“Kill a man and they will call you a murderer. Kill a hundred and it is a massacre, slaughter a thousand and it will be war. But kill a hundred thousand, a million? That carnage is the sole province of gods. Ancient Keter revealed this truth for all to see: apotheosis is simply bloodshed beyond mortal ken.”– Kayode Owusu, Warlock under Dread Emperors Vindictive I and Nihilis
I slept through the beginning of the Battle of Maillac’s Boot.
Adjutant’s prediction of the first enemy skirmishers arriving by Early Bell proved to be somewhat optimistic, as the first skulkers were caught half past Midnight Bell instead. Ghouls out front instead of skeletons, a sure sign that something with brains was planning out the offensive – they were significantly better at keeping out of sight. Pickler’s wall on the peninsula was done and the palisade raised to the south but the fort guarding the northern shore had not yet been finished and so it was there that the ghouls tried to slip in. They got caught by goblin legionaries, fangs and claws proving no match for knives and crossbows when they came attached to a pair of eyes that could see in the dark.
It was only the first of the enemy’s probes at our defences under cover of night, which my commanders had well known. Watches were doubled and magelights brought out as lone ghouls turned into packs swimming through the muck and skeletons began to march at the bottom of the swamp. An assault on the palisade was handily thrown back, though worryingly enough the ghouls had been more interested in clawing at the wood than climbing up to assault my soldiers. The Boot itself was only tried more cautiously, ghoul packs revealing themselves several times in the distance in an attempt to bait out fire from our engines.
Pickler’s boys had better discipline than that, thankfully, so despite their efforts the enemy were kept in the dark about our range and the nature of our engines. One of Hune’s legates, who went by the name of Paltry, had been in command at the time and he’d requested the Order of Broken Bells to send patrols along the shoreline just in case. They found no enemies, however, and the dead bade their time with only a few more minor attacks under cover of dark. The first genuine assault came halfway past Early Bell, and even if I’d not already been breaking my fast while reading reports the ruckus of it would have woken me.
I hastily scarfed down the rest of my eggs – weren’t as good now that Hakram wasn’t the one cooking them, no one else got the seasoning quite right – and snatched up my staff before limping out in to the cold morning light, running into the secretary from the phalanges that Adjutant had sent to speak to me. An assault on the palisade, the young woman told me, by skeleton mages and ghouls.
“Reinforcements were already being sent in when I left,” she said, tucking back a curl of dark hair just a little too long to be allowed under Army regulations.
The adjunct secretariat weren’t part of the Army of Callow, though, I reminded myself. They were Hakram’s and no one else’s, though he’d often drawn on my armies for recruitment.
“The assault will have been driven back by the time we can arrive, Your Majesty,” she continued, “so the Lord Adjutant suggests that you finish your breakfast instead of-“
“I left a mug of tea in there,” I mused, “have it brought to the palisade, would you?”
I tore open a gate into Twilight and stepped through, the warmer breeze of that journeyer’s realm a pleasant change from the clime of Hainaut. While limping my way there would have taken me too long and there was no denying it, I had a shortcut at hand. Wasn’t hard to make it there, the starlit compass guiding my steps, and I limped out of a portal to the sight of a dozen crossbows and twice as many swords pointed at me. I smiled approvingly at the sight, eyes scanning our surroundings for a threat.
“At ease,” I said.
I’d aimed to come out at ground level, since there might be fighting on the palisade walkway, but there was no sight of the dead there. Wasn’t hard to hazard a guess as to why, given that the Grey Pilgrim was up there and healing a captain whose eyes and cheek looked like it had quite literally been bitten off. I left him to that for the moment, instead looking for an officer among the crowd just now beginning to put away their weapons. There was a sergeant, stout orc lad with dark green skin and the kind of vivid scar across his nose that his people highly prized as display of strength.
“Sergeant, your name?” I asked.
“Alvar, ma’am,” the lieutenant hastily replied, throwing in a formal salute.
His example was followed by the rest of the line, as if they were only now remembering they were in front of a queen.
“Sergeant Alvar, report,” I ordered.
“At least two hundred ghouls and a tenth of mages, ma’am,” the orc said. “Ghouls came out first, to draw fire from our mages and crossbows, then the skeletons popped out to lob fireballs and rot curses at the palisade. The Grey Pilgrim popped up to smash them, though, took barely a moment.”
My eyes narrowed. Had Keter narrowed in on here being the weak point of my defences, then? Ten mages wasn’t a large amount, in the greater scheme of things, but the generals of the Kingdom of the Dead were not usually prone to tossing their like into the grinder without purpose. Mages were a lot harder for the Dead King to get his hands on than footmen, and in some ways they formed the backbone of his armies.
“How’d the palisade hold up?” I asked.
“Our sappers say the wardstones dulled the curses but the fireballs scorched the wood some,” Sergeant Alvar said. “If this place weren’t so wet the wood might have caught fire.”
“Lucky us I picked this miserable hole to fight in, then,” I drily said. “We’ve got swamp water enough to drown the work of a hundred mages.”
“Wouldn’t mind fighting on a sunny Free Cities beach one of these days, ma’am,” a soldier called out. “Just saying.”
“You and me both, soldier,” I snorted. “But if the Enemy was smart enough to head there, wouldn’t it be smart enough to avoid fighting us in the first place?”
That got a few appreciative laughs along with blades on shields. Bravado was always a hit with my rank a file, and it wasn’t like they’d not earned the right to brag. What other army of our age could boast campaigns to match those of my Army of Callow? I clapped Sergeant Alvar’s shoulder and sent the soldiers back to their duty, as from the corner of my eye I saw that Tariq was done healing my captain. Good, hadn’t wanted to get in the way of that. If the man could get treatment from the finest living wielder of Light instead of one of our own priests, far be it from me to spoil that. Fine healers as the priests of the House Insurgent were, they weren’t the Peregrine.
It wasn’t a long walk, even hobbling, and I wasted no time. When the freshly-healed captain began to head my way I shook my head, having already gotten as much of a report as I needed to. Tariq didn’t even look like he was out of breath, ever spry for his lengthening age. I broke the silence first.
“My thanks for healing my people,” I acknowledged.
“Would that I could do more,” the Pilgrim said.
In most people I would have called it a courtesy, a formula, but when it came to the old man I suspected it was entirely sincere.
“The tide’s pulling in,” I said. “Our foe took the bait.”
“So I’ve heard,” Tariq murmured. “Scourges, too?”
“Drake and Mantle,” I said. “But there’ll be more Revenants.”
There always were.
“More of the Scourges as well,” the old man said. “A third to round them out, that is the Enemy’s way. Varlet or the Archmage.”
Right, heroes insisted on calling Tumult the ‘Archmage’, as if that description didn’t also fit quite a few of our own finest practitioners. I’d grant them that the Revenant in question had an uncannily broad arsenal of sorcery to call on, but his particular fondness for large-scale workings that caused chaos in the ranks meant my own people’s name for him seem more apt in my eyes.
“I’d say we’ve seen no sign of Varlet,” I sighed, “but that’s rather the point with that one, isn’t it?”
The Thief of Star had been like Vivienne back in the day, befitting the common root of their Name: unnaturally skilled in stealth and infiltration, but not all that difficult to deal with in an open fight. The Varlet, as we called that grey-cloaked thing, had clearly been more on the assassin end of the sneaky Named scale. It would have been a fucking headache to deal with even if it didn’t drench everything it used in particularly lethal poisons. At least we shouldn’t be dealing with the Hawk anytime soon. After she’d handily lost an archer’s duel against Indrani the Dead King had sent her out east instead, to be Rozala Malanza’s headache instead of mine.
“They will come for you, Queen Catherine,” Tariq quietly said. “You have become one of the keystones of the Grand Alliance, since the Peace of Salia. Your death would damage it deeply.”
“They always come,” I shrugged. “I yet draw breath anyway, and I’ll not tremble at the shadow of dead Named.”
“I meant no offence,” the Pilgrim said, “only that wherever you make your stand, foes will be drawn.”
“I planned with that in mind,” I assured him. “Which brings me to a request.”
“I’m listening, Black Queen, though I make no promises,” the old man said, faintly smiling.
I somehow got the impression he was having a laugh at my expense, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint how.
“I want you to stay here, during the battle,” I said. “I know you like to wander and that the real blow might just fall elsewhere in our defences, but your presence would anchor this flank.”
“In matters of war, I am at your disposal,” Tariq frankly said. “I have never led armies, while your skill in such endeavours is well-known.”
I nodded my thanks, but before I could speak I caught movement from the corner of my eye. Ah, I thought. Timing’s about right I suppose. A dark-haired young woman hastily made her way up the ramp, the skeletal hand she wore as a pin revealing her rank among the phalanges, and with a relieved expression pressed a steaming mug of herbal tea into my hands.
“Just in time,” I smiled as she bowed. “Thank you.”
The Grey Pilgrim cast me a look that did not know whether it wanted to be impressed or disbelieving.
“Always one step ahead, Tariq,” I lied, and sipped at my tea.
The dead had begun massing in significant numbers halfway past Morning Bell.
Skirmishes had kept happening along our defence lines – mostly the Boot and the palisade so far – even as I sat in on a meeting of the Second Army’s general staff, letting the well-oiled machinery that General Hune had turned them into go through the necessary motions. The Second was my force that’d stayed closest to the original mould of the Legions of Terror, both because of Hune’s personal leanings and because a lot of its high officers were originally from the Legions of Terror. And not the Fifteenth, which had come up with me, but those legions that’d joined me after the Folly. The rank and file were much like that of other hosts in my service, a backbone of legionaries bolstered by larger numbers of Callowan recruits, but the culture among the officers here was still very much that of the Legions. It was at once familiar and discomforting, like seeing an old friend in a nephew’s face.
Indrani helped me put my armour on, something that still felt half-wrong. I’d likely never return two wearing full plate, much as I occasionally wished I could, but I’d managed to strike a balance between protection on compromise. Over an aketon I kept to a cuirass and upper vambraces, with a long tasset and a pair of good greaves. An open-face barbute with slightly gilding evoking a crown over my brow finished the set, without even a gorget to link the breastplate and the helm. Any more weight than what I wore and my limp would start becoming a hindrance. The Mantle of Woe closed over my shoulders, hood down and with an affectionate kiss on the side of the neck Archer left me to my duties while departing for hers.
A bare hour before Morning Bell, under bleary morning light, the dead began their advance. I’d drifted towards the miraculous wall built by my sappers on the shores of the Boot so that I might have a better look at the enemy’s offensive, and the walkway there did not disappoint. Wherever the water was low and mud shallow, skeletons in arms could be glimpsed marching through the mire. Where the bottom was deeper sometimes all that could be seen was the tip of spears and helms, dragged forward against the muck. The attack came in three prongs, I saw the advance continued. The largest of the forces was coming for the Boot, straight at us, but another was headed south towards the palisade.
The third looked ready to skim the ‘sole’ of the Boot so it could dip down into the shallows between the peninsula and the northern shoreline, which had me grimacing. Our fort there was finished but I’d been hoping the roundabout route to there would convince the enemy to focus their efforts on the better-defended Boot instead. The enemy general was not unskilled, then. Still, I saw no reason to leave my position at the moment. With the Pilgrim bolstering the palisade and the Blessed Artificer at the fort, or flanks should be solidly anchored for now. It was only when the opposition got serious about cracking our defences that the real trouble would start.
“Ma’am, it looks like the enemy’s in range of our mages.”
I glanced at the captain addressing me, a young woman by the name of Jules Farrier – no relation to the man who’d once been the commander of my Gallowborne, I’d asked – and cocked an eyebrow.
“It’s your command, captain,” I said. “I’m only here to keep an eye on things. The order’s yours to give.”
“Yes ma’am,” she stiffly replied.
I left her to it, eyes still on the dead approaching through the swamp. Captain Farrier had been right, now that the skeletons were reaching swamplands where the depth left their upper body visible it was time for the fireballs to begin. All along the baked brick wall that Pickler had raised, incantations rose and fire bloomed. It was a work of art, the fireball formula that the War College taught. Masego liked to rag on in, but he was coming at it from the wrong direction. He saw one spell being used for a variety of purposes improperly when he knew a spare formula more apt to each purpose, but then he was the Warlock’s son. The former Apprentice. Even among highborn mages, nine tenths would not get an education to equal his. The Legion formula was, on the other hand, simple enough that every mage in the service could learn it yet flexible enough that it could be adapted to dozens of different situations. Fighting skeletons, fire itself was only of limited use. Scorching bone and armour accomplished little.
Yet the formula could be tinkered with so that the fireball grew dense, the impact more powerful, and that made a dent into the Bones.
Like a wave of fire the spells went out, smashing into the skeletons and splashing into the scum water with hissing vapour. The enemy’s advance staggered, but we had too few mages and there were too many enemies: they could not be stopped like this, only slowed. It was still enough to set up a good killing field for our siege engines, our copperstone ballistas beginning measured fire into clumps of skeletons. Given how many undead we’d be facing before day’s end, we couldn’t afford to just shoot at every shadow.
It would have been easy to see the casualties mount on the enemy side without them even getting close enough to swing at our walls and take it as the herald of overwhelming victory. I knew better. For one, it was telling that even in such small numbers – there couldn’t be more than three thousand divided between the three offensive – we couldn’t outright dam the tide. More and more skeletons were slipping through our fire with every heartbeat, coming ever closer to the walls. But beyond that I knew well that in war there were precious few absolute advantages, mostly comparative ones. Our advantage here and now, the walls and the terrain and the preparations, they weren’t something to sneer at.
But they were needed to make up for the overwhelming numbers and tirelessness of our enemy in the first place, to make this battle more than a ceremonious suicide, so those initial beats of the battle when our advantages came into play and the enemy’s hadn’t weren’t to be counted on. This was going to get ugly when the bolts ran out, when the magics fizzled and my people were exhausted from hours of hard fighting. Anything before that was just our attempt to inflict enough damage on the enemy we got to survive the hard part. By either luck or fate, the first skeleton to make it to the bottom of our wall started scaling it not even a foot to my left. Liming to the edge of the rampart, I pointed my staff downwards and offered a rueful smile.
“Bad luck,” I told it, and let loose with Night.
It was mostly luck that I was in the fort when the attack hit.
The fighting at the walls had remained steady but the peril was not great: between the concentration of mages and the rotations of fresh soldiers, we were keeping the dead at bay handily. I’d gotten a report that it’d been trickier at the palisade, but between a company of heavies being brought out and the Grey Pilgrim intervening they’d kept it under control. The assault from the shallows had been comparatively easier, the numbers of the attackers having been thinned by fire from the Boot before they got there. It was the sole front where I’d never gone, though, so I’d elected to have a look. More for morale purposes than because the fight needed me, but morale would count for quite a bit in the coming hours.
The fort itself was of classical Legion layout, square with a forward palisade and a bastion deeper in. Gates on four sides so that legionaries could quickly deploy and in our case two smaller barricades had been added on the sides so that scorpions could be raised on heights and pointed at the shallows. There was some fighting on the shores when I stepped out of a gate within the fort, but nothing all that threatening – the dead were just keeping up the pressure by tossing corpses at our shield wall defending the shore. The Blessed Artificer had stepped in to bring down a great lighting strike of Light at enemy mages, but not involved herself since. I could only approve, given the finite nature of what she could contribute to a fight, and told her as much.
“It seems callous not to use all that I can,” Adanna of Smyrna admitted. “There have been deaths, and some of these I might have prevented.”
My opinion of her character went up a notch.
“They know the risks of their trade,” I replied, not hiding my pride. “They’re Army of Callow, they understand sometimes you have to bleed early to win the fight.”
The dark-skinned heroine looked unconvinced, but not even her remarkable amount of gall would allow her to argue with a queen about her own soldiers.
“If you sa-“
Her answer was interrupted by crashes and shouts coming from the shoreline, both out heads whipping about. I couldn’t see it all from where I stood, even with the front gates open, but I could see that some sort of large snake construct had just emerged from the shallows and was now unhinging its jaw.
“Later,” I cut in, already limping forward.
Legionaries parted for me as I made my way out of the fort, even when they were hurrying out as reinforcements, and I hastened to take a better look. I cursed in Kharsum. A new kind of construct, by the looks of it: much smaller than the great snakes used in the sieges of Twilight’s Pass, but built along the same lines. More a carrier of troops and battering ram than anything else, but no less dangerous for it. Half a dozen had hit the beaches simultaneously and were now pouring out skeletons into the gaps of my shield wall. These were made for the swamps of Hainaut, I thought. An answer to both the difficulties of the terrain and our growing advantage at range. We hadn’t been the only ones to prepare for this campaign.
“Hazaak,” the Blessed Artificer snarled, raising a short copper spear.
She’d caught up to me without my even noticing. Not to be outdone, I drew deep on Night even as Light bloomed around the short spear. Where the Artificer struck with burning might, a great crackling spear of roiling Light falling on one of the snakes, I instead took a more measured approach: shadows slithered along the ground and suddenly thrust up, threading through the open maws of three of the constructs and forcefully snapping them shut.
“Priests, on the three bound,” I calmly said, pitching my voice so it’d be heard.
The House Insurgent dutifully obeyed, Light begin to tear at the wiggling great snakes in sharp spears even as Adanna reached for another of her instruments. I began to shape a great ball of blackflame so ram down the maw of one of the remaining snakes when I caught sight of flicker of movement to my left. Instinct had me redirecting my fire there and I caught the Revenant in the stomach, scorching its thin frame as it stumbled on the ground. It looked like any other Bone, little more than a corpse in ancient armour, but none of those would have withstood the quantity of blackflame I’d just tossed at it.
“Revenant,” I noted. “Won’t be the only one.”
Already I was weaving a follow-up, threads binding the legs of the down Revenant together as I prepared a larger mass of blackflame above its body – which exploded, a curse tearing through them.
“Mantle,” I snarled, eyes flitting about.
I found her in the water, only the upper half of her armoured form above the mire. The dull, black plate steel plate set with emeralds and silver inscriptions couldn’t be confused for anyone else, not the thick green cloak whose hood obscured the visor of her helm. Another snake went up in a pillar of white flames, the Artificer striking without hesitation, but during my heartbeat of distraction the Revenant on the ground had broken its bonds. With surprising fluidity it struck out at the heroine, shortsword arcing for her neck, but my hand was steady and my aim true – my own blade caught it in time, an inch from biting into Adanna’s unprotected flesh.
Gods, would it kill the woman to wear some fucking armour?
“I will take the fallen priestess,” the Blessed Artificer mildly said. “I take offence the use her powers have found.”
“Be my guest,” I grinned. “I’ll handle our little friend here.”
The Revenant withdrew its blade and took a step back, but it’d forgotten this wasn’t a duel and it was behind my godsdamned lines: two big orc heavies smashed into its back with their greatshields, making it stumble, and I took the opening. I struck high and in a heavy chop, which it caught with its blade and deftly slid so my momentum dragged me into its guard, but before it could rotate its wrist and disarm me my deadwood staff smashed into the side of its head. Though beyond paid it still stumbled, and with a grunt I drew back my blade to strike again – weaving Night along the length. With a clean cut I sent its helmeted head rolling, even as Adanna was wreathed with blinding light.
I shielded my eyes with my hood, offering a grin to the two heavies that’d come to help.
“This one counts as half-yours,” I told them. “Tell your lieutenant you’re up for commendation.”
Both grinned back like big ugly green cats, returning enthusiastic calls of Warlord, but even as I bumped shoulders against them in a friendly manner I was already taking in the few bits of fighting I’d missed. Mantle had ripped up my working on the snakes, though I’d been too distracted to noticed, but the fight with the Artificer wasn’t going well for her at all. She’d already been forced to pull out a globe of smooth, mirror-like darkness I’d only ever seen her use when hard pressed. Meanwhile, between the Artificer and the House Insurgent there were only to great snakes left and the mages were focusing their efforts on plugging the breaches so that the heavies could fill them. With a triumphant cry Adanna crushed a glass baton in her fist and a rain of Light spears fell on the globe of darkness, shattering it with a keening scream. Under it there was no trace of Mantle, who must have legged it when the attack began going south.
I glanced at the Blessed Artificer appreciatively.
“You’re definitely worth keeping around,” I said. “She’s a tricky opponent, for me.”
Adanna of Smyrna straightened proudly.
“It is my duty to-“
In the distance, to the south, a few gouts of red went up. Signal spells, asking for reinforcements. Shit, they must have hit the palisade as well.
“Later,” I amusedly told the Artificer, opening a gate and stepping through it.
The first thing I heard stepping out of the Twilight Ways had an involuntary shiver going up my spine.
“Shine,” the Grey Pilgrim coldly said.
I shielded my eyes with the flat of by blade, but not quite quickly enough the terrifyingly bright light I glimpsed did not blind me. I cursed, head ringing and eyes burning, and almost stumbled into a soldier. I must have come out near a formation. It was too long for comfort before I could see again, but when I did what my restored vision showed was a mixed bag. On one hand, there was a gaping hole in the palisade about ten feet wide. Broken logs had been brought forward to plug it, but the undead were trying to push through the opening and only narrowly being held back by a hasty shield wall. On the other hand, the smoking skeleton at Tariq’s feet that was still holding a familiar claymore could not be anything but the Drake.
It looked like getting a blast of the Peregrine’s most powerful aspect from up close was too much for even that monster’s regeneration to take, because while some specks of flesh were reappearing on the bones it was nothing more than that.
“Your Majesty,” Tariq mildly greeted me. “If you would handle the breach, I am not yet finished with this one.”
“Hey, I’m not one to argue with a smoking corpse,” I shrugged as I began to gather Night. “Do as you will.”
I was in no way inclined to keep to subtle means when dealing with an outright breach, so this time I simply began to gather a few dozen great balls of blackflame above the undead trying to mash through my shield wall. Impatiently I struck at the ground with my staff, the balls smashing downwards and exploding in great gouts of black fire. Immediately the pressure slackened and my soldiers pushed the enemy back, enough that sappers were able to bring out panels and began repairing the breach. I tossed another great gout of fire at the dead to push them back in the water long enough for the holes to be plugged, then let the captains in charge to handle the rest. I glanced at Tariq, who’d nailed the remains of the Drake to the ground with nails of Light and was now opening a gate into the Twilight Ways beneath him. That might actually do the trick, I mentally conceded. A sudden contortion had the skeleton’s skull snap upwards and something that glinted in the light flew. A tooth?
I immediately wove Night to catch it, even as Tariq kicked the skeleton into Twilight and the bones turned to dust, but someone else beat me to it. One of my soldiers, a young man who grinned at his own swift reflexes. He twitched, a heartbeat later.
“No,” I snarled.
The soldier smirked at me and winked, then ran for it. I sent a javelin of Night into the back of his knee, my soldiers crying out in dismay at the sight of one of theirs getting shot in the back. But though the soldiers stumbled the shredded flesh grew back in a heartbeat. The Pilgrim’s beam of Light incinerated armour and muscle alike, but it wasn’t enough. Still burning with pale flames as he deftly avoided the Night harpoon I threw at his back, the reborn Drake threw himself over the edge of the palisade and into the mass of undead. I went up the ramp and took out my anger on the undead in a storm of black flames, but the bastard was in the wind. Again. My fingers clenched around my staff until the knuckles went white.
My soldiers gave me a wide berth, but Tariq was less wary of the dark mood laid bare on my face.
“It’s not the last of him we’ll see today,” the Grey Pilgrim simply said. “And we know the trick, now.”
I made myself breathe out, reaching for calm, and looked up at the sky. The sun had risen higher than I’d expected, we must be close to Noon Bell by now. Gods, barely noon and the fighting was likely to last until dark. Above the Boot, streaks of yellow went up. Constructs sighted. I squared my shoulders.
“Next time,” I agreed, and opened a gate.
As always, there was to be no rest for the wicked.