“Note: only offer the hero the chance to replace my right-hand man when my right-hand man is no longer in the room.
Additional note: find out estimated rebuilding cost for the summer palace.”
-Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
Two things happened in quick succession.
First, I snarled something very unkind about Chider’s mother and a he-goat. Second, I snatched the sharper out of the air and threw it back up. Unlike during my first run-in with the goblin, I was now familiar with goblin munitions. I knew how long they took to blow – the standard issue stuff anyway. The sharper exploded halfway up, giving me a gentle hint the mixture had been tinkered with. What was it with all my enemies getting their hands on goblin munitions? The Legions really needed to keep a closer eye on their stocks: they were supposed to be the only organisation with access to munitions. I’d have a talk with Black about it, I was starting to get pretty irritated with how people kept throwing those at me.
“Yeah, I won’t be calling you that,” I said, dragging myself up to my feet.
I’d expected to feel aftershocks of what I was pretty sure had been my Name getting ripped out of me, but there were none. My limbs moved surely and smoothly. The pain must have been in my soul, horrifying as that thought was. I could still feel an itch in the back of my neck, though, almost like I was missing a limb. Chider replied to my polite announcement by dropping a brightstick, this prepared to blow up directly in my face. One of these days, the Gods were going to have to grant me dumber enemies. There had to be a finite number of clever ones, and I was starting to murder my way through that list. I ignored the falling cylinder and wedged my foot into a crevasse. The flash of light and the deafening noise might have been a problem if I were still alive, but at the moment I was past worrying about burst eardrums. They’d make no real difference.
Jumping while in full plate would have been hard even when I’d still had my Name, but I was just about done playing around. Ripping a few muscles to get the job done wasn’t something I was going to balk at. My first leap got me halfway up and I forced my limbs into making me jump again when I hit the side of the pit, landing in a sprawl back on top. I heard Chider scuttling away from me, hiding in the rocks. The novelty of having an enemy shorter and physically weaker than myself was quite refreshing. Well, weaker for now. She’d be settling into the Name any moment now, and it was all downhill from there.
“I should have seen this coming, really,” I said. “Warlock mentioned the only place in Callow to ‘bind or usurp a Name’ was in Liesse. Figured I was safe with no other claimant around, but that was evidently incorrect. Breaking the laws of nature to screw me over – classic Heiress.”
I heard the snap of a crossbow being shot and turned in time to see the bolt coming for my chest. My hand snapped up, following my will, and snatched the projectile out of the air. One out of two, I mused, breaking the haft and dropping it on the ground. I’d had better success rates, but also much worse.
“The part of this that puzzles me,” I continued, “is you. You’re smarter than this, Chider. I’m on my way to fighting my two rivals and you’re a middling threat standing between us. There’s only one way this can go for you.”
The undead goblin slipped out of the rocks to my side, jamming a knife in my knee joint. Frowning, I slapped her across the face. I hadn’t held back even a little bit and it showed: her neck twisted sharply with an unpleasant sound. She picked herself up from the rock the hit had thrown her against, idly snapping her neck back in place. No full resurrection for her either, then. Weren’t we quite the pair, jolly undead abominations brawling in the middle of place that had been freshly forced into existence? I took the knife out of my knee, gauging the weight of it. Good goblin steel. It would do.
“That would be true,” Chider said as she rose to her feet, “if you were still the Squire. You’re free meat now, Callow-girl.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “What’s the end game for you here? Say you manage to somehow destroy my body. Heiress manages whatever the Hells she’s up to with your help. What do you do after?”
“I change things,” Chider replied, pulling out another knife.
Gods, was that what I sounded like to other people? No wonder I got stabbed so often. Never assume a goblin is out of knives, I thought, watching her twirl the blade between her fingers. Robber carried so many that by all rights he should clink whenever he walked around.
“As the Squire?” I said. “The moment Black meets you, he’ll hack you to pieces to put the Name back in play. If he’s in a bad mood, he’ll give what’s left of you to Warlock. Do you still dream, Chider? Because that’s the stuff of very real nightmares.”
“I have friends of my own,” the goblin said.
“No, what you have is an owner,” I said. “And she’s not gentle with her tools – today should have shown you that clearly enough. Chider, you’re about to get thrown under the carriage. You really think Heiress is going to stick her head out for you? Gods, you think the Truebloods will? They don’t hide what they think about greenskins.”
Snarling, the goblin attacked. Rude. She could have at least informed me we were done talking. What was it with telling people they were wrong about everything that made them so aggressive? Already Chider was faster, quick enough she was hard to follow with the naked eye. I felt the blade scrape my chest plate but it failed to go through and I kicked her before she could stick it into my neck. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she thought that would do at this point. Make me bleed out? My heart wasn’t beating anymore, and the stuff inside my veins was basically red water giving me a little more mass. I caught her wrist when she came for me again, initially forcing it back before something dark flared in her leering eyes. She begun turning the struggle around. Name strength, I decided, was a lot less pleasant from the other side. I spun around her and helpfully handed her back her knife, sticking it into her neck. Didn’t seem to have much effect, but my boot on her back did: she was sent sailing again.
“You think I don’t know all of this?” Chider spat, landing in a crouch, “I’m not drowning in options, Foundling, unlike you. I’ll survive today, then tomorrow and then the day after that. That’s what goblins do. We survive, even when Creation is out for our blood.”
I unsheathed my own knife.
“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I think that a year ago I would have tried to help you. To compromise. But I’ve lost too many friends since, Chider. Crossed too many lines to turn back.”
That burned face split into a horrifying grin.
“If you think I’ll lay down and die for your little narcissism trip,” she said, “you’re in for a rude awakening.”
Fair enough. I strolled forward, pace unhurried. She darted in my direction but I feinted for her hand. Unnaturally quick, she brought up her knife to block – and I swiped mine across her face, ripping through her teeth. She backpedalled hurriedly, free hand coming up to touch the ruined fangs.
“I’ve been doing all this talking,” I said. “You probably thought it was a blunder. She’s been Named too long, she got cocky. What I was actually doing, though, was giving them time to settle in.”
She leapt for me with a howl but that was mere savagery. I’d fought more dangerous things than an angry undead goblin in the past, even a Named one. Hells, I’d fought more dangerous things today. I calmly stepped aside, left her to slide on the rock and feinted for her eyes. The knife came up again, faster than a blink, but I’d already redirected the strike and was ripping through the shoulder muscles on the right. She’d likely thought she was being clever when she’d traded chain mail for leather, banking on speed over taking hits. Her limp right arm now taught her differently.
“The reflexes, I mean,” I said as I circled around her. “They take a while to get used to, don’t they? I remember how odd it was when I first came into the Name, getting a set of reactions that weren’t entirely mine.”
I brought up the tip of my knife and this time she reacted properly, not falling for the probe – which didn’t help her when my other hand unsheathed my sword and hacked through her bad arm. The limb fell to the ground. I intended for this to be theme for the evening, as it happened.
“You can ignore them, of course,” I said. “But that costs you a moment, while you push them down. A lot can happen in a moment. Still, I imagine that given a fortnight you’d get used to it.”
My eyes turned cold.
“Unfortunately for you, you don’t have a fortnight.”
Chider spat out teeth, bringing up her knife.
“Fuck you, Callow-girl,” she said. “No matter what you do, I will Surv-“
I rammed my sword through her mouth, tip coming out on the other side. There would be no aspect comeback for this one. I jammed my knife into the soft side of her elbow, cleaving the muscle. Her fingers convulsed around her weapon but there’d be no more swinging at me. Holding her upright, I ripped out the clasps holding the upper part of her leather armour together. The flesh under was scarred with burns, barely even flesh at all.
“I warned you,” I said, “Now give me back my Name.”
I struck her as hard as I could, my armoured fingers ripping into her flesh. I dug through the necrotized organs, finding the snake-like length of her spine after jostling around a bit. Hand inside the goblin up to my elbow, I grit my teeth and tore out her spine. It snapped halfway through her abdomen and Chider fell limp. Dropping her to the ground after withdrawing my smeared gauntlet, I wrenched out my sword and beheaded her for good measure. I stood there, eyes closed. I would have let out a breath if there’d been any air in my lungs. I did not have to wait for long before awareness flooded into me for the second time in my life. It felt like coming home.
I was Catherine Foundling, daughter of no one and nothing. I’d broken armies, snatched victory from the jaws of my enemy. I’d spent lives like coin and bought the fate of a kingdom, cheated death and spat in the face of Corruption. On the night I’d first claimed this Name, I’d branded my path on the soul of a hero. And on the night where I claimed it again, that path was coming to an end. I was, once more, the Squire.
My senses sharpened and I waited for the beast that rode my shoulders to make itself known, already smiling. I’d almost grown fond of it. The expression faded when it made no appearance. I frowned and sunk in the depths of my Name. They felt shallower now. Not weaker, but as if the depths had not yet been… earned. My blood ran cold when I realized I had not claimed back my Name – I’d just claimed it, period. I was starting at the beginning again, and I couldn’t feel a single one of my aspects. Just the potential for them, those bundles of shapeless power. My eyes opened in sheer surprise. Those three bundles of shapeless power.
“Oh, Heiress,” I said gleefully. “You fucked up.”
Chider had been her work, of that there was no doubt, but why would Akua have done this at all if she knew it would give me back strength? I might not have my aspects anymore, but my Name was effectively restored to the strength it had possessed before my run-in with the demon. I had the well of power to effectively use the tricks Black had taught me once more. Why would Heiress make me stronger? She’d made a habit out of sabotaging me at every turn. Even if she was planning on using me against William, this made no sense. Unless she didn’t know she was doing that, I thought. Only two people knew there had been more to my crippling than the leg: Masego and Hakram. And Black, though that hardly counted.
I’d not told another living soul, and as far as I knew neither had they. And it wasn’t like Heiress could just take a look at my aspects whenever she pleased: Apprentice had needed to set up an entire room full of hellishly complicated wards to operate on my soul. Akua had never been allowed into the Fifteenth’s camp without heavy guard, and any use of magic on her part would have been met with immediate force. She hadn’t known, I realized. She hadn’t known I’d robbed myself of an aspect. She’d thought that by using Chider as a receptacle for my Name she could weaken me for months, maybe even kill me when she ripped it out – if she was lucky. That was the thing with luck, wasn’t it? It never landed quite where you’d thought it would.
“And instead you put me back on the horse, you scheming bitch you,” I murmured.
Gods Below, it was about time one of her little plots backfired. Now I just needed to cram her next one down her throat and make her choke on it. I knelt by Chider’s twice-dead corpse, wiping my sword on her before sheathing it. I did the same with my knife after wrenching it out. If I’d had anything to set her on fire just to be sure I would have, but for now this would have to be enough. I didn’t have any munitions on me, much less goblinfire – not that using a substance that burned magic in a dimension made by a mage wouldn’t have been a horrible idea anyway. I peered in the distance and saw the gate of light was still there. For how long that would remain the case I wasn’t sure, but I thought it best to hurry.
Feeling the mantle of my Name on my shoulders after that distressing period where I hadn’t made a tedious procession more tolerable. I could no longer remember what I’d felt like before I’d become the Squire. Being entirely human was just a… hazy concept. I was beyond sickness now, beyond the old limitations of my body like heat and cold or not being able to tinker with my own senses. After tasting true power, there was nothing more horrifying than being powerless. The honesty of that thought made me uncomfortable.
It was hard to gauge lengths of time in a place without a real sky, but I felt like I’d kept a good pace. The gate of light I’d glimpsed at a distance was even taller than I’d thought, thrice my height – so more or less twice anyone else’s – and almost as broad. I couldn’t make out anything beyond it. Apprentice had said there would be a way into the ritual site, but I found it odd he hadn’t said anything about a gate. For that matter, if he could make a gate why hadn’t he crafted one for me to enter here in the first place? I frowned, then picked up a stone from the ground and threw it. For a moment it looked like it would pass through, but then there was a flash of light and a loud bang.
“You’re getting predictable, Akua,” I said.
Stepping around the gate, I found the exit Masego had actually made after looking for a few moments. Like the portal that had allowed me through, it was transparent and hard to make out in the lack of proper lighting. Akua’s false gate was just close enough to make it hard through wiggle through, because why make it just a death trap when you could also make it an inconvenience? I took a deep breath I didn’t strictly need, finding the familiarity of it reassuring.
“Final round, winner takes all,” I muttered before passing through.