The dirge of carrion birds crept slowly through the blessed silence of oblivion, nearing as one of the great ravens, soon to be fat from feasting on the slain, hopped closer and closer to the body. She lay bloody and still on the ground amidst the ashes of the gates to Dalle. The birds were everywhere, plucking at the soft flesh that remained on the hanging bodies left to bake in the sun. They would dangle like fruit for days or more, rotting until they plummeted from their nooses.

A caw did not stir the body and so the raven approached, razor beak poised to strike at one of the skyward-facing eyes. It hesitated when the corpse's lips moved and the eyelids fluttered, dark and intelligent gaze settling on her. Ever so slowly, the raven hopped back with the help of its wings before taking to the sky in a flurry of dark feathers.

Ravens understood death.

The cold of the grave did not abate even as vision gradually returned to her dark eyes. Slower yet came her ability to interpret what her eyes saw and her body felt. Earth caked in blood was her resting place, not even a grave. One of her hands covered the ragged hole in her chest, stained with congealed gore. Flies buzzed nearby, but none of them touched her body.

Flies understood death.

Another twitch tugged at her dry lips, pulling at the ragged bite mark. Breath returned to her body, drawing in warmth and releasing cold, but she felt no relief from the chill.

Felt. She felt.

Her body shuddered at the realization and all at once, animation returned. She lifted her head from the earth, hair tangled and matted where it had pressed against blood-drenched soil. Her hands quivered as they clenched into fists and then relaxed again, over and over, as she tried to regain her bearings. She had no idea how long she had been wrapped in the shroud of darkness.

The armor that had been stripped from her body was nowhere to be seen. Nor was her treasured relic of a sword to be found. Both had been taken as prizes by the evil that destroyed Dalle.

She felt a violent paroxysm of rage in her stomach. It was cold fury, but it was so visceral and real that it anchored her drifting soul. Her burning eyes turned towards the west, to the low range of mountains that marked the border with Genev. She spoke no oath or spat an epithet. Why should she waste her words when the vow she felt most deeply was only one?


She rose to her feet like a marionette, movements gaining proficiency just as a puppeteer learned to command their toy with ever increasing mastery. By the time she reached the river, her native grace had returned with a predator's edge. She stripped off the torn clothing she had on, the remnants of light shirt and pants that she'd worn beneath her armor and gambeson, and set about cleaning up. She didn't care what anyone thought of her, but she knew risk of infection was rife with this much filth. Besides, she wanted to take a better look at the wounds.

Her body was pale from blood-loss, much of which had come through the wound to her chest. She could feel the splintered bone of broken ribs at the ragged edges of the wound when she pressed with her fingers. Her next stop was the bruising and scraping up and down her legs, each discoloration or patch of broken skin a memento of horrors visited. Everything before she'd lost consciousness she remembered with agonizing clarity, but all was dyed with the same emotional color: rage. Hers was not a weeping pain. She washed methodically in the river, flushing every wound. The water was running clean, which meant it had been more than a day since the massacre.

She was alone in the town, the only survivor, though to be called that was a stretch.

Something snapped audibly in her chest followed by a symphony of cracking. When she felt her wound, her fingers touched healed bone. Her breathing was now less labored and her flesh knitted together under her hand. There was no pain, no hunger, no fear.

In that moment, it was clear to her what had happened. There were whispers of creatures like her, born of the worst sufferings and deaths, stories told in soft voices around bright fires that could keep back the terrifying darkness, all given shuddering life in a single frightful word.


Apparently they were more than stories. Given what she had endured, she supposed it was almost to be expected. The gods, or perhaps merely the workings of cruel fate, had bound her to this world for a purpose, and her ashen heart had coals enough to illuminate it for her. She existed for the punishment of Ghyslain Roche. She would exact retribution worthy of every pound of flesh left here to rot. Then she would kill him. It was not a hope or promise, only the certainty of the universe in motion.

She had to scrub to rid herself of the worst. Once she was cleaner, she donned again her tattered clothing until she could find something less filthy. In the remnants of a yard, she found laundry on the ground, half in the crushed basket where it awaited folding by someone who would never return to it. The shirt was big and loose, but she could belt it at her hips, and there was a pair of pants that almost fit, probably belonging to a son. She cuffed them at her ankles, as the owner had been a an inch or two taller than she was. Scrounging more located a comb. She scraped the last bits of blood from her hair and undid the tangles with a bit of tugging. As she worked, her mind was busy.

If she wanted to reach Roche, she would have to pass at least somewhat undetected. The Genevais would have spies and defenders. Not that she expected them to be looking for a dead woman. Finding him would not be an issue: she could feel the sharp tug of Fate where there was once a warmth in her chest, urging her ever so faintly towards the west. His cruelty had bound them together, a connection that even death had been unable to sever.

She looked around at the bodies. It was a miserable sight if ever there were one. She knew the proper thing to do would be to bury them, but the scavengers were already to their gruesome work. Beside her, a raven plucked out an eye, head jerking back as it swallowed its grisly meal. She focused on the face, trying to put a name to it. The man had been plump once…or was his body just distended with gases? She frowned as she focused.

Claude, she remembered distantly. He flashed before her eyes as he had once been, ruddy-faced and alive with joy. He smelled of flour and bread, but after a moment his screaming and pleading rang in her ears. Suddenly, his face distorted into a mask of agony. Now she remembered him, not as the baker, but as the man she had watched die.

She had watched them all die, except those fortunate few who were slain in the brief battle.

Where is your valor now, thorn knight? How great a good your protection does these gentle folk!

A quake of anger hit her, so fierce in its shaking that she fell to her knees. She was quick to catch herself, lip curling as she dug her fingers into the soft soil of the riverbank. A push against the earth brought her again to her feet. She brushed the dirt from her hands and started walking. There was no town for some distance, but there were caravan camps along the road to the north. If she could reach a market, perhaps she could talk to someone to learn what had happened after the massacre and find a horse she could take.

Soon she was within the forest, paying no heed to the beautiful singing of birds or the sunlight dappled on the leaves. Her bare feet felt no discomfort from the fallen branches, every scrape or cut healing within moments of the injury. What stopped her in her tracks was the smell: oiled leather and steel, smoke and dried blood, riding the wind like a boor's alcoholic stench. She focused on the scent, drawing it into her cold, dead lungs and then releasing it as a midwinter breeze. The quiet and grace of a skilled warrior carried her towards the source on featherlight strides. The sound of rough laughter split the air as she approached and she felt another quake of rage beginning. The laughter rang in her ears, echoing and distorting as memory overtook the current sounds. How they had enjoyed the suffering inflicted by those grasping hands and gleaming knives.

She wound her way around the edge where forest met clearing. There were two of them, scouts wearing Roche's colors, a red bird with wings spread to the sides on a sable background. They leaned against a tree as they chatted.

"Nah, I think Lord Shrike called 'em thorn knights. S'posed to be something special to the Talinese. Great desert warriors."

"Didn't look so special to me."

"I mean, she didn't break 'til we was bored, right?" the sergeant said with a chuckle.

The younger one nodded thoughtfully. "Seems a bit weak, them only having the one."

"I figure the rest were with the regular army. They weren't expecting us to hit here. We shoulda pressed on towards the capital. That'd give them a rude shock. But hey, gotta deal with the pressure along the flanks. At least this was fun."

Neither looked prepared for a fight, but why would they be? The town's defenders were all dead. Some were just more comfortable in the grave than others.

Her anger gave her no option to retreat. Instead, she picked up a sharp piece of broken wood and leaned forward slightly, muscles coiling like a sprinter's as she readied herself to charge. She had no idea how her body would cope with the punishment of battle, given how damaged it had been, but she felt untroubled by anything now. She gave it no thought, pushing herself forward into the fastest run she could manage, hurling herself right at the one wearing a sergeant's stripes. She closed the distance before either of them could react, driving her shard of wood into his throat with the full weight of her body behind it. There was a satisfying crack and his body hit the ground with a loud thump. She paused a second, just long enough to draw his falchion before rounding on the other.

He had drawn his own blade, eyes wide in a face so pale it seemed utterly bloodless. "D-d-d-demon!" he cried in a strangled voice.

Her dry lips parted. "Where is Roche?" she rasped as she advanced with an easy, fluid grace.

"With the army!" he blurted out. "Please, don't kill me."

She lunged forward, batting his sword-arm aside like a twig caught in a gale. Her free hand seized his throat, lifting him off the ground. She squeezed, but not enough to completely cut off air. "Where?" she demanded.

He squirmed like he was trying to escape, then plunged his blade between her ribs while she was distracted. She felt the blade, but didn't even flinch. There was no pain. Nothing disturbed the midwinter cold. Thick, dark blood slowly oozed down the blade towards his hand. She met his terrified gaze with an infernal intensity. "Peace!" he wheezed desperately.

She leaned in, breath cold on his ear. "The grave is peace enough for worms." She crushed his throat with her hand and dropped him on the earth, leaving him to suffocate. The sounds of his struggle eased the cold ever so slightly, satisfying something dark inside her for a moment or two.

Between the two of them, she found a handful of coinage, an even split of copper and silver. She stripped the bodies with no hint of respect for them. The armor, a mix of boiled leather and chain, fit better than she anticipated. She belted on the blade and the coin-purse once she'd stripped the hated colors from her new equipment. She picked up the sergeant's bow, the last thing from them she intended to take. Between the two, there were enough arrows to pack a quiver. She had never been an excellent archer, but she could still kill with a bow better than many.

Properly equipped, she fixed her attention on the north. West was the goal, but north had to come first. Roche's rear scouts might have been within her grasp, but the man himself would be far beyond her in a matter of days, back in his lair in a matter of weeks. He rode almost everywhere and it was well known that there was no swifter horse than one of the Shrike's tortured steeds. The twisting of Fate behind her breastbone told her where she needed to go: the capital of Genev.

She loped down the road like a hunting hound, senses attentive to everything. They seemed sharper than before, as if death had stripped wool from her perception and left clarity in its place. Slowly but surely, the caws of the great carrion birds faded in the distance.

It was not possible to say she felt like herself again, not with everything that had happened. The anger was a dull, cold knot inside her chest that twisted tighter with every thought towards memory. It robbed her of all the softer, more broken emotions like sorrow, helplessness, and fear. Most would call that desirable, but as she stopped and glanced back towards Dalle, a part of her wished desperately to grieve. The horrors that had been visited, the deaths of those she was sworn to protect, the self that had bled out helplessly on the ground with light and life fading so quickly…it was enough to make one weep for years.

And yet, not a single tear came.

She turned her eyes to the north again. There was only one course of action ahead of her. There were still miles to go before even reaching the Long Walk, the road that traveled the northern part of the continent from Yssa and the Dawning Sea in the east to Genev's Jagged Coast in the west. Dalle was, before its destruction, just a little farming village with no reason to be situated on such a main road. They traded with the occasional caravan or the little towns dotted along the road between Astarac and Étain.

She focused on her breath as she ran, an old habit. She realized shortly after the first hour that the concentration was unnecessary. Breathing was needed no longer. She turned her focus elsewhere, to the churning of her thoughts.

Another realization dawned. She remembered, of her life before, almost nothing. There was her end, the end of Dalle, but she could not even recall why she had been there to protect. Who had she sworn her oath to? Who had she served?

I will defend you, even if Hell itself assaults the gates. I will not allow you to come to harm. You have my oath, in sight of the gods, her own voice whispered in her ears. We will drive them off, I promise you.

A broken oath. Such things were worthy of divine punishment.

She tried to think of who she had promised that. An image appeared with that same eerie clarity: a young mother with brown hair, looking up at her with fearful green eyes, still trying to quiet a tiny baby. Manon, she remembered with bitter pain. It only took a second or two longer before she recalled the name of Manon's child: Christophe.

This time, she kept her feet when the torrential rage hit, battering at her insides with a frozen, frenzied current of anger. She wanted to scream, but her breathing stayed smooth and quiet. There was no room for speech. Her lament would have fallen on deaf ears anyway: the dead had no need of words. The only thing she could focus on that eased her thoughts was the laughing vision of Shrike as he basked in his cruelties. Seeing him, crystal clear in her mind, was a vicious reminder of what could yet be done.

She would atone for her broken vow as only a revenant could.