An Interlude at the Door of Battle - Death
The previous evening
The mist clung to the sodden ground. The forest here had been planted long ago for ships, but now it was a wild place full of strange things; elder ruins, the sites of long-forgotten battles, and of course, ponies. Lots and lots of ponies.
"It's a good thing Louise isn't here," Henrietta muttered, gently pushing away the curious pony that was trying to nibble on her cloak.
"Sorry, I beg your pardon?" Tiffania asked. The fire cast shadows upon her face from below. "I didn't catch that."
"Nothing, nothing. Just… thinking aloud." She was very much appreciating Jessica's work with the cloaks. At first she'd thought they were mostly there for that all-so-classy evil ambience, but Louise had been very firm after she'd got back from Cathay that all sinister black cloaks should work for warmth. And that they did.
"Excuse me," Tiffania began, "but are you feeling ready?"
What kind of question was that? "Of course."
"No, no, of course, I'm just speaking from ignorance here. You of course know much better than me. I suppose I'm just fretting. Not least because I'm worrying about Magda. I'm just thinking of her, all alone. Maybe strange men have grabbed her." Tiffania sighed. "Those poor men!"
The two women stared out into the night air. Then;
"How does it feel to be a necromancer?" Tiffania asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Casting black magics that invoke the dead. How does it feel?" Tiffania brushed down her dress, then leaned back, hands on the back of her head. "It can't be very pleasant. Whenever I need to cast any of the spells the music box tells me how to use, they mean I have to think about bad things. It's the only way to do it without getting so exhausted by just one spell that I collapse and then have bad dreams anyway. Do you have to think about dead bodies?"
Henrietta was silent for a long moment. "It's the only thing that makes me feel alive," she said, voice barely a whisper.
Tiffania's eyes widened. "That… doesn't make sense. It's magic using the dead. And…"
"I was taught to be a water mage from childhood," Henrietta said, hugging her knees. "But all the healing in the world couldn't save him. I didn't get the chance. I couldn't help him. Nothing could. And since he died, the world has been a grey place. Not much reaches me. It's like someone reached into my chest with a steel glove and tore out my heart and took it away. And they buried my lonely heart with him, and it beats in there, among all the rot and the filth of this awful world."
"You should probably try healing magic on the hole in your chest," Tiffania suggested, revealing a certain lack of a grasp of the concept of metaphor. "And I think you've been reading too many novels written by very silly people."
"It's not like that." Henrietta considered trying to explain this to someone who showed no signs of having loved and lost in the same way. No. It was futile. Everything was. She'd tried to explain to Louise, but Louise just produced platitudes like 'people care for you' and 'I'm sure you'll find love if you look for it in new places' and 'I love you'.
How could the love of a friend compare to the aching hole in her heart?
Her hands balled into fists. Founder. She wished she didn't feel like this. To have loved so deeply was a curse! Maybe it would be easier to live a loveless life. But would that mean feeling so empty and hollow all the time? Only the memories of love and the hope of feeling it once again kept her going.
Tiffania couldn't see her internal melancholy. "Well, time heals most wounds. And those it doesn't heal, it scars over. Healing magic helps." She reached out, warming her hands on the fire. "What are you going to do? Once you have your revenge, I mean."
Her expression didn't change, but somehow the pieces of it rearranged themselves from a vague air of well-meaning naïve curiosity to something glittering and sharp-edged. "I know what I'm going to do," she said. "The crown is going to be mine. First of Albion, then of the Elves. Humans, elves, they're all the same. Too cruel; too horrid to each other. The dark elves have told me that the elves are laying waste to the forests and rivers and digging deep into the mountains, all to feed the arcane machinery that lets them live like kings. They burn exotic fuels in their factories, and pump the noxious fumes underground. The thing they worry about most is how too many of them are overweight. That doesn't sound fair! Not when people in the rest of the world are starving."
The firelight reflected in her eyes.
"I'll make them understand each other. I'll make sure that they won't reject people like my parents who fall in love. And I'll stop them leaving parentless children like all the poor orphans I care for. I'll show them all."
Louise would want her to object. To say that maybe the world didn't need a dark tyrant ruling over men and elves alike. But Henrietta didn't care; couldn't bring herself to pretend to care. "I don't have anything left," she said softly. "Not once I have my revenge. If I can't… if I can't bring him back, then there's nothing more."
Tiffania blinked. "Surely there must be something!"
Oh, she knew what Louise-Françoise wanted. She wanted her to take her position back as crown princess. If she slew the Overlady of the North, some minor peccadillos and accusations would just vanish. That was how it worked. Personal flaws vanished when one saved the country from a dark force of evil.
But the future of grey days stretched out before her, under a faded crown, of having to marry who was best for the country and living a lie. She knew her duty. It was very clear. But she hated it. She hated this duty she had never asked for, which had only taken from her. Taken and taken and taken.
"No. There's nothing," Henrietta said. She hugged her knees. "That's what it feels like to be a necromancer. Death is kinder than life."
The blue moon was new today, but the red moon cast its ill-favoured light over the field. The queen of the dark elves and the necromancer looked over it, while two elves dug a shallow grave. Hints of rusty metal and dirty pale bones hinted at the violence of the battle that had been fought here a few years ago. Scavengers had come and taken all of value from the warzone, but they had left the dead.
Over in the background, a few of the older children were playing catch with someone's skull.
"Hey! No! No!" Tiffania called out, hurrying off. "Stop that, children! What do you think you're doing?"
"You can't! It's long past your bedtime! You can desecrate the dead later!"
The dark elf commonly referred to as Apostrophe clambered out of the grave, shovel in hand. There was dirt on his black velvet and white lace. "There are dark spirits in these lands," he said forebodingly.
Henrietta nodded. "Then all is as it should be."
"Yes, yes, well… in theory. But they're not cooperating to dig this hole." He looked at his hands in disgust. They were long-fingered and soft; the hands of a poet who never had to do manual labour. "I think I'm getting a blister."
"Oh, suck it up," the dark elf Emerald called out from where she was sitting on a rock, eating an apple.
"You could help!"
"Nah." She mock-saluted Henrietta. "Well, here's the grave."
Henrietta leant on her staff, holding her bouquet of lilies in the other hand. "Not just any grave. My grave, where I will lay my bosom to rest within the cold earth."
Apostrophe nodded. "I am impressed. I am super impressed. Being buried alive is real commitment. I have a coffin back at our lair, but that's something else."
"There are dark powers I must consort with." Henrietta sighed, eyes on the rising moon. "No living being has the power for what I must do."
"Armies of the dead are pretty metal," Emerald contributed. "Plus, they're recycled, so they're green."
Henrietta considered this. "Only for a bit. Then the flesh starts to fall away." She picked her way over the mounds of earth. "Excuse me," she added, beginning to place the cord she carried with her around the grave site. "You don't want to stand too close."
Apostrophe perked up at that. "Will ravening hordes of the dead consume my very soul if I approach your vile working?" he asked eagerly.
Henrietta considered her answer. On one hand, she didn't want him to underestimate the danger. On the other hand, she was slightly concerned that he was enjoying the idea a little more than was proper. "Not necessarily," she settled on.
A harassed-looking Tiffania returned, dragging a child by the ear. "I swear, I can't take you anywhere," she said. "Goodness only knows where Magda has gotten to. Or Evil, too. Evil probably knows. Oh, Anne, are you ready?" She dug into a pocket. "I have the potion you need. Isn't it nice of William to brew it up for you?"
Henrietta accepted the bottle seriously. Potentially even gravely. "I head now to my death," she said, trying to juggle bottle, flowers and staff. "The underworld awaits me."
"That's nice. I'll see you when you come back," Tifa said happily.
With a slight flourish, Henrietta turned and descended into the grave. It was wet at the bottom, and she wished they had been able to find her a coffin. This was going to get the back of her dress all messy.
But there were more important things than that. She lay down with a squelch, feeling the cold earth against her back – and urgh, it was in her hair. Next time, she was definitely getting a coffin. Or finding a drier cursed battlefield.
Sitting back up, she propped the bouquet of lilies against her chest. Their sickly sweet aroma surrounded her, swamping even the scent of the grave. She inhaled deeply.
In the gloom, she examined the little black bottle Tifa's tiny alchemist had made her. Death in a philtre. Such a small thing. To think that this might truly kill her, if he had made any mistakes in his formulation.
Henrietta perked up. When she put it like that, she was going to see her love either way. So really she had nothing to lose.
The draft was icy cold and as thick as honey as it went down. She couldn't taste it. That was a good sign.
Her vision greyed and her eyelids sagged. Her breaths felt like there was a lead weight on her chest. Henrietta lay back down and hoped for death.
The Underworld was not the Abyss.
The Abyss was a place where beings lived. Beings that hoped, hated, loved and fought with one another. Often awful beings, but that was what you got when it was the metaphysical dumping ground for all Evil things. They had things to live for. How could they not, when they had a whole pantheon of once-divine beings who had corrupted themselves by interfering too much in the mortal realm?
Nothing lived in the Underworld.
There were all kinds of paths that led to the Abyss, but they were hidden away. Doors that only opened when the moons were aligned in certain ways. Ancient stone circles that opened a gate with the right portals. The tainted grounds upon which overlords built their towering spires and deep dungeons.
The Underworld was very, very close. And everyone could get there.
No, the trick with the Underworld wasn't getting there. Henrietta hadn't carried out her ritual burial on an old battlefield so she could travel to the lands of the Dead. She had chosen that location so she could come back. That was the real challenge.
And then it is necessary to consider the two kinds of necromancers. There are lots of ways to categorise them. Some talk of the paths of ivory and ebony. Others speak of those who specialise in reanimating bone versus the ones who animate flesh. Others yet speak of the hatred between the followers of Pope Necrarch III and Osseus the Black.
But they're all wrong. When it comes down to it, the two kinds of necromancers are the ones who don't care about other people's lives and the ones who don't care about their own.
The ones who are willing to sacrifice others take the slow route to power. They bleed it from others, they hoard the lore that others produced, and like a leech they sap the life from the world to prolong their own. Of course, such dark magics only bring extended life, not eternal youth. Some take the dark bargain of the vampire, but those who reject that path find their aged life dragged out longer and longer. No matter how much they cut themselves up to replace their skin, their eyes, their failing joints; death is always waiting. In the end, if a hero doesn't get them they die alone, and in their dying they might not even notice as the last of the life they treasured so much slips away.
But the necromancy of those who value power above their own life is hot, vital and blazes a trail into the history books. Because the life of such a necromancer is freely given, and in accordance with ancient laws of magic it has much more potency than the miserly theft of the callous. Such a necromancer burns their candle from both ends, achieving things half-taught that would take decades for a cold scholar to master. Such power comes at a price, of course, but when they meet their end only they can decide whether it was worth it.
It was not a fast transition. The cold was already creeping into her bones, down at the bottom of a grave, but it was slow and insidious as it spread. So too was the damp, until the air itself felt so thick and humid it was nearly a river.
Her ears popped. Just like the book said they were meant to.
Henrietta opened her eyes again. The world had changed. The sky above her was a dull grey. She sat up. She was lying on the ground, on a small hillock that rose fractionally above a misty, boggy landscape. Her back was muddy with grave earth; the cold cloying water oozed down the small of her back.
She rose, and scattered her bouquet of lilies around her. Their scent was lost in the foetid swamp. "Offerings for the dead," she said softly. "Flowers, brief and fleeing, a memory of the life you lost." She reached into a pocket, withdrawing a candle, and lit it with a muttered incantation. It burned a pale blue. "A candle, to light the way to me.
She pricked her thumb, and wiped it on the side of the candle. "And blood; my life, to call those who shared this blood of kings in life. Come to me, kindred spirits, and answer my question!"
Taking a deep breath, Henrietta began to walk. The mire squelched under her. She only had until the candle burned out. If she was not gone by that time, there would be no way for her to return. But her love was here.
Would this fetid bog, misty and cold and damp, be so bad if he was here too?
As she walked, the grey washed out the colour of her hair to a sullen brown. Her black dress gained a coating of mud to the knee. And the mist started to take on shapes. Faces. Half visible spectres, coiling things that twisted into form only to abandon it when she looked too closely.
It was strange. She had heard from the ancient books she had found in the archives of Louise's tower that the Underworld was packed with ghosts – full to the brim, they had said, the sheer numbers another form of torture for the dead. But this melancholy place was nearly empty.
And as she knew, loneliness was a torture with few peers.
But there, ahead of her, was a figure in the mists. Or perhaps the mists were a figure, but denser, more solid; more than just an impression of a face and shape. A tall, muscular man stumbled along, his shifting shape bloodless, the remnants of a cat mask on his face. All his blood was in his lower half, which was drenched in grey-tinged crimson. His arms gripped onto his gore-soaked breeches, and would have to do so forevermore.
Henrietta knew the bisected man. "Alexander Nicholas de Mott," she growled.
The spectre turned to face her. "Princess Henrietta," he said, voice a wheeze. "So you have joined us here."
"She told me how you died. That you died to minions! Minions!"
"Was that what it was?" Mott seemed only somewhat interested. "It was fast."
She could taste bile. "And are you sorry for what you did? You were working with the Albionese Republicans, you rat! You died a traitor's death!"
"Did I? I don't think I did. You were an adulteress. You let the prince of Albion touch you. The proof from the love letters Wardes provided was clear. So what we did was all that had to be done for the sake of the countr-"
Henrietta lashed out with her staff, striking the ghost in the chest. He lost his grip on his legs. There was a muted splash as his torso fell into the mire.
"Liar," she said, voice icy cold. "Or you were deceived. But I am a virgin by Brimiric law. I was – and am – fit for marriage. And you consorted with Albionese traitors to betray your own country. Even if I had done such things, and I had not, your self-righteous deeds were foul and depraved. Hypocrite.
She reached out with a hand that glowed a sepulchral green.
"Oh, I know you. You man. You dare lecture me about that? I was at court. I knew the rumours about you. Maid-chaser. Someone who 'presses his suit' with the staff. And someone young noblewomen shouldn't be alone around for fear of over-eager hands and a refusal to listen to 'no'. You have no right – no right at all – to condemn anyone for adultery and carnal sin."
The cursed green light flared as she touched his ephemeral corpus and with a scream he was drawn into the crystal atop her staff. Henrietta lovingly brushed her hand against it.
"Maybe in death, you'll be more than a parasite," she cooed to the soul gem. "That would more than you managed in life."
As she walked on, she had a spring in her step. But that spring didn't last too long. The next more corporeal figure she met had an all-too familiar face. She froze, eyes wide, free hand going to her mouth.
"Henrietta," said the ghost sadly. His face was black from poison; his tongue bloated; his eyes bulging. The corpse-fires of her candle gave him just a pinch of colour in this grey world. "So you are here too."
She swallowed. "Father," she said. She felt… strange and flushed. Her stomach squirmed.
"How long has it been, Henrietta? How long have I wandered this lifeless place, dodging from those shrouded figures that snatch us up?"
"More than a decade," Henrietta said. She had been eight when her father had died. "It… do you remember the dinner?"
"I remember every last moment, burned into my memory. I thought the fish soup tasted funny. But it was so good…"
"I saw it," Henrietta whispered, feeling like a little girl again. It had been the first time she had felt powerless. Before, she had been a princess; nothing had been denied to her. But her innocence had ended when she had watched them fail to save him. She had been too young to heal him – not that they had let her try. Just like she hadn't been there to save her prince. "You… you kicked and kicked. And foamed at the mouth."
"That I did." Her voice had more emotion than his. He sounded like a man casually discussing something that had happened on a trip to another country.
"They wouldn't tell me who did it." She swallowed. The candle in her hands flickered, and the water lapped at her ankles. "Oh, people were executed, but they were just the hirelings. Who killed you, father?"
"I don't know. I was king." The spectre ran his bloated fingers through his blond, not at all like hers. "I had many enemies. I had hoped that vengeance would have come to whoever did this to me. But now I find I was murdered and that my killer might still walk the living world?"
"I cannot say, father." Henrietta straightened up. "I, too, seek justice." And revenge.
Mournfully, he looked her up and down. "What slew you? You, just in your bloom of womanhood. Oh, poor Tristain, left without its heiress."
"I am not dead, father," she said. "Just… close to it. I plan to recover."
"Oh. That at least is something, Henrietta."
Something in his tone registered. She realised why she felt strange. And simply, the reason was that she didn't feel sad.
What she remembered of him was wrapped in childhood memories, seen through the eyes of someone who did not really understand the world. He had not been an awful man, as kings went. He had loved his wife, and given the lack of murderous bastards trying to kill her, had been faithful. He had signed more peace treaties than war declarations, which was not a common trait among her ancestors. People tended to annul particularly unproductive wars rather than formally sign a peace treaty.
And yet what had he done? What had he actually done? In the years of his marriage with her mother, what had he accomplished compared to what Louise had managed in a few short years. Or compared to Charles the Benevolent? Or… well, she could name at least ten other monarchs off the top of her head who had been better people than him and managed more.
Henrietta looked at him for the first time as a woman, and saw the spectre of a man who had done little with his life. And some of his vaunted treaties had been born more of war-weariness than conscience. He hadn't been like her grandfather. He couldn't match his father-in-law's military accomplishments.
He was blind to the torrent of thoughts within her mind. "Tell me, has your mother remarried?"
"No," she said, and couldn't keep the twist of dislike from her voice. Her knuckles whitened around her staff. "Father, she… too much of her followed you to the grave. She stopped… caring. I think she loved you dead more than she loved me alive." She bit her tongue. She hadn't meant to say that. It wasn't what anyone should say. But she'd thought it even before her mother had locked her in a tower for nine months.
"So she remains faithful to a dead man's memory." Her father crossed his arms. "She should move on. I am dead. There is nothing for the living here."
"No!" The words were dragged from Henrietta's lips, and only when she said them did she realise she was defending her useless, vapid mother. "No," she said again, more softly, though her hands were still balled and something churned in her stomach. "Not if she truly loves you."
"The love of the dead is worthless; a mere memory. The love of the living for the dead is a waste of love."
"That's not true!"
"I am dead. I know it to be so."
"And you're wrong!" Eyes flashing, cheeks flushing, Henrietta glared at her father. To hear him say such things! And when her memory of her father had been a child's viewpoint, she could pretend that maybe he had been so kind, so mighty, so regal that her mother might have had a reason for doing so. But to see him now…
Her mother was wrong to be as weak as she was. But her father had no right to say that! None at all! It was his own fault for being too much of a glutton for fish soup! He was the one who had left them and if he cared so much, it was his own duty to haunt her mother and tell her to move on!
Henrietta would never, ever forgive someone who showed such callous disregard for the ones left behind! This weak, mewling cowardice! This refusal to fight back in the name of love! If he had truly loved her, then he would have done something!
And perhaps something of this showed in her face, because her father's face darkened. "Go back to life, Henrietta," he said. "If you are here by choice, there is nothing for you here."
"My love is here," she growled. "I will bring him back!"
"You cannot! Do not meddle with the endless rest of the dead."
"I can and will! Death has no purchase over love! I will make it so!"
Her father stepped back. "The rumours…" he muttered.
"What rumours!" Henriette snapped. She took a step forwards.
"I dare not…"
"Speak, restless shade!"
The magic held fast. "It was whispered among certain circles," her father said, voice hollow, "that Marienne – my wife, your mother – was not the daughter of the king. And that instead her mother had been seduced by his cousin, a foul, ill-inclined sort who dabbled in black magic and called forth the dead."
Henrietta recoiled as if she had been slapped. No, that couldn't be true! That… this…
She exhaled. "Oh. I see," she said, a dark chuckle escaping her lips. "Is that how it is? Every bad egg is the result of adultery, or a swapped child, or anything that means you can escape the blame. Because it's not your fault. It's not your fault if your wife had bad blood." Her knuckles whitened around her staff. "Maybe there were rumours. There are always rumours. It's so easy to start them."
She straightened and stared him down haughtily; convicted and proud. "But I don't need some hidden infidelity to do what I do. Because I am doing this for love, father. And maybe you'd have understood that once. But your heart has grown cold in this place."
"Daughter, turn back from your wicked ways and…"
"Enough!" The candle flame wobbled precipitously and the fogs rolled in.
When they cleared, her father's shade was gone. And Henrietta was left alone, with only the slowly burning candle and her dark thoughts for company.
Was she… truly not so different from her mother? Blood did run true. And for all that she held her mother in contempt, she couldn't deny how much of her had died when her husband did.
Had her mother lived in the grey melancholia all these years? Lived a life without its sun, where colours were washed out and wan, where the world was nearly as cold and grey as the Underworld itself?
"Mama," Henrietta breathed. "If… if we'd talked, maybe, perhaps…"
No, her mother wasn't as strong as her. She'd crumpled, rather than find the determination to stare death in the face and refute its cold grasp. But she was still her mother.
And Henrietta could understand too well that when locked in the melancholy world, it would be much easier to go along with whatever one's advisors said. It was why she let Louise handle all the countless petty tasks and tiny plots that seemed to make up the work of a dark overlady. When she felt better, sometimes she wanted to be the princess she was meant to be, but on her bad days she simply didn't have the capacity to care about whatever Gnarl was going on about or about tracking goblin tribe locations.
But when she had him back, everything would be better. It would!
"Cearl," she breathed.
And there came the answer, a spectral whisper that drifted through the fog and the foetid air. "Henrietta…"
"Is that your voice?" She broke into a jog, the air cold and damp, her candle flame wavering alarmingly. She didn't care. To hear him once more…
"Yes! Yes it is!"
There, ahead of her in the gloom, stood a figure. But death had changed the prince. He was not the man she had known. To give the most prominent example of the changes that the end of his life had wrought, he was now a head shorter. The head he had lost, he carried in his hands. His face was bloodless; his lips blue, but there was awareness in those milky eyes.
"Oh, my sweet prince," Henrietta cried, rushing forwards. Her arms went through the spectral form of the dead man, and she let out a little cry of pain.
"Henrietta? No! What fiend has taken your-"
"I'm alive, I came here to see you," Henrietta said quickly, not wanting to get caught up with such a misunderstanding. Her eyes blurred with tears. "It's so good to see you!"
"You should not have come. This is an awful place." Cearl's voice fell. "I fear in some ways it is worse than the Abyss. There are things here that haunt us, seek to trap incautious spectres in great ghost-nets. Pallid slim figures in the mist. I cannot let you risk yourself!"
"Do not say such a thing!" She breathed in his presence, but she smelled only the stink of the marsh.
"I love you, Henrietta! I still do! That's why you must be safe."
The grey world shone, soft-edged and radiant. She gazed adoringly down at his severed head he held in his hands. "And I love you," she breathed. "My love, trust me – we will be reunited soon, one way or another." Henrietta squared her jaw. "I will have you back from the grave, in a form that I can touch, can hold, can kiss – or I will join you in death."
Cearl shook his head – turning it from left to right in his hands. "Death is a cold and dreadful thing, Henrietta," he said hollowly. "You do not want this. Your duty is to live."
"Oh, but I do," she said, her eyes bright. "Even the cold waters of death would be warm with you in my arms. Death has parted us for too long. It will not do so again."
"I am not worthy of you," the spectre moaned.
"Yes! Yes, you are!"
"I did a terrible thing," Cearl said. Head in both hands, he lifted it up to her eye level. "I am tainted. Cursed. Unworthy of your love. This is my punishment – to be lonely here without you!"
"Such a thing could never be!" She stomped her foot, splashing cold water up her leg.
"Oh, but it is! In my desperation, I went to seek out and unseal the Hidden Casket." His shoulders slumped down. "I unleashed a great evil, in ill-gotten hopes of victory!"
"The what? And that means nothing!"
"It was an ancient charge of our kingdom. One of the siblings of my forefathers was a dark and terrible overlord, an heir to cursed power. We knew that it would try to find a new host, so we bound them within a timeless casket, at the edge of death. We had hidden them away, so that power would never see the world again.
"But I unsealed them, and that terrible inheritance passed to me. I lost my wind magic. And worse yet; the dark power was a trap. It could not save my kingdom. I could not even levitate. So I damned myself to no end, and," he lifted his head, "lost my head for that. That is the act of betrayal, of treachery that I partook in. Which makes your pure, innocent love something I am not worthy of."
Henrietta tilted her head. "Oh. Is that all?" she said, her voice losing some of the melodrama she had been so carefully maintaining ever since she had begun this ritual.
"Is that all?" He sounded incredulous.
"Cearl, my love, my best friend is an overlady. I'm a necromancer. I live with a vampire queen and a demon princess." She flapped her hand in his direction. "You think so little of me that I would stop loving you just because you took on a power of ancient evil to try to save your country? You're not the first person I know who's done that."
He blinked. "You're a… necromancer."
She giggled. "Silly, how do you think I'm here?" The giggle turned into a more vicious smile. "And why? My love, I am here for revenge. And I am here to offer you revenge, by your own hand."
"Henrietta, I don't know what to say…"
"Say yes, my love." She leaned in towards him. "I have gathered power, taking it from the dead. The blood of Albionese royalty runs through my veins too. My father is your uncle. I bid you rise, prince of the dead, through my blood – and I ask you to bring those of the dead still loyal to Albion. Rise from your grave. Take the bones littered on this battlefield, and walk again. Let cold hands clutch steel once more; let empty sockets see the lights of the moons; let you feel my arms around you once more. My warmth will call you back. Your soldiers will rise too, and we shall march on Port's Mouth.
"For bloodshed, my love. For the sacking of the cities of those who betrayed you. For death and destruction.
Cearl was silent, his spectral form wavering in the cold mists. Then;
"You practiced that."
"Of course not. It was just a back of the cuff, spontaneous thing," Henrietta lied, who had in fact spent several months practicing it in front of a mirror nightly.
Strange night birds called in the background, their wings muffled sounds in the mist. Then; "They will hate us." He chuckled, a wet sound. "Leading an army of the dead is a sin – and quite a social faux pas. We will not be invited to any dinner parties."
"Then we will march in and take what we want!" Henrietta's eyes blazed.
"The principle is sound! Even if… storming dinner parties might be overkill," she admitted. "Please. Don't think of anyone else. Return from these cold grey lands." Henrietta leaned forwards, until her lips brushed against his spectral form. "Pretty please."
"I will." His dead lips smiled. "My love, I will."
"Then it is done!" Stepping back, Henrietta slammed her staff into the marshy ground. A great bell tolled, tearing away the mist and revealing for the first time in endless years the miserable ranks of the Dead who waited. "Come! Rise! Rise and serve your prince… and serve me, who should have been your queen.
"Arise and conquer!"
Dark magic swirled around her, green light discharging from her staff and arching to the earth. The light jumped from ghost to ghost, picking out their forms before they lost cohesion and came spiralling in towards her staff. The light grew brighter and brighter, a great hurricane of souls sweeping the lands of the Dead.
"I will see you on the other side, my love," Henrietta said softly.
Then came coldness, and greyness.
Henrietta opened her eyes with a gasp of what turned out to be grave earth. That left her coughing and spluttering as she tried to clear her mouth.
"Ooops, we weren't sure when to stop with the symbolic burying!" Emerald shouted from up top. "Apostrophe, help her up!"
The skinny elf helped lift her out of the hole. "Did it work?" he asked.
Henrietta smiled grimly as she brushed dirt off her clothing. "Oh. Oh yes."
The first skeletal hand broke through the ground.
A blood-red moon shone down upon Albion. The mist of the clouds wrapped the landscape, clinging to dips in the land and wrapping around ankles.
The dead walked. And where they walked, new corpses rose from their graves and joined their ranks. Bony fingers clasped rusted swords or snatched up hoes and shovels where they went. Dusty whispers escaped from fleshless mouths. Over the long Civil War, many souls had been cast down to the Underworld and now they returned.
At their lead rode a headless horseman on a skeletal carthorse, and beside him was the vile necromancer who had broken the sleep of the dead. The two damned souls held hands.
No cheers came from this marching army; no drums beat; no songs were sung. They were as silent as the grave as they marched on Port's Mouth.
Well, apart from the commentary from the small children.
"Well, well, well," said William, a cute blond boy with a fondness for collecting herbs and flowers. And then brewing horrifically illegal things from them, which had a habit of finding their way into the food of Tifa's enemies. The band of small children were sitting on a stolen farm wagon, pulled by skeletal horses. "I spy with my little eye… something beginning with 's'."
"Spectres," suggested Alice, who was sulking because this army of the dead was much more than she could manage as a seven year old. A severed head with bat-wings stitched to it flapped next to her. She'd made it in arts and crafts.
"Skeleton," said Hannah instead. Red-haired and with a temper generously compared to black powder, she was polishing the cursed eastern blade that had brought ruin and infamy to her line.
Her sword whispered something. It was probably a call for slaughter. That technically did start with an 's', but no one apart from Hannah could understand it.
"Nope! And nope to the sword, too."
"He said 'bring me skulls'," she translated. "Does that count as 'skulls'?"
"I'm… going to say 'no'."
Oliver stuck his hand up. "Ooooh, oooh, oooh!" he said, swallowing the jerky he had been chewing on. He was a sticky, greasy boy – as befit someone whose mother had been possessed by a demon of gluttony. "Skulls!"
"Oh, that's bull!" Hannah exploded. "My sword said 'skulls'!"
"No, it said 'bring me skulls'."
"Which is skulls!"
"No it isn't!"
"Yes it is!"
Alice sat back. "Hey, where do you think Magda is?"
"Dunno. Don't care," Hannah glowered. "I still haven't forgiven her for cutting the head off my dolly and leaving it in my bed. And she's a-"
"It's my go!" Oliver said. "I spy with my little eye… something beginning with 'w'."
"Wraiths," said Alice.
"But that starts with 'r'."
She pulled a face. "Stupidhead! You're failing spelling for a reason."
"'Cause you're no good at magic," William chipped in.
"Not that kind of spelling!" Alice pursed her lips. "Wampyr."
Hannah tilted her head. "Weapon," she said, gesturing with her sword. It glowed a faint red.
William pointed at himself. "William."
"Nope! Give up?"
"Urgh! Fine," Hannah huffed.
Olivier pointed ahead of them in the gloom. "Walls," he said.
The walls of Port's Mouth were coming into view, poorly maintained, and clearly patched up with stone taken from local houses. It had declared for the Republicans early in the war, and the Royalists had engaged in a long, arduous and ultimately unsuccessful siege to take control of the dockyards there. The legacy of those battles were making themselves known. All around the road, corpses disinterred themselves from shallow graves, possessed by spirits still loyal to the crown.
"Oh. We're here," Alice said. She sniffed, playing with her horrifically modified pet undead rat. "I guess we can see how good this Ann is. Maybe she's just good at getting bodies out of the ground, but they just fall to pieces if anyone even waves holy water in their direction."
"Or holy fire," Olivier said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
Hannah vaulted out of the cart, running over Tifa. "Aunty Tifa, Aunty Tifa," she chirped up. "Do you want me to kill everyone in the gatehouse?" Her eyes glowed a sullen red, and there was a double-note to her voice. "I need blood."
"You know what I said before about taking Hannah's body," Tifa said firmly. "Give her it back, or I'll dunk you in holy water again."
"No, no, no, Aunty Tifa! We're in agreement! Both of us want to kill them all!" Hannah said, her eyes dimming slightly. "Please, Tifa, please!"
"Still no." Tifa leaned down and patted her head. "Anne," she called out to Henrietta ahead of her. "We're still going ahead with the plan?"
"Yes," Henrietta called back.
Tifa inhaled. "Apostrophe!" she called out.
"What?" the elf hollered back.
"Get rid of the wall!"
"I said, get rid of the wall!"
"Oh! Right! I'll get on that, then! Um. Blooddeath, Wintergloom, Painpain, Emerald… Emerald… oh, wake up, Emerald…"
Hannah paled, her freckles stark against her ghostly skin in the gloom. "You're… having the elves do it?" she said. "Isn't that a bit… well. Are you sure they won't muck it up?"
"Oh, don't worry," Tifa said. "You should have more faith in them."
The elves made their way forwards ahead of the columns of bone and rotting flesh. They didn't chant. They didn't pull out mystical crystals or draw ritual circles.
They just sang the songs of the elves. The music rose up through the night, pure and simple and plain.
"Hey!" called out one of the guards on the walls. "What's happening down th-"
It was the last thing he said. Because the stones that made up the wall remembered where they had once dwelt, before men hewed them and pulled them up from the earth. And their spirits awoke, with a fierce desire to return home.
It wasn't even that they wanted to kill humans, who had been the ones who had cut at them and hacked them into shape. They just didn't notice as they rolled away, migrating inland. Quite a lot of the dead got squished too, but with so many bodies buried around this city from the Civil War, the spectres soon had new shells to inhabit.
"Um," said Hannah. "Yes. I see."
Tifa gave a sunny smile. "See! That's what you get when people work together and trust each other! Ann! It's time for your dead to kill them all."
"With pleasure," Henrietta said grimly. "Forwards!"
The gate was gone. So was the wall. The stones had rolled away with a will of its own, and then the dead has passed through.
The dead marched in. Dry bones clattered against cobblestones; rotting flesh squelched. Shrill screams echoed in the night, as the citizens of Port's Mouth realised what stalked the streets. Muskets sounded off, but they were scattered and irregular. A musketball could shatter a skeleton's bones, but many kept on walking missing an arm. Torn muscles were held together by the spectres inhabiting the mortal remains.
And fear did the rest of the work. There were no crack units here; no elites; just a rabble of barely awake soldiers who streamed out of their barracks to see death itself walking among them. Most didn't even try to fight. They just fled from the shambling horrors.
Henrietta's heart raced as she watched her beloved and his cavaliers ride down fleeing soldiers. Red blood pooled on the streets, but not for long. Her magic pulled it up, and fed it to her brave soldiers to strengthen their rotting forms.
"We are close, my beloved," said the prince, as he rode back up, his long tatted cape giving form to his spectral body. She wished she could have had him in his real body, but she had heard that the Republicans had left it in a pauper's grave somewhere in Londinium. She'd have to get it back when they stormed the capital – but that was a later concern. "The arsenal lies up ahead. Take that, and its guns will led us wreck the fleet."
Henrietta looked towards its gloomy shape, the heavy fortress that held the black powder stocks. The streets towards it were lined with crude, ugly statues of hulking faceless soldiers, cast in iron. Iron! How crude! A sign of how the Albion must be suffering, if they could not even carve heroic statues in stone to mark their triumph.
"Have the soldiers form up before the walls," she said. "We should make it clear to them that this will only end one way."
"Your ally will not have her elves do it?" Cearl had no eyes due to the lack of a head, but Henrietta got the distinct impression he was looking sideways at her.
Henrietta shuddered. "I would not rely on them," she said. "And Tiffania said that they were tired out by what they did, taking down the whole wall. No, we should do this the old fashioned way. With a horde of the living dead."
The dead formed serried squares in the plaza, bone and rotten flesh and scraps of cloth lit in red moonlight. Henrietta looked up and down the rank ranks with pride. This was better than trouping the colours. This was an army she had raised all on her own. Quite literally raised.
"Might we have some light?" she asked Tiffania.
"Oh, right! Children!" A number of brightly coloured orbs were launched in scattershot order, though given the children were being themselves, they were in various unpleasant colours.
Henrietta cleared her throat, tapping it with her staff as she muttered a soft incantation. "I will give you one chance," she said, voice suddenly booming. "Throw open your gates and throw down your arms, and repent your treachery in the name of the Albionese throne."
Two figures appeared atop the parapets of the arsenal. One was swaddled in a black robe, but the other wore a strange crowned – or horned – helmet in the shifting light. It was that figure that spoke, voice similarly amplified. "And eef we do not?"
"If you do not, my army will cast down your walls, and devour your black hearts!" Henrietta declared. "Then I will drag your wretched shades back from the Underworld and force them to uphold the oaths of loyalty you once swore!"
"Ah. I see. I present my response." He cleared his throat, and spoke a single word in a vile tongue. A word that cut through the noise of the fights in the city like a razor through naked flesh.
A word that Henrietta had heard from Louise's lips.
The light spells in the air died. The bloody red glow of Hannah's sword cut out. Henrietta's undead guardians collapsed, the binding spells holding the ghosts to this world torn apart, and the soul gems at her belt wailed and lost their light. With a wail, the ghost of Prince Cearl reached out for Henrietta and his fingers passed through hers, before he was dragged back to the Underworld.
The figure next to the helmeted man drew back their hood, revealing themselves as a coldly beautiful woman from the southern lands. A purple emblem surged to life on her brow, and in sympathy the strange iron statues also lit up.
With an indescribable wail, Henrietta stared where the ghost of her beloved had vanished. "No," she moaned, sounding like one of the dead herself. She hurt like someone had taken a nail to her skin; she was bleeding from the nose and eyes from whatever the man had done. "Come back! I… I can't…"
"I now present you with my counter-offer," the helmeted figure said. "The necromancer and the overlady will stay. Everyone else may leave. Or die. I don't really care." He considered it. "Actually, I do. It'll be 'ilarious to see the New Model Army in motion."
Tifa whipped out her wand, and shouted something. The air tore open, like curtains that had had a knife taken to them.
"Run, children!" she screamed. She threw herself off her horse as the children streamed through, grabbing Henrietta's arm and pulling at her.
The man spoke that cursed word again, and the rift closed itself.
Tiffania fell to the ground, eyes rolled back so far that only the whites were visible. Her wand hand twitched, but otherwise she was nearly as still as the grave.
It was the man's mad giggles that dragged Henrietta back to the concerns of the world. Her bloody lips parted in a snarl. No one laughed at a princess! There was no way she would be getting help from Tiffania. But that didn't matter. She still had her pride.
Henrietta turned, and prepared to sell her life in the manner becoming of royalty.
That was to say, a proper royal didn't involve herself in trade. She had other people to do it for her.