Featured

Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Tuesday and Friday as of the latest Patreon goal. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

The author can be contacted at erraticerrata@gmail.com

Under no circumstances will Epub, PDF files, audiobooks or translation of the Guide be allowed.

Chapter 59: Materialism

“Victory in war comes by three parts: fighting, diplomacy and strategy. No single third is sufficient to bring victory alone, and each is neglected at great peril.” 

– Extract from the ‘Ars Tactica’, famed military treatise of Dread Emperor Terribilis the First

It was a nice afternoon, if you discounted all the dying.

As the opening strokes of the second battle for Lauzon’s Hollow fought under my command began to reverberate, I sat on high chair and watched as I absent-mindedly tore into a late midday meal. A meat pie, still warm with the juices splattering on my armour when I bit deep. The prelude had, to my mixed pleasure and wariness, unfolded largely as I’d planned. The band of five under the Silver Huntress had blown open a hole on the top of the western hilltops, allowing for both gates opened into Arcadia to hit the armies hidden beneath the hollow hills directly. Pickler had cracked open the hills beforehand, of course, since I wasn’t in the market for just making cavern lakes: the entire point had been to wash out the enemy army.

“How many inside, do you think?” Akua said. “At least twenty thousand by my count.”

The shade stood upright at my side, in an intricate gold-accented dark dress and veil whose occasional flickering betrayed the gate had taken a lot more out of her than she liked to admit. It’d taken even more out of me, of course, since Akua drew Night through my own connection to it. She could manipulate outside stocks of it just fine, as she had at the Princes’ Graveyard when she’d called the eclipse, but otherwise she was also limited by what my body could stomach. Which was, at the moment, essentially nothing. Two large gates, precisely aligned to parts of Arcadia and for some time? And in broad daylight, to boot. No, I was effectively out of the fight until sundown and that meant so was she.

“Between that and twenty-five,” I replied. “They weren’t making full use of the caverns as a tactical asset otherwise, it would have been a waste.”

“I wonder what general it is that faces us today,” Akua mused. “Not Trismegistus himself, surely. He rarely takes the lead in such a direct manner.”

Not that the Hidden Horror’s consciousness wouldn’t be flitting around the battlefield all day, anyway, along with his will. But Akua was right, Neshamah didn’t usually serve as his own general – with good reason, since he was not a particularly outstanding one. Undead did not truly learn, after all, and he’d not been a military man while alive. His tactics were all imitations, something he was aware of and meant he usually used Binds or Revenants as generals instead. It was typical of his brutal streak of pragmatism that the Dead King would raise anew the commanders that’d been most troublesome to him and bind them to his service. I did not doubt he was the overall strategist of the Kingdom of the Dead’s campaigns, mind you.

On the grand scale, the one beyond tactics, there really wasn’t a thing in existence that could think the way the King of Death could.

“The Prince of Hannoven mentioned the Princes of Bones usually commands all local undead as well as his own Grey Legion,” I noted. “But I’ve seen no sign of him. It might be the Pale Knight, though admittedly he seemed more a champion than a general to me.”

Or it could be a hundred other unseen trembling souls, none of which we’d even slightly sniffed out. We’d not yet dug so deep in the reserves of Keter that the Dead King had to be stingy with generals, to my enduring displeasure. I kept tearing into the meat pie as the battle began in earnest, the Third Army under General Abigail sounding the horns and beginning to advance. By now the tide of water flowing out of the caverns and the hollow was beginning to die out, swallowed by the thirsty ground and turning it to mud.

“Maybe ten thousand scrapped by the water,” I said, sharpening my eyes with Night as I studied the field. “I’d hoped for more.”

“The remainder are buried in mud, in disarray and often weaponless,” Akua replied. “Your hunting hound in the Third will make good sport of them.”

“She’s meant to a lot more than that,” I muttered.

Mind you, I didn’t expect the Third to wipe out all those downed undead. The Third Army only made up the centre of my host’s formation, with the Procerans under Beatrice Volignac making up the left wing and the Levantines under their Blood making up the right. I expected she’d bite off a hard chunk while advancing, falling upon it while it was not yet recovered, but she’d have to spread out the Third to get them all and that was the last thing either she or I wanted. After all, in the end the Third Army was bait.

“I was not brought into the full battle plan,” the shade idly said, “but it seems to me that you are taking great risks with the array of your forces. The Third is pulling heavily ahead, and your left wing is… undermanned.”

She wasn’t wrong. Black would have blanched at this kind of battle array, which was a stark departure from the traditional Legion doctrine. My centre was a steady ten thousand legionaries and my right wing a wildly overstrength seventeen thousand Levantines, while my left wing was a mere six thousand Procerans. Mostly Volignac soldiers, principality troops, with some fantassins. The rest of the Proceran troops had been sent out to clear the lowlands with the drow under Ivah, after all, and had yet to return to the field. But then the three minds behind the modern Legions, Black and Grem One-Eye and Ranker, had built that model to smash mortal armies.

Fighting the Kingdom of the Dead was a different kind of war. One where the enemy did not tire, where being outnumbered at every turn was a near certainty and the enemy’s arsenal bore a few more nasty surprises tailored to undermine your strength with every passing battle. I’d adapted to this war, though. Learned how to wage it.

“We came to Lauzon’s Hollow to achieve two things,” I said. “Seizing the pass itself and destroying the army defending it.”

We couldn’t just do one, unfortunately. Even we forced out the army and took the Hollow, we needed to destroy the enemy’s fighting force here: even it retreated weakened, we couldn’t afford to have it at our back while we moved on the capital. It’d be child’s play to cut our supply lines if even just a few thousand raiders stayed loose around the Hollow, and we were already outnumbered by the enemy so I was reluctantly to shake loose a garrison force to leave behind.

“The single worst way to achieve those objectives is assaulting Lauzon’s Hollow,” I said. “Taking fortifications is a war of attrition, and the moment the battle ends up in the narrow pass this becomes a slugging match that Keter will win nine times out of ten.”

I’d seen battles turn that way before. The Dead King and his generals just began throwing corpses at us, well aware that even if the battle itself was lost they’d still win the war by effectively destroying our army in the trade-off. No, fighting in the pass was something I wanted to absolutely avoid – it was why our original campaign plan had called for the forces under General Pallas to strike at the Cigelin Sisters further north tomorrow and then swing south to pincer the enemy here as soon as they’d secured the fortress. That plan had obviously gone out the window since, but the underlying reasons for making it remained.

“Yet you are, in fact, assaulting Lauzon’s Hollow,” Akua drily pointed out.

“No, I’m not,” I grunted. “We cracked open the hills, Akua, so now instead of fighting just at the mouth of the pass the battlefield got extended. These are proper grounds for classic Legion warfare, they just happen to be at the front of a pass.”

“Which the opposing general will notice,” the golden-eyed shade said. “Why prevents from retreating deeper in, where the pass narrows and your advantages evaporate?”

“Bait,” I grimly smiled, “set out in two parts.”

I finished the last of the meat pie, scarfing it down and licking the warm juices off my fingers. I pretended not to see the disapproving look thrown my way under the gauzy veil. In the distance, as the Third Army began plowing through the dead washed up by the waters, reinforcements began pouring out of the pass. Skeletons, yes, but also constructs. It’d be a hard fight. And as the dead who’d washed up on the flanks of the Third clawed their way out of the mud, still a disorganized horde, the enemy general did exactly what I’d wanted them to do: they sent out the horde in waves, trying to flank and even envelop the Third Army before the reinforcing wings could arrive. The enemy had committed.

The enemy’s siege engine atop the hills began unleashing some deadly surprise, pillars of black stone, but Archer was with the Third and I’d left heroes floating: one of them would nip this in the bud before it turned too bad, providence good as ensured it.

“You seem pleased, which implies this dawning rout is exactly what you intended,” Akua noted. “Which fits better with my appraisal of Abigail of Summerholm than that of the overeager general who struck out too far ahead I am currently looking at.”

I shrugged.

“It holds up, you know, for someone who’s looked into our armies,” I said. “If someone else had rushed too far it might be a trap, but the Third? I named them Dauntless personally, they’ve served as my vanguard in half a dozen war and they’re commanded by a rising star among my commanders – but a young one, who never went to the War College. Malicia will have records of that, which means the Dead King has them as well. If this were Hune rushing it’d be suspicious, but this?”

I grinned.

“Why, Akua, this isn’t a trap,” I said, “it’s an opportunity. One Keter has seized quite eagerly.”

So the dead had come out swinging from the pass in the distance, pouring reinforcements and trying to swallow up the Third before the seemingly feet-dragging Procerans and Levantines caught up and handled the flanks. From an outside eye, that tortured formation – one wing too storng, the other too wing – would have been forced on me by politics and a fear of trouble in a shared command structure, not more tactical considerations. I’d split the wings by nation of birth and was now paying the prince for it, neither Levantines nor Procerans too eager to follow the lead of a reckless Callowan general.

But the Third held, because the Third always held, and so the jaws of the trap closed.

“So now you hurt them,” Akua said.

As if bid by the hand of gate, the ballistas of the Army of Callow began to sing. I saw the understanding dawn in Akua’s eyes, for though she was not exactly a veteran commander she was clever and well learned in matters of warfare. The enemy had to reinforce through the pass, its entrance now stripped of all fortifications by the thorough work of Lord Soln, which meant my sappers knew exactly where the killing fields ought to be set up. The copperstone ballistas pounded the enemy into dust, again and again and again, as the flanks caught up to the Third and tore through the still ill-prepared undead brought there by the waters.

And so the enemy general slowly came to realize it had been baited into filling a box – the once-caverns, the mouth of the pass – where its numbers were being made into a disadvantage. The fighting with blades, after all, only happened between the first ranks of the dead and the living. The fire of my siege engines burned swaths behind this, and would cost Keter easily fivefold the casualties the rest of my army would cause it. Akua stayed silent for a long moment, taking it in.

“I sometimes forget how deeply unpleasant a general you are to face,” Akua mildly said.

I snorted. We’d never faced each other as commanders of armies, actually, as she’d been the general of her forces at neither the Dead Dawn or the Doom.

“An inspired trick,” she continued after a moment.

Such direct praise was rare, coming from her, and I allowed myself a sliver of enjoyment before setting it aside.

“I’m hardly the first to use it,” I dismissed. “Jehan the Wise did the same with the banks of the Wasaliti at the Battle of the Sparrows, and Terribilis to the Third Crusade at the Danse Macabre.”

“Both being famously unskilled generals, of course,” Akua amusedly replied. “What terrible company you keep.”

“Battle’s far from over,” I grunted. “Bit early for boasting.”

My eyes returned to the field as time inched forward torturously. By now, I thought as the lines held on both sides and the copperstones burned bright, the enemy general would be realizing this was not a sustainable position for them. I still hadn’t sent out my reserves, the entire Second Army and nine thousand drow, and there was no sign of my running out of copperstones. On their side the horrible siege engine atop the hills did not have an angle to fire down on my troops, and if the fighting continued until after dark – which it seemed like it might – then I’d have nine thousand Firstborn to send after them.

The obvious answer would be to retreat deeper into the pass, since it restored the reason why the enemy army was at Lauzon’s Hollow in the first place: being able to hold us off with the pass. I’d turned it around on them by baiting them to fight at the mouth of the pass, but they could write off what they’d committed and retreat, resuming the defence deeper in.

“Why aren’t they retreating?” Akua said, putting her finger on the pulse of the question.

“Can they afford to?” I replied with a hard smile. “Count the corpses, Akua Sahelian.”

The enemy had outnumbered us one hundred thousand to seventy thousand, when the campaign began. After the first day of fighting at the Hollow, we’d lost a little over two thousand and the dead a minimum of six thousand along with a significant portion of their swarms. Now throw in the ten thousand or so they would have lost to the water, then maybe another ten thousand lost in the killing box over the early afternoon. Meanwhile, I’d count maybe another two to three thousand dead on our side over those same hours, which meant we’d be down to around sixty five thousand while the enemy had been brutally dragged down to mid seventy thousands. If my opponent wrote off the troops holding the mouth of the Hollow and retreated, my side might have numerical superiority when the assault continued deeper in.

“They overcommitted,” Akua breathed out. “If they retreat now, they might no longer have the numbers to hold the Hollow against us regardless.”

I turned to glance at her and caught her eye, reading there an expectation of agreement.

“Gotcha,” I said. “You just lost the battle.”

I enjoyed the surprise that flickered through before she suppressed it more than I had the praise earlier, so at least there was that.

“That’s the deeper trap,” I said. “That instinct not to sacrifice those troops anyway. I want the enemy in that killing box as long as I can possibly keep them there, Akua. It’s the absolute best exchange rate of casualties I’ll be able to get on this field.”

Her lips thinned.

“I am used to considering troops valuable,” she said. “The source of my mistake, perhaps. It will not be shared by the commander of the dead.”

“Probably not,” I admitted. “I expect they’ll hesitate but come to the same conclusion soon enough. Which is why I told you, earlier, that my bait is in two parts.”

What would convince my opposing general it was worth sticking it out in there? It’d have to be a prize worth those mounting casualties. Just the losses involved in the lizard cutting off its tail to escape wouldn’t be enough to dissuade a Keteran general for long, so I’d set out fresh bait for them to bite: my left wing, the Procerans. Under Princess Beatrice’s command stood only six thousand souls, fewer by now. Hardy Volignac foot, mostly, but that only counted so much in a fight like this. A wing undermanned, as Akua had earlier said. Fragile. Foolish, and I did not have a reputation for that, so even counting on the impression that this was a political decision instead of a tactical one I’d also gilded the bait by putting my entire horse contingent behind Princess Beatrice’s wing.

As if expecting a breach, expecting to need buying time for my reserve the Second Army to come prop up that failing flank.

“Come on,” I murmured, looking at the ranks of the dead. “Bite, my friend. You know you want to.”

And I laughed, laughed until my throat hurt, when Keter fell for it again. Reinforcements kept pouring out of the pass and into my killing box, scores dying to every copperstone, and the undead sent their full wrath against the left flank.

“Akua,” I said. “Pass a message for me. I want these two to prop up the left wing: Headhunter and Forsworn Healer.”

“As you say, my heart,” the golden-eyed shade replied, bowing.

I barely spared her a glance, my own gaze still on the battlefield. Those three should be able to prevent the Revenants I suspected the enemy was about to send from shattering the left flank. That was the bet of my opposing general, after all: that it could break the left wing and manage to collapse the increasingly exhausted Third by overwhelming its flank and back in a massive sweep rightwards. Even if I sent out my cavalry, at that point, the battle would be lost. Keter’s game afterwards turn to trying to inflict as many casualties as possible while my army fled back to camp, a particular specialty of the Dead King’s army. I was not unaware this could still turn south on me, though I trusted the lines would hold. If it got rough, I still had some cards to play.

Beastmaster had already gone to reinforce Archer, a deadly combination that’d allow her to kill constructs even beyond her sight, and now that the Summoner was back I was keeping him in reserve with the brew I’d had Concocter working on. The remaining swarms had yet to be unleashed: most likely my opponent was keeping them back, since they’d be brutally efficient at turning a break in my lines into a rout if they were properly employed. When Hakram wheeled his way to my side, I held in a wince. Not because I was unhappy to see him, but because if he’d come to deliver the news personally they wouldn’t be good.

“Beastmaster’s dead,” Adjutant told me, blunt and to the point. “The Pale Knight slid behind the lines.”

My fingers clenched.

“Indrani?”

“Broken army, already fixed,” Hakram said. “The Silver Huntress’ band reappeared just in time to drive him away, no further Named casualties.”

“Fuck,” I murmured. “Too close.”

“Orders for the Huntress?” he asked.

“None,” I said. “She’s free to follow providence and judgement as she pleases.”

That was the main reason I’d sent out a band of five heroes, after all. Some villains would have better rounded out their band, but it would have diluted the effect of providence. Best to have an imperfect force at the perfect time and place than the opposite. Hakram stayed at my side afterwards, letting his helping hands carry the rest. We stayed silent, but not uncomfortably so. We both had our minds on the field in the distance. Not long after, to my surprise the Dominion began pushing into the undead lines ahead of them. They were fresher than either my Third or the Procerans, admittedly, and significantly more numerous. I’d genuinely not expected they would, though, so I was unprepared when the enemy general decided to set them back with a decisive stroke.

The swarms came loose from the broke ceiling of the caverns, coming down as screeching tide as the binders did their best to keep them at bay.

“Summoner and Concocter,” I curtly ordered Hakram.

The messenger was moving before I was even done speaking. I’d positioned them closer to the left flank, expecting the strike would come there, so my fingers were raking the arms of my seat while the two silhouettes on wyvernback went up from too far away as the first ranks of the Dominion were engulfed and shredded.  It got handled, in the end, but not quickly enough. The dead pushed hard into the Malaga section of the shield wall simultaneously  to the swarm assault and it would have turned into a rout without what I suspected to be Named intervention. Couldn’t be sure at this distance, not with armies so large and the constant streaks of Light and sorcery.

The next helping hand that came to report to Hakram was Scribe, which told me there were grimmer news yet.

“The Sage stabilized the break in the Levantine line,” Scribe told us.

“And?” Adjutant gravelled.

“The moment after the shield wall closed up, he was sniped by an archer Revenant,” Scribe told us. “I believe he might have used his three aspects over the afternoon’s fighting, and become vulnerable as a result.”

“Tell me they recovered the corpse,” I said.

“Lady Aquiline Osena saw to it personally,” Eudokia said.

I blew out a breath. It could have been worse. There weren’t clean victories outside the stories, I reminded myself, and stuck the course. When the Proceran flank began wavering despite the best efforts of Beatrice Volignac and the desperately fighting Named there – the Headhunter slew two Revenants and claimed their heads, according to the reports Hakram received – I did not panic or send orders to my cavalry. Instead I smiled and sent for Senior Mage Jendayi, Hune’s senior spellcaster.

“Send word to Lady Catalina to prepare for the crossing,” I ordered. “We are nearing our moment.”

This very afternoon, after all, was when the detachments we’d sent out were due to return. Instead of letting them come openly across the plains, I’d instead requested for Ivah and the fantassins under Lady Catalina to take the Twilight Ways – I could, that way, unleash them as a surprise when the time came. Keter would have accounted for our own mages, there was no hiding them, but not for those that’d left with our detachments. I could, because of this, bet on surprise with good odds. It’d help with Proceran morale as well to be pulled out of the fire not by foreigners but by their own kind. After the battering they’d take today, it would do them some good.

When the first fantassin company on the left flank broke, I immediately gave the order for the reinforcements to begin crossing into Creation. I jolted in surprise, though, when the Third Army’s shields winked out and they began shaping offensive magics instead. Wait, had General Abigail guessed my plan? I studied the Third’s movements carefully, noting the massing of heavy companies around the standard, and decided that she hadn’t. The gates were just now beginning to open, after all, to the cheering of the Procerans behind them. More likely she’d been worried about the left flank collapsing on her and acted to cut off the threat at the source. I chuckled.

Regardless of her intentions, the timing for that charge was actually perfect: I’d gotten what I could out of my soldiers for the day, it was time to wrap this up.

“Send word to Summoner to pull back from the right flank and help with the charge instead,” I told Hakram.

“Cut loose Apprentice as well,” he suggested. “She’ll thank you for it.”

I mulled over that a moment then nodded. He was by my side and deep behind our lines, and while there might not be such a thing as safe when fighting Keter he was not at so great a risk he could not spare his bodyguard and assistant for a bit. I settled back into my seat, watching the last few exchanges of the day unfold. It went better than I’d dared hope, in truth. The enemy centre, while steadily reinforced over the afternoon, had also steadily been culled by hours of copperstone bombardment. I’d not anticipated that would mean it was thin on Binds – they’d need more Light to be destroyed, if anything – but that was the only explanation that came to mind as to why the undead centre shattered like a rotten egg when the Third charged into it.

I watched the enemy ranks break apart under weight of the heavy companies and almost asked Jendayi to send a signal for General Abigail to pull back, for she was getting too far ahead, but she stopped on her own anyway. Good, I thought. I’d kept the Grey Legion out of this so far by making the ground muddy and so effectively making it impossible for infantry that heavy to accomplish anything save get stuck in a mire, but there were drier grounds further in. I had a lot of faith in the Third Army, but there was a reason the standard order for mundane troops encountering the Grey Legion was ‘retreat’. General Hune, sensing like me that the battle was coming to a close, came my way. She made her courtesies to myself and Hakram, then got into why she’d come here.

“Congratulations are in order, Your Majesty,” the ogre said. “Another victory to your name.”

I didn’t disagree, even though there was still fighting on the field. With the Third having claimed the head of the narrowing in the pass, enemy reinforcements were cut off so the left and right wings were just pushing up pockets of undead against the walls of the caverns and systematically exterminating them. It’d take a while, and the Third would have to hold until they were done, but with the amount of Named we had on the field we should be able to deal with any nasty surprise the enemy had left to unleash. All that was left was for someone to sabotage the enemy’s siege engine on the hills before we could retreat, which I was already mulling sending word to the Silver Huntress’ band to do.

A moment later there was a great burst of Light in the distance atop the hills, followed by pillars of flame, and I was once more reminded that the Heavens had a sharp sense of humour.

“It’s only half the battle,” I finally replied. “We still don’t hold the Hollow itself.”

“Given Keter’s casualties today, and the raiding the Firstborn will no doubt undertake tonight, there can be no question of the dead still holding the pass by tomorrow afternoon,” General Hune said. “The last swordstroke has not been granted, but it is a victory all the same.”

We’d be out raiding in force overnight, and with the full strength of the drow: nearly twenty thousand, including several hard-hitting Mighty. I fully intended on savaging the enemy army as brutally as I could before dawn came and the fighting resumed tomorrow.

“We’ll see it if pans out that neatly,” I replied, “but I take the congratulations in the spirit they were meant, regardless. Thank you, General Hune.”

She didn’t linger after that, leaving us to our thoughts. I watched the last gasps of the battle far away without truly looking at them. Hakram cleared his throat.

“You look worried,” he said.

“I am,” I admitted. “Something about this smells off to me.”

“It was a hard-fought battle, even if it went well for us,” Adjutant said. “It is not always a trap, Catherine.”

“Then where has the Grey Legion been?” I quietly asked. “The mud kept them out, but halfway into the battle Keter should have spit out a ritual that steadied the ground so they could fight.”

Mighty Sudone had slaughtered a great many of Keter’s magelings, but not so many that they would not have been able to deliver that particular ‘surprise’. I’d had an answer waiting for it, admittedly, but with no certainty it’d work. They’d never come out at all, though, which had my fingers clenching and unclenching.

“Has anyone seen the Prince of Bones?” I suddenly asked. “We’ve seen the Grey Legion yes, but the Prince himself?”

Hakram paused a moment.

“I’ll find out,” he promised.

“Do,” I muttered.

I closed my eyes. I was missing something, I could feel it. Roland had reported seeing a Crab, a while back, I suddenly recalled. Something to do with that, perhaps? I couldn’t see any obvious links, though.

“It’s not that I don’t think this isn’t a victory,” I said. “But there will be more to this, Hakram. We’re not dealing an amateur, Neshamah plans for both outcomes. He’ll have gotten something out of even a defeat.”

He had no answer to that, and so I left him to his work. By sundown I had estimated casualties for both sides of the battle, rough as they were. My armies had around eight thousand dead and maybe another thousand crippled beyond the current ability of our priests and mages to repair. That took us to an army fifty nine thousand strong, perhaps even a little lower. The enemy, though? Keter had begun holding Lauzon’s Hollow with an army of one hundred thousand, and now it had barely half that: fifty to fifty five thousand left, we believed, though the Grey Legion counted among them. My soldiers had, without even our full army being on the field, fought like lions and won the day. A heroic victory, some would call it.

Now we just needed to win another hundred, and never lose.

Welcome to war with Keter.

Interlude: New Tricks

“Surprise is not a fixed quality. Yesterday’s coup is tomorrow’s blunder.”

– Theodosius the Unconquered, Tyrant of Helike

Princess Beatrice Volignac of Hainaut believed in being honest with herself even when it was painful to do so.

Particularly when it was painful. Even when back when she’d only been the sister of the ruler of Hainaut, she had known that there would be great dangers in refusing to look the realities of Creation in the eye. It was why she did not bother to pretend that she was anything but fat, even when her high birth meant that flatterers offered up sweet lies insisting otherwise by the basketful. She was fat and she would not slim up. It was the way of things, something she did not like but would have to live with. Allowing herself to indulge in a fantasy world at the expense of reality was just being childish, and childishness in a woman of her rank was the road to an early grave.

And now she was not a mere princess’ sister anymore, she was the Volignac. Julienne had gone off and chased a death worthy of song, leaving Beatrice with two grieving nephews as well as a crown she’d never expected she would have to wear. This was Procer and here blood mattered – especially when it was as old as that of the House of Volignac – so Beatrice was still being treated as royalty, but she had no illusions about what she truly was: the leader of a large armed gang, dependent on the charity of the high throne and foreign powers for her survival. She was royalty only so long as no one cared to challenge it, and should the army she’d salvaged from ruin perish it would be the end of Hainaut as a realm. There could be no return when one’s rule extended only to ashes and refugees.

And so Beatrice had thought herself cleverer than those Langevin whoresons in Cleves, at least, whose smidgeon of safety had deluded into thinking that they could afford to plot when the very end times were at their doorstep. The staggering stupidity of Gaspard Langevin’s manoeuvering still surprised her – had the man truly forgot that more than half the forces defending his lands were foreign, that some of the very same Firstborn he wanted to slight had bled for Cleven grounds? It’d been a comfort, cradling that knowledge. And yet now, as Beatrice Volignac’s fingers tightened around her lance, she was forced to acknowledge that in some ways she had been a fool as well.

Queen Catherine Foundling of Callow was an easy-going woman. That temper was legend, true, but it was not easily provoked and when in a good mood the young queen was both amiable and impulsively generous. She was free with honours others in her position would have clutched tight. The Queen of Callow’s obvious lack of schooling in the mores of one of high birth was an occasional figure of fun in Proceran circles, for she was cunning in the way that a peasant or a tradesman was cunning – without polish, without elegance. Beatrice was not fool enough to consider the Black Queen of Callow a mere savage, but between the cordiality and the lowbrow habit she’d come to forget who it was that she was dealing with.

Then hills were cracked open, the sky opened and an army was smashed by celestial deluge all in the span of an hour.

Beatrice remembered the stories, then, of the Battle of the Camps. Of the Doom of Liesse, of what Callowan veterans fondly called the ‘Arcadian Campaign’ – as if it were not utter howling madness, to have invaded the realm of the fae – and at last of the Princes’ Graveyard, where sport had been made of her kind as none had dared since Theodosius the Unconquered. The Black Queen did not bother with the proper courtesies, Princess Beatrice remembered, because after the Graveyard there was not a living ruler left who could demand them of her. The Princess of Hainaut let that sink truth sink into her bones, breathed deep of it. It would not be forgot again, she swore.

Princess Beatrice let the fear settle down, reminding herself that this once the horror was on her side, and turned her gaze to the enemy. Already the Third Army under its canny fox of a general was advancing at a brisk pace, red-painted shields locked tight in a shield wall. The waters had not yet finished flowing, but they’d slowed and would soon die out. Behind them would be left muddy grounds and a roiling mass of undead, an unprotected and hindered formation that the Army of Callow was already punishing with sustained artillery fire. The rumoured ‘copperstones’ fired by the Sapper-General’s ballistae burned with bright Light where they hit, incinerating bone and unmaking necromancy.

The battle plan, as it currently stood, dictated that the flanks of the coalition army would wait a span before advancing as well. Beatrice understood the purpose, for she had made some study of war: it was hoped that the enemy reinforcements already pouring out from deeper in the pass could be drawn back into the water-emptied caverns by the Third Army’s hasty advance, in an attempt by Keter to pincer that force as it pulled ahead of the rest of the coalition army. This was a risk, on the surface, but in truth it was the Black Queen’s attempt to limit casualties on their side as much as possible. She wanted, in Beatrice’s opinion, to draw the dead into fighting her at the mouth of the pass.

There, where Keter’s number could not be brought to bear as they would in a broader field, the Queen of Callow wanted to eat up an army of one hundred thousand one bite at a time. The battle lines would stabilize once the flanks caught up to the Third Army, and when they were the artillery could be brought to bear on the massed undead facing the coalition. In a very real sense, the Grand Alliance soldiers would not be the executioner’s axe but the chopping block: their purpose would be drawing out the enemy and keeping them in the artillery’s killing field, not necessarily to do a great deal of damage themselves. The young queen’s art of war was not famed without reason, though the Princess of Hainaut did not believe it would be quite so simple.

It never was, with Keter.

Yet blind worries were no reason to stand paralyzed, so when Princess Beatrice Volignac received the word from their supreme commander she passed down the order to her captains. Trumpets sounded, a bright clarion call, and the drumrolls began as the last army of Hainaut began its advance intermixed with companies of fantassins. To the east the Levantines mirrored her advance, and just as the Third Army reached the edge of where the waters had touched – where the dead had been swept up – the march of the flanks finally began. The Queen of Callow’s plans were proceeding nicely so far, Beatrice saw. A stream of reinforcements had hurried out of the deeper pass to prevent the Third from just sweeping through, and when finally it made contact with the shield wall of the Third Army both forces slowed in the morass of mud and steel that the water had made. The undead did not have sharp enough teeth to smash a Callowan shield wall, though, so the stream split.

The caverns, torn open for al to peer into them, were beginning to fill with undead attempting to go around the enemy’s shield wall. Instead of just fighting in front, the dead were trying to bring their numbers to bear by attacking on the flanks as well – for now only splashing harmless at the sides of that stout eastern square formation, but the undead were gathering numbers to mount more serious assaults. The enemy was moving too quickly, Beatrice thought as she watched with narrowed eyes. Light skeletons, without armour and barely armed, had been sent out first and en masse as they were not so prone to getting stuck in the mire.

The Princess of Hainaut sent for one of her captains and ordered that the roll of the drums be quickened, setting a quicker march. If she waited too long, she feared that the Third Army might be entirely surrounded before reinforcements arrived. That would be a disaster, especially should the well-armed Callowan soldiers rise in the service of Keter. No wonder Callow was bereft of all beauty, she sometimes thought when looking at the pristine armaments of the Army of Callow. All the wealth there had gone into war. Would that Julienne and their father before her had practiced that same folly, which in these dark times was no folly at all. The House of Volignac had more use for plate than palaces these days.

The Princess’ eyes drifted to the hills in the distance, beyond the fighting, where she had been told that a great siege engine still awaited. It had yet to fire a single shot, but as far as she knew the Chosen had not destroyed it. What was Keter waiting for, then?

 —

“We’re through with the easy part now, ducklings,” Sergeant Hadda growled. “Shields steady and mind your right. Don’t get smart, it doesn’t pay off against the skellies.”

Edgar breathed out, feeling the usual tremor of fear going down his spine. He’d be all right when the shield wall made contact with the enemy, but until then he knew from experiences the nerves would stay with him. Orders had come from above for the fourth cohort – of which Captain Pickering’s company was the second company – to move to from the back to the left flank, to prevent the enemy outflanking the army. Felt odd to be turning his back to the dead in front of them, coming out of the Hollow, but then Edgar was just turning to look other undead in the face wasn’t he?

“Liked it better when we were just smashing the downed bones,” Edith muttered at his side. “Like a dangerous chore, but still better than the fucking shield wall.”

Edgar snorted. A dangerous chore had been a good word for it. The Black Queen had called forth the tides to smash the enemy’s hidden army, and when it’d washed up in a sea of mud and roiling undeath the front ranks of the Third Army had sent forth the priests of the House Insurgent. Streaks of blinding Light had hit the struggling skeletons and ghouls, carving smoking furrows into the mud, but it’d been the task of the legionaries following behind them to shatter any bones they saw sprouting out. Not harmless work, this, for sometimes skeletons played deaded than they were and nasty surprises of mud and steel came at you from below. But like Edith – surprisingly sensible, for a Liessen girl – had said, still a damned sight better than the shield wall.

There, sometimes luck just meant you didn’t get back up in the Enemy’s service when you died.

The company moved into place as smoothly as was possible on muddy ground, a line of twenty moving to the front. Edgar’s own line made up the second rank, which meant they’d see fighting before long. Over the shoulder of a shorter soldier, he saw pale bare skeletons with only spears in hand deftly going through the mud. Companies filled in to the side of Edgar’s own, broadening the shield wall before the enemy could sweep around it, and he breathed out quietly. If he’d been in the first rank, he wouldn’t have dared to take his eyes off the enemy even when he caught movement above. In the second, though, he risked a glance.

It wasn’t the Summoner and another Named engaging vultures up in the sky, as now that the flood gates had closed they’d fled. Too low, anyway, and too quick. It was with quicksilver surprise that Edgar realized he was looking at artillery fire. Some sort of enormous spear had been fired, or perhaps a pillar? Whatever the truth of it, a great length of dark stone fell into the back ranks of the Third Army, killing a dozen with the impact. Edgars’ fingers tightened with fear at the tight, for the black stone was glowing with runes. A heartbeat later, there was a crackling sound and a burst of sorcery followed by screams, half a company dying in a heartbeat in a mess of lightning.

Another pulse, and the dead rose.

The companies in the back of the Third turned to face the fresh threat – and while another pillar was shot at them, it burst in midair as if artillery fire of their own had somehow caught it – but the pulses kept coming. Always the same two, lightning and necromancy, but it was a potent combination and the streaks of Light and sorcery thrown at the pillar did nothing. Edgar of Laure breathed out and looked away. Fear ran in his veins as the distant sound of great drums began to thrum, but he could no longer afford to look anywhere but forward. The first wave of skeletons charged forward in utter silence.

Dauntless,” Sergeant Hadda screamed.

Dauntless,” they howled back, and for a moment the boast chased away the gloom.

Gods, Indrani grimly thought. That’s a new one.

What the Hells was that pillar? She recognized the stone from their trip into the Crown of the Dead a few years back – she’d never seen that exact tone of black anywhere but in the deepest reaches of the Dead King’s fortress – but it was the first time she’d ever seen this particular breed of nastiness. It was a pretty simple setup, but the alternating pulses had already chewed through two companies and all attempts to handle the situation ended up turning into oil tossed at the flame. Not that she could afford to spare much time looking. The enemy’s siege engine was still firing the damn pillars, and there were only so many heavy arrows in her quiver – three, actually, and she was already on her last. That would mean three pillars swatted out of their trajectory, at least, but somehow she doubted Keter would be running out of ammunition the same time she did.

Nocking the last heavy arrow, Archer suppressed a grimace as she saw another blackstone pillar let loose. She breathed out, steadied her aim, then drew and released. Indrani didn’t even bother to watch if she’d hit, already knowing she would. Normally she’d have a few more heavy arrows, but today Cat had sent her out to handle constructs so it was unravellers she’d loaded up with. Useful things, those, but unlikely to dent a pillar. Pickler’s copperstone ballistas were still chewing up the undead coming out of the pass so the Third wasn’t in danger of collapsing anytime soon, but casualties were already mounting and that slippery eel General Abigail had left Archer behind at some point.

Glancing ahead, Indrani found that beorns were massing in the pass. House-sized abominations resembling bears, damned hard to put down and surprisingly agile for their size. They also carried bellyfuls of undead soldiers, which made them a bloody plague for regulars: it was like a living battering ram spewing out soldiers. Archer bit her lip. She couldn’t anything more about the pillars, it’d have to be one of Catherine’s contingencies that handled it. She could begin hammering away at the constructs, though, so even as another pillar was shot in the distance Indrani reached for an unraveller and nocked it.

In that, at least, she could tip the scales.

You have no assignment, the Black Queen had told him. Follow providence where it leads you.

Balzer, who men now knew as the Sage, had done so without qualms. Even the Peregrine had been burned by that villainess’ wiles and he would not gainsay them when they stood on the same side. So the Sage had retreated into himself, closing all shutters so that nothing might obscure the sensation of the slight nudges of Fate. And Fate had led him not to stand with the Dominion’s warriors, with whom he shared blood, or the Procerans he had sworn to protect from the Enemy’s attentions. It was with this strange Third Army that his steps had taken him. Not even to fight on the front, though Balzer knew many secrets of destruction beyond those of his fists, but to stand at the back.

He understood why only when black stone fell from the sky as a pillar and death bloomed around it.

Balzer had learned many secrets, for which some called him wise and others had decreed him a sage – even Sage, in time. But enlightenment was not a shared road, it was the struggle within: lonely, endless, forever reaching for unattainable perfection. So he was not surprised when the priests of the House Insurgent molded their faith bright and threw it against the black stone to no avail. No candle could light up the ink-black sea. And what could sorcery do, be it flame or thunder? Only a fool sought to beat a devil at devils’ tricks. In this, though, he could lend aid. The Sage waded through the fresh undead, smashing skulls through helmets as he glided through their ranks, and before long beheld the pillar from up close.

“What a malevolent thing you are,” the Sage murmured, eyes narrowing.

Kill, the black stone sang. Take. Kill. Take. Its insistence washed over him like morning mist, even the touch of lightning – the Light within him was greater than what the Enemy’s work could bring to bear. Balzer pressed his palm against the stone, disliking its feverish warmth but not lingering on such ephemeral things. Like the river, he must flow and never cease. It was the opposite with this thing of stone and dread, for it was a shell hosting pulsing hate and greed and nothing more. Shells always had weaknesses, and the Sage found this one’s before long. Undead grasped at his back, but he was swift and his oneness with Light blinded their eyes.

“Begone,” Balzer ordered, and struck.

In his right hand he held the power to Destroy, learned from years of studying the lingering wisps divine wrath had left behind on this world, and it was this he unleashed against the work of Trismegitus. The black stone shattered under his fist, revealing a howling sorcerous heart, and this he snatched and snuffed out. For a moment, when it died, he thought he had heard a word. Not enough to Divine anything from it, but perhaps with meditation… The sky above spewed out another pillar of black stone, falling among soldiers to deliver thundering death. Ah, opportunity. The Sage smiled.

Today was a good day, he decided, and sought the next pillar of black stone.

Lord Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood threw down his shield, for the javelin might not have punched through but it’d made it good as useless anyway. That was the third shield he’d gone through since the battle began, and he’d already had two horses killed under him: Keter was in fine form today. His sworn swords, which had served as the vanguard, were holding steady ahead of him. Malaga was upholding its honour today, though it was Aquiline who was adding deeds to the Rolls for her Blood – she’d taken a few slayers and Lanterns to kill a Tusk that’d passed by the Archer’s punitive barrage, giving the killing blow herself.

It ought to put her in a better mood, wiping away the disgrace that’d been getting wounded on the first real day of fighting of the campaign.

The dead were holding firm under the assault of the Dominion, the Lord of Malaga found when he scrutinized the battle lines. The warriors of Levant weren’t making enough of a dent to push back the enemy, though they were themselves in no danger of losing ground. Much as Razin would have preferred a more glorious bent to the battle, he could not deny that the Black Queen’s plan was working: the copperstone ballistas of the Army of Callow were tearing through entire companies of the enemy as they poured out of the pass to reinforce, focusing on the centre in front of the Third Army.

It was not a great honour for his warriors and Aquiline’s to be used as mere hooks keeping the metaphorical fish from wriggling out of the ballistas’ reach, Razin Tanja thought, but if it led to victory he would make his peace with it. The Procerans had been tasked with the same on their wing, anyhow, so there was hardly a surfeit of honour to go around – only Abigail the Fox, that ruthless and cunning general who’d bled his binders so starkly at the Graveyard, had claimed any by being given the pivotal role of the day. Still, there was no reason for the Dominion not to try to seize a better position. Razin sent for his captains and ordered a push at the very edge of the right flank, led by Lanterns and axemen. One of his sworn swords brought him his fourth shield of the day, and the Lord of Malaga pondered whether he should rejoin the ranks. The men fought better when he fought with them.

The decision was stolen from him when Keter acted first. From the broken ceiling of the caverns a great cacophony came as a devilry kept back was suddenly unleashed: the surviving swarms from the first day, birds and bats and insects, flowed out like a tide with ear-breaking shrieks. The Lord of Malaga swallowed a curse. Of all the armies of men, the Dominion struggled with these horrors the most.

“BINDERS,” Razin Tanja screamed. “BINDERS, ON THE SWARMS.”

The Summoner snorted derisively when he saw those Dominion savages fumble around with their so-called sorcery. Half-baked diabolism was what it was, this use of souls as anchors for bodies made of their surroundings – in this case, largely mud and stone. Not all the binders could forge flying creatures, either, further proof of their fundamental incompetence. Cedric reminded himself that not all could equal his own mastery, but it was a half-hearted thought and almost more a boast than a commiseration.

“You are certain your creature is capable?” the Concocter asked.

Beneath them, his summoned wyvern batter of her wings as she sped towards the undead swarms. The Summoner cast his colleague a scornful look.

“A little late for asking, yes?” Cedric sneered.

She rolled her eyes, the insolent wretch. Gods, but the Black Queen simply did not recognize his worth – always she used him as a horse-handler for some inferior Named, when he could have done it all on his own.

“My concoctions will work as promised,” the Concocter flatly said. “The only possible point of failure here is your work.”

The Summoner scoffed.

“My works is always beyond reproach,” he said. “It is why I have been judged too valuable to send to the Arsenal, unlike some others.”

She probably would have argue with this self-evident truth, so Cedric ordered his summon to bank hard upwards and leaned closer to its neck. The containers the Concocter had loaded its belly with made the construct less manoeuvrable, but he’d learned to compensate. It would not matter, anyway, he thought. Unlike what his colleague believed, the containers would not simply be spat out. Cedric manipulated his summon to constrict its ‘stomach’ when they neared the edge of the swarms, breaking a container even as it opened its mouth. Like the old dragons of legend, his summon breathed out a gout of something – though it was a gas instead of fire, rather lessening the effect.

The gas did its work, the Summoner was forced to admit even as he began leading the wyvern into making a long pass through the mass of undead creatures, spewing out clouds all the while. The brew attacked the necromantic constructs almost as holy water would have, eating at them and disrupting the spell holding them together – it was particularly lethal on insects, but even the birds collapsed after a heartbeat of exposure.

Yet another victory to be laid at his feet, the Summoner thought with smug satisfaction.

General Abigail figured this must be a little like how a chicken would feel, if it were still alive when you put it on a spit to roast.

Just enough movement to give you the illusion that you might make it out, when in fact you were just spinning around so that you could be roasted more evenly. Sadly still on her horse, the general hid another wince as she watched another pack of ghouls leap over the shield wall at the front and land atop the shield panels of the mage cabals, then wiggle through a weakness in them. The Third Army was being made to stand and take the bloody hits to the Sapper-General of Callow could pound the enemy into dust with her ballistas, a strategy that Abigail would admit to herself she would have been very fond of if it didn’t involve her standing so close to the killing field.

Boots, that bloody horse, seemed to have grasped that they were in it together at least until the end of the battle – it was cooperating, and had not tried to bite her in at least an hour. From that unfortunately dangerous vantage point, General Abigail watched the field. It’d been hours since the battle began, long enough that some of the mud was beginning to dry, but for all the efforts on both sides it remained a stalemate. Revenants had tried to smash the front lines a few times, but Named had met them head on and gotten the better of them. Most the time, anyway. Some devil in pale plate had killed a villain and only retreated when the band under the Silver Huntress reappeared to force him back.

It’d be a while still until sundown, Abigail figured, but there would be no clear winner today. The trouble was that even with rotations he people were getting damned tired, and the Procerans likely had it worse on their flank: half of them were mercenaries, and unlike the Dominion on the right they didn’t have the numbers to be able to keep back a reserve. It might all turn nasty, if they weren’t careful, and even with the Second Army still being held in reserve a lot of damage might happen very quickly if the left flank went sour. The trouble was that, when it came to what she could actually do to help prop up the left flank, General Abigail saw only the one option and she wasn’t exactly eager to take it.

“Might not be as bad as what happens if we wait, though,” she muttered at her horse.

She considered the risks. Gods, much as she hated to admit it doing nothing might be the more dangerous of the two. The Volignac soldiers were a hardy lot, but the mercenaries didn’t have the same stomach for the right. If some started running… Abigail still held back on doing anything until she saw the first fantassin company break, cursing and giving orders to her general staff even if the mercenary company managed to rally and return into position. It was only going to get worse the longer she waited, and with Abigail’s luck everyone up here was going to pull a runner except her own damned army.

After dismounting she gathered as many companies of heavies as she dared to pull to her and arranged for a wedge. She sent for the Third Army’s standard, picked some poor bastard to carry it into battle and waited for the orders she’d given to trickle down to the House Insurgent and the mage cabals. The change was noticeable, when it happened: from defensive to offensive. The priests struck out with mass volleys as shields winked out and were replaced by great spears of flame either.

“Gods,” Abigail faintly muttered. “How bad could it really have been, being a tanner?”

Too late to back out now, she knew. After pulling all those heavy companies to her, if she gave the command to someone else they’d turn on her for cowardice. Ah, she realized with a start, but there was a way to avoid fighting. She found the poor bastard she’d given the army standard too and sent him back to the ranks with a smile, taking it up herself. See, with that thing in hand she wouldn’t be able to use a sword so no one could expect her to – shit, Abigail, realized, she could no longer use a sword. And Keter might go after the standard to hurt morale. She’d made herself a target again.

“Are you ready, general?” Krolem asked.

They were all looking at her, Abigail saw, waiting for her order. The swallowed a whimper, which came out sound a little like a giggle. Some of her officers looked impressed.

“Forward,” General Abigail ordered. “Into the breach, Dauntless.”

For once, she was lucky: the answering roar of approval drowned out how shrilly terrified her voice had really been.

Interlude: Old Dogs

“I fear our tyrant in the east, but dread I reserve alone for what staying on our knees would make of us.”

– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty

General Abigail looked into the Baalite eye again, wishing generals didn’t have to be on horses.

It made her stand out, and people who stood out did have that unfortunate tendency to get shot. She couldn’t even use the damned thing to run away, because it made her stand out so people would bloody well notice. It was the sixth time since the Third Army had begun to mobilize that she was having a look at the enemy positions, but repetition wasn’t improving her prospects any. The drow had done good work, smashing up the enemy’s walls and collapsing their ditches, but the corpses had worked tirelessly overnight. The walls had been rebuilt into little more than stacked stones, more like a cattle-fence than a fortification, but the nice thing about cattle was that it wasn’t usually trying to stab you.

Somehow she doubted the undead would be so congenial.

“At least they’re low on bowmen,” General Abigail muttered. “Javelins aren’t as bad when it gets down to it.”

They did a number even on plate and they could scrap a shield, sure, but the range was lesser and you couldn’t carry anywhere as many of them.

“I don’t understand why Keter fields so few,” Staff Tribune Krolem gravelled at her side. “With their numbers, mass volleys would be near impossible to deal with.”

Except with them mage shields, of course, but those would be needed for the more exotic stuff the enemy had up its sleeves.

“Their dead are too dumb,” Abigail absent-mindedly told him. “The Binds, the one with souls still nailed to the corpse, they’re as clever as people. But the Bones? They can’t maintain gear for shit, certainly not something as finicky as a good bow. Javelins are simpler, and easier to make too.”

She glanced at her right hand, the tall orc looking like he was spoiling for a fight. It wasn’t his fault, Abigail reminded herself. Orcs were just born that way, with more teeth to compensate for the absence of the part where good sense went. Besides she’d probably like fighting more if she got to eat the losers afterwards, she figured. Tavern rates these days were basically robbery, so greenskins were definitely coming out ahead there.

“We’ll wait until the Sapper-General finishes her bombardment to advance,” she told Krolem. “And send our bloodhounds out, would you? I want this field cleaned up before our shield wall starts advancing.”

“On it,” the Staff Tribune saluted.

Good man. Some would have called Abigail paranoid for the precaution, but they couldn’t. Largely on account of them all being fucking dead while she was not. A nice empty field all the way to Lauzon’s Hollow, after Keter was allowed time to work its wickedness? Yeah, she wasn’t falling for that one. Her ‘bloodhounds’ were a suggestion she’d made to the Black Queen last year that got approved, to her surprise: mixed crews of regulars, priests and lesser magical talents that could sniff out the kind of hidden devilries the Dead King liked to leave lying around before her people walked into them. Leaving them to do their work properly would slow the advance, but Abigail didn’t exactly mind. She looked into the Baalite eye again, silently bemoaning her fate.

While it’d been a relief to learn that the Black Queen’s battle plan wouldn’t require the Third to charge at the mouth of Lauzon’s Hollow under enemy fire, she’d still ended up stuck leading the vanguard. Her inexplicably enthusiastic soldiers might think it was an honour to serve as the foremost meat shields – Dauntless, they’d all cheered, like the word meant they were no longer the people standing closest to swords trying to kill them – but General Abigail was not fooled. When you tangled with Keter, the front was the last damned place you wanted to be. Nowhere near was her own preferred locale, but she’d not had a great deal of success getting there.

Gloomily, the general leaned back on horse as the wings of the assault assembled to the east and west. The Second Army under General Hune would stay behind her and serve as both the reserve and the escort for the siege engines, while to the left the Procerans had assembled under Princess Beatrice and to the right the two leading members of the Blood had been granted a shared command. It made the west the weak flank, not as steady or numerous, but the Black Queen had sent most of the alliance’s horse there to prop them up. It would be some time yet before they had to advance, General Abigail knew, and when they did she’d at least have Named with her.

It was still with despair that she realized they’d somehow got her again.

She’d had a plan, a solid one. It was too late to back out of this whole general business now, as a pragmatic soul she’d been forced to recognize as much. Besides, Abigail of Summerholm hadn’t stuck out this bloody nightmare of a war to not retire with a full general’s pension: when she got home, she fully intended to never lift a finger again for the rest of her days and maybe drink herself into an early grave. It was her godsdamned godsgiven right to do so. So the plan had been adjusted. Abigail was going to make herself just enough of an embarrassment that they’d reassign her back home where she couldn’t make the Black Queen look bad in front of all the fancy nobles by being a lout.

It would be a delicate line to walk, being embarrassing enough to be sent away but not enough to be demoted, yet as the daughter of a long and storied line of loutish drunks Abigail had trusted in her blood to get her through this. It, uh, hadn’t panned out quite how she’d expected. People kept laughing when she said terrible things like ‘sure the Dead King horrid, but in his defence he’s been stuck living next to Procer for centuries’ and ‘makes sense the lake by the Dominion is from a hole in the ground, that’s pretty much the rest of the country too’ and instead of being made of pariah the amount of invitation to parties had tripled.

She’d dug deeper into loutishness, trying things like saying ‘you people’ and repeating the filthiest stories you could hear living in Summerholm as a brewer’s daughter, but it turned out these fancy Procer folk were shocking hard to, well, shock.

The only upside had been that these days Abigail might have to worry about nooses and the Black Queen eating her soul, but at least she didn’t often have to worry about being stabbed! Best thing about being a general was that when you got to a nice safe spot away from the frontlines, you got to call it strategizing. Very fond of strategizing, Abigail was. She did as much of it as was humanly possible. But now, as the Third Army spread out on the plains before Lauzon’s Hollow, the dark-haired woman finally understood the final treachery of her rank: even if she stood at theback of her army, that army could still be made to stand at the front of the coalition. She’d been had again.

The general looked into the Baalite eye again and sighed. It really was a shame about the horse, she thought. They might not have noticed her slipping away otherwise.

Though Robber had been told that his assignment was to serve as Pickler’s bodyguard, he suspected that what he’d actually been sent here to do was make sure that the Sapper-General of Callow did not end up murdering her assigned spotter: the honourable young lord Gaetan Rocroy of Cantal, also known as the Page. Robber admired the young man in a deep and sincere manner, which he’d not hid in the slightest. It’d taken him years of work to able to get under the skin of everyone he met, while the boy was pushing through on natural talent alone. It was a wonder to behold, really.

“Praesi measurements are quite inadequate,” the Page blithely said. “Outdated, even. It is the Salian paume that should be used, not the-“

Sergeant Snorer, who had been a sapper for more than decade, twitched so violently he snapped the thin copper wire he’d been adjusting. Crows, but the boy was an artist. The talent could not be suppressed, Robber would not allow it. It had to be encouraged, nay, cultivated! It would be a loss for Creation otherwise.

“Fire,” Pickler coldly ordered.

The Page had not quite got out of the way, so when the trebuchet’s counterweight came down he had to hurriedly hop to the side.

“Eyes on the stone, lordling,” Robber called out.

The hero glared at him for the presumption before doing what he was supposed to and serving as a good little spotter for the sappers of the Army of Callow. The boy’s eyes narrowed after the stone hit the side of a steep-sloped hill to the left of the hollow’s entrance.

“It shook,” the Page said. “Stone shattered on the surface. No large crack, though, you’ll need to get closer.”

There was a shared sigh by everyone here who’d studied ballistics. Eight hundred feet was well into the range of an imperial trebuchet, which was the model the Army of Callow used. If the stones weren’t enough to crack open the hills at this range, then ballistas – which shot further, but with significantly smaller projectiles – would do next to nothing if deployed. The choice left was either to keep hammering away with the trebuchets for hours or start pulling out more interesting ammunition. The Boss had made it clear that she wanted those hills torn open for her plan, and she hadn’t looked like she was in mood for an argument as to the practicalities involved.

“Iron framework inside, do you think?” Robber asked Pickler.

She licked her chops thoughtfully, chewing on the thought.

“If your assessment of how hollow the hills are is even remotely correct,” Pickler said, “then it is the most sensible theory. It could be wards, I suppose.”

“Boss mentioned when one of the siege engines they’ve got was ripped away, the top of the hill came clean off with it,” Robber noted. “She thought the platform was sculpted from the stone, but maybe…”

“It was simply anchored in metal beams that crisscross the summit of those caverns,” Pickler approvingly said. “It would be metal strengthened with spellcraft, to have had this particular effect, so more likely steel than iron.”

Long, spindly fingers – she had sapper’s hands, Pickler, delicate and deadly – drummed the side of the closest trebuchet thoughtfully.

“We’ll keep hammering away at the eastern hills,” the Sapper-General decided. “Nothing we have will crack the western ones right now. I dislike relying on sabotage, but it seems necessary this once.”

Without even a need to be ordered, the sappers around them heeded her words: the nine trebuchets were prepared for concentrated fire, pivoted on their platforms. Like a swarm of ants, the goblins to work. The Page looked quite discomfited, staring at them uneasily, so Robber decided to lend his help. Sidling up to the boy, he offered a wide and fanged grin.

“Do tell me about these paumes, good sir,” Robber asked. “Unlike my ignorant and hidebound colleagues, I am always open to heeding superior Proceran learning.”

The boy’s face lit up with enthusiasm, and from the corner of his eye Special Tribune Robber caught sight of a lieutenant kicking a trebuchet stone in fury.

Would Catherine be open to permanently assigning the boy to him, he wondered?

Roland de Beaumarais suspected that many would have envied the surface of his current situation – namely, walking forward slowly as four beautiful women were pressed up against him. The whole part about it also involving a tricky illusion spell and being surrounded by undead desiring to kill them all might have been considered something of a drag, mind you, and sadly he wouldn’t even be able to remember the experience fondly. Not when Sidonia kept elbowing him, as the Levantine heroine just had the most horridly bony elbows, or when the Silent Guardian was not stepping on his feet for the eight time.

Gods that plate armour was heavy, aside from the fact that the Guardian herself was in no way a small woman.

“My foot,” the Rogue Sorcerer croaked out in a whisper. “Please be careful.”

To the Silent Guardian’s credit, she looked somewhat apologetic and tapped his shoulder in apology. That already put her ahead of Sidonia, who’d just snickered when told she kept elbowing him.

“Stop whining,” the Blessed Artificer said. “You’ll give us away.”

That Adanna of Smyrna spoke the reproach without so much as a hint of irony to her voice was, in its own way, impressive. Roland made himself count to five so he would not indulge in a retort and then they resumed their slow advance. The paths that Catherine’s worrying goblin lieutenant had found proved true eventually, the third attempt allowing them to slip into a crevice that led into the great caverns below the hills. There’d been difficulties on the way, of course, but between Roland’s knack for ward-breaking and the Silver Huntress’ keen senses they’d managed to avoid giving themselves away.

It was inside they’d been forced to stay under illusion, as the place was crawling with undead. Even in the rare hallways Binds were always patrolling, and Roland pressed close to the wall as the other Chosen did the same to once more avoid the edge of his illusion being touched by a patrol of thirty undead soldiers in pristine armour. The caverns were shaking from the pounding of the Army of Callow’s engines was giving the surface, but while sometimes stones were loosened the place seemed in no danger of collapse. He could understand why Catherine had taken the risk to send them here, now.

Only a band of Chosen would be able to see this through halfway quietly, or without everyone involved dying in the process.

“We’re close,” the Silver Huntress murmured. “Only one level left. Adanna, you’re sure you can’t do it from here?”

The device the Blessed Artificer had prepared ought to be able to collapse the cavern’s ceiling, but she’d insisted it ought to be triggered as close to it as possible. There were hallway rings going up the sides, fortunately, and four nerve-racking levels up the five of them now stood close to the highest they’d be able to stand. There was a fifth level, but it seemed narrowed than the others.

“I could have done it from the bottom,” the Artificer peevishly replied, “but that would be rolling dice. I can only guarantee results from the level above us.”

“Then we go,” the Huntress sighed. “Steady and careful, all.”

The illusion Roland was currently using covered sound, so long as it was of sufficiently low pitch. It was why he’d picked something otherwise so unstable and finicky among his repertoire. Which was why when a great axe sunk into the wall just above his head, a tall Revenant in pale plate smiling mirthlessly as the spell shattered, he was rather surprised.

Halfway quietly was out, the Rogue Sorcerer mused. Time to see if ‘without everyone involved dying’ could still be salvaged,

There was a moment of silence as a massive lance of Light tore through the hilltops on the left side of Lauzon’s Hollow, spinning up in the sky like some behemoth’s spit until it thinned and vanished into a shower of motes. Trails of smoke followed behind, the heat from the priestly power having set small fires and scorched rock.

“You know,” Robber said, looking at the rising smoke, “when the Boss told me there would be sabotage, I figured it would be something a little more…”

“Subtle?” Pickler suggested.

“Yeah,” he faintly replied. “That works.”

Was that from the woman that looked like Wasteland get? Gobbler knew it couldn’t be the Vagrant Spear or the Silver Huntress – the former would have had Archer bragging up a storm, while the latter would instead probably have tried to kill Archer by now. The Rogue Sorcerer was a skillful meddler but no used of Light, and the Silent Guardian was by reputation a solid warrior but not particularly powerful. That left only the woman with the Ashuran accent and those golden highborn eyes that had Robber feeling wary every time he saw them. People with them were usually quite dangerous, when they got to live up to the Blessed Artificer’s age.

“It will do the trick, regardless,” Pickler shrugged. “Shame they didn’t get the enemy engine, but I supposed it will have to do.”

In front of them, the trebuchets snapped into motion. One after another they pounded at the hillside, until finally the thunderous crack the sappers had been working at for an entire bell finally resounded. The Page excitedly informed them there was a large fissure now. Another seven stones and finally the side of the hill collapsed. The iron bones that’d held it up were could still be glimpsed in the rubble, twisted and bent but rarely broken. The sight matched that on the eastern slopes, which had been smashed a more than half a bell ago.

“Hold fire,” the Sapper-General ordered. “The trebuchets are done. Begin advancing the copperstone ballistas as soon as the Third advances.”

Ignoring the Page who was asking whether he could finally leave, Robber picked out one of the trebuchets and began to climb his way up the beams. Unlike his fellows, he had an inkling of what was coming and he wanted as fine a seat to witness is as he could. Deftly raising himself atop one of the legs supporting the pivot, he watched as a great wyvern took to the sky from near the frontlines. Not a real beast that one, it didn’t move quite right, but his sharp eyes caught sight of two silhouettes on its back. The Summoner would be one, he knew, but he wasn’t sure for the second.

Archer ought to be with the Third, since it’d serve as vanguard, but you never knew with the Boss. Not like she was low on Named these days, anyway. The speculation served to entertain him as the wyvern flew forward, swarms and a wyrm rising to meet it in the distance. A death warrant for the two Named gone out, if it’d been meant to be anything except a distraction. It wasn’t, though, and with a pleasurable shiver Robber felt the air begin to thicken. He gulped down his breaths as if struggling against an unwilling Creation, the sheer powerbeing gathered always surprising him. It was good for this army to be reminded exactly what the Black Queen was now and then, the Special Tribune felt.

Cat played nicer, these days, so sometimes the westerners forgot who it was exactly that’d won the Tenth Crusade.

A large circular gate winked open in the sky above Lauzon’s Hollow, and to Robber’s delighted surprise a heartbeat later a second one did. Sahelian was finally earning her keep, then. The hollowed out hills on both sides of the pass had been torn open at the top and smashed in the front, so now all that was left was using that broadened field of engagement and giving a pitched battle – or so conventional wisdom would have suggested. That wasn’t the Boss’ way, though, not at all. She rarely settled for a single knife in the kidney, it was one of the more charming things about her.

So it was with utter glee that Robber began cackling when he realized that the gates in the sky weren’t connected to the Twilight Ways at all. The way water began pouring out of them was something of a hint.

Roland pulled deep on one his strongest offensive magics, forming fire and turning it dense and liquid before tossing a hundred droplets of it at the mass of skeletons coming after them. The Vagrant Spear, pulling the unconscious Adanna closer to her, turned just long enough to send a blast of Light at the armoured Revenant still pursuing them, cursing angrily in Ceseo when the dead hero shrugged it off like he had everything else they’d thrown at him. Nothing made a dent: not steel, not sorcery, not even Light. The Silent Guardian had managed to throw him off the ledge earlier, the most success they’d had, but he’d been back before long.

With more Revenants, of course, for the Gods despise Roland deeply and wanted him to die screaming.

Alexis put a seventh arrow in the shield-bearing titan of a woman coming after them with a halberd, that Revenant’s unsettling laugh echoing across the cavern even through the cacophony of an entire army mobilizing to kill them. Arrows clattered against the wall as they passed by a pillar, just a second too slow to catch any of them, but already they were being charged at by armored skeletons ahead and javelins were in flight from somewhere he’d not even looked at yet! Swallowing bile, already feeling the raw sting of his aspects being leaned on too harshly, Roland conjured a shield to take care of the javelins.

The Silent Guardian plowed into the skeletons a heartbeat later, smashing everything aside like a bull in a house of glass, but deep down the Rogue Sorcerer knew it wouldn’t enough. It was still two levels down before they’d get to the crevice they’d squeezed in through and there was simply no way they were going to last that long : opposition was hardening the further down they got. The Guardian screamed when a great barbed arrow punched through her mail, shot by some distant Revenant with a black iron bow, and though the Silver Huntress managed to turn aside a blow of the Revenant in pale plate and throw him off the ledge again, it was a temporary relief at best. Already the one with the halberd was coming at her, and now that the Silent Guardian was wounded and was going to start struggling with their front it would all be-

A wall of water came down from the sky, smashing through the holed that’d been melted through the ceiling of the cavern. The halberd Revenant was caught by a stream and smashed into the wall as the Huntress danced away just in time.

“That also works,” Roland admitted.

Mind you, if they didn’t figure a way out of this soon they were just going to drown instead. Still, this was already a distinct improvement. Thank you Catherine, he mused. Very timely of you. Screaming at each other so they could hear over the roar of the falling waters, the Rogue Sorcerer and the Silver Huntress agreed on a plan. If you could call an agreement to get the Hells out of here as quick as possible that. Water was beginning to gush down with them, and to their horror it was already filling the crevice they’d used to come in. They’d need another way out. Thankfully, even as they were wondered what in the Merciful Heavens that would be, scaffolding on the level above them collapsed.

A large flat piece of wood, one that must have served as a work platform, bounced down and rolled slightly downhill until the wounded and white-faced Guardian caught it with a hand. It was large enough for all of them, Roland noted, and quite likely to float. He met Alexis’ eyes, then shrugged.

“Do you have a better idea?” he asked.

She didn’t.

General Abigail shivered.

It was not the first time she’d seen this horror unleashed. Even if her memory had allowed her to forget the first day of the Battle of the Camps, her nightmares would not have. The gates did not look the same, now sleek rinks of darkness rather than the thin slices into Creation the Black Queen had once wielded, but then as now the sky had opened and wept. Abigail remembered the hate that’d simmered under the fear, back in those days where it’d been the Principate they’d fought. The way she’d known that their queen was a monster but she was not a monster who had sought this war, that it had been forced on all of them by a handful of rapacious princes in their palaces across the Whitecaps.

But not even then had she believed the invaders deserved that cold, brutal and senseless end.

Not the sky wept again, two gates torn into the fabric of the world high above, and like jugs being filled the hills that’d been ripped open by siege engines received the deluge. Even stone shattered, when the water came from so high, and before long the hordes the Dead King had hidden within his caverns began pouring out on the tide half-smashed. The water rushed out of the broken hills, taking with it rocks and corpses and steel, and began to spread into the plains below. In the sky above Named skirmished with horrors and Revenants, Light streaking bright as the flood gates were protected from disruption. It wouldn’t last forever, Abigail thought, but it wouldn’t have to. That’d never been the plan.

Water stormed out of the pass itself now, having overrun the hills themselves and swept into the hollow between them, the tide bowling over the undead and smashing the fortifications at the mouth of Lauzon’s Hollow. The mud would make for unpleasant fighting grounds, Abigail thought, but it would hinder the undead as well. And it was the cost for something almost priceless: right now, as the waters kept hurling down from the gates, the Dead King’s waiting army had been essentially dispersed. All preparations, positions and traps and been unmade by the brute force of thousands of tons of water coming down from the sky. It would not win them the battle by itself, but as far as first strokes went it was a masterful one.

Let it not be said the Black Queen had come by her reputation dishonestly.

It was not even half an hour before the first enemy got through and took a swing at a gate, making it stutter, and within moments both gates had winked out of existence. Water kept pouring from a blue a cloudless sky, jarring to behold, but General Abigail knew what was required of her now.

“Krolem,” she said. “Have the advance sounded.”

“Ma’am,” the orc saluted.

Water still flowed but the plains were large and it had not rained in days: the earth would drink the tide in full, and it would not take so long as one might think. Abigail would not waste the advantage she had been given.

“Good, you’re not dragging your feet.”

The dark-haired woman almost fell down her horse, utterly startled, and froze in a different kind of fear when she saw exactly who it was that’d addressed her. The absurdly large bow would have been answer enough, even if the dark linen scarf and long coat had not been just as telling a sign. The Archer was not an uncommon sight around the camps of the Army of Callow, though Abigail preferred to avoid Named like the plague when she could.

“Pardon?” General Abigail got out.

“You’re attacking,” the ochre-skinned villainess said, smiling pleasantly. “Like Catherine wanted you to. Don’t be afraid to press your luck in the assault, general, we’re not done with surprises for the day.”

“I, uh, of course,” Abigail stammered. “You are to be the Named that comes with the Third, then?”

“Something like that,” Archer grinned. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

Abigail noted that her horse was looking at the villainess with fear-tinged distrust as well. A wise animal than she’d believed, she conceded.

“I’ll see you around, general,” the Archer winked. “Don’t go disappointing me, now.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Abigail replied, a lot more honestly than she’d meant to.

Luck was on her side, and so the Named drifted away as she laughed. The general took the time to gather herself, straightening her back and breathing out. She had a battle to get through. In the distance in front of her, horns sounded as the Third Army’s ranks tightened into a shield wall and it began to advance. Noting its unease, General Abigail patted her horse’s neck and mercifully ignored the attempt to bite her fingers she received in return.

“If you get through this, Boots, I might take you with me when I retire,” Abigail of Summerholm muttered. “If you’re unhappy about being in this mess, that already makes you the second smartest animal in this bloody army.”

Onwards they went anyway, to swift death and graves shallow.

Chapter 58: Prophylaxis

“One can no more win a battle than one can ‘win’ a hurricane or a house fire. It can, at best, be a disaster withstood better than some others also suffering it.”

– Dread Empress Sanguinara, the Shrewd

The blades had gone back to the sheaths, so as always the generals were left to the grim business of counting the corpses.

With the protective wards set down the rest of our army had crossed into Creation and a camp begun being built, but even so General Hune had prepared casualty reports by the time I returned. A little over nine hundred dead for the fight taking the beachhead, more from the Dominion than the Army of Callow. Significantly more wounded, but we weren’t low on priests so that ought to be a temporary measure in most cases. Given that there was sure to be fighting tomorrow, our standard orders that mages would not currently offer advanced healing stood. Not too unexpectedly, the raid I’d led into Lauzon’s Hollow had turned out more costly than the first battle of the day.

Almost twelve hundred drow had died on those grounds, Lord Soln’s battle claiming the largest share of dead – it’d run into heavily entrenched positions and waiting Revenants. A costly affair, losing more than a tenth of our current force of Firstborn on the first stroke, but the payoff had been worth it. We couldn’t be sure of the enemy’s casualty numbers but around six thousand at the hands of my raiders was a conservative estimate, and that was without taking into consideration the targeted objectives we’d gone after.

On wyrm was destroyed entirely, stormed by a hunting pack of Mighty while I’d been gone, and one of the siege engines made essentially unusable. Soln had devastated the enemy’s fortifications in the front and one of its sigil-holders slain a Revenant, while Sudone had done more damage than the two of us put together. Three ritual sites had gone up in flame along with the mages manning them before it found a fourth too well-fortified to assault and turned instead to setting fire to every structure in sight. It’d even collapsed the mouth of the pass leading out of the Hollow on its way out, which if nothing else ought to slow down the enemy’s repairs overnight.

I sat down with Senior Mage Dastardly from the Third to get my rib seen to as I heard Hune’s assessment of the situation in camp. We were building quickly but too fragile for her tastes, not that there was much of a choice. While Dominion folk and Procerans – the Volignac soldiers and the fantassins drew lots – could be put to work digging ditches, most couldn’t be trusted to raise palisades or assemble watchtowers. It just wasn’t the way either of their peoples waged war, they had no training in it. I called a war council after thanking Dastardly for his work, first to reiterate the watch arrangements – goblins and drow would take the first few shifts, but as soon as we had enough torches and magelights up the forces that’d not fought today would begin sending watchmen – but secondly to share what I’d learned during the raid.

“The surrounding hills have been hollowed out,” I told them. “To what extent I can’t be sure, but at the very least the valley where the village once lay is significantly larger now.”

Meaning the enemy would be able to cram a lot more soldiers into it when we tried to break through.

“More worrying is this,” I continued, pulling at Night.

I drew out the silhouette of the two siege engines I’d never quite gotten a look at.

“Larger than even goblin works, much less those of the dwarves,” Princess Beatrice observed.

Spoken like someone who’d never seen an actual dwarven army on the march, I thought. The stuff they peddled up here was the dregs of their arsenals.

“What does it do?” Lady Aquiline more bluntly asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Neither fired, and they were slow in turning towards us. I’d wager they were being pointed at the grounds in front ahead of the Hollow and that the machines are slow to turn.”

“Not surprising, given the size,” General Abigail muttered. “Old Bones doesn’t usually use this stuff either, Your Majesty, it’s all monsters and spells. I don’t like the looks of it at all.”

Several people leaned forward as the Callowan general, famed for her sharp military instincts, expressing such wariness. They’d not been taking it all that seriously until now.

“Do we have a way to silence it before the assault?” Lord Razin asked.

“We can’t take horses up those hills,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “Gods know we tried, last year. We never found any proper paths for soldiers to go up, either.”

“I intend to send Special Tribune Robber into the hills to see if there are paths to use,” I said. “But I’ll not pin great hopes on the attempt. The area will be swarming with undead, regardless: even Mighty in the fullness of night were unable to seize those positions.”

I hadn’t been able either, and lost Zombie in the process, but I wouldn’t admit to that in front of these people. The myth of my unconquered strength was much too useful to begin chipping at now.

“It might be worth trying a second raid will the full strength of the Firstborn when the detachments return,” Captain Reinald suggested.

“Playing the same trick on Keter twice always ends the same way,” Razin Tanja firmly said.

Good boy, I thought. He was learning, our Lord of Malaga.

“The detachments will begin arriving tomorrow afternoon at the earliest,” General Hune said. “And it would be ill-advised to attack before the following morning. We still have time to consider other methods.”

“The Dead King won’t wait until then to begin attacking,” I said. “Don’t rely entirely on the common watch, you should all keep your own as well. Tomorrow we’ll begin bombardment of the entrance to prevent fortifications from being raised again, but in essence our position remains defensive. We are preparing for a decisive thrust, not spending our strength.”

The trouble would be figuring out how to make our thrust decisive, I’d already gleaned. The Dead King had struck with all his might against Cleves in the west, betting that he could break through there before we could reclaim Hainaut, so he wouldn’t be looking to outright win the battle here: just delaying us for too long would be victory enough. It was hard to dislodge a skilled enemy waiting you out in a fortified position like the Hollow even when they weren’t outnumbering you, and attempting to force the pass would be bloody business. There would be a need for some cleverness here.

The only good news so far was that there was no hint our enemy had caught on to our reserve using the Twilight Ways to strike directly at the Cigelin Sisters, behind our current tussle. I was actually temped to just trade artillery shots with the undead here until the Sisters were seized, actually, since their fall might force the enemy to move from the Hollow. That was just me getting squeamish about casualties, though, I suspected. At the moment time was more precious to us than soldiers, ugly as the truth was. I called the war council to an end shortly after, exhausted but not yet done with my duties.

I held back Princess Beatrice, since I had a question for her.

“Ever heard of a Chosen named Adehard Barthen?” I asked. “He would have been a White Knight.”

“I have not, Your Majesty,” Beatrice Volignac admitted. “Though history was never my strong suit. The name sounds northwestern but that might not mean much: the Principate is not a small realm.”

“It was worth a try,” I sighed. “Kindly ask around if you know anyone of such scholarly incline.”

Might be worth sending word back to Neustal to see if Salia or the Arsenal could dig up anything for me. It’d been a while since I’d lost a fight that badly, and this White Revenant wasn’t even supposed to be the main threat here: that would be the Prince of Bones and his Grey Legion, neither of which had yet made an appearance. Which was worrying me. The Headhunter had not been able to confirm their marks were still there, as I’d not risked Named too close to the enemy defences yet. The last fucking thing I needed was a fresh Revenant with knowledge of my war plans.

Hakram was in not long after, the Apprentice trailing his shadow as agreed. The Ashuran was young, and her face of a cast too hard for people to call it pretty. I sympathized, having been there myself at her age – only without magical powers to make up for it, unless you counted compulsive mouthing off as one. Adjutant came with a mug of hot tea – sweetened with honey – and reports I’d been wanting. I drank of the first, enjoying the warmth seeping into my bruised lips, while gesturing for him to summarize the second.

“Start with the Rapacious Troubadour,” I said.

“As ordered, the Vagrant Spear preserved a Bind and delivered it into our custody,” Hakram gravelled. “The Troubadour then interrogated it in his particular manner.”

“He means the Troubadour ate the soul and went sifting through its memories,” I idly told the Apprentice.

“That is revolting,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

I hummed in agreement.

“Damned useful, though,” I said. “So, what did her get?”

“Confirmation that the Grey Legion and the Prince of Bones are here,” Adjutant. “Eyes on at least twelve Revenants. He also believes, form the movement of troops glimpsed, that the Dead King has been waiting for our offensive.”

I grimaced. Much as I hated to hear that, it fit what we’d seen: the strikes to the west into Cleves had come too quickly after the beginning of our offensive for it to be a coincidence. He’d waited until our armies were committed elsewhere to attack.

“Speaking of Revenants,” I said, “I want you to look into a name: Adehard Barthen. White Knight, possibly from the northeast.”

“I’ll see what I can dig up,” Hakram gravelled. “Difficult foe?”

“Couldn’t crack him before I withdrew,” I admitted. “And Zombie’s gone.”

He let out a soft noise of sadness.

“I’d begun to think that malevolent old thing was unkillable,” Hakram said.

“So had I,” I murmured.

I shook it off, sipping at my tea. This was no time to get sorry over a dead horse dying again, there was a war on.

“Firing platforms?” I asked.

“Pickler says they’ll be ready by morning,” Adjutant replied. “Our artillery will be in place by Early Bell at the latest, though come daylight she maintains her request for Named spotters.”

“I’ll think about it,” I grunted.

I hated to use any Named like that, as it felt like using a magic wand as an arrow, but some of our less combat-ready contingent might be gainfully used that way. I wasn’t going to be sending the Page out into the fray anytime soon, for example, so an argument could be made there.

“The trouble, sir,” Apprentice reminded him.

“I had not forgotten,” Adjutant replied, sounding somewhat amused.

He was in a much better mood than when I’d last seen him, I noticed, and I didn’t even know why.

“The Blessed Artificer went to have a look at our wards,” Hakram said. “Or tried to. Akua sent her packing, in her own polite way.”

“The Artificer has threatened to lodge a complaint under the Terms,” the Apprentice said. “It’s been the talk of the Named in camp.”

“Akua Sahelian is not Named, which makes that threat utterly meaningless,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “And if the Artificer wanted a look at our wards, she should have sought permission from the appropriate officers first. This isn’t the Arsenal.”

“Don’t I know it,” Apprentice muttered under her breath.

I smothered my amusement. Evidently, while pragmatic about trading the assignment as Hakram’s bodyguard and assistant for my backing in being reassigned to the Arsenal afterwards she wasn’t quite as sanguine about the trade as she’d been pretending. I hardly minded, if anything it’d keep her motivated to ensure Adjutant made it through this in one piece. After downing the rest of my tea and dismissing the two of them, I crawled into my cot and tumbled straight into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

I woke up much too soon, one of the Night-workings I habitually lay around my tent having been tripped. When an attendant came into my tent moments later and I slipped back my knife under the pillow, it took his announcing of Scribe as the courtesy it was: the villainess would have been perfectly capable of coming in without tripping a damned thing, or being seen by my guards. The nights were cool enough I’d gone to bed in a shirt, which cut down on dressing time, but I’d not washed before sleeping so I was unlikely to be smelling of roses. Eh, she’d deal.

“I”’ generously assume you woke me for good reason,” I bluntly said, sliding into a seat.

“News from the west,” Scribe replied. “From Princess Rozala.”

I grimaced. Yeah, that was well shaving an hour off my bedrest for.

“Hit me,” I sighed.

“You might recall that the diversionary force Princess Rozala sent out of Coudrent to pin the enemy army at Luciennerie was routed,” Scribe said.

“Not before seeing the Dead King was on the march, though,” I said. “I take it the siege of Coudrent has begun?”

“It has not,” Scribe calmly corrected. “In fact, the last reports from outriders insist there is no trace at all of an offensive against Coudrent.”

I blinked in surprise. Wait, what? It wasn’t that a feint was impossible there – I could think of half a dozen ways it could be done without even using magic – but rather that if that one hundred and fifty thousand strong army wasn’t headed west, where the Hells was it?

“Is it coming down the blue road instead?” I asked.

Vivienne was in for a ride, if that was the case. We had a stronghold straddling the blue road, north of Arbusans, but even with reinforcements holding it against such numbers was going to be rough. I frowned before Scribe even replied, already suspecting what the answer would be.

“There have been warbands, but no sign of an army,” Eudokia said.

Less than three bells ago, I’d been convinced that the Dead King’s plan had been to strike hard into Cleves while delaying us in Hainaut so that whatever gains we might make were made worthless by an entire front collapsing to our west. But that only makes sense if he attacks along both lines, I thought. Even if Trifelin fell right now – and it was by far a harder fortress to force than Coudrent at the moment, to boot – Cleves would be able to rally and mount a defence.

Which meant I had been gravely, utterly wrong about what Neshamah’s campaign plan was.

Fuck,” I cursed. “We were had. I don’t know how yet, but we were had.”

Dragged into full wakefulness by dread, I turned a hard eye to Scribe.

“Wake up Adjutant,” I said. “I want my full war council up and here within the hour.”

The Scribe nodded, but did not immediately depart. My brow cocked with impatience, as I probably needed to get some pants on if I was going to be entertaining royalty. I had fond memories of doing otherwise, admittedly, but it was best left as a one-off.

“I hear you have been asking about an Adehard Barthen,” Scribe said.

I gestured curtly for her to go on, since it was a rhetorical question we both knew the answer to.

“Though I cannot speak to this Adehard in particular, the House of Barthen is ancient Proceran royalty,” Eudokia said.

“Unless I missed a name when I made myself memorize the Highest Assembly – and I did not – you mean ancient in a very literal sense,” I noted.

“Relatively so,” Scribe hedged. “It preceded the House of Goethal on the throne of Brus, but collapsed after the death of nearly all adults of the line in the Sixth Crusade. In the short-lived civil war that ensued, the Goethals seized power while having essentially no real claim to the throne save force.”

Well, I thought, that was something.

“Anything related to them and a greataxe?” I asked.

It was an unusual enough weapon for an Alamans noble it was worth asking. She stilled a moment, as if deep in thought.

“The heraldry of House Barthen was a white axeman on green, wearing armour,” Scribe finally said. “And their words translated roughly to ‘None May Mar’.”

My eyes narrowed. I’d not scored so much a single wound on the dead White Knight, had I? And my inability to damage his plate – mar it, so might say – might have a deeper source than simple sorcery.

“Talk with Hakram,” I said. “Look into it together. Artefacts like a set of pale plate and a greataxe would be details of interest to me.”

If I was going to be fighting this one again, I wanted all the knowledge I could on my side. Scribe took my words like the dismissal they were, leaving me to limp around looking for a clean pair of trousers and quickly wash myself of the worst of the dried sweat from the night’s fighting. My hair went into a loose ponytail and I went looking through my desk’s drawers for nuts and dried raisins, which while far from a meal would have to suffice until something more filling could be arranged. I unrolled my maps of Hainaut on the carved table, setting down painted iron blocks for the forces once more.

I wasn’t seeing the solution, and it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. I honestly couldn’t make sense out of the Dead King’s campaign plan here. The army here in Lauzon’s Hollow to stop us made sense, no arguing with that, but the rest wasn’t adding up. There were too many little details going against the grain. Like Prince Klaus’ best efforts to bait out the army holed up in Juvelun failing even though at first his advance had been harassed quite aggressively, for one. The way that attack on Trifelin, which Princess Rozala had turned into a bloody fortress, had been obvious enough in coming we’d known it would for weeks if not months.

And not the supposed march on Coudrent turning out to have been a feint, which made some sort of sense, but less so that there’d apparently been no follow-through. Where had the army in Luciennerie gone? It should be hurrying down the blue road at breakneck pace right now, in an attempt to move quickly enough even through the Twilight Ways we’d be too late to reinforced. Instead an army of hundred and fifty thousand had disappeared. In principle, going into the countryside and off the roads it was possible to cut through the hills and reach Cigelin or the capital from Luciennerie.

In practice, that same lack of roads meant that the journey would be so slow that if my army broke through Lauzon’s Hollow in the next three days we’d still get to the capital ahead of the Luciennerie reinforcements, and with time to spare. My host was capable of beating such a force on the field, especially from a fortified position like the walls of Hainaut. Would the army in Juvelun move to the Cigelin Sisters and try to slow us down there instead? But that’d be throwing away another army, I thought. Neshamah had bones to spare, but he wasn’t exactly in a position to be pissing away armies like this either.

Honestly, even just taking Hainaut back up to the Cigelin Sisters while sealing the Malmedit tunnels out east and investing Luciennerie to the west would be a major victory for us. It wouldn’t deal with the bridge up north, which would still need to be destroyed, but that could be attempted from our new fortified lines – which would include, for the first time since the beginning of the war, a shared frontline between Hainaut and Cleves through Luciennerie. That’d be bad fucking news for the Dead King, and this entire gamble did not seem like his kind of stratagem at all. Which meant I was still missing something.

It had to be about that force of two hundred thousand, the one still missing. It’d last been seen north of the capital, and obviously it wouldn’t be able to move quickly when it was so large a force, but maybe it’d gone west? It might hit Trifelin, still being besieged, as a second wave. Hells, it might even try to attack the shore elsewhere entirely by going through the bottom of the lake. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. No, I decided. That wasn’t it. There’d be sense in that strategy – the Luciennerie army would then finally attack our defence lines after having delayed, forcing us to commit there and not reinforce Malanza – but that was, as the Intercessor had reproached me, still thinking like a general. Neshamah wasn’t trying to win a war, not like we would.

He was trying to exterminate vermin.

Battles and strategic victories meant little to him, it was only the destruction of our forces that mattered. And he wasn’t going to get that out west in Cleves, not when so many of the prominent Named and our finest armies were here in Hainaut and taking risks. The killing blow would come here, on this front. I could feel it in my bones, even if I still could not discern the shape of the doom to come. My war council filed in just as warm meals and steaming mugs of tea were brought in for everyone – Hakram’s eye for detail had not failed me – and I filled them in as everyone dug in. Not everyone understood the trouble we were in, unfortunately.

“I’ll not complain at fighting fewer enemies,” Captain Reinald said. “Let the Princess of Aequitan turn them back from her nice, cozy fortresses.”

“The dead will not grow wings, Black Queen,” Lord Razin said. “We’ll find this missing army sooner or later.”

I eyed him with displeasure.

“Or they’ll find us, Tanja,” Lady Aquiline flatly said. “This is grim news.”

Good girl, I fondly thought. She was learning, our Lady of Tartessos.

“In the worst case scenario,” General Hune said, “the force that routed the raiders from Coudrent could have been a simple large detachment – fifteen or twenty thousand, enough for a full-scale assault to be inferred by scouts – while the rest was already marching east. They could already be closing in on the capital, or even the Cigelin Sisters.”

I hadn’t even considered that, in truth. I nodded appreciatively at the ogre, even though she’d made it plain we might be in more trouble than I’d thought.

“Word should be sent to the Iron Prince,” Princess Beatrice suggested.

“It will be,” I said, “but there’s no guarantee the messengers will make it there, much less back to us with an answer. He’ll be north of Juvelun and approaching Malmedit by now.”

Meaning his back would be very much exposed, and the roads about as safe as having a drink in the Tower.

“No point in talking much about it, is there?” General Abigail shrugged. “Only one thing left to do.”

I suppressed a grin at the sight of every eye in the room turning towards her. See, the thing about that little jewel of a find was that while she was deeply paranoid – a healthy survival trait, in the Army of Callow – and just a little on the side of cowardly, she was also a significantly better commander than she believed she was. Her trouble was, in essence that her points of comparison were the finest generals of our time. She had the stuff, though, the spark that meant you had the potential to be one of those. The War College couldn’t teach you that, and while today Hune might be the better commander in every regard a decade from now I’d bet on Abigail of Summerholm nine times out of then. Something like anguish struck the other woman’s face when she realized that her conclusion had not, in fact, been obvious to everyone else in the room.

“Proceed, General Abigail,” I drily said.

“If we can’t figure out what the Dead King’s up to, then we have to punch through as quick as possible,” she hesitantly said. “Doesn’t matter what his plan is, if we throw a sharper in the middle of it.”

She’d put her finger to the pulse of it. Tempting as it might be not to act until we’d figured out what Neshamah was up to, it was too late for that. The armies were already marching, the bets had been put down. Now the only way out was through.

“My thoughts exactly,” I agreed. “It has now become imperative to break through even before the reserve strikes at the Cigelin Sisters.”

It’d allow us to secure the lands between the Hollow and the Sisters swiftly, and make sure the army holding Lauzon’s Hollow was annihilated instead of dispersed. I had no intention of allowing chunks of it to break off after we won the field and cut our supply lines after we moved on. We’d bottle them up in the lands between the two armies and eradicate them before moving on the capital together.

“Prepare for battle,” I ordered my war council. “As soon as the artillery is ready to begin firing, we will begin probing for a weakness to assault.”

There was no arguing with that, so as soon as the meals were finished they returned to prepare their men. I’d been blunt with my commanders mostly for the sake of clarity, as hurried or not I did not intend to throw soldiers into the meat grinder of a straightforward assault of the Hollow. It had become undeniable, however, that we no longer had the time to be too sly about forcing out the enemy. I was left to rely on the possibility that my first leanings might have paid off, so when a bone-tired Robber returned to camp an hour after dawn I had him brought to me directly. Dusty and bloodied, he still came in with a swagger. It did not hold for long when I asked for a report, though.

“I’ve got something,” Special Tribune Robber admitted. “But I’m not sure you’ll like it, Boss.”

“It beats the nothing I currently have on the table,” I frankly replied. “Talk.”

“There’s no goat paths left,” the goblin told me. “Keter got clever about it, broke up anything that might serve as a road soldiers could use coming from the outside. Went over the hills by climbing, but the place is full of ghouls and mages. I lost most of a line to some pretty well-hidden wards.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“Blew up the dead,” he said. “Keter’ll get no word out of my lot, even in death. It was the sharpers that let us find out what we did, actually. You mentioned the hills were hollowed out some, Boss, but it’s a lot more than that. They made the sides of the pass into a massive cavern camp, I reckon.”

I grimaced. I’d not thought that the Dead King would have invested so long in building up the Hollow, or that we would have missed it. Hells, with work of the scale he was mentioning the dead must have been at work even before we seized the pass last year. They’d hidden their tracks well, if even heroes had missed them.

“You can get in there?” I asked.

“Sure,” Robber of the Rock Breaker Tribe grinned. “We know a thing or two about digging, goblins.

He elaborated further under my questioning. Having assessed that trying the hilltops any further would just get more of his people killed to no gain, he’d instead spent most of the night getting a sense of the lay of the structures under the hills. The malevolent imp had three points of ingress for me and a sketch of what he believed the lay of the artificial caverns might look like – a copy of which was already in Pickler’s hands. Good, that’d spare me sending him to do that afterwards.

“Taking those would get real messy, Boss,” Robber told me. “Legions don’t do well on grounds like those, not against things like Tusks and Beorns. We need an open field for our mages to handle their like.”

“I’m aware,” I mused. “But if you’re right, the enemy will have hidden a significant part of its army under the hills.”

Waiting to surprise us after we’d taken the hollow, I decided. First they’d bleed us taking the entrance, and after we pushed the dead back beyond the old village they would have sprung the trap. The raid of last night paired with my favourite marauders had sniffed out the jaws, though, so we might be able to turn this on them. I drummed my fingers against the table, closing my eyes and forcing myself to think. The Dead King’s army had a superior position, superior numbers and it’d been preparing for this fight for long enough it’d still have a few nasty surprises up its sleeves. What did my army have that could overturn all those advantages?

“Maybe they’ll turn around and walk home, if we’re lucky,” Robber mused. “Stranger things have happened.”

My eyes opened. That was an answer, yes. Luck and goblins.

Didn’t sound like much, but you could do a lot of damage if you used those right.

Chapter 57: Battery

“Fear not defeat, for defeat is the mother of learning. Many a time will you be asked this question: are you worthy? Many a time will you have to deny it, until at last you do not.”

– Extract from the Tenets Under the Night, Book of Losara

Mighty Brezlej, I spoke into the Night, begin.

Brezlej Hundred-Eyes was an oddity by Firstborn standards. Most sigil-holders prioritized obtaining fighting Secrets, but Brezlej had instead begun picking up sight-related suites as far back as when it’d been ispe. It had since survived not by being slaying all its rivals but by dint of the unnaturally good timing those Secrets leant it. Its sigil had been shaped in the same image, sharp but fragile and relying heavily on its keen perception. What I wanted from Brezlej was not one its more famous tricks, like the Farsight or the Nine Pridnis Foretelling, but instead one that’d been considered near useless back in the Everdark. The Source-Finder, it was called, and up in the Burning Lands it had found a use at last.

Mighty Brezlej signaled agreement and submission, and I dismissed the matter from my mind. It would reach out to me when it had results and the other two sigil holders I’d hand-picked would hang back until the preliminaries were done. Now, stuck under ward with our backs to the wall, was the time to make asplash.

“SA VREDE?” I asked in a roar.

Are you worthy? The gospel I had first passed on to the Firstborn under twilight glow, long grown into something greater than the sum of my words. It might have been my lips that spoke it then, spoke it now, but the words did not belong to me. They belonged to the grey-skinned silhouettes standing in the dark of Lauzon’s Hollow, those fresh faces bedecked with ancient glories come to wage a war against Death tonight. And they answered, for I’d given them the first half of the prayer but the second was of their making.

“CERA AINE!”

The nuances bloomed in the Night: shame, fond amusement, hard-toothed pride and grim determination.

Are you worthy? I had asked them.

Ask tomorrow, they replied.

An oath, a threat, a boast. They were not yet worthy, but the night was young. I did not often like them, these strange and vicious souls that cruel goddesses had placed in my hands, but there were times where I could not help but love them. How could I not, when I had spent my life taking in lost souls and broken things as my own? Perhaps it was that the Crows had seen in me when they stole me back from the brink, that I would not able to use them without coming to care for them. Even the worst of Firstborn was beautiful in its own way, and when time came for another to stand as first under the Night I would not part with the mantle embittered from my years under it.

The drow had screamed their defiance into the starlit sky but it could not answer. The Hidden Horror did, with fury and crawling madness.

With a deafening crack the sides of the hills broke open in showers of stone, horrors crawling out with ear-splitting shrieks. Above us the stars were blotted out by great wings as the wyrms roared, spewing out clouds of poison onto my raiders as the great war engines atop the hills began to ponderously turn towards us. Over the edges tides of undead were unleashed, leaping down into the hollow – ghouls and skeletons and mages lit in ghostly green, spells already aflight. Among them a handful of silhouettes stood tall, Revenants clad in faded things and awaiting to unleash old horrors. The head of Mighty Darissim was thrown into the throng, leering in death, even as the first strike of the drum was heard.

Deep, slow and unrelenting it shivered through the air. Sorcery flared. Doom, the faraway drum promised. Doom. And through the sound fear and fatigue slipped into the ears of all who heard, sorcery just as poisonous as what boiled within the belly of the wyrms. Sve Noc stirred in the distance, ever jealous of the souls of their flock.

“You’ll have to do better than that, King of Death,” I laughed, Night gathering to me like rivers to the sea. “Let me remind you which of us it was, old bones, who once reigned over the night.”

I had no use for subtlety, not when I was making a point, so it was an arrow of screaming Night that shot up towards that insolently-close wyrm above me – it spun as it shot up, siphoning ever more Night from my veins as Komena’s harsh glee howled against my ear, and the abomination screamed when it pierced its belly. The Night did not fade after, staying a solid length rising straight from the tip of my staff to dozens of feet above the dead thing. Poison oozed down the length of the spike as I shifted my footing, grunting with effort even as a second hand came on my staff and Night surged through my limbs.

With a savage whoop, I slammed the dead dragon into one of the western engine turning towards us.

The belly burst open, unleashing a tide of steaming poison, and though the thing was not destroyed I had shredded its wings and body with the fall. I let go of the Night, gasping, and watched as pillars of wind turned back the cloud of death that’d come for my raiders. Eagerly, a whirling storm of obsidian and steel met the walking dead. I glimpsed only parts of the maddened melee, the nightmare suddenly turned real. Rylleh and sigil-holders split apart Tusks even as they trampled dzulu with impunity, ispe flickered from shadow to shadow as they danced the blades with sharp-fanged ghouls, javelins ripped through ornate breastplates as sorcery and Night traded deadly volleys.

Night had fallen, but there was light enough one would have been forgiven for believing otherwise.

There would be no gate into Twilight to take me up to the heights above, but then I had other ways. I whistled, with a flick of the wrist unleashing a rolling ball of blackflame that tore a hole through a tightly-packed shieldwall of armoured dead giving trouble to the Vuraga dzulu, and lightened the pain on my leg so that I might leap when Zombie passed by my side at a gallop and took flight again. Settling into the saddle I unsheathed my sword and savoured the ring of well-crafted goblin steel. With my knees alone I led her to take me to the eastern heights, where the Revenant that’d slain Mighty Darissim still stood, and my mount’s long wings flapped as she hoisted us upwards in a spiral. Striking at the wyrm had dispersed my protective illusion, but it was not with surprise that I greeted the enemy’s first volley. I’d been well aware it was coming.

Ghostly green flames flew at me in winding streaks, following even as Zombie dipped and twirled, while javelins and arrows came in swarms. Were I tired, were I spent, these could have been a threat. I was neither, for the night was yet young, and so I crushed them head on. Their dead flame I drowned out with my own, and no arrow was so well-crafted that it would not turn to ash when swallowed by blackflame. We came down on the enemy in a storm of fire, my mount whinnying with glee at the sight of the mayhem, and as her hooves touched the rock a circle of dead-become-ash burned around us.

“Come out, Revenant,” I idly called out. “That won’t have been enough to destroy you.”

The noise was soft, under the roar of flames, but not so soft I did not catch it – eyes flicking to the side, I saw the spinning throwing axe about to bury itself in my chest. Swallowing a curse I leaned back and swatted at it with my staff, narrowly landing the blow. But I was looking the wrong way, as a flicker at the edge of my field of vision told me: the Revenant was coming from the other side. Zombie kicked at the enemy but I saw an axe come down and go straight through her leg. Shit, I thought, throwing myself down so she could flee. The Revenant was quicker than her. I glimpsed a blur of pale plate and then a large two-handed axe as it went down her back, splitting her in two.

No,” I screamed, Night already at my fingertips.

I lashed out with darts of shadow but the Revenant met my eyes for a heartbeat – a pale brown, somehow sympathetic – and stomped down into the ash. The erupting cloud covered his retreat, leaving me with the horrible slight of Zombie cleaved in half. The pieces fell, after a moment, with sickening lurch. Destroyed beyond repair, whatever light there’d been in her eyes gone from a single stroke. Swallowing the grief I’d not expected to come, I laid a hand on her flesh and dragged the remains into the Night. I could dispose of the flesh properly, at least. There was no time for more, as another muted woosh tipped me off the enemy was after me again.

This time I ducked below the throwing axe, sharpening my senses further so I might hear from where the Revenant would come. Left, I thought, and lashed out with Night. A ghoul went up in black flames, then I caught sound from the right and burned up another. I was being toyed with. It was only luck that let me catch a glimpse of moonlight on steel and realize that, utterly silent, the Revenant had somehow gotten behind my back and was leaping towards me. A working would be too slow, I thought. Night burned in my arm as I twisted around and met that great axe with my sword and staff, being forced back as pain burned white-hot in my bad leg.

The Revenant withdrew his axe and I struck, sword flicking out, but even with Night along the edge the steel found no purchase in the plate. It’d been bait, and when I blocked the following blow with my staff – spell-forged steel or not, the Revenant’s blade bit not a whisper into the dead yew I’d been gifted in the depths of Liesse – I gave under his strength, stuck on the defensive long enough for him to take off a hand and sock me in the stomach. I spat out blood as a rib broke with a sharp snap, giving ground as I fled backward and flicked off the Night on the edge of my sword at the Revenant in the form of black flame. That white plate, though, was not so much as darkened by the heat of it. Dangerously well-crafted.

“Who were you?” I gasped out.

“Adehard Barthen,” the Revenant replied in stilted Chantant, his voice deep and pleasant. “Once the White Knight, now a hound to the Enemy. Run while you still can, Callowan.”

A White Knight using an axe? Hells, an Alamans using an axe? He must have been quite the odd duck.

“Not in the cards,” I rasped.

The hand taken off the great axe reach behind his back. Another throwing axe, I decided, and threw up a quick gale of wind. But there was a flare of sorcery and it was another great axe that was revealed, one in each hand as he sped towards me. I shaped a tendril of Night and sunk it into the ground right before him, then detonated. He leapt up, just in time for my staff to smash his armoured stomach and forced him back to the ground. I swallowed a scream, my broken rib digging deeper into my flesh.  I struck out with my sword, looking for a weak point closer to the knee – if I found flesh, I could burn him inside out while avoiding the enchanted plate…

An axe came down to force aside my blade, goblin steel stubbornly matching Keteran spellcraft, and he swiftly pivoted on himself with his axe spinning with him and aimed for my throat. Gods but he was quick for a man his size. I formed a tendril of Night, curling around my own abdomen and had it drag me out of the axe’s swing faster than I could move, then hammered his helmeted head with the tip of my staff: Night blew up in a heated detonation, but while the helm shook from the impact Sve Noc’s power did not bite into the steel as it should have. Fuck me, but this one was a hard nut to crack. I stole the pain out of my rib, as it was getting too much to bear.

Completion sounded a clarion call into the Night: Mighty Brezlej was done. And it had answers for me.

Though I itched to continue the fight with this strange White Knight who’d already cost me too much, I’d not come here for revenge or a pissing match. My staff struck the ground in front of me, smoke billowing out, and even as a great axe went spinning through where I’d been a heartbeat earlier I weaved an illusion around myself. Lesser undead came flooding the edge of the broken hill, as if answering the Revenant’s call, but I was just one limping step ahead. I skipped off the edge, calling Night to myself. Tendrils of darkness rose from the ground, forming into a flat bar I landed on and then stairs I strolled down as the workings of Mighty covered my back from the shots of the undead.

Mighty Brezlej knelt as I approached, so unusually short and stout for one of the Firstborn – I’d not seen many who could be called fat, though Brezlej fell well short of that – and its gaudy golden trinkets dangled on their strings.

“We have found three sources, Losara Queen,” Brezlej said. “I offer these sights to you.”

It offered up its palm, a small sphere of Night atop it. With a nod of thanks I took the sphere in hand and crushed it. My vision wavered as the memories I’d been given settled into my mind. It took me a few heartbeats to place the three ward anchors Mighty Brezlej and its sigil had found. One in the enemy’s camp proper, beyond the pass – I sunk that memory into the Night and passed it to Mighty Sudone, along with the curt order of destroy – and another closer to the front, close to where Lord Soln was fighting. Its raiders were actually in the memory, getting the worse end of a tumble with ghouls and beorns. I passed along an order to break that anchor as well, Soln replying with a sense of acknowledgement.

“You believe the third anchor is the key one,” I noted.

“It is the source of sources,” Mighty Brezlej agreed.

And it was the one closest to me: not far beyond the hollow, into the winding pass and tucked away behind secondary wards obscuring what defended the anchor. It had trap written all over it, but it needed to be sprung anyway. Fortunately, I’d already handpicked –

“No you fucking don’t,” I snarled.

The wyrm I’d downed had been patched together by necromancers just enough to start moving around again, and now instead of massacring anything daring to climb its hilltop it was getting back on its feet and preparing to bound down into the hollow. There its weight alone would kill hundreds if not thousands of my warriors before it was itself ripped apart by the Mighty. Above us the other wyrm made a pass, spewing clouds of poison and tying up Mighty with defending against them. Too many for comfort, every one of those wasn’t handling more mundane javelin volleys killing the dzulu.

The poison will win, in the long term, the cold voice in the back of my head assessed as Night raced through my veins. The gales were not dispersing the clouds, just pushing them higher. Already a dome of death was beginning to form above the hollow. The thoughts had flickered as my will shaped Night, weaving it into a cable stronger than steel. Without asking I snatched a javelin from Brezlej’s back and bound the working to it before sheathing my sword and leaving my staff to stand unnaturally still. The downed wyrm was not a difficult target, so strength without skill was enough to have the barbed javelin sink into its side.

The cable went from before me to the wyrm, protruding from a rippling sphere of Night, but I wasn’t intending for a repeat of the last time. I ripped out the other end of the cable from the sphere, spinning it out and adding a hook to the end. The downed wyrm leapt, after having batted ineffectually at the cable and found it would bend but not break, but I was swifter still: the other wyrm was making it pass and the hook clipped its belly. Both wyrms roared with dismay as the cable pulled taut, forcing the flying dragon into a fall and snatching the leaping one before it could land atop my warriors.

They both fell on hillsides out of sight, writhing angrily, and without batting an eye I wove a fresh cable and tied if halfway through their shared binding. The other side of that fresh cable I tied to a javelin – offered up solemnly by Brezlej – and with a snap threw it at the hulking shape of Keter’s untouched siege engine on the eastern heights. A hard smile stretched my lips as I felt the steel bite into something solid and the Night sink roots, just in time for the wyrms to try to peel away: one went back up in the air, the other circled west to return to the hollow. Both pulled at the second circle with massive strength. With a thunderous crack the engine was pulled up, and it was with pleased chuckle I saw that the base of the platform had been fused into the rock. The wyrms cracked the hill open like an egg, undead falling below as part of a rain of rock.

That ought to slow the enemy down some.

A tide of dust washed over us and I pulled my hood down, calling Mighty Randebog and Mighty Kuresnik to my side. In the distance I felt an anchor break. Mighty Sudone’s work, and not its only doing by the rising columns of smoke in the distance. The ward cutting us off from the Ways thinned, especially around where the anchor had been, but it did not break. Most likely it wouldn’t until the main anchor lay shattered.

“Brezlej,” I mildly said. “You have tactical command until I return. Aim the Mighty to keep back the poison-cloud and make the wyrms trash everything you can.”

“Chno Sve Noc,” Mighty Brezlej fervently swore.

Randebog was a stately one, wearing a black cloth mask going down to its lips. The yellow cape on its back somehow accentuated the tall silhouette bedecked in boiled leather painted black, and it bore a long curved sword at its hip. Kuresnik was the opposite, if anything: though just as tall, save for its dyed green hair it wore not a thing above the waist. It’d similarly eschewed boots and wore only a skirt of long metal-tipped leather strips as clothing. It had a wild look to it and its vivid green sigil was tattooed on its face, mixing with intricate tattoos of the same hue covering most of its grey-skinned body.

“Open your minds,” I ordered.

With restraint but not gently, I pushed into them the sight Brezlej had shared with me: the main anchor, nestled in the pass and awaiting our destruction. Both drow shivered as the sensation, as the Night that I wielded came straight from Sve Noc and apparently felt… purer that most. Raw.

“Kuresnik?” I asked.

It clenched its jaw, as if straining.

“I can take us close, Losara Queen,” Mighty Kuresnik eventually agreed. “But not there directly. There is a boundary.”

Around us their sigils had been gathering, still fresh and eager from having been kept in reserve all this time. Maybe seven hundred in total, most of them Kuresnik – their sigil was one of the most numerous in my army – though their lot was admittedly thinner on Mighty. The Randebog had never been many and their chosen specialty had not leant itself well to thriving in the war, but their core of twenty one Mighty were what I’d been after all along.

“Do it,” I bluntly ordered.

Mighty Kuresnik slammed the butt its long barbed spear into the ground, Night rippling out, and a heartbeat later its sigil followed suit. Kuresnik, that bold soul, had taken to the new ways with great relish: it was the first of my sigil-holders to have ever taken a Secret it owned and taught it to its own, spreading it around until its entire sigil could use the Secret of Long Strides. Not all Kuresnik were able to use it properly, but enough minds had pondered the matter that while trying to make the Secret easier to use they’d ended up making another entirely. The Secret of the Shadow Road, as they called it, was more or less a communal version of the Long Strides – one that could, with sufficient numbers, be extended to cover people who did not know either Secret.

To my eye it looked like a mirror made of darkness was opened in front of me, and after a wary glance I limped through. A tunnel, I thought, one in which I stood alone. The dark silently roiled around me, swallowing up all sound, but I could glimpse a patch of night at the end of the tunnel that was lighter in shade. It felt like I’d walked for an hour when I strode through the waiting dark mirror at the end, but my sixth sense told me that dawn was barely any closer – mere moments had passed. And still I now stood among a throng of drow, mostly Kuresnik, while ghostly fire rained down from above and sorcery crackled angrily in the air.

Forward,” I bellowed in Crepuscular.

Cera aine,” they shouted back.

The Dead King had known we were coming, and so made this place into a killing ground. The bend in the pass had been turned into a bastion, eight sets of increasingly tall and thick ramparts with the last reaching the height of the surrounding hills. Ghouls screeched as they leapt into the charging Kuresnik, claws and barbed spears tangling savagely, and knots of Bind mages scorched the air with their eerie flames from behind the safety of skeletons so heavily armoured they boasted more steel than bone. Lizards, rare among constructs, lay on their bellies atop the ramparts and spat gouts of flame and poisonous smoke. It was a tide of death, but it was met with vicious valour.

Shaping Night into a great spike, I hammered at the ramparts even as the Randebog began to emerge from the Shadow Road. The walls shook, but they had been warded up to the gills: I turned undead to ash but did not shatter stone. We’d have to do this the hard way. This was an ambush in more ways than one, of course. My Firstborn had emerged just outside the bend, scything through the few dead on the road and immediately turned against the heavily fortified bastion, but Julienne’s Highway continued towards the enemy camp. Reinforcements poured in so swiftly they couldn’t even be called that.

A wedge of Tusks, those great boar-like abominations with bellies full of stone, took the vanguard but behind them a flood of Binds and Bones was coming at a run. On the heights above, to the east, I caught sight of a silhouette in pale plate. Mounted atop a horse entirely of bone, now, but there was no mistaking that great axe. The Revenant who had once been the White Knight bellowed no war cry as he led his mount to skip off the edge of the hills, lesser undead trailing it his wake.

“You again,” I coldly said.

This might have been trouble, were I a fool. Mighty Randebog answered my summons, having been close and waiting.

“Randebog,” I hissed, “now.”

It nodded, its Mighty gathering around it to lend power.

“I am the curate of forgery,” Mighty Randebog prayed, voice clear and beautiful. “I bear empty sacraments and offer neither rise nor fall, only the bitter deception of the road winding ever round. Hallow me, Sve Noc, and so permit me to share your gloom with all the world.”

The dead knight raised his axe, sensing the power, but it was too late. Before the hooves could touch the ground, darkness billowed out from Mighty Randebog in a great ring. It swallowed whole the Revenant and the tip of the coming reinforcements, before coming at a sudden halt. Within the ring, only my force and the enemy bastion could be seen. No one else would intervene so long as the Secret of the Lesser Gloom held sway over these grounds: round and round our enemies would go, finding nothing but where they had come from. Now, I thought, all that’s left is smashing that fucking bastion to pieces.

I felt triumph in the Night and the wards shivered: Lord Soln had destroyed its own anchor. All on us, then.

Some mageling tossed a fireball at me, curving it past my warriors, and I casually swatted it aside as I took in the sight of the assault unfolding. Normally I’d consider sending light foot into a dug-in position to be throwing away lives stupidly, but the Kuresnik were a different story – nimble as wasps, they flitted from place to place in no way impeded by the heights and the walls. Already they’d swarmed through the first two walls, but looking at the meat grinder that ensued I wondered if that might not be by design: the third rampart was further back than the others, giving a clear line of sight, and the dead took full advantage of that.

With heavies out in the front and some sort of ward stunning the drow when they went up as shadows, they third rampart was proving the cliff to the sea of the Kuresnik. They won footholds, but did not keep them long. How many had died already? A third of the force at least. Lucky for them I’d come along.

“Randebog dzulu, with me,” I shouted.

Even as I limped to the front of the offensive, drow parting smoothly for me, the enemy began to focus their fire on me. Ghostflame and curses, javelins and arrows and stones. I raised my staff, pointing it forward, and wove Night as a vortex of wind sucking in the deadly rain. Within moments the winds were howling with fire and steel, burning bright, and with a grunt of exertion I shaped the wind into a sphere and smashed it down on the third rampart. Sorcery and hot steel erupted, carving a hole in the enemy’s defences, while I dragged myself up to the first rampart with Night tendrils and the dzulu followed with nimble leaps.

The dark filled with nightmarish visions that came almost too quick for me to react. A ghoul fell on me from above and I unsheathed my sword just in time to carve through it, staff coming forward to send a streak of blackflame into some Bind’s leering skull before it could tighten a curse of decay around my throat. The Kuresnik surged forward in the hole I’d blown from them, one even smashing the wardstone that’d been giving them trouble, just in time for the enemy to toss down great pillars of rock. I would have laughed at the absurd mundanity of that tactic, but Neshamah didn’t do mundane.

To the utter surprise of the Firstborn, Night wavered around the pillars – now shining with runes – and those that tried to escape into shadow instead of dodging were crushed. The third rampart, not even fully taken, became yet another killing floor.

Tentatively I chucked a spear of blackflame at the fifth rampart and found it became unstable just before hitting the enemy javelinmen perched there, though it still torched a few. There were more, then, and direct workings were doomed. I’d have to pull something heavy and risk the vulnerability. I called Mighty Kuresnik itself to me, signifying I was in need of a bodyguard, and let the Night roar inside the back of my head. I’d drawn heavily on my well, tonight, and though it was not empty – could not empty, not when the Sisters smiled on me as they did tonight – I was beginning to near the limit of what my body could tolerate using. It was time to wrap up this raid.

As if sensing my intent, Keter pulled out all the stops. Stones shifted and a terrible screech filled the air, swarms of insects emerging from the sixth rampart like a tide and descending. Distantly, I heard Kuresnik fending off arrows and worse. Swallowing a curse I adjusted the working I’d begun to weave on the fly, forced to adapt as the first ranks of dzulu were devoured alive and the Mighty began to torch swarms and drow alike with black flames of their own. A dark shape, vaguely rectangular, began to shimmer into being above the enemy. Sweat beaded my brow. A headache was already pounding at my temples: Merciless Gods but I hated shoving imperative properties into things.

I only had the barest understanding of them through my patronesses, so pulling on one of them always had that horrid bleed. Back when I’d been smoke and mirrors I was able to shrug that off, but these days I was at a risk of my brain beginning to boil if I trifled too much with things beyond my understanding.

It worked, though. I’d pretty shamelessly stolen a favourite trick of Radhoste the Dreamer, the Sixth General, but with my own twist on it. Rhadoste like to make large miracles with magnetic properties, since it could foresee the enemy’s approach and arm its own forces appropriately, but simple imitation wouldn’t help me with the swarms. So instead of a simple magnet, I’d leaned on the Sisters to allow to ‘understand’ a nameless property. It was, essentially, ‘bodies with Night and bodies without Night’. As my miracle flared, the dead – ghouls, swarms, skeletons – were slammed against their own ramparts as a great force repelling all bodies without Night exerted its strength against them.

“Quick,” I gasped. “Clear the ramparts, I won’t last long.”

It was all butcher’s work after that, killing enemies that mostly couldn’t fight back. The pillars that troubled Night were tossed aside with simple strength and the ways cleared as Mighty took the time to get inventive now that they were no longer being shot at. Acid and fire and curses that turned bone to dust lashed out, clearing one rampart after another as the dzulu advanced. I released my working as soon as we began storming the last bastion, spent and covered in sweat, and though there were a few last nasty surprises one of the Kuresnik eventually shattered the last anchor with a well-placed blow. The invisible weight went off our shoulders and I breathed out in relief. We’d lingered long enough, the swarms and Revenants couldn’t be far by now. Retreat, I spoke into the Night, putting an end to our raid.

Bodies were picked up where we could, and within thirty breaths of my order there was not a living soul left in Lauzon’s Hollow.

Chapter 56: Repertoires

“There is no such thing as an unusable army, only armies that are not properly used.”

– Aretha the Raven, Nicaean general

We did not come as an army, not the kind I’d raised and led and fought against. The Firstborn followed in my wake like a trail of colourful armed gangs, advancing without formation and answering to no single general. Ten thousand of the Firstborn had come raiding with me, the eerie grace of their stride belying the disorder of their advance. Few of their sigils resembled each other, be it in looks or composition. My old servant Lord Soln now led hardened elites in steel and obsidian, its circular sigil of grey and red painted over faces and mail, while the numerous sigil of Mighty Kuresnik eschewed armour entirely in favour of long barbed spears and dyed green hair like their sigil-holder.

Through the winding hills of the Twilight Ways they followed me in silence, my dead mount’s gallop keeping me ahead of even the quickest among them. Of the sigils that had answered my call, the greatest Mighty were Soln – once a lord in my short-lived Peerage, and still instinctively deferential to me even when it preferred otherwise – and Sudone, who back during the Iserran campaign had once challenged me and since been taught better. Three days stripped of all Night had humbled it, but though fear had given way to insolence it loved me not. No matter. When it came to commanding loyalty among the drow, fear was more than enough. They would both serve as my captains when the time came.

And it would come soon, for our departure had been swift. It had left all the work that inevitably followed the end of a battle in the hands of General Hune and the Blood, but that’d not been a choice born of shirking but of a pragmatic consideration: so long as we took the Twilight Ways, we’d reach the enemy’s camp before the Revenants could return. Stripped of their vulture mounts by Archer and Huntress doing, they’d have to make their way back on foot and stuck on Creation. Less than an hour had since been spent treading the paths of Twilight, but already I could feel we were reaching the end of our journey. Just a few more hills and we’d be there, which meant it was time to appoint my captains.

I stroked Zombie’s mane, silently instructing her to slow her gait, and shortly closed my eyes. In a twist of will I pulled at Lord Soln and Mighty Sudone through the Night, as if tugging a bridle, and before long tendrils of shadow trailed Zombie’s hooves along the ground. The Mighty smoothly leapt of the darkness, each landing at a full run and never breaking stride. But a heartbeat later we were atop a hill overlooking a small vale where I could sense our crossing awaited, so bade Zombie to halt and the drow smoothly mirrored her. With them no longer moving, I got a better look at the pair I’d summoned.

Soln’s sigil, a ring of swords with an open mouth at the centre, had been enameled into the side of a helmet of clear Proceran make. It hid its eyes from sight, if not the long pale hair that went down its back. Beneath that affectation it wore ornate ringmail under its obsidian cuirass, going down into knee-length mail skirt ending in obsidian greaves covering leather boots. Soln had a martial look to it and bore both sword and spear, two of the three traditional arms of the Firstborn. Like most of those who had once been in my Peerage, my once Lord of Shallow Graves had thrived in the war against Keter: taking Night and loot from the dead had allowed it to slowly turn its sigil into a hardened and finely equipped warband.  Its sigil-oath, I’d been told, related to the sharing and obtaining of such equipment: even dzulu were promised mail and steel weapons. It was not a grand oath like Rumena had made, but it had made the Soln an attractive sigil for many in this time of war.

Sudone’s appearance was rather more lavish. Its sigil was woven into many tresses as small coloured stones that made the wavelike blue and green patterns look like they were following some eldritch tide, almost hypnotic to look at. Its ‘armour’ was a decorative breastplate of dyed leather so heavily encrusted with lapis lazuli as to be useless even if it didn’t inexplicably have a neckline. Beneath it were only long gauzy robes in shades of blue and green, though there were enough layers its body could not really be made up beneath – but the different colours made it look as if it were rippling, likely the intent.

It was impressive and unique, as had often been the way with sigil-holders in the Everdark.

Sudone’s only weapon was a long obsidian-tipped glaive and like many traditionalists it disdained the ‘new ways’ learned in the Burning Lands, mocking armour and ‘dressing up dzulu’ as being some kind of perverted fixation for Mighty grown feeble in the head. The Sudone and other traditionalist sigils often took harder losses in battle, but the old-fashioned way they distributed Night also tended to mean they had more powerful Mighty. Those two were, in a way, emblematic of the currents that were beginning to pull Firstborn society two very different ways.

Mind you, the traditionalist here did not have the better reputation of the two. Sudone was taller than Soln in body, and perhaps stronger in the Night, but it was also what the drow called radhular. It translated roughly to ‘glad-joiner’, and was an insult some Firstborn used for Mighty who preferred to act through cabals and alliances instead of picking an honest fight. The connotation was that drow like Sudone only fought when the odds were on their side, something most Firstborn would be quite offended to be told. The essence of the Tenets of Night, after all, was to rise in power by taking it from others.

I’d been silent for too long, I realized, lost in my thoughts as I’d been. Both were looking at me without hiding their wariness.

“Watch closely,” I said, “as neither of you were with the host when we took Lauzon’s Hollow last summer.”

Lightly tapping the dewy grass of the hill, I let Night ripple out and shaped it as the broad strokes of what the location we’d be raiding would look like. Julienne’s Highway, going from south to north, would furrow between steep-sloped and tightly nestled hills.

“The Silver Huntress and her cabal tell us that the entrance has been fortified by the enemy,” I said.

My staff traced ditches and walls not only in the furrow between the hills, but also in a broad half-circle in front of them. Keter had not spared work in preparing for us, though these defences were not yet finished.

“Deeper in, we approach the Hollow proper,” I continued.

Night continued to slowly ripple forward, depicting the way the furrow would continue into the hills until it reached a bowl-like valley, its surrounding slopes so eroded by rain as to be nearly vertical walls.

“There was once a village there, Lauzon, for which the hollow was named,” I said. “Some structures should still stand, and the enemy is likely to be using them as warehouses. There will be many undead here, and perhaps even Revenants.”

In fact the village was named for a folk heroine named Lauzon who’d supposedly beaten back a great army of bandits here and then founded a village when the prince gave her the land as a reward, but I saw no need to needlessly confuse the matter. Night continued to crawl, shaping the latter end of the pass: a wavy, hilly road with several large alcoves that eventually led back to open grounds.

“There will be enemies on the road,” I continued, “but the larger part of the enemy’s camp is out in the open beyond the pass.”

There just wasn’t enough room to cram a hundred thousand people in the pass itself, even if Keteran armies didn’t have to deal with the usual disease outbreaks that came from cramming soldiers tightly together for long times. The two Mighty were watching closely, and not only because I’d ordered. There were no sigil-holders alive who were not practiced raiders, aware of the importance of knowing the lay of the land.

“We will split our force in three,” I said. “So that we might make the most of this night.”

“Wise,” Mighty Sudone muttered. “We will not find a soft belly twice.”

I nodded, then turned my gaze to the other sigi-holder.

“Lord Soln,” I said, and watched the title ripple through its frame. “You will take to a third of our force and strike at the enemy’s fortifications.”

The bottom of my staff tapped the entrance of the pass, in particular the walls and ditches nestled between the hills. Pickler’s engines would be able to reduce fortifications out in the open, but further in it’d get tricky. Best take care of that potential bottleneck now, as no one did attrition warfare like Keter.

“Leave no wall standing and sweep all in your way,” I ordered.

“It will be as you say, Losara Queen,” the drow that had once been my Lord of Shallow Graves replied, pressing hand over heart. “The dead will die once more.”

My gaze moved to Sudone, whose silver-blue eyes watched me unblinkingly.

“You will lead one third of our force as well, Mighty Sudone,” I said, and tapped the northern edge of the pass.

Near the open grounds where the camp lay, but not too far out.

“Your duty is hunt down the Enemy’s ritual-makers and destroy them,” I bluntly said. “Sow ruin where you may, but it is those skulls above all others I require of you.”

It was a fantasy for the raid to be able to rid us of Neshamah’s mages, but we could at least hamper is ability to hammer away at us with rituals. It was always Binds who were capable of magic, never the lesser undead we called Bones, so great concentrations of their kind were usually knots of sorcerers – when they served as officers for his armies, the Dead King used them rather more sparingly. Made sense, considering he had a limited stock of Binds and massive hordes of Bones. Just because Keter’s logistics were different than ours didn’t mean its armies were entirely without them.

“You word is that of Sve Noc, First Under the Night,” Sudone replied, mirroring Soln’s own salute. “Their will be done.”

It would do. Sudone was a better match for the mage-hunt, given that Soln was a great deal more prone to… blunt approaches. It was no Jindrich, mind you, but Sudone was a lot less likely to end up overreaching when it hit the edge of the enemy camp.

“I will lead the last third myself,” I said. “You may pick whatever sigils you like to assemble your war party, but I claim three for myself: Brezlej, Randebog and Kuresnik.”

A pair of eyes, a shield and a swift spear. Those three, as much the Mighty as the sigils they had shaped, were at the heart of my plan for my part of the raid. Neither of the three were considered among the greatest Mighty of the host, either, so it wasn’t even like I’d be stepping on the toes of my two captains by claiming them.

“And should we both seek the same sigil?” Sudone asked.

I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

“I would expect the matter to be settled in concord between you two,” I said. “I have no patience for foolishness tonight.”

“As you say, First Under the Night,” Mighty Sudone murmured in reply.

Not convinced, that one. It would have preferred a fight. Sudone’s sigil had grown smaller in the years since the giving of sigil-oaths had become a law of the Firstborn, for its rule was particularly brutal to dzulu. Yet those that remained, and those that had since joined, were hard-nosed traditionalists. That lesser Mighty and even dzulu would be willing to become Sudone knowing they’d be treated like expendable things had startled me, but then the Everdark’s traditions were not something easily set aside even when those traditions were at your expense.

“Might this one ask what deeds you will seek tonight?” Lord Soln delicately asked.

Flattery and not genuine deference this time, I gauged. Not that it made any difference.


“Havoc,” I replied, baring my teeth as my staff came to rest on the valley that had given the pass its name. “Havoc is my business tonight, Lord of Shallow Graves.”

While they went about their sabotage, I was going to return to my roots: I’d make enough of a bloody ruckus that Keter would not dare to look elsewhere.

“Is it not always, Losara Queen?” Mighty Sudone laughed.

It bowed to me, allowing the gesture to end its presence as it dissolved into shadow.

“Our deeds will be worthy,” Lord Soln promised me, “of an empire ever dark.”

It followed suit, though not quite as smoothly. As for me, I closed my eyes and let Zombie guide me towards the last of the distance to the needle-hole that would take us out of the Twilight Ways and into the heart of the enemy camp. Letting the Night flow through my veins, I listened through the sea of thoughts and emotions as my two captains picked their sigils. They went swiftly, the unspoken competition having hurried them as I had wished, and when the last of the sigil-holders, a Mighty Finarok, went over to Sudone I leaned forward with a smile. The darkness came eagerly when called.

“You ride with me,” I murmured.

It carried through the Night, like a whisper into the ears of my raiders. Fear and excitement bloomed, along with an undercurrent of hunger. Oh yes, I mused, these would do nicely. The sigil-holders among them I pulled to me as my mount slowed and then stopped before the very stretch of grass where we would cross. First those I had wanted most: wary Brezlej, grizzled Randebog and bold Kuresnik. But the others as well, the whole throng of them, with only the most eye-catching standing distinguished from the rest. One-armed Vudaga bedecked in jewels, Darissim with the bone-white tattoos and its ebony spear, even bloody Ogoviz – smaller than me, almost childlike, and having never worn paint not made of Mighty’s blood.

Even the least of them had been around for a century, and there some here who had been blooding their spears for longer than anyone save elves could live.

“Sudone has been made a hunter of hunters,” I told them. “And Soln will destroy the works of the Enemy. Ours is to be the hour of the sword, Mighty. Bare and bloody.”

I swept the sigil-holders with my gaze, holding them there look enough for them to look away.

“We will war in the manner I have arranged,” I said. “Listen close now, for you will bring those words to your sigils.”

Nothing too sophisticated would work with Firstborn. They weren’t trained soldiers, and though by now they were veterans one and all it would be decades before a proper drow war doctrine could be made – just adapting the Legion one to Firstborn peculiarities was bound to fail, and spectacularly. So it was tactics in broad strokes I presented them with. Skirmishers out front, the sigils heavy on them taking the vanguard when we crossed. After the first few exchanges armoured sigils would strike in the thick of the enemy, and those few small sigils that were heavy on Mighty were to hunt constructs and Revenants at the exclusion of all else.

The tactics were not new to them, and I trusted they would be carried out skillfully. The dismissal was swift, save for three I held back. Brezlej, Randebog, Kuresnik. I met their eyes, sensing their unease in the Night.

“I have a particular use for you,” I smiled.

They listened, and when I was certain they’d understood I dismissed them as well.  Not a moment too early, either. Our way out was just before us, and the forces of Soln and Sudone were nearing their own ways out. Orders trickling down form sigil-holders to sigil, my third of the forces gracefully repositioned into the rough order of battle I’d outlined and resumed its advance. We would be the first into the fire, to draw the most attention.

Within moments crossed, and the hour of the sword began.

Two hundred of us, Mighty and dzulu, slipped into Creation.

By the time feet had touched solid ground, the first volley had already been thrown. Keter did not field many bowmen – bows required too much upkeep – but that hardly meant the armies of the Dead King were without ranged weapons: iron-tipped javelins came down as a rain. Two dzulu were unlucky enough to take a sharp tip through the chest before they could liquefy into shadows, but they were the only casualties from the first round. Drow skirmishers were damnably hard to kill. I batted aside the sole javelin chucked at me – it would have punched through my shoulder, by the angle – with my staff and took an assessing look around.

I almost let out an impressed whistle as a second wave of drow came into Creation, for Keter had been busy. All around us the dead turned to match the threat. Already a second volley of javelins was in flight even as drow began to emerge from the shadow tendrils closer to the enemy, but the sigil-holder for the Serbanad howled as it unleashed Night and the javelins froze in mid-air, momentum stolen from them. They clattered to the ground a moment later, even as I pulled Night to my eyes and tried to figure out the lay of the enemy’s fresh works. The abandoned village of Lauzon had been rebuilt into fortified stone warehouses, but that wasn’t unexpected. 

The surprise was the scaffolding going up the eastern and western sides of the hollow, intricate sets of stairs and even pulley-lifts. In the darkness I glimpsed hulking shapes atop the hills where the scaffolding led, not constructs but instead engines of war. My brow rose, as those were rare – Neshamah usually preferred his horrors, as they could be used in more ways than simple engines. Which meant, I grimly thought, that these were unlikely to be simple engines at all.

We had maybe half an hour to spare before this got too dangerous to continue, so there was no time to waste. My skirmishers were already on their fourth wave through and they’d closed the distance with the dead, going up close with the skeletons in mismatched armour the Dead King had crammed here. More threatening were the warbands of heavy infantry near the entrance to the hollow: tall skeletons in heavy armour, wielding long spears and greatshields. If my vanguard got in close with those it’d be slaughter, so I breathed out and let Night flood through my veins. A few javelins were thrown at me, but two ispe in Volvich paint had stayed as guard dogs and they shredded the projectiles with howling bursts of air.

I struck the ground with my staff, letting Night crawl out in thin tendrils like spiderwebs along the ground. With every heartbeat more of the hollow was covered, until the crisscrossing covered the full grounds. Firstborn stepped on the darkness without consequences, which had been the tricky part, but where the undead made contact they found the working stuck to them like glue. Much less exhausting than a destructive miracle, and almost as effective: given the size of the heavy infantry and their lack of finesse, most of them were caught within moments. Those that weren’t found their fellows served as the wall they were meant to be, only this time to Keter’s detriment.

“Slayers, begin,” I called out in Crepuscular.

Acknowledged bloomed in the Night as the last of my skirmishers hurried through and armoured drow began sidling into Creation. All around me the hollow had become a nightmare made melee, deft drow dancing around clumsy corpses – many stuck to my miracle – and reaping death as they moved with fluid grace, slipping into shadows and striking with unnatural strength. I waited until two sigil-holders I’d decided on earlier came through, then finally set out.

“Krakovich, Prosij, with me,” I ordered.

I limped towards the old village of Lauzon, the two of them trailing behind me without a thought to disobedience.

“Mighty Krakovich, I am told you know the Secret of Great Gales?”

“It is so, mighty one,” the sigil-holder acknowledged.

“And you, Prosij, are reputed to hold the full suite of the Secrets of Ruin,” I noted.

“A feat long in the making, Losara Queen,” it proudly replied

Good. The Ruin Secrets were on the subtle side, compared to most Secrets, but I’d found them very useful – the trick that’d killed the Saint of Swords was derived from the Secret of Marching Ruin – against most conventional defences. There just wasn’t a lot of sorcery using similar means, so most wards and enchantments didn’t account for them.

“Good,” I smiled. “Mighty Prosij, I want you to use the Secret of Ruinous Downfall on those stone houses.”

I pointed at the warehouses Keter had raised from the old village, sidestepping a skeleton swinging a sword as I did and leaving Krakovich to absent-mindedly slap its head off. Its fingers trailed down the bare spine after, and there was a soft touch of power as Night was stolen from the corpse and added to its own. Prosij looked pained, as if it wanted to contradict me but did not dare.

“There are too many, Losara Queen, and the sum is too large,” Prosij finally hazarded. “It will not be a success.”

“It’s not meant to,” I grunted. “Krakovich, be ready to call on the Gales soon.”

Mighty Prosij, either reassured or wary of arguing further, heeded my command. Biting deep into its own thumb it drew intricate patterns on its bare arm, the Night shivering in them, and only then did it begin to call on the Secret – a stabilizer, the patterns, as the Ruinous Downfall was particularly difficult to maintain. It was based on the principle of entropy, like most Secrets of Ruin, but this particular one had a vicious bent: it went for the weakest part of what it meant to unmake and poured the curse there. In people, that usually meant bursting eyes or the brain, but anyone with Night could fight the curse off so it was usually used on artefacts or structures instead.

When it got unleashed on a dozen stone warehouses instead, it proved thin. Weakened. Which didn’t matter because I’d never meant for the Secret to actually break the stone: what it did, what I’d wanted it to do, was find the weak parts of the buildings and then attack them. Sorcery immediately flared as the defensive wards laid into the stonework by Keteran mages protected the structure, neatly informing me of both the strength of the enemy’s defences and where the weak points were. Masego much admired the Dead King’s wardwork, as it was reactive instead of uniform – it concentrated power where the strike was made instead of leaving it spread out.

This once, though, for someone who could smell out the sorcery it was like shining a light on the weaknesses.

“Keep it going,” I ordered, and let loose the Night.

Veins writhing with power, I grit my teeth and went about it methodically. Shaping a great spike of Night, angrily roiling power, I rammed the strike straight into the weakness of the ward. The warehouse blew as if struck by the hand of an angry god, clouds of a disgusting green miasma erupting as a plume.

“Krakovich,” I snarled, already shaping a second spike.

The Secret of Great Gales were meant to shred entire warbands approaching through tunnels, but it wasn’t the force I’d been after when I’d chosen someone who could use it – it was the size. Correctly divining my intent, Mighty Krakovich drew the cloud of poison that would have spread across the hollow and guided it up into the sky where it could not massacre my entire raiding force. The Dead King did like his poisons, and he would have made sure to keep those both close to the front and under a roof, where the containers would not be damaged by the elements. We went about it in good order, smashing one warehouse after another.

By the last one Krakovich was panting heavily and Prosij looked about to pass out, but we’d left only rubble and poisoned sky where Keter’s poisonous munitions had been held. That alone would make the raid worth it.

“Well done,” I said. “Retreat to your sigils. This is about to get a great deal more unpleasant.”

How many dead had there been in the hollow when we’d first come? A thousand, I figured, maybe two. Not as much as could have been placed here, even though it was a significant amount. By now most the last waves of my raiders were almost done coming through and we’d effectively taken the hollow, though of course trying to keep it would have been madness. We were a cork on a river, not a dam, and Firstborn were not good defensive fighters. The last few holdouts of the dead were heavies, pockets of a few dozens being taken apart by lesser Mighty and drained of Night, but I knew better than to think this a victory. There had been no constructs here, no Revenants. We’d not been contested, and though the poison had been a loss for Keter it wasn’t a major one – if they truly had a Crab close, then not only would they have replacements but they could likely make more. It’d been bait.

Lauzon’s Hollow was defending itself too poorly. Mighty Soln would be hitting the positions ahead of us by now and Mighty Sudone be sowing chaos near the enemy camp, but that wasn’t enough to excuse the poor performance of Keter tonight. It’d all make sense if we had taken them by surprise, but they had to have known a retaliatory strike by the Firstborn after dusk was a possibility. Were this the first year of the war, I might have been on the enemy miscalculating and believing that Ivah’s ten thousand out in the lowlands were all the drow there were on our side. I knew better by now, though.

When Neshamah made mistakes – and he did, like everybody else, for brilliance was not omniscience – it didn’t look like this. This was a trap. One I’d caught in advance and entered willingly, with an eye to the escape, but it would have been a dangerous delusion to believe we actually had the upper hand right now. Making my way back towards the heart of the hollow, where Julienne’s Highway passed, I idly flicked a hand over my shoulder. The western scaffolding went up in black flames, and with a sharp twist of will I subjected the eastern to the same. Petty vandalism, but sometimes it was the little things that made life sufferable.

“Spread out,” I called out. “Prepare for assaults from the front and back.”

Skirmishers took the front on both sides, heavier sigils setting up behind them, but I did not supervise – with Firstborn, doing so was often more harmful than helpful. I pulled at Mighty Ogoviz and Darissim through the Night, called them to me. I did not waste time with courtesies when they rose from shadow.

“There are engines of war up on the hills to the east and the west,” I said. “Go there, and learn of them. Destroy the Enemy’s work if you can.”

I dismissed them curtly, and in silence they melded back into the shadows. I doubted the Dead King would leave those as unprotected as they looked, but it was worth a try. And if it went bad, as I suspected it might, those two sigils were known as being rather quick on their feet. Unlike with humans, the drow conception of honour in no way precluded running away when the opposition was stronger than expected. Safely at the heart of the milling sigils, I wove myself a few protective workings in Night – an illusion, a sharpening of my senses and a trip ward – and straightened my back. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured.

Above, on the hills, the two sigils I’d sent ran into what sounded like entrenched defences. There was fire and light, sorcery as well as clash of arms. And still I waited, almost with baited breath. Ogoviz retreated from the western heights, going down the heights as shadow strands with most of the force it had taken up there, when finally Keter closed its trap. With a bone-shaking hum, wards went up over all of us. Idly, already knowing the outcome, I tried to open a gate into the Twilight Ways and found a lock had been placed over the area.

“The first part,” I mildly said. “Now for the second, King of Death.”

As if called forth by my words, two hulking shapes rose from where they had been lying among the hills. With horrid roars, the great undead dragon creatures we called wyrms spread their wings as their eyes glowed with eerie power. There was a great clamour as the drow who had gone up to the other heights fled in disarray, a tall silhouette in armour standing over the edge and bringing up a bloody head. Mighty Darissim, I recognized. Revenant. I cracked my neck to the side and grinned. Good, Keter had finally played its hand.

Now the fun could begin.

Malanza

“It would be a curse to be born Good. If virtue were easy, if doing right was painless, Creation would have no meaning: what worth is there in a trial that does not try you?

– Extract from the ‘Truths of the Shore’, a collection of the teachings of Arianna Galadon (considered holy text only in Procer)

I

The statue was titled ‘Lorenzo Triumphant’.

There were eleven statues of the famous Lorenzo Malanza within the city of Aequitan, and every single one depicted the man with long flowing locks and youthful good looks. Rozala, who had long admired the brilliant general who’d made the Malanzas into the rulers of Aequitan, had been disappointed to learn the depiction was something of a lie. By the time Lorenzo had been winning the great victories in Levant that ultimately raised him to princeship he’d been forty, balding and with a severe limp from a lance wound he’d taken in the leg.

Lorenzo Triumphant somewhat acknowledged the last detail by depicting a stylish bandage over the young conqueror’s leg, but it only served to enhance the brimming heroism of the victor of Tartessos and Lazar Valley. The marble had been beautifully carved, though it was kept bare instead of the gaudy Free Cities painted manner, and the lance he raised manfully towards the sky was worked in gold leaf. Rozala had always hated the bloody thing, as it stood in the Shaded Courtyard. Where Mother made her wait on the bench near the wall until the Princess of Aequitan was finally ready to receive her.

Rozala had never once been made to wait here except when she was about to be punished, so that cursed marble statue was as ill an omen as there could be.

It was different today. Rozala had spent most of the last hour looking at the statue and the orange trees of the courtyard, wracking her mind to come up with a misdeed she’d done warranting punishment, but there had been nothing. She’d dumped worms in Hernan’s pillows again, but the little shit hadn’t caught on yet and now that he was nine he’d grown too proud to rat her out as eagerly as he used to.  He’d asked for it, anyways, mocking her for having a hard time memorizing the first stanzas of the ‘Tragedy of King Konrad’. Reitz was hard, and unlike her brother she wasn’t getting any better at it.

The day broke from precedent again when instead of one of Mother’s attendants it was Mother herself who came to find Rozala. Aenor of Aequitan, Rozala thought with pride, was still known as one of the great beauties of the south even in her dawning middle age for good reason. She didn’t need glittering jewels or powders to impress, just a well-done braid and an elegant silken dress. One day, Rozala promised herself, she would be just as beautiful. Mother offered her a lovely smile before sitting by her side on the bench.

“Is there anything you would care to tell me, Rozala?” Princess Aenor meaningfully asked.

“Nothing at all,” Rozala lied.

The tanned princess looked faintly amused.

“Your delivery needs work,” Mother said.

Rozala said nothing, primly looking ahead and hoping if she did not move the subject would be dropped. Her mother was a skilled interrogator when she put her mind to it.

“But that is not why I sent for you today,” Mother lightly added.

The ten year old girl breathed out in relief.

“May I know why I am here, if not to be punished?” Rozala asked.

“Most of your tutors will be dismissed this evening,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “I will be taking care of your education personally, at least in some regards.”

Though thrilled, Rozala forced herself to remain calm.

“Sister Lisella said last week that I was not yet ready for such tutelage,” she said.

Mother looked at her with approval.

“I am hurrying the transition,” the Princess of Aequitan agreed. “There are… growing undercurrents to the Ebb and Flow, my darling. I’ve come to believe the years ahead will bring with them great perils.”

“Through peril, rise,” Rozala replied without hesitation.

The words of the House of Malanza had been drilled into her since she could walk, along with the duty she had to her family and her people. Mother simply nodded, as if the answer had been a given.

“There will be opportunities,” Aenor Malanza agreed, eyes coming to rest on the statue of their famous forbear. “Of the very same kind he found, I expect.”

“It will be war, then?” Rozala softly asked.

“It might yet come to that,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “So let us learn the lessons of Lorenzo’s life, yes?”

Rozala turned attentive dark eyes onto her mother, waiting for the wisdom she had to impart.

“Have you ever seen a statue of Juan Osuna?” Mother asked.

The young girl startled in surprise at the question. The last name she recognized – how could she not, when the House of Osuna had preceded the Malanzas on the throne of Aequitan – but the given name took her shamefully long to place. Prince Juan Osuna was mostly known as Juan the Abjurer’, in the histories, for he had been the last prince of the Osuna and abjured his right to throne before fleeing east into Salamans.

“I have not,” Rozala admitted.

“The question was a trick,” Princess Aenor easily said, “for you pass by such a statue every time your ride through the eastern gate.”

The young girl blinked, and only then put the pieces together.

“The Wicked Elder is meant to represent him?” Rozala said, doubtful. “But the statue is of an old man, decrepit and… impious.”

There was something unsettling about the statue’s gaze, and the unseemly face it stared out of. It was somehow ribald and heinous at the same time. The young girl frowned, drawing back a strand of hair.

“I’ve been taught that Juan the Abjurer was fifteen, when renounced the throne,” she added.

“He was,” Mother thinly smiled. “And yet he lost, and so when he was still remembered at all it was as a hideous figure. While Lorenzo, who was nearly thrice his age, won and is now depicted as a golden youth all over the city.”

The Princess of Aequitan continued to stare at the statue.

“It is the victor who decides who was wicked and who was righteous, in the end,” Aenor Malanza told her daughter. “When that statue was first raised, my lovely, it was known as a lie.  But who remembers it now save a few scholars?”

Rozala almost shivered, though the afternoon heat was stifling even in the shade.

“But we’ve lost wars, haven’t we?” she softly asked. “In the years since. And it did not destroy us like it did the Osuna.”

“Because we did not flee, my darling,” Mother smiled. “We abjure nothing, we Malanzas. When the sun dims, when hard ends find us, we embrace the dark. We survive, whatever the cost, and through peril-“

“Rise,” Rozala finished in whisper.

“Juan Osuna fled east and ever returned, Rozala,” Mother said. “He might have won, had he fought. Had he had the stomach for the fight.”

Instead, Rozala thought, all that was left of the man was a half-forgotten lie. It was the first lesson her mother ever taught her.

She did not forget it.

IV

Cordelia Hasenbach had been crowned First Prince of Procer but there were some who argued, and not without reason, that it was Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre who had won the Great War. What else could it be called but a victory, when without his lands having ever known war a man rose to become one of the great powers of the land? Prince Amadis did not hold the highest office in the Principate, but he had not beggared himself and his allies to seize it as the First Prince had. And down here, in the south, old blood knew the strength of patience. The Lycaonese despot would fall sooner or later, and when she did the Prince of Iserre would rise in her stead.

Rozala Malanza, made Princess of Aequitan by her mother’s decree before she drank the regal mercy, had heard much of this sort of talk in Salia. Not in the streets, of course, for the people were jubilant at the election of a First Prince and the end of the Great War, but behind the doors of great mansions in the city. Rozala had remained aloof, even when invited to attend dinners, preferring to study the currents at the capital from a distance. Hasenbach was not as weak as was argued, she saw, and there was wishful thinking clouding the judgements. She had the votes in the Highest Assembly, and the bite of her armies would not be soon forgot. For now, she had the run of the Principate.

And she was comfortable enough in her seat to make gestures, such as refraining from contesting Rozala’s acclamation as princess before the Highest Assembly. It was tradition, when a princess of the blood took the regal mercy, that their choice of successor not be challenged. Yet tradition was only that, not law, and Hasenbach had the strength to dispense with it should she wish it.

It had burned Rozala like acid, kneeling on the floor of the Highest Assembly as she faced the cold-eyed savage that’d made her mother drink poison. The hate clung at her insides like a thousand hooks, and these days fear was beginning to do the same. For Hasenbach had been merciful, yes – wasn’t it the talk of city, the virtue and kindness of their fresh young ruler? – but she had not been soft. Rozala wore a crown but her young brother Hernan, the same little shit who’d tattled on her as a boy and tried to steal her throne as a man, was now a member of the First Prince’s court in Salia.

Tread carefully, Cordelia Hasenbach’s cool blue eyes had told Rozala as she knelt. Tread carefully, or else.

Yet she could not. Gods, how could she? Mother was dead and now the savage had put a knife at her throat. She would not be called to heel like a dog, browbeaten into obedience. Yet the House of Malanza had few friends, these days, for it had come close to the throne but in the end it had lost. No one wanted to share the taint by association, not even those who had been her mother’s most ardent supporters. And so Princess Rozala Malanza at last accepted an invitation to taste the latest Iserran vintages, finding herself seated across Prince Amadis Milenan. A handsome man, the Prince of Iserre, and well-spoken.

“I’d despaired of ever having the pleasure of your company, Your Grace,” Prince Amadis smiled, pouring her a second cup with a steady hand and offering it. “Yet I suppose allowances must be made for grief.”

Allowances, he had said. The chosen word was not happenstance. There was only one master in the alliance that Amadis Milenan was gathering under his banner, and he would not suffer any talk to the contrary. His protection, his help, would come at a price. It ate at Rozala’s pride, and she almost turned back, but she could not. Rozala Malanza would not go into exile, abjure the death of her mother and the answer it must be given. She had the stomach for this fight. And so she smiled, thanked the prince for his courtesy and took the cup she had been offered.

Through peril, rise, Rozala swore, and drank deep.

II

The First Prince died and the Highest Assembly gave answer. Too many answers, in truth, and there lay the tragedy: seven growingly urgent sessions were held, and even at the end of the seventh no one had the votes to sit the high throne.

Princess Constance of Aisne – no true princess, not even born to the House of Groseiller but to a branch family of a different name – claimed regency and rule of Salia until a First Prince could be elected, claiming it her right under ancient laws as the closest kin to the buried First Prince. Rozala’s mother laughed and walked out of the Hall of Assembly without another word, Dagobert of Lange and Fabien of Lyonis not far behind her. It would be war, then. Regretful, Rozala’s mother said, but it’d all be settled in a few years after battles separated the serious contenders from the chaff and compromises were forced.

The people bled. The people sang, growing quiet when riders neared. It was a new song, but in a sense it was also as old as the Principate.

Princess said she had a right, it went.

Princess said it’d be a fight

Now princess are all aflight,

And the pot it is boiling.

Rozala Malanza learned war in the saddle as a girl barely grown, taking lesson from fantassin captains and highborn generals as she wore mail and rode under the banner of the House of Malanza. She took her first life at fourteen and Mother’s smile when she returned bloodied was luminous.

“You will be what I cannot,” Aenor of Aequitan said, stroking her hair. “I am no warrior, it is not in my nature, but you are taking splendidly to it.”

One day mother would rule in Salia, Rozala at her side, and bookish Hernan would be made steward of Aequitan as Rozala herself was schooled to ensure the dawn of a Malanza dynasty on the high throne. But it was a golden dream, and the Gods ever laughed at such designs. First defeats in the east, as Constance the Usurper drove back an offensive into Orne at the Battle of the Swallows. It stung, but the war continued. And when the first of the Great Claimants was smashed up north, Fabien of Lyonis kneeling to another’s rights, the armies of Aequitan and its allies marched north to prevent Dagobert of Lange from consolidating power.

The Sack of Lullefeuille decimated Aequitan’s army, cunning Prince Dagobert and his Goethal right hand penning it up in the city and smashing it piecemeal. Rozala broke the encirclement, leading out a few thousand haggard survivors, but it was an unmitigated disaster. Yet Aenor of Aquitan’s tongue was silver, and her treasury overflowing even in defeat, so armies were raised again. The war was not over. When word came of the savage Lycaonese sallying south, it was considered an amusing anecdote. Then Brus fell. Then Lange surrendered, as Segovia and Lyonis knelt.

The anecdotes were no longer amused.

It still shook Rozala to the bone, when she saw that Mother was entertaining envoys from Constance the Usurper. Secretly, but the wind was turning and alliance was in the air. Only for so long, but this Cordelia Hasenbach – who most of Procer had barely heard of a year ago, back then know only for the fanciful tales of Praesi manipulation she’d sent letters about – was scaring the opposition. The Great War was entering its last stretch, and neither Aenor Malanza nor Constance Groseiller had broken a dozen armies to end up allowing some slip of a girl from the edge of the world to claim the high throne in their stead.

“It will be done, my darling,” Mother told her one night. “The alliance is agreed upon, all that is left is haggling terms.”

“I had twenty cousins when this war began, Mother,” Rozala harshly replied. “I now have three.”

And these only because even Constance the Usurper would not blacken her name by having toddlers and newborn babes murdered.

“You would break bread with the woman who ordered this?” Rozala asked. “Share a cause with her?”

The very thought was enough to make her sick.

“I have not forgotten a single thing, Rozala,” Princess Aenor harshly replied. “But I am a princess, not a swaggering duellist: there are times when honour must be set aside. When the deaths are blindly dealt and so pride must be swallowed. Sometimes we make bargains with those we hate, when duty demands it of us.”

V

Weeping Gods, but it had all gone wrong.

The Army of Callow should have been in no state to fight after the bruising clashes of the previous day, but Rozala’s belated suspicions had proved true: even as the dead rose from the water, hammering home the gravity of her mistake, the legionaries of the Black Queen had struck. Where the day before had been a dance of manoeuvres and daring, and the day before it a terrifying battle of Chosen and Damned, this one was nothing so clean. It was a blind melee, vicious and messy and chaotic. Exhausted and bloodied by the days of fighting, the Army of Callow and the crusaders went at each other like ragged dogs.

And silently, eerily, the blue-eyed dead kept coming in waves.

The Chosen had gone out into the waters to fight the Black Queen: ice raged in the swamp as spurts of sorcery lit up the morning sky and screams echoed from afar. Rozala would pray for their victory, but not count on it. The battle did not grow any less nasty as the hours stretched, she found, for while a desperate defence was mounted by the soldiers from Orne and the enemy kept from sweeping the camp, the Army of Callow settled into a brutal slugging match with the crusaders – a slugging match Rozala could already see would turn in favour of the enemy eventually, for the dead were coming by the water and the lines holding the shore slowly buckling.

Thrice she traded a charge with the Order of the Broken Bells, hoping her more numerous horse would shatter the enemy’s knights and allow her to strike the flanks, but the Callowan knights were hardy and unflinching. She was forced to withdraw when the left flank of her shield wall, too close to the swamp, began to collapse and rout. Rozala rode there in haste and brought fantassin reinforcements, but all it did was restore the stalemate: her attempt at a push into the enemy’s lines was swiftly answered with goblin munitions and heavy foot. Not long after some of the Chosen return to her side, the Pilgrim and the Saint foremost among them, while others went to bolster the army.

It gave the men spine, Rozala saw, but it wouldn’t win the battle.

“Where is the Black Queen?” the Princess of Aequitan urgently asked, shouting over the sounds of battle.

If she was dead, then this could still be turned around. But before the Peregrine could say a word, a shape was glimpsed riding a winged horse above them and Rozala got her answer. The Enemy approached on graceful wings, bringing death with her, and the heroes at Rozala’s side readied for the fight. Legends, both of them, and still they looked grim. Yet when the Black Queen threw herself down into a hard landing, it was not to fight.

“Truce,” Catherine Foundling claimed. “I’m here to talk.”

And the heroes hemmed and hawed over this, over continuing the fight even under truce flag, but all Rozala could think of was that there would be no winner today. In this brutal mess of mud and blood, no one would win. No matter who claimed mastery of the field at the end of the day, both armies would be broken. And so, when the Chosen spoke pretty words to talk themselves into the killing, Rozala listened to an older voice speaking older words. She was a princess, not a swaggering duellist.

“Stop,” Princess Rozala Malanza ordered, and took off her helmet.

It was a monster she was facing now, one it disgusted her to think she might strike a bargain with, but the Princess of Aequitan had a duty.

III

The Great War ended on the fields of Aisne, not in the thunderous clash of arms but in the quiet hours that followed the end of the battle.

Unerring, eerily precise, Cordelia Hasenbach’s riders had found the princes and princesses fleeing the catastrophic defeat. Rozala took dark amusement in the way that Contance of Aisne and her party had been seized before the Malanzas were. The House of Malanza might not have won the war, but at least it could be said that their claim had outlasted that of their most hated rivals. The few months that followed were spent in comfortable but thorough captivity as Cordelia Hasenbach herself journeyed down from Rhenia to formally accept the surrender of her captives and the acclamation of her allies.

Mother’s attempts to get messages out without the knowledge of their captors had resulted only in two servants hanged and their party being stripped of ink and parchment, the Iron Prince not even bothering to tell them in person before giving the orders. The Lycaonese were living up to their rough reputation. Though Rozala insisted, screamed and then even begged, Mother refused to allow her to sit in on the conversation with Prince Cordelia – who was not yet First Prince, for all her high-handedness. Aenor of Aequitan was subdued when she returned, sapped of her usual boundless spirit.

The Princess of Aequitan formally surrendered the morning after and sent orders to her assermenté in Salia to vote in favour of Cordelia Hasenbach’s candidature to the high throne. After making a few public oaths, she was allowed to return with Aequitan with her household, no ‘escort’ accompanying her or ransoms being demanded. Rozala found herself quite startled. These were very lenient terms of surrender Prince Cordelia had accepted, unlike what the Malanzas would have demanded were the positions reversed. The heiress to Aequitan found she rather admired the Lycaonese for her restraint, her mercy.

That last word turned to ash on her, when they returned home and the real terms of surrender were unveiled. Aenor of Aequitan would drink poison, recalled early to the feet of the Heavens. The regal mercy, some called it.

Rozala boiled out with rage. She tried to raise the palace to war again, but the halls with empty with the losses of too many defeats and the eyes of the commanders gone gloomy. There was no stomach left for the fight in Aequitan. And still Rozala raged, for what else could she do? But the march forward of fate was inexorable, and Mother now seemed so… tired. Rozala did not refuse the summons when they came and the servants led her to the ancient throne room of Aequitan. Mother sat the throne, a cup of wine in hand.

“You will have to be wary of your brother,” Aenor Malanza said. “He was raised to rule Aequitan for you as you followed me to Salia. That power is not a prize easily relinquished.”

Rozala nodded, mute from the grief that had snared her throat.

“It was the price for rule of Aequitan staying with our line instead of passing to a lesser branch, my darling,” Mother gently said. “And perhaps it is better this way.”

“There is nothing better in this,” the hard-eyed daughter replied.

“There are deeds, days that demand an answer, Rozala,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “The Ebb and the Flow rule us all, but sometimes… sometimes there are higher callings. Listen to them, my darling. Heed them, and in time you will live up to what I see in you now.”

“Mother,” Rozala begged, tears in her eyes, “there must be another way.”

Her mother stroked her hand gently.

“Through peril, rise,” Aenor of Aequitan whispered. “Go, Rozala. While I still have the strength.”

Aenor of Aquitan took the poison exactly a day after Constance of Aisne was made to do the same. And with that cruellest of mercies, the last defeated claimant to have fought in the Great War died. An era had come to an end. Long live First Prince Cordelia, the people shouted in the streets. Rozala thought of the sound the doors of the throne room had made closing, and polished her sword.

VI

Princess Rozala Malanza stood as the only princess, the only royalty of her people, in all of Iserre.

This night, this graveyard of princes, had been a madness beyond what the Ebb and the Flow could frame in understanding. Legends had died who’d been legends for longer than Rozala had been alive. Angels had touched the world, the Dead King been forced to stay his hand and some magnificent eldritch realm had been born of trickery and sacrifice. And of all the western crowns that had sat brows when steel was first bared, only hers remained. Handed back to her by the Black Queen, terrifying praise from a terrifying foe.

Rozala Malanza alone of seven did not flinch, when sacrifice was asked, the Arch-heretic of the East had said, eyes hard and judging. For that, she keeps her crown.

It had been a grand gesture, the Princess of Aequitan thought. One made for honour, not advantage, for there were other crowns that would have been more useful for Catherine Foundling to preserve. So when in the wake of the gesture Rozala’s own kind had begun to squabble like dogs worrying a bone over how the given grace could be traded and twisted, she’d felt something deeper than disappointment course through her veins. It’d been like scales lifted from her eyes.

She saw the contempt in the eyes of the Chosen, the way the Tyrant of Helike grinned at them all with something akin to fondness. Gods, but how petty they must all seem to those eyes. Arrayed against the Principate were Theodosius the Unconquered’s mad get and the greatest warlord of their age, how was this the best to be mustered against them? Even their allies were led by the likes of the Peregrine, royal blood hallowed by angels. Procer had been challenged to meet the hour of doom thrust upon it, to match the calibre of the great men and women standing with and against the realm.

And Rozala Malanza saw, in the eyes of those same people, that Procer had failed to meet the challenge.

It burned that she could not deny it. Even as the hour grew late and the Black Queen played them all for fools one last time, bringing back alive a dead man. Even as the great lords of Levant swore oaths atop the hill, straight-backed and solemn.

“Let it be remembered,” the Grey Pilgrim said, shining bright with pride, “that when the Enemy came for the world, Levant did not shirk its duty.”

Rozala grieved the sight, for what had Procer done to warrant such friendship? Nothing and less. It burned still, that feeling she could now name as shame. Because she knew the honour of tonight might be betrayed in years to come. That her people might live up to the worst of themselves instead of the best. Was that not the nature of the Ebb and Flow? So I beg you, Merciful Gods, could we not rise above ourselves? Even if only one, just once. But the Heavens did not answer any more than they had when she’d been but a girl stewing in grief and rage. Silence. But there were days, deeds that demanded an answer.

And if the Gods would not give it, then she would. So Rozala’s fingers closed around the hilt of the same sword she’d once polished, dreaming of how it would cut through Cordelia Hasenbach’s neck.

Princess Rozala Malanza bared her blade and heeded a higher calling.

VII

Once she’d marched on Trifelin and suffered a stinging defeat.

The second time she’d marched there, she’d eked out a bloody victory.

Now the Princess of Aequitan watched the endless spread of the dead marching against her, a shambling tide of steel and darkness. Slowly she unsheathed her sword and raised it, thousands answering her with glittering steel and torches.

“Through peril,” Rozala Malanza screamed.

Rise,” the people screamed back.

She had been a slow learner, in many ways, but Rozala had never ceased to learn. And the third battle of Trifelin would be hers body and soul, this she swore.

One day she would teach her daughter about it.

Chapter 55: Queen’s Pawn

“Let there be no talk of mercy after the ram has touched the gate.”

– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow

Of all the gifts the Sisters had given me, the peculiar sense I had for the coming of dawn and dusk remained one of the most useful. It would be a little under a bell before sundown, in Creation. Not so here, of course, for the Twilight Ways knew no such change. The timing of this undertaking had been chosen very precisely, as it was no longer a few warbands hitting our dug-in positions that we’d be facing: we were about to come out swinging in front of a field army of the Kingdom of the Dead, the Hidden Horror’s host forewarned and prepared for our coming. It was going to be an ugly fight, before we got our defences up.

Spread out on the green and sloping hills of the Twilight Ways, the warriors mustered to take the van in the coming battle were tightening their ranks as the gate-mages finished the last few syllables of their spells. Masego’s formula was the one being used, universally so even if it wasn’t necessarily the best formula possible for each mage. It was however, the one formula that more than seven in ten of the sufficiently powerful mages of the Grand Alliance were able to use. Numbers had a strength of their own, especially when it came to war. The pharos devices wouldn’t work anywhere as well with disparate formulas, anyway, I idly thought. Not that we’d be using our only one tonight, if I had my way.

The evening air grew thick with sorcery and silence spread as the mages each finished their incantation and shaped their sorcery before withholding the last syllable – a guttural sound in the mage tongue that echoed of something like krakh. It would only be spoken when I gave my command, painted the night sky with my signal to begin the crossing. Mounted on Zombie and perched atop a hill I held good vantage, and so allowed myself to sweep the assembled forces with my gaze one last time. It was an unfamiliar sight. Our strength had been mustered not in the shape of an army ready for battle, but according to the new rules that warfare through the Ways demanded.

Standing in bands among the hills, near the gates-to-be, the painted warriors of Malaga and Tartessos were waiting to serve as the tip of the spear. Led by Blood and backed by four Named – Vagrant Spear, Headhunter, Sage and Silent Guardian – they would seize the grounds we needed as our first wave. If they got through in the time they’d been given, anyway. Behind them the Second Army stood in good order, ranks of red painted shield and polished helms glinting in the twilight. General Hune’s hulking silhouette towered above the ranks, a siege tower made woman.  I’d lead the first rank personally, when we sallied out.

The holding action would be ours.

To the left and right of the Second Army our horse was milling about, one wing led by Grandmaster Talbot and the other by Princess Beatrice. A few mages with them ensured we’d have some measure of flexibility in the coming engagement, though only within limits. Our fantassin companies, under the consolidated command of Captain Reinald, were waiting behind the Second and intermixed with Volignac infantry. It was the Third that’d serve as our reserve: I was counting on Abigail of Summerholm’s knack for calculated risks. She’d commit if and when it was needed, but not a moment before. At the back of everyone else stood the drow, a sea of sigils that was not so much a reserve as another force entirely. Their time would come, but they would not share this battle with us. It would have been too much of a waste.

“Into the breach, dearest?” Akua Sahelian idly asked.

I glanced at her. No dress tonight, no silks or velour. The shade had taken the appearance of a daughter of Wolof gone to war, beautiful lamellar plate in red and gold beneath a curved helmet and an aventail of mail that could be fastened with a piece shaped like a black swan. I was in no mood for banter, tonight, and did not pretend otherwise.

“Find your mages and waste no time,” I said. “Your hands will decide how much the butcher’s due tonight.”

“Then luck in battle, my heart,” Akua smiled.

“Luck’s for the other side,” I replied. “We make due with plans.”

And as she melted into the shadows, I raised my staff and pulled at the Night as I unleashed a great spurt of power. The bright light that bloomed in the sky exploded in silent streaks of colour, and with that unmissable sight the battle began. Mages finished their incantations, magic held back at last unleashed: the Twilight Ways shivered and seventy-two different gates into Creation opened. Most weren’t even large enough for two people, with a mere twenty of proper size to let carts and engines through, but that was why we were sending the Levantines out first. They were quick on their feet and used to fighting without formations.

Clamour in Levantine tongues went up, war cries filling the air as the warriors boldly went forth through the gates. Honour to the Blood, they clamoured. Honour to Levant, honour in strife. I’d found a thick shield and a knack for ducking more useful than honour, as a rule, but I would not deny their ways when they lit a fire in their bellies. I kept my eyes on the bands filing through, counting down as the warriors passed. The Enemy was slow, tonight, or we got lucky: it was thirty one heartbeats before Keter gave its answer. More than half the gates – but not the large ones, thank the Gods – flickered, shredding whatever flesh and metal had been going through in a red spray.

So that was to be the first beat of our dance tonight, huh. Thirty one heartbeats. The Dead King’s mages were getting sloppy, if it’d taken them this long to disturb our gates with their counter-rituals. Banners were raised by the gates and drums brought to the fore, so that through their beating the rhythm could be kept. For thirty beats Levantines continued to cross, then halted. The gates rippled again, taking the leg of some screaming young warrior who’d been foolhardy enough to try the odds. It wouldn’t be the last time today it happened. The bleeding man was dragged through and the crossings resumed.

For now I was not needed. The first hour belonged to the Dominion of Levant, tasked to clear the grounds in front of us so that when the Second Army began its crossing we had room enough to set down wards and protections undisturbed. Depending on what the enemy had waiting on the other side, that hour would either be a pleasant moonlit walk or a bloody horror of screams. The lagging counter-rituals gave me hope for the former, but hope would not serve me well in a battle with Keter. I’d learned that the hard way. Time dragged forward as the warriors passed through the gates in a trickle – hundreds, then thousands – but I watched in silence. My escort dared not disturb me. It was only when I sensed the time nearing that I headed out, spurring Zombie forward. An escort of twenty knights form the Order of the Broken Bells behind me, I headed towards the Second Army at a brisk trot.

Soldiers under half a hundred different banners cheered sparsely as I went by, for even though few of them were mine I was known as a good woman to have on your side when the steel came out. Though later I would fight on the front, for now I went to Hune. Looking down at me, the ogre have a brisk salute.

“First reports?” I asked.

“The enemy was already mobilized,” General Hune said. “We’ll be doing it the hard way: ghoul packs were already afoot so it was contested from the start. Keter has pulled in every patrol in a radius of miles to slow us down. We’re looking at thousands, not hundreds.”

My lips thinned. I’d known that Keter would be expecting us to pop out soon, but not anticipated large enemy forces this far out: our beachhead was at least ten miles away from Lauzon’s Hollow!

“If it were an easy war, we would already have won it,” I said. “Watch your back, general.”

“Good hunting, Your Majesty,” Hune replied.

Dismounting Zombie and handing her reins over to my knightly escort, I went to stand with the front rank of the Second. The company was under the command of a Captain Bolah, a dark-skinned veteran who’d once served in the Legions, but it was her young Callowan lieutenant – Alfred of Ankou, he eagerly introduced himself as – who stood closest to me. Before long the two Named that were to serve as my retinue for the fight made their appearance, having been lingering nearby but away from my troops.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever shared a battle before,” Roland noted, coming to stand at my left.

He’d prudently added a helmet to the mail and longcoat he refused to set aside.

“Not on the same side, at least,” I aknowledged.

The Beastmaster, on my right was not inclined to idle talk. His eyes stayed on the banners near the gates.

“Time will run out soon,” Lysander grunted.

I nodded in agreement. It was unfortunate, but it didn’t look like the Dominion would be able to get all their warriors across in the time we’d allotted for it. Before long trumpets sounded, signifying the warriors of Levant were to move to the sides and clear the gates, which got… contentious. None of that proud lot wanted to be denied the opportunity to battle because they’d been a little too slow, and some gates had to be forcefully cleared of Levantines trying to force their way in. Behind us the Second Army raised its banners, horns were sounded and the advance began.

Unlike the Dominion forces, my Army of Callow had standard company sizes and officers ensuring order so instead of a mess of warbands it was neatly filed lines matched to gate sizes that approached specific gates. My own company, Captain Bolah’s, was bound for one of the larger gates – part of the reason I’d picked it – and before long we were standing in front of the transparent veil, the mage maintaining it standing to the side with closed eyes and two assistants. On the other flank the drummer kept pace, while a Proceran held the banner telling us the number of the gate and a young woman by his side shouted at us hurry.

A heartbeat later we were through and the cool evening air of the Hainaut lowlands washed over my face. Shit, I immediately thought, even as Beastmaster contorted and a veritable flock of birds erupted from his furs to fly above. I could now see why the Dominion had found it hard to get people through, and it wasn’t just inferior discipline. The gates has all been opened along the same axis, though the line itself was wavy from imprecisions, and near the left side of that axis bands of Dominion were being hard-pressed by a surprisingly large number ghouls. There just hadn’t been much room for more people to pour through, even when there’d been time.

Streaks of Light told me the Lanterns were in the thick of it, as was their wont, but their tricks weren’t the ones I’d been looking for.

“Beastmaster,” I said, limping forward as the legionaries advanced behind me. “Where’s the Vagrant Spear?”

She should be handling that flank along with the Headhunter, but I saw no sign of her. The other villain’s steps slowed a heartbeat as he saw through the eyes of one the birds in flight, then he pointed to the left.

“There,” he said. “Pulling one of your lordlings out of trouble, looks like. Osena. Wounded. I see blood.”

I swallowed a curse. Already? No, that was unfair. Likely the dead had gone specifically after her, knowing her death would brutalize Dominion morale.  The issue was that there would only be Lanterns near and that lot couldn’t heal. The Forsworn Healer was on his way, but he was with the third wave of Named near the back of the Second Army.

“Roland,” I tightly said. “Go patch her up.”

“On it,” the Rogue Sorcerer nodded.

He was gone in a moment, stride near a run as his long coat swirled behind him. Gods, if only I could have a dozen more of him.

“With me, Beastmaster,” I said. “And I want a warning when the first tide gets close.”

“I see it approaching already,” the man murmured. “Hurry, Black Queen.”

A quick look behind me told me all of Captain Bolah’s company had crossed and it was now in good order, waiting for my instructions even as another company began to emerge behind it.

“With me,” I yelled. “We’ll set the boundary.”

I got a roar back. Good, they’d need the spirit before this was over. Much as I would have liked to head to the left flank and stabilize our lines there, I had other duties. Besides, we had a contingency that should take care of it before long. A messenger should have gone through the dedicated gate by now. A hundred legionaries in tight formation behind me, I limped to the front. The Dominion had formed up into three large clumps of warriors after crossing– shield walls that’d suffered under ghoul assaults, most likely – with the two more or less to the right having held well and only the one to the left having gotten mauled by the dead.

Out of the seventeen thousand Dominion warriors maybe ten thousand had gotten through in the half hour they’d had, a testament to their light-footedness given the situation. There couldn’t have been more than three thousand ghouls and maybe half that in skeletons out here right now, all spread out, but up close ghouls were bloody and hard to kill even. We’d be winning this fight, for sure, but it would cost us precious time and keep us from seizing the territory we wanted before the first tide hit. I grit my teeth, in a black mood, and led my company three hundred feet out before calling a halt.

“Here,” I shouted. “Form up.”

Maybe twenty feet ahead of us the Tanja forces were cleaning up the last of their undead. Among the ranks I glimpsed the Sage and the Silent Guardian, whose assigned flank this was. On the other left side four large gates opened and our first surprise of the night came out at a gallop: Grandmaster Talbot led out the Order and some Dominion light horse in wedges, smoothly coming around to hit the ghouls that’d been chewing up the Osena in the back. Long lances skewered the creatures and Levantines butchered them after they were pinned, leaving the Order free to peel off the engagement quickly and with few casualties.

They retreated the Twilight Ways without wasting time, as the last thing we wanted was to risk them out here for too long. Cavalry was not easily replaced, and the Dead King was always hungry to steal it for his own armies. With the pressure taken off of them, the Levantines on the left flank pushed forward at last. I worried my lip, eyes on the moving soldiers. Using my location as the yardstick the Second Army had begun taking position in a broad hollow square, but the left third of that square was noticeably lagging behind the rest. It wouldn’t be ready in time, would it?

“Beastmaster?” I asked.

“You’ll start seeing them in a moment,” he replied. “And hearing them not long after.”

“Fuck,” I snarled. “They’ll hit us long before the cabals are in position.”

Much less the wards, whose raising would be further delayed. Akua was good, and I’d glimpsed her crossing through with mages and wardstones, but she couldn’t conjure up a stable array out of thin air. She needed room that she just wouldn’t have. Beastmaster’s warning proved true moments later: in the distance I saw what I might have taken as a swarm of insects, were it not too far out for their size to be reasonable. Birds, they were birds. Not buzzards, which were specially-crafted dead, but just any bird the Dead King had been able to get his hands on. His forces slaughtered and poisoned all wildlife wherever they went so that they could use this very tactic: throwing massive flocks and herds of them at us as skirmishers.

Like a tidal wave filling the sky, they came.

“I’ll handle it myself,” I finally said.

There went one of the two large workings I’d be able to throw around in daylight.

Striding forward with more anger to my stride than I’d care to admit, I left behind my legionaries after a curt gesture signifying they shouldn’t follow. Beastmaster kept pace with me, looking oddly at ease in the middle of mayhem. The warriors from Malaga had been thorough about putting down the dead, but sloppy with clean up: with my staff I shoved aside a painted warrior before the back of her knee could be stabbed by a crawling half-broken skeleton, my boot going through its skull with a wet crunch. I ignored whatever she said to me in Ceseo and kept limping ahead. The Levantines split for me, almost respectfully.

By the time I got to the front, stepping away from my armies with no one but Beastmaster at my side, the tide of undead birds was closer. Close enough no one could miss them, close enough that the beat of their wings and their ceaseless screeching hit our ears like a drumbeat. One coming ever closer as dead things filled the horizon. The birds would only be the first tide, I knew. They were just the quickest to make their way to our lines. Behind us I felt the Dominion warriors shrink. I’d seen some of those same people leap into a siege tower on fire without batting an eye, face Revenants with gleeful whoops, but this breed of horror always hit them hard: what honour could there be in being shredded by dead birds?

Neshamah had made of study of us, of what got into our heads and put lead in our legs.

“You have means to deal with them?” the Beastmaster asked.

“Sure,” I replied with a hard smile, “it’s called force.”

To my surprise, that startled a laugh out of the usually humorless man.

“Don’t let me get into your way then, Black Queen,” Lysander said.

A snort was my only answer. As if. I took another few limping steps forward, loosening my shoulders under the cuirass and taking a good look at the advancing tide. Hadn’t rained in a while, had it? I knelt down, leaning my staff, and traced the ground with a few fingers. Dry. I hoisted myself back up with a grunt.

“You never taught me a prayer for this,” I said in Crepuscular. “An invocation. I imagine there isn’t one.”

I smiled at doom coming on darkened wings.

“Shall we make one together?”

On my shoulders I felt sharp talons dig into the skin, almost enough to draw blood. I had their attention and, closing my eyes, I breathed out and sunk into the Night. I pulled it deep into me until it was writhing in my veins like serpents of smoke.

“I have come a long way, through winding paths,” I murmured, and cocked my head to the side to better hear them.

It was neither a murmur nor the beat of wings, and somehow both.

“Yet behold,” I said, Andronike’s cool disregard given voice, “this barren realm, this crown of ruin!”

And her sister was not far behind, leaning close to hisper into my ear – every syllable a caw, a greedy call of carrion.

“Let me match horror with horror, might with might,” I said, Komena’s poisonous pride made verdict. “And know no master in this.”

The Night roiled, the sea boiling out of me in dusky vapour, and I almost smiled. They had left me the honour of the last touch.

“So let the sun weep and the Crows have their due,” I spoke in a rasping laugh. “For in the end, all will be Night.”

I felt the Sisters smile against the sides of my neck. This one, they whispered, would be known as mine. Catherine’s Tears. Above the tide of carrion birds the sky howled with gales as the Night left me, leaving me buckling down to my knees and hollowed out. My vision swam, but not so much I did not see my work: the power forming into a great sun of black flames, pulsing and screeching almost as loud as the undead. And the tide moved to split around it, but it wouldn’t be enough. I pushed myself up with my staff, and raised a trembling hand.

I snapped a finger and all the Hells went loose.

The black sun blew up in a wave of heat, long streaks of dark flame lashing out and carving streaks of ash through the undead. Like black comets seething strokes shot out, burning as they went and smashing into the plains below with enough might to have the ground shivering even where I stood. Droplets of black fire fell like rain, igniting the carrion dead, and I watched with a cold smile as entire swaths of the enemy burned. Soon the smell of burning bone and flesh would come to us with the wind, but for now I turned around and began my limp back to my lines. The Beastmaster’s followed, face gone blank.

A sky-shaking roar came as the Dominion and the Second Army gave their approval to my work, but no smile touched my face. I’d dug deeper than I’d planned to – my legs still shook and my arms felt numb – so I could not guarantee I’d be able to pull something on the same scale again. Not anytime soon, anyway.

It’d not been enough to blot out the birds, but it’d slow them down. The undead things had scattered every which way, so they’d take time to regroup, and I could generously be said to have at most destroyed half of the lot. It’d be long enough for the Dominion left to have put itself in position, hopefully, because otherwise there was going to be an awful lot of blood on the floor and soon. My face grew grimmer as I got closer to our formations and saw we were still behind. The Second Army wasn’t entirely on the field yet, and that meant we’d be understrength when it came to priests – the kind that could make shields, anyways.

While I could have gone to the command node of the Second, all I’d do there was get in Hune’s way. She already knew the damned plan, she’d helped make it. Getting too close to Akua’s work would be a risk as well, since I was pretty much a moving mass of Night even when not actively using it, so the frontline was the best place for me. The Second Army had moved into cohorts, with furrows behind them, and as I got back to Captain Bolah’s company the first trumpets sounded. The Dominion moved down the furrows to stand behind the Army of Callow formations, with some relief I fancied.

The winged undead were already beginning to gather in great swarms. As soon as the Dominion was behind them, the Second Army’s standards were raised and horns sounded: the lines closed and shields went up, a solid wall of steel becoming the frontline as mage cabals got into position. Ahead of us, the tide had entirely formed anew. It was closer now, and the cacophony of screeches was once more deafening. Four hundred feet, I thought, watching. Three hundred feet. Around me legionaries shifted uneasily.

“Steady,” I called out. “Trust in your officers. We’re ready for them.”

That got a few shouts back, and swords were hammered against shields. Two hundred feet. The shrill screeches washed over us like a physical wave. Screams erupted behind us, not of fear or dismay but battle cries as the House Insurgent slashed out with Light. Callow, some simply shouted. Cries of For the Kingdom or Gods Unforgiving with them, and even a few Only to the Just. Like a volley of arrows javelins of Light went flying, prayers to Above brightening the air. One hundred feet. One, two, three volley followed and then at fifty feet, when the noise was like a rolling thunder in our faces, transparent panes of sorcery bloomed in front of us. Like a sorcerous tortoise formation, the rectangular angled shields came down as armour and muted the cacophony.

It was not airtight. Some birds went through, and with a tired hand I drew my sword to hack at a rotting blue jay as its talons clawed pointlessly at my cuirass, but those few were a pittance compared to the angry tide hammering at the magical defence. In some places the shields flickered or outright broke under the pressure, but we had mage reserves and the House Insurgent had been tasked with purging breaches.

Captain Bolah’s company was untroubled, so I clapped her young lieutenant’s shoulder and called for Beastmaster to follow me. We would be most useful plugging breaches for now. The Second Army finished ferrying across its numbers early, but still too late: by then the second tide had struck. Insects, come on smaller wings. Flies and hornets, until larger things like beetles and stingers and butterflies came up. Unlike the birds, they were capable of digging under the rim of the shields and going up. Twice I torched a stretch when swarms became large enough they devoured soldiers alive, Roland coming back to my side for the grim business after having healed Aquiline Osena.

Sappers came forward and burned the insects out with torches and pitch, but it wasn’t enough. We had to pull mages from shielding to defend against the insects, and it shrank our defences. More panes began failing when our intricate patterns began losing strength, dozens of soldiers dying to every breach before the House Insurgents and the Lanterns, come to reinforce them, could purge the invaders. The third tide hit just as the first Procerans began crossing through, and to my relief Juniper – Hune, I caught myself, it was not the Hellhound in the deeps with me this time – had called for priests to cross first.

When vermin and wild animals began to hammer at the shields and wriggle under them, less numerous than birds or insects but much stronger, we finally got to dismiss entire sections of the defence and remake them anew in pale yellow Light. It burned the dead when they touched them, though not as much as more concentrated amounts would have. We focused our defenses anew, breaches becoming rarer as the work became more distributed, and in some places our people even began to lower panels to bait the dead into dedly Light volleys.

“It’s turning in our favour,” Roland told me, panting and sweat-soaked.

“For now,” I grunted back. “Still an hour and half before sundown”

“They’ll pull away before that,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “They have to.”

He might be right, I thought. The Dead King had to know we had Firstborn with us, and on weak undead like this roving packs of Mighty would be pure butchery. But the assault from the hordes wasn’t slacking and that boded ill. He had at least one last nasty trick left for us, and I could hazard a good guess at what it might be.

“Send for our sword,” I told Roland. “I expect we’re about to have an unpleasant turn.”

It didn’t make me a prophet to predict hard times when fighting Keter, but I felt a sliver of dark satisfaction anyway when the hammer blow did come. With so much magic and Light out in the air, it’d been damned impossible for even Named to smell it when a force had approached us under the Dead King’s favourite hiding enchantments: we didn’t realize a thing until a wave of skeletons broke through a weaker section of the shields and hit the Army of Callow’s shield wall. The swarms poured in with them, a potential catastrophe, but Hune responded as swiftly and ruthlessly as she’d been taught in the War College.

The entire beachhead was purged in a wave of fire and Light, including at least half a company of our own soldiers. We would have lost a lot more, I told myself, if the gap had spread.

I’d not intervened yet because I didn’t believe that was the last blow, and once more I was proved right: an entire section of our defences shattered a heartbeat later as half a dozen vultures with Revenants on their backs broke through the ‘ceiling’. I wasn’t close to enough to help much, to my irritation: I only got off a few shots of flame from a distance, and by the time Zombie came to my side the Revenants were already on the ground. I’d had a band of five waiting for this, our sword. Archer and the Silver Huntress were among them, but while they went through the vultures like butter the Revenants were another story.

They didn’t stay and fight the Named, they just killed.

The dead Named butchered their way through the Levantines and my soldiers, each heading out towards a different part of the shielding even as masses of birds poured through the gaping hole they’d made in the ceiling. The sorcery and Light that shot up in answer wasn’t enough, like someone trying to stop a river with a spear stroke. I almost reached for Night again, I was recovered enough to do something, but breathed out in relief when massive spinning blades of Light erupted just above our troops and began shooting upwards.

The Blessed Artificer had come through the gate, arriving with the third wave of Named.

Enough dead had flown through already that dozens more soldiers died before the carrion could be destroyed, and we did not catch a single fucking Revenant as they fought their way out – and, even worse, opened breaches as they did. Fuck, and we’d barely learned anything about what they could do too. I secured two breaches with my escorts as the shielded ceiling was painstakingly restored, and a moment later Creation shivered. I grinned tiredly: Akua had finally anchored the wards, thank the Gods. Unlike the first few times the Dead King wouldn’t do us the favour of grinding his expendables to dust on our defences, so to the ragged cheering of the army the swarms went still and then began to retreat.

Half an hour left until sundown.

Still on Zombie’s back, my face was grim as I looked around us. Though the battle had gone well, better than we’d expected even – there’d been no need to commit the Procerans or even the Third to very risky flanking actions – we’d still lost more than a thousand, at a glance. At least half over that in wounded too, though the priests would see to that some. As night began to fall and the hard work of building the camp into a defensive position was undertaken under torchlight and magelights, I found myself approached by a silent ring of thin silhouettes with painted faces. The sigil-holders of the Firstborn bowed when I turned to them, and I offered a hard smile.

“Prepare your sigils,” I said. “We raid, Mighty.”

The answering smiles were fearsomethings, for these were a fearsome lot.

It was our turn, now.

Chapter 54: King’s Fianchetto

“That there is little reason to war should be no surprise, for war is never the choice of reasonable men.”

– Basileus Stavros Trakas of Nicae

It wouldn’t be cheap.

The pair from the adjunct secretariat had been dismissed, leaving me with a pile of papers where the words ‘maybe’ and ‘should’ came up uncomfortably often. While the phalanges who’d spoken to me – an orc and a Callowan, nice touch that – had been well-versed in the details, looking at the plans I recognized the careful method that lay behind them. This was Hakram’s proposal, and not one he’d begun working on recently. Too much groundwork had been laid, and some of those numbers would have taken months to get. I was honestly astonished he’d managed to get his hands on estimated fighting strength for the greatest of the Clans, as the Jacks were completely blind in the Steppes.

As far as proposals meant it was well-crafted, and made it clear that not only was propping up an orc state in the Steppes achievable but it would benefit Callow in several practical ways. Establishing treaties with orc leadership and trading ties with western clans would ensure that raiding of my kingdom did not resume down the line, while a mutual defence pact would mean that if the Dread Empire turned on us both Wolof and Okoro would be knocked out of the war before the first sword was drawn. The Clans weren’t rich in much besides amber and fur, but trading those goods south in Mercantis would mean steep profits for Callowan traders given the demand for both.

There’d be no need for actual Callowan military involvement either, as simply arming the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves up to Army of Callow standards would allow them to sweep through Malicia’s allies in the Clans and become a thorn in the Tower’s side in northern Praes. From there different manners of support could be offered, grain and cattle and craft goods, while the Clans stabilized as an independent polity and pressured the Wasteland with their raiders.

But there were… issues. For one, orcs didn’t have a great record when it came to keeping to treaties – especially treaties binding multiple clans, considering the independent bent of their chiefs. The trade outlined would become profitable in the long term, yes, but in the short one it was a drain on the already strained treasury of Callow. It’d also represent an escalation of our current manner of war with the Tower, struggles abroad through intermediaries, to something significantly more aggressive. There was a difference between backing rival parts of the League and arming rebels in Malicia’s backyard. This would prompt retaliation, one that Callow was currently ill-equipped to handle.

And the truth was that, in the end, I couldn’t be sure the orcs even would stay an independent nation for long. If Black claimed the Tower then given his popularity up north he shouldn’t find it overly difficult to bring the Clans back into the fold. Meaning I would have pissed away gold, political capital – it was going to be a difficult sell in Laure to arm greenskins largely at our expense, to say the least – and risked retaliation all to strengthen soon-to-be Tower loyalists. Sure they’d be a pain in Malicia’s neck for a while, but was that small a gain really worth such a significant investment? Much as I would have preferred for the answer to be a different one, deep down I knew it was not. I sighed and leaned back into my seat, the lights of the camp around me dimly visible through the entrance flaps of my tent.

I poured myself a finger of brandy, and tried to think of a reason for me to back this that wasn’t just making Hakram happy. He’d been good, for a very long time, about never putting me in a position like this – having too choose between him and duty. So damned good I’d allowed myself to forget he wanted things at all. That was a dangerous thing to ignore in my right hand, the keeper of so many of my secrets. But I couldn’t just empty my kingdom’s coffers just to please him, could I? Gods I rather wanted to, if only so things between us could go back to normal, but it wouldn’t be that simple would it?

No, I suspected that if anything accepting when I had so many qualms would only make things worse.

I cast a baleful look at a sheet of parchment detailing the costs and benefits of arming orcs in Callowan steel instead of sending them shipments of dwarven armaments bought in Mercantis, passing a hand through my hair. I’d refrained from calling on Akua when considering this, wanting no contrary opinion tainting my thoughts, and forced myself not to send for Scribe – even though she’d likely have better force estimates for the Clans than anything my people had been able to dig up, on top of the lay of the more recent politics.

“I can’t accept this,” I admitted to myself quietly.

It was a stark enough admission that I punctuated it by guzzling down the brandy, the burn in my throat and belly distracting from the unpleasantness. I wiped my lips afterwards, reaching for a quill and inkwell, and pawed around until I found a sheath of parchment I could use. I couldn’t accept this, I thought but I could at least make it clear why I couldn’t accept it. It was better than just refusing, and letting silence have the day. The words came easy, when I got into it, and I found further reasons to hesitate even as I wrote.

For one, the Clans were currently dependent on Praes for many goods and the northernmost Soninke holdings much closer than Callow – how could I be assured the Steppes wouldn’t just be pulled back into an eastern alliance down the line by simple dint of needing what the Wasteland could provide quicker than my people could provide it? Callowans were not known as great merchants, and there was no port up the Wasiliti for our river barges to land that wasn’t in Praesi hands. I needed answer to more than a dozen questions just as crucial, and so I asked them all. I cannot in good conscience commit to this proposal at is stands, I added at the end. I would, however, be willing to entertain a revised one addressing my concerns.

I bit my lip, a few drops of ink dripping down as my hand hesitated. I look forward to seeing your work, I began, then crossed it out. I expect I will soon see… No, I thought, and crossed it out again. I hope that, crossed. I believe that there is merit to this, I finally allowed, and look forward to the improvements.

The queen would not allow the woman to say sorry, so this was as close as I’d ever get to saying the word to Hakram.

I slept uneasily and woke up already tired.

Though we both knew he’d read my answer, Adjutant did not speak a word of it as we ate breakfast and I did not press the matter. While I’d slept the campaign had continued, the ten thousand Firstborn still with my army hunting down nearby wandering bands of undead in the lowlands and wiping them out under moonlight. They’d retreated back to camp before dawn and were now sleeping through it as the remainder of our column prepared to resume the march. I’d be leaving the Third under General Abigail to protect them while our march picked up again, the Levantines once more serving as vanguard.

I’d pulled at the leash yesterday and gone out to fight, but I’d not get such an opportunity again anytime soon. There was no Juniper for me to hand command to as I went hunting for trouble, much to my displeasure – it was my command, for better or worse. The detachments of fantassins and drow we’d sent out yesterday had dug in through dawn but would begin sweeping the region clear of undead soon enough: I got regular reports from both Ivah and Captain-General Catalina about their progress. It looked to be slim pickings, with the enemy force holed up in Luciennerie having sent no raiders down the blue road that we could find.

That worried me.

Why was the Dead King not reacting to our advance? There were three forces that were in position to prove a threat for the offensive. First was the hundred thousand army ahead of my column, no doubt well on its way to Lauzon’s Hollow by now. Another of at least one hundred thousand was holding Juvelun to the east, but we were trying to bait it out with Prince Klaus’ army. A force at least as large as the others was in Luciennerie, though, and while Princess Rozala was supposed to send raiders out to worry it the absence of reaction from there was raising my hackles.

Luciennerie was a fortress, it wouldn’t be easy for raiders to take even if a few dozen thousand dead were sent down to march on our defensive lines north of Arbusans. It was what I would have done, in the Dead King’s place: mounted a large enough assault on that defence that my column was forced to strip away detachments to reinforce. It’d weaken us before the clash at the Hollow, and in the worst possible case the Dead King would break through the fort and force our arriving reinforcements from Callow and Procer to face him in a costly field battle before his marauders were driven back.

So why was there only silence from the northwest?

My Lord of Silent Steps had correctly estimated that east of Julienne’s Highway was the region I wanted cleared most thoroughly, and it had acted consequently: the Firstborn had gone out there in force overnight and savaged the enemy warbands in the area thoroughly. They’d also paid particular attention to keeping the connection between the mining roads of the east and the Highway clear, which I send a commendation for. So long as that road remained open, the Iron Prince could keep sending us messengers even when he got into territories where scrying broke down. My column’s advance went uncontested through the rest of the day, the field ours in every direction according to the reports of my scout. Some of my commanders came to believe we’d caught the Hidden Horror by surprise with our advance, that our timing had been apt.

He might have been focusing his attentions on the offensive against Cleves, they said, the one headed towards Trifelin. Our two-pronged offensive might have caught him with his forces deployed in the wrong places. Some of General Hune’s staff argued for us to increase the speed of our offensive because of this theory, and the notion was popular with Princess Beatrice and her army. They were eager to reclaim their capital from Keter, it was a point of pride for them. I stamped down on their ardour, as unless their guesswork was confirmed I saw no reason to change our campaign plan. Just because we could not see the Dead King’s preparations did not mean they weren’t waiting for us.

On the third day of the march, early in the morning, I got word from Prince Klaus. When he’d sent his messenger his army had just passed Juvelun, where to his dismay the enemy army had refused to engage even when he’d skirmished provocatively. Our early hopes that the raids on his army were the prelude to a greater attack seemed in vain. With the hope of baiting the enemy into a field battle easily gone, he’d followed our contingency plan and begun a forced march towards Malmedit. That would force the enemy army to either follow or risk losing the tunnels there, but noted it would not be difficult for him to keep in contact with my army form now on.

He wished me luck, and in silence I wished him the same. It was not without risks, marching on Malmedit: it left his supply lines open for the enemy to raid, or to block entirely if they decided to leave Juvelun and advance against his back.

It was only half a bell before sundown that I finally got an explanation as to why Luciennerie had gone silent. Princess Rozala sent word by scrying that not only had Keter begun the expected offensive against Trifelin, where she’d fought a field battle and was now suffering a siege, but that there seemed to be another attack afoot. The raiding detachments she’d sent to harass the army in Luciennerie had been ambushed and driven back, but not before catching sight of a Keteran host marching towards the fortress they’d come from. The same one anchoring her eastern flank, Coudrent. My fingers clenched until the knuckles went white when I heard the news.

If the fortress fell, Cleves was in trouble. The dead would have access to the soft underbelly of the principality, and not only would they be able to cut the supply lines of the far-flung capital of Cleves but they’d also be able to strike at the besieged army in Trifelin from behind. It’d be a crippling blow. One that could potentially turn our currently steadiest front into a howling disaster over the span of a bare few months. There were Named in Coudrent, though, and a significant defensive force. The fortress would not fall easily. Still, it now looked like the Dead King had decided to gamble on breaking Cleves before we could retake Hainaut.

He must have realized that we’d weakened the defences there to strengthen our offensive here, in troops and Named. It was a bold strategy from an opponent usually more inclined towards patience, but then he could afford the losses better than we could: every battle refilled his ranks while ours dwindled. It would have been a mistake to hide this from my highest officers, so on the same evening I called another war council. It was taken with equanimity on the surface, but it was only skin deep.

“It might be best to end the offensive for now,” Razin Tanja reluctantly said, “and instead reinforce Coudrent through the Twilight Ways.”

I cocked an eyebrow, almost impressed. It’d be a strategic blunder to do that, in my opinion, but it showed forethought on his part that’d been entirely absent back when we’d tangled at Sarcella. He could recognize, at least, that losing Cleves would be a greater loss than winning Hainaut would be a gain.

“The Hidden Horror could be baiting us,” Aquiline reminded him. “We do not know much of what happened out west for certain.”

“If anything this reinforces the need to advance swiftly,” Grandmaster Talbot argued. “If we smash our way up the Highway, the enemy might be forced to withdraw the forces they sent out or face losing Hainaut largely uncontested.”

“Beg your pardon, lord, but it’s only uncontested if the army in Juvelun does what we want and chases the Iron Prince,” General Abigail said. “Might be we could take that for granted before, but I’m not so sure we can now.”

“Agreed,” Princess Beatrice said, startling my general. “Though I would suggest that is even more of a reason to push forward quickly. Unless we become a serious threat on the Enemy’s hold of Hainaut, he has no reason to reconsider his offensives. The army in the Hollow needs to be shattered, and soon.”

I stayed silence, wanting all here to air their thoughts, but I tended to side with Beatrice Volignac in this. There were still four days of marching between us and the Hollow, if we stayed on Creation, which was starting to look like too long.  The Dead King wouldn’t have made a move against Coudrent if he didn’t believe he could take the fortress, Named or not, and to be honest I was starting to suspect the attack on Trifelin was not to take the place – Rozala Malanza had made it into a butcher’s yard for anyone trying to take it – but instead to pin down the Princess of Aequitan’s army so it couldn’t relieve Coudrent.

“We can’t fight a battle with our column spread out as it currently is,” General Hune pointed out. “We’ll need to recall the drow and the mercenaries first and that’ll take at least a day.”

A generous estimate. The distances involved were not small, there were no real roads to speak of out there and the forces in question were significantly spread out. Even if we sent the order in an hour, I doubted we’d gather everyone here by tomorrow. I’d bet the morning after, the dawn of our campaign’s fifth day, if we were lucky and the fantassins ran themselves ragged.

“It will slow us down to wait for them,” Aquiline pointed out.

“Attacking an entrenched force with superior numbers without our full strength would be foolish,” Hune bluntly replied.

“We don’t need to launch an assault outright,” I noted. “We can set up camp facing the Hollow and prepare for battle, and order the detachments to catch up to us there.”

It’d have the benefit of having those detachments sweep through the upper lowlands on both sides as they joined us, flushing out undead warbands still in hiding.

“And if the enemy comes out to fight?” Princess Beatrice asked.

“Gods, if only,” I wolfishly smiled.

General Abigail let out a small trilling laugh, which sounded either keen or terrified. Her fear aside, I strongly believed that in a field battle we’d smash right through the force the Dead King had sent to hold the Hollow. It was one thing to assault a strong position, another to face bones and Binds on the plains – where our cavalry could come into play and we could force them to come to us as our engines pounded at them.

“Send out the recall orders, we’re to gather directly before Lauzon’s Hollow,” I ordered Hune, then turned my gaze to the rest. “As for our column, prepare your forces for a march through the Twilight Ways. Morning Bell tomorrow is the timeline for beginning to open the portals.”

Which meant we’d probably start moving around Noon Bell, realistically. Even the simplest of things became incredibly complicated to achieve, when out campaigning, and time was always the first casualty. My tone was firm and there was no argument, the war council dispersing to see to their orders. We could all feel it, I thought, how much more had come to rest on our shoulders with the latest news. If we failed and Cleves fell, then the Principate would follow. Maybe not the same year, but it would all be downhill from there.

“So we don’t fail,” I murmured.

The words were cold comfort as I went to sleep.

Noon Bell turned out to have been wildly optimistic. For once it wasn’t even the fantassins that ended up being a pain in my ass, it was the drow. With Ivah gone their discipline had thinned and they dragged their legs when it came to getting their supply carts in order. Which in turn slowed down the Third Army, which was meant to march into the Twilight Wats after them, and when it became clear that halfway to Noon Bell we were still far from marching the armies that’d gathered had to be released – we couldn’t just make the soldiers stand in the sun for hours like scarecrows, hundreds would get heatstroke and discipline would break down.

The upside was that when the Silver Huntress and her party returned from their jaunt into enemy territory, just a little after Noon Bell, I was still there to take their report. Haranguing sigil-holders had stopped being a productive use of my time about two hours ago, so I’d sat down for lunch and had covers set for the Named so they could join me as they gave their account. Unsurprisingly, the tore at even such plain fare with great enthusiasm. I waited until they’d filled their stomachs some before nudging the Silver Huntress into starting to talk.

“We got close to the Hollow,” Alexis the Argent said. “It was swarming with soldiers, so even sneaking near the road wasn’t an option, but we went up into the hills to the east so we could have a look from there.”

She paused, swallowing a piece of jerky and washing it down with a mug of ale.

“The Headhunter was the one who found the goat path that allow us to,” the Huntress conceded. “She did good work.”

The villain in question only grinned at me, showing crooked but white teeth.

“The rise we found overlooked the army, Your Majesty,” the Vagrant Spear said. “The dead are raising fortifications, making ready for us.”

Bad news, but not unexpected ones. The dead tended to do as much when they had the time and expected to fight a defensive battles. Unlike the Army of Callow, though, Neshamah’s undead hordes did not usually have dedicated engineers or artisans that could serve the same purpose. Sometimes Binds with know-how managed something a little more elaborate than raising palisades and digging ditches, but it was rare.

“Anything to worry about?” I asked.

“Ditches and walls, the usual,” Roland told me. “They are concentrating on where Julienne’s High passes, but there were several layers being dug when we had our look.”

All the more reason to move on them soon, I thought. Even without giving actual battle, when we got close I’d be able to send raiders to disrupt their preparations. I glanced at the Silent Guardian, but though she was clearly paying attention she had nothing to add by gesture. There’d be no talk out of her, of course. Her Name was not an exaggeration – she’d been born mute, way I heard it.

“The Grey Legion was there,” the Headhunter said.

She grinned at me again, as surprise appeared on the face of her companions. Evidently, she’d not informed them.

“You saw them?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“I have a Mark on two different soldiers of it,” the Headhunter said. “Both were in range.”

I nodded. She’d always been vague about what her range actually was with the aspect, or how many of those marks she could have simultaneously, but I’d gathered it was at least several miles.

“You never said a word,” the Vagrant Spear indignantly said.

“I’m not your mother, Bloodlet,” the Headhunter sneered. “I won’t hold you by the hand when you fail.”

I whistled sharply, which interrupted before that lovely little spat could escalate.

“You can wait until I have my report to tussle,” I bluntly said. “Do you have numbers for me?”

“Around ninety thousand infantry,” the Silver Huntress said. “Mostly skeletons, though there was a large contingent of ghouls and we won’t have seen them all.”

“Constructs?” I asked.

“Two wyrms,” she grimaced. “And the usual for a frontline force: beorns and tusks, a few vultures and irregular horrors. At least a hundred total, and more they’ll have kept hidden in reserve.”

Not as bad as I’d expected, although the wyrms would be a problem and the Grey Legion was going to complicate everything just by being there. Either Akua or myself would have to be kept in reserve and fresh for when they came out, else that was going to be a damned costly battle. There just wasn’t anything our infantry could do against those things, not even my legionaries.

“Anything else come to mind?” I pressed.

“There were Revenants there,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “At least ten. And there was a shape in the distance, behind the Hollow, that I believe might have been a Crab.”

That got my attention, since we’d ever only had unverifiable reports about those existing.

“How sure are you?”

The Headhunter snorted contemptuously.

“Not sure enough to want to risk venturing too far,” the villain said.

“Our orders were to avoid combat,” the Silver Huntress sharply said. “And we obeyed them. As to the Crab, Your Majesty, it was impossible to tell if it truly was one from so far. There was magical interference as well, we believe.”

A ‘Crab’ was what we’d called the method the Dead King used to keep his armies halfway functional out in the field, when he had no cities to support them. It was a massive skittering necromantic construct, but not one meant to fight: the inside of its armoured shells was supposedly filled with forges, workshops and warehouses. A small moving city meant to allow repair, the creation of fresh constructs and safely carrying necessary goods. Masego believed they were also one of the methods the Dead King used to scramble scrying, as a sort of moving ritual site. We’d never gotten a close look at a Crab, though, as they tended to be kept relatively far behind enemy lines and jealously guarded.

I’d be a significant blow to the Dead King’s ability to wage war in Hainaut if we destroyed one, though. There wouldn’t be a swift replacement either: Given how expensive and difficult making a construct the size of a small city would be, we were pretty sure there were no more than ten of them in existence. My eyes moved to Roland.

“You didn’t answer the question,” I noted.

He hesitated.

“I strongly believe it was one,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “The spell I used is essentially a Baalite eye made through sorcery, and though it doesn’t show much at great distances what it does show is reliable.”

I nodded in acknowledgement, drumming my fingers against the table. I tended to put trust in Roland’s judgement, cagey and tricky bastard that he was. While bagging the Crab wouldn’t be a greater priority than, well, actually beating the enemy army ahead of us I’d keep its existence in mind. It’d be quite the prize to destroy one of those.

“Noted,” I said, then changed the subject. “Our approach to the Hollow has changed, we’ll be moving out through the Ways as soon as possible and leaving our detachments to catch up to us near the enemy. That makes planning our answer to the Revenants and the enemy’s trump cards – the Grey Legion and the wyrms – all the more important.”

“There could be more Revenants,” the Silver Huntress reminded me. “We cannot be sure.”

“That’s war,” I shrugged. “You can never be sure. But we can plan for what we do know. I’ll want a more detailed report on the Revenants you saw once you’re done eating, and I’ll be calling an assembly of all Named with the column tonight.”

That got their attention, considering they were all included in that.

“We’ll be discussing match ups for the Revenants,” I told them, “and how we might best deal with the constructs you’ve identified.”

Much as I’d prefer not to, we might have to reveal the unravellers to deal with the wyrms if we couldn’t get a clean kill otherwise. I’d not get soldiers killed to keep the element of surprise – in other situations I might be willing to make that trade, but not when preserving our strength was so important. The battle ahead of us wasn’t the last we’d fight this campaign, and likely not even the hardest. I’d intended on hearing our suggestions from them ahead of the assembly, but it was not to be: before I could prod of them into giving an opinion, Adjutant wheeled his way into the tent.

I caught his eyes, and he indicated for us to move outside.

“You all did good work,” I told the seated Named, rising to my feet. “And brought back knowledge that might be the key to victory in the coming battle. The Grand Alliance thanks you all, and you will commended at the assembly tonight.”

It was easy enough to take my leave, since even the most polite among them were hungry and in front of a meal, so I left them to it and joined Hakram as he wheeled his way out.

“Word from Neustal,” he said. “Fresh from a runner. The Gigantes wardsmiths have arrived.”

Finally, I thought. The Titanomachy had been slow in coughing those out, at least when it came to the Hainaut front. Those who’d gone to Cleves had arrived almost a month ago.

“Good new,” I said.

“Their leader sent word to ask whether they should follow behind the column or stay in Neustal until sent for,” Hakram told me.

I mulled on that a moment. Was it worth the risk? Honestly, yes. I’d probably be able to squeeze a few things out of them if they were there when we attacked the capital, and until then they’d be useful in repairing and fine-tuning the artefacts they’d already sent us.

“How many of them are there?” I finally asked.

“Twenty-two,” Adjutant replied.

I let out a low whistle. That was more than I’d expected, at least the Titanomachy wasn’t being stingy with manpower – which, if what Hanno had told them about them was true, was the single they prized the most. There honestly was no way that our troops had missed anything numerous or powerful enough to threaten twenty-two Gigantes when sweeping through the lowlands here, so there went my last qualms.

“Send them up,” I said. “Though with warnings that this is still a war zone, if one we believe secure. If they want to wait until the next supply convoy so they can share the escort, they should feel free to.”

They’d still get to the city of Hainaut around the same time we did, by my reckoning.

“I’ll see to it,” Adjutant replied.

I opened my mouth, to ask about my answer to the proposal, then closed it. I’d already made things worse by pressing too hard once, I thought, it might best let him set the terms of engagement going from here.

“I’ll see you later then,” I simply replied.

It ended up being near godsdamned Afternoon Bell that the last of our soldiers entered the Twilight Ways, which was the final nail in the coffin of my optimism for this campaign.

Chapter 53: Joust

“War, that most glorious of horrors.”

-Bastien de Hauteville, Proceran general

Keeping pace turned out to be pretty tricky.

 Zombie’s wings weren’t actually what allowed her to fly, since they were nowhere strong enough to actually lift a horse her size – much less with two riders on her back – but Masego had never actually been able to give me a clear answer about what exactly did allow her to fly. There’d been a lot of talk about natural domains and the inherent structural differences of the fae, but the bottom line was that he couldn’t really explain it. There was at least some grounding in Creational laws, though, since Zombie did use the wings to steer around and adjust her flight. It made her flight pleasing to the eye, an extraordinary thing but not unnatural to behold.

The Summoner’s creature was his own work, on the other hand, and not a being stolen from Arcadia. It was his own craftsmanship on display and it hardly equal to even a lesser god’s, to say nothing of Above and Below. His wyvern-thing’s wings moved, but the advance of the creature itself was jerky and only tangentially related to the way they batted. If anything the sight brought to mind the way I’d used to shape footholds out of ice in fights, if said footholds had then been forcefully dragged forward by magic. The flight was largely stable, though, and the Silver Huntress had a lot more room to stand at the back than Archer did on my own mount.

I suspected frequent use of this construct would make it more ‘natural’, as if the repeating conflict between magic made flesh and Creation was grinding the shape down into a compromise appeasing both.

For now, though, my main concern was ensuing that when the wyvern-thing pulled forward it did not take the other two Named out of my Night-working. If they left the illusion, our enemy was likely to scatter into every direction: it’d be impossible to stop them from flying over the column then, we just didn’t have the flyers for it. The sun was eating away at the illusion, slowly but surely, but I’d woven it with the personal blessing and attention of the eldest of the Sisters: it’d hold until I no longer needed it. Which promised to be soon, as the enemy’s shapes grew from blots on the horizon to discernable silhouettes.

Leaning forward against Zombie’s mane as Indrani’s arm around my belly loosened to let me, I began to count to the smaller undead birds. The buzzards had been raised from the remains of birds, it was visibly true with each, but they’d not all been of the same size and so Keteran necromancers had expanded the frames of those who’d been too small. Made of bare bone and ‘feathers’ of dead wood framed with dulled copper, they were quicker and tougher than the actual dead birds the Dead King occasionally threw at us in flocks. I found thirteen, taking my time to find them all. None strayed far from the fat construct between them, the vulture.

At least a dozen feet tall, all bristling bones and thick folds of dead animal skin, the abomination watched the world with too-large wet red eyes: old blood long gone sour, made into something farsighted by ugly rituals. Its large and leathery wings beat the air, not quite hiding the rows of insect-like segmented legs under it. Each ended in a long spike of steel, which the construct could strike forcefully enough with to punch through plate – I’d seen it run straight through a knight, once, and toss her away like a ragdoll as the horse panicked. It was the ‘bald’ patch atop the head, where plaques of iron had been nailed into the skull to protect it from easy shattering, that’d earned the creature the sobriquet of ‘vulture’. It was no wyrm, capable of tearing through an entire battalion in moments when catching it unawares, but vultures were no laughing matter.

“Thirteen buzzards,” I called out. “Think you can handle that much?”

“Please,” Indrani snorted into my ear. “It could be twice as many and it’d make no difference. Should I put an unraveller in the vulture just to make a point?”

“We’re keeping them a surprise still,” I declined.

A sharp whistle – it would not leave the sphere of my Night-working and give us away, the miracle was a very cleverly made one – drew my attention. The Silver Huntress wanted to speak, it seemed, and so I pulled at the reins to bring Zombie closer to the Summoner’s creature. The wind would make it hard to understand the heroine, otherwise.

“There’s something hidden on the vulture’s back,” the Huntress called out. “A refraction trick, I’ve seen it used by the dead before.”

I did not ask her how she’d picked the detail out at such a distance, since it was exceedingly rude to ask another Named about their aspects.

“Does it work up close?” I called back.

“Yes,” she shouted. “Needs disruption. Light works.”

I frowned. There weren’t a lot of things the Dead Kings would bother to hide on the back of something as visible as a vulture. Either he’d sent out mage Binds, which he was always careful about protecting, or there was a Revenant riding that thing. The first we could handle easily, the second might get… complicated. Some Revenants were no more dangerous than a necromantic construct, simple champions to use against Named, but there were some who’d kept the better part of their fangs even in death.

“Archer will handle the buzzards,” I yelled. “Disperse the trick on my word, we’ll attack together.”

Zombie knew Indrani well and even liked her – she kept offering her oats that the godsdamned dead fae horse did not need – so there shouldn’t be an issue leaving her on my mount’s back. The Silver Huntress gestured to make it clear she’d heard, then retreated further on the wyvern-thing’s back. Like Archer she’d come with her bow already strung and a quiver of arrows that were more or less the size of javelins. Unlike Indrani, though, she preferred a short spear to a pair of longknives. It was just as silver at the bow, and no doubt just as heavily enchanted.

I waited until we’d gotten within a hundred feet of the enemy. By then I could almost make out the trick the Huntress had mentioned: there was a… glimmer on the back of the vulture, whenever it shifted one side or the other. I leaned back towards Indrani.

“You ready?” I asked.

“Give me a moment,” she said, pressing a kiss into the side of my neck for good luck.

She put a hand on my shoulder to help herself upright, standing on the saddle with a gleeful grin and nocking an arrow. Gods, I hoped she wasn’t about to die a very stupid death just so she could have a better field of vision when shooting. She tapped my shoulder to tell me she was finished, and I turned to find the watchful eyes of the Silver Huntress.

Now,” I shouted.

She nocked an arrow of her own and smoothly drew, silvery Light gathering at the point like a blinding star, then casually released. My working shivered under the cold burn of her power, hollowing from the inside even as the sun attacked it from the outside, and shattered entirely even as the arrow left the confines of my illusion. In the heartbeat that followed, things happened so quickly I almost couldn’t parse them – the buzzards began to scatter, Indrani loosed an arrow, the vulture tried to evade to the side and the silver arrow struck true.  Two silhouettes were revealed, and neither looked like a Bind. Fuck.

I cursed in every tongue I knew. Time for a brawl, then.

I breathed out to steady myself, then threw myself to the side. Swallowing the scream that was trying to fight its way out, I forced my eyes to stay open and gauged the distances even as I drew on Night. One, two, three, four and… there. The gate into Twilight opened below me me even as a second silvery arrow swatted a leaping Revenant back onto the vulture and a fourth buzzard dropped. I dropped through the warmer sky of the Twilight Ways for a heartbeat before pulling at the Night and wrenching open another gate, resuming my fall about two feet above and three feet in front of the vulture.

That repositioning trick had been a bitch to learn even with Komena helping me.

I dropped down, eyes wide open and cloak trailing behind me, and before I’d even landed atop the construct my enemies gave answer. A blackened longsword’s point came at me in a thrust, exquisitely timed to go straight through my unprotected throat even as my feet touched the ground: I slammed my dead wood staff against the ground first, and the clap of Night that rippled out messed with the timing. Before the armoured Revenant – in impeccable knight’s armour, I glimpsed, down to the faded heraldic swans of House Caen on the shield – could properly turn the thrust into a cut I landed in a crouch at its feet, fingers sliding down the length of my staff.

“Afternoon, Neshamah,” I drawled, and rolled forward before the Revenant could bash in my head with its shield.

Right behind the first enemy the second had been waiting for me. Tattered robes and a breastplate of dull green light were all I caught before the points of the trident coming for my chest got a lot more pressing a consideration. Laughing I leaned back, earning myself half a moment – just long enough to unsheathe my own sword and slam the side of it into the blow. The dead Named pushed the lock one way and me the other, only my grunt breaking the silence. The Revenant was stronger than me, pale dead eyes staring down through a ratty hood, but Night pulsed through me and with a savage grin I slapped aside the blow – just in time to see the Dead Knight about to run me through the back most unchivalrously.

Silver light rammed into the side of its head, blowing off half the steel helm and revealing blond locks on a beautiful face.

Dead Knightess, I mentally amended, and deftly twirled my staff to smash it into the exposed flesh. Too slow, I cursed, her shield coming up and even the Night I’d slid down the staff splashing out harmlessly against it. I narrowly parried a thrust from the trident and withdrew to the side prudently – that light breastplate wasn’t that of a warrior-Named by my reckoning – but not quite swiftly enough. When lightning streaked down the trident’s length and lashed out at me, it caught the edge of my cloak. The Mantle frizzled the magic, but did not shatter the spell: it twisted around, answering the Revenant’s will, and struck my sword-hand.

I bit down on my scream, limbs convulsing, and dropped my sword against my will.

A blow from the back hammered into my shoulder, cutting deep as the Knightess put the full weight of her strength into it. Blood spurted and I was driven to my knees, but I let out a bark of laughter through the sting: painful as that had been, it’d broken the lightning spell’s hold on me. The hand freed by dropping my sword went up as I drank deep of the Night, then closed my fist. As if a dragon had breathed in the air was sucked in by the funnel I’d crafted, drawing both Revenants in, and with a hard grin I spun my staff: blackflame roared out in a wheel. Both retreated, Robes doing being than Knightess whose exposed face was caught, but their relief was short-lived.

With a furious cry, the Silver Huntress entered the fray by smashing a shining spear into the Knightess’ side. Pulling at my breastplate so it’d stop digging into my wound, I rose and offered Robes a wink.

“Hey,” I said, “do you want to see a magic trick?”

The Revenant stiffened for a moment. Wait, was this one of the perfectly conscious ones? They were exceedingly rare.

“No,” the Dead King replied through another mouth.

In the same moment, uncaring that there were also Revenants atop it, the vulture flipped upside down. Gods, Neshamah really was such an ass even when you discounted all the horror and mass murder. The Huntress still blew part the Knightess’ shield in a streak of silver, scoring deep burns into the plate behind it, but I had to trade taking a shot at Robes for crafting a tendril of Night and catching the heroine by the waist, throwing her upwards. That cost me, as Neshamah-in-Robes got off a spell before I finished crafting a veil of Night for my own defence: there was a boom of thunder that struck me like a physical blow, rattling my bones, and then my vision went white as a column of lightning erupted.

Would have caught me for sure, if a creature looking like a large ghostly pufferfish hadn’t suddenly formed right in the path of the spell.

Shit, I thought, changing the veil from a defensive one form one that’d obscure my presence before I was done changing it. I might actually have to be polite to the Summoner for that. From the corner of my eye I caught one, two, three silver streaks – the Huntress had somehow taken her bow even while being thrown upwards and her arrows hammered into the Knightess mercilessly. Neshamah-in-Robes did not bat an eyes, beginning to weave a large web of lightning streaks around the lot of us – like a large, loose net. Clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth disapprovingly, I opened a small gate into Twilight near the edge of the net and allowed it to close.

The Dead King, visibly irritated through his puppet’s face, gathered the lightning streaks into a spear of spinning threads and tossed it at the Silver Huntress. I let myself keep falling, Mantle of Woe flapping around me, and pulled on the Night. I grinned as a silver arrow tore through the point of the lightning spear, hollowing out the centre, though it was an unpleasant surprise to find that the outer layers had kept shooting forward. I saw movement from the corner of my eye again, though, and kept working on my miracle with a pleased smile. Zombie glided down past the Huntress gracefully, Indrani catching her old comrade by the scruff of a neck.

They went into a dive before the spell could catch them, though the Dead King was already preparing another spell – lightning was pulsing around him, erupting from the frame of the Revenant in spikes. And still I waited, carefully shaping the Night.

The vulture swung around, one of those deadly legs catching the Knightess and slamming her onto its back before moving so that the Dead King’s puppet could lightly land on the back. Just before the feet of Neshamah-in-Robes could touch the vulture they threw their spell – a ball of lightning that began to expand massively the moment it left his hands – I struck at last. Thin tendrils of Night shot out of me by the hundreds, ripping through my veil and revealing my position, but even as the Dead King turned towards me the first tendrils sunk into the flesh of the Revenant he was using. He began to cut at them with the trident, but there were too many and he was too slow.

“Here it is anyway,” I smiled, and snapped my fingers.

Robes’ silhouette shivered for a moment, then grew sunken as I hollowed it out from the inside with acid. Without bones and runes to anchor the necromancy, the Revenant collapsed within moments and there was simply nothing the Dead King could do about it. Which was good but I was still, unfortunately, rapidly hurting towards my death. That, uh, hadn’t stopped while I was scheming. Fortunately others had noticed, and within moments the Summoner had brought around his wyvern-thing and even guided it to sweep me so I wouldn’t break my legs landing on it. I gave him a thankful nod, then breathed out and opened a gate into Twilight in front of me.

A heartbeat later I stepped out of another gate onto the back of the vulture even as the Knightess turned to face me, longsword raised. She was a better swordswoman than me, I figured, and at the moment I didn’t even have a sword. The Revenant reached behind her back, beneath a faded cloak, and to my surprise unsheathed another longsword. But instead of approaching me with both blades, she threw the fresh blade at my feet.

“A knight even in death, is it?” I mused out loud.

I was offered a salute, flat of the blade against her forehead, and nodded in return. I bent down to pick up the blade, shoulder wound stinging and already pulling on Night, but the expected betrayal never came. I was tempted, for a moment, to just blast her anyway. She might have been Callowan, once upon a time, but now whatever she might believe she was only a tool of the Dead King. And yet, as blood seeped down onto my breastplate and I watched this fair-haired killer standing across from me, I realized with a start that I wanted to beat her with a blade in hand. Wanted to give her that bit of dignity before oblivion took her, if I could. I spun the longsword, once and slowly, and though the weight was a little off it was no great hindrance.

“Catherine Foundling,” I introduced myself. “Queen of Callow.”

The pale dead face twisted into a smile.

“Aubrey Caen,” she rasped. “Knight Errant, once.”

I left my staff of yew standing, knowing it would not fall, and took a limping step forward. The air was crisp, this far up, and the afternoon’s fading light cast us in relief as the wind howled around us. She took a step of her own, grip two-handed and pommel held above her head as she approached. I kept my guard low, knowing I’d not be faster than her to the strike – my kill lay in avoiding her blow and striking while she was extended. And beyond the cold bite of the wind, beyond the howl, I felt a warm breath against the back of my neck. A large thing looming behind me, fangs bared and eyes patient.

I smiled. Approve, do you?

The woman who’d once been the Knight Errant darted forward and struck with blinding quickness. I pivoted to the side, the same way another Knight had once taught me, and let the blow pass me – but one of her hands left the sword and she elbowed me with a steel-clad elbow. Or would have, if I’d not pressed the flat of my blade against the blow and pushed her back. She almost stumbled but turned it into a lateral swing. It found a parry waiting as I turned her blade and ripped it off her grasp. She was Named, even if dead, so she snatched it out of the air: but not before I slashed at her exposed face, drawing a deep bloodless cut across it.

I watched her, eyes unblinking, and felt something well up in me. Not Night, not power that was borrowed. It was all me, something born of Catherine Foundling and nothing else. My limbs felt limber, my hands steady, and when the Revenant struck again I knew she’d move before she did. The overhead cut was slapped aside, falling harmlessly beyond my shoulder, even as I struck her chin with the pommel and then, as she rocked back from the strength of the hit, measured my killing stroke through the neck. Or would have, had she not gone eerily still.

“I am not so helpful,” Neshamah said, “as to provide you a whetstone for your Name.”

 The woman who had once been the Knight Errant sagged as he released her, falling to her knees, and her dead flesh began turning to flakes within her armour. She looked up, eyes almost pleading, and I breathed out.

Teeth gritted, I decapitated the Revenant.

Her head rolled and the Beast laid its head on my shoulder, its warmth approving. It was not a knight I was becoming, I thought. My old friend had not come out for the fight, but for what it stood for: me, standing in judgement over others. Delivering it sword in hand. And it had earned weight, that the Knight Errant had once been Named. I sighed, letting the wind ruffle my hair. To my left, I found Indrani seated on Zombie’s back and gesturing to catch my attention. She’d transferred the Huntress back onto the wyvern-thing, it looked like. I curtly signalled for her to ride towards the back of the vulture, then limped in that direction and snatched up my waiting staff. The construct began to spin, in attempt to throw me off, but it was too late.

Absent-mindedly I pulled at Night, weaving a gate into Twilight right in front of the construct as it sped forward, and leapt off its back.

Zombie caught me, Archer shuffling backwards to make room, and after some difficulty I sat the saddle. The longsword the dead woman had given me was not an exact fit for my scabbard, but it fit. It would have to suffice. A heartbeat later the vulture’s momentum forced it to try to pass through the gate, where it suffered instead the Grey Pilgrim’s burning hatred for the Dead King and all his works. Quite literally, as furious white flames devoured the necromantic construct until nothing was left but a handful of ashes scattering in the wind. I flicked my wrist, closing the gate shut, and finally allowed myself to feel pain and exhaustion.

“And now?” Archer asked.

“Now we head back,” I replied. “And tell the army it’s time to pick up the pace.”

The Enemy knew we were coming, so the race against time had begun.

I clenched my jaw so I would not hiss as Senior Mage Jendayi healed the wound on my shoulder. I could have asked one of our priests to handle it instead and it would have been painless, but being healed with Light tended to screw with my ability to handle Night afterwards. Not majorly, but enough that precision work became difficult. Better to let one of my mages handle it, even if it stung as the flesh knit itself back together. Still, if nothing else the pain kept my mind focused on the here and now.

“Thank you, Senior Mage,” I said, nodding my gratitude. “It was smoothly done.”

Not compared to what Masego would have done, of course, but I’d been made clear to me over the years that this was a completely absurd standard to hold people to. The dark-skinned woman smiled and left the tent after requesting a check-up later tonight, leaving me to combat report turned war council unfolding around me.

“- the Black Queen personally slew the last in an honour duel, blade against blade,” the Silver Huntress said.

She shot me an admiring look at that, and to my amusement so did Tazin and Aquiline. I became a little less amused when I considered how that little detail might have done months of work in trying to wean them of that practice.

“A whetstone for my Name,” I dismissed. “Which slowly becomes clearer in shape.”

And Gods Below, how large would the scope of it be for it to take so long to coalesce?

“Regardless,” I continued, “the Dead King rode both Revenants at different times. There can be no denying that he is now aware of the existence of our column.”

Even our most conservative estimates had been that we’d get two days before he caught on, so that wasn’t a pleasant surprise. All those forward patrols we’d sent to sweep the lowlands in the last few months had failed to pay off, mostly out of what I’d consider bad luck. That force of two thousand that Robber and the rest had wiped out had clearly not been sent as scouts, after all. They’d not been the right make up of dead for that at all.

“Your presence will have told him this is a serious thrust,” General Hune said. “Though we’ve kept our numbers unclear through your actions, so he won’t be sure where our troops have been sent.”

By which she meant he wouldn’t be sure if our force, the visible one, was a distraction while another one stalked the Twilight Ways. Which was the case, but our numbers – seventy thousand men – were meant in part to dissuade him of that. Our reserve was less than half of my column, after all, and about that for the Iron Prince’s army. When he got a good look at both our armies, which I intended to make him bleed to get, his conclusion should be that the numbers in the offensive meant we’d bet it all on two quick thrusts backed by Named.

“Agreed,” Princess Beatrice said. “Though I’d recommend we make haste towards Lauzon’s Hollow regardless. It is crucial we dictate the tempo if our surprise attack on les Soeurs Cigelin is to bear fruit.”

I frowned. I was wary of hurrying forward heedlessly, as it happened. If the siege of the capital of Hainaut, our ultimate objective for this part of the campaign, was to be a success then we needed our supply lines clear up Julienne’s Highway. Getting sloppy about clearing the lowlands as we advanced towards the Hollow was a good way to get sprung a nasty surprise when warbands of undead lying low united, though.

“With all due respect, ma’am, the reason we’re not using the Ways to attack in the first place is that we need the highway clear for our supply lines,” General Abigail quietly said. “There’s no point getting to the capital if we starve while sieging it because the bread gets burned on the way.”

I hid a smile. She was growing into the rank better, I decided, without my looking over her shoulder. Akua had been right about that.

“Then we split our forces,” Lady Aquiline suggested. “Send out large warbands to clear the countryside of the enemy while the main column continues its advance.”

“Split our forces while already outnumbered?” General Hune said. “A recipe of the enemy to roll us over piece by piece.”

“We are outnumbered in principle, not in…” Ivah began then stopped, biting its lips. “These are not the correct words.”

It turned to me, speaking a few sentences in Crepuscular. I nodded.

“The Lord of Silent Steps means were are outnumbered in a strategic sense, not a tactical one,” I clarified. “I tend to agree. With the Twilight Ways we’re quicker on the move than the dead, so we’d be able to afford sending out detachments to clear the countryside and still be assured we can concentrate the column before giving battle with the central enemy force.”

At this point there was no denying that the enemy would move into the Hollow long before we were in a position to contest it. I’d be surprised if those one hundred thousand dead weren’t already on the march as we spoke.

“If the Enemy fights as we want him to, and sends his soldiers to the man the Hollow,” Captain Reinald pointed out. “This assessment depends on the Hidden Horror holing up in his defences instead of taking the field.”

The two fantassin captains had been quiet in this council, aware that out on march their influence was not the same as in camp. Not even the snippiest of mercenaries would seriously threaten to walk in the middle of an offensive into the territory held by the Dead King. It’d be a death warrant for them, if nothing else.

 “He’s right,” the Silver Huntress said. “We haven’t gotten eyes on the enemy yet, Your Majesty. I’d like your permission to take a band out for a deep reconnaissance.”

I mulled over that a moment. By a band she meant a band of five, so that was more or less a third of the Named with this army that’d be risked on this jaunt. Mind you, having actual hard information about where the enemy army was would be damned useful and sending heroes into an adventure of this sort a lot less dangerous in practice than it sounded. I eventually nodded.

“You’ll take the Headhunter with you,” I said. “Any preferences for the rest?”

“The Vagrant Spear,” she immediately said, “and the Silent Guardian.”

She paused for a moment, deep in thought.

“And the Rogue Sorcerer, if you have no other use for him?” she tentatively asked.

“Take him,” I agreed. “In and out, Huntress. Don’t let yourself be drawn into a scrap.”

“As you say, Black Queen,” she smiled, offering a quick bow.

She offered another one to the room at large, and departed with haste. My gaze returned to the rest of the war council.

“You’ve convinced me with the war parties, Lady Aquiline,” I said. “I’ll detach ten thousand drow under Lord Ivah to sweep the lowlands, as well as a fighting escort that can handle the daytime.”

It couldn’t be the Levantines, I decided. They were good at light warfare, I wouldn’t pretend otherwise, but they were also a lot more likely to let themselves be drawn into unnecessary battles than a more discipline force. I wanted them close so I could keep an eye on them.

“I would volunteer for such a task if you’ll allow it, Your Majesty,” Captain-General Catalina spoke up. “My company can discharge these duties skillfully.”

I glanced at Princess Beatrice, who subtly nodded. Good, she agreed this seemed like a decent idea then.

“Take your pick of the companies, no more than eight thousand total,” I said. “You will be sharing command with Lord Ivah, I’ll leave the details of the sweep to you.”

“By your command, Your Majesty,” the fantassin replied.

“Chno Sve Noc,” Ivah simply said, inclining its head.

I rolled my shoulder, finding it stretched taut from the healing but no longer painful. Good work by Jendayi, that.

“As for the rest of us, we’ll continue our advance at the quickest sustainable pace,” I said. “Let’s get to it, people – the Enemy won’t dawdle, so neither should we.”