“The question of who the most vindictive people of Calernia are has long been debated. Some say it is the Arlesites, who will duel to the death over the use of the wrong adjective in a verse. Others say it is those of the Free Cities, where the moving of a border by half a mile will spawn a war lasting three generations. Others yet say it is the Praesi, who indulge in political assassination the way other nations enjoy a cup of good wine. I would humbly put forward, however, that the answer is the people of Callow. Steal an apple from a farmer of the Kingdom and fifty years later his grandson will find yours on the other side of the continent, sock him in the eye and take three apples back.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
I landed in sand.
Hastily I got up and brushed away the mess, taking an assessing look around. I was on an island, looked like, a perfect circle with some kind of shoddy chapel built in the middle. The water surrounding it went on for a dozen feet before stopping abruptly into darkness that looked much like the one that had surrounded Masego’s bridge. I eyed the dark, deciding to be very careful about falling in there. I wasn’t sure what the rules were here, but I doubted that anything pleasant would come out of tripping into the endless void. In unsheathed my sword, ears prickling at the sound of struggle inside the structure. I moved quietly towards the open doors, only pausing when I glimpsed runes on the side of the chapel. Heiress’ work, or had they always been there? Without knowing that I couldn’t risk messing them up. For all I knew, scraping a line through one of those would have the Hashmallim knocking at the door in a matter of moments. I’d rather not fight an angel if I could avoid it, really. I’d been in some pretty rough fights over the last year but I doubted I’d walk away from that one. Before I could cross the gate there was a loud bang and someone was thrown out. William landed on his feet, sword raised, and snarled. I pressed against the side of the wall just out of his sight.
“I begin to sympathize with the Miezan extermination of your kind,” the hero said.
That didn’t really narrow down the possibilities as to what he was scrapping with. The Miezans had been pretty liberal with extermination policies. A tall silhouette of smokeless fire strode out into the sands, its face without features.
“There’s no need to be rude about this,” it said in a calm, cultured voice.
It raised a hand towards William, spawning a stream of fire from the palm. The hero blocked it with his sword, light flaring as he forced back the sorcery. Well, I wished them fun with that. The Lone Swordsman was going to get a good stabbing before this was over, but I had nothing against letting whatever Heiress had summoned soften him up first. Might even make him a tad less impossible to kill. I waited for their fight to take them around the island and slipped inside. For an angel’s corpse, this place was pretty dingy. Two rows of stone benches – seven on each side, which didn’t feel like a coincidence – led up to an altar with a sword in it. A sword in a stone. That… had a shape to it. A story. Something I might be able to use, if I played this right. I recognized the sword in the stone, as it happened. It was the same bitch of a blade William had used in most of our fights. An angels’ feather, used to summon another angel. There were candles behind the stone, seven of them. Most of them had melted, with only two remaining.
There was someone by the altar, looking down on it as she tinkered with runes hanging in the air. Heiress, and would you look at that her back was to me. I crept forward silently, hugging the wall. As my practical decision of the day, I’d come to the conclusion that a sword in the back was a victory I could live with. It would be almost poetic, considering how often she’d slid the metaphorical knife into mine. From the corner of my eye I saw something blur in the air on the opposite side of the chapel, near a pillar. Someone dropped quietly to the ground, looking harried, and Masego looked about ready to retch. The blur disappeared and Apprentice took a look around, eyes finding me after a moment. He opened his mouth to talk, then thought better about it. I gestured towards Heiress and he nodded. Taking a long breath, I reached for the depths of my Name and formed a spear of shadows. Flying faster than an arrow, it tore through Masego’s head, dissipating the illusion.
“Well,” Heiress said. “It was worth a try.”
I noticed the silhouette by the altar wasn’t where the sound came from. I couldn’t quite pin down where it did.
“He already told me I was on my own in here,” I said. “For now, anyway. They’ll find another way through eventually.”
The fake Heiress dropped to all fours, a sight that would have amused me if it didn’t imply there was actually something under that particular illusion.
“You know, if I remember correctly you actually have a sword,” I said. “Yet you never seem to use it. Afraid of a little tussle, Akua? I promise I’ll be gentle.”
I closed my eyes and expanded my senses. Whatever the fake-Heiress was, she didn’t seem to breathe. I couldn’t hear the actual Heiress do that either, though, so it was worth taking with a grain of salt. The illusion ran towards me and I immediately got away from the wall to make some space. The creature leapt over a bench but my senses told me otherwise: I swung my sword to the side and hit flesh, a bald creature of rotted flesh and fangs blinking into existence as it screamed and scampered back. The fake-Heiress passed harmlessly through me as the creature disappeared again.
“Is that a ghoul?” I asked. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel there.”
There was an airy chuckle.
“Seen your little redhead mage, lately?”
I took a sharp breath. No, it couldn’t be Kilian. She was safe with the mages of the Fifteenth, surrounded by hundreds of legionaries. Akua has spies in the ranks, my mind provided. She could have abducted her. And then killed her and turned her into a ghoul, just for the sake of messing with me? No. She’d not planned for me to make it this far. Chider had been her trump card to get me out of the game, make me unable to interfere with whatever she was up to. If I hadn’t been dead already, getting my Name ripped out would probably have made me unconscious – if not killed me outright. She was just playing mind games.
“You’d probably be a better liar if you weren’t so smug,” I said.
The patter of feet against stone was heard behind me, but it wasn’t what I was watching for. When Heiress spoke, the words resounded in every part of the chapel – except one. The corner to the left of the door. I allowed the invisible ghoul to come close, then ducked when it leapt for my chest – my sword came up, ripping through the creature’s stomach as it passed over me. The screaming, wriggling shape blocked the sight of my free hand for a moment and I formed a burst of shadows, pivoting to fire it at the too-silent corner. It hit a shield that flared blue, revealing the silhouette of a frowning Akua underneath.
“Found you,” I said.
“Chider failed, I see,” she said.
“Oh, she did exactly what you intended,” I smiled. “You’re just not as smart as you seem to think you are.”
“Coming from you,” she said, “that is truly insulting.”
The ghoul came for the third time and I waited for it to rush – then snatched a limb out of the air. I swung the creature like an improvised flail, smashing her against the bench. Really, a ghoul. And she had the gall to say I was being insulting. Keeping a hand on the struggling creature, I hacked through her head calmly and returned my attention to Heiress. Who was smiling. Oh dear. The undead creature exploded a moment later, and as I was thrown against the wall all I could think was that undead bombs was my godsdamned gambit. Leaving the protection of her shield, Akua slowly unsheathed her sword. It was an ornate piece, gilded and the length of it covered in runes. Why did everyone else get to have a fancy magic sword? I shrugged off the impact and rose to my feet, my own sword still in hand.
“Do you know what irritates me the most about you, Catherine Foundling?” she smiled.
“I have better hair,” I replied and burst forward.
She raised her blade in a classic guard, which almost made me grin. I’d fought plenty of people using that before. They were all dead. I batted her sword away and got in close, swiping for her eyes. She danced away, making distance between us. Her free hand came up, crackling with energy, but I ducked under the bolt of lightning and hit her stomach with the pommel of my sword, bending the lamellar steel with the impact. She let out a grunt of pain that was music to my ears before forcing me back with an attempt to slice through my neck.
“Please, continue to pontificate,” I said. “Where’s my monologue, Akua? You’re turning into a disappointment of a rival.”
“You wretch,” she snarled, and brought up her hand to cast again.
I laughed and smashed her wrist with my blade – steel ground against steel, failing to cut through but forcing it down. The ball of flame that erupted hit the ground at her feet, blowing her away as the heat licked at my face.
“You know,” I said as I walked towards her prone form, “I always assumed that even behind the scheming you’d be able to give me a good fight. But you can’t, can you?”
I smiled coldly.
“I might be a little heavy on the brute force, Akua, but even thugs have their day.”
I raised my sword above her and… froze. The fear on the dark-skinned girl’s face melted away as she rose to her feet calmly. My body began rising in the air, hovering a foot above the floor.
“You are not Evil,” she said. “That it what irritates me most about you, Catherine. You just ape the methods, reassuring yourself your intentions are still Good. You act like your Name is a weapon and ignore that it has a meaning.”
She slid her fingers down the length of her blade, the runes shining at the touch.
“Your master is the same. Lord Black, fear of the continent,” she mocked. “He is a rat hiding at the center of maze of traps he spent decades building. Dangerous, perhaps, but behind all the tricks he is weak.”
“No matter how clever the traps, they will not save him from a boot. You shy away from what you are, Foundling, and Creation abhors such spineless dithering. I know what I am. I embrace it, because that is what a villain is. That is why I have power…”
Her sword rose.
“Monologues,” I said, “Not even once.”
The Lone Swordsman hit her with a burst of light before I even finished talking. I dropped back to the ground with a pleased hum: his little Name trick messed with sorcery as well as my own Name shenanigans, it seemed. William, covered in soot, eyed me with horror.
“All according to plan,” I lied.
“You’re dead,” the Lone Swordsman said. “I cut your head off.”
“Eh,” I shrugged. “I got over it.”
“Also, you were supposed to reply –“
I had to backpedal away hurriedly when Heiress threw some sort of orb of shadows where we were standing. Her armour was smoking, and for once she actually looked frazzled. Her hair was messed up, I noted with amusement. First time I’d ever seen her look anything but pristine. Heiress was next to the altar, though she steered clear of the sword. Good, now everyone was here. I could actually begin using my bastard cousin of a plan, though… I frowned, looking at the candles behind the altar. Another one had melted entirely, leaving only the last. I thought they represented seven hours each, I thought.
“William,” I said.
“No,” he said immediately.
I ignored that part for the sake of convenience.
“When you were last here, did time pass normally?”
His eyes flicked to the candles, and his face turned white.
“That’s impossible,” he said.
I knew time passed differently in Arcadia – it was the basis of the trick Black had used to get to Marchford in a fraction of the time it would have taken him on a horse. And Arcadia worked that way because it wasn’t in Creation proper. Which meant…
“You moved the entire island elsewhere,” I said. “That’s what the runes on the chapel are for. “
“You mean to trap the Hashmallim,” the hero said.
Heiress stood tall against the glare directed at her by the Lone Swordsman, almost preening.
“This is my house now,” she said. “And the only rules here are mine.”
Shit. Couldn’t let that go unchallenged, not if I wanted my plan to actually work.
“This is Callowan ground, wherever it may be,” I said. “Back me up on this, William.”
Akua scoffed. “The truth cannot be-“
“Shut the Hells up, Praesi,” the hero barked. “These grounds are of the Kingdom as long as I live.”
Good ol’ Willy. You could always count on him to screw over at least one person in the room at any time.
“You’re right,” I said. “She is an invader here. The enemy.”
“You’re one too,” William said with disgust.
“She’s not one of us, you halfwit,” Akua sneered. “She doesn’t have the will or the blood.”
It was refreshing to be in a situation where my opponents actually hated each other more than they hated me. Heiress was in the full swing of her gloat and the Lone Swordsman has his heroic shackles all raised, especially now that it was out in the open that Akua had screwed with an angel’s corpse. Which he finally seemed to remember then and there. Keeping a wary eye on me, William moved towards Heiress. Who was too busy watching me from the corner of her eye to to really do anything about it. I grinned. The Lone Swordsman raised his sword and Heiress backed away, preparing to cast.
“What did you do?” Akua said suddenly, looking at me.
“I have three things,” I said. “A kingdom, an enemy and a claim.”
“A claim?” he said. “You-“
“I am the heiress to the King of Callow,” I interrupted calmly.
“There is no King of Callow,” the Lone Swordsman said.
“Yet a man rules it, and I am his chosen successor,” I said.
Akua flinched, then looked at the sword. Too late now: she’d already given me what I needed. Of her own free will, too. That had to sting. William took the opening to dart for the blade, wrapping his fingers around the hilt and tugging it out. It did not move. His eyes turned to me, scared for the first time since I’d met him.
“It isn’t yours anymore,” I said.
“It was granted to me by the Hashmallim,” he said.
“It’s a sword in a stone. You did that yourself, with no one forcing you,” I smiled. “It’s a symbol, now, in a story about Callow.”
“She’s an orphan,” Heiress said quietly, aghast as the situation sunk in. “She’s the Squire.”
“Would you kindly get your hands off my sword, William?” I said.
They didn’t even need to share a glance before they both turned on me. Wasn’t that going to be a fun ride? The Lone Swordsman was so fast on the move he almost blurred to my Name sight, even damnably faster than when we’d gone for our last round. This time, though, he wasn’t predestined to win. That made a difference. I stepped around his blow but ate Heiress’ spell right in the face: some kind of dark shroud that stuck around my eyes. I flared my Name, clearing it up some, but it was hard to make out William’s sword as he swung again. I took the hit to the shoulder, at this point utterly indifferent to the fact that it bit through steel and into my flesh.
“Still dead,” I reminded him, forming a burst of darkness around my hand and slamming it into his chest.
He went flying and I ran for the sword. The floor under my feet turned liquid but I leapt and landed in a roll just in time to get hit by a bolt of lightning. I was getting really sick of that spell, I thought as my muscles twitched uncontrollably. Was I smoking? I couldn’t really smell anymore, so it was hard to tell. William’s boot hit my back and I was sent sprawling but he’d made a mistake: I fell forward, and Heiress’ next spell hit him instead. He yelled in dismay as a swarm of something sounding like bees gathered around him and I took my fraction of an opening, falling belly first right in front of the altar. Heiress cursed, then actually tried to curse me, but I grinned in triumph and my fingers closed around the hilt of that fucking sword epople kept trying to kill me with. Gods, it burned even through the gauntlets. There was aheartbeat of pure pain and then it felt like I’d just gotten a brightstick to the face. There was warmth, and everything went white.
I was standing alone in a featureless plain. Not, not alone. Something was looking at me. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it – the weight of its stare. I looked down at my hands, noticing I was without armour. My clothes from the orphanage, huh. They looked less rumpled than usual, too. Apparently the Heavens did not approve of my sloppy laundry habits. I put a finger on my bare wrist and frowned when I felt no pulse.
“I beat you fair and square, your presumptuous fucks,” I called out. “Cough up my resurrection.”
The weight turned from noticeable to crushing in a heartbeat, forcing me to the ground. I could feel my bones grind into dust as my back snapped. They were looking at me. There was… where my Name should be, there was only fire. Something scouring me from the inside.
Repent. Repent. Repent.
The images passed through my mind as if I was still standing there. Black, offering me a knife in a dark room. Two men against the wall, bound and with terror on their eyes. Blood on the floor.
Repent. Repent. Repent.
The empty banquet hall in Laure, where Mazus’ death was dispensed with a single sentence. The monster offering me a deal with smiling eyes. Agreement, followed by a sword through my chest.
Repent. Repent. Repent.
So many things. Sparing William, sacrificing thousands for my ambition. The innkeeper’s daughter, swinging on the gallows. Breaking a man for supplies in Ater. Ordering those men dead in the cells at Summerholm, on suspicion alone. Leashing the Gallowborne with the threat of destruction. The dead, oh so many dead. Three Hills. Nilin, the traitor, my friend. All those I’d failed against the devils in the night. Marchford. Hunter, who’d fought and died for strangers. The people of Liesse, at the mercy of devils because I hadn’t seen the betrayal coming. The light going out of Baroness Dormer’s eyes as she surrendered.
Repent. You will not be forgiven. Repent.
I saw things that had not happened, now. Yet. Rising alive from the altar, a crown of light on my brow. Heiress dead at my feet. The Swordsman, kneeling. My red right hand. Liesse rebelling, weapons taken out of hidden cellars, exhumed from hidden stashes. A host sweeping across the south, ranks swelling as cities revolted one after another. Taking back the Blessed Isle, burnt-out towers remade in marble. Breaking the nine gates of Ater and pulling down the Tower on my enemies.
Repent, Queen of Callow.
I gurgled out a wretched laugh. You can’t ever lose, can you? Even when you’re beaten I have to become one of yours. I forced myself to remember something else. They tried to struggle but it was just as much a part of me as the rest had been. You don’t get to pick and choose what I am. Two silhouettes cloaked in black, standing alone in front of the throne.
We do not kneel.
It wasn’t enough. Those were not my words. I had borrowed them, and in borrowing lessened them. They demanded contrition. They demanded justification, for all my many sins. I had none. I clawed desperately into the depths of myself. Looking for something, anything. What I found… was a starry sky, in ruins that moaned in the wind. A dark-skinned girl, tempting me with a way out. Four dead on the floor as she fled. A lesson learned, a question answered.
Justification only matters to the just.
“I swore it,” I croaked. “Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”
I no longer saw a crown on my brow. They hadn’t liked that at all, had they? So much for being Queen. The fires withdrew, leaving me empty. Still dead. Unlike their trap of a Name, this I took umbrage to.
“You can’t cheat me,” I laughed. “You’re not the Gods. You’re part of the story too. You have to follow the rules.”
I opened my eyes, looking up into the perfect blankness.
“And if you won’t give me my due,” I said. “I’ll Take it.”
They shrieked but the power flowed into me. I felt my body spasm. My heart beat. My blood flow. The plain blurred, collapsed into me as I laughed.
I was standing in the chapel again, the Lone Swordsman’s sword through my belly. William’s green eyes stared into mine, my hand on his shoulder as I used him to stay up. It was a strangely intimate pose.
“What is this, Squire?” he whispered.
I ripped out the thing inside of him, took it for my own. His skin turned paler, his face bloodless.
“Rise,” I replied.
Shadow spread across my body in thick chords. Healing me, pushing his blade out of my flesh. I could feel my heart beat and it was glorious. All the little things I hadn’t realized were gone, now returned to me. The sword was still in my hand, the blade that has once been his. I rammed it into his neck, biting deep as he fell twitching to the ground. My boot rose once, twice, thrice. The skull gave the third time, breaking like an overripe fruit. My gaze swept across the room, finally falling on Heiress.
“I believe,” I said, “that we were having a conversation about power. By all means, finish your thought.”