Fear & Surprise, Chapter Eight

by artrald

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*

The single most depressing thing about the Inquisition’s work in those early days, was the fact that we were always – without fail – too late. In the Blight, we knew where the spawn were going to be, at least roughly. We were getting people out of the way. We were of course still outflanked or wrongfooted on occasion, but more often than not we came away with the knowledge that we’d saved lives or property or both. You could outrun the horde on horseback and you could see it from miles away; it had an understandable strategic goal and aim; you could get there before it and get people out.

But nobody – not even the mages – could have got ahead of the rifts, the holes in the air that turned all pretence of the sanity and reason of the world into a bad joke. We couldn’t predict where the next no-go area was going to be. All we could do was find them quick, mark them out well, keep people away – not too bad for a farmer’s field, or a hundred-yard stretch of the king’s road, or a lake. But when they came up in busy market squares, in village chantries, in taverns that had clearly been full to groaning at the time – and every fresh walking corpse felt like another failure, and there were far, far too many of those. Sometimes it felt like all we were doing was marking the fall of shot – and even once the rifts could be closed, the damage had already been done. It’s a poor damned victory that leaves you atop a pile of the dismembered corpses of those you signed up to protect, with nothing to show for it but a hundred-yard circle of the world that isn’t part of hell yet.

It was less hard on me, I think, and the other few dwarves that had joined up. We couldn’t see the rifts themselves; half of the demons’ mind tricks just washed off us; and of course, bluntly, brutally, it’s just plain easier to harden your heart when the victims don’t look like they could have been your own parents, children, sisters, brothers. We rotated humans out of scout duty and back to the regular ranks as often as we could, and took as much of the bad ones on ourselves as we could; but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t take its toll on us all the same. If I were to dream as I slept like humans do, it would be of those days, even now.

Rich people in their shiny cities might argue whether we’d got a holy cause. Even the ones who had more of a point than the idiots who’d complain about our paperwork. They might frown upon our use of apostate mages, upon our recruitment of any templar who reckoned that all the world’s other problems could be shelved until we ran out of demons, upon the fact that we cared precisely nothing about what our recruits had done before they were ours. But I write this here and I have said it every time anyone asked me. To see those demons, to see what they were doing – I invite the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks here, and it will likely not do them justice, but I will describe them no further – it was enough to get this stone-hearted dwarfish caravan guard singing the Canticle of Trials alongside all the others, so make of that whatever you will.

Lace Harding, Inquisition chief of scouts
Collected Testimonies of the Heroes of the Inquisition, published by Tethras and Sons of Kirkwall

*

So I tell you, that map that they’d set up in the revered mother’s dining room, it did not make for easy reading. They’d stuck a pin in the map everywhere they had seen a rift, and there was no kind of pattern to them. The pins were white for places we could signpost and ignore, and black for places something had been done, and red for places where something had to be done, and it looked like the countryside had measles.

“Numbers today?” Cullen had a new scar, a fine white line across his cheek.

“Three. White, though.” Nightingale indicated. “The crossroads in Sarton goes black; six casualties on our side, but nothing permanent.”

“And at Maiford?”

She shook her head. “Waste of time. Our party was headed off by a group of apostates. To quote Harding, ‘some idiots are too stubborn to be helped’.”

“I swear, those people are their own worst enemies.” Cullen frowned. “Can the enchanter do something about them?”

The enchanter, dressed today in a conservative grey robe, raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Did the templar’s people catch any names, or does he expect me just to hope that Fiona will happen to know which people I mean?”

“I’m sorry, madame, I do believe that my people were too busy dodging fireballs to ask. It’s less than a day’s ride.”

“Indeed, dear? Were you planning to go back and ask for me?” Her smile was every bit as hard as the mask she wasn’t wearing. “I am healing today, I’m afraid.”

“What’s wrong with the healer we’ve got?”

“Mages are more like horses than soldiers; ride them hard and you had better look after them in return, or you’ll never get any work out of them again.” The smile got, if anything, harder. “Anyone who wakes Minaeve answers to me personally. Until she wakes, I am your healer.”

The templar shook his head. “You capable?”

“Oh, I’ve dabbled.” She caught his expression and sighed. “Yes, Ser Cullen. I’m a qualified healer. I’m qualified to teach healers. Quite unlike the poor girl I put to bed with a sleeping charm, whose principal qualification in life is her handwriting – Do the lives of your injured come before this diplomacy you want of me?”

He sighed. “The apostates can not expect the benefit of the doubt on the one hand and bar their door on the other.”

“The apostates have received nothing from you but a letter from a noble who – apologies, Josephine – they have barely even heard of; how are they to tell that the intentions of a templar in black are different from those of one in red?”

Josephine nodded. “Quite. Solas is no part of the apostates’ structures, and sending dreams was beyond Minaeve’s art; might you be able to contact the Grand Enchanter on our behalf, to make the point that we are not templars? We do need to make embassy to Ferelden Circle anyway.”

Cullen shot her a sceptical look. “We’d sooner walk on water than get someone on that island.”

She favoured him with a smile. “That is how they get past the reefs, yes.”

“Meanwhile, back in reality.” Cassandra turned to Leliana. “I believe you had something for us on the approaching army?”

“Mm.” She reached over and stuck a green pin in the map. “Amaranthine Cathedral reports their templars have deserted en masse after receiving a rider from Val Royeaux; they were last seen heading east, although clearly that could have been misdirection.” Another green pin in Gwaren. “Sources at Queen Anora’s court report that her dower lands have now a grand total of three templars remaining; all across the teyrnir they left in the night.” She chewed on her lip, contemplated the map. “If Lucius plans to hit us here, they will arrive a week or more late to that party; it isn’t like him to send orders like that as a distraction.”

“So, where does make sense?”

Leliana shook her head. “They must be staging somewhere. But the queen is no fool; a buildup of troops like that would be neither unnoticed nor unchallenged.”

“Therinfal, then.” Cullen stabbed a finger at the map. “I can’t speak for Lord Lucius, but I know my old master; there’s no way he’d pander to a secular lord sufficiently to use someone else’s castle without alienating them. If he’s not visibly anywhere, odds are he’s gone home to brood.”

Cassandra leaned over the map, as if staring it down. “That doesn’t match Lucius’ rhetoric.”

“Do Seekers always get what they want, Lady Cassandra?”

Cold smile. “Point taken. Leliana?”

“Oh, I can certainly confirm that we don’t -” Cassandra scowled at her and she flashed a grin – “We shall work on confirming Therinfal, but as they say. Unless you can see the danger, it’s behind you.”

“Leading us nicely on to the Breach. Vivienne?”

“Solas is a marvel – a prodigy – if I’d had the teaching of him, I’m certain he’d be the Circle’s expert in the study of magical theory today. But as it is, he can’t even read half the books I brought. His work is frankly-”

“But can we trust him?”

“Oh, yes.” She flapped a hand. “That patch over the hole in the sky may have been made by three people, but all of them wanted the same thing.”

I beat Cassandra to it – “Three?”

Vivienne nodded. “What I said, dear. You were somewhat involved, I believe?”

My hand twinged. “In the way that a paintbrush is involved in a picture, yes – but – three?”

“Certainly. I assume the third was Minaeve?”

“Minaeve was barricaded in the chantry,” said Josephine slowly. “I was there. The rest of the apostate delegation were in the Sanctuary when it, um.” She looked at me. “Cassandra, you had Trevelyan’s back at the summit?”

“I was ten feet from the working with my back to it, and elbow-deep in demons. Nightingale was the other side. Nobody else was within reach.” The Seekers were all looking at me now; there was a pause that went on a little longer than perhaps it should have. “Well, then – record that for the histories if nothing else. Anything more about this miraculous third party?”

Vivienne pursed her lips for a moment before answering. “If that wasn’t Minaeve – and assuming that none of your templars was a mage in disguise – you used the right word.”

“Oh, come on, Osprey,” Josephine practically pouted. “You can’t just leave it at-”

“Ask Trevelyan; he was there. All I saw – it is like looking at footprints – was three sets, as it were. One distinctly Solas’, one distinctly his. The third are unlike those, and that is it.”

Cassandra sighed. “Very well; I would be interested in a more detailed write-up, if you have the time. How is Solas’ work?”

Vivienne gave an Orlesian shrug. “He has acquired a working understanding of the subsidiary rifts; indeed, he could open one if it were for some reason required. Closing one has little effect on others, and more will pop up to follow it, like fighting the mythical hydra – but the scar on Trevelyan’s hand means he should be able to do that by himself with a little practice.” (I swallowed hard. Someone had told her that I wasn’t a warrior, right?) “Concerning the Breach itself, he has a spell-pattern, but the cost is unacceptable; the task is no longer saving the world but doing so in an acceptable manner.”

“And we find this out only now because…?”

“I do believe, Lady Seeker, that you’re not most experienced in this room at what it means when a mage says ‘unacceptable cost’.” She sniffed. “Use your imagination, and double it. It’s easier to fight horrors with horrors, but there are fine reasons that we don’t; it isn’t even worth telling the templars the possibility that we could have, because the orders to refrain will probably come together with a fine new set of shiny manacles.”

“We aren’t the templars.” Cassandra tapped her chin. “But can we not put Solas on the hospital and have you take over with the Breach? I would feel more comfortable placing our hopes with a trained professional.”

“There’s ‘trained professional’ and then there’s a month’s headstart. If Solas were a natural with creation magic, he’d be running the hospital already – and his notes are in a truly horrible dialect that is probably supposed to be elvish, so I would effectively be starting from scratch, my skills not withstanding. If we want his work finished at the greatest rate we can, then what we do is we set the Tranquil to translating the textbooks that I brought with me into a language he can read, and we give him Minaeve as an assistant, where she can use skills she actually trained for. Meanwhile -” she bowed her head to Cullen – “with the greatest of respect, ser templar, might I suggest that you and Lord Trevelyan set about closing some of those rifts.”

“Solas seemed to think there was little point,” said Nightingale. “As you said, they will pop up again anyway.”

“Indeed, my dear. But the mages cannot do it.” Vivienne smiled like a snake. “We will likely need more lyrium than I brought. Significantly more. More than they will admit to having, but less than they have. If you want an invitation, and especially if you want material aid to the tune of a significant portion of their remaining monetary assets? It isn’t me that you need.” She nodded to me. “It’s Lord Trevelyan. Show them the potential to learn new magic, to witness a miracle, to make themselves heroes into the bargain? They will practically bite your hand off.”

“The Order has that sort of resources, as well.” Cullen sounded slightly defensive. “And this sort of disaster is explicitly what the reserves are for – it’s worth making contact, at least.”

“Once we are sure they aren’t literally marching on us as we speak.” Cassandra nodded. “Make it so. I will go with Trevelyan, with Iron Bull and his men – no offence to your people, Cullen, but the Chargers are used to fighting as a unit – and start working on those red pins. Speaking of heroes, Leliana, see if news of this can’t reach your old friend Kallian; I could just do with a psychopathic monster hunter or three. Josephine: you and Varric are working on an alternative source for that lyrium. Send it via bloody Kirkwall if you have to, but the generosity of strangers isn’t reliable.”

Josephine cleared her throat. “We, ah, really haven’t the coin to – I can neither fly, spin straw into silver nor convince dwarves to set out to lose money – to quote every Chantry lyrium buyer ever to set pen to paper, I am sure something may be managed. King Bhelen owes the surfacers his throne, but I am very unsure that that extends to beggaring his own miners.”

“Fine; I trust your competence. And lastly. Osprey? Cullen?” She glared at both of them. “We are not two allied houses; we are one house. We are not out to work our mages to death or to oppress any others we may meet; we are not out to support maleficars and the demons are uniformly our foes. You will recognise that you are peers, you will respect the skills and experience of everyone in our councils of war, and if I see you squaring up for a fight then I will physically dump you both in the horse-trough; am I clear?”

Vivienne had bowed her head immediately at Cassandra’s tone; she didn’t look up. “Perfectly, Raven.”

Cullen nodded, a little stiffly. “Would that you could solve the larger conflict so easily, my lady.”

And Cassandra actually smiled at that one. “All right. Dismissed.”

*

Iron Bull reacted to our orders with what a quiet noise of satisfaction, and as far as I could read his expression, it said he was a happy man; Jenny simply nodded as if I were doing nothing more than passing the time of day, ordered me not to disappear, and practically vanished on the spot.

And – yes. I was actually going to be expected to ride out and join in. They really expected me to do it. I hadn’t even been wearing a sword and they – I sat down on the edge of my bed staring at the window. A treacherous whisper in my head was evaluating just how far I’d get if I actually ran away and whether I’d get worse from Cassandra for doing that than I would from the demons if I stayed – did I really think I could outrun Jenny – someone knocked on the door and I started and nearly fell on my face.

I must say that I wasn’t expecting Josephine, and I certainly wasn’t expecting her to be carrying a pair of sheathed swords; she closed the door. “So,” she began without preamble, “in your place I’d be terrified right now. You imagine that the man you say you are has been training since the age of ten. You know he wears a sword any time he leaves the house. You may even have treated injuries that he has received while using it. You, meanwhile, have never touched one except to move it, or occasionally to wave it about like child with a toy. And now you feel yourself expected to perform, and unlike every other skill he has, this one is something you feel you cannot fake. Am I close?”

“I’d say I was a lover and not a fighter, except, you know, with a face like mine, nobody would believe that either.” My voice was more than a little hoarse. “I’m pretty good at curling up and crying like a baby, hiding under tables, running away, you know? I haven’t the first clue how you deliberately hurt someone with a bit of metal. I’ve – I’ve not even thrown a punch since before my voice broke-”

“Calm down.” She sat down beside me with the swords across her lap. “For one thing, we need you: a fine place we’d be if you rode off to be a hero and came back dead. For another, between Cassandra and the Bull and that elf, I wouldn’t like to see the demon that could get within ten feet of you. And for a third? I strongly suspect I’d be having a very similar talk with you if your background was a little more conventional.”

“You, uh, you would? But he-”

She passed me one of the two weapons. Very different, the two of them, as different as an armoured knight and a noble in silks. This one had a long hilt and a simple crossguard and looked much like the mental image you’d have of a sword; the one she’d kept had a wider guard and a smaller hilt and a much thinner blade. “If you were Lord Trevelyan, the first thing out of your mouth would be that I just handed you-”

“The wrong one.” I nodded. “That’s not his sword, but-”

A slight smile. “My dress sword is a thing of beauty, and I am fond of it, but it is a foreigner here. The sword you’re holding is Cullen’s spare. If he and I faced off, unarmoured, with him wielding that and me wielding this? His life would be in my hands entirely. But if he wears armour, and he carries a shield, then there is a move in my books for what to do when you face that: it is to take to your heels and hope that they cannot run as fast in armour as you can without.” She sat back a little. “Lord Trevelyan may never have met a warrior’s sword before, except perhaps to move it, or occasionally to wave it about like a child with a toy. You stand differently, you move differently, you use different muscles – he isn’t as badly off as someone who’s never thrown a punch, perhaps, but he would require to be re-trained entirely. Could you imagine, riding a horse and trying to poke people with a three-foot sewing needle?”

“So – you’re not, uh. You’re not saying that I don’t have to go and fight demons. You’re saying that it’s all right to be terrified and incompetent?”

That mischievous smile again. “Precisely.”

“You do know that this does not make me any less terrified or incompetent?”

“Look, Harry.” The use of my name shut my mouth just like she’d intended. “There are sixteen-year-old boys out there who traded ploughshares for pikes when Cassandra called and have been pretending to be men ever since. The daughter of the man who used to run this inn had never sat a horse before the Inquisition came, and now she’s one of our best outriders. How many of our army do you think have the experience that you lack? Whether it’s you or the inkeeper’s daughter, the ploughman or the farrier or – me -”

Now, that wasn’t fair. “I don’t see you out there taking that three-foot sewing needle to the demons.”

She blinked rapidly and I wanted those words back the moment they’d left me; then she took a sharp little breath. “Is that what it would take?”

“No! No, I didn’t mean-”

“I can get most of my work done overnight or on the move, palm the rest onto Nightingale and steal Vivienne’s secretary to paper over the gaps, and actually the enchanter should be able to charm me against exhaustion; the spell is said to eat a year of life for every week awake, but how many years has any of us got if we fail?” She stood. “I’ll see the armourer right away; they should have a hauberk in my size -”

I stood up as well. “You can’t mean it.”

Fire in her eyes. “Try me.”

Pause. I noticed for the hundredth time just how damn beautiful she was. I noticed she was shaking, slightly. She didn’t want to do it any more than I did.

“Look, you don’t need to do that. We need you here – I mean, you’re already doing-”

She bent down and picked up Cullen’s sword, and pressed it against me until I took it. “So do we have an understanding?”

I swallowed hard. “I’m still terrified and incompetent.”

“Inexperienced, we call it.” Her expression softened. “Harry, you’re not a warrior. Nobody expects you to wade fell-handed through armies of demons, and the only princess we have is also the only dragon-slayer around. You’ll have a sword because you’re marginally safer with one than without. But you are not there to be Lord Maxwell.” Her eyes were approximately bottomless. “You are there to be the Herald. The man Andraste saved. You are there to use the gift she gave you. The one bit of truth about this that nobody can fake. And if all you do is that then history will remember you a hero. And if I could shield everyone in this organisation from doing anything they were terrified of -”

“I understand.”

“All right. Jenny should be back soon with your armour. And, my lord?”

Eyebrow. “Yes, my lady?”

The smile was back. “You may wish to remember today the next time you are minded to call someone’s bluff.”

*

It had been a village.

The roads crossed and a dozen houses and an inn had huddled up to them. The rift had opened in the centre of the crossroads, day before yesterday, a little before dawn. The inn’s little sign – a wheat-sheaf carved in wood and lovingly painted – hung at an angle as if the wind were blowing directly into the rift, but the air here was dead still. My hand twinged and I stayed silent.

We dismounted. The Inquisition had learned early not to bring horses near a rift. Nothing else here was moving. Some doors hung open, some had been boarded shut, and that house over there had a hole in its wall ten feet high. Silence of the grave here. Iron Bull gestured shortly, and his people began to spread out into a loose skirmish line, spears and archers paired.

Cassandra’s battle-plate was jet-black and flawlessly ornate, and she wore it like a second skin. Caught Iron Bull’s eye, looked meaningfully at the inn’s stable; he nodded, and she and her squad moved forward, drawn blades, treading soft. The Bull and the rest of his men followed them in, their line turning into a rough semi-circle; I was at the centre, and felt like I weighed a hundred tons in this ludicrous chainmail and stifling gambeson. Cullen’s sword felt surprisingly good in my hand. A comforter. Something to hold on to. A handgrip on the world.

Ahead, Cassandra raised a hand. Five, she signed, in the stable. Bull raised a fist in acknowledgement and she nodded and made no further move as we approached. Solas had said that closing the rift would be no different to the first one I ever did, and that had taken moments. The closer we got before all hell broke loose, the better.

A noise. One of the men had sneezed, but it echoed across the ruins like a thunderclap. We all froze for a second, waiting –

nothing –

Just as we were starting to breathe easier, we heard it. A hissing, a whispering, overlapping and overlaying like the whole world was a nest of snakes, and Bull’s voice over all of it bellowing “Move!”

So we did. The stable door burst open in the same moment – I had the impression of a nine-legged thing that had once been a horse –  barely even saw the demon before Cassandra was in its way. Splintering sound from one of the houses and a creature was tearing itself out – it was wearing a dead body like a puppet – it sprouted arrows, one in its neck, one in its chest, and fell back like they’d cut its strings.

And every boarded-up window and nailed-shut door in the whole place exploded outwards and they all did it at once. Over at the stables something came out through the wall and Cassandra spat something at it about waiting its turn. Beside me, Jenny was watching with eyes about as wide as mine were; on the left-hand side of the line five once-human creatures surged out of a building and bowled a man over, and one of them looked up in our direction; suddenly she’d drawn her bow and it sang and the thing sprouted an arrow out of its eyesocket, and when the others looked around she feathered each of them in turn, in little more time than it takes to tell. Then one of them got up again and she swore to herself at creative and disbelieving length and one of the Bull’s men took its head off with an axe.

The rift was right in the middle of the crossroads, right at the centre, and going towards it felt a little like going downhill. I don’t know whether it was just because the rest of the village was that way or because they knew what we were about, but the demons were clustered there like they were defending it – Bull bellowed like his namesake, and he and his companions charged, and – uh.

You’d think a big guy would be slow on his feet, but he moved on his toes like the armour weighed nothing at all. His pollaxe was longer than I was tall, and he carried it like it was no heavier than a willow-wand , and he was fighting with both spear-sharp ends of the weapon and the hammer-head on one side and the blade on the other. I’d imagined great sweeping blows like chopping wood or hammering posts, when I’d first seen it, but I only saw him make the one of those, and it took a demon right off its feet with grey oozing pulp where its ribcage used to be. It seemed that every movement ended in an opponent. Every blow would have killed a man. Every time he hit anything with the hammer-head the blow lifted it physically off the ground. And he was laughing as he fought.

Shame the things were getting up again, really – but I suppose that’s why he wasn’t alone. It looked a bit like a grown man fighting alongside dressed-up children, but I knew very well that those ‘boys’ were nothing of the sort, and they were armed and armoured just as well as their boss, and they were fighting with the same sort of unhurried laid-back disrespect that they did everything else – and the weight of the foe didn’t seem to matter. They just kept on going, pushing the damn things back.

A path to the crossroads. The Chargers were almost a complete circle now, stopping the things from coming at us from behind. Time for me to do what we were here for – I think I heard Bull yelling at me to either shit or get off the can – I walked up that road and the mud squelched and shifted and I gritted my teeth for –

My foot wouldn’t lift and I fell full length in the mud.

Swearing like the soldier I was dressed as, I tried to free it. No dice – that mud really had my boot. Rolled over as best I could, tried pulling. Bloody idiot falling on your bloody face in the bloody road, never should have left the bloody house, I was muttering to myself as I –

All of the blood ran away from my head as I saw the pale hand gripping my ankle. I pulled again and a good few inches of arm came up out of the ground. Jenny was standing right there, an arrow to her string – I yelled – my hand found the hilt of my sword and I picked it up, though Maker knows what I thought I was going to do with it.

And the ground shifted under me and I actually screamed and somewhere between madly scrabbling away and kicking like a wild thing and what have you I freed my ankle, just scooting away from the fucking thing on my arse. It was pulling itself up out of the ground like it had been buried – at – a –

Shit.

Jenny’s arrow went in one of its ears, out the other and into the ground; not waiting to see if it was dead, she put another one through its heart, a third one through the arm that was stretching out for me. White all the way round her eyes, she yelled at me to get up and I hauled myself out of the sticky grasping mud. The twitching thing started to pull itself upright in defiance of all logic – I raised the sword that by some miracle I was still holding, put my shoulders into the swing and hit it on the side of the head.

It made a sound like chopping wood and the sword nearly twisted itself out of my hand, a starburst of pain exploded up my arm, the blow pretty much just bounced off; the bastard thing hardly seemed to even notice. Tried again – fuck, that hurt – I hit it between the neck and the shoulder and it made a cut a couple of inches deep and twisted again. Guess Cullen’s sword could spot a faker even if the man himself was fine with me. Third time – sign of madness, doing the same thing and expecting something different – and this time the blade whistled in the air and buried itself in the thing’s neck all the way down to the bone and you know what? It bloody stuck there.

And the demon thrashed and squealed with the sword in it and what the fuck was I supposed to do with this now? Eventually penetrated my head that Jenny was saying let go, leave it, just go. Got through to my knuckles half an age later that yes, I wanted to let go. I let go of the sword – not many steps – another hand punched its way up out of the ground – gave that a wide fucking berth and got a move on – I reached up towards the rift, palm-first.

It wasn’t the same as the first time I’d done this. That had hurt. This just – well. Raise my hand, push and the air felt like it stretched. Turn, and something caught inside my hand and ground against my bones. My palm blazed. Pull, and it felt like a knot untying. Closed my fingers convulsively and it was over.

The corpses screamed, all of them at once, unearthly, and went still. Cassandra gave one of the unlovely things she’d been fighting a final vindictive kick and it collapsed. Bull tugged the spike of his weapon out of his most recent kill, then turned around to start making sure none of our people were down.

And the men, Bull’s Chargers, turned to me and raised a hoarse hearty cheer. Cassandra didn’t join them, but she didn’t have to. She just looked around at me standing there stunned and shaking and covered in mud, and she met my eyes and she nodded, and all she said was “Go and get your sword.” But, you know. I knew what she meant.

Jenny was still standing there as I walked back over to the corpse I’d left the sword in. Still staring at it, an arrow nocked, looking it in the pale dead staring eyes, pretty much frozen –

Till I stepped one step closer to it than she was and everything happened at once. Her eyes flicked to me – she shouted something high and incoherent – the sweet sound of her bow and the arrow thudding straight through its heart – then something irresistible hit me in the gut and I collapsed over on my back in the muck and then she was standing between the corpse and me with a short bright blade in the hand she hadn’t just shoved me with, yelling at it or me or both to get back.

Silence. Nothing. The dead body lay there dead. I worked out which way was up, got myself to my feet. The elf was standing there frozen completely, breathing shallowly, blinking about as often as that corpse.

“Jenny?” I said, quietly, tentatively.

“Huh?” Her voice was just as quiet.

“It’s dead.”

“Started that way.” She didn’t move, didn’t blink. Her right hand crept onto the hilt at her right hip. “Right?”

“It’s not going to get up again. It’s gone. It’s finished.”

“S-stake through the…?”

“No. The rift. I got rid of it.” I tried to put reassurance into my voice, hoarse as it was. “It’s not going to get up again, Jenny.”

“Says you.”

“And I’m right.” I stepped to the side, around her, she didn’t move. “I’m going to go and get my sword back, now. All right?”

No response, so I went ahead. Slowly. If she wanted to get in the way she didn’t have to push me over again.

And she visibly flinched when I touched the hilt. I pulled on it and it didn’t come and the body didn’t twitch. I put my boot on it and levered the sword out with both hands and it didn’t want to come, but I made it. Wiped the blade, put it away. Looked up at her. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

She had bitten her lip and a little trickle of blood marked her amber skin down to the point of her chin. She didn’t say anything. Blinked a couple of times. You could forgive her eyes for watering, given how long she’d been staring. And she was thirty feet from the thing before she turned her back on it, and she left her arrows where they’d stuck.

Wasn’t till we were back at the horses that she said anything more. “So, my Herald,” she said, and her voice shook very slightly. “Dead guys. With feet. Usin’ em.”

I made my voice as gentle as I could. “That’s right.”

“The ploughin’ what?”

“That’s right.”

“News t’you too?”

“I’d heard reports. Saw them once before, on the day I helped patch the hole in the sky.” I shuddered. “Never had to actually try to fight them myself before.”

“Showed, right?” She gave a tiny smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Serious, though. What on the Maker’s earth?”

“They aren’t. That’s probably why. It’s not the bodies, it’s the things wearing them, moving them around. That’s why they get up.”

“Demons,” she said softly. “Legions of nightmares, ghoulies and ghosties, cubs of the Wolf or some breeze. Stuff y’tell y’r tinies to scare ’em quiet. Am I right?”

“Pretty much.”

“And it’s true. Like, true-true, like, part of the Maker’s truth.” She blinked a couple of times and if the corners of her eyes were wet I didn’t say anything.

“You saw as much as I did.”

“And I get a bow.” She gave it a look.

“So you should. You’re bloody good with it.”

“I am, right?” She rounded on me suddenly. “Put a galloping tin-plated bloody warhorse down before. Killed a prize pig and a watchdog a-and a man head to toe in magic and steel. Feathered a man through the wrong side of an arrow-slit. Where do I shoot ’em, Herald? Where d’I put the feathers? Huh?” Her knuckles were white on her bow. “Tell me, milord. How do I kill a demon?”

I looked at her straight. “A mage can do it, or a templar? A-and I’ve seen Lady Cassandra fighting beside the templars so I figure she knows what she’s about. And if you can get me to one of the rifts, to the hole in midair?”

She blinked hard. Looked me in the eye. Deep breath. “It’ll happen. Seen ’em, now. Better next time. Take you, to the place, do the thing. Like the nobles, the clever ones. Can’t touch them. So you find the bit of noble that doesn’t find this fun no more. Do what hurts them, not what pleases you. Sweat ’em. Do demons sweat?”

“I don’t know, Jenny.”

She showed her teeth like a wildcat. “We should teach’em.”

*

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