“I climbed the Tower at seventeen, Chancellor, and for ten years I have held it. So before you bare your knife at my back, ask yourself this – would you really be the first to try?”– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner
Flat and open grounds sat before us, the earth black and musky.
The sun peeked out solemnly from behind the cover of clouds, a wet and lazy breeze licking at the skin as the summer heat saw droplets gather and slither down the armour of my knights. Hidden near the edge of a thicket of oak and poplars, we watched as in the distance as a warband of armed corpses shambled forward. They were taking the same eastward trail that a hundred other like them had, over nights and days. There’d been no need of a tracker to find that well-beaten track. There was a name, I idly remembered, for this place. There was a village not too far, a mark on a map where men had lived and a lord had ruled. It slipped my mind, despite my best efforts, but I did not grieve myself the lapse. We had fought a dozen skirmishes in as many different places since morning, and by now they were beginning to meld into each other.
“Seven hundred or thereabouts, my queen,” Sir Brandon Talbot said. “And our outriders are adamant the closest warband is the better part of an hour away.”
I laid a hand on the neck of Zombie the Sixth, feeling him breathe in and out slowly. The stallion was a pale brown Salamans zancada, a breed favoured by both leisure racers and the light cavalry that Arlesites were so fond of. A gift from Princess Beatrice Volignac, and not an inexpensive one. I supposed I did qualify as light horse nowadays, since all I wore for armour was a breastplate with tassets and upper vambraces over an aketon – and the Mantle of Woe, over it all. It was a waste to give such a fine horse to a rider as ferociously average as myself, in my opinion, especially when I usually preferred riding dead horses to live ones. Yet it would have been unmannerly to refuse it, and while the Order had remounts they were from lesser breeds so I didn’t even have a good reason to do so.
I fully expected Zombie the Sixth to die before the end of the day, though, which would properly earn him his name would solve the issue anyway. I’d seriously debated killing him and raising him before Hakram got me to admit it would be somewhat unpolitic of me.
“Then we take them,” I said. “Have the horns sounded, Grandmaster Talbot.”
“It will be my pleasure,” the bearded knight replied with a hard grin.
He pulled one-handed on the reins of his purebred Liessen charger, leading away the large horse at a trot and shouting out his orders. The knights carrying long banners, both the Order’s own cracked bronze bells on black as well as my own Sword and Crown, brought the silver-banded horns hanging around their necks to their lips and blew. One, twice, thrice. The deep call echoed across the grounds of Hainaut, giving that age-old order my people knew the way they dawn: all knights, charge. I watched, hidden in the shade of a tall poplar tree. The dead had enough Binds among them that they began to mobilize before the Order had even begun to emerge from the cover of the trees, but the warband had been spread out in a loose column for the march. They would not gather quickly enough. Split into four wedges of five hundred, two on each side of the path, my knights lowered their lances and broke into a gallop.
My staff of yew resting against Zombie’s neck, my sword still sheathed, I waited with the remounts and the squires in the woods as the Order fell on the dead like packs of wolves. It was with a twinge of satisfaction that I watched lowered killing lances, engraved with hymns to the Heavens, scythe through the thin ranks of the enemy as large armoured horses trampled the surprised undead. All four wedges broke through the enemy lines, not allowing themselves to be drawn into melee but instead punching straight through. In good order, they gathered again and wheeled around to charge anew from fresh angles. Most undead were incapable of so much as denting the armour of my knights, and this column was low on javelinmen: maybe a score wounded and fewer dead were all it took before most the Binds were dead and the warband dissolved into a disorderly mass of corpses.
From there the knights of the Order of the Broken Bell went at it with cold and practiced efficiency, using the tactics developed over years of fighting Keter. A wedge skimmed the edge of the mass of the dead, drawing the enemy forward, only for two others to flank it with deadly charges. Before a protracted melee could ensure, all three wedges withdrew and the fourth wedge of unengaged knights went forward to serve as fresh bait for a repeat of the manoeuver. Binds would have punished such a repetition, but skeletons simply did not learn from their mistakes. It was grim and bloody work that followed, but repetitive and the danger involved was not as great as might look: unless pulled down from their mount, few of my knights were truly at risk unless the enemy got lucky.
It had all been going quite well, which was why I half-expected it when horns sounded from the woods on the other side of the open grounds. There would be squires and horses in that opposite thicket as well, though I could hardly see any of them, and it must be one of their number that was blowing the call for danger – two short, sharp sounds. My staff left Zombie’s neck and I spurred him forward without a word, ignoring the squires asking after me. Talbot had named ‘officers’ among them, lead squires, so it was not my job to hold their hand. My horse’s long and certain stride took us out of the woods and slightly downslope onto the battleground even as I kept an eye on the currents there. Talbot was in command, and he’d prudently ordered two wedges to draw the skeletons away while assembling the other two to head back to the squires.
Quick as he’d been, the enemy was quicker still. Panicked horses, the remounts of a thousand knights, were led hastily out of the woods by mounted squires in mail even as screams and the sound of fighting came from deeper in. I led Zombie into a hasty gallop, trampling a skeleton that tried to stand in my way in a crunch of steel-clad hooves, and broke into the shaded thicket even as another pack of squires fled it. They parted around me, and I glimpsed shame on some of those faces. Given what I glimpsed deeper in, though, there was truly none to be had. It was a man, if one long dead. The shoddy hide armour – little more than a vest – he wore over tattered shirt and trousers did nothing to distinguish him from the zombies Keter threw at soldiers by the hundreds, but the long blood-red hair and ancient claymore were… distinctive.
He padded forward on bare feet, blood dripping from the edge of his great sword as a smile accentuated the vertical tattooed red stripes around his mouth. The Drake, we’d taken to calling him. Against a Revenant of that calibre there was nothing my soldiers could do but die.
“Retreat,” I ordered the remainder, voice laced with power.
The squires scattered to the four winds, save for one who’d been too close – the Drake approached and the girl swung down her sword at his head, but the Revenant easily stepped around it. Zombie’s stride had not slowed and my staff rose as I gathered Night around the tip, but even that was too slow. In a single casual stroke, the Drake swung down and blood sprayed as he carved through the squire and the horse beneath her. I grit my teeth, letting loose a spinning javelin of Night at the Revenant that caught him in the ribs and shredded flesh and bone. The impact smashed him into a tree, making it crack, and the hide armour was smoldering around the edges. It wouldn’t do shit to this particular horror, though, I well knew. I passed the falling halves of the dead squire, unsheathing my sword as I began gathering Night again, but already flesh and bone had knitted themselves back together.
The Drake, laughing, cracked a shoulder and wrenched himself free of the tree.
“Black Queen,” the Revenant nonchalantly greeted me. “Yours, then?”
Five times I’d tried to kill that murderous cockroach, and never managed it. Once I’d so thoroughly incinerated his corpse that all that’d been left had been a single hand, and still he’d walked out of that battlefield on two feet. Whatever it was the Dead King had done to this one, it’d made him durable beyond reason. Even wounds inflicted with Light came back in a matter of moments. His capacity to recover from damage might genuinely surpass what my body had been able to do at the peak of my time holding Winter.
“Drake,” I coldly replied, deadwood staff levelled at him. “They were. Burn.”
A howling gout of blackflame erupted from the tip, swallowing him whole before beginning to spin on itself at my direction. I heard bits of crazed laughter through even the roar of the dark fire as used my knees to guide Zombie away from the blaze. Fuck, this one was always a pain to contain. I had enough hard-hitting ranged tricks that if I could catch him at a distance he wasn’t a major threat, but I’d yet to find anything that could actually put him down for good and not for lack of trying. Time to pull out my forces and find a softer target. Zombie slowed on the turn and I leant to the side to better slam the butt of my staff against the ground, drawing deep on Night and hastily shaping it. Thin threads of darkness skittered along the ground, running up trunks and binding trees as they hooked themselves deep.
The Drake leapt out of the flames, naked and burnt but already healing, just in time for me to wrench with my will and smash him down into the ground with a dozen bound trees. I heard bones break and organs pulp, his broken body stuck under the massive weight. That ought to slow him for a span, until I could get something sterner in place.
“That-” the Revenant began, then paused to spit out a thick glob of blood, “-that was unkind.”
Of all the dead Named in Keter’s service he might just be the chattiest, and the Dead King did seem to have left him most of his will and wits. It made him more flexible – the same tactics rarely worked twice against him – but it also meant he fell more easily into distractions. Getting him talking tended to work, especially if it was about himself.
“I’ve been curious,” I idly asked, drawing on Night. “How long did it take, before you turned?”
One more working to keep him stuck there for a bit then I’d retreat. The sooner I got my knights away from him the better. It might be worth coming back afterwards to have a crack at destroying him, though, I silently considered. Better here and now than at Maillac.
“Fifty three years,” the Drake amiably replied. “Would that I had bent at forty, that last decade was… inventive.”
I knew from experience that impaling him wouldn’t work for long – his healing was so aggressive that it shredded whatever went through him by sheer pressure – and that quartering only held him so long. He’d been physically strong even by Named standards, I suspected. It was burying alive that’d worked best so far, so I got to it methodically. Shaping Night into large blades I manipulated to cut a rough cube into the ground, I then shaped another working and ripped out the loose earth as if with great claws. I’d need to drag him into the hole before burying him, though, so best get the strings spun out already. I wasn’t always quick enough to snatch him when I wove them on the fly. Still, thank the Gods I’d caught him in the woods instead of on an open field. He was much hard to deal with without terrain to use. I spun out five threads, then threw in a sixth just to be sure and thickened them, then –
Darkness fell over the woods, pure and inky black. Shit, I thought, immediately releasing all my workings. Mantle’s here too. Was this an ambush? I threw myself off my horse, ripping my boots out of the stirrups, and felt Zombie kick about in a panic. I slapped his rump with the side of my staff so he’d know to run before spinning it about, smashing it into the ground. A tremor of Night shivered across the forest floor, sending the earth I’d loosened flying in a rain that should obscure Mantle’s vision just as she’d obscured mine. My consistent inability to see through her darkness while it did not impede her was one of the many reasons I fucking hated dealing with that particular Revenant. Still, this made it two from the nebulous roster that our heroes liked to call the Scourges. It really was beginning to smell like ambush to my nose.
I’d begun to count in the back of my mind the moment things went dark and I kept it up even as I threw up an obscuring veil of Night around myself and ducked behind where I remembered to be a tree. The tree blew up a moment later, though I heard no noise and only knew because I felt the shiver and wood shards ripping into my cloak. I slid further down, closer to the roots, as something whizzed near my head, knowing a helmet would have made no difference if a curse hit but still chastising myself for the lack of it anyway. Cocky gets you killed, Catherine, I reminded myself. You don’t grow back limbs anymore. The last three beats separating me from the count of sixteen passed agonizingly slowly, but when the timing struck I was ready.
The darkness winked out, revealing the Drake halfway through a leap in my direction with his claymore raised high and his crimson hair trailing behind, but I wove a thread of Night around his foot and without missing a beat I tossed him in the direction the strike on my tree should have come from. I knew I’d got it right when something ripped through my thread a moment later. Mantle had been some sort of priestess when she lived, and in death those gifts had turned towards the use of curses. Most of them worked against Night, which meant her specialty was shredding my own workings while being twice my size and heavily armored. I liked fighting Mantle even less than I did the Drake, and with her addition to the roster this was starting to look a mite risky. If it’d been a more vulnerable pair I would have embraced an occasion to try knocking off a first-class Revenant before the Dead King could put them to even sharper use, but this wasn’t a good match up for me at all.
It was, to be frank, suspiciously bad. If Tariq or Masego had been around to counter Mantle it might have been tempted to roll the dice anyway, but as things stood… No, I wouldn’t let pride get in the way of good sense here. Our objectives for this raid were either already achieved or beyond reach, so it was time to get the Hells out of here.
I opened a gate into Arcadia about six feet behind me and twenty feet high, making it broad and linked to water: the deluge pouring out served as my cover as I forced myself up and limped away. A wave of heat followed by the hiss of vapour told me the nature of Mantle’s answer, but I did not stop to glance back. I wouldn’t outrun either of them, given my limp, and just fleeing into Twilight wasn’t acceptable when the Order would be relying on me to return there. So when I opened a gate into the Twilight Ways, it wasn’t to go in: it was to allow something out. The ghostly blue wyvern that squeezed its way through lowered its wing so I could go up it and slid me onto its back by angling it. My water portal, though, could only buy me so long.
I felt it get shredded, and a heartbeat later a wide net of crackling shadow flew towards us. On the ground I glimpsed the Drake hastening towards us, so swift-footed his claymore dragged behind him.
“Up,” I ordered the wyvern, already drawing on Night.
I detonated the air in front of the net thrice, in a broad line, but though my enemy’s working wavered it did not break. That was fine, since all I’d wanted was to slow it. The Summoner’s wyvern-thing shot up just in time to avoid the net, batting its wings to pierce through the summit of the trees, but we weren’t done yet. Dark grey clouds began to form above us in a ring, and I held on for dear life I shouted for the wyvern to bank away. It did, narrowly, and only the tip of its tail touched the clouds. I’d seen this one before and… wait, what? The tail was just fine. Fuck, I thought as I glanced down and saw the Drake flying through the air towards us. It’d been a trick, she’d been buying time to throw him.
I loosed two spinning missiles of the same make as earlier, hoping to knock him back down, but he batted one aside – the claymore was enchanted, it didn’t even get a scratch – and spun on himself to narrowly avoid the other. If we’d kept going straight we would have avoided him, but Mantle’s bluff had paid off. Gods but I hated fighting clever opponents. There was no way I was allowing myself to be forced to engage the Drake up close, much less atop a moving magical construct, so with a grimace I glanced down at the woods and breathed out before taking a leap. Hopefully the wyvern would slow down the Revenant some. I wove a veil around myself on the way down, which proved to be a sound precautions when a spray of shard-like pieces of darkness tore through the air coming from below.
I flared out my cloak to slow my fall some, letting them pass below, and only then broke the veil to form tendrils of shadow that anchored themselves on one of the rapidly approaching trees. Using those I threw myself towards the open grounds, just in time for the tendrils to be torn through by Mantle as above me the wyvern-thing screeched. A glance told me the Drake had ripped into its belly and it was quickly falling apart. The dead priestess had never unmade the second gate I’d opened, though, the one the construct had come through, and a heartbeat later she was made to pay for that oversight. A ring of dark clouds that’d been forming ahead of me – the genuine acidic version this time, I was guessing – suddenly dispersed out as Archer made her presence known.
I heard a cry of anger, but I couldn’t see what was going on from up here. Still, given that Indrani was involved it was safe to assume that Mantle was having a bad time.
I had other priorities anyway, to be honest, though before shaping a way to slow my descent I still took the time to form a thread of Night, snatching the Drake’s foot after he leapt off the shattering wyvern-construct and throwing him deeper into the woods. It had little room for manoeuvre, afterwards, so I brute-forced the landing by smashing the ground beneath me and then using the blowback to slow my fall. I swallowed a scream as my bones rattled and my bad leg burned with pain, but I landed on my feet and only stumbled after taking three slow steps forward. I swallowed a curse and a moan of pain, picking up the sword I’d dropped to sheathe it and forcing myself up by leaning on my staff. In the back of my mind I finally felt my last portal get shredded.
Not that it mattered. From the woods ahead of me, where the Order was gathering to retreat, I saw three arrows arcs upwards in quick succession. Archer was a prodigy at sidling, she’d be able to slip in and out of this battlefield more or less at will and shoot from her pick of places. The last of the undead had gone off to chase my knights in the distance, so unless the Revenants caught up we were safe to retreat. Best hurry just in case. I wasn’t looking forward to limping all the way, but – huh. Zombie the Sixth nonchalantly trotted up to my side, seemingly unworried by the skirmishing that’d taken place since we last saw each other. The purebred zancada slowed at my side, as if inviting me to saddle up again.
“Good horse,” I praised, genuinely impressed.
Might be I’d still get some use of him living after all. I slid a boot into a stirrup and dragged myself back into the saddle, speeding away back into the woods. With Archer harassing the enemy we ought to be able to retreat in relative peace, I figured, but there was no point in wasting time.
We still had a few raids in us before exhaustion set in.
“There’s a saying in back home, Catherine,” Adjutant gravelled in Kharsum. ” It goes ‘a hunter cannot carry a cookpot’.”
I leaned back into my seat in the tent that soldiers had raised for me in the heart of the Boot, along with those of a few other high officers. Sipping at a mug of tea, I was wishing I’d taken up Indrani on her offer of a massage even though odds were that would have devolved in more strenuous activity. After most of a day riding and fighting, my entire body felt like one throbbing bruise and no quantity of herbal brew was going to fix that.
“I mean, depends on the hunter,” I mused. “But I’m guessing I’m missing some of the nuances.”
Hakram was seated in his wheelchair, but all the same he was looking rather different: he had, after all two legs again. The prosthetic leg looked grim, all grey iron and leather, but it was him who’d chosen the appearance – he’d turned down the appearance of flesh or even a more polished casing in metal. It was still closed enough I couldn’t see the enchanted strands of copper that’d been tied to his muscles, fooling his body into thinking there was still a flesh leg to use, but the articulations around the ankle could be glimpsed. Now and then he moved the foot, as if to check that he still could. He couldn’t actually walk on this, not yet. There was still need of an operation on the hip to fix the cut bones there and shore it up so the pressure wouldn’t damage his side.
This was a first step, and the operation had been done in part so see if there would be any trouble with his body acclimating to the prosthetic. Masego would have preferred starting with the arm, but Hakram had been adamant otherwise. I could see both sides. Zeze wanted to minimize the risk, as if disease or spellrot took the arm would be much easier to heal, while Adjutant knew that starting with the arm instead of a leg meant at least two more months before he could begin trying to walk with crutches. Masego had insisted on leaving time for recovery between the surgeries so the body would be strained as little as possible and the chances of rejecting the limbs were lowest. Still, in the end it was a choice that was Hakram’s alone to make.
So long as he knew the risks, it was not my or anyone else’s place to gainsay his decision.
“It is a figure of speech,” Hakram said. “Those specific words for hunter and cookpot were picked because they sound like those for swift and slow, respectively. It means even victory weighs you down, if you’re not careful.”
Cookpot, huh. We both knew it wasn’t just mutton that ended up in there. Ah, implied cannibalism. That backbone of ancient orcish wisdom.
“Not the most promising of segues after I asked you to summarize our scouting reports,” I drily noted. “Shall I take it things aren’t exactly looking up?”
“This isn’t the war to fight, if you’re looking for pleasant turns,” Hakram snorted. “And my people are still taking in reports as we speak, so take all this with a grain of salt.”
My brow rose.
“Wow,” I said. “It must be really bad if you’re prefacing this much.”
“You did exactly what you set out to achieve,” Adjutant gallantly set. “Which was provoke the columns headed towards the Iron Prince into battle here.”
“So we drew them in,” I warily said. “That was the plan. What’s the issue?”
“You drew them in,” Adjutant repeated.
“You drew them all in,” Adjutant clarified. “As far as we can tell there’s not a single warband, battalion or even individual construct east of us that’s not headed towards Maillac as quick as its legs can carry it.”
I paused, glancing down at the mug of tea that was inexplicably not aragh. A shameful oversight, that.
“Well,” I faintly said. “Klaus and our reinforcements should be winning their battle handily, at least.”
I’d been a little worried that even the raids by the Order of Broken Bells wouldn’t be enough to convince Keter to keep its eye on us, that the Dead King would write off the losses and still try to concentrate his forces against the Prince of Hannoven while we bled him, but it seemed like my seasoned pessimism had come all the way around and somehow become a different kind of naïve optimism. It was almost like doing magic, I thought, except for the part where every part of this was terrible.
“I have mastered a new and terrible art,” I mused, going fishing through faded lessons on Old Miezan. “Fortunomancy, I believe it would be called.”
“That would be luck magic,” Hakram commented. “Which would be useful, and I believe is actually practiced in some parts of southern Procer under a different name. You’re looking for infelicitomancy, which would be the branch of sorcery entirely about bad luck.”
“Thank you, Adjutant,” I gravely replied. “I would offer you my blessing for your service in this matter, but I fear a lightning strike would not be far.”
“They never are, when Masego’s around,” he agreed. “Though considering we’re about to be swimming up to our necks in undead, perhaps we could do with a few more.”
I grimaced, because that was too true for words.
“What kind of numbers are we looking at?” I asked.
“Depend on how long we fight,” Hakram said. “The first skirmishers will arrive by Early Bell, we reckon, but the first assault shouldn’t come until midday. Maybe twenty thousand, for that first wave?”
We could handle twenty thousand. Even if you discounted the Order of Broken Bells entirely, it was only a two to one numbers advantage for the dead while my people were properly dug-in and ready. The trouble would be that this wasn’t the whole battle, it was just the first fucking wave. It’d get worse, much worse. And unlike the skeletons my people would tire the longer it lasted.
“Do we have an opening for retreat?” I asked.
That would be the key. If we were at genuine risked of being surrounded and wiped out – or close enough – during a retreat into the Twilight Ways then I’d have to call an early retreat. Which might be the point, I thought. The Dead King’s calling my bluff, and if I retreat now he’ll hack at Klaus’ back while having lost less than a day’s worth of march.
“Between the second and the third wave, there should be a beat of four to six hours before the enemy can gather sufficient strength to be a threat,” Hakram gravelled. “If we use our pharos device it should be enough.”
Given our very limited stock of those I was always reluctant to use them, but this was a dire situation and the Iron Prince would have several of them with his army anyway. I’d swallow the loos, considering the circumstances.
“Second wave?” I asked.
“Thirty to forty thousand,” Adjutant said. “At least. Constructs in significant numbers. And while I cannot be sure, I’d be surprised if most of the Revenants with the columns couldn’t make in there in time as well.”
So, to make it out without being badly mauled then we would need to beat two armies outnumbering us significantly in the same day, and beat them badly enough that the losses inflicted meant the enemy would not have the numbers to press us significantly while we retreated back into the Twilight Ways. We would, no doubt, also be facing the latest batch of horrors from Keter and some of the Dead King’s finest Revenants. I set down my mug of tea, my hand surprisingly steady considering what lay ahead of us.
“Well,” I smiled, hard and toothy. “You know our policy when it comes scraps like this, Adjutant. I see no reason to change it at so late an hour.”
“Let them take a swing?” Hakram Deadhand asked, baring sharp fangs.
“Let them take a swing,” I softly agreed. “There are still graves we have yet to fill.”