“Food riots, is it? Well, I do enjoy when a problem is its own solution.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet
It was a funny thing, hate. Before a sword through the chest set me on the path to becoming the Squire, I’d thought I was beyond it. That learning to see beyond the grudges and the anger was what set me apart from the heroes that died like flies as I grew up. I’d thought that by setting aside the hate I would be able to act with my hands unfettered, to bring lasting change instead of raging against the Tower for half a year and getting my throat slit in my sleep. It’d been a peculiar kind of arrogance, but arrogance nonetheless. None of us could ever be clear as spring water, not even Black. His brand of vainglory was just shrewder than most – because could you really call one man setting himself against the entire Heavens anything but arrogance? People could step on ants without even noticing it, no matter how clever the ant. Oh, when Named spoke to each other we didn’t call it arrogance. It was will, or madness, or half a dozen other little euphemisms that allowed us to feel slightly better about what we were doing. But that the end of the day, one truth always came out: to be Named was to believe, bone deep, that Creation should be a certain way. Beyond that it was just quibbling about the means you used to make sure it did.
It was conceit to believe I could be more than I was, some pure instrumentality of outcome or ideal. When I’d fought the greatest monsters of Arcadia, we’d called them gods. Lesser gods, of course – even in hushed whispers, deference must be afforded to the prickly holders of the penultimate thrones – but gods nonetheless. I should have understood it properly then, because what were even the most powerful of the fae but Named with the weight of millennia behind them? It was why they’d lost. Because when they’d come down to Creation, to this messy battlefield of ours, they’d been forced to fashion themselves into people. In Arcadia, they were perfect: not in the sense of flawlessness, no, but in the way that a cog in a machine fit exactly the form and purpose it was meant for. A god made to masquerade as a mortal had the fatal flaw of perfection removed from the perfect. But us Named? Oh, we were different breed. Mortals made gods, or at least clawing at the foot of that golden pedestal. Born of a fractured thing we took up those sharp edges and wielded them like blades to cut at each other. An aspect was not a reward in some arcane lottery arranged by the Gods, it was a wound. A hurt, a disappointment, a rage made into knife.
And in matters of self-mutilation I had few rivals.
So I seized my hatreds and accepted them for what they were: the foundations of my power. I’d been told once that a Name could not spring from void, but that’d been untrue. It was Roles that were shaped by the currents of Creation, left glittering and polished stones at the bottom of the riverbed. Names were something more… intimate. A collection of sharp moments before and ahead of you. Huddling hungry under covers, after the price of bread had risen. Blood in my mouth as I fought a man too large and strong to beat, defeat crawling ever closer. It was a lesson on the nature of stories, learned by burned shores. It was a faceless tribunal whose verdict I had refused. I’d tried for so long to make something of all this, to weave together a tale that did not have bile rising in my throat. But there was nothing sacred about baring your blade, nothing laudable about telling the world it must bend or break. If I disdained the lay of Creation as ordained by the Gods, the banners of black and white, then I must either make my own or find myself nothing but a butcher among butchers. And so I took those vivid moments and made them a blade, and that blade I bared once more. It could begin here, under cover of moonless night.
The darkness did not spread, it fell. There was a sky above but not one that could be touched. It was not a boundary, a ceiling. It was a pit above, a biting void of nothingness that could not be filled. In front of me the hand of the wight froze with a snapping sound and my boot came down, shattering flesh and bone. I leapt down onto the street and found myself among a host of silent statues. Stillness alone reigned as I tread forward, leather creaking softly against the frosted ground. The Diabolist had set an army before me, one a Squire could not hope to scatter. But it had been some time since I was only that, and where Catherine Foundling would have been checked the Duchess of Moonless Nights strode unimpeded. I was not truly doing any of this, I thought as I walked through the ranks and passed a wight that simply… fell apart when my cloak brushed its frame. This was not a spell, sorcery as I understood it. It was, as Masego had said, a domain. The old and merciless cold of this place was as much a part of it as the unbroken black of the sky. My own kingdom of winter and night, and in this place all but me were guests. I wondered what it said of me, that this was the shape my own soul made realm had come to take.
Nothing pleasant, I suspected.
The silhouettes and edifices were juxtaposed, I instinctively knew, not fully drawn into the domain. They had existence both inside and outside of it, and so did I. A domain, not merely a weapon, I mused. There was more to this than an eldritch killing blow. The gate to the Ducal Palace was closed and had once been warded. But this was Winter, the land of soft silent deaths and unending hunger. The cold devoured it all, stripping it bare until a flick of my fingers had the gates falling from the hinges and even the last wisps of sorcery died. Beyond the gate awaited men and devils, and these were not so empty as the wights. There were still specks of warmth at the heart of them, like trembling candles. An indifferent glance was enough to smother them, like pinching the wick with a thumb and a finger. I climbed the steps that paved the way to the hall even in this silent world of mine, watching wards and wights flicker out around me. There was something ahead, I could feel it. A boundary to this place that should have none. I went through stairs and galleries, treading the graveyard of my own making until ahead of me hateful warmth gleamed before my eyes. Light red and yellow, a circle slowly turning with images I could not truly see inscribed inside.
A ward, one meant to check fae. Thresholds must already be growing difficult, yes? Warlock’s voice whispered in my ear. I let out a breath cold as the air around me and rolled my shoulder to limber it, then struck at the ward as hard as I could. Something shattered, but it was not Akua’s magic. Like a broken mirror the world around me cracked and crumbled, colour and heat rushing back around me. I stood in the same hallway than before, every surface covered in ice and steaming. All things came to an end, it seemed. Not merely the good. I was tempted to unsheath my blade and try to force my way through the ward again, now looking like an innocuous door of oak, but I was not a rat running through Akua’s maze. I would not spend my strength against walls she had tailored to hold me back. Instead I closed my eyes and sharpened my senses, sinking deeper into my Name. I’d slaughtered my way into here, but I’d not been that thorough in the killing. There would be remains to find. After ten long breaths I finally heard heartbeats and footsteps, but not to the sides. There was only the silence of the grave there. Above. Threading my will into the ice covering the ceiling I thickened it, sunk its claws into the stone until it cracked. Then, without further ceremony, I crouched and leapt upwards.
Stone shattered around me and I emerged in a rain of shards, landing on a gutted carpet. There were three men in the room, and a crawling shape that was not anything of the sort. They screamed, unsurprisingly, and I noted with distant amusement that the walls and only door of the room had been covered in wards akin to the one Akua had set below.
“An amateur mistake,” I told them. “Not covering every surface.”
The creature of pink and bloated flesh on the ground opened a maw that was like a lizard’s, if the scales had been ripped away, and a long black tongue extended. On it a triad of red eyes were set, and as they glared at me I felt lethargy seep into my frame. I let Winter flood my veins and the assault dissipated like morning mist. My sword left the scabbard and in one smooth movement spun around my hand so I could nail the devil’s head to the floor. The men, Soninke all three of them, were mages. Panic remained but bled into sorcery, hasty incantations barked. A spear of purple flame sizzled to my side as I stepped around the spell, pivoting fluidly to avoid the stream of dark tar-like fluid shot by another mage. The third, to my amusement, did not even attempt a blow. He disappeared into thin air, veiled behind an illusion. I moved forward, sword carving through the fire-wielders’ chest then taking him by the shoulder and spinning the dying man around so he could shield me from the shower of white sparks the other one cast. Flesh melted under them, eaten away cleanly, but that did not prevent the mage from being bowled over by his comrade’s corpse when I tossed it at him. Sharpening my ears I waited for the sound of footsteps and found the last one attempting to flee by the door.
“Predictable,” I chided.
I flicked my wrist and a spear of shadow tore through the illusion, going straight through the man’s stomach but splashing harmlessly against the warded wall. I did not spare another glance for the corpse, instead turning to the only survivor. He managed to push the corpse I’d thrown at him to the side, only to find the tip of my sword resting on his throat. He swallowed, the lump in his throat moving as he did.
“Mercy, High One,” he croaked. “I surrender.”
“I thought about it,” I said. “Having one of you still breathing guide me through the mess. But there’s always the risk you’ll lie, you see.”
“I would never,” he swore.
“You won’t,” I agreed, and the sword point flicked down to plunge into his heart.
He twitched, gurgled and even as life began to leave him I poured Winter inside his frame. When I tore out my sword, his eyes were already blue.
“Get up,” I told my newest helper. “I haven’t damaged your throat, so you should be able to talk.”
He rose, but said nothing. I sighed. Undead.
“Say something,” I ordered.
“Something,” the corpse said.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. I, it had to be said, had literally asked for that.
“Tell me everything you know about the defences the Diabolist built in the palace,” I ordered. “We can begin with that ward down below, and how I can get past it.”
Dead men, as it turned out, did tell tales.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Diabolist redefined the meanings of ‘overly complicated’ and ‘cripplingly paranoid’. The Ducal Palace was essentially a labyrinth of wards and traps that no one but her knew the full lay of. Akua was rumoured – but not confirmed – to have a metaphorical skeleton key that would let her pass through everything unharmed but her many minions had to make do with being keyed in on at most a handful of wards. My talkative corpse couldn’t even get me through the one I’d failed to quite literally punch through earlier. He did know how to get past the equivalent on the second floor, but not how to go any further than that. Neither he nor his buddies had been high enough the pecking order for that. This was something of a problem, especially after I confirmed that the first contingency following the palace being attacked was every soldier within ten blocks rushing to secure it. I was going to be up in my neck in enemies if I didn’t hurry, and this entire place was designed to make hurrying more or less impossible. I’d freely admit that puzzles weren’t something I particularly enjoyed, so the notion of spending a few hours being swarmed by wights while trying to figure out how Diabolist’s mind worked was not high on my list of priorities.
So I’d taken another angle.
The newly-renamed First Volunteer, after being squeezed for every drop of information he knew on the palace defences, was told to guide me to the next knot of mages that were holed up. Diabolist had crafted this ridiculously complicated maze for me to run through? Fine. I could deal with that. I just needed to kill and raise mages until I had enough around to figure out the way through to her. It still took me the better part of an hour before I saw real progress. With seven dead mages trailing behind me I finally go to a window on the edge of the west wing overlooking the central courtyard. Behind it I could see the centre of the palace, where they all agreed the throne room would be. I turned towards my panoply of undead and cleared my throat.
“Should Have Ducked,” I said. “That section of the palace, does it have more of the threshold wards?”
A man with most his cheek missing watched me with blue eyes.
“It does not,” he replied.
I glanced at my most recent acquisitions, A Dress Is Not Armour and Surprisingly A Bleeder, who were standing impossibly still.
“Either of you ever been in there?” I probed.
I got twins shake of the head in reply. Diabolist had restricted access to that part of her lair to her inner circle, apparently, none of which I’d managed to get my hands on. I wasn’t eager to enter there blind, but I’d already had to abandon one way through because the wights had caught up and it was only a matter of time before they got to here as well. Breaking the window and making my way on foot was, according to these fellows, enough for me to enter. That reeked of trap, but not one I could afford to avoidk. If Diabolist really did have Black, leaving her the time to cook up a ritual was the worst thing I could do. I’d had my Named ripped out in this very city once, and though I wasn’t sure whether the alignment that had allowed that to happen still existed it was not a risk I wanted to take. I was not unaware I might not be the target this time, if she pulled that ritual again. For a moment I considered taking the dead mages with me, but just as quickly I dismissed the notion. Taking corpses in a fight with a Praesi sorcerer was just asking to get fucked with.
“You are to destroy each other with fire,” I ordered. “The last remaining mage is to destroy themselves using the same.”
They bowed and I raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t ordered that. The longer I kept them around, the smarter they were getting. I was breaking the glass with the pommel of my sword when the first flash of fire erupted behind me, but I didn’t look back. I landed in the courtyard in a crouch and wasted no time out in the open. A good thing, too. Streaks of flame immediately began to bloom above, lashing down in my direction. Stone blew up behind me as I ran and more streaks formed ahead. Best not to get hit by that, I mused. I’d probably walk away still alive, but not without some damage I could ill afford. There was servant’s entrance up ahead but also two other flame arrays lighting up so I swerved to the side and went straight for the wall instead. There was sorcery in it, but it did not feel like the wards that’d blocked me. My perception wasn’t sharp enough to get more than that. Name flaring, I rolled out of the way of fire that left smoking trails in the stone where I’d been a heartbeat ago and came out standing right in front of the wall. Sending the power to my fist, I swung against the stone. Triumphantly I felt the stone give, but what followed was less pleasant.
The closest description I could put into words was that it was like swinging at a spinning wheel. The stone gave for a moment, but then force came back at me and blew me off my feet. Flame came down from the side and I formed a pane of ice at the last moment but the fire evaporated it and thundered trough. I angled myself so that my cloak would catch the worst of it and still half my pauldron was torn off, leaving behind a smoking mess. Fuck, I eloquently thought as I legged it before I could be turned into a smoking crater by the next volley. I did not fancy my chances with the servant entrance, either. Even if I made it there unharmed I could not seriously believe Diabolist wouldn’t cover the obvious way in. She lived in there, so there had to be a convenient path inside for her inevitable servants and attendants, but that didn’t mean she had to leave it there when fighting an invasion. That left… I glanced to the side. A long way around, into what looked like a ripped up garden. Mostly open ground. I leapt away from another strike and slid across the stone, noticing as I did that the first hit was followed by another two immediately. Were the arrays focusing? Shit. Yeah, garden was out. I looked at the wall I’d failed to break and bit my lip. All right, Catherine, what do we do when we can’t go through? I cocked my head to the side, then frowned. Well, it could hardly be worse than the garden path. Probably.
I ran back for the wall, ducking another volley by the skin of my teeth. Diabolist’s ward had punched back, but only when I’d tried to go through. So there was a chance this would work. Also that I would die, but that came around as a possible outcome with depressing regularity. A twist of will had a handhold of ice forming on the surface. I’d seen the Watch do something similar once – wait, no, I was going about this wrong. I threw myself off the wall as fire struck the surface and, damnably, was almost immediately spat out mere inches away from where I was. No matter. I landed on a platform of shadow and began working my way up. Much easier. Going upwards instead of sideways was trickier, but as it turned out a much shorter path. Four passes had me leaping through a window that had felt absent of wards and I rolled through the wood and glass shards to rise smoothly to my feet. The window had felt like an oversight. It had not been, I learned almost immediately. All the surrounding surfaces were warded, more discreetly, and behind me I heard the sound of flame lashing out through the opening.
“I can’t believe I fell for that,” I admitted.
Definitely should have kept going up all the way to the roof, I mused. I managed to throw myself out of the way before the array torched me, at which point the situation cheerfully continued proceeding downhill. I really should have known: Praesi never turned down the opportunity to fuck you over twice when it was on the table. Around me were the same spinning wards as outside: when the streaks of fire hit the wall, they started to ricochet wildly in every direction. Too quickly for me to avoid. I hid under my cape but the impact was still enough to smash me into the wall, which fucking smashed me back because of course it would. Then another array shot fire into the room, and at that point there was more flame than empty space in this place. I was about to reluctantly try to use an aspect to force my way out when there was another explosion. The door flew off the hinges, smacking me in the side. I took it in stride, flipping the wooden surface to reflect another streak of fire, and then from the corner of my eye I saw a green, ugly mug pop out of the door frame.
“So,” Robber grinned, “about that promotion.”