“To rule is to drag a lion by the whisker.”– Helikean saying
Truth was, even now Masego hadn’t found a way to genuinely break the rituals that the Dead King used to prevent scrying in the territories he held. For two years the Arsenal had tried, after we made it it clear to some of the finest magical minds of Calernia that regaining that capacity would be militarily invaluable, but no working counter-ritual had come of it. We had brought together exceptional people, but our enemy was more than just that: he was the Hidden Horror, the exception itself. So Hierophant, for all that he’d suffered a god riding his mind for most of a year and studied the wards at Lyonceau – where the Tyrant had borrowed from the Dead King’s work, among other things – had not been able to overturn the weight of the millennia’s bearing down on us. Zeze was brilliant, but there were some things beyond brilliance.
So Hierophant had stolen a mystery from an entity that could win.
The clouds in the sky spun like a whirlpool, swallowed by the great eye that our ritual had opened high above. Even for me, the empty howling void was an unsettling sight. Sorcery burned loud and bright, the stone pillars we’d driven into the ground buzzing like hornets as they fought the enchantments that blanketed most of Hainaut and suppressed scrying. Hurrying, I limped my way down the rocky slope towards a box of burnished bronze and electrum that stood taller than me. Nestled against the hill, anchored with enchantments so it would not move so much as a hair’s breadth, the arcane patterns of electrum on the sides were now glimmering with eerie light. The bronze was warm enough that I could feel the heat just from passing my hand close, and it would only get warmer.
The front of the box was the most complex part of it: a harsh, labyrinthine electrum pattern that usually closed together like a puzzle box but had now been carefully pried open. Slender gaps had been bared in the pattern by the manipulations, their rims covered with small bronze-inscribed runes, and through them I glimpsed that within the box there was a cube of pure white marble. Without my noticing it Roland had returned from his work on the hill to our east, and now stood by Masego’s side close to the box. The sight was almost amusing, Hierophant being at least a head taller for all that the Rogue Sorcerer’s longcoat and layers made him seem larger, but the intent focus both displayed had me reluctant to disturb them with even a snort.
“Roland?” Masego asked, burning eyes on the box.
“Almost there,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied, his own gaze on a slender baton of obsidian in his hands where I glimpsed a few burning marks. “Five, four, three, two-“
As soon as the Proceran mage got to three Hierophant raised his arm, wresting sorcery from a small cube he held in his fist, and a circle of golden runes flared around his fingers.
“Discharge,” Masego warned.
Sorcery pulled towards us for half a heartbeat, as if the currents had reversed, and the flow was sucked into the box where I saw terrible fires bloom before the moment passed and the eye in the sky screamed anew. To the west of us, a hill blew up in a thundering rain of rock and mud.
“Our bleed margin is much too high,” Roland said. “We won’t make it to four instances.”
“Three will be enough,” Hierophant replied, leaning over the box.
With his bare hands – he’d known fires hotter than this, and even now their reflection burned in his eyes – he began to manipulate the top of the box, extracting what looked like a large gear before turning it briskly. Within the box, the marble cube turned to match and presented a fresh and unmarred face to the open gaps. The gear was pushed back down after adjustment, and within twenty heartbeats another discharge followed. The hill to the east of us blew up, but I had closer perils to worry about: the stone pillars anchored on this hill were vibrating so quickly and intensely it seemed only a matter of time before they shattered.
“Masego,” I asked, shouting over the din. “How safe are we on the hill?”
He turned towards me, offering a boyish grin.
“Not at all!” he shouted back, and raised his arm.
A fresh cube held in his fist, golden runes formed in a circle as Roland protested with a shout that the build-up was not yet done.
“Discharge,” Hierophant cackled.
Cackling wasn’t usually a good sign, in my experience, so I wrapped myself up in Night the moment before the sorcery could be pulled in. The magic blew in, pillars popping as it passed them – ah, they’d somehow been built so the shards would go up instead of all around – and hammered into the cage. Some bits of stone fell on my Night-cloak, but nothing I couldn’t handle so I risked a glance at Roland. Whose obsidian baton was cracking, the burning runes on it going wild.
“Oh merde,” I heard him curse, throwing away the baton.
It blew up in a great gout of flame maybe three feet above his head, liquid drops of obsidian hissing against mud and stone as they were sprinkled everywhere. Masego, though, ignored it all. He was trying to vent the contents of the box, where the fires had somehow gotten caught. He opened fresh gaps on two sides before the glimmer of the electrum patterns turned into a glare. The tall mage finally stepped back.
“It’s done?” I called out.
“In a manner of speaking,” Zeze calmly noted, continuing to move away. “I would recommend taking cover, Catherine.”
“You little-” I began, throwing myself behind a jutting stone just in time for a great crunching sound to resound.
Oh dear. That had sounded like the box crumpling inwards. Then there were a pulse of flame and metal shrapnel as the box blew up while I hid under my cloak. I waited ten full heartbeats before popping out for a look, and I saw with a dry swallow that the explosion had outright melted the top of the hill. The Grey Pilgrim had gotten off first, right? That was, uh, going to be tricky to explain to the Dominion otherwise.
“Anybody dead?” Roland called out, popping out from behind his own rock.
“A pointless question. It would require necromancy before-” Masego replied.
“I think everyone’s fine,” I interrupted before he could really get started. “Did it work?”
“Of course it worked,” Hierophant said, sounding offended. “Who do you take me for?”
“Ask me that question again when I don’t have melted rock all over my nice cloak,” I grunted. “You’re not fishing for a nice answer otherwise.”
I broke cover, brushing myself off, and the three of us came to look at the results. The marble cube was seared on three sides, but it’d not just been fire thrown at rock. It’d been a sculpture, in a sense: the central valley of Hainaut and some of the outskirts, as seen from the sky. Each of the three facets had captured that sight for the blink of that great eye above and seen it seared onto the marble. There were imprecisions, of course. The Dead King’s rituals had muddled it up some. But that was the entire point of having several discharges, as there’d be very few places on our ‘map’ where the imprecisions had taken all three times.
“So this is what the world looks like through a Choir’s eyes,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Roland told me. “Think of angels as seeing the world through a lens. What you can witness seared here is what we mortals would see when looking through that same lens.”
“Humans don’t have the parts necessary to observe Creation as a Choir would,” Masego absent-mindedly noted. “Even soul scaffolding wouldn’t be sufficient, it would require complete essence reconstruction. As Duchess of Moonless Nights we would have been able to replace the marble with your mind and allow you to look directly, as the damage would have repaired itself, but as you currently are you would not survive the experience.”
I still remembered how much of a pain just stealing Ashkaran from echoes in Arcadia had been, so I suspected that he was downplaying the difficulties involved when he simply called it ‘damage’.
“Good to know,” I muttered. “I believe we can work with this, Masego. We’ll need magnifying glass for some of the details, but I can already make out the bare bones.”
Such as they were, which was pretty worrying. I limped back and forth between the facets, narrowing my eyes at what I saw. If I correctly understood where we were, then at the moment we were… north-west of what had to be the Iron Prince’s army. Unfortunately, that put us in the wrong place. Ahead of the Prince Klaus’ column was a large force of undead, but not so large he shouldn’t be able to defeat it on the field. Behind it, though, was what had to be the missing Luciennerie army. By the looks of it it’d divided into three smaller forces: one was headed south towards the Cigelin Sisters, but the other two columns were marching straight towards where the Iron Prince was going to have to give battle.
That put them square to the south of us, and went some way in explaining why this part of Hainaut was swarming with warbands. Worse, it looked like my allies had left part of their forces behind: to the west of Juvelun there was something that looked like a camp. Hard to tell numbers without using something to magnify the details, though, which could wait until we’d gotten back to camp. I straightened, casting one last lingering look at the marble. For all that what I’d learned had not exactly good news, that I knew it at all was a great coup. If we’d gone about this blindly, the damage could have been… significant.
“Good work,” I said. “Both you.”
“It was,” Masego replied, clearly pleased I agreed with his own assessment.
“The Pilgrim and the Artificer will handle wiping all trace of what we did here with Light,” I said. “As for us, though, we’re done here. Let’s load up our rock on a cart and head back.”
“I’ll be glad to,” Roland admitted, casting a wary look at the mire. “I suspect we’re about to have a great deal more company.”
“Ain’t that always the way, with us?” I snorted. “It’s all about staying that one step ahead, Roland.”
Well, that or you died.
Adjutant had transcribed seared stone into what looked like a halfway decent overview of central Hainaut in less than an hour with only one hand to use. A useful reminder that, even when crippled in a wheelchair Hakram could do the work of several people in a fraction of the time it would have taken them with objectively superior results. Masego was making noises that the prosthetics would soon be sufficiently attuned to the orc’s body for surgery, so he might even be out of that chair soon – though he’d have to learn to walk all over again, and likely keep using crutches for months. I’d used the span of time where he worked to have a wash in the river we’d camped near in the Twilight Ways, so it was feeling quite refreshed that I returned to my tent.
Our venture of the morning had been rather productive, but now that we had the bird’s eye view of this campaign it was time to decide exactly how we were going to fight it. My initial notion had been to lay an ambush for the Luciennerie army, but I wasn’t sure how viable that would really be at the moment. I had a bottle of wine opened and sent for what was definitely not a war council: Indrani, Masego and Akua. Hakram was already at my side so there was hardly a need for an engraved invitation there. I rather wished Vivienne could have been there, as it’d been too long since all of the Woe had gathered, but she had duties of her own.
Besides, without wanting to sound grim would have been gambling on my part to have my successor and I in the same theatre of war.
“You know, when I blow up mud hills I don’t get commended,” Indrani complained the moment she drifted in. “It’s all ‘that was valuable ammunition, Archer’, or ‘stop using our trebuchets outside battles’.”
“Your point?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.
She slid into a seat on the other side of the table, Akua and Masego following her into the tent with long strides, speaking in Mthethwa – something about ‘complexity returns’, whatever those were – and settling further down, Zeze taking the place at Indrani’s side as if it were his natural one. I hid a smile.
“It’s favoritism, is my point,” Indrani said, jabbing an accusing finger at me.
“You’re right,” I admitted.
The surprise on her face was quite delightful.
“I do like him better than you,” I breezily added.
She gasped in half-genuine offence.
“Hakram, jot that down,” I mused. “We can look into having it made a royal decree.”
I didn’t go quite as far as jokingly offer Masego to blow up any hill he liked, because I was worried he might actually take me up on that offer. And, like, I did have a lot of hills in my demesne in Marchford but they weren’t exactly a renewable resource so while I wasn’t outright saying ‘never blow up my hills’ I’d at least want a reason first. I felt like that was a justifiable stance to take, all things considered.
“I’ll see about having the list ranking us in the order you like most made official,” Hakram idly said.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“She doesn’t have that,” Indrani said, narrowing her eyes at me.
“Of course I don’t, number si- I mean, Indrani,” I replied with a smile.
I winked, botching it just because I knew it being half-assed would piss her off even more.
“Come on,” Archer complained. “There’s no way I’m last.”
“That you think that is why you are, my dear,” Akua gently smiled.
I did admire how genuinely benign she could look while purposefully turning the knife in the wound, it was pretty impressive,
“That sounds very useful,” Masego said, sounding approving. “Could I have a transcript, along with the criteria for ranking?”
“I’ll think about,” I lied.
Adjutant cleared his throat, a call to order before this ended up into a pleasant waste of several hours. Archer avenged herself on me by pouring herself a cup of wine and filling it up to the rim, like a savage, while Akua considered me with golden eyes. A dress in red and white today, which while unable to decide whether it was a ballroom gown or a tabard remained quite flattering no matter the attached interpretation.
“I heard through the grapevine that your adventure back on Creation was a success,” Akua said.
“Heh,” Archer snickered, elbowing Zeze. “She called you a plant.”
“It was a metaphor,” he revealed to her. “… I think. I don’t believe even Wolof ever got the spell to work for a living person.”
“They haven’t,” Akua assured him. “Corpses only. Am I to take it, then, that this is to be a council of strategy?”
It was a rhetorical question, we both knew, but one that’d push us into the meat of this meeting. She did like to provide these helpful light touches, though when Hakram was there she was much more careful about their use – I got the feeling she was being exceedingly careful about never stepping on his toes. Likely she figured that trying to step into the position of my right hand was a fool’s errand, which to be frank it was. Akua was a lot of things, many of which were technically curses, but socially blind wasn’t one of them.
“We have a bit of trouble,” I said. “The Iron Prince is a long way from shore, and the tide’s getting rowdy.”
“Have even ever been on a boat?” Indrani skeptically asked.
“A fishing boat, yes,” I smugly replied.
Only when it’d been docked and to get handsy with a boy, but she didn’t need to know that.
“By custom she’s also high admiral of Callow unless the title is otherwise assigned,” Hakram noted. “Which makes her the finest sailor of all assembled here by far.”
“I’ve helmed sailing ships on the Wasaliti at least twice a summer ever since I was-” Akua began, tone irritated, then her face blanked and cleared her throat. “Yet I believe there will be no ships involved here beyond the metaphorical, so-“
I met Indrani’s eyes across the table, sharing triumphant grins. It was always a rare treat to bait out of her a genuine reaction. Back when we’d started she’d often fake those to fit in better, but these days when she tried we could usually tell.
“Why are we here, then?” Masego asked me, cutting through Akua’s verbal retreat. “Most of us don’t have military training, or at least not military officer training. Would you not be served better by a war council of your highest commanders?”
“I already know what needs to be done,” I honestly said. “Might have to move the numbers around a bit, but there’s not a lot of room for manoeuver when it comes down to it.”
I leaned forward over the ‘map’ Hakram had put together from the seared stone, tapping a finger on the representation of Klaus Papenheim’s army. The part of it on the march, at least.
“We need to reinforce those as they give battle to the undead ahead of them,” I said.
“No need to explain this for my benefit,” Masego frankly said. “I will only pretend to listen to regardless.”
Well, at least he was being honest about it.
“I want to know,” Indrani piously said. “Because I care about you, and I’m a good friend.”
“A valiant effort, number six,” Akua murmured. “If stunningly transparent.”
“That’s rich coming from you, Shifty Spectre,” Archer muttered back. “I bet if I shone Light at you it’d go straight through.”
“Since Indrani requests it, a quick summary,” I said.
I glanced at Hakram, who kicked Zeze under the table. Good man.
“This,” I said, as I put down my finger on the Iron Prince’s army, “is the other Grand Alliance army in Hainaut. We want to save it, because if we don’t we’re fucked for the year – if not for much longer than that.”
I moved my finger slightly west on the map, maybe a day’s march away from Klaus’ army.
“This is an undead force, which has to be at least twenty thousand and probably more,” I said. “The Iron Prince is marching on it, and will probably beat it in an open battle, but it represents a trap.”
I moved even further west, still at the same height. There three forces could be made out, but I ignored the one headed south towards the Cigelin Sisters. That one was General Abigail’s problem, or if she got lucky her prey: should the Sisters fall before those reinforcements arrive, Abigail of Summerholm would be in a very good position to simply smash that army when it arrived before her. It was always pleasant to be reminded that, for all his advantages over us, the Dead King had limits to his sight as well.
“This is an army that used to be far to the west, in Luciennerie, but marched east to surprise us here in the valley,” I said. “It’s large, at least a hundred thousand, and odds are it’s going to hit the Iron Prince’s army just the day after it fought a battle against the undead force I mentioned previously. That would be bad.”
Not only had the Prince of Hannoven left part of his army behind, which meant he’d be understrength – I was guessing casualties had been rough taking Juvelun so he’d been forced to leave behind troops to protect a large amount of wounded – but the dead would strike after our very mortal enemy had finished fighting another battle, with all the casualties and exhaustion that involved. No, if the Luciennerie columns actually reached Prince Klaus’ army then it would be a disaster.
“We are here, more or less,” I finished, pointing to a spot on the map.
Northwest of the Iron Prince and the undead he would soon fight, north of the Luciennerie columns. I’d hoped the Twilight Ways would allow us to steal the march on those, but the Dead King hadn’t kept a sedate pace. Splitting into several columns would weaken him against an ambush, but it had also allowed the large army to march quicker. When you had the kind of numbers Keter could boast of, often timing was more important than formations.
“That does not seem like the right place to be,” Masego assessed. “We should perhaps move towards the Iron Prince, who we are meant to save.”
A conclusion I’d not dragged him towards, though I had perhaps gently taken him by the hand and walked him there.
“Which we’ll do,” I said. “But it can’t be only that. If we just reinforce Prince Klaus with all we have, the advancing columns will hit us not long afterwards. That’s not a battle I want to give, not right now.”
If we got there in time to reinforce our allies, which it was a coin toss we would, then we’d have numbers on our side for the first battle. We’d still take losses, though, and tire our men. Then for the battle that followed we wouldn’t have the numbers, and we’d have all the damage done by our first fight weighing us down. I honestly believed we’d be able to win that battle too, but the costs would be hard to bear. We’d want to have that fight when we were prepared and well-rested, not buried in blood and dust. As it happened I knew exactly where I wanted to fight that decisive battle: the city of Hainaut, the very capital of the principality.
Which meant I had to prevent the Luciennerie columns from reaching that battlefield, and there honestly weren’t twenty ways to do that.
“Which is why-“
“I see,” Masego sagely nodded.
I paused. Was he just going to say that at regular intervals in the hope I’d figure that meant he was listening? I glanced at Archer, who offered me winsome smile. Ugh. She hadn’t been listening either, had she? Gods, those two had gotten even worse now that they were together. It was like they’d crossbred their character flaws into one single great malevolent chimera.
“Hakram,” I sighed.
Masego yelped as he was kicked under the table, and though Indrani smiled mockingly and tried to move back her chair she found that shadows had mysteriously kept it stuck where it was. She glared at Akua.
“Praesi treache- ow, Hakram that was my knee you prick!”
“I’ve no idea what you could possibly mean, darling,” Akua smiled, sipping at a wine glass she’d never poured.
“Which is why we will be fighting a holding action against the enemy columns,” I said, “while the majority of our army reinforces Prince Klaus. At the moment, I’m inclined to field only the Order and the Second Army. We’ll take a few Named as well, but once more the majority will be headed towards the Iron Prince.”
“Ah,” Masego frowned, “I must have missed something. Or is the plan truly to fight the largest enemy army with the small force you mentioned, while the rest all gathers to fight together a smaller army that the Prince of Hannoven could likely beat alone?”
“No,” I mused, “that’s a fairly apt summation actually.”
He frowned further.
“How many bottles have you had?” Zeze severely asked.
Indrani cackled in laughter, while even Hakram cracked a smile. Only loyal – treacherous – reliable – well, relatively speaking – Akua did not descend into opportunistic mockery.
“We slow the enemy by a day, perhaps two, and then retreat as the Prince of Hannoven will during the time we bought him,” she noted. “It seems achievable. Where is it that you intend to make our stand afterwards, Catherine?”
I tapped a finger on the capital, meeting her eyes.
“Bold,” Akua noted.
“Symbolic,” I said. “And, aside from that kind of consideration, it’s finest set of fortifications in the valley. Our best bet by far.”
Abigail would have the Cigelin Sisters secured by then, taking the pressure off of our defensive line, and from behind city walls we’d be able to supply ourselves through the Twilight Ways. If not necessarily for long, given the difficulties of feeding so many people by convoys. Neshamah was after our extermination, so he’d come for us in Hainaut sure as dawn – he might not ever again get this good an opportunity to wipe out our full forces in this front. The great army that’d chased after Prince Klaus from Malmedit would be drawn into this as well, and at the capital of the fallen principality we would roll the dice on the outcome of this campaign.
“It’s a delaying action we’ll be fighting, Zeze,” I added for his sake. “The objective here isn’t to win the battle, it’s to slow down the enemy while losing as few people as possible and making it away safely.”
“I see,” Masego said, and I narrowed my eyes.
It seemed like he meant it this time, though, so I let it go.
“I am still unsure why you gathered us here,” he then admitted.
“’cause we’re all going to be with her in that scrap,” Indrani casually said. “So she wants to hear us first. What we need, which Named we want to keep. That about right?”
“It is,” I said. “I’ve an idea or two to slow down the enemy while avoiding a bloody fight, but I’ll be relying on all of you. I’ll likely be on the field, which means Hakram will be holding command over our Named in my absence while General Hune and Grandmaster Talbot will handle the manoeuvering.”
“How many Named do we get to keep?” Indrani asked.
“Four, five tops,” I said. “Aside from the people here, of course.”
“Then we should bring the Blessed Artificer,” Archer bluntly said. “I know she’s not exactly the favourite of anyone at this table, but-“
“Large-scale workings, even in something as limited as Light, will be of great use,” Masego calmly interrupted. “I agree. I would request the Summoner, myself. His branch of sorcery is highly flexible, and unlike Roland there would be no complications in wresting his magic for use of my own should there be need.”
Why was it that the most useful Named so often ended up being the most unpleasant ones? Still, just because I personally disliked both people mentioned did not mean they’d not been brought up for good reasons. The Summoner, in particular, was someone I’d been inclined to bring in. While tiresome he wasn’t too difficult to handle, he really was just that damned useful to have around.
“Who will be leading the Named reinforcing Prince Klaus?” Akua asked.
“Unless one of you requests him, it will be Roland,” I said.
The shade cocked her head to the side.
“Not the Grey Pilgrim,” she observed.
“I have a use for him, as it happens,” I smiled. “Unless one of you objects?”
None did. I doubted Tariq would be hard to talk into it, if he needed to be convinced at all. This sort of stand was right up his alley, and while the Forsworn Healer brought similar strength in healing – superior when it came to groups actually – to the table, there were few Named who could boast of sharper bite than the Peregrine. That made three down, so we still had room for some. I glanced at Hakram.
“I would keep the Apprentice,” Adjutant gravelled. “She has been of use, and I have a particular idea in mind.”
That had a promising ring to it. Both this talk of idea and Hakram no longer talking of having the young girl along through his teeth.
“Do you now?” I muttered. “Done, then. I’ll look forward to it.”
My eyes moved to Akua, who had laid her chin on her palm and seemed deep in thought. She worked differently than I did, I’d noticed, when it came to laying schemes. I preferred to have someone to speak with, as I’d found that the back-and-forth and other set of eyes usually helped me find angles, but silence was her own way. I sometimes wondered how much of that had been that, as a girl, there simply would have been no one she could afford to trust with her thoughts.
“I take it you do not have a precise role in mind for me already?” Akua asked.
“No,” I said. “I expect I’ll be moving between places putting out fires, and I had a thought you might be the solution to my inability to be in two places at once, but that’s not set in stone. If you have a proposal, I’m all ears.”
“Very forward,” Indrani said, not disapprovingly.
I ignored her.
“I have a notion, perhaps,” the shade mused. “It have been considering the nature of our enemy, and how best it might be struck at.”
“So you have someone in mind,” I said.
“I do,” Akua Sahelian smiled. “I’ve a use for the Rapacious Troubadour, my heart.”
I blinked. That, uh, had not been the name – Name – I was expecting. But that actually made it easier to claim five Named, since neither the Apprentice nor the Troubadour were considered major battlefield assets. Mind you, if the Doom of Liesse has a use for a singer I doubt it’ll be because she has a hankering for a tune, I thought.
“You have him, then,” I said. “Which makes five.”
We had our roster, our plan and our enemy. There’d be a war council later to hammer all the details together, but as far as I was concerned the essentials were settled.
And just like that, to war we went.