“Greatness is a chariot pulled by ghosts: it goes nowhere without deaths, but too many will tear it apart.”– Argea Theodosian, Sacker of Cities, Tyrant of Helike
It was the bloody middle of the night, so if they didn’t have a good reason for waking me we were going to have a brisk round of hangings.
“I’ll eat their livers,” ‘Drani groaned, pulling the pillow over her head. “Won’t even season it, yue bashtards.”
She was usually better at waking up than me but she’d, uh, put her back into it tonight. We were still both pleasurably sore and exhausted. I blinked away the light from the candle borne by legionary behind the partition in the pavilion, sliding on a robe, and limped out without bothering to hide my irritation. The large orc on the other side coughed, visibly embarrassed and unsure where to look, which was mildly amusing considering that while I was showing skin it wasn’t like I had anything an orc would care to look at. My teeth were sadly herbivorous, I’d been told, and my skin thin as paper.
“There’s a situation, ma’am,” the legionary got out.
“I’d guessed,” I bluntly said. “What kind?”
“Urgent?” he ventured, carefully staring at the quill sharpener on my desk.
“What’s the urgent situation about, sergeant?” I impatiently asked.
“There’s trouble with the drow,” he hastily said. “The Firstborn, I mean. And soldiers.”
My eye narrowed.
“The Lord of Silent Steps, ma’am,” he replied. “And another two that are supposed to be scribes.”
It took me a moment to shake out the rest of the sleep, but once I had it fell into place immediately. It’d finally happened, then.
“Send word I’m on my way,” I told the orc.
He could not get out of the tent fast enough. Indrani was somewhat more awake when I returned, though when I told her I needed to go out she decided to gather all the covers to her like a cocoon and pout instead of helping me dress.
“Might not be too long,” I told her as I pulled on my last boot.
She snorted, kissing my clothed shoulder affectionately.
“Yeah, like I’d buy that,” Indrani said. “Take too long and I’m helping myself to your liquor stash, fair warning.”
“Pest,” I fondly replied.
I left her to it, closing the claps on the Mantle of Woe and finding my staff waiting for my hand. The night was oddly pleasant – weather around Keter was largely unchanging, knowing neither winter nor summer – and I took a deep breath as I limped out. With wards to filter the air, there was no need to worry about the poison mists in the camps. Two legionaries were waiting to escort me to the ‘situation’, saluting as I approached, but it was not to them my eye turned. A dark shape moved against the dark sky, lazily gliding until it took a dive towards me. Soldiers cursed and reached for their swords, but I raised a hand to stop them.
Andronike landed on my shoulder, light as a feather, and dug her talons into the cloth of the Mantle.
“Heavy-handed of you to come in person,” I commented.
“The time for subtlety is passed,” the crow replied.
“Sounds like something your sister would say,” I teased. “Where is she, anyway?”
“Bringing to life your little notion,” Andronike said.
Huh. Taking that long?’
“Mastery has proved laborious,” the Eldest Night conceded.
“Worth the investment,” I replied. “We need all the nasty surprises we can get.”
“So Komena said,” the crow sourly replied.
I brushed my mind against the goddess’s, intrigued, and got half a thought in answer. Andronike was convinced her sister was so enthusiastic because she wanted to be able to step on people, which I honestly thought she might be right about. Not that the elder sister was in any position to throw stones.
“Like you don’t also hunt rabbits for sport,” I replied, rolling my eye.
The legionaries had been careful not to stare as I bickered with the massive god-crow made of malevolent shadows, but I saw in my peripheral vision that the two oldest ones – a Soninke captain and his Callowan lieutenant – seemed genuinely indifferent. I glanced at their hips, finding goblin steel blades in the sheaths, and swallowed a smile. Old hands, these two, probably from as far back as Arcadian Campaign. They’d seen me argue with so many unspeakable eldritch abominations it didn’t warrant much interest anymore. My lips twitched.
“All right,” I said, rolling my shoulder and getting an offended squawk from Andronike when I didn’t spare the one she was on, “let’s go have a look. It’s a damned ungodly hour to be at.”
“Ma’am,” the Soninke captain replied, saluting with an amused glint in his eye.
It wasn’t a long walk, or rather it was a shorter walk than it would be in any other part of the ring of camps. Juniper had begun planning out the layout of the siege encampments for the Army of Callow before we even left for Praes, so the ease of movement was only to be expected. High Marshal Nim’s sappers might have matched us if they hadn’t been saddled with the Wasteland’s noble armies with a coat fresh paint slapped on them, but they’d had to wrestle with that headache so we’d come out ahead. Pickler, I suspected, would have gotten quite smug about that.
She’d not taken well how our sappers had gotten regularly outdone by those of the Legions at the Battle of Kala and since grown enthusiastic about getting one over the ‘cousins’.
The soldiers at the heart of the incident weren’t under arrest, having done nothing wrong, but they had been brought to an empty drilling ground surrounded by a few lines of legionaries keeping curious eyes away. The six of them seemed less unsettled by that than the presence of the Firstborn, though. Ivah was seated cross-legged atop a training dummy, silver eyes smiling as it looked down at them, while behind it my scribes stood with watchful eyes: Trokel looked uncertain about all this, but Fania was openly fascinated.
The officer on the scene, a tall Duni captain with a long scar across the throat, was only too happy to turn over the whole mess to me. As she promptly withdrew and pulled back the lines with her, I was left with three Firstborn and six legionaries of the Army of Callow. Andronike shuffled on my shoulder proudly, like a cat dragging back a dead mou- ouch, those fucking talons. I resisted the urge to glare at the Eldest Sister in front of everyone, but it was a narrow thing. Still, looking at my soldiers I had to say the Sisters had been pretty blunt in making their point.
Two humans, two orcs and two goblins would make up the first people outside the Firstborn who could use the Night.
“At ease,” I said, having seen tension rise as the silence lingered. “None of you are up for discipline.”
The highest up was a sergeant, a Callowan woman with the Summerholm look about her.
“Pleased to hear that, ma’am,” she crisply said, glancing at the others. “Am I to understand that everyone here can…”
She trailed off and I cocked an eyebrow.
“Any of you have a reliable trick yet?” I curiously asked.
It was a goblin who stepped forward, hesitant. Small, even by goblin standards, and with the wrinkles that began to accrue past fifteen – nearly halfway through their lifespan, for all but those of Matron lines. He put up his hand and I felt the pull on the Night a heartbeat before a small, flickering ball of black flame erupted above his open palm.
“I was out of matches,” the goblin admitted. “So I cursed and then asked for…”
He glanced at Andronike, pressing a reverent knuckle to his forehead.
“Take and rise,” he fervently said. “The Crows provide.”
How many years did you gain just by becoming able to use the Night? Not so many by a human’s reckoning, I thought, but for him the difference it would make was beyond words. One of the two orcs cleared his throat, the burn marks going down the left side of his face striking even though the helm covered part of them.
“Can’t show it,” he said, “but I see better in the dark now, Warlord. Almost like it’s day.”
I reached out through the Night and found his mark, the small but steady trickle being drawn from the sea. None of the others volunteered anything. Both humans were women and orcs men orcs were half-and-half, but I could not help but notice both goblins were male. Some part of me smile coldly at that, the Beast laughing deep in my bones. Soon enough the Matrons would hear about that, and I could only look forward at how the fear would be keeping them up at night. Night wouldn’t care about their little matriarchal racket. I looked at the two goblins, one aging and the other who couldn’t be older than nine, and the wonder I saw in those yellow eyes felt to me like a sound.
The one a sharper’s fuse made, just after you lit it.
“A good start,” I approved. “You will not be able to do much, at first, but the power can be grown.”
The other human was the one to speak, a young dark-eyed Taghreb who then blushed at having spoken out of turn. I smiled.
“That is the foundational virtue of Night,” I told her. “To prove yourself worthy is to rise.”
I could see the burning curiosity in them at my words – and the deep hunger, in the yet silent female orc and the aging goblin – but I would not hold their hands through this. That was the other side of the coin: Night demanded that you win your own victories. Tossing the first few outside the Firstborn to gain the power into the deep end was not a great notion either, admittedly, but I didn’t have the time to take on pupils. Not six and even less the greater number that would follow in the coming days. Fortunately, as the aging goblin had said ‘the Crows provide’. I glanced at Ivah, who leaped down from the dummy and landed in the dust without a sound.
“This,” I said, “is Ivah of the Losara, the Lord of Silent Steps.”
A shuffle and salutes ensued, with varying degrees of crispness.
“There is no finer Mighty among the Firstborn,” I said, “or any I trust more deeply. It is the duty of the Losara Sigil to keep oaths and hold stewardship of the Night – a duty that now extends to all of you.”
I met its eyes and it offered a shallow bow.
“Honour was given,” Ivah said.
“It was meant,” I honestly said, and the soldiers looked a little lost so I clarified. “Ivah will see to your education in the Night. Orders will be given to your superior officers so you are removed from several of your regular duties so you might take lessons instead.”
A sharp sensation of approval from Andronike, and of satisfaction as well. At my words, but also at me. It’s only fair, I thought at her. They had chosen me as First Under the Night, a stranger to the Firstborn who had changed the ways of their people. Now it was their turn: let Ivah be the stranger bringing about change, working through the first apostles of the Night among the peoples of Calernia. It wasn’t just lessons I was giving Ivah with that assignment: it was getting to shape traditions in the use of Night for all these people, traditions that would echo for decades and perhaps centuries to come. It was a lot of power to give someone, but how could I not trust Ivah? Maybe tomorrow, the Lord of Silent Steps had said as a god was slain and another made anew.
There were some deeds that made distrust seem obscene.
All seemed pleased at the news, not that an order coming from the Queen of Callow was something that left a lot room to refuse, but a closer look told me that the sergeant who’d been the first to break the silence was hesitating. I gestured for her to speak up.
“I don’t want to overstep, Your Majesty,” she carefully said, “but is it really alright? The House of Light…”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” I firmly told her.
She looked skeptical, though unwilling to contradict her own queen.
“The age is coming to an end, sergeant,” I told her, the crow on my shoulder spreading her wings. “There is room enough on Calernia for both Light and Night. And if there isn’t…”
Andronike took flight, cawing as the soldiers flinched away.
“I’ll make it,” I said, and spoke the words with cold certainty.
None of them seemed inclined to doubt me after that. I’d meant every word, anyhow. The House Insurgent already tolerated crows being painted on the Army of Callow’s banners, and they would make their peace with Night so long as it was sworn to respectable purposes. As for the priests back home, the so-called House Constant, they’d fall in line. I saw none of them here, with the world on the edge of the knife, and earned them precious little patience from me.
Or from any of the soldiers that’d be coming back home, I’d wager.
I left them in Ivah’s safe hands, limping away from the grounds, and as my escort fell in behind me I considered whether or not I should wake Vivienne to tell her immediately when I was shaken out of my thoughts.
“Your Majesty, if I could have a word?”
I turned and the pin told me what the girl was at a glance, if not who: the painted skeletal hand of the adjunct secretariat. Too young to be anything more than a messenger, I thought, which her chubby cheeks and blond locks at least an inch past what regulations allowed. The secretariat wasn’t part of the Army of Callow, though. Once upon a time they’d been under Hakram alone, though his departure had seen them passed off to Vivienne. She’d left Hakram’s right hand man in command and intervened only to smooth differences between the phalanges and the Jacks – the spies sometimes got in each other’s way – which I considered wise of her.
Much like me, the least thing she needed was more on her plate.
“Message?” I asked.
“Lord Hierophant asks that you attend him immediately,” the girl said. “He is under the threefold wards.”
I stared flatly at the messenger, who blushed under the scrutiny. It wasn’t her fault, Masego had been the one to send her, but now I was morbidly curious.
“Assuming I’d been asleep at this hour like any halfway reasonable person would be,” I said, “what would you have done?”
“Kicked this up to my lieutenant,” the girl honestly replied.
I clapped her shoulder.
“You will go far in life,” I told her just as honestly, which turned the blush incandescent.
The blond hair and faint accent painted a particular picture, thou
“Liessen?” I asked, taking back the hand.
“From Paltridge,” she replied. “It’s a little town near the border with Vale. But I had family in Liesse.”
Her and half of Callow. It’d been the second-largest city in the kingdom and one of the wealthiest.
“Is that how you ended up with that bit of ironwork on?” I asked, glancing at the iron pin.
“I enrolled just before you led the army into the Wasteland,” she proudly said, then deflated. “I, uh, didn’t do well at the Laure training camp but I know Chantant and I’m good with numbers so the adjunct secretariat reached out.”
She paused, a little breathless.
“I wanted to fight Praesi, not run messages,” she admitted, “but it was better than going back to scribe work while the world’s going to shit.”
To my amusement, the blush returned with a vengeance when she realized that she’d just cursed in front of the Queen of Callow. Yeah, she was definitely new to this. Most of the phalanges that served as my guards were former legionaries, and all of them knew I could curse in twice as many languages and thrice as filthily as any of them. I cocked my head to the side, studying her.
“It hasn’t been like I thought it’d be,” she admitted. “We fought Praesi but not for long, and now they’re on our side.”
“There’s been Praesi on our side from the start,” I reminded her. “I first raised the Army from the Legions of Terror.”
She shot me a surprised look.
“Those aren’t Praesi,” the girl told me. “They fight under the Sword and Crown. Everyone knows it’s the High Lords we need to hang, Your Majesty.”
When I was your age, I thought, saying that would have gotten you called a traitor in half the kingdom’s taverns. I looked at the fair-haired girl who couldn’t be older than seventeen, one of the children raised in the shadow of the battles I’d fought since becoming the Squire, and saw in her a seed of what Callow would become. A seed I’d washed Calernian fields in blood to water, that my father had died to grow. I smiled. Can you hear her talk, Father? It might have been just an inch, but we moved the world. We changed the story.
“Maybe one day,” I said. “First we find out if the Confederation of Praes makes for a better neighbour than the Dread Empire did.”
“I’ll buy that when pigs fly,” the girl muttered.
“You’d be surprised what wings can grow on,” I drily replied, thinking of the first time I’d ever met Masego. “Thank you for the message…”
“Alice, Your Majesty,” she told me.
“I might as well go see what my favourite madman wants, since I’m already up,” I said. “You have a good night, Alice.”
She saluted, the angle of it off by large enough a margin I pitied whoever had been her drill instructor, and I left her to her duties. The threefold wards mentioned in the message told me exactly where Zeze was at, since there was only one such set in the entire ring of camps. We’d ripped out the anchor stones from the Arsenal when we shut it down and Roland had led a team to spend almost five months repurposing them into the strongest movable defensive wards in the entire Grand Alliance. We kept all sorts of important assets in there, but the two that stood out were the Severance and the Autumn Crown.
Considering Masego had begun losing interest in the Severance not long after it was forged while Quartered Seasons had been his baby from the start, I could give a good guess as to which the two he’d be at.
Even in the middle of the night the place was heavily guarded, mostly Lycaonese foot with goblins spotters, but I didn’t have to wait long before being escorted past the first layer of wards. I was both known and expected. The Autumn Crown was held in the deepest part of the depository, past the other two layers of wards – I felt my connection to Night weaken, and if the wards were actively turned on me I suspected it might be outright silenced – but the chamber in which it was kept wasn’t all that impressive to look at. From the outside, it was just a large steel cube with seven rings of painted Mavian script wrapping around it.
The door was opened for me by a grizzled old Lycaonese warrior – Neustrian, by the look of the tabard – and I stepped through a threshold, the air pushing back against my movement as if were water. I blinked away the unpleasant sensation as the door closed behind me, leaving me to look at the glowing insides of the cube. Trismegistan runes I was more familiar with burned on what seemed like every spare inch of steel, from ceiling to floor, carved cleanly so that stepping on them would change nothing. The light they let out reminded me of embers, though the colours of it was… colder. Hierophant was standing deeper in, before the Autumn Crown itself.
It was a pretty piece, as fae crowns tended to be. All copper and bronze, worked to look like a circle of roots, but those roots grew small branches and dead leaves that looked incredibly lifelike. Because they were, I realized after a moment. At some point, impossible for my eye to perceive, the metal turned to flora. We’d changed that crown, though, and it showed. Long, thin nails of iron had been hammered into it and jutted out like needles while a closer look revealed precise cuts into the roots and leaves. About a scalpel’s length. A vivisector of miracles, Hierophant had called himself when he first came into his Name.
He’d lived up to the boast.
“Checking in on your work?”
Masego half-turned to look at me, as unsettling a change as the way he now wore his eye cloth: like me, covering only one eye. His own was not dead, still bright with the light of Summer’s sun, but it felt as though we were mirroring each other. If enough of us take wounds, we’ll have half a dozen mirrors to go around.
“Roland assured me it was all secured, but I wanted to see for myself,” Hierophant said.
I hummed, limping closer. The sound of my staff against the steel uncomfortably like a blow.
“So is it?” I asked.
“It will work,” Masego said. “When the Dead King is made to wear it, he will lose all power over the dead.”
“Some might call that a fair trade, given what he’ll get in exchange,” I mused.
“He won’t,” Hierophant said, coldly satisfied.
For the Autumn Crown to be a gift – something that was not an attack, that could not be refused – it needed to be a boon. A boon with a price was allowed, but the gift still had to give Neshamah something. We didn’t want to empower him, of course, but to an extent we had to so there’d been a fine line to walk. The conclusion had been that we should give him something he already held, as much as possible: immortality. The Autumn Crown, after Hierophant’s cuts, now served the purpose of making whoever bore it a fixed point in Creation. He’d known how to do it because he’d spent about a year studying that very thing, back in the day.
I’d been a fixed point as Sovereign of Winter, after all, though most people had simply believed it to be regeneration. In practice, my shape had been fixed and Winter’s power simply filled the mould anew whenever part was damaged.
The Dead King would gain much the same benefit, though for him the real prize would be that we were pretty sure his soul would receive much the same treatment. Should it cut or damaged or anything else at all it would form anew, whole again. Given that the Hidden Horror’s great fear had always been the way he was finite, that every personal loss for him was permanent, the property would make the Autumn Crown enough of a gift that it could not simply be fought off like a curse. Even if the boon came at the price of losing all power over the dead, ending his control over all his armies.
We’d wanted to kill his magic entirely – Masego most of all, for obvious reasons – but we’d been unable to get that right in time. This would have to do. Besides, even if he still had most of his magic we could imprison him in the Twilight Ways if the right person watched over him. Unless, of course, the Ways were broken for good and all my plans were ashes. He didn’t seem interested in volunteering answers and it took me a moment to get the stomach to ask, but I got it out.
“What did you find?” I asked, licking my lips.
“The Ways were destroyed over the surface broadly corresponding to the Kingdom of the Dead,” he said.
“That’s… good, relatively speaking,” I ventured. “Is the break temporary or-”
“Permanent,” Masego bluntly said. “He was… thorough.”
“So the Ways will be dead over the Kingdom of the Dead,” I mused. “Yeah, there’s enough symmetry there I could see fate lending a hand to make it stick.”
“It’s not that simple, Catherine,” he said. “Mortal hands created Twilight, it is imperfect in ways a realm like Arcadia is not. More than that, it is young.”
“Fragile,” I quietly said. “You meant it’s fragile.”
He nodded. I grit my teeth.
“I cannot be sure,” Hierophant, “not without further study, but I believe the destruction will ripple out. Like cracks on a sheet of ice.”
“Stop dancing around it,” I said. “What are we losing?”
“Most of it,” Masego said. “Between seven to nine tenths.”
I sucked in a breath.
“You’re sure?” I asked.
“Not immediately,” he specified. “But over the next decade, I believe most of the Twilight Ways will collapse. Only anchored points and their surroundings will be wholly unaffected.”
My eye narrowed.
“The gates,” I said.
“And Liesse, which is the heart of the realm,” he added. “It seems likely there will be other stable pockets I do not know of, spared collapse by happenstance or other reasons, but the only reliable travel through what will remain of Twilight will be from gate to gate.”
I breathed out, feeling out his words with my Name. There was a shape there, I saw with dread. Twilight broken, like its crown, ruined shards of it intertwining with Creation wherever they fell. There would still be other paths than the gates, but few save Named would ever find them and they would be terrifyingly dangerous to tread. For all others who would travel under the twilit sky, there would only be the roads between gates. I passed a hand through my hair, frustrated. That a fucking ritual could undo Tariq’s-
“Ah,” I muttered, the piece falling into place.
Masego cocked an eyebrow.
“We did this to ourselves,” I sighed. “At least in part.”
“It does seem likely the Dead King imitated Akua’s ritual out in the Wasteland, after he knew it possible,” the dark-skinned mage agreed.
“Sure,” I shrugged, “but that’s not the part I mean. When we first made the Twilight Ways, the Grey Pilgrim scarified himself to make them. That’s a heavy weight, Zeze. It’d take more than just a ritual, however good, to undo that.”
“But you resurrected him,” Masego hazarded, looking genuinely interested. “Which changes the balance of the phenomenon.”
“That weakened it, but it might have stuck anyway,” I mused. “He thought he was going to die for good and that matters. He killed the Saint for it, too, and she was probably his closest friend. That’s more weight. No, what actually fucked us was Hainaut.”
“Where he sacrificed himself again,” Masego noted.
“Fate is blind, but also fair in her own way,” I told him. “She doesn’t play favourites: we don’t get to make Tariq’s sacrifice count twice.”
The moment he’d called down that star, the Ways had become fragile. The Dead King wasn’t all powerful, of course, and it seemed like he’d had to rely on second order effects to do most of the heavy lifting when wrecking the realm. Wouldn’t be perfect or instantaneous either. But it’d only become possible at all because of Hainaut and the second time the Peregrine spent his life for the greater good. I grimaced. No good deed went unpunished, huh?
“It hurts us,” I admitted, “but we’re not knocked out of the war. We’ll start to feel the larger consequences after either we’ve won or we’re all dead.”
“It should still be possible to retreat through Arcadia after the siege is ended,” Masego nodded.
Only we can’t drink the water from Arcadia the way we could Twilight’s, I thought, and lack of water would kill us even faster than starvation. There was no need to burden him with that knowledge right now, though. It was not in his power to solve.
“I am sorry I could not offer better news,” he said.
“I’d rather thank you for them not being worse,” I replied, “but either way it’s no fault of yours.”
He studied me for a moment.
“You look tired,” Zeze said. “Get some sleep.”
“Back at you,” I snorted.
I turned away from the crown, making for the door.
“Come on,” I called out. “I bet Indrani’s still up. She’ll want to switch tents if you’re going to bed, so you might as well pick her up on the way.”
I put on a smile that was a tad forced, feeling tired in ways that had little to do with the hour. Maybe it’d all look a little less bleak with a few more hours of sleep into me, I thought, but then maybe it wouldn’t.
Gods knew I wouldn’t hold my breath.