Chapter 65: Impact

“‘lo and behold, I have brought peace to the Empire.”
– Dread Empress Massacre, after ordering the Burning of Okoro

Three things happened in swift succession.

The first was that I formed a handhold of ice to hoist myself up. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I stayed standing in the middle of a blanket of Night, but it was unlikely to be pleasant. The second was that, even as my fingers closed around the handhold, it began vibrating and exploded with a scream. The third thing, unfortunately, was that I fell back into that same blanket of Night spread over the roof. Feet first, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. The moment they made contact with the Night they… dissolved, like they’d been dropped in acid. I dimmed my mind, turning into mist, and slithered away towards the edge of the roof. It was difficult to think, in that state, and my situational awareness was shit – as was made clear by the fact that I neither saw nor heard coming the spear of Night that caught me in the side. Or as close to a side as I could have, while made of mist. The second unpleasant surprise of the day – night? – unfolded as the spear forced me back into solid form where it struck and sent my human-like silhouette to go tumbling over the side. Into a pack of dzulu, though that didn’t prove to be much of a problem.

Night spread over the street with a soft whisper and they dissolved screaming even as I fell.

I formed a spike of ice jutting out of a house’s sidewall and landed on it for exactly a heartbeat before it broke with a scream, but it’d been enough to allow me to situate myself. A pair of translucent blue wings ripped out of my back and I flew upwards, finally getting a look at the drow that’d ambushed me. There were three, all holding so much Night within their thin frames they darkened their surroundings just by being there: the air around them looked like near-invisible wisps of smoke was spreading through it. The two on the sides looked like they could have been twins, their deep grey skin and whip-like faces identical save for the crescent scars they had on opposite cheeks. Their eyes were pure silver, save for the black pupils. Long curved blades in hand, they watched me rise with identical bored expressions. If those two were strong, holding enough Night to fill a pond, then the drow between them was a lake. Taller than either of them, its faces was covered with thick burned flesh in a horrid mask that denied even the appearance of lips. There was no trace of anything but silver in its eyes, the pupils merely a darker shade of it.

“Urulan?” I called out.

“Cattle,” it mildly replied in Crepuscular.

Well, that took care of the introductions. I’d go out on a limb and say the flankers were rylleh, because with that much power they could hardly be anything else. Mighty Urulan wielded a long staff of glass, and without bothered with any more banter pointed it at me. Droplets of Night formed around me in a ring-like pattern, rippling with power, and I definitely wasn’t sticking around to find out what that did. I’d already noticed that the flesh dissolved by the earlier blanket had taken longer than usual to reform after I’d returned to physical form, and that’d been the opening volley. It could be it’d opened with its strongest trick, true. But when had I ever been that lucky? The wings folded against my back and I dropped like a stone, which didn’t help nearly as much as I’d wished. The Night droplets rippled, and every single one of them lanced out with a beam of the same stuff downwards. The firing angle had been well-judged: I’d be falling right into the thickest knot of beams if I didn’t act. My wings spread again, but I held back a curse when they both began vibrating and broke a heartbeat later. Neither the rylleh had moved, but their silver eyes shone brighter. Time to improvise, then. Mist-form wasn’t getting me out of this, so the time for delicate works was over.

I formed a large cube of ice under me, feeling Winter’s influence begin to creep and promptly shunting it off, and even as the beams of Night tore into the frost I parted it around my falling form to go straight through. A whisper came to my ears, the sound of another Night blanket forming below me, and the cube began to vibrate. Distraction first, I thought. I ripped out a chunk of ice from the bottom of the cube with an exertion will, transmuted it into mist and sent it slithering to the left. The ice ceased vibrating a pair of Night spears shot out, and there was my opening. I fell under the itself-falling cube as the beams of Night shot through it, muscles tightening as I caught it with a grunt and tossed the entire thing at the drow. I couldn’t spare the time to look if I’d made impact, instead forming wings again and plunging into a somewhat-controlled descent that had me landing in front of the three drow. And, most importantly, away from the Night blanket. They’d already shown me it did not discriminate in its effect, they shouldn’t be able to use it when I closed distance.

By the time my bare feet hit the ground – my boots were sadly gone for the foreseeable future, again – all that was left of the ice I’d thrown was a rain of mist and shards. I’d not even seen how they’d gotten rid of it. With me in the open, the earlier distraction had come to an end: all three drow had their eyes on me. The rylleh first, I thought. Urulan would be less dangerous without the backup. I darted towards the left one, body centre low, and made it three feet forward before they unleashed their arsenal. Darkness fell like a curtain, robbing me of my sight, but my ears still worked just fine. It was the only reason I heard the low whistling sound of Night on the move, dropping to the floor and feeling something scythe just above my body. I rolled forward just in time to avoid the spike of Night that came down in the other working’s wake, letting out a sharp breath. If they’d timed that just a little better, I would have taken it right in the spine. Another step saw me coming out of the curtain of darkness, which was no comfort as I saw my foes for only a heartbeat before a whisper sounded and a globe of Night began forming around me.

If that was the acid trick again…

I realized, dimly, that if this went through entirely I might actually die. I’d treated the Everdark like a training exercise, sometimes almost a game, but I’d been swimming in the shallows of this sea. There were monsters in the deeps that would make these look like imps. I close my eyes and let Winter loose. Frost formed all over my body, rapidly thickening and then shooting out. They had a globe of Night, I had a globe of ice. In a pissing contest of raw power, I’d bet on me every time. The Night ate into the ice but I kept pouring out Winter, its delighted laughter sounding softly in my ears. At first it devoured quicker than I made, but I dug in my heels and truly let loose. It became even, and I felt my blood turn cold as I dug even deeper. Like skin bursting for being filled too much, the globe of Night came apart under the pressure of the ice and I launched out through the opening I’d made. For a moment I hung in the air, seeing two curved swords rising to point at me and Urulan itself leisurely leaning on its staff. I shaped an ice javelin and threw it at the sigil-holder, just quick enough to loose it before shackles of Night formed around my wrists and ankles. I turned to mist, or at least tried to. The Night shackles thickened and nothing happened. Urulan gently tapped its staff against the ground and the javelin shattered into mist, the rylleh moving as it did.

Their stances were perfect, muscles coiling as they simultaneously thrust their blades into my sides. They went through the plate, bit into flesh, and then I felt my organs began to vibrate. I grit my teeth and hardened my insides, but that actually made it worse: it was like a sharper full of metal scraps went off in there. Everything was shredded, and chunks of my ribs and flesh splattered the floor as they withdrew their swords. Urulan pointed its staff at me, and tissue already knitting itself back together stopped. Stupid, I thought. Stupid, stupid. I’d already known there were drow who could heal themselves like I did, but I’d never entered my mind that the Mighty could have tricks that would inhibit my own ability. They just needed to keep taking me apart, and sooner or later they’d get me into a state I wouldn’t walk away from.

Then an arrow went through my left wrist, breaking the shackle holding it on the way, and I promised myself I was going to kiss Indrani next time I saw her.

“My turn,” I growled.

My mangled wrist flicked, forming a blade of ice, and I carved through my other shackled wrist before offering my ankles the same courtesy. The rylleh wreathed their blades with Night and stabbed into my open torso, pinning me down with what felt like a similar trick, but they really should have gone for the arms. I caught the flat of one sword and ice crept up it, shattering three fingers before the rylleh dropped it and retreated. There was a whisper and another globe of Night began forming around me, which given my current lack of feet was something of an issue. So I took care of it, forming feet out of ice and throwing myself out of the jaws of death. The second rylleh was not so lucky, and died screaming as it dissolved inside. I picked its blade out of my ribs, dropping it down, and finally my torso began putting itself back together. I stomped down and mist billowed out, covering all three of us, though not before I noticed the rylleh who’d lost fingers had already regrown them. Still, I’d learned another weakness to the Night-acid trick. When it began forming, it could not be stopped. Urulan would not have lost one of its lieutenants otherwise.

I shed off the last of my ice-forged feet and padded softly on the stone, feeling the drow through their warmth where my eyes found no purchase. The sigil-holder had only barely moved – it’d retreated a bit, nothing more – but the rylleh was circling around me. Could they sense Winter, as I could sense the Night? The powers were not so different. No, I decided. They would already have struck otherwise. Their senses might be sharper than those of other drow, though, so I’d have to be careful. I’d begin with Urulan’s last helper. I crept forward quietly, circling it as it believed it was circling me, and only struck when facing its back. I could use mist, I had learned, if it was of my own making. It was just another facet of my mantle. And so I condensed it into ice over the rylleh’s body, spooking it enough it dropped down into a puddle of shadow – and that was when I struck. A spear of ice forced it back into drow-form, and by then I was upon it.  That transient moment where it stopped being shadow and started being a drow again? They were nearly blind during that, having to reorient all their senses. I didn’t give it the time: my blade went through its throat, severed the spine, and I ripped off the head afterwards just to make sure it wouldn’t heal. Amusingly enough, it did. Both separate parts closed up with fresh skin, though it remained quite dead.

Urulan spoke a single word in Crepuscular, and just like that I was back in the deep end.

I’d wondered why it was being so prudent, after being so aggressive since the start. Because it was preparing a major working, as it turned out. The mist had robbed my enemies of their sight, but it had also given the drow materials to work with – something I only realized was a very bad idea when my own mist began burning at my flesh. It’d turned the whole fucking thing into acid, hadn’t it? My eyes were the first thing to go, but I could feel the mist eating at me all over. Worst, I couldn’t just reform my way through it: the Night slowed that down, and the acid was eating at me quicker than I healed. This was worse than fighting Praesi mages, I thought. Those might be able to make wards, but they weren’t nearly this quick or vicious. Considering Urulan had likely been at this for centuries it only made sense, but that absent-minded consideration did nothing to help me out of my current predicament. Hardening my flesh, which was difficult when not contained to smaller body parts, did little to stop the problem. Slowed it some, but not enough to turn the tide. Gritting my teeth, I turned into mist myself but was forced back into human-form not even a heartbeat later. With fresh acid burns all over to show for it.

Fuck. Right, if I couldn’t flee it then I had to move it. I’d lost all of my plate by now, which was infuriating but not as much as the fact that most my face muscles were bare and falling apart. I was melting like snow in summer sun. I formed of ice a large windmill and set it to spinning, which drew back the mist closest to me and bought me a moment until Urulan clapped down its staff and broke it without a word. Still, thinned was good enough for what I’d intended. Wings ripped out of my back for the third time today and I rose out of the mist. The problem, now, was that I was literally flying blind with someone waiting to take a shot at me. I couldn’t just keep rising, that’d be painting a target on my back, so I zig-zagged erratically as my face slowly grew back. Even if I got hit, I thought, by the time I got back on my feet I’d be ready to fight again. Unfortunately, Urulan agreed. The sound of mist billowing forward came to my ears, and I realized it was pursuing me with the cloud. All right, desperate measures then. I flipped directions and went crashing straight towards the ground, hoping to… ah, there it was, a rooftop. My blood and flesh made a mess on the tiles, but I punched my way through and landed in a sprawl below.

Screams, people running away. Nisi? They hadn’t tried to fight anyway. I wildly sprayed ice where I’d crashed through and crouched close to the floor. I just needed to wait this out, I thought, though every passing moment where the mist hadn’t caught up was ratcheting up the tension in my frame. My eyes finally formed again, and I let out a relieved sigh. I’d made it. Through the ice-patched hole in the roof I could see the acid mist was surrounding the building, which was my first warning sign. Urulan wouldn’t have bothered unless it intended to flush me out. Night flared above me, a beacon to my eldritch senses, and I cursed under my breath. It wasn’t just going to flush me out, it was going to shattered the damned thing and drown me in acid again. I wouldn’t be able to dodge that. I had to convince it to strike elsewhere instead. I wove glamour, two separate workings. I sent an image of myself through the ice, wreathed in a blue halo that would serve as cheap explanation why she wasn’t melting. Too cheap, too obvious. A look to the side revealed there was an open door to my left, with five corpses where the nisi had tried to flee and been caught by the mist instead. Through there I sent another illusion of me, this one discreet and melding with the shadows. Almost invisible. She ran for the other on the other side of the street.

It evaporated a moment after she entered in a burst of Night that shook the entire Crossroads and collapsed the wall of the house I was really in.

The glamour had been dispersed by the hit, and I dispersed the one above as well. Crouching low behind loose stones, I wove one last glamour: my own skeleton, slowly growing back its flesh. Spikes of Night fell down around it in a circle and there was a swell of power. Biting my lip, I slowed the regeneration to a crawl in the glamour. I wasn’t sure if that had been what the trick was intended for, but I’d have to guess. Urulan approached slowly, its glass staff pointed at my fake body and quietly I formed a sword. I waited until it was standing over my illusion, staff raised, before I attacked. Had it been its senses or a discrepancy in effect that tipped it off? I might never know, but when I was a mere ten feet away the sigil-holder turned and cast a silvery gaze towards me. We were done with the posturing, and so I struck. Step forward, feint low to the left and then a spin – its staff my sword and I smiled. It went away quickly, when the staff did not break and its arm did not lower. I was, I could feel, slightly stronger. But not enough to hammer it back, and then the staff rippled. My sword blew up, shredding a few fingers with it, and the tip of the staff hit me in the stomach.

I rocked back and it struck upwards smoothly, breaking my chin before whipping back down and going for a thrust into my throat. I spun on myself, feeling the staff pass a hair’s breadth from my neck, and formed another blade to swing at its extended shoulder. It spun with me, as if the two of us were dancing, and fluidly stepped away when my strike at reached the apex of its arc. The tip of the staff lightly touched the sword, and just like that it fucking blew up again. The fingers I’d just bloody grew back were shredded again, to my mounting irritation. I made a third blade along with what was clearly more than my third set of fingers of the fight. Irksome as this was, it was likely better than what would happen if Urulan pulled the same trick on my actual body. The drow spoke something in a language other than Crepuscular, sounding amused, but I didn’t recognize the language. It sounded close to Reitz, but the vowels were even more of a debacle. Some older form, maybe? Some Secrets floating around the Night were much older than the current Calernia. Most of them, actually.

“Didn’t catch that,” I said, and attacked.

I didn’t start with a feint, this time. It was clearly a better fighter than I was, the only way I’d win was by cheating. I angled my sword for its throat and swung with brute force and speed. It withdrew just out of reach, bending backwards, and then bent forward. One hand came off the staff to tap my side and I had to bite back the scream. It’d found a vein, and was pouring the Night-acid in it. I did the only reasonable thing, and froze my own blood so stop it from spreading. It caught the wrist of my sword hand and forced it to continue the arc as it drew back the staff to better bring it down.

“Mistake,” I calmly said.

I turned the wrist it held to mist, and wrenched it out. The wisp of wrist moved under my will, slithering up its nostril and sinking into the brains behind them. All it took after that was a twist of will, and I shredded what lay inside its skull. Mighty Urulan dropped the ground, and I stood panting. I’d didn’t bother recover the flesh I’d turned into mist, making another hand instead. Didn’t want the old one back, after where it’d been. My flank still felt like it’d been lit on fire, but I carved out the infection and breathed a sigh of relief. It was only then, covered in blood both my own and that of my enemies, that I realized I’d been naked ever since the acid mist trick. I’d just been too angry to notice, and it wasn’t like I felt the cold anyways. I looked down at the drow’s corpse and shrugged. Might as well steal its clothes before I cut its head off, then.

Throwing Mighty Urulan’s severed head in the middle of its own warriors ought to have a slight effect on enemy morale.

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Chapter 64: Momentum

“When in doubt, attack. When doubtless, attack as well.”
– Bastien de Hauteville, Proceran general

Great Lotow was nothing like I’d expected.

All I’d seen of the drow so far was raised stones and the occasional clever exploitation of natural features, and so my expectations had been rather low before I took my first look at one of their ‘cities’. I’d believed it would be a few half-ruined structures and perhaps a surviving set of walls, but the Lotow I was looking upon served as a reminder that the Everdark had once been an empire in its own right. I’d thought of the term city in the Callowan sense, a gathering of houses and streets with marketplaces and maybe a decent set of ramparts. But that was a surface way of looking at things, wasn’t it? Up there, cities were built in breadth. Spreading when the population rose. The drow had instead built in depth, in a way that would have been impossible in the land of my birth.

Great Lotow was built in levels, that was the easiest way to describe it. The heart of the city was a massive pit with a spire of stone in the centre, from base to summit large as a small fortress. From that tree radiates branch-like bridges leading to districts carved directly into the rock across the chasm, their sizes variable. Closer to the bottom I could glimpse districts large as Summerholm itself serving as farms and lakes, while closer to the centre the holes in the rock were more like neighbourhoods of carved houses. At its peak, I thought, Lotow must have had several hundred thousand drow living in it. Now, though, most of it was abandoned. Some of the bridges linking the spire to the sides had been broken and though some were replaced by rope bridges made of some kind of pale weed many more had simply been left gaping, the districts they led to now empty ruins.

It was a moving sight, I would admit. The structure of the city alone would have been impressive, but the ancient drow had made of Lotow a work of art. There was hardly a wall or floor that was not filled by a mosaic or bas-relief, stalactites and stalagmites had been carved into painted statues of drow and animals. Entire spans of ceiling had been set with coloured stones and gems to create a sky, and there were tall steles showing spindly sentences in Crepuscular reciting old stories and ballads where my people would have placed street signs instead. Ivah had told me that last detail was an old drow custom: streets had once been known by the never-mentioned titles of the written work on the stele, every drow expected to be well-taught enough to know it at a glance.

Now, though, those old stories were painted over with blood red runes to mark where territories began and ended. Metal and precious stones had been ripped out of statues and mosaics, carvings older than Callow left to erode under the depredations of elements and time. Stone houses that collapsed were not raised anew but covered with skins and leathers as half-tents while ancient temples and mansions lay cracked open, their heavy stones used to make walls of piled rock. And still, after centuries and millennia, Great Lotow endured. Long winding aqueducts rival to any of Miezan make descended along the sides of the pit and provided water to cisterns and fountains, sewers unlike I’d ever seen sent filth towards the lower farms without overflowing or clogging after what must have been centuries of disrepair. There was no city like this in Callow, I thought. Not even in Praes, who had been under Miezan occupation and so benefitted from that empire’s fondness for great civil works. Great Lotow would have been the crown jewel of any surface nation, the envy of the continent.

Down here, it was just one more decaying corpse in the pile. It was a sorrowful sort of awe that I felt. Would we have raised cities like this, if we were not always at war? I wondered. Callow had little to boast of save for cathedrals and fortresses. The bridges linking Summerholm were a wonder, to be sure, but a Miezan one. Sometimes I could see why the rest of Calernia called us backwards peasants. We were so much less than we could have been. Praes too, I thought. There was so much potential in the Empire, if it would just cease devouring itself every other decade. So much knowledge and skill, always turned to acts of self-immolation that took chunks of the continent along with it.

“You’re being quiet,” Indrani said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I replied.

“Eh,” my friend shrugged. “After Keter the bar’s been raised. Gonna take more than pretty ruins to impress me.”

“We walk through the grave of an empire,” I murmured. “That’s worth a moment of contemplation.”

“Oh, there’s still people down there,” Indrani mused. “For now. I don’t see this lot surviving a firm assault from the dwarves, if we don’t get them moving.”

There were still drow, it was true. A mere pittance compared to what Lotow must have kept in olden days, but our new acquisitions form the departed Delen Sigil had estimated twenty thousand people here and I believed that was a conservative number. The larger sigils reigned close to the bottom, where the old farms could be kept going and so allow for more nisi to be held, but that didn’t necessarily mean the deeper sigils were the most powerful. Mighty Delen and its tribe had been intending to have a go at claiming territory on the outskirts of Lotow within the decade, and so interrogation had wielded more information than I’d expected. The central spire – called an overly-long word meaning ‘column’ in Crepuscular – wasn’t the territory of any single sigil, as whoever held it would have a massive advantage over rivals, but the rest of the inhabited city had been carved up between the ten sigils that inhabited it. The weakest, and the one we’d go after first, was the Urulan Sigil. They’d once ruled a few of the central districts, but after being evicted by a stronger sigil they’d moved upwards and devoured the sigil that had previously ruled the part of Lotow called the Crossroads.

If the city was a cylinder from which districts sprouted, then the Crossroads was the circle atop that cylinder, connected through the central Column by four broad bridges. Nearly every tunnel in the region led to the Crossroads, including the one where we currently stood, though the Hallian ways that had once been the highways of the drow empire were linked to Lotow’s bottom level instead. Which was unfortunate, since I intended to go through those. The Crossroads were arguably the city’s second most important strategic point, but highly unpopular territory for a sigil to hold: since near  every tunnel led to them, any ambitious sigil trying to get into the Lotow scrap would begin by taking a swing at whoever held them. Word was that a sigil holding them could expect slow and steady decline through constant conflict until either a sigil of the outer ring managed to mount a strong enough assault or a sigil on the losing side of a conflict deeper down moved up and evicted the latest occupants – much as the Urulan themselves had done.

Sadly, the Urulan Sigil had been force to migrate less than twenty years ago. They might be a wreck compared to any of the deeper sigils, but they would have maintained enough strength they’d make any of the fights I’d picked in the Everdark so far look like child’s play.

“The city will be tricky to assault,” I finally said.

“Gotta take the Crossroads before we go at it seriously,” Indrani noted, squinting down. “That’ll be ugly fighting, mark my words.”

I did not disagree. Though that section of the city was a single ring going around the edges of the pit holding the Column, it wasn’t flat grounds. Large rectangular halls were tightly clustered, with small streets and broader avenues between them. Easy to defend, to force the attacker in a bottleneck.

“We’ll have to split our force in two,” I said. “Sweep the ring from both sides. I’ll need you to lead one of the assaults.”

She shot me a curious look.

“Who am I getting as a lieutenant, Diabolist or Ivah?”

“You get Akua,” I grunted. “I imagine I’ll need a translator more than you.”

“Sure,” she snorted. “Let’s pretend that’s true. We certain we want no one keeping an eye on the bridges?”

That was the large risk here, I thought. The odds that a deeper sigil would be willing to send its Mighty against an attacker it hadn’t properly looked over were low – sigils prone to taking those kinds of gambles didn’t tend to last long. They weren’t non-existent, however, and it might change the situation if they learned that it was a human leading the charge. Still, I couldn’t afford to let the Urulan run or concentrate their forces. But can I afford to be flanked halfway through? Not really, no. After Archer had ‘acquired’ the Delen Sigil and we’d gathered the people from both them and the Berelun, our numbers had doubled: a little over four thousand drow were now under my banner. Of those, I counted three hundred and change dzulu and twenty-three Mighty of varying ranks. It wasn’t a small force, by the standards of the outer ring, but all the real players down here were either in a city or the inner ring. We wouldn’t be fighting dregs, this time. If we ended up going against two real sigils at the same time…

“Fair point,” I said. “Change of plans. I want you to sweep a quarter of the ring, then stop in front of the bridge and keep an eye on what’s happening.”

“To put arrows in the curious and the runners, if there happen to be any,” Indrani sighed. “Ugh, I always get the shit jobs.”

“You’d get bored scything through dzulu,” I countered. “Besides, feel free to take shot from your perch at anything getting in my way.”

“Slightly better,” she conceded.

The two of us remained standing there for a while, strangers in this broken land looking down at a once-great city. I would have called the moment solemn, if not for the fact that Indrani was pulling at a flask of liquor. She sighed in satisfaction, then rolled her shoulders.

“All right,” Archer said. “We doing this or what?”

“Don’t get yourself killed,” I reminded her, meeting hazelnut eyes with my own.

“Never have before,” Indrani drawled. “So, you know, if we go purely by precedent it only makes sense that I’m immortal.”

While pushing her over the tunnel’s edge would have been deeply satisfying, we did have a battle to win. I settled for freezing her flask solid instead, grinning at the muttered imprecations that followed.

Steel-clad boots hit the ground, and I slowed long enough to have a look at my warriors – and they were definitely that, not a soldier among them. One hundred dzulu, moving like large hunting cats with their spears and swords in hand, barely a dozen shields among them. Thirteen Mighty, most of them ispe with only a single jawor and a pair of freshly-harvested rylleh to serve as heavy hitters. My Lord of Silent Steps led the pack from the front, and they slowed along with me without a word.

“Ivah,” I said. “Translate. The old terms apply: nisi are not to be touched save in self-defence, surrenders are to be accepted and observed. Anyone they kill, they can take. Corpses of my own making go to auction, and I will personally execute any who reaps their Night.”

Not exactly the most inspirational of speeches, but then with drow I’d found it more important to lay down rules than tug at heartstrings. They had precious few of either, and the latter was beyond my ability to fix. The words were repeated in Crepuscular, and within a heartbeat of the sentence ending the first shot of the battle for Great Lotow was fired. A javelin, thrown from a rooftop maybe half a hundred feet ahead. Aimed towards me, which meant either it was a warning to the drow or they’d already caught on to the fact I was running things. I could have simply stepped aside – it was aimed at my centre of mass, well-thrown but barely any better than a mundane human could have – but sometimes it was necessary to make an impression and… set the tone. I let it arc downwards, and at the last moment caught the shaft. Less than an inch stood between the sharp stone tip and my plate. Casually, I spun the javelin around between my fingers and gripped it correctly. One step, lowering my body, then rising up I threw the javelin back.

It, uh, wasn’t something I was trained in. I had better aim and certainly more body strength than I’d used to, but that didn’t translate to skill. It flew like a damned crossbow bolt, in a straight line, and was easily dodged by the silhouette on the rooftop. Still, at least no other projectile had followed. It was a start. I flicked my wrist, forming a blade of frost, and advanced.

“Forward,” I ordered, Ivah translating a heartbeat afterwards.

Archer would begin her own sweep the moment we engaged the enemy properly, so all I had to worry about was the world in front of me. I went down the slope at a pace, and entered the avenue briskly. Already the Urulan had prepared a reception. A dozen dzulu led by a drow roiling with Night – Mighty, and stronger than ispe – were spread out in a loose crescent with with Mighty at the tip. I’d missed this, I realized. The simplicity of it. Enemies ahead, allies behind. No tricky little shades of morality, no debate over right and necessity. It was like I’d been whisked back to the Pit and its much less complicated time. I felt a savage grin split my lips, and for the first time in ages I could savour the air in my lungs. The glorious burn of it, illusion that it was. I’d keep it going as long as I could. I darted forward, dashing around another javelin and closing the distance in mere heartbeats. The Mighty yelled and Night flared, the sound reverberating, but instead of ducking I plunged into it. My eardrums burst and reformed in the same moment, and the last I saw of that drow was the look of utter surprise on its face when my sword carved through its throat.

The dzulu immediately began retreating, faces gone pale, but I was having none of that.  I moved faster than them, and the first I caught before it could even turn to strike me. My hand went through its back and I snapped its spine, withdrawing bloodied fingers. The next struck at me with spear, but I let the stone tip bounce off my plate and slapped its cheek hard enough the neck broke. The third tried to parry my strike, but while the blades were at the right angle the difference in strength made it pointless. Its arm was forced down, and a flick of the wrist had its head rolling on the floor. My own drow joined the fray eagerly, falling on the survivors like wolves on the fold, but I pressed on. I’d not come here to make sport of dzulu. Archer would be going to the right, so my charge was to sweep by the left. Already yells were sounding in the distance, the Urulan gathering for war, but I did not intend to give them the opportunity of mustering a proper resistance. Through halls and houses I strode, ears sharp, and caught my first ambusher. Atop one of those long halls, pressed closely against the roof. Laughing, I struck at the wall and tore through the stone. It rose, alarmed, and I leapt up.

Just a dzulu, I saw, eyes barely touched with silver. Disappointed, I snatched it by the neck before it could bring up its weapon and tossed it further down the avenue. It hit stone with a loud squelch, head pulped. I leapt back down, noting my forces were beginning to catch up. The first enemies had been too heavily outnumbered to put up a real fight. I took the lead, moving down the avenue. We hadn’t even taken a fifth of the circle yet, but I found the resistance to have been too lukewarm. Someone had sent expendable to probe out strength while they prepared a response. My instincts proved right maybe sixty heartbeats later, when I found the length of the ring had been walled up. Thin walls of hide held by a framework of glue and stone, but they were decent makeshift fortifications to block off the streets and avenues. Atop the roofs drow with bows and javelins were awaiting, while the streets behind the hide blocks slowly filled with reinforcements. The first chokepoint to break, then. They’d made a kill zone at ground level – the hide panels were likely movable to let through their own warriors – so I’d go at it from a different angle.

I leapt back up on the nearest rooftop and broke into a run. Best to soften up this lot before my drow ran into them. Arrows and javelins streaked the air, which bothered me little – they were loud and slow and my body was mist whenever I wished. They might as well have been shooting at a ghost. I closed the distance and then streaks of Night began lashing out towards me, which was more dangerous. I suspected the mist trick would fail against sorcery, and this was as close as drow could get to magic. There were, by the looks of it, seven casters. I could take the hits and barrel through, most likely, but the knowledge that my body was exceedingly difficult to permanently damage nowadays had not whisked away Black’s earliest lessons. Never take a blow unless you have to, much less if you do not know what it will do. A platform served as anchor for the push that sent me to crash into the house beneath which the archers and casters were standing. Momentum alone would not get me through that wall, even in plate, so instead I formed a spike of ice at an angle and caught it with my free hand. A spin had me leaping back upwards, the looks on the faces of the drow when I came of height with them most amusing. Another platform – just in time to avoid a second set of Night streaks – had me landing in a roll among them.

The dzulu, for that was what most of them were, scattered immediately. I didn’t have the time to go through them one at a time, so I dipped into Winter and let loose a working. The rings of sharp ice spears formed around my abdomen, lingering for a moment before shooting out. Blood, screams and shredded flesh followed in their wake. I had to throw myself to the side when looked like a snake made of Night ran through where I’d been a heartbeat earlier, jaws snapping. Another two follow suit, keeping me dancing, and to my distaste a streak of Night clipped me on the shoulder as I landed in a roll. It went straight through the plate, though at an angle that meant it hit air instead of flesh after punching through. Seven casters, I found, the only ones not dead or running. The snakes were coming out of their bellies, coiling and releasing at their will, while the other four drow were shooting shorter bursts to keep me from closing distance. Irritating. If they were Mighty, which was likely, they weren’t far up the ranks. I didn’t have time to waste on these when the real threats were still on the loose.

I sidestepped another streak, ducked under a snake and exerted my will. The drow guiding the snake found its throat filled with ice and began clawing at its skin impotently. I caught another snake-charmer and one of the shooters before being forced to move again. Darting around a snaked extended sharply like an arrow shot I ran forward, rolling under another streak of Night and responding with a collar of ice around the second drow’s neck that tightened and immediately choked it. They’d needed the numbers to keep me busy, they realized too late as I carved through the throat of the last snake-charmer. The remaining two tried to make a run for it but I pursued, shaping my sword into a spear and tossing it in the first’s back. The last survivor leapt down from the roof and I sighed. Its throat filled with ice a moment later and it dropped. The whole of it could not had taken more than seventy heartbeats, and now my own sigil was assaulting the barricades. I casually formed an anvil of ice and dropped it on the nearest hide wall to make an easy point of entry. I supposed I could clear out the dzulu a bit to make it easier on my warriors.

Then the roof under my feet turned into Night, and the Mighty of the Urulan Sigil entered the fray.

Chapter 63: Initiation

“Blood sacrifice is such an ugly term. I prefer to think of it a ‘blood redistribution’, a thriving new form of Imperial enterprise.”
– Dread Empress Sinistra II, the Coy

“One hundred and sixty years, subjected to the full breadth of lesser and greater oaths,” Akua said.

The nisi at her side, a one-eyed drow named Centon, repeated her words in Crepuscular loudly enough all those assembled below would hear them. Nearly seven hundred drow were seated respectfully on their knees, packed tightly on the cavern floor, but they were the most orderly crowd I’d ever seen. That many humans in a room would carry out hushed conversations among each other, even if there was a devil looking over them, and neither orcs nor goblins were very different. Goblins, in fact, might try to talk with the bloody devil. Not a single one of the drow had so much as let out a grunt except when bidding. The difference here, I thought, was cultural. Most surface people had an expectation they would not have their throat cut on a whim, while drow had lived their whole lives under a different set of unspoken rules. Life was the cheapest form of currency in the Everdark. Centon’s words were not followed by another bid, though in truth I’d not expected one. One hundred and sixty years was fairly high for a rylleh. A sigil-holder’s corpse could easily fetch as much as five centuries, but then it came with the understanding that a drow harvesting that much Night should easily be capable of living that long.

Diabolist and I both knew why the bidding for lesser corpses had risen. After it’d been made clear that titles like the one bestowed upon Ivah would only ever be considered for people who’d fought under me and sworn the full breadth of oaths, interest in even the lesser Mighty had significantly increased. The most ambitious among the dzulu wanted to be worth bringing along for the fight when we hit Great Lotow, judging the comprehensive oaths an acceptable shackle if it could lead to that greater ultimate payoff. The Lord of Silent Steps had made something of an impression when it’d gone through the upper ranks of the Trovod like a hot knife through butter, and the lingering tales of that had led to regular polite inquiries on the subject of titles from both dzulu and the occasional nisi.

“Then Sekoran may rise to take the oaths, and this auction has come to an end,” Akua said, after the silence continued for a full sixty heartbeats. “You may disperse.”

Centon translated her words, and without a sound the drow below us knelt forward until their foreheads touched the floor. Not one rose before the winner – named Sekoran, apparently – was climbing up. They left in orderly files after that, neither jostling nor hurrying. Even though I’d made it clear that as far as I was concerned all of their kind were equal under my rules, the nisi still allowed the dzulu to leave ahead of them while expressing deference through tilts of the head lowering their gaze to the floor and presenting their neck. It meant, Akua had told me, that the nisi in question were offering their life and Night for harvest should their social superior wish it. Mostly a courtesy, as nisi were communal property of the sigil and not to be touched unless allowed by the sigil-holder, but here in the outer rings those customs were more loosely kept to. When the difference in power between rylleh and sigil-holder was thin, order tended to break down and killing nisi was often used as statement of rising or descending influence. The drow, I’d learned, made the Praesi fondness intrigue and blood sport look positively mild in comparison. Sekoran climbed up the rocky outcropping that’d served as our seat for the auction with poorly-hidden eagerness.

It was young, though it was hard to tell with drow. Sekoran did lack the kind of agelessly young look most Mighty had, though, its features still soft and lacking the harsh angles of a mature drow. The lifespan of their species was a headache and a half to understand. It was known that those who held no Night save that which they were born to would live exactly sixty years, much too clear-cut a lifespan to be natural. They called it the Three Faces: drow reached maturity at twenty and began their decline at forty, their bodies breaking down over those last twenty years until death took them at the exact age of sixty. Dzulu, like Sekoran’s silver-touched eyes betrayed he was, could expect to live over a hundred years old. It was unheard of for even the lowest of the Mighty to die of old age, but some of the worst monsters in the inner ring were alleged to have lived over a millenium. The kid bowed after finishing the climb, first towards me then towards Akua. It allowed Centon to speak to it with contemptuous patience, though more than once I caught it glancing at the banner at my side while the nisi spoke. It’d made an impression, as it’d been meant to.

Drow did not take oaths, or make them, and so a few of the first dzulu to secure a corpse in the auction had treated their word a little too lightly. Three, to be precise. They’d tried to slay other drow under my banner, or hurt them. Their hideously twisted and frozen corpses had been hung from the long metal pole at my side, dangling softly back and forth. I’d not had to lift so much as a finger to see them die. The oaths had seen to that, the sliver of Winter I’d put inside them devouring their bodies from the inside the moment they acted in a manner breaking their word. The Night they’d taken was still there, stirring as they dangled.

They’d started taking the oaths seriously after that.

“It is ready for the ceremony,” Akua said, breaking me out of my thoughts.

I glanced at the shade and nodded. She’d helped me with both the ritual and the wording of the oaths, putting her extensive experience with diabolism to slightly more acceptable use. As a sorcerous discipline, diabolism was as much about wordcraft as it was rituals: a binding could be technically flawless and still turn out to be completely worthless if there was a loophole in the protections it carried. There was a reason Praesi preferred summoning lesser devils when they could get away with it: the risks rose sharply when the devil was capable of thought. I’d agreed that making the oaths in Lower Miezan would be to our advantage, since neither of us mastered Crespuscular well enough to be able to understand all the nuances – or, to be frank, trusted any of our translators enough to let them shape the oaths in our stead. Centon would translate the words as well as it could, but the oaths and answers would be in my own native tongue. The ritual tools involved were, to Akua’s open despair, rather crude and simple. A sharp obsidian knife, unadorned save for the leather grip, and a rough bowl of sandstone. More than once I’d caught her complaining under her breath that only a Callowan would ‘try to subvert an entire civilization with kitchen utilities’, but she’d get over it.

Or not, I didn’t care either way. Her continued genteel horror was always good for a laugh.

The ceremony, if it could even be called that, was rather simple. I sliced the knife across my palm – normally I’d consider that horribly inconvenient, but my unusual physiology allowed me such dramatic liberties – and let the blood flow into the bowl. I handed the knife to Akua, who then passed it on to Sekoran. It followed suit, cutting too deep in its eagerness. There was no need to slide a piece of Winter into the mixture. My blood itself, I’d been forced to admit, was the stuff of Winter manifest.

“Sekoran of the Everdark, under this name and any name you have ever borne or will ever bear I bind you by these oaths,” I said. “May they hold true for one hundred and sixty years, lest the power now bestowed devour you whole.”

“I so swear,” Sekoran spoke in heavily accented Lower Miezan after Centon translated for it.

“You will never slay nor harm nor hinder any in the service of the Sovereign of Moonless Nights, or dwelling within Callow, save in your own defence or the pursuit of its laws,” I said.

“I so swear.”

“For the duration of one hundred and sixty years, you will follow the orders of the Sovereign of Moonless Nights without intent to subvert or pervert the spirit in which they were given,” I said.

“I so swear.”

There were sixteen lesser oaths, all in all, and we moved through them briskly. Most of them were practical boundaries I needed to set before turning loose the murderous drow equivalent of the Watch on the surface for my campaigns. There would be no rape or wanton slaughter, protection of civilians would be enforced by magical oath and standards of decent behaviour thrust upon them. Akua had called it forging a facsimile of Callowan honour through threat of death. I called it refusing to create another batch of fae nobility if they weren’t bound to behave the way nobility supposedly did. The greater oaths were only three, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them my contingencies. Black had taught me that there was always a point of failure hidden away in even the most stringent of plans, something unseen and unexpected that would come back to bite you at the worst possible time. Given the scope of what I was undertaking here, the sting of that bite would be equivalently brutal. If – when – this turned south on me, I needed levers to either sideline or end them. Fortunately, this time I was not negotiating with the most powerful woman on the continent while she was arguably at the height of her power. I was dealing with eager, desperate drow who craved what I had to offer so badly they could taste it.

The kind of people willing to make dangerous bargains.

“Until death, you will obey and enforce any and all terms of the Liesse Accords,” I said.

“I so swear.”

“The Sovereign of Moonless Night will once name a foe you must fight until it and all it commands is utterly destroyed,” I said.

“I so swear.”

“The Sovereign of Moonless Night will have right to ask one boon of you, to be carried out at all costs, and that right if unused can be passed down to others at its discretion,” I said.

“I so swear.”

Help, long-term plan, insurance. It was not fool-proof, but it was the best the finest diabolist of my generation had been able to help me craft.

“Then Sekoran of the Everdark is granted right to the corpse bargained for, and all Night held therein,” I said. “By this compact we are now bound, and will remain bound.”

The young drow shivered, and it had nothing to do with the coolness of the cavern air. There’d been power in the air, power running through its veins. Through mine as well. I glanced at Centon and nodded. The nisi spoke in Crepuscular, and guided the other drow towards the rylleh’s corpse. Akua lingered, to my complete lack of surprise.

“Diabolist,” I evenly said. “Report.”

She sat at my side without need for an invitation.

“The food situation is out of control,” Akua said. “We can last two more days, three if we ration even the children.”

“We’ll be seizing the Berelun reserve today,” I said.

“And the Berelun themselves with it,” she pointed out. “The speed at which we accrue bellies to fill vastly outstrips the quantity of food we’re acquiring.”

I nodded slowly. She wasn’t wrong.

“I expect you’re leading to a suggestion,” I said.

“You were intent on hitting another two sigils before moving against Great Lotow,” Diabolist said. “We cannot afford that. Perhaps one, if what passes for their granaries is large enough.”

“We’re still weak,” I said.

“Our drow contingent will not be the cause of victory or defeat in Lotow, let us not pretend otherwise,” she said. “A few more Mighty sworn to you will not make a significant difference either way.”

Time and empty bellies. Along with coin, they were the enemies that most often imposed on my plans.

“Agreed,” I sighed. “I’ll send Archer to see if the Delen are more inclined to fighting than fleeing, we can decide from there.”

“Sensible,” she conceded with a nod. “As for the situation in the camp, it remains… fluid.”

“Rarely a good word, when passing Praesi lips,” I said.

She seemed amused by that, and did not deny it.

“The nisi remain cautiously grateful for the rules of behaviour you have imposed, though skeptical it will last,” Akua said. “The situation with the dzulu, however, is fast reaching boiling point. The auction has worked, to an extent, but I would expect betrayals in the camp from ambitious elements the moment we run into solid opposition.”

“You have names?” I asked.

“I am in the process of gathering them,” Diabolist said. “Which remains difficult, as I lack eyes to watch on my behalf. I must rely almost entirely on rumours and observation of social currents – observations, I will remind you, made without appropriate cultural context.”

“Still angling for your little death squad, I see,” I said.

“There is no nation or large-scale organization on Calernia that does not have individuals charged with internal surveillance,” Akua said. “Including Callow under your reign, Catherine. Drow being notably more fractious than humans, to establish such a measure is mere common sense. We both know the longer we wait the larger this will become and the harder it will be to track would-be traitors. It must be done, and done quickly.”

“Not to revisit our last argument, but I still don’t trust dzulu to keep an eye on their own kind,” I frankly replied. “And for them to have right of life and death inside the camp would carry obvious dangers.”

“I have come to understand and somewhat agree with your perspective in this,” Diabolist said. “Which is why I would amend my previous request. I would like ten ispe corpses from the next… acquisition to be set aside for raising nisi of my own picking. They can be charged with the duty, after being subjected to a strict set of oaths.”

“That’ll take the wind out of the next auction,” I said.

“It will also make it clear that there is more than one way to rise in your service,” Akua said. “A useful tool, if the notion is properly conveyed.”

I clenched my fingers, then slowly unclenched them. She was right about the risks of leading a pack of drow without anyone charged with keeping an eye on them. Knives pointed at our back weren’t just likely at this rate, they were inevitable.

“Agreed for the corpses,” I said. “We’ll discuss the hierarchy of that fresh batch of spies and assassins after the Berelun have been brought into the fold.”

I was disinclined to let Akua Sahelian head what would effectively be my equivalent of the Jacks down here, but I might not have another choice. Ivah was another possible candidate, but I might need it on the frontlines and my leash on Diabolist was arguably tighter. In the end I could dislike it all I wanted but who else was there?

“One last subject, if you would,” Akua said.

Evidently she’d noticed my attention was waning.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“I would ask for one more ispe to be set aside,” she said. “For Centon to harvest.”

“Your assistant,” I frowned. “It should have enough status from that position alone, and I can’t think of another reason why you’d want to empower it.”

“It is being treated as a nisi favoured by one of higher status, not an individual to be respected outside that very narrow boundary,” Akua noted. “The casual disrespect it is still offered grates me and hinders its work besides. Status as one of the lesser Mighty would neatly remedy that.”

And also allow her to sink deeper hooks into the rest of the drow through Centon, a notion I was much less pleased about. Keeping Diabolist useful without giving her too much power was ever a delicate balancing act.

“If you were serious about promoting for reasons other than martial talent, you will hardly find a better candidate,” Akua said. “It was careful enough to hide it held the Secret of Lower Miezan for more than twenty years.”

“No one’s born with a full Secret,” I grunted. “Not even literacy, and that’s the most common there is. It whet its blade a few times to complete that.”

“You might as well chide a Praesi for diabolism,” she replied amusedly.

My brow rose.

“How’s your heart, Akua?” I said.

“Ever in your hand, dearest, in more ways than one,” she smoothly replied.

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ll see if I can spare an ispe, but that’s unlikely until Lotow,” I said. “Make do until then.”

“By your will, my queen,” she said.

“Because that’s not getting old,” I muttered.

I rose to my feet. Time to finish cleaning up the Berelun, then. Archer would be getting restless by now.

“You’re angry,” Indrani said. “It told Ivah you’d be angry.”

“First off, I very much doubt that,” I replied.

“That’s fair,” she mused. “I mean, I was lying.”

“Yours is the laziest, sloppiest form of treachery I have ever countered,” I said. “I can’t believe that’s a mark in your favour, but Gods help me it is. Anyhow, I’m not angry. Surprised? No, surprised is too weak a word. Befuddled.”

“I mean, you left us alone without supervision so when you really think about it who’s really at fault?” Indrani said.

There was a pause.

“You. You are that fault. That was what I was implying,” she revealed.

“I left you two alone for two hours and a half tops, Archer,” I complained. “How the Hells did you end up ‘accidentally’ taking over another sigil?”

What the Berelun called their stronghold was, practically speaking, a plateau inside a tall cavern with a passage through drilled under it. To reach the part where the drow had actually lived – the top of the plateau, more specifically a knot of descending stalactites and stalagmites that’d fused into some sort of stone tree around which all the Berelun tents and structures were centered – would normally have required climbing a sheer cliff, but there were benefits to being made of smoke and mirrors. Like growing wings at will. When I’d first realized that Archer and Ivah had proceeded ahead of me I’d expected to find the stronghold cleared of the last Mighty and terrified drow awaiting instructions. The second part of that, at least, had come true. The first had not, since I was currently looking at around thirty Mighty of varying ranks kneeling on the stone with their hands behind their necks.

“There’s a very good explanation for that,” Indrani assured me.

My brow rose, and I gestured for her to speak. Silence persisted.

“I can’t think of a believable lie,” she admitted after a moment.

“Have you considered giving me an actual truthful accounting?” I suggested.

“What is this, a bloody House of Light?” she complained, then her eyes brightened. “Although, if you’re willing to wear ripped up sister robes I’m more than willing to give you my confessions.”

“Just give me your godsdamned report, Archer,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose.

“Fine,” she pouted. “So I was, like, making small talk with Ivah while surrounded by corpses.”

“As one does,” I said.

“Right? We never go anywhere without there being corpses around, we should work on that,” she said. “Anyways, it was all like ‘Archer, you peerless beauty whose charm has moved me, I’m going to brag so you become interested me’.”

“Classic Ivah,” I agreed.

“And so it mentioned that Bere-whatever tried to convince it to stab you,” Indrani said. “Offered it fourth place in the local pecking order.”

Probably the only accurate part of what she’d reported so far, though I would not hold out hope for that trend to continue.

“So then, I was like all ‘Ivah, please, don’t be so obvious it’s just embarrassing’. But then I figured – wait, fourth? That’s pretty high up. Burley-whatever brought two rylleh with a bunch of mooks and Ivah hadn’t done much to show power at that point. Unless it was real bare back on the home front, Shirley-whatever was full of it when it made that promise.”

The worst part, I thought, was that she was perfectly aware that the name of the sigil and sigil-holder had been Berelun. She was yanking my chain. I knew that. She knew I knew that. And I knew that she knew I knew that. Yet if I actually corrected her I would lose, and that was just unacceptable.

“So you went on a walk,” I prompted.

“Well, technically you said to keep an eye on the corpses and the corpses were gone by then,” Indrani said. “So really you have only yourself to blame.”

“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that,” I grunted. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

“Look, when we found the Troubadours they were already under attack by this other bunch of drow,” Indrani protested. “So you know, I defended the innocent. As is my custom.”

“I don’t suppose you bothered to learn the context for all this,” I tried.

“I knew you’d say that,” she crowed. “So I wrote it down.”

She pulled back her coat and mail sleeve, revealing red scribbles. I blinked.

“Archer, is that blood?”

“Which do we run into more often down here: dead bodies or inkwells?” she pointed out. “It’s like you don’t even think, sometimes. Anyways, here it is. The Dubious-”

Delen, I mentally corrected, which was the nearest sigil to this tone.

“- have been all warlike recently, and slapped the Henries in the face in a skirmish a while back, a defeat bad enough that it cleaned up most of their Mighty.”

Had we really gone from ‘Bere-whatever’ to ‘Henries’ in the span of thirty heartbeats? I was in dire need of a way to exact pretty revenge on Indrani, it was the only language she truly understood.

“When they heard the Henries were moving out to speak with us, they decided it was a good time to attack,” Indrani continued. “But they’re blind and their timing is shit-”

The stronghold of the Berelun was difficult to access and finding out precisely when they’d gone to ambush me was difficult, I mentally translated.

“- so they were only just getting started when me and Ivah showed up,” she said.

“Ivah and I,” I said. “You ignorant wench.”

She flipped me off. My gaze returned to the kneeling drow, who’d been watching us talk back and forth very carefully.

“And you what, killed enough of them that the rest gave up?” I asked.

“We protected the innocent until surrender ensued,” Indrani proudly replied, then spoiled the way she’d kept her face straight through that by badly winking.

“Fuck it,” I sighed. “We’ll offer them the usual ‘oath or sword’ bargain then loot everything before we get back on the road.”

“Yes sir, your queenliness ma’am,” Archer grinned. “We decided on where we’re headed, then?”

“Great Lotow,” I told her. “I hope you’re in a fighting mood, because we’re about to declare war on an entire civilization.”

The smile she gave me at that was terrifying in more ways than one, but at least she was on my side.

The drow wouldn’t be so lucky.

Chapter 62: Impulse

“I don’t care if they’ve been training, it’s only been two months. What could they possibly have learned that would threaten me?”
– Dread Empress Sinistra IV, the Erroneous

“The Mighty Berelun is willing to allow passage, but only for a tithe,” Ivah translated.

The Mighty Berelun was full of shit, I decided. That it had accepted an envoy instead of sending a warband the moment we entered its territory had been an auspicious start, especially when it’d proposed one of the large caverns of the region as a meeting place. The Mighty, I had learned, preferred to lay their ambushes in small passages where they could best leverage their superior speed and reflexes without the risk of being swarmed by ‘lesser’ drow. Sadly, it looked like this was going to be a repeat of our aborted talks with the Purka Sigil. The cavern surrounding us might have been broad and high-ceilinged, but there were discreet little paths on an upper level where I could hear drow scuttling around like rats. Berelun had been smart enough to listen to the rumours already making their way through the outer ring but not quite smart enough to decide picking a fight wouldn’t be in its favour. I was almost insulted by how few it had mobilized for the ambush: by the sounds of it, there couldn’t be more than twenty.

Most of those would be ispe, the lowest rung of the Mighty. In practice, those were fighters with a handful of interesting tricks but none of the dangerous Secrets out there. As dangerous in melee as your average fae soldier, if much less mobile for the lack of wings. They were the kind of enterprising souls that joined up with a sigil as much for the protection as because the quickest way for them to grow in power was to slay and harvest other ispe – either those of an enemy sigil or that of their own. Mighty Berelun itself had prudently shown up with an escort, a pair of rylleh. Ivah’s old rank, and one I’d begun to understand was higher up the ladder than my guide had previously implied. Rylleh were the drow just beneath whatever drow the sigil was named after, called the sigil-holder, and considered the most likely contenders to eventually run through their leader and take the clan for themselves. They were also usually the heavy hitters in a sigil apart from the chief, which meant Berelun was taking us seriously. It would not have brought both its most dangerous rivals and strongest fighters to meet with us on the ground floor otherwise.

That had seemed promising, until I’d heard the ambush setting up.

“What kind of tithe?” I asked.

I had no intention of paying anything of the sort, but stringing this out a little longer would allow for a cleaner resolution. As if prompted by my thought, my ears caught the sound of a blade slicing open a throat. There was a muted gurgle and a body was quietly lowered to the ground. One down. Ivah addressed the Mighty in Crepuscular and I kept my eyes on its own. Deep, perfect silver set in a dark grey face that looked like it’d been carved with a knife. Berelun was larger than most drow I’d seen, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled. The obsidian blade strapped to its back could not be called anything but a greatsword.

“One in ten of your sigil, my queen,” Ivah said. “With no fewer than six ispe among them.”

My sigil, huh. That was one way to call the gathering throng of the desperate and the ambitious Akua was keeping an eye on. Two thousand, by now, though we were still thin on Mighty. Few of those were willing to take my bargain when it was extended. I’d already made my peace with the fact that we’d have to grow our own pack through harvest, and truth be told that might make them slightly more reliable in the long term. Another gurgle above, another drop. Berelun had dispersed its ambushers to make sure they’d be able to fire from all angles, looked like. It would have been decent tactics if I hadn’t seen it coming. But I had, and their isolation meant they were easy prey for my own hunter on the prowl.

“Ivah,” I said. “Ask the Mighty Berelun if it heard what took place between us and the Purka.”

My guide’s deep blue eyes crinkled in amusement, but it nodded. The exchange of words was swift, but not so swift that I did not hear another two throats cut.

“The Mighty knows of the destruction that was delivered unto the Purka,” Ivah said. “It cautions you not to believe the Berelun to be weak or lacking in cunning. It says tithe will be paid, one way or another, and that pretending otherwise is foolish.”

“So it thinks I’m speaking a threat,” I mused. “When I was, in fact, delivering a warning. They might have been sloppier about their ambush, but the plan was quite similar.”

Fifth death, then a pause. The sixth and seventh were nearly simultaneous. She was having fun with it, if she was getting that fancy.

“Is there to be fighting then, my queen?” Ivah asked, sounding less than worried.

“Eventually,” I agreed. “Let’s keep stringing them along for a bit longer. Quibble over the numbers, make it look like I’m considering the offer.”

“By your will,” the drow agreed, head inclining in deference.

By my final count, there were eighteen ispe who’d been hiding upstairs. My eyes remained on Berelun all the while, and I saw it getting increasingly impatient as moments passed. Not because of the negotiations, I thought. We both knew those were going nowhere. Most likely it was awaiting a signal before attacking and growing restless because it wasn’t coming. After thirty heartbeats passed without another throat being cut, I elected to call down the curtains on the farce. Ivah was in the middle of a sentence, but paused when I raised my hand.

“I will offer them the same terms I offered the Purka,” I said. “And the Trovod, and the Hilaron. They can kneel and take oaths, be granted power as you have been. Their forces will be folded into mine. Or they can be unmade. There will be no middle ground.”

“They will refuse,” Ivah said.

“I expect they will,” I replied. “So here’s a gift to help them understand the situation – Archer!”

My voice sounded loud and clear in the cavern. A moment later there was a mocking cackle and Indrani kicked down a drow’s corpse from the upper levels. The throat was still bleeding, and after the cadaver landed with a dull thump blood pooled around it. Berelun and its bodyguards stilled, eyes moving back and forth. Ivah spoke to them, slow and cadenced. I’d heard enough Crepuscular I could begin to make out individual words, and knew the meaning of a few, but even spoken so slowly the language was difficult. Unlike any other I’d been taught on the surface. No matter: I’d set Diabolist to learning it, and when she was done I’d rip the knowledge out of her mind.

“The Mighty Berelun refuses your offer,” Ivah said. “And demands your submission. I’ve also been offered admittance as fourth under the Sigil, should I turn on you.”

“Well, it’s a tempting offer,” I drawled. “Have you duly considered it?”

“Alas for the Mighty Berelun,” the drow said, “I much prefer being your Lord of Silent Steps.”

The title rippled in the air, after being spoken, and Ivah no longer seemed to be Ivah at all. I could feel the shard of Winter in its soul, the way it spread through its veins with every breath and intertwined with the Night. It was not fae, but oh how close it had become. And all it’d taken was will and oaths, traded in the dark. Berelun caught on to the fact that negotiations had come to an end, ripping its obsidian greatsword free from leather bindings, and the attending rylleh followed suit. A steel-tipped spear to the left, a long ornate stone knife to the right.

“The usual arrangement stands,” I calmly said. “Anything you kill is yours. The rest goes to auction.”

The curved obsidian sword the Lord of Silent Steps had wrested from the corpse of the Mighty Trovod left its sheath with a pretty little flourish.

“May my hunt be fruitful, then,” Ivah grinned. “I yet hunger.”

Without another word, it vanished. Glamour, which of all the fae arts the drow seemed to take to the easiest. There were ways to use the Night not too dissimilar. I turned my eyes to the Berelun, whose earlier condifence had been shaken by the open use of power they did not recognize. It would be the least of their surprises today, I thought. They opened the dance with what I’d come to call the Hunter’s Triangle. It was a tactic Mighty seemed to favour when facing an entity they suspected to be stronger than themselves but not by too broad a margin. Berelun itself advanced fluidly, greatsword raised above its head, while the other two flickered and dissolved into shadow. They would slither across the ground to flank me on both sides from the back while their chief kept my attention, all going for crippling blows instead of an outright kill. It was a tactic meant to get me slow and bleeding, not take my head. Drow fighting tactics were heavily influenced by the fact that the one amongst them to make the kill had the best claim to the body and Night therein. In single combat they immediately went for the kill, but when in a group they tended to go for the legs or the arms first.

The two rylleh flickered back into silhouettes with admirable timing. It was easy to see the three of them had fought opponents together before: the coordination was impeccable. The spear, knife and greatsword struck within a heartbeat of each other. They passed through mist, dispersing chunks of my body, and only then did I act. I returned to entirely solid form and my hand snatched the extended arm of the spear-wielder. My physical strength might have grown beyond natural boundaries but laws of momentum still applied to my action, which had required an adjustment I was only now beginning to get a handle on. My footing shifted, my torso pivoted and I swung the drow at Berelun’s head. Silver eyes widened in surprise and I merely clenched my fingers before releasing the rylleh’s wrist, crushing the bones in my grip. The last drow had kept its wits, and flickered back into a pool of shadow before I could strike it. Scoffing, I shaped and released a spike of ice that nailed the tendrils and forced the drow to flicker back into a silhouette. Wounded to boot, as the spike had gone through its leg, but Night flowed into the wound and the ice was forced out as the flesh beneath reformed. Neat trick, that one, but I’d seen it before. I backhanded the rylleh and sent it tumbling away, turning in time to see the other two drow extricate themselves and rise to their feet.

“Come now,” I said. “Show me a few Secrets worth stealing.”

Berelun snarled something in Crepuscular, the other grimly nodding. The Night pulsed and a supernatural darkness fell over me.

“Disappointing,” I said. “Hilaron did it right at the start and it was much more effective.”

The working was anchored around my neck, not a veil of darkness but a bubble meant entirely to blind me. It required flesh to be anchored to, however. I stepped back, feeling myself… slip. Grow vague and muted. The mist thickened back into myself one step removed from the now-pointless bubble, revealing the sight of the two of them slithering along the floor in shadow-form. Irritated, I smashed my boot down. The ground shook, stone splintered and the two of them were thrown out in drow-shape. I saw fear in the rylleh’s silvery eyes as it realized what its chief had not. This was not a fight, not for me. It was a spar through which I was mastering the use my mantle. This entire cursed ruin of an empire was. The last drow had already gotten back on its feet, but it had other troubles. The Lord of Silent Steps had cut through the muscles on the back of its knee, and was now weaving one glamour after another to keep it striking at illusions while it methodically ruined its arms and legs.

The Night, it had once told me, felt deeper when taken with an enemy’s last breath.

Berelun snarled once more and I rolled my eyes. It had yet to impress me. Six tendrils of shadow rose from its back, each forming a few fingers at the end that took obsidian knives to wield, and with its sword raised high it came for me again. The other drow actually bothered to be interesting, flickering into shadow-form but remaining a silhouette. That was a new one, and worth exploring. I formed a blade of ice and set out against the rylleh, ignoring Berelun. The shadowed drow shot forward, and only then did I notice the shadow had extended to its spear as well. Promising. I ducked under the tip of the spear and scythed through its ankles, but parted only shadow that reformed anew the moment my blade passed. It spun and smashed the butt of its spear against my armour, hitting above where my spine was. An exertion of will had frost keeping it stuck and when I turned the weapon was snatched out of its grasp. Curious, I plunged my sword through its throat and left it there. The drow panicked, wrenching it out, and my brow rose. Behind me I heard Berelun howl in pain when Archer’s arrow took him in the back of the knee. Simply because she hadn’t deigned to come down did not mean she was not keeping an eye on the proceedings.

I caught the rylleh’s left shoulder but the shadows wriggled out of my grasp and it kicked me in the stomach. My plate took the blow without trouble and I frowned, punching it in the face. It rocked back, though with no visible damage. Shadows are constantly moving and distributing any impact or cutting force across the entire body, so anything that doesn’t last is ineffective, I thought. On the flipside anything that lasted would do a lot more damage than it should. Too flawed a trick to be worth replicating, I assessed. The ice blade still in its hand turned to mist and formed again as a collar around its neck, tightening with but a thought. I left it to choke, returning my attention to Berelun. The Mighty was bound to have a few Secrets it’d yet to pull out. Archer’s arrow had gone straight through the knee, steel tip coming out bloody, and it appeared that pain was enough to get rid of the shadow tendrils it’s been wielding earlier. No great loss there. I could already do the same thing, more or less.

“So,” I meaningfully said. “Bleeding and desperate. Now’s about time to pull out the fancy tricks, don’t you think?”

It replied in Crepuscular.

“I don’t speak that,” I said, and shot a spear of ice at it to hurry things along.

It dodged effortlessly. Drow with that much Night swimming around their bodies had reflexes far beyond anything a human could muster even on their best day – even the Watch. I closed the distance, noting it’d ceased retreating and learning why a heartbeat later. Shadows roiled across its entire body and sprouted in seemingly solid spikes.

“Seen it before,” I sighed.

I hardened my hand to be solid as stone and struck at the spikes, shattering them and sending the drow reeling back. Berelun’s face was the picture of pained surprise, but it gathered its bearings long enough for one more trick. Night dripped down its body in thick rivulets, then shot out like arrows. One would have gone through my chest, but that was seen to with a half-step to the side. Yet the Night was hovering in the air all around us, I saw, forming some kind of spotty dome. Berelun smirked and stabbed its sword into the closest spot of Night. To my surprise, it came out behind me and carved into my plate. I moved forward, ensuring it wouldn’t bite too deep, but that’d been rather unexpected. I felt it safe to assume a blow could come out of any chunk of Night, which left him quite a few angles to attack from. Interesting. I wove glamour over myself, leaving my illusion weaving around blows even as I left the makeshift dome myself, and reached for Winter. Perfectly reproducing this was probably beyond my ability. Maybe by using my domain I could do something similar, assuming the Night really was Sve Noc’s own domain manifest, but it would require too much concentration to be worth it. If I was to wield my domain in combat there were better alternatives.

Using purely Winter, thought? This was a trick worth stealing.

I went about it methodically, since it was my first time. I formed frost at regular intervals around it on the ground in a loose circle, slight marks I could strengthen with barely a thought. Making frost marks that hung in the air proved trickier, until I started weaving them the same way I did platforms. Not trying to hang them up on something that did not exist, but interposing them between layers of Creation. Even then, I saw with mild irritation that the moment I tried using one of the hovering marks again it fell. The sound of frost breaking on stone caught Berelun’s attention, and its eyes widened in fear and surprise when it saw the other marks. Time to wrap this up, then. I let Winter loose, shunting off the alienation into the others who drew on the stuff of my mantle – Diabolist, as always, but now Ivah as well. Spears of pure ice shot out from over thirty directions, puncturing Mighty Berelun’s body like a rag doll. I withdrew them with a flick of the wrist, forcing them back into the initial marks, and the drow dropped to the floor listlessly.

Then an arrow went through the back of its neck, because Archer had a horrid sense of humour.

“That one was mine,” she called out from above.

I gestured obscenely at her, earning only laughter in response. A glance told me that the rylleh I’d left a collar on had choked to death and Ivah was already harvesting the other’s Night, kneeling over the dying body. Indrani came down, leaping from handhold to handhold on the cavern wall like some sort of demented grasshopper before landing in an unnecessarily elaborate roll.

“Diplomacy’s a lot simpler than I used to think, Cat,” Archer noted. “I’m finally getting the hang of it.”

I sighed.

“Keep an eye on the corpses,” I said. “Ivah will stay with you. We’re moving in on the Berelun camp after Akua’s people pick up the bodies for an auction.”

“Sure, sure,” she dismissed. “Look on the bright side, this isn’t the kind of neighbourhood where people will ask questions if they run into us standing over a bunch of corpses.”

I refused to dignify that with a response and left them with dead drow, beginning the trek back to what their kind had taken to calling my sigil. The auction would delay us by an hour or two, but no more. We’d crafted the system with our time constraints in mind.

It’d been Diabolist’s idea. There’d been no issue at first, as the first sigil we’d run into was the Trovod. Ivah, fresh off its title as my first Lord of Winter, had single-handedly slaughtered the sigil’s upper ranks and harvested all of them. It’d later admitted that even the sigil-holder would barely have qualified as a rylleh outside of the outer rings and it’d been more an execution than a battle. The two hundred meat – nisi, in Crepuscular – who’d belonged to the drow of the Trovod had been eager to follow us even before I made clear that the dwarves would be close behind. Nisi that were not under a sigil were fair game for any drow looking to accumulate a bit of Night, and all it would take was a single Mighty coming across them for a massacre to ensue. At best they might end up taken by another sigil and any among them with useful skills harvested. But then we’d run into Purka territory, and those had been tougher meat. Ivah had partaken, but eventually admitted it no longer gained much out of harvesting Night from lower rungs of the Mighty like the ispe. To continue feeding it the corpses would not significantly improve its combat capacity.

That revelation came right on the back of the fact I now had about one thousand nisi who wanted to follow us on our journey, along with a smaller contingent of two hundred dzulu – meaning person, more or less – which was what drow were called when they had enough Night to no longer be meat but not enough to qualify as even the lowest of the Mighty. Most of the dzulu were smart enough to surrender when people still covered with the blood of their overlords strolled into their camp, but they tended to be the ones that chafed under my rules the most. The prohibition on killing each other in particular: now that the old order was gone, they believed it was their chance to rise. I’d been inclined to just cut them loose, but Akua had talked me out of it. She’d pointed out that the nisi were largely incapable of fighting, but that the dzulu usually knew their way around a weapon. If I was to recruit an army in the Everdark, it would not be from the Mighty or the nisi. It’d be from the hungry dzulu, who’d be willing to take oaths in exchange for enough Night to no longer be arrow fodder. They’d spent long enough near the corridors of power to be willing to do quite a bit if the deal allowed them to walk those corridors in their own right.

And so we had created the auction.

We took the corpses of the Mighty and allowed any and all to bid for the right to harvest their Night. Akua had been inclined to limit bidding rights to the dzulu so that a warrior class would be created quickly, but I’d been of a different opinion. The nisi were, in my eyes, the closest thing to sane people that could be found among the drow. Most of them had spent their lives being slaves in all but name and while they paid lip service to the ways of the Everdark their hearts weren’t really in it. It was hard to love customs that saw you used a tools and beasts of burdens, killed at a whim. I’d rather have slightly less effective soldiers that weren’t ardent partisans of methaphysical cannibalism. What would be bid, however, had never been in doubt. Coin would be useful, if I could bring it back to Callow, but drow society ran on barter and somewhat communal slave labour – nisi were the property of the sigil as a whole, not individuals, but what they made was distributed at the discretion of the sigil-holder. There were precious few easy riches to be had, down here, and unlike the dwarves I didn’t have a legion of workers to mine every shaft full of metals and precious stones we came across. I’d not come to the Everdark for wealth anyway. I’d come here for an army, and so the bidding was done with oaths. Years in my service, enforced by blood and Winter. I was willing to empower the drow if it was on my terms. Two more sigils, I thought as I made my way through the tunnels, only two more sigils and we’d have enough numbers.

Then we’d hit the city of Lotow, and the boulder would start rolling down the hill.

Interlude: Queen’s Gambit, Declined

“Fifty-nine: it is always better to interrupt a plan than carry one out. Your finest successes will always be the failures of your enemy.”
-‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown

“You’re in a damned fine mood, for a man who can barely stand,” Ranker muttered.

Most would not have been to pick up on it, Amadeus thought, but the goblin marshal had been his friend for a very long time. Longer than the common understanding of goblin lifespan should allow for, but that was one of the subjects they did not speak of. Ranker had a right to her secrets, as he did his. The Black Knight tightened the woolen blanket draped over his frame, looking up at the night sky with the barest trace of a smile on his face.

“It’s nostalgic, isn’t it?” he said. “The few of us huddling in the dark, surrounded by a realm that would kill us all.”

His detached force numbered two thousand, with Marshal Ranker in overall command as her sappers and scouts would be more valuable to their purposes than regulars or heavies. Cooking fires had been judged too much of a liability to be allowed even after a days of marching under his aspect that should have left any would-be pursuers in the dust: the legionaries had dropped their kits and made their beds on rough ground, not even bothering to raise fortifications beforehand. Ranker’s decision, and one he’d approved of. Their pace was already taking the soldiers dangerously close to their breaking point, aspect or not.

“It hasn’t been like this since the civil war,” Ranker conceded. “The Conquest was orderly campaign, nothing like this one. Feels like we’re making it up as we’re going along.”

“Planning too deep will be seen through by the Augur,” Amadeus reminded her. “We stay a step ahead so long as we make short-term decisions backed by superior pace.”

It was a little more complex than that, in practice. Thrice now the First Prince’s fresh mage order had passed along auguries of where his legions would be headed, though their very interception meant that they were effectively worthless. Prediction and prophecy were different matters, after all. The former was very much avoidable, if known, while the latter tended to be like a sandpit: the harder you struggled, the swifter you drowned. Even those could be broken, of course. Prophecy was only ever the writ of one side of the Great Game, and if outcomes were so absolute there would be no need for Creation at all – according to the Book of All Things, anyway. Still, even the predictions of the Augur were an exceedingly dangerous tool for the opposition. Considering how sparsely it had been used and the recent revelations as to the forces stirring up north, Amadeus suspected that if the Dead King had not been on the move and requiring the soothsayer’s attentions this campaign would have been much more troublesome.

“I’m aware,” she flatly replied. “And I have some fond memories of the old days, do not misunderstand me. But back then we were still young. To our places, to our powers, to our stories. It’s been a long time since we were any of that.”

Sing we of foe,” he softly hummed. “Of victories won, and that first woe, tyranny of the sun.”

“You know I hate that song, Amadeus,” Ranker grunted. “It’s the anthem of old defeats, a ballad of ruin.”

“It was a cold, clear look at what we were when it was written,” the Black Knight said. “We are no longer that, yet I suspect we never truly outgrew the sentiment.”

Like a poisonous old friend, it had been clutched tight even as the fangs sunk in and venom spread. The Tyranny of the Sun, for the most famous verse of the song was the title as well, had been written near the end of the Sixty Years War. Arguably the most brutal slugging match between two sovereign powers in the history of Calernia, and it had left both Callow and Praes smoking ruins in its aftermath, peace coming largely because neither side was still capable of continuing the war. Dread Emperor Nihilis had retreated to the Blessed Isle with his armies and ended it without ever signing formal treaty, but he’d died failing to rebuild the Empire and a hundred years of murderous mediocrity had followed until Praes recovered enough to embark in its disastrous waging of the Secret Wars. In some ways he suspected the Sixty Years War had been more traumatic an experience to Praesi culture than the collapse of Triumphant’s empire a century and a half earlier. Triumphant had known success before meeting her doom. The parade of Emperors and Empresses who’d waged war on Callow for sixty years had known much of the latter and little of the former.

“We,” the goblin chuckled. “There’s a word growing thinner by the year. We are exiles in more way than one, Amadeus. You saw to that after Akua’s Folly.”

“It is not the first time I’ve been told I should have tried to climb the Tower,” the man shrugged. “It will not be the last, I expect. It would have been a self-defeating enterprise to wage civil war in the Wasteland with Procer assembling its armies just across the border.”

“The Clans would have come out for you,” Ranker said. “Most likely the Tribes as well. The Matrons smell weakness, Black, and there’s only ever one way they react to that.”

“I can think of few things more foolish than to underestimate Alaya,” he quietly said. “Even now. She’s never been one to act without a plan, and that we do not understand her moves should be source of fear and not contempt.”

“Odds are she’s the one who made a pact with the Dead King,” Ranker said.

“It could have been Catherine as well,” Amadeus frankly admitted. “She thrives in chaotic situations. It’s led her to the bad habit of creating them knowing it improves her chances of victory even if it significantly increases collateral damage as well.”

“The Black Queen,” the goblin mused. “There’s another trash fire of a situation. One you’ve stepped lightly around.”

“The Conquest was a way to achieve objectives,” Amadeus said. “The annexation was ultimately a consequence, not the purpose itself. I hardly mind surrendering unnecessary gains if the actual objectives are met through the gesture.”

“The arithmetic holds,” Ranker sighed. “It always does with you. But there’s more to this than the numbers, old friend. We made an order of things, and now it’s crumbling.”

“And now you wonder what will replace it,” Amadeus said. “And if in that new order, we will still have a place.”

“Some might say it’s too early to start thinking about after the war,” she said. “You and I know better. No point in even seeking a victory if when achieved it leads nowhere.”

“A better world,” the Black Knight murmured, looking up a stars that were not those he’d been born under. “Oh, I have wondered. What it might mean, what it would look like.”

“We made one,” Ranker said. “It’s on fire now.”

“And who set the flames?” he smiled. “Cordelia Hasenbach. Catherine Foundling. Kairos Theodosian. Children, in our eyes. Yet is it not the right of the younger generation to look at the work of that which came before it and judge it insufficient?”

“So they’re right, and we’ll be swept away like dust by the new age,” Ranker said, sounding distinctly unimpressed.

“I still do not believe,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch murmured, “that I am wrong. That our methods, our works, are to be so easily discarded. If these younglings want to prove themselves worthy of shaping the world, well…”

He bared his teeth.

“Let them come,” he said. “Let them earn it. If they can surpass us, then the sin is ours.”

“And if they can’t?” Ranker asked.

“Then they fall into line, or face destruction, and we fight one last great war,” he said. “The one that will matter.”

The two of them remained silent for a long time, seated at the edge of the camp. In the distance, the barest glimpse of the town of Saudant could be made out. Just a lakeside township, one of hundreds in the region. Amadeus doubted the name of it would be remembered as more than a footnote in histories, for no battle would take place there even if he’d been wrong. Under the light of the stars, the Black Knight pondered Providence and the coward’s wager that was Fate. He did not sleep, even tired as he had become.

With dawn he would know if he had once more cheated the Heavens at dice.

Gauthier Legrand had served as ranking captain of the guard of Iserre for thirty years now. He’d served Prince Merlaux before Prince Amadis ascended the throne and been appointed to his title by the old prince, but there’d been no talk of having him replaced even when the young prince took over and began inserting his own partisans in posts of influence. This he attributed to the fact that he’d carried out his work steadily and honestly, avoiding court politics and the intrigues intrinsic to any of Procer’s royal seats. He was not unaware that his occasional bluntness and refusal to earn favours by offering plum positions to the kin of the influential had led some to consider him simple, though the more polite phrased it as him having ‘a soldier’s spirit’. Gauthier did not mind. As long as they considered him an idiot they would not attempt to involve him in their little schemes, and he rather preferred it that way. Iserre had only grown larger and wealthier under Prince Amadis, but that rise had come with the troubles inevitably associated with a city expanding. Maintaining order and the rule of law was toil without end, especially in a land where both could change face at the whims of the ruling prince.

Amadis had done well by the city, he’d always thought, and the principality as well. Their prince had kept them out of the worst of the Great War with cunning diplomacy and duly reaped the benefits of Iserre’s rising prominence when the steel returned to the sheath. Old Prince Merlaux had shown a better touch with the commons, that much was true, but his son was a much more able administrator. The guard’s funding had swelled under Amadis, and their equipment was now match for many of the fantassin companies out there making a trade of war. It’d seemed an unquestionable boon at the time, but now Captain Gauthier was forced to question. Not a state of affairs to his liking. The principality was under assault by wicked Easterners from the Wasteland, and to everyone’s dismay the general levies that had preceded Prince Amadis going on campaign had bled the land dry of men in fighting fit. Iserre itself was the capital of the eponymous principality, and so had kept a garrison of two thousand professional soldiers, but the guard’s equipment was only marginally inferior and it numbered five thousand.

In principle the defence of the city was the responsibility of the commander of that garrison, Antonine Milenan. In practice, their leader was middle-aged drunk whose entire experience with martial life was a span of three years with a fantassin company that had never left Iserran borders during the Great War. She had, allegedly, commanded a victorious skirmish against bandits. Rumour had it they’d actually been terrified refugees from Salamans but that in her drunken rage she’d refused to see a difference. There was a reason that Antonine had not been given a command in the crusading host, and Gauthier supposed that a few months ago giving her command of a garrison that would never see combat had seemed a discreet way to set aside a cumbersome relative for his prince. Now that the Wastelanders had come, however, it meant that the woman had been quietly placed under guard in the palace where she could make no trouble. An unfortunate measure prompted by a well-lubricated evening where she’d decided to order the garrison of Iserre to sally out and ‘disperse the foreign rabble on the field’.

And so Captain Gauthier Legrand now led the defence of Iserre.

The responsibility alone would have been difficult to bear, but as the effective commander he’d been the one to receive the secret orders from the First Prince of Procer. Penned by a scribe, most likely, and the content would have been decided by her officers – Hasenbach was a well-known oddity, a Lycaonese with little taste or affinity for war. Gauthier saw the cold sense in the letter he’d been delivered. With only two thousand soldiers, his guardsmen and whatever peasantry he could arm and send to stand on the walls his defence of Iserre was a risky enterprise. The easterners might be impious demon-worshippers, but the Legions of Terror were known to be one of the finest armies on the continent and their generals were of high renown. The captain knew himself to be no great tactician, and hardly a soldier besides. He had dwarven engines on the walls, due to his prince’s foresight, but few and few men trained to use them. The devices were well-known to be finicky and prone to breaking anyway, rarely lasting more than five years under regular use. Rough handling might see a few unmade before they could even be properly put to work.

And yet here he was, reading a report stating the Legions were but a day’s march away and considering treason.

There were no two ways about it, disobeying the First Prince’s orders would be high treason. The Principate had declared a crusade, her authority in military matters was absolute. Gauthier was not a soldier, which in different times might have provided him a way out, but as the commander of the city’s defence he was charged to obey any and all orders bearing the seal of Cordelia Hasenbach. The actual text of those was delicate and regretful, but the heart of it a brutal thing: after short defence on the walls, he was to draw the Praesi inside Iserre and set the city on fire around them. His troops were then to evacuate and join the relief forces sent by the Dominion, to fall upon the easterners while they were freshly bloodied. Iserre, as of Prince Milenan’s last royal census, counted over a hundred thousand souls between its walls. Gauthier knew it was more than that, perhaps as much a ten thousand more who were foreigners and so unrecorded or too estranged from the law to want their presence noted in anything as official as a census.

He would not be allowed to evacuate them. Their panic, the letter noted, would prevent the Praesi from pulling out their forces in time by clogging up the streets.

He wrestled with the decision throughout the night. Handpicked men discretely prepared the blazes, for he did not give the order now it would be too late afterwards, and when dawn came Iserre had been turned into a pyre. It was the arithmetic of it that stayed with him. There were, according to reports, perhaps fifteen thousand easterners and not even half that many bandits with them. A host of twenty thousand at most. And his orders were to burn alive five times that many to wound the Praesi. He would be damned in the eyes of the Gods, if he did this. Yet how many more would die in towns and villages, if he did not? Not merely in Iserre, but all over the realm. Duty and faith tugged him different ways. Midmorning saw a Praesi envoy reached the city. The offer made was as brutal as the orders of the First Prince: should Iserre surrender its granaries and treasury, the city would be spared a sack. If it resisted, all armed inside the walls would be put to the sword. Gauthier rode out himself to speak with the envoy, to the gaze of Evil with his own eyes.

The thing across him was green of skin, one of those creatures they called orc. A barbarous monster that ate human flesh and lived only for blood and rapine. There was nothing in its eyes but hunger, Gauthier saw. A small woman with ink-stained hands and the colouring of the Free Cities stood by its side, though she remained silent. Some kind of servant, he suspected.

“The terms will remain as offered,” the orc said. “Negotiation is not on the table.”

“You’re a long way from home, greenskin,” Gauthier said. “Fighting the wars of humans.”

“We go,” the envoy said, “where the banner goes.”

“Your banner has come to the Principality of Iserre, Gods take you all,” the captain said. “We do not bow to foreigners. We do not bow to servants of the Hellgods. If you want your fucking loot, come and take it.”

“A respectable choice,” the orc said. “But you may come to regret it.”

“Tell your masters this is Procer, not one of their slave cities,” he spat out. “Test our walls at your peril. We were there, when the Tower fell. We will be again.”

The words, though defiant, were as ashes in his mouth as he rode back to Iserre. He’d just ensured the city he’d spent his entire life guarding would either suffer fire or a bloody sack. The Legions of Terror arrived past noon, and he watched them spread out from atop the walls. Dwarven engines stolen from other cities and armories were brought to the fore, their shapes changed by the devious goblins – which rumour said were dwarves corrupted into foul form by the touch of the Gods Below. The easterners and their traitor auxiliaries built their camps and only began bombardment under cover of nightfall. The city’s walls had been rebuilt fully early in the Great War, and so they suffered but did not break. Gauthier feared not the stones, only the assault of the steel-clad soldiers. Two more days passed, with only one breach to show for it – quickly filled by sacks of sand and gravel at his order – but time was running out. The assault would come soon, he knew, and the decision he must make with it. Duty or good? Gods forgive him, but as the fourth night fell Captain Gauthier made his decision. Better he be known a traitor than a butcher. When the assault came, he would empty the city and ride to Salia for his trial.

Then dawn came, and with first light came the realization that the Praesi were gone.

“Steady,” Amadeus ordered. “I want no incidents.”

The town of Saudant’s entire defending force had been a sum of thirty militiamen, who immediately folded when they realized how heavily outnumbered they were. There’d been actual soldiers behind them, though, who had fought: the Levantines had left four hundred soldiers to guard the fleet of barges that had ferried them across the lakes at the heart of Procer. None had surrendered, even when such an outcome was offered on rather lenient terms, and five barges had been lost to fire and fighting before they could be eradicated. A regrettable loss, but Amadeus had burned ships himself not a day later. The barges had carried thirty thousand Dominion infantry, while he would at most move twenty thousand soldiers himself. Having no intention of leaving Procer with any ships after he passed, the surplus had been put to the torch.

The sailors and captains to which they belonged had been furious, but they were not armed and so in no position to contest his orders. The First Prince had assembled this fleet by requisitioning merchant trade, not building warships, and considering piracy was night-inexistent in Proceran waters the merchant sailors had rarely carried anything larger than a knife. They were also less than eager to die for the sake of the Lycaonese ruling Salia who’d pressed them into service, which meant his assurances that the sailors would be released unharmed after ferrying his own troops where he wished had been received with more gratitude than hostility. Amadeus had taken pains to be accommodating with them, as Praesi were poor sailor as a rule and the Legions largely unfit for sailing ships. Some Thalassinans in the ranks had middling experience at sea, but too few and those few had too little practical experience to properly captain barges. It might be possible to proceed without the sailors, but only at a snail’s pace – which would rather defeat the purpose of acquiring the fleet in the first place.

The legionaries he’d called out after nodded at his order, moderating the language they used when speaking at the locals loading the ships. Finding out there were still supplies in the town meant for the already-departed Levantine army had been a pleasant surprise, implying he’d caught the very end of the enemy supply train without meaning to do so. He was not a fool, of course, and so he’d checked the grain and foodstuffs for poison. Hasenbach might have grown desperate enough for such a stratagem, even if the Levantines were not. None had been found, and he’d been pleased enough at the discovery to dole out a portion to the inhabitants of Saudant as incentive to load the rest more quickly. Barely more than a thousand people overall, and so easily appeased by the notion of being assured of plentiful stories throughout winter. Sadly the general levy by the prince of Iserre had meant few capable of hard labour remained, but he’d assigned a few legionary companies to help matters along.

Leaving the docks – and the friendly shore around them, where lack of space had dictated most barges would actually end up – Amadeus found Ranker awaiting him at the nearby tavern he’d appropriated as temporary headquarters.

“They have fishing boats,” the goblin marshal informed him immediately. “At least a dozen.”

“Not enough to ferry a significant amount of men,” the Black Knight noted. “Sinking them brings little profit and antagonizes the locals. Leave them be.”

“At least order them beach for a few weeks,” Ranker said. “Otherwise some enterprising soul might try to find out where we’re headed.”

He nodded after a moment, though in truth he doubted their destination would be much of a mystery. Even if the Augur did not divine it, the strategic situation would make it obvious. By now Grem and Scribe should have lifted their ‘siege’ of Iserre, having remained there long enough to draw in whatever forces had been sent to relieve it. They’d hurry towards the nearest shore, where the fleet Amadeus has just seized would be awaiting them. From there, they could leave their pursuers to stew impotently on the wrong side of the Principate while they struck at easier targets.

“Have you decided where we’ll be headed, after?” Ranker asked.

“Still a matter of debate,” Amadeus admitted. “Segovia would allow us to finalize our savaging of the First Prince’s opposition, properly damaging her position.”

“But you’re thinking of Salia,” the goblin said knowingly.

“We can’t take the capital,” he said, stating the obvious. “Even arming a third of that hive would allow her to drown us in numbers. But if we torch our way through its outlying territories, the sheer loss of prestige might see her unseated.”

“Grem will call it risky,” Ranker predicted. “I don’t disagree.”

“And so it remains a matter of debate,” the Black Knight said. “We will discuss in depth when reunited with him and Eudokia.”

There was a beat, during which the goblin studied him thoughtfully and openly.

“It’s been two days since you last used an aspect,” she said. “I expected you to be in better shape by now.”

“I drew deeper than I have in decades,” he candidly admitted. “And you know my well is shallower than most. I expect within a fortnight I’ll have recuperated.”

She nodded, after a beat.

“Gods, at least it worked,” she sighed. “I half-expected a band of heroes to be awaiting.”

“There are over a hundred thousand souls in Iserre,” Amadeus said, avoiding even the slightest hint of smugness. “Souls at risk of slaughter, if left unprotected. So long as we were willing to carry out that ugly work, it was possible to dictate where the heroic intervention would take place. I expect Grem found the place swarming with their like. It would have been a beacon lit for every sword of the Heavens not gone north to fight the Dead King.”

“There’s no need to get smug,” Ranker told him, eyes squinting.

Alas, sometimes there was no winning a battle. By the fourth day, they’d departed the charming little town of Saudant on surprisingly good terms with the locals. Legionaries were spread too thinly across the fleet for Amadeus’ tastes, but there were enough mages along that any sailors with notions of patriotic resistance would be forced into restraint by their more fearful fellows. The fleet made good pace, for the first three days.

Then the sickness started.

It showed in the sailors first. Fever, sweat, weakness of the limbs and after twelve hours they were dead. Amadeus ordered any with the symptoms thrown overboard as soon as he first saw the disease. It was too clean and too sudden: there had been no sign at all before the fevers, the sailors being in perfect health. It was not a natural disease. Reluctantly, he ordered every Proceran sailor disposed of after the first legionary showed symptoms. It was too late, by then.

On the sixth day, Amadeus of the Green Stretch found he was the only person left alive of the entire fleet.

Tariq let out a panting breath when the last of the victims died.

There were Choirs, he knew, that treated their relationships with heroes as a sort of subjugation. The Hashmallim of Contrition, in particular, were known to be heavy-handed – though to this day he was uncertain whether it was because they bestowed upon only the desperate, or because such was their nature. As a young man, the Pilgrim had found that the Choir of Mercy demanded nothing of him. He’d simply been found to be of a like mind with the Ophanim, and so found them at his side. As if they had been there all along. They were more like old friends than patrons, never far from his thoughts. Always there with a whisper of comfort in hard times, a reassurance when the world seemed dark. They shared, after all, the same mandate.

The alleviation of suffering.

Tariq had no longer been a young man when he’d understood the frightful depths of that simple sentence. He’d thought, as mortals often did, that angels saw through his eyes. Understood his thoughts, his beliefs and his choices. The first, he thought, was perhaps true. The rest was not. The Ophanim were absolute, in nature and mandate. There were no shades to their perspectives, and while they might fondly tolerate them in one sworn to the Choir of Mercy that indulgence should never be confused for approval. The Grey Pilgrim had first understood this when he’d smothered his young nephew in his sleep, knowing the boy was charismatic enough to unite the Dominion and lead to war against Procer. He’d tried, first, to reason with him. To show him the pursuit of old grudges through blood could not redeem a single thing.

The young never listened, he’d learned. And so old fools like him had to smooth out the sharp edges of Creation.

Praesi, he’d been told, believed that Good only came in certain shapes. That it must obey strict boundaries and rules, that it must rely on little tricks like Providence or angelic intervention. An understandable misunderstanding. For all that the raving Tyrants who climbed the Tower liked to style themselves anathema to all children of the Heavens, they’d rarely fought opponents beyond Callow – where heroism was so deeply linked to war that a villain waging one was now seen as good. Praesi had learned to bury and defeat a certain breed of stories, after millennia of butting heads against them. But oh, that was such a shallow understanding. The world was large, and so few ever saw more than a speck of it. There were as many stories as there were peoples, and to build one’s understanding on but a fraction was to raise a tower on quicksand. The Black Knight, Tariq thought, was not a stupid man. But he’d been arrogant enough to think he saw all the rules of his world, and arrogance was ever the death of villains.

Crafting the plague had been easy as snapping his fingers, and mayhaps that was the most distressing part of it. The Enemy delighted in displaying its power, raising massive contraptions or weaving elaborate schemes to praise its own cunning and cleverness. Like it was the only side capable of doing those things, like it wasn’t a choice to turn away from the unsightly means of the Gods Below. The Grey Pilgrim could have birthed diseases and disasters that would raise the hair on the Warlock’s neck, if he so wished. But power had to used responsibly, turned to moral purpose, else it could only ever be a form of tyranny. And so Tariq had wept, and asked for the guidance of the Ophanim to create a disease that would undo the Black Knight and all his murderous designs. It was not so far removed from healing, to make someone’s body turn on itself. To allow it to spread had required learning deeper than his, but as always the Choir had provided.

At a small price, a reminder of what he wrought. He would feel the agony of all taken by the disease.

He’d come to Saudant a stranger on a dark night, and seeded this foul miracle in a single man before taking his leave. Ten days and ten nights it would wait, before beginning to kill. That the Black Knight would come to the sleepy little town had never been in doubt. By the man’s perspective, heroes could only go to Iserre. He was making sport of decency by forcing their hand with a threat before stealing away a fleet to spread even more death. Where was it written, Tariq had thought then, that Evil will have monopoly on ruthlessness? He’d awaited close, with Laurence and four other heroes for company. Far enough such a small party would not be noticed, close enough he could ensure none of the sick would leave Saudant and spread the sickness to the rest of Procer. The Praesi had came, the Praesi had gone, and he’d followed in their wake. Laurence, in her own kind way, had offered to purge the town for him. He’d refused, and offered the Last Mercy himself.

This would be his own sin, from beginning to end.

They followed the villain after, taking fishing boats. No need for anything a gaudy as a barge, when they were only a handful. It was not difficult to find the Black Knight. He was at the centre of a fleet of dead men, a ring of ships adrift in the lake. Tariq was the first to climb aboard, though Laurence was not far behind, and they found him awaiting on the deck. Standing straight-backed, armoured in old plate without having bothered with a helmet. He watched them approach in silence, pale green eyes emotionless.

“We finally meet, Black Knight,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

The man did not reply. He was eyeing the others, gaze lingering on armaments and armour. Guessing at Names, guessing at powers. Already planning the span of his last stand. Yet Tariq felt no power coming from him, no presence. As if his Name had been snuffed out. It might very well have been, the old man thought. The Gods Below reserved only one fate for a lame horse.

“Surrender,” the Pilgrim said. “This will not end well for you.”

“It was never going to end well,” the green-eye man smiled. “That was rather the point.”

His sword cleared the scabbard with a ringing sound.

“Let’s see,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, “if I can at least leave a mark.”

Interlude: Giuoco Pianissimio II

“A man could sift through all of Creation and never find so much as a speck of this elusive thing called the greater good. Like all the most dangerous altars, it is entirely of our own raising.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

“It looks like you shoved the stump in a fire,” Fadila Mbafeno sighed.

That was, in fact, exactly what Hakram had done. Blood loss could kill even Named, and while pushing a fresh stump into a hearth fire until the flesh cauterized had been excruciatingly painful it’d still been better than dying in a ratty Laure tavern. Masego’s assistant – and nominal head of the Observatory in his absence – had promptly answered the summons after he returned to the palace, and begun to work on healing his wound without quibbling. There were other mages in the capital, of course, and many priests. But Fadila was Praesi, and that had decided his choice of healer. The Soninke had been raised to understand the value of discretion and not inquiring in the affairs of one’s social superiors. The dark-skinned woman leaned closer with a silvery scalpel in hand, cutting slightly into the burned flesh at the end of his stump. No pain, he noted, though that might simply be because he’d grown light-headed enough he no longer felt it. The blade came away red and the sorceress washed it in a bowl of clear water before wiping with a cloth.

“I’ll need to cut away the burnt flesh before healing the damage beneath,” she informed him. “Healing is not my specialty and burns are trickier than most wounds. Pouring magic into scorched flesh tends to have… unpredictable results.”

“Do as you see fit,” Adjutant gravelled. “I will defer to your judgement.”

She nodded in appreciation.

“You’ve lost a large amount of blood,” Fadila added. “I’d recommend poultry, fish and red meat – which are staples of your people’s diets, regardless. Orcs lack the most the issues involved in human blood transfusions, so it’s certainly possible if you want to accelerate recovery, but my understanding is that local mores frown upon those kinds of rituals.”

“It won’t be necessary,” Hakram simply said.

The full consequences of his actions must be played out, lest the gesture be robbed of some of its weight. She did not question his answer, as she had not lingered on the subject of reattaching the hand after he’d declined. The Soninke passed her knife under open flame to cleanse it, and then set to the methodical business of prying away the burnt flesh on his stump before healing it. The spell she used for that purpose, he did not recognize. The sorceress used no incantation, and the shape and colour of the magic were different than that used by the Legions of Terror. The pain returned quick enough, a deep ugly throb, and Hakram only then realized she’d discretely numbed his nerves before her early examination. Kind of the Lady Mbafeno, he thought. The title occasionally tossed in the foreigner’s direction by servants and court officials was a source of mild amusement to him, he could privately admit. It was a Callowan courtesy title, one that would likely have gotten her killed if she’d claimed it while still in the employ of a Wasteland patron – it would have denoted the kind of ambitions Praesi aristocrats disliked finding in their subordinates.

Fadila Mbafeno had, after all, once been mfuasa to the Sahelians. Servant blood, it meant, a distinction between commoners and those retainers directly in the service of the nobility. Hakram had studied her background in some detail, as it happened. After Masego had snatched her from the gallows and placed her in his service, Catherine had rather bluntly told the orc that if Fadila was a risk she would be getting into an ‘accident’ as soon as feasible. The investigation had led to an interesting look at Praesi customs, particularly pertaining mages. Sorcery and political power had been intertwined in the Wasteland since long before the Miezans ever made shore on Calernia, in Praes more than any other region. The lords high and low had bred sorcery into their lines with methodical precision, bringing talented mages into the fold whenever it seemed like the blood thinned, but those were ultimately limited arrangements. Both Soninke and Taghreb saw more mages born than any other human ethnicity on the continent, which meant it was effectively impossible for the nobles to keep the practice of sorcery entirely within their own ranks.

Adjutant had read the appropriate treatises, back in the College, and so he was aware that most people born with the Gift either never realized they had it or died young after an uncontrolled or untrained use of sorcery. Another significant portion had too little talent to be able to practice sorcery beyond a few tricks without extensive tutoring, though when born to wealthy families such types made up the backbone of alchemists and academics in the Empire. It was the smaller portion that had a Gift strong enough for ritual or combat sorcery that had the High Lords and their vassals regularly sifting through their subjects. The treatment those ‘lucky’ few received varied from region to region. Taghreb, as a rule, treated them like a sort of lesser nobility and created mage lines within their territories that could be called on when there was need for war or marriage. Soninke, as in most things, proved too complex to easily generalize. The policies of Okoro and Nok tended towards bringing agreeable mages into the fold as mfuasa and those judged unreliable forced into service with the local noble’s household troops. The stubborn and the runners disappeared.

Aksum was the most traditionally hard-line, with any mages not leashed or wedded unceremoniously slain before they could become an issue. Akua Sahelian’s own father, famously, had been born with enough talent he could be a threat even as a servant and no spare relative to wed him to. He’d had to flee the region with killers after him, finding refuge in Wolof. The line to which Fadila had once been sworn to, and the last of the great Soninke cities. Wolof was a centre of sorcery rival to Ater itself, and had remained so for millennia by investing heavily in raising and training mages. It was well known to ‘acquire’ mages from other regions in difficult situations, but Fadila had been born in the city and so fallen under the aegis of its internal policies. Like all children with promising magical talent, she’d been taken from her family while young, the parents being offered a lump sum as redress for the loss of a child, and trained at the High Lady’s expense until she reached the age of twelve. Young mages who made it that far – not a given, the mortality rate was one in three – were assigned permanent service to either the Sahelians or one of their vassal families, a highly politicked process that the ruling family of Wolof used to both reward and slight their subordinates.

The loyal got rising talents, the troublesome only the dregs.

Fadila herself had been judged of sufficient prowess to enter the service of the Sahelians themselves, and cultivated as mfuasa to the family. She’d known Diabolist socially but never been in her personal circle, and been considered a likely fit for a teaching or research position after she spent a decade or two fighting as a combat mage for her masters. Her talent as both a ritualist and a theoretician had been noted in Praesi circles – she’d made some waves after proving it was possible to forge a weak artificial sympathetic link in scrying tools – and that reputation was likely the reason Diabolist had picked her as a retainer when she set out to engineer the Doom of Liesse. The amount of work required in turning an entire city into a runic array would have been massive, and she was a natural fit for Akua Sahelian to delegate the lesser tasks to. It was fortunate, Hakram often thought, that she’d been snatched from Diabolist’s service before she could serve that purpose. How much faster would the Doom of Liesse have come, with such a helper?

“There,” Fadila said, placing her silver knife back into the water. “That is as much as I can do. Should you change your mind about reattaching the hand, it will be necessary to cut off a sliver of the stump and a degree of functionality will be lost. In case you were unaware, limb reattachment attempted more than ten hours after the loss has at most a one in four chance of success. I can’t speak for what Lord Hierophant would be capable of, naturally, or even Callowan priests. Their methods are largely beyond my understanding.”

“Duly noted,” Hakram replied, gaze turning to the stump.

His dead flesh had been carved off, piece by piece, and instead thin green skin now covered his wrist. Almost thin as a human’s, he thought, though it would thicken in time.

“Be careful with it, it’s fragile even by human standards,” the sorceress said. “As it happens, the flesh reached full saturation during the process. I won’t be able to touch it again for at least two days, and after that only minor touch-ups. It would be ideal if you could avoid puncturing the skin for a full month.”

“I’ll be careful with it,” Adjutant said, and blinked.

He’d been trying to move fingers that no longer existed, he realized. That would be an adjustment.

“Thank you, Lady Mbafeno,” he finally said. “That will be all.”

“It was my pleasure, Lord Adjutant,” she respectfully replied.

She gathered her affairs and bowed before leaving. She might not have seen the Wasteland in years now, but the manners remained with her. The angle of the bow had been the one court etiquette dictated as required for a High Lord of Praes. Though he found himself in a thoughtful mood, Hakram did not linger in the private room he’d requisitioned for the treatment. This business, after all, was not quite done. His conversation with Thief had been interrupted by the woman’s obvious horror at his actions, worsened when he addressed the bleeding with cauterization through the tavern’s hearth fire. That was not entirely unexpected. He’d given it better than half odds they would have to take recess while the wound was properly seen to, when deciding his course of action. Hakram usually slept in his office, whenever he could spare time for slumber, but he did have personal rooms of his own in the palace. Amusingly enough, they had once been those of the queen consorts of Callow – he was not certain whether Catherine was unaware of the fact or simply indifferent, though an alternative might be that she knew and it was actually her sardonic sense of humour at work. Regardless, they were the rooms closest to her own. He’d been rather touched by the implications of that, though he still used them only rarely.

Thief would not come to him in his office, he knew. It was, in her eyes, the seat of his power. It was also where he kept his axe, and Vivienne preferred him unarmed when she could stomach to see him at all. A place where he could be expected to go but where his presence was lightly felt would be the most appropriate setting for the last part of their exchange, and so the orc did not waste time dawdling before heading for his quarters. He’d felt eyes on him the moment he passed the threshold of the healing room and twice more while on his way, and so it was no surprise that Thief awaited him inside when he opened the door. Her informants must have been tracking him all the way to here. The personal quarters of the queen consorts of Callow had been luxurious even before Laure and its royal palace fell under the rule of Wastelanders whose own nobility was known to be ostentatious to almost absurd extents. The orc had stripped away most of the decorations, though the furniture itself had been of very good make and so remained intact. The only luxury he’d occasionally partaken in was the large balcony outside overlooking a garden, the closest to a spot of green he’d been able to find in this city. It was there that Thief was awaiting.

She looked small and thin, sitting on an open windowsill and bathed in moonlight. Even for a human. Catherine was shorter, but like her teacher she had enough presence it was barely noticeable when looking at her. Vivienne Dartwick’s hair had grown longer, he noticed once more. Hakram did not allow his eyes to linger – his attention would only have worsened whatever issue lay behind that fact – but he’d noticed when it first began. Before the departure for Keter, and for it to have been noticeable even back then it must have started slightly earlier. Namelore was a muddle of imprecisions and exceptions, he knew, but where there was an effect there would be a cause. If, as Catherine insisted, the appearance of a Named was a reflection of how they saw themselves then such changes in Thief were a warning sign as to her mental state. Worrying, considering her influence and formal charge over the only spy network Callow possessed. Vivienne would not need to rebel to damage the kingdom, only withhold key information at a crucial moment. Or, more likely in his eyes, simply leave. The hole that would make would be a crippling blow to a kingdom that’d effectively begun being raised from the ground up a mere two years ago.

“Adjutant,” she said, flicking a glance at him. “At least you had enough sense to see a mage.”

“I would have survived it,” he simply said.

Moving slowly, he came at her side. Large as the open window was, there would be no accommodating the both of them if he wished to sit with her. Instead he simply rested his elbows on the windowsill, leaning forward. Though he did not turn to watch, he felt her eyes looking down at the stump. Good. There had been, he’d realized early, no real chance any words from his lips could sway her. She distrusted him too much. Catherine could have a fireside chat with a stranger for half an hour and have the come out willing to murder in her name, but that had never been one of his talents. He could ease and turn currents, but not birth them. It was important for a Named to recognize their limitations, he believed. The costs of arrogance were so much higher for them than anyone else. Knowing that, Hakram had been forced to make a decision. Simply allowing things to unfold as they were was not to be seriously considered. The longer Thief was allowed to consolidate her power – and she already was, by bringing the informants who’d once answered to Ratface under her banner – the costlier her defection or betrayal would become. It might have been possible to draw the matter out until Catherine returned, if he’d had a precise notion of when she would, but he did not. That left killing her before she became an issue or finding a way to stem her doubts.

“The very devise of the Woe,” Thief murmured, eyes leaving his absent hand. “We will survive. It smacks more of desperation than valour.”

“Valour is the game of the winning side,” Hakram replied. “If you can afford to worry about appearances, it’s not a war to the death. We’ve known precious little else.”

“There comes a time when those excuses grow thin, Adjutant,” she said. “I was taught as a child that dark circumstances are a test of character. That the righteous rise above, that the wicked sink.”

“I was taught as a child that killing a man for a goat was glorious affair, if done on an open field,” he said. “We are more than our first lessons. We have to, or we’ll only ever be what our ancestors were before us.”

“There is worth in old lessons,” Thief said. “In old wisdom.”

“If they were so wise,” Hakram mildly said, “why did we inherit such a debacle of a world from them?”

She went still.

“Those ways kept Callow free for millennia,” she said.

“They failed, in the end,” the orc said, not unkindly.

“To the Carrion Lord,” Thief replied. “How often does Praes spawn a man like that? Calamity was the right name for his band. The kind of catastrophe born once a few centuries.”

“Even before him, this kingdom was the battlefield of the continent,” Hakram said. “Praes invaded every other decade, Procer whenever the stars were right. How often has this land truly known peace?”

“We have brought many things to Callow, Hakram Deadhand,” the Thief soberly said. “Peace was not one of them.”

“I am told,” he said, “that births are rarely gentle affairs.”

“And what are we birthing?” she said. “There has been more martial law than actual law, over the last two years. We’ve assassinated and hanged, sacrificed thousands to make deals and still we tremble in the Tower’s shadow. At what point, Adjutant, does a justification become an excuse?”

“We have also fed the starving,” Hakram said. “Sheltered the lost. We’ve built a kingdom and reclaimed its border. The good may not erase the bad, but the bad does not erase the good.”

“And yet I wonder,” Thief said. “Could others have done what we did, without the costs? Without compromising who they were?”

“If there were such people out there, they have not come,” Hakram said. “You compare yourself to ghosts of your own making.”

“We’re not the best, but we’re what there is,” she bitterly said. “I’ve said that myself. To others, and while facing the mirror. That too grows thin with the repeating. Gods, if those people had come I have to ask – would we have killed them? Did we, before they ever came into themselves?”

“If they could not face us-”

“They couldn’t face Malicia,” Thief sharply said. “Or Cordelia Hasenbach, or her heroes, or the Carrion Lord. I know, Gods damn you. I know. And I know, too, that I might as well be shouting into the void when I say this but it needs to be said anyway: we are not the lesser evil. Not anymore, when we seek to make pacts with the fucking Dead King and move armies like pieces on a board for diplomatic gains. The only difference between us and the old evils is that we’re newer at this game and nowhere as good. That isn’t a distinction to be proud of.”

And there was the rub, for Hakram had known this kind of talk before and never put much stock in it. He’d spoken with Juniper, once, and I her own blunt way she’d laid bare the heart of it. Callowans looked at knights and saw chivalry, honour and all those other virtues. Orcs looked at knights and saw killers on horses. Vivienne had championed causes, one after the other, that had been put aside in the name of necessity. Yet they were not unworthy, none of them. She felt discarded and ignored because, frankly, she had been. Her only victories had come by the planning of others, used as a cog in a greater machinery. Hakram rather enjoyed such a role. It was what he’d been taught, what he was good at. But he stood certain of his worth outside that boundary, and Vivienne Dartwick did not.

They had to start listening to her.

Not because they would lose her if they did not, but because she was right – or at least not entirely wrong. They’d all flocked to Catherine’s banner because they liked the world she wanted to make, that she made just by being who she was. And Thief, in her own way, was perhaps the most ardent partisan of that. Because she would stick by that vision even when Catherine did not, even if it made her the only objector in a council. An obstacle instead of a speaker, as she’d put it herself. How many of those councils had been true debates, instead of a confirmation of a decision already made? Too few, Adjutant thought. Too few for what we want to be. He could feel her eyes returned to his stump, and knew the bargain had been worth it. The lessons had been learned well. Are we not all your students, Catherine? In our own winding ways. You taught us that there is always a way through, if we’re willing to bleed. Words would not convince Thief, but now every time doubt came she could look at the stump and know, know beyond doubt, that she had been judged worthy.

More useful a thing than a handful of fingers.

“So tell me,” Adjutant said. “How we can be different.”

Her gaze met his, hesitant. Fearing. Assessing. Hope was always a most tempting cup to drink from, even when you knew the chalice might be poisoned.

Vivienne Dartwick spoke, under pale moonlight, and Hakram Deadhand listened.

Interlude: Zwischenzug II

“In the East they say that doubt is the death of men, but I have seen the end of the forking path and reply this: so is certainty, only for others.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

Panic blanked Vivienne’s mind, for a heartbeat. Her fingers clutched the tankard so tightly she felt like it should break. Was this it, then? The conversation that took place before the Deadhand snatched the life out of her? I can run, she thought. But that would be declaring treason, or close enough, and they would hunt her like an animal. How many of the Jacks would stay loyal, if there was a price on her head? Some, but not enough. The guildsmen who’d once answered to Ratface and she’d begun to fold into her own web would turn their cloak without batting an eye. She was still Queen of Thieves until someone took the stolen crown from her, but that was more custom than law and Catherine had put the fear of her in their bones. Some would sell her out, if the alternative was crossing the Black Queen’s right hand. She’d sent all her people away before Deadhand arrived, anyway, leaving the two of them alone with the hearth crackling in the corner. The thief forced herself to drink down some ale, heart still beating against her eardrums. She would, could not fall to pieces so easily. Let’s have a talk, you and I, the orc had said. He’d phrased it like it was an offer, like there was a decision to make.

They both knew there wasn’t.

“Honesty, is it?” she said, affecting a drawl. “I did not know you traded in such luxuries, Adjutant. Ambitious of you.”

He did not smile. Unsure where to look – coldly assessing eyes, lips hiding fangs or that damned hand even when hidden under a glove – she drank again instead.

“Do you know,” Hakram Deadhand mildly said, “I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely scared. I’ve been afraid for us, in fights, but actual terror? No, not even when the Queen of Summer came down. I can’t imagine what it would be like, living with that sword always hanging over your head. Colouring every sight and scent, creeping into every corner of me.”

Vivienne set down her tankard, slowly and carefully.

“To be afraid of something,” she said, “you have to care about something first.”

And do you? Did he care about a single thing in all of Creation? Sometimes she thought he loved Catherine, though not in a way that would lead to courtship. The Woe were so often like sunflowers, turning to remain facing the burning glare hung up in their common sky, and of them Hakram Deadhand had been the first. The kind of love, perhaps, that a drowning man would have for the shore. But even that could not be the sum whole of anyone, and how could she trust in the words of a creature that treated every moment like one on the stage? Vivienne was not sure which truth would be more dangerous: that there was something buried deep beneath, or that there truly was nothing at all. The orc inclined his head, thoughtful. The gesture and accompanying visage was not common to his kind, the thief had known enough orcs to be certain of that. It was learned. Presented consciously to her eyes.

“I have been thinking of a game, lately,” Deadhand said. “I will spare you the details, for they are largely irrelevant to this conversation, but there is one part of it I have been struggling with.”

The thief maintained a pleasant smile, letting him speak without interruption though her mind was wheeling. A game? It was questions she had expected, not some delicate metaphor.

“Trust,” Adjutant said. “That is the one element I could never quite figure out. The game cannot be won without the players hiding their thoughts, yet it cannot truly advance without trust either. I’ve tried to make a study of why it fails or emerges but found no success. The same answers rarely apply twice.”

“A matter best left to philosophers, perhaps,” Vivienne said, too wary to venture blindly into this. “Or theologians, I suppose. Faith and trust have much in common.”

“Do they?” the orc curiously asked. “It is my understanding you were raised to the House of Light, but I never learned its teachings in any depth. My people, not unlike the Praesi, see prayer more as bargain than oblation.”

And there it was, the itch in the wound. Not the religious matters, but the part he had casually mentioned. My people. The Praesi. As if they were two different things entirely. Perhaps they were, Vivienne thought. She’d entertained the thought often enough in the past. Why would the first orc Named in centuries subordinate himself to a human from a land that was traditional plunder and raiding grounds to his own kind? Oh, his Name lent itself well to obedience. But even if he’d ended up the Shepherd he could have returned to the Steppes and lived like a king until his death. Where was his gain, she had wondered? Her answer had been that by staying at Catherine’s side, he could do more than his people than by returning to his desolate home or remaining in true Imperial service. Cat had been, by then, as good as queen of Callow even if there had been the thin pretence of a ruling council. If the Empire was broken apart from the inside, if the Clans were supported by a Callowan sovereign whose closest friend was an orc… And yet there’d been no trace of the steps that should precede that.

There was no greenskin faction at court. There’d been, as far as she knew, no suggestions of diplomacy with the clans of the Steppes or with the powerful officers of his kind in the Legions of Terror. Even when it came to the Army of Callow, he’d been one of the main proponents of investing in training Callowan officers rather than simply relying on the veterans acquired from the wounded legions who’d joined after Second Liesse. His game was not an obvious one. The assertion that he could be driven by personal ambition was laughable. Deadhand could have taken any seat on the queen’s council with but a whisper in Catherine’s ear, and to be frank even without any formal title he’d held authority so broad and absolute some actual kings would have envied it. How much higher could he rise without holding a crown of his own? Yet Adjutant held no noble title, no lands, no significant military force of his own. He could commandeers most of these, but he had not cultivated personal loyalties or gathered supporters – even when it would have been almost childishly easy to do so. He was, in essence, the perfect loyal right hand.

That degree of apparent flawlessness in anyone would have made Vivienne’s skin crawl, but in so skilled an actor it was more than just alarming. As the silence stretched the thief realized she’d allowed the conversation to lapse, and cleared her throat.

“I’m not the best person to explain it,” she said. “I never had much interest in priestly matters.”

“And yet you fought by the side of a man touched by the Choir of Contrition,” the orc said. “Something few priests can boast of. Callowans are a study in contradiction, sometimes. You’ve birthed as many heroes as the Praesi have villains, but rare is the song sung in your taverns that praises angels or Heavens. Always the kingdom, always rebellion and revenge and old scores settled.”

“How often have your people been the invaded instead of the invaders, Adjutant?” Vivienne softly asked. “Curse not walls of your own raising.”

“Aye,” he said. “We have done that. Yet I find it fascinating, the faces nation will paint over faceless Gods. Praesi hold their Gods Below to be peerless schemers, for that is their favoured art. Goblins call the whole lot the Gobbler, a single crawling thing that will one day devour the same Creation it spewed out. Death is the only certainty they embrace as a race.”

“And orcs?” Vivienne asked.

“Below is just what they teach us to call them in the Wasteland,” Deadhand said. “We know them as the Hungry Gods. We’ve had our lesser idols, as all other peoples have. But that altar was the first and remains the greatest.”

“Kings and shepherds fit the same cookpot,” Vivienne quoted, tongue stumbling over the rough syllables of Kharsum.

She was the only one of the Woe who did not speak it fluently. Catherine had been raised in an orphanage and Indrani in the middle of the fucking woods, and still they’d been surprised she did not speak orcish. As if it was a given that everyone should.

“Have you ever seen an orc go without meat for long, Thief?” Adjutant said. “An experiment was made by some Soninke lord called Ehioze, a few centuries back, so the process is well documented. He grabbed three hundred orcs in their prime, who’d committed one of those crimes that is only ever a crime when the Praesi need fresh bodies, and locked them up for study.”

The thief’s eyes narrowed. She did not reply.

“For the first month, it’s barely noticeable at all,” Deadhand continued. “We’ll get irritable, aggressive. Slower in thought. Then at the beginning of the second month, skin will grow tight and muscles melt away. Our bodies start eating themselves alive. By the middle of the third month, we are no longer able to tell faces apart. It’s all a thick, red, pulsing haze.”

Her fingers tightened under the table, not that she remembered putting her hands there.

“Ehioze was a dutiful scholar,” the orc mildly said. “Just starving them would not have been enough. He sequestered parts of the three hundred and studied how different manners of feeding would affect the process. He suggested afterwards that it was possible to keep orcs at the beginning of the middle state, before muscles start going, if they are fed two pounds of meat a month along with higher quantity of other provisions. It’s true, as it happens. I know this because his suggestions were used as the standard orc rations in the Legions up until the Reforms. They called it Ehioze’s Measure.”

“They wanted you able to fight,” Vivienne said.

“But not think,” Deadhand finished softly. “Or we might just question why it was never Praesi that faced the charges of your knights.”

“I imagine there’s quite a few orcs in the Legions, even in the Army of Callow, who have grandfathers and grandmothers that lived under the measure,” she said.

He nodded. Not wary, never wary, for that was to be her curse and not his.

“There’s another part to that tale, Adjutant,” the thief said. “One you forgot to tell. You see, there’s quite a few Callowans in the army who have kin that got eaten by orcs. Not even thirty years ago. What the Wasteland did to your people is a horror. What they went on to do to mine is a fucking horror as well, and one does not expunge the other.”

“I know that too, Thief,” Deadhand said. “You asked, in your own roundabout manner, what it is I care about. I have answers you won’t care to hear, but this one you will. I care about seeing a world where, when I tell this story, the woman on the other side of the table can’t reply the way you did. Where we’re more than hunting hounds for those who measured our starvation.”

And there it was. Everything she had feared – hoped? It was such a blurry line, some days – he would say. The confession that he meant to use Callowan lives to secure orc interests. How long would it be, until Catherine’s fanged Chancellor whispered the right words to have her war for the independence of the Steppes? And yet… He has not prepared for this, she thought. The orc was meticulous to a fault, so where was his spadework? Where were the correspondences and the deals, the alliances made in the dark? Where were the mouthpieces for this ugliest of crusades? Part of her wanted to dismiss all the absences as him simply biding his time, but it rang false. It was fear giving answer, and Vivienne despised how seductive those whispers were. She was willing to fear for her life, for her home, but what was she if terror was the sum whole of her? Just another prisoner, yet another Callowan who’d never quite left the days of Imperial occupation. The moment she ceased looking for the truth, she was lost.

“And yet you are here,” she said. “In Laure. Working for a kingdom you love not, when you could be raising banner among the clans of your kind. Why?”

“Of all of the Woe,” Deadhand calmly said, “you should understand that best. I could raise rebel flag, I could give the Tower a war it would remember for a very long time. I might even win it and cast down that peerless tribute to murder. But what would that accomplish, Thief? The head bearing the crown changes, the world moves on and two hundred years from now we’ll be right back where we started. You don’t cure a sickness by fighting the symptoms. You go after the root, or it will linger until death.”

“The Liesse Accords,” Vivienne said.

“The Liesse Accords,” the orc agreed. “They will not come to be unless we take a hatchet to everything that holds up Praes, beyond repair. And under those rules, that agreement of nations, we change things. Not a dynasty’s name or a few battles won or borders on a map. We truly change things.”

It was perhaps the only argument he could have brought forward that would have appeased her without appeasing her too much. A perfect balance struck. The thief could feel the hair on the back of her neck rising. There were devils in the deepest Hells that did not have half as silver a tongue as Hakram Deadhand.

“And so, I now worry of you,” Adjutant said.

“I have been more ardent a defender of them than any of us,” Vivienne harshly replied.

“So you have,” the orc easily conceded. “And that surprised me, for while Callow will benefit they are not tailored for the primary benefit of the kingdom – and it is Callowans that will bleed to have it signed.”

She’d run with heroes once, the thief remembered. Men and women who’d carried the broken pieces of their old lives with them just as the Woe did, and some nights she wondered how deep the differences truly were. And then there were moments like this, where the killer across from her was surprised that she would embrace salvation extending further than her own little corner of Creation. Like it was expected that the lines on the map delimited the border between people and foes and there could be nothing between. William had been a monster too, in his own way, and Vivienne had neither forgotten not forgiven what might have taken place in Liesse without Catherine’s intervention. Rare was the day where she did not curse herself for having hesitated, having quibbled. Having allowed it to happen without raising a fucking hand. But even William would never have been surprised by someone trying to do good for the sake of doing good. I discarded those hesitations, she thought, and threw in my lot with the Woe. I made a bet on Catherine, and within the year a hundred thousand innocents were dead.

“I can hate the princes of Procer, for their rapaciousness,” she said. “I can hate those who allow themselves to take arms for a morally bankrupt cause and the heroes who would see us burn for a point of philosophy. I can do all that, and not hate the people under them.”

“And yet there is an imbalance, isn’t there?” Adjutant quietly said. “It is not equal care. Who you hesitate, if the choice was between a Callowan life and a Proceran one?”

“And that makes me a villain?” she hissed, and immediately regretted it.

Panic flared. Was this going to be it, then? The moment where he reached across the table and snapped her neck like kindling?

“You are afraid,” Deadhand noted. “There is no need. You have not spoken anything I did not already suspect. And that is my worry, Vivienne. Because deep down you still believe, you still act, like you’re the same girl who was at the Lone Swordsman’s side. You are not.”

“And so to keep my throat uncut I must kiss the feet of the Gods Below,” she said. “Is that it? Shall I eat a baby to prove my dedication to the cause?”

“Your life is in no danger,” Deadhand calmly said.

She laughed, right in his face.

“Is that so?” she mocked. “Why, because Catherine would be cross if you killed me? It would pass. She needs you too badly, and you’ll be able to tell her you tried before I so regrettably forced your hand.”

“Your murder would be seen as a greenskin coup, regardless of context,” Adjutant said. “So if you cannot believe in my own intentions, at least believe in the practicalities involved.”

“Spot on, Deadhand,” she snarled. “There’s nothing quite as reassuring as hearing one’s death would be politically inconvenient.”

“So that’s the kernel,” the orc said, sounding surprised. “You do not believe you have worth.”

She flinched. That had cut too close to home for comfort. The orc’s brow creased.

“You stole a sun,” he slowly said. “And were instrumental in the killing of several of our most dangerous opponents.”

“You do have a talent for the exact,” Vivienne said, “Instrumental is precisely the right word.”

An instrument, wielded by sharper minds and quicker hands. A bundle of aspects to be used as a surgical tool, perhaps sometimes a discreet pair of eyes. You are all Named, she thought. I am an artefact that breathes. And the moment she strayed from that function, what came but defeat? By the Grey Pilgrim, by fae, by a single Praesi mage. Lightning coursing through her veins, not delivered by some ancient power but a single woman with a speck of sorcery to her. The humiliation of it only deepened the echoes of the pain across her body.

“War is not your Role, Thief,” Deadhand said. “Forcing the matter will only result in failure.”

“Then what is my damned Role, Adjutant?” she asked quietly. “Because there’s no need for a thief, here, and what else can I be used for? I do not rule, I do not lead armies, my judgement is background drone to decisions of import even when Catherine is here. Is that all? Am I just the forced voice of morality that must be sweet-talked before we take yet another plunge. Gods, I am tired of being an obstacle instead of a speaker.”

The orc considered that in silence.

“Trust,” he said, sounding almost amused. “Always trust. I would offer you a bargain, Vivienne Dartwick.”

The deal or the grave, she thought. So it finally came to that, Catherine’s little helper tidying up all the loose ends.

“You’re right,” Adjutant said. “You never spoke the accusation, yet you are right. I have no great love for this kingdom. I see what it takes from her, from all of us, and I wonder how it could be worth it.”

The orc’s eyes met hers squarely.

“So teach me,” he said. “Why I should care for it. Show me.”

“I can’t squeeze tears out of a stone, Hakram,” she tiredly replied.

He nodded, as if he had come to a decision.

“There is nothing I can say that will convince you,” Deadhand said. “You are not wrong. Even oaths are just words.”

The orc methodically took off his gloves, one after the other. Flesh first, and the scuttling bone. He brought up the skeletal fingers.

“Your knife, please,” he said.

Vivienne’s pulse quickened. Slowly she palmed her blade, eyes remaining peeled on his face, and she saw only cold determination there. Gods forgive me, she thought. Hide. The hand remained there, his eyes on hers. Hide, she thought again, panic mounting. She could touch the aspect but it refused to bloom. It was like trying to catch smoke. Gently, the orc took the knife from her sweaty, shaking hand.

“I made a promise to you, once,” Adjutant said. “One I have come to regret.”

The tip of the blade touched the bone hand with a soft clink, artfully moved to allow it from his grip.

“Only blood can wash away bad blood,” he said. “Our peoples have that in common. I should not have forgot it.”

The knife came down, hard enough to shake the table beneath, and carved into the orc’s only flesh wrist. Blood spurted as Vivienne’s blade scraped across bones, fear and astonishment taking hold of her.

“Adjutant, what-”

“My word is of no worth to you,” Hakram Deadhand calmly interrupted her, face pale and taught with pain. “That is not unwise. Amends must be made. So when you next doubt your value, I want you to remember this:  when the choice came, I judged you well worth a hand.”

The orc’s wrist pressed down, bone shattered and Adjutant’s black blood crept across the table as his hand came fully severed.