Interlude: Kaleidoscope V

“The final disappointment of heroism is to find that a just war was, in the end, just a war.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

Ink and parchment would see the day recorded as a victory, but Juniper of the Red Shields knew better. Despite her best efforts, the Army of Callow had reached the threshold where even the slightest losses began to affect combat efficiency. The loss of the crossbowmen on the first day had already crippled the host’s ability to wage open battle, but the second day’s losses had been a mere hour away from catastrophe. Twenty-two thousand soldiers had come to these plains, and now less than fifteen thousand remained fighting fit. The mage lines had nearly burned themselves out fixing minor injuries, an ugly choice to make. The Hellhound had broken Legion triage doctrine, which emphasised keeping as many legionaries alive as possible, in favour of getting as many men able to fight as possible. The deeply wounded had been allowed to die, or put out of their misery when requested. It burned her, the knowledge that the other side would have no such decision to make. Priests were a larger logistical advantage than she’d believed they would be.

The Marshal of Callow set aside the thought temporarily, though it never strayed far. There were decisions to make tonight in the dark and they would be no more pleasant than those of the day. She entered the tent without a word, the pair of legionaries guarding it saluting as she passed.

“If you’re here to cheer me up, you should have left the armour behind,” Archer drawled.

The orc did not bother to humour the Named’s coarseness with an answer, instead looking her up calmly. Lady Ranger’s pupil had done away with the woven scarf that usually covered the lower half of her face, along with the cloak and coat she insisted on wearing even now that spring had come. It bared skin, but despite the other woman’s finest attempts at a suggestive pose there was nothing seductive to be found. She was a mass of bruises and cuts, a red scar going up her cheek and across her left eye, through the eyebrow.

“She beat you like a drum,” Juniper stated.

Archer’s nose wrinkled.

“Got a few shots in myself,” she denied. “Pretty sure I broke her shoulder, near the end.”

“It will have been fixed within the hour,” the Hellhound said. “They have a healer among their Named.”

“You asked me to cover Nauk’s retreat,” the ochre-skinned woman shrugged. “Mission accomplished. Now where’s my seraglio of doe-eyed Taghreb beauties and oiled-up Soninke manservants?”

“Lodge a request with my supply tribune,” Juniper blandly replied. “I’ll have it fast-tracked.”

“We are the least decadent Evil side I’ve ever heard of,” Archer whined. “Who does a girl have to stab, to get fresh dates and a fan-waving pretty boy?”

“The Empress, one assumes,” the Hellhound grunted. “Will you be able to fight tomorrow?”

“If you’re going to use me for my body, you could at least make it enjoyable,” the Named snorted.

Engaging with this one, Juniper knew from experience, was akin to giving a stone that initial push down a hill. She let silence do the talking.

“Not confident about taking on the greybeards,” Archer admitted. “I could handle a few round with the side-pieces, but the Saint’s gotten used to my forms and the best I can manage with the Pilgrim is a shooting war.”

The orc’s lips pressed tightly, revealing dismay. That limited their options sharply. Already the loss of most of Pickler’s repeating scorpions and all of the Spitters had taken a tool out of her available arsenal, but if Archer couldn’t even be counted on to check either of the prime threats? It might still be possible to win, if she defended cleverly enough. But even if she did, the ruin inflicted on the other side would be matched by the devastation of her own host. Should the Army of Callow take even another four thousand casualties – a very conservative estimate of minimal losses considering enemy numbers and Named – then it was done for the year as anything but a second-rate defensive force. The recruiting camps in central Callow would continue providing a trickle of freshly-trained companies, but that covered only mainline infantry. Sappers, mages, knights. Neither of these could be so easily replaced, and without them it would be exceedingly difficult for the Army of Callow to handle the numerically superior forces the Tenth Crusade would inevitably send their way.

“Rest up,” Juniper finally said. “We’ll need you tomorrow.”

Archer leaned back in her seat, eyes for a single heartbeat bereft of the usual mocking indolence.

“Hellhound,” she said. “The Saint? I might have gotten a handle on her weakness.”

The orc paused, meeting the gaze of the Named.

“She never used an aspect,” Archer said. “And her cuts, it looks like she’s tossing them around carelessly but there’s always a purpose to it. Either as a deterrent, to allow her to move quickly or to put down an opponent hard before they can fight back.”

Juniper chewed over that.

“I’ve had very few reports of her using the cuts against soldiers,” the Hellhound finally said.

“She’d been fighting for over an hour when we scrapped,” Archer murmured. “And she never used any of the fancier tricks Catherine mentioned she has up her sleeve. I think she physically couldn’t.”

“She has limited amount of power, then,” Juniper deduced.

The other woman shook her head.

“I think she’d old,” Archer replied. “And that using tricks and aspects takes a toll on her body. She doesn’t fight your boys because, even if she kills a thousand, after that she’s emptied her tankard. It’s why she’s not the tip of the spear, she only comes out to remove problems.”

The Marshal of Callow inclined her head in silent thanks. It would not tip the balance of the battle, but it was great contribution nonetheless. So far, the Saint and the Pilgrim had acted as invincible forces of nature wherever they arrived, only ever checked by other Named. Juniper already suspected that the Grey Pilgrim could only intervene when others were threatened – else why only take the field when the repeating scorpions had already struck? – but now there might be a vulnerability to exploit in the other monster as well. The Hellhound offered a simple nod before leaving the tent, mind already returning to the decisions ahead. Which, to her irritation, she would have to consult another before making. The Thief was easy enough to find. It had been hours since she’d first settled in front of the camp fire she now stared into. Juniper claimed a log by her side, displeased she had to share a fire with the likes of this one.

“We need to retreat,” the Hellhound bluntly said, eschewing greetings.

“You know we cannot,” Thief replied just as bluntly. “If the Principate keeps a foothold on this side of the Whitecaps, there will be no truce to be had.”

“There’ll be no truce if the Army of Callow is wrecked either,” Juniper growled. “Which is the best outcome to be counted on if we fight tomorrow.”

“Duchess Kegan-“ the other woman began.

“Is half a month away, at the earliest,” the orc interrupted. “And not to be relied on if the tide looks like it’s turning against us. The Watch contingent in our ranks is a blade that cuts both ways.”

“The duchess will not lightly go back on her word,” Thief said.

Juniper frowned. The Named spoke as if she knew something the orc did not.

“What are the odds of Malanza following us, if we retreat to Hedges?” the Callowan asked.

“Slim to none,” the Hellhound replied. “We just torched their last supplies. They can last a little longer by butchering their horses, but by my count they’ll be starving for at least a week before they get to the fortress. They’ll know they can’t win a battle in that state. If we withdraw, I am certain they’ll fall back to Harrow and disband part of the host while sending for supplies.”

“Which leaves half of northern Callow occupied,” Thief said. “I am no student of strategy, but I can assure you that is a diplomatic and political defeat that will cripple us.”

“The moment we get Catherine back, we can link up with the Deoraithe by gate and drive them entirely out of Callow,” Juniper replied. “They’d have a few months in the region at most.”

“It is still too long,” the woman tiredly said. “Depending on the outcome at the Red Flower Vales, the Empress might backstab us during that period. And if public perception is that Catherine cannot defend Callowan borders, much of the crown’s support vanishes. Riots, at the very least. Possibly small-scale rebellion. That divides our manpower, and I assure you we will not be allowed to put back the army together after it has been split. No major player save perhaps the Carrion Lord would see our strength preserved as being in their interest.”

“If Lord Black wins-“ Juniper began.

The Thief spat into the flames.

“Then it is a certainty that the Empire will sabotage us,” she said. “From Malicia’s perspective, a Proceran foothold in the north is a leash on both the Carrion Lord and Callow. Neither can turn against the Wasteland while the kingdom is in danger of falling to the next offensive. She’ll want us strong enough we can bleed the crusade, but weak enough we have no negotiating leverage.”

“If we fight tomorrow, the army’s done for the war,” Juniper honestly said. “At most, if we force them to retreat all the way back to Procer, with the Deoraithe backing us we can hold our end of the passage. Any offensive operations became a fantasy until our next three training cycles are done, and that’s at least a year. Longer, for sappers, and we drained the pool dry for both mages and knights.”

The Thief hesitated.

“Perhaps a partial retreat?” she ventured. “Followed by a counteroffensive when they are unaware.”

“Without the gates we don’t move nearly as swiftly as before,” the orc refused, shaking her head. “I’ve already considered it. Might soften them up a bit to let them starve, but it won’t make enough of a difference with heroes in the ranks. We still bleed too much.”

The Callowan brushed back her hair, then grimaced.

“You are telling me that either path has a decent chance of taking us out of the war,” she said. “That there are no good choices to make.”

“Only bad ones,” Juniper agreed. “And among those, there’s one we haven’t discussed.”

The Named stiffened, the fire’s flickering light revealing cold fury.

“You can’t be serious,” she hissed.

“You have a way to shut her down,” the Hellhound said, and it wasn’t a question.

Thief’s eyes grew cold.

“A heavy assumption,” she replied.

“I’ve known Catherine longer than you,” Juniper said, baring her fangs. “She didn’t even trust her Name, and her mantle is a great deal more dangerous. She would have contingencies in place, and within the Woe you’re the only she considers to have a moral compass.”

“I will not allow Akua Sahelian to walk free,” the Thief hissed. “Much less to wage war.”

“Then this conversation is over,” the Marshal of Callow said unflinchingly. “I refuse to a fight a battle tomorrow in the current circumstances. We’ll take our chances with a retreat.”

“How could you possibly trust her with any kind of power?” the Callowan said.

“She’s a Praesi of the old breed,” the Hellhound said. “In front of her is the Tenth Crusade. Blood will tell. Trust has nothing to do with it.”

“If she gets loose, she’ll turn on us,” Thief said. “Without a second thought.”

“You have your leash, and we still have Archer,” Juniper calmly said. “Sahelian is a coward at heart, and she plays the game according to the old rules. That makes her predictable. She will not make a move unless she is certain she can slip the noose.”

“The Callowan half of the army would defect, if they ever knew,” the woman said.

“If they ever knew,” Juniper repeated softly.

She had won the argument and they both knew it.

Akua Sahelian wore Catherine’s body seemingly without the slightest awkwardness. Sitting with her legs crossed, stripped of anything but a loose tunic, the Diabolist opened her eyes when Vivienne entered the tent. The glow of the wards keeping her contained was the only light there was to be had, weaving strange and moving shadows over the panes of cloth.

“Vivienne,” Sahelian smiled with lips not her own. “I’d expected another bell before you came to terms with the necessity. Your perspective has broadened since I last had you studied.”

Thief dragged a seat and dropped it in front of the butcher, dropping down into it without even the pretence of elegance. Idly flipping a knife her aspect had dropped into her palm, she watched the Diabolist silently. Were she not uncertain of the effect it would have on Catherine, she would have already ordered Sahelian’s soul to be ripped apart piece by piece.

“Think you have it all figured out, do you?” Thief said.

Catherine’s body inclined its head with an understated grace its true owner had never quite managed.

“Though your hostility is understandable, it is unnecessary,” Diabolist said. “We serve the same mistress, after all.”

“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”

Over a month of late evenings had been spent wording the contingency oaths. Possession by the Diabolist had not been the issue they’d expected – Catherine’s fears had been centred around Winter making her lose perspective – but the conditions were cleared by this state of affairs regardless. Thief had reason to genuinely believe Catherine’s judgement was impaired by an external factor, which allowed her to call on the first three oaths. Sahelian smiled even as her fingers dug behind her eyeball, ripping it out. Vivienne noted with satisfaction the smile had grown a little stiff during. She could still feel pain, then.

“Try to play me again and I’ll have to get inventive,” Thief said even as the eye reformed.

“Noted,” the Diabolist replied, inclining her head. “You have a use for me, or at least the power this body holds.”

“I do,” she said. “You’re going to kill crusaders.”

“A most enjoyable task,” Sahelian smiled.

“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”

She waited until the eye had reformed before speaking again.

“That one,” she said, “was just because you pissed me off.”

The fucking smile never went away.

“I expect there will be heroic opposition,” the Diabolist said.

“There should be at least ten left, maybe more,” Thief replied. “Most dangerous are the Saint of Swords and the Grey Pilgrim.”

The Queen of Callow’s body hummed and cocked its head to the side. The gesture was so Catherine that Vivienne almost ordered Sahelian to rip out her eye again.

“Not unworthy opponents,” Diabolist said. “I will prevail regardless.”

“You are not to cause a massacre,” Thief said. “After inflicting no more than six thousand casualties, you are to retreat.”

Sahelian’s smile turned sharp.

“Restraint,” she drawled. “How quaint. You miss an opportunity.”

“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”

The Diabolist’s breath grew ragged, in the aftermath. She continued speaking anyway.

“You need the crusaders dead,” Sahelian said. “Yet you also require Catherine’s reputation to be unsullied when negotiating a truce. Allow me, then, to bloody my hands. I will make it clear to the heroes that this her body is not currently her own.”

“You don’t know shit about the current political situation,” Thief said.

“I know you cannot fight a war against Procer while unseating the Empress,” the Diabolist said. “What follows is a mere exercise of logic.”

We can’t negotiate with the heroes if they think Catherine is a sharper than can go off at any time, Vivienne thought. Sahelian had not grown beyond the causes of her failure. She still looked at all the nations of Calernia with the belief that sooner or later she would war against them all. Peace stretching further than a temporary truce never entered her calculations.

“You will pretend to be Catherine,” Thief said. “And stick to the limits I have already outlined. In addition, you may not slay the Grey Pilgrim.”

“Even if this body is at risk of permanent destruction?” the Diabolist probed.

“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye.”

This time she flinched, to the Callowan’s satisfaction.

“Don’t attempt to make a loophole again,” Thief said. “Not even then. Flee instead.”

Sahelian softly laughed.

“And what,” Thief asked, “has you so happy?”

Catherine’s dark eyes met her own.

“Do you believe in redemption, Vivienne Dartwick?”

The Callowan shivered.

“There’s nothing in you to redeem,” Thief said. “You are a thing pretending to be human.”

“My people,” Akua Sahelian murmured, “do not put much stock in it either. But I have pondered this matter deeply, of late. Perhaps there is some worth to be found in it.”

The moment I have a speck of leverage, I will convince Catherine to break any semblance of thought in you, Vivienne thought. You are too dangerous a loose end to allow, and you should have forever disappeared after Liesse. There is no place left in this world for you.

“How hard could it be possibly be,” the Diabolist mused. “Acting heroically, that is.”

Vivienne rose to her feet.

“You will ‘awaken’ slightly before dawn,” she said. “Prepare yourself.”

“I look forward to our fruitful alliance, then, my trusted comrade,” Sahelian grinned.

The aristocrat clenched her fingers. That wasn’t her grin. She had no right to wear it.

“Eclipse,” Vivienne said. “Rip out your left eye, seven times in a row.”

She left the tent to the sound of muffled screaming.

Prince Amadis Milenan had only managed to sleep after drinking half a thimble of poppy brew, and even then he’d woken long before dawn. The trembling in his hands tempted him to indulge a second time during the darkened hours, but his father had always warned him off reliance on medicine. Many a great ruler had been unmade by growing too fond of a particular vice, when age or exhaustion weakened their resolve. He would not follow in that mistake. Instead he sent for inks and parchment, splaying them over his scribing desk and lighting a pair of oil lamps. The lines of the first illustration were botched by the shaking of his fingers, but the longer he forced himself to concentrate on the matter the steadier his hands became. It was a thorny issue to work these failures seamlessly into the greater design, but he’d had a taste for this sort of diversion since he’d been a boy and when the quill scratched the last of the blue on the parchment he found himself satisfied with the illustration. Not his finest work, but neither would he be ashamed of having it displayed before peers.

He’d sketched a view of Lake Pavin in the traditional Alamans manuscript style, that sprawling expanse of deep blue touching stony shores. He’d done so from memory, drawing on the beautiful summer he’d spent in Cleves as a young man. Having met his wife there had left him with a lingering fondness for the beautiful principality that had occasionally been politically inconvenient. Jonquille still occasionally teased him for being softer on the land of her birth than she was herself, to the amusement of their children. He rather missed her, at the moment. Her discerning judgement and sharp temper, the way she could soother him without ever saying a word. His father had been furious he’d betrothed himself to a girl from a largely insignificant branch family, but never once had Amadis regretted it. He’d paid for the sentimentality in the years that followed, even risked disinheritance in favour of his younger brother, but those were all passing things. The partnership had endured far longer than the grievances. The thought that he might never see her again was a sobering one.

He penned a missive for his wife beneath the illustration, strangely uneasy, and blew on the elegant cursive quoting the couplet by Drunken Berilion he’d botched declaiming at her on their first meeting. She’d recited it back at him properly with laughing eyes, and neither had looked back since. The prince sent for a footman to have it set with the diplomatic correspondence, a mild abuse of prerogative near every royal in the host had indulged in at least once. Even Arnaud, that old sot, liked to write to his bastard son. His worries having ebbed, the Prince of Iserre watched the sun begin to dawn as he ate his frugal breakfast. The most extravagant of his personal foodstuffs he’d had distributed to his men in a gesture of good will, though he’d kept enough there was no risk of either he or his personal household starving. He remained silent as his manservant removed the empty plate, contemplating the coming day. Twice now, his host had waged battle against the Army of Callow. Twice they had been driven back, at great cost. Prince Papenheim’s army would be facing that infamous old monster the Black Knight in the Vales, and the costs of that victory would not be slight. That thread woven with his own losses inked a picture he misliked.

The armies of the Dominion would enter the Principate soon enough, a Principate weakened by war. Prince Cordelia might put her faith in the alliances she had bargained for, but an alliance of victors was like a hearth in summer. The diminished and defeated found no friends, only hungry dogs. All of this, unfolding because a handful of children with an army refused to be defeated. No matter. Princess Rozala believed that this day’s fighting would end it all, though the price would be heavy. All could be remedied, once victory was attained. Trumpets sounded in the camp, and Amadis raised an eyebrow. It was not yet dawn, after all. Malanza was displaying unseemly haste. Then they sounded again, urgently, and his blood ran cold. This was not the call to rise.

It was the call to battle.

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Court II

“Salvation is ever an act of violence, be it within or without.”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First

The Woe, Brandon Talbot had learned, had some very peculiar oddities. Queen Catherine’s disdain for luxuries was infamous – and had made her popular in some quarters, when it’d spread she’d sold off some of the more ostentatious Praesi inheritances to invest the sum in the army – but each of her companions has their… unusual habits. Lady Thief, he knew, could shift from displaying the manners of a noble of the old blood to those of a mocking thug in a heartbeat. And the least said about her tendency to steal for sport the better. The Archer was, by all reports, a dissolute hard-drinking brute. Yet she could also quote the classics in three languages, and seemed to be the only person in the Kingdom of Callow that could hold a conversation with the Hierophant on the subject of sorcery. Brandon would have preferred a life where he’d never heard the Lay of Lothian’s Passing strategically quoted to be perverted into a ribald comment about the skills of fair-haired men in bed, but that’d she’d done it in flawless High Miezan was rather impressive. The language was, after all, long dead. The Lord Hierophant was perhaps the least unsettling, in that he reminded Brandon of the stories once told of the Wizards of the West. Absent-minded, prone to discourse few others could understand and blatantly disinterested in anything even remotely connected to statecraft.

He also held conversations while looking at his interlocutors through the back of his head with magical eyes, which was a little less traditional.

Hakram of the Howling Wolves, the Lord Adjutant, had embraced a different sort of oddity. The even-tempered orc was, by objective study, the second most powerful individual in Callow. The queen had made it clear that when he spoke it was with her full authority, and though he lacked an official title besides his Name he had a seat on sessions of the Queen’s Council whenever he so wished. He stood higher in the court’s hierarchy than either the Governess-General or the Lord Treasurer, and if so inclined could have claimed the traditional luxurious office and rooms of either. Instead, the greenskin passed his hours in the cramped and crooked room that had once belonged to King Robert’s personal scribe. Brandon had never once seen the man that the Army of Callow openly considered the heir-apparent to Catherine Foundling either turn his back to the door or allow his axe to be further than hand’s reach. The Grandmaster’s allies had been incensed, when they’d first learned that the army would back the orc as heir if anything happened to the Her Majesty. He was, after all, a greenskin. And it would have been a lie to say that the Regals had not been attempting to position themselves for ascension should the luck of the battlefield turn against the queen.

Only the fact that the Deadhead had shown no interest in rule and that Anne Kendall was almost as unpalatable an alternative had prevented the situation from escalating. That, and Brandon’s harsh and continued reminders that any attempt to remove the orc from power would be met by brutal and unrelenting violence from Her Majesty. The Grandmaster dismissed the thoughts from his mind, schooling his face into serene pleasantness as he bowed to the orc. Hakram Deadhand, after all, outranked him in both military and courtly ranks.

“Grandmaster Talbot,” the orc gravelled, shuffling parchments aside. “Take a seat.”

The bow had been returned with a simple nod, one that matched the requirements of etiquette under the assumption that the man was of equal standing to sitting members of the Queen’s Council. Humility at work, though with an unspoken edge. Brandon claimed the chair across the parchment-covered desk, eyes flicking to the movement as the Adjutant used a paring knife to work on the tip of a quill. The orc had unusual finesse, for one with such large fingers.

“I thank you for the audience, Lord Adjutant,” Brandon replied. “I know your duties stretch your hours.”

The greenskin’s maw flicked open, revealing a swift flash of fangs in what could have either been threat or amusement. The Callowan had not made study enough of orcs to be able to tell, thought perhaps he should. For all that the Regals saw him as the authority on the newborn Foundling dynasty and its greats, that was more a reflection on the little exposure they’d had to the key members of the regime than of his own deep understanding.

“No rest for the wicked,” the Adjutant said. “Well. Should we pretend I don’t know why you requested this talk, or will we skip the usual song and dance?”

The tone was mild, as if the orc did not care either way. There was no impatience there, Brandon grasped. The Deadhand was perfectly willing to… indulge in the demands of their rank, as if they were some children’s game. The unspoken dismissal of centuries of established etiquette rankled, but did not surprise. None of the most powerful people in Callow these days had risen to rank by observing the proper niceties. Smoothing away the wrinkle of irritation, Brandon forced a smile.

“I am not opposed to bluntness on occasion,” the Callowan aristocrat said. “Campaign has taught me the virtues of it even in civil matters.”

The reminder that Brandon Talbot had fought unflinchingly for the queen on fields foreign and domestic both would not be askew, here. Now that the blades had been temporarily sheathed, his Regals were too often treated as the enemy for his tastes. The orc’s hairless brows twitched, the thick ridges of skin in movement implying mirth. As expected, the unspoken part had not been lost on him.

“Thief’s people will be combing through the court for whoever talked,” the Adjutant said. “Catherine was understandably furious that something under seal was leaked.”

Brandon kept his face calm, though worry spiked. The Jacks were skilful and thorough: it was only a matter of time until the culprit was found. After that, the only thing awaiting was the noose.

“There would be no need for any of this,” the Grandmaster said, “if any of my people were kept appraised of large developments.”

“I reminded her as much,” the orc bluntly admitted. “But you’ve also managed to cast into doubt every single appointment your people achieved. The Governess-General was pushing for a general dismissal, and it took me the better part of an hour to get that off the table.”

Under the desk, the dark-haired man’s fist clenched. He’d warned them, he had. That the moment the Regals became the enemy in Her Majesty’s eyes, she would strike thoroughly and without mercy. Having Kendall whispering in her ear would only make her less forgiving. And we can’t even claim that such a measure would result in civil war, he thought. The Regals were influential, that much was undeniable, but they did not enjoy the kind of support that the Queen’s Men or the queen herself did with the lower and merchant classes. Their power was one of tradition and wealth. At court, it made them strong. But no city would rise in rebellion if the Regals were purged from civil appointments, and the threat of gold only held when the other side did not have the men to take that gold if they wanted to.

“Your moderating influence is appreciated,” the aristocrat stiffly said, inclining his head.

“Don’t take it as a sign of approval,” the orc said. “Your clique is beginning to overstep. If removing it didn’t mean handing over the run of the kingdom to the Queen’s Men, I would have let you hang from your own noose.”

Brutal but honest. That was the reputation Lord Deadhand had, in matters such as these. While more open to compromise than the rest of the queen’s most trusted, the orc’s willingness to be diplomatic only went so far. Yet he remained aloof from the partisan politics of the court, and as a voice of reason that made him priceless – as did the fact that he had the queen’s ear more than anyone else. Brandon calmed his breathing. He was not insulted by the bluntness, because that bluntness had not been meant an insult: the Adjutant was merely clarifying his position so no confusion would ensue in the following conversation. The Callowan, swallowing years of lessons on the subject of proper behaviour, decided to follow suit. The Woe, it should not be forgot, had been mostly paupers and vagrants before their rise to power. Their appreciation for directness had deep roots, and could be used.

“It is appreciated regardless,” Brandon said. “To be frank, my people have been restless for some time. This planned partition of Liesse is only the droplet threatening to tip the cup. I hope I will not offend by pointing out that the Regals have been thrown scraps from the high table, and then expected to remain docile and quiet for that privilege.”

The greenskin’s dark eyes studied him silently. As always, the Callowan made an effort not to glance at the hand of bones that was resting atop the desk.

“Then I’ll be frank as well,” the orc replied, fangs bared for longer than previously before they were hidden behind the lips. “Your people have not proven loyal or useful enough to get the kind of appointments you’re pushing for.”

“And Kendall’s are?” Brandon flatly asked.

“No,” the Adjutant said. “We’re well aware they look to the Governess-General for instructions. But they also know that they’ll be tossed out the moment your Regals gain influence, and it’s keeping them in line. As a hanging sword, your people have proved usable. But the accompanying agitation is proving more trouble than that lever is worth, and I will not defend unreliable actors.”

Which, the aristocrat thought, you now suspect we might be considering we’re willing to have our people pass information under seal. It was infuriating, because if any of the Regals were on the Queen’s Council there would have been no such ploy. As long as Talbot’s allies knew they had a voice at the table, they would have been worried about losing accumulated influence by stepping out of line. But they did not have a seat, so more desperate means had to be used to remain relevant. And using those means disqualifies us in Her Majesty’s eyes from having a seat in the first place. It was a vicious circle, without any obvious solution but allowing what influence the Regals had to wane and hope the queen looked well upon them for it. Certain loss for uncertain gain. It was a solution that, if Brandon was to be honest with himself, he would not even attempt to put forward at a council. Not least because he did not truly believe in it himself.

“If we are removed,” the Grandmaster said, “the balance of power in the kingdom collapses.”

“Yes,” the orc agreed. “And so Catherine told me to report this conversation directly to her, instead of having Hierophant dig through the brains of your allies for a name. This is the part, Brandon Talbot, where you make your case for the continued usefulness of the Regals.”

The man’s blood ran cold. He’d sought this meeting to arrange for compromise and concessions, but he’d been reading the lay of the land wrong. His people were not the only ones running out of patience. The orc’s broad and ugly face was serene, but the warning ran clear. If he reported to the queen that there was nothing salvageable about the situation, it would not be dismissals that followed. It would be the Jacks taking people in the middle of the night never to be seen again. And Governess-General Anne Kendall would be the sole truly Callowan voice to decide the kingdom’s legacy. The roof of his mouth was dry.

“You would lose the Order of Broken Bells,” Brandon said.

The orc frowned.

“I presume this is not the threat it sounds like,” he said.

The aristocrat shook his head.

“Knights,” he said, “do not grow on trees. They are raised through rigorous training. Through learned traditions. And by allowing the existence of families that can afford to equip and support one of their own with the accoutrements of knighthood. Guildsmen and eldermen have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to replace us in this regard.”

“A mark in your favour,” the Adjutant said. “In the short term. It is not sufficient to make the unruliness of your people a pill sweet enough to swallow.”

It took a conscious effort not to react visibly. Careful now, Brandon. This is the knife’s edge. The Grandmaster knew, without needing to question it, that the Regals were necessary to the kingdom. He simply needed to make the queen see it as he did, and there lay the thorn. Marriage alliances? No, that was a dead end. To be worth wedding in the eyes of foreigners his fellows would need titles the queen refused to bestow. And marriage alliances both within Callow and into other nations would form power blocs Her Majesty would frown upon. Military officers? It had already been made clear that the Army of Callow was barred to nobility save if it rose through the ranks after enrolling in the lowest ranks – an unacceptable condition to most his allies, who would not tolerate their kin taking orders from Praesi and peasants. Ties to the House of Light? This one, he suspected, might even be a mark against them. The queen’s dealings with the priests would be much eased if she was the only possible interlocutor. He was going about this the wrong way, Brandon realized. Why were his people needed, from the perspective of Her Majesty? From three heartbeats he met the calm stare of the Deadhand, until the answer finally came.

“Ability,” he said.

“Talented officials we can’t trust or use are more danger than boon,” the orc stated flatly.

“Lord Adjutant,” Brandon said. “In all of Callow, how many guildsmen and eldermen do you believe are actually literate? Or familiar with more than basic arithmetic?”

“The upper ranks of every major city and holding,” the Deadhand said.

“Let us be generous and assume half these individuals can be spared from their current responsibilities for court and civil appointments,” the Grandmaster said. “That is a very shallow pool.”

The orc’s eyes narrowed in thought.

“You believe the Queen’s Men are running out of competent candidates,” he gravelled.

“Education, the sort that is required for the bureaucracy you are raising, is expensive,” Brandon said. “The amount of such taught individuals that can be taken from their existing occupations is limited, if you want to avoid harming the kingdom. The only group that can consistently afford to provide these people are the Regals. No one else has the tradition, the learning and the coin. Do you believe it coincidence, that the Praesi purges focused on the nobility? It was not only to quell rebellion. It was to make Callow dependent on the Empire for able rule.”

“A dependency that needs to be excised if the kingdom is to remain independent,” the Adjutant finished mildly. “You are aware, I believe, of Catherine’s opinion on rule by right of birth. What you describe could be considered informal return to aristocracy.”

“There will always be wealthy men and women,” Brandon calmly replied. “This cannot and should not be avoided. Without the ancient privileges of titled nobles checking her actions, the queen maintains supremacy by right of unquestioned appointment and dismissal. What worth is there in robbing yourself of talent for empty antipathy?”

The orc’s fangs flicked into view for a heartbeat before being sheathed again.

“Well argued,” the Deadhand said.

Brandon inclined his head in thanks, mostly to hide the relief on his face.

“All of this, of course, is contingent on the Regals moderating their actions,” the Adjutant added calmly.

The Grandmaster’s jaw clenched. He had come seeking concession, and would be leaving forced to promise them instead.

“I understand your worries,” Lord Hakram said. “Command without success is a stone around your neck. A promise to you, then: get your house in order, and the partition of Liesse will be a matter reopened to debate.”

Brandon met the greenskin’s eyes, finding only patience and calculation there.

“It will do,” he replied.

Gods, it would have to.

Lady Julienne tightened the cloak around her. She’d had to sneak out of her own home in servant’s livery with her face hidden, like a sneak thief. It was mortifying, but she was not in a position to refuse instructions when given. She was being held by the throat, and the slightest flick of the wrist could see her neck snapped. The tavern she’d been told to enter had no sign hanging above the door, the sure sign of miserliness and filth awaiting, and the smell of piss wafted from the nearly alley. She’d not even entered and already she was nauseous. The inside was barely better. A disgusting dirt floor lay at the bottom of a single large common room with a wooden counter at the back. A few tables with ramshackle benches took up most of it, with a pair of alcoves made of hanging cloth flanking each side. Left side, last alcove. That was what the message had said. The aristocrat hurried there, dismayed at the filth her riding boots was being stained with. Within awaited a woman, seated on a seat without even a cushion by a low table that was nothing more than a wheel on likely stolen pavestones. She doubted the owner of this tavern had ever paid taxes in their entire life.

“Should I order a tankard?” the Thief asked, smiling thinly.

“That will not be necessary,” Lady Julienne stiffly replied.

She took the seat across, certain she was going to need to have the cloak burned after she returned to her mansion. The Named seemed indifferent to her reply, drinking deeply from a tankard of dark and thick ale. Disgusting.

“Business, then,” the other woman drawled. “How’s your knitting circle coming along?”

The aristocrat frowned, glancing meaningfully at the common room. It was only half full, with perhaps two dozen people pouring trash down their throats, but speaking of private matters in the open was pure foolishness.

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about,” the Thief said.

“With due respect,” Lady Julienne began.

The Named rolled her eyes and sharply whistled. Without a word, every single person in the room rose to their feet and walked out the door. Including the bald, one-eyed man she presumed to be the owner by the looks of the ragged apron he wore. The sight of it had her blood running cold. Not a single one had hesitated, or spoken a word. Even the drinks were still on the table.

“I own everyone in this street, one way or another,” the Thief cheerfully said, but her eyes remained cold. “Even you, Julienne Guilford. Now tell me about the Regals.”

“I did as you bid,” she replied darkly. “Whenever Talbot is elsewhere I encourage Farron to take harder lines, and when we hold council I stand by him whenever it is not suspicious.”

“And our dear friend Samuel Farron,” the monster said. “He’s still intent on his little coup?”

“He still wants to oust Talbot, yes,” Lady Julienne said. “His support is not broad enough, but it is growing.”

“Good,” the Thief nodded. “You’re going to continue supporting him. Gather all the hardliners behind him. Every last one, no matter what bribes or cajoling it takes.”

“I know what you’re doing,” the aristocrat hissed. “You’re setting him up. Forging a pretext for a purge.”

“Come now, don’t be absurd,” the villain chuckled. “We already have one of those. The moment your clique got their hands on a matter under seal, there was going to be blood. That one is on your heads, not ours.”

“This is murder,” Lady Julien accused.

“No,” the Named replied. “Murder’s what I want to ask you about. Tell me about Valerie Hadley.”

“Brandon Talbot’s steadiest ally in council,” the aristocrat said. “She argues for moderation and seeking the queen’s favour, as a rule.”

“That’s interesting,” the Thief mused. “Since she’s been moving around large sums of gold she shouldn’t have without visibly purchasing anything. When Farron went on about having Ratface killed, what was her stance?”

Lady Julienne frowned, scouring her memory.

“She did not speak on the subject of Lord Qara’s assassination,” she finally said. “It was Grandmaster Talbot that went on a tirade against.”

“You’re going to pay very close attention to who she talks to,” the other woman ordered. “Especially if she’d been in contact with foreigners.”

“Half the Queen’s Council is foreigners,” Lady Julienne sneered.

“That’s an interesting hill for you to make a stand on, Julienne,” the Thief noted. “If you’d extended that beautiful patriotism to foreign money, we might not be having this conversation.”

“I didn’t know,” the aristocrat protested. “They presented themselves as-“

“Guild-certified merchants, I’m well aware,” the blue-eyed woman shrugged. “Shame that was a Proceran front, and you ended up both in debt and guilty of high treason. Funny how these things go, isn’t it?”

“I am no traitor,” Lady Julienne insisted. “My only fault is being fooled.”

“One of your several faults was telling Cordelia Hasenbach about the state of the smithies in Vale in great detail,” the Thief corrected. “Which allowed her to learn we were funding them, which in turn allowed her to deduce the Tower’s been tight-fisted with equipment. Congratulations, you’ve passed information about the war readiness of the Army of Callow to a nation about to invade us.”

The noble had thought the terms of her deal with the merchants were perhaps too lenient, and so been compliant when a very reasonable request about information on Vale blacksmiths had come. Her interlocutors were debating opening a smithy of their own, she’d been told. That one mistake was all it had taken for the monsters to take hold of her.

“I erred, perhaps,” Lady Julienne darkly said. “But that is a lesser sin in the face of your actions.”

“People keep telling me there’s only of those,” the blue-eye woman drawled. “It’s called defeat, allegedly.”

The aristocrat’s fingers clenched.

“I know who you are, Vivienne Dartwick,” Lady Julienne said. “Your house is still respected, in the right circles. You shame it by being the servant of butchery.”

The Named drank from her tankard, then lightly set it down.

“You ever gardened, Julienne?” she asked.

Warily, the noblewoman shook her head.

“Neither have I,” the Thief mused. “Not the kind of dirt I like to have under my nails. My father, though? He loved it. Wouldn’t hear of hiring a gardener, spent hours kneeling in dirt. There was this one tree he loved most of all, a gift from my mother. One morning, I found him in our garden. And to my surprise, he was taking a hatchet to that tree. I asked him why, and do you know what he told me?”

Lady Julienne shook her head again. The monster smiled.

“Sometimes,” the Thief said. “The healthiest thing for a tree is to prune it.”

Interlude: Kaleidoscope IV

“And so Dread Emperor Irritant addressed the heroes thus: Lo and behold, I fear not your burning Light, for I am already on fire.”
– Extract from Volume IX of the official Imperial Chronicles

Abigail was beginning to reconsider her position on tanning being an acceptable vocation. Sure, the smell was horrible and they made you live outside city walls. Pay wasn’t that good, and good luck trying to get anywhere without joining a guild that’d squeeze you on fees. On the other hand, she mused, the average tanner did not usually have to deal with fifteen thousand angry crusaders howling for their blood. I probably shouldn’t have gotten sauced and insulted the entire family before leaving, she decided. Now even if I come crawling on my knees they’ll make me marry a cousin before taking me back.

“I just can’t do it,” Tribune Abigail of Summerholm sighed. “They all look like ferrets.”

“Ma’am?” Captain Krolem asked.

“We have to win this one, Captain,” she told the orc solemnly. “There’s a lot riding on it.”

“For the honour of the Black Queen,” the orc growled approvingly.

“Yes,” Abigail lied. “That is exactly what I meant.”

The queen could stab her way to an honourable reputation on her own, as far as the woman was concerned, but telling greenskins shit like that was never good politics. It wasn’t quite as bad as someone badmouthing the Carrion Lord – or, as this was known within the Army of Callow, suicide by stupidity – but orcs tended to be touchy about Queen Catherine’s reputation. She’d had drinks with a Taghreb once who’d explained it to her, and what she’d gotten out of the man was that greenskins had a great big cultural boner for people that were good at killing. And Hells, no one ever said the Black Queen didn’t have a talent for that.

“Rotation, Captain Krolem,” she said, eyes scanning her frontline. “We’re tiring.”

The Hellhound had, in her great wisdom, decided that the four thousand men under Nauk Princekiller were enough to kick an entire enemy column in the balls. The tribune wasn’t all that fond of the Marshal of Callow, who was rumoured to eat people who got sloppy with kit maintenance, but she had to concede this wasn’t going as fucking horribly wrong as she’d expected when the enemy had advanced. For one, compared to Summer fae and wights the levies were godsdamned pushovers. It was incredibly refreshing to fight people that didn’t keep attacking after you hacked an arm off. Captain Krolem sounded the whistle around his neck and the twenty soldiers at the front of her cohort withdrew, a fresh line taking their place. The crusaders didn’t have fancy manoeuvres like that. When they got tired they just died, thank the Gods. Her eyes flicked to the sides and she grimaced.

The crusaders had wasted the better part of an hour getting in battle formations before attacking, but what had struck her as unnecessary wariness was beginning to pay off. Sure, they were failing to breach the shield wall, but the flank to the west was a problem. General Nauk had left a full kabili of one thousand floating out there to prevent easy flanking, but the crusaders had the numbers to keep going around even after engaging those. The only reason the host hadn’t been enveloped yet was… A horn sounded, and Abigail kissed her mailed fist in thanks to the Gods Above. Retreat to the next line, at last. It was the third time the general called for one, and they gave more ground every time. Abigail figured at some point the entire army would just fucking leg it, and it couldn’t come soon enough.

“In good order, soldiers,” she called out. “Anyone falls out of line and I’ll drown them in the marsh myself.”

It was going well, she thought. Better than she could have reasonably hoped for.

“NAMED,” a legionary called out.

It fucking figured.

It was like trying to break a stone with a wooden hammer, Captain Pierre Dulac thought as he strode over the corpses of his fellow fantassins. It left a mark, but the hammer tended to break and considering his company was the hammer of this tortured metaphor this was not a pleasant state of affairs. The Brabantine had heard stories about the Legions of Terror, how they’d swept aside the armies of Callow effortlessly, but he’d always believed them to be exaggerated. They’d had twenty years to swell, after all, and he was not unacquainted with how evenings at taverns made yarns grow ever more vivid. After the first time he’d lost thirty of his finest trying to break through the enemy shield wall, however, he’d had to swallow his old opinions. The heathens fought as hard as the devils they bargained with. Horns sounded in the distance and the Army of Callow moved as a single living creature, retreating at a measured pace as balls of flame bloomed in the sky and began raining down on Proceran lines.

Pierre put his shield over his head and knelt, waiting for the rain to pass. A man to his left was a little too slow to bring up his own shield and sorcerous flame struck his face, searing flesh and muscle in the blink of an eye. The fantassin squinted. New recruit, he was pretty sure, some Segovian second son who’d enrolled to seek his fortune. The poor fucker should have listened, when his mother told him fortune was a fickle bitch.

“On your feet, men of Procer,” a voice rang out.

The captain obeyed before he even realized what he was doing. The man who’d spoke was tall, and his accent in Chantant was heavy with the thick syllables of a native Levantine. Armoured in silver, with a shield polished until it shone like a mirror and a sword that was more radiance than steel, the Chosen could be felt even from ten feet away. Like a pulse, a whisper of power bestowed by the Godss.

“The enemy retreats,” the hero said. “We must pursue. The Heavens will it.”

“The Heavens will it,” Pierre replied in a fervent whisper.

He would have formed the wings with his fingers, had he not been holding sword and shield. With the end of the wave of fire, advance towards the retreating legionaries was left unbarred. His company formed ranks and advanced, the Chosen at their head, and they shouted defiance. The humans and greenskins on the other side watched them in silence from behind their shield wall, grimly professional. No levies, these. The difference between soldiers trained and soldiers conscripted had been written across the field today.

“Do not be afraid,” the Chosen called out. “Their dark queen is wounded and they stand bereft of her protection. This battle will be won by faith and courage.”

“Company, charge,” the captain screamed. “Honour to the Wreath!”

Shouts gave answer, the oaths of half a dozen principalities sounding where no banners stood.

“Double pay to anyone who stabs the shiny fucker,” a woman’s voice called out from the other side.

Pierre blinked, but had not time to spare for surprise as a moment later his shield hit the enemy’s. A massive orc, who smashed him back with brute force. The fantassin had not survive the Great War without picking up a few tricks, though. He went low and stabbed up, finding flesh, and the greenskin howled in rage. Squaring up behind his shield the captain let the creature’s violent death throes bounce off wood and iron, pushing forward before the legionary behind this one could fill the gap. Along the line his men were like wave hitting a cliff, save for where the Chosen led. Legionaries were smacked down like insolent children, and those that tried to force back the hero found a sliver blur carving through their flesh. The fantassin rocked back as a Callowan went shield to shield with him but dug his feet. Gritting his teeth, he had to retreat when the legionary to that one’s right stabbed forward with his sword. Another of his men took his place, and he joined the pressing throng to look for a better opening.

“Scatter,” a voice too deep to be human shouted.

Pierre found his gaze moving to the side, attracted by sudden movement where the Chosen was fighting. The legionaries who’d been surrounding the man retreated swiftly, and a moment later lightning struck. The Brabantine’s blood quickened and he blinked away the bright light, relieved when he saw the hero stood unmarried with his shield up. Lightning scarred the earth around him. A trail of red went up in the sky above, some sort of munitions, and the captain grimaced. That did not bode well. A spike of flame formed above the Chosen and hammered down at him, but the mirror-like shield shone blindingly and the fire blew back into the sky. The second spike, though, shook the Chosen’s stance. The third drove him back. The fourth nailed him into the ground. Pierre hurried towards the grounds, not sure what he could do but knowing he had to try. The fifth spike formed… and went out. Snuffed like a candle. By the Chosen’s side a wrinkled old woman stood, glaring up with a sword in hand. The Regicide, Pierre understood with trembling hands. The fantassin hurried and helped the other Chosen back to his feet as the Saint of Swords casually carved through half a dozen legionaries with a single swing.

“What part of careful advance did you not understand, kid?” the Regicide said. “This is a battlefield, not your sister’s wedding. Going in with your dick out won’t get you fucked the fun way.”

Pierre would never be so foolish to admit this out loud, but he felt a little cheated that the first sentence he’d heard the Chosen of the Heavens speak involved mention of dicks. It was perhaps less radiantly heroic than he’d expected.

“I apologize for my failure, Honoured Elder,” the Chosen still leaning on him gasped.

“Apologize by not forcing me to drag my ass here again,” the old woman snorted. “Steady this flank, sorcerers are focusing on the right.”

The Saint glanced at Pierre, who blanched, and nodded approvingly at him before moving out in a blur. In the distance, horns sounded again and the legionaries began to retreat. The hole the Chosen had carved into the lines had already reformed seamlessly, and the fantassing let the hero he’d been holding up steady his own footing.

“Again, Captain,” the man said. “The Heavens will it.”

“The Heavens will it,” Captain Pierre Dulac agreed.

Well, at least she was still alive. Tribune Abigail rubbed at her left eye again, pretty sure she was going to have to get that looked at by a mage. She’d made the mistake of looking at the fucking hero when he made his pretty little shield shine and she’d had to deal with persistent black spots ever since. General Nauk had finally sounded what should be the last retreat before they got the Hells out of here, so her odds of surviving the day were looking sunny. She’d also gotten through a visit by the Saint of Swords without losing any limbs, which had her in a good mood. Named were like lightning: the odds of them striking at the same place in the battle line twice were pretty low once they left. She’d lost a quarter of her cohort when the shiny fucker had led a charge, and not even calling for heavy mage support had gotten rid of the bastard, but they were approaching the low earth slope the sappers had raised and that was probably a good sign. She hoped. It wasn’t like tribunes were high up enough the ladder to be in the loop for whatever secret plans were unfolding. The crusaders were pressing on all sides, but the measured pace of the retreat had continued to prevent encirclement.

Still, thank the Gods the enemy didn’t have cavalry.

Abigail squinted at the enemy, to her dismay finding out that the hero from earlier was still leading the pursuit. Fuck. She’d really been hoping that would end up being someone else’s problem. Her cohort still had two tracers to send up to request mage intervention, but for the heavy stuff the mage lines could only hit one place at a time. If her signal went into the sky and they were already busy, the enemy Named was going to fuck them up.

“At least they don’t fly,” Abigail mused out loud. “So there’s that.”

“Ma’am?” Captain Krolem asked.

He tended to do that a lot. It was a little unsettling for an orc his size to turn into an eager page whenever she spoke.

“Keep us at pace, Captain,” she said. “I’m just thinking.”

“May I ask about what?” the greenskin said.

“Comparing this to the Arcadian Campaign,” she said. “Didn’t fight much at Five Armies and One, but this is about as bad as Dormer.”

The orc looked at her eagerly.

“Is it true you ripped out a fae’s throat with your teeth?” he said.

Oh Gods, the rumours kept getting worse.

“I stabbed it,” she denied. “Blood just sprayed into my mouth.”

Because she’d been screaming at the top of her lungs in terror at the time, then nearly choked to death as the fae kept trying to knife her.

“Drinking the blood of your enemy is an honourable thing,” Krolem assured her.

Burning Hells, she’d never get used to orcs. Sometimes they were almost like people, then they said shit like that.

“Eyes on the enemy, Captain,” she said, retreating from the line of conversation.

Speaking of retreats, her cohort was nearing the position they’d been ordered to stop at. The beginning of the earthen slope snaking across the field. Abigail glanced at it and frowned. Wasn’t high or angled starkly enough to serve as proper field fortifications. What had the sappers been doing? Looking further back, she saw the packs of goblins standing in companies. No longer digging. Was this the sum of the plan, raising a second-rate hill? It was impressively long, sure, but all it meant was that her soldiers were going to be killed with the high ground. Pressing through the ranks to get to her, one of her lieutenants was making her way with an urgent look on her face. Tribune Abigail went to meet her half-way after leaving Krolem in command.

“Ma’am,” the dark-haired Callowan saluted.

“Report,” she ordered.

She’d sent the officer to have a look at what the goblins were up to, in case it ended up blowing up in her face.

“Tunnels, ma’am,” the lieutenant got out. “They dug tunnels.”

Abigail frowned.

“To where?”

The lieutenant gestured forward.

“In that direction,” she said. “I couldn’t tell how far, but at least beyond our position.”

The tribune wiped sweat off her brow, though she was pretty sure she’d smudged dirt more than wiped wetness. Tunnels, huh. What for? Her cohort finished falling back in good order moments later, and she got her answer. The ground shook with muted explosions, snaking across the field until a chunk of the battlefield went up in the air. The Callowan almost fell, but caught herself at the last minute. Dirt began to fall like rain maybe a third into the Proceran host, and her brows rose. That would have killed a few hundred, but it wouldn’t stop them. It’d dug some kind of trench in the ground, she saw, pretty deep and wide. Not exactly a knock out-blow, though. Then the water from the marshlands began pouring into the trench and Abigail of Summerholm breathed in sharply. A river. The Hellhound had dug a river in the middle of an active battlefield, too broad and deep for easy crossing. And now a third of the Proceran host was stuck on the wrong side of it. Horns sounded, but the call was different this time. It’d been on of the first she learned, when going through officer training.

All companies advance.

“Left flank, tracer just went up,” the human officer said.

General Nauk of the Waxing Moons did not reply, idly chewing on a finger. He’d had one of his aides drag a corpse out of the swamp. Bloated corpse wasn’t his favourite, but it beat rations and the water made the flesh easy to tear off the normally tricky finger bones.

“Use the Spikes,” Legate Jwahir said. “And keep hammering, the Marshal handed down orders to try a kill on any hero on our side of the river.”

Juniper of the Red Shields. The Hellhound. They had been friends once, he thought. He could remember parts of that. Enmity too, but that only to be expected. Nauk was certain he had not been a very good orc, even before Summer burned away most of what he was. Licking the last scrap of flesh and skin off the tip of the finger bone, the general swallowed. Eyes on the battlefield before him, he savoured the taste of meat and blood as he watched Proceran lines waver. The crusader left flank was attempting to salvage the situation by circling around, but he’d put most his heavies in the kabili standing in their way. It had meant more casualties for the regulars under heroic pressure, but that was necessary. He did not have enough men to be able to afford coddling.

“Jwahir,” he growled.

“Sir?” the Taghreb answered, turning to him.

“Burn them,” he said. “We’re not lingering, not with heroes on the prowl.”

His legate looked like she wanted to argue, but he stared at her calmly until she flinched and gave the order. Calm came easily, these days. Balance for all the things that did not. The old killing urge was muted, the Red Rage burned away. Instead now he had this vicious spasm of violence never too far from his hands. That and the hollowness, but he had grown used to that. There was satisfaction to be found in his work, as close to pleasure as it got. General Nauk watched as clusters of green flames exploded in the ranks of the crusaders on the wrong side of the river, picking at the flesh between his fangs with the finger bone. The screams were soothing, almost as good as listening to the spasm. He’d keep his troops in place long enough the Procerans could not escape, then pull back to the camp as instructed. Heroes could still bleed them, and if a commander on the other side managed to restore order long enough to start sending soldiers around the river – which only went on for so long, time had forced limits – defeat could still happen. The world shivered.

“Sir,” Jwahir said.

“I see it, Legate,” he grunted.

A pair of heroes were hacking at the river with great spurts of Light, trying to collapse a ford. He snorted, dimly amused. Might work, but it’d take too long. Even if they didn’t get exhausted before the end, the amount of men they’d be able to spare a burning death would be minimal. Dark eyes, one dead and one living, turned to the crusader camp even though it was too far to see. Soon that would go up in flames as well. Special Tribune Robber would be starting fires there, green and otherwise. Nauk felt like she should dislike the goblin, though he hardly remembered why. Something about a woman? Felt childish. And now he was hungry again. His fangs crushed the finger bones and he sucked at the marrow within, swallowing shards with it before licking his chops clean and tossing away the remains. A great ripping sound sounded in the distance, and the orc jolted in surprise. There was a wound in the sky, a woman running on it. Past the enemy lines, past the goblinfire, past his own men. Nauk’s brow creased.

“Scry our mages,” he ordered the Callowan officer. “The rest of you, go away.”

Legate Jwahir’s lips thinned.

“Sir-”she began.

Nauk unsheathed his sword.

“Disobeying a superior officer’s order had clear consequences, Legate,” he said. “The army now goes in full retreat. You hold command until told otherwise.”

The woman paled. The orc did not pay much attention as the mage officer placed the scrying bowl in front of him on a tripod and the rest cleared out. His eyes were on the old woman running across the sky. Heading towards him. She flicked her sword, carving another rippling wound and sliding down until she landed in front of him.

“You’d be the general, then,” the Saint of Swords said.

Nauk tapped the flat of his blade against the scrying bowl’s edge.

“Spike,” he ordered.

Flame hammered down a moment later and the world became a sea of fire as he laughed. Ah, that’d felt good. The impact had knocked him off his feet, but he rose.

“Again,” he called out.

The heroine carved apart the flames that bloomed above them both, glaring at him. Another cluster was born and they both went down. Fire licked at his hands and the Princekiller hacked out a cough. She wouldn’t die that easily. But neither would he. He’d felt harsher flames than this. Still did, whenever he closed his eyes. Through the smoke a shape burst out, but he was quick enough the cut that would have taken his throat cut through his ruin of a cheek instead. Barely felt it. The old woman eyed him contemptuously, raised her blade once more and then hurriedly backpedalled when a long knife scythed through where her throat had been a heartbeat earlier.

“So,” Archer said, blades twirling in her hands in a display of unnecessary dramatics, “Is it me or you’ve gotten a little crazier?”

Nauk hacked out a laugh.

“Try to get me a slice, will you?” he said. “Never had heroine before.”

“That wasn’t a no,” the woman drawled amusedly.

“You’re one of Ranger’s,” the Saint of Swords interrupted.

“And you’re…” Archer began. “Shit, I could have sworn I knew. Sorry, I really wasn’t paying attention during that briefing. Catherine was wearing this very flattering tunic and I was hammered like you-”

The heroine struck, but Archer danced around the blow and forced her back with a slash that would have gone across her eyes.

“Go for a walk, Nauk,” the brown-skinned woman said, as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “I don’t think she’s happy about your setting her minions on fire. Go figure. Some people just take things too personally.”

“Flank meat,” General Nauk suggested. “Or cheek. Tender pieces.”

“Gross,” the Named said, wrinkling her nose. “And I’ve been stealing goblin bedding for like a month, so I know gross.”

The orc snorted, and fled to the sound of Archer beginning to expound on the virtue of royal liquor cabinets with breakable locks as the heroine tried to kill her.

Princess Rozala clenched her fingers until the knuckled turned white around the reins. They had been so very, very close to utter and complete victory. She’d followed the classics perfectly. A first wave of levies to tire out the enemy infantry, followed by fantassin companies across the line while princely retinues struck at weak points. She’d tied down the enemy cavalry with a portion of her own, the sent the rest to circle around to hit the back of the Army of Callow while she thinned she extended the line of her left flank. The enemy mages had been more than a match for her priests, but the struggle had occupied the both of them and left her foe with no real check for the Chosen. Who’d torn into the shield wall with remarkable alacrity, constantly forcing the opposing commander to reinforce breaches with fresh troops. Within the first half hour of the battle, victory was in the air. Wherever Named struck, the Army of Callow bled men like a leaking barrel. Then her circling cavalry had struck, and found a thin line of scorpions awaiting them. She’d almost laughed at the sight. The wave of bolts tore bloody swaths, but it could not stop thousands of horseman on the charge.

Then they’d fired again, barely a heartbeat having passed.

The tip of her cavalry wedges disintegrated. Men and horses died like flies as the scorpions damnably kept firing. The losses promised to be brutal, but as her horsemen spread out and began to close distance she bit down on her fury and made her peace with the trade. A higher cost than she would have wished, but victory was coming nonetheless. Then the goblins had wheeled out some shoddy-looking slings, and packed munitions began to blow away whole chunks of cavalry. Her people were valiant, many of them hardened veterans from the Great War. It took them sixty heartbeats to break, and what should have been a triumph tipped towards a draw. The Callowan knights, though outnumbered, broke through the cavalry she’d sent against them after an hour of hard fighting. Losses on both sides were… steep. One of the few comforts of the day, that over a third of the enemy’s cavalry had died before her own fled the field. Without the Chosen it might very well have been a defeat. The enemy commander turned those vicious scorpions against her fantassins, revealing that in addition to being repeating they could also be swiftly moved by oxen.

Then the Grey Pilgrim had taken the field and radiant light carved through the engines like a heavenly stroke. The enemy commander ordered a retreat soon after and the legionaries withdrew in good orders, bleeding men to heroes and skirmishers they had no answer to. But the knights of Callow threatened to charge them, and Princess Rozala had no choice but to order a temporary withdrawal while she sent some officers to force back steel in the spine of her horse. After another hour she was gathered in good order again, and ready to order another assault. With the scorpions destroyed, her foe would break. The the sky streaked with sorcery across the march, and she learned that the other column was in full retreat. But a half hour later, another signal touched the sky. Her camp had come under attack. Soon after the flames grew tall enough she could see them even from this far out. Princess Rozala had fought a battle, today, against twelve thousand men. She’d slain near a third of that army, at the price of perhaps five thousand dead of her own.  Yet if she pressed the assault now, without the other column, she might very well be assaulting a fortified position with numerical inferiority. Gritting her teeth, she ordered a retreat back to camp.

One night. One night of rest in whatever was left of her camp, and then with dawn she would dispose with all strategic subtlety. She would muster her entire host, and hammer at the enemy until they broke.

Vivienne woke to the sound of someone pouring wine. She had a knife in hand before her eyes opened, and she was halfway out of her chair when a chuckle gave her pause. Thief stilled her heartbeat, meeting the former Prince of Nightfall’s lone good eye. The fae had a cup of wine in hand, sitting at the edge of Catherine’s bed. There were four mages in the tent and over thirty of her Jacks outside, yet not a single one of them had raised the alarm. The Callowan eyed the mages, who had neither noticed her waking nor Larat’s presence.

“Where have you been?” she croaked out, voice still-half asleep.

The sound broke whatever glamour had kept the mages from noticing what was going on. Their eyes widened in alarm, but Vivienne’s hand rose and they shut their mouths.

“Around,” the fae drawled.

Instinct warred in the woman. Part of her wanted to dismiss the mages, since this might be a conversation best kept private. Another part of her was very much aware the nonchalant fae could kill her with a flick of the hand and Catherine was not awake to hold his leash. The mages might be her only chance of survival, if the fae felt inclined to violence.

“Every word spoken in this tent is under seal,” Thief told the mages, choosing self-preservation with a bitter taste in the mouth.

“Precious,” Larat smiled.

“We fought a battle, today,” Thief sharply told him.

“And won it, I hear,” the fae replied. “Or at least avoided loss, which is victory enough for the likes of you.”

“She’ll have your hide, for staying out of it,” Vivienne said, forcing calm.

“I take no orders from mortals,” the fae sneered.

The implication that Catherine was not one of those hung heavy in the air. Thief’s lips thinned. It might even be true, to an extent.

“Then why have you reappeared?” she asked.

The one-eyed fae idly set down his cup on the bedside table and rose to his feet.

“Perhaps I’ve decided to dispose of my shackles,” he suggested. “Or merely to hack away at dead wood.”

The way he smiled at her when speaking the latter sentence sent a shiver up her spine.

“Doubtful,” Thief said. “There’s no Hell horrible enough for what would happen to you if you did, and we’re both aware of it. That’s not the game you’re playing.”

Larat shrugged languidly, leaning against a dresser.

“Perhaps I am simply waiting,” he said.

Vivienne frowned.

“For what?” she pressed.

There was a gasp and Thief wheeled about. One of the mages was staring at the bed, where Catherine was… well, her body was no longer shuffling around. The woman flicked a glance at the fae, who was smiling thinly. Amused. After a long moment, the Queen of Callow’s eyes opened and she let out a ragged sound. Rising to a sitting position on her bed, she rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“Well,” Catherine Foundling rasped. “That was a thing.”

“Oh thank the Gods,” Vivienne whispered.

Then Larat plunged his blade into her throat. Thief froze in utter surprise, but Catherine did not. She slapped the fae across the face, breaking his chin and teeth, and got on her feet. She took out the sword and her throat reformed within a heartbeat. Larat began to get up, but Cat kicked him back down and kept her bare foot on his chest. The fae began to laugh.

“Already?” the Queen of Callow said, and glanced at the mages still in the tent. “Bind him.”

She reached for the cup of wine on the bedside table, then after a sigh withdrew the fingers. Thief’s fingers clenched.

Hold,” she said.

The mages looked at her in surprise.

“And in wickedness doth Evil sow the seeds of its own defeat,” Vivienne quoted, meeting Catherine’s eyes.

The queen rolled her eyes.

“For barren is the womb, and certain the fall,” she replied.

Is was, Thief knew, the correct second half of the verse from the Book of All Things. It was also not the correct answer to this phrase. It should have been the punchline to a truly filthy joke about sailors and holes in the hull she’d learned while a waitress in Laure.

“Hello, Akua,” Vivienne said.

The Queen of Callow’s face went blank and immediately a long spear of ice formed from her extended hand, the point resting on the sleeping Hierophant’s throat.

“None of you,” Akua Sahelian said through Catherine’s lips, “are to move or make a sound.”

The mages went still. Larat was still laughing.

“You won’t,” Thief said.

“I assure you,” Diabolist said, “the survival of this man is of middling import to me.”

“You won’t,” Thief repeated, “for the same reason you didn’t drink from that cup. You’re still bound by the oaths her body took.”

Akua’s eyes narrowed and her wrist flexed, but did not otherwise move.

“Clever girl,” Catherine’s lips said. “She took an oath not to harm any of you.”

“Moonlight,” Thief said, and the body froze.

Passing a hand through her hair, Vivienne felt her stomach drop. This, she thought, had just gotten a great deal more complicated.

“Bind her,” she ordered the mages.

Larat, she noted, was still quietly laughing.

Interlude: Kaleidoscope III

“The meaning of the exercise of war is the destruction of your foe’s ability to wage it. ‘Victory’ does not exist as an independent entity; it is merely the manifestation of the enemy’s defeat.”
– Extract from ‘Considerations on Warfare’ by Marshal Grem One-Eye

It would come down to steel and blood. The Thief had failed, not that Juniper held much hope for success. The woman was not as clever a liar as she believed, and the enemy was cunning. Much as she disliked the former heroine, the orc refrained from spending a quarter hour verbally ripping her to pieces. She had more important duties to see to, now that near forty thousand crusaders and their heroic hired killers were on the march. Heroes, huh. Much like knights, Juniper had never thought much of them. All a knight could claim to be was a killer on a horse. The rest was pageantry. And heroes, well, the Hellhound had never cared for the smell of hypocrisy. ‘The Heavens told me to do it’ did not qualify as a valid excuse under Legion regulations, and those were the closest thing to fair laws Creation had ever seen as far as she was concerned.

“She bought us a few hours, at least,” Aisha said.

The two of them were alone in the tent, at least until the rest of the general staff arrived. Juniper cast a look at the Taghreb, eyes lingering on soft skin of her bare wrists. Such delicate appearance, for such a dangerous woman. The urge to sink her teeth into the warm veins warred with the urge to feel the softness with her own rough hands. The orc cleared her throat.

“For all the good it’s done,” she said. “We’re in for a red day.”

The olive-skinned Staff Tribune flicked her an amused glance.

“The Fifteenth’s eternal motto,” she teased.

The orc did not allow the laughter in those bright eyes to distract her.

“We have a choice to make,” she growled. “Static or moving.”

Princess Malanza was splitting her host in half, roughly fifteen thousand on each side of the marshlands advancing in thick columns. It’d been too much to hope for the crusaders would try going through the water. It didn’t take Grem One-Eye to see that’d mean easy targets for Juniper’s engines, and Rozala Malanza had already proved she was no fool.

“Legion doctrine dictates retreat to a hardened position, when met with superior force,” Aisha said.

Their current position was as hardened as field fortifications could allow, so the traditional call would be remaining behind the palisades and preparing for a hard fight. It meant, though, surrendering the initiative to the enemy. And the Hellhound had been burned playing number games with this foe before. She was wary of a repeat.

“We could have local superiority, if we sent enough men to hit a single column,” Juniper said. “And possibly break that side before the other one gets anywhere close.”

“Without heroes on the field, it would be risky,” the Taghreb said. “With them, it nears wishful thinking.”

Her Warlord had picked a fucking bad time to take a nap, that much was undeniable. Were there even half as many heroes, Juniper would not hesitate to strike anyway. Twelve, though, was too many for her tastes. Even if all they did was prop up morale wherever they stood it might be enough to tip the balance. If the Saint of Swords or the Grey Pilgrim happened to be with either army, massacre was the word that came to mind.

“We let them march without contest, and by afternoon we’ll be surrounded and up to our neck in Named,” Juniper said. “Even if we don’t give battle, we have to slow them down.”

“We have munitions,” Aisha pointed out.

They’d both known that, but the point of this conversation was not her friend pushing for a plan. The back and forth allowed Juniper to sharpen her own thoughts, using Aisha’s words as a grindstone.

“There’s a thought,” the Hellhound mused. “Not as a weapon, but as ground denial. Plaster one flank with goblinfire and hit the other column with our full muster.”

“We’d be leaving our camp exposed,” the Staff Tribune said. “We risk a wipe if they have a way to cross the marshlands or get around the goblinfire.”

“They’re leaving their own exposed,” Juniper noted. “They’ve got at most a few thousand soldiers there that’re fighting fit. And they’re serving as Malanza’s strategic reserve. Which means this isn’t just testing our defence, she’s aiming for a full victory.”

“Assuming they know our queen is incapacitated, they might be under the impression they need to hurry before she awakens,” Aisha said.

“That has sense,” Juniper said. “And if true, it means the enemy is committed. They will not withdraw because of losses.”

“Malanza’s not been shy about trading casualties so far,” the Taghreb shrugged. “This is not fresh observation.”

Juniper shook her head.

“No,” she replied. “It is. If you’re right then static defence is not an option. They’ll not retreat with sundown no matter how many we kill, just send wave after wave against the palisades through the night. They’re in it to the death, and that means the only way we make it through this is by forcing a retreat.”

Aisha’s eyes narrowed.

“And the only thing that would make Princess Malanza call one is the risk of a defeat so major her army would not recover from it,” the Staff Tribune said.

“Which we can’t inflict by force of arms,” the Hellhound said. “Or by Named superiority.”

That meant the effect had to be obtained indirectly, through strategic means. Juniper licked her chops hungrily. It was a puzzle. One where the slightest misstep would doom her army and likely Callow with it.

Gods, she’d missed this.

Captain Pierre Dulac squinted into the sun. The Callowans were fucking crazier than he’d thought, because he was looking at a force of at least four thousand. The Brabantine had served in the army of Prince Arnaud for a decade and a half now – loyalty to the principality of one’s birth was all well and good, but the Cantalins paid better – and fought in four of the Great War’s largest pitched battles. He’d been known to make the boast that he’d killed someone from every principality in Procer, after a few drinks, and for all he knew it might even be true. He had, to put it bluntly, gotten a handle on the waging of war. No fantassin lived long enough to make it to his current rank if they didn’t, much less rise to command of a free company as he had. Which was why he was surprised the enemy had abandoned perfectly good palisades and the cover of their war machines to sally out against the column he was the vanguard of. Spitting out the ball of redleaf he’d been sucking on all morning, the captain slowed his march so his second would catch up. Pierre often led from the front when on the march, though he’d gotten old enough he left the sword-waving to younger sorts when battle started.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Francesca, better known as Belle, greeted him.

The southerner was a massive beast of a woman, built like an ox and hairy as one. Some Lycaonese fuck had taken off the tip of her nose with a blade at the Battle of Aisne, which only added to the gruesome spectacle that was her. Not a nice woman. She was quick to use the knife and cheated at dice. But the men were fucking terrified of her, and that had uses.

“Tell me my leaves didn’t go bad, Belle,” he said. “I’m not hallucinating that army, am I?

“I see them,” the lieutenant grunted.

“Fuck,” Pierre feelingly said. “I was hoping they’d stay holed up and we could trick another company into leading the first wave.”

“Callowans,” the woman shrugged. “Hicks one and all. You want to send a messenger to the prince to ask for orders?”

The captain grimaced. He’d rather not if he could avoid it. Their column was following the western bank of that creepy magic swamp, from a bird’s eye view, and unlike the other army they had no cavalry backing them. Princess Malanza had gone to command the host with horse, like a good little Arlesite trying to win wars one charge at a time, and that left Prince Arnaud and Princess Adeline sharing command over this column. Pierre didn’t know shit about the Princess of Orne, but everyone and their sister knew Prince Arnaud was a proper twat. He was a twat who paid well and on time, so Pierre’s company remained in his service, but the fantassin wasn’t eager at the notion of following the military wisdom of the Prince of Cantal. Like all princes, he wasn’t known to send his retinue into the breach when there were spare fantassins lying around. Better to take a look on their own terms, the captain figured, without any ‘inspired’ instructions about when they could retreat.

“Rustle up the last ten men who pissed you off, Belle,” Pierre Dulac said. “We’re going to have a closer look at whatever they’re cooking up.”

Tribune Abigail of Summerholm should have known someone was out to fuck her when she got offered the promotion after Akua’s Folly. Sure the pay increase was nice, and word had got around she’d been in the frontlines during both the Arcadian Campaign and Second Liesse – which made it really easy to trick strapping young lads from home into her bed, if they were as dumb as they were pretty. Plenty of those floating around, it was the type that made shit life choices just like her and enrolled in the Army of Callow. On the other hand, she’d been transferred from the command of General Hune to that of General Nauk. The godsdamned Princekiller himself. The orc looked like a torch had eaten half his face, and acted like he was going to eat half Creation to even that out. Of course they’d put her under the command of the one man in the Army of Callow who was guaranteed to be sent over and over again into the worst possible messes. Abigail had bought a sack of leeches in Laure and paid someone to drop them in Tribune Ashan’s bedding when no one was looking.

That fucker was the one who’d recommended her for promotion.

Worst of all, her cohort was green as grass. Oh, sure, the Hellhounds had drilled them to collapse and taken everyone through a brutal gauntlet of field manoeuvres and war games. But they’d not looked death in the eye properly until yesterday and this was already beginning to shape into a worst fucking mess than Akua’s Folly, which was really saying something. Three thousand dead legionaries within the first hour, because the priests on the other side had found some loophole in the Book of All Things. See if I ever give alms to the godsdamned House of Light again, the tribune grimly thought. Could have been her down there, if the Hellhound had decided on different tactics. The Black Queen had seen their priestly fuckery and raised them mass slaughter, which had been good for morale. Until rumours she’d been wounded by the spell began circulating, anyway. Another rumour had immediately started going around that it was a trick and she was baiting the crusaders, but Abigail could recognize the work of the Jacks when she heard it. The Queen of Callow was having her beauty sleep while the enemy marched. Rank hath its privileges.

“Tribune,” someone spoke from behind her.

Abigail spat and turned to look at Captain Krolem. The orc was standing stiffly, broad arms visibly itching to salute. It’d taken her a while to wean him off that. Fresh meat from the Steppes, this one, passed through a recruiting camp in the Fields and now a proper loyal subject of the crown of Callow. Now that the Tower had forbidden recruitment in Praes, his sort was rarer addition.

“I’m listening,” she said. “But if it’s the fucking sappers again-”

“It isn’t, ma’am,” the orc assured her. “Our outer line reports enemy movement.”

“So they have eyes,” Abigail noted. “Definitely picked the right people for the watch.”

“Aside from the column,” the orc clarified. “A single tenth of Procerans. Scouts, we believe.”

Ah, shit. Her cohort was far ahead of where the sappers were plotting whatever Marshal Juniper had sent them here to do, but she had instructions from the Princekiller to stomp hard on any crusaders coming to have a look. General Nauk had made it clear his forces would not be retreating until the sappers were ready, and someone out to kill Abigail had decided it was a great idea for her cohort to be out on the front lines. At least she wasn’t the poor bastard whose cohort was stuck next to the creepy murder swamp full of dead people to anchor the flank. Hells of a silver lining.

“Send out a line,” she told the captain. “And since I’m in such a giving mood, they can eat whoever they kill.”

“Kind of you, ma’am,” Krolem replied, sounding absolutely serious.

Of course he was. Tribune Abigail worried her lip and stared at the column in the distance. An hour, maybe, before the enemy was in engagement range. They’d been waiting out here for two. Maybe the Heavens would smile on her for once, and the sappers would be done soon. She looked up at the sunny sky, grimacing.

“Come on, you assholes,” she said. “I got to sermons thrice a year, that’s gotta count for something.”

“Only four thousand, Your Graces,” Pierre said, bowing again.

He wasn’t sure if etiquette required it, but with royals it was always better to be on the safe side. The Princess of Orne had turned out to be young and easy on the eyes, not that he allowed himself to look. That was a good way to end up blinded. Neither she nor Prince Arnaud had bothered to dismount from their horses to receive his report after he was ushered into the presence of greatness. He was pretty sure each horse was worth at least ten times the war chest he’d accumulated after over a decade of soldiering. They were, he grimly thought, probably better fed too. His company had bought food and kept a hidden stash since, because relying on the largesse of princes was a good way to end up starving, but even their own reserves were beginning to run out. The horses, he could not help but notice, looked perfectly healthy. Better a prince’s mount than a peasant, eh?

“And you did not approach close enough to ascertain what they were doing there,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal said, pawing at his wisps of a beard.

The disapproval was clear, as was the implied question of why he had not. Somehow the fantassin doubted that the answer of ‘the orcs they sent out looked a little too eager’ would earn him much favour here. He cleared his throat.

“As my men and I had already come close enough to see their formation, I judged it more important to return and make sure that knowledge was brought to you,” he lied.

It was one thing to kill for Prince Arnaud’s silver, another to die for it. The man didn’t pay that well.

“Prudent,” the Princess of Orne said, tone neutral. “And what can you tell us about their formation?”

“They’re digging in, Your Grace,” Pierre said, bowing again. “There was no reserve, but there were troops detached on their flank to prevent easy encirclement. It looked like they were preparing to fight.”

Princess Adeline frowned.

“With four thousand?” she said. “We’ve more than thrice that number.”

The captain had not been addressed directly, and so decided not risk speaking up.

“Were there many mages, Captain?” Prince Arnaud asked him.

“Not on the front lines, Your Grace,” Pierre replied. “I cannot speak for further back.”

“It seems a rather obvious trap,” the Princess of Orne mused.

“They might be a mere sacrifice to slow us down,” Prince Arnaud said.

“Or a feint by the Callowans,” the other royal said. “Trying to give us pause without any true threat.”

“We can simply smash through,” Prince Arnaud said lightly. “Why even bother with battle order, against such feeble opposition?”

Pierre winced. Going in half-cocked against the bastard child of the Legions of Terror would get a lot of people killed before numbers won the day. The captain had never fought legionaries before, but he’d heard stories.

“Let us not blunder at this late hour, Arnaud,” the Princess of Orne coldly said. “A careful approach is needed. We give battle only when properly arrayed.”

“if you insist,” Prince Arnaud indifferently said. “Fuss, if you feel the need. The Principate will prevail regardless.”

Pierre Dulac silently wondered when they going to remember they had not dismissed him. And, perhaps, if it was time to politely inquire whether the Princess of Orne was still hiring.

Princess Rozala Malanza watched the enemy host through her mother’s old Baalite eye, the clever arrangement of lenses within the wooden tube allowing her to study in detail even at a distance. Ashurans demanded a fortune for every single one of these, but the imitations from Nicae were of much shoddier quality. That the Thalassocracy would remain so tight-fisted over a device they had not even invented themselves – it came from across the Tyrian Sea – was typical of that grasping gaggle of merchants and sailors.

“More than twelve thousand,” she said.

“They mean to give battle?” Prince Amadis frowned. “Would it not have been a superior notion to do so from atop the palisades?”

“Maybe,” the Princess of Aequitan hedged. “The Legions of Terror are known for their skill at sieges, but this is the Black Queen’s army. They made their reputation on pitched battles.”

“Then why even raise them?” the Prince of Iserre murmured.

“Something’s changed,” Rozala said. “Their general has a plan.”

“One would assume,” Amadis drily replied. “I don’t suppose you could hazard a guess as to the nature of that plan?”

The dark-haired princess frowned. The enemy should have perhaps nineteen thousand soldiers left. Assuming at least two thousand had been left to guard the baggage train, the soldiers in front of them represented around three quarters of the Army of Callow. That left a rough quarter unaccounted for, a fact that was making her uneasy. The enemy could not hope to hold back the other column with those numbers, they’d be encircled and slaughtered to the last. And, to be frank, if defeat in detail was to be attempted it was Adeline’s host that should have been the target. Rozala had stripped it of cavalry specifically to tempt such a blunder since the Saint of Swords was with that army.

“They could be attempting to delay us until sundown,” Rozala finally said. “To prevent us from encircling their camp, counting on my being reluctant to conduct war after dark.”

“You do not sound convinced,” the Prince of Iserre observed.

“It would be the first major mistake by their commander,” she said. “I was taught it is a rule of war that when a skilled enemy makes an obvious mistake it is no such thing.”

“It may no longer be the same commander,” Prince Amadis said. “Their Marshal would hold authority, in the Black Queen’s absence.”

“Juniper of the Red Shields,” Rozala muttered. “Hasenbach’s reports did not mark her a fool. She is alleged to be one of the finest graduates of their War College.”

“A skilled second does not necessarily mean a skilled first,” the man replied. “I will not question you in matters of war, but what seems like foolishness might simply be youth and desperation.”

She might be young but she’s fought just as many battles as the rest of us, the princess thought. Yet the Princess of Aequitan could not remember a single of these where the incipient Black Queen was not holding overall command. It was a plausible explanation that Amadis had offered. Yet she still felt as if she was being invited to make a mistake. It was irksome she could not quite put it into words. It was… an alignment. Rozala knew that dwindling supplies were forcing her to be aggressive. She’d only risked splitting the host in two because heroes accompanied both halves, and there should be no villains left to fight them. The Wild Hunt might strike unexpectedly, so she’d left soldiers to guard her camp and wounded, but everything else she had to field was on the march. Her armies were moving in strength, but there was a certain fragility to that strength. All of this together was bringing muted dread she could not explain.

“We wait,” she finally said. “The other column has orders to signal if they engage the enemy or find their path unobstructed. We will proceed when we receive either.”

An hour passed with two armies eyeing each other across the field until sorcery rose into the sky. Three red streams. Princess Adeline was attacking an enemy force.

The choice was out of her hands, then. She could not allow the army before her the possibility of disengaging or reinforcing the other side of the marsh.

Watching the streaks of red in the sky from her open tent, Juniper allowed the reports spoke to her to go unanswered. The enemy on the left flank was moving to engage Nauk. The enemy on the right was moving to tie up the army she’d put in front of them. She looked down at the map on the table, the figurines she had set down.

“That,” she murmured through her fangs, “was a mistake.”

The Hellhound smiled, and in her mind’s eye she loosed the arrow.

Interlude: Kaleidoscope II

“Fear is the mother of character. Without it we remain children until death.”
-Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

Vivienne had once spent a few days running a shell game in the streets of Southpool, when she’d still been an apprentice under the Guild. It hadn’t been about the coin, for she could have made a hundred times the coppers from burgling a single noble house. Her teacher had teased her about it, calling her a petty hustler instead of a thief, but what she’d learned had been well worth a few sardonic comments. Confidence tricks were about sleight of hand, but also about reading the other side. Gauging how much of a taste you had to give them before the fleecing, how much you could squeeze out of them before things got ugly. She’d learned more about diplomacy over those three lazy days than through years of lessons. It was why she’d pressed to be the one sent to speak with the Proceran envoys, that and the undeniable fact that if Marshal Juniper went instead it would be a bloody disaster. The orc had a place as one of the larger cogs in the kingdom’s machinery, but she was useless in all matters not military. That the Marshal of Callow seemed under the impression that her judgement off the battlefield should ever be seriously considered was just a mark of the greenskin’s arrogance.

A child that screamed ‘kill them all and eat them’ every time you glanced at them would be about as useful.

Thief had been forced to lean on the open trust Catherine had shown her in the past to be nominated, and the heavy-handedness had won her no friends in the general staff – which essentially ran the camp while Cat slumbered. The usual deference shown to Named by mundane apparently thinned when said Named had been late to join the cause. Callowans listened to her, and her role as spymistress of the kingdom meant she had most everyone’s ear, but there were few of her countrymen high up in the ranks save for Grandmaster Talbot. For all that the rank and file of the Army of Callow drew increasingly from her people, the senior officers were still largely from from the three legions Catherine had brought to her banner. Vivienne saw no need to take issue with that. Officers died and retired, and the Legions promoted strictly from within the ranks. Her countrymen would keep rising up the ladder until ‘Army of Callow’ was more than a name. Any halfway decent thief knew that patience was as useful a tool as action, and Vivienne was a better thief than most. More importantly, after securing her role she’d had free hand to deal with the envoys as she wished.

First off, there would be no talk of allowing them into the camp. Let them remain outside under their banner with the morning sun pounding down. They’d shown up around Morning Bell, so Vivienne had let them stew outside for another hour. There was no guarantee she would manage to fool the opposition, and the longer they stayed there the better the chances of Catherine or Masego waking up. She’d not dared to let them wait longer than that. If she did, it might be recognized as the temporizing it was. An hour should just be taken as an insult instead of betraying the relative weakness of the Callowan position. She’d gone out alone to meet them, afterwards. Vivienne knew she could master her own body language if she concentrated, but anyone else was a risk. The two men were still standing when she arrived, and discreetly she studied them as she drew near. One was obvious, the wrinkly old man they knew as the Grey Pilgrim. The other was known to her as well, as it turned out. The distinct nose marked him as a relative of Prince Amadis Milenan and the long curly locks were distinctive enough she recognized them from a sketch her Jacks had obtained. Jacques Milenan, a younger cousin to the Prince of Iserre. His mother was… from an Alamans royal line, though she could not recall which one at the moment. The man was supposed to be high in Milenan’s council. Which meant they were taking this seriously.

While she’d assessed them, they’d assessed her. The Pilgrim’s face was perfectly calm, a mask she suspected he’d worn for so long there had come to be some truth to it. Vivienne knew something of pretending to be someone for long enough the deception grew roots and leaves. Thief swaggered forward, producing her flask and pulling at the brandy inside. She sloppily wiped her mouth after and silently used her aspect to trade the flask for an identical one that was the same drink, only heavily watered. Now she just had to let her breath do the lying, and they’d assume her to be less sober than she truly was. The Wandering Bard had taught her the uses of fooling others into thinking you an incompetent drunk.

“Greetings,” the Proceran said, inclining his head. “I am-“

“Jacques Milenan,” Thief interrupted lightly. “I know who you are, crusader.”

“And you are the Thief,” the Pilgrim said calmly.

He was leaning on his staff, Vivienne noted as she approached. Genuine tiredness or a ploy?

“That’s me,” she chuckled, making sure the breeze carried the smell of brandy.

She drank from the switched flask. The mundane envoy did not quite manage to hide his disdain.

“Request was made to treat with the Black Queen herself,” the Pilgrim said.

“That’s funny,” Thief said. “That you think you’re still in a position to make demands, I mean. I was under the impression a fifth of your army got wiped and you were one week away from beginning to dabble with cannibalism.”

“Has the queen refused to receive us, then?” the Pilgrim asked.

“Your side sends some spare kinsman and a man who tried to kill her, then expect Catherine to come out to make small talk?” Vivienne snorted. “I thought high-handed arrogance was a Proceran specialty, Pilgrim.”

“If you will not treat in good will, there is no need to treat at all,” the Milenan said flatly.

She shrugged.

“So walk,” she said. “How much good will do you think you’ve earned, princeling? You invade our kingdom, attempt murder of our anointed queen and all the while plan to carve up our lands to dispense as favours. If every last one of you dies drowning, I will not shed a damned tear over it.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. Not because of her words, at least not exactly. Because he’d been able to tell she was speaking the truth. He’d not expected a former heroine, if she’d ever truly been that, to say as much. The very reason Vivienne had said it: she needed to confirm whether or not he could still discern truth from lies, and the sentence was incendiary enough it should garner reaction. Good. She had confirmed it. Bad. He still had the ability, even when visibly tired. That complicated things, not that she’d expected the Heavens to provide relief. She wasn’t hanging with a crowd on their good side, nowadays.

“Negotiations with a lieutenant would not be binding,” the Pilgrim said.

“I can speak with my queen’s authority,” Vivienne said, and it was technically true.

She watched the hero closely as she spoke, trying to find out if that would register as lie. She’d never actually said that Catherine had given her mandate today, and in theory it wasn’t impossible for the Queen of Callow to grant this particular authority to her one day. The old man’s face remained unmoving, but that told her nothing. He was too clever to be caught through a visible tell twice.

“My instructions,” Jacques Milenan said, “are to treat with none but the Black Queen herself.”

“Black Queen’s not coming out for the likes of you,” Thief said, another technical truth. “Come back with your cousin or Princess Malanza and the matter will be reconsidered.”

If that worked, it might get them through the morning before the enemy realized a game was afoot. If it didn’t, well, all they had was suspicions. They had to be wary of a repeat of yesterday.

“This is not how proper diplomacy is conducted,” the Proceran stiffly said.

Vivienne toasted him with her flask.

“You’ll note my Name is not ‘the Diplomat’,” she replied, and took another pull.

She could feel the Pilgrim’s eyes on her. Searching, measuring.

“Then I would request audience with the queen personally,” the old man said.

“Unless you’ve suddenly gained a principality or right of command over the host, your function here is purely decorative,” Thief replied. “As far as I’m concerned you have no right to make that request.”

The hero sighed.

“I am willing to provide healing to wounded in exchange for the audience,” he said.

“Chosen,” the Proceran said. “Surely you cannot be serious.”

Thief drank from the flask again so her face would not be visible to read. This… Would Catherine and Masego qualify as wounded? She was not certain they would. And if they didn’t, she would be revealing their state for no gain. It would also mean taking the man at his word, which she hesitated to do. She’d ran with William’s crew long enough to know some of the more pragmatic heroes had notions about whether promises made to the Enemy needed to be kept. On the other hand, if those two could be healed most of the army’s problems went away.  That, she decided, was worth the risk. The flask left her lips.

“An oath to the Heavens,” she said. “Of my own wording.”

“No,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

“Fine,” she conceded, idly waving her drink. “We can word it together.”

“You misunderstand me, child,” the old man said. “There will be no healing.”

“No audience either, then,” she shrugged. “We’ll expect an answer within the hour about whether or not Prince Milenan or Princess Malanza will be coming.”

“That will not happen either,” the Pilgrim said calmly. “You have betrayed yourself.”

Vivienne’s heartbeat quickened, but she kept her face smiling.

“Have I?” she drawled. “Then, by all means, take another swing. After you’re driven back, expect the cost of supplies to rise accordingly.”

The old man met her eyes with equanimity.

“You were a heroine, once,” he said.

“And just like that, you lost my interest,” Thief said. “See you around, gentlemen. I’d recommend your backers check on the state of their coffers before ordering an offensive. My heart would just weep if the price of retreat was destitution.”

And with that last lie ringing in the air, she turned and swaggered away. Shit. She’d been had. She’d put a good face on it, but on someone like the Grey Pilgrim the odds of it fooling him were depressingly low. Fuck.

Time to see how well they could bluff with an empty hand, then.

“She will be incapacitated,” Tariq said. “Not dead, for the Thief still had hope, but the Black Queen was hurt by the shattering of the gate.”

Princess Rozala considered the matter with due seriousness, to his approval. The young woman had been robbed of true morals by her uprising, but her mother had instilled her with a sense of honour and duty that allowed some small sliver of them to remain. She was forgiven this, for the fault was not her own. Children could not help what they were taught. Tariq held great hopes that the horrors of this war and the others to come would allow her to grow into the woman she could have been. It was a small thing, in this sea of darkness, but every speck of light drove back the night. It did not matter that the candle was small or passing, only that it burned. It was good to remember old wisdom, in days like these. The well-worn truths helped bring perspective to it all. Creation was imperfect, and would be until its very last breath. All the Heavens required of their children was to leave it a little brighter than they had found it. A hundred thousand pebbles make a tower, one piece at a time.

“Then we resume our offensive,” Princess Rozala said quietly. “Gods forgive us all, if we are wrong.”

The old man stilled his tongue as the Princess of Aequitan began discussing marching orders, watching the men and women at the table. These four, two princes and two princesses, were the mortal heart of this crusade. Or at least the part of it here in the north. Prince Amadis Milenan held the most sway, and it was to him the First Prince had granted command, but the Iserran had become almost self-effacing since the butchery of yesterday. He deferred to the general of the host in all things, and in him Tariq read both fear and cunning. The possibility of defeat, before thought absurd, had shaken him. Yet he was also subtly inviting Princess Rozala to overstep her authority, to further isolate herself from the other royals of the host by giving unpopular orders. Even now that he had glimpsed the abyss, the man schemed. The rot went deep in this one. Though we be flawed instruments, we may yet serve greater purpose, the Pilgrim chided himself. Imperfection was not sin but the very design of the Gods. Salvation without temptation was meaningless. The failure of a man to recognize his weakness should be met with pity and not blame.

The other two royals were smaller flames to these two, he would admit. Princess Adeline of Orne was young in a way that had little to do with age, and still bleeding from her brother’s death. He grieved with her for the loss, though he’d not known the man. The wake of his passing was recommendation enough for his nature. The princess sought alliance with Princess Rozala, and Tariq read admiration in Adeline’s heart when she gazed at the other woman. There could be friendship forged there, if trust bloomed, and they would both be happier for it. The Pilgrim half-smiled. Perhaps a helping hand could be leant to the matter. The last was Prince Arnaud of Cantal, and what the old man glimpsed there had surprised him. Laurence was a creature of pure instinct, having spent her lifetime blurring the boundary between thought and act, and her intuition was a sharp thing. Yet the Pilgrim had doubted her, when she’d said that one was the most dangerous of the lot. No longer so now that he had gazed within. All that lay there was patience and the utter absence of emotion. Tariq watched as the man blustered, speaking foolishly of sweeping advance, and how all the others dismissed him in their eyes. Even Prince Amadis, who thought himself the cleverest of them all.

All the others had warmed to Tariq, after Laurence acted as offensively in councils as she could. Offered him trust, treated him as the man of reason holding back the reckless Saint of Swords. All of them save Prince Arnaud of Cantal.

“I trust the Chosen will participate in the assault?” Prince Amadis asked.

Face never betraying that his attention had waned, the Pilgrim nodded.

“I have already spoken with Laurence,” he said. “Save for the Rogue Sorcerer and the Forsworn Healer, we will split with the armies and fight with the soldiers.”

Queen Catherine had brutalized the children, but not beyond repair. Antoine’s arm had been reattached, and another greatsword found for him to wield. With the coming of dawn, Tariq had been able to Forgive the death of Mansurin. The young man, displaying the famous fortitude of the Champion lines, had only been spurred to greater zeal by his stay Above. Little Sidonia, with her laughing eyes and quick wit, would have to remain under shroud of preservation until tomorrow. The Pilgrim still ached at the memory of seeing the young heroes reaped like wheat as he was held back by the Hierophant. He and Laurence had known that the best chance to spare lives was to slay the Black Queen early in the battle, and that to draw her out the children were the one bait she would not refuse. He regretted it still. Resurrection left a scar on the soul, always. No one could be ripped from the embrace of the Gods without finding Creation and faded and brutish place for the rest of their days, even if the memory of the Heavens was withheld. The Pilgrim excused himself as the council ended, paying due courtesies before returning to his own.

He found Laurence standing by the marshlands madness had made, repeatedly taking her sword an inch out of the sheath and sliding it back down. She was uneasy, then. Tariq came to stand by her side but did not speak. She would do so herself, when she was ready.

“I don’t like this,” the Saint finally said. “Feels wrong.”

He did not contradict her. Though Tariq had been granted insights, they were into the souls of mortals. Laurence de Montfort’s strength had come differently. Her sword had reached the Heavens, and by touching the divine with steel she had attained a sensitivity to the lay of Creation he had never seen the equal of in all his years. If she was troubled, there was reason for it.

“She may rise,” the Pilgrim said. “The shape of it is there. Wounded or unconscious, those she loves besieged, she may return to offer salvation at the darkest hour.”

“And that’s not a villain’s story, Tariq,” the woman grunted. “She’s hard to predict, and that’ll get people killed. You’re sure about what you saw?”

The Grey Pilgrim let out a tired breath.

“What Catherine Foundling craves above all is peace,” he murmured. “On chosen terms, perhaps, but peace nonetheless.”

His heart had broken a little to see it. That even though she had butchered all that she was, the little girl within was still desperately grasping at the light she’d once glimpsed Above.

“She killed thousands,” Laurence said. “And she’ll kill more, if she squeaks away here. Compassion’s not my wheelhouse, but whoever made her into what she is deserves a slow and painful death. She’s been twisted. No one sane would ever do what she did to her own soul.”

The child herself, the Pilgrim suspected, would be infuriated to hear someone speak of her that way. Her embrace of her own mistakes rivalled any flagellant’s.

“It is going to be a long war,” Tariq whispered, the weight of the years heavy on his shoulders.

“Longer for us than most,” Laurence replied, barking out a laugh. “We’ll be part of the five, old friend. You can be sure of it. I already feel the pull.”

The Pilgrim looked up at mockingly sunny skies. There would be a time, after the war turned here and the Red Flower Vales broke, where the Heavens would assemble their sharpest blade. The ancient forms would be observed. Five heroes, sent into the breach to quell the howling dark. Young Hanno would lead them, for the Seraphim had shaped him to the duty. As for the faces of the others, they could only guess. That charming young Valiant Champion was likely, as she’d followed the White Knight before. And there would have to be a practitioner. The most powerful of these was the Witch of the Woods, should she survive her confrontation with the Warlock. And the two of us, the Pilgrim added silently. Relics of an age already past, dusted off one last time. There was always a price to pay, to end the rise of Evil. Tariq hoped it was the two of them instead of young lives cut down before their prime.

“She’ll be there too,” Tariq said. “She always is.”

“Surprised she hasn’t dropped in yet,” the Saint admitted. “But it doesn’t smell like a brewery, and that’s fairly telling.”

“That worries me as much as your unease,” the Pilgrim said. “For if she has not yet appeared…”

“The worse is yet to come,” Laurence finished. “There’s a cheerful thought.”

She sighed and stretched her limbs.

“Well, no point putting it off,” she said. “Let’s go kill some people.”

So spoke Saint of Swords. The Regicide, to the Principate. The Smiling Iron, to the Chain of Hunger. The Fool-That-Cut-Nothing, to no one still living.

“Let’s put an end to this war,” he replied. “Before it gets worse.”

So spoke the Grey Pilgrim, whose names were too many to number. Fleet-foot and Patient Hand, the Kindly Stranger and the Peregrine.

Silence followed and legends went to war.

Interlude: Kaleidoscope

“Spoken like a man I’ll have raised from the dead just to execute a second time.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III

They’d meant to make a lake, but that was not what Juniper was looking down at. After the flow was cut the currents had slowed to a crawl, then settled, and what had once been a plain was now cold marshlands. Dotted by a handful of glaciers, for now, but eventually those would melt. Not in time for the battle to be affected, the Marshal of Callow decided. The massive chunks of ice could be relied on to block field of sight, but they should not be taken as a more than temporary cover. Not with the calibre of Named on the other side. With the sun beginning to set down, the marsh was empty save for shallow waters and corpses or not. Earlier in the day she’d sent the Watch to harass crusaders trying to fish out survivors, but she’d had to call them back when the heroes took the field again. Juniper licked her fangs behind closed lips, the ridge inside her mouth allowing easy access to clean. She’d been told by Aisha that the way it made the mouths of orcs look to human – too broad, too prominent, almost animal-like – was one of the reasons so many of them assumed her people were thoughtless brutes. It was, her old friend had said, an unconscious judgement. The Hellhound did not mind. There’d been many judgements made today, some more harmful than mere human stupidity.

She still remembered the moment she saw the gate open in the sky. The primal awe the sight had shaken her with, that reminder that she was a very small creature in a very large world. That there were entities striding amongst mortals that could flatten them with but a word or a gesture. It’d been difficult to gauge how many Procerans died the moment the water hit them. At least two thousand, she suspected. The gate had not been so high up in the air that gravity would turn it into some divine blow, but the sheer weight of the mass of liquid made that largely irrelevant. A hammer flattened an ant even if you were barely swinging it. All that power, wielded by a shifty sorcerer and barefoot woman who’d murdered a demigod. That’d always been Catherine’s walk, hadn’t it? The fine line between absurd and terrifying. A single moment and the entire lay of the battle had changed. Proceran advance had immediately collapsed, thousands fleeing the sweeping tidal wave pointlessly. The died anyway, drowning in armour. Another few thousand were still lying at the bottom of the marsh.

The crusaders had been struck with horror, but there were people on the other side who’d mastered their panic. Within two heartbeats, mage fire and white-hot heavenly flame had erupted in the centre of the cascading waters. Tons of liquid turned to scalding vapour, but the edges had kept pouring down. Slowed but not stopped. When the first glacier went through, it was split in two by the fires and further broken apart by what Juniper was fairly certain had been the Saint of Swords merely swinging her blade. It’d limited the damage caused by the massive ice structures, but then they’d been swept by the current too and began crushing everything in their way. Another two heartbeats and fences of light formed themselves across the portal to keep the water in, as the heavenly flames winked out. It hadn’t been enough. They lasted barely a heartbeat before shattering under the weight. From beginning to end, the entire affair lasted for eleven heartbeats.

Then the Grey Pilgrim struck.

It had defied easy description, and not only because anyone looking directly at it went blind in the aftermath. There’d been… a star, perhaps that was the only way to put it. Only instead of a distant radiant light it had been a knife. It carved through an edge of the portal, and the whole thing shuddered. Then it went straight through the other side and the sky blew up. A ring of power spread for miles, boiling hot rain falling across the battlefield for the better part of an hour afterwards. The fairy gate was broken, though now there was a strange circle-shaped glimmer above both armies. Juniper had not been pleased, at the time, but neither had she been furious. The gate had not been meant to be kept open for much longer anyway. Her mistake, she now realized, had been thinking in terms of mortal war. Her Warlord’s spell had taken the day away from that mould, and price had to be paid for such great power. Especially when that power was broken by a foe. There is a reason the Carrion Lord does not unleash the Warlock at the beginning of every battle, she thought. And now we learn it the hard way. The exercise of a villain’s power always left them vulnerable, and the backlash for this unmaking had been particularly brutal.

Catherine was not dead, they were fairly certain. Juniper had mages drag her out of sight and examine her the moment after she collapsed. But she was unconscious and… dreaming. The orc had been told that the queen’s body was now made of the stuff of the fae, but she had not truly grasped what that meant until she watched Catherine Foundling’s body shift around like a puzzle box. Square blocs of flesh erupted her chest, short spikes bent bone and muscle in every direction and Juniper had grown nauseous watching her commander’s face melt down to the skull and reform with an eerie keening sound. She still felt ill thinking about it. Orcs were flesh and bone, instinct and feeling. There was almost nothing of any of that left in Catherine. What had struck Hierophant had been subtler. They’d thought him fine at first, as he remained standing where he’d been. Only when he’d not replied to a question had the soldiers noticed that he was perfectly still. No longer even breathing. There was now a permanent rotation of two mages by the man’s bedsides weaving spell to mimic what his lungs had ceased doing. His heart still beat, at least. Neither of the two had woken up in the three hours since the Pilgrim had attacked them.

That left the Army of Callow very, very vulnerable.

So far there had been no attempt at a heroic assault, but there was no telling how long that would last. An issue compounded by the fact that none of Juniper’s mages could tell her when the two most powerful members of the Woe would wake, if they ever did. The army’s fortifications had withstood the waters well at least. The wards held, and the only place the palisade broke was on the left flank when a smaller glacier chunk hit the wall. Mages had been able to keep that contained with shields, enough that the entire battle line didn’t flood. It had been rebuilt since. Was this what you feared, Catherine, when you forbade Bonfire? Part of Juniper still believed that plan had been the best chance at a winnable war they’d had, but now she was being forced to admit there was more to wars with Named than tactics and strategy. It was a bitter pill to swallow to admit that she’d had a weakness in her thinking, but now that she knew of it she must fix it lest she make mistakes in the future. Juniper spat into the shallow waters filling the ditch before the palisade, then turned around. She was in overall command, now. And there were things to be done, the first of them having a conversation with a woman she despised.

For once, the Thief was easy to find. The thin woman was lounging outside the tent where the remainder of the Woe slumbered uneasily, propped up in a folding chair and sipping at a silver flask. Juniper sniffed out the scent. Brandy. Even her taste in alcohol was shit.

“Marshal,” the Thief drawled. “I had a feeling you’d be coming.”

And still she drank, Juniper sneered. Vivienne might have grown on the Warlord and the rest of the Woe, but the Hellhound had never taken to her and never would. The Thief was the worst parts of her people crammed together in a single arrogant frame. The orc had learned to set aside most the dislike of Callowans she’d been taught as a child, admitting to herself that they were no worse than the Soninke save perhaps for the occasional petty moralizing. But this one, she was a reminder of why it’d taken the orc so long to like Catherine. She was hollow in the bone. Orcs and goblins understood, without ever needing to be taught, that the heart of the world was kin and clan. The Legions had taught Juniper that kin did not necessarily mean blood, or clan her own people, and it was that shared understanding that had brought her close to Aisha – who had, herself, been forced to learn to divorce the loyalties of her childhood from those that were truly deserved. The Taghreb were perhaps the closest thing humans could come to reasonable. They understood tethers. Soninke, like Callowans, had no such loyalty in them. Instead they worshipped at some abstract altar of principle, a mortal-made god of meaninglessness. Climbing the Tower, saving the Kingdom: there was little difference save in petty details. The years had taught Juniper that though the people might be fools, individuals need not be. That the things she found so disgusting gathered mostly at the top.

But Vivienne Dartwick was the incarnation of everything she despised about Callow.

An admitted thief, one who took but did not contribute. Were she an orc, she’d have ended up in a cooking pot by now. And while she professed high ideals, unlike Catherine she didn’t even have the decency to bleed for them. The Thief was not a fighter, only a parasite. Like a tick she had nestled over new warmth when her previous host died. And had made herself useful enough since that she could not simply be carved up and eaten like she so richly deserved. Just looking at her made Juniper want to bare her fangs. The antipathy, she knew, was shared. The occasional contemptuous looks shot behind Catherine’s back made that eminently clear, though they were both professional enough that they worked together without trouble. Or had, anyway, when Catherine was awake. Without her between them the Hellhound had a feeling the knives would finally come out.

“War council is to be held,” Juniper growled. “You will attend.”

The Thief’s brow rose, almost mockingly.

“I am not a member of the Army of Callow,” she said.

“You’re a spymistress,” the orc said. “A hoarder of secrets. Now is the time to spit them out.”

“I know quite a bit that you don’t, Marshal,” the wretch agreed with an easy smile. “But little of import to the battle. Which seems, regardless, not in the process of being waged.”

Juniper’s blood ran hot, but she ground her fangs. She would not be baited so easily.

“We do not know when she will wake up,” the Hellhound said.

“Which makes most planning irrelevant,” Thief replied. “Without Catherine and Masego, we lack the teeth to go on the offensive. Plan your defence, Marshal. You do not need me standing at your table as a prop displaying your influence to do so.”

That the tick would so familiarly refer to people she’d once sought to kill had the orc’s fury spiking. She knew hat humans did not have the same understanding of blood feuds, but that insolent girl should be in pieces. Already once a traitor, she would turn again. It was only a matter of time.

“So instead of having some use, you’ll just sit there and get drunk,” Juniper scathingly said. “What a Named you are. I’d get as much use out of a fucking tavern girl.”

“Do you often fuck tavern girls, Marshal Juniper?” the woman asked smilingly. “My word, I had no idea. Still, this is a little bawdy for idle conversation don’t you think?”

Juniper’s fists clenched. Without ever moving, the Named had changed from a lounging wastrel to an amused aristocrat. She was making an effort to be be infuriating.

“I will remain here,” the Thief said, “and watch over them. If you do not believe there are agents of Malicia in this host, you are a bloody fool. My hours are better spent keeping an eye out for a knife than repeating numbers you already know for an audience of officers.”

There was much that Juniper wanted to reply. That having her at the council would allay fears, serve as a display of unity. That a fucking spymistress had no right to gainsay the orders of the Marshal of Callow, especially not on campaign. But there was no point, so she held her tongue. Turning around without another word, she left.

She had a battle to win, with or without help.

Rozala slumped into her seat, exhausted beyond belief. Night had only just fallen, but she knew the work would continue through the dark and unto dawn. In the first few hours, when chaos and panic had spread across the host, she’d desperately struggled to restore order. There was a very real chance the crusaders would have routed, if not for the heroes. They’d walked among the soldiers, helping and healing and soothing away fear. The Princess of Aequitan was still sure at least thousand levies would disappear overnight. After the tides stopped and the scalding rain ceased, the reports had begun coming in. Even now it was hard to tell how many had died, over less time than it took to boil a kettle of water. Early estimates were at nine thousand dead and at least half that out of the fight.

Rozala Malanza closed her eyes, and dealt with the truth that she had just commanded the most disastrous military offensive in living memory.

And the battle had begun so well. The Heavenly Fences had allowed her to trample nearly a seventh of the enemy army within the first hour, badly crippling the enemy’s ranged abilities: without the crossbowmen, the casualties involved in taking the palisades from the Army of Callow would have been greatly lowered. The siege engines would have taken their due, yes, but the Fences would have limited the damage. It would have been a rough affair, no two ways about it, but most definitely a battle she could win. And Rozala had made plans to hit hard and fast enough at least part of the enemy’s supplies could be seized before they retreated through a gate. Enough that starvation could be kept at bay at least a sliver of the way to Hedges. Now there was most a mile of frozen marshland between her army and the enemy’s, and her men were two days away from beginning to boil grass to have something to fill their stomachs. There was a very real chance she would have to order horses butchered, if it came to that, and she could already heal the other royals howling about their expensive war horses getting the axe to feed mere peasants.

The dark-haired princess shivered. Part of it was that she was still drenched and cold: after the first reports, she’d handed the reins to her officers and gone with the rank and file to drag survivors and wounded out of the water. It was the least of what she owed for today’s debacle. The other princes and princesses and followed suit, even Prince Arnaud who she doubted had ever done a hard day’s work in his life. It’d been a given they would, after word spread she’d gone out personally. They couldn’t be seen to care less about the soldiers, could they? The thought was uncharitable, but not necessarily untrue. Rozala’s mother had always taught her that command was her right, but also her responsibility. A general who spent lives frivolously was just a butcher, and the Malanzas were no such thing. Ambitious, perhaps, but their roots were that of ancient and famous generals. Her distant ancestor Lorenzo Malanza had been the one to conquer the northern half of the Dominion of Levant for First Prince Charles Merovins. His splendid victory at Tartessos was the subject of song to this day. And she had shamed that memory, she thought with a grimace. By her failure, but also the other reason her hands were trembling.

Gods, she’d been so small. And no great beauty either, with that strong nose and those razor-sharp cheekbones. She’d talked like a sloppy commoner, all insults and insinuations where the situation demanded poise. And Rozala had not been able to hold back, trading verbal blow for blow with the same nonchalant woman who had just dropped half a lake from the sky. The knowledge of how easily the Black Queen could have killed any of them had the heroes not accompanied the delegation would haunt her thoughts for years to come. What kind of a woman could do something like that, just speak a word and nigh-instantly slaughter thousands? The princess was not unfamiliar with war, but this was… something else. A titan stepping on ants. She did not blame those who would desert in the night. And now she understood the fervour in the First Prince’s eyes, when she spoke of the evils in the east. Rozala reached for the bottle of eau-de-vie she’d sent for, breaking etiquette by pouring her own cup and downing it in a single gulp. The liquor warmed her enough that she did not send a servant for a blanket. Neither did she change out of the wet clothing, though. Let her visitors remember where she had spent her hours.

The Grey Pilgrim was the first to arrive. Rozala rose to her feet, and bowed with genuine respect. The old Levantine had saved hundreds of lives after personally destroying the Black Queen’s weapon, wreathed in Light as he spread warmth and healing wherever he went. The former had been the most important of the two. How many would that have lost to the deathly cold, if not for the pulses of heat?

“Chosen,” the princess said. “I am in your debt for your toil. Any boon in my power to grant is yours to claim.”

A dangerous thing to offer Named, she knew, but looking at the exhausted old man who looked like was folding into himself Rozala did not hesitate. He had saved lives in her care, and Malanzas did not leave debts unpaid. The Pilgrim looked at her through eyes gone rheumy and clasped her hand with wrinkled fingers.

“You owe me nothing, child,” he whispered. “Would that I could have done more.”

“Through winter and summer, my word stands,” Rozala formally replied in the old Arlesite oath. “So long as the Heavens watch and Creation withstands.”

Whether he ever asked the favour of her or not was irrelevant. She would not allow kindness to go unanswered. The hero smiled sadly.

“This is not the first or last tragedy this war will bring,” he said. “Steel yourself, Rozala Malanza. The worst is yet to come.”

“A prophecy, Chosen?” Rozala asked.

“An old man’s intuition,” the Grey Pilgrim said, shaking his head. “Darkness grows. I fear greater evils than Catherine Foundling are yet to come.”

The dark-haired princess’ blood ran cold. Worse than the monster who’d faced half a dozen Chosen on her own and brought down the sky? She could think of few greater evils in existence, save for the Tower itself and the Kingdom of the Dead. Neither thought was comforting.

“I hear your guidance,” Rozala said, bowing her head in thanks.

“May I?” the hero asked.

Uncertain what he meant, the princess nodded in agreement regardless. The glimmer of light was barely visible, but warmth washed over her. Permeated every part of her body, chasing away cold and weariness and fear. Like she was sixteen again, fearless and ready to rise against Hasenbach to avenge her mother.

“It will be a long night,” the Pilgrim said, panting lightly.

She helped the elder into a seat afterwards, seeing his legs shake, and broke etiquette again to pour him a glass of liquor and press it into his hand. Chuckling ruefully, the Levantine sipped at it. He made a face.

“Eau-de-vie,” he said. “The things you Alamans drink. Ah, what I would not do for a good pear brandy. It always tastes like Alava.”

One of the great cities of the Dominion, Rozala recalled, nestled among tall hills. Famous for its orchards and its herds. It had held on a decade longer than the rest of Levant when the Principate invaded, and even after the city was besieged the inhabitants preferred to burn it and flee into the hills rather than live under Proceran rule.

“Your birthplace, Chosen?” she asked, returning to her seat.

“Levante is where I drew my first breath,” the old man replied. “But Alava is where I was raised. It is where I will die as well, if the Heavens ever allow these old bones to rest.”

“Creation will be lessened for the loss,” the princess said, and to her surprise found she meant every word.

“Creation will go on,” the Pilgrim smiled tiredly. “We are never quite so important as we like to think.”

She would have enjoyed quiet conversation with the man a while longer, but it was not to be. Prince Amadis Milenan strode into the tent, his embroidered tunic pristine and his hair perfectly coiffed. It was not enough to hide the tightness around his eyes. Behind him was a short man in a leather coat that went down to his knees, covering loose trousers and shirt of coloured silk. The Rogue Sorcerer, as he called himself. Of the Chosen, it was him Rozala knew best: they had spent long hours together planning the battle and his role in it as leader of the wizards. She had found him genteel and polite, surprisingly so for a man whose Name implied a certain uncouthness. The princess began to rise, but Amadis held out his hand.

“No need,” the Prince of Iserre said. “Not after this kind of day.”

The princess hid her surprise. She’d half-expected that after today’s debacle he would seek to undermine her position with recriminations. He still might, regardless of this unexpected olive branch, so her guard would remain up.

“Princess Malanza,” the Rogue Sorcerer greeted her, inclining his head before taking a seat.

“Chosen,” she replied, just as courteously.

Amadis let out a long breath after sitting down, a long moment passing before he spoke.

“This was,” he said, “not the way we had anticipated this battle would go.”

An understatement if there ever was one, Rozala thought. The use of we did not escape her attention. Blame was not being put solely on her shoulders.

“The failure was mine,” she said anyway.

“We’d prepared for many things, Your Grace,” the Rogue quietly said. “But the sky opening up to drop a lake was beyond our predictions. There is no fault in this, save in believing that our opponent would not be so monstrous.”

“I agree,” Amadis said calmly. “I cast no doubts on your competence, Rozala. Your initial success is proof enough of it. There will be no talk of removing you from command.”

The Princess of Aequitan inclined her head in silent thanks. Did this shake you enough you are taking this seriously Amadis? she thought. Or are you simply keeping me at the head of the host to scapegoat if the situation further worsens? No matter. For now, it was still her battle to fight.

“I must begin, then, with a delicate question,” she said. “This… gate. Should we expect another if we attempt a second offensive?”

If so, this campaign was over. Rozala would not throw away half a hundred thousand lives for pride, even if refusing to do so ruined her. They had learned the enemy’s trick, but the enemy would have learned theirs as well. There was no guarantee the Pilgrim would twice succeed in breaking the gate. The two Chosen traded glances.

“That is a complicated question,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Against most other villains, I would say that forceful shattering of the gate might actually kill them. The amount of power and involvement in crafting such a thing is staggering, and the break would lead to vicious backlash.”

“Yet Catherine Foundling is not merely a villain,” the Pilgrim said. “She is a titled Duchess of Winter. Perhaps the last fae of that realm, if I interpret the Augur’s words correctly. She is no longer human, in a sense. What would destroy the likes of the Warlock or the Carrion Lord might not affect her at all. Her nature has grown other.”

“We have seen neither the Black Queen nor the Hierophant since the battle,” Prince Amadis noted. “To be frank, I was expecting an Imperial offensive while we were in disarray. We might very well have lost the battle if one had followed.”

“I’ll concede that much,” Rozala said. “Yet there might have been other limitations at work. I am no scholar of sorcery, but it occurs to me that such a great blow – even if it had not been shattered – might have incapacitated the two of them for some time. The duration, however, is beyond my ability to theorize. We may very well be facing another gate come morning.”

“We’ll know it’s coming, this time,” the Rogue Sorcerer darkly said. “It’s not impossible to contain the flow until the gate itself can be broken, though I’ll admit it’ll be difficult.”

The princess put her hands in her lap, resisting the urge to brush back her hair.

“There are too many uncertainties,” she said. “I am reluctant to commit to an assault when everyone I send might be drowned. And that is without addressing the difficulties of an assault. Wading through the marshlands will be difficult, and it might be weeks before the soil drinks the water whole. That means having to march around it, and likely splitting the host in two.”

“A probing attack come morning, perhaps,” Prince Amadis suggested.

Even a probe could see a few thousand men die screaming to find out the answer to a simple question, Rozala thought. The alternative, however, was retreat. Through hostile land, while so low on supplies they were barely worth mentioning at all. The Black Queen had offered to provide food for a march back, but there was no guarantee that offer would still hold after today. And if it did not, the amount of men she’d lose to a small-scale offensive would be a pittance compared to what hunger would kill. That was without even considering the reports that the Duchess Kegan’s army was crossing the river far to the north. The numbers there were said to be over ten thousand, and the Deoraithe were infamous for their skill at la petite guerre. Harassment and ambushes, without ever giving battle.

“This is not the kind of decision that can be lightly made,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “And not without knowing all the facts. I must recommend we send an envoy to their camp to find out if the queen’s terms still hold.”

Amadis’ lips thinned in displeasure.

“Surely you’re not suggesting retreat,” he said.

“I am reluctant to even consider it,” Rozala admitted. “Yet if the Black Queen is unharmed and the terms hold, it may be that we have no other choice. We cannot dally. Time works against us more than they.”

“I would accompany your envoy, if you permit,” the Grey Pilgrim said, breaking his silence.

He looked half-asleep, even now. The princess kept her scepticism away from her face. Had the Chosen not tried to take the villain’s life but a few hours ago? Still, she did not pretend to understand the ways of Named. For their sort, attempted killing might be no great enmity. The Prince of Iserre watched everyone at the table silently, then slowly nodded.

“Envoy will be sent,” he agreed. “And to speak with only the Black Queen, so her state may be assessed. Should she prove incapacitated, however…”

Princess Rozala grimly smiled.

“Then we will settle the score in full,” she said.

Malanzas, after all, did not leave debts unpaid.

Chapter 16: Pirouette

“When the abyss stares back, wave. Offer refreshments. Being impolite to the abyss is never a good idea.”
-Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed

“Oh, come on,” I complained. “I know I don’t have a lot of room to argue about healing, but that knife was tickling the back of his skull. Even I wouldn’t walk that off so easily, and my body is basically lies and mirrors.”

There was some shuffling from the opposition, either because of the reminder I’d just killed one of their crew or because grievances at how fucking ridiculous their powers were weren’t what they’d been expecting. If they’d been waiting for despair, they were out of luck. Not that I was particularly pleased my work had been literally waved away by the Pilgrim, but that the heroes would be almost absurdly hard to put down wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Heavens had already thrown their second-raters at me and I’d chewed straight through them over winter. They were done fucking around.

“You could still surrender,” the Grey Pilgrim offered.

Instead I sighed and tapped the side of my helmet. The sliver of power was enough to activate the dormant rune.

“Spell formula stable,” Masego said. “No divine interference.”

“Confirmed resurrection,” I said. “Pilgrim’s come out to play.”

Thief had warned me that last-moment rescues were his specialty so it wasn’t coming out of the blue, though after actually landing that blow I’d expected the hero to actually stay down afterwards. At least the first part was going more or less according to plan. Smacking around the greenhorns some had forced one of the real monsters to intervene before I dug a little too deep and Winter took the helm. I almost felt like shivering at the idea of facing the Grey Pilgrim when in a state of mind where monologues felt like a good idea. Akua might have been right that playing it up for Creation added some hurt to the swings, but there was a reason I was wearing her as a cloak accessory instead of the other way around.

“Noted,” Hierophant replied. “First contingency beginning.”

“Skip straight to second,” I grunted. “I think we underestimated how much trouble the old man would be.”

Which was a Hells of a thing to say, considering we’d planned for him being in the same wheelhouse as Warlock. But if I was reading this right, swinging his miracle dick around wasn’t the Pilgrim’s game. He was more a metaphorical full hand on the scales than the kind of Named that tossed around burning mountains. And that’s only eight out of twelve accounted for, I thought. Saint and at least one mage are still waiting in the wings.

“Understood,” Hierophant said. “Sunrise Final is-”

Power flared, and his words cut out. I glanced at the Grey Pilgrim, whose staff was wreathed in light.

“Rude,” I said. “You could have let him finish. Regardless, I’m reconsidering my stance on single combat. Theoretically, if I agree, do I get to pick my opponent?”

I met the stare of the man I’d stabbed and winked on the same side my knife had gone through. He flinched.

“She is temporizing while her ally prepares his strike,” the Grey Pilgrim told the other heroes. “Prepare yourselves, children. After that blow is weathered is the moment to strike.”

Gods, but I hated fighting smart opponents. Banter would have kept William and his crew busy for a few minutes, at least. It didn’t matter, in the end, because I hadn’t spent the last year busying myself sorely with the affairs of rule. While they’d been assembling their armies and heroes, I’d been training the Woe. And the one amongst them I’d spent most time on was Masego, hammering in the basics of battle that he’d once ignored in favour of simply smashing everything in sight with sorcery. The first thing I’d taught him? A well-worn adage from Theodosius the Unconquered himself. Swiftness is the lifeblood of war. Before the heroes could further prepare, Hierophant struck. Dawn rose from a sun unknown to Creation, the terrible heart of Summer shining down on the cluster of heroes. Even from where I stood, the heat was overwhelming. Wind picked up even as the Named before me winked out of sight, swallowed by scorching light. The Princess of High Noon had been one of our most vicious enemies to deal with, but we had gained much from her defeat: even this pale imitation of her power made mockery of the kind of sorcery we usually called on.

Within the blaze, a star was born. Shining atop the Grey Pilgrim’s staff as he stood unruffled, his loose robes untouched by wind or heat.

“As there was first light, there will be last,” the old man said. “Under radiant star was the first of mankind born, and it will shine long after our time is past. Transient we, yet unbowed by the passing. I refuse your verdict, usher of mysteries.”

With a thunderous clap, the blaze was parted. A corridor opened, leading straight to me, and the heroes rushed down. I rolled my shoulder. Half the knockout punch was delivered, I was my responsibility to take care of the second half. The barefoot staff-wielder was first across, blindingly fast. Behind came the usual triumvirate: greatsword, war hammer, sword and board. Not the same as before, for the latter. Apparently coming that close to dying had shaken the man, because it was now another. The sorcery came down around me, too close to a ward for comfort. I grimaced. I’d have to suffer through, at least until the time to withdraw came. Stance wide, I raised my guard and waited for the first of the hunting hounds. She thrust high, towards my throat. Batted aside, but she was better with her weapon than I was with mine – a spin was all it took for her to be smashing down at my pauldron. I took it. The steel shattered like clay, but the impact wasn’t strong enough to screw with my own blow. It carved a wound across her cheek, narrowly missing the nose. I got in close to sucker punch her belly, but she parried the blow and I was forced to step back to avoid having my ribcage caved in. Light bloomed on her cheek, the healer’s work.

It healed nothing.

Masego had fought demons at Second Liesse. One of them had been a demon of Order, what Praesi called a Beast of Hierarchy. Their essence, as I understood it, was a perversion of laws. Hierophant had learned to mimic that, to a a very limited extent. Inside my killing grounds one law had been established: Light had no effect. The barefoot woman withdrew before I could exploit her surprise, damnably well-trained, and then I had to deal with the second wave. Greatsword – what was left of that weapon, anyway – went for the left side. Hammer for the right, the fresh sword and board keeping me boxed in. I almost smiled. They’d had a limited amount of training together and it was showing: that made it the second time they were trying that tactic on me. Last time I’d gone for one of the sides, and they weren’t idiots: they were expecting as much. Instead I barrelled forward. The hero’s shield bashed forward to keep me in place for the others to hit, but they’d learned the wrong lesson from the last time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t break their formation, just that I hadn’t chosen to. My armoured fist hit the shield and it dented, the man wielding it crying in pain as it broke his fingers behind it. It was a good opening to slice his throat, but the other two were at my back so there was no time. I ran into him, the two of us falling to the ground as weapons whistled behind me.

Instinct led me to throw myself to the side instead of wrestling on the ground. It saved my life. Summer’s dawn had not only been broken by the Pilgrim, it had been wielded: he shaped it into a beam and threw it at me. His aim was perfectly angled, enough that it didn’t touch sword and board when he stayed on the ground. Behind me, earth exploded in desiccated chunks. Time was running out: I couldn’t engage four heroes and the old man simultaneously, that’d just get me killed. I’d have to get aggressive then.

“They damaged the Light,” the barefoot woman said in heavily accented Lower Miezan. “Careful.”

It was the right move, telling her comrades healing mistakes was no longer an option. It was also the wrong one, because for a heartbeat they were surprised. I shot back towards the boy with the wrecked greatsword, ducking under a swing and catching the wrist. Hammer-wielder would have smacked me away, aiming for my hips, but a flex of the legs had me putting my feet on the boy’s chest while the hammer passed under me. For a heartbeat I was vulnerable, and that had the staff-wielder on my ass. Not quick enough, for once, I thought. My thighs tightened, and using the boy’s own chest as a counterweight I ripped his arm off. There was a spray of blood and an anguished scream as I fell into a roll, the staff smashing down where I’d been a heartbeat before. Left with a bleeding arm wielding the remains of a greatsword in my free hand, I threw it in the hammer-wielder’s face before he could aim another strike. He was horrified enough to take a hand off the hammer to push it aside, and that was a mistake. I landed the roll on my feet, angled my stance and smoothly rose. My blade thrust in an upwards diagonal into his throat. He opened his mouth, trying to gurgle out a word – aspect, probably – but I smacked the pommel and the sword went straight through his spine. It was an uglier death than a clean decapitation.

Enough,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

He pointed his staff at me and a star came to life. The beam hit a pane of force three heartbeats before it would have incinerated me, both of them exploding deafeningly. Gods bless Hierophant. Sword and board was getting back on his feet, greatsword boy still screaming about his missing arm – seriously, what a wimp, I lost limbs all the time and you didn’t hear me yelling about it – and staff-wielder was… back on me. Godsdamnit. I threw myself to the side, swiped at her feet and got treated to a kick in the face for it. While I was rocking back she flowed into a thrust at my throat. Ah, experience. She’d gone for that too often, I’d expected it this time. I caught the tip of the staff with my hand, feeling the steel give and the palm bones break, but I kept my grip on it while I slashed at her throat and she tried to withdraw for a parry. Blood spilled on the ground. Two down, though it was anybody’s guess for how long.

Sever.”

Masego’s miracle vanished. So did my sword, my hand up to the wrist and the armour over it. Fuck. I backpedalled hastily as the Saint entered the fray.

“Aspect already?” I said.

My hand formed again, though much slower than it should have. And it remained ice instead of looking like flesh. That was a problem.

“Your little mage’s trick was impressive,” the Saint of Swords said. “But time to wrap this up, if we want it over before sundown.”

The lack of sword was more a problem than the severed limb, ice or not. A flick of the wrist had a knife falling into my palm, but that was rather cold comfort against this particular monster.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ve been thinking on how to beat you anyway, Saint.”

The Grey Pilgrim, apparently uninterested in banter, sent another fucking star at me. Hierophant, bless his soul, split it in four and forced it to shoot in four different directions.

“Have you?” the old woman drawled. “This ought to be interesting.”

I could not help but notice none of the heroes I’d put down were getting the resurrection treatment. Was it just comprehensive healing at the last moment, then? Too little to go on to be sure.

“One swing,” I said. “If you can take that, I’m probably out of luck.”

The heroine laughed.

“Well,” she grinned. “Give it your best shot.”

Ice formed a sword blade out of my knife as I shifted my grip. Steadying my stance, I allowed the power of Winter to gather in me. Motes of blue emanated from my frame. To my surprise, the Saint actually bothered to get into a stance of her own. Huh, she was taking me seriously. That was kind of flattering.

“Welp,” I said, and run away.

I legged it as fast as I could, which was very considering my mantle. They really must have taken me for a complete idiot, if they’d thought I’d stick around to fight a crew of heroes and the two old beasts. I heard the air howl behind me as the heroine cussed me out in Chantant, leaping onto a platform of shade to get out of the way. I tapped the side of my helmet as I leapt back down, running as fast as I could towards the relative safety of the palisade.

“Masego,” I said. “I need you to-“

Dodge,” he screamed through the spell.

I threw myself to the side, and idly reflected that the smoking wound in the ground to my left could easily have been my corpse. Lovely.

“Mage lines on her,” I continued. “Artillery too. Gods, everything we can throw.”

The sharp tang of lightning filled the air as what must have been no less than thirty feet behind me exploded in a screaming storm. I did not look back.

“She just ran through that,” Hierophant said through the spell, sounding somewhat offended by the notion.

Engaging the heroes far away from the fortifications had seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was perhaps coming to realize it might have been a tactical mistake. The air howled again and I leapt onto an angled platform, immediately leaping onto another to remain above ground. Where there was now a hole. Shit. A handful of Pickler’s engines began firing, but I wasn’t holding my breath for scorpion bolts stopping that one. I heard the screaming wind of another strike coming my way and shaped a platform, but it was immediately hit by a beam of light. Fucking Pilgrim. I had to reach for Winter and slap down half a ton of ice behind me, not that it stopped the Saint for more than a heartbeat. I gave part of my attention to the little bundle in the back of my head that was Zombie, ordering her to take flight and guiding her towards me.

“I’m not hearing her anymore,” I said through the link.

“Put wards around her,” Masego replied stiffly. “Can’t talk, she’s cutting them as fast as-“

The spell cut out again. Fucking Pilgrim. My damnably short legs devoured the remaining yards as quickly as they could. Seriously, you’d think Winter would have the decency to give me another few inches when rebuilding my body from scratch. Fine. I’d cope. I should get there without – don’t you fucking dare blow it now, Foundling. Naturally, the Heavens rewarded my hubris by a neat little box of yellow opaque shields appearing around me. No rescue was incoming from my mage lines: the moment those had appeared, I’d felt sorcery bloom in the distance and shoot towards enemy lines. I was regretting the tactical decision of aiming my casters at the enemy’s, right about now. I opened the floodgates, let Winter course through my veins and smashed through the shield in front of me the exact samemoment the Saint of Swords scythed through the one at my back.

“Seriously, what does it take to put you down?” I called out.

More than you’ve got,” the old woman hissed.

I was on the move before I even began speaking, but not quite fast enough. I lost my left leg up to my knee before I could dodge, though by the time I came out of a roll it had formed again. Fuck, I was digging into Winter way more than I’d wanted to this early in the fight. We’d have to use our trick as soon as I got back, even if that made it less effective than it could be. I leapt up onto a platform, a beam of light hitting a pane of force that blew them both up again a heartbeat later. I decided then and there Masego was getting a raise. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering I wasn’t paying him. The Saint carved through the platform, and my other leg that still had armour on it, but I was already in motion and I landed on Zombie’s saddle. Awkwardly enough I almost fell, which would have been a very humiliating way to die, but my mount flew up and finally we made it out of the Saint’s range. For now, anyway. Already she was cutting the sky to run up that same cut.

“Masego,” I said, tapping the side of my helmet. “Get all our godsdamned mages to hit the target I’m marking.”

There was no reply, because the spell was cut – fucking Pilgrim – so I’d have to hope he heard me. Weaving glamour into a glaring red arrow pointing at the Saint even as she moved, I guided Zombie into a sharply angled descent towards the palisade. Darkness formed into an orb above the Saint, and a heartbeat later a smaller beam shot out of it to hit the location I was indicating. To my vocal disgust, she somehow parried the fucking darkness. Gods Below, what was it going to take? After scorpions reoriented to fire on her, the Saint finally withdrew. I knew better than to believe that would be for long. She’d be back with the first wave of crusaders, which shouldn’t be long. I’d been a little too busy fighting for my life to notice, but enemy archers had gotten close enough to the palisade to begin firing and the infantry wasn’t far behind them. Zombie landed at Masego’s side and I got off, slapping her rump as thanks for saving my own. She whinnied, which I definitely hadn’t told her to do, and smugly trotted away.

It was telling that, at this point in my life, even my undead horse was sassing me.

“Hey, Zeze,” I panted. “We having fun yet?”

“I’ve contained demons with the Ivory Globe,” he replied, panting as well. “Demons, Catherine. She just cut out a door and kicked it open.”

“Yeah, we’re not going to be fighting her head on any time soon,” I snorted. “Not unless we have a mountain range at hand to collapse, anyway.”

His glass eyes flicked down to my bare feet, the movement visible even through cloth.

“What happened to you boots?”

I gestured vaguely backwards.

“Oh, they’re somewhere back there,” I said. “Along with what used to be my legs.”

He snorted.

“One of those days, is it?” he said.

“Well, at least I don’t have to bluff an angel,” I mused. “So there’s that.”

We shared a smile.

“You ever see what happened to the heroes I killed?” I asked.

“They were not resurrected, last I saw,” Masego said. “I suspect what the Grey Pilgrim uses is merely a much more powerful version of priestly healing, not true resurrection. Which seems logical, as that is usually the province of purely healer Named.”

And the old man definitely wasn’t that. His little light show had carried quite the punch. I adjusted my cloak around my shoulders, which did little to hide the fact that I was barefoot in the middle of an active battlefield. The crusaders were bringing ladders to the fore, I saw. If there was ever a time it was now.

“Our turn,” I told Masego.

The blind mage smiled, and a whispered incantation had a water-filled bowl appearing in the palm of his hand. He’d not made it, of course. Materializing something even this small would likely kill him. It’d been brought out of a personal dimension, if I had to guess. Within the carved wooden bowl was dark water, the same that could be found within the pools of the Observatory.

“Let’s hope this works,” I said, glancing at the enemy army. “We’re in the shit otherwise.”

“The formula is-”he began.

I interrupted him by plunging my hand into the water. I went straight through, but did not reach the bottom of the bowl. My eyes fluttered closed as Masego whispered soothingly in the arcane tongue. Absolute positioning, he’d called this. I could feel my mind… expand. Beyond a perspective a mortal could bear, but I was hardly that anymore was I? One spike of painful clarity after another went through my forehead as I saw them whole. Calernia. Arcadia. The juxtaposition of them.

One end, Masego’s voice whispered into my ear.

I knew it well, that place. I’d fought there twice, once against the Duke of Violent Squalls and the second time against the Diabolist. The Fields of Wend. A depthless lake filled with moving glaciers, sprawling as far as my not-eyes could see.

And another, Masego reminded me.

I could see the battlefield before us, from above. The armoured multitudes advancing towards palisades, like toy soldiers on the ground. Devices of wood and metal firing bolts into men, the shining silhouettes advancing with the host. So many of them.

Align, Masego whispered.

And so I did. Gates, I called them, but that was the barest understanding of what they were. There were no words in any tongue I knew to express it, but instinct bridged the gap. In the sky above the army of crusaders, a circle a mile wide opened.

Through it poured a lake atop their heads.