“Princes dream of victory, farmers dream of peace.”– Proceran saying
There would be no hiding the departure of the White Knight, so there was no point in even trying. We did the opposite instead: all but threw a godsdamned parade for his band, gallantly going into the unknown as they were. We rustled up a crowd drawing from all armies, got them cheering with a few speeches about heroism and how of course we were going to win, just look at how Evil that fucker the Dead King was. Paraphrasing as I might be, I liked to believed I’d seized upon the essence of the oration. If you filled the belly of soldiers and opened up casks of booze they’d cheer at pretty much anything, in my experience, so I had it arranged. Because the cheering was what mattered, you see. It was what would stick in their heads when they thought back about this.
The White Knight and four other heroes were leaving in broad daylight and the streets were half a festival, so of course it was a good thing. Not something to get angry about, or afraid. Hanno and the Witch of the Woods were both major losses from the perspective of defending this city, and soldiers would know it deep down, but so long as we set the tone on how they should think of their departure it shouldn’t result in a morale loss. I supposed it would be in poor taste of me to hope that the Valiant Champion got herself killed during the adventure, you know in a magnificent sacrifice for the sake of the world and all that good stuff.
Thankfully I’d never been above bad taste, so I hoped my petty little heart out.
We had fresher cats to skin, though, so I did not spare much thought for the matter as I had no doubt that Hanno would smash that bridge to pieces. Besides, perhaps removing himself from the turbulence of politics for a while would help the White Knight settle his doubts. There was nothing like a straightforward, hard-earned win to help the world make sense again. The defence of the capital would not be as straightforward an effort, and there was no doubt that a defence would soon be needed: the dead were gathering in the plains below. Like rivers coming down the hills circling the great valley at the heart of Hainaut, undead came flowing at our feet.
We conducted sorties, at first. Every day or so we sent a few thousand horse through the Twilight Ways and attacked some of the smaller packs of undead, striking quick and hard before withdrawing into the Ways before the enemy could gather in sufficient numbers to force a melee. Even a run-in with the Archmage wasn’t enough to get us to stop: the Blessed Artificer and myself took to accompanying the sorties, and we were usually enough to stalemate him. But after a week, we were forced to admit that sorties were no longer really feasible. Adanna took an arrow from the Hawk about half an inch to the left of her heart, which was an unpleasant wakeup call, but beyond that the tactic itself was no longer viable.
There were just too many of the dead.
I’d never really seen it put to us so starkly, how much more of the enemy there were. Yet the city of Hainaut stood atop a tall plateau, and it made the truth impossible to deny: the capital was like a rock surrounded by the tides, a sea of death gathering below us. We couldn’t pick at the enemy because there wasn’t anything like enemy formations to pick at. Just a mass of walking corpses that covered the land like a carpet of iron and bone, standing terrifyingly still. The sight of it was… not good for morale. It was one thing to know that we would have to defend the city against at least fourfold our number, it was another to see that fourfold standing silent on the field. Waiting, watching, dreaming of that final stillness. As was so typical of the Dead King, he’d drawn first blood before the battle even started and no cost to himself.
Shaping our mundane defences was not difficult, or at least not complicated. There were four stretches of wall to defend, the four cardinal directions, and a fifth force would have to be kept back as a reserve. The Alamans, now consolidated behind Princess Beatrice Volignac – who was the least powerful of them in truth, but remained the ruler of these lands in principle – tried to push for the ‘honour’ of defending the northern stretch, the great gate, but were refused. That task would go to the Fourth Army, as the Army of Callow’s siegecraft was superior to that of any other force here. We gave them the west, instead, since the dead were certain to try to use the butte known as the Veilleuse to take a proper crack at overwhelming that rampart. The Levantines got the east and the south, as the latter was little more than a sheer drop and so would be easier to defend.
The Lycaonese and the Second Army were kept back as the reserve, in deference the casualties they’d already taken in the campaign. As for the Firstborn, though on parchment they belonged to the reserve as well we had particular duties for them. We were not blind to the Enemy’s favourite ploys, or above turning them to our own advantage.
It had been in the air for days now, but it was the Crows coming that told me we had reached the knife’s edge. The Sisters had first come to me in my dreams, always perched on my shoulders as I stood on the edge of a hundred different drops and flying away as I fell. Then one fateful dusk it was all with eyes who were able to see them circling the skies above the capital. Sve Noc had come to Hainaut in the… flesh, for lack of better term. Though I was First Under the Night, it was the Firstborn they’d come here to tend to – as was only natural, considering near every drow south of Serolen was currently quartered within the walls of the capital. The Firstborn were largely holed up along the eastern shore of the Bassin Gris, the broadly oval pool of water at the heart of the city and feeding the waterfall at its southern tip.
Rumena had pushed for it, mentioning that most drow had once lived in cities or towns that’d been near underground lakes or rivers in the Everdark. It’d been a risk putting them near the Levantines, considering the Dominion folk were just as touchy and prone to duelling, but putting them with the Alamans near the western shore would have been even worse. Alamans reputation among the Firstborn had taken a sharp dive downwards after it became broadly known that the Langevins of Cleves had planned to backstab them over territorial gains even while they were fighting to defend the lands of that family. Not that the Firstborn were usually above a spot of backstabbing, famously, but even by their standards that’d been a tad egregious.
The cohabitation with the Levantines had actually gone rather smoothly so far. It probably helped that they mostly came out at night, taking up the majority of the watches during the dark, and so the hours spent out and about only partially overlapped. The relative peace there was a relief, as there always seemed to be a hundred things in dire need of getting done and I was ever moving from one to the next. Hakram and Vivienne did what they could to lighten the burdens, but I still felt like I was being pulled a dozen ways at any moment. Still, I could justify setting aside time for a meal with the Woe at least once a day on the basis of needing to prepare stratagems against the Archmage and I embraced the justification wholeheartedly. How much planning was actually done varied between some and none, but it was still a balm on my day to spend at least an hour talking with people I actually liked. But there had also been… changes recently, and though Akua had not acted on them immediately – or even shown much of a change at all – eventually it came to a head.
“Your patronesses have offered me power for fealty, did you know?” Akua asked me one evening.
We’d already polished off dessert and both Indrani and Masego had wandered off – they had shared quarters, but neither of them actually slept there regularly – after Hakram went to solve a jurisdiction dispute between Princess Mathilda Greensteel and the Fourth Army over a Lycaonese soldier in her service who’d palmed some of our supplies. Vivienne had excused herself after I opened a second bottle of wine, noting she still had correspondence to see to, and that’d left me alone with Akua Sahelian.
“I figured they might,” I noted. “They tried the same with Masego.”
And I expected Akua to decline for much the same reasons he had. Praesi had no issue with gaining power through contracts and sacrifices, but submission was another thing entirely.
“Alas, I am not so eager to surrender my soul anew,” Akua said. “Though given my current straits the offer was more tempting than it would have been once upon a time.”
I half-smiled, sipping at my wine. Some pale Proceran thing, from somewhere in their south.
“Is it really that hard?” I asked. “Power always comes with strings. I always thought it’d be restful, to be without them for a while.”
She dressed, I had noticed, somewhat more modestly now. Still with an eye to grandeur, she’d always had that much, but the red and white gown she wore tonight was high-necked even if it was closely cut. I’d been somewhat surprised she could still change her shape even without Night, but Masego had been all too willing to tell me that was actually a consequence of her nature as ‘shade’ rather than anything born of Winter or Night. In most circumstances a soul split from a body, which was what Akua was, would either pass into the world beyond or be remain as either some sort of diminished apparition. Those rules, though, applied largely to people who hadn’t cut out their own soul the way Akua had when she’d been a teenager.
She was stable, and even somewhat in control of her own nature – her appearance and movement at least – because the split had not been accident. She had taken a knife to her soul long before I put a bloody hand through her chest.
“Hypocrite,” Akua chided, though with more amusement than anger. “You have clawed desperately for power ever since your first taste of it, Catherine. Your only doubts were I finding a form of it that was not personally distasteful to you. You rhapsodize on powerlessness like a queen lauds the virtues of the common farmer – but without, I notice, ever retiring to live on a farm.”
I flipped her off, earning a smug smile, but did not outright deny her words. While I might be intending to abdicate queenship over Callow, I didn’t exactly intend to make my sword into a ploughshare afterwards. I still had a few decades in me handling the rise of Cardinal and the steadying of the Accords. I drank of my wine, leaning back into the seat I’d years ago stolen from Arcadia, and cocked a brow at her.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
She went still, as if surprised. In that moment, it struck me that I’d not seen Akua wear any jewels since that night on the rooftops. A riot of elegant clothes yes, and the occasional veil, but never once adornments of silver and gold. Golden eyes watched me, hooded, and I stopped to wonder at the fact that even dressed in a simple gown she still looked as much royalty as any woman bearing a crown I had known.
“You do not offer words of caution?” she asked. “Warnings about the price of seeking power?”
Thin veil that they would have been, covering up the fear of what she might do should she gain strength again.
“It’s not another cage, Akua,” I said. “Only larger and with bars harder to see. I meant it.”
“And should I desire to leave, here and now?” she harshly asked.
“You are,” I simply said, “not my prisoner.”
Her hands clenched, those long and deft fingers you saw so often on mages.
“Would you have spoken the words,” Akua bitterly said, “if you thought I might leave?”
You will, I thought. Before it’s all over, you will. Because that’s what fate is, Akua Sahelian: the recognition that, no matter how many doors there are, there was only ever one you were going to take.
“If it is my blessing to leave you want,” I said, “then you have it.”
Without another word, she rose from her seat. I met her eyes in silence, not moving a finger, and she left the room without a single look back. I poured my glass full again and waited, but she did not return. I wasn’t sure how long passed as I stayed there, seated and silent. I wondered, for a moment, if she’d truly left Hainaut. No, I eventually decided. She’d not yet the crossroads in her story. I finished my glass and hoisted myself up, wandering under moonlight. I could have gone to have a look at Adjutant’s arbitration, but why bother? It was Vivienne I sought instead. She wasn’t far, considering she was quartered in the same guildhall as I was: easier to guard, if we were both there, and it wasn’t like we were lacking room. It might have been for letters that she left, but it wasn’t what I found her doing.
Magelights lit up the salon she’d claimed as her work room, but instead of being seated at a desk she was on her feet. A thick plank of wood with targets painted on it, circles and squares of various sizes, was propped up against an empty bookcase and I watched with a cocked eyebrow as the heiress-designate to Callow palmed a knife and threw it. It spun with a sharp sound, the tip tearing in the middle of a painted red circle at least half an inch deep. I clapped and she turned to roll her eyes at me.
“It’s a knife trick, that’s all,” she said.
I shrugged. I was a decent hand with a throwing knife myself, but not as good as her – not without relying on the unnatural dexterity and senses a Name could lend you.
“I didn’t know you were keeping your skills sharp,” I said.
I’d known she still carried knives, obviously, but that was just plain good sense.
“Knives are easiest to practice,” Vivienne admitted. “Henrietta Morley has been on me about learning to use a sword passably, but I’ve only kept at it long enough to avoid skewering myself.”
“I still have sword spars with my guards on occasion, but I’m not as keen on it as I used to be,” I admitted. “I don’t fight the way I used to when I was seventeen.”
“Knives always came easiest to me, back when I was the Thief,” she said. “Mind you, I learned more out of a month of regular lessons on that with Robber during the Iserre campaign than out of several years of kicking around as Named.”
I stared at her. She’d picked up lessons from Robber? Well, she wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for chivalry anytime soon but I figured she’d probably be quite good as slitting throats if she were ever in a bind.
“What’d you even bribe him with?” I curiously asked.
“Two months of knowing where Hakram kept his aragh stash,” she grinned.
“That would have done it,” I snorted.
I limped across the panelled floor until I could run a finger against the knife stuck in the plank, easing it out and testing its weight. Well-made, and if it wasn’t goblin steel I’d eat my own hand. I flicked it at her, and to my pleasure she snatched it out of the air.
“So why’d you start?” I asked.
More than once I’d tried to push her into picking up a weapon, back when she’d been the Thief, but she’d always been reluctant. Even back when she’d despised the Legions, she’d been less than sanguine about killing us. I honestly couldn’t remember her ever seeing her take a life outside of a battle.
“The same reason I started learning Mthethwa,” Vivienne said, sitting against the edge of her desk. “I used to be envious of how the rest of you got it spoonfed, did you know? Masego was raised by the Warlock and ‘Drani by the Ranger, you got the Carrion Lord as a tutor and Hakram had an entire aspect prodding him so he’d always know what you needed him to.”
She smiled mirthlessly.
“Me, all I got what the scare of my life from the Assassin and a few years of running, making sure never to stay anywhere long enough the Eyes would be able to find me easily,” Vivienne said. “Gods, Indrani was raised in the middle of the fucking woods and somehow she still knew four languages and her classics in Old Miezan. So I was a little bitter about it, but mostly I used it as an excuse for why I was dragging behind.”
I hid my surprise. I’d known she’d had some issues with how she felt different from the Woe, but honestly I’d figured it came more from her late arrival and well, to be blunt, being used to siding with people that were just better than us. Morally speaking, at least.
“But then Masego kept devouring books,” Vivienne smiled. “Indrani started spying on woodworkers in Laure, you and Hakram started studying Chantant. And what did I do?”
“You essentially put the Jacks together from the ground up,” I pointed out.
Courtesy of Aisha and Ratface we’d long had some contacts in Callow and Praes, but we’d been hopelessly outmatched by the Eyes and the Circle until Vivienne folded the Guild of Thieves and the Guild of Assassins into her Jacks and began turning our old mess into a proper network of spies.
“And I did good work,” she agreed. “But you were all improving yourselves, and I was spending more time on excuses about why I wasn’t than figuring out how I could do the same.”
I wouldn’t throw stones there. I might not have enjoyed learning Chantant, but part of the reason I’d been able to force myself to was that the other most arguably useful thing I could teach myself was basic magical theory and I would have preferred eating a ball of goblinfire. If Akua hadn’t been particularly skilled at keeping the lessons I requested of her interesting, I’d probably still have some major swaths of ignorance there.
“After Hakram got through to me, I guess it was harder to swallow the excuses,” Vivienne continued. “So I started looking at doors I’d left closed. This was one, so was Mthethwa. It’s also when I set to thinking about what good could be brought to Callow, instead of lingering on all the evils still needing to be cut out.”
I slowly nodded, clenching my fingers and unclenching them.
“I’m sorry, Vivienne,” I quietly said. “I had no idea.”
“I’d hope so,” she smiled, “you were the last person I wanted to know, Cat. You’d just taken me in, I didn’t want to be the dead weight.”
“You never have been,” I frankly told her.
The smile turned fond, but it was nothing more than that. It was, I thought, a devil she’d already faced. There was no uncertainty left there.
“It was hard to be angry with you about it, when you shared secrets so readily,” Vivienne said. “I’d been with a band before, and even among heroes tricks are not often simply given when asked. It was one of the first things I liked about you, that you didn’t hoard your knowledge.”
“They weren’t my tricks to start with,” I shrugged.
She shook her head, as if amused.
“It’s one of the reasons follow you, Cat,” Vivienne said. “You don’t think of it as cheapening you, when you help others get stronger.”
I cleared my throat, almost embarrassed.
“And to think I’m the one who’s been drinking,” I teased.
“Get the bottle, then,” Vivienne said. “I’ve got a letter to Duchess Kegan to finish, but when I do it occurs to me it’s been ages since we’ve played shatranj.”
Gods, I was definitely finishing the bottle then. I’d take away from the sting of defeat. And still, as I limped out of the room, I found I was smiling.
I did not see Akua the following day.
Much as the thought dug at me from the side, I let it pass. Thankfully, there was quite enough to busy myself with. We’d sent a few outrider companies far in the valley through the Ways to have a look at the situation there, and the answers were not promising: the dead were almost finished gathering. We’d be facing an assault soon. I delegated more and more to generals and commanders, instead focusing on the Woe. If we wanted to kill the Archmage without losing one of ours in the process, we needed a solid plan. Thankfully I’d had a few ideas, and there was a reason that even now he’d finished working on the new gates Masego barely bothered to sleep. I’d asked him to make anew a breed of artefacts his father had once made for the Calamities, and later on once for myself at the Camps, and he’d taken to the request with a grief-tinged fervour.
“The spellcraft behind these is fundamentally akin to scrying,” Masego said. “Which means they won’t work outside the walls.”
Proper scrying didn’t even work within the walls, even behind the cover of the city wards, but as I understood it the ‘paired stones’ worked just differently enough the interference would be minimal.
“The Lady mentioned the Carrion Lord liked to use these,” Indrani mentioned, chin resting on her palm.
On the table were four pairs of polished, smooth stones. One was meant to be kept inside the mouth and the other in the ear, the former to speak and the latter to hear.
“Father made them at Uncle Amadeus’ request,” Masego agreed. “Though he found them an interesting challenge, he always said. Their limitation as an artefact was that there was a single ‘master’ pair, which was the sole that could both receive and send sound to every other pair.”
Which Black wouldn’t have minded, since his core strategy when the Calamities fought was typically to keep Warlock out of sight and call him down like some sort of magical artillery. The master set went to the Sovereign of the Red Skies, and there was really no need for anything more complicated. My father had always been wary of complexity, when Named fought. Fragility was to be avoided at all costs in his tactics.
“Yet you’ve improved the design,” Hakram said.
Masego clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“I have changed it, certainly,” Hierophant said. “Improved is a premature assessment.”
The other object on the table was, I suspected not by coincidence, something that rather looked like a legionary’s backpack. The resemblance was only a surface one, however, as though there was straps to make it easier to carry the artefact itself was mostly wood and copper. A sort of large rectangular box, it was covered with neat sets of runes set around incrusted stones. By the box a flat stone with carved Miezan numerals from one to four was waiting, and what looked like the mouth-stone from a paired set. The Warlock Wekesa had preferred a simple, smooth design to his artefacts as that fit the tactics and philosophy of the Calamities. Masego, at my behest, had created something a little more sophisticated. Aware of the fragility of such designs, we’d acted accordingly and focused it all in one place: this master box, until someone found a better name for it.
“So this lets us talk to each other instead of simply to the master set,” I mused, eyeing the box.
“Inaccurate,” Masego sighed. “Which is why we will require Hakram to field it.”
Adjutant had been studying the box all the while, eyes narrowed.
“The incrusted stones each pair with one of the ear ones for you?” the orc asked.
Zeze smiled, visibly pleased.
“The box is relay of sorts, then,” Hakram mused. “Only there will be a complication, one that requires active administration.”
“Isoka’s third principle of scarcity,” Indrani drawled. “Can’t use two spells that use the same parts of Creation in the same place at the same time.”
Masego beamed at her and she preened.
“So the spells that transmit the sounds can’t be used simultaneously,” Adjutant said. “You will need me to either serve as a relay for planning, or establish a connection between two sets of stones.”
“That’ll be one part,” I said. “Our great trouble with the Archmage so far has been that it’s fucking impossible to get at it. When it knows Named are close it puts up a storm around itself, and then it usually falls into a certain pattern.”
“One major offensive spell at a time, keeping an eye on the opposition in case it can breach its defences,” Adjutant slowly said.
“We’ll be coming at it from different angles, simultaneously,” I said. “That means we need someone who can actually figure out what it’s preparing to hit us with, and where. That will be you.”
As additional prizes, it would also significantly lower collateral damage – if we could catch large-scale spells before they wrecked the inside of the city, we could counter them – and keep him out of the direct fighting. Hakram wasn’t a fool, he was aware that he was in no shape for a scrap with Named, but this approach meant that he was still fulfilling a role and an important one to boot. I’d not invented this for him, I’d just told Masego that we were in a position to have someone dedicated to handling the core artefact if it improved its uses. Adjutant looked at me for a long time, then slowly nodded.
“My Name seems to approve,” he gravelled, then shook his head and changed the subject. “Have we decided on a final roster for the combat?”
“Everyone in this room,” I said, “and one more.”
“Akua?” Indrani asked. “Viv’s not in a place to brawl with a Scourge these days.”
“I was considering the Squire,” I admitted.
“No,” Hakram said, without missing a beat.
“Look,” I said, “I know-”
“No,” Indrani flatly said.
“No,” Masego snickered.
“I didn’t even say anything,” I protested.
“The kid’s not ready for a fight of that calibre, even if he wasn’t a replacement the Heavens are trying to line up for you,” Archer said. “It’s not happening, Cat, let it go.”
I grit my teeth, but found no takers at the table. Fine. I’d find another use for him.
“The either we bring in Ishaq or Akua,” I said.
“Akua’s a stronger hitter,” Indrani frowned. “And muscle’s useful, sure, but the Barrow Sword’s not used to working with us the way she is.”
“I cut Akua loose from the Night,” I said. “Along every other binding I had on her.”
A flicker of surprise form Archer, but that was all.
“Good,” she simply said. “About time.”
Tense, I studied the other two. Masego looked puzzled but largely indifferent, while Hakram… thoughtful, but not angry or disappointed. Either of those would have stung. He gave me a look that made it clear we’d be discussing this at some point, but did not otherwise pursue the matter.
“I’d still prefer Akua either way,” Indrani added. “That’s why she’s not been around, isn’t it? She went to find some fangs.”
“Good odds,” I agreed. “Though she didn’t tell me before going. She could just have left.”
Indrani rolled her eyes.
“Sure she did,” Archer said. “Zeze?”
“I would prefer her to the Barrow Sword as well,” Hierophant said after a moment. “Even if she regains only middling power, her state as a shade means she can ignore a great many traditional magical defences.”
My gaze moved to Hakram.
“I prefer Ishaq in the abstract,” Adjutant said. “You already have spells, steel is what you lack. But in practice, he’ll be more useful as the chief for a band of five.”
I breathed out. Well, that was a rather strong endorsement for her.
If she returned.
Dusk found me on the ramparts, looking down onto the plains below with company.
“The Dead King’s making a mistake,” I said.
Tariq stood at my side, rheumy eyes on the sea of death below.
“Is he?” the Grey Pilgrim mused.
“It’s a pivotal battle with our backs up against the wall,” I said. “We’re surrounded and outnumbered. I know I warned your lot about getting cocky, Pilgrim, but I expect that they’ll cut through the lesser chaff of Revenants likes knives through butter.”
That was the way those stories went, wasn’t it? The lone company of paladins on the hill, scattering the faceless evil hordes. The few stubborn souls on the wall, keeping dawn from failing one more time. Creation loved a last stand, loved to turn them into victories – ruinous ones, often, but victories nonetheless.
“I am not so certain, Black Queen,” Tariq said. “You knocked a gate into the wall we have our backs against.”
I cast a look at him, found his face solemn.
“You think the gate tips the scales the other way?” I frowned. “It shouldn’t. We could flee through those, sure, but we’re not getting reinforcements. What we have is what’s here, and we’re severely outnumbered.”
“It is not as simple as that,” the Peregrine murmured. “It is not about what the gate brings as much as its existence. The stands we make, Catherine, they are not… strategic. Measures. That is what brings them power, you see. It is not a scheme, a trick.”
An empty prayer, I thought.
“So you’re saying that the gate muddles that,” I tried.
“Is the Dead King trying to take Hainaut to destroy us and blow out the last candles of hope,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “or because a twilight gate is a great war prize?”
I took a moment to let that sink in, reaching for my pipe and stuffing it. I had to turn around, as the wind blew back the first mouthful of smoke into my face, and I leaned against the crenelated rampart as Tariq kept looking below.
“If it’s the candles, we win it,” I finally said. “But a prize? He gets to win those. He has won them before.”
I pulled at the wakeleaf, troubled. It was not an angle I’d considered.
“Creation is a fickle mistress,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It can be hard to tell what yarn it is she will spin. We are not without a tale of our own, I reckon. One about how a defeat here is the end of the Principate, the first step to the ruin of Calernia. Such stakes bring attention, and attention here is to our advantage I would think.”
He glanced at me, arching a white brow.
“It’s been hinted to me that Below’s less than fond of the Dead King,” I acknowledged. “Mind you, he’s one of their greats. If they put the finger to the scales here, which I’m not sure they will, I don’t think it’ll be in his favour.”
He nodded, as if he’d expected every word. Considering the angels whispering in his ear, he might have.
“And so it is not a mistake, I do not think,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It is a gamble, instead. A roll of the dice. And even in defeat, he loses nothing here he cannot afford to lose.”
I almost objected that if we deal him grievous losses defending the city we’d be able to roll up and expel him from the entire principality of Hainaut, hopefully as a prelude to the Gigantes warding up the shore, but I got what Tariq actually meant. There was nothing down on the plains below that wasn’t ultimately expendable to Keter, because everything but the Dead King was expendable to Keter. If this war ended with every undead made ash save for Neshamah himself but all his opposition buried, that was still a victory for the King of Death. His empire of death could always be rebuilt. He had all the time in the world. Us? Not so much. Even a sufficiently costly victory for us here played to his advantage. Every veteran soldier we lost here was one more conscript in the ranks when we came for Keter, every trick and artefact used here one fewer up our sleeve.
Attrition had always been the Dead King’s favourite trick, that slow and insidious poison for which there was no cure.
“It still feels like a mistake,” I murmured. “I don’t know why, Tariq, but it does.”
Like I was standing on the edge again, cold fear in my stomach as I looked down at the drop.
“He trains it in us,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Finding the shadow of our defeat in every action we take. It must be fought, Black Queen, else the war will be lost in our heads long before he wins it on the field.”
I breathed in deep of the smoke, blew out a long stream of smoke that the wind curled away into nothingness. Tariq was not wrong. I knew that, agreed with it even.
And still it felt like the damned dreams, right before I fell.