“My lords and ladies, have I not always been a firm believer in second chances?”
– Dread Empress Malevolent II, announcing her second (and penultimate) invasion of Callow
This would be the fifth one I brought in, so to speak.
The first time I’d come across a new Named was maybe two weeks after the first proper battle that’d followed Callow entering the war, which one of my own soldiers had jauntily named the ‘Scrap at the Gap’ only to see the quip tumble down into the pages of history. It’d been our first use of a pharos device, and the proliferation of gates out of the Twilight Ways had allowed us to take the dead flatfooted. The soldiers under Volignac and Papenheim had rallied with burning rage in their bellies, and we’d turned the chase around on Keter: we’d forced the dead to retreat and even dented the Grey Legion.
At the time we’d believed we could reclaim all of Hainaut if we struck out aggressively enough, so we’d concentrated on reclaiming the roads and strongholds of the western region of principality: the aim had been to establish a solid defensive line all the way to the border with Cleves and after solidifying root out the dead as we moved north in a Hainaut-wide curtain. No one had expected there to be anything still living in the region, for Keter had had the run of it for months, which was why when the Tartessos scouts had begun finding the remains of small undead raiding packs we’d expected a monster and not a half-feral woman in her seventies.
The Stained Sister had shattered Hakram’s shoulder and nearly blinded him when we’d gone out to find what might be lurking in the hills. She’d been one of Hanno’s, not mine, for even three days buried up to her neck in the corpses of everyone she’d ever known had not been enough to break her faith in Above. She’d listened anyway, when I laid down the law as it had been agreed on: so long as Named were willing to take up arms against Keter, they would fall under the aegis of the Truce and Terms.
Amnesty was offered to all willing to join the war against extinction, and peace would be kept between villains and heroes until the Dead King was no more. For those who were sworn to Above, the White Knight stood as representative in councils and first among equals. For those that dwelled in Below’s shadow, the same duties fell to me. It was a simple enough arrangement, in principle. In practice it’d been as about as horribly complex and strenuous a state if affairs as I’d expected it to be, and it’d been a very long time since I was last called an optimist.
I’d picked up two more during our offensive to take back the capital late last summer, the two of them pretty middling villains – one lowlife gambler who’d managed to survive by stealing other people’s luck and using it to avoid and escape the dead, the other a hedge mage who’d slit open her own brother’s throat to fuel an enchantment that made her invisible to Dead King’s armies but was now beset by his furious shade. Half-starved and almost pathetically grateful to be given shelter, the two of them had accepted the Truce and Terms without batting an eye. Unsurprisingly, getting them to toe the line afterwards had been more difficult.
The Pilfering Dicer now had nine fingers to illustrate the point that stealing the luck of my soldiers wasn’t something you could talk your way out of, but at least I’d pawned off the mage to Indrani for her roving band and gotten only praise about her since. The Dicer I’d sent instead to the First Prince, as his talents were best suited for the sort of battles she was fighting on our behalf. The fourth had been both the easiest and the worst, in some ways, for though he’d come to me instead of the other way around it would be very much a delusion to claim I had any sort of control over the Beastmaster.
As I could not help but be reminded when the man opened his eyes, breathing out deeply.
“There are still a few,” Beastmaster said. “Three or four. Less than earlier.”
I looked at the great blaze across the half-dug dry moat and grimaced. It was rather surprised anyone but the fresh Named was still living.
“And you didn’t consider helping them flee when you first noticed?” I replied, tone curt.
“And risk the ire of a green Named who could already do this?” Beastmaster snorted, gesturing towards the village.
The falcon that’d flown over the nameless village returned to its master’s shoulder, undisturbed at having leant him its eyes while it was still up there. The Named at my side might not be anywhere as proficient a combatant as someone like Indrani or Hanno, but his talents were surprisingly broad in application and it’d be a rough affair to put him down if it came to that: I’d seen some of the creatures the Beastmaster used as mounts, and none of them were beasts to take lightly even without a rider on their back. More than anything else the man had proved his worth as eyes up in the sky even in regions where scrying might be disrupted, as was becoming increasingly common. His stable of birds of prey currently had a better record at tracking people than our sorcery, since even young Names could sometimes disrupt scrying ritual. There was a reason I kept the man close, and it wasn’t his charm or sunny disposition.
“If he meant to kill them, they’d already be,” I said, tone grown sharp.
Matted hair pressed against the side of his eyebrow, thick with filth, the man shrugged apathetically. I wasn’t sure whether Beastmaster had been born a prick or he’d been taught the ancient ways of prickery by one of the finest practitioners of the art alive – the Ranger herself – but his utter unwillingness to risk so much as the tip of his toe for another’s sake had a way of raising my hackles. Even when Indrani had been fresh out of Refuge and the Lady’s tutelage she’d not been this… savagely unconcerned with everything that went on around her.
“Fine,” I said. “Tell my knights where the survivors are, they’ll help them out. Where’s the boy?”
“The House of Light,” Beastmaster said.
If this was going to be one of the religious ones, I really hoped it’d made it this far north that the Salian Conclave had struck down its decree naming me the Arch-heretic of the East. If I was lucky, they might even have heard that instead the Dead King had been proclaimed Arch-heretic Eternal. Lucky, huh. That’d be the fucking day. I whistled loudly, Grandmaster Talbot riding up without missing a beat or betraying irritation at the somewhat undignified summons.
“Beastmaster had eyes on survivors,” I told the knight. “Have some your people get them out. Our healers are fresh?”
“Good as, my liege,” Brandon Talbot replied. “Though I’ll caution once more they are not the finest of that trade.”
Yeah, the House Insurgent did tend to have that little defect. You couldn’t learn to burn with Light without missing out on the deeper secrets of healing, apparently. The Grey Pilgrim had once told me it was more a consequence of mindset than a hard limit of ability, but then there was no one alive who could use Light the way Tariq Fleetfoot did – not even Hanno, who had the shade of near every dead hero up in the library shelves of his head.
“Have them do what they can,” I grimly said.
Burns were nasty way to go.
“I’ll be seeing to the hero,” I added a moment later. “Hurry with the survivors, Talbot.”
The man nodded, and after a nod to the Beastmaster – who bothered himself to return it, though seemingly with great effort – I rode out. This place must have been a nice little village, once upon a time. How many people had lived here? One hundred, two hundred? Couldn’t be more than that. There was rarely such a thing as a proper street in places like this, even a dirt one, and this village was no exception. There were a tighter cluster of once-thatched houses now blazing up trails of smoke surrounding what might have once been a village market, but aside from that houses and shops had been raised rather haphazardly. They were scarcer on the outskirts, with the house nearest to the unfinished ditch standing entirely alone.
Zombie did not even need to jump over the trench, as a quick walk around the edge of what had been dug accomplished the same result rather less dramatically. It’d been poor sense, trying to dig a dry moat in so wide a circle. The villagers would have done better trying the same further in, or better yet raising a palisade instead. There was no way the work could have been finished in time to repel the dead, not with the numbers they had. What I’d been looking for was a mere three steps away from the edge of the finished ditch, slumped and still. I slowed my mount, frowning as I leant down to turn the corpse with the tip of my staff. At first glance the killing looked like it’d been done with Light, a hole torn right through the chest of the still-living woman, but the edges were too blackened. Charred.
Light was cleaner than this when used on living people, even those corrupted by curses and sorcery. Light and fire threaded together? Unusual. I would have thought someone more prone into coming a Name apt to wielding that if they’d been forged from a great fire, not the source of one. Hooves sounded against the ground behind me, a belated escort of knights. It was still a reflex for me to argue against the necessity of one, but there’d been twenty-three different assassination attempts against me in the last year. Few had even come close, but I’d been taught the virtues of having eyes other than mine and armoured bodies in the way of harm.
“I’ll be entering the House alone,” I spoke without turning. “I’ll not have numbers spooking our friend.”
“If you so order, my queen,” Grandmaster Talbot replied, the genteel disapproval in his tone clear.
I rolled my eyes. If the boy who’d done this still had fighting on his mind it was a lot more likely I’d end up protecting my escort than the other way around. I let the body I’d been examining slump back against the ground and spurred Zombie onwards. We passed through the outskirts briskly, though I slowed once more to verify the sort of injuries on other corpses were the same as the first before heading deeper in. Towards what should have been the market, as well as the small dirt path beyond it and led to the sole building in the village that was tall stone with a tiled slate roof: the House of Light. There the Named would be waiting, I knew, though I would not cross the threshold before figuring out exactly what it was I was dealing with here. Whether the boy was a hero, a villain or of those whose Role tread that narrow path where circumstance could cast you as either did not matter so much as the fact that he’d seemingly butchered an entire village.
If he was a hero, as the use of Light to kill would imply, he was unlikely to be the kind I got along with.
We closed in on the market, where the roar of the flames was almost deafening. Wary of entering the central grounds, where heat had hardened and cracked the muddy grounds, I led Zombie into lingering at the edge of the circle in one of the larger gaps. There’d been an inn among the lot of them, I noted, though it was hard to tell exactly how large it’d once been. It’d been hit hardest of all the village: the walls had been torn through with great blasts of Light, then the ceiling had fallen and caught fire. Even that rubble, though, was not enough to hide the sheer number of corpses there’d been inside. Those the flames had not yet devoured were close to the door, some even just out into the ‘street’. They, I saw, had been hit in the back. The Grandmaster of the Order of the Broken Bells caught up to me as I sat studying the burning inn, face betraying utter disgust what he beheld.
“Gods,” Brandon Talbot rasped out. “Even the children.”
Only one of those was untouched by flame, pale brown hair fanning her face like a veil but doing nothing to hide the black-rimmed hole that’d torn through the middle of her back. There were bones I could see in the embers and flame, though, that even blackened could not me mistaken for those of a grown man. And yet. Gods, and yet.
“Do you still remember that skirmish just a week away from the capital, last summer?” I quietly said. “What happened to that company of Volignac outriders, when they found that little village tucked away in the reeds.”
“The dead wearing the guises of children,” the bearded knight said, tone sickened. “I’d heard. I do not blame them for fleeing, Your Majesty. I am not certain if I could have done it myself, striking down infants with knight’s steel.”
And so Neshamah’s abominations would have torn you down from your horse and clawed out your throat, I thought, the way they did too many of those honourable outriders. Honour has no place on this field. Not against the kind of foe we face. My voice came out cool, a warning under the swirling columns of smoke.
“This is not a war, Brandon Talbot, where hurried judgements thrive. Do not forget that.”
Yet sometimes I wondered if that was not Below’s game, lurking behind everything else. Even if we won against Keter what kind of creatures would we have become when we emerged from the crucible? Already I’d grown wary of castigating the slaughter of children without knowing more of how it’d come to be, and we’d yet to even step into the Dead King’s lands. There was an old saying about the dangers of looking into the abyss that most peoples of Calernia held some form or another of. It’d been taught to me at the orphanage as ‘beware of matching horror’s eyes, lest it gaze back into yours’, one of those Old Miezan sentences turned into proverbs only nobles and priests ever seemed to quote. The thing, though, was that horror wasn’t sickness. It wasn’t something that tainted you from watching it or fighting it, like ink or filth or oil.
Horror, horror was a pit.
It was a deep dark hole the world pushed you into, remorseless. Sometimes the only way through was to wade through the deeps of it, do whatever it took, and there lay the trouble: even if you got to climb out, after, who you’d been in that pit would never leave you. Gods, it’d be reassuring if it was a taint that’d made the decision for you, but it wasn’t. Not really. It was just you, when you were scared and cold and desperate and didn’t want to die. That tended to be an uglier sight than devils, in my experience. Nowadays Calernia was being dragged into the pit, one inch after another, and there were nights where that thought kept me from sleeping. Lessons learned in the deeps of pit were long in being unlearned, if they ever were at all. What kind of a world was it, that Cordelia Hasenbach and I would end up raising out of the ashes of the old?
“I sometimes wonder if even heroes are worth it,” Grandmaster Talbot softly said, “if they must always be born of such grief.”
“Men murder men,” I said. “They rob and cheat and lie. From all I know we’ve done so since the First Dawn and will keep on doing it until the Last Dusk. Don’t blame the blade for the heat of the forge, Talbot.”
I bared my teeth.
“Blame the fucker who lit the furnace.”
Though in this case, I thought, the two might just be the same. My gaze had moved on from the inn, swept across the rest of this would-be marketplace, and a story had unfolded before my eyes. It’d begun with the inn. There had been a gathering there, with perhaps as many as a hundred packed tight inside. The Named had let loose his power, moved to violence by something, and then the nightmare had begun. The villagers had been packed too tightly: panic and stampede began to kill them just as much as the power unleashed. The place had caught fire, smoke and heat further stirring the pot, and even as some tried to escape through the back the Named had left by the front to strike down the few that’d successfully escaped. The relief inside was short-lived, as the roof collapsed not long after.
From there, the tale grew murkier. I’d wager that the noise and escapees had moved those few villagers with a weapon to try to kill the Named, and he’d reacted… harshly. I’d yet to catch sight of him going for anything but a killing blow. From there it looked like the boy had swept through the village, heading to wherever he saw movement and killing until there was no one left save for a handful of hidden survivors. He’d then limped back to the House of Light, either exhausted or wounded or both. I breathed out, almost comforted by what I’d grasped. I was not dealing with coldblooded thrill-killer or a broken bird grown dragon’s claws: wildly wandering around striking down those who moved in a panic was a mark of lapsed control. Lack of premeditation, too.
This was too much fear and too much power, not the first atrocity of a great monster in the making.
“You seem grieved, my queen,” the knight quietly said, voice almost drowned out by the blaze.
“Better it had been a monster, Talbot,” I tiredly said. “One of those I would have been able to use without guilt.”
Zombie pulled ahead, answering my mood before my knee gave the order. The breeze shifted: like raking claws, threads of smoke were blown across our path. We rode through and broke the ghostly shackles, flanked by the unforgiving blaze on both sides as my mount’s hooves broke the hardened mud beneath them. And then, quick as a stolen kiss, the heat and smoke were gone. We tread then the path to the House of Light, where flame had not reached. Yet blood had, for it was smeared over the wooden door left slightly ajar. I dismounted smoothly, though not so smoothly that I did not hiss in pain when my bad leg touched the ground, and lay a light slap against Zombie’s rump. She left to wander, gait unhurried, and a last look over my shoulder quelled any thought my knights might have held of following me inside. The Mantle of Woe trailing behind me, leaning on my staff of yew as I limped forward, I cracked the door open just enough to slip in and entered the temple.
There was a skylight. That was the first thing I noticed. Though a village like this was too poor to afford glass windows and so the walls had been full stone, a clever trick of architecture had allowed for the making of a skylight in what I’d taken to be just a lightly angled roof. And it had been cleverly done, too, as it was carved to allow for the sun’s journey through the day. The stone floor had been painted with scenes from the Book of All Things and different times of the day would see light fall on different parts. It had been most ingeniously built, for a temple in the middle of nowhere. Procerans: so much to hold in contempt, so much to admire. Light fell from above on the painted scene of Gods in black and white standing on both sides of the wan silhouette of a woman, theirs hands held out. A choice offered.
The drying trail of blood that’d trickled down all the wat to the woman was one of those vicious little ironies Creation was so fond of offering.
My staff struck the floor as I limped up, sounding obscenely loud in the silence of this place. At my sides roughly hewn benches, some of which had been toppled by struggle or negligence, only made it more palpable how empty the House was. At the very back, behind the painted scenes and the light, two bodies lay slumped. One was that of a priest, still clad in his pale robes. He was dead, a long cut-like wound opened from one shoulder to the opposite hip – and though it still bled blood, all the way to the painted stone, the outer edges of it were charred. Eyes wide open and unseeing of the sun pouring through the skylight, the back of his head lay against the altar he’d once tended to. Against the other side of the altar, bloodied and burned, lay the young boy who’d butchered more than a hundred souls beyond the gates of this place.
His face was a charred ruin. Stories, when they spoke of burns at all, delighted in telling of villains whose burn scars were disfiguring marks warning of wickedness. In a few there was even shoddy symbolism attempted: a face half-burned, the duality of a man’s soul, Good and Evil at war. The boy’s face just looked like someone had held it down against a fucking fire, and there was nothing elegant or symbolic about that. It was just pain and ugliness and pus, having devoured an uneven two-thirds of the face of a kid who couldn’t be more sixteen. It’d taken an eye with it, or close enough, as it had grown a clouded grey instead of whatever colour it’d once held. On the right side, on the part left untouched by fire, a lone blue eye and closely cut black hair were almost incongruously healthy compared to the rest of the young Named.
The boy wore a leather jerkin and woolen trousers, both so worn as to be near rags, and his shoes were little more than leather strips wrapped around a flat wooden sole. The wound I’d suspected he might have proved to be a knife slash on his leg, though not near anything that’d kill him. It’d still gone untreated and soaked the wool red. Not that infection was likely to kill him, now that he was Named. It was exhaustion, pain and horror keeping him down.
“Are you to be my punishment?” the boy rasped out. “I have sinned and do not deny it.”
Gods, I thought, stricken. He sounded so very resigned.
“Have you?” I said, making myself sound only mildly interested. “Tell me about it.”
“That is yet to be determined,” I mildly said, cutting in. “Tell me about the killings.”
The Alamans boy – and he must be that, for his accent in Chantant had that lakeside twang to it – forced himself to focus. His blue eye fluttered and the cloudy one turned to me as well, some thought returning to the gaze. He watched me and I returned the look, leaning on my dead staff of yew.
“You are not,” the Named said, “an angel.”
My answering smile was thin and sharp.
“Not,” I agreed, “in any sense of the word.”
“Who are you, then?” the boy rasped out.
“The judge, child,” I said. “And if comes to that, the other two as well.”
The Named laughed, though the convulsion twisted him in pain.
“A fitting end,” he said. “I took their lives, stranger. I blinded and burned until nothing was left. How do you judge that?”
“Sloppy,” I said, tone cool. “The inn was the correct place to begin, but to let loose while you were still inside? Sloppy is almost too kind a word. Packed that tight, all it took was a stroke of luck and any one of them might have caved your head in. You should have left, barred the doors and only then started the flames.”
The boy’s face twisted with rage at my indifference.
“I couldn’t know if they were all-”
He stopped, biting his tongue. Ah, I thought. There it is. He’d wanted me to splatter him across the stones, justice swiftly done and harshly meted. But there’d been something more about this, a part still obscured. And where gentleness would unearth nothing this wounded child wanted buried, calculated callousness might just bait it out.
“You’re not from here, are you?” I mused. “You’ve got that lakeside twang, like you’re always chewing. It’s a long way south, for a boy of no great means.”
Lack of boots meant his family had never been even remotely wealthy. Refugee, it had me guessing. From one of the later waves, long after soldiery had ceased escorting civilians south.
“What does it matter?” the boy asked.
“Means either you came with someone,” I said, “or you were capable of making it alone.”
“Did you not see my work outside, stranger?” the Named mocked.
Confirmed, then, that the power wielded there was something he’d had for some time.
“I saw your convulsing terror burned across a few hundred people,” I agreed. “So what is it that had you so scared, boy?”
The Named grit his teeth.
“Meat, until I deem it otherwise,” I interrupted once more, tone gone cold. “So speak, boy.”
I saw anger, in eyes both blue and clouded, and anger was an anchor. I knew that as bone deep as I knew my limp and the sound Liesse had made when it broke. It would keep him grounded in the here and now, at least long enough for our talk.
“It was too late,” he snarled. “The disease was in them, same as it was in Maman. And I told them, told them I could see it and they needed to send for a real priest, but they just wouldn’t listen-”
His mouth closed with a snap.
“I do not beg for my life,” the boy said. “I do not quibble nor defend.”
And it fell into place, just like that. The ditch begun but abandoned, the way so many of them had been gathered in the same place.
“They were going to leave,” I said.
I saw I had the right of it in the boy’s eyes, even if he denied me an answer. A makeshift caravan of some sort, most likely, headed further south for one of the great refugee camps. When I’d last gotten a report on the seeded plague from the Grey Pilgrim, he’d mentioned his worry that there might yet be carriers in who the disease would be sleeping. Lying in wait. He’d caught the infiltrators headed for Brabant himself, but not even heroes could be everywhere. If the boy was right and the villagers had slipped further south without being caught? Thousands dead, should we be lucky. And we’d be putting out that fire for months instead of heading north as we needed to, losing a good chunk of the war season. This might not be the only village where it was attempted, I thought. If it was attempted all, I also considered, and the boy did not simply go mad with enough will it became… more.
I’d need Akua to study the bodies as well few survivors we’d pulled out. More than that, if this was the plan within the Dead King’s plan then I needed to put out a warning there might be other villages like this oute there. Villages that’d not had the mixed of luck of being stumbled upon by a Named.
“I couldn’t let them,” the boy said. “And they weren’t real miracles, I know the priests said so, but they worked.”
My gaze moved to the priest, dead and cold, the wound that was bloody but hardly mortal. If you could heal, anyway, use the Light. The boy was no natural wielder of Light, I realized, smiled upon by the Heavens and bestowed some manner of searing holy flame. But he did have a power he’d been born with. An eye for recognizing a magically seeded disease, the ability to wield highly concentrated light and flame in short bursts while losing control of it upon release? Those were the marks of a wild talent, a born mage. And one of great power, to have torn through a village while so unschooled. How badly you must have wanted to be anything but a mage, I thought, for the only magic you ever used to be such a close mimicry of the Light. It was heartbreaking. That he’d been warped into this, that he’d been broken after even that and then forced to look a truth in the eye: he had the power to fight back against horror, just this once.
So long as he was willing to make a horror of his own.
“It was,” I mused, “an easy mistake to make.”
The blue eye fixed me with burning contempt.
“It was not,” the boy replied. “And so mistake is either too feeble a word, or entirely mistaken.”
“I was speaking,” I replied, “of the mistake I made. I came in here, you see, expecting you to be one of Hanno’s.”
The Saint of Swords come again, my mind whispered. Necessity that bleeds the grip, the hard deed that keeps the night at bay. The bottom of my staff whispered against the stone as I limped forward and the young Named tensed, though truth be told he’d be too exhausted to put up a fight if taking his life was my intent. Instead, leaning against the yew I knelt in front of him – and, miracles of miracles, the pain in my leg was barely a whisper. Meeting the mismatched gaze, the clouded eye and burning blue, I reached out and gently tipped up his chin.
“My mistake,” I quietly repeated. “No, from the beginning you were one of mine.”
The gentleness, I thought, was what unmade him. A shiver went through his frame, turning into a tortured convulsion and only then a ragged sob tore its way out of his throat.
“I’m a monster,” the boy wept. “Gods forgive, oh Gods forgive me.”
My hand went down to his shoulder, comforting.
“Of course you are,” I gently said. “That’s what makes you one of mine. We’re the wicked ones, you see.”
“I don’t want to be wicked,” he rasped. “I just- I just couldn’t…”
“We never can,” I softly told him. “That’s how we end up wicked, I think. Because we can’t stand to be good, if it also means we must let it go.”
“I didn’t want to kill them,” the boy whispered, “but what else could I do? If I’d had the Light, the real one, I could have healed them. Helped them. Instead…”
I drew back my hand and leaned on the yew I’d received in the depths of Liesse, born anew under twilit sky. I rose, the light behind me drawing the eye to the snaking crimson blood of the dead priest on painted stone. You are a child, I thought.
“That is not the gift you were given,” I said.
“My gift is death,” he spat.
“Aye,” I said. “So it is. Either accept that truth or die under the weight of your utter inconsequence.”
The boy-Named flinched. He had, perhaps, expected comfort. Maybe a better woman would have offered it.
“The corpses smouldering outside were good, as much as most people are ever good,” I said. “What do you think sets you apart from them?”
“Death,” he said.
“Will,” I corrected. “The belief, deep down, that you know what is right and you’ll see it done.”
“It is the mark of Named,” I said. “And why, even now, some part of you wonders – wasn’t I right? Didn’t it need to be done?”
“Did it?” the boy asked, prayed, pleaded.
You are a child, I thought once more, almost ashamed.
“What’s your Name?” I asked.
“I am Tan- no, that is not the sort of name you meant at all, is it?” the boy whispered.
His fingers clenched.
“I am the Scorched Apostate,” the boy said.
I nodded in approval.
“Come along, then,” I said. “You have much to learn, and this war won’t fight itself.”
I did not wait for an answer, simply turning around and limping away without once looking back. One, two, three heartbeats: the Scorched Apostate dragged himself up to his feet and followed behind me, quickening his steps to catch up. You are a child, I thought once more. But we’re in the pit, now, and if Keter is to fall then this is the least of the horrors I’ll need to stomach.
We left the House of Light to its dead priest.
Neither of us looked back.