“You’d be surprised at the breadth of things that can be powered by the souls of the innocent. Fortresses, swords, my favourite chandelier.”
– Dread Empress Malevolent II
Calling how they moved a formation would have been inaccurate.
A tide, maybe, or wisp of fog. The grey-brown cloaks fluttered behind them as the Watch charged towards the fortress, the fae only recovering from the sight of my right hand slaughtering their champion when the Deoraithe were mere feet away from the base of the rampart. A volley of flame-touched arrows bloomed, but it was like trying to catch smoke in your hand: the flames touched only the ground and the Watch began its ascent. Duchess Kegan had said that they wouldn’t need ladders, and now I saw why. Every soldier took out a pair of steel stakes and I watched as the first to move forward leapt up before ramming his first stake into the stone. Using it as support, he threw himself up and bit into stone with his other stake. A flick of the wrist got the first stake out of the stone, and then he hoisted himself up again. Twenty feet up the wall, in the blink of an eye. Merciless Gods, I thought. I might have been able to do that, but one of my soldiers? Suddenly Daoine’s dream of taking the fight to the elves seemed more than an elaborate ritual suicide.
The fae did not lose their composure, continuing to pour down arrows. At my side Duchess Kegan raised her hand again, a black scarf in hand. The three thousand remaining soldiers of the Watch, longbows already strung, released a volley of their own. The arc was perfect, almost pleasurable to watch, at though the projectiles were mere steel they scythed through the Summer fairies who’d been careless enough to leave the protection of the crenels. A burning log was tossed over the rampart but the Deoraithe did not miss a beat. Those allowed room by the angle pressed themselves against the stone and let it pass them by, and a woman whose chest would have been caved in instead leapt atop the log, using it to leap again upwards and resume climbing with her stakes. And Grem One-Eye beat them, I thought. When they were defending their own damned wall. I’d always thought that in a few years after she was seasoned Juniper would be the best tactician on Calernia, bar none, but what I saw was forcing me to reconsider. It was one thing to beat devils, another to crush this.
Less than eighty heartbeats after they’d begun moving, just after another volley shot by the Watch who’d stayed behind forced the fae to take cover, the first Deoraithe landed on top of the wall. The fighting then was not so one-sided: Kegan’s monsters were quicker and stronger than humans had any right to be, but so were the fae. Longsword met longsword as a dozen footholds formed on the rampart, but the Watch had not been deployed to take the wall. As soon as the last Deoraithe made it up, the clusters moved again and disappeared into the fortress. Headed for the gate, no doubt. My turn. Nauk’s men made way for me as I marched to the front of the two thousand legionaries of the Fifteenth, eyes on the still-closed gates. Adjutant joined me moments later, armour blackened by the sorcery of the baron he’d put down.
“They’re impressive,” the orc gravelled. “Maybe the finest soldiers on Calernia, pound for pound.”
I hummed, not disagreeing. Now that the initial shock at their performance had waned, though, I felt that I was missing something. Only a quarter of Duchess Kegan’s army was made up by the Watch. Why, if they were so effective? If she had twenty thousand of them the Wall would never have fallen during the Conquest. Were there requirements to being able to become part of the Watch? It couldn’t be that they were all mages. Deoraithe weren’t known to birth a lot of those, and no one had five thousand mages to field save for Praes – who’d bred those numbers up over millennia – and perhaps Procer, by sheer dint of its population’s size.
“Resource investment,” I murmured.
Hakram raised a brow.
“Legion officers and mages take half a decade to train properly,” I said. “The Empire can bear that because it’s rich and its population large. Daoine is a duchy, not a kingdom. They might not have the means to support too many of those – that kind of power can’t come without a material cost.”
Praesi were wealthy beyond comprehension and cheated with blood sacrifices besides, otherwise raising even a single flying fortress would beggar the Tower for half a decade. Deoraithe didn’t have that shortcut available, though. Them grabbing people to sacrifice, even if they kept it strictly in-house, would have been noticed eventually.
“Every time one of them dies a small fortune goes up in smoke,” Hakram grasped, brow creasing. “They do have the population to field a larger army than twenty thousand. A choice was made.”
“Quality over quantity,” I said. “They began treading that path long before the Reforms took Praes down the same road.”
Duchess Kegan’s hand, then, was not as strong as she had been pretending. How many years would it take to replace any casualty incurred by the Watch? She might be able to afford that in times of peace, but if she ever warred against the Empire her treasury would be bleeding out from a dozen different unavoidable expenses. If I could realize this at a glance, I had a hard time believing that Malicia and Black could not. Was that why they’d never acted like they considered Daoine a real threat? Something to keep in mind, when I next spoke with the duchess. It was not long after we finished speaking that the gates began moving, a dozen silhouettes on each side pushing the massive copper things open. In front of them the rest of the Watch had clustered together in a tight formation, and the moment the way was clear they began a smooth and almost leisurely retreat. I unsheathed my sword, raising the blade.
“FIFTEENTH,” I screamed. “ADVANCE!”
The nut had been cracked open. Now the butcher’s work could begin. The ranks behind were four hundred broad, following behind just short of a run as Hakram and I took point. The retreating Deoraithe split around us, a few of them ceasing their retreat just long enough to shoot arrows at fae trying to close the gates before we arrived. Fifty feet, I gauged. The soldiers of Summer behind the gate hurriedly sent a volley at the Fifteenth, the same kind of chest-height shots that had torn through the Gallowborne. This wasn’t my retinue, though. It was a full jesha of two thousand, half the forces making up a regular Legion of Terror. These men had been trained to deal with mages, and without missing a beat the mage lines within the Fifteenth returned fire. A wave of fireballs flew, tailored for size instead of strength or speed: the spells taught in the War College were not the most powerful or the most effective. They were the most flexible, the formula easy to adjust for the situation. Every mage cast, and when the large balls of flame met the arrows a curtain of flame flickered across the grounds. Not a single projectile made it through. Heat licking at my face, I strode through the already-fading fire. Twenty feet.
“Been a while since we were in a scrap side-by-side,” I said.
“Liesse, I think,” Hakram mused. “Learned a few things since then.”
“So have I,” I said. “Try to keep up.”
There were maybe ten feet between me and the fae when I dashed forward, sinking into my Name. I’d always found clarity in doing that, in allowing the world to slow as my perception deepened and my blade followed, but it was different now. The air no longer felt just crisp, it was cold – like a windless winter night, everything tinged with frost. An arrow flew towards my throat but my sword came up without missing a beat, slapping it to the side as I pivoted on myself and fell on the first rank of the fae. At my side a roar sounded and blood sprayed high as Adjutant began to paint in red. We hit their line like a trebuchet stone, ploughing straight through. There was no room for elaborate tactics, here, no Lion Devours Gazelle. If they didn’t hold the gate, they were done for: they had to stand and fight. It would be a red gutter before long, and the gutter was where I shone. One of the fae threw tongues of flame at me and I didn’t even bother to dodge them: they hit my armour head on with only hissing steam to show for it, the ice-cold steel unmarred. My shield hit the opponent in the stomach, smashing him back, and I gutted him with a clean sword stroke.
Adjutant stood at my side, sweeping the enemy aside with wild laughter as we drive deeper and deeper. There was a deafening sound behind us as Nauk’s heavies impacted the fae line, orcs and humans in a tightly-locked shield wall beginning their push. This was not the kind of battle the Summer fae were meant for, I thought. Not these, anyway. Mere swords and bows were no match for the implacable advancing steel wall of the Legions of Terror. The path Hakram and I were carving through the enemy filled with soldiers, a wedge in the enemy formation that split them. Already they were wavering – the Watch had killed hundreds on their way through, and what stood behind us now was not the full strength of the enemy. There still had to be some left on the walls.
“Spargere,” an officer’s voice called out.
Small clay balls with lit fuses sailed above the ranks, falling in the throng of fae. The sharpers exploded a moment later, shredding flesh and bone. With a resounding cry the shield wall pushed forward and the army of Summer folded under the pressure.
“Fire,” the same voice called out.
Four dozen balls of flame flew above the fae ranks. They wouldn’t hit anyone, but they weren’t meant to. One by one they detonated, the pressure flattening the fairies under them even if they didn’t kill anyone. The fae lines wavered and again the cry sounded, the shield wall pushing forward. I’d been killing my way through anything foolish enough to stand in my way, the tip of the spear, and finally I saw only one woman in front of me – behind her was an empty courtyard, leading deeper into the fortress. There was fear in her too-large eyes. Her sword parried my blow, but her grips was weak. With a grunt I pushed down, flexing my muscles as she joined a second hand to her first and desperately tried to hold me back. Too weak. I broke through her guard, carving her from shoulder to rib across the body. After so many strikes against armour even the goblin steel of my sword was starting to dull, but with enough power behind the blow that mattered little. I stepped onto the courtyard lightly the sound of fangs tearing through flesh heralding Adjutant following me as he tossed a corpse with a ripped throat to the side. Heavies filled the corridor we’d open, splitting the fae in two, and it was the beginning of the end for them. They began to break.
“We can leave them to Nauk,” I said. “We have a Count to settle matters with.”
The orc nodded, licking reddened chops. The inside of the castle was still made of the same white stone, but in the shady corners I saw roots peeking through. Count of Olden Oak, huh. Might be more to the title than just heraldry. A set of stairs led to the upper keep and without wasting any more time I began the way up. We passed through an empty banquet hall without slowing, my gaze lingering at the larger and larger amount of roots I saw growing through the stone from every corner. Was this entire fortress a tree, the oak the fae noble was named for? I knew fuck all about what oaks actually looked like, having been raised in a city, so I could be looking at one for all I knew. There was another set of stairs in the back of the hall and we headed there, the both of us feeling the pressure coming from higher in that direction. We ended up in a corridor covered with living mosaics of leaves that shifted with every glance but didn’t stick around to look at them: through an arc we could see a third and final set of stairs, leading to what I would have called a basilica if the the coloured glass of its windows didn’t display the glory of Summer victorious.
The way up was long and sharply sloped, the stairs broad and too large to be covered in one stride. The sun shone down, but it was not illuminating stone: we were surrounded by the brown bark of an immense oak, growing in the centre of the towers we’d glimpsed from the outside. The large structure ahead had coppers doors like the outer fortress, though these were wide open. The atmosphere was eerily green-tinged.
“Twenty denarii he’s waiting for us inside on some kind of oaken throne,” I said.
“I’m not taking that,” Hakram snorted. “Twenty denarii we get a monologue about the might of Summer before the fight.”
We kept moving even as we talked but the moment we rose onto the first step the strange buzz of fae wings sounded in the utter silence. From the heights of the giant tree ten fae descended on translucent wings, landing halfway up the steps with unnatural grace. Each of them held a leaf-shaped shield and a long lance of wood. I raised an eyebrow.
“So if he’d been called the Count of Plentiful Cows, would you be fighting with udders and hooves?” I called out.
The words echoed across the distance, my mockery repeating twice more before fading.
“Though crowd,” Adjutant deadpanned.
The ten fae spread in a line without replying, wings flickering out of existence, and the spears rose. Since the grim-faced pricks weren’t willing to save us the climb before we fought it out, we began the way up. I caught Hakram studying them carefully as we rose then punched his shoulder to draw his attention, eyebrow raised.
“Go to the Count,” he gravelled. “I’ll handle them.”
“You’ve used one aspect already,” I frowned. “And your other one’s not much use in a fight.”
The tall orc bared his fangs.
“I feel… close,” he said. “To the third.”
Ah, and now I understood why he’d suggested it. Iron sharpens iron, Praesi were fond of saying. They meant it as a justification for their obsession with scheming against one another, but I’d found the saying had some truth in it. For both villains and heroes, conflict drove advancement. No, perhaps that wasn’t exact. Weighty actions allowed you to sharpen your Name, and conflict had a way of birthing those. Whether it was arguing with an enemy or beating them down, a Named could temper themselves. It wasn’t that Hakram thought he’d stomp over all these fae – they were obviously meant to be an elite guard of some kind, no matter how ridiculous their equipment. But he believed that a dangerous enough fight might allow him to reach his third aspect.
“I don’t like risking you,” I said, more honestly than I’d meant it to. “Duel’s one thing, this is just taking a risk to hurry something you’ll get eventually.”
He half-smiled, which given the size of his teeth still made him look more horrifying than sentimental.
“You can’t be the only one taking risks,” he chided. “And we’ll need all we can bring to bear, soon. If not for this war then for the next.”
I was still less than fond of this idea. It wasn’t just that finding a replacement for Adjutant would be impossible, though there was no denying that was a fact. Even if Apprentice fused Ratface and Aisha into a single abomination of nature the combined talents wouldn’t be able to handle a tenth of the work he did. Hakram was my friend. Gods, probably the person I was closest to in all of Creation. My first instinct was to kill anything that might threaten him and put the head on a spike to ward off anybody else who might want to try. I knew that look in his eyes, though. It was the same one he got before disappearing for a few bells and a problem mysteriously solved itself – there would be no talking him out of this no matter how much I glared.
“Wade in their blood, Hakram,” I finally said, raising a gauntleted fist.
“Luck in battle, Catherine,” he replied, hitting his fist with mine.
We were only two steps away from the fae, and they’d yet to move. I supposed they thought it made them look imposing.
“The way is barred,” a fae said.
“So was the front gate,” I replied.
I dashed forward, sending a sliver of power into my legs. Bypassing a step entirely I landed in front of the rightmost fae, whose spear immediately whistled towards my throat. From the corner of my eye I saw movement – ridiculous as they looked, they were quicker than the soldiers from earlier and better coordinated. If it had come to a scrap that would have mattered, but unfortunately for them fleeing was another game entirely. I formed a circular panel of shadow in the way of the one trying to flank me and ducked under the spear of the other, never breaking stride. Wouldn’t have worked if I was any taller, but for once being so offensively short was an advantage. The shadow pane shattered a heartbeat later, but I was already on the step behind them. I glanced back and saw that none of them was deigning to pursue. Hakram ripped the shield out of the hands of one and smacked another fae’s face with it, but he was surrounded within moments and the situation looked sharply to his disadvantage. My fingers tightened until the gauntlet creaked, but I forced myself to look away and continued my way up. He wouldn’t have told me he could handle it if he couldn’t.
I forced myself to clear my mind the way I’d been taught even as I headed up to the structure that was the crowning glory of the fortress, the very heart of the Count’s domain. From the sides of the stairway – there were no rails here either, though unlike with the Tower I was willing to cut Summer some slack since at least they could fly back up if they fell – I could see roots leading up to the inside of the building. Well, that was promising. I’d seen my fair share of fucking horrors in Winter, I supposed I was due exposure to the other side of the coin. The copper gates were open, like I’d seen earlier, but as I made it to the top I finally got a glance inside. For the first time since breaching the fortress, what I saw gave me pause. It wasn’t the tall silhouette of the Count that gave me pause, his back turned to me as he gazed out the green and red glass in front of him. It was the sight of the inside of the basilica, though the living wood that made hundreds of stacks filled with books and baubles was a stunning sight. No, it was the hundred corpses of the Gallowborne that hung from the branches covering the ceiling.
I let out a long, quiet breath. Fury was not unknown to me. I’d felt both boiling anger and frozen, bitter hatred since I’d become the Squire. But the sight of men and women who’d died for me trussed up like trophies in someone’s sanctum killed the emotions in me. I’d seen the Carrion Lord once. The monster the tales spoke of, instead of the sardonic teacher I’d come to love. Seen the humanity in him smothered like a candle, leaving behind only a thing capable of anything if it furthered its objectives. If someone was looking at my face right now, I thought, they might just see the same thing. He’d told me, once that were the same in some ways. Maybe he was right, because right now I felt capable of being monstrous. My footsteps broke the silence in the room as I walked forward, the heartbeats of the Beast echoing in turn. It was there, I knew as well as I knew my own breath. Still as the grave, but looking at the Count with my eyes. It did not delight in the violence to come, for once. It bowed to it.
“I’d never considered any of this personal,” I heard myself say, my tone without a speck of feeling. “I am, after all, invading your home. You’ve not participated in the invasion of Callow, and my only reasons for sieging this keep were of a strategic nature.”
The Count of Olden Oak turned to face me, tall wooden spear in hand.
“But this?” I murmured, looking at the corpses of people I’d known, trained with, laughed with. “This was a choice. Those have consequences.”
“Duchess of Moonless Night,” the fae greeted me calmly. “You seem displeased.”
“We passed civil the moment you hung up those corpses,” I said. “I could torture you for this, I suppose, but that’s a cheap sort of satisfaction. Meaningless, really. There’s no evening this particular scale.”
“Winter pretending to be righteous,” the man mocked. “A farce of farces.”
“I revoke your right to exist,” I said, tone measured. “I will take what I want from you, and then you will end.”
He opened his mouth to speak again but I shot forward. The man wore no armour, only green robes, but with fae that meant nothing. My sword came down but the shaft of the spear caught it – whatever sorcery was in the wood made it harder than steel, my blade bouncing off. I was past caring. I smashed my shield into his shoulder, but his hand came up to block it: green light shone on his palm and the momentum of the strike vanished. I gave ground, stepping back and slowly circling around him. Swift as a hawk he struck, spear aiming for my eyes, but I hit the tip of his spear with the top of my shield to knock it off course. The spear rose past my head but instantly a branch grew from it, whistling towards my throat. I blinked in surprise as it pierced straight through, only backing away in time to prevent it from severing my spine. My vocal chords were done for, but I no longer needed to speak an aspect to call on it. Rise, I thought. The wound slowly began to close even as the branch that had grown from the spear withdrew back into it. So this was a Count of Summer, I thought. I had no makeshift prophecy protecting me from this one, no shield of lies to blunt his power.
He would lose regardless.
I moved forward again and the spear whipped out, tearing a hole through my shield – a last moment adjustment prevented it from piercing through the hand that held it. He made to withdraw the spear but I focused my will and the ice welled from the steel and froze it stuck inside. I managed to swing at his face before he forced it out anyway, twisting away from by blow – I cut clean just underneath his eye. Green light came out instead of blood, bark growing to fill the wound. I was not the only one with a healing ability, it seemed. The hole in my shield froze shut with dark ice and I went back on the offensive: his growing trick was too dangerous to allow him the initiative. The tip of my blade probed his guard as I angled my feet for a thrust, his eyes flickering down to notice it. The Beast howled. When he slapped aside the thrust with his spear I was already moving, twisting the momentum into a pivot that smashed into his spear when he managed to block it again. I tore through no flesh, but the strength behind the strike threw him back a few feet. I was stronger than him, then. My title of Duchess was not entirely meaningless.
The spear snaked forward as he moved towards me, casually slapped aside. Even as it passed my flank I saw the branch grow and head for my kidneys, but I was ready for it this time. I dropped my sword and caught the bursting wood with my hand, forcefully moving it aside. Ice glistened on the lower edge of my shield, sharpening it like a blade, and I rammed that edge into his shoulder. I cut through the robe and he hissed in pain, then wrenched out the shield while throwing myself to the side before the two branches growing from the first one he’d made could punch through between my ribs. I landed in a roll, without a weapon, and the Count smirked. Green light shone the gaping wound going from his shoulder to his pectorals, bark filling it instantly. I flicked my wrist and Pickler’s contraption triggered, a knife slapping down onto my palm. My Senior Sapper had made sure that there would always be steel in my hand when I needed it, her sharp little mind ever-refining the tool I’d once used when fighting the Lone Swordsman.
“You seem to be at a disadvantage, Duchess,” the fae mocked.
I had no interest in trading barbs with meat. I charged again but found the distance between us had been too lengthy: the Count flicked his fingers at me, a dozen strands of green light shooting towards my chest as I advanced. I stepped aside, adjusted my angle and continued moving forward but he still had control of the sorcery: the strands struck down at my boot, roots growing from them and nailing me to the floor. My momentum cut short, I had to force myself back in order to avoid tripping. Immediately the fae struck, moving to the side my shield didn’t cover with the grace of a cat. My knife wouldn’t be able to do much against the spear, at this distance. You have made a mistake, I thought with vindictive satisfaction. I adjusted my grip on the knife to be the same I’d use for a sword, and then with a flicker of will from the short blade a full sword length of dark ice grew. I cut through the spear, and thought it immediately began to grow back his eyes widened.
I tore through my boot out of the roots effortlessly. I’d already proved I beat him in raw strength – arrogant of him to think he could bridge the gap with sorcery. My shield hit his stomach, knocking the breath out of him without his little healing being of any use. My blade carved straight through the wrist that held the spear, and though it grew back in bark that didn’t bring back the weapon to his hand. Sorcery attempted to do so, but when it began rising from the ground I exerted my will again and froze it stuck. I cut his throat, without missing a beat. Green light filled the wound, but I was already striking again. I sliced through his eyes and he screamed, but a heavy groan sounded out behind me. I risked a glance and saw that a hundred spears of wood were descending from the branches covering the ceiling. In that heartbeat, the world slowed. I could move out of the way, give ground again and avoid the danger. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to crush him under my boot, and the bone-deep hatred I’d felt when first entering Summer well up in response.
I didn’t set it aside, this time. I took it, owned it, carved it into a weapon. It was mine, and it would answer to my will like any other aspect.
“Fall,” I said.
The world went dark. A boundless night sky spread above us, without a single speck of light to break the black. There was a cold here that was old and merciless, and the branches that would have pierced me slowed and turned grey. The sap inside them froze and they died. The Count of Olden Oak’s bark-crafted eyes stared blindly into the dark as he panicked. I could feel a flame inside him, feel it dimming with every passing heartbeat. Frost spread across his body slowly, and I could feel him on the brink of death. I smiled and the night went away, wrenching me back into the sunlit basilica. He was barely conscious now, so little of him left a child could have beaten him to death. His power would grow back, though, given enough time.
“Oh, you don’t get to die yet,” I said. “I still have a use for you.”
What little was left of his mind smelled of fear, and it was not unwarranted.