“By my own hand I have made my enemies, and so own them just as a craftsman owns his craft.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner
Dusk was shyly peeking over the horizon when Akua Sahelian arrived.
Tancred’s exhaustion had caught up to him before long, and he now lay curled under a blanket on the closest thing to dry land we’d been able to find: a large flat stone. The boy was resting his head against a rolled-up horse blanket, too-large boots dangling out of the covers, and drooling into the coarse cloth. He was dreaming, though from way he sometimes clenched his teeth it must have been a nightmare. Hardly a surprise, after the storm of fire and death he’d unleashed on Marserac: it would take a colder soul than this one possessed to sleep restfully after that kind of butchery. I tore away my gaze from the boy, knowing that if stared any longer I’d find it more difficult to resist soothing his sleep. I’d always had a hard time picking my attachments, and though that’d saved my life more than once in the past it would not always remain that way. Though I was only a claimant, even after two years in the crucible, it could not be denied I was once more on the path to being Named.
That meant an apprentice – a real apprentice, not an occasional pupil or a child under patronage – might just be the first step on the road to an early grave. There were ways around it, at least. The Lady of the Lake was the example to emulate there, for once. Ranger had been a teacher for decades in Refuge without ever falling to that peril. In my more charitable moments I wondered if the way she’d been so harsh with all she taught was not in that sense a way of preserving her own life, but that charity was ever passing. Regardless, there were parts of her methods worth emulating. Teaching many students, teaching a general method more than passing one’s own signature talents, not allowing yourself to be drawn into the stories of one’s pupils. All were rules to consider when seeing to the youngest villains in my charge, and perhaps even when Cardinal itself would be raised. Much as I intended to be sitting on the council arbitrating the Liesse Accords instead of teaching, I might be moved to dabble on occasion. It might prove necessary, should we be thin on the ground for teachers in the early years.
Regardless, I must step carefully until I grasped the nature of the Name I was moving towards. I had opponents still out there that would slit my throat through even the slightest of missteps. One in particular had been most noticeable by her absence, though I was not so foolish as to believe that just because I’d not heard of the Wandering Bard she’d not been busy weaving her nets. But we were busy too, and though the Dead King was our enemy I’d not forgotten his parting short at the Peace of Salia. There is a place in the heart of Levant, the Hidden Horror had told us, where the first pilgrim of grey slew many men. And there, he’d claimed, there would be a secret buried that would tell us how Kairos Theodosian had saved all our lives. The Dead King had claimed that Tariq would know of the place, and that’d proved true enough: it was valley in the depths of southern Levant known as the Verdant Hollow. Finding the truths buried there had not been anywhere as simple as the King of Death had implied, though.
For one, the White Knight’s aspect could not see into what had taken place within the bounds of the valley during the first Grey Pilgrim’s life. It had not stopped us following the thread, but it’d certainly slowed us down. Soon, though, I thought. Vivienne’s reports was clear about that. With Tariq’s influence backing us we’d been able to bargain with the Holy Seljun for access to the secret records of the Isbili and using those another trail had been found. I’d winced at the number and calibre of Named we’d had to send to follow it, but the band of five under the Painted Knife had found success in the form of a secret they’d refused to entrust to scrying rituals. A knot of hope and fear had laid nest in my stomach ever since I’d read the report. The truth they were bringing north would not be a gentle one. Yet the grim cast of my thoughts was dismissed by the beat of wings on the wind. I turned, having felt her presence nearing in the Night long before either ear or eye afforded the same, and felt the same clench of the heart I always did when I saw the span of those black wings on the wind.
Akua had taken to embracing the changeable nature that her strange half-life lent her – in part because emphasizing her unearthly nature helped my reputation, making her seem more as a bound spirit than the Doom of Liesse now keeping my council – so it’d been expected that she would start shapechanging for reasons both practical and entirely dramatic. I’d even expected that it came to choosing a shape that could fly she would not settle for a paler imitation of Sve Noc. Yet I’d expected some mimicry of a Wasteland legend, like the rain-birds the Taghreb claimed the Miezans had hunted to extinction or the red-feathered ibis whose croaks at dusk were said to be prophetic by Soninke myths. What she had chosen, instead, was a black swan. Swans were not native to the Wasteland: they were Callowan beasts, most known to nest in the south. Liesse had been called the City of Swans, once upon a time. That the woman who’d once been the Doom of Liesse would take the shape of an ebony-black swan was a gesture of many nuances, and one I still had difficulty parsing.
The few knights still with me, no more than a score, turned hard gazes towards the nearing bird almost to the last. The revelation that the Advisor Kivule was in truth the Doom of Liesse bound to my service had been ill-received, though it’d been a strangely fascinating exercise to see why and by who. The House Insurgent had in fact praised my efforts to redeem the former Diabolist in their sermons, nearly sidestepping the issue that we were both villains of disputable retirement, and the eastern parts of my armies had been largely indifferent. The Order of the Broken Bells, and indeed most Callowan highborn among my armies, had not been so blithe in their indifference. I’d had petitions to allow her to stand trial before either a military tribunal or a noble one that’d gotten increasingly pressing as time went on, and even my blunt reply that I still had a use of Akua had not been enough to put the matter to rest. It was a black mark on my record for a lot of my countrymen, and if not for the constant pressure of Keter to the north I suspected the backlash would have been a lot worse.
As it was, there’d still been desertions. Not many, but given how few of those I’d suffered since the first campaign of the Fifteenth it had stung in ways that were hard to explain. That was a candle to the bonfire that’d been the reaction back in Callow, though. Vivienne had appointed Duchess Kegan Iarsmai of Daoine to the office of Governess-General of Callow before leaving the kingdom for the Proceran campaign which had been, and in many ways still was, good sense. The Duchess’ armies were the largest military force left in Callow, she had the clout and pedigree to keep the northern nobles in line and most of all there was absolutely no doubt that Kegan Iarsmai would reply to secret offers from the Tower by steel and public hangings. Duchess Kegan was also the ruler of the Deoraithe, whose ancestral spirits had been stolen and used as a glorified fuel for the doomsday fortress at the heart of Akua’s Folly. The news that I now kept the eponymous Akua in my service, even as a shade, had… not been well received.
What few gains in trust I’d made with Daoine had gone the way of thin air, and there was now little doubt that when the war with Keter was settled Duchess Kegan would exercise the right I’d promised her when I’d first bargained for her aid: namely, that the freshly-elevated Grand Duchy of Daoine would be allowed to secede from the Kingdom of Callow while remaining a military ally and suffering no loss of trading rights or privileges with the kingdom. At least the northern baronies hadn’t agitated over it beyond some expected opportunistic posturing: they’d least felt the taste of both the Praesi occupation and Akua’s span of folly, so truth be told they’d had little to agitate with. And that was only the reaction of nobles, who as the Hierarch had once reminded me were but a few to the many. Though news travelled slow and the shifting nature of rumours gave the hydra a hundred different heads, my reputation had taken a hit back home as well.
A lot of my appeal to the people as a ruler, Hakram had noted in that clear-eyed way of his, had come from how harshly I’d dealt with the Folly and the fae incursions. Akua’s survival was a complication in what had had previously been a straightforward story, and people rarely took well to such added twists and turns. There’d not been riots, at least, but there’d been open unrest in the growing southern towns. Many of the former refugees settled there had lost kin in Liesse, and having had my name associated with years of food and shelter in the wake of the ravaging of the south had only helped quell the tensions so much. The House Constant had stayed aloof, as if usually did when it came to worldly affairs, but the Jacks had made it clear that most of the small factions that’d been leaning the way of the House Insurgent now had second thoughts. No, the revelation had cost me a great deal of trust that I would likely never regain: a decade of good rule might see this turn into nothing but a bump in the road, but I didn’t have a decade of rule ahead of me.
I fully intended to abdicate in the wake of the war against Keter, so at this point it was more important to gild Vivienne’s reputation than glue back a few lost feathers onto mine. As a silver lining that’d proved almost ludicrously easy. Before my thoughts could wander down that rabbit hole, though, elegant talons touched the ground beneath open wings and darkness shifted from swan to woman. Akua had perfected the process: it looked like she was rising from a kneeling position, sweeping up gracefully. Her first attempts, Archer assured me, had looked a lot more like a kid failing at a pirouette. The Doom of Liesse rose to her full height, skirts sweeping around her, and tastefully curtsied.
“My queen,” Akua greeted me.
The hard eyes of my knights remained on her back and, I almost imagined, on mine. It made me feel restless, and as it happened I had decent reason to indulge the urge to move: I’d sent for Akua because I needed answers about what had taken place in Marserac, and the village in question was ahead.
“Walk with me,” I said.
She did, without missing a beat. We’d had these walks often enough, over the last two years, that it felt like a natural thing for her to fall perfectly in step with my limp. There was a lot that felt natural these days about having her at my side, which I needed no warning to know was a dangerous thing.
“You heard about what happened here,” I said, brusquely gesturing towards the burning village.
Unlike me, whose limp was forcing to slog through the wet grounds inelegantly, she was not dipping in so much as a toe. I could probably achieve the same thing by calling on the Night, but she needed not such thing – where once her body had been a soul given flesh by Winter, she now used the power of Sve Noc for the same effect. She didn’t need to draw on Night, per se, as she was made of Night – changing the properties of her physical shell was child’s play to her, like playing with clay.
“I did,” Akua acknowledged. “And from the looks of that sleeping boy under a Callowan blanket, you have gathered another stray to your hearth.”
“The Scorched Apostate,” I said.
She let out a sigh of sympathy.
“An unfortunate Name in many ways,” Akua said. “Those marks will not be easily shed even should he stay at your feet.”
“He won’t, not for long,” I said. “He’s headed for the Belfry.”
“Mage?” she inferred, interest rising. “He does not have the look of one from a wealthy household.”
“Talent is not distributed according to land holdings,” I grunted back.
The shade glanced at me, seemingly amused. Akua Sahelian was a lovely sight in any light I would care to name, even more so now that she had discarded the veils she had worn as ‘Advisor Kivule’, but I’d grown partial to the way she looked under spreading twilight. Shapely as she was – tall and full-breasted yet slender, an almost hourglass shape I’d believed belonged only in stories before first witnessing the unearthly beauty of Wasteland highborn with my own eyes – there was no time of the day that would do her figure disservice, much less in the tight and high-waisted dress of black and scarlet she’d chosen to wear, but twilight always lent her a certain… It was the golden eyes, I thought, and the sharp bones of her face. Under dusk’s cast she looked as gorgeous and terrible as the old tales had promised the fae would be. She felt me stare, no doubt, but said nothing of it. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last.
“Magic is not an inexpensive art to train in, heart of my heart,” she said. “I cast not unkind auspice on the boy’s talent, but merely express surprise that one with such a powerful Gift did not burn themselves out long before they could become Named.”
I wasn’t ignorant of the dangers of having a powerful magical talent without being taught, of course. The War Collage had gone into some detail about it, and Black had made certain I read the highborn screeds about the matter like Sorcerous’ Bequest and The Burden of Privilege. Praesi highborn often used the death rates as a justification for the ways High Seats plucked out young mages from their families for training and servitude. Mind you, Black had wanted to replace that with Legion schooling and at least one mandatory term of service in the ranks – he’d bee much more interested in breaking the grip of the Hight Seats over the loyalty of the finest mages in Praes than in ensuring the freedom of practitioners. Knowing him he’d have no issue with said freedom either should it come as a consequence of his policies, though.
“He’s got only the one trick, as far as I can tell,” I reluctantly conceded. “And it’s some sort of imitation of what Light can do in a fight.”
“A limited repertoire would help,” Akua confirmed. “Quite a few untaught mages end up using similar wild spells – the easiest of conjurations and illusions – regardless of where they are born with no ill effect. It is lack of control married to strong emotion that is the most common killer for hedge practitioners, but an intense obsession on a single crude formula would… restrain this danger.”
She paused, afterwards.
“An imitation of the Light,” she repeated, tone ambiguous. “How very Proceran.”
It did not sound like a compliment, nor was it meant to be one. The distaste was not directed at Tancred, though.
“Not all peoples in the world hold magic as the gift of all gifts,” I reminded her.
My own had a complicated relationship with sorcery, for one. It was a rare city in Callow that was not warded, or where a few practitioners could not be hired with coin through the Hedge Guild. Yet magic would never be held in high esteem the way steel or prayer would be, for sorcery was inherently linked to Praes for most of us. Though Wizards of the West and Wise Enchantresses had been a staple of Callowan Names for centuries, none of them had ever held so much as a regent’s title – mages were advisors and retainers in Callow, never rulers.
“Nor should they,” Akua said. “Though it is a great talent, it is only ever one among the many needed for one to achieve greatness. It is those calling the Gift a curse I hold in contempt.”
I didn’t disagree, as it happened. The reason why the power of mages had first been curbed in Procer was eminently reasonable: some of the largest wizard guilds had taken to playing kingmaker in the First Prince elections, only to get harshly disciplined when a candidate they’d opposed and even tried to depose consolidated power and began dismantling their guilds. First Prince Louis Merovins had not been bloodthirsty man, so he’d ended their power by ruinous taxes and starkly limiting guild sizes instead of brutal purges. Yet his successors had simply kept their boots on the throat of Proceran wizardry without ever reconsidering the matter, often with the House of Light’s enthusiastic endorsement. Proceran mages couldn’t even serve as healers, which I found absurd as magical healing could accomplish things that priestly healing simply could not. Mages were not outright hated, in the Principate, but they did tend to be viewed as keeping to a disreputable trade. I did not think it a coincidence that we’d gotten more villain Named mages out of Procer than we had heroes.
“Things will change,” I said. “Hasenbach founded her Order of the Red Lion and they’re just too useful to be despised. Now we’re gathering and training their mages for war, which ought to gild the record even further. The Principate will have to adjust, after Keter.”
A few thousand mages trained in war whose edge had been honed against the Kingdom of the Dead would not meekly bend their neck so the boot could be placed on it again. And I somehow doubted that someone with Cordelia Hasenbach’s ruthless streak of practicality would simply release a force like that back into the wilds. Given how badly the higher ranks of the House of Light had blundered when backing the attempted coup against her before the Peace of Salia, I believed the First Prince might even have the pull to force through some much-needed reforms.
“It is in the nature of rot that it is not so easily removed,” Akua disagreed.
I simply grunted, unwilling to dispute the point here and now. We had other cats to skin, and we’d wander far off the beaten path. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. In practice we’d reached the outskirts of Marserac and that now familiar half-dug ditch.
“The boy’s also got good eyes, like as not,” I said. “It’s why I sent for you. He claims he found traces of the Dead King’s seeded plague in the villagers.”
Her brow rose, arching with irritating elegance. When I did the same thing, it just made me look kind of angry.
“A much rarer talent, this, if is not an aspect,” Akua told me. “It implies either an exceptional sensitivity to magic or a physical gift.”
I had an inkling it wouldn’t be an aspect. Tancred might have had the power before reaching Marserac, but the Name had gotten its weight through the choices he’d made in the village. An aspect beforehand would be putting the cart before the horse.
“Humans don’t usually have the latter, as I understand it,” I frowned.
One of the pleasures of conversation with Akua, as it happened, was not having to always spell out everything. Sidestepping the notion of it being an aspect was enough for the implied to be understood.
“There are always exceptions,” the golden-eyed shade shrugged. “But you are largely correct. It is a gift most often achieved by twining the line with beings so blessed.”
A delicate way of saying that the Scorched Apostate was either a one in a hundred thousand birth or there was nonhuman blood running through his veins. Either way there was more to his story than I would have guessed at first glance, and he’d not struck me as a simple soul from the start. Something else to dig into, though that was the kind of matter best tossed into Hakram’s lap. Aside from the practical consideration of having left him in charge of serving as my go-between with the Jacks, there was the more esoteric one of avoiding taking too direct an interest in Tancred’s past. Unruly curiosity had a way of carrying costs for Named. I looked down at the first corpse I’d encountered earlier, still slumped and scorched.
“Find the plague seeds if there are any to be found,” I ordered. “If the Dead King really has such a weapon, we might have a situation on our hands.”
It wasn’t that I feared there’d be major spread beyond the initial outbreaks: we’d caught this early enough that we ought to be able to contain if not outright smother the attack. Even if one of the refugee camps was turned we’d be able to strike quick enough to prevent a disaster. The Grand Alliance’s use of the Twilight Ways meant we marched and deployed significantly quicker than the dead, after all. Yet containment would occupy our armies long enough a summer offensive would become more difficult while simultaneous making us vulnerable to an offensive on the northern defence lines.
“If there is something to be found, I will,” Akua replied, calmly certain.
And I believed her, too. Aisha had once warned me about the Sahelians, and this one most of all. They were always trusted, my old friend had told me, by people who ought to know better. Because they are charming, my queen, Aisha Bishara had warned me as only a fellow daughter of the Wasteland could. Because they are beautiful and fascinating and so very useful that certainly it couldn’t hurt to bring them into the fold just the once. And she’d been right, I thought as I watched the woman who’d once been my bitterest enemy kneel by a corpse, weaving strands of Night with her hands. Already I could hardly imagine fighting this war without Akua at my side, and some days it would be untrue to call the amount of trust I put in her measured. If this had been achieved as it’d been in the Everdark, where I had been starved of the company of nearly all I trusted, it would have been one thing. But she had done this while the Woe were at my side, and my armies as well.
Even as a shade whose power I could strip with little more than a prayer, Akua Sahelian remained one of the most dangerous people I had ever met.
I sat on the side of the trench, staff propped up between my shoulder and my neck, and brought down the hood of the Mantle of Woe on my head before closing my eyes. Though night was creeping in, I still felt exhausted. I’d not had an empty day, that much was true, but I fancied it to be a different kind of tired. The kind that saw only days like this one writ in the horizon and could not tell how long the world would remain so. I knew, in principle, that we were reaching a turning point: I’d read the same reports as Hasenbach, had the conversation with the Iron Prince a dozen times. Within months we’d reach the peak of the Grand Alliance’s fighting capacity, with Procer’s industry and manpower fully turned to war and the wealth injected into every nation’s war machine by Mercantis and the dwarves finally being brought to bear. This summer would be the time where we went on the offensive, when we took back every Proceran shore and dug in before the assault on Keter itself.
And still I felt so very tired. Neshamah was fighting against us the kind of war where even victory had a taste of defeat. And sometimes, sometimes we just lost. So I closed my eyes and let my mind drift, as close to sleeping as I could get without drifting into slumber, and let Akua unfold the leather bag holding the set of tool’s she’d use to cut open a corpse and find out of it had been seeded with death or worse yet. I waited perhaps half an hour before I got my answer, eyes fluttering open as I heard the shade rise to her feet. Though her dress had been traded for more practical chirurgeon’s garb – a heavy leather apron over a long-sleeved cloth shirt and fitted trousers – there was no mistaking the blood on her forearms. Or, for that matter, the small stone-like sphere she held in the bloody palm of her hand. Golden eyes met mine, gaze perfectly matched even in the shade of my hood.
“Tell me,” I said.
“It is sorcerous in nature,” Akua confirmed. “More specifically an enchantment, and though I cannot yet tell you the nature of it – I will need the use of my full workshop to ascertain that for sure – I can already tell you two truths. The first should be evident.”
She slightly rotated the sphere, revealing a slightly scorched surface.
“The sorcery that killed this woman damaged the ‘seed’, and rendered it inert,” she said. “Whether it was a delicate enough enchantment structure that damage was enough to disrupt it or that is a property inhering to the sorcery used by the Scorched Apostate, I cannot be sure. If it is the latter, I would urge you to hurry the boy’s journey to the Belfry – the implications of that would be far-reaching indeed.”
I slowly nodded. If there was a particular sort of sorcery that was damaging to the Dead King’s own methods, we needed to get a precise spell formula for it as soon as possible and spread knowledge of it to every single mage in the Grand Alliance to that could learn it.
“The second truth is this ‘seed’ was aptly named,” Akua continued. “It is not meant to permanently remain in this state, but to eventually dissolve and release another enchantment held under the outer shell.”
“A plague?” I pressed.
“I cannot yet tell, Catherine,” Akua said. “Without a full component kit I cannot even properly gauge how long the shell is supposed to last before dissolving, though from the lack of observable reaction to both silver and cold iron it ought to be more than a lunar month from now.”
Cold iron, as I recalled, was a hindrance to weak magics while silver strengthened some and hindered others. The Dead King’s necromancies, unfortunately, were not affected by it. Some of his early works likely had been, but Neshamah had not been resting on his laurels all these centuries: his necromantic magic was unlike any other on Calernia.
“Shit,” I feelingly said. “It would have killed the boy if he’d ever learned, but I was half-hoping he’d gone mad. We’ll need to ring the alarm, Akua. This is the first time he’s managed to slip a meaningful force behind our lines since the Lord of Ghouls got offed.”
“It is quite possible that Light used in the correct manner will be able to disrupt the enchantments,” Akua reassured me. “If nothing else, that should relieve some of the logistical burden in weeding out the seeded.”
I sighed but conceded the point with a half-nod. Priests were already everywhere in the refugee camps, if we figured out a countermeasure using Light we could further limit the casualties.
“Collect all the seeds you can find,” I told her. “I want to know everything about those things we can, and spares to send the Belfry’s way.”
“I will see to it,” the golden-eyed shade replied. “Shall I keep them until we return to camp?”
“Do,” I said.
There was not much I could do with one, save asking for the opinion of Sve Noc – which I’d rather do when we were safe back in camp anyway, along with my usual nightly communion. Out here in the open, there was no telling what might be lurking. I left Akua to the labour, dragging myself up and limping away. Night had fallen in earnest, and under the starlight sky I headed back towards the boy and my knights. And the priests as well, as I’d forgot. One of them was leaning over Tancred, back hiding what his hands were doing, and I frowned. The Light had already proven unable to help, and though the House Insurgent were loyalists I’d rather not have them putting around a fresh Named with highly destructive inclinations. I hastened my steps, and only when I was within a dozen feet did the priest notice my approach. He withdrew his hand, looking embarrassed. He’d been smoothing away the boy’s last tufts of hair. It was the younger of the two Brothers, I recognized that much though I’d never caught either’s name.
“Don’t,” I said, and gestured, for him to move away.
He did with great swiftness and looked ill at ease under my glare.
“I apologize, Your Majesty,” he murmured. “It’s, only – I have a little brother his age, my queen. He’s just a kid, isn’t he? Even though he burned the village, he’s just a kid.”
My expression softened. I’d not noticed earlier, but the priest couldn’t have been more than twenty himself. His robes were slightly askew, like they’d not been made for someone with his exact frame, and he moved a little jerkily. Embarrassed and a little intimidated, I felt it safe to assume.
“I don’t fault your kindness,” I said. “But after a day like this one, waking with a stranger’s hand on his brow might be… ill-received.”
The priest might have ended up with a black-rimmed hole in his chest, even Tancred had woken up still in the grips of his nightmare. Although, from the looks of it, that had passed. He no longer moved or flinched in his sleep, and his breath was slow. Nearly imperceptible.
“My apologies once more, Your Majesty,” the priest repeated.
I waved it away.
“Hold on to the kindness,” I said. “It’s rarer than rubies, these days. Only add a little caution to it, would you?”
I patted his shoulder as I limped past him, feeling him go still as stone. My score of knights had dismounted, for it’d be absurd for them to remain mounted for hours, and the horses had been tied to a log in the distance. They moved as little as the rest of us, the stillness having caught up to even the animals. Brandon Talbot was long gone, but he’d left one of his officers to lead my escort. Figuring I might as well inform the man we’d be here for some time still, I picked out the man in question – George Redfern, as I recalled. Helm on, the knight was looking up at the moonless sky but even through the steel had little trouble hearing me arrive. My limp was not quiet.
“Your Majesty,” the man bowed.
Starlight caught the edge of his plate armour, revealing a carved passage form the Book of All Things. And, to my mild surprise, what looked like dried blood. Talbot had not mentioned the Order fighting today.
“You’re wounded,” I said.
“The priests have already seen to it, my liege,” he reassured me.
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.
“Your helm, sir,” I mildly said.
He stuttered out a surprised apology and hurried in taking off his helmet, revealing a reddish mustachioed face. His gorget was loose around his neck. The priest earlier had been a little off too.
“Fuck,” I said. “Fuck.”
Night howled through my veins as I drank deep from the well.
“My queen?” the impostor asked.
“New kind of ghoul, Neshamah?” I asked in Ashkaran.
The thing that was not George Redfern grinned.
“What gave it away?” the King of Death replied in the same
The lance of Night burned trough his head in the blink of an eye, but every other knight and priest was moving. Flesh squelched and boiled as the ghouls squirmed out of the shells, turning into unnaturally flowing things with claws and gaping maws. There’d been no bodies, so they must have eaten the dead. Replaced them one by one over the span of the afternoon and evening, while I was distracted. Still, for all their vicious cleverness and sharp caution there were only a score of ghouls and one – and night had fallen. My staff struck the ground as I let loose my anger, lines of Night slithering outwards at breakneck speeds – the first ghoul I caught I speared through the flank, and when it tried to flow around the wound I detonated the strand into black flame. Two, three, four, five. Up the count went as they ran, first towards me and then away from me. I kept only the last alive, wrapping it in solid strands of Night instead of killing it. We’d need a containment box for it, but it would be headed towards the Belfry soon enough. I strode towards it, fingers clenched around my staff.
“You ought to know better than to try me by night, by now,” I hissed.
The ghoul laughed, shaking in an unnatural spasm. It’d not been meant to make such a sound.
“Ought I?” the Dead King replied. “Catherine, Catherine. You never watch your back as carefully as you should.”
I stilled. The priest had been standing over the Scorched Apostate, whose breathing had become so faint it almost couldn’t be heard. The slight pressure I felt from the ghoul vanished, the Dead King’s attention with it, and I turned my eyes to the boy on the stone. Who slowly put aside the blanket he’d been huddling under and rose to his feet in his too-large boots. His skin was pale. He was not breathing. The Scorched Apostate’s hand rose and brightly shining flame gathered to it.
“I’m sorry, Tancred,” I quietly said. “Gods, I’m so sorry.”
I should have watched more closely, I should have moved quicker, I should have… I should have protected him.
“But it’s not that kind of a war, is it?” I murmured, Night flooding my veins. “Sometimes, sometimes I just lose.”
I took the part of me that felt like weeping and put it in the box.
I had a Revenant to kill.