“It which does not take the knife of mistake by the grip is destined to take it by the blade instead.”
– Drow saying
When I’d still been a girl of sixteen, the closest thing I ever got to a father taught me the basics of killing mages. Hit them quick, Black had said, and don’t give them time to dig in. Hinder visibility and close the distance. Always go for killing strokes, a wounded mage is twice as dangerous. They’d been good lessons, time had taught me, though they shone most against Wasteland practitioners. Unfortunately, they’d been lessons meant to be used against mundane mages. Not Named. Not Revenants.
Those I’d learned to fight the hard way.
The Scorched Apostate’s – no, he was just the Revenant now, lest guilt slow my hand – wrist came down jerkily and a strand of brilliant mageflame shot out towards me. It was quick for a spell of that calibre, both in casting and in movement. I breathed out and let the Night flow through my veins, chasing away the cool touch of spring and sharpening my eyesight. The properties of that spell were still unknown to me, so caution was in order. Would that I’d believed that just a bell ago, the thought came, bitter and unbidden. Dark power roiled in a circle, expanding outwards between myself and the flame as the unstable portal into Arcadia came into being with a quiet keening sound. The Revenant’s other hand rose, flames gathering to it, but I wouldn’t fall for this shallow a trick. I was already grasping the Night with my will when the still-moving strand went around the expanding portal, and I saw no need for great subtlety: I broke the strands that made up the edge of the portal-gate, leaving the working to violently collapse.
The detonation of Night did not disperse the flame, to my surprise, but it at least established that the Revenant’s sorcery was not entirely unaffected the power I wielded: it was knocked off its trajectory. My sharpened sight picked out the way the Night seemed to unravel when in direct touch with the brightly shining flame, much as Night did when in direct contact with true Light. A consequence of source purity, Hierophant had once told me: Light was said to be a gift from Above, while Night ran from the fountainhead of Sve Noc. There was an inherent superiority to the fundamental stuff Light was made of. Magic should not have been able to mimic that effect, of course, but people kept telling me usurpation was the essence of sorcery for a reason. It didn’t matter, though. This was a fresh Revenant, not a fully settled one, so when I painted surprise on my face and let the flame continue streaking towards me – swiftly joined by a second strand – it did not look any further. It did not notice the fine line of Night I had slithering along the ground, the way it formed a loose circle around it.
When the first strand of bright flame came within two feet of me, I breathed out and took a step back through a gate into the Twilight Ways before closing it. I did not look at the kinder, softer starry sky above and simply kept my mind turned to the Night strand I’d left behind in Creation. Using it as a compass, I took five brisk steps forward before raising my staff and opening a gate back into Creation. The Revenant had the time to half-turn towards me before I unleashed a torrent of raw Night from the tip of my staff, aimed straight at its head. Decapitation wouldn’t kill one of them, it’d take more damage than that to break the necromancy animating it, but it would blind it. With the sole two spells it ought to be able to control still out there it should have no – ah, clever Revenant. Even as I stepped back out into Creation, in the same heartbeat it dismissed the sorcery it’d been using and began a fresh spell right on its own face. It wasn’t quite quick enough, or powerful enough: half of my torrent remained untouched and so tore right through the left half of its face.
Even the right side was damaged, because it did not quite have the control to detonate one of its spells so close to itself harmlessly, but for a Revenant such surface damage was mere cosmetic. I struck the ground with my staff, seizing the circle of Night I’d left behind and sharpening it to an edge before pulling it tight: like a razor-sharp garotte, it sprung towards the Revenant at ankle-height like I’d pulled on a noose knot. For a heartbeat the undead Named hesitated. I was close, a mere three steps behind it, and it wanted to kill me. But its legs were being threatened. It chose, and chose poorly. Two spells bloomed, one striking toward the Night-wire and the other towards my face. That single heartbeat had allowed me to take a step forward, and so before the spell towards me could shoot out I slapped away the arm with the side of staff. It knocked the Revenant askew, which disrupted its aim with the other spell as well. As it tried and fail to gain its footing back, I struck out with my free hand even as the Night-wire sliced through its too-large boots – the box’s lid trembled – at ankle height.
My fingers sunk into its chest, coated with Night, and I went looking for an aspect should there be any to take. Two-half formed, I found with cool disappointment, but nothing I could make my own. I still ripped out the shapeless bundle that tasted vaguely of sight, dust trickling down my fingers as I drew back and let the Revenant hit the ground. It had, I found, decent combat sense for one so freshly raised: it’d shot out the two spells after all, and instead of trying to form others from scratch it was now guiding both strands of bright flame straight towards my torso. It would have been a proper monster, I thought, if given time to sharpen. Instead I whisked out all the Night still flowing through me, shaped it and tapped the butt of my staff against its chest once before taking a limping step back. The black flames I’d birthed ate through the flesh as if it were dry kindling, though not so fast that I did not have to take another two painful steps back to evade the strands of bright sorcery still chasing me.
The strands of flame gutted out suddenly, after the second step, but this wasn’t my first Revenant fight. I left my own flame to its work until it was undeniable that more than half the body was gone, only then smothering them out with a twist of will. I breathed out, leaning against my staff, and felt my leg throb with violent pain. It was an almost welcome distraction from the way I’d taken a boy of fourteen under my protection and then he’d not even lasted through the fucking night. Though she made no sound at all, I felt Akua’s presence in the Night as she hurried at my side. Too late for the fight, which had felt like it lasted an hour but in practice couldn’t even have lasted a long prayer’s length. The hem of her dress sweeping the wet grass and stoe as she slowed her pace, the shade came to stand at my side. She followed my gaze, which had dipped beyond Tancred’s broken corpse to the mutilated remnants of the ghouls who’d eaten and impersonated my escort.
If she offered me sympathy – pity by another name – Gods forgive me, but I’d find a way to put her back into the godsdamned cloak. I was in no mood for platitudes.
“A new breed of ghouls,” Akua said, tone calm. “Impersonators?”
I breathed in, breathed out. Good. Yes, there were more important matters at hand than the way I felt like screaming.
“Yes. They were slightly off,” I said. “Too small, maybe? It was hard to tell.”
“It might be a matter of mass,” she suggested. “It tends to be one of limitations for shapeshifters.”
“Sisters make it that those are too expensive to make often,” I grunted back. “They weren’t anything to boast of in combat, not like the war-breeds, but that’s clearly what not they’re meant for.”
“The presage boxes the Arsenal makes can be used to weed out such impostors,” Akua noted. “Assuming those ghouls are, in fact, still necromantic constructs.”
“They are, the Dead King was able to speak through one. But the boxes glow when there’s any undead within a hundred feet, Akua,” I skeptically said. “Sure, this far behind our lines that’ll work as a test but out there on campaign? I’ll be damned if they don’t be turn into lanterns you can’t even put out.”
“We might need to rely on priests until more precise instruments can be created, then,” the shade said. “Regardless, as a preliminary to deeper studies you’ve left enough of the corpses that they can be tested for baser weaknesses.”
“Back to camp, then,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “We’ll put the bodies in the Night. Do the same with the villagers, and some of the building materials as well. We’re trying to recover more than the seeds now: we’ll have to see if they can reproduce the Revenant’s sorcery as well.”
“Agreed,” Akua said. “It can be done within half an hour, I’d wager. If you would retrieve your mount?”
I breathed in, breathed out. The horses, the one’s that’d not moved much. They still hadn’t, so they’d probably been killed, but I’d have to make sure.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I can do that.”
The golden-eyed woman stood at my side, still as only a shade could be. Waiting for me to move first. I took a step, fingers taut around the yew, and caught sight of the horse blanket still on the flat stone where the boy had been sleeping.
“Fuck,” I hissed out.
Leaving my staff to stand unnaturally upright in my wake, I strode away. Even with only one woman for audience it would have felt childish to throw it down. Yet the urge to just break something was consuming my hand, the desire so strong Night was flickering around my hands without having been called upon.
“I should have caught it, Akua,” I said. “I should have godsdamn caught it. I’m getting slow on the uptake. Worse yet I’m getting sloppy. I should have dragged him back to camp immediately even if he had to ride with the survivors the whole way. Instead I waited here for you and the kid got killed because I figured we could take it slightly easy just once.”
I was starting to make mistakes, and I couldn’t afford mistakes.
“Yes,” Akua Sahelian frankly said. “You should have.”
It should have angered me, the way she confirmed my disgrace without so much as a speck of hesitation, but it didn’t. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to lose my grip around her if I’d not been willing to suffer that sort of appraisal in the first place.
“I wouldn’t fallen for something like this in Iserre,” I said. “Or even in Salia. I’m losing my touch.”
I’d run rings around the Pilgrim and the Tyrant, but now a pack of fresh ghouls was enough to snatch a boy under my protection? I would have called it humiliating, if the greater failure here wasn’t that a kid had been slain and put down again, so instead I just called it shameful.
“The Graveyard was the span of a single night,” Akua said. “Salia of a few evenings – the parts that mattered, at least.”
I turned a hard glare on her, but she did not bat an eye. Why would she? She’d faced me down when I’d come at her with steel and Winter, with Name and host. She had no fear of my temper, this one.
“If you use even the sharpest sword in the world every single day, it is only a matter of time until its edge grows dull,” the shade told me.
“We’ve all been in the same war, Diabolist,” I snarled. “That’s not an excuse.”
Because the heroes weren’t faltering, were they? Or Archer, or Hierophant, or even grizzled old Klaus Papenheim – who’d lost so much it sometimes beggared my comprehension as to how he got up in the morning.
“You have been the preeminent general in Hainaut’s defence for more than year,” Akua evenly replied, “while also acting as captain and peacemaker for Named or Blood of every stripe, serving as one of the chief strategists of the Grand Alliance and, all the while, being the diplomatic broker between it and the Empire Ever Dark.”
“I am by no mean excusing you, Catherine,” Akua interrupted, meeting my anger without blinking. “This is a failure, and an even starker one is the way you came to make this one in the first place. You were warned by Adjutant that you could only take so much on your shoulders without running yourself ragged. You did not heed his words.”
“Didn’t I?” I snapped. “I as good as handed over Callow and the negotiations for the Accords to Vivienne. Hakram sifts through every single report and letter before they make it to my desk, culling what doesn’t need me in particular – Hells, I haven’t seen an actual list of our supply stocks in a year, only summaries. Indrani and her band are handling finding the new Named, Masego and Roland are running the Arsenal. I don’t even strike beyond our defensive lines anymore: we send out bands of five!”
I panted quietly, the tirade having set my lungs aflame.
“How much more can I possibly delegate?” I asked. “I’m not whining, Akua, I’m genuinely asking – how much more of this can I possibly delegate?”
“Turn over full command of the Third Army to General Abigail,” the golden-eyed shade answered without missing a beat.
“She’s not there yet,” I said. “Not against-”
“Then demote her, or name someone able in her stead,” Akua said. “You are making, dearest, an old mistake of my people.”
“Haven’t raised any flying fortresses, have I?” I scoffed.
“You have warred with the same enemy for too long, fought him too often,” she said, tone flat. “The Dead King is learning your back of tricks, your art of war. You are teaching your strengths and weaknesses to the Enemy, Catherine, and it is learning. That you tire, that you grow impatient, that sometimes kindness is what moves your hand instead of practicality.”
The thing was, Merciless Gods, that she might just be right. I wanted to dismiss her, to ask who if not me, to tell her that insisting on seeing Creation always through the eyes of the Wasteland would lead her to mistake after mistake. Except she’d not been the one to slip-up, had she? And she might not have been the only one to notice I was getting tired, either. Was that why Razin and Aquiline had started pushing me again, testing boundaries I’d thought settled? The Dominion’s nobles, as a rule, were not the kind of people who’d let a weakening warlord keep the reins. My own people hadn’t said anything, but would they? To Callowans, I was still the Black Queen. If it looked like I was slipping, how many of them would simply assume a fresh game was afoot?
“You need to step back,” Akua said. “Sharpen your edge once more and return to the field only on your own terms. Else you will bury yourself in a grave you insisted on digging every shovelful of yourself.”
I gestured sharply at her, before limping back to my staff, and she did not say more. Adjutant, I thought, would have gently kept prodding until I either agreed or dismissed. Unlike him, Akua Sahelian was well-acquainted with the sin of pride: the shade said nothing that would further bruise mine. She would not bring this up again, I knew, for which I was almost grateful. I’d turn to Hakram for advice over this, trusting in the clarity of his gaze where mine grew muddied, but I would be able to move towards the decision on my own terms. For the grace of Akua’s approach I was almost grateful, yes, but also bitterly angry. Because if I could have had this, the best of her, without the rest?
“Sometimes,” I said, tone low and fierce, “I wish you…”
She’d been a master at keeping her thoughts away form her face even before she’d gained the ability to shape it at will, but the sudden stillness of it gave her away. Surprise.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, shaking my head.
A hundred thousand souls, for which there would be a price long in the taking. That much was an absolute truth, a bedrock. A look passed through the golden eyes, one that straddled the line between loathing and yearning. I had, once more, offered artless cruelty. Akua Sahelian was too good a liar not to have caught it’d been genuine feeling that moved me to speak.
“I’ll find my horse,” I said, cutting through the stillness. “And take care of the corpses here. I’ll leave Marserac to you.”
Golden eyes met mine and only then did she incline her head.
“As you say,” Akua Sahelian murmured.
We took the Twilight Ways back to camp, laden with corpses kept in the Night.
That sort of capacity was one of advantages the bounty of my patronesses boasted compared to the Light, which tended to be its superior in direct applications and confrontations. Dimensional pockets were usually the province of talented mages, who required significant power and resources to establish them, or of Named – Black, for example, had been able to carry quite the arsenal in his shadow when he’d still been the Black Knight. It was a rarer ability in heroes than villains, though not unheard of. The Myrmidon had one, as I recalled. Having a domain could allow Named to cheat, too, if they were clever enough and its nature allowed. It was still a rather rare skill, in the larger scheme of things, and one priests were patently incapable of learning. In contrast, knowledge of how to create such a space in the Night was considered a useful but hardly uncommon Secret among the Mighty. It required a certain amount of power not held beneath the lesser ranks of the Mighty, but aside from that little was needed to have one save knowledge of the trick.
The warm breeze of the realm I’d seen the birth of turned into outright wind, when flying on Zombie’s back, but I hardly minded. The noise of it against my ears was drowning out all thoughts save for the most disjointed, too much of a distraction for a brooding mood to truly seize me. Akua, once more on swan’s wings, was keeping pace with me further down. We’d used the same crack to slip through into Twilight, so like me she’d not need the use of a gate to return to Creation – or, indeed, to be guided towards an exit beyond what the starlit compass provided. It was the subtler means of using this realm, though in some ways also the most difficult of the two; for there were two ways to use the Twilight Ways for travel, at least that we’d grasped so far.
The first was rather similar in nature to using Arcadia, the making of a gate using power. The crux of the difference was in the ease of use: to enter Arcadia there’d been need of either a powerful ritual by mages taught in that branch of sorcery, or that a sufficiently powerful fae intervened. Oh, there were natural places of alignment between Arcadia and Creation where anyone could cross through freely – there was one near Refuge, and allegedly one in the deeps of the Brocelian Forest – but those were rare and the fae often made sport of those who ventured though. In contrast, the Twilight Ways had always been meant to be used for travel: they welcomed such use, encouraged it and enabled it. Mages found it easy to open a temporary small gate without even a ritual if the fabric of Creation was thin enough where they tried, and even elsewhere the amount of power needed to form such a gate was significantly smaller than if one had tried the same with Arcadia. More importantly, it required less skill. It’d been described to me as the Ways reaching out and meeting the spellcaster halfway, helping them… anchor, for lack of a better term.
And it was not only mages who could succeed at this. It was possible with Night as well, though the Mighty had admitted to me that drow seemed to need a certain knack to be able to do so no matter how powerful they were. Said knkack seemed, to my amusement, to run particularly strong among the Losara Sigil as well as another band of familiar souls: the Longstride Cabal in the far north, who’d once tried to hunt me in Great Strycht. Light could open a gate as well, though once more there seemed to be some ineffable requirement we poorly understood: the Lanterns could create such gates almost to a man, while Procerans struggled greatly and my own House Insurgent had proved incapable of consistent results. No matter the provenance or power, though, all had the benefit of what some Arlesite poet had named the ‘starlit compass’. Anyone entering the Twilight Ways with a clear destination in mind would feel the call of that destination ahead of them, and known where to weave a gate out. Not so accurately as I had when I’d been Sovereign of Moonless Night, but usually within a mile of where they intended to arrive.
This was also the method by which permanent gates could be established, though we’d found that to be chancy business. A physical, permanent gate tended to disrupt every other kind of gating in the region around it and they were finicky beasts besides. Hierophant had nearly lost an arm trying to make a second one, afterwards telling me that the Ways had somehow been displeased by him being the architect of more than one. The Witch of the Woods, on the other hand, had forged one on the outskirts of Salia in an afternoon’s work and without any difficulty whatsoever. We still knew so little about the Ways, in the end, and perhaps come better days we’d be able to spend the scholars to plumb the depths of the secrets but as it was the Belfry had too much on its plate to be able to spend many hours on it. Besides, I was disinclined to complain too much of the eccentricities of Twilight when one of them was the realm’s active antipathy for the Dead King and all his works.
The second manner of using the Ways was the one Akua and I had used tonight, which Archer – who’d effectively pioneered it, and still remained a finer practitioner of than anyone save perhaps the Grey Pilgrim himself – had named sidling. Those of us with senses that were not entirely physical could often sense where the fabric of Creation thinned, but with practice it could be learned to feel out where there were… cracks between Creation and the Twilight Ways. Cracks one could slip through when they were found, though they were ephemeral things and particularly capricious where gates of any sort had been recently used. It could take some time to find the cracks, and often required some luck as well as fine senses, which was why near everyone using the method was either Named or nonhuman. Given the difficulties involved one might be tempted to dismiss sidling as an inferior form of travel, save for two facts: sidled paths through the Ways were measurably faster and more precise than those come of gates, and there were also completely traceless.
A Twilight gate, even only a temporary one, could found by scrying, rituals or even just having a sufficiently sensitive entity close when it happened – whenever we used them to deploy troops against the Dead King, the surprise was strategic and almost never tactical. Our presence was known ahead of being seen, always. Archer, on the other hand, had once sidled out of the Ways with her entire band with only a crumbling wall between her and the Prince of Bones and the Revenant hadn’t had a clue before she shot it in the back of the head. Not that it’d killed the thing, but it’d been a gallant effort. Beneath me, the black swan Akua had shapeshifted into began a graceful arc downwards and I led Zombie into the same. The wind’s howl picked up, until my mount landed at a gallop and obeyed the touch of my hand by folding in her wings. I pressed down against her mane even as Akua’s graceful form passed between what seemed to be two raised stones and disappeared.
Zombie navigated the slope leading down to the raised stones and slipped between them: a heartbeat later, after a sensation like a hand passing through my hair, we were on Creation again.
As a testament to the accuracy of sidling, we’d emerged a mere twenty feet away from the camp’s main gate. Akua’s elegant landing had seen her rise into human shape again, and she caught up to me after I reined in my horse’s heady gallop to a halt. By the time the shade was once more at my side, a frown had made its way onto my face: I was looking at the camp, and not liking what I was seeing. The outer defences were untroubled, remaining both well-manned and vigilant. The army camp’s layout was a recent advance, a merging of the Belfry’s advances in temporary warding and the demands of military efficient: four interlocked squares, all sharing the same initial lines of defence. First a ditch dug into the ground, followed by a thing stripe of solid ground leading to a second ditch, itself leading directly into a traditional Legion palisade, bolstered by watchtowers. The stripe of solid ground between ditches had stone markers wedged in at regular intervals, carved with a runic ward that would produce a loud bell-like ringing sound as well a begin glowing should there be movement within the span of the ward.
The teeth of the defence were at the bottom of the second ditch: spikes might not do much against undead, but the gouts of flame from enchanted metal rods and the Light-infused stones could turn the bottom of the palisade into a brutal killing yard.
The warding stones had not been activated, and atop the palisade the watchful gazes of a mixture of Callowan and Proceran soldiers were not something I found any fault in. It was the pulsing lights at the heart of the camp, where the four squares interlocked, that had me frowning. Each of the squares held its own separate set of three large-scale protection wards – against scrying, vermin and illusions – but they were also connected to the central array near my own tent. That array was mostly there to serve as a stabilizer, but it could also be used to forcefully purge power that accumulated in any of the wards because of imprecisions in how they were laid. Essentially it was a pressure valve we could activate before the wards started breaking down from the impurities, though the act of release itself sent out a pulse of power that tended to screw with all the lesser enchantments and wards within the camps so we very much avoided using it if we could. Yet it’d been activated tonight, that much was clear from the way there were still glimmering lights above the centre of the camp.
Likely more than once, too, for the leftover sorcery to be this visible.
“Akua?” I prompted.
“It was activated when there were no accumulated impurities to purge,” the shade said, sounding displeased.
She would be, having personally set down the central array this ought to have turned into a proper mess.
“And what would that actually do?” I asked.
“Still send out a pulse of sorcery,” Akua said. “Yet it would be weaker, and the sorcery would be drawn from wards that are functioning as intended. Likely it would damage them, perhaps even crack the wardstones.”
I vehemently cursed in Kharsum. The materials for those were damned expensive, as you couldn’t just carve runes and lay enchantments on any slab of sandstone grabbed from the side of the road if you wanted to make proper wards: you had to get materials from places where power of one sort or another had flowed for a long time. Even worse, it was the labour of weeks if not months to both anchor the ward in the stone and then align that ward with the rest of the wardstones so they’d bolster each other instead of conflict.
“Unless my general staff and Princess Beatrice suddenly went mad, they’ll have an explanation for it,” I said, in a tone that implied they damn well better have an explanation for it.
Ahead of us the watch had seen us lingering in front of the gate, and by the sounds of it recognized our admittedly distinctive appearances. Hails were sent out and I answered with my raised staff, which was enough to get the gates open. A group of five Lanterns, twice as many Proceran fantassins and what looked like one of the Third Army’s mages bid us to approach, the mage holding a presage box in her hands.
“There is someone else with the authority to order such purging,” Akua pensively said.
She was right, I considered as we entered the camp and the gates thunderously closed behind us. There was one more.
Which meant, like as not, that the White Knight was back early.