Ending Announcements

Hey!

First off, the last book’s over and so all the Patreon-exclusive extra chapters are now up. They’re in the extra chapters tab, it starts with Beatification I. Hope you’ll enjoy them!

Moving on, whew. The series is over and the shock of that is only beginning to hit me. I’ve spent nearly seven years of my life on the Guide to some extent or another – and began doodling with the concepts even before that – so it feels like the end of an era.

I still remember starting with one chapter a week on Book I, back when I started this whole project to motivate myself to write with public deadlines. It’s more than a little humbling that over the years I got to move from that to full-time writing and make a living out of my work.

I owe that to all of you, and I can only give genuine thanks for it. I’ve been getting an outpouring of messages from people who’ve been reading the series and tell me of when they began and how the work came into their lives, which I’ll admit has brought a tear to my eye on occasion.

I guess Catherine’s not the only one who got sentimental as she got older.

As for all of you whose lives were touched by the Guide, no matter how small the way, well I can only say I’m glad. It’s certainly changed mine. I said as much yesterday in the comments, but it’s been a hell of a ride and I’m you got to take it with me.

So, last two announcements. Most of you should be aware that my next project, Pale Lights, already has the first two chapters up as a teaser. I’ll be taking a longer break than usual before chapters start, however – more precisely, six months. The 26th of August will be when it starts again and I’ll be putting my Patreon in vacation mode until then.

As for the last bit, while I can’t get into details at the moment there’s been things in the works so don’t be surprised if there’s another announcement made here in the coming months. While I’m aware this is frustratingly vague, I’m sure it’ll end up being a pleasant surprise.

Hoping to see you in six months,

E.E.

Epilogue II

“At the end, there will be more than the Gods.

With the Last Dusk will come the passing of Creation, discording turning to concord as the wager of Fate is resolved. Yet it shall not be the end of everything, for though all came of the emptiness of Void to create is to make something from nothing. That is our gift, and so the sum of the choices we have made will echo beyond the bounds of time.

In the end, we are told, they will all have mattered.”

– Last page of the Book of All Things

The valley, they told Catherine, was called the Knightsgrave.

It was a pretty sight, tall grass split by a burbling mountain spring whose banks grew thick with red flowers. That was not unusual, in the Red Flower Vales – which in these parts the native Procerans called the Vermillion Valleys – but the mage tower surrounded by a few cottages was. Half a dozen wizard families and twice that in simple students had made their home in the Knightsgrave, a small hidden school of wizardry in the mountains. The temple built by the cottages made it plain that the House of Light was keeping on them, but both the brother there and the magistrate in nearby Beaumarais knew and approved of the school.

Neither recognized that they were being visited by the Warden and the White Knight until they were told, and quickly acceded to silence when it was asked of them. Borders were still being drawn, after all, but Beaumarais might well be part of the lands ceded to Cardinal before the year was out.

The burial of the Rogue Sorcerer, Roland de Beaumarais, attracted something of a crowd. Magistrate Alisanne handled the early arrangements, but then turned the affair over to Brother Albert. Catherine Foundling had known many a shade of grief over her years, both hers and that of others, so she did not ask why the beautiful grey-eyed woman could not stand to look at the coffin. Roland had said there would be a woman in Beaumarais and there was no need to ask who she might be.

It was a simple but heartfelt service. Brother Albert did not take up too much of the talking, ceding the place instead to Roland’s father – his last living parent, after his mother’s death two years past from the green fever – who spoke of the light there had been in his son since he’d been a child, of how proud he was that he had gone out into the world to chase the murderer of his brother Olivier. Roland the Beaumarais, it seemed, was something of a local hero. He’d fought off an evil wizard as a teenager, rumoured to be a Praesi warlock, and founded the small wizard school.

Magistrate Alisanne’s eyes were hard as flint all through the service. Eyes turned to her several times, expectant, but she never spoke a word.

Hanno spoke instead, of the good he had seen Roland do and the love others yet bore for him. The eyes of the young wizards shone, when they heard of the company a man who’d once been a boy here had risen to keep. Of the people he had helped, the evils he had defeated. Catherine Foundling, when her turn came, spoke only two sentences.

“He took an arrow meant for me,” she quietly said. “The debt I owe him is greater than words can convey.”

Roland was buried by the banks of the spring among a bed of red flowers. A stele of stone was left to remember him by, simply reading: Roland de Beaumarais, the Rogue Sorcerer. A life spent for another is never wasted. As dusk approached the crowd dispersed, heading back into town for the funerary banquet. The White Knight took a single look at the magistrate and the once-queen standing among red flowers before taking his leave with them, leaving them to the privacy of their grief.

“None of the people who came knew him,” Magistrate Alisanne quietly said. “Most came to Beaumarais after he left, attracted by rumours of the school.”

“Not even his father?” the Warden asked.

A bitter smile answered.

“Especially not him,” the magistrate replied.

Catherine Foundling was the keeper of many secrets, and so she did not ask why the other woman had insisted on a closed casket funeral when the body was well-preserved and had allowed none to gaze at the body. Roland had been a friend, one of the finest she’d ever had. She would not pry at his secrets while standing over his grave.

“I meant it,” the Warden said, “when I said I owed him a debt. He spoke of you while dying.”

The grey-eyed woman’s face twisted with grief before she mastered herself. Only then did she answer the implicit offer.

“The rumours say that Cardinal grows by the day,” she said.

“We’re still laying the foundations,” the Warden admitted. “Though houses have been raised for workers and officials.”

It had been a year and a half since the fall of Keter, but work had only begun six months past. The Principate was dragging its feet recognizing the borders despite Cordelia’s best efforts, though she had assured Catherine that it was not malfeasance. Part of the lands currently belonged to Orne, who had effectively declared independence during the Principate’s collapse and had only loosely been brought back into the fold. First Princess Rozala could have pushed harder on the matter, but she already had too many demands on her time between the campaigns to recover the north and the negotiations with the secessionists in the south. Cardinal was at no risk of pulling blades and so very much down the list.

“Then perhaps I should go north,” Magistrate Alisanne mused. “Our prince has called for officials to join the resettling of Brabant now that the verdant companies drove the dead from it.”

“If that is your choice, I can put in a word for you,” the Warden said. “Princess Beatrice is an old acquaintance; she would do me a small favour without thinking twice.”

Princess Beatrice Volignac, who had formally abdicated all claim over Hainaut and pledged her army to the reconquest in exchange for the Highest Assembly granting her the principality of Brabant, was also in dire need of skilled officials. The ruling line of Brabant and its capital had both been wiped out, leaving the land in such brutal anarchy that the commoners were begging the orc mercenaries who’d driven back the dead to stay and settle in empty villages. Some were accepting, the Silver Letters had sent in their latest report to Cardinal, and there was already talk in Beatrice’s court of inviting a goblin tribe to try to cut down on the costs of reconstructions. The roaring success of that gamble in Brus under the Kingfisher Princes was inviting imitation.

“And Iserre?” the magistrate idly said, tone gone teasing.

“Rozala Malanza’s less likely to do me favours freely,” the Warden drily replied, “but I could arrange something there too. I wouldn’t advise heading there unless you want to see some fighting, though.”

The grey-eyed woman’s brow rose in surprise.

“Would it truly come to war so soon after the last?”

“Salamans is backing their own Milenan to contest Malanza’s and they’re not backing down,” Catherine Foundling said. “They’ll want to avoid open war with the Highest Assembly, but they want to use a civil war Iserre to break its southern ambitions.”

Much of the south yet refuse to recognize Rozala Malanza as the legitimate First Princess, alleging in a fit of irony that she had usurped the good and rightful ruler of Procer – First Prince Cordelia Hasenbach. Using that pretext they were resisting being brough back into the Principate, though the real reasons were rather more pragmatic. Not only had the First Princess sworn to unseat every royal who had not sent armies to Keter but the Arlesite principalities had been the least hurt by the war and would be the first to recover. Few of them were enthusiastic at the prospect of being heavily taxed for the next fifty tears to pay for the recovery of Procer’s heartlands, the same Alamans princes that had been their rivals for power in Salia for centuries.

Only the swing of public opinion in favour of the First Princess since the victory in Keter had stopped war from erupting, but that would not last. Rozala Malanza was not as skilled a diplomat as her predecessor, for all that she was significantly more beloved of the people of Procer.

“I’ve never had a taste for war,” Magistrate Alisanne finally said. “And that was before I lost him to it.”

The grey-eyed woman shook her head, smiling at the grave.

“I should see, I think, what dream it is that he gave his life for,” she decided. “Let it be Cardinal.”

The opening of Cardinal College drew the greats of all Calernia.

Even after four years and fortunes spent Cardinal still looked like it was only half-done, but what had been done was spectacular. At the narrowing of the pass between Procer and Callow there had once been a fortress called the Bloody Twins, but the fighting of the Tenth Crusade – the duel between two dead legends, the Sovereign of Red Skies and Antigone Drakonslayer – had broken it and masses of stone been dropped from a Hell. Using the old fortress as a foundation and the fallen stone as materials, an army of stonemasons from the signatories to the Liesse Accords had begun to build the city.

Now two great square towers of grey stone rose as tall as the mountain they ate into, a great plaza passing between though they connected by a massive arched bridge – Concord Bridge, it was called – that stood half a league above the ground. From a distance the entire College looked like a gargantuan arch curving towards the clouds, and radiating outwards from it the bones of a city had been raised. Large avenues split the grounds like the lines on a sundial, districts swallowing the northern and southern valleys as tunnels were being carved through the mountains to bind the mountain-city together. Great swaths were still empty, but already a trading town on the Callowan side that heavy grain imports had driven demand had been founded and the districts around the College filled up.

The rest was yet as villages dotting the empty belly of a great city, workers come from abroad and migrants drawn by rumours of work taking up residence in clumps, but in time the city would fill itself. It might never be as large as Salia or Ater, the mountains would forbid such heedless growth, but in time it might become one of the great cities of Calernia regardless. Finishing to would be the work of decades yet, but already Cardinal had begun to pay for itself in part by collecting taxes in coin and food from its territories on both sides of the Whitecaps. It was a long way from no longer needing foreign coin to continue growing, but it would be provided for some years yet.

Besides, Chancellor Alaya and Empress Basilia had proved willing to sink a great deal more gold into the city than the Accords mandated. Not without concessions to show for it, of course, but negotiations with the seneschal of the city had not yielded as much as they might have hoped. Lady Cordelia was yet one of the finest diplomats on the continent.

Guests had begun arriving a month before the ceremony was due, but the grand names only in the sennight before. The incoming tide of crowned heads excited even the already infamously blithe Cardinalians, who had seen so many great works of magic used to mundane building purposes that very little could yet shock them. Formal reception only took place when the last of the delegations arrived, in the grand plaza between the two towers of the College. It was a long, ceremonious affair where the delegations marched up the avenue one after another to be welcomed and only made less dull to behold for the crowds by how richly dressed the delegations were.

The Warden, head of the still mostly empty ruling council of Cardinal, gave out those welcomes with the other three sitting members. Lady Cordelia Hasenbach, seneschal of the city, who had also taken on diplomatic and judicial duties that would in time be beyond the office’s remit when they could be distinguished from the administrative ones. Lady Pickler, intendant of works, who had already fallen into the habit of rarely attending any meeting that did not involve allocation of funds. And lastly General Grem One-Eye, the famous Praesi general who had quietly retired at the end of the War on Keter and taken the offer of commanding Cardinal’s fledgling army.

The Lord Hierophant having adamantly refused the office of Rector of Cardinal College in favour of remaining a permanent Senior Lecturer, he had gotten out of attending. First Princess Rozala and her consort Louis Rohanon were welcomed first, a panoply of princes trailing behind them.

“They tell she might be pregnant with a second,” the Warden muttered.

“It was only a matter of time,” Lady Cordelia replied in a murmur. “She was trying as early as last year.”

Catherine Foundling let out a low whistle.

“During that mess in Salamans?” she said. “Bold.”

It had been a tense time, and if not for their intervention the situation might well have devolved into open war between the League and the Principate. In the wake of the First Princess’ decisive victories in Iserre, Salamans had broken into civil war only for its south to be invaded by the Prince of Tenerife in a lightning march. He had then formally applied to join the League of Free Cities, throwing lit matches into tinder. Valencis had immediately pulled out of its negotiations with the Highest Assembly, making a marriage alliance with Tenerife instead, and when the First Princess had directly intervened in Salamans she’d run into Tenerifan forces in the south that refused to cede the ground. An accidental skirmish turned into battle then drew Empress Basilia into the conflict, for though Tenerife could not be welcomed into the League in the Hierarch’s absence it had status enough as an applicant to ask help of the Protector of the League.

With League armies camped a mere ten miles away from the Principate’s in southern Salamans, there had been the scent of steel in the air.

The Warden’s arbitration and a great deal of bargaining behind closed doors had helped tensions return to a simmer, but the miracle that put it to rest came in the form of Anaxares the Hierarch. Emerging from the Hells in the city of Orense, which even after being returned to the Proceran fold was holding out, he collapsed the siege and led the citizenry into declaring the independent Republic of Orense before the White Knight chased him off. With another fire in her backyard as the insurrection spread across the principality, the First Princess agreed to a partition of Salamans, ceding the northern half the Principate kept between Iserre and her own Aequitan.

In return she received an open guarantee that Valencis would never receive help from Tenerife or be allowed to apply to join the League, a diplomatic coup that forced the rulers of Valencis to return to the negotiating table with a much weaker hand and a ruined reputation.

“If her south didn’t keep setting itself on fire, she’d have most of the north back by now,” General Grem opined in a growl.

Brabant and southern Lyonis had been reclaimed, but beyond that little else. Prince Otto Redcrown had led the return of the Lycaonese exodus, helping in the reconquest of Brus as he went, but though Neustria had been reclaimed and Rhenia relieved the rest remained in the hands of the dead. A push had seized the Morgentor and closed Twilight’s Pass, but otherwise the great prince of the north seemed content to slowly reclaim old Lycaonese lands by pushing a little further every summer. He had done this with little help from any southerner save the Kingfisher Prince, who himself had been forced to essentially occupy southern Lyonis so the dead would not spill back through it into Brus after royal forces withdrew.

There was talk of a marriage with Sophie Louvroy, abdicated princess of Lyonis and last survivor of the main branch of the House of Louvroy, to formalize the arrangement.

After the Procerans came and went the rulers of Levant replaced them, riding with their lords of the Blood. King Razin and Queen Aquiline advanced under the star-studded banner of the Thuraya, the name they had adopted upon being crowned by the Majilis. The young queen’s obvious pregnancy drew even more eyes than the appearance of the rather famous Lord Ishaq Rabia, first of the Barrow’s Blood, whose town on the southern edge of the Brocelian was said to be growing fast.

“That succession is going to be a headache even if they have a kid,” the Warden grunted. “Mark my words.”

“The Circle of Thorns believe they want three children,” Lady Cordelia noted. “One to inherit Levante and the crown after them, the other two for Malaga and Tartessos.”

“The Majilis isn’t toothless enough to allow that,” Catherine Foundling replied. “They surrendered veto power, but it doesn’t make them pushovers.”

“Vaccei and Alava will threaten revolt, I agree,” Lady Cordelia mused. “They will have to water their wine, pass the cities to kinsmen. It is doing them a favour in the long term, I would think.”

“Three royal branches all with their own cities?” Lady Pickler snorted. “Because that’s not a civil war in thirty years. I thought you said they were smart kids, Cat.”

“They’re still Blood,” the Warden sighed, “it comes with some blinders. They’ve done well otherwise.”

With the Levantines come and gone, the Callowan royal procession approached. Queen Vivienne of Callow led it, her recent husband prince-consort Cathal Iarsmai close behind. Though rumours had spread that marrying Grand Duchess Kegan’s eldest grandson had been her price to keep Daoine in the Kingdom of Callow, the couple seemed happy enough. Cathal was only some years younger than the queen, after all, and handsome in the Deoraithe way.

“How much younger is he?” Lady Pickler asked.

“Just turned twenty,” the Warden said.

“And divorced last year,” Lady Cordelia said, sounding like she enjoyed the scandal. “A stroke of luck for Kegan, that, the second closest grandson is still twelve.”

“If she’d been willing to settle for a nephew it could have been done years ago,” the Warden noted, “but she wanted her own blood in the royal line.”

House Foundling would inherit the same as any other, in the end, save that if it turned unworthy there would be a great many orphans ready to restore dignity to the crown. The decision had been contentious in the early years, but Queen Vivienne’s reign had been peaceful and prosperous. Plenty had a way of silencing doubts, and the kingdom’s rising trade guilds paired with the resettling of Liesse had occupied energies that might otherwise have turned to mischief.

After Callow came the League of Free Cities, Empress Basilia her vassal rulers of Nicae and Stygia arriving first. Formal diplomats from the other cities followed, as though Anaxares the Hierarch had kept his Name he had spurned invitations to return to the League when invited during his reappearance in Orense. It had been considered a surrender of the title, even by Bellerophon, which had allowed the League cities to resume foreign affairs and vote on joining the Liesse Accords.

“They’ll have another Hierarch within the decade,” the Warden said. “Basilia’s getting too powerful, they’ll want something to balance her influence.”

And should she refuse, it might well come to civil war within the League. Which she could not afford, given that she was still trying to get Tenerife accepted as a member-state.

“She will pare down the powers of the office and get Tenerife brought into the fold as a trade,” Lady Cordelia predicted.

“Don’t say that in front of Ikaroi,” Genera Grem grunted in amusement. “He’ll send it home.”

The head archivist of Cardinal College, Nestor Ikaroi, was not longer formally of the Secretariat but was still rather openly and amiably spying for Delos. He was so useful none of them particularly minded. The humour that had touched them at that retreated when the following delegation arrived.

Chancellor Alaya did not come in person, which only strengthened the rumours she was not far from stepping down – and that the Warden would kill her should they meet in person – but both High Marshal Nim and one of Lord Councillors had been sent, a strong showing. Especially so considering that Lord Councillor Sargon Sahelian being increasingly charged with foreign diplomacy was speculated to be a sign that the chancellor wanted him to succeed her.

“Queen Vivienne will be miffed,” Cordelia predicted. “She would prefer High Lady Abreha to be in his place.”

“Of course she would,” Catherine Foundling snorted, “the old fox’s promised to sell Callow the Blessed Isle if she’s elected chancellor.”

The border between the Confederation of Praes and the Kingdom of Callow had been a matter of some debate after the end of the War on Keter. The Blessed Isle was in Praesi hands and the Fields of Streges in Callowan ones, but the land had never been formally ceded and there had never been a declaration of war between either realms since the secession of Callow. Chancellor Alaya had traded the disarmament of the Isle to the Callowan crown in exchange for a lasting treaty that allowed the Confederation to buy a fixed quantity of grain at a fixed price every year, bolstering her position and securing food for Ater, but the borders had yet to be formally fixed.

“Sargon Sahelian’s trade policies are sounder,” Cordelia firmly said. “And his support for Cardinal College significantly stronger.”

“You just want to edge Mercantis entirely out of the spice trade, you cutthroat bitch,” the Warden fondly said. “At least own it.”

“Their position as the perennial middleman is a loss to all of Calernia,” Lady Cordelia righteously replied, but her lips twitched.

The northern realms came in swift succession. First the Herald of the Deeps, formally recognized as king of Kishar when he’d signed the Accords two years past, who’d come with a small retinue whose splendid armour was still eclipsed by the colourful parade of fire spirits that flocked to him like birds.

“Good call renaming Keter something that starts with a K,” Lady Pickler said. “It’ll make it stick sooner.”

“I am sure that is the only reason the name was chosen,” Lady Cordelia drawled. “Well spotted, my lady.”

“I’m not taking that lip from someone who giggles at being called Cordy when she’s drunk,” the goblin bit back.

Following the dwarves came the representatives from burgeoning Zemebreg, the Firstborn colony that dwelled in the city once called Cleves. Mighty Rumena itself led it accompanied by a pack of the wandering riddle-priests endemic to its city that had become famous in the Principate. With them came the envoys from Serolen itself, eldest and greatest of the spreading drow cities, came greater names. Mighty Radegast led the group, now famous for the terrifying mercenary army it had led in Nesutria and Rhenia on Prince Otto’s behalf. Then Ivah of the Losara, First Under the Night and Lord of Silent Steps. The priest was perhaps the best-known of the Firstborn, nowadays, for it had spent several years in the Principate after the end of the War on Keter. The bargains it had struck with the First Princess for mercenary sigils had been instrumental in clawing back control of the western coast, allowing Segovian shipping to resume to Prince Otto’s realm.

“I’m glad Malanza didn’t bring any of the Most Holy or we’d have a brawl on our hands,” the Warden said, and it was not entirely a jest.

There were many names for the worship of Sve Noc, these days. The Tenets of Night remained most common, but the Faith of Crows and the House of Night were spreading as well. In Callow mostly through the Army, and aside from a scuffle over an order of knights that had insisted on being allowed anointment in Night to outrage from the House Constant there had been little trouble. It was seen as a soldier’s cult, little more. In Procer and the Grey Eyries, however, things had taken a different turn. The Matrons had banned the worship, only for the measure to be backfire by spreading word and then be overturned by Chancellor Alaya besides, and now they were said to be wrestling with a great deal of unrest.

In Procer it had grown beyond that, however. Night was simply too tempting a power for a realm where banditry and roving bands of undead were still a real threat even all these years later. The House of Light’s campaign of words to denounce the heresy had taken strong root in the south, but it had rung hollow north in the heartlands and north where drow sigils and wandering riddle-priests looking for worthy foes had saved many a life. Though yet frowned upon, the Faith of Crows was spreading and the Liesse Accords prevented the Highest Assembly from making this illegal. Hostility between the Proceran House and the Losara – considered a priest-caste in the Principate, and not without reason – in particular had risen to dangerous heights.

“Be glad we did not invite Tenerife,” Lady Cordelia grimly replied. “They gave back their House the right to raise troops.”

The last delegation to arrive, and not by happenstance, was that from Thalassocracy of Ashur. It was the last realm of Calernia not to have signed the Liesse Accords, and its envoys were the reason so many great names had come to the opening of Cardinal College. It would have been an important moment on its own, but the last signatory joining the Accord added great weight. Seven years after the fall of Keter, the Ashuran civil war had finally been brough to an end and the results had been expected by few. Instead of the Hadast claimant pushed by Arwad or Smyrna’s insistence a Tyrian from overseas must be sent for, a fourth-tier citizen from Smyrna by the name of Baltsar Aderbal had taken control.

He’d been a middle-aged man with few allies when he’d declared the Committee of Government with the backing of only citizens of lower tiers tired of the fighting, but the reason he was now ruler of Ashur was the same two people standing behind he as he approached: the Blessed Artificer and the Archmage. Sapan the Apprentice had become Sapan the Mage and reportedly lost her temper when returning to Ashur after the war. After crushing the Blue Mage and half a school’s worth of practitioners in a spectacular blowout when the other Named backed the Hadast claimant and attempted assassination of Baltsar Aderbal, she had transitioned into the Archmage and ended the civil war through sheer fear of angering her further.

She had, after all, blown up most of a mountain.

“Baltsar isn’t the real power there,” Lady Pickler said. “I don’t care if he’s called the head of their governing committee, either of those women could take his seat in a moment.”

“Not Lady Adanna,” Cordelia said. “She was born there but her looks are Soninke. Smyrnan elites rose up over having to back a Hadast relative married to a Levantine, they would go quite mad over her.”

“Sapan’s like Masego in some ways,” the Warden said. “She wants to pursue her studies more than mingle. Mind you, she’s a little more involved than Zeze’s ever been.”

“The decision to sever ties with the Baalite Hegemony is entirely hers,” Cordelia agreed. “As has been reaching out to Praes in friendship to balance a resurgent League.”

“Malicia’s old dream come true,” Catherine Foundling smiled, just a little too tightly.

“Boring,” Pickler frankly said. “Can’t believe I have to be here and Hanno got out of it. He’s Ashuran, he should be here more than me.”

“His having a look up north is more important,” the Warden said. “If the word Hakram has sent is true, we have reason to be worried.”

“There are records of elves being active outside the Bloom, if ancient ones,” Cordelia said. “It is this talk of ratlings wandering the steppes that worry me. They could not have reached there without the Forever King’s tacit allow.”

The Warlord had been called in by far clans only loosely under his banner, tales of entire clans disappearing reaching his court, and duly informed Cardinal even as he moved north to investigate. The White Knight had gone alone, as the finest sword the Warden had to wield. General Grem cleared his throat.

“The Ashurans are getting close,” he said. “They’ll hear.”

They fell into silence, the Warden allowing her gaze to fall onto the last delegation. The last great realm of the surface that had yet to sign the Liesse Accords, come here on the day where the great school she had dreamed with Hakram would open its gates to students. The sky above them was an endless sunny blue, cut only by the great towers of Cardinal College, and she let the warmth of the sun seep into her bones.

It was a good day, she thought, and there were better ones yet ahead.

The lecture hall was a large spread of stone with comfortable seats behind writing desks, built to easily fit a hundred, and it had been filled to the brim. Cardinal College allowed students to enroll in elective classes from their second year onwards, after the basics had been taught, and now that the first batch had reached the milestone near every mage in attendance had hurried to sign up for General Theory of Magic. Some had learned Lower Miezan specifically to be able to attend this particular set of lectures out of the three of, for they would be given by the most famous mage of the age. Without warning the door burst open and the Lord Hierophant strode into the hall and it went quiet as a grave, save for the tinkle of the trinkets woven into his hair. He looked, many noted, in a foul mood.

A flick of the wrist had chalk rising and writing General Theory of Magic on the large grey slate, the odd-eyed man turning to face the silent class.

“Before the month is over,” he said, “half or you will be gone.”

Several students swallowed.

“No dead,” the Hierophant clarified. “The College has rules about that.”

The words were not as reassuring as he had clearly meant them to be.

“You will be expected to take notes and study on your own,” he continued, “and I will not slow the pace for the slower students. Should you struggle, you are free to attend the Senior Lecturer Beaumont’s lectures instead – they are also given in Lower Miezan.”

A pause, waiting for volunteers. There were none.

“Then we proceed,” the Hierophant said. “Before we begin, I have been informed I am to give you the opportunity to ask questions. Raise your hand if you wish to do so, you will be called on.”

A dark-skinned young woman in elaborate red and black robes was the first to raise her hand and so the first to earn the right to speak.

“You,” Hierophant said.

“My lord,” she said, “may I ask why you are giving what could be considered an introductory lecture instead of something more befitting your talents?”

The Hierophant’s flesh eye narrowed.

“Sahelian, are you?” he asked.

She proudly nodded.

“I am-”

“Not interested,” the Hierophant noted. “I knew Akua Sahelian, still consider her a friend. Lesser variants are of little interest. As for your question, it’s because the contents of my Deicide and Applied Blasphemy lecture are currently locked into a vault after eating the soul of the warlock that tried to steal them.”

A great many students breathed in sharply. Some second thoughts were had.

“And Hasenbach insists I have to teach something if I want my funding for the experiment,” he continued. “Which is ridiculous, given the obvious benefits.”

Though it had taken barely two years for Masego to accept Cordelia’s invitation to refer to her by her first name, monthly funding debates saw her inevitably relegated to be being ‘Hasenbach’ for a few days. A boy in the front, blond-haired and blue-eyed with stocky Callowan look, was the next called on.

“What’s your experiment?” he eagerly asked.

“The technicalities are beyond any of you,” Hierophant said, “but on the submission scroll I summed it up as ‘forcing apotheosis onto a pig’.”

Half the students paled. About a dozen leaned forward eagerly. Another boy, Ashuran by the looks of him, was next.

“Is it true you taught the Archmage?” he excitedly asked.

“Sapan learned from me,” the Hierophant noted, “but I cannot claim to have taught her.”

A pause.

“If you believe attending my lectures will turn you into her, abandon the idea,” he cautioned. “She is a once in a generation talent and I have no reason to believe ant of you are.”

Several winces but few arguments. Even in the College, where already two Named were in attendance, few had the arrogance to compare themselves to the Archmage of Ashur. Next was a dark-haired girl, Arlesite in looks, and her accent was thick when she spoke up.

“Why should we attend your lectures instead of the others?” she asked. “What do they bring us?”

The Hierophant beamed.

“The first good question today,” he praised.

The girl looked surprised, perhaps having expected irritation out of the infamously impatient mage. He glanced at her a second time, finding that she was young to be here. Eight, nine years old at most? And vaguely reminiscent of someone he likely should have paid more attention to at some point, an unfortunately broad list.

“The other Senior Lecturers,” he told the class, “will teach you general theory with an accent on the manner of magic they practice themselves. I will not.”

Under the eye cloth, an orb of glass shone with the light of miracles crafted and stolen both.

“I will be teaching you of the rules,” the Hierophant smiled, “only to best explain how to break them.”

Half the class was gone by the moon’s turn, as he had predicted. The rest signed up to every single lecture the Lord Hierophant gave at Cardinal College.

Ater had recovered from the Battle of the Spiders.

It had been years since then, almost nine, and in the wake of the War on Keter the newly founded Confederation of Praes had thrived. With a willing if wary Callow as a trading partner, Chancellor Alaya had gathered a like-minded few to her council and undertaken reforms. Taxation of territories was reorganized to be handled directly by Ater, cutting out the middleman collector of the the High Seats. It tripled the revenue of the chancellorship over the span of a year while she appeased the same great with exemptions tailored to ensure they would remain the wealthiest of the aristocracy. With the ardent support of the High Lady of Kahtan, a young woman of strong reformist bent whose life had once been saved by the White Knight in Keter, the Taghreb aristocracy Hungering Sands made bereft of an overlord by the end of Thalassina and goblin rule in Foramen were reorganized into districts patterned on the past imperial governorships of Callow.

High Lady Rana Muraqib’s rumoured marriage proposal to the White Knight in the wake of this was the subject of excited gossip for years.

Meticulously negotiated treaties with the Warlord solidified the vassal state status of the Clans and the rights of all greenskins in Praes, including confirming the cession of the fortress of Chagoro and attendant territories. Hakram Deadhand set his court there and began raising his capital, deepening trade ties as orc mercenary companies – verdant companies, they were called in Procer – were sent west to fight under Procer to bleed out the old urge to raid. Besides, the northern clans were occupied with the growing ratling infestation in the Lesser Steppes. There was plenty of war and meat to go around these days.

But only outside, for within there was order. Permanent Legions of Terror fortresses in all regions to ensure order did not collapse in the wake of the disbanding of the old armies. Negotiations with the rebels of the Green Stretch ended in the region being assigned a governor by Ater but receiving an electoral vote in return.

Only in the Grey Eyries did peace wane, as the Tribes had eaten themselves alive over the matter of Night. After a panicked ban of worship that ended in disaster the Matrons attempted to pivot into priesthood but found Sve Noc lukewarm to the approaches. Several tribes collapsed into infighting, males or lesser females using Night to overthrow their superiors, but wiser Matrons instead raised the status of those who could use Night as being above those others. Even the males. It avoided widespread civil war, but with every season as more left for the greener pastures of Foramen, Callow and Procer their authority ebbed. Perhaps in time it would shatter entirely.

And as the years had passed, as peace kept and Praes entered an age of prosperity, Catherine Foundling counted the days. Until one night, just before dawn, the Warden slipped into a palace at the heart of Ater. It was not Tower, not mountain of horror and hubris, but it was opulent nonetheless. Nestled at the heart was a great garden with the stars for a roof, kept pristine by gardeners and enchantments both. At this hour of the night, with dawn approaching, there was no one there.

No one save for Alaya of Satus and the Warden who’d come for her.

The chancellor sat alone in a copper garden chair, leaning back into silk cushions and looking at the starlit sky as she sipped a cup of wine. The bottle was on the table, empty. It was of rough make, cheap glass for a cheap wine that some might have said tasted of mud. The dark-skinned beauty was pleasantly drunk, by the look of her, but even so her face betrayed no surprise when the Warden slid out of shadow as if she had come into being from nothing at all. Alaya only smiled and invited Catherine Foundling to sit.

“Warden,” she said.

“Chancellor,” the other replied.

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Alaya said. “The ealamal was successfully put to use.”

“Adanna does good work,” the Warden agreed. “The poison clouds are already dispersing and it will reverse the blight on the Kingdom of the Dead fully over the next thirteen months. Or so the latest word out of Kishar goes.”

“The Herald will be pleased,” the chancellor mused. “He has been chafing to expand on the surface as he has been doing below.”

The collapse of the Kingdom Under into half a hundred squabbling fiefdoms had only continued, allowing the Herald of the Deeps to seize the lands beneath most of what had once been the Kingdom of the Dead. There were few cities and farms there, however, mostly fortresses and forges. Farmland would be a blessing for an expanding realm swelling with refugees from the brutal strife of the dwarven heartlands.

“The Archmage’s theorem was impressive work,” Catherine Foundling said. “Even Masego was impressed.”

“A rising name as well as a rising Name,” Alaya commented. “Her proposal of lending Baalite mages to help ours create irrigation canals in the Hungering Sands is the talk of Praes. I believe my successor will take her up on it.”

“And you know who that’ll be?” the Warden idly asked.

The chancellor smiled.

“Sargon Sahelian, unless I am much mistaken,” she said. “I have allowed him to expand his influence unchecked, far beyond the gains I conceded to Abreha.”

“Hakram tells me he’s popular with the Clans,” the other woman agreed. “The help he offered in Chagoro – Hagaz now, sorry – went over well with the chiefs.”

“He can be quite charming,” Alaya said, “and his utter disinterest in territorial expansion is exactly what we need. He would much rather spend the treasury on rebuilding Praes than consider adventures abroad.”

The Warden slowly nodded.

“You will leave him a Confederation on the rise,” she acknowledged. “Ater has been rebuilt, trade with Callow is the highest it has ever been and all of Praes is on the path to recovery from the Uncivil Wars.”

She paused.

“I walked the city, before coming here,” the Warden said. “They love you again, the people in the streets.”

“Mobs have short memories,” the chancellor sighed.

“Maybe,” Catherine Foundling said. “But they’re not wrong either. I gave you eight years, and you have used them to rule ably and justly.”

The dark-skinned beauty smiled.

“Sentiment, Catherine?” she drawled. “So late in the game?”

“I’ve been known to indulge,” the Warden shrugged.

She was no longer a young woman, to be offended by something she had long made peace with.

“Is that why you have been sending casual letters to Marshal Juniper and her wife?” Alaya smiled.

“Aisha’s the Governess-General, that’s as high a position as Marshal,” the other chided. “And I’m being practical with that too. Grem has been talking about retiring down the line, living out his last years in the Steppes, and I’ll need someone to command Cardinal’s forces then.”

Queen Vivienne would stringently object at losing Aisha and Juniper would not relish leaving the Army of Callow behind, but the Warden suspected the two of them would bet swayed by the prospect of living in the same city enough to accept after Grem retired.

“A large army, for a young city-state,” the chancellor said. “However important is has grown to be.”

“If we were just handling the defence of our territory, suppressing banditry and the like, it’d be too large,” the Warden freely conceded. “But the Black Legion is meant to be used against Named running wild and other threats to the Accords.”

A moment of silence between them.

“He would have enjoyed the name, I think,” Alaya quietly said. “He was always a little vainer than he allowed himself to believe he was.”

“I figured,” Catherine Foundling quietly replied. “Besides, it’s his tactics we’re teaching them.”

Their gazes moved away, drawn by the night sky that did not yet betray the coming of dawn.

“How was it?”

“Eight years of choking down ash and dust,” Alaya honestly said. “But it is done, Catherine. I laid both our sins to rest. I made Praes into what we wanted it to be.”

The other woman considered that, for a moment.

“I’m glad,” she said, and found she meant it.

Neither of them broke the silence for a long time. And as dawn approached, Catherine Foundling rose to her feet.

“It won’t be painful,” the Warden said.

That had never been the point. The chancellor of Praes drained the last of her cup, setting it down, and smiled the smile of a woman who had spent most of her life one step ahead of everyone else in the room.

“It wasn’t,” Alaya of Satus softly agreed, “when I drank the poison an hour ago.”

She would die as she had lived, holding her fate in her own hands. Her body was cold when dawn found it, sitting alone in her beautiful garden and staring at the sky through dead eyes.

So passed Alaya of Satus, once known as Dread Empress Malicia and last of that dreadful line.

It had been ten years from the fall of Keter and a debt was owed.

Hye Su waited in the clearing where Refuge had once stood, greenery having since clawed back the grounds. She was sitting on a stone, honing the edge of her blades with a whetting stone. When the Warden arrived, near the coming of dusk, she displayed no surprise.

“So you came alone,” Hye Su said, tone giving faint praise. “I wondered if you’d try to drag one of your little leagues into it.”

It had not been so long since the Guild and the Society were founded, but Hye Su had kept her ear to the ground. The founding of both had led to a great deal of talk, for it was not everyday that companies of Named. The differences were not so great, even though the Guild stood for Below and the Society for Above. Behind all the details, the essence was the same: they were both ways for Named to make enforced bargains with one another and other entities. Be they with kingdoms or vagrants, the deals brokered by Guild and Society were made with the strength of Cardinal behind them. All at the simple price of those who joined the ranks agreeing to simple rules of conduct.

Named flocked to Cardinal for a reason.

“It’s not what they’re for,” the Warden shrugged.

The other woman laughed.

“I suppose not,” she conceded. “They’re to corral the herd you let loose.”

The Warden cocked her head to the side.

“So you noticed it,” she said. “I wondered how obvious it was to those without our resources.”

“Names are popping up like weeds,” Hye Su said. “You don’t need spies to see it. It used to be that there was one every few years, Foundling, but now?”

She snorted.

“I hear there’s three Apprentices running around and your Knight Errant has already picked up a Squire,” she said. “It’s only been ten years since Keter and you’ve already made back every Name you lost and change.”

“Too many people know stories, know about how Names work,” the Warden said. “There’d never been so many Named in the same place as there were in the Arsenal or Keter, or a place like Cardinal. We made it easier for them to come into being.”

“Made them weaker, too,” Hye Su scathingly said. “Power spread around is thinned.”

“It makes for a better world, I think,” the Warden said.

“You would say that,” Hye Su replied, “having made it.”

She rose to her feet, blades in hand, and though she was one of the most dangerous women alive Catherine Foundling was not worried. She had learned tricks from friends and foes over the last decade, but her certainty did not come from them. She had made the world of today, her enemy had said, and there was truth to that. And it was just as true that Hye Su had been left behind by that world. It has passed her by.

And so this could only end one way.

There were only four students in the circular hall, which was deep below the College and so heavily warded the magic could be tasted in the air. Torchlight did not light up every shadowed stretch, but the sculpted ritual circle in the middle glowed faintly red and tinged even the dark. Many would have balked at such a sight, but these nine wore the silver stripe on their robes that denoted students in their last year who had distinguished themselves enough to be allowed into restricted classes.

“Welcome,” the Lord Hierophant said, “to Nature of Divinity and Practical Applications.”

There was a snort from a dark-skinned girl. Taiwo Sahelian cocked an eyebrow.

“Sir, you do know every still calls it Deicide and Applied Blasphemy right?” she said.

“As they should,” Hierophant muttered, “it is a much better name.”

“Seneschal Hasenbach is threatening to cut the lunacy fund again, isn’t she?” fair-haired Anthony Fletcher grinned.

“It’s Catherine this time,” Hierophant sighed. “She says that feeding the Swine King to the fae wasn’t enough to get the House of Light to drop the matter so we need to ‘tread carefully for a bit’.”

“It wasn’t even a real god,” Isabel Malanza complained. “We only got halfway there.”

Occasionally First Princess Rozala’s eldest daughter showed her age, the lowest of them all at twelve. None of them had dared to underestimate her since the time she’d made the Apprentice float atop Concord Bridge for half a day after the Taghreb condescended to her about Olowe’s Theorem. Rumour had it the Warden had ordered to leave him up there as an object lesson.

“It was the village that did it, I think,” Hiram of Arwad mildly said. “Upright pigs tilling the land and building houses was a mite disturbing, I’ll admit.”

Hiram was not the most talented of them, and by far, but solid common sense and a facility with language meant he had already been approached to serve as a Junior Lecturer after graduation.

“No matter,” Hierophant dismissed. “Now, all of you should have read on Dumisai’s Theorem over the last week.”

A chorus of agreements.

“Good,” Masego grinned. “Now the interesting part. If fae are fundamentally the stuff of Arcadia given form, then what happens if that stuff is used to try to make a devil?”

The circle glowed ominously as the four students leaned in eagerly.

It was fifteen years after the fall of Keter that the first true challenge to the Liesse Accords came.

“You know,” the Warden said, “I really did think it would be the ratlings that made the other shoe drop.”

“It’s only a matter of time until the elves find a Horned Lord,” the White Knight said. “But you know my thoughts on that already.”

“And you mine,” the Warden replied. “The Golden Bloom’s not an Accords signatory and no one wants to try invading that wasp’s nest when the elves aren’t directly acting.”

It had not been proved that the Forever King was using the shards of the Twilight Ways to ferry the Chain of Hunger east, though the leading mages of Calernia all agreed it was the most likely explanation. There were already suspicions that the same was being done to the Brocelian and the Waning Woods, the elves seeking to break apart human realms as a prelude for resuming expansion. The success of the Spring Crown ritual had ignited in them a thirst for intervention beyond their borders that had not been heard of in millennia.

“Passivity now will cost us in years to come,” Hanno said.

“I don’t disagree,” Catherine grunted. “I just don’t see a solution. Besides, let’s start by putting out the fire in front of us.”

Atalante was on fire. The Preacher’s seizure of power through a coup had not been a breach of the Accords, no matter how heated the man’s rhetoric, but after transitioning into the Philosopher King he’d ceased all pretence that he intended to respect the rules. Prescription of the worship of Night and execution of all suspected sympathizers of Below had been only the beginning of the bloodshed, but it was the King’s use of angelic influence to raise an army of fanatics out of towns and villages that’d guaranteed there would be war.

The armies under Empress Basilia were facing the Host of Light and its fearsome general further south, but riots in Atalante had proved an opening for the Black Legion to risk a decapitating strike on the tyrant himself. The Archmage had blown open the gates and now black-armoured soldiers were putting down the Philosopher King’s fanatic soldiers, and now the man himself was holed up in the Temple of Manifold Truths.

And he was, by the looks of the distant glow lighting up the night sky, calling on a Choir once more.

“Let us end it before more died needlessly,” the White Knight agreed.

The two of them tore through the Philosopher King’s personal guard like a storm. Numbers meant little to the likes of them, at the summit of their power, and it was not long before they entered the chamber where the Philosopher King himself awaited. The ragged, wild-eyed man sat in his pale robes and clutched the many prayer beads on his wrists and neck as he hollered his prayers.

“You’re too late,” the Philosopher King laughed, “Contrition comes and-”

Silence,” the Warden said.

Catherine Foundling, it was said, had defied angels many a time. And won more often than not. The story held true that night, Contrition’s light winking out.

“Cassander of Atalante,” the White Knight said. “For breach of the Liesse Accords on counts of unfair proscription, malicious use of non-creational influence and mass murder by means of Name you are to receive judgement by the Warden.”

“Never,” the Philosopher King hissed. “Don’t you see, Knight, how Below is winning? Spreading everywhere, villains growing like weeds to strangle all the world? They must be stopped now, purged while we still can and-”

“Cassander of Atalante,” the Warden said, “I Sentence you to die.”

And though angels screamed, though Light flared like a sun and the Philosopher King unleashed the last of his power, the White Knight’s sword found his neck. As if it had been fated to be cut. The two of them stood over the cooling corpse, tired.

“He’s only the first,” the White Knight said. “There will be others.”

“Below will unleash the next,” the Warden softly agreed. “It’ll get uglier, before it gets better.”

“Isn’t that always the way?” the other man smiled.

It was rare for them to take the field together, these days, but whenever they did the easy complicity of their youth always returned.

“I’ll leave the corpse to you,” the White Knight said. “General Grem might yet need aid securing the city.”

She nodded. He had taken a wound today, an arrow to the belly, and though his life was in no danger she suspected it would only hurry the old orc’s retirement. Aisha had been making noise in their letters about wanting more time to spend on finishing her memoirs. A hint that, now that Juniper was satisfied with General Abigail as successor, she might consider leaving the Army of Callow behind. Said Lady Abigail Tanner had retired thrice already, but the flooding of her first mansion and then going bankrupt twice had returned her to service every time. It was a fond tale in Callow that she could not be out of the army for longer than three months without calamity striking.

The Gods themselves wanted Abigail Tanner to be Marshal of Callow one day.

The Warden felt the presence before she heard it. The way Creation shivered as someone who had not been came to be. And when she turned, her breath caught in her throat as she beheld Akua Sahelian. Lovely beyond words in a splendid red dress, golden eyes smiling as she touched the copper bracelet at her wrist. The cuffs of her dress were ornate lace, hearts woven into the pattern. Her two marks were these: red and a heart. No matter what she wore Calamity had a splash of red on it, and always a heart was hidden somewhere in it. Time had little changed her, the Warden saw.

Such a thing as time held much of a grip on either of them, she supposed. The gift of the Sister for one and eternity bound for the other kept age at bay.

“Catherine,” Akua smiled.

“Akua,” Catherine softly replied.

The wounds suffered in Keter were gone. As were Providence’s, rumour had it, whose flask and lute had returned along with her arm. The faces of Yara of Nowhere and Akua Sahelian also remained, neither changing through the years.

“I though you might show up,” the Warden said. “Your stars are out tonight.”

Two bright shards of light in the sea of darkness. Fortune and Misfortune, some had taken to calling them. Providence and Calamity, others used instead.

“We bargained,” Akua said. “She will get her way in Levant for the night, but I have the freedom of my own.”

“And what,” Catherine Foundling croaked, “would you do with it?”

Akua Sahelian took a hesitant step forward. It had been fifteen years since they saw each other last. It might be that long, or even longer before they saw each other again. Yet she still reached out to the other woman, fingers brushing against hers, a question asked. Neither of them were sure which reached out, not until they were kissing ardently and stumbling away from the throne and the corpse that lay on it.

They had only until dawn, so they must make the most of the time

Cordelia Hasenbach was drinking.

This was not as rare an occasion as when she had ruled Procer, but that it would venture past the first bottle of wine was. She was in a maudlin mood, however, and took no pains to hide it. Catherine found her in one of the private salons atop what Cardinalians had taken to calling the Warden’s Tower, the northern of the two great towers that made up Cardinal College and the ruling seat of the city.

“I see you’ve heard,” the Warden said.

“I have,” Cordelia said, and poured her companion a drink without asking.

Catherine cocked a brow but sat, taking the implicit invitation and the cup with it.

“A lot of it stays,” the Warden says. “Most of the trade clauses and part of the alliance.”

“The Grand Alliance had ended,” Cordelia calmly said. “You need not coddle me over it.”

Procer and Callow still held a defensive alliance, but Levant had ended their own given the rising tensions at the border with the vassal Republic of Orense. Keeping the treaties alive had been increasingly unpopular, given that few still saw a need for it. Some argued such stringent alliances were more likely to create war than prevent it, these days.

“It was made to foster peace,” Catherine said. “And it worked, Cordelia.”

There had not been major strife since the Philosopher’s War, and though skirmishes at borders were hardly uncommon the balance of Calernia was holding.

“I achieved what I set out to,” Cordelia Hasenbach agreed. “But the great work of my life has still ended. I am, I think, allowed sentiment over that. And a drink.”

The Warden drank of her cup.

“I can’t argue with that,” she said.

The other woman sent her sly look.

“I would expect not,” she said, “given what happened last time I opened a second bottle.”

News of Prince Otto’s wedding to a Neustrian noblewoman a few years back had sent her into a fit of nostalgia. Not regret, but perhaps wonder at the life she might have lived. After all Otto Reitzenberg, born the third son of a friendly royal line, had once been considered as a potential consort for Prince Cordelia of Rhenia. Catherine Foundling coughed, cheeks flushing in a way that still amused the other woman even after nearly two decades of acquaintance.

“I thought we didn’t talk about that,” Catherine said, tone careful.

“It seemed an unnecessary complication at the time,” Cordelia said. “Besides, you are something of a cad.”

“Hey now,” Catherine weakly protested.

The once-princess idly traced the rim of her cup with a finger.

“Not only do you have a lover in Indrani whenever she visits,” Cordelia said, “but you have taken others to bed.”

“When the mood took me,” she replied. “And not that many.”

Which was true. The Ranger, who returned to Cardinal every year between the adventures across Calernia that made her the stuff of legends all over the continent, made up most of the dalliances. Cordelia had never felt jealous, not when Indrani was still so very obviously in love with Masego. Who reciprocated, she had seen, in his own way. Besides, the Ranger only blew in for a fortnight or so and the blew back out with a handful of Named students in two for one of her infamous ‘field classes’. As a way to earn silver stripes of distinction, they had proved most useful.

“That is not untrue,” Cordelia conceded.

“Then what?” Catherine frowned.

The former princess decided on honesty.

“I did not want to become involved with someone who was still in love with another,” Cordelia admitted. “Akua Sahelian’s shadow is yet cast on all your affections, I think.”

The Warden drank deep of her cup, then set it down.

“I think I’ll always be a little in love with her,” Catherine Foundling admitted. “And I’m not sure I want to surrender that part of me. It shaped who I’ve become.”

Cordelia waited. The but, though unspoken, had resonated loudly.

“It’s not something that eats me day to day, though,” Catherine said. “I don’t go to sleep thinking of what might have been. It’s just something about me, like the colour of my hair or the lines on my face.”

Not that she had anywhere as many of those as Cordelia. The Warden still looked in her late twenties, and likely would for centuries yet.

“Sometimes you do have a touch of romance about you,” Cordelia mused, “though it seems largely accidental.”

“I am who I am,” Catherine Foundling half-smiled. “I don’t pretend otherwise.”

And that was, Cordelia admitted to herself, true. In these affairs, the other woman was an open book. And though it still felt like there was too much of an encroachment, too much of Catherine already shared, looking upon that open book she found that she liked what she saw.

“Mhm,” Cordelia said. “You truly do have luck with wine, my dear.”

Catherine’s eye sharpened.

“Do I?” she said, leaning back into her seat. “I wonder what that might mean.”

The fair-haired woman drained her cup, then rose to her feet.

“It means,” Cordelia Hasenbach gracefully smiled, “that we will get to find out how long you might keep my interest, Catherine.”

She got no argument. She had not expected one.

Common Thaumaturgic Theory had existed in research scrolls and private correspondences for the better part of a decade now, but its formal unveiling was still something of a ceremony.

Though the Lord Hierophant’s involvement made it a subject of interest to even rulers, it was ultimately a matter of scholarship and so none attended in person save for Chancellor Sargon – whose unflagging support for Cardinal College and the magical wing of it in particular was well-known. Even the growing commercial rivalry between the city and the Confederation over the artefact trade had done nothing to cool the relations.

Diplomats only politely listened to the impatient explanation given by the infamous Senior Lecturer, some of them disappointed by the plain speech given. Last year’s juicy scandal of the man being revealed as the deity of an Ashuran love cult he had been a member of for many years had raised hopes for some scurrilousness. The scholars that accompanied the diplomats, however, were riveted. In the wake of the speech ending, Lecturer Hiram stepped forward to handle the divide between the learned and the uninitiated.

“Though it may seem abstract that the existence of a universally common most basic denominator has been proven, there are practical applications,” he explained. “It might be best to think of it as the basic building block of all magic having been discovered.”

He paused for effect.

“To accomplish this, it was necessary to be able to measure such a thing,” Lecturer Hiram continued. “We have created artefacts capable of this, and in doing so created the necessity for a new unit of measurement that shall be named the ‘thaum’.”

The cleverest of the diplomats grasped the implications, but the young man spelled out the implications for the rest.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lecturer Hiram said, “we have made magic quantifiable for all existing branches of sorcery. Enchantment and artefact crafting will now be no more difficult than smithing or weaving. A new age of sorcery has come upon us.”

Cordelia Hasenbach, standing in the back, smiled as she considered how foreign sales of the measuring artefacts – certain to continue until national mages figured out how to reproduce them – would be yet another source of coin for Cardinal’s treasury. Common Thaumaturgic Theory would remain the formal name, in the years to come, but as these things always went a shorter name stuck.

The Masegan theory of magic.

Twenty-four years after the fall of Keter, Lady Intendant Pickler died.

The Intendant of Works did not die young, as far as goblins counted things, but neither did she die as old as some of Matron lines did. Years of hard living and a collection of wounds had taken their toll, hastening her passing. Her funeral was well-attended by some of the great names of the continent, though not as part of any diplomatic effort. She has simply been loved by many of them. That evening twin stars shone in the sky, and the Warden stayed alone on Concord Bridge to overlook the great city sprawled below.

Providence and Calamity came calling, as she had thought they might.

“I thought you two only came at turning points,” the Warden idly said, leaning against the balustrade.

Enchantments prevented the wind from crossing the threshold, leaving only a beautiful view.

“We do,” Yara of Nowhere shrugged. “But then you’re thinking of retiring, aren’t you?”

The Warden did not deny it. The lack of a clear successor was a mark against the idea, but Cardinal and the Accords could be run without a Warden. It was the reason its ruling council existed, as there was no guarantee the Name would always be held.

“It’s too early,” Akua Sahelian said. “None of those might succeed you are ready.”

“I’m not sure that’s an argument against it,” the Warden admitted.

“The Accords have to be able to hold without her holding their hands,” Providence agreed. “Otherwise they’re not really rules – just her authority made manifest.”

“The Accords are not yet worn deep enough,” Calamity disagreed. “A generation was raised knowing them but they are still fresh to Calernia’s memory. She must stay until they are a bedrock.”

The Warden almost laughed.

“The angel and the devil on my shoulder,” she said. “Only you’re neither and a little bit of both.”

And she made her choice, looking down at the city she had seen grow from nothing. A little further yet, she thought. It was still too early to rest. When she turned they were both still there and her eyes found the woman she had once known as the Intercessor.

“You seem better,” the Warden said.

“It has proved more interesting than I’d thought,” Yara of Nowhere admitted. “Having someone else changes things.”

“But you don’t think it’ll last,” Catherine Foundling said.

“It will,” Providence said. “For decades or centuries or a millennium. But it won’t last, Catherine. Nothing is forever.”

“Then take heart, Yara,” the Warden said. “You are not nothing.”

Providence’s answering smile was mocking, a hatchet that would never be more than half buried. But when she vanished, Akua remained behind. That could not have been done without agreement, for that was the nature of the Fetters.

“Seven years,” Akua Sahelian said.

“Felt like more than that,” Catherine admitted.

“I understand,” the golden-eyed woman said, “that you have taken a lover.”

“Listening to rumours?” the Warden half-smiled.

She did not deny it. Neither did Akua.

“I still have evenings with Indrani sometimes, when she visits,” Catherine said. “Not as often but still. We have an understanding over that.”

Lycaonese mores were not flexible, but Cordelia had spent many a year among Alamans and in private their ways allowed much. Her lover had permission of her own, though she rarely used it. The lack of jealousy had been refreshing.

“And if I were to tell you I have bargained for a night?” Akua slowly said.

“I would tell you I bargained for one as well,” Catherine smiled.

The tension in the air thickened even though neither of them had moved.

“It might be the last time we see each other,” Akua said. “The opportunities are… rare.”

“I figured,” Catherine softly replied. “So let me say goodbye properly.”

It was a long night but still felt all too short.

Thirty years after the fall of Keter, Hakram Deadhand came to Cardinal.

It was no longer the half-finished creature of its infancy, now turned into a rising city-state whose place at the crossroads of Calernia drew throngs of hopeful to. Already near twenty thousand dwelled there, and the number would only grow. He had changed no less than the city, for it was Hakram who had come to Cardinal and not the Warlord. He was no longer that, having passed down the mantle to his successor Anker Bluemane. Troke’s daughter would do well as Warlord, having turned her clan’s reputation around and tightened the alliance with the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves.

For all that he was thousands of miles away from the Steppes, in some ways going to Cardinal felt like coming home. It was, he thought, the people that waited for him there. Aisha and Juniper, settled there a decade ago with their pair of adopted boys – one Taghreb, the other an orc. Masego, the perennial Senior Lecturer whose longstanding relationship with the famous wandering Ranger was scandalously scandalous. And Catherine Foundling most of all, who welcomed him with a warm embrace.

“Finally decided to retire, have you?” she teased.

“I could use something to keep my hands busy,” Hakram admitted.

“I’m sure Cordelia will find something,” the Warden amusedly replied. “She has a way with that.”

“I’m sure,” he gravelled, cocking an eyebrow suggestively.

Speculation of the true nature of the relationship between the Warden and her seneschal had been ongoing for many a year now, varying from simply very affectionate to them being secretly wed. Lady Cordelia seemed, if anything, to enjoying encouraging wildly different rumours.

“I don’t want to hear that from you,” she snorted. “How many kids have you got now?”

“Seventeen,” Hakram shrugged.

He had raised few of them himself, as many had been born to strengthen alliances and not out of any particular affection. His three by the only lover he had never ended his time with were the only ones he was truly close to.

“My youngest by Sigvin’s a student at the College,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to look in on him.”

“You’ll have the time, I imagine,” his friend smiled.

“Nothing but, Catherine,” Hakram Deadhand smiled back.

Forty-three years after the fall of Keter, Hanno of Arwad died.

The Eater had risen, the ancient Horned Lord leading the Chain of Hunger through shard of Twilight to ravage the Free Cities even as Anaxares the Hierarch appeared in Nok and stirred rebellion against its hard-handed High Lord. The horde of ratlings overran the great walls of Delos, but for the second time in his life the White Knight came to the city’s defence. He died slaying the Horned Lord, saving the better part of a hundred thousand people from certain death.

Hanno of Arwad died smiling, regretting little of the life he had lived.

His passing was mourned by as many souls as there were grains of sand.

Forty-eight years after the fall of Keter, Queen Vivienne Foundling’s funeral was held.

It was, all agreed, the end of an era. The greats of Calernia gathered in Laure to pay their respect, even old Chancellor Sargon who was finishing up his second mandate. Vivienne the Wise had been the last survivor of the Woe, most agreed, though some insisted that since no new Ranger had risen Lady Indrani was still out there somewhere. Whatever the truth of that, the passing of the queen felt to many like the end of the revered generation that had won the War on Keter. The crown prince of Callow, Edmund Foundling, had insisted on his mother receiving full honours before his own coronation and so remained a prince as he welcomed the dignitaries.

It did nothing to weaken his authority, to the displeasure of the northern barons. Marshal Abigail, returned from her ninth retirement after her vineyard was burned down by an unseasonable lightning storm, stood firmly behind him and the Army of Callow behind her. Neither could there be question of disloyalty from the two great Callowan orders, not when the prince had served for years in the Broken Bells under old Grandmaster Talbot. And should that not have been enough, or even the enduring popularity of House Foundling across the kingdom, then the Knight Errant’s presence as his former page’s side would have even the most ambitious too wary to try anything.

Arthur Foundling, perhaps the most famous knight since Hanno of Arwad, rarely returned home but word of his deeds regularly trickled back. The Order Errant’s acceptance of orcs into its ranks in the wake of the campaigns against the Half-Horn Lord in the marches had enraged some, but who could argue with the triumphs of the knights that had slain the three Necromancer Princes of Hainaut and crushed the riders of the Brocelian’s infamous Fae Chevalier?

The procession carrying the queen’s bier passed through the streets on the way to the palace, the people of Laure coming in droves to bid their farewell to the only ruler most of them could remember. Only Foundlings, royals and orphans both, held up the bier save for a single exception. The Warden herself, Sapan the Archmage. The queen was said to have been fond of Catherine Foundling’s successor, in their few shared years as rulers. Prince Edmund’s eulogy was heard by half the city, royal mages trained in Cardinal spreading his voice through clever spellwork.

“My mother,” Edmund Foundling said, “will cast a long shadow.”

He sadly laughed.

“The Woe all did, in their own way, but it is my mother’s all of Callow will live in for centuries to come.”

He was a skilled speaker, Edmund, but it was the sincerity of it that reached the people.

“There are few left who remember the days before the Black Queen, when we lived under Praes – now our closest ally, for all our squabbles over trade.”

Laughter, some jostling, and none denying something that would have sounded sheer madness half a century ago.

“More remember the days after it, when a kingdom had to be rustled up out of thin air as enemies beset us all on our sides.”

Old soldier gave grim nods, the elders of wars now passed into legend. How quickly the world moved on.

“Yet it is the days that came after the wars that made us who we are today. The peace, the struggle to stand in the world as more than an army and a cause. To rebuild villages burned, to uphold fair laws and punish the unjust. To bring prosperity to all, not only nobles.”

The prince’s voice grew quiet.

“It was those days of peace that decided our place in Calernia, and my mother was queen’s own peace.”

He shook himself, as if gathering strength.

“Today we come to bury Vivienne Foundling, but she goes to rest knowing our place was found. That we stand as proudly in peace as we did in war, that Callow is a land who need envy none other.”

Edmund Foundling swallowed.

“There is much I could say of the woman who raised me, but that is a son’s grief and it is a prince that speaks to you today. So instead I will bury a great queen, and hope that wherever she is she can hear me when I say this-”

The prince smiled.

“It is our turn carry your torch,” he said. “And I promise you it will burn even brighter when we pass it to our children.

Laure filled with the sound of cheers and weeping, as Callow marked the death of a queen and the rise of a king. And as the noise crested, in a dingy old tavern Dockside a barkeep who’d closed her tavern for the afternoon let out a low whistle.

“He’s a pretty good speaker, your boy,” Catherine Foundling admired.

“Audrey’s better, but she gets too clever sometimes,” Vivienne Foundling replied. “I’m glad he was born first.”

Her back ached. Even with Hierophant arranging a corpse that would pass for hers she’d had to sneak out of the palace, and these days she was an old woman. More so than Catherine bloody Foundling, who barely looked forty even that because she’d spread her gift around.

“Fill my tankard, wench,” the former Queen of Callow ordered. “The beer is terrible, but what else should I expect from a dive like this?”

“Eh, get it yourself,” the other former Queen of Callow replied. “And this is a respectable establishment, I’ll have you know. The drinks are imported.”

“From where, a mud pit?” Vivienne skeptically replied.

“Well, the Green Stretch so you’re not actually that far off,” Catherine admitted.

She was saved from a further verbal flaying by the arrival of the others. Indrani had barely changed over the years, only her face and figure maturing, and Masego had not changed at all since Keter. The one that stood out, though, was Hakram. Who had begun to age after putting down the Name of Warlord, enough that he had been as old as her until he ‘died’, but now looked much as he had in his prime.

“Are we drinking?” Indrani grinned.

“We are Dockside,” Masego flatly said. “I refuse to sit down.”

“The beer is bad enough I’m surprised she was able to sell this place,” Hakram gravelled.

And the familiarity of it had her tearing up, silly old woman that she’d become. Catherine her took her hand gently.

“It’ll be all right, Viv,” she said. “If you’re not ready to go…”

“I am,” Vivienne said. “It’s not that. My children are grown and my husband dead. Edmund doesn’t need me looking over his shoulder as he grows into a king. It just…”

“Feels like coming home,” Hakram softly said.

Even after all these years, the depth of their understanding still surprised her.

“That’s because you are,” Catherine Foundling smiled, and Night roiled.

A gift had been given Catherine once by goddesses that had, in their own way, grown to lover her. A Mighty’s lifespan, centuries ahead of her and more. And after many years of studying the Night, she had learned to share that gift. Night flowed into Vivienne’s veins, cool but pleasant, and she felt herself change. Years return to her, time’s ravages turning back until she was in her prime again. As Hakram had been, when Catherine shared a third of her gift with him.

“There,” her friend smiled, like it was nothing.

Like she’d not just given back her youth, thrown away a third of her lifespan so that Vivienne might live it out instead. When the tears came this time she did not fight them. None mocked her, though, and instead she found arms going around her as the Woe reunited at last.

It was good to be home.

They bought a boat in Arwad and first boarded it in the early hours after dawn, which naturally was the moment it all went awry: in other words, at the very beginning. As the years had proved, this was a sadly typical turn of events.

“It’s a ship,” Masego heatedly objected. “A ship, not a boat.”

Papers signed by the shipwright attesting to that, legal property and the name of the Heady Wind being changed to the Inevitable Doom were waved in the face of the others. A sudden but comprehensive bout of blindness preventing anyone from acknowledging this in any way.

“It floats,” Indrani insisted. “It’s a boat.”

“The words do rhyme,” Vivienne noted. “It checks out.”

Motherhood had not softened Vivienne Dartwick. It had, if anything, added some spikes.

“I feel like I ought to have asked before getting on,” Hakram gravelled, “but one of us knows how to sail this boat, right?”

“I know you did that on purpose, Hakram,” Masego bit out.

He gestured sharply at the sky, wind gutting out and stranding them less than thirty feet away from Arwad’s foreign docks. Not a single one of them paid attention to the increasingly angry people on said docks gesturing at them.

“I’m sure Cat could offer us a wise ruling over it,” Indrani slyly suggested.

She then tugged at her collar to reveal her collarbone and offered the woman in question an exaggerated wink. Nearly five decades of occasionally sleeping with Catherine had changed Indrani from a terrible seductress to a proficiently terrible seductress, something only people with appalling taste could possibly enjoy. Catherine Foundling was such a creature, sadly, but in this case her friend’s highly shoddy feminine wiles were to be of no avail.

“I don’t do rulings anymore,” Catherine informed them. “I’m retired, let go of the reins and all that.”

Four skeptical gazes were turned onto her.

“Is that so?” Vivienne doubtfully said.

“Don’t give me that tone,” Catherine said, wagging a finger at her. “You know what? Wherever we go, I don’t even want to be in charge. Someone else can do it this time.”

The others conferred.

“She’ll crack before the day is out,” Indrani said. “I’ll put coin on it.”

“The day?” Vivienne snorted. “She won’t last all the way out the harbour. Ten ducals on that.”

“I’ll take that,” Hakram mused. “Pride will make her stick it out at least that long.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Catherine peevishly said.

“Five denarii she becomes captain before nightfall,” Indrani offered.

“I will take that bet,” Masego proudly said. “It is my name on the papers, you have been had.”

“Mutiny has been the doom of many a boat, Zeze,” Hakram told him.

Masego’s flesh eye narrowed.

“Have you forgotten I can make your own hand hit you?” he said.

“They used to call it tyranny when I said things like that,” Vivienne said, sounding happy. “Now I get to threaten people again. I’ve been looking forward to that.”

Come on,” Catherine loudly complained. “You’re all sure I’ll go mad with power but she says stuff like that and no one bats an eye?”

On the docks behind them a company of armed guards arrived on the dock, escorting a bearded mage. The Ashuran gestured at the boat, but whatever the spell had been meant to accomplish it ended up setting his beard on fire instead. Masego turned and fixed the mage with a steady look. He began to back away slowly.

“Catherine’s insatiable hunger for power aside,” Hakram idly said, “I have to ask again because I am getting somewhat worried by the lack of answer. Someone does know how to sail the boat, right?”

His bone hand started slapping him on the back of the head, making the tall orc yelp and as he tried to wrestle it down.

“As captain of this ship,” Masego proudly said, “I order you to your stations.”

Indrani raised her hand.

“Question,” she said.

“Yes,” Masego allowed.

“Do we have assigned bunks?” Indrani asked.

“Yes,” he happily told them. “And designated seats for meals. I have also brought assigned readings. Most of them are things you should know but are inexplicably still ignorant about, but I understand that is not always enough.”

He gave them all a confident look that the students attending General Theory of Magic had learned to live in terror of and those few who took Deicide & Applied Blasphemy had learned to look forward to. It was most commonly known as ‘Lord Hierophant Trying To Help’.

“So I have obtained recreational books,” Masego said. “Which I will also be expecting reports about.”

There was pause.

“Some of them,” he confided, “are of nautical theme. I thought it would fit our journey thematically.”

There was another pause. In the distance behind them, a squad of mages in blue robes formed up on the docks. Archers were lined up behind them and a guard officer was shouting at the boat, not that it made a difference for anyone on it.

“I’m sorry, Masego,” Catherine sighed. “I’m going to have to usurp the captaincy of this ship.”

Yes,” Vivienne cheered. “That’s ten ducals for me.”

Masego pouted.

“I should have known your insatiable hunger for power would get the best of you,” he sadly said.

A tone that would have had greater effect had he not spent the last several decades using it whenever he was denied a funding increase or permission to make the laws of Creation wince.

“We can still do the assigned readings,” she told him, and he perked up.

“Really?”

“Vivienne can,” Catherine specified. “Because she fucking crossed me.”

“Hey,” Vivienne protested. “Do you think I’ll just-”

“Indrani,” Catherine called out, “if you bully Vivienne into obeying me, I’ll pay you five ducals.”

She fully intended to get these out of ten that had been bet against her. The long acquaintance of Cordelia Hasenbach had added a touch of biting irony to natural Callowan spite.

“I’ve done worse for less,” Indrani cheerfully agreed.

“-agree you should be in charge?” Vivienne adjusted without batting an eye. “Because I do. Good to have you back, Catherine.”

That left only the one. Hakram was still struggling not to his own head, as Masego had forgot to end the spell, so Catherine laid a gentle hand on his arm.

“I’ll make it stop,” she said.

“Please do,” he grunted, wrestling down his wrist.

“I’ll make it stop,” she continued, “if you stop pretending you don’t know how to sail this boat.”

A pause.

“I was pulling Indrani’s chain,” Hakram said. “She wasn’t sure whether she was the one supposed to learn or not because she spilled beer over her letter.”

“Hakram, you gossipy bitch,” Indrani protested. “I told you that in coincidence.”

“You’d think they would have learned by now,” he mused.

Catherine, magnanimous in victory, got Masego to end the spell and Hakram to move the steering wheel. The wind was released not long after, Indrani climbing up the rigging to the crow’s nest, beginning an inevitable countdown before she got bored and shot a seagull under the thing pretence of acquiring fresh meat. Vivienne disappeared under the deck to hide her assigned readings before she could be made to read them, while Masego chased away the blue-robed mages on the docks by bespelling them to start kicking each other whenever they tried to use magic. Years of exposure to Indrani had, sadly, eroded his sense of humour into a strange and violent creature.

Hakram and Catherine moved to the back of the quarterdeck. Hakram too the steering wheel while she stood back, finding wakeleaf to fill her pipe with. Moments later she was puffing away at it, the acrid smoke rising up in curls.

“We’re a little late for the tide,” Hakram noted. “We might not make it out of harbour before it turns.”

“Oh,” Catherine Foundling smiled, looking at the sky where a star lay unseen, “I think luck might end up on our side.”

It had been many years since she had last seen Akua Sahelian, but never so many as to forget.

“I suppose we’re due some,” Hakram chuckled.

Wind picked up, a warm breeze carrying the salty taste of the sea with it. It tasted like a promise long overdue.

“So where to?” Hakram asked, hand on the steering wheel.

Catherine considered that for a moment. They would cross the Tyrian Sea in time, on that they had all agreed. But there was no need to hurry, was there? They had earned a little time before they sailed away into the unknown. So as she leaned back against the side of the ship, Catherine Foundling offered her oldest friend a smile.

“Surprise me,” she asked, and into the rising sun they sailed.

Epilogue I

“Why did the Black Queen invade Keter?

She’d run out of living to tax.”

– Overheard in a Laure tavern

Cordelia was dying.

Every ragged, rasping breathed told her of that truth. Too much of her throat was gone, devoured by a ghoul even as she killed it. Distantly she heard the buzz of Light coming down, feeling a sliver of cold satisfaction that the Blessed Artificer’s wall had kept the dead away from the ealamal until the end. Her pride had not slain Calernia. Was Alaya alive? She did not know, and her mind was slipping. Darkness crept in from the edges, closing in on all sides. Her breath rattled out, a groan, and the last of the princess’ life began to leave her. A good death, she thought.

Soft fingers were laid against her forehead. There was a shiver and her life stalled, as if caught in her throat.

“Am I too early or too late, I wonder?” Ivah of the Losara mused. “Many will grieve that you are not to be brought into the Night.”

She tried to move, to raise her hand, but it would not move.

“We see you, Cordelia Hasenbach,” the Lord of Silent Steps said, its voice echoing with two others. “You who offered peace to the Firstborn and meant it, who would welcome us into these Burning Lands as an ally.”

Coolness, fresh and pure and so intense as to be almost painful, flooded her veins as her body was wracked with spasms.

“We are the children of the Ever Dark,” the silver-eyed drow told her, “but we have learned our lessons. Steel shall be answered with steel, but you who offered good faith will see it returned in kind.”

Cordelia let out a hoarse shout, hands rising as she convulsed upwards and caught the Firstborn’s shoulder. The cold was fading, and though she was not healed neither was she dying.

“It is done,” Ivah of the Losara murmured. “Death will not have you today.”

The princess breathed out, leaning her head on its shoulder. Exhausted even though she had done nothing.

“Maybe,” Cordelia panted out, “tomorrow.”

And like a seizure, a banner flown in the face of grief, twin laughter sounded in the tent.

Night had fallen over Keter but even past midnight the dark was yet kept at bay.

Thousands of torches and bonfires burned across the Crown of the Dead, the great army that now stood mistress of it gone wild with victory. Casks of beer and liquor rolled down the streets, singing filled the winding streets and it was as if the very seat of horror had turned into a summer fair. Everywhere soldiers shouted and laughed and bickered in a dozen different tongues, old feuds forgotten for a night as all celebrated the end of the Dead King. It was a sight like none other: Alamans nobles sharing Levantine liquor with Soninke mfuasa, orc and Firstborn poets trading tirades with Arlesites over prizes of Callowan ale. Lycaonese and Levantines belting our ribald songs, Taghreb – even the new High Lady of Kahtan herself! – joining the impromptu Barber and Edward play mounted by Callowans and goblins.

There might never be a night like this again, they all knew deep down, and so they roared all the louder for it.

In the shadow of broken flying fortresses the great pyre for the dead was burning low, eclipsed by the bonfires of the living on the great avenues where cattle roasted and a thousand cooks from all over Calernia filled plates for whoever put them on the table. It was a night for life winning over death so it was no surprise that a thousand couples were born in dark corners. For a night, a few or even years to come. Wise heads opened the stocks of tangleroot brew for any who wanted it, intending to avoid accidents, but some bellies were bound to swell in coming months anyway. It was a night for rash decisions, the release of years and hopelessness – revelry sublimating all the horror of the war against Keter into a life without the Dead King’s shadow hanging over them all.

In the heart of the city, though, a handful gathered in a small room inside the black spire as the clamour of the festivities echoed from a distance. It was a distinguished company, the kind whose absence might have been noticed had merry chaos not seized the city outside. The Warden and the White Knight, two pillars of the age to come. Dented from the struggles of the day but yet standing. With them came three that would have seemed mismatched, if not for the clear ease between them: Vivienne Dartwick, the Princess, Indrani the Ranger and the Hierophant himself. Who did not seem so different, at first glance, for all that he was said to have reached apotheosis. Still tall and thin, long braids woven with trinkets going down his back, and his eyes were yet one of flesh and the other of glass.

Only now it was not the fires of Summer that glinted beneath the eye cloth but something else, a vision of miracles and revelations whose very sight would madden the unready. And there was something else, in the way the world moved around him. It was as if he moved free of the current, only faintly touched by Creation’s laws – the way his robes sometimes moved when there was no wind and went still when there was, the lack of footsteps on ash and the way no dust ever seemed to cling to him.

Before all five of them an orc lay on a bed, his breathing laboured

Hakram Deadhand, born to the Howling Wolves Clan. Once the Adjutant, now the Warlord. Though victory had been won, or the so the clamour outside claimed, two evils yet lay in him. One was horror in the mundane, the spine cracked by the Prince of Bones’ hand that now stilled his limbs. Light healing had made the wound livable, but little more. Sorcerous healing of so fine a thing was beyond the ken of any on Calernia save perhaps the finest mage-doctors of Ashur. None were here. And so instead the Warden had sent for another.

“It was a wound taken defeating the Prince of Bones,” Hanno of Arwad quietly said. “It is a tragedy, Warden, but I do not know if it is…”

“Unjust?” Catherine Foundling finished, fingers clenching.

It was a powerful boon, Undo. The stuff legends were made of. But like all legends, it had been dealt into hands that would not abuse it: the White Knight could not unmake what he did not see as unjust, and he was a rare kind of man. The kind that dying so others might not, the bloody pyre of heroism. Many of the Named that had died in Keter, most of them, would remain in the grave. It was not unjust to die willingly for something greater than yourself.

“He didn’t die,” the Warden said. “Instead they hurt him, White Knight, and did it where it’d cut deepest. He only just got out of that chair and now they put him back into it. For good.”

The dark-skinned man met her gaze, his face a calm contrast to her stormy one.

“He’s done so much to keep this continent standing that no one but a handful of scholars will ever know about,” she told him. “We both know how the world works, Hanno. In the books he’ll be the Warlord like it’s all he ever was, because that story fits. It’s cleaner. The rest will get swept under the rug, and they’ll just remember him as a footnote – the first Warlord in ages, broken in Keter. End of the tale.”

Her face clenched with fury and grief.

He deserves better.”

Hanno of Arwad did not answer, though he was brave enough not to shy from her burning gaze. The White Knight was not a man whose convictions were easily moved. And yet he stepped back, when instead of trying tirade or persuasion the Black Queen of Callow got down on her knee. Catherine Foundling was a proud woman, it was known. She had held to the bone of that pride ever since, as a girl, her father had taken into the heart of an empire and the mighty had knelt around them he had told her of a way to live: we do not kneel. Her father’s truth, one he had lived and died by. Refusing compromise even in the face of death, unbending for anything or anyone.

But Catherine went down on her knee, because she was more than her father’s daughter and Hakram Deadhand mattered more to her than pride.

“Please,” she asked. “I know there are others as deserving, that you only get once day.”

Her fingers clenched.

“And still,” she said. “Please.”

And Hanno of Arwad let conviction move him, offering a hand then another. The first to bring her back to her feet, shamed she had ever knelt before him, and the second laid on the Warlord’s side. Undo. Creation shivered, then the White Knight let out a small breath as he stepped away. The Hierophant replaced him, weaving an incantation, and after his eye ceased moving around he pulled back to give the others a nod.

“His body is in perfect condition save for the limbs cut by the Severance,” he said.

The Warden and the White Knight matched gazes for a long moment, Catherine Foundling dipping her head into a nod that said much without need for words. Hanno returned it.

“I’ll see you outside,” he said.

“Might be you will,” she agreed.

And with a mute goodbye at the Princess, Hanno of Arwad left the small room where he had brought a miracle. He was not one of the Woe, and the last evil that lay in Hakram Deadhand’s body was not the kind to be beheld by outsiders. The orc began to stir awake as the White Knight closed the door behind him, Hierophant still standing by his bedside. Hakram woke feverish and befuddled, as if did not recognize where he was. His vision swam into focus, coming to Catherine, and tension left him.

“Cat,” he gravelled. “Where are we?”

Her jaw clenched.

“Keter,” she told him, hoping.

The Dead King’s curse had been a mind-killer, but only half of it had reached him. Vivienne had caught the other. The confusion on the tall orc’s face deepened, to the horror of the others.

“What is the last thing you remember?” Masego briskly asked.

“Heading for the Arsenal,” Hakram told them. “Would someone get me out of these bindings, they-”

And the horror on his face when he saw the limbs lost to the Severance was like a blow to the stomach for them all. He fought to master his face, but the anguish was too deep and sudden to be smoothed away.

“I,” he began, then his voice broke. “How much did I lose?”

“Two years,” Indrani said.

“There might be more,” Masego said. “It is too early to tell.”

“It should have been less,” Vivienne bit out. “I caught the spell, it-”

Her words caught his eye, and the way he stiffened did not go unseen by any of them.

“You don’t remember who I am, do you?” Vivienne Dartwick softly asked.

Hakram shook his head, the hint of shame on his face burning the rest of them like acid. The Princess swallowed thickly, blue-grey eyes turning to Hierophant.

“There has to be a way,” she said. “You told us the curse is still in him, why can’t you purge it?”

“It is,” Hierophant simply said, “the Dead King’s work.”

Even from the grave, Trismegistus King’s will was not to be easily overwrit.

“There’s always a way, with curses,” Catherine Foundling said. “You taught me that. The magic fails if there’s not a way out.”

“It has a price,” Hierophant said. “And it will not bring everything back.”

“But most,” Catherine pressed.

“Most,” he conceded.

And the Warden stepped forward, but a hand was laid on her arm and she found Vivienne Dartwick’s gaze had turned to steel.

“No,” Princess said. “Not this time. Let me.”

Neither woman gave, but eventually the Warden was the one to look away. Vivienne knelt by the bed, Masego’s hand on her shoulder, and faced a hesitant Hakram.

“You don’t remember me, right now,” she told him, “but I haven’t forgotten. There’s a debt between us, Hakram Deadhand.”

“I cannot call on it,” he replied.

“You don’t have to,” she said.

And Hierophant’s other hand came to rest atop the orc’s head, his flesh eye finding Princess’ own to seek one last confirmation. A simple nod and magic billowed out like the wind. Currents of it, thick and visible to the naked eye as faint blue trails, as Hierophant bound them all together. It was not a spell, not in the way he had been taught as a boy, but something simpler. Will exercised on the world, the purest manifestation of what he had hoped to become. And through that binding, he drew out the curse as one would a poison. It fought and wriggled and tried to sink its hooks deep, but inch by inch it was drawn out of Hakram Deadhand and into the only place it could be.

Vivienne Dartwick let out a shuddering breath, accepting it whole as she closed her eyes.

The magic ebbed low, then guttered out entirely. Hierophant’s hand retreated and Hakram suddenly clutched his forehead as he let out a roar of pain. Fangs drawing blood from his own lips, he shook wildly until the fit passed and a light returned to his gaze that had been gone. It lit up the room, reflected in the others around him as their hopes soared and he let out a wounded noise at the sight of the Princess.

“Vivienne,” he said. “Gods, Vivienne, what have you-”

The Princess of Callow let out a rasping laugh, eyes opening as the curse’s foul magic flared.

“My turn,” she said. “The choice came, Hakram.”

The curse boiled out, Vivienne Dartwick’s left hand turning to ash until there was not even bone left above her wrist.

“And I judge you well worth a hand,” she finished.

Looking more fragile than anyone had ever seen him, Hakram let out a grieving curse and drew her into his arms. It was as if a dam had broken, all of them coming together onto the sickbed in a pile of limbs clutching the others tight. The Warden rested her chin atop Indrani’s head and breathed in raggedly. For the first time since she had left the Dead King’s all, it felt over. Finally over.

“Alive,” Catherine Foundling whispered.

Crippled and lost, a parade of the mangled, but they had gone through the storm and all five of them come out the other side breathing.

When she finally let herself weep in relief, she was not alone.

There’d been talk of having the ceremony at dawn but when faced with the very real possibility that most of the Grand Alliance would be too hungover to show up common sense prevailed.

It would be held at noon instead, which still ended up requiring the shepherding of a great many nobles and soldiers still quite drunk. The Plaza of Five Palaces, a soldier’s sobriquet given during the dark hours of fighting at the foot of the black spire since the Keteran name for it was anyone’s guess, remained beautiful even after the previous night’s festivities. It had to be cleared out and cleaned but there was no lack of willing hands for the work, for who didn’t love a wedding? Besides, Razin Tanja and Aquiline Osena had become beloved figures beyond even Levant as much for their war record as their open affection for one another.

Guests began arriving an hour before the ceremony, and some soon realized this was to be the most highly attended wedding in the history of Levant. Though the Champion’s Blood had no one sitting for them, foreign guests were the most prestigious of perhaps any wedding on Calernia. The First Princess of Procer and every last remaining – recognized – royal of that realm, the queen and princess of Callow, the Empress of Aenia and representatives from every single city of the League, the chancellor of the Confederation of Praes and even the first Warlord of the Clans in several hundred years.

A dash of the exotic was added by the presence of General Rumena and a handful of sigil-holders as well as the Herald of the Deeps and his generals, then a dash of the legendary through the presence of Kreios Riddle-Maker and the last living spellsingers. Had the elves not disappeared without a word, every realm of Calernia would have had someone in attendance.

The Dominion’s ways were not as elaborate as those of some other realms, but no less eye-catching for it. Razin Tanja and Aquiline Osena arrived not in dresses or fine clothes but naked from the waist up, painted entirely in the colours of their Blood: red and grey for the Binder’s Blood, green and bronze for the Slayer’s. The paints were a work of art, the most skillful hands in Levant having helped shape the elaborate patterns even though it was the betrothed who had themselves applied it as was tradition. The two of them were a sight, black-haired and handsome Lord Razin smiling softly at slender, lethal Lady Aquiline.

The crowd, made up mostly of guests and Levantines but swelled with thousands of curious soldiers from every stripe and banner, went wild at the sight of them. It felt like spitting on the Dead King’s grave, for the young couple to come to stand before the black spire and exchanged their elaborate wedding knifes. A tall and bearded Lantern bound their hands together with hemp rope and they cut their way out with the knives, emerging from the common trial wed in the eyes of Gods and men. The two of them kissed with enthusiasm that had the crowd roaring once more, and it was a done thing. Many of them, in some way, knew they were looking at more than just a wedding.

Razin and Aquiline embraced each other under a sunny sky, in the heart of Keter, and it was the first step towards the end of the Dominion. It was the first step towards what would come after, for good or ill, but with the sun so bright and the sky so blue no one thought much of the ill.

On the night of the wedding, after the banquet was over and the festivities had ignited all over the city again, a somber few assembled in the palace known as the Garden of Crowns. A great sprawl of greenery and stone, it had been chosen for its silence and beauty. The Revenant that had guarded it was long gone, so in the stillness of the Garden graves had been dug. For all that the day had been the domain of life clawed back from death, with dusk came death’s dues.

And there were many of them to pay.

Named were lowered into graves, some who had in life been loved and others hated but who were now all honoured in death. The pillars of the Truce and Terms, Ishaq Deathless and Hanno of Arwad, did not intrude into private the private griefs of the Named assembled before them but they spoke of the commonality binding them all.

“In the face of the end of times,” the White Knight said, “we came together. We made accord, where never before had there been so great an accord between Named sworn to Above and Below.”

“We’re past the storm,” the Barrow Sword said. “We lived through it, and now that we have what kept us together will fade. The Liesse Accords will not be the same rules that bound us through this war.”

Struggle between Named would begin anew, the Game of the Gods returned. Rules of engagement would bind it as they had not before, but steel would come out once more.

“But those who died here died for more than just Calernia’s survival,” the White Knight said. “They proved that, when the storm comes, we can stand together. That there is a line between doom and the world, that we all stand on the same side of it.”

Eyes went to the Warden, who stood silent by the Ranger’s side along with Hierophant and the Warlord, but she said nothing. She had not been the captains of these Named, at the end, and so it was not her place to speak. Hers would be the world that came after, not the funeral of the old one.

“It might be that call won’t come again in our lifetime,” the Barrow Sword said. “And perhaps we’ll never see the likes of this war again. But if the time comes, if horror rises again…”

“There will be a truce,” the White Knight said.

“There will be terms,” the Barrow Sword continued.

“And when we beat back that storm, the victory of that day will have been bought by those we bury here.”

A murmur of agreement, like a shiver in the air. Respected men, both of them, but there was more to it than that. For all the grief that clung strongly to the air in this Garden of Crowns, there was a hard sort of pride as well. They had beaten death, in the end. They stood over the sacrifices, of which there had been too many because there were always too many, but they had won.

And so the world changed.

The crowd broke up, coming apart into half a hundred small burials. Some gathered many grieving, Alexis the Silver Huntress’ not only bringing the last two survivors of Refuge but also many who had liked her or fought at her side. Others were small things, like the Hunted Magician’s who only earned a single faded flower from the Artificer and the Blacksmith each before he was put to the ground. Sobs filled the night, away from the laughter and merriment that still held much of the city around them, and quietly the lost were given their dues until there was only one left. In a silent corner, standing far from all save Hanno of Arwad, Kreios the Riddle-Maker buried his daughter.

He looked old, and his grief was the grief of all the world.

They celebrated the victory for five days and nights.

The festivities lost their edge of desperation as time went on, the disbelieving tinge that came with having survived the end times becoming a sort of jubilant savagery instead. There could be no corralling soldiers finally releasing all the tension and terror of the war on Keter, especially not when the sergeants and captains that might have tried were part of the hollering crowds. Wisely, no such order was given as the leaders of the Grand Alliance and its allies – historians had already begun to wrestle with the turn of phrase, looking to avoid the repetition and make a name form themselves by picking the one that’d stick – instead rode out the wave. By the sixth morning ale rations had run out and the stashes of contraceptive herbs were running dangerously low, which wound down the merrymaking more efficiently than a thousand shouting sergeants might have.

Armies began to put themselves together again, staggering back to the parts of the city where their banners had been raised. It was slow-going, and though it was rumoured that High Marshal Nim had wanted to hurry it along by sounding the gathering horns and threatening the lash for those who dragged their feet it was also said that Chancellor Alaya had intervened against it. Instead it was stretched out for another day, though soon there were enough soldiers back in the ranks that the work of preparing the departures could begin. Though with continued dwarven support there was no risk of running out of supplies and indeed the Herald of the Deeps invited the hosts to remain as long as they wished – a pretty gesture that some, perhaps cynically, suggested might not be unrelated to the fact that most the Kingdom of the Dead outside Keter and its outskirts remained swarming with undead – for some of them the war was not yet over.

The Principate of Procer had been saved from utter annihilation, but it was still a broken realm of which large swaths were yet occupied by roving corpses.

That knowledge was enough to sour the Proceran forces, often the rowdiest, on the thought of agitating to rest longer in Keter before marching away. With so many officers dead, the camps ravaged and some soldiers still missing even the most disciplined of the armies found it impossible to leave in good time, so compromise was reached. The hosts would leave through Arcadia in waves, the first of which would leave on the morrow: the eighth day since the fall of Keter. Which brought one last matter to the fore, an old promise it was time to fulfill. Though summons were only sent to the Army of Callow and a few of the kingdom’s allies, once word trickled out into the ranks there was no stopping the tide. It was, after all, to be a historic event. The kind you got to boast to your grandchildren of having been at.

Some of the nobles thought it a strange choice, to choose the ashen ruin of a breach over a more majestic site like the Dead King’s black spire or the Plaza of Five Palaces where the great Levantine wedding had taken place, but none who knew either of the two women. No matter how high Callow’s red-handed goddess of victory had risen, she had never quite gotten the mud off her boots – and oh, how her soldiers loved her for it. Even now, even still, for what else could you offer the woman who had led you to triumph against the King of Death himself? And Vivienne Dartwick, though crowned and heroine twice over, had never shaken the old urge to take to rooftops at night. Princess she might be, but she had once been a thief and not since learned squeamishness.

Besides, the both of them faintly understood something. That the moment where the Army of Callow had crossed the chasm, threw its defiance in the Enemy’s teeth and shattered the hold of the dark, had been the end of a tale. One Callow told itself about itself, a tale of bloody victories and long prices and a kingdom earning back the pride it had lost in the Conquest. And just as faintly, they understood – had for years, one way or another – that this tale could not last forever. Must not, lest Callow break itself upon the world again and again, just as surely as Praes once had and still might. And so they would honour that tale, but they would also bury it.

Near a hundred thousand were crammed in the streets and houses, atop rooftops and through ruins. A platform had been raised and greats of the era stood besides it, Named and rulers alike. The hallowed survivors of the war on Keter were resplendent in their armour and finery, but it was not to be their day. It belonged only to the two women on the heights, who had not even sent for a priest.

Princess Vivienne Dartwick stood resplendent in a long dress of Fairfax blue, pale accents evoking the rays of a sun radiating from the neckline. Her missing hand was replaced with a wooden one covered by a white glove. She wore little jewelry save for a silver bracelet, her hair made up in the same milkmaid’s braid that had become her signature, but as thousands beheld her none of them would have thought her born as anything but royalty. Behind her stood two veiled banners, held up by knights of the Order of the Stolen Crown.

Queen Catherine Foundling wore black and steel. A soldier queen she had been and would be, wearing scarred plate over a black tunic. The eye she had lost to the Hawk was covered by black eye cloth, down her back went the famous Mantle of Woe and in her hand she held a dreadful staff of dead yew. The sole jewelry she wore was the crown she had been anointed with in Laure, when she stole a kingdom back from Praes after the Folly. She needed nothing else.

The ceremony was, in the end, a simple enough thing. The Black Queen stood before her soldiers, the rest of the world behind them, and told them true.

“I took my crown,” Catherine Foundling said, “to fight a war.”

Boots on stone, shields and swords rattling. Not only from her own but also from the rest of this grand army, for love or hate none would deny that the Black Queen had brought them to this day.

“It took us far and wide, that war,” she said. “East and west, north and south, until we reached the edge of the world and brought doom to the King of Death himself.”

Cheers and shouts, the sky itself rattling from the noise of it. She waited until it wound down, letting it wash over her.

“We won it,” the Black Queen said. “Keter has fallen and with it we brought an end to the Age of Wonders.”

The crowd roared again. It passed.

“I took my crown to fight a war,” Catherine Foundling repeated, “and that war is over.”

Slowly, almost regretfully, she reached for the crown on her head. It was as if a spell had been cast over all the city, for a pin could have been heard dropping and none dared to move. None save one: as the Black Queen removed her crown, Vivienne Dartwick stepped forward.

“We’ll have peace now,” the Warden promised the world. “And I have been war’s queen. Peace will need another.”

And a roar answered, for though never had Catherine Foundling been more beloved of her people than after this last victory, they loved peace even more and Vivienne Dartwick stood for that. The roar drowned out the entire world, as the princess of Callow smoothly knelt and her queen crowned her. Vivienne rose a queen, and Creation whispered in a quickening perhaps in time a Queen, as the tale of the Black Queen of Callow came to an end. The Warden stepped back, from the kingdom and the stage, leaving both in Queen Vivienne’s hands. The queen’s face was calm and bright, smiling patiently until the shouting ebbed low, and only then did she speak.

“It would be easier,” Queen Vivienne said, “to look only forward. To chase the sun and leave the grim years we fought through behind us.”

She shook her head.

“It would be easier,” she told the world, “but we have not come so far by choosing what it easy.”

She stood tall under the sun in a way that had nothing to do with height, blue and pale and every inch a queen.

“I will not forget that the crown I now bear was forged in mud and blood,” Vivienne Dartwick said, voice high and clear, “that tomorrow we will get to stand the warmth of the sun because of the hard decisions made in yesterday’s darkness.”

And behind her, the woman who had crowned her went still as stone.

“We made mistakes. Great and small, tragic and laughable. Ours was a long, hard road and more than once we lost our way.”

They did not look at each other, but it was a conversation between the two anyhow.

“But I will not deny that road. I will not forget it, try to bury it out of sight,” Vivienne said, and there she finally met her friend’s eye. “I may regret the mistakes but not the journey.”

Something passed between them, too intricate to be simply called love but no less shining for it.

“For that, I feel only pride.”

The queen turned back to the other woman’s red-rimmed eye.

“It was an orphan, a Foundling, that led us to the edge of the world and brought us back. I’ll not let another name steal that deed.”

The crowd breathed in.

“House Foundling will rule Callow,” Queen Vivienne said. “I will bear the name, as will those who come after me, and we will not forget.”

The crowd breathed out, its roaring approval a wall of sound that seemed like it beat back even the wind.

A gesture from the queen and the knights revealed the two banners. The queen’s personal arms were unchanged, a white sun on Fairfax blue. But the royal standard, the Sword and Crown, had changed. A silver sword and crown had once been held in balance on it, the sword weighing heavier. Beneath them an old claim had still been writ, justifications only matter to the just. No longer. The sword and crown stood even, one no greater than the other, and the words had been cut short.

Only to the just, it simply claimed, as in the Book of All Things.

“We lived through the end times,” Queen Vivienne smiled, bright as sun above her. “Now what comes after is ours to make.”

Chapter 68: Hallow; Hollow

“And though her schemes lay broken around her, the Intercessor only laughed and said: ‘When one defeats the inevitable, the word for it is not victory but delay.’”

– Extract from the ‘Parables of the Lost and Found’, disputed Firstborn religious text

Yara of Nowhere sat on the Dead King’s throne with legs crossed, smiling as I Saw from atop the spire the way the stories fell into place.

The Dead King’s last act of spite threatening to swallow us all, the desperate fighting below us to keep the drakon from waking. And intertwined with it, the story Yara of Nowhere wanted to cut out throats with: Cordelia and her ealamal. I couldn’t See Cordelia herself, she wasn’t Named, but everything happening around her was a strong enough trajectory I could just barely make her out – like tracing someone out of shadows. It’d be the same for the Bard, I figured. How fucked would we be, if Cordelia had taken up a Name that night in Salia and Yara had gotten an open invitation to be in her head? We might well already be dead if not for the Augur.

The stories raced, threading with each other into what I already knew was meant to be our noose. We got our miracles, the Barrow Sword and the Blessed Artificer and the Gigantes, but we’d gotten them too early. And though I could See the drakon’s end in the course of the Witch of the Woods – at a cost that had my heart clenching in pain for Hanno – it would be too late. The defence of the ealamal would first collapse, the shadow of Cordelia Hasenbach moving and then… light, blinding Light until there was nothing at all. A hint of Hanno living through it, but it would be as the Intercessor had said. He’d be one of half a hundred across all of Calernia, a continent slowly gasping out its death rattle.

 A quarter-hour, I realized, would be all it took for the Intercessor to slaughter Calernia with: the span between the fall of the ealamal’s defences and Antigone saving us all. How small a thing to kill a continent with.

Then the both of us went still, because the current shifted. One last hidden string, a single grain of sand left in the midst of the machinations of the Intercessor. The Augur, I realized. She’d left something of herself behind, something small. Couldn’t be more than a sentence else it would be too much, too large. The Intercessor would have seen it, and perhaps I as well. Only neither of us had, because the Augur had died and given the last of herself into the hand of a woman without a Name. Like an arrow loosed in a dead angle, the words had flown unseen until they hit and now it was too late.  The Light-to-be went dark.

From beyond the grave, Agnes Hasenbach took us all for a ride one last time.

And just like that, I thought, we’d won. I did not know if Cordelia was alive or anyone with her, but the ealamal was out of play. I saw no story where Named hands lit the bonfire meant to swallow us all. I breathed out shakily as below us the Witch of the Woods’ last march began, watching the way the Intercessor’s face tightened.

“You always did see a little too far for your own good,” she said, “didn’t you, Agnes?”

“Catherine?”

Hanno’s voice was tinted with worry, but I did not turn. The Intercessor was still here and I did not dare look away from her sitting form. Not yet, even though she was beaten.

“We live,” I said. “The ealamal sleeps. And I’m sorry, Hanno, but-”

“I know,” the White Knight quietly cut through. “I can’t get there in time to Save her.”

“You get to keep Kreios,” the Intercessor shrugged, “though there’s nothing much left there. Your own doing, Catherine: you’ve leaned so hard into the changing of the age all the relics are getting buried with its turn.”

I breathed in, pulling on Night, but the Bard did not seem worried. She brushed back long fair hair, pawing at her side until she found her silver flask. Knowing that striking at her now would achieve nothing save giving her a way out, I instead wove myself eyes. The moment I saw through them I looked at Masego, who was kneeling by Akua’s side. She was prone and her breathing heavy, but the calm on Hierophant’s face brought out the same in me. He liked her enough that if she was at risk of dying from her wounds he’d be showing worry. And wounded she was, I found now that I took the time for a second look.

I could see where the Dead King’s spell had hit her. It wasn’t as obvious a killing stroke some of the others he’d used, but the edges of her right hand were warped and there was something about the skin… It was dead, I realized. Her entire arm was a cadaver’s, every part of it dead. It hid beneath her armour, but I saw the faint stiffness creeping up the side neck. How much of her had been killed with that single stroke: half, a third? My fingers clenched. I was not sure even Light would be able to heal that, but at least she was still living. And the yellow strands of sorcery around Masego’s hands seemed to be easing her breathing.

“Hierophant?” I called out, my sole flesh eye still on the Bard.

“There is no danger of death,” he said. “She should be able to speak again soon.”

I breathed in sharply. I’d not even realized she couldn’t, so I took a third look even as other eyes saw Hanno walk up to my side with a grim face. Only my gaze strayed from Akua, as though I was worried there was something else I’d just Seen.

“You are forming a godhead,” I evenly said.

He smiled.

“I have not yet digested all I gained from the Dead King,” Hierophant said, “but when I have I expect my perspective will be… broadened.”

And that’d be enough, we both knew. The godhead was just a trick of perspective, he’d once said, and even an old monster like the Intercessor agreed. He’d have the power and the understanding, and that’d be enough.

“So that’s why you’re still here,” I softly said, matching the Bard’s gaze.

She drank deep of her flask, grimacing after her first swallow. Something reeking of strong liquor and oranges reached my nostrils.

“It would have been cleaner if you let me do it through Cordelia,” Yara of Nowhere said, voice rough from the drink. “One stroke, nobody suffers. But I’ve already told you: if you demand the hard way, it’s what you’ll get.”

And I believed her, or at least believed she believed it, only I could see an angle she might use for – a whisper spread across the world, the first use of Guide I’d ever caught her in. And in that moment that followed, I saw as she cleared her failed story off the board and dragged in another.

“It is already finished, Bard,” the White Knight calmly told her. “Spite can only-”

I raised my hand to silence him, and though he looked somewhat annoyed he stopped talking.

“Say nothing without choosing your words carefully,” I said, voice echoing across the Dead King’s hall. “We are now a single wrong sentence away from dying.”

Yara smiled, Hanno stiffened and my fingers closed to tightly around my staff that the knuckles turned white. I could See the story she was going to ride now. I should have realized from the start that it was fucking arrogance to think we’d gotten her. The Augur had broken her plan, sure, but the Intercessor wasn’t a blood-drunk villain on her first rampage. She’d laid foundations for this and none of them were gone.

“You said,” Hanno murmured, “that the ealamal sleeps.”

“And Cordelia Hasenbach won’t wake it, if she lives,” I said, sliding a glance Yara’s way.

She tossed an affable smile my way, but no answers. It was a halfway good sign she hadn’t taken the opportunity to gloat, but it might just be she wanted to keep her cards close to the chest.

“But the Seraphim are still silenced,” I said, “and the ealamal still filled to the brim with Light. She doesn’t need Cordelia, she just needs anyone at all to light the fire.”

“No one will,” the White Knight confidently said.

Far below our feet the drakon died, as if the Heavens themselves were echoing the word of their favourite son. The Bard looked untroubled, which had Hanno on edge. As it should be, because with the drakon gone, devouring every dead it had come to reign over in its death throes – though that sovereignty had not spread far beyond Keter, and the rest of the dead still stood – the battle on the ground was won. There was no reason for someone to use the ealamal, as Hanno had so confidently asserted. However horrendous the costs, we had won.

By the mortal way of looking at it, anyway.

“Not a hero or a villain,” I quietly agreed. “But she’s not me, Hanno. She works with more than just Named.”

“The Seraphim,” he softly said. “You believe… no, it doesn’t matter. We need the Hierophant to-”

Two sounds from behind us. First Masego’s soft gasp as he rose to his feet, then Akua’s rasping cough as she gained back her voice. I watched as Hierophant took a few stumbling steps, then went still as sorcery coiled around him in tight rings. Hanno drew his sword, but I laid my hand on his arm. It wasn’t an attack, it was his own magic. He’d finished eating the Dead King and so his perspective was undergoing an adjustment. He’d be out of the rest of this conversation, as much because of the terrible efforts as because providence would ensure he was not there. He couldn’t be, because he was part of the story as the opposite of the Seraphim.

“Do nothing,” I said. “The path it goes down if we interrupt him is… unpleasant.”

Enlightenment stopped halfway through was just madness, and that was a dangerous thing to afflict a man was powerful as Masego with.

“What is he doing?” Hanno bluntly asked.

“He is forging a godhead of his own,” Akua rasped out as she rose to her feet, “as one of Below’s. An Evil god. What will your Seraphim say to that, White Knight?”

“They’ll aim to kill it,” the White Knight said. “Before it can darken Creation. But they cannot reach out in such a way. They are yet silenced.”

“No, not anymore,” I told him. “Just gone quiet for a while more, thanks to our friend.”

“That’s me,” Yara helpfully told him.

She was, I realized, starting to have fun.

“Then they should still be unable to-” Hanno began, then his jaw clenched. “The ealamal. Gods forgive us, it is a Seraphim’s corpse.”

“And filled to the brim with enough Light to scour half of Calernia,” I flatly said. “She just needs to draw their eye there so they can throw their genocidal tantrum.”

I expect he would have argued with that characterization of the Choir of Judgement – fair enough, it wasn’t the most flattering interpretation – but Akua interrupted. She’d moved stiffly as she approached my side, her right leg likely affected by the spell even if it’d not been entirely killed, but she was breathing fine and both her eyes seemed to be working. A knot I’d not known was in my belly began to loosen.

“Yet she has not,” the golden-eyed sorceress said. “As demonstrated by the fact that Catherine and I still breathed. She still needs something from us.”

Yara toasted her.

“If you’d been half that clever a girl,” the Intercessor smiled, “you might have had a chance at knowing what real love feels like before you die.”

I’d known Akua for years. As an enemy, a prisoner, a companion and one more thing since. I’d made a study of her, and so though her face changed little I could see how that little sentence slid right between her ribs. It had stung, and so she retaliated.

“Babble however you wish, Intercessor,” she coldly replied, “but you are running out of luck.”

Shit, I thought, getting what would happen just before it did. Yara of Nowhere grinned at us, blue eyes bright in the dim light of the Dead King’s hall.

“I am luck, girl,” the Intercessor said. “Providence made flesh. This isn’t a fight, it’s a game – and we’ll play as many times as it takes before I win.”

Akua had been baited. ‘I am providence’, that was Yara’s story. Not a Named, not an enemy, just a force of nature. We could no more be her foe than we could be the enemy of a river or a mountain. And Akua had given her the opportunity to get it out there and get it out first, without even restoring to something like a monologue. But my eye narrowed, because this wasn’t the sort of game where you steal an advance without giving something in return. As many times as it takes, Yara had said. Which meant she had more strings to her bow than Masego’s apotheosis. Figuring what those were, I thought, would let me steal a step of my own.

But first I needed to get our own story out.

I went rifling through my tattered cloak, getting out the long dragonbone pipe that Masego had given me when we were barely more than children. I got out a packet of wakeleaf as Akua sighed and Hanno shot me an incredulous look, stuffing the bowl before I pulled on Night. Fire bloomed, lighting the leaf, but it also shivered across the ground. Slithering over the corpse of the Mirror Knight, finding what I was looking for. I breathed in deep of the wakeleaf, savouring the burn in my lungs as I stole back the Fetter that Christophe had carried. The Intercessor smiled.

“What is it that the three of you always say?” she mused. “Ah, right – mistake.”

She cocked her head to the side, drumming her fingers against the silver flask.

“I can see why you all do it, it’s strangely satisfying,” Yara of Nowhere told me. “Shall I explain your fuckup, Catherine? It feels like the courteous thing.”

“I made them equal,” I said. “Is that what you’re going to say?”

She hid her surprise, but not quite well enough. Yeah, I’d figured it would work like that. See, the reason we weren’t currently all dead was because the Intercessor needed a story behind her to get the Seraphim to pitch a fit and immolate Keter, if not all of Calernia. She was manoeuvring to get that through our conversation here, though I wasn’t sure exactly what she needed out of us. That was her story, her play. By going for the Fetters I’d made them our story, our equivalent, and that was where she though I’d made a mistake. Creation ran on symmetry: a Black Knight for every White Knight, an aspect of Protect for every aspect of Destroy.

Yara’s path to victory needed a story, so by making the Fetters ours I’d made it so they would need a story behind them to work on her.

I’d known it would have that cost from the start, though, and it was worth it. Akua had made the Fetters without being Named, even if Named had helped. It meant, and Bard had admitted it herself, that she didn’t actually know how they worked or what they did. She’d called them shackles not as a potshot but because she didn’t know they were called the Fetters or what exactly they would do to her. We might not know exactly what the Intercessor wanted out of us here up here, but she was also in the dark about Akua’s creation. That was worth the price of attaching a story to them.

“She’s delaying,” Hanno evenly said. “Waiting it out until the Hierophant finishes apotheosis.”

“Was it worth it?” Yara asked him curiously. “You’ve gotta realize that even two days ago you would have been able to end this in a moment.”

She snapped her fingers, smiled.

“But you just had to go your own way, leave the Seraphim behind,” the Intercessor said. “So now the ties are cut and you can’t guide them. So I ask again – was it worth it, the sense of satisfaction that carried you up this spire?”

Hanno took half a step back, looking like he’d been slapped. Had she planned that, I wondered? That if he became the White Knight again it would be without a tie to Judgement. Our struggle in the Arsenal had been years ago and I still kept unearthing deeper layers to her schemes even now. I pulled at my pipe, closing my eye, and found my first opening. She’d gone after both Akua and Hanno personally, but it was only Hanno who was being treated as a threat. Yara had tried to hurt Akua, but Hanno was being disgraced. He’s the only one of two she sees as a threat, I realized. Because of his Name? No, shouldn’t be. The Fetters would need a story but not a Name.

It was about the story. Which meant she thought Hanno had a story that might allow him to hold one of the Fetters but not Akua. Why? I studied the golden-eyed sorceress through eyes of Night, Seeing no nascent Name in her. She was wounded but not at risk of dying and her beauty was barely marred so… Ah, I thought. There it is. You don’t think Akua can take up a Fetter unless she’s dying. And the damning thing was that she was most likely right. It wasn’t even about character, at least not in the moral sense. Akua’s journey had been one of fighting free from prisons within and without. She would not enter another cage, not after refusing the Tower’s.

Even if she forced herself, the story would be weak. It might not work.

It looked bad, I thought, but once more by pressing forward Yara had given me something. She was attacking us but not trying to establish a story of her own. That told me more than she’d meant it to. I opened my eye.

“Hanno’s right,” I calmly said. “You’re waiting us out. You don’t actually need anything from us, do you Yara? Hierophant’s already undergoing apotheosis, and that’s all you needed to get the Seraphim there. You just can’t get them to move before he’s actually a god.”

They’d refuse, I decided, and she couldn’t force them. There were still a lot of heroes in Keter, enough that as long as there was even the possibility of Masego being stopped the Seraphim wouldn’t just burn the city to cinders. The moment he came through on the other side, though, the calculations changed. It was no longer the possibility of Hierophant forging a godhead against the destruction of the Grand Alliance, it was a risen god sworn to Below against the destruction of a handful of Named and earthly armies. To a Choir, it would be choice that basically made itself. She was attacking us for the same reason she’d boasted that she was providence: she had nothing to defend.

Yara reached behind the Dead King’s throne, fishing out her ragged old lute, and set it across her lap. Then she gave me the most vicious grin.

“I guess you’re right,” she mused. “If one of you killed Zeze, it’d sure stop my evil plan.”

My pipe clattered against the stone, spilling ash and smoke. I didn’t remember sheathing my sword, but it was out in my hand in a heartbeat. Part of me was ready to apologize if I was wrong, but I wasn’t. Hanno’s eyes were calm as he held the Severance, taking a single step forward. Akua brushed against my side, a comforting presence I dimly realized I’d expected. Not even for me but because she cared for Masego herself. She’d called it a nudge, righting a wrong left to fester, and she’d not lied. But it’d been more than that too.

“Hanno,” I said, “this is exactly what she wants.”

“I am aware,” the White Knight evenly replied. “But you have confirmed yourself, Catherine, that should the Hierophant finish his apotheosis it will bring about mass slaughter.”

“We don’t beat her like this,” I hissed. “Not if we let her-”

“Kill me after, if it makes you feel better,” Hanno of Arwad tiredly said. “Two lives for hundreds of thousands? That is not a choice, it is a duty.”

“Or you could die in the attempt,” Akua said. “Stripping us of your strength, just as the Intercessor wishes.”

The White Knight considered us for a long moment, then shook his head.

“I probably will,” he said. “But he’ll die too. A fair bargain.”

I had nothing to threaten him with, I realized. He’d already decided he had a duty and he was dead. I’d once given Tariq pause by threatening to murder the Grand Alliance and wield its remains against Keter should it cross me, but that wouldn’t work here. The cause was spent, the battle ended, and I had given too much of myself to Calernia for Hanno to believe me if I swore calamity over this. He knew me too well.

He was, in some ways, my friend.

“I wish it could be otherwise,” the White Knight told me, and I believed him. “But it is Catherine Foundling who would fight me over this, not the Warden.”

The echo of Akua’s words returned to haunt me, the wants of the woman and the needs of the queen. The tall hero straightened, blade rising.

“We’ll all lose friends today,” Hanno said. “I’m sorry it had to be by my hand, Catherine.”

And was that to be it? I’d kill him or he killed Masego and maybe I’d lose both anyway. The Intercessor had grabbed me by the hair and dragged me back on the Tower’s steps, my bloody knife in hand. What life was I to take this time, how many was I to bury?

“You’ll have to hold him back,” Akua murmured, “before I can land a curse. I believe I have something that can hold him down, though I know not all the strings to his bow.”

And I breathed in sharply, because I had my way out. The Intercessor herself had given it to me earlier.

“It won’t work,” I said, and Hanno stilled.

His eyes were on me, his gaze steady as he looked for the lie.

“She has other stories lying in wait,” I said. “Killing Hierophant only makes her change to them.”

“Other stories,” the White Knight slowly said. “Such as?”

And I’d not known then, but it seemed so obvious now that I’d felt out her schemes. No matter how skilled her hand, Yara wouldn’t have been able to be sure that Masego would forge a godhead. Her story, though, was that of the Choir of Judgement striking down an Evil god. And it so happened there was one of these certain to be at hand.

“It’s Sve Noc,” I said. “We mended Night, made it better, and raised them anew. They’re more dangerous now and they won’t burn out. Judgement will want to end them and they can try it through me.”

I wasn’t sure if they’d win, but it wouldn’t matter. The struggle would kill the people the Bard wanted dead anyway and that was the whole point. I watched Hanno game it through, wonder if everyone could be Saved by killing me as well, but even if he could do it there was no guarantee the Intercessor didn’t have a third string lying in wait. It would be just like her, I thought as my eye went to the woman still sprawled on the Dead King’s throne, to get us to kill each other until no one was left and victory landed bloody in her lap.

“You’re right,” the White Knight finally said.

And it was a load off my shoulders.

“We can’t win by beating her here,” I said. “She can’t die and even if we drive her away she’ll keep at this. Find a way to sow ruin while we try to recover after the war, push us over the edge.”

“She has to be bound,” Akua softly said.

And I held both Fetters in my hands, the rings of copper and bronze that would be put on once and never taken off. The Intercessor idly strummed her lute, still tuned from her song earlier, and smiled at me.

“Ah, and now we get to the good part,” she said. “Are you coming to be bind me, Catherine?”

“You’re the last relic left, Yara,” I told her, stepping forward. “It’s time for you to be buried with the rest.”

A flash of rage distorted that pretty tanned face, turning it ugly, but it was gone in an instant. I waked past corpses fresh and old, past broken stone and the Dead King’s remains.

“And that’s for you to decide?” she asked.

“I am the Warden,” I simply replied, and Creation echoed of the word.

She only smiled.

“Not the right kind,” she told me. “We made sure of that.”

Silence,” I ordered, stepping forward.

And then the Intercessor laughed.

“Try the other one, your third,” she told me. “The one we made sure you’d come into before this moment. See what happens.”

And dread seized me, because in that moment I understood what she’d done. I had my three aspects, one formed to bring about the end of the Dead King himself. My Role was settled, seared into Creation as loudly as triumphantly as a Role ever had been. And it was not the Role of a jailer, for all that my Name could hold the meaning.

“Yeah,” Yara gently said, “you lost before you even started.”

I’d fallen for the oldest trap: you put two choices in front of someone and forced them to choose so that they might never realize there was a third. If I’d had an aspect to spare, if there had still been room for my Role to settle… Instead I’d chosen between Guide and Sentence, as it’d never occurred to me I could refuse to choose at all. No, that’s arrogance, I told myself. We wouldn’t have killed the Dead King without my last aspect. If I’d chosen nothing we would have lost, and the Bard gotten her way again.

“I win,” Yara of Nowhere smiled, “or I win, or I win. That’s the only kind of game worth playing, Catherine.”

If I used the Fetters on her, they wouldn’t work. I knew that with sudden, ironclad certainty. I didn’t have the right weight behind me. It couldn’t be me, and I’d not made much of a case for Hanno. He could and would offer, I knew that, but in the end he was below me. My subordinate. It was an ill-fitting match, and I could try to fit it in the story of an unkillable Evil being imprisoned by a hero through worthy sacrifice, but Yara had headed me off there already. I am providence made flesh, she’d claimed, and I had not contested it.

I was at a loss.

Wind brushed past me and a streak of darkness hit the Bard’s arm as she let out a yelp of pain, burrowing through the stained leather and sinking into the flesh. I glanced back to see Akua approaching, a cold look on her face, and Hanno looking at her with disapproval. It was easy to see why, since one of Yara’s arms had withered dry. It looked like a mummified husk, though the Intercessor looked more amused than anything.

“Well, you made sure not to kill me,” she drawled. “Feeling better, oh mighty Sahelian?”

Akua brushed past me, armour whispering against mine, and cocked her head to the side.

“Slightly,” she said. “But I am not finished.”

“Enough,” Hanno said, drawing my eye to him. “Torture will accomplish nothing and is unworthy of-”

There was no longer a sheath at his hip, I idly noticed. He must have lost it at some point in the fighting, though it hardly mattered since the Severance would not have fit it. It cut too deeply to… I clenched my fingers then unclenched them. The Saint of Swords and once cut my aspect domain, using Sever. The same aspect we’d made into the blade. So it still should be capable of that, with the right guidance. The first time I’d reached for my third aspect, Masego was forced to cut it out of me. The second time it mixed with Winter, became a domain that was not entirely mine. I had a precedent, a pattern forming, and most of all a story to ride.

I had never been above mutilating myself to win.

“Hanno,” I said, cutting through whatever he’d been saying. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Catherine?” he asked.

I paused a moment, choosing my words so I could ask him to cut my third aspect out of me in a way he would not refuse. It was the mutilation of my soul, but it was also a way out of the trap I had fallen into. Like the fox in the trap, I would eat through my leg rather than perish. Without Sentence, my Name was once more incomplete. It’d be damaged, my legitimacy in my Role diminished. I’d be misaligned. And though I would make myself into a bastard thing, it would be a bastard thing that might just be able to fetter the Intercessor. That was how you killed a god, wasn’t it? By making another.

And I would destroy who I was until I became what was needed to win.

My mouth opened to speak, but Akua interrupted me with a sigh.

“You’re bleeding yourself again, aren’t you?” she asked.

I refused to meet her eyes, the accusing gold.

“I used to admire that in you, darling, did you know?” Akua told me. “Your willingness to destroy yourself to win.”

“It’s not pretty,” I said, “but it works.”

I forced myself to look at her then, truly look at her. We were no longer the girls we’d been at seventeen, worn down by war and grief and the scars of the lessons we’d learned, but I could look at Akua Sahelian today and see in her the shade of the girl I’d first glimpsed sitting across my father in a tent. The same tall hourglass figure, sharp aristocratic cheekbones and deep golden eyes. Changed by time, all of them, but the roots were unchanged. I’d thought her stunning before I learned to hate her, and I still though it now that I’d learned not to. She was in armour, her face touched with grime and the lingering stiffness of the Dead King’s curse, and yet I could still understand why as a girl I’d thought her the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.

“I have learned,” Akua Sahelian gently smiled, “not to settle for that.”

And the circlet of copper and bronze she had stolen from me sunk into her wrist, the first of the Fetters bound. An exclamation of dismay ripped itself free of my throat, scraping it raw. I reached for her but she shook me off, and the words I was chewing on were drowned out by the Intercessor’s mocking laughter.

You?” she guffawed. “Come on, Doom of Liesse. My dearest folly. You think taking the fall for Catherine because you love her will be enough? Love’s never enough, child.”

She leaned forward in her throne, blue eyes burning.

“Stop wasting our time,” Yara of Nowhere said. “You still keep to Below, and just because you’ve learned that other people are people doesn’t make you redeemed.”

A wide, nasty smile greeted Akua’s unflinching approach. She held, I saw, the second Fetter in her hand. I jerked forward, a spasm of the heart, but before I could finish the step Hanno’s hand caught my arm. His eyes were kind, but they were also firm. I turned away, chewing on my lip.

“You’re not dying either, I made sure of that,” the Intercessor said. “It’s not a way out for you, you don’t get anything out of it.”

“You are,” Akua Sahelian idly said, “a liar.”

Yara blinked.

“I assure you, you’re not dy-”

“You called yourself luck,” Akua said, “but that is a lie, Intercessor. You are not a blind roll of the dice. You take sides.”

“I’ve helped both sides of the Game,” the Intercessor dismissed, “I-”

“You help Good,” Akua said. “When you have the choice, that is the truth of you. Providence made flesh is the truth of you, Yara of Nowhere, because you are the golden luck of heroes.”

“You’re quibbling,” Yara snorted. “You’d bind me with a complaint?”

“Not to you,” Akua Sahelian smiled. “To your masters, for all that you know so do they. And through you I give grievance, for your game is unfair. How can it be a true wager, when your own Intercessor favours a side?”

The Intercessor went very, very still.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, girl,” she hoarsely whispered. “If you had any idea-”

And we felt it all, then. The weight. The attention. Akua Sahelian had called on the Gods, and the Gods listened.

“Fortune and misfortune,” she said. “Providence and calamity. It takes two to make it even.”

She leaned forward and the Intercessor scrabbled back on the throne, lute dropping on the ground and snapping a string as the silver flask toppled over the edge and began spilling liquor all over the floor. Dark red, like blood. But there was nowhere to run, and the Fetter slid around her wrist.

Its lettering burned bright, for the barest of moments, and then it sank beneath her skin.

“No,” Yara shouted. “NO. You can’t-”

Akua struck her across the mouth, shattering teeth as the Intercessor fell on the tiles. She spasmed there, crawling and going away.

“I simply cannot abide screaming,” Akua told her. “You will have to learn that if we are to be colleagues.”

Yara kept crawling away, bleeding from the mouth, and as Hanno finally released my arm I rushed forward. Gods but my leg hurt. Akua only half-turned towards me, but it was enough. I swept her in my arms, her armour rough against mine, and though I had to dip her backwards I found her mouth. It should have been hard and wanting, after too many years of denial, but it wasn’t. It was… soft. And yet the yearning would not leave me, or her, and it felt unbearable to part even when I had to suck in a trembling breath.

“Ah,” Akua faintly said. “So that’s what it feels like.”

“I was,” I began, but then choked on the words. “I couldn’t…”

“I know,” she murmured against my cheek. “I know. We are who we are.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” I admitted.

“I wouldn’t have, if you did,” Akua said. “It’s my choice, Catherine. I saw what I could be, and though it is not a penance…”

She half-smiled.

“I have learned lessons,” she said. “And instead of letting them join me in the grave made of Liesse, I would teach them with the villains that will follow in my wake.”

My heart clenched.

“She might not let you,” I whispered. “Neither of you can nudge if the other doesn’t allow it.”

“So we will have to bargain,” Akua softly laughed. “Else we will be nothing at all.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Hanno kneeling by Yara’s side, Light glowing around his hand, and I realized that he was healing her. She’d just tried to kill us all, to kill all of Calernia, and yet Hanno of Arwad knelt besides the woman in pain and tried to help her.

It was, I thought, the essence of the man.

Akua drew away and though I resisted I did not force her to stay.  She took a step back, watching my face, and something like grief flicked across her face.

“Finish it,” she quietly asked.

Cold dread filled my stomach.

“You can’t really be asking me that,” I said.

“We will only know for certain it has worked after,” Akua said.

“That’s not what I meant,” I replied.

“I know,” she smiled. “But for our parting, my love, perhaps it is my turn to be allowed to wield the cruelty.”

I could have argued. I could have screamed and railed and refused, but all it would have done was mar this. A moment neither of us would get back. So instead I paid my dues, my long price, and drew the knife that’d killed my father.

“I love you,” I said.

It had never admitted it to her before. I likely never would again.

“And I you, my heart,” Akua said, eyes golden like the sun. “Farewell.”

And I killed her, like she’d asked me. Plunged the knife into her heart, parting flesh, until she leaned forward to gently kiss me and let out a soft gasp against my lips. She died, and in the instant she did she was gone. So was the Intercessor, the other side of that now forever spinning coin. Hanno rose to his feet, face solemn, as behind us Masego let out a loud gasp. Sorcery billowed out, light filling the hall and rising through the tower like a shining star as the Hierophant finished forging his godhead. It was over, I thought, touching my cheek and finding tears there. I closed my eye and leaned against my staff, feeling the last of my strength leave me.

We’d won.

We’d lost.

So began the Age of Order.

Interlude: Legends V

“One: first, do good.”

-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

The wards shuddered.

The great battering rams of the dead were cracking them apart blow by blow, the beleaguered defenders conceding one barricade after another to the horde. Swarms of undead birds flew so thick above them all that it seemed as if night had fallen, the creatures snatching up any soldier that left the protection of the sorcery and tearing them apart so that limbs rained down. How many more layers were left the wards? Cordelia was not certain, but it could not be more than a handful. Inch by inch they had given ground to the Enemy, the Dead King’s tireless teeth devouring them one soldier at a time. They might just, she thought, run out of men before they ran out of ground.

She’d begun with almost two thousand, but that longer had long dwindled into the hundreds.

The princess sat with her back to the all-too-thin palisade that Hannoven men had raised with calm competence, now standing behind it with halberds and hammers as the horde continued to hammer at the wards. What a small thing this length of wood was, in the face of the monsters that awaited. What would it do a against a rampaging beorn or the venom of a wyrm? It might as well be parchment. And still she sat there, among the crowd of grim-faced soldiers calmly awaiting the death coming for them one bite at a time. Cordelia’s gauntleted hand brushed back her mud-streaked hair, careful to avoid the cuts on her face.

She’d been offered healing, but she would not die from torn cheeks and every wasted speck of Light was a soldier the priests could not send back into the fight. Standing by her, Simon de Gorgeault looked over the top of the palisade and let out a thoughtful hum.

“Goods news, Simon?” she drily asked.

“It appears that the Dead King is a fine diplomat indeed, Your Grace,” the lay brother easily replied. “I do believe I am spying the High Lady of Kahtan fighting side by side with the Prince of Orense.”

It took Cordelia a moment to recall that both of them were dead, though she would have been clued in by the raucous laughter from the Hannoven soldiers anyhow. It was exactly the kind of black humour they loved. A shade lighter than what Bremenites preferred, but then most Lycaonese agreed that they only laughed because they’d never learned how to cry.

“It figures,” the once-First Prince mourned, “that they would only start getting along after I abdicated.”

Laughter again, and though exhausted Cordelia forced herself to rise to her feet. Over the palisade she found what Simon had, a contingent of Praesi dead in colourful armour methodically levelling the broken palisades the dead had already taken so that the horsemen died in Rodrigo Trastanes’ honourable last charge would be able to ride through the smoking grounds. What a small thing a palisade was, she thought again. So easily done away with, for all that it was the only wall standing between them and death. A remembrance brushed against her mind, then, and to her surprise Cordelia found herself thinking of her mother with a faint smile.

“Good news, Your Grace?” Simon lightly echoed.

She shook her head.

“I was merely thinking,” Cordelia said, “that sometimes the story you hear is not the one you are being told.”

“I don’t follow, I’m afraid,” the lay brother said.

“When I was a girl, my mother once told me the tale of the Three Cousins,” the fair-haired princess said. “Do you know of it?”

It was an old story known among all Lycaonese and even some of the northern Alamans, though the tale changed with the telling.

“I do not,” Simon admitted.

It was simple, as the most beloved stories tend to be, and Cordelia remembered her mother telling it with characteristic brusqueness. It’d been her way, the choppy burst of emotions. Anger and laughter, come then gone in a moment like Hannoven’s capricious summer rains.

“I can tell it, if you would like,” she lightly offered.

What else was there to do, as they waited for the rams to break the wards? There were no more tricks, no more walls, no more desperate gambles. Only the brutal trade of time for lives and ground. The white-haired man laughed.

“As good a time as any, I would think,” he cheerfully agreed.

There were, she thought, worst men to face the end of the world with than Simon de Gorgeault.

“An old king,” Cordelia said, “died without sons and daughters. His line died with him and another rose to take the seat, but laws are laws.”

The lay brother rested his elbows on the edge of the palisade, resting his chin on his palm as he listened with bright eyes.

“His wealth of iron was split in three parts,” Cordelia told him, “and given over to his last three kinsmen: three cousins, who went north to seek their fortunes as men do. They journeyed long, longer than men ever had before them, but in time they found a rich, green land by the banks of a great river. They decided to settle there and raise their halls.”

A broad-shouldered redhead in plate down the palisade, her solid matron’s face split by a smile, hummed out the first few notes of O Blessed Hannoven – that sardonic hymn boasting of every horror plaguing the land as if each were a blessing to thank Above for, be it spring floods or the armies of the dead. Cordelia had also picked up on the resemblance, as a child. Hannoven bordered lakes and rivers, and though far north counted some of the finest farmland in Lycaonese hands.

“Only,” Cordelia said, “as they began to build, they learned too late that the river was the Last River and that on the other side of it dwelled Death.”

She shrugged.

“But they no longer knew the way back, so they raised their halls anyway.”

“Stubborn folk,” Brother Simon said, the fond twist of his lips making it a compliment.

“The first cousin, the oldest, was a lord bold and brave,” the princess said. “He built his hall in stone and fashioned his iron into a gate that none could break, raising a tall banner over it.”

Cordelia has thought him the wisest when she was first told the story.

“The second cousin, the youngest, was a hunter clever and sly. He raised his hall atop a tree in the woods, hidden in leaves, and fashioned his iron into arrowheads aplenty.”

There was no disdain in her tone, but it was there to be found in the faces of some who listened. Her people were a pragmatic sort, they’d had to be to survive, but they believed in honour still. There was little honour to be found in hiding in the woods as your kin perished around you, clever or not.

“The last cousin, neither young nor old, was a warrior neither bold nor clever,” Cordelia smiled. “He raised his hall from wood, fashioning his iron into a sword and helm. And for a long summer and winter the three ruled over their halls, until spring came and Death with it.”

In the distance the boom of the rams against the wards sounded, followed by a loud crack. The first fault line. It was only a matter of time now.

“The spirits of the dead came charging out of Below,” she said, “a great army that laid siege to the bold cousin’s stone hall. And though they were many and furious, the iron gate did not break.”

But this was not a southern tale. Victories did not keep on shining like stars in the sky. They passed, as all things did.

“Yet the siege did not end,” Cordelia said, “and as the moon turned the oldest of the three cousins grew hungry. Behind his strong gate he remained a prisoner, until his hunger slew him behind stone walls and he rose anew to unbar his gate of iron for Death.”

Simon looked stricken, but there were grunts of approval from the soldiers around them. Most of them would know the story already, but even those that did not would approve of the lesson her mother had tried to teach her: no walls were ever strong enough to keep death out forever.

“Onwards the spirits of the dead marched, into the woods where the youngest cousin had raised his hall,” she told the lay brother. “And the clever cousin laughed, for the spirits stumbled about as he remained hidden in the leaves and slew them with his arrows of iron.”

There were few tricksters, in her people’s stories, and she thought for good reason. Tricks meant little against the Chain of Hunger, and it was a rare trickster indeed that could get the better of the King of Death. More often, the sly got a lot of people killed trying to prove their cleverness.

“Only the dead are endless,” Cordelia shrugged, “and though they could not find him they devoured the forest tree by tree. The youngest cousin killed many, but arrows always run out.”

The end had been writ from the start.

“The tree was toppled, his hall with it, and he was swallowed whole.”

Simon de Gorgeault’s face had slowly changed from engrossed to grim. Lycaonese tales, she mused, did tend to have that effect on southerners.

“And the last?” he asked.

“The last cousin, the warrior, had no tall walls or hiding place,” Cordelia said. “His hall was wood and easily torn down by a hundred hungry hands, but as they did her strode out wearing his helm and bearing his sword.”

“And he fought,” the lay brother quietly said.

“And he fought, neither winning nor losing, until spring turned to summer and the dead returned to Below,” the blue-eyed princess said.

“So he was victorious,” Simon said, sounding surprised.

He was startled by the hard laughter from the soldiers around them, but Cordelia was not.

“As the dead left, he set down his sword and helm to raise against his wooden hall,” she told him. “And as he sat in it, the warmth of summer reaching his face, the last cousin knew this: Death would return with spring.”

That had been the lesson her mother was trying to teach her, she’d thought as a child. You couldn’t ever really beat Evil, not like in the pretty stories ending with a wedding and an endless summer’s peace. You fought, until you died and someone else took your place. It was a fate that couldn’t be turned back by a strong gate, couldn’t be hidden from in the leaves. Either you faced Evil down or it devoured you whole.

In the distance, the wards cracked.

“A hard lesson,” Simon de Gorgeault finally said, frowning as he gazed upon the dead. “Perhaps the Principate would not be facing ruin, had more of its people learned it.”

She smiled.

“Years later,” she told him, “I learned that it was only the way the tale was told in Hannoven.”

In Rhenia, the story was about the halls. The first cousin was lazy, made a large iron crown and built a hall of river’s mud. The second was clever, made an axe and a smaller crown then built his hall from the forest’s wood. The third built only a pickaxe, spending all summer and winter to make his hall out of mountain stone. All fell but the last, the third cousin then using the remains of their broken halls to mend the wounds in his own. Pride is worth nothing, the story taught. Survival belongs to those who labour for it. In Neustria the cousins forged either a sword, a shield or armour out of their iron. The armoured cousin took up the arms from his fallen kin to survive.

In Bremen the story went the same as in Neustria, save that the dead did not retreat with summer and all three cousins died. But when Death took the fallen cousins Below to celebrate, the iron got stuck in the passageway and blocked off the dead until the got the iron was chewed through, come next spring.

“Is it so different elsewhere?” Simon asked.

“Not so much,” Cordelia admitted. “But I remembered, then when it was my mother told me the tale. I was young, you see, and had just wept that she was never home.”

And so Mother, brusque and blunt but never quite able to admit when she was sorry, had tried to explain why she was always out there leading solders. Evil had to be fought on the field, she’d been trying to say, else it would reach their gates. She was trying to keep Cordelia safe, to buy them another spring. It hadn’t been a lesson at all, just her mother giving the closest thing to an apology as she had it in her to give.

“Sometimes the story you hear,” Cordelia softly repeated, “is not the one you are being told.”

It’d been the failing palisades that had hooked the thought, the wrongly learned lesson that walls always failed in the face of Death, but now she wondered. Time was running out. The last word she’d had of the fighting inside Keter had been that the inner city was breached, but since then there’d been no word and the Grand Alliance camp was being overrun. Had been overrun, she admitted to herself. Most of it was in the hands of the dead now, the few remaining pockets in the hands of the living either forts built around supplies or the heavily warded Praesi grounds where hodgepodge survivors had fled to as the rest of the camp collapsed.

Cordelia Hasenbach had sworn that she would wait until the very last moment but that moment was approaching, step by step. Inevitable as the coming of spring.

It was her duty to do what must be done. The responsibility she must bear for the weight of her sins, the niggling questions of whether any of this would have happened at all, if she had not called the Tenth Crusade. If she had not made mortal wars into the affair of Above and Below, raised her hall on the shore of the Last River. And still she could not help but wonder: was it really the sword and helm she had chosen? The fight, to hold dawn in her hands and not fail it? It felt like an invincible gate, the certainty that she could end it all at any moment. It felt like a bowstring pulled back among the leaves, the fading mirage of victory. Was the story she was telling herself really the one she was living in?

She reached for the slip of parchment under her breastplate, fingers closing.

The wards shuddered one last time and then they broke.

“It’s not a dragon,” Sapan firmly said.

“It’s got scales and wings,” Arthur Foundling replied, “and it breathes fire. Sort of.”

It was transparent, not like any fire he’d ever seen, and instead of burning seemed to simply disappear everything it touched. Not ideal, given that it narrowed down the Knight Errant’s options in facing the beast from the already sparse ‘shield’ and ‘dodge’ to merely ‘dodge’. Which, given that the dragon kept growing, was becoming more difficult by the moment. It was a most inconsiderate sort of beast.

“It has commonalities with a dragon,” Mage reluctantly conceded. “But so do a seagull and a wyvern.”

“Don’t those have tails with stingers?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“A seagull,” Sapan slowly said, as if addressing a complete idiot. “Have you really never seen one before?”

There was a moment of stillness between them, then they both broke out laughing until they were out of breath.

“Had me going there for a moment,” Arthur admitted, still wheezing.

“It’ll be a few years until I can be match Lord Hierophant,” she told him, sounding admiring. “He can say anything with a straight face, it baffles even the Warden.”

The levity had released something in the both of them, but not even her clutching at happier memories was enough to make up for the horror before them. Their breather was at an end and they would be returning to the nightmare, leaving their hiding place behind a broken pillar tall as a tower. His limbs fighting him, something like fear pulling the other way, the Knight Errant peeked out around the rough stone edge. The ‘drakon’, that breed of Evil dragon, was cruelly enjoying itself at the expense of the brave men that died failing to give it pause.

The fourth charge faltered of the hour as the armsmen in Hainaut livery broke, either fleeing or breaking ranks to try to drag back Princess Beatrice. The beast had killed her horse under her, tossing her down with broken legs, and was now popping the heads of those who came to help her with hateful glee. It left her crawling, only plucking out the lives of the most loyal as it ignored another volley from the Praesi scorpions. Packs of goblins had dragged in the engines only to find the bolts sinking into the flesh to no effect, made part of its body. Even unravellers did nothing, and though copperstone munitions had burned bright on its hide the bite had not been deep.

Useless as anything but a distraction.

Arthur’s jaw clenched as he watched another soldier being pressed into the ground by a massive finger as Beatrice Volignac screamed in anguish. From the corner of his eye he saw light-footed Levantines move in with ropes and hooked swords, Tartessos slayers, but he held little hope. A flicker of movement among the ruins caught his attention, the Affable Burglar smoothly advancing through broken stone. Towards Princess Beatrice?

“Gods help you,” the Knight Errant whispered, and he meant both kinds.

They needed all the help.

“Arthur,” Sapan called out.

He took it as a reminder not to stay out in the open too long and ducked back behind the stone, resting his too-warm forehead against the fallen pillar. This room, as great as the heart of the Alban Cathedral itself, felt like a boiling cauldron. It was hot and humid, in a way that licked disgustingly at your skin. The longer they stayed in here, the harder it was to think. Sapan’s hand on his arm jolted him out of his thoughts. It’d not been a reminder, after all, but to call his attention to something. A young man in legionary’s armour, Liessen blond hair peeking through the helm, had come to fetch them. A sergeant, by the single red stripe on his shoulder.

“Lady Antigone wants you,” the sergeant told them.

They nodded back tiredly, the other man not waiting to escort them. He’d only been a messenger. The Witch of the Woods was not far, huddled with the Concocter over what looked like a makeshift alchemist’s kit. Or a brewer’s, really. Two small barrels, tubes of glass bubbling over an open flame and a hermetic vase. Lady Antigone had fought with the first two charges, helping them with her great spells, but after they broke retreated here to consort with the silver-haired Concocter. Arthur knew little of what they were up to, save that it was meant to destroy the elder dragon, but Sapan had been told of it in greater detail.

If they had assumed he was unlikely to understand the technicalities of alchemy and magic, they’d been entirely correct.

“We are nearly done,” the masked Witch flatly told them.

“Almost,” the Concocter murmured, laying a palm against the hermetic vase. “It’s begun to sublimate properly.”

Arthur sent a helpless glance at Sapan, who sighed.

“Lady Concocter stole a sliver of the drakon’s body while it was still contained in the corpse where the Dead King imprisoned it,” she told him.

“I knew that,” the Knight Errant grunted. “But it’s not in that body anymore so why would it help?”

“Because that thing is eating away at everything it touches, even us,” the Concocter said, turning to meet his eye. “Except it didn’t eat at the corpse it began within in the slightest.”

He slowly nodded.

“So we are stealing the Dead King’s work,” he tried.

“I might be able to slay the drakon,” the Witch plainly said, “if an artefact imbued with the property is sunk into its body.”

Because otherwise it would simply be eaten, presumably, Arthur followed.

“Good news,” he said, meaning it. “How are we to help?”

“I kept back the Affable Burglar because she’s our only thief,” the Witch said. “She will bring the artefact in the drakon. From you, Knight Errant, I need a wound.”

He breathed in sharply.

“You want me to break its skin,” he realized, “so that you might have an opening to push the artefact through.”

A mute nod.

“It may well kill you,” the Concocter frankly admitted.

“I’ll do it,” Arthur Foundling replied without missing a beat.

Fear tried to make his lips stiff, take back the words, but he had moved quicker. The Concocter’s eerie orange eyes blinked in surprise.

“I have sent for help,” the Witch of the Woods told him. “But I know not if they will come. You are our last chance.”

It was either him or the Stained Sister, now that the Myrmidon guts were strewn across the gallery above their heads, and the Sister was protecting their only Named healer. Twice already the elder dragon had shattered a hall where the Stalwart Apostle plied her powers, only quick escape saving her life when a stream of transparent fire came for it.

“I am a knight of Callow, Lady Antigone,” Arthur Foundling replied. “Our causes are always lost.”

He shrugged.

“And still we prevail.”

At his hip the Peregrine burned, and it felt like a smile.

A wave of undead hammered into the palisade, toppling it like a sandcastle failing in the face of the tide.

Cordelia kicked the skeletal hand that slipped through two stakes, shattering its wrist, then backed away hastily when a spear jutted out. She hacked at the wooden shaft but her angle was wrong and her sword got stuck, she and the dead on the other side pulling at each other to get free. The princess set a boot against the palisade to put her back into it, the sword suddenly ripped clear as she stumbled backwards. She went back to pressing against the stakes a heartbeat later as arrows began to fall in a ragged rain, taking a step back only when a bearded man in Reitzenberg colours raised his shields above their head. He was chewing at the inside of his cheek, eyes calm, and peeked over the palisade’s edge.

“We’re about to go down, I’d say,” he told her in Reitz. “We move back to the next, let the mages torch everything.”

Cordelia’s eyes sought Simon, but he was further down helping up a soldier with an arrow sticking out of her shoulder. The lay brother could take care of himself, she decided.

“Let us go,” the fair-haired princess agreed.

A heartbeat later she was blind, thrown off her feet as wooden shards exploded and one bit deep into her brow. Gritting her teeth, she scrabbled for the sword she’d dropped as the massive undead boar that’d smashed through the palisade shook off a few soldiers, carving through with its tusks. The soldier that’d shielded her was on a bed of ash and dirt, his spine bent at a straight angle. Fingers shaking, Cordelia worked off the straps of his shield and snatched it up. Undead were pouring through the breach, ghouls running on four legs and leaping at soldiers, but the thunder of hooves approaching told her who was to come. The Prince of Orense’s horsemen now served the Enemy, and a way had been opened for them.

“Simon,” she shouted, eyes searching. “We must-”

The older man, she saw, was on the ground. Wrestling with a ghoul, the soldier he’d been helping running away. Cordelia ran, and though she knew she should be following the other it was to the lay brother she went. With a wild scream she hacked into the back of the ghoul’s head, parting flesh and bone. It took two blows before the creature scrabbled away, crawling on its belly as it twitched, and Brother Simon – his throat scratched raw and his scalp scarred – took its head with a swing right through the neck.

“Come on,” Cordelia croaked, voice raw.

She offered him the pommel of her sword to drag him up, his chest brushing against the dead man’s shield she now bore, and though the warmth of having kept at least one person she cared for breathing was yet in her belly when they turned it was to the sight of doom. The boar collapsed, a Hannoven spear through the brain even as the soldier who’d leapt on its back was dragged up screaming into the sky by vultures, but a beorn’s great head leered over the broke palisade as it climbed over it. It was close, too close for them to be able to run in time and- and an armoured silhouette landed on the abomination’s back, splitting its head open with a single blow. They leapt down even as the beorn collapsed on the palisade, landing smoothly and flicking their sword free of gore.

“Honour to the Blood,” the Barrow Sword drily said, offering her a salute.

Cordelia recovered from her surprise first, blessed by extensive diplomatic experience in pretending nothing ever took her aback.

“Lord Ishaq,” she greeted him. “My thanks. If I may request that you escort us to-”

He raised a hand to interrupt her, which was highly rude but she’d allow to pass without comment given the present circumstances.

“There is cavalry coming, Barrow Sword,” Brother Simon bluntly said.

“Give it about three more heartbeats and,” the villain began, then trailed off.

He was off one heartbeat, Cordelia pettily noted even as the sky lit up. A great pillar of burning Light tore through the clouds, smashing into the ground so powerfully it shook. A wind laden with the smell of burned flesh and molten metal washed over them, poisonously warm.

“There was cavalry coming, priest,” Ishaq Deathless grinned through his beard.

He had, Cordelia thought, never more looked like one of the Damned. She mastered her discomfort.

“That was the work of the Blessed Artificer, I take it?” she calmly asked.

The Barrow Sword nodded.

“The Hierophant got to blow up a maze, the way we hear it, so I believe she’s getting a mite competitive,” he said.

Even with the relief that the column of Light had earned them the dead were continuing to pour through breaches and more than half the palisade was now on the ground, being trampled over. Soldiers were already retreating to the safety of the next layer of wards, the thin last shells, and by unspoken accord the three of them began a retreat that way as well.

“Is she coming our way?” Brother Simon asked, sounding worried. “I understand she was wounded yesterday, and to fight alone through such a horde…”

Cordelia shared his fear but chose to look upon the hope instead. If Adanna of Smyrna joined their defence, a rout may yet be avoided. The faint yellow glow in the air above them told her that the ward keeping the vultures from falling upon them was still mostly standing, but there was precious little else left. The last two palisades had boundary wards that would keep the dead from passing them, but weaker ones than those that had already been cracked. They would collapse before a quarter hour had passed, if the black stone rams were brought to bear against them. Should the Blessed Artificer bring down a wall of Light, however?

Oh, they might yet hold.

“Arrangements were made, priest, worry not,” the Barrow Sword said. “Besides, you do not yet stand alone.”

“Your presence is a relief,” Cordelia assured him.

“As it should be,” Ishaq Deathless laughed, “but it is not me I speak of. Your plight did not go unseen, Cordelia Hasenbach. Help has come.”

And as if summoned by his words – perhaps not ‘if’, should Catherine be believed – a wave of suffocating power washed over them all. The ground shook beneath their feet and Cordelia would have fallen had Simon not gallantly caught her elbow. She steadied and turned in time to see the ground below the broken palisade rise, the earth itself rising into a rough wall. Stunned, she followed the Barrow Sword as he made for the wall cutting through a few remaining ghouls and climbed up the slope, shield hanging limp on her wrist. Up there, standing tall, she saw them coming.

There could not have been more than three hundred of the Gigantes, and yet they marched through a sea of undead as if taking a stroll.

Skeletons raised arms only to find their skulls crumpling, ghouls were turned into wet red smears before they could even leap and even arrows melted in midair. A beorn roared and charged only to begin unraveling, its great clawed paw tumbling forward but never even reaching a Gigantes’ foot. Swarms of birds dropped like rocks, shattering on the head of the dead. When a tall Revenant in yellow robes bearing a long spear pointed it at them, it then twitched jerkily and rammed it seven times into its own eye before collapsing like a stringless puppet.

“Gods,” Cordelia hoarsely whispered.

“That, Your Grace, is every last remaining spellsinger come to make war,” the Barrow Sword quietly said. “Burn the sight your eyes, because Creation will never witness such a thing again.”

They withdrew from the wall, but not far. With this unnatural rampart having risen from nothing, taller and stronger than any barricade might hope to be, soldiers rushed back to defend it. Cordelia went deeper behind the wards to make sure that Simon’s throat would be seen to properly – the bite of some ghouls carried poison – then returned to share the watch. Skeletons and ghouls climbed the wall, needing beating back even under swarm of arrows, but the tusks and beorns that tried their hand at shattering the earth instead broke their own skulls. They could hold, Cordelia thought with renewed vigor, until the Gigantes arrived. It was tense, dangerous work and twice arrows thumped into her shield but she ripped them out and the wall held. The Barrow Sword kept the defence alive, moving like a prowling cat across the rampart and beating back whatever foothold the dead gained.

The Gigantes finished the march with the same air of indifferent inevitability they had begun it with, part of the earthen wall opening as a door for them before they spread out. The fair-haired princess had learned everything there was to know of their people in Proceran archives and bought Levantine secrets at great expense, but even so she could not interpret a single of the ‘words’ that the giants shared with each other. Not one was spoken, subtle shifts in gesture and sorcery expressing all the Gigantes cared to share before they parted ways, nearly of all them spreading out alone along the rampart. Only two remained together, and their approach had Cordelia straightening her back.

She had little experience speaking with Gigantes, and so she was faintly grateful when the Barrow Sword emerged from a band of halberd-wielding Neustrians to join her. The two giants stood more than thirty feet tall, both shaved and one bearded. Though their people’s necks were short and their legs long, it was the face that spoke of their inhumanity to Cordelia. Those large eyes paler than any human’s could be, those strange ridges of cartilage that stood in place of ears. The Gigantes without the beard considered them with milk-white eyes, offering a nod to the Barrow Sword.

“Bahal,” they said, voice rumbling. “You earn your charge.”

“Great Elder, your praise brings me honour,” the Levantine replied, offering a bow.

Those pale eyes moved to her then.

“Princess Hasenbach,” they said. “You are known to us.”

It was tempting to appropriate the villain’s use of ‘Great Elder’, but risky without knowing the context. A safer answer was in order.

“This brings me honour,” Cordelia replied, and Gigantes seemed satisfied.

The bearded one spoke up then.

“We come here at the word of the Living God, the Maker of Riddles, and bring this knowledge: the Young King is cornered.”

Cordelia went still as a stone.

“Though the corpses of gods were profaned and the shadow of the old enemy brought back,” the bearded giant continued, “the Warden and the White Knight storm the spire. Victory is at hand.”

Or defeat, the princess thought, but did not dare speak it. The knowledge that Catherine would do whatever it took to win was reassuring, but Cordelia knew the difference between arrogance and faith. Sometimes there was no victory to be had, no matter how bold or clever or worthy you were. Sometimes all that you could hope for was for the iron of your fight to be hard enough to swallow that the Enemy would have to wait until spring to march again. She would hope, she would have faith, but she would not delude herself.

“We thank you for the knowledge brought,” the Barrow Sword said, tone a little stilted.

He bowed, and Cordelia had been expecting him to so she smoothly imitated the gesture. The Gigantes eyed them for a moment more, then nodded with exaggerated slowness – as if to make sure they would see it – before striding away. No more explanation was given for any of this. The villain sagged when they were out of sight, perhaps the most human gesture she’d ever seen out of him.

“Bahal?” she lightly asked, masking the depth of her curiosity.

“The manner of my Bestowal accidentally made me part of the ancient Gigantes courts of justice,” the Barrow Sword admitted.

His hand rested on the pommel of the bronze sword she had never seen him without, not any more than the bronze scale that seemed to weather ever blow of the dead without breaking. She cocked a brow.

“And what part would that be?” she asked out of honest curiosity.

“The death matches,” Ishaq Deathless grimly said. “I have good reason to be glad that none of the Eighteen Cities still call themselves such.”

Fascinating as that was, and Cordelia had always been intrigued by the old stories of Gigantes living among the humans of the Eighteen Cities as rulers and guides of a sort, sadly they were yet at the end of the world. Fighting to keep from reaching that last fateful fall. Cordelia raised her shield, grip strengthening around her now ragged sword, and had opened her mouth to speak when suddenly she went still. So did the Barrow Sword, and many a soldier, for a ripple had gone through Creation that even the most blind of them could feel. The dead, to the last, went still.

Atop the tall black spire that stood above all of Keter, a sphere of fire winked out.

“Gods,” Cordelia Hasenbach whispered, tears coming to her eyes. “Oh, Merciful Gods. She did it. She killed him.”

The undead began to move again but it was chaos, nothing at all like an army. They broke up into bands around Binds, hacking at each other as much as they tried to climb the walls, and it sunk into the princess’ soul that they had done it. They had destroyed the King of Death and now his armies would – there was another rippled, and Cordelia shivered. It passed over her like a humid wind, tasting her skin, and the Barrow Sword let out a soft curse.

Below them, the dead stirred again.

With feverish hatred, they fell on each other and all they saw. Broken teeth swallowed flesh and metal, tore into walls as if they were parchment and devoured all they reached. What had been an army become something altogether more terrible. Like a river of hunger the horde turned into a great horror that ate all it could touch, all it could reach. Moving like a single massive, writhing abomination Cordelia could not even begin to see the heart of. But she knew, oh she knew with iron certainty that the mind behind it lay deep inside the Crown of the Dead.

“What is this madness?” she asked, revulsion tuning her voice raw.

“They call the Riddle-Maker the Living God,” the Barrow Sword said.

She turned to him, found his tanned face gone pale.

“No one’s sure what he fought, to become the last of the Titans,” Ishaq quietly said, “but if I had to bet I’d say it’s something like this.”

“Then it should be dead,” the princess said.

“This isn’t a city where graves stay filled, Cordelia Hasenbach,” he replied.

And as they stood there, below them a god clawed its way back to life. Slowly, she reached for the parchment pressed against her heart.

The Knight Errant stepped out of the ruined maze, his sword in hand.

The Peregrine burned like a star to his Name, bearing no enchantment save a clarity of purpose. It was to make a better world as the Grey Pilgrim once had, by removing evil from it. By the cutting edge, if needs must. Arthur advanced alone, even though the lack of comrades at his side was fearful, for he knew his Name preferred it. Not for him the comradery of the Woe, not when his every instinct pulled him towards being the lone knight on the bridge, the challenger. The test or the savior, but neither leader nor led.

The hymns on his armour humming, he marched out while the dragon finished tormenting a company of goblin legionaries: it was stepping on whichever was on the edge of either side, making them swerve in panic one way or another as it toyed with them like a cat might with a mouse. Arthur was not sure it was a thinking creature, not like a person, but it was intelligent enough to be cruel. It knew what fear was, and despair. It seemed, he thought, hungry for them. Word from the rearguard was that it seemed to have seized control of the dead there, and though the Kingfisher Prince was holding he was losing ground.

Whether or not the Dead King had been ended, as some hope, they were still running out of time.

He hurried. Ugly as the thought was, the picking apart of the legionaries was covering his approach. Arthur was not so proud that he would refuse being given the first blow on such a foe, even if the price of it was the life of comrades. If he could have done anything to save them he would have, but… The Knight Errant had been raised in a war that taught hard lessons, and one of them was not to waste the chance to save most because you wanted to save all. So he hurried, stride lengthening, as goblins screamed and sweat tricked down his back.

He was half a hundred feet away from the dragon’s back when it suddenly turned.

A leg jutted out of its shoulder, tearing through the glass floor, but the Knight Errant had already moved. Burnt shards trickled against his side and he struck at the twisted limb, the Peregrine humming as it tore into the side of leg. Flesh parted, burning, but there was so much of it and Arthur was almost disarmed when the leg was pulled back into the creature. He’d made a scar, but would it still be there if the leg was spat back out? He was not so sure. The dragon turned its full attention on him, screaming as it swiped and its claws ripped up the ground.

He ran through the trails of death, Sapan’s magic roared to life and hitting the dragon’s head with spikes of light not unlike the one that had turned half the maze to glass. The beast roared in pain and Arthur rolled past a claw that would have torn him in half, feeling it graze his back and leaving him with grateful relief Callowan knights did not wear capes. The elder beast’s side spat out small limbs, human limbs, only made out of writhing metal and stone as tormented faces moaned out and the horror tried to snatch his side. The Knight Errant hacked into the madness, but though the burning scars he left tore screams from the faces they were soon gone, pulled into the monster. He was doing nothing, no matter how fine his sword.

And the dragon was laughing as it struck, ignoring streaks of fire and lightning from mages as well as Sapan’s strange spikes returned, shaking them off where it had disregarded the rest. Arthur knelt under a great paw the claws closed in on him. He tried to slip in between but they headed him off, closing quicker, leaving him to realize that the drakon could have killed him already. It wanted him to fear, to fall apart. Instead the Knight Errant straightened his back, gritting his teeth and swinging at the coming death. Bone gave and -and the entire limb toppled forward, the cage around him falling with it.

Arthur had a glimpse or a rail-thin silhouette under a cloak and a single-edged sword of wood, a narrow face granting him a nod.

As he watched the elder dragon began to be rent asunder by cuts from every direction, the rest of the Emerald Swords walking the creature’s skin unimpeded to carve through limbs and even its neck. The monster at its own flesh, growing it back, but it was an opening and Arthur took it. Swallowing his fear, he reached for the dragon’s fleshy side and began to climb it. Hands pawed at him, reaching for his belt and his limbs to pull him inside the beast, but he shook them off with Name strength to continue his rise. He would rise, and he would wound the Evil thing as Lady Antigone had asked of him.

Halfway up the flank something ripped under him and he shouted with alarm as a limb exploded out of the flesh where he’d been, a long stretch of bone that bled out a thin membrane looking like an insect wing’s. Desperately clutching at the limb as it drove him sky high, the Knight Errant fought the hands trying to drag him in. He was slashing at the bone but it was doing nothing, only scars, and what were those worth when they disappeared in a moment? Arthur’s frustration mounted, a lifetime of wrongs he’d been forced to just watch laughing at him.

It was like there was a wall, like the Gods had decided he could do good but no further than this line and every effort he’d make past it would come to vain. He’d thought he’d gotten past it in the Tower, when he had chosen right over wrong and all the rest, but here he was again: flailing at the dark, accomplishing nothing. What had Dustin even died for, if Arthur was just going to keep failing to save people who needed him? He refused that repellent, disgusting thought. That were some things, some entities beyond reckoning. That some walls couldn’t be broken.

That there was anything in this world that the Knight Errant could not Wound.

An Emerald Sword cut the wing bone but Arthur pulled himself on it, Name flowing through his veins like fire, and even as it fell ran down the length. It was too quick a fall, too long a length, but still he ran – and even as he came short, just before he began to fall he leapt up with both hands on the Peregrine. Hanging in the air for the barest of moments he struck, the edge of the blade forged from the Grey Pilgrim’s death and named by the Black Queen striking the elder dragon’s flesh. Wound, everything that Arthur Foundling was screamed. And in that moment there was nothing in Creation that was beyond his reckoning, so the drakon’s side was split open as if a titan’s axe had fallen upon it.

And the wound did not close.

Arthur fell down as the drakon screamed, the ground hitting him mercilessly. His head rang and his limbs ached, the breath snatched out of him replaced by fire. He rolled to the side, trying and failing to get up, and saw Emerald Sword cut through the limb that would have turned him to paste. There was more, he saw as he caught a flicker of movement. The Affable Burglar was running across the open grounds, almost impossible to see even as she moved through open grounds. She was clutching something in her hand, though Arthur saw nothing more than a splash of colours The dragon saw more, a forest of limbs erupting at the villainess, but a massive wolf bounded in the way and took the blow for the Burglar. The animal died, body crushed, as the villainess slithered through the promised deaths.

The Knight Errant gasped, spitting out blood as he leaned on the Peregrine to get back on his feet. He could cover the last of the way, he thought, but his limbs would not stop shaking. He only got on his knees. How many feet were left before she reached the wound? A hundred, maybe less. Only before the Burglar could get there the ground under her began to hollow, a tentacle of flesh destroying her footing, and though she ran across the collapsing space it was when the dragon blew its flames. The transparent death filled the air and the Affable Burglar would have been swallowed whole – if someone hadn’t thrown themselves in the way.

The Painted Knife’s mangled body, limbs broken and twisted, rippled for a heartbeat as an aspect lit up.

A heartbeat later the flames were gone and the elder dragon’s head with them, as if it had annihilated itself, while Kallia the Painted Knife collapsed to the ground and the Affable Burglar raced through the last few feet. As her hand rose, at last Arthur saw what it was she held: a painted mask of clay.

The Knight Errant saw it disappeared into the wound, and only then did he let himself pass out.

For the second time that day, Cordelia’s fingers shied away from the last words Agnes had left her.

Not because she thought there may yet be a darker moment, but because her attention was grabbed by a most unexpected sight: a flying fortress was coming to them. One of the great behemoths the Praesi called the Old Mothers, which she’d been told were all grounded. And it did seem that the magical castle had been wounded, for a third of it was missing and the insides were bare. Swarms of vultures were coming at it relentlessly, dying against translucent shields as they ate away at them, but it was slow going and Cordelia parsed out what would happen before it did.

The great fortress crashed before their walls before the shields broke, ground rippling and dead dying in droves.

The Gigantes, though troubled and wary of the sudden turn of the dead, opened a gate for the hundred or so Praesi that ran out of their broken fortress. Most of them seemed to be legionaries, but there were also richly dressed mages and two that stood out from the rest. Alaya of Satus, once the Dread Empress of Praes and now the appointed chancellor of the confederation that’d emerged from that empire’s ashes, would have been noticeable in any crowd. Cordelia was more inclined to men than women and generally inclined to despise this woman in particular, but she would not deny she was one of the most beautiful people she’d ever seen.

The other was not a great beauty, but she was the Barrow Sword’s promised fulfilled: Adanna of Smyrna, the Blessed Artificer, was running along side the once-empress.

It was instinct when Cordelia retreated deeper towards the ealamal, into the tent where she had restlessly sat before taking up the sword. An attempt to reassert control in the face of the unexpected, to hold the rod that commanded the dead angel in her hands. It was Brother Simon who introduced Chancellor Alaya when she arrived, though the Blessed Artificer burst in without waiting for the same.

“Princess Cordelia,” Lady Adanna said. “How is the weapon?”

Cordelia only knew so much about the technicalities of the ealamal, besides the fact that it had been filled to the very brim and remained able to be commanded. She saw no need to admit that, however.

“You may have a look yourself,” she suggested, “so long as you do not attempt to affect it.”

“I wouldn’t, princess,” Lady Adanna assured her, perhaps a tad condescendingly.

Cordelia wondered if the other woman would have dared while she was still First Prince, then set aside the thought as unworthy of either the women it involved. More burning still was Chancellor Alaya’s sympathetic gaze when the Blessed Artificer wandered off to do as suggested. The Soninke did not go as far as saying ‘Named, huh’ as if commonly mourning, but the cocked eyebrow had much the same implication.

“Princess Cordelia,” Chancellor Alaya greeted her instead.

“Chancellor Alaya,” Cordelia politely greeted the woman who’d tried to have her assassinated on twenty-nine separate occasions.

Thirty, if you counted the poison in her favourite fish soup and the lemon water as different attempts.

“May I take a seat?” the other woman smiled. “I’m afraid I will be of little use out there.”

The fair-haired princess conceded with a nod and Alaya claimed a chair with sinuous grace that seemed almost absurd when paired with the rickety wooden furniture. Like a pearl tossed into offal. Simon looked askance at Cordelia, who discreetly shook her head back. The lay brother left the tent.

“I expect you have little more news of the fighting in the city than we do,” Cordelia leadingly said.

“My mages believed the Dead King to have perished,” Chancellor Alaya replied, “but there is some debate as to what seized control of the dead after.”

“Some sort of ancient dragon god, if my sources are to be believed,” she said.

The former empress took that with the unflinching aplomb of someone who’d ruled over the Wasteland for many years.

“Unfortunate,” Chancellor Alaya noted. “Two of my finest mages were looking into a way to undo the Dead King’s mastery over death, however, and though they did not succeed it seems they have learned something that might be of import.”

“And that would be?”

“If Lady Nahiza and her assistant are correct, then this… draconic usurper only commands the dead in Keter for now,” the dark-skinned chancellor told her. “Its mastery grows by the moment, and in time it will command them all, but the Dead King’s reins were as a great kingdom and it yet holds only this very city.”

Cordelia’s fingers tightened around the ivory baton she held in her lap.

“Would you,” she said with forced calm, “have any notion of how quickly that mastery will spread?”

It was a polite, dispassionate way to ask how long the Principate had before some evil god mastered the dead destroying it and ate everything alive. Cordelia did not know whether or not this risen dragon would be as much a terror as the Dead King had been, but in truth it hardly mattered. So long as the dead did not collapse into warband, then Procer was buried and the rest of Calernia with it. Even if the Principate was not made into a great army of undead, the strange powers the dragon god lent to the dead seemed just as fearful. It was still defeat, the end of it all.

“My experts are uncertain,” Chancellor Alaya admitted. “It could be an hour, a day or a week. They cannot tell if the dead in Keter were usurped because of proximity or ease of spread.”

Which tells me nothing, Cordelia thought, even as she felt the wards shiver. She rose to her feet, marching past her guest with lack of manners that sat ill even at the end of the world to peek outside. The golden hue in the air was gone and the vultures were swarming. The wall seemed on the edge of falling, even with the desperate efforts of the soldiers and the Gigantes. Feigning calm, Cordelia returned to her seat across from the woman who had once been called Malicia.

“A ward collapsed,” the chancellor mildly said.

“One of the boundaries,” Cordelia said, then added in a moment of harsh honesty, “and the most important. Now the vultures will begin devouring men.”

“It is a matter of time until the defences break, then,” Chancellor Alaya noted.

Cordelia wondered if the other woman’s calm was as put on as hers. It must be, she thought. Not even Praesi could face their own death and Calernia’s with such blitheness, surely.

“A quarter hour, perhaps as much as half,” she forced herself to reply.

And under the dark-eyed woman’s unblinking gaze, she set down the ivory baton on the table. Malicia – and that name was more honest than the others, for deep down Cordelia still thought of her as that – stared at it for a long moment but did not ask a question. No doubt the Eyes of the Empire had told her exactly what the artefact commanded the ealamal looked like. They matched gazes, neither allowing emotion to reach their faces. To Cordelia’s faint surprise, it was the once-empress that looked away first.

“I do understand, you know,” Alaya quietly said. “The comfort of holding it in your hand.”

Cordelia’s face tightened.

“Holding what?” she asked.

The other woman considered that, for a moment.

“Your fate,” Alaya finally said. “Made simple and savage, perhaps, but still your fate.”

She faintly smiled.

“I knew it was making it all crooked, when I sought the Sahelian gate-maker,” the once-empress confessed. “That I was breaking faith with Amadeus, with the tale we told ourselves of a world where the two of us were enough to win.”

“So why did you?” Cordelia quietly asked.

“I ask myself that question every day,” Alaya of Satus said, sounding tired. “And the answer changes. I have so many reasons, so many excuses, but in the end I suspect there is a single truth buried beneath them. Like a corpse in a grave.”

The blue-eyed princess did not interrupt, waiting patiently as she watched the other woman’s face.

“I didn’t believe we could win,” Alaya said. “Not truly, not the way he did. I believe we might have gains, that we might manage our defeats, but I never thought that if we took on the world it would end in anything but tears.”

Cordelia, who had spent years and a fortune in silver learning all she could of the Dread Empress of Praes, knew enough about what had brought the dark-skinned beauty to the Tower to feel a sliver of pity. But no more than that, for being handed tragedy was never an excuse for handing it to others. Silence hung above their heads like a waiting sword, growing thicker even as the distant sounds of battle closed in.

“They might win,” Cordelia said. “There are Named and armies yet fighting. They might win and slay this… dragon god.”

“They might,” Alaya agreed, “or the Dead King’s last revenge might yet devour all of Calernia. There is no way to tell.”

The screams and the clash of steel were so close they might have been mere feet away from the tent. It meant, Cordelia knew, that there was only one barricade left. If even that. All else had fallen. She swallowed thickly, fingers so tight around the baton that her bloodless knuckled matched the ivory’s paleness. And it was all coming apart, all coming to an end, and Cordelia just felt so fucking tired.

“Is it too much to ask,” she asked Alaya, “that we be allowed to face the end of the world without a mask on?”

The Soninke beauty looked as if she’d been slapped.

“Sometimes,” Chancellor Alaya said, “the mask is all you have left.”

And Cordelia understood that, she truly did, but then…

“I just want,” she murmured, “to be able to weep honest tears before I die. Only once.”

“We might not die,” Alaya said, then her face tightened. “Well, perhaps not you. I do not believe your ealamal will spare the likes of me.”

“I don’t know if it will spare anyone,” Cordelia admitted. “Or even how far it will reach. It is a blind sword to swing, one that save half the world or kill it. I cannot know before I swing it.”

“And the world,” Alaya smiled, “it’s yours to save?”

“I am a Hasenbach,” Cordelia simply said. “I have a duty.”

And she would not compromise on that, not even in the face of the end times. A scream sounded, then the sound of flesh being ripped into. It must be right outside the tent to be heard so clearly, she knew. There were no lines of defence left. She reached for the ivory rod. It was not a complicated sequence to trigger the ealamal’s release, just one impossible to reach by accident. Cordelia rotated the baton’s sculpted lionhead and extended the length, beginning the works and reaching all but the very last. All it would take, now, was to snap it closed.

“I think it might be the pride of the young to demand hard truths even at the end,” Alaya of Satus said, breaking the silence, “but I strive to be the sort of woman who settles all her debts.”

And there was, they both knew, a kingdom’s worth of corpses due between them.

“So I will tell you this,” the dark-skinned woman murmured, “though I would rather not speak it, or even think it.”

The once-empress smiled, and it was the most heartbreakingly sad thing Cordelia Hasenbach had ever seen.

“I see my death now,” Alaya said, “how I will end, and I regret it.”

Her fingers closed into fists.

“I wish I had trusted him,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “It would have been a better end, the two of us against the world.”

And Cordelia knew what she meant, down to the marrow of her bone. Because she knew trust as well, remembered sitting with a woman she’d once hated in the heart of city that should have been a horror but she had found instead to be a wonder. She remembered looking at Catherine Foundling and seeing underneath the warlord the girl who just wanted to help people who’d helped her. Who wanted to make a fairer, kinder world for orcs and goblins and all the lost that’d carried her to the throne. The realization that she was not facing a plague made woman but a dragon of the old tales, fearsome and vicious in defending her hoard but not genuinely evil.

Cordelia wanted to see the city they might make together and the world around it.

But in the end, she thought, what did want matter? Like the three cousins of the tale, she was fighting Death – whether it wore the Dead King’s face or some other horror’s as a mask mattered little. It was the same spring, the same inevitability. Cordelia had hoped that the sword and helm would be enough to get her through the horror, but now she had to face the truth. They were losing, lost, and moments away from even the ealamal being in the enemy’s hand. Evil had won the last laugh.

The best she could hope was for her iron to stick in the Enemy’s throat.

A ghoul tore into the tent flap, ripping it up and swallowing a chunk, only for a pair of skeleton to burst past it. Chancellor Alaya drew a knife, rising to her feet, but Cordelia’s hands were on the baton. Until she recalled her last gift, and her fingers reached for the parchment against her breast. On the third time they closed, and as the fair-haired princess took up the wisp of parchment she unfolded it to find her cousin’s words. Guidance, she prayed, or a secret to pass through the dark. Her cousin’s death made into one last blade pointed at the enemy. Instead, what she found was a single sentence hastily scrawled.

No matter where, no matter when, Agnes wrote, I will always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.

She reared back, as if struck, even as dead poured screaming into the tent. Too many to defeat, too many to hold the ealamal against even with Named. But all she could think of was the tears in Agnes’ eyes on that cold day where the soldiers had brought her to Rhenia, after her mother’s death. How lost she’d looked, how she’d burst out weeping when Cordelia pulled her close. A bet, huh. Trust from beyond the grave. And here Cordelia had been, making pride out of something she’d dared to call duty. The shame burned at her. The tent began to fall, pegs falling as the dead charged, and Cordelia Hasenbach took the ivory baton in hand.  Cordelia had wanted to see the world the two of them might make.

But she was, she found, willing to die for it too.

With a scream, Cordelia Hasenbach broke the ivory baton as she made a bet of her own.

The Witch of the Woods stood alone on a plain of glass as the drakon turned and she slowly lowered her hood.

Antigone had never borne a surname, for the only man she might have called a father did not have one. Humans sometimes took a husband’s or a wife’s, she knew, but though she cared for Hanno they had never wed or cared to and so her name remained as it was, both beginning and end. She liked it better that way, in truth, for it was not just a word: it was a gift. She did not remember who she had been before Kreios found her, and so all that she was had begun with the name have gave her. Antigone. After the Titan he’d held higher in his esteem than any other, dead long before mankind’s age began.

She too, her father had once told her, had once stood alone.

The Titans had been given a choice once, after the end of the Long War where they triumphed over the drakoi. The last of them debated whether to seek old glories, the undoing of their losses, or to instead offer a hand to the lesser peoples that had come to be as they fought their great struggle. Seven, she’d been told as a child, had come to decide to clap their lessers – children, they called them – in chains and put them to work until glories of the Gigantes could be restored. Only one had refused, and Antigone instead went west to found eighteen cities that’d outlast all the rest.

Yet when the price of hubris, of trying to unmake the costs paid to Creation for victory, had come calling it was not the seven that perished. Only the Riddle-Maker remained, the last of the Titans, forever shamed that instead of bringing back the lost his great work had instead killed all of them save for him. And even he was broken, lessened. It was why Antigone had never once thought today that she could simply wait out the storm, that if she stood alone long enough her father would make all the trouble go away. Kreios’ divinity had been made fragile, finite.

And he had spent it piece by piece since he came to Keter, matching the Dead King blow for blow. Given himself away to save the lives of the children he had fought to put in chains, putting out a star to keep fireflies alight. He had begun with a great work and hardly ceased since, holding nothing back once the Dead King revealed that he had stolen the corpses of two Titans fallen in the Long War. Fighting two of his old comrades come back undead would bring him to the brink, she knew. However lessened and incomplete they were still Titans.

There would be no god standing at the end, no matter who the victor, and so it was in Antigone’s hands.

She missed the painted clay mask, the first face the kind giants of Hemera had given her as a girl. Yet even without its protection the Witch of the Woods barely even felt the wind against her skin, her body a stranger to itself. It had a price, to slay even the shadow of a drakon. It was the monster of an age long past, meant to be fought by folk that loomed too tall for even the last gasps of the Age of Wonders. But Antigone had stood in great shadows all her life, known only boots too large for her to fill ever since she first heard the song of Creation. Ever since she was a girl she’d fought to be more, to be complete, and fallen short.

She was the Witch of the Woods, belonging neither to the airy spires of the Gigantes or the crowded cities of mankind. Her home was in the in-between, the antechamber of greatness. Even her Name only allowed her to be a shadow of what Titans had once been, of what Gigantes aspired to be. Antigone, eyes blinking into the too-bright light of the hall, looked upon the drakon that screamed out unending rage. Warped Creation around it simply by existing. Only it wasn’t truly a drakon, was it? Not yet, anyway.

“I am a shadow,” Antigone said, “but you are one as well. Shall we see which runs deeper?”

The weight of the awakening god was turned on her, her power rising to fight as the air itself began to eat her, but it didn’t matter. The body was just a shell, eyes to see. She had already put all of herself in her mask, her face, and the Burglar had delivered it onto the beast. It had sunk deep, as deep as it would, and coated in the Dead King’s finest trick it remained whole.

As did Antigone’s soul within it.

Gather,” she whispered.

Only it was not moonlight and the power of the land she called to her this time, but blood and sinew and bone. The red writ of the drakon.

Cradle.”

With open hands she brought all she had gathered into her grasp, giving a reverence unearned. But it came into her embrace, joined with her, as the magics she had learned did. Closed against her she held the wriggling essence of the dead god, trying to slip her grasp.

Sing.”

To be one with the world, to see the manifold paths of consequence: the stone that became the avalanche, the droplet that became the tide. It had been a pure thing, all that Antigone aspired to be. It had let her see what the Gigantes saw, for the barest of moments, and wield the greatest of their works as her own. Only it was not her father’s song she sang today, the lessons she loved. Instead she sang the red and the hunger, the doom-made-intellect that was the drakon. And in that perfect moment she understood it, as perfectly as she was allowed to understand Creation.

And so she was a god, a circle full and complete, the crowned essence of the act to eat.

“It was mine,” Antigone smiled, and closed her eyes.

And even as her body fell apart, she took her first and last act as a god: she ate herself, until nothing was left.

Not even a shadow.

In the ashes of a broken city, Kreios Maker-of-Riddles fell to his knees and wept, for as the last of what he had been passed he had felt his only daughter die.

Chapter 67: And Justice For All (Redux)

“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 snorted.

“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.

“Hierophant?”

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.”

He nodded.

“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.

Another nod.

“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.”

How?”

“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?”

Chapter 66: The Empty Grave

“Needing a second blow to take a head is an unforgivable sin for two professions: butcher and king.”

– Dread Emperor Terribilis II

It was a sad song that Yara of Nowhere sang us. Slow and meandering, like a stroll in a graveyard. The words should have been happy, but they dripped of grief.

“O Tiferet, raised where the river sings

You of gardens merry and nights so bright.”

It was a fitting tune for the sight sprawled out beneath us, I thought. Our feet had devoured an empty hallway until we turned a corner and were faced with a decision: hurry on towards the gates or take a narrow set of stairs up into the galleries. We’d gone up, after brief hesitation, and now I hid in the shadows and leaned against the balustrade as I watched a battle unfold. The halls beyond the great one we’d escaped were lesser but numerous, a maze of roofless rooms overlooked by great galleries that hugged the ceiling – one of which I stood on. The small halls were fed into by the corridors leading to the spire’s great gates, and as Named and soldiers spilled into the labyrinth I finally understood why the Dead King had made this place.

It was a slaughterhouse.

Every inch of it was trapped. I watched a company of bright-clothed fantassins blunder into a room whose sides were a pit trap covered by an illusion, gathering in the middle in time for holes to open in the walls and undead wedged inside them to begin unloading crossbows into the thick formation. Doors exploded, tar-covered floors were set aflame and swarms of poisonous insects poured out of hidden panels. I saw a doorknob turn into a leering devil that bit off the hand of the legionary that’d tried to open it, fangs crunching through steel, and even as she began screaming clouds of acid were blown into the room through small holes in the floor. All the while bows were fired into the labyrinth from the gallery above, arrows falling like rain. Death everywhere, and that wasn’t even the worst of it.

I had wondered why so few Revenants had fought us when we fought our way out of the Hall of the Dead, and now I had my answer: they were here. Dozensof then, maybe as much as a hundred. They tore into the troops like wild animals, armoured battering rams and storms of sorcery that went through even heavy companies like butter. As the loud melees took place lighter Revenants, soft-footed and quiet, slunk atop the tall roofless walls and snatched the lives of officers to sow chaos in the ranks. Named fought them where they could – I glimpsed the Valiant Champion decapitating a tall Revenant in white plate and the Skinchanger ripping out a lich’s throat – but the maze was working against them. It forced them to split up, take different paths and run into traps.

Meanwhile, the Revenants moved according to the orders of their all-seeing eye in the sky: the Dead King himself, wielding his creations with fatal precision. He wasn’t here, but then he didn’t have to be. All it’d take was one Revenant up in the gallery to serve as his eyes.

“The city that forever blooms in spring,

Beloved of singers and delight.”

“The Scourges are here,” Indrani quietly said.

There was no sign of them, but she was right and we both knew it. The chord was there for me to pull on, and it was not slack but taut – tense, ready to snap. The Scourges would come out soon, and I knew exactly why it was that Neshamah was holding them back. His bloody work below told me the answer to that, with the way he was so carefully splitting up Named and trying to overwhelm them with lesser Revenants.

“He’s trying to figure out what band of five he’ll be facing,” I agreed. “The moment he does, the full strength of the Scourge will fall on whoever he decides is the most important part of it.”

It was what I’d do, in his place. Set up the meat grinder below us to kill off Named weak or not yet matured, throwing traps and disposables as he most powerful of our lot until he had a decent idea of what our strengths and weaknesses were. And then, when he’d figured out who was supposed to kill him, he’d break that band before it ever formed. It was his favourited tactic, always had been. He didn’t want to face the Severance or the Crown before having broken the band behind them.

“No sight of Hanno or the Mirror Knight,” I frowned, “but Akua shouldn’t be far behind. We’ll need to cover her and the Autumn Crown when they arrive.”

Indrani shuffled and my stomach dropped. Ranger was not meeting my eye.

“What happened?” I said.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault,” she said. “We got ambushed.”

No, I furiously thought. No, she could not possibly have fucked this up. I’d trusted her, trusted the both of them. I grabbed her by the scarf, pushing her back, and she only grimaced.

What happened?” I coldly hissed.

“Catherine,” Masego said from behind me.

His tone was a warning and I forced myself to heed it. I released Indrani, taking a step back and mastering my fury. It had yet to wane.

“The Seelie cut the crown in two,” Ranger admitted.

It was like a punch in the stomach. I staggered back, eye closing as I struggled to find another angle. Another way out of this mess. If we had no way to deal with the Dead King except destruction, then he had nothing left to lose. No need to think in the long term. No reason to hold back whatever horrifying surprise I knew bone-deep he would have stored away to make the consequences of destroying him unthinkable. And now I knew for sure why the Intercessor had nudged the Hierarch into appearing in the Serenity. Neshamah’s back was up against the wall, with no way to retreat.

It was do or die, for the Dead King, and he was the kind of person that’d kill all of Creation to earn a single breath more.

“What does she want?” I moaned out loud, fingers rubbing the bridge of my nose. “What can she possibly get from things going to shit for us? With Hierarch back the ealamal’s back on Judgement, which is not great but shouldn’t-”

“It is not,” Hierophant interrupted me.

My eye flow open, meeting his own.

“Explain,” I evenly said.

“I noticed when we crossed into the Serenity,” he told me, “that the Choir of Judgement appears to have been silenced by the effort of freeing itself from the Hierarch.”

My jaw tightened.

“So what the Hells does the ealamal do if Judgement doesn’t guide it?” I ask. “Is it a dud?”

“It would express only inherent properties, like the tabula rasa effect,” Hierophant said, “unless otherwise guided. Which-”

“- which the Bard can,” I finished in a whisper, blood going cold.

So that was the game. Corner the Dead King so that he became the nastiest of animals, emptying his vault of all horrors on our armies, and then when it all went bad on us then Cordelia would fire up the ealamal and the Intercessor would get to decide what happened. What would it do, I wondered? Answers came to me by the dozens. She could rid herself of the Dead King and then kill everyone who knew about her, I thought, allowing herself to start building anew all the bridges she’d burned with our generation. Or she could kill all of us here, a warning as to what happened when she wasn’t listened to. She could even make it do nothing at all, let us die and try to win the war with the rest of Calernia on the back of that weight.

There were so many ways for her to get back in the game, to snatch back her crown, and yet all I could think of was the conversation I’d had over a fire in the ruins of a palace once proud. But it’s slavery too, to spend your live lashing backs, the Hierarch had said, grey eyes burning. Just a different kind, and you can’t escape it any more than they can. And so the thought occurred to me, perhaps the most terrifying of them all, that I should be asking myself a different question.

Was Yara of Nowhere still trying to win at all?

“It’s not finished, Cat,” Indrani stiffly told me. “Akua, she forged something out of the crown.”

That earned back my full attention. It was on the tip of my tongue to dismiss the possibility, the absurdity that someone could just forge something out of a broken crown of the fae in the middle of battle, but it never passed my lips.

If anyone could, it was Akua Sahelian.

“What did she make?”

“Shackles,” Ranger said. “The kind that bind power both ways.”

A crude thing, I thought, made on the bedrock of Masego’s work. Yet it was as much a miracle as Hierophant’s labour that she had been able to do even this much. I studied Indrani closer, eye narrowing.

“There’s more,” I said, and it was not a question.

Indrani grimaced again.

“She didn’t say it, but I’m sure it’s not the kind of shackles you get to take off after they’re put on,” she told me.

I closed my eye. Of course they wouldn’t. They’d been made from the Autumn Crown, which we’d not intended Neshamah to ever take off. Whoever held back the Dead King would never be relieved from that vigil. Yet someone would have to, before this was over, and that left a burning question: who. I had meant Akua to take up that role as queen over the Twilight Ways, when this all began, but the Ways were broken and now the Autumn Crown as well. Were we going to have to bet it all on the Severance? No, I decided, the shackles could work. They should be able to strip the Dead King of his mastery over undead, or close enough. We hadn’t lost yet, it was just that instead of offering a gift that could not be refused we’d have to beat the Hidden Horror to shackle him.

And someone was going to have to be shackled to him.

“Fuck,” I swore.

Should it be me? I wasn’t sure that was feasible, not if it was to be the Warden and one of the rulers of Cardinal. I couldn’t afford to be either gone or powerless. Who else, though? Akua might have served as the queen of a broken throne, but she’d made these shackles. I was not sure she could also wear them, that the story would flow. It would be a heroine’s sacrifice, and though I was more than half in love with her she was not a heroine. Not even now.

“Warden.”

Alexis’ voice brought me out of my thoughts again, a reminder that all around us people were dying and I didn’t have the time to spare to figure it all out in my head. The Silver Huntress was pointing something out for me over the balustrade and I leaned over to see. Fresh waves of warriors were entering the slaughterhouse, at their forefront warbands of heavily armoured orcs. At their head a towering man in scorched plate brandished a greatsword, the Warlord roaring as they entered the fray. Hakram had arrived.

“Appreciated,” I told Alexis, “but he can take care of him-”

I caught sight of the killing arrow as it passed me, eyes widening as I reached for Night, but Indrani was faster. Her bow was already strung and her hands blurred as she moved, nocking and releasing her own arrow. It ended up being a close thing. I watched with a thumping heart, relieved for a moment when I saw Hakram had not been the one aimed at – only for the relief to fade when I realized soldiers of the Army of Callow had arrived with the fresh wave, and Vivienne was leading them. Ranger’s arrow caught the Hawk’s less than a foot away from Vivienne, the two of them hitting a legionary in the shoulder instead. She let out a shout of alarm and ducked, although too late.

The cold voice in the back of my mind, the part that wasn’t frozen fear and rage at how close Princess had just come to dying, wondered why the Dead King would believe Vivienne Dartwick crucial to his defeat. Worth committing the Scourges for. I realized, in the heartbeat that followed, that she wasn’t. But she was one of the Woe, and we’d come out swinging for her – taking out into the open people he was genuinely wary of. It was a simple and straightforward ploy, a kind villains had been using on their opponents for millennia. And they’d kept using it because it fucking worked, I grimly though.

“Ranger,” I said.

“Yeah, I’ve got the Hawk,” Indrani said with deceptive mildness.

Were I a better woman I might have spared some pity for what lay ahead of the Scourge.

“Hierophant with me,” I said, then turned to the remaining two. “As for you-”

“I want to get the piece of the drakon to the Witch of the Woods,” Cocky interrupted me. “And I will need an escort for that.”

I mulled that, then nodded.

“If you can’t reach her,” I said, “then find the Riddle-Maker.”

Kreios would likely be better for the fight if we were aiming at a second round with the drakon, but the Witch was a lot more likely to be free. She should have been pounding at the front gate with Hanno, serving as a magical battering ram, and those should be open by now. Still, it had not escaped me I had found no trace of either those two. The battle there might not actually be won yet. Later Catherine’s problem, I decided. She was plucky lass, she could handle it. I caught Masego’s eye and waited for his nod, only then pushing through the butterflies in my belly to take a few steps back. I broke into a run and, using my staff, vaulted myself over the edge of the balustrade.

“O Tiferet, home of my true love

A maiden fairer than the full moon.”

I gathered Night to me as I fell, Mantle of Woe flapping around me, and did not even turn when an arrow was shot at my back. Indrani would take care of it. I wrapped myself in shadows, swallowing whole the volley that fell on me from the galleries above, and wove tendrils below to catch my fall. They caught the edge of a wall, turning the drop into a smooth lowering atop the wall even as the labyrinth came alive around me. I watched, unimpressed, as the undead in that maze of rooms turned towards me as one. Komena laughed in my ear, delighted, and together we raised my hand as Night coalesced between my fingers.

“Take a swing,” I challenged. “See where it gets you.”

A storm answered. Arrows and javelin and spells, swarms of dead insects and clouds of poison. Ghouls scrambled up the wall and skeletons thrust long spears at my feet. It would not be enough. In my hand I held a sphere of darkness, and as I opened my palm it was revealed for a heartbeat – until I closed my fingers to crush it. The air shook, for a moment, and as I grinned the sphere exploded into a shower of black pinpricks. They flew out, growing and swelling into beams as they did. Komena’s eyes told friend from foe where I could not, held back by the limitations of my flesh, and everything else turned to smoke.

Night sliced through stone and steel and dead, the rays of the dark sun I had shattered taking a remorseless bite out of Creation.

The storm died, swallowed whole save for broken remnants that did not even reach my feet, and I let out a misty breath as Night swam thick through my veins. Behind me Hierophant landed atop the wall, his descent wavering like a feather’s. He had lowered his own weight to take the edge of the fall, but within moments it was restored and he stood at my back.

“An ugly place,” Masego mildly said. “I do not like it.”

“Then lighten up, Zeze,” I smiled, “because the two of us are going to burn it down.”

It was an elegant, intricate plan to kill Named and men that Neshamah had crafted here. So instead of trying to defeat him in kind, beat him at his own game, I was going to take a fucking hammer to his clever little schemes.

“You have a plan, then?” Hierophant asked.

He sounded, I thought with a smile, so utterly unconcerned by the sea of enemies around us. I pointed my staff behind us.

“See that?”

“I do,” he drily replied.

“It’s the furthest any of our allies have gotten,” I said. “So anything past it goes.”

“Simple,” he praised.

“That’s me,” I humbly replied, then winced when I realized what I’d just said.

It was too much to hope the Dead King hadn’t heard that, wasn’t it? Goddamnit. Well, time to drown my embarrassment in a copious amount of fire.

“I’ll defend,” I said. “Attack.”

“It is in your hands,” Masego agreed.

In the heartbeat that followed translucent shields bloomed in a bubble around him, arrows pinging off the panels, and he began to speak in the mage tongue. He was out of it for now, so it was time for me to get to work. Now, we were surrounded by undead crawling over walls to come at us as arrows rained from above and Revenants converged on our very visible raised location. We were in hostile territory, which was why tactics dictated that my first move should be to spread that disadvantage around. I loosened my wrist and rolled my shoulder.

“All right,” I muttered. “Let’s see if this time I can make it hot enough it goes straight to bone ash.”

A javelin flew up, shot from the dead angle of my dead eye, but I followed the nudge of my Name and slapped it aside with my staff. Breathing out, I raised the staff of dead yew I had received in the depths of newborn Twilight and stirred the air with it. Slowly, carefully tracing the circle as Night gathered and the air began to heat. The Hawk came for me, but I had Ranger on my side. I didn’t glance at the black arrow before hearing it shot out. And as strings of black flame began to linger in the air in the wake of my staff, I shaped my will. Below me a ghoul clawed its way up the wall, baring its fangs at my boots, and I bared my teeth back.

Run or burn,” I hissed, slamming my staff down.

It did not, I saw, run quickly enough. Like a knot of snakes come loose, ribbons of blackflame erupted from where my staff had struck the top of the wall. They slithered in every direction, leaving behind burning trails as they ate through flesh and slid inside armour to devour the dead inside. I watched through a hundred eyes as the working spread out around me like a blooming flower, black flames consuming everything as they hungrily advanced. It would do, I decided. I’d not destroyed everything in that radius, as much because I was trying to avoid killing Grand Alliance forces as because some of the undead were hard to put down, but it was all on fire. It’d serve as a wall for most everything except Revenants.

“Abyss and firmament. I take the shape of the star and the depth of the pit, borrowing laws high and low.”

“Oh dear,” I muttered, glancing at Masego. “Is that really usable inside?”

It really was quite worrying how often I was the person in my inner circle that most responsibly handled unspeakable eldritch power. Although that was, I supposed, not unlike being the drunk with the smallest bottle. Still, now that I’d rid myself of the chaff it was about time for the real contenders to come out. The first one to pop his head out was a Revenant mage that rose in through a dignified levitation spell, his colourful embroidered robes fluttering in nonexistent wind as he pointed a gnarled staff my way and began an incantation that echoed across the ceiling. Frowning, I pointed a finger and gathered Night in a needle before it shot out. It blew through his skull as I began to look who that’d been a distraction for, finding that tricky little tart the Seelie climbing up the wall to get as Masego’s back.

I tossed a ball of blackflame at her, breaking the illusion, and enjoyed the look on her face when the fire then circled around instead of dispersing and blew her off the wall before she could eviscerate Hierophant. Really, like I wasn’t going to learn when she kept using the same trick? More worrying than the sneak, though, was the way that all the poison clouds across the maze were beginning to gather in a ball under the ceiling. That was the fucking Tumult at work, mark my words, because of course now that I’d set this place on fire and Masego was going to smite it what we needed was a fucking poison storm on top of everything. Much as I would have liked to get rid of that, though, I had more pressing matters at hand.

Like the Mantle turning the wall I was standing on to dust.

I cursed, stepping back as the tall Scourge swung her mace at my retreating form. The parts of the wall that hadn’t crumbled cracked from the blow even as I tossed a curse at the Mantle’s head, which she took head on. Her helm warped, but she pit her power against mine and while if it’d kept up she would have lost I didn’t have the time – through a Night eye I saw the Seelie throwing a knife at Masego’s head, hastily withdrawing my will from the Mantle to form streaks of darkness around Hierophant’s shield. The knife wasn’t where I’d seen it, but I went wide enough I caught it anyway. Only for, you know, the Mantle to finish turning the wall under me to dust. Fuck, I thought as I fell, and I raised my staff to try to slap aside the mace blow but it was going to be tricky and-

And three hundred pounds of orcish fury smashed into the Mantle, Hakram Deadhand snarling as he tackled her through a door so hard splinters went flying. I landed on my knees, leaning against my staff, and let out a sigh of relief. Reinforcements had arrived.

“I have woven curses into hymn, stuffed a heart with straw. That which is hollow I have raised onto the dais, revered as glorious under three skies and revered by nine corners.”

I hadn’t seen the Prince of Bones yet but he was bound to be close, so I couldn’t leave Hakram alone for too long. I couldn’t leave Masego along for long either, though, because the fucking Seelie was around and he wasn’t moving. She’d gotten past my armour like it wasn’t there with that knife of hers, once, so I wouldn’t bet on a spell shield doing better. I wove a tendril to get me back up on the chunk of the wall where he was standing, landing in front of him, but there was no sign of the enemy. I took a few limping steps forward, frowning, then thrust my staff down at the burning room: a gust of wind picked up ash and tossed it everywhere, but still the Seelie remained hidden. Where was she?

My Name nudged me and I heard the sound of steel ripping into flesh, turning to see a throwing knife stuck in the Seelie’s wrist as she flew on translucent red wings to stick Masego from the back. She shattered into pieces but almost immediately reappeared a foot below the broken illusion as another throwing knife thumped into her back, ripping her ballroom gown as she turned with an inhuman snarl. The Princess, sword in hand, flicked her other wrist and palmed a third throwing knife.

“The Varlet did it better,” Vivienne Dartwick told her. “So what would that make you – a quarter rate Named?”

Ah, trash talk. That most hallowed of Callowan traditions.

“Can you cover Masego?” I called out.

“Run along, Black Queen,” my successor smiled. “I’m finding stabbing fae to be satisfying in a very soulful sort of way.”

And who was I to argue with that? The same tendrils that’d raised me up threw me in the direction Hakram had disappeared in, and as Indrani shot out an attempt of the Hawk’s to kill Warlord I found the duelling Named and guided my descent very precisely: my boots landed on the back of the Mantle’s head as she tried to wrestle Hakram’s great sword out of his grasp, my staff following a moment later and sliding in the space between the helm and the plate.

“My turn with the curses,” I grinned even as I unleashed Night.

It’d be hard to cook her from the inside, but I could so something simpler. No matter how much armour and steel there was in there, it was the bones that moved the Mantle. And affecting those was a lot easier that wrecking all that steel. Night sunk into them like poison, and even as the Scourge shook me off and sent me flying into a pile of stone I exerted a twist of will to get the working moving. A heartbeat later her limbs began shaking uncontrollably, and with a roar Warlord smashed her into the ground. He ripped his greatsword out of her grasp even as she twisted on the ground and I rose to my feet. His arm rose to deliver a crippling blow, but before he could the wall to his left burst open in a shower of shards as the Prince of Bones tore through.

“Shit,” I hissed, and slid Night along the ground before the Prince.

I covered the stone with greasy, oily Night but to my unpleasant surprise it did nothing. The fucking Prince must have either enchanted boots or nails under the soles. Hakram took a greastword blow with his own, steel grinding on steel, and I realized with a start that the blades were almost identical. Had Hakram stolen the Prince of Bones’ sword at some point? I loosed a burst of raw Night in the Mantle’s belly as she tried to get up, knocking her back down, but that wouldn’t last. This wasn’t a good place for us to fight, not with limited space and two enemies so heavily armoured.

“We pull back,” I shouted.

“Agreed,” Warlord growled, taking a step back.

Even as we began our retreat, though, the tide turned again.

“Behold,” Hierophant called out, “all ye with eyes, for I have made a god of clay and it is an idol of WRATH.”

I shielded my eyes from the cold, alien light just as it came down. The clamour of the battle went silent as a grave, as if Hierophant’s miracle had killed noised itself. When I took my hand off my eye it was to the sight of both Scourges withdrawing, which after hesitation I allowed. After all, where they were headed I’d find it difficult to pursue: the latter half of the great room that I had pointed out to Masego was now a plain of red, glowing glass.

Nothing else was left.

The front half of the labyrinth, having come into Grand Alliance hands through hard fighting while Zeze and I made a spectacle, burst into cheers. The dead there were good as routed, and through our advance was stopped until the glass cooled it was now open grounds to the great stairs at the back of what had once been a maze. The surviving Revenants fled that way, ignoring spells and arrows, and when I glanced up at the ceiling where the poison clouds had been gathering I found with some amusement it had been glassed as well. The heat had dispersed whatever the Tumult was up to, sparing us a spot of trouble on top of all the rest.

“Her smile gentler than the wings of doves,

Her laugh worth a thousand tunes!”

And the Intercessor was still singing, great. Because that was always a good sign. I went shoulder to shoulder with Hakram as we returned – well, shoulder to arm anyways – and bumped my armour against his.

“You got there right in time,” I said.

“One of my better habits,” Warlord smirked.

“I suppose you do need something to make up for all the sleeping around.”

As he spluttered my eye sought the source of the voice and found that Vivienne’s face was cut, but it was just a shallow slice under her eye. Masego, following behind, was entirely unharmed and looked to be in a rather fine mood. I supposed I’d be too, if I had gotten to blow up half the labyrinth of someone I despised.

“You’re being pretty savage today,” I told her. “It’s been great.”

“Well, it is the end of the world,” Princess snorted.

“Speaking of that, Catherine,” Hakram said, “there’s trouble at the gates.”

Wait, hadn’t I figured something out for that? Shit, no I hadn’t. Earlier Catherine had passed me the sharper because she couldn’t be bothered to. Earlier Catherine, what a bitch, I uncharitably thought. She just kept screwing me over.

“Lay it on me,” I sighed.

“The Titans are brawling,” Vivienne bluntly said.

A small sentence that encompassing a large amount of collateral damage, I figured. Anyhow, the mystery of where the dead Titans had disappeared to appeared to be solved. Neshamah must have figured they were worth spending on keeping the Riddle-Maker out of his hair, and I couldn’t fault the decision. The last of the living Titans would have been damned useful when facing down the Hidden Horror. We kept moving deeper into the maze, avoiding corpses and traps as we moved through the crowd of cheering soldiers.

“Is Kreios winning?” I asked with a grimace.

“No one can tell,” Hakram admitted. “It was still going when we broke through.”

“Broke through,” I repeated with a frown. “Explain.”

“We haven’t won the battle for the inner city,” Warlord continued. “The Procerans seized one of the avenues and we’ve been funneling troops into the spire through it, but the palaces are still in enemy hands and we keep losing the plaza.”

Which was why it was such a haphazard mix of Grand Alliance troops that’d spilled into the maze. Whenever a push crested past enemy defences there was another wave of soldiers, but we didn’t actually hold the great plaza. It made a rough sort of sense, I thought. It was where all the great avenues led to, so it would be the easiest place in all of Keter for Neshamah to reinforce.

“It has been some time since we crossed,” Vivienne reminded me. “The battle could have tipped one way or another by now.”

I slowly nodded.

“Do you know where Hanno and the Witch are?”

“Keeping the gates open,” Warlord said.

And the enemy army off our backs, it went unsaid.

“I need a word with them,” I said. “The rest of you should prepare for the offensive.”

I paused.

“Zeze, can you get Indrani down here?” I asked. “I want us with her when we strike.”

“I’ll see to it,” Hierophant promised.

I clapped his shoulder, nodded at the others and went on my way. The hallways that fed into the maze room were relatively straightforward, opulently decorated with few visible defences laid in save for wards. They were grounds the Dead King was prepared to lose, after all: their purpose was to guide invaders in the killing grounds. I passed through knots of soldiers and makeshift infirmaries where priests and mages saw to the wounded – or burned the dead. The Forsworn Healer was there, but I did not stop to speak with him. Soon l I stood before the great open gates of the spire, at the top of wide stairs that have me a wide view of the city, and my stomach clenched at what I saw.

We were losing.

The Grand Alliance’s armies had broken into the inner city, overwhelming the ramparts and seizing two gates, but then they’d been pushed behind those walls like rats sealed in a casket. Our hosts had seized wide swaths of Keter’s centre and dug in, but relentless tides of undead smashed at their defences even as companies desperately charged into the central plaza to make it past the enemy and into the black spire. It was a battle of attrition now, I saw, and one we could only lose. An hour, two at most, and our armies would break. Before half of that passed they’d grow too feeble to keep mounting offensives into the plaza, cutting off the flow of reinforcements.

We’d have to do with the people we had and whoever arrived in the next quarter hour. If we didn’t take our swing at the Dead King soon we were finished. Breathing out shakily, I swept out the gates to find a few makeshift barricades had been raised at the bottom of the stairs and were being manned by hodgepodge mix of soldiers. Legionaries – mine and Nims’ both – side by side with Proceran conscripts and League mercenaries. Two pikes that must belong to Spears of Stygia rose high, a woman in magister’s robes with them, as Levantines painted in the colours of the Brigand’s Blood locked shields with orcs of the Blackspear Clan.

In front of them, swaggering, was the Red Knight. More surprising to me was the presence of the Silver Huntress and the Concocter, who’d evidently made it past the enemy to find the Witch. Still, I saw no sign of either her or Hanno. Or Kreios, for that matter, who should-

To the east a sun lit up the sky, burning through stone houses and towers and hundreds of dead even as air turned so thick and liquid that it seemed as if a curtain had fallen over an entire city bloc. In the heart of it I saw the two robed silhouettes of the dead Titans, bearing livery in Keter’s colours of purple and silver. A sight that seemed to enrage the third giant facing them, who pulled down the sky on their heads and let out a shout that echoed across the Crown of the Dead. I glimpsed the sun expanding and turning red, then exploding white for a heartbeat before it contracted and blackened, swallowing everything up before the magic exploded in strings of raw power.

None of the Titans flinched, magic rearing up again as they continued their terrifying clash.

Well Kreios seemed to, uh, have that in hand? A little hard to tell, like Hakram had said, but if I stuck my finger in there I didn’t think it’d achieve much except losing me a finger. Best to leave them to it. My gaze shied away, looking instead for Hanno and the Witch. They still weren’t with the barricades, but the soldiers there were pointing at something and following that I found them. There’d been a push to retake the plaza that had failed, but through the ranks of the dead a small band was running for the spire gates and the two of them had gone out to meet them. There were five – no, six – people sprinting as the dead howled after them.

 The Witch of the Woods tossed a spell into the horde, a ball of transparent force that crushed all it rolled over, but it wouldn’t be enough. A handful of Revenants had sped ahead of the rest of the undead, the fasted of them an armoured man with a great sword who… My fingers clenched when I realized I was looking at the Blade of Mercy. We hadn’t been fast enough to burn his corpse. Most of our dead Named had been recovered and burned, but sometimes it’d been impossible to retrieve the bodies. The runners were Named as well, I recognized. The Mirror Knight was easy to pick out by his armour, as were the Myrmidon and the Kingfisher Prince. The Grave Binder and Affable Burglar took a second look, but my breath caught when I recognized the person at the back of the pack.

That was Akua’s armour.

Hanno caught the Blade of Mercy’s blow a heartbeat before it struck her back, having sped up massively over his last few steps, and the truth of him was plain to See. The White Knight walked among us again, sword in hand. Hanno’s blade blazed with Light as he drove back the Revenant, parrying a spear thrust from another who’d caught up and holding the rearguard until the Witch struck down with a mass of water than she froze in the heartbeat that followed. A wasteland of ice behind him, the White Knight leisurely retreated while covering the runners the rest of the way. I was down the stairs in moments, on them as they arrived.

“Warden,” Hanno smiled.

“White Knight,” I returned, clasping his arm when he offered it.

He made a face that, on a prettier man, might have been called a pout.

“That eye of yours does take some pleasure out of things,” he complained.

“Not for me,” I snorted.

And I was, after all, a villain. I swept through the others, offering nods and claps where I should until I reached Akua. She looked tired, I thought, but far from resigned. My eye dipped do a pouch at her side and she replied with a nod.

“I still have them,” she said.

“Did you choose a name?” I asked.

Her smile was sharp enough to cut.

“Fetters,” Akua said. “I call them the Fetters.”

“It’ll do,” I said, and gently touched her elbow.

As much to greet her as reassure myself she was there. The Red Knight snorted contemptuously and I addressed her without turning.

“It might do you some good to remember that you don’t, strictly speaking, need your tongue to fight for me,” I mildly said.

I saw the smile in Akua’s eyes she did not allow to touch her face, and when I turned to glance at the Red Knight she looked uncertain. Taken aback by how casually I’d just threatened to rip out her tongue in front of half a dozen heroes. Hanno did look disapproving, but though it was hard to tell with the mask I was pretty the Witch of the Woods was grinning.

“We’ll soon be able to push deeper into the spire,” I said. “The glass will have cooled.”

“The glass?” the Mirror Knight asked, sounding confused.

“Hierophant was in a mood,” I shrugged.

It said a lot about the kind of reputation Masego had grown into that not a single person here misunderstood my meaning after that.

“There won’t be anyone more Named coming,” Prince Frederic told me. “It has been most of an hour since I last spoke with First Princess Rozala, but I believe all we are the last. Everyone else is crippled or dead.”

I kept a wince off my face. I’d not counted how many Named there had been in the maze, but it couldn’t be more than thirty. More than half the people who’d signed the Truce and Terms were now either dead or out of the fight.

“Then we press on with what we have,” I told them. “The Scourges still block our path, but-”

We all went silent. Even the least sensitive of the Named, even those soldiers without a speck of magic to them, felt it. Like a fetid warm wind out of a swamp, licking at our skin. It came from where half the maze still stood. The drakon, I thought. But how? The Emerald Swords should be keeping it contained.

“Either the Emerald Sword are dead,” I grimly said, “or they were tricked.”

Heavy silence followed.

“I think,” the Concocter hesitantly said, “I think that I know what happened.”

My eye went to her, a silent order to keep talking.

“The body it just a corpse,” Cocky said. “It’s the essence of the drakon that matters. So it might be that the elves are still cutting up a regenerating body but that the essence slipped away.”

My breath caught.

“You’re saying it’s building itself another body,” I said. “In there.”

Out of corpses, steel and stone, I thought. I

“The Dead King’s leash on such a thing would be loose,” Antigone flatly said. “This may well be the seed of a drakon reborn.”

I shivered at that, I wasn’t too proud to admit it. I wasn’t alone in that either. Few of the people here knew what a drakon even was and yet dread hung heavy in the air. Had the Dead King’s monster gotten free? I concentrated, dipped into the darkness of See, and the story was there to be found. Strong, the riverbed of it deep and wide. It had been near a certainty from the moment Below’s stories returned and the monster was revealed. Which means he knew it would happen, I thought. It was Neshamah, he’d seen that story play out a thousand times before. Which meant it was part of his plan, and when I stopped to consider what a drakon reborn might mean I understood exactly what it was.

He was raising another Evil we needed to stop. We couldn’t just fucking ignore this and pass it by as we went to take his head, we’d need to deal with it else Calernia was just as fucked as before: we might not be in a state to stop it after we dealt with the Dead King. The one person who did have a story to lean into against the creature was already busy, stuck in the grooves a story just as strong: the last Titan putting to rest the stolen corpses of his old comrades. Fuck, I thought again. We were getting played, had gotten played, and it was skillful enough that even if I knew there was no other choice than to pay up on the price.

“Concocter, you still have that piece of the drakon?” I asked.

“I do,” she agreed.

“Then you and the Witch need to figure out a way to put it down,” I frankly said. “Take whoever you need to get it done. The rest of us go for the Dead King.”

“I will finish it,” the Witch of the Woods promised me.

“There might not be a way,” the Mirror Knight cautioned her.

“Then I will make one,” she replied without hesitation. “Whatever the cost.”

I nodded, comforted by her determination if nothing else.

“Make your picks quickly,” I ordered her. “We’re running out of time.”

“O Tiferet, ruled by lords fair and just

Your sages celebrated far and wide.”

It was a horror.

I had seen dark and ugly things over my years as a villain, but not even the worst of the madness to be found in the Wasteland rivaled the seed of a drakon taking root. Out of the glass it had grown, swallowing up corpses and stone and armour like a tar pit, until a twisted abomination took shape. It had a dragon’s long neck and body, but the wings were ragged and full of holes – their patterns hurting the eye – and while a spiked tailed slithered down there were no feet beneath. Only writhing tentacles of corpse-flesh and eerie, insect-like scuttling legs. It was the mouth that had me nauseous, though. The jaw split four ways, revealing dripping jowls and a sea of teeth that were as glistening knives. Every part of it writhed, moved, faces and armour and limbs looking as if they were trying to wriggle out of the abomination.

To stand in its presence was to feel it biting away at you, eating everything that you were piece by piece. It was not something humans were meant to face, and yet we must. There was no other choice, for it was rampaging all over remains of the maze. With a cruel intelligence it had lacked earlier it snatched up soldiers and trampled banners, leaving some half dead and bleeding out so they might scream out their suffering as they died. The only relief to be had here was that there was not a single Scourge here: the Dead King would not risk them when he was losing control of his monster.

“Go,” the Witch of the Woods shouted. “I will draw its attention.”

As her sorcery roared, we ran for it. The Woe came to me as we ran through the maze, avoiding swipes of the drakon’s limbs that shattered rooms while the Witch struck at it with great icy winds. It was fewer Named than I would have liked who would come with us. The Kingfisher Prince would hold the rearguard with the soldiers and the Red Knight was to stay with him, one meant for leading men and the other killing foes. Then the Witch had taken the Mage – Apprentice had transitioned, fancy that, and she wasn’t even done if I saw that right – the Knight Errant, the Myrmidon, the Painted Knife and the Affable Burglar. The Stalwart Apostle was to stay back and heal, with the Stained Sister to keep her alive. And the Concocter, of course.

Hanno and I would get the rest. The Woe, of course. Then the Valiant Champion, the Mirror Knight, the Forsworn Healer, the Daring Pyromancer, the Silver Huntress, the Vagrant Spear, the Page, the Skinchanger and the Grave Binder. Akua as well, of course, though she was not properly named. Sixteen of us to end the King of Death.

It felt like too few, but there was no other choice.

The kept running, squeezing through the smoking halls, and the cloying humidity pressed ever stronger as we approached the drakon’s side. It noticed us, even through the winds, and would have swiped if not for the madwoman who leapt on its back and began tearing out its back.

Honour to the Blood,” the Painted Knife shouted.

A heartbeat later she was sent flying, the drakon screaming in irritation, as I heard bones break. Kallia, I realized, might well just have died. But she’d bought us a moment. We reached the open grounds of glass, marred by the abomination that’d emerged from them, and though it turned its back on the maze to chase us the Witch of the Woods ripped out a chunk of the ceiling and collapsed it on the monster’s head. It wouldn’t hurt it, we all knew that, but it won us the rest of the way to the stairs. Across smooth black glass we ran, until our feet reached stone and the drakon’s fury sounded behind us.

“Don’t stop,” I shouted. “Keep going. We lose if we slow.”

We couldn’t know where in the spire the Dead King waited, but it didn’t matter. We had enough heroes assembled that providence would lead us there in time and even though we’d played most of the cards we had to play so had Neshamah. He didn’t have a lot of defences or defenders left that could stop the crew of sixteen we’d assembled. Only the one, really, and he didn’t make us wait long for it. We stumbled out of the stairs into a cavernous great hall, a forest of tall pillars under a curved ceiling so tall I could barely make it out. There were no torches here, no magelights, and yet a dim green light hung about the hall. Our boots found wet tiles as we entered, shallow waters covering swaths of the hall as they looked like emerald mirrors.

Among the pillars at the heart of the room, the Prince of Bones stood waiting.

“They’re here,” I quietly said. “All of them.”

“Then we strike hard from the start,” Hanno said.

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. No, that too was a trap. Sixteen against five with the strong Named we had, we were certain to beat them. But the story would be diluted. Too many of us moving in different directions. What would win out was the simplest one of all: ‘the Scourges can kill Named’. We’d win, but our losses would be catastrophic. Like the Maddened Fields, it would be a victory that lost us the war.

“No,” I said. “The rest of you go on ahead. This if for the Woe to handle.”

The White Knight turned to me, startled, but I raised a hand.

“Don’t argue,” I ordered. “We don’t have the time. We’ll engage them, take the opening and go.”

He was unhappy, I could see it writ plain on that plain face. But he would not turn his back on the decision we had made at the heart of the tower, when I had devoured the first of the Intercessor’s eyes: I was the Warden and so he would obey.

“I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the line, Catherine,” Hanno of Arwad finally said.

“We began the Truce and Terms together,” I smiled. “We’ll end them together as well, Hanno.”

A curt nod, and he moved. Named followed in his wake, headed to the side of the room and I found golden eyes looking for mine. There was something like grief on Akua’s face, and she seemed startled with the intensity of it. Enough that she looked awat.

The Woe gathered around me and I let out a long breath, eye falling on the waiting Prince of Bones.

“By their golden wisdom without rust,

A hundred times did you earn your pride!”

So that was it, then. The last dance of the Woe. We’d go different ways after the war, should there be an after the war, but we sill had today before it came to an end.

“Quite the fight you’ve picked us,” Princess drawled.

“Eh, that’s always been the way,” Ranger said. “We always find the meanest fucker in the room and throw a drink in his face, it’s kind of our thing at this point.”

“We have grudges to settle, besides,” Warlord grunted. “They’ve gotten away too many times already.”

I rolled my shoulder, limbering it, and slowly unsheathed my sword.

“Let’s buy them passage to the Dead King, then,” I said.

I took a limping step forward, but Masego suddenly cleared his throat. I stalled and looked back, finding him staring at me disapprovingly.

“You haven’t said the words,” he complained.

I blinked.

“What words?”

“Our motto,” he slowly said, as if addressing a dimwit.

Indrani got it first, letting out a hyena’s cackle, and I got what he meant a moment latter in utter disbelief.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” I warned. “Not a single one of you.”

“Together,” Hierophant enthusiastically said, raising his hand.

Filthy traitors that they were, the others all joined in.

“LIES AND VIOLENCE!”

A moment of silence passed as the Prince of Bones slowly cocked his head to the side. Yeah, that really happened, I commiserated.

“I hate you all,” I said, meaning every word but one.

This time when I stepped forward, they followed.

My gait was lazy, unhurried, because I could feel it one more. The same sensation that had come upon me in Dormer, when the five of us had been the first into the last breach. Like a rhythm, a second heartbeat that had always been there but never heard.

Ranger, as always, opened the dance.

The unraveller flew, a killing stroke for any Revenant’s flesh it found. The Prince of Bones did not move, the Hawk’s black arrow shattering the artefact in flight, but the song was in our ears and our feet followed. Hakram tore forward, a roar in his throat as he raised the greatsword, and the water beneath our feet stirred as the Tumult’s sorcery woke.

“No,” Hierophant mildly said, and Wrested the spell.

With perfect coordination the magic was shaped into frost and tossed onto the pillar to Hakram’s side, catching the Seelie’s side as she flickered into existence. I hummed, Night thrumming in my veins as I sunk tendrils into the stone and pulled the pillar down on her head. A curse shivered past the spine of the pillar as it fell, the Mantle’s armoured form wading out of deep water. Vivienne’s half-step to the side, light-footed as when she had been the Thief, took her out of the path just long enough for her to ram her sword through the Seelie’s throat.

She exploded into a storm of fading flower petals and the Princess frowned. Something inside of her grew, sharpened. Not quite there yet, but soon.

Indrani shot the Hawk’s arrow before it could take the Vagrant Spear in the eye on the very same heartbeat where Warlord’s sword met the Prince of Bones’. Steel rang against steel, both monstrous blades scrapping the other’s edge, but Hakram would lose out in strength. It didn’t matter, because as I slowly limped forward I had been spreading Night in the water. I thumped the butt of my staff against the stone and tendrils of water rose, tugging at the Prince’s feet. He was too heavy to fall that easily, but the Mantle had to throw a curse at the water and to free him and that gave Vivienne an opportunity to disappear in the dark between the pillars. Princess or not, she remained a sneak at heart. Ranger shot the Mantle in the back of the head, the Hawk’s arrow just a shade too slow to catch it, but it slid against the metal. The angle had been a little off.

On the other side of the room I saw the last of them, the Grave Binder, get onto the stairs. They were through, and now we could get serious.

I breathed out, forming eyes of Night all around me. One, a dozen, a hundred – a thousand. After all, I knew exactly what was coming. A heartbeat later the Mantle called down darkness over the heart of the hall, where she and Hakram and the Prince were fighting. Through my dead eye I gauged the distances, gathering Nigh tot my hand, and let loose a spear of Night. It streaked forward into the dark, clipping the side of the Mantle’s shoulder and disrupting her hold on the curse. All was revealed, just in time for me to see Warlord being forced a step back by the Prince, sword slammed into the ground as the armoured behemoth slammed their heads.

Hakram took a step back, dazed, but Ranger’s arrow hit the Mantle in the articulation of her armour’s wrist. It released Light when snapped – the Blessed Artificer’s work, had to be – which stepped the Scourge cold before she could break Warlord’s neck with her mace. The song quickened, four streaks of lightning forming near the ceiling. A halfway clever way to get around the limitation of Wrest, which could only seize one magical source at a time. Only Hierophant ripped out one of the streaks before it finished forming, striking at the others with it even as I drew on Night and closed the distance with the melee.

The last of the lightning shattered a pillar, guided by Hierophant’s hand, and a heartbeat later there was the sound of someone falling into water. The Hawk, I saw through eyes of Night. Masego had found her, and her ragged cloak splashed as she rose from the puddles. I’d have to leave that to Indrani, since I – in the blind spot of my eye the Seelie flicked into being, aiming at my spine, but I swept wide with my staff. As I struck nothing, I realized with dim surprise that she’d tricked me: this once, the first blow had not been an illusion. I threw myself to the side, already knowing it’d be too slow, but then a sword rammed into the Seelie’s back.

“Eighth-rate,” Princess said, tone cold as she ripped the blade free.

The Scourge crumbled into a bed of flowers, to my anger, but at the sight of it the bundle of power inside her took shape and set. Coming into her aspect, Vivienne Dartwick let out a sharp breath.

“So that’s it,” she murmured. “You’ve just been tricking us.”

A glance at me.

“Catherine, burn.”

I did not question it, turning to drown the flowers in black flame even as behind me the Prince of Bones swung at my head – only to be stopped by Hakram’s parry, blades slamming into the ground as Masego Wrested the Mantle’s cursed and smashed it into the Prince’s side. The flowers lit up like kindling and with hoarse scream gathered back together, turning into the Seelie once more. Oh, I thought. This entire time, the petals had never faded during any of our fights. She’d just used an illusion to make it looked like they did while she put herself back together out of sight. The Scourge screamed, wings erupting out of her back, but I swung with the strength of my Name behind me: the slash opened her throat, cutting into the bone yet but not hard enough to go through. Vivienne, swift as a viper, put a dagger through the Seelie’s eye and dug deep. She knelt, grabbing my sword even as I pivoted to slap away a curse of the Mantle’s with my staff and reply with burst of raw power that she had to block with her mace, and Princess leaned on her own Name strength to finish the cut all the way through.

The Seelie went still, and in the same heartbeat that Vivienne cut off her head the Scourge rammed her dagger into my successor’s throat.

A scream welled up in my throat, too raw to be a word, and then the Princess exploded into a shower of fragrant flowers. She formed back a moment later, on her feet and smiling icily.

“I can Trick people too, you know,” Princess said. “It’s not that hard.”

See through tricks, I glimpsed in her, and mimic them. The learning wouldn’t stay in her long, that was the limitation, but some part of Vivienne Dartwick had decided she would no longer fall for the same trick twice with such utter determination that Creation itself had answered. It was fitting I thought, for of all of us she had had grown into the one most resolute to learn from her mistakes. One down and four to go. The song swelled in agreement, the chorus whispering in my ear as the five of us moved as one. As Vivienne faded into the shadow of the pillars behind me, I turned back to the fight and joined Hakram’s side.

The Prince of Bones and the Mantle towered over us, masses of steel wielding more of the same, but I was not afraid. Hakram Deadhand had stood at my side since the beginning of this, and he’d stand there still when we ended it.

The Prince struck and Warlord met him, muscles tearing at the contest of strength while I slipped behind the giant’s back to avoid the Mantle’s shivering curse. Above us magic warred against itself, the Tumult having lost patience and now trying to overwhelm Hierophant with brute strength and numbers, but across the green-mirrored water Hakram and I danced. The might of the titans broke stone and howled through the air but we were ever one step ahead, wind rustling over the water as we avoided death by a hair’s breadth and struck back. I struck the Mantle’s knee from the back and Hakram took off her hand, the two of us stepping out of the Prince’s blow as Ranger killed the Hawk’s arrow.

The Prince rushed me and I withdrew, leg throbbing, as Hakram smashed the Mantle’s side and my staff trailed along the water. A trail of Night slithered until my back was to a pillar and the Prince of Bones’ hulking shape was mere feet away, not even bothering to use the sword to crush me. Instead I smiled and turned the Night solid, the nooses I’d attached around his feet solidifying around a pillar to his back. He ripped through it with his weight and momentum even though I’d tied it at the base, but I still got what I wanted: he toppled forward even as I took a measured step to the side, helmeted head smashing into the pillar in front of him.

“O Sve Noc,” I prayed as I raised my blade, “I ask you not salvation but grant me spite.”

The Sisters smiled against my neck, talons digging into my shoulders, and the edge of my sword shone black as I carved into the Prince’s neck. Going through layer after layer of steel until my momentum was gone and my sword stuck, I ripped it clean at angle that sliced even deeper. All the way through. A kick sent the Prince of Bones’ head tumbling into the water, but the Scourge still leaned on his sword to get back on his feet. Unmoved.

That was when I heard the scream and the music stalled.

I looked through Night, seeing Vivienne crumple to the ground behind the Hawk as spikes of rim tore through her back. She turned to flowers, but the Hawk turned and shot a black arrow into them. She turned back into her true form, writhing and with an arrow through the stomach. I ran, leaving the Prince to rise behind me, and ducked under the Mantle’s swing as Warlord finally hacked through her arm. The limb and weapon dropped, but she touched his burnt plate and it shrivelled as he let out a roar of pain. I could see Indrani firing at her so I kept running past them, my dead eye watching as an unraveller went right in the stump and the Mantle lit up before dropping like a stringless puppet.

The Hawk nocked another arrow as Vivienne tried to get back on her feet, bleeding badly, and I tossed a ball of hast spear of blackflame at the Scourge. It moved only just enough to get out of the way and I had to close my eye as a burst of lightning fell on my head – only to veer off at the last moment and smash into the Hawk’s side. She dropped twitching in the water as Vivienne ripped the arrow clean and staggered to her feet, leaning against the pillar. Only Hakram screamed behind me, because the Tumult had prepared two spells. A whirlwind of ice and water swallowed him whole, throwing him at the ceiling even as I got to Vivienne a laid my hand on her side. Masego would have to catch him, I was busy.

Night stemmed the bleeding, but I couldn’t heal. I couldn’t get her through this. No poison, though, I realized with a sliver of relief.

“Hide,” I ordered. “And get to Masego.”

She nodded, shivering. Movement at the edge of my vision caught my eye but it wasn’t the Hawk getting out. It was, I realized with horror as a streak of sleekness broke the surface, an arrow. Somehow the Scourge had been able to use a bow from underwater. I froze, seeing how it would punch into my stomach, but knowing that if I moved it would kill Vivienne for sure. That wasn’t even a choice. I pulled on Night, knowing it’d be too slow. It might save my life, if it wasn’t poisoned and- scarf trailing behind her, Ranger’s longknife shone green as she cut through the arrow. If she were still the Archer, I dimly thought, she wouldn’t have made it in time. The arrow shattered and I shaped the Night I’d gathered into raw heat, throwing at the water.

It turned into trails of vapour, revealing a scalded Hawk, and in a heartbeat Indrani was on the Scourge.

At a distance, bow in hand, they were a match for each other. But the Hawk avoided fighting up close for a reason, and Indrani was no longer the Archer. The first blow cut through the bow, the second took three fingers and an eye. The Hawk stepped back, trying to make distance, but Ranger moved smooth as silk: a step turned into a beautiful thrust, the longknife piercing the Scourge’s throat. All the way through. It wriggled, still moving, but with a simple pivot she struck with her second blade and the Hawk’s hooded head went flying. It was a victory, one she had craved for years now, but there was no time to celebrate.

“Get the Tumult,” I ordered.

I let Vivienne stand on her feet, waiting a moment to see whether she’d collapsed before moving away. Hakram was duelling the Prince of Bones again, and their blades were so swift they were a blur to the eye. He should have folded, crumpled under the Scourge’s strength, but I could See it in him. A rising tide of red, the heat and anger he had only learned to taste after he embraced the people he’d never thought of himself as part of. Rage, his soul sang, the aspect bolstering strength and limbs. It would not fail him so long as he remained in the throes of the red, ever rising until it burned itself out. I went for the Prince’s back, gathering Night, when there was a crackle of lightning and Ranger let out a scream. I looked through eye and saw she’d struck at the Tumult only to hit a shield of lightning, a trap already laid.

Masego ripped it down and I focused my Night again, but in that heartbeat of distraction the other fight turned: the Prince’s sword came down and Hakram’s leg was cut clean through. It was steel, though, prosthetic, and even as he fell Warlord lunged for his enemy’s throat. I shouted and dragged back the Scourge’s sword arm with tendrils of Night. Yet even as Hakram began tearing inside the Prince’s armour with his hands, death and steel on death and steel, the other hand picked him up by the neck and smashed him into the floor.

There was a loud, horrifying crack.

His spine. That’d been his spine. Warlord twitched on the ground as the Prince of Bones ripped out his arm, the steel limb and a great boot rose. I unleashed a torrent of Night at its back, beginning to topple it but not nearly quickly enough.

No,” I screamed.

Ruin,” Hierophant hissed, face red with fury.

The aspect he had meant to keep for the Dead King rippled through the air and struck the Scourge like a hammer blow. The giant mass of steel creaked, then metal screamed as it began to crumple like cheap tin. The Prince of Bones fell apart, limb by limb, until the all the layers slid off and all that was left was a pile of naked, twisted bone. It moved feebly, twitching, and the Warlord’s dead hand, the only part of him that was not trembling, closed around his neck. He dragged it close, roaring as the last of his Rage burned and the orc’s fangs tore through the Scourge’s spine. It stopped moving. He did not, still twitching uncontrollably.

I pulled Night to me, the air cold and clear, and watched through an eye as once more Indrani tripped a defensive spell and was thrown back. The Tumult, the sleeves of its robes ripped off and the bones of it fresher than the rest, went still for a moment. Its eyes burned red, then it poured all it had left into a streak of three spells. Masego killed the first, unhesitating. I drowned the second, a rain of ice shards, in a well of darkness. The third was a sharp gust of wind meant to kill Hakram on the ground, and Hierophant flicked his wrist to make a shield in the way. And the wind stopped, but a small dot of darkness went right through. A curse. The Dead King had leant a hand.

I loosed a burst of Night at Hakram to push him out of the way but it only clipped his shoulder. It didn’t move him enough. And none of us were close enough, Indrani’s arrow was too far, and as the dot of darkness hit his scalp it was caught. Half of it, I saw with excruciating precision through eyes of Night, was caught by pale fingers as Vivienne Dartwick threw herself forward. Both of them seized up, but where he went utterly still she burst into a storm of flowers. Blood red, like the song, and they fell all over him. He was, I saw, still breathing. My eyes, all of them, turned to the Tumult and in that moment I Saw the truth of it.

It was stitched together from the souls of many mages, but one of those souls had been the foundation. It was released at Hainaut but traces of it remained, like sutures for the Scourge, and they were everything. They were how the Dead King had made this creature in the first place. It’d been a necromancer, one, someone that could steal knowledge from the dead and use it. Those aspects were now the beating heart of the Revenant, what allowed it to exist. I raised a hand, gathering Night, and a streak of shadow formed above the Tumult. It was just an aspect, I thought. Gods, I’d been a fool.

Silence,” I harshly said.

And just like that the sutures disappeared. The souls began to pull every which way, the magic that’d been gathering breaking apart, and the Scourge stared blindly as the shadow deepened, expanded. Dread Empress Tenebrous massive leg shot through, crushing the Tumult like an egg with one of the most satisfying sounds I’d ever heard. I slumped to my knees as the leg withdrew, shadows fading behind it, and stayed there panting for a long moment. It was over. We’d won.

The song began to fade, exhaustion replacing it.

Sheathing my sword, I leaned on my staff to get back to my feet. Vivienne had taken human shape again and Masego was healing her, Indrani catching up to me as we limped to their side.

“What was it?” I croaked out. “The curse.”

“I don’t know,” Princess admitted, face pale. “I just knew it’d destroy me if I remained me.”

She was sweating and shivering. Too much blood loss, and despite Masego’s best efforts that arrow wound refused to close completely. The Hawk’s aspect at work, I guessed. The wound was fighting to be lethal. My eye moved to Masego for answers.

“It was a mind-killer,” Hierophant said.

My jaw clenched as I forced myself to look at Hakram. He’d stopped twitching after being hit with the curse and would have looked like he was sleeping, were he not missing two limbs and his face swollen.

“How much of him remains?” I asked, voice choking up.

“I’ve contained the curse,” Hierophant said, “and Vivienne took on half of it. If he wakes, he will have lost some memories but retain his faculties.”

“If?” Indrani asked.

“I cannot promise he will,” Masego admitted. “A healer in Light might do better, but I cannot.”

Then he flicked a look at Vivienne, whose breath was laboured. Sweat poured down her face.

“You need one as well,” he said. “You still have even odds of dying otherwise.”

Ad the healers, we all knew, were behind us. While neither were in a state to move on their own. I clenched my fingers. Now that one song had faded, I heard, another returned in its stead.

“O Tiferet, where have you gone now,

Where went the song the river gave?”

I breathed out, all my eyes but one fading as I looked around us. This ruin of a room where only desperation and use of an aspect we had meant for the Dead King had kept two of the Woe form dying. And they might yet find their doom among these beautiful green mirrors, I knew, if I made the wrong choice. The cold part of me knew what should be done: whatever helped our chances of beating the Dead King. But I wasn’t the girl I’d been at seventeen, savagely ruthless in defence of what I saw as a greater good. Indrani had once told me that in offering the Woe a hearth I had turned wild beats into tamed ones, but that sword cut both ways.

I wasn’t willing to give the order anymore, not the one I should.

“Indrani,” I said.

She looked like I’d slapped her, hazelnut eyes blazing with anger.

“You can’t be serious,” she said, “not when you’re heading into a fight with-”

“It has to be you,” I softly interrupted. “You know that. You’re the one who’ll get her there before she dies.”

“I can’t leave you to fight the Hidden Horror alone,” Indrani pleaded. “What if…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to. Masego limped to her side, laying a gentle hand on her wrist.

“She won’t be alone, Indrani,” he said. “I go with her.”

“That’s worse,” she whispered. “I won’t be able to protect either of you.”

She set her jaw then looked away, drawing back from her touch. The look she gave me was unhappy but resigned.

“I swore to myself I wouldn’t get like this,” Indrani said. “I guess I’m not better than that, after all.”

“I wouldn’t be able to keep going if it wasn’t you taking care of them,” I told her.

“Liar,” she ruefully smiled. “That’s once today, Catherine Foundling. Don’t disappoint me again by dying without me.”

She helped up Vivienne and knelt, slinging Hakram’s unconscious body over her shoulder. After one last lingering look she turned her back, heading for the stairs. I took a moment to steady my breath, Masego’s solid presence at my side a comfort as I looked at the emerald grave where we had buried the Scourges.

“O Tiferet, where I gave love my vow,

Why have you become an empty grave?”

We shared a look and I nodded. Nothing more needed to be said: Hierophant and I hurried down the empty hallway, our footsteps echoing as we ran. We would get there in time, I could feel it. We’d be there for the end of the Dead King’s story.

Oh why have you become,” Yara of Nowhere sadly sang, “an empty grave?”

Scriven

“Beware the gap between the lesson taught and the lesson learned.”

– Delosi saying

Eudokia mostly remembered being hungry.

She wasn’t sure how she had ended up on the street, but then most of the others didn’t either. They begged by the thoroughfare with worn bowls, getting coppers or scraps when they weren’t being chased off by the guards, and it was a rare turn of the moon where one of them did not disappear. Sometimes they died in their sleep, the good way to go. Sometimes it was the cough or the bubbles, which were bad, but worse yet was people. Corrin had spent half a day drowning in his own blood after that guard roughed him up. It didn’t get better, even when priests out in the streets said it would. They said that Delos sent coin to the city, that it would get the little beggars into houses, but it never did. Eudokia was young, but already she knew better than to believe it ever would.

The Secretariat’s money always went to the walls and the nobles. No one else ever saw so much as a silver of it.

When the men came, she’d been sleeping. Hadn’t had anything to eat in two days, she could barely stand. But the noise of it woke her up and she headed to the abandoned temple on the other side of the street, where a handful of men dressed like merchants were talking. She slipped in and saw they were smiling, but not the kids. The strangers were offering to take them away, to bring them to a school where they would learn a trade and become scholars.

“Three meals a day,” the smiling man promised. “And a roof over your head.”

The smaller kids were eager for it, but the older ones knew better. Sometimes neatly dressed men came from the nicer parts of the city, offering bargains like this one – when they bothered to ask at all – but the kids that went never came back. You learned not to ask questions and to keep with other kids when night fell, even though they might steal from you. It was better than disappearing.

“Where would we go?” a kid asked. “Where would you take us?”

“Delos, child,” the smiling man said. “Far from these dirty streets.”

And it was a trap, had to be, but some of the little kids went for it. Ignored the older ones that tried to hold them back. After that it was the desperate who went, and Eudokia bit her lip. Two days, since she’d last eaten. She didn’t have anyone who’d share if she asked and she was starting to sleep a lot. She’d seen it happen before, how it was the beginning of wasting away. They might kill her, she thought, but it might be quick. Better than going slow, the empty belly hollowing you from the inside.

“I’ll go,” Eudokia said, and the man smiled at her.

They hadn’t been chained up when they travelled by wagon, and the merchants hadn’t lied when they said there would be three meals a day. Good signs, but how long would that last? Still, Eudokia couldn’t remember ever eating so well and neither could any of the others. Meat and greens, sometimes with fresh olives and warm milk after. Like most kids she couldn’t remember a life before the street, and there was enough hope in her that she didn’t even argue when the merchants stopped the wagons by a river and told them all to go out and wash. They used soap that smelled like flowers and got to sleep in clean blankets after. One of the older boys had eavesdropped on the merchants at night and he said they were all really headed to Delos, to the great city where they said Secretariat ruled for the good of all.

A lot of them spent parts of the day sleeping, not used to eating so much or feeling so safe, and Eudokia would admit she was one. It was why she didn’t see them enter Delos, she’d been napping in the back. She only woke when they were near the place where they would live and the other kids got rowdy, nervous the good times would end and taking it out on each other. The smiling man was still smiling when he told them to cut it out, that they would soon be at their new home. That, at least, Eudokia was awake for. She filed out the wagons with the others and stared curiously at her new home. It looked like a temple, she thought, but also a little like a school. It was large, though, larger than any building she’d ever seen: long and wide, with three stories and other dwellings attached.

There were walls around it, which she didn’t like, but through the open gates she could see people in robes going around – some were cleaning with brooms, others carrying scrolls and there were even kids not much older than her running around playing.

“This is the School of Gulls, children,” the smiling man told them. “You will live here until you are grown, learning your trade.”

And part of her still thought that it was a trap, but when they were ushered in no one hit them and the people inside didn’t glare. They weren’t brought into the large temple-like place, instead to the smaller houses on the side, but Eudokia didn’t mind. The merchants, who told them they were to be called Scholars now that everyone was part of the school, said it was because the large building was used for lessons and the dormitories of the older students. Deep down Eudokia was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but as the weeks passed it didn’t. They were fed and clothed, given beds in the small houses and brought to classrooms to be taught letters and numbers by smiling Scholars. Eudokia made friends with some of the others, though most with Cassandra.

She was a little older, but no luckier like Eudokia she’d been starving before she came here. She had curly hair and now that her cheeks weren’t hollow they were red like apples. She talked and laughed a lot, too, which Eudokia liked. She was quiet, so it felt nice to have someone that’d fill the silences.

“We never have lessons with the older kids, did you notice?” Cassandra said one day as they sat in the courtyard for their midday meal.

“They read scrolls in their classes,” Eudokia pointed out. “We can’t read yet.”

“Maybe,” the other girl mused. “Still, it’s strange we see so little of them. And there’s two kinds of robes they wear, did you notice?”

“I asked about that,” she replied. “The blue robes are from outside, students who paid to study here. The brown robes are street kids like us, taken in.”

Cassandra frowned.

“So why is it that the brown robes try so hard to avoid us?”

Eudokia didn’t answer, but she figured she knew. It must be embarrassing for the students, now that they’d learned all those lessons, to be put next to ignorant kids like them when the blue robes were looking. Like being told you were the same as the kid who pissed his pants all the time. She didn’t tell Cassandra, though, because then she’d smile less and she liked Cassandra’s smiles. And though Eudokia let the conversation die, the curiosity did stick a little. Enough that she approached one of the blue robes after the day’s lessons were over, asking the older girl if she could maybe answer a few questions. The blue robe passed a hand through her hair, sighing.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, “but explaining anything to you might end up a waste of time for me.”

Eudokia flinched, which had the older girl’s eyes widening.

“I don’t mean that being an orphan makes you less,” the blue robe hurried to assure her. “Family can’t get you through the askretis examinations if you don’t have talent. It’s just that you haven’t gone through the threshing yet.”

“The threshing?” Eudokia warily asked.

“When six months have passed, they send the slower children to one of the branch schools and keep the sharpest here,” the older girl said. “About half of you will be leaving.”

Not unkindly, the blue robe patted her shoulder.

“Come see me if you stick around, yeah?” she said. “I’ll help you find your way in the library.”

She shared what she’d learned with Cassandra that night, and the two of them only grew more determined. They’d study twice as hard and be part of the ones that stayed.

“Together,” Cassandra promised. “We’ll make it together.”

“We will,” Eudokia promised back.

By the time the sixth month since their arrival came at an end, all of the orphans knew what was coming. Word had gotten around, and Eudokia suspected she might not even have been the first to learn of it – the others had just kept quiet so there’d be less competition. So when one morning the entire class, all thirty of them, was taken to one of the examination halls in the back of the school everyone knew what it was about. Scholar Linos, a cheerful fat man that everyone liked, was the one who greeted them inside.

“Good morning, students,” Linos smiled. “I imagine you’ve pieced together why you’re here.”

There were scattered answers, a few of them mentioning the word ‘threshing’ outright. Eudokia kept her silence, seated on the desk by Cassandra’s.

“It is nothing to worry about,” Scholar Linos assured them. “All children learn at different paces, and it may be that the School of Gulls is not the best place for you to learn. It does not mean we will abandon you.”

Not a single child in the room really believed that, deep down. When the test was given – slate and chalk had been given out where answers were to be written to the questions that Scholar Linos asked out loud – all went at it aggressively, Eudokia tracing the words and numbers with methodical care. Cassandra looked like she might be struggling with additions, so she waited until Linos was looking elsewhere and showed her friend her slate. They’d make it together. When it was done they all had to set down their chalk and two other scholars came in to help Linos pick up their slates. They left, leaving the smiling fat man behind, but then someone else came. A bent old woman in brown robes, though hers were belted with cloth of gold. The door was locked behind her.

She spoke not a word, only looking at them curiously, but even if Scholar Linos hadn’t bowed at her entry the kid would have gone quiet. She felt serious, important.

“Children,” the old woman said. “You may call me Crone.”

Linos cleared his throat, gesturing significantly, and they all greeted her.

“I am an elder in the School of Gulls,” Crone said, “here to greet you today as you truly enter it. There is one last test for you to pass, as I once did and others will after you.”

Everyone leaned forward, worry and hope fighting for the reins.

“Get in pairs and stand up, children,” Scholar Linos gently ordered. “You can choose your own.”

They didn’t hesitate: Eudokia and Cassandra shared a look and immediately rose. A few others did too, until there were only a few hesitant kids left that paired with each other reluctantly. Scholar Linos showed them all an hourglass, which he set on the desk at the front of the examination room and flipped. The sand began to pour down.

“Children,” Crone said. “You have until the hourglass runs out to kill who you paired with. Anyone who does not will be killed when the sand runs out.”

Disbelief rippled. Some tried to laugh, but the two adults were perfectly unsmiling. Some screamed, then and a boy made for the door. It was still locked and wouldn’t move. A pair of girls moved closer to Crone, screaming to let them out, but the old woman simply backhanded the taller of the two hard enough blood flew. Jolly, fat Scholar Linos sighed and revealed a knife.

“Do not try that again,” Linos warned.

Eudokia felt the shift in the air then. She took a step back, towards the corner of the room, and Cassandra – oh, to her relief Cassandra looked just as terrified and the two of them backed away, holding each other tight. It was a scarred boy that threw the first hit, striking a smaller one in the face, and it was like a dam broke. Not for everyone, there were some who backed away like Eudokia and Cassandra, but so many. More than half. After six months of steady meals and exercise, they’d all gotten stronger and so instead of petty flailing it turned murderous. Blow and strangling, kids smashing each other against desks or stepping on each other’s throats.

The hourglass began to run out, and some of those that’d held back turned. Afraid of getting killed like Crone had said. Eudokia was even more scared of doing anything at all, and when the last bit of sand fell she held Cassandra close and closed her eyes.

“Eleven blooded,” Crone mildly said. “A good batch.”

“The streets always make them sharper than orphanages, Crone,” Scholar Linos replied. “Harder lessons. Our holdouts?”

“You know our way,” Crone simply said.

Eudokia’s stomach clenched and at the sound of the door opening she opened her eyes. Only instead of rescue or relief it was two Scholars who came in, and they called out strange words before waving their hands.

Darkness claimed her.

She woke up in a cell.

It was cold and wet and she was lying on stone, but there was a bundle of warmth at her side. Cassandra, she realized. Who was still sleeping. Eudokia looked around, trying to figure out where she was, it was just a cell of bare stone leading into iron bars. Pressing her face against those she tried to have a look outside, but all she saw was a glimpse of a corridor and what might be other cells. No light. At least not until she heard footsteps coming from a distance and torchlight flickered against the walls. Eudokia hurriedly shook Cassandra awake, who opened her eyes even if she looked dazed. The steps were unhurried, so the two of them got to their feet before the Crone appeared on the other side of the bars.

“Children,” the old woman greeted them.

“You’re evil,” Cassandra hissed. “All of you.”

Crone shook her head.

“I am sinless, child,” she said. “As either of you would have been, had you killed the other.”

“Killing is a sin,” Eudokia quietly said.

“It is the sin of the hand, Eudokia,” Crone smiled. “Not of the tool. And this is what we are, here in the School of the Gull: tools. We are no more sinful than a sword or a knife.”

“The Secretariat’ll stop you,” Cassandra defiantly said.

“They know of nothing to stop,” Crone said. “Those of your class that bloodied their hands will be assigned an older brown robe to follow, and keep secret under pain of death for both. The dead will never be seen again, sent away to schools that do not exist.”

“And us?” Eudokia asked.

“Your test is not finished,” Crone simply said. “So it will continue.”

“Fuck you,” Cassandra bit out. “We won’t do it. We won’t kill each other.”

“Not at first,” the old woman agreed. “But you will receive no food until you do – and only enough water to live.”

Eudokia shivered.

“Those with will, like you two, make the finest assassins,” Crone smiled. “I look forward to teaching you as a true student under the School of Gulls.”

And she walked away, torch going with her and leaving them to stand alone in the dark.

Time was hard to tell, in this place, but again Eudokia knew hunger. The two of them whispered in their cells, making plans to escape they both knew would come to nothing. They paced and slept and sometimes cried. Twice Eudokia was unnerved enough to vomit in the same pot where they relieved themselves. And time slowly crawled forward, hunger gnawing ever deeper in Eudokia’s belly. She began sleeping much again. Cassandra moved more, and drank most of the water, while Eudokia’s long silences turned empty. She was jealous of her friend, who still thought they would live through this. She knew better.

When her limbs began to tremble and weaken, Eudokia knew the end approached. She pulled Cassandra close against her, their shivering forms giving each other some warmth, and closed her eyes to sleep. Perhaps she would wake from this one, but it would be one of the last. Only Eudokia did wake, in the end.

With Cassandra’s trembling hands around her throat.

“I’m sorry,” her friend wept. “I’m so sorry, Eudokia.”

She fought back, tried to claw back the hands, but Cassandra was stronger and as her vision swam she wondered if it might not be better this way. If one of them got out, at least. So she stopped fighting back, her hands coming to rest on Cassandra’s shoulders, and she closed her eyes. When the end came for her, she did not fight it.

The first thing she felt when she woke up was pain.

She’d just been thrown on something and it had jarred her awake. Her breath rasped out, her throat burning and feeling clogged. Her nose ran and her body ached. Then she remembered to feel faint surprised, at the fact she had woken up at all. Groping around she felt at what she was on, for she could not tell, and when her fingers closed around hair her blood went cold. Corpses. It was a pile of corpses she had been thrown on. And when Eudokia opened her eyes it was to torchlight, the night sky tall above her head and Crone’s wizened face looking down at her with curiosity.

“Survived, did you,” Crone mused. “She waited until her grip was too weak to finish it.”

A man in Scholar’s robes approached, spear in hand, and stood at Crone’s back.

“Shall I finish it?” he asked.

Crone looked down, thoughtful, and Eudokia met her eyes. A long moment passed.

“No,” the old woman said. “Luck is a skill too. She will not be one of us, but we have a use for her.”

It was as if nothing had happened at all, in some ways.

Mere days later, after a sorcerer had healed her throat of the bruises, Eudokia was attending classes again. Sitting with children, some she had come to the school with but also older ones now. Cassandra was in only a few, but would not meet her eyes. Eudokia did not try to speak with her. Alone of all the brown robes she was not sent to shadow an older student. Instead Crone sent her to the front of the school, to sit with an old man in plain grey robes at a large desk.

“Scribe,” the old man said. “That is my name.”

“Eudokia,” she hesitantly replied.

He clicked his tongue, shaking his head.

“That is a person’s name, girl,” Scribe said. “And neither of us are that. We are tools in the hands of others. Choose a better name, or I will choose it for you.”

She hesitated. Then she thought of the pit they had plucked her out of, the pile of dead children they had thought to bury her with. The grave she had stepped out of.

“Graven,” she said.

Of the grave, she had learned it meant in these very halls. Scribe peered at her, revealing startling blue eyes.

“So they haven’t choked it out of you,” the old man said.

Then he sighed.

“It would be safter to be broken,” Scribe said. “But I will not demand it of you. Come, girl, you have much to learn.”

The School of the Gull, Scribe taught her, had existed in one form or another for nearly five hundred years. It had been born in Nicae, not Delos, but after having been implicated in the death of a Basilea they had been purged from the city and fled under the rule of the Secretariat. There they had flourished, occasionally changing name or disappearing for a decade whenever they drew too much attention from the askretis – who believed they had destroyed the School three times, each under a different name.

“Assassins, they are,” Scribe told her. “They call themselves Scholars but the trade is poison and the bloody knife.”

“They,” Graven said. “Not us?”

“You will not learn their little lessons, girl,” the old man said. “You only get mine, and my trade is simpler.”

Scribe was exactly what his name claimed he was. It was only that he wrote for more than a school: he was also a keeper of contracts. Clients, nameless, reached out through his place at the front of the school to inquire as to the death of others. They would then be given a price, which they would have to pay up front if they wanted to but the death. In exchange, even if the first attempt ended in failure the contract would remain ongoing until the bought death was delivered.

“You could destroy them,” Eudokia said. “Give everything you have to the Secretariat.”

“It would not be enough,” Scribe said. “There is little proof. When the askretis will send investigators, the School will just sacrifice a few expendables to make it seem as if the matter is at an end. It has been attempted before, girl.”

So Graven learned her lessons. And yet she could not forget the night she had woken up in a grave. Or the hands around her throat, though after a year passed that itch was scratched. One night she woke up as the door to her room – barely larger than a cupboard, she was a servant and not a student – opened, and as she groped for a cutting knife she saw a familiar face staring back at her. Cassandra closed to the door, and a moment of silence hung between them. Graven clutched her knife tight, and then the other girl fell to her knees.

“I’m sorry,” she wept, as she had in the cell. “Eudokia, you have to believe me, I never meant to-”

And she babbled and cried, on her knees, until Eudokia pulled her into an embrace. Stroked her hair and soothed her, but her eyes stayed open and without a single tear.

“I should let you kill me,” Cassandra mumbled. “It’d be fair. I don’t deserve to-”

You won’t, Eudokia thought. You just don’t want to feel guilty. So Eudokia denied the offer and comforted her until late in the night, Cassandra creeping away shamefaced as she admitted if she remained any longer her absence would be noticed.

“Anything you want,” Cassandra swore. “I know I can’t earn forgiveness, but I’ll do anything you want.”

She left, and Eudokia sat in the dark holding her knife. Anything she wanted, huh. Never before in her life had she been offered such a thing, and it forced her to think about what she might want. Food, a roof over her head. What else? Safety, she decided. And after that her thoughts trailed off. Yet a moment kept retuning to the forefront of her mind, and though it was not a want she found she could not set it aside. That instant where she had opened her eyes to the night sky, laid atop a pile of corpses. And perhaps that was an answer, in a way. So the next day she snuck off to find Cassandra and told the other girl what it was she wanted.

“Teach me,” Eudokia said, “all that they teach you.”

“You are,” Scribe said, “playing a game.”

“I have learned shatranj,” Graven replied. “I find it soothing.”

The old man scowled at her. The two of them sat at the entrance of the school, having moved into the sun as it did good for Scribe’s joints come autumn. He liked to be close to the courtyard trees even if there was a large anthill beneath the olive tree, large black ants swarming around the stones. Graven had been learning from him for three years and was slowly leaving childhood to come into girlhood.

“That brown robe girl,” Scribe said. “She’s the one who threshed you.”

“I have forgiven her,” Eudokia lied.

The old man grinned, revealing broken yellow teeth.

“It’s not something you forgive,” Scribe told her. “I would know.”

She had seen her teacher leaving the bath, once, and on his chest there was a small scar that had yet to face. About a knife’s width, just above his heart. In some ways she envied that. There was no trace left of the bruises around her throat, no proof it had been anything but a dream in the dark.

“I have a curious nature,” Graven shrugged.

He clicked his tongue.

“You’re using her to learn Scholar lessons,” Scribed said. “Why?”

“Is it not the trade of this school?” Graven replied.

He hummed, looking unconvinced, but did not purse the matter further. She did.

“I’m told Crone’s lessons are never blade or poison,” Graven said. “That they are… philosophy, almost.”

“That we are sinless,” the old man scoffed. “That we are tools.”

“You don’t believe it?” she asked.

“When the little scholars reach sixteen,” Scribe told her, “they are given another test before they can begin taking contracts.”

The wind stirred the trees in the courtyard, cooling the warmth of the lazy afternoon.

“They must take a life,” the old man said, “with as unusual a tool as they can. Be it a goblet or kicking horse or even a silken nightgown. Most of the Scholars see it as a test if inventiveness, to see if they can use means other than blade or poison, but Crone seeks to teach them a different lesson.”

His jaw clenched.

“That everything under the sun is a tool to deliver death,” Scribe said. “That to take a life cannot be a sin any more than a river flowing can be a sin. There can be no good or evil in following the currents of Creation.”

Graven stayed silent even as he looked away, up into the sunny blue sky.

“I had a cough, you see,” Scribe finally said. “So I might have died anyway. By embracing those teachings, she gets to think of it as embracing the inevitable when she slid the knife in me.”

He smiled.

“Even if she is my sister.”

Graven stayed silent, listening to the wind in the leaves as her teacher remained lost in memories long past. Everything under the sun is a tool to deliver death, she mused. The words, they echoed to her of something like the truth. But Creation was not a river, not a current flowing one way, it was not so simple. How many smaller, hidden decisions had it taken for Cassandra to decide to kill her? Dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands if one went back far enough. Creation was not a river, it was… her eyes fell to the anthill beneath the tree. All those hundreds of insects moving around, going about their purpose never knowing that there was a larger world around them. That someone’s whim could be their salvation or their demise without them ever realizing it.

Eudokia smiled, because at last she knew what she wanted to do. And today she was thirteen, so she had only three years left.

Graven took to visiting the anthill every day.

She brought the ants dollops of honey or spoiled fruit, watching them swarm over it as the months passed and she considered how it might be done. The School of the Gull was not so different from the swarm of insects, when closely observed, and Graven had been watching them for years now. Patiently, silently enough most hardly even remembered she was there. And like the ants following their favourite paths, looking for food to scavenge and enemies to fight, the assassins had routines of their own. Graven knew them line no one else in this school save her teacher could, for she knew what contracts came and who took them. She knew who went out and when, where the coin came from and where it went.

It all came across her ledger, in the same words and numbers that the School of the Gull had taught her years ago. So Graven went looking for her tools.

Scholar Myron was a test, for was this school not fond of them? It was a simple enough matter, to ensure that he got the contracts for killing in the merchant quarters. The man was rash and unpleasant so he was often given night watch – and since Scholars were given right to peruse contracts that arrived under their watch, all Graven had to do was delay receiving the contract until night watch came. That Myron would take the contract was certain, for merchant killings paid well. Only Myron had been from such a family once, before it knew ruin and he was taken by the school, so whenever he went back there he drank and gambled to cope with the unease. He was not a skilled gambler, even when he did not drink.

It took three months for him to be in such deep debt that he tried to steal from the school, at which point he was caught. He was, after all, rash and disliked. Myron disappeared one night, never to return, and so Graven had killed a man without so much as touching a knife. And yet the truer test had not been for Myron, it had been for another. Scribe had seen it all. He was old now and his joints ached so Graven was given more and more of the work, but he had still ever step of the murder Graven had committed. The old man could have, at any moment, put an end to it.

He had not.

Instead Scribe sat with her in the courtyard as autumn turned to winter and told her stories. Rambling, one might think, about nonsense and old glories. Only those stories were always about Scholars, but their lives and things they had done and things they wanted. About who held power in the School of the Gull and who they had taken it from. Friends and enemies and lovers. And the two of them, Scribe and Graven, sat in the grave they’d survived as they watched the small ants and talked of the large ones moving around them. In the warmth of the winter sun, she found herself smiling.

“Do you like my stories so, girl?” Scribe teased.

“I like,” Eudokia honestly said, “that we share something.”

Scribe chuckled and tossed a slice of orange skin atop the anthill. The insects swarmed it furiously ripping it apart.

Nine months before she was sixteen by the reckoning of the School of the Gull, Scribe died.

It was not surprising or unexpected. He had been bedridden for a week, and sickly before. He could barely walk some days, until the day came where he could not. Graven went to him, on that last morning, for she had been sent for. On her way there she found Crone leaving the room, face unreadable, and the old woman brushed past her without a word. Graven entered, nose wrinkling at the smell of death. Scribe did not notice, for he could barely see now, but he recognized it was her.

“Girl,” he breathed out.

Graven did not answer, simply sitting by his bedside. He reached out with his hand and tangled his fingers in hers, clutching them tight.

“She wanted,” Scribe breathlessly said, “for me to speak her words. To absolve her.”

“Did you?” she asked.

The old man laughed.

“I did,” he said. “I told her-”

He broke into a cough, starting again when it passed.

“- that you taught me to embrace it,” Scribe said.

Graven stilled, unsure what to say.

“My last gift,” the old man wheezed. “She won’t see you, now. Her eyes will only see what she wants to see.”

She breathed out in shock.

“Finish it, girl,” Scribe whispered. “Gods, finish it. Close our grave.”

He lasted only a few heartbeats more. In the thick silence of the room, Eudokia closed her eyes and wept. When she opened them, Graven began her work.

The School of the Gull died because of three sacks of flour gone bad.

It began there, at least. As the graduation of the children she had arrived with approached and with it their last test, so did Eudokia begin her own. As Crone wanted of the other orphans that had ridden the wagons, she would take a life with as unusual a tool as she could.

The sacks of flour themselves were not of particular importance, except in that they had gone bad. This should not have been possible, for they were freshly bought so that the bread baked would be of good quality when served to the paying students in blue robes that believed the place a simple school. The kitchen was immediately suspected of a common enough trick, which was selling back the fresh flour and buying older one at cost while pocketing the difference. The cooks had not, as it happened. Graven had simply poured some water at the bottom of the bags so they would be humid and go bad. Yet when Scholars were tasked to look into the matter by Crone, another of the elders gainsaid her.

It was only flour, Elder Lack said. No need for a Proceran inquisition.

It was so blatantly suspicious that a third elder, Silk, ordered a covert investigation, which unearthed what the second had tried to hide: there was corruption in the kitchen, simply of a different kind. Lack had placed a dozen of his kinsmen among the staff under fake names, which a deeper look into the families revealed, and they’d ensured that it was their family shops that many of the goods were bought from. That would have been scandal enough, until it was noticed that one of these kinsmen handled some of the private meals for the elders and hadn’t one of them died of bad shellfish a few years back? Perhaps that was not a coincidence after all. And suddenly it was a little more than a scandal.

Lack, his life now on the line, tried to drag in as many allies as he could. There were only nine elders in the School of the Gull, but now half of them were at each other’s throats and through Crone tried to calm the waters she ran into an obstacle. With the kitchens disrupted it had been necessary to hire new staff while those implicated were arrested, and before the matter was ended it had been judged prudent to buy the food from outside the school. Only when Crone had gone about this, she had found fewer funds in the treasury than she should. Some of the school’s cuts from contracts paid had been entered on parchment but not in truth.

Records were sought and Graven furnished them without argument, knowing exactly what three Scholars they would point to. They had done no such thing, of course. It had taken Eudokia two years to accomplish the deception: one gold coin a night, all hidden in the same place. All matched to a set of specific contracts that would jump out to an attentive eye when the ledgers were looked at. All three Scholars were loose allies of Elder Silk, which fanned the flames to new heights as Crone was accused of trying to cover for Lack. Perhaps they had been in bed all along, trying to cover it up.

That was when the killings began.

Crone’s teachings had been deeply embraced by some of the Scholars, after all. And Graven had ensured they would be out on contracts when this all began, to come back just as the School of the Gull seemed to betray all the teachings they loved and Crone was unfairly accused. They reacted as they were taught to: by taking lives. There were three drownings and a swiftly fatal ‘sickness’ that followed a meal within a day of them having returned. And once the knives were out, all restraint evaporated. Murder came nightly, the blue robes were sent home for a week under pretext and of the nine elders there now remained six.

One of them, by the name of Shore, was to be the death knell of the school. She was the youngest of the elders and the most ambitious, she and her allies aiming only for the most lucrative of contracts and openly disdaining Crone’s teachings. Graven had taken particular pains to ensure she would not be implicated in any of the troubles, knowing what would follow: Shore attempted to take control of the School of the Gull. By diplomacy at first, presenting herself as the foremost untouched by scandal, but when that did not work she resorted to violence in the night. It might even have worked, had Graven not warned Crone the night before it happened.

It was still a close-fought thing. Many had gone Shore’s way, including several of the Scholar mages, and the stones of the school ran red with blood. Crone only won by dragging in the students yet to graduate, which tipped the balance even as they died in droves. In the end, when dawn rose over the beleaguered school, only two elders remained: Crone and Dour. Graven had known Dour as Scholar Linos once, the cheerful fat man who had watched as children murdered each other in his examination room. He’d only grown fatter since. The School of the Gull was already a shadow of itself, two thirds of its Scholars dead and half of the students either slain or crippled.

Excuses would have to be made for that before the school opened again but Graven was sent for because of another reason entirely. During the months where it all happened, the Scholars had almost entirely ceased taking contracts. Several were still ongoing, unfinished, and with the rising costs of repairs and bribes to cover all this up the treasury was nearly empty. Graven was not allowed to sit before the two elders, only to stand and present her ledgers when ordered to. Neither of the elders liked what they saw. Crone was the one to address her as more than breathing furniture.

“Come summer there is usually a rash of easy contracts related to affairs,” Crone said. “Across the years you have seen, how much would you say the sums they represent amount to?”

Graven dutifully quoted it, prompting the other two to grimace. They now realized they must cut costs if they were to avoid bankruptcy before the blue robe students could return and serve as steady income again.

“We rid ourselves of some expense and rush graduation,” Dour said. “It’s the only way.”

“We have gained expenses, not lost them,” Crone said, sounding irritated. “What would you even suggest we cut?”

Graven, remembered the lessons on movement that Cassandra had taught her, moved just enough to draw the eye. Her face was already schooled into an expression of hesitation. Dour picked up on it, leaning forward.

“You have something to suggest, Graven?” he said.

She mutely nodded, waiting for his invitation to speak.

“Communal meals, until the paying students return,” Eudokia shyly said. “The students can cook together for everyone.”

And, without even needing to look, she knew she had Dour. It would appeal to him, the simplicity of getting rid of all the kitchen staff. All the troubles had begun with corruption there, it was not only getting rid of salaries but also a way of cleaning house. It also put students to work, which would lessen the load on the few Scholars left: with fewer needed teaching, more could take contracts. But Crone’s eyes watched Graven, unblinking, and for a moment she thought she’d been seen through. That the old killer had glimpsed the hatred under the mask. But she couldn’t, could she? Oh, it would cost her too much to see it. So in the end Crone only nodded and smiled, praising Graven for the notion.

For if Graven was a traitor, then her brother had died despising her to the last breath.

Graven had never taken a single class on the subject of poison, so how could she be suspected? Why would anyone at all be suspected, when at last all their troubles were over?

It was madness, besides, to poison a cauldron soup ever single member of the School of the Gull would eat from. Unless you had the antidote at hand. Graven had been careful, still. She’d made sure there were enough onions in the broth to cover the taste of the douce morte and that it would be taken at supper. No one died because it was a slow poison, instead heading back to their dormitories and rooms as night fell. Graven drank her antidote and rid herself of the vial, then headed out to the courtyard under moonlight and sat by the anthill. She’d not been in weeks, so when she dropped the orange peel the ants swarmed it eagerly.

And they ate, ate, ate it up even though it had been dipped in poison. It was their habit, and they were so very hungry.

As Graven sat in the dark, the last of the School of the Gull died. The douce morte was a gentle way to go, more than they deserved. After a few hours paralysis would set in and they would fall asleep, never to wake. All except for one. She rose to her feet, passing the rooms of the dying, until she found Cassandra. Paralysis had already set in so she had to force open the other girl’s mouth and pour the antidote in before massaging the throat so she’d swallow. Not a full dose of antidote, though. Just enough to delay the death and undo some of the paralysis, not save her life. Cassandra woke as Graven helped her on her feet, taking her outside. She was only able to speak when they reached one of the gardens, seemingly confused.

“Eudokia,” she croaked. “What’s happening?”

“I want,” Graven said, “to show you something.”

She set the other girl down against a tree and took a few steps forward, finding the shovel she had left there. And she began to dig under the grass and the flowers, shovelful by shovelful, until the moon shone down on pale bone and Cassandra let out a gasp.

“It’s where they buried us,” Graven quietly told her. “It’s where I woke up, once upon a time, looking at the sky.”

She kept digging, moving the bones aside, until the pale light revealed something else entirely. Gold. Every piece of it she had stolen from the treasury, buried in a place even the most cold-hearted of the Scholars avoided like the plague. Cassandra saw it too.

“You,” she got out. “It was you.”

“It was,” Graven admitted, setting her shovel aside and rising from the hole.

“Why?” Cassandra moaned. “Why do it?”

“Because I am the last graduate of the School of the Gull,” Eudokia smiled. “Behold my last test: I have slain the school, wielding its own hands.”

She grabbed Cassandra by the collar, feeling her breath grow panicky.

“And now I finish the work,” Eudokia said, throwing her into the grave.

She filled it back up over Cassandra, shovelful by shovelful, as the other girl screamed so much her voice broke. When it was done, Eudokia stood over the grave and closed her eyes, breathing out. She’d thought she would feel something, at the end. Pleasure, joy, even simple satisfaction. Only all she found, when she looked inside herself, was a vague sense of relief.

Like she’d finished evening out a ledger.

She picked up her things, robbing what was left of the treasury on her way out, and overfed the kitchen fire after tearing down the grid. It would all catch fire soon enough, erasing the last traces of the School of the Gull. There were still Scholars our there, some branches out in other places, but the school was done. It was dead and bankrupt. Eudokia, walking out through the courtyard, stopped by the desk at the front. There she opened the ledger a slid a single piece of parchment, one with an address written in it.

Then she walked away and never looked back.

It took a fortnight before the first one came to the little house she had bought on the outskirts of Delos, at the address she had written. The man looked hesitant even as she welcomed him in, invited him to sit and served tea. And though he danced around the subject, he had come for exactly the same reason men had once come to the School of the Gull: to buy a death.

It would not be the same as before, Eudokia thought. It would be her hand that chose the tools that would do the killing for her. She would make killers of her own, bind them to her with ink and learning. And always she would remain out of sight as the work continued, merely the woman holding the ledger than no one looked at twice. It did not feel right, not exactly, but something close to it.

Like clothes tailored for her.

“And what should I call you?” the man asked, looking nervous.

A name, she mused. She must bear one again and no longer would she use Graven. She had, at last, left behind the grave they had ripped her from. So what should she use? Eudokia thought, then, of startlingly blue eyes. Of the rough kindness of the man who had taught her, of the long vengeance they had shared. Then she smiled, for the answer was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Scribe,” she said. “You may call me Scribe.”

Chapter 65: Monster

“When it passed that King Angelika of Rhenia was slain on the Hocheben Heights by the Prince of Bones, the Dead King sent an envoy to return her sword to the heir Prince Emil. ‘But it is only a loan, prince,’ the envoy told him, ‘for in time she will come to retrieve it.’”

– Extract from ‘Crowned In Iron’, a compendium of Lycaonese histories assembled by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis

Ears ringing, I watched as great claws of bone – each tall as a man – caught the edge of the well. The creature within, a hulking shape wreathed in shadows that my hundred eyes could not pierce, began to drag itself out of the pit even as the sitting Titans rose to their feet. Above our heads the ceiling of the cavern began to crack, the beast’s roar having been enough to shatter the stone.

Well, I mused, this had all taken an unfortunate turn.

“Say, Ranger,” I muttered. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to know what that thing is?”

“Pray I do not, Warden,” Hye Su quietly replied.

In other circumstances that undead had been made of not one but two Titans would have been the main source of my alarm, but because this was Keter the fact that I saw them moving from the corner of my eye ranked only rising concern. Outright alarm was reserved for the thing emerging from the well, claws gouging the stone as if it were mud. The sharp lengths of bones led into what I thought to be tendrils of some sort, until I realized they were large chords of sinew. They wove themselves into long, squirming limbs as the behemoth rose from the pit, revealing to my eye a head twisted draconic head that flowed into a mane-like length of sinews going down its neck.

It eyes were as a mass of burning coals hidden beneath the writhing tendons, burning in the light yet casting no shadow.

“That felt like a yes,” I noted. “So what am I looking at? Because I’ve seen dragons, and I’m no draconologist but I’m willing to firmly state this isn’t one.”

“This is one of the drakoi, the ancient foes of the Gigantes,” Ranger grimly said. “They are to dragons what we are to insects.”

That was less than promising, I mentally noted. Even a glory hound monster-fighting lunatic like Hye Su didn’t sound eager to fight one of those creatures, a sure sign they were nothing to trifle with. This was, after all, the same woman who’d picked a fight with a Queen of Summer in her own territory. On the other hand, even if apparently Neshamah had decided that now was as good a moment to start throwing dead gods – and how I missed the days where I didn’t have to deal with even the singular of that, much less the plural – at his problems I could tell with a look that this was a necromantic construct.

It was made of bone and tendons, and though some sort of eldritch power coursed through it like veins it was most definitely dead. Which meant someone had already killed this thing once already, that it wasn’t impossible. Just almost impossible, and that was the kind of wiggle room I’d been betting my life on for years now.

Mind you, I’d died a few times.

“Time for a tactical withdrawal,” I decided.

“Agreed,” Ranger said.

As one we turned clean pairs of heels to the enemy, though of course it wasn’t that easy. The drakon hit the ceiling as it rose to what I was pretty sure wasn’t even its full height, the cracks from earlier widening and stones began to fall. Wasn’t as much of problem as the two dead Titans having gotten a move on, though. The power that screamed against the air was sorcery, but like none I’d ever felt before. Where other spells felt like they stole the reins from Creation, imposed a will on it, this was… It felt barbed, cutting, like it hurt all around it just by existing. Whatever the Hells it was, it sunk into the slope of stone we were running up and seize it whole. A heartbeat later the rocked turned liquid, Ranger cursing as she leapt and I pulled on Night.

I wove tendrils around me and hooked them at the ceiling, forced to further crack it and dangerously vulnerable as I made sure I wouldn’t be swept by the tide the stone had turned into. Ranger went about it another way. She had a sword in hand, and with a grunt of effort she cut at the liquid. Wind billowed as the strength of the cut opened a path through the liquid stone and she landed on dry ground. Reluctantly impressed, I took half a heartbeat to appreciate how quickly she’d managed that before my attention moved back behind us. Where the drakon was halfway out of the well and filling the cavern with its hulking, writhing shape but also something… subtler. The air in the cavern felt different now.

Tainted somehow.

The second Titan had just finished their spell, a sphere of burning sunlight forming in front of them, and I wasn’t even going to try to protect that – I wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but there was enough power wafting from it that the air was warping. And since the bloody ceiling was falling anyway… I exerted my will, the tendrils of Night hooked into the stone above me spreading like roots before I seized the chord holding me up with my hand and pulled. The ceiling came down behind me, tons of rock falling like rain as Ranger cut her way through the tide again.

I landed with a pained grunt from the ache in my bad leg, brushing off liquid stone from the edge of my cloak before following Ranger into her race out of the room.

I didn’t look back but I still felt sizzling winds blowing at my back and a horrid keening sound as stone was vaporized, discarding hopes this had so much as scuffed one of the monsters. Getting out of the cavern alive would have to be enough. Ranger got onto the stairs first, her stride swift without looking hurried, and I was but a dozen steps behind. I risked a glance back as I turned the corner and felt a swell of dread when I saw that the drakon was digging through the broken ceiling. Going straight up towards the room with the ward anchors. Fuck. All the more reason to hurry, but that moment of dallying had cost me.

The wall I’d ducked behind was ripped off by an unseen hand, the power of the dead Titans screaming in my ears, and I threw myself to the ground just a little too slow – three rays of sunlight had shot out like burning lances, and the third caught my shoulder. It went through the Mantle of Woe where so may magics had failed, melting part of my pauldron into worthless slag. I cursed and pulled on Night to cool the molten metal before it got to my flesh, crawling out of the way even as the wall that’d been ripped out was thrown back in pieces. Right at me. I was pulling on Night even as a small voice in the back of my mind reminded that staying still was death, that the next rays of light would kill me, but what else could I do? The stones would kill me just the same. Only a hand grabbed me by the collar and Ranger dragged me up, just in time for me to toss a veil of darkness over us as we ran. A wave of pure sunlight incinerated where we had been standing a heartbeat earlier, but we’d gotten out in time.

We legged it up the stairs, back to the ward room, and I calmed my breath even as I felt the floor shake beneath our feet. Cracks were spreading all over, enchanted tiles breaking like mud left out too long in the sun. Puffs of magic came out with ever break, filling the air with aimless power.

“Thanks,” I got out.

“Might still need you,” Ranger frankly replied.

Fair enough, I conceded. The Concocter had left the floor and headed to the bottom of the stairs and the Huntress was still fighting up those, by the sounds of it. Masego was still among the garden of steles, though now he was kneeling by the pool of pure magic at the heart of it all.

“Hierophant, end it,” I shouted. “We need to go.”

“Nearly there,” Masego faintly replied, his flesh eye closed.

I hurried across the cracking floor, feeling massive claws scrape at it from beneath.

“How long?” I asked.

“Would you worry,” Hierophant said, “have anything to do with the half dead god beneath our feet?”

My jaw clenched.

Half dead?” I repeated.

“The body is a necromantic construct,” Hierophant said, “but the entity itself is not. It seems to be a piece of godhead contained in an undead body.”

So that was how he’d done it. Powerful as the Dead King was, the Riddle-Maker had made it pretty clear that at his peak the Titans could have wiped the floor with him and his buddies had supposedly been slapped around by the drakoi. Grave robbing Titans and raising their bones I could buy, but controlling the remains of an elder dragon had been harder to swallow. Only he hadn’t done that, by the sounds of it. He’d poured god’s blood into a corpse he’d made sure he could control and still found the resulting monster hard enough to control it’d been kept sealed in a well beneath Keter.

“It’s a drakon,” I told him.

Masego’s eye flow open. He stared at me for a heartbeat.

“I will hurry,” he conceded, as if doing me some great favour.

“I hope you will, because there’s dead Titans not far behind us,” I grunted.

I left Ranger to keep an eye on the stairs behind us, instead going to the set that’d lead us back above. I told Cocky to run up and tell the Silver Huntress so start clearing our way out, because we needed to get the Hells out of here in a hurry. I still had a knife up my sleeve, one that might bite deep here, but I’d rather keep it back a little longer. If we could get the drakon to rampage around the spire after the wards came down, it’d draw Named like flies. By the time I returned Ranger had her bow out and an arrow nocked, eyes on the threshold of the stairs, and Masego had gone still kneeling besides a stele.

“Hierophant?”

He did not answer, not for a few heartbeats. Then he took his hand off the stele and rose to his feet, smiling. I could already feel the wards fading in the distance. Names that had felt a world away were now at the tip of my fingers. There were, I grimly though, less of those left than I’d thought. The Dead King was having himself a massacre. Zeze cleared his throat.

“I believe that-”

Ranger loosed an arrow, but I didn’t even end up looking at what because the floor broke. A writhing, gaping maw tore through the stone and closed its fangs around steles and the pool of magic.

“Run,” I hissed.

No one argued. The fucking collapsing floor should have held up the Titans but instead a path made itself out of falling stone as we ran for the stairs – Cocky, showing wisdom, was already gone – and the two giants began to cross unhurriedly as the drakon continued guzzling up the room. It’s eating too much, I thought. Even steles that hadn’t been disappeared between the great jaws. Was the Dead King’s leash truly so loose or was there another reason for this? Ranger went in first, taller than me and in better shape than Hierophant, and my effort to slow down the enemy by tossing a spear of blackflame the way of the Titans died without making a dent.

Sunlight blazed in the Titan’s hand and suddenly the Night flames were just gone.

That one, I grimly thought, wasn’t a good match up for me at all. I’d have to pass him on to someone else. We hurried up the cramped, narrow stairs even as they shattered behind us – the Titans were opening a path for themselves – and I found that the Silver Huntress had delivered on the task I’d given her: she was already at the very entrance, holding back the tireless horde with a short spear wreathed in Light. Behind us stone was shattering like glass, but we’d make it in time. The Dead King’s monsters were large and the same protections he’d built to keep people out were now serving to keep his abominations in.

“Hierophant,” I said, “can you help with the dead?”

“I can-”

Masego kept talking, but I did not hear the words. My blood turned to ice, for the herald of misfortunate had made itself known: someone was tuning a lute. I did not see her, was not certain it was my ears I was hearing her through, but I recognized the sounds. Drunken fingers tuning the Intercessor’s lute with surprising deftness, plucking at it until every string was just right.

“-rine, Catherine,” Hierophant called out, sounding irritated. “Are you listening?”

“Can you hear that?” I asked.

My eye turned to Ranger when I found no trace of understanding on Masego’s face, and she slowly nodded.

“Music,” Hye Su said. “Faint, but I hear it.”

Faint? No, that made sense. Ranger was an old and powerful Named on top of the more exotic talents that came with being of elven blood, but it was me who’d effectively ripped out two chunks of the Bard’s aspect and then eaten them. I’d be able to hear her better than anyone else alive.

“The Intercessor’s taking an interest,” I said, “and that’s never good. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

We swept out of the stairs like a whirlwind, Masego dropping half a hundred undead with a spell that went after the one animating them while Ranger and the Silver Huntress charged into the opening. We went down the right corridor, opposite of the one we’d taken last time, since it was the way out of the crypts. The ranks of the dead were thick and reinforcements pouring in like a flood but the momentum was on our side. I let loose blast of black flame to keep the enemy off our back, sometimes, but in truth my mind was barely on the fight. I’d left an eye of Night behind to check on the progress of the Titans and the drakon but nothing came out of the stairs, which I realized with a grimaced made sense.

Instead of having the giants and the fucking horror dragon wreck these too-small corridors pursuing us, they were probably going to keep heading straight up to catch us in one of the large rooms above. I tried to remember as much as I could of the layout from the time I’d come here to negotiate, since I’d seen a little of the spire when I had, but I just couldn’t seem to fucking concentrate. Not when the idle tuning had turned into strumming, and then into the beginning of a slow and sad song. The Bard usually pretended to be a poor musician, for she liked to play the fool, but she hadn’t that night in Ater and it seemed she would not today either.

My head wasn’t in the fight but it hardly mattered: the Dead King hardly threw anything worth a second look our way. Masses of lesser undead and a few Revenants barely worth a second look. With Ranger as our vanguard, it was the equivalent of throwing wheat at a sickle. We smashed our way through the corridors, leaving only broken bodies behind us as we hurried out of the crypts. I vaguely remembered the path from the last time, which served us well enough as we fought our way to the bottom of a set of wide stairs. As the Huntress took off the head of the last Bind there, I glanced back at the receding tide of undead behind us. I threw a few clumps of black flame to make sure we wouldn’t be followed, but in truth they didn’t look eager to.

Not a good sign, I admitted to myself as we went up.

Last time I’d been here, I’d thought it was a beautiful place. The hall was a dome of arches, grey stone rising to support a gallery above, yet the most striking part of it was the ceiling. It was curved, held up by elegant beams of stone, but everything in between was coloured glass. The pieces shone from the light of a sun that did not truly exist, painting stretches of colour on the tiled grey floor. The five of us stumbled out of the side hall panting, all of us scuffed but none wounded, but there would be no relief: just as I’d predicted, the enemy had arrived ahead of us. The hall’s floor had been ripped open, crushed tiles flying everywhere like feathers falling, and out of the deeps the drakon had come.

It was waiting for us, nesting among the broken stone. A forest of sinewy tendrils sprouting from its back had been folded over the spine like wings and a thick, long tail was curving against the crushed statue of some ancient conqueror. The coal-like eyes did not turn towards us, but the weight of the creature’s attention was as a weight on our shoulders – the Concocter buckled and would have fallen to her knees if not for Alexis catching her arm. My eye narrowed as I took it the shape of it. It felt larger than before, I thought. And more… defined. As if it had somehow grown. More than that, the same subtle power I had felt tainting the air below was back.

It felt humid, like it was pressing against your skin in the most disgusting of ways. Like a droplet of water going down your spine, only deep down you knew it was an insect. The drakon was doing something to its surroundings, I thought. Not even going out of its way to do it: existing was enough. And though I couldn’t quite tell what it was doing yet, I doubted it would be anything we’d enjoy. I cracked my neck, leaning on my staff, and breathed out.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like we’ll be having that fight after all. Hierophant?”

“Catherine?”

“Cast,” I said. “We’ll buy you as long as we can.”

He opened his mouth to answer by unfortunately it seemed that this was as much leeway as the ancient horror was willing to allow us. It began rising on its feet, body writing and sprouting smaller half-aborted limbs before as it did. It swallowed most of them back up into its body, but not all.

“Move,” I hissed, Ranger drawing her sword as I did.

The Concocter stuck with Masego, since in a fight like this she was near useless, but the rest of us spread out. The Silver Huntress shot towards the stairs that’d lead up to the gallery, a good shooting nest, and Ranger unhurriedly stepped into the open grounds of the hall. As for me, I breathed out and pulled deep on the Night. Sve Noc answered with unstinting hand, coolness raging through my veins and overflowing. It raced down my body, weaving shadow through the Mantle of Woe as I pulled down the hood. I breathed out mist, fingers closing around my staff of dead yew, and let the shadows wreath me whole.

Unsheathing my sword, I stepped into the fight.

The Ranger, huntress of gods and monster, was the first to strike. She moved like a ghost across the broken floor, disturbing not so much as a mote of dust, but the drakon struck just as swiftly. It batted away at her, and when she leapt above the blow snapped forward to swallow her whole – only for the Ranger to carve through its head instead, blowing though the tendrils of sinew like a great wind. There were no bones or brains inside, I realized as Ranger’s strike revealed nothing at all. No head to take, and the drakon seemed indifferent to a blow that would have killed most creatures of Creation. It did not even pause in its assault, wings fluttering as it tried to slap down Ranger.

Too slow, for I wove a tendril of shadow to drag her out of the way and the Silver Huntress loosed an arrow of Light from the upper gallery that burned halfway through the limb. Dropping Ranger when she was two dozen feet above the ground – she landed in a smooth crouch – I went on the offensive. Probing its defences, I tossed a few balls of blackflame at is sides. Half were blown out by the wings as the drakon turned towards me, but a few landed and I frowned as I looked through eyes of Night at the results. The black flames were ‘burning’ without actually consuming anything, and soon guttered out without having done much of anything.

That disgusting humid sensation grew stronger, pressing at me from all sides.

Did it get stronger against power it had been attacked with? I couldn’t tell from just this and didn’t have the time to spare for another try: I’d drawn the creature’s attention. It moved like the wind, crossing the floor in moments and disdaining the use of claws for its gaping maw. Teeth formed out of bone as the writhing nothing opened, looming above me, and I released the Night I had gathered around myself. Three other Catherine Foundlings legged it in different directions as I backed away under cover of a veil, but the abomination ignored the illusions. Fuck, I eloquently thought as I reached for my sword.

Instead the side of the drakon’s head was split open by a sword blow, the Ranger attacking from the side even as the Huntress loosed a Light arrow into the head from the other side. They’d not just struck to save my ass, though – I could see from the angle that Alexis had placed her arrow after Ranger struck in an attempt to burn out part of the drakon’s head. I backed away behind the pillars as the writhing, hollowed head withdrew, jaws snapping at nothing, and saw that a handful of cut-through sinew tendrils had dropped down on the stone. Like the other two I kept an eye on the drakon as I moved, grimacing as I saw that the head was full again in moments.

There would be no shaving away at the monster piece by piece, then. Back to regular violence. Hiding in the shade of the pillars I began to weave a curse, wondering if those might not work better than outright destruction, when I saw someone dash out into the open grounds. The Concocter, I realized as I swore and loosed my curse early. The lash of Night hit the drakon’s side, and to my pleasant surprise did exactly what I’d wanted it to: writhing tendrils went still, locked into place. The Dead King, I realized even as the Silver Huntress peppered the drakon’s limbs with arrows so it would not splatter Cocky over the ground. The Dead King’s work is the weak point.

The shard of divinity that gave consciousness to this monster wasn’t something I could snuff out without preparations, but it was stuck in the contained Neshamah had made for it. And that I could affect. The Concocter ran back in cover, though not before I got a look at what she’d been doing: she’d cut out a piece of sinew and shoved it into a bottle. Huh. Whether or not that’d end up useful, the Huntress had caught the drakoi’s attention with that last volley: it roared, forcing a wince out of me as panes of painted glass shattered above us. The colourful shards weren’t just falling, though. As if moved by an invisible hand, they gathered into a ring of hovering glyphs.

I watched, open-mouthed, as the same wards that Hierophant had killed below came back to life around the drakon.

So that was why it’d eaten so many of the ward anchors, I realized. It didn’t just get stronger against things that had attacked it, it got strong from what it ate. Which was, if I understood correctly the disgusting humid feeling still pressing tight around the Night veiling me, anything around it for long enough. The longer we fought the drakon, the harder it would be for us to harm it. Given long enough, even the strongest workings of Night would barely rate a scratch. It was an absurd thing to contemplate, something like that. Invisibility in the making, if used by even a halfway clever soul. Which is why the Dead King used only a shard of you, imprisoned in a body he controls. Neshamah would keeping it stupid enough it wouldn’t be able to break free of its binding, and even then it was a fucking nightmare to deal with.

We couldn’t beat this thing, I admitted to myself. Not right now, not with the tools at hand. And stubbornly continuing to fight it would make it harder to put down when we did have the right people there. We need to retreat the moment Masego lands his spell, I thought, looking through an eye at Hierophant. He was still murmuring, one eye closed and the other burning. The Concocter was close by, hidden behind a pillar as she rifled through her bags for something and stared at the piece of the drakon she’d snatched. There was no telling when he’d be done incanting, I thought, but it had to be soon. Best I prepare for it.

As the drakon began to methodically ravage the upper gallery, tearing through it with a cat’s cruel laziness, I stepped out in the open and levelled my staff at the abomination.

“We’re going to retreat,” I called out, “the moment the spell is done.”

That was when it all went wrong. Was it intelligent enough to understand words? I’d not thought so, but immediately the drakon stopped trying to flush out the Huntress and instead turned towards where Masego still stood. I swore and shaped a pair of curses before tossing them at the creature. The first was a mixed bag, the sinewy tendrils I’d meant to knot up instead melding together and reforming, but the second was an outright loss: the limb I’d meant to freeze was barely slowed. It was adapting to Night tricks. I broke into a run even as the drakon slithered towards Hierophant.

“Cover,” I screamed. “Cover him, Merciless Gods!”

The Huntress leapt off the edge of the gallery, spear lighting up like a falling star as she cleaved through the drakon’s wing, but a leg burst out of the abomination’s side and caught her in the belly. The sound of metal crumpling was heard and she went flying. I cursed again, drawing on my Name to quicken my stride. My leg was throbbing but I grit my teeth and let the pain pass through, getting there about the same time as Ranger did. The Concocter popped out to throw a vial of some liquid that turned to flame on impact but the drakon hardly noticed, smashing the pillar she’d been hiding behind and breaking her arm. As well as revealing Masego.

I stood between death and Hierophant, screaming as I called on Night with my sword raised, and Ranger’s blade cut through the beast’s neck – though it formed back anew past the cut. I unleashed torrents of black flame into the drakon’s face, aiming for those buried red eyes, and though I calcinated tendrils I could feel the resistance growing ever stronger until suddenly sorcery bloomed behind me. Through the Night I saw Hierophant’s eye open and his lips mouth a single word.

“Rot.”

The drakon shuddered, maw opening, and began to scream. The dead flesh it was made of began to decay and come apart in clumps, and though the abomination grew them back it was writhing in pain as the rot refused to leave its body. Masego slumped, half falling to his knees, and I sheathed my sword to hold him up. The drakon was distracted for now, so we needed to get the Hells out. Only we couldn’t, not quickly. The Concocter was trying to get up, cradling her broken bones, and the Huntress was still on the other side of the hall. There were cracks on the pillar where she’d landed and she was splayed below, either dead or unconscious. I’d need Ranger to-

I found Hye Su already looking at me, face a blank mask, and my stomach clenched. She’d been looking at the same things I did, and had come to the same conclusions. Only she wasn’t me, so the decision that followed was different.

“It is a battle lost,” Ranger said, shaking her head. “Survive if you can: I am still owed.”

And without another word, she turned her back on us. She was going to leave, to get out while the spell held. I had to push down the urge to set her on fire as she made to leave – it wouldn’t help – and held up Masego as I saw the way the rot was slowing in the abomination’s body. It was getting used to the spell, we didn’t have long left.

“Get the Concocter out,” I ordered Hierophant. “I’ll pick up the Huntress.”

Only the drakon roared again, and as I covered my ears the rotting parts of it were shed to the ground. Ember-red eyes turned towards us and my stomach clenched as I reached for the Night. I wouldn’t be able to get everyone out. It struck and I-

“That’s a lot more tentacles than anyone should be comfortable with.”

And I felt my shoulder loosen as the limb that should have swept through all three of us was instead split in half, Indrani sliding down its length and landing on her feet. She took a few steps back, looking almost drunk, then spat to the side as the drakon put itself back together.

“You’re late,” I said.

Indrani snorted.

“Had to take the long way around,” she replied. “Shiny Boots was already knocking at the front doors.”

Another roar shook the hall, the drakon furious at the continued interruptions.

“I’ll forgive you this time,” I conceded.

She hummed, twirling her longknives thoughtfully.

“The Lady bailed on you, yeah?”

“Just about,” I grunted back.

We’d bargained for her to lead us into Keter by the secret way, not fight by our side, so in truth she hadn’t broken our agreement. But she’d abandoned us nonetheless.

“Isn’t that something,” Indrani murmured.

I could See it, through my dead eye. The way the weight shifted, the story moved. Two claims had been competing, and while one had been stronger than the other it was also not there – and the story still wanted a Role to be played.

“It was mine to have anyway,” Indrani decided. “My friends to keep alive. My family to protect.”

And with that last step in the journey, it all fell into place perfectly. The Ranger fought monsters, but the Ranger had fled and monsters were still being fought.

“If she throws away the fight, then it’s mine to pick up,” Indrani said. “So how does the line go again? Ah, yes.”

She straightened, meeting the drakon’s burning ember eyes.

“I am the Ranger,” she said, and made it true. “I hunt those worth hunting. Tremble, for you qualify.”

And in a blur of movement she was gone. I nudged Masego towards the Concocter – he could set the bone and heal it – and went to circle around the broken hall as Indrani fought toe to toe with a horror out of legend. She moved like the wind, never where the drakon struck as it tore through the hall in growing frustration. The Ranger carved through sinew and bone, shattered claws and laughed as the drakon roared its impotent wrath. Like a bull trying to swat a hornet, it missed again and again as she stung from every direction.

I reached the Silver Huntress and found to my relief that she was not dead. Unconscious and her skull had been rattled, but it took more than that to kill a Named. I dragged her back into consciousness and stopped the bleeding out of her forehead wound but her eyes were still unfocused as she got on her feet. To get her back fighting fit we’d need a priest, much as I hated to admit it. My eye went back to Indrani, who was impossibly holding her own against the abomination. A Name’s never stronger than when it comes into being, I reminded myself.

I watched as she laughed and toyed with a dead god, knowing that it was beautiful but it could not last. That first burst of strength would fade, and when it did the situation would turn against us. We needed to get out while we still could, I thought as I guided Alexis across the room. Towards the same threshold that Hye Su had left through. As if to crown my worries, the drakon finally landed a blow on Indrani. She’d blocked it, so it snapped one of her blades instead of her bones. It still tossed her back, sliding along the ground until she stood near where Masego and Cocky had gotten to.

“Indrani,” I shouted, “we need to leave. Move the fight elsewhere.”

She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t argue. I could See how her Name was pulling at her to finish the fight, to pursue the moment it had coalesced through to the end, but she was a stubborn soul and she knew her limits. She’d fight off the influence. And now that she and Hye Su had played out their parts of the story that left only…

“I’ll handle the rearguard,” the Ranger shouted. “You go on-”

The drakon went still. A heartbeat later, its wings slid to the floor. I almost laughed at the absurdity of the sight.

Go,” I shouted back. “It’s handled.”

She spat angrily to the side, but did not refuse the order. She dragged Masego and Cocky along, heading for the door. I pushed on the Silver Huntress as well, who while still dazed was still fast on her feet, and within moments I was the only human left in the hall. The drakon’s gaze slowly swept the hall, coming to rest on me, and when the full weight of its attention solidified I had to let out a breath. My knees were shaking.

Then the drakon’s head rolled on the floor.

It decated to nothing as another grew back, but now before the towering monster a lone silhouette stood. It was tall and thin, holding in its hand a sword of made of wood. The drakon reared up, roar filling the air, and then its head rolled on the floor again. And its limbs, and its tail. They sprouted back, the abomination’s entire body writhing angrily, but it looked taken aback. As suddenly as a match lit nine of the Emerald Swords surrounded it in a loose ring, silent as the grave. The disgusting miasma in the air slid off them like water off a duck’s back.

“It won’t work,” I croaked out. “You can’t kill it for good with swords.”

Then someone was standing next to me, the elf’s eyes contemptuous.

“We are,” they said, “the Emerald Swords.”

It was said like a simple truth, like a sentence passed.

“If it cannot be slain for good,” the elf told me, “then we will keep slaying it until the Last Dusk.”

The words were said without so much as a speck of doubt. In the distance, the drakon’s head and limbs dropped again.

“Leave, Warden,” the elf said. “Our debt must be repaid.”

I hesitated for a moment, wondering if perhaps the monster could be put down for good, but then I recognized that for the vanity it was. Wounded pride my plans had not been enough to stop the Dead King’s own. So instead I inclined my head, as much in thanks as acknowledgement, and broke into a run to catch up with the others. Named were dying ahead of us, my own had told me. The fight to end all this awaited.

And as I passed the threshold, the Intercessor began to sing.

Chapter 64: Gehenna

“In war you must avoid fighting strength and instead attack weakness. Therefore, an army evenly mediocre cannot be attacked.”

– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

“You know,” I said, “given that the first part of this plan was literally going to Hell, I kind of figured that the trouble we’d run into would actually be Hell-related.”

Masego cocked his head to the side.

“Technically speaking,” he began, and I spared him a glare.

“Don’t you fucking start,” I warned him. “Not when I’m looking at what appears to be a hanged skeleton.”

The five of us were standing in a village, which would have had me rather curious if it weren’t currently abandoned and on fire. Once you’d seen one burning village you’d seen all of them, really. Still, worrying as it was that we’d been in the Serenity for nearly a quarter hour now and the only sign of life we’d seen was an empty village set ablaze, I was rather more concerned by the other thing we’d found. There was a nice old oak in the middle of town, one I was looking at, and someone had seen fit to tie a noose to the tallest branch and hang a skeleton from it.

“Perhaps it committed a crime,” Masego suggested.

“She, by the looks of those hips,” the Concocter noted from my left.

I narrowed my eye, poking the skeleton with the tip of my staff. She rattled a little, but remained defiantly not undead.

“You told me the dead always rise in the Serenity,” I called out to Ranger.

It was one of the many ways the Hidden Horror had turned the Hell into his personal fiefdom, Hye Su had explained. The afterlife here was service in Keter’s armies, marching through the gate into Creation. Not all souls remained in the Dead King’s grasp, but many did. It was his most regular source of Binds, the ensouled undead used as officers for his armies.

“They should,” she replied. “Something must have happened.”

“She used to be undead,” Hierophant said. “It’s why the bones are still holding together, the necromancy fused them.”

“But she wasn’t destroyed,” the Silver Huntress grunted. “There’s nothing broken enough to break the spell.”

Which was the part that actually worried me, I mused. Any idiot could hang a skeleton, particularly if it wasn’t moving at the time. When you did it and it appeared to work, though, that was a different story. Something eldritch was afoot and this was a bad place to face it. The Hells were not the same as Creation, rules were not as firm here. And when you were powerful enough they could even be changed: how else would even a powerful mage like Dead King have been able to rule a Hell for so long? Which meant that somewhere in the Serenity an entity was loose that was capable of bending those rules. Possibly even when Neshamah was fighting them, which was a mite unsettling. Who or what would be able to fight the Dead King like this in his own private kingdom? Considering this place didn’t look like it’d been burning for more than an hour, we might just be close enough to learn the answer to that.

Joy.

“We’re not going to learn more from this place,” I finally said. “Fire’s burnt through too much. Ranger, have you figured out where we are?”

“About an hour south of the nine-hundredth stele,” she replied. “We crossed through further west than we should have.”

She paused, glancing at Masego.

“Wekesa would not have made that mistake.”

“If only he were still with us,” Masego agreed. “If only you had helped make it so in any way.”

Ranger’s face tightened. She was not, I suspected, used to being spoken to like that even when she loosed her little barbs – not from people she didn’t consider equals. Only Hierophant had not lied or insulted her in any way, for all the tacit contempt behind his words, so she was struggling to find a reason to be offended. She wasn’t used to dealing with Zeze at all, I thought. Not the way Sabah and Scribe had been. She’d not stayed with the Calamities long enough to be. Much as I would have enjoyed continuing to listen at Ranger continuing to fail at winning a battle Masego was unaware he was fighting, the sight around us was making it clear we needed to get a move on.

There were things going on in the Serenity I’d not anticipated, so I was in need of answers.

“So which is the closest gate?” I asked.

While there was only one Hellgate in Keter, it was not a simple tunnel through. The Dead King had, over millennia, tied the portal to several gates spread across the Serenity. Though the other end in Creation could only be tied to one Serenity gate at a time, there were at least nine of these spread across the Hell that Ranger knew of.

“It’s the Writhing Palace,” Ranger said. “The Banquet Hall is a lot less defended but it’s at least an hour more: there’s woods and a river in the way.”

Fuck. I’d heard that name once before, when I came to Keter for the talks, and thought it was not somewhere I ever wanted to visit. I should have known better than to tempt the Gods that way, I brooded.

“I don’t suppose anybody’s got a drink?” I glumly said. “I’m going to need one if we’re going to a place called the godddamn Writhing Palace.”

“I do, actually,” the Concocter surprised, going rifling through her haversack.

She got out a small crystal flask with something that looked like water in it, though after she handed it to me when I took out the cork the smell of strong liquor assaulted my nostrils. I took a pull and almost choked, eyes watering.

“Is that moonshine?” I croaked out.

“It is,” Cocky proudly smiled. “I made it myself.”

I took another pull from the flask, having gotten used to the strong taste.

“You’re a delight,” I told her, “and now my favourite person in this band of five.”

Ranger took a step closer, reaching for the flask, but I moved it away from her hand.

“We ask,” I chided, “before we take.”

“No,” the Concocter immediately said, smiling beatifically.

When I turned to have a look at Ranger’s face, though it wasn’t irritation I found. She looked like she’d been slapped in the face, I thought, or perhaps had seen a ghost. And it was on me that her eyes rested, not her former pupil. She withdrew as if burned, striding ahead of us.

“Come on,” Hye Su gruffly said. “Let’s get this over with.”

I corked the flask again, handing it back to Cocky with a murmur of thanks, and settled into a thoughtful frown. If it was a ghost she’d been looking for, well, there was only the one we shared.

And I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about Ranger seeing my father in me.

Deep down part of me had expected something about the Serenity to be fantastical and disturbing, but by all indications the Hell was one of the single most boring places to ever exist.

It was all fields and forests, with occasional river or dirt road passing through. I barely saw any animals, but there had to be a few around else the people here wouldn’t be able to clothe themselves. In a way, it was the pinnacle of the Dead King’s achievements that his personal Hell was something so violently unremarkable. It was a land without dangers or excitements, a seemingly endless sprawl of pretty little villages without fear or famine. And it was only villages. Not a town to be seen, much less a city, and the two villages we’d passed through had shown only a few different trades. The Serenity had been carefully crafted to remain forever pleasant and stagnant, not a soul from it ever interested in leaving.

If we’d had more time, I would have studied this place with fascination. What had it taken for Neshamah to turn a Hell full of devils into this pastoral dream? How had he shaped his people into being so utterly content, growing and pruning them over centuries as an immortal gardener would a tree? Though horror lurked behind what the Dead King had done here, I itched to learn the methods. There’d never been a ruler like Neshamah before, not really, and likely there never would again. That was something to be fervently sought, but when he passed the Dead King would take with him a unique mind. One that had learned secrets deeps and strange, for all its malevolence.

The boredom ceased about the moment we found the first corpse by the road.

“Those bones have been exposed to the elements for decades,” Masego said. “This used to be undead.”

And now the skeleton by the dirt path was, by all appearances, laid to rest. Once more without a mark on it to explain how that had come to be. Even Light would leave traces, I thought. Did something dispel the necromancy keeping it moving?

“It’s too close to the road for it to have been coincidence,” the Silver Huntress said.

“Agreed,” I grunted. “Whatever’s responsible for it collapsing was going up the road.”

Which Ranger had said led to the Writhing Palace. The entity responsible for this would likely beat us to the place, which while simplifying getting to the bottom of this was just a bit unsettling. We still had no idea what had caused any of this or why. We kept going up the road, finding at first another few lone corpses and then soon entire companies of them. All prone, all without marks.

“Someone was sending troops after whoever walked up that road,” I frowned.

And it’d been more than one person doing that, as it turned out.

“There’s tracks all over the fields,” Ranger told me. “At least a hundred people heading towards the palace, not all at the same time.”

“Ominous,” I noted.

We hurried, for lack of anything else to do, and followed the path at a pace just short of a run. I found it more difficult to tell time here – the Serenity had no true dawn or dusk I could measure myself against – but it could not have been an hour by the time it began. It was a pulse I felt. Steady like a heartbeat, rippling through the air like a drum. It battered away at all of us, and though goddesses riding my mind for years had hardened me I was not the only one here. Masego and Ranger seemed more irritated than truly affected, but the other two were looking dazed.

“Shit,” I muttered.

“Warden?” Ranger asked.

“I’ve felt this before,” I said. “I know who it is.”

“Who?” Alexis said, tone disbelieving.

“The Hierarch,” I told them. “Though his aspect didn’t reach quite this far last time I encountered it.”

In Rochelant I’d need to reach the plaza where he was before it was this strong. Now we couldn’t even see him yet and it was like a tide in the air. That was a small thing, though, compared to the revelation that Anaxares the Diplomat was for some fucking godforsaken reason in the Serenity. How? Last I’d heard he should have been wrestling the Choir of Judgement, and stubborn as the madman was I didn’t see him winning that tussle. He hadn’t at the start, and unlike him the angels could not tire. How could he have- no, that didn’t matter. Not really. The particular method was irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. What mattered was why he was here.

We were to late in the game for it to be an accident.

“I had thought him imprisoned by the Choir of Judgement for his blasphemy,” the Silver Huntress slowly said.

“More like imprisoning with,” the Concocter replied, sounding amused, “but you’re not wrong.”

“How kind of you to say so,” Alexis acidly said.

“It’s an interesting trick,” Ranger mused. “Something like projecting an abstract kind of domain, if I had to guess. It’ll be tiresome to deal with inside a place like the Serenity.”

I tuned them out, closing my eye and forcing myself to think. An obvious answer was there to the second question I’d asked myself, but I forced myself to consider others. And yet as I went through one possibility after another, discarding the impossible and the unlikely, I found that only one remained standing. The Intercessor had done this. She’d done it because she had a use for the Hierarch’s presence here, even though I could not be sure what it was yet. It had to be the Wandering Bard, because it wasn’t anyone one my side that’d done this and there was no one left that could screw with angels and wasn’t aside from Yara of Nowhere.

What was the play here? Obviously Hierarch was poison to a place like the Serenity, so it might be the Intercessor was trying to poison the Dead King’s bolthole should he lose on Creation. On the other hand, in one of the conversations I’d had with her she had pretty convincingly sold me on the Dead King being stuck in the Serenity as him being defeated. ‘Sealed Evil in a box’ wasn’t a story that ended well for the Evil in question in the long term, she’d not been lying about that. She could have been lying in a broader sense, sure, but that was a rabbit hole not worth going down.

If the Intercessor meant to cut off the Dead King’s retreat and believed there was nothing he could to against such a stroke, then she could have done this years ago. She hadn’t. Which meant she was after something else. Aside from cutting his retreat, what was she- oh. Oh, fuck.

“It’s actually that simple, isn’t it?” I murmured, rubbing the bridge of my nose.

There was nothing aside from cutting off the Dead King’s retreat, because that was the whole fucking point. She was making sure Neshamah knew that if he didn’t win in Creation, he was done. No way out, no path of retreat. The Intercessor wanted us to be fighting against a cornered animal with nothing left to lose. Someone capable of anything so long as it bought him even a heartbeat more of survival.

“Catherine?” Masego asked. “You’re talking to yourself again. Are we still headed to the Writhing Palace?”

I grimaced. It was the closest gate, and I needed to get a finger on the pulse on what the Hierarch was after. Occasionally violent madman the Bellerophan might be, he wasn’t necessarily an enemy. Not unless his remarkably even pissing match with the Seraphim had changed him too much.

“We are,” I answered. “Prepare your minds, it’ll get worse the more we approach.”

At least, I mused, I finally knew what had happened to the undead we’d been finding. Necromancy keeping soldiers fighting in a war that hadn’t been voted on in the service of a tyrant? The Hierarch would see that as so furiously intolerable they’d drop down the moment they entered his aspect’s reach.

And so for once, I smiled, someone had popped up that was scarier for the Dead King than me.

The Writhing Palace was a ruin.

I could see the bones of what it had been meant to be, a boast as to the power of the man who’d made it. Curved pillars of ivory rose like rib bones from the grass, their shadows cutting across the green. Their shape drew the eye, outlining the belly of a great beast ending in a head that was a now-shattered throne room. No single stone was left unbroken, as if someone had wanted to take a hammer to the very principle of royalty, and among the ruin someone had started a fire. Anaxares the Diplomat, a too-thin man in tattered beggar’s robes, roasted a slab of meat over an open flame in the wreckage of the Dead King’s throne room. He used a snapped gold scepter as a spike and sat on the shattered back of the throne, his burning grey eyes wreathed in smoke.

He looked like the death of crowns, feasting over their demise.

Yet what gave us pause when we approached was not the sight of him but instead what lay around. The Writhing Palace had not had walls of stone, Ranger had told me. It was a boast, after all. Between the ribs and the throne room of pure white marble, it had been a great palace made entirely of devils. Thousands and thousands of them, of all shapes and sizes, each interlocked and forever writhing as they remained frozen in place by the unbroken will of Trismegistus King. Or so it had been. Now the Hierarch had come, the Republic’s howling anger made into a man, and the spell had broken. The devils had broken into courts, some huddling around fires and others assembling into mobs as other stood above them and gave speeches in the dark tongue.

Some of them, I gathered from a closer look, were attempting to organize elections.

The others pulled closer to me as we approached, save for Ranger – whose pride lay in indifference. There were humans in the throng, I eventually saw. There were so few of them compared to the devils that I had not noticed. They sat with the Hell’s first inhabitants, speaking animatedly as they shared fires. No mobs were howling for blood, but I knew why already: we’d walked past a forest turned into gallows as we approached, humans and devils swinging from branches. The anger of the people had been sated, at least for now. I could feel the song of the Hierarch’s madness turned into an aspect, the low and deep thrum that slithered down your veins. It would wake again in time, hungry for further ropes and necks.

None sat with the Hierarch or stood in our way as we approached him. We got a few curious looks from devils, those that had eyes anyhow, but our presence seemed of little interest to the throng. We weren’t even worth curiosity. As I limped over broken marble, the light of the fire flickering ahead of me, I paused to glance at the rest.

“I’ll handle him,” I said.

Ranger and the Huntress both looked as if they wanted to argue, but I turned my back before they could. Neither dared to cross me by following anyway. I slipped past the shattered throne, fingers trailing what had once been beautiful white marble and was now jagged remains, and reached the fire’s warmth. The Hierarch’s eyes rose to me, the man looking neither surprised nor unsurprised. Should I wait for his invitation I would still be standing come Last Dusk, so I found a jutting shard of the broken dais and sat, staff leaning against my shoulder as I warmed my hands against the fire. The Hierarch’s madness battered away at my mind like a tide. Rolling in, rolling out.

“Catherine Foundling,” Anaxares the Diplomat greeted me.

He did not name me a queen. I had not expected him to.

“Hierarch,” I replied. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Tyranny Knows No Borders, For They Are False Inventions,” the Hierarch informed me. “May Any Who Would Constrain The People Be Devoured By Bees.”

“That’d take a lot of bees,” I noted.

Those had mouths, I figured. Probably. It seemed like the kind of thing they would have, though I had never made a deep study of the creatures.

“Or a lot of time,” the Bellerophan thinly smiled, “and it comes easier than bees.”

I snorted, feeling his aspect filling the air. With every breath I felt as if I were drinking it in, the heady brew of revolt and rebellion. The thrown torch and the howl, the snap of broken chains and the flinch of the tyrant. There was a reason I’d never quite managed to hate the Hierarch, for all that he was ruin on near all he touched. Some part of me had never been convinced he was wrong.

“Yet we never seem to have enough of it,” I shrugged.

I glanced at the slab of meat he was over-roasting. Sheep, by the looks of it.

“You going to share?” I asked.

“Are you yet a tyrant?” he replied.

“I’ll abdicate before the year is out,” I informed him. “Or die.”

“Either is an acceptable outcome,” the Hierarch conceded.

And yet he did not, I could not help but notice, offer me a piece. Republicans, I amusedly thought. I was still wearing a crown, after all. Why would he offer me anything at all?

“Thought you’d still be having words with Judgement,” I idly said. “Are you done with the Seraphim?”

He frowned.

“They have escaped their sentencing for now,” the Hierarch told me. “The peddler leant a hand.”

My eye narrowed.

“The Wandering Bard,” I said.

He shrugged.

“It has many names, all but one a lie,” the Hierarch said. “I care not for the masks it wears – all that’s left true is the duty.”

“To keep the Game of the Gods going,” I frowned.

“To keep the animals in the cage,” Anaxares said, baring his teeth. “To rattle the cage when we get rowdy, until we remember how to kneel.”

“She’s doing a lot more than that, these days,” I told him. “There’s a war outside, Hierarch. One the League is fighting in, even your Republic. I don’t know what it is she wants, but it’s not for us to win again Keter.”

“There’s only one war, Catherine Foundling,” the Bellerophan replied. “The lash and the back. Everything else is noise.”

I leaned forward, smoke licking at my face.

“And which is she?”

“A queen’s question,” Anaxares the Diplomat scorned. “You think those wielding the lash are freer because they deal out the suffering. That’s the trap, Catherine Foundling. The promise that you get to hold the whip instead of feel it, that there is no fairness but you can be on the right side of the unfair.”

Grey eyes met mine, unblinking.

“But it’s slavery too, to spend your live lashing backs,” the Hierarch said. “Just a different kind, and you can’t escape it any more than they can.”

My fingers clenched, the unclenched. What would it be like, I wondered, to be the Intercessor for a hundred years? To never be quite for Above or Below, to always be sent to put your finger on the scale whenever a great Good or a great Evil was to be born. I forced myself to think of that, and then turn a hundred years into a thousand. Two, three, ten. What would it do to someone, to hold that Role? When I’d been young, barely the Squire, I had fought in the ranks at the Battle of Three Hills. I’d gone through Helikean mercenaries that day as if I were a sickle reaping wheat, until the killing didn’t even feel like killing anymore. It had just been motion, a limbs moving to accomplish a chore. So what would it be like, to lash backs for ten thousand years?

It wouldn’t be anything anymore, I thought. Not a lash, not backs, not people or pain. All that would be left was motion and the tiredness of the hand.

Still warming my hands by the fire, I shivered. A long silence stretched out, the Bellerophan disinclined to break it.

“That war outside,” I said, “they could use you. You’re still Hierarch of the Free Cities, they haven’t tried to take it. You could go to them.”

And if he did, his mere presence would tip the war. It wouldn’t be as powerful on Creation as in here, his aspect, but oh it would still be something to be feared. Bones dropping dead for the second time, Binds revolting against the chains. And Revenants I could only guess, but it was the kind of guessing that brought a wolfish smile to my face.

“I did not choose it,” Anaxares the Diplomat said.

They chose you,” I retorted.

Elected, even. That was something even he was bound to respect.

“I thought that, one,” the Hierarch faintly smiled. “That I had been forced into the prison, that I was forced to hold the lash even if fought never to wield it.”

“But?”

“It is only a word,” Anaxares the Diplomat softly said. “In the end, for all that men call it a title and a Name it is only a word.”

Gold dripping into the grass, the thin man took the broken scepter out of the flame and the slab of lamb with it, blowing on the roasted meant before he took a bite out of it. The juicy fat streamed down his chin in rivulets as he chewed, swallowing and only then offering me a hard smile.

“They can call me Hierarch all they want,” he said, “but I will make of it what I want, and that path does not lead be back to the League of Free Cities.”

I leaned back from the fire, the warmth on my hands having turned scalding.

“So where does it lead you?” I asked.

He laughed in my face.

“There is only one war, Catherine Foundling,” Anaxares the Diplomat said. “And I will fight it wherever it is to be found. Here, there, everywhere.”

He leaned in, the grey smoke the very same shade as his eyes. As if he were it, or it him.

We are all of us free, or none. I will suffer no compromise in this.”

And I Saw it, in that moment, what he was to become. Like a trail of fire, a spirit of fury and revolt that would bloom where chains were tightened until men choked. He would walk and ashes would follow in his wake, but tyrants would fall and even Choirs would flinch in the face of the Hierarch’s indignation. A madman to the end, until a death as bloody as it was inevitable found him. There was, I thought, a terrible kind of beauty to it. To burning yourself at the stake of your own ideals. It was not something I could admire, not truly, but perhaps it was something I could respect. I reached for my staff and rose slowly, leaning against it.

“Good luck, Hierarch,” I told him, and found I meant it.

There was nothing pleasant about a fire sweeping through a forest, but sometimes it was necessary nonetheless.

“All tyrants,” the Hierarch told me, “have their day of reckoning. Even you.”

I smiled.

“But not today,” I said.

“But not today,” he agreed.

It was as much of goodbye as I’d get from him, so I left it at that.

For all the unsettling sight that the Writhing Palace had turned into, leaving it proved almost laughably easy. The gate was unattended, a circle of stone left untouched amidst the ivory pillars, and we barely got any looks thrown our way when Masego woke it up. With no one contesting our connection to the other end in Creation, it was only a matter of stepping through.

And just like that, I stood in the Hall of the Dead.

The same great gall where the Dead King had hosted me for meals and talks when we negotiated before the beginning of our war. There was no sight of the elaborate decorations of that day in the great hall, every part of it having been stripped bare. It was no longer a throne room now, instead serving as a gateway and nothing else for all that in many ways it was the heart of the Dead King’s power. Once we had all crossed and the five of us stood alone in the cavernous hall, the Hellgate quieted and Hierophant’s eyes turned to it.

“Will it work?” I asked.

“Father proved that it could,” Masego replied.

We couldn’t close the Hellgate. Only an angel’s fury could do that, the tabula rasa effect undoing the cut in Creation that was a Greater Breach, but there were other ways. Akua had once opened a Greater Breach in the heartlands of Callow, and it wasn’t an angel that’d fixed the mess. It had been the Warlock, who had redirected the gate from the inside: instead of leading from a Hell to Creation, he had warped it so instead it would lead from a Hell to another Hell. When I’d asked of Hierophant a way to cut the Dead King off from the Serenity, he’d offered me a solution based on the same principles as his father’s work.

We all gave him a wide breath as he began to cast, beginning with words but quickly slipping into the traced runes of High Arcana. Even Ranger looked spellbound as she watched him work. See, as best as I understood it Wekesa the Warlock had been able to pull some truly ridiculous shit because he had an aspect that allowed him to sift through the Hells to find whatever he might need. It was the kind of trick that would allow a mage to, say, link two Hells by sorcery without the use of an artefact. Masego did not have that. What did have, though, was the convergence of three things.

First he had spent about a year of his life ruling over a severed shard of Arcadia made into a pocket realm. Second, he had Witnessed the Grey Pilgrim miraculously bring down a star on Hainaut in a way that defied Creational laws about how distance worked. And third, this very day he had brought us into the Serenity from a broken place at the junctions of Creation, the shattered Twilight Ways and the Hells. So as Masego’s voice rose, speaking words in the mage tongue, he proved one more to be one of the greatest mages of the age by threading all three of those things together.

The Hellgate into the Serenity still led there. The Dead King himself had added a step to the crossing by linking it to several exit gates, though, and Hierophant modified that step. Instead of a simple nothing, the step was made into a place: the very same nothing we had used to cross into the Serenity. Which also happened to be an endless void, unless you’d made something to stand on. Which you couldn’t in the moment before crossing the gate and being in that void. It was a dead end which wasn’t technically a dead end, a nasty trick played on one of the Hidden Horror’s greatest works.

And by the satisfied on Masego’s smile as he finished the last syllable of the spell, this was just the beginning of him getting even with the Dead King.

The spire would be where it all ended.

We’d returned to Creation through the gate in the Hall of the Dead, itself built out of the crypts beneath the towering structure, but it would not be in that throne room we’d find him. Besides, we’d not actually gone through Serenity to take a swing at Neshamah: that was what the crown and the sword were for. Leading a band of five like mine against the Hidden Horror wasn’t going to accomplish anything except corpses – which wouldn’t even have the decency to stay still for long. I had set rather more practical aims for our little venture, deciding instead to go for a different sort of prize.

This entire spire was, after all, the Dead King’s last redoubt. Out there in the inner city, armies and Named would be fighting desperately through streets and palaces to reach this place and deliver the knockout blow to the armies of the dead. Only it wasn’t going to be that easy, because we weren’t really going to win the battle for Keter. I had no doubt in my mind that troops and Named would reach the black spire, but the battle itself? We weren’t even trying to win it, not really. All our offensives had been about getting enough people at the end of the line that we could destroy the Hidden Horror and end this war. In other words, our defeat was certain if the battle went for long enough. It was, in the end, simple mathematics.

We had neither the numbers nor the strength to really pull out a win in Keter. It was always going to be about Neshamah himself. Which he knew, of course, and would have prepared for. From his perspective, all he needed to do to win was survive until everyone else was dead. Which meant the black spire was going to be an unbreachable den of horrors, the kind of pit of despair that even Named despaired in the face of, but that wasn’t even the first hurdle to actually getting to Neshamah.

That would be the wards.

The Dead King had fuck all to win by actually fighting us, after all. Sure, an old monster like him would scythe through Named and men like they were wheat but why take the risk that one of those lucky kids would have that one aspect that’d ruin his day? He was only hours away from winning, but since I’d returned Below’s stories that was one of the single most dangerous places for a villain to be. So his first move wasn’t going to be bringing down the sky on our heads or twisting time so we all died of fever as babies or sending out a demon riding on another demon’s shoulders. It was going to be the most comprehensive set of wards that Creation had ever seen, fired up at their strongest and closed so tight not even a fly could sneak through.

If he could, Neshamah would stay behind a kingdom’s worth of closed gates and magical barriers until there wasn’t a living soul left in Keter. That was the kind of villain the Dead King was, when you cut off all the dross and the pageantry: most terrifyingly practical coward in the history of Calernia.

Now, while we couldn’t sure that throwing enough heroes at these wards would result in way through it was actually a pretty decent bet. No matter how clever Neshamah was, Creation would nudge things so that the fight for the existence of Calernia didn’t end with increasingly desperate knocks on a closed door. The price, though, would be atrocious. Names worked on weight, I had learned over the years, and sometimes that was a double-edged sword. Almost every Named on the continent was united in fighting the Dead King, which while a powerful story also meant that by fate’s unspoken rules the Dead King had equal weight to a continent’s worth of Named.

Overcoming that kind of opponent’s foolproof defence just wouldn’t be done without massive casualties, no matter how heavily providence put its finger to the scale. And the hard truth was that we just couldn’t afford that many deaths when there were sure to be even harsher defences waiting further inside. That meant we needed another way to get those wards down, and that was where my little band came in. We had a way in through the back, and instead of using it on a futile swing at Neshamah’s neck I had decided to spend our surprise on letting everyone else into the spire. We were going to destroy those ward anchors to collapse them, preferably in a way that didn’t end up blowing us up.

Our plan had had admittedly been somewhat more complicated by the fact that none of us, not even Ranger, had any idea where those ward anchors were. Thankfully, there was a solution for that: wait long enough that the Dead King would be firing up that magic as strongly as he could to keep the pests out of his house. That wouldn’t help any for most people, but we weren’t most people. I had brought Hierophant along and he still had one glass eye that, while most famous for the light of the Summer sun still shining in it, would be of use because of the artefact it’d come from instead: a pair of spectacles that could see magic.

We didn’t need to know where the Dead King’s war anchors were because Masego would just follow the flow of magic back to them.

“Down,” Hierophant told me.

“We’re already in the crypts,” I told him. “There’s nothing beneath this.”

He met my eye squarely.

“Down,” Hierophant firmly repeated.

I sighed and conceded with a nod. That was going to be fun. Unlike the last time I’d come to the Hall of the Dead its antechamber wasn’t filled with an honour guard of Revenants, which were most probably out there killing people instead. Grim as the thought was, I was still thankful that we didn’t need to fight every step out of the way after leaving the throne room. 

“I don’t care how good of a mage the Dead King was,” I said, “war anchors need upkeep and replacement. If they’re under us then there’s bound to be a way to get to them.”

It wasn’t like Neshamah was going to do that kind of drudgework himself, so there was bound to be an access for whatever undead and Revenants ended up tasked with it.

“It’ll go faster if we split to look around,” Ranger said.

“It’s certainly a faster way to get at least one of us killed,” I affably agreed. “Counter-argument: Concocter, I know you’ve gone ruin raiding in the Brocelian at least once. Do you have something to find secret passages?”

“I do,” she warily agreed, “but only the one bottle.”

“Then Masego will need to get us as close to above those anchors as he can,” I said. “It’s our best shot.”

Hierophant nodded absent-mindedly, looking through a wall as he did. He began walking away without a word but we didn’t get far. I’d been pleasantly surprised that the Hall of the Dead and its antechamber had been deserted, but it looked like there’d been a reason for that: the entrance to the antechamber was sealed. The great bronze gates were so heavily enchanted I could feel the weight of the magic in the air.

“I can break the enchantments keeping the gates closed,” Hierophant told me, “but they are tied to what appears to be an alarm ward.”

“Of course they are,” I muttered.

The Silver Huntress cleared her throat, eyeing Masego with that same kindly wonder all of the Refuge kids other than Indrani seemed to treat him with.

“The wall besides it,” she said. “Is it also tied into the wards?”

“Not entirely,” Hierophant replied after a heartbeat. “It is a grid pattern.”

I hummed, realizing what Alexis was getting at and throwing her an approving look.

“Is a square in the grid large enough for a person to crawl through?” I asked.

“With some care, yes,” Masego nodded. “It needed to be so that with the other magics did not saturate the stone.”

The wall was stone and had other wards laid in it, but none that’d trip the alarm should they be punched through. The Silver Huntress handled the first layers by shooting Light into the square that Hierophant traced, breaking the protective enchantments, and the Concocter carefully rid us of the stone itself with careful use of an acid whose ever drop seemed to eat through inches of rock. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but as soon as Cocky gave us the go-ahead we wriggled through the hole like worms and dropped unceremoniously on the other side. The hallway was empty but torches were lit there, which Masego revealed to be a trap the moment he had a look at them.

“Living flesh in the light they cast will turn the flames blue and feed into another enchantment,” he told me.

Which was unfortunate, considering that pretty much the entire corridor was covered by their light. And rubies to piglets the moment one of those turns blue a trap is triggered.

“I can Wrest the magic, but we will have to stay together,” Zeze added.

I nodded and we awkwardly clumped together to walk through the corridor so we’d stay in the light of a single torch at a time: Hierophant could only use his aspect on a single source of power at a time. There weren’t any more torches in either of the corridors the spread out in a fork from here, but there were patrols of undead. Ranger had heard them coming, her hearing being ridiculously sharp even by Named standards.

“This deep there will be no Bones, only Binds,” Hye Su said. “And he likes to use lesser Revenants as captains.”

“We destroy even one of them and he’ll know we’re here instantly,” I grimaced. “He’s not the kind to get arrogant and think his fortress is unbreachable – he’ll be actively looking for the rats that snuck past his walls, not denying they exist.”

“Most illusions do not work on the dead,” Hierophant said. “They do not see in a conventional sense.”

“But you could fool patrols,” I pressed.

He’d hidden us from the sight of undead before.

“I cannot answer as to Revenants, but certainly lesser dead,” he conceded.

“Then we try that,” I ordered.

And when it inevitably went wrong, hopefully we’d have enough of a head start that we got to bring down the wards before we had to fight our way out. Sometimes I wished my silver linings didn’t all have streaks of blood on them, but arguably I was a few grisly murders past the right to complain about that. We ventured deeper into the enemy’s belly, pressing against the wall as patrols passed by us on the way to the unseen place Masego was leading us to. It ended up being a locked and heavily warded room about a quarter hour away from the Hall of the Dead, its door hidden by an illusion that made it looked like the wall continued. I chewed my lip and eyed the apparent patch of stone.

“Magic lock, you said?”

“Enchanted,” Masego specified. “Almost every part of that door and wall are connected to the alarm wards. There are few secondary wards so the density is much higher than the antechamber’s walls.”

“So no crawling through this time,” Ranger said, sounding amused.

I cocked my head to the side.

“A door’s a door,” I said, “but what about the floor?”

“Grid again,” Zeze told me.

“So we make a tunnel,” I said. “Go under the gate. Concocter, would you have enough acid?”

“No, but it is not difficult to make,” she noted. “I have the means, though the variant will let out foul-smelling smoke.”

Undead didn’t usually have a sense of smell, so that wasn’t a deal breaker.

“We try,” I decided.

All things considered, it went well. We had to pick a spot near the wall to begin going through, since otherwise a patrol might walk into the hole even if it was veiled with an illusion, but aside from a tense moment when a dozen undead walked past us and a Revenant in armour lingered we got off fine. Ranger went in through, both because she volunteered and I wouldn’t be all that sorry if she died. I was third, behind the Silver Huntress, and once I finished crawling out of the tight tunnel with aching shoulders I found I was standing in a bare stone room. Cocky came after me and a glance was enough to signify now was her time to shine.

She produced a bottle of what looked like golden powder, she emptied in the air – where it hovered! -before blowing on it. Fascinatingly, the powder dispersed on all sides. It whirled about the room like a scintillating storm before it began to gather in a handful of places. Streaks in the air followed what looked like air currents coming out of the hole we’d dug, which I supposed made sense since the room was otherwise sealed airtight. They also clustered on the ground, though, tracing footsteps leading to the right corner of the room but stopping shy of the corner itself. I grinned even as Masego dragged himself out of the tunnel, moaning all the while.

That’d teach him to be do damn tall, I haughtily thought.

“Looks like a hidden mechanism,” I said. “Ranger?”

“I’ll find it,” she replied with indifferent certainty.

In her honour, after only some moving around she did. There was a faint, oily click and a stone at the junction of the walls dipped into the ground. Gears spun out of sight, the stone floor moving to open a pit going below and an iron ladder going into the dark.

“Catherine,” Hierophant said.

“No, you can’t stay up here,” I absent-mindedly replied. “Alexis, down the hole first?”

“Shit space to use a spear, but I have a knife,” the Silver Huntress conceded.

Catherine,” Masego repeated.

I turned to him irritated.

“What?”

“The lines of sorcery don’t go deep enough below for this to be the war anchors,” he said.

I froze. Wait, if this wasn’t the place for the ward anchors then… The air suddenly thickened and the door leading out of the room burned around the edges. The hinges, I realized, were fusing with stone.

“Water,” Ranger announced. “Water’s coming up.”

And above us small holes opened in the ceiling, the air shifting as what I guessed to be an invisible gas began to be released into the room. Of course, I grimly thought. Of course the fucking Dead King had made a fake ward anchor room to specifically trick people who could see magic. He’d had literal millennia to indulge every spark of paranoia that ever occurred to him.

“We need to get the Hells out of here,” I growled. “Concocter out first. Yell if you see undead.”

I saw from the corner of my eye that Ranger was just holding her breath, apparently unmoved at the idea of no longer having to breathe, while Masego was weaving a spell around his nose. I did the same with Night, the Silver Huntress instead pulling up cloth from under her armour. I was to be the last out, so I had a look at the trap pit and got hit with a blast of foul odour. Gods, I thought with a small degree of awe. What a prick the Dead King was: not only was this trap meant to drown us in a sealed room if the poison gas didn’t get us first, but to add insult to injury the ancient fucker was using sewage water. It was a degree of assholishness that verged into elegance.

Ranger followed the Concocter through, the Huntress next in line, and I stood by Masego as he stared through the wall with his flesh eye closed.

“I think I’ve found the path to the real anchor,” he murmured. “I thought it was a bleed array, but it does seem to headed downwards in small lines. There would have to be reservoirs elsewhere in the array structure that I have not seen, but…”

“I trust you,” I frankly said. “Where?”

“Close to the Hall of the Dead,” Masego said. “In between the fork of corridors were first found.”

I got the distinct sense that I was just now being let in on a bad joke that the Dead King had been laughing alone at for a few thousand years, which was the best sign we were on the right track I’d had all day.

“Then we double back,” I said.

It wasn’t that easy. I crawled out ahead of the sewage and the poison, but it was to the sight of butchered corpses strewn all over the corridor. Ranger and the Huntress had seen to the patrol handily, but we were most definitely caught. This whole thing was about to head downhill in a hurry.

“Good news,” I said, “we think we know the real path to the anchors.”

“Bad news?” Ranger probed.

It wasn’t her first band of five.

“It’s back near the Hellgate,” I said.

“Which will be swarming with undead by now,” the Silver Huntress grimly said.

“Look on the bright side,” I said.

“Which is?” the Concocter asked.

A moment of awkward silence passed.

“I was,” I admitted, “hoping one of you would have something.”

I let loose a blast of Night that hit the ranks of the skeletons like a trebuchet stone, crushing armour and sending bones flying. Within a heartbeat the corridor was filled up again, the sea of undead pushing forward. They were packed so tight they were actually getting in each other’s way, but for all that apparent stupidity I knew full well that if they ever managed to close the distance we were in a world of trouble. It’d be like standing in front of the whole in a dam.

“Zeze?” I called out. “Tell me you’re getting somewhere.”

I could hear Ranger and the Huntress covering the other corridor, the once-Calamity rather enjoying herself by the sounds of it. I’d yet to see her feel threatened since the beginning of our jaunt into Keter, as if at no point she had believed she was in a mess she could not fight her way out of. Considering she’d broken into the Crown of the Dead alone several times, I wasn’t even sure she was wrong.

“It is a frustrating puzzle,” Masego admitted. “The solution keeps changing.”

I grit my teeth and let loose another blast of Night only to find that a Revenant with a shield took the brunt of the blow. Eye narrowing, I drowned the hallway in black flame. That ought to buy me a but of time.

“So brute force it,” I shouted. “Don’t play the game.”

“We’ve tried, Warden,” the Concocter shouted back. “It started to melt the lock.”

I was really starting to hate this place. I had before, of course, but only in a general principle kind of way. Now it was starting to get personal. I sent a blast of Night through the guttering flames, hitting blindly at the enemy, and risked a few step backs. Masego and Cocky were staring at rows of burning runes that had appeared on stone, a series of which needed to be picked to open the hidden door. What I knew about High Arcana – which this clearly was – would fill just about a parchment, if you wrote small enough, so I didn’t try to tell Masego how to mage. Instead I told him how to be a thug, a subject in which my expertise knew few rivals.

It was a natural talent, humility compelled me to admit.

“We don’t care about the lock,” I said, “we care about the door. We’ll melt the whole fucking thing if you have to. Cocky, use every drop of acid you have left. Or can make.”

It wasn’t like we’d ever need it more than now. I was forced to go blow up the corridor again as they got to it, but before long there were noises of triumph from the Concocter – and a sigh from Masego, who probably figured he could have beat the lock given long enough – and I retreated that way, calling for the other two to do the same. What was revealed was a set of stairs sloping downwards, large enough only for one person to pass at a time. Naturally, I put Ranger in front. Our method to get in there paid off rather quickly, as within moments of the five us beginning to make our way down there was a grind of stone against stone as the broken door behind us tried to close and the walls began to suck out the air.

It didn’t do anything, since we’d blow open a hole behind us, but if this place had been sealed up it would have been lethal.

I’d figured the way down would not be long but I was wrong. After a rather straight way down at first, the stairs turned into a downwards spiral. The Silver Huntress, who held our rearguard, began to loose arrows at the pursuing undead which thankfully were as limited as us by the narrowness of the stairs. Tension would have made it hard to tell how long we made our way down if not for the gift of the Sisters which told me the distance from dawn and dusk and allowed me to tell it was about half an hour. When we reached the bottom of the stairs in a pitch black room Masego tossed up a ball of light, revealing we stood in an antechamber.

Every surface was covered by tiles of bronze that each bore a glyph, sorcery pulsing thick in the air. Yeah, I thought, this is the right place. Gates stood in our way to the room beyond but Masego seemed in a good mood.

“The anchors are on the other side,” he told me. “Not all of them, but the most important ones.”

“And if we break them it’ll bring down the defensive wards?” I pressed.

“The most power-intensive ones,” Hierophant noted. “Others will remain. I will admit that Trismegistus’ defences were made with a thorough eye for redundancy.”

It would have to be good enough. I left the Silver Huntress to handle the stairs and keep the dead off our backs, helping Masego to smash our way through the gates. The time for subtlety was past. Though the Dead King’s defensive wards were impressive and apparently the gates had recently been changed to resist Night, they had a weakness: parts of them relied on active sorcery, and that could be compromised by Wrest. Sweat beaded the back of my neck by the time we were done, but after another quarter hour of exertions the half-melted bronze gates fell down and revealed the greater room beyond.

It was, I immediately thought, like looking at the heart of a Praes flying fortress.

Stones and gems were replaced instead by engraved steles of black stone of different heights that formed a complicated arcane pattern, but the sight of bare stone walls covered in glyphs was most familiar. I should not have been surprised: Trismegistan sorcery came from the works of the very man whose work this was. There was a pool of what might have looked like water at the heart of the room, whose high arched ceilings crackled with shivering power, but there was a luminous sheen to it that betrayed it was no such thing.

“Pure magic,” Hierophant breathed, looking at it too. “I have no notion as to how it was made physically stable.”

“That’s fine, since we need the opposite,” I bluntly said. “Wreck this place, Masego. In a way that won’t kill us.”

“It will take some time,” he said, and sounded almost reluctant.

I supposed to someone who loved sorcery as much as he did this was much like a lover of horses butchering a herd of Liessen purebreds. Still, he nodded and I left him to it. He’d call for me if he had a need of Night. Instead I wandered about the room carefully, wary of hidden defences, and found that while Concocter stuck close to Masego I was not alone in my explorations. Ranger was doing the same, circling the broadly circular room from the other way. The dome above us ended in a thin well leading upwards, but that wasn’t what drew my eye or hers. There was another set of stairs on the other side of the room.

“Shit,” I muttered. “That can’t be good. Ranger, with me.”

I called out to Masego that we were headed down, getting only a half-hearted wave in answer, and went down into the dark. These stairs were not like the ones we’d taken down: they were much broader, and the corridor they fed into had almost as high a ceiling as the ward anchor room. Ranger, whose eyes lingered on the ceiling, frowned.

“Something scraped against those,” she said. “Metal or bone, I can’t tell.”

My stomach clenched. That ceiling was taller than most Gigantes. The stairs we took curved smoothly and led towards a room that was beneath the one holding the anchors. There were no gates leading into it, only a tall arch of stone, and when we crossed the threshold with wary steps it was to the sight of a gentle slope going down. Like a hill of bare stone the room slid downwards into what looked like a massive cavern, most of which was taken up by an equally massive well. I couldn’t tell how deep it went from where we stood, but as the two of us slid down the slope my eye found something else to stare at. There were two shapes seated on each side of the wall, sitting cross-legged, and both wore an armour of painted ceramic tiles in purple and silver.

They were also massive, each large as a tower, and through the open faces of their helmets I saw no flesh: only leering skulls, with green flame burning where there should be eyes. Neither of them reacted to our approach, still staring down in the well.

“Those aren’t Gigantes,” I quietly said. “They’re too large.”

For the first time today, I saw Ranger tense.

“Titans,” Hye Su murmured. “These are the corpses of Titans.”

And yet they hadn’t been fighting all this time, I thought. We’d seen no sign of them throughout the siege, when even the animated remains of such entities were sure to wield fearsome power. And, most worryingly of all, even as we left the slope and approached the well they did not so much as twitch. They just kept looking down into the depths, unmoving, and the closer we got the more I felt the eldrith power permeating the room. It wasn’t anything as simple as magic either. I was not sure Masego’s eye would be able to see it.

We were but a dozen steps away from the rim of the well when one of the dead Titans moved. Only its head twitched, turning towards me, and it offered a leering grin.

“Mistake,” the Dead King said in Ashkaran.

A strong sensation of release washed over me, the dead Titans releasing whatever it was they had been holding, and from the depths of the well there was a deep breath followed by a deafening roar. It would have burst my ears, if I’d not reached for Night in time. All I could think of in that heady moment before all the Hells come loose would begin chasing me was of a conversation I’d once had with a man now dead. The ghost the two living people in this pit had in common. When you assault the stronghold of a villain, Amadeus of the Green Stretch had said, there are three things to watch out for: the monster, the trial and the pivot.

By the looks of it, we’d just found the first of the three.