“Mark my words, the Imperial banner will be flying above Summerholm by midsummer.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II, shortly before initiating the Sixty Years War
“Sound the horns,” General Istrid said.
The Red Rage pulsed in the back of her head, the song of slaughter sweetly beckoning. She’d learned to ignore it, since she’d taken her oaths to the Legion all these years ago. Still the urge was always there, to let the howl loose and sink her fangs into one quarry after another until all was left of her was the joy and the blood. Orcs never really went tame, even when you drilled them and clad them in man’s armour. Her warlord understood that, had never tried to make them anything but what they were. Instead he gave them enemies and taught them to be better killers, to wed savagery to discipline and something greater than themselves. Some of the younger greenskins nowadays thought that great thing was the Empire, but they’d been born in different times. Istrid of the Red Shields worshipped only at the altar of the Legions of Terror, the greatest killing machine Calernia had ever seen. What was Praes, to her? A pack of squabbling humans decked in silks and too much gold. Should she ever get the order, she would burn everything they had raised to ashes and salt the grounds of their ancestral homes.
It might just come to that. The Rage pounded her temples like a drum at the thought. Black’s scrappy little apprentice had men singing of revolution these days, and even Her Dread Majesty was getting her hands dirty in the Wasteland. After they dealt with this Sahelian girl, the old order was going to see revisiting. She savoured the killing yet to come, for many reasons. The Red Shields Clan was not unbroken lineage like the Howling Wolves or the Ivory Fangs, but the shamans still spoke histories from the dead clan that had birthed her own. Of the days when greenskin hordes sacked Wolof and Okoro as they wished, took tribute from the kneeling kings of Aksum and fought great battles against Deoraithe in the Golden Bloom. Even before the Miezans the strength of her people had been waning in the face of high walls and cunning sorceries, but Creation was a wheel ever spinning. Every dog had their day, if they were patient enough. Her people’s felt like it was coming.
The Fourth did not use Praesi-made horns for their signalling. Istrid had her own crafted from the bones of the great drakes whose remains still littered the Steppes, great carved things that took an ogre to blow them. Their call was deep and shivering, the hollow cry of creatures long dead to this land. It was the promise of death, and Istrid’s legionaries marched to it against the last gasps of the old order.
Squire’s legate had done what she could but these Callowans were watchmen, not Royal Guard. When the wights pressed where the line was thinnest and the men of the Fifteenth started dying, the left side of the centre wavered. Istrid had ordered the horns sounded before it could collapse entirely, and watched as her legionaries steadied the front before edging the Callowans aside. Her Fourth had earned their cognomen at Black’s own word, after the Fields, for turning back the mounted killers of the kingdom. Ironsides. It had a lot of people thinking she’d raised her legion for defence, for taking a hit and swinging back. Ignorance, that. Istrid Knightsbane had climbed her way to the heights where she now stood by massacring everything in her way, be it rivals chiefs or Wasteland lords or the chivalry of Callow. She’d raised her army in her image: brute force made host. She had fewer sappers than any other legion in service, only the requisite number of mages and the Fourth was the only Praesi host with more heavies than regulars on the rolls. There was a reason they paired her with Sacker, she knew. Her old friend would use finesse where she did not, temper her more belligerent instincts. But there would be no need for deep thinking, today.
In front of her dead men stood and she would shatter them. That was all there was to it.
The orc tightened the clasps of her helmet and licked her chops. Her personal guard clustered around her, as eager for the fight as she, and Istrid glanced at her seniormost legate.
“Bagram,” she announced. “Command’s yours.”
“Wade in their blood, Knightsbane,” the orc replied, flashing fangs.
Just a little too long in doing that for it to be entirely proper, but the old bastard had always been flirtatious. Istrid limbered her aging shoulders with a roll and unsheathed her blade. Ahead of her the lines impacted with a heady fracas and she picked up the pace. Legionaries moved aside for her until all that was ahead was the dead, a teeming mass of pale flesh and steel that came in silent waves. The orc stomped the ground and let out a hoarse yell. A hundred of the same gave reply, greenskins from steppes both Northern and Lesser. Berserkers like her. There were some who said there was no longer a place for the Red Rage, in this orderly little world the Tower was building. No place for the old dumb brutes from the north.
“Bone and flesh torn asunder,” she whispered in Kharsum, letting the old words wash over her.
Her father had spoken them, and his mother before her. All the way back to the Broken Antler Horde and the years where Creation had stood in awe of the orcs.
“Caked in doom and mask of cinder
Stand ye ever red in tooth and claw
Like empty, great and gaping maw.”
The old rhyme eased her into it, the way it was meant to. Istrid’s body shook with spasms as a scream not her own filled the air. Muscles tightened, bones creaked and the world turned to shades of crimson. The wight ahead of her struck, but so did she and her sword ripped through bone and flesh, bending steel and smashing it into another undead.
“FORWARD,” she bellowed, laughing madly.
And so they went, doom upon all the world.
Abigail kept cursing even as the mage healed what was left of her eye. She could still feel the teeth going into her flesh, ripping and tearing as she struggled to get the wight off of her. It said a lot about the day that she was one of the lucky ones. Her entire line had been wiped out trying to steady the fucking Ankouans when it looked like they were going to rabbit: with the guards giving ground her twenty had been surrounded and torn through in moments. If a mage line hadn’t burned her a path to retreat, she’d be in some wight’s mouth like the rest of her soldiers.
“Cowardly shits,” the captain spat. “I hope she hangs them all.”
“Unlikely,” Lieutenant Salome noted. “And if you continue speaking, I cannot promise you’ll ever see again.”
Abigail shut the Hells up, though she was starting to have opinions about Legion healers. They worked slower than the brothers and sisters at the House of Light and their bedside manner was a lot less pleasant. They weren’t as good at healing, either. The lack of gentle persuasion about attending sermons more often wasn’t enough of a trade-off for maybe losing half of her total eye supply.
“There,” the solemn Taghreb said. “That should be enough. Keep in mind this is a patch job, Captain. Actual restoration would take hours of precision work, and will have to wait until this is no longer an active battlefield.”
“I know the triage protocols,” Abigail griped. “I sat through the fucking lectures.”
The Legions had to be the only army in the world where they made you sit like a schoolgirl after the drills. It was a good thing she know how to read, too, because it was a requisite if you ever wanted to make tribune. She had her eye on that promotion, as it happened. Officers of that rank weren’t expected to be on the frontlines as often, which should do wonders for her life expectancy.
“Legate Hune left instructions for the soldiers that were in your section to present themselves for redeployment,” the olive-skinned mage told her. “Try not to get killed, Captain Abigail. It would be a shame for my work to have been pointless.”
“You’re all heart, Salome,” the dark-haired woman drily replied.
Much as she disliked the notion of going back into the thick of it, the Callowan had expected she’d be sent for. Half her company still lived but it wouldn’t be headed back to where it had been bled – that space was now occupied by the Fourth, which had come out swinging. And screaming. Gods Above, so much screaming. It must have been an orc thing. The legionaries were turning around the situation there, at least. Their frontlines had been stacked with heavies and they’d slammed into the wights like a runaway cart, gaining back all the grounds that’d been lost in the span of a quarter bell. Now they were carving a wedge into the undead, which she assumed was the preludee to an all-out assault. Abigail made the rounds and collected the remains of her company from the tender attentions of the healers or the grounds where they’d dropped down exhausted before making her way to command. Senior Tribune Locks was the one who met with her, the reason for his ridiculous Legion-assumed name made clear by the dark curls going beyond his helmet.
“We’re keeping you in reserve for now, captain,” the Soninke told her. “Most likely you’ll be joined with another company that took casualties and sent to steady the levies.”
Steadying the godsdamned Ankouans is how I lost half my company, you smug prick, she thought.
“Looking forward to it,” Abigail said, playing up her Summerholm accent so the sarcasm wouldn’t register.
She spent half a bell after that standing behind the lines like she was on death row, but she couldn’t complain. Better the wait than the fight. She was no tactician, but at the moment she’d wager the judgement that things were looking up for her side. The Fifth on the right flank was still stuck dealing with wights, but the undead were beginning to thin. The Ninth was going through the enemy slower but with fewer casualties, and the Fourth was digging into the undead like this was summer solstice and they hadn’t eaten all week. It could be generously said that the centre was holding, though not much more than that. There’d been no glaring fuckups that would require her to be sent back into the mess, and she told herself she’d light a candle in a House for that. As long as it cost copper, anyway. She wasn’t putting down silver for the folks Above, not unless she got a promotion and her hooks into a pretty boy that was supernaturally flexible in bed.
She was made to regret the blasphemy immediately.
There’d been a bunch of fancy Wastelanders looming behind the undead since the blades had come out and they’d finally stirred themselves to act. The move they made was on the Black Queen, and Abigail had to give them praise for the balls of it if nothing else. Catherine Foundling had a reputation for brutally murdering her way through problems, so it was pretty brave of them to so openly embrace that label. Blinding panels of light formed around the Squire in the distance, slowly spinning. Abigail would have looked closer but it hurt her eyes to, and not just because of the light. The shapes she could discern were hardly shapes at all, and even glancing was enough to have the beginnings of a migraine forming. To be honest, she wasn’t too worried about this. Trapping the Black Queen was kind of line trying to put a bonfire in a box – it’d work for that short moment until the whole thing caught fire and then your hands were on fire as well and by then it was way, way too late to do anything about it. Unlike some of her dumber countrymen Abigail didn’t think there was anything gloriously patriotic about trading a Praesi monster in charge for a Callowan one, but Heavens was she glad to be in the Fifteenth and not in the ranks of whatever poor fucking fools were fighting it.
There was something to be said for being on the winning side, and monster or not Foundling had a history of being the last woman standing on the field.
The thing was, the light panels stayed there. No howling blizzard tore them open. This, Abigail thought, did not bode well. The rest of the army must have agreed because a shiver went through the ranks. Not the old legionaries, they were made of sterner stuff, but the Ankouans were wavering. And the men of the Fifteenth were… It was hard to put into words. You didn’t have to like the Black Queen to put your trust in the legend. In the stories about the girl who’d tricked resurrection out of angels and swept her way through armies and heroes alike. Abigail had seen her in Dormer, when she’d raised the stairs of ice and swept the Summer fae off the walls. It had been like watching a force of nature, not a person. Sometimes the captain still woke up with cold fingers even when she slept by the fire. You couldn’t see something like that and not believe, even if only a little. So why isn’t she breaking out of the cage? The Praesi took advantage, and if there’d ever been the history of Callow writ in a sentence that was it.
Abigail had heard stories about the Conquest. Every kid did, not matter where in the country they were raised. But those had been about battles and sieges, cunning ploys and foul deeds. This isn’t anything like that at all, she thought. Darkness was made smoke above the chanting silhouettes of faraway mages, and that smoked moved. It slithered across the cloudless sky, spreading smoothly like ink in water, and it was only when it reached the army it clustered into a ball above it. Then it exploded again, into a hundred dark tendrils that swept through the centre of the host. Wherever the tendrils passed, men died. Choking and screaming, clawing at their throats as the smoke went into their bodies and poisoned something inside them. Black tears streaked down their faces, leaving ash-like trails. Abigail’s blood ran cold, and in that moment she understood why old men called Praes the Enemy. This was not war, it was… She didn’t know a word ugly enough for it.
How many had died, over these ten heartbeats? A thousand, at least. There was a gaping hole right in the middle of the army, and already the wights were pouring through. Abigail almost thought she heard a snap, when the morale of the Akouans broke. They were going to leg it, she thought. They guards were going to flee and they were all going to die. The smoke thinned and began to disperse, leaving only a field of corpses behind. That, and one soldier. That one survivor took off her helmet, shook free a ponytail, and the captain’s heart caught in her throat.
“Rise,” Catherine Foundling ordered, and the dead men obeyed.
The word had been spoken half a mile away, and still Abigail heard it like had been whispered into her ear. Akouans and legionaries rose to their feet, cold blue eyes shining, and the dead fell upon the dead. Something old and harsh rose up in the captain’s veins, something she had thought herself beyond. It wasn’t pride, because who could take pride in one of their own matching the Wasteland horror for horror? But it was something close to it, when she thought of the sneering mages on the other side who’d swatted down thousands likes insects. Be afraid, she thought. Like we are, like we’ve always been. Be afraid of the monster coming for you all, because there is not a speck of pity or mercy in her.
“Kill them all, Black Queen,” Abigail whispered hoarsely, and meant every word of it.
Sacker watched frost spread across the ground, dead men claw at the dead, and felt her body shiver in a way that had nothing to do with the sudden cold. She’d seen Lord Black in the fullness of his power, turning the men behind him into a sword no army could withstand. This was something else. It was the madness and might of the Old Tyrants turned to sharp purpose, and the part of her that loved the Tribes above all else wept at the sight of it. O Carrion Lord, what have you wrought? The Squire was a host unto herself, a wrathful child who’d stolen the mantle of a lesser god and would wreck the world with it until it fit her vision of how things should be. The goblin was a true daughter of the Grey Eyries, daughter and great-daughter of Matrons, and she knew old histories and the dark truths they carried. No Empresses had been so terrifying as the ones that though they were in the right. That thought they were doing the necessary thing. The Praesi knelt at the altar of Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – and named her the greatest Tyrant that ever was or would be. But she’d been a storm to be waited out, nothing more.
There would be no waiting out Catherine Foundling, she knew. The girl had been taught by the most patient of monsters, and surpassed his greatest weakness. Lack of power.
Is this to be your legacy, Amadeus of the Green Stretch? Will you leave us with one last laugh at our expense, knowing the world will burn in your wake? Sacker held more respect for the Black Knight than she’d ever thought she would give either a human or a male, but even so she did not think he deserved a pyre as great as the whole of Calernia. It was all made even more bitter brew by what what she knew, that the Squire would be needed in the wars to come. They needed the likes of her to turn back Procer, to smother the Tenth Crusade in the crib. I hate you a little, old friend, for the knowledge that you shaped a situation where we would have no choice but to embrace her. Every inch of Sacker told her that she needed to kill this girl, kill her right now before she crossed a line they could not return from. But to follow her instincts would be to cripple the Empire and the Tribes with it on the eve of the greatest war they had seen in centuries.
The goblin let fear and grief hold her for a moment, before she wrested back her mind. There were orders to give. The rebels had played their hand and seen it faul. It was only a matter of time until Istrid and Orim broke through, and when they did the battle would be good as won. All that remained was to play out the rest of this.
“Raise the banners,” General Sacker told her staff. “Heavies in front, mages are to Lob at will. Let’s end this farce.”
It should have felt like a victory, but all she could think about was what lay ahead. Her people kept to the Gods Below, as the Praesi did, but they had given the oldest face of these deities a name: the Gobbler. It was said, among the Tribes, that when the Creation was born the Gobbler had spewed out all the peoples of the world. The last and smallest of them, crawling from the open and exhausted maw, had been the goblins. It was whispered to the daughters of Matron lines that they had been the last to come and that they would be the last to go. That they would be spared the calamities of greater peoples, hidden away in their deep places.
Watching Winter spread through the dead, freezing and shattering everything in its path, for the first time since she’d been spawned Sacker doubted this truth.