“The existence of death is the first lie we are taught. There is little difference between a corpse and a man, save the journey of the soul. They who learn to slip this noose find the threshold of apotheosis, for in the denial of passing they have taken themselves beyond the yoke of fate.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
I’d almost expected an army to be waiting on the other side when I opened the gate into Arcadia, but it seemed my bag of unwelcome complications was full at the moment. And to think, it’d only taken war with half the continent and every hero the Heavens could put together before we’d reached that point! Sadly, I was not unaware that the moment I started believing we’d reached the bottom of the barrel some Choir would pop in, yell surprise in a monotone and reveal there was a false bottom below leading into another barrel entirely.
“What’s the word they have in the Free Cities, for the snake that eats its own tail?” I asked Hakram.
“Ouroboros,” he replied, hairless brow cocking.
There it was. In summary, my life was a veritable ouroboros of bad decisions feeding into increasingly horrible messes. I had to own up to at least that much, headed as we were towards what might just be the worst decision yet.
“You’re brooding,” Adjutant said.
“I don’t brood,” I replied without missing a beat.
He rolled his eyes.
“You are looking thoughtfully into the distance, a melancholy air on your face,” he said.
“I’m a complicated woman, Hakram,” I said. “You can’t begin to grasp the depths of my ponderings.”
Archer snorted ahead of us. Unkindly so, I decided.
“Like you can talk, Indrani,” I sneered. “You’re about as complex as a rock.”
“Geology is a broad and complicated field of study, actually,” Masego said.
“See?” she said. “Even Zeze agrees I’m a woman of many facets. Unlike some others that won’t be mentioned.”
She turned to grin at me.
“Oh, things are going badly,” she mocked in a high-pitched voice. “Better stab my way out of it. But stabbing is bad, for some inexplicable reason. What a difficult dilemma.”
I flipped her off.
“Don’t expect silver at the end of the trip, wench,” I said. “Mouthy guides don’t get handouts.”
“That’d be very inconsiderate of you, Catherine,” Vivienne mused. “She’s been such a peach so far. I’ll hold onto the coin for her, if you’d like.”
“You’ve already robbed the treasury once, Thief,” I replied flatly. “Try something fresh, for Below’s sake.”
It was pretty inevitable that a journey this, well, boring would see us turn to bickering to pass the time. Hierophant had been rather miffed that we’d kept the supplies to a bare minimum, since it meant he couldn’t spell himself atop a horse and crack open a book while we guided his mount. It’d taken three days before he stopped dropping hints this was all very uncivilized. The Woe’s only tagalong was my trusty Zombie the Third, and she at least wasn’t complaining about carrying most our supplies in her saddle-bags. It was a dark day indeed when the dead flying unicorn was the most trustworthy of my companions. I glanced up and sighed when I saw the sun was only beginning to reach afternoon height. We had hours left before making camp.
“We’ll reach the outskirts of Winter by nightfall,” Indrani suddenly said. “I know this place.”
I followed her gaze and found a mound of earth covered in dead grass, maybe half a mile away. We hadn’t seen any structures in days, not since we’d passed the demesne of the Count of False Blooming. Three weeks since we’d left Callow, and only now was the throb in the back of my mind that indicated the location of our path out beginning to feel measurably closer.
“I don’t think this is really Winter anymore,” I said quietly.
Hierophant, who’d been trailing behind and repeatedly weaving cooling spells around himself so he wouldn’t sweat for the exercise, put a spring to his step so he could catch up.
“You perceive our surroundings as different, even though they do not appear to be,” he said.
I chewed over that for a while before speaking.
“Before I could feel…” I grasped for the word. “Currents, in this place. Skade felt much different from the Summer territories we campaigned on. Archer says we’re supposed to be in Winter, but it doesn’t feel anything like that to me.”
“The wedding of the king and queen of Arcadia might have affected the very nature of this realm, then,” Masego murmured. “Interesting. If the effect is permanent, centuries of research on the fae might become useless.”
“The less anyone has to do with fae, the better,” I said, not unaware of the irony involved.
“Unfortunate that we do not have the time to study the phenomenon in depth,” Hierophant said. “Your word alone is not enough. You are ignorant and possibly under influence.”
Archer smothered a laugh and Hakram went suspiciously still, like he was trying not to smile. I looked at Masego for a long beat. It’d been said so mildly I knew it wasn’t actually an insult, but sometimes I did hope someone would eventually manage to badger some tact into him.
“That was insulting, Masego,” Vivienne called out from Zombie’s other side.
“Was it?” Hierophant said, glass eyes flicking to the side. “But it was all true.”
I patted his shoulder gently.
“We don’t call people ignorant, Masego,” I told him.
“But the overwhelming majority of them are,” he said, aghast.
“And I could spit in your morning tea, but I don’t,” I said. “Because refraining from doing that makes interacting more agreeable.”
He looked less than convinced.
“If they are never informed of their ignorance, how will they be made aware of the need to remedy it?” he pointed out, evidently believing this was reasonable.
“Remember our heroic battle cry, Zeze,” Indrani called out.
His expression cleared.
“Ah,” he mused. “Lies and violence. I understand.”
He turned to me and offered a beaming smile.
“You are well-read and conversant in magical theory, Catherine,” he said. “Well done.”
Hakram let out a sound that aimed to be a giggle but came out like a dozen angry cats being ground between millstones. I rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“Thank you, Masego,” I said, reaching for calm.
He nodded, pleased, and trotted ahead to speak with Archer.
“I am well-read,” I complained at Hakram in a low voice.
“Compared to him?” the orc chuckled. “There’s libraries that would feel inadequate.”
Yeah, fair enough. It wasn’t like there weren’t gaps in Masego’s knowledge, but it was hard to beat personal tutoring by an incubus that preceded the Empire and a sorcerer that cut open Creation to find out how it worked.
“I find it interesting, though,” Hakram murmured. “What you said, about it feeling different.”
I glanced at him, silently inviting the orc to elaborate.
“Have you noticed?” Adjutant said. “The further we stray from ‘Winter’ territory, the less… alive the landscape become.”
“Winter’s never exactly been a field of flowers,” I pointed out.
He conceded that with an inclination of the head, but did not further agree.
“The mound Indrani used as a marker,” he said. “There was dead grass upon it.”
“Does it look to you like it was killed by snow?” he said.
Frowning, I took a closer look. When snows in Callow melted, the grass below came out yellow or green. From what little I’d seen anyway, I didn’t usually campaign in winter and I’d been raised in the city until nearly seventeen. The grass above the mound, though was… grey. I did not feel dead of natural causes. My fingers drummed against my side absent-mindedly.
“Warlock once told Malicia that Arcadia has a degree of symmetry with Creation,” I said.
“So you’ve told me,” Adjutant agreed.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Hakram,” I said quietly. “I mean, fitting journeys through Arcadia with a bird’s eye view of Calernia is pretty much impossible but we shouldn’t be anywhere close to the Kingdom of the Dead. Maybe halfway through the Proceran leg of the trip.”
“There is much we do not understand about the Dead King,” the orc said. “It is known he ruled a great kingdom, once but there is hardly any mention of it in the histories.”
“Because it was ancient,” I said sceptically. “And it’s not that unusual. No one knows what Ater’s original name was, or even the name of the kingdom centred around it. That’s what happens when people fuck around with demons.”
I’d been taught at the orphanage the reason for the existence of the ‘Nameless Kingdom’ was likely a demon of Absence, or that the Miezans had used a Censure after facing entrenched resistance. The latter theory wasn’t all that popular, since they were known to have use that only a handful of times across the entire lifespan of their empire.
“There are Callowan and Praesi oral histories contemporary to what would have been the Dead King’s predecessors,” Hakram said. “Yet no mention of a great power in the north.”
Which didn’t mean all that much, since back in those days most current nations didn’t even exist and those that had were pretty much unrecognizable when compared to what they now were. But he did have a point, kind of.
“So you think that he, what?” I said. “Shunted off parts of the kingdom into Arcadia?”
“The elves have done the same with the Golden Bloom twice now,” Adjutant said. “It is not impossible. A sorcerer capable of conquering a hell would certainly be capable of achieving as much.”
“If he was active outside his kingdom and his hell, someone would have heard of it by now,” I said. “I doubt he could gain a foothold in Arcadia without going to war with the courts, anyway. And that would have made waves.”
“It would now, certainly,” Hakram said. “Sorcery has been refined for centuries, states capable of sparing attention outside their borders and immediate threats have emerged. When most the continent wielded stone axes, however? A different story.”
Shit. That might actually be true. If it had all turned into myth millennia ago, whatever stories would have existed about it might have grown so different and twisted they were useless as a cornerstone.
“Lots of ifs,” I finally said.
“We will find out soon enough,” Hakram said. “But there are few entities in existence we should be warier of underestimating than the Hidden Horror.”
And on that cheerful note, we joined the others.
“So,” I said. “Anyone else have a bad feeling about this?”
“Yes,” Hakram bluntly said.
“Haven’t had a good one in years,” Vivienne admitted.
The other two minions ignored me. Indrani’s eyes were bright and excited, her stance coiled like she could barely keep herself from running forward. Masego, on the other hand, had gone eerily still aside from his hands and eyes. Which all moved from rune to rune traced in the air, as he let out little noises of surprise or delight whenever one of the colours or shapes changed.
I decided to leave him at it a little longer, eyes turning back to the eerie sight displayed before me. It was a kingdom. Or, at least, the shattered remnants of one. I had not chosen that word lightly: it was not a whole but a collection broken shards left wherever they fell, dropped by the hand of some unknowable god. Some shards seemed like they fit together – for half a mile a lake’s shoreline could be seen, with fishermen dragging their boats out under the noon sun – but others were almost painfully disparate. I saw a city street lead into a dark forest, a river flow out of a crowded fair and those were the least of it. In the distance I glimpsed warriors fighting in the pitch black darkness of a plain, next to the almost idyllic view of the sun rising over a peaceful farm.
“Indrani?” I said.
“No fucking idea, Catherine,” she said with relish. “I don’t even think the Lady has seen this before. She would have mentioned it for sure.”
Less than reassuring. Either this place was hidden a lot better than it seemed, or even the likes of Ranger preferred to avoid it.
“I’ll get the obvious out first,” I said. “This looks like the Kingdom of the Dead. Before, well, the last part of that.”
“It could be ancient Procer,” Hakram noted. “It too has large lakes. So does Callow, for that matter.”
“No it isn’t,” Vivienne quietly said. “Look as far as out as you can see, slightly to the left of the centre.”
I squinted before seeing what she was speaking of. It was city. Much too small to be Ater, but it begged for the comparison anyway because at the heart of it jutted a tall spire of dark stone. Atop it was a smaller globe, hovering in the air, and I’d seen that illustration before in books.
“Keter,” I said. “Crown of the Dead.”
“Inaccurate,” Hierophant said. “This is, for lack of a better term, an echo.”
His lips were twitching into a delighted smile, as if he couldn’t believe his luck.
“And what does that mean exactly?” I asked.
“Reverberation,” he said, sounding awed. “An event touched Creation that was so great and momentous it forced reflection within Arcadia. This has fascinating implications, Catherine. There have been few rituals so powerful in Calernian history, but the Diabolist’s working at Second Liesse could be considered in the same league. There might very well be an echo of that battle somewhere in this realm.”
My fists clenched. So there was a repeat of one of the darkest failures to my name to be found somewhere around? Charming.
“Can it hurt us?” I asked.
“I cannot speak with certainty,” Hierophant said.
“Guess,” I flatly ordered him.
He looked irritated.
“I can theorize,” he stressed pointedly, “that we are in such misalignment with the echo we cannot physically interact with it. With the proper spells perhaps sound could be obtained, but touch or smell are much more difficult. It would take weeks of rituals.”
“Which we won’t be doing,” I said.
“Cat,” Archer complained. “Think about it. There’s bound to be heroes and villains there. We could fight people that had been dead for millennia!”
“Maybe on the way back,” I lied.
“Masego, how is this possible at all?” Hakram asked. “I was under the impression that Arcadia spanned the whole of Creation as a mirror of sorts. Was the Dead King so powerful all the world shook from his transgression?”
Hierophant clicked his tongue.
“That is a misunderstanding,” he said. “Consider Arcadia as a single object being looked upon by an infinity of perspectives. To every one, it is a different realm. Across the Tyrian Sea, it likely has completely different name and seems inhabited by completely different entities. Even the marriage of Winter and Summer is contained within the span of our gaze only, unlikely to have tremors beyond. It is so with this echo as well. Something that was momentous on our understanding of the world is not necessarily so elsewhere.”
“And so Triumphant wept, for she ruled but a fraction of the world and knew it to be vast beyond her reckoning,” Vivienne quoted softly. “We are not so important as we like to believe.”
“We can debate the philosophical implications of this later,” I said. “I’m fairly certain our gate out is in not-Keter. Masego, you’re sure that if we walk through a battlefield we won’t get stabbed?”
“From our perspective, all of this is akin to light painting smoke,” Hierophant said. “We will pass through as if they were ghosts.”
“Some ghosts,” he clarified. “There is actually a very board spectrum of-“
“And forward we go,” I interrupted cheerfully. “I’m not sure I trust my ice to get us through the water parts, so we’re talking the long way around through-“
I paused, glancing to the right.
“A town burning plague victims,” I finished with a sigh. “Charming. Let’s get a move on, I’m not spending any more nights in this place than I have to.”
That didn’t turn out to be a problem, as it happened. Arcadia had a night and day, though sometimes they weren’t matches everywhere, but this place obeyed different rules entirely. Every shard seemed to have a lifespan before it returned to the beginning, and most that took place during day or night remained so. There seemed to be no rule or reason to the few shards that lasted longer. We marched through an entirely empty green field for three days and nights as if it were entirely natural, then pushed through a similarly empty mountain pass where the same bird began to swoop down in the same manner every quarter hour. Hierophant found a way to allow us earshot after half a week, though the sounds came muted. Unsurprisingly, Indrani pushed for us to pass through as many battlefields as possible. We took a break to the side of a pitched battle between a few hundred soldiers decked in iron screaming as they charged down a hill and half as many soldiers wearing obsidian and copper breastplates. The howlers were winning even though the opposition had a handful of mages. Those to be seen were a joke compared to even Legion mages: it took clusters of four or five chanting for a while to toss around the kind of lightning bolts my senior mage officers sent down without breaking a sweat. I sat down and watched the killing as the other ate.
“I recognize some of what they’re saying,” Hakram told me, standing by my side with the remains of his jerky in hand.
“The obsidian guys?” I said.
He shook his head.
“The iron men,” he replied. “Some of what they’re screaming has common roots with Reitz.”
The Lycaonese tongue, spoken only in the mountainous northwestern stretch of Procer.
“That’s four times we run into them fighting the others,” I noted. “And they win more often than not.”
“An invasion?” Adjutant said.
“Maybe,” I frowned. “We haven’t seen them hit anything larger than a village yet, so raids are more likely.”
We ran into our first real city shard two days later. Masego had been getting progressively more irritated by his inability to explain why we could pass through buildings and people but not mountains or hills, but we stumbled unto something that perked him up. Inside a towering house of bricks we found a circle of twelve men and women standing by a wide basin of granite and spilling blood inside from their arms. The oldest among them, a withered old crone, chanted incantations in a language none of us knew that were repeated by the rest. I allowed a half hour break, if only to get him in a better mood. Hierophant in a mood was pleasant for no one.
“Early scrying,” he told us, kneeling by the ghostly ritual. “It is Trismegistan in nature, that much can be known by the cadence, but they use no runic stabilizers at all. It is primitive, I’ll grant you, but the sheer skill involved… Even Father could not use so complicated a formula purely by voice.”
We moved on before long. We were all getting restless, the eerie scenes beginning to take a toll, but none more so than Archer. The longer it went on, the more often she started taking walks after we set camp. It was a bad idea, in my eyes. We knew too little about the dangers of this place to wander aimlessly. But more than any of us Indrani had the wanderlust, and I could see how remaining within the dotted lines was getting her temper closer to the surface. I extracted a promise for her not to leave for too long, and left it at that. I’d expected that if any trouble found us it would be through her, but I ended up choking on my words. It was Masego that wandered away without a word, face pale. It surprised me, considering the shard we were travelling through was a battle. One with precious little sorcery involved. The iron men were fighting the soldiers of obsidian again, by far the largest engagement we’d seen. At least two thousand on each side, and the obsidian soldiers were taking a beating. In large part, I saw, because of the empty circle at the heart of the field. Two silhouettes were duelling there. A middle-aged woman with a crown of iron, wielding a heavy mace of stone. Against her fought a man in a tunic of shimmering copper, wearing a circlet of gold-linked rubies. His iron sword was broken in a parry, and then the iron-crowned queen pulped his skull on the grass.
It was there I found Masego. He wasn’t looking at the fighting, at the circle of screaming soldiers from both sides surrounding the duel. No, he stood slightly beyond that. His form dispersing a soldier. He was looking at pale-skinned man in furs, chest mostly bare and his neck covered with necklaces of iron and silver. The stranger Hierophant was staring at was beautiful, I decided. One of the most striking men I’d ever seen. It was like someone had ripped out the fantasy of a warrior consort and given it flesh.
“Masego?” I called out.
He did not answer. I hurried to his side, laying my hand on his shoulder.
“Are you in danger?” I asked.
Mutely Hierophant shook his head. After a long moment he spoke.
“That,” he said, pointing at the man, “is my father.”