Heroic Interlude: Appellant

“One hundred and twelve: always be kind to any monster held in a cage by your nemesis. When it inevitably gets loose, it will remember the kindness and attempt to destroy the villain instead.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

A series of explosions rocked the machine and the enormous drill ceased spinning.

Though the Lowest Plaza still had a massive gaping hole in its centre, Helikean soldiers were no longer pouring out of the tunnel: when the Tyrant had fled, swearing ‘eternal and unholy revenge’, they’d begun retreating in good order. Hanno let out a sigh of relief. He’d not needed to tap into any of his aspects to turn back the breach, but after unleashing his Name so many times he was starting to tire. Ash was already making her way through the Delosi soldiers, curing anything short of death with a touch and that semi-permanent frown. The Ashen Priestess was admittedly one of the more combative healing Names: it should perhaps be expected that her bedside manner was rougher than that of the average priest. The White Knight wasn’t exactly displeased. His memories told him that the all-loving types often had difficulty dealing with the realities of war, especially those sworn to Compassion. Their inability to reconcile the way Creation was and the way it should be could lead to some very ugly breakdowns.

The Champion was currently collecting “trophies”, hacking off the tip of swords so she could make rings out of them to add to her necklace. There were already enough of those that the thing could be considered an additional layer of mail around her neck. A somewhat grisly ritual by heroic standards, but that was always the way with Levantines. The heroes that had founded their nation had been rebels fighting the Proceran occupation, after all, and they’d been much more willing to bloody their hands than the average Named on the side of Good. Hanno sheathed his sword and took off his helmet to wipe his brow. Hedge crawled out of the wreckage of the machine moments later, covered in soot from head to toe. She’d gone in there to blow the runic array powering the drill while he held the line, and one again gotten off essentially untouched. Hanno wasn’t surprised: there was a reason he kept sending her on the riskiest ventures.

As long as the Hedge Wizard and the Champion kept bickering ‘amusingly’, they were essentially untouchable. Their heroic band would be much too grim if they died, too dark for the amount of absurdity the Tyrant kept injecting into this siege. The White Knight eyed the giant drilling machine belching smoke and sighed again. Well, the flying towers had been a wash so he supposed it made sense for the Tyrant to try underground afterwards. Usually even villains hesitated before trying that route, since there was always the risk of running into a dwarven tunnel, but this particular monster was a reckless one. Almost too reckless, he’d begun thinking of late. Every assault that had been made on Delos so far did have a decent chance of succeeding, but they were also all half-baked enterprises. It was like victory and defeat didn’t particularly matter to the man planning the operations, which was somewhat worrying. If taking Delos wasn’t the way the Tyrant got what he wanted, what was?

Delosi officers began arranging crews to drag away the broken machine and cordoning off the hole in the ground until it could be properly filled. The Secretariat’s armed forces were not particularly strong, in his opinion, but they were well-organized and had superb morale. Delosi believed that the decrees of their Secretariat were the will of the Heavens, so whenever they were deployed they would not break regardless of casualty rates. It had not been unusual for half a battalion to be wiped out on their first deployment, in the first skirmishes of the war, and yet the same men and women who’d been through that grinder did not hesitate going back to it the following day. He could respect that, the act of putting your faith in something larger than yourself. In this case it was somewhat misplaced, of course. The Secretariat was an institution made my men, and so held the flaws of those men. To find infallible judgement, one had to look higher. Hedge made her way to him, patting away the soot with a lack of method that spread the unsightliness more than got rid of it.

“That should be it for a fortnight, at least,” she said. “Unless he thinks up another machine.”

“He’s tried above and below,” Hanno noted. “We should expect a dimensional shortcut next.”

The Hedge Wizard snorted, her mismatched eyes shining with anticipation.

“If he’s going to meddle in Arcadia that problem might just fix itself,” she said. “The Courts are on war footing; they’ll be shooting everything that moves.”

“The first step always works, Hedge,” he reminded her. “It may backfire later but it’s a virtual certainty he’ll make it into the city.”

The dark-haired woman grimaced.

“That sounds like you’re asking me to do ward work,” she said. “Breaking those I can manage, White, but making them? That stuff is hellishly complicated and it blows up if you get even one number wrong.”

Hanno had been about to suggest a mere alarm measure instead of something more taxing when he saw Delosi troops coming down from the upper levels. The White Knight felt curiosity rise when the officers among them ignored the efforts of the other soldiers and headed straight for him. The highest-ranked among them, a weedy woman with a commander’s insignia branded on her breastplate, came forward and saluted sharply.

“Lord White,” she greeted him. “There’s been an accident.”

“A large one, for a commander to come inform me personally,” he said.

“There was a fire in the House of Ink and Parchment,” the commander said. “An entire wing collapsed. Casualties involve several members of the Secretariat.”

Hanno’s eyes sharpened.

“Which ones?” he asked.

The commander didn’t know since she was not high-ranking enough to be cleared for the information, as it turned out, but she’d been provided with a list. For once Delos’ obsession with records was saving time instead of costing it. The olive-skinned hero scanned the scroll, skipping the names of anyone not ranked Secretary – anyone below that had no real influence in the city. Secretary Colchis, Secretary Mante, Secretary Theolian. Secretary of War Euphemia. Every single high-ranked member of the Secretariat who’d at any point spoken in favour of Delos continuing to intervene in the war past the siege.

“That fire was not an accident,” he said quietly. “It was enemy action.”

Hedge looked at him grimly.

“You think the Tyrant used the assault as a distraction?” she asked.

“Wasn’t our Kairos who did this,” Aoede said.

Hanno released the handle of his sword. The Bard had not been there a moment ago, but in between a single blink of his eyelids she had… filled the space. Arm slung over Hedge’s shoulder, the Wandering Bard for once wasn’t smiling.

“You should have some memories about this,” Aoede told him. “This is-“

She never got to finish. Of the twenty-odd officers that surrounded them, over half had weapons in hand: the Bard vanished before a knife could take her in the belly, wielded by the very commander who’d brought him news.

Stand down,” Hanno barked, blade in hand.

In the span of a single heartbeat the hero noticed three things. First, all the officers with their weapons out looked horrified. Second, there was the faintest trickle of power inside them. And third, they were now turning their weapons on themselves. The White Knight dropped his sword and wrestled down the commander before she could slit her own throat, but Hedge was not so quick. The others dropped to the ground, dying or dead, before anything else could be done. The commander stopped fighting back after a moment and he only just managed to keep her from biting off her tongue. Name pulsing, Hanno focused on the power he’d glimpsed. He managed to feel five layers of something before it was gone, washed away before he even tried to make it disappear.

“Commander,” he said calmly, releasing her mouth. “Are you with me?”

The woman blinked.

“Lord White?” she croaked. “Why am I on the ground?”

Hanno got back to his feet, helped her up.

“Can you remember anything unusual that happened to you today?” he said.

The officer paled.

“No,” she admitted.

“She wouldn’t,” Hedge said quietly. “Someone Spoke to her.”

The Ashuran glanced at his companion.

“You’ve seen this before?” he asked.

“I know the theory,” the Wizard replied. “Five orders. One to wipe the memory, one trigger, one act and two contingencies.”

This… he’d seen this before. Fought this before. The White Knight closed his eyes, breathed in and out until his heartbeat slowed and then ceased entirely. In that moment, his mind filled. A thousand lifetimes he had lived yet not lived, spread across centuries. Hanno focused, filtered through two points: compromised officers, high-tier leadership crippled. Seventh Crusade, White Knight. No, opponent was the Dead King. First Proceran War, Good King. No, this wasn’t bribery. The Paladin, fall of the Blessed Isle. Conquest. Commander of the vanguard and the western flank assassinated, had to be replaced by officers less seasoned. Every outpost off the Isle gone dark. Sentries made unable to see the placement of goblinfire at the base of the walls. His heartbeat returned.

“Calamities,” Hanno spoke. “We’re fighting the Calamities, and they’re about to attack.”

There was a sensation in the back of his head, like a lever being pulled, and a ward covering the Lower Plaza awoke.

A faint smell hit his nostrils and soldiers began dropping like flies.

Alkmene wasted a good two heartbeats looking at Hanno like he’d just murdered her puppy. The Calamities, as in those scary Praesi fuckers up north with a graveyard full of heroes behind their lair? Shit. Shit. Words stronger than shit, which were not coming at the moment because oh Gods they were all about to die. Productive panic, Hedge, she reminded herself. Productive panic is how we survive. They were now inside a ward, which had been remotely triggered and until now had been hidden behind the much larger magical emanations coming from that godsdamned drill from the Hells. Alkmene tested the strength of said ward with her mind and found she might as well be trying to bring down a wall by pelting it with pastries. Modify it? And now the back of her eye was itching, just from a light probe. Whoever had designed that pattern was a vicious bastard and a half. All that was left was alleviating the effects, then. Her teachers had always taught that that a Gifted faced with a ward could only do three things: break, modify or alleviate. By the looks of it, this one was a straight translocation ward that was bringing in some kind of gas at a fixed rate.

Hedge pulled up a scarf from under her robes and covered her mouth. Most poisons could be outright ignored by Named and the rest could be burned out with a trick, but quantity ingested did influence how well that worked. From the way all the Delosi were stiffening and falling to the ground so quickly, this was not a weak brew. Not magical in nature though. That made things easier. Muttering a word of power, Alkmene created a ball of air in the middle of the plaza. The translucent sphere began spinning, sucking in the gas as fast as it could. She kept murmuring and it kept expanding, devouring more and more. Wouldn’t save many of the soldiers, but it would at least make sure their band didn’t go into the fight with enough paralysis poison in their lungs to kill a dozen oxen. Ash, in the middle of the incapacitated men, slammed her staff against the paving stones. There was a pulse of power and the people on the ground began breathing again, turning this from a massacre to a crippling blow. On the other hand, by doing that she’d… Hanno was running towards her sister faster than anyone in plate should be able to, but he wouldn’t get there in time.

A red wedge immediately opened up in the sky above Irene and a burning rock the size of a house fell through.

Alkmene cursed, flicked her wrist and sent the ball of air straight at the projectile. For a heartbeat it seemed like it would push it back, but then with a pop the spell gave. It was just enough of a delay that her sister was able to prepare herself, thank the Gods. Before the pocket meteorite could smash her into paste Irene was swallowed by a cloud of ash that swirled around her before spearing upwards. The rock itself turned into ash when it made contact, hitting the ground and obscuring the entire plaza in a thick cloud. Alkmene sharpened her eyes just before visibility went and winced at what she saw. Irene’s eyes were already grey, which was a bad sign. She’d already used too much power. The Hedge Wizard set that aside the moment she began to feel another spell being crafted, and looked upwards. There was a ball of opaque blue light hovering in the sky above the city, a stable shielding ward. The Warlock, she realized with a dry swallow. She was going to have to fight that. What had her teachers called getting into a mage’s duel with Praesi again? Death by stupidity, she remembered. But godsdamnit, she’d have to anyway. If the Warlock was busy with her he wasn’t smashing everything down here to bloody chunks. Alkmene cursed again and fished out three tiles from her pockets.

She threw them ahead of her, watched them form three steps hovering in the air.

“You don’t have to win, Hedge,” she encouraged herself. “Just, you know, not get horribly killed. It’s all about the standards.”

Nervously laughing, she began the climb up.

Even as the ash billowed past him, Hanno replayed the sequence of events of the last sixty heartbeats in his mind. Nonlethal but dangerous ward that affected mundane soldiers, triggered as the opening move. Their spellcaster moved to mitigate the damage, taking herself out of the equation. Their healer then attempted to heal the affected, leaving herself wide open for retaliation while the other two fighters in their band were too far away to intervene.

Had the Ashen Priestess been a common healing Named, that projectile would have killed her instantly.

They’d almost lost a fourth of their fighting strength before the first exchange was over, and that realization sent a shiver up his spine. These were not military tactics, they were hero-killing tactics. Targeting people in their charge to make them expend effort, then immediately striking their weak point with overwhelming force. Their opponents were not only used to fighting heroes, they were used to fighting bands of heroes. The White Knight calmed his mind. There would be three of them. The Warlock was in the sky, and Hedge was moving to distract him. Now he needed to find the Captain and the Black Knight before they could take one of his companions out.

“Ash,” he called out. “Champion.”

“We here,” the Champion yelled back.

“One, five,” a man’s voice calmly said. “Brazier.”

Magic flared in the distance and the place where the Champion’s voice had come from burst into flames. The light was enough for Hanno to make out a lone silhouette to his left. A man. Short, in plate with a heater shield and a longsword. The White Knight, without making a sound, headed in that direction. With a burst of speed he emerged behind the man and rammed his blade in this back – only to pierce through shadows that collapsed into a pool before snaking away along the ground. There was a faint whistle and he ducked under a crossbow bolt, almost missing the second one aimed at his knee. He managed to parry that one at the last moment, though it marked his armour. The hero could still feel the presences of Ash and the Champion, dimmed. They were still alive, though the fire had hurt. Gritting his teeth, he made his choice and followed the shadows.

They were swift, but not swift enough to outpace a hero on foot. After a few moments it became glaringly obvious he was being led away from the plaza, towards the second level of the city. The sound of fighting erupted behind him, the Champion hooting in joy, but he’d have to trust they could handle themselves. Leaving the Black Knight unattended with an ash cloud as cover was just asking for one of them to die. Hanno found steps under his feet, a sure sign he was leaving the plaza, and shortly afterwards fell the pressure over his shoulders vanish: he’d left the bounds of the ward. The ash cloud behind him, the hero looked for his opponent and found him almost instantly. In the middle of the avenue stood a man, in a bare suit of plate that had the marks of frequent use. His shield had no heraldry painted on it, his sword went without decoration. The only splash of colour was those unsettlingly pale green eyes that could be seen through the slits of the helm.

“You’re a long way from home, Black Knight,” Hanno said.

The man did not reply. He moved forward, shield raised. The White Knight felt the Light flood his veins, scouring his insides, and with hard eyes met the enemy.

The enemy had made a mistake when they’d chosen poison as their means of attack. The method had been clever enough, Irene would concede, as the sheer quantity of poison had made it hard to counteract. Now that she had this much ash to work with, however, it was child’s play to neutralize the effects. After absorbing the airborne toxin with it she’d directly targeted the enemy ward with her power, since Alkmene was apparently incapable of doing as much. Hammering blindly at sorcery with miracles tended to lead to unpredictable side effects, so instead of destroying the ward she’d erased the part that was bringing in the gas. Or at least she’d begun doing that, before nine feet of plate and muscle with a giant hammer had come for her head. How they’d not seen or heard the behemoth approach, given that the ash cloud had settled on the ground by then, was beyond her. Likely the woman’s Name was involved. Regardless, the Champion had stepped in before her earthly body could be made an earthly corpse.

“You not just big girl,” said heroine enthused, narrowly avoiding a swing. “You biggest girl.”

“I’m flattered,” the Captain replied politely. “But also thrice your age and married.”

The Ashen Priestess had never thought much of fighting banter. If you had breath for it, you weren’t trying to kill your opponent hard enough. The Champion was more or less holding the enemy at bay for now, so she focused on the ward again. She could see why her sister had found the structure troublesome: there were little patterns that would make even looking at it dangerous for a mage. Doing so through the lens of a miracle, however, meant it could not touch her. Irene began sharpening her power into a chisel again, breaking one rune after another. Her soul was only loosely attached to her body by a chord, high in the sky as she continued chipping away at the ward. The Priestess smiled as she wiped another cluster, then felt the chord being tugged. Looking downwards she saw the Champion’s shield getting caved in by a hammer blow, quickly followed by the heroine getting punched in the face. Both hits she had gotten by standing between the villain and Priestess’ immobile body. Irene had seen the Champion laugh off a horse’s kick, but after that punch she spat blood before forcing the Captain back. She then unkindly slapped Irene’s body in the face a second time, the chord forcefully dragging the heroine back inside at the impact.

“Ashy,” Champion grunted as the Priestess blearily opened her eyes. “Get your miera joint. This no stroll in park.”

Irene eyed her companion in confusion before she caught the meaning. Get your shit together, Rafaella had meant.

“The ward’s out of play,” she said. “I’m back.”

“Good,” the Champion said. “Two-time big girl now.”

Said ‘girl’ was not currently attacking them, Priestess could not help but notice. The Captain was not wearing a helmet so the studded earring in her left ear was quite visible. And currently glinting with sorcery.

“Confirmed,” the Captain said. “Going full tilt.”

“I no like sound of this,” the Champion admitted, throwing away her crumpled shield and hoisting her axe.

“It’s nothing personal,” the villain said. “I was given an order, and now I Obey.”

The moment she spoke the word, her presence in Creation became heavier. Aspect. Well, that was going to be troublesome. The Ashen Priestess reached for her miracles as the Captain blurred into motion.

Hanno’s sword slid off the shield and he backpedalled to avoid the blades that would have scythed through his knees. At least now he knew how the villain had shot two crossbows at him earlier: the Black Knight’s shadow extended into two tendrils behind his back, the two of them wielding swords simultaneously to the villain’s own movements. The sheer amount of fine control that had to go in that was staggering, not that the hero had time to stop and stare: even with the Light sharpening his reflexes beyond human capacity he was having trouble coming close without taking a hit. The first time the villain had revealed the tendrils he’d waited until their blades were locked before plunging two blades straight into the White Knight’s neck: they’d gone through the gorget and would have gone on to his spine under it if he hadn’t detonated the Light beneath his skin to blow them back. The burns from that were painful, and unlike other wounds wouldn’t start healing given enough time.

Hanno breathed out, having a little space, and timed his advance. The first shadow-wielded sword skimmed his shoulder as he shot forward, trailing sparks. The second came down in a swing but he rolled forward, landing on his feet just in time to parry a lunge that would have gone straight through his eye. The White Knight slapped away the shield, flicked his wrist, and with wide eyes saw the fuse on a clay ball reaching the bottom. It exploded in his face, throwing him back. Before he even landed on the ground the Black Knight was behind him, shadow tendrils swinging swords at the height of his neck and torso. Gritting his teeth, Hanno detonated the Light on his side to stop his momentum – it blew straight through his plate. He took a shield bash to the face, blinding him, and then felt a blade go straight through the elbow joint of his sword arm. Biting down on a scream, he reached for his Name and let out a pulse of blinding light. By the time he was steady again, the Black Knight was twenty feet away and the shadow limbs were aiming crossbows at him.

The hero moved his blade to the hand with a functioning elbow behind it. He wasn’t as good with his left as his right, but it was a near thing. At the moment he could only see two shadow tendrils, but Hanno wasn’t falling for that again. He’d seen a third one hiding those goblin munitions behind the shield, after knocking it aside. The crossbows drew back, however, when both Named heard the sound of marching troops coming down the avenue leading up to the third level. Reinforcements, the Ashuran thought. Alone against the villain they would be wheat waiting for the sickle, but with him too? No matter how many limbs the Black Knight had, he only had one torso. The Delosians spread across the length of the avenue in a shield wall, bowmen setting up behind them. The villain’s limbs retracted and he patiently waited for the soldiers to approach. What was he… No.

“Retreat,” the White Knight bellowed.

“Two, five through eight,” the green-eyed man spoke calmly. “Half.”

Hanno felt magic flare in the distance and saw the villain flatten himself against the ground. He followed suit, and a heartbeat late felt the warmth of a spell pass above him. He got back on his feet as soon as his senses told him the danger was past, jaw tightening when he saw the aftermath of the sorcery. Every soldier in the avenue had been cut through at the waist as if by a giant blade. Blood and viscera stained the stone even as the men twitched away the last of their lives.

“Warlock, you have bleed,” the Black Knight said. “Walls were damaged. Recalibrate.”

Some of the houses had been sliced through as well, Hanno saw, but he was far past caring. He’d just seen two hundred men butchered like animals quicker than you could fill a glass. The White Knight breathed out, mastering his fury. I do not judge. To take justice in his own hands was surrendering his blade to chaos. Only the judgement of the Heavens was not limited by the shackles of mortal perspective.

Ride,” Hanno hissed, running.

Light howled into existence, sharping itself into a steed that the White Knight mounted without missing a beat. His sword returned to its sheath as he devoured the distance, a blinding lance of light forming in his extended hand. The Black Knight cocked his head to the side and the shadow tendrils extended from his back. Hanno waited for the swords, but instead they extended even further and pushed the villain off the ground like giant spider legs, tossing him towards a rooftop to the left. By the time the Ashuran got to where the villain had stood there was nothing left to charge. The mount disappeared a heartbeat later and the lance with it, Hanno landing on his feet. His gaze turned to the rooftop, where the Black Knight was studying him.

“Two, six,” the man said. “Pitch.”

Everything went dark just as the tiredness from using the aspect hit him.

“Oh, come on,” Hedge yelled as she started falling.

It had been bad enough when little dots of red light that burned straight through everything began pursuing her, but now this? There was no way using giant snakes made of flames as a mobile semi-sentient defence could be considered reasonable. Mages used those as a fancy knockout-punch, not decoration.  She only had two tiles left – that little dot surprise had punched straight through one before she learned what they did – which meant she wasn’t so much ascending as leaping from one stair to another. While at least a league up in the sky, pursued by killer lights and very insistent giant fire snakes. Normally the absolute sheer terror knotting up her guts would have been crippling, but having come within an inch of death seven times within the last few moments she’d punched straight through that ceiling of fear into another realm of fresh and previously unexplored horror. She was never going use a staircase again, and anyone who tried to make her was going to spend the rest of their life as the ugliest frog she could manage.

The Hedge Wizard summoned the two tiles back to her, shoving one under her feet hastily so she’d stop freefalling. The dots were slow enough they’d take a bit to catch up, but she was now officially back in snake trouble territory. The odd-eyed woman winced as she saw the spell construct’s jaw unhinge. Just before it closed on her she muttered a word of power and both she and everything she touched turned into flame, just long enough for the snake to pass through her. She came out of it wearing fuming robes and knowing she was running out of tricks to survive that. Her Name allowed her to use and understand sorceries so wide in scope and different in nature that it was effectively impossible for anyone else to know them all, but it did have one glaring flaw: she could never use the same trick twice the same day. Her bag wasn’t running low, at the moment, but it was certainly running low with things she could use to avoid giant flaming snake death. This was, she reflected, a bit of a problem.

She wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer, while the Warlock did not even seem to be running his actual defences. Could he even, from inside that bubble ward? He’d been casting area-wide magic sporadically, but she wasn’t actually getting any spikes in magic from in there when he did. There was actually a non-negligible chance he was just triggering distant wards while overseeing the battlefield. The most direct action he’d taken so far was the pocket meteor, and that was before she’d found him in the sky. So if I break that bubble, I might be disrupting their entire plan. That was the kind of risk she had to take, horrifying as that notion was. Alkmene did not think they were going to pull through this otherwise, not with how dim she could feel the others getting. Hanno was getting the worst of it, she sensed, but whoever Champion was scrapping with was delivering a hell of a beating. Hedge gingerly rolled her shoulders, watching the swarm of light dots approaching.

The wizard summoned her free tile to her hand and tapped the one she was standing on three times. It broke her heart to destroy an artefact she’d made so recently – because of their equally recent flying tower fiasco, as it happened – but it was marginally better than getting destroyed herself. The tile began lengthening and she ran down the length, feeling it becoming more and more brittle the longer it spread. Halfway to the bubble it shattered under her feet. She managed to get the second on in place before beginning to fall, angling it so it served as a sloped ramp. Immediately she began sliding off but another word of power had her soles sticking to the surface, allowing her to start running upwards. Not, unfortunately, fast enough to lose the dots. Hedge muttered under breath and flicked her wrist: a ghost image of her, reproducing her magical signature, began running away across thin air. The dots weren’t sentient at all, unlike the snakes, so it would be enough to fool them.

One of said snakes managed to loop back to her right before she got to the bubble, though, leaving her only an instant to make her decision. She went with the risk, since her last tile was already beginning to break. She leapt on top of the bubble and pressed herself against the ward, hoping to all the Gods the snakes had been designed not to collide with the bubble. The fire construct veered away at the last moment and she clenched her fist in triumph. Not dying, her favourite kind of victory. Immediately she began tinkering with the ward beneath her. Unlike the first one they’d been hit with, this one had been designed to weather a beating instead of being hard to modify. Small favours. No doubt the Warlock already knew she was there, so her window would be very, very small. Huh, this was actually massively strong. She could have unloaded her entire arsenal at this and barely scratched it. Were the villains under the impression she was a slugger kind of mage?

With a smile of triumph, she switched the last two runes, preparing the fae flame even as a circular hole in the bubble opened.

There was no Warlock inside.

There was, however, an unstable elemental matrix that had only been kept from exploding by the containment ward.

“You utter asshole,” she managed to say before it blew up.

The warhammer came down and shattered Champion’s shoulder, then spun to turn her left kneecap into powder. The Captain did not even attempt to kill the downed heroine this time, going directly for Irene. She’d learned from that initial mistake.

Heal,” the Ashen Priestess murmured.

The shoulder snapped back into place, the knee yanked itself up and the Levantine woman got back on her feet. Irene had been tapping into her aspect for over half the fight and it was starting to take a toll. The wounds healed themselves more slowly now, and not as fully. Given how absurdly tough the Champion was she was able to walk it off anyway, but it was a game of diminishing returns. In more ways than one: the Captain’s hammer came down on the box of light surrounding the Priestess three times before Rafaella was able to engage her again. After the third blow the box thinned, and Irene was certain if the villain had time for a fourth it would outright break. If it did, she gave it half and half odds she survived the experience. Unfortunately the Champion now got back into the fight a little slower every time while Captain showed no sign of tiring. Whatever aspect she’d used earlier wasn’t empowering her by much, but it wasn’t running out. This had effectively become an endurance match, which villains weren’t supposed to be able to win. They would this time, though, because the Calamities had hit when their band was fresh from turning back an enemy assault.

That did not feel like a coincidence.

“Champion,” Irene called out.

“Small busy right now,” the Levantine replied, ducking under a hammer blow.

The mere force of the swing was enough to kick up a cloud of ash behind them.

“I need you to buy me sixty heartbeats,” she said.

“Also want moon and stars?” Champion complained.

“It’s that or we die,” the Priestess frankly replied.

Rafaella smashed her battle axe into the behemoth’s plate, driving her back a step and cracking the metal.

“Dying not good,” the Levantine conceded.

The Captain leapt back.

“I need Burden in, um,” she said. “Big square in the middle.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not Black, Wekesa,” she retorted irritably. “I don’t keep track of where everyone goes all the time.”

Thirty heartbeats left. She could make it. Her aspect continued ebbing as she pushed another one to the surface. That was the limitation on Heal – she could keep it going, but making it stop took time. There was a flare of magic in the distance and suddenly the box flared into existence above her head. A moment later it broke and massive pressure forced her to her knees. Champion was still on her feet even if she was buckling, she saw, but Captain seemed almost unaffected. The hammer rose and she blurred again.

Oppose,” the Champion laughed.

There was a sound like a crack made in the weave of Creation and the pressure lifted. Rafaella’s axe smashed into the head of the hammer that would have split open the Priestess’ head, the impacts perfectly matched. Both weapons flew back and Captain warily stepped away.

Ignite,” Irene croaked out.

All over the field, the ashes began smouldering. She could feel them pulse in harmony with heartbeat, as much a part of her as any limb. The heat rose and the ashes began rising into the air, forming into spears. The Captain took a look around, then cracked her neck.

“Been a while,” she said. “It won’t be gentle.”

The villain’s eyes turned blood red, her body convulsed and she began shifting. They were, it seemed, not yet out of the woods. Worse, the woods were starting to look rather hungry.

This was not working, Hanno thought as the blade sheared through his cheek. The wound began to heal almost immediately, but his Name didn’t replace blood. Of which he had lost too much already. The White Knight’s eyes narrowed when he saw his opponent giving ground. He was hearing something. Was the villain ordering another strike? Hanno sharpened his hearing, catching only the last words.

“Listen closely.”

Then the munitions detonated. The hero hissed, involuntarily clasping his free hand to an ear. The man had used the elongated sticks that made light and noise earlier, but this was different – it made only noise, but was horribly loud. In that moment where pain filled Hanno’s thoughts, the Black Knight made his move. The olive-skinned hero brought up his sword in time to parry the first strike and sidestep the tendril-moved blade that would have sunk straight in his carotid. But he took the shield bash to the face, and then the other shadow-wielded blade went through the slight space between his breastplate and the lower parts of his armour that only mail covered. The sword chipped on the rings, but it tore through his guts anyway. The sword in the villain’s hand drew back, and in that movement Hanno read his death. It would take him in the eye, killing him in a way no Name could prevent. The world slowed. It wasn’t about power, the White Knight knew. He’d gauged how much both their names could throw around, and he trumped his opponent handily. It was the disparity in skill and experience. Hanno did not have any tricks his opponents had never seen before, and he had not seen most of his opponent’s.

That had always been going to be the way, he’d known from the start. He would have to go against villains who’d been around for decades longer than he, who’d been accumulating power and skill long before he’d even been born. It was why he’d left for the Titanomachy instead of going north to die like the others. I am not enough, but I am more than me. The Light flooded his veins again where it had started to ebb and he silently spoke the word he needed to.

Recall.

They flooded through his mind until he sorted them by height and build. Knight Errant. Hanno’s body moved by itself, the reflexes of his Name replacing his own. He leaned backwards, the tip of the villain’s sword passing just above his nose, and his hand closed around the grip of the sword in his gut. Ignoring the struggling shadow tendril, he hit the Black Knight in the chest with the pommel. The impact bought him a moment he flawlessly used to spin around his opponent. The very instant they were back to back he slapped away the tendril-moved sword that would have taken the back of his knee and with two swords in hand stepped away from his opponent. The villain did not miss a beat, stepping into a lunge that Hanno turned into a parry that knocked the sword out of the man’s hand. It did not stop him: a tendril caught the sword and swung for this throat as the other one slapped another blade into the palm of his armoured hand. No, this wouldn’t work either.

He touched the flood again. Righteous Spear. Tossing away the villain’s weapon, Hanno felt the sword in his hand flare with light and turn into the spear he needed. A parting gift from the Gigantes, a weapon that could be whatever his Name required. The barbed tip of his spear flicked towards the villain’s throat but bounced off the shield. The Black Knight immediately closed the distance and Hanno spun with the man’s swing, shaft of the spear coming to knock down the side of the shield before he spun back to – to have the shaft be caught by a shadow tendril. Weapon forced out of his hand, Hanno touched the flood again. Sage of the West. His armoured gauntlet expertly caught the side of the shield and he leveraged his weight to slam it into the villain’s own helm. The man was caught off guard long enough for Hanno to slide under his guard and flip him over his back. He pivoted smoothly to hammer his heel into the villain’s helmet but the side of his greaves was caught.

Destroy,” the Black Knight said.

The life he’d been tapping into… disappeared. Like smoke. He was the White Knight again, standing awkwardly with his foot in his opponent’s grasp. The villain grunted and smashed him into the ground like rag doll. Tendrils of shadows with two dozen of the clay balls from earlier wrapped around him, all lit. Hanno touched the flood again. Thief of Stars. He slid out of the bindings, though the edge of the explosions caught him. He was tossed to the ground, landing in an ungainly sprawl. It wasn’t enough. He’d have to… The coin appeared in one hand as his weapon reformed in a burst of light in the other.

“Burn,” an indifferent voice ordered.

The stream of flame caught him in the chest. His plate was of the finest steel that could be found in the Free Cities and still it boiled in the blink of an eye. The force behind the flames was brutal, driving him into the pavement as the stone scorched and cracked around him. Mercifully, it ceased. The time to worry about the state of his body after the fight was past, Hanno acknowledged. He breathed out and let the Light fill him. He’d lost hold of the Thief, now the White Knight once more, and his body hoisted itself back to its feet. Flesh a tapestry of red and black, he stood to face his enemies. There were two, now. The Black Knight and his sorcerous accomplice. A tall black man in burgundy robes, currently eyeing him with distaste.

“Wekesa,” the Black Knight said. “The Wizard?”

“Survived the blast,” the Warlock replied. “Currently chasing my second fake.”

“Then why are you here?” the other villain asked.

“The Tyrant is retreating.”

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“You’re certain?” the Black Knight said.

The sorcerer rolled his eyes.

“No, I confused them with the other besieging army that’s leaving,” he deadpanned.

“A backstab I expected, but a retreat?” the Knight murmured, then shook his head. “Are any of them on their third aspect?”

“Sabah’s got her two on their second, the Wizard hasn’t even used one,” the dark-skinned man said.

The Black Knight sighed, then sheathed his sword.

“We can no longer win this,” he said. “Full retreat.”

“They’re on the ropes, Black,” the Warlock said.

“Yes,” the other villain agreed darkly. “We have them cornered, with all their trump cards left. That is not a story that ends well for us.”

“You’re not getting away,” Hanno and the Light said.

The Warlock glanced at him then smiled unpleasantly.

“Well, you say that, but…”

Everything went dark again.

It was night out when Irene finally hit her limit.

Hanno would survive, which was what mattered. The magical burns had been nothing she hadn’t seen before, if never quite so severe, but there’d been some things she could not fix. There were two patches of skin gone almost stone-like on the side of his neck and a few others on his side that seemed able to simply ignore her miracles. It was like the Heavens saw nothing there that needed to be healed. She’d have to ask him about it, when he woke up. Her sister was sprawled across a chair behind her, looking exhausted, and the Champion was snoring away loudly on the only other bed in the room. She didn’t begrudge the Levantine that in the slightest: she’d had most bones in her body broken at least three times, and Irene had not had the power left to both soothe away the lingering pains and deal with the White Knight’s wounds. Washing away the last of the peeled-off skin with the wet cloth, Irene dropped the resulting mess in the water bowl by her side.

“He’s rather plain for a hero, isn’t he?” Alkmene said quietly, studying their leader.

“That speaks well of him,” Irene replied, dragging herself up. “Means he’s not vain.”

She brought a short stool next to her sister’s seat and with a sigh dropped her head on Alkmene’s arm. The odd-eyed woman stroked her hair affectionately.

“You know what I mean,” her sister said. “Look, we didn’t change much when we became Named but there were some changes. I’m a little thinner. You’re taller than me by at least an inch more than before.”

“That’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” the Bard said.

Both sisters flinched at the interruption. Aoede was sitting by Hanno’s bedside, pulling at a bottle of rum.

“Where have you been all day?” Irene asked flatly.

“Nowhere,” the Bard grimaced. “They’ve figured out a few things.”

It would have been impolite for either of them to pursue this any further, unfortunately. One did not simply ask another Named how their Name affected them. The answers tended to be intensely personal, and sometimes forcing an answer could have grave consequences for everyone involved. The olive-skinned woman brushed back her curls, waving her bottle.

“But like I said, it’s because he’s a Judgement boy,” she continued. “The Seraphim don’t have a lot of tolerance for self-delusion. You’re taller ‘cause in your head you were that much taller than your sister. Irene is thinner ‘cause she never thought of herself as going to keep those pounds.”

“That’s fascinating,” her sister said blandly, reaching for a pitcher of wine and pouring herself a cup. “And you didn’t warn us the fucking Calamities were coming to town because?”

“Here’s a warning, since you want one. Don’t drink that,” the Bard replied easily

Irene frowned and her sister pulled away her hand from the cup like she’d been burned.

“Why?” the Priestess asked.

“There’s five Calamities,” Aoede said. “You’ve met three. One’s retired. And the last one is…”

“Assassin,” Irene whispered, eyeing the cup like it was snake. “It’s poisoned?”

“And just when the both of you are flat out of power to burn,” the Bard said admiringly. “None of us ever saw a whisk of him, and he’s still come closest to killing a hero today.”

Priestess found her hands were shaking.

“They’ve learned to work around me some,” Aoede said quietly. “There’s rules. I knew they were coming but not when.”

Irene waved away the unspoken recriminations they’d been offering. The Bard was not the enemy.

“Merciful Gods,” Alkmene muttered. “This has not been our day.”

“We’ve got some time before Hanno is back on his feet,” Priestess said. “We can rest a bit.”

“Seven days and seven nights before he wakes,” the Bard said. “Only one thing to do until then.”

“And what’s that?” Irene asked, raising an eyebrow.

The bottle of rum landed in her lap.

“For once,” the Ashen Priestess said, bringing the bottle to her lips, “I think you might actually be right.”

Villainous Interlude: Chiaroscuro

“It is a shallow soul who fights to the cry of ‘might makes right’. The truth is more concise: might makes.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver

When young mages were taught the limits of sorcery, one of the first principle they were introduced to was that of Keter’s Due.

The largest sorcerous event ever to take place on Calernia was the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead by the king known to history as Trismegistus: a single man had, within the span of ten hours, cursed to undeath the entire population of an area comparable in size to the Wasteland. Though of course details were sparse, given that this had transpired before most of the continent was literate, through the higher order of mathematics introduced by the Miezans it was possible to piece together the broad lines of what had unfolded. Though High Arcana essentially bypassed the need for direct conversion and sympathetic links that limited lower sorceries, even those mysteries could ultimately be understood through numbers. A recent understanding, that. Early magic had been limited by capacity to channel power of individuals, the mental and physical exhaustion they could take before the continued manipulation of the laws of Creation burned them out.

The Taghreb had attempted to go beyond those limits by breeding with supernatural creatures more apt at using sorcery, most notably the djin. Limited success was attained: to this day, mages born to the southerners were on average more powerful than those born in the rest of the Empire. The Soninke solution had been less… carnal, and ultimately more successful: behind the walls of Wolof, the first ritual magic of Praes had been born. Those early rituals were brusque and inexact, relying heavily on human sacrifice to make up for deficiencies in what was not yet know as spell formulas. It was still a massive improvement over individual forms of sorcery, though this superiority was ultimately the reason further progress stalled: already having an edge in spellcasting, the ancient Soninke kingdoms sought to lessen weaknesses instead of improving a strength. A mistake that cost them in the War of Chains.

As in most things magical, the Miezan occupation changed everything. The foreigners from across the Tyrian Sea brought across with them Miezan numerals and the Petronian theory of magic. Though in many ways inferior to the Trismegistan theory later adopted by the Empire under Dread Emperor Sorcerous, the Petronian theory turned the ramshackle artistic ritual efforts of the Soninke mages into a proper method. The energies released by human sacrifice or other means of fuel began to be quantified and measured, matched to the requirements in scale and effect of what the mages set out to achieve. Which ultimately led to the discovery one of the great limits of sorcery: in the span between the release of energy and its conversion into a spell effect, whether it be ritual or individual, some of that energy was lost. Worse, that quantity of energy was not fixed but proportional to the total sum of energy released.

What was actually wasted varied from a tenth to fourth when it came to individual casting, but could go up to seven parts out of ten when it came to rituals. Though advances in spellcrafting and the theft of the entirely different Baalite spell formulas inherited by Ashur managed to lower that proportion, no spellcaster had ever managed to get the waste under a tenth in any form of sorcery. That tenth was colloquially known Keter’s Due. To turn an entire kingdom into undead, the Dead King in his capital of Keter was forced to open a stable and permanent portal into one of the Hells. And while nine tenths of that energy was properly channelled in ritual, the remaining portion turned the city of Keter into a warped ruin of anomalous magical phenomenon. The problem of Keter’s Due was that it limited what could be accomplished by ritual magic if you were in any way invested in where it took place. The larger and more powerful the ritual, the more dangerous the waste of power released.

Akua’s intentions were of titanic scale, which meant this was a titanic problem.

Turning Liesse into a ritual array had been achievable, especially after the widespread sabotage of all major infrastructure that had followed her taking stewardship of the city. Who exactly was responsible for that, she was still unsure. It had been too subtly wrought to be Foundling’s doing, and too moderate a retaliation to be the Lord Black’s. That left the Empress, but there was no way the woman would have allowed her control of the city if she actually knew what Akua intended. Her best guess was that she had not been the target at all, which was somewhat amusing if an irritation. Even with that interlude, Akua had been satisfied with the gain she’d made in the rebellion. Liesse’s wall ran with old and powerful wards, and the city had been built by the corpse of an angel. Tying both those assets into her own project had been a highly stimulating magical puzzle, one she’d been working on since the age of thirteen. And she had done it.

Akua was genuinely regretful that there was no one should could trust enough to boast of the achievement. It might be the single greatest accomplishment of her life. It was, though, somewhat of a comfort that eventually every living soul in Calernia would tremble at the mention of it. Powering the array had been the first issue, and one she’d come very close to solving at the Battle of Liesse: imprisoning a Hashmallim would have given her everything she needed and more. Unfortunately, Foundling had turned the Lone Swordsman’s blunder to her own purposes. Akua was not a debutante trying to pull off her first poisoning, so of course she’d had alternatives prepared. Fuelling anything of this size with demons was asking for trouble, considering the Due, so she’d had to look into gods. Securing the entity that dwelled in the heart of the Greywood had proved unfeasible, but her second target had panned out. Mostly.

The seventeen conduits she’d had her agents acquire – to the cost of many, mnay lives – were kept under enchanted sleep in chambers below the Ducal Palace. The seeking rituals she’d done had revealed that the entity they were bound to was artificial, not a natural force, but that made no real difference. According to her calculations it was even more powerful than the Hashmallim had been, which was a boon as well as a curse. When a stable binding was established and she triggered the array, Keter’s Due would effectively wipe Liesse and its immediate surroundings off the map. That was not an acceptable result, since she would be on the premises and fully intended on staying human. That was arguably the brilliant part of what she’d achieved with her array. She had found a way to still use the waste energy, what could be construed as a pre-conversion escapement that effectively negated the downsides of such a large ritual. Given the scale of the entity she’d found, however, she’d had to revise her schematics and broaden the size of the array’s escapement.

That meant more stone needed, more time and an ever-growing list of liabilities.

Secrecy was paramount: the moment the Named of the Empire became aware of what she was making they would immediately move to destroy her. Though she’d prepared Liesse for assault, Akua was not ready to face the full might of the Legions of Terror. Her infiltration and co-option of both the Scribe’s and the Empress’ spy networks in Liesse was a temporary state of affairs. The longer she had to falsify the information coming out of the city, the higher the chances her agents would be caught and purged. Already Malicia had flushed out the first level of her infiltration, and even if she was abroad Scribe would catch up eventually. The Webweaver was a tool, not a player, but she was a very effective tool.  There were, of course, more pressing threats. The worst of which had been unleashed by Foundling, who seemed to have a bottomless bag of talented lunatics to throw at Akua’s plans.

The heiress to Wolof was about due another of her backers coming to a grisly end, so her mood was already cautious when she allowed Fasili into her solar. There was no point in shuffling the parchments on her desk – she knew better than to keep anything compromising where there weren’t two dozen highly lethal wards forbidding entry to anyone but her. There were only seven safekeeping this room, a mere warning by Praesi standards. The Soninke bowed after entering, lower than he should to anyone not the Empress. Fasili was a fair hand at flattery, a skill helped along by the stunning good looks bred into all highborn Praesi.

“Lady Akua,” he greeted her. “Gods turn a blind eye to your schemes.”

“Lord Fasili,” she replied, affecting warmth.

She didn’t particularly care for him, though he was useful. Having the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum on her side opened doors and brought resources, even if he was semi-openly feuding with the woman who actually ruled that region. If she’d not been Named he would have been sizing her up for a dagger in the back to afterwards usurp control of her own faction, but as it was she was untouchable. That didn’t make him trustworthy in the slightest, but it did mean he was not a rival. He was a danger mostly to her other supporters, squabbling for the position as her right hand. For now, there was no need to deny him the perception that he was.

“I bring unfortunate tidings,” the man spoke in Mtethwa. “Another patrol has been destroyed.”

Surprising, the Named thought. After Foundling’s goblin had begun killing off her patrols she’d ceased using Praesi and had instead conscripted Callowans, knowing Squire would be reluctant to kill her countrymen. Maybe enough to recall her tool to Marchford, if he killed a few.

“She has gained in ruthlessness,” Akua said.

There was an undertone of approval to her voice. She’d learned the hard way not to underestimate the other woman, and seeing Squire adopt the more enlightened attitudes of the Praesi did not entirely displease her. It did not benefit her, of course, but Akua having strong enemies meant that Evil itself was strong. A skilled enemy was often more useful than an inept ally.

“Though you are no doubt correct,” Fasili said, “in this instance the deaths lack the marks of the other’s agents.”

Akua’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the word the man had used. Other. Nyengana, in Lower Miezan. The connotations did not carry across the languages. It meant not us, therefore inferior. Not other tongue on Calernia offered such a broad selection of terms to convey contempt as that of her people. The amusement was, however, fleeting.

“But it does bear marks,” she prompted.

“A survivor was left,” Fasili said. “He claims their patrol fell prey to a hunting party of fae from the Summer court.”

Akua’s face remained the picture of serenity.

“Not unexpected,” she smoothly lied. “Though ahead of my predictions.”

The fae? What in the name of the Dark Gods were they doing so far out of the Waning Woods? She’d been aware that Foundling was having trouble with the Winter court since the very first incident – the bastard Taghreb with the odious name Squire had running her spy network, though a talented amateur, was still an amateur – but she’d chalked that up to unforeseen side effects of using a demon of Corruption. Even Triumphant, may she never return, had only used those sparingly. Within a decade the thinning of borders would have fixed itself without any need for intervention, and if it kept Squire busy until then all the better. This, though? This was not a coincidence. If both courts were making a move on… Well, what they were attacking was the crux of the issue here, wasn’t it? It was unlikely to be the Empire, which left the unfortunate possibility it could be Callow itself. That could be problematic, given that almost the entire extent of her resources was tied up in the former kingdom.

The heiress to Wolof delicately grasped her decanter of Praesi wine and poured herself a cup, then one for Fasili as well. The other Soninke bowed his head in appreciation and took a seat when she wordlessly invited him to. He discreetly passed his palm over the cup before taking it in hand, skilled enough that the alchemical pellet of lesser antidotes made no sound when it sunk into the wine. For all that High Lady Abreha seemed to think little of her heir, Akua had found him to be everything a noble of Praes should be: ruthless, patient and subtle. He’d already arranged the disgrace of two possible rivals for his position since he’d returned to her court, in both cases through a dizzying series of catspaws and intermediaries. If she’d not had two devils discreetly tailing his every move, she might even have missed some of the intricacies of his plots. As it was, Fasili was in the palm of her hand. She knew who he was sleeping with, who his enemies were and where his coin was kept. It would be the work of a slow afternoon to destroy him, if the mood ever struck her.

She wouldn’t, of course. The other Soninke was a talented commander of men – though not as talented as Ghassan had been, before Foundling had ripped out his soul – and his schemes occupied enough of the players in her court that they had no occasion to dig too deep into her own activities. He’d made one attempt to investigate that himself, but the man he’d bribed to transcribe her architectural plans had been made to disappear the same day, along with the entire chain of intermediaries used. The message had been duly received and no further attempt ever made. Akua did like to deal with intelligent men: she never had to repeat herself. Sipping at her wine – her own pellet had already been at the bottom of the cup when she’d poured – the Soninke allowed herself to enjoy the taste of home. This particular one was from the outskirts of Nok, the grapes grown there tinkered with over centuries so they would pair well with the taste of antidote.

It was something of a faux pas among the nobility to serve wine where one could taste one’s precautions.

“We’ll narrow our patrol routes and double the numbers deployed with each,” Akua said.

Fasili inclined his head, allowing the faint trace of a smile to touch his full lips. He would be amused, Akua thought. Like most war-inclined aristocrats in the Wasteland, the man knew the deployment doctrines of the Legions of Terror inside out even if he’d never stepped foot inside the War College. This particular measure was straight out of the treatises penned by Marshal Grem One-Eye, as they both knew.  Most Wastelanders never bothered to read those, preferring to settle for what had been written by the Black Knight who, even if Duni, was still Praesi. Neither Akua nor Fasili, however, had been inclined to pass on the insights of the greatest military mind of their age simply because it had been born inside a greenskin body. Though Malicia’s dismissal of everything the Empire stood for was a mistake, it would be just as much of a mistake not to learn from the successes she had gained from a degree of practicality. Talent must be used wherever it was found. That much the Dread Empress had divined correctly.

“I’ve been given to understand that the Moderates are gaining ground,” Fasili said, tone casual. “Rumours imply that High Lady Amina might formally withdraw from the Truebloods.”

Which would mean Foramen and the Imperial Forges were not longer aligned with Akua’s mother, cutting off another means of influence for the Truebloods. High Lady Amina was owed half a tenth of any profits made by the Imperial Forges, making her one of the single wealthiest individuals in Praes. Losing those coffers – as well as the knowledge of the quantity and location of any armament made in the forges filling them – would be a major blow. The Named sipped calmly at her wine, then arched an eyebrow.

“Inconsequential,” she finally said.

Fasili managed to hide his surprise well enough that the only detail to betray it was the slight widening of his eyes. Akua watched the gears grind behind that handsome face, almost amused. If she was not bothered by the Truebloods falling apart, it meant that she was no longer dependant on them for backing. The implication there being she’d either struck deals with individual members of the faction that made their affiliation irrelevant – which she had – or that she intended to strike out on her own. Which she did, in a manner of speaking. She would not turn away the allies Foundling’s reckless accumulation of troops was gaining her, but the days where her efforts had been an extension of her mother’s designs were coming to an end. It would be strange, to stand without the protection the woman had afforded her all these years even if she hated her. Strange and exhilarating. The cage was finally breaking.

“Do you ever get tired, Lord Fasili?” Akua asked suddenly.

The man blinked.

“Of?”

“This,” she said, tone whimsical. “Of what we are. Of what we do.”

There was wariness in those eyes now. He was wondering if she was trying to entrap him in some way, to make him misstep so that she could bind him closer to her will. Akua could have told herself she didn’t know why she was speaking with this man, someone she could use but not trust, but that would have been lying to herself. Because Barika is dead. The pang of loss there surprised her, as it always did. Praesi did not have friends and confidantes, she’d always been told. They were too obvious a target, too large a liability. And yet on most days she still turned to her left to share a thought, only after realizing that the girl she would speak to was long dead. Barika was not the costliest loss she’d incurred at Liesse, but it was the one she felt the most often.

“Never,” Fasili replied. “My line is that of kings and Empresses. It would be a disgrace to reach for lesser prizes.”

In most cultures, Akua mused, one of her closest allies admitting to wanting a throne he believed she herself coveted would have been cause for a rift. For Praesi, though, it was duly expected. Ambition was bred into them before they were even born. Each High Lord and Lady saw to it their inheritors were more beautiful, more intelligent, more powerful than their predecessors. Some families had eschewed the Gift in their ruling line, for necromancy and diabolism often complicated the succession, but those that hadn’t always brought in the most powerful mage they could secure. Praesi aristocrats were expected to always look forward. If they could not claim the Tower or a Name, they were to strengthen the family and prepare the grounds for their successors to surpass them. For any trueborn Praesi to not attempt to reach the heights their ancestors had touched, to never try to go even further, was… blasphemy. Turning your back on everything that had come before you, all that set you apart from those beneath you.

Fasili Mirembe has assessed he could not currently claim the Tower or become an independent force through a Name, so he had aligned himself with Akua. Through this he sought to better his position, gain material advantages and favours that would allow him to either further the interests of Aksum or his own. Most likely he intended on being her Chancellor, if she became Dread Empress, and bide his time until he could knife her and become the Emperor himself. None of this offended her. Ambitions like these were what kept her people sharp, what set apart Praesi from the rest of Calernia. Akua’s people never settled for what they had been born with, never allowed themselves to stagnate. The Dread Empire had gone through hundreds of different faces and iterations before it had conquered Callow, but in the end it had. Because the Kingdom of Callow had been the same since its foundation, while Praes shifted with every Tyrant. And now Dread Empress Malicia wanted to kill the very soul of their nation.

Borders set in stone, never to advance again. The wonders of sorcery that were the envy of the continent, suppressed or abandoned. The High Lords, the very whip that drove Praes to improve, neutered into irrelevance in a fate more insulting than mere extermination. Centuries of toil to make the orcs a warrior caste incapable of functioning without the Tower thrown to the wayside by granting them authority. The goblins, who would always answer to their Matrons above anyone else, allowed to sink their claws in the Legions of Terror. Oh, Akua knew what was being done. Malicia and her Knight were making Praes a nation where the power was in the hands of institutions, not Named. An Empire that was no longer malleable for every Tyrant to make into whatever tool they needed to overcome the forces of Good. A fixed monolith, bound together by a philosophy that was nore more than the absence of philosophy. A nation that did not stand for anything but standing.

“Do you know why the Truebloods are losing, Fasili?” she asked.

“My great-aunt has splintered the opposition,” he replied immediately. “Without a united front, Malicia cannot be overcome.”

Akua smiled, the open display of emotion making him uncomfortable.

“They were never going to win,” she said. “After the civil war, when she set aside Black’s cold hate and refrained from a war of extermination against the nobility, we came to believe the Empress was one of us. That she played the Great Game.”

“Iron sharpens iron,” the other Soninke murmured.

And the sharpest iron takes the throne, she finished silently. Praes would always be strong, for only the strongest could claim the Tower. Every child that mattered was taught this from the cradle.

“But she doesn’t, Fasili,” Akua said. “This whole time we’ve been trying to win the same way we did with the Maleficents of the Terribilises of olden days. Acknowledging she has touched greatness but knowing that to grow again the Empire needs a fresh Tyrant. One still hungry.”

“The Empress has achieved more than almost any before her,” Fasili conceded reluctantly. “It is then her due to keep power longer than almost any before her. This changes nothing. In time she will lose her way and be overthrown.”

“She won’t be,” Akua said. “Because while we schemed for advancement, to be her successors, she has waged a war of destruction on us. And a few months ago, she won.”

The dark-skinned woman brushed hear hair back, though it was perfectly styled.

“She barred the office of Chancellor, the most important ward against reigns that linger,” Akua began to enumerate. “She opened the highest ranks of the Legions and the bureaucracy to lowborn and greenskins, smothering our influence there. With Callowan grain she has made field rituals irrelevant, severing the bond that kept the lesser nobility dependant on us. Trade with Callow has established sources of wealth we do not control, ending our ability to win through coin. All we have left is the court, where we claw at each other for ever-lessening gains and she smiles down at the corpses.”

Fasili had gone very, very quiet. He eyed her with barely-veiled horror.

“She’s not trying to win the Game,” she said. “That wouldn’t matter. No one can win forever. She’d trying to end the Game.”

“Then we must rebel,” he said. “Now, while we still can. If you bring this to the attention of the High Lords, they will back you. To do otherwise would be folly.”

Akua drank daintily from her cup.

“They already know, Fasili,” she said. “The hard truth of it is that if we wage war, we will lose. We cannot beat the Legions, and the Legions are loyal. Lord Black will not turn on his mistress and the Warlock bound the soul of the last envoy to a chamber pot. The Truebloods attempted to win through guile, and they have failed. My mother clings to her crumbling plans and grows desperate, while the weak-willed among them seek to surrender.”

She met his eyes calmly.

“For that is what the Moderates are: a surrender. Do not think otherwise for a moment,” Akua said. “In exchange for survival and scraps of influence, they turn themselves into coffers and spell repositories for Malicia to plunder as she wills.”

“I will not allow my blood, a line that goes back to the War of Chains, to be used as a fucking court ornament,” Fasili barked, eyes burning. “Evil does not surrender. Evil does not bow to inevitability. We spit in the eye of the Heavens and steal our triumphs.”

Akua allowed the unsightly display of emotion to pass without comment. It was not unwarranted, when one learned one’s entire way of life was teetering on the edge of destruction.

“I never believed in the Trueblood cause,” Akua admitted idly. “At the heart of their movement there was a sliver of hypocrisy. They believed their ways are superior, and therefore they should lead Praes. But if their ways were truly superior, would they not already be ruling?”

Their ways,” Fasili repeated, eyes narrowed. “You speak as if they are not yours as well.”

“You’ve read the treatises of Grem One-Eye,” she replied. “So have I. Would your parents have? I know my mother did not, and many consider her mind as sharp as the Empress’.”

“There is a difference between reading the words of the foremost general in the Empire and discarding everything we are,” the other Soninke flatly retorted.

“The duty of our predecessors was to make us more than they were,” Akua said. “They have succeeded in this: that is why we see a brilliant tactician instead of mouthy greenskin brute. For ages we’ve sought to forge better bodies, better sorceries, better minds – and yet we fight the same ways we’ve done since Maleficent first took a dagger in the back. We improve capacity without ever addressing perspective.”

“If that were true,” Fasili replied, “we would not be having this conversation.”

“We’re not having this conversation because of our families,” the dark-skinned woman said. “The Empress is the one who forced our eyes open.”

“The Empress would see us eradicated,” the heir to Aksum hissed. “And she is succeeding.”

“And for that,” Akua replied quietly, “We owe her much. Fasili, when was the last time that we were truly in danger? Not of losing the throne to another of the great families or of failing another invasion. When was the last time the High Lords and Ladies faced extinction?”

The man bit his tongue, then actually thought.

“The Second Crusade,” he said. “When the first revolt against the crusader kingdoms failed.”

“And from those ruins rose Dread Emperor Terribilis II,” Akua said. “One of our greatest, and a Soninke highborn. He did things differently from his predecessors and turned back two Crusades.”

“And so we should surrender to our superior on the throne?” Fasili said bitterly.

“You miss my point,” she said. “We flirted with destruction and we became better. Seven hundred years have passed since then, Fasili, without ever being in such a situation. We’ve become soft since then, narrow-minded. Arrogant.”

She smiled thinly.

“And so the Hellgods put us through the crucible again,” she said. “Adapt or perish. Are we relics to be discarded, or the beating heart of what it means to be Praesi?”

“We’re not done,” he said. “We’re never done.”

“My mother,” Akua said, “would have me be the swan song of Praesi villainy. The last stand, raging against the dying of the night. But our parents succeeded, Fasili. They made us better than them. We can learn.”

“Take what made them successful,” the man said slowly. “Make it ours.”

“Praes is a story,” she said. “A Tyrant to lead us. A Black Knight to break heroes. A Warlock to craft wonders. A Chancellor to rule behind them. And an Empire like clay, to shape into the tool they need: an entire nation built to empower the ambitions of a single villain.”

“Our Empress rules,” he murmured. “Our Black Knight leads. Our Warlock crafts nothing and our Chancellor is nothing. All the while the Empire calcifies into institutions, impossible to move.”

Yes. Finally, he was beginning to understand. None of them were acting as they should, not in the way that mattered. Malicia was more Chancellor than Empress, Lord Black had reigned as king in all but name for twenty years and the Warlock learned without ever building. They were trying to change the story but oh, they had not thought that entirely through had they? Because once the changes began, they were no longer in control. Anyone with the right power could shape the story too. Akua looked at them, and she did not see rulers. She saw stewards. They had made themselves to be administrators, and in Praes those ever only had one function: to enable the designs of the villain above them.

“Foundling came closest to understanding,” Akua said. “It’s how she beat me, at Liesse. It wasn’t her Name she used.”

Akua drained the last of her cup, gently put it down on the desk.

“It’s never been about the Names, you see,” the Diabolist smiled. “It’s always about the Roles.”

Chapter 7: Elaboration

“Ah, but being defeated was always part of my plan! Yet another glorious victory for the Empire.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful

We’d gotten the usual banter and I’m-going-to-kill-you, no-I’m-going-to-kill-you posturing out of the way, so it was now time to get to the stabbing. Admittedly my favourite part, especially when I wasn’t taking on a hero. This sad sack of smugness might pack a punch, but he wasn’t carrying a solemn promise of victory handed down by the Heavens. If I started chopping of limbs he wasn’t going to get back up with an irritating one-liner about Evil always being defeated. As good ol’ Willy had learned in the end, that wasn’t always true anyway. Sometimes Evil snatched a last moment resurrection, stomped in Good’s skull and went dancing with a good-looking redhead afterwards. Probably not victory the way the Gods Below or the average Dread Emperor conceived it, but I wasn’t going to be taking life lessons from people who’d thought the invisible army plan was a good idea.

The Rider didn’t seem to bother with the same tricks his minions had used, devouring the slope on the way down faster than I believed was actually possible. It occurred to me that most everyone I fought had cavalry while I had to make do with a pack of malevolent goblins, which struck me as pretty unfair. Before I could further lament the fact, I had to unsheathe my sword and brace myself for impact. It would have been a mistake to think of the Rider as a mere lancer, I decided. For one, his murderous unicorn effectively had a second spear jutting out of its forehead. More than that, unlike most horseman, killing his mount was unlikely to slow him down much. The way he’d introduced himself had me guessing he was in some way linked to the state of a horseman, but I doubted taking care of that would knock him out of the fight. Creatures that introduced themselves with fancy titles usually had some power to back up that presumption. That or they died early and bad.

Eyes calm, hands steady, I watched the points of the spear and the horn come for me. The spear would be the dangerous one: it wasn’t like the unicorn could twirl around the horn for a second go once it was past me. I hoped. Letting out a long breath, I adjusted my footing to be able to dash forward without missing a beat just before the Rider got in range. The horn I ducked under, the spear I narrowly avoided – it scraped my left pauldron – and I made to slide under the unicorn to open its belly. The back of the spear hit me right above the nose, knocking me down as I cursed. I rolled to the side, but not quick enough: the unicorn’s hooves came down and caved in my breastplate. Strike one for my plate being anything more than expensive dead weight today, since that could easily have been my ribs. I hated breaking ribs, half the time shards got into my lungs and I ended up coughing blood.

I managed to swing at the spear point before it took my throat, knocking it aside, and rolled before the unicorn could continue dismantling my plate. That thing was being way too bloodthirsty. Sure I hadn’t been a virgin for a few years, but there was no reason for it to take who I brought into my bed so personally.

“Look,” I gasped, managing to get on my feet and hastily backing away from a swing. “He was a fisherman’s son. They swim all the time, do you have any idea how fit they look?”

Murder made horse was not impressed by my protests, if the way it tried to kick me was any indication. The Rider, what little of his face could be seen expressionless, fluidly adjusted his hold and slapped down the spear at my head. Too fast for me, when I was still sidestepping his mount. It dented my helmet, which was a much more acceptable loss than my skull. I took back everything unpleasant I’d said about my armour today. The second strike I parried, but his handhold shifted again and he twisted deftly hitting my sword out of my hand. All right, this was headed nowhere. If I didn’t want to end up an expensively armoured corpse I was going to have to change the beat to this. Before the third strike – this one a lunge – could put me further on the back foot, I managed to get back in front of the unicorn. Predictably, it objected to this state of affairs and with a whinny took a step forward to put its horn through my throat. I was still unarmed, but I did have two free hands.

My gauntleted hands closed around the horn and I sharply pivoted. Lift with your legs, Cat, I reminded myself. Before the Rider could rearrange my presented spine at spear point, I flooded my limbs with power and pulled. For a single glorious moment I lifted the unicorn, swinging it forward like some kind of wildly failing mace until it reached its apex over my head. At which point the horn snapped. This had not, I mused, been one of my better plans. Below getting into a verbal fight with Heiress at the Tower, though still above letting William go at Summerholm. I hastily threw myself out of the way, seeing the Rider gracefully leap off his mount from the corner of my eye. The moment I got back on my feet I aimed my arm at the downed unicorn – which looked like it had broken a leg on the way down, good for me – and snapped my wrist. The backup knife shot like an arrow, sinking right into its eye. Pickler, you queen among goblins. I can’t believe I argued with you about a second knife being overkill.

I stepped back and picked up my sword, adjusting my cloak around my neck.

“Let the record show I’m not above murdering a unicorn if it looks at me funny,” I announced.

The Rider glanced at his dead mount indifferently.

“A worthy effort,” he conceded. “If ultimately futile.”

I paused for a moment, too many scathing replies on the tip of my tongue for me to be able to settle on a single one, but I ended up having to back away when he tried to run me through. I blinked in surprise: he’d been fast, on the unicorn, but this was something else. Quicker than even the deadwood soldiers had been, and they’d been in a league above me. Was that part of the fae package, then? Sorcery and tricks and swiftness. Not great on the staying power, but if they killed you before it became an endurance match that was hardly a problem. The fairies would be useless as tits on a sparrow if they ever tried to make a shield wall, but that wasn’t the way they fought at all. It was like fighting an army of skirmishers, all of them mages, with a backbone of heavy hitters behind them. That was not a good match for the Fifteenth, or even the Legions of Terror in general.

Sword in hand, I circled the Rider silently. Another flicker and the point was skidding off my arm, leaving a long scar on the steel – I tried to catch the shaft with my free hand but it retreated too quickly. All right, so finesse wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Closing the distance should have been my solution, but I was wary of getting that close to a creature so much faster than me, spear or no spear. I was going to have to take a hit, I realized with a grimace. I could walk it off if it didn’t hit anywhere too lethal, and while his weapon was in my guts it couldn’t defend. I missed the days when the initial parts of my battle strategies hadn’t involved getting my stabbed instead of my opponent. Stepping forward, I kept my eye on the spear. That proved to be a mistake. The Rider took a hand off the shaft and a heartbeat late a gust of chilling wind slammed into me.

I dug in my feet, but it wasn’t enough. The wind intensified and I was sent flying upwards, like I’d been smacked by a god’s invisible hand. The world spun around me but I kept just enough awareness of my surroundings to notice the four javelins of dark ice forming in a loose lozenge ahead of me. About where I would be in a few moments, I assessed with strange clarity. And it was a sucker’s bet that whatever made that ice darker would enable it to punch through plate. Well, couldn’t have that. Fortunately, I still had a few tricks I’d learned since Liesse I’d yet to unpack. My Name flared, in the way it did whenever I formed a spear of shadows, but I went for something more… tangible. The darkness pooled together into a circular pane right in my trajectory, and I twisted so that I would hit it feet first. It was not quite as steady to the touch as solid ground, but it would do. I allowed my knees to bend when I hit the pane and effectively threw myself back down in the opposite direction.

The first ice javelin skimmed the edge of my gorget and I winced. I half-turned, still falling, and saw that two other projectiles were going wide. The last one was headed for the middle of my back, though, which was less promising. I formed an orb of shadow in my palm as it neared and shot it straight into the point at the last moment – the javelin exploded into shards when it hit, and I braced myself for my coming reacquaintance with the ground. Optimism, that. Instead I turned back to face the sight of the Rider with translucent wings sprouting off his back, just as his spear punched through the plate covering my belly. I gasped in pain, writhing around the point, and he tore it off without missing a beat. Kicking me away he fluttered back and I landed bleeding on the ground. My knees gave and I ended up in an ungainly crouch.

“Rise,” I croaked.

Nothing happened, and panic welled up.

Rise,” I repeated.

No, it was working I realized. Just slowly. The wound began to close at a snail’s pace, and I could feel it drawing much deeper from that bundle of power than it should have. Shit. Black had warned me, hadn’t he? Borrowed power always turned on its user.

“Your lack of understanding of your own aspects is a marvel to behold,” the Rider commented.

A flicker and he was in front of me, palm thrust out. I forced myself out of the way of the gust of wind, hissing at the pain of my still-closing wound.

“Thrice gifted is your Name,” he said, idly circling me. “Thrice used can your stolen power be, from dusk ‘til dawn.”

Well, that was useful to know. Would have been even better to know it before I’d gotten myself run through twice, but beggars can’t be choosers.

“Thanks for the tip,” I grunted. “While we’re at it, I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me your nefarious plans?”

I readied myself for another rousing round of Catherine-tries-not-to-die, but the attack never came. The Rider was twitching, mouth twisting in discomfort.

“Since you are about to die anyway,” he said reluctantly, through gritted teeth, “I might as well reveal the depths of your failure.”

Wait, what? That never worked. Not even with Heiress and she lived for this stuff. It certainly didn’t look like he wanted to tell me any of this.

“This struggle is but a distraction,” the Rider said. “You are meant to waste time and die here while the true war is fought in Creation.”

Masego had told me once that Arcadia worked according to different rules than Creation. I’d only been pretending to listen when he’d been talking about how that affected the creational laws governing the flow of time – which was, apparently, a classical element. I really needed to learn what those were at some point – but one part had actually been interesting enough I’d tuned back in. Arcadia was, in a lot of ways, rawer than Creation proper. In Creation stories bound only the Named, but in Arcadia everything was a story. It was why everything was so changeable. I was standing in front of an enemy clearly winning against me, at his mercy, and had just prompted him to gloat and reveal his plans. So he had. Even if he didn’t want to.

“Alas, I am in despair,” I badly lied. “Tears, woe is me. Why would you do something so wicked?”

The Rider cursed in a tongue I could barely process as spoken.

“If Summer is at war, so must be Winter,” he said. “The boundaries have been thinned, the host will be assembled.”

I squinted at him.

“You’re insane,” I said slowly. “You’ll… never get away with this?”

The fae looked at me, then at the dead unicorn. There was a long moment of silence. Then he bolted. Just… legged it, as fast as his little fairy feet could manage. I frowned, then raised an arm. I formed a spear of shadows and shot him in the back. The Rider cursed again, though he managed to avoid most of the damage – all I did was clip his shoulder. That might be more of a problem than I’d thought, though: one of his wings burst into existence, then out. Huh. Was this what being a hero felt like? No wonder they were always so overconfident. I caught up within moments. For all that some intangible tide had turned in my favour, he hadn’t gotten any slower. The spear wove elegantly around my sword, but instead of letting him drive me back I forced my way close. His palm shot off, but I was in no mood for a repeat of the flight adventure. I punched his hand, which while not the most elegant of solutions still broke a few fingers with a hard crack. The Rider turned his wounded shoulder to me, and the wing formed a moment later.

I was blown back like I’d been hit by a blast of pure unformed magic – my occasional spars with Masego had taught exactly what that felt like, in unpleasant detail – but pivoted on myself and used the momentum to take a swing. I hacked into his elbow, tearing through the wood and obsidian scales, before having to raise my arm to block a swing of the shaft. I almost made a comment about how the tides had turned, but bit down on my tongue at the last moment. Gloating was for amateurs, and here in Arcadia might have very final consequences. My gauntlet was half-crumpled but that didn’t hurt any less when I swung again, decking him in the face. He flinched back and my sword came down again. Cleaved straight through the elbow this time, the limb flopping to the ground. The lack of blood was a little off-putting, but I didn’t break my stride.

My leg swept his as I rammed my pommel into his chest, but I realized a moment too late that wouldn’t work on this kind of an opponent. His good wing burst into existence, getting back on his feet, and he slammed the bottom of his spear into my chest. Gods, I was basically wearing scrap metal at this point. Even knowing how that had ended up for the Exiled Prince I was tempted to get an enchanted suit of armour. Might not get my ass killed if I used it only the once. I smacked at his hands with my pommel and he dropped the spear. Within a heartbeat a sword of frost had formed in his hand but an orb of shadows had formed in mine: I rammed it through the spell, dissipating it before it could form properly. I heard a grunt and in a spray of crystal-clear water a forearm emerged form the stump to replace the one I’d cut off. Well, there went attrition tactics. I went for a killing stroke instead, side of my sword smashing into the side of his neck.

There was a spray of scales and he fell: I stepped back to adjust my stance for a deeper blow. Both wings flickered into existence, and before I could hit him agains he shot off into the sky. Well, shit. It figured that if he could grow an arm back he could fix whatever I’d done to the shoulder. I was debating how feasible it would be to make a series of shadow platforms to pursue – not very, it ate through my reserves like you wouldn’t believe – when a rope of green smoke slithered its way through the air until it coiled around his foot. The Rider hacked at it with another ice sword but it just went through, cleaving through his boots and doing nothing to the smoke. Which was pulled a moment later, smashing him into the ground like a falling star. Hakram idly walked up to him, burying his axe into the skull repeatedly and with great enthusiasm. I turned to eye Masego, who dismissed the green smoke rope with an idle gesture.

“Catherine,” he greeted me calmly. “I see you’re still alive.”

“Arguably my best skill,” I replied.

The dark-skinned mage blinked.

“Catherine you died. Not even a year ago,” he said.

I might have insulted myself by accident there, I reflected. I cleared my throat.

“Your guys are taken care of?” I asked.

“Most,” Hakram replied, wiping sweat off his brow as he joined us. “Some fled.”

Kill-stealer, I mouthed at him. He grinned back unrepentantly.

“I meant to take a prisoner for interrogation, but they were not inclined to cooperate,” Apprentice said.

I glanced at the corpse of the Rider. With all three of us we might have managed to capture him, but given how dangerous he’d been that would have been risky. Probably for the best he’d gotten the orc treatment.

“I learned a few things from this one,” I said. “This whole fight was bait. They want us to wander around Arcadia while they mass for an assault on Marchford.”

“I suspected as much,” Masego shrugged. “We’re no longer in the shard.”

I frowned.

“How d’you figure that?” I asked.

“We’re not surrounded by blizzard, for one,” he said. “And I cannot feel the boundaries of the shard anymore. We’re in Arcadia Resplendent, that much is certain.”

I sheathed my sword, trying to hide my surprise. He was right, about the blizzard. It was still windy out but visibility was clear. I hadn’t even noticed. When it had gotten easier to move I’d been paying attention to the fight, and must have unconsciously chalked it up to my Name taking care of the problem.

“He said something else that caught my attention,” I said. “Something about Winter having to be at war when Summer is.”

Hakram looked vaguely pained and I felt with him. The idea of there being a whole other breed of these guys out for our blood wasn’t exactly thrilling. Masego looked pleased, naturally, because he wasn’t going to have to rebuild a city that was broke, demon-corrupted, iced in and on fire. I did not care for the way that list kept getting longer.

“That explains a great deal. The Courts of Arcadia are named after the seasons, but they have nothing to do with those same seasons on Creation,” Apprentice said. “Consider them more like states of mind. When Winter and Summer become the two existing courts, it means Arcadia is at its most contrary.”

“If they’re pissed at each other,” I said, “why is Winter making itself my problem?”

“Symmetry, Catherine,” the bespectacled man enthused. “If Summer is at war with an enemy exterior to Arcadia, Winter must be the same. I would say there is no personal enmity behind this invasion, not that fae can truly be personal about anything. The weaker boundary at Marchford simply made it the obvious target.”

“Stop sounding so cheery about creatures trying to murder us,” I requested, then shifted uneasily.

Back in Laure, the Ruling Council’s session had been delayed to talk about an incident in Dormer: a handful of Summer fairies making a mess down there, though not a large one. The picture that was putting together was not one I liked at all.

“How likely is it that the courts could be targeting the same enemy?” I asked.

Masego blinked.

“Impossible,” he said.

Oh, good. That made the mess even more complicated but I’d take it.

“Though, of course, from the fae perspective no nation as we know them would be considered the ‘same enemy’,” he added absent-mindedly. “Making the distinction largely academic.”

Don’t punch him, I told myself. You still need him to get out of this place.

“Should have led with that, warlock’s get,” Hakram said, tone amused.

“Oh,” Masego said.

He glanced at me reproachfully.

“It was a very poorly-phrased question,” he said.

“Quit while you’re ahead,” I advised. “All right. Fine. So Winter’s going to keep attacking as long as Summer does, and we have no idea why it’s attacking or even who specifically.”

“If I was trying to keep you busy and had an understanding of the fae mindset,” Hakram said. “I would provoke a war with Summer, knowing Winter would be forced to mirror the action. Likely at Marchford.”

I sighed.

“Heiress,” I said.

That did sound right up her alley. As Governess of Liesse, even if Summer was at war with her city specifically, I’d still be forced to protect her from the consequences of her actions. It was my duty as a member of the Ruling Council, and her city was full of Callowans to boot. Meanwhile I’d have to deal with an assault on my demesne from an entirely different court, eroding the strength of the Fifteenth while simultaneously forcing me to use other means to deal with Summer. It was the kind of overly complicated plot with massive potential for backfiring that was her bread and butter. Hells, she might as well have signed the whole thing. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

“Winter’s got a boss fairy, right?” I said to Masego.

“There will be a king or a queen, yes,” he agreed.

“If I punch it until it dies, that feels like a problem solved,” I grunted. “If Winter stops attacking then Summer would have to as well, no?”

The chubby mage frowned.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Possibly. Regardless, Catherine, if you attempt to fight the ruler of a court you will get killed. Those creatures qualify as a god by most measures.”

“Dying’s never stopped me before,” I said.

“We lack angels to loot for a resurrection, this time,” Hakram said. “Cat, there’s no need to go at this alone. This is bigger than us. The Tower needs to step in.”

If Malicia gets involved I’m tacitly admitting the Ruling Council can’t run Callow without her help, I thought. I bit my lip. I’d need to think on this more.

“First we get out of here,” I finally said. “Masego, you said we’re no longer in the shard. Does that meant we can’t leave the same way we came in?”

“We’ll need a gate to step through or a fairly powerful fae to open a path,” he said.

“Do your thing, then,” I said. “Where’s the closest gate?”

“Explain the fae to me, Apprentice,” he muttered. “Find me a gate, Apprentice. I could be taking apart a pocket dimension right now, you know. They never ask for anything.”

He just beginning to trace runes in the air when Hakram cleared his throat. I looked at him, then the direction he was pointing at. There were snow-covered hills as far as the eye could see, with the occasional thicket of dead trees and a few distant mountains. There was also a path now, paved in ice. It snaked across the hills towards what looked like a glistening city.

“That wasn’t there a moment ago,” I said.

“We weren’t looking for a gate a moment ago,” Apprentice said.

“Gods, I hate this place,” I cursed.

I eyed the road, which began atop the hill just beyond us and looked as pristine as if it had just been built. For all I knew it had been.

“We’re not using that,” I said. “That is an insultingly obvious trap.”

Hakram clapped my shoulder, amused.

“It would be an easier walk than the snow,” Masego said, just shy of complaining.

“You could use the exercise,” Adjutant said, nudging him.

I blinked. If Hakram was next to him, then who had – I went for my sword, and someone laughed.

“You lot are terrible at not getting killed,” Archer told me cheerfully, hand still on my shoulder.

Usurpation

“One hundred and forty-three: do not try to avert prophecy, fulfil prophecy or in any way tinker with prophecy. Swallowing poison will lead to a quicker death and less ironic horror inflicted upon Creation.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

Kairos was twelve years old and he had less than a year to live.

That was what he’d learned today, going down to the crypt even though he had been forbidden to by the king. The… thing in the tomb had spoken its prophecy in a croaky whisper, that he would not make it to his thirteenth nameday. He wished he could say he was surprised, but had anything ever been more obvious? He’d been born frail, with a dead eye and limbs that shook. Ripped from his mother’s womb too early when her pregnancy had turned sour and she’d begun withering like grapes on the vine. The priests and the mages had said he wouldn’t survive his first winter and his father had washed his hands of the matter, putting him in a distant wing of the palace and drinking all thought of the matter away. But Kairos was still dragging his crippled hide around the city to this day, a prince of the blood no one would look in the eye. Royal or not, he was a pariah. Misfortune had touched him young and never let go, they said. Bad seed. That was what happened when kings wed commoners, even for love.

The odd-eyed child closed the door after dismissing the servant, kneeling with shaking legs by the bowl. Dipping a cloth in the warm water, he wiped away the dust and dirt from his face before resting his head on the table. Kairos exhaled, his breath unsteady. His lungs had not been entirely formed when he’d been born, the priests told him. It was why sometimes he choked on his own spit, clawing at his throat until a God as cruel as it was merciful returned his breath to him. Those same priests urged him to entrust his life to the Gods Above, to seek relief in the life after this one. Until then, he should find solace in prayer and good deeds: those would not soothe his body, but they would wash away his sins. They never said exactly what sin he had committed. Presumably being born was bad enough there was no need to belabour the matter. The cripple laughed quietly, though a rasping cough killed the mirth halfway through. His knees felt like they were swelling already, but he stayed kneeling.

He clasped his hands and tried to clear his mind, to let the words of the House of Light fill it. Nothing came. Staring down into the bowl, Kairos sighed.

“I am trying,” he told the Heavens,” to find a reason to worship you. Any reason at all.”

His distorted reflection stared back, the blood-filled dead eye made even more monstrous by the water.

“There’s a place beyond the Heavens where righteous souls go, your people tell me,” he said. “A paradise of sorts, from which no one has ever returned. A reward for those who embrace the seventeen cardinal virtues while living out their allotted time on Creation.”

Idly, he flicked the side of the bowl. His kneecaps throbbed painfully but Kairos was no stranger to pain. It was an old friend, the teacher that had reared him from the cradle and followed him in every misshapen step he took. The water rippled, turning his reflection from ugly to abstract.

“It has tempted me, on occasion,” he said. “The thought of a place without suffering. I have to wonder, though – what would I even do there?”

He chuckled.

“Sing your praises, rejoice with all the other worthy souls?” he said. “Tell me, o Gods Above – what should I praise you for?”

Silence answered him. It always did. Even in the heart of the House of Light, where Dorian said he could almost hear the singing of the Choirs, he was given only silence. Even the Heavens played favourites. Hesitant knocks at the door roused him from his thoughts.

“Enter,” the child said.

A servant, head shaved as was tradition and in white robes that hid their gender, knelt by the open door.

“Prince Kairos,” they said. “The king sends for you.”

The cripple shakily rose to his feet, leaning heavily against the table.

“I am feeling ill,” he replied. “Tell my father I am unable to attend him.”

Two men came by the doorway, decked in the ornate bronze armour of the palace guard. Had their swords ever seen any use, Kairos wondered? Doubtful. All the real soldiers went into the army.

“The king insists, my prince,” one of them said.

“Does he, now?” the cripple said. “I’ll spare all of us the indignity of you getting me there slung over your shoulder.”

Knees throbbing, Kairos followed them into the corridors. The servant stayed kneeling until he was gone. The walk was long, by his standards, and made worse by his exertions of the day. His chambers were in the oldest part of the palace, the one that had once been the heart of the fortress when Helike was little more than a castle with huts around it, but this section was all marble and gold. Frescoes of kings and Tyrants spread colourfully along the walls, all depicting the many victories of the city’s warlike rulers. That never ceased to amuse him. His father had never wielded a sword in his life, or even ridden a horse. The few skirmishes with Stygia and Atalante that had taken place in his lifetime had been overseen by one of the many generals cluttering the palace, which while blatant parasites at least knew their way around a battlefield. The line of Theodosius was sinking further down the wine barrel every year.

They did not head for the Great Hall. While it was the place where audiences such as this should take place, the king rarely left his parlour unless he had to. The place had grown when the adjoining chambers had seen their walls knocked down to make room for more seats and a direct route to both the cellars and the palace kitchen. What little business was still conducted by Helike’s royal line instead of being tossed into the hands of councillors happened there, more often than not. Kairos had only ever stepped foot into the room a handful of times. He was not invited to the courtly games and drinking binges that took place behind those doors. He would not have attended even if he had been: there were few things fouler to look at than a man deep in his cups. The obnoxious laughter always made him think thoughts the Heavens would frown upon.

The guards were still flanking him when he limped into the parlour. The room was half-full, which still meant almost a hundred people. The King of Helike was on a long couch full of cushions and courtesans, a cup of wine in hand and chuckling as he fed one a piece of honeyed plum. The sexagenarian had kept a full head of hair, though gone white, and his face still kept the remains of the handsomeness of his youth. For a man who spent most of his time feasting, he was not all that fat. His face was red, though. Wine took its toll. The rest of the parlour was arranged in a half-circle of couches all turned towards the free space in the centre. Usually, it was filled with dancers, musicians and other performers but today all it had to offer was Kairos’ crippled form. A disappointment, no doubt. The couches closest to the king were filled with sycophants and nobles, but the wings of the half-circle on both sides effectively made up the heart of Helike’s ruling class. To the left, the most powerful nobles and the most influential generals formed a sober and uncomfortable cluster. All of them were looking at him.

To the right were Dorian and his cronies. Many were sons and daughters to the very same people across them, but there were others. Priests, even a member of the Order of the Righteous Spear. The heir to Helike himself looked like a living statue. Perfect pale skin unmarred by his hours in the sun, long flowing golden locks that cascaded down his shoulders. Kairos’ nephew had that peculiar sort of vanity where he refused to style himself, preferring to awe people with his natural good looks. The other prince was tall and perfectly proportioned, talented with a sword and lance. A famed horseman and promising commander, fair-handed in all things and an orator of talent. That hadn’t stopped Dorian’s father from drunkenly slipping in the baths and breaking his neck, of course. It used to take half a continent to put us down, Kairos thought with disgust. Now all it takes is a wet tile. The golden-haired prince smiled encouragingly in his uncle’s direction. The cripple looked away, limping his way to the couch where the king was finally deigning to notice his presence.

“Kairos,” King Agrius Theodosian greeted him flatly. “You made me wait.”

“The shaking of my legs does not bow to decrees,” the prince said.

He did not manage to thread as much apology in that as he should have.

“Neither does your head, boy,” the king barked. “I forbade you to go into the crypt. Do you deny you disobeyed me?”

“Grandfather,” Dorian spoke up. “My uncle is obviously feeling ill. Perhaps this matter could be settled another day?”

Kairos eyed his hand, which was shaking like a leaf. Not, though, out of fear. How strange. When he’d woken this morning, he had been already flinching at the thought of his father’s displeasure. Now, looking at the fury painted over the king’s face, he could think of only one thing: what are you going to do, Father? Kill me before I die? The prince closed his hand, tucked it under his tunic where it could not be seen trembling.

“I do not,” he said. “Deny it, that is.”

Some part of him wondered if he should have thought this through. Found an excuse, cooked up a scheme to shield him from the king’s anger. He hadn’t though. He didn’t even have a reason for admitting to this. Just morbid curiosity.

“You disobeyed a royal decree,” King Agrius growled. “That is treason.”

“I suppose it is,” Kairos mused. “How tawdry of me, if you’ll forgive my language. Still, I’m surprised you only sent for me now. I left the crypt before dawn came. Were you too drunk until now to hear the report?”

The silence in the room was deafening. Not a single person even dared to breathe.

“Are you mocking me, cripple?” his father spat.

“Obviously,” the prince replied. “I did try to make it blatant, for your sake.”

“I could have you killed for this,” the king said, looking almost sober now.

Though no less furious, evidently.

“It will spare me the walk back to my chambers, at least,” Kairos said. “By all means, get on with it.”

The was a ripple in the parlour, though his words were not the cause of it. Dorian made his way to his side, graceful even in haste, and knelt as a supplicant.

“Grandfather,” he said. “My uncle is delirious with pain, that is the only explication for his words. I implore you, do not make this decision in anger.”

The king looked at his precious golden grandson humbling himself against marble and hesitated. How proud you are, nephew, even on your knees, Kairos thought. The cripple limped to the closest table and snatched a cup of wine, pouring it out before casually tossing it at the other prince. The bronze made a delightful little bonk as it hit the back of his head before rolling on the floor.

“Get up, Dorian,” Kairos said. “Your wretched pity is the worst indignity I’ve been subjected to today.”

Surprise and irritation flickered across that perfect face and Dorian turned towards him. The odd-eyed child drank in the sight of it. It as like finally drinking cool water after years of being parched.

“Uncle-“ he began.

“You are more platitude than man,” Kairos said. “I want no part of what you peddle.”

“You’ve gone mad, boy,” the king said, sounding horrified.

Slowly, the odd-eyed child took out the hand he’d slipped into his tunic. It was, he saw, no longer shaking. He wondered if there was a meaning in that.

“Guards, take him to his quarters,” King Agrius ordered. “Prince Kairos is under house arrest until I decree otherwise.”

The men pulled him away roughly under the stares of the entire court, as he continued thoughtfully looking at his hand.

His sleep was dreamless and his hours empty. The apothecaries tried to shove half a dozen different remedies down his throat, but he flatly refused to have anything to do with them. He was going to die, soon enough. What little time he had left would not be spent moving from one daze to another. His first visitor was, naturally, Dorian. It was midmorning after he was first put under arrest that the heir to Helike came, followed by that androgynous fanatic of his. The daughter of a fairly prominent noble, he remembered, though he could not recall her name. Slender and short-haired, and the way she could have been either a boy or a girl branded her a servant in his eyes. In Helike it was only they who made a point of surrendering the more obvious trappings of gender. Still, it hardly mattered since she herself hardly mattered. The girl hovered by the entrance when her master entered, leaving only reluctantly when he dismissed her and closed the door. Kairos would give it decent odds she was waiting outside in the corridor.

“Good morning, Uncle,” Dorian greeted him, taking the seat across his. “Has your health improved?”

The odd-eyed child put down the cup of water he’d been drinking on the table, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“I am twelve years old, and I can tell that girl is in love with you,” Kairos said, wrinkling his nose as he ignored the greeting.

“Semia is a dear friend,” Dorian replied. “Put no stock in rumours.”

“Your kindness is worse than cruelty, nephew,” the cripple said.

The golden prince flinched, then mastered himself.

“I’ve been talking to grandfather,” he said. “Your arrest will be revoked soon.”

The odd-eyed child raised an eyebrow.

“Why?” he asked.

“Traditionally, all of royal blood are allowed-“ Dorian began.

“I mean why did you talk to Father?” Kairos interrupted.

The man looked surprised.

“You are my uncle,” he said. “I would not see you punished this way.”

“You don’t love me, Dorian,” the cripple said.

“We’re family,” the prince replied, almost offended.

“So you feel guilt, and go through the motions regardless,” Kairos said. “I must admit I find that rather disgusting, if you’ll forgive my language.”

The heir to Helike looked irritated, then his face softened.

“I understand you’re in pain, Kairos,” he said. “And frustrated. You’ve been mistreated ever since you could walk. Grandfather is not the man he used to be, and how you’ve been treated was… ill-done. It will be different, when I rule. You will not have to be alone anymore.”

“No one has ever disliked you before, have they Dorian?” the child said, cocking his head to the side. “Not to your face, at least.”

“I want to help you, uncle,” the golden-haired man said earnestly.

“It’s not because you’re beautiful, you know,” Kairos said. “Or even because so many people love you while they despise the sight of me. It’s because you’re hollow.”

“Pardon?” the other prince said.

“You’re not a person, Dorian,” the child said. “All you are is an object, moving according to rules not your own. You don’t want anything for yourself.”

“It is the duty of a ruler to sublimate their selfish desires for the good of his people,” the prince replied quietly.

“I am going to die,” Kairos smiled. “Sometime soon, I am told. And yet, just with the few moments yesterday in that parlour, I’ll have been alive longer than you will be throughout your entire life.”

“I made a choice, uncle,” Dorian said. “I’ve been given so many gifts, I owe it to Creation to use them for the sake of others.”

“We don’t owe anyone anything,” Kairos said.

And in that moment, the words coming out of his mouth without thought, he finally understood it all. There was a trap and there was bait. Live according to our rules, the Heavens said. Toil and struggle and die, fritter away your days and you will be rewarded after death. It doesn’t matter what comes after. Only now. All we are is what we do. And if you let Gods decided that for you, you’re not anyone at all.

“I always admired it, you know,” his nephew said. “The way you kept going to the House of Light even if you never got anything from it. Not like I do. It doesn’t matter if they say you were born bad, Kairos. You’re trying, that’s what matters.”

Dorian leaned forward.

“We are what we do.”

“Yes,” the boy who would be the Tyrant smiled. “I couldn’t agree more.”

When the nobles and the generals came that night, cloaked and bearing treason in their eyes, he was still smiling.

Chapter 6: Backlash

“One learns more from defeat than victory. Therefore, fear the general that has never won a battle.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

Masego hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw him. Tall, dark-skinned and boyishly chubby under his loose clothes. His spectacles were fogged by the cold. He’d put on a thick cloak and his trinket-threaded braids were covered by… I was honestly at a loss as to how to describe that abomination. Knitted colourful yarn vaguely shaped like an ugly hat trying to devour an equally awful hat?

“I’m sorry. I’m happy to see you and all but what is that?” I asked, pointing at the inanimate creature squatting over his head.

“My father knitted it,” Apprentice replied, tone defensive. “Didn’t want me to go out in the cold with my ears uncovered.”

I almost asked him which father had committed that crime against anyone with eyes, but I wasn’t sure whether that thing would be more disturbing if made by the Warlock or by an incubus, so I refrained from finding out. Probably the incubus, I morbidly thought. Warlock had always been impeccably dressed every time I saw him. Even the occasional casual worse-than-death threat hadn’t been enough for me to stop noticing how ridiculously attractive the man was. Between him and Malicia, Evil had the whole hot and dangerous thing covered. Though Kilian was all I needed, of course, I loyally added afterwards. Certainly much less likely to kill me, and I’d come to learn that was not a given in relationships when you were a villain.

“Catherine,” Hakram said.

“I’m here,” I hastily replied.

“Masego, you’ve got something?” the orc prompted.

“Yes,” the Soninke mage said, pushing up his spectacles. “The anchor for the blizzard is further inside. I’ve narrowed down a location.”

“You can’t just break the spell from here?” I asked.

“It’s not a spell. And spells cannot be broken, only dispersed,” Apprentice said. “This blizzard is pouring out of Arcadia through a semi-stable gate.”

“Shut the gate, shut the weather,” I said. “Got it.”

“Possibly,” the bespectacled man said. “It depends on how strong the bleed over from Arcadia into Creation was.”

“I’m not having permanent winter in the middle of my city, Masego,” I said. “Broke, demon-tainted and covered in ice is where I draw the line.”

“We take the hard stances,” Hakram said gravely.

The prick. I was about to reply when I caught sight of movement ahead in the storm. Within a heartbeat my sword was back in hand and Adjutant’s axe raised.

“We’ll revisit that later,” I said, taking the lead and moving into the blizzard.

“I’m a rebel,” I heard Hakram tell Masego in a pleased voice.

“And you cheat at shatranj,” Apprentice replied peevishly.

“I don’t even need to, with you,” the orc said.

I sighed. Did heroes have to deal with this much bickering? At least neither of them were prone to monologues, there was that. The howling winds and the snow they carried were blinding but not a problem for my little crew: a bubble of translucent blue power formed the moment we entered, courtesy of Masego. Between that and the warmth he was radiating, this was almost comfortable. Almost. No sight of the movement I’d glimpsed, which I naturally took as a bad sign. Just because I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead didn’t mean the fae could not. For all I knew they were quietly surrounding us even as our boots crunched in the snow. Stealthy we were not.

“Masego,” I said. “If we were surrounded, could you tell?”

“Yes,” he said. “With the right instruments.”

I paused.

Do you have the right instruments?” I asked.

He blinked behind his spectacles.

“No,” he said. “With the amount of fae magic flooding the area the best I can currently do is locate the direction of the gate.”

“How long have we been walking?” Hakram frowned.

“I can’t tell,” I said. “That is probably not a good sign.”

“Time dilation inside Arcadia varies wildly from place to place,” Masego contributed helpfully. “In some sections a night could last a century in Creation, in others merely a few heartbeats.”

“We’re not in Arcadia, though,” I said. “Right?”

Apparently howling winds did not make awkward silences any less awkward. You learned something every day. I glanced at Apprentice.

“Masego?”

“We’re close to the gate,” he said.

“Masego.”

“Should be there soon,” he said.

Masego.”

The chubby Soninke cleared his throat.

“I cannot tell,” he admitted. “To my senses it feels like we are, but that shouldn’t-“

With a quiet ping the javelin punched through the shield bubble and would have taken the mage in the throat if I hadn’t snatched it out of the air by reflex. I glanced down at the weapon. Bronze, covered in runes. That were glowing. I managed to throw it away a moment before it blew up in shards of metal and ice, some of the shrapnel scoring lines on my cheeks.

“We come in peace,” I blatantly lied, calling out into the storm with a sword in hand.

Hakram tried to turn his laugh into a cough.

“Catherine,” Masego said, “the fae are unparalleled masters of deception. They’re not going to fall for-“

The blizzard cleared ahead of us, revealing a slender silhouette. A man in a scale armour of woven dead wood and obsidian, horned helmet covering his entire face – even his eyes – save for his chin and mouth. The pale skin revealed under was pale as a corpse’s. A spear in hand, he sat astride what would have been a long-legged shaggy horse if not for the long horn protruding from its forehead.

“I hate it when you do that,” Apprentice muttered.

“Good evening, Lady of Marchford,” the fae said.

My wariness immediately went up a notch. The lesser fairies hadn’t quite managed to sound human when they’d spoken, too melodic and sing-song to be entirely mortal. The deadwood soldiers hadn’t even tried, magic and images dripping from every word. This one, though? He sounded like a person. The most dangerous monsters were always the clever ones.

“That’s me,” I agreed. “And you are?”

“A Rider of the Host,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

I could feel the capitalized letter in that, the same way you did when someone spoke a Name. This was not headed in a pleasant direction.

“Rider, then,” I said. “I don’t suppose you’re moving people behind us as we speak?”

“You have my word no fae will attack while under truce,” he replied calmly.

That wasn’t a no. I glanced at Masego, who nodded sharply. Whatever was coming at our back when negotiations inevitably broke down – and if I was being entirely honest with myself, there was no real chance they would not – he’d be the one to handle it.

“So you’re in charge of the fae invading my city?” I said.

“I was given command of this host,” the Rider said.

Eh, close enough. The way he’d worded that instead of giving me a yes or no probably meant he was omitting something, but the intricacies of fae politics were something I gave a remarkably low amount of fucks about. Do not make me learn fae politics, you bastards, I silently thought. I can barely handle the human ones.

“I don’t suppose you’d just scamper back into Arcadia if I asked?” I said.

The Rider smiled, revealing a mouthful of milky sharp teeth.

“Are you offering a deal, Lady of Marchford?” he said.

“Gods, am I ever not falling for that one,” I muttered. “Look, whatever you are. I could drum your sorry excuse for an invasion out of my backyard, but I’ll take losses doing it. No getting around that. I’ve got other cats to skin, so why don’t we just call it a night and both walk away?”

“That sounded like a threat,” the Rider noted.

“It was,” I replied frankly. “You’re probably some sort of force to reckon with back in Arcadia, but this is my wheelhouse. I’ve walked away from the corpses of scarier stuff than you.”

“Lady of Marchford, this is home,” he said, smiling.

“Catherine,” Masego whispered.

“I’m a little busy at the m-“

I bit down on that. Last time I’d passed on Apprentice’s advice in a bad spot I’d walked right into demon fun time, swiftly followed by the screaming soul surgery interlude. Learn from your mistakes, Foundling.

“Yes?”

“Remember that question you asked me?” he said.

I nodded.

“We are,” he whispered. “They took across a shard of Arcadia.”

Oh, this just kept getting godsdamned better.

“Rider, did you pricks fairy-land the middle of my city?” I growled.

“The truce is over,” the fae replied.

The blizzard swallowed him instantly.

“So that’s a yes,” I said. “Gods Below and Everburning. You bastards are starting to catch up to Heiress on my murder list.”

I didn’t hear them coming, because they didn’t make a sound. It was the kind of instinct my Name gave me, the same that allowed me to catch an arrow in flight or roll out of a building on fire before it collapsed – both of which had happened to be depressingly often since I became a villain.  A slender wedge of mounted fae ghosted out of the howling winds, spears at the ready. Like the Rider who’d spoken to me they were astride the murderous-looking cousin of a unicorn, though their own armours lacked the obsidian that had been on the last one’s. Maybe he had been in charge. My eyes narrowed at the sight of their hooves never leaving a mark in the snow. I wouldn’t put that above them, really, but more likely… My wrist snapped up and a spear of shadow coalesced, tearing unfailing through the wind and straight through the lead rider’s chest. He dissipated, the lot of them just a cold mirage.

“Cat,” Hakram said, tone alarmed.

My eyes swivelled where he was pointing his axe, to our left. Another wedge of mounted fae. A trickle of Name power drifted up to my eyes, forcing them to sharpen in the poor light. They weren’t leaving a trail either. Which meant… And would you look at that: another silent wedge was coming up from our back. They, one the other hand, were leaving hoof prints. The answer seemed clear, which two years of dealing with Akua Sahelian had taught me meant they were probably fucking with me. I formed another spear of shadow and swivelled to throw it to our right, the only avenue that they weren’t visibly using. A heartbeat later the faint silhouette of a rider ducking under the spear, pressing against her mount, flickered into visibility for the barest moment. There you are.

“Brace yourself,” Apprentice said.

Blinding blue light flared up, his bubble turning into a broad rectangular panel straight in their path. The rider at the tip of the wedge, still closely pressed against her mount, guided her unicorn into leaping over it. And hit another panel with a dull thump, this one entirely invisible. I snorted. That was a new trick. The two wings of cavalry split smoothly, beginning the way around before the lead fae had even hit the ground. The blue panel’s glow intensified before it blew up, detonating in a flash of heat and light.

“Masego, can you tell me where the talker is?” I asked.

“Behind them,” the Soninke replied without missing a beat.

“That’s where I’m going, then,” I said. “You boys try not to get yourself killed – I’m pretty sure I can’t afford a double funeral.”

I began moving before they could reply. I’d barely taken a dozen strides before the protection of whatever ward Apprentice had going on ceased, the wind almost battering me down. I’d gone through the middle, since it was the clearest path, but the riders in the back of the two columns peeled off and went straight for me. So much for the easy way. That made one, two, three… eight in all. Joy. I was going to be feeling this in the morning, wasn’t I? Stilling my breath, I stood my ground with my sword in hand. I’d been taught to deal with mounted men, though not fae. The only dangerous part of a lance is the tip, Black’s voice reminded me. Watch the horse. Cavalry tramples what it can’t skewer. These were spears, not lances, but the principle held. The riders were used to hunting together, I noticed. They silently adjusted their angles so they wouldn’t charge into each other if I managed to avoid them.

Whatever sorcery had made them almost invisible was gone, but I was smelling a rat. So far they hadn’t once used a straightforward attack, there would be more to this. Frowning, I formed a small orb of shadow and shot it at the leftmost rider – who guided his mount a little to the side to avoid it, never breaking stride. Not a fake? There was a flash of flame behind me as Masego got serious and my question answered himself: only half the riders cast a shadow in the sudden light. Gods, I was already starting to hate fighting fae. So, how did one dodge a blow they couldn’t see coming? Don’t be where it hits, if Captain was to be believed. I’d been taught that lesson one hammer swing at a time. Name power trickled into my legs and I pushed off, sending a spray of snow behind me. I kept a low profile, eyeing the spears headed for me across a loose half-circle, and shifted tracks to head under a unicorn before I could be turned into several bloody pieces of Foundling. My sword flashed up, opening the creature’s belly as I slid under it and I winced as the ice-cold water that flooded out of the wound.

I landed in a sprawl behind the faltering beast, forcing myself to my feet and running in the direction Apprentice had told me. I could feel the riders wheeling around for another charge behind me and resisted the urge to blindly shoot a spear of shadows in their direction. My well was deeper since my Name had been restored, but there were still limits to what I could draw on. I couldn’t afford to waste too much power on longshots, not with a hard fight ahead of me. Now, running away from a mounted killer with your back to them and flat fields around you was about the single worst position you could be relative to cavalry. I was not unaware of this, of course, but standing my ground back there with the other two at my side was a losing battle. Our bag of tricks was nothing to sneer at, and had only grown since the Liesse Rebellion, but there was only so long we’d hold our own against creatures that were literally defined by trickery.

No, the way to end this was ahead of me. Cut the head of the snake, other assorted and vaguely violent metaphors. The riders behind me would catch up soon enough, but I was banking on that changing nothing. The silhouette of the Rider of the Host was hard to make out, even with Name sight, but it was there. On a hill, overlooking the scrap and radiating genteel disdain. Yeah, that one had all the little marks of nobility to it. Even in Arcadia, some things were the same. I got to the foot of the hill before the enemy caught up. Glancing at the Rider, I was considering my options while the spears got ever closer when he spoke up.

“Enough,” he said. “I will deal with this. Break the others.”

Ah, there it was. I did love a bit of hubris in my opponents. I’d mouthed off to the big bad fairy and gotten in front of it, of course it was going to want a piece of me. And it wouldn’t want its underlings to get involved, because it was making a point. Probably not about honour, with the fae, but arrogance would do in a pinch. I wasn’t picky.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” I said. “Last time I saw Masego get pissy he torched a demon so hard it melted the stone under it.”

“We are not demons,” the Rider said, raising his spear. “We are not mindless abominations. Our existence has purpose.”

“You’re also supposed to have brains,” I said. “So I genuinely don’t understand why you’re making a mess here. Even if you somehow manage to beat my men, you have to realize the Empire is going to throw all you until you break.”

“These matters are beyond your understanding, Lady of Marchford,” he said.

“I’m going to enjoy punching that line right out of your mouth,” I replied cheerfully, baring my teeth.

The spear lowered, the Rider charged and my Name howled in joy so loudly it drowned out the wind.

Chapter 5: Beachhead

“Look at how edible you are. You’re basically asking for it.”
-Warlord Grog the King-Eater, addressing the king of Okoro during the sack of the same

“So what are we looking at?” I asked.

I took my helmet when Hakram offered it, clasping the chin straps as I checked the longsword sheathed at my belt. The moon was out in full, but it was hard to tell given how many torches there were out in the streets. Legionaries were evacuating the citizens of Marchford according to Juniper’s prepared plan as we made our way through the streets, half the Gallowborne behind me. The rest was still assembling under Tribune Farrier. They’d catch up eventually. I wasn’t sure whether I’d want them to follow me into the fray, anyway, but if nothing else they’d be able to bolster our lines.

“The first defensive perimeter collapsed almost instantly,” the tall orc said. “Hune’s men dug in behind the second one, but they’re out of their breadth here.”

I could see the blizzard that had overtaken the central plaza of my city even from where I stood, a column that went high into the sky like some cheap snow imitation of the Tower, so Adjutant’s words struck me as a bit of an understatement. I’d pit the Fifteenth against anything that had feet or claws, but you couldn’t stab the weather. Well, they couldn’t anyway. I might be able to work something out. In my experience, you could stab pretty much anything if you tried hard enough. Now there was a decent motto for the freshly-founded Noble House of Foundling. If I ever got around to having any descendants – and I wasn’t planning on it, at the moment – I’d have it put up on a spiffy banner for when they inevitably got into a fight way out of their league. A legacy to be proud of.

“No shit,” I said. “I meant what kind of forces are they fielding?”

“Infantry,” Adjutant said. “Every single enemy soldier should be considered a mage, and their weapons look primitive but they have no trouble cutting through ours.”

“You’d think people would get tired of that gimmick,” I sighed. “Anyone looks like they’re in charge?”

“Not as of the last report I got,” Hakram replied. “I’m guessing if there’s a leader they’re either still in Arcadia or hidden by the storm.”

We turned the corner, a line of legionaries moving aside with hasty salutes so they wouldn’t get in our way. I nodded absent-mindedly, not really paying attention.

“They have wings, right?” I asked, making a gesture that was meant to represent flapping butterflies but came across as mildly obscene.

“That’s how they overran the first perimeter,” Hakram agreed soberly. “Headed straight for Pickler’s scorpions to take them out then spread across the rooftops. Hune moved crossbowmen to box them in, it’s working for now.”

That did not feel like a long-term solution. Eventually they’d find a way to get through and there was no way I was allowing a bunch of fae to run wild in Marchford. Gods, just thinking of the cost of rebuilding after a rampage was enough to make me feel faint. Why were my enemies never considerate about collateral damage? Admittedly I’d ordered Marchford Manor torched myself, but I sure as Hells wasn’t taking the blame for the devils and that walking horror Heiress has set on the city.

“Mages can’t do anything about that?” I said.

“They’re busy making sure the blizzard goes up instead of covering the city,” Adjutant said. “They’re working on shutting it down entirely, but whatever’s making it packs a punch.”

“Have you-“

“Sent a runner to Apprentice before I even caught up to you,” the tall orc interrupted me.

Hakram, you prince among men. Always on the ball. If there was someone could make this mess less of a mess – or at least someone else’s mess – it was Masego. I wasn’t all that eager to head into a snowstorm without someone who could make fire at my side, truth be told, cloak over my plate or not. If the Fair Folk wanted to make it snow, I wasn’t above retorting with a whiff of the ol’ brimstone. We were close to the plaza, now, and I could feel the temperature steadily dropping. Joy. The two of us slowed when a legionary popped out of the woodworks and immediately headed in our direction, dropping a knee when she got in front of me.

“Countess,” the young Callowan said.

“Up,” I ordered. “You were sent for us?”

“Legate Hune conveys her respect and would like to inform you the southern part of our formation is close to collapse,” the light-skinned girl said.

Gods, how old was she? Seventeen at most. Barely two years younger than me but she felt like a kid, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and one bad day away from getting on a battlefield she wouldn’t walk away from.

“She has reinforcements headed there?” Hakram asked.

“We’re stretched thin until Legate Nauk moves his men into place,” the messenger replied. “She fears what she can spare will not be enough.”

Well, fuck. Hune had three thousand soldiers under her command – one time and a half the size of what a kabili should be – and she was still hard-pressed? Given the relatively small size of the area she had to contain, that meant the fae were tearing through her men like wet parchment.

“We’re close,” Hakram said, eyeing me.

“We’re going,” I replied. “Tell the legate as much.”

The girl got to her feet and saluted as I turned to the Gallowborne behind me. The officer at their head was an orc, one of the few in my personal guard.

“Lieutenant Sark,” I called out.

“Ma’am?” the officer replied.

“Send word to Tribune Farrier: we’re headed south. He’s to back up the lines there immediately. Same for your men.”

The greenskin eyed me calmly.

“You’ll be going into the storm, ma’am?”

“Looks that way,” I grunted. “Gotta get at whatever’s in there.”

He grinned, showing off yellowing fangs.

“Good hunting, Warlord.”

See, stuff like that was like I liked having orcs backing me. No insistence on coming along or waiting for Apprentice, just an encouragement to go out and kill things that wanted to kill me. I didn’t waste time on any further talk: we moved double-time for where the enemy assault was apparently the strongest.

Legion doctrine for static defence was fairly straightforward. Establish a shield wall of heavies everywhere without walls, place sappers and mages behind it to disrupt enemy formations. Most of the killing was actually behind the melee, by bolts and fireballs shot into the massed enemies. Unfortunately, both the Miezan legions and the Praesi inheritors had crafted that tactic relying one one assumption the Fifteenth was currently paying for: that they would have more or better spellcasters on the field than the enemy. The Empire was the only nation on Calernia with a formal mage corps in their army, so they usually had at least twice the number of spellslingers the enemy did if not more, and the Miezan empire had been built on sorcery the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Neither nation had ever tangled with the fae, and it was showing.

Instead of the orderly shield wall I was expecting, I was currently looking at half a dozen clumps of legionaries desperately trying to fight off the enemy while fairies darted past them to take a bite out of my panicking sappers. The sharp cracks of munitions and disorderly crossbow fire announced the death of a few more of my goblins every few heartbeats. I was confused at how the fae could have managed to break a shield wall without one of their own until the first time I saw some dark-skinned man dressed in furs glow as he spoke and a human walking out of formation as if in a trance, just to get speared through the throat. The Winter Court was falling on my men like a pack of wolves, using ice and illusions and charm to break them apart and pick them off one at a time. The defensive formations of Hune’s men were not a rampart so much as a buffet the enemy could choose from at will.

Most of the fairies were shaped like eerie humans with wings, though not all. Wolf-like hounds made of ice and shade wove in and out of sight, tearing out throats and mauling men over their shields. The only saving grace of that disaster I was watching was that it wasn’t also in the middle of a blizzard. Silver lining, eh?

“That is not how I saw my night going,” I admitted.

“They’re probably smarter than devils too,” Hakram growled with distaste.

My longsword came out of its scabbard without a sound and I move forward with my shield raised. Adjutant’s axe and scutum immediately moved to cover my left flank as the Gallowborne spread out in ranks behind us. Hune’s sappers took cover behind them as soon as they could, retreating with relief, and then a heartbeat later I was in the thick of it. A pale-skinned woman in a flowing blue dress that shimmered like a mirror leapt in my direction, a bone sword in hand. I breathed in, breathed out, and felt my Name stir. The beast grinned, eyes opening: my veins warmed and the world slowed. Hello, old friend. Would it be strange to say I’ve missed you? The sharp point of bone was headed straight for my throat, uncaring of the gorget protecting it, and I wasn’t taking the risk of letting that blow land. The flat of my sword lightly tapped the fae’s wrist, nudging the strike away, then with a flick of the wrist came around to tear straight through my enemy’s throat. I had at no point ceased moving forward. A heartbeat later, the fae’s headless corpse fell to the ground behind me.

Weeping Heavens, it was good to be back in the field.

To my left Hakram sunk his axe into the head of a shadow hound, hard enough shards of ice flew and its muzzle hit the ground. With a grunt he tore it out, then brought down an armoured boot on the creature’s neck to make sure it wouldn’t get up. I could feel myself smiling, the battle-joy taking hold of me. Gods, after all this talking I’d been forced to do lately it was such a delight just being able to hit something. The Gallowborne were advancing steadily behind us, picking off any fae trying to charm them with crossbows before they could get too close. The fairies swarmed in the air above them, but my personal guard was made of sterner stuff than that. They’d been through Marchford and Liesse: a bunch of fae weren’t going to make them flinch. I left them to it, moving towards Hune’s besieged legionaries. Ragged cries of “Fifteenth” came when they saw me, and they threw themselves back into the fray with fresh ferocity. That drew some attention. The fae, strange translucent wings flapping, hovered in front of me. I genuinely could not tell what gender it was, if it even had one.

“Let go of your weapon, sweet one,” it crooned.

My shield smashed it in the face, breaking its nose with a brutal crunch. Huh, so fae did bleed red. You learned something every day. I started speaking again, so I hit it again with morbid fascination.

“Here, have it,” I replied drily, ramming my sword through its chest.

“Don’t play with your food,” Hakram chided absent-mindedly.

His axe went clean through a wild-haired fae with two spears of shadow, then when it fell the bottom of his shield came down on her head repeatedly until it was nothing more than bloody pulp.

“I’m not impressed with the calibre so far,” I said. “Enemies that weak shouldn’t have broken our lines.”

Immediately after saying that, I hunkered behind my shield and braced for impact. The tip of a bronze spear punched through the steel, an inch away from my right eye, and I grinned. I’d had a feeling that would hurry things along. I ripped my arm out of the leather straps binding it to the shield, stepping back as I took a look at my opponent. Male, wearing an armour of twisted dead wood. Couldn’t see much of him aside from long dark hair and entirely blue eyes staring at me like I was an insect. Eh. I’d gotten more scathing disdain from Praesi nobles, he’d have to step up his game if he wanted to make a dent. There was a bronze sword at his hip, still sheathed. I flicked my wrist and the contraption of steel wires Pickler had built me triggered, dropping my knife on the palm of my gauntleted hand. If I triggered it differently, it could even shoot the knife like an arrow. My Senior Sapper made the best toys. There were another three fae decked in the same armour at the new one’s side, fanning out to flank Hakram and I.

“Nauk described a female with the same gear as responsible for the last blizzard,” Adjutant said, hefting his axe over his shoulder.

“Four heavy hitters, then,” I frowned. “Someone’s looking to make an impression.”

The first deadwood soldiers ripped his spear out of my shield, then laughed. It wasn’t a human laugh, or even a person’s. It sounded like the ice of a lake cracking come spring, like frost sharply spreading over glass.

“Children,” he mocked, and though he was speaking no language I knew I understood him perfectly. “We are the footsoldiers of Winter. The Sword of Waning Day. Die screaming.”

“Oh hey, a pack of flunkies with a fancy name,” I deadpanned. “Never slaughtered my way through one of those before.”

They moved as one. Before the first exchange was even done I was very, very glad I’d scrapped with the Hunter before. I’d had precious little training against opponents using spears save for my fights with the hero, and if I hadn’t learned to read movements from that I’d likely have earned a gaping hole through my shoulder within the first five heartbeats of the fight. The two deadwood soldiers who focused on me were quick, light on their feet and worst of all they knew how to work together. Soldiers, I decided, might not be the right word no matter what they called themselves. They were like hunters, harrying a prey into position so the finishing blow could be struck. Unfortunately for them, they were going to have to reconsider their position in the food chain of Creation. I closed the distance with the one who’d spoken, getting in up and personal where his choice of weapon was more hindrance than help. I nearly ate a bronze shaft in the teeth but instead ducked under it, sliding my knife into the armour about where his lower ribs should be.

The goblin steel bit into the wood but failed to punch through. Not regular wood, then. Everybody always got these fancy enchanted things, it was godsdamned unfair. I had to dance away when a spear tip pierced through where the back of my leg was a heartbeat before, then sharply twist my footing when when the first deadwood soldier went for my throat. They were too quick, I thought. In plate I wasn’t able to keep up, and my armour might as well be silk for the difference it would make if they landed a hit. I heard Hakram bellow and glanced in his direction: he had a spear through the leg, though he’d traded that for his axe buried in one of the fae’s neck. Right between the helmet and armour. It did not slow the enemy down, to my dismay. The deadwood soldier simply ripped out the axe, tossed it away and unsheathed her sword. Adjutant spat to the side, threw his shield in her face and took the spear out of his leg. He did not look concerned in the slightest about how he was bleeding.

My momentary distraction was costly. I saw the spear blur from the corner of my eye and hastily slapped the shaft to the side with the flat of my sword, but I’d missed the other one: it punched straight through my plate, then my knee, then entirely through and into the pavement. I was stuck where I was like a bloody pig on a spit. The soldier who’d hit me unsheathed his sword as the other one, the one who’d spoken, drew back his spear as it became coated with frost. This was the most pain I’d been in in over a year, and for a moment I focused on biting down on a scream. Then I watched a frosted spear head moving with unnatural swiftness towards my head, the whole world narrowing down to that one threat. I was not going to be able to dodge that, I knew. All the lessons I’d learned from some of the most celebrated killers of our age flashed through the back of my mind, but I pushed the aside. Eyes crossing as I followed the trajectory of the spear, instead of trying to move my body I bid my time and then bit. I caught the very end of the point between my teeth.

If Black ever heard of this, I thought, he was going to drill me until I died. The fae shifted his footing to simply push the spear forward – which would be very, very bad – but I spat it out and parried the sword blow from his partner. This was going to end very quickly if I didn’t start moving again, so I flicked my wrist at the sword fae and forced it to duck smoothly under my thrown knife while with my now-free hand I tore out his spear, flooding power in my arm to compensate for the poor angle. Bleeding like it was going out of style, one leg hanging loosely and pretty much useless, I eyed my opponents.

“She struggles still,” the sword fae noted in voice that sounded like a deer’s death rattle, like an owl swooping down.

“Title of my memoirs,” I gasped. “On that note: Rise.”

Thick chords of shadow spread across my body as my wounds closed. A little more of that bundle of power inside me faded away. Luckily I hadn’t had to use much of it so far – I doubted I’d run into anything as useful to Take anytime soon. The sight of my wound disappearing in the span of heartbeat, healed perfectly, was enough to give the fae pause. The healing wasn’t painless, of course, it hurt just as much as the wounding had because the Choir of Contrition was obviously a bunch of bleeding sadists. That moment of surprise cost them. I forced power into my legs and in the blink of an eye I was on the deadwood soldiers with a spear, ramming his buddy’s own weapon through the small chink between his wood breastplate and the lower parts of his armour. The creature gasped in pain but I ignored it, twisting to meet the assault of the other fae. The sword was angled for my throat, which was smart of him: I’d just conclusively proved that hacking away at my limbs was useless. Nothing short of a killing blow was going to stop me. Unfortunately for him, sword blades going for me was something I was intimately familiar with. I caught his wrist, twisted it sharply and forced him to his knees. A hard stroke was enough to send his still-helmeted head tumbling to the ground. I glanced at the one with the spear through the belly, saw he was on his knees desperately trying to take it out.

“A year ago,” I said, “that struggle comment would have been a great set up.”

The point of my sword went through one of the eyeholes, came away wet with blood and some silvery fluid that turned into smoke. I got read to back up Adjutant, but he’d apparently turned the situation around. He tossed the corpse of one soldier at the other and, taking the spear by the shaft two-handed, began to brutally beat down the still-living fae.

“Hakram,” I muttered. “That is not how you use a spear.”

The fae tried to retreat but I kicked it in the back, having approached quietly, and Adjutant brought down the spear – without even needing to turn it around, since he’d been holding it upside down – to pierce the creature through the throat when she was down. We caught our breaths for a moment, him still bleeding and me feeling my Name’s power simmer down without an opponent to take it out on.

“I can’t help but notice the blizzard hasn’t gone away,” Adjutant finally said, bending over to pick up his axe.

I eyed the raging winds ahead warily. Behind us my legionaries had managed to get their line in order, only to be entirely relieved of pressure moments ago when the fae started fleeing back into the blizzard. While giving Hakram and I a very wide berth. That showed a remarkable understanding of how that fight would go.

“Could be there’s another one inside,” I said.

“Ten denarii there’s something even nastier in the middle,” Adjutant said.

“That’s not a bet,” I said, “that’s you stealing my hard-earned salary.”

I sheathed my sword.

“The one who talked,” I said. “He said something that troubles me.”

“We are the footsoldiers of Winter,” the orc quoted softly.

“If they’re not lying,” I said. “If those were really the rank and file…”

“How strong will an officer be?” the orc completed.

What did that even make the fae my legionaries were having trouble with? Skirmishers? Or civilians, I thought, and the shiver that went up my spine had nothing to do with the cold. Nothing here was adding up. I didn’t know much about the fae, but if they’d attempted to invade Creation before someone would have fucking written about it. I refused to believe there could be several hundred books about the godsdamned Licerian Wars, which hadn’t even happened on this continent, and not a single one about ‘that one time Arcadia poured out as an unstoppable flood of death’.

“There’s other gates in and out of Arcadia,” I said. “And they don’t seem to have trouble like this. There’s fae in the Waning Woods, sure, but they don’t invade places as an army. Refuge is a day’s walk away from a gate and they’re still on the map.”

“So why, then, is the Winter Court sending soldiers here?” Hakram asked. “Is it because this isn’t a proper gate?”

A wave of warmth washed away the cold a moment before someone cleared their throat. I turned.

“I’m rather curious about that myself,” Masego said. “And I know where we can find answers.”

Chapter 4: Developments

“The viper that bites a Matron dies poisoned.”
-Taghreb saying

After the table was cleared most of my officers went with it. They had duties to attend to, after all. While Juniper wasn’t holding the legion to wartime duty rosters, the influx of fresh recruits in the Fifteenth meant the usual peacetime hours were far less than what was currently being demanded of them – especially with a budding portal to Arcadia in need of garrisoning. Of the four that remained seated at the table when servants brought wine, only two were a common fixture at these little meetings. Ratface and Aisha effectively ran what passed for my network of informants, through his underworld connections and her relatives in the nobility. They’d done well, in my opinion, but they were going up against spymasters who’d had decades to place their own people or outright inherited a web of informants from their predecessors. Spies were among the most precious parts of a noble’s inheritance, in the Wasteland.

Pickler, on he other hand, was a rarity. As much because she had no interest in these things as because she rarely had anything to contribute. That she’d stuck around would have surprised me, had I not remembered the Empress’ warning: I was going to be presented with an offer by the Matron of the High Ridge tribe. Pickler’s mother, allegedly estranged. I didn’t know much about that situation save for assurances I’d received that having Pickler in the Fifteenth wouldn’t mean a Matron would be looking to slide a knife in my back. Robber, usually maliciously eager to gossip, had been tight-lipped when I’d brought it up. Goblins always closed ranks the moment you brought up anything relating to what went on inside the Grey Eyries. Still, I could guess at the shape of it. Pickler’s open and vehement distaste for politics could not have gone over well back home, or her lack of interest in anything that didn’t involve building new and improved ways to kill people.

Kilian was around more often, as my Senior Mage. Since she had a finger in everything from our magical defences to setting up scrying channels her input was occasionally needed. And with Apprentice so often holed up in his tower these days, she served as our expert in the supernatural when he wasn’t around. Her knowledge wasn’t nearly as expansive, I had to admit, but she’d placed highly in the War College’s mage courses for a reason. Where Masego would have a tailored solution to any problem we encountered, Kilian simply hammered in obstacles with group rituals and repeated spellwork. Less elegant, maybe, but I didn’t want my legion to ever become too dependent on Apprentice. When it came to fights he’d be at my side more often than not, and it wouldn’t do for my mages to become ineffective whenever he wasn’t around. There was a reason my teacher deployed Warlock as a combat asset on his own instead of the leader of other mages.

That made for six of us in the room, if you counted Hakram and myself. There’d never been any debate about Adjutant being there, of course. At this point not having the tall orc at my side felt like I was missing a hand. I’d noticed over the last year that Hakram rarely spoke in meetings, not unless he wanted a point clarified for my benefit, and did not often venture his own opinion. Sometimes he gave it to me in private afterwards, but more often than not he simply kept his peace. Hakram listened and waited and when I came to a decision he saw that turned into a plan of action. It made it easy to rely on him, that I knew he had no objective – hidden or not – he was working towards. Of all the people I was close with, he stood alone in this. I accepted the cup of Vale summer wine Ratface poured from the carafe, allowing myself to savour the taste. It was a little early in the day, admittedly, but I was going to need a godsdamned drink if we were going to talk about the mess currently known as Marchford.

“So, watcha got for me,” I prompted.

The two Taghreb traded looks. For all that their relationship had apparently imploded years ago, in my experience they actually got along fairly well. Ratface inclined his head and Aisha cleared her throat.

“The upheaval in the Wasteland continues,” the Staff Tribune said. “The mass defections started by the High Lady of Aksum, while slowing in frequency, have yet to end.”

I grinned. It always put me in a good mood when I heard about the Truebloods get the bad end of the stick. Not long after I’d extorted three high nobles into backing the creation of the Ruling Council, one of them had officially withdraw from the Truebloods. High Lady Abreha of Aksum, the cackling old bat who’d cheerfully betrayed her fellows the very moment the wind had turned. Though she had not joined the Loyalists, Malicia’s faction in Praes, losing a High Lady had started an avalanche of setbacks for the Truebloods. Lesser nobles had begun withdrawing their support or been assassinated by successors who did before a fortnight had passed. While few of them changed their allegiance to the Loyalists, the humiliation for the remaining Truebloods had been both public and potent. I’d watched all of that unfold with no small amount of glee.

“The most recent defection was by a lord directly sworn to Wolof,” Aisha said. “As High Lady Tasia is the head of the Truebloods, the loss of face involved was massive. Rumour has it she could not afford to match the bribe offered by the Empress, which has… interesting implications.”

I let out a whistle.

“We’ve confirmed Heiress has made no attempt to send any of the revenues collected from Liesse to the Wasteland,” Ratface added. “Cat, I think there’s a wedge there.”

“Praesi stabbing Praesi in the back,” Pickler said derisively. “There’s a surprise.”

Aisha raised an eyebrow.

“An interesting comment, coming from a goblin,” she said.

Pickler shrugged, then looked away. That was as much as she seemed to want to get involved, at the moment.

“And all these unaligned nobles, what are they doing exactly?” Hakram asked.

Aisha smiled, then gracefully sipped at her wine. I could see no hint of her teeth as she did – that was Praesi etiquette for you.

“They are no longer unaligned,” the Staff Tribune said. “High Lady Abreha has begun to gather them under her banner.”

“The Moderates, they call themselves,” Ratface added.

I raised an eyebrow.

“That’s a promising name, but I’m not getting my hopes up,” I said.

“The Moderates oppose certain of the policies championed by the Empress,” Aisha said, “but do so without the undercurrent of opposing the Empress herself. They’re growing as an alternative to the Truebloods for nobles who disagree with certain recent reforms.”

The approval in her voice was not masked in the slightest.

“So they’re the good, polite racists,” Pickler said bitingly. “There’s a relief, I thought there were only bad, rude ones.”

“One does not need to hate greenskins to realize breeding restrictions on the Tribes are necessary,” Aisha replied, tone aggressively mild. “Or to believe that orcs chieftains being made nobility would disrupt a very delicate balance of power.”

“It probably helps, though,” the Senior Sapper said with a flash of needle-like teeth.

“That’s enough of that,” I said quietly. “Pickler, you know Aisha’s not one of those nobles. She’s never treated you anything but politely. Aisha, half your people would accept making a bridge out of dead goblins as a decent way to save on stone. She’s not swinging out of the blue.”

The Taghreb noble’s face went blank, but she inclined her head. Pickler grabbed her goblet and drank.

“I do love these little chats of ours,” Ratface said. “But I believe there’s one last thing for you to mention, Aisha?”

The lovely Staff Tribune cleared her throat.

“Infighting between the Truebloods and the Moderates has already begun, but their agents at court do agree on one prominent matter,” she said.

Well, that ought to be good.

“I’m on the edge of my seat,” I said drily.

“To be blunt,” Aisha said delicately, “that point is you. You are worrying them.”

“She’s had knives at her back since she became the Squire,” Hakram said calmly. “What makes this unusual?”

“When you were merely the Squire, Lady Catherine, you were a minor threat with the potential of turning into a larger one,” the olive-skinned aristocrat said. “Your coming to command the Fifteenth, while unfortunate, was not judged overly alarming. That changed, however, when the Fifteenth kept growing.”

“They think you’re amassing a private army to come knocking at their doors,” Ratface grinned nastily. “Their tender noble hearts are all aflutter at the notion.”

“That’s absurd,” Kilian spoke up from my left. “We don’t have nearly the men for that. We’re what, six thousand now?”

“Seven thousand as of the census last week,” Aisha said. “By my estimate, we’ll be eight thousand come summer. The size of two standard legions.”

“I don’t have the corresponding number of mages under my command,” the redhead frowned.

I frowned, then pieced the discrepancy together.

“Mages are required to graduate from the College before service,” I said. “We’ve been taking in Callowans.”

“There simply aren’t that many mages available for us to bring into the fold,” Aisha agreed. “Many went to the Fourteenth when it was formed, and there are rumours a Sixteenth is about to be raised.”

That, I realized with a grimace, was a problem. A lot of the legion military doctrine rested on the fact that mages and sappers would be available in proportionate numbers to the amount of regulars. No wonder Juniper was insisting on drills so much. She was going to have to revise her tactics entirely before we next got into a fight.

“I don’t suppose any of you have a workaround?” I asked.

“We could recruit from civilian talent,” Aisha said. “That would bring complications, however.”

“Good mages in the Wasteland have patrons,” Ratface said. “They’re not allowed not to.”

“And they’d need to be trained to Legion standards,” Kilian murmured. “We don’t have the facilities for that. Not to mention using the War College’s methods without sanction would be low treason, at the very least.”

“Joy,” I muttered. “Think about it anyway. If you have a stroke of genius, you know where my door is.”

Hakram set down his wine with a metallic clink.

“Practically speaking, what does the nobles being worried about our numbers mean?” the tall orc gravelled.

Ratface shrugged, looked at the other Taghreb in the room.

“Support for the only visible check on your power,” Aisha said.

“Heiress,” I said.

Well, wasn’t that a treat. It would have been too much to hope for I’d be allowed to expand my ranks without there being consequences, I supposed. I passed a hand through my mess of a hair, which I’d taken out of its usual ponytail for the meal. It would need combing soon. Kilian nudged me with her knee under the table, smiling.

“We’ll find a way,” she murmured. “We always do.”

I pressed a kiss against her shoulder as Ratface rolled his eyes and Aisha politely looked away. Acknowledging the sight of emotions in others was impolite, for Praesi, unless you were deeply intimate with them and behind closed doors. Pickler was looking at us like she would some sort of strange chimera, more puzzled than anything else. The goblin notion of romance, as I understood it, was rather different from the human one.

“That’s one,” I said. “Ratface?”

“Are we done already?” the Taghreb said. “It was just getting interesting.”

His lips tightened immediately afterwards, swallowing a whimper, and Aisha smiled. I suspected he was going to be limping out of the room when we were done. The bastard coughed.

“I’ve placed people in the lower rungs of two of the major Dark Guilds,” he said.

While there were apparently quite a few minor criminal associations that styled themselves guilds, there were only three in Callow that really deserved the name. The Assassins, the Thieves and the Smugglers. The Thieves had been the ones to make it through the Conquest the least affected, and the first to strike a deal with Black. Their activities were tacitly allowed as long as they didn’t threaten Praesi interests, in exchange for a few concessions. The only really important one among those was informing on any resistance group they came across. No wonder my teacher hadn’t been actually challenged by one of those in the two decades he’d run Callow. He really had eyes everywhere, didn’t he?

The second guild, the Smugglers, had not gotten away unscathed. Not because the Tower had tightened the screws, at least not in the usual sense.They’d been making a fortune out of importing Praesi luxuries before the Conquest, but their roles as middlemen had become unnecessary when actual trade routes had opened. Making it worse, quite a few drugs and substances that had been illegal under the Kingdom were nothing of the sort under Praes. After floundering for a few years, they’d managed to find a niche in importing foreign luxuries through Mercantis while bypassing tariffs – the Wasaliti, after all, was no longer patrolled by war barges. Their following attempts to get weapons into Callow had been met by the assassination of half their leadership, and they’d taken that warning to heart. Since they’d restricted their activities to what wouldn’t earn Black’s attention, offering a cut of their profits in penance. They were a pale shadow of what they’d used to be, though, by far the weakest of the three guilds.

The Assassins had happened upon a middle ground between those two, neither crippled nor largely untouched. Their more patriotic elements had been purged by the Named who exemplified their trade, leaving only hardened professionals behind. Those had shown no qualms in cooperating with the Tower and even some Imperial Governors, though assassinating Praesi without unofficial sanction had been forbidden. While not as numerous and entrenched as it had been before the Conquest, the Guild of Assassins had settled comfortably into its new role. They had, if anything, thrived under the rule of officials coming from a culture where their trade was not only accepted but held in some esteem. Few nobles of the Kingdom would have ever contracted a Dark Guild for work, after all, but Praesi were not above employing local talent when bringing in their own specialists would have been too costly.

“The Smugglers were easy enough to infiltrate, since I’ve had indirect dealings with them in the past,” Ratface said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “As for the Thieves, getting a foot in was doable but rising in the ranks will take years. They tend to operate in local cells.”

“You couldn’t get anyone in the Assassins?” I asked.

The handsome Taghreb shook his head.

“They recruit by invitation only,” he told me. “Murder convicts, mostly, taken in by spiriting them out of prison before they hang.”

I made an understanding noise. That would make it tricky to get anyone inside. If Black had managed the feat, he’d never told me.

“Got anything out of it so far?” I said.

“Nothing all that useful, though one piece does stand out,” Ratface mused. “The Guild of Thieves has recently had a change of leadership. Their ‘King of Thieves’ was overthrown.”

“A shadow war across Callow would have been noticed,” Hakram said.

“They don’t operate like that,” the Supply Tribune said, shaking his head. “The person in charge is whoever has some fancy crown. Any member of the guild can try to steal it.”

I raised an eyebrow. That seemed like a horrible way to run an organization, considering anyone close to the guildmaster would be tempted to steal it. Besides, all it took was for an idiot to get lucky once and you’d have a fool at the helm. Aisha made an approving noise and I glanced at her. Ah, of course she’d think well of it. Praes was run on basically the same principle, only with more murder and demons.

“Keep an eye on them,” I finally said. “I’ll want to know where they stand when we move on the Assassins.”

Ratface nodded.

“Speaking of,” he said, “I found out what you wanted. They’ve none or negligible presence in Marchford.”

“Well, I was due something uplifting,” I muttered. “Any idea why?”

“The Countess Marchford hated them deeply,” Aisha said. “She cleared them out of the city a few years after the Conquest, after they killed her husband and infant son.”

I leaned forward in interest.

“How?” I asked.

“She torched the entire city quarter they operated out of,” Ratface told me grimly. “Had anyone that crawled out of the ashes drawn and quartered in the public square.”

Well. Not exactly something I could replicate across Callow. Horrifying as that method was, I couldn’t help but be somewhat impressed. Elizabeth Talbot had not been one to fuck around, when she wanted something done. The Duke of Liesse had no business ever getting near a throne, but the Countess Marchford would have made the kind of queen that took more than a page in chronicles. Not all of it good but, Hells, who was I to throw stones?

“My turn?” Pickler asked impatiently.

I looked at the two Taghreb, but neither of them had anything to add.

“Good,” the goblin muttered, then straightened in her seat. “Lady Foundling of Marchford, I bring an offer from Matron Sever of the High Ridge tribe.”

I watched my two Tribunes from the corner of my eye. Ratface looked surprised and concerned. Aisha’s brow rose, until her eyes widened in understanding. Then her face returned to pleasant and unreadable. Something that passed through Court at some point, then, I thought. I’d been under the impression goblins stayed out of Praesi politics, so my curiosity sharpened.

“I’ve got an official letter for you to gawk at,” Pickler continued, discarding ceremony as quickly as she’d taken it up, “but the gist of it is this: the High Ridge tribe and its allies would like to establish a goblin settlement in your lands.”

I blinked.

“What?” I said, for eloquence was one my foremost virtues.

I paused.

“Is that even legal?”

“The Empress reinstated breeding restrictions to show favour to the Moderates,” Aisha said quietly. “In a gesture of goodwill, however, she allowed the establishment of a new goblin tribe for the first time in two hundred years.”

“Matrons fought over the right like a bag full of angry cats,” Pickler shrugged. “Mother’s the most vicious old bitch of that pack of vicious old bitches, though. She ended up on top of that pile of bodies.”

“There’s never been a goblin settlement outside of the Grey Eyries before,” Hakram said, sounding surprised.

I glanced at him.

“Foramen,” I reminded him.

“Foramen has been ruled by humans since the Miezan occupation, even if goblins work the forges,” the tall orc replied.

That… might be true? I really had no idea. Praesi history not related to the Tower wasn’t something I’d read a lot of. Anyway, no point in quibbling since odds were he was right and this wasn’t the most salient issue at the moment anyway. My eyes returned to the Senior Sapper.

“That’s an,” I started, looking for the word, “… interesting offer.”

“She doesn’t expect you to accept out of love for goblinkind,” Pickler said, amused. “She’s offering for the goblins in question to build fortifications for the city, free of charge. The tribe would occupy the designated land but pay rent for the privilege, as well bribe you generously for your generosity in considering the matter. Everybody knows Marchford’s ledgers are bleeding like slow raider.”

I felt it safe to assume the raider in question was bleeding because he’d been too slow to dodge a knife. That expression told me a lot about how what living in the Grey Eyries would be like.

“I’ve been looking into ways to fill the coffers,” I said, glancing at Aisha.

The lovely tribune shook her head.

“While I find the notion of a tribe of goblins within sight of where I sleep horrifying, none offered terms you would find acceptable,” she said. “There’s quite a few families willing to make a loan, and some are even willing to forego interest. All want a governorship as part of the deal.”

“Come on,” I griped. “There’s got to be at least one that just wants to fleece me.”

“With almost no remaining Praesi governors, anyone who could secure such a post under your reign would gain a massive advantage against their rivals,” Aisha said. “None are willing to forego that chance. I have, however, accumulated some funds when they attempted to bribe my intermediaries. The appropriate portion was added to your treasury.”

“That’s something, I guess,” I said, reluctantly amused.

The mirth died quickly enough when my gaze returned to Pickler.

“You talked about rent,” I said. “Not a grant of land.”

“While swearing fealty to you would have been hard enough to swallow,” the Senior Sapper said, “The possibility that one day a male descendant of yours might rule Marchford pretty much killed that idea.”

She shrugged.

“They’re not wrong,” the yellow-eyed goblin said. “It’d be pretty disgusting for a Matron to take orders from a man.”

“I’m feeling somewhat insulted, right now,” Ratface mused.

Pickler eyed him pityingly.

“You’re a fine warleader, Ratface,” she reassured him. “You’re just not cut out for important matters like ruling or raising children. Men are too emotional for those things, it’s not your fault.”

“Matrons have taken orders from Dread Emperors,” I pointed out, morbidly fascinated.

I’d always known the Tribes were a matriarchy, but I’d never actually seen that in action before. Pickler was a clever, intelligent and talented officer. Who’d somehow come to believe that barring half her people from leadership positions could be anything but shooting herself in the foot.

“Tyrants don’t count,” she said, eyeing me sceptically. “They’re Named. They’re not like other men.”

“So you’re telling me an entire culture recognizes me as objectively better than Ratface?” Hakram said, leaning forward.

I snorted.

“You’re a traitor to your gender, Hakram,” the Taghreb said. “For shame. Where’s the solidarity?”

I recognize you’re objectively better than Ratface,” Aisha told Hakram. “I’m sure I could get a petition passed around to collect broader opinion.”

“So I’m to leave this room both without all my toes unbroken and my dignity?” the bastard mused. “You people are animals.”

Pickler sneered in the general direction of the gallery before returning her attention to me.

“Think it over,” she said. “Left the letter in your affairs, since I didn’t want to bother remembering all the legalese. They’ll expect an answer soon.”

I nodded slowly. I had no intention of agreeing to anything before talking it over with a few other people, anyway. That the Empress had allowed this at all meant she tacitly endorsed the idea, but scrying her for a conversation wouldn’t be a bad idea. Getting Black on the other side of a bowl would be even better, but I had no real way to contact him. Pickler slid down her pile of cushions and saluted me before stalking away. Aisha and Ratface took the hint, and made their exit not long after. Hakram was polishing off the rest of his wine, so I turned to Kilian. Who was already looking at me, I was pleased to see.

“So, Senior Mage,” I said. “When do you get off duty?”

“I’ve no responsibilities until afternoon tomorrow,” she replied with a smile.

I raised an eyebrow.

“How’d you manage that?” I asked.

“I forewent my free days for the last month,” Kilian said. “Though I did manage to walk the city a bit before that.”

“Oh?” I said, fingers toying with the edge of her tunic.

“Found a little shop in the merchant district,” she said idly. “They do very interesting things with lace.”

My breath caught. Smiling impishly, she leaned closer.

“I’m wearing one of their creations right now,” she murmured.

I rose to my feet.

“And we’re done here,” I announced.

Catching Kilian by the hand I immediately headed for the door but paused when I passed by Adutant.

“Hakram,” I said. “My buddy. My friend.”

“Cat?” he replied bemusedly.

“I’ve been sleeping in an empty bed for two months,” I said. “If someone knocks at my door before noon tomorrow for anything short of an invasion, I will have them hanged.”

Kilian snorted, and we were out of the room before the orc could reply.

I woke up in the middle of the night.

The armful of redhead at my side was still asleep and my pillow was decadently soft after having been on the road so long, so I closed my eyes and buried my head back into it. Someone banged on the door again, more urgently this time. I cursed, then got up. Kilian’s eyes fluttered open.

“Cat?” she asked sleepily.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

I almost went to open the door before remembering I was naked. Picking up a shirt from the pile of dirty clothes I really needed to have laundered at some point, I slipped it on. The asshole on the other side of the door banged again. Adjusting the shirt to it covered my thighs, I made my way to the door and wrenched it open. On the other side, a legionary with lieutenant stripes stood with his hand raised.

What?” I hissed at him.

The Soninke took in the sight of me dishevelled, half-asleep and entirely furious before gulping nervously.

“Lady Squire, the Winter Court is attempting to invade the city,” he managed to get out. “General Juniper sent me to wake you.”

I sighed, then rubbed the bridge of my nose. One of these days, I was going to learn to keep my fucking mouth shut.