“Peace is little more than the reognition that the reasons for which war was undertaken are no longer relevant.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent the First
I came back to myself with a roiling sea of Winter at my fingertips.
Fucking Hells, Akua. The trap I’d set that ultimately brought me back had required that the Diabolist or another entity to essentially go mad with power for it to work in the first place, but this was still beyond my predictions. Even with oaths binding her and Vivienne holding a leash, what I saw beneath me was a dark reminder of the quantity of power that could be thrown around without breaking the letter of the limitations I’d imposed. Half of the lake I’d dumped over the head of the crusaders with Masego’s help had apparently been used to smash the heroes, though I saw no corpses to show for the effort. Not that one of those would necessarily mean the end of it, with the Pilgrim around. Five contingencies, and this had been the one to work. I could not help but be pissed that even after all that planning in the end it’d come down to Akua making a mistake, however baited that mistake had been. Hierophant was nowhere in sight, so he was probably incapacitated. That was one down. Thief’s secret set of oaths must not have been sufficient to call me back from that… unpleasant journey, which made two. I’d not woken up to a sword through my back, so Larat hadn’t worked out either – but then that had always been the chanciest of the five. The oath forced on the fae had been comprehensive, but with that sort of creature it was hard to make one completely water-tight. He’d failed, either on purpose or not. I’d have to get the details out of him, but regardless that made three.
As for the last trick, well, it had very specific requirements. I wasn’t surprised it hadn’t gotten me out, though I’d need to have Hierophant take a look at the overlay as soon as possible. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t kill me if it triggered by accident, but there were always risks in turning yourself into living munitions.
I held the power in check, barely, as my gaze swept the battlefield. Ten heroes, looking ragged but unbowed. The Saint had taken an arrow, which meant Indrani was up and about. A relief, that. The rest were clustered together, protecting the Pilgrim and the wizard I’d scrapped with that one time. The thousand little bundles in the back of my mind made it clear Akua had indulged in a spot of necromancy, which brought mixed feelings. For all that Masego insisted there was nothing inherently bad about that kind of sorcery, after Second Liesse I had my doubts. Maybe there were applications that weren’t inherently horrid, but no one seemed to be actually using those. On the other hand, if the undead were getting chopped up that meant fewer of my soldiers were dying. I could appreciate the results, even if the means had me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d take a closer look a those later. For now, I was juggling the difficulty of maintaining the ice beneath my feet that kept me on the surface of this eerie marsh while simultaneously trying not to blow up either myself or my surroundings with the power Diabolist had drawn. My grip was beginning to slip, so action was in order. Senses no mortal could have were in full extension, telling me of the humidity in the air and the spread of both water and ice in my surroundings.
I dumped the power into the water beneath me, flash-freezing it with a loud snap as I continued spreading and shaping the working. The glacier formed at a mind-boggling pace, water rippling around it, and I closed my eyes to focus. Getting the paddles of the waterwheel all the same size was difficult, though it grew easier the more power I shed. I could have made it larger, not that it wasn’t already massive, but just a structure of ice wasn’t what I had in mind. Fingers clenching, I severed the platform I stood on from the wheel and lashed out with my will. Slowly, the wheel began to turn. The waters churned. I continued dumping power into the movement, accelerating it, and the tide of soiled water raged towards the heroes with a roar. Fuck it, I thought, and tossed the wheel at them too. We were past subtlety at this point. Eyes flicking towards the Saint, I sighed as she carved herself a path above the current and stood atop the arc. That’d been too much to hope for, I supposed. An arrow whistled at her and I took advantage of the opening Archer had just gifted me to move further away as I riffled through the bundles in the back of my mind until I could find Zombie. Good girl that she was, she’d been waiting on the edge of the marshlands. She seemed pleased by my summons, taking flight with haste.
I wasn’t sure what Akua’s plan had been but it hardly mattered. While it looked like she might have been getting the better of the fight with the heroes, fighting them at all was a mistake as far as I was concerned. Even if I killed a few they’d still get me in the end. In the distance I heard a gargantuan crack as the ice wheel fractured into pieces merrily carried by the currents, heroes having climbed atop them. That, as it happened, was an opening I’d left on purpose. I drew on Winter, feeling it whisper lovingly in my ears, and shattered the wheel shards. That dumped the heroes back into the water, though the fucking wizard made some kind of ring of fire that evaporated a safe place for them to gather and regroup. Saint was back on the offensive, making her way to me, but I wasn’t having any of that. Zombie made a low pass and I leapt atop her saddle, fingers slipping into her mane to anchor me while I got my feet in the stirrups. We went high after that, the undead horse’s wings beating hard as we ascended. My cloak was wet, I only then noticed. Like I’d been swimming. What the fuck had Akua been up to? No, not the time. By the height of the sun it was morning still, and promising to be a warm day. Not a cloud in sight. My mount gliding slowly, I took a look at the broader situation unfolding across the field.
The undead were shambling forward into a defensive Proceran line near what must have been a shore, before most the water in the marsh was used as ammunition in the Named brawl below me. The dead were not making an impressive showing. They seemed to have some semblance of intelligence, but there was no real coordination. They went in waves and shattered on the formations of fantassins and the priests accompanying them. Still, casualties were slowly mounting. I suspected the first few waves must have been wiped almost without losses, but now the crusaders were tiring and beginning to make mistakes. There was, to my surprise, another front to the battle. The Army of Callow was out in force, though there were a lot fewer of them than I’d expected. Had Juniper left men to guard the camp? Regardless, if she was leading this engagement she was being rather conservative in her command. Mages on both sides were trading spells at a pace, but aside from a long shield wall of regulars pressing against crusader lines there was no other real fighting going on. She’s not fighting to win, I thought, frowning as I watched the Order of the Broken Bell manoeuver on the flank to draw away enemy cavalry without ever engaging. She’s delaying and tying down men while incurring as few casualties as possible.
That was unlike the Hellhound, who tended to go for the throat whenever she could. Which meant she was relying on the dead to do the heavy lifting – and by extension had relied on Akua. That was a desperate measure if I’d ever seen one. The situation must be worse than it looked on the surface. The moment the front holding back the dead collapsed the battle was good as won, barring heroic intervention, but at the current pace that might take hours. My brow tightened as I scanned the battlefield for any hint of the Wild Hunt’s presence, but they were nowhere in sight. Had the fae sat on their asses the entire time I’d been gone? Fuck. It was a solid assumption there’d been a battle while I was gone, and without the fae the Army of Callow would have been fighting Named with only Legion mages to back them up, while the enemy had wizards and priests both. It must have been a fucking slaughter. Were the men I saw below all that was left of our host? There were what, maybe thirteen or fourteen thousand there? The Procerans looked like they’d taken a beating too, lost at least another few thousand since I’d dropped the lake on them, but Malanza could afford those losses a lot more than we could. She was throwing away levies and fantassins, not professional soldiers.
While I’d been taking my look around, the heroes had gotten their shit together. A beam of radiant light – fucking Pilgrim – tore up towards me, followed by a swarm of little balls of flame that looked liquid. I led Zombie into a deep dive to shake the projectiles. Archer could take care of herself, I decided. She was probably half a mile away and picking her targets carefully, in no danger of being swarmed by the enemy. Just in case I wove a glamour into large streaks of yellow and red indicating she should disengage even as I spurred Zombie to head towards the shore battle line. I whistled loudly as my mount’s hooves swept just above the water. It was not long before I had my answer. Loyal dogs that they were, the Wild Hunt came as summoned. There was an eldritch glimmer on the surface of the water at my side before Larat came riding out in full armour, sword in hand and grinning broadly. Even as his horse kept pace with mine, the rest of the Hunt emerged in our wake.
“Your Majesty,” the one-eyed fae greeted me. “Was your journey a fruitful one?”
“We’re going to have a talk about that, you little weasel,” I darkly said. “But it’ll have to wait. I have work for the lot of you.”
“We await your will eagerly,” the raven-haired man replied.
“Ignore the heroes unless they attack you,” I ordered. “See those Proceran formations ahead?”
My sword helpfully pointed out the Proceran defensive line.
“Their fear and desperation wafts most pleasantly to my nostrils,” Larat informed me.
They did to mine as well, and Winter grew hungry for the banquet, but I forced myself to focus.
“Break them,” I said. “Killing’s not the objective, the Hunt is to concentrate on shattering their lines.”
“Tasteless meat,” the one-eye fae complained.
“That sounds like the talk of a man hungry for fingers,” I noted very mildly.
The bastard laughed.
“Your will be done, Sovereign of Moonless Nights,” he smiled.
“It better, for your sake,” I smiled back cheerfully. “Because you seem to have fucked around in my absence, and we’re going to have a nice chat about that.”
I didn’t even allow him to respond, pulling Zombie up and willing one of her wing beats to splash water in his face. Let him try to look all elegant and sinister with muck everywhere. I absently tugged on the reins to lead my mount towards the crusaders, but my mind was elsewhere. I needed to keep the heroes busy for a while, there was no telling what they’d get up to unattended. I reached for the dead, grimacing after a moment. Ordering them one by one would take too long. I thinned my will and cast it broadly, grabbing a rough thousand still roving around. Pain spiked through my forehead. Too much feedback. I grit my teeth and ordered them to assault the heroes before withdrawing my will. They weren’t going to win that fight – a band of tired and encircled heroes fighting back to back against a relentless tide of undead? It had victory written all over it – but it should keep them out of my hair for a while. I tasted the warmth of the enemy Named, trying to get a sense of their readiness, and my fingers clenched. There should be ten. There were only eight. Where had they – no, it wasn’t even worth asking. They would be at the very worst possible place for me.
Guarding Rozala Malanza.
I allowed myself a moment to contemplate the unpleasantness that was fighting people both stronger than me and certain to be where I least wanted them to be before pressing down against Zombie’s back. She neighed and angled for descent as we flew towards the back of the Proceran lines. A handful of archers loosed arrows upwards, but I was too far and too swift for them to have any real chance of hitting me. Unfortunately, mages were bullshit and evidently I was both recognizable and a favoured target. Panes of opaque yellow force formed around me in an airtight box, but they were in above their heads this time. When it came to power, pound for pound, there were only a few people in Calernia who could beat me if I put my back into it. A lance of ice and shade formed around my hand and Zombie dove down. There was a heartbeat of resistance when the tip of the lance met the sorcery, then they both shattered and we flew through as my cloak trailed behind me. With a target painted on us so blatantly, it was no surprise I had to lead Zombie into a desperate roll to avoid being incinerated by a beam of light. It caught the edge of my cloak, leaving it singed and smoking. Fucking Pilgrim. It was supposed to be resistant to magic, wasn’t it?
He was down there, as I’d suspected. Leaning on his staff, the Saint of Swords by his side and waiting patiently for me to gain enough momentum I wouldn’t be able to pull out of the dive when she struck. Malanza was behind them, and as the air whistled around me I got a glimpse of her face. Fear, yes, but much more anger. I had to respect that she remained on her horse and unmoving even as my descent quickened. Her officers were not so brave, scattering to the winds. I’d have to play this one precisely, if I wanted to avoid getting skewered in the process of landing. Fortunately, I was spending increasingly large amounts of my life either falling from things or being thrown off of them. I’d become a fair hand at it. I drew on Winter and shaped it, tossing ahead of me a spear of mist that detonated into a cloud. Throwing myself off Zombie, I ordered her to peel off even as my relationship with gravity took a sharp turn downwards. This, I mused, had seemed a better idea before I’d gone through with it. The timing held. A cut dispersed the mist, missing Zombie by a mere inch. Then the Saint struck again and I cursed.
I threw ice at the cut, saving my hide just long enough for my feet to land on wet earth. Mud sucked at my boots and both my knees snapped, but they were reforming before I even stood. The Saint of Swords was lazily advancing, the Pilgrim pointed his staff and Malanza looked like she really wanted to be pretty much anywhere else.
“Truce,” I called out. “I’m here to talk.”
“I’m not seeing a banner,” the Saint noted.
Really? She was such a godsdamned asshole. I flicked my fingers and wove one out of glamour, but she pointedly did not look at it.
“I don’t want to fight you,” I insisted.
“So don’t,” she suggested. “Angle your neck a little to the side, it’ll be a cleaner cut.”
She was closing distance, which I knew from experience would result in my getting chopped up painfully and repeatedly.
“Pilgrim,” I tried, looking behind her. “This can end right now.”
“Gods forgive me,” the old man said. “But you are right. It will.”
“The battle is lost,” I said. “Your lines by the shore are collapsing as we speak. Even if you force me to flee, none of that changes.”
“Armies are armies,” the Saint shrugged. “Named are Named. More than one way to win a war.”
One step away from striking range, now. And the moment she got there we entered the wheel of pain, where every spoke was me losing a limb and trying very hard not to scream. The bundle of instincts that were not my own was licking its chops, hungry for the fight. To crush my enemies and savour their screams. The rest insisted I make some distance, because this was about to get ugly. I unsheathed my sword. This isn’t going to work, I thought, but I had to try anyway. My fingers came loose and I dropped the blade.
“Unarmed,” I said. “Under truce banner.”
“You’re a weapon unto yourself,” the Saint of Swords snorted, and stepped forward.
From the corner of my eye I saw implacable light bloom at the tip of the Grey Pilgrim’s staff. If I got hit by that, I suspected the consequences would be much more unpleasant than a sword wound. Nothing friendly felt the way that power did.
I’d been reaching for Winter, but stayed my hand. That was not the Pilgrim’s voice, and certainly not the Saint’s. Rozala Malanza took off her helmet, sweat-soaked curls falling across her face.
“You want to talk, Black Queen,” she said. “So talk.”
“You fucking yellow-bellied-” the Saint began.
“I am the ranking general of this army, Regicide,” the Princess of Aequitan coldy replied. “I take no orders from you. Slay me or stay your tongue.”
By the looks of her, the heroine was feeling inclined towards the second. The light winked out on the Pilgrim’s staff.
“Laurence,” he said. “She cannot easily retreat. If talks fail, we will strike.”
That wasn’t how fucking truce talks were supposed to work, but then I’d not exactly respected the usual etiquette either. Disinclined as I was to give them a full pass, I would at least recognize they had some wiggling room when it came interpretation. The heroes were a distraction here, I decided. The one who mattered was the princess watching me with hard eyes.
“Battle’s over, Malanza,” I said. “Let’s end it before any more people die pointlessly.”
“I was assured you could not open your deathly gate again without the Hierophant,” the Proceran said flatly. “He is not here. The battle is not yet lost.”
“So maybe you wreck my army,” I said. “Even if you manage that, yours gets wrecked in the process as well. And you can be sure enough of my people survive to run that we can defend Hedges against what you have left. Logistically, you’re done. You don’t have the supplies or the men for a successful offensive into Callow.”
“If we take your supplies-”she began.
“Not happening. I gave standing orders to burn what we can’t carry, if we lose,” I interrupted brusquely.
Her eyes flicked to the Pilgrim, and reluctantly the old man nodded. The Saint’s already grim expression darkened further.
“I will not surrender to the likes of you,” the princess snarled.
My fingers clenched.
“Gods Below, what will it take?” I hissed. “Do I have to murder ever last Proceran on this field before negotiations can be had? Are you really so unwilling to consider not invading you’ll let dozens of thousands starve?”
“Your doing,” Malanza hissed back. “You steal our supplies, harass us and then claim affront at our desperation? You are the architect of this madness, Catherine Foundling.”
Winter whispered in my ear, urging me to rip apart the righteous little shit who had the gall to pretend she was the victim here while leading a fucking invasion army. My fingers dug into my palm until steel gave and flesh beneath it, blood dripping on the ground. The Saint’s stance shifted ever so slightly. Breathe in, breathe out. Pride was a liability. Anger an unhelpful bias. Be cold, I told myself. Be clear. Be a creature of logic, because logic is what gets you through this. Everything else is distracting noise. I thought of pale green eyes, and lessons I had not yet outgrown.
“Then do not surrender,” I said calmly. “Sound a withdrawal. My side will do the same. We can discuss terms for your retreat from Callow when our people aren’t dying.”
“And allow hunger to do your work for you?” the princess retorted.
“I’d be putting down an army of the dead as a gesture of good will, Malanza,” I said. “My concession is greater than yours.”
Her face remained unmoved by the statement, but she was silent for a moment.
“Supplies for the night,” she said. “Food, water and tents. Delivered after we tend to the wounded.”
I forced myself to consider the counter-offer calmly. Would those make enough of a difference I should bargain down? Vivienne still had their old foodstuffs in her metaphorical pocket, so it shouldn’t lead to logistical issues for the Army of Callow if I shelled thse out. It would still mean that the enemy, while not fresh, would at least have full bellies. They’d be closer to fighting fit. If negotiations broke down afterwards – no, wrong way to think about it. If we had a night to spare, odds were I’d be able to get Hierophant back up. My comparative advantage was greater, even with the undead tossed aside.
“They’ll be added to your bill,” I said.
The princess opened her mouth.
“Flat cost,” I added. “No surcharge.”
Her mouth closed. Grudgingly, she nodded. We both knew that if negotiations failed any talk of coin would become academic anyway.
“Truce until negotiations come at an end,” I said. “First session held at noon tomorrow.”
“Granted,” Malanza replied.
My eyes flicked to the Named at her sides.
“That includes heroes,” I said.
“I take no orders from mortal rulers,” the Saint flatly said.
I ignored her. She was irrelevant in this, unless she was willing to fight the entire Army of Callow on her own. Even if she got the rest of the heroes to back her, it wouldn’t be enough.
“You can’t seriously expect me to feed and shelter your army while we’re under attack by your allies,” I told Malanza.
The Proceran looked like she’d swallowed a lemon.
“I will formally renounce alliance with any hero resuming hostilities while we are under truce,” she said. “I can do no more.”
It’d be enough, I decided. Might even be better if the Saint attacked after that, we’d get a clean shot at her without making a diplomatic mess.
“I strike bargain under these terms,” I said.
I got my gauntlet off and offered my hand. Revulsion flickering across her face, the princess spat on the ground.
“I strike bargain under these terms,” she replied. “Get out of my sight, Black Queen.”
I supposed we were past courtesy, at this point. It’d never been my strong suit anyway. I crouched to pick up my sword and sheathed it, keeping an eye on the furious Saint as I did. She turned and walked away. The Pilgrim sought to meet my eyes, studying me a pensive frown, but I was done with him. Zombie landed moments later, a handful of arrows having sprouted in her flank since I’d last seen her. The enemy archers had been busy. It still took half an hour before the battle came entirely at an end, the last of the dead dropping into the mud like a stringless puppet, but it ended.
None of this felt like a victory, but at least it wasn’t a defeat.