“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.