Chapter 37: Procedures

“Truth and silence lie better than the silvermost tongue.”
– Soninke saying

It was a little odd to be half-naked in front of three people, but the only person that was feeling awkward about it was Hakram. The moment I’d begun unbuttoning my shirt he’d cleared his throat and looked away, and had been staring at the ceiling of my tent for a solid half hour by now. Considering I had it on good authority – Robber, ever up for a bit of gossip if it was at someone else’s expense – that he was still sleeping around on the regular his prudery for this was pretty amusing. As for the other two, well, Masego couldn’t have been any less interested in tits if he tried and this wasn’t anything Kilian hadn’t seen before. I shifted on the stool at the memory of some of the instances where she’d done a great deal more than just looking and Hierophant clucked his tongue disapprovingly.

“Don’t move,” he said. “This is delicate work.”

I’d have to take his word on that, since I couldn’t actually see what he was doing. He was prodding around the area of my heart with a long oaken wand covered in runes that was entirely ignoring my flesh, pausing now and then to look at the collection of hovering runes in the air by his side. Kilian was crouched at his side, forming a ball of light over her upturned palm. They’d said it was because they needed a ‘point of comparison’, though they’d been vague about what exactly that meant.

“It’s not grounded in the heart,” the Senior Mage frowned.

“Agreed,” Masego said, and I felt him poke something inside me.

Runes shifted in the air and the redhead inhaled sharply.

“That should kill a human outright,” she said. “It’s enough sorcery to turn all the liquids in her body to ice.”

“Named, Kilian,” the blind Soninke reminded her. “And this ‘moon’ seems to have been purposed to regulate the energies.”

I cleared my throat.

“So you have answers for me, then,” I said.

“We can confidently say that your third aspect is bound to your title of Duchess of Moonless Nights and not the heart replacement the king forced upon you,” Hierophant said. “A fascinating piece of work, that.”

“So when I get my heart back,” I prompted.

“You should keep the aspect, assuming you remain the Duchess,” Kilian said. “Though it will severely limit your abilities.”

I met her eyes, but she turned to look at the runes.

“The moon the King of Winter placed inside you serves two purposes,” Hierophant elaborated. “The first it to mimic the role in your body your heart would. Fascinating, as I said. I did not believe the fae had so keen an understanding of human anatomy.”

“And the second?” I said.

“You might consider it a heart in the magical sense,” Masego said. “All the Winter power that you can bring to bear is siphoned into it, then released for your use natured in a way that lessens the damage to your body.”

“That feels like something that’s going to fuck me over when I get my actual heart back,” I said.

“Without that filter I’m not certain you will be able to use your third aspect,” Kilian said. “I’ve never seen the direct aftermath, but I was given to understand it is a domain?”

“And I definitely know what that is,” I lied. “Pretty sure Hakram doesn’t, though, so to be polite someone should explain.”

“Actually,” the orc began, but I shushed him.

“It’s all right, Hakram,” I said. “We’re your friends. You don’t need to pretend with us.”

“I explained to you what that is mere months ago,” Masego said, sounding surprised as he eyed the orc. “Perhaps you should drink less. It’s beginning to affect your memory.”

Adjutant glared at me helplessly and I grinned.

“I’ll keep an eye on him, I promise,” I told Hierophant.

The dark-skinned mage nodded, then looked up at me through his eye cloth.

“Creation is, in essence, matter with a set of rules imposed by the Gods upon it,” he said. “A domain is when an entity, in this case you, temporarily overlays different matter and rules over it.”

Well, that sounded mildy blasphemous. And incredibly dangerous.

“In your case, ‘Fall’ appears to create a bubble of empty darkness where you may use Winter energies to lower the temperature beneath what should physically be possible,” Masego continued. “Unusually offensive in nature. Most domains provide different territory and a comparative advantage to the entity that creates it.”

“It shouldn’t be possible for a Squire to have a domain at all,” Kilian said frankly. “Transitory Names are not strong enough. Domains usually belong to lesser gods, full-fledged Named late in their career or particularly ancient monsters.”

“It’s a rare ability even among heroes,” Masego noted. “Aside from the Champion lines in Levant and allegedly the Saint of Swords, there shouldn’t be any other living human practitioner.”

“Then how did I get one?” I asked. “I didn’t exactly rub a lamp and make a wish to get this, Hierophant.”

“Djinn were usually bound to urns, not lamps, and did not grant wishes,” Masego replied absent-mindedly. “It does occur naturally in some entities. Every dragon has a domain at their heart of their body, it’s what allows them to breathe fire. And Father has theorized elves essentially become a living domain when they get old enough.”

“You have a pretty good look at my body right now,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “See any scales or pointy ears?”

“No,” Hierophant told me seriously. “And I would be able to see them even if they were invisible.”

I saw Kilian’s lips twitch form the corner of my eye.

“Now,” Masego muttered, “this is not conclusive by any means but I do have a theory.”

“All my ears are listening,” I said.

He stared suspiciously at me but I gave him my most innocent smile. His frown deepened, so maybe I needed to put some work into that.

“I believe this to be a leash,” Hierophant said. “You are given powerful abilities, but to make use of them properly you must give the King of Winter foothold in your soul. Removing that foothold turns what was once an asset into a liability, giving you strong incentive to remain bound to him.”

“There’s more to it than that,” Kilian said quietly, and Masego seemed surprised.

The Senior Mage flicked her fingers and three rows of runes parted from the rest.

“I’ve never had occasion to do a full mapping ritual on my father,” the redhead said, “but this corresponds more or less to how his body reacted to fae sorcery as a halfblood. Higher tolerance, but there’s no actual attempt made to make it harmless. In someone born, that’s only natural. But in an artificial construct?”

“Power limiter,” Hierophant said, glass eyes gleaming under dark cloth.

“Your saying he screwed me,” I said.

I paused.

“More than previously believed,” I added.

Kilian nodded slowly.

“When you draw deep on the power, you must get backlash,” she said.

“My blood starts to freeze,” I admitted.

“You were crippled,” Hierophant said bluntly. “You have the power of a Duchess to draw on, but if you actually did so it would kill you. It explains why you were at such a disadvantage fighting that Summer duchess in Arcadia, when in theory you should have been on even footing.”

“Countess at most,” Kilian said. “Your domain allows you to fight out of your league but the King made certain you would never be powerful enough to be a threat to him.”

I clenched my fingers. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, even if it did. I’d been so focused on how the threat was my stolen heart that I’d never thought to question the additions to my power I’d discovered. Archer had told me that the Duke of Violent Squalls was supposed to be one of the big names in the Winter Court. Someone who was supposed to turn the story back to war if the fae that ruled Winter was trying to avoid it. There was power to that kind of role, and by taking his title even in a different form I should have swung a great deal harder then the average duke or duchess. I’d thought it was because I wasn’t really fae, but evidently there was more to it than that.

“Can you fix this?” I finally asked.

Masego smiled.

“If I were still the Apprentice, no,” he said. “But such miracles are now within my purview. I will need preparations and the process will not be gentle, but it can be done.”

“You’ll still get backlash,” Kilian warned. “You’re a mortal bearing a fae title, that much is unavoidable.”

“The proportion of power than can be drawn before backlash could be increased tenfold, at the very least,” Hierophant said. “A Duchess in full. You’ve an unusually tough constitution, you should be able to weather it.”

“Ominous,” I said. “Get this ready. The sooner we get it done the better.”

“It could be ready tomorrow, but three days hence would be easier,” Masego said. “For ritual purposes, the new moon will benefit me.”

The mage got back to his feet, adjusting the black robes over his corpulent frame. Kilian followed suit, brushing back red hair in a gesture I followed with my eyes out of habit. Masego left the tent without bothering to excuse myself, entirely forgetting Hakram was still in here. The redhaired mage lingered for a moment.

“Catherine,” she said.

I hesitated.

“Dismissed, Senior Mage,” I replied.

Her face shuttered and she gave a stiff salute before leaving. I began to button up my shirt again, fingers almost shaking. That had taken more determination that I’d expected.

“You decent?” Adjutant asked.

“Never,” I drawled. “Villain, remember?”

“No one’s a villain every hour of the day,” Hakram grunted. “And if you’re being lippy about it, that’s a yes.”

I struck a suggestive pose when he turned, my top two buttons still undone, and he groaned.

“Just too much woman for you, I understand,” I said sympathetically.

“You’re barely half an orc,” he gravelled.

“I’m vicequeen of Callow, you savage,” I grinned. “That could be construed as treason.”

“If you have me arrested, who will handle the paperwork?” he said.

“You have always been my most loyal,” I hastily replied. “Never doubted you a moment.”

The orc snorted and reached for the carafe of wine Masego had refused to let me touch. He poured two glasses and pressed one into my hand. Oh dear. That was the herald to a serious conversation, wasn’t it? The joke about his drinking habits died unspoken on my tongue.

“We haven’t talked about it,” he said.

“The heart?” I said. “It hasn’t been a priority so far, to be honest. It was functional and there’s other fires to put out first.”

“Cat,” he said flatly. “You know that doesn’t work on me.”

My lips thinned. No matter how well it served me, there were times I wished he was just a little less perceptive.

“There is nothing to say,” I grunted.

“It’s a nasty habit you have,” Hakram said. “Thinking admitting something hurt you means you’re weak.”

“Already got that speech from Masego last year,” I sighed. “I cope. We’re in the middle of a godsdamned war, in case you hadn’t noticed. This is so far down the ladder of shit I need to deal with it’s not even worth mentioning.”

Hakram drank from his cup and I did the same.

“You were happier, with her,” he said. “Everyone saw that.”

“Happy doesn’t come into this,” I barked. “I didn’t sign up for happy ever after. The colour of my cloak’s a bit of hint there.”

“Bullshit,” Hakram said, and it was vehement enough I flinched. “That’s an excuse and you know it. Fix this or don’t, but do not pretend that being a villain means you have to be miserable. You know that’s untrue.”

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Hakram?” I hissed. “That I miss her? It’s not exactly fucking riddle when I feel like I put a fresh knife in my ribs every time she’s in the room.”

“That is a start,” the tall orc gravely said.

“She wants to cross a line,” I said tiredly. “I can’t stop her without doing the same. Talking’s not going to change any of it, so this is just salting the wound.”

“I understand she wants to do a ritual,” Hakram said cautiously.

“She wants to slaughter people like animals,” I spat. “To get rid of whatever it is that screws her up when she draws too deep on magic.”

“Human sacrifice,” he said. “How many?”

“I didn’t ask,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. One would be too much.”

I eyed him, saw the lack of expression on his face.

“Gonna take her side, are you?” I bitterly said. “Say I’ve done worse. That it makes me a hypocrite to find even the idea repulsive.”

“You assume much,” Hakram said. “Do you think Callowans fed most the altars in Praes? Wars with the Kingdom came once a reign, Catherine. In peace they looked for fodder in the Steppes.”

That have me pause, because he was right. I had assumed, deep down, that no one born on his side of the Wasaliti would really get where I was coming from. One of the reasons I’d never talked about this with anybody. It had been extremely presumptuous of me.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I didn’t mean-“

“I know,” he sighed, fangs flashing. “I will not pretend my people are anything but red-handed, Catherine. We have fed upon mankind since the First Dawn. We kept slaves and sacked cities, splattered blood across the writ of Creation. But this, we understand. The Miezans taught the Wasteland to hate chains, and in turn the Wasteland taught us to hate the altars. When Lord Black decreed the Legions would no longer bleed their own for victory, he earned deeper loyalty than he understood.”

I looked away, because I knew that Black hadn’t done that because he thought it was right or just. He’d thought it necessary, that those rituals were a crutch that did more harm than good. He probably knew that already. Most of the orc generals likely did as well, but to greenskins action always mattered more than intent.

“I’ve killed people,” I said. “A lot of them. Because they were my enemies, because they were in my way. Sometimes even to make a point. Guilt, what was actually deserved, I stopped bringing into it somewhere along the way.”

Hakram drank and did not speak.

“I started the Liesse Rebellion,” I admitted suddenly. “I let the Lone Swordsman go after starting him down that path. Because I needed a war to rise.”

The orc set down his cup.

“I suspected,” he gravelled. “It was too personal for you. More than it ever was when you were pruning away the undesirables in Callow.”

“In sparing him, I killed thousands,” I said. “I used them as a tool. And that’s despicable, Hakram. I hate it, that for a moment I stood in the same place the High Lords do when they decided to hike the taxes or murder a few of my people for convenience. I think that’s the line I can’t live with crossing. Being the kind of person that doesn’t see people as people, just objects.”

“The kind of person that would use killing others as fuel for a ritual,” he said.

“I know it’s different for Praesi,” I said. “You read Black’s journal, same as me. There were years where sacrifices for the fields were all that kept famine away, and I won’t cast stones at people doing ugly shit to survive. But there’s no need for that anymore. Not if the grain can come from Callow instead. But it’s still done, and there has to be a point where culture isn’t an excuse anymore, right? Gods, if it was someone’s culture to eat fucking babies does that mean I just have to smile and pretend it’s not vile? Because there’s a lot of that going around, Hakram. The Matrons are our allies, so we have to pretend the things they do every year to boys just like Robber because they’re boys aren’t revolting. Ratface’s own father tried to have him knifed in his bed because he was inconvenient, and I’m supposed to just laugh it off and say ‘that’s the Taghreb for you, there they go murdering again’? Fuck, I’ve done dark things but at least I don’t pretend it’s all right for me to have done them. I don’t encourage it.”

Gods, but it felt good to actually say that out loud. Because I knew who I’d sided with, and now more than ever I knew who I answered to. But there were compromises that rankled. Things I had to pretend I didn’t see because I couldn’t pick every battle that should be picked and still think I’d win. That was the thing, with stories. They never told you that the ogres had kids that would starve without a father or that the valiant knight that helped you was part of a larger institution that might trigger civil war if left unchecked. If you wanted a clean ending, one that didn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth, you had to end the story just after the victory. Otherwise you got to see that you could win loudly once, send Evil skittering back into the dark, but that everywhere across Creation there were lesser evils taking place every hour of every day and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.

“Ah,” Hakram said softly. “You hadn’t realized.”

I looked at him.

“That Kilian is Praesi,” he said. “With all that entails.”

“She doesn’t need to do this,” I said, almost pleadingly. “She’s not as powerful as she could be, it’s true. But she’s still better than the average Legion mage. If it came down between her dying and the ritual being made, Gods forgive me but I’d do it. Because I’m in love with her, and I’m selfish and I’d rather be a monster than lose her. But it’s not going to kill her, to be who she is. This is just wanting more for herself at the expense of others.”

“She can do it legally,” Hakram said. “Using death row criminals at auction.”

“I know that,” I said through gritted teeth. “And I know that the people who’d bleed wouldn’t be choir children. That they’ll die anyway, probably on another altar in a way that benefits someone else. That even in Praes you don’t get the noose lightly. But if they hang, Hakram, that’s law. That’s the exercise of justice, or the closest the Wasteland can have to it. There’s a difference between hanging someone for a crime and slitting their throat open so your magic comes more smoothly. And it stings that I shared my bed with someone for more than a year who doesn’t get something that basic.”

I drained the rest of my cup.

“Gods, is human sacrifice too low a bar to set?” I said, and I felt exhausted. “Because in my enemies I’ll live with it. Until I can make them stop, and I will. But Kilian’s on my side. Used to be a lot more than that. And I refuse that this should be who we are.”

I looked at the orc.

“What’s the point of any of this, if we’re just the High Lords with a nicer reputation?” I asked. “I’m not better than her even if she does this, Hakram. I’m probably worse, if a count can be kept for things like this. And we both know I’ll do worse things before this is over. But I won’t put on a smile and pretend this is all right. I’m not willing to be that person, not even for Kilian.”

The tall orc finished his cup.

“This is,” he said, “half the conversation you needed to have. Perhaps you should seek the other half.”

He left the tent, left me alone with the words I’d spoken still filling the silence. They were no comfort. Never had been.

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Chapter 36: Malice

“It is impossible for the Empire to make an appreciable gain so long as this gain is a loss to every other nation on Calernia. To remedy this, we must discard the traditional lines of allying only to Evil polities and make it so that it is in the interest of other powers for us to rise.”
– Extract from ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’, a treatise by Dread Empress Malicia

“When beginning a scheme, one must first consider the desired outcome,” the Empress said. “All other practicalities are derived from this, and determining whether that outcome is feasible at all is the most important part of the process.”

I’d lit candles, tired of the gloom inside my tent even if I could see through it. Malicia had taken one of my folding chairs and somehow managed to make it feel like a throne just by the way she held herself – through another woman’s body, no less – while I’d dropped into the seat forcefully borrowed from the Count of Old Oak. ‘Looted’ was such an ugly word. I’d used one of the candles to light up my pipe and propped up my feet against a low stool. Black had never insisted on a formal setting for his lectures and the Empress seemed inclined to continue along the same lines. I’d lain off the wine for the night, deciding the wakeleaf would be indulgence enough. At this rate I was going to run out of satchels of the stuff, though now that Ratface had the Smugglers under him getting my hands on more shouldn’t be too troublesome. Still costly, though. Letting out a stream of smoke to the side, I drummed fingers against the ornate chair arm. I knew what I wanted, I was just pondering the right phrasing.

“I want the fae out of Callow and their influence removed,” I said.

Malicia smiled. It wasn’t breath-taking, not the way I knew she was in person, but just looking at it made me feel at ease. Comfortable. Like I was sitting across from an old friend and not one of the most dangerous women alive. It was the smile of someone who had studied the image that best brought out those feelings and crafted a flawless replica to wear. The Empress was made up of smoke and mirrors in arrangements that had been refined for decades, an illusion masterful enough that it remained effective even while I knew what she was doing. She was everything Akua Sahelian wanted to be, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought?

“You are using an absolute, Catherine,” she chided. “Avoid these, for they leave no room for compromise. You should be aware, by now, that there is no such thing as an absolute victory. The Empire conquered Callow through overwhelming military victory, but did this remove the realities of its occupation? Compromise, much as you dislike it, is a necessity. Without something to offer as boon, your enemy has nothing to lose. This ensures from the beginning that your opposition will be entrenched.”

“The Imperial governorships don’t feel like a compromise, from where I stand,” I pointed out.

“Because they were not a compromise with Callow, whose perspective you still espouse in large part,” Malicia replied. “They were the boon granted to the High Lords after they were denied the direct subjection they believed their due.”

I grimaced. Praesi aristocrats ruling over Callowan cities would have been… bad. The way the histories said the Proceran occupation had been, and probably even worse. When Callow had been divided into a handful of principalities under royals that displaced the old aristocracy, the entire kingdom had been in state of constant simmering rebellion. The knightly orders turned bandit against the foreigners, Principate dignitaries were knifed in dark alleys by everyone from thieves to merchants and fields went untilled as farmers disappeared into the countryside rather than toil for the invader. It hadn’t been great battles that saw the Principate withdraw but the constant grind of attrition on every facet of the occupation.

“That would have been disastrous,” I said.

“Very much so,” Malicia agreed. “That is not to say the governorships were not designed to quell unrest, of course. It is not happenstance that Imperial governors were only granted four year mandates, or that Amadeus was given authority to oversee them.”

I drew on my pipe, looking for the meaning in that. Four year mandates. From where I stood, what did they mean? The sweet smoke hung in the air before my eyes for a while, until I dug far enough back in my childhood I could get a handle on what she’d meant.

“Mazus was hated,” I said. “But every four years, there was hope he wouldn’t be given another mandate. That his abuses would come to the attention of the Tower and that he’d be recalled.”

“Impermanence,” the Empress said. “That was the key. The belief that the enemy could be removed, if they were patient. And who did you look to for salvation, in this matter?”

“The Tower,” I said. “Black.”

I kept my breathing steady, but my blood ran cold. Every time I thought I understood the breadth of the plans they’d made to keep Callow part of the Empire, I found another hidden knife. It was deceptively simple, wasn’t it? If the heroes that popped up failed and failed visibly, then relief had to come from another source and the only one available was the Tower. Imperial governors had been allowed relatively minor abuses that filled their pockets and kept their families happy in the Wasteland, while my people were taught to look for deliverance in Ater one mandate at a time.

“To conclude this matter,” Malicia said, “that is why your abolishment of this system is not offensive to me. I no longer need to appease the High Lords, for as an internal threat they are ended for the foreseeable future. The remaining objective is to stabilize Callow as part of the Empire, and you represent a valid alternative in this.”

I dimly realized, in that moment, that this exchange had not occurred naturally. She had, even before first mentioning the occupation, known how I would react to that mention. The Empress had then used what I’d say to lead into what was both a lesson about what I’d come to her for help and a gentle reminder of the political currents I’d have to deal with when getting Callow back on its feet after all this. Gods. It was such a little thing, but such a telling one. That a woman I’d barely spoken to a handful of times could predict me this easily and fold that into a broader intent without missing a step. I cleared my throat.

“No absolutes,” I conceded. “I want the fae physically gone from Callow and any harmful influence removed.”

“Good,” Malicia smiled, and for a fleeting moment I was reminded of sunny days on the docks and the first girl I’d ever kissed.

There’d been seemingly genuine joy on her face and for a heartbeat I’d believed it. She wasn’t using sorcery, I knew that. There was no artefact or Speaking at work. She could spin me around with just words and body language. I wondered if it was more effective because I was Named – I’d not been able to study people so closely or accurately, before becoming the Squire. I’d become more sensitive to details, and that sensitivity would feed straight into her game: I’d grown used to listening to my instincts, and my instincts told me what I saw was true. Gods, if that was true then she’d managed to turn one of the basic advantages every Named took for granted into an edge for her alone without exerting so much as a speck of power. I reached for the bundle of Winter inside me, let the freezing cold flow through my veins. I was careful not to let the bleed affect the temperature, since it would be as good as sending up a written notice of what I was doing. The icy sensation spreading through me brought some much-needed clarity with it. I pulled at my pipe to hide the vapour that would have come out of my mouth amidst the wakeleaf smoke.

“Then let us speak of the entities that would stand in your way, should you seek to achieve this,” the Empress said.

“The Winter Court,” I said. “The Summer Court. Possibly the Diabolist, if she goes full opportunist.”

“These are entities that will actively oppose you,” she said. “Extend your perspective, my dear, to those who do not want you to fail but may withhold assistance for their own interests.”

I frowned.

“The Dark Guilds,” I said. “Some of the upper echelons of the Legions of Terror. I’d say the High Lords, but you seem to have them in hand.”

“Those of them that would invest in seeing you defeated have already done so through the Diabolist,” Malicia said. “You may consider the aristocracy of the Wasteland as no longer in play. Let us begin with the lesser liabilities. How can you clear them away?”

“I have no leverage on the Guild of Assassins,” I admitted. “Haven’t found a real way to affect them aside from threats. The Smugglers have been scared into cooperation. And for the Legions, doing anything there is like throwing a stone in a glass house. They answer to you and Black alone, so meddling never struck me as being in the cards.”

“That is because you still think of yourself as a separate entity from the Empire,” the Empress gently said. “Discard this perception, Catherine. A few scrying sessions making it clear that you speak with my authority end the issue entirely. If I am to rely on you, as you wish me to, learn to rely on me as well.”

I balked, more out of habit than any reason I could express in words. I fiddled with the shaft of dragonbone and forced myself to seriously consider what the Empress had said. Had I ever really considered myself as part of Praes? I already knew the answer to that, deep down. I’d taken my first steps onto this path with the notion that I would join the Legions to gain authority and then use this authority to change things in Callow. The heart of it had always been that I’d be part of the Praesi hierarchy without ever belonging in it. I’d stuck to that, even as the situation changed month by month. I’d relied on Black, sure, but only to teach me and shield me from other Wastelanders. Even when I’d forged the Ruling Council, the motives for its structure had all revolved around limiting Praesi influence in my homeland. There was a reason it had stung back in Laure, when Thief had called me a collaborator. I still saw the Empire as the enemy and for years I’d been dancing from one flourish of rhetoric to another to avoid owning up to that, because almost everyone I loved came from it. Saying I didn’t oppose Praes, just the parts of it I found unacceptable. That I was willing to live with what it could be, if not what it was right now.

But I was running out of excuses to not make use of the parts of the Empire that I’d already said I believed in. I wasn’t above throwing around my weight as the Squire to get my way, because I’d always thought of the Name as mine. But it wasn’t, not really. Praes at large listened to the Squire because she was the apprentice to the Black Knight, the leading villain of the next generation of Calamities. The moment I’d taken Black’s hand I’d chosen a side for everyone to see, and lying to myself about it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I couldn’t have the authority coming from being part of the Tower’s rule without actually being part of the Tower’s rule. It wasn’t a nice thought. It was bitter, and it felt like I was spitting on everything I’d ever dreamed of as a girl. But it would work. And if I kept mouthing off to heroes about how their pride and principles just got in the way of getting the shit that mattered done, then I had better be ready to follow through. Otherwise I should not have lived this long.

“Then please do so, Your Majesty,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Can I assume you have leverage on the Dark Guilds?”

“Malicia,” the Empress reminded me. “Call me Malicia, darling. And I have a few irons in the fire. Scribe was the one to call them to heel after the Conquest but I’ve people in their ranks. Enough that a message can be sent.”

I breathed out. There were only smouldering remnants in my pipe, so I took a last pull from it and set it aside. The smoke drifted lazily in the candlelight, a wall that would do nothing at all to protect me from the woman in front of me.

“That leaves the worst three,” I said.

The Empress shifted slightly in her seat and I side-eyed her. There was something… In some intangible way, I felt like I could trust her more now. Also like I should take my feet off the stool and straighten up. The Winter cold wavered when I realized exactly what she’d done. She’s mimicking Black’s body language, I thought, horrifyingly impressed. If they were closer in height I might never have noticed. There was an amused glint in the puppet’s eyes when I stared at her face. She knew perfectly well that I’d noticed.

“We arrive at the interesting part,” the Empress said. “Before touching upon how these entities can be affected by us, consider their nature as agents and how this informs their actions.”

My brow creased.

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.

“As an example, let us study Cordelia Hasenbach,” Malicia said.

I leaned forward interestedly. It wasn’t everyday I got to have an assessment of the ruler of the Principate from the mouth of the very same woman who’d been fighting her across the continent for the better part of a decade.

“At first glance, dearest Cordelia is the most powerful individual on the surface of Calernia,” the other woman said. “She commands the largest and wealthiest nation on the continent, her armies are recently blooded and her personal diplomatic reputation is pristine.”

“Procer’s isn’t,” I immediately said. “The reputation, I mean. No one that has a border with the Principate remembers them fondly.”

“Indeed,” Malicia smiled. “The history of the nation she rules does influence what actions she can and cannot take. At a more basic level, consider the limits of her position. Cordelia Hasenbach is Lycaonese, the Prince of Rhenia. Her support base is primarily Lycaonese as well, which means it is poorer and less populous than that of her internal opposition. She can only project military strength temporarily, for the Lycaonese armies are needed at the northern borders. What does this mean for her position in Procer?”

“She has rich, powerful rivals,” I said. “And she needs to keep them in check if she wants to keep her throne.”

“Precisely,” she smiled. “To compound the issue, the civil war that Amadeus initiated and I fed has ravaged large swaths of the Principate, leaving her with large amounts of dispossessed and unemployed soldiery. She is unlikely to face open rebellion, as it would be reputational suicide for any ambitious rival to try to remove her by force after the last decade of war. Yet if she does not deal with this issue, she risks being set aside in favour of a ruler that will.”

“So she needs to keep her soldiers busy and out of her lands while she rebuilds the Principate,” I frowned. “Then why Praes? Why Callow? There’s easier targets. Sure her reputation will take a hit if she scraps with Levant or the Free Cities instead, but it’s kind of expected of Procer they’re going to be real pricks to their neighbours.”

“We now return to your earlier insight about reputation. If Cordelia acted as you said, she would face the same issue that the Empire traditionally does,” Malicia said. “She would stand alone. Make no mistake, Catherine, Procer has been greatly weakened. It cannot afford war on more than one front, which is certain to erupt if the Principate turns expansionist again. The Calernian balance of power would be shattered if she was allowed to make gains.”

I chewed on that. Hasenbach needed a war, but she also needed her other borders quiet. Which meant a target that didn’t worry everybody else, and the way she could accomplish that was…

“A Crusade,” I sighed. “It has to be a Crusade, from her perspective. She can’t not be at war and she can’t take on any of the southern nations without pissing off the others. But if she’s fighting Praes, not only can they not backstab her they might actually have to help.”

“And so we come upon the nature of Cordelia Hasenbach as an entity,” the Empress said. “She must be at war, but cannot be at war with a nation that is Good. These are the rules she has to obey.”

“It’s why she can meddle in the Free Cities but only to back the faction fighting Helike,” I said. “Otherwise her southern borders catch fire. She has to fight against Evil or her alliances all collapse because no one can trust Procer.”

“Have you wondered why I never expressed fears of you attempting an independent Callow, Catherine?” Malicia smiled. “This is the reason. Assuming you achieved that result and even sought to remove the impetus for Imperial invasions by trading us grain, you would still have to face Procer. You are, after all, a villain. An acceptable recipient of dear Cordelia’s wrath from a diplomatic perspective, and from a political one a long-term threat. Procer cannot afford another hostile border, from a purely logistical standpoint.  It needs Callow to be Good and at war with Praes, to keep them both in check.”

That made it twice that she’d turned an offhand example into a pointed lesson as to where I had to stand. As I understood it this was unusually straightforward for her, but I wasn’t surprised. She would be tailoring her approach to who she was approaching, and I wasn’t unaware I reacted best to people being direct. The part she’d left unspoken was that if Callow with me at the head was at war with the Principate, it would be without the Legions backing me. That wasn’t ending well for my side, and since Praes wouldn’t be able to tolerate a Proceran protectorate just across the river that meant Callow would once more become the battlefield of the continent when the Tower made its move.

“Point taken,” I said. “Nature, huh. The Summer Court is the easiest to figure out. The Queen has three rules that bind her, I’ve been told: destroy Winter, protect Aine and ‘see the Sun victorious’.”

“All points of pressure you can feasibly reach,” Malicia said.

“I’ve got the sun stashed away, so I can bargain with that,” I said. “Threaten to destroy it, maybe? I get the impression to actually do that in Creation would be a very bad idea, but it wouldn’t be the first time I lied to a god. The other two are a little trickier.”

“As I understand it, my dear, Winter is not a static state,” the Empress said. “It is transient, fated to come and pass. You do not need to think of destruction as requiring force. If what Winter is no longer corresponds to what Summer believes it should be, that may very well qualify as ‘destruction’.”

“You mean force it to pass into Spring or Autumn,” I said, taking a look at the notion. “I’m fairly certain the seasons only shift when either Summer or Winter has lost the war. I’m not sure that’s feasible.”

Malicia smiled warmly.

“It would be a mistake, to believe yourself bound to the traditional fae outcomes,” she said. “This entire affair began by one of the Courts believing these were not impossible to avert.”

A way to make Winter no longer Winter. There might be something to that.

“That leaves Aine, the seat of Summer,” I said. “I can make gates so getting there isn’t impossible, just… really stupid. There’s no winning a fight there, and the fae can cross back into Arcadia much easier than they come into Creation. It won’t be undefended.”

I paused.

“I’ll need all three, if I’m to force the Queen’s hand about anything,” I said. “She’s not really a thing that gets compromise. Anything less than complete failure, anathema to what she is, and she’ll just keep on slugging.”

“If your strength is insufficient, borrow strength,” Malicia said. “She has enemies as well, does she not? If I understand your plan correctly, this assumption lay at the heart of your taking prisoner the Princess of High Noon. Should Summer fail to secure her return, should they lose too many soldiers, they will afterwards fall in the face of oncoming Winter. This is one of the limitations she must abide.”

I spared a moment to hope my intentions weren’t this fucking transparent to everyone out there. I would have spared another to be intimidated by the fact she’d understood my plan without being involved at any point in the making of it, but I’d grown dull to that breed of surprise by now.

“Winter winning fucks it all up too,” I said frankly. “I’m not sure if worse is the right term, but it will definitely be a similar yet different shade of godawful.”

“Let us speak of Winter, then,” the Empress lightly said. “You have treated with the King of Winter in person. Become bound to his Court, in part, and fought at the side of his greatest captains. What did you glimpse from this?”

“Take two vicious, spitting furious cats and shove them in a bag,” I said. “Then add that it has been there since time literally immemorial. The King’s the cat real desperate about getting out of that bag.”

“A colourful description,” Malicia said, arching an eyebrow. “Yet short on useful specifics.”

I almost laughed, until I remembered how fucking dangerous it would be to actually like this woman.

“He doesn’t have a plan, I think,” I said. “Or his plan was just to drag Callow into this mess and he doesn’t really need to control what comes after that. He wants out, Malicia. I don’t think how he gets out actually matters all that much. And that he thinks that way at all is scaring the other fae. I don’t think he’s supposed to.”

“That,” the Empress said quietly, “is worrying. Wekesa once told me that Arcadia is akin to a first draft of Creation, and mirrors it still. If Winter is meant to he be the reflection of villainy, and yet bound to it, there are… implications.”

I didn’t have to look all that far to find the villains who’d made the largest mark on Calernia in the last century, so her meaning was pretty clear.

“It’s not that clear cut,” I said. “The parallels aren’t so direct. But it’s crossed my mind, yeah.”

“A matter to consult more sorcerously-inclined minds over,” Malicia finally said. “Desperation is a useful tool, Catherine, especially if it can be given outlet. If your read of the creature is correct, it is the easiest of your obstacles to bargain with.”

I grimaced.

“He has my heart,” I said bluntly. “And I don’t mean that in a romantic sense. Ripped it out to make a point which, uh, complicates negotiations a bit.”

The Empress smiled, almost fondly.

“I sometimes forget how much Amadeus has left his touch on you,” she said. “Catherine, one cannot always deal from a position of strength. That is mere vanity. And doing so does not mean the negotiations will be at your expense.”

“Fae always screw you on deals,” I reminded her.

I’d always thought that Black’s quirk of lips was terrifying, the blade-smile that always heralded something dark happening to someone he thought deserved it. Looking at the Empress’ face then, the languid and almost lazy amusement, I found something to match it. This had been the closest to a glimpse of the person underneath the crown I’d gotten since I’d first met her, and what I saw there had my fingers itching for a blade.

“Darling, you forget what side you chose,” she drawled. “You stand with the Dread Empire of Praes, Catherine. We have murdered gods and made doorkeepers of demons. We have tricked angels into damnation and made orderly host of the hordes of Hell. Fae?”

She smiled amusedly.

“Fae will be a pleasant reprieve from the High Lords, my dear. Let me show you.”

Fuck, I thought. Now I like her.

Chapter 35: Questions

“To bargain with devils is to paint with your own blood: the greater the work, the harsher the price.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II

I shivered in discomfort when I crossed the boundary into the prison. It felt wrong in a fundamental way, and if I’d not already gotten enough hints that becoming the Duchess of Moonless Nights had changed my nature in some eldtritch way this would have done the trick. There were worrying aspects to that. I’d already made sure that cold iron didn’t really hurt me more than any other kind, but Masego was of the opinion that spells crafted to affect entities not of Creation would sting a great deal more than they used to. Given that diabolism as a sorcerous discipline dealt with exactly that, I was going to have to take a few precautions before dealing with Akua. Who was now Diabolist. If she could be sure she could grab a godsdamned Hashmallim before even coming into the Name, she could deal with my bastardized fae title: those two things weren’t even close to being in the same league. I shook away the thought. The place where I now stood wasn’t another dimension, not exactly. The way Hierophant told it, if he was to keep the Princess of High Noon contained he very much needed for her to be in Creation.

Her power was lesser here, a large part of it surrendered to cross a threshold she did not belong on this side of. If she was in a pocket dimension, however, then all bets were off. Even after being robbed of the sun, Princess Sulia was absurdly powerful and she might just rip her ay through the wards with her bare hands if she needed to. So the prison my mages maintained was on Creation, a complicated array that had me reaching for a drink just to look at the plans of. I’d forced Masego to use progressively smaller splurges of magic babble until he found the right metaphor: the whole thing was a drain, more or less. A bunch of escapements had been attached to her that bled out power as quick as she regained it, dispersing it into Creation. The results weren’t pretty: the grounds around the prison were alarming to look at, a circle of land that grew, got overripe and died in the span of a dozen heartbeats. And then again, and again, and again.

Ratface had poked his nose in and asked whether the phenomenon could be used to accelerate crops, and gotten the reply that it could. But the crops would be, essentially, plant-shaped dust. And possibly poisonous as well, because why wouldn’t the fae make this as horrifying as possible? I’d left the quartermaster plotting with Pickler about possible uses for it, catching something about ‘targeting farmland’ but also ‘spoiling rations’. Should have expected that, really. It was the Praesi way to look at things best left not meddled with and ask ‘can we make a weapon out of this?’. That’s how you lot got the Wasteland, Ratface. They were still a step short of cackling and attempting to steal another country’s weather on the villain ladder, but I’d remind Hakram to keep an eye on those two anyway. The last thing I needed was a bunch of Summer-birthed plant monsters running amok in Callow when we finally gave the Courts the boot.

The Princess of High Noon was still hovering in the air, runic shackles on both her wrists and ankles. She was awake now though. Her hair was fire, much like Kilian’s when she drew too deep on sorcery, but that was where the resemblance ended. My… Senior Mage looked human, though more delicate in her bones than the average Duni. There was nothing mortal about the looks of Princess Sulia, though: she was power made flesh, a blind sculptor’s dream of what people would look like.

“My warden visits,” the Princess of High Noon said.

“That’d be Hierophant,” I replied easily. “Though I suppose the responsibility ultimately lies with me.”

“Have you come merely to equivocate, Duchess?” the fae said. “If so, spare me your presence. Better silence than your ramblings.”

“I came to talk,” I said. “I happen to have a few questions for you.”

“And I will indulge you in this?” the princess mocked.

“Could be I’ll have you tortured if you don’t,” I noted.

The mocking smile did not wane in the slightest.

“I have been under the knives of Winter across many, many lives,” she said. “Anything mortals could muster would be childish imitation.”

“Speaking as someone who’s been on Masego’s operating table, you are very much mistaken,” I said. “And that was when he was helping. But you’re right. I won’t have you tortured. I don’t really condone the practice, as a rule.”

“Then the King of Winter has left traces of who you once were inside this misshapen carcass you wear,” Princess Sulia said. “Rejoice, Duchess. You are less an abomination than you could be.”

“Again with he abomination talk,” I said, rolling my eyes. “That’s no way to treat someone come to bargain with you, Sulia.”

She actually laughed at that. It didn’t sound like a person’s laugh, more like exhaustion and heat and the clash of steel against steel.

“You have already struck bargains, mortal,” she sneered. “Two that my eyes can see. I wonder what you promised Larat, to have him risk my wrath on the field.”

That was the Prince of Nightfall’s name, I was pretty sure. The Winter King had mentioned it once, but the whole getting my heart ripped out afterwards adventure had ensured it didn’t have a place of honour in my memory.

“I’ll trade that secret, for questions answered truly,” I said.

Her eyes turned to me, and if had not stolen a mantle of power I suspected it would have physically hurt me to meet her gaze. Even as it was, it pricked behind my eyes to match her stare for stare.

“I do not often bargain with your kind,” she said.

“I imagine the while incinerating them on sight thing limits your options in that regard,” I replied drily.

“There is little of worth to be found amongst mortals,” she shrugged, or tried to.

Her bindings didn’t allow a lot of room for movement. Normally she wouldn’t even be able to speak, but Hierophant had released that binding before I came in.

“Nine questions,” I said. “And I will give you the terms of my bargain with the Prince of Nightfall. You are to answer them to my satisfaction, or they will not count.”

“You seek to rob me, child,” she sneered.

“I already have,” I replied with my most unpleasant smile. “Yoink, remember?”

Her face boiled with anger and I cursed myself mentally. I really need to learn to shut my mouth when treating with monsters. If I’d managed to not fucking declare war on the King of Winter halfway through our conversation, in the middle of his very seat of power no less, I’d still have an actual heart instead of whatever he’d shoved into my chest.

“Enjoy that transient victory, Duchess,” she said. “Summer comes for you now, and there is no escape.”

I sighed.

“You know, I don’t actually want to fight you people,” I said, using ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the word. “You invaded my home without provocation and started butchering everyone that didn’t kneel to a queen from another realm. I’m not Ranger, Sulia. I don’t get into death matches with demigods for the bragging rights.”

“You think we want to stride this godforsaken wasteland?” she burst out. “Creation is madness. The disorder is like an itch none of us can scratch, and the people –“

She bit her tongue, glaring at me like I’d forced her to speak up.

“Nine questions,” I repeated. “For the terms the Prince of Nightfall gave me.”

I paused and hastily continued.

“With the previous stipulations added,” I finished.

I still had the pact the King of Winter had forced on me to barter with if that wasn’t enough, though I’d rather avoid handing a potential weakness like that hand wrapped to one of my most dangerous enemies. The Princess of High Noon was supposedly terrible at scheming, but the rest of Summer was bound to have some noble that was a fair hand at it. The fae grit her teeth, but after a long silence calmed herself.

“I accept this bargain, as the terms were stated,” she said.

Gods, finally. I’d been after answers since the moment the damned Winter Court had popped up in Marchford and so far had gotten only cryptic comments for my troubles. I’d thought about getting my hands on a Winter noble for interrogation more than once, but I wouldn’t be able to trust answers from someone too low in the pecking order – and a Count was probably as high as I could aim to grab, even now. The Princess of High Noon was second only to the queen, in the Summer Court, and probably the least tricky operator I could hope for at that hallowed height.

“Why did the Summer Court invade Callow?” I immediately asked.

Eight questions left.

“It was an obligation,” Sulia replied. “As Winter was waging war upon Creation, so must we. Her Majesty chose Callow as our enemy, and I know not her reasons.”

That explained, to an extent, why the Courts could be both be fighting me when Masego had said they shouldn’t be able to attack the same target. If Winter was fighting Praes and Summer was fighting Callow, the difference should be enough to appease whatever arcane rules they obeyed to. It also confirmed that the Summer Queen was up to something: she hadn’t been forced to pick Callow, and I doubted she’d made that decision without a reason. That meant there were two fae rulers trying to get something out of my homeland, and in both cases I had no real notion of what that was.

“When the queen lives as a princess, what is her title?” I asked.

Seven questions left. This one came at Hierophant’s request. He’d told me he would have a better idea of how to counter the queen if he knew what form her powers usually took.

“Princess of the Morning Star,” the fae replied through gritted teeth.

Hadn’t liked that one, huh. She clearly knew why I’d asked. I’d wonder about exactly what the implications of the answer were when I had mages with me to make sense of it.

“What forces remained to the Diabolist when you left the field at Liesse?” I asked.

Six questions left. This one she took better than the last. Akua had not made a friend there, looked like. She usually didn’t.

“One greater devil,” the Princess of High Noon said. “No more than six thousand mortals. Twice this in undead and lesser devils.”

Good. This wasn’t anything I couldn’t deal with, considering the armies I had at my disposal. I’d have to be a raging imbecile to think this was all Diabolist had at her disposal, but it should make up the bulk of her strength on the ground. I mine could beat hers, all that was left was the battle between trump cards. That one would be harder, given how long she’d had to prepare, but I had four other Named on my side. My bag of tricks went a lot deeper than hers, these days, and if that failed I had the right kind of people to smash my way into a victory.

“What is your plan to escape this prison?” I asked.

Five questions left, and she looked furious. Had she really thought I wasn’t going to ask that? I’d been dealing with the Ruling Council and the High Lords for over a year. Green I might be, but I wasn’t that green. She really was terrible at this. Or simply not used to bargaining from a position of weakness, I thought. What were the odds she’d been in a story that went like this before? I very much doubted she’d ever played a question game with Winter, if the talk of torture was any indication. There was a very real chance she was flailing because she’d never stood on grounds like these before. You and me both, Sulia. I was just better than the fae at keeping my head above the water.

“I am transmuting the flesh of my left arm into power not siphoned by your array,” the princess said. “It will allow me to break through the wards eventually.”

“Answer’s incomplete. When will you be done?” I pressed.

“In a month,” she grunted.

It figured. She would probably have broken out in the middle of our tangle with Summer and wrecked our armies from the inside. Hierophant was going to have to take care of this somehow. Now, for Juniper’s question.

“There are golden fae in your host,” I said. “What are their weaknesses?”

Four questions left. When they’d fought against the legionaries under Nauk, they’d ripped straight through the men until Masego and I had dropped a pair of surprises into their formation to take their pressure off. They seemed to be the equivalent to the Sword of Waning day that Winter fielded, though a great deal more dangerous. Unlike the deadwood soldiers they fought in a real formation.

“The Immortals are bound to the Queen of Summer,” she said. “Should she die they will perish as well.”

Hardly a weakness, that. There had to be more to it.

“And?” I prompted.

“They weaken away from Summer,” she grudgingly added. “They carry banners with shards of the sun, but should these be destroyed they will lose much of their power.”

And now my mages had a target. Progress. I’d covered everything I’d been asked to find out by others so far, which left me four questions to try to ferret out what I personally wanted to know that didn’t qualify as an ‘immediate concern’. By the standards of my officers, anyway. I was of the opinion that the answers that would win us this war weren’t numbers or weaknesses.

“What does the Summer Court mean to do with Callow, if they take it?” I asked.

Three questions.

“The taken territories are to be made part of Arcadia and Summer itself,” the princess said. “Along with all those who live in them.”

I closed my eyes, mind spinning. The Winter Court had tried to do something similar, I was pretty sure. During the attack that I’d gone into Arcadia to end, the fae had brought a shard of Arcadia into Creation. That had failed, but the Winter King had taken me as a vassal afterwards, binding Marchford to him through me. If Summer was after the same ends, then that lay at the heart of the plays on both their parts. If Summer grew larger, then the balance between it and Winter swung in their direction. It might even introduce fresh stories to the Court’s advantage, and would explain why the Summer fae had been forcing Callowans to swear fealty to the Queen of Summer in my reports. I was still missing something, though. If grabbing land had been the objective, why had Winter struck one of the most fortified targets in Callow? The Fifteenth had been at Marchford for months before they began their attacks. Sure it would have been easier to cross there, but Summer had proved it wasn’t impossible to do so in other places. If Winter had opened a gate into, say, Vale? They might have grabbed the entire central plains of Callow before the Legions could react. Sulia had already stated that Winter had been the ones to begin this dance, which brought forward even more questions. He hadn’t been the one reacting, meaning it had been a deliberate choice.

“Why did the King of Winter target Marchford, specifically?” I asked.

Two questions.

“I cannot know for certain,” the princess said.

“Your best guesses,” I grunted.

“The boundaries were thinner there, making an invasion possible,” the fae replied. “Or he needed a Named in his service to act in Creation without crossing himself.”

Shit, hadn’t given her an actual number of guesses. Just plural, so she got away with two. It wasn’t worth using another question to ask for what would be more speculation on her part. I might have misread the situation, I frowned. When Summer had crossed, they’d had the weight of symmetry on their side: Winter was at war on Creation, so they must be as well. That might have made it easier for them to leave Arcadia, and they’d certainty been better at it. They’d spread a lot quicker and in several places compared to Winter’s one failed beachhead. Since the Winter Court had been the ones to begin the pattern, and an unprecedented one at that, they might not have had another choice than to go for the lowest-hanging fruit that was Marchford.

Then again, if I put myself in the King’s boots, what better target than Callow was there? On Calernia, at least. There was no other territory so divided and recently weakened by war. If he’d pulled this shit in the Principate, he would have been in a great deal of trouble. The Free Cities, maybe, but there were far more players there and a larger amount of Named. All he’d have to deal with here was a Squire with her crew and the Diabolist down south. My people were untested, many recently come to their Names and Akua had ‘going to rebel real soon’ good as stamped onto her forehead. It occurred to me, at that moment, that I might be the cause of all this. That I might have ensured the Winter Court would invade my homeland and force Summer to do the same by allowing the Liesse Rebellion to happen in the first place. I’d put blood in the water and the monsters had tasted it, taken it as invitation to come out and play.

“Merciless Gods,” I whispered.

Thousands had died, in the rebellion, but how many more to the fae? All of southern Callow had been occupied. My own legion had come under assault. Hells, I’d created the perfect conditions for the Diabolist to try her crowning scheme and there was no avoiding the truth that putting that madness would be bloody work. I’d let a hero go, once, and spoken words to him. Years later and Callow was still paying the price of that decision one corpse at a time. I took hold of myself. I could not afford to show weakness in front of a Princess of Summer, even one my prisoner. I met her eyes and saw she had missed nothing. She did not delight in my horror, but neither did she shy away from it. I need to know, I thought. To get at the bottom of this, before it was too late. This was larger than fae plying their usual tricks. Both Courts were playing for larger stakes than I’d thought.

“If either Court keeps part of Callow,” I asked hoarsely. “What happens in Arcadia?”

One question left. The Princess of High Noon smiled, slowly and broadly.

“I do not know,” she laughed. “Nothing, my queen says, for it will pass. Everything, your king says, for that clay has never been shaped.”

I felt like I’d been handed the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the one that made the shape of the whole clear. The Winter King didn’t actually care all that much if I could force out Summer. He’d prefer it, because then any advantages that would come into being would be entirely on his side. But even if I failed, as long as I lived he still had Marchford and a Named he could influence. He would have an even deeper connection to my city than Summer would manage with their stolen territories, if he kept my heart. It dawned upon me that, as far as he was concerned, he had already won. It was just the degree of victory that remained to be determined. The Prince of Nightfall had compared the fae of Winter to foxes chewing through their own keg to escape a trap, back in Skade. Willing to destroy something part of them to escape a greater doom. And I’d seen, when I’d become the Duchess of Moonless Nights, the unending circle that was the lives and deaths of the Courts. The outcomes were always fixed from the start, but that was because in that circle there were only known quantities.

If I became part of that, if Callow did? In Arcadia, the Summer Queen had said the ‘story would correct itself’. She thought this attempt would fail and everything would return to the way it used to be when the wheel turned again. She was just playing out her role as assigned to her, Summer Ascendant destroying everything in its path. But the King of Winter thought he could escape the wheel, and was gambling with the lives of everyone in Callow for his roll of the dice. It didn’t matter so much that he beat Summer so long as an outcome without precedent lay at the end of the road. Even if he lost, he could be born to a different story when the wheel turned. If the wheel turned, which would no longer be a given. I’d been looking for a master plan in the Praesi tradition this whole time, but there’d never been one. It was just a desperate man throwing stones in a pond so the same old reflection would stop staring back at him. If a single thread of fae influence remained in Callow by the time this was over, it might be enough to drag then entire country into the mess. I had just become the greatest living liability to peace in my homeland.

I had to break them both, the royals on each side. Destroy everything that they were. The consequences otherwise were beyond what I could easily understand. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. The Summer Queen. She would be the lynchpin of this, as the only one of the two I could reach.

“Sulia,” I said. “What is the role at the heart of the Queen of Summer?”

My last question. My most important.

“Threefold are the duties of the Laurel Crown,” she said. “To destroy Winter. To protect Aine. To see the Sun victorious.”

Three, always three. And I would need them all in my palm, if I was to bend a god to my will.

“Now complete your end of the bargain, abomination,” she hissed. “You’ve had your fill of me.”

“I will take the crown of seven mortals rulers and one, to lay them at the feet of the Prince of Nightfall,” I said.

Her face went still. A glimmer of something like fear passed through those shining eyes, and shit that wasn’t good at all.

“You know not what you have promised,” she said. “This must not come to pass.”

“Then tell me why,” I said.

Silence, silence and hatred.

“I thought as much,” I murmured. “Sweet dreams, Princess of High Noon.”

I left. I didn’t look for my friends, though I felt the urge. Right now I felt too disgusted with myself, with them, with everything I had wrought since I first became the Squire. I loved them, and I should. I’d paid an ugly price for them. How many lives I claimed I wanted to save had I traded away to have them at my side? I sought someone else instead, someone who would not pick at the loathing. I needed advice, and I had the puppet of one of the greatest living rulers in Calernia within my reach. I found the woman waiting in my tent and sat down in front of the body Malicia was looking through from far, far away.

“You said you would teach me, once,” I told the Empress. “So teach me now. I need to outwit a god in the flesh, before a moon has passed.”

Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of All She Beheld, watched me for a long moment.

Then she smiled.

Chapter 34: Talks

“Tonight we must speak of Callow, that stubborn graveyard of empires. Princes and princesses of Procer, we must now admit this truth: we have lost an entire kingdom to peasants and bandits.”
– Beginning of First Princess Éloïse of Aequitan’s speech to the Highest Assembly, on the subject of withdrawal from occupied Callow

“HAIL!”

Three thousand swords rose in salute, bare steel shining under the sun. I’d read about this, in what few records of the knightly orders still remained. A steel avenue, they called it. An old tradition born under Elizabeth Alban when the Queen of Blades had annexed almost a fourth of what was now Procer in a series of lightning-quick campaigns. It had only ever been used to honour ruling kings and queens of Callow, and now I was being greeted with one. The bluntness of that defiance was almost refreshing, since they had no idea I’d just been granted vicequeenship of the Callow. I’d talked a good game to the Empress, but I wasn’t unaware that by founding the Order of Broken Bells I’d saddled a hungry tiger. Now I had to ride it, or be dragged down and devoured. I wondered if rulers ever truly managed to be in control, sometimes. Malicia and Black certainly gave off the impression they were, but how much of that was a front? The more authority I gained the less I felt like I held the reins.

Brandon Talbot looked better than he had last time I’d seen him, a filthy prisoner in the underground gaols of Marchford. His dark beard was cropped closely, his hair combed with care and he now stood with his back straight. Proudly. I had no trouble believing a woman like the Countess Marchford had thought he would make a worthy successor to her title. His plate was of Callowan make, of lesser steel than what the Imperial forges could make but covered in hymns of the House of Light. Old, it was easy to tell, but recently polished and very well-maintained. There was no telling it had been used in battle a mere few days ago, much less against the likes of the Summer Court. I strode down the steel avenue and he fell in at my side.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” I said.

The man inclined his head.

“I will only remain as Grandmaster of the order for a few years, Your Grace,” he replied. “Until a younger candidate can be raised to take the title.”

He’d been elected by acclaim, as I understood it, in large part because he’d been the one mad enough to walk into Marchford unarmed back when Juniper was running it. That kind of risk-taking always earned some respect from soldiers, in my experience, especially with the kind of stakes he’d been playing for. Another hail sounded when we passed the end of the twin rows, headed for open pavilion that was the command tent for the Order of Broken Bells. A pair of tall banners trailed the wind to the sides, showing a pair of cracked bronze bells set on black.

“We would have flown your banner as well, Your Grace, but your quartermaster informed us you have none,” he said.

I kinda wished I’d been there for that conversation, Ratface of all people trying to explain to a highborn that I might have a demesne but I’d not actually bothered to get any of the symbols a proper noble considered their due.

“Never got around to it,” I said, entering the pavilion.

Robber had put a goat skull on a pike and tried to pass it for my heraldry, but Hakram had him assigned to latrine duty for a week in reprisal. Ah, Adjutant. He’d taken to my petty kind of justice like a wolf to a limping lamb.

“House Talbot has been dissolved, but it would be an honour for you to claim our sigil,” the man suggested.

An arched silver bridge set on blue, if I remembered correctly. There was worst heraldry to be had – the rulers of Hedges had sheep as theirs, which boggled my mind – but it wasn’t mine.

“That won’t be necessary,” I said politely.

No wine at the table in here. Right. Callowans didn’t usually start drinking until the evening, and and it wasn’t even noon yet. Even if the knights had been dispersed in the countryside for over two decades, I couldn’t help but notice their chairs were nicer than mine. Except the one I’d looted from Summer, anyway. That one was sinfully comfortable and I actually slept better in it than my own cot. I took the seat at the head at the table and Grandmaster Talbot seated himself at my right. I slapped down a sheath of leather on the table and took out the parchments within, Aisha’s beautiful Lower Miezan cursive filling it.

“You’ve officially been granted the rank of commander in the Fifteenth Legion, Grandmaster Talbot,” I said. “You’ve got more three times the men under you a commander usually does but you don’t qualify for legate rank, much less general.”

“Because I am Callowan,” he smiled thinly.

“Because you never went through the War College,” I corrected. “You don’t know shit about Legion tactics. You’ll still counted as a member of the general staff, though, so you’ll be in the high-level briefings as the commander of our cavalry contingent.”

Aisha had bitterly complained about the bureaucratic nightmare that was getting a mere commander that kind of clearance, but she’d gotten it done anyway. I could have just waved around my seal and gotten it done on my personal authority as the Squire, but I didn’t want to go that far unless I was forced to. Juniper already gave me enough lectures about how far we’d strayed from traditional Legion structure, and it would look better to the rest of the generals out there if I at least pretended I cared about the proper way things were done. The noble read through the papers, then glanced up.

“This states I have been given leave to organize the Order’s command hierarchy as I wish,” he said.

“The Empire doesn’t have a precedent for a cavalry contingent this large,” I said. “Even the Thirteenth Legion only has a thousand riders.”

He nodded slowly.

“Knightly orders were limited to a thousand full-fledged knights, under House Fairfax,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “One of the reasons there was such a wide variety.”

I was a little amused he was tiptoeing around the reason for that. Under the Alban dynasty the orders had been much larger, but there’d been a bunch of small-scale conflicts between them and nobles, both sides arguing the other was overreaching their authority. Triumphant had razed the whole squabble to the ground, but when it had begun to pop up under Eleanor Fairfax’s grandson he’d stripped the orders of their fortress holdings and severely limited their size. A dozen of small orders was a lot less dangerous to the nobility than three or four large ones, and easier to fold under the command of the crown when invaders came knocking. Traditionally it was the crown prince or princess who’d held command, a tradition that ended when Juniper’s mother had shattered the charges of the Shining Prince at the Fields of Streges right before a goblin slit his throat.

“Banners of a thousand,” Brandon finally said. “Under my ultimate command. We still have many squires in our ranks, and a single battle was not enough to season them.”

“Get it written properly,” I ordered. “And get the parchments to Staff Tribune Bishara before nightfall. She’ll be expecting them.”

“A very talented woman,” Talbot said approvingly.

There was a look in the man’s eyes I wasn’t unfamiliar with. Well, Aisha was exceedingly pretty. I doubted she’d be interested in a Callowan twice her age, but him looking wouldn’t hurt anyone as long as he kept it mannerly.

“A detachment of five hundred could be arranged to serve as your personal guard,” he said, putting away the parchments.

“I already have a retinue,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Red shields, golden noose on them? They’re hard to miss.”

“The ‘Gallowborne’, yes,” he said. “Criminals and Praesi.”

“I’ve trained a lot of them myself,” I said calmly. “On foot, I’d put any of them against three of yours. I doubt there’s any company on Calernia that’s been through rougher fights.”

“They’re sharp men, I’m sure,” the Grandmaster said. “But a match for five hundred knights of Callow?”

I drummed my fingers against the table.

“The Gallowborne,” I said, forcing the calm to stay even as the temperature in the pavilion descended sharply, “are my retinue. They’ve been mine since I snatched them from the gallows, Talbot. They’ve bled for me. They’ve died for me. And they will remain at my side until they can no longer serve.”

I was uncomfortable with how possessive that had sounded, and the bearded man did not speak of the matter any further.  Eager for a change of subject, I cleared my throat.

“You told Adjutant you needed to speak with me,” I said.

There was a reason it wasn’t Hakram handing him the paperwork, and it wasn’t because I’d been looking for a sword salute. Though I wasn’t complaining I’d gotten one, either.

“There are matters it has been brought to my attention you left unfinished, Your Grace,” he said. “I understand we are at war, but they still need to be dealt with in haste.”

I leaned against the back of my chair.

“I’m listening,” I allowed.

“House Foundling,” he said, and grimaced. “Forgive me, but that it an orphan’s name. It is not fit for the ruling dynasty of Callow.”

“What a funny coincidence,” I drawled. “I am an orphan.”

“You share that name with thousands of others,” he said. “Your Grace, you must consider the difficulties this will cause. Taking a reigning name is in order.”

I drummed my fingers against the table, again. A sliver of my opinion of this whole bullshit must have shown on my face, because the knight had to repress a flinch.

“As of last night, I am the Vicequeen of Callow by official sanction of Her Dread Majesty Malicia, First of Her Name,” I said. “Not queen, though. My successor to the title will be chosen by the Tower, when I see fit to surrender that position. There’s no need for a fancy dynastic name.”

“Your Grace-“ he began.

“The title will remain in Callowan hands,” I interrupted flatly. “Compromise was reached. Leave it at that. To be frank, Talbot, you’re not really qualified to weigh in about the shit that goes on that high up. I’ve survived dealing with the High Lords by stabbing them repeatedly and publicly until they got cautious. They would swallow you whole and spit out your bones.”

He seemed a little offended by the brusqueness of that, but he’d have to make his peace with it. What I’d said was very much true. If I put this poor bastard in a room with Akua Sahelian she’d have him on permanent puppet strings before a quarter hour had passed.

“Your line will still rule Marchford in perpetuity,” he said. “The name matters, Your Grace.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“I became Named as Catherine Foundling,” I said flatly. “I will die with that name as well.”

“There must be records of your birth parents,” he tried desperately. “A Deoraithe name will not be as well received, but it is still something.”

“As far as I’m concerned, the closest thing I’ll ever have to a father is down south killing fools,” I replied coldly. “And he doesn’t have a last name. Born a farmer, you see. As for the people who birthed me, they are strangers. I owe them nothing and will take nothing from them.”

The man bit his tongue, but it was clear he wanted to argue.

“I am not a noble, Talbot,” I said. “I don’t really like them, as a rule. No offence meant to you in particular. I’ve bled for every inch of power I have, and the notion of anybody just… inheriting theirs has grown repulsive to me. There will be no restoration of highborn power in Callow.”

“You will still reign, Your Grace,” he said. “You must realize that certain measures have to be taken to cement your legitimacy.”

I peered at him closely, and read the deeper hesitation there.

“Oh Gods,” I said. “You want me to get married.”

“The baron of Hedges has a son your age,” he pressed on. “All the branches of House Fairfax were exterminated after the Conquest, but there are remains of other ancient lines. Duchess Kegan is the foremost remaining Callowan noble, and a direct marriage alliance with the House of Iarsmai through a cousin would yield great benefits.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said, mildly horrified.

“I am given to understand you might prefer the company of women,” he said delicately. “There are certain miracles known to the House of Light that could make such an arrangement feasible.”

“I go both ways,” I replied faintly. “But that’s not the issue here. I have a – I’m not looking for anyone, Talbot.”

“I have heard that you keep company with a Duni, yes,” he hinted. “You would not be the first ruler of Callow to keep a paramour, if you’ll forgive my crassness.”

Merciless Gods. I was eighteen, so I supposed in the eyes of the remaining nobles I was fair game in the marriage alliance market. Callowans got married a lot later than Praesi, since unlike the Wastelanders we didn’t actually breed bloodlines, but nobles did tend to be ahead of the curve in that regard.

“That’s not happening,” I said flatly. “And this conversation is over.”

I wasn’t getting saddled with a lordling or a child anytime soon, no matter what people might want. I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to ever have kids, and even if I did make that decision down the line it wouldn’t be to pat some fucking aristocrats on the back. There were a lot of things I was willing to bargain with, but who shared my bed wasn’t one of them. Brandon Talbot’s lips thinned, but he did not argue.

“I’ll get heraldry done,” I sighed, throwing him a bone as I rose to my feet. “Get the paperwork to Aisha, Grandmaster. We’ll speak again at the staff meeting.”

I could not get out of that pavilion quickly enough.

I’d chosen to hold this meeting under the stars, since I felt most comfortable at night these days. The bonfire crackled, flames high and occasionally licking at the roots of the tall oak that oversaw our little quiet corner of Creation. Masego had slapped down some complicated-looking wards the moment he’d arrived, not even bothering to vocalize an incantation. His new Name came with some perks apparently. I took a moment to let this all settle in. It was the first time all five of us were in the same place, in Creation at least.

Archer was seated on a wide branch above us, because she never wasted an occasion to literally look down on everyone else, and with a knife in hand she was carving what looked like like a sphere out of dark wood. Her ochre skin looked ever darker at night, and though she’d left her longcoat and silver mail behind in favour of a woollen brown tunic and trousers, she’d kept the dark green scarf that she usually covered her lower face with around her neck. I had a much better look at the curves on her, without the armour on, and she winked when she saw me looking. I turned away. Because it was in Archer’s nature to be a bloody pest at all times, she made a point out of dropping the wood shavings on Masego’s head until he got tired of asking her to stop and put up a translucent pane of sorcery over his head.

Hierophant himself looked… strange. Familiar yet different. He wore a black cloth blindfold over his glass eyes, but sometimes bits of red and yellow light could be glimpsed through it. His hair was still long and braided but the shining trinkets he’d once worn in them had been replaced by dull bars of iron carved with runes. His  usually colourful robes had been traded a black tunic that made him look like a chubby crow when he was sitting, but actually lent him something of a presence when he was on his feet. The Legion-issue boots were an amusing last touch to the ensemble, worn down as they were. His fingers kept twitching, as if to reach out for something no one else could see.

Hakram sat at his side, his heavy plate made something else entirely by the ravages of the battles we’d been through. The goblin steel had been darkened by Summer flame, twisted by heat not of Creation, and though it still fit with padding under the metal the appearance reminded me of the steps leading to the Tower. The obsidian that had been warped by sorcery, shaped into silhouettes of weeping men and women one must tread on to rise. Adjutant had gone through the crucible of fire and become stronger for it. His Name pulsed steady to my senses, firm yet oddly serene. His hand of bones was eerily still, reeking of dark sorcery anchored into his very Name. His eyes were dark and still as ponds, the fangs glinting in firelight still bloody from his supper.

Thief sat across the fire from me. I’d never been in her presence long enough to notice before, but she didn’t hold herself like a commoner. I’d had etiquette lessons at the orphanage and I recognized the same marks on her, in the way she kept her wrists straight and her back as if leaning against a high chair. Her leathers were loose, but I could tell we shared a body shape. She was taller than me, since it was basically divine mandate that everyone but goblins be, but not by as much as the other. Dark hair and blue-grey eyes that were always moving, always looking for movement. Pale fingers were toying with a carving knife that was clearly sapper issue: she has wandering hands, this one, and a habit of picking up knickknacks. Must have been part of her Name, because it seemed too compulsive for a mere habit.

Five Named were sitting around the fire. That was, I knew, no small thing. Even more now that Ranger had tossed us a name, turning the curse of the Queen of Summer into something more. The Woe, she’d called us. It had felt like a pivot then and still did now, the beginning of something larger. What it would be, I was almost scared to find out. Hakram tossed up a wineskin at Archer, which was enough to distract her from pissing off Masego for a bit. I took that as my cue to begin.

“So, on our first outing together we robbed Summer of what appears to be its literal sun, before capturing a princess of the blood,” I said. “I’m not one for omens, but it strikes me as a good note to begin on.”

“Lies and violence,” Archer cheered, dropping the wineskin on Masego’s shield.

The Soninke mage snatched it, taking a gulp and coughing when it went down the wrong pipe. Apparently a fresh Name didn’t mean he could handle drink any better. Good to know. I felt Thief glance at me, raising any eyebrow at what Archer had said.

“Archer is a horrid wench, and whatever she says about mottos is not to be trusted,” I stated.

“Well, it’s still better than sullen,” the Named in question mused.

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“I expected something more… professional,” the Thief finally said.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Did the Lone Swordsman run that kind of crew?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“No,” the heroine conceded, “but your band was a step ahead of us the whole time. I always thought it would be rather business-like, on your side.”

“You thought we were a step ahead?” Masego croaked, wiping his mouth.

Hakram snorted.

“We strolled from one disaster to another, trying to keep the fires from spreading,” the orc said, sounding amused. “Mostly fires not of our making, I’ll add.”

“Haven’t been in this outfit for long,” Archer said, “but it hasn’t struck me as overburdened with plans.”

“That’s going a little far,” I intervened, mildly offended.

“We got into Skade by writing on a scrap of parchment that we could, Catherine,” she pointed out. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board with our whole ‘that’s stupid enough they’ll never see it coming’ way of going at it. But masterful schemers we are not.”

“You had us dead to rights at Summerholm,” Thief frowned.

“We only understood what was happening after the city was on fire,” Masego said.

“And we got blamed for that, after,” Hakram added.

“Everything in Liesse unfolded according to your plan,” Thief tried.

“Arguably. Though she did get killed,” Adjutant said.

Archer’s eyes swerved to me.

“Wait, you died? Have you been undead this while time?” she asked. “You don’t look it.”

“Resurrected,” I replied.

She looked even more dubious.

“You’re a villain, Cat,” she said. “That’s not exactly in your wheelhouse.”

“Yeah, the Hashmallim weren’t real pleased about it either,” I grunted. “They threw a fucking fit.”

“Is that how that happened?” Thief frowned. “I did wonder. You talked a Choir into breathing second life into you?”

“Talked is a strong word,” I mused.

“We;ve settled on ‘bullied’,” Hierophant contributed helpfully.

“You bullied,” the Thief said slowly, “the entire Choir of Contrition. Into resurrecting a villain actively trying to oppose them.”

“Not even the Lady of the Lake fucks around with angels,” Archer said approvingly. “That’s actually impressive.”

“Don’t bring Ranger into this,” I grunted. “She came a heartbeat away from slicing my throat open the only time we met.”

“Oh, she’s always like that,” the other woman dismissed. “Don’t take it personally. She once threw Tinkles out a window for hitting on a trader girl instead of practicing his stances.”

“I’m glad he was sloppy, then,” I admitted. “Hunter was hard enough to put down as he was.”

Thief blinked, then looked up at the woman on the branch.

“I forgot,” she said. “You are an apprentice of the Ranger as well. You must have known him well.”

“He was only around for a few years before joining up with your little rebellion,” Archer shrugged. “Of the Lady’s five pupils he was always the odd one out. Not surprised he ran off, though it was still monumentally stupid.”

“He was,” Thief began, looking for a diplomatic word, “different.”

“Half-naked,” I said. “Half-naked is the term you’re looking for.”

“I never minded the sights, Catherine,” Archer grinned. “The man had a body worth a stare. The bells, though, and the tattoos? Gods, it was like he was trying to ruin his looks.”

“The tattoos weren’t a Refuge tradition?” Thief asked, looking surprised.

“Is that what he said?” Archer snorted. “No, they aren’t.”

Masego cleared his throat politely.

“This conversation is both baffling and horribly tedious to me,” he informed us. “I believe you were addressing us, Catherine?”

“Right,” I said, and immediately delegated. “Hakram.”

The tall orc straightened, putting aside the wineskin he’d been hogging this whole time. Thief had thawed a bit when we talked, but her guard went right back up when she turned to him. There was story there, I thought. Adjutant must have had one of his little talks with her at some point. I trusted him, so I wouldn’t meddle, but I’d have some questions to ask my second.

“We currently have two threats that must be dealt with,” Hakram gravelled. “The first is Summer Court and its queen. The second is Akua Sahelian, lately the Diabolist.”

“The villain that let the devils loose on Liesse,” Thief said, eyes gone cold.

“That’s the one,” I said. “And believe me, devils are some of the milder stuff she’s thrown at us in the past. You’ve gone to the city yourself, I hear. You saw what she’s up to.”

“Some sort of ritual,” the skinny Callowan said. “It involves Deoraithe that are part of the Watch, and that’s about all I know.”

I glanced at Masego, who somehow picked up on it. That was going to keep being creepy for a while.

“While I’ve not conducted such experiments myself, I’ve read the notes my father has on the Watch,” the mage said. “They are connected to a deity of unknown nature, and gain their supernatural abilities by binding themselves to it through rituals they call Oaths.”

“Our best guess at the moment is that the Diabolist is trying to get at the deity through them,” I said.

“Considering the massive size of the array she created in the city,” Masego said, “she will need at least a lesser god to empower it. The scale of the effect might be comparable to that of the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead.”

“Liesse is also currently flying,” Hakram said. “Which will make it difficult to assault. That aside, the city’s current location is a mystery.”

I met Thief’s eyes.

“I’ll have my people look into it,” she said.

I nodded.

“Much as I hate giving Akua a reprieve, she’s not the most pressing threat at the moment,” I said. “Summer’s out for blood, and its Queen will be crossing into Creation about a month from now. What we can do about her is not inspiring. Masego?”

The dark-skinned mage smiled thinly.

“Given at least three days of preparation, I can buy us a quarter bell before she breaks through my wards and massacres every single one of us,” he said.

“That’s reassuring,” Thief said cuttingly.

“Not great, I’ll admit, but we still have two cards in hand,” I said. “First we have the Princess of High Noon, which she really needs if she doesn’t want to get knifed by Winter after we’re all dead. And we have the sun, courtesy of your kleptomania.”

Thief looked faintly amused, but did not reply.

“So,” I smiled. “We’ve got the whole night, and wine I really doubt was legally acquired. Let’s see if we can think of something to avoid dying horrible, horrible deaths. The floor’s open, my friends.”

Chapter 33: Promises

“No matter how good the horse, it can only bear one saddle.”
-Callowan proverb

Our march through Summer had taken a month, from the perspective of Creation. Longer than I would have liked, but still miraculous compared to how long it would have taken me to come down from Denier the old fashioned way. Juniper agreed.

“Hugging,” she sneered. “You’ve gotten soft, Foundling.”

It was awkward embracing an orc with a solid two feet on me and broad as a barn, but I put the effort in. For all that the Hellhound mocked me, her grip was tight as well. We’d not gone this long without seeing each other since the Fifteenth was founded.

“You haven’t,” I said. “Gods, what do you eat? It’s like they carved you out of slab of muscle.”

She tried not to look pleased at that, but I’d been dealing with wilier operators of late. My general was a refreshingly open book. Ratface had apparently gone mad with power since I’d suborned the Smugglers’ Guild to him, but since he’d abused his power to find me a fresh crate of Vale summer wine I was going to let that one go. Pouring myself a full cup of the pale wine, I allowed myself a little sigh of pleasure after sipping the alcohol. The stuff I’d dragged with me through Arcadia just wasn’t the same, mostly cheap red vintages from the south. The two of us claimed the folding chairs in her own tent, not having bothered to gather people in the larger command pavilion. We’d have a proper briefing with the others at some point, but I wanted to talk with her before Marshal Ranker and the Deoraithe were dragged into the conversation.

“You’ll have news for me,” I said.

She grunted in assent, sniffing at her goblet full of aragh before downing it. A sure sign this was to be informal: Juniper never touched anything stronger than watered wine in the usual officer meetings.

“Holden is back into the Imperial fold,” she announced. “General Istrid and her legions annihilated the fae garrison and are now fortifying the grounds.”

It was one of Juniper’s little quirks that she only ever referred to her mother by her rank even in private. As for what she’d told me, I was pleased. I needed to herd the Summer Court through known grounds and allowing them two footholds into Callow would have muddied the waters. Now they’d have to come through Dormer, which made it a great deal easier to plan for them. It was shame three legions and some of the finest battle commanders in the field had to be left where I couldn’t use them, but anything less and I was fairly sure the Summer Court would try to force passage. After our last scrap they’d be wary of picking a fight with the Legions of Terror on a chosen field, though. They might win but their losses would leave them too weak to be able to handle the army I’d assembled. Some days it gave me pause, that I’d become someone who could use twelve thousand veterans of the Conquest as a mere deterrent. I’d come a long way from pit fights and waiting tables.

“Losses?” I asked.

“Light,” the orc noted. “It was only the bare bones of a garrison. You kicked the hornet’s nest when you invaded Summer.”

“Oh, I pissed them off way beyond that,” I grunted. “I’ve got a Princess of Summer in chains, Juniper. They’ll be out for blood.”

“Keeping that prisoner secure is a logistical nightmare, I’ll have you know,” the Hellhound growled. “Kilian and half our mages had to be set aside permanently so we’d never lack practitioners for the rotations.”

“It’ll be worth it,” I said. “Largest bargaining chip I could get my hands on short of taking the seat of the Summer Court itself.”

“You assume the fae can be bargained with,” the Hellhound said.

“They always cut deals, it’s in their nature,” I said. “And if for once I can avoid having to pay the price by scraping myself raw, I’ll have no complaints.”

“Devils and fairies always get more than they give,” the orc warned.

“Then it’s a good thing I stole a lot of their shit,” I replied bluntly. “I don’t mind overpaying as long as I get what I want. I’m not going to get stuck in games with them, Juniper. I’ll get exactly what I need not try for an inch more. Only way I can get away without getting fucked too hard.”

“We’ll get nothing if we’re not winning,” she said. “Don’t lose sight of that.”

That was the Praesi way, wasn’t it? No, maybe not Praesi. The way of the Legions, Black’s way. Compromise could be reached, but only from a position of strength. On their own terms. Our way, I must confess. Kilian hadn’t been wrong when she’d said I had no taste to compromise when I could get things how I wanted them instead.

“Masego’s getting ready for the Queen,” I noted. “Or as much as he can, with an entity like her.”

“The Hierophant now, I hear,” Juniper said. “Fancy Name. Never heard of it before.”

There was hint of doubt there. Older Names, those better known, tended to be more powerful than relative outliers like my friend’s. They’d accumulated more weight over the centuries, greater legends to draw from.

“He’ll pull through,” I said. “Always does. But I’ll admit, for this kind of work I almost wish Diabolist was on our side. There’s a lot of bad to be said about the old school, but they have a peerless record when it comes to things like this.”

“She might pull it off,” the Hellhound said. “But whatever she gained from that victory she’d use to screw us the moment the battle was over.”

“I know,” I sighed. “The competence doesn’t come without the rabid crazy. And speaking of dear old Akua, where the Hells is she?”

“We have no idea,” Juniper grunted. “Scrying doesn’t work, and the last time we had eyes on her was when she took Liesse above the clouds. She could be anywhere by now.”

I frowned.

“She can’t stay up there forever,” I said. “She’s got over a hundred thousand mouths to feed, and if she starts dragging civilians to altars she’ll have riots on her hands.”

I wasn’t sure what a riot would look like a dozen leagues above solid ground, but I’d guess it wouldn’t be pretty. Akua’s mind was like a sack of angry, treacherous badgers but she wasn’t stupid. She had pretty thick blinders on, sure, but I’d never seen one of her schemes collapse on its own. She wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if they did.

“Ratface says she can manage two months at most,” the Hellhound said. “A guess based on what she reported to your Ruling Council when she was Governess, with the assumption she was lying through her teeth on the numbers.”

I’d trust the Taghreb’s judgement in this. He was a middling tactician at best but when it came to supplies and logistics, there was no better man in the Fifteenth. I’d been lucky to get my hands on him back at the College, and even Juniper occasionally offered praise of his abilities. Never where he could hear, and always tempered with generous criticism about his more underhanded dealings, but that my general said anything at all was telling.

“So now we have to guess at the where she’ll be coming down,” I said.

“We don’t know enough about what she’s after to be remotely accurate,” the Hellhound grunted. “Will she be after supplies? If so, Vale will likely be the target. Is she aiming to cripple the Legions in Callow, to carve a realm from the ruins of the south? If so, she must turn her eyes to Holden.”

“Or she could be after sorcery,” I said.

“Legion mages don’t have the learning to even try to unpack that,” Juniper said. “You’ll need the Hierophant to write a report about possible targets.”

Then I’d need Hakram to go through it and cut out all the unnecessary parts Masego would have added, I noted silently. Odds were Hierophant would write me a damned volume with an annex twice as thick. The Soninke was ridiculously wordy, when given ink and parchment. I drank deep from my cup, mood soured.

“So we have a month before the Queen of Summer can enter Creation, if Masego is to be believed,” I said. “Then another month before Akua drops down from the sky to fuck everything up, as is her sacred and solemn duty.”

“Busy year,” Juniper snorted.

“At least Procer hasn’t invaded,” I said, trying for a bright side. “And no one’s unleashed a demon in a year.”

“High Lady Tasia did, in Wolof,” the orc reminded me.

“I can’t believe I have to lower my standards lower than they already are,” I complained. “Well, nobody’s opened a permanent portal into the Hells. There. I refused to go any lower.”

“Give it time,” Juniper grinned, ivory fangs flaring.

She’d meant it as a jest, but there was too much truth to it for me to laugh.

It would be two days before the armies marched south, beginning the trek to Dormer. We were still waiting on supplies and we had a horde of wounded to deal with. I could have begun to put a dent into the pile of urgent scrolls that no doubt awaited me, but for tonight I decided I’d done enough. My body could go on, but I was exhausted in a deeper way. There were only so many twists and turns I could take before it was too much. I slogged my way back to my tent, painfully aware that no one would be awaiting me inside. I’d passed by Ratface’s quarters beforehand and ignored his many requests for me to look at the books in favour of bullying him to hand me another bottle. Juniper and I had polished off the last one after she’d finished her aragh, talking for a few hours until it got dark. It still amazed me that the two of us had gone from being at each other’s throats to people who could actually enjoy the other’s company, no matter how much she insisted otherwise. It was rare thing for me to seek two bottles in a day, but I had a feeling I’d need another drink if I was going to sleep at all tonight. I could still smell the incinerated corpses of the soldiers I’d failed in Arcadia, the hundreds that had died at the whim of two vicious creatures beyond my understanding.

There were Gallowborne around my tent and I spent a few moments chatting with them before going inside. They’d gotten off light from the last battle in Arcadia, and Tribune Farrier was already recruiting to fill the ranks left empty by the dead. I hoped the volunteers would understand what they were in for. I’d gotten half my retinue killed because I’d been sloppy and arrogant, and while I didn’t intend to ever make that mistake again there were harder fights ahead. I wished Black was there so he could tell me about his own guard. He’d had his for decades, he must have known ways to keep them safe without making them irrelevant. Or maybe he didn’t. My teacher might not share my qualms about people being killed in his name, not even people he knew. I’d gotten harsher in the last few years but I was still a long way from being iron as cold as the Black Knight. There was no candle lit in my tent, but to a Named that made no difference. That was why I saw the silhouette sitting on the edge of my cot, and though for a hopeful moment I thought it was Kilian the notion disappeared when the details sunk in.

It was a woman. Soninke, dark eyes, and while shy of pretty not exactly ugly. I’d seen her before, known her under the name of Lady Naibu. Lady Deputy, in Mtethwa. My hand left the grip of my sword and I inclined my head respectfully.

“Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” I said.

This was Empress Malicia’s own puppet, the soulless flesh simulacrum she could use to be two places at once.

“I’ve already told you there is no need for such formality,” the Empress dismissed, using someone else’s hands.

I glanced at the flaps of the tent but the Gallowborne had yet to move.

“You may consider this a private audience, Catherine,” Malicia smiled.

Fuck. My tent was in the middle of an army over thirty thousand strong. The boundaries of the Fifteenth’s fortified camp were set with wards Masego had designed personally. I had thousands of sharp-eyed goblins running around. And yet there she was, on my own godsdamned bed. This could have been an assassin and no one would ever have known. I wasn’t ashamed to say that it was almost enough to scare me, this reminder about how far the Empress’ reach went. I set the bottle on the table and ripped out the cork.

“A glass as well, if you please,” the Empress said. “It has been ages since I’ve tried anything from Vale.”

And she knew my favourite wine. I wasn’t even surprised, to be honest. Black had already told me he’d had a file about me before I ever became the Squire, and it was pretty much a given the Empress would have one twice as thick somewhere in the Tower. I poured her a goblet as well and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said. “I hear you’ve finally met Ranger.”

I blinked.

“This is turning out a lot more civil of a conversation than I expected,” I frankly said.

The meat-puppet chuckled. It would not do forget that was what I was looking at, to be taken in by the charm and the pleasantries. I was dealing with a woman who’d hollowed out a body of its immortal soul for the sake of convenient conversation.

“Did you expect me to come storming in, demanding justifications?” she said. “The Empire is a balancing act, Catherine. I do not introduce weight without careful consideration.”

There was silence after that, until I realized she was still expecting to answer her first sentence. Gods, I was exhausted. And near enough to tipsy.

“She came real close to killing me,” I said. “Just for suggesting I could help her in a fight, if I’m not mistaken. She’s not much like the stories.”

“I am not particularly fond of her myself,” the Empress said. “And not only because she attempted to talk Amadeus into running me through and seizing the throne after the Conquest.”

I grimaced. I’d gotten hints from Scribe there’d been undercurrents of that in the past, but never heard it so bluntly stated before. Or been sure the Empress knew of it.

“She’s a monster,” I said. “Bad as the Diabolist, in her own way. I don’t get why Black likes her so much.”

“Love,” the Empress said. “It is love, my dear. She’s an extraordinary creature, I’ll grant that. Her little philosophy is what drew him in, and eventually what parted them.”

I raised an eyebrow. That the puppet managed to see that in the still-dark tent was another detail I filed away for the future.

“Be all you can be,” Malicia murmured. “Do anything you want. If someone stands in your way, end them. If you cannot, respect that rule until you can end them.”

“That’s just anarchy,” I said. “I won’t lie and say I don’t break laws when it’s useful, but I still recognize there’s a need for them.”

“It is easy to believe your whims are the only law of Creation, when you grow powerful enough,” the Empress replied. “She will kill herself sooner or later, crossing something she could not afford to cross.”

“She got into a death match with the Summer Queen,” I said. “I doubt that’ll do the trick but she won’t walk it off easy.”

I was getting tired of standing up with a goblet in hand, so I downed the wine and grabbed a chair. I set it to face the Empress, sagging against the wooden frame.

“Hye always did overestimate herself,” Malicia shrugged. “A matter of little import, in the end. She’s remained in her little hovel in the woods for decades and shows no sign of greater ambitions.”

I could have told her otherwise. That Archer believed her teacher was the best thing to come along since the Gods had whelped Creation, that I’d lost three hundred soldiers because Ranger couldn’t be fucked to do anything about them. But those words I kept for people I trusted. I respected the Empress, what she’d accomplished and the people she’d crushed to get where she was, but I didn’t trust her in the slightest. So instead I leant over to grab the bottle and filled my goblet. Fishing out a satchel of wakeleaf from my pocket, I grabbed my pipe as well and looked at Malicia.

“Do you mind?” I asked.

“By all means,” she said. “A filthy habit, but one I tolerated in Wekesa for over forty years.”

Good enough. I struck the match and lit the dragonbone pipe, taking a deep breath. Time to get to the meat of this conversation, I believed.

“I created a chivalric order,” I said, and blew out a stream of smoke.

“I am aware,” the puppet replied. “The obtainment of cavalry, I do not begrudge you. We’ve never managed to secure more horses than needed to replenish the ranks of the Thirteenth Legion without risking rebellion. But this is more than cavalry. It is a Callowan institution.”

“You tried to kill it,” I said bluntly. “The both of you. It failed, so I’m making use of it instead.”

Malicia raised an eyebrow.

“Another decade and it would have disappeared painlessly,” she said. “It takes coin to train armed men, Catherine. Their means had to be running low, especially given the numbers you managed to gather.”

That was true enough, and the reason the knights had approached me in the first place. A little more honesty, then. I drank from my cup and chose my words carefully.

“I won’t allow them to disappear,” I said. “They’re a keystone of what Callow should be.”

“There lies the issue, my dear,” the Empress said. “The abolition of the Imperial governorships, I can stomach. You will have to be publically given sanction for it and pay for the gain of authority, but as a tool they have effectively run their course. The forging anew of a Callowan state, however, is a different matter. In large part your people have defined themselves as nation by their resistance to outside invaders. Some of which currently occupy the country.”

I pulled at the pipe, inhaled the bitter smoke and let it out.

“I’ve never called for rebellion against Praes,” I finally said.

“That is irrelevant, and untrue besides,” she replied flatly. “You’ve preached the destruction of the aristocracy of the Wasteland, which cannot feasibly be achieved without warfare. That is rebellion, no matter your semantics. Even if you personally never raise your banner, Catherine, you will not live forever. Your successors will inherit a well-armed and centralized ethnically Callowan state, trained at the expense of Praesi gold in the methods of the Legions. It is a certainty they will seek independence, by force of arms if need be.”

I grimaced. She wasn’t wrong, not entirely. Fifty years for now, if I got myself killed, I could easily see the next Governor-General call on mostly Callowan legions to give Praes the boot. And it was not the outcome I wanted, seductive as the idea of a resurgent Kingdom was sometimes. Even if they managed to win, which I knew better to assume, half the country would be ruined for a generation. And should they succeed, it would just be going back to the old cycle of invasion and death, the plague on my birthplace I’d taken it upon myself to end.

“I tried the Ruling Council,” I said. “It failed, Malicia. Badly.”

“You botched the Ruling Council,” she corrected. “It could have been in the palm of your hand, but you disdained the methods to see this through. All the while chipping at Praesi authority by hanging one governor after another. It was a functional method of rule, Squire. You dislike Wasteland influence, but you seem to forget that we won the Conquest. I’ve already compromised a great deal. Almost more than is reasonable.”

“You also engineered the destruction of an entire culture,” I bit back. “You won, yeah. But I’m not in this seat across from you because of my sunny personality. I’m here because you want Callow to be brought into the fold without having to put down another dozen rebellion and assorted heroes. You had to know there would be costs to that.”

“Then present me with alternatives,” Malicia said. “I could attempt to craft one myself, in truth, but that would be a mistake. If you want to hold the power and authority you do, both granted to you by the Tower, then prove you deserve them. You are not a partner, if I have to salvage your every blunder. You are a burden.”

That was harsh, but I recognized it for what it was. An invitation. An opportunity to actually become a player in Imperial politics. That wasn’t the kind of offer that came twice in a lifetime. I set aside the half-empty cup and breathed out the wakeleaf smoke.

“Name me Vicequeen of Callow,” I said.

“An empty title,” she replied. “Your Governess-General will be doing the governing while you lead your legion.”

“I won’t keep it long,” I said. “A few years at most. And you’ll have set the precedent that the Tower appoints them.”

She did not reply but studied me instead, which I took as prompting to continue.

“They have to be Callowan, that’s what I ask,” I said. “You still get to pick someone that won’t hinder Praesi interests.”

“And the knights?” she said.

“Folded into the Legions,” I said. “Malicia, you and Black have occupied this country but you haven’t really made use of it. You got taxes out of the governorships, but what else? If all you want is to shake a land until gold comes out, there’s easier targets. You can still get your cut from the viceroy, but there’s so much more that could be had. How many Callowans are really in the Legions, aside from the Fifteenth? There should be a portion in every one, even those in the Wasteland. Callow has population on par with Praes, and if you don’t need to use your armies to keep it in check that population goes to fill your armies. You could get cavalry that doesn’t need to eat its full weight in meat every month. Hells, you could start fielding priests with the Legions if you name someone who has pull with the House of Light. But to get all that, you need someone Callowans will actually listen to.”

“And you can accomplish all this?” the Empress said. “Without breaking from the Tower?”

“Yes,” I said hoarsely. “No matter who gets in my way. Whether they be gods or kings or all the armies in Creation.”

On the second evening I’d ever spent with Black, I’d remembered a sermon from the House of Light. One about the really dangerous devils. How they gave you exactly what you wanted, and let you find your own way to the Hells with it.

I took her hand anyway, Gods forgive me.

Villainous Interlude: Calamity III

“The truth of monsters is that, in the end, they die. If they didn’t we would have to call them gods.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae

The Beast moved, but Sabah was within it. It was not control, for control was an illusion, but it was enough. She could yet think, even with blood and heat pumping in her veins. The Valiant Champion screamed a war cry and swung her axe, but what did the Beast care for this? The enemy steel dug into her flesh, blood and fur spraying, but with a roar she bit down on the hero. The shield gave under her fangs, even with the strength of a Name behind it, and she crunched into the plate before throwing the Champion to the side. The Beast had wanted to swallow the girl whole, but Sabah knew this would have been a mistake. Covered in blood and spit, the heroine rose to her feet. She began to speak but the Beast huffed out a laugh and struck again. The wound the axe had carved was already healed, the intertwined madness and power within her growing with every moment. The heroine raised the broken remnant of her shield but a shoulder bump was enough to send her crashing into the walls of the arena

Stone broke, bone broke and the scream whetted the Beast’s appetite.

The Champion was better at fighting beasts than men, but Sabah was not like anything the girl had ever thought before. Of all the Calamities, only she had embraced the old truth: if you were strong enough, even Fate broke under your teeth. Fountains of sand exploded behind her as she charged and the heroine hastily leapt onto the stands. The cheering sounded, oh, and the clapping as well. The Beast roared and it drowned out all the worlds. Claws scrabbling against the stone rails, Sabah gave when the enemy tried to use to high grounds to strike at her head. Tail twisting behind her, the Beast paced the sands of the arena and waited for the Champion to come down. The girl was catching her breath, though. Wasn’t moving. The Beast crouched, then leapt onto the stands. Benches and flickering silhouettes shattered as she rolled onto the stone, rising back to her feet. The sun came down harshly, blinding her, but Sabah sniffed the air and felt the wounded enemy coming closer. Petty arena tricks.

Clawed paw rising, the Beast struck down into the stands. The arena shook. Again and again she did, until the entire wing collapsed beneath her in a shower of stone and dust and sand. The glare of the sun was gone, now, and she saw the Champion hopping from ruin to ruin. Shaking herself clear of the dust, Sabah forced her will onto the Beast. Claws closed around stones as she rose onto her back legs, tossing chunks of rocks the size of houses at the heroine. She dodged the first, swatted aside the second but was buried under the third. The Beast licked its chops in satisfaction and leapt onto the stone, shattering it and the stands beneath it. There was a tunnel underneath and the Champion flopped down onto the ground.

Rally,” the heroine gasped.

She shone like the sun and all the flickering silhouettes flocked to her, filling her until her strength swelled. Her armour was smoking, her axe shaking with barely held power. Sabah recognized the aspect from earlier but the Beast cared little for the detail. Her paw whipped out from the outside, tearing through the outer wall of the tunnel and sending the Champion flying again. She landed on her feet at the very top of the stands, where the domain ended, and charged back down. The Beast sniffed the air. Blood, blood and ruin. The heroine’s strength waned and her little world with it. Sabah leapt down onto the sands and let her tail sweep a trail behind her, turning to watch the enemy. The Champion did not flinch, and followed her without hesitation. The Beast wanted to be a thing of teeth and claw, but Sabah thought otherwise. Her long legs swatted at the sands, sending up a cloud, and in that blinding curtain she struck. The heroine stood fast, both hands on the handle of her axe for her shield was long gone. The shining blade cut through the Beast’s leg, but Sabah did not pause. She rolled over the heroine, and the wild joy of hearing bones creak and plate give filled her senses.

It was a wonder, that even after calling on an aspect the Champion was strong enough to throw her off. The Beast hit the wall and howled as her leg grew back, bone and flesh sprouting from the cut. The heroine’s breastplate was dented, and her lips dripping with blood. It was enough to make the Beast hungry. Sabah stalked forward and waited for the heroine to charge. The sweep was not meant to hit her, just force her into the right place. Claws closed around the struggling heroine, and the Beast swung her down at the stands. Again and again and again, until there were a dozen gaping holes in the stone and only then did she toss the girl up in the air. The Champion rose higher and higher in the sky, until she touched a ceiling that wasn’t and crack snaked across the firmament like it was a pane of glass. The arena shattered, and the smells of smoke and death wafted to the Beast’s nose. They were in the city again, where they’d first crossed. The Beast roared, and went for the kill.

Sabah watched.

It had been a very long time since Wekesa had found an opponent this troublesome. He’d grown arrogant in his old age, it seemed. Come to believe that a mere few layers of deception would be enough to keep a hound of the Heavens off his back. This entire battle was something a tactical mistake, in his eyes. This was far from the first time the Calamities split to deal with a heroic band, but the circumstances were not in their favour. Amadeus was adamant the White Knight had to die, however, and in this Warlock was not inclined to disagree. Not as long as Masego was attached to that Callowan slip of a girl. Promising as the young villains assembled around Catherine Foundling were, they were not ready to deal with this calibre of heroic opposition. Better to crush the Wizard to dust here so she would never be a threat to his son. Crushing a rune-covered stone in his palm, Warlock murmured an incantation and watched a bubble form around the Hedge Wizard. A derivative of the effect demons of Time could have, this, at least in theory. Actual observation of such a specimen would have been too dangerous even for him, as the Fourth Hell was nothing to trifle with.

The heroine was stuck, at least for now. He immediately gave ground while weaving High Arcana, the seven spears of red flame that formed sinking into the bubble. It was a crawl, from his perspective, but it would not be from hers. The Wizard moved, inch by inch, and the bubble popped. She had, it seemed, seized the guiding flows and broken them. Unfortunately for her, that did nothing about the spears. She twisted around most, but one took hit her in the shoulder and and another in the leg. That should have crippled her, but the illusion she’d replaced herself with broke instead. The heroine stood a foot to the side, panting. Wekesa frowned and penned her into what he’d come to call a quicksand ward. It didn’t prevent anything, not exactly. It simply made any exertion of power or movement much harder than it should be. Against a practitioner of limited power like her, forcing a burnout was a perfectly viable strategy.

“You killed my sister, you monstrous old fuck,” the Wizard gasped. “You’re not walking away from this.”

Buying time to cast with distracting words. He’d pulled the same trick many, many times.

“I’m rather surprised it stuck,” Wekesa noted. “I suppose once in a while luck smiles on the opposition.”

Her spell flared into existence. The Liessen Chisel, by the looks of it. One of the better Callowan works, an old favourite of the Wizards of the West. It had been crafted specially to cut apart the stabilizing elements of wards, but to accomplish this it did require a certain of raw arcane power. She’d chosen poorly, given the ward around her. Her spell collapsed the ward and a heartbeat later her wrist bones both snapped. She screamed, but did not stop casting. Heroes had an irritating tolerance for pain. A mundane mage would have lost the thread of whatever they were casting when inflicted with such a distraction. High Arcana runes bloomed in front of the both of them.

“She was better than any of you,” Hedge hissed. “She was good.”

“She was Good,” Wekesa corrected. “And evidently not quite better enough to avoid the Tyrant’s ritual.”

Her eyes went wide. Ah, she hadn’t known that bit had she? There was more than one intent at work in this band of heroes. That light delay in working her will gave him the initiative. The red flares formed around the heroine’s head, the intensity of the glow they produced varying wildly. She finished her spell a moment later and the moment the power took shape all three flares exploded into a cage of red. The green smoke she’d crafted went through the bars, but she was forced to dismiss it and create a cone of force around herself to avoid being incinerated. Wekesa’s spell would have fed on both of her castings, which should earn him just long enough to craft something more powerful while she got rid of it. Duels between Gifted were very much a game of shatranj, in his experience. Reacting to the immediate movements of the pieces without glimpsing the long-term intent was a good way to end up dead.

“You’re not invincible,” the heroine barked. “I just need to find the right trick.”

The red cage transmuted into red smoke a moment later, but he placed the last rune and four bands of transparent force formed around the wrists and ankles. They tightened without any need for prompting, crushing bone. Amusingly enough, what part of her wrists that was not powdered was now almost reset form the initial snapping. Warlock could have gone for a more lethal working, but he was wary of committing to such before she’d used her last aspect. Each of them had called on two, and the odds were that the loser of his duel would be the first to give in and call on the third. His own loss, he knew, was unlikely at this stage but very much a possibility. He’d already begun to prepare an exit strategy in case it came to that. The Hedge Wizard wrapped strings of sorcery around her limbs to keep them working, so naturally Wekesa inserted a little gift into the spell and turned them into angry snakes. He felt sorcery take hold of his own limbs and almost smiled. Ah, a transfer. Classic Stygian work. He did not bother to craft an answer: the third layer of the wards on his person prevented the spell from ever going through.

“Have you ever considered,” Warlock said, “that there is no right trick? That for all the gifts the Heavens have dropped onto your lap you could die here tonight?”

The blue pane of light hit her head-on, sending her stumbling to the ground, but her limbs shapeshifted into some sort of lycanthropic derivative by the looks of the hair. Interesting, considering under most recorded instances lycanthropy was a curse and not a natural state of being.

“They don’t really encourage you to think about consequences, do they?” Wekesa continued blithely. “Your masters, that is. Perhaps you-“

He paused, then chuckled.

“Oh, you crafty child,” he said. “You almost had me there. Almost.”

Hellfire was a drain, usually, but with the Red Skies so close to the boundary it was barely an effort to form them. The smell of brimstone filled the air and the crimson flares devoured the spell she’d formed while he talked. Not one he’d ever seen before, this, though the shape had similarities to Keteran formulas. Cascading of some sort? That would have been very dangerous, if it had it the wards on his body. Instead the hellfire engulfed the girl and she dropped to the ground. Another three heartbeats before she died of it, and he prepared to counter whatever trick she’d use to get away from certain death. That was not, as it turned out, what he should have prepared for. A beam of light hit the downed heroine, and it took Wekesa a heartbeat to parse out the sequence. This particular spell was, in theory, an offensive one. But it had a central sequence in the formula modelled after a miracle, which meant… the hellfire gutted out and the Tyrant grinned, lounging on his floating throne above them.

“I have come to betray you,” the cripple cheerfully said.

“Alas, I am surprised,” Warlock replied sardonically, and snapped his wrist.

The throne exploded and the boy went flying. That, he reflected, had been worth the seven hours of preparation. The Hedge Wizard was back on her feet. If they thought two of them would give them an advantage, they were sorely mistaken. They’d only given him more to work with. There was a soft sound at his back and the villain turned. An empty bottle of wine had been dropped on the ground. The Wandering Bard, if he had to venture a guess. The heroine cursed and shot him a glare.

“I’ll be back,” she said, and wings sprouted from her back.

She shouldn’t have taken the time to talk, he mused. He finished the spell before she’d risen more than a foot into the air, and the sliver of darkness touched her back. Every wound he’d inflicted with his sorcery tonight reopened and she dropped screaming. The Tyrant was back on his feet and trying something. Dangerous for his age, this one. Another runic stone broke under his grip and the bubble formed before both it and the villain disappeared. He should be stuck in Arcadia for at least a few moments. Things had grown out of control, here. If both enemy factions were on the move and even the Bard had played a hand – and wasn’t it fascinating she would have had the chance to do that even with Assassin after her? – then the others were in danger. Time to wrap this up.

Reiterate,” the Hedge Wizard croaked out.

Ah, there was the third. Light collected around her body, a different take on the spell from earlier that had reformed her missing body parts. Warlock brought down his hand and the hellfire spear drove through her skull.

“Consequences,” he reminded the dead heroine, and made sure there would not be enough left for a resurrection.

Amadeus was faintly amused at the notion of anyone trying to kill him with a bow when he was a known acquaintance of Ranger. The volley of Light arrows trailed behind him as he ran across the rooftops, splitting tiles and thatching both. An archery-based Name, this one. Warlock had been the one to kill the last Archer, but the green-eyed had tactics to deal with the likes of this. The shadow tendril tossed a brightstick in the White Knight’s face, himself avoiding blinding by pushing a sliver of Name power into his eyes to blind them preventively. A heartbeat later he’d gained his sight back and three swords whistled towards the sides of the hero. Change. Still blind, Hanno batted away the blades with his bare hands and tugged at the length of one. Amadeus immediately cut it, forming a branch from another tendril to catch the falling blade before retracting all of them. Hand to hand fighter, if he was not mistaken. The Levantines were known for those. Black attacked again, eyes sharp. The enemy was shifting between skillsets more slowly, now that he’d gone beyond twenty. Thirty in a night might be his limit, though that was not an assumption to be relied on.

The blow dented his shield, and did not even require the Light to do so. Dangerous. Amadeus tossed the now mostly-useless tool in his opponent’s face and placed his blows. Blade to the ankle, avoided. Blade to armpit, parried bare-handed. The crossbow bolt form the last tendril hit the back of the knee but failed the penetrate. The villain clicked his tongue disapprovingly. That had been almost point-blank, meaning Name power had been at work. He ducked under an open palm that would have collapsed his throat, pivoted around the hero and rammed his blade under his arm. The White Knight danced away but his bare hand was cut by one of the blades coming around. The second should have punched through the back of the knee, Name or not, but the hero deftly stepped atop the blade and flipped away before Black could cut the connection and make him fall. Breathing hard, the White Knight raised both hands above his head and a greatsword of Light coalesced. Change. Not a known quantity, this skillset. There were greatsword wielders among the Lycaonese to the north of Procer, but the Principate was ever thin on Named.

A probe, then. It was worth sacrificing his last corpse for what would be learned. The undead charged out of a ruined house from behind the White Knight and was cut down without a second thought. From too far, Amadeus noted. The greatsword had lengthened. Not something he would be unable to deal with. The Black Knight advanced cautiously, shadows stirring behind him, and the greatsword rose again. The Light flared, and for a heartbeat the shadows he manipulated were lit out of existence. Amadeus did not miss a beat, for he’d been waiting on such a trick since the beginning of this duel. The few heroes he fought more than once all tried it, thinking him crippled without his additional limbs. The moment where White was occupied amplifying the Light, he accelerated and closed the distance. The greatsword came down, longer than before, and when he sidestepped the cut it twisted and turned to a lateral blow. He leapt and his armoured boot landed on the White Knight’s faceplate. The roiling Light had the goblin steel smoking, but he used the man’s head as a stepping stone and leapt again.

By then the shadows had returned to him.

The blade drove itself into the White Knight’s back, piercing a lung before the Light burst out and scrapped it. Unfortunate, though inevitable. He only had so many blades hidden in his shadow, and two thirds were already gone. There was limited space inside, unfortunately, so decisions had to be made about what occupied it and there were tools more versatile than swords at his disposal. The White Knight’s stance adjusted as Amadeus landed fluidly on the ground. Change. Seven heartbeats for the full shift, this time. The hero was overusing his aspect. A single longsword of Light, this time, held in one hand. The villain raised an eyebrow, recognizing the stance from the very recent past. The Lone Swordsman had used it, in Wekesa’s illusory reproductions of the tussle in Summerholm. That had interesting implications. The White Knight was using the skills of Named, then, as he had suspected. William of Greenbury had been largely self-taught, meaning there was no teacher, mundane or otherwise, to draw these skills from. It was quite possible Hanno was limited to heroes as well, dead ones in particular. That this could be done at all set an interesting precedent, one he would have to ask Warlock to look into.

Black let out a long breath. He was beginning to tire as well, though he’d conserved his strength as much as was physically possible. He was no stranger to working through tiredness, and how he would not to compensate for it. The White Knight strode forward at a swift pace and swung. Amadeus stepped out of the blow, circling cautiously. The Lone Swordsman had been heavily dependant on his blade, as he recalled, which was a limitation the one made of Light would only work partially around. Was it worth trading a minor wound for a more severe one? No, that was hurried thinking. The moment he began to bleed the tide began to turn. He feinted to the side and was immediately parried, or would have been if he hadn’t dropped the sword. He twisted to catch it with his other hand and reversed the momentum, but he’d made a mistake. He’d taught Catherine too much, there were similarities in their ways of fighting. And the Lone Swordsman had duelled her several times before dying. The boot caught him on the shoulder and he only barely managed to land in a roll, backing away hurriedly as the other man advanced. He had wondered with the White Knight would rely on the skillset of a relatively green hero.

Hanno was not without cleverness, and unlike his first aspect this one he had fully mastered.

Still, this was an avenue to exploit as well as a weakness. Bringing back to mind the few sparring sessions he’d had with his apprentice before she left to quell the Liesse Rebellion, Amadeus adjusted his angle. Feint to the side, but he let the prompt parry pass him by. The second feint where he pretended to attempt a similar manoeuvre to before, the White Knight ignored and instead darted the sword of Light at his neck. Black caught the wrist and there was a heartbeat where the both of them were going through sets of instincts. The hero acted first, giving in to them and using a counter that would have worked perfectly if Amadeus had been inclined to continue fighting with the same fondness for close range as his student. The punch went wide, for he was already backing away and freeing the wrist. Instead he angled his blade to the side and carved into the White Knight’s throat, the full weight of his body pivoting behind him. Blood sprayed out as he gave ground, closed by a burst of Light. That would have been a kill, on a lesser hero.

The White Knight opened his palm, and there was a silver coin in it. Amadeus let all other distractions fall to the wayside. The coin spun in the air, one side with laurels and the other with crossed swords. It fell back on the palm, swords up.

“Amadeus of the Green Stretch, Black Knight of Praes,” the White Knight said.

The point of the sword went through the roof of his mouth. Amadeus withdrew his bloodied blade and put the full strength of his Name behind the swing, but when he touched the neck it bounced off. Something infinitely larger than him swatted him him down and he was thrown down onto the pavestones. They collapsed around him, the ground shaking. Seraphim. His plate was ripped open and he was bleeding from the eyes and mouth. The White Knight was collapsed as well, a mere five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile.

“Formulaic aspect,” the Wandering Bard said. “You’re a little young to know about those, I suppose. Should have let him finish, Big Guy. You don’t interrupt the words of the Choir of Judgement without a price.”

Black closed his eyes and sought out his surroundings for a corpse to raise. It was deserted of anything, dead or alive. He got on his knees, spewing blood and shaking. She could not intervene directly. If he managed to strike the final blow before the hero recovered, this could still be salvaged. Sinking into his Name he called on the shadows, but they did not heed his will. He’d exhausted all he had simply to survive the blow from the Seraphim, damn them and damn him and damn them all. Creation ripped open in the distance and howling winds spilled out. The Tyrant of Helike fell out, without visible wounds. Amadeus closed his eyes. Solutions. Or a way to turn this into a mutual defeat, should this prove impossible.

“Well isn’t this is a mess, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant grinned. “Your ornery friend with the spells cost me a Wish, but it was worth it to see all this with my own eyes.”

He still had an aspect. His other two were done, but Destroy could still affect the situation even if he could not. Affecting a physical structure? There was a half-collapsed house close enough he might be able to make it collapse onto the White Knight. The backlash from using the aspect without a speck of power to his Name would likely kill him. Alternatives were needed. The Tyrant strolled to the unconscious hero and with a groan slung his arm over his shoulder.

“I’ll just be taking this,” the odd-eyed boy said. “Don’t mind me, carry on.”

“Enemy,” Amadeus croaked. “He is your enemy as well.”

The Tyrant shrugged.

“Why do you think I’m doing this?” he said. “Given long enough you might figure out a way to kill him, and it’s not like this one can do anything about it. Can’t have that, can we?”

He pointed his thumb at the Bard, who waved cheerfully.

“Until next time, Black,” the boy smiled, and dragged the hero away.

For a moment Amadeus considered collapsing the house, but this was mere petulance. With another Named shielding him, it was a guarantee the White Knight would survive. There was a loud crack from the rooftop. The Bard, he saw, had a bag on her knees. There were walnuts inside and she was breaking them open before popping them into her mouth.

“That’s going to cost me, you know,” the Named said casually. “It was supposed to be Hedge, but your Warlock is a fucking terror lemme tell you. Makes the old country proud.”

Nothing good could come of listening to bardic Named, but he did not have the power left to shut down his senses.

“Would you like me to tell you how your friend is going to die?” the Bard asked.

“Bluff,” he said. “Champion does not have the skill or story to handle Captain.”

“She’s not fighting Captain,” the Bard said. “She’s fighting a monster. ‘swhy I picked Champion. The domain, big guy. She was bound to let out the Beast in that.”

The White Knight was finally far enough that his amulet ceased taking effect.

“Warlock,” the green-eyed man said. “The Bard is here. I am incapacitated. Sabah under threat.”

“Amadeus,” his oldest friend’s voice replied. “She’s…”

Black closed his eyes, and that was the only moment of weakness he allowed himself. The grief, the fury, it all went into the box and he closed it shut. All that remained was the cold clarity that was his only remaining safeguard. Green eyes opened, turning to the Bard. She broke another walnut, chewing it loudly.

“You still don’t get the story that made it happen,” she said.

“The caravans,” he said, but did not elaborate.

There was something here he was missing. Pieces to the puzzle.

“You don’t speak Levantine,” the Bard said. “Or you’d know their word for maiden doesn’t have a gender. Meaning’s closer to ‘virgin’.”

Lack of sexual congress alone became the qualifier, if that was true. Every caravan had a single individual leading it, he remembered, men and women of different age and origins. Amadeus did not speak any of three major Levantine dialects, or even the Baalite tradertongue they’d been influenced by. There had been no need, and so many other things he had to learn.

“Monster took the maidens, and repeatedly, so that’s one,” the Wandering Bard said. “Now, I needed a monster-killer and she’s the closest thing we have left to one of those. That’s two.”

He might as well have wielded the blade himself, he thought. He’d killed her one order at a time.

“Third, I needed the monster to be the one attacking,” the Bard continued nonchalantly. “That was the easy one. Love, Amadeus. Love always fucks you over. All I had to do was suggest Champion join White after the wall fell, and your dear friend stepped in.”

It wouldn’t be enough, Amadeus thought. They’d only fought once before, and not on that story. There lacked weight. The old thing wearing a girl’s face smiled, nut cracking in her hand.

“You could say it was a team effort, pulling it off,” she said. “Our little secret, right?”

He did not reply. Engaging her any further could only be to his detriment. Warlock would be coming in all haste.

“I’d say sorry, but you brought this down on yourself,” the Bard said. “I could probably destroy you in full, big guy, but that would take time. And effort. So I’m going to give you advice, instead.”

The Wandering Bard leapt down from the rooftop, half-falling. She came close, kneeling at his side.

“Go home,” she said. “Murder your little friend in the Tower and reign until someone puts a knife in your back. You’re not as good at this game as you thought you were.”

Hatred, Amadeus thought, was pointless. A bias that brought no benefit. And yet.

“But you won’t, will you?” the other Named sighed. “You don’t negotiate.”

She rose back to her feet, brushing away walnut shards.

“I doubt we’ll meet again,” she said. “And fucking Kairos slipped one by me, so I’ll have my hands full.”

The Wandering Bard looked down at him, shoving her hands in her pockets.

“This one feels like a sin, doesn’t it?” she mused. “Remember that, when the gears start turning.”

Villainous Interlude: Calamity II

“Who should really be afraid, between the dragon and the peasant with a sword?”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First

The Hedge Wizard was attempting an offensive. Wekesa was more irritated than worried, but these things had a way of growing out of control if allowed to go unchecked. The girl had used an aspect relating to conversion to survive the trap laying behind his decoy, an expected outcome though the specifics of her counter had come as something of a surprise. It had been a mistake on his part to strengthen the detonation in hopes of an early crippling: she’d made the power her own and promptly shoved it through an exotic spell formula. Proceran-derived, by the looks of it. Interesting, that. Practitioners of the Principate had been heavily influenced by the Gigantes traditions that still lived strong in the Titanomachy, though they still subscribed to the much-maligned Pelagian theory of magic. When it came to broader sorcery they were far behind Praes, but there were few their match when it came to enchantments. The sleeping spell Wekesa had used to keep the Hunter under control last year, for example, had been a modified take on an old Proceran enchantment. Removing the requirement of true love’s kiss had been a stark improvement, even if it weakened the overall strength.

That the roots of the Wizard’s formula were in enchanting had been obvious. The only way she could have successfully used an amount of power that large and unstable was by forcing a strict condition on it. Two thirds of it had gone to waste regardless, but the remainder had covered seven miles in search of the assigned criterion. She’d found five instances, because Wekesa wasn’t a fool and he’d laid false trails. Running after the relays of false positives would keep her occupied for the moment, until a proper response could be mustered. This was, in the end, the limitation of the branch of sorcery the Soninke had chosen to master. It lacked the immediacy of more direct magic. Wards and boundaries required outside factors to be accelerated in forming or a great deal of preparation. The raging dead on the walls had returned to the grave, by now, and it would be a quarter bell yet before the Red Skies were ready for actual use. Watching the scrying screens in front of him, Warlock tracked the silhouette galloping across the plains towards his second relay.

She’d chose the shape of a horse, this time. Shapeshifting had always an interesting branch of magic, in his eyes, but ultimately a dead end. It was fixed to the limits allowed by creational laws and even High Arcana could at most allow slight deviation from this. No shapeshifter could take the shape of a dragon, for one, or even most creatures with sorcerous nature. The physical and metaphysical composition was too different, and something could not be made of nothing – particularly if that something had markers fundamentally different from anything else in Creation. Warlock put the thought aside. He would return to those experiments soon enough, after this little dust-off was settled. His son had sent him promising results before Wekesa had to leave for the Free Cities showing that tapirs, unlike pigs, would gain wings but not the ability to breathe fire if infused with enough sorcery. That meant there was a qualitative difference between what lay at the heart of a dragon and – ah, yes, distraction. Warlock tapped into one of his inert arrays with a thought, arranging the runes through the medium of High Arcana.

He’d have to use his own will for this, which was unfortunate. Wekesa was aware that few aside from the oldest Soninke bloodlines and the purest of the Taghreb had as much power to call on, but it was still a limiting factor. No mage had endless power, and burning out when calling on the kind of sorcery he did would have… dire consequences. A circle of runes formed in the air above the shapeshifted wizard and locked with a hum. A hundred times the gravity should be enough to turn her to a smears, he estimated. The array triggered without missing a beat, but the Hedge Wizard’s form shimmered. Instead of being plastered all over the grass she reappeared three feet to the left of his spell, human again. Warlock raised an eyebrow. That had looked like teleportation, but it was mathematically impossible. Adjusting the nature of the scrying array, he dismissed the gravity circle and studied the sorcerous trail. Ah, displacement. She’d let the power push her through the half-existing space between dimensions. There must have bleed, or she would have reappeared directly outside his spell instead of drifting to the side.

Drumming his fingers thoughtfully, Wekesa tapped into another inert array. A different approach, then. Direct applications had proved ineffective but perhaps indirect would see better results. A bag of tricks as eclectic as hers would not come without drawbacks, which made it an obvious avenue of approach. Forging four runes of containment on cardinal points, Warlock crafted an inwards zone of disruption: within the boundaries, all power would be randomly amplified and diminished. His lips half-quirked when he saw the tiles she used to walk across the sky rip straight through her sleeves in their uncontrolled expansion, exploding in a shower of shards when they forcefully surpassed their capacity. The Hedge Wizard used the blood from the cuts in her hands to trace a line across her face, and to his displeasure this sealed all power on her. She ran out of the boundaries dictated by the zone, unharmed save for a few cuts. Warlock dismissed the spells, glancing at the seven inert arrays that remained around him. He could, of his own capacity, use perhaps another four workings of this calibre without being at risk of burning out.

The girl was proving to be troublesome. The Wizard of the West had wielded ten times her raw power, but he’d been… brittle. Breakable, when outplayed. This one was weaker but fluid, and Wekesa wondered if that was what she’d always been meant to be. The White Knight had been gifted an aspect that made him extremely versatile, a way to compensate for Amadeus’ massive advantage in experience in skill. The Champion was apt to weather great violence and had previously been paired with a powerful healer that dabbled in offensive miracles. The fighting elements of this heroic band, by the look of it, had ben crafted specifically to kill the remaining Calamities. It wouldn’t be the first time the Heavens attempted such a trick, but it was the first instance in decades where the band managed to come together before core members were eliminated. A greater degree of caution on his part was advisable.

Warlock began to insert his will into an array, but ceased when he felt his relays being tapped into. The girl had found one of them, and instead of following to the next in the line was… mapping out the inner workings? He saw her lips move on his scrying screen, reading the word. Learn. Wekesa’s face creased in wariness. It was one thing for a transitional Name like Squire or Apprentice to have that aspect, quite another to see it in a full-fledged Name. Ranger was living proof of how dangerous it could be, given enough time to accumulate weight. The Hedge Wizard smiled in triumph, then created another relay to add to his own system. Using that, she immediately followed the current down to his current location. Her face appeared on the scrying screen ahead of him, looking back.

“Found you,” the heroine said, eyes hard.

She’d used her second aspect, Warlock mused. He could return the courtesy.

Link,” he replied.

Laws were nothing more than boundaries, and it had been his life’s work to learn the manipulation of those – even the law of sympathy. This was his most abstract aspect, but perhaps the most dangerous. It allowed him to create sympathetic links between entities that, by right, should have none. In this case, one of the remaining floating towers and the relays the Hedge Wizard had just taken over. Idly tapping a rune, Warlock used his access to trigger the collapse of the tower and the power raged through the connection. The impact was brutal. Her right shoulder, the entire arm and part of her rib cage simply… evaporated. The heroine threw up blood and Warlock began crafting an array to finish her off, but she managed to whisper one word.

Repurpose,” she said.

The same conversion aspect as before, he deduced. The leftover wisps of the the tower’s power – and ah, it had collapse on the city as well, though not exploded – came together like blue smoke and reformed the mass she had just lost. The result was more magic than flesh, he noted, but it would allow her operate well enough. Not a single-use aspect, then. Neither was Imbricate, which made them an even match in this regard. Wekesa leaned forward, breaking the scrying connection and ignoring the battle. She had earned his full attention.

Ride would have been a lethally dangerous aspect, in the hands of another hero. It leant a sharp increase in speed, armament that ignored enemy armour and and protection that nothing short of concentrated spellfire would be able to dent. It was wasted on the White Knight. The man had spent too long learning the skills of others and neglected his own abilities, turning an aspect that should have been a near-unavoidable killing stroke into a weak gambit unlikely to ever draw blood on another Named. Shadows hooked through the window and dug into the walls, dragging him through the space and tossing him straight through the door in the back of the house. Brushing off wooden shards, he landed one street across and through the opening watched the White Knight pulverize the entire wall in a blinding flash of light, the aspect dimming after it had struck a target. Hanno landed in a crouch as Black sent out his shadow tendrils, green eyes seeking structural weak points. Two sharpers detonated a heartbeat later and the roof collapsed on the hero’s head as the villain made for the rooftops. Better to change his angle of attack before reengaging.

He’d already baited out one aspect without using any of his own, though admittedly two of his three were less… direct than those of his predecessors. Lead strengthened whoever he led on the field, but had no real use in a duel such as this, and while Conquer was currently sharpening his physical strength and reflexes it would do little else in this kind of situation. The aspect was better fit for war than skirmished between Named, a reflection of his departure from the traditional role of the Black Knights of old. As for Destroy, it was best employed as a tool for denial of enemy abilities. Anything it could accomplish on a purely physical level could be accomplished by more mundane means he had available, and should he ever attempt to use it in direct opposition to a hero’s aspect the difference in power would see him promptly crushed. Or worse, corner his opponent badly enough they would have to learn new abilities on the spot that he had no solid measure against. It was a balancing act, this, where he must carefully lead the enemy in a position where they could be killed without ever overpowering them by too much.

The most effective moment for the kill was usually when the hero had pulled out their trump card, or just after they had, and even then there were risks. Should he ever fail to manage a killing stroke then, the situation could be reversed in a heartbeat.

Now, with Ride taken out of the equation the second stage of this fight should be approaching. The moment the White Knight was put in a dire situation he would tap into the aspect that leant him the different skillsets he’d used to recover from his incoming defeat in their last duel, but this was not a state of affairs that should be approached lightly. For one, Hanno would become exceedingly difficult to contain the moment he began using these other skills. The loss of his enchanted weapon should hinder him, the very reason Amadeus had arranged its destruction, but it would have been foolish to assume the man could not produce similar results using the Light. It was, after all, the very stuff of the Heavens shaped by will. Maintaining it had to be tiring, however, and this had been a side-benefit to be achieved by getting rid of the artefact. Amadeus knew better than to attempt to win through heroic exhaustion, but slowing down the enemy was very much possible. And if the White Knight attempted to compensate for that by using his Name, well, he would be effectively hollowing out his own power and heading directly for a collapse down the line. That would be another opportunity for a kill, in Black’s experience, if he was quick enough.

The dark-skinned hero emerged from the rubble without wounds, dark eyes searching for the opposition. Amadeus exerted his will and one of his two remaining corpses moved behind the shutters of an empty house, drawing enemy attention. He struck in just that moment, staggering four blades at calculated intervals. The first held by a tendril was parried when the White Knight immediately turned to face him, the second would have struck at the weak point of the greaves but was avoided by a shift of footing and the sword he swung himself was caught in hand. Mistake. His shield struck the hero in the chest, taking advantage of the weakened stance to throw him off his feet, and the fourth blade plunged down from above and went straight through the plate. Goblin steel scraped against the collarbone instead of carving it. He’d been imprecise, and so lost an opportunity for a deeper wound. Unfortunate. Amadeus gave ground immediately and the shadow-held blades retreated with him, just in time to avoid the burst of Light the hero detonated in his wound to seal it.

A costly way of healing, this. The touch of the Heavens on mortal flesh was never light, or without consequence. Amadeus could see the function it was meant for, though. If the White Knight was truly meant to face Catherine after she’d succeeded him, then he gave the man six in ten odds of winning a duel against her. His apprentice still had the nasty habit of overcommitting at close range once she’d drawn blood, and a semi-offensive form of healing like this would be damaging to her. Combined with her lack of experience with different kinds of Named, the White Knight’s aspects would gain him a decisive advantage in a clash. As usual, the Heavens stacked the fight before the fight ever happened. Best he never let it come to that, for everyone’s sake. Catherine was too important to die at the hands of some hunting dog of the Seraphim.

“Thousands will die tonight, because you keep me from checking the Tyrant,” the White Knight said, circling around him.

Heroes did have a fascination with talking, didn’t they? Black reached for the bundle of power he’d left in the second corpse that remained, watching through its eyes. Sixty to eight heartbeats before it arrived, depending on the struggling. Running out the hourglass by talking was acceptable.

“I have no personal enmity with anyone here,” Amadeus said calmly. “And this war is not of my making.”

“Yet you participate in it,” the White Knight pressed. “You have responsibility for this. Guilt.”

“I’ve been afflicted by many things, in my old age,” Black said. “Guilt is not one of them.”

“And you believe this makes you better?” Hanno said.

“Oh, I am very much a monster,” Amadeus conceded, reluctantly amused. “But then so are the things you serve and yourself as well. A mere different shade of barbarity hardly puts you in a position to lecture, White.”

The hero would have replied, but Black’s undead cleared the corner and the man went still. The corpse held a struggling woman in its arms, knife at her throat.

“Surrender or she dies,” Amadeus said.

The man went directly for him, without hesitation. The Choir of Judgement did not suffer lack of decisiveness in its servants. A twist of will saw the woman released and she fled straight to hero and now that had him hesitate. A different matter, a hostage and an innocent in need of protection. The White Knight was not the first hero sworn to Judgement he had fought. Their kind was taught to think of people in particular categories, and during that heartbeat the hero had to readjust his assessment of her. In that very moment Black struck, blades in motion. One tendril was sent directly towards the woman’s back, slowly enough Hanno could parry it if he moved there.

Recall,” the hero said.

He blurred in motion, shaft of light lashing straight through the shadow holding the sword as he protected the civilian. Spear-wielding skillset, possibly a lancer. High mobility, expect piercing strikes. No wound, but Amadeus’ base objective had been achieved regardless. Now the more difficult work could begin. In silence, the green-eye man advanced.

It was getting warm out, and not just because Sabah was swinging half a hundred pounds of solid steel at the kid. Warlock’s ritual with the sky was getting stronger, getting closer to what he’d pulled at the Fields of Streges. It was only a matter of time until the rain of fire began, and anybody’s guess if he would limit it to just that. Captain wasn’t eager to start dancing around tower-sized burning rocks falling from above, but she was no stranger to it either. The Valiant Champion was way ahead the curve even for a hero her age and she’d learned from their fight at Delos, but she wasn’t used to fighting an opponent like Sabah and it was costing her. That shift in her footing, right there? It was meant to deal with something Captain’s size, yes, but something on four legs. A monster, not a person. The hammer ploughed into her shield and tossed her into the wall, though the thing didn’t break. She’d learned the trick for putting Name power into weapons since they’d last fought, though she used it to strengthen the steel instead of add sharpness to a blade the way most Named did.

Given another few years, this one would have been a right terror. She hit like godsdamned trebuchet and her defence got stronger with every scrap. Sabah had fought quite a few heroes meant to stand and deliver, over the years, but this one was head and shoulder above the rest of the crowd. She could take punishment like a Holy Shield and still swing like a Blood Sword. At least she didn’t go berserk like the latter. Even with the Beast out Sabah had found him hard to put down when he started spasming and his body unhinged. Those people from around Hedges were weird fucks, even for Callowans. Still, tonight was tonight and not in a few years. The kid was still out of her league for now, and down an aspect as well. Sabah hadn’t had to use one of hers yet, though since this was their second scrap she’d probably have to at some point. The more you fought heroes the more of a pain they became, as a rule. Putting some length to her stride, Captain moved to strike while the iron was hot.

The first hit the Champion ducked under and it put a hole in the wall, but the second nailed her to the floor through the shoulder. Didn’t break bone, though. Fucking Name strengthening. Sabah kicked her in the stomach but she brought up her shield in time and it just blew her back a few feet.

“Good fight,” the Champion praised, grinning through her badger helm. “Getting blood flow.”

“You’ve got the most potential to grow out of your band,” Captain replied honestly. “I’m glad we’re fighting now and not after you went adventuring a few years.”

“Life is adventure,” the girl philosophized in broken tradertalk. “Kill many things back home. Much slaughter of other claimants.”

Well, they did say the Named of the Dominion were closest to the old breed of heroes. The ones who’d gone traipsing like well-armed vagrants around Calernia, killing dragons and looting every tomb in sight. Before the House of Light had gone and civilized them, like that entire religion wasn’t about licking the feet of the angels telling you what to do. Sabah had never understood why anyone would pay a tithe to be given sermons, but people out of the Wasteland did tend to get strange ideas in their heads. Captain usually left the statecraft to Malicia and Amadeus, but she did know that when it came to commerce middlemen always screwed the buyers. Why most of Calernia wouldn’t think to apply something that simple to the Gods they kept to, she had no notion.

“I don’t suppose you could just go back to Levant?” Sabah asked. “Leave the Empire alone. I’m fairly sure Black would not pursue if you just stuck to your borders.”

“Eh,” the Champion refused. “Much boring. No good fight there. Procer all peace-talking, now. You legend, Biggest Girl! Many songs for slaying of you, and drinks without pay.”

Not talk about the power of friendship or justice to be served, which she had to admit was rather refreshing. There were only so many times you could get those speeches before they kind of… melded together. About half of them quoted the Book of All Things, too, and Sabah hadn’t read that so she never got the references. She sighed.

“I apologize, then,” she said. “Because I don’t think this ends well for you.”

“You much kicking of my arse,” the heroine ruefully admitted. “But I Valiant Champion, not no-balls Arlesite. I stand, and Exalt.”

Second aspect of the night. They were doing brisk business. Sabah watched the ripple go through Creation and frowned. Domain, huh. Champion types did tend to have those. Amadeus had been caught in the Unconquered Champion’s pocket dimension a few years back and Sabah had… not taken it well. Wekesa hadn’t been able to locate him at first, so they’d had to face the possibility he was dead. She’d lost control of the Beast when she’d been told the news, and woken up to a butcher’s yard of half-eaten corpses. She still had dreams about that, sometimes. She’d not been that out of control since she’d been a young girl. If Warlock hadn’t started carving into the soul of the hero’s childhood friend to find a hint about what the nature of the dimension was, the others might have thought him dead too and that would have gotten… bad. If Ranger had come down from Refuge to avenge him, she didn’t think Vale would have survived it – or anyone trying to get her to stop, for that matter.

The girl’s domain was just an arena, Sabah saw. Old sunny stone with empty stands stretched in a long oval, but maybe not so empty as they seemed at first. If she sharpened her ears she could almost hear cheering and applause. The two of them were standing in sand, and the Valiant Champion raised her axe. Her movements were more fluid than before. She was probably stronger inside here, a sharp increase of everything as long as the domain held. Fit with the word, anyway. That poor kid. She’d picked her grounds, yes, but she’d also taken Captain somewhere she didn’t have to worry about the consequences of going all out. It was one thing to lean into the Beast when there was a risk she’d end up eating a portion of Nicae. Another when it was just the two of them. Sabah rolled her shoulder, and dropped the hammer.

Unleash,” she said, and the world went red.