Chapter 63: Farewell

“A life without friends is a banquet without food.”

– Proceran saying

It was on a whim I took up a shovel and began to dig the firepit, but once the steel bit into the ground it felt right. Like I was doing something I could pour all of my mind into, enough to forget the blood-soaked day I’d waded through to get here. I’d not thought twice about where I began to dig, simply choosing somewhere relatively out of the way since I well knew there could be no hiding place in a military camp, and instead busied myself with the labour of it. Mantle of Woe tossed aside into the dirt, sleeves pulled up and hair held in bun, I shovelled clumps of dusty earth.

Vivienne was the first to come.

I didn’t hear her approach – Princess or not, she was almost as light footed as when she had been the Thief – but I felt eyes on my back and turned to find her standing at the edge of the pit. She looked as tired as I felt, her pale green tunic hanging limp on that slim frame. There was still a sense of regality to her, though. She was not wearing the circlet that had become her right after she was raised a princess of Callow, but the loops of the milkmaid’s braid gave the same feeling. Her face, though still sharp, had matured enough that her blue-grey eyes no longer seemed almost too large for it.

She looked like a queen in the making, a princess forged in the crucibles of the long wars we had spent half our lives fighting. There were days where looking Princess in the eye still drew complicated feelings out of me, but this was not one of them. Sweaty hand resting on the handle of my shovel, I found that today I found only pride. We made it to the end, the two of us, I thought. Caring about anything else just seemed unforgivably petty.

“You know,” Vivienne Dartwick said, “even back when we were enemies, Catherine, that was the thing I admired about you.”

I cocked an eyebrow, leaning my weight against the shovel.

“What’s that?”

“You never balk at being the one in the pit,” the Princess said, eyes unreadable, “getting your hands dirty.”

I brushed a bang out of my eye, unsure how to respond, but in a blink of my eye she’d gone. Not for long, though. The Princess of Callow came back with a shovel of her own, that standard-issue tool of wood and steel of the Army of Callow we’d taken the Legion pattern for. She leapt down into the hole, brushing her arm against mine, and took up a place at my back. Neither of us felt the need to talk, reluctant to break the comfortable silence of people who’d learned each other deeply enough not to feel the need to fill every void.  Instead we dug together. It was easier work with two pairs of hand on it, one of those simple little truths that cast a broader shadow than they should.

Indrani came second.

“Wait, I have something for this,” Archer mused, looking down at us from the edge of the pit.

“I feel as if am I about to be disappointed in many ways,” Vivienne noted.

“Something something royals holding big shafts?” Indrani tried. “No, wait-”

She chortled.

“Royally shafted,” Archer triumphantly exclaimed.

“Huh,” I said, then flicked a glance to my side. “I might have to start calling you Prophet instead of Princess, Vivi.”

“You barely even call me that,” she muttered.

“I know,” I sagely replied. “Won’t even take much effort.”

We might have kept at that for a while if a pile of dust hadn’t been kicked in our faces. I covered my eyes – both of them, out of habit – even as Vivienne began to cough and spit out the bits she’d swallowed. When I looked up, I found the afternoon sun shining at Indrani’s back as she scowled at us and wagged a finger.

“Don’t flirt when I’m trying to annoy you,” she chided us. “It’s rude.”

“I feel like no one ever taught you how to flirt and we’ve all been paying for it ever since,” Vivienne told her.

Wow, I thought, sending her an admiring glance. That’d been a little savage.

“’Cause you’re known as a great mistress of the subtleties of seduction, Dartwick,” Indrani skeptically replied.

Vivienne cocked an eyebrow, then turned towards me. She leaned close hand coming to hold my neck from the back, and even as she pulled me close she dipped me down. This was, I mused, embarrassingly close to a daydream I’d entertained once or twice back in the day.

“Catherine,” Vivienne gravely said. “Let’s slay your enemies in battle, drink too much table wine and then ignore important paperwork to have a tryst on your desk instead.”

I blinked, then turned to shoot at a look at a befuddled Indrani.

“She’s hitting all the right notes,” I admitted. “Damn, maybe you should learn from her.”

Indrani scowled and kicked dirt into our faces again, which alas had the mistress of seduction dropping me unceremoniously so she wouldn’t be made to eat dirt quite literally for the second time. Though this was a foul betrayal I recovered from the disappointment and got back to my feet, just in time to see Vivienne smugly smiling at Archer – who seemed unable to decide whether she was irritated or amused. It was a good look on her, brightening the hazelnut eyes her darker skin and green scarf already made pop out. Indrani had always been beautiful in moments, those stolen heartbeats where she was so incandescently alive, and between the sun and the smirk pulling at her lips this was one of them.

It passed, and I reclaimed my wits.

“So what’d you come here for?” I asked. “It better not be kicking earth back into our firepit, ‘Drani, or I’ll be cross.”

“Been going around getting my hands on bottles since you got the ball rolling,” she said, “but they’re running out and no one wants to sell theirs anymore. I need your seal to crack open you army’s last crates.”

I grunted, not entirely surprised that I wasn’t the only one intending to drink myself insensate tonight. It’d been a dark day and tomorrow didn’t look much brighter, plan or not.

“Take whatever you need,” I shrugged.

“Already tried that,” Indrani idly said, “but you changed the lock. Tell your phalanges to help, would you?”

Wasn’t hard to find one of the adjunct secretariat’s officers looming around – there was always one kicking about wherever I ended up, a habit Hakram had instilled them – and I got that sorted, sending Indrani back on her way. By the time I returned, Pickler had shown up. She was pacing around our pit, muttering under her breath, and almost ran into me. Her head would have reached higher on my body than I cared to admit.

“Have you started talking to yourself?” I asked. “Because they don’t let you get away with that without there being talk until you’re a priestess, in my experience.”

“Yes, yes, all hail the Crows,” Pickler dismissively replied. “May the Matrons perish trying to bite a chunk out of them, preferably after I’ve gotten good seats to watch the whole thing.”

“Your faith is touching, Sapper-General,” I drily replied. “I’ll pass the word along.”

“You do that,” Pickler told me, then poked my chest with an accusing finger. “Did you know your pit’s half a foot too deep and nowhere near large enough? We’re cooking pigs, not digging a tunnel.”

“We’re not finished yet,” I defensively.

“I was just following orders,” Vivienne called out from below, the treacherous weasel.

“You should have taken the engineering classes at the War College instead of that useless stuff you picked up instead,” Pickler told me.

My brow rose.

“Tactics and Strategy?” I drily asked.

“Yes, those,” the goblin told me, undaunted. “Haven’t tactiqued or strategized your way into digging a proper firepit yet, have you Foundling?”

I opened my mouth to object, then closed it. I raised a finger, tried again, then my teeth clicked closed under Pickler’s satisfied yellow gaze.

“Just tells us how to dig,” I finally sighed.

“An hour late, but there’s only so much you can expect out of humans,” my Sapper-General allowed.

“I’m going to write you up for discrimination, High Ridge, see if I don’t,” I muttered under my breath.

We were nearly done making something to Pickler’s satisfaction when Aisha showed up, legionaries carrying cart of firewood following in her wake. I took the opportunity to drag myself out of the pit, wipe my face with a cloth and guzzle down water from a skin. I was even generous enough to pass it to Vivienne afterwards, though not so generous I didn’t do that by throwing it at the back of her head. The noise it made hitting her was most satisfying. Aisha watched me with laughing eyes, her lovely heart-shaped face pulling into the hint of a smile.

“Juniper’s gone to pick out the pigs herself,” she told me. “She’d having fun dickering with the Fourth’s quartermaster for Vale hogs.”

Famously the fattest meat in Callow, which had me salivating already.

“Archer’s handling drinks,” I said, “but have we got anything except the meat on the way?”

Dark eyes moved to study me with sudden intensity.

“Kilian,” Aisha said with deliberate nonchalance, “offered to get a cauldron of dirty rice going.”

Rice mixed with oil, onions, tomatoes and up to half a dozen other ingredients depending on where in Praes the recipe came from – apparently Wolofites added bananas while Aksumites swore by ginger. Mind you, it was the dish that had her looking at me like I might be on the verge of biting her nose off. Kilian hadn’t been at one of these since we’d parted ways, at first because she’d declined invitations and later because I’d stopped asking. I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about her trying to get a foot back in now, but I didn’t have the heart to refuse her. Not tonight of all nights.

“That’ll do,” I nodded. “Remind her to get the cauldron here early. You know how territorial Juniper gets when the pigs are on spits.”

“It’s rather endearing,” Aisha agreed with a fond smile.

Not exactly what I’d been getting at, but uh – good for her? I finished the pit to Pickler’s exacting specifications and then left her to haranguing legionaries into putting the firewood in the right sort of stacks, helping Vivienne out with a hand that she’d didn’t particularly need.

“We could probably use a wash,” she said, taking a sniff at the both of us.

I wiggled my eyebrows.

“Trying to impress anyone?” I teased. “Thought you were one of those chaste maiden kind of princesses, Dartwick.”

“I’ve thought about it,” she admitted. “There are some men I could see myself taking to bed with an assurance of discretion.”

“Might be our last night,” I quietly told her. “We have a chance, Vivienne, but there’s nothing certain about this. Take your comforts where we can.”

She smiled at me.

“If it is my last night,” Vivienne said, “then I would rather spend it with the lot of you then with a stranger. It’d be a greater comfort than a lay, however pleasurable.”

“You say sweet things, sometimes,” I smiled back.

“You really need to bathe,” Princess then told me, wrinkling her nose.

I sighed. I couldn’t even blame her for that entirely. I’d trained this into all of the Woe, because… I blanked. There must have been a reason at someone point, I reassured myself. Surely. I was still desperately trying to recall what it might be when I took my friend’s advice and began to limp towards my tent, where I was due a wash and a nap.

I woke half an hour before dusk, pleasantly refreshed. I splashed my face with tepid water to finish clearing out the last dregs of sleep, then pulled on a clean black tunic and took the time to sit and massage my bad leg for a while. It wasn’t throbbing as badly as I’d thought it might after the battle I’d been through. It could have been-

Get them all home, Catherine.

My stomach clenched. My throat was dry. And a heartbeat later I dropped my leg with a hiss of pain, the marks on the skin where my fingers had dug in red and visible. I’d forgot, just for a moment, why it was I’d gone to dig a pit. My friend was dead. Roland had been taken by an arrow that had been meant to kill me. Why else the poison that reacted to Night, the very power I would have called on to lessen my wound? Akua had been shot too, and there had been no poison in her. With the Varlet destroyed last year and the aspect that had made this thus lost, it was likely too rare to be used any way other than sparingly. Neshamah had meant to kill me and come so very close. I need to be better, I thought, fingers clenching. More careful. To see the next one coming.

Or else more friends than Roland de Beaumarais would get killed trying to keep me alive.

I put on the Mantle of Woe, more for the comfort of its weight than a need for the warmth, and slipped out of my tent. It was a childish thing, to flee the place where the dark thoughts had come, but I indulged them impulse anyway. I didn’t feel like talking with the two phalanges that began to walk behind me, or with anyone at all, so I briskly turned a corner and pulled down a veil of Night to cover me. I shook them off, limping deeper into the Army of Callow’s camp, and let the noise of my soldiers wash over me.

There was a frenetic energy to the camp. It wasn’t quite despair – we’d taken a licking today, but we’d still gotten deep into the city before retreating – but it was a cousin of sorts. Every last of my soldiers knew they could die tomorrow. Some of them remembered dying today, saved only by a Titan’s will. No one wanted to be alone tonight, or leave things undone they might never get the chance to finish. Stashes of liquor and smokes were being blown through, grudges being settled or set aside and then the opposite of grudges: more than a few of my soldiers had snuck off into dark corners to fuck with someone who’d caught their eye, or even simply someone that was there. It felt like the aftermath of a summer fair, only without the good singing voices.

There was some theatre though, I found.

Some bold souls had decided to spend their last night in Keter’s shadow putting on a trick play, which had drawn a large crowd of legionaries in varying degrees of inebriation. The Barber and Edward play was putting them in a fine mood, and it was loud laughter that’d drawn me there in the first place. I stood at the edge of the crowd, listening in, and found the premise hadn’t changed. It was still about the cunning goblin sergeant Barber, whose beauty drew suitors like moths to the flame, and the grim squire Edward whose strokes of good luck always ended unmade by his need to get even with his enemies. As was customary, between the two of them they got in a lot of mockery and dead foreigners which was exactly the kind of play my soldiers were in the mood for.

I was still taken aback by the sheer fucking audacity of it when I saw a goblin with bones glued on try to get to Barber to read her poetry only to get his head cut off by Edward – only for another bone-wearing goblin to pop up at the edge of the stage and try again. Those were, I realized with a shocked grin, the fucking Dead King.

“I would love you forever, beauteous star without a rival,” the goblin Dead King crooned.

“Not even if I were dead,” Barber scathingly replied.

Edward cut off Neshamah’s head again, wiping his brow exaggeratedly afterwards.

“We’ve been at this all afternoon,” the squire complained. “Maybe you should reconsider the suit, Queen Barber has a ring to it.”

Barber, who had not known the Dead King had a kingdom before, then hatched the plan to marry him and immediately bump him off so she could inherit Keter. It devolved quickly into slapstick humour as a bunch of heroes tried to crash the wedding only for their attempts to kill the Dead King to get in each other’s way and prevent Barber from speaking the vows. I was halfway to leaving when I noticed that the priest that had been about to officiate the wedding was suddenly dragged off stage, replaced by someone with a fake beard. Someone with a staff and a tattered cloak of many colours. The goblin Dead King peered at ‘me’.

“Have I met you before?” he asked. “You seem familiar.”

“Never,” the Black Queen replied. “Unrelated, but do you have any particular weaknesses someone might use to kill you for good?”

The Dead King’s yellow eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Why do you ask?”

“It’s part of the traditional Callowan wedding ceremony,” the Black Queen lied.

Two goblins dressed in black popped in behind her, cawing their hearts out as they flapped the wings of large wooden crows that they made perch on the Black Queen’s shoulders. She batted them away in a panic.

“Coincidence,” the Black Queen assured the betrothed. “I must have had some seeds on my cloak.”

The crows kept coming back, though, forcing her to make increasingly tortured explanations, and with a grin I pulled on Night. The next time the crows flew off, I replaced them with two feathered apparitions I’d woven out. The Black Queen actress stiffened and the crowd stilled.

“Nothing to see here,” I made one of the crows say.

“We have invitations,” the other one insisted.

The sound was so sudden it was like a sharper had just blown: the roars of laughter approval drowned out everything else, a quarter of the crowd looking around to see if they might find me. I was gone before anyone got too enterprising, though, disappearing into the avenues.

 I had a fire waiting for me.

Most of them were already there when I arrived.

Juniper was turning her spitted pigs and loudly arguing with Vivienne about whether ‘catapults’ could ever be legitimately be an item in a royal budget, though I couldn’t help but notice that unlike the way it would have been a few years ago the two of them were smiling. Aisha and Masego were playing shatranj as they sipped glasses of wine, Indrani draped over his shoulder and giving him terrible advice  he was duly ignoring, and Pickler was halfway through a mug of ale larger than her head as informed the lot of them that goblins had a game like shatranj, only the rules changed and you could get stabbed if you lost. Indrani looked worryingly interested.

The sight that had me shuffling in discomfort, though, was Kilian of Mashamba leaning over her cauldron of dirty rice with a long spoon in hand as she calmly spoke with Akua Sahelian. I’d never seen them together before, and hadn’t quite grasped how much taller than her Akua was – Kilian was barely taller than me, after all. I slipped in close before I could get noticed and got to eavesdrop a bit on the conversation.

“- and Ratface used to put saffron in it by the handful, which was odious,” Kilian was saying. “He was a deft hand with chicken dishes, but not a man you wanted anywhere near rice.”

“We have a family recipe with fried peppers in it,” Akua told her. “A few generations back, one of my kin actually had another assassinated over-”

Golden eyes found me, and I forced nonchalance as I approached them. Kilian looked hesitant when she noticed I was there, her fair face closing, so I limped closer to lean over the cauldron and breathe in the vapour.

“Smells good,” I said, clapping her shoulder.

I would have lied if it didn’t, but I hadn’t had to.

“Rat Company recipe,” Kilian replied with a relieved smile. “They used to teach us in our first year.”

I blinked in surprise.

“I never was never taught it,” I pointed out.

“I would surmise you also never had to cook, darling,” Akua amusedly said. “Did you not become company captain within days of first joining?”

“It was Ratface’s idea,” I pointed out, perhaps a tad defensively.

“Of course it was,” Akua easily smiled.

I narrowed my eye at her, only then noticing the startled look that Kilian was giving the both of us. It left me feeling strangely naked, so I excused myself to grab a drink instead of lingering. The strangeness quickly faded, leaving me instead to sink into the warmth of the company I was keeping. I spent most of my time bickering with Indrani about whether or not some poet I’d never head of should be considered a classic – absolutely nod, I’d never heard of them – and stealing pieces from the shatranj game that Pickler had insisted she would beat Aisha at since she’d beaten Zeze. Since the good lady Aisha Bishara ensured my glass stayed full, in an act of brazen quid pro quo I ensured that her pawns never stayed more than two turns off the board when they were taken.

It got bad enough Masego started to cheat against her, which naturally drew Indrani into it and therefore utter chaos.

I was grinning up to my ears by the time Juniper declared the pigs were ready, a signal that the traditional ritual was about to begin. We all gathered with our plates as the Hellhound began making her cuts, as usual beginning with the naked favouritism that was Aisha getting the first place the best pieces. Masego cocked his head to the side.

“Why is it that she always goes first?” he curiously asked.

Juniper turned a gimlet eye on him.

“She’s the only one of you lot that removes headaches from my life instead of adding them,” the Marshal of Callow growled.

“Oh, that seems fair then,” Zeze plainly agreed.

As usual, the use of Masego’s most dangerous weapon – sincerity – disarmed his opponent without contest. Not so much that she didn’t slap Indrani’s hand away when she tried to carve out a piece from the side of the pig, though. Still, looking at them all I could not help but feel something was slightly wrong. The last time we’d done this, in Hainaut, there’d been… Ah, I thought. There’d been Hakram. He had been invited, Gods of course he’d been, but he was also the Warlord and our camp was not the only one lit up tonight.

“Ah, just in time.”

I turned and coming out of the cold were two silhouettes. One I did not recognize, an orc with long fangs and scarred-up shoulders bared by the leather tunic she had on. Big girl, shorter than Juniper but noticeably broader. The other one, though, was a prayer I’d not voiced answered. Hakram stood easily on his prosthetic leg, a loose coat fur over his tunic, and offered me a smile.

“I don’t suppose you have two more plates?” the tall orc asked.

“I think we’ll find some lying around,” I smiled back.

“Sigvin!” Indrani called out. “Though he might drag you here. Come on, sit with me.”

Ah, so that was who. Sigvin of the Split Tree Clan was, if Archer was to be believed, the closest thing Hakram had had to a lover in the time we’d known him. They didn’t keep to each other’s bed only, she said, but she was sticking around and he didn’t seem to mind at all. Bet it had something to do about the scars, I mused. I still remembered how wild orc girls had gone over his after he scrapped with Vivienne and the Lone Swordsman. Sigvin’s face betrayed no nervousness, but there was something of it in her stance. There were, I supposed, a lot of famous names gathered here tonight. She stepped forward, though, and after offering me a curt bow pressed two bottles into my hands.

“Aragh, Warden,” she said. “A gift for your fire.”

I met her eyes solemnly.

“Where have you been all my life, Sigvin?” I asked.

That got Indrani laughing, and Aisha as well, which bled some of the tension out. Hakram shot me a knowing look as he passed me by, gently brushing his shoulder against mine in unspoken thanks. I sat with him, Akua by complete coincidence happening to sit on my other side as Juniper finished doling out her cuts and we settled down to eat. With full bellies and plenty to drink, we settled down around the fire and the conversation remained lively. I let myself be drawn into a debate by Vivienne about whether or not the Exiled Prince would have been able to beat the Barrow Sword in a fight-

“Absolutely not,” I firmly said. “Ishaq’s ridiculously hard to kill and he can even use Night now.”

-but afterwards I took step back for a bit, pulling up my pipe to indulge in wakeleaf as I watched them. It was a balm of the heart to see them like this. Masego idly playing with Indrani’s hair as she rested her head on his lap, Pickler drawing something in the dirt that Aisha and Sigvin were look rather skeptically at, Juniper looking appalled as Akua told her about secret Tower histories and both gestured animatedly in the firelight. Vivienne was chatting with Kilian by the pigs, the redhead tracing a few symbols of light in the air that the Princess was shaking her head at. Slowly, I felt something loosen in my gut as I pulled at my pipe and blew out a stream of smoke.

“I missed these,” Hakram quietly said.

I’d heard him coming, but we had kept silent until now as I watched and smoked. There was no sense of hurry to the air.

“I’m glad we got to do it before the end,” I murmured. “It wouldn’t be the same, going into the dark without first having sat by the fire.”

He slowly nodded. I was seated and he standing, the two of us apart from the rest. It was a familiar feeling, though somewhat bittersweet.

“Tomorrow,” he began, then trailed off.

“There’ll be the battle,” I said. “And then after. When that time comes…”

“I’ll find you,” the Warlord said. “I can still feel it, you know.”

I glanced at him, found his face pulled tight.

“The pull,” he elaborated when I said nothing.

My lips quirked.

“And this surprises you?”

He did not answer, which was as good as an admission it did.

“I told you, Hakram Deadhand,” I said. “When the Woe will fight, where would you be if not with us?”

I meant it, I did not speak out loud. You’re still one of us. He stayed silent for a long time.

“I will not be the Warlord forever,” he suddenly said.

“You’ll need to step down eventually,” I agreed. “Else they won’t know how to be without you in charge.”

He nodded.

“When that day comes,” Hakram gravelled. “I-”

I raised a hand, interrupted him.

“Don’t feel like you have to make that promise,” I said. “Wasn’t that the point of all this?”

“You should have let me finish,” he snorted, baring fangs in amusement. “I could think of worse places to retire to than Cardinal.”

It wasn’t quite an offer, I thought, or a promise. But it was something. There was a lump in my throat I couldn’t quite swallow, so instead I took his hand. The dead one, the skeletal fingers that he’d come into fighting for me. I squeezed them and he squeezed them back. I sighed, closing my eye, and for a moment allowed myself to lean my head against his side and rest. It wasn’t the same it used to be, I thought.

But that didn’t mean it couldn’t be good.

When it all wound down, when everyone was drunk and began to fall asleep around the dying fire, after Hakram and Sigvin had gone, I still sat wide awake. Vivienne was snoring under a blanket and drooling on a log, Pickler draped over her and somehow not awoken by the racket.  Juniper and Aisha were whispering softly in a corner, Indrani had gone off to get water for an unusually dead drunk Masego to drink before he fell asleep and I found myself with Kilian of Masham standing before me. She had not grown any less beautiful in the years since we’d parted ways, I thought as I watched the paleness of the moon caress her skin and light up the green of her eyes.

“Thank you,” Kilian softly said. “For saying yes.”

I could have pretended I didn’t know what she was talking about, but it would have been unworthy of the both of us.

“They’re your friends too,” I said. “I wouldn’t keep you from them on a night like this.”

Her lips quirked in a rueful smile I knew well.

“And us, Catherine?” she asked. “Are we friends?”

I could have told her that I’d once offered her that and she had turned it away, but the bitterness of that would have left a poor taste in the mouth. It was a done business, done long ago at that.

“No,” I honestly said. “But that’s the choices that were made.”

She nodded, and I found her face hard to read.

“I suppose we aren’t,” Kilian agreed, then glanced at the others. “It’ll get cooler out, later on.”

I cocked my head to the sight. Her eyes found mine, steady.

“It would be warmer in my tent,” she offered, and I stilled.

We both knew what she was truly offering, and it would have been a lie to say I wasn’t at least a little tempted. She had, after all, not stopped being beautiful. And I had fond memories of her behind closed doors, for all that had come after. But it was only a passing thing, soon gone. It was, as I had just thought, a done business. Pretending otherwise would be sweet, for a time, but it would be a sickly sort of sweetness.

“I’ve gotten used to the cold,” I gently replied.

To my surprise, she smiled.

“I didn’t think you’d say yes,” she admitted.

I cocked my head to the side.

“Then why offer?”

“The terror of an entire continent,” Kilian teasingly said, “and still some things about you are the same as when you were fresh out of Laure.”

I was still in too good a mood to get irritated, but she was headed in that direction.

“For old time’s sake,” Kilian said, “I’ll tell you one thing, Catherine.”

She paused, then looked away.

“You never looked at me the way you look at the Sahelian,” the redhead told me. “Do yourself a favour and own it.”

She raised her hand to touch my shoulder, but she must have seen something on my face and she aborted the gesture. With one last faint smile, she took her leave and left the cast of the fire’s light to vanish into the camp. I sat there, resting my cheek on the palm of my hand, and sighed.

“Eavesdropping?” I said.

A moment of silence, then a smooth gait on the dirt until she came to sit by my side. Close enough to touch, yet not touching. Years made into a sentence, that.

“You started it,” Akua replied.

I rolled my eye but did not argue. We were both had bad habits in that regard. The silence that lingered after was not tense, but neither was it easy. It felt like the moment before a blade was drawn. And in the end, it was not me who cleared the scabbard first.

“Will you?” she asked.

“Will I?” I replied.

Golden eyes found mine.

“Do yourself a favour,” Akua said.

My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched. I did not answer.

“No,” Akua murmured. “I don’t think you will. There’s too much of who you are invested in holding that last redoubt.”

I did not look away.

“So you won’t,” Akua slowly said, “but neither will you stop me.”

Her hand cupped my cheek, tenderly, and she leaned forward. I closed my eye, felt her lips move against mine. It was soft but the softness kindled a hunger, and I would have bitten her lip and leaned in had I not held on to that last redoubt. But I did, she leaned back. Her breath was soft against my lips.

“I am not sure,” Akua whispered, “whether that was love or cruelty.”

My eye still closed, I felt her rise to her feet. She brushed her hand against my neck, my shoulder, and then suddenly the warmth of them was gone.

“Neither am I,” I admitted.

She was gone when I opened my eye.

I stayed there for a long time, sitting there in my silence.

Though it was late and the night was at its deepest, I did not crawl into my tent to sleep. Instead I rose and slipped past the sleeping bodies on the floor, past the people I loved most in the world, and headed deeper into the shadow. Past the last fires to be lit, the last watching eyes that a twist of Night ensured slid past me without seeing anything. I did not have a destination held firmly in my mind, instead trusting my feet to get me where I needed to be. One of the old Fairfax kings had once said that the evening before a battle was like an entire nation breathing in, and I felt the truth to the words. For all that the camp had gone still and silent, there was palpable sense of something in the air.

But we were still in the moment before the end began, and so there was room enough for one last conversation to be had.

I found her waiting in the shadow of a watchtower, leaning against the side as a slice of moonlight cut across her face. The Ranger had been beautiful once, and perhaps still was, but that beauty had been marred. She still held the burn scars of Summer flame on the side of her face, but also fresher ones. Still red and raw, three cuts: one across the nose and two down her cheeks. The parting gift of her last pupils, the children of Refuge that had risen against their terror and teacher. They’d left her broken on the floor of the Tower as goblinfire burned behind, her fate entirely in her own hands. We’d all known, deep down, that it would take more than that to kill her.

I limped forward, Mantle trailing behind me as the moonlight shone down on my hair, and the half-elf’s dark eyes flicked to me even through the veil I had yet to cast down. It was no longer needed, though, so with a flick of the wrist I abandoned the working.

“I’ve been expecting you, Hye Su,” I calmly said.

“I did not,” the hard-eyed woman said, “give you leave to use my name.”

I hummed, unmoved, and cocked my head to the side.

“ “But the Name you want me to use instead,” I said, “isn’t it feeling a little loose in your grasp, nowadays?”

I felt it then, the will to kill me. An intention so strong it felt like Creation would bend to it, just like the first time I’d met this monster when I’d been a girl who didn’t known better. I did now, though. And I was no longer that girl. I leaned forward, smiling, and pit my will against her own. For a moment it was as if two ships were colliding, but then in the heartbeat that followed there was a crack. And it was not me that’d given. Ranger drew back into herself before it could turn worse, face giving away nothing, but her body was not so silent. She was, I found with amusement, wary.

How long had it been since she’d come out the loser in a game like this?

“Better,” I mildly said. “Now make your offer. It’s why you came for, isn’t it?”

She pushed off the side of the watchtower, the slice of moonlight expanding to swallow half her face. How very unfair it was, I thought, that she was beautiful enough the cut on her cheek seemed more like a tattoo than a blemish.

“I want a trade, Warden,” Hye Su said. “An oath out of you.”

“And what manner of oath would it be?” I asked.

I already knew the answer, but it needed to be said.

“A duel,” she said. “You and me. Ten years from now.”

I thinly smiled.

“Am I to rejoice,” I asked, “that I have become worth hunting?”

Her face tightened with sudden, poisonous anger. It startled me.

“No,” Hye Sue coldly said. “Not that. Never that, for you. This isn’t Ranger business.”

Ah, I softly realized. It wasn’t the Named that had come tonight, the legend. It was the woman.

“You want to kill me,” I said.

“If you die now Calernia might break,” she said. “And if it’s just after the war, it’ll be more trouble than it’s worth. So I want an oath that, ten years from now, you will come to me for a duel to the death.”

I breathed out a laugh.

“Indrani didn’t think you’d take revenge,” I told her.

“He did it to himself as much as you did,” she said. “I know that. And that it’s not a good fate in the making, killing you. It’ll bring too much down on my head.”

“But you don’t care,” I slowly said.

I was, I would admit, fascinated by the cold flame I saw in the other woman’s eyes.

“But I don’t care,” Hye Sue repeated, the quiet of her voice a deep grief. “I loved him, Warden, in a way that can’t be replaced. That time won’t change. I loved him and you killed him. So in ten years, one of us will die.”

Looking at her, at the gaunt cast of her face, I believed it at last. That in her own strange and twisted way, Hye Su had loved Amadeus of the Green Stretch just as deeply as he’d loved her. Enough that she was breaking the rules that’d kept her alive through centuries of fighting Named and monsters, enough that she was willing to risk being hunted by entire kingdoms. This might just be, I realized, the first time I had ever liked the Ranger since first meeting her. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.

“You said this was a trade,” I reminded her. “Should I take this oath, what would you offer in exchange?”

She met my eye, unflinching.

“I know,” Hye Sue, “a secret way into Keter. Take the oath and I’ll show it to you.”

And there it was, the last piece that’d been needed before it all fell into place. Before we brought an end to this endless war. I stood before her, our silhouettes draped in moonlight, and after a long moment I offered my hand. She took it, fingers digging into my wrist, and we shook on it.

I gave her the oath and she gave me a way past the impassable.

Chapter 62: Finish

“There should be no second chances. To think your days on Creation as a test, as something that can be won or lost, is a mistake. The peculiar delusion to believe that you are alone and all others are rivals. No lone soul can bear the weight of the world: come Last Dusk, we will rise or fall as a whole. So do not be stinting in kindness, in offering chances without counting them. Come the end, we may find that saving one soul saved all the world.”

– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

-my sword cleared the scabbard, rising to catch a glint of sunlight.

“Let us remind the Enemy,” I said, and then stilled.

More words were on the tip of my tongue, defiance and pride, but my vision was swimming and suddenly I felt like emptying my stomach all over the avenue. Something had just happened. I’d just been… Choppily moving around on Zombie’s back, I saw the dead gathering in bands down the paving stones that would lead us all the way to the inner wall. Nausea clogged up my throat and I retched drily, pawing at my sweaty face. Tears were trailing down my face, like I’d looked into the sun for too long, but when I turned I saw enough. My knights were going through the same thing, several of them vomiting on the floor while others had been thrown off by panicked horses. This isn’t what happened, I thought. My blood was pounding away at my temples.

“Akua?” I rasped out.

My eye went to her and found her bent over her necromantic horse, breathing panicked as she tried and fail to say still.

“Sorcery,” she got out. “Something…”

She used a word in Mthethwa I’d never head before, maybe from one of the northern dialects.

“I died.”

I shifted in my saddle again, feeling like a raft going down rapids as bile rose up my throat. It had been Brandon Talbot who spoke. His face was haggard.

“I remember dying,” the bearded knight continued. “Thrown off the edge, the way my skull broke when I landed.”

The Sisters were talking in the back of my mind, their voices like the scream of a migraine, and I couldn’t even make out what they were saying. It was fast and angry and worried. But I remembered it, just a bit. Charging up that avenue with the Broken Bells behind me, Praes coming to our aid. Storming the wall, setting foot in the Dead King’s last redoubt and then… I let out a hoarse scream, clutching my helm as warm nails were driven into my brain. The pain, Gods the pain. Someone laid their soft hand on me, whispering an incantation, but it was dim. Distant. The memories were not. I led us straight into a trap, I remembered with dread. There had been no way to know how many had died when Keter had turned into a lethal jigsaw puzzle, but I could hazard guesses.

Armies had been broken, mine worst of all.

“The Riddle-Maker did this,” I guessed, forehead burning with fever.

The last thing I remembered hearing was his challenge to the Dead King, though the precise words escaped me. Most the knights seemed all right by now – shaken, but no more than that – but I was still feeling shaky. Had I gotten it worse than most? Why did… no, I could wonder at that later. We had been sent back by an hour, maybe a little more, and now we knew that Keter itself was a death trap meant to shatter our armies. My eye turned to Akua, who looked a little green bit otherwise fine.

“I can’t feel the ritual getting started,” I said. “Can you? If he got sent back an hour as well, he should be striking immediately knowing we won’t fall for it twice.”

“A ritual on that scale cannot be done by snapping one’s fingers, Catherine,” the sorceress peevishly replied. “We saw the end, not the preparations. The first steps are likely being taken below our feet as we speak.”

Unless the Dead King hadn’t gotten sent back – or his memories sent back, or whatever the Hells this was. That would be too lucky, I grimly thought. I have to assume he went back as well. The only person who could tell me what this all was would be Kreios the Riddle-Maker himself, who was… actually where was he right now?

“Talbot, Akua,” I said. “Hold, do not charge.”

Both opened their mouths, but before they could ask me anything I’d spurred on Zombie and she took a few bounding steps before leaping into flight. Streaks of sorcery whizzed past us and arrows were fired, though they fell far short, as I the hippocorvid beat her wings hastily and circled ever higher. The smoke was thick up here and ash stuck to my drying sweat in clumps, but I looked with my fleshless eyes and saw where I needed to. The gate that the Procerans had taken not so long ago was full of fantassins and conscripts, but there was not a hint of the Gigantes I had glimpsed there before passing out.

“Are you not here yet?” I murmured.

Gods, I thought. I knew that, like teleportation, ‘time’ magic was theoretically possible. Not under the Trismegistan theory, sure, but what would a Titan care about that? The sheer amount of power it would need, though, was somewhere between mind-boggling and outright divine. I hadn’t thought even an ancient old monster like Kreios the Riddle-Maker would have that in him. Because we know fuck all about him in the first place, I thought, except that he’s to Gigantes what Sve Noc are to drow. Regardless, I had my answer: the Titanomachy was not here, had yet to arrive, and that meant in every way that mattered we were still fucked.

We couldn’t stop the Dead King’s ritual puppetry of his city and we had nothing prepared to take armies through the field of entropy magic that lay beyond the inner walls. Even if we made better time than our last swing at this, went in better prepared, we would lose. And I had my doubts we’d do better, now that the Dead King had no reason to hold back since his trap had already been revealed. He’d come for us with all he had. I cursed under my breath, knees guiding Zombie into a dive. She screeched, displeased she’d done all this flying without getting to kill anything, but obeyed. I was in no better mood. I’d put it all on the line and it had not been enough, so there was only one thing left to do.

Call the retreat.

We landed back with the Order of Broken Bells, which had formed into a wedge in my absence but obeyed the orders. Akua looked better, I thought after glancing her way. Almost back to normal. My knights were even better, except for a few whose faces were still sickly. Those who died, I guessed. Talbot saluted when turned to him, face grim.

“We pull back,” I told him. “We can’t take the inner city and if we can’t do that then we’re just throwing lives away.”

“It will be butchery getting out,” the grandmaster evenly said.

“I know,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “But it’ll be a lot worse than that if we stay.”

In his eyes I saw he did not agree, and I was not sure whether that was irritating me or making me proud. Maybe a little of both.

“Send riders to the commanders on the ground,” I ordered him. “We need to move quickly.”

“As you say, Your Majesty,” Brandon Talbot replied, fist over heart.

My gaze turned to Akua, who already had a cocked eyebrow.

“I’ll reach out to the flying fortresses,” she said. “Ask them to cover our retreat instead of our advance.”

“Everything they can,” I quietly said, eye moving to the dead gathering on the avenue. “This is going to get messy.”

I’d been taught an army was never so vulnerable as when it was retreating, and that’d been talking of some field or city. This was Keter.

It was going to get bad.

I charged twice with the Order of Broken Bells, to disrupt the dead before they could mass enough to overwhelm our position at the avenue. It was a brisk, shattering business that left skeletons in pieces after which we withdrew. Above us the flying fortresses were pulling back as well, but not before High Marshal Nim gave Keter her goodbyes. A trail of barrels fell in the wake of the retreating fortresses, smashing into the ground to a familiar sight: green flame. The Black Knight unloaded her stocks like a spendthrift, drowning the Crown of the Dead in death all around the Army of Callow’s dug in positions. The ogre was not willing to sacrifice the Legions to cover our retreat, but she was willing to do the next best thing.

Word was sent to the Levantines and the Procerans that we were beginning the retreat, though I had no doubt they were doing the same already, and my army closed ranks as it began to cede ground. We’d have to cross the same steel bridges that had brought us here under fire once more, which would be costly, but we’d survive taking a licking like that. The same could not be said of staying in the city. Besides, with the goblinfire surrounding our position we shouldn’t be too badly pressed. I sent the Order back, since knights would be of no use in narrow streets packed increasingly tight with our soldiers, and gave Grandmaster Talbot orders to expediate the first bridge crossings.

On my way back to the hill we’d bled so much to take, I found the Painted Knife’s band waiting for me. Roland still looked sick, I noticed, but the others were fine. More sensitive to power? Didn’t matter and I didn’t ask. They had news for me and that took precedence.

“All armies are retreating,” Kallia told me. “Just heard it from the Page, Warden. The Grey Legion is hammering at the Procerans and my people are on the verge of collapse.”

“Why is the Dominion folding?” I frowned.

They hadn’t been that badly off last time.

“I do not know,” the Painted Knife unhappily admitted. “Neither did the Page. All I can say is that there is a fighting retreat on all sides.”

“It’s the best we can hope for,” I grunted. “At least we-”

I didn’t even have time to tempt Fate, it took the lead. Before I could finish my sentence I felt the fabric of Creation begin to bend and scream, as atop the tower in the depths of the inner city a burning glare turned its attention to us.

“Demons,” I quietly said. “Fuck.”

The Dead King had decided to stop pulling punches, and it went downhill from there. One of the abominations bent the very floor of Keter, wiping away the goblinfire and turning it into a surreal sculpture as undead poured into the breach. To the east instead a two-legged creature without legs whose very silhouette hurt my eye to behold began to eat the green flames, finally answering the old question of whether goblinfire worked on demons. Only some of them, it seemed. What had been an orderly retreat went to shit in moments.

“Akua-”

“I won’t be enough,” she interrupted me. “We need diabolists, Catherine. We need the High Lords.”

She was right, and if the demons weren’t contained then it was more than just the Army of Callow that was at risk. They might sweep through right into the camp.

“Fuck,” I cursed again, and drew my sword. “Get them down here. On my authority.”

In some ways, what followed was worse than Maillac’s Boot. There we had picked our grounds, prepared and weighed the risks. Here it was madness on all sides, my soldiers never in the right place while the enemy struck from everywhere. I fought in the whirlwind of the melee, never staying in place, always going where the shield wall was collapsing or the monster had broken through. I emptied myself of Night, torching ranks of Binds and almost broke my arm dragging a soldier out of a collapsing house. Moments later I had to bring down another on top of my own legionaries as a swarm of ghouls overwhelmed them, biting the scream on the tip of my tongue.

The Praesi came, but there was no clean victory to be had here. One of the Old Mothers topped down, the enchantments that kept it aflight twisted by a demon of Corruption, and as I saw that great fortress topple behind enemy lines I knew every soul inside was dead. The High Lords and their retinues came down, joining the desperate fight, and sorcery lit up the dusty sky. Demons were bound, driven back, and at the heart of it all Akua led them sword in hand. A hand touched my shoulder and I near leapt out my skin, already halfway through a swing when I realized it was Roland. The Rogue Sorcerer was covered in soot, his boyish face drawn and tired.

“The Blade of Mercy’s dead,” he told me. “And the Skinchanger lost an arm. We were ambushed by the Prince of Bones and the Seelie.”

My grip tightened around my sword.

“Pull your band back,” I said. “Every Named corpse will be Revenant by tomorrow.”

“Kallia already gave the order,” Roland said. “The Blessed Artificer was wounded, but she’s still covering the retreat across the bridges. We need to get out now, Catherine.”

“I’m not leaving my soldiers behind,” I harshly said.

“Then lead them out of here quickly,” he replied. “The Procerans are mostly out of the city now. We’re about to have all the Scourges after us, not just two.”

That the Hawk had not shot at me or any of mine even once remained a private source of dread. If he hadn’t been after us, then who was it he’d been shooting at? I spat to the side, into a thick carpet of ash. Much as I disliked it, Roland was right: if we kept retreating with a measure of control, we’d get killed anyway. I was going to have to tell my soldiers to run, knowing they’d get shot in the back all the while. But it’ll be worse if we’re the last people in Keter, I thought. That’s suicide.

“I’ll give the orders,” I said. “Go tell Akua we need to get a move on.”

He nodded. I got hold of a captain, then worked my way up the chain to a tribune before I found no one higher. Everyone else was dead. My word was enough to get them moving, and it was exactly as brutal as I’d feared. The dead spilled forth uncontrollably with no shield wall to contain them, and as everyone made a run for the bridges panic began to spread. I made my way to the hill where I’d sent Roland and last seen Akua, but they were further ahead. Behind a half-collapsed house, arguing about something.

“I can still save-”

“Yourself,” the Rogue Sorcerer bit out. “Come on, we need to get-”

I saw the glint of the sun on metal, but neither of them did. I shouted in warning even as I pulled on Night, tossing it blindly, but the arrow went through the power like a knife through butter. Akua fell to her knees, a dark-feathered shaft having sprouted in her throat and gone through the sheet of mail.

No,” I shouted, throwing up an illusion to hide them.

Another arrow fell blindly, missing both as Akua clawed at her throat and gasped. Roland put his hand on the arrow and met her eyes. She nodded. I did not have the heart to look, only hearing a wet gurgle. I almost tripped on the stones, falling to my knees next to her as I ripped away the mail and laid a hand on her bloody skin. Her throat had been shredded, now a red mess. I stopped the bleeding with a pulse of Night, but I could not heal. She could, though. Tracing runes in the air, eyes fluttering, she began to close the skin of her own throat. Then I felt the illusion being ripped through. Roland threw out a shimmering shield as I helped Akua up, drawing her close.

She still couldn’t talk, she’d lost some vocal cords.

“We run,” I said, pulling on Night and throwing another illusion.

Roland suddenly twitched, reaching behind me, and his arm lit up with half a dozen shades of green light shaped like leaves. I ducked, but it would have been too late if he’d not stepped in: the arrow that should have gone through the back of my neck was instead caught in the leaves, punching through them and the mail below to cut the side of his arm.

“Let’s,” the Rogue Sorcerer fervently agreed.

We legged it. Behind us I saw a flicker of movement and tossed black flame at it without breaking stride, forcing the Seelie to duck away, and we ran for my army and the relative safety of the press of the crowd. Curses broke houses to our sides as we moved, the Mantle revealing she’d not been far behind, and I forced back a whimper of pain as I kept running despite my bad leg. Akua gently pushed off my arm, fine running on her own, and my stomach loosened when finally we reached my soldiers. They parted way for us some, even as everyone tried to hurry onto the bridges even as the ramparts in the distance shot at my crossing men.

Roland stumbled and I caught him, glaring at the man who’d just elbowed him, but that was when I noticed how pale he’d gone. When he dropped to his knees, he didn’t get back up. My stomach dropped and I laid a hand on his neck.

“Roland?” I asked. “What is-”

“Poison,” he rasped. “Must be.”

I found it a moment later and went still. I knew this poison, I’d seen it before. It had been in Hune’s blood after the Varlet struck her, and the moment it’d touched Night it had turned into acid and killed her instantly.

“Akua,” I shouted, turning around, “I need you to-”

She was already at my side, magic wreathing her hand yellow, but her face was somber. I got up, yelling for a priest, but there were none. They’d already crossed, we were with the last of the rearguard. Roland had gone even paler and his breath was slowing.

“No,” I begged, kneeling back down. “Please.”

He smiled at me, grasping my hand.

“Charlatans run out of tricks,” Roland whispered. “Nothing to it.”

“You won’t,” I said. “We’ll-”

I looked at Akua, but she wouldn’t meet my eye. The breath went out of me.

“I don’t regret it,” Roland told me. “I don’t. Get them all home, Catherine.”

For the first time in years, I let out a sob. He drew me close.

“Beaumarais,” he murmured into my ear. “Bury me in Beaumarais. There’s a girl…”

He trailed off. His breath was difficult.

“I will,” I swore, because what else could I do?

“We did good,” Roland whispered, eyes closing. “We did…”

He did not breathe in again. It was over, all because of that small cut on his wrist. A single moment of inattention on my part, that was all it’d taken. I crossed the bridge in silence carrying his body on my back, Akua trailing behind me, swatting stones out of the sky. I went all the way through and up the hill, back to the camp and the tent I had come from. There I found my staff, stuck in the ground, and ripped it free. Eye closed, I sagged against it.

The battle was over.

It would take hours before we could count how many soldiers had died – at least twenty-five thousand, by the most conservative of reckonings – but some casualties were easier to count. Names began to filter in with the reports. Prince Rodrigo Trastanes of Orense had died in battle against the Grey Legion, keeping them off routing conscripts long enough to prevent collapse of the Proceran flank. The captain of Hakram’s retinue, Dag Clawtoe of the Howling Wolves, took the Hawk’s killing arrow for his Warlord. High Lady Takisha of Kahtan blew her own brains out rather than be taken by a demon of Corruption and High Lord Jaheem of Okoro incinerated himself along with three city blocks when he found himself surrounded.

Not all deaths were worth a story. The princess of Creusens was trampled to death by her own panicked horse, Red Ella – Aquiline’s second – was pushed off the wall and broke her neck. The senior legate of the Fourth Army was torched by mage fire from his own troops, which had misheard the order of their captain in the mayhem. War was one third heroism, one third horror and tone third the simple cruelty of luck.

Some losses were more keenly felt than others. Levant lost its steadiest hand when Careful Yannu was taken by the Prince of Bones, leaving it in disarray as it retreated from its failed assault. The First Army lost General Zola to a ritual bombardment that’d gotten past Hierophant and two layers of wards. It’d been a nasty curse and an even nastier way to die, taking half of the First’s senior staff with her. We were so lacking in officers there was talk that Aisha might need to take command, as one of the few old hands left.

When it came to Named, the amount of death was staggering. The Scourges had focused on them rather than racking up crowned scalps and it showed. We’d lost the Royal Conjurer, the Marauder, the Swaggering Duellist, the Balladeer, the Forlorn Paladin, the Blade of Mercy, the Anchorite, the Bloody Sword and the Pilfering Dicer. The Skinchanger had lost an arm, the Myrmidon a leg and the Stone Carver had been struck blind. I’d known few of them in any depth, so my grief was kept back for the one I had counted a friend.

But I swallowed my grief, got myself patched up and changed my clothes before downing as much herbal painkiller as I could. My day wasn’t done: the Gigantes were on their way, and that meant there were talks to be had before I could collapse into a bed and weep.

It felt more like a town assembly than a war council.

My preference for fewer people in the room was forcefully set aside by circumstance. Twice over, given that not only did we need a crowd’s worth of people but we did not have a room that could fit the Gigantes. The gathering took place outside in an abandoned drilling field, the fate of Calernia to be determined over beaten earth besides training dummies. Chairs were dragged in, wards layered one after another by half a dozen different mages under Hierophant’s watching eye and then we sent for everyone that wasn’t already there.

Every Proceran prince left had dragged their hides there, led by First Prince Rozala Malanza and the unofficial second most powerful man left in the Principate: Otto Redcrown. Frederic sat there wearing a pristine doublet in his family colours, with him a few familiar faces. Beatrice of Hainaut and Arsene of Bayeux. Others I did not know as well: the rulers of Aisne, Orne, Arans, Lyonis and Segovia. The absence of Procer’s southeast boded badly for Rozala’s later reign, the four principalities that had effectively abandoned the rest of Calernia forming a territory as large as Levant and significantly richer. Adding to the crowd were the most prominent fantassins captains, most of them having fallen behind the most powerful among them: Captain-General Catalina Ferreiro of the Liga Bandera, a handsome scarred woman I’d fought with at the Battle of Hainaut.

In the back of their gathering, still a princess in name, Cordelia Hasenbach sat. Her face was calm, but those blue eyes troubled. They had good reason to be, I conceded with a grimace.

The League of Free Cities gathered around Empress Basilia of Aenia like a pack of birds huddling for warmth, save for the exhausted-looking general from Bellerophon and the aggressively unremarkable minder stand behind him. Hopefully the kanenas wouldn’t execute the woman, things were tense enough as it was. First Magister – for life – Zoe Ixioni and Princess Zenobia Vasilakis, Basilia’s vassals and closest allies, sat to her sides. The philosopher-priest from Atalante, a short man with a wildly unkempt beard, instead stuck closer to Secretary Nestor and the newly-elected Exarch of Penthes, a nervously skinny young man by the name of Leontios Notaris. They were in the finest mood here, however grim that height: their victory out on the Ossuary with dwarven support had been a crushing one.

The Levantines had brought captains as well as Blood, but that’d not been entirely the choice of the last remaining lords and lady of Levant. Lord Yannu Marave had no issue and his designated successor was in Levant. The most influential captains of Alava had come in the stead of their fallen lord, forcing the lordlings and Lord Moro of the Brigand’s Blood to follow suit. They were a brawny and bearded lot, fierce of appearance and decked in colourful paint, but Careful Yannu’s empty seat seemed to swallow up space at the heart of them. Even Aquiline and Razin seemed a little lost at his absence: they’d been foes in some way, but Yannu Marave had been the Dominion’s leading commander for most of the war against Keter.

The Confederation of Praes, artfully arranged around Malicia, had brought not only the Black Knight in her function as High Marshal but also Lady Nahiza Serrif as the ranking mage and the surviving gaggle of High Lords. Leering old Abreha Mirembe had it made it, as had Sargon Sahelian and venomous old Whither, but the High Lady of Kahtan and the High Lord of Okoro left empty seats. The High Lord of Nok was wounded but alive and had sent his daughter to sit in his stead. Their like was still glittering with gold and jewels, but the rest of the Praesi were anything but. The Warlord had brought with him the chiefs of his most powerful clans, which Hakram was turning into an informal council. Oghuz the Lame of the Red Shields and Troke Snaketooth for the Blackspears, Hegvor Allspeak for the Split Trees and Arban Twelve-Fingers for the Graven Bones.

My own lot were not so numerous in comparison, though we did have some famous names among us. Marshal Juniper and all my generals were the core of it, with Masego and Akua requested to be present to lend their knowledge. Vivienne was here as my successor, Indrani because she was certain to face the Hawk and though Hanno and Ishaq could not really be considered of ‘mine’ they sat with me as befitting captains of Above and Below subordinate to my office of Warden. I stood in the back of my delegation, draped in the Mantle of Woe and with two great crows on my shoulders.

The Firstborn did not send anyone but General Rumena and my two scribes. They did not need to: as the defence force of the camps, they had yet to try the walls. Their losses had been the lightest of us all, though that would not last. We had been saving them up for the last push, and that was fast approaching. The dwarves had earned the right to have a seat at the table with the foodstuffs promised, then earned it again by fighting alongside the League on the field today. Yet they preferred keeping their distance, sending only the Herald of the Deeps and Seeker Balasi flanked by a pair of armoured guards in heavy plate that covered their faces.

The last, but not the least, was a single man. Kreios the Riddle-Maker was taller than any of the Gigantes I had seen by a dozen feet, his thick skin a pale brown and his hair long. Unlike what I had seen of his kind, he had long brown locks but shaved his face – though not recently, by the looks of the stubble. His eyes were what drew the attention, large pools of a grey so pale it almost seemed white. They were steady and unblinking, as if there was nothing in the world that could possibly concern him. Given that the Titan sat higher than some towers, even seated with folded legs, I could believe it. Though he did not move and had not spoken since the Witch of the Woods came to stand at his side, it still felt like he was looming over us all.

First Prince Rozala rose to her feet, not even the generous cut of her tunic enough to hide how close to giving birth she was getting.

“I will begin by giving formal thanks to the Titanomachy,” Rozala Malanza said, and then to the surprise of some offered a bow to Kreios. “If you had not lent your aid, we might not now be alive to thank you.”

Some of her countrymen looked aghast at a First Prince bowing to a giant, but others were openly approving. The Titan studied her, then bowed his head back.

“Worthy causes ever find friends,” the old gold rumbled.

He didn’t mean to sound so deep, I decided, to have the sound of his voice resonating in our bones. But then did humans mean to breathe strong enough to move flies?

“An honourable sentiment,” Rozala replied, sounding sincere. “In its spirit, may I ask what manner of spell was used to move us through time?”

Kreios glanced at the Witch, whose face of painted stone looked sternly at us all.

“It was not movement in the sense you mean,” the Witch of the Woods told us. “A moment was severed from the flow and, once separate, made to begin anew. It was then joined anew to the flow.”

Hierophant leaned forward.

“You mean that we lost an hour compared to the rest of Creation,” Masego said. “Instead we repeated the same hour twice.”

Kreios watched him.

“You have good eyes, Cutter,” the god praised, “and witness much.”

“There is so much to see,” Hierophant smiled.

They might have gotten started on the magic talk if left to it, I figured, but we couldn’t spare the time for that.

“Can you do it again?” I bluntly asked.

It was the Witch that answered me.

“Not without erasing most of the Kingdom of the Dead,” Antigone said. “It will be centuries before severing causality here should be considered again.”

Mhm, I’d figured it would be something like that. Power that useful never came without a price. An hour for a few centuries of silence, huh. Creation was more fragile than I’d thought, or perhaps more hard-handed in erasing mistakes. I’d moved the conversation back to practicalities, which had been my objective, so I didn’t step into it again. Aquiline was the one who first put the cards on the table.

“Though we have taken great casualties,” the Lady of Tartessos said, “I believe we all know the truth: if we do not strike tomorrow, we will lose this war.”

There were grim nods of agreement, and then the inevitable hesitation. People wanted to wait longer, to let the men rest and finish healing the wounded. To make new plans to invest the city. It was Hakram that put an end to it.

“We learned the lay of the Dead King’s defences today,” the Warlord growled, “at great cost to many of us. If we wait, we throw those lives away: every hour that passes, the dead build new dangers to ruin us. We cannot wait.”

There was a hear, hear from Otto Reitzenberg that had a few Procerans cheering, Levantines loudly voicing their own approval. Eyes went to me, but I kept silent. It was Juniper who spoke for the Army of Callow, voicing her agreement.

“We can’t wait,” the Hellhound grunted, “but let’s not kid ourselves about our chances either. If we don’t have anything for the shifting city and that death trap in the inner city, then there’s no point in attacking.”

There the dwarves stirred.

“I believe I know where the ritual lies,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “Though I cannot stop it from beginning, I would lead my soldiers underground to end it.”

There were some nods of appreciation.

“Keter’s Due will begin to be fed into the secondary arrays long before the city begins to move,” Akua said. “We need a way to deal with it first.”

“The leading issue is the entropy trap,” Chancellor Alaya agreed. “We cannot take the Hellgate and reach the Dead King without being able to push past the second wall.”

“I will silence the power,” Kreios the Riddle-Maker stated. “When soldiers reach this wall, I will go with them and keep this trap dormant.”

There was a moment of silence, none quite daring to speak up after that. I cleared my throat.

“Then we have the bare bones of a plan,” I said. “We will assault the city again, with Lord Kreios allowing us to push past the inner wall while the Herald and his army strike at the Dead King’s ritual.”

“That still means we have to take Keter again,” Lord Moro of the Brigand’s Blood grimaced. “The Enemy will await us, and there are no bridges left. We will depend entirely on sorcery to cross.”

“No,” General Rumena mildly said. “This is to be the last battle, yes? Then the Firstborn will lead the charge. All can follow in our wake.”

It was enough of a boast that it had to explain after, but fewer questions were asked than one might assume. It had not gone unnoticed that I had not contradicted the drow general. An hour and change passed as tactics were argued and then the attribution of Named. The greatest change was that there would be no army sent out to do battle on the Ossuary: there would be no other chance of winning after this. We were all in, do or die. Remaining in my seat, I closed my eye and sunk into my Name. Let it wash over me, hands reaching into the void as I exerted my will to See. And I found it, exactly what I was looking for. It was right under my hand, almost eager to be taken up.

The last stories were falling into place, huh. Even Fate believed it would all come down to tomorrow.

When I opened my eye I found the Riddle-Maker staring at me. Hierophant had, Gods bless his soul, stepped between us in a gesture that could be taken as protective. The Titan wished me no harm, though. I knew exactly what it was that’d drawn his attention.

“You have stolen an eye from the Intercessor,” the Titan said.

Silence fell, all other conversation dying. I reached for my pipe and took it in hand, stuffing it full of wakeleaf with well-practiced movements. I passed my palm over the mouth and pulled on a shard of Night, lighting it, and pulled deep. I let the burn linger in my lungs, the acrid pleasure of it, and spewed out the pale smoke. I was even nice enough not to do it on the back of Juniper’s neck, merciful queen that I was.

“Taken,” I corrected in a drawl. “It’s been a habit since I was a girl, I’ll confess.”

The old god seemed unmoved by my words.

“And what did you find?” he asked.

“We’re about to have a visitor,” I smiled.

I wasn’t tied into the wards, but I knew the mages that were: and each and every one of them shivered. A heartbeat later a silhouette stood in the middle of the circle. Tall and slim and androgynous, they had a spellwood sword at their hip and a long green cloak. Smoothly the unsheathed the sword, and though half the crowd reached for weapons I did not move. I pulled at my pipe, eye unblinking as the Emerald Sword plunged it into the earth. It met my gaze, face expressionless.

“We acknowledge the debt of the prince and the tower, Warden,” the elf said. “We will honour the bargain struck.”

I spat out smoke, making them wrinkle their nose, and inclined my head in a nod. They had better. I’d opened them a gate into Twilight from the room in the Tower they’d been stuck in, surrounded by goblinfire on all sides, at a price. When the time came for the Dead King to be brought at an end, the Emerald Swords would lend their swords to the cause. It’d taken me long enough to get them to acknowledge I had a right to be bargained with that I had gotten late to the bottom of the Tower and the tragedies it had in store for me, but it had been worth it. I had seen the might of the Emerald Swords, in Ater.

They would make a difference.

“I expected no less,” I replied.

They didn’t bother to answer me, or even address anyone else here. In a blink of an eye they were gone, the only proof they’d ever been there the dozen blades that’d been pulled and the length of spellwood that had been thrust into the ground. Eyes were still on me, but all I offered was a friendly smile. Always one more trick, that was the way. And I wasn’t even finished pulling on that particular thread. I rose to my feet, then stretched and cracked my bones.

“I believe this war council can come at an end,” I said.

“Do you have somewhere else to be, Your Excellency?” Ishaq drily asked.

“I’m going to start a cooking fire and find a stiff drink,” I frankly replied, then cast a look at the rest of them.

Thoughtful looks, some amused ones and a few offended.

“Tomorrow’s our wager with Fate,” I said. “Make sure you’re ready to face it.”

As for me, I knew exactly who I wanted to spend my last few hours before the plunge with.

Chapter 61: Break

“If victory were not sweet, we would not drink its poison so deeply.”

– Dread Empress Terribilia

We came at the wall in waves.

Thirty feet of stone, topped by an army’s worth of dead. Bastions that rose even higher to make room for the siege engines to fire, bristling with catapults and ballistae. Wards crackled with power as the first ladders were laid against the wall, cracking the steel-capped wood, and out of sight dead mages stood in circles to weave rituals that would turn men to screams and dust. I sent away Zombie after the second time she was shot under me, back on my feet with a sword in hand. Legionaries – mine and Praes’, in the smoke and ash it was hard to tell them apart – put up their shields above their heads as the dead shots bows and threw chunks of masonry.

 I saw an orc’s head turn to pulp as rock the size of a table went through his shield, the corpse toppling to the ground with it. Javelins punch through plate, sorcery tore burning holes in the shield walls and above us the clouds were turning dark again. I tossed around Night heedlessly, feeling the coolness in my veins begin to turn raw – like sandpaper was being dragged around my insides – and shattered a parapet just in time for a young legionary to land her ladder into the rubble. A heartbeat later a skeleton wielding a hooked pole tried to push it back, but Akua’s hand shoved me aside as she yelled out an incantation in the mage tongue.

 A ball of translucent sorcery formed around the top of the ladder, expanding into a shield that blew the skeleton off the rampart.

“Forward,” I shouted, ducking low to avoid a whistling arrow. “It’s the last wall!”

Half a lie. The palaces would have walls of their own and the Dead King’s lair as well, but it was true there were no ramparts left lying ahead. Behind the heights of stone stood the inner city of Keter, the central third leading to the ancient hills turned plateau the city had been built around. It would be the hardest fight yet, I knew, but my blood still sang at the knowledge that we were there. We’d nearly made to the heart of Keter, past all the horror and madness. We were so close to the last struggle I could almost feel it on my tongue. The girl who’d landed her ladder began to climb, but three rungs up she dropped with an arrow in the throat. Her body fell to the side, rising a wight, and a large orc began his climb.

I hurried there, elbowing soldiers as I went and Akua following in my wake. Legionaries kept taking the ladder and they kept dying, the dead intent on snuffing out the first ladder landed, but concentrating their fire cost them. Other ladders began to stay up, and as the twentieth body died to rise undead my own boot touched the bottom of the ladder.

“Catherine-” Akua began.

“Keep them off me,” I interrupted, and sword in hand began the climb.

My bad leg throbbed. It’d been too long since I’d last put on full plate as I now wore and I wasn’t used to the weight anymore. But climbing up the ladder wouldn’t require me to dance around, just to keep going. Akua cursed profusely, but even as arrows began to fall on me from both sides roiling winds shot up to blanket me. A rung, then another, and as I rose a legionary stepped in to follow. A javelin came from above and I had to press myself against the wall, the wood of the rung digging into my throat, and though it passed me the man behind me took it in the eye. Another rung. There was a shout from below and I looked to my left, drawn by instinct, only to find a blur of movement.

I pulled on Night and threw black flame at it, the heat and power of the impact forcing the ballista bolt off course. Gods, that would have gone right through my ribs.

I hurried up and I was two-thirds through when the shield Akua had bespelled to protect the top of the ladder shattered under a stream of curses, breaking into shards that soon faded. Even as I desperately dragged myself up I saw a pair of skeletons with hooked poles catch the side rails and begin to push. There were soldiers beneath, enough that the ladder weighed too heavy to easily push, but it moved backwards half an inch and my heart leapt up in my throat. I climbed another rung as Akua blew one of the skeletons way, but it was replaced in a heartbeat and more began to put their hands to the pole to push. Fuck, I thought as I went up another rung and saw I wouldn’t make in time.

The ladder was pushed back another inch, and it was so close to the angle that’d topple us that I hissed. I threw Night in clumps but the skeletons I shattered were replaced, and as I went up another rung the ladder began to topple – until I snarled, sending Night racing down the edge of my blade, and hacked at the hook of the closest pole pushing us back. The strike went right through, the headless pole dipping down and getting stuck between rungs as the weight shifted. Half the ladder was against the wall again, and with a triumphant cry I went up another rung. Close enough to hack at the legs of the skeletons, though I had to duck back under to avoid getting impaled by a spear.

I tossed a ball of black flame over the edge as I did, and a heartbeat later I was atop the wall.

It was a bloody whirl after that. I couldn’t even tell how many of them I was fighting – they were coming from all sides, with swords and axes and spears. I ripped a dagger out of one’s hand after blowing through his head with Night, taking it as parrying blade, but Gods I wished I had a shield. Legionaries followed behind me and we were pushed back-to-back, forced to keep our foothold on the wall open with the clash of steel. I parried and struck with the strength of my Name, shattering arm bones and cracking skulls, until I felt Akua behind me again and suddenly the wall to our left was a frozen block of ice. I moved to cover her while she stood back panting, face trickling with sweat, and took off another skeleton’s head after turning his blade aside with the dagger.

Legionaries kept coming up, wights among them, and I took a few steps back from the melee to catch my breath. It allowed me a look at the fighting on the wall beyond us, which was a grim sight. We were landing ladders more easily now that we’d forced the dead to fight us up close as well, but soldiers were dropping like flies. Would I even still have an army come nightfall? If the Praesi hadn’t come we would all be dead, I thought.

Akua’s ice broke as curses struck it from below, exploding into a shower of shards – I felt some cut up my cheeks and the side of my nose, blood flowing free – but a ladder was being landed past it and I moved that way, sword high as I called for soldiers to follow. The push was aborted, though, when arrows of bright red flame tore through the enemy and there was the howl of wind. A heartbeat later the Rogue Sorcerer landed with a fluttering coat among wisps of flame, footing uncertain from the wind magic he’d used to aid his lip.

“Clear the wall,” I shouted, pointing my sword at the enemy laying beyond him.

Legionaries charged, sweeping past him and colliding with thick ranks of skeletons. I didn’t go with them, instead moving towards my friend as soldiers began to come up the ladder to our side.

“Where the Hells are the Procerans?” I asked him, shouting to be heard over the din. “We’re getting butchered out there, Roland.”

“They got bogged down,” he shouted back. “Ran into the Grey Legion.”

I spat to the side, spit sticking to lips and flecking my cheek. Yeah, I couldn’t blame them for slowing in the face of those monsters. I’d been hoping the Dead King would hold them back like an honour guard, but apparently they were worth committing to keep Procer off his back while the inner wall was fought over.

“Is the Prince of Bones leading them?” I asked.

“No, he isn’t,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Catherine, something’s wrong. There’s word from the League, the Hawk isn’t at the battle out in the Ossuary. Hanno says he fought the Seelie and a pack of Revenants but-”

A crack of thunder drowned out his last words. I got the gist anyway. The Scourges that’d fought had been held back from serious engagements, the Prince of Bones and the Hawk had yet to make an appearance and it all stank to the high Heavens. I went to look for a story, and though I couldn’t quite feel out what it was about my stomach sunk when I was faced with tangible proof that there was a story. One about the last remaining Scourges, who numbered five. About them fighting as a single band. Indrani went out with the army, I thought. We have no one who can check the Hawk except for… I grabbed Roland by the collar and dragged him close.

“Get the Silver Huntress here,” I ordered. “As quick as you can. Send the Painted Knife to get her if you have to, otherwise we’re-”

If Akua hadn’t slammed a shield in place a heartbeat later, I would have died. The arrow would have gone right through my neck, instead of slowing as it punched through the panel of sorcery and letting me move just quick enough it bit at the side of my helmet instead. I backed away hastily, once more cursing my lack of a shield, which ended up saving my life for the second time in two heartbeats. I heard the crunch even as I felt the air against my face. It was, I realized, a rock. Someone had thrown a rock the size of a small house my way, and it’d come close enough to me I’d felt like a whisper on my skin. It tumbled past the wall, earning screams and then a wet crushing sound, and for a heartbeat terror seized my throat.

Akua was alive, I saw. She’d been moving between me and the edge of the rampart, so she’d been out of the way. The knot in my guts loosened, but only so much. I turned to Roland, who was gaping, and my hand went back to his collar.

“You still have that wind magic?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Why do you-”

“Get me the Silver Huntress,” I cut through, and threw him off the rampart.

It was only thirty feet. Wouldn’t kill a hero even if he didn’t get his artefact out in time – which he did, ending up rolling across rooftop tiles like a human tumbleweed. By the time I turned, Akua had stepped back from the rampart’s edge and closer to me. Her free hand was low, magic dancing across her fingers in subtle shifts of light.

“That was the Prince of Bones,” the golden-eyed sorceress told me. “And it won’t be the last stone he throws.”

“We’re fucked if we stay here on the wall,” I said. “Almost all of them are nasty customers from a distance and we’re out in the open. We need to-”

It was prettily done, I appreciated that deep down. First the stone – large as the last, and this time I saw where in the streets it came from – drew my eye and I pulled on Night by reflex, spinning rope around it to swing it around like a sling to throw back. But it had been meant to get caught, and in its wake came an arrow. Akua caught that, belted out a spell that had steel shivering all around us and froze the arrowhead in the air. Then the both of us took the Mantle’s curse right on, as we’d been meant to all along. I dropped my working on the stone, abandoning it to gravity, but the Night I tried to throw up in the way was just a shade too slow. I was blown off my feet, blinded as I felt myself fall through dust. Stone, she broke the stone.

Akua screamed, as much in rage as fear, and the two of us fell down in the street below. I felt blades scrape at my armour and one cut across my face as I abandoned my flesh eye and looked through Night instead. We’d fallen into a knot of enemy soldiers, Akua missing a chunk of her left pauldron and the shoulder beneath it. I glimpsed bone even as she laid a hand on it and flesh formed anew with a hiss. I slashed through a head, then was driven back by a warhammer I awkwardly stopped by hitting the handle but still bounced off my shoulder plate. Snarling, I leaned forward and pulled on Night: I spat out a stream of black flame, incinerating the undead before me. But they’d lasted long enough to slow us, damn them.

I helped Akua back to her feet, hacking away at a spear that came a little too close, the two of us finding out backs to a powder-covered wall.

“We need to get to stairs,” she said. “Get back to your troops.”

“We need to survive,” I grimly replied, looking ahead. “They’re here.”

The Prince of Bones was hard to miss, hulking shape of steel that he was. Like half a dozen armours had swallowed slightly smaller ones, leaving only a monstrous golem with the outline of a man. His face was a mask of steel, frowning sternly with eyes that were sculpted. Not a hole anywhere on him, only shifting layers of steel and the large greatsword he held in a single hand as he marched towards us. The Mantle was but a step behind him, mace hoisted on her shoulder, but of the Hawk and the Tumult I found no trace. They would remain hidden until they struck, I thought. As for the Seelie…

“Steel yourself,” I warned.

A heartbeat later, it struck us like a wave. Love me. You love me, love me most of all the things in the world. You love me, so obey. Rip her apart. In the back of my mind Komena sneered and the force broke into smoke, but at my side Akua went stiff. I was already striking by the time the mane of red hair appeared in front of her, but as I opened the throat of a voluptuous redhead in a ballroom gown it faded without my steel touching anything solid. An illusion. The tricky pest always –

“Fuck,” I snarled as I felt a knife slide between my ribs.

The Seelie’s impossibly beautiful face leaned towards mine, smiling as she went for a kiss, but I grabbed her by the throat and drew on my Name to toss her up. She flew for a moment, then shattered into rose petals as I put a hand to my side. My armour was unmarked. A real wound or another illusion? I’d never fought the Scourge up close before. I shifted under my armour, but the wet I felt could be sweat as well as blood. The pain, though, that was real. Akua was back to herself just in time to throw up that magnetism spell again, though she put her back into it this time: not only did it catch the Hawk’s arrow but it also crumpled the three closest ranks of skeletons into balls of metal.

“That,” Akua bit out, “was most unpleasant.”

“Tell me about it,” I grunted. “Never been good with redheads.”

My flesh eye had been working for some time, but it was still with the others I looked around.

“Stairs to the left,” I said. “It’s our best chance.”

“Depressingly true,” Akua noted, which I took as agreement.

We made a break for it. If there was one weakness to the Prince and the Mantle, it was that their bulk made them slow – especially in broken terrain like the ruined street full of undead soldiers we were fighting our way through. The enemy wasted no time in trying to stop us. Rain began to fall in front of us, a ball of clouds gathering and being milked dry of water that is spat out as a torrent of water filling the street. Undead were knocked aside, and though there wasn’t enough flow to topple us the street ran wet and our footing slowed. I evaporated the could ball with a blast of blackflame, in time for Akua to send a spike of sinuous darkness right into the heart of a sizzling curse – it broke apart instantly.

Undead converged on us from all asides and I could not torch them as fast as they appeared, not without slowing too much. I parried and hacked and tried to push forward but that fucking water got everywhere and when I was forced to make an awkward parry I slipped. Akua blasted off the Bind’s head but my back still hit the floor, water seeping into my armour by the neck, and I swallowed a scream as my side throbbed. Yeah, the Seelie had definitely stabbed me. I was dragged back to my feet, slashing blindly at a ghouls coming close, but froze when I saw that above us a hundred spear of sizzling lightning were forming. Gods, we were both drenched. It wouldn’t even need to hit us, just…

I pulled on Night and Akua released me to raise her hand and incant, but the Hawk shot again and I had to spin a sphere of darkness that sucked in the arrow that’d have killed her. From the corner of my eye I saw a flicker of movement – red hair and that fucking smug smile again – as love me, love only me pounded away at my mind. Akua shifted her incantation halfway through, flicking her hand and melting the Seelie’s face to the bone, but it’d been an illusion. Above us the lightning spears came down as she Scourge reappeared to my side, knife already halfway to my lung, but the Beast laughed into my ear. A boot tore into the Seelie’s cheek, her face betraying utter surprise as Hanno of Arwad landed on it feet first.

Above us, the spears had stopped midair. The went an inch down and then back up, as if two wills were fighting for control of the spell. Masego, I thought, you prince among sorcerers. Forty feet away I saw the Prince of Bones stop to casually rip out a wall and throw it our way, but before I could pull on Night the scent of ozone filled the air. The wall crumbled into dust and through I night I saw a silhouette standing atop the wall, a woman in a painted stone mask and a long green cloak. The Witch of the Woods had come, I realized with a pulse of excitement.

“Apologies,” Hanno calmly said, getting back to his feet from the crouch he’d landed in. “I must admit I got lost on my way.”

The Seelie had faded into golden smoke as she fell under him, though not before receiving a cut across the face for her troubles.

“Fighting back against Ashuran stereotypes, I see,” I croaked out, because ‘thank you’ would have been too much.

It got a snort out of Akua, at least. Wait, should I be worried the Doom of Liesse was the only one who’d laughed?

“I try,” Hanno said. “Reinforcements are headed our way, Warden. I called on all we could spare.”

I cracked my neck, wiping away some of the blood still seeping down my cheek mixed with sweat.

“Let’s see what the Scourges of made of, then,” I said, spitting to the side.

Above us the lightning spears suddenly faded. The Tumult, I suspected, had decided it was better to try another spell than to keep pitting his will against Masego’s.

“Let’s,” Hanno agreed, raising his sword with a smile.

The Prince of Bones moved first and I tensed, but to my utter surprise he did not attack. Instead, he turned his back and ran.

“Bold,” Akua murmured, appreciative.

“Fuck,” I feelingly said. “Pursue, go.”

The Hawk tried to put an arrow in Hanno’s eye, who plucked it out of the air with a vaguely irritated look – come on, part of me complained, he’s not even Named right now! – as Akua and I shot forward. The Dead King would have none of it, though. All the undead across four city blocks went still for a moment, and then they began to throw themselves at us. I shouted and let loose streaks of blackflame as I cut through a torrent of soldiers who didn’t even try to kill me, just throw themselves in my way, but even when Akua blew them away with a gust of wind it was too late: darkness came down over us, the Mantle covering the retreat of the Scourges with her favourite trick.

It didn’t last long with Hanno around, Light coming out in a torrent that shattered the curse, but it was enough. The Witch tossed a few houses at them as they retreated but we caught none and I felt frustration bubble up my throat. The Dead King was denying us a scrap, had been doing it all day. Was he trying to tire us out or simply keeping the Scourges as his last trump card? Either way, dragging Named here would just be wasting them at the moment.

“Hanno,” I shouted. “Go help on the wall. Can the Witch help get the Procerans through the Grey Legion?”

“We’ll do what we can,” he shouted back.

I nodded him thanks and he offered back the sketch of a bow. The cheeky bastard. I felt Akua’s eyes on my back and turned.

“To the stairs,” I told her, looking back up at the rampart.

The Legions of Terror and Army of Callow had secured more than a dozen footholds, it was time to turn that into a push. The Dead King wanted to play coy? I’d force his fucking hand.

“I’m with you,” Akua promised, which I enjoyed hearing more than was wise.

We went back up, scything through the dead, and I found a captain to bark orders for me. We took two companies into the closest gatehouse, clearing out the ghouls and the beorn inside, and then forced the gates open. The steel jaws opened below our feet, soldiers pouring through, and I grinned. Now we had the initiative again. Roland should be back with the Silver Huntress soon, but I wanted us to gobble up a few blocks to hold first. We fought our way back down, arms tired and short of breath, to take the lead of the companies that’d gone through the gate. With a shout I took them to the last dead on the avenue, smashing our way through, and we pushed into the inner city.

Resistance, to my rising discomfort, was sparse. The dead were disorganized, coming at us in disjointed bands, and the push I’d meant to take a few blocks with kept ripping forward through the ranks of the dead. I only began to slow when we were past at least ten blocks, and when I found a great granite gargoyle at a street corner I frowned. I knew this place I realized. This corner. I had once been carried past here on a litter as a guest of the Dead King, dead royalty bearing me to the Silent Palace where I was to be hosted. We weren’t just past the inner wall, we were halfway to the heart of Keter. To victory. My heartbeat thundered against my ears and my steps slowed, my legionaries slowing with me.

“Catherine?” Akua asked.

“We’re getting close to the five palaces,” I said. “We need the arrows in our quiver readied before we go further.”

I kept my words vague, since you never knew who might be listening in this city, but she knew what I meant: the Mirror Knight and the Severance, Hierophant and the Crown of Autumn. Going after the King of Death without either would be madness. Neshamah was the most powerful sorcerer Calernia had ever known and likely ever would, fighting him head on in his seat of power would only get us killed. Not even the Sisters would be able to help me when we got to the hall where the Greater Breach lay and the monster that’d made it would be waiting for us.

“I’ll send the signal,” the golden-eyed sorceress agreed.

The spell was simple enough, a variation on the signal lights that the Legions and the Army had been using for years. Akua flicked her wrist at the sky, incanting brusquely, and three streaks of blue shot out. After rising high they exploded into a broad circle, one large enough that there would be no missing it even through the poison clouds and the ashen rain.

“Thanks,” I said.

Then I turned to the company at my side, its soldiers and officers having ceased to advance when I did.

“We’re in deep now, ladies and gentlemen,” I told them. “Maybe half an hour’s walk ahead are the palace we’re going for, and before we can send in Named to end this we’re going to need to secure this corner. First we-”

Everyone felt it, when the sorcery lit up. Even the most power-blind of my legionaries felt their bones shake, their soul flinch. My hand shot up, Night already raging throughs my veins, and Akua was already halfway through a shield spell before we both stopped. The magic wasn’t coming from ahead of us but from below. Far under our feet.

“Akua?” I asked.

She did not answer, golden eyes gone wide. Instead she knelt down on the ash-streaked ground, ripping off her helmet and pressing her cheek against the stone.

“Akua,” I said again, tone sharper.

“The ritual is below,” she said, palm against the floor. “Far enough not even Hierophant can trouble it. But there is something more, Catherine. It is an array, a large one, and-”

The pulse washed over us in the heartbeat that followed. It felt like nothing at all, I thought, but then Sven Noc was howling in rage within my soul and Night boiled out without my having even called it. Akua had gotten to her feet, I saw, and was panicking as she shouted an incantation and traced glowing runes in the air. Over the three heartbeats it took her to finish the spell, I saw her face under the helmet change. Lines deepened, the arc of her brow grew more pronounced. My stomach dropped as I turned towards my soldiers. Their helmets were open-faced, hiding nothing: faces aged, skin growing thick with lines and hair turning white.

Before ten heartbeats had passed every single one of my legionaries dropped dead of old age.

“Gods,” I croaked, staggering back.

I looked further back at the others who’d followed me past the wall, and saw that behind me lay a trail of corpses that’d fallen down as gently as leaves dropping from a tree. Not a single one of them taken by sword or spear, they’d just… died. The trail of corpses went all the way back to the inner wall, atop which some of my legionaries were shouting in horror. It ends at the wall, I thought. Ice seizing my heart I turned to Akua, who was shimmering with pale green light but was, to my immense relief, alive and no longer aging. She panted softly, sweat trickling down her brow.

“That,” Akua Sahelian softly said, “aged me at least a decade.”

“This isn’t time magic,” I numbly said. “There’s no such thing as time in Trismegistan magic. What the Hells is this, Akua?”

“Not a spell,” she said, straightening. “It is Keter’s Due.”

My fingers clenched.

“You meant he pulled off what you did at the Doom,” I said. “Sucked in the magic of the Due into other arrays and-”

“He was not quite so skilled,” Akua interrupted me. “As I said, Catherine, this is not a spell.”

She shot a look at the stone under out feet.

“I believe that somewhere under our feet are buried artefacts that were empowered by the wasted magic of the Due,” she continued. “Thousands of them, whose only purpose is to tint that emanated magic with a specific kind of entropy.”

My eye narrowed. Night raged in my veins, the blessing of the Sisters keeping death from touching me.

“Aging,” I said.

“Specifically flesh, I think,” Akua said. “Or perhaps living flesh?”

“But that means,” I slowly said, “that this isn’t even the ritual from below. Then what is that fucking magic for?”

Fate handed me the answer, bitch that she was, when in the distance there was an ear-splitting rumble. It was so loud as to drown out even screams, but I saw enough. Over the inner wall I could see the top of some towers, and they were moving. The outer city was rotating, Gods save us all. And it got worse, because when the city ceased turning instead it moved another direction: pushed up by some invisible force, entire districts of the city shot up. Though I could not see it, from the way some towers disappeared I guessed that some districts were going down as well. Like some sort of demented jigsaw puzzle, the outer city of Keter had just turned itself into a series of plateaus and chasms.

“Gods preserve us,” Akua murmured.

She saw it too, then. This was death, the death of every living soldier in the city. Maybe not immediately, but that single stroke had ensured there was now not even a single army inside the walls: all our forces had been moved away from the breaches they’d come in through and then split into smaller pieces, left alone on platforms with whatever enemy forces had been in the district when it was raised or lowered. We’d win some of those fights, for sure. But it wouldn’t matter a fucking bit, because now all those soldiers were stuckand the dead would go around extinguishing them one force at a time. There could be no reinforcements, no manoeuvring, and undead could climb goddamn cliffs – or leap down them, if need be. Living people could not.

“I’ve killed us all,” I faintly said. “Weeping Heavens, I’ve killed us all.”

The city was as much an army-killer as the dead within it, and I’d driven us deep into its embrace. There would be no recovering from this.

“The battle is not yet over,” Akua said. “We can still recover. Retreat, perhaps, if-”

Behind us, dead soldiers began to twitch. And I heard the sound of boots coming from ahead. More undead, soldiers that’d care nothing for this curse of entropy.

“Catherine, we need to go,” she urgently said.

I stood there dazed until she pulled at my arm, allowing myself to be tugged away. It was over, I realized. We ran through the rising soldiers I’d just led to their deaths and I felt myself blast those who came too close with Night as if someone else were doing it – Akua could do nothing, all her concentration maintaining the shield that kept her alive – and we ran for the wall, for the gate where some my soldiers still stood and fought. We climbed the stairs, black flames burning behind us, and as Akua finally released her spell I stumbled to the edge of the rampart. There I saw it all, the madhouse that Keter had become. Raised heights of and deep drops, both moved by some mechanism built deep under the bedrock of the capital.

And as the magic below our feet kept burning, the outer city began to move again.

It span, only what had been a mere imposition was now brutally lethal: houses broke, soldiers and undead fell off the edge of those cliffs as the centrifugal force caught them. And for those below, they found those same broken houses dropped atop their heads by the force of the spin. Shields of sorcery and Light bloomed, trying to mitigate the damage and staying there until at last the spinning stopped, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. The Dead King would just keep spinning his city again and again until the ritual burned out, long after the last of our mages and priests had fallen to exhaustion. And none of this, I realized, not a single part of this was actually aimed at anyone. It was all indirect, distant. The kind of danger that no hero would rise against, that no story would help destroy.

“We lost,” I murmured.

The exhaustion of the day caught up to me all at once and my leg gave, tearing a pained gasped out of my throat as I half-fell and had to catch myself against the crenellation. There were shouts of surprise and a moment later Akua was holding me up, arm under my shoulder as she asked a question I didn’t hear. Gods, I was so tired. I’d burned myself out on Night, and now that the strength of my Name – the hope of victory – was fading, the edges of my vision were going dark. And I was seeing thing, too, because suddenly light got harsher. I blinked dumbly, looking up at a sky that was suddenly cloudless.

“What’s happening?” I croaked out.

Akua said something, but it was as if she was speaking through water. I saw them then. Only a few hundred, standing in the ruins of the gate Hanno had broken, but they were impossible to miss: never before had I seen so many giants. And among the Gigantes one stood taller than all the rest, a flame burning within him that hurt my eye to behold.

“Blood loss,” Akua said, talking to someone else. “The fucking fool, she’s going into sho-”

Young King,” Kreios the Riddle-Maker called out, “let me remind you who is it that you dare ape with your works.”

When darkness came to swallow me whole, I did not fight it.

Chapter 60: Blood

“When the gathered princes of the Alamans demanded to know by what right she asked them to swear obeisance, Triumphant laughed and replied: ‘To be Dread Empress of Praes is to be a question asked of all Creation: will you kneel, or be made to?’”

– Extract from the Scroll of Dominion, twenty-fourth of the Secret Histories of Praes

I’d never seen her wear that armour before.

A plumed conical helm of steel worked with gold engravings led to a sheet of mail covering her throat, all of it above a beautifully worked set of red chain mail covered in parts by segmented plate – pauldrons sculpted like lionheads, an ornate breastplate with a crimson sash for belt and skirted panels that covered both her legs down to her knees. It was all red and gold, save for the sword sheathed her hip. That was pure steel except for the egg-sized ruby set into the pommel. The entire set shone with subtle engravings that reeked of magic. Protective enchantments, I guessed. I made myself stop staring, though not quite quickly to avoid an amused quirk of those full lips.

“You sure you’ve got him?” I asked, gesturing at the Tumult.

He was rising to his feet, magic already ticking around his hands.

“My heart,” Akua drawled, “if I had him any more, I would already have spent him.”

“A yes would have sufficed,” I informed her, pulling at Night.

“Ah,” she smiled, “but where would the fun in that be?”

Tendrils of shadow tossed me up a moment later, even as I smelled a scent like ozone and heard Akua say something in Mthethwa that sounded a lot like ‘how pedestrian’. Well, if she could afford to be that condescending I figured she’d be all right. I landed with a hiss of pain atop the tiled roof just in time to watch the Red Knight lose a few teeth. Even most Named I knew would have died when taking a hit of the Mantle’s mace on the side of the face, but instead the villainess was thrown like a rag doll and spat out a few bloody teeth. The Mantle did not pause to rejoice, instead turning to me without batting an eye as I looked for the other Revenant that’d been there and found him missing. I was not sure whether to be glad of that or not.

I pulled on Night and released most of it, tossing a handful of black flame her way, but just as I’d thought she immediately pulled her favourite trick: the world went black as she drenched the area in darkness. For me, anyway. The worst part of that trick had always been how it didn’t affect her at all.

Fortunately, she’d used it often enough I was not in the least surprised. And, more importantly, I sunk the last of the Night into the tiles of the roof. A heartbeat later I felt one resonate as a step was taken on it, so without hesitation I flicked my wrist and agitated the Night in the tile: it blew up. The darkness faded, revealing the hole the Mantle had just fallen through, and I smiled. The Scourge was twice my size and encased in the heaviest armour I’d ever seen, but those strengths came with costs. Like, you know, weighing enough that you’d fall right through any weakened rooftop instantly. I limped to the side, a cursed turning to powder the tile I’d been standing on a moment earlier, and through that opening tossed another handful of black flame at the Mantle. I’d used the fire on her often enough to know it wouldn’t do shit to that armour, but there was one thing it was quite good at: blinding the Revenant senses that she used instead of her eyes.

So while she put out the fire I’d just thrown in her face, I continued limping away and let the Night rage through my veins. I wove strands quickly, doubling back to strengthen them, and I had just finished the second layer when I felt the Mantle lose her temper. Or so I assumed, because she’d put enough strength into that curse there was goosebumps all over my skin. I kept backing away, but it came to nothing when the entire roof turned into smoke beneath me. That’s a problem, I idly noted as I began to fall. The way she waiting for me below, already beginning the swing that would smash my ribs and rupture my guts, was also something of a problem.

Fortunately for her, I had a secret weapon.

Know your place,” the Red Knight snarled, and smashed her war hammer into the back of the Mantle’s head.

There was a satisfying sound as the back of the Revenant’s helmet crumpled, but to the villainess’ surprise her blow went no deeper. The real win was my insides staying on the inside, though, as the Mantle had to kill her swing long enough to backhand the Red Knight through a wall. That was two wins, really, when you thought about it. My Name tugged at me and I did not resist, angling my fall. My bad leg gave when I landed, to my swallowed moan of pain, but the way I dropped down ended up ensuring that a boiling curse didn’t end up cooking my brain so luck me. Wincing as I rose, I stepped out of the way of a mace swing. I wasn’t worried up close, at least.

The Mantle had been a priestess in life, not a warrior. Her danger up close came from strength and size, not skill, and I was a few years past being scared of something just for those.

“You know,” I said, “I’ve never heard you talk.”

The swing shattered the wall behind me but a half-step took me out of the arc, and she wasn’t quite quick enough with the follow-up curse: I tossed a handful of black flames at her wrist before she loosed it, scrapping her aim. It went through the open door and melted stone in the street. Nasty, I thought.

“I can’t tell if you’re one of those Neshamah had to cut up the soul of badly so they’d obey,” I said, “or if it’s because there’s just no mouth to speak with under that helm.”

It was an impressive piece, admittedly, covering her entire face in lengths of steel save for two downwards eye slits. The spikes that went past the crown of her head almost evoked the shape of a crown.  The floor trembled as the blow meant to rip down through my shoulder hit nothing but air and stone while I twisted my will, keeping an eye on her as I took the working I’d crafted earlier in hand. Almost ready, I just needed her distracted. A heartbeat later what looked like a wave of pure heat melted through half the room we were in, forcing her to hastily backpedal away while in the distance I heard Akua call the Tumult a clumsy debutante in Mthethwa. That’ll do, I mused, and pulled.

The string of Night twanged over my head, pulled tight by one of the pulleys I’d formed out of sight, and it caught the Mantle in the chest. The force of the pull slammed her into the wall, where she immediately began to struggle to get out. I took a limping step forward, raising my hand.

“That’s the problem with being so large,” I told her. “Makes you an easier target, and you need so much room to move.”

Another chord passed over my head with a twanging sound, tightening her against the wall. And I didn’t need to bend because she was so tall, not because I was fucking short. I was a goddamn queen, so implying otherwise was treason. The Mantle changed tactics, moving to smash the wall she was being pinned against instead, bit I flicked my wrist and another chord bound her while she was trying to move it. No room, no swing. She could be as strong as she wanted, without space to move it meant nothing. I bound her twice more as I approached, closing in.

“I couldn’t help but notice you usually move when using a curse,” I told her. “Not everyone needs that, but then you weren’t born a priestess of curses were you? While you breathed it was Light you used. It’s not your speciality.”

And undead, for all their strengths in some regards, could not truly learn. If it had been a limit for her while she lived, she would not overcome it no matter how long she existed. I raised my sword, pulling on Night, and dipped into my Name to See what lay ahead. I paused in surprise, which almost cost me my life. When her mace exploded with power, a blind curse of wrath shattering the wall the Mantle was bound to, I froze for a moment as I returned to the here and now. Tearing through the chords of Night she swung down with all her strength, but in the moment that I beheld the present I saw it. An opening. A half step to the left as the mace came down, inclining my head even further and angling my body so that the diagonal downwards swing missed be by a hair’s breadth.

She pivoted, other hand coming to slam a curse into my belly even as she broke the floor with her mace but I pivoted and smoothly, almost gently, thrust upwards. I’d barely even taken two steps, I thought as the point of my sword slid into the eyehole, but then that was the difference between strength and skill wasn’t it?

Silence,” I said, aspect burning down my blade.

Her power winked out and her limps dropped as I felt steel cut into bone. As I’d thought, she couldn’t actually move around that mass of steel she was encased in without the help of something like an enchantment. I knew deep in my bones that the aspect would only silence the Mantle’s power for a moment, but a moment was all I needed. I pulled on Night as I raised my free hand, moving to slam it onto the pommel of my sword to incinerate everything inside the armour, but before I could sorcery bloomed above my head. Gods, I thought as I glanced up, above everyone’s head.

Storm clouds roiled, but that wasn’t half as worrisome as the lightning I could see rippling inside them.

I hastily threw up the Night I’d been pulling in into a shield instead of a killing stroke, feeling it shudder as lightning struck at it. And then twice more. I backed away, half expecting a mace to be swung at my head, but after I took cover under an arch what I saw was that the Mantle had been blasted as well. She’d dropped her mace. Unlike me, though she was able to walk a lightning strike off. Something she proved by hastily leaving the house we’d been brawling in, turning the corner and out of sight. Fuck. I took a step forward, wanting to pursue, but lightning began to fall again and I had to put up a shield of Night. Cursing, I doubled back to where I’d left Akua only to find her already headed my way.

“That’s the Tumult, right?” I said, pointing upwards.

“It is,” she admitted. “I took off both his arms but he fled and threw that up behind him to cover his retreat.”

“The Mantle’s as well,” I grunted. “Can you end it?”

She shook her head.

“Magic was used to make the storm and is still being used to guide strikes, but the lightning storm itself is not magical,” Akua said. “Unless I-”

Lightning struck, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. It was the way it curved back up, then hit another lightning bolt. What in the Hells, I thought, as slowly every speck of lightning within the clouds was gathered into a single sphere. I felt an aspect at work there, but it wasn’t the Tumult’s. I was sure of that.

“Gods behold,” Akua grinned, almost girlish. “It is Masego.”

“Lightning’s not a form of power, though,” I said. “He shouldn’t be able to control it.”

“Unless,” she said, “he copied the Tumult’s guiding spell from looking at it, cast it as well and then wrested that.”

Lightning came down in a blinding wave ahead of us, forcing me to cover my eye and serving as helpful reminder that Masego was still one of the most terrifying people I’d ever met. I was reminded twice over when we linked back up with my legionaries, finding then that the lighting had ended up clearing most of the enemy ahead while essentially razing three city blocks as a collateral. Fucking Hells, Zeze. You’re not pulling your punches today. As I’d expected, Kallia’s band of five had come out ahead in the struggle. I got to hear as much from her, as well as something else I’d spared a moment to wonder about.

“The wizard Revenant retreated with the ragged one,” the Painted Knife told me.

I grimaced. So Neshamah had decided they were useful enough to keep for the rematch that no doubt awaited us deeper in. Good to know.

“Stay with the Army of Callow,” I ordered her. “I need you to cover them from Named. Akua Sahelian and I will go with the vanguard.”

“As you say, Warden,” Kallia replied.

The push to the avenue was staggeringly fast, what with Hierophant having essentially vaporized our opposition. We pushed forward and the moment I set foot on the pavement stones I sent a runner back. We were, at long last, past the first hurdle.

Keter’s avenues were massive things, all of them at least forty feet wide and paved with massive slabs of granite that went deep into the earth. It was needed for constructs to be able to move about the capital without constantly wrecking everything – no matter how careful a giant death snake was being, it did not stop being a giant death snake. The rain of ash made it hard for men to see too far ahead, but my dead eye had become a thousand one of Night instead. I saw far and gave a hard smile at what I found: we’d caught the enemy out of position. The avenue went up in an angled slope all the way to the inner-city wall, a ring of stout bastions bristling with soldiers and war machines, and though there were enemies by the thousands gathering along the length of it there was no cohesive force.

 It was half a dozen packs of undead being thrown in the way, not a proper army.

“Secure our position,” I shouted. “I want those alleys blocked off and a vanguard readied for a push.”

Absent-mindedly I pulled on Night and tossed out a ball of black flame, incinerating the head of the beorn that’d risked popping out of cover ahead of my men. The legionaries cheered and got to work with tired professionalism, moving out as the sergeants and lieutenants barked out their orders. Though we’d broken through the Dead King’s barricades, our advance put us in a precarious position. We were like an iron spike driven into a block of ice: all the streets around the grounds we’d taken there were still thick with undead. Right now we were suffering only small probes, but that was because they would be gathering in bands led by Binds so that they could mass enough numbers to be a threat when attacking our position instead of blade fodder.

The relative steadiness of our advance was an illusion whose end was fast approaching. If this were another sort of siege it would have been worth it to try to clear the lower city of Keter before we assault the inner wall, but here it would be suicide: we’d wreck our armies beyond repair doing that. Instead we had to push through and roll the dice, driving deep towards the Hellgate so we might take it and the Dead King with it. I grabbed the shoulder of the closest captain – a dusky-skinned Taghreb with chubby cheeks – and leaned in closer.

“Where has Lady Akua gone?” I asked, lowering my voice.

“She has gone to rifle through dead bodies, Your Majesty,” the captain replied.

There was not a hint of the distaste in his voice that I would have found in a Callowan reporting the same thing. I almost asked him ‘what for’, but I was doubtful he knew and it’d mean admitting that I didn’t. Instead I sagely nodded and released his shoulder after reminding him to send Commander Spitter’s runner my way the moment they arrived. I needed word from the rest of the fight for Keter as soon as possible before deciding whether we should commit to a push up the avenue. The opportunity was there, and soon to fade, but if we were going at it alone it’d be nothing but an elaborate suicide charge. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long.

Though I had expected one, it was not a legionary that returned bearing news and I cocked an eyebrow when an unexpected pair approached instead. One I was familiar with, a girl in dusty mages robes with a bony face and a scowl bearing Masego’s old Name: Sapan of Ashur, the Apprentice. The second I did not know as well, save through the words of others. The Page was not all that tall, though his slenderness gave the impression he was, and his chestnut hair was a riot of enviable curls. His armour was too light for my tastes, a cuirass and leather instead of proper plate or mail, but it was still better than the rapier he’d somehow been tricked into thinking was an acceptable battlefield weapon.

“Should I take it there’s no need to wait for an officer?” I asked.

“Commander Issawi decided it would be simpler to send us directly to you, Your Excellency,” Sapan said, offering a short bow.

The Proceran mirrored her perfectly but I barely paid attention to him. Issawi, she’d said, and not Spitter. The old commander was probably dead, I grimly realized, and if I remembered the ranks right his senior tribune was another Callowan so she was probably dead too. Our senior officers were dropping like flies, which smacked of Keter targeting them. Fucking Neshamah, he’d figured out our weakness compared to the Legions of Terror: the comparative lack of experienced officers.

“Then speak,” I said. “How go the other offensives?”

“Lord Hanno had taken his gate and is pushing towards the inner city, Your Excellency,” the Page proudly told me.

Meaning the Lycaonese had once more lived up to their reputation and pushed unflinchingly through the slaughter it’d take to get boots atop a gatehouse of Keter. Good. We’d gambled that they might, sending Hanno and the Kingfisher Prince there on top of a heroic band of five and the Witch of the Woods for magical muscle.

“The other gate?” I asked.

“The Dominion and the Clans were forced to retreat,” Sapan told me. “The Warlord decided casualties were too high and their foothold on the gatehouse too fragile to keep up the storm.”

Fuck, I thought. That meant there was only us coming from the southwest and the Procerans coming from the east of the city. We’d hoped that my army’s push would draw enough dead that Hakram and the Blood would be able to take the eastern gate, but that might have been too ambitious. It might be why we weren’t as badly drowned in soldiers as I thought we’d be, I mused. Neshamah might have decided to focus on keeping the third army out of his city instead of focusing on either us or the Proceran. If that was true, all those reinforcements were about to begin hammering at the Army of Callow’s positions soon. I forced myself to set the speculation aside.

Whether it was true or not didn’t matter, since the choice I had to make hadn’t changed: we were committing to an attack on the inner wall or not?

“How recent are your news about the Lycaonese offensive?” I asked.

“Half an hour, Your Excellency,” the Page told me. “I fought with mercenaries before being sent as a messenger.”

However learned his courtesies, he did not quite manage to hide the resentment in his tone. Would have preferred to stay with the push, huh. The Apprentice did not seem so burdened, I could not help but noticed, as befitting of someone who’d gone through the gruelling campaign in the Wasteland under my commands.

“Half an hour,” I muttered, drumming my fingers against the side of my leg. “And you say they were pushing deep?”

“They were storming barricades up the avenue when I left,” the young hero agreed.

That was the advantage of taking a gate instead of a breach like my army had: the Procerans had been on an avenue from the start. If it went well, I assessed, it was likely that Hanno and the Lycaonese would take a swing at the inner-city wall before my people did. That thought clinched the decision, because the same reason I was hesitating to commit to an attack – fear of attacking the inner wall alone and getting my teeth kicked in – was now also a reason to commit to that very same attack. It’d be the Procerans getting their teeth kicked in, if I left them to hang high and dry.

“Then there’s no room left for hesitation,” I said. “I need you two to carry word back to Prince Otto, assuming he still holds command of the Proceran van.”

“He does, Your Excellency,” Sapan assured me.

“Then tell him I’m taking a run at the inner wall,” I said, “and committing all my reserves to the push. I’ll see him when we’re both through.”

The Page looked split between irritation – at being made a messenger again, no doubt – and eagerness at being able to return to fight with his countrymen, but as far as I was concerned he was just the escort. The Apprentice nodded and I clapped her shoulder amicably before sending them both off. I didn’t offer them an escort. That was the point of using Named as messengers, after all: they could get through the undead-infested city without one. It felt like absurd luxury to used champions of the Gods as messenger pigeons, but if there was one place on Calernia that warranted the absurdity it was the Crown of the Dead. I sought more mundane messengers as well, to send word to Commander Issawi that she was to prepare for a push.

That, and to send for my personal standard and the people bearing it.

Akua returned not long after, what she’d been up to during her absence quite evident. She was riding what could generously be called a horse, at least in shape. It was a necromantic construct, made out of stripped parts from ghouls and larger monsters. Sloppy in some ways, I mused, since some muscles had clearly been melted together – a brute force method – and the sections that’d been sown together sported shining thread. An enchantment, not real thread, and so vulnerable to being dispelled. Still, I could only be impressed that she’d put together what looked like a leathery horse-shaped golem in what could only be half an hour. It was moving pretty well, too, its bone hooves clacking light against the stone.

“Expecting to need a horse?” I idly asked.

She cocked an eyebrow at me.

“The enemy up the avenue are in disarray,” Akua said. “Knowing you, you will want to strike while the iron is hot.”

She did know me, I thought with the usual mixture of pleasure and dread. Enough that a glance at what lay ahead had been enough to figure out what I intended, apparently.

“Can you reach the flying fortresses?” I asked. “I need to send word.”

“I already have,” she said, “but another was ahead of me.”

I blinked in surprise.

“Marshal Juniper has ordered the Old Mothers to move to support the push towards the inner wall and the rest to protect the Army of Callow’s flanks,” Akua amusedly said. “It seems I am not the only one who can see through you, dearest.”

Gods, Hellhound, I thought, still awed after all these years. Any report you get should be at least half an hour behind me and confused, on top of having a lesser read than I on what’s going on at the front. And still she’d been a step ahead of me. I closed my eye, sinking into Night to find Zombie and have a look through her senses, only to find that below the hippocorvid two banners flew. I jostled back into my own body, lips twitching as I corrected my estimate to Juniper of the Red Shields having been two steps ahead of me. I turned to glanced behind me, Zombie large black wings folding as she plunged down through the sky and landed on the stone behind me at a run, circling around me as legionaries hastily got out of her way. Further back, more of my soldiers were moving.

Parting to make way for the same people I’d sent for now knowing my marshal had already sent them out: banners high, the Order of Broken Bells came forth.

Cracked bronze bells on black flew by the Sword and Crown, under them the first order of knights raised since the Conquest advancing in good order. Horses and men barded in steel carved with hymns to the Heavens as my people had done for centuries, killing lances raised not yet lowered for the charge. There was not a man or woman among them whose armour was not scuffed and dented, who’d not had at least a horse killed under them. Grandmaster Brandon Talbot rode at their head, the raised visor revealing his strong jaw and neat black beard. The once-heir to Marchford had gone from my prisoner to one of the few nobles I actually liked – if not trusted – over the years and led his knights through many a battlefield in my name.

Too many, perhaps. The Order of Broken Bells now numbered eighteen hundred, a respectable number given the losses in the Wasteland and on the plains of the Ossuary, but that was a fragile thing. When the siege of Keter had begun, I’d given a permission to Talbot that I had denied him throughout my entire reign: he was to knight his squires as he wished, without regard to age or training. The Broken Bells fielded eighteen hundred knights because there were no longer squires in the order, and barely any spare horses left for that matter. The strength mustered today was the last they had to wield, and should it perish the riders of Vivienne’s own knightly order would be the last cavalry left in the kingdom.

The Army of Callow had fought too many battles, too many wars. Even after draining my kingdom dry of manpower as fee queens before me had dared, we were running out of war bodies to put in suits of armour – much less the likes of knight, costly to arm and train as they were.

“We come as called, Your Majesty,” Brandon Talbot greeted me.

I held out my hand and Zombie nuzzled it, rubbing her feathered cheeks against the gauntlet. I patted her until she purred, only then moving to hoist myself onto the saddle.

“I have work for you,” I said.

He glanced at the avenue, the dead gathering there in throngs of thousands and beginning to raise barricades. The nobleman spared a look for Akua as well before returning his gaze to me.

“To ride into the jaws of death,” Sir Brandon said, sounding rather pleased.

There was, I thought, such a lovely madness to my people sometimes. I rolled my shoulder, limbering my sword arm. I was getting cramps, the costs of not spending enough time on the training field these days.

“Momentum’s still on our side,” I said, “but we need to prevent the enemy from consolidating before the Third Army can begin its push. That means trampling…”

I trailed off, flicking a glance at the gathering horde.

“All of that, more or less,” I idly finished.

“An afternoon’s work,” one of the knights called out.

There was grim, satisfied laughter. I indulged them with a smile, because if they hadn’t earned the right to a few harsh boasts then who on Creation had? I caught Grandmaster Talbot’s eye.

“Do you remember the first time we met, Brandon?” I asked.

The bearded man smiled.

“I could forget my name, Your Majesty, and still remember that,” he said.

“You thought I was too young,” I teased.

“The world’s gotten older,” Brandon Talbot simply said. “So have we.”

True enough. Flakes of ash crusted at the edge of the banner first raised from a cell, the cracked bells on imperial black that I had chosen as much as a warning as an emblem. I felt the warm breath of the Beast against my cheek, just as I had that day.

“Do you regret it?” I suddenly asked. “That you knelt that day, struck your bargain.”

The brown-eyed man studied me for a long moment, his face grown hard to read.

“There were times I did,” the grandmaster admitted. “Lows and long nights, when the bodies piled too high.”

I did not dare interrupt, breath caught still in my throat.

“But here we are,” Brandon Talbot softly said, gesturing at the horror around us. “The end of our road, Catherine Foundling. Perhaps of all our roads.”

The knight smiled.

“It has been a long ride,” he said, “but I regret nothing, Queen of Callow.”

The breath I’d been choking on left my lips, ragged, and I offered a stilted nod back. Sometimes you didn’t know you’d wanted to hear something until after you’d heard it.

“Then come on,” I said, voice steadying as it rose. “All of you. It has been too long since the Dead King last heard the horns of the knights of Callow.”

My sword cleared the scabbard, rising to catch a glint of sunlight.

“Let us remind the Enemy,” I said, “why so many learned to fear the sound.”

I guided Zombie with my knees, leading her forward into the avenue. Talons scraped against the stone, her wings folded close to her side, as behind me men began to move. The banners flew high, catching wind that shook off the ash, and the knights of Callow sounded the old defiance. The horns sounded once, twice, thrice.

All knights charge, the call went, and charge we did.

It was like a clap of thunder, the sound of a wedge of heavy cavalry going through a shield wall.

I hacked down half-blindly, smashing open an iron helm as Zombie barreled through the undead and all around me heavy lances tore punched through shields and corpses alike. I hacked and hacked, like a farmer reaping wheat, until suddenly there was nothing but stone pavement before me and my mount let out a cacophonous caw. I led her forward, only slowing when knights began to catch up. Half of them had discarded broken lances, unsheathing swords to replace them.

“REDEMPTION IN STEEL,” Grandmaster Talbot shouted.

A hard cheer echoed him, and we gathered into a wedge again. Ahead of us, another shield wall was forming even as behind us the shattered remains of the thousand skeletons we’d just trampled into dust fled the avenue. The Third Army’s banner was on the move, I saw. The push was beginning, we needed to clear the way for it. The horns sounded again, and we began to advance at a trot. Akua pulled close to me, her necromantic mount keeping pace as she held her sword like someone who’d not used one in too long. The enemy brought a few spears out in front of the shield wall, maybe half a hundred, but it was not them my eye sought.

I felt sorcery at work, and soon found it: cabals of robed mages, skeletons with burning green eyes and not a speck of flesh left, stood at the back of the shield wall shaping eerie cubes of what looked like smoke.

Akua,” I shouted.

I heard her snarl out an incantation even as the Order of Broken Bells quickened, going from trot to gallop. We began to close the distance, the smoke cubes rising in the air even as Akua’s fingers traced runes in the air and tore through them, but it was not to be so simple. On the streets that flanked us on both sides I saw movement, creatures looking like pale white – the pale of foul flesh, of creatures from deep water all wet and shining – hounds rising from crouches to break into a run. There were hundreds of them, and with an angry hiss I pulled on Night. I scorched our left flank, the abominations fleeing the black fire, but those to the right got through.

They leap with unnatural agility, baring half a dozen mouths full of curved teeth, but that was not the nastiest turn. Those that were cut or pierced took the blows like butter, staying stuck. It was fat, I realized with dim horror. The fat of corpses, riddled with teeth and unleashed like hounds. Men and horses tumbled down where the abominations caught them, biting into our wedge, but moments later I could spare no more thought for it: thunder clapped as I slapped away a spear and Zombie trampled the shield wall, tearing into the enemy. I hacked and hacked, arms burning from the toil as my Name steadied my hand and whispered lovingly in my ear. We would win, it promised. We would get to the end.

The cubes of smoke were brought down on us, exploding into clouds that smelled of death, but though a handful of knights choked to death in their armour the worst of it was blown away by the burst of wind that Akua smashed into the enemy, blowing away soldiers as much as the smoke. The hole it made relieved pressure enough for the Order to finish breaking through, barrelling through the undead and continuing down the avenue. We slowed, formed up into a wedge again as I tossed fire behind us to keep the fat hounds away – they were vulnerable, a spark was all they needed to light up – and our eyes moved ahead. There the enemy had gathered up, dragging up chunks of wall to make a barricade as archers and javelinmen massed behind thick lines of skeletons.

And beyond them, I saw, it was worse. Three more large knots of enemy, getting larger and better dug in. Half a dozen smaller ones at least. How many knights were dead already? Too many, I thought, and it would only get worse as we tired and began to slow.

“REDEMPTION IN STEEL,” Grandmaster Talbot shouted.

They shouted it back and we broke into a trot, advancing unflinchingly. Curses shot out from the enemy formation but the knights laughed, the sorcery sliding off their armour like water off a duck’s back. Akua screamed an incantation, throwing at the enemy a swirling ball of darkness that exploded into drops. All of the undead they touched twitched and began to turn on each other, hacking away. The Order of Broken Bells cheered, cheered the deed of a woman they had hated an hour ago and would hate again an hour from now. There were hardly any lances left, all of them left in broken bodies, but the handful remaining were lowered as we broken into a gallop.

I watched the flanks, and my vigilance was not for naught: I caught the movement first. Ghouls that had crouched atop rooftops suddenly rose, leaping down and running towards us with howls, as something altogether more sinister rose behind them. They looked like great worms of bone, though the tail ended looking like a lizard’s and under their ‘neck’ two leathery, spindly arms ending in claws jutted out. It was the lungs that drew the eye, though, two bulging great sacks like a bullfrog’s stomach with the appearance of muscle that were pumping in air and swelling. Using the clawed arms to drag themselves into position atop the roofs, the creatures all turned to face us and unhinged their ‘heads’ to reveal teethless maws.

The spat clouds of some foul black gas at us, filling the air.

Akua incanted again as we tore through the ghouls in our way, hacking at the flesh, but they’d not been meant to win, only to slow us. Volleys of arrows fell in a thick rain, the gas drifted towards us on a lazy wind and the enemy mages began their rituals. I pulled deep on Night, ignoring the gas – Akua would have to take care of it – as Brand Talbot shouted for the knight to form up, to prepare a charge anew at the enemy ranks. It was turning sour on us, I realized, and… and a shadow was cast over us all. Wind screamed as the flying fortress approached and lightning began to fall in the enemy’s ranks. A heartbeat later, the bottom of the fortress let out a burning light that tore through half a dozen houses in a heartbeat.

And then ladders were lowered.

“Forward,” I shouted, “forward!”

We cut through the last of the ghouls as Akua blew black the gas, tightening ranks as we broke into a gallop again. An arrow slid off the side of my helm and another sunk into Zombie’s skull, which annoyed her more than anything else. The Order smoothly split into two wings, one for each opening in the enemy barricade, and we thundered through. I screamed myself hoarse, hacking away at a sea of skulls and rotten faces, hands and blades coming at me from all sides. From the corner of my eye I saw a scythe hit Akua’s armoured wrist, slapping her sword out of her fingers, and with a shout of anger I torched the Bind that’d dared. We pushed at the ranks of the enemy, the momentum of our aborted charge now gone, and knights began to drop.

But even as legionaries began to land on our side I found that the undead before me no longer bore swords, only bows and javelins and crossbows. I had reached the back.

“Almost through,” I shouted.

“Callow,” the shout came back. “Callow and the broken bells!”

But we were slowing, dying and I had begun to pull on Night again when a spell hit the middle of the enemy formation and crushed half a dozen soldiers with a projectile. No, I realized a heartbeat later, not a spell. High Marshal Nim, the Black Knight of Praes, rose from her crouch and swung her warhammer with a great cry.

Undead were scattered likes leaves in a storm.

And just like that, it began to turn around. I could feel it in my bones. The sky filled with thousands of tons of stone and arrogance and they gathered again, my ragged Order of Broken Bells. Spells fell on the dead like summer rain. Fire and lightning and frost, acid and darkness and smoke that moved and swallowed men. Wind blew up in geysers, sand heated almost to glass was thrown in sheets half a mile wide. And curses, curses of the likes Calernia had learned to fear: iron rusted and bent, flesh melted and bone turned to powder. Souls were ripped out of Binds and turned into streaks of weeping flame, skeletons exploded into shards. And worse, curses even Keter stood in fear of.

And as the mfuasa unleashed a millennium of learning on the enemy, the lords of ladies and Praes came down to fight.

The Legions of Terror were forming, steel ranks spreading out in every direction with my father’s cold ghost smiling through their eyes. Legion mages torched ghouls with methodical and concentrated volleys, sappers disappeared entire ranks of the enemy with sharpers. The heavies smashed through the enemy ranks like they were made of paste, regulars following behind: orcs locking shields with Taghreb and Soninke and Duni, the shadow of an empire dogging their footsteps. And yet it was not them I my eye was called to as the Order formed up again. It was the splendid few, the beautiful monsters in armours glittering of gold and jewel who stood out among drab and smoky Keter like a flock of birds of paradise in a gutter.

The nobles of the Wasteland, household troops standing around them like a fortress of steel, reminded the world why the Dread Empire of Praes had ruled Calernia from sea to sea.

Devils filled the sky, winged and shouting in the darktongue, as an empire’s worth of hidden vaults was emptied at the hosts of Keter. The air filled with fire and blood dripped from the sky, the wind itself turning red as the High Lord of Okoro rode it on a chariot and sowed burning seeds of fire like a farmer on the field. Storms roared in wrath as the High Lady of Kahtan unleashed the old spirits bound by her house, colossal things of ruin and wind striding the field. Ghouls fled before the unleashed bestiary of Aksum like whipped dogs, tides of fouled water swept hundreds as the High Lord of Nok commanded the waves and at the heart of them all Sargon Sahelian was laughing, baring his crooked smile like fangs.

He wielded thirteen pillars of stone large as towers, crushing enemies beneath them like a child hammering down at ants with a pestle.

But beyond them all, behind them all, the woman who had once been Dread Empress Malicia struck deeper still. For with the falling ash from the sky now fell paler motes, spread about by the fortresses. Still Waters, refined and turned into even more terrifying a weapon. Wherever legionaries fell, now they rose again with empty eyes as eights. Unflinching, obedient, unrelenting. And the enemy buckled as well, for the ritual lighting up within the fortresses were not only for the Praesi dead: they were also for Keter’s. Stealing dead from the King of Death was perhaps too much, but to shatter his hold? Oh, that they could do. Wherever enough of the compound fell, the dead went wild.

Turning on each other, maddened by wrath and despair as the behest of the last empress of Praes.

And we sat the saddle at the heart of it all, the worn survivors of the Order of Broken Bells. Redemption in steel, the cry went up, and we charged. We went through bone and ash, a ray of fire from a fortress opening a path. We cut through towering abominations that looked like the bones of giants trailing ribbons of flesh, shattering knees as the rope-like flesh tore men off horses and ripped them apart. We carved through apes of rotting flesh and the wriggling worms of spoiled blood they burst into, faceless horrors of sown flesh that oozed sickness.

The further we got the harsher the fight, skeletons bearing shells full of burning oil throwing themselves at us as broken bones rose together into drakes mad of soldiers’ remains and acid began to fall from the sky, burning at armour and searing flesh. But we got through, Merciless Gods. We smashed and hacked and died, until before us stood the heights of the inner wall and the iron gate barring the way past it. Enemies bristled atop the walls but Grandmaster Talbot shot forward, hammering at the gate thrice with the pommel of his sword, and I laughed myself hoarse. We’d fucking done it. Behind us, flanks covered by the Legions, the ranks of the Army of Callow approached.

We’d gotten them to the wall.

Chapter 59: Steel

“War is the greatest of alchemies. It takes men as can be found in any town in the world and makes them into heroes and monsters.”

– Extract from the prologue of the first volume of the “Annals of the League of Free Cities”, by famed historian Shapash the Ashuran

The skeleton was decked in bronze, the scales of the armour pristine and the strange horned helmet it sported was freshly polished – as well as open faced. I closed the distance so the swing of its axe would pass behind me, rasping down the Mantle of Woe without even cutting cloth, and smashed the pommel of my sword into the skull. One blow shattered the jaw, a second the nose and the third ripped the head right off the spine.

“Form up,” I shouted. “Seventh Company, do I need to gently hold your fucking hand before you put those shields locked?”

“Yes please,” a woman’s voice shouted back.

I snorted, getting a glimpse of a tall Soninke flashing pale teeth at me before her lieutenant slapped the back of her helm. The seventh company heeded my order, though, echoed as it was by the shouts of a dozen angry sergeants. With the seventh, the twelfth and the fourth forming up on our left flank we should be good to push further up. Their shield walls blocked the streets on that side, though at the moment they didn’t have anyone to face down. My hand was still smoking from my last use of Night collapsing a row of the houses between those streets, helped along by every mage we could scrape together. We’d wanted to leave them up, use them to keep the dead herded when they showed up, but it’d been too much of a risk.

After the fourth time a supposedly clear house was revealed to have had ghouls hidden somewhere in hit that then leapt from the roof straight at a mage to die tearing the throat out, I’d decided to stay on the safe side. The houses had been almost absurdly easy to bring down, we’d found, which had the back of my neck pricking. That did not strike me as an accident. Satisfied with the seventh company’s formation, I tore my gaze away from them and turned to the tall orc lieutenant that’d been waiting patiently on me as I shouted.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“Ma’am,” he began, “we-”

He was interrupted by a horrific scream as a hellish burst of red light bled all over the clouds above us, a distorted ring of magic burning with runes flickering open a dozen blocks ahead of us. A misshapen horror dropped through, too-small wings looking like rotted bone slowing the descent of a creature with distended scaled belly with too-long arms ending in massive claws. The horror dropped down out of sight, still letting out those soul-rending shrieks. The lieutenant drily swallowed. I clapped his shoulder.

“Cheer up, lieutenant,” I said. “Sure, that was one of the foulest abominations either of us has ever seen but for once the damned fucking thing’s one our side.”

The flying fortress hovering above that part of the city, raining down spells and stones, made that pretty clear. The Praesi were tossing devils into the mess ahead of my army like a fool trying to buy a wish at a fountain, which was both encouraging and not: much as I was happy they were softening up the opposition, I did have to wonder how bad it must be for this to be the seventh time they were burning a greater devil contract.

“Hungry Gods,” the orc got out, “I guess that’s something to be thankful for. Fuck of a day if-”

His face turned anguished, pulling a fresh cut on the side of his nose, when he realized who he’d just been cursing with.

“-ma’am,” he hastily added, then saluted for good measure. “The front is stalling, ma’am, Commander Spitter requests that you come help break the stalemate.”

I nodded.

“Tell him I’m on my way,” I said. “The flanks are set up, we need to begin pushing into the city.”

The avenue we so badly needed to get to was straight ahead, by memory, and I’d spent so many hours looking at maps of Keter that I could see the layout of the city when I closed my eyes.

It had been millennia since the fall of Sephirah and the living ceased to stay within the walls – save for a few hundred servants deep in the heart of the city – but though the Dead King had had worked his horror on all that lay within the walls there were still traces of the city that once was. I’d seen in the Arcadian echoes that Keter had been raised on a pair of hills by a river, and though the water was long gone the city still echoed of it. The Crown of the Dead was built upwards, the bottom of it beginning at the foot of its forty-yards high walls and rolling up to the raised plateau where the two hills had once stood.

There the five palaces of Keter awaited us, and the Hellgate whose taking would be our victory.

The inside of the city was a maze whose layout changed according to the Dead King’s whims, streets and ‘houses’ – most of them empty, used only to store the dead and their arms away from weather so they would not rust and decay – raised and demolished according to arcane designs, but a handful of parts had remained unmoving through all the crusades. Most important of them was a set of five large avenues crisscrossing the city, the largest of which went through north to south and had been built over the now-dry riverbed of the river that had attracted people to live here long ago. For our push into the city to have a change of getting anywhere, we needed to get onto one of those avenues.

The rest of Keter was a playground of death, and though those avenues were sure to be trapped and heavily defended at the end of the day they were the one part of the city that Neshamah couldn’t actually destroy while defending his capital: he needed the damned avenues to move his soldiers around. He could use the smaller streets, sure, but them being a maze was a double-edged sword and they also happened to be narrow. Meaning not a lot of soldiers could squeeze through and given that the Dead King’s great advantage was numbers that was a harsh handicap when tangling with the Army of Callow. We’d earned our reputation as the finest foot on Calernia the hard way.

Soldiers were milling about in a semblance of good order, lines and companies shifting to anchor our flanks or press at the front while we expanded on all sides to make room for the troops continuing to cross. I winced as I saw a ballista bolt from somewhere to the northwest scythe through a few of my soldiers, killing or toppling them to a more horrible death. Neshamah was beginning to move siege engines in position at the top of the still-standing walls on both our flanks, which was going to be a problem. We’d either need to take the walls to silence them, spreading out further than I’d like, or keep our mages lines focused on the defence until the soldiers had crossed. Juniper’s problem, I reminded myself. She’d figure something out. I shook myself out of the thoughts and followed a line of regulars towards the front, through melted stone gone cool and buildings shredded by the Ram.

Beyond the grounds glassed by the Light the shattered buildings rose into a ragged slope of collapsed walls and loose stones, which we climbed in haste as arrows fell in sparse rain from a long distance. Arcing shots, likely fired blindly from behind enemy lines at a place they knew would force us to lower shields for balance. Let it not be said that the Dead King’s commanders were unskilled, however empty and brutally efficient a kind of skill it might be. Climbing down the slow onto a paved street, I saw exactly what Commander Spitter had needed me for. After crossing the bridges we’d swept through the enemy defences and then another three city blocks beyond that as the dead tried to put together a shield wall to check our advance, but it’d not been enough.

Keter had recovered from the surprise two blocks further in, though. A barricade was encircling our position, as I blinked in astonishment at the sight of it – it’d not existed a quarter hour ago – I realized exactly why those houses on our flanks had been so easy to collapse.

Shit,” I muttered.

Keter was possible to fortify in a way that no other city in the world was, when it came down to it. Even the great fortresses of Calernia had to make concessions to habitability, but what did the Crown of the Dead care for that? There were no living souls within the walls and so the city made solely to be held against invaders, massive armies led by heroes. And though we’d avoided the worst of the defences by collapsing a wall instead of taking one of the gates, we’d known that was not a state of affairs that was going to last. Nor had it. That impossible barricade that had encircled our vanguard, leaving only one way through in a narrow street, had not been assembled – it had been collapsed. Undead had smashed the houses, collapsing them in a way that blocked streets as well.

I threw up an eye of Night as high as I could and cursed again at what I saw. Like industrious ants, skeletons were going around collapsing houses all around our beachhead to encircle it in a loose ring. And where a later of barricade had already been made, they went about adding a second. They’re hemming us in, I thought. If we don’t break through quick enough, they’ll just bottle us here and shoot us like fish in a barrel. And like all the finest trap did, they’d left us with a visible way out so we’d commit: that narrow street in front of our vanguard, packed so tightly with undead they could barely move. A funnel for us to charge down and die in. I began elbowing my way forward, though after the first few times my soldiers saw who I was and parted their ranks instead.

“Shield wall,” I shouted. “Get those fucking shields up before you all get shot!”

Officers echoed me across the army, our lines grown ragged from the breakthrough steadying just as the first undead crossbows and javelinmen began lining up atop the barricade. We’d taken the Dead King aback with our charge, but now he’d forcefully stabilized his line with the collapsed houses and he was setting up another killing field: if those barricades weren’t about to be sprouting a forest’s worth of range troops, I’d eat my crown. I particularly did not like the look of the javelins: those went right through shields and plate when thrown right, which the skeletons were sure to. It wasn’t the thought that we couldn’t smash our way through that had me worried, mind you. We could and goddamn would. It was the other ninety times we’d have to do it before we got anywhere near a victory. Was the Dead King already ordering a second ring of barricades to be collapsed around us, or was he going to wait a bit more?

Either way, I grimly thought, the only way we weren’t going to be drowned in street-by-street fighting was by moving too quickly for him to be able to keep us bottled up. And the only way for that was to break through another fourteen blocks straight ahead, to reach one of the five central avenues of Keter. I knew better than to think every step in direction wasn’t going to sprout a fresh nightmare in need of putting down. Thankfully, I was due the presence of some people who knew a thing or two about doing that. I swung my sword at a knot of skeleton crossbowmen, blowing them off the rampart as air exploded in front of them, and ran a hand down the chord of a story. One was almost there.

I felt out the outcome a heartbeat before the sequence of it could begin, and immediately pulled on Night. A large beorn came into sight, having climbed a large tower to the east, and after a roar it leapt. I could see the trajectory before it had even begun to move. A smooth arc down, straight into the company of heavies from the Third that was hammering at the enemy shield wall trying to keep us pinned in the avenue. And it might have landed, if not for the silhouette that ran up a half-collapsed house without breaking stride before leaping up, shining with blindingly bright Light. I caught a glimpse of a greatsword being swung as the beorn was carved through from head to toe and somewhere behind me I felt the twin shiver of an aspect being used and magic blooming: a gale of wind caught the halves of the beorn and the roiling skeletons within, tossing them back into the enemy ranks.

A heartbeat later the Blade of Mercy landed on his feet and the Rogue Sorcerer ended his spell. A heartbeat after that, what looked like a horse-sized worm made entirely out of muscles and fingerbones popped out from behind a tower to the west and spat a cloud of poison at that same company of heavies.

Fear, relief, horror returned. The Dead King’s favourite play.

“None of that,” I said, clicking my tongue, and released the Night.

A spinning sphere swallowed the cloud before contracting and exploding into a ball of poisonous flame, which a flick of my wrist sent right back at the bloody horror. It slithered into the tower for cover but not quite quick enough, its bottom half incinerated as the roof of the building collapsed atop it. Since Roland and the Blade of Mercy were here, she should be somewhere – I frowned, then turned around and hit the space right behind me with the flat of my sword. The Painted Knife let out a yelp, cold steel slapping her cheek, and I spared a glare as she backpedalled.

“How many times am I going to have to tell you you’re not bloody invisible, Kallia?” I said.

“At least you didn’t drop me down a tower this time,” the Painted Knife reproachfully replied.

“Day’s young,” I grunted, “and if you keep trying to sneak up on me during battle I might reconsider.”

I was completely serious, which the heroine seemed to pick up on.

“I hear your words, Black Queen,” she assured me.

I hummed, entirely unconvinced. I was pretty sure this had turned into one of those headache-inducing Levant honour things for her, which meant I was going to have to keep breaking her legs until she decided not even the bragging rights were worth that amount of pain.

“Your last two?” I asked.

“They should be-”

There was a great cracking sound to my left and I immediately turned, eye going straight to the unusual sight of someone single-handedly smashing their way through a barricade that was almost entirely stone with little more than a war hammer. A woman in bright red plate – Gods, the sight of it had every inch of me offended, that was just asking to get shot – with a helmet forged to look like a grinning devil and weapons strapped on her back was pulverising chunks of stone with every swing. And though she was almost seven feet tall and broad as a barn door, it wasn’t muscles alone that let the Red Knight shatter stone like it was overripe cantaloupes.

She wasn’t good at much aside from breaking shit, but that much she was really good that.

The villainess might still have taken a few javelins in the neck for her troubles courtesy of the undead above, though, if not for the fact that they were currently occupied with an enthusiastically murderous wolf the size of a small barn. Where the Hells the Skinchanger had actually found a wolf that large in Lycaonese lands was a mystery to me, much less killed and skinned it for use, but I wasn’t going to argue with the shapes the woman had chosen to take up: they were a pretty repertoire of clawed and fanged nightmares, even the fucking birds. I didn’t know why the eagle-thing she sometimes turned into had horns, of all things, but apparently they were both amour-piercing and poisonous so why the Hells not?

A someone who had ridden a flying horse for several years, I had a healthy appreciation for aerial impalements.

“There,” I completed for the Painted Knife. “So I see.”

She looked faintly embarrassed. So she hadn’t actually ordered the Red Knight to make that breach, huh. I sympathized. Even I found the villainess difficult to deal with, and unlike Kallia my authority was bolstered by the fact that I’d once brought down a four-story tower on the Red Knight’s head just to make a point. Hadn’t actually done much to her, which was why to this day I was pretty sure to kill her I’d need a pool of acid of some sort. Fortunately, she was so infuriatingly terrible a person I was also pretty sure I could get the Concocter to brew said acid for free.

“A second breach will hasten our advance,” I continued. “But you need to get your band ready after we punch through.”

A steady stare met mine.

“The Scourges are coming,” the Painted Knife said.

“At least one,” I agreed. “And it’ll be coming with lesser Revenants to use as meat shields.”

The Dead King wasn’t going to commit his finest remaining blades to fights to the – second – death so early in the battle, but he’d be looking to pick up a few kills among our Named if he could. Thin the herd, so to speak, and throw Revenant bodies in the way to get his Scourges out if we got too close to taking a scalp. I had every intention of snuffing out one of his last heavy hitters if the occasion arose, mind you, and Hanno should be fighting at one of the gates with the same intention. The trouble, we both knew, was that invaders past a certain point there was no choice but to fight on the Hidden Horror’s terms.

Not something that tended to go well for us, as a rule.

“We will be ready,” the Painted Knife swore, then hesitated.

I cocked an eyebrow.

“Might you keep the Rogue Sorcerer by your side?” she asked. “Skilled as he is, we move quicker without him and he is most useful from the back.”

“I’ll drag him along,” I agreed.

Roland was one of those eminently reasonable mages that actually wore armour, so I had no issue bringing him into a battlefield. Besides, for a spellcaster the Alamans was actually ridiculously difficult to kill: the amount of protective artifacts he wore on him at all times was impressive paranoid even by Wasteland standards.

“Good hunting,” I said, offering my arm.

“And you, Warden,” the Painted Knife replied, clasping it.

I waited for Roland, and gentlemen that he was he didn’t make it long. Some part of me was always surprised that the Rogue Sorcerer wasn’t taller, I thought. It must have been the long leather coat over the chain mail, covered with pockets full of artefacts. Though the dark-haired man usually went without a helmet, this once he’d made an exception and put on a plaint bassinet that pressed his curls against his head. He had a short wand painted blue in hand, which to my senses reeked of the fae. Huh, I’d never seen him with that one before.

“Catherine,” he greeted me, glancing at the melee ahead. “I’m grieved we only came so late.”

“Named wouldn’t have been useful on the bridges,” I admitted. “It would have been handing Revenants to the opposition.”

Not entirely true, but the few Named that would have made a difference had been needed elsewhere. I was already here, after all, and insisting the Army of Callow should also have the services of the Witch of the Woods on top of mine would have been a hard sell.

“Then we’ll make up for the absence it now,” Roland firmly said. “Where do you need me?”

I couldn’t help but smile. He’d been one of the first heroes to grow on me for a reason.

“You’re with me,” I said, “and we’re going into the thick of it.”

“Ah, certain death,” he drily replied. “How I missed working with you, Warden.”

“Don’t be so gloomy,” I chided. “It’s only mostly certain death.”

“That would be our finest odds in quite a while, then,” he snorted.

He gallantly offered me his arm to walk, which was a nice thought but still got him elbowed in the ribs. It was a battlefield, not a garden stroll. Alamans, Merciless Gods. Even at the bloody end of the world. The closest we got to the front, the harder it got to move: the press of soldiers tightened, kept on tightening until it squeezed into the sole street that had been the sole way out of the barricades. Now there was another opening, I thought, but the pressure would not be relieved for some time yet. Maybe thirty feet ahead of us I saw the shield walls hammering at each other, the dead packed tight as my heavies tried to break through them. I leaned closer to Roland.

“Can you clear that?” I asked, gesturing in the melee’s direction.

“Given time to cast,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied. “Why?”

“Because unless I’m mistaken,” I murmured, “we’re about to ambushed. I need you to draw attention.”

He sent me a pained look. I stared back, unmoved, until he conceded with a sigh.

“Bait it is,” Roland said. “Is Kallia near?”

I nodded. The Painted Knife, for all that her team had some rather straightforward brawlers, was still an assassin at heart. She was waiting too. The Rogue Sorcerer rolled his shoulder.

“Then let’s get to it,” the hero said.

I took a step back, pulling on Night, and let if fall over me like a veil. I tore out a sliver and shaped it into an eye, tossing it up in the sky, and as I closed my eye of flesh I saw through the other. The Red Knight’s breach had let the companies there turn the tables. Climbing through the mess was hard and there were corpses all over the slope, but now my legionaries had climbed atop the barricade and were tearing into the crossbowmen and javelineers. Ahead of me I looked past the brutal melee in the street, seeing how skeletons were pouring in from all adjoining streets to pack this one so tight they could barely move. Yet it was the houses I looked at closest, the tiled stone roofs. I couldn’t see a Revenant yet, but that hardly meant there were none.

Ahead of me, the Rogue Sorcerer let out a hoarse shout and pointed an ornate casting road at the sky: flames poured out like a flock of birds, bright and of many colours.

I could not spare a longer look than that, because the enemy were moving. Three Revenants on a rooftop that’d been empty until an arrow went flying – my heart clenched for a moment but the archer was in bright green leathers, so not the Hawk – and an illusion broke. I kept my eye on them even as what must be a mage Revenant, given that otherwise the swirling colours of those robes would be some sort of a crime, raised an ornate golden staff and pulled an illusion on them again. I’d had a heartbeat to look at the third, finding good plate and a large shield that did not belong to any of the Scourge. Whichever was there they were still lying in wait, so I held back as well.

Around me soldiers began to press forward, parting around my position without knowing why, and I made a note that whatever it was Roland had used it had seemingly worked.

The three Revenants were under illusion again but now that I knew what to look for I could taste the subtle power in the air and follow their position. The Painted Knife’s band went about it another way: a heartbeat later a hawk dropped down on the rooftop, turning into a large hound as it landed, and immediately began sniffing the air. Knowing their position was blown, the Revenants engaged: the illusion went down, an arrow was loosed at the Skinchanger – which she turned into a bear to shrug off – and the sword and board undead doubled back to attack our scout Named. A tactical mistake, I thought as the Painted Knife appeared behind their mage and hacked through the hand holding the staff. A heartbeat later the Blade of Mercy was there as well, landing in a flash of Light that tore a hole through the roof and forced him to roll forward so he wouldn’t drop through.

It wasn’t a done deal, I thought as I watched them. The mage Revenant’s hand kept wielding the staff even when cut off and the Blade of Mercy backed off in surprise when the sword and board undead took on his greatsword without batting an eye, but the band of Named had the advantage. Which meant we were soon due… Darkness fell over the roof and I cursed. I’d been too much to hope that being buried under most of Hainaut had been enough to kill off the Mantle, I supposed. At least I got to find out where she was, which happened to be a rooftop far to my left. Standing besides what had to be the sloppiest Revenant I’d ever seen: barely more than ragged skin and bones, with floppy hair and loose farmers’ clothes. Not a weapon in sight and he looked pretty confused.

He couldn’t have been more obviously dangerous if the word had been branded on his fucking forehead.

“All right,” I grunted. “My turn.”

The setup ought to work. I released the Night hiding me and shaped it into solid shadows instead, coiling around me and then exploding outwards in tendrils that I used like great legs. Shouts of surprise came from my legionaries below as I stepped over them and over the barricade, skeletons hacking away at the shadow limbs harmlessly. A streak of magic whizzed my way but I adjusted my position absent-mindedly to let it go wide, eye still on the Mantle. She pointed her great steel mace towards me, her armoured silhouette cast in the half-light allow through by the clouds, and the world shivered from the strength of the curse that shot out. She had, unfortunately for her, fallen prey to the story I’d prepared.

 A woman decked in red steel leapt up in the way of the curse, laughing, and the world shivered again.

I’m not the fifth in their band, I thought, you struck too early. I smiled down at the Scourge even as I guided myself to land on the rooftop closest to the Mantle’s. The Red Knight joined me up there, her armour glimmering deeper red from the curse she had been able to Devour. She spat to the side, reaching at her back and taking up a broadsword.

“Weak,” the Red Knight sneered. “Your hatred is weak. I’ll show you what a real Named is like, you petty armoured bitch.”

I rolled my shoulder, limping up to her side as the Mantle pivoted to face us and the Revenant at her side looked at us with befuddlement. I reached out with my Name, tried to get a read on what he could do, but all I got was a vague sense of bad luck. And yet I smiled, as I felt a ripple behind me and to our side the Mantle’s darkness suddenly vanished. Roland’s Confiscate worked on the Mantle’s curses, then. Good to know.

“Keep her busy,” I told the Red Knight, preparing to leap to the other roof. “But don’t take risks. We can afford to wait until the others are-”

Instinct pulled at me and I obeyed, taking a step to the side. It saved my life. I felt a raging current of power suddenly unleashed from below and the world exploded. I tumbled down through heated shards of what had been tiles a moment ago, shielding my eyes, as a curse passed close enough to rustle the Mantle of Woe. I hit the ground a moment after, swallowing a scream as I landed on my bad leg, but I stood through the pain to face a simple oaken staff being pointed towards me. A ragged figure in faded grey robes, eyes lifeless and long black hair tumbling down his back, stood before me inside a circle of wards. The Tumult, greatest spellcaster in the Dead King’s service, began to incant. Instinct pulled at me again, the warning of certain death, but before I could heed it and move a cacophonous noise drowned out everything else and the ground shuddered.

The wall blew up a heartbeat later, spraying shards everywhere as the flying fortress crushed three city blocks and I had to pull Night to be just so the shockwave wouldn’t splatter me all over the walls. The Tumult was not so lucky, his wards allowing through no harm but just enough wind that he was smacked flat against his own magic shield.  Breathing out raggedly I released the Night, wiping dust out of my eyes, and found laughter bubbling out of my throat as someone floated down to the ground to stand between me and the Scourge. Akua Sahelian, armoured from head to toe and somehow still the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, stared down the undead mage

“This one you can leave to me, darling,” she drawled. “We never did finish our little chat in Hainaut.”

In the distance I heard hooves, followed by war cries in Mthethwa, and finally I let the laugh free.

Time to collect some scalps.

Chapter 58: Mud

“Invading Callow is like stepping on a porcupine: do it long enough and it shall be crushed, but one should expect to lose the foot.”

– First Princess Clarisse Merovins

Juniper looked like she wanted to bite someone’s head off, and it was not impossible she would before the day ended.

“They were already retreating,” my marshal admitted. “I called the retreat myself so it would be in order instead of a rout.”

So mostly to save face, I thought with a grimace. All attempts to cross the bridges had ceased, a sight that had my stomach clenching in fear and unease. The longer we let the Dead King dig in on the other side, the worse this would get. I thought it pretty telling that no serious attempt had been made to destroy our bridges yet. Sorcery was still traded back and forth, filling the sky with streaks of colour and eerie shrieks, but so far the enemy had not even tried turning their ballistae on our forces this side of the chasm.

“We need to punch through,” I bluntly said. “If we don’t the battle’s good as lost.”

The attacks through the last two stone bridges were going to get shredded if we didn’t draw enemy forces with our own push and the Praesi had orders not to commit their forces before we had a beachhead inside Keter’s walls.

“I know that, Catherine,” the Hellhound growled. “You think I don’t? But I also know that if I give the order it won’t be obeyed.”

I grit my teeth.

“I know casualties are-”

“We’ve lost almost two thousand already,” Juniper evenly said.

The number gave me pause. Gods. That many?

“It hasn’t even been an hour,” I numbly said.

“Those bridges are pure murder,” the Marshal of Callow replied. “I ordered a push with mages putting up shields and all it did was draw ballista fire. The only saving grace is that the bodies fall instead of block the way.”

It obscured how many we’d lost, too. At least to some extent. Men who’d been three companies back when the battle started were going to notice they were now the frontline because everyone in front was dead.

“We need to commit Named,” Juniper said. “Can Hierophant cover our advance?”

Still feeling numb, I clumsily undid the clasp of my helmet. My face was covered in sweat and dirt, too-warm locks of hair falling over it when I took off the helm.

“Not without fucking over another front,” I said. “If he protects our advance, he’s not countering enemy rituals.”

I spat to the side, fruitlessly trying to get the taste of iron out of my mouth.

“How’s the Blessed Artificer?” I asked.

“Back on her feet, it was just a bump,” Juniper said. “You think she can run interference for us?”

“I think she’s the only heavy hitter left that’s not already committed,” I said, “so it’s her or no one.”

“I’ll send for her,” Juniper replied, then hesitated.

“Speak your mind,” I said.

The tall orc looked uncomfortable.

“It won’t be enough to get them to take the bridges again,” she said. “Not after the slaughter they just went through.”

Brushing sweaty hair off my dead eye – my ponytail was fraying – I turned to the Army of Callow. Juniper’s command tent was well situated, overlooking the offensive while boasting both a solid set of wards and room for me to land Zombie. She was still back there, tied to a post. An army, I had thought more than once, was like a large beast. It had a breath to it, lungs and veins and blood. It could be angered or wounded, made brave or craven. And though I did not have it in me to call any of these men and women who had followed me halfway across the world cowards, I watched those shifting ranks and saw the fight had just been beaten out of them.

Twice now every assault on the walls of Keter had failed and now they were asking themselves an ugly question: could they be breached at all?

They weren’t sure, not anymore, and in a battle like this that was as bad as thinking it couldn’t be done. Once you doubted, the whistle of every arrow was a dirge and the glint on the enemy’s blade as the promise of death. Like a worm in an apple, the doubt was eating my army alive.

“My fault,” I quietly said.

Juniper turned to glare at me.

“I don’t know what you’ve gotten in your head but-”

“My fault,” I repeated, in a tone that brooked no contradiction. “I’ve been fighting this battle mounted, Hellhound. That’s not what it takes to win a slog like this.”

I clenched my armoured fist.

“Blood and mud,” I said. “It always comes down to the blood and mud, doesn’t it?”

I pulled my helmet back down on my head. Juniper glared at me.

“Recklessness won’t bring us victory,” she said.

I secured the clasp, pulled at it to make sure it’d stay in place. The gesture was familiar, almost comforting. How many times had I done this before? Gods, how long had I begun to? I smiled at her, unable to help it.

“Do you remember the first war game we ever had, you and I?” I asked.

She snorted.

“Ratface and I had a war game,” Juniper corrected. “You were just some bum with a sword that took command after I beat him.”

My smile widened into a grin.

“I still remember how godawful furious you were, when I used my Name to leap over that log trap,” I said. “You snarled ‘what the Hells was that?’ and-”

“And you replied: ‘me, winning’,” Juniper finished, almost smiling. “I remember.”

I looked at the broken walls of the Crown of the Dead, the empire of horrors that still awaited beyond it.

“Come a long way, haven’t we?” I softly said.

“All the way to the end of the world,” the Hellhound replied, baring her fangs.

She had that look in her eye that’d made me want her from the start, even when we’d just been kids playing at war in the Tower’s shadow. The one that was all flint and iron, that said the soul behind it would rather snap then bend. I raised my arm, offered it, and after a heartbeat if hesitation she took it. An old legionary’s salute.

“The army’s yours,” I said. “You know the plans.”

Her face tightened, emotions flickering across it too quickly for me to read. Her grip tightened around my arm.

“It’s a fool thing, what you do,” Juniper of the Red Shields said, voice hoarse. “It’s a damned fool thing, and I can’t even shout at you for it.”

She released my arm as if the armour had burned it.

“Warlord,” Juniper said.

My staff I raised, then slammed it down. Though it was only dead yew and beneath it was stone, it parted for the wood like water. It was stuck in the stone and would stay there until I took it up again.

“Hellhound,” I replied.

And without another word, I went down into the crowd. Into the ranks. My eye wandered, looking for something, and found it. A boy, about my height, and as I opened my mouth I recognized with a start that I knew him.

“Edgar, isn’t it?”

“Ma’am, yes,” the boy – no, it’d been years, the young man now – hastily saluted. “And I’m a sergeant now, ma’am.”

“So I see,” I replied, glancing at the stripes.

He swelled at the words.

“I need another favour of you, Sergeant Edgar,” I said. “I must borrow a shield.”

He did not hesitate, I saw with something that was neither quite pride nor grief, for a moment. Without batting an eye he offered it, even helping me slide in my arm.

“Won’t do no good on your monster crow, though,” Sergeant Edgar noted. “It’s a footman’s shield, ma’am.”

“Then it’s exactly what I need,” I replied.

He paused, and others did around us. Neither of us were trying to stay quiet, and the press of soldiers was close. Murmurs rippled out.

“Get another before you go in,” I said, clapping his shoulder with affection. “Fortune be with you, Sergeant Edgar.”

“Hells,” the young man grinned, “that’d be a first.”

Hard, satisfied laughter followed. I let it carry me forward. One limping step after another, I crossed the sea of legionaries. Eyes followed me as if I were a falling star, hands reaching out shyly to touch my shield or the hem of my cloak as I passed. And I felt it move with me. Something like a shiver, a physical tremor going through the great beast that was my army. I was there, among them. Word of it passed from lip to ear, moving so quickly that before long the soldiers ahead me were already looking my way. I did not hurry my limp, because hurrying would do no good. When I reached the edge of the camp, the edge of the cliff, when I rose the steps to the beginning of the bride and turned, I found a sea of faces awaiting me.

Above us a clouded, hellish sky lit up with the eerie lights of war sorcery. The distant eruptions of power were like a broken breeze, just enough to have the banners moving. First Army. Fourth Army. And, standing before me, the Third. The vanguard of my every victory, which I had named Dauntless for that unflinching bravery.

“I won’t lie to you,” I told them, Name strengthening my voice for all to hear. “There’s death ahead.”

None were surprised. They had seen too many of their friends killed to be.

“They’ll come for us with fire and storm,” I said. “With every horrible trick they’ve been waiting to unleash. The moment it looks like we might win, they’ll unleash the Hells until the broken gates are left swinging in the wind.”

I breathed out.

“And still I ask it of you,” I said. “To march. To bleed. To die, until we’ve crossed the deep and rammed death back down the Dead King’s throat.”

There were no cheers at that. It was not a boast I’d offered them, something to laugh about. They all knew what it would cost to get there.

“I won’t blame you if you run,” I told them, “even though there’s nowhere left to run. We’re all a long way from home.”

I looked at them, and I saw in their eyes that they did not want to fight. They loved me, I thought, but still they did not want to fight.

“But if we don’t win here we’ll bring down the world with us,” I said, “so I’ll be crossing that bridge.”

Murmurs bloomed, low and urgent. The shield on my arm was hard to miss.

“And I know it’s more than a queen can ask,” I called out, “but I ask it anyway.”

My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched.

“You trusted me through Dormer and the Camps, through Maillac’s Boot and Four Armies,” I said, “through Arcadia and the Wasteland and every misbegotten bit a land a soldier’s ever died on.”

Gods, where had I not dragged them? They had even bled beyond Creation, as if Calernia was too small a field for them to die on.

“Trust me once more,” I asked. “Follow me into the breach, through dark and ruin until we come out on the other side.”

Maybe one day they’d call me a soldier queen, but the truth of it was simpler: I was queen of soldiers. I’d spent more time in the saddle than on my throne, pawning off the intricacies of rules to one regent after another as I went off to scatter Callow’s enemies. They might have crowned me in Laure, anointed me and said the words, but my real kingdom stood before me: banners and steel.

The Army of Callow.

“You and I against the rest of the fucking world, one last time.”

In the distance lightning crackles, exploded in a burst of light, and as ash fell from the sky like rain I stood before a sea of soldiers that would not look me in the eye. Silence hung in the air like pestilence, and the longer it lasted the harder my stomach clenched. It would not be broken, I realized. They would not gather their courage, raise the banners and follow me again. All my life I had wondered – feared, hoped for – the moment where I would finally ask too much of my soldiers. When they would at last balk, hold back the loyalty that had kept me on my feet long before I’d begun using a staff. So here it was, I thought, at long last. You lasted until the end, I thought, looking at them. There is no shame in this.

But I had a duty, and I had sworn an oath: whether they be gods or kings or all the armies of Creation.So I unsheathed my sword, slowly, and raised it to them in a salute.

“Be proud,” I told them, meaning every word. “You reached the edge of the world.”

And I turned my back to them. One limping step down the bridge after another, the steel clanging against my boots. Three, five, ten. In the distance a pair of ballistae were aimed, and I saw the flicker of movement. Gritting my teeth, I pulled on Night and let it loose through my veins. I slashed at the air, darkness trailing in my sword’s wake as a streak of Night slapped aside the stones that would have torn right through my body. I squared my shield, straightened my back and began moving again. Simple, I thought, I just had to keep it simple. There was only the enemy ahead, nothing else in all of Creation.

One more step. Always one more step, until I made it all the way to the other side.

“DAUNTLESS!”

My steps stuttered, but I could not let myself be distracted. Far ahead, a nest of mages loosed in my direction a ritual that was as a crawling wave of grey. I pulled on Night again, smashing a pillar of pure black into the spell and twisting my will. The working sucked in the magic before detonating, breaking the spell formula with it.

“DAUNTLESS!”

The shout came again, and this time more voices picked it up. I limped forward, shield up, as the world narrowed in front of me. I walked a span of steel three men wide, without railings or anything that would stop a single misstep from seeing you fall to your death. Lines of it stretched to my right and left, like teeth cutting at the void below us. Sorcery bloomed ahead, cabals of mages that were little more than bones and burning green sorcery shaping mounds of curses or frost. Gods, the numbers were overwhelming and I hadn’t even reached arrow range yet.

“Sve Noc,” I prayed in Crepuscular. “My enemies are many and their wrath is great: grant me ruin, that I may deal it out to them in your name.”

I twitched, Night bubbling up my veins, and let out a hoarse shout as shadows ripped themselves out of my back, fleeing the cover of my cloaks in flocks. Crows that were as shards of darkness took flight by the hundreds, spreading out in a wave that flew heedless into the enemy’s sorcery. My lip tasted of blood and I wiped it with the back of my gauntlet, spitting the rest into the chasm. One more step, I reminded myself. In the distance, the crows plunged into the spells and faded like morning mist – tainting every spell they touched, eating away at them from the inside. How many more of those did I have in me? Enough, I told myself. I would have enough.

My fingers were slick with sweat, my aketon soaked under the plate. Flakes of ash stuck to my face, to the wet cloth covering my dead eye, but still I advanced. My bad leg burned, throbbed with every step, but the pain was an old friend.

The ballistae had been silent, and now I saw why: they had been repositioned, awaiting the moment to fire a full volley. Only it wasn’t on me that the stones and bolts were fired. The machines spat out death at my bridge, but at others too. And I could not resist the glance, even knowing it would shatter my calm. Behind me, the Third Army’s banner flew in the wind and legionaries advanced. Tight ranks, shields up and faces grim. But they had come, marching down the lines of steel that were as a road straight to death, and my heart clenched at the sight of it. Always the Third, dauntless to the end. I would not let that trust go betrayed.

I thrust up my sword, Night already welling up inside me.

“I bring the word of the two-faced goddess,” I said.

Night swirled above me, sweeping up into the sky as a raging wind, and like a blade piercing the Heavens my working pierced the clouds. Arm trembling from the effort, I pulled down my sword and the rest of the sky with it.

“And that word is no,” I hissed.

Wind and clouds raged, a river drawn across the bridges like a stroke of paint, and the projectiles were swallowed whole. I released the working, panting as shivers of exhaustion went down my spine. I’d ripped a hole in the clouds, and through it the light of day shone. The sunlight found the rain of ashes, bathing in pale, and I might almost have thought it was snowing. In the distance I heard hoarse cheers, but there was a closer noise. Boots on steel. Legionaries catching up to me. And with them, on the too-warm wind, came one last sound drifting up to my ears.

“The knights will get the glory

The king will keep his throne.”

I was not sure whether to laugh or weep, so instead I kept my eyes ahead. One more step, I swore, and limped forward.

“We won’t be in the story

Our names will not be known.”

Sorcery swelled ahead, but the sky screamed out and streaks of pale lightning struck down at the enemy mages. No, not lightning – Light. The Blessed Artificer had come out to fight. Cheers sounded again. One more step, I prayed, and through the raining ash advanced.

“So pick up your sword, boy

Here they come again

And down here in the mud-”

“It’s us who holds the line,” I whispered.

One more step and all the Hells opened: arrow range. I was halfway through. They had massed archers and crossbowmen while we waited, crammed every skeleton upright and able to aim in thick lines covering every bit of stone they had to spare. They released all at once, with impossibly perfect timing, and death flew out in a swarm. I pulled deep on Night, blade wreathed in darkness, and slashed away. Behind us a great javelin of Light flew out, and as captains screamed out orders the Army of Callow loosed a wave of massed fireballs.

It wasn’t enough.

I hacked away at the arrows in front of us, even covering the bridges to my sides, but others flew in arcs above and there were simply too many to cover. Steel punctured shields, ripped into flesh, toppled soldiers screaming into the void.

“The Princes take the Vales

The Tyrant is at the Gate

Our crops wither and fail,

The enemy’s host is great.”

The line wavered, I could feel it buckling. But I kept advancing so they did too – voices rising defiantly to add to the song. The storm of arrows was not the danger of a single breath. It was a doom in three beats, as again and again the enemy went through the same movements: nock, pull, loose. The dead did not tire or hesitate, only missing a shot when a string strapped and needed to be replaced. And so death came for us in waves, relentless. A shot skittered off the side of my shield, another grazed my cheek and I could barely move quickly enough to gather Night to me.

“Mages, forward,” went up the cry, and soon shields bloomed in front of us, but like before they attracted attention.

Ballistae concentrated fire on the visible targets that were the translucent panes of magic, shattering them were arrows failed. The line was buckling again, and even for me to take a single step forward was like wading against a river’s current. We were failing again. I was already tired, more than I should be, but what point is there in hoarding power when we were about to lose? I took a step forward, almost swallowing my tongue for the burning pain of my leg, and clumsily ripped at the straps keeping my shield on my arm. Arrows fell, but I had a guardian of my own: a ball of blue flame formed in front of me, spinning and expanding to swallow all the projectiles before it burned out. Masego was protecting me

Then it was on me to protect everyone else.

I threw away the shield, hearing it rattle against the edge of the bridge and vanish into the dark, and I breathed out deeply. In and out, steady. Seizing too much Night when I was exhausted could make me throw up otherwise.

“So pick up your sword, boy

Here they come again

And down here in the mud

It’s us who holds the line.”

I dug deep. Until my breath came out mist for the cold inside my veins, until light began to hurt my eyes and I could hear my heart beating like a drum against my ears. I’d done many a powerful working of Night, in my time, but this one would be different. It was not the First Under the Night walking down that bridge, the highest priestess of Night. I was the Warden, come to bring order to the madness, and so it was not black flame or curses I was calling on. Keter thought to cowing me by unleashing one monster after another, by sowing a field of death.

But I’d brought my own, made of every death I owned.

“Rise,” I snarled, hand pulling up, and for a moment there was nothing at all.

Then the shadows beneath the bridges, the dark nestled beneath the cliffs, began to boil over. Strands of darkness shot out, thick tendrils of Night, and they gathered like a river to the sea. Above my head a shape began to form, and though Keter unleashed storms of sorcery to shatter it the Hierophant allowed not a speck of magic to pass. Watching it was seeing an artist at work: curses turned into flame, which burned acid into smoke, which coiled into tendrils choking out green light. A single will cascaded down a line of spells, breaking them with the same exquisite grace of a duellist’s perfect killing stroke. Again and again, the man who had once been the Apprentice got the best of them. And with every moment he bought me, every ballista the Blessed Artificer shattered in a burst of Light, the shape above me grew. Swelled, until it stood so tall it blocked out the sun.

A river of arrows was fired into the dark, disappearing as if they’d been dropped in a well.

And when the storms of sorcery broke, the smoke scattered and the ash-wind broke, facing the enemy was a behemoth of a monster. Mine, my Beast. It was shaped as a wolf would be, if shadows cast on a wall by a scared child: too sinuous, its impossible large maw bristling with teeth. It was my old companion, the breath of the back of my neck and the laughter in my ear. The monster I’d built out of a hundred thousand corpses, sown across battlefields from the east to the west. I’d built on my throne atop a mountain of dead soldiers but today, just this once, the throne would give back. Monstrous maw opening wide, the great beast of Night breathed in the air of Creation like it was savouring it. Behind me my men had halted, but I turned back and offered them a wild grin.

“FORWARD,” I shouted. “FORWARD AND FOLLOW ME!”

The Beast began to laugh, and Gods though it was a terrible the terror was on our side. I limped forward, breaking into a pained run, and ahead of me the monster charged.

“Man the walls,” my legionaries sang as they followed, “bare the steel.”

Sorcery screamed, ballistae fired and a howling volley of arrows disappeared into the Beast’s body. I quickened my steps, a hoarse shout ripping itself clear of my lungs – as much pain as glee.

“Hoist the banner, raise the shield.”

The Beast tumbled into the enemy, crushing undead with every step and laughing as it swallowed whole a siege engine. We ran, ran as fast as we could, knowing that the opportunity would not knock twice. Two thirds through, and then more. We were so close.

“A free death they cannot steal.”

Rituals bloomed again, and enemy archers began took aim at us again instead of wasting their arrows on my monster – which was tearing them apart with tooth and claw, ravaging their tightly packed lines. Steel broadheads began to fall on us again, taking blood and lives, but the run had taken on momentum. It did not slow even when bodies began to drop.

“When we meet them on the field.”

I felt Masego try to West the enemy’s rituals but there were just too many. Great thorns of sickly green magic were shot in the Beast’s belly, and though it screamed and clawed at all around it I could feel something hollowing out my working from the inside. I was not the only one on the field who knew how to make use of ruin. The Beast began to fall apart piece by piece, howling and clawing at the enemy as it did, and as my boots hit the bridge the heart of it faded into mist. A heartbeat later I took another step, and instead of steel I touched stone.

I had crossed, and my army was mere feet behind me.

“So pick up your sword, boy

Here they come again

And down here in the mud

It’s us who holds the line.”

And as the song died, the Army of Callow followed me into dark and ruin. I laughed and slammed into a skeleton, cutting through bow and string and neck. It collapsed like a stringless puppet. The enemy had been waiting for us, but we’d caught them flatfooted and the Beast had put them in disarray. They’d not had time to redeploy, so as I tore into a line of archers sword in hand I felt the heavies of the Third Army crack those lines like an egg. Heeding unseen orders the skeletons tried to retreat, scampering up slopes and through broken houses, but we swept through them like a tide.

“Mages,” I shouted, parrying a blow and returning a vicious riposte.

The skeleton’s head broke under the pommel, shattering clean and killing it.

“Mages, fire on the ballistae,” I shouted again.

They obeyed and fire burned bright, the enemy’s engines finally silenced. A wave of steel swelled behind me and we smashed our way through archers and crossbowmen until there were none left to smash. Behind there were proper fighters, skeletons in armour with swords and axes and shields, but even charging uphill the momentum was with us. We’d break through, past this breach and into Keter. That was why I could already feel the coming, I thought. The Scourges. But it wouldn’t matter, not a whit, because we weren’t done either. As Keter mustered its horrors and my men drove back the dead, pushing forth the beachhead, long shadows fell on us all. Between us and the sun flew great fortresses, bristling with soldiers and mages.

The last gasps of the Dread Empire of Praes had come to make war.

Chapter 57: Dawn

“Only two things can get a soldier through war: courage or good legs.”

-Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

An hour before dawn the camp would begin to stir, but I woke up even before that.

It was almost a mercy. My sleep was rarely anything but fitful – always returning to that night of green flames and red hands – and there were only so many times I could wake up soaked in sweat before I lost taste for turning over and burying my head under a pillow. In the dark before the dawn I found a fire, my still sleepy guards spread out around me, and overcooked a pair of eggs. The bacon rashers were fine, though, and boiling water was transmuted into tea by the twin magics of patience and costly foreign imports. I wolfed down the meal and warmed my hands against the mug, sipping it at it while it was still hot enough to scald my tongue.

My duties had yet to wake up and I wasn’t going to be squeezing into my battle armour any sooner than I needed to, so after I polished off the last of tea I got up so stretch my limbs. A walk around camp would do the trick, and though my guards seemed intent on following I dismissed them. I was now entirely awake, and so I could feel a string of fate pulled taut across the air. Not the battle’s, it was too small for that, but not a small matter either. Best to have a look before someone got around to plucking it, I figured.

My limp was unhurried, as I knew I would not be late. I tread the broad avenues of the Army of Callow’s camp, then the narrower alleys of the Dominion’s all the way into the messy sprawl of Procer’s sea of tents. Past a company of fantassins sleeping in the rough like corpses abandoned on a field, I found a half-broken watchtower – laid low by shoddy workmanship, not the Enemy’s blows – and a silhouette atop stairs. A man’s, leaning against the low shattered wall as if it were a balustrade, and though the cloak was a faded brown I recognized the build well enough. He did not turn as I went up to join him, though he would have heard me coming.

He was, I saw, staring at the dark and distant shape of the Crown of the Dead.

I squeezed myself in at the edge of the wall, leaning my staff against it and my shoulders against the irregular stone. In the gloom before day began to glow, Keter was difficult to make out even to my Night-blessed eyes. It was as some large beast curled up on an island of nothingness, unmoving but far from asleep. No one could look at the Dead King’s capital for long without getting the impression that it was somehow looking back at you.

“How did you find me?” Hanno of Arwad asked.

I glanced his way, having to twist to do so with my flesh and blood eye – the angle was bad. He’d always been a tall a broad sort, Hanno, with a working man’s frame and a working man’s hands. It suited the plain but honest face, which, while not so serene as it had been when he still served Judgement had kept a sense of calm to it. He was not easy to ruffle. Yet this morning, before daylight and other’s eyes caught up to us, he was allowing unease to reach his face.

“I followed a string,” I said. “It’s a thing I do now and then.”

“Mysterious,” he replied, appreciative. “Another ten years of this and you will drive young Named utterly mad.”

“Hey, if I actually make it to old age it’s my goddamn right to mess with the young,” I shrugged. “It’s not like Evil offers a pension or anything. They’re a stingy lot.”

He snorted.

“I cannot tell whether that’s blasphemy or not,” the dark-skinned man admitted.

“I’m getting that a lot these days,” I mused, “which seems unfair, given that I’m the high priestess of an entire religion.”

“One centred,” Hanno said, “largely around theft and murder.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“And?”

“There’s a saying about birds of a feather that seems appropriate,” he serenely replied, “but I believe you’d never forgive me the pun.”

“You do know me,” I conceded.

I let the silence fall comfortably, settle in a bit. Then I struck with my usual finesse.

“So, glaring at Keter,” I said.

He stirred at my side.

“A roundabout question?”

“If you came here for the view,” I shrugged, “waiting after dawn might have worked better.”

I’d not drag it out of him with a hook and rope, if he did not want to talk, but I suspected that if that were true my feet would not have led me here. I’d been on the other end of this kind of conversation often enough not to mistake reluctance with refusal.

“I never sleep well before battles,” Hanno reminded me.

I didn’t reply. We both knew not sleeping and coming out here weren’t the same thing.

“I find myself irritated,” he finally said.

Huh. Never heard that one out of him before. I cocked my head to the side.

“With?”

“Too many people,” he tiredly said. “Which serves to tell me the troubles does not lie with them.”

“Ah,” I said.

He moved, craning his neck to look at me.

“Ah?” he asked.

“Ah,” I confirmed.

He rolled his eyes at me.

“What you mean, ‘ah’?” he pressed.

“That I’m not surprised,” I said. “You’re close enough to being Named that you can use an aspect and ride providence, but you haven’t claimed one openly. Talking from experience, it’s not a pleasant position to stay in.”

My Name of Squire had died a long death in the throes of Winter, a span of time I’d spent fighting some of the most dangerous heroes on the continent and trifling with lesser gods. I remembered well what it had been like to have the Role without the rest.

“Even a saint with get tetchy,” I elaborated, “if he keeps sitting on a spiked seat for too long.”

“I do not claim sainthood,” Hanno evenly said.

Never stopped anyone from tossing it at your feet, I thought, but true as that was it would be of no help at all.

“Can’t blame you,” I drawled instead. “Laurence was enough to put me off it too.”

He wasn’t quite amused – he remembered the Saint of Swords far more fondly than I did – but the growing tension in his shoulders loosened. Keeping an eye on him, I decided not to prod him any further. He had the look of a man chewing on his own thoughts. If the taste was foul enough he’d spit them back out anyways, yeah? And to think they’d said I would never learn patience.

I’d been patient enough to outlive most the fuckers, so how about that.

“There is a Name there for the taking,” Hanno finally said. “All I would need to do was reach out.”

“But you haven’t,” I observed.

Obvious, but it’d keep him talking.

“I have turned away from it twice now,” he confessed, passing a hand through his close-cropped hair.

My brow rose and I had to repress the urge to let out a low whistle. No wonder he was feeling antsy. He was fighting off his own transition. When he’d become a claimant to Warden of the West he’d ceased being the White Knight, though at least one of his old aspects had lingered. In the wake of renouncing that claim and my rising to fill the Role, what exactly Hanno of Arwad was had remained up in the air. By the sound of it, he’d been struggling with that question just as much as the rest of us.

I didn’t bother to ask what the Name he was shying away from was. I had my suspicions, but in truth it didn’t particularly matter. A Name was just the crystallization of what you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to do. The red, the life of it was in the Role. It was what we struggled with, far more than whether a Champion should be Valiant or Unconquered. So the ‘what’ was an afterthought, really, in face of the question that did matter.

“Why?”  

The word had him scowling. It was a rare sight and I almost found myself staring at it: it was, well… human. Not that Hanno had ever been alien in the way that some other Named could become, all cold and power stripped of everything else, but there’d always been something a little aloof about him. The calm, the serenity on his face and in his eyes, it was fitting for a White Knight. Expected almost. But it was something to admire, not to understand, because who could ever really understand certainty that absolute? And now he was scowling, almost childishly. I smiled.

“And what has you so amused?” Hanno challenged.

“When I was a kid,” I said, “I sometimes felt like the world was caught in amber. Maybe not every part, but those that mattered at least. That nothing important ever really changed.”

I traced the edge of the rough stone with my fingers.

“But we did change it,” I said, almost disbelieving. “It didn’t really feel like it was what we were doing at the time, but we did. And now that I know how to look for it…”

All those years of swimming against the tide, of blood and mud and tears, they’d given birth to the first tremors of a new age. Still fragile, uncertain, but the signs were there. In the way that the Dominion was starting to circle around Razin and Aquiline like they were the sun of Levant, in the way that goblins drew on Night and planned to raise halls as far as the Morgentor, in that the empress of my youth was now a chancellor and a girl I’d once thought was now the heiress to my crown. Gods, these days I counted Procer as a halfway steady ally and looked forward to spending time with Cordelia Hasenbach. Somehow, along the way, we’d changed the world without even noticing.

But now that I could see it-

“… it’s everywhere,” Hanno quietly finished, eyes returning to the Crown of the Dead.

Calloused hands pulled closed, as if he was trying to catch something eluding his grasp. He let out a long, shuddering breath.

“Except me,” Hanno of Arwad said. “It’s everywhere except me, Catherine.”

So my instinct had been right.

“You can be the White Knight again,” I said.

“The same Name,” he said, “that I walked away from.”

I hummed.

“Aspects?” I asked, tone gone professional.

A trick that’d always served me well. Sound like you have a right to ask a question and most people will answer before they realize you’re there to buy fish and there’s really no reason you should be told about how much getting their horse shoed cost at Billy King’s smithy. Too much had been the answer. Brother Desmond had been right, the old bastard had been a swindler.

“One stayed,” Hanno said. “Two faded.”

I grimaced. That poor man. For an aspect to stick through a Name being lost and then being reclaimed, it’d have to be so intrinsic to who he was that it was more about Hanno of Arwad than whatever else he ended up being. I didn’t know what Hanno had gone through for Recall of all powers to end up qualifying for that, but I doubted it must have been singularly unpleasant.

“Then it’s not really the same Name, is it?” I pointed out.

“You were the Squire twice,” he said, with the blithe assurance of someone who’d peered at many of my secrets through dead men’s eyes. “Did you think it a different Name simply for having different aspect?”

“I was a different person,” I replied. “It’s why I didn’t get Learn or Struggle. I didn’t feel like I was so out of my depth anymore.”

In the wake of First Liesse, I had been a victor: over Akua, over the High Lords, in some ways even over the Empire. My plan to claw back some sort of local rule over Callow had been a success and I’d been granted lands by Malicia herself. I’d not felt like I was one misstep away from death at all times anymore, and my Name had reflected that confidence.

“But it was the same Name,” Hanno insisted. “Meant for the same purposes. Changing the horses on carriage does not make it a different carriage.”

“There’s an argument to be made that it does,” I drily replied. “Since you never step in the same river twice and all, but I’ll leave that bit of philosophy to the Atalantians. Why are you so keen on a Name always being meant for the same purposes, anyway? Even if it were true, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.”

“You have to ask?” he tiredly said. “You are the one who forced me to look that mistake in the eye.”

I blinked at him.

You’re standing where everyone else started and calling it a journey,” Hanno quoted.

My own words, I realized after a heartbeat. From that night in Salia, when I’d had him at my mercy and savaged him with every hard truth I could find.

“I’d thought that rolled right off you,” I admitted. “Like most of what I said that night.”

“Even if you had been entirely my enemy,” he replied, “I would have thought on the words after. It is a dangerous thing to fear self-examination.”

Sounded a lot like ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’ to me, a sentence generally spoken by people who should not be trusted with even butter knives, but I’d sit on that opinion instead of sharing it. He had a right to his own beliefs, and there were more than a few reasons I’d not ended up dressing in white.

“All right, so you self-examined,” I said, distantly glad Indrani was not there to make a filthy joke of that. “How’d that end up with you here and staring down stone walls?”

“Because I fear that you might not have been wrong,” Hanno said. “It was… I struggled with the decision to act, Catherine. To sunder myself from providence and the Tribunal, however silent, and take matters into my own hands. But I did, and I began to act.”

His jaw clenched.

“And now I am to be the White Knight again?” he said. “To return where I began and sweep away al the doubts I wrestled with, the decisions I made, like fallen trinkets fit only for trash.”

He angrily laughed.

“It was not a journey at all,” Hanno told me. “I just walked in a circle so I could put on the same old cloak. All that grief, all these dangers and struggles and deaths, and what do I have to show for it?”

So that was it, huh. He’d thought he was becoming someone else, that he’d learned something. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, the Creation itself seemed to think otherwise. At least in his eyes, anyway.

“Two aspects,” I said.

He turned to me, frowning.

“You want to use a Name as measure of who you are, like Creation’s some sort of fair judge?” I challenged. “I can’t agree, but fair enough. You’ll have to follow through, though: Creation judged you different enough from who you used to be that two out of three aspects faded.”

“It’s the same carriage,” Hanno flatly said, echoing his earlier words.

“Maybe,” I said. “But it’s not the same horses pulling it, or the same man riding it – so why does it have to be headed to the same place?”

He looked way. Not convinced, huh. I wasn’t fool enough to be disappointed.

“Perhaps it would be for the best if it did,” he finally said. “For all that I chose to act, I have few gains to show for it. The Gigantes have not come, and the claim I troubled the Grand Alliance to press was a trap.”

I hid my surprise. It was the first time I’d heard he’d reached out to the Titanomachy, though that was actually something I halfway appreciated. Cordelia had gotten some goodies out of dealing with the giants, but however skilled a diplomat she was being Proceran had ensured all paths would turn into dead ends. Both Hanno and the Witch of the Woods were said to have deep ties to the Gigantes, though, and a personal connection might have yielded results where formal talks had not. A shame it hadn’t. Mind, you all of this was babbling nonsense.

“Yeah, you didn’t produce enough results to turn around the literal end times in, like, eight months of trying your hand at it tops,” I drily said. “Just terrible, Hanno. Soon children will begin stoning you in the streets.”

He sent me a long-suffering look.

“Must you?”

“Sure, when you’re being an idiot,” I easily replied. “You tried, Hanno. Maybe you didn’t pull miracles out of thin air – more like not enough of them – but that doesn’t mean you were wrong to act. You made some things better and some things worse.”

I snorted.

“That’s better than I fucking managed to pull off, some years.”

Or Cordelia, for that matter. He mulled on that, silent, and I did not interrupt. Instead I looked to the distance, where on the edge of the horizon light was fast approaching. The gift of the Sisters told me dawn was soon to come.

“The world was never simple,” Hanno murmured. “But I do miss them sometimes, the days when my role in it could be.”

“Enough to go back?” I asked.

He did not answer. I stayed by his side, the two of us keeping in a strangely comfortable silence, until dawn rose to find us.

The silence was deafening.

Almost two hundred thousand soldiers stood around Keter, a fortified camp encircling that island of stone and death surrounded by nothingness, yet I could hear every cough. Empress Basilia had left with the Proceran cavalry, marching to the plains of the Ossuary to fight the battle that would keep our back clear as we stormed Keter. The rest of us – Levant, Callow, Procer and Praes – were mustered for war, for the slaughter about to begin. I sat Zombie’s back in full armour, perched atop a now-empty watchtower, and below me the ranks of the Army of Callow were splayed out. It was not the last two bridges they were readied for, not this time.

Across the lines of legionaries cut massive, segmented steel bridges. Pickler’s creations. Not long enough to reach across the chasm to the top of the rampart, for the amount of steel needed for it would have been prodigious, but long enough for our purposes. There was a glint of light at my side, which bloomed into a circle when I granted it a glance. Masego’s face appeared within.

“We are ready,” Hierophant said. “When does it begin?”

“On the hour,” I said, “though it will be First Princess Rozala that-”

“FORWARD!”

The air shuddered from the force of the call, which would have been fit to burst eardrums near the source. Still, the Proceran mages we’d trained at the Arsenal had done what they needed to: Rozala Malanza’s voice had been heard by every soul in the Grand Alliance army. Not that the order applied to all of them.

“Understood,” Hierophant said, and cut the spell.

My soldiers did not move, standing there as the wind picked up and the ozone scent of magic filled the air. Across the last two bridges, Proceran and Levantine soldiers began their advance on the enemy bastions. Streaks of roiling darkness shot up past the tall walls of Keter, the first wave of the enemy’s rituals – curses so powerful they were sickening even for me to look upon – howling at our advancing forces. Our answer was well-oiled. Our own rituals shot up: the eerie dust-ghosts of binders, great spears of lightning from the Army of Callow and curses just as vile from the Praesi. Magic collided against magic, power spent to no gain but the stalemate we had been aiming for.

“Now,” I murmured. “Now, Artificer.”

Obeying my order without ever having heard it, the Blessed Artificer at least unleashed the wonder she had crafted in Salia and refined over the months since: the Ram. It was impossible for me to miss it. The wooden pillar sheathed in copper caught the morning sun as it was dragged onto the platform we’d raised for it, then aimed at the wall before us. Adanna of Smyrna laid a hand on her creation, and for the first heartbeat nothing happened. Or rather nothing visible. It felt, to my senses, as if the entire world was breathing in.

And in the heartbeat that followed, as Light began to shoot out from the sides in wild spurts, the world breathed out.

She was knocked of her feet, as were the two soldiers helping her, and the Ram shot out like an arrow swatted by some unseen titan’s hand. The Light roiled, screamed, and as a sudden burst of power came from behind the walls of Keter I felt the Hierophan’s name shiver. Wrest killed their defence in the egg as the Ram flew, right at the heart of the wall before us. The same one where a Praesi siege tower had crashed into the stone, weakening the wards holding the rampart together. Spinning and screaming, the Ram hit Keter’s wall like the very wrath of the Heavens. Light flared, blinding and burning as the Ram fought to pierced into the rampart, and I caught sight of spurts of stone flying like drops of water before I was forced to look away.

Just in time, for the explosion that followed was powerful enough its breath sent tents flying behind us.

Shielding my eye with my palm more by habit than need, I risked a look at the rampart and let out a shocked breath.

“Merciless Gods,” I whispered.

The wall had been savaged. Miles of stone had been slagged down to the foundation, the melted remains trickling down the edge of the cliff and into the drop. The streets behind the wall had been ravaged by broken and heated chunks of stone, looking as if a rain of sharpers had been dropped across them, and though I could see soldiers swarming the sheer amount of damage was staggering. Just as we had hoped, the Blessed Artificer had blown us a path open into Keter. One that would not be the enemy’s narrow killing zones on the bridges, nowhere as heavily defended. And they’ll have to keep defending those while we strike here, else we’ll punch through.

A heartbeat later the Dead King collapsed both bridges, but I smiled against the strap of my helmet. We’d been waiting for that: sorcery bloomed, Akua and the Witch keeping the broken bridges aloft and usable. We’d learned from our first defeat. I laughed, unsheathing my sword and raising high, as all around me the Army of Callow cheered loudly enough to echo across the sky. Keter’s impregnable wall, reduced in a moment. My soldiers felt fires in their belly again.

Begin,” I shouted, and it rippled out.

The melted stone was not yet cooled, but we did not have time to waste. The longer the Dead King got to prepare against our landing, the more brutal securing that beachhead was going to get. Zombie let out a loud cry, wings spreading as I spurred her on to take flight. I glided over the Army of Callow as the First, Third and Fourth brought forward their bridges. They rose up in their air like poles, carefully aimed to the calculations of the sappers overseeing the effort, and then after a push gravity took its toll. They toppled forward, falling all in a row. Not that Keter was to let us land so easily. Magic bloomed ahead, but those I left to Masego. When I guided Zombie into a glide, staff in hand as I called on Night, it was to meet another threat: the great wyrm that was tearing through houses and streets to get to the breach. The great abomination of bone and leathery skin screeched, but I shouted back.

“Crows take you,” I snarled, “and burn.”

Black fire erupted form the tip of my staff, growing from a trickle to a torrent to a burning river as it struck the massive snake construct in the side. Magic whizzed around me, but none came close: all that would have hit suddenly changed trajectory, Hierophant slapping them away with Wrest. I grit my teeth and kept letting the Night flow through me even as my veins cooled and sweat beaded my brow, Zombie’s long wings taking us into a smooth circling glide. I finally killed the working and lowered my staff, just in time to take my mount into a dive as Keter’s first ballistas were brought into position and began firing on me.

I got a look at the wyrm first, though, and grinned fiercely: it wouldn’t going anywhere.

Even with all the power I’d pumped through I’d only incinerated half of the construct, but it was quite beyond moving. It pissed me off a little that it’d still managed to accomplish part of its’ objective – wedge its body between the falling bridges and the ground – but barely a third of our crossings had been blocked with the move.

“Priests will clean up the rest of it,” I told Zombie, leaning against her neck. “Come one, we’re going with the first wave.”

Some brave souls from all three commands in the Army of Callow had begun the daunting work set out before them: crossing the chasm atop the steel bridges. We’d aimed for a wideness of three soldiers to be able to pass through each bridge at a time, for a total of ninety-nine legionaries at a time across all bridges. Much as Juniper would have preferred more, the amount of steel this had taken was already astronomical. Zombie’s took us under the bridges, layering stripes of shadow and light against the cliffs surrounding me on both sides, and after passing the last I guided my mount into taking us up. What I saw as I turned to look at our assault gave me pause.

It was a massacre.

My soldiers had made it halfway through the bridges before enemy fire began to fall on them, but now that it had… Arrows and scorpion bolts shot out in hails, stones from scorpions and streaks of sorcery smashing through shields like they were made of paper. I wasted no time, spurring Zombie back into the fight, and began striking at the enemy – siege engines first, they were hardest to replace. It wasn’t going great.

“Fuck,” I snarled, dropping low to avoid another curse.

Already a full archer’s volley was falling on my position, the impossibly precise coordination between the dead setting up the sequence perfectly. Zombie was already diving but we had to spin to avoid twin ballista bolts – one skidded off the edge of my armour, another took a few feathers off her side – and we were forced to take refuge under the bridges for the second time before flying back up the other side. I’d torched two ballistas and an archer’s nest, but the enemy was using its mages to shield against my Night workings. I guided Zombie back up and flew through a hail of arrows, swatting them aside with a burst of Night, and hammered at a ballista jutting out from some half-broken temple. The black flames washed over the shield, but a heartbeat later Hierophant wrested the defence away and I let out a snarl of triumph.

Without Masego covering me, though, the swarm of curses had me forced to drop below again.

I rose on the opposite side for another pass, but when we tried the same trick I found the that the flames still didn’t go through: the undead mages had layered the shields into two different spells. Fuck. They’d figured out the weakness of the aspect, then. Hierophant could take from more than one source of magic, but that meant splitting focus. On an artefact that was fine, but when there were other wills fighting him? They’d shut down our trick. I had to drop again, a glance telling me that our assault had stalled hallway through the chasm: soldiers were dying too fast to get further.

Another pass, and I went at it differently: I attacked the grounds around the ballista instead, shattering stone with entropy. Mixed results: knocked the ballista down but it wasn’t destroyed, and Masego had to cover me from a mass of enemy magic as Zombie dove. On the next pass, the dead got even more clever on us. They began holding back the release of their rituals, letting them loose when I attacked so that Masego was forced to handle them instead of help me. I almost let out a scream of frustration.

“This is going nowhere,” I breathed out, forcing myself to calm down.

And it had gotten there, by the looks of it: the bridges were almost clear, the last legionaries still on them try to get off.

Not a single man had gotten to the other side, and my soldiers were no longer trying to pass.

Announcement

So, some of you might remember that a while back I had a very bad cold that I thought might be Covid and forced me to take some time off. Well, as it happens life has a sense of irony so it turns out that what I believed until this evening to be a very mild cold is in in fact Covid. I’m fully vaccinated so it shouldn’t be much too worry about, and as as I’ve mentioned my symptoms are quite mild at the moment.

That said, I hear the disease can worsen rather quickly so I thought I’d drop a warning in advance in case I do end up bedridden. As of this moment there’s no change to the update schedule, though, and I’ll put up another announcement should there be.

E.E.

Interlude: Calls

“Mind your sentiments, for they have a mind of their own.”

– Proceran saying

It was a sultry night, as Keter’s tended to be.

The heat was poisonous and unease thrummed through the camps like a pulsing vein. The arrival of the dwarves – a story heavily curated before it was released to the soldiers, though Akua had heard the full of it from the source – had given the Grand Alliance hope of victory once more, but all still remembered the last assault on Keter’s walls. Much death had achieved nothing, and none were eager to be the tip of the spear when tomorrow came. It was certain death, all agreed, and even the ever-loyal Army of Callow was balking at the thought of being thrown into the grinder headfirst. None of that, though, was truly Akua’s concern.

Perhaps if she had made different choices she would be leading the Dread Empire into the breach come dawn, or unleashing some horrible sorcery serving as Malicia’s own treacherous Warlock, but it was not to be. Fingers tightened around her cup – a golden goblet set with opals, one of the few gifts she’d received as empress-claimant that she had liked – and she drank deep of the Cantal red. It was about to become a much rarer find, Akua thought. Procer would have better use for good land than vineyards in the coming decades, and that meant many vintages were on the verge of disappearance.

Perhaps for good. The world, these days, seemed set on changing.

“So best enjoy it while I still can, yes?” Akua murmured.

Fingers tightened around the cup again, her lips wet but far from sated. She did not regret making the choice she had in the heart of the Tower, not even now. Her eyes closed, thinking of the sound the match had made as she scratched it against stone, all Akua Sahelian felt was guilty relief. That she had not been trapped on that chair, chained to that fate. Made to go through a lifetime of empty motions, screaming inside. And yet as the days passed, she found that frustration had begun nipping at her heels. She traced the golden rim of the cup with her thumb, absent-minded.

“Vanity,” she told the night, neither quite asking nor stating.

 There was no one else in the tent for her to speak to, after all. The Army of Callow, while it tolerated her presence and many rumours had come from her departure and return to Catherine’s side – some expected, like that it had been a scheme from the two of them from the start, others rather more amusing like Akua having found the Black Queen a better lover than the Empress and so turned her cloak again – would never be comfortable with her tent being too deep in its camp. She had never felt threatened, of course. Dartwick had ensured none would lay had on her few possessions, ever dutiful, and Masego had kindly wards around her tent on her behalf until she gained her own magic back.

But she would never be welcome there, in the beating heart of Catherine’s kingdom of soldiers, and though she was not one to shy from hatred she had found she preferred setting her tent near the edges of the camp. In Keter that was not so far out, given the nature of the siege walls, but it had been far enough that she had been able to obtain a view of the Crown of the Dead looming in the distance.

“And if there was ever a reason to drink,” she snorted, toasting the tall walls and the horrors still lying in wait behind them.

She drank, but it settled the restlessness in her belly no more than the other sips had. Vanity, she’d hazarded, but she was not so sure it was true. Akua was one of the great spellcasters of this siege, treated with the same awe as the Witch of the Woods or the Hierophant without having a Name of her own, but months ago she had been the fulcrum of an ancient empire’s fate. She had been… more than she now was. That night in Serolen had not scratched the itch, only drawing attention to it. There had been a moment where it was all in her hands once more, and she had been able to decide.

It had felt good, returning to Masego what had been unjustly denied him. Of all the Named she had known, only Hierophant had never wavered from that bright, impossibly clear moment that defined your Name. He had, from the beginning to the end, stayed true to himself. If such sincerity was not worthy of a good turn, what possibly could?

But the days had passed and Serolen now felt like a world behind. So now Akua Sahelian sat alone in the dark, drinking wine soon to be as much of a relic and looking at the heart of the darkness in the distance. The Dead King’s subtle, creeping malevolence – so incredibly banal, until the pit of despair swallowed you up. She drank and wondered if it was vanity, to think she should be more than simply a spellhand in this war. Perhaps it was. Before she could be moved to decide whether that answer would be found at the bottom of a fourth cup of Cantal red, there was a whisper in the back of her mind.

Her wards had been set off. Curious, and not feeling particularly threatened, she lowers the threshold to allow for the entrance of they who would enter her tent. The flap was parted and a man’s silhouette – ah, was that the slightest shiver of disappointment she felt? – entered, straightening before sniffing the air.

“Wine in the dark on the eve of a battle?” Kendi Akaze scorned, lighting a magelight with the flick of his wrist. “How very maudlin, Sahelian.”

Akua was not sure what was worse. That he had come, or that some part of her was dimly pleased for it. Kendi was tall man, with a sculpted beard and the pale brown eyes of a mfuasa. Hatred of her never left them, which had learned to find a reassuring weight. It had been the one thing whose sincerity she did not need to doubt.

“That was my very aim,” Akua easily replied. “How kind of you to compliment me so.”

He took a seat across from her, not asking permission, and helped himself to her wine.

“You are growing comfortable again,” Kendi said.

“Is that why you’re here?” she asked.

The dark-skinned man eyed her with distaste.

“Why else would I be in your presence?”

Akua had spent several months being taught how best to use her looks, when she had been younger, and the lessons had not left her. It was the easiest thing in the world to shift in her seat so that her dress would call attention to the curve of her breasts, that the line of her legs would be put in display.

“I wonder,” Akua replied, tone languid. “Can you truly think of nothing else?”

His eyes did not dip and he hardly seemed enticed. Hatred truly was a most useful thing.

“You are wrong, as it happens,” Akua continued, shifting back into a more comfortable pose. “Comfort escapes me.”

It was foolish to tell him as much, she knew. She was no longer as she had been in Ater, dazed and despairing. She ought to know better. And yet, looking at the man whose sister she had gotten killed for… what? She could hardly even tell, now. Looking at that brown-eyed man, she still saw the same thing she had when she had first spared him: her past made into a man. A voice speaking for the long line of sisters and daughters she had led to their deaths and never given a second thought to. No, it was only natural that it was not Catherine who had come to visit her tonight.

This one was an older ghost, with a deeper claim.

“Does it?” Kendi said. “You are returned to the Warden’s side. Again in her service and confidence. What doors are to be closed to you, after this war?”

Akua drank.

“There is no after this war,” she said, setting down the goblet. “She loves me more than she hates me, I think, but that is not forgiveness. Never will be.”

Kendi Akaze smiled.

“Ah, Callowans,” he said. “They do have their virtues.”

“Are you satisfied?” Akua asked.

“No,” he replied.

Her jaw clenched.

“I will have no part of Cardinal,” she said. “That is certain. Or of the Confederation of Praes. And there will be no place for me in the lands of the Grand Alliance. Even if I survive I…”

There would be nowhere to go, she realized, perhaps for the first time. She had known it, deep down, but never spoken the truth out loud and made herself face it. Ashur always took Praesi exiles and it should not be difficult to live in the League, but what kind of a life would those be? An exile, sometimes called upon when of use but otherwise kept in the darkest hole they could find. A shameful secret, kept around only in case she was needed. Everything she was growing to hate about where she now stood, only a thousand times more so. I would have once been satisfied with this, she thought. Seen it as a victory, living to begin another rise to prominence.

Now all the prospect made her feel was exhausted.

“You will not be anything but you,” Kendi softly said. “And I can conceive few curses worse than that, Akua Sahelian.”

“So that is your purpose,” she said, tone mocking. “You come here to remind me that I should live so that your tortured sense of vengeance might be satisfied?”

“I don’t care whether you keep breathing, Sahelian,” Kendi said, sounding honest. “I want the vicious, empty thing that killed so many of us and lit the world aflame to suffer. Whether you are to serve as her prison or her coffin is not so important.”

“So why save my life in Ater?” Akua harshly replied. “If you had not removed Malicia’s killing-”

“She would have snuffed you out like a candle,” Kendi acknowledged. “And what right did she have to that, after all she has done? It took more than a single pair of hands to craft the Folly. It would have been disgusting, for the Empress to pretend to pass judgement over you when all know she helped the deed along.”

“So only you can judge me?” she laughed. “How highly you think of yourself, Kendi.”

“It’s not me either,” the man smiled. “I would just burn you, Sahelian. End it, look for peace among the ashes of you. But my sister’s shade demands better. So I will usher you through this journey until you reach your end.”

“I don’t understand what you want from me,” she snarled. “That I open my own throat? That I leap into a chasm? Would it truly mean that much more to you if I did the deed myself?”

“Is that,” Kendi evenly asked, “what you think would even the scales?”

“There’s no evening those scales,” Akua tiredly replied. “Even a fool would see that.”

He watched her in silence

“Even should I live forever and save a life every morning, it would change nothing,” she continued. “It’s not as simple as lives lost.”

She had seen that in Ater, the cascade of suffering her atrocity had begun. The Folly had been an enormity, the amount of death it represented, but that had only been the tree above the ground. There were even greater roots below, out of sight, and how could those even be tallied for? Made up for? Redemption by number was an empty exercise, meaningful only in the abstract.

“So you do nothing?” he asked.

“I am to be jailor to the Dead King,” Akua said. “Bound forever to keep him imprisoned.”

There were still enough of the Twilight Ways for this to be possible. Liesse, it seemed, was not a city she would ever leave behind. He cocked his head to the side.

“And you chose this?”

She did not answer. It would have been a lie to say that she had, though it would have been another to say she had not. He shook his head, disgusted.

“Then it means nothing,” Kendi said. “Will forever mean nothing.”

He rose to his feet, leaving behind a cup of wine almost entirely untouched.

“Just another fate picked out for you.”

Her heart clenched and she turned away, failing to keep her face calm. The mfuasa snorted, killing the light with a flick of the wrist and making to leave. Akua looked out at the walls of Keter, knowing she should keep silent. She did not.

“What was her name?” she asked.

Kendi’s steps stuttered.

“Do you care?” he asked.

Akua looked down at her hands.

“Enough to ask,” she finally replied.

“Sura. Her name was Sura.”

The name echoed in the silence he left in his wake. Akua’s fingers reach for her neck, finding only warm skin for all that she had imagined otherwise. She had felt as if she would find something, as if her fingers would have been able to tell her which it was.

A noose or a knot.

There were not many Rhenians with the army.

Cordelia had only summoned south a quarter of Rhenia’s army at the beginning of the war, leaving the rest to hold the Rhenian Gates and her capital, and of those thousands now only a few hundred were left. The rest were long dead, their lives spent defending people they loved little so very far from home. Cordelia did all in her power to ensure the survivors were all comfortable and provided before she allowed herself to rest. Prince Otto had not neglected them, but the princess felt better for having put a hand to the labour – however scarce the necessity of it.

In truth, if one was to speak of neglect the word should be laid at her feet. How very little she had done for her people, not only Rhenians but all Lycaonese, since the war had begun. That no grudge seemed to be held by her soldiers over the fact she’d not so much as stepped foot in Rhenia during the entire war only worsened the guilt. Gods, sometimes she saw the pride in the eyes of her countrymen and it burned.

“You bargained everything to keep us alive,” Otto Reitzenberg solemnly told her when they drank at the wake. “Even your throne. What more could we ask of you, Hasenbach?”

Coming from the man who had so bitterly fought to keep Twilight’s Pass from falling, it had felt like a slap in the face. All the more for the way she knew he had meant every word, for Otto Redcrown was not what one would call a skilled liar. It was like none of them could see she had abandoned them, named them the sacrifice needed to keep Procer breathing through the first black months of the war. Are we truly so used to doing the dying, she thought, that it no longer matters? It was a dark thought, though far from the darkest she had been left to wrestle with.

Worst of all was the increasingly possible way they were about to lose the war.

Cordelia no longer sat in the war councils. She still had the status to, as a princess, but Malanza would rather bite off her own thumb than sit besides her and had instead taken to bringing Prince Otto to keep the Lycaonese bound to her. Wise, considering how estranged her people had grown from most of Procer during the war. It was not impossible for large swaths of the northwest to secede from the Principate, if the aftermath of the war was poorly handled. If there was an aftermath at all, anyhow. For though Cordelia no longer sat the councils, she still had access to several of those who sat them and to the formal supply documents besides. The picture both painted, when placed together, was a dark one. With the arrival of the dwarves starvation was no longer at risk, but that was no promised victory.

They Grand Alliance was, by Cordelia’s estimation, two failed assaults away from collapse.

It was a broad estimate, relying on a number of casualties equal or greater to those of the first attempt – counting both the field battle and the storm – but she knew it to be correct. Another sixty thousand dead would only lessen the army’s numbers around to half of what had first been brought north, but all the forces here were not equal. Or, for that matter, united. Every nation had its own host, but it was worse than that. The League alone fielded multiple different armies, and Procer still divided itself into the hosts under First Princess Rozala and Otto Redcrown. That was not without sense, but it meant that casualties could not be counted as if the force were a single army.

One of the principles of war her uncle had taught her as a girl had been that an army became unable to fight long before all its soldiers were dead. A host was an intricate machine, needing many different parts to keep functioning: horsemen and skirmishers, regulars and outriders. Losing any of those parts – or even too large a portion of one – could be an army’s doom. That principle, when applied to the Grand Alliance forces, became a curse. Which armies would start collapsing into uselessness first, when casualties kept racking up? Cordelia believed it would be League’s, whose individual armies were smallest and so most vulnerable to this, but she could not be sure.

The war had taught her that when a battle went bad levies died like flies, and Procer’s forces still had an uncomfortably large amount of them.

Two defeats, she thought, and the Grand Alliance would have broken enough of its component armies that it would be impossible to take Keter. That was what her investigations had revealed, the ugly truth behind the coming acts of valour: valour alone would not be enough. Even if the broken armies were thrown into the grinder as expendables, it would not suffice. The coalition would fail and when it did Calernia’s days would be numbered. Procer would fall, dragging with it the rest of the continent. Too many undead, no one left to stop them. And that would leave Cordelia with a hard choice, perhaps the hardest she’d ever had to make.

Bet it all on hope, some unforeseen salvation, or kill many to save the rest.

A mug was pressed into her hand and Cordelia almost started. Agnes was smiling at her sideways, the two of them alone in her tent. The Augur patted her arm.

“You think too much about what you see,” Agnes chided.

Cordelia considered herself a tolerant woman, but the irony in that sentence was too thick for even her to swallow.

“You cannot-” she began, then her eyes narrowed. “You did that on purpose. You are teasing me.”

Agnes looked inordinately proud, nodding as she brushed back her hair. The once-short bob had grown a little longer over the last few months, one of the first changes to her cousin’s appearance since she had become Chosen.

“They always said I’m the funny Hasenbach,” she noted.

Cordelia almost winced. ‘They’ had not meant that nicely as Agnes was understanding it. Being from even a branch line of the House of Hasenbach had ensured that none would dare to harass her cousin even when she had still been known as only a young girl overly fond of birdwatching, but it had not kept her safe from rumours. Or being ignored with varying degrees of politeness. Chasing off the memories, she took Agnes’ hand in her own.

“You are getting better,” Cordelia happily said. “For months now you have been growing into the present.”

Away from the past and visions of what might be.

“It’s a little confining,” Agnes admitted. “Things only have one meaning and I have to listen when people talk.”

“The grand curse of civil society,” she drily replied. “You will get used to it in time.”

“Maybe,” the Augur said, wrinkling her nose, then smiled. “But mead is good. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let me drink at feasts.”

Because your father disappeared down the bottle when your mother died, Cordelia thought, and none of us wanted you to follow him down that hole.

“I cannot imagine why,” she lied.

Agnes shot her a suspicious look, which moved Cordelia halfway to tears. For years now she’d been watching her cousin – the last of her blood, now – wasting away, devoured from the inside by her Choosing. Before she’d left Salia, Agnes would not have been able to read a room enough to be suspicious. Much less express it so openly. Guilt followed, as it so often did these days. I asked so much of you, Cordelia thought. Advice to avoid disaster or steer enemies into it. Only now do I begin to grasp how much it truly took from you. Too much. She would never again ask for augury.

 Sometimes it felt like Cordelia had lived all her life taking from others, like some dragon from an old tale gathering all the gold of the world at her feet so she might make a kingdom of her greed.

“Boo,” Agnes muttered. “Boo, Cordelia, booo.”

She swallowed a smile.

“Now you are just going with the fashion, Agnes,” the princess replied. “For shame.”

They both smiled. It had been most of a year now, Cordelia thought, since the two of them only had each other left. Since Uncle Klaus had died, striding out of his life and straight into the legends of the Iron Prince’s last charge. There were still Hasenbachs alive of course, she’d made sure the line would continue. Two distant cousins of hers were in Salia and one more in Rhenia itself, but Cordelia had never known any of them more than passingly. They were not family in the way that Agnes was and her uncle had been.

“Your mood is falling again,” Agnes said.

“I fear I might not be very good company tonight,” Cordelia admitted.

“You’re the one I chose,” Agnes shrugged. “What had you looking so sad?”

“I was thinking of family,” she vaguely replied.

The other woman hummed.

“Prince Klaus, then,” she said.

The two of them had never been close, Cordelia knew. There was no shared blood, Agnes found violence repellant and Uncle Klaus had been uncomfortable around powers he did not understand. It had not been a recipe for deep fondness, for all that the two of them had spent years at her side.

“Death leaves so much unfinished,” Cordelia replied.

She had never reconciled with the man who had been something between a father and a grandfather to her while being neither by blood.

“That’s the wrong way to look at it,” Agnes said. “It’s life where you don’t finish things. Death is always complete.”

The fair-haired princess cocked her head to the side.

“I do not follow,” she admitted.

“Death’s a closed circle,” Agnes said. “A single act. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never…”

She grimaced, groping for words.

“Continuous,” Agnes finished, satisfied. “It’s why you can make something so large of a moment so small: you can’t undo it after by acting the other way. The circle is closed.”

“Is that something you saw?” Cordelia asked. “I thought that these last few months…”

“It’s not the Gods,” Agnes said, shaking her head. “And I haven’t seen much since I left Salia. They understand that sometimes to have to save your strength.”

“Do they?” Cordelia asked, almost accusing.

It had been a long few months, a long few years. Perhaps even a long life. The Augur hummed again.

“I don’t think they understand much, actually,” Agnes mused. “Not like people do. It’s why there’s Good and Evil, so there’s rules, because they do understand rules.”

“Good is not an immovable absolute,” Cordelia said. “Above was once worshipped by those who kept slaves, Agnes.”

“The rules change,” her cousin agreed. “But I think that’s part of what they want too.”

“Many have gone mad trying to understand the Gods,” the princess warned.

“I’ll be all right,” Agnes reassured her. “Since I was already like that.”

The utterly inappropriate laugh that got out of her ripped itself out of her throat as her cousin sat smiling and pleased.

“You need to laugh more,” Agnes told her. “It will do you good. Maybe find a lover.”

Cordelia almost rolled her eyes. As if now was the time for such diversions.

“If we are to speak of lovers,” she said, “perhaps I should be drinking more.”

My mug is already empty,” Agnes informed her, then batted her eyes.

Cordelia would have refused her, but it had been the better part of a decade since she’d seen her cousin act so much like the girl she’d once been. She did not have the heart to tell her no, rising to her feet and going into the back of the tent – where she did keep a few bottles of wine for guests, and mead for family. At the rate Agnes was going through them, she would run out of the mead before the siege – or the world – ended. The blue-eyed princess chose one of the older bottles and straightened, though she froze when she heard a rattling gasp coming from the other side of the tent.

She hurried back to find her cousin leaning over the table, writing on parchment with a shaky hand.

“Agnes?” she called out.

Her cousin did not reply. She set down the mead on the table and knelt by her cousin’s side, finding the other woman utterly absorbed in her writing – and hiding it from prying eyes. She finished writing after a moment, blew on the ink to dry it, and the folded the piece of parchment. Only then did she take her eyes off it and sag into her seat, breath irregular. Her skin had paled and was beaded with sweat.

“Agnes,” Cordelia quietly said, “what have you done?”

The Augur sought out her hand, threaded their fingers together and squeezed it.

“I saved my strength but it wasn’t enough,” Agnes croaked. “I’m sorry.”

She forced her tone to be even.

“Are you healthy?” Cordelia asked. “Should I call for a healer?”

“I couldn’t see everything,” Agnes said. “Just glimpses. But it doesn’t matter.”

The Augur’s eyes began bleeding and it was no longer a question worth asking. Cordelia shouted for a healer, for help.

“If it’s a bet,” Agnes murmured, “then I always make the same.”

“Agnes,” Cordelia urgently said, “stay awake. I don’t-”

“Don’t read what I wrote until you need to,” the Augur told her. “You’ll know when.”

“Agnes,” Cordelia hissed, cold terror in her gut. “Don’t leave me.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied, smiling and bloody and heart-breakingly pale. “I wish we could have gone home.”

A shiver.

“Don’t follow too quickly.”

By the time the healers ran into the tent, Cordelia Hasenbach was holding the hand of a corpse.