it won’t be heroic. It’ll just be piles of corpses littering the streets getting picked at by the crows. All those lives snuffed out for no good reason.”
“You know, I once told Almorava the very same thing,” the hero said. “About it not being a story. I was wrong. This is a story, Catherine. It always was. Even this conversation is part of it: my last temptation before the end. I made a choice, Squire, and I stand by it. Some things are worth dying for.”
“And the people of Liesse, are you choosing for them too? Because when Contrition comes calling, it won’t ask them nicely to enrol. You’re robbing them of free will so you can play the leading role in your little tragedy.”
“You know little of the Hashmallim,” he said. “All they do is show you the truth of what you are. Of what Creation is. They don’t force anyone’s hand, Catherine. They don’t have to, once you understand. There is only one path forward.”
“All you’re doing is letting some creature from another realm into the heads of hundreds of thousands to tinker with their will,” I snarled. “Gods save us all from principled men. You’re really the same as he is, when it comes down to it. You have a point to make and you don’t care what it costs to everyone else. Because you want to be right, even if half the continent burns for it. At least villains own what they are.”
“And what do you stand for, Catherine Foundling?” he challenged. “Over a year we’ve fought, you and I, and I’ve yet to see you take a stance. You claim your way is the one that works, but what have you actually accomplished? You don’t have morals, Squire. You don’t have beliefs. Like a reed, you bend however the wind blows.”
“I want peace,” I said. “I want order. I want good crops and fair taxes. I want Callow to prosper, and I don’t care who rules it as long as it does. If I have to strike deals with monsters to see that done, I will. Kingdoms, empires, they’re just lies we all agree on so our lives have a frame. What matters is the people, not the deceit. The Kingdom of Callow is no longer a lie that serves its people, and so it needs to die.”
“A kingdom is more than the sum of its people,” William said. “It has a higher meaning, a higher purpose. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Callow, and so I am free. And I will fight so that one day all other Callowans can claim the same.”
“I should have killed you, that first night,” I said. “I didn’t understand what I was unleashing. I thought I did, Gods forgive me, but I could not have been more wrong.”
“Too late,” the Lone Swordsman said, sword rising. “Let us end this, Squire. This time, there is no Warlock to save you.”
I unsheathed my sword calmly.
“If I’m going to beat a truth into you today, William, it’s this one: I’m the person people need saving from.”
He moved like lightning. The longsword carved through the space where my head had been a heartbeat earlier, but I’d ducked under the swing and rammed my fist into his stomach. It didn’t do much – I doubted he’d even bruise – but I wove my Name into a trick and a quick burst of shadowy energy pushed him back. I pressed the advantage, feinting for his arm but turning it into a lunge that would take him through the throat. His blade came up to slap mine away as he twirled gracefully and I smiled. With his old sword, he might have managed to cut through my blade with his own. Now, though? Now we both fought with steel. The fight was a little more even. I moved sideways, circling him slowly, and he moved to match me. I’d meant to continue doing that until the afternoon sun was in his eyes – unlike me he had no helmet to shield his sight – but the bastard knew his way around a sword fight. Right before he would have stepped where I wanted him to, he ran a finger along the length of his sword. There was a flash of blinding light but I was prepared for it: he’d pulled a similar trick in our last duel and I’d been thinking of counters even since.
Sharpening my senses with my Name was one of the first tricks I’d learned, but it had taken me a while to realize I could also do the opposite. For less than a heartbeat, I blinded myself. When my sight came back I caught his wrist as he brought his sword down to cave my head in, my own sword swiping at his lower leg. I drew blood through the thick leather boots and spun away from him, hastily giving grounds. Gods Below, pushing back his swing even for a moment had nearly broken my arm. He was stronger than the last time we’d fought, and I didn’t mean that in an abstract sense: he was physically stronger. And faster too, I was pretty sure. How he’d managed that without putting on muscles mass I couldn’t know, but it felt like Name shenanigans at work. I spat to the side in dismay. My own Name had never been gracious enough to give me anything physical but better reflexes, which apparently all Named got anyway. Fucking heroes. I’d deal with it anyway. If I’d learned anything from our last duel it was that I wasn’t going to beat him with a sword. Brute force had never been my thing, when it came down to it: trickery and cheating had been my bread and butter since the first time I’d stepped into the Pit.
“You’ve gotten better,” the Swordsman noted.
“Your Name is bullshit and so are you,” I said.
I probed his defences with the tip of my sword but he was not so easily baited. I feigned a strike to his side but had to hastily retreat when his blade came within an inch of my throat. He turned the strike into a blow at my shoulder, pushing forward, but I spun around him. For a heartbeat we were back to back and I slipped my free hand inside the satchel at my belt, snatching a sharper. As we pivoted again to face each other I pushed a trickle of power into my hand, energy crackling around my fingers. Savouring the look of surprise on his face, I punched him in the stomach with the clay ball. It detonated loudly, tossing him like a rag doll. It also broke three of my fingers, but that was just the price of doing business. Focusing for a heartbeat, I wove threads of necromancy and snapped the bones back in place as I rushed after him. He tried to get up but my armoured boot slammed into his chest, knocking him back down. I had to step back to avoid a strike that would have slipped in the weak point of my greaves but I took out a throwing knife and flicked it at his sword hand, relying on my Name’s reflexes to guide the throw. It nailed him right in the wrist and he hissed in pain.
Apparently I’d hit a nerve – or an artery – because there was a flicker of power before a burst of light emanated from his frame. I deftly stepped out of range, but William took the occasion to get back to his feet. The light had pushed the knife out of his wrist, I saw, and the wound was already closing. Well, that’s new. Taking him apart piece by piece wasn’t an option, then. His wrist was still bloodied, I noticed, so I supposed bleeding him out was still possible. There was a lot of blood in a human being, though. Odds were I’d run out of throwing knives before he ran out of red to bleed. More than that, I couldn’t count on him running out of power anytime soon. He’d flatly outclassed me in that regard even before Masego had carved out a third of my Name. You might say I was out of my depth. Engaged in an uphill battle. It was, most definitely, a Struggle. Something dark rose in the back of my mind at the thought, howling in rage at the Heavens as my Name finally woke up. My veins warmed with power and I grinned.
“Let’s try that again,” I said.
I dashed forward, the pain in my leg gone as the pavement stone gave under the pressure of my charge. I lowered my head under the Swordsman’s swing and unsheathed my knife, ripping through his sleeve as I passed him. The chain mail under held, but I felt the rings get carved. Goblin steel had few equals on the continent. He pivoted to hack at my shoulder but I parried the blow with my knife, forcing him to step around the arc of a sword strike that would have cleaved through his neck. Clasping my wrist with his free hand he forced it down, the sheer strength of his grip denting plate armour, but I rammed my knee his stomach. He staggered back, releasing my wrist, and I slammed the pommel of my sword on the crown of his head. He let out a curse and backed away, bleeding where I’d struck. I wasn’t about to let him recover: in a matter of moments I was on him again, swinging as my Name laughed in delight. Evidently he didn’t use his head much, because the hit hadn’t slowed him down: with a deft twirl of his sword he ripped my knife out of my hand, allowing the chain mail on his arm to catch my sword at an angle that made the blow impotent. I stepped back, abandoning the knife, and he tried to make distance so he could take back the flow of the engagement from me. Screw that, I thought, and reached for my satchel again. I tossed a brightstick at him and he looked insultingly sceptical until I aimed my hand at it and shot a small burst of shadow and caught the spinning munitions in the air.
The brightstick exploded inches away from his faces with a burst of light and deafening sound. I’d closed my eyes even as I moved forward. It was too much to hope that he’d be permanently blinded and have his eardrums burst the way a normal man would, but a moment was all I needed. Somehow, even blinded, he managed to catch my first strike with his sword. I let him pass, spinning my wrist to turn the attack into an arcing blow that caught his shoulder. I’d reached into my Name as I struck, drawing on its strength, and I felt the mail give. My blade came away red. Once again I felt his power rise but I grit my teeth and reached for my own, striking at his chest with the heaviest spear of shadows I could muster. The rest of his duster was torn blown through, his power scattered and the mail smoked. I was winning. Gods, I was actually winning. He’d fallen to his knees, but his eyes were working now. Snarling, he hacked at my flank. I let the armour take it, half-stepping to blunt the impact. My hand reached for my satchel a third time, taking out a sharper.
His eyes widened and I could see the thought process going through his mind, clear as day. I’d finish moving before he could reposition his sword to stop me. His mouth opened, to say what I did not know. His power flickered a third time but with a snarl of triumph I shoved the sharper into his open mouth. Before the light could fully manifest I’d shot a burst of shadow at the sharper and it blew.
The Lone Swordsman’s body skidded across the stones, his precious light doing nothing to help him. When the momentum stopped carrying him he did not manage get up, limbs twitching weakly. I could already feel the power I’d gotten from my aspect leaving me more with every heartbeat – I’d been liberal with its use, which had made it end even faster than usual. I knew the moment it was gone I’d be exhausted and my leg would be a very real problem, so I had to end this quickly. Trap, I thought as I moved forward. This feels like a godsdamned trap. A downed hero who just got the beating of his life, unable to move? This was the part where I made my monologue and he begun his comeback. I couldn’t just leave him there, though. He’d already shown he could heal himself to an extent and if he came back from this I was in deep, deep trouble. I’d give it better than half odds I’d be flat out of juice the moment my aspect tapped out. And if it comes to a contest of skill between us, I’m going to die a very ugly death. Well, I did have one last surprise in my satchel. Very carefully, I took out my last clay ball. I had to sheathe my sword to strike a pinewood match and light the fuse on the goblinfire. Heart beating fast, I tossed the projectile at the hero.
I knew, before the ball was even halfway there, that I’d made a mistake. The Lone Swordsman’s arm rose weakly, brandishing his sword. He rasped out one word.
His wrist flicked and a gale blew as if he’d cleaved the world in half. The goblinfire exploded in the air, spreading in droplets that landed everywhere. That was, I decided, bad. A heartbeat later the last of my aspect-granted power winked out. I wasn’t entirely out, but I wouldn’t be able to make a spear even if my life depended on it. Which it very well might. That was, I decided, very bad.
“Rise,” the Lone Swordsman rasped.
Light spread around his body in thick cords, healing his wounds and hoisting him up. He looked in bad shape, but he was definitely moving.
“Very, very bad,” I muttered.
Apparently we were past the banter stage because William was on me before the chords of light were even gone. My arm moved sluggishly but I parried the first blow, free hand reaching for another throwing knife. Fingers closed around my wrist.
“No,” the Lone Swordsman growled.
“Yes?” I hazarded, the word drowned out by the plate covering my wrist breaking apart completely under his grip.
I slugged him in the face with the pommel of my sword but he took it unflinchingly, pushing me back.
“I’d settle for a maybe,” I said.
My cutting sarcasm, unfortunately, failed to draw blood. Weeping Heavens, I was pretty sure he’d sprained my wrist under the steel. That limited my options pretty sharply. He advanced on me again, eyes ringed with a sort of luminous clarity that gave me a headache just to look at. I backpedalled blow after blow, giving ground. I was running out of tricks to turn this around. Slapping away my blade, he hammered down on my only good wrist left with his own pommel – the impact forced me to drop my sword. Well, I still had knives. The hero’s blade sliced through the belt keeping those up, though I managed to snatch one before they fell to the ground. I’d had knives, I corrected mentally. The Lone Swordsman had unfortunately brought a longsword to a knife fight, which admittedly gave him a bit of an advantage. I stepped around a hew and got in close but he swept my legs. I hit the stone with a dull thud and he stood above me with his sword raised.
“And now,” he said solemnly, “I Triumph.”
“Do you know what the difference is, between a Squire and a Swordsman?” I croaked out.
He blinked in surprise.
“I have a horse,” I announced.
A moment later Zombie hit his back. I closed my eyes and reached for the heart of the necromantic construct, where Robber had cleverly reproduced the same device he’d made for the brooch in Masego’s hair. The bits of bone scraped together as I used the very last dregs of my power, producing a single spark. The demolition charges stashed inside my mount blew up instantly and the world turned white, heat licking at my face.
A heartbeat later I opened my eyes, though I didn’t remember closing them. I tried to move but my everything was broken and I wasn’t laying down where I’d been. Shit, I blacked out. My right arm looked like I’d tried to make a knot out of it, which wasn’t promising. My leg was also apparently on fire. Goblinfire. Repressing a horrible scream of pain, I managed to sit up and hastily unclasped the greave with green flames on it, feebly tossing it away. My left hand blindly groped around for support, the wrist pulsing in pain, but instead I found something metallic. My knife, I realized. The one Black had given me what seemed like years ago. My thoughts felt slow and disjointed. I found William laying unconscious a few feet away from me and dragged myself along the ground, knife still clasped in my fingers. The moment I got close enough, I wildly stabbed into his exposed neck. Steel sunk into flesh and I let out a hiss of triumph. The hero’s eyes opened and he gurgled out a word.
“Oh, come on,” I croaked.
The already-closing wound was pushing out my knife. The chords of light weren’t as thick as last time, but there were still working. I got my knife out and stabbed him again. Or would have, if he didn’t catch my wrist. His other hand came up and I glimpsed his sword, shining like a lake under moonlight. It passed through my plate like it was parchment, plunging straight into my heart. The hero pushed himself up to a crouch.
“And so it ends,” he said.
I could feel my Name running through my veins, not to save me but for some… deeper purpose. It was true, then. We curse our killer with our last breath, Black had said.
“You will die before the day is done,” I rasped.
“And yet,” the Lone Swordsman smiled, “I win.”
My vision was blackening. I could feel life leaving my body. Serenely, I smiled.
Gotcha, I thought, and died.