“Victory lies in understanding the intentions of the enemy. Therefore, a general with no intentions cannot be beaten.”– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general
“So what is this place called again?”
“Maillac, my queen.”
I idly glanced at the man who’d replied to my question. Sir Brandon Talbot, Grandmaster of the Order of Broken Bells, had not been much changed by the war. I was often surprised by that. His once-long hair had been cut short but the beard and the strong build remained just the same as when I’d first met him, sitting in a cell where Juniper had tossed him. Many of the great officers of the Army of Callow and other hosts strained under their burden of their position, but on the contrary Brandon Talbot had taken rather well to this war. It helped, I suspected, than this was all simpler the kinds of war he’d known before – be it the Folly, where he had fought to maintain Praesi rule under my banner, or the Tenth Crusade when he’d followed a homegrown villain against invading heroes.
There was no one alive who could bring horrors to bear that would rival the Dead King’s, but for all the madness this was the kind of war that my people were most comfortable waging: black and white, no truce with the Enemy. I sometimes envied that he was not in a position to truly grasp the kind of ugly dealings necessary to keep something like the Grand Alliance afloat. A great good too often came at the costs of a hundred petty evils, like a saint standing on a pedestals devils had paid for.
“Gods, and to think someone believed it a sound notion to build a village here,” I said. “They must have been drunk.”
The dark-haired nobleman – one of the few of the breed I caught myself occasionally liking – let out a small amused noise.
“Some of the land north of Harrow is not so dissimilar, I am told,” Brandon Talbot said. “I was taught as a boy that the people there are usually poor but skilled hunters and fishermen. As bowmen they have a high reputation in certain parts, though the Deoraithe are a hard shadow to escape in that art.”
“Not much left to hunt or fish here,” I replied. “Usually isn’t, after the Dead King had a go.”
If the Second Army was to make a stand against a wildly larger amount of enemy soldiers without getting butchered and overwhelmed, picking the ground it was going to make that stand on was crucial. We’d dug through maps and records as well as the officers from Hainaut that Princess Beatrice had leant me before picking the abandoned village of Maillac, and for all that the place was a hole in the ground for our purposes it was perfect. See, for all that undead had less trouble with difficult terrain than living soldiers they didn’t actually get to ignore that terrain. Swamps, bogs, or other combination of mud and scrum water and crawling things were easier for undead to go through because unlike people they wouldn’t get cold or tired or sick – or even attacked by animals, usually.
But in no way did that mean a swamp was something easy for undead soldiers to march through.
The skeletons still wore armour, still weighed heavy, and as a rule tended to be significantly less deft and agile than living soldiers besides. Marching through a mire would wreak havoc on their lines and they’d be damned slow going through mud – or, if they weren’t, would be so lightly armoured that our priests would scythe through them like wheat with volleys of Light. It was a comparative advantage the undead had, not an absolute one. And that meant that a place like Maillac made for very good grounds to defend: the village had stood on a relatively large peninsula surrounded by swamplands in every direction but the southeast, and with few trees in the immediate area that would obscure line of sight when the dead came from the west.
We wouldn’t be able to fit the entire Second Army on the peninsula that locals apparently called ‘the Boot’ – seen from a high hill in the distance it looked vaguely boot-like, I’d been told after asking – as ten thousand soldiers would be much too many, but we could fit at least half and then position the rest on the broader solid grounds behind the peninsula, which were thankfully rather difficult to access. To the north and south there were rock formations and deep water, both of which would screw with enemy advance even worse than the swamps. That meant that open grounds around the Boot would be the best approach for the dead, short of circling rather far around.
Which sounded like a good idea for them, at first glance, as it would allowed them to attack us from solid land an attempt an encirclement of our army divided between the Boot and the broader shore. I almost hoped they made the mistake of attempting that, though, as the amount of time it would take them to both gather large enough forces and circle around us meant my army would get to delay the dead long enough for Prince Klaus to get away and then escape ourselves without even giving battle. While I might have chosen Maillac as a battle site first and foremost, I wouldn’t complain if we got to evacuate it without first having fought said battle.
Not that we’d be so lucky. I’d stripped ten thousand legionaries and my finest horse from the rest of the army before dangling them like juicy bait out here in the wilds, the Dead King wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to bloody us a bit. Still, I’d not come this far by leaving things to chance.
“I can see little use for the Order in the battlefield you have chosen us, Your Majesty,” Sir Brandon admitted. “Yet it is not your habit to act without purpose, so I must presume there is one.”
“The swamp would be hell on the horses, and you’re much too heavy,” I agreed. “But I don’t actually intend for you to fight here, Talbot.”
Blue eyes brightened with understanding.
“We are to go a’raiding, then,” the Grandmaster smiled.
“And I with you,” I agreed. “We’ll be taking the Twilight Ways. Once the Second Army has begun setting up here, you and I are going to make such a nuisance out of the Order in these parts that Keter will have to come and give us a fight.”
“To vex the Enemy is always a pleasure,” the bearded knight said, sounding pleased. “Even more so if we confound him into an even greater defeat.”
I looked at him, for a moment, and glimpsed the part of his kind that my people had loved for so long. That fearless, hardy breed of nobles that’d known sword and spear just as well as dances and laughed as the charged under the banners of the Fairfaxes and the Albans to turn back the invaders of the east and the west. War wasn’t a trade to him, I thought, not like it was to the Legions and so many in the Army. War was part of who he was, just as much as his name or his blood. War isn’t just what we do, Catherine, it’s what we are, Juniper had once told me. She’d been speaking of her own people, that night, but so often I found that Praes and Callow were more deeply intertwined than either care to admit.
“I mean to do more than just vex,” I said. “Half the world still sits up when our war horns are sounded, Talbot. I mean to brand that fear anew in the legions of the dead.”
His fist struck his breastplate over his heart, the thump pleasantly solid to the ear.
“We are at your command, Queen Catherine,” the knight said.
For a few years yet, I thought. It would be enough.
I would make it enough.
Sapper-General Pickler, whose notion of the decorum due to her rank usually varied between ‘sounds like Commander Waffler’s problem’ and ‘if I’m not covered in dust I’m no doing this right’, crouched down on the shore and dipped a crooked green finger in the mud. After taking a long sniff, she licked it and hummed.
“Rich silt,” Pickler told me. “Good material. Mind you, mudbricks in this humid a locale would be foolish. There’s clay, though, and we can use that for fired bricks. The trees in this dump aren’t for much of anything, though. I’ll need companies out foraging for decent firewood if we’re going to be cooking bricks.”
It was in moments like this that I was awe at what something like the War College actually stood for, what it achieved. That little exchange we’d just had alone was something that’d be impossible to have in most armies of our age. See, there were engineers in the ranks of Procer and the Free Cities with knowledge much like Pickler’s. Neither goblins nor Praesi had a monopoly on such things. But none of these had the rest. Pickler had been taught about mages, so she understood that we couldn’t just use spells to make her fired bricks: we’d half-kill our mages with exhaustion before we were anywhere done. Pickler had been taught about defensive tactics, so she knew how quickly I’d need the bricks and that if I didn’t get enough making any was a waste of time: that meant making many fires, and firewood.
Pickler had been taught about limited manpower logistics, too, and so combining all these teachings in a few moments she’d put together a proposal. One tailored to the rough amount of people I’d be able to spare, and how many would be needed to achieve what needed to done in our current time strictures. In effect, several companies of regulars on rotation with attached mages for Twilight Ways access.
Most of the contemporary armies of my allies and enemies had all this knowledge, in practice, but none of them had it concentrated in the same person. Maybe a few exceptional fantassin captains might have most of these competences, or rare Helikean generals, but those individuals would be rare. My father had made the War College into a place that could make entire companies of those rare individuals every year. There were many who still thought the Conquest had been an outlier, an anomaly made possible only by the genius of the Black Knight and the Marshals of Callow. Those people were fools. The Conquest had been won in stone classrooms a decade before armies lined up on both sides of the Fields of Streges.
“You’ll have them,” I said. “How much can you fortify in two days?”
“The Boot will be walled up, and we’ll have platforms for those of my ballistas you didn’t hand off to your toy general,” Pickler replied, a tad peevishly. “We’ll have to use palisades for the part stretching between the end of the boot and the deep waters to the south. We won’t be able to put up anything else in time.”
I slowly nodded, fixing the picture in my mind’s eyes. The peninsula was where I wanted clay walls the most, since it would be suffering the brunt of the enemy assault. Palisades to the south would get rough, given that Keter usually was capable of toppling those by throwing enough corpses at them – to say nothing of constructs or Revenants – but we weren’t trying to make an invincible citadel out of this chunk of swamp. Favourable fighting grounds would have to be enough.
“And the northern grounds?” I pressed.
The peninsula on which Maillac was built looked like a boot fitted to a particularly fat foot, but it wasn’t jutting out of perfectly straight dry – well, dryer anyway – land. To the south a wavy shoreline connected to the top edge of the boot kept going for about two hundred feet before jutting rocks and deep water made the grounds impractical to pass. As Pickler had said, we’d cover that stretch with palisades. But from the uppermost top edge of the boot the shoreline instead went straight for maybe forty feet before jutting upwards for a hundred feet and curving east into the second mass of rocks and deep water that were the reason I’d picked Maillac as our battlefield in the first place.
It meant there was a stretch of water between the Boot and the shore, which to make things even worse wasn’t even particularly deep. Skeletons coming through the mire would use it as a ramp to flood our northern flank, it was pretty much a given.
“If we had a week I’d sink a stone wall and drain it,” Pickler replied with a sigh that rattled through her teeth, “but we don’t. The mud is too soft there, Catherine, and unlike the Boot or the deeper shore there’s no solid layer to steady a palisade on.”
“So we make a fort deeper in and dig in for a rough fight,” I summarized.
“I can make fortified nests for scorpions, with an eye to firing on anything that emerges from the water,” my Sapper-General said. “But anything beyond that would take more time and hands than we have to spare.”
She sounded almost apologetic, which was rare for her.
“These are imperfect grounds,” I said. “I didn’t expect you to wave a magic wand and make them into an impenetrable fortress. Already you’re doing wonders, Pickler.”
And I wasn’t lying for her benefit there: that in the span of a mere two days my sappers would be able to turn this defendable stretch of swamp into a makeshift fortress was beyond impressive. When I’d made the decision to use only the Second Army and the Order as delaying forces, I’d been able to make that decision comfortably because I’d known almost half of the sapper corps remained with me instead of manning the siege engines that by now General Abigail would be using to reduce the Cigelin Sisters. I relied on my sappers a great deal, which I knew they took pride in, but I would not let the burden of unrealistic expectations crush them.
“I want to do more,” Pickler admitted, to my surprise. “There won’t be another war like this in my lifetime, Catherine. This is the one I’ll get to fight, the one I’ll get to make my teeth on.”
She clicked her teeth, the flash of needle-like row betraying what had to be genuine irritation. Goblins were easier to read than humans, in some ways – most didn’t bother to hide their body language the way a deceitful human would, since most of my race never learned goblin body subtext.
“I work with imperfect tools, the way all my predecessors have,” Pickler said, “but it… irks, that I know we could be better. That we could match Keter blow for blow, if we had the time and the coin.”
I hid a fond smile. Leave it to my Sapper-General to be irked by being on the lesser side in an arms race with the Hidden Horror. Even most heroes, those chosen few blessed with the belief of promised victory, usually limited their ambition to survival and eking out a win when it came to the Original Abomination. Yet Pickler of the High Ridge tribe had been forged of goblin steel tempered in Wasteland fire, kept sharp by the whetstone of the Uncivil Wars. When faced with dreadful might, the Sapper-General of Callow’s nature was not to cower but to crave to surpass it.
“War’s not over,” I said. “One day it will take us to the gates of the Crown of the Dead itself, Pickler.”
I offered her a smile.
“On that day, I expect you will find your coffers filled to burst and few requests beyond acquiescence,” I said.
“Gobbler grant me breath until then,” Pickler of the High Ridge tribe grinned, all teeth and malice, and offered a quick bow. “I’ll get started on the work, Your Majesty.”
I nodded back, mind already moving. The Order of Broken Bells was already mustering for the raids, picking out targets with General Hune and Hakram, and now my Sapper-General had assignments and hands to see it through. It was time, then, to see to the… irregulars.
I’d begun with Masego because I’d figured it would be less unsettling to look at than whatever it was that Akua wanted the Rapacious Troubadour for, but alas it seemed that hubris had come around to bite me in the tit. That Hierophant would be standing atop a flat floating stone was sadly not unexpected, nor were the smaller rocks circling around him with visibly shifting runes carved into them. That the Grey Pilgrim would be stand with him there, though, head cocked to the side as if he were listening to someone talking as he corrected some of the runework, very much was.
“- being very helpful,” I heard Zeze say, tone appreciative. “I could talk to Catherine about remuneration, if you’d like, or draw from Arsenal discretionary funds.”
Well, that was nice of him.
“A kind thought,” Tariq drily replied, “but the Ophanim require no compensation for their help.”
Wait, had he been talking about paying the Choir of Mercy? Godsdamnit, Masego, we definitely didn’t have room for that in the budget. I cleared my throat as I got closer, as it seemed both of them were too involved with their work to be paying attention to their surroundings.
“Catherine,” Hierophant greeted me. “Come to have a look?”
“You might say that,” I replied. “Pilgrim, always a pleasure to see you.”
I did not bother to specify that I’d not actually expected to see him, though, as it was pretty much implied by his mere presence here.
“And you,” the old man said, sounding amused. “We have been lending a hand to the Lord Hierophant, you see, as his work has proved to have… surprising provenances.”
“I figured out how angels smite people,” Zeze said, sounding very pleased with himself. “More or less. When the Ophanim tried to kill us all at Lyonceau I got a good look.”
“That was not their intent at all,” Tariq sighed. “The death of the Tyrant of Helike – a necessity, I’m sure you’ll agree – was all that was sought.”
“By smiting,” Masego helpfully specified. “Which I am now reproducing, only without the angels.”
“Are you now,” I faintly said. “How lovely.”
I looked to the Pilgrim, expecting an elaboration but receiving only a blithe shrug.
“It’s not an inaccurate description,” Tariq said. “They’re very interested in seeing if it works.”
“Are they now,” I said, tone grown even fainter. “That’s nice.”
“Now,” Masego said, “I know what you’re thinking.”
He tried to lean against a rotating stone but mistimed it and almost stumbled off the floating stone, the Pilgrim discreetly pulling at his robes so he wouldn’t.
“I doubt that,” I noted, “but go on.”
“If a Choir does not power the smiting, what does?” Hierophant enthusiastically asked.
“The bone-deep existential dread of all who witness your works?” I suggested.
“Too narrow, but you’re along the right path,” Masego encouraged me.
I glanced at Tariq.
“I thought you Light-wielding types had objections to blasphemy,” I said.
And this felt, like, maybe two or three steps past simple blasphemy. I’d say we were uncovering fresh new heretical horizons, but that was always a hard claim to make for anyone remotely familiar with Praesi history.
“Smiting is being used as a purely technical term here, with no religious connotations,” the Grey Pilgrim serenely replied.
Tariq, you shit, I uncharitably thought.
“Besides, if this endeavour succeeds it may be possible to reproduce it purely using Light,” the old man airily continued.
Meaning that Zeze’s brain was being utterly terrifying, as usual, but that in this particular case it might lead to a skill usable for heroes down the line – and Crows, wasn’t that particular prospect worth a fucking shiver or two? – so he was willing to not only refrain from objecting but actively help. I narrowed my eyes at the smiling old man, knowing Goods might just be getting the better bargain here. There was no guaranteed that Hierophant would ever be able to pass this down to anyone else on my side, so the knowledge might very well die out. The Choir of Mercy, though, would not forget a damned thing.
And the Ophanim were not, in my experience, shy about handing out this sort of knowledge to their favourites.
“How fortunate,” I replied with a grunt. “What is it you’re using, Masego?”
“I had thought to use Night, at first,” the dark-skinned mage idly said, “but Sve Noc did not seem willing. So instead we will draw on Arcadia for power and use runework to give the power shape.”
“And that’ll work?” I asked
“Should it not, I expect the result will be a large explosion followed by temporary instability in the weave of Creation on a local level,” Tariq noted.
“We can use that too,” Masego happily told me. “So there’s really no downside.”
I closed my eyes and breathed out. Well, he wasn’t exactly wrong. Mind you, Zeze tended to be very reasonable even when suggesting utter lunacy so that wouldn’t be a first. And this seemed like a functioning weapon, if an unstable and dangerous one. I opened my eyes.
“This won’t hurt our own?” I asked.
“No,” Masego replied, tone serious. “Precautions were taken. It will not kill your soldiers.”
“Then all hail the mighty smiters,” I drily said. “Have fun, you two, and try not to bring down Arcadia Resplendent on our heads.”
Which might have been a tad hypocritical of me to say, I mentally acknowledged as I limped at and left them to their work, since I was the one who kept stealing lakes from there.
I caught a few bits of the song on the wind before I saw either of them, the almost mournful tone of the Troubadour’s voice matching the sad strums of his cithern. The tent was wide open, leaving the song to take to the sky unhindered.
“- we of steel,
Forged in the east
As turns the wheel
And carrion feast.”
I knew precious few Praesi songs, unless you counted Legion ones, but this one I’d heard of before. The Tyranny of the Sun, it was called, an old war song from the days of the Sixty Years War. It’d been banned since, but banning a song only rarely succeeded at stamping it out. Making it forbidden tended to raise interest, if anything. The few Praesi tunes I’d heard – Count the Nights, Upon All the World and Burning Kiss – tended towards the boastful or the romantic, not the almost wistful beat of this one. It was, I suddenly recalled, a favourite of my father’s. Given that this had to be a request if Akua’s, I almost smiled at the thoughts.
Neither of them would be particularly pleased to hear they had something in common, even something as small as a liking for a song.
I found the both of them seated inside. The Rapacious Troubadour was sprawled indolently in a chair, long crooked fingers dancing across his cithern as he smiled. Dark-haired and pale, the man would have been handsome if nor for the too-red lips and insincere eyes. Though he wore armour when battle was at hand, he rarely bothered without immediate danger to move him: his tunic and cloak were of tasteful cut and good make, in shades of purple, while both trousers and boots were leather. He’d been looking at Akua with something like hunger in his gaze when I entered, though he immediately averted his eyes. Ah, but is it the looks or the soul that draw your attention?
The shade herself had claimed a small table and a folding chair, leaning forward with quill and parchment in hand – which bared an interesting expanse of smooth skin, given the generous neckline of her red dress patterned with what looked like peacock feathers in blue. I’d seen enough of Akua actively trying to appeal to suspect she wasn’t even trying to be enticing at the moment. She was just good-looking enough that even at work it looked like she was posing for a painting.
“Dearest,” the devil in question said, raising her head to smile at me. “How kind of you to visit.”
The Troubadour eased into an interruption of the song, the notes fading naturally, and then offered me a short bow.
“Your Majesty,” Lucien greeted me. “Ever a pleasure.”
“Is it now?” I mused. “Good to know.”
“Do not bully my singer,” Akua chided me. “He has been singing the loveliest songs.”
“The Tyranny of the Sun?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Somewhat maudlin, I know,” she smiled, “but it has such a pleasant melody.”
I smiled at her, knowing something she did not and amused by the secret.
“Got anything out of it?” I asked, glancing at her parchment.
A magical formula, by the looks of it. I could recognize certain parts of it from our lessons – wait, no, this was a ritual but it was meant to be used with Night. It just looked like sorcery because she was basing its workings on Trismegistan principles. I leaned in, frowning as I took a closer look. The scale of the power used would be large, since she was using the notations that meant every number mean should be multiplied by a thousand, but the duration would be… short? Maybe just a few breaths. And I wasn’t recognizing the end of her formula at all, there wasn’t even a boundary strength or an allowed variance.
Mind you, for all my lessons I was still essentially a drunken monkey trying to decipher the works of one of the greats of our age so my incomprehension should not be a surprise.
“I believe so,” Akua smiled. “It occurred to me, my heart, that the strengths of Night lie in its flexibility. Yet this comes at the price of a weakness, namely that it is only ever second best in all the many things it can accomplish.”
If even that, I thought. I called it the power of a thief for a reason. She wasn’t wrong, though, and if anything she was underselling it: given equal Night and Light on both sides of a struggle, Light would win ten times out of ten. Entities wielding Light and Night weren’t necessarily bound to that outcome, mind you, but in a straight fight it had to be said that Light always won. Considering that the prevailing theory was that Light had been made by the Gods Above when Creation was first built and that Night was only indirectly the work of the Gods Below, that made a great deal of sense to me.
“Let’s say I agree,” I replied. “What follows?”
“A great deal of power that could benefit from a… more defined method of channeling,” Akua said. “One more deeply aligned with Creation.”
I studied her for a moment, then discreetly flicked my eyes towards the Rapacious Troubadour. Her smile widened.
“Huh,” I said. “Is that… wise?”
She read between the lines, catching on to my very delicate question of ‘are you sure using the soul-eating villain as a Night-channel isn’t going to fuck us over?’.
“It is my ritual,” she easily replied. “It remains in my hands from beginning to end.”
Meaning that the Rapacious Troubadour would be a ritual component more than an active participant. Ah, I was already slightly more comfortable with this. Still not exactly eager, but damned few of the tricks we needed to win this war were anything that could reasonably be called safe.
“And you’re sure you’ll get results,” I said.
“I have proved the underlying principles,” Akua said, and leaned back as if to offer me a closer look at her notes.
Yeah, that would serve no real purpose. I had an almost decent handle on basic Trismegistan spell formulas these days – might not be able to make one, but was reliably able to pick out which part did what – but taking a gander at the kind of work that lay behind crafting an entirely new ritual, one working and Night and somehow involving a Named, would be absurd. I did not have the knowledge to parse the knowledge necessary to grasp the principles behind the basics of what was involved there.
“I’ll take you to your word,” I easily said. “But what is it your ritual will do, exactly?”
She gestured for me to come closer and whispered the answer in my ear. I drew back with a startled look.
“You’re sure?” I asked.
“The effects could be inferior to my expectations, but there will be effects,” Akua calmly said. “Of that there can be no doubt.”
I let out a low whistle.
“Well, here’s hoping it takes fully,” I said. “It would make a real difference, and not just in the coming battle.”
“I expect Trismegistus will mend the weakness eventually,” the shade shrugged. “Yet for now we have the element of surprise, so a success can be reasonably hoped for.”
Mhm. She’d not used that name as a coincidence: it was a veiled reminder that there was a reason Praesi magic was called Trismegistan sorcery. We were using his own methods against him, which meant our advantage was likely to be quite temporary.
“I’ll dare hope for it, then,” I said. “Did I glimpse correctly that you’ll be using a song?”
“Indeed,” Akua said, sounding pleased. “Do you have a particular preference? Lucien has proved to have a remarkable repertoire at his disposal.”
I glanced at the smiling man in question. Yeah I figured he would, what with all the godsdamned souls he’d eaten.
“It’s your ritual,” I said. “Let it be your song as well.”
“You do me honour,” the golden-eyed beauty said. “As it happens, I did have a thought.”
“Stars From the Sky,” Akua said in Mtethwa. “It is ancient, but remains sung for good reason.”
“Never heard of it,” I replied, “but I’ll look forward to mending that.”
She inclined her head.
“I will endeavour,” Akua Sahelian smiled, “not to disappoint.”