“The enemy of my enemy is second on the list.”
– Dread Empress Vindictive III
“Is it contained?”
I didn’t bother with greetings, knowing the manners would be lost on Masego anyway. The dark-skinned mage nodded, not even noticing the abruptness of my tone.
“It did not struggle against imprisonment,” Hierophant said. “Nor has is sought to escape binding since.”
The two of us walked towards the sparse woods where the creature had been trapped inside wards without wasting time. Night had just fallen, which was a small mercy. It meant there’d be fewer witnesses. Already the scout line who’d found it approaching Harrow had been sworn to secrecy, but there was no telling if anyone else had come across it. as the exact path it’d taken to get here was still a mystery. More worryingly, the Observatory hadn’t seen it and it was meant to pick up on exactly this kind of stuff. I was not great student of sorcery, but even to me the implications were visible. Whoever had sent the thing was a mage of very great skill, and there were only a few of those around. And even fewer among those who’d lower themselves to raising the dead, much less this… particular kind.
“You’re sure it wasn’t an attack?” I asked for the third time.
Masego’s brow creased.
“Certainty of unknown intent is, by definition, impossible,” he said peevishly. “My current theory, based on initial observation, is that this was not an attack. It is not armed, and was not crafted with combat in mind – or at least no form of combat I can recognize.”
“It doesn’t need to swing blades to be dangerous, Masego,” I said. “It just needs to carry a magic plague and take a dip in the water reservoirs.”
“Don’t be obtuse, Catherine,” he sighed. “Plague-bearing was one of the first threats I assessed it for. There is no trace. It has, if anything, been stripped out of everything but the barest necessities for functionality. It does carry an enchanted object, but that object has no harmful properties.”
“Is that how it slipped the Observatory’s sight?” I asked.
“I do not believe so,” Hierophant said. “I’ve made preliminary studies, and found that its presence in Creation seems dimmed, somehow. Like a shadow under sorcerous sight. It was not invisible to the Observatory so much as exceedingly difficult to find if not specifically looked for.”
“We need to fix that weakness,” I flatly said. “If this could be done once, it can be done again. We’re relying on the Observatory to keep one step ahead of threats, and I’m not pleased someone already found a way to fool it. You told me it’d be years before someone found a counter.”
“I told you it would be three to five years before the Empire found a counter, barring my father’s sustained intervention,” the blind man corrected. “This is not Imperial work.”
We were going to have a longer conversation about this down the line, but I allowed silence to take hold as we finally got deep enough in the woods that the creature was in sight. Surrounded by layers on layers of translucent force with glowing runes inscribed, the undead creature was utterly still. Hakram, in full armour with his axe in hand, was keeping an eye on it. Indrani was out in the field to make sure there wasn’t another wandering the countryside, and Vivienne combing the keep for infiltration we might have missed. It wasn’t a person I was looking at, though it might once have been. The upper body and face was of a pale-skinned man’s, but that was where the normality ended. There was a pair of segment, almost insect-like arms coming out of the creature’s back, with hooks at the tip. Made for climbing, I thought. Had it crossed the Whitecaps without taking a pass? The body parts beneath the torso were harder to make out. The entire creature had been covered in a ragged cloak when the goblins first saw it, though it had fallen off the upper body since, and what I could glimpse through the cloth was eight spider-like legs of bone and necrotized flesh folded close to the torso. It was, I grimaced, the kind of abomination you’d expect to be dumped out in the Wasteland after an Emperor climbed the Tower and cleared out the basement of their predecessor’s experiments. There were no visible weapons save for the claws, not that it needed any.
“You’re sure this isn’t of your father’s making?” I said.
“I could perhaps reproduce the design in two months, he in one,” Masego noted. “The material parts of it anyway. What makes it truly fascinating work is the guiding intelligence, since there is barely any. Every ounce of metaphorical fat has been trimmed. It is, I will admit, one of the most magnificently efficient necromantic constructs I have ever seen.”
“All right, so either a high-tier necromancer has just come out of the woodworks,” I said. “Or we’re dealing with something much, much worse.”
The Dead King. Fucking Hells. It wasn’t like the situation had been going so well the Heavens needed to drop another dead cat in my lap. Assuming this was their work, anyway, and not a play by the Pricks Below.
“Catherine,” Hakram said suddenly, breaking me out of my thoughts before a proper rant could take hold. “It’s moving.”
My eyes flicked at the creature, which had risen on two bone appendages and was peering at me from the edge of the wards.
“Well,” I muttered. “That’s pretty lively for a dead cat.”
Masego glanced at me and opened his mouth but I silenced him with a raised hand. I felt him twitch, the mutter something under his breath about there being no feline components. The undead stared at me for a solid twenty heartbeats before opening its mouth.
“I offer greetings to the Black Queen of Callow,” the creature said. “Your renown has been heard far and wide, bringing the attention that is your due. I bear invitation from the King of the Dead, who offers safe passage to Keter. In the face of Above’s wroth, the champions of Below must either face demise alone or overturn the wheel of fate in coming striving.”
I waited just in case it had anything to add and in a manner of speaking it did. The jaws unhinged and a serpent-like black tongue came out, offering up what looked like a circular seal of pure obsidian.
“The enchanted object it was carrying,” Masego said. “It holds… instructions. A sliver of knowledge accessible through touch.”
I stared at the obsidian seal and decided it was too early in the year to start making decisions that blatantly terrible. I wasn’t getting anywhere near that until Masego had spent a few days checking it out, and even then I wasn’t touching it if it could be at all avoided.
“I hear the King of the Dead’s invitation,” I said. “But seek clarification on the nature of it.”
The tongue snapped back in. The undead began speaking again, but it was just repeating the exact same message. Masego’s glass eyes were staring at it, his head cocked to the side.
“Hierophant?” I probed.
“The trigger for the actions was your presence,” he said. “The message is not spoken consciously so much as woven into what passes for the construct’s mind. It cannot reason or reply, only repeat.”
“My presence,” I repeated slowly.
“Winter, more specifically,” he said. “I’ll need a closer look to find out the decision threshold, but I suspect Larat would not have been able to fool it into speaking.”
Hakram had come to stand at my side while we spoke, warily eyeing the undead.
“Cat,” he gravelled. “If the Dead King knew enough to bespell for that…”
“He has a much better idea of what’s going on outside his kingdom than we thought,” I finished grimly. “Shit.”
Masego cleared his throat.
“Why are we displeased?” he said. “My interest in diplomacy is inexistent, but this seems to me like an offer of alliance. Are we not under siege by the crusaders?”
“We are,” I said.
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“But there’s a saying back home about Praesi bearing gifts, and I think it might just apply here,” I said.
Hakram loomed tall at my side, baring his fangs at the creature.
“I’ll get the others,” he said. “The solar?”
I nodded and stood silently as he left, watching the creature as it began to speak the message again.
“You have an hour to study it,” I finally told Masego. “Don’t break it, we don’t know if there’d be consequences. After the hour’s done, I want you in the solar with everyone else.”
An eager smile split Hierophant’s face in two.
“Thank you, Catherine,” he murmured. “This will be most interesting.”
I walked away without a word, pretty sure I didn’t want to see what would follow.
There were six of us in Baroness Ainsley’s solar, enough that it felt full without being outright cramped. The piles of parchment that followed Adjutant like a curse had been dumped unceremoniously on the ground so that the only thing on the table was a detailed map of Calernia – along with a handful of goblets. Mine was still half-filled with aragh, but I’d refrained from downing it whole after Hakram sent me a quelling look. Fine, be that way, I thought mulishly. It’s not like I was just essentially offered an alliance by the oldest and most dangerous abomination in Calernian history. If there was ever a godsdamned reason to drink… Masego was already looking bored and we hadn’t even begun. He’d hinted his time could be better spent studying the envoy the very moment he’d walked into the solar, and had been sulking ever since I’d told him it would have to wait. It would have been kind of cute, if he wasn’t essentially pouting because I’d told him he couldn’t go elbows-deep in dead flesh. Archer was keeping him attentive – and twitching – by idly tearing up the pages of a book I was pretty sure she’d gotten for this very purpose. Vivienne and Juniper had pointedly sat as far as each other from possible, to my irritation. I was not unaware they were less than fond of each other, but until now they’d been a lot subtler about it. Something must have happened while I was taking my lovely Winter nap, but neither of them was talking. Hakram was, as usual, an oasis of calm competence in the middle of the mess that was our lives. He’d transcribed the Dead King’s message from memory and provided it for the others to read. I cleared my throat.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s get this started. Before we get to unpacking anything else, Thief can provide a reminder of how fucked we’re looking at the moment.”
Vivienne shot me an amused look before leaning over the table.
“As most of you are aware,” she said, “there is a knife at Callow’s throat.”
She tapped the map right at the feet of the sculpted spearman figurine on the western side of the former Red Flower Vales.
“Prince Klaus Papenheim, the First Prince’s foremost general, is digging his way though the wrecked passes as we speak,” Thief said. “He has between forty and fifty thousand men under his command, and we estimate that within four months he will be reinforced by an army of thirty thousand Levantines.”
“With the way Cat’s looking like she’s sucking on a lemon that personally murdered her father, I’m guessing he’s preparing an invasion,” Indrani commented.
She sounded at best mildly interested, but I’d take what I could get.
“By the time the Levantines arrive, we believe they’ll have dug out a usable passage,” Thief said. “Which is to say, in about four months we’lle be facing an offensive of at least seventy thousand soldiers led by several heroic bands.”
“That’s bad,” Archer mused. “Zeze, doesn’t that sound bad?”
“I suppose,” Hierophant shrugged. “Can’t we make a truce with those as well?”
“I’m not opposed to the notion,” I admitted. “But we don’t have the men to force another draw, and we’re not dealing with Amadis Milenan here. Papenheim is the First Prince’s uncle and the most decorated general in Procer, he’s not going to flinch if we bloody him a bit. He’ll stick it out until only one of us is left standing, and the odds aren’t looking great for that being us.”
“A truce in the Vales might lead to the political collapse of the Tenth Crusade,” Hakram said. “And likely the end of his niece’s reign with it. Negotiation is not a plausible option as things stand.”
“I could kill the First Prince,” Indrani suggested.
“The Tower’s been trying to do that for over twenty years,” I told her. “She has a future-telling Named, the Augur, watching for attempts. If Black is to be believed the Augur protects Papenheim as well, so removing him isn’t on the table either.”
“Ugh, seers,” Archer complained. “They take all the fun out of it.”
Juniper growled, cutting through the whining.
“Tactics won’t get us out of this,” she said. “We need strategic leverage. Either reinforcements that make holding the Vales feasible, or someone to put pressure on the Principate so it can’t afford to leave those seventy thousand men at the border.”
The orc marshal drummed her thick fingers against the map.
“The Army of Callow will be, barely, in fighting fit if our timeline for the invasion holds,” she said. “But another major battle will take us right back out of the war, won or lost, and this time for much longer. We’re bleeding veterans and irreplaceables. To be blunt, if we want fight again then we need a force to split casualties with. Much better would be not fighting at all.”
“So, now we take a hard look at our options,” I said. “The name of the game tonight being: is there literally any other option that the Dead King?”
“I could go to Refuge,” Archer offered. “Most pupils will be gone, especially the heroes – last I heard Silver signed up with the White Knight – but there’s bound to be one or two left I can beat into joining. Lady Ranger probably won’t care enough to get involved.”
I worried my lip with my teeth.
“Even by gate, it’d take most entire preparation time to get there and back,” I finally said. “I wouldn’t sneer at more Named, but I doubt they’ll be enough to turn the tide unless some real powerhouses have been keeping quiet.”
“They probably wouldn’t be frontline material,” Indrani admitted. “Beastmaster might qualify with the right mount, but he’s not a pushover I can bully and he doesn’t really give a shit about anything going on outside the Waning Woods. Also tends to disappear for months at a time, so he might not be there at all. Concocter’s the only one I can be sure will be there, but her thing is potions and she uses ingredients from the woods for most her brews.”
“We’ll table that for now, then,” I said. “Anyone else?”
“Mercenaries,” Juniper said. “Diabolist hired men through Mercantis twice. I know the treasury’s tight but better some debt than the kingdom lost.”
“That well’s run dry,” Vivienne said, shaking her head. “All the larger companies are already under contract in the League, and even if we snap up all the smaller ones that’d be at most two or three thousand soldiers. Extremely unreliable ones. All the reputable mercenaries are already in someone’s pay.”
“Speaking of the League,” I said, raising an eyebrow at Thief.
“The Hierarch’s still not willing to sit at the table,” Vivienne replied. “The only saving grace is that Procer is also apparently full of wicked foreign oligarchs so they’re equally out of luck there. The Tyrant of Helike is willing in theory, but he also says he loves Hierarch ‘like the father he had and then murdered’ so he won’t cut a deal behind his leader’s back. Not sure we should even if he agrees, to be honest. Aside from how astonishingly prone to backstabbing the man is, poaching a member of the League might get the rest of it coming after us in retaliation.”
Masego cleared his throat, and I glanced at him in surprise. I’d not actually expected him to contribute to this part of the council.
“Is there a reason we cannot simply contact Uncle Amadeus?” he asked. “He has legions with him, as I understand it, and we could spirit them away through gates.”
I felt Juniper’s eyes on me. She agreed with the notion, I knew. She’d already made that very clear in private.
“I’m not willing to do that until I know what game he’s playing, and he hasn’t been forthcoming,” I said. “For all I know the moment we come to pick him up we’ll be heading into a pitched battle with half of Procer. I won’t consider him an enemy right now – Hells, he pretty much scrapped a legion’s worth of men to defend my borders – but it’s a long walk from that to trusting him.”
Masego’s glass eyes turned to gaze at me, the power of Summer within burning.
“We will come to his aid if he is cornered,” Hierophant said, and it wasn’t a question. “I do not ask you to fight a battle for his sake, but he at least should be rescued.”
I clenched my fingers under the table.
“If he’s in danger of death,” I said. “I didn’t force him to take his army in the heartlands of Procer, Masego. And I doubt he would have done it without a plan, which we know nothing about.”
There was a tense moment, then the Soninke nodded.
“He rarely does anything without one,” Hierophant conceded.
Indrani tore another page from the book on her lap and he twitched in irritation. Smiling broadly, Archer looked at me.
“The Empress’ supposed to be in charge, right?” she said. “Seems like we could drop this whole mess into her lap.”
“We can’t,” Vivienne and I simultaneously said.
I snorted, then gesture for her to continue.
“It would break the terms of our truce with the northern crusaders to do so,” Thief said. “Praes is already under siege by the Thalassocracy, regardless. It has no legions to spare.”
“Deoraithe aren’t our solution either, before anyone mentions them,” I added. “Kegan’s army will be holding the passage. Even if we had another way to keep that closed, she’s been pretty blunt in telling me she’s not taking her army into a meat grinder down in the Vales. She’s willing to help, but there’s limits.”
There was a long moment of silence around the table, the stares of most going to the map and the last few forces unaccounted for.
“The Chain of Hunger,” Juniper said, enumerating them. “The Kingdom of the Dead. The Everdark.”
Well, at least they were taking this seriously enough no one had brought the elves. Not that there were even in Creation at the moment. There were still tucked away in some inaccessible corner of Arcadia according to the few Imperial reports Malicia still sent our way.
“The Grey Pilgrim is highly influential in Levant,” Vivienne said. “There might be an angle there as well.”
“Pilgrim’s running his own game,” I quietly replied. “Nothing we have to offer is better than the irons he already has in the fire.”
She fixed me with a long searching look before nodding. We were, I suspected, going to have a conversation about that.
“The ratlings do not seem like a promising avenue,” Hakram said. “Imperial chronicles imply they have no understanding of diplomacy.”
He’d been rather quiet so far, but then he tended to be in councils like these. He’d always preferred to let others do the talking, to work behind the stage so things got done after decisions had emerged.
“It has been theorized only the youngest among them and a very small number of the truly old,” Masego noted. “It is, at least, a matter of record that even after Triumphant slaughtered over nine tenths of their population they offered no surrender. She withdrew after burning everything down and salting the ashes, as I recall.”
Only Hakram and Juniper pressed their knuckle to their forehead at the mention of the name, I noticed, though they both managed not to speak the words.
“Shame,” Indrani said. “The Lady says their Ancient Ones are just large brutes, but the Horned Lords are supposed to be hard fuckers. We could use a few of those.”
“If we assault Lycaonese territories and lay waste to border defences, it might be possible to bait an attack from the Chain even without prior negotiation,” Vivienne said. “They send warbands south every spring, there should already be many on the march.”
“At least half the armies of Rhenia and Hannoven are still up there manning the walls,” Juniper said. “It won’t be a milk run, I can promise you that. Lycaonese die hard. Losses are guaranteed, and I’m not hearing any certainty they’ll have to deal with worse than a few warbands after.”
“We need as stronger foundation going forward,” Hakram calmly agreed. “That plan would rely on too many unknowns.”
“The drow?” Vivienne said, sounding less than enthusiastic.
“We don’t know a lot about them,” I said. “Archer?”
“Lady Ranger tried to hunt the Priestess of Night, a century back I think? They messed with the tunnels so she couldn’t find a way to their cities,” Indrani shrugged. “Haven’t got much else on them.”
“We know they have no unified central rule,” Adjutant said. “That would make them difficult to treat with, much less mobilize. And there are records sixty years old that speak of a drow raiding party wielding weapons of iron instead of steel.”
“I don’t care if they’re using bones,” I grunted. “As long as there’s enough of them to worry Hasenbach.”
“Even assuming they can be assembled and gated within a sennight of your arrival, the Vales would be too far to return in time,” Juniper said. “That means an offensive in Procer, then, and we’d need of a functional army for that to have any degree of success. Nothing we’ve heard leads me to believe they have one.”
“Might be one of the few places susceptible to the Foundling charm though,” Archer said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“The Foundling charm?” I warily asked.
The ochre-skinned woman grinned.
“You know, killing the people in charge until someone willing to listen gets promoted,” she said. “The Tenets of Night are all about stabbing to get on top, you’d blend right in.”
It was an effort not to sigh.
“Might take a lot of killing to get anywhere, though,” Archer mused. “Better to take me to Refuge instead.”
I grimaced and passed a hand through my tangled hair.
“Well,” I said. “I suppose we’re going to have to talk about the Dead King, then.”