“Grudge is born of blood, carried by it and redressed through it. As they who came before me swore, I so swear: there will be no peace nor rest ‘til the Cradle is reclaimed.”
– First Oath of the People, taken by all in the Duchy of Daoine at age seven
I’d once had a conversation with Akua, after Indrani had hit the bottle hard enough during our ‘council’ that she’d ended up snoring on the table. We’d talked about him before, of course: the Dead King. The Hidden Horror, the Abomination, the last king of Sephirah – all that a hundred more titles, a treasure trove’s worth of grim honours accrued over the centuries. We’d all been spinning our schemes around the ancient thing in Keter since the invitation had first reached me in Callow, and no small amount of talk and ink had been spent over the thought of what he might intend. In a sudden moment of honesty, sharing a shoddy table with a woman I still sometimes remembered to hate, I’d admitted that the Dead King’s ambitions were opaque to me. Assuming he even had any. What could the immortal ruler of a near-untouchable realm truly desire from Creation? All the wants of a mortal ruler were in his hands already: wealth almost absurd, authority absolute, the adulation of the people he’d forged to worship him as their sole idol. What was there, in all the world, that the King of Death could not obtain with either a snap of his fingers or use of the patience in which he was peerless?
Companionship, Akua had eventually suggested, and perhaps there was some truth to that. When he’d spoken of the Bard it had been with an almost fond manner of respect, though they were foe in all things and more than once she had ruined him. Yet while I would not deny I’d had my moments of arrogance over the years, I would not seriously countenance that my potential apotheosis had been reason enough for him to stir the Crown of the Dead to war. Malicia’s invitation had been an open door but walking through it had been his own will and the purpose of that will escaped me still. Even if he ended up successful beyond a monster’s wildest dreams, even if he devoured the continent whole and brought forth a thousand years of darkness… then what? A fleet raised, and through ships the tide of undeath was to be taken across the Tyrian Sea? Or into Arcadia, perhaps, some other Hell or for true ambition to the Heavens themselves. It was difficult, I would admit, to truly think on the scale and scope of someone like the King of Death given the comparative speck of a life I’d lived. Yet I did not believe that the soft-spoken, patient monster I’d seen make of his own home a pyre for apotheosis would choose as his path endless war on all the world.
Akua had challenged me on that, surprised by my certainty. In some ways, she’d argued, the Dead King was the pinnacle of what being partisan of Below meant. For all that the Hidden Horror had slumbered beyond his borders sometimes for centuries at a time, that only one villain in the history of Calernia had ever been his better. May she never return. How else but war was the King of Death to subjugate the entire world? It’d been a stark reminder, that conversation, that the people who’d raised Akua Sahelian had seen conquering the world as an admirable thing to aspire to. Believed that it was natural to believe so, that all others did as well. Her peers, her highest servants, her kin: her entire little world had shared that madness. It must not have seemed like madness at all, I thought, when you were in the warm embrace of that world. How could it be, when everyone who mattered believed it reason as well? But Akua was still a Wastelander, a highborn, in ways she might never entirely shake. It blinded her to the truth that the Dead King’s victories had sprung from his rejection of everything the brood ever circling the Tower held dear. See, the thing with the kind of game that Neshamah was playing was that the opposition only needed to get lucky once – and they had forever to take yet another swing, praying for that golden day. And every time the Dead King went to war, Above got another shot at him.
An endless war, for Neshamah, was a long and elaborate suicide by odds.
Oh, we’d not peered at the heart of the Hidden Horror and unfurled its deepest secrets that night. We were, after all, both so young and taught to think in the terms of a war that rarely made it so far west. But it’d stayed with me, the thought that patience was not a skeleton key to the Dead King’s every trouble. He could retreat back into the Serenity when he misliked the cast of something, true enough, but that had costs – in champions broken, in secrets unearthed and tricks revealed. Much of that knowledge died with those who’d learned it, so soon gone, but the important bits – those that might one day destroy him? The Intercessor would hoard them, and them dole them out to heroes whenever opportunity arose. Patience allowed him to set the battlefield as he preferred, to stack it, but the battle still had to be fought. Why offer a hundred-year truce, if not because he misliked the shape of this particular battlefield? The paramount virtue of an existence like the Dead King had to be cowardice, in this world of ours, and that meant retreating immediately and without qualms the moment it seemed like there might be a genuine threat after him. That knowledge was no skeleton key either, though, for he remained the Hidden Horror. There were so few things that could be a threat to him, when it came down to it, and even in the dawn of days the Bard had named him adept at avoiding weakness.
The ability to take back a Revenant from the grips of the Dead King would be a strategic threat, but not an overwhelming one. Save if I was prepared to assemble my own army of dead Named to match his, which would taint my reputation beyond repair in my seat of power and antagonize near every possible ally, it was little different from losing one of his champions to the blade of a hero. Of course, I’d not simply petitioned Sve Noc to aid me in clawing back the free will of the Good King: we were doing it while the guiding will of the Hidden Horror was still inside. Now, I was no mage and my learning in such matters were still young. But I knew, from having raised corpses and bound them to my will as well, that the kind of fine control that I’d seen displayed here could not be done without investment. I couldn’t be sure what it would cost him, if we succeeding at trapping whatever part of him he’d disseminated into the Revenant, but that hardly mattered. The Dead King was, not to belabour the title, dead. He no longer healed, in body and soul. Every loss of him was a permanent loss. And so, as the might and attention of doom-crowned Sve Noc poured into the corpse of Edward Fairfax, I returned to a familiar place. Surrounded by the absolute pitch black of nothingness, I stood leaning on my staff and met the gaze of Neshamah in the… flesh, so to speak.
“I do not hold much respect for recklessness,” the Dead King said.
I replied nothing. The hourglass had been flipped, I thought, and it was not for me the sand was running out. Oh, there was no real guarantee that we’d succeed at trapping him. But even if we failed it would be at a cost, and greater to him than us. For all that the King of Death had made attrition his sharpest sword in some ways, it may yet be turned on him to cut just as deep.
“Still,” Neshamah said, “your use of it as a calculated measure continues to surprise.”
It would have been an empty gesture to look at anything other than him, for there was nothing else to look at, so I did not bother with the theatrics. I did not speak either, though. It was not me, who had come to bargain – though I had schemed the coming of this conversation, I would not deny.
“You will require guarantees as to the Hierophant’s life,” he said.
I inclined my head in agreement. I’d been worried, since the start, that there might be some things that not even the Pilgrim’s resurrection could take back. Or that his hand would be forced early to spend that aspect on some life I cared less for, preventing the use I needed for some lesser prize. Receiving assurances from the Dead King was preferable, for though he was no fae bound to his word he had to know that if he crossed me on this after making a promise I would never bargain with him again. Recklessness, he’d called this. Like in these struggles of ours there was meant to be a manner of cordiality, mayhaps not of fair play but at least of an… understanding that this was a game, a play, a sport to be had. Do not forget, the ache in my leg whispered. Do not forget. I bared my teeth in a feral smile at the King of Death, the savage pupil of savage teachers, and let that pretence die. We were no Proceran princes making courtly war, for there could be no such thing as a war courtly.
“Six months,” I said.
“Pardon?” the Dead King said.
“You armies will not advance a single step for six months,” I said. “This, and the release of the Hierophant. That’s my offer.”
“You overestimate the strength of your position,” Neshamah warned.
“You have,” I murmured, “taken my friend and now bargain with his life while scheming the death of others dear to me. You arranged the destruction of my armies, of near everyone I’ve ever cared for. But for my intervention, you would have buried Iserre in death and borrowed Hierophant’s hand for the deed.”
“You clutch the remains of what you once were, Black Queen,” the Hidden Horror said. “It does no favours to what you have since become.”
“It was never really personal to me, before,” I told him. “You were a foe, but in some ways an ally as well. In principle I thought it tragedy that others died to your invasions, but no one weeps for faces they never knew nor loved.”
“A taste,” the Dead King said, “of what is to come. They will be strangers, Catherine Foundling. One day, and sooner than you believe, they will all be strangers.”
“And if that day comes, I may yet become the horror you foretold,” I admitted. “But today, Dead King?”
I limped forward, into his space, with cold eyes.
“Today you are the thing that took my friend,” I hissed. “The thing that would have slaughtered the Woe and the Army of Callow without batting an eye. I ‘overestimate the strength of my position’, Merciless Gods.”
I struck at the nothingness we stood on with my staff, the sound ringing like a thunderclap.
“You think after this I’m not willing to try falling off the cliff together, Neshamah?” I said, tone sharp. “To gamble on which of us will find our wings on the way down? Look at my back, King of Death, and see what is writ there – when given the choice between risking ruin and kneeling, I’ve only ever replied one way.”
A moment passed.
“Has your tirade ended?” the Dead King calmly asked. “No purpose was served by it, save the thinning of my patience.”
“You have my terms,” I coldly said. “Six months and the release of Hierophant.”
“That is no bargain,” he said.
“Aye,” I replied. “It’s a price. And if you know a single thing of my people, you’ll know ours are always long.”
“I’ve more than a single hostage in my possession, even if the Tyrant has once more turned,” the Dead King said.
“I knifed Black when we last spoke before ordering him to find his decency,” I said. “He’s since arranged the starvation of several hundred thousand innocents. Try again.”
“If you are to assemble your coalition against me, you will need a ruler for Praes,” he replied. “You cannot tolerate the continuation of Dead Empress Malicia’s reign, which leaves him your sole reputable candidate.”
My fingers clenched. It’d been too much to hope for that playing it off would work.
“Amadeus of the Green Stretch and Masego the Hierophant,” Neshamah said. “For assurances I will not take the life of either on this field, your crows will loosen their talons.”
I breathed out.
“No,” I said.
His eyes tightened the slightest bit, which on another man would have been frustration and surprise.
“Down we go, Dead King,” I said. “Gods help neither of us, the fickle pricks.”
“Assurances,” he said. “And three months.”
It meant he wouldn’t release Masego, that whatever purpose he was using my friend’s body for he would continue until the very last moment. But three months, Gods even just three months? It kept the Lycaonese in the war instead of letting them stumble down the slope into oblivion, and it was enough breathing room to turn this war from lost to losing.
“Night’s not over,” I said, matching golden eyes to mine.
“Once more, in this we agree,” the King of Death said. “Bargain agreed?”
“Bargain agreed,” I replied, and darkness broke.
The Sisters had not reached apotheosis gently, and their works were not gentle ones. Yet this was a matter of theft, of taking, and in such matters we were all well-learned. Sve Noc, discerning my thoughts as they formed, loosened their grip on the Revenant just enough that the wisp of spoke that’d been the Dead King’s will slipped away into nothingness. And along the footpath the Hidden Horror had used to withdraw, rapacious Night coursed down. Imperious and grasping, it devoured what bound the man who had once been the Good King Edward Fairfax to his subjugator in Keter. Komena, I knew as she deigned to brush her thoughts with mine, wanted to claim him in the Hidden Horror’s stead. To have a Fairfax flagbearer of her own, to spread the Tenets of Night wherever dusk was known. For where, among the realms of men, were more fertile grounds for her red-handed lessons than the war-torn fields of Callow? Andronike, ever cautious and calculating where her sister craved clash of arms, felt more inclined to snuff the Revenant out. Mastery over the tainted carried risks, she grasped, and brought opportunities for that most dangerous of foes who our war against was only beginning. Why chance it, when there was little need? I disagreed. With both of them I disagreed, and though it was not in the nature of prophets to argue with prophecy or of heralds to argue with the message born, that was not the lay of our ties. It was for my contentious nature most of all they had raised me to be First Under the Night. And so when I spoke the Sisters listened, and our wills joined in miracle.
King Edward Fairfax, Seventh of His Name, breathed his first free breath since he’d died below the walls of Keter. That was the first of the two great workings I would unleash today.
“It has been,” the Good King said, “many years since I last tread the streets of sunny Liesse.”
Letting out a long breath, I opened the floodgates and Night begin to fill me. A rising tide of power, too much of it for me to able to shape or grasp with my own hands. In the sky above us all, deafening shrieking noises began to fill the air as hellgates were torn open one after another. This already half-ruined realm began to shudder at the roughness it was treated with, a sinking ship with yet another hole made in the hull every few moments.
“You appear to have incensed the Abomination, Queen Catherine,” King Edward said.
“I tried to strong-arm him into some fairly major concessions,” I admitted. “It appears he believes I am in need of an admonition.”
Night continued to pour into me, a tide rising, until the world around me turned into an oil painting: imprecise, as if smudged, but no less beautifully coloured for it.
“So it does,” the Revenant said. “I thank you now for the breaking of my chains, you who they name Black Queen, but I must wonder at the price of it. What dark patrons have sought my indebtment?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You owe not a single thing. Miracles are not bought and paid for, even those of the Night.”
“A gift,” King Edward said, sounding unconvinced.
“I have request to make of you,” I admitted. “Yet it would be meaningless if you did not agree of your own free will. And so there will be no talk of debt, to either myself or Sve Noc. On this all three of us agree.”
“Mercy gifted without strings, yet with purpose,” the Good King said.
He sounded, I thought, almost glad.
“I am a priestess,” I said. “But also a queen.”
And there were so very few things that a queen could afford to do with a single pure benign intent, in the end. Virtue alone did not win wars, or keep people fed through winter. In the distance, as if in an entirely different world, the Tyrant of Helike was still speaking. The devils around us and afar were boiling like a pot about to tip, stirred into a murderous frenzy by sorcerous means and now swelling in number with every passing moment. The Saint of Swords fought still, unbending and without pause, and though I could almost hear the Rogue Sorcerer’s panting breaths in my ear still spellfire spun out and devils died. Yet the battle around us, coming to us, seemed almost like a distant scene. I already knew that it was not out there victory or defeat would be found.
“Your petition, Queen Catherine,” the Revenant said. “I would hear it.”
Leaning tiredly on my staff, I raised up a palm and compressed everything I could of the Night in a ball. My will failed, though stubbornness made that defeat slower than it should have been. The forces I was trying to wield were simply too large. But where I faltered the will of the Sisters drew me up, and with their two grips – one deft and soft, Andronike the spinner of weaves, the other imperious and coarse, Komena the breaker of spears – an orb of pure Night formed above my open palm.
“Can you hear them?” I asked. “Our people, the echoes of them in this place. The indelible mark a terrible slaughter leaves long after it has ended.”
“Like songs woven of wails,” Edward Fairfax softly agreed.
“The foe who did this I slew and made my own,” I told him. “Though that end is a pittance, to the madness that was the Doom of Liesse. But there is an enemy that stands before us, using her works for ruinous purpose and waging war on all the world. That, too, is a scale to balance.”
His eyes flicked to the orb of Night.
“One last time,” he said, “into the breach.”
“It will kill you,” I warned. “There is little kindness in that power, and it was not meant for your hands.”
“I am long dead,” the Good King replied. “And kindness is not what I would have of this day.”
Edward Fairfax had no longer been young, when he was claimed, and I suspected even if he had been few would have called him handsome even then. But to the strong cast of his face there was a manner of regality, like it had been hewn from stone and taken the noblest properties of that make. Helmetless, his crown of white hair was the sole he wore and the sword in his hand was bare. Without a sheath to return to, for there was none at his hip, it would never be allowed to rest.
“The war never ends, Queen Catherine,” he told me, tone quiet. “The faces and the borders, the foes and the friends, they are but the shallowest measure of the thing. Not all tyrants reign from the Tower, and many who have hunted the wicked partook of wickedness in the hunt.”
I inclined my head.
“One should not confuse striking at evil and doing good,” I quoted.
“Lest good become the act of striking,” the Good King completed, tone approving. “You understand, then. That when your evil is no longer necessary, Black Queen, to linger would be to stray from the narrow path you have tread.”
My fingers clenched.
“I know,” I croaked out.
Dead fingers snatched the Night from my palm, clenching into a fist and letting the darkness sink into the flesh.
“Then rise, Callowans,” King Edward called, voice like thunder. “Rise once more, for we yet have debts unsettled and House Fairfax calls on you one last time.”
There was a heartbeat of silence, a stillness like death. And they answered, as they had for centuries, for even a grave made for a petty hurdle when it was a Fairfax calling you to war.