Heather’s mace hit the Friar so hard it left her hand numb.

The Friar toppled to the earth. Her mace came free of what was left of his face with a sticky, wet sound. Around her, the din of battle fell silent. Corpses were dropping on the spot, like marionettes with cut strings. Their smiling malice had been reduced to nothing more than a corpse’s rictus.

Major Weathers was dead.

There’s healers in the Church who might restore him, Heather thought. Might even have resurrected him, but they’re too far away. Best I’ve ever heard of could restore folks who’ve been dead at most two or three hours. But we’re days away from Frostmoor and the Sending gate.

Heather’s heart was pounding. Her fists clenched and unclenched in an erratic rhythm. She let her chest heave, felt her breath rush in and out in fast, sharp gasps. The bitter taste of burnt adrenaline floated at the back of her throat, as her mind whirled, processing everything she’d seen and heard. Replaying every moment, and every sensation, didn’t make it any more bearable.

Twenty seven dead. Twenty four in the pews. Baby in the cabin is twenty five. Major’s twenty-six. Friar Tomlin, corrupted somehow, he’s twenty-seven. He was dead before the Major shot him. No blood from the bullets, no bleeding from his face. His eyes had dried out, that’s why his eyes didn’t reflect the candles.

Heather touched a hand to her forehead, and rested a shoulder against the wreckage of the nearest wall, finding support in the ruined timbers.

Caballero?” Ramdas reached out to touch her shoulder. “Are you injured?”

She waved off the question without hearing it, her mind and focus unable to pull away from the events that had unfolded.

A numb buzzing had come to rest between Heather’s ears, her emotions a swarm of stinging feelings flying around inside her. Motes of magic had begun to sprout and drift from all the knights, tiny bits of wild magic drifting outwards, lending light to the grim proceedings. Their emotions were barely contained, leaking magic in fits and starts. Helga’s tears ran muddy down her cheeks, earthen magic and watery tears staining her skin and tabard.

Heather murmured an apology as she wiped her mace clean on Friar Tomlin’s robes, and then dropped the silvered mace back into her belt loop with numb hands. As stiff and mechanical as a golem, she rose to her feet and walked back into the wreckage of the chapel.

Inside the chapel, Ramdas and Helga were taking no chances. The dwarf’s hammer descended on each corpse’s head in turn, pulping skulls and brains. Helga’s face was drawn into a grim mask that put Persephone’s usual facade to shame. Ramdas was already trotting from body to body, grabbing them by their ankles to haul them into a line, to await the next blow of Helga’s hammer.

Persephone was still on her knees outside, tears coursing down her face. She stared without comprehension at the spot in the chapel where the Major had fallen. She clutched at the amulet in her hands, fingers opening and closing in nervous reflex. Her earlier salvation of Ramdas against the Friar’s dark magic was forgotten in her grief.

Sorry, Heather thought, as she hefted the little girl whose chest she’d caved in, and laid her out beside the rest of the corpses. Better this way.

Her fingers reached down, and absently brushed the hair out of the girl’s face. You have pretty black hair, like my Anthony used to have.

She looked away before Helga’s hammer descended.

Hauling the blacksmith into the line on the church floor took Heather and Ramdas working together, the heavy corpse swaying between them. When Heather turned to retrieve her shield, she found Persephone had shambled up to what was left of Major Weather’s body.

Persephone’s mouth formed a soft ‘O’ of raw regret, her shaking fingertips carefully closing what was left of Weather’s remaining eye. Droplets of ice formed around her eyelids, melted, and slid down her face, one by one.

Heather spoke, her voice hoarse. “Lieutenant Matthewson, Major’s got any orders for his burial?”

Slowly, Persephone nodded. “We have to burn him,” she whispered. “All the way to ash. Like you did for the others.”

“Do you need a hand with the Major?” Heather asked, as she crouched, reaching for Weather’s ankles.

“Don’t!” Persephone barked, throwing out a hand Heather’s way.

Heather paused, and frowned. “I have to-”

Do not touch his body, Knight!” hissed Persephone. A thin icicle spat from her mouth and broke across the back of Heather’s gauntlet.

Caballero!” shouted Ramdas. “Do as she says. He is warded.”

Heather felt her indignation drain away into an icicle up her spine, a shiver that ran up her arms and throbbed a warning in the back of her head.

I thought it would be just his gear, Heather thought. Not his body. Her hands experimentally flexed in the air. Every inch closer to the Major’s cooling corpse made the warning sensation worse. Withdrawing her hands relieved her of the sense of menace.

Heather let loose a long, slow, nervous exhale. “How bad?”

“Bad,” said Persephone. “We do his body last, and carefully.”

“How come you can touch him? It isn’t hurting you?”

“It is,” said Persephone, as she removed the Major’s coat and folded it. It was a fine officer’s coat, wool-lined on the interior, felt and linen on the exterior, in shades of cream interspersed with black leather wedge-panels under the arms, and four bright, brass buttons. The coat seethed with embroidered runes, left unspent and charged by Weathers’ dying terror. Despite the blood and ruin of Weathers’ body, the coat was clean, save for some dust that clung around the wool.

Runes to keep it clean, thought Heather. Makes sense. None of the rest of this does.

“But I can survive this,” continued Persephone. “The rest of you cannot. Please don’t touch his body. Worry about the rest of the corpses. I can’t leave his side until every corpse is neutralized. Sorry, Blackthorne. Standing orders.”

It troubled Heather more than she cared to admit that Persephone looked genuinely apologetic. Why can she survive it, and nobody else could? she wondered.

Persephone scrubbed tears from her face, then she carefully folded the coat, and held it up to Ramdas. “Pramath? Take his coat. Put it on. Key runes are on the second button. Flow key is fire straight, fire straight, ice left curl, light left curl, light right curl. Got that? Fire straight twice, ice left, light left, light right. Repeat it back to me.”

Heather took a long step backwards as the embroidered runes in the jacket came to life at the centaur’s touch. Her skin felt like it was blistering and being torn open in places, and she let out a little sound of pain. Another step back brought the sensation of the runes down to a bearable level.

What in every saint and sinner’s name was the Major doing with runes that intense in his jacket? Heather wondered in surprise. And if he had them, why didn’t they go off when he got grabbed?

Ramdas hefted the coat in his hands. “Fire straight, fire straight, ice left, light left, light right,” he said. As he spoke, the motes still floating around him coalesced around the second brass button of the officer’s coat. The runes embroidered inside went quiescent, and Heather let out a breath of relief.

The centaur slowly shrugged off his coat, and slid the Major’s coat on. “I must re-key it, si?” he asked Persephone.

Persephone nodded slowly. “Yes. Out of earshot of the rest of us, please. Issue me the key after. His coat is keyed to the rest of the wards in his office.”

“His guns?” asked Ramdas.

Persephone shook her head. “Nothing special. We’ll throw them in the armory. Just his coat.”

Ramdas inclined his head, and trotted off to the edge of the little village to see to the resecuring of the Major’s jacket. Heather dutifully turned her attention back to Friar Tomlin’s corpse, and crouched alongside it, staring at his ruined face.

Friar Tomlin was dead, Heather thought. But he was using magic. Magic needs a soul to call it, needs emotion to empower it. Needs will to direct it. Undead don’t have these things. You can set magic runes into an automaton or corpse, but that’s still external. Maybe he was a flesh golem?

No. Tomlin was conversing. Thinking for himself. Acting for himself. The rest of the corpses fell when he did. You can put runes onto a skeleton, even make it think for itself a little, or store some magic in them to be cast later. But I’m not sure that’s what this was.

Heather grimaced as she crouched down beside the carcass of the Friar, a gauntleted hand grabbing the solid man and turning him over, inspecting the back of his head, and his neck. She held her mace up, letting the residual anger and anxiety burn out in flows of fire around the head of the mace, lending light to her investigation.

She thumbed at two cuts she found high along the nape. There. Two thin incisions, at the base of his skull. That thick, squat neck wasn’t the product of breeding. There’s a bone missing here! They sutured his tendons back in place to keep his head from flopping around.

A rough yank pulled one of the Friar’s boots off, and then Heather pulled down his trousers. Blood pooled around his feet and backside. He died sitting, and stayed that way for some time. Died about the time our necromancers came to town, not before, not after. Not a mark on any other body so far. Blue under the fingernails and along the lips of both the blacksmith and the girl. So they died by asphyxiation.

Which means deep compulsion magic that skipped right past the conscious mind, and into primal reflex. Or an inert gas was used, but the chapel wasn’t nearly airtight enough to sustain an atmosphere like that. Or a dozen other ways to suffocate someone helpless without otherwise hurting them.

She turned over the Friar’s hands, to check the nails. No blue under Tomlin’s fingernails, though.

Heather turned down the back of the Friar’s collar, and checked the upper back of his frock. Blood ran down here. They wiped the skin clean, but they didn’t change his clothes. He bled down into here. Might even have been alive when they started. Alive or very freshly dead.

When Ramdas returned, it was with a saddle blanket in his hands. He passed it to Helga, who took the blanket and wrapped it gently around Persephone. Both looked concerned for her state, and all were occasionally staring at the wreck of the Major’s body.

Heather’s eyes came up to study the scene, and watched the dwarf’s tender hand wipe the icy tears from Persephone’s eyes.

Victims: Two elves, one dwarf, the rest human, Heather noted. All local. Nobody looks foreign. Ten people in native furs, everyone else in a mix between woolens and furs.

Heather checked the blacksmith’s corpse again. Her fingers checked the back of his neck, and found it normal, unmarked. She pulled down the back of his trousers, showing mottled purple along his buttocks and thighs. All his bones are still here. And his backside… pooled blood under the skin. He died sitting in those pews.

She sat back on her heels in the rocks. Distantly, she was aware she was still gasping, her heart still hammering in her chest, her lungs rasping from the cost of the magic she’d drawn. Irrelevant details. I probably look as hysterical as Persephone did, earlier. My body’s burning adrenaline still. So the Friar died first. But the Friar was controlling the corpses of the townsfolk. Someone imbued Tomlin’s corpse first. And took out a bone. Why? Some sort of trophy, a fetish, a conduit?

And the Friar said… he said…

Heather leaned to her side, grabbed the stair of the ruined chapel, and vomited into the dust.

***

They raided every house first for lamps, then worked by lamplight for every bit of linens, sheets, rugs, and curtains. Anything to cover over smashed heads and faces left by Helga’s care, and to wrap the corpses in. Every lamp they could spare was emptied of fat and oil over the wraps, and what rare wooden furniture there was, broken with a few swings of mace and hammer to lend tinder to the pyre.

“Anything of interest?” Heather asked, as Ramdas carefully went through the stack of correspondence on the Friar’s little desk.

Ramdas shook his head. “Non, Detective,” His hand gestured to the stack of papers. “A few letters of request for supplies from the chapel before the hard snows set in, that is all. Lard, flour, barley. Nothing of interest.”

“No journal, no diary?”

Non. The Friar did not do much writing, it seems. Most of the paper, it is blank. The register shows the birth. Collette DuMaurier, was her name.”

Wish you hadn’t told me that, Lieutenant, thought Heather.

“Nothing interesting in the houses so far, either. No letters, a few diaries,” said Heather. “None mentioned any visitors or strangers. I think once things happened here, they happened fast. There’s no signs of violence anywhere.”

No outstanding correspondence, Heather thought. No letters, no signs of violence prior to their arrival. Just a priest missing a bone, and so many lives left wasted and ruined.

Ramdas flung the papers irritably out of his hands, sending them scattering around the floor of the room. “Are we wasting time here then, Caballero?”

After a moment’s consideration, Heather nodded. “Yeah. I think we need to get these bodies done with and get after our perpetrators come dawn. They didn’t stick around, but they had no reason to hurry if they didn’t know we were on their trail. So they’re on a schedule. That’s bad. That means they have a plan.”

“Nothing good can come of that, I am sure,” grunted Ramdas.

“Nothing good, sir.” Heather agreed.

The centaur looked up and over her shoulder, and Heather turned.

Persephone was carefully wrapping the Major up in a large bedsheet, and Helga was approaching with a tiny, wrapped bundle in her hands. The look of sorrow on the dwarf’s face was heart-rending, and Heather tore her eyes away from the little bundle as fast as possible. Helga laid the infant down alongside the Major’s wrapped corpse.

The only two souls left unspoiled by this mess, Heather thought. Our commanding officer, and a newborn babe. Major Weathers, and Collette DuMaurier.

The centaur’s hand settled gently atop Heather’s left shoulder. “Walk with me, Caballero. Let us leave this part to those who knew him better than we, si?”

Heather nodded, and they gave Helga and Persephone some space, heading towards the squires and ponies. Helga and Persephone settled on their knees. Their hands came together to embrace over the fallen Major’s body, their heads bowing in prayer.

Ramdas picked his way across the stony plateau, the night casting deep shadows over his eyes. Heather followed, grateful for the distance from the crime scene.

“A babe, an infant, left to die,” said the centaur, his mouth twisting in incomprehension and grief.

No, Heather pleaded silently. Please, no, can we not talk about this now.

“Better that way than what happened in that church,” Heather said softly. “Shorter suffering.”

Ramdas let out a distraught sigh. “I wonder, Caballero, if the babe’s mother would have thought so.”

Heather’s gauntlet shot out, and grabbed the centaur above his right elbow, squeezing her thumb right on the same pressure point she’d used in countless arrests. She squeezed and pulled, ignoring Ramdas’ surprised sound as she hauled him out of earshot of the squires. She rounded on him, and pointed a finger up at his nose.

“I don’t have to wonder,” Heather said, her voice bleak. “Yes, Lieutenant, she would have. I would have, if I’d been given the chance or choice for my little boy.”

The answer brought Ramdas up short. Heather counted two heartbeats before his surprised anger imploded, the instant realization struck. His free hand flew to his mouth, aghast. She counted more heartbeats before he could form words. “Caballero, I-”

“You’re sorry. Yeah. I know. You didn’t know. Everyone’s sorry,” Heather said, biting off each word. “Do me a favor, Lieutenant? With all due respect, save your pity. We’ve got work to do yet.” She shook his right arm free of her gauntlet, stalking away a few unhappy paces, before turning to fix him with a hard stare once more.

Ramdas shifted from hoof to hoof uneasily under her gaze. That’s right, Heather thought. Keep staring at me. Got your own damn hoof in your mouth now.

They stared at each other in silence. Heather’s mouth was a hard-bitten line, her fists clenched and quivering. She refused to give the tears riding on her eyelashes a chance to fall.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Lieutenant. I just want to keep anyone else from ever going through what I went through.”

Lieutenant Pramath gave his arm a rub where she’d squeezed him, and flexed the joint. “Understood, Caballero.”

Heather waited for the ‘but’, and the chastising that grabbing a superior officer should have brought down. But none came. The set of Ramdas’ eyes said he’d let it slide, this time. Maybe not ever again. But today he would.

She found herself faintly gratified, and drew a long breath, forcing her voice to a strained, conciliatory tone. “Help me with the salt and silver?”

Si. Of course, Blackthorne. But tell me what happened in there,” he said, gesturing to the chapel. “How did the Major fall in there?”

“Playing it over in my mind, sir, everyone’s going to be blaming themselves. But we got caught in a mob. Stengrav and I couldn’t get our shields down in time to block the grab, too many hands on our shields. Persephone’s spear was caught up. We couldn’t maneuver, and we had nowhere to dodge. Blacksmith got the Major by his left ankle. He went down and was pulled in so fast he scarcely had time to scream.”

The centaur nodded gravely. “He endangered your lives. And he saved them.”

“What? How so, sir?” His corpse isn’t even cool yet, and Pramath is laying the blame on him?

But the centaur proved to have a well of reason within him, too. “Think about it, Blackthorne. There was no reason for the whole team to go inside. A two-man team should have gone once the door was breached, you and Stengrav. Check for survivors, retreat at the first sign of motion from the dead. Burn the building down from the outside, pick off the horrors that crawl out of the flames.”

“And leave nothing left to investigate, sir, th-”

“Investigation comes after the tactical decision, non? He had his reasons, and I do not doubt they were good ones. But nothing we would have learned here is worth endangering your lives.”

“I don’t agree, sir, but I appreciate the sentiment. You said he saved our lives, too?”

Si,” said Ramdas, gesturing to the Major’s jacket he now wore. “The Major held back on triggering the runes of his coat. He died, in pain, without triggering a single one. He died holding them back from triggering. He believed in you and the team enough for that, Blackthorne. That you’d come out alive and do the right thing.”

Heather stared at the jacket, and tried to imagine what would have happened had the Major permitted those runes within to trigger, all at once. We wouldn’t be walking out of there, not one of us, that’s for certain.

Heather swallowed. “Hope we’re worth it, sir.”

The centaur blew out a breath, looking up at the evening sky. “Aye. I pray so too.”

She gestured to the jacket. “How bad would it have been, can I ask?”

The centaur shook his head. “The entire town would be glass and ash, I believe.”

That sucked the wind out of the conversation, and so Ramdas and Heather set to work. They circled the grounds, laying out lines of salt, whispering prayers for the passed. Send these souls on to the embrace of the Saints and Divine. Let them know the peace I cannot, came her fervent prayer.

The centaur’s face was no less grim and drawn than Heather’s, his eyes heavily lidded, lips moving as he prayed. Silver came next after salt, dusted over the same circle, restoring the purity of the grounds. They touched flame to salt and silver, and watched as it raced in a bright white coil, magic taking hold.

“Blessings be on these soiled grounds,” murmured Helga, as she held a weeping Persephone steady at her side.

The white, clean fire leapt from circle to wood; the chapel leaking smoke gradually at first, and then ashen gray as wood caught. Finally, greasy smoke rose like an ink smudge along the sky as the bodies inside burned in purifying flame. The four stood and watched; three women and a centaur, as their Major burned.

Heather lost herself to thought as she stared into the flames, trying to ignore the indistinct forms of burning bodies and crumbling bones. They’ll need to send a spirit-walker here, later. So many dead, and if any of them died angry or scared, there’s a good chance their ghasts will haunt this place a while.

Helga’s voice broke into Heather’s reverie, as the dwarf spoke to Persephone. “Should we bed down in the houses?”

Persephone gave a mute shake of her head. Heather’s eyes wandered to the houses. With their demolished doors, they looked as if every home had turned to face the burning chapel, gaping in open-mouthed horror.

None of us want to claim a cabin, Heather thought. It wouldn’t feel right, to borrow the homes of the dead while their bodies burn.

So they staked camp by the light of the burning chapel, the Squires ashen-faced in fear as they set up the tents, and watched timbers and corpses burn. The ponies wanted nothing to do with the blaze, but they had nowhere to graze. So the horses huddled close to the camp, keeping their own silent counsel.

Persephone crawled into her bedroll without a word to anyone. Her sobs had subsided hours ago into a silent, haunted stare. Heather knew the expression all too well, from mirrors she’d faced in her home after Stephen and Anthony’s deaths.

At least the wound that skeleton put on Persephone’s forearm doesn’t seem to be bothering her, thought Heather. It hasn’t bled much, and she wasn’t favoring the arm any. Probably just a scratch after all, thank the Saints.

Ramdas settled uncomfortably by the cookfire, eyes staring at the flames of the burning chapel. His eyes seemed to war between anger and puzzlement, and his fingers twitched reflexively. The motion caught Heather’s eye. Spells? No. Finger positions… music. The violin case on the centaur’s back remained unopened, however.

Helga, too, caught the motion. “Ye thinkin’ of ye fiddle, lad?”

The centaur nodded. “My violin, Caballero.” he said. His eyes wouldn’t move from the light of the burning chapel.

Heather couldn’t see where the Major’s body burned, but she knew exactly where it lay, and it held her eye, too.

“A holy warrior should go to the Saints in song,” continued Ramdas. “But I have no heart to sing, tonight.”

“Nor I,” said the dwarf, who turned her eyes to Heather. “Do you sing, dearie?”

“No,” Heather replied, shaking her head slowly, a weary grief resting on her tongue. “My husband used to.”

Helga’s face broke into a pained, sorrowful smile. “Mine did, too.”

And that was the end of conversation for that night.

The chapel burned throughout the night, until the bones within were ash. The next morning, Heather and Persephone leant their grief in flows of water, mixing with the ashes to bake a steaming clay to be broken on the morrow. Water hissed and sizzled like the voices of angry dead, and Heather couldn’t be sure yet which was magic and which was ghasts.

When the steam finally died down, Helga took up her hammer. The ashen clay had had enough time to bake, and the greasy black smoke had gradually turned gray, and then white, once more.

Around the chapel Helga walked, and every third step her hammer came slamming down. The great blows fractured rock underneath the church ruins, grit and dust spraying into the air and stinging bare skin where it touched. Reverberations shivered stone up and out of the ground in long slabs in Helga’s wake. The church began to sink gradually lower as stone was ripped from its place beneath the building, and allowed to topple atop the ashes of bones.

Heather felt each hammer blow through the heels of her boots, shuddering up her legs and lower spine. The flows of magic that flew from each impact felt like the earth was wrenching apart her sockets. Weaves of magic slammed through the ground from the face of the dwarf’s hammer. Helga wasn’t crying, but her face had lost its usual warmth, and become a terrible, grim visage.

She’s imagining those responsible under her hammer, thought Heather. Just like I would be.

She stepped back to give the church a wide berth, as great slabs of stone calved like icebergs and rose up, high into the air on end. They came toppling down atop the church with a mighty crash. We’re way past the stealthy approach now, Heather thought.

The horses were lost causes, bolting far and wide. Not that they have anywhere to go, thought Heather. She watched them run, squires Norris and DuChamp standing with arms outstretched in helpless frustration, unable to stop them. Relax, boys. They’ll herd back up here soon. They know where the oats are.

The last crash of Helga’s hammer left a slab standing upright, towering three stories in the air, straight as an arrow and broad as a house. A grave marker they’ll see for miles, thought Heather. Her face was tight with grim approval as she rolled up her bedroll.

And nothing for anyone to ever desecrate again. Go dig for ashes under tons of rock, you horrid bastards.

***

The man calling himself Daniel stared up at the stars, doing his best to ignore the gentle clatter of bone on stone beneath him. The swaying of his bearers was pleasant; six pale white figures of bone, walking in lockstep, their movements slaved to the two at his feet.

Travelling while I sleep was a nice idea, he thought to himself. His thumb rolled over the neckbone in his hand, and he smiled at it. A useless trinket now, but he wouldn’t carelessly discard it where his pursuers could find it.

Daniel sleepily craned his head towards the other palanquin. Martin was fast asleep, untroubled by the thought of being borne about by six of the dead, their bones interlinked underneath him. Their fingers coiled around their neighbours ribs, and the thick furs of Martin’s bedroll dispersed the pressure of their arm-bones flexing and swaying beneath him.

It was one reason Daniel had ensured Martin would be along for the trip: the man was easy to work with, and never balked at anything, merry or malicious.

My parents would have liked you, Martin, he thought to himself. The silence of the night and the company of the dead fed his wistful mood. You’re the sort of free thinker mom and dad would have brought into the fold. Even if they’d chastise you about the dangers of conflating lack of principle for revolutionary spirit, and they’d see right through your charm for the villain you are. They still would have liked you. I played at the knees of saints and sinners alike, enough to know the difference, and enough to know they can be one and the same. Manners befit a monster, too. And our cause needs more. Manners and villains alike.

His eyes turned back towards the stars, and Daniel frowned, surprised at the bitter wash of grief the thought of his parents brought him. Most of all, Daniel thought, we need people ready to change the world as it is, and not just dream the better one. My parents went to the gallows as frightened academics, patrons of the best minds of this rotten world. Pleading for someone, anyone, to understand them. And they hung for it. Nevermind the wealth of wisdom they could have poured into the lap of the world, and would have, had anyone asked.

Revolutionize ten different fields of magic, have Teferi’s own protéges do their best work over your mother’s soup, and ask for nothing from the world. We paid the way of a stable full of Venician writers, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, artisans of all trades. We asked from them nothing but that they give their works of truth and beauty to the world freely.

Raise just a few dead bodies, and the Church kicks in your door.

“Patience, humility, discretion, these are the allies of the revolution,” Daniel whispered.

It was a catechism that had once been often repeated by his father and mother alike.

My parents were naive, of course. They never wished to believe that great minds could see their vision without refusing or accepting it. Their worldview had never allowed for the sly, the clever, the ones who’d play along, all while feeding back what they had learned to the walled gardens and cloisters and oath-bound halls they’d spawned their careers from. To them, it didn’t matter; knowledge wasn’t coin. “You cannot spend it, my boy. Only share it.”

It was only a matter of time, really. Secrecy isn’t tyranny, it’s survival. They’d trusted in moral wisdom and intellectual rigor over the base sentimentality of the common man, and it had cost them their lives. I’m taking no such chances.

Martin had taken the runed vows without hesitation, and Daniel had taken them alongside him. Of course, Daniel had written and formed those vows, but there’d been no need to tell any of the cells that.

Victor, no stranger to binding himself mortally to a covenant, had gladly enough traded masters. The promise of unrestricted learning, and sharing all they learned with each other, that was worth more than any gold and treasure to some men.

Martin thinks this a grand, exciting, romantic adventure he’s on, striking a blow against tyranny everywhere. Justifying everything he does, right or wrong, and merrily painting his way through the days.

Victor’s in this for wealth and knowledge in the long-run, but he’s an investor as much as a schemer. He knows the value of what he’s given us, and all that we’ve shared with him. Unpleasant as he is, he’s no zealot for a cause. That’s why I can trust him. He’ll carry out the plan because he believes it will work.

Victor and Martin assumed in private, of course, that the man who led them all had a secret repository of information. They were wrong.

I’m not as clever as all of them, or half of them. That’s how proud idiots get killed. If you want to be successful, surround yourself with people smarter than you, give them a good reason to be loyal, and get them talking to each other. Plant the seeds of revolution in their mind, and let them come to you with their clever ideas. When they put all their cards on the table, it’s that much easier to pick up the best ones and put them in order.

***

Heather’s hands gently drew Stephen’s over her belly. His warm palms felt right, resting against the smooth, taut swelling of skin and life. They paused, feeling for the flutter of the next kick. One came, and Stephen’s delighted laugh made everything in the world feel all right.

Stephen’s armpit nestled itself around her head. He smelled of home. The stroke of his hand along her was familiar, the calloused hand of a dockside man, the subtler calluses of guardsman training. She nestled into his side, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“So your father’s name, if a boy?” she murmured, drawing in his other hand to her mouth, to brush a kiss against the knuckles. “And Samantha, if a girl?”

Stephen nodded, all dark eyes and tousled black hair. “Anthony or Samantha.” His fingertips stilled at the fluttering kick from within her, and Heather’s eyes lidded in profound joy. She gave his knuckle the faintest of coy nips, to get his attention.

“They want to make me an officer, you know? A Detective, anyway,” Heather whispered.

“And work the dockside with me?” asked Steven. “You’d have to promise to let me have half the crooks, then. A town guard doesn’t have the resources a church knight does.”

“I wouldn’t hang you out to dry,” said Heather, impishly. “You’ll have to earn a few more pay grades if we’re going to have more than one…”

He arched his eyebrows, and slid gently atop her, his mouth finding hers. “Getting ahead of yourself, love. One baby at a time,” he whispered, between kisses.

The door of their bedroom crashed open, and the man in the crimson cloak stepped through the door. The nightmare began again, as it did every night.

***

Click here to read Chapter 3.1 — Witness