“No matter how long you glare at the sun, it will not blink first.”– Taghreb saying
I missed using a shield.
It didn’t really fit with my fighting style anymore – digging in when you had a bad leg was a good way to trip and stumble into a very stupid death – but there’d been something both comforting and satisfying about having a large slab of metal to put between myself and the enemy. Now I had to keep my eye on the enemy at all times, to gauge and parry and manoeuver without rest. Just taking the hit and then smashing my foes had been both simpler and, honesty compelled me to admit, viscerally satisfying in a way that all this finesse and calculation wasn’t. I knew a thing or two about pulling strings, these days, but I suspected that deep down it was the lessons of the Pit that’d always stay engraved in bones: blood and sinew, the vicious satisfaction of just decking someone in the face.
Still, it felt good to engage sword in hand. I slapped aside the skeleton’s blow – strong but slow, and so very predictable – and smashed its bare skull with the pommel of my sword, a shiver of Night accompanying the crack of bone breaking. The necromancy keeping it animate broke and the pile of bones collapsed, leaving me free to cast a glance around. The enemy had successfully scaled the wall in the centre stretch after making a ramp out of dead, wet ghouls that fireballs couldn’t touch but the other two attempts at the extremities of the Boot’s ‘sole’ had failed when the Light of House Insurgent incinerated the attempts in a way that magefire could not.
Now even here, where we’d been taken by surprise, the last of the dead were being put down as I watched. It’d not been a major setback, all in all, with perhaps only two hundred skeletons and ghouls making it up here before they were surrounded and contained, but it’d had the potential to turn dangerous. If the enemy had kept pouring troops there, it could have turned into a beachhead. Yet I found, even as my soldiers began to cheer our temporary victory, that my heart did not lift. My eyes remained on the silhouettes in the distance, the utterly still ranks of the dead standing just outside of the range of our ballistas.
Even though this had been a weak foothold, and made in a place where my army would have rather sharp teeth in its counterattack – our defences were geared around holding the peninsula first and foremost, since we’d known it would likely face the worst of the assaults – it had been a foothold. The first the enemy had managed to keep since they’d begun their attacks this morning. Yet the enemy general had not reinforced his attacking force after sending that first wave of three thousand or so, leaving the three prongs to fail and be wiped out. Most of the enemy army had never engaged, and was watching us in silence even now. Waiting, patient as only the soldiers of the grave could be.
“What are you up to now?” I murmured, leaning against my staff.
The general I was facing this time was canny in the way that the intelligence behind the Second Battle of Lauzon’s Hollow hadn’t been. That thing with the ghoul ramps? It’d been an adaptation to the fact that, as long as Archer had unravellers to use as arrows, she was a hard counter to Keter’s usual tactic of using large constructs as siege ramps and troop transports. The artefacts were too precious to be used on ghouls, especially when they were being used by the hundreds here. In fact the only constructs we’d seen used so far had been the great snakes that’d beached near the fort, and those had stayed under the water until the very last moment.
We are being tested, I thought, eyes watching the rows of the dead. Three thousand of the most expendable among the undead gathering to face us as Maillac’s Boot had just been tossed at my defences like scraps off a plate, just to test the strengths and weakness of our arrangements. And you sent a handful of a Revenants out, I then thought, to probe what kind of Named there are on our side too. It was a good thing, I grimly thought, that I’d always intended to keep Masego and Akua back as long as possible. Even just the awareness of their presence might have been enough to forewarn my enemy some.
The cheers washed over me and I painted a smile on my face, raising my sword in victory to roars of approval, but the joy did not reach my eyes. I wasn’t so sure we’d truly gotten the better out of this round, not in the way that mattered, and that unsettled me. Still, I could hardly bemoan about what looked like a win to most of my soldiers. I went around and gave praise and encouragement where they should go, limping along the rampart to harden the spine of my soldiers before the next assault. Time passed and the sun kept rising in the sky, the hour slowly edging away from Morning Bell and towards Noon Bell, and though the quiet on the fronts was pleasing to my soldier it had dread slowly settling in my stomach.
We’d been seen through.
Under the excuse of having a drink of water – the sun was hammering down hard, and we were all baking in our helmets – I left the wall and settled further in, having discreetly sent for General Hune. I stood in the shadow cast by the ogre, pulling at a canteen, and wiped my mouth as I nodded back to her greetings.
“They’re not attacking,” I bluntly said.
I wasn’t saying anything she or anyone with eyes didn’t already know, but the two of us knew the danger represented by that sentence. We’d been counting on our enemy hitting us as soon as it could assemble a wave, trying to grind us down through constant battle, but instead the opposition had called a halt after a single major assault.
“They must be waiting for the second wave to arrive,” General Hune said. “That complicates matters, Your Majesty.”
It fucking well did. For one, we wouldn’t be dealing with twenty thousand undead and then later that day thirty – or perhaps even forty – thousand more. The opposition was gathering for a single sweep, an overwhelming wave. That was… problematic. It wasn’t like we’d not considered the possibility that the enemy would try to besiege us instead of battle on our terms, but we’d never meant to actually stay here long enough for it to be an issue. The plan had been to break the first two waves and then evacuate before the third could arrive, using the pharos device to open a large enough amount of gates for it to be feasible, but this changed things. The moment we actually used the device, now, then the enemy would begin its attack. Whoever the leading commander on the other side was, they’d clearly grasped the core weakness of my position: an evacuation through the Twilight Ways when under assault meant that at least my rearguard was going to get slaughtered.
Facing fifty thousand dead, though, and all the horrors Keter had to unleash? Shit, we’d maybe lose a third of the ten thousand soldiers of the Second Army on our way out.There’d be a point in the battle where three thousand or so soldiers would be trying to squeeze through the gates while surrounded on all sides and without the support of the rest of the army. Juniper had run war games, and when that tipping point was reached what ensued was… grim, to say the least. Fuck. If the dead had been intending on standing there and doing nothing as we left I would have waved them on my way out and called it a day, but there was no way they’d be willing to do me that favour.
“Your opinion?” I asked.
“We must prepare for a fighting retreat into the ways and use the pharos device the moment our forces are in place,” General Hune replied without hesitation. “Within the hour at most. The second wave will begin arriving soon, and it will only get worse from there.”
I hummed noncommittally. I got from her words that the ogre general was seeing this as a choice needing to be made between two fighting retreats: one begun now, while the enemy was not yet fully gathered, or one begun later when it had. There would be no extracting ourselves from this without losing a few fingers. Much as I did not like to consider it, I honestly wasn’t sure she was wrong. We’d made plans for the enemy showing restraint, so it wasn’t like we were going into this blind – officers had been briefed, we’d even planned out which parts of the defences should be abandoned first – but we’d never really considered that the enemy would just toss three thousand expendables at us and then just… stand there.
Even our worst case had the enemy pulling out after effective losses of half its number, choosing to bolster the second wave rather than waste the rest of its numbers on a fruitless assault.
“We could attempt to break out towards the east,” I finally said.
“I will obey that order if it is given,” General Hune blandly replied.
I cocked an eyebrow.
“But,” I said, invitation implicit.
“It is my opinion that we would find ourselves in the same situation as now in a day, only without the fortifications and retreat plan,” Hune said. “Even going on the offensive and attempting to smash the first wave before the second arrives would be a superior option, to my eye. We would incur losses, but should we then retreat to our fortifications our original plan could then be resumed, if at a disadvantage.”
I grimaced. Taking a swing at the dead in the swamp wasn’t really something I wanted to do unless there was no other option: the undead would be better at fighting in the muck, and it wasn’t like Keter had even been shy about poisoning water. No, an attack of my infantry into that mire was a dead end. And yet I had some difficulty resigning myself to making a decision that would be, in essence, writing off a third of the Second Army. The thought had me clenching my fingers, even though the cold thing that lay at the heart of me knew that I’d give the order if I had to, but I would not bend my neck to this ending before first attempting otherwise.
“We’ll attempt to force them into an attack first,” I said. “My people have been working on a project that might leave them no other option – and even if they manage to withstand it, we’ll first be able to thin the herd before retreating.”
General Hune’s eyes narrowed.
“Then Your Majesty agrees that a retreat is in order,” she said.
“I do,” I admitted. “And you’ll need to inform your officer cadres we might be headed there. But first I want to see if the dead can be strong-armed into wasting themselves on our walls.”
“And might you do that?” the ogre skeptically asked.
“By making it clear it’s the least wasteful option left to them,” I replied with a hard smile.
It was time to for Masego to come out.
“I’ve not managed to increase the effective range,” Hierophant admitted, “not laterally, at least.”
“Which still leaves vertically,” I grunted. “If the Summoner makes a flying beast and we strap your platform to the back, can you cast?”
He mulled over that for a moment.
“Yes,” Masego finally said. “I cannot promise the same degree of precision that the solid ground would allow for, however.”
“If there’s one good thing about our situation, Zeze,” I said, “it’s that even if you miss, you’ll hit.”
“That sounds like a blatant logical contradiction,” he noted, “but I will take your word for it.”
“Kind of you,” I drily replied. “I’ll be handling the Summoner, so ready your affairs and wait for us on the Boot.”
The Summoner’s reaction to the order was mixed: on one hand, he had cowardly tendencies and preferred not to put himself in great danger. It’d already spread through the ranks that some of the Scourges were here. On the other hand, I’d made it clear that this was a crucial task I’d attend to as well and that’d flattered his self-importance. Still, there was no arguing with a direct order from me when it came to battlefield affairs. The wyvern-construct still had that unearthly glow, but it looked much more sharply defined now. I could make out the shift of muscles when it moved, and there was an animal cunning in its eyes. It was also smart enough to be terrified of Hierophant, which was plain good sense.
The Summoner had warned me that it might get unruly when Masego tied a flat circular stone atop its back, but instead the construct did not dare move a muscle. It behaved around Hierophant the same way a deer would around a lion – frozen and hoping the predator wasn’t hungry today. We took flight without much fanfare, to sparse cheers from my soldiers. I wove an anchor for my feet on the wyvern’s back and added a transparent bubble to shield me from the winds. The Summoner led us towards the enemy ranks, as I’d asked him to, but stayed high in the sky. We’d yet to see buzzards in the area so our flight was not contested, though I doubted that would last forever.
We circled slowly atop the front ranks of the enemy, Masego wresting magic from a few spare artifacts so he might steady himself atop the circular stone. A bubble rather similar to mine formed around him, and I shouted for the Summoner to halt the construct’s flight and make it stay in place. Long, deft fingers began to trace runes in the air as I risked a glance downwards. The dead were splayed out for what must have been the better part of a mile but none were paying attention to us at the moment. Safety through heights? It was true that without buzzards around Keter would find it hard to contest our presence up here. We were high up enough that neither arrows nor javelins were a worry, and magic would be seen long before it became a threat.
“Abyss and firmament,” the Hierophant said, and though his voice was quiet it rippled. “I take the shape of the star and the depth of the pit, borrowing laws high and low.”
Below us, moving as a single entity, seventeen thousand undead heads turned to gaze up at us.
“That can’t be good,” I muttered.
“I have woven curses into hymn, stuffed a heart with straw,” the Hierophant called out, voiced cadenced. “That which is hollow I have raised onto the dais, revered as glorious under three skies and revered by nine corners.”
From below a tide of darkness rose, but I realized after a heartbeat that it was not a ritual. It was a few thousand curses, thrown at us together from as many hands. I clenched my staff closely, hoping to the Hells that Masego was done with that incantation soon.
“Behold,” the Hierophant said.
I winced, covering my ears at the horrid grind that lay behind the word. The Sisters murmured uneasily in the back of my mind.
“Behold,” the Hierophant said, “all ye with eyes, for I have made a god of clay and it is an idol of wrath.”
The sky screamed. There was no other word for it. The air wavered and shrieked and twisted, an alien gleam filling my vision as I pulled down my hood to shield my eyes. As if a god had breathed out in front of us, the wyvern banked wildly and had to struggle not to fall – the Summoner screamed, voice shrilly – but after less than a heartbeat the pressure was all gone. I first glimpsed Masego, panting as he stood surrounded by fading runes, and only after making sure he was fine did I glance down. Gods, I thought. There was a smoking crater in the swamp, maybe a hundred feet wide, and though water was streaking back in it looked like the… smite had baked the very mud. How many undead had been vaporized with that, I wondered. Two, three hundred? Likely more, and a great wave was going through the swamp that toppled more than a few soldiers. Of the curses that had been rising to hit us, there was no trace. Much like, I thought, a child throwing a pebble into the path of falling mountain would not be able to pick it out afterwards.
“Can you do that again?” I asked, tone calm.
“I believe so,” Masego noted. “Though not many times.”
“Then do it,” I ordered with a hard smile.
Power began to gather again, and below us I found exactly what I’d wanted: advancing as one, the dead were headed towards the Second Army. Decisive, I silently praised the enemy general. The moment they’d realized that it was possible we’d just stay up here and hammer them into nothing, they’d abandoned the notion of sieging my army and begun to close the distance. If the dead were too close to my own troops, after all, it’d be risky to keep using this. Still, they weren’t out of the woods yet. I wove Night over my ears and dug my feet in, as Masego’s voice swelled in incantation again, wondering how many shots we’d get in before he was too exhausted to continue.
The answer, as it turned out, was six.
It didn’t matter, as by then the enemy was committed to an assault on all our defences and all that pulling out would accomplish was allow us to smash the undead army as it retreated. We flew back to the Boot, and though I was wary the whole way back there was no ambush. Bo buzzards came out of nowhere, no Revenants were tossed up in the sky. It made sense, I admitted to myself, since we weren’t fighting a field army here so much as a bunch of warbands and marching columns tossed in our direction when we popped out. I supposed it was a testament to how fucking unpleasant of an adversary the Dead King was that even when luck allowed us to get one over him I still ended up unsure it wasn’t a ploy on his part.
“Your service in this campaign has been exemplary,” I told the Summoner after her dismissed his wyvern.
Much as I disliked the man personally, he’d ended up consistently useful. Being unpleasant didn’t mean he shouldn’t get praised, just that it’d irk me to dole it out.
“I am pleased to have my worth recognized by my queen,” the Summoner replied, smirking. “I hope to continue to be of service after these trifles, of course.”
My eyes narrowed. The little shit had been born and raised and Procer, as far as I knew, but he had been insisting he was Callowan for some time. The offer of ‘continued service’ was pretty straightforward, meaning he wanted to settle in Callow after the war and probably expected a lordship to be tacked on to sweeten the deal. Considering he wasn’t all that difficult to deal with and his ambitions seemed relatively limited, I wasn’t necessarily opposed to that. So long as it was a court title with no lands attached. Mind you, that wasn’t my decision alone to make. I wasn’t foisting him off on Vivienne without giving her a say in the matter.
“I look forward to it,” I mildly said, “and will pass along your sentiments to Lady Dartwick.”
“It would be an honour,” the Summoner said, “to make her acquaintance.”
Yeah, that one definitely wanted to settle in Callow after the war. I wasn’t sure I could blame him, considering short of Praes it’d probably end up one of the nations that least minded villains. So long as he stayed loyal to crown and country, it was not an inaccurate assessment for him to figure he’d not only be tolerate but actively protected. If he was loyal then he would be considered as an asset, and Vivienne was of a practical bent when it came to protecting Callowan interests. Some of the decisions I had made she would not ever repeat, but that did not meant she was naïve – just that she was not as good as ignoring the whispers of her conscience.
I escorted Masego to a healer’s tent so he might rest, ignoring his protests, and only then went to join the battle. His exhaustion was not a threat to his health, but the healers were unlikely to let him out of a bed in his state and Zeze’s fathers had drilled into him the paramount importance of not ignoring what your healer told you. It’d been with the addendum that priests were fumbling ignorant cheats and this rule mostly applied to mage healers, but I liked to think the years had mostly weaned Masego out of that instilled disdain.
There was no lack of enemies for me to fight anywhere along the defensive lines, but it was on the Boot that I stayed. Even as swarms of skeletons and ghouls assaulted the walls and my soldiers stubbornly held on the walls, retreating only when officers pulled on their whistles and fresh troops were rotated in, I smothered a smile. This was hard fighting, but it was also a victory of sorts: the enemy and I had stared each other down across this swamp, and with Masego’s help it had been the enemy that blinked first. Now it was bleeding away its strength failing to take our walls, and though it was not without casualties on our side the advantage was decisively ours.
For every soldier we lost they lost four, and our wounded weren’t left to die – they were pulled back, brought to the healer tents. I moved along the wall, sticking to wherever the fight was hardest, and through thrice the enemy earned a foothold atop the wall thrice that foothold was clawed back. As the time passed, though, the lack of Revenants entering the fray began to weigh on me. The opposing general was keeping its trump cards away from us, unwilling to risk them before what was likely to be the decisive stretch: the assault of the second wave. Still, this round went well for us. When it became undeniable than any more lingering would lead to a complete wipeout the enemy broke away, limping back into the swamps under the fire of our mages and the House Insurgent.
I headed towards my general’s tent when the last of the dead walked out of range, intent on hearing casualty reports. Though the official reports were still incomplete, Hune already had estimates when I found her: at least five hundred dead and seven hundred wounded. Even for a well-prepared defensive action, I found the numbers astonishing and told her as much. Her general staff preened, but she was unmoved.
“It is only initial reports, Your Majesty,” General Hune said. “We will see if the real figures remain so flattering.”
“I expect they will,” I said. “The Second Army had yet to fail a single expectation I set out for it.”
Not that I’d set out many, but a little praise could go a long way. Officers gossiped with officers, and that gossip had a way of trickling down to the ranks. After that, though, I headed to my own tent. I’d been fighting sporadically since early morning and drawing on Night regularly, so I was damn exhausted. Since Archer was keeping an eye out for necromantic constructs, still on her perch, it was one of the phalanges that helped me out of my armour. It was now almost an hour past Noon Bell, I learned, and I recalled that we believed the second wave would begin arriving slightly before Afternoon Bell. That still left me at least an hour and change to nap, which I hoped would refresh me when the next round of fighting came.
Gods knew that my leg ached like a bloody wound, at the moment, and staying on my feet would only make it worse. I crawled into bed with strict instructions to wake me if there was another assault, but otherwise leave me to my slumber for at least an hour. Clutching a blanket, I spent the first few moments wondering what my enemy’s plan were and if I would find sleep at all, but before I knew it exhaustion had triumphed over worry: I fell into a deep, dark slumber.
I woke up tasting my sweat against the roof of my mouth, likely stinking all the way up to the Heavens. Most of my affairs were already packed, in deference to the rapidly approaching need to evacuate this place, but there was still a bowl of water for me to rinse myself up a little. It was hardly a wash, but what would be the point? I was headed back into the thick of it anyway, and the afternoon soon would be no more kind than the morning one had been. I’d woken before any of the phalanges could wake me, and found a pair of them standing guard outside my tent.
“I’ll need one of you to help me back into my armour,” I said. “And reports, meanwhile.”
As it turned out, during my hour of sleep I’d missed little. The enemy had pulled back even further than before, and while General Hune believed that the vanguard of the second wave might have begun to arrive early there’d been no way to be sure. Sending scouts into that swamp, even our nimblest goblins, would just be throwing away lives. I decided to speak with Hune before returning to the fronts, to get a read on when she believed we should pull the trigger on the pharos device, and inquired as to her whereabouts as I fastened the Mantle of Woe over my armour.
“She is in her tent, Your Majesty,” the young phalange told me. “Speaking with her staff tribune, I believe.”
Good, at least I knew the way. Though my limp was not quick it was steady, and with my sword back on my belt I made my way to the tent. I was a mere thirty feet away from it when a splash of red in the sky to the south caught my attention. A signal spell, I thought. An attack on the palisade? An assault would have been seen coming, though, and I would have heard of it. Unless it was a strike by Revenants, I thought, but it seemed a bold and unnecessary gambled on the enemy general’s part. Perhaps a force had been snuck out under an obfuscation spell. Regardless, with the Grey Pilgrim there and reinforcements no doubt already on their way I had little to worry about.
Two guards were standing outside of Hune’s tent, but their stances were natural. It wasn’t that that gave it away. It was the scent. I’d known enough battlefields that I would recognize the scent of fresh blood anywhere. Stomach dropping I hurried forward, tapping one of the guards gently with my staff only to see the armoured orc topple – already dead, just propped up to look as if still alive. The scent of blood was even thicker inside the tent, I smelled as I forced open the flap, but it was my ears that I was relying on and it saved my life. I heard the spin of the throwing knife that should have buried itself in my left eye and hastily ducked down, just in time to see a grey-cloaked figure turn away from me.
The Varlet. I’d recognize the cloak anywhere.
And just as I drew on Night, spinning up a work, I saw the Varlet dance around a blow of the tall, roaring Hune – made silent by some aspect, for all her shouting – and flicker forward to carve open my general’s throat.