“It probably doesn’t count as cannibalism if you’re already dead.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet
Nefarious’s corpse hadn’t even cooled before they’d dismembered and burned it, scattering the ashes so broadly not even a wraith could be formed from the remains. A lesson the Court learned centuries ago at the knees of the first Dread Empress Sanguinia, whose reign of terror had not ended with the cup of poison she’d drank. She had, if anything, become even more dangerous after her death. The Chancellor was a thorough man, for all his flaws, and had no intention of giving a sorcerer as accomplished as Nefarious a foot on the land of the living. The hall on the twenty-fourth floor of the Tower had long been used for official court sessions, and that the Chancellor had chosen it as the place for his summons spoke openly to the man’s intentions. He’d been ruling the Empire in all but name for the last decade anyhow, no doubt he saw actually taking the throne as a mere formality. He had the backing of the High Lords, the Legions – this sad, ugly sister of what the Legions of Terror had once been – were in his pocket and he controlled Ater. Ascensions to the throne had been built on a third of that kind of support. And yet…
Amadeus gazed at the sprawling mosaic that made up the entire floor, lost in thought. The centrepiece was arguably the depiction of the First Crusade and Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, but that wasn’t what interested him. Closer to the bronze and gold doors there was a motif about Dread Empress Maleficent I, the founder of the Empire. It showed her driving out the Miezans – a historical inaccuracy, as there had only been one bare skeleton of a legion left, but the lie was central to the creation myth of Praes – and uniting the Soninke and the Taghreb. She’d been Taghreb herself, governor of Kahtan under the foreign occupation. The more numerous and politically powerful Soninke had her assassinated within the decade and one of their own took the throne, but you’d never guess it from the way the High Lords were smiling at her side. Behind the humans knelt greenskins, orcs and goblins mingling in abject adoration of their superior. Another lie. The Clans had only been cajoled into joining the Declaration by bribery and the Tribes had to be forced into the fold by violence.
So many lies, for a single floor. A pack of gilded ornaments hastily slapped over an inglorious beginning, carefully polished over the millennia since until they became accepted as the truth of history. What would they say of today in a thousand years, the Black Knight wondered? Would they speak of it as the beginning of a golden age or the whimper of a stillborn rebellion? The nobles and sycophants milled about the hall, clumping together in whispering circles. None of them approached him. Some had tried to play him the fool when he’d been younger, thinking a Duni would be easy prey, but the trail of corpses he’d left behind since had dissuaded them of the notion. Still, at least some of them should have been trying to forge an alliance with him to better their fortunes under the new regime. Word of his many disagreements with the presumptive Emperor must have spread. Was this the prelude to an attempt to remove him form the game entirely? He found the thought amused him. Chancellor’s intentions upon taking the throne were still a mystery to him, though he could make some educated guesses.
He was shaken out of his thoughts when the man in question strode through the open doors. The whispers stilled and the crowd parted reverently as the Chancellor walked to the throne. Running a hand on the stone and iron the man stood there for a moment, smiling. Finally, he sat and the crowd let out a single breath. Relief, envy, admiration. Already vultures were gathering behind the curtains of professed loyalty, scheming how they would carve out an advantage from the succession. There would be need for a new Chancellor, and that Name was ever brimming with claimants. For now, though, they knelt. Like a wave washing upon the floor, the mighty fell to their knees – until the wave reached him. Amadeus stood, leaning against the wall.
“You take liberties, Black Knight, that I have not allowed,” the Chancellor said.
The rebuke resounded like the crack of a whip in the silence of the hall. Black pushed himself off the wall and strolled to the centre of the crowd.
“I,” he said, “do not kneel.”
The Chancellor chuckled.
“I may yet allow you this privilege, should you prove loyal,” he said.
The fury wafting from the nobility, still kneeling, was delightful. Truly, it was making Amadeus’ day. Coming here had been worth it just for that. The older man continued speaking when it became obvious Black did not intend to reply.
“You will hunt down the wretched concubine Alaya, who murdered my predecessor,” the Chancellor said. “You will drag her in chains to this hall, so I may render judgement.”
“This is an order Black Knight,” the man barked. “As Dread Emperor Baleful the First, I command your obedience.”
“I serve the Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of all She Beholds,” he said. “You have no right to command me, Chancellor. Or to sit on this throne.”
“This is treason,” the man screamed.
“This is inevitability,” Amadeus replied.
Some of the crowd rose. Swords were unsheathed, incantations whispered. It would be for naught.
“Some of you,” the Black Knight said, “will fight this. Will cling to the old order, futile as it may be. For you I come bearing the word of the Empress.”
He grinned, wide and sharp and vicious.
“Tremble, o ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”
I woke up.
I did not gasp for air, or blink in surprise. I was just… awake. The dream I’d just had I remembered with perfect clarity, my teacher’s last words echoing in my head. They felt like a warning. They felt like a promise. I pushed myself up into a sitting position only then noticing that someone’s hand was on my shoulder, helping me up. Dark skin, slender fingers. Apprentice. I did not feel his touch at all. There were bound to be a few downsides to being an undead abomination, I supposed.
“Catherine,” Masego said, studying me carefully through his spectacles. “Do you understand me?”
“In general?” I said. “Like, maybe half the time. The rest I just nod and pretend it’s obvious.”
“You just got sassed by a corpse, warlock’s get,” a voice said. “That’s gotta sting.”
I glanced in that direction and saw Robber crouched on a crate, expression unreadable. We were inside a house, I realized. Where I couldn’t be sure. My throat itched and I ran a finger on it, feeling stitches. So I could feel some things, then. It was just muted, like I interacted with Creation through a veil.
“He cut my head off, didn’t he?” I said.
“And one of your ankles, before we drove him off,” Hakram said.
Him I’d known was in the room without needing to turn. I felt his Name pulse and mine answering to it. There was a connection there, one I did not yet understand. So much about Name lore still remained hidden to me. Was it the same, for Black and Captain? Hakram was, I supposed, my equivalent of the gargantuan Taghreb. With perhaps a little of Scribe thrown in for good measure.
“I guess he learned from the last time,” I said, looking at my similarly stitched-up right leg. Damn, I’d run out of usable limbs at this rate. Of all the habits I could have picked up, why was getting crippled the one to stick? “Doesn’t seem to be hindering me any.”
“You shouldn’t be able to feel pain anymore,” Masego said. “Or pleasure, for that matter. You’re essentially a cadaver with limited sensory abilities.”
“You sweet talker you,” I said, getting up. “How long was I dead?”
Even with the amulet I was wearing under my armour – a receptacle to catch my soul after I died, the way Apprentice had put it – his most conservative estimates had been that it would take him a little over a bell to raise me from the dead. Well, “raise” me was a bit of a misnomer. I was still dead, just walking about. With my soul stuck in a piece of amber hanging off my neck. I’d had better weeks.
“About an hour,” Hakram said.
I blinked in surprise, or would have if my body still worked that way. My eyelids didn’t move until I consciously made them do it. Gods, that was going to be weird.
“Masego?” I prompted.
Robber tossed me by sword belt, which had been taken off me at some point. I buckled deftly, noticing my men had even brought a replacement greave for the one I’d lost to goblinfire. It didn’t match the rest of the gear, but unlike Heiress I didn’t have half a dozen spare suits of armour to draw from.
“A force was helping me along,” the bespectacled mage said. “Your Name, and… something else. It was like Creation did not want you to be dead.”
“Ominous,” I said, tightening the strap on the greave Hakram had handed me.
“Says the undead abomination,” Robber pointed out cheerfully.
“At least I don’t own a jar full of eyeballs,” I said absent-mindedly. “Speaking of dodgy business, Tribune, how’s your progress? Shouldn’t you be out in the field?”
The goblin preened. “No need. We’ve got two out of three already and the third one’s been found. Just a matter of time. Your little trick with the devils made it much easier to get around the city.”
“Don’t posture, it makes you look like the bastard child of an inexplicably green gargoyle and a pigeon,” I said. “Still, good work. I want all three behind our lines the moment you can manage it. No fuckups, there’s a lot riding on this.”
“So I’ve heard,” the goblin said, grinning malevolently. “Up to no good, Boss?”
“Good cut my head off not an hour ago,” I muttered peevishly. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”
I turned towards the more productive members of my posse.
“Where are we, exactly?”
It looked like a house, but too small to be one from the street where I’d gotten stabbed to death. That was still a thing that had happened. I’d call this the worst week of my life, but that would just be taunting fate.
“Past the first barricade,” Adjutant said. “In the forward beachhead of the Fifteenth. When it became clear the devils weren’t going to be a problem Hune marched deeper into the city and smashed through their first line of defence. There’s fighting at the second ring of barricades but we haven’t made another push yet.”
I raised an eyebrow, having to gauge approximately how high it was supposed to go. Gods, this undeath business was a pain. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to stay like this for long.
“Nauk’s kabili has been sent further east to assault through there. Juniper thinks if we hit them on two points they’ll collapse and fall back to the Ducal Palace,” Hakram said.
“If the Swordsman shows up, dividing our forces is gonna be… costly,” I said.
“There’s been no sign of Tall, Dark and Very Stabbable,” Robber said. “Or Queen Smug. I’d put good money on them tangling as we speak.”
“He barely managed to limp away after the beating you gave him,” Adjutant said. “She’ll have the advantage.”
“That’s not good,” I said with a grimace. “She’ll be wanting to meddle with the ritual.”
And I need it, I didn’t say. Only Masego and Hakram were fully in the loop as to the end game of the gambit I’d run by getting myself killed by William. Apprentice had made it clear from the beginning that while he could raise me from the dead, he couldn’t actually resurrect me. True resurrection was the province of Good. That was the underlying pattern: Evil was handed the means to avoid death, Good to reach past it. Staying undead wasn’t an option, as far as I was concerned. Masego could currently puppet me if he so wished, since he held the leash on the spells that had me walking around, but in theory someone could wrest that leash away from him. Warlock definitely could, and given Heiress’ talent with sorcery given enough time I was pretty sure she’d be able to work out something too. There were advantages to my current state but way too many liabilities came with it. Not to mention the whole being a moving corpse aspect. That would put a hamper on quite a few parts of my life, I thought, a certain redhead coming to mind.
I clenched my fingers experimentally. That part seemed to be working fine, and being able to take ridiculous amounts of punishment would come in useful. I reached for my Name and found it weaker than it had been before my death. No, not weaker. Looser. If before it had been a mantle draped comfortably on my shoulders, now it was hanging by a thread. Squires weren’t supposed to die, I supposed. That I was still a Squire at all was something of a disappointment, to be honest.
“You’re frowning,” Adjutant said.
“I was hoping getting myself offed would serve as a shortcut in some ways,” I said. “Maybe lead into another Name.”
Masego chuckled. “You’ve the wrong Role for that,” he said. “You are meant to be the successor to a Knight, whether Black or White. Unless one of them dies you’re quite out of luck.”
“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy,” I said. “Well, aside from a few issues it looks like my little jaunt on the other side filled up the reserves. Next time I scrape with Willy things will go differently.”
“I’m not saying you should mutilate his corpse,” Robber said. “But, you know, if you happen to stumble onto a few eyes I know this guy who has a collection.”
“You don’t even eat them,” Adjutant complained. “It’s a waste, is what that is.”
“I’m going to pretend I never heard that,” I confided in Masego. “When those words I’m definitely not hearing stop, tell Hakram to find his shield. The three of us are going for yet another horrifying magical adventure.”
It was up to debate whether we had good or bad timing, because Hune was about done preparing for her push when we arrived. The ogre was looking at a map held up against a ruined wall by two legionaries, still coming up taller than it even crouched. She saluted crisply when the three of us arrived.
“Lady Squire, Lord Apprentice,” she said, then paused. “Deadhand.”
Deadhand and Dead Girl, I thought, running around foiling Good. There was a song in there.
“What’s the situation, Commander?” I asked.
“Commander Nauk has begun his offensive,” the ogre said. “Already the rebels have started stripping their defences here to reinforce the east. Legate Juniper intends for us to hit them when the troops are beyond the two points, overwhelming them in detail.”
Good ol’ Hellhound, baiting the enemy into a mistake and then slitting their throat over it.
“Any sign of the heroes?” I said.
“None at the moment,” the gargantuan woman said. “Though we have sapper lines ready should they make an appearance. I take it you’re here to join the assault, my lady?”
“We won’t be sticking around,” I said. “We’ll be using it as cover to head for a target deeper into the city.”
The ogre nodded slowly, the clever eyes set in that brutish face studying me patiently.
“The place where the ritual is,” she said. “You believe the Lady Heiress intends further mischief.”
“Something like that,” I said.
The ogre’s buckler-sized hands tightened into fists. There seemed to be genuine anger in him, perhaps the first display of open emotion I’d ever seen from her.
“That woman is in dire need of killing,” Hune rumbled. “Treason against the Tower cannot be tolerated.”
“Preaching to the choir there,” I said. “Who’s at the tip of your offensive?”
“Tribune Ubaid,” Hune said.
Ah, an old friend then. No doubt the former captain would find this scrap a pleasant stroll after our fun little evening with the devils near Marchford. Interesting choice to put regulars in front, but I supposed that with all the fresh recruits in the Fifteenth Hune was looking to blood some of her legionaries.
“I’ll get out of your hair, Hune,” I said.
“Good hunting, Lady Squire. One sin,” the ogre said hammering a hand against her breastplate.
“One grace,” I replied, doing the same.
Finding Ubaid was easy enough. His legionaries were already formed up, the rest of the kabili falling in line behind them. The Soninke was inspecting the gear of his first line, handing out praise and criticism freely. His cohort of two hundred milled with excitement as we approached, smelling the blood to come. The man himself snapped a sharp salute.
“Ubaid,” I said warmly. “We’ll be joining you for the assault.”
“An argument could be made they’ll be joining us,” Masego said.
“Don’t mind Apprentice,” I said, “he always gets crabby right before the swords come out.”
“I do not-”
“You’re making her point for her, Masego,” Hakram whispered loudly.
The mage closed his mouth with a snap, looking disgruntled. Ubaid looked like he badly wanted to be somewhere else but was too polite to flee. It would be strange going into battle without the Gallowborne at my back, but I’d elected to leave them behind since I wouldn’t be taking them with me to the ritual site anyway. Currently they were with Juniper at the central command node, charged with guarding the trump cards I’d tasked Robber with finding me. I took the lead as we began the march, the other two at my side. Hune had chosen one of the main arteries as her angle of attack, though I could glimpse legionaries spread out over the two adjoining streets as well. Tribune Ubaid’s cohort remained concentrated on the avenue we were using, as per Legion doctrine. It was a short walk to the second ring of barricades, and when we got there I saw there were already sappers in place. A company at most, but they were keeping the rebels busy by taking crossbow shots whenever a Callowan peeked out from behind the barricades.
I was reluctantly impressed by what the defenders had managed to build as their rampart. Unlike the upended carts and sacks of sand and grain of the first barricades, these ones had foundations of stone pulled from Gods knew where. There was narrow path through the rampart leading straight into a smaller barricade, which would force my legionaries to split between two sides when trying to overwhelm it. I couldn’t see what the defenders were standing on from where I was, but some sort of scaffolding must have been built behind the wall: a handful of men were watching us, crouching down behind the walls whenever one of the sappers took aim at them. Taking this promised to be costly, I assessed, and the numbers were on the side of the defenders. As far as I could figure Hune was going to collapse the barricades with munitions and charge through the wreck as soon as the defenders were positioned to stop Ubaid’s cohort, catching them flatfooted. It should work. The prospect of the losses displeased me, though. On both sides.
What point was there in continuing to kill the rebels when the battle was as good as done? Without William around to stiffen their spines, I might actually be able to talk them into a surrender. It was worth a try instead of jumping straight into the slaughter, anyway. I signalled for Ubaid’s cohort to slow and went for the wall, sword still sheathed. From the corner of my eye I saw one of the archers knocking an arrow and waited – the shaft was released and I tapped into my Name, watching it come closer. Snatching the arrowhead out of the air was what I was intending to do, but it ended up being more along the line of catching it with my palm. There was, I reflected, no real way to play that off as if it had been my intention all along. I didn’t feel any pain from the wound, so simply sighed and broke off the shaft before wiggling the rest out. There was a gasp of horror from the barricade and I heard someone say the word Squire. Good, there’d be no need for introductions. Some of the sappers were about to answer the shot in kind so I immediately spoke up.
“Hold,” I said. “You, behind the walls. I’m Catherine Foundling, ranking commander of the Fifteenth. Who’s in charge here?”
There was a round of hushed conversation behind cover until a confident voice quieted it. A few heartbeats later a woman rose to the top of the barricade, dressed in good plate. Even under the helmet I recognized those silvery strands of hair and that pale, strikingly beautiful face: it appeared I was in front of the Baroness Dormer herself. I’d seen her exactly once before, when I’d been a child. She’d visited Laure to settle a trade dispute and I’d managed to be part of the crowd watching her ride into the city. I’d skipped lessons for it, if I remembered well, because I’d wanted to see the noble so many people said was the loveliest woman in Callow with my own eyes. I cleared my throat, absurdly amused to be standing in front of the same woman who’d made me realize I was attracted to both genders in such a different situation.
“That would be me,” the Baroness said. “You’ll forgive for not bowing, Lady Foundling. I no longer recognize the authority of the Tower.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said drily.
“I was also under the impression you were dead,” the woman continued.
“Not nearly as much of a problem as you’d think,” I mused.
“Impressive, but we planned to defend the city against you regardless,” the Baroness said. “I have no intention of surrendering my men so they can be butchered in Malicia’s name.”
“That’s about to happen if you don’t surrender, Baroness,” I said. “I’m willing to give you fairly lenient terms to end this without further bloodshed. Prisoners will be treated fairly.”
The silver-haired woman’s eyes narrowed.
“The Tower has only one way of dealing with rebellion.”
“You’ve been out of the loop for too long,” I said. “Black granted amnesty to the vast majority of the Countess Marchford’s host. Nobody wants to drown the south in blood, least of all me.”
“The vast majority,” she repeated. “And what of the Countess herself?”
“Executed,” I admitted. “That, however, was Black. He’s not here, I am. Liesse is mine to deal with as I see fit, by Imperial mandate. I you surrender I promise amnesty for your men and a fair trial for you.”
She seemed almost amused by that.
“That I committed treason by the Tower’s reckoning isn’t exactly in dispute,” she said.
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “But all I’ve heard of you leads me to believe you got involved in this because you believed Callow would be better off for the rebellion. That rebellion is over, Baroness Dormer. But you can still spare the people who fought for you.”
“We could hold you off behind the barricades,” she said.
“Apprentice could level those with three words and a wave of his hand,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Five and really more of a flick,” the overweight mage corrected.
“Not the time, Masego,” I said under my breath, watching the noblewoman on the wall.
“The Lone Swordsman said you were treacherous and silver-tongue,” she admitted ruefully.
“I’m sure he’s said a lot of things. You should be more worried about the things he hasn’t said, though. I’m betting he didn’t inform you that the ritual going on is to bring an angel of Contrition to the city,” I said.
She paled, and just like that I knew I had her. William, you didn’t think this through. They’re not heroes, they’re just people. No one signed up for your personal Crusade. It’s one thing to be ready to die for Callow, it’s another to be conscripted by the Heavens.
“You’re lying,” the Baroness said.
“Noticed how he stopped carrying that sword of his around? That was a Hashmallim’s feather, I’m told. Three guesses what it’s being used for, and the first two are also summoning an angel,” I said.
“How can you be so pithy about this?” she asked, sounding horrified.
“Because I’m going to cut his throat – for the second time today, mind you – and put an end to all of this,” I said. “This is what I do, Baroness. I clean up the messes made by the fools. I did it at Three Hills, I did it at Marchford and I’ll do it again here. Gods as my witness, I’ll keep on going until there’s peace from Daoine to the shores of the Hengest.”
I met her eyes calmly.
“I could threaten you now,” I said. “Point out that I punched a devil the size of a fortress so hard it died or that I basically walked off getting decapitated not an hour ago. But I don’t really need to, do I? You know who I am. What I’m going to tell you instead is that I’ve had a very long day – and that I won’t be making this offer twice.”
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.
She folded. She dithered a while still, but she folded. I wished it actually felt like a victory, and not like I’d just broken my homeland’s spine over my knee. I didn’t stick around to oversee the rest of the surrender. I handed it off to Hune after getting in contact with Nauk’s kabili with a scrying spell. The orc commander had already broken through his section of the barricade but my orders were enough to restrain him even after he’d gotten his blood up. The Baroness managed to get most of the remaining soldiers to surrender, but some refused and tried to retreat. There was only one way that was going to end, but I didn’t have the time to spare pity for the last gasps of this rebellion. We headed north again, towards the lake.
“The site won’t actually be in Creation,” Apprentice said. “Well, technically yes, but depending on whether or not you adhere to orthodox Trismegistan theory it-”
“Masego,” I said sharply.
The dark-skinned man cleared his throat.
“I’m saying getting there won’t be as simple as taking a rowboat and rowing to an island that doesn’t, precisely speaking, exist.”
“If you were trying to make this simpler,” Hakram said gravely, “you have failed.”
Apprentice looked frustrated, passing a hand through his sweaty mess of braids. We’d taken a brisk pace, and military life had yet to get him in better shape.
“Look,” he said. “This place is an angel’s corpse, more or less. Angels are of Creation, but not in Creation.”
I ignored the “depending on what school of thought you believe is correct as to the nature of Spheres and Laws” he added in a mutter afterwards. I didn’t know if it was possible to have a headache while undead and wasn’t particularly eager to find out.
“Practically speaking,” I said, “what does that mean?”
“The site is effectively on Creation without being part of it,” Masego said. “Like a pebble on a larger rock. There are… rules though. There has to be a way in, for something like that to be able to exist. A connecting point, where the pebble touches the rock.”
“So we use that,” Hakram said.
“That would be ideal,” Apprentice said. “If it’s still there.”
I glanced at the bespectacled mage. “You think Heiress blocked the way?”
“Or the Lone Swordsman,” he said. “If he knows how.”
William had never struck as being particularly knowledgeable about stuff like this, but he didn’t have to be. Not with the Wandering Bard on his team. And isn’t your absence starting to make me a little nervous, Almorava? What are you up to? Guided by Apprentice, we eventually happened upon the shore of the Hengest lake. There were actual docks further east but that wasn’t what Masego had been looking for, apparently. I was pretty sure what he had was right in front of us: a small, thin rowboat without oars. It was pale and the prow was swan-shaped. It was also on fire, which was much less promising. Almost nothing but the prow remained, the rest sinking into the water.
“I’m thinking Heiress,” I said.
“It does bear her tender and delicate touch,” Adjutant said. “Apprentice, I hope you have another way to get us in.”
“No,” the Soninke said then remained silent for a moment. “Not us, anyway.”
“You made that unnecessarily tense,” I told him gently.
He blinked in confusion and I decided there were more pressing matters at hand.
“Explain,” I said.
“Pebble, larger rock,” he said.
“Many syllables,” I said, “Catherine confused.”
“And so they all died, because the Squire couldn’t ever miss an opportunity to be sarcastic,” Hakram said gravely.
I cleared my throat, or at least tried. The sound that came out was more like I was choking on my own lungs. Dying was proving increasingly troublesome.
“Look,” Apprentice said. “The rule is, there must be a connection. There’s none available, so Creation will work with me if I try to make one. I’m creating a second, smaller pebble that touches both the larger pebble and the rock.”
“Honestly, you could have just said you’re creating a pocket dimension that touches both the site and Creation,” I said.
“Gods, why am I even on your side?” Masego complained, throwing up his hands in the air.
“You like us, though Hells if I know why,” I said, patting him on the back. “Now about that metaphorical smaller pebble. You went all exacting in a way I’m guessing means not all of us can go.”
“I’ll be casting,” Apprentice said. “And I need an anchor, temporary as it will be.”
“Does it have to be Hakram?” I asked.
“That depends,” he replied. “Do you want the pocket realm to collapse on you while I get non-Named smear on my boots?”
“No,” Adjutant interrupted before I could reply. “No she does not.”
I shot the orc a look. I’d been going to say as much. Eventually.
“So just me, then,” I said. “This doesn’t feel even remotely like a coincidence.”
“Three Named want this city,” Hakram said. “Three Named fight for it. The pattern comes to a head.”
“This is about more than just Liesse,” I said. “This is about all of Callow.”
I started to pass a hand through my hair but remembered halfway through the gesture I was still wearing my helmet. Awkwardly I brought the arm down, hoping neither of them had noticed. I cleared my throat again, this time with a little more success.
“Do your thing, Apprentice.”
Apparently Masego couldn’t just wave his arm and rewrite the fabric of Creation, which was very inconvenient of him. I almost told him as much but Hakram gave me a look of his own. I almost tried to pout at Adjutant, but refrained when I forced myself to visualize how horrifying it would actually look. It took too long for Apprentice to prepare his spell for my tastes, but before an hour had passed he was ready.
“The entrance will only be open for a handful of heartbeats,” he warned me. “Be quick. And remember, you’ll have to find your own way back.”
He put a hand on Hakram’s shoulder and spoke urgently in the mage tongue, palm pointed in front of him. I almost didn’t see the portal when it appeared. It was transparent and oval – and shorter than me. Adjutant likely wouldn’t have been able to fit through even if he hadn’t been needed as an anchor. Gritting my teeth, I took a running start and threw myself into the pocket dimension.
I landed in a roll on the other side, managing to stay on my feet for a moment before the disorientation hit and I fell in a sprawl. I hastily got up, warily casting a look around. I was apparently on a wide strip of rock that stood over an inky black void. Charming. I didn’t get close enough to the edge to have a look down. I did not want to be the first undead to ever throw up. I’d never been great with heights, even if the crippling aspect of that fear was long behind me. The terrain ahead of me was broken, full of spires and pitfalls. I made my face grimace out of sheer distaste for the work ahead of me, then got moving. Climbing higher allowed me to peer in the distance, where I saw a gate of light. At least that part was visible. I got halfway through before I slipped and fell at the bottom of well of spires, cursing loudly on my way down. Plate armour wasn’t exactly climbing gear, even when you no longer felt its weight. I wedged my boot in an opening and clasped my fingers around an outcropping that should allow me to pull myself out when my arm started trashing about.
The spells animating me? No. I felt heat for the first time since I’d woken up, searing and bloody. Worse than even getting hit with William’s light had felt. I fell back down, screaming in pain as my limbs shook uncontrollably. How long that lasted I couldn’t tell, but eventually my limbs stilled. I felt… empty. Like some part of me was missing.
“Funny,” a voice said. “That should have killed you.”
I looked up and saw a face peering down at me over the rocky ridge. Half of one, anyway. Horrific burns and sword wound had taken most of the left half. The rest was of a red nearly orange. I’d only ever met one goblin that colour.
“Chider,” I rasped.
“Please, Catherine,” the dead goblin said, “Call me Squire.”
Smiling pleasantly, she dropped a lit sharper on my head.