“Victory in war comes by three parts: fighting, diplomacy and strategy. No single third is sufficient to bring victory alone, and each is neglected at great peril.”– Extract from the ‘Ars Tactica’, famed military treatise of Dread Emperor Terribilis the First
It was a nice afternoon, if you discounted all the dying.
As the opening strokes of the second battle for Lauzon’s Hollow fought under my command began to reverberate, I sat on high chair and watched as I absent-mindedly tore into a late midday meal. A meat pie, still warm with the juices splattering on my armour when I bit deep. The prelude had, to my mixed pleasure and wariness, unfolded largely as I’d planned. The band of five under the Silver Huntress had blown open a hole on the top of the western hilltops, allowing for both gates opened into Arcadia to hit the armies hidden beneath the hollow hills directly. Pickler had cracked open the hills beforehand, of course, since I wasn’t in the market for just making cavern lakes: the entire point had been to wash out the enemy army.
“How many inside, do you think?” Akua said. “At least twenty thousand by my count.”
The shade stood upright at my side, in an intricate gold-accented dark dress and veil whose occasional flickering betrayed the gate had taken a lot more out of her than she liked to admit. It’d taken even more out of me, of course, since Akua drew Night through my own connection to it. She could manipulate outside stocks of it just fine, as she had at the Princes’ Graveyard when she’d called the eclipse, but otherwise she was also limited by what my body could stomach. Which was, at the moment, essentially nothing. Two large gates, precisely aligned to parts of Arcadia and for some time? And in broad daylight, to boot. No, I was effectively out of the fight until sundown and that meant so was she.
“Between that and twenty-five,” I replied. “They weren’t making full use of the caverns as a tactical asset otherwise, it would have been a waste.”
“I wonder what general it is that faces us today,” Akua mused. “Not Trismegistus himself, surely. He rarely takes the lead in such a direct manner.”
Not that the Hidden Horror’s consciousness wouldn’t be flitting around the battlefield all day, anyway, along with his will. But Akua was right, Neshamah didn’t usually serve as his own general – with good reason, since he was not a particularly outstanding one. Undead did not truly learn, after all, and he’d not been a military man while alive. His tactics were all imitations, something he was aware of and meant he usually used Binds or Revenants as generals instead. It was typical of his brutal streak of pragmatism that the Dead King would raise anew the commanders that’d been most troublesome to him and bind them to his service. I did not doubt he was the overall strategist of the Kingdom of the Dead’s campaigns, mind you.
On the grand scale, the one beyond tactics, there really wasn’t a thing in existence that could think the way the King of Death could.
“The Prince of Hannoven mentioned the Princes of Bones usually commands all local undead as well as his own Grey Legion,” I noted. “But I’ve seen no sign of him. It might be the Pale Knight, though admittedly he seemed more a champion than a general to me.”
Or it could be a hundred other unseen trembling souls, none of which we’d even slightly sniffed out. We’d not yet dug so deep in the reserves of Keter that the Dead King had to be stingy with generals, to my enduring displeasure. I kept tearing into the meat pie as the battle began in earnest, the Third Army under General Abigail sounding the horns and beginning to advance. By now the tide of water flowing out of the caverns and the hollow was beginning to die out, swallowed by the thirsty ground and turning it to mud.
“Maybe ten thousand scrapped by the water,” I said, sharpening my eyes with Night as I studied the field. “I’d hoped for more.”
“The remainder are buried in mud, in disarray and often weaponless,” Akua replied. “Your hunting hound in the Third will make good sport of them.”
“She’s meant to a lot more than that,” I muttered.
Mind you, I didn’t expect the Third to wipe out all those downed undead. The Third Army only made up the centre of my host’s formation, with the Procerans under Beatrice Volignac making up the left wing and the Levantines under their Blood making up the right. I expected she’d bite off a hard chunk while advancing, falling upon it while it was not yet recovered, but she’d have to spread out the Third to get them all and that was the last thing either she or I wanted. After all, in the end the Third Army was bait.
“I was not brought into the full battle plan,” the shade idly said, “but it seems to me that you are taking great risks with the array of your forces. The Third is pulling heavily ahead, and your left wing is… undermanned.”
She wasn’t wrong. Black would have blanched at this kind of battle array, which was a stark departure from the traditional Legion doctrine. My centre was a steady ten thousand legionaries and my right wing a wildly overstrength seventeen thousand Levantines, while my left wing was a mere six thousand Procerans. Mostly Volignac soldiers, principality troops, with some fantassins. The rest of the Proceran troops had been sent out to clear the lowlands with the drow under Ivah, after all, and had yet to return to the field. But then the three minds behind the modern Legions, Black and Grem One-Eye and Ranker, had built that model to smash mortal armies.
Fighting the Kingdom of the Dead was a different kind of war. One where the enemy did not tire, where being outnumbered at every turn was a near certainty and the enemy’s arsenal bore a few more nasty surprises tailored to undermine your strength with every passing battle. I’d adapted to this war, though. Learned how to wage it.
“We came to Lauzon’s Hollow to achieve two things,” I said. “Seizing the pass itself and destroying the army defending it.”
We couldn’t just do one, unfortunately. Even we forced out the army and took the Hollow, we needed to destroy the enemy’s fighting force here: even it retreated weakened, we couldn’t afford to have it at our back while we moved on the capital. It’d be child’s play to cut our supply lines if even just a few thousand raiders stayed loose around the Hollow, and we were already outnumbered by the enemy so I was reluctantly to shake loose a garrison force to leave behind.
“The single worst way to achieve those objectives is assaulting Lauzon’s Hollow,” I said. “Taking fortifications is a war of attrition, and the moment the battle ends up in the narrow pass this becomes a slugging match that Keter will win nine times out of ten.”
I’d seen battles turn that way before. The Dead King and his generals just began throwing corpses at us, well aware that even if the battle itself was lost they’d still win the war by effectively destroying our army in the trade-off. No, fighting in the pass was something I wanted to absolutely avoid – it was why our original campaign plan had called for the forces under General Pallas to strike at the Cigelin Sisters further north tomorrow and then swing south to pincer the enemy here as soon as they’d secured the fortress. That plan had obviously gone out the window since, but the underlying reasons for making it remained.
“Yet you are, in fact, assaulting Lauzon’s Hollow,” Akua drily pointed out.
“No, I’m not,” I grunted. “We cracked open the hills, Akua, so now instead of fighting just at the mouth of the pass the battlefield got extended. These are proper grounds for classic Legion warfare, they just happen to be at the front of a pass.”
“Which the opposing general will notice,” the golden-eyed shade said. “Why prevents from retreating deeper in, where the pass narrows and your advantages evaporate?”
“Bait,” I grimly smiled, “set out in two parts.”
I finished the last of the meat pie, scarfing it down and licking the warm juices off my fingers. I pretended not to see the disapproving look thrown my way under the gauzy veil. In the distance, as the Third Army began plowing through the dead washed up by the waters, reinforcements began pouring out of the pass. Skeletons, yes, but also constructs. It’d be a hard fight. And as the dead who’d washed up on the flanks of the Third clawed their way out of the mud, still a disorganized horde, the enemy general did exactly what I’d wanted them to do: they sent out the horde in waves, trying to flank and even envelop the Third Army before the reinforcing wings could arrive. The enemy had committed.
The enemy’s siege engine atop the hills began unleashing some deadly surprise, pillars of black stone, but Archer was with the Third and I’d left heroes floating: one of them would nip this in the bud before it turned too bad, providence good as ensured it.
“You seem pleased, which implies this dawning rout is exactly what you intended,” Akua noted. “Which fits better with my appraisal of Abigail of Summerholm than that of the overeager general who struck out too far ahead I am currently looking at.”
“It holds up, you know, for someone who’s looked into our armies,” I said. “If someone else had rushed too far it might be a trap, but the Third? I named them Dauntless personally, they’ve served as my vanguard in half a dozen war and they’re commanded by a rising star among my commanders – but a young one, who never went to the War College. Malicia will have records of that, which means the Dead King has them as well. If this were Hune rushing it’d be suspicious, but this?”
“Why, Akua, this isn’t a trap,” I said, “it’s an opportunity. One Keter has seized quite eagerly.”
So the dead had come out swinging from the pass in the distance, pouring reinforcements and trying to swallow up the Third before the seemingly feet-dragging Procerans and Levantines caught up and handled the flanks. From an outside eye, that tortured formation – one wing too storng, the other too wing – would have been forced on me by politics and a fear of trouble in a shared command structure, not more tactical considerations. I’d split the wings by nation of birth and was now paying the prince for it, neither Levantines nor Procerans too eager to follow the lead of a reckless Callowan general.
But the Third held, because the Third always held, and so the jaws of the trap closed.
“So now you hurt them,” Akua said.
As if bid by the hand of gate, the ballistas of the Army of Callow began to sing. I saw the understanding dawn in Akua’s eyes, for though she was not exactly a veteran commander she was clever and well learned in matters of warfare. The enemy had to reinforce through the pass, its entrance now stripped of all fortifications by the thorough work of Lord Soln, which meant my sappers knew exactly where the killing fields ought to be set up. The copperstone ballistas pounded the enemy into dust, again and again and again, as the flanks caught up to the Third and tore through the still ill-prepared undead brought there by the waters.
And so the enemy general slowly came to realize it had been baited into filling a box – the once-caverns, the mouth of the pass – where its numbers were being made into a disadvantage. The fighting with blades, after all, only happened between the first ranks of the dead and the living. The fire of my siege engines burned swaths behind this, and would cost Keter easily fivefold the casualties the rest of my army would cause it. Akua stayed silent for a long moment, taking it in.
“I sometimes forget how deeply unpleasant a general you are to face,” Akua mildly said.
I snorted. We’d never faced each other as commanders of armies, actually, as she’d been the general of her forces at neither the Dead Dawn or the Doom.
“An inspired trick,” she continued after a moment.
Such direct praise was rare, coming from her, and I allowed myself a sliver of enjoyment before setting it aside.
“I’m hardly the first to use it,” I dismissed. “Jehan the Wise did the same with the banks of the Wasaliti at the Battle of the Sparrows, and Terribilis to the Third Crusade at the Danse Macabre.”
“Both being famously unskilled generals, of course,” Akua amusedly replied. “What terrible company you keep.”
“Battle’s far from over,” I grunted. “Bit early for boasting.”
My eyes returned to the field as time inched forward torturously. By now, I thought as the lines held on both sides and the copperstones burned bright, the enemy general would be realizing this was not a sustainable position for them. I still hadn’t sent out my reserves, the entire Second Army and nine thousand drow, and there was no sign of my running out of copperstones. On their side the horrible siege engine atop the hills did not have an angle to fire down on my troops, and if the fighting continued until after dark – which it seemed like it might – then I’d have nine thousand Firstborn to send after them.
The obvious answer would be to retreat deeper into the pass, since it restored the reason why the enemy army was at Lauzon’s Hollow in the first place: being able to hold us off with the pass. I’d turned it around on them by baiting them to fight at the mouth of the pass, but they could write off what they’d committed and retreat, resuming the defence deeper in.
“Why aren’t they retreating?” Akua said, putting her finger on the pulse of the question.
“Can they afford to?” I replied with a hard smile. “Count the corpses, Akua Sahelian.”
The enemy had outnumbered us one hundred thousand to seventy thousand, when the campaign began. After the first day of fighting at the Hollow, we’d lost a little over two thousand and the dead a minimum of six thousand along with a significant portion of their swarms. Now throw in the ten thousand or so they would have lost to the water, then maybe another ten thousand lost in the killing box over the early afternoon. Meanwhile, I’d count maybe another two to three thousand dead on our side over those same hours, which meant we’d be down to around sixty five thousand while the enemy had been brutally dragged down to mid seventy thousands. If my opponent wrote off the troops holding the mouth of the Hollow and retreated, my side might have numerical superiority when the assault continued deeper in.
“They overcommitted,” Akua breathed out. “If they retreat now, they might no longer have the numbers to hold the Hollow against us regardless.”
I turned to glance at her and caught her eye, reading there an expectation of agreement.
“Gotcha,” I said. “You just lost the battle.”
I enjoyed the surprise that flickered through before she suppressed it more than I had the praise earlier, so at least there was that.
“That’s the deeper trap,” I said. “That instinct not to sacrifice those troops anyway. I want the enemy in that killing box as long as I can possibly keep them there, Akua. It’s the absolute best exchange rate of casualties I’ll be able to get on this field.”
Her lips thinned.
“I am used to considering troops valuable,” she said. “The source of my mistake, perhaps. It will not be shared by the commander of the dead.”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “I expect they’ll hesitate but come to the same conclusion soon enough. Which is why I told you, earlier, that my bait is in two parts.”
What would convince my opposing general it was worth sticking it out in there? It’d have to be a prize worth those mounting casualties. Just the losses involved in the lizard cutting off its tail to escape wouldn’t be enough to dissuade a Keteran general for long, so I’d set out fresh bait for them to bite: my left wing, the Procerans. Under Princess Beatrice’s command stood only six thousand souls, fewer by now. Hardy Volignac foot, mostly, but that only counted so much in a fight like this. A wing undermanned, as Akua had earlier said. Fragile. Foolish, and I did not have a reputation for that, so even counting on the impression that this was a political decision instead of a tactical one I’d also gilded the bait by putting my entire horse contingent behind Princess Beatrice’s wing.
As if expecting a breach, expecting to need buying time for my reserve the Second Army to come prop up that failing flank.
“Come on,” I murmured, looking at the ranks of the dead. “Bite, my friend. You know you want to.”
And I laughed, laughed until my throat hurt, when Keter fell for it again. Reinforcements kept pouring out of the pass and into my killing box, scores dying to every copperstone, and the undead sent their full wrath against the left flank.
“Akua,” I said. “Pass a message for me. I want these two to prop up the left wing: Headhunter and Forsworn Healer.”
“As you say, my heart,” the golden-eyed shade replied, bowing.
I barely spared her a glance, my own gaze still on the battlefield. Those three should be able to prevent the Revenants I suspected the enemy was about to send from shattering the left flank. That was the bet of my opposing general, after all: that it could break the left wing and manage to collapse the increasingly exhausted Third by overwhelming its flank and back in a massive sweep rightwards. Even if I sent out my cavalry, at that point, the battle would be lost. Keter’s game afterwards turn to trying to inflict as many casualties as possible while my army fled back to camp, a particular specialty of the Dead King’s army. I was not unaware this could still turn south on me, though I trusted the lines would hold. If it got rough, I still had some cards to play.
Beastmaster had already gone to reinforce Archer, a deadly combination that’d allow her to kill constructs even beyond her sight, and now that the Summoner was back I was keeping him in reserve with the brew I’d had Concocter working on. The remaining swarms had yet to be unleashed: most likely my opponent was keeping them back, since they’d be brutally efficient at turning a break in my lines into a rout if they were properly employed. When Hakram wheeled his way to my side, I held in a wince. Not because I was unhappy to see him, but because if he’d come to deliver the news personally they wouldn’t be good.
“Beastmaster’s dead,” Adjutant told me, blunt and to the point. “The Pale Knight slid behind the lines.”
My fingers clenched.
“Broken army, already fixed,” Hakram said. “The Silver Huntress’ band reappeared just in time to drive him away, no further Named casualties.”
“Fuck,” I murmured. “Too close.”
“Orders for the Huntress?” he asked.
“None,” I said. “She’s free to follow providence and judgement as she pleases.”
That was the main reason I’d sent out a band of five heroes, after all. Some villains would have better rounded out their band, but it would have diluted the effect of providence. Best to have an imperfect force at the perfect time and place than the opposite. Hakram stayed at my side afterwards, letting his helping hands carry the rest. We stayed silent, but not uncomfortably so. We both had our minds on the field in the distance. Not long after, to my surprise the Dominion began pushing into the undead lines ahead of them. They were fresher than either my Third or the Procerans, admittedly, and significantly more numerous. I’d genuinely not expected they would, though, so I was unprepared when the enemy general decided to set them back with a decisive stroke.
The swarms came loose from the broke ceiling of the caverns, coming down as screeching tide as the binders did their best to keep them at bay.
“Summoner and Concocter,” I curtly ordered Hakram.
The messenger was moving before I was even done speaking. I’d positioned them closer to the left flank, expecting the strike would come there, so my fingers were raking the arms of my seat while the two silhouettes on wyvernback went up from too far away as the first ranks of the Dominion were engulfed and shredded. It got handled, in the end, but not quickly enough. The dead pushed hard into the Malaga section of the shield wall simultaneously to the swarm assault and it would have turned into a rout without what I suspected to be Named intervention. Couldn’t be sure at this distance, not with armies so large and the constant streaks of Light and sorcery.
The next helping hand that came to report to Hakram was Scribe, which told me there were grimmer news yet.
“The Sage stabilized the break in the Levantine line,” Scribe told us.
“And?” Adjutant gravelled.
“The moment after the shield wall closed up, he was sniped by an archer Revenant,” Scribe told us. “I believe he might have used his three aspects over the afternoon’s fighting, and become vulnerable as a result.”
“Tell me they recovered the corpse,” I said.
“Lady Aquiline Osena saw to it personally,” Eudokia said.
I blew out a breath. It could have been worse. There weren’t clean victories outside the stories, I reminded myself, and stuck the course. When the Proceran flank began wavering despite the best efforts of Beatrice Volignac and the desperately fighting Named there – the Headhunter slew two Revenants and claimed their heads, according to the reports Hakram received – I did not panic or send orders to my cavalry. Instead I smiled and sent for Senior Mage Jendayi, Hune’s senior spellcaster.
“Send word to Lady Catalina to prepare for the crossing,” I ordered. “We are nearing our moment.”
This very afternoon, after all, was when the detachments we’d sent out were due to return. Instead of letting them come openly across the plains, I’d instead requested for Ivah and the fantassins under Lady Catalina to take the Twilight Ways – I could, that way, unleash them as a surprise when the time came. Keter would have accounted for our own mages, there was no hiding them, but not for those that’d left with our detachments. I could, because of this, bet on surprise with good odds. It’d help with Proceran morale as well to be pulled out of the fire not by foreigners but by their own kind. After the battering they’d take today, it would do them some good.
When the first fantassin company on the left flank broke, I immediately gave the order for the reinforcements to begin crossing into Creation. I jolted in surprise, though, when the Third Army’s shields winked out and they began shaping offensive magics instead. Wait, had General Abigail guessed my plan? I studied the Third’s movements carefully, noting the massing of heavy companies around the standard, and decided that she hadn’t. The gates were just now beginning to open, after all, to the cheering of the Procerans behind them. More likely she’d been worried about the left flank collapsing on her and acted to cut off the threat at the source. I chuckled.
Regardless of her intentions, the timing for that charge was actually perfect: I’d gotten what I could out of my soldiers for the day, it was time to wrap this up.
“Send word to Summoner to pull back from the right flank and help with the charge instead,” I told Hakram.
“Cut loose Apprentice as well,” he suggested. “She’ll thank you for it.”
I mulled over that a moment then nodded. He was by my side and deep behind our lines, and while there might not be such a thing as safe when fighting Keter he was not at so great a risk he could not spare his bodyguard and assistant for a bit. I settled back into my seat, watching the last few exchanges of the day unfold. It went better than I’d dared hope, in truth. The enemy centre, while steadily reinforced over the afternoon, had also steadily been culled by hours of copperstone bombardment. I’d not anticipated that would mean it was thin on Binds – they’d need more Light to be destroyed, if anything – but that was the only explanation that came to mind as to why the undead centre shattered like a rotten egg when the Third charged into it.
I watched the enemy ranks break apart under weight of the heavy companies and almost asked Jendayi to send a signal for General Abigail to pull back, for she was getting too far ahead, but she stopped on her own anyway. Good, I thought. I’d kept the Grey Legion out of this so far by making the ground muddy and so effectively making it impossible for infantry that heavy to accomplish anything save get stuck in a mire, but there were drier grounds further in. I had a lot of faith in the Third Army, but there was a reason the standard order for mundane troops encountering the Grey Legion was ‘retreat’. General Hune, sensing like me that the battle was coming to a close, came my way. She made her courtesies to myself and Hakram, then got into why she’d come here.
“Congratulations are in order, Your Majesty,” the ogre said. “Another victory to your name.”
I didn’t disagree, even though there was still fighting on the field. With the Third having claimed the head of the narrowing in the pass, enemy reinforcements were cut off so the left and right wings were just pushing up pockets of undead against the walls of the caverns and systematically exterminating them. It’d take a while, and the Third would have to hold until they were done, but with the amount of Named we had on the field we should be able to deal with any nasty surprise the enemy had left to unleash. All that was left was for someone to sabotage the enemy’s siege engine on the hills before we could retreat, which I was already mulling sending word to the Silver Huntress’ band to do.
A moment later there was a great burst of Light in the distance atop the hills, followed by pillars of flame, and I was once more reminded that the Heavens had a sharp sense of humour.
“It’s only half the battle,” I finally replied. “We still don’t hold the Hollow itself.”
“Given Keter’s casualties today, and the raiding the Firstborn will no doubt undertake tonight, there can be no question of the dead still holding the pass by tomorrow afternoon,” General Hune said. “The last swordstroke has not been granted, but it is a victory all the same.”
We’d be out raiding in force overnight, and with the full strength of the drow: nearly twenty thousand, including several hard-hitting Mighty. I fully intended on savaging the enemy army as brutally as I could before dawn came and the fighting resumed tomorrow.
“We’ll see it if pans out that neatly,” I replied, “but I take the congratulations in the spirit they were meant, regardless. Thank you, General Hune.”
She didn’t linger after that, leaving us to our thoughts. I watched the last gasps of the battle far away without truly looking at them. Hakram cleared his throat.
“You look worried,” he said.
“I am,” I admitted. “Something about this smells off to me.”
“It was a hard-fought battle, even if it went well for us,” Adjutant said. “It is not always a trap, Catherine.”
“Then where has the Grey Legion been?” I quietly asked. “The mud kept them out, but halfway into the battle Keter should have spit out a ritual that steadied the ground so they could fight.”
Mighty Sudone had slaughtered a great many of Keter’s magelings, but not so many that they would not have been able to deliver that particular ‘surprise’. I’d had an answer waiting for it, admittedly, but with no certainty it’d work. They’d never come out at all, though, which had my fingers clenching and unclenching.
“Has anyone seen the Prince of Bones?” I suddenly asked. “We’ve seen the Grey Legion yes, but the Prince himself?”
Hakram paused a moment.
“I’ll find out,” he promised.
“Do,” I muttered.
I closed my eyes. I was missing something, I could feel it. Roland had reported seeing a Crab, a while back, I suddenly recalled. Something to do with that, perhaps? I couldn’t see any obvious links, though.
“It’s not that I don’t think this isn’t a victory,” I said. “But there will be more to this, Hakram. We’re not dealing an amateur, Neshamah plans for both outcomes. He’ll have gotten something out of even a defeat.”
He had no answer to that, and so I left him to his work. By sundown I had estimated casualties for both sides of the battle, rough as they were. My armies had around eight thousand dead and maybe another thousand crippled beyond the current ability of our priests and mages to repair. That took us to an army fifty nine thousand strong, perhaps even a little lower. The enemy, though? Keter had begun holding Lauzon’s Hollow with an army of one hundred thousand, and now it had barely half that: fifty to fifty five thousand left, we believed, though the Grey Legion counted among them. My soldiers had, without even our full army being on the field, fought like lions and won the day. A heroic victory, some would call it.
Now we just needed to win another hundred, and never lose.
Welcome to war with Keter.