“The only thing more dangerous than being hated by a villain is to be loved by them.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
That made it twice, that the Summer Court manoeuvred me into a situation where there was absolutely nothing I could do. The golden banners flew high, and with every moment they remained there my legionaries would be dying. In tight ranks, with sappers and crossbowmen at their backs, heavies might have a chance against the Immortals. But dispersed across a dozen different mansions, spread out in pursuit? It would be slaughter. And for once, we would be on the wrong side of it. A part of me already grieved the death of those soldiers, though I knew that even greater caution would have made no great difference. If I’d grasped the enemy’s intent here, Juniper likely had an hour ago – and she’d still sent us in, because this battle was against dawn as much as against the fae. Another quieter, calmer part of me was already tallying how many losses the Fifteenth would incur and assessing whether it would cripple us before the fight against Diabolist.
I didn’t always like the woman I’d become. It was a damningly short walk from we need this whatever the cost to one sin, one grace. That my shade of ruthlessness was different from Black’s was cold comfort. It sometimes occurred to me, in the dark of night, that if I got my and settled Callow I’d be the last monster remaining in it. It was an unsettling thought but remembering the girl I’d once been, the one who’d once thought that there was no need for monsters at all, brought as much disgust as it did rue. Keeping my hands clean clean wasn’t going to stop armies marching, or fields unburnt. It wasn’t going to do a single fucking thing except make myself feel more righteous. And still, once in a while, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have felt like to be proud of the tired woman that looked back when I stood before a mirror. I clenched my fingers and let out a long breath. Whining about the price I’d had to pay to get a seat at the table wasn’t going to change anything.
Blood had been spilled, there was a foe ahead of me. They would break or I would, it was as simple as that.
“Combat formations,” Nauk barked. “Time to earn your ghelsin’in pay, children.”
Kharsum, that. Meant fuck, basically, though with the implication of going at it from behind. Wonderful language, Kharsum. Had more variations on ‘fuck’ and ‘eat’ than any other tongue I’d come across, which honestly said quite a bit about them as a people. There were no Immortals in sight yet, but a banner had risen ahead. Only a matter of time.
“Catherine,” Adjutant said, coming to stand at my side. “We knew it’d be bloody. This changes nothing.”
“Think about the tactic, Hakram,” I said. “This isn’t jaws clamping on our fingers, we lose a thumb and it’s over. They’ll drive us back to the walls, then the Immortals will retreat and the regulars fill the gap again. They’re going to harvest us, one push at a time.”
“That sounds bad,” Archer whispered at Masego. “You’ve been in wars before, Zeze. This is bad, right?”
“Don’t call me that, you horrid sweaty goblin. And she’s Callowan,” Hierophant whispered back. “They love farming, do it all over the country. It could be good.”
“It’s bad, Zeze,” I sighed, ignoring Archer’s delighted chortle. “The Duke of Green Orchards, if it’s really him in charge, essentially turned the outskirts of this place into a meat grinder for the Fifteenth.”
“What’s the blades, in this tortured metaphor?” Archer asked.
“The Immortals,” I replied.
“So we kill the Immortals,” Archer mused. “There, problem solved.”
“It does seem a fairly straightforward issue,” Masego agreed.
Though I had some truly cutting sarcasm to grace them with, I held my tongue. Archer was, well, right might be a bit of a stretch and I definitely wasn’t giving her the satisfaction of saying anything like that but there was a nugget of correctness hidden in that boulder of aggressive ignorance. To pull this off, the Duke would have to spread the Immortals in a thin line across the upper city. And if we broke through that, he was in trouble. The castle would be wide open, save possibly for him and a handful of other nobles. That meant either betting this battle on him crushing us, which was risky for him given our highly murderous track record against Summer, or pulling back the Immortals to get in our way. The Woe could, in my opinion, feasibly deal with either the Immortals or the Duke. Both would be beyond us.
“We punch through and he’s on the backfoot,” I said to Hakram.
“Even if all we manage is to keep the centre from collapsing,” the orc replied, “it’s a rallying point for the Fifteenth and a funnel for reinforcements. It would turn into a match of attrition he cannot afford.”
Neither could we, we were both aware, but what other options did we have?
“Nauk,” I called out.
“Warlord,” he grinned. “We got a plan?”
“Smash through everything until we’ve won,” I said honestly.
“Ah, the Foundling gambit,” he gravelled. “It’s never failed us before.”
“Don’t say that where people can hear, and that’s an order,” I hurriedly replied.
That kind of stuff had a way of spreading. Legion humour was, uh, more than a little dark. Four hundred men already standing in tight ranks across the breadth of the avenue began their advance after a few yells. The Woe took the lead and I sharpened my senses to watch for the likely ambush that awaited further down the road. Though darkness was hardly bar to my sight, the smoke that was spreading across the sky was. Balls of magelight hovered above the two cohorts, kept going by our mages, but I barely noticed them: what was most visible in my eyes was the bevy of standards in the sky. Which was why, when one disappeared, I immediately noticed. Far left, I thought. Hadn’t seen much of what was there, though I’d noticed trees from a distance. Had my legionaries managed to turn back the – ah, Thief was still on the prowl. And aiming to complete her collection, by the looks of it.
“Archer,” I said. “How many of the standards did you two manage to take?”
“Half, maybe?” she shrugged. “After the first few they noticed and we had to be more careful, but there couldn’t have been more than twenty in all.”
And I was currently looking at eight still giving off that golden hue. Thief might not have been much of a fighter, but she was far from useless. I abandoned the train of thought without lingering, as moments later we’d finally come across the enemy. Ahead of us was a roundabout, though a fancier one than any I’d ever seen in Laure. It was wide as a plaza, the avenues circling the statue garden in the centre wide enough for two carriages to share it. Among the alabaster statues of what looked like past rulers of Dormer and a noticeably larger depiction of Eleanor Fairfax – though the sculptor had taken liberties there, since I doubted a knight of her calibre would have ever worn armour that left so much of her tits out in the open – the Immortals had formed a textbook perfect square. Even simply standing around, they were wrecking the greenery of the garden: the trees that weren’t already outright on fire were all smouldering, and the grass looked like a mage training yard. The Summer Court’s elite had not changed since I’d last seen them. Gold plate set with rubies glimmered under closed armet helmets of the same, heater shields so well-polished they could serve as mirrors filling one hand and ivory halberds the the other. Facing them, my legionaries spread across the roundabout. The Gallowborne took the centre, Nauk’s cohort split to cover the flanks.
“Summer Triumphant,” an Immortal from the front ranks called out.
Two hundred halberds slammed down in perfect unison, flickers of flame spreading from where they touched the ground. The words had not been spoken in any language I knew, and hardly been words at all. They’d been the crackle of wildfires, the clash of steel and the spilling of blood on hungry earth. Summer’s the season of war, Archer had once told me. Their words rang of that truth, a boast that rattled the night air.
“KILL THEM,” Nauk screamed.
“TAKE THEIR STUFF,” the Fifteenth screamed back.
We charged, wings enveloping their flanks as smoothly as if this was a practice battle. Like sea against rocks, I thought. The halberds rose, the halberds fell, and there went the first rank of my legionaries. As streaks of lightning filled the air and sharpers were thrown in long arcs, Adjutant and I rammed into the enemy. It was not like fighting the regulars. They did not give, when my sword struck their shields. And there was no slapping aside a strike of those halberds. No match for me in strength, perhaps, but not that far either. No wonder they broke the Sword of Waning Day, when they fought. Winter’s sharpest blades were rusty knives compared to these. Hacking my way into their formation was like taking an axe to an oak. My first blow hit a shield without purchase and bounced off, the halberd taller than I was sweeping down to tear through my shoulder in answer. I had to stick close to the Immortal to avoid it, and doing that felt like rolling around in a pile of embers. They heat they gave out wouldn’t melt my plate, maybe, but it would heat it until it scalded to the touch given long enough.
It took Adjutant and I working together to pry the line open. His shield got a halberd stuck and the tip of my sword pierced just over the tip of the enemy’s, sliding into the opening between the helmet and the gorget. The blood that coated my blade when it withdrew was smoking, but the fae was dead. I kicked the enemy down and forced my way into the gap even as the Immortal behind that one advanced, trying to force me back with his shield. From the corner of my eye I saw Adjutant’s knees give as the shaft of a halberd struck his shoulder and that distraction cost me. The side of my shield caught the halberd’s point at the very last moment, hard enough to change the angle from my chest to my forearm. The ivory went through plate and I screamed as fire burned in my veins. I would have had to give ground, if Archer hadn’t come to back me. Slithering around my shield she struck high, plunging a longknife in the Immortal’s throat and spinning to throw herself at the man at his side. I ripped out the halberd the corpse still clutched and let Winter loose, the flame smothered by impossibly deep cold. I let the strength linger, and took full advantage of the room she’d carved me.
The Immortals were meant to fight in ranks, the enemy in front, and from the side they struggled. Not the most flexible of weapons, halberds. I slammed my shield in the flank of the Immortal to my left and when he turned snarling Adjutant’s axe smashed through his helm and splattered blood. Now that my second was at my side, we began to widen the gap. One of us baited, the other struck. I learned at the cost of what was going to be a nasty scar under my eye that anything but a killing blow was useless on them – they did not seem to feel pain, and baldly ignored wounds. Being on the other side of that was a lot more infuriating than I’d thought it would be. With Archer weaving in and out of our side, knives always moving, we forged a wedge of corpses in the centre of the formation that the Gallowborne filled without prompting. The rest of my legionaries were not doing nearly as well, I saw when I got a rare moment of respite. Hierophant had seen the flanks were failing badly in the face of the opposition and lent them a hand, but the two spells he was working simultaneously took up all of his concentration. A hovering ball of shadow had sprouted tendrils that struck like sledgehammers on the left, while to the right a panoply of small silver circles flew around and shot beams of pale sorcery that not even the shields of the Immortals could withstand without twisting.
We’d killed maybe a fourth of them, fighting tooth and nail for every corpse, and already taken over twice that in casualties. I grit my teeth and pressed on. Attrition would grow more to our advantage the fewer of them were left, and though only the wrecks of two cohorts would emerge from this fight we would emerge victorious nonetheless.
“Sons and daughters of Summer, stand deathless under the sun,” a voice thundered.
Oh shit. Did that mean what I think it meant? Behind me, the dead Immortals proved the truth of the name. Great gouts of Summer flame poured out of the wounds, and they rose to their feet – most of them in the middle of the Gallowborne. A dozen of my retinue died in the first heartbeat and I screamed in fury.
“HIEROPHANT,” I yelled. “KILL THAT STANDARD.”
Before I’d even finished speaking a handful of runes formed just before my eyes, shining blue, and transmuted into a word: warded. Fuck. We weren’t the only ones who could use those.
“BATTER IT DOWN,” I screamed.
We were way past conserving power for the Duke of Green Orchards. At this rate we’d never even reach him. The detonation that followed rocked the entire plaza, statues flying in pieces and even Immortals being thrown to the ground. I widened my stance and was only blown back a few feet, though Hakram was thrown straight into two legionaries and had to extirpate himself from the mess of limbs and armour. To my horror, when I looked up, a globe golden light shone around the standard as it remained unharmed. Oh, this was bad. I ripped the halberd out of the grasp of an Immortal swinging at me, dropping my shield, and swung it around so that the edge of the blade tore into his skull. He dropped dead like a stingless puppet, but how long would he remain like that? The fae might not be able to pull that trick as often in Creation as they could in Arcadia, but how many times would that mean? Four, nine? My legionaries couldn’t even afford for it to happen twice. I would have called out to Archer, asked her if she had anything in her quiver that could take care of that, but she was busy trying not to get skewered by a pair of very angry Immortals.
It was a shiver, or at least that was how it felt to see it. It spread from the left flank, slithering through the thick ranks of Immortals and only turning into something real when the silhouette emerged out of thin air. Thief put a foot on a shield meant to smash her down, using it as a foothold to move to the shoulder of another Immortal. The fae tried to shake her off but she was already moving, jumping off the helm of an Immortal and somersaulting in the air. She went through the golden globe like it wasn’t there at all, hand snatching the standard at the apex of her leap and spiriting it away in a heartbeat. I felt the impact before she’d even begun to come down, the way every Immortal on the field flinched. I grinned, right up until the moment she was engulfed in apple-green flames and began screaming. Wings ablaze with eerie light, the Duke of Green Orchards stood atop the battlefield with mild disinterest writ on his face. A single hand held up, her kept Thief aloft and burning seemingly without effort.
I furiously tried to break through the Immortals ahead of me, but their ranks had tightened and the halberds were keeping me back. They weren’t going for a kill, just delaying me. It was Hierophant that managed to step in.
A gust of wind blew out the flames and Thief’s blackened body was dragged back behind the lines through the air. Gods, her entire hair was gone. She was scorched, but breathing and moaning in pain. Masego immediately began healing her, but she was done for the night. For more than that.
“Lady Foundling,” the noble fae greeted me politely. “It appears this affair will come to close momentarily. Perish.”
The nightmare began. Before he’d finished speaking I’d leapt off my first ice platform and was about to land on my second, and Archer had sent her first arrow flying for his eye. The shot went through the silver flames that appeared when it got close, but it slowed enough the duke caught it with his hand, crushing the wooden shaft to powder. The other hand had lashed out with green flame, a small orb of it tumbling towards me. The size of an apple, and the exact colour. Fuck. I’d thought for sure he’d be more like the Count of Green Yew, and hoped the torched trees would mean he was limited in his power, but he obviously had a work around. That first hit on Thief had been nowhere as strong as what I’d seen some dukes and duchesses pull out, but it was still exceedingly dangerous. A twist of will had a platform to my side forming and I took a turn there to avoid the throw, frowning when I saw the apple kept tumbling down. Was he really unable to redirect those? Oh Merciless Gods, I realized. I lashed out with ice, trying to keep the explosion contained when it hit the Gallowborne, but it was too little and too late. Then dark globe of ice was torn through almost instantly, green flame pouring out and consuming a full tenth. It moved from there, devouring men as the Duke calmly moved his hand to guide it.
Hierophant struck directly at him, a dozen spears of what looked like water-like shimmering iron getting stuck in the silver flames as they kept pushing at it. The fae grunted and the green fire gutted out. I should have advanced, but my eyes remained on the half-bare skull of Tribune John Farrier. Most his body was gone, even bones turned to ash. On all front of the melee the Fifteenth was giving ground, step by step as halberds tore through mail and plate. I’d known John for over a year now. Had fought by his side, bled with him and laughed with him. I’d liked him and relied on him. And he’d been swatted down carelessly, like a fucking insect.
Creation grew muted.
I could feel it all deeper now. Feel the night grow thicker, until the sight of the moon in the sky was obscured. Feel the beating from the shard of Winter that was my heart slow, and then cease entirely as I drew deeper from that well than I ever had before. My breath came out steaming and my plate crackled as frost spread over it. I peered at my anger, at my fear and calmly picked them out. I fed them to the cold, let them disappear into the flow until nothing was left at all. I’d always held back, I knew that deep down. I’d ripped the mantle of a god from its corpse and still acted the mortal. Wanted to be just Catherine Foundling. All these worries of humanity and remaining someone I could stand. The whining of a petulant child. I would be whoever I needed to be to keep my people alive, and damn me for flinching in the face of that truth. Beneath me the Immortals stirred and I felt the threads coming from them, those that had once bound them to the banner even in death but now lay inert. I reached out for them, two hundred threads growing into rivers as I forced the power of Winter through them. There were screams, there were curses and shaking and clawing at their armour. It made no difference to me. The Immortals died like flies, falling to the ground under the weight of my mantle.
“Rise,” I ordered, and they did.
Blue eyes burning behind their visors, the pride of Summer gripping its weapons as wings of ice spread from their backs.
“Shit,” Archer muttered, still among them. “That doesn’t look good.”
My gaze met the Duke of Green Orchards’ and the man smiled.
“Ah,” he said. “And now we finally meet, Duchess of Moonless Nights.”
The trees in the garden below burst into green flames, apples forming by the dozens and dropping from the branches without missing a beat. I moved with four hundred wings, my snarl on the lips of every Immortal. A storm of green flame swallowed the world, and the battle began in earnest. For the first heartbeat, it was only the two of us. I could sense his will in the flames, shaping them as men and beasts to fight my Immortals. They rose into the sky, pursued by Summer wrath, and Hierophant struck again. I saw his will slip into the green, follow along that of a lesser god and learn its workings.
“Shape is intent,” the blind man whispered. “Intent fractures.”
Like picks in stone, the Hierophant’s will struck at the sorcery and collapsed it. With a sound like a bell the flames reverted into apples, hanging harmlessly in the air, and my Immortals buried the Duke in a storm of blades. For a heartbeat all that could be seen was a pile of armour and ivory, until branches grew out. A globe of wood was spreading, swallowing the Immortals as it did, and I could feel them struggling against the crushing pressure inside. It would not save him. My will buried like a blade in the minds of the imprisoned corpses, forcing Winter into them until their bodies were overfilled vessels. One after another they burst, ice digging into the wood and tearing it from the inside. It groaned and broke, then the Duke burst out from the top in a shower of shards. Archer’s arrow would have torn through his knee, if he hadn’t caught it. He raised a mocking eyebrow.
Then it blew.
Hissing in pain, his fingers shredded, he seized the floating apples again. I ignored that, plaques of ice forming under my feet as I ran across the sky to him. The flames exploded as I felt Archer tap the back of one of the surviving Immortals. Without even glancing in her direction, I sent the corpse aflight with her hanging on the back. We reached the Duke at the same time. The fae pulled the fire to him, but through ears not my own I heard Hierophant speak.
“Burning is transmutation set by boundary,” he said. “Boundaries are mutable.”
His will rang like a bell and the fire intensified, beginning to burn even itself until all that was left was a single flame that guttered out. Archer and I leapt together as the enemy’s face darkened and he allowed himself to fall, the burnt out husks that were the trees below us collapsing into a hunks of burning wood that gathered to him in a protective shield. I grabbed Archer by the arm and tossed her at it, leaping down from a platform to follow. Her blades dug into the shield to no avail, and so did my sword. Frost spread from where I’d struck, putting out the flames but little else. A hand lightly touched the globe, Thief’s scorched face grim as she leaning against Adjutant.
“Steal,” she coldly said, and the shield disappeared.
Beneath it the Duke of Green Orchard’s eyes were wide. Seven wooden pillars formed around the fae, followed by four runes linked by pale light. The same binding Hierophant had used against the Princess of High Noon. The duke’s body grew rigid and Archer’s blades dug through his abdomen on both sides, straight into his lungs. I did not bother to speak. My blade ran straight through his neck, spider webs of ice spreading from the wound as life winked out of him. I panted, slowly, and felt the remaining Immortals collapse one after another. Nothing but corpses, now.
“Hierophant,” I said. “Destroy the corpse.”
He did not quibble. Hazy power devoured the remains, leaving nothing behind, and slowly I returned to myself. I’d taken four hundred men into battle. Sixty still lived, most of them wounded. All that remained of the roundabout was a smoking, broken wreck.
“Nauk,” I croaked. “Where is Nauk?”
I strode through the ash and corpses, shouldering aside a legionary and glaring at the first officer I found. She paled, shivering.
“Where is your legate, lieutenant?” I seethed.
“Ma’am,” she stammered, “he’s…”
I saw the few remaining mages attending to the wounded as best they could, yellow light covering their palms. I could see Nauk among them. He was not moving, his breath faint. The left side of his face had been made a burnt eyeless husk, and the arm on the other side ended at the shoulder. They were not healing him. Fury spiked, the pavestones under me cracking.
“You,” I said, hoisting the closest mage by the chest. “Why aren’t you healing him?”
He only babbled uselessly, so I dropped him.
“There’s nothing more they can do, Catherine,” Masego said, passing me by as he knelt by the legate’s side.
“Then craft me a fucking miracle, Hierophant,” I hissed.
He frowned, then drew runes over Nauk. The frown deepened.
“I can keep him alive,” he said. “Anything more is beyond me. Parts of his mind were shredded by the fire.”
“Do it,” I rasped. “Who? Who can heal him?”
Pinpricks of light formed above Nauk, sinking into the body as Masego murmured. The orc’s breath grew steadier, but nothing more.
“Father,” he said. “Possibly Diabolist. Or…”
“Tell me,” I said through clenched teeth.
“It was fae fire that did this,” he said. “Fae sorcery could likely heal it.”
I clenched my fingers into a fist.
“Catherine,” Adjutant said.
I hadn’t even noticed him approaching. Thief was further away, leaning on Archer. Neither of them met my gaze.
“Dawn is coming,” he said. “We cannot linger.”
I forced myself to grow calm.
“Can you do anything more?” I asked Hierophant.
He shook his head.
“They’d already stopped the bleeding from the stump,” he said. “All I did was restore the organs.”
“Then we go,” I said, turning to the silhouette of the castle ahead. “Let’s end this.”