“Learn this: all is finite, all ends. The only worthy act in existence is to seek the breaking of that fundamental truth.”– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
And up the spire we went, seeking the King of Death.
This was his last redoubt, the fortresses where he would find either end or victory, and so even though his greatest forces were all spent it was far from empty. Room after room stood filled with traps and troops, guarded by Revenants and closed by wards older than any living memory but the Riddle-Maker’s. Yet none of troubled Hierophant and I as we climbed the spire, for the White Knight had led a company of Named through them and in their wake they left only utter ruin.
Traps lay ripped open, the bones of armies were strewn all over the floor and the keening remnants of wards torn through sang their dirge over the broken remains of the Revenants that had fought that unflinching warband. They’d gone through, I Saw as I trailed fingers down the chord if them, like a hot knife through butter. Taking hits but never hard enough to be knocked down, trampling the Dead King’s defences through a simple difference in weight. The heroes, after all, must reach the end of the story. They had to face the tyrant. Anything that stood in the way of that would be swept away like a stone fighting the current.
Yet as our feet hastened across the wrecks of defences that would have given even the finest soldiers of Calernia pause, I realized that one more Neshamah had played a trick on us. We had found the monster beneath the spire and then fought it at its bottom. The Scourges had waited for us after a mere flight of stairs, awaiting our deathmatch within the emerald grave. We’d stayed there, fighting and planning and hoping – thinking victory was in our grasp. And in doing so we’d been carefree in spending the one thing we were running out: time.
We were, at most, two hours away from annihilation. And that was if our armies held by some miracle, the finest of outcomes. In practice I expected we had half of that at most. The Dead King had filled his spire with traps and dead and sorceries, but they weren’t truly his line of defence. That was, as it’d been since the start of this, time. It was the simplest thing in the world, so simple we’d overlooked it.
He would be waiting for us at the top of the spire, and it’d take time to get there.
I could see in the lay of battlefields when it had occurred to Hanno what was happening, the way he and the Vagrant Spear had started to strike forward aggressively. They had to be taking hits out of that, some wounds even, but with the Forsworn Healer among them they’d be able to stay in the fight. Ruin by ruin I saw as worry turned to haste and then impatience, the wrecks now reeking of Light as the heroes began to brute force their way through. It’s what he wants, Hanno, I thought. To exhaust us before we get to him. Look at the defences he’s built.
Traps that had to be dodged or broken, troops unimpressive but in large numbers, Revenants that’d need Light or aspects to slay quickly. Wards that were possible to break and overpower, but only if Named put their back into it. None of it was meant to stop them cold, the Dead King knew better than that. They couldn’t be, he’d be fighting the story when trying. So instead he was grinding them down into exhaustion, flushing out all their tricks before they made it to his last throne room. The reigning king of attrition was up to his favourite game once more, ending his war the same way he had begun it. There was something almost admirable about that, I thought. There was no lie in Neshamah, no compromise.
The Dead King was true to his nature, horror that it was.
Halfway up the spire, I saw when the others made their decision. One of the walls was melted through, what had to be the Pyromancer’s work and no small amount of effort. Through the opening I saw Keter sprawled out below. There were some traces of fighting further ahead, we saw, but it ended at a set of wards. Undead milled on the other side, looking confused. None of them tried to cross it.
“Not the Dead King’s work, these,” I muttered.
“The Grave Binder,” Hierophant told me, looking fascinated. “Clever work. It prevents the dead from passing, but also from noticing it exists at all.”
Which told me they’d not gone through here. Hanno had made the right call: they needed to fly up. Most likely they’d ridden the Skinchanger, she had flying shapes large enough to carry most of them at once. Might have been two trips, but with a strong enough vanguard it wouldn’t matter. Fortunately, though we lacked a shapeshifter we were not without means to catch up. I limped over to the edge, letting out a sharp whistled as I stared into the falling ash, but she’d already been on her way. Zombie was a good girl, after all. She’d felt the need even before I did.
Great crow’s wings scattered the rain of ash as glided through the air, casually evading a ballista bolt from far below as she turned and made straight for the hole in the wall. I hastily backed away, running into Masego, who saw the approaching hippocorvid over my head. We tripped backwards in a sprawl, Zombie landing in a faint clutter of hooves and slowing until she stood over the both of us with a faintly smug look. I was reluctantly impressed she could manage that with a beak.
“We’ll talk about his later,” I promised her.
She let out an unimpressed caw as Masego and I dragged ourselves back to our feet, dusting off. I sat the saddle without difficulty but Zeze was rather more wary.
“It is a necromantic construct,” he reminded himself in a mutter. “Much more reliable than a horse.”
Well, whatever helped him not throw up on my back. He slipped behind me awkwardly – the saddle wasn’t really made for two – and closed his arms around my shoulders, though I did notice he stopped to stick himself to the saddle with a spell. Fancy.
“Why do these people keep building these enormous fucking towers,” I complained. “One, just once, I would like a nice ground floor lair. No drops at all, just solid architecture without all the goddamn hubris.”
On that cheerful note, I spurred Zombie onwards and she charged out into the emptiness. An old scream tried to bubble up my throat but I stubbornly kept my lips closed as my mount glided forward, falling into wide arc before she began batting her wings to gain height. We went around the spire, circling ever higher, until I suddenly pulled on the reins. Zombie went into a glid, cawing with confusion, and Masego stiffened behind me. I ignored both, my eye on the camp laid out below. It had not occurred to me, in the moment, what it meant that our armies were stranded in the inner city. They were cut off from our fortified camp, now but the opposite was also true and the armies of the dead were swarming our defences. In multiple places they had breached the palisades, the small forces left behind giving ground where they were not outright swept away.
And nowhere was the swarm thicker than around the ealamal, where I could see soldiers mounting a desperate defence from behind heavy wards.
Cordelia, I thought. In worry for her, but also of her. If her position was overwhelmed, if she thought the weapon was about to fall into enemy hands… No, I told myself. It wouldn’t come to that. She would not pull the trigger until there was no other choice left, and it was my role to ensure she had one. I knew Cordelia Hasenbach. I’d known her as my opponent and then as my ally, and now I thought I might be coming to know her as a friend. And the woman who’d sat across me in Serolen, who’d called me vicious but meant it as a compliment, I trusted her. Either too much or not enough, I thought, but still I trusted her.
She would not fail me if I did not fail her.
I loosened my grip on the reins, leaving Zombie to begin circling upwards again. It wasn’t all that hard to find where they’d gotten back into the tower: on level near the top was a ring of tainted glass windows and a few of them had been broken. There was no sign of fighting, but layers of wards had been broken through recently enough the shattered sorcery had not entirely collapsed. Exotic effects – swirls of colours, airless currents and some sort of golden translucence – lingered as Zombie plunged through the broken windows, trampling shards of glass.
I dismounted, helping Masego down and send off Zombie with an affectioned slap on the rump. Best she did not stick around when the greatest necromancer Calernia had ever known was so close. Like the forest of columns where we had fought the Scourges, the entire level was but a single room. It was all bare stone made into something eerie by the light filtering through the coloured glass, only the stretch where Hanno had smashed through forcing a slice of the world outside. There was a… stillness to this place that was uncomfortable to me, and even Masego seemed wary.
At the end of the room a set of elegant ivory stairs rose, leading at what could only be the spire’s very summit.
I breathed out, settled my beating heart. While I could not hear any fighting from above, there was no doubt in my mind it had already begun. All that was left was for us to join it.
“Ready?” I asked, as much for him as to settle the last of my nerves.
“I have been waiting years now,” Masego softly said, “to even these scales. To take… how is that your people call it, Catherine?”
“A long price,” I murmured.
“Yes,” the dark-skinned mage smiled, not a speck of friendliness to it. “A long price, and long have I waited to exact it.”
Hierophant’s Name settled on his shoulders like a cloak, rising to answer the will of the man who bore it.
“Today will be the day,” Masego simply said.
There was no need for a boast, not when the words were spoken with such chilling certainty. Our footsteps feeling so loud against the stone, we crossed the room and climbed the pale stairs. Every inch of the ivory was sculpted, I saw, the work so fine and subtle I had missed it from across the hall. Each was a battle, a host of crusaders coming to take the head of the King of Death.
We stepped on their corpses on our way to his throne room.
After all the beauty and horror we had found within the Dead King’s spire, I had expected to find a gripping sight awaiting us. Instead the immortal seat of Neshamah Be-Iakim was a bleak, barren place. A great hall of old stone, curved pillars rising from the stone tiles like ribs to hold up an unadorned ceiling. From tall rafters hung two rows of banners, none twice the same. I found the Fairfax bells and the Papenheim wall, Stygia’s cranes and Praes’ tower. Near every royal line of Procer, most of the great cities of Callow and even Ashur’s crowned ships. Each the banner of a great house, a great host, and now all of them hung limp from rafters. Never to know wind again.
They all led to the end of the hall, the end of this spire and the Crown of the Dead itself. There sat the King of Death, atop a dais of four steps. It was a simple thing, his throne. The same black stone he had raised steles and towers in, the seat’s back rising high until it ended in a crescent around the heraldry of the banner behind it. Ten silver stars set in a circle around a pale crown, all on deep purple cloth plunging down from the ceiling. It did not quite cover what lay behind banner and throne, a great gate of silver filigree depicting the lay of Creation and all surrounded it. All in never-ending movement, Arcadia and Heavens and Hells forever spinning around us in the void.
And under it waited the Hidden Horror, wearing the same body he has before he became either hidden or horror. Neshamah Be-Iakim had been pale in life, like one who saw too little of sun, and kept the tone in death. His hair was dark and short, his eyebrows bushy and his lips full. Neither tall nor short, he had a scholar’s build and would have passed for one if not for his light brown eyes. In the dim of the room they seemed golden, as if to make up for the slim circle of bone he wore as a crown. His robes were simple, purple and pale, and as Masego and I set foot in his hall he raised a hand.
In a flutter a movement, a bird landed on his fingers. A sparrow, I saw. Long dead, for all that its feathers and lost none of their luster.
“Warden,” the Dead King greeted me, then glanced to my right. “Masego.”
Hierophant’s jaw clenched. Feeling my boot touch roughness beneath it, my gaze dipped and I found that the stone tile beneath it was inscribed with a name. Prince Estienne Barthen, it read. My gaze swept the room, finding hundreds of tiles, thousands. Near every one with a name, but some kept empty. Waiting to be filled. We stood atop a graveyard of the braves who’d thought they could beat death, I realized. If we died today, would our names be engraved with the rest?
And where, in the name of the Gods Above and Below, were the others?
“Neshamah,” I replied. “I’ve gotta say, your hospitality’s taken a turn for the worse lately.”
“Has it?” the old horror mused. “I had though my reception most fitting for the manner of guests you’ve been.”
At my side Masego’s glass eye was moving wildly under the eye cloth, the reason I was buying time with this idle talk in the first place. That the Dead King was letting me, was not a good sign. My friend stiffened, and I knew it’d be bad news before he even opened his mouth.
“Most of this hall is not in Creation,” Hierophant evenly said. “It a hundred different realms, carved out of Arcadia.”
Keter itself, I knew, had no mirror in Arcadia. No crossing point. We had thought that was because it had been annihilated, but now I was guessing otherwise. Masego, when possessed by the Dead King, had taken Liesse into a stolen shard of Arcadia that’d been severed from the greater realm. He used the same trick here, I thought, or something close to it. That was why we couldn’t see any of the others, too. They were all in shards.
“So we can’t get to you without passing your crucible,” I mused.
The monster, the crucible and the pivot. I’d now found the second of the three. The old horror raised his hand and the sparrow flew away.
“You will find, Catherine,” the Dead King said, “that there are adversaries beyond the teachings you so desperately clutch to even at his late, late hour.”
“Might be,” I smiled back. “But you know me, Neshamah: I’ve always been a little slow to learn my lessons.”
The air shivered, and thirty feet in front of us a corpse dropped. A man, I saw in robes of gold and red. His trimmed beard and long hair were drenched with water, as was the rest of him, and the corpse looked swollen. Waterlogged. The Daring Pyromancer’s cadaver stayed there on the tiles, rivulets of water slowly spreading.
“It does not matter,” the Dead King replied, “for I am a patient man.”
There could be no more waiting, I knew, lest bodies continue to drop. I turned to Masego, getting a nod, and without another word took a single step forward.
All I found was darkness.
I had grown used to night and Night over the years, but what awaited me inside the shard was not the same. It was not anything natural, not even the kind of darkness you found in the depths of the Everdark. Even there you could find something… real about it, a tangibility. A reassurance that you were in Creation. There was not a speck of that in here. It was not just an absence of light but of everything, not a single sensation to be found save for solid ground beneath my feet. No foe came for me, no blade was swung or curse woven. I had stepped into a shard of nothing, and as I wandered I learned the nature of the trap: there had been a way in, but I knew of no way out.
I could wander this place for an eternity and never find one.
How long did I waste, walking forward? It was hard to tell. Time was nothing here, far enough from Creation that even the gift of the Sisters had gone silent. I spread Night around me but found no boundaries, no limits, even though I knew that the shard must have them. Frustration mounting at how the very first shard I’d found was stumping me, I stopped and forced myself to calm. There was a way out, it was the way traps like this worked. It was just being kept away from me somehow.
“This has got to be the single most boring trap ever made, right?”
A voice I should not have been able to hear, not under the rules of this place, reached my ear. Even if I’d not known what Yara of Nowhere sounded like, I would have known who was speaking. Who else could reach me in a place like this? I spread Night around in thin tendrils, trying to find her, but the Intercessor remained frustratingly out of reach.
“That’s not going to work,” the Wandering Bard amusedly told me. “Besides, there’s no need for it. I’m here to help you, Catherine.”
I tried to tell her to fuck off, but no matter how much I moved my mouth no sounds came out.
“There’s no need to be rude,” Yara scolded me. “You’re the one who ate my eyes, Cat, not the other way around. Surely we can have a civilized conversation.”
It was not possible for Night to burn in this place either, I discovered to my mounting displeasure.
“Well, maybe not quite yet,” the Intercessor admitted. “But we’ll get there, don’t you worry about it.”
A soft, rueful laugh.
“We’ve got until the end of the world,” she said. “That’s plenty of time, as these things go.”
She was gone a moment later, the faint traces of her presence vanished, and I forced myself to calm down. Whatever her game was now, letting her upset me could only help it. And, whatever she’d come here for, she had shown me it was possible to come and go from this shard. I still didn’t entirely know how the Bard got around, save that it was bound to an aspect and dependent on Named, but that was something I could use. She was not the only one who’d learned to See stories. Opening my dead eye, I found the stars in the void that were the Named around me. Even the Dead King himself, at the end of the hall. From there, it was simply a matter of walking towards him.
The ground was shifting, I realized after only a few steps. Or maybe the shard itself did, because leaving Night hanging in the air hadn’t tipped me off about the direction changes. The trap kept you contained by making sure you were never able to reach the edge. Something that couldn’t keep me, not when I had a morning star in the distance to follow. It wasn’t long before I found the boundary, laying a hand against it and feeling another shard pulsing on the other side. I worried my lip, pausing for a heartbeat. Did she put me on the path to figuring this out? No, I reminded myself, it didn’t matter. The Intercessor had been so careful to obscure everything about what she really wanted that playing guessing games could only end in a loss.
I crossed into the next shard, blinking in discomfort at the intensity of a soft ambient light. It felt like the sun itself, after the last shard. I was standing in a cube, I saw, about a hundred feet long in every direction. The ground was featureless and the boundaries I felt ahead gave off a… hardened feeling compared to the last. Like I’d have to pry it open instead of cross. The only warning I got was the movement of air, for there was not a sound. I warily glanced up and though I was looking at a mirror until I realized it was water. A mass of it, falling down on my head.
“Fuck,” I swore, pulling on Night.
My shadow lengthened, spread and swelled as I hastily guided it above my head. The water poured through into the nothing there, but it wasn’t wide enough and on the sides the tide clapped down as I poured Night into the shadow to spread it even further. I was swept off my feet by the rebounding waters, armour and cloak and fighting me as I forced myself back on my knees while the tide reached my shoulders. With a grunt I finished it, turning my shadow into a veil that went from side to side of the cube and ate the mass of water that should be crushing and drowning me. Panting and drenched, I got myself back to my feet and waded through the water to the border of the cube. It’d be tricky, I knew.
There would be a moment between my shadow withdrawing and my crossing the hardened border where I’d be vulnerable. Taking a deep breath, I flattened myself at the bottom of the water for a semblance of protection and released the Night.
The boundary fought me, resisting the crossing, and something like a titan’s hammer blow struck me from above. Before I could pass out, though, I got through with a scream of triumph. Which turned into a simple scream, when I was yanked forward into the other shard. Thousands of clawed limbs tore at my armour from every direction, looking for weaknesses as writhing bodies pressed against me. Horrifying screams and gibbering laughter filled my ears as I felt claws rip into my flesh even as I huddled together and drew on Night. There was no room to do more than wriggle: the shard had been entirely filled with thousands of devils, crammed so there was barely even room to breathe.
“Have it back,” I snarled, and opened my shadow.
The tide I had just devoured poured out below me, the pressure crushing the devils like overripe melons as I scrabbled for the boundary I could feel ahead. It was a small shard, was meant to be. I’d only have moments until the water became my doom, reached and drowned me, but as devils pulled at the Mantle of Woe I crawled forward until my hand found the border. There were Named on the other side, I could See it, and so it was with a hoarse shout that I battered my way out. I fell through on my knees, bleeding from the cheeks and elbows where claws had found room in the plate, and landed wild-eyed in the middle of a fight.
The Vagrant Spear ducked under a spout of bright-red flame, the Daring Pyromancer risen a Revenant watching her with swollen bloodshot eyes as he guided his magic to continue hounding her. There was power in the fresh Revenant, pulsing still, and it could not escape my eye when it had burned so bright. Raise, the power had claimed. It was the source of his power to make Revenants, I thought, but it was… rough here. Used in haste, a cruder form of his usual method. And already I could see the trace of the first aspect fading as another replaced it, though it was not yet clear. It related to rule, I thought, or perhaps sovereignty.
Rising to my feet, leaning on my staff, I saw that we stood halfway through the hall and that Sidonia and I were not the only one to have reached here. The Mirror Knight stood hunched behind his shield, and it was a mark of how unsettled I’d been after the last shard that I had not noticed until now. He was, after all, being drowned in magic. At the bottom of the Dead King’s dais four robed skeletons were standing as they unleashed torrents of sorcery at Christophe de Pavanie. Red lightning crackled against the shield, turning to steam frost that kept burning before it could creep past the edge of it, and what appeared to be a blow of curses simply slid off like rain.
The only sorcery appearing to find purchase was rippling, transparent kinetic force trying to rip the shield out of his grasp and forcing the Mirror Knight to stand hunched as he fought the magic with brute strength.
“I do appreciate,” I croaked out, “that you don’t stop being fucking ridiculous even when we’re on the same side, Christophe.”
Reaching out with a tendril of Night, I slipped past him and grabbed the boundary of the shard he’d need to enter before getting any further. From the corner of my eye I saw the Pyromancer body swivel my way as he let out a shout in a language that rang in my ears, a snake of white flame erupting from his outstretched hand, but the Vagrant Spear moved in a blur and cut through it with her Light-wreathed spear. Focus never wavering, I pulled open the shard and to my mild amusement a storm of fire came exploding out. It smashed through the streams of magic and into the Mirror Knight, who stoically bore it and was merely knocked a few feet back. His stance never even wavered.
The magics were interrupted, though, and when the White Knight burst out of thin air with his armour smoking I knew the tide was tipping in our favour. Save, his soul sang out. Not the last aspect he’d come into, but he was leaning hard into it still. Enough that it obscured the other some, though not entirely to my lone eye. Recall had never gone anywhere, but the latest addition had my brow rising. Undo? It felt like the Grey Pilgrim’s own Forgive, but there were… nuances. Not necessarily resurrection, it could be other things, and there was a limitation that Tariq hadn’t had. Something particular to Hanno. Justice, I decided. He needs to be undoing something he believes unjust.
Still, what a goddamn terror of an aspect.
The Dead King apparently agreed the situation was beyond salvageable, as the Pyromancer let himself be impaled by Sidonia without batting an eye so he might finish casting a spell that shot out a small arrow of red flame. I wove Night and Hanno moved, the both of us intervening as the Grave Binder tumbled out bleeding from a shard. I pulled the villain down the ground, to his startled shout, and Hanno cut through the red arrow. It burst into small beads of red flame as it did, and while the White Knight drowned most of them in Light as I dragged away the Binder two survived. They exploded outwards, one catching the Levantine’s right foot and turning it to ash in a heartbeat.
The Vagrant Spear sent the Revenant’s head flying in the moment that followed, ending it.
Grim as the thought was, I could not help but think it’d hadn’t been too bad a trade. The Pyromancer might have done a lot more damage if he’d been allowed to keep going. The fire shard I’d opened stopped pouring out flame as the boundary closed again, but smoke was still obscured out sight of the rest of the hall like a curtain. The four dead hadn’t begun using magic again, though, which was something.
“Warden,” Hanno called out. “Have we lost anyone else?”
I cocked my head to the side, turning and drawing on See.
“The Page is going in circles,” I finally said, then looked forward.
My brow rose.
“And the Valiant Champion’s already ahead,” I said. “No one else died.”
“Luck,” the Grave Binder roughly said, hand aglow as he closed his rotting flesh around the foot he’d lost. “The shards ahead will-”
He was interrupted by the boundary to a shard bursting open, devils flowing out. We gathered together, the Levantine villain, hastily crawling our way, but the horde of twisted creatures flowed around us. Boundaries began popping one after another, tides of devils pouring out of them in mangled states, and even as beleaguered Named began to come out an honour guard of what looked like walin-falme formed. They bowed deep as Akua Sahelian walked out, her armour pristine, with Hierophant at her side. She stole the devils, I realized. She’d been caught in the same shard I did, or one similar, only she’d stolen them from the Dead King’s grasp. And then she’d found Masego, using his eye to pick up more devil shards and navigate the maze to help out the others.
Of the thirteen people that had come to end the King of Death, the remaining ten now stood halfway through his hall. Only the Page was yet lost and the Champion still ahead.
“Apologies for the lateness,” Akua drawled. “I was distracted by the appallingly bad taste in decorations.”
“Also the shards trying to kill us,” Masego hopefully added.
There was a moment of stupefied silence.
“See,” the Forsworn Healer muttered at the Silver Huntress, “I told you it was awful. The colours of the banners clash.”
“I don’t suppose you could send your little friends forward to clear us a way?” I asked.
“I’m sure something can be arranged, darling,” Akua smiled.
She idly waved and the chittering tide burst forth, flowing into the shards. I cracked the side of my neck.
“All right,” I said. “Forsworn, can you do something about the Grave Binder’s foot?”
The man eyed the missing limb carefully.
“I can,” he said. “There is still ash on the ground.”
“Good,” I grunted. “The rest of us will pair up and go forward together.”
I glanced at Akua. Much as I disliked admitting it, Masego was the most fitting partner for her going forward. As long as she had his glass eye, she could guide her devils through the shards to some degree.
“White Knight,” I said, “you’re with me. The rest of you decide on your pairs yourselves, and do it quick.”
I caught Hanno’s eye and he nodded. Even as the smoke began to clear, the two of us slipped past the boundary of the shard I’d picked out: the one that should lead us towards the Valiant Champion. Devils had gone ahead of us, but when we passed we found them floating impotently. I realized after a heartbeat that not only were we weightless but there was no air in here. Hanno kicked off the side of the sphere, looking to get through, as the both of us held our breaths. It was too large a shard, though, I thought. Fortunately, there was something at hand for me to use. Night answered my will, thin tendrils of it shooting out to pierce through the devils that Akua’s will kept from resitting.
Not all of them had lungs, but most of them had bellies and that was enough. I sucked the air out of them, bringing it to my mouth with another tendril and offering the same to Hanno. Though grimacing in distaste he accepted, and I used that same tendril to let him drag me to the other side with his momentum. He waited for me there and we crossed together into pain. He formed a shield of Light but my limbs were still trembling from the lightning that’s truck me. Fuck. If I hadn’t become the Warden, that would have had me down for the count. Even with my Name I could feel pain lighting up my every nerve. When the whiteness left my eye I saw we were in little more than a tube filled with lightning, which at least made it easy to reach the boundary. His armour was smoking again, but otherwise he looked rather unfairly fine.
It was easier with his help, even though unlike others we’d gotten ahead of the devils. The defence had not been built with two Named in mind, designed to isolate and stagger us. Akua had, with her devil trick, upended the Dead King’s entire defensive strategy. We went through a shard that was a sphere full of blades and spinning – into my shadow they went – and then through another that appeared to be a pit where we endless fell but Hanno revealed through Light to be a ring of warped space simply pretending to be the same. From that we crossed into a box of crushing gravity, the closest either of us came to dying, but Name strength was narrowly enough to let us reach the other side crawling on our bellies.
I ripped my way through, landing on stone tiles as my bloody chin bruised, and barely had the time to see the ray of rippling frost burst my way. I rolled hastily to the side, knocking my staff onto the floor so Night would rippled out and disrupt the spell before it could hit me. It still iced the floor to my side and I slipped as I got up, landing on my knees and gathering the Mantle of Woe onto me just before the curse hit my chest. The magic slid off and I rolled to the side before the returning frost could catch me, rising to my feet even as Hanno crossed out of the shard. We were, I saw with mute surprise, near the bottom of the Dead King’s dais. The Hidden Horror still sat his throne, watching us with something like boredom, but the Valiant Champion had already engaged what looked like his last line of defence.
She was wrestling with a massive silhouette that I thought, for a moment, to be the Prince of Bones. The shape… and yet it was not a Revenant, I realized. Stronger and larger than undead should be, but… it had not been Named while alive, and though it had the hint of it now it was because of the power burning inside it. I could see it clearly now, what I’d glimpsed in the Pyromancer. Reign, that was the aspect. Kingship over death, over undead. And as the word sunk into me I Saw the depth of it, what it meant. For a heartbeat Neshamah disappeared, turned into nothing more than a vague shape by the sheer number of strings that came out of him. Every single one binding him to undead, reigning over them.
A kingdom of one.
Someone uncorked a flask next to me and I stiffened, just in time for the Intercessor to offer me a grin.
“The third one’s the real trouble,” she told me. “Also, you should duck.”
I threw myself to the side, for my instincts had been agreeing with her, and red lightning poured through where I’d just standing as I landed in a painful roll. The Bard was already gone, naturally. Out of my Name trance, I actually took in the full lay of the opposition. The four mage bodies from earlier were there and there was a second hulking silhouette resembling the Prince of Bones, which Hanno had engaged before it could flank the Valiant Champion. All the mages but one were looking my way, which wasn’t a bad situation. If we could keep this up until the other started crossing, our odds weren’t too bad. Mind you, the Dead King had yet to take the field himself. He knew, as I did, that he’d never be more powerful against us that in the moment he got up from that throne. It was to his advantage to delay that as long as possible.
“All right,” I called out at the mages, rolling my shoulder as I drew deep on Night. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I wove Night and they came for my life. It was simple sorcery, what they used. The kind that every undead mage I’d faced in this war used – only brought to its pinnacle. The Dead King wielded them like a master painter playing with coloured chalk, a man at the pinnace of his trade having a lark with children’s toys. Red lightning curved as I tore through it with sickles of raw Night, looping and darting at me from every direction. I turned frost to steam only for it to explode in cutting shards, unwove curses only to find that like poisonous flowers blooming they every part turned out to have teeth. I gave ground, often and quickly, as the three dead mages methodically cornered me.
Red lightning turned into a spear blew a hole straight through the Mantle of Woe, hitting the side of my leg, but even as I fell and screamed the Skinchanger and the Vagrant Spear burst out of thin air along with a tide of devils. I felt the weight of Reign shift as I killed the pain in my body with a twist of Night, and in a heartbeat the devils changed sides again. The Skinchanger turned into some sort of large pale cat, leaping out of the way, and Sidonia’s spear lit up again as she was forced to tear into her allies. I backed way, swallowing a burst of lightning into a circle of Night, and greased the floor under the devils to nudge thing the Vagrant Spear’s way.
Her footing remained flawless even as they began falling, turning the struggle into a one-sided massacre.
The tide was turning again, I thought. Curses flew again, this time after Sidonia, but I stuck close to her and slammed burst of raw Night into the Dead King’s elegant work. On the other side I saw the Champion’s axe carve through one of the massive undead’s arm, Hanno covering her side from the other. A heartbeat later the Skinchanger landed on the foe’s back, turning into some kind of black tentacled creature that entangled its limbs. With a swell of triumph I saw the Silver Huntress and the Forsworn Healer cross, raising my staff to turn to shatter the lance of frost thrown their way. It exploded in shards that my lance of Night sucked in – I’d not fall for that trick twice – but then from the corner of my eye I caught something.
The Dead King was rising from his throne.
I went still in utter surprise. It made no sense, neither the Severance nor the Fetters were here yet and-
“Turn to dust,” the King of Death ordered in Ashkaran, voice ringing out as he flicked his wrist.
The Forsworn Healer did. The spell had been little more than a grey sphere, and the moment it touched the hero he collapsed into flakes of dust.
“Honour to the Blood,” the Vagrant Spear shouted, tone gone hot with fury, and she leapt.
I stood numb for half a heartbeat more, uncomprehending at how badly I’d somehow miscalculated – or he had. I might well have gotten my ribs crushed by a battering ram of rippling kinetic might had Masego not burst into sigh and Wrested away the spell, smashing it back into the undead mage’s face and sending him flying. I drew on Night, sword in hand a running forward as Hanno abandoned Rafaella to face the two great dead alone – she was smashed to the ground but I saw nothing more – even as Sidonia leapt at the Dead King with her spear high. He caught her by the throat, effortlessly crushing it, but she appeared in a flicker behind him and-
And red lightning caught her in the side, just in time for the Mirror Knight to come out of a shard and catch sight of it.
He let out a hoarse scream even as the Grave Binder pushed him forward, rushing forward. Fuck, I thought. If he got himself killed… No, we had an opening. Hakram had once told me Christophe and Sidonia had some odd thing going on, and she’d just been hurt at the Dead King’s hand without dying. He’d gotten up too early, too, and while more of us would die we could win this. He’d made a mistake, I told myself, even as a voice in the back of my mind reminded me that when a skilled enemy made an obvious mistake it was no such thing. Still I charged forward, ducking under a spike of ice and carving through the mage that did it as I kept running.
The Dead King didn’t even bother to turn towards Sidonia, who was still wreathed in lightning, and instead he pointed a finger at Christopher. A thin, pale filament shot out. Roaring, the Mirror Knight kept on charging at the Hidden Horror with his shield raised but it was not him the spell had been aimed at. The filament punctured the Grave Binder’s neck, sinking entirely into the flesh, and a heartbeat later he collapsed into a thousand small cubes of rotten flesh. I heard Akua shout and a shield erupted between the lightning and the Vagrant Spear even as Hanno and I went for Neshamah’s sides.
I struck at a translucent shield, shattering it, even as the White Knight did the same – only for him to be grabbed by the neck and tossed to the side, while I struck at the Dead King’s chest wit my staff and slithered Night into his body.
“Arrogance,” Neshamah chided.
The Night tore back out, striking me in the face and tossing me on my back. It’d turned cutting, somehow, tearing up my skin and ripping the eye cloth off my dead eye. I got back up in time to see three things happen in quick succession: the Mirror Knight unsheathe the Severance and strike in a choppy gesture, the Silver Huntress loose a Light-wreathed arrow and the Vagrant Spear strike at the Dead King’s back. My heart leapt to my throat as the spear took him in the back of the knee and the arrow went through his hand, shattering the spell that’d formed there. The Severance shone, its swing perfectly arced toward the Dead King’s neck as I met his eyes.
They were calm, considering. Not afraid in the slightest.
Right before the Saint of Sword’s conviction made into a blade caught his neck, he turned and touched Sidonia’s forehead with two fingers. Her own skull compressed, crushing her head from the inside, and she died even as the Severance took the Dead King’s head. It went tumbling to the ground, the body collapsing, and surprised triumph stole all our breaths. Except I knew better, deep down. The dead hadn’t stopped moving, and as Akua matched a burst of red lightning aimed at me with a pale mirror I watched the Dead King’s twice-corpse twitch. The world shivered as Hierophant Witnessed the truth of it, but a wind blew from behind as something passed us by. Dimly I felt the shards of Arcadia being drawn between us the dais where Neshamah’s remains were writhing, but that was not what drew my eye. The Dead King’s last aspect was burning, lighting up to my own like a bonfire in the night.
Return, the Dead King laughed, and he did.
I closed my eye, realizing then what it was that the Hidden Horror was. Not just what Neshamah Be-Iakim had been when he became undead, but the story he had since become. A maker of armies and Revenants, he how Raised the dead. The sovereign of the Kingdom of the Dead, he who Reigned over death. And finally the unending menace that had been seared into the memory of Calernia, the great doom that would Return no matter how many crusades battered its gates. He wouldn’t die, I grasped, because deep down most of Calernia didn’t believe that he could. It wouldn’t be that simple, in practice, there would be weaknesses and nuances.
But that was the story at the heart of it, and a story was a powerful thing.
When I opened my eye, we stood at the beginning of the hall again and the Dead King sat on his throne, a dead sparrow on his hand. The shards had pushed us back, returned us where we’d begun. Of the thirteen who had come to this last hall, now eight stood dazed around me. The Page, who had never left the shard where he was imprisoned, remained there.
“I don’t understand,” Christophe said, voice anguished. “You told me it would kill him.”
He was looking down at the sword in his hand, the Severance laid bare. The sword was wavy to my eye, as if it cut the very air around it.
“Why does he still live?” the Mirror Knight demanded, eyes going to me. “What did Sidonia die for?”
And I didn’t have the answer, but someone else did. My eye went to him.
Masego stood there, frowning, and I had to clear my throat before he returned to us.
“The Severance did what it was meant to,” Hierophant said. “It cut both his body and his soul.”
“Then why did he not end?” Hanno asked.
“His soul did not disperse or move on to the otherworld,” Masego said, “because it is otherwise bound.”
Akua’s twitch betrayed her surprise.
“He has made a phylactery,” she said. “A soul receptacle.”
My fingers clenched.
“His throne?” the White Knight asked.
“No,” I murmured. “That’s not the kind of man we’re dealing with.”
“Keter,” Hierophant said.
“Where in Keter, Masego?” the Silver Huntress patiently asked.
I felt my stomach drop.
“Keter is where, isn’t it?” I quietly asked. “It’s the entire fucking city.”
“After all,” Masego said, “it is the Crown of the Dead. The name was more fitting than we ever knew.”
“So he keep coming back until we destroy city,” the Valiant Champion said.
“Then what does the Severance even do?” the Mirror Knight harshly said.
“It destroyed him,” Hierophant informed him. “You did sufficient damage to disperse his soul. Only instead of moving on his soul remained bound to its anchor, and then something-”
“An aspect,” I elaborated. “Return.”
“An aspect,” Hierophant adjusted, “ensured that it formed anew. The scar the Severance left is still there, the damage done was permanent.”
“So the only way to destroy him is to destroy every single fragment of his soul with the Severance,” the White Knight evenly said.
Which, he did not need to say, did not seem in the cards. Not only did we need to get to him through the shards again, but we were fewer, wounded and tired. And it occurred to me, in that moment, that he had risen from his throne the very moment the Forsworn Healer reached him. Immediately, without hesitation, and that his first blow had been aimed at the man.
The Dead King had never stopped fighting his war of attrition.
“We don’t have the time for that,” I said. “Even if we could, our armies will break first.”
My eye slid to Akua.
“It will have to be the Fetters,” I said.
Hanno grimaced, but did not argue. He knew as well as I did that we were out of options. I’d ordered Akua to tell them all of the Fetters on their way up, knowing it might come in necessary, and was now glad I had.
“I will take the other end,” the White Knight said, volunteering for an eternity without hesitation. “Who will shackle him with the other?”
“Let me,” Christophe de Pavanie quietly said.
Hanno blinked at him.
“Perhaps someone faster on their-”
“Let me hold up the other end of the leash,” the Mirror Knight cut through. “Enduring, Hanno, has been my sole virtue from the start. Let me make something worthy of it.”
The White Knight’s face closed, as he hesitated, so Christophe sought my eye instead. I was, after all the Warden. I studied his face, the grief still on it, and decided that though grief over Sidonia had formed the decision it was not the sum whole of it. It was the consequence of the man he’d become, the one I had spoken with in the shadow of Keter before the end of this war began. And that man was, for better or worse, someone I would trust with imprisoning the Dead King.
“Give him the Fetter,” I said. “I’ll hold the other.”
Hanno began to argue but I held up my hand. There was no argument to be had. That was the nature of sacrifice, wasn’t it? Selfless and selfish all at once.
“Thank you,” the Mirror Knight quietly said, meeting my eye.
“There are things for which I deserve thanks, Christophe,” I replied quietly, “but this is not one of them.”
I turned away when Akua pressed the ring of bronze and copper into my hand, pretty piece of torment that it was. She was looking at me, I thought, like she’d never seen me before. Did you think I would force it on you? I thought. It wouldn’t mean anything, if it wasn’t your choice. In the end she said nothing, leave me to give Christophe the second Fetter. I breathed out.
“We cross again,” I said. “Prepare yourselves.”
“It will not be the same,” Hierophant warned. “He blended the shards before putting them back into place. There are fewer but they have grown in danger.”
“Danger’s our trade,” I replied. “And he’s not the only one with surprises left.”
I sent Hanno to fetch the Page alone, but the rest of us went in pairs again. I took the Skinchanger with me, accepting her suggestion that I should carry her as a mouse. It was lethal from the start, with the first shard we stepped into a blend of the falling water and the lightning tube. If I’d not still had water from the first go we might well have died electrocuted, but crashing water on water bought us just long enough to crush. In my haste, though, I did not notice that the crossing separated us. I had no idea where she ended up, but I’d stumbled into a pitch black furnace. The fire was not difficult to deal with, simply requiring that I wreath myself in a coat of Night, but the darkness was.
Last time I’d used the Dead King as my compass, but this time he felt obscured to my eye. I found it difficult to See him, as of something was obscuring my sight. I’d have to wait for another Named to get ahead of me before I could figured out which way to go.
It was only inevitable, I supposed, that she’d come back then.
“Told you the third was the trouble,” the Intercessor said. “Did you really think you lot were the first to ever get to him? Please, I nudged three crusades that way before giving it up as a lost cause.”
The first dark shard had been a void where I could not even speak, but this one was different. It had been blended with a shard of fire, and so needed to be able to burn – the threat had changed from simply being lost or being on fire to my running out of strength in Night as I waited out both. It did mean, though, that now I could speak.
“I know what you’re after,” I sneered. “We’ve figured it out. Judgement gone silent and the ealamal just waiting for that hour of need. I know you’re trying to make us lose, Yara.”
I heard her drink from the flask, not just a small mouthful but a long swallow.
“That’s one of the things I’m trying to do, Catherine,” the Bard said. “It’s not that I really want to kill everyone, you know, it’s that they gave me no other choice. Except, of course, you taking my place.”
“That failed in the Arsenal,” I said. “You’re too late.”
“No,” the Intercessor quietly laughed, “I don’t think I am. You still have an aspect left undefined, and most importantly you have a crucible.”
I rolled my eye.
“I’ve known a few of those in my time,” I said.
“No,” she said. “You haven’t. Not the kind you need to become me. Do you want to know what it took, to become?”
I actually did, I found to my own distaste. It was information too valuable to be turned aside, even if she was likely to be playing me.
“What?” I asked, giving her what she wanted.
“The impossible,” the Intercessor said. “You have to do the impossible, even if only the once.”
I opened my mouth to answer but she tutted me.
“No,” she said, “you haven’t. You’ve done the improbable, and admittedly with some skill, but not the impossible. You haven’t broken fundamental rules to win.”
“And you have?” I asked.
She ruefully laughed.
“Creation was easier back then,” the Intercessor said. “There were fewer of us, more unseen spaces to work in. I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off now, but I did when I was young.”
She drank, and after I could hear her smile.
“I convinced Creation that I was made of stories,” the Wandering Bard told me. “That I could wield them, shape them, live through them.”
“First I made myself into a song,” she said. “Then I made myself into a story. Then I tricked gods into singing one and telling the other.”
She sounded almost fond.
“Of course, then I got exactly what I asked for,” the Intercessor. “Thought I’d gotten the better of the Gods, for the first few centuries.”
She laughed, and it was bitter enough I could almost taste it.
“Then a few centuries more passed, and I got who that joke was really on,” Yara of Nowhere said. “It’s never them, Catherine. If you learn anything from me, learn that.”
“And you think I can do the same as you?” I frowned. “Trick gods?”
“Gods no,” the Intercessor snorted. “You’re a blunt fucking instrument, child, even when you’re being subtle. But you can do the impossible, the table’s set for it.”
When she spoke again she felt close, as if whispering straight into my ear.
“You can’t beat him,” Yara said. “The pieces aren’t there, Catherine. But if you beat him, anyway, well…”
“Then I take your place,” I finished.
“Good odds you do,” the Intercessor jovially. “It’ll be a fucking forever of a curse, but then you’re a pretty terrible person. And if you fail, well, I still get my way. Cordelia will do what Lycaonese do and I still get to put it down.”
I convinced Creation I was made of stories, she’d told me.
“You’re not just getting rid of people who know of you,” I quietly said. “You’re trying to kill everyone on Calernia. No more stories, no more you.”
It was how she got out of the cage she’d made for herself.
“Not everyone, Cat,” she chided me. “It’s still Judgement doing it, after all. I’ll just make their standards stringent enough that, say, maybe forty people on the continent are able to meet them. That’ll do the trick. In a few decades people will die out soft, and I can spare a few decades.”
I felt her smile again.
“Those go by,” she softly said, “in the blink of an eye.”
Ahead of me, I Saw another Named pull ahead. I had my path through.
“You won’t beat him with that thing Sahelian’s cobbled together, whatever it does,” Yara told me. “It won’t stick through a death, Catherine, and that’s his favourite trick: he’ll die to get out, if he has to.”
I’d been about to walk through the fire, but I paused at that. It made, I realized, a horrible amount of sense. The Autumn Crown had been supposed to make the Dead King indestructible in exchange for undoing his mastery of the dead, but the Fetters were a simpler creation. If the Dead King let himself die after he was bound in them, could he slip the noose? The Fetters would be closed around his soul, and his soul could be carved up and dispersed. Christophe had already done it one today, it just hadn’t stuck. It wouldn’t stick, I suspected, even if there was not so much as a speck of intelligence left in that scarred up soul. He’d just come back mindless and hungry until the soul was utterly destroyed.
There was a decent chance, I realized, that even our most desperate plan wouldn’t work.
“There it is,” the Intercessor murmured, sounding pleased. “You see the wall, the impossible. Now you just have to find the determination to break it.”
“What do you want of me, Yara?” I spoke through clenched teeth.
And I knew the danger, I did, so I touched the Night for the slightest bit. Set a weave to unmake.
“You’re the Warden,” she said. “Not as catchy as-” and there she said a word in a language I had never heard, “but we can work with that. You’re still a user of stories, of Names. So use them to win.”
A hand touched my shoulder and I let her, closing my eye to See what she wanted to show me. Her own glimpse of Creation. It was not objects in motions, chords and stories and the lay of possibilities. It was, I decided, like a living tapestry. All interwoven and ever-moving. But she wasn’t looking at the whole of it, only at the small part that was here and now. Today, in this spire, facing the Dead King. The Named that had pulled ahead of me, heading for their foe.
“That’s what we’re working with,” Yara said. “That set of stories. Some are unfinished, and those tend to be the most useful, but we’re not going to win this with a third aspect or the Page transitioning. It’s fucking Neshamah, he’s been the collective nightmare of Calernia for longer than we’ve been pissing in pots. Your winner is here.”
Grey thread in the tapestry, I saw, not empty but that she could not see. Not yet come into colour.
“Akua,” I said.
“That’s your victory right there,” the Intercessor agreed. “She’s got weight in spades and personal ties to you on top of it. It always works best when it costs something, yeah? Nudge our girl into the right Name at the right moment and you can, just for that one fucking moment, do the impossible.”
“You can’t control what Name people get,” I flatly said.
“Maybe not out there, but in here?” Yara smiled. “Hells, you’ve got her all ready for a dozen redemption stories and all the other moving parts in here are Named. This is your board, Catherine. You just have to sit down and play.”
And the thing was that, even now that her own vision was fading I could See what she meant. Akua wasn’t one of the stars, she was not Named, but I could feel a course of stories she might come into. And the others, well, the practicals of their fights against Neshamah might be beyond me to predict but they didn’t really matter. I looked at them going through the shards and it was the simplest thing in the world to reach out. The White Knight was having trouble reaching the Page, so I gave them a little nudge. Flicked the Page’s aspect of Incise, making him remember there was more to it than combat. It was sharpness and precision, not killing, and those applied to more than just fighting.
He cut into the darkness, enough for Hanno to see, and Light followed.
Now the Silver Huntress was going to charge ahead, because she had always envied Archer and now Archer had become the Ranger. So one nudge to hurry to the left instead of the right and she stumbled into an airless shard of powerful gravity, the Mirror Knight hurrying behind her and falling. He hit the bottom of the shard with the weight of years of accumulated Dawn, blowing right through. They fell into a shard of devils and blind rage, but they were right next to Hierophant and he tore open the boundary with the shard he shared with Akua. The devils flooded into the frost, dying in moments, and in his rage the Mirror Knight shattered the walls both shards.
They all made it to the middle of the room, much sooner than they should have.
“That’s the push and the pull,” Yara said approvingly. “It’s the fundamentals of the game, how you get people moving. You’re going to need a little more than that, if you want to shape stories.”
I hummed, because she was right. The Valiant Champion, I Saw, carried with her a great guilt. She had too often been the last one standing, and she treasured the White Knight all the more for being one of the rare survivors of bands she had joined. She wanted to be the first into danger, so it wouldn’t be others paying the price, and that was easy enough to arrange. She was already behind the four who’d reached the centre of the room and gone on ahead towards the Dead King, so she’d hurry after them. That would drive her to take risks, enough she came through first again. Then someone… mhm, it’d have to be heroine she wouldn’t care for anyone remotely villainous. The Silver Huntress would do.
A nudge that got the Silver Huntress wounded by one of the dead mages would do the trick, pushing her to use her domain and wiped out all of the Dead King’s defences in one swoop. It would open space for the Mirror Knight to strike, and… what if she died instead of got wounded though? Oh, the Champion would go after the Dead King directly then. Better results, he wouldn’t be able to pull some trick I wasn’t able to see that fucked everyone over and the defences still got wiped by the others while the Dead King was stuck in the domain. Probably worth the Silver Huntress, since she was the likeliest to die of the Dead King got to pull his trick.
“You might need a third go,” Yara noted, having followed every nudge. “Focus on getting Sahelian there and damage his defences. You only need the one miracle, everything else is about getting it there.”
And it sounded cruel, I thought, but it was true. Hadn’t it been what this entire battle was about? Thousands were dying out there in the inner city so that a handful of people in here could slay the Dead King and end it. If I was cruel, it was because I played a cruel game. And what was the life of a handful of people, against all of Calernia? I’d known the answer to that at sixteen, and the years had done nothing to change it.
“The White Knight’s a dead end,” I muttered with a frown. “I can’t even use him properly.”
“Save’s a real bitch,” Yara sympathetically said. “Tariq used to pull the same shit by asking Mercy for tips, though at least I could get around that. Your boy’s a lot more of pain to deal with.”
In most stories he sacrificed himself for others, stepping in to save them if they got nudged into a path that got them killed. It was like he was pathologically incapable of seeing the larger picture. The Mirror Knight, at least, could be relied on to go in a blaze of glory to avenge the Vagrant Spear. That’d turned out to be a fortunate death, leverage-wise. I watched as Silver Huntress and the Mirror Knight reached the Dead King first, beginning the fight as he sat his throne. They wouldn’t be enough.
“I can’t get to Akua,” I finally said. “Not strong enough.”
Even if I stepped in myself, it wasn’t enough to nudge her into a name. Love was not enough. It had to be her decision and I didn’t have a good enough angle to move that.
“Yes you can,” Yara whispered into my ear. “You’re not looking at all the angles, Catherine. When a nudge isn’t enough sometimes you have to Guide things down the right path.”
And oh, it was so very simple when finally my eyes were open. See hadn’t been enough, it could only observe. To be able to Guide, though, as Yara could? That was looking at the endings of a story and choosing the one that would happen. It seemed a little thing and it was, it really was, when you thought only of a single story. But when it was five, twenty, a hundred? Then it was like being able to forge your own puzzle pieces. Silver Huntress died trying to be what she wanted Ranger to be and Archer to admire, which led into the Valiant Champion containing the Dead King. The rest of the board was cleared and then, when she died and he came back, the Page tried to transition and died if the White Knight didn’t get in the way, which he would. Leaving who the Dead King really wanted to kill, the Hierophant, wide open. Akua would be too slow and not forgive herself.
So she’d reach for something beyond her, a Name, and that I could Guide into what I needed.
She would destroy him. We would. It would all be over.
“It’s not my aspect, though,” I murmured.
“Hierophant’s right,” Yara assured me. “The godhead’s just a trick of perspective. Use mine for a bit and you’ll pick it up.”
“They both die,” I finally said. “Almost all of them do.”
“And that’s a tragedy,” she agreed. “It’s always a tragedy, Catherine. No matter how tired you get, that doesn’t change. There’s always a William to make you weep. But if you don’t play the games, if you don’t get your hands in the red, then how many more die?”
She squeezed my shoulder comfortingly.
“You always got that part,” Yara said. “That the deaths don’t matter more because they matter to you. You’ll get to keep that, I think. It’ll make you better than I was in some ways.”
“Because I can do what needs to be done,” I quietly said.
I felt her nod. And she was right, I knew. What a paltry fucking cost the handful of people in this spire were, if it kept the rest of Calernia breathing. The easiest of bargains. And maybe it’d wound me, but my life had been a collection of wounds. What was one more? I was a villain, in the end.
Mine was not the fate of happy endings.
I breathed out and watched it in my mind’s eye, measuring angle and timing. It would be close, but Yara was wrong. I wouldn’t need a third go, just slightly bloodier hand. It would just need to- the weave undid itself and pain returned to my body. My leg, my bad leg throbbed with pain.
Do not forget, it whispered. That this is not a game. That you make mistakes.
I wanted to argue, to struggle, but the pain took my breath away.
Do not forget, it whispered, that there must be more than ruin.
“Catherine?” the Intercessor slowly said.
I shook off her hand.
“If you’d said I needed to kill Akua, I might have believed you,” I quietly said. “But Masego, Yara? Masego?”
The one who’d never left me, never asked anything of me. The one who’d promised to stay by my side when this all ended, even as everybody left. The one who’d forgiven me for killing my father.
“They say we only get one choice that matters,” I told her. “And maybe that’s true. So here’s my choice: I will not be a crab in your fucking bucket.”
She was gone in an instant, and as I stepped out of the shard I breathed Creation’s air once more. A pivot, I thought. It had been a pivot. The others were fighting the Dead King, I Saw, and they were losing. I watched it unfold, the desperate gamble. Alexis wounded and the Valiant Champion using her domain to whisk away the dead defending Neshamah. I passed through another shard, barely feeling the swirling acid as it roiled against a wreath of Night. Then the Dead King revealed why it was he had slain the Grave Binder, calling on Revenants buried beneath the tiles bearing their names. They tore through, swarming my companions. Neshamah had, as always played it so very careful.
He’d gotten rid of the healer to ensure our wounded would not return. He’d slain Sidonia so that love could not be turned against him twice. And then he’d killed the Grave Binder so that no one could hinder his raising of Revenants.
Only, I thought as I stepped through a swarm of poisonous insects that multiplied by the moment, he had made a mistake. Because Return wasn’t perfect, he’d showed me that. He needed his anchor it was why he’d done a grand gesture like making all of Keter his phylactery. The Mirror Knight had killed him one today and if the anchor hadn’t made sure that his soul stayed in Creation, that it didn’t disperse, then the Severance’s cut would have been the end of him. Return wasn’t an absolute, because no matter how powerful a story there was always a weakness. And I’d learned his, I realized, entirely by accident. Years ago, in a fight that had nothing to do with him at all.
See, I’d once wanted to steal Akua Sahelian’s soul to get around an oath not to shed her blood but she’d already taken it out and put it in a phylactery. Masego had called it a manner of lichdom, back then, and been mightily impressed. He was not someone easily impressed, which had gotten me curious. What was it that Akua had done that was so unusual? A real lich was undead, I’d learned. That seemed a small detail but was why they were able to take out their soul and why Akua’s trick of taking it out while she lived was such an achievement: the soul was removed during the ritual that turned the mage into a lich. The Dead King, then had removed his soul when he became undead through the ritual that destroyed Sephirah when he effectively died.
So if his death was undone, it’d come back.
When I crossed the last shard, striding through entropy that stole another meaningless decade from me, I came out onto a scene of triumph. And not ours.
The Valiant Champion was on her knees, most of her torso turned into bone. The Silver Huntress’ bow had been snapped and she was losing a fight with a Revenant spearman, giving ground, while the Skinchanger had turned into a spotted cat to avoid the howling sorcery of a robed mage. The Mirror Knight was being sat on by a massive distorted Revenant bearing a crow’s mask, though the undead’s attempts to break Christophe’s neck were running into the issue of the neck being harder than the behemoth’s gauntleted fists. The White Knight was fighting half a dozen Revenant swordsmen and holding, but he was not winning. The Page was doing the best of us all, savaging what looked like an Arlesite duellist dripping with gold suns.
Akua and Masego were locked in a struggle of raw power with the Dead King, sorcery against sorcery, and they were losing.
I breathed out, sharpening my mind as I pulled on Night and stepped forward. The Dead King laughed, seeming genuinely delighted. There was a ripple and the two Soninke mages were blown away, sent flying, as the King of Death turned to me.
“I knew you would not fall for her tricks,” Neshamah smiled. “You lack the perspective, Warden, but you still understand the essence of it. We are all prisoners.”
I’d heard this before, I thought, from Masego. Who’d been raised in a shard of Arcadia as a boy and seen it end, wondering then how long it would take until the Gods did the same to Creation. The Game of the Gods would have an end, after all. Someone had to win.
“And you want to get out before Last Dusk,” I said.
“When the Gods end it all, Catherine Foundling,” Neshamah Be-Iakim said, “when the last soul passes and the last of Creation is unmade, then I will stride alone into a sky of cold and distant stars.”
He leaned forward.
“And in that empty void between worlds, moving to no purpose but mine, I will at last know the taste of freedom.”
And he meant it, I knew with ironclad certainty. Every word of that. All he’d ever wanted was to get out. And maybe part of what he’d become was on Yara of Nowhere, who had hounded on behalf of the masters he wanted to rid himself of, but it wasn’t on her head alone. He was still the same man who had destroyed Sephirah for his madness, who had taken a sickle to Calernia through the millennia as a reaper of lives. He was not excused. He was the face of everything I wanted the Liesse Accords to kill, the black madness that broke nations and swallowed whole cities. A single man whose lunacy was enough to break the world.
And Gods, hadn’t we all had enough of that?
“From them,” I said. “You’ll be free from them, Neshamah. But you forget that you are yet in the pit with the rest of us. And down here, we are all mud.”
“Am I to monologue for you, Warden?” he smiled. “I will not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
It was a gesture of respect, I grasped, when he called me respect. For my Role, for how far I had come. He had meant it when he called me a peer.
“You don’t need to,” I said. “You’ve already given me enough.”
“It would be worse to kill me, you know,” Neshamah idly said. “I have prepared for it.”
“You’d make it worse,” I acknowledged.
I’d long seen it coming. He seemed, I noted, a little cheated by how easily I accepted that.
“You have seen the shape of my sovereignty,” the Dead King said.
“I have,” I agreed.
A million strings, a million dead, all to make a kingdom of one.
“Should I end,” the Hidden Horror said, “it will pass to another. One Creation should fear even more than I.”
It took me a moment to understand what he meant. When I did, I almost refused to believe it.
“Weeping Heavens,” I said. “You don’t even control the drakon when it’s just a drop of essence. You’d give all you hold?”
“I had a friend once,” he smiled, “who was a woman of remarkable clarity. She once asked: if Creation is not mine, what need is there to be a Creation at all?”
I cocked my head to the side. I shouldn’t, I knew, but in some ways I would forever be my father’s daughter.
“Quoting Triumphant,” I told him, “is the last refuge of the uninspired.”
And I beheld him then, standing proud and unbent in the face of all Creation. The oldest of tyrants, the King of Death himself who had worn his pale crown through the millennia to war upon the world. The first and greatest of the old breed, the one they all fell short of becoming. The last relic of the Age of Wonders. And I knew, in that moment, that he was mine to judge. That I had taken on the Role, the responsibility. I was the Warden, the usherer of the Age of Order, and it fell on me to close the curtain on the times that had come before it. The Mirror Knight had one feared I would make myself a ruler over Named, and he was not so far as that. I’d always been about authority, just never about wearing a crown.
I was to be a judge.
“Neshamah Be-Iakim,” I said, “you have devoured cities and shattered realms, waged war upon all the world and sown ruin wherever reached your hand. You are the high priest of desolation, the tyrant undying.”
He felt it, I saw, same as I. The shiver in the air. His Role and mine, testing the other’s weight. His hand
“By my Name of Warden,” I said, “I Sentence you to die.”
He came for us, then, without a speck of holding back. It came as a swarm of buzzing curses, a tide of a million deaths, but the charge of my last aspect had sunk into him. The Sentence would stay in him, my authority – my madness – carved into Creation. His fate was writ as death, and now the lay of world would fight to ensure it.
I had, at last, a providence of my own.
The Silver Huntress’s wrist was touched by a curse and she withered to bones in a heartbeat even as I swallowed a shout of dismay. The Page exploded into ash, the Skinchanger screamed as she unravelled from the inside. I raised my staff, drawing as deep on Nigh as I ever had. It would not be enough, I knew, but so long as Hanno could – the Valiant Champion interrupted the thought, leaping forward with her axe high, and as she looked death in the face she smiled.
“Exalt,” Rafaella of Alava said.
And then she was gone, the Dead King’s great doom and his Revenants with her. In the heartbeat that followed were moving. The Mirror Knight first and swiftest, Hanno and I tearing forward even as Hierophant and Akua’s magic rose.
“Hanno,” I shouted.
His eyes met mine.
“Bring him back,” I said. “Make him alive.”
Three spells went flying. Masego’s hit the Dead King in the chest, burning through robes and sending him stumbling back. Akua’s and Neshamah’s collide, one giving and a heartbeat later Akua Sahelian screamed. Christophe de Pavanie, smiling, dropped his shield and swung the Severance at the Dead King’s neck two-handed. Bit his wrist, oh his wrist was caught. And Neshamah’s other hand was laid on his neck, a curse leaving the fingertips and spreading black across the Mirror Knight’s skin. He smiled still.
“Reflect,” the Mirror Knight whispered.
And the Dead King screamed, rot spreading across his dead limbs as the Mirror Knight slumped. Breathing his last he twisted, twisting around the Severance, and handle of it fell into Hanno’s outstretched hand. The one missing fingers. He caught it. I struck out, the staff of deadwood I’d ripped from Liesse after refusing the old victories and defeats writhing with the power of the goddesses that had made me as much as I’d made them. The hit caught Neshamah in the neck, even as his magic sharpened, a pulse of Night disrupted the spell. Hanno of Arward’s hand touch the Dead King’s forehead, that rough workman’s palm covering it.
“Undo,” the White Knight said.
And as Creation screamed, life roared back into the Dead King’s corpse. Millennia of weight fought the White Knight’s fresh aspect, an oak tree to a dandelion, but a finger had already been laid on the balance. I had Sentenced Neshamah to die, and for that he must first live. So colour flushed back into his cheeks, those pale brown eyes widening as his magic rose again. A killing spell, and end for the both of us.
“Silence,” I ordered, and it died.
And Hanno struck, the Severance biting into the Hidden Horror’s neck for the second time that day. It cleaved through flesh and bone, red blood spurting as death followed in the wake of life. Neshamah Be-Iakim’s head fell, its eyes golden in death, and the two of us stood by the dropping corpse in disbelief. Movement behind me, and I turned sword in hand but it was Hierophant – who darted forward, hand snatching a sparrow as it erupted from the Dead King’s last corpse. It was, I Saw with surprise, a soul. His soul.
“I told you, King of Death,” Hierophant smiled, “that I would come for you.”
And he bit off the sparrow’s head, teeth crunching as he swallowed and began to devour the Dead King’s soul, making its knowledge his own. The foundation, I knew, of a godhead to be. We’d won, I realized. We’d just killed him. And though he had threatened us with the drakon, if the Antigone came through then… A sigh sounded, and I turned to see Yara of Nowhere standing among the ruins of the highest hall of Keter.
“Why,” she asked, “does it always have to be the hard way with you lot?”