“I agree that outliving your enemies is the greatest of revenges, my friend, but we seem to have something of a philosophical difference about how that is to be achieved.”– Dread Empress Maledicta II
There was a pond on the guildhall’s grounds.
Like everything else in this cursed city, it was dead. The weeds in the drab water had withered, the grass around the rim blackened. Even the mud at the bottom looked darker than it should. But the water was warm, having soaked in the sunlight of the day, and it was a pleasant sensation when I soaked my bad leg in it. I left my boots in the dead grass and looked up at the sky through dead branches reaching out like fingerbones. Something ghosted across the tripwire of Night I’d woven around the thicket, giving me a name before I ever saw a face. It was a short list, the people who would be able to pass with so light a presence. I clutched my silence tight, staring up at the cloudless blue sky as I waited patiently.
“How very carefree,” Akua said. “I am surprised you did not send for a bottle of wine as well.”
I chuckled, eyes staying on the blue.
“I still have duties this evening,” I said, “and drinking half a bottle would make me want to take a nap.”
It was a tempting thought even knowing I did not have the time to spare. Leaning back on the soft ground, my feet in the water and with a belly warmed by wine? It’d be a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon, even one soon to be shadowed by war. I heard Akua come closer, wondering if the way I’d heard a sound at all was a concession on her part. Back when she’d still had hooks in the Night, her steps had made no sound and left behind no trace. Now, though, who knew?
“Are you done making plans of war, then?” she idly asked.
A little too idly, I decided.
“No,” I said. “We want you with us when we go for the Archmage. Masego made paired stones.”
“You’d have no use of me,” Akua said. “I am without power.”
I blinked in surprise. I’d thought for sure that getting fangs of her own was why she’d disappeared. Peeling my eyes away from the endless blue expanse, I turned and found her leaning against a beech tree. It was a long black dress she wore, with elaborate patterns looking like sunflowers across it all the way to the straps that kept it fastened against her collarbone. Her hair was styled in a manner I’d never seen on her before, closely cut on the left and sweeping towards the right. As was often the way when she preferred her thoughts obscured, her face was unreadable. I cocked my head to the side.
“Are you?” I asked.
She smiled viciously, all the more beautiful for the anger she bared.
“Is this when you speak of the powers of love to me?” Akua asked.
“It’s not a force to be underestimated,” I mildly agreed.
It had kept the Dread Empire of Praes together for forty year, after all, made it the most powerful it had been in centuries. Without Black and Malicia, the genuine trust and affection between them, it would have all collapsed years before the Conquest could begin. And without the Conquest, neither of us would be here under the afternoon sun in faraway Hainaut.
“You do not love me, Catherine,” she said. “In any sense of the word. I am not your friend or your companion, I am the woman who butchered a hundred thousand of your people. I am the doom of Liesse, the mother of the folly you have hung around my neck.”
Her fingers clenched.
“Let us not pretend otherwise,” Akua harshly said. “I tire of the game.”
I studied her for a long moment, finding the anger boiling in her. The confusion too, or perhaps the shame? Even when sentiment peeked through clearly, she was more nuanced a woman than most.
“You know better,” I simply said.
It wouldn’t work if I were lying. If there was not a genuine affection, a genuine attraction. I was not skilled enough a liar to be able to fool her for long. She knew this, too, though she did not want to believe it. But this wasn’t really about me, I decided. It was about her. You are afraid, I thought.
“You made a choice, didn’t you?” I mused.
She flinched. My hands clenched, as I tasted the heady brew that was triumph and grief so deeply intertwined as to be indistinguishable. I’d done it. From here to the end, now, it was all writ.
“I sought the fae,” Akua quietly said. “Through eerie paths. And I found what I wanted: one of them blinded by story, who would not see the knife until it was too late.”
“Power through blood,” I murmured.
Masego had firmly rejected the notion of making up for the loss of his magic by acquiring another power, be it Night or something usurped from some lesser god. It’s not power I want, he’d told me. It is magic, Catherine, and for that there is no replacement. Yet it was not in Masego’s nature to seek dominion, not the way it was in Akua’s. For all that they were both the children of two of some of the most powerful figures in the Wasteland, they had been raised in fundamentally different ways.
“Through murder,” Akua thinly smiled. “As much the transgression as what is offered up. It would have been a… beginning. Once I devoured that strength, it would have been easier to gain more.”
“And yet you didn’t,” I said.
Her face closed.
“I still might.”
I half-smiled. She was always easiest to grasp when she was similar to me, and when I had I ever been above threatening to cut my nose to spite my face?
“And what would that prove?” I asked.
“That I am not weak,” Akua coldly said.
“You say that like there’s only ever one way to be strong,” I replied.
She hesitated. Once upon a time, she might have dismissed that. It was too late now, though. She’d strayed too far from the invisible fences of the Wasteland, seen the greater world beyond and the myriad strange and terrifying entities that strode it. She had seen powers rivalling the greatest of the Old Tyrants, not a single one having walked down their path.
“There’s only one way to claim the Tower,” she said.
Praes has failed, I could have said. Or, why would you want to? Or, why does your mother still rule you?
“And will that satisfy you?” I asked instead.
She did not answer, looking away. The silence stretched out until it was so taut I feared it might snap.
“Your way,” Akua finally said, “it gives nothing. I came back empty-handed.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I murmured. “You came back after having made a choice, Akua.”
“Is failure a choice, then?” she scorned. “What great revelation did I drag back with me, fleeing like a fearful child?”
I thought of a few moments stolen away before dawn, in the Graveyard’s wake, of the same woman now before me standing above Kairos Theodosian with burning eyes. Of the words she had spoken then, addressed as much to herself as to the Tyrant.
“That you are more than blood,” I said. “That you are more than what they made of you.”
I saw something like hate in her golden eyes when she faced me, but for who I could not tell.
“It wasn’t you,” Akua quietly said. “So do not gloat, even where you think I cannot see. It wasn’t you at all, Catherine.”
I slowly nodded. Her face fell and she looked down at her hands.
“It’s never just power,” she said. “In that much at least you were right. I wanted to take from the fae and wield it as I once did sorcery, but in the end…”
She softly laughed, as if appalled at herself.
“All I could think of was those lessons with my father,” Akua said. “The joy in him, when he shared magic with me.”
She looked away again.
“It would have been ugly, replacing that with a thimble of power earned through cheap murder,” Akua quietly said. “Ugly all the way down.”
You told me about your cradle-sister, once, I thought as I watched her. A girl called Zain, whose throat your mother made you cut when you were barely eight years old. And you told me, after, that your regret about that day was that you cut her shallow. That she bled out slower than she needed to because your hand hadn’t been steady.
“And so now I return to Hainaut, empty-handed and fool,” she scoffed.
Deftly, I went rifling through the many pockets of my cloak until I had what I looked for: two small stones, enchanted by Masego’s own hand. Her set of paired stones. She went still as I reached out, slowly prying her fingers open and pressing them into her palm.
“You returned to us,” I corrected.
And golden eyes searched me, looking for the lie and finding only truth. I had meant every word. And I also thought: if you had to cut her throat again, right now, your hand would tremble.
Her fingers closed around the stone. I withdrew my hand.
I looked up at the blue sky, winning and lost.
“The city was made to be held,” Sapper-General Pickler said. “And if simple force of arms decides this, it will hold. You have my word on that.”
I cut into my slice of beef, chewing thoughtfully. I’d not necessarily meant our shared meal to be about our duties, but I honestly couldn’t recall ever having a meal with Pickler where business wasn’t touched on at some point. I’d never taken it personally, of course. Pickler didn’t draw the line between duty and her personal life the way most people did. To her it was the work that was the centerpiece of her existence and all the rest was secondary. I sometimes wondered if that was why Robber’s long-lasting affections for her had never been reciprocated: romance just wasn’t something she cared enough about to ever put above her tinkering.
Mind you, the goblin ways of romance were alien enough to me that even if they were engaged in a torrid affair I’d find it rather hard to tell. For one, their culture typically drew no direct link between being a romantic couple and being physically intimate. Sex was about breeding and arranged by the Matrons to strengthen bloodlines or alliances, nothing else. My understanding of it was that goblins didn’t really feel physical desire the way most humans or orcs did, so the… impulse just wasn’t there. It was pretty much unheard of for one of their kind to seek a brothel or a fling. It was more of an abstract craving of the other person for them, an itch that didn’t require skin to be scratched.
It’d made me rather curious about exactly what it had entailed when Nauk had been courting Pickler, considering he must have known at least as much about goblins as I did, but I’d never quite dared to ask back when we were at the College. And nowadays, what would be the point? He was long dead, and that wound would never heal if I kept picking at it. It wasn’t mine alone, anyway. For all that Robber had once made sport of Nauk at every occasion, considering him a rival for Pickler’s affections, I could not recall him ever speaking ill of the other man since he’d died. Enemies or not, they had been Rat Company.
That still meant something, to the few of us left.
“It’s different when the enemy doesn’t break,” I reminded her. “The ramp that gets them to the gate is a beautiful killing floor for your engines, but the dead won’t ever flee. It’ll not be waves so much as a wave, uninterrupted.”
“The skeletons aren’t the trouble,” Robber said, unusually serious. “We can handle the Bones and the Binds, Catherine. The constructs will be a little trickier, but you finally let my people off the leash for a reason.”
He bared needle-like fangs in approval. By that he meant I’d cleared all sappers for use of our last goblin munitions, to their riotous cheering. Goblinfire was still restricted, but officers of the rank of tribune and above were allowed to request its deployment in a limited fashion. We’d set aside part of the stock for that purpose, around a third. The rest we had more interesting plans for than just propping up the defence.
“It’s not Hannoven or Rhenia,” I sighed. “The Volignacs didn’t count on the walls cliffside being scaled, or things like beorns and wyrms coming out to play. It’s not the gate I’m worried about so much, it was built expecting a fight. It’s the rest.”
The city of Hannoven was, tales said, essentially a set of ever-taller walls circling a lone mountain. It was widely considered one of the greatest fortresses in all of Calernia even if it had fallen multiple times to ratlings and the Dead King. Rhenia had fallen to neither and was even more daunting a prospect to take: it’d begun as a fortress carved into a cliff but then become a city almost entirely dug within a mountain of solid rock that could be sealed up at will. Both of those great cities had been built without any great weaknesses because the people who’d built them had learned that Keter aways punished weakness. But Hainaut just wasn’t built the same, for all its striking presence.
It just hadn’t had to withstand the same kind of sustained, brutal warfare the Lycaonese cities had. Most of the time undead invasions that’d crossed the lakes and pierced into southern Procer hadn’t even bothered to siege the capital, just gone around the plateau and let the Volignacs hole up in their fortress-city up high. Princess Beatrice had admitted to me that there might actually be some truth to the old unpleasant rumours about some of her ancestors outright letting the dead through when the principalities to the south got too troublesome to deal with. I hoped none of the Lycaonese royals ever heard about that, because it was the sort of thing they would take very badly.
“There’s not much to be done with walls atop a cliff,” Pickler frankly said. “They built with quality stone and saw to the upkeep decently, which passed solid defences on to us. I stand by what I said, Catherine: we can hold this city, so long as Revenants don’t pry it away from us.”
An expectant gaze followed.
“I won’t say the Scourges will be easy meat, or even just the other Revenants,” I told her, “but I believe we can win that fight. We prepared, and we have gathered significant Named talent.”
I held no illusions that we’d win this without casualties, though. At best we’d lose at least a band of five’s worth, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it were more. We were aiming to snap the Dead King’s finest blades, that deed wasn’t going to come cheap. And I’ll bet one or two of the Scourges will get away whatever we do, I thought, so that they can come back to haunt us if our armies ever make it to Keter.
“If you say we can, then I expect we will,” Pickler said, and I started in surprise.
That was pretty effusive by her standards. She’d never been heavy handed with praise, at least outside her fields of interest.
“I do wish we had Juniper and Aisha with us, however,” she wistfully added. “Generals Bagram and Zola are skilled, but it isn’t the same.”
Preaching to the Choir, there.
“Agreed,” I murmured.
“Bagram doesn’t even inspect kits personally,” Robber told us, like this was a great offence.
Way I heard it Juniper had picked up that habit from her mother, General Istrid Knightsbane, but while Bagram had served as Istrid’s right hand for over a decade he did not seem inclined to continue the tradition. Juniper famously had been, and the chewing outs she’d given recruits who got sloppy were still legend among the old crowd from the Fifteenth.
“Juniper’s doing better,” I volunteered. “Last word I got was that she was now able to go several days without episodes.”
By year’s end she should be fit for field command again, though I wasn’t signing off on that until Aisha agreed regardless of what the healers might say. The Hellhound wasn’t above bullying priests or mages into saying what she wanted, but Aisha wasn’t the kind of woman to let herself get forced into saying a damned thing.
“The Peregrine shortchanged us, if it took this long,” Pickler coldly said.
“More like Malicia put her back into fucking with her mind,” Robber darkly replied. “Another account to settle out before the knife is sheathed, Boss. The old girl bled us a few times too many.”
“Praes will be settled,” I evenly said. “By treaties if I can, by the sword if I must.”
A shiver went up my spine and for an instant I almost felt like someone was looking at us. I pricked my ears with Night, but we were alone. My sudden distraction had been missed by neither of the goblins, Robber having already discreetly bared a knife under the table.
“False alarm,” I said, shaking my head. “The wait’s driving me mad, I think.”
“Won’t be long now,” Robber said. “It’s in the air, yeah?”
Pickler bared pale, sharp teeth.
“They have never fought a proper siege against our sappers before, Catherine,” the Sapper-General of Callow said. “And after this, they will never try to again.”
We drank to that, and the meal finished on the high note of Pickler showing me her latest improvements on the contraption of leather bands and steel that she’d first made for me years ago, the device that would send a knife up against my palm if I flicked my wrist just right. They helped me try on, and it was with a smile and a flourish that I revealed a sharp little rib-sticker in goblin steel. It would do nicely, I thought, watching my reflection in the side.
Gods knew I’d not lack use for it.
The moon was out in full.
It’d been days since anyone had glimpsed a single cloud above the capital, day or night, and this high up the sights bared by that absence were always striking. The rampart where I had gone to stand had become my favourite for the way it have me a good look at both Hainaut itself, the island of lights and flames that an inhabited city at night turned into, and the vast expanse of sky above. The stars were visible in a way that they rarely were when standing in a city this size, for the valley around us was a ring of unbroken darkness. The dead saw the same be it night or day, and the forges they used were hidden from our sight. If I let my mind wander I could almost imagine that the city was just an island drifting under the stars, the dark around us nothing but dark and deep waters.
Shadows moved against the darkness, cutting out the lights wherever they passed, but I was not afraid. I knew them too well for that. Two great crows, whose feathers somehow seemed darker than the night sky itself, circled slowly above. They were careful never to leave the sky above the city, where wards made it difficult for the Dead King to attempt anything against them, but that was the only concession to prudence they made. I stayed beneath them, the warmth of the Mantle of Woe pulled tight around me as I pulled at my pipe and let curls of smoke rise up like some fleeting offering to my patronesses. They came to me when they’d had their fill, and in Komena I found vexation at having been denied something to hunt.
The Dead King had robbed the Sisters of any prey they might have sought, killing everything that crawled or swam as far as the eye could see. Their talons had not been red into too long for the Youngest Night’s taste. Sve Noc took to the rampart I was leaning against, each landing on one of my sides in a smooth flurry of feathers, and I almost smiled when I heard those sharp talons rake at the stone. There would be marks. They seemed in no hurry to talk, so silence hung between us for some time as I breathed in wakeleaf and spewed it out over the edge of the wall. There was hardly even a breeze, tonight.
“The war does not go well,” Andronike said.
My fingers tightened around the dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me. I forced them to loosen, even though what I had been told was nothing less than deadly serious. It was not the war here in the south that the oldest of the sisters would be speaking of.
“How bad?” I quietly asked.
“We sent Vesena Spear-biter and its sigil into the lands of the dead to ravage and draw attention from your own campaign,” Komena said. “All souls were lost.”
I softly swore. The Vesena had never particularly impressed me even before their last defeat, but they had been led by the Seventh General and been one of the great assets of the Empire Ever Dark.
“Radhoste and Jutren were lost as well,” Andronike said. “The Dreamer to a breach in the Gloom, Jutren to an ambush as it pursued.”
That made it the Sixth and Tenth General dead as well. Fuck, the finest of the Firstborn were dropping like flies. I’d thought the northern front halfway under control, what the Hells was happening? The goddesses had never been shy about looking at my thoughts, so I did not need to ask the question to get an answer.
“The Dead King has perfected his answers to Night,” Andronike said. “With every battle fewer of the Secrets work unimpeded. The war cannot linger, First Under the Night.”
“If it lasts too long, we will die out,” Komena harshly said. “Our losses are becoming too great and there are…”
“Concerns,” Andronike finished.
Not here, I would have been tasked to address them. That meant up north again, and there were not many who might trouble the Sisters among their kind.
“Kurosiv?” I quietly asked.
“It is now the First General,” Komena said.
That wasn’t an agreement, not quite, but hardly a denial. I grimaced. Kurosiv the All-Knowing had long been considered a leech by the two Sisters, but not one that it would be easy to remove. It was only going to get worse with time, though. The same stuff of which the apotheosis of Sve Noc was made was what Kurosiv was now hoarding, and though that made the drow powerful it also made the Sisters uniquely vulnerable in some ways. I suspected that swallowing Winter had made them more vulnerable in some ways. That power was not one used to being ruled by the same face for too long, and now that it had been devoured by goddesses of theft and murder expecting loyalty out of it would be naive.
“If we win here decisively, then we can have Hainaut secured by winter,” I said. “After that, when the snows clear, it is Keter we turn to.”
“We are aware,” Andronike said. “It is why we have come, Catherine Foundling. This battle has our full attention.”
My heart skipped a beat and I set down my pipe, studying the crows closer.
“You’re not the same crows that were here before I left for the Arsenal,” I finally said. “How much of you is actually here, Sve Noc?”
The great crows laughed, the sound of it eerily like caws.
“Half,” Komena said.
“Of everything?” I hissed out.
“This battle,” Andronike mildly repeated, “has our full attention.”
They had said what they wanted to say, and so found no need to linger. Without bothering with anything as petty as goodbyes, the Sisters dropped off the edge of the rampart and took flight. With dark wings they rose, cutting out even the insolent silver light of the moon as they passed before it. I found my hands were shaking when I picked up my pipe again. I filled it anew, more to have something to do with my hands than hunger for another packet of wakeleaf. Half, Gods save us all. That was… Well, I didn’t have to worry about any of the Firstborn here being raised from the dead at least. The Sisters would nip that right in the bud. And Night taken from the undead would form quickly and smoothly, so there was that as well. It was still a heavy investment on their part, to send half of their divinity so far from their seat of power, and I was not quite sure what had driven them to it.
If Komena alone had come I might have called it recklessness, for she was the more hardheaded of the two, but for Andronike to have committed as well? It meant that they no longer considered the war up north one they might feasibly win alone. They were betting on the Grand Alliance because it was the only good bet left to them, not because they felt a particular fondness for our collection of human realms. I let the smoke calm me, thoughts following down the cascade of consequences that Firstborn reverses implied for the war. It might make the dwarves more reluctant to intervene, I concluded with a grimace. The Kingdom Under wasn’t interested in picking a fight with Neshamah on behalf of an alliance that was losing, they’d made that much clear: a clear shot at the Crown of the Dead was their prerequisite for sending in their own armies.
With the drow front facing defeat and our three southern ones varying in degrees of deadlock, we did not look like a good horse to back from the dwarven perspective. Better for them to avoid all-out war with the Dead King and instead concentrate on the strategy of underground containment they’d been implementing for centuries. I breathed out the smoke, eyes closed. Yeah, with that in perspective I could see why Andronike would agree to investing so heavily here in Hainaut. We were highly unlikely to win this war without dwarven involvement, and if we lost the battle over the capital the chances of the Kingdom Under joining the dance were pretty much nonexistent. They’d be rushing to finish their containment, not sparing time for dying human petty kingdoms.
Gods Below, there was even more riding on the Battle of Hainaut than I’d thought.
I stirred myself out of the contemplative daze I’d been falling into. Hakram would still be awake, I figured, and I wanted to pick his brains about this. Not only would his insight be welcome on the consequences of the drow being driven back, but there might still be time to prepare some last defences for Hainaut. An idea or two were beginning to coalesce in the back of my head, and – and the city light up, flares of red light going up in the sky as trumpets sounded.
Hainaut stirred awake and from the corner of my eye I saw a patrol of fantassins bearing torches run towards me, but it was not them I paid attention to. Hand against the crenellation, I leaned over the edge of the wall and looked down. And there they were, keeping to shadows as they moved: pale skeletons beginning to climb the cliff, like a swarm of ants going up a wall. And beyond them the entire sea of deaths stirred, thousands upon thousands of corpses and monsters all moving as one. Roars shattered the quiet of the night, a chorus of wyrms announcing their presence and their hunger for the destruction to come, and below great ladders of black iron were brought to the fore as Keter began unleashing its preparations.
The battle for Hainaut had begun.