Chapter 46: Squire (Redux)

“Note: only offer the hero the chance to replace my right-hand man when my right-hand man is no longer in the room.
Additional note:  find out estimated rebuilding cost for the summer palace.”
-Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

Two things happened in quick succession.

First, I snarled something very unkind about Chider’s mother and a he-goat. Second, I snatched the sharper out of the air and threw it back up. Unlike during my first run-in with the goblin, I was now familiar with goblin munitions. I knew how long they took to blow – the standard issue stuff anyway. The sharper exploded halfway up, giving me a gentle hint the mixture had been tinkered with. What was it with all my enemies getting their hands on goblin munitions? The Legions really needed to keep a closer eye on their stocks: they were supposed to be the only organisation with access to munitions. I’d have a talk with Black about it, I was starting to get pretty irritated with how people kept throwing those at me.

“Yeah, I won’t be calling you that,” I said, dragging myself up to my feet.

I’d expected to feel aftershocks of what I was pretty sure had been my Name getting ripped out of me, but there were none. My limbs moved surely and smoothly. The pain must have been in my soul, horrifying as that thought was. I could still feel an itch in the back of my neck, though, almost like I was missing a limb. Chider replied to my polite announcement by dropping a brightstick, this prepared to blow up directly in my face. One of these days, the Gods were going to have to grant me dumber enemies. There had to be a finite number of clever ones, and I was starting to murder my way through that list. I ignored the falling cylinder and wedged my foot into a crevasse. The flash of light and the deafening noise might have been a problem if I were still alive, but at the moment I was past worrying about burst eardrums. They’d make no real difference.

Jumping while in full plate would have been hard even when I’d still had my Name, but I was just about done playing around. Ripping a few muscles to get the job done wasn’t something I was going to balk at. My first leap got me halfway up and I forced my limbs into making me jump again when I hit the side of the pit, landing in a sprawl back on top. I heard Chider scuttling away from me, hiding in the rocks. The novelty of having an enemy shorter and physically weaker than myself was quite refreshing. Well, weaker for now. She’d be settling into the Name any moment now, and it was all downhill from there.

“I should have seen this coming, really,” I said. “Warlock mentioned the only place in Callow to ‘bind or usurp a Name’ was in Liesse. Figured I was safe with no other claimant around, but that was evidently incorrect. Breaking the laws of nature to screw me over – classic Heiress.”

I heard the snap of a crossbow being shot and turned in time to see the bolt coming for my chest. My hand snapped up, following my will, and snatched the projectile out of the air. One out of two, I mused, breaking the haft and dropping it on the ground. I’d had better success rates, but also much worse.

“The part of this that puzzles me,” I continued, “is you. You’re smarter than this, Chider. I’m on my way to fighting my two rivals and you’re a middling threat standing between us. There’s only one way this can go for you.”

The undead goblin slipped out of the rocks to my side, jamming a knife in my knee joint. Frowning, I slapped her across the face. I hadn’t held back even a little bit and it showed: her neck twisted sharply with an unpleasant sound. She picked herself up from the rock the hit had thrown her against, idly snapping her neck back in place. No full resurrection for her either, then. Weren’t we quite the pair, jolly undead abominations brawling in the middle of place that had been freshly forced into existence? I took the knife out of my knee, gauging the weight of it. Good goblin steel. It would do.

“That would be true,” Chider said as she rose to her feet, “if you were still the Squire. You’re free meat now, Callow-girl.”

I sighed.

“I’m serious,” I said. “What’s the end game for you here? Say you manage to somehow destroy my body. Heiress manages whatever the Hells she’s up to with your help. What do you do after?”

“I change things,” Chider replied, pulling out another knife.

Gods, was that what I sounded like to other people? No wonder I got stabbed so often. Never assume a goblin is out of knives, I thought, watching her twirl the blade between her fingers. Robber carried so many that by all rights he should clink whenever he walked around.

“As the Squire?” I said. “The moment Black meets you, he’ll hack you to pieces to put the Name back in play. If he’s in a bad mood, he’ll give what’s left of you to Warlock. Do you still dream, Chider? Because that’s the stuff of very real nightmares.”

“I have friends of my own,” the goblin said.

“No, what you have is an owner,” I said. “And she’s not gentle with her tools – today should have shown you that clearly enough. Chider, you’re about to get thrown under the carriage. You really think Heiress is going to stick her head out for you? Gods, you think the Truebloods will? They don’t hide what they think about greenskins.”

Snarling, the goblin attacked. Rude. She could have at least informed me we were done talking. What was it with telling people they were wrong about everything that made them so aggressive? Already Chider was faster, quick enough she was hard to follow with the naked eye. I felt the blade scrape my chest plate but it failed to go through and I kicked her before she could stick it into my neck. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she thought that would do at this point. Make me bleed out? My heart wasn’t beating anymore, and the stuff inside my veins was basically red water giving me a little more mass. I caught her wrist when she came for me again, initially forcing it back before something dark flared in her leering eyes. She begun turning the struggle around. Name strength, I decided, was a lot less pleasant from the other side. I spun around her and helpfully handed her back her knife, sticking it into her neck. Didn’t seem to have much effect, but my boot on her back did: she was sent sailing again.

“You think I don’t know all of this?” Chider spat, landing in a crouch, “I’m not drowning in options, Foundling, unlike you. I’ll survive today, then tomorrow and then the day after that. That’s what goblins do. We survive, even when Creation is out for our blood.”

I unsheathed my own knife.

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I think that a year ago I would have tried to help you. To compromise. But I’ve lost too many friends since, Chider. Crossed too many lines to turn back.”

That burned face split into a horrifying grin.

“If you think I’ll lay down and die for your little narcissism trip,” she said, “you’re in for a rude awakening.”

Fair enough. I strolled forward, pace unhurried. She darted in my direction but I feinted for her hand. Unnaturally quick, she brought up her knife to block – and I swiped mine across her face, ripping through her teeth. She backpedalled hurriedly, free hand coming up to touch the ruined fangs.

“I’ve been doing all this talking,” I said. “You probably thought it was a blunder. She’s been Named too long, she got cocky. What I was actually doing, though, was giving them time to settle in.”

She leapt for me with a howl but that was mere savagery. I’d fought more dangerous things than an angry undead goblin in the past, even a Named one. Hells, I’d fought more dangerous things today. I calmly stepped aside, left her to slide on the rock and feinted for her eyes. The knife came up again, faster than a blink, but I’d already redirected the strike and was ripping through the shoulder muscles on the right. She’d likely thought she was being clever when she’d traded chain mail for leather, banking on speed over taking hits. Her limp right arm now taught her differently.

“The reflexes, I mean,” I said as I circled around her. “They take a while to get used to, don’t they? I remember how odd it was when I first came into the Name, getting a set of reactions that weren’t entirely mine.”

I brought up the tip of my knife and this time she reacted properly, not falling for the probe – which didn’t help her when my other hand unsheathed my sword and hacked through her bad arm. The limb fell to the ground. I intended for this to be theme for the evening, as it happened.

“You can ignore them, of course,” I said. “But that costs you a moment, while you push them down. A lot can happen in a moment. Still, I imagine that given a fortnight you’d get used to it.”

My eyes turned cold.

“Unfortunately for you, you don’t have a fortnight.”

Chider spat out teeth, bringing up her knife.

“Fuck you, Callow-girl,” she said. “No matter what you do, I will Surv-

I rammed my sword through her mouth, tip coming out on the other side. There would be no aspect comeback for this one. I jammed my knife into the soft side of her elbow, cleaving the muscle. Her fingers convulsed around her weapon but there’d be no more swinging at me. Holding her upright, I ripped out the clasps holding the upper part of her leather armour together. The flesh under was scarred with burns, barely even flesh at all.

“I warned you,” I said, “Now give me back my Name.”

I struck her as hard as I could, my armoured fingers ripping into her flesh. I dug through the necrotized organs, finding the snake-like length of her spine after jostling around a bit. Hand inside the goblin up to my elbow, I grit my teeth and tore out her spine. It snapped halfway through her abdomen and Chider fell limp. Dropping her to the ground after withdrawing my smeared gauntlet, I wrenched out my sword and beheaded her for good measure. I stood there, eyes closed. I would have let out a breath if there’d been any air in my lungs. I did not have to wait for long before awareness flooded into me for the second time in my life. It felt like coming home.

I was Catherine Foundling, daughter of no one and nothing. I’d broken armies, snatched victory from the jaws of my enemy. I’d spent lives like coin and bought the fate of a kingdom, cheated death and spat in the face of Corruption. On the night I’d first claimed this Name, I’d branded my path on the soul of a hero. And on the night where I claimed it again, that path was coming to an end. I was, once more, the Squire.

My senses sharpened and I waited for the beast that rode my shoulders to make itself known, already smiling. I’d almost grown fond of it. The expression faded when it made no appearance. I frowned and sunk in the depths of my Name. They felt shallower now. Not weaker, but as if the depths had not yet been… earned. My blood ran cold when I realized I had not claimed back my Name – I’d just claimed it, period. I was starting at the beginning again, and I couldn’t feel a single one of my aspects. Just the potential for them, those bundles of shapeless power. My eyes opened in sheer surprise. Those three bundles of shapeless power.

“Oh, Heiress,” I said gleefully. “You fucked up.”

Chider had been her work, of that there was no doubt, but why would Akua have done this at all if she knew it would give me back strength? I might not have my aspects anymore, but my Name was effectively restored to the strength it had possessed before my run-in with the demon. I had the well of power to effectively use the tricks Black had taught me once more. Why would Heiress make me stronger? She’d made a habit out of sabotaging me at every turn. Even if she was planning on using me against William, this made no sense. Unless she didn’t know she was doing that, I thought. Only two people knew there had been more to my crippling than the leg: Masego and Hakram. And Black, though that hardly counted.

I’d not told another living soul, and as far as I knew neither had they. And it wasn’t like Heiress could just take a look at my aspects whenever she pleased: Apprentice had needed to set up an entire room full of hellishly complicated wards to operate on my soul. Akua had never been allowed into the Fifteenth’s camp without heavy guard, and any use of magic on her part would have been met with immediate force. She hadn’t known, I realized. She hadn’t known I’d robbed myself of an aspect. She’d thought that by using Chider as a receptacle for my Name she could weaken me for months, maybe even kill me when she ripped it out – if she was lucky. That was the thing with luck, wasn’t it? It never landed quite where you’d thought it would.

“And instead you put me back on the horse, you scheming bitch you,” I murmured.

Gods Below, it was about time one of her little plots backfired. Now I just needed to cram her next one down her throat and make her choke on it. I knelt by Chider’s twice-dead corpse, wiping my sword on her before sheathing it. I did the same with my knife after wrenching it out. If I’d had anything to set her on fire just to be sure I would have, but for now this would have to be enough. I didn’t have any munitions on me, much less goblinfire – not that using a substance that burned magic in a dimension made by a mage wouldn’t have been a horrible idea anyway. I peered in the distance and saw the gate of light was still there. For how long that would remain the case I wasn’t sure, but I thought it best to hurry.

Feeling the mantle of my Name on my shoulders after that distressing period where I hadn’t made a tedious procession more tolerable. I could no longer remember what I’d felt like before I’d become the Squire. Being entirely human was just a… hazy concept. I was beyond sickness now, beyond the old limitations of my body like heat and cold or not being able to tinker with my own senses. After tasting true power, there was nothing more horrifying than being powerless. The honesty of that thought made me uncomfortable.

It was hard to gauge lengths of time in a place without a real sky, but I felt like I’d kept a good pace. The gate of light I’d glimpsed at a distance was even taller than I’d thought, thrice my height – so more or less twice anyone else’s – and almost as broad. I couldn’t make out anything beyond it. Apprentice had said there would be a way into the ritual site, but I found it odd he hadn’t said anything about a gate. For that matter, if he could make a gate why hadn’t he crafted one for me to enter here in the first place? I frowned, then picked up a stone from the ground and threw it. For a moment it looked like it would pass through, but then there was a flash of light and a loud bang.

“You’re getting predictable, Akua,” I said.

Stepping around the gate, I found the exit Masego had actually made after looking for a few moments. Like the portal that had allowed me through, it was transparent and hard to make out in the lack of proper lighting. Akua’s false gate was just close enough to make it hard through wiggle through, because why make it just a death trap when you could also make it an inconvenience? I took a deep breath I didn’t strictly need, finding the familiarity of it reassuring.

“Final round, winner takes all,” I muttered before passing through.

Chapter 45: Corpses

“It probably doesn’t count as cannibalism if you’re already dead.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I, the Gourmet

Nefarious’s corpse hadn’t even cooled before they’d dismembered and burned it, scattering the ashes so broadly not even a wraith could be formed from the remains. A lesson the Court learned centuries ago at the knees of the first Dread Empress Sanguinia, whose reign of terror had not ended with the cup of poison she’d drank. She had, if anything, become even more dangerous after her death. The Chancellor was a thorough man, for all his flaws, and had no intention of giving a sorcerer as accomplished as Nefarious a foot on the land of the living. The hall on the twenty-fourth floor of the Tower had long been used for official court sessions, and that the Chancellor had chosen it as the place for his summons spoke openly to the man’s intentions. He’d been ruling the Empire in all but name for the last decade anyhow, no doubt he saw actually taking the throne as a mere formality. He had the backing of the High Lords, the Legions – this sad, ugly sister of what the Legions of Terror had once been – were in his pocket and he controlled Ater. Ascensions to the throne had been built on a third of that kind of support. And yet…

Amadeus gazed at the sprawling mosaic that made up the entire floor, lost in thought. The centrepiece was arguably the depiction of the First Crusade and Dread Empress Triumphant’s fall, but that wasn’t what interested him. Closer to the bronze and gold doors there was a motif about Dread Empress Maleficent I, the founder of the Empire. It showed her driving out the Miezans – a historical inaccuracy, as there had only been one bare skeleton of a legion left, but the lie was central to the creation myth of Praes – and uniting the Soninke and the Taghreb. She’d been Taghreb herself, governor of Kahtan under the foreign occupation. The more numerous and politically powerful Soninke had her assassinated within the decade and one of their own took the throne, but you’d never guess it from the way the High Lords were smiling at her side. Behind the humans knelt greenskins, orcs and goblins mingling in abject adoration of their superior. Another lie. The Clans had only been cajoled into joining the Declaration by bribery and the Tribes had to be forced into the fold by violence.

So many lies, for a single floor. A pack of gilded ornaments hastily slapped over an inglorious beginning, carefully polished over the millennia since until they became accepted as the truth of history. What would they say of today in a thousand years, the Black Knight wondered? Would they speak of it as the beginning of a golden age or the whimper of a stillborn rebellion? The nobles and sycophants milled about the hall, clumping together in whispering circles. None of them approached him. Some had tried to play him the fool when he’d been younger, thinking a Duni would be easy prey, but the trail of corpses he’d left behind since had dissuaded them of the notion. Still, at least some of them should have been trying to forge an alliance with him to better their fortunes under the new regime. Word of his many disagreements with the presumptive Emperor must have spread. Was this the prelude to an attempt to remove him form the game entirely? He found the thought amused him. Chancellor’s intentions upon taking the throne were still a mystery to him, though he could make some educated guesses.

He was shaken out of his thoughts when the man in question strode through the open doors. The whispers stilled and the crowd parted reverently as the Chancellor walked to the throne. Running a hand on the stone and iron the man stood there for a moment, smiling. Finally, he sat and the crowd let out a single breath. Relief, envy, admiration. Already vultures were gathering behind the curtains of professed loyalty, scheming how they would carve out an advantage from the succession. There would be need for a new Chancellor, and that Name was ever brimming with claimants. For now, though, they knelt. Like a wave washing upon the floor, the mighty fell to their knees – until the wave reached him. Amadeus stood, leaning against the wall.

“You take liberties, Black Knight, that I have not allowed,” the Chancellor said.

The rebuke resounded like the crack of a whip in the silence of the hall. Black pushed himself off the wall and strolled to the centre of the crowd.

“I,” he said, “do not kneel.”

The Chancellor chuckled.

“I may yet allow you this privilege, should you prove loyal,” he said.

The fury wafting from the nobility, still kneeling, was delightful. Truly, it was making Amadeus’ day. Coming here had been worth it just for that. The older man continued speaking when it became obvious Black did not intend to reply.

“You will hunt down the wretched concubine Alaya, who murdered my predecessor,” the Chancellor said. “You will drag her in chains to this hall, so I may render judgement.”

Amadeus smiled.

“No.”

“This is an order Black Knight,” the man barked. “As Dread Emperor Baleful the First, I command your obedience.”

“I serve the Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, Tyrant of Dominions High and Low, Holder of the Nine Gates and Sovereign of all She Beholds,” he said. “You have no right to command me, Chancellor. Or to sit on this throne.”

“This is treason,” the man screamed.

“This is inevitability,” Amadeus replied.

Some of the crowd rose. Swords were unsheathed, incantations whispered. It would be for naught.

“Some of you,” the Black Knight said, “will fight this. Will cling to the old order, futile as it may be. For you I come bearing the word of the Empress.”

He grinned, wide and sharp and vicious.

“Tremble, o ye mighty, for a new age is upon you.”

I woke up.

I did not gasp for air, or blink in surprise. I was just… awake. The dream I’d just had I remembered with perfect clarity, my teacher’s last words echoing in my head. They felt like a warning. They felt like a promise. I pushed myself up into a sitting position only then noticing that someone’s hand was on my shoulder, helping me up. Dark skin, slender fingers. Apprentice. I did not feel his touch at all. There were bound to be a few downsides to being an undead abomination, I supposed.

“Catherine,” Masego said, studying me carefully through his spectacles. “Do you understand me?”

“In general?” I said. “Like, maybe half the time. The rest I just nod and pretend it’s obvious.”

“You just got sassed by a corpse, warlock’s get,” a voice said. “That’s gotta sting.”

I glanced in that direction and saw Robber crouched on a crate, expression unreadable. We were inside a house, I realized. Where I couldn’t be sure. My throat itched and I ran a finger on it, feeling stitches. So I could feel some things, then. It was just muted, like I interacted with Creation through a veil.

“He cut my head off, didn’t he?” I said.

“And one of your ankles, before we drove him off,” Hakram said.

Him I’d known was in the room without needing to turn. I felt his Name pulse and mine answering to it. There was a connection there, one I did not yet understand. So much about Name lore still remained hidden to me. Was it the same, for Black and Captain? Hakram was, I supposed, my equivalent of the gargantuan Taghreb. With perhaps a little of Scribe thrown in for good measure.

“I guess he learned from the last time,” I said, looking at my similarly stitched-up right leg. Damn, I’d run out of usable limbs at this rate. Of all the habits I could have picked up, why was getting crippled the one to stick? “Doesn’t seem to be hindering me any.”

“You shouldn’t be able to feel pain anymore,” Masego said. “Or pleasure, for that matter. You’re essentially a cadaver with limited sensory abilities.”

“You sweet talker you,” I said, getting up. “How long was I dead?”

Even with the amulet I was wearing under my armour – a receptacle to catch my soul after I died, the way Apprentice had put it – his most conservative estimates had been that it would take him a little over a bell to raise me from the dead. Well, “raise” me was a bit of a misnomer. I was still dead, just walking about. With my soul stuck in a piece of amber hanging off my neck. I’d had better weeks.

“About an hour,” Hakram said.

I blinked in surprise, or would have if my body still worked that way. My eyelids didn’t move until I consciously made them do it. Gods, that was going to be weird.

“Masego?” I prompted.

Robber tossed me by sword belt, which had been taken off me at some point. I buckled deftly, noticing my men had even brought a replacement greave for the one I’d lost to goblinfire. It didn’t match the rest of the gear, but unlike Heiress I didn’t have half a dozen spare suits of armour to draw from.

“A force was helping me along,” the bespectacled mage said. “Your Name, and… something else. It was like Creation did not want you to be dead.”

“Ominous,” I said, tightening the strap on the greave Hakram had handed me.

“Says the undead abomination,” Robber pointed out cheerfully.

“At least I don’t own a jar full of eyeballs,” I said absent-mindedly. “Speaking of dodgy business, Tribune, how’s your progress? Shouldn’t you be out in the field?”

The goblin preened. “No need. We’ve got two out of three already and the third one’s been found. Just a matter of time. Your little trick with the devils made it much easier to get around the city.”

“Don’t posture, it makes you look like the bastard child of an inexplicably green gargoyle and a pigeon,” I said. “Still, good work. I want all three behind our lines the moment you can manage it. No fuckups, there’s a lot riding on this.”

“So I’ve heard,” the goblin said, grinning malevolently. “Up to no good, Boss?”

“Good cut my head off not an hour ago,” I muttered peevishly. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”

I turned towards the more productive members of my posse.

“Where are we, exactly?”

It looked like a house, but too small to be one from the street where I’d gotten stabbed to death. That was still a thing that had happened. I’d call this the worst week of my life, but that would just be taunting fate.

“Past the first barricade,” Adjutant said. “In the forward beachhead of the Fifteenth. When it became clear the devils weren’t going to be a problem Hune marched deeper into the city and smashed through their first line of defence. There’s fighting at the second ring of barricades but we haven’t made another push yet.”

I raised an eyebrow, having to gauge approximately how high it was supposed to go. Gods, this undeath business was a pain. It was a good thing I didn’t intend to stay like this for long.

“Nauk’s kabili has been sent further east to assault through there. Juniper thinks if we hit them on two points they’ll collapse and fall back to the Ducal Palace,” Hakram said.

“If the Swordsman shows up, dividing our forces is gonna be… costly,” I said.

“There’s been no sign of Tall, Dark and Very Stabbable,” Robber said. “Or Queen Smug. I’d put good money on them tangling as we speak.”

“He barely managed to limp away after the beating you gave him,” Adjutant said. “She’ll have the advantage.”

“That’s not good,” I said with a grimace. “She’ll be wanting to meddle with the ritual.”

And I need it, I didn’t say. Only Masego and Hakram were fully in the loop as to the end game of the gambit I’d run by getting myself killed by William. Apprentice had made it clear from the beginning that while he could raise me from the dead, he couldn’t actually resurrect me. True resurrection was the province of Good. That was the underlying pattern: Evil was handed the means to avoid death, Good to reach past it. Staying undead wasn’t an option, as far as I was concerned. Masego could currently puppet me if he so wished, since he held the leash on the spells that had me walking around, but in theory someone could wrest that leash away from him. Warlock definitely could, and given Heiress’ talent with sorcery given enough time I was pretty sure she’d be able to work out something too. There were advantages to my current state but way too many liabilities came with it. Not to mention the whole being a moving corpse aspect. That would put a hamper on quite a few parts of my life, I thought, a certain redhead coming to mind.

I clenched my fingers experimentally. That part seemed to be working fine, and being able to take ridiculous amounts of punishment would come in useful. I reached for my Name and found it weaker than it had been before my death. No, not weaker. Looser. If before it had been a mantle draped comfortably on my shoulders, now it was hanging by a thread. Squires weren’t supposed to die, I supposed. That I was still a Squire at all was something of a disappointment, to be honest.

“You’re frowning,” Adjutant said.

“I was hoping getting myself offed would serve as a shortcut in some ways,” I said. “Maybe lead into another Name.”

Masego chuckled. “You’ve the wrong Role for that,” he said. “You are meant to be the successor to a Knight, whether Black or White. Unless one of them dies you’re quite out of luck.”

“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy,” I said. “Well, aside from a few issues it looks like my little jaunt on the other side filled up the reserves. Next time I scrape with Willy things will go differently.”

“I’m not saying you should mutilate his corpse,” Robber said. “But, you know, if you happen to stumble onto a few eyes I know this guy who has a collection.”

“You don’t even eat them,” Adjutant complained. “It’s a waste, is what that is.”

“I’m going to pretend I never heard that,” I confided in Masego. “When those words I’m definitely not hearing stop, tell Hakram to find his shield. The three of us are going for yet another horrifying magical adventure.”

It was up to debate whether we had good or bad timing, because Hune was about done preparing for her push when we arrived. The ogre was looking at a map held up against a ruined wall by two legionaries, still coming up taller than it even crouched. She saluted crisply when the three of us arrived.

“Lady Squire, Lord Apprentice,” she said, then paused. “Deadhand.”

Deadhand and Dead Girl, I thought, running around foiling Good. There was a song in there.

“What’s the situation, Commander?” I asked.

“Commander Nauk has begun his offensive,” the ogre said. “Already the rebels have started stripping their defences here to reinforce the east. Legate Juniper intends for us to hit them when the troops are beyond the two points, overwhelming them in detail.”

Good ol’ Hellhound, baiting the enemy into a mistake and then slitting their throat over it.

“Any sign of the heroes?” I said.

“None at the moment,” the gargantuan woman said. “Though we have sapper lines ready should they make an appearance. I take it you’re here to join the assault, my lady?”

“We won’t be sticking around,” I said. “We’ll be using it as cover to head for a target deeper into the city.”

The ogre nodded slowly, the clever eyes set in that brutish face studying me patiently.

“The place where the ritual is,” she said. “You believe the Lady Heiress intends further mischief.”

“Something like that,” I said.

The ogre’s buckler-sized hands tightened into fists. There seemed to be genuine anger in him, perhaps the first display of open emotion I’d ever seen from her.

“That woman is in dire need of killing,” Hune rumbled. “Treason against the Tower cannot be tolerated.”

“Preaching to the choir there,” I said. “Who’s at the tip of your offensive?”

“Tribune Ubaid,” Hune said.

Ah, an old friend then. No doubt the former captain would find this scrap a pleasant stroll after our fun little evening with the devils near Marchford. Interesting choice to put regulars in front, but I supposed that with all the fresh recruits in the Fifteenth Hune was looking to blood some of her legionaries.

“I’ll get out of your hair, Hune,” I said.

“Good hunting, Lady Squire. One sin,” the ogre said hammering a hand against her breastplate.

“One grace,” I replied, doing the same.

Finding Ubaid was easy enough. His legionaries were already formed up, the rest of the kabili falling in line behind them. The Soninke was inspecting the gear of his first line, handing out praise and criticism freely. His cohort of two hundred milled with excitement as we approached, smelling the blood to come. The man himself snapped a sharp salute.

“Lady Squire.”

“Ubaid,” I said warmly. “We’ll be joining you for the assault.”

“An argument could be made they’ll be joining us,” Masego said.

“Don’t mind Apprentice,” I said, “he always gets crabby right before the swords come out.”

“I do not-”

“You’re making her point for her, Masego,” Hakram whispered loudly.

The mage closed his mouth with a snap, looking disgruntled. Ubaid looked like he badly wanted to be somewhere else but was too polite to flee. It would be strange going into battle without the Gallowborne at my back, but I’d elected to leave them behind since I wouldn’t be taking them with me to the ritual site anyway. Currently they were with Juniper at the central command node, charged with guarding the trump cards I’d tasked Robber with finding me. I took the lead as we began the march, the other two at my side. Hune had chosen one of the main arteries as her angle of attack, though I could glimpse legionaries spread out over the two adjoining streets as well. Tribune Ubaid’s cohort remained concentrated on the avenue we were using, as per Legion doctrine. It was a short walk to the second ring of barricades, and when we got there I saw there were already sappers in place. A company at most, but they were keeping the rebels busy by taking crossbow shots whenever a Callowan peeked out from behind the barricades.

I was reluctantly impressed by what the defenders had managed to build as their rampart. Unlike the upended carts and sacks of sand and grain of the first barricades, these ones had foundations of stone pulled from Gods knew where. There was narrow path through the rampart leading straight into a smaller barricade, which would force my legionaries to split between two sides when trying to overwhelm it. I couldn’t see what the defenders were standing on from where I was, but some sort of scaffolding must have been built behind the wall: a handful of men were watching us, crouching down behind the walls whenever one of the sappers took aim at them. Taking this promised to be costly, I assessed, and the numbers were on the side of the defenders. As far as I could figure Hune was going to collapse the barricades with munitions and charge through the wreck as soon as the defenders were positioned to stop Ubaid’s cohort, catching them flatfooted. It should work. The prospect of the losses displeased me, though. On both sides.

What point was there in continuing to kill the rebels when the battle was as good as done? Without William around to stiffen their spines, I might actually be able to talk them into a surrender. It was worth a try instead of jumping straight into the slaughter, anyway. I signalled for Ubaid’s cohort to slow and went for the wall, sword still sheathed. From the corner of my eye I saw one of the archers knocking an arrow and waited – the shaft was released and I tapped into my Name, watching it come closer. Snatching the arrowhead out of the air was what I was intending to do, but it ended up being more along the line of catching it with my palm. There was, I reflected, no real way to play that off as if it had been my intention all along. I didn’t feel any pain from the wound, so simply sighed and broke off the shaft before wiggling the rest out. There was a gasp of horror from the barricade and I heard someone say the word Squire. Good, there’d be no need for introductions. Some of the sappers were about to answer the shot in kind so I immediately spoke up.

“Hold,” I said. “You, behind the walls. I’m Catherine Foundling, ranking commander of the Fifteenth. Who’s in charge here?”

There was a round of hushed conversation behind cover until a confident voice quieted it. A few heartbeats later a woman rose to the top of the barricade, dressed in good plate. Even under the helmet I recognized those silvery strands of hair and that pale, strikingly beautiful face: it appeared I was in front of the Baroness Dormer herself. I’d seen her exactly once before, when I’d been a child. She’d visited Laure to settle a trade dispute and I’d managed to be part of the crowd watching her ride into the city. I’d skipped lessons for it, if I remembered well, because I’d wanted to see the noble so many people said was the loveliest woman in Callow with my own eyes. I cleared my throat, absurdly amused to be standing in front of the same woman who’d made me realize I was attracted to both genders in such a different situation.

“That would be me,” the Baroness said. “You’ll forgive for not bowing, Lady Foundling. I no longer recognize the authority of the Tower.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said drily.

“I was also under the impression you were dead,” the woman continued.

“Not nearly as much of a problem as you’d think,” I mused.

“Impressive, but we planned to defend the city against you regardless,” the Baroness said. “I have no intention of surrendering my men so they can be butchered in Malicia’s name.”

“That’s about to happen if you don’t surrender, Baroness,” I said. “I’m willing to give you fairly lenient terms to end this without further bloodshed. Prisoners will be treated fairly.”

The silver-haired woman’s eyes narrowed.

“The Tower has only one way of dealing with rebellion.”

“You’ve been out of the loop for too long,” I said. “Black granted amnesty to the vast majority of the Countess Marchford’s host. Nobody wants to drown the south in blood, least of all me.”

“The vast majority,” she repeated. “And what of the Countess herself?”

“Executed,” I admitted. “That, however, was Black. He’s not here, I am. Liesse is mine to deal with as I see fit, by Imperial mandate. I you surrender I promise amnesty for your men and a fair trial for you.”

She seemed almost amused by that.

“That I committed treason by the Tower’s reckoning isn’t exactly in dispute,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “But all I’ve heard of you leads me to believe you got involved in this because you believed Callow would be better off for the rebellion. That rebellion is over, Baroness Dormer. But you can still spare the people who fought for you.”

She hesitated.

“We could hold you off behind the barricades,” she said.

“Apprentice could level those with three words and a wave of his hand,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Five and really more of a flick,” the overweight mage corrected.

“Not the time, Masego,” I said under my breath, watching the noblewoman on the wall.

“The Lone Swordsman said you were treacherous and silver-tongue,” she admitted ruefully.

“I’m sure he’s said a lot of things. You should be more worried about the things he hasn’t said, though. I’m betting he didn’t inform you that the ritual going on is to bring an angel of Contrition to the city,” I said.

She paled, and just like that I knew I had her. William, you didn’t think this through. They’re not heroes, they’re just people. No one signed up for your personal Crusade. It’s one thing to be ready to die for Callow, it’s another to be conscripted by the Heavens.

“You’re lying,” the Baroness said.

“Noticed how he stopped carrying that sword of his around? That was a Hashmallim’s feather, I’m told. Three guesses what it’s being used for, and the first two are also summoning an angel,” I said.

“How can you be so pithy about this?” she asked, sounding horrified.

“Because I’m going to cut his throat – for the second time today, mind you – and put an end to all of this,” I said. “This is what I do, Baroness. I clean up the messes made by the fools. I did it at Three Hills, I did it at Marchford and I’ll do it again here. Gods as my witness, I’ll keep on going until there’s peace from Daoine to the shores of the Hengest.”

I met her eyes calmly.

“I could threaten you now,” I said. “Point out that I punched a devil the size of a fortress so hard it died or that I basically walked off getting decapitated not an hour ago. But I don’t really need to, do I? You know who I am. What I’m going to tell you instead is that I’ve had a very long day – and that I won’t be making this offer twice.”

I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.

Choose.”

She folded. She dithered a while still, but she folded. I wished it actually felt like a victory, and not like I’d just broken my homeland’s spine over my knee. I didn’t stick around to oversee the rest of the surrender. I handed it off to Hune after getting in contact with Nauk’s kabili with a scrying spell. The orc commander had already broken through his section of the barricade but my orders were enough to restrain him even after he’d gotten his blood up. The Baroness managed to get most of the remaining soldiers to surrender, but some refused and tried to retreat. There was only one way that was going to end, but I didn’t have the time to spare pity for the last gasps of this rebellion. We headed north again, towards the lake.

“The site won’t actually be in Creation,” Apprentice said. “Well, technically yes, but depending on whether or not you adhere to orthodox Trismegistan theory it-”

“Masego,” I said sharply.

The dark-skinned man cleared his throat.

“I’m saying getting there won’t be as simple as taking a rowboat and rowing to an island that doesn’t, precisely speaking, exist.”

“If you were trying to make this simpler,” Hakram said gravely, “you have failed.”

Apprentice looked frustrated, passing a hand through his sweaty mess of braids. We’d taken a brisk pace, and military life had yet to get him in better shape.

“Look,” he said. “This place is an angel’s corpse, more or less. Angels are of Creation, but not in Creation.”

I ignored the “depending on what school of thought you believe is correct as to the nature of Spheres and Laws” he added in a mutter afterwards. I didn’t know if it was possible to have a headache while undead and wasn’t particularly eager to find out.

“Practically speaking,” I said, “what does that mean?”

“The site is effectively on Creation without being part of it,” Masego said. “Like a pebble on a larger rock. There are… rules though. There has to be a way in, for something like that to be able to exist. A connecting point, where the pebble touches the rock.”

“So we use that,” Hakram said.

“That would be ideal,” Apprentice said. “If it’s still there.”

I glanced at the bespectacled mage. “You think Heiress blocked the way?”

“Or the Lone Swordsman,” he said. “If he knows how.”

William had never struck as being particularly knowledgeable about stuff like this, but he didn’t have to be. Not with the Wandering Bard on his team. And isn’t your absence starting to make me a little nervous, Almorava? What are you up to? Guided by Apprentice, we eventually happened upon the shore of the Hengest lake. There were actual docks further east but that wasn’t what Masego had been looking for, apparently. I was pretty sure what he had was right in front of us: a small, thin rowboat without oars. It was pale and the prow was swan-shaped. It was also on fire, which was much less promising. Almost nothing but the prow remained, the rest sinking into the water.

“I’m thinking Heiress,” I said.

“It does bear her tender and delicate touch,” Adjutant said. “Apprentice, I hope you have another way to get us in.”

“No,” the Soninke said then remained silent for a moment. “Not us, anyway.”

“You made that unnecessarily tense,” I told him gently.

He blinked in confusion and I decided there were more pressing matters at hand.

“Explain,” I said.

“Pebble, larger rock,” he said.

“Many syllables,” I said, “Catherine confused.”

“And so they all died, because the Squire couldn’t ever miss an opportunity to be sarcastic,” Hakram said gravely.

I cleared my throat, or at least tried. The sound that came out was more like I was choking on my own lungs. Dying was proving increasingly troublesome.

“Look,” Apprentice said. “The rule is, there must be a connection. There’s none available, so Creation will work with me if I try to make one. I’m creating a second, smaller pebble that touches both the larger pebble and the rock.”

“Honestly, you could have just said you’re creating a pocket dimension that touches both the site and Creation,” I said.

“Gods, why am I even on your side?” Masego complained, throwing up his hands in the air.

“You like us, though Hells if I know why,” I said, patting him on the back. “Now about that metaphorical smaller pebble. You went all exacting in a way I’m guessing means not all of us can go.”

“I’ll be casting,” Apprentice said. “And I need an anchor, temporary as it will be.”

“Does it have to be Hakram?” I asked.

“That depends,” he replied. “Do you want the pocket realm to collapse on you while I get non-Named smear on my boots?”

“No,” Adjutant interrupted before I could reply. “No she does not.”

I shot the orc a look. I’d been going to say as much. Eventually.

“So just me, then,” I said. “This doesn’t feel even remotely like a coincidence.”

“Three Named want this city,” Hakram said. “Three Named fight for it. The pattern comes to a head.”

“This is about more than just Liesse,” I said. “This is about all of Callow.”

I started to pass a hand through my hair but remembered halfway through the gesture I was still wearing my helmet. Awkwardly I brought the arm down, hoping neither of them had noticed. I cleared my throat again, this time with a little more success.

“Do your thing, Apprentice.”

Apparently Masego couldn’t just wave his arm and rewrite the fabric of Creation, which was very inconvenient of him. I almost told him as much but Hakram gave me a look of his own. I almost tried to pout at Adjutant, but refrained when I forced myself to visualize how horrifying it would actually look. It took too long for Apprentice to prepare his spell for my tastes, but before an hour had passed he was ready.

“The entrance will only be open for a handful of heartbeats,” he warned me. “Be quick. And remember, you’ll have to find your own way back.”

He put a hand on Hakram’s shoulder and spoke urgently in the mage tongue, palm pointed in front of him. I almost didn’t see the portal when it appeared. It was transparent and oval – and shorter than me. Adjutant likely wouldn’t have been able to fit through even if he hadn’t been needed as an anchor. Gritting my teeth, I took a running start and threw myself into the pocket dimension.

I landed in a roll on the other side, managing to stay on my feet for a moment before the disorientation hit and I fell in a sprawl. I hastily got up, warily casting a look around. I was apparently on a wide strip of rock that stood over an inky black void. Charming. I didn’t get close enough to the edge to have a look down. I did not want to be the first undead to ever throw up. I’d never been great with heights, even if the crippling aspect of that fear was long behind me. The terrain ahead of me was broken, full of spires and pitfalls. I made my face grimace out of sheer distaste for the work ahead of me, then got moving. Climbing higher allowed me to peer in the distance, where I saw a gate of light. At least that part was visible. I got halfway through before I slipped and fell at the bottom of well of spires, cursing loudly on my way down. Plate armour wasn’t exactly climbing gear, even when you no longer felt its weight. I wedged my boot in an opening and clasped my fingers around an outcropping that should allow me to pull myself out when my arm started trashing about.

The spells animating me? No. I felt heat for the first time since I’d woken up, searing and bloody. Worse than even getting hit with William’s light had felt. I fell back down, screaming in pain as my limbs shook uncontrollably. How long that lasted I couldn’t tell, but eventually my limbs stilled. I felt… empty. Like some part of me was missing.

“Funny,” a voice said. “That should have killed you.”

I looked up and saw a face peering down at me over the rocky ridge. Half of one, anyway. Horrific burns and sword wound had taken most of the left half. The rest was of a red nearly orange. I’d only ever met one goblin that colour.

“Chider,” I rasped.

“Please, Catherine,” the dead goblin said, “Call me Squire.”

Smiling pleasantly, she dropped a lit sharper on my head.

Chapter 44: Victory

“Does not show traditional heroic talent for forging strong friendships but considered a leader by her peers. Responds aggressively to threats. Displays continued recklessness and an aptitude for thinking on her feet. This agent recommends disposal before she can turn into a legitimate threat to the peace of the realm.”
– Report ‘for the eyes of Lord Black only’, concerning the Imperial ward Catherine Foundling

“GALLOWBORNE, TIGHTEN RANKS!”

My personal guard dragged the wounded behind their shield wall and began retreating in good order under the bellowed instructions of Captain Farrier. They’d held up surprisingly well against the assault of the devils, I saw. Less than a line of casualties. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that they’d fought defensively and not been the focus of the hellspawn to start with, but there was more to it than that. They’d held the line against devils before, at Marchford. They’d been through the crucible already, and all the soldiers who would have flinched in front of the howling horde were already dead. To borrow one of the more brutal sayings of the Queen of Blades, war had separated the wheat from the chaff. I fell back behind the protection of the shield wall, Adjutant swatting down anything that came even remotely close to us. Masego, I saw, had already done the same. My Callowan soldiers gave him as wide a berth as they could: Apprentice had shown enough of what he could do that my rank and file stepped lightly around him.

Getting back to my personal guard had been a matter of running more than fighting. The Gallowborne were now at the back end of the avenue where most of the fight had taken place, backs against a stone guildhouse to limit how many angles they’d have to defend. I took a look back to where I’d done most of my fighting today and grimaced: it was packed with devils, milling around and beginning to mass for an offensive against my men. No sign of William, though there was no doubt the bastard was still alive. It would take more than devils to do in the Lone Swordsman, even if he didn’t have his creepy sword. I bit my lip and considered my options. Heiress had either run off on a horse northwards or tried to fake me out again by continuing on foot to the east. I was inclined to believe she’d been on the horse: she wouldn’t be as sanguine disposing of her Praesi minions as her hired ones, and Fadila had followed her on the ride. Could be how she’s selling this, though. I resisted the urge to spit and set the matter aside. Wasting time to speculate on her tricks was playing right into her hand.

North or west? North of us there was the ritual site the Lone Swordsman was using to bring the angel into Creation, which my gut told me was her target. Whatever she was intending to do to that ritual, it couldn’t be allowed to come to pass. She was dangerous enough without having stolen an angel’s power or worse, corrupted it. There were precedents for that, though they were legend and not recorded history. Not that the existing Praesi records were all that reliable, considering Tyrants were the ones who decided what got written. Even worse, with Callowan histories largely put to the torch or confiscated after the Conquest there were no other record to cross-examine them with. North, I decided. It would have to be north. Trying to force our way through the devils was a recipe for a rout, even with three Named on our side, so we’d have to swing around. What was it Heiress had said, when she’d fucked us over? Two hundred paces. How much ground would that actually cover? Was it centred around her? It made most sense as a circle, but even if that was the case that didn’t tell me whether those two hundred paces were the radius or the diameter. That’s why we bring specialists, Catherine.

“Masego,” I said, jolting the mage out of his thoughts. “What Heiress did, with the devils. How does it work?”

The dark-skinned mage pushed up his glasses.

“I layman’s terms, she put down a metaphysical banner where she stood that formed a ward. Inside that ward, the eight binding for devils she’s summoned is lifted.”

In the distance a crossbow bolt caught a jackalhead in the chest. The devil yelped and retreated, but they were beginning to test our defences. We couldn’t linger here much longer.

“What’s the shape of the ward?”

“Circle,” he immediately replied. “Cast this hastily, it can only be that.”

“And the two hundred paces…”

“Diameter,” he frowned. “I’m assuming, considering the amount of sorcery she used to create it.”

Good news. Five streets to the right should be enough, maybe seven if they were too narrow. We’d lose time going around but that couldn’t be helped. I closed my eyes, visualizing what Heiress had done. Wait, Masego had said a ward. A fixed point, then, that she wouldn’t be able to control after she’d made it unless she was on hand.

“Apprentice,” I said slowly. “That ward, can you affect it?”

He blinked. “Given enough time I could break it, if that’s what you’re asking. Would there be a point to that? They can’t misbehave outside its boundaries, and what she did to lift the binding seems to be attracting them.”

Yes, I’d noticed that last part. I almost smiled, showing my teeth. Hakram let out a bark of laughter and Masgeo looked confused.

“Apprentice, when she lifted a binding she made a hole right?”

“You want me to lay a binding of my own,” the mage immediately understood.

It was always a pleasure to work with clever people.

“Right now every devil in Liesse is drawn to this ward like it’s a beacon,” I said. “Let them. When they get here, though? Make them fight.”

Modifying the ward was much faster than dismantling it, though not without problems. Heiress had laid traps into its structure, because of course she had. Masego took the precaution of creating a small levitating orb of light that sucked in the torrent of black flames that spewed out the moment he accessed the ward structure. He also had to take apart a set of fake runes he assured me would have rotted my eyes in their sockets if I’d looked at them. Still, before the devils mounted a proper attack he finished the job. What I saw afterwards was a sight I would take to my grave. I’d witnessed great and terrible things, since leaving Laure. Walked the grounds of the Tower and passed through the Hall of Screams. I’d watched a battlefield turn into a hellish wasteland of green flames at Three Hills, fought a fully incarnated demon in the ruins of Marchford. None of those held a candle to seeing a thousand devils rip each other apart gleefully in a massive melee, rending each other’s bodies apart with tooth and claw. I felt a shudder go through the Gallowborne as they watched, awed by the sight of the monsters turning on each other mercilessly. We didn’t stick around to see the fight play out, turning west to swing around the ward.

There was no banter, not after the mess we’d just left behind. My soldiers were in a subdued mood, and as I rode Zombie I kept an eye out on our surroundings. Twice I glimpsed goblins on rooftops, nodding back to their salutes before they scampered into the shadows. Robber’s cohort had been given a very specific task and it was pleasing to see they were on top of things. This particularly plan I’d hatched with Aisha’s help, and though events had conspired to complicate its completion I’d also been handed a golden pretext to use it. By the time we’d begun marching north again we’d gotten deep enough inside the city I was surprised we weren’t running into rebel soldiers. They must have retreated past the second ring of defences, though who had actually given that order was anyone’s guess. William must have been in overall command by sheer virtue of being a hero, but he wasn’t a battlefield commander. My money was on the Baroness Dormer, which wasn’t a bad thing for the Fifteenth. As far as I knew she hadn’t fought in the Conquest and had no real military experience. She was the kind of opponent Juniper would eat for breakfast.

The narrowness of the street we were in had forced the Gallowborne into a column instead of a stronger formation, which made me uncomfortable. These would not be good fighting grounds if we ran into the enemy. I was considering moving us to a broader avenue when I saw a single silhouette ahead of us, walking calmly towards my men. Trouble, I thought, calling a halt.

“There has to be another way,” Adjutant said quietly.

“We’ve discussed this before,” Apprentice replied flatly.

We had, and it was too late to back out now. I’d try talking first, but my history with talking sense into people was a littlecheckered. Still, who knew? There were a lot of ways for the third encounter between a hero and a villain to go. Few of those to my advantage, but sometimes you had to roll the dice even if the game was rigged. William paused four city blocks away from my forces, casually sweeping his sword along the ground. The brute strength and speed of the sweep created swirls of wind in front of him, scattering dust. The message was clear: the Gallowborne were not to advance any further. I dismounted Zombie, idly checking my weapons. My throwing knives were safely secured, and the satchel on the back of my belt held tight. Passing the shield wall, I strode forward to meet the Lone Swordsman on the field. His scrap with the devils had cost him no wounds, I saw. His long coat was torn in several places, but somehow that just made him look rugged. The chain mail under was still pristine and his dark hair stylishly tousled.

I was drenched in sweat under my plate, my bad leg ached and my hair had knotted against the edge of my open-faced helmet in a way that itched. Fucking heroes. He probably smelled liked flowers, I thought bitterly, while I smelled like horse and blood and being in over my head for at least the tenth time this year.

“And so we meet again,” William said, green eyes cold.

“That’s usually what happens when you go looking for people,” I spoke drily.

“As Heiress is no within my reach at the moment, I must call our truce at an end,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“Who would have seen that coming,” I spoke in a monotone. “Alas, you’ve taken me by surprise. Curse your unexpected betrayal.”

Apparently the hero hadn’t foreseen quite this much mockery when he’d prepared for this conversation in his head, because he did a piss poor job of hiding how irritated he was. Honestly, that was on him. I’d never shown him any respect before, why would I start now?

“Die,” he said. “And not nicely.”

“Villains have limited retirement options, William,” I said gently. “This isn’t exactly a revelation to me. What I’m curious about, though, is what happens after. Say you manage to kill me. What then?”

“Then your legion loses its leader,” he said. “I rally the army of Callow and we drive your butchers out of Liesse.”

“I’m not giving out any orders at the moment,” I pointed out. “My legate is. And as for you driving the Fifteenth out of this city…  Well, the last time it fought a battle against a proper army, it spanked a force twice its size of professional soldiers. Half of which was mounted. You think levies and a bit of southern retinue is going to stand up to veterans like them? William, my soldiers brutalized devils when they were just a bare skeleton of a legion. They’re led by a woman so clever she sometimes scares me, and we’re on the same fucking side.”

“Are you quite done boasting?” the Lone Swordsman asked with disdain.

I ground my teeth, pushing down my flaring temper. Gods, it was like talking to a stone wall that was just sentient enough to be an obstinate jackass.

“What I’m telling is that this battle is over,” I said. “We’re in the city. There’s no walls to hide behind and your barricades are just going give my sappers a good laugh. There’s no winning this for you anymore, William. My death makes no real difference. If anything it just makes it easier for Apprentice or Adjutant to kill you afterwards – no more Rule of Three keeping you alive.”

“All those pretty sentences covering for one word: surrender,” he mocked. “That’s always been your answer, hasn’t it Catherine? Licking the Tower’s boot and hoping your foreign paymasters take pity on us.”

“For once in your life,” I growled, “try to think beyond your pride. What are you accomplishing here? The rebellion is over, William.  The Duke of Liesse is dead. Black dispersed the Countess’ army without even giving battle. Procer has its own troubles in the south and it can’t afford to open up another front. There are no reinforcements coming for you. You are alone.

“Yes,” he smiled strangely. “Alone. It was, I think, always supposed to end like this. It is… fitting.”

“This isn’t a story, William,” I said tiredly. “Thousands of people are going to die. It won’t be glorious, it won’t be heroic. It’ll just be piles of corpses littering the streets getting picked at by the crows. All those lives snuffed out for no good reason.”

“You know, I once told Almorava the very same thing,” the hero said. “About it not being a story. I was wrong. This is a story, Catherine. It always was. Even this conversation is part of it: my last temptation before the end. I made a choice, Squire, and I stand by it. Some things are worth dying for.”

“And the people of Liesse, are you choosing for them too? Because when Contrition comes calling, it won’t ask them nicely to enrol. You’re robbing them of free will so you can play the leading role in your little tragedy.”

“You know little of the Hashmallim,” he said. “All they do is show you the truth of what you are. Of what Creation is. They don’t force anyone’s hand, Catherine. They don’t have to, once you understand. There is only one path forward.”

“All you’re doing is letting some creature from another realm into the heads of hundreds of thousands to tinker with their will,” I snarled. “Gods save us all from principled men. You’re really the same as he is, when it comes down to it. You have a point to make and you don’t care what it costs to everyone else. Because you want to be right, even if half the continent burns for it. At least villains own what they are.”

William laughed.

“And what do you stand for, Catherine Foundling?” he challenged. “Over a year we’ve fought, you and I, and I’ve yet to see you take a stance. You claim your way is the one that works, but what have you actually accomplished? You don’t have morals, Squire. You don’t have beliefs. Like a reed, you bend however the wind blows.”

“I want peace,” I said. “I want order. I want good crops and fair taxes. I want Callow to prosper, and I don’t care who rules it as long as it does. If I have to strike deals with monsters to see that done, I will. Kingdoms, empires, they’re just lies we all agree on so our lives have a frame. What matters is the people, not the deceit. The Kingdom of Callow is no longer a lie that serves its people, and so it needs to die.”

“A kingdom is more than the sum of its people,” William said. “It has a higher meaning, a higher purpose. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Callow, and so I am free. And I will fight so that one day all other Callowans can claim the same.”

“I should have killed you, that first night,” I said. “I didn’t understand what I was unleashing. I thought I did, Gods forgive me, but I could not have been more wrong.”

“Too late,” the Lone Swordsman said, sword rising. “Let us end this, Squire. This time, there is no Warlock to save you.”

I unsheathed my sword calmly.

“If I’m going to beat a truth into you today, William, it’s this one: I’m the person people need saving from.”

He moved like lightning. The longsword carved through the space where my head had been a heartbeat earlier, but I’d ducked under the swing and rammed my fist into his stomach. It didn’t do much – I doubted he’d even bruise – but I wove my Name into a trick and a quick burst of shadowy energy pushed him back. I pressed the advantage, feinting for his arm but turning it into a lunge that would take him through the throat. His blade came up to slap mine away as he twirled gracefully and I smiled. With his old sword, he might have managed to cut through my blade with his own. Now, though? Now we both fought with steel. The fight was a little more even. I moved sideways, circling him slowly, and he moved to match me. I’d meant to continue doing that until the afternoon sun was in his eyes – unlike me he had no helmet to shield his sight – but the bastard knew his way around a sword fight. Right before he would have stepped where I wanted him to, he ran a finger along the length of his sword. There was a flash of blinding light but I was prepared for it: he’d pulled a similar trick in our last duel and I’d been thinking of counters even since.

Sharpening my senses with my Name was one of the first tricks I’d learned, but it had taken me a while to realize I could also do the opposite. For less than a heartbeat, I blinded myself. When my sight came back I caught his wrist as he brought his sword down to cave my head in, my own sword swiping at his lower leg. I drew blood through the thick leather boots and spun away from him, hastily giving grounds. Gods Below, pushing back his swing even for a moment had nearly broken my arm. He was stronger than the last time we’d fought, and I didn’t mean that in an abstract sense: he was physically stronger. And faster too, I was pretty sure. How he’d managed that without putting on muscles mass I couldn’t know, but it felt like Name shenanigans at work. I spat to the side in dismay. My own Name had never been gracious enough to give me anything physical but better reflexes, which apparently all Named got anyway. Fucking heroes. I’d deal with it anyway. If I’d learned anything from our last duel it was that I wasn’t going to beat him with a sword. Brute force had never been my thing, when it came down to it: trickery and cheating had been my bread and butter since the first time I’d stepped into the Pit.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Swordsman noted.

“Your Name is bullshit and so are you,” I said.

I probed his defences with the tip of my sword but he was not so easily baited. I feigned a strike to his side but had to hastily retreat when his blade came within an inch of my throat. He turned the strike into a blow at my shoulder, pushing forward, but I spun around him. For a heartbeat we were back to back and I slipped my free hand inside the satchel at my belt, snatching a sharper. As we pivoted again to face each other I pushed a trickle of power into my hand, energy crackling around my fingers. Savouring the look of surprise on his face, I punched him in the stomach with the clay ball. It detonated loudly, tossing him like a rag doll. It also broke three of my fingers, but that was just the price of doing business. Focusing for a heartbeat, I wove threads of necromancy and snapped the bones back in place as I rushed after him. He tried to get up but my armoured boot slammed into his chest, knocking him back down. I had to step back to avoid a strike that would have slipped in the weak point of my greaves but I took out a throwing knife and flicked it at his sword hand, relying on my Name’s reflexes to guide the throw. It nailed him right in the wrist and he hissed in pain.

Apparently I’d hit a nerve – or an artery – because there was a flicker of power before a burst of light emanated from his frame. I deftly stepped out of range, but William took the occasion to get back to his feet. The light had pushed the knife out of his wrist, I saw, and the wound was already closing. Well, that’s new. Taking him apart piece by piece wasn’t an option, then. His wrist was still bloodied, I noticed, so I supposed bleeding him out was still possible. There was a lot of blood in a human being, though. Odds were I’d run out of throwing knives before he ran out of red to bleed. More than that, I couldn’t count on him running out of power anytime soon. He’d flatly outclassed me in that regard even before Masego had carved out a third of my Name. You might say I was out of my depth.  Engaged in an uphill battle. It was, most definitely, a Struggle. Something dark rose in the back of my mind at the thought, howling in rage at the Heavens as my Name finally woke up. My veins warmed with power and I grinned.

“Let’s try that again,” I said.

I dashed forward, the pain in my leg gone as the pavement stone gave under the pressure of my charge. I lowered my head under the Swordsman’s swing and unsheathed my knife, ripping through his sleeve as I passed him. The chain mail under held, but I felt the rings get carved. Goblin steel had few equals on the continent. He pivoted to hack at my shoulder but I parried the blow with my knife, forcing him to step around the arc of a sword strike that would have cleaved through his neck. Clasping my wrist with his free hand he forced it down, the sheer strength of his grip denting plate armour, but I rammed my knee his stomach. He staggered back, releasing my wrist, and I slammed the pommel of my sword on the crown of his head. He let out a curse and backed away, bleeding where I’d struck. I wasn’t about to let him recover: in a matter of moments I was on him again, swinging as my Name laughed in delight. Evidently he didn’t use his head much, because the hit hadn’t slowed him down: with a deft twirl of his sword he ripped my knife out of my hand, allowing the chain mail on his arm to catch my sword at an angle that made the blow impotent. I stepped back, abandoning the knife, and he tried to make distance so he could take back the flow of the engagement from me. Screw that, I thought, and reached for my satchel again. I tossed a brightstick at him and he looked insultingly sceptical until I aimed my hand at it and shot a small burst of shadow and caught the spinning munitions in the air.

The brightstick exploded inches away from his faces with a burst of light and deafening sound. I’d closed my eyes even as I moved forward. It was too much to hope that he’d be permanently blinded and have his eardrums burst the way a normal man would, but a moment was all I needed. Somehow, even blinded, he managed to catch my first strike with his sword. I let him pass, spinning my wrist to turn the attack into an arcing blow that caught his shoulder. I’d reached into my Name as I struck, drawing on its strength, and I felt the mail give. My blade came away red. Once again I felt his power rise but I grit my teeth and reached for my own, striking at his chest with the heaviest spear of shadows I could muster. The rest of his duster was torn blown through, his power scattered and the mail smoked. I was winning. Gods, I was actually winning. He’d fallen to his knees, but his eyes were working now. Snarling, he hacked at my flank. I let the armour take it, half-stepping to blunt the impact. My hand reached for my satchel a third time, taking out a sharper.

His eyes widened and I could see the thought process going through his mind, clear as day. I’d finish moving before he could reposition his sword to stop me. His mouth opened, to say what I did not know. His power flickered a third time but with a snarl of triumph I shoved the sharper into his open mouth. Before the light could fully manifest I’d shot a burst of shadow at the sharper and it blew.

The Lone Swordsman’s body skidded across the stones, his precious light doing nothing to help him. When the momentum stopped carrying him he did not manage get up, limbs twitching weakly. I could already feel the power I’d gotten from my aspect leaving me more with every heartbeat – I’d been liberal with its use, which had made it end even faster than usual. I knew the moment it was gone I’d be exhausted and my leg would be a very real problem, so I had to end this quickly. Trap, I thought as I moved forward. This feels like a godsdamned trap. A downed hero who just got the beating of his life, unable to move? This was the part where I made my monologue and he begun his comeback. I couldn’t just leave him there, though. He’d already shown he could heal himself to an extent and if he came back from this I was in deep, deep trouble. I’d give it better than half odds I’d be flat out of juice the moment my aspect tapped out. And if it comes to a contest of skill between us, I’m going to die a very ugly death. Well, I did have one last surprise in my satchel. Very carefully, I took out my last clay ball. I had to sheathe my sword to strike a pinewood match and light the fuse on the goblinfire. Heart beating fast, I tossed the projectile at the hero.

I knew, before the ball was even halfway there, that I’d made a mistake. The Lone Swordsman’s arm rose weakly, brandishing his sword. He rasped out one word.

Swing.”

His wrist flicked and a gale blew as if he’d cleaved the world in half.  The goblinfire exploded in the air, spreading in droplets that landed everywhere. That was, I decided, bad. A heartbeat later the last of my aspect-granted power winked out. I wasn’t entirely out, but I wouldn’t be able to make a spear even if my life depended on it. Which it very well might. That was, I decided, very bad.

Rise,” the Lone Swordsman rasped.

Light spread around his body in thick cords, healing his wounds and hoisting him up. He looked in bad shape, but he was definitely moving.

“Very, very bad,” I muttered.

Apparently we were past the banter stage because William was on me before the chords of light were even gone. My arm moved sluggishly but I parried the first blow, free hand reaching for another throwing knife. Fingers closed around my wrist.

“No,” the Lone Swordsman growled.

“Yes?” I hazarded, the word drowned out by the plate covering my wrist breaking apart completely under his grip.

I slugged him in the face with the pommel of my sword but he took it unflinchingly, pushing me back.

“I’d settle for a maybe,” I said.

My cutting sarcasm, unfortunately, failed to draw blood. Weeping Heavens, I was pretty sure he’d sprained my wrist under the steel. That limited my options pretty sharply. He advanced on me again, eyes ringed with a sort of luminous clarity that gave me a headache just to look at. I backpedalled blow after blow, giving ground. I was running out of tricks to turn this around. Slapping away my blade, he hammered down on my only good wrist left with his own pommel – the impact forced me to drop my sword. Well, I still had knives. The hero’s blade sliced through the belt keeping those up, though I managed to snatch one before they fell to the ground. I’d had knives, I corrected mentally. The Lone Swordsman had unfortunately brought a longsword to a knife fight, which admittedly gave him a bit of an advantage. I stepped around a hew and got in close but he swept my legs. I hit the stone with a dull thud and he stood above me with his sword raised.

“And now,” he said solemnly, “I Triumph.”

“Do you know what the difference is, between a Squire and a Swordsman?” I croaked out.

He blinked in surprise.

“I have a horse,” I announced.

A moment later Zombie hit his back. I closed my eyes and reached for the heart of the necromantic construct, where Robber had cleverly reproduced the same device he’d made for the brooch in Masego’s hair. The bits of bone scraped together as I used the very last dregs of my power, producing a single spark. The demolition charges stashed inside my mount blew up instantly and the world turned white, heat licking at my face.

A heartbeat later I opened my eyes, though I didn’t remember closing them. I tried to move but my everything was broken and I wasn’t laying down where I’d been. Shit, I blacked out. My right arm looked like I’d tried to make a knot out of it, which wasn’t promising. My leg was also apparently on fire. Goblinfire. Repressing a horrible scream of pain, I managed to sit up and hastily unclasped the greave with green flames on it, feebly tossing it away. My left hand blindly groped around for support, the wrist pulsing in pain, but instead I found something metallic. My knife, I realized. The one Black had given me what seemed like years ago. My thoughts felt slow and disjointed. I found William laying unconscious a few feet away from me and dragged myself along the ground, knife still clasped in my fingers. The moment I got close enough, I wildly stabbed into his exposed neck. Steel sunk into flesh and I let out a hiss of triumph. The hero’s eyes opened and he gurgled out a word.

Rise.”

“Oh, come on,” I croaked.

The already-closing wound was pushing out my knife. The chords of light weren’t as thick as last time, but there were still working. I got my knife out and stabbed him again. Or would have, if he didn’t catch my wrist. His other hand came up and I glimpsed his sword, shining like a lake under moonlight. It passed through my plate like it was parchment, plunging straight into my heart. The hero pushed himself up to a crouch.

“And so it ends,” he said.

I could feel my Name running through my veins, not to save me but for some… deeper purpose. It was true, then. We curse our killer with our last breath, Black had said.

“You will die before the day is done,” I rasped.

“And yet,” the Lone Swordsman smiled, “I win.”

My vision was blackening. I could feel life leaving my body. Serenely, I smiled.

Gotcha, I thought, and died.

Chapter 43: Truce

“The best defence is to have killed all your enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Thorough

Even with Thief guiding the way, we ran into problems.

Apparently her place in the hierarchy of the city wasn’t as well-established as William’s: twice knots of rebel soldiers tried to refuse passage. The first instance of it wouldn’t have been much trouble if it came to blades – we outnumbered them, and the carts they’d upended as a makeshift barrier would fold like parchment in front of any Named – but the second was… tense. Five hundred household troops in Dormer livery, who didn’t even bother to hail us before they started shooting arrows. One of my Gallowborne was wounded and I was that close to forcefully clearing them out, but Thief jumped in between us and screamed sense into them. It took too long for my tastes to get through. The more we waste time here, the more of a head start Heiress gets on her objective. I got glares and muttered accusations of being a traitor as we passed the enemy soldiers, though this time I wasn’t the only one. The Gallowborne got their share of hisses accusing them of being collaborators, being obviously Callowan themselves. My personal guard seemed to take the accusations in stride, for now anyway. I knew from personal experience how much those whispers could sting.

Mostly because they had a morsel of truth to them.

I’d had my doubts William would manage to corner Heiress – she was a slippery one – but they were put to rest before we ever laid eyes on them. In the distance I saw a stream of black flame rise from an avenue, clipping the edge of a rooftop. The fire spread in the blink of an eye until it covered the entire rooftop and then snuffed itself out, leaving nothing behind. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was hoping the Lone Swordsman had been hit by that or not. I believed Heiress would be easier to kill, if it came to a fight, but I doubted anything good would come out of her getting her hands on a hero’s corpse. I frowned as my men picked up the pace. Not that she could actually kill William, anyway. As long as he and I were still bound by our pattern of three, we could only die at each other’s hands. More or less. I’d gotten a reminder in Marchford that demons were not things of Creation and cared little for its rules. Thief left us as we turned a corner, bounding up to the rooftops with catlike grace. So much for her playing the intercessor.

“Shields up,” I called out.

The Gallorborne interlocked into a wall of steel in front of me, allowing me to focus on the scene ahead. None of Heiress’ little friends were with her, it appeared. Her only attendants were two dozen Procerans, currently panicking as they spectacularly failed to keep the Lone Swordsman contained. William was wearing his usual horribly pretentious longcoat over mail, boots skidding across the stone as he danced among the mercenaries and took them apart methodically. No helmet, his dark hair ran free as he smiled thinly. My eyes narrowed as I realized his abomination of a sword was nowhere in sight: he used a Callowan longsword, well-made but not angelic in the slightest. Things were already looking up. Parrying was a valid tactic again, it seemed. Heiress pointed a finger in the hero’s direction and seven dots of green light formed in front of it, each of them turning into an arrow point that immediately shot off towards the hero.

The arrows remained linked to the dot they’d formed from, the spell lights homing on William as he ducked and weaved around them. Heiress barked a word in the arcane tongue and the ligaments of light, scattered all around the hero, tightened in an attempt to bind him. Before they could touch him a flash of light emanated from the Lone Swordsman, dissipating the spell as he reached behind him and effortlessly plucked the javelin one of the Procerans had thrown at his back. Spinning on himself, he sent it back at the mercenary: the point took the man in the throat, killing him instantly. I’d give William this: he was an ornery little shit, but he could fight. Hunter had been a priceless asset the only time we’d been on the same side, and the deceased hero had been nowhere close to the Swordsman’ league.

“Willycakes,” Thief called out from a rooftop to my right. “I brought ‘friends’.”

The hero cast a glance in our direction. I took Zombie around the decapitated corpse of another horse, Akua’s if I was not mistaken. Explains why she’s on foot now.

“Foundling,” he spat. “Never far, when Callow bleeds.”

“Willycakes,” I greeted him drily. “And Akua too! Having a rough day, Heiress?”

“Just taking a walk, Catherine,” Akua said languidly. “Stepping on vermin, now and then. They do seem to be everywhere, in this city.”

The Soninke aristocrat had discreetly slipped one hand behind her back. Casting as we talked, I was sure. And we’ll be having none of that, thank you very much.

“Apprentice,” I said. “Be a dear and shut that down, would you?”

The bespectacled mage chuckled. “Now you talk sweet to me. Typical.”

Pushing up his sleeves, Masego cracked his fingers and grinned maliciously.

“If you would grant me this dance, Lady Akua? Here, I’ll lead.”

The dark-skinned man’s clothes shuddered, as if caressed by a breeze, and he pushed his open palms forward. The Procerans surrounding Heiress were scattered like toys by an invisible force, while the Soninke herself hastily brought her hidden hand forward and traced a single sigil in the air. A bubble of nearly-transparent magic formed around her, turning opaque under the force of Masego’s own spell trying to hammer it down. I left them to it, for the moment, and turned to William.

“I can cripple the devils all over the city,” I told him.

“But,” he sneered.

“You’ll need to reach into the deepest parts of your will and manage… not to contradict me instantly,” I said.

“I make no such promises,” the Lone Swordsman said.

“I’m trying to save your godsdamned hides here, Willy,” I snarled. “For once in your life, do the smart thing instead of polishing your principle codpiece.”

“William,” Thief broke in. “Some of the barricades are already buckling. Whatever she’ll do can’t be worse than children getting killed in their cribs.”

The Lone Swordsman met my eyes, green to brown. If he was expecting me to be intimidated by it, he was barking up the wrong tree. I’d stared down more intimidating things than the likes of William. The sound of fire and screams drifted in from the distance.

“Fine,” he said, looking away.

“Apprentice,” I said.

The overweight mage casually tossed me one of the trinkets from his dreadlocks, eyes never leaving Heiress. Their little scuffled had changed in nature while I negotiated with the idiot: Masego’s force and Heiress’ shield were now a shifting landscape of differing pressures, some parts buckling in and others jutting out. He’d yet to manage to power through. I snatched the silvery pyramid out of the air and brought it close to my mouth. I cleared my throat, and the sound of it resonated broadly: like Apprentice said, once it was activated any sound touching the trinket was massively amplified.

“Under my authority as the Squire, I declare the city of Liesse under martial law,” I announced, my words drowning out everything else for a moment. “As of this moment, every human inside the city walls has been conscripted into the Fifteenth Legion.”

The silver trinket darkened the moment I finished speaking, losing its shine and even cracking in some places. I dropped it into a saddlebag, reluctant to disturb Apprentice from his contest of will by tossing it back.

“As long as the acting commander of the forces inside the city doesn’t do something stupid like, you know, openly contradicting me,” I said, “the devils can’t touch anyone anymore.”

“So now, that we’ve all joined the Legions I have to ask the most important question: how’s the pay?” Thief asked.

Hakram shrugged. “For the enlisted? Not bad. Silver though, not gold.”

“Adjutant,” I sighed. “Stop humouring the heroes.”

William absent-mindedly walked over to one of the Procerans who was trying to get up, opening his throat with a flick of the wrist. The others scrabbled away in panic.

“And this protection holds even if you’re dead, I take it?” the hero asked.

I unsheathed my sword.

“I’m not sure I like the direction this conversation is heading,” I said mildly.

There was a pop ahead as Heiress’ shield finally gave way. She swept her arms gracefully in a circle and with a triumphant smile redirected whatever spell Masego had been using in our direction. Apprentice frowned and tapped the ground with his foot: the invisible force exploded halfway to our group in storm of invisible power, ripping out pavement stones and tossing them around. I ducked under one, pressing against my mount.

Two hundred paces,” Heiress said. “Eight binding, lifted. Attack.”

Three heartbeats later, a jackalhead leapt down from a rooftop and landed in front of the recovering Procerans. It leered hungrily at us.

“William, remember that time we had a truce until everyone else was dead?”

And then you pretty much split my belly in two and left me dying on the ground, I refrained from adding.

“Granted,” the hero said. “And not a moment longer.”

I’d heard that one before, and though he’d observed the truce to the letter the red scar across my chest was a reminder of how short a truce like that could be. I slid down from my horse, sword still in hand.

“Captain Farrier,” I called out. “Hold the back of the street. Don’t interfere otherwise – this one’s above your pay grade.”

“Good hunting, ma’am,” the captain replied, already getting his men in position.

Hakram rested his axe on his shoulder, baring his fangs.

“Priority target?” he asked.

“Heiress,” I said. “Masego-“

“Battlefield control, like we practiced,” he interrupted easily.

I felt my Name pulsing under my skin, eager to sink its teeth into my enemies. Well, it wouldn’t go hungry tonight. Already I could see devils swarming in our direction from the east, jumping over rooftops and gathering in the sky. What Heiress had done must have served as a beacon for them, because every single one I saw was coming for us. Joy. For the first time it occurred to me I wasn’t sure what would happen to the bindings on the hellspawn if Heiress died. Would they just all be unmade? That would be… bad. They’d rampage across the city. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford to spare someone like Akua. She was likely to escape if I took her prisoner, and as long as she held a modicum of control over the devils she had the largest stick to swing out of the three Named currently fighting for control over Liesse. Not an acceptable situation, so I supposed I’d have to burn that bridge when I got to it. I wasted no more time over the thought: the longer I dallied, the more devils would be on us.

With my left hand I unsheathed the knife at my hip and strode forward, Hakram covering that same flank. Unlike Adjutant, I had no shield. Since my leg had been crippled by the demon I’d been forced to admit that this kind of fighting no longer worked for me: I couldn’t afford to take hits from behind a shield anymore. My footing wasn’t as solid as it used to be. Instead I had to focus on footwork and attack, timing my movements precisely and going for killing blows. One of these days I’d seen about getting a bow or a crossbow to use to widen my range of options, but for now I’d make do with belt of throwing knives strapped across my plate chest piece. And also the handful of… other surprises I carried in the satchel attached to the side of my belt. My first real opponent of the day was an ironhook who jumped straight off the roof to sink its claws into my throat: I ducked under it, letting it land behind me and turning to sink the point of my sword into the back of its neck.

I was already moving again before the corpse dropped to the ground. Already there were a dozen devils standing between Heiress and us, but when she’d made her decision she clearly hadn’t factored in heroes. The Lone Swordsman was on the offensive, and I saw that Masego hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said the man could single-handedly hold a street off: the hero moved forward at a walking pace, and everywhere he went devils died. There were no bursts of light, no displays of Heavenly wrath or even Name-enhanced strength as he fought. William simply waited for their attacks, avoided them by a hair’s breadth and sent heads rolling with a single measured swing. I’d studied swordsmanship under one of its greatest living practitioners for a year, sparred with a woman who could tear through steel with her bare hands and fought a demon of the Thirteenth Hell on foot with only five people at my side. And yet, in that moment, the sight of the Lone Swordsman calmly dispatching one opponent after another sent a shiver down my spine. That was what the Mandate of Heaven looked like, I thought. An inexorable march forward against which even the most monstrous of strengths failed.

One of the hairy dwarf gargoyles tried to sweep down on me but its head was instantly pulped without any intervention on my part, the rest of its swarming companions dispersing with cries of fear. Apprentice was keeping the distractions off our back, like he was supposed to. Hakram and I impacted the mass of devils a heartbeat later. My Name flared up and I let myself sink into it, not to shape the power but to use the awareness that came with it. Everything came in flashes: a hand reached for my throat and I spun my wrist, slicing cleanly through it. I glimpsed a scream jackal head before I rammed my knife between its eyes, spinning around the devil as I tore out my blade. An ironhook came for my legs but Adjutant’s axe split its head in two before the orc kicked the corpse into the open maw of a lizardtiger. Another monkeybat landed screaming on my back but it instantly began to turn to dust as Apprentice took care of the problem while I opened the throat of another ironhook. A jackalhead bounced off of Hakram’s shield and tried to tackle me but my knife flicked up and opened it from crotch to throat. I abandoned the knife in the devil’s body and caught a garygoyle by the throat, squeezing until it’s head popped off. I half-stepped away from a lizardtiger’s lunge, crouching to take back my knife as Hakram’s axehead tore through its neck.

Everything was crisp-clear, like the air on a cold morning, and I felt a sort of savage joy welling up in me. From the corner of my eye I saw Thief wading across the devils on the rooftop behind Heiress, weaving around the grasping creatures like she was running an obstacle course. She leapt towards Akua’s back but was intercepted halfway through by a gargoyle. Undeterred, she somehow bunched up together and used the devil as leverage to jump again, landing in a crouch behind Heiress. The aristocrat pointed a palm at her, green runes appearing in a linked circle around her hand: there was a detonation like a sharper exploding and the heroine was blasted through the wall of the house behind her in her shard of wooden splinters. I wasn’t worried. Even heroes with Roles unsuited for fighting were remarkably hard to hurt. Another wave of devils came for us by Hakram’s side but they didn’t manage to get far. Collars of whirling wind formed around their throats, tightening and dragging them back.

I hacked through the shoulder of a jackalhead Adjutant battered down with his shield and allowed the orc to finish it as I pressed ahead. One last ironhook, who managed to weave under a sword stroke only to take a knife in the belly, and finally I was on Heiress. All that stood between the two of us was the last few Procerans – who eyed me with undisguised fear. To my right I saw the Lone Swordsman cleaving through a devil and casually stepping between the halves of the corpse. I ignored him for now, eyes on Heiress. Who smiled.

“Almost,” she said.

There was a flash of blinding light and immediately I back stepped, grabbing a devil by the throat and pulling it between myself and the light as I clenched my eyes shut. I opened them the moment I felt the devil bite into my shoulder, fangs somehow managing to dent the steel plate. Tossing the devil away, I looked in Heiress’ direction and cursed. There were nine of her now, all running north.

Masego,” I screamed. “Get her.”

If she got away now, we were in trouble. Shit, which one was she? William started running, slicing a devil in two without stopping and headed after the closest Akua. I called on my Name, feeling it respond eagerly to my anger. A bolt of lightning threaded through the crowd, hitting one of the Heiresses in the back – the smoking corpse of a Proceran mercenary fell to the ground. The Lone Swordsman lopped an arm off another one, not even bothering to finish him off. Shadows coalesced into a spear as I tried to pick a target. A jackalhead tried to break my neck but Hakram had caught up and his axe sent the lupine head tumbling to the ground. Not the one in the middle, I thought frantically. Too obvious. To the left? It was away from William. I cursed and chose one of the three on the left, the one getting away the fastest. The spear of shadows flew straight, clipping Heiress in the shoulder.

Another mercenary fell to the ground, half his chest missing.

“Fucking Hells,” I cursed again.

The Lone Swordsman relieved another Heiress of her leg, but it was a decoy again. Only five left now. I couldn’t follow, damn me. I couldn’t run, not like I used to, and the devils were continuing to stream in. Without Apprentice to cover the skies, I was having to fend off the godsdamned gargoyles every time I wasn’t putting down some other devil going for my throat. William though, bless his Callowan hide, was hounding the fleeing Heiresses with all the viciousness he could muster. Another decoy died to an explosive ball of red light courtesy of Apprentice, and the last four were clustered together. The Lone Swordsman ran one through, didn’t even stop to look whether it’d been the real Heiress – it hadn’t – and burned another one alive with a blast of almost blinding light. Only two now, and William was closing in.

That was when the fireball caught him in the face.

The hero was thrown back, rolling on the stone. Ahead of him Fadila Mbafeno, on a horse and holding the reins of another, withdrew her hand. A dozen devils surrounded her like a hellish honour guard. One of the Heiresses deftly slid atop the free mount, claiming the reins and wasting no time in making her getaway. More devils poured in, filling the gap between the Lone Swordsman and my other rival, and I had to admit then and there we would be catching her right now. I hissed in anger, taking out my temper on the closest devil – my sword blade hacked through the chest, the jackalhead screaming in pain before I put it of its misery.

“Retreat,” I called out to Hakram.

We needed to regroup, and then get ready to press forward again. I sure as Hells wasn’t done with this fight.

Red Skies

“This eye for an eye business is horridly proportional. I assure you, if I’m losing an eye then so is everyone else.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia II

“So you’re going to be fighting this Warlock, I take it?” Tikoloshe said.

The incubus was lounging in a camp chair, something Wekesa had believed to be physically impossible before being presented with the current evidence. The devil looked like a man in every way, the deception perfect unlike with some of his less cunning kindred: smooth dark skin and closely cropped hair, an intelligently angular face and smiling eyes. When he’d first summoned the devil Apprentice had admittedly been curious about what appearance he would take. Incubi formed their looks around the deepest desires of the individual who’d brought them into Creation, though they could discard that shape at will if they so wished. There’d been no oiled-up muscles or revealed hairless chests: Tikoloshe had come through dressed neatly and almost conservatively, his tastefully embroidered tunic topped by a collar that rose up almost up to his chin. It had surprised Wekesa, but somehow it felt accurate. There was a reason incubi and succubi were often summoned by practitioners seeking to perfect their craft: learning what they truly found attractive allowed them to discover something about themselves in a subject matter where humans were in the habit of lying to themselves. To know yourself was to know your power.

“That is the plan,” Wekesa agreed, pouring himself a drink from the carafe on the table.

His tent in the camp of Malicia’s rebel army – officially the actual rightful Legions of Terror, though that would have to wait on a final triumph to become reality – was a little to the side of the others, warded heavily and under instructions by Amadeus not to be disturbed. Apprentice had managed to accumulate a few creature comforts during the campaign, like a real table and a steady supply of wine, but bare necessities like a bed that wasn’t a glorified block of wood or a real bathtub still escaped him. At least a few stone candles topped by blue mage fire made lanterns and their greasy scent unnecessary. Not that mud and greenery mere a much better scent, admittedly.

Plan is not the word that comes to mind,” Tikoloshe spoke idly. “You are still young, and this Warlock is in the fullness of his power. I detect the hand of your vicious little confederate at work in this.”

Amadeus had made no mystery of his opinion that the incubus should be forced to cough out all his tricks and secrets and then put down like an animal, a position that had not endeared him to Tikoloshe. Wekesa disagreed, as it happened, and his friend trusted his judgement enough to let the matter lie. The devil was too interesting to be wasted in such a manner.

“He actually tried to convince me to delay the fight until we could catch him without support,” Apprentice said. “Something about hounding him until he was too weak to put up a fight, then striking the finishing blow.”

“I suppose even that man can be right, once in a while,” Tikoloshe conceded easily. “Pour me one as well, would you?”

Wekesa raised an eyebrow in surprise but complied, handing the devil the goblet after it was full. Their fingers touched when Tikoloshe took the cup and just that was enough to raise the tension in the tent by a notch. It would have been easier to ignore the attraction, Apprentice knew, if he hadn’t been so certain the bindings on the incubus were perfect. That near-certainty that the sex would be fantastic made it even worse.

“I know for a fact devils do not need sustenance while in Creation,” Wekesa said, watching the other man sip at the wine.

“We don’t,” Tikoloshe acknowledged. “I do, however, quite enjoy the taste of wine. The Praesi stuff is vastly inferior to the vineyards from the west, but it makes for an acceptable table vintage.”

“So you can differentiate between specific kinds of tastes,” Apprentice said, eyes sharpening as he leaned forward.

The eighth of the twenty-three bindings the incubus was under prevented him from ever lying, one of the many reasons the devil was such a fascinating source of information.

I can,” Tikoloshe said, hand rising to indicate an equivocation. “A consequence of both the length of my existence and what you might call my… nature.”

“Lust,” Wekesa said.

“Desire,” the incubus corrected. “Lust is such a limited concept, and I am a most complex creature.”

“You are an entity driven by an absolute,” Apprentice said. “Absolutes are, by their nature, simple. They would not function otherwise.”

Tikoloshe smiled. It was not patronizing or mocking: it was the smile of an educated man enjoying a lively conversation. Wekesa sipped at his wine to distract himself. He’d always had a weakness for clever men.

“Desire is to want,” the incubus said. “I want all things, Apprentice. The pleasures of the flesh issome of the most instinctual desires to your species, so they tend to be the strongest desire in my kind as well. But I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve learned to be… discerning in my own desires.”

“Like wine,” the dark-skinned mage said.

“Fine meals, enjoyable conversation and even such small things as a bath at the perfect temperature,” Tikoloshe said. “I find beautiful calligraphy as stirring as bedsport, in its own way.”

Wekesa eyed him thoughtfully.

“How old are you, Tikoloshe?”

The devil laughed. “I was first called into being when the witch-queen of what you would now call the northern Principate became dissatisfied with her husbands. I was no longer young when the Miezans first came upon the shores of this continent, blown by a storm.”

At least a millennium and a half, the dark-skinned mage thought. Humbling, to think that the incubus would likely exist long after all he knew had crumbled to dust.

“Seen it all before, have you?” he said.

“The Dread Empire always wounds itself, left to its own devices,” Tikoloshe said. “This scrap is but a pittance compared to the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One.”

“We’ll be different,” Wekesa said. “When we win.”

The incubus laughed softly.

“Will you? Why? I’ve seen your leaders, Apprentice. Seen what they desire. You’re lucky the pale boy isn’t the one aiming for the throne – he’d murder every child in this nation with his bare hands, if it got him what he wants. Not that your ‘Malicia’ is much better. The woman craves control the way a starving man craves a meal.”

Apprentice leaned back in his seat. “And me? Have you see what I desire?”

Tikoloshe raised an eyebrow. Such a human gesture on such an inhuman creature. His kind really were the most skillfully deceptive devils could get. The impersonation was flawless.

“You know my bindings prevent me from doing so.”

“I’ll just tell you, then,” Wekesa chuckled. “I want to do magic.”

The devil cocked his head to the side.

“Simple, isn’t it?” the dark-skinned mage said.

“I wouldn’t say that at all,” the incubus replied softly.

“All of this…” Wekesa gestured broadly. “The backstabbing, the politics, the war. It bores me. I want to dissect the world, Tikoloshe. To open up Creation and see where the Gods traced their boundaries in blood and power.”

“How blasphemous,” the devil said delightedly.

“We will be different,” Apprentice said. “For the same reason we keep beating opponents out of our league. They think they’re strong because they’ve accumulated power and we haven’t, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. We’ve never used our own strength: we let Creation win for us.”

“You seem remarkably lucid, for a madman,” Tikoloshe noted.

“I might still die tomorrow,” the mage said. “Which is why I need to ask you two questions. I compel you to answer. Were you trying to seduce me throughout this conversation?”

“No,” the incubus replied.

I compel you to answer,” he spoke again. “Are you attracted to me?”

“I am attracted to everyone,” Tikoloshe said.

The dark-skinned mage drained the rest of his wine, then rose to his feet. Wekesa unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. He raised an eyebrow at the incubus.

“Well?” he said. “What are we waiting for, then?”

When the High Lord Duma had ordered a fresh set of forts built in the northern reaches of his demesne, it had been met with a degree of surprise by most. The High Lordship of Aksum covered a third of the Wasteland but it had not been under threat by anyone in a long time: though Dread Emperor Nefarious had become a reclusive hedonist, the Empire was still largely at peace. Amadeus had recently told Wekesa it hadn’t actually been the High Lord’s notion at all. The refusal of the Clans to pay their owed tributes to the Tower had pushed the Chancellor – who’d effectively ruled Praes, in those days – to consider war with the greenskins. Though Wolof stood between Aksum and the steppes, the latter was still the last line of defence between the orcs and the Green Stretch. The Empire’s bread basket had to be protected at all costs, if it came to war. Widespread food shortages caused by rampaging greenskins would lead to the kind of unrest that had toppled Tyrants so many times before.

Now those same fortifications served to hinder the advance of a rebel army , though admittedly its ranks were filled with greenskins as had been feared. Amadeus had a way with them, especially the orcs, and the Chancellor had forced the entire species to take sides through the famous debacle that was the Night of Red Winds. A costly mistake, thinking that wiping out an entire clan would cow the rest. Now that act of treachery was the battle cry of ten thousands of angry orcs, all of them fighting for the rights of Dread Empress Malicia as the rightful ruler of Praes. Under Amadeus and Grem One-Eye the rebels were flying from victory to victory, and Alaya was using that as leverage to bring the fence-sitters among the High Lords to their side. Already Nok had declared for them, and word was Kahtan might do the same soon. All very promising, if hopelessly uninteresting to Apprentice. He had more practical matters to concern himself with, anyway. Such as the fortifications ahead.

The hillfort in front of him was the northernmost in the defensive lines of Aksum, and every attempt by their little rebellion to even assess what forces were inside had been met with abject failure. Scouts who got within half a mile were made into desiccated husks by spells coming from inside, a ritual Wekesa was rather familiar with. He’d learned the underlying concepts of it, when he’d been one of the many apprentices assigned to the Warlock. Before the man had tried to kill him and then sent monsters to hunt him when Wekesa managed to escape. Before he’d fallen in with a strange Duni boy who wanted to change the Empire one corpse at a time, before he’d met a sly-humoured waitress who would be forced into the seraglio by the whims of a broken madman. He’d occurred a debt, when he’d left the Warlock’s tutelage, one that predated the family he’d found since. This was his account to settle and he’d looked forward to it for a very long time.

Apprentice had garbed himself in a well-fitted set of clothes for the occasion. A traditional Soninke agbada, though cut a little more closely than was currently the fashion. The garb came in three parts: a pair of loose dark grey trousers that narrowed around the ankles, a long-sleeved shirt of the same colour and the garnet, open-stitched sleeveless gown worn over them both. Effectiveness and appearance should be married when feasible, such was the Soninke way. There was a hint of golden embroidery on the gown, the patterns arcane and hard to make out. The patterns strengthened the shield amulet he wore under his clothes, which was quite necessary: he’d sunk a lot of power into the defence, but his opponent was in another league entirely. Wekesa had always known he was strong in sorcery, abnormally so for one not born to a cultivated bloodline, but inborn talent was no match for decades upon decades of accumulated power and infernal pacts.

The fort was basic, he saw, likely because High Lord Duma had skimmed off the top of the funds provided to him by the Tower for their construction. A single ring wall stood close to the summit of the hill, with a squat tower inside. Wekesa was close enough to make out the silhouettes on that wall now, the two dozens of mages flanking the middle-aged Taghreb with a prominent hook nose he’d once looked up to as a teacher. Twice on his way down the dirt path the amulet under his clothes had warmed against his skin, a sign the Warlock had tried and failed to evaporate all the water inside his body. Apprentice strolled up to the fort, only stopping thirty feet or so away from the gates. The Warlock looked like he was about to talk, so he fished out the stone in his pocket and threw it in the man’s direction. It bounced off an invisible wall, getting lost somewhere on the battlements.

“A tracking charm,” the Warlock sneered. “That’s what you’re bringing to the table?”

Wekesa took out his dragonbone pipe, casually stuffing it with bangue. He struck a match and lit it, inhaling the herbs with a small sigh of pleasure.

“I’m out of juice,” Apprentice replied honestly. “Couldn’t even light this pipe with a bit of flame if I wanted to.”

“Disappointing,” Warlock said. “Though you were ever a disappointment.”

“Why?” Wekesa asked. “Because I wouldn’t let you feed me to a devil so you’d get a cut of my magic?”

“A bargain was struck,” the older Named said. “And I will yet get my due. Did you think just a shield would be enough to stop me? It may have been crafted skilfully, boy, but my power has grown since we last met.”

“I can feel your minions probing it,” Apprentice noted. “I imagine as soon as they find the fault lines you’ll start hammering at them.”

“That was always your weakness, Wekesa,” the Warlock said. “You’re too feeble on the offensive. So much raw power at your disposal and you chose to specialize in an inferior branch of sorcery.”

“Wards are the purest form of sorcery there is,” the dark-skinned mage disagreed, inhaling the smoke and blowing it out. “Wards are boundaries, and when you look at it with clear eyes Creation is nothing but a set of interlocked boundaries set by the Gods.”

One of the minions leaned close to the Named, whispering. Warlock pushed the woman away.

“You really are powerless,” his old teacher said. “You come to fight me incapable of casting?”

“Well, I’ve already cast three spells today,” Wekesa mused. “I can only wring out so much power out of this body without getting wrinkles and who wants that?”

“Lord Warlock,” another minion called out. “Look up.”

Apprentice did not have to look to know what they’d noticed. Red skies as far as the eye could see. The third spell he’d cast that morning was beginning to take effect, right on time. Already drops of liquid fire were starting to rain, pattering against his shield. One of the minions was set aflame and began screaming as the hellflame spread all over his body and consumed him in a matter of moments. The others hastily put up shields of their own.

“Is this all you could manage?” Warlock mocked. “A meagre rain of flame? I taught you better than that. Shaping a spell like this will drain your power for an effect any half-baked practitioner can protect themselves from. Only worth using against the giftless.”

“I didn’t,” Wekesa said. “Create a hellstorm, that is.”

The older Named looked taken aback.

“You lie,” he said, beginning to smell the rat.

Apprentice blew out a stream of smoke, smiling serenely.

“You said it yourself, Warlock,” he replied. “I’m just a ward specialist. Fighting you in a casting war was always doomed to failure – you have reserves of nastiness you haven’t even begun to tap into, I’m sure.”

“You broke a boundary,” the Taghreb cursed.

“Weakened,” Apprentice corrected. “Temporarily, and only for entities meeting certain parameters. Still took everything I had left.”

In the distance a chunk of flaming rock the size of a small house hit the ground with a sound like thunder, spreading waves of hellflame on impact.

“And you were wrong, by the way,” Wekesa continued. “Earlier. It wasn’t a tracking charm. It was a homing one.”

The stone that was passing into Creation from one of the lesser Hells was the size of a fortress this time. Apprentice had aligned the boundaries so it would be just above the hillfort, and ensured it would hit with the homing charm. The Warlock crushed the pebble he’d thrown into dust with a single word, but it was too late for that to change anything. Now the laws of Creation were ensuring the trajectory. Maybe if they’d seen the stone coming sooner they might have managed to stop it, but the only mage with the talent to do that was the Warlock – and Wekesa had kept him talking, knowing the older man would not be able to resist gloating.

So now, watching the other Named invoke half a dozen devil pacts to try to break the trajectory and fail against the weight of thousands and thousands of pounds of rock, Apprentice continued smiling and enjoyed his pipe. His own shield, designed over months of careful work until he’d finally granted it power into it that morning, had been crafted to keep him safe specifically through this event. Howling winds and eldritch fire blew around his protective bubble but he was safe underneath, watching his enemies be crushed by what was effectively a small mountain of rock and unholy fire. Eventually he was able to see again, and he felt his Name fill like a glass of wine. As far as he could see, in all directions, this corner of Creation had been turned into a hellish wasteland of stone and flame.

Casually emptying his pipe on the ground, Warlock began the trek back to camp.

Chapter 42: Flaw

“Sometimes you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, executing the hens who laid them on trumped up charges and setting the most rebellious henhouse on fire as an example to the others.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II

Behind me the Fifteenth formed into a battering ram.

Cohorts repositioned smoothly as Juniper’s orders were relayed, forming a long broad column with myself and the Gallowborne at the head of it. The Procerans and the devils still suffered the occasional shot from Pickler’s engines but the mercenaries had largely been allowed to flee. I’d had a hard conversation on the subject with the Hellhound mere moments ago – she’d been of the opinion that Nauk’s kabili should sweep through them so we’d have fewer to fight inside the walls, where my legion would be constrained by the size of the streets. She’d given in, though, when I’d pointed out one important fact: Heiress was after something inside the walls. She would not have burned so many bridges otherwise, resigned a commission handed to her by the Black Knight himself and summoned an godsdamned actual host of devils. This was no longer a siege, it was a race – and I’d need every soldier inside with me.

Since then, what felt like too long had passed. Barika’s execution had cooled my blood somewhat, but the fury had been replaced by restlessness. More than once I’d considered just taking the Gallowborne and going in without the rest of the Fifteenth, but it was just too much of a risk. The kind I couldn’t afford, not with heroes on the prowl and Heiress just one fig leaf away from open rebellion against the Tower. Masego was still hunched over his scrying trinket, eyeing the unfolding battle inside the walls.

“I thought we couldn’t scry behind the city walls,” I said.

“The devils disrupted the wards,” Apprentice replied. “I can have a look anywhere short of the Ducal Palace itself. And the lake. That place is swimming in so much holy power I doubt either of us could even eat the fish from it.”

“How’s it looking for the defenders?” Hakram gravelled.

“Their commander set up concentric rings of defences inside the city,” the bespectacled mage said. “The walls are lost, but in their retreat they set on fire all the houses behind them. It appears to be slowing the devils down and the soldiers are gathering on the first ring for another stand.”

“The Lone Swordsman?” I asked.

“I found him twice,” Masego said. “At the moment he appears to be single-handedly holding an avenue against the devils.”

“Keep an eye on him,” I ordered. “We’ll be headed in his direction as soon as we’ve established a beachhead.”

Apprentice replied with a gesture that was half-agreement half-dismissal of the conversation, eyes still peeled on his instrument. Behind us the horns finally sounded, signalling it was time to begin the advance. Like a great beast coming to wake, the Fifteenth began to march. I set Zombie to a trot and the Gallowborne followed. From the corner of my eye I saw Hakram gently remind Apprentice that he was supposed to be walking, jolting him out of his thoughts. I couldn’t tell exactly where it had begun, though I thought it might have been the middle of the column. One voice started, then hundreds joined in and the avalanche swept over the entire legion. My soldiers were singing.

“He was a prince and a handsome lad

On a pretty white horse, all iron-clad

His lance was silver but his heart gold

A peerless champion, or so we’re told

Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”

Most of my legionaries were terrible singers, though with that many voices in chorus it was hard to even tell. I cast a look at Hakram, who was whistling the tune and trying not to grin.

“So he cornered us on a muddy hill

His knights were up and eager to kill

But he said halt! We need not fight!

Only the she-witch will die tonight!

Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”

Well, at least they were moving. The tune had been set to the cadence of  a legionary’s quick march, because of course it had. We got in range of bowshot from the walls fast enough, but there was no one left to shoot at us. All the defenders had retreated. That showed foresight on the part of the commander on the other side: they’d been given orders in case the walls were breached.

“He rode up to us and rang his horn

Called out the Boss with all his scorn

Then sat there idle, proud as all Hells

Waiting while she bid her farewells

Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”

The river barges were no longer smoking but they were messy terrain to go through. The Gallowborne had to break formation around what had once been a prow, shields up and casting wary looks ahead. Hakram’s axe – he’d changed weapons after Marchford, and proved deadlier with this one than he’d ever been with the last – had been in hand since we’d started moving. Once in a while he nudged Masego in the right direction with it, since the Soninke still refused to look away from his instrument.

“So we shot him, right through the throat

So much for that armour and all the gloat

So learn the lesson from that sad day –

Fuck with the Fifteenth and you’ll pay

Oh! Poor Lord of the Silver Spears!”

I snorted. Well, that was one lesson to derive from Three Hills. If singing what was essentially trash-talk as they marched kept my legion’s morale up, I wasn’t going to mess with the formula. The Gallowborne formed a wedge as we approached the gates, slowing down. Said gates had been propped up where they were supposed to stand, but even from my saddle I could see there was nothing holding them there but their weight.

“Adjutant,” I said.

The tall orc laughed and moved forward, my personal guard splitting around him. Holstering his axe in the loop of leather he used to hold it, Hakram brought up his tower shield and hunched his shoulders. I felt his Name flare up and squinted in his direction. To my senses his Name felt like something steady and large, almost like stone. It was strange that I could get even that much from him – I never had from Apprentice and Heiress, or even Black. He bullrushed almost faster than I could follow with the naked eye, shield impacting the metal gates with a sound like bell ringing. A heartbeat later the whole thing toppled, falling to the ground in a cloud of dust. Almost instantly arrows fell all round him, a pair sliding off his shield with a metallic clatter. He backpedalled and the Gallowborne formed a ring of shields around him. Through the smoke and dust on the other side, I could see burning buildings and a handful of archers already retreating.

One lingered to try to take a potshot at me, but one of my guards popped out from behind the shields and placed a bolt in his chest. The man fell, likely dead, and that was enough to make the others flee outright. Scouts, I decided. Placed here to tell William when we’d be crossing the gates. Were they still under the impression that Heiress and I were working together? They couldn’t be, not after Pickler had turned the ballistas on the mercenaries. It might not matter to them at all, I thought. As far as the heroes were concerned any force but their own managing to hold the city was a disaster.

“Forward,” I ordered. “Secure the area.”

The Gallowborne sprang into movement as the first legionaries began catching up to us. Hune’s regulars, with sappers behind them. Juniper wanted to establish at least basic fortifications around the gates in case we had to defend the chokepoint from the devils. So far it looked like our taking of the entrance wouldn’t be contested, but I doubted that would last. The way I saw it, the defenders had two problems at the moment. First, they had to hammer back the devils. Otherwise they’d rampage across the city and kill anyone they could get their hands on. Second, they couldn’t allow the Fifteenth to dig in past the gates. If we did there was no getting us out: urban warfare was not a specialty of the Legions of Terror, but we had the professional soldiers and the munitions to force our way in one city block at a time. The moment Juniper had a solid beachhead it was all downhill for them. Zombie took me past my personal guard and into the plaza behind the gates, leaving them scrambling to catch up.

From the corner of my eye I saw movement around a rooftop and instantly brought up my shield. It was a devil. One of the winged creatures I’d glimpsed earlier, looking like a hairy dwarf gargoyle with claws and bat wings. The devil sat there on top of a burning roof, apparently not inconvenienced by the smoke and flames.

“Devil,” I called out. “Get ready for a wave.”

Captain Farrier bellowed orders and the Gallowborne tightened formation. I remained on my horse, calmly studying the devil as Hakram strode to my side.

“It’s not attacking,” I said.

The tall orc made a thoughtful sound. “Waiting for reinforcements?”

“Heiress will be trying to push deeper into the city, not hit as we enter,” I said. “Otherwise she’ll overextend right in front of the Lone Swordsman.”

Something that was not likely to end well for her. If Masego was to be believed, the hero was turning any street he was in into a one-man meat grinder. If he ever ran out of devils to kill, he’d be going on the offensive for sure.

“She could be looking through its eyes,” Hakram suggested.

More likely. No need to allow that to continue any longer.

“Farrier,” I yelled. “Crossbows on the devil.”

Before fifteen heartbeats had passed the creature was trying and failing to duck under shots, shrieking as its leg was nailed to the thatch. It’s not fighting back at all, I frowned. Masego arrived at my side, finally bothering to look up from his scrying. I leaned to the side in my saddle.

“Can you capture it?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow and flicked his wrist upwards, muttering a few words. Panes of blue light formed a pyramid around the devil, neatly imprisoning it. Another flick of the wrist and the pyramid was ripped off the roof, skidding against the ground as it was pulled in our direction. Half a dozen crossbows were trained on the imprisoned creature before it had even finished moving. Getting down from my horse, I ignored the protests of my guards and walked to the devil. I knelt in front of it.

“Apprentice,” I said. “Open the panel in front of me.”

Immediately everyone but Masego began protesting, but I gestured for them to shut the Hells up.

“It’s not going to fight me,” I said.

The panel flickered out of existence and I leaned forward, pointing a finger at the devil. It shrunk back, screaming in dismay.

“It can’t fight me,” I said.

Apprentice knelt at my side, speaking in the arcane tongue. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly.

“Only nine layers of binding,” he said. “Sloppy work, even by mass-summoning standards.”

Nine lines of runes made of light formed in the air in front of him. The dark-skinned mage ran a finger down them, stopping at the eighth line.

“They can’t attack anyone part of the Legions,” he said, sounding surprised. “If they touch a legionary they have to just… stop moving.”

I closed my eyes, letting out a breathless laugh.

“Of course they can’t,” I said. “The angle Heiress will work after this is that she was trying to make sure the angel wouldn’t have anyone to convert, in case I failed. She was just covering all the bases like a good Imperial citizen.”

Hakram let out a sharp breath. I hadn’t even realized he was standing behind me.

“If she wants to pretend that, her devils can’t kill legionaries,” he said. “Otherwise she was getting in the way of a Tower-sanctioned military operation.”

“Well now,” I murmured. “Doesn’t that just change things?”

I grinned, slow and mean and showing too much teeth for it to be friendly. It looked like I wasn’t the one getting hampered by politics, for once.

“Hakram,” I said, rising to my feet. “Send a runner to Commander Hune. The moment we have enough troops in the city I want her forces to swing east in force and flank the devils. They are to slaughter any hellspawn they see and engage the defenders only if attacked.”

Adjutant saluted and immediately got to it. I offered a hand to Apprentice, hoisting him up.

“You still have a general idea where the Lone Swordsman is?” I asked.

“He moved further east,” Masego replied, “but I can find him. Is that where we’re headed?”

“As soon as Hakram is back we’re moving out,” I said.

“You take me to such interesting places, Catherine,” Apprentice spoke drily. “What’s next, a church full of demons that is also on fire?”

I shrugged. “Day’s still young.”

We hugged the wall on our path east, as much to run into devils as to avoid running into rebels. A single company of regulars and we still must have killed twenty of the creatures on our way through: the Gallowborne realized early that if you ran in their direction they just backed away without fighting, making them really easy to corner. Jackalheads and ironhooks, mostly, but one of the lieutenants was a deft hand with a crossbow and brought down a couple of the already-nicknamed monkeybats. Time was hard to estimate in a city on fire, which was unfortunate given how often I seemed to run into those. Twice we ran into small crews of scouts, but they retreated without fighting. Couldn’t really blame them: not a lot of people would want to scrap with a company of hardened veterans led by three Named. The further east we got, the thicker the crowd of devils became. They started fleeing at the sight of us, which was irritating but could be worked to our advantage. If we cleared wherever we stepped just by being there, we could take the pressure off the defenders.

It would be a fine line to walk. I didn’t want William and his troops to get off too easy or they’d give the Fifteenth trouble later, but if they collapsed now we were all in trouble. I’d had an idea, when I’d realized how Heiress’ devils were bound, that might neuter them savagely. I needed to be in the right place for it to work, though, and that place was the thick of the fight. Where all the enemy soldiers were. That was not, I reflected, ideal. On the other hand, if I didn’t start improvising now this whole battle was fucked. Even worse, there was no telling where Heiress currently was: Apprentice could find no trace of her when he scried, and I still had no godsdamned idea what she was actually after. I couldn’t help but think that the devils were another distraction, something for me to get stuck in while she had free hand to accomplish… whatever it was she’d set out to accomplish.  But I can’t take care of that until I’m done with William.

If the Lone Swordsman burst onto the scene while I was dealing with Heiress, I was pretty much dead. All the contingencies I had for him involved a degree of controlled conditions, which was half the reason Masego would not be leaving my side for the rest of this battle. The best outcome I could hope for with the heroes was a truce until the devils were out of play, but that seemed… unlikely. Not opening an additional front on each other might be more feasible, but if Heiress was already past their lines I’d have to pursue – and somehow I doubted they’d just clap me on the back and let me through. That could get messy. Weeping Heavens, my life was a series of progressively worse messes. I’d been kind of hoping the worseness would eventually reach a plateau of awful and stop, but so far that height was nowhere in sight. Anyhow, I need to survive today to witness that shining ray of hope, I thought darkly. I slowed Zombie’s gait with a twist of will, the Gallowborne following suit around me. I’d had an itch between my shoulders blades for a while now, one I’d first believed to be the result of sweat and rough clothes. But it wasn’t going away.

“Hold your fire,” I told my guards. “Thief, come the Hells out. Let’s have a chat.”

There was a long moment of silence afterwards and I almost began to think I’d read too much into this. I hadn’t, though: the short-haired woman strolled out of a nearby alley, hands casually in her pockets. No weapons in sight, but considering she’d thrown two dozen boats at the field earlier that meant less than nothing. She was smiling, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“I love talking,” Thief said. “It allows me to ask all sorts of questions, like ‘why the fuck did you summon a bunch of devils, you unholy twit?’”

“Wasn’t me,” I said. “We’re clearing them out wherever we can.”

“If they’re not on your side,” Thief said, narrowing her eyes, “why aren’t they attacking you?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied, “Long story short, Heiress is running a scheme.”

“Well that makes it all better then,” the heroine said with an unpleasant smile. “ Does that mean we’re friends now? Wanna hold hands, maybe braid my hair?”

“Heiress wouldn’t have had the excuse to pull something like this if you assholes weren’t summoning a brainwashing angel,” I retorted sharply.

There were limits to how civil I was willing to be with these people, and the kind of incivility I was willing to take from them.

“Desperate times,” Thief said, face turning blank. “What do you want, Foundling?”

“I want to talk with William.”

“Not sure he’ll be all that interested in talking,” the heroine said.

“That’ll be my problem to deal with,” I replied.

Thief mulled over that for a moment, then shrugged.

“No skin off my back if he puts you down, I suppose. Follow me,” she said. “Last I heard he was on the hunt for your little friend.”

I frowned. “Heiress?”

“That’s the one,” Thief agreed. “They should be playing the ‘who’s losing an arm’ game by now.”

The heroine leaned forward.

“Here’s a hint: the answer is usually ‘not him’.”

Chapter 41: Retrieve

… such wanton deviousness had been unseen since the days of Dread Emperor Traitorous, who famously passed for his own Chancellor through cunning use of a wig and a pair of cantaloupes…”
– Extract from “The Most Illustrious Histories of the Inimitable Dread Empire of Praes”, volume IV

The clamour died down before long.

The Fifteenth had been positioned according to Juniper’s plan for the forcing of the city, with Hune’s irregular kabili of over a thousand men taking point. Heavies in the front, with the strength of our sapper corps behind them. Nauk’s legionaries were split between the wings, placed so that they would be able to reinforce weak points rather than engage the enemy on their own. I would have preferred for the orc commander to be the tip of the spear but Juniper had brought up the valid point that he was a lot more likely to commit to too deep an offensive than Hune. The ogre would not let her legionaries step even once over the imaginary line set by the Hellhound. I had not cheered with my legion, sobered by the knowledge that this was just an opening blow. With the gates open my own instinct would have been to rush through and take the enemy while they were still unprepared, but Juniper had pushed back against that idea hard. The Lone Swordsman had a history of trickiness that could not be denied, and she didn’t want to have to learn what he’d planned the hard way.

“So what do you have for us now, Willy?” I murmured.

Sharpening my vision with my Name, I frowned and peered through the broken gates. Like we’d anticipated the Stygian spears were surrounding the entrance into the city – whether or not there were archers behind I did not have the angle to see, but I’d bet that there were. Neither the Baroness Dormer nor William himself were noted military commanders, but the older Stygian spear-slaves were said to be schooled in tactics and strategy. It was one of their selling points: the few Free Cities that used the slaves for war did not usually have an officer corps of their own to provide. A few heartbeats passed without any response from the other side, a fact that was almost more troubling than reassuring. Meanwhile, Senior Sapper Pickler’s boys got to work. The trebuchets began targeting the ramparts to the sides of the gate bastion, massive stones smashing into them with professional regularity. Our pair of ballistas had been pointed at the bastion itself. There was no expectation that the smaller stones would actually able to bring it down, and we didn’t actually want them to. They just had to clear the fortificiations of archers and mages, while the trebuchets made sure there wouldn’t be flanking fire on the Fifteenth when it advanced.

I glanced at Heiress, who’d been silent since my last cutting retort. Barika trailed behind her, eyes on my moving legion. They’d be giving me trouble anytime soon now, but whatever they had planned the contingencies I’d set up should hobble them. As long as Akua didn’t have the Procerans at her beck and call, all she could put forward was a small retinue of her own guards and her noble minions. Dangerous, but not so much that I couldn’t step on them if I wanted to. Getting her right here, where she couldn’t get up to any shenanigans away from prying eyes, had been the most important part. I wondered if this was how Black felt all the time, measuring risks and moving enemies over traps you could trigger at any time. It would explain a lot about the man if he did: there was nothing wondrous or adventurous about this. It was just… work. Like bartending, if more dangerous. They didn’t talk about these parts in the stories. The sleepless nights you spent anticipating the actions of your enemies, the grind of preparing your counters to their moves. All the while knowing that you might never need the work at all, or that it might turn out you’d made the wrong kind of efforts entirely. And he did this for all of Callow for over two decades.

The thought was chased away the moment the rebels finally gave answer to our drawing first blood. A lone silhouette passed through the gates, gait assured and unhurried. For a moment I’d thought it would be the Lone Swordsman, come to defy an entire army on his own, but my Name sight found an entirely different face: Thief. The heroine was strolling with her hands in her pockets, whistling if the shape of her lips was any indication.

“Not the Named I was expecting,” Hakram gravelled.

“Preaching to the choir,” I said. “Angling for single combat, do you think?”

“She doesn’t have a fighting Role,” the orc frowned. “I could more or less handle her before I came into my Name: she tries you and she’ll end up bleeding on the floor.”

There was no flattery in that reply, just a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of how good I’d gotten at killing things.

“Even if she calls for a duel, she’ll be getting the princely reply,” I said. “We don’t have time to waste on posturing.”

The Thief agreed, apparently. She stopped sixty feet away from the gate, on the open field but still out of crossbow range. A ballista stone flew over her head, hitting the wall without making a kill but keeping the archers crouched behind the fortifications. She flipped a finger in our general direction then took up a leather pouch from her side, turning it upside down as if to empty the contents on the ground. A heartbeat later, twenty-odd river barges fell in a crash of wood and floodwater. I blinked just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

“What the actual fuck?” I said eloquently.

I had a few more relevant questions in mind, but that was the one that came out. I glanced at Heiress, whose face was emotionless. Not tell to find there, unfortunately. Had the Thief… summoned boats? This was aspect stuff, there was no doubt about it, but she wasn’t a mage. That I knew of, anyway. I gestured for one of the Gallowborne to come closer.

“Tell Apprentice to hurry back here,” I ordered. “This was, uh, not part of the plan.”

“If this turns into a naval battle, we’re down a fleet of our own,” Hakram commented drily.

“Less sass, more figuring out what the Hells was the point of that,” I ordered.

There hadn’t been much water, and it was already seeping into the ground.  Still, I somehow doubted making a little mud had been the plan there. There was no sign of the Thief anymore, but I knew it’d be too much to hope for she’d been crushed under the barges.

“They’re blocking access to the gate,” Hakram said.

I cursed. True, the boats had fallen all over the place: some forward, yes, but some backwards also. The ones in the back probably forbade entrance to the same gate we’d just knocked open. The heroes had replied to our forcing a way in by dropping a mountain of wood in front of that path. I might have picked up on that faster, had I not been befuddled by the absurdity and overkill of the answer.

“They’ll be putting the gate back up as we speak,” I grimaced.

“We can order Pickler to smash the boats to kindling,” Adjutant said.

“That’ll take too long,” I said. “And I doubt our trick on the gate will work twice.”

The orc cast me a cautious look.

“You only have so many cards up your sleeves,” he warned me.

“I only have so many hours before the actual bloody Heavens show up,” I replied, then turned to another of the Gallowborne. “Run to Juniper. Tell her I’m slapping down my first trump early.”

There’d be no need to be any more precise than that, not with the Hellhound. I closed my eyes and reached for my Name, opening pupils on a corpse far to my left. The ox rose to its feet. I’d been meaning this particular surprise for Willy, a way to make swordsmanship irrelevant to our coming fight. I’d had several of our labour oxen slaughtered and stuffed with goblin munition loadouts, including one full of goblinfire. He’ll be expecting them after this. The ox I’d reached for was one heavy on demolition charges, the flesh carved deep and filled to the brim. It would have been enough to casually level a city block, Robber assured me, so it should be enough for the barges. If not, I had another six oxen to finish the job. I set the undead construct to a steady trot, only then opening my eyes. Hakram was looking at me, trying not to grin. I sighed.

“Out with it,” I said. “What did they call this one?”

“The Oxis of Evil,” he confessed.

Sappers were, I reflected, the worst of the worst. As if to prove my point the ox I controlled came into my field of view and I noticed there was someone riding on it. A goblin. I couldn’t use my Name sight and control the corpse at the same time, but there was no real need to.

“Remind me to demote Tribune Robber,” I told Hakram.

“I’ll make a note of it,” the orc said.

“Lesser footrest,” I decided. “That’ll be his new rank.”

“You don’t have another footrest,” Adjutant pointed out.

“But if I did,” I replied vindictively, “he’d be beneath them.”

Heiress, to my surprise, had not taken the occasion to snipe at either myself or the Fifteenth. She was looking at the scene, turning her back to me. Discreetly, I gestured at Captain Farrier to have another two crossbowmen ready to take her out. I didn’t trust how quiet she’d gotten. With Pickler’s engines keeping the enemy archers busy, Robber and his mount covered the ground with only a handful of pot-shots taken at them. One arrow hit the ox right in the brains, but the corpse wasn’t exactly using those at the moment. A few moments before impact Robber leaned forward and struck a match, setting off a fuse before rolling off. Landing on his feet, the goblin spread out his arms at the soldiers on the rampart and yelled out something. I was too far away to hear, and anyhow I was busy cutting the strands connecting me to the ox before it exploded. The corpse hit the side of the closest barge, horns getting stuck in the wood, and a moment later Creation lit up.

I’d again underestimated how much munitions were amplified by Name power, it seemed. The hand of an angry god swatted aside the centre of the boat pile, smouldering planks of wood catapulted in every direction. One large piece hit the first rank of Hune’s heavies, slapping down an orc nearly as large as Nauk like he was a child. I winced. Broken bones for sure, even if he’d caught it on the shield. When the mess settled down I saw that something resembling a path had been cleared. Half a barge was still in the way and would make passing under the bastion much trickier, but it would also be usable as cover.  Like I’d suspected, the gate was already back up. Our way to get rid of it had left it largely intact, after all, even if I doubted they’d have repaired the hinges so quickly. I was beginning to think I should have used the oxen on the walls, surprise or not.  With the Fifteenth ready to pour in the gap the moment it settled we might have avoided the mess at the gate entirely. Too late for that now.

“You were using your sight on Robber?” I asked Hakram.

He was actually better as sharpening his senses than I was, nowadays. He still lacked a second aspect but the few tricks Black had taught me he’d taken to like a fish to water.

“I was,” the orc agreed.

“What was he yelling?” I asked with morbid curiosity.

Adjutant smothered another grin.

“I believe it might have been ‘knock knock, motherfuckers’,” he informed me.

Lesser lesser footrest,” I muttered under my breath.

Behind us, horns sounded and the Fifteenth began to stir itself to movement. The foreplay was over and Robber fled back to the safety of our lines to the loud acclaim of his cohort of insane murderous hooligans. That they were actually my cohort of insane murderous hooligans was something I was trying very hard not to think too much about. In the distance I saw that Apprentice was coming back in my direction, then frowned when he started gesticulating wildly. I gazed in the direction he was pointing at. The Procerans, I saw, were not moving in formation. They were supposed to slip in front of Hune’s men to harass the Stygians before impact was made, but they were splitting off my host to the left.

“Heiress,” I barked.

There was a chorus of swords being unsheathed and two dozen crossbows instantly covered Akua and Barika . My rival cleared her throat daintily.

“As the Sahelians have unfortunately been put under a strong financial burden by Her Most Dreadful Majesty, I’m sad to inform you we can no longer afford to keep the mercenaries in our pay,” she said. “As a result, I no longer command them and therefore no longer qualify as an auxiliary officer according to Legion regulations.”

“They’re in the Tower’s employ,” I said.

“They’ve never signed any contract with the Tower, or been handed gold by it,” she smiled.

“Get off your horse,” I spoke softly. “Hands on your head, and the same with your minion. You so much as make a vaguely suspicious move and my men will drop you.”

Akua did not move.

“On what grounds do you demand this?” she asked curiously.

Apprentice barrelled onto the scene a moment later, panting and looking like he was about to throw up.

“Catherine,” he said, his robes now sweat-stained. “That’s not Heiress.”

Without missing a beat I reached for the knife at my belt, palmed it and threw it. It spun and sunk to the hilt in the leg of whoever was wearing Heiress’ face. The illusion shattered with a tinkling sound and the sight of Arzachel, bound and gagged, was presented to my eyes. Barika laughed.

“Too late,” the heiress to Unonti said.

The haft of Hakram’s axe caught her on the temple a heartbeat later, throwing her down the horse and sending her straight into unconsciousness before she even hit the ground. There was surge of power in the distance, from among the mercenaries.

“The demon,” I said. “Masego, are we-“

“It’s not getting through,” he interrupted.

And like he said, a moment later, there was a responding surge of power from where Kilian’s task force of mages was waiting. We’d prepared for this, thank the Gods. Horns sounded again and the left flank of the Fifteenth turned to face the Procerans. They didn’t seem interested in giving battle, though. They were fleeing towards the walls. Not that Juniper cared: before twenty heartbeats had passed the legion’s ballistas had been repositioned and a pair of bloody furrows was carved in the mercenary ranks. Pickler’s sappers had managed to hit the ground at the right angle for the stones to bounce and continue rolling, killing dozens instead of mere handfuls with every shot. Wouldn’t have worked as well on better armoured men, but these were light infantry. I glanced at Masego, whose face had turned ashen.

“We have the wrong target,” he said. “She’s not bringing something through.”

Ripping one of the silver trinkets from his hair – this one with a reflective surface – he spoke a few words and an image appeared on the side of it. Zombie moved closer to him and I hunched over. We were looking at the Stygian spears, arrayed behind the gates.

“They’re the target?” I asked.

“Not them in specific,” he muttered. “This is High Arcana, it works through… associations. Metaphysical concepts.”

One of the former slaves in the front ranks staggered, his muscular body turning into a weak husk in the blink of an eye before he dropped dead on the ground. One after another, the Stygian spears dropped. Two thousand, they were. Before thirty heartbeats had passed every single one of them was a corpse.

“Weeping Heavens,” I whispered. “What kind of a ritual is this?”

“She fed them, didn’t she?” Masego said. “She gave them water and rations. Hers. And she just retrieved that gift.”

“If it’s retrieved, that means she got it back,” I hissed.

Two thousand lives in fuel. The power to the east had not dimmed, it had grown. And even as I thought, I could feel it taking shape. The ballistas continued taking their toll but they were irrelevant now. Heiress had never intended for the Procerans to be the force she used today. They’d been a red herring for me to focus my efforts on, thinking I was scoring victories by hobbling them. In front of the fleeing mercenaries a tear in Creation formed, pouring out a geyser flame and sulphur.

“Contact the task force,” I ordered Masego immediately. “Shut this down, now.”

The image on the trinket shifted and Apprentice immediately began talking in a low voice to someone. I didn’t stick around to supervise: he knew how to handle that situation better than I did. I passed by Hakram and the Gallowborne securing the unconscious Barika. Someone had gotten Arzachel off the horse and handled the wound, but he wouldn’t be talking: his tongue had been removed. So that’s why the Procerans are listening to Heiress. Odds were someone with Arzachel’s face was giving them their orders. When had she made the switch? I doubted she’d managed to put a prisoner on a horse under my nose without my noticing, so she must have found a way to fool Apprentice’s spectacles from the beginning. But then how did he figure out she wasn’t the one on the horse when he came back? Suspicion gnawed at me, but I set aside the matter for now. My eyes turned to the ritual gate, and what I saw there had my limbs going numb. Devils were spewing out of it by the hundreds.  Ironhooks, jackalheads and the lizard-tigers. Other kinds I’d never seen before too, with wings.

All of them were going for the walls. The ironhooks would be able to climb them with no trouble. Some would die going up, shot by archers, but eventually a foothold would be made. And then the levies would panic, and the whole infernal host would spill into the city. Thousands would die, I already knew. Tens of thousands, even, since the civilians would be so tightly packed. All of it because I’d thought Heiress would use an old trick again instead of pull out a new one. My Name was silent. It should have been howling in anger and outrage, but there was not so much as a ripple in the pond. The stillness in my mind was all mine. So was the vicious, frozen fury going through my veins. Eventually Kilian’s task force managed to shut down the ritual gate by following Masego’s instructions, cutting through a giant snake as it did. It didn’t matter: another one had passed through unhindered, and it was closing its jaws on the top of the ramparts. Lesser devils were already beginning to use it as a way up.

I got down from my horse and walked to Barika’s prone form, crouching to slap her awake. I felt like my body was not my own, like I was puppeting myself the way I did corpses. The Soninke opened her eyes with a pained gasp.

“You breed are ever sore losers,” she sneered the moment her eyes swam back in focus.

I felt myself exhale.

“It truly is a game to you, isn’t it?” I said. “Even when people die. Just part of the steps.”

“You’re in over your head, Foundling,” Barika said. “You have been since the beginning.”

I smiled.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about things on the march here. After Marchford, you see, I seriously considered assassinating Heiress even after Black essentially warned me off the idea. Do you know what held me off?”

“Fear,” the aristocrat mocked.

“Yes,” I agreed softly. “You’re right. I was afraid, Barika. Not of her but of… escalation. How much worse would she get, if she felt that her life was on the line?”

“Your mistake,” the Soninke said, “was to think that you should only be afraid of us when you threaten our lives.”

“Right again,” I chuckled. “Not in the way you meant it, but there it is. I keep expecting you lot to have lines you won’t cross. But you don’t, do you? You weren’t raised to think that way. Anything goes if it gets you what you want.”

“Torture might be preferable to your petty moralizing,” Barika said. “Not that you’ll get anything out of me. I’ve been trained to resist the likes of what you can bring to bear.”

“You probably have,” I acknowledged, and rose to my feet. “Thank you, Barika Unonti, for this valuable lesson.”

Calmly, I took the crossbow of the closest Gallowborne and placed a bolt through her eye. She was dead before she even realized what was happening.

“Masego,” I said, looking down at the corpse. “Scry Juniper. I’m ordering a full frontal assault.”

“And what will we be doing meanwhile, Catherine?” Hakram asked.

I spat to the side.

“We’re going to have a conversation with the man who cut off your hand.”