"Is there Hell, or do we make our own on earth?"

-Full Dark, No Stars.

She descended into the insidious darkness of the basement.

Lady Karin Desiree de la Valliere, the Heavy Wind and Iron Duchess of Tristania had faced numerous and unprecedented horrors throughout the entirety of her life. As a young knight, no older than fifteen then she had witnessed the executions of criminals in the city. She had seen heretics burned at the stake, the innocent and guilty all the same, had watched soldiers fall in battle and their blood color the fields, and had watched cities burn down and rise again in her lifetime. Once as a Manticore knight of Tristania, she had been an instrument of death to those who had broken the Crown's laws, those who had been treasonous against the King and his court, and to those who were deserving of the most final of punishments. She was both the embodiment of justice and wrath. Still was, even now.

But none of it prepared her for what graced her eyes in the darkness of Wardes the Elder's cellar.


Karin uttered the incantation with an unsteady voice. The dozen cressets on the walls of the dungeon burst into flames. She flinched at the sudden glare of light.

Her manticore familiar snarled viciously, baring razor sharp teeth at the scene before them.

A child's lifeless body lay still and cold as a stone in the middle of the room. There was a pool of brown, foul blood around it. Arcane glyphs scratched the stone floor, making a ring around the corpse. It was either heresy or the work of a madman. The boy was dead - possibly for more than a day now, Karin noted grimly. It was the odor of death that her familiar had sensed early on in the stairwell.

The boy could not have been any older than her own daughter. That fact made lady Karin's hairs stand on end behind her neck. She had recovered from her initial shock and took very cautious steps and began to investigate. The child's body was resting on its side, its head pillowed on one arm. The boy's face was beautiful and pale as snow, and he looked peacefully asleep with his eyes closed lightly. There was a very large portion of the boy's flesh missing from the small of his back. The wound was cut to the bone, his spine nonexistent and his entrails still present inside the gorge. There was also coagulated blood around the boy's lips, indicating some horrific internal damage. It was as if another manticore had mauled the body and tore it open.

Wardes was not the one who had killed the boy, Karin first thought. Then she sharply shook her head. No, it WAS Wardes who had done it. Perhaps there were no marks on the blade or trauma from a weapon on the child's body - perhaps Wardes had not even touched the boy at all - but she was to hell and back certain of it. Wardes the Elder was a powerful mage in his own right, enough to present formidable danger to the Heavy Wind. Wardes had mastery of the four elements but most of all, earth and wind. It was very likely he had used a wind spell, which had cleaved into the poor child's backside and ravaged his organs.

But one thing didn't make sense. The wound was too clean. Not even Karin could inflict a slash that imitated the precision of a surgeon's razor. The massive hole in the child's back did not look like it was inflicted at all - it looked like it had been taken out. Karin racked her mind in desperation. What was it, another killer? A mad surgeon-doctor perhaps? Only a surgeon could have done something like this. Or was it another very masterful mage?

No. Karin began to piece a hypothesis that seemed very unlikely, ridiculous even, but still plausible. As powerful and intelligent of a mage she was, the creme de la creme of Tristain's old Mage Academy and one of the youngest graduates nearly forty years ago, there were arcane secrets that even she was not privy to. There were spells, Void spells even, that channeled an inert, unknown force to create motions and energies in their own physical world. There are spells that allow for bodies - people - to move between two places in the world through summoned rifts in the existential plane. There are some that could create illusions, mirages, apparitions that deceive both the mind and eye and defy reality. And there are spells that could open portals into another dimension of existence. The well-known Summoning Rituals was an example of this, but that barely was the tip of the iceberg in the face of these mysterious anomalies, knowledge of which was lost since the time of Brimir.

So what? Was Wardes the Elder attempting a summoning ritual of his own? Karin frowned, analyzing her conclusions. It was also unlikely. Once a mage had summoned a familiar, and as long as that familiar was surviving and had been bound, it was impossible to summon another one. Lady, the giant infernal white rat that menaced her only a few minutes ago was alive and well, having escaped with the possessed body of the murderer-maid Siesta. So it narrowed down the possibility to much more obscure territories.

Either Wardes the Elder was attempting to open a kind of World's Gate - which was even more implausible as Wardes was never a Void mage to begin with - and pulled out the boy from the portal, but had failed in the process causing a fatal flaw that cost the child's life. Only Void mages could possibly open a World's Gate, and it was not an easy task. Even then, a World's Gate does not produce anything through the rift if nothing at all passes through it deliberately, unlike the familiar summoning portal which safely 'transports' a random animal being. And only animals are ever summoned by mages…

She drew closer and finally stooped down to gaze at the little boy's face. She did not know why, but her hand had moved to hold the boy's arm which was still pillowed under his head. The skin was icy and stiff to her fingers. She pulled it slowly, as if trying not to awaken the child from his eternal slumber, then she suddenly recoiled.

Karin stopped. Her thoughts had frozen upon seeing the boy's hand. There was now only one damning, horrifying conclusion.

Wardes the Elder was attempting to create a different kind of rift. A portal, a channel created with unknown, and potentially dangerous magic.

In an open chest beside the table in the room, there were more of those strange black, metal pistols that could fire fifteen shots. And there were even more strange, different objects inside the pile. They were no doubt objects from another world, taken from a portal to that world. Weapons from a mysterious portal weren't the only thing that Wardes was experimenting with now.

The dead child was a sign that he had begun to succeed. Wardes had failed now, and the instability and eventual collapse of that rift he had summoned had torn out the innards and the body of the boy on the floor.

There was a reason why humans weren't supposed to be summoned through any rifts. Never. The child on the floor shouldn't even exist in this world.

But he would no doubt continue to try, again and again, until the dreaded day comes that he ultimately succeeds.

He may just as well be trying to summon the Devil himself. Not even Brimir would do, if he could do such a thing.

The dead child on the floor had stirred from Karin's hand after she had jumped away. For on the boy's right hand was burned the mark of Gandalfr.

The dead runes of Gandalfr. Wardes the Elder was trying to summon the Left Hand of God. But there can only be one Left Hand of God in existence at a time.

And only Void mages could summon the legendary Gandalfr familiar.

The room began to swirl around her. The manticore behind her began to snarl and hiss in alarm. She felt her head lighten, as her vision blurred. As if everything she had just learnt wasn't enough, Karin Desiree de la Valliere was hit with an unbearable, overpowering stench of death. Every manor of the past ages, one such as Wardes owned, always possessed a basement. A dungeon. And every dungeon always led to a deeper place.

They always led to one place.

There was now a saturated smell of rot and decay in the room, and it was coming from the far corner of the dungeon where there was a small passage. A chute - which led to an oubliette; a chamber with one way in, and no way out. And Karin did not need to look in order to know what lay down there. This wasn't the work of one person and it wasn't the only one. The boy on the floor wasn't the first victim, and he wouldn't be the last.

Karin Desiree de la Valliere, the Iron Duchess and master of the Heavy Wind, the rightful queen dowager and regent to the throne of Tristain thought of only one thing.

The war for the Crown was not the only important thing now. Wardes the Elder, and all of his unholy conspirators must die.

"The Duke of Walloon withdrawn."

Napoleon Bonaparte, acting Head of the Alliance of the nobility, and field commander of the feudal armies against the royalist-backed Valliere claim to the Tristanian throne, allowed suppressed evidence of pleasure seep into his voice as he sat upright on his great horse, surveying the aftermath of the battle of Vaupoisson. He made this remark to no one in particular. He had slid his right hand into his coat and tilted his head so that his felt bicorne shielded his eyes from the fiery sunset glare.

The Alliance armies were now on the other side of the stream, having victoriously crossed since driving off the army of Walloon that evening. The columns of the three Counts, Kundera, Marmont and the Count of Burgundy had set camp just outside of the devastated village. Napoleon had earlier requisitioned his Guard battalion, assisted by a dozen soldiers from the camps to put out the fires, clear the roads and salvage what was left of Vaupoisson. They helped any villagers that they found in the rubble or with the straggle. Napoleon was even forced to turn to Owen Foucard and his Guards as a temporary police force in order to prevent unruly warriors and men-at-arms from ransacking the houses and doing as they pleased to the town.

But the victory was nothing short of that; the drawing of first blood, and drawn right no less. It elevated the morale of the combined army and certainly now tempered experience if only a little into the men, who had now a taste of battle. Of course, once again the special teams of individuals Napoleon had judiciously brought with his little regiment had gone straight to work: they were not soldiers, but educated men and intellectuals. They were writers, illustrators, a dozen skilled carpenters and a handful of secretaries and orderlies, and two very good doctors. Later in the night he would get in touch with his acquaintance in the city Andre Giono the printer. Napoleon would send back the stunning reports of a significant victory, wherein the commoner-turned-general had led his army against the Duke of Walloon, and soundly crushed the royalists in the opening battle of Vaupoisson. The royalists who were supporting the tyrannical Vallieres and their minion allies stood no chance that day. It was not only a victory for General Napoleon Bonaparte, but a victory for Tristania and her people. It was the first triumph of Mother Liberty.

Now of course, Andre Giono would have to fill in the rest, Napoleon mused to himself. Day by day there was to be more pamphlets to be printed and spread to the city folks. His past experiences in the cutthroat Parisian world of politics and his golden tenure as First Consul after overthrowing the previous Directory was more than enough to remind him of the power of propaganda and media. Napoleon would take care not to neglect that. For every victory he achieved, it would never be enough without the magnifying effects of adulation, through paper or through oration. He was on the field, it is difficult to do both. Andre Giono was critical therefore to his image come time they return to the capital. And Napoleon Bonaparte was expecting a conqueror's, or rather, a liberator's welcome.

There was however another factor that made itself evident: Louise Françoise le Blanc de la Valliere. If they win, they win together. Napoleon had use for Louise, he would need her as a very important ally and as his partner, she was the closest thing to what he could genuinely value in the Halkeginian world. She had a big part to play in their ploys. He added in his letter to Giono this: Louise was to be illustrated highly, right next to Napoleon's importance when the news of their successes reached Tristain. Louise was a Valliere, but she was a good Valliere. The truth had to eventually dawn unto Napoleon. Tristain and her people would sooner submit to Louise Françoise le Blanc de la Valliere, a girl who possessed the proper bloodline to rule, and the proper potential also, rather than some enigmatic Emperor from another world. And Napoleon perfectly understood that and was settled to that fact for now. The emperor is, after all, graciously patient.

"Pardon, general Buonaparte."

One heavily-armored knight had ridden up to the general, who was overlooking the encampments from the slope where the artillery had been positioned earlier in the day. The guns were gone now, and Napoleon was alone with the knight.

"I received your summon. Regarding your concerns, the suspicion of the brigade is that the Duke of Walloon was not the one commanding," the knight continued. "I think so too."

Napoleon glanced at the warrior expectantly. The manner through which the soldier pronounced his surname caught his attention. Napoleon recognized him as the same knight whom he and captain Stewart had met in the village during the height of the battle, who had joined the other soot-black man-at-arms in reporting the peril the Duke of Richemont had fallen into. Napoleon also knew the name, as he had made to remember any notable individuals present in the action. The knight was known to his brigade as Sir Paul Filibuster Camembert.

Napoleon had ordered Captain Stewart to make inquiries about the Duke of Walloon's presence on the battlefield, and to also find the two interesting figures they had met at Vaupoisson's gates. It would be very useful to make acquaintances with the fallen duke's brigade troopers, but this Napoleon had known even before the duke had un-fortunately died on the field. Captain Stewart therefore went and found knight Paul Camembert, hitting two birds with one stone.

"Then who?" Napoleon asked.

"It must be the duke's adopted son, prince Leopold Katwijk Marie-Amierre de Walloon."

"And you saw him in battle?"

"The duke has no military experience, general. None of which we are aware of," the knight Paul Camembert answered.

"But are you sure it was the prince of Walloon? Because not long ago we were informed that Leopold had been dispatched by Walloon to Romalia."

"I must be mistaken, general Buonaparte." Paul Camembert stiffened. "I apologize. Disregard it, sire."

Napoleon dismissed it nonchalantly. Camembert said, "Whoever was in command of the army of Walloon was quite competent, that I'll say. He's held off the duke Richemont's attacks, Brimir rest his soul."

It was more like the duke's incompetence and the slowness of the three Counts' performance was what allowed the army of Walloon to escape easily, Napoleon thought.

"Regardless, we've beaten the army of Walloon. Now all that's left is for tomorrow to know. And speaking of," Napoleon said, "Captain Camembert. I hereby am considering putting you in command of a cavalry squadron. Circumstances have put us in tumultuous straits. I need good, courageous leaders right now. I anticipate that you'll report to my bivouac tomorrow - and bring the other knight with you. The man they call the Black Knight of Richemont."

Paul Camembert responded with a nod again.

"General, Count Kundera has asked for your presence inside the Alliance tent," he said.

Napoleon simply nodded back. When the knight Paul Camembert gave a small salute before trotting back down the slope, Napoleon turned inward to himself.

He was not satisfied. He had defeated the army of Walloon at Vaupoisson, but it wouldn't matter if he could not follow it up with a series of actually decisive actions. He hadn't been able to break the army of Walloon and launch his hot pursuit to destroy it, and so certainly it will simply link up with Marshal Gramont. That, he was sure of. His one hand was tied with the Counts and the other behind his back, for this was not yet the ripe circumstance to execute his takeover. Likely now, once the Gramonts, the Walloons and the Vallieres combined, with the Royal Army in tow they would present a united front for the first time against him.

The attached orderlies Napoleon had employed had gone straight to work even before the battle ended. That evening they offered their services and superbly managed the distribution of food, water, provisions for the men-at-arms and their horses, and ensured good conduct throughout the camp, a service even the nobles found appreciable. And of course Napoleon's illustrators and writers were restlessly writing an article of the battle to be sent back to the city. Fresh clothes, shoes, cleaned blades and armor was made available and there were more than enough tents and beddings for all of the surviving troops; not that there was an excess, some soldiers simply slept on the bare ground and in the shattered village huts. It was a clear cool night, the first in a long time.

Napoleon headed back to the camp. Inside the Alliance tent, he already expected a hostile welcome.

"It is so kind of you, Count Kundera, to invite me to supper," Napoleon said innocuously.

This time, Napoleon was not even given a seat at the table. There was food, drink, and even the little blonde-head Guldenhorf girl was there, watching him smugly. But the room was silent when he walked in. Napoleon was only standing before them and the count. Count Kundera was not amused.

"How could you allow this to happen?" Count Kundera burst angrily. "Captain, you were there in that bloody village! How could you let the Duke of Richemont fall to the enemy?!"

"Respectfully, your grace- "

"You let the duke die!" Count Kundera yelled.

"Respecfully, your grace. None of this would have happened if you had only listened to me!"

Now, the three Counts and the nobles in the tent all flinched at the commoner-general as Napoleon retorted in a deadly tone. His face was dark.

Napoleon said cruelly, "the Duke of Richemont disobeyed my order to pull back his cavalry. He ordered four charges. I sent dispatches for your infantry columns to move against Vaupoisson and seize the bridge. They hardly crossed it even when Walloon finally began to withdraw. You have crossed all your knights' cavalry upstream on the right wing, and nothing had come to it. There was no explanation that offered itself to me until now. This contretemps changes NOTHING."

By now, the table was silent as a grave. The minor nobles standing around had retreated several steps against the canvas of the tent. The three Counts were beginning to bubble with their own anger realizing the treasonous brazenness of the Zero's familiar. Beatrice von Guldenhorf had goaded the Count, Napoleon suspected. She was giving a treasonous smile. There was no motion for a moment.

"What use am I as the proclaimed 'chef d'Alliance' if every duke and count has his own designs that run cock-eyed to my effort to victory? If so then please do depose me and take over, because the duke of Richemont has last said to me before he died in Vaupoisson that he will 'charge into the hell in the name of Tristain'. Meanwhile, your force on the right wing has not materialized anything. Blame me for the death of the duke, yet bathe in the glory all the same."

Napoleon scoffed.

"Be careful, Bonaparte."

Count Kundera was now black and facing the emperor with not a sliver of mercy.

"You may be the proclaimed head of the Alliance, but you are correct about one thing. I respect your prowess which you have displayed on this day, but never raise your voice against me again. I may as easily just depose you and have your head on a stick."

Napoleon Bonaparte and Count Kundera matched deadly glances.


Without saying another word, the French emperor went and strolled out of the tent.

Count Marmont abruptly got up after the general, rushing out of the tent. This time the Count appeared in earnest to Napoleon.

"You must be patient with that demented count. It's the heat of the battle that's all gotten into our heads, general Bonaparte." The Count offered a small smile. He said, "but the people in that room are aware of another matter. Your maste- partner, that Valliere girl, has committed quite a serious error that must be discussed. When our cannons - under your responsibility, as you said - had been brought forward, the Valliere girl had been the one to issue an order to fire upon that village. That is what my squire reported. I do not believe she had the authority to order so. Nevertheless, that was not as problematic as the fact that she had ordered the cannons to open fire while the Duke of Richemont and his loyal knights were in that village. There are witnesses and victims to that error. If you wish, I can summon one of the duke's squires who had his foot shattered from a cannonball."

Napoleon smiled with a small shake of the head. "I will not justify my partner's actions if they are indeed in error. Count Marmont, for that I take accountability of the consequences. And if the council deems it necessary then I shall detain Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere for this insubordination."

"The Duke has fallen while your partner has done naught to stop the cannons from firing continuously."

"Don't twist the happenings of events, your grace. As a matter of fact, it was I who had given the order to Louise. And also, it was never a roundshot that had killed the duke."

"I never said- "

Count Marmont opened his mouth but Napoleon was not finished. He continued.

"But you must understand also, your grace, that if Valliere is in error, you must also take into the account the incompetence of thirteen of your barons and of Count Kundera's and the Count of Burgundy's armies. From what has been reported to me, and have yet to reach your ears, the nobles you have entrusted the infantry to have dissented at my order and thus the reason for the fatal delay in occupying the village. And still now, it has yet to be explained why the attack on the right wing - which was supposed to follow up the Duke of Richemont's charge - has not appeared. Those are the objects of today that I wish to be enlightened upon."

"Bonaparte, I will not contest it. You have made sound reasonings. All that I will ask you is this: do not stand up to Kundera again. He will not tolerate it. I personally do not like the count myself, but I wouldn't test his patience. Do not let pride cloud your judgement, general. I mean this sincerely. I will leave it at that and for you to take matters in your own hand in confronting the Valliere girl. That is all."

Napoleon said nothing. Count Marmont spurred his horse and left to return to the Alliance tent.

"Guiche, I know that you have doubts on fighting your brother and the Gramonts. Your girlfriend Montmorency is also with the Vallieres, yes? Well you're not alone in that regard. I'm glad that I didn't have to see Walloon myself. Imagine what his shock would be, us driving him off."

The young Gramont did not say anything at first. He rode slowly and in silence, still pensive about the events that unfolded today. The battle on the contrary had not shocked him - it cleared his mind, in a peculiar kind of way. Now he was tight-lipped and thought of his pretty Margarita la Fere de Montmorency, the oath he had sworn to general Bonaparte, his banishment from the Gramont house, but most of all the battle which was still lodged in his mind.

Suddenly finding himself relegated to the 'dragoons' as Cartier Martin called it, he was on a warhorse and grouped with men he hardly knew. It was overwhelming for a young mage like him, but awe-inspiring beyond measure. When their squadron received an order to advance, the beat of a hundred pairs of hooves drowned his beating heart. It was the reserve squadron he had been inserted into, and they had only deployed on the right of sergeant Turpin's Guard battalion while watching the powerful Walloon men-at-arms retreat, but that was enough action for today, Guiche decided. Napoleon Bonaparte had used him, Cartier Martin, and select men from his own battalion to fill in a cavalry wing he deemed necessary for the campaign, an indication to Guiche that he as a Gramont had now served his first duty to the general and his army.

"What's the matter, Guiche? Stop sulking about nothing. We've won the battle and that's enough of a reason to celebrate," Cartier Martin said, chuckling throatily. "Come on. Hasten up."

"Martin, what would you do if your father Walloon actually appeared against you? On the wrong side of the battlefield?"

"Well," Martin stopped. "You stumped me."

"I don't think I'm quite prepared for that."

"Guiche my cousin, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. You mustn't fret about things that are not."

"I understand."

"Now, follow me. Let us go to the church and take a look around. This is the dessert part after the battle."

The two rode their horses down the main street of the village towards the plaza. The paved dirt circle was empty. It was strange that there were no soldiers even gallivanting around the village centre, given how many dress shops and candy stores there were along the streets. The chiseled granite fountain in the middle of the little plaza had stopped flowing, for its water was murky and the color of wine and mud. The dimming light of the evening meant Guiche had failed to realize that the dirt was not wet, but was soaked with patches of blood. There were dried, brownish and reddish streaks of blood everywhere.

Their captain had paid for the villagers and commanded the orderlies to gather all the bodies and cart them out of the village. Guiche realized they would have to wash their shirts upstream as well. The ford, the avenue of five charges throughout the afternoon, was still awash with piles of corpses, both man and animal. It was so that the spoiling bodies formed a gruesome kind of shallow dam that swelled the brook and attracted clouds of gnats and flies. The villagers dared not expend effort to clear the dead in the stream until the next day.

"Guiche!" Cartier Martin was now incensed. "Stop daydreaming and come here."

Guiche de Gramont nearly froze when he realized they were before the chapel of Brimir. The broken spires, subjected to the cannonade during the battle now looked like torn limbs of knights, kicking up at the sky. The young mage followed Martin as far as to the large oaken door.

"Hush now. I hear something inside."

"There's nothing inside!" Guiche protested.

"Hush it!"

Guiche noticed the apparition of a black horse in one of the doorways of a storefront beside the chapel. He did not have time to inform Martin of this.

Cartier Martin kicked the large door in, throwing his weight to storm it open. He knew it had been unbolted deliberately, and someone had entered the chapel before them. Martin's guts were correct, as he found the blade of a sabre against his neck. He strained for the attacker in the darkness of the cavernous hall.

"Speak, and I may just disembowel you with my Wind," Cartier Martin spat bravely, flashing his wand.

"Aha! Another trooper, are you? From our Brigade as well?" The deep, roguish voice bellowed. "Or perhaps a lancer from that wretched Count Kundera?"

"Neither. We're new dragoons of the cavalry of general Bonaparte."

The blade was lowered and away from Cartier Martin. He heaved in relief. A tall gentleman stepped out of the shadows to reveal himself. He was a man-at-arms, with rather dirty but expensive plate armor covering his body only from the waist up. A green and yellow sash around his waist was recognizable as once his tunic with the Richemont coat of arms, indicating he was attached to that brigade. He had a comely face and devilish eyes, and unlike most knights his dark oily hair was slicked in such a neat manner he looked bald under the dimness of the room.

Guiche reminded Martin, remembering a black horse nearby just outside the chapel with a pair of boots hanging from its haunch. The man-at-arms had gotten rid of his boots and was now wearing a priest's slippers. Another fellow made himself present from behind one of the pillars aside the pews. Another trooper, this time only equipped with a cuirass and presumably a helmet which he had taken off, who was holding a bag full of things.

"Dragoons, you say?"

"Yes. And this boy here is my comrade, Guiche de Gramont."

Cartier Martin beckoned an angry Guiche forward.

"Isn't that a noble's name?" the other trooper from the pews suddenly said.

"Shut-up, Emil. It makes no difference!" the man-at-arms cried. "Now, what was your name, you said?"

"Cartier Martin."

"Martin, well. Just in time. Come on in, and help me out my friend. The name's Janviliers, but Jans is all right."

Man-at-arms Janviliers twirled around and walked back up the chapel hall. His new slippers made no noise, as if gliding through the marble floors.

"Martin, you can't be serious," Guiche interrupted.


"We can't loot the chapel of Brimir! What if he comes and strikes us down? Or worse still…"

"He is the child of God," the brown-faced trooper Emil gave a humorous, severely ironic smile.

Cartier Martin shook off Guiche.

"Now Guiche, I know you have an immaculate conscience under that skirt-chasing, womanizing facade of yours. What's the matter with you? This is no worse than that vice. I just want, say, one of those slippers too."

"You can't be serious. This just isn't right…"

"Martin, I found the priest's stole. Look at this, not even a baron like me can afford this. But I'll let you have it, now here!" Janviliers said.

The man-at-arms was rolling up the white silk tablecloth from an altar table, not caring as the golden plates and chalices slid off the edge and clanged to the ground. After he had tucked away the roll of tablecloth into his sling bag, Janviliers threw a rolled-up purple stole to Martin.

Captain Edouard Bernard Stewart burst into the building, still on his horse. Everyone jumped in surprise. "Rogues," the captain shouted with a frightening echo, brandishing his sword. "You little pests! Twits! Looting the very village we have just won over, and a chapel no less!"

Guiche now attempted to bolt, but Captain Stewart caught him by the collar. Janviliers raised both his hands above his head innocently. The trooper Emil had completely vanished, Cartier Martin noted, still surprised.

"Captain Stewart, oh please, I wasn't a part of it!" Guiche pleaded in a dramatic voice. "I swear!"


"Oh, bother," Guiche said, dropping his last pretense and giving up an exasperated sigh.

"And where did you come from?" Captain Stewart wheeled around skillfully to the man-at-arms, still holding Guiche by the collar and Martin at swordpoint.

"My name is Sainte Janviliers, third baron of Macey."

"Isn't that a noble's name?" Guiche angrily shouted.

"That's true! I was with the Duke of Richemont's charge today," Janviliers said, still acting innocently.

"He's dead." The captain remarked.

"So he is."

"You're the Black Knight, aren't ya?" Cartier Martin inquired, still leaning warily from the captain's sword. "The guy who got hit by a square-class fire mage's blaze and survived. Jans, your face looked charred then."

"Luck, I tell you. Luck that I wasn't burned to a crisp: the duke - not so lucky, bless him."

"Well, baron de Macey. It'd best serve you to leave this place, as a curfew has been passed tonight. These are the troopers of general Bonaparte's cavalry so if you'll excuse us…" Captain Stewart muttered.

Martin was bewildered that baron Janviliers was actually going to get away with stealing the tablecloth, but he said nothing of it.

"Captain, hold on for a moment. Jans here was telling us about how they've been reassigned," Martin raised a finger.

"Yes. Before you and Guiche had disobediently snuck out during supper from the bivouac, I am to inform you that due to the unprecedented circumstances in light of the Duke of Richemont's death, the men-at-arms of his columns are to be divided and attached to general Bonaparte's own cavalry squadrons."

"Our numbers will triple! No, even more than that." Martin gasped with surprise. "Who will command the men?"

"The structure of command will expand but remain the same. Which brings me to you, baron Janviliers. Napoleon specified that the 'Black Knight' from earlier this evening be recalled."

Captain Stewart now removed his sword from Martin's face and loosened his grip on Guiche, confident that the two would not try any more foolishness. Guiche dropped to the floor like a stone, still a bit shaken.

"I'll return that to the village priest, Martin. How thoughtful of you to save it," Captain Stewart said sarcastically, snatching the holy stole from Martin's fingers.

"Gad! And I thought I'd have it easy when my pap ushered me to Richemont's Brigade." Janviliers sighed.

At that moment, a final knight appeared in the doorway, also upon his horse, looking like a warrior saint if there ever was one. The knight was angel-faced, with curly locks and a piercing glare.

Janviliers chortled in disbelief. "Paul! You ratted me out, didn't you? No wonder the captain caught up so fast…"

Captain Edouard Stewart glanced beside the knight with a nod of approval. The far more serious-minded and principled knight shook his head at his brother in arms, dismayed.

"De Macey, I won't tolerate savagery and brutishness such as sacking the church. You're a knight too, for Brimir's sake. We went to the same monastery together. One more incident like this, and I'll cut off your hand."

Captain Stewart motioned with a hand dismissively.

"Captain de Macey and Captain Camembert, report for inspection at dawn tomorrow. Sir Camembert, I believe you have already met the general. Napoleon Bonaparte commends you both for your efforts in the battle today. Valor does not go unacknowledged under his authority. And Guiche, Martin? If you must steal, I must advise that you do not be caught like an idiot. Return to your bivouacs then."


Wrapped in his grey overcoat and with his hands authoritatively crossed behind his waist as he walked down the lane watching his soldiers feast, he was abruptly stopped.

The young girl tackled the emperor to pull him into a gracious hug. Louise laughed and then sighed, relief having washed away perhaps not the dirt and grime on her face but the exhaustion seen from her before the battle. Napoleon grinned at her affectionately. He produced a handkerchief from his coat pocket and, furrowing his eyebrows as he fatherly wiped Louise's cheeks, remarked, "I saw you have been up to a lot during the battle."

"I did as you told me to," Louise said, still smiling.

"Yes indeed."

"I am sorry if it took too long before we arrived on the hill. The officer that you had to accompany me..."

"Lieutenant Antoni?"

"I passed your orders for the, um, artillery to take positions on the left. It was a little embarrassing when I kept forgetting names. And I also looked for Mr. Turpin, whom you said was in command of the guards wearing the blue uniforms."

"Foucard arrived in time, did he not?"

"Yes. But the road was blocked by the Count's columns, and they were so slow that we lagged behind. Guiche joined me and he found a path through the bushes that led to the village but the cannons and the wagons couldn't go there. The cavalrymen and the guards split up on that path, and I stayed with the artillery."

"I'm proud of you Louise. I am."

Louise Françoise le Blanc de la Vallière was for once brought to flustering. She put her hands on her hips and looked away.


"Were you the one who also directed the fire upon the village of Vaupoisson?" Napoleon asked.

Now, Louise blanched. She answered, "officer Antoni… when we rolled out from the treeline we saw that there was another charge across the stream happening. I panicked when I couldn't find you anywhere. You told me to position the cannons on the left side facing the village, but… officer Antoni advised me not to shoot at the village. I didn't know what to make of it at that moment, Napoleon. Was I seriously in control of the cannons on the hill? I thought the officer was in command so I hesitated and asked what he thought of it. All he said was not to fire at the village - in fact, there was nothing to fire upon aside from that. Our knights were already on the other side, we couldn't shoot for fear of hurting our allies, but then I saw a lot of soldiers marching in between the gaps of the houses. I saw that they were moving towards our knights on the left. I-I ordered the artillery to fire anyway at the village to stop them. Did I do alright, Napoleon?"

"To be honest Louise, you just shot several of the duke's knights and one of them lost his foot. You burned the village and destroyed a chapel of Brimir. See how the spires are missing tonight?"

Louise was white in the face and looked sick. But Napoleon gave a harsh smile.

"Come, Valliere. Naturally I would chastise you for that mediocre performance of the day and your horrific sense of- "

"I know, I know! There's no need to rub it in, emperor!"

"But," Napoleon continued smiling. "That was not at all bad. Let me teach you another lesson Louise. There is nothing more difficult, and therefore more precious than being able to make a decision. If you had ordered the battery to fire at Vaupoisson and it had killed the Duke of Richemont himself, I would still accept it as a rational action in the face of battle. Maybe it was only even luck that you have made the correct decision. But had you not taken initiative and responsibility of the artillery present of the field at all, despite the fact that the enemy is before you and has presented an opportunity for you to seize, that is true incompetence. Antoni has reported to me that you've decided upon firing despite his disagreement, but not committing to either one action is the real mistake. I would have demoted you for the rest of the campaign."

"N-Napoleon, that doesn't seem fair," Louise protested. "Because I did not receive any formal training for this! I'm barely even a mage beforehand, much less a cannoneer!"

"This IS your training." Napoleon turned forward. "You've been baptized through fire at La Rochelle first. Now this is your communion."

Louise was quiet. "The duke… how is the Duke of Richemont? I haven't seen him- "

"The duke is dead, Louise. He was killed in that village. He died fighting. I came and saw him dead before we left it. The priests are dressing his body to send it back to his wife as we speak."

Louise now went still and slowly leaned to slide off her horse. Napoleon hastily jumped down and supported her arms.

"It's not your fault Louise. Do not think you have anything to do with it. The duke knew the risks when he led from the front. He was a good mage but a better warrior, he could not resist it. His sacrifice hasn't gone in vain."

"I don't feel good, Napoleon."

"Steady yourself Louise. This is only the beginning. The duke's army is still intact which is what's important. The army of Walloon however, it's bad that they're able to get away. They'll join up with the Gramonts. Have some rest, you're as pale as a ghost."

"Will we be alright?"

"Louise Francoise, don't forget what I said. You've done something today but it is not enough. It is not good enough, and you must be better. Look now, mistakes can and will injure people Louise. People who have put trust in you."

The young mage nodded apprehensively.

Napoleon put his hand on her shoulder as he walked her back to their tent.

Night was already falling fast. Napoleon sat himself down on the grass, the ground sloping very slightly so that when he lay down he faced the sky comfortably. Louise had finished washing her face and arms inside, and now went and sat down beside him. In silence they both watched the stars slowly eke into existence as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon.

"Napoleon, don't mind me asking but do you still have that first sword I purchased for you?"

Napoleon was puzzled.

"Why do you ask that question now?"

"I haven't seen you use it. I always assumed you had it with you, but…" Louise trailed off.

"It's not with me Louise," Napoleon said, jolting upright.


"I don't have the sword you gave me. It's not with me."

"Well do you remember where you left it? Maybe it's with the baggage train or in the saddle bag- "

"The Academy."

"You left it there?"

"In your quarters at the dormitory. I left it there the last time."

"That was months ago! How could you not- all this time?"

"It was my mistake," Napoleon conceded, "but I'll have it back. I needed a good sword, not a talking antique. But it occurred to me that Derflinger may be more important than I ascertained. The Academy is a day's ride from here."

"You can't seriously be considering riding back there just to get it now. That's foolish."

"True. Like I said it was my mistake, and I'm sorry for that Louise. I understand that that was a gift you gave me. If it were to fall in the wrong hands…"

Napoleon remembered what the sword - the damned talking sword which called itself Derflinger - was talking about. It was a legendary sword. The weapon of the 'Left Hand of God'. A.K.A. Gandalfr, A.K.A him. He hid it in Louise's dormitory during their last visit in the Academy, assuming he would have no big need of it. It was just a sword, Napoleon thought then. But even if someone like Lady Karin were to come into possession of it, a single sword would not affect the grand scheme of things. That, Napoleon was sure of. He had to fetch it as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

"Napoleon, will you tell me another story?"

Louise asked him in a shy tone. Napoleon did not reply immediately but afterwards, nodded silently.

"Okay. But only one."

"Napoleon, did you also have a best friend once?"

"Yes. I suppose all of us do, once."

"What was his name?"

Napoleon paused to think. He kept his eyes gazed at the night stars.

"He was a Marshal. But before I made him a Marshal, I found him as a pygmy," Napoleon started. "Jean Lannes was a commoner who became a soldier in the revolution. Most of them were. He was an apprentice of a poor dyer, and becoming a soldier he served in plenty of the action during the first wars, but it was when Lannes joined me in my Egyptian Campaign that he grew on me. I've told you a little about it this previous night, do you remember Louise? I went to Egypt. It was a very difficult endeavor for me. I spent nearly a year in a land of desert heat and sand and ill plagues and fearsome Turkish foes. I conquered half of that impossible land. My Armee l'Orient laid a month-long siege to a fortified city called Acre. It was during that time that I ordered one more of the numerous assaults to take the city. Despite the mounting casualties and the sicknesses destroying our army, Jean Lannes did not hesitate to go against certain death. He was hit in the neck by a bullet. We never took Acre. But Lannes, he survived.

"I knew then I would make him a Marshal of my Empire. Jean Lannes was one of the few people who were not afraid of me, who spoke with honesty and sincerity before an Emperor. He fought in many of my greatest campaigns to protect and expand our Empire. A commoner by blood, he was my staunchest brother-in-arms - my Achilles. No… he was more than that - he was my friend."

Napoleon sniffed.

Of course the emperor would never cry, she thought. He was too proud, too great for that. His eyes were dreadfully empty though.

Louise stared at him quietly, unsure to go on. She could not help but ask one more question.

"Napoleon, was your friend Jean Lannes with you before… you left Fontainebleau palace?"

"A story for another time, Louise."

Napoleon ended the line of narration there with a sharp period.

"Captain Stewart says we're marching again tomorrow. That Marshal Gramont is on the move," Louise whispered.

"That much is likely," Napoleon agreed. He got up and brushed himself off. He looked down at his partner, not smiling anymore. "I want you to rest, Louise. Tomorrow we shall fight again. We have a lot to account for but don't think about anything now: sleep always brings down even the mightiest of people."