On the spring-greened ocean, a forest of masts and sails stretched from horizon to horizon. Heather stood atop the southern wall of the fortress, breathless in the stiff, cold wind off the sea. She’d begun counting from west to east, minutes ago. She’d lost count somewhere past two hundred.
So many ships, she thought with a giddy smile.
There were three ships bearing the Church’s pennants. Heather hadn’t even known the Church kept a navy. When Ramdas had heard, his eyes turned thoughtful, and he’d retreated to his quarters in communion with the jacket he wore.
They weren’t warships from Hanshu, as some in the fortress had feared, or raiding ships from the Thousand Kingdoms. Just allies, one and all.
Heather looked up from the ocean, and smiled at William Juillard, who stood further along the southern wall. As it turned out, of the survivors left in town, eighteen were old soldiers from the fortress, and between them the highest ranked man had been William. And so the wirey, scarred man had found himself proclaimed mayor by a friend one night over too much to drink in the mess hall. The next day, nobody had been more surprised than William to find the appellation had stuck.
He now wore General Montague’s ceremonial sword, the symbolic sign of command for the fortress. Together, he and Heather stared out over the heaving ocean ice to open water and salvation beyond.
“It’s a fine sight to see, isn’t it, Mister Juillard.”
“That it is, Mrs. Blackthorne. We’re going to get a team together to send up some fireworks when they’re a little closer in. A little celebration is in order, and the fire teams on those ships aren’t as likely to go shelling anything if they see us welcoming them as liberators.”
Heather smiled widely. “Better mark the date, Mayor. I think Frostmoor’s going to have to declare this date a holiday.”
Magic began to arc from the horizon, long, fiery swaths blasting across sea ice, cutting channels for the distant ships. Heather and William stayed to watch a while as great teams of warmages, working together, cut through the last of the crumbling sea ice separating them from the coast.
As sunset fell, magic leapt like fireworks from the celebrants atop the fortress wall to a cacophony of cheers and a riot of waving pennants, welcoming the world back to their erstwhile home.
The first men through the broken gate looked scarcely different from the adamant automaton that had sent Heather and her fellow knights in flight through the fortress, months ago. Hundreds of pounds of adamant armor moved and clanked, the rune-powered armor lumbering forward in a defensive line. The air around them shimmered with powerful defensive wards, and their heavy shields and short swords advanced without offering an ounce of opening.
The combined force of their magic left Heather’s skin throbbing all over. Like another visit to Fort Ouestin, she thought, rubbing her arms briskly. Every rune they could afford to slap on these ones, they did. These gendarmes must be the last thing a fortress in The Thousand Kingdoms ever sees.
Unease quelled the fireworks still rocketing off of the fortress walls, and William held up a hand, signaling for silence from the rest. He descended down into the courtyard, leading a contingent comprised of Ramdas, Lord Goldbrace, Lady Oiselle, and Consul Sienna. All stood sternly, as William spoke to the impassive wall of soldiers. “Please advise your commanding officers that we stand ready to be relieved.”
An officer in their ranks stepped forward, indistinguishable from the others save for an extra bar welded onto the collar of his armor. He reached up and touched a rune on his faceplate, and the adamant there became invisible, exposing the soldier’s face. “I’m Colonel Beaufois. What’s your name and rank, soldier?”
“William Juillard, Lieutenant. Retired, discharged honorably six years ago. I’m afraid I’m the closest thing to a ranking officer left here, sir.” Juillard laid the scabbarded sword across his hands, and held it up to the Colonel.
The colonel took it with due ceremony. “You stand relieved, Mister Juillard. Where’s General Montague?”
“Buried, with honors,” replied William. “He fell striking the killing blow against the necromancer responsible for all this. Our local Church knights witnessed it. In his final moments, he cast off the enchantment upon his corpse, and struck the necromancer filth dead.”
The carefully rehearsed story had been agreed on months ago. Helps that it’s the truth, Heather thought. The public doesn’t need to know the rest. They don’t need to know that it was what Victor wanted. General Montague was as much a victim as every other soldier that died here. The town might hate him for being the face of the enemy, but his memory deserves more credit. No need to burden his family name with shame over what was done to his body.
Colonel Beaufois looked a second time at the sword in his hands, a respectful set of his jaw and eyebrows saying volumes. “Thank you. You four, come with me. My team will secure the fortress. Ask your people to return to their homes and stay clear of the dockside. I’ve got two hundred ships waiting in this harbor to berth and unload.”
By the time Heather had packed up her duffel and made the hike from the fort, ships were already unloading on a large, conjured dock, sustained by a team of warmages. Long streams of soldiers marched from the docks for the fortress, and automatons for bearing the season’s adamant followed.
Victor barely put a dent in the supplies, Heather thought, as she watched the automatons clank by. They’ll still be leaving here with full arms and full holds. A thousand men dead, and it’s still business as usual for the Emperor’s adamant. They’ll probably have a new smelter built before the next snow.
At least they’ll be bringing some remains home to families.
The center of town was a hive of activity. Rubble had already been pushed into neat piles away from the plaza, and scaffolding rose around the demolished Sending Gate. Consul Sienna was in the thick of things, directing foreman and engineers with quick, focused jabs of a finger and terse words.
She looked up as Heather walked by, and their gazes met. Sienna gave her a deep nod, for just a heartbeat, and returned her attention to the work at hand. Heather returned it.
And that’s as close to gratitude as she’d ever show me in public, Heather thought. But it’s good to have someone in my corner from the Guild.
The church was a mess, and the rest of Heather’s evening was committed to cooking supper for the returning Knights and clergy from the supplies she’d acquired from the mess hall kitchens. Even the Circle girls lent a hand, Mother Tanya and Mother Suzanne running bowls of thick potato soup from the cauldron to the volunteers cleaning up the grounds and pews. The silent penitent worked with Knight DuChamp to straighten away the ruins of the pantry and the cellars.
Supper was a bittersweet reunion. By silent consensus, nobody who’d lived through the winter sat in Father Keza’s habitual spot. Ramdas led the meal with a brief prayer, and they ate in respectful silence.
The instant they’d finished eating, Ramdas touched Heather’s shoulder. “You’re needed in my office, Caballero.”
Heather’s eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Yes, sir.”
Ramdas’ office was relatively untouched by the long winter and the looting. His drawers had been pulled open on his desk. Scorch marks on the walls promised that someone had paid in pain and injury for disturbing the wards around his office. Ramdas gestured her to a chair in front of his desk, and tapped a button on his coat. “Pardon, Caballero. What follows next will not be fun. I beg your understanding.”
“Lieutenant, you’re going to start making me flinch every time you reach for that damn thing.”
The centaur let out a humorless laugh. “Putting it on every morning is no less trying. This will be temporary. Please do not attempt to interfere with the spell.”
As soon as Heather sat, the centaur twisted one of the ivory buttons on the jacket, and the world went dark. Heather startled, her eyeballs itching smartly, both of her hands rising reflexively to her eyes.
He just blinded me, Heather thought, unease stirring hot motes from her fingertips. Temporary. He can’t just blindfold me? What’s going on?
“Senor, you may enter.”
Heather heard the door open, and someone sat down beside her at the desk. An avuncular voice spoke, the words lost to a deep, unnatural fuzziness. Ramdas’s reply was likewise fuzzed to her ears, and Heather didn’t try to hide the irritation setting across her face.
If you didn’t want me to see or hear, Lieutenant, why did you even call me in here? she thought, frowning.
They must have noticed her reaction, because their voices were suddenly clear as a bell.
“Well if her tongue’s been bound, Lieutenant Pramath, that’s good enough for now,” said an unfamiliar man’s voice. He sounded old, and weary. “Knight Blackthorne, I’m sorry to meet under these circumstances.”
“Who is it I’m meeting?” Heather asked, irritation flickering through her tone.
“Call me Greyson. It’s not my name, but it will do. After reading your report, I think you understand better than most of our operatives, the new age of danger we’re entering. We can’t afford to give necromancers any more knowledge about us than they’re already getting, now.”
Heather’s irritation blew out. “So you’re with the Church, sir? Branch of the Knights?”
“Something like it, yes. I was Major Weather’s commanding officer for fifteen years. I’m the one who chose you for this post.”
Her hands clenched tight around the wooden handrests of the chair. Thin curlicues of smoke rising from around her fingertips as she pushed her anger into the wood. “You chose me to come here, sir, knowing my history?”
“Yes,” said Greyson flatly. “We didn’t believe they’d move so soon, but I needed you here. And the survivors of this town are all the justification I need. I’d do it again, for their sake. And your Lieutenant tells me you’re the sort of Knight who’d do it all over again, if it needed to be. Even against those bastards.”
Heather turned her head away. “They’re the ones that butchered my husband and son.”
“Yes. And the work you did here is going to save thousands more lives, Blackthorne. More husbands and sons and wives and daughters than we’ll ever know. They’ll never pull a trick like they did here again, not on that large of a scale. Runes will be updated, defenses changed. We’ve distributed the need-to-know to the Imperial forces and Guild. We’re sending word out to Knights all over the Empire and Venicia.”
Greyson let loose a disconsolate grunt. “Blackthorne, we’re entering a new age of war against this kind of crime. Because of you, we’ve got some crucial pieces of the puzzle. We know who we’re hunting for, and we know where to hunt them.”
“And what about me, sir? I owe those bastards. For my family, and for every family here in Frostmoor.”
“Don’t be selfish. Trust in the Saints, and the Knights. Justice is coming for them. A lot of people owe them that justice now, Blackthorne. A thousand dead soldiers, hundreds of dead civilians, all of their families want justice done. They’ll get it. And it will be, in large part, because of you.”
Heather let her head drop. “Yes, sir.”
Disappointment dogged at her heart, but she bit her tongue. We’re a team. We’re all on the same side. It’s personal for me, but it’s personal for thousands of other people now, too. It might not be my mace or Helga’s hammer, but it will be a church mace or hammer. We’ll get them. And I’ll keep doing my job. Victor LaPaix, you and all your ilk, you’ll never know peace.
We’re all coming for you, now. Not just me. Everyone.
An unseen hand patted Heather’s arm. “You’re an extraordinary credit to the Detective order, Blackthorne. We’ll hunt them down. We’ll see them hang. And we’ll bring your family’s bones back, one way or another.”
Heather let a shaky breath tear through her composure, and not trusting herself to words, she nodded.
“I’m sorry we ever had to know each other at all, Knight Blackthorne. I’m afraid my place in the world isn’t usually one that leaves people happier for having met me. But after I read your report, Blackthorne, and that of your Lieutenant here, I worry we’ll probably see each other again.”
“If you need my help, sir, you know where to find me,” Heather said firmly.
“I do. Thank you, Blackthorne.”
Fuzzed voices descended again, and then the door closed. A few moments later, the itching behind Heather’s eyes vanished, and her vision returned. Ramdas finished untwisting the runed button on his jacket, and gave an apologetic nod.
“What was that, sir?” Heather asked.
“My new boss,” Ramdas said, arching his eyebrows. “I believe I have much more sympathy for Major Weather’s drinking problem, now.”
Heather barked a weary laugh. “You and me both, Lieutenant. Wow. So I don’t even get to see him?”
“No. No faces, no names, need-to-know strictly. That necromantic group has been targeting church members, seeking the knowledge of the dead. And much more than just the Church. Military. Guild, presumably. Anyone of value they can snatch.”
Heather shivered. “We beat them here, sir. We can do it again.”
Ramdas lips set in a grim line. “We must, si?”
The quiet little cove faced the warm ocean, the coral-sanded beach serene, unmarked by foot-steps. The nearest living thing, a badger, retreated into its burrow at the first disturbance of the water.
As one, eleven adamant automatons surged out of the water, their broad feet shimmering as they displaced their great weight across a much wider mesh of magic. Up onto the sand they marched, and directly into the jungle, ten of them gleaming and perfect despite seven months in the ocean. The one with a cracked faceplate shed two startled crabs that scuttled down to the sand and ran back to their watery home.
A few birds in the trees gave cries of alarm and flew off, but then the jungle closed in around them. Then all was silent save for the rustle of wind in the trees, and the clapping of one man in a red cloak, the cowl pulled down along much of his face.
“Right on schedule, Victor. You’re looking a little worse for wear.”
Victor’s automaton shook and rattled as it lifted a metal hand, returning the greeting. “They cracked the shell in the fighting. I’m a mess of corrosion inside. No seal around the corpse. Might not be good bones.”
“Nonsense. A little worm in the bones won’t matter, once we get them dry. How many follow behind you, Victor?”
Uncomfortable silence lingered, a second too long. “This is all of them.”
“All of them? You told me you had the fortress, Victor. You had the Gate, and an entire army. You promised us at least fifty, by this time.” Anger rose in the cowled man’s voice. “What the hell happened, Victor? How did you bungle this so badly?”
“It was that Detective! I told you, you should have killed her on the boat! She figured a way into the fortress, and blew up the smelter. Before that, they whittled down our numbers, left and right! I couldn’t send enough bones out into those wastelands without half of them being lost. And that earth-mover! He can move mountains! Why didn’t we just target him?”
“You mean to tell me, you didn’t?” A dangerous quiet settled around the man in the crimson cloak. Despite the inches of adamant between himself and the man, Victor’s automaton recoiled in fear.
“I had to drop artillery on him. He was keeping deep underground. Nothing else I had could reach him. A wasteful loss, I know, but I had no other recourse. Landslides alone were demolishing our numbers. I couldn’t keep control of the town any other way. And that spirit in the mines! It rose up and took half my men, cracked their bones on the walls. I barely drove it back.”
“Spirit?” The man in the crimson cloak began to smile, his anger momentarily forgotten. “The attendant spirit to the surgeon, it remained? I never saw it!”
“Yes, it remained, and fed up on half of the skeletons we had. Wait, you were there?”
“At your side, Victor,” the man said, lifting up his cowl fractionally, the timbre of his voice momentarily changing. “But you wouldn’t remember my face. But you know my voice now, don’t you?”
The automaton leaned forward in astonishment. “I… do! You’ve changed your face and voice?”
“Close enough. Nobody who saw me will remember. More importantly! You say the attendant spirit remained? That’s useful. Congratulations, Victor. You’ve not made an utter failure of this after all.”
The automaton slumped in relief. The other ten around it stood stock-still in the jungle that surrounded them. Their only motion was that of their heads, scanning back and forth without pause, seeking targets.
“Thank you. Please. You can’t imagine how dull it’s been, trudging down deep in the ocean. There’s nothing to see, nothing to hear, just interminable sea-floor. I did my best at Frostmoor. Our process was efficient. It was merely interrupted.”
The man in the crimson cloak nodded absently, and gestured with his hand. From behind him, seven skeletons emerged from the underbrush. He tapped one on the shoulder, and gestured to Victor.
“Of course, Victor. But I trust you’ll understand that with such limited resources, and in your failing to deliver on the terms of our arrangement? We’ll have to make some adjustments to our plans.”
Victor’s automaton took an involuntary step back, and then at a gesture from the crimson cloaked man’s fingers, froze in place.
“Now now, Victor. You’re dead, and that means you’re mine. Open up. With adamant at such a premium for us, the cause simply cannot afford your indulgence. Now, you see this charming, fine set of bones here? She was Doctor Alameda Denafira. Up until her recent passing, one of the best healers of her time. A genuine resurrectionist. She once raised a man from death who’d been dead all of two minutes! But today we’re going to break that little record.”
The adamant surrounding Victor’s corpse peeled away. Locks and hinges flipped open, his armored shell opening to reveal a corpse within picked clean by crabs and worms. Corals had begun to grow from the naked bones, and worms writhed in the remaining water that drained out as the hinges opened.
“No, please, please! You promised me you wouldn’t,” gurgled Victor’s voice, from the metal shell surrounding him. “I was perfect, it was just a crack! I can repair it,” he pleaded.
“And you promised me fifty!” spat the man in the crimson cloak. “Fifty adamant automatons, Victor! Now, I have ten! Eleven, if I count your shell. And I do.” He gestured to the skeleton, and it stepped forward, and laid bony hands upon the wreck and ruin of Victor’s corpse.
As the skeleton began the laborious task of his resurrection, Victor’s shell began to sob.
The private gardens beneath the grand window of Roland’s office were into full spring bloom. He had the windows open, the pleasant spring air fluttering gently at the pages of reports spread out before him.
Neela paused in the doorway, her heart catching at her throat. She knew this man, knew every hair of him as she knew herself. She knew how he breathed when he was furious, when he was heartsick, when a report like this came in and cast their hearts in shadow, together.
I will make of my grief a seed, Neela prayed, and exhaled a slow, gentle stream of persimmon and vanilla, overlaid with a hint of lavender. Her love for this man, her care, and concern, writ in the gentle scent of her breath. He drew in another breath, paused, and gently played a hand across the breeze-ruffled pages.
He knew her too, and he spoke the rest of her silent prayer aloud, at little more than a murmur. “I will grow my orchard, and bear forth the fruits of compassion, mercy, and kindness.”
She walked to his side, willowy and graceful, her cheek coming to rest on his shoulder. “How did it go with Greyson?” she asked.
“I was very cross,” Roland said softly. “He’s set her back years, easily. He threw it in my face, and said that I’d been the one to send her off to the far north. He put her there, knowing something could happen, and didn’t think to forewarn me. Said it was a case of need-to-know.”
She took his splayed hand from the papers, and gave it a very gentle squeeze in her own. “He should have told us,” she said softly. “We need to know, to do our job. And you should take him before the Pope.”
“I told him I would, if he ever did something like this again,” Roland said. His eyes finally tore themselves away from the papers, and turned his eyes her way. The sorrow on them was writ large, his concern aching through him.
Neela rose up on tiptoe, and blew another stream of persimmon and vanilla and lavender for him. “We won’t give up.”
He took a long breath, smiled sadly at her, and nodded. “I know,” he whispered to her. “She wouldn’t give up. How could we do any less?”
Neela’s eyes sparkled. “What will we do then, Roland?”
“We’ll give her the time she should have had. The time she needs, all of it that we can give her. Because, Saints know, she’ll be needed again.”
“Go, before you get icicles running out your nose, Lieutenant,” Heather said. “And when you get to Venicia, tell Captain Ramdas we all miss his violin.”
“Aye, will do, dearie,” Helga said.
“Safe travels, you two. Enjoy the weather down south. I’m jealous.”
“As well you should be, dearie. I might be the first dwarf in my family to get a tan!”
Persephone’s smile trembled precariously as she embraced Heather and Ooluk. With laughing caution they pushed each other away before emotion could get the better of her control. Ooluk’s farewell was traditional: He turned away from them in silence, so as not to watch friends go.
The hooded woman and the armored dwarf walked hand in hand down the docks towards the Longeau. Heather lingered next to Ooluk, her cheek still warm and wet from Helga’s parting tears, skin cooled by the tug of wild magic threatening to leak from Persephone.
Heather picked up her picnic basket, and took the elf’s hand with her other hand. She led him up the dock at a gentle pace, patient with his limp. In the two and a half years since his leg had been shattered, he hadn’t regained much mobility. As soon as they made it to the stone at the root of the dock, Ooluk sank down with a grateful sigh, and a hillock of earth rose up beneath them to carry them.
“It’s not going to the be the same without them here,” Heather said.
Ooluk gave a sad smile. “No, it will not, Knight Heather.” His hillock swept gently through the town, slowing to weave between carts and market stalls. The cobblestones clicked and clacked in soft protest in their passage. “But it was not the same when Knight Ramdas went last year, either. We managed.”
Heather gave the elf’s hand a kindly squeeze. “It helps to have friends. Speaking of, how’s Uuzook?”
“He’s well,” Ooluk said brightly. “Our store’s been busy with all the furs and gold. But the Longeau is the last ship out again, so, it’s a good day to close shop, and watch our friends leave.”
“And you’re blind, and you know I made cake,” Heather finished, laughing.
“And I’m blind, and I know you made cake,” he agreed with a smile.
“Terrible! Alright then. I’ll watch them go, and you can help me with the cake.”
“As befits a Gaimen,” he said haughtily.
Heather cracked a laugh. “Dare you to say that in Lady Oiselle’s voice.”
“I’d never dare,” he said with a mock shudder.
Ooluk’s hill swept them out the gates, and followed the coast west at a brisk pace. Heather turned her eyes to the ocean, watching as the heavy, laden ore freighter cast out with the tide.
They came to a stop atop a hill to the west of Frostmoor. Under the bright summer sky, the old scars of the town’s wounds barely showed anymore. The walls remained, a permanent addition, but the new Sending Gate had stood for two years and would, with any luck, for centuries more. Smoke rose from the fortress smelter, staining the eastern horizon. Scars in stone and homes remained, and the Church cemetery held far too many headstones than it should have. But up high on the hill in the bright noonday sun, those scars felt far, far away.
Heather unpacked the basket, and together they ate. They sat back, and between bites of ham sandwich and chocolate cake, Heather described the view to Ooluk, telling him of the Longeau’s billowing sails, and its gentle departure over the horizon.
“Who’s going to wake you before dawn now, Heather?” Ooluk asked, once the ship had sailed past the southern horizon.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask someone, I guess.” She said, staring out at the summer ocean. “If there’s anything I miss about living in that cave, it’s going to sleep knowing someone would wake me before I started screaming again.”
Ooluk inclined his head sadly. “Do you still get those nightmares, Knight Heather?”
“Every night, Ooluk, just as bad as ever. But you know what?”
She paused, and smiled up at the sun warming their faces. “Every day’s a little better.”
Heather Blackthorne will return in “From Spring’s Storms”!
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