“The Heavens pick the victor, my friends, but the Hells detail the aftermath. How else can it be explained that when a battle is won we most commend the general – that is, the only man in the army that can be relied on not to have picked up a weapon?”
– Captain Thierry the Acerbic, addressing his company before the Battle of the Twelve Routs
It was tempting to just run out sword in hand to find out what was happening, but I resisted the urge. I’d learned the hard way that recklessness could have permanent costs – like half someone’s total supply of eyes, for example. I put up my hair in a loose ponytail and strapped on my armour, not without fumbling, and only after putting on a helmet did I finally limp out. Sword at my hip and deadwood staff in hand, I looked out into the night and found entire swaths to the south of my camp aflame. Had Sargon played me with the ransom payment? It shouldn’t be. Hierophant had inspected the ingots personally and they were in a warded pit anyway. It made no sense either, considering I hadn’t even given him back his prisoners yet. I’d kept them overnight as a precaution against foul play and he had to know I might hang them as an object lesson if he tried something.
Sargon Sahelian hadn’t struck me as the kind of man who pissed away either gold or lives.
I made my way to the tent closest to mine, where Adjutant had placed a station of his adjunct secretariat, but there were no phalanges there. I found a line of regulars hurrying south through the dirt avenue passing by my tent, however, and wasted no time approaching the lieutenant in charge. A young Taghreb, no older than twenty and rosy -cheeked.
“Your Majesty,” he breathed out, before snapping into a more professional salute.
“Lieutenant,” I said. “What’s happening? I’m not hearing the alarm wards.”
“Our wards are down, ma’am,” he replied. “All of them. And we’re under attack by giants.”
Our wards were down? I felt a shiver of unease. Not even the Dead King had managed that so easily. The mention of giants, though, had me skeptical. I seriously doubted the Gigantes had anything to do with this. Ogres, though, I’d be willing to believe. I had less than a tenth of ogres left in the entire Army of Callow – our campaigns had not been kind, and none lost were ever replaced – but the Dread Empire would not be so limited. That would mean a Legion raid, which did nothing to settle my discomfort. I’d learned enough at the feet of the Legions of Terror to know how brutally skilled they were at what they did.
“What did they hit?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Your Majesty,” the lieutenant admitted. “My orders are just to head at the southern rally point with my line and await further orders.”
I smothered my irritation. It wasn’t his fault I wasn’t aware of what was going on and taking it out on the kid would help no one.
“Let’s go then, lieutenant,” I evenly said. “There’s no time to waste.”
I pulled at Night – and how crisply it came now that dusk had passed, almost as easily as before the Ruination – and killed the pain in my bad leg so I would be able to keep up with the brisk pace of the legionaries. We passed through a sparsely manned checkpoint, but there was no way the sergeant in charge would know more than the lieutenant I was with so I pushed on. At the second checkpoint, I found Adjutant waiting for me. He was armed and armoured, with an axe in his dead hand and a broad shield in his steel one.
“Catherine,” he gravelled. “Apologies, by the time my phalanges reached your tent you’d already left.”
I waved it away and didn’t bother to ask how he’d known where I would go. There were lines between us where there once had been none, but he was still my Adjutant.
“What’s happening?” I bluntly asked.
“The Legions of Terror are hitting us,” Hakram gravelled. “Less than a hundred, nearly all ogres. They gated out of Twilight a foot away from the outer palisade and smashed through, then used some sort of artefact that fried our wards. Hierophant and Akua are working on getting them up again.”
“Fuck,” I eloquently said. “Do we know what they’re after?”
“They split into two forces,” Adjutant said. “The one lighting the fires is going straight for our supplies and Juniper’s mustering men to drive them out. The other force – smaller, we think – is headed west.”
My eyes narrowed. West had Sargon’s soldiers and the rest of the warded pits we’d dug. Was this a rescue operation? That made little sense. The High Lord of Wolof had already paid their ransom and they’d be handed over come morning. Something didn’t fit, and that made the second force the odd hand. The one to watch out for.
“That’s the one we’ll intercept,” I decided. “Where’s Archer?”
“Disappointed you didn’t hear her coming, is what she is,” Indrani drawled.
My hand was halfway to my sword when I recognize her voice, and my muscles stayed tense until she’d moved out from the tent she’d used as cover for her approach. There was some alarm as legionaries began to notice her, but it didn’t last long. She was a known quantity for my soldiers.
“That’s what we have you for,” I retorted. “Vivienne, Huntress, the kids?”
“Vivienne is with Juniper,” Hakram said.
“Alexis went to guard Cocky,” Indrani said. “I’m not sure for the kids.”
For a moment I almost sent Adjutant to look for them – he had the right aspect to Find the needle in the haystack – but I held back. He might see it as him being sent away from the fight, one which would be hard enough without shedding off a third of our Named before we started.
“Send one of yours to Vivienne,” I ordered Hakram. “I want them kept from getting into too much trouble.”
Entirely out of trouble was sadly more than could be reasonably asked for, given that they were Named. Hakram nodded and saw to it, even as I checked my gear one last time. I made a note to have a bag of goblin munitions prepared for me and kept in my tent. Now that Scribe’s scheme had paid off and we’d essentially bought out High Lady Wither’s stocks of munitions – with the blessing of the Matrons, who saw it as weakening her military strength even if our grain helped her maintain control in the short term – I could afford to start using them again. The moment Adjutant was back we headed out together, moving fast. Since our wards were down and we had an idea of where our enemies were headed, we took a shortcut through the Ways to try to intercept. We sidled through instead of using a gate, since Indrani found us a path in moments, and it allowed us to skip over all the barricades, checkpoints and mustering soldiers.
The advantage of fighting people as tall as ogres was that, given the average height of tents in our camp, we could easily see them from a distance. Within moments of leaving Twilight I had my eyes on maybe twenty towering silhouettes, all decked in pitch-black plate engraved with runes and wielding massive flanged maces. Those were not Legion heavies, not any kind I’d ever seen.
“Archer, go around,” I said, already pulling at the Night. “Begin on my signal.”
“Gotcha,” she said, pulling down her hood.
She slipped into the shadows, swift-footed even as she began to string her bow.
“Adjutant,” I said, shaping the Night, “I want you to bait them. Take the front and draw them in.”
“Warlord,” Hakram replied, flashing his fangs happily.
I finished the last touch on the ‘eye’ of Night I’d made and threw it up in the air. A shadow on black, it remained unseen to our foes even as I closed my physical eye and made myself see through that one. It didn’t tell me much more about the enemy force itself, but it did give me a bird’s eye view of them moving around the camp. They’re not headed towards the prisoners, I realized. They’d walked right past an avenue that led to their pit, and I doubted it was because of the two lines of regulars manning the palisade around the prison pit. They were after something else and moving like they knew they layout. Which they would, of course, since the Army of Callow pretty much used the Legion layout with a few modifications. It sunk in a moment later.
The ransom. It was further east in a guarded pit as well, and the group – twenty-one ogres and two humans, I counted – would soon get to an avenue that’d lead them straight there. But why the Hells would Malicia care about the gold? The empress still collected taxes from most of Praes, she was positively rolling around in coin she couldn’t spend for lack of friendly neighbours. I set the question aside for now, as I had more urgent cats to skin. I checked Adjutant was on the right path to reach the enemy, which he was, and then prepared to disperse the eye. There was no point in even trying to find Archer, I knew that from experience.
Then the night lit up with a flash of sorcery as streaks of flame hit one of the lead ogres, scarring the black plate, and I caught sight of two small humans getting in the way of the enemy.
“Fuck,” I cursed.
The kids were there and getting in over their heads. These weren’t Bones or a handful of necromantic monsters, they were a well-armed Legion strike team. I broke into a run without hesitation, knowing that if I lingered for too long they might be dead by the time I arrived. So much for springing an ambush. Calling on Night, I formed a rough wedge of power in front of me and ran straight through the tents in my way. It was a quick approach but not a subtle one, as was made clear when one of the ogres grabbed a javelin the size of a small tree and threw it my way.
I twisted the Night into a different working, catching the weapon in flight and turning it around before tossing it back. A miss, I saw, but hopefully it’d discourage a repeat. I formed another wedge and immediately another ogre threw a javelin at me. I cursed, resorting to the same trick and this time scoring a glancing blow against an ogre’s breastplate. They weren’t trying to kill me, I grasped, they were slowing me down. The bastards weren’t even intending to fight us, were they? They’d just do what they’d come for and then retreat.
Gods but I hated fighting against well-trained soldiers.
Thankfully, I could fall back onto the sage lessons of my childhood: if the other guy had a better plan, you just had to sock them in the face real hard until they forgot it. I abandoned the idea of the relatively harmless wedge and instead of drew deep on the Night, waves of heat emanating from me as I formed a massive ball of blackflame and tossed it in a straight line in front of me. It burned through tents and barricades, clearing me a straight path and smashing into one of the ogres. Even as I ran, my brow knotted when the flames cleared and I saw my working hadn’t actually broken the ogre’s plate. It’d blackened it further, half-melted it, but the fire had only gone through the armour’s visor. It was still enough to have the soldier screaming and clawing at his face.
Archer put an arrow between the hands and straight into the skull a moment later, dropping the ogre.
I unsheathed my sword as I crossed the last of the distance separating me from the melee, the flash of flames flickering at the edge of my sight and bathing the silhouette of the closest ogre in light. The great flanged mace rose, and Night or not there would be no parrying that. I struck out with my staff, black flames boiling out of the top as I aimed for the visor again, but I was forced to abandon the working when another ogre used drove a javelin like a spear into my flank. I hastily backpedalled out of range, almost eating the mace blow from the first as I did. Redirecting the black flame into striking the side of the mace’s head got me out of it, but the ground shook as the flanged head tore into the earth besides me. Worse yet, more and more of the ogres were converging on me.
A few I could handle, but ten? That was going to get tricky.
Then Adjutant came out swinging from their left flank a heartbeat later, proving once more that splendid timing was written into his very Role. The surprise earned me a moment to shape Nigh,t in between ducking away from a wild mace swing, and I threw up another eye so that I could see through it and grasp the lay of the entire melee. It was only the beginning. Power coursed richly through my veins even as I saw one of the ogres draw back his arm to throw a javelin, but I grit my teeth and kept weaving my miracle. My eye in the sky stayed focused on my enemy’s arm, spellbound. Almost there, I thought, watching as the plate-covered arm flexed and the tree-sized javelin went flying. I breathed in and out, listening to the instincts trained into my body by years of war.
A half-step to the side, the movement precise enough I felt the steel head of the javelin brush against my side, but I’d done it. I was finished.
“Bang,” I grinned, staff coming down against the floor in a strike.
I kept the eye for just a second, long enough to place the ten orbs I was capable of handling at one time. Night formed out of thin air in front of ten visored faces, looking like spinning orbs for half a heartbeat before they burst and air was sucked in. I’d first used the air explosion trick against demons at the Arsenal, but I’d improved it in the months since. This time, at the heart of the ‘orb’ there was a seed of blackflame. The air getting sucked in pulled in the ten ogres, just in time for the blackflame to grow unstable and explode in their faces along with the sharp burst of air. The result was a brutal blow of physical strength and fire that dented the visors before delivering the blackflame through the opening. Most of the ten died instantly and those that didn’t began to scream in pain.
From the corner I saw Adjutant take a blow on his shield, aspect pulsing as he withstood the strength as if it were a breeze. He struck with perfect timing as the ogre withdrew, toppling his foe down into an already-trampled tent. He had that under control, I decided. I could push through to the kids.
I ran past a slowly falling ogre, clutching at her broken and burning face, and as she struck the ground behind me like a small earthquake I found myself frowning. There had been two humans earlier, mages presumably, but I couldn’t see them in the melee at the moment. Where – the only warning I got was the feeling of the air being moved, and I wasn’t quite quick enough. My staff was struck as I got pushed away, the silhouette of an ogre coming into sight for a flickering second as I was blown of my feet and my staff went clattering in the distance. Fuck, I thought, rolling away as I felt the air move again and the ground was hammered in front of me. One of the mages was using illusionary enchantments. I rose back to my feet lurching about, grasping a handful of Night and throwing it blindly ahead.
It stuck, as I’d hoped, and a blotch of darkness appeared on what looked like the side of the mace trying to smash me to bits. It’d do. Slicing behind me with my blade, I opened a gate into the Ways and stepped through. I glimpsed greenery and felt gentle wind before crossing back into a warm Wasteland night, coming out on the side of the mace I’d tagged and spinning out chords of Night. I hooked them around the mace, forcing it and the ogre back into flickering visibility, and then wrapped the chords around the shoulders and helmet of the ogre. Hands tight on the bonds I twisted, Night obeying my will as the ogre struggled to keep the mace away from their helmeted head and I tightened the noose. I was cheating, of course. It wasn’t strength I was using to tighten the chords but willpower, weaving Night, and the limits on my will were lesser than those on the soldiers’ body.
With a third twist of the wrist I tightened the chords into a vise and the side of the mace went through the helmet with a loud crunch. I wasn’t sure how far it’d gone into the skull beneath it, but the ogre was out of the fight regardless. That freed me to go forward, where I saw Arthur Foundling being battered down with brutal efficiency by an ogre. His shield was already a crumpled ruin and one of his shoulders obviously broken. The Apprentice was shooting darts of fire and spears of lightning at the ogre, but all it did was slow them some. Not even a mark was left on the armour, which had me staring. Even enchanted plate would have marks after that, and my heartbeat quickened when I saw the ogre kick Squire in the stomach when Arthur tried to slide behind them.
He’d been moving with Name quickness, unnaturally swift, but his opponent had begun moving the exact moment he did. No one was that fast without a Name, I knew, without leaning on that set of reflexes that came with a martial Role. From the corner of my eye I saw an arrow hit a man in the throat, the spell he’d been halfway through – aimed at Adjutant’s back – dying with him, but I looked past the corpse and found that four ogres were covering the last mage’s hasty retreat. I moved to the side, climbing over an ogre corpse to get a better vantage, and cursed. The pit where we’d left the ransom gold was now empty. They’d brought a caster that could use High Arcana and shoved all the ingots into a pocket dimension, the tricky fuckers.
As if I’d allow that. I drew on Night.
I heard Arthur Foundling scream as he was smashed into a barricade by a blow, and for a heartbeat I weighed the choice. The gold might keep a lot of my people alive, keep them fed and armed for the war on Keter, and the Squire was still a potential threat to Vivienne in the coming years. If I pursued the last mage instead now… The thought was ugly, but ugly wasn’t enough to stay my hand anymore. I needed better than that – Name, I thought, mind racing. He was in a fight of Named, one he’d stumbled into through heroic providence. That could be a potent tool, used right. Eye tearing away from the fleeing mage, I broke into a run. Ribbons of lightning struck at the back of the tall ogre with impotent fury, making the enchanted steel glow but little more as I shaped Night into thick tendrils.
The looming ogre raised their mace as the Squire rolled to the side, grasping for his sword. He’d be too slow. The flanged mace came down and the boy’s face paled but his fingers closed around the handle of his blade anyway. He’d die trying. Or not die at all, preferably. I struck out, tendrils of shadows layered over my arm like some sort of skeletal armature, and the strength of it was just enough to slap aside the mace before it could crush the boy’s skull. I stood between the two of them, Night wafting off me like smoke as I prepared another trick, and cocked an eyebrow.
“So Malicia’s picked up a Named,” I said. “Which one are you, I wonder?”
Our foe – a woman, I glimpsed through the visor – did not answer. She raised her mace again, drawing back to make space for a swing, but I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
“Not Warlock,” I mused, “or you would have seen that coming.”
The Night-smoke I’d had trailing along the ground solidified around her feet as shackles, so when she finished the movement of striking the imbalance tripped her. I stepped to the side as she began to topple forward, tapping the side of my sword against Arthur’s flank tell him he should follow suit. An arrow whistled, aimed straight at the gap in the plate between the neck and the helmet, but with unnatural deftness the massive mace swept up to bat the killing blow away just before the ogress hit the ground face first.
“Martial, and not a transitional Name if you have control that fine,” I noted.
I raised my sword, calling Night to it even as the ogre grunted with effort and burst through my shackles with brute strength. And yet I was not worried in the slightest. I knew, somehow I just knew, that the timing would work out perfectly. I could see it as if it were written in the air, as if it were inevitable. As if some grinning devils down Below had put their coin on me and their fingers on the scale to match.
I was following my Role, and so the tide of Creation was on my side.
“None of that,” I chided my foe, bringing my blade down on her back as she tried to raise.
The Night struck out from the point of my sword like a needle, shattering the backplate, and then like cracks of ice my power went skittering in every direction and shattered the enchanted steel. The ogre was smashed back down into the ground. I heard bones break and froze in surprise. I’d not hit her that hard, not for a Named, and that was the moment if fell into place. My limbs grown strong with the touch of my growing Name, I moved forward and flipped over the gasping ogre. She did not resist, broken. I stripped off her helmet and a single look at those dark eyes was enough to confirm my suspicion: the power in there was fading. Not because I’d killed its wielder, but because I’d damaged the vessel too badly.
“Black Knight,” I greeted. “So what’s the aspect you’re using, I wonder – something like Deputize, Mandate?”
I wrinkled my nose.
“No, you’re clearly Legion,” I said. “You’re using mostly ogres, too, so I’d guess you’re Marshal Nim. ‘Commission’, maybe?”
It clearly wasn’t her full strength she’d put in the body, else the kids would be dead twice over. The ogress hacked out a cough, dying, and I sighed. Wouldn’t get anything out of her. I sheathed my sword, but halfway through the gesture the almost-corpse suddenly lunged. A single massive hand reached over my shoulder, grasping the Squire’s throat behind me, and she began to squeeze – I felt horror swell, I wouldn’t be quick enough with the Night I was reaching for – she went still. It was not luck that did it, but the eerily silent arrow Archer had loosed that went through her eye. I roughly dragged Arthur away by the scruff of his neck as the body dropped, the boy moaning in pain. As well he should, he was basically a mass of bruises and bloody wounds. He sagged against the ground.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he got out. “I owe you-”
“Nothing,” I cut in, tone sharper than I meant it to be.
I refused to feel guilty. I was long past the luxury of clean choices, and just because today I’d chosen to keep him alive didn’t meant that tomorrow would see me make the same decision. The boy looked like I’d slapped him and I sighed again.
“Consider this a wake-up call,” I said. “This is what fighting with real Named and not Revenant puppets feels like. The Black Knight on the other side used a single aspect, not even in her real body, and she still nearly pulped you.”
“You’re not going to tell me it was foolish to fight?” the boy asked.
“It wasn’t a foolish fight, you just fought foolishly,” I corrected. “You likely saved a lot of soldiers’ lives by stepping in, the part that needs work is the one where you almost died doing it. You won’t be helping anyone when you’re in a grave, maybe keep that in mind.”
“Nothing we did got through her defences,” Arthur admitted. “Even at our best we were simply holding on.”
And in that sentence, in the anger – the unspoken urge to do better next time, the certainty that there would be a next time – I saw an opportunity. A tool. And I was enough of a monster to make use of it, even when I was using a boy barely more than a child.
“So prepare yourself,” I challenged. “Train. Make tactics.”
He was silent for a moment, exhausted and in pain, but eventually his blue eyes went steely. He nodded, brushing back a black lock stained with sweat and blood.
“I won’t lose, next time,” Arthur Foundling swore.
And with those words I’d invited, with the weight of them spoken by his lips, I knew I had made myself a sword. Because unless I was wrong, a Squire and a Black Knight had just fought. And the Squire had begun that fledgling, fragile pattern with a defeat.
If I stoked those embers just right, that story would end with my enemy’s blood on the floor.
In the wee hours of the morning, I sat with Vivienne and Juniper to go over the butcher’s bill. The good news was that, as far as dead bodies went, our losses were light.
“Ninety-three dead,” the Hellhound said. “Most of them regulars. We can thin some cohorts to make up for it, we still have the numbers to absorb that.”
“And we inflicted eighty-two casualties ourselves,” Vivienne noted. “Considering it was a surprise attack fielding almost entirely ogres, we made off decently in that regard.”
I grunted in agreement. The attacked had escaped, but not without taking losses equivalent to about eight out of ten.
“We’ll see if Masego can crack the enchantments on the armours,” I said. “It’s unlikely there will be enough of those to equip more than a handful of elite units, but that would be troublesome enough on its own.”
I got grimaces of agreement. Ogres were bloody difficult to kill, unless you had either magic or munitions to deploy against them. It was a clever decision for Marshal Nim to focus on stripping the sorcery option from us, considering the Army of Callow had been in chronic munition deficit for essentially its entire existence.
“Losses in supplies were not as grave as they could have been,” Juniper continued. “We changed the layout of the supply depots compared to standard Legion camp templates-”
She had, actually, making a point of it before we began marching, but my marshal wasn’t the boasting type.
“-so our current tallies have the losses mostly in dried meat and grain, about a third of our total stock,” she continued. “If our numbers stay roughly the same, Catherine, we’re now down to roughly four months of food.”
From six to four, huh. Four months for an army that could use the Ways was a very different beast than for an army that couldn’t, but this had still been uncomfortably costly. A lot of food had gone up in flame tonight.
“If you had to guess,” I said, “were they able to figure out what our total amount of supplies would be?”
She flicked her fangs uneasily.
“It’s likely,” Juniper admitted. “They might be slightly off, but the quantities were roughly even between depots and there are only so many places in a camp to put those.”
Which meant that by morning High Lord Sargon would know that we couldn’t afford to siege Wolof if we were going to do anything else this campaign season. There just wasn’t enough food in our possession to spend months besieging him and then war elsewhere. In other words, our negotiating position with him had just been dealt a severe blow.
“We’ll hit Wolof tomorrow, then,” I said. “There’s no more time to waste. The moment the Concocter is done with the powder I’ll set out.”
“It’d be for the best,” Juniper agreed.
“Sargon’s unlikely to ask for talks when he has the advantage, so in a way this lends us an additional dose of discretion,” Vivienne noted. “Yet that brings me to the last of our outstanding issues: the prisoners for Wolof.”
“They’ve been ransomed,” I said, though my tone was neutral.
It wasn’t a commitment so much as a statement. The High Lord of Wolof had paid the gold I’d asked for, and promptly too.
“We don’t have that ransom anymore,” Juniper said, “and it was taken by his empress. That’s on him too.”
It was, I wouldn’t disagree with that.
“You want to keep them?” I asked.
“That or hang them,” Juniper bluntly said. “We’ve been taken for a ride, Catherine. Maybe a point needs to be made.”
“I don’t think Sargon actually has anything to do with this,” I admitted. “This has all the telltale marks of a Legion operation and he would have no pull there. This seems like an attack by Marshal Nim on our supplies that got a secondary objective tacked on.”
“Malicia would gain from our going back on our word here,” Vivienne said. “It would make Praesi lords warier of striking bargains with us.”
My eyes narrowed as I followed the threads.
“She wins if we give them over too,” I spoke through gritted teeth. “Rubies to piglets that ransom gold is going straight back to Sargon’s coffers, and very publicly. She’d be proving she can score victories against us and that she’s still protecting her vassals.”
Hells, the way it neatly landed her a win no matter what we did had me more convinced this was a Malicia ploy than anything else I’d heard tonight. It was exactly the kind of plot she liked use. I passed a hand through my hair tiredly.
“We release them come dawn, as I promised,” I finally said. “I’d rather let her flash her feathers than risk burning bridges we’ll need to cross when treaties are made.”
For all that I’d come here with an army, it wasn’t conquest I was after. And if I started letting Malicia bait me into hanging prisoners, she’d keep doing that until Praesi considered me not worth negotiating with. Or I’ll have to let things ago after taking a hard stance the first time and changing tacks will make me look witless. Fucking Malicia. She really was a devil to deal with, when she had a good general to play off of. I could only imagine how much worse it would be if she still had Black under her. Angry as I was at how we’d been had, I mastered myself. Fine, she’d stuck a knife in us and it had stung. This was the kind of game she most excelled at and we were in her own backyard.
Tomorrow, we’d do things my way.