“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.”