Chapter 45: Corpses

“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.”

Amadeus smiled.

“No.”

“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.

“Lady Squire.”

“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.”

She hesitated.

“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.

Choose.”

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.

79 thoughts on “Chapter 45: Corpses

    1. I felt this way too.
      Then I calmed down.

      I’m looking forward to her tossing the sharper toward something else. Also how on earth is Childer in her pocket dimension? I wouldn’t enter someone else’s pocket dimension. I would happily wait at the gate of light.

      Part of me is pitched for a reset button: new body with none of the damage but all of the healing, new Name.
      Part of me (that watches Dr Who) is seriously bored with resets.

      Warlock is currently taken, so where does Apprentice eventually go? Would he kill Daddy? Despite villain and evil, I don’t see that. Maybe… White Wizard is open. So seeing what ends up happening to Cat may provide clues for Apprentice too?

      Like

  1. this shitting on catherine progressively more and more every chapter is getting really annoying whats next a talking brain in a jar? im starting to lose enjoyment in this story

    Like

    1. Daemion

      I have the feeling she’s going to be fine again after all this. Her plan is to have Good fix her. Somehow. This isn’t a Wildbow story, so I doubt we’ll see the dark, depressing of things too much.

      Btw, a brain in a jar would be an improvement… right now she’s a soul in an amulet.😉

      Liked by 3 people

  2. The Archdevil

    Hehehehehe. I like this version of Catherine. Death cut her patience down faster than William could. And that sass. Is there any way Creation comes out of this whole? Probably not.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Daemion

    “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.

    Bwahahahaha!😀

    Yeah, Chider was bound to pop up now after the boat went up in flames. It wouldn’t do for Catherine to reach the ritual site that easily, eh?😉

    Like

  4. Naeddyr

    Ok, some predictions:

    The Squire is hanging onto Cat by a thread.

    Having a Name is what makes her Evil with Extra E.

    Chider wants the tatters of the Squire so bad, and she’s going to get them. Cat is going to lose Squire to Chider, but not die because she’s a necromantic construct, and then she will enter the sanctum, there’s going to be a four-way boogaloo between Civilian Cat and three Named ones (and Chider is so going to betray Heiress, that’s what the E stands for, etrayal), she’s going to be meeting an Angel and a Demon and then the middle fingers come out and we have a new Name, probably in a neutral color. My guess, Green Knight.

    Like

      1. Kirroth

        For those confused, the sequence of events is this:

        1. After her reanimation, Cat narrates that the mantle of Squire is only hanging on by a thread. This is likely a cumulative result of the previous damage plus her current gambit going against the Name’s themes.

        2. At the end of the chapter Chider hits her with some sort of special attack that would have killed her if she wasn’t already undead and leaves her feeling empty, like something is missing. Chider then claims to have taken over the Name of Squire. This is obviously the culmination of whatever scheme Heiress has been grooming Chider for this entire time.

        In the long run, this is probably a good thing. Squire is limited in that the only evolution paths are Black Knight or White Knight. As Cat’s dream is suggesting, this is a new age bringing new Names with it. Adjutant was the first. Now that Cat isn’t the Squire she’s free to forge her own new one as well.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. nipi

        I bet she is going to get a Callowan villains name.
        “All according to plan.” – Black

        Not sure if Cat is going to just be reincarnated or will she steal herself a new living body? Heiress or William? I mean she swings both ways and has never been very fond of her looks anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. maresther23

        Shouldn’t Masego have noticed something like this? And there is a connection between Adjuntant and Cat… Something is very confusing here.

        Like

    1. Kirroth

      I’m not sure about Green Knight, but you’re probably close with the rest.

      A thought. The Rule of Three means Heiress is due a win. Only, is it a win against Cat or a win against Squire? Given it’s more Name stuff I rather suspect the latter, which means Chider becoming the Squire probably means she’s going to take that bullet and let Cat slip out of the other fated loss.

      Like

      1. Unmaker

        I can’t find the references, but my memory says Catherine is due a win, not a loss. Chapter 32 was named Draw because that was the draw.

        Like

      2. Ploogle

        Pretty sure Cat’s due a loss. She won at the Blessed Isle, when Heiress tried to assassinate her but was driven off. Chapter…14, Book 1. Right after Summerholm

        Like

  5. Nairne

    To be honest I’m quite surprised by this, but I suppose its a good thing. I just hope you havent planned to end this book with Catherine having no name or having just the old crippled one. Constantly putting the MC in situations where she has to struggle and while she is good at it the way she goes about it is left wanting to say the least. I hope you realize she will not be able to rule, or fight much longer if all she gets from her battles is more scars or disabilities. The fifteenth, as much as they love her, even if in a strange and perhaps twisted way, won’t follow her if she gets weak, and I highly doubt she will suddenly become the cunning, behind curtains type like scribe. I think noone is expecting her to become a Black or White knight, and it would be a little disappointing if that happened. A knight is a knight after all and while it is the lowest noble title one could get in medieval times it didn’t usually come with a domain, and for sure not with a big one.

    But enough with me complaining about not getting enough of what I want (more info on her next Name :P). Its a nice chapter. I’m surprised Willy thought to decapitate and cripple her other leg. She could really use a nice goody healing at some point in the near future.

    Cheers. Thanks for the chapter🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shequi

    If this doesn’t end with a reprise of Cat & William’s repartee at Marchford, I’m going to be very disappointed.

    “Told you my plan was working”

    “You planned to become an undead abomination?”

    Liked by 4 people

  7. arancaytar

    “Or pleasure, for that matter. You’re essentially a cadaver with limited sensory abilities.”

    I think Kilian may have a few objections to this state of affairs.

    “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.”

    Is this the first explicit confirmation that there is currently a White Knight? I don’t remember them being mentioned before, other than in the abstract.

    Like

      1. arancaytar

        Yeah, it was mentioned as a possible career option for Catherine, but “unless one of them dies” hints that both Names (Black Knight and White Knight) are currently being held by living persons.

        Like

      1. Akim

        The Beginning of this chapter made me apreciate the early introduction of the dwarves and gnomes.
        Because they are the only reason Black is not ruling everything by now through his Badassery.
        And which he then gave to Squire with this mantra. We do not kneel.

        For Catherine herself I no longer see her becoming any kind of Knight. Her goal is to rule Callow and protect it from stupity which equals to the high Lords of Praes.
        For this to happen she needs to be on equal footing with them.
        And since Callow was ruled by royality, a Named King which does not exist at the moment .. she may be able to villify that Role. “Black Queen of Callow, Protector of the East Catherine the First”

        Historical it is not a first for Kings and Queens to be ruled by an Emperor.

        Like

      2. Akim

        Afterthought ..
        Thats why Cat had to loose Squire.

        Squires become Knights …
        If she claims Heiress after the battle she can become Queen.
        With the lone Swordsman as her Faithful Servant. And Almavora who will be watching of course will throw one hell of a fit …

        Its all so clear now … And still I hope I am wrong to be surprised
        If not … please dear Author … Please don’t send Assassin

        Like

      3. Phantom Renegade

        Pretty sure if Cat took a name like “Queen of Callow” or really queen of anything Black would somehow reach through creation and decapitate her on the spot, that is automatic treason right there, not a good idea for Cat.

        Like

      4. Akim

        That is why she has to be Heiress first. Black knows she wants to rule Callow.
        And she has yet to answer the Empress question of what she wants …
        If she does that before claiming the Title . . I think things can be arranged.

        Like

      5. nipi

        Actually Black wouldnt care. The Empress would but not Black. You have to remember that Black wants evil to win for once and he doesnt care how it comes to be.

        Like

    1. Warlord is an orc Name, now used as a courtesy title by some greenskins the same way “Tyrant” is for Dread Emperors/Empresses. Catherine is not an orc, not particularly well versed in their culture and numerically speaking the majority of her followers are humans.

      Like

      1. Shequi

        So, given that you’ve previously mentioned Evil Callowan names as being more likely to be things like scheming uncles, if she turns up with a genuinely novel Evil Callowan Name, does that mean Black’s plan to reform the “paradigm” that Callow operates under will be working?

        Like

  8. arancaytar

    The prospect of the losses displeased me, though. On both sides.

    Gotta say, Cat, other than the whole undead abomination thing you don’t seem to be very good at this “Evil” business.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I just realized! When Angels touch someone with Contrition, if that person does not have a Name, they are made to see the cost of their sins. And then seeing that, see only one way forward.

    Cat no longer has the protection of her Name. She’s going to go face an angel or the place that’s inundated with an Angel of Contrition’s energy. And she feels guilty about the deaths she’s caused.

    I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The last time there was a phrase that indicated time, it was when the gates of Lisse were knocked down, unless I missed something. So the countdown would be:

    49 hours left at sunrise
    – 8 hours the 15th arrives at Lisse
    – 2 hours the Gate goes down at the Afternoon Bells.
    —-
    So <39 hours left, since there was chatting and stuff.

    The posse fights through the city, Cat meets Thief.
    A huge encounter with heroes, devils and Heiress, who, btw, intends to inherit all of Creation.
    The 15th retreats. Apprentice takes time to change the wards, the devils all kill each other.
    Some time later, Cat fights the Lone Swordsman, dies, binds his death to "before the day is done". Which could be time. Or could be story-metaphor.

    So all of that took… what, four hours? Sixteen? Clearly we're either before sunset or way after sunrise — Because how were the legion seeing well enough to shoot people + who fights after an 8 hour march, 2 hour break for sixteen hours straight? How would the Gallowbourne have kept it together? This is speculation of course.

    Being generous and literal in our definition of "day", whether the Angel actually comes or not completely depends on whether somehow 15 hours had passed by the time Cat curses Willie, unless the Angel enters as long as Willie dies in 49 hours. But that would be unlikely, because "these things willed themselves into being", and Good seems to like patterns and therefore deaths to be on schedule.

    So. After Cat dies:
    <24 hours on the clock for William, or sunset, or midnight, EXCEPT note that we have a different rate of time in other pocket universes.
    -1 hour to raise from dead
    – time to get to lake and open portal

    All I’m saying is, I’ll probably continue to keep track. And I wish there were descriptions of stars or sun or anything so I knew how urgent everything was. Even though not knowing probably adds some tension.

    Like

  11. Jackbethimble

    Huh, so one of two things happened here:
    1. Catherine dying meant the squire name was back up for grabs, meaning that chider was back to being a claimant. When catherine came back she was a claimant again as well so that now the two of them are back to fighting for the title like old times. This would explain why Catherine’s name powers are present but weaker than usual.
    Or 2. It was mentioned before that the only place in callow where it was possible to bind a name was in Liesse. Its possible that catherine triggered some kind of ritual trap and her name was just directly stolen from her

    Like

  12. Jackbethimble

    On another note I really hope that Heiress dies here. There’s a lot that I like about this story but heiress is one of the most annoying and least interesting antagonists I’ve ever read. She has basically no personality and her threat is based on implausibly convoluted plots and the authority figure’s suicidal amount of patience. William sort of grew on me over time but even her conversation with her daddy seemed totally tacked on.

    Like

    1. Ed

      This appears to be the kind of penultimate encounter where one or more major characters can have long term changes made, death is a fairly significant one…. but given the dream, the extremely high level ritual being carried out the fact that Catherine herself intends to overcome death somehow at this time and Heiresses sorcerous skill being specifically mentioned it is not beyond the bounds of reason that death just makes her a much better antagonist.

      Like

      1. I think you underestimate heiress. The whole point of her character is misdirection – and because of perspective we see very little of how she arranges to get away with her shit. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t carefully consider exactly what she can get away with.

        Like

    1. AVR

      Well, since you started one Thorbjorn…

      anger in him.
      anger in her.

      unnecessarily tense.”
      unnecessarily terse.”

      trashing about.
      thrashing about.

      Like

  13. stevenneiman

    I’m disappointed in Chider. A villain should have a better understanding of Fate before trying to challenge the likes of Catherine Foundling. Seriously? Noting that her first attack didn’t work as well as she expected, then claiming victory before she can be sure. That’s funny Dread Emperor behavior, the kind that gets you eaten alive by your own man-eating tapirs. And to make matters worse, she didn’t use goblinfire, the one weapon that is actually effective against someone who can resist any injury due to magic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevenneiman

      Oh, and these are my proofreading from the chapter.
      By the way, I loved the lines about understanding Masego and Lesser Lesser Footrest Robber’s collection.

      “to remove him [form->from] the game entirely”
      “Any sign of the [heroes->Heroes]”
      “There seemed to be genuine anger in [him], perhaps the first display of open emotion I’d ever seen from [her].” I’m pretty sure Hune is male, but even if I’m remembering wrong one of those pronouns is the wrong one.
      “There [was narrow path->was a narrow path/were narrow paths] through the rampart”
      “I slipped and fell at the bottom of {a} well of spires”
      “my arm started [trashing->thrashing] about”

      Like

      1. Not even that. Poor Chider is just a warm-up Mook. Heiress is the miniboss… And, a certain angel is the actual boss.

        The one I feel really sorry for is the poor Name. Squire’s been through a lot lately. It deserves more than this. It certainly deserves being more than being the shiny thing Heiress dangled in front of Chider before conning her undead rear end.😛

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Shequi

        I actually hope Chidder survives this. It’d be hilarious for Black to take Heiresses minion and turn her into his own, while Cat goes on to bigger and better things.

        Like

  14. DocTao

    Hello Chancellor!

    A heavily foreshadowed subject/opposing name of the Empire is wanting to exist, Cat is wanting to rule (part of the empire) as a subject/opposing figure. One and one makes for an interesting new scale of conflict for the next book.

    Like

    1. JackbeThimble

      Seems unlikely, isn’t the chancellor supposed to be the leader/babysitter of the Praesi nobility? That’s why they want it back so badly, and I don’t really see Cat filling that role.

      Like

      1. Change. Chancellor itself might be willing to change some of the presumed ground rules simply for a chance to become relevant again (it’d be part of its nature to try any angle to get to its goal — even honest renovations when faced with a problem it can’t sidle out of or puppeteer). Every time it tries to come forward in the old pattern, Black cuts it down with extreme prejudice.

        A subtle Name is likely one able to get the hint: change or die.

        But, I don’t see it, myself. Catherine is a little too Leeroy for a Name like Chancellor to bear for longer than five minutes even for the sake of a revamp.😛

        Like

  15. nobodi12

    Nice chapter. Really.

    But i wanted to talk to you about the quotes at the start. They were fantastical at first, but lately their quality seem to have decreased (the one about Catherine Foundling is a pleasant exception). I understand is hard to come with them every week so I want to get you ideas.

    Some cartographers took a look at your map and mentioned a couple of problems. You can use quotes to explain what Tyrants did to make the landscape so unnatural.

    The problems are as follows.

    The eastern river start at the Sea and end in the Sea. Real rivers don’t do that.

    Where is the waterway feeding/draining the lake by Liesse or the Greenskin Marshes? Or is it a stagnant lake? (does the angel presence have anything to do with it?)

    The western mountains should have some drainage to the east. Perhaps Ankou, Harrow, Hedges, and Holden have redirected them into agriculture enough that they’re not visible at this scale?

    Steppes should not start near the Sea, I don’t know why.

    Like

  16. Unmaker

    Resurrection is the province of Good. Catherine intends to be resurrected. So does she intend to subvert the ritual bringing the Hashmallim into a resurrection ritual, or is she angling towards a Good Name? In either case, if she pulls this off she will be legend.

    Like

  17. Bart

    Robber tossed me by sword belt
    change by to my

    I got halfway through before I slipped and fell at the bottom of well of spires
    change at to to, and add a before well

    and clasped my fingers around an outcropping that should allow me to pull myself out when my arm started trashing about.
    change allow to “have allowed”

    Horrific burns and sword wound had taken most of the left half.
    Add a before sword

    Woo! Things are just going great.😉

    Like

  18. Lacerate

    I feel like Cat’s accomplishments seem to get drowned by all the shit that’s thrown her way. Her successes are fleeting; even in her greatest moments that victory ends up feeling hollow. This chapter felt especially anti-climactic.

    I still enjoy this story greatly. I’ll probably drop by every few months rather than every week to binge the archive, if only so it makes it less excruciating for cliffhangers.

    Like

    1. Shequi

      “Her successes are fleeting; even in her greatest moments that victory ends up feeling hollow.”

      That’s pretty much the nature of Evil in this setting, isn’t it?

      Like

  19. Darkening

    Y’know, I feel a bit bad for chider, sets up a perfect ambush, has the enemy clinging for their unlife about to get killed by a grenade, but the pattern of three squire has with heiress means fate won’t let her lose yet. Not that I want chider to win, but still.

    Like

    1. RandomFan

      Isn’t using chider as a proxy enough to count as heiress’ victory- *if* she wins? I mean, I would imagine that given the entire demonic draw-by-proxy, it wouldn’t surprise me if victory by proxy is a thing too. Stealing the name might even qualify as the victory, ripping catherine free of the pattern and wasting heiress’ trump card.

      Like

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