“The parity of light and darkness is a false perception. Light is transgressive, an imposition on the natural order, and so will always spend itself into nothingness. Be as the dark and you will be beyond struggle, ever returning when the flames die out.”– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
The turn of the year had begun with a boy I’d thought I might save, and then a hard lesson remembered to me by the Dead King. That this was not a war as I had known wars before, that there would be no miracles or saving graces to this ugly, brutal, exhausting struggle to the death we were having. I thought of that night again, as I watched stars fall on the city of Hainaut, and the lesson echoed once more: sometimes we just lost.
Masego’s spell was little more than a window between Twilight and Creation, but what it showed was… I knew the forces at work, but still the sight caused me in me a sort of primal awe. The meteors, shards of a broken star, were massive. The first that struck toppled half the city in a streak of dust and white flame, scouring it clean of life, but the rain did not end there. Again and again the capital and the valley around it were struck until there was nothing there but barren glass, and still in the distance stars fell. How much of Hainaut had been scoured in the span of a few moments, I wondered?
It’d not been undead alone that’d still been in the city when the star fell. The Fourth Army was gone, as were most of the Hannoven men and the Prince of Bayeux’s army. Almost all of the Alavan troops had been lost as well, since they’d served as the Dominion rearguard, and at least half the Firstborn with them. It had been a cruel defeat before the Pilgrim began his last hurrah, but after the star had struck the results could only be called disastrous. Not a single army in fighting shape had made it out of Hainaut except maybe the Neustrians, and they’d just lost their princess.
I couldn’t even blame the Pilgrim for when he had begun to call down the wrath of the Heavens, he’d not had any choice. There would be no repeat of the sacrifices – my heart clenched, my nails dug into my palms – that had bought him that opening, and risking a longer wait might have made it all worthless. He’d done what he could and turned this into a disaster for both sides at least. The Dead King, for all that he was the victor of the field, did not have an army left in all of Hainaut. The meteors had seen to that. Much as I itched to blame Tariq for what I’d lost tonight, it would have rung hollow to try it when he’d died trying to save all of Calernia.
And he had, Gods forgive me. If we’d simply evacuated, fled back to our defensive lines, then the simple amount of corpses swelling Neshamah’s ranks would have been enough to overwhelm us to the south after we retreated there to lick our wounds. And once the Dead King pierced into Procer, got his hands on cities and teeming masses of refugees, then it was all over. The Peregrine had averted that doom for us all, and I held that truth close as I watched the pieces of a dead star rain own on Creation.
“Some of the Scourges will have made it out,” Indrani quietly said. “The Hawk for sure, maybe the Prince of Bones as well.”
“The Grey Legion’s good as gone,” I replied, forcefully calm. “That, at least, is a gain.”
There had been few enough of those tonight that I would the find silver linings where I could.
“The Crab is destroyed as well,” Masego noted. “Though it likely was in a practical sense even before the meteor struck it, given the amount of goblinfire burning within.”
My fingers clenched. Blood dripped down from my palm onto the soft grass.
“It was a good way to go,” Archer murmured. “They will sing songs of him, Catherine.”
I would rather they didn’t, I thought, so that I might hear him sing again instead. But I’d known deep down that Robber would find his worthy death on some battlefield or another. He’d been looking for years, trying ever starker odds against ever sharper foes. You would have hated peace, I thought. Despised it to the bone. A long silence trundled along, the only sound that of our steady breaths. My cheek clenched in frustration as I tried and failed to blink an eye I no longer had.
“It will end soon,” Hierophant said. “The power is spent.”
I nodded. The pale streaks were waning, growing rarer. Even the might of the Choir of Mercy anchored on the death of a great man was not a force without limit.
“Your officers want to speak with you,” Indrani reminded me.
“They can wait,” I said.
General Bagram was dead. Vivienne has saved his life from the Varlet only him to die trying to rally the Fourth mere hours later. General Zola was now in overall command of my remaining soldiers, something eased by the hard truth that aside from the remains of the Second I had few of those left. Later I would speak to her, but for now I saw no point. Indrani brushed a hand against my arm, startling me as I’d not seen her coming. I had blind spots now, I reminded myself. I’d need to learn to compensate for them. I shook away the touch, even if it was meant in comfort. Archer knew me well enough not to take it badly. She left me to the way I had always preferred to handle my grief: alone. Her footsteps were soft against the grass as she left.
Masego stayed, but his eyes were on the vista revealed by his spell. He’d always been the most accommodating of my friends when it came to sharing solitude. It made him the easiest to be around when grief was still raw.
The last streaks of light softly died, leaving behind only a darkened sky and one fewer star than there had been at the beginning of the night. Hainaut was a ruin. The city itself was shattered, blackened stone smooth as glass rising in jagged pillars that looked eerily like teeth. Smoke and ash were on the wind, swirling thick. The land around the capital was no less a ruin, the plains scoured down to burnt bedrock as far as the eye could see. Nothing would live here for decades, centuries even. Of the armies the dead there was not a trace left, not even of that behemoth Crab that had tipped the scales in the Dead King’s favour at the end. It was all dust on the wind, hundreds of thousands of souls released back to whatever Gods they had kept to.
There was a terrible peace to it all, I thought. Masego turned towards me, raising an eyebrow in silent question. I nodded and he let the spell die. It ended in time for me to hear footsteps approaching, the cadence of them telling me who they were before I turned. That hobbling walk was Hakram on his crutches, while the still unnaturally smooth stride was Vivienne’s – she had once walked rooftops as other women did streets, and the touch had never quite left her. Leaning against my staff, I watched them approach with apathy. Vivienne looked away when I met her gaze. Trying to avoid looking at my eye, I realized, and suddenly felt self-conscious. I would have brought down my hood, were it not too obvious a reaction.
“Catherine,” Adjutant greeted me. “The starfall has ended?
I cocked an eyebrow at the empty talk, gaze moving to Vivienne.
“What is it that you two need of me?” I plainly asked.
She grimaced, and this time did not flinch away from the sight of the gruesome scar I had instead of my left eye.
“You need to hold a war council,” Vivienne said. “At least for Callow. General Zola’s keeping it together, but she doesn’t know where to go from here.”
“It’s obvious,” I tiredly said. “We lost the battle but the Pilgrim salvaged us an opportunity with his death. If the White Knight succeeds to the north then we will escort the Gigantes to the shore and ward Hainaut from the dead. If he has lost, then we retreat for the Cigelin Sisters and fortify what we can against the coming onslaught.”
I did not doubt that even as we spoke the Dead King was marching troops through the bottom of the lakes to our north, trying to turn the setback into an opportunity. We’d destroyed the Twilight Gate here along with the rest of the city, but we still had pharos devices for mass-deployment of our remaining forces. Returning to Creation at the moment would be pointless, especially since the ruins were still hazardous and there was no water left to drink, so we would be staying in the Ways until the sun came up if not even longer. There’d be no point in leaving the Ways just to enter them anew when we marched either north or south.
“It might be obvious to you, Catherine, but not others,” Hakram calmly said. “More than that, you must be seen. The Lycaonese lost both their rulers in the span of a single night. The Alamans are shamed and desperate, with only a destitute Princess Beatrice to calm them. The Dominion mourns the Grey Pilgrim without even a body to burn. The Firstborn huddle among themselves and speak to no one. And the Army of Callow broke tonight, for the first time since it was founded.”
“You’re needed, Catherine,” Vivienne said. “The Black Queen is needed.”
When fucking wasn’t she? My fingers balled into a fist, blood sliding down the skin from where my nails had bit through skin. Hakram’s eyes flicked there, though with his nose he would have smelled the red long before that.
“Enough,” Masego said, voice grown hard. “If you have the voice to ask, use it settle the troubles you bring her instead.”
I started in surprise, half-turning.
“Masego-” Vivienne began.
“She should be asleep, Vivienne,” Hierophant said, eyes burning. “She insists on remaining awake, so she will, but do not mistake this for her being in a fit state. You ask too much.”
I found myself both warmed and irritated.
“I can speak for myself, Zeze,” I said.
“Then do so,” Masego bluntly replied. “But I will not let this war drag you into the grave, Catherine. I have not forgotten what Aunt Sabah’s death did to my family, and I will not allow Robber’s death to bloom that sickly flower twice.”
I might have taken issue with the tone if he’d not spoken the words that followed. I remembered it too, the brittle look in Black’s eyes after Captain was killed. I had not loved Wekesa the Warlock while he lived, but I would not do the man’s shade disservice be denying he had cared for Sabah just as deeply. That evening in the Free Cities had left scars on all the Calamities, even if some had been subtler than others. I would not blame Masego for dreading the only family he had left might come to the same end. I sighed, drawing their attention.
“There’s nowhere for them to go,” I said, gesturing at the Ways around us. “And it will take more than my carcass being paraded through a camp to fix this. I’ll see to the Army of Callow later, but the rest can wait.”
Masego beamed at me, which was comforting even tough I knew this was probably the wrong decision. I was tired enough that I found it hard to care: there was only so much beating that this thrice-dead horse could take. I met Hakram’s eyes and found surprise there, but he nodded. Vivienne was harder to read. Was she disappointed? If she was, I’d cope. The legend I’d set was not one I could live up to. l If this campaign should have made anything painfully clear for all the world to see, it was that I didn’t always have the answers. I’d pushed for this offensive from the start and even if I’d not been the only one to do so my influence had objectively been key. This catastrophe was on me, if it was on anyone at all.
Most the people I could have shared the blame with were dead.
“Leave me,” I said. “I-”
My sentence went stillborn when I felt a shudder of indignation through my tenuous bond with the Night. Sve Noc were enraged, and though I found the shades of emotion difficult to parse I did pick up that this wasn’t about the Firstborn. In the distance, two great crows took flight. Masego was not far behind them, wrested sorcery already opening anew the same window into Hainaut he had allowed to lapse. The spell was not as stable as the last time, the edges buzzing and the spell itself letting out trails of smoke here in Twilight, but what we saw could not be missed. Among the great fangs of black glass which were all that remained of the city of Hainaut, a great spell was stirring up a storm of ash.
It was not one of ours.
“Hierophant, what am I looking at?” I calmly asked.
Masego remained silent for a time, golden glass eyes darting back and forth as they parsed the glimmers of the spell that could be seen through the ash. Thick, curving cords of runes spinning in cycles without making a sound, a dull but growing pale sphere at the heart of them.
“I am… unsure,” Hierophant admitted.
The Crows plunged through the night sky in a precipitous glide, Andronike and Komena claiming my shoulders and sinking their sharp talons into the steel of my pauldrons. They hissed urgency at me and I raised my bloodied hand to clutch my staff.
“Whatever it is, we can’t let it finish,” I said. “I’ll open us a gate, and-”
I glanced at Hakram and Vivienne, lips thinning. No more risks tonight.
“- you and I will go,” I told Masego. “Archer too, if we can-”
This time it was someone else who cut in, and before either Adjutant or Vivienne could object too. I was pleased to see Archer striding towards us on the grass, but surprised to see her scarf was already pulled up and her bow strung. She’d been expecting trouble already.
“Cat,” she said, “we have a problem.”
“I’m aware,” I replied, jutting a thumb towards the spell-window.
She took a glance, then grimaced.
“Cat,” she said, “we have two problems.”
Fuck me, I thought. Hadn’t this night been enough of a malediction already?
“I’m listening,” I said.
“The Gigantes are gone,” Archer said. “All of them. I think they went back into Creation.”
I felt a moment of blind panic at the notion of Keter getting its hands on Gigantes spellsingers, Gods would even the Ways be safe anymore now that Tariq was dead – but the talons of the crows pricking at my skin drew me out of it. I breathed out.
“Hierophant, is this their work?” I asked.
“No,” Masego immediately replied. “This is Trismegistan, Catherine. And I understand why it unsettled me. The elements I found familiar were of my work and Akua Sahelian’s.”
“The Dead King cribbed from your spellcraft?”
“I suspect,” Hierophant softly replied, “that it was the other way around, Catherine. However unknowingly. It is not without reason that the very magic we practice bears the name of Trismegistus.”
“Shit,” Archer said. “This is his spellwork, isn’t it? His actual hand weaving the spell, not some intermediary’s.”
Well, would you look at that. It had somehow gotten worse. There really wasn’t any time to waste if Neshamah himself was making a play, so I stiffly swept my staff across the air and ripped open a gate down into Hainaut. A howling gale swept ash and smoke towards us and I glanced at Archer and Hierophant.
“You two, with me,” I ordered, and went into the storm.
The winds slashed at us angrily, bludgeoning us with ash and sharp pieces of gravel.
With the Sisters themselves on my shoulders I could almost call on Night the way I’d been able to before it was ruined, but my body was weak. Aching and too close to collapse. Even with Komena banishing the sensation of exhaustion, I could feel a tingle at the edge of my senses warning me how close to unconsciousness I still teetered. The bubble of stillness I wove around us flicked in and out, becoming harder to maintain the higher up the slopes we went. It was Archer that guided us, pathfinding through the jutting blades of glassy stone with their sharp edges that dug into our boots. She took us through detours that saw the stone protect us from the wind, but even with all our haste it was frustratingly slow going.
I clutched the rope when it came down after Masego had finished climbing, passing mastery of the bubble to Andronike as I concentrated on hoisting myself up. My muscles burned even when Indrani came to stand at the ledge and began to pull me up, grunting with effort, but after an eternity of labour I was over that too-sharp edge and falling on my knees atop the stone. My bad leg was pulsing with agony, but it was dull and distant. The Sisters did not want me distracted. I had left my staff down there, beyond the bubble, but it still stood perfectly still as if untouched by the storm. I extended my hand and moments later it was slapping against my palm, the dried traces of my blood rubbing against my palm as I pulled myself up.
The crows returned to my shoulders, never having strayed far. They seemed wary of leaving us behind, my patronesses burned by what it had cost them to face the Dead King while I slept. Hierophant was standing at the edge of the stillness, black robes in disarray and those long tresses woven with silver trinkets swept to the side. He was looking out into the distance, standing beneath two great fangs of stone crisscrossing as in the distance the Dead King’s magic slowly revolved. Archer had found us the right place, I thought, sending her a thankful look. Decent shelter and a good vantage point, it was exactly what we needed.
I limped to Masego’s side, not that he gave a visible sign he’d hear me coming.
“So?” I asked.
There was a tense silence.
“I believe,” Hierophant murmured, “that he is opening a Greater Breach.”
I screamed out the vilest curses I knew at the sky until my voice went hoarse. Archer came to stand by our side, silent as she warily eyes our surroundings.
“Can you Wrest it?” I asked.
“I have been trying,” Hierophant conversationally said, “for fifty heartbeats now,”
His shoulders were trembling, I noticed only then. It was hard to see under the ash-dusted robes. And though he was not grimacing, there was a line to his mouth. Tension. I dared not speak another word, even if he’d not said the distraction would be harmful, instead listening as Komena whispered into my ear. I heard not a word but something greater, and my vision swam until I glimpsed a part of what the goddesses were seeing. Wills at war over the sorcery raging ahead of us, those slowly spinning circles of runes and the sphere within them. Like ink in water, Masego was trying to spread his will through the gargantuan amount of power but it was not enough.
There was too much water.
“His perspective is still too narrow,” Andronike whispered into my ear, regretful. “He has not witnessed enough.”
It was hard to deny the truth of that when it was before my eyes. Hierophant was failing and would fail. Did we have anything else that might destroy this? Night would not be enough, not when I was falling apart and the enemy’s raw strength was so great. Did Archer have an arrow that would – no, that was thinking about this the wrong way. The Intercessor had mocked me, in the Arsenal, asked me where Neshamah’s devils and ancient sorceries were. Well, they were here now. Why? More importantly, why now? But I’d already been given the answer to that, I belatedly realized, by an old man that was now a dead one. He cannot use either, Tariq Isbili had told me, speaking of devils and demons. It would represent too steep an increase in strength on his side of the scales.
The Pilgrim had meant in the sense that if the Dead King used devils, then the heroes of the Grand Alliance would in turn get to call in angels as a superior counterstroke. Except we’d struck first, hadn’t we? The Grey Pilgrim had died intertwined with the Choir of Mercy calling down his dead star, it was our side that’d broken the seal. The story’s not on our side, I realized with dread. Even if Masego had proved to have the capacity to Wrest the spell, he still would have failed – the scales were tipped in Neshamah’s favour for this to work, he had earned it. Fuck. And I couldn’t believe it would be only the one gate either, it wasn’t the Dead King’s way.
“Can you see afar?” I asked Sve Noc. “Look for other gates like this, still forming.”
“It will be difficult,” Andronike cawed.
“But not impossible,” Komena noted.
It would require enough of their attention that I’d be on my own, though, their minds brushing against mine made clear. Wouldn’t matter, I decided, power wouldn’t get us through this. They seemed inclined to agree, and on my shoulders the weight of them waned. As if much of them had gone elsewhere. The glimpses they had granted me ended too, but Masego had been about to be evicted – diluted into effective nothingness, more accurately, but the practical result was the same – from the spell, his aspect stuttering to a stop. He breathed out raggedly moments afterwards, body shivering. Indrani moved to help him up.
“You’ll be fine?” I asked.
“I withdrew before it could be turned against me,” Hierophant hoarsely replied, nodding. “But though defeated, I have learned some of his secrets. It was impossible not to, when my will was coursing through his work.”
He coughed, as much out of exhaustion as the heavy and ash-laden air.
“It is imperfect,” Hierophant croaked out. “Unlike the closed circle that Akua made of Liesse. Not only will Keter’s Due spread, it was made worse. On purpose, I think.”
My stomach dropped.
“How much worse, Masego?” I quietly asked.
The last time the Dead King had opened a Greater Breach, he’d blighted most of the Kingdom of the Dead doing it. It was the reason the phenomenon was known as Keter’s Due in the first place.
“I can’t be sure,” Masego admitted. “Perhaps as far as the defence line to the south?”
That was, I thought, perhaps nine tenths of Hainaut that he had described. Made into a howling wasteland by the spell ahead of us, those spinning circles whose rotations were beginning to quicken. My bloody hand left the staff and I looked down at it, feeling numb. This was… Tariq had died for this, and a blighted Hainaut with a permanent hellgate in the middle was what would be achieved? I grasped for a story that could turn this around, but what was there left? We had spent all our miracles, our strength, our last chances. We had bargained ourselves away until only a remnant’s remnant remained, and still it had not been enough. The two of them looked at me, somehow expecting I would turn it around, but to my horror there was nothing.
My bag of tricks was empty.
I swallowed. The words tasted like ash in my mouth but I forced them out anyway.
“I can’t stop this,” I quietly admitted. “I have nothing.”
I looked away, afraid of what I might see on their faces at that admission. What I found, instead, was a tall shape standing alone in the winds. Down there, away from our shelter. Troublingly close to the spell. Indrani began to say something but I raised a hand to interrupt her. Was this the Dead King, inhabiting a favoured corpse and giving silent invitation by his presence? Talon sunk into my flesh once more, the Sisters returning from their spirit-journey at last.
“There are two more,” Komena said.
“One close, to the west, and one far in the northwest,” Andronike said.
The other two southern fronts. Cleves and Twilight’s Pass. Neshamah did not just intend to win here: he was going to win everywhere and all at once. Not, not everywhere, I almost immediately corrected. That would have been a mistake, overreaching. Enough of an opening for the Heavens to put their fingers to the scale. He’d not touched the front against the Firstborn, trusting in his crippling of the Night and his ability to triumph in a battle of Evil against Evil.
“Catherine,” Indrani said. “It’s all right. Your armies are still in the Ways, all we lose is-”
“That’s not a corpse,” I softly said, sole eye still on the silhouette among the storm.
I glanced at my companions.
“Hierophant, can you shield the both of you?”
“I can,” Masego slowly replied.
“Then do it now,” I said, and walked over the ledge of our perch.
Magic bloomed behind me even as I fell, Hierophant weaving transparent shields as the ground hurried towards me. I barely drew on Night, instead letting the Crows slow my descent. They were uneasy, but I slipped through the storm and limped my way to the lone figure. It was even taller than I had thought. Almost thirty feet tall, his deep brown skin just as indifferent to the elements as the still-pristine white tunic the Gigantes wore. The giant cared not for my approach, and I saw no other of his kind around us.
“Can you end it?” I asked.
The screams of the storm drowned out my voice, but I trusted I would be heard regardless. The Gigante glanced down at me, his short neck bending unnaturally.
“We cannot,” the giant said, voice even.
Hope I’d not quite allowed myself to feel died out.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked.
“I wait,” the giant said. “I witness.”
“Witness what?” I pressed.
“The end,” the Gigante said, “and what will come after. Send away your followers, Queen of Callow. Soon the Young King’s circle will close and they cannot withstand what will follow.”
The spell was ending soon, then. He was warning me that Keter’s Due would kill Archer and Hierophant if they stayed. Masego would know as much, and I suspected he would lead Indrani out whatever I said, but I wove a snake out of Night and sent it towards them bearing an order to retreat just in case. I could have gone and done it myself, but it felt like a mistake. My instincts were screaming at me that if I left, I would miss something important.
“There are other gates,” I said.
“We know,” the giant replied. “There, too, others will witness.”
There was a pause.
“Prepare yourself,” the giant said.
The world went still, for a terrible moment, and then the storm exploded outwards. Even with all the Night I could spare holding me down and the guidance of Sve Noc, I still fell down on one knee. The power was blinding, staggering, and I could feel it sink into the earth as well as the air. Whether it lasted for moments or hours I could not tell, my body and mind bitterly arguing what was true and false, but eventually the storm passed. It left behind only a perfect circle of runes hanging in the air, a perfect gate into some distant Hell.
A heartbeat passed, and nothing came out.
“What did you do?” I rasped out.
“It is called,” the giant said, “the Riddle of the Lock.”
My heartbeat quickened.
“It’s a gate,” I said. “Are you telling me your mages locked it?”
“Our singers are dead,” the Gigante said. “I witness only the work they gave their lives for.”
My fingers clenched as I remembered that while the Gigantes had sent people into Cleves there had been no bargain for the Pass, that – I stopped. But there had been, I realized. Clever Cordelia had spent the goodwill she had won executing the Red Axe a second time to move the Highest Assembly to apologize to the Titanomachy for the Seven Slayings. They’d sent people into the Pass to fortify the Morgentor. If the Gigantes had locked all three gates, perhaps the war was not yet lost.
“We are in their debt,” I carefully said.
“Aid was promised,” the giant said. “Aid was given.”
“And how long will their gift last?” I asked.
“A year, a month and a day,” the Gigante said.
In the distance, dawn began to break. The giant glanced at me again.
“I will return home the corpses of my companions,” he said. “We will not meet again, Queen of Callow.”
“Then take you leave with my thanks,” I said, meaning every word. “Your people have given Calernia a chance.”
Even if both Cleves and the Pass were blighted by the rituals too, we had been pulled back from the fall to the brink.
“We have given them time,” the giant said. “What might yet fill it is in your hands.”
And without another word he strode down into the restless ash, leaving me behind as he moved into the shrinking darkness. I stayed standing there for a long time, until even the Sisters left me. Dawn rose, slowly, and with it came shadows. My own found me before too long, her steps soft on the ashen ground. Her gaze followed my own, coming to rest on the Hellgate.
“It is oddly beautiful,” Akua Sahelian said, “for such a terrible thing.”
I didn’t answer. The Severance, I thought, might destroy such a gate. If we were lucky, it might even be able to do it through the locking spell the Gigantes had laid so that we would not have to wait until it ended. If we used it, though, the sword would be spent. Perhaps not materially, but as a story: it would be diluted, no longer the blade fated to kill the King of Death. I went through every Named I knew, every trick and spell and use of Light, and found nothing that could be relied on. There were only two Greater Breaches on Calernia, one in the heart of Keter and the other bloomed in the shadow of the Doom of Liesse – but there was no Warlock to divert it, this time, and even that trick had not been a true solution. The gate itself still existed in the heartlands of my kingdom, even if did not lead into them. It had no remained there for lack of trying otherwise on our part. One after another, the solutions fell away until one remained.
“We need diabolists,” I said. “Hundreds of them, thousands.”
Enough that every devil that came howling through those gates could be bound and dismissed, that a more permanent solution could be devised.
“There is only one realm in Calernia, Catherine, that is the home to so many of them,” Akua said.
There was an expectant shiver in her voice, halfway between fear and desire. Praes. The Dread Empire. The first crucible of my life, the fires where I had been forged. I closed my eyes, letting the rising sun wash over me, and let the decision settle.
I was headed east.